In the Temple of Her Heart (Chapter 1)

The day came, bright and clear, though snow remained in the mountain passes.

Arlun had to admit that he was nervous, but he dared not let it show. His parents and siblings were counting on him, and he needed to concentrate. He still wasn’t quite sure how it all happened, but it had, and he was to be wed by the end of the month.

The travel would take a week, the preparations the remaining two; his family would be sent for and conveyed with the utmost care and reverence due their new station.

He shook his head. It had all come about so suddenly….

  The soldiers had pushed the crowds to the sides with the weapons and the large flanks of angry stallions. As the people scrambled aside to avoid the royal procession, a dog, feral, rabid, and scrounging in the alleys had somehow found its way to the merchants’ district. 

In the air, it caught the high scent of fresh meat, and foam pattered in droplets from its mouth as it ran, snarling with anticipation and starvation. It burst out of the alley and snapped at the legs of the people standing aside, who began to jump and scream at the new threat that came suddenly behind them.

   Unheeding of the forest of human legs that sought to entangle it, it broke through just as one of the smaller horses, a pearl colored mare, was passing by; leaping onto a haunch, the dog savaged the flesh, a spout of red staining the white haired beast with calico spatters of blood before the animal reared and wheeled, screaming at the sudden flash of pain, tossing its rider, a slender girl, from its back to sprawl in an undignified heap on the cobblestone street.

Arlun reacted without thought, and rushed forward to pull the young girl to her feet and take her out of harm’s way as her guard’s dealt with the more immediate threat of the dog. 

Her personal guard, however, had seen Arlun, and gave pursuit, now thinking this was a kidnapping ploy. She ran hard into him and sent him sprawling; in a flash she’d straddled him and punched him in the gut twice as his face reddened and his breath fled. With him immobilized for the moment, she got up and let him roll around on the ground to catch his breath, and turned to the girl.

“Are you well, Nahaia?”

“I am, Zarai, thanks to this young man.”

“He was not taking you?”

“Only out of the path of the horses. You did well; you did not know.”

Zarai nodded.

“Help him up.”

Zarai went over, brought Arlun to his feet, still looking him over suspiciously.

By now a crowd had gathered about them, and some of the guards bustled through.

The mangled dog corpse was burning in the middle of the street, and the procession stopped.

“Come, Nahaia.”

“In a moment, Najiu; I have not properly thanked this young merchant boy for saving my life.”

The guard stepped back, and Nahaia went over to Arlun, took off one of her gold armbands, a single ruby in its center, and gave it to him.

“Your Highness,” Arlun said, stunned at the gift, his parents and siblings looking wide eyed over his shoulder. He was going to say he couldn’t take it, but realized that would be an insult, so he knelt, and looked at the ground, as did his family.

“You do me too much honor.”

“Perhaps,” Nahaia said, with a mischievous grin, “but consider it an invite to the palace; my father will want to show his gratitude, as do I. This is neither the time nor place. Tell me your name.”

“Arlun.”

“I will expect you within the month, Arlun. This bauble will only be good until then. If you do not come, I will send Zarai back to extract it from you; the journey to this part of my father’s kingdom is long, if not unpleasant, but still, she may not be polite about it since she will be traveling far.”

“I will be there, your Highness.” His eyes remained on the ground.

To his surprise, she lifted his chin with her finger and favored him with a smile; her eyes were big and brown and beautiful, and his heart quickened as his cheeks flamed.

“I will be most disappointed if you are not, Arlun.”

They turned to go, and Zarai shot him a look of cool disdain, her lips in a mocking, knowing sneer, but knowing what, Arlun couldn’t say.

He swallowed.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

   

Sailing Home

Author’s Note: A small boy is fishing with his grandfather; as they talk about life, thoughts and feelings emerge that make a lasting impact on the both. The story is told from the point of view of the young boy’s memory now as a grown man.

I was sitting with Grandpa as he cleaned his catch with a knife that he always had, seemingly forever.

The skritch it made against the scales as he worked it with expert hands was like the rhythmic slap of waves on the shore.

His deft fingers never seemed to get caught on the hooks, though he showed me where they had, when he was first learning. Callouses covered the tender skin there, but never covered over the lessons.

I watched the shallow water eddy about my ankles as I sat on the boat’s edge, watching the wheeling gulls hoping to steal a fish or two, though grandpa always left them something.

“Hey Grandpa?”

“What is it, sailor?”

“Why do you always feed the gulls?”

“Folks call ’em the rats of the sea. I call ’em good luck.”

“Why? The fish swim away when they see them.”

“Yep. Right onto my hook.”  He leaned over to catch my eye and said with a wink, “Fish ain’t too bright.”
Then he’d laugh his gentle laugh, and give me a fish head to examine. Somehow, they always looked surprised to be dead.

A gull wheeled in close, and I threw the head into the water to watch them dive and scramble and chase, until finally a victor flew away, three others in pursuit, but there were always others, and they flew in close and bold, curious to see if I held any more treats, but I splashed at them, and they wheeled off, calling me names in their language.

I ran my fingers over the scales of one that was close to me, but didn’t pick it up. The gulls were big, and I was small. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t want to test how far they’d go.

“I wonder what they think about when you pull them up…” I said.

“Don’t guess they think much at all.”

“Why?”

He’d finished cleaning the fish, and walked slowly over, and carefully sat next to me, and dipped his ankles in the water next to mine, and the water sloshed in harmony around all the ankles now, and gently swayed the boat beneath our weight.

“I guess they’re in a lot of pain, and just want it to end…” his eyes got far away when he said that, and I knew who he was thinking about.

“Like Grandma?”

He nodded, and took off his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt tail, and dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve.

“Yeah, like Grandma.”

He looked at me then, and put his arm around my shoulder, and we watched the gulls for a while.

“And like me.” he said.

“What hurts?”

“Nothing in particular, and everything in general,” he chuckled.

I smiled, not fully understanding, but he knew that.

He cleared his throat:

“Life’s a lot like a boat,” he said. “You start out in a small craft, and as you travel further out, you take on more, and the craft’s got to get bigger, has to be able to hold all you get. But if you get too much, it slows you down and the journey takes longer. You make more mistakes because you’re always making adjustments for the things you have. You with me…?

“Yes, sir,”  I said, proud of myself that I actually sort of got it.

“And then the storms come, and the stuff you have can help weigh you down, and keep you steady, or it can shift and help the waves flip your boat. If it does that, which is most of the time, you not only lose the things, you lose the people too, the people who’ve helped you to become a good sailor. Still there?”

I nodded, swinging my feet in the surging surf, making foam, dangling a piece of seaweed from my toes.

“And then, eventually, you have to get where you have to be. You have to take the boat home, and get rid of the stuff, because it’s just too much. Some of it you drop off along the way, and some of it you unload when you’re back. The journey’s over, and your stuff’s gone, and you’re just glad to be home, in the quiet. You like that?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “When I’m reading, or thinking about stuff.”

“You thinking about this?”

I looked up at him, because his voice had changed. “Yes, Grandpa, I am.”

He tousled my hair, and laughed his gentle laugh again. “Good man.”

“Grandpa?”

“Hmmm?”

“Are you sailing home, now?”

“I am, son.”

“To Grandma?”

He sighed, and looked out at the setting sun.

“To her, and a whole bunch of other folk you don’t know,” and his sleeve moved again, but I couldn’t see if he was crying.

“You getting rid of stuff?”

He chuckled at that, and again, I smiled with him, unsure.

“Most of it’s gone now, but there’s a little more to go.”

“Oh. Wellll, could you tell her I said hello?” As I spoke I tried to write the word “Grandma” in the mud with my big toe, but the waves kept pushing new mud over it. I wrote it anyway, knowing I’d finished it, that it was still under there somewhere, and it would last for all time.

He smiled, a bit sad, “Ok, sailor. I’ll do that.”

We gathered up our catch.

As we walked home, me with my small sack, him with the bigger one and the fishing rods, I turned to look back at the empty boat, sitting empty on the stilling water, in the fading light, and thought about the time he wouldn’t be there with me.

I stopped, and gestured for him to bend.

He did, and I kissed his cheek.

He straightened, a bit puzzled.

“What’s that for?”

“In case you sail for home before I say good-bye.”

**************************************

I was cleaning my catch, and he sat on the edge of the boat with his ankles in the water.

I threw him a fish head, and he caught it, turning it around to look at it as the gulls grew bolder.

Satisfied he found what he was looking for, he kicked his feet, making foam, and hummed a tune, looking at the sea birds.

He watched them for a time, turning the fish head like an hourglass, but he didn’t throw it.

The blue of the sky deepened as the sun dipped toward the horizon.

“Hey Grandpa?”

“What is it, sailor….?”

 

 

Alone on Christmas Eve

Still feels strange to be alone on Christmas Eve. I’ve been divorced for awhile now. I put everything into my family; I guess too much of my identity went into being a son,  a father and husband.

Parents passed, kids grown, wife gone, seeing no one, and alone.

There’s God, but He seems a bit remote tonight, like the stars. Beautiful, brilliant, a little bit visible, but very, very far away.  That’s ironic, considering it’s the night He sent His Son, and I know that isn’t true, but darkness and loneliness have a way of working on your mind…

When the papers were signed and everything was finalized, I spread the word, not happy in the least.
“Now it’s your turn,” everyone said.
I agreed, but didn’t ask: “My turn to do what?”

I was a son, a husband, and a father…

The words of my middle school teachers came back to me:
‘You should write…’

The words of my high school English teachers came back to me: ‘You should write…’

The words of my stepmother came back to me after I read the eulogy I wrote for my dad: “You should write…”

So writing is what I do now that I’m alone.
I’m no longer a son, or a husband, though still a father; just not needed as much, or at least in the same way.

Someone suggested I go out for dinner, but the sight of a single person eating alone makes people uncomfortable, and quite frankly, I’d feel uncomfortable too.

So tonight, it’s writing, it’s playing my long-neglected bass, it’s listening to carols, it’s sleeping in, it’s remembering the good times. It’s a toast to the spirit of Christmas Past.

It’s contacting my family and friends to tell them Merry Christmas.

It’s wishing…and hoping…and praying, because I’m no good at being selfish, no good at being alone.
But I’m not in despair, because there’s everything to live for. New life has to be created from the ashes of the old, and I was never a quitter.

God is the God of ‘suddenly,’ but He is also the God of working things out. Surrendering has been difficult, but it’s also been required, and so what choice do I really have?

So, whether you believe or not, please bear with me for a moment, and grant me the grace tonight to say to you:

Merry Christmas,  Wordpress, Writehere, Twitter, and fb readers and family. Thank you for your support, your kindness, your encouraging comments, and your edits. Thank you for giving me reasons to continue to pursue this, and by doing so, to become better than I am today.

And whatever your personal beliefs, may your celebrations be joyful, your gatherings peaceful, and your efforts fruitful, now and throughout the coming year.

And who knows? Next year this time I might be married with a pregnant wife, and we’re traveling to…(hey, wait a minute, that could be a story….    🙂

Sleep, children. ( dedicated to the innocent victims of madmen)

Sleep, children.
The cowards who’ve stolen your childhood will pay.

Sleep, children.
For now with your friends you will no longer play.

Sleep, children.
Your parents must carry your bodies away.

Sleep, children.
Tomorrow for you will not be a new day.

Sleep, children.
And know that you will always

be loved.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
December 17th, 2014
Sleep, children.
All rights reserved

They Have to be Invited In

They have to be invited in

After they ring the bell

I did, but didn’t know she’d make

my life a living hell

And ever when they lie with you

They lie to you as well

I thought the difference would be plain

But no, I couldn’t tell.

She left a desiccated heart

Inside a broken shell

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

2014

They Have to be Invited In

All rights reserved