Wishful Thinking

Wistful thinking,
blissful blinking,
ignorant blissing,
like promiscuous kissing,
brings infectious diseasing
and needless deceasing.
So you do you, Tovarishch,
but right now there’s no bar which,
to the sound of glasses clinking,
you can do any wishful drinking.

So what shall we do
to survive, me and you?
Keeping hope and us alive
is a goal for which I strive.
But is it too much a task
won by merely donning a mask,
or cooping down in my cellar
keeping you distant from this feller?
I pray one day we’ll touch again,
I have no idea where or when,
but just like all the other lonely men
I live to make it to that unknown “then.”

I’m so down and F’d up by these days of sickness and strife, I can’t rub two words together that have any meaning. Not even, and most especially, to me. But if I don’t even try to do what somebody put me on earth to do, why bother leaving the basement for light and air? So here you are. One hundred or so unmasked words infecting one another and me. Now excuse me while I check the furnace filter again for the third time today.

Weir Like a Broken Heart, Pain Like A Rainbow

Are you still feeling that pain
you’ve looked for me to capture
in a weir of words
strung across your river of tears?
It’s a difficult thing,
to weave a net for another’s suffering,
since each of us carries
our own sorrows, denizens of
the murky bottom, slithering through
the broken hearts of my words
and the knottiness of your needs.
And so I fail, not for lack of trying
or even for misunderstanding, since loss
is as much my tool as this clickity keyboard
and this clackity metaphor.

Today’s one of those bright days,
one in which I wade through the shallows,
picking at the small miseries
that beset us all. Then, with a splash,
the great sorrow leaps over
my words, headed upstream.
And I know. I’ll never capture
what’s allowed to return and spawn.
In that, though, I find a beautiful solace,
like a rainbow after the storm.

Full Circle

“What do you wish us to do?” the doctor asked, his benevolent demeanor, but with a double-parked, motor-running, it’s 4:58 on Friday vibe.

You never think about making the ultimate decision for someone you love. You divert yourself with other thoughts. What’ll the family say? How can I face myself after this?

“There’s no coming back for her,” the doctor said. But there’d be no coming back for me, either.

You stand still for that second, three heartbeats replacing the one normally filling that space.

“Okay.” My throat locking in that word and out the air.

The doctor does what he does. Then we wait. Not long. But a whole life together in an instant. She closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths and… Gone.

But in that instant everything changed. All from one second of indecision to decision.

I had to make the same decision for my Dad, a year later. Everything comes full circle, they say. But you don’t want on this ride more than once.

I’m sure the weepers thought me an unfeeling bastard. The doctor gave the same rap about no coming back, for the best, no-resuscitate order. Then…

“Well?”

In that second, the guy for whom agreeing to have his dog put down changed everything, nodded and said, “Okay, Let’s do it.”

Then I began to breathe again, as others began sobbing. They could never make this decision. But, like I said…in less than a second…changed everything.

I’d cry later.

The Visions of Henry At-the-Water and He Pounds With His Left Hand

Frances Canyon Pueblito ruins, New Mexico. Photo by T. Mietty, June, 2007.

“Another twenty, twenty-five,” Hank Atwater said as he counted the tufts of white drifting on the edge of his property, lonesome as clouds in the late-spring New Mexico sky. 

“They must be dropping like flies,” he said as he scanned the scattered sheep herd. 

“I know. Reminds me of the shipping fever we got back when I was a little one in aught-nine, but they was beeves,” his son Chet said with a chuckle.

“You think this is funny, Chester Mateo?” Hank’s eyes flashed beneath the shade of his sombrero. 

“No sir, I was just comparing how they’re all fine on Tuesday and dead on Thursday.” Chet had learned the hard way that hearing his father use his proper name followed by the baptismal name his mother gave him was akin to the warning of distant thunder. A storm could be coming.

“These ain’t cows we’re talking about, boy. And it ain’t these stinking, bleating blankets on the hoof, either. These are real people, despite what your grandfather would have you believe. And they been here a hell of a lot longer than he was. Even longer than your mama’s supposedly conquering Spaniard ancestors,” Hank said. He would’ve spit if he could work some up in his mouth.

“If these Navajo keep dying off like this, there won’t be any more sheep or wool or people living out here. And if there’s no people, then all you see is the flat nothing you can’t see in an old painting. No spirit, no soul. And if they can get sick, that means we can, too. You understand that, Chet?”

“Yes, Pa. I get it. But how’re you gonna stop these blanket-heads, I mean these folks, from getting sick? Or makin’ us sick?”

“That, Chester Mateo, is the problem. No one knows. Yet.”

Hank spurred his horse east, but veered off the main trail toward the edge of the Navajo reservation, toward the hogan of his friend Klah Etsiddy. Etsiddy’s family lived beneath an old pueblito tower of adobe bricks and mud. Normally, Hank would know his friend was home by the smoke coming from the smithy his grandfather built within the pueblito after The Long Walk from Arizona.

As they rode nearer, even Chet was aware something was different. All he heard was the wind. By now, he should be hearing the ring of Etsiddy’s hammer on his anvil, turning red-hot iron into tools or horseshoes. His father broke the silence as he spurred his horse into a lope toward the hogan, from which no smoke rose either.

“Lefty, you here?” Hank called out his friend’s nickname as he jumped out of the saddle. In the Navajo language, Klah Etsiddy meant He Pounds With His Left Hand. 

As Chet reined up, he saw his father approach the front of the house, then stop short a couple of yards from the entrance as a figure emerged from the shadows in the doorway. 

“Come no closer, Henry At-the-Water,” Etsiddy said. “I wish you well, my friend, so I ask that you stay back from my home. The evil spirit of your war against the Kaiser has invaded the Diné, I think.”

“Are you sick, Lefty? Is Johona all right? Your Mom, The kids?”

“We are not yet sick. But we are not attending the great healing ceremonies with other families because my mother is so feeble now. But you know she is a blessed medicine woman and a hand trembler. She had a vision that this great sickness was coming.”

“A vision? You’re kidding, right?” Chet said as he alit onto the hard-packed dirt in front of the hogan. AS he strode toward the doorway, his father roughly grabbed his arm.

 “Yes. She saw the saddle catch fire on the old horse’s back when was not near any flames. So we have eaten of that horse.”

Chet still couldn’t believe what he heard. “What?” he said as he scanned Etsiddy’s corral. “Out here in the middle of nowhere, no doctor for fifty miles. An old grandma and kids. And you ate one of your only ways of getting help?” Chet asked. Hank shot him another of his thunderstorm looks.

“My mother knows what to do, Chester At-the-Water. I took one of my other horses to warn my neighbors, but they aren’t so…accepting of Mother’s gifts. So we will stay here and follow the old ways.”

“Pa, I can’t take anymore of this blanket-head hocus-pocus shit. I’m gonna start for Gallup. I’m stopping at the Jennings’ spread on the way.”

“I would feel a lot better if you went right home, Chet. Your Mom might be needing you until I get there,” Hank said. But, with a squeak of leather and of huff of breath from his mount, Chet was already in the saddle and headed to his girlfriend’s father’s ranch.

“I swear. That boy will be the death of me, Lefty.”

“He is young and has not found his way yet, Henry. He needs guidance and knowledge of the spirits inside him and around us.”

“He needs a swift kick in the ass is what he needs. So what is it you and your family really gonna do, Lefty? I worry about you out here.”

“Mother said we should be safe. She was taught by her grandfather who was a great hatalii during other such sicknesses. We have seen illness as bad as this before.”

“I don’t know, my friend. The doctors still don’t know what this thing is or where it really came from. Some say France, where they were fighting the war. Some say Kansas, where we trained boys to go fight there,” Hank said, pushing the brim of his hat back.

“As I said, Henry, any way you look it is the evil shadow of that war begun this sickness, as sure as the many rivers like the webs of spiders are born of one, Tółchíʼíkooh, the river you call Colorado.” 

Well, just the same, if I didn’t know you and the Diné as you taught me, I’d haul you back to my place, just to be closer to a doctor.”

“Henry, I am already closer to any doctor than you are. She sleeps on the other side of my hogan,” Etsiddy said with a chuckle.

“What’s she sayin’ to do?” Hank said.

“We are now supposed to stay away from others, keep our life force close within us. After today, I will not see you until this is over or in the next life. I only leave the hogan to go to the pueblito or to tend the animals. We will pray and keep ourselves clean. Mother says I should not go to my forge because it will make my hands too dirty.”

“She wants you to keep your hands clean? How the hell…?”

“Yes, it is what she was taught. We have many things to do. The children will learn from Mother, Johan and me more in the next weeks than they would in many months. This illness could be a good thing for my family.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, compadre, but I learned a long time ago not to pooh-pooh the teachings of the Diné elders. They proved too right too many times. Hell, you’re all still here, aren’t you?”

“Many won’t be after this, Henry. I have cleansed myself in a great sweat and seen this in a vision, too. I pray you take Mother’s warning to heart for yourself and your family. Keep close to home. Keep clean. Stay happy. Pray. That’s the best way I can explain it to…”

“A white man?”

Both men laughed.

“Well, Yá’át’ééh, Klah Etsiddy, my friend. You keep well, okay?”

Yá’át’ééh, Henry At-the-Water. I hope to see you when the sickness is gone.”

But Hank Atwater and Klah Etsiddy did not see one another again.

Hank decided to adhere to his friend’s mother’s advice, but his son did not. That day, Chet stopped off at the Jennings’ place where his girl, Alice, was nursing a tickle in her throat. With a peck on the cheek, he left for home.

In a week, she was dead. 

In ten days, so were Hank Atwater and his wife. But, for some reason, not Chet.

When word of his friend’s death reached the hogan of Klah Etsiddy, the Navajo blacksmith arose from listening to his mother teach his children about how the Diné Bizaad continued to survive in this difficult land over the centuries. His children kept her alive she told her son many times. 

“Even with all our prayers and Mother’s knowledge, the great illness took my friend. But I will always believe Henry At-the-Water had a vision of his end,” Etsiddy said to his wife. 

“He always told me Young Chester Mateo At-the-Water would be the death of him.”

Man, I’ve been aching to write one of my Western stories for months. Who knew that the Coronavirus pandemic would be the impetus for one? Upon rereading it, I believe certain spirits have whispered to me how I might grow this tale into something greater. Nevertheless, I wished to share this infant story with you at this time.

Oh, and I did my usual quick and nerdy research for this this story. The Navajo did, as they are with COVID-19, suffer horribly with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. But, anecdotally, some families were not touched so severely. And Edittsy’s mother prescribes how they say they did.

 

It Happens Every Spring

These were the days I would
run like tree sap, uncontrolled
by any man’s order. Not even my own.
A seasonal shade of masculinity
drip-drip-dripping from me
like tears at a funeral,
freeing my joints and tongue
in a low-gravity dance
with the baseless hope one feels
at 0-0 before the first pitch.
And, before you know it,
after a few scoring opportunities
got turned away, I’d be down
Spring to Nothing. Life throwing
a shut-out at the guy who still
misreads the rules. Always thought
’twas Spring hopes eternal,
not some other way ‘round.

Too true for it to be fictionalized. What is it they used to say? Oh yeah, “It happens every Spring.” Still.

Total Recall

I remember once when
my memory worked, how you
looked on the day that we met.
Well, we actually didn’t meet
since you were busy with them
and I was idle with me.
But my eyes met you.
I recall you in black and white,
which I’m not sure if you wore
or that’s just how my old
memories conflate with newer ones.
Do you remember when we met,
or have the years smeared
that picture with the tears
I’ve caused you because
eventually we did? Perhaps
I didn’t make that big a dent
in your mind as you did in mine.
Or maybe you’ve lost that memory
because it was for the best.
If they’re there, I can’t find
all the pieces in the corners
of my mind, scattered by fears
that a perfect memory would be
too true for my imperfect fantasy.
But its all here in black and white.

There! I think this might be better. Do you remember when I would write one of these lickety-split over a ten-minute break? Well, maybe it was 15. I don’t remember such things so well anymore. But, like I said, there it is in black and white.

As Big As That, As Small As This

When I close my eyes,
I can see you clearly.
Not from a distance, like
from all these years away,
but as if you were standing
right in front of me.
And if you really were here,
I’d still not see you,
not as you are, since
I’d be looking through
my glass with the rosy hue.
The one that magnified everything
about you into massive things.
Colossal, monumental, unrealistic.
That’s obsession for you.

I always thought you saw me
through that glass, too,
only from the other end,
where I looked so small.
Diminutive, unimpressive, quixotic.
I never did see you as you are,
a deep and complex forest,
rather than an array of pretty trees.
Too bad I believed the trees,
who saw a pesky weed.
You never were as really big as that,
and I never really as small as this.
So we never really were, were we?

Day 27 called for a “massive” poem. I don’t have the wherewithal today to put together some Homeric monster epic. Nor even an abridged version. And you don’t have the time to devote to reading it. Wait for my book. So here’s an equally fictive piece about how we can blow the normal up out of proportion, as well as diminish it into a gnat. Get rid of that rosy glass, y’all. Left out in the sun, it’ll burn everything down.

The Guitar Who Forgot How To Play

Over in the corner she stands,
the guitar who forgot how to play.
Back when I still could bend my hands,
we’d play each and every day.

Now all she does the year ‘round
is keep dust from hitting the floor.
That’s a burden to bear heavier than it sounds.
and I can’t bear the burden of not hearing her anymore.

So I’ll sit her curves upon my knee,
take her in hand and disregard the pain.
Strum her strings to see if she’ll sing to me.
Perhaps we’ll make beautiful music together again.

Ouch, that hurts my hands as well as my old ears.
Looks like she’s lost it, I have to say.
But I’ll never give her up, not in a million years.
We’ll find a way, me and my guitar who forgot how to play.

On Day 10 of Poem-A-Day April 2020, a poem that uses a fill-in-the-blanks title: “The (something) Who (something else).” There are days this is a true story, I’m afraid. And that really hurts when I’m so lost all I can do is write in rhyme. That’s almost as painful as trying to pluck some strings of grab any chord, let alone an F or Bm.

1919

As Alice put another cold compress on Frankie’s forehead, I had my hand on her shoulder and felt it heaving up and down.

“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. But when I looked in her eyes, they were dry. What I felt was not sobbing. She’d been suppressing her coughs, so she wouldn’t wake Frankie.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll take over now,” I said.

“Thank you, Frank,“ Alice said, pressing her burning cheek to mine. As she left the room, I heard her cough…hard.

For a year, I’d seen buddies die in front of me, nearly ripped in half by German Maxim machine guns, wrong place/wrong time in an artillery barrage, and now a cold that killed in only a few days. I’d seen it France. I was told by some of the boys soldiers were dropping like flies at Fort Riley in Kansas. We slid more than twenty over the side of the Liberty ship bringing us home to the States. They told me it had hit New York City, too.

I was beginning to feel guilty about how some folks were saying we Doughboys brought the sickness back to America, this Spanish Influenza. I didn’t need that kind of help. War can make a guy feel guilty all on his own.

Frankie murmured something and started coughing, a weak, choking sound, so I propped him up a little more. But I knew even that wouldn’t help much.

I’d gone to France because I was drafted, not to make the world safe for democracy.

I fought there to take care of my buddies, but you can’t take care of someone vaporized by an 88mm shell dropped on his head.

I stayed alive to get home to Alice and Frankie, to see my boy grow up. To feel the warmth of my wife again. Tonight I felt feverish heat.

I heard the bed springs ring in the next room, then heard Alice cough again. And again. And again.

You feel so helpless at a time like this, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life. How do you prepare for this? How do you prepare for dying by the hundreds and thousands? Or one at a time.

Frankie tried coughing again and he sounded like he was drowning and I could barely take it anymore. Such suffering for a kid. He opened his eyes and looked at me that same way. And that day broke through the thin crust I’d try to grow over the memory.

I saw that German kid in the middle of that shell hole again. It was full of water that had this yellow-green scum on top of it – the residue of their mustard gas. 

Me and my buddy Charlie Oakley had him covered with our Springfields and motioned for him to come out. But he wouldn’t. He just kept yelling – no, screaming – “Hilf mir, bitte.”

Then the boy, he wasn’t more than seventeen, I’d guess, he kind of fell over and his face went into the water. And he looked like he had shrunk by about a foot. He fell again and between the stagnant water in the shell hole and that Mustard residue, he started choking, drowning really.

Charlie said, “Shit, the kid’s stuck in there. Bottom of the hole must be all mud. I’ll fetch him.”

“Let him go, Charlie. He’s just another Kraut,” I said and spit into the water.

But Charlie was a preacher’s kid from North Carolina and it was obvious since all the way back in training at Fort Slocum that his mama raised him a real Christian gentleman.

Charlie slogged around to the far side of the crater and slid about halfway down. You could see how he was trying to figure out how he could reach the kid. 

“Hey, Frank, come over here. Hold my hand and I think I can grab this kid’s collar,” he said.

The mud in France is a living thing, you know, a monster that’ll suck your boots right off your feet and then eat your toes for dessert. As I clopped-plopped over to Charlie, the mud in that shell hole must have had enough of the German kid and it decided to try an American.

Charlie’s feet slid out from under him and, like on a sliding board, he flew out over the edge and fell flat on his back in that poison water and sticky mud. I ran over as fast as I could, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the German kid anymore, either.

“Charlie!” I screamed. I mean I screamed. Then I saw his head bob back above the water. But that was all I saw.

“Frank! Help me! I don’t want to die like this. Help me, buddy.” Then he went under again. 

He came back up, but all I could hear was this gurgling in his throat. His eyes were wild then they settled down. Just his face was above the water now. He stared at me like a yellow-green picture of Jesus in Gethsemane. Kind of pleading. And I knew what he wanted me to do.

I remembered what Jesus said that night. I looked into Charlie’s eyes and said, “Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Charlie sort of nodded and I raised my rifle and squeezed off the most difficult shot I ever took, even though my target was only seven feet away. Charlie disappeared, but the image of his face didn’t. Never will.

Frankie stirred again, shaking me out of this memory. I saw the whole thing in but a second or two. This time Frankie’s breath came like a fingernail swiped on a washboard. It sounded so much like guys who’d caught just enough gas to singe their throat and lungs, but not kill them. Not until they got to the hospital in Étaples. Then they’d get sick, dying there a day or two later. Fever. Lungs giving out.

Like Frankie’s did that night. Honest, they did. Alice lasted two more days. I’d been home three weeks and I can’t help but wonder. Did the influenza kill them or did the war?

Last night, I had that nightmare again where Frankie and Alice are neck-deep in the water and mud of that shell hole and pleading with me to save them. I raise my rifle, but just as i bring my rifle to my shoulder, I woke up. I eventually fell back asleep.

But then, a new dream. I hear the scream of that 88mm shell and it’s falling on top of me instead. I wake up and I realize it’s been me screaming. Again. But that 88mm falling on me? 

Oh, how I wish.

This story is a beefing up of a 250-word mini-flash I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. That version won the week’s contest. This version is the first draft of a more complete study of war, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a world-wide pandemic. Needless to say, it was in many ways inspired the coronavirus infecting folks worldwide. I just built around a similar illness from 100 years ago. 

Spatter of Memories, Fusillade of Regrets

Caleb Downey heard the sound and turned to see Edwin Howard’s head flung backwards and his body sag to drape the ground like a sack of rags. He felt the spatter of Ed’s memories on his face.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Caleb said, knowing the men to either side of him in the Union line couldn’t hear him. Just like they never heard the .50 caliber slugs from Rebel Enfields come fetch them to Jesus. Wide-eyed, Caleb skittered back from the makeshift breastwork of a rotten hickory as more Reb bullets chopped it to tinder, let alone kindling.

“Where’re you going, Downey?” he heard Captain Mayfield yell, the flat of his sword spanking Caleb like his Pa would with a switch back in Indiana. “You get back to your position and hold this line with your squad.”

“Cap’n, I ain’t got no more squad. The last of ‘em, ‘cept for me, just lost the top of his head not three feet from my own.”

“You mean…”

“Yessir. All dead.”

“…you completely abandoned that position?”

“Only of the living, sir.”

“You get back up there and hold that post while I find some men to fill in the line.”

“I don’t think so, Cap’n.”

“What? Think of what you’re fighting for, boy. Think of the Union, Indiana, think of your family,” Mayfield said.

“I am. The feller to my right was my cousin Edwin. On the left was my brother, Charles. They never signed up for this, neither,” Caleb said.

Wrote this 250-word mini-story in response to the prompt of using the phrase “I didn’t sign up for this,” for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads feature. Thanks, Siobhan and judge Silver James. Now, on to tomorrow. Another chance to climb into my desk chair and attempt staying there.