Digging in the garden, working in the field, running barefoot down dusty roads and coming back coated in off-white. Earth, Wind and Fire, too, though we have no old snapshots, no videos, that would capture our loud and windy world. My sister’s husband, city-born and raised, had never known such ever-present wind.
Dirt roads turned to mud and ruts back in the day, and even now (this is a 2019 photo I snapped), it feels like going back in time a hundred years when I drive the gravel roads to my parents.
But I have no room to speak: less than half a mile from where I live now, in the 21st Century, this dirt road floods every spring. Our dogs love it. Cars, not so much!
Kids on country roads rode the big yellow school bus…not gonna talk about that part of it, not today.
The kind John Denver sang about, might make you think of the colorful, fanciful side of a childhood bordered by dirt roads. So, never mind the snow plow, the wash-outs after a flash flood, the things you hear about in third-world countries but don’t expect to experience in modern America. Go ahead, picture the pretty part of it all. The bunnies, the blossoms, the scent of clover hay, the fleecy white clouds in the blue, blue sky. This 1980s greeting card (sorry, I can’t find it now to locate the artist!) came from my sister:
Dirt, dust, the ping of rocks on the underside of the car, the chalky white coating on windows, vehicles, line-dried laundry, shoes, and bare feet. I barely even gave it a thought, until I graduated college and got a job in town and lived on pavement ever after. Every trip back to the farm, I’d go back covered in dust. Just part of life in the country.
My own children were born “in town” — and we farm folk would always pity such children — but on the bright side, town life meant music lessons, dance classes, clean feet, and other hallmarks of civilization. If there was dirt to be found, or sand, my kids would find it, and gravitate to it. I had the “dirtiest” children in the neighborhood, back in the day. New houses were going up all the time, and before our daughter could walk, she was crawling up dirt mountains with her big brother. No, I’m not gonna inflict on you share every dang family photo here, but this one, I cannot resist. Here is Claire in 1994:
This same daughter grew up to be a fashion design major. Inspired by her Liberian-born fiance, she used African wax prints for her senior project. These are dresses she designed and sewed, modeled by women walking down the road, a modern, paved road, not the dirt roads of yesterday.
Earth, Wind, and Fire
Growing up on a farm, the proverbial Earth, Wind, and Fire defined our daily lives, along with Rain, Snow, and all things Weather. The weather was the first thing we’d ask about: not “How are you,” on answering the phone, but ‘How’s the weather?”
These photos seem to capture the closeness to the earth that defined my childhood. Mom, burning off weeds in the garden, and Dad, burning debris after pruning trees in the grove. I’m trying to focus on one thing here, the dirt road of my childhood, but in the background of my mind I keep hearing “Fire is the devil’s only friend” from the Don McClean song Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie. Because….no, not because I cannot forget the 79-yeard-old woman who died when her brush fire blew out of control (one gust of wind! One little gust! That’s all it takes!)–ok, yes, I am haunted: what a way to go, and there but for the grace of God go I. And yet, and yet, I remain a pyromaniac.
Fire was fun as well as functional,
and dangerous, always, of course. BUT. In our politically incorrect 1970s high school, Homecoming festivities began with a parade and a bonfire, with the uniform of the opposing team being burned in effigy. My sister Julie, Class of 1975, snapped this iconic scene:
This meme–I wish I knew who to credit!–just has to be included here. Must I explain why?
Fire, Fire, Fire,
The final solution, the sanctifying way to banish weeds for a season or to reduce abandoned homes to rubble. I fear it will be the fate of this forlorn farmhouse. Sister #2 of the 5 raised her daughter in this house, a mile from our family farm, within walking distance of the grandparents. It still stands today. Empty.
I’m trying to focus on “One Childhood Memory” but my mind is on my dad, who now has dementia, whose farm is in ruins. Only four years ago, I shot this photo of my dad with his first great-grandchild doing what all kids love doing on a farm, commandeering the tractor seat:
While I’m still derailed, allow me to sneak this in: I need to believe that something of my father’s father lives on in my son, though Grandpa died half a century before Miles was even born. Ridiculous, I know. But it haunted me when Miles came home from school saying his history teacher asked the students to name their great-grandfather, and none of them could, though he kinda/sorta thought “Emil” but couldn’t come up with the other great-grandfathers (and no, I’m not gonna do the exponential 2-4-8-16 thing). Just, here is Miles, here was Emil at the same age:
Getting back on track, I will add this recent shot of my mom at age 83, in better shape than a lot of women half her age.
#### Duly note the cows! Still part of our world, or our neighbor’s, anyway.
And now, and always, I come back to this.
A certain dirt road, five miles from home.
Here, in March 1976, my sister was found dead in a ditch, that childhood phrase parents would warn teen drivers with, but that isn’t what took her down. This newspaper photo, this caption: “The dark, earthen area … where the body of Julie Ann Benning was found” – how does a mother, a father, a sister, read those words and find a home for them inside their minds, and just move on? For half a century, we have learned to “Live in the now” and not be defined by this tragedy, but Julie is a fact of life, a fact of death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But DEATH is not the final word!
Does any story truly “end” with death? The story goes on. New players, new plots, or not:
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” ― Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
If the dirt road of my childhood is “That one childhood memory that lives with you”, I will also take heart in seeing the great-grandchildren running down this road. Yesterday, my grandchildren met their Germany cousin for the first time: Julia, namesake of the oldest of the five sisters who grew up on this farm, which still exists, with its dirt roads, in defiance of all that is modern, all that is “civilized.” Julia of Germany is on the far left (Goats belong to our neighbors, not my parents.)
I am a grandma now. Whenever I go back to my childhood home, this fact of life still amazes me. Here is my daughter, with her youngest of three, and me:
And here are her older two, legs chalky-white with dust, running down the road with their newly met cousin Julia, making new memories at the old home place where it all began:
With St. Patrick’s Day only three weeks away, I had to revisit this story, which began as a 5-Minute Freewrite at Steemit in response to the prompt “token.” I had so much fun with it. Of course my son, part Irish, all Free Spirit and Zen wisdom, inspired this one.
highly skilled, trained to face every kind of adversity except one: how did we get stuck with the token Catholic? When Kevin’s Comet struck Palestine and obliterated the Holy Land, all the surviving Jews on Earth had been relocated to their own planet in another galaxy. Muslims colonized a new world of their own in a galaxy far, far from the Jews. Catholics had been falling by the wayside for a long time as the pagans of Old Rome regained popularity, but of course, we didn’t get a token pagan. Of all the fringe minorities who’d escaped FUTU, Fundamental Unifiying Theory of the Universe, we got the Catholic.
He was young and green,
with nothing but optimism and perpetual faith that all things work out for the better because God in his infinite wisdom is at the helm. No amount of reason would dislodge the lad from his invisible god–who was as dead as the Viking-ish gods we were on a mission to dethrone.
Leandra told me. That was why he made the cut. It didn’t matter that he frolicked like a puppy when we reached the snowy beaches of Eisregen, where low gravity allowed us to run in slow motion and rise, rise, hover, and slowly touch down again the way humans had done in dreams during REM sleep for thousands of years. Leif O’Leary spent more time on the beach bouncing dreamily than he did watching the video footage of the natives.
He should have known better. That damned optimism and self-assurance and Catholic joy. We had ignorant savages to convert to reason or get out of the way
Two teams before us had gone to meet the Eisregenites. It is no easy task to enlighten an ignorant bunch who lived like Earth’s long-ago Vikings. Violent, superstitious, rapacious, greedy, they were straight out of an Old World history book. DNA tests showed them to be kin to Iceland natives, supporting the theory that UFOs really had scouted Earth thousands of years before, collecting humans to populate new worlds. Maybe we’d find the gods of Egypt still being worshipped in some desert world lightyears away. Judaism and Islam had been almost eradicated in the Old World, but a small faction of Catholic mystics had never gone extinct. Most had colonized to their own planet, but like dormant seeds sprouting up in disturbed soil, new Catholics continued to pop up like weeds when you thought they were gone for good.
Earth was under reconstruction after being fritzed by a Coronal Mass Ejection, but space colonies like ours were trawling the galaxy for other habitable planets. Our ship, Mannschaft Rinderhund, was on its way to shake some gods loose from those distant cousins of ours on Eisregen. If they were acting like barbarians, let the token Catholic on our crew be the first to greet them.
Leif O’Leary. He couldn’t get his fill of bouncing around in low gravity. In the cold and snow. Leif seemed to have antifreeze in his veins, like those larvae that could survive a polar vortex. Specialized sugars, proteins, and alcohols kept the larva’s internal fluids from freezing, and Leif had acquired some version of that. Too much beer and sweetness in his blood, maybe.
We got him corralled, finally, with a lasso, literally–but he smiled all the while and winked at the ladies as we hauled him to HQ. The vid screens would show him what we were up against, trying to tame these quasi-Vikings.
The first wave of our colonists had been hacked with axes and speared when they came in peace. We’d all seen the old footage, but on-going surveillance showed the Eisregenites continuing to raid and loot and hack each other up.
“God rest their souls,” Leif O’Leary said. Later, Leandra said she’d heard him mumbling a Divine Mercy something or other. The point of it was that Catholics must pray for every soul, especially the most awful and unrepentent among us.
Oddly enough, Leif O’Leary didn’t protest at being first to go proselytize against the gods. Sure, we had uniforms make of spider silk genetically spiked with goat protein, and some high-tech radiomagnetic shielding, but Leif had to know nothing was foolproof. He would be outnumbered. And he would not likely be able to fire a pulsar to take down dozens of people at once. Well, someone had to go first. Might as well be the token Catholic. Just when the guy was kinda starting to grow on us, with his goofy, fun-loving disposition.
“I feel kinda bad for him,”
Leandra said as Leif O’Leary get into the pod, made his sign of the cross at us, and bravely whooshed off into the land of the barbarians.
Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality within a workforce. Tokenism – Wikipedia
“I feel kinda bad for him,” Leandra said as Leif O’Leary get into a pod and bravely whooshed off to the land of the barbarians. I kinda felt bad too.
We watched from the safety of the vid room as Leif O’Leary sailed over icy waters and snowy fields. The land turned greener and more hilly as scattered settlements came into view.
The pod ejected him. The black wings of his hang glider unfolded and Leif O’Leary soared above the clouds. Maybe scouting out a village, more likely just enjoying the view. Knowing Leif, he’d forget why he was even there. Let him enjoy it. He might not have much longer in the land of the living.
I couldn’t help but replay in my head his face, his voice, and my words as I sent him to his certain death.
“We have a new job for you,” I said.
“At your service, Cap’n,” he replied.
“Leif, we think you’d be best suited to approach these Eiswelders.”
“Yes!” he said far too enthusiastically. Did he know what we were suggesting? Two missions before us had been exterminated by these rude Eisweld louts.
“I’ve mastered their language,” Leif said. “I’ve crafted a hang glider as well. I had a dream of dressing all in black and drifting down from the sky like a raven. In this vision the Eiswelders think I’m a god and lay down their axes. I deliver the good news that they are no longer to kill goats, roosters, and God forbid, humans, because Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice and…”
My ears filled with static and I tuned him out until he got to the part where he said he was ready to go.
Leif O’Leary was either too stupid or too brave to flinch in the face of danger.
Leandra started mouthing prayers –stuff like “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”–stuff only a lip reader who kept sneaking glances at her would notice. She was our token librarian, the kind who pulled their hair into a tight bun and peered through thick eyeglasses in the old world, but Leandra was too cute and perky to fit that ancient stereotype.
Leif wore a body camera that gave us a view of everything he saw from the air above Eisweld. Other vid screens showed us views from hidden surveillance cameras, compliments of the brave souls who’d come here before us.
A crowd of Eiswelders formed as a dark figure in the sky started growing larger and larger. Leif drifted into view, smiling that beatific smile of his. Bows and arrows were aimed at him but the locals were holding off until they could see what sort of creature was falling from their sky.
Leif’s voice was amplified as he spoke, and subtitles showed up on our vid screens, conveniently translated for us.
“Be not afraid,” he thundered. “I come in peace.”
He also came with a bottle of red wine and a loaf of bread.
Leif launched into missionary speak–the Bood of the Lamb, the bread and wine, the end of blood sacrifices to appease the gods, yada, yada. It took about a million years, but the barbarians traded glances and started nodding.
At some point it occured to me that Leif might be toppling their gods only to replace them with his own. Leif was not just a token Irish Catholic. He was truly Catholic. It took me a while to process this: he actually believed in Transubstantiation, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the Resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
And he truly did not give a shit if these people killed him. That might have been his saving grace. If Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic, so was Leif O’Leary.
The ritual sacrifice of a rooster took a new twist with Leif telling everyone God wanted this bird to be cooked and eaten, not burnt to a cinder for some sketchy gods who, let’s be honest, were not really coming through for their people. There were frowns and skeptically crossed arms. Even so, Leif presided over the head chopping. After the spurt of blood and the headless running of the rooster, he presided over the fire and the rotating of the spit. He carved the succulent roast bird and distributed it to the large crowd. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but the rooster carcass, the bread, and the wine never ran out.
I never did figure out how he smuggled that bottle of wine on board our ship.
The party lasted for three days. The pod had returned and we decided to launch it again to retrieve Leif from his revelry. Leandra begged to be the chosen one this time. Considering how she had taken up praying for Leif’s safety, I figured she wasn’t as smart as I’d thought. If she wanted to risk her neck on behalf of that addled Irishman, I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it.
The pod returned without her.
Another million years seemed to pass. We took shifts going to sleep, watching vid screens, waiting for Leif or Leandra to send us progress reports.
All we’d get was a thumbs-up emoji or smiley faces.
Then the vid screens started going fuzzy and making weird bloopy noises. The cameras started showing what could have been memes that began in the 21st Century on old Earth. Old songs like “We are the champions of the world” sometimes played, and “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” and “Go back.” Then we started seeeing maps and charts pointing us to other planets we should check out–while the familiar white and blue world of Eisweld had a big, old-fashioned red X through it.
I’d had enough of this nonsense. I girded my loins, so to speak, and got into the pod.
It was dead.
Next, the cameras, the audio, everything except the launch button was fritzed, and no matter what course we charted, the ship would point in only one direction: up, up, and away from Eisweld.
Was that goofy Irishman really smart enough to reprogram all our sophisticated electronics using whatever fit in his pockets? He was here for his calm and charisma, his talent for charming anything from a snake to an ax-wielding Eiswelder. Also, and this was just my own logical deduction, the token Irishman surely was here to serve as cannon fodder. In old-world military lingo, the least valued men would be sent to the front to absorb the first blasts of war.
More than ever, I wanted to kill him. Leif was right, this planet wasn’t big enough for the both of us, but the universe is a very large place.
Space colonies like ours had been trawling the galaxy for other habitable planets ever since a comet named Kevin, for the amateur astronomer who saw it coming, had hit Palestine in 2095 and obliterated the Holy Land. It was about time. Science would replace irrational beliefs and outmoded rituals. After Kevin’s Comet, most of the world’s Christians were relocated to their own planet in another galaxy. Jews colonized a new world of their own in a galaxy far, far from the new home world of the Muslims. Christianity, Judaism and Islam had been almost eradicated in the Old World, but that dodo known as Catholicism just wouldn’t go extinct. Like dormant seeds sprouting up in disturbed soil, another Catholic mystic would pop up. Science couldn’t explain it. Diversity was an accident of birth. Religion, unlike ethnicity, was a choice. Belief in nonexistent gods was not genetic.
Of all the fringe minorities who’d escaped cultural homogenization, we got the Catholic.
And he got the planet we were targeting.
He also got Leandra.
I pushed the button to nuke the place as we departed, but the little bastard had deactivated that too.
Eisweld. Who needed it? The place was too cold anyway.
There really is a Saint Corona, and she is reputed to be the patron saint of pandemics. Thank you, Cory McNaughton of Steemit, for pointing that out to me after I posted this a year ago, when the pandemic had only just begun. This began as a freewrite in response to the prompt “Bad Habits.” As short stories go, it’s really more of a stream-of-consciousness observation of the shifting world of 2020. A Lenten reflection, if you will, in fictional form.
One year later I am amazed at how much the pandemic continues to change our ways of life. It was supposed to come and go, as pandemics do, sooner rather than later.
Him again. Cairin missed the days of paper, when unwanted messages could be wadded and tossed into a burn bin. Of all the plagues for bloggers, (1) nobody reads or comments on your posts, there was (2) the zealot with Bible verses who hijacked every blog post and spammed his message far and wide. Sadly, the only response some creatives got on their social media posts were these spammy religious memes that were as uncontainable as a virus.
There was no prohibiting this zealot from the comment section at Rig-It, her new networking site. Inspired by Steemit and Reddit, Cairin had co-founded Rig-it, “sister to the blockchain” as a home for creatives to publish their offerings without all the rigamarole and dictators pretending to be “community building.” The system is rigged, so they’d “rig it” their own way, right? Wrong. Not with spammers proliferating beyond control. She understood now the wrath of moderators who’d ban people for not obeying rules and guidelines.
“Him again” actually hijacked her words as a user name, @himagain, but no matter what name he used, his style was distinct and obvious. “Repent and be saved” was an easy one to ignore, but something about this struck a cord with Cairin. She didn’t have the power to delete it, but she could hit the downvote button.
Stop doing wrong things and turn back to God! The kingdom of heaven is almost here. (Matthew 3:2)
She could ban him, but he’d be back tomorrow with a new name, and @himagain had a nice ring to it. Only death could stop this Bible-beating troll and his “Good News” + video links to eternal salvation on every blessed post anyone ever posted.
She knew the Bible well enough without @WhateverNameHeUsedToday bombarding her with verses. She knew Christian and Catholic apologetics well enough to know The Bible was fiction, not God-given truth. As long as @himagain stayed home with his laptop and didn’t get in her face for real, as opposed to in cyber space, she could live and let live.
With hyperlinks to hotels and photos of Italy, Cairin hit “Send” on her post and hailed an Uber to the airport. The first annual RigFest would unite Riggers from all over the world in the heart of Rome.
Airport security was tighter than usual. The Patriot Act never died down almost 20 years after the terrorist attacks that changed the world, and now the long lines were even longer as thermometers gauged every passenger’s temperature.
“It’s just another strain of the common cold,” some were saying. “You’d think it was Spanish Flu 2.2.”
“I hear things will get much, much worse,” others said.
Cairin offered up an “Our Father” out of habit and boarded the plane. Talk of the new virus lasted all through the flight. “How racist, to call it a Chinese virus,” she overheard.
“The virus started in China,” a middle-aged white man blustered. “China silenced the whistleblower. China told people the virus wasn’t contagious and allowed people to travel in and out of the country. China did nothing to contain this virus. Call it what it is. A Chinese Virus.”
Much as she wanted to refute him, Cairin couldn’t help thinking that MERS was so called for the Middle East, and the Spanish flu had never originated in Spain. Facts and logic never got in the way of somebody else’s truth. She closed her eyes and donned headphones to tune out the fellow passengers arguing politics.
God, come to our assistance.
Some voices, no headphones could silence. This one had been internalized from infancy as her mom prayed to her invisible and useless or nonexistent God. Daily. Hourly. Out loud, or in silence. Singing hymns of glory and praise as she mopped or cooked or gardened: “When you sing, you’re praying twice.”
In the beginning, Cairin believed. Her mom was a Carmelite “lay nun,” which meant three times a day their world came to a halt for that thick little red-leather book with it color-coded ribbbons, the Liturgy of the Hours. “God, come to my assistance,” each prayer began, morning, noon, and evening. Then a Psalm. Responsorials, brain-numbing refrains, reminders of God’s steadfast love, and faith that all things work for a reason.
God didn’t come to her mom’s assistance when the “camel flu” became the latest plague of the 21st Century to strike millions. Fitting, that her demise originated in the Holy Land. Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was just another species of coronavirus, a betacoronavirus derived from bats, with camels somehow involved in its spread to humans.
The World Health Organization was about as much help as God, exhorting those who come in contact with camels to wash their hands frequently–and do not touch sick camels. Her mom never came near a camel, bat, or even the 49-year-old Qatari man who had gone through the famed “Six Degrees of Separation” before his sneeze reached a Midwest mom, her mom, a would-be saint, now just another statistic.
Now it was Six Feet of Separation, a new Coronavirus Protocol, over and above the logistical Six Handshakes Rule: all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other; i.e., a “friend of a friend” chain can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
Qatari man, China woman, camel-toucher, bat eater, sneezing storm cloud of death on two legs: God paid them no notice. If any sort of God existed at all.
And still she prayed. “God, come to my assistance.”
It was a habit. A useless but mostly harmless habit. Cairin didn’t touch her mother’s breviary or read a single word of it these days, but the words were embedded like a virus in her mental circuity. God himself will set me free. Free from the hunter’s snare. But her mind was never free of this unrealized god. Cairin could see the words in her mind as clearly as she heard them.
She landed in Italy, safe and sound, found her way to the pink stucco hotel with balconies overlooking a courtyard, and proceeded to meet her fellow Riggers face to face, within touching distance.
Marcy, the homesteading hive leader, had a degree in herbology and the coolest head in the crowd. She sold customized t-shirts adorned with cats saying “Chill” or flowers and honeybees or annoying sentiments like “Live, Laugh, Love.” With snow-white hair and a face crackled like antique china, Marcy exuded more energy at age eighty than the Millennials did, those gadget-gazers and über-calm web surfers. MysticDiva, Roomerkind, MyJob, Florianopolis, TechTard, and TechGoddess became people with real names–Maya, Gary, Janelle, Roland, Elina, and more. They came from Tennessee, Venezuala, Nigeria, Israel, Korea, carrying big ideas and cyber wallets, blockchain milestones and … the Chinese flu.
The fun had barely begun when the Quarantine came. Medics in HazMat suits swarmed into the hotel and carried people out on stretchers. Armed guards blocked the exits.
Not even with MERS, in her mother’s day, had such panic-measures held anyone hostage. “This Coronavirus outbreak is worse than the SARS epidemic,” the Riggers agreed, but Cairin reminded them there was no social media back then.
“It’s no worse than the annual influenza that kills thousands every year,” Gary said he’d read, but Coronavirus settles at the bottom of the lungs and starts producing a liquid that makes breathing more and more difficult until you need a machine to survive. And Italy was running out of hospital beds, ventilators, and healthy medical personnel.
It wasn’t Marcy but Gary who started coughing. He was “only” seventy-something, but he went out on a stretcher. Coincidentally, the Bible spammer went silent when Gary did.
Had she met “Him Again” face to face and not recognized him as the spammer, the zealot only death could silence? Had she inadvertently wished death upon him? Impossible. Hardly a single human would still be alive if it were so easy to wish someone dead. Still. Catholic guilt, or scrupulosity, haunted her. She could not unsee Gary laboring for breath as he was carried away, and she prayed an act of contrition. Old habits die hard.
The Swiss Guard came next, or whatever these Italian troops were called, telling everyone they were not allowed to leave the premises until quarantine was lifted. At least two weeks from now. Airline tickets? Dog sitters back home, bills to pay, weddings to attend? No more. You’re here to stay.
Why bother to pray? It was no conscious part of her brain doing this old routine. No particle of her soul entertained hopes that prayer ever had “efficacy.” Her Carmelite mom thought it arrogant to expect to see “results” of prayer. Prayer was like breathing. It was what she did. And her last raggedy breath through crackling lungs was a tender Amen.
Week Three, the hotel guests were restless, but they could Skype their offspring and email their dog sitters and get things done online, so there was that. Marcy taught Breathing Lessons, yoga, and Positive Intentions. She had a suitcase full of herbal remedies and theories of Anti-Vaxxers who no longer sounded as crazy as Cairin once thought. Marcy entertained fellow heretics and pagans with old You-Tube videos of George Carlin explaining the immune system. “You are all Diseased!”. Sanitizing the house kills germs, and your immune system needs germs to practice on. “Polio never had a prayer” in his childhood; “we swam in raw sewage.” Marcy had no more than ten people, each no more than six feet from her, laughing uproariously. Best medicine, you know: laughter. Trading freedom for the illusion of security. How old was this video?
She wandered from one wheezing senior citizen to another, offering what consolations she could. “I’ll say a little prayer for you,” she sang, channeling Aretha. Sometimes she sang in English: “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” For her, singing in a foreign language, if she could hear and see the words, was the best way to learn it. She’d bought a “Drive-Time Italian” CD back when drive-by shootings were the new Big Bad American Thing, joking that she was learning Drive-By Italian during her commute, but now her old jokes weren’t funny.
Edoardo, a 30-something wedding singer, caught wind of Cairin’s singing and joined her. The bride and groom he had sung for got an indefinite stay in the honeymoon suite, but several elderly wedding guests had gone out on stretchers.
Children would climb walls if not for security guards. Marcy and Cairin organized people to organize children’s games.
Music was everyone’s go-to. Blockchain, cyber wallets, “hard fork” and “hostile takeover” floated down, down, down the list of Cairin’s priorities, like autumn leaves sinking to the bottom of the pond. Entertaining the little ones, consoling the old ones, bringing smiles to the “hostages” rose to the top of her list.
Complainers started grousing a bit less, but “What good is a prayer in times like these?” and worse things were sneered at Cairin.
“God only knows” was her reply, no sarcasm intended. “We may never know what good our prayers may do, but it’s free and easy, so I pray away. And when we sing, it is said, we are praying twice.” She sounded like her mother.
“Einstein said Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Roland argued. “I don’t live in the USA, but it’s obvious your ‘hopes and prayers’ do nothing to alleviate the next mass shooting you people endure every week or so.” Roland, the most thoughtful and polite of anyone she knew on Rig-It, offered a quick smile. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Cairin assured him, though she knew those who said no offense knew that they were saying something offensive. “I have little hope of prayers being heard by a loving God who intercedes in the affairs of man, with or without angels. ‘We the hands, we the eyes, we the voice of Christ’ means that without humans DOING things, God (Jesus) apparently cannot violate the Free Will clause … but never mind. I’m a skeptic. But I pray anyway and do-do-do whatever I can.”
Ugh: did she just say doo-doo?
“What worries me,” TechGoddess joined in, “is that people put trust in an invisible being that lives in the sky and watches and judges their every move. ‘Just pray and everything will be solved.’ Praying ain’t gonna fix this. No chance. I understand that it is useful as a crutch but it has no place in avoiding contracting a virus.”
“And yet, I pray anyway,” Cairin said with a shrug.
Kick That Habit, Cairin – no god will hear you, no Kung Flu virus will flee from your prayers, your hopeful intentions either, she thought, fighting the downward spiral into despair, yet reaching and grasping for hope.
Marcy approached, smiling. “On Facebook,” she said, “a woman in my Freedom Formula Course shared this. The world is slowing down. What happens when nothing works anymore? Cities and whole nations go into a lockdown, but my friends and neighbors say “Let me know if you need anything. You are not alone.“ Parents are home with their children. And here’s a poem written by a priest.” Marcy read it from her phone:
“The lock down
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
“Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
Poem by Richard Hendrick, 13th March 2020
“I have idea,” Edoardo said. He called up WhatsApp on his phone. “Let us gather in the courtyard.”
There was still no end in sight for the Riggers or the hotel guests in quarantine, but there was hope, and there was music, and there was love. Cairin’s Italian grew near-fluent under Edoardo’s tutelage, talking face to face by day with people they’d never have met otherwise, or if they did, it would have been only via cyberspace, far more than six degrees of whatever kind of separation.
God, come to my assistance. The familiar words played on in her head. “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.” – Saint Augustine
She still didn’t know if God existed, or if God had anything in common with the Supreme Deity of her Carmelite mother, but she had a litany of prayers in her mental repertoire. She had many good people easing the shock of quarantine.
And she had Edoardo.
because Kean sounds like Kane (not keen, hint, hint)
It is now almost-March 2021. Covid-19 is still here, and much of the world is still in lockdown mode. Masks are a new daily element that hadn’t been mandated when I started writing this in response to an Inkwell contest at The Hive.
When I posted this story in March 2020, I had added this:
That’s as far as I can got with this story, watching the daily news unfold and escalate day by day. “Things will get much, much worse,” I keep hearing. But the human spirit will not be diminished. Life will go on, however dark and tragic it may be for millions who suffer and die, and maybe we all meet again in some heavenly hereafter, or maybe we had a good run here while it lasted and all we can do is rejoice for whatever good we experienced during our sojourn on earth.
I leave you with a few more excerpts from my old 1976 edition of Liturgy of the Hours, which I thought of taking up again, but I’m off to paint more “Quarantine Cats” on wood slices instead.
Cheers, Best Wishes, and yes, a little prayer for each of you! I leave you with
With #BlackLivesMatter in the news again, and nation on fire over police brutality and racial issues, this novel is suddenly more timely than ever. Free blacks ruled over their own territory in Florida, in the early 1800s. Who knows what they might have built given the chance?
“A narrative of struggle, of people escaping bondage and establishing a free community, only to have liberty cruelly extinguished.” 
Never mind the cover art–this is more than a bodice ripper!
A plantation owner with a conscience in the pre-Civil War South sounds like pure fiction, but good people have existed in the worst of times, and this novel brings some of them to life. “Down Freedom River” by Joseph Green is the first historical fiction from a prolific writer and veteran of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. A now-retired NASA scientist, Green socialized with Asimov and Heinlein and other greats from the famed “stable” of Joseph Cambell. Green is still prolific, and his foray into historical fiction deserves to be an instant classic.
After the War of 1812, the British left behind a fort on the Apalachacola River in Florida, and it became a nation of enterprising souls who escaped the bonds of slavery. Joseph Green grew up in this region and brings it to life with strong prose and riveting characters. Most of them are fictional, but the battle that decimated Fort Negro is, sadly, a historical fact. Andrew Jackson destroyed a people, and U.S. History classes seldom mention or commemorate their incredible legacy.
In his own words, in a press release he emailed to me,
“This is a fictional treatment of an actual historical event that took place where I was born and grew up, the northwest Florida Panhandle. In the years before and after the War of 1812, over a thousand escaped slaves created a republic in what was then the Spanish territory of Florida. They occupied and farmed numerous tracts of land near or adjacent to the Apalachicola River. They took over a British-built fort that controlled ship traffic on what was then a major artery of commerce for central Georgia and the eastern part of the territory of Alabama. They reached out to slaves on plantations near the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, encouraging them to flee by boat to Florida and join their free community. They became an early danger to the slave-holding gentry of the lower South, who after the war applied pressure on the then Military Commander of the Southeast, Andrew Jackson, to attack them (which meant invading sovereign Spanish territory, an inconvenient fact Jackson ignored) and return the escaped slaves to their owners.
“DOWN FREEDOM RIVER incorporates the known facts in a fictional framework that provides one possible explanation of how the Republic of Freedom originated, then grew to the point where it declared its independence. The existence and tragic end of this republic made headlines at the time, but has since been largely forgotten (though a recent book by history professor Matthew J. Clavin, THE BATTLE OF NEGRO FORT, is attempting to reignite interest. I hope my fictional treatment will sell better than a historical treatise, and help accomplish that result.)”
The cover art and the excerpt you see at the Amazon site do not do justice to this story. The cast of characters is large and the storyline is packed with historical incidents and epic heroes. While most of the protagonists can be hard to like or easy to hate, a few stand out: David, the educated and emancipated slave; Annette, the free woman abducted, raped, and sold as a slave; and Louise, an abolitionist and daughter of a plantation owner. The Laudonnire family is remarkable: daughter Jacqueline is entirely lovable and vivacious; Nicholas, heir to his father’s plantation, is authentic and believable, a mixed bag of enlightened white man with a conscience, and a product of his times, a womanizing cad, a spoiled white boy educated in Paris. Younger brother Louis-Charles is pure evil. Garcon, governor of Negro Fort, is a giant of a man but another womanizer who’d rape and kill if he can get away with it. All these characters and more (Shirley!) are complex, layered, believable, authentic, and vividly brought to life.
Most of us are unaware that in the early 1800s, escaped or manumissioned (freed) slaves created their own nation in Florida, “Negro Fort,” a thousand civilians strong. Seminole and other Native tribes sometimes cooperated with them and sometimes worked as mercenaries for the British or the Americans to do battle with them. Neamathla, a leader of the Red Stick Creek (1750s-1841), is mentioned here as “a veteran warrior of great renown among the Seminoles” and chief of the closest village to the Laudonnire family plantation.
It wasn’t just unethical men like Louis-Charles who would profit from human trafficking, “smuggling slaves from Folrida, and selling throughout Georgia as native-born … the authorities look the other way because all the plantations need more adult slaves. Cotton requires them. And no one thinks twice of ignoring the importation act the abolitionists managed to get passed in 1807.”
Even those who’d never been slaves were at risk of becoming one. “Slave catchers from Georgia and the Alabama Territory were constantly raiding into Florida. Anyone living alone or as a single family was vulnerable to capture and return to slavery.” Fleeing into the swamps was their only escape, but even there, they weren’t safe. With so many easy targets for the slave catchers, David and Garcon organize with a message that resounds today: “In unity there is strength. Our people must learn to live together and defend themselves, not hide like frightened rats.”
Runaways and free blacks who settled along the Apalachicola began calling it Freedom River. “Former slaves now ran their own affairs, elected their own leaders, and negotiated trade agreements with other countries.” Well organized, profitable and productive, these people of color proved what is common knowledge today:
“…given the same opportunities, black people are equal in every way to the whites. But southerners believe we’re some sort of inferior race. They have to, or they couldn’t justify slavery.”
There was no basic difference between these people and anyone else, white, black or Indian. These freemen had thrown off the air of dumb docility which was the customary protective attitude of a slave. Here they could be themselves, and that made a noticeable difference in how they addressed others.
The purchase of a sawmill plays a shining role in this novel, and it’s clear that the author worked in one. You can see, hear, and smell the blades digging into pine logs. Great description – #LOVE it!
I plan to write a longer and more detailed review, but for now, this is my urgent recommendation that readers buy this book and tell everyone about it. It’s a heartbreaking story that needs to be heard and remembered as part of our nation’s history, and the history of a people.
DOWN FREEDOM RIVER is now available at Amazon Books, as an e-book or quality paperback (other venues to follow).
You can read more about this author at my WordPress blog:
I’m amazed at the variety of stories (seventy and still counting) Joseph Green has written over the years – so much richness, world building and character development….
Born during the Great Depression (1931), Joe Green grew up in a tiny town in the Deep South (fewer than 500 people, mostly rural), with first grade through twelfth in the same building, no kindergarten, and no special classes for the talented and gifted. Only in America does a farm boy become a rocket scientist and a legendary author, right? His work has been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Polish and Dutch. His novel Gold the Man, also known as The Mind Behind the Eye (1971), may be his most famous. Joe is a charter member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, he’s rubbed elbows with superstars of the Golden Age, and is himself one of those legends–but the closest he’ll come to boasting is an understated I ‘spose I am a member of the SF ‘establishment.’
“I’ve been around a long time,” Joe says.
Much has changed since his childhood in the segregated South, “before the racial integration that has tremendously improved our society,” he writes in his Introduction to “The Seventh Floor.” However, “we still have a long way to go… I took in prejudice with my mother’s milk, not learning better until about age 14, when I read a book on anthropology and discovered all humans are basically equal. For many older people of that time, such deep-seated beliefs can’t be expunged, which helps explain why major societal change seems to occur by generations.” Only a few manage to shed old fallacies along the way–“though not without trauma, trouble and strife.”
Joseph Green worked for 37 years in the American space program, building missile bases throughout the USA and later supporting the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs at the Kennedy Space Center. As a part-time freelancer he published five novels (Doubleday, DAW, Ace, Harlequin, Gollancz, Hayne Bucher, Urania) and about 80 short works, the latter primarily in Analog, F&SF, and original anthologies. Some stories translated into Spanish, French, Polish and Dutch. All five novels and one collection of shorts appeared in hardcover in the UK, with mass market reprints and one book club sale. All five novels were published in Germany (including one “Reader’s Digest” reprint) and one in Italy. The five novels and a short story collection were reissued by Orion as e-books in 2011.
Now he serves as chief writer for Greenhouse Scribes. His past experience includes working as a mill hand, a construction worker, and a shop supervisor for Boeing. His formal education includes a B.A. from the University of Alabama.
The dramatic story of the United States’ destruction of a free and independent community of fugitive slaves in Spanish Florida
“A must-read for those interested in early American republic history.” (STARRED Library Journal)
In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Major General Andrew Jackson ordered a joint United States army-navy expedition into Spanish Florida to destroy a free and independent community of fugitive slaves. The result was the Battle of Negro Fort, a brutal conflict among hundreds of American troops, Indian warriors, and black rebels that culminated in the death or re-enslavement of nearly all of the fort’s inhabitants. By eliminating this refuge for fugitive slaves, the United States government closed an escape valve that African Americans had utilized for generations. At the same time, it intensified the subjugation of southern Native Americans, including the Creeks, Choctaws, and Seminoles. Still, the battle was significant for another reason as well.
During its existence, Negro Fort was a powerful symbol of black freedom that subverted the racist foundations of an expanding American slave society. Its destruction reinforced the nation’s growing commitment to slavery, while illuminating the extent to which ambivalence over the institution had disappeared since the nation’s founding. Indeed, four decades after declaring that all men were created equal, the United States destroyed a fugitive slave community in a foreign territory for the first and only time in its history, which accelerated America’s transformation into a white republic. The Battle of Negro Fort places the violent expansion of slavery where it belongs, at the center of the history of the early American republic.
Abandoned by fleeing British soldiers, after The War of 1812, Fort Negro served as a rendezvous point for fugitive slaves from the Southern states in the early 1800’s. Led by a man simply known as Garcia, the heavily armed fort was occupied by more than 300 Black and Native Americans.
…. July 27, 1816, The U.S. Army & Navy surrounded-then launched an assault on Fort Negro. The first attack failed. But the second attack led to an explosion of the fort’s Ammunition storage. An estimated 270 Fort Negro soldiers were killed & buried in a mass grave. Only sixty four of the inhabiting soldiers survived. On three of the sixty four escaped injury. The fort’s leader Garcia was executed, and the rest were sent back into slavery. Fort Negro [and] nearby Fort Mose stand as little known moments in the struggle against the oppressive & violent occupation of this land, by invading European forces.
 Down Freedom River, like Clavin’s The Battle of the Negro Fort, is what STARRED Library Journal calls a narrative of struggle, of people escaping bondage and establishing a free community, only to have liberty cruelly extinguished.
“It’s only fiction,” my husband has told me for years, but, but, it’s never “only fiction.” The truth is all too often told in the guise of fiction. Different names, different dates and details, but same sad story happening in our world, in our own backyard, but most people shrug, turn a blind eye: “That’s the way the world is.”
The truth is best told in the guise of fiction.I’ve been saying that for years. Today I surfed the internet to make sure nobody else has said it first. You know how that goes. A writer thinks she has a fresh, new, original idea, only to hear an agent say, “Oh, we’ve been flooded with stories like this. Bring on something nobody else has done yet.”
One recent novel totally nails the concept of a sordid truth being exposed to the public, disguised as fiction, names changed to protect the innocent from the guilty. I have 5-starred this novel after reading it at least five times. And this is a grueling read. Animal torture. In graphic, explicit detail.
Sad to say, the author confirms real-life events inspired this novel:
Those who are oblivious to the social decay in our region may be appalled by my portrayal of modern Appalachian culture. Very few plot points in this novel are pure fabrication…. behind every twist and turn in this story is truth, none more poignant and heart-wrenching than my accounts of vicious animal abuse at the hands of county employees. A former animal control officer reviewed the scene in which Eric Blevins recalls an incident at a local shelter. She said it was so accurate based on her personal experiences that she could barely stand to read it.
Dang. I was afraid of that.
I will add more to this post later. For now, I just wanted to get that quote out there:
Ed and I were fellow English-teaching majors in the early 1980s. He was tall and dark with wide shoulders, scintillating blue eyes, freckles, and a quick smile.
He was intense. He told me I was possessed by demons. I haven’t heard from him in a long time, but he came within inches of death in a car accident that took a fellow priest, who was driving, while Ed was praying his Rosary in the passenger seat.
Someday I will write more about Ed, but for now, I’ll say he was an iconic figure on campus with his little black English Shepherd dog named Flower, his hats and coats, his constant cigarettes, his stacks of books. Unlike today’s students, I have not one single picture of him or us from our undergraduate days.
But I have memories, vivid and lasting.
July 2012 – A former Waterloo resident who now preaches in Texas remains hospitalized after a crash last week that killed a colleague.
The Rev. Edward Roche, 52, of Laredo, Texas, was traveling with the Rev. Michael Jordan, 65, to Mexico for mission work. Their vehicle collided with an overturned semi, according to Roche’s sister, Theresa Roche Cooper of Evansdale.
The crash happened July 9 on Interstate 37 near Campbellton.
Jordan was driving and was killed. He was a native of South Bend, Ind.
Roche was taken to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
“He’s in pretty bad shape,” Cooper said. “They did two surgeries on the right ankle.”
Roche also had serious injuries to his legs, according to his sister.
Roche is a Columbus High School graduate and earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa. He was ordained in Rome. When he returned to the United States, Roche began missionary work for the Roman Catholic Church in Texas through the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.
Cards can be sent to the Rev. Edward Roche, SOLT, P.O. Box 6464, Laredo, TX 78042.
“Ashes and Acorns” is my last-minute entry for the HardFork: Can You See The Future? contest (November 2017). The mother in the story is inspired by my mom’s cousin Lois (who loves the Grand Canyon) and by a Scotland physician and sci-fi novelist I love (to the point of fan-girling): Thank you, Libby McGugan, for permission to quote you. Your grasp of physics, your optimism, benevolence, and Zen-like insights inspire me, and your prose has completely won me over. Looking forward to seeing “The Fifth Force,” your sequel to “The Eidolon,” published soon–and can’t wait for the third book in the trilogy!
“Scatter my ashes over the Grand Canyon,” she said.
That’s illegal, Mom.
“Promise me you will honor my last wish,” she said–long before anyone dreamed she was sick.
Mom. You want me to risk jail for this? Native Americans don’t want dead white people in their sacred place. People don’t get to pee in public, and they don’t get to scatter their ashes in–
“They don’t own that land,” Mom interrupted. “Nobody owns anything. Besides, they’re being ridiculous. You know how hot it gets before flesh and bone turn to ash. No germ on the planet survives the crematorium.”
It isn’t germs they worry about, and thanks, Mom, for that visual–your dead body dancing at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, flames reducing you to basic elements and dried bone fragments. People don’t get buried or cremated anymore if they can be recycled.
She must have guessed my true intentions: in the unlikely event of her death, I’d plant her ashes with an acorn and let her grow into a mighty oak tree. For sure, I’d skip the Canyon thing. How would she know? Dead is dead.
Early detection helped her survive the cancer she must have known, subconsciously, was killing her. Modern medical science not only cured Mom of cancer, it extended lifespans–hers, mine, and anyone deemed worthy or wealthy enough. A hundred-fifty was the new fifty. We could have gone on like this for a hundred years.
Then it started. “I miss your father,” she said. “I want to see Patricia again.”
Dad and my little sister were dead. D-e-a-d. All our modern technology still hadn’t connected us with our lost loved ones–because the dead are DEAD.
I didn’t say it, but she heard me, supposedly through our wireless implants, even though interpersonal exchanges like these were not supposed to be possible. Thought-sharing had to be enabled, on purpose.
Good mothers have always been good mind readers, Mom said. Telepathy has been possible since long before humans were modded.
Try telling that to the new regime, who required a full accounting of everyone “modded” (i.e., modified) with life enhancing techno-gifts. In our cabin surrounded by mountain, desert and forest, wireless could be spotty, which allowed us to slip under the radar more often than not. As long as we paid our taxes. What else could we count on but death, sooner or later, and taxes?
Those less fortunate lived shorter, more private lives. Modded, unmodded. Alive, or dead. A thousand years hence, would any of it matter?
Things were going well, but Mom grew more and more restless.
Your dad came to me in a dream last night, she said.
You know that means I was visited by his spirit, she said.
No, Mom, I know only two things, and that isn’t one of them. We can’t just go around believing things simply because we want them to be true.
Growing old and dying used to be a natural thing, she said, not some catastrophe we must avert.
That, I could not dispute.
My life has gone on long enough. I want to move on, she said.
Hold your horses, Mom. You’re needed here and now.
She didn’t look a day over forty. Her skin was smooth and rosy. Her pale blonde hair was full and thick, thanks to rejuvenated DNA, not dyes and chemicals.
Are you bored, Mom? We can move. All this solitude may be getting to you. Just don’t be in such a rush to die.
“You need a wife, Keith.”
Her eyes could pierce me like a sword when she turned seriously serious on me.
“You’ll never put yourself out there and risk breaking your heart again, unless I’m gone.”
That woman’s willpower could have fired up more cities than all the solar panels on Earth. Mere technology couldn’t trap her spirit in a prison of flesh. Not that I believed any part of us survived death of the body.
Staph germ, they said. The swift, resistant kind.
“Genetek will find a way to fix you,” I insisted. “You know they can, and they will.”
In no time at all, the sparkle had dimmed from her blue eyes, her hair had gone limp, and her skin was ashen, but she spoke with all her former tenacity: “They can’t recycle me if I’m infected. They’ll have to cremate.”
I thought she’d forgotten all about that dreaded long-ago promise, but fools dream.
A promise made is a debt unpaid, Robert Service had groused in the Ballad of Sam McGee, that epically long, frost-bitten poem Mom had inexplicably memorized and recited to me at bedtime in my most-tender formative years. Was she psychic, after all? Had she intentionally conditioned me to make a foolish promise, and would she really guilt-trip me into keeping it?
She would indeed. By the time a Genetek crew reached our cabin in the Kaibob Forest, south of the Canyon, my mother was beyond their skills.
With VR images of her, with voice recordings, shared memories linked in a multiverse of users, it shouldn’t have seemed like she was gone. Not the way Dad and Patricia were gone, with none of the tech to recreate them, lest we forget the indelible details. How often I found myself holding still, in hopes of sensing her spirit in the cabin, on the forest path, under the red rock or the juniper, but then the black truck came, and a man in uniform delivered the package that contained my mother.
She was gone. Beyond my reach, beyond my senses. Completely and forever, gone.
With papers signed and notarized, I dug a hole for an oak tree near the cabin. Ashes and acorns, circle of life, dance of dust. Have fun in the hereafter, Mom. If you can find one.
I’d poured a loving spoonful of my mother into the Earth when another woman’s voice came to me, clear and strong: “A promise made is a debt unpaid.”
Of course it wasn’t really her. Everyone knows that! Memories deceive. Why else would I still be obsessed with a girl I hadn’t seen since college?
Merrin was an idealistic, unmodifed idiot, protesting the ethics of Genetek, which had saved my mother–the first time, anyway. Yes, other mothers died of cancer, leaving small children behind. These things happen. Only in comic books does anyone save the world overnight.
I finished planting a bit of my mother with a little black acorn, then saved the rest of her to pay off that debt, as soon as we had a good snowfall in the forecast.
Nobody in his right mind would hike the Canyon in November, snow swirling through the air, almost blinding when the wind gusted, but that made it the perfect time to unload the burden of illegal ashes.
More than a million acres of Kaibab National Forest bordered the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon. Dad used to quiz us on the flora and fauna: pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, aspen, oak, yada, yada. Patricia and I knew white-tailed deer from mule deer. We all knew a clear blue sky was no guarantee against a lightning strike, but that’s what got them during a father-daughter hike. A bolt from out of the blue.
The weight of Mom’s ashes surrounded me, inside the lining of the most waterproof, subzero parka ever to challenge a northern Arizona snowfall. Sam McGee could have used one of these.
Her voice played in my head as if on cue:
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
Slowly, I liberated the last of Mom’s ashes from my parka while the entire poem played in my head, from memory, not circuitry. Surveillance drones made their usual rounds, but I couldn’t imagine they’d detect microscopic particles of Mom mingled with snowflakes, drifting from the promontory I stood on, halfway up from the bottom of a five-thousand-foot-deep gorge, 277 miles long, five to fifteen miles wide. Plenty of room for the molecules of one small woman enthralled by the red rock carved so long ago by the Colorado River, long before any humans claimed the sacred place as their own.
I felt a weight lift from my shoulders–until the growl of a helicopter passed overhead.
Oh, come on. They couldn’t detect those ashes. I’d filed my itinerary. Told them I was testing out some new nano-fibers and solar heaters in this high-tech coat.
I took one last, long look at Mom’s final resting place. With a shiver, I started to sense the spell this canyon had cast on her.
You need a wife.
Mom! Jeez! You’re dead, remember?
Yet I heard her voice saying what she said every autumn–as if falling leaves didn’t already remind me of the one who got away.
Funny how wisdom might change expression over the eons, but its truth is constant.
Mom? The voice was hers, but these were not the well-worn words I remembered.
Life is living us, not the other way around, she threw in for good measure.
I blew a cloudy breath into the November air. No one can fool you as easily as you can fool yourself.
Time to head back up the long, dusty trail. Or, not dusty anymore, but slick with snowfall turning to ice. I watched for park rangers, but an hour after the helicopter, no human trespassed on the trail but me.
The parka wasn’t going to get any rave reviews from me. Halfway in my hike to the top, I shivered. And couldn’t stop stop shivering. The same glitchy rocks and trees that kept my nanotech under the radar were now depriving my coat of its techno-wonders.
Darn it, was I ever cold. My big fear had been getting caught with illegal ashes, not freezing to death on my way up Bright Angel trail. I sat for a minute, then another, thinking how easy it would be to just close my eyes and never wake up.
Get up. Get going, Keith.
I willed myself to move. When at last the rim came into view, so did a vision in white. Good God, an angel? I slapped my legs and didn’t feel anything. Me, dead, but still seeing and walking in the same old body? No sir, not buying it.
This angel looked exactly as I remembered her, with red-gold hair and a light sprinkling of freckles, green eyes, and a smile that would melt glaciers.
Merrin. How could this be? Last time I saw her, she was heading to an ecovillage and picketing the new Life Enhancing mods. My own mother was one of the “damn modders” Merrin denounced.
“So how’s that parka working out?” Merrin asked, as if she’d seen me only a few hours ago, not years and years ago.
My lips didn’t move when I tried to answer.
“How,” I managed, finally. How did she get here. Now, of all times.
“I had a nice talk with your mother,” Merrin said.
“My mother is dead.”
“I know. I’m so sorry, Keith.” Her smile faltered. “She’s where she wants to be, though, and she wants you to be all right with that.”
Bees in a hive mind, Merrin and my mother.
We walked the deserted pathways, across a snow-white parking lot. With a flick of her gloved hand, Merrin brought a hybrid car to life. Spotlighting us in low beams, it drove itself over.
Instant heat inside. The car worked better than the coat.
“So,” I began when my face had thawed. “How does an anti-modder come to look as young as the day I last saw her storming off all those years ago?”
She winced. “O God! I am a hypocrite. There was a roadside bombing, and half the people on our bus were killed. I’d be dead, if not for a Go Fund Me and years of work with Genetek. I’m practically a cyborg.”
Was she blinking tears away? She looked sincere. I remembered Merrin for her drama, all right, but not for her acting skills. Never one to hide her emotions even if she tried.
Like my mother.
Merrin’s smile came back, slowly. We stared at each other, letting the nano-circuits of our implants do their dance, exchanging bits and bytes of information about the years that separated us.
Nothing was ever separate to begin with, Mom said. It just seems that way.
Merrin raised her eyebrows, and I knew she’d heard it too.
“Life is living us,” Merrin said.
“Not the other way around,” I added.
Her laugh sounded like sunshine and rainbows and butterflies unfurling their wings, and I seriously began to worry that my brain had short-circuited with my parka.
Mom would like that.
And I wasn’t in any position to argue with her.
# # # #
Maxfield Parrish was an American painter and illustrator active in the first half of the 20th century. He is known for his distinctive saturated hues and idealized neo-classical imagery. His career spanned fifty years and was wildly successful: his painting Daybreak is the most popular art print of the 20th century.Wikipedia
I was honored to be asked to help curate creative writing minnows for The Minnow Support project. Here are my choices. My first three choices are entries to @hardfork-series “Can You See the Future Contest” . They challenged their writers to create a story of what life will look like in the future. “Ashes and Acorns” by @carolkean is a beautiful depiction of the relationship between the living and the dead, and what lives on through technology.
Marv Moran clipped the newspaper story on how the production of this idiocy was increasing, pinned it to the bulletin board, and proceeded to throw darts at it.
Marv Mor-ANN, not MOR-on, she said way more often than should be required. And Marv was short for Marvella, not Marvin, never mind how lean and muscular she looked or how short she kept her hair. The guys had nothing better to do than tease her, and she could take it. Actually they did have one better thing to do–beat her at drag racing –but that was a lost cause for most of them.
“Cool your jets, Marv,” came a familiar voice from behind. She hurled the last dart and turned to face Bat, the lanky, brown-eyed blond who drove like a bat outta hell but went back to being Kevin Miller, math nerd, every Monday. Not that she was still in school to see. High school sucked. She’d dropped out to take care of her dad and realized she wouldn’t need it anyway in her line of work.
“My jets are always red-hot,” Marv said, moving to the counter of the repair shop she’d inherited from her father. She stared at Bat, waiting for him to say what he was here for rather than be pressed into uttering some nicety like how can I help you.
“You see the Bugatti Chiron that just pulled into town?”
Marv snorted. “You walked all the way over here just to say that?”
“Thought I’d see you salivating over it with the rest of us, not holing up here in this cave.”
“I seen it.”
Bat shook his head. She knew that way he had of showing her she was full of shit even though he wasn’t going to call her on it this time. He was bursting with stuff to say, she could tell by the twinkle in his eyes. Of course she knew better than to say she seen it but he kept at her, like he could wear her down and get her to act like a lady, or a gal with bigger ambitions than running a body shop in Falls City, a grossly misnamed town of five thousand with no waterfalls for miles and miles.
His dark brown eyes sparkled even more, as if that was possible. “So whaddaya know about the guy who parked it at Bud’s dump of a hotel?”
She shrugged. “There you go, assuming it’s a guy.”
“You do know something!”
“Bat, if I told you even a fraction of what I know that you don’t, your head would explode.”
race night in Falls City, until highway patrol decided to flash their lights and pretend the party was over. Like the kids, the officers had little else to do on a weekend, so they never broke it up until the race was done.
Marv was always there in her dad’s old matte-black Dodge Charger, modified to more than 600 horsepower and speeds approaching 200 miles an hour. Her dad survived cancer only to die in that car when some asshole T-boned him, and the big old muscle car was said to be totaled, but Marv wasn’t buying it. Dent by dent, piece by piece, she restored the beast. The first rumblings of that thunderous exhaust when she brought the Charger back from the dead surely had Marvin Moran rolling in his coffin, trying to give her a thumbs-up.
Tonight she wasn’t driving the Charger. Tonight, she wasn’t even gonna be Marvella Moran.
“For me,” Aunt Charlene insisted. “Just this once, for me, show me how you’d look if you actually cared.”
Even her dad’s sister didn’t get it. Marv didn’t dress like she did because she didn’t care. She did whatever the hell she felt like doing, regardless of what others might think.
“So.” She held still as Aunt Charlene positioned a long blonde wig over her head. “Pretending to be something I’m not is proof that I give a shit.”
“Now, Marvella. You know that’s not what I mean.” Charlene applied false eyelashes to her niece, and handed her a push-up bra and a tight pink sweater. Marv, frowning, struggled into the quintessentially feminine stuff.
“Damn, you look good.”
“I already looked good,” Marv said.
She looked even better at the wheel of the Bugatti. Aunt Charlene handed her the keys through the window. “Jimmy will be watching with me, and it isn’t the race I’m hoping you’ll win.”
“It’s the attention of a good man like Jimmy,” Marv finished for her. “I’m not even nineteen, which is the new thirty, for awesome women like me anyway. I don’t define myself by what I wear or how many boyfriends I have.”
“Not even one!” Charlene sputtered. “I know what you’re doing, and one of these days you’ll stop trying to be your dad and just be yourself.”
“And if it takes posing as someone else to feel what it’s like to be liked, I’ll pose,” Marv scoffed.
“Hey. You want to drive my boyfriend’s car, you owe me,” Charlene said.
Marv started the car and took off with a roar of thunder. Now that felt good. That felt better than her first and last kiss.
The blacktop came to life
under the starry night sky. One perk of living in a remote corner of Nebraska was seeing the Milky Way. One crazy night in L.A. during a power blackout, worried citizens called 9-1-1 to report a mysterious smear in the sky. They’d never seen stars in the sky and didn’t know the Milky Way was anything but a candy bar. Sad. The roads were probably never empty enough for drag racing, either.
The Dodges, the Mustangs, even a few Hondas lined up for some action, and a perky cheerleader named Wendy waved a flag, getting ready to signal GO, when that Bugatti pulled up, a sexy blonde at the wheel.
Falls City hadn’t seen anything so exciting since Braniff Airways Flight 250 crashed on August 6, 1966, en route to Omaha from Kansas City, and 38 passengers and four crew members died in a farm field late on a Saturday night. Marv wasn’t there, of course, but her dad told the story so often, she started suffering that syndrome known as false memory, and it felt like she’d stood there with him picking up debris and body parts from Grandpa Moran’s field.
Crushed metal and flying body parts were always a risk anytime someone took to the road, which is why those idiotic driverless cars were moving from science fiction to reality. Maybe in cities that shit would fly, but out here, where driving was the greatest sport available, nobody would give up the steering wheel to some computer.
All heads turned toward the blonde in the tight pink sweater roaring up in the black Bugatti. Marv grinned. Her Charger was awesome, but the French-built Chiron was said to be the fastest, most powerful car in Bugatti’s history. Sophisticated, innovative, iconic, it was a masterpiece of art and form. As was she, Marvella Moran, the girl with more muscle than the average city boy.
The ride was breathtaking. She won, of course, and raced back to Bud’s motel, where all the guys followed to see who the hell had set the night on fire.
Aunt Charlene would be watching as Marv stepped out and let the guys fawn over her, or not, and ask for her name and number.
She handed each one of them Marv Moran’s Body Shop business card.
Each one but Bat, that is, who stood back, arms crossed over his chest, grinning at her.
He strode over, six feet of nerd disguised as a leather-clad bat outta hell, until Monday morning. Towering over her, Bat leaned down and almost touched her ear with his lips to say, “Marv, you damn near make my head explode.”
For once, a smart retort failed her. She felt the near touch of his lips travel down to her toes, and all she could do was stare at him.
Her heart pounded, and he tugged off the wig, and she normally would have decked him–in fun, of course–but he was smiling at her and looking not at all like the lanky kid who scored number one in Nebraska on every math decathlon.
“Much better,” he said, ruffling her short dark hair, his fingers traveling down and tilting her chin up.
“Bat, you’re getting weird on me.”
He shut up her with the second kiss of her life, and it ranked right up there with racing a Bugatti.
(Image source: pixabay)
# # #
This story —
Day 353: 5 Minute Freewrite: Monday – Prompt: muscle
— was written in response to the prompt “muscle car” at Steemit’s @freewritehouse daily #freewrite group.
The brick schoolhouse I attended from kindergarten through senior year of high school is slated for demolition. (No, I didn’t cause any lasting damage to the structure. Honest: the school’s demise wasn’t my fault.)
I’ve been revisiting old yearbooks full of photos of people who grew up, married, and sent their kids to the same small-town school they’d attended. Familiar family names and resemblances to uncles, aunts, fathers, and siblings are all over the pages of old black and white photos. Familiar–and yet, growing up there, I never felt I was home. I never belonged, never paid much attention to the world I found myself in. In my head I was somewhere else, long ago and far away, or light years away in a future I was supposed to attend but I had lost my ticket. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It was a general detachment, being “tuned out” rather than tuned in. I was lost, out of time, out of place, separated from whatever people or beings I must have belonged with.
The high school that burned before I was born (or old enough to remember)
I was ostracized or ignored by my classmates. I didn’t want to dress like them or do what they were doing. I couldn’t follow their conversations for long before drifting off into my own world in my head.With my own sisters–five of us all barely more than a year apart in age–I felt alien and out of touch. Much of my childhood was spent in a chair in a corner, alone with my books. In fairy tales, I felt at home. Fairy tales were full of misfits, magic, and happily ever after.
I learned to like the music and TV shows my four sisters loved, but antique stores, vintage photo albums, and the “Golden Oldies” radio station felt much more like “my” time and place. Stores and shopping malls held little that I wanted. This was the era of polyester, psychedelic prints and colors, palazzo pants, maxi and mini skirts, halter tops, hippie beads, bell bottoms, platform shoes, blue eye shadow, shag carpet, the velvet Elvis print, and other phenomena that defied explanation.
Photos were taken with cheap Kodak Instamatics, faded and out of focus.
For hours I’d stare at the 1950s yearbooks of my parents and think that was the way people were supposed to look. The 1960s and 1970s hair, fashion, furniture, and architecture felt alien to me. Old photos of ancestors I had never even met, or met only as frail, stooped, wrinkled elders, felt more like my contemporaries than my actual peers. I never asked why; I simply felt a kinship with people who had come and gone before my time.
These looked like the people I was meant to be with. Never mind they were teenagers in WWI and I was a child during the Vietnam war. On the left, back row, my mom’s mother; front row, bottom right, my mom’s father.
The present wasn’t a bad place to be. I knew the past wasn’t “better”–they didn’t have telephones, radios, TVs, paved roads, cars, refrigerators, running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity. The people were not “better.” But their faces in old photo albums seemed to be calling me home. I don’t believe in ghosts or reincarnation, but I like to imagine ancestral memories can survive like radio waves. Or maybe it’s epigenetics. Maybe our best memories are somehow encoded in our DNA, and an occasional grandchild arrives in this life remembering a world that is gone.
What if some kind of interference from a paranormal radio signal was messing with me? Misfits cannot help but wonder why they don’t fit in. The most common explanation doesn’t explain much:”You are an old soul.” I was born with a sense of nostalgia for a time, a place, a people I had never seen, yet it seemed more familiar than the world I was in. At a party, I would gravitate to the old ones rather than people my own age. Other people’s memories, and even more so, fictional stories of other lives, seemed to displace my own, and I had many gaping black holes in my mind. I was disengaged from my surroundings, living in another world in my mind.
“Immediacy” and “agency” are key words here. I lacked agency; I passively watched the world around me, feeling out of place, instead of actively engaging in it; I missed out on immediate people and events. “You were there,” my sisters would say. “How can you not remember this?” And whatever “this” was, or “who,” it was elusive. Groping in the dark corners of my mind for memories of some specific event I had actually attended in real time and real space, I came up empty. To this day there are events I am told I was physically present for, but my mind was so far away from it all, I cannot remember my lived life.
Now that I am more than half a century old, now that I have seen the dawn of a new millennium and the advent of such wonders as “the picture phone,” I like to imagine that I wasn’t just born weird–I was born somewhere else, and transferred here in some kind of fluke of metaphysics or a magic spell gone wrong. Or a portal. I’ve had a fascination with doorways and tunnels, windows and winged things all my life. While Mrs. Hoffman was telling our first-grade class how to do simple math, I was riding a dragon or a space ship somewhere far away. When I went to her desk saying I didn’t understand how to do the worksheet, she’d spank me, in front of the entire class, and say “they” paid attention, so they knew what to do, and so would I, if I ever quit daydreaming.
She died of cancer in later years. That, too, was not my fault.
Today the school building is about to take a hit from a wrecking ball, and suddenly this place I felt so detached from feels like an important locale, a childhood home, a fixture that needs to be preserved a little while longer. One more generation, at least. But the body count is too low. The children didn’t stay close to home and send a new generation to that little school. They grew up and moved to bigger and better places. Me, I never moved more than 90 miles away, though I’ve lived in other galaxies and ancient kingdoms of Middle Earth in my mind. I’m the one feeling like an amputation is about to sever me from the schoolhouse where my entire childhood was lived, or un-lived, but it was where my body was stationed, and enough of my mind tuned in, I developed a sense of nostalgia for this old place.
The shortest (Julie) and the tallest (Carl) were “frenemies” before the term existed, relentlessly trading barbs with each other like a comic duo. They graduated together in 1975 and both were dead by the end of the year. Julie was murdered. Carl crashed his car into a bridge.
These four classmates, and far too many others, were dead before age 50:
Our bus drivers:
Plainfield Community School, you had a good run. I’m sad to see the old building go empty. If I walk through the hallways one last time, I will see Julie and Carl, my dad his buddy Wayne at age 18, and all the little kids who grew up and left their rural homes for greener pastures. The first school already burned to the ground. The 1960s version also has become last-century and has outlived its use. What will take its place? um, how about a portal, or a launch pad for a spaceship….
Peter Saga cover art for Perihelion Science Fiction ezine
Seventeen-year-old Kyle Donovan’s life is shattered. His mother is missing and his father is accused of killing her, dismembering her, and dumping her pieces into the Mississippi River off the shores of eastern Iowa. Kyle’s father, King Donovan, claims his wife deserted the family and left town with her lover. Kyle expected his dad’s trial for the crime to solve the mystery, but when the trial ends in a hung jury, Kyle is desperate to discover the truth for himself, however terrible.
“Based on a true story” is a sure way to get my attention. Written by a retired high school English teacher who likes Hemingway’s style is another. Jon Ripslinger delivers with this story of an 18-year-old high school football getting flak from classmates for having a dad on trial for murder.
Ripslinger’s years of experience with teenagers is manifest in his spot-on Point of View. While Kyle occasionally sounds wise for his years, he consistently sounds like an authentic teenage guy with bigger concerns than most people face even as adults. His mother is missing. His dad is Suspect #1 in her disappearance. Bullies harass Kyle and agitate him to fist-blows (and suspensions, as if Kyle didn’t have trouble enough already). He has a troubled little sister to look out for, a football team wanting him to hurry back, a girlfriend’s judgmental parents shunning him, but also a new friend and unexpected ally.
In my Kindle I highlighted numerous passages like this one:
“You get p^ssed often enough, gradually you get bitter. Bitter is like when something bad’s been happening for a long while. The bad crawls under your skin and festers. It never goes away. I was bitter because my mom was missing—dead or alive, I didn’t know. My dad had been accused of her murder but his trial had proven nothing. He seemed glad to have her gone and didn’t seem interested in finding her. If I didn’t do something, the truth about my mom’s disappearance might never be known. Kelly and I might never put our lives back together.
“You’d be bitter, too.”
Having studied far too many cold cases, I can attest that page after page rings true in this story. The stupid questions from reporters–“How do you feel” about your mother missing and presumed dead–sadly is all too accurate.
For young adult, this is riveting reading. For adults of any age, it’s illuminating. For those who’ve lost a loved one and the case has gone cold, this is a must-read. I bought it, read it, and finished it one evening. The book is that good. The prose is first-rate.
I’m off to find more by this author. You can find him at goodreads:
After Jon Ripslinger retired as a public high school English teacher, he began a career as an author. He has published many young adult novels and truly enjoys writing books for teens. He has also published numerous short stories in Woman’s World magazine.
Jon and his wife, Colette, live in Iowa. They are the proud parents of six children, and they have thirteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
When not working writing, Jon enjoys the outdoors, especially fishing. He waits patiently for the next “big one” to strike.
“Throughout his teaching career, Ripslinger pined to write fiction. But he worked a couple of part-time jobs (See: six kids), and the serious writing had to wait until after his retirement in 1994. He collected ideas over the years, archiving them in his memory. One such idea was to borrow from one of the Quad-Cities’ most notorious crimes: The murder and dismemberment of Joyce Klindt by her husband, Davenport chiropractor James Klindt.” … The book, “Missing Pieces,” is required reading in Jan Luton’s composition classes at Assumption High School. … most of her students had familiarized themselves with Quad-City Times coverage of the Klindt case. They had questions about the relationship between fact and fiction.“What the kids are struck by is his language,” Luton said of Ripslinger’s writing. “It’s real to them. The first sentence of the book is, ‘I was pissed,’ (referring to the hung jury in Klindt’s first trial).”… The story’s main character is Kyle Donovan. But he is the imagination’s twin of Bart Klindt, Jim and Joyce’s only child. Though born of the book, Kyle is not merely borrowed from headlines of the 1983 murder. Bart Klindt went to school with one of Ripslinger’s sons, and the author remembers the then-teen visiting his house. He used Kyle to tell readers what it must have been like to be Bart.“A writer sort of becomes the character,” he told the students. “The character actually comes alive in your head. I let the character take me to the end of the story.”