He would barrel down the side streets, racing home from Middleton Junior High School on his hand-me-down ten-speed, pumping his legs so hard, imagining he was being chased by his classmates. When he tired of imagining outsmarting bad guys and evading cops, he embraced an actual goal: He would race city school bus 9. He remembered its route from when his mother had forced him to ride it right when they moved into the district. That was before he had gotten his bike. Continue reading “The Alleyway Parable, Installment I”
The bird the zoo bought was neither pelican nor stork. It was gray, and almost four feet tall. Its tail contained large feathers, longer than American rulers but about the same width. Every day he alternated standing on one foot at the city zoo and earned praise for his feathers while children slobbered on the heavy glass and infants shrieked when he clacked his big crusty beak on the window.
Many zoos named their animals, but not this one. And so, because of that, this strange bird was known by the number “0987” that was marked on his green plastic bracelet tied around his twiggy ankle. He was a rare breed, and though there had been talk of finding him a mate, they seemed to have forgotten about it. He could have been the last of his kind, for all he knew, and they were just keeping him in a tiny enclave of imported marsh vegetation until he was no more.
Most zoo patrons talked about how ugly and impressive he was, and all the while the scientists kept taking notes about how many times a day he did normal things like peck around the fake pond for fish or make loud calls into the air with his neck arched and throat curved. They also took notes on presumably trivial things like whether or not he tapped his beak on the glass on certain days and how often he blinked. One graduate student who was interning at the zoo objected to recording this observation, not because it was inconsequential but because it was inaccurate. The bird, he said, was not simply blinking. He was rolling his eyes. At first the others balked at the differentiation, but the more the researchers spent time with the bird, the more they found the young man to have offered an astute contribution to expanding the animal’s growing taxonomic file.
Proud of housing the zoo’s first major spectacle since the birth of twin albino pandas 30 years ago, the chairman of the board contacted his half-brother who ran the local newspaper to see if he might interest him in the biological mystery that was nesting at his zoo. As a managing editor, his half-brother was every bit of a businessman now as he was a journalist at the beginning of his career, so they struck a deal: for every story the paper ran about the bird or other zoo whereabouts, the chairman would buy a half-page full-color advertisement on the back of Section B. If the Ford auto dealer stole the spot with a full-page, the chairman would put the money toward the paper’s annual summer sidewalk chalk festival fundraiser. The first article ran mid-week on the front page as the centerpiece about the mystery bird and attracted 50 percent more business the Saturday following the feature.
Sitting straight with seven goose-feathered pillows supporting her back, Queen Saffi wondered when she would die. At last, her back was free from pain. She had no aches running up and down her spine, and no headaches from a terrible twist in her tailbone. With the kingdom in order, she could go into her long night’s rest—that is, of course, if she could convince her passion-crazed son Harald to forget that thought of finding a love match in that worthless country girl Abellona.
“That milkmaid has less sense than a six-year-old!” the queen projected. Her servants were used to Saffi’s outbursts, so they stood in their places waiting for orders to empty her royal chamber pot or to bring her favorite feline companion, Lenka, to the queen’s bedside.
“I have ruled this country twenty years without Erik, and I didn’t solve the problems of the starving serfs or the territorial disputes between the herdsmen because of the lovely curves in my bodice or corset,” the dying woman thought to herself. “Everyone thinks I’m so delicate! Shows what they know about running your own little piece of the world.”
At that thought, she tossed two of her brocaded pillows in spite to her longtime servant, Christoff. He blinked, but stood still upon impact. It was unlike the queen to act viciously, and so he muffled a trifling laugh so they could make a joke of it. Instead of apologizing or inventing a story, Queen Saffi asked him to fetch her Harald. She could feel her time was coming soon, and she was ready to see him. Inwardly, Christoff wondered why that sorry excuse for a prince was not at his mother’s side already, but indeed this had been a strange family to serve. He had served under Erik’s father King Felix and his mother Queen Lise, but ever since that fateful night when Saffi came to the castle door as a young helpless thing, cold and drenched to the bone from the winter rain, the house (and the kingdom for that matter) had never been the same.
Something changed, but he could never quite put his finger on it. It was certainly good, he thought, so why bother worrying about the reason? As Christoff walked down the long mirrored corridors of the east wing of the castle to find his Royal Highness Harald, he could not shake memories of Saffi’s effect on the kingdom from his mind. It wasn’t because he wanted to commemorate the rheumatic old beauty queen: it was because he wondered if Harald might be so good a ruler as his mother. She had something positively remarkable about her that she could sense just the place in the kingdom where she might need to send an extra reinforcement of troops to extinguish the flames of a rebellion or a bit of surplus grain to feed a struggling family. Christoff had been married for several years, and he had heard of women having a God-given intuition at least a thousand times from his wife, but Queen Saffi might have something more.
While Christoff mused about the mystery, he was not watching where he was going and ran right into the prince, whose sandy blond hair was quite rumpled with straw and field grasses. The prince, only a few days past his twenty-third birthday, looked like an overgrown toddler, dirtied with wild play.
“What a sight! And just before the queen is going to pass from this life to the next, she must see him like this—filthy from rolling in some heap with a low-bred hussy! She will be absolutely livid. Positively offended! Heartbroken!” Christoff thought.
As Harald brushed some horse hair from his riding cloak, he did not wait for the servant’s bow but inquired immediately about his mother.
“How is she?” he gasped, still out of breath from running up the steps.
“We have no time to waste. Your mother is ready to speak with you her last words. Don’t worry about your dress. Please, follow me to her chamber.”
When the two men entered the queen’s bedroom, she had thrown all her pillows to the floor and although she was asleep, she was propped against the headboard breathing shallow, quivering breaths.
Harald bowed to the queen, and even though he wasn’t an evil son who impatiently awaited his inheritance, his mind was still occupied with his afternoon with Abellona, whom he intended to make his bride in the next year after the proper amount of mourning. His mother didn’t approve of the match, but Harald believed the kingdom would embrace their new queen. She was undeniably beautiful, and with the right clothes and a few milk baths, she’d look as regal as any other handsomely made creature of the earth. Abellona was not like his mother in many ways, though. She was from the country and without noble heritage at all. She could milk a cow and bake pastries better than any specialist in the castle. After detailing all his beloved’s merits to his mother, Harald was shocked by her forthright refusal to bless their union, for he had thought she would appreciate such a modern and romantic marriage for love—and to love a woman so in-touch with the kingdom.
But alas, his ailing mother found fault with the peasant girl for some confounded reason or another. Her chief complaint was the girl’s lack of feeling. It revealed a fundamental flaw in her nature, she would say.
Each time she would say something like that, Harald would remember the tale inscribed in the courtyard walls about his mother’s dramatic entrance into his father’s family. Everyone in the kingdom and even in the surrounding countries across the sea knew of how his mother had moaned to her gracious hosts about being kept awake all night due to a backache caused by a small, hard uncooked pea hidden underneath twenty mattresses. She had passed his grandmother’s silly test of sensitivity and won her way into his father’s heart.
Pah! He thought. Abellona would never have been so absurdly impolite as to complain about charity. In fact, if Harald played dice, he would bet she wouldn’t even feel a green, unripe apple under only two mattresses!
Harald’s thoughts were interrupted by his mother’s rousing herself. She brushed her falling hair from her face, and asked him to bring her a cup of water. After drinking and handing the cup back to him, she requested that Christoff lead the rest of the servants from the room. Once the last of the servants had closed her heavy door, the queen patted the space on the quilt beside her, and she asked Harald to sit on the bed like he used to when he was roving around the castle in his little blue rompers.
After removing his boots, Harald jumped onto the bed, but with much less bounce than when he was a little boy. He laid his head to his mother’s laboring chest a moment, feeling her breaths rise and fall. She tousled his hair and kissed his head.
“Mama,” he said. “Do you have anything to tell me? Anything you have not already instructed me?”
Before she could say anything, she gasped loudly and clutched her lower back. It was the first pain she’d had in her spine for weeks.
Her attention shifted, and she was focusing on that one spot.
“Another achy back! There haven’t been any peas in this bed, for years!” Harald laughed. “All those tricks on you are done now. You’ve got your crown now, what’s to be worrying about?”
She ignored the jest, continuing to rub her back.
“To the South—just five miles from the border, you need to visit a little home there. There’s a farmer there with two young sons. He’s a widower, and I’d like you to send him a few new goats and ask one of the servants to watch his children so he can go to the market.”
Harald thought this command was some kind of odd fancy that comes to people just before they are about to die, so he patted her head and tried to comfort her with a sweet look sent from his eyes to hers, and he squeezed her shoulders.
But Queen Saffi wasn’t fooled. She knew he wouldn’t listen and that he had long since written her off as a woman subject to her whims.
Here, we get to know the unsuspecting princess who became a queen because of an ache in her back. This is the beginning of a long story about the princess who became a mother and had a son whose ideas were rather modern, and like all children, tends to think his parents made decisions based on old fashioned ideas without actually knowing the full story.
I was working on this in graduate school when I needed a momentary break from writing the thesis. There’s much more written, and much to be written and revised. As always, a work in progress.
It’s not that he’s always late, she thought. It’s that he never really seems in a hurry to get home—even when traffic’s bad.
The blue porcelain bowl was wet in her hands, and she dropped it into the strainer. She’d been home a half hour already and had wondered where the time had gone.
You hang up your coat, check your voice mails, and then open the fridge to decide what to eat for dinner. Some nights it’s stir fry, and sometimes it’s just pasta because all you have to do is dump some spaghetti sauce in a pan on low, and wait for the noodles to boil—maybe throw spinach in there to make sure there are vegetables.
She hadn’t gotten that far yet. And he hadn’t come home or called to say that traffic was bad or that he was working out at the gym across the street from his office before he came home. Sometimes, he said that’s what he was doing.
Pasta? Tonight? God. If he said anything, I could tell him he should get home sooner to help me. Our commutes have been the same distance for a couple of years now. Maybe he should be the one to throw something on the stove. They had pasta only three nights before, and she didn’t want to hear him complain or even wonder if he was withholding a groan about the recycled menu from last week. She decided on tuna.
Tuna. What a female food, she mused, as she pulled down the two cans of fish-in-water from the pantry shelf. For some reason, tuna is a woman’s food. Most men hate it, she continued, this time broadcasting her thoughts aloud to the empty home. Maybe they’re afraid to admit they like it. They are afraid. They are afraid to say they like the scent of it, because that’s always their chief complaint. All of the jokes spring from that one thing. Continue reading “A Preview of “The Fault””
Once upon a time, a princess found a long lonely ladder at the far corner of the castle walls. She thought it rather lazy of the gardener to leave it there where someone might trip over it or where it might catch some drops of rain and it would grow rusty and useless.
“Surely, I can’t move this myself,” she thought.
And in fact, she could not. She tried to move it, but it would not budge the smallest bit.
“Well, if I can’t move it, I might as well find out why it was here in the first place.”
Even though she was wearing an uncomfortable and ungainly court dress, she thought she might try the steps. Quickly, she realized the endeavor would fail with such heavy skirts and confining stays, and even though she wouldn’t usually think herself as brazen as her sister Mina who had been known to dance with the peasants in only her shift at the harvest festival, she decided to remove her first layer of clothing.
“If Mina can dance like a heathen in the name of ‘connecting with the kingdom,’ at the very least, I can do this if only to find out why our own grounds have been left in such disarray.”
Although it was not becoming of a young lady—nobility nonetheless—to curse, the princess swore mightily as she struggled from her dress. At last, she stood before the curious ladder in only a thin white tunic. She removed her shoes and placed them underneath the heap of her garments.
“Now, I am ready to find out the mystery of this silly ladder. Perhaps this is where father ordered the new lanterns to be hung. Or maybe it was put here for some soldier on the lookout,” she thought.
Placing her tender little left foot on the first rung and her right hand reaching above her head, the princess began to climb. She was terribly afraid of heights, so she refused to look down as she pressed on toward the top—wherever the top might be. It seemed so far away, and so high, she was not so sure she could see where it ended.
“Of course this has an end, and it will be at the top of the wall where I can sit and rest before scrambling back down to put on my dress before anyone sees me like such a wild, wicked girl that I must appear to be.”
The climb was not difficult except that it didn’t seem to stop. All at once, the princess noticed that the wall that she had always known to be gray and composed of long, roughly cut stone had changed color. It was a smooth tan, like the dried paste of earth found in the Southern countries.
She stopped her scaling and looked down. She did not see her dress crumpled up near the garden trees, or anything else familiar below her. It wasn’t that she could not see the ground, but there seemed to be no ground at all. When she looked up again, she wondered if she were not actually securely planted on a firm-packed ground where the ladder had fallen.
“I’m in a dream. I’ve fallen. No! I’ve died,” she thought. “That’s it. I am most certainly dead.”
But the princess was not dead, and she figured this much when she was too afraid to test her theory by jumping off the ladder. To make the best of the situation, she elected to carry on with the climb.
As she ascended this strange ladder, her hands no longer grasped a finely made piece of metalwork, but a shoddy, shaky sham of a ladder. The sky—or what she perceived to be the sky—turned a deep starless lapis. It was pretty, she thought.
Wind picked up, pressing her tunic to her legs, making it harder to climb, but at last, she made it to the very topmost part of the ladder. It still leaned against the stucco-colored wall. She found this problematic because the end of the ladder did not match the end of the wall, and she wasn’t sure what would happen if she attempted to go back the way she came. Who knew what would happen? Maybe the splintered wood ladder would turn into a serpent or worse—maybe it would just disappear altogether.
“Well, I guess now I know why that gardener never put this damn thing away,” she muttered.
The princess stood on the ladder, her hands smarting from the long climb, and she wondered how she might solve this problem. After some time, she found out that she would not.