Black, Two Sugars, Shhh…

“Why do you do that?” my girlfriend Sara asked.

“Do what?” I said, since I am a simple man.

“Why do you insist on using that cup every day? Even after you’ve washed it, it’s still a stained mess,” she said.

“Because,” I said, since I am a simple man and she probably wouldn’t appreciate my mansplaining.

“And that’s it? Because? What the heck does that even mean?”

“It means it’s more important to me than some shiny new cup. I’ve had this cup for twenty-some years,“ I said.

I stared into the coffee, black as the nights in the Arma Mountains, when to make any sound would offer Taliban fighters enough intel to blow you away, or even five of your buddies.

I was about to take a sip when Sara noticed more of the interior of the cup.

“I mean, look at that. It’s so scratched and stained, I don’t know what to say except ‘Why?’” Sara said. I’m sure she was just trying to plumb the depths of my male mind.

She was right, though. Its interior wore the dark scratches where thousands of turns of a spoon or field knife had stirred two sugars into it. If we had sugar.

Finally, I took a sip of my coffee and it scalded my tongue. Again.

“Damn it, Sara. I keep it because it’s important.”

“Gahhh,” Sara huffed and stalked away.

“If only…if I had held my tongue,” I thought. With Sara, too, for that matter.

Wrote this 250-words of less story for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads feature. I was supposed to use the phrase “if I had held my tongue” anywhere in it.  Oh, and somehow think of a wee story in which to place it.  No idea where it came from.

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All The World Was His Stage

Will always got a perfect mark from his favorite professor. I don’t begrudge him his success. He came from pretty tough circumstances. First of his family to go to college, small rural high school and all.

Okay, I kind of resent the fact that Will Shakespeare got a reputation as “the most inventive and gifted writer our English Department has ever produced” according to a college newsletter to alums and donors.. 

Will was a nice enough guy. Quite friendly and very well-spoken. We hit it off our first week at a dorm mixer. I’d say he over-compensated for his farm boy upbringing by walking around like he was strutting on stage or something, but it did get the attention he craved. 

“Christine, I understand you write poetry,” he said as he swept up to me.

“Uh huh,” I said. “Been lucky enough to have a few things published. But I want to be a doctor, so the artist side of me will have to take a bit of a hiatus, I guess.”

“Wow, I’d love to have my words published one day. See some of my stories turned into plays, movies or even video games. Would you like to read some of them?” Will said.

“Sure,” I said. They were pretty bad. 

After that, Will was always hanging around my room. That is, if he wasn’t sucking up to the head of the English Department. 

Will made sure we always sat together in our Freshman Composition class. Soon it became, “Christine, I’m having trouble with this poem.” “Chrissie, how can I straighten out this essay?” “Chris, can you fix this story for me, pleeeeze?”

And, for whatever reason, I would help him. That more often than not, ended up with me putting aside my Organic Chem or Spanish 3 and essentially rewriting his work.

“What do you think of this?” he’d say.

“Will, you saw that on TV just last night.”

“So, it was a good story.”

“Yes, but you have to switch it up, give it a different slant, change the characters and setting, and puh-leeeze stop writing ‘should of’ when it’s ‘should HAVE.”

“Show me,” he’d say.

He was very sweet. Handsome in a gentle, long-haired, softly goateed way. I loved how he’d massage my shoulders while I turned his chicken shit prose into Chicken Kiev for Professor Kaplan. He’d enter my room with a flair, never wander in, always a grand entrance. 

And I loved how he’d softly compliment my hair, my nails, my new bedspread, the photos I’d taken from my trips to Europe and California. Oh, and my clothes, always my clothes.

He’d wear those skinny jeans with nice buttoned shirts that bordered on something from Forever 21. He even asked if he could borrow one of my peasant-sleeved blouses more than once. He was pretty skinny and could get away with wearing a size 10 or a medium. Just like me.

Next thing I know, he’s borrowed (stolen) a pair of my leggings and he’s wearing them around campus under a pair of workout shorts. As I said, he was pretty skinny and about as unathletic as a combined English/Theatre major could be 

“Will, I want my clothes back,” I told him.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Chrissie. I thought I’d try that look. Nathan loved it and he gave me a pair of his running tights to wear instead — more colorful than plain black. I’ll drop them off tomorrow.”

Nathan was Professor Kaplan. And tomorrow was never. Next thing I know, Will left school. His roommate told me he headed to New York with Kaplan to meet some of his old theatre buddies. Never came back. No note or a text or any kind of goodbye. When I got back to school for my senior year, I saw that alumni magazines with a photo of Will on the cover. It said he’d become a protegé of some writer-producer and had mounted his first off-Broadway play, which got great reviews from the New York papers.

I can’t remember if I cried the night I read that. Not that I should care what a skinny, femme, social-climbing, plagiarizing wanna-be Sam Shepard did with his life. I was headed to Duke Medical School, after all.

Will died recently. Nice obit in The Times. I was surprised when I received a letter at my Charlotte practice from a New York lawyer.

The Broadway whiz kid had mentioned me in his will. I was to receive his second Golden Globe, the one for that execrable movie that his last mentor had juiced the Hollywood Foreign Press to give him.

A second envelope, addressed in Will’s flourishing script was addressed it to me, Christine Marlowe. I pulled from it a note written by Will. No doubt. It read:

Good friend, for Christ’s sake listen,
Without you my career would sure be missin’
Thanks for always being there to save my ass,
And fuck those critics who doubted I had class.

Yeah, he always sucked as a writer. But the boy could act. Oh, how we loved that boy’s act.

This is a quickly penned response to a prompt from writer Julie Duffy. I needed the help. I was supposed to write a story of 750 words or less (FAIL!) featuring a character from history or mythology, but place them in a different era. I pulled this scribble out of my nether regions in about an hour. I know. Reads like our Will Shakespeare’s hideous “real” writing. I may try this again with someone else later.

Taken

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks.

In the evening she told me her name was Kahwihta. And when I asked how many in her basket, with what I figured was a universal kind of gesture, she held up two hands and shook all the fingers, then one hand with the thumb and first finger extended.

Tékeni iawén:re,” she said, which I guess meant a dozen.

“Well, now, that’s enough apples to make a fine pie,” I said. But I was sure flour and cinnamon were in short supply here near Ta-ra-jo-rees, the village of the Turtle Clan. I was camped on the south shore of their River Flowing Around the Mountain. We call it the Mohawk.

I’d been surveying there in the wilderness for three weeks. The geography was perfect for one supporting grazing and farming, which is what Mister Proctor, the land speculator, had sent me to assay.

Sir William Johnson, His Majesty’s agent among these people, had warned me off, lest I incur a deadly suspicion among his charges. I believe he was trying to keep this land for his own devices, since he has become almost one of the natives and keeps a Mohawk woman, who he calls his wife.

And if she looks anything like Kahwihta, I can understand why.

With what pieces of the language I’d learned, I said, “Konnòn:we’s,” which I think meant “I like you.” Since she dropped her head and giggled behind her hand, I surmised I must have said the right thing. So I reckoned I might as well try to be more like Johnson.

Kwah tokén:’en sén:ta’wh?” I said, which I believed meant to have a good sleep. I pointed at her and then to myself and then the soft fur robe on the floor of my tent.

Kahwihta giggled again and laid down, which surprised and encouraged me in a very fine manner. I was hoping the language of love was as universal as the poets say. I laid down next to her and pulled the robe over us. In the light from my campfire through the canvas, her skin glowed like polished bronze. 

Kahwihta turned toward me and repeated, “Kwah tokén:’en sén:ta’wh.” After that, I remember nothing of the night.

Next I know, I am waking, waking with this vicious pain behind my head, lying there in the open beneath the trees. My tent is gone, as well as my gun, powder and lead, surveying instruments, maps, ledgers, drawing tools, everything. Well, not quite everything.

I still had the clothes on my back and my knife. And there on the robe next to me were seven red apples. I surmised Kahwihta must have felt some remorse that probably one of her brothers entered the tent and tried to crush my skull with his warclub. That he failed was scant comfort in light of the bloody, swollen gash on the back of my head. 

I stumbled to my feet and felt a dizziness like I’d not known before. Thereafter I fell to my knees and spewed my previous day’s victuals on the ground next to me. 

I felt it wise to leave behind, in greatest haste, the village of Ta-ra-jo-rees as best I could, lest Kahwihta’s brothers returned to take my clothes and life, too. So I gathered up my robe, tying within it the seven apples of regret left by the comely Kahwihta. I then crawled on my hands and knees, like some beast of the wild, into the dense forest surrounding me.

It took me four days and every apple to reach Fort Hunter to the north by east. 

I should be quite grateful to Kahwihta, for I’m sure it was through her intercession that I am here today to tell my story of that verdant valley and the beautiful Mohawk girl. I blame myself, my arrogance and my poor language skills for all of this: my failed mission, the loss of my gun and the tools of my profession. and my near-death. 

You see, one of the old scouts at Fort Hunter told me what Kahwihta means in the Mohawk tongue. It means She Takes it With Her.

Indeed.

This story started out as a hoped-for 250-words or less piece of flash fiction for the weekly contest at Indies Unlimited website. But then, as usual, creative momentum and a too-long-dormant story-telling muscle went on a spree.  Yeah, it’s rough as a cob, but it’s just shy of 700 words, so it still qualifies as flash. And I feel better for having stuck with it.

The Golden Hour

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks.

Ed Bergen jumped from his chair in front of the television showing that political ad for the third time in the past half hour. 

“Damn, I missed The Golden Hour again,” he said, camera in hand as he ran to the patio door.

Looking up from her book, his wife Kate asked, “What’s The Golden Hour?”  

“It’s the time just before sunset, where daylight’s redder and softer than when the sun’s higher in the sky. It would’ve made all our leaves look like pure gold,” Ed replied with a crestfallen look.

“And this is important because…?”

“It’s important to a nature photographer like me, that’s all,” Ed said. He returned to his seat just as that other political ad, calling the previous one a pack of lies, appeared again. 

“I think it’s more important to the guy who still hasn’t raked up all those leaves out back. You said you were going to do it Saturday,” Kate said.

“And even more have fallen since then. So why should I do all that work twice when I can do it once if I wait?” Ed said as he muted the fourth showing of that first ad.

“Your logic stinks, Ansel Adams,” Kate said while she turned on the outside lights, turning the backyard into a golden wonderland.

“Adams worked in black and white.”

“I see.”

“It’s just not the same, Katie. You wouldn’t understand,” Ed said, flipping the channel. 

“Of course not, Eddie,” Kate said, switching off the lights.

Huzzah for Private Hutchinson

In his patched and soot-stained tent, Colonel Elihu Leslie, his arm draped over his eyes, heard the single muffled drum outside in the twilight.

“Oh, Lord, already?” he said, for he knew what was about to occur. Colonel Leslie arose from his cot, bumping into his field desk where the letter to his wife lay. He pulled up his braces, buttoned on his tunic and stepped outside just as the seven soldiers and a lieutenant were about to march past. He raised his hand and the twenty-two-year-old lieutenant called “Halt!”

“Good morning, sir,” said the pink-cheeked lieutenant, who a year before had clerked at his father’s mercantile in Columbus, Georgia. “Firing party ready to execute your command, Sir.”

Colonel Leslie returned the young officer’s salute and looked at the single soldier, his arms bound and his hands tied in front of his waist, standing between the two files of soldiers with rifles. In the gathering light, Leslie could see the young soldier’s eyes darting right and left, his entire body shaking as if they were back in the snow at Fredericksburg last December.

With a look of pity in his eyes, Colonel Leslie approached the man.

“Soldier, you do understand why you’re here, don’t you?” Colonel Leslie said.

“‘Cause I left my sentry post two nights ago, sir? But nothing bad happened. No Yankees or spies came through. I just needed some coffee to shake off the cold and keep me awake, sir. We been marching for three days straight an’ I ain’t slept since…”

“None of us have, son. But your comrades all managed to stay awake.”

“Yessir. But do that mean I have to die? I been with this army since the bells rang in Atlanta calling us all to defend Georgia and the Confederate states. Why do I have to die this way, sir? I’m a decent soldier,” the condemned man said.

“Son we do this because we have to. Military discipline and all that. But I feel you’re missing the point of this procedure. You shouldn’t look at this as punishment, but as your sacred duty,” the Colonel said in a flat tone.

“Sir, I don’t rightly understand. How’s me gettin’ shot by my own boys line up with my duty?”

“Private, the execution of deserters, and you are by definition a deserter, has been a tenet of strong military discipline since the time of Joshua, the time of the great Assyrian kings, why even the great legions of Rome knew that skirting their assigned duties was punishable by death,” the Colonel said, his voice rising and a crowd of soldiers beginning to mill around the firing party.

“Sir, I don’t know about no Legions from Rome, just a couple of fellers from elsewhere in Floyd County. The Benteen brothers. And I still don’t think I should be shot,” the soldier said.

Leslie bowed his head and smoothed his mustache with his fingers. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then put his hand on the condemned soldier’s shoulder.

“I see your point son, but let me explain some more about what you’ll be accomplishing today. You will not be dying because you left your post, leaving a section of our line without guard. No, you will be going to our Creator as a sign of your fealty to our Cause, protecting your home and family, since all these men here you’ll be leaving behind will see your demise and understand that such a fate awaits them, should they desert their comrades. That is a noble thing, son,” Leslie said.

“Really, sir?” the soldier said, his shoulders straightening and their shaking subsiding.

“Brave soldier, you will be laying down your life for your comrades, as much as if you fell with them in battle. Your name will be spoken of as the impetus of their never shirking their orders, never challenging the authority of their officers, nay, never giving an inch in retreat unless so ordered. Son, if I could, I would give you a medal for this brave act you’re about to commit,” Leslie said as he placed his hand on the soldier’s now-steady shoulder.

“I think I understand now, sir. I’m gonna die so my friends will be better soldiers, makin’ them better able to protect our state and country from the Yankee invaders.”

“Exactly, Private, Private, uh…”

“Hutchinson, sir. Ezra Hutch…”

“Private Hutchinson. Young warrior, I cannot salute you, but allow me to shake your hand, wish you Godspeed and send you on your way to obey your final orders,” the Colonel said.

“Yessir. Thank you, sir,” Hutchinson said, his bound hands clutching the Colonel’s hand. He squared his shoulders and stared straight ahead.

“Let’s get this over with, boys,” he said.

“Firing party, shoulder arms. Forward march,” the Lieutenant ordered. The small group marched down the remaining row of tents and through a treeline to a field outside of camp. About a hundred other soldiers who had witnessed Leslie and Hutchinson’s exchange followed in ranks as if marching on parade.

Leslie watched them until the last soldier disappeared behind the trees, then he reentered his tent and stared at the letter to his wife he had almost finished. He dipped his pen into his inkwell and scratched out a final sentence and signed it, “Your loving and devoted husband, Elihu.”

He unholstered the Navy Colt he had used during his days on the prairie with the 2nd US Cavalry before the war and sat on his cot. He thought of all the men he had ordered into the hail of steel and lead at battles for the past year and a half. Thought of his son, killed at Chancellorsville, who had thrilled at the chance to serve with his father, leading other young Georgians in battle against the Federals. He recalled his brother Josiah falling at his side at Gettysburg. He remembered a few of the faces and names, but the rest had become a blur, and that vexed him sorely for the past three weeks.

Leslie heard the volley of six Enfield rifles crack through the trees. There followed the cheers of one hundred men who had witnessed Private Ezra Hutchinson’s passing into the oblivion of a bastardized heroism of the Colonel’s own devise.

As the cheers echoed and faded, he carried out the last of the executions he’d ordered for that day, in that camp, in a war he never wanted to fight. In light of all his decisions, he knew his joining Private Hutchinson in honorable dishonor was an order he could never disobey.

Man, this was a long time coming. First draft, but it gives me a feeling of accomplishment I didn’t think I’d feel for some time. In any revision, I’m not sure if it would get bigger into a more full short story or pruned down into official flash fiction (1000 words or less) territory. I’m not going to worry about it. I’ve written us a story that feels like something different…and that’s a good thing. Be safe out there, erstwhile CSA friends!

The (Try Not) To Do List

1. Try not to think of them.
2. Try not to think of them so much.
3. Try not to think of them on weekends.
4. Try not to think of them in public.
5. Try not to think of them when you’re alone.
6. Try not to think of them in the rain.
7. Try not to think of them in the shower.
8. Try not to think of them when you try watching TV.
9. Try not to think of them when you try reading.
10. Try not to think of them when you look up at the sky.
11. Try not to think of them when you look down at the sidewalk.
12. Try not to think of them while eating.
13. Try not to think of them when you can’t eat a bite.
14. Try not to think of them while you’re writing.
15. Try not to think of them while sitting in front of a blank screen.
16. Try not to think of them even though you know you can’t.
17. Try not to think of them when they’re all you can think of.
18. Try not to think of them at all.
19. Try not to think of them.
20. Try not to think.
21. Try not to.
22. Try.
23. Cry.

Today is the first day of the month I’m trying to write a story a day with Julie Duffy and her Story-a-Day folks. The first prompt was to write a story made from a list. I did one a few years ago about my last day of working and first day of retirement. I was stuck because I’m in a rough emotional patch right now. A month and a half ago my oldest and closest friend died. On Thursday his wife called me to see how I’m doing. Not well. Then today I watched Meghan McCain eulogize her father and my sister-in-law posted a photo of my youngest brother’s grave on another holiday without him. Let’s say my emotional scab has been ripped again. And so I wrote this story. It’s funny (not in a ha ha way) how sometimes you realize the love you had for people only when you lose them. Or maybe you realize how much they loved you. And you can’t stop thinking about that for a month and a half or years and years. So you do your best to get by with the thought of them always there next to your consciousness in your head and heart. And sometimes you just cry.

Making Faces

Photo by Scott Webb

Otto Schneider worked to the natural music of the wind off the Baltic. Since the war, it became a more pronounced tune as it hummed and whistled through the ruins of what once was the Prora Kamp resort on Rügen Island.

It wasn’t quite the Strauss symphonies or accordions and brass of the folk bands the Nazis would pump through the speakers up and down the island, but it served its purpose as musical accompaniment for his efforts as well as it did for theirs. 

He recalled how Hitler’s “Strength Through Joy” organizers came to the island and told locals like Otto how they would build their spare hotels in an effort to provide affordable vacation space for the average German worker. 

“Every working German deserves a day at the beach,” they told Otto and his neighbors. So he and other local business owners quickly mobilized their meager concerns to support the coming throngs seeking a seaside holiday from their smoky factory towns, the packed cities and boring farms. 

His oldest son, young Otto, and the younger boy, Kurt, became his second pair of craftsman’s hands, carving little boats, guns and doll heads, doubling his production of those toys. His wife Magda and older daughter Maria, sewed the little outfits for the dolls. In addition to the carving, Otto painted the faces of the dolls, giving them life and a certain sparkling magic that rivaled the sunlight on the waves of the Baltic.

“How do you do that, Father?” his youngest daughter Dorothea would ask as she watched every step of her father turning blocks of wood into lively kindchen and frauleins. “It’s like magic.”

“It is, in a way, Dotte,” Otto would say. “And perhaps one day you will make such magic, turning the plain into the amazing.”

“Really, Father,” she would say. “When?”

“In time, liebchen. When you a get just a little older and the Kamp opens.”

“I will make dolls magical, Father. Just you wait and see.”

But the Prora Kamp never opened. It’s building slowed as Strength Through Joy became superseded by the Aufrüstung rearmament. And by 1939 young Otto left Rügen Island to become part of the Wehrmacht, followed in two years by Kurt.

“Otto!” Magda screamed in her sleep one night in December of 1942. 

“What, my darling? I’m here.”

“No, Papa, our Otto, our boy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s gone, I just know it,” Magda said, burying her head into her husband’s chest and sobbing.

“How do you know that, Magda. The last word we had, he was safely in reserve of the major armies. Here, you just rest upon me and go back to sleep. I’m sure you’ve had the fright of any mother of a soldier.” 

“He’s dead, Otto. Our boy is dead,” Magda said and quietly cried for the rest of the night.

The word came to the island two months later. Otto died that winter night of 1942 outside Stalingrad. 

Meanwhile, Otto kept making his dolls. 

Magda never was the same. Maria left Rügen Island to be near her fiancé’s family in Dresden in summer of 1943. Then letters stopped coming home from Kurt after the Allied invasion of France in 1944. He became just another German soldier who disappeared without a trace.

With the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, Magda’s heart finally gave out. Dorothea found her mother at her sewing machine where she had been mending and old dress of Maria’s for her younger daughter.

“Father, what will we do? It is only you and I left. No one is ever coming to this stupid island on holiday. There’s never going to be another holiday. There are no men, no husbands, no fathers. There will be no ladies and children coming to this ghost Kamp sitting on the shore,” Dorothea said. 

“We will do as we always have, Dotte. We will make or toys, give magic to our dolls, bring them to life. Someday, I know not when, the people will come back and our lives will be better. Look how well you can paint the dolls’ faces now. You have become better than I at giving them their special magic,” Otto said as he held up the spectacularly painted head of a doll Otto had carved the day before.

“Father, this a waste of our time. We must leave Germany. Perhaps to America. That is where the future lies, even for toymakers and their daughters.”

“Don’t be silly, Dorothea. What could we do there? I am an Old World craftsman. Americans have no need for that skill. And you are only seventeen. Who would hire a girl whose only skill is painting doll faces? No, we’re staying here,” Otto said with finality, taking Dorothea’s latest creation back into his shop.

“I will not sit here waiting for something to happen that never will like you, Father. I will not die here like Mother, waiting for someone to come back here that I know never will. I will go to America and make a new life for myself,” Dorothea said. But her father didn’t hear her. He only hummed along with the winds coming off the Baltic.

Otto was sure Dorothea would always be what he was, what his father had been and his father before him. She was a Schneider and that’s what Schneiders did.

Five years later, as she just finished painting the magical face on another of her dolls, Dot Snyder felt a chill as she thought of the man who had taught her the skill she now used to make a living in America. And she knew, she just knew as her mother knew, that Otto was gone.

But before she could give it another thought, one of her dolls called her from across the dressing room at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

“Dot, can you fix my face?” she said.

“Coming, Dolly. Can’t let you go out there without your magic, can we?” Otto Schneider’s daughter replied.

Here’s the final story from my Six Weeks, Six Senses project in concert with prompts from Canadian writer and teacher Sarah Salecky. This final week was to write about a sixth sense — the magic of intuition. I had a choice of photos to help guide me in terms of a character, a setting and an object. I write this today while crippled up with a painfully messed up back. Been down with it since Saturday. But I had to do this, even if I didn’t feel like it, or even feel like I could or not. So here you go. The story is a first draft flash fiction that may or may not grow up or grow better. But it grew. Thanks, Sarah.