Waiting on the World to Change

A few years ago, I heard a song by John Mayer called Waiting on the World to Change, a song about idealistic and virtuous youth waiting for the corrupt and evil aged to die off. The song’s most telling lyric went as follows:

“It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair,

So we keep on waiting for the world to change.”

I thought it rather lightweight  for a protest song. I also thought it was the most naive thing I’d ever heard from a young man who’d traveled the world several times over.

Why would you wait?

Still, it will be interesting to see what unfolds while you do. Here’s why:

The ‘love your brother’ and ‘equality for all’ generation, when they began to experience true competition for resources as a result of their policies to ensure that equality in the 60’s, became the ‘angry white men’ of the 90’s and began working to repeal the very laws they enacted, becoming, in the process, worse sell-outs and hypocrites than they accused their corporate fathers of being in the 50’s.

And the computer, an invention of the Boomer generation which Mr. Mayer is waiting to go the way of the dinosaur, has upped the ante considerably, and taken things globally in an instant.

Today, a segment of the 60’s generation of love, peace, equality and freedom throws rocks at immigrant children, repeals voting laws, advances the aims of the very corporations they once vehemently denounced, and seeks to distance themselves from those who they were once like in the past;  the other segment is permissive and apathetic in their adult responsibilities to the point of letting the country fall into anarchy.

So no, dear young people, you can’t afford to wait on the world to change. You are going to have to wade into the American wasteland, and get blood on your clothes, and get in peoples’ faces, and make unpleasant sacrifices, and make your voices heard. There is seldom a birth of a new thing without some labor pains being involved, and getting stoned like your grandfathers did for most of their first thirty years is not the way to go about it.

I’ve heard the saying: “These kids live in a different world.”

No you don’t; you live in a different time.

Yes, it is a scary, parasitic, greedy, lustful, materialistic, and intimidating time enhanced by constant connections and distractions, and things baying at you for your attention and money, but you are not in a different world; you’re on the same planet, and as far as we know, it’s the only where you can live outside of a clunky spacesuit, and without devices that will keep you from becoming a runaway hot air balloon.

So let me ask you, Mr. Mayer and company:

Can you really afford to spend it waiting?

Will you?

Fading Echo: Chapter 2

KurtKomoda_EchoDkSM

In the early afternoon, Echo felt the cool grass under her bare feet, and her white diaphanous dress barely hid her charms for modesty.

She gazed about in amazement, looking for Time, who’d manifested himself to her in the form of a sculptor, and barely pushed her through time before Death’s gory scythe claimed their lives.

Can time be killed?

She dismissed the thought; it was enough that she was free from the rocks that imprisoned her in her grief all those centuries ago.

The gods had long ago abandoned the region, and her, and the rains had stopped, leaving the land to change to desert, and her alone inside her stony dungeon; she no longer had the luxury of even repeating the words of someone else, and her loneliness crushed her spirit as she slept, and woke to silence, and slept again, in a cycle of living death.

And then the netherworld travelers happened to stop in front of her.

And now she was here.

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

Breathing in the fresh clean scent of the forest, even in its pungency, made her shiver with pleasure at life once more. She wanted to kiss Time again; his scent had stirred her, but he’d hidden himself.

Maybe there will be…time…for that later. Her mischievous thought brought a smile to her lips when she heard someone rushing through the woods in her direction.

Before she could hide, the figure emerged; it was her King, flushed, panting, and looking over his shoulder as if a wild boar pursued him.

She took the knee before him, and he paused a moment in front of her.

“Rise, child.”

She stood. “You do me honor, lord.”

“I would, had I time.” He smiled at her with lust, but time was of the essence, and he’d sated himself elsewhere.

“How may I serve you?”

“Juno pursues me for my dalliances with some of your sisters. I would that you use your skills of conversation to detain her while I escape until she calms down.”

“I am at your service, Majesty.”

“There’s a good nymph.” His hand cupped her cheek in a mix of paternal affection and a lion testing the softness of the skin of its next kill.

There was a rustling behind them, and Echo wanted to laugh as Jupiter bolted like a frightened deer into the woods to escape Juno’s wrath.

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

The scent of lilac wafted in the air, and Echo walked toward the blooming bush, and gathered some in her hands, letting the scent wash over her, as Juno came from the same direction as Jupiter, her eyes sparking with fury, her nails digging into her palms.

She spied the nymph by the lilac, and rushed over to her.

“Did Jupiter pass through here? Tell me, and don’t you dare lie!”

“To lie to my Queen is to die. I only just arrived, smelling the lilac in the air, and wished to gather some for my bath. Would my Queen like some for her own?”

“No. Thank you. Did you see Jupiter?”

“I did not, my queen. I would run to hide, for I am but in this faerie cloth, and the King is potent in his lust…”

Juno’s eyes flashed.

“…so my sisters say, my queen. He has not taken me to bed, nor would I go, for we are friends, you and I, are we not?”

Her voice softened.

“I have sat at your feet, and eaten from your hand. I live at your pleasure, and die at your command, and my queen has been most gracious not to seek my death. I would not risk such by bedding your lord and husband, though he grow angry with me, and threaten my life.

“So again, I would not lie to you; I did not see my king pass this way.”

Some of Juno’s steam began to dissipate as her gaze scanned helplessly around the woods; it seemed he’d eluded her once again, and her eyes began to shine with welling tears.

“Come, my friend,” Echo smiled, and held out her hand, “come smell the lilacs in full bloom. I will lace some through your hair, along with flowers of white and gold. We will look for them together, and when I am done, my King will be enchanted by you once more, and bring you his heart, cloven in repentance, for you and you alone.”

Juno sighed. “Oh, Echo. Dear, sweet, kind Echo, you are ever my solace, ever my friend.”

“I’ve no other desire, my Queen.”

Echo surreptitiously cast about for Time once more, but he was not present.

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

They spent the afternoon together, and Echo chattered away; her knowledge of the woods and all therein was extensive, her curiosity about matters royal always favored Juno’s views, and as the sun wheeled to the chariot house, they gathered the lilac, the yellow posy, blue periwinkle and daisy, and Echo wreathed them round, and crowned Juno, saying she was now a nymph, and had to stay in the forest where Echo could teach her all there was to know.

Juno laughed, and Echo laughed with her, not like her.

And so the afternoon went, until they came to a clearing, and sleeping by the base of a tree, was Jupiter.

Both women stopped in their tracks, and gazed upon the sleeping man, clothed only in a loincloth, his royal vestments left wherever the pool was that he’d indulged himself.

Juno turned to Echo, who in trying not to reveal anything, revealed her guilt.

Slowly, Juno took off the crown of flowers, and her arm flashed, and she caught the nymph across the cheek, knocking her to the ground in a spray of blood and blossoms, her dress now immodestly gathered about her as she scuttled along the ground as Juno bore down on her.

Then Juno stopped, remembering she was queen, and shuddered with unspent energy as she pointed at the nymph, her extended hand alight with power…

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

Echo closed her eyes, Time forgotten, reliving the horror of the day of Juno’s curse, unable to scream, or plead, or move, she lay like a newborn babe before a ravening wolf, and suddenly Juno shimmered, and stood still,  immobile as Gorgons’ men, yet not of stone.

Time stepped from the woods, and at first Echo was uncomprehending; then she began to realize what had taken place, and slowly, she got to her feet, and walked over to him.

He’d aged more, his rounded frame now thinning, his beard, neat and trimmed, salt and pepper, was now ragged, stained and unkempt.

His eyes, sharp and keen when he sculpted (for she’d looked deep into them as he cut her out), were now almost rheumy to the point where she wondered if he was blind.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“This is my gift to you,” his voice rasped in her ears.

“You’re giving me back my voice?” Her eyes welled up in wonder.

“It is better to die than to never speak your own words,” said Time.

Echo was overwhelmed.

“What will happen to them?” her gaze took in Juno and Jupiter.

“She will strike him with the bolt that’s meant for you, and he will lose his ability to charm your sisters to his bed.”

Echo ran to him, embraced him, ironically now speechless with gratitude.

She looked into his eyes, and saw the light go out; he was truly blind now.

Death had his shroud; he didn’t bother to tell her he would not make it back to save himself.

He’d answered her question now: Time could be killed or saved, redeemed or spent.

She found that she had a choice to make, and with her heart quailing inside her, she made it.

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.

2014

All rights reserved

Fading Echo: Chapter 1

The_grim_reaper_by_Funeriumcycle

Chapter 1:

    Death and Time were walking through a mountain pass in the waning light of a westering sun, a path they’d walked many times before.

As he walked, Time cycled between youth and age, but whether he skipped with youthful exuberance, or hobbled painfully along on his walking stick, Death’s tread was ever constant, and eventually, he would catch up to Time.

Whenever Time stopped to rest at the end of his age cycle, Death covered him with a new blanket, until the child shaped re-emerged, sticking out its tongue at Death, sprinting away as fast as it could, and Death would take the remains of the blanket, now full of holes and moth-eaten, frayed and rank, and pack it away in a satchel he kept on his back until the next cycle.

And Death would rise, patiently, and plod behind, the mountain winds snapping at the hem of his black and crimson robe, the bone handle of his scythe, serving as a walking stick, making puffs of dust, or crunching gravel, or click-clacking on stones, or making divots in the soil, depending on the paths they walked that day.

His rhythm never varied, but seemed random somehow.

Time never waited for Death, but Death always waited for Time, though there were moments Death grew impatient, and pulled Time along before he was ready.

Time wept the hardest when Death took him away, because sometimes he simply wasn’t prepared to go; there were more memories to share, more places to explore, but Death would not hear his pleading.

It didn’t matter to Death; his world was ever silent.

Where Time saw colors and seasons, meadow and river, flower and tree, birds and animals of all kinds, heard their songs and braying, saw them breed in the spring, saw them in the fullness of life and strength and beauty, Death saw only bones, twisted trees and blackened flesh; the only splashes of color in his world were scarlet and sepia, which turned to black when what he’d seen centuries before passed from being merely old into ancient, and from there began its long, slow descent into the Mire.

Death and Time worked in tandem then, to nourish the earth and comfort the living, but other than that, they went in slow, seemingly senseless circles around the earth.

These circles they made by land, walking trails or in the backs of wagons, tracking the migrations of animals, the turning of seasons; by air, flying through the dark, spinning inside the maelstroms of calamitous storms of rain, or sometimes, sand; by sea, riding the backs of drifting clouds across oceans and continents, Time all the while proclaiming what would be, and Death, watching, waiting, to proclaim when it would not.

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

Time was cycling now, coming out of the uncertainty of musky puberty into the more mature stability of manhood. His whiskers grew full and shiny, black as crow feathers, black as Death’s Mire.

His muscles filled out, and he was hard and rugged. Instruments of violence and building filled his hands at any given moment, depending on his mood. Sometimes the instrument was the same, like when he used a hammer once…

Today would be different.

Through a trick of the light in the shadowy canyon, Time saw a face inside the rock.

“Death, do you see?”

Death turned his eyeless sockets on the place, and nodded sagely, turning again to look at Time as if to say, “What of it?”

“There’s a face in it! A woman’s face! Someone is in the rock, Death. I swear! I can see it!”

Death, if he were capable of it, would’ve given a smile.

His bony arm swept in an expansive gesture, his finger pointing to the setting sun to indicate the twilight shadows playing tricks.

“Then it plays well, alchemist! She is in there…”

Death took out a broken hourglass;  the sand sloughed off his fingers, and the shards of glass glistened like iced tears in his ivory palm as he slowly shook his head: No time.

Time threw back his head and laughed, and the canyon echoed, and so did the rock face beside him.

Death and Time stared at it then. It had moved ever so slightly, its mouth barely a gash, and laughed as Time did.

“The rock is enchanted,” Time whispered, and the rock whispered it too, softly, but there was no mistaking it this time.

A chisel and hammer appeared in Time’s hands, and with great patience and skill, he cut around the contours of the rock, following its grain.

Death gave up all hope of moving, and walked off, his walking stick scraping in agitation at the packed dirt.

On a large flat rock that overhung the canyon below, he waited, looking down into the wide and windy chasm, to see if there was anyone he knew…

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

There, in the valley below, by a dried up crater that once contained cool, still water surrounded by willow trees, a withered flower had grown through the bones of a man who died with his arms outstretched, as if embracing something that had pried itself from his desperate grasp.

The flower was where his heart would’ve been in life.

Ah, Death had known him.

What a vain and foolish boy…

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

Time’s whiskers, glossy and black in the evening, were now streaked through with white, and his body was becoming a bit rounder, his face a bit more full, the hard angles retreating.

The moon rose, full and pale and high, and clusters of stars glittered and flashed like celestial fireflies.

The figure was indeed a woman, and by the light of the moon her stony appearance melted, to reveal beneath its hardness a woman of great beauty, stunned by her new found ability to move and feel once more.

She touched Time’s face with a grateful hand, and kissed him for a long time.

He eagerly returned the embrace, and parting breathlessly, he thought she would thank him, but she did not. As she gathered herself, he questioned her.

“Can you not speak?”

“Not speak?”

“Yes, madam. Can you talk?”

“You talk?” She patted his chest, shaking her head in frustration.

“You can’t talk?”

“Can’t talk?

Time seemed amused, but she wasn’t; she was trying to tell him something, but could not seem to get it out. She only repeated what he said, and in time he realized.

“Gods be…you’re…” he snapped his fingers, “Echo. The nymph Echo! You’re Echo?”

She pounded his chest again, nodding hopefully. “You’re Echo? You’re Echo? You’re Echo?”

“Yes, yes, all right then.” He tried to take her hands down, but she clutched at him and would not let go, but he finally got her in a firm grip, and lowered his head, and looked into her eyes to calm her.

Her manner was of a bird, set free from its cage, which could only walk trustingly into a waiting hand because it couldn’t fly.

She seemed to settle, and held his gaze, her breathing slowing, her liquid eyes large and luminous in the lunar light.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.

“You’re so beautiful.” She smiled, and put her hand to her mouth, blushing.

Time also smiled at the unintended compliment, and then shook his head, frustrated now as she was.

Death grew tired of waiting, and they could hear the skritch of his walking stick scythe as it scraped the path, and emanated from Echo’s slightly parted lips.

Behind them now, he looked at Echo, and her skin went from blush to blanche.

Time turned to look, and keeping one face on Death, made another to look at Echo.

“Don’t worry, he won’t harm you.”

“Harm you.”

“He’s not here for you.”

“Not here for you.” Her face twisted, as if with a bitter memory; he saw the agony in her eyes that she could not speak on her own.

Time straightened his stance, and put his hands on her shoulders, looking down at her.

“I will give you a gift, a once-in-a lifetime gift. It can only happen once. Do you understand?”

Death was no longer motionless, however, and upended his scythe,  and Echo fidgeted under Time’s hands again.

He tightened his grip once more. “Do you understand?”

“Do you understand?” she was nodding again.

Death’s scythe descended, but seemed to slow the closer it got to cutting them down.

As it whisked through where they’d been standing what only seemed like an instant ago, Time disappeared.

And there was no echo.

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.

2014

All rights reserved

Lisa’s Last Dance

Dedicated to the indomitable spirit in all of us.

wheelchair and ballerina

In the halls of her school, Lisa heard the comments.
“Such a promising career ahead…”
“Never dance again…”
“…a tragedy…” “…a shame…”
“Never walk again …” “…dancing is finished…”

Her face would heat, and she’d roll the chair a little faster, enduring the day, the comments sown like bitter seeds in her heart. Time was against her; her muscles hadn’t failed yet, but they were on the way.

She sighed, but today, she managed not to cry.

***********************
Her father loaded her like a cargo of five gallon drums into the back of the van after school, and took her home.
She did her homework before dinner since there wasn’t much.
Her parents were watching television when she rolled the chair in front of them.
“Lisa? What is it, honey?” her mother said.
“Take me there.”
“Honey, please. We’ve been over this. The doctors…”
“Yes, I know, Dad. The doctors, it’s always the doctors said…”
“Lisa, be realistic!
“No!” She slammed her fists on the arms of her wheelchair, and her parents jumped. She got her breathing under control, kept her eyes averted to blink back the tears that threatened; if she cried now, it would be over.
She looked up at them in after a moment, her eyes clear, her gaze steady.
“No. Take me there.”
Huffing in frustration, but without another word, her father clicked off the tv and loaded her into the van. Her mother rode shotgun, and they rode in silence.

**************
The dance class stopped when Lisa came to the door.
“Lisa?”
“Hello, Mrs. Castro.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to start over.”
“Lisa, honey, I can’t…”
“We told her, Mrs. Castro,” her mother said. “We told her what the doctors said, but she insisted.”
Mrs. Castro sighed. “Let her come to grips with it. It’s the only way they’ll stop sometimes. I’ve seen it before.”

Lisa rolled the chair past Mrs. Castro.
***************************
The other girls watched in stunned silence.
Stopping before the mirror, Lisa took a good long look at herself, taking stock of what she was about to do, and whether or not it was worth it.
And she turned the chair sideways, placed her feet on the floor and placed her hands on the barre, her breathing deep.
The other girls watched at first, as her arms began to shake, her knuckles tighten and slip; she wiped her hands on her useless knees, and got another grip, and pulled again.
And little by bit, Lisa began to pull herself up, trembling, shaking, but slowly rising.
“Lisa, don’t do this,” her mother said, her hands over her chest.
“Lisa, stop!” her father said.

**********************
She bit her lip as the tears stung again, and one escaped, and she rose a little higher.
With her next pull, she gave a small cry of pain, and one of the girls broke from the circle and got behind her, and put her arm around Lisa’s middle, supporting her, her knees and thighs aligned with Lisa’s own, which were almost like a marionette’s, and she pushed the chair a little distance away.Lisa went higher, her breath hissing between her teeth. The girl behind her was straining with the weight, and she didn’t want to fall backward.
Another one joined her, and stooped to put Lisa’s hands on her shoulders as she supported Lisa’s arms.
Lisa went higher, even as the pain ripped through her and she cried out again.
Two more joined and supported the two girls who were holding Lisa.
She went up a little more.
And another came, and another, and then the rest, reforming the semi-circle that had been around Mrs. Castro, and they began to call out.
Do it, Lisa!”
“Come on, girl!”
“Kick, Lisa! Higher!”
“You call that a pirouette?”
“If you can’t hack it, pack it!”
“Get that leg up!”
“Balance, keep your balance!”
“Spin faster, stupid!” They all laughed a little louder at that, and Lisa strained with the effort.
And kept rising.

The girls began to cry through their smiles as Lisa struggled, inch by inch, her own cries lost in their laughter and shouts and cheers of love that sounded like reprimands they’d all heard and said, standing together back then as vulnerable and fearful children, standing together now as vulnerable, fearful young women with confidence and hope.
And today, centered on their broken, fallen angel, they anointed her with all they had, and it filled the studio like morning vespers.
And when Lisa finally stood, leaning on their arms and shoulders, wracking, drenched, and beautifully terrible, still shaking, crying and trembling as they embraced each other in bittersweet victory, it was for different reasons.

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.2014
All rights reserved

Bring Me No Flowers

(HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY).

“I will bring thee flowers,” said he, “to prove my love.”

“Doest thou so,” said she, “and that wilt but prove thou lovest me not.”

“Sayest thou so? But they are beautiful: they are surpassing colorful, fragrant beyond compare! Add but a little water, a little light, and long will they last for thee.

“Arranged to please the eye, the nose, the fingertip, with petals bright to tickle at thy dimpled cheek, I would gather them for thy pleasure.”

“Dear love,” said she, her fingers laced through his own, “all thy words are truth, and yet…”

“And yet…?”

His hand she kissed, and filled his eyes with hers.

“And yet they will fade and die: the petals grow dull in brilliance and fragrance, the leaf curl in upon itself, and black death, like a creeper worm, shall decay all of a once vibrant bloom; I would not have it so for love.

“Nay, my heart, bring me no flowers. If thou wouldst prove thy love, take me far a-field to where they grow wild and bounteous:

“For in the soil are they rooted, their tender beginnings delicately intertwined, to help, nurture, assist, and lift the first tender shoots of love upwards, even as they descend to take what is needed to live, and to grow, and then, to grow strong.

“There is no anchor for them in water alone. All the more are they rooted in the very essence of Creation, and from there, do grow to full height, despite the sorrow of storms, the plucking and plundering of bird, bee, bug and butterfly, the high heat of a sometimes overbearing sun, and the random whip and toss of whimsical, tempestuous winds.

“There, in the field, their colors fade not until the proper time, in the fullness of their season, where they expire together in their full glory.

“There, they take what they need, and in the taking, give freely and with purpose to bless and increase the stock and store of all who need them.

“There, in the wild and verdant field, their perfumed prayers of fragrance fill the world and heaven both night and day without ceasing, and in the turning season, they press, with gentle touch, the essence of their scented offering into the seeds to come after.

“That, dearest, is how our love, like flowers, should be as nature; and be they gathered into any hand, let it be only the tender fist of their Creator, there to scatter them across the spans of seas to all who love.

“If thou wouldst bless our love with blossoms so, let us to the fields now go.”

“My love, thy fields await.”

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
2014
All rights reserved

Of War and Breakfast

kitchen

Daylight was just breaking, but already Willie was at the bus stop across the street from the house.

He was nervous, excited and scared, dreading where they’d send him. It wasn’t that he was a coward, but he had his reasons. His uniform was starched and crisp and clean, except for the dust that stirred around the cuffs and over the insteps of his glossy black shoes.

There was a single light on in the house, and the faint sound of a gospel choir building carried on the cool early morning air. Through the window he could see a woman was at the stove, and she hummed along in time with the gospel choir, a good voice, steady and clear. With the sound of the choir came the smell of bacon and coffee, faint at that distance, but there.

A slender brown hand with a spatula deftly flipped a flapjack in the air. Putting the flapjacks in the oven to keep warm while the bacon browned, she poured herself some coffee from the percolator and disappeared from view. From what he could see, no one else seemed to be up, or perhaps no one else was there; she’d kept to herself since her husband died not too long ago.

The door opened, then the screen door squeaked, and the woman stepped out onto the porch into the coolness, and took a deep breath, running her free hand through her hair, the steam from the coffee cup rising like morning vespers. She still had her robe on. It was old and worn, like a well used Bible, and almost as sacred. Sipping coffee, she looked down the road awhile at first, and Willie said, “Good morning, Darlene.”

She jumped and gave a little cry, turned, and smiled at him. “Good morning, Willie. Didn’t see you there! Where you goin?” Then she saw the uniform, tinged with blue in the predawn light.

“Oh,” was all she said. She felt flashes of anger and sadness, but managed, somehow, to keep from saying more.

Willie’s green cap was in his hand, and he was twisting it. “Sorry ‘bout that, Darlene, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Come on over here and get yourself something to eat; the bus ain’t due yet.”

“Don’t wanna be no trouble.” She smiled.

“I didn’t ask you to be no trouble, I told you to come get something to eat.”

“You sure?”She put her hands on her hips. “Willie, my bacon’s almost done. When this door is closed, it’s closed.”

Willie came over, the fine dust on the road made little coronas around his feet, as if he were a prophet traversing the dunes. Darlene went in ahead of him.

“Go on and sit down,” she told him. Willie sat and scooted his chair up to the table as she put a steaming plate in front of him, took out some syrup and butter, and poured his coffee and added a small glass of apple cider. Then she served herself; he got up to hold her chair, and sat back down.

Holding hands across the table, together they said grace.

***************** “

Don’t see why I got to go,” he said. “They treat us like dirt here, and want us to go help somebody else from being treated like dirt. Don’t make no sense.”

Darlene sat back and sighed.“No, it don’t.”

“They even separate us there; don’t want us next to them on the way over, and don’t care if we…”

He wasn’t looking at her. It seemed like he wanted to cry but didn’t dare. Seemed like he wanted to bolt and run down the road and never look back, but he couldn’t.

“Willie.” Something in the way she said his name got his attention. She took his hand. “It don’t matter what they do, you got to come back alive, whatever it takes. Don’t you let them break you, hear? You got to come back sane and whole. You got that baby coming, and it’s depending on daddy, right now, to come back.”

**********    

   Darlene’s father was nervous that morning, his hands fidgeting with his hat, and her mother kept adjusting things on him, putting off his leaving as long as possible, as he stood there and let her put it off. Her hands were busy adjusting from the inside out until there was nothing more: his tie his shirt collar, his jacket collar, the cuffs of his sleeves, the hem of his pants, hands brushing, tugging, tucking, when all she wanted to do was grab him and never let him go to that meeting about the coming protests.    

   Out of things to do, she looked at her husband, tears in her eyes, untouched by either of them, until he reached out and pulled her close, and looked down at the upturned faces of his little girls, not comprehending, but feeling the anxious charge in the air between their parents, his own eyes filling, his wife’s tears wetting his jacket, her lips by his ear.  

   “ I don’t care ‘bout what you got to do out there, David, to make things better for everybody else, you just make sure you come home. These girls need their daddy, and I need my husband, and I know you scared, but you got to come back, and that’s all there is to it.

   “You hear me, David?”

**********

“You hear me, Willie?” Willie nodded and got his breathing back under control. They finished breakfast in silence, though neither of them felt much like eating now; it was just sin to waste food. Darlene cleared the table, and Willie stood up; he held the door for her as they went outside, and saw the puff of dust down the road from the bus tires.

“Guess it’s time.”

“Let’s pray.”She took his hand again. They prayed for protection, his safe return, strength for Clara, and health for his new baby, in Jesus’ Name, amen.

The bus hissed to a stop.

“You comin, boy?”

“Yessir.”

“Say goodbye, then.”

Willie and Darlene embraced.

“I’m scared, Darlene.”

“I know,” she said against his ear, “I know that, Willie. And so is Clara, and so is your baby. You’ll probably be scared every day you spend over there.” Stepping out of his arms, her eyes searched his. “But you got to come back,” her eyes welled up, “and that’s all there is to it.”

He swallowed, nodded, wiped his own tears away with his mangled green cap. “Thank you for breakfast,” he said, though it wasn’t all he meant.

A cantankerous horn shattered the morning quiet.

“Ain’t got all day, boy!”

“Comin’, sir!”

“Weren’t no ‘trouble’,” she let her tears fall, and smiled through them, and Willie walked down the steps, over the road, into the bus. Finding an empty seat by the window, he looked out at her, and she kept the smile she didn’t feel on her face, and waved as the bus took him to his destiny.

And as the birds began to sing, all that remained of Willie were his footprints leading to and from her door, and the dust from the tires settling back down, and the paling light of the morning sun breaking over the horizon, as Darlene wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her robe, and went back inside, humming low with the radio choir.

Closing Spaces (Saadia’s Story)

The following story is for my cousin, Saadia, who passed away suddenly back in July. When we were kids, she had a library of children’s stories from around the world; for whatever reason, the Spanish tales were her favorite, though we’re not a Spanish family. I think she just liked the language, and the rhythm of the writing, but mostly, she liked hearing me read them.

We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, so this is, in a way, a tribute tale for her, from my own imagination; my candle, if you will. I think she would’ve liked it.

I hope you do too. 

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Maria sat on the steps of her home, her sweater folded into a cushion, her left leg curled beneath her. The setting sun lit her face and hair with a soft glow.
Autumn colors filled her eyes, and a bittersweet sadness twinged in her heart for the leaves that were dying.

But sometimes,
Maria,’ a voice said, ‘a leaf of green breaks off in the spring, and never experiences the joy of changing.’

Her journal sat open, untouched, beside her.

Manny, her older brother came out and sat beside her; they smiled at each other, but said nothing. He too, looked out at the fading day.
“Do you think about Noa?” Maria asked, finally.
“Every day,” he answered.
He tapped her journal. “Not writing today?”
She sighed. “Can’t think of anything.”
He placed an unfurled strand of dark hair back over her ear, gave her cheek a light kiss.
“Close your eyes; you’ll think of something.”

Maria did, and heard the door open and close as he went back inside.

A soft wind stirred, and the smell of the earth came to her, and the scent of maple, and Mama’s cooking, and her thoughts drifted back on the currents until she found Noa’s little face, who in her brief life had given her sister the brightest of smiles.

The last of the warmth of the sun cupped Maria’s glistening cheeks in its rays, setting them alight.
She wiped her eyes with her fingertips, took a deep breath, settled her heart, and let the memories come.

She wrote then: of singing young girls of her childhood who shadowed the swaying hips of their elders, picking herbs and gathering seeds in palm leaf baskets, of sharing bread and fruit and fresh water with friends, of watching the stars through her window, counting until she fell asleep, of the feel of cool river water on a hot day, of secret glances at secret crushes, who smiled shyly back.

Of dancing in the rain with muddy feet, ruined hair, a drenched sundress, and a full and joyful heart.
Of the addicting sweetness of candy and chocolate, and mama’s frown when they ate it all.

Of fishing with papa, watching the sun scatter hammered gold and diamonds of light on the rippling waves, and how the smacking snap of jumping fish sounded like applause, and his contagious excitement when a catch was good, and his tranquility reflecting the still water when nothing took the bait, and they returned home.

“Then Mama says ‘I guess we’ll catch the fish at the grocery store.’ Papa frowns at her, but we can tell he’s trying not to laugh, and then we all go out to eat.”

Of the sad songs she’d play on her guitar by candlelight in her room when it rained outside, songs she could not remember, and never played again.

Of how things were back to normal, but would never be the same.

*************
The evening star popped out like silver cufflink on a dark blue shirt.
Mama came to the door: “Dinnertime, bonita.”
“In a minute,” she said.
“All right. Don’t let it get cold.”
“I won’t.”

She went inside a few minutes later, and looked at the empty place that was always set for someone who was supposed to be there. She thought about the empty space they always left in the family photos, how they walked together with a space between them, something they had done at first that had now become habit, if not ritual.
And an idea came to Maria, one that she would tell them tonight after dinner.
*********************
In the car the following morning everyone was quiet, thinking about what they would do when they arrived. Her father had seen the merit of it, her mother was hesitant, but went along, and Manny had just nodded, unsure of what to say.

After dinner, she had given them empty pages in her journal to write what they wanted to say, and they would read it to Noa, each one, reading what they wrote.

“Nothing about sadness, or tears, or anger,” she told them.
Her mother wrote of the storybooks she’d collected that she’d wanted to read, and the wonders of a beautiful garden, and the hard work it took to keep it that way, but didn’t feel like work at all.

Her father wrote of how beautiful the water looked when he went fishing, and how the current made the hook drift, but you never knew if it was toward the fish, or away; the fun was in the excitement of the catch, but you learned more about yourself when you caught nothing.

Her brother wrote of how he would have taught her baseball, and how he loved the smell of the grass, of his first home run: the crack of the bat as the ball sailed, white and high and spinning over the fence, and the simple pleasure of oiling his favorite, most trusted glove after a game, smiling when he won, in contemplation of what he could have done better when they lost.

And soon, the cemetery gates were before them.

“If anyone thinks they can’t do this, now’s the time to say it,” Papa said.
No one spoke.
He drove down to where the child lay, and they all got out; the doors made a soft ‘thunk’ when they closed, and it echoed faintly in the morning stillness, broken only by random, inquisitive birdsong.

Slowly they approached Noa’s little white stone, her name patiently engraved over her suddenly erased life, waiting to fade away in its own time.

Maria stepped forward.

“We wrote you a letter, Noa. It’s kind of long, but we wanted to read it to you.”
Maria read first, then her mother, her father, and brother.
It took most of the morning, but they got through it, not without tears, and hitching breaths, and even smiling, their love for her like a swaddling blanket softening the hardening autumn ground.

************************
The journal back in her hands, Maria wrote the final page.
“Con el amor a tu familia, a mi hermenita Noa. Te queremos.
Te extrañamos.”

With love from your family, to my little sister Noa. We love you. We miss you.

Maria walked up, and placed the journal against the stone.

A gentle breeze stirred, and she closed her eyes again to feel it against her face, the smells of autumn sweeter, sharper than she’d ever sensed, like children you hugged close after jumping into a pile of leaves, their laughter mingling with the crackle and crunch of colors bursting around them.

This wind, soft as infants’ lips, kissed her tears away.

Maria turned to find her family waiting, and as they turned to go, they all joined hands, connected in a new way; the space they’d always left for Noa closed, because they now carried her, truly for the first time, in their hearts.

©Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
2014