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How I Died in A Roman Sewer

I’d already gone deeper into the dark than I’d ever been before. The walls of the tunnel were gradually closing in and I still didn’t see an end. It was hot and humid. The smell of guano was thick in the air but my nostrils had long grown immune to its stench. Rocks under my feet were spaced further apart now, and the mud was less stable. If I lost my grip on the stones around me I’d surely fall into the muck covering the floor.

Dozens of bats suddenly came flying out at me like black, winged missiles, screeching their piercing wails as their bodies flew into mine. I struggled to stay on the two rocks as I fought off their assault. Scratching and grabbing the rock wall around me, my hand slid down its moist surface. My foot sunk into the mud and I felt the ooze sucking me in up to my knee.

I was stuck.

Something gripped my leg. I couldn’t see it in the darkness but I felt four bony fingers wrapping tightly around my ankle. Yanking hard, it threw me off balance and my other foot left it’s rock and sank into the muck. Another hand took hold of that ankle and jerked my legs backwards. I fell flat on my face in the mud and my body was pulled under–

never to be seen again.

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Wild Banshees

The natives were restless that afternoon. Running around their primitive structures with wild abandon, screaming unintelligible words that caused my blood to curdle. Plumes of dirt puffed up from under their stomping feet as they danced around me with jerky movements that made no sense.

Dread flooded my heart.

As the group circled around I recognized one of them. I’d known him for two years and he’d shown me mercy in the past. I reached out a hand but he ignored me, caught up in the energy of the ritual.

Behind him a girl caught my attention and we made eye contact. For a second we were connected and I thought—hoped–I had another chance to escape this madness. My hopes were dashed when she opened her mouth to let out a shriek that sent shivers up my spine. Turning on her heels, she ran in the opposite direction and the others followed, crashing into one another as they righted themselves with the new rotation.

I looked around at the other parents and a collective sigh escaped us. It was going to be a long day at the playground.

A Visit From Cupid

Ding… Dong…

The door opened and there she stood, my project: Julia.

She was in her late thirties now and far from being ready for love; sabotaging her own happiness as a coping method to manage the pain accumulated over years of destructive relationships.

“Hi,” I say, “My name’s Cupid.”

“Cupid?” she repeated, dumbstruck.

“Yea,” I point a finger backwards towards my wings, “Can I come in? It’s pretty cold out here and I’m not wearing any pants.”

“Of course, come in…please.” I could hear a hopeful note behind the surprise in her voice. “What are you doing here?”

As I follow her into her living room I see a table set for one. A candle’s flame flickered pitifully over her half eaten meal.

“Really? You have to ask?” The sarcasm came out without censor. I’ve seen this same setting too many times during my long career and, frankly, I was tired of feigning loving concern for people who can’t let go of the fantasy. But I could see by Julia’s confused look she was blinded by her illusion of love so I took a softer approach. “Listen, we both know I’ve given you many chances at love…many, many chances at love. Remember the rock star? That wasn’t as easy as it seemed.”

“Oh?” her eyes widened. I could tell this thought hadn’t occurred to her. They all think it’s their looks and charisma that draws people to them. People are so naive.

“Yes. You see, at first I tried to send over men that fit your personality…the good ones, I call them. I tried to find a match that would compliment your strengths and understand your weaknesses, but you found them ‘boring’. So I spiced up the selection. The young rebel, the shifty business owner, the coked-up car salesman, then I finally topped it off with the, afore-mentioned, rock star.”

Her mouth curled into a sly smile as she remembered her lovers.

“Oh, I see…you think it was all fun and games, then?” I challenged. “Well, look at you now…thirty-eight, bitter, sad, and alone on St. Valentine’s Day.”

Her brows furrowed together as tears welled up in her eyes. “Well, what am I supposed to do? Whenever I start to fall for a guy they blow me off. And the others…I can’t help it if I’m not drawn to someone, can I?”

“No…no, that’s a fact. But maybe you need to reevaluate what you’re doing in your relationships.”

“Like what?”

“Do I really have to spell it out for you?”

“Well, you didn’t come here for tea, did you?” Her expression changed and I knew she wanted to get down to business.

“Ok, listen,” we sat down on opposites sides of the table. “There are four things you need to change.”

“Only four?” she let out a huff.

“Well, let’s start off small, shall we?”

She took a deep breath and nodded her agreement.

“First of all, you need to know that no one is perfect…” I held up a hand when I saw that she was about to object, “Don’t interrupt… Nobody is perfect, including you, and that’s ok. It’s our imperfections that make us interesting. Be open to people that aren’t exactly like you on the surface; get to know them before you brush them off.”

“But…”

“Listen, if you want love you need to hear what I have to say. Okay?’

“Go on…” she relented.

“Don’t expect the fantasy. It’s not real. What is real is the fact that these guys really do want to make you happy but they’re guessing at it…mind reading doesn’t come naturally to them.”

“I don’t expect them to read my mind but I don’t want to spell it out for them either. They should have some sense of romance.”

“Yea, well, they don’t…or it’s different than yours. Don’t fault them for that, just accept their intentions and be grateful for the everyday love they do show you.”

“Everyday love?”

“You know…asking how your day was, helping you with some chores, taking care of you when you’re sick. The stuff that really matters…the stuff a friend would do.”

“But I don’t want a friend. I have friends. I want a lover, a partner.”

“And that’s what you’ll get, if you are that for them.” I took her hand in my own, “You see, you must develop the trust that friends have before your desire can deepen into love.”

Her eyes stayed on our hands and I knew my words were making an impact. “Well, ok…I can work on that.”

“Shall I go on?”

She nodded.

“Drop all the games. Drop the hair flipping, the haughty attitude, the bitchiness…it’s not cute. It’s immature. It’s a bad habit you picked up in high school.”

“It used to work,” she countered.

“Is it working for you now?”

“No,” she whispered. “Alright..what else?”

I dropped her hand and in my most stern voice, said, “For God’s sake, Julia, you’ve got to stop sleeping with them so fast.”

“I don’t sleep with them too fast,” she stumbled over the speed of her words, “I’m not a slut, you know!”

“Of course, you’re not…you did wait for the concert to end before you screwed the rock star.”

“Why do you keep bringing him up?” anger pushed her words out.

“Because it’s his memory that’s tripping you up.”

“Well, he was pretty exciting.”

“Excitement is temporary. It’s true love that you’re looking for, my dear.”

Julia lowered her head, “I know…”

“Ok, then…” I checked my cell phone, “Well, I’ve got to go. It’s the busy season and I’m swamped until after June.” I stood, shaking my head, “Everyone wants to have a spring wedding nowadays.”

We walked to the front door in silence.

“Thanks for stopping by,” she said, opening the door wide.

“I hope you’ll take my advice, Julia,” I said as I twisted my body through the doorway. My wings are always so cumbersome in a human’s house.

“I will. I promise,” she murmured halfheartedly. I could tell she was in mourning for the loss of her childhood fantasy of love.

“Happy Valentines Day,” I offered sympathetically.

Anger flooded her face as she slammed the door shut.

The Gift

There was only one gift under the tree.

Wrapped in shimmering gold paper and tied with a sparkling red bow, it was a package unlike any other the children had ever seen and they wondered, Was it for them?

The bravest among them stepped forward to lift the lid and when she did a rainbow slipped out; its light swirling and curling around the children’s heads. Music from a thousand instruments floated out with the light; each playing its own special song but blending together so beautifully. All the children crowded around to look inside and what they found was magic.

A beautiful orb floated weightlessly in the center of the box and as it spun slowly around a million stories were revealed to the children…

Big boys and girls who explore secret worlds,

 Kings and queens and dinosaur things.

 Wizards and witches, fairies and gnomes,

 Faraway places like Paris and Rome…

  Big and small, these stories had all…

 …except someone to read them to the children. Will it be you?

This Christmas I encourage you to give a magical gift to a child by reading to them. It just may be their most special moment of the season.

The Roundup

WARNING: This is a historical fiction piece based on stories told to me by my grandmother, Hazel Low. She was in her twenties during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s and witnessed a jackrabbit roundup near her hometown of Stockton, Kansas.

This story will not be to everyone’s tastes.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Alright, boys. Everybody…load up!”

The farmers walked away from the fencing they’d just erected, hopping onto pickup trucks and heading out over the dusty field.

It was blisterin’ hot, humid and windy as hell. Nobody said much. They hung onto the sides of the pickups with one hand and passed around canteens spiked with homemade, rotgut whiskey with the other. There were times when a man needed to dull his senses, whether or not it was legal.

Over five hundred farmers had shown up for the roundup that day. A good number, according to the county extension officer who was hoping to cull ten thousand jackrabbits in one afternoon. For weeks word had gone out to the surrounding counties and beyond and folks from all over Northwest Kansas had traveled to Trego County that day to be a part of a jackrabbit roundup.

Only a few men were excited about the task to be undertaken. Anyone who’d already witnessed a roundup knew what carnage they were expected to carry out over the next few hours but it had to be done. Locust, black widows, and now jackrabbits…the plagues kept coming, following on the heels of dust storms that stole the topsoil right off their land. Some farmers had lost faith in the land and moved out to California to pick vegetables with the migrant workers. It was a tough decision…abandoning the family farms that had been settled by their grandfathers and worked by their fathers but they’d just had enough. Enough drought, enough dust, enough infestations…

The pickup trucks rambled on across Rasmussen’s pasture towards Big Creek. It’d been dry for a year and a half but they’d still find plenty of jackrabbits hiding out in the underbrush. As the caravan slowed the men jumped off with bats, shovels, and axe handles in hand. They lined up in the sandy creek bed and started kicking and poking at the scrubbrush, flushing the hares up the embankment and out into the open. The pests bounded about erratically, stopping every now and then to sit back on their haunches, sniff the air and twitch their long ears back and forth as they got to know their new surroundings. The farmers walked behind them, getting just within reach of the jackrabbits before they’d hop off to a safe distance several feet away. They never ran too far or too fast…they weren’t scared of men anymore.

This was the way the great grey and white wave rolled over the prairie. Jackrabbits so thick, it seemed as if the land itself was moving. Herding them over miles of prairie, the farmers guided them to the corral and closed the gate behind them.

“How many you think we got?” the question was posed.

“Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of nine thousand, is my guess.”

The farmers went into the corral in shifts. With clubs swinging high above their heads, they crushed the  jackrabbits’ skulls. Over and over, pounding them mercilessly into the dirt. Blood and gore splattering on their hands, clothes and faces, mixing with the dust in the air and pooling at their feet.

Carcasses piled up four and five rabbits deep, littering the ground so thickly the farmers were forced to step on the dead and dying bodies to get to the next victims. They could feel the hares squirming beneath their feet and worse yet, they could hear them screaming. It was an unnerving, chirping sound that didn’t stop until the last jackrabbit had died.

Afterwards the farmers brought out pitchforks and shovels and started pushing the bodies into piles. Dousing them with gasoline, they burned the jackrabbits. The smoke that came off the bonfires smelled of sweet meat and burned fur.

Either sickened by the spectacle or bored by the repetition of the process, the people who’d come out to watch began to drift away until they all eventually went back to their lives but they knew they’d remember those jackrabbit screams to their dying days.

The Fortune Teller

For some reason I’d only imagined gypsies as either young and passionate or very, very old, but this fortune-teller was neither. She was my age…although you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. It wasn’t because of the wrinkles stretching across her face or the gray strands crinkling their way through her, otherwise, coal-black hair. It was the knowing look in her green eyes that had aged her. Her life lessons had taught her how to survive…above all else.

 After a rumbling cough she removed the cigarette stub from between her cracked lips, snuffing it out on the tip of her middle finger before flicking it into the grass. “Give me your hand,” she commanded with a rich, throaty voice. 

I held out my palm and she grasped it between large hands that were thick and rough like a man’s. I felt the vitality of this woman coursing through me, plucking at my tendons and buzzing up my arm. The gypsy’s eyes closed and her head tilted backwards. Light coming from a campfire behind her cast an orange aura around her body. 

Without warning the woman let out a high-pitched scream that cracked the stillness of the night like a whip. Sparks from the fire burst skyward. Leaning further back, the gypsy dragged my hand closer to her body but I resisted. A stronger current of electricity surged between us and she dug her fingers deep into my flesh.

 “Stop!” she yelled. My body weakened and I obediently sat back down.  Leaning forward, she whispered, “You are special, my child. You have been selected… one among millions.” I leaned in, too, intense interest obliterating all my fears.

“You are to go out into the world and explore it. You will meet many people.” Her eyes drilled into me until I was sure they could see my soul. “You will use your gifts to unite the believers. You will lead them home.”

 She paused, closing her eyes and swaying from side-to-side rhythmically.

 I waited a moment then dared to ask, “How will I do it?”

 The swaying ceased. She took in a deep breath, slowly…deliberately…exhaling a cloud that vanished in the frosty air.

 Sparkling emerald eyes bore into my baby blues and a sly smile split her face as she let go of my hand …

 “Twenty dollars more.”

The Seat of Conversation

The Willow Creek TriMet station (Portland’s mass transit rail system) has seating scattered across its platform. Made of concrete, the names of literary and religious giants have been engraved into the table, settee and two chairs and that made me wonder what would be overheard if those individuals actually inhabited that space. Their imagined interaction follows…

“How can they ignore us? Don’t they know who we are?” Hawthorne asked the assembled group.

Moses sadly answered , “No, they don’t know. To them we are merely a table & chairs.”

“And only concrete,” Phaedre sniffed contemptuously, “I’ve heard tales of park benches in the city made of marble.”

“The city must be a beautiful place,” Woolf mused, “Everyone passing by us is headed there.”

“Wait, wait!” Austen whispered, “Someone’s coming.”

A young man approached; a student engrossed in whatever his iPod was blaring into his ear. The table and chairs held their breaths as he sat down, unzipped his book bag and pulled out a brown paper bag. Blotches of grease had soaked through and the smell of fast food filled the air. He ate fast, only taking time to look down the tracks for the next train. When lights began to flash he ran across the tracks just in time to squeeze through the Max’s closing door.

He’d left his bag behind.

“Great,” Sartre mumbled from beneath the brown paper bag, “How long is this going to sit on me. “

Chaucer laughed, “Better that than the dog they put on me earlier. You think that food smells bad, try smelling it after it’s been digested.”

Gordmier groaned, “You’re disgusting.”

Mohammed cleared his throat, a gesture that was meant to lend a dramatic air to his words, “Please, please. We must all remain calm. We were placed here by our maker and we will be together for all eternity. So it is written.”

“Are we here? Is our spirit captured within our rough exterior?” Buddha posed the question. “Are not our minds free to be anywhere?”

The other voices chimed in together, “Oh, why don’t you be quiet!”

Walking away from the group a passerby could only remember the quote on the cold, hard bench…”The end was such a surprise…”

____________________________________________________

Eight centuries into the future, they are still together….

The rain had stopped. After thirty-two days the sun finally appeared. Puddles surrounded the table and chairs, following the cracks in the sidewalks down to the lower levels of the broken pavement. The tracks were rusted over, not having felt the vibrations of a train in centuries. All was quiet, until…

“Geez, I thought it would never stop,” Gordmier complained.

Sartre sneered, “Of course it’s going to stop raining someday. We’ve seen it rain every cold season since we were placed here eight hundred years ago.”

“Yes. Even before the end of people came it rained continually,” Mohammed added.

Moses spoke up, “In my day it rained for forty days and forty nights and it drowned the whole world.”

“We’ve heard that story already, Moses,” Hawthorne interrupted before Moses could continue, “In fact, we heard that story every Spring since we were placed here.”

Woolf sighed, “I miss people.”

They all sighed together.

“There was a certain interesting aspect to them,” Chaucer acknowledged. “They always were good conversation pieces.”

A corner of the table had fallen to the pavement and it was from this broken chunk that Austen spoke, “You all make me sick. Look at you. At least you’re still in one piece. I’m pathetic.”

“We are all as we should be,” Buddha said calmly.

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