Our Side of the Fence

“Can I touch one, Mama?” Cody asked.

“I don’t know if that would be wise,” I told her as I pushed the hair back from her eyes.

“But she’s so beautiful. Look how the wind blows her hair just like mine.”

I looked them over, watching how they moved around the enclosure and finally said, “We don’t know if we can trust how tame they are. There’s a good reason they’re behind this four-wire fence. I’ve heard the mothers can be pretty protective of their babies.”

“Pleeeze, can’t I just once? I’ll be careful,” Cody pleaded in that whiney way of hers. I noticed her edging closer to the fence, just as one of the colts ambled nearer to us.

“Cody, I said wait. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. It’s like we’re from different planets, far from home. Lord knows we are.”

I never liked it when we went on these summer trips, even when I was younger. I remember one year my cousin…

“Look, she likes me,” Cody said as she and one of the young ones reached through the fence for one another.

“Cody!” I screamed, just as the colt’s mother came running over. Both kids jumped and scratched themselves on the fence. The mare pushed her little one away favoring a cut on her floppy little white forehoof.

“See? And that’s why they keep them on the other side of the fence,” I told Cody as I licked the blood off her nose.

Here’s a tortured (and whinnied) 250-word first draft bit of flash fiction written for Cara Michaels’ #MondayMenage thingy. A triple-header of prompts here. One: that photo. Two: the phrase “far from home.” And three: The concept of Trust. Someday I’ll figure out if there’s something deeper involved in what my imagination spit out in these words. (I think there might be.) Well see, if I ever cross its fenceline for a proper revision.

Fig Newtons and Café Au Lait

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Never in a million years, would I have thought I would someday be wrestling a seven-year-old’s hair into an acceptable level of neat confinement. But then I never figured Jen might die before I did. I never expected our daughter Melissa to have a baby by “that guy.” Never dreamed that child would become my day job and one of my only reasons to get up each morning, once I retired.

Yet here I was running a spiky brush through Mimi’s coarse, tightly curled hair, as she wriggled and whined that I hurt her when my brushing would slide and stop with the discovery of yet another snarl.

“I’m sorry, Mimi. I’m trying not to hurt you, but your mother would kill me if I let you out of the house with your hair full of knots,“ I said as I worked the brush with my right hand and held onto my neat harvest of frizzled hair. The hair she inherited from her father, but her sweet little face was a café au lait version of her mother’s at her age.

“I hate my stupid hair, Grandpa,” Mimi said as I finally contained most of the subject of her dismay with four twists of a hair band at the back of her head. 

As I withdrew my finger from that elastic mini-tourniquet, I said, “Now why on the world would you say that?” 

I know, at that moment I wasn’t too fond of her hair either. But it was the perfect crown to her angel face.

“It’s just…just…all over the place. I hate it. I want hair like Taylor’s,” Mimi said.

“Taylor?”

“You know, Taylor. She’s the most beautiful girl in my class. Everybody loves her and she’s really nice and I want long straight, shiny blond hair like Taylor’s,” Mimi said with a defiant stamp of her foot on the floor that I felt through my slippers. Yes, I’m retired, so now I wear slippers, moccasins, around the house.

“Mimi, everybody loves you, too. You’re sweet and smart and musical and you look just like my little girl, which means I think you’re absolutely beautiful,” I said with a touch of my hand on her chin. Which was sticky.

“What the heck is on your face?” I asked her while I went to fetch a wet wipe from the white plastic container on the counter. She smiled. And that’s when I saw the brown stain on her tooth.

“Fig Newtons, Grandpa. I traded with Taylor. She wanted my ‘Nilla Wafers.”

“And when did you eat these Fig Newtons? You took your shower last night. I cleaned up the water after you were done, Miss Squeaky Clean.”

“In bed. I snuck ‘em under my pillow. Some of the crumbs got kinda itchy, but I still slept okay.”

“I see. Well, why don’t we both march to the bathroom and you can brush your teeth,” I said with a gentle hand on her warm little shoulder. Though I could see she was getting bigger every day.

“Okay, but I still hate my hair. I want to be as beautiful as Taylor, beautiful like a flower,” Mimi said.

“You already ARE beautiful. Here, let me load up your toothbrush. Now brush, and listen.”

“Mmm-mummmph”

“I know you think you’re not as ‘beautiful,’ as Taylor,” I said, emphasizing beautiful with air quotes. I’m sure they were wasted on a seven-year-old, but I was out of practice with that age. Boy, with Melissa at work, did I miss Jen (again) right then.

“But sometimes beauty is more than only looks, of which you have plenty, little lady. There’s a city on the other side of the world called Singapore. And in Singapore is this stunningly beautiful park. EVERYBODY says it’s one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Now at the center of this beautiful park are these giant metal frames that look like trees. They’re made of twisted bars of steel that reach way up like redwoods and spread out at the top like another tree I’ll tell you about in a second.”

Mimi spit into the sink and said, “Is this gonna be another long story, Grandpa?”

“Keep brushing and listen. Now on these frames of metal trees, beautiful vines and flowers climb and grow. Just like the grapes do every year on Grandma’s arbor in the yard. But inside these phony trees that everyone says are so beautiful are these concrete towers, just like you’d see in Charlotte or Raleigh or even Washington. They aren’t beautiful but the beautiful phony trees cover that up,. Sometimes outside beauty isn’t the whole story about something. It’s just…outside.” I said, hoping I could get this next part through to her.

“Uh huh.”

“These metal trees branch out at the top something like a fig tree, the kind of tree that made the fruit in the sticky and sweet middle of your Newtons. You have to agree that a fig is a pretty sweet thing, right?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Well, did you know that the fig is the only fruit, sweet as it is, that doesn’t grow from a pretty blossom or flower first? Nope, the fig’s blossoms grow on the inside and help make it sweet and different in a very good way. Just like you. Beautiful, sweet and different from any other girl in the world. Except maybe your Mommy. Now rinse and spit,” I said.

“Thbbbbb… But I don’t want to be different,” Mimi said.

“Are you kidding? Do watch TV? These blond news bunnies all over the air are like dandelions in my crappy lawn. All pretty and yellow when they pop up, then BOOM, they turn into those white floating seed thingies that make you sneeze. And, by the way, dandelions are a weed.”

“Are you saying Taylor’s a weed, Grandpa?  That’s not a nice thing to say. Taylor’s my friend,” Mimi said. And I realized that my half-assed parable had merely served to pass the time that it took for her to focus on what made her my sweet girl.

“Can you call Taylor’s mom and ask her if she can come over today? She’s got this new American Girl doll we can play with. It looks like her,“ Mimi said, half hopeful and a still a little down.

“Of course. You tell her she can bring her doll over to play with yours.”

“But I don’t have one. Mommy said maybe for Christmas.”

“Mommy has yet to learn that Grandpa’s don’t need Christmas to spoil their granddaughters. C’mere,” I said, leading her into my little office space downstairs.”

“Grandpas who don’t have too much to do sometimes just sit around and think what they can do to make their beautiful granddaughters happier. With Grandma gone, I needed help, so I enlisted the aid of Kendall here.” I pulled the box with the slick plastic window on its front from behind my desk and handed it to Mimi. Inside was one of those American Girl dolls, only this one had tight curly hair pulled back in two puffy pigtails and her pretty face was the color of Jen’s coffee, when I got it right. Sure it was for her birthday in two weeks, but now I could get her even more stuff.

“Oh, Grandpa, she’s beautiful,” Mimi squealed.

“Say that again.”

“She’s beautiful, she looks just like…”

“You.”

I think I got it right this time, Jen. 

Another Six Senses, Six Weeks assignment. This one was to center on the sense of touch, which i didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. But I enjoyed writing this little story. It kept revealing more things to me as I went along. That photo was one of the prompts, as was a photo of that park and a halved fig in a glass dish. Used the prompts, just gagged on the theme, unless it touches someone’s heart.

If I Recall, That’s the Spirit

 

I hope someday you reach that point in your life, as I have, when you recognize Christmas doesn’t march up to you like a balloon-festooned Fifth Avenue parade anymore, one whose colors, sounds and corporate sponsorships you can see from blocks away. Nor does it sneak up on you on little mouse feet in the snow. Christmas has become like old age to me now. One day I’m humming along to the rustle of life’s green leaves, all the while ignoring the gifts of my black hair, firm chin and memory like a 100-terabyte computer. The next blink, I’m shaving silver filings off the lower chin of some barely recognizable guy in the mirror. And suddenly I hear (and need to turn up the volume on) a song I think might be called “Silver Bells.” And that’s OK, because the tree downstairs today is always green, and somewhere inside me a little kid is coiled in bed — quiet as the whispers of angels’ wings — for that sunrise when I can charge into the living room in an explosion of torn paper and cardboard before we three brothers trek to church and back. These days, Christmas just IS. And, should you reach my tinsel-topped, Santa-in-training-bodied and memory-leaking station in life, you might recognize it doesn’t need to come at you but once a year. You can charge into it every sunrise, tearing open the gift of that new day and giving it to all you meet. If I recall, that’s the spirit!

A mid-December rambling. Now back to our regular programming.

In Voce Completa

When I was in my teens, I’d walk home
from my best friend Tom’s house at night,
whistling my way through his good Neighborhood
and then into one which was losing a bit
of its neighborliness — my ‘Hood.
Sometimes, if it was late enough, I’d swivel
my head to see who might be on the street and,
if I discerned my sojourn suitably solitary,
I’d break into song, solo, in sotto voce.
I thought I sounded pretty good in my
circular role as vocalist and audience, though
I could never replicate this level
of musical expression to an audience.

Maybe I was kidding myself, as kids are wont to do,
but even today I find it interesting how great
I sound in the car warbling in mezzo voce
to the vast audience of commuters around me
as the radio bathes my soul in music.
To tell you the truth, since this confession’s
already gone on as long as a Grateful Dead set,
I’ll even break into song while I have
the lawn tractor roaring beneath me. But still,
I can’t sing for you, except like this,
in this full-throttle expression of my soul.
Maybe not full-throated, but quite unafraid.

I’ll bet you think you sound pretty good, too. Don’t ask me to dance, though. That was my Mom’s gig.

You and Yours and Mine

When all you’ve ever known are
Thanksgiving and Christmas Days full of family,
I wonder how they still occur when family is gone.
Does turkey still push pumpkin pie
from the top of the aroma food chain by midday
on the fourth November Thursday?
Does a tree covered in bright-colored bulbs
and sparkling ornaments still
light the heart as well as the room?
Does Christmas morning still happen
if the sound of children tearing through
gaudy paper and cardboard boxes
and making a joyful noise are only
distant echoes of those dawns gone by?
The easy answer is of course they do.
Calendars will always show those squares
on their eleventh and twelfth pages.
But those are data points, not the points
of light on a conical swatch of green
in the corner of the living room.
Those are cold numbers in the twenties,
instead of the number of warm places surrounding
a table starring a roasted bird or ham,
snow drifts of potatoes and drifting conversations
about family past and present, but always family.
They will remain the topping on my pumpkin pie
and shining stars upon my life’s tree.
Thanksgiving and Christmas will always
come around for everyone else, but holidays
won’t really be holidays without you.
And you and you and yours. And mine.

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.

Metamorphosed

This thing that grips my heart
in its gentle hands,
massaging it just to make sure
it’s fresh, was so useless to me
in the old days. Back then,
it could squeeze as hard as it liked
and I doubt this metaphoric ticker
would yield a bit, poured and cast
as it was from some Bessemer vessel
roaring with great light and
sparking bits of molten steel.
But something I never expected
changed that, with the warmest touch.
Now, my heart pours its own sparks,
pyrotechnics composed of joy,
sadness, anger, even love,
all bound together molecularly
by the wonder called emotion.
I would ask how a heart of cold steel
could accept and give its feelings
like a grape gives up its juice.
But does it really matter?
All I have to worry about is that
I have enough to fill the sippy cups
of the little ones who metamorphosed
hardened metal into such human flesh.