Sara Kaplan received her M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Idaho, and she also holds degrees from Miami University and Sweet Briar College. Her chapbooks include Moon Talk and Touring West of the Mississippi. Published interviews with notable poets are on Poetry Daily and in Conversations with Natasha Trethewey. Her poems appear in the following journals, and several poems were nominated for The Pushcart Prize: The Antioch Review, Harpur Palate, LIT 9, The Cincinnati Review, Talking River Review, The Meadow, InLand, Ruminate, The New Vilna Review, decomP magazine, Failbetter, Splash of Red, MO: Writings from the River, & Gulf Islands Review. As an Associate Professor of English at Del Mar College, she specializes in teaching Poetry and British Literature
The Shoal Creek vitex against the brick spikes
12-inch fragrant flowers of deep lavender blue
by May and a second flush in August. You keep
the tree shapely and tame. Until the dark, you stand
in the yard with your clippers, undecided. Butterflies
and hummingbirds never stop except when the dark
root of electricity grows through the rain.
When the early morning wakens, you put handfuls
of Rose Glo over the knockout roses in the bed
by the back fence and feel the ground for water.
You try to make things grow. You try to keep order,
prune. And here it comes, the dry light, cobwebs form
in the shrubs. You inspect the eaves with a broom
and recaulk and repaint the siding along the patio.
I can imagine the torment at the lift and rot
and spill and tear and crack of paint and wood and brick—
glowing imperfections—and you go around the house
looking for something broken you cannot fix.
you my friend, you sportsman you
strap into the foam life-preserver and you paddle for hours in
I’ve broken so many bones—
Skated and sledded into bloody trees—failed Olympian.
My efforts are Promethean.
You, immortal friend, who barely bruises
barefoot on the striated rocks that shelve the river,
watch when the green canoe angles into the water and floats.
I can’t direct the push, make it go where I want to go. The
and you say, not trying, what’s wrong with you, not trying, such a
I fling the paddle in the water, you grab it,
the boat knocks the shore. After I unbuckle the life-vest,
toss it into the slow currents, I stand by the shore
long after you bend down for the life-vest,
push the boat into the water, and take off into the evening
Of course, the dunes never get sunstroked.
They roll like beach wheat and pelt from the south.
I burn along the sea. Tropical buckeyes and scorched
mussels lead me through the mud flats in search
of an anti-cyclonic storm, the Great Red Spot.
I pretend this place is Jupiter and suck hard on my camel.
back across from Bird Island Basin Road
where there’s a shack and bike the Central Flyway.
My skin cooks and tightens. I think of October and the bitter panicum, sea oats,
Gulf dune, and dropseed to lead me to the end.
With the forbs of beach morning glory,
railroad vine, and prairie senna, still a lonely ride....
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm ~Vladimir Nabokov
In a halo of diamond dust,
fog bounces off a man’s rearview mirror
and I see him consider me
worth stopping for. In circles of refracted light
spun round the top of the sky, I could get lost.
My fingers stiffen and crack like forgotten pipes
as ice crystals flutter to the ground. If I took off my gloves—
to hold the freezing water, while passersby pass by,
the phantom sun would multiply and the air would clear
and warm again. But, in a prism of muted light,
my reflection becomes saturated by red dogs
whose yelps converge into a parhelic circle.
Sarah K. Lenz’s nonfiction has appeared in Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, The Fourth River, The South Dakota Review, Entropy, and elsewhere. Three of her essays have been named Notable in Best American Essays. In 2015 she received the New Letters Readers’ award in nonfiction. She holds an MA in Literature from Boise State and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Georgia College. She teaches composition and literature at Del Mar College, and hosts writing workshops at the Corpus Christi Writer's Studio. Find her on the web at writersstudio.org
Whenever I saw her tricycle, with its giant reflectors and ugly metal basket, parked under the pine trees by the pool house, my heart sank. Painted royal blue, her trike was the same shade as my family’s ancient and embarrassing Plymouth. (Everyone else drove minivans.) Whenever my mom dropped me off, I’d slam the Plymouth’s door extra hard.
The Tricycle Lady disgusted me. I’d see her pedaling around town, handlebars quivering, her body jerking and lurching, her bones twisted with some kind of palsy. She might have been retarded, too. It was hard to tell. She wore her dark hair in a Pixie cut that made her seem a lot younger than she must have been, but the sagging skin around her mouth gave her away. As she churned the pedals her skirt rode up, exposing milky thighs scored with blue veins.
A peculiar creature among the kids playing Marco Polo, the Tricycle Lady began her swims with a dive off the low board and plunged under the rope dividing the deep end from the kiddie section. From there she’d Aussie-crawl the width of the pool to the ladder and hoist herself out. Cutting through the chlorinated water with smooth buoyancy, she looked almost graceful. On dry land she was a mess of clunky limbs.
Even when submerged, the Tricycle Lady got on my nerves. She never strayed from her path. If you got in her way she’d crash right into you. The thought of her deformed flesh stroking mine struck terror in my thirteen-year-old heart. Like the other kids at the pool, I gave her a wide berth. Some even made a game of it, standing neck-deep directly in her path, then scattering like minnows as she neared. On the pool deck, she’d drag her clubfoot back to the low diving board and start all over again.
For as long as I could remember she’d been a fixture at the pool, but it wasn’t until the summer before eighth grade that it started to bug me. That’s when it occurred to me that she had no clue how repulsive she was.
Unlike her, I knew perfectly well how repulsive I was, and had been doing my best to fix it. I did a hundred sit-ups a day to flatten my round tummy and endured the stench of Nair (razor bumps—so disgusting!). I’d stopped swimming, since it smeared my mascara. Still, Mom dropped me off every afternoon at the pool, where I’d sunbathe by the chain link fence. If I got lucky I’d catch a glimpse of Clint Philips. He lived in a two-story Craftsman right across the street from the pool. Sometimes he’d play basketball or jump on his trampoline in front yard, executing somersaults that made my heart do a backflip. From his dimpled smile to his chiseled calf muscles, Clint represented my ideal of physical perfection.
That afternoon I waited only a few minutes before Clint appeared, riding his BMX in lazy loops up and down his driveway. I longed to call out to him, but I knew he was out of my league, being both a grade ahead of me and just too popular. The last time we had spoken—the week school let out for summer—was in band class. I’d knocked over a music stand, almost hitting him with it. My best friend, Kimberly, who knew Clint from the First Christian Church, had called me earlier that day to tell me she’d seen him at youth group flirting with Shandra, the most popular girl in our school.
I heard his mother yell, “Clint, telephone!” He dropped his bike and disappeared into the house. It was probably Shandra calling. No sooner did Clint leave than the Tricycle Lady rounded the corner of the pool deck, hobbling straight toward me. Three boys practicing cannonballs dashed in front of her. One of them must have tripped her, because a second later, she fell in a puddle a few feet from me, smacking the wet concrete next to me like a dead fish. Her arm struck me across my calf as she tried to catch herself. In a split second she had violated my personal space. I jumped back, startled by the feel of her cold, wet skin.
“Sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay.” I said, automatically, but as I watched her jerk to her feet, I realized it was okay. My mind rushed to that day in band when I tripped and embarrassed myself in front of Clint.
“Are you all right?” I asked. I still gripped my towel protectively.
She grunted an answer I couldn’t understand, turned toward the diving board, and began her route again. As I watched, she seemed like the bored polar bear I’d seen at the Henry Doorley Zoo, the one who relentlessly swam the same loop over and over, stroke by identical stroke. Was the Tricycle Lady’s repetitive behavior a coping mechanism? Like the polar bear, did she feel imprisoned by her disability? Or maybe it was a symptom of some mental illness like OCD?
My dry hair and swimsuit suddenly felt parched in the July sun. I longed to plunge into the water myself. I didn’t know how to dive, but I went to the low-board anyway. I pinched my nose closed and jumped like a lead weight, feet-first, into the deep end. I broke the surface of the water, and as I cut across the pool with an awkward front crawl, I felt the rush of pleasure from the cool water and the light buoyancy of my limbs. When I reached the edge of the pool where it was shallow enough to stand, I stood up and wiped the stinging chlorine-water from eyes. Smears of black mascara and eye makeup inked my fingertips. I looked around, suddenly fearful that someone from school would see me. As I scanned the pool for my classmates, I saw the Tricycle Lady again back at the diving board. She smiled, closed her eyes, and leapt for it: an amazing, arched dive, so streamlined it raised only the smallest splash.
At that moment I knew it wasn’t mental illness that compelled the Tricycle Lady. It was bliss. I’d seen it wash over her face just before she dove. Her routine, I suddenly realized, was admirable because she was doing something for the sheer pleasure of it, regardless of what anyone who saw her thought. I had a hard time remembering the last time I’d done something like that for me, without thinking about what Clint or Kimberly or even Shandra would think.
I grabbed the handrails of the poolside ladder, hoisted myself out of the pool, and walked back to the diving board, taking my place in line. This time, I told myself, I’m doing this just because it feels good.
Last month, my son, Stanley started swim lessons at AquaTots. He’s five now, and has finally gotten his shot of COVID vaccine, and is deeply troubled by having to go under the water instead of bobbing above it with floaties on. Two and a half years ago, I’d imagined that Stanley would learn to swim in Mommy and Me classes, and that it would be a magical bonding experience for both of us. He would be young enough that he wouldn’t fear the water. He’d learn to love swimming as much I do, and he’d take to the experience, well, like a fish in water. But then, COVID shut down everything.
Here we are years late to the pool. The pandemic continues, but in our post-vaccine world we feel bravely buffered by vaccination immunity. We are taking swimming lessons three times a week in corporate franchised model that promises 7-levels of success. AquaTots is the McDonald’s of water safety instruction, which is to say, based on the hundreds of kids that churn through its chlorinated waters, it’s a model of efficiency and standardization. The lobby is full of bright, primary colors and sturdy pleather furniture. Laminated skills cards with trademarked characters track each child’s progress. Stanley’s a level 3 Leapfrog, and there are neat columns of checklists and stars to be earned.
But human beings aren’t standardized. We contain too many complex multitudes. Stanley was not having any of it. He spent one lesson clinging to the pool gutter and refused to practice any water skill. His befuddled coach didn’t force him through the paces. As I watched from the lobby, behind the window in the spectator’s space, I had mixed feelings. We’re not getting our money’s worth vied in my mind with, at least they’re respecting his bodily autonomy. When Stanley screamed, “No, I don’t want to! And “No, don’t. Stop!” His coach listened.
I don’t know why Stanley is so terrified of the water, or what combination of his personality, genetics, and past experiences have made the sensation of putting his face underwater such a terrifying ordeal. For a week when his terror levels were at their highest, I was painfully aware of the scene he made every time his coach called him to the pool deck, and he wailed, cried, and went limp with a passive resistance any picket line protestor would admire. I noticed how his swim classmates were more advanced that Stanley, floating and kicking with ease.
My own stomach roiled with the shame of the judgmental looks on the other parents’ faces as I dragged Stanley, limp and wailing to the pool, with the worry I was cruelly traumatizing my son, and with the fear that if he didn’t learn to swim, he’d someday fall victim to drowning.
We powered through our non-refundable month. I talked with Stanley before lessons about how Coach Lilli wouldn’t let him get hurt. I talked about how being brave means you do something even if it’s scary. I talked up the coveted DumDum lollipops the front desk manager handed out after lessons as a reward.
After one lesson that I thought had went better than most, just as I was strapping him in his car seat to leave, he burst out, “I just don’t want to be in the water, ever!” His lips and tongues were already stained red from the coveted lollipop.
“I know, but you need to so you won’t drown.”
I’m sure my adult logic made no sense to him, but I’m as keyed up by fear as Stanley is. That old anxiety I had about SIDS has now been transferred to drowning. I’m trying to safeguard him from peril, prepare him for a future of pool parties and beach-going. Our wills are locked in this impasse. He refuses to loosen up enough to practice swim skills and fiercely grits his baby teeth when his coach bobs him underwater.
It will take time. He’ll get it, echoed a chorus of voices: Stanley’s dad, grandma, coach. I had to readjust my expectations that there’s no shortcut or fast track for getting Stanley to feel comfortable in the water. So many things in life are like that. They are eigenzeit. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. It’s a reminder that “It takes as long as it takes,” especially if the task at hand is complex. Stanley’s learning to swim eigenzeit. He’s on his own time.
What feels like stalled progress often isn’t. After two weeks, Stanley only had one star and dozens of empty boxes listing what we hope for him to accomplish in the water, but he’s making the kind of progress that’s nearly invisible. Sometimes I feel starless, too, like my capacity for growing, learning, and creating is so slow and tiny that it hardly feels like I’m making progress at all.
As creatives, we’re all on eigenzeit too. I’ve been at work on the current book for over a year now, and though I’ve filled my Mosquito notebook, I’m dismayed that I don’t have a complete first draft yet. When I started my third notebook of the project, I emblazoned on the cover, Eigenzeit, to remind myself that sustaining a dedicated practice without stopping is more important than counting gold stars.
One night, Stanley wanted to play swim lesson in the bathtub.
“You be the kid. I’m the coach,” he said, instructing me to do dips with my hand.
“I don’t want to go underwater,” I whined.
“You have to.” He showed me how, and I did it while feigning fear. Stanley needed an imaginative space to act out a scenario of swim lessons in which he had control, and it’s led, every so slowly to more confidence in the pool.
We’ve signed up for a second month of swim lessons. Stanley doesn’t cry any more, and now I watch the newer kids have meltdowns as they’re hoisted by their embarrassed parents into the pool. Stanley’s also started to develop a sense of pride. He comes out of the lesson with his eyes rimmed red from his goggles and slaps my hand with a hard high-five. It’s something of wonder to see him amazed by his own capacity to do front floats, bobs, back bloats, that used to be impossible.
Yesterday, I even caught him practicing front float dips at the edge of the pool while his coach worked with another kid. Suddenly, his skill card is now sprinkled with a dozen stars. Stanley’s sped up, but I still know he’s on his own time, and for now, we’re lucky enough to honor that. I’m honoring my own writing time too, it takes as long as it takes.
Sarah K. Lenz is an essayist, poet, and English instructor at Del Mar College. In 2019, she founded the Writers’ Studio, a community-based literary education center. Author’s Note: I wrote this poem during a Writers’ Studio class. The prompt was to craft a catalogue poem by listing things, and after reading Emily Perez’s “Green Light Go,” I modeled my poem after her techniques. Go to www.writersstudio.org to check out our current creative writing class offerings. Classes are open to writers of all skill levels
To be a fat housecat, curled like
the comma of a moon, gently snoring.
To be a cup of chamomile tea,
and the steam that sifts from it
and dissipates. To be the sloth
at the Henry Doorly Zoo, suspended,
aloft by slivers of claw.
To be the pillow of goose down,
the bedbug under it. To be
a cancer patient with a chemo port,
the poison dripping slow,
right toward the heart. To be
a lemony breeze on the first day
of spring, to be the heavy buzz
of a bumblebee, or sticky sweet
lips, honeyed. To be mine,
the slow, thick drip of molasses
on a too cold morning, the sap
of a rubber tree—infinitely useful—
if more expensive than plastic. To be
just as you are—not too fast—to go slow,
Scott Wayland Griffin has traveled internationally and lived in other parts of the U.S. He returned to his hometown and works as an industrial mechanic. Hobbies include medieval re-enactments, blacksmithing and creative writing.
While I was working in the shop last night, an opossum decided to come visit. (I was certain that it was an opossum even though it was larger than my neighbor's yapping dog.) I did not share his desire for companionship and defended myself with the weapon in hand . . . a full can of green exterior spray paint.
He escaped but now I must warn my neighbors. . .
Beware of the Green-Tailed Opossum!
The green-tailed opossum (think I'll refer to it as the GTO) is still lurking in my shop at times.
It seems that spray painting its butt did little to deter these visits. He smells terrible and is using my shop as his own personal latrine. He's definitely got to go.
I set out a small game trap (attached with cable to a heavy shop stand) loaded it with sausage and the GTO ate the sausage without setting off the trap.
I set out a rat trap loaded with cheese, it ate the cheese, set off the trap (which is wired to the cable) and I never heard a peep.
Next tactic involved hanging the rat trap from the metal stand and placing the game trap directly below that on the floor.
I figured if he didn't set off the big trap while eating from it, he'd get his butt caught when he went for the rat trap.
This time I tried peanut butter as a lure. GTO really likes peanut butter, he ate till he was full, set off both traps and I think I heard him burp as he wandered off unfazed…. This isn't over, not by a long shot.
Added a new, small game trap to my arsenal.
Teaser night for the GTO—Traps are baited but not set.... A few days of this and then I'll set the traps again! Mwuahahaha! It's my turn to toy with him.
Ohh clever fella, he tried to move one of the traps to use it against me! Lucky thing I turned on the lights before I entered the shop. I swear, he placed the trap directly in the footpath. What kind of opossum am I dealing with here? His intellect is amazing. He is indeed a worthy opponent. I will sing a dirge in his honor & wear his skin with pride.
11:36 pm and all is quiet on the Possum Front. I just played in the rain, standing naked in the backyard, intimidating the opossums.
Regularly scheduled feedings of the green tailed opossum were interrupted last night because I was too tired to mess around with resetting the traps that he uses for exercise equipment.
Today, I find a large hole in my water heater…. I'm choosing to blame him.
Tonight, I'm adding a steel box to the traps, along with a spring-loaded spiked post…. At this point, I really need to put up signs to warn people to stay away, just like Area 51!!!
This is no ordinary opossum. He managed to lift the box off himself, escaped multiple spring traps and ate all the bait.
Perhaps if I were to hook the trebuchet up to the box . . . he would be launched to the next block & then he'd be my neighbor's problem.
Oh, I'm spending today replacing the water heater & sheet rock that the GTO destroyed.
Penny was here dropping off pewter when we heard the GTO making squeaking noises.
"AHA! Finally caught him." I declared. Upon checking the traps, they were undisturbed…. Turns out we heard him laughing his green butt off at my feeble efforts. To prove his point, after I went to sleep, he ate every bit of bait without setting off a single trap.
Tonight, I might bring out the night vision goggles and play sniper. . . although the next post you read might be from the opossum demanding ransom for my safe return.... This is one clever critter!!
This weekend's battle ended in a stalemate. Fully aware of my night vision capabilities, the enemy took a strong defensive position. It refused to engage me in open battle and I made the trap system so deadly that he didn't even touch the bait. Finally, from the back corner of the shop, I saw a tiny white flag being waved frantically. I hoped for a full surrender but instead the opossum merely wished to parley a temporary ceasefire.
We talked with each other (him still hiding behind a stack of expensive ceramic tiles) but negotiations began breaking down when I refused to allow him Television privileges & he stubbornly refused to let me shoot him. In the end, we reached an agreement that I will not use poison and he will not damage my new water heater.
(He obviously hadn't noticed that I used sinew to fasten the bait to the traps. His days are numbered.)
It's amazing that the possum has lasted this long. Even with a motion detector to let me know he's in my yard (the dog next door barks at it) I can't find him in the tall grass. I'm betting that if I get the lawnmower out that I'll be able to chop him up nicely. I mean after all, remember the job it did on my neighbor's pet turtle when I ran over it on accident?
Neighbor: "Was that my turtle?"
Me: (embarrassed) "No ma'am, this turtle only has three legs"
Someone had an opossum trap on Craigslist for cheap (strong emphasis on "cheap") so I finally bought one along with cat food which everyone seems to think is like the holy grail of possum bait. Trap was set, baited and promptly ignored by Kenny... yeah, he left me a note that reads, “Do I look like a F@#$%* cat?!? You will pay for this insult human!" Then he signed it—"Kenny O Possum".
Strange coincidence, my son had a goldfish also named Kenny. Perhaps this is it, reincarnated and seeking revenge for the flippant disregard for a decent burial. My version of a burial at sea. (Flush!)…. (Actually, it also could be any of the four consecutive Kennys who followed. They were all goldfish and each was disposed of in similar fashion) (Flush, Flush, Flush, Flush). Maybe I should try some fish food in the trap?
So, I get home late last night & decide to check on the traps before dinner.… Voila! There, in the live trap, is the biggest meanest (and dare I say, smelliest) opossum I've ever encountered. I’ve heard opossums hiss before but this beast actually growled & roared like a mountain lion.
We're talking Uber-Rodent with a terrible disposition!
I could hear him growling the entire time I ate dinner while deciding his fate. Hmm, I do have that new cleaver that I've been wanting to test….
Trash day isn't until Thursday so there's no way I'm going to kill him here & have him stinking up my bin.
I load him into the truck and we drive out to the river, on a deserted country road. It's dark so I set the trap in the beam of my headlights and with sword in hand I pull the release to open the cage.
Now the way this beast is acting, I'm thinking he might be rabid and could come at me, so as he jumps out, I leap backwards into a fighting stance, preparing my downstroke of death. Kenny O. Possum seizes the chance to escape rather than fight.
He fled from the cage faster than I've ever seen a opossum move and began running onto the bridge which spans the river.
"Oh fine. Whatever", I say to myself. I'm not going to chase him, he's been a fun opponent and after all the laughs I've gotten through our battles, he deserves to live.
A warm glow fills my heart as I look on this noble, majestic (albeit ugly) creature of God.
Kenny looks back at me and gives me a mean stare and one last growl before he leaps over curb....
I'm guessing he didn't realize he was in the middle of a bridge because as he fell, he looked back at me again with a shocked expression on his face as he disappeared over the edge, descending into the dark waters below.
"KERSPLASH!" - Actually, it was more of the "kersplat" sound of a belly flop. I giggled, "And the Russian judges give him a 3.5"
I rushed to the spot I'd last seen him and pointed my flashlight down, hoping to find him swimming away. As my light probed the darkness of the water, there was no sign of him. Then, I heard a loud splash further downstream and pointed my light there to see ripples and a few bubbles on the surface.
"How odd", I thought for a split second before I noticed several pairs of yellow-green eyes in the water, staring back at me. . . . . . .
This could be bad. I had no doubt as to the outcome of this battle between rodent and reptile so I rushed home to prepare my defenses against Kenny O. Possum for when he returns, wearing alligator skin armor.
I set the traps and barred the door.
Moshadoe & Mohirae quickly learned the finer arts of hunting with the pack under the watchful eye of Garoun. They were allowed to follow the hunters at a respectful distance at a much younger age than usual.
Sadly, not all the older wolves appreciated having two pups tagging along. One in particular, named Badu, took every opportunity to snap at the young pair. He wasn't very bright himself and he'd had a tough time learning the skills of a hunter. When he was young, he'd been picked on by Garoun for making mistakes that usually cost the pack a missed kill.
Badu's mistakes were pretty serious and as such, he deserved a little nip on the nose or a bite on his ear because that's the way wolves treat idiots who lost the pack a meal. Garoun wasn't being mean about it, he was just handling the situation in the traditional manner.
Some wolves hold a grudge however and Badu was one of them. In his dim memory, he remembered the bites and nips being much worse than they really were and he also imagined that his mistakes were not so very bad. So, when Garoun brought the pups along, Badu took much pleasure in biting them every chance he got.
If Mohirae breathed too loud, Badu would snap at her and loudly tell her to stop being too loud, "You'll scare away the rabbits!" Of course, Badu was much louder than her little puppy breathing would ever be. If Badu was scratching an itch and he saw Moshadoe scratching too, he'd stop scratching just so he could bite Moshadoe's ear & tell him gruffly, "Stop scratching! You'll scare away the deer!"
All this the two pups endured and more, but the worst thing that Badu would do came after every successful hunt.
When a pack brings down a deer or elk, the older hunters get first turn at eating. Once they have grabbed what they wanted then the others could come take bites, according to each wolf's status in the pack. The youngest and smallest always had to wait till the last to get a small bite and Moshadoe & Mohirae knew this. They almost always waited to take their rightful turns, but Badu would bite at them and drive them away, snarling that he still wasn't finished eating. He would eat slowly, sometimes not really eating at all, only gnawing noisily on a bone as he tormented the pups by announcing how tasty this deer or that elk was.
If Garoun noticed he would shake his head in disgust with Badu. He would sometimes still have some scraps left from his part of the kill and he'd let them finish it, but he couldn't stop Badu because that wasn't how things worked. If he tried to force Badu into letting the pups eat before all the other wolves were done, it would cause a terrible fight. The tradition of taking turns according to one's status in the pack was not a thing to interfere with and if Badu said he wasn't done then the pups had to wait. The trouble was that by the time Badu grew tired of his game, one of the other wolves would resume eating and the pups would still be sitting there, waiting with rumbling bellies. Several times the pups would get nothing at all to eat from the pack's kill.
One day the pack had brought down a deer that was too small to feed all the larger wolves so the pups knew they wouldn't even get a bone to gnaw on. Moshadoe turned to Mohirae and said, "Let's go see what kind of food we can hunt on our own. There might be some rabbits near the frozen lake."
As they made their way along the path, they noticed several other wolves were hunting up mice and rabbits in the area. "Let's go farther, we don't want anyone telling us we scared away the mice by making too much noise" said Mohirae.
The two traveled on until they reached the very edge of the frozen lake. At the same instant, a large old rabbit emerged from his hole right in front of them. They stared at each other for a second before the rabbit leaped, heading away on the icy surface of the lake with the two hungry wolf pups hot on his tail. They slipped all over the place but finally managed to trip up the rabbit and then the hunt was over. The pups began to sing the song of the pack to celebrate their kill, but the rough growls of Badu made them stop. Turning around, they saw him coming towards them over the ice. "Don't be singing over that rabbit, he's mine" growled the older wolf.
It looked like he'd be taking their dinner, until the ice broke from under Badu and sent him into the freezing water below. He paddled around in circles trying to pull himself back onto the ice. He called to them, "Help me out you little runts, my tail is frozen." Moshadoe told him, "We will gladly help you, just as soon as we're done with this tasty little rabbit."
As the two pups ran off with their rabbit, they could hear Badu snarling at them as he tried to pull himself from the water. "I'm going to have that rabbit, it's mine I say!"
The pups went back up the path a little way before they began eating near a thorny cactus. They'd almost finished when a very unhappy and frozen Badu caught up to them. Moshadoe dropped the rabbit remains and it landed on the cactus. He snarled in his little pup voice, "Leave us alone. That rabbit is so small that a big hunter like you could swallow it whole. Well I won't let you, it's ours!"
Mohirae looked at Moshadoe in shock, she couldn't believe he had just talked to an elder in that tone. He whispered to her, "Just watch, he'll eat it now for sure."
The pup's torment worked. Badu was so angry that he pounced on the rabbit and indeed, he tried to swallow it in just one bite. That was all it took, for in his greed he had grabbed the small cactus in his mouth also. As he felt the long thorns stabbing at the insides of his mouth, Badu went cross-eyed and his ears went up in surprise. He tried to push the evil thorny rabbit from his mouth with his tongue, but the needles pierced that as well. He managed to pry the cactus and rabbit from his mouth with his paws, but they too suffered injury. Now he had thorns in his paws, his mouth, and his tongue. He was in no mood to cause trouble for the pups as he slunk away with his tail tucked between his back legs in shame. In fact it was days before Badu was able to eat anything and he never again tried to stop the pups from eating with the pack. He no longer snapped at them or bit their ears, for he had learned his lesson and had lost his taste for rabbits, all in the same day.
copyright Scott Wayland Griffith
read more great writing like this in Corpus Christi Writers 2018: An Anthology
Born and Built in the Coastal Bend, Shaelei, pronounced Shay-Lee, discovered writing early on. From passing around stapled chapters and excerpts in Junior High, to now bubbling about plots and characters on her porch to friends who had become unwitting beta readers, writing has always been one of her favorite things and has become a part of who she is. Her husband, artist and creative in his own way, has always supported her writing and is one of the reasons the need for the clack of a keyboard has never died. Shaelei hopes to continue to pursue her own creative dreams and encourage their daughter to discover and pursue her own. Learn more about Shaelei
At last, after centuries in my tomb and months of silent rapture while the mortals surveyed my degraded vessel, my sarcophagus was opened for what I hoped would be the last time. The mere presence of mortals made my still mummified mouth curl to a snarl.
“My word,” A voice, muffled, but clearly female murmured. “I’ve never seen one, so--”
“Juicy? Ripe?” A male voice finished. “You grow accustomed to the smell. The cedar oil helps.”
Yes, yes. I am strange. I am fascinating. Can we make haste with my emancipation? I have places to destroy and people to eat.
One of the four stakes that bound me to my prison of inscribed pine turned ever so lightly.
Yes, release me, foolish mortal. Release me that I may unleash my wrath upon the earth. Finally the night will be filled with weeping and your streets will run red with blood.
“Could you pass me the--Oh, yes, thank you.” The woman’s voice was followed the clicking sounds that had become all too familiar during my past months of torment.
“I’ve been meaning to ask since you returned, How you’re doing,” The clicks stopped. “With everything, I mean?”
“Better, still in shock about Henry's dea--." The woman's voice wavered. "After everything." She sounded demure, wilted.
Oh little mortal, soon you will know the true meaning of suffering. You all will, and then I will feast upon your desperate, impoverished souls.
“I can’t even imagine.” The man matched her tone.
“How- How’s your sister?” She continued. “She works at St. Augustine’s, right?”
“Yes, she’s doing well but it’s been difficult not being able to see her.”
“And your cousin, isn’t he in the National Guard?”
“Yes, he’s been activated.” He sighed. “My aunt is sick with worry, but he assures us it will all be over soon.”
It has most assuredly just begun. I chuckled. The mortals were silent, speaking no more until the clicks stopped.
“Shall we proceed then?” My heart leapt with excitement, or at least it would have if it was still beating.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
Centuries entombed and months of examinations, yet the next few moments were the longest. One by one they removed the stakes from my decayed flesh.
At last! I yelled to the cosmos. At last I shall be free!
With the removal of the last stake, the magic that bound me came loose, and I inhaled into my vessel’s lungs. It was a shame my first breath of fresh air was to be tainted by mortals. My nose twitched at the foul odor.
“I’ll take these to be processed. Do you mind uploading the photos?”
“Not at all.”
Yes, leave me with the woman. She will not be much, but I will incite fear in her and feed from her distress. Just enough to complete my regeneration. Just a snack.
Already, I began to regain my vitality. My skin began to fill and heal over the muscles that expanded and organs that rehydrated. My eyes opened to the blinding sun above me.
No, not the sun. Something else. I mused at the gleaming orb above ne that threatened to burn holes in my reborn retinas.
I almost regretted my rebirth but a pleasant familiar sound brought a wicked grin to my face. The sniffling cries of the woman.
I arose to find her standing with her back to me in the peculiar room littered with odd shiny stones. Her head lowered as she examined a golden band on her finger, tears trickled down her cheeks until they were absorbed by the cloth face covering.
“Well, hello my dear,” I said, rising from the sarcophagus.
The woman gasped, stumbling backwards atop her pointed heeled shoes.
“You are already ripe for the taking.”
I paused for only a moment to admire my own perfect reflection in the shiny metal surface behind her.
“Who- Who are you?” She braced herself against the edge of a table. I grinned at her wide eyes, licking my lips. “How did you get in here?” Her fear sweetened the air like fine perfume.
I inhaled deeply, relishing the moment as I approached her. “I am Tyrannicus, deliverer and devourer of torment.” Her knees trembled. “And you,” I eyed her up and down. “Shall be but the first course of my resurrection feast.”
Despite her knocking knees, she charged toward the door.
"Little doe, you will not escape this wolf so easily." I purred, catching her by the small of her waist. My lips pressed firmly to hers just moments after my clawed hand dove through her fawn locks.
Her energy flowed from her to me and I drained her of every little bit. But that energy, which I had craved for centuries, suddenly turned my stomach. I pulled away from her, my face distorted with disgust as images still flashed behind my eyes.
“What sorcery is this?” I glared into her brown eyes. Surely this woman was a witch. What other explanation was there for the sickening ichor that now oozed through my veins?
“W- What?” Her vacant eyes searched mine. “Sorcery?”
“Yes, what is this?” She nearly fell as I fled her touch. My nails traced white lines into my own flesh. “It’s abhorrent.” I shook my head, repeatedly smacking my tongue against the roof of my mouth. She stood before me, stunned into utter silence with her mouth open in the typical mortal, mouth-breathing fashion.
“Abhorrent?” She exhaled as if her soul exited with her words.
“Yes, your flavor.” I took my tunic in my hands. “It’s horrid.” I fought the urge to gag. Her suffering lingered on the tongue.
“Flavor,” she murmured.
I glowered at her empty expression. It appeared she had used all of her will in her initial charge.
“Those things,” I stepped cautiously toward her, afraid her taste would transfer in the very air I breathed. “They have all come to pass?” The images repeated in my own veins. Death, plague, famine, civil unrest, they were all there. Initially, I was perturbed that someone had beat me to my task, but the more events that unraveled in my mind's eye, the more jealous I became. Whoever had done it, they had done it well. Too well."
Her suffering flowed so richly that there was nothing else for seasoning, leaving her energy acrid and bitter like dark, unsweetened chocolate.
“Are you,” I gulped, “all like this?” Her brows furrowed at me. “Is this everywhere?” She needn’t speak. My skin already prickled at her reality that now weighed heavier on me than my binding. It was everywhere. They were all tainted.
“What year is it?” I stood just inches from her now.
“The year?” She swallowed, her eyes still puffy and damp with tears.
“Yes, the year.” I fought the urge to shake her. Finally the woman blinked, dropping her eyes from mine.
“Well, it’s 2020.” Her bewildered gaze returned.
“2020?” I repeated. She nodded silently. My own eyes drifted back to my previous place of interment. I despised the predicament, but what could be done. I was a deliverer of torment, not from torment.
"We'll try for 2021, then.” I sighed, striding back to the coffin. “In the meantime, try to cheer up a bit.” I continued over my shoulder. “But, not too much.” I spun on my heel, pointing a wary finger. Her head cocked to one side as I threw one leg over the side of the pine box. “Put that lighted tree out a little earlier, or take up a new, but ultimately unfulfilling hobby. I don’t care which.”
I looked at the women one last time, waiting for recognition of my requests, but she simply continued to stare.
“Mortals,” I shook my head, lying back and pulling the lid back over my tomb. In the darkness once again, I placed my palms on my chest.
“Nearly a millennia of waiting and I awake in 2020.” I grumbled, closing my eyes. “I truly have the worst luck.”
Skoot is one of Corpus Christi's most prolific writers. He is a native Los Angelino, a musician, music critic and a Viet Nam veteran. He has also worked as a disc jockey, actor, speech therapist, stand-up comedian, behavioral counselor and streetcar conductor. His previous works include the Lars Lindstrom Zen-Jazz Mystery series, a black-humor novel about health care in America entitled “Apollo Issue,” and a political humor novel, “The Palestine Solution,” the King Irv fantasy series, and The Dave Holman Texas Detective mysteries. Skoot lives with his two cats, Miles and Dexter, in Rockport, Texas.
So I was watching television; the eleven o’clock news. I was about to switch it off, when they started a segment about a spate of recent burglaries in my area of Riverside County. “These particular thieves are pretty clever,” the pretty raven-haired talking head was saying. “They spend a few days watching houses for a pattern of lights going off and on.
“If it seems that the pattern is too routine, they take a closer look. So those elaborate timer systems on your lights won’t work on guys like these! Stay tuned for more.”
I’d already turned up the sound, and was anxious for more information, but the news report cut to a series of “adult themed” commercials. I’ve always thought these rude and nasty adverts had no place on the little box, but I was hanging on my seat, waiting for more about the recent home invasion robberies.
And suddenly, a dark-haired, bearded man with a loud obnoxious voice was telling me about “Beautiful Zelda SX-5000, the most life-like and anatomically correct inflatable partner money could buy. Available at adult bookstores, video rental and lingerie shops everywhere!”
Beautiful Zelda, I thought. She certainly did look real on my 21-inch screen. Was she realistic enough to fool a couple of criminal types gazing in my front window? She’d have to be pretty good, as my favorite recliner, the one facing the TVs flickering light, was less than three feet from my living room window’s glass.
I spent a restless night. I live in a gated senior community, but my neighbors are always talking about strangers in cars following close behind residents to sneak through the automated barrier and enter our complex in search of plunder. My well tended home could be as good a target as any other, on those many weekends that I visit my kids in San Diego or Santa Barbara.
By the dawn’s early light, I’d made up my mind. When I traveled, Beautiful Zelda SX-5000, or someone like her would be firmly ensconced in my favorite chair, eyes fixed on my flickering viewing screen. Ah, but how was she to get to my chair? We have no sex shops in our little city. The closest such thing is about eight miles away in the town of Lake Elsinore.
And even then, who was I likely to see going into or coming from such a unique establishment so close to home? Rumor had it that one of our church deacons frequented such haunts – just keeping track of the sinners he claimed – And someone from our church would never understand why I needed the company of Beautiful Zelda SX-5000. “To protect your house?” they’d say. “Come on, man, your lies are as sinful as your wicked thoughts.”
And that’s why I drove the freeway system all the way out to Garden Grove in Orange County, the next county over, before I stopped to look for someone selling dirty books and videos. Little Saigon seemed a safe neighborhood, where I wouldn’t be recognized by any of my fellow seniors from The Colony where I lived.
I stepped through a black painted door, into a twilight world lit only by small spotlights that shined on DVD cases and glossy magazine covers. In the center of all this, before a high sort of judges dais, sat a glass display case occupied by an inflatable plastic doll in a short blond wig, looking very much like one of Rod Stewart’s ex-wives.
“Ah, how much is… uh… one of these ladies?” I inquired, to which the unshaven man in the greasy hair and filthy black tee-shirt launched into a sales pitch for Beautiful Zelda SX-5000. I felt all those secretive rat-like customers around the room casting disdainful eyes as the man explained how each “anatomically correct” part functioned, and just what Beautiful Zelda could do to satisfy my every need. I wanted to explain that I just needed a human-like presence to protect my property, but each time I opened my mouth to interrupt, the sweat-ponged salesman just talked louder. When he finally arrived at the price, I nearly collapsed. I stuttered. I stammered. “How much?” I exclaimed to the chortles of a handful of punters back among the magazine racks.
“It’s alright, Buddy,” said Mr. Grease and Sweat. “I think I got a deal for you.” He came down from his high perch, a ring of keys in his hand, and proceeded to open the cabinet before me.
“This is Beautiful Zelda SX-2000,” he told me as he unfolded the blond-wigged doll from the glassed-in space. “She doesn’t have the turbo-power suck or some of the other features of the latest model, but she looks just as good.
“We don’t much call for old technology around here, so I can let her go for less than half the price of the SX-5000 model. And she’s already inflated and ready to go. Just sit her in your passenger seat and y’r off. You’re not on a motorcycle, are you?”
I hadn’t given much thought to rush hour traffic, as I haven’t driven into the city to work in a few years, but News Radio was quick to remind me that the Santa Ana Canyon, going toward my home, was slowed to crawl as Zelda and I climbed the Garden Grove Freeway ramp. Well, thought I, with Beautiful Zelda SX-2000 in my passenger seat, I could probably get away with sneaking into the carpool lane. Who’s to know the difference?
As I turned to watch the fuming drivers on my right in the regular lanes inching forward while I sped past, I couldn’t help but notice that the wind from my sunroof was jostling my plastic passenger in her seat. Beautiful Zelda would rise and fall as the breeze took her. I wished that I’d thought to do up her seat belt, but it was too late now, we were moving too fast. Maybe other drivers would just think my passenger was very excited about something. I sped on.
My attention was suddenly diverted by a squeal of brakes, a few sharp horn toots, and loud, rude shouts. I turned, and beside me, Beautiful Zelda’s buoyant backside had risen and was pointing out through the sunroof. Her flimsy cotton nighty was rising over her head, caught up behind her life-like plastic arms. Thank God at least she still had a bright red thong covering her…
That silver Lexus behind me. Is that a Colony resident sticker on the driver-side windshield? And am I correctly lip-reading the old dear neighbor of mine telling her silver-haired companion, “I think we’ve just been mooned?”
And again I’m distracted. Just as I make the transition onto the 55 freeway, the Lexus drops back, replaced by a set of red and blue flashing lights. I pull onto the narrow shoulder dreading the scene to follow. What can I say? Would they believe the truth? Am I about to be registered as some kind of sex offender?
The state trooper takes my license and registration with a serious face and walks back to his cruiser while Beautiful Zelda’s very real looking bottom rests on my car roof. In my mirror, I see that he’s on his radio. Seeking reinforcements? Calling the state mental hospital? What?
Then he’s grinning ear-to-ear as he replaces his mic on the dash of his car. Moments later, another state police car pulls in just in front of me and a Highway Patrol motorcycle parks near my rear fender. The three officers are faced away, but I can feel their loud guffaws as the first man on the scene points at Beautiful Zelda’s backside still lifted partially through the open roof of my vehicle.
The officer who pulled me over approaches my window once more. With a ridged John Wayne face that looks as if it could erupt into laughter at any second, he tells me I’m being cited for improper use of the high-occupancy-vehicle lane, violation of code such-and-such, punishable by a fine of not less than five-hundred dollars as his buddies come up behind him. It’s then that I recognize the motorcycle cop. He’s not a deacon, but he is a regular in out large Wildomar congregation, and his eyes are telling me that he knows all of my secret sins.
I interrupt the officer at my window. “I’m guilty,” I holler, “uh, guilty as sin,” which draws a chuckle from my bike riding fellow Christian. “Just give me the ticket and let me out of here. I’ll gladly pay the fine. I’ll pay double!”
I look up to see the third highway patrolman edging his way toward my window. “You realize that your little sex toy friend will have to be confiscated as evidence, don’t you?” He giggles. His two buddies back him with solemn nods as he rips Beautiful Zelda SX-2000 through my car’s skyward opening.
I watch in my rear-view as the laughing officers put the cuffs on Beautiful Zelda while she floats before the cruiser’s open back door. With an exaggerated pelvic thrust, cop number three sends Beautiful Zelda flying into the caged rear seat.
Had the circumstances been different, I might have gotten a kick watching two state policemen bent over in a paroxysm of uncontrollable laughter while their partner rolled helplessly in the grassy center median snorting and choking on his bemusement.
Later that night, I was watching the eleven o’clock news. When the ad came on for Beautiful Zelda SX-5000, I threw an empty whiskey bottle through the small screen of my old television, which exploded in smoke and flame, showering a fine cloud of glass particles all over my living room rug.
Once upon a harvest moon, there were three little pigs; A very conservative Fox News kinda pig, a moderate, middle-class type conformist pig, and a wigged-out, very vouty cool and free-thinking pig.
The first little pig was too lazy to build a house of his own. He bitched that the government wasn’t setting him up for an inexpensive place to crash and finally bought a clapped-out old single-wide mobile home in the woods, landscaped with worn rotting tires and discarded, rusting appliances.
The conformist second little pig bought a three-bedroom, two bath pad in a Levitt Town tract where all the houses looked so much alike he had to count the doors every night coming home to make sure he was walking into the right crib.
The very vouty third little pig built himself a mad pad on the beach out of baritone sax reeds and palm fronds with a hip little bar and multiple hammocks swingin’ free!
As the little pigs were settling into their Texas coastal life, a big bad wolf hitch hikin’ down with the snowbirds from Minnesota stopped off feelin’ hungry and unfulfilled. Unfamiliar with the territory, the big bad wolf cut east from the highway and started makin’ tracks through the dark circuitous oaken woods. After a long bit of a trapes, the wolf found himself in a ghetto-looking clearing filled with rusting junk, rotting tires and a big aluminum box covered with Kudzu vines, Texas flags and No Trespassing signs. The wolf approached cautiously, mounted the three rotting wood steps and applied his hairy knuckles to the rusting screen door.
“Who goes there?” thundered the frightened but macho pig. “Don’t you know you’re standin’ on private property? You’d better not be a Jehovah’s Witless or something, or I’ll blow you away!”
“It’s cool,” shouted the wolf. “I’m just here to check your meters.”
When the up-tight pig opened the door, the big bad wolf gave him a wide, saliva-dripping grin. “You look like a tasty pork morsel,” the canine creature told him. “I think I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your joint down… Then I’ll have me a sort of Cajon pork sandwich with extra jalapeños!”
The red-neck pig called for his kids to fetch him his shotgun, but the over-zealous pig kids came out too fast, tripping and letting loose with a blast that sent their daddy to that big pig sty in the sky.
Not wanting to be on the scene when the gendarmerie arrived, the big bad wolf legged it east toward the coast. After a long trot through the forest, the big bad wolf came on a tract of poorly constructed houses. Hoping to blend in with the low budget surroundings, the wolf strolled down the main drag, selecting a non-descript pad with a cheap Korean car in the drive and walking up to the door with a wolfish grin. He sounded the bell and hung back until a nervous little pig opened the door.
“I always try to be politically correct,” said the pig that answered the door. “But your presence here could be bringin’ down the property values. What do you want, and make it quick, before my neighbors see you here and think I’m a bleeding heart liberal or something!”
“I’ll come right to the point,” the wolf told him. “I’m starvin’, Marvin and I need a little roast pork. So I’m gonna huff and puff and blow your square little house down, and then I’ll make a three course meal of you and your piggy kin!”
The second little pig came on like a Kung-Fu master, layin’ all the moves he learned in self-defense class on the unsuspecting wolf. The wolf blew the pig’s house down, but not before the very square pig landed a shot in his wedding tackle and sent him off in great pain.
Limping east across the wet flood plain, the big bad wolf soon arrived at the beach, where he saw a smart little Tiki Hut near the water’s edge. Approaching cautiously, the big bad wolf circled the structure, sniffing the air for wolf traps. His olfactory senses were quickly filled with the scent of illegal weed and Patchouli oil. Hesitantly, the wolf raised his knuckles and laid a crisp paradiddle on the thin reed door.
A little pig in shades and a black beret answered his call. “Welcome my brother,” the porcine cat greeted him. “Glad you could fall on by!”
“Porque, Porky,” the wolf responded, “Ain’t you afraid of me?”
“Like, should I be?” the hip little pig questioned. “We’re all God’s children in this veil of tears.”
“But,” responded the wolf, “I intend to huff and puff and to blow your house down!”
“Crazy!” cried the cool pig. “Like I got an old tenor sax in here somewhere…”
“What about a reed?” queried the wolf without thinking.
“Are you kidding?” said the pig. “The whole house is made of reeds. Just pull one out and trim it down!”
“But I’m here to eat you up!” shouted the pig.
“Oh man,” said the pig with a serious face, “Don’t you know how bad pork is for you? It’s a genuine life shortener! Clog your arteries and give you those triggie-whatsis worms… Man, like this pork isn’t even organic!”
“I can dig that,” said the wolf, “But like I’m two days short of three squares!”
“No worries,” answered the pig, “we’ll send out for a pizza while we jam!”
“Too much!” said the big bad wolf. “Can we get extra anchovies?”
“If you can huff and puff like Prez,” the cool little pig told him, “You can have anything you want on it… Except pork…”
“Oh man,” the wolf told him. “Bacon was never really my thing anyway. Do you know Cool Blues in E-flat?”
Skylar is a local actor and college student. She’s a novice writer and would like to advance her craft. TUB MIRE is her first published work.
There is a cozy town named Mentisdolum. With its greenery and thick fog, it is one of many towns and cities clustered on the outer rim of the bathtub. The tub is filled with swampy water that stretches beyond the horizon. It stands like an ancient monument to a time that no one remembers.
Tom looks over the edge, gripping the damp fence and pressing his feet firmly to the tub. Down below, eight miles away, he catches a glimpse of what looks like a green field through the thick clouds. What is it like down there?
He scrapes his finger back and forth through moss on the fence, letting it build under his nail. Dozens have been lost to the unmerciful trip down, and now he’s about to go. It’s commonly said that joining the Vanguard is something that’s only done by three types of people: the brave, the broke, and the bored. Tom wants to believe he’s the first type, but he’s probably more akin to the last. The thought of spending his whole life as just another moss farmer or beekeeper scares him way more than the long drop down into mysterious land with no hope of ever returning. Besides, the population cannot sustain itself on the rim, and everyone will die if they can’t establish new colonies. So, it seemed better to volunteer and be thought of as a hero.
“Thomas,” A man calls out. “Suit up!”
He steps away from the fence and flicks the moss from his finger.
This will be both his first and last time abseiling all the way down. He puts on his harness and gloves and takes one last look around. He’s leaving his mother behind, but she will be taken care of, he tells himself to relieve the guilt. And she has her candle making hobby.
He begins his descent. It’ll be at least four hours before he reaches the ground. He looks down at a view that no longer induces vertigo. Staring over the edge has been a favorite pastime since he was accepted into the training program and given access to the outer fence.
Two others are descending alongside him. “Hey, how are you guys doing?” he yells to them.
They are slightly above him and on either side. One of them gives a reassuring-sounding response. It’s Abi. She’s the first woman to make this descent, and she hasn’t been able to think about anything else. They initially weren’t accepting women into the program. Obviously, women would be needed to establish future colonies, but the current rate of survival during descent coupled with unpredictable living conditions below made them reluctant to consider sending a woman. Even so, Abi isn’t someone who takes no for an answer. The other person is Doug, not as memorable as Abi, but Tom had seen him before.
The wind is too loud, and they can’t understand him, so the descent continues uneventfully. Four hours later, they reach the bottom with no injuries aside from heat rash and a little chaffing.
Ground level isn’t as otherworldly as Tom had expected. He takes his glove off and presses his hand against its surface. It’s somewhat rough, almost like a white stone, and it’s warm from where the setting sun has been hitting it.
“So, what the hell were you saying up there?” Abi asks as she approaches, gleefully swinging her knee pads around like a child that’s been cooped up inside for too long. “Me and Doug were taking bets that you had already lost you mind.”
“I appreciate your concern,” Tom replies, smiling for the first time since he began this trip. “But my mental health is still as intact as ever. So, who won the bet?”
“I did of course,” Doug chimes, raising one eyebrow at Abi in a peculiar way.
“I see,” Tom answers, not quite sure what just took place.
Two men approach and lead them to a camp. A hand-carved sign reads Camp Praevalus. After a meal they’re escorted by another group to Camp Litore. By this time the sun is all but gone. The journey so far had been lackluster. They were warned of dangerous animals and plants, but they hadn’t seen anything more interesting than a bird so far.
There are torches lighting up the entrances to each of the tents and people sit near a communal fire. They are talking about what they did before they joined the Vanguard. It’s gotten too dark to travel, so Doug and Tom go their tent. Abi, being the only female, gets a tent to herself.
The next morning they make their way to Camp Evanescent. This is the last stop before they will be sent out to stake ground for a new campsite. It’s really happening, Tom thinks to himself. All the years of training are finally paying off. He is about to be a part of history. They all are. And he will tell his grandkids about it, assuming he lives.
It doesn’t take long however to notice that everyone in this camp is somber.
“What do you think is wrong with these guys?” Doug asks, squinting as he looked suspiciously at the camp’s many inhabitants from the corner of his eye.
“This camp is the farthest out,” Abi says, looking pretty somber herself all of a sudden. “It’s setting in that we’re really never going back.” She had been bubbly the whole time, and the change in mood upset Tom.
More escorts meet them with another man in tow.
“This is Leon,” one of the escorts says. “He’ll be in your group now.”
Leon has messy hair and a round face. He is somber like everyone else. The escort leads them to a tree line at the edge of the camp
“Why is everyone here so somber?” Tom asks.
Without hesitation the escort answers plainly. “Because none of the groups we send out come back.”
“What do you mean they never come back?” Doug demands. “No one? Are you telling me you’re sending us to our deaths? You expect us to just go knowing this? Doesn’t somebody have some idea as to why they don’t come back? Shouldn’t you be doing something to prevent it? I mean, hell! Stop the damn expeditions until you figure out what’s happening to people!”
The escort doesn’t flinch. He replies matter-of-factly. “We used to send large groups, but now we send only three or four. Too many casualties with larger groups. With small groups there are fewer casualties, and we figure someone will eventually make it back and tell us what happened.”
“What happens out there?” Tom asks.
“We have no idea. We thought it was wild animals so we sent in large groups with weapons. Then we thought it was toxic plants or gasses, so we tried masks. Ever since that first mission all of our troops have been instructed to come back at the first sign of danger, but even so. . .”
Tom takes this all in. There’s no way to turn back now. The government won’t let them back up anyway because they don’t want people to know that the Vanguards are a suicide squad.
Then again, Tom thinks to himself, this could just be some kind of half-cocked way for the government to be trying to cull the population, but what would be the point in that when we’ve already made it this far? If anything, preventing that possible outcome is just one more reason these missions are a necessity.
There’s a long silence, but no one bothers asking what will happen if they refuse to go. Tom assumes he knows the answer, and the rest of them may have come to the same conclusion.
We’ll probably all just be killed if we refuse. We’re obviously expendable anyway and the only way anyone would agree to this is if staying was also guaranteed death.
None of them say anything. It’s clear from their faces that they all know going back isn’t an option. Leon is the first to begin walking. Doug goes next. Tom gets the feeling that Leon had heard this all already and had time to come to terms. Tom and Abi just watch them until they begin to disappear from view, then almost simultaneously they begin to follow suit.
About an hour in, something drops to the ground in front of them with a thick thud.
They pause, prepared for anything while also having no idea what to expect. The grass is too high to see exactly where it landed.
Another something goes flying, barely missing Tom’s head. It is green, but it’s moving too fast to get a good look.
Leon takes a long dagger from his bag.
There’s a screech and something else comes flying in their direction. It hits a nearby tree and plops to the ground. Leon lunges and stabs it with his dagger. It oozes a sticky liquid. At the same time they hear a loud guttural chirping and the tree limbs above them start to shake aggressively. Tom looks up to see a long-armed creature baring its teeth.
“It’s a monkey,” Leon says in a relived sigh as he stands. He holds up some kind of green fruit on his dagger. The liquid drips down his arm. “Some of the guys at the camp told me about them while I was waiting for you to arrive. They said they caught one once.” He pulls the fruit off and chucks it hard back at the monkey. He misses, but the animal disappears into the treetops. “When there’s one there usually more and they’re territorial so that probably won’t be the last thing we get thrown at our heads, but they aren’t a real threat. Just don’t get close enough to one to get bit.”
Leon puts his dagger away, and they look in the treetops as they continue. When they reach an empty field, they are cautious. Doug sticks his leg out from the cover of the foliage and slides his foot back and forth along the ground, edging his way further and further into the field. Leon’s eyes frantically dart around searching for anything out of the ordinary. Tom’s pulse races faster than it did when they were jumped by the monkey. They wait a few minutes, listening and observing.
The grass is a few inches high and billows peacefully in the wind. There are more familiar-looking trees across the way. A shadow passes over the field. It may rain soon. “It’s almost worth turning around just to report how far we’ve come,” Doug says somewhat hopefully.
Abi agrees. “We could mark this spot for a camp when someone comes back.”
“As if the big empty field isn’t marker enough,” Doug retorts teasingly “Maybe it really was some super poisonous pollen, but the plant is out of season. Who’s to say this whole field wasn’t filled with deadly dandelions that are all shriveled up now?”
Doug continues to shuffle his feet as he slowly moves further across the billowing field, just in case. Abi and Leon carefully make their way behind him inspecting the ground for any signs of unfamiliar plant life.
“If that’s the case we could probably come back with a bigger team to dig up this field before they’re back in season,” Tom says, also beginning to feel hopeful again.
But there are no remnants of dandelions or of anything else.
“I don’t mean to be macabre, but I had kind of expected to find bodies,” Abi says. “Not that I’m complaining.”
No one finds it macabre though. They find it comforting. They laugh.
Tom scans the field.
When he looks back, Abi, Doug and Leon are gone.
He spins around looking for them. They are gone but that is not possible. They could not have just disappeared.
But they are gone.
He stays there for hours. No one returns. Not knowing what to do, he heads back to camp. They cheer his return. “You are the first!” they yell. “The first!”
A team escorts him back to each base and then eventually back up to the rim of Tub Mire.
He is a hero and travels through every town. There are bigger celebrations at each stop as word spreads of his return. They ask what happened. He can’t tell them because he doesn’t know, nor does he know why he was spared. So, he never says a word about what had happened down there, and people are happy.
Time passes. People call him Father and gather to hear him speak once a week, so he makes up a story about a man he met down there.
“And the man said ‘though shalt not leave the tub for I have provided everything for you and to leave the tub is blasphemy.’ Think about what he said. To leave this tub you are saying God, holy creator, I have decided this is not enough. I want more. You cannot provide for me as well as I can provide for myself.”
He shakes his head. “If you leave the tub, you are leaving his mercy, and you are doomed. There’s a reason the rest of the world is down below us. This tub was created for us. To lift us up out of that wretched world. Away from the path to destruction! It’s hard to get down there for a reason. Don’t you think, our God, would have made it a little easier if he wanted us to go down there? He made it hard in order to save us. And now we betray him and throw our lives away. And for what? More land? Well at what cost is that land coming? How many lives have we already lost to that land? Do you want your children growing up in a place that’s capable of swallowing up men whole? The same land that stole your husbands and brothers and sons? Ladies and gentlemen pray with me. Let us bow our heads and say the prayer of the Lord, and as we do this let us keep in our minds those who have strayed. And let our loss be a reminder that the danger is very real and the danger is very near and if we do not heed the word now and teach our sons and daughters to respect and appreciate that which has been so lovingly created for us we will all suffer the consequences.”
Father Tom bows his head and begins to chant a prayer in a similar but older sounding language. The congregation follows suit.
S.Matt "Smatt" Read is an avid hiker, author, puzzle writer, and comics programming promoter. His work has been featured in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the Missoulian, NPR's Weekend Edition, GAMES magazine, and elsewhere. His assorted personal accomplishments include receiving two design patents, thru-hiking the A.T., and publishing Rubb-Origami, a how-to guide for making rubber band sculptures. From 2009 to 2010, he hiked around the perimeter of Texas, clocking about 3,200 miles. This story is from Day 248, roughly around the 2,000 mile mark. Originally from Corpus Christi, he is currently based in Massachusetts where he lives with his wife and dog.
The Confidence of Strangers, a Texas Perimeter Hike Tale
It’s flat where I am, and dusty. The ground is packed good, and it’s scrub brush in all directions. I know the Guadalupe Mountains are somewhere in the distance, but I don’t see them yet. It’s been a few days since I was interviewed by a journalist in Kermit, a day or two after spending the night at the courthouse in Mentone. This is West Texas where the phrase “lonely stretch” offers a different meaning, and I’m waking up on the ground a few steps away from a town called Orla.
Orla supposedly has two residents, but I don’t know how true that is. There’s a post office and a restaurant and a few scattered buildings. It’s also the last stop to get food and water for a week, but what I’m thinking about at the moment is mail. Inside the post office, I’ve got letters waiting for me marked “PLEASE HOLD FOR PERIMETER HIKER.”
The post office door is unlocked, so I let myself in. The main office is still closed, but it’s air-conditioned, which is nice, and affords some privacy from the road. I go through my stuff.
Then, a scream.
The postmaster gapes at me, and I say “Good morning” to her. She’s a small lady, skinny as a pole, with dark hair pulled back. She takes a beat, recovers quickly, and says, “You must be the hiker. I was wondering about you. I have some packages and mail for you.” She smiles genuinely, like she didn’t just think I was going to murder her a second before.
I provide some ID (as if my dusty backpack wasn’t proof enough), and she gives me letters, packages, lifelines to a previous life. I could go outside and read through these in private, but the A/C glues me to the spot. I ask if it’s okay to sort through it all, keep some things, send other things on, and the postmaster doesn’t give it a second thought. “Take all the time you need,” she says.
I stay two hours.
There are few things on a long hike like receiving mail which remind you so concretely of your former life. There is a profound effect in opening a letter with your name on it, that old familiar ritual rising in importance, the simple act of unfolding a voice suddenly beautiful. I tear through my mail in minutes and before long begin to write responses.
It’s a small building, and the postmaster and I are both working just a few yards from each other. She breaks the silence and asks about my trip. What am I doing? Where did I start? How far do I walk in a day? I answer her questions, and she starts to get that I’m working through a fantasy project. Foreign though it is to her, she understands.
A few customers come in, get their mail, leave. They don’t give me much of a second glance. We keep talking, I keep writing, and ninety minutes pass in a blink.
I’m packaging up a heavy winter jacket that I no longer need, getting ready to mail it home, when the postmaster starts to tell me about her family. What follows is her story, unfiltered, pulled from that shallow fertile field of secrets we sometimes share with those we’ll never see again.
The postmaster tells it like it happened yesterday. Her daughter had expressed an interest in becoming a hairdresser. She dissuaded her daughter, though, and encouraged her to pursue the sciences. Ever faithful to her mom, her daughter went along with it, focused on chemistry instead, and got a job soon after college in New Mexico.
The daughter’s job required her to do a certain amount of testing with chemicals. Even though she wore protective gear, she’d often end her shift covered in residue and would send pictures to her twin sister in confidence. By the time she understood the dangers, it was too late. She was dead by her mid-twenties.
The air changes. This little post office in the middle of nowhere is now a confessional. The postmaster is crying softly as she speaks. “The world could have used another hairdresser, right?” The statement breaks me.
The postmaster’s guilt is like a backpack she can’t take off. I tell her she didn’t kill her daughter, that bad things happen to good people, but it’s not my role to absolve her. She needed to speak her truth, and I needed only to listen.
Somehow the spotlight moves back to me, and for once, I’m grateful for it. I mention my walking sticks got destroyed outside a library in Shamrock, and the postmaster is on it. She calls her husband to bring me two cedar poles. True to form, he’s there within fifteen minutes with the sticks. A quiet, sturdy man with a cowboy hat and tinted glasses, he gives me a once over, shakes my hand, then takes off. “That is a good man,” the postmaster says gently, mostly to herself.
It’s my turn next. I pick up my new poles, which are heavier than expected, and slide into my pack. The postmaster tells me to be careful out there and that she’ll call people she knows ahead of me to see if there’s anything they can do. I thank her for letting me stay there as long as I did and wish her well. We don’t mention what we talked about again, but I put the thought of it in my pocket, for safekeeping.
Then I’m off―first across the street to the restaurant and then back to the long road toward the Guadalupe Mountains. If I’m quick, I can get a few miles in before noon.
S.P. Wilkins S.P. Wilkins is a native of Corpus Christi. Over 80 of her creative non-fiction articles appeared in Metro Leader Newspaper and The Bend Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University and is a member of the Writers’ League of Texas. She works as an online English and writing tutor for Southern New Hampshire University.
It’s not that the piano teacher is unqualified—bless her for still trying to play after losing that finger—but that she cares more about making money than teaching any discernible piano skills. Four weeks into our lessons and I still don’t know the difference between middle C and E-flat. Alright, that’s not entirely true. One’s a white key and the other is black. Her teaching philosophy seems to be based on an amalgam of knowledge gleaned from Wikipedia and YouTube. She tried telling us—Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot to mention this is a group piano lesson. Forty-five minutes. Six students. No discount for siblings. See what I mean about money. And it’s not like I have a lot to spare. Do you have any idea how much it cost me to purchase Ludwig van Beethoven’s teeth?
Susan Daubenspeck has been writing poems since she was 15 years old. Poetry has been her lifeline. She retired a few years ago after 25 years as an Oncology nurse here in Corpus and in Houston
We take to our country roads
My kids and me
In a van
With our cat.
Past banks of civilization
Where hardtop pavement gives way
To diamond-cut gravel. And circles of sun pool like cool waters.
Here in a meadow we stop to smell
Dancing beads of Hawthorn and Lilac
Left behind by bees.
Earth warms under our feet.
Teacup red roses. Bark crusted browns.
Twining our path
Paper doll cuts of ivy.
We skip pebbles on creeks
My children and me
Moving in seeking that something
White picket fence
Flossy mill’s calling.
All distinct forms that pattern our lives
Come alive in this glowing.
We take to our country roads
My kids and me
In a van
With our cat.
The open road
That sits like a hat
At the top of that next
On our second day in Egypt my daughter, Emily, and I visited Coptic Cairo, a few
streets of ancient Christian churches and upscale shops. It was early and shop-
keepers were just opening their doors.
One called out to us asking if we were Americans. When we said we were he asked me to write a letter in English to his Russian wife. She had given birth yesterday to their baby girl, his first child. I said that I would and we followed him into his shop. Polished, dark mahogany shelves held blue scarabs and gold King Tuts.
He sat us at a round table, placed pen and paper before me and while making us tea started dictating his letter.
“Thank you for having our daughter, Nadia, on April 2nd,” he said. He had me write of his love and longing to see them both. After the letter was finished he told us that in Egypt the days on which ones’ children are born are holy days. He had closed his shop yesterday which is also the custom. Emily and I were the first ones through his door since Nadia’s birth.
“It makes you special to me,” he said.
“Yesterday, April 2nd, was also my mom’s birthday,” Emily replied, pointing at me.
Well, you would have thought that the Nile, out of season, had spilt her life-affirming silt right there on his floor. He called out to other shopkeepers who hurried over then rushed out and back again with pastries and cakes. More tea was brewed. Some were “Ahhhing” and wailing that it was a sign from Allah. Never in my life had my birthday been such an event. After about an hour the party died down.
As we were leaving he gave both of us gifts of small perfume bottles. And even sold me a beautiful stone statue of a pharaoh’s cat. Wholesale. Now she sits on my mantle. I call her Nadia.
READ MORE OF SUSAN"S WRITING IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITE3RS 2022
How far today
The surf, the sand?
Bathing suits of hot
Blistered by sun
Drop. And drop.
They drop like flesh
Into the sea and run together
As night turns blue and
Old friends new
You claim the sun or else
The moon. “Will we live as
Pelicans soon, hearts torn open
To feed our young?”
How soon? How soon?
Two gulls dip low for
Pearls and weeds.
Sea level hearts tip black hearted
One legged pink trees.
How soon indeed!
This flesh from you
Sydney Spangler studied English at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. She was the managing editor of the Windward Review, a literary journal showcasing the unique narratives of South Texas, the Coastal Bend, and the border, and a writing intern for Marketing and Communications at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
When I was a child I would take a straw and blow air into my chocolate milk until the bubbles overflowed, making a mess of the table. I was six years old and sitting in the kitchen alone. My parents liked the phrase, “Children are not meant to be seen not heard”. They slept in separate bedrooms; I was faced with two doors instead of one. There was no open-door policy. I spent my time in books and television and toys. Looking back now, I was lucky to have parents who would buy dolls and stuffed animals for a little boy.
My favorite stuffed toy was a beanie baby named Trumpet. He was a Christmas gift from some aunt I never met. I received him in the second grade. At that time, I slept with my mother. She would scare me at night. Her eyes watching me in the dark, a protective gaze that felt predatory. I kept Trumpet by my side. At night, I would tuck him in; a silent “I love you” exchanged.
Comradery was not something my parents excelled at. My father’s interactions with me were minimal. My mother’s interactions were threatening.
My father worked nights. Sometimes, on a Saturday, he would take me to the park. I was always too scared to play with other children—afraid I would somehow disappoint at basic human interaction; afraid of their gaze as I struggled to connect. We would sit on a bench and watch the kiddos play tag. My dad, sitting next to me with a cap shielding his eyes from the sun, would tap me on the arm, “Tag. You’re it,” before getting up and faux running away. Eventually I would break away from my father and play with the other kids or find myself sitting in a wooden enclosure, like a hideout, where kids would graffiti on the wood. Phone numbers, stick figures, S luvs M. Bffs 4eva. Call me if you wanna have a good time. Hidden by wooden bars, I watched children live.
“Let’s go to the swings!” my dad would call out.
I didn’t like heights, but my dad would push me forward propelling me towards the sky. It was scary. I was frightened as my body approached the top, my little grubby hands gripping the chains like it was a matter of life or death, but I appreciated the view. The blue sky seemed limitless; my body—my small little child body—soared.
Shannon Dougherty has English and creative writing degrees from Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Austin. Her poetry has appeared in Acorn, Modern Haiku, Oyster River Pages, The Chaffin Journal, and Corpus Christi Writers 2019. She has lived in Corpus Christi since 2004.
Kept fed, the bull alligator
basks on the grass
by the pretend stream
like a child’s abecedarian picture book.
If not for his arrowhead teeth
and scimitar claws, his ocher stare,
he would be only beached driftwood,
one less fear in a fearful world.
The children peek through the picket fence
whispering in case the giant sleeps.
Are we the ones being watched?
Unblinking eyes give away nothing,
yet seem to measure our callousness,
how deep in fat our hearts are buried.
Tonight children will wake crying,
clutching plush replicas,
for in our imaginations he stays lean, awake,
keeping our senses sharp, in spite of this
carefully managed wildness.
Love, I have loved you before
and will again as barrels fill
in rainy seasons.
I have reservoirs for you,
I thought would never run out.
But now I am down
to clear ripples over rocks.
Soon my face, reflected, will disappear.
I will not fear running dry. One good rain
is all we need, and then, shedding reflections over the rim,
love will be full again.
Dancer with a spear beak, the great blue
sidesteps, wary as the vanishing fish
it would be catching if we weren’t here
to photograph streaked clouds, lava glow,
the tide returning to the threatened dunes.
Inching forward, when will the ocean and city collide?
The wings unfold, and with a guttural call
the heron sails the disputed edge of sea and sand.
Before it settles the world separates
into them and us, winged and housed.
The heron flies over the rising waters, away from us—
our backs to the land, the future sea.