Taking Flight from Nogales

Feather I, A Study in Contrasts © Joseph A. Hesch 2016

Feather I, A Study in Contrasts
© Joseph A. Hesch 2016

“A What. It’s a Whats-it. Hell, I’m not a hundred-percent certain what nature of critter it is,” Wade Blanton said, as he wiped sweat from inside the band of his salt-ringed, sun-yellow sombrero.

My compadre Shug Coffey whistled and clucked as he knelt and stuck his finger within the diamonds of the chicken-wire enclosure behind Blanton’s cantina outside Nogales. No one was quite sure if this Nogales was in Arizona Territory or Estado de Sonora, Mexico, but it didn’t make a whole much of a difference back in those days.

Shug, still poking into the enclosure, captivated by Blanton’s prize, whispered, “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it, even in pitchers.”

“Careful there, pardner,” Blanton said. “I’m not sure or not if it bites. And when I sto…I mean procured it from the late Padre Robledo, may he rest in peace, I was kinda in too much of a hurry to IN-quire.”

Shug jerked back his finger, letting his breath out in a low whistle again as he stared inside the fence at the swan-winged creature chained to the hard-packed Sonoran Dessert sand.

For Most of the time we stood and gaped at the wondrous thing, it’d had its head tucked beneath the natural shade of its white wings. For a second or two, though, it peered out at us and looked so serene and resigned to its situation, I about cried. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I turned and gave Blanton the eye.

“So you say the good Padre died? Wonder how he’d come by such a treasure. I thought those Brown Robes took some sort of vows of mortification and poverty. Poor bastard couldn’t even touch his wick, let alone get it wet. Know that’d kill me. And he couldn’t own much but what he could throw on his back. What was he doin’ with this grand and valuable beast?” I said.

“He never did say. But I’m sure his Papist heart was grateful to the good Lord Jesus n’ me for my takin’ it off his hands and greasing his way to a swift and doubtless non-stop ride to his glorious eternal reward. Let’s just say I was an agent for good, rescuin’ him from any future of fleshy temptation and gold-janglin’ sin,” Blanton said.

He was sweating like four whores in church while he spoke and his eyes was looking everywhere but at me as he preached his message of aid for his brother man’s spiritual and physical salvation.

“Yeah, Gabe,” Shug turned and said to me. “I heard them old Francisos whip on themselves in their private moments and string barb-wire round their leg so’s to fight off the dark temptress of desire and depredation.”

“Ahem. Gentlemen, we white folk out here are gonna melt like church candles in this sun if y’all don’t shit or get off the pot on our deal,” Blanton said. His once roaming eyes now bore down on Shug. My compañero believed his future and that of his saloon-gambling hall-whore house hinged on bringing this amazing critter back to El Paso.

He walked to his horse, fished in the saddle bags and returned with a pair of leather sacks in his hands. He knelt down one more time and I thought for a second he was going to ask Blanton to open the critter’s mouth so’s he could check its teeth, for Shug was known as a shrewd judge of beasts. Just not beasts of the air.

One more time, the Whats-it poked out its head. Only this time it gave its wings a good shake, loosing one of its feathers, which landed outside the little wire corral. I picked it up and pocketed it, maybe for luck.

“Well, Coffey? I got other anxious buyers coming by tonight. I don’t feel like waiting. What do you say?” Blanton said. I couldn’t tell from his dry words coming from his dry mouth if he was bluffing or not.

Shug sighed, pushing in all his chips,you might say, and mumbled, “All right, all right, I’ll take it.”

“Splendid. I’ll have my men wrap him up for you once their siestas are over,” Blanton said, opening the sacks and silently counting his profit as he returned to the shade of his cantina. I reckoned his fast-money, world-be-damned business practices might grease his way somewhere, someday, too, like maybe the Territorial Prison in Yuma. That is, as I said, if we were in Arizona. If we were in Sonora, his bullyin’ gringo ways would slide him into the ground, I hope near the good Padre Robledo.

“You drive the devil’s own bargain, Blanton” Shug said, “and I pray all this trouble was worth it. Though I still say three thousand pesos seems an awful steep price…even for a angel.”

This is the short story based on my photo used this week for Annie’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge prompt. I’m illustrating this story by using my original photo from which I made Sharyl Fuller’s close-up prompt version. This is a revised, broadened version (a second draft, which I almost never do) of an old Five-Sentence Fiction piece I wrote years ago. 

The Feather ~ A Study in Contrasts

Feather, A Study in Contrasts © Joseph A. Hesch 2016

Feather II, A Study in Contrasts
© Joseph A. Hesch  2016

The blacktop was running a fever I
felt through my shoes, infected by
tossed cigarette butts, wads of gum
and mouthfuls of disrespect hawked
into its face. I feel your pain,
I thought, adding my hundred-eighty pounds
of self-effacing injury to those insults.
It was then I spotted a feather of gray
and white left by another head-in-the-clouds
drifter in these hinterland parking lots.
Once it soared to dreamy heights over
ocean waters, the agent of ascension for
some living cross silhouetted against the sky.
Now it lies in this parking lot, lost to
the heavens, ground-bound in its new
home with castoffs and garbage bins,
flitting among SUVs and shopping carts.

Yet still it held a dignity, an inherent
natural symmetry, a razor-sharp edge,
yet with a gossamer touch mitigating
the unyielding black to its back and
gracing with a soft balance its undeserving
surrounding bleakness. I bent to touch
this ethereal gift and its caress cured me
of my fever, the one acquired from my
low flights through this world’s
crassness and decay. Now it’s my source
of soaring visions, a quill expressing
the ink from my pen and my soul.

A rather longish poem (for me), based upon the photograph by this writer, offered as a prompt by my friend Sharyl Fuller and her weekly Writing Outside the Lines Challenge. It’s true. I did find this feather on the ground as I exited the SUV at a Home Depot this weekend. It inspired me then, so I took three photos of it and posted them online. Inspired “Annie,” too. Next, a redrafting of an old story of mine for a prose piece inspired by a feather like this.

Sundays at the Table

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As day pulls back its rooftop bedclothes,
it awakens the maples out my window.
Their gray skins become silver
as knives and forks upon a spring green
damask tablecloth, as if set for Sunday dinner.
I’d trudge to such weekly repasts,
poked around overcooked roast and
wallpaper paste gravy, feasted only my eyes
on the sheen of the slices of briny corned beef,
passed along the bowl of gray flannel cabbage.
Each member of the little family group sat
in his or her prescribed chair around the table.
For decades, never would there be a change
in those arrangements, until eventually the family
dwindled, piece by sloppy piece, like
the dessert pie in its glass baking dish.
The sun’s up for it’s dewy breakfast now
and I have to take my current creaking trudge
to breakfast for two. Instead of eggs and
toast, though, this morning I think I want pie.

Losing Time

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Hand Holding a Scroll by Ruby McQuesten

Time is such a malleable thing, capable of stretching longer than the ten minutes prior to a young boy’s recess bell or shorter than the life pondered by the man three breaths from oblivion.And so it goes with the stretch of she and he, him and her, these two and that pair. Doesn’t matter who. It seems like yesterday we met, but you’d say not long enough since Goodbye. You can mold the passage of those years any way you wish. But I no longer can. Time’s once-springy nature’s grown crusty, dry, fragmenting like crumbs, sifting from my grasp. I wish I could make it stop before all I’ve left is some vacant Now. It’s erased yesterdays but still paints masterpieces of an instant from decades ago. Then they go black. Today, I took that ebon ink and walked it across the remaining scroll of my once-to-now, circling numbers, sketching memories. It isn’t stretchy, but it’s long. I can’t shrink it, but I can roll it tightly, keep it close. It’ll have to do until that final recess bell peals and you can count my breaths while I relive the life I’ve clutched in my fist.

A Thousand Miles Nowhere

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It didn’t begin well, that journey
of a thousand miles, its first step halting,
the heel dragging, the knees knocking.
The first day was its last, best day.
Oh, maybe the sun shone upon it down
the trail, when that fruit tree bloomed
and its blossom staggered everyone,
not just the lost travelers.

That blossom pushed forth a stunning
hybrid of the best of its strings of life,
twisted gyres of things I cannot spell
nor speak. But I know when they
neatly tie a bow so perfect you don’t
wish to open the present it secures
from prying eyes, yet still entices you
to set it free. Perhaps to see it fly.

I worry about the day when this fruit
unties itself from its tree. Will it
have been cultivated with care to
its potential perfection, not ignored
and grown over-ripe, rotting from
the ignorance of some failed husbandman
who knows only what he thinks he knows?
What he doesn’t know is what he’s missing

Whispers on an April Morning Breeze

“What if the world is holding its breath —
waiting for you to take the place that only you can fill?”
David Whyte

batalla de lexington

The standoff had not gone on for long, just after the sun began coming up over the meeting house, the far steeples of Boston and the ocean between us and who we wanted to be.

But the Regulars didn’t care if it was day or night. They could kill us with their eyes closed, if their commander, or we, let them.

A few hours before, most all of us were in the Buckman Publick House, drinking ale and rum, some smoking pipes. The rest of us, mostly lads like me, got our first real tastes of adult courage off the drink, the smoke and the rhetoric of our elders that night.

“Gentlemen, let there be no great fear of the regulars should they enter our town,” said Captain Parker, his own red coat hanging from the back of a chair. “We shall stand our ground and show them our resolve to hold onto what is rightly ours as lawful citizens of His Majesty,” he whispered and then coughed.

The Captain has the consumption, I’m told by Mother, his cousin, so all the smoke in the room from the hearth and the men’s pipes harmed his breathing quite sorely. That and his harsh coughs practically choked the great man, making him difficult to hear. So I edged up close to him. That seemed to make me feel braver. He’d fought for the Crown in the late war against the French and knew well the tactics and propensities of the Redcoat soldier. If he didn’t sound like he would die by next harvest, I would have had a run at Gage’s whole bloody army by myself.

At sunrise, Thaddeus Bowman, the last scout the Captain had sent out, come bursting into the tavern.

“They’re here, they’re here,” he said in a voice nearly as choked as Captain Parker’s, though not from the consumption. “They’re right behind me, Sir, and this time they are coming in force. Maybe three, four hundred of ‘em,” I heard him tell the Captain. I grabbed my Papa’s old fowler and headed for the door.

About half of us unknotted ourselves from the doorway and ran out into the front yard of the tavern. Everything had an eerie glow to it, ourselves included, from the combined moon’s and sun’s lights shining upon us. I took this as an omen of what lay ahead for us this day and said to my cousin Amos, “The Lord is with us, cuz. He most surely is. We have right on our side and will not be bullied from our own field by redcoated tavern scum.”

The fact that our whole company had spent the night in a tavern, many tasting its wares, and were blinking in the new day’s smoldering light, suddenly arose upon me and I’m sure my face took on a wholly different glow, the hue of a boiled lobster.

All eighty of us men and boys who had been in the tavern began to form ranks on the village common. It was a damned ragged line compared to the ones of the approaching Regulars. They looked like they had been formed buy some great carpenter’s square. We, while most resolute, took on the form of a snake-rail fence.

Over by the road, I could see my grandfather and sister out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look and wave a greeting, but our sergeant, William Munro, gave me a strike from his musket barrel and whispered hot blasphemy and spit in my red ear. But now Grandfather and Deliverance could see where I stood.

Captain Parker walked down our column and looked like Grandfather when he had to dispatch poor old Benedict, his sorrel, when the gelding’s time had come. This did knock all those mugs of my previous courage from my head past my heart and from there to my feet.

“Men, we shall stand our ground, but not provoke the Regulars. Most of our militias’ powder and supplies at Concord have already been safely hidden away,” Captain Parker said. “We’ve all seen the Regulars on such fishing expeditions before. Once they find nothing, they will march back to Boston and we can get back to our lives until the next time.”

Sergeant Munro stalked up and down our lines out there on the Common, truing us up into a more respectable looking force.

“We’re not here to block their advance to Concord, lads,” he said. “We’re just going to show them we shall not be cowed by their brutish arrogance. And to insure we do that to our best abilities, I want you, boy, to move to the rear of our lines. Or better yet, across the road to your family. You are at heart a coward. You have no character and don’t deserve to stand with these honorable men.”

Mister Munro never did have much truck with me. Not since he caught me talking to his daughter, Abigail, behind the Meeting House without an adult family member within arm’s length. He pushed me backwards with the butt of his musket, but I just lined up behind Prince, the Estabrooks’ towering Negro, where he stood in the back row.

Now that Sergeant Munro had squared us up, I could peer through the gaps between men and see the Redcoats approach, their leader riding a fine black.

The sun had climbed high enough for us to see the Regulars advancing on the road to Concord now. They marched as one, dully, with little life to their strides and less to those faces we could make out. They looked for all the world like they were marching in their sleep, their shoes and gaiters caked with drying mud. The only liveliness to this red mass on the road to Concord were their drumbeats, the clinking metal of their equipment and the glint of dawn light on their buttons and weapons.

I felt a chill beyond the normal cold of an April morning and shivered as I stood with Papa’s fowler in my hands. I’d loaded it yesterday with birdshot and a ball, reckoning, if need be, my aim was poor with the rifle ball, I’d at least get a piece of one of the Regulars like he was a pheasant. Instinctively, I pulled the hammer to half-cock. My knees shook and I knew not if it was a shiver from that chill or from something I didn’t wish to admit. Perhaps Munro was right after all. Maybe I was a coward.

But I held my ground. I would not let Munro or the Redcoats run me off. No more.

Just as the wind shifted into our faces, Captain Parker raised his short sword and his rasp wafted over us, saying something like, ”Stand your ground, men. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Or so Amos told me later.

I heard another click.

A murmur went through the men ahead of me. Out on the road, the column’s advance guard, rather than taking the left fork to Concord, turned to right and then toward us. I could hear the shouted orders run down their column. I saw the big black horse of their commander turn from the road, leading even more Regulars to the left, close enough for me to throw a rock and hit one. They now formed a solid wall of red before our motley line of farmers and tradesmen.

The officer on the black then rode forward, waving his sword, and called out for us disperse. On the breeze I heard him shout, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!”

More orders were yelled down the lines of Regulars. Men within our company began to look at one another, talking all at once. The line looked like it was a row of rye waving in that breeze in our faces.

I could see our Captain Parker say something. I could barely hear his voice, it was now so faint. He lowered his sword and pointed it to the ground. Many in the front line began to back away from the regulars, others stood in alert position as if waiting for someone to say something like an order, show them what to do beside stand as statues.

At the shout of “Poise firelocks,” the Redcoats brought their muskets, bayonets shining in threat at their muzzles, to a position upright in front of them. Most of our men stood stock still.

Next across from us we heard, “Cock firelocks,” and saw the mounted officer shouting at his men and waving his sword, as angry at them as at us. Our line held as Captain Parker shouted in his consumptive whisper.

The breeze died and suddenly the whole world went quiet as the grave. Neither side appeared like it was going to move and no one wanted to stay. Sergeant Munro had left his position at the left end of our first rank. He walked back from the killing ground between the lines and came trotting toward the road with a fearful look as he stared right past me. I, the coward who couldn’t stand like a man to request permission to speak with his daughter. I, the boy who he wished was standing on the other side of the Boston Road.

I took a deep breath and let it out. This impasse between us all would end today.

I touched off my fowler over his head and watched Munro drop to the ground as if he was a baby cowering from a thunderstorm. Or he thought himself dead. Almost instantly there came a roar of a different kind. Red coated men advanced like lions, growling and howling like wild beasts, some firing their muskets. All of them thrusting forward their bayonets.

Some of our men fell like empty grain sacks where they stood, huge holes in their heads and bodies. Others spun like tops, choking on blood and prayers.

We ran for the trees, over rock walls and newly blossoming shrubs. More fell around me. Behind me all I could see was a cloud of sulfurous smoke with glimpses of shadow men, some in pink coats, and shiny metal within. But I could hear the screams of men so unluckily slow as to taste the steel of Sheffield, and not on their tongues.

Ahead lie the road to Concord, along which I last hunted turkey. That day, April 19, 1775, I hunted my fellow man. That night, I wept, my head upon Mother’s lap, and then gathered my things and marched toward Boston.

No one ever again thought me a coward, even though I don’t believe I took another full breath for the next six years. Not at Breed’s, Quebec, Valcour, Saratoga nor any other of the horrible places I never spoke of to Abigail Munro, who became my wife and the mother of our eight children.

They never met their grandfather, but know he was there with their father the day the War for Independence began. That was the day his war ended and I began ours.

First draft of a short story based upon that quote at the top of the page. I wrote it this evening for Annie’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.

With My Last Breath

Doré_-_Styx

Life in this world won’t wait.
It doesn’t care if you wish
to stand on the sidewalk
and watch, or step out
among the passing parade.
It’s a river that will not
cease movement and is known
to overflow its curb stone
banks and sweep away those
who stroll unaware of its
Great Flood seeking to drown
us all beneath its breathless
Babel of false gods,
its phony prophets,
its fake kings and
blustering blowhards,
the flotsam floating by
all with fists clenched,
grasping hands
and siren songs.
I ignore them, my deafness
selective and insouciance insolent.
They can all go to hell.
I’m sure to fall in one day,
but it’ll be in my own time,
on my terms and mine alone,
dropping into my own place,
with my final exhalation.
I’ll be warning the world it
had better make some damn room.

A quickly penned poem inspired (admittedly quite obliquely) by the following quote offered by my friend Sharyl Fuller for this week’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.

“What if the world is holding its breath — waiting for you to take the place that only you can fill?”  ~ David Whyte