Lost in My Storm

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Could you ever stop thinking of me
that way because my arms couldn’t
reach out when you needed them most,
bound as they were by bonds I wove
of confusion and fear? If not,
I wouldn’t blame you, though that’s
a heavy load to carry for so long,
cracking backs and taxing hearts
whose clockworks wind down past
their dwindling supply of twelves.
But if you could, it’d be a blessing
in these latter days granted me,
my leaves tearing from the calendar tree
of this life spent blinded in shadow,
blown from one direction, battered
to another. Ever away from the peace
for which I pray before I fall
and lie forgotten, save for fading lines
on pulp, lost in the emptiness between
the zeros and ones I’ve cast like acorns
in a promiscuous gale of words…
sound and fury signifying I’m nothing
without friends I’ve lost in my storm.

They Also Call It Fall

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The Emptying of the Year Photo © Joseph Hesch 2015

My remaining days are disappearing
faster than I can live them.
Blinks of sunup to sundown blur
past like squirrels who steal life
from me as if I was a jagged old oak
and they know maybe next year
might be mine to topple.
Where they scurry and bury
what once was mine to have and hold,
like my memory, I’ll never remember,
let alone reach. Out my window,
I squint at daylight diminishing
with each spin of this emptying world
and realize why they call Autumn,
even the golden autumn of my years,
why they also call it Fall.

All That Sparkles

Morning Diamonds (Photo by Joseph Hesch © 2016)

Morning Diamonds
(Photo by Joseph Hesch © 2016)

They hide from us in the dark,
growing over centuries or overnight,
these prisms that bend colors
like pouring water, should one
be wrested from the soil or
the other wrung from the night air.
Each is the hardest of their
species, though one is born of
heat, the other of cold.
Of the two, the first might be
the dearest to those souls
who value the finer things in life.
Of course, then there’s romantics
who’ve no fortune but waking dreams
in overabundance, lovers and poets
who see diamonds in morning frost, and
sense rhyme in dawn’s glistening rime.

Running Free by Daylight

Wild Horse Herd in the Moonlight by Stephanie Laird

Wild Horse Herd in the Moonlight by Stephanie Laird

The things of the night cannot be explained in the day
Because they do not then exist. ~ Ernest Hemingway

(Warning: This story contains language that may be considered offensive, but is aprapos to the time and place where it is set.)

“Did you see ‘em last night, boy?” Luke Flynn said.

“See what, sir?” young Ben DeVitte said.

“The thievin’ Kiowa what is gonna steal our horses and kill us in our sleep if you don’t stay awake while’s you’re on watch.”

“I was awake, sir. Never slept a wink. Watched the herd all night.”

“Then that’s even worse, boy,” Luke said. “Means you don’t even see ‘em when they’re right there in front of you.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Flynn. I watched the horses all night and they never spooked once. Hell, they slept and I didn’t. Nothing came near ‘em ‘cept maybe a coyote once, and I shooed him off.”

“Boy?”

“Yessir?”

“If that coyote’d a mind to, this morning he’d be riding your horse and wearing your hair on his belt,” Luke said. “That’s one of the oldest tricks these magpies have, dressing under some animal skin to get close enough to the herd or some unsuspecting eastern boy and whisking them from their rightful ownership.”

This statement was doubly hurtful to Ben. The fact that he never saw the Kiowa scouting the herd he was charged with guarding was embarrassing enough. But he didn’t need reminding that he was property of Luke Flynn’s boss, Captain Angus Blair, of the Tennessee Blairs. That is, his slave.

Now I ain’t gonna tell Mr. Smithson about this, boy. But you’d better keep your head on a swivel and your eyes as big and white as your great-great-granny if you don’t wish to catch a whuppin’ and then some from the boss man,m” Luke said and spit in the dust between Ben’s feet.

“Now climb in that wagon box and get a couple hours’ sleep. We got work for you to do before midday.”

“Yessir. Mr’ Luke?”

“Yes, boy?”

“Thanks for tellin’ me about them coyotes. I’ll be on the lookout for them tonight,” Ben said.

“Boy, you won’t see ‘em tonight, neither.” Tonight they could be a bunch of bushy grass, a hooty owl, another god damn horse, for all we know.”

“Then how am I supposed to learn what to look for?” Ben said.

“Boy, if you ain’t sure if something is what it appears to be, it more’n likely is. If it appears to be exactly what you think it is, it more’n likely ain’t. ‘Course, it could always be vicey versy. I can’t explain it in the daylight anyway. I just knows. An’ jawin’ out here when you’re wasting what little time you got for shut-eye might be your dumbest niggra thing ya done yet on this trip. Now git in the box,” Luke said and gave Ben a boot in the rear as punctuation of his declaration.

Once under a blanket in the wagon, jostled between flour sacks and barrels of salt pork, whisky and gunpowder, Ben once again went through his journey from Creole stable keeper’s son in Louisiana to being a slave for a former British officer’s horse farm in Tennessee.

He’d heard that gangs had come into Louisiana and Florida looking for fugitive slaves, but also seeing if they could grab some dusky-skinned youngster who might pass for an octoroon or such. In this time of “one drop” of a black man or woman’s blood you making you a potential Negro, his Creole father’s and Mexican mother’s complexions made their son a prime bit of profit, once the slavers grabbed him one night and took him back upriver to Tennessee.

“I ain’t no Negro,” he yelled when he was put on the block in Memphis. “I’m an educated white boy and you’re all making a big mistake, if not breaking the law.”

The thump on the back of his neck with the butt of a whip loaded with lead quieted him and the rag tied around his mouth while the room spun finished the job. Smiths and Capt. Blair paid a pretty penny for the strong boy with the reported history of knowing his way around horses.

“Time to get up you lazy nigger bastard,” Smithson said as he pulled Ben from the wagon box. “You and Flynn go work the tail-end of the herd. Can’t afford to lose any in daylight like you almost cost us in the dark.”

Ben blushed, the heat rising from his neck to his eyes. How’d Smithson know? A hardcore Texan like Flynn wouldn’t give him away.

“I got my eyes on you, boy. Next time you fall down on the job, I’ll be layin’ some stripes on your yeller back,” Smithson said.

“Oh and you’ll be guarding the herd again tonight. And I’ll be guarding you. Now, git,” Smithson said, laying a quirt across Ben’s arm as he rode away.

“Why’s the Army need these horses, Mr. Flynn? Don’t they have enough farms and rancheros out here to provide their stock?” Ben said when he found Flynn in the choking dust cloud at the back-end of the herd.

“Because Cap’n Blair greased enough palms in St. Looie and Warshington to get the contract for his stock’s why. Boy, for someone so book-smart, you sure are life-dumb,” Luke said.

“Well, I’m just a lowly slave boy, suh,” Ben said with an edge to his voice he wished he hadn’t expressed to Luke.

“No reason to get so uppity, boy. I know you ain’t no nigger and my guess is Cap’n and Smithson do, too. But they got law, money and strong arms on their side, so’s they’ll always win. Now go fetch back that sorrel over there.”

That night, Ben sat in the saddle on a chestnut gelding named Bristol. The Captain named his horses for historical people and places back in England. The fact an Englishman had so many slaves, including himself, was a pondering to Ben. England had outlawed slavery twenty years before.

“I guess the Cap’n likes his workers on the cheap side and to stay on the job until he decides to make a profit off ‘em. Just like you, Bristol, you old jughead<“ Ben said and rubbed between the horse’s ears.

The rustling in the bushes to his right startled Bristol before it did Ben. He was about to sound the alarm when he saw Loy, another of Blair’s slaves working this trip to some fort on the Brazos.

“Shhh, brown boy. Don’t go callin’ yore white friends. They’d just as soon whup or hang you as any other slave who’d light off or let one,” Loy said in a whisper.

“You runnin’, Loy?” Ben asked.

“‘Course I is, fool. I figure I got a better chance of getting away here in Indian country than I do back in Tennessee,” Loy said.

“Now gimme yore hoss.”

“That ain’t happening, Loy. Smithson’s likely watching us right now, if he didn’t send you out here to test me,” Ben said. “And lord knows, I ain’t looking to get no whuppin’ almost as much as I ain’t lookin’ to be bound to some sinful Scotchman’s whims.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to take me one of the herd,” Loy said. Ben saw he was carrying a length of rope with which he fashioned a hackamore, a bites bridle, to control any horse he escaped on.

“You weren’t expecting me here tonight, were you?” Ben said.

“No, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or mad I did,” Loy said as he placed the hackamore around a gray named Exeter’s nose. “I’m headed for The Nations. I hear a man can hide out there pretty well. After that? Well, we’ll see.”

“You do know the Cherokee got slaves up there, right?” Ben said. “And you gotta ride through the Kiowa and maybe even them bloody Comanche to get up there? I hear the Comanche don’t care what color you are, they’ll just turn you inside out when they catch you.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Loy said, hoisting himself onto Exeter’s back. “You wanna go with me? I could use a partner and once Smithson finds a hoss stolen, he’ll turn your back inside out, boy.”

Ben heard another bit of noise to his left, away form the herders’ camp.

“Get down off that horse, Loy. Take him into the herd and mingle with the others,” Ben said. He wasn’t sure who or what made that noise, but he was sure he didn’t want to be found talking with any fugitive, or about-to-be-fugitive, slave while he was supposed to be watching the herd.

He looked at the Colt revolver Flynn had given him before watch. It carried two loads—all they trusted a slave with—in its cylinder. They were to be used to alert the camp of any raiders or to shoot any horse thieves. Either way, the camp would be warned.

Smithson emerged from the brush.

“Who you talking to, boy?” he said, banging his quirt on his right thigh. He’d been into the whisky again. Deeply.

“No one, Mr. Smithson. Just ol’ Bristol here,” once again he scratched between the chestnut’s ears.

“You see anything out here, boy? Anything moving about?”

“No sir. I’m bein’ mighty careful about this here herd tonight. Don’t wanna get me no whipping’, sir”

“Well, Loy’s missin’, and I’d expect to find him over here, even though the damn fool nigger wouldn’t know which end of a horse you feed and which you pick up after.”

Oh, wouldn’t you be surprised, you pompous bastard, Ben thought, remembering the well-woven and knotted hackamore Loy placed on Exeter.

“Awright, boy, you see or hear anything…anything, you give a shout or fire off a shot at it, or I’ll be selling your white ass of to some Mississippi cotton spread. They know how to treat an uppity bastard like you.”

Ben straightened in his saddle.

“You know, don’t you?” he said to Smithson. “You know I’m white.”

“I wouldn’t rightly say white. More a mongrel Cajun greaser, truth to tell. But you know horses and you can pass for part nigger, so you’ll do in a pinch. Now keep your eyes open and your ears cocked, boy, or I’ll have your hide and somebody in Natchez is gonna get them a Bible-reading field hand. Or maybe I should just leave you out here for the crows and buzzards. I don’r think Cap’n would care once we’re done here anyway.”

Smithson, moved his quirt to left hand and was about to pull his own Colt when Ben fired his first bullet into the overseer’s chest.

“Kioway, Kioway,” he yelled, firing his other bullet into the air, which spooked the herd and the horses began running for open range.

Ben dropped off Bristol, grabbed Smithton’s gunbelt and ammunition, hooked the dead man’s horse’s reins and shouted to Loy.

“Let’s get us to The Territories, Loy. They’ll be running’ ’til daylight and more trying to gather the herd,” said, slapping the overseer’s quirt on Exeter’s rump and howling like he thought a Kiowa raider might.

On the books at Fort Belknap, the ledger said that Luke Flynn delivered 138 head of 150 ordered from Capt. Angus Blair. Flynn explained that Kiowa had raided them one night and made off with twelve horses and killed his boss.

“They must’ve made off with the a Negro name’a Loy who was guardin’ the herd, too,” he said. “Never could find ‘em. Cap’n’s gonna be mighty upset about us losing them horses, though.”

A first-draft wing at a story inspired by that quote from Ernest Hemingway via my friend Sharyl Fuller. Don’t know exactly the entire connection of story and quote, but it’s what sparked this story about a boy judged dark enough to be a slave and bright enough to never have existed when he put daylight between himself and enslavement. Oh, and I guess this story qualifies as ONE of my genres, per the Story a Day rules.

Tripping on a Rainbow

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What always surprises me, even now on what will be my last time, is the quiet.

When we climb aboard and the cool brass elevator doors close on the marble atrium where we report for our next assignments, the one we hope is the One, they don’t whoosh or shoop. There’s no swell of harp strings or inspiring Muzak pumping through speakers. There are no speakers. You hear only the harmonized breaths of you and Eternity. You don’t even hear the other souls aboard.

Right there in front, next to the door, you see the spectrum of buttons under a placard that reads, “Find Happiness.” Bottom to top, they’re arrayed Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red – primary color chips of a rainbow for those of us who’ve tripped on one once …or even four times.

This is my fifth trip on this four-dimensional magical mystery ride. Well, it would be a bigger mystery if I hadn’t pushed each of those buttons except yellow on my other tries here in the Happy Box. Four shots at happiness that all ended in something less.

It’s not the elevator’s fault, nor Management’s. We all make our own choices and I made four that I didn’t think came with the top prize, a Mega-Millions of Smiles or whatever is supposed to be waiting for you There. Happy-World, or whatever There is.

My first time, when I didn’t know any better, I started on the lowest floor, pushed Blue. I was let off in that youthful Eden, where I bumped up against Nature and Humanity with all the subtlety of a hopped-up, blindfolded linebacker in a flower shop.

But you never know when the call will come for a new assignment.

Red was bad, Green was moldy, Orange was hot and dry but ultimately a little too like Red. That leaves Yellow, doesn’t it? Yellow, the color of sunlight, illumination, the middle of it all, the mean and the median of Happiness. So here I am, looking around at the other souls on the elevator and see something in each their faces that I probably showed in my previous ups and downs in here.

That young guy there with a crewcut. His mug just oozes determination. I’d tag him for a Green. He’s got GI written all over him. Good luck pal. My Green phase included something to do with a little kid wearing a straw hat during my time in Vietnam. Or was that Okinawa?

“You okay, little guy? Your mama around? ”

All about was torn up and tropical. This little kid has absolutely no expression on his face, not fear, nor sadness, no tears. So odd. Gunfire, I hear gunfire over there.

“C’mon little guy, I’m taking you someplace safe.” Why do I remember those eyes turning wide and uniforms and an explosion of red and yellow flame? Hmmph, doesn’t matter now. Semper fi, buddy. Yep, he’s a Green.

That young one over here in the corner, the one dressed in the school uniform is blinking and shaking a little with fear. Might be her first trip. She’s definitely a Blue. My Blue phase… Jeanine, or Janet. Looking into those blue eyes on her back porch.

“Why don’t you stay with me tonight,” I remember her saying. I do.

“Aww.. I’ll be okay,” I said. “Just gonna meet the guys for a few more and then head back home. I’ll see you in the morning. I promise.”

Soft kiss, embrace, breath warm–a sigh?–on my face, a hand holding tightly to my belt. Temptation, testosterone, torment of indecision there in the porch light’s yellow glow.

Why am I remembering this so clearly? Or am I?

I recall a bar called Fillion’s and some other guys drinking as much as we were. One of them, pizza-faced prick with an accent straight out of Hempstead trips one of my guys and it’s ON. Real Red-line stuff.

I hear, “Get the fuck outta here. I’m calling the cops.” And it all rolls outside into the cold. Yeah, cold, dark, snowbanks, and the sidewalks are slippery. Sucker punch haymaker from pimple-puss levels me and I hit my head on the curb.

Streetlights hurting my eyes. They all climb into a Pontiac and peel off. I jump into my Dodge and take off after that piece of shit.

I see yellow lights behind the hazy red of the intersection, gliding sideways, and…

I shake my head and notice that middle aged woman to my right who ignored my nod of greeting feels familiar. I mean we’re all just shadows of shadows here, but I envision some hot piece I took up with in my Red or Orange time. Maybe in both. No, it was Red.

Italian girl? No, Russian, I think. I see me in a leather jacket and I feel something hard between my upper arm and chest. And secrets. I remember secret things and my photos in little books. Different languages and different colored books, And each one, a different name, like I have each time I press one of these damn buttons.

Wait, I recognize that squint-eyed expression of resentment. I recall meeting her in a bar in Moscow. A hooker? That damned testosterone again, but I’m looking for happiness even if my job is kind of dangerous. Yeah, hotel room. Pushed up against the door, my hand cupping her ass, her hand unbuttoning my shirt and her other hand…the red and yellow flash in my face from a pistol.

What the hell did I do to you, sladkaya. Yeah, sweetheart, you! Wait, I know Russian?

The elderly guy in the back, I’ve seen that aura before. Sorrow. Watch, he’ll push Orange. There are those eyes again. I’m lying down, looking up into those eyes. Definitely Italian, I’m sure. Been here a long time and it hasn’t been much fun. The flash of the welding torches and riveting. I hear clanging steel plates and watching the ships roll off the rails into the harbor.

Fights. Screaming matches with this woman. Married and Catholic. Maria or Teresa. Yeah. Mi cara, Yeah, as if.

What are all these wires and hoses? Beeping and disembodied voices. Weak, feeling weak.

I don’t like her. Something’s not right. Smell alcohol, disinfectant.

“You just don’t know enough to give up, do you?” she says.

I can’t answer. Something’s stuck in my throat. Those eyes, brown but burning, burning in my chest. Can’t breathe. Bells and horns all around, can’t breathe, gasping, no air, those eyes, angry but somewhat…not relieved, happy. Peaceful? The light again, that yellow light. I close my eyes.

The elevator doors shut again and I’m left here alone. Haven’t pushed a button yet.

“Ahem,” I hear behind me. I open my eyes and turn.

Female, look of been-there-done-that resignation on her, like she, too, had smushed the four other buttons before and was sure she was headed toward Happiness. We’ve let the others get off at their potential Edens, Nirvanas, Asgaards. We look at one another but it doesn’t feel like the first time.

“Where you been?” I asked.

“Everywhere but Yellow,” she said.

“Me, too,” I said.

She stared into my eyes like she was looking for something.

“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” she says. “You stood here just like I did and watched them all hop off. You’re never sure about what will make you happy until you’ve experienced it, do you? I remember how it was when I pushed There.”

She pointed and sighed a nice sigh, not sad or sorrowful, but really kind of a memorable exhalation of contentment. It sounded so familiar.

I put my arm around her shoulder, maybe even fatherly, and said, “We’ve been there before, I know. But what about…”

Warm, that shoulder, buzzy and fuzzy like a sweater under my touch. Familiar, definitely not fatherly.

She hugs me close and stares right into me again and this soft look that matched her sigh comes over her. We’re close enough that our chests move against one another in a harmony I hadn’t felt since..well, since..

I take her hand in mine and we nod to one another, sure we’ve made the right decision, no hesitance, no remembering yellow lights, yellow flames, yellow anything. Yellow has been staring at us all this time.

Together, we push Blue and, sure enough, we’re There again.

Only this time I’m not letting go.

Supposed to write a story in my favorite voice. Well, that could mean ten different tones on ten different days. Hard boiled, gritty city voice, romantic poet voice, Old West voice, warrior voice, kid’s voice…you get the picture. But, if push comes to shove, I’m told this is as “Joe’s voice” a story as you’ll read. It’s a mildly revised favorite of my old writing group, along with a handful of other tales I might share with the world someday. You know, when I push that blue button again.

Some Hermits Call It Home

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I know a man, we call each other
Friend, who also calls himself Hermit.
In truth, he does live almost alone,
save for his dogs and
the glowing, dusty, snowy,
piercing beauty of his mountains.
He is content there in the wide open,
greeting the sun each day, Inviting
it in and sharing it through his third eye.
I know a man who some call Hermit,
who resides in the suburbs, so close
to the whirrings of highway and flyway
that they’d awaken him, if he would listen.
But he doesn’t even hear.

This one hides in the cut of stone
behind his eyes and burrows within
the shadowy side of his heart.
He throws rocks when you try
to get close, and struggles to bring
himself out of the dark to perceive
the dawn in life shining on all his good——
people, accomplishments, memories, joy——
that surround him like those mountains
embrace the friend he never met,
the one who calls himself Hermit,
who loves the world and it loves him back.
Perhaps, one day, the second one might
emerge to embrace your bright love, but
first he must learn to love himself.

The Siesta

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The Afternoon Siesta 1889 Vincent Van Gogh

In the still oven-like shade of a stack of wheat here in this field outside Arles, Louisa and I lie in a midday siesta. Meanwhile, my Maitane is home, heavy with our first child.

When Maitane arrived from up in Donostia, I wished my love welcome to this blazing Purgatario, this stopover on our journey from Infernu to blessed Zeruko. Or perhaps to our own farm in the dreamy someday of a siesta.

“That is why I have come to be with you, Josu,” Maitane whispered as she laid her head upon my chest, disregarding the sweat-drenched shirt and all-too-quick drowsing. “If you are on such a journey, I do not wish to be separated from you another day. Such an adventure we shall share together. What God has joined together…”

“Yes, Maitane, we will chase this dream together, stopping here in this Purgatario of Provence on our way. It is much like the fable the brown-robed fathers taught us about the comforts of the Afterlife. Such tales and such an afterlife are mere myth, no more. But I suppose a myth is better than nothing. Yes?” I said.

“For me, my love, Heaven will forever be in your arms, no matter where they are, no matter what task they do,” Maitane said, smiling with drowsy eyes, herself.

I never wished to leave my family in the Basque country to the northwest, but times there had been harder than I can remember. The sheep were dying, as if being sacrificed on an altar of grassless fields.

“I shall find us a place to keep us whole if it takes moving halfway around the world to find it, Maitane,” I told her back in our town. It turned out all I needed to travel was only halfway across France, which was not Heaven, though beautiful nonetheless.

The red-haired painter from Holland who I befriended in a cafe one night offered to have his lover, the whore Sien, provide me with similar companionship.

“Vincent,” I said, “I have not yet reached that state of desperation, though I bid you thanks.” I put him off for a week, when one night I drunkenly fell from a cafe stool and somehow to a bed in a room of blue into the arms of a girl who smelled of the fields of lavender where she worked as well.

“Well, my friend, was she not an angel to warm your body and cool your buried desires?” Vincent said. Blushing, I nodded.

That night I wrote Maitane and told her to come here to be with me, because I couldn’t bear anymore her absence from my arms. My dreams of her were not enough.

Vincent laughed when I told him what I did.

“You have the soul of a cleric, though from what Louisa told Sien, the ardor of three bulls in the rut,” he said. “I believe Louisa may have fallen for you in but one night of passion, my friend. Shall I give her the news of your return to the celibacy of the marital bed from here forward?”

I chose not to admit how heavenly I felt after our time together, Louisa’s and mine. To do so would be to sink further into the abyss I see Vincent sliding into. He is a good man, though with frightening eyes that see all, but in a way only he can see it.

When I received Maitane’s reply that she would be coming to me in Arles, I was both thrilled and worried. That was because I had become almost as enamored of Louisa as she of me, even though I still left a sous behind as tribute to her sharing her precious body with this Basque farm boy.

And so I still reside in this purgatory between two angels and the hell into which I have thrown myself and don’t wish to escape, despite the pain it brings me. It is much like this shade within which I lie with Louisa. Out of the sun yet still burning with heat. And she still smells of lavender.

Meanwhile, Vincent stares with his devilish and brilliant all-seeing eyes and chronicles my sins upon his flaming canvas, hopefully not capturing them like hell, for an eternity.

Perhaps a Heaven really is just over that hill where the sun sleeps with tomorrow. For now, though, I will find it sleeping with my angels, gifts like cool rain dropped from the clouds. They comfort my dreams with their bodies as I hold them to mine.

Our couplings are prayers for the rest of my journey, where, without fear, I test the truths of Purgatario and Zeruko, because heriotza, death, my inevitable end, is just another fork in this road.