A Loser's Manifesto

It's story time.

Wildflowers: part 6

The morning brought peace and golden ribbons of sunshine through the trees. Marla was in the kitchen with cracks of light angled across her face. It sharpened her blue eyes to see through the shadows and into Alex’s room, where he slowly and dispiritedly readied to leave.

She mourned his life in one tearless blink, and cursed her troubled morals on her short walk to his room.

Alex’s eyes rose at the sight of her lazy figure in his shadowy doorway. She tipped ever-so gently against the wall, and smiled.

     Good morning, Alex.

     Good morning.

     Did you sleep well?

     Yes, these two nights have been good.

     I’m glad, and we’re very grateful for what you’ve done for us too.

     There is no need to thank me.

     You can stay if you want.

Alex opened his mouth to speak, but surprise had muted him.

     It’s too cold for you to go back out there. It only makes sense for you to wait out winter here.

     What does your husband think?

     I’ll deal with my husband.

He stared into her eyes clear from the fog of starvation, now open and brilliant. It caused a delicate ripple to drift through his curiosity.

     I would be lying if I said I wanted to go back out into this weather.

     Then you’ll stay.

     Only if it’s okay with John.

     He already agrees.

     Does he?

     You don’t believe me?

     No, I just….Where is he?

     Getting firewood, he’ll be right in.

John’s familiar stomping was heard from outside the cottage door. A burst of cold air brushed against Marla’s heavy skirt as John pushed open the door.

The sour gulp of doubt burned John’s throat when he saw Marla’s shadow through the strands of sun standing in Alex’s doorway. He approached carefully.

     Marla?

     John, I was just telling Alex how we’d love for him to stay the winter.

     We would?

     Yes, remember when we both agreed it was the right thing to do. You said something about ‘the thought of Alex dying out there sickens you.’

     I don’t recall saying that.

     Well, I don’t remember what you said, but we agreed that it would be inhumane to push him out into certain death.

Alex took a half step forward to speak.

     I can leave if this is going to be a problem.

John bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. He could taste it on the back of his tongue as he tried to calm the fear that crashed within him.

     No, Marla is right. You should stay. We have plenty of room.

     Thank you. I’ll do everything I can to repay you.

     We’re just doing what any decent person would do.

     Well, if it’s just the same to you, I’ll do everything I can to help.

John forced a smile, and left the room. Marla lingered a moment.  She whispered to Alex.

     You’re welcome.

She left him still and nervous. He wondered if she was aware of his thoughts of her. He wondered what terrible games they’d play.

A mouse scurried from under the bed and slipped behind a shelf.

That night John made love to Marla loud enough for Alex to hear. He was telling Alex he was a man, and Marla belonged to him. Marla was telling Alex she was a woman, and does what she pleases.

Soon the days began running together like colors in an oil painting. Menial tasks were performed with only slivers of conversation in between.  A distant familiarity grew between them like frustrated strangers waiting for a train together.

Alex in particular was growing restless. The tension between him and John was cold and impenetrable. Their eyes were deadened with the veiled resentment between them.

He spent most of his time filling every empty day with his growing curiosity in the beautiful Marla.

In the months Alex had been there he had several visits with Marla that hadn’t gone unnoticed by John. One such visit happened three months earlier, when the spring was just starting to claw through the snow.

Before long, the food began to run low, and they needed more than the stray rabbit or squirrel outside the cottage. John and Alex would have to go into the woods again. They both dreaded that day.

Marla was down by the creek washing her clothes, when Alex snuck up behind her. His gaze lingered a moment, before he gently made Marla aware of his presence by throwing a stone in the creek just beyond her reflection.

She pretended not to be startled when she looked back at him, but he saw her jump when the stone landed.

     Did I frighten you? I’m sorry.

     Don’t mistake surprise for fright.

He walked over to the water and squatted down to look at his reflection. He dipped his hands in and drank from it.

     The water is so much clearer now.

     If it was a river it would be muddy.

Alex brushed some melting snow off a large stone, and sat down to watch Marla continue her chore.

     You come down here a lot. I mean, I’ve noticed over these months how much time you spend by the water.

     You notice a lot of things.

     Yes, there isn’t much else to do here.

     What happened to that chess set you said you would make?

     I discovered that despite my prior certainty, I can’t whittle……Cigarette?

Marla smiled and pulled a cigarette from Alex’s extended offer. He lit it for her, before she went back to her task.

     Do you still love him?

Marla’s smile went away.

     I hardly think that’s an appropriate question.

     I think it is a reasonable question any one friend would ask another.

     It’s a familiar question. We’re not familiar.

     And since when do you worry about such things? You went out of your way to let me stay here and—

     I didn’t go out of my way. I did what I was supposed to do, and so did John. I think maybe you misinterpreted my intentions.

     And tell me, what did I think your intentions were?

Marla hesitated. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of answering such a question.

     You waited a long time to do this. I would have thought you’d approach me much sooner.

     I was spending all that time waiting for you. The way you looked at me when you manipulated John into—

     I didn’t manipulate anyone. It was my decision. There was no need for manipulation.

     There she is. That’s the woman I met three months ago. Where has she been hiding all this time? I swore I saw her when you kissed my cheek on the New Year, but maybe I was merely seeing things.

     There is no hiding here. I’ve been doing what I have to do, and counting the days for this to be over. However you chose to see me is up to you.

     No, you’ve been elusive. Is it because you’re afraid of me?

     Have I seemed afraid to you?

     You haven’t seemed like anything to me. I’m not a German by the way. There were times when I wished I was, when I was afraid. But, I’m just another person for them to hate.

     Feeling sorry for yourself won’t help you.

     What else could I do?

     Go talk to John. Don’t sneak around me.

     He doesn’t have anything to say to me, and as it turns out, I don’t have much to say to him. He’s just waiting for me to leave.

     I could be waiting for you to leave too. In fact, shouldn’t you be leaving soon?

     Yes, but I don’t think you want me to go. Why else would you risk so much for me to stay?

     You’re assuming too much.

     I’m right.

     You should know me well enough by now not to doubt me.

And you know nothing of me.

They smiled at each other before Alex headed back up the path.

In the evening the winter rolled over in its death bed to remind them it was still alive. It could barely muster the breath to freeze the falling snow as it drifted to the ground.

John often liked to go outside in the evenings to listen to the air. That night he asked Alex if he would join him.

They watched the heavy snowflakes fall against the line of trees in the distance. The moon glowed through the thick and heavy clouds.

Alex broke the silence.

     For the bitch that it is, winter can still be beautiful.

     I agree.

Alex reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his cigarettes. He offered one to John. They smoked and listened to the faint din of night.

John asked:

     How many cigarettes do you have left?

     Three and a half packets, including this one.

     Do me a favor, and don’t give any more to Marla. I don’t want her to smoke all of them on you. She smoked all of ours in the first few months we were here.

     It’s really not a problem.

     But it is.

A night bird flew over the clearing.

continued in part 7…

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Wildflowers: part 5

Marla spent the day tending the fire and gnawing on grass for sustenance.

She wondered if John would return. It had started snowing an hour earlier, a blinding snow.

Her starving brain was too weak for thought when she saw two figures lumbering through the storm.

There should only be one man approaching her cottage.

She reached for the fire poker, and then stood ready to strike. She eyed the door, waiting for the first head to peek through, when she heard the familiar stomping of her husband just outside the door.

She lowered the fire poker, but did not put it down.

When the door opened, John reached out to Marla and swept her into the other room. She saw a snowy breath of a stranger over her shoulder while she slipped away.

John spoke in a relaxed tone, but with obvious smatterings of fear and panic. Something had shaken him. He asked Marla to get some blankets, for their guest, and insisted she not engage him. She could hear Alex nervously shuffling by the fire.

John hurried back into the kitchen, and Marla followed after with blankets, and dry clothes. Her clothes looked like wet laundry on a line, as she buried her burned hands into the ragged sleeves of her sweater, unable to extend them when she greeted her guest. John made sure to keep his wife positioned behind him.

The sight of Marla’s body, crooked and frail, and the poetry in her eyes, like death psalms, hurt Alex deeper than he could have imagined.

     You’re both starving to death, and I’m freezing to death. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this is divine intervention.

     I’ll believe in anything if it keeps me alive.

Marla said in a withered voice.

John stepped forward, blocking Alex’s view of Marla.

     I guess I would too.

Alex said, as he reached for his satchel, and pulled out two small slabs of meat, wrapped in a makeshift grass weaving.

John, still holding both guns, took the meat from Alex, and gave it to Marla, who hurried to the stove.

As the smell of meat filled the warm cottage, John invited Alex to sit beside him by the fire. They were uneasily relieved of their suffering for one more day.

     What kind of meat is it?

Alex shivered under the blankets; his bare feet resting too close to the fire.

     I find when I’m starving, it’s best to ask that question after I’ve eaten it.

He pulled his feet back from the fire.

     So what are you doing out here?

John asked.

     I think it’s obvious I’m doing the same thing you’re doing.

     What’s that?

     Hiding.

     Hiding from what?

     You don’t have any reason to fear me. I don’t want anything from you but shelter. We’re all good people here.

     We’re all desperate people.

     But good people.

     Maybe you haven’t been desperate long enough.

     And maybe you’ve been desperate too long.

     What are you hiding from?

     You first.

     This is my cottage, and I see it’s only right that you tell me first.

     This could be anyone’s cottage.

Marla found the strength to contain her hunger for a few extra moments, so she could burn the meat in protest of their conversation.

     It doesn’t matter.

She said, quieting the two men, and assuring that only the hiss of her cooking would speak for all three of them until dinner was served.

Alex agreed to take a smaller portion, and kept composed while John and Marla dug with their hands into the charred casing of the fatty meat. They ate as fast as their shriveled stomachs and weakened teeth would allow, and washed it down with a cup of snow water. For the rest of the night they felt the meal sloshing in their bodies.

That night Marla rolled over in bed to whisper in John’s ear. Her stomach was round and full, stretching out from her body.

     I think he should stay and go hunting with you tomorrow.

John, with the taste of his meal still in the bristles of his beard, thought for a moment.

     Maybe.

The next morning Alex and John were sitting motionless and silent beneath a tree. They tracked the landscape with roving eyes.

Alex suddenly perked up, and gracefully drew his rifle to his shoulder. His eyes were steely, and his hands were as steady as stone, as he slowly, effortlessly pulled the trigger. The burst of energy rattled the forest, and turned John’s vision red for several moments.

The deer staggered, and fell. John was nauseated by the smell of gun powder, and the sudden reel of nightmares spinning in his head. Alex gave him a moment to collect himself before they headed for the deer.

The two men barely spoke a word to each other the entire day, but there was an understanding that revealed itself in their walk towards the wounded animal. Alex walked with confidence while John stumbled.

They could hear the gasps and gurgles of the deer over their footsteps in the snow. Its hind legs kept pumping steadily as if the animal was still running, somewhere far off in a dream.

Alex straddled the deer, and slit its throat, letting its life spill out into the cold. Its pumping legs slowed to an eventual stillness, then silence.

As John watched Alex wipe the blood from his hands, he knew their lives and Marla’s, would be forever linked in time.

That night, after a quiet dinner, and a shortage of conversation, Marla whispered in John’s ear again.

     I think Alex should stay.

     No.

     It’s the right thing to do.

     We don’t know who he is.

     He was near death when you brought him here. He’s just as lost as us.

     That doesn’t mean he can’t take from us.

     He could have done that already, but he didn’t.

John rolled away, and tightened the blanket between them.

     We need him as much as he needs us.

     That deer will feed us for months. Tomorrow we give him whatever we can spare, and we wish him the best.

     You know he won’t survive.

     That’s not for us to worry about.

     You owe it to him to give him the winter.

     I don’t owe that man anything. I brought him in and gave him shelter for two days. He gave us food. That’s all we owed each other.

     You still owe each other. We all owe each other. The world is coming to an end and we need all the friends we can get.

     Shhh..I think I hear church bells.

Marla grimaced at her husband, but she knew he understood. He was a good man, and wouldn’t lead another into death. Every layer of his being was threatened by Alex’s presence, but, the thought of a man dying for reasons of pride and prejudice sickened him.

Wildflowers: part 4

A stranger visits…

In the morning, the sun snuck past the sleeping trees and reflected off the snow like a mirror. What was at first a thing of beauty and peace became a deepening reminder of desolation and colorless anger. It spotlighted John and Marla’s hopelessness.

Marla rested her head on the window sill, watching the sunrise. John was clumsily getting ready to take a walk in the woods. He purposely made enough noise so that Marla would stay awake.

They talked a lot more now. It was one of the ways they reminded each other they weren’t alone. They would talk about anything just to hear another voice. Sometimes they spoke without words, just sighs.

Every day John tried to convince Marla that he would bring them home something to eat, and Marla went through the motions of being convinced.

Her stomach had been cramped for three days. The pain had become so severe she couldn’t stand upright, so she made sure to walk her husband to the edge of the woods that morning.

They methodically crawled deeper into the uncharted wild. No one had warned them it could be so dark. But, what warnings could make sense of blurred places between oneself and the beast of fear?

As John circled the woods, following in the same tracks as the day before, he began to wonder what would be best for his wife. He wondered if his inability to hunt was torturing her into a slow death. And then he wondered if he could kill her without having to hear a gun shot.

His failures were written on her grey skin, and weighed heavily on her hunched body. Maybe all they needed was mercy.

Marla had been sleeping through the day and waking up just in time to make more grass and potato soup for John’s return.

Her hands shook as she tried to cut the shriveled and rotten potatoes, the last three they had.

Her thirst, and frustrations, had become unquenchable. There was no amount of snow she could eat to heal her cracked lips, steady her quaking body, or smother her growing rage.

It was an unrecognizable rage, one she did well to ignore at first, but, its seductions were persistent.

She tried to calm her trembling hands by the fire as she waited for the soup to boil. She waited there every day with an undecided mind.

     The soup will be ready in time for when he comes home.

She thought.

     Should I let him eat some soup before I kill him?

John stomped the snow off his boots in the same rhythm every time he entered the cottage. He put the gun in the same place he found it too, before peeling off his top layer to sit down at the table.

They acted out their habits, existing separately from each other in the same room, the same nothing conversation exactly where they left it.

Then John asked for tea. But, in the cloud of his hunger he had forgotten they ran out of tea several weeks earlier.

Marla laughed at his request. It was the first time she had laughed in months. It felt good.

She reminded him they ran out, and kissed him out of thanks for the laugh.

John didn’t see the humor, and it became the faintest spark of resentment that started a wild fire of anger.

Their anger burned white hot, as resentment, streaked with hatred, screamed from the bottom reaches of their desperation.

They were not lovers in that moment. They were twisted bodies of nature clawing for their lives, painting the walls with the brutality of their words, pain feeding pain.

Finally John, weakened and exhausted, stumbled into the bedroom, unable to scream at his wife any longer. But Marla wasn’t done. She grabbed the handles of the boiling pot with her bare hands and followed in after her husband. She threw it at him, narrowly missing him, before she ran out of the cottage.

She collapsed to her knees , holding her burnt hands high into the freezing air. John followed quickly after. He cradled her in the cold wet of winter, and calmed her screams as he gently placed her hands in the snow.

That night they laid awake afraid to speak.

Marla thought of every moment in her life that unfurled and led to this one. Death felt like an altar to her, and she imagined her and John kneeling before gold, and awaiting the everlasting, together. Their smiles seemed nervous.

John thought of his family. That’s all his sadness would allow. And no matter where he placed his thoughts of them, Marla was there too. She was always there, his family.

Through the winter, the cold draft of the cottage had eroded a valley between their bodies. Among the whistles of the night wind, they both wondered who would dare breech the valley first.

     Will my hands be scarred?

     Let me see.

She reached her hands defenseless across the valley. He took them with care, and gingerly tended to her wounds.

     You’ll have scars, but no one will notice them.

     That’s if they have a chance to heal.

     Don’t be so dire. They’ll heal.

     What’s going to happen?

     I don’t know.

Marla knew she could straighten up, and kill their next meal. But with a fool’s stroke, she refused to betray her faith in him. It was the last shred of sincere faith she owned, and she clung to it as the days grew darker.

The next morning Marla watched John instead of the sunrise. She wanted to see how committed he was to his morning routine. She searched for cracks in his faith, and feared he’d to keep going through the motions for her. She wanted him to go out in the morning like he still believed there was a chance they’d survive. Every time he faltered in his routine, she looked to the sunrise.

When he was ready, she put on her boots, and walked him to the edge of the forest. He kissed her, and told her they would eat that night. She swallowed hard, and believed him.

In the afternoon, after following all his paths, looking mostly at his feet, John found his favorite tree, and rested beneath it. It had been a few weeks since he had made it as far out as that tree. That day he felt he owed it to himself and Marla to give that extra effort, just enough to say he tried.

He thought about tying a few rabbit snares again, but he knew it was too late. If he couldn’t teach himself in the summer with a bellyful of food, and the warm easiness of the sun on his back, he wasn’t going to do it now. It was only a gunshot that could save them.

When he felt the cold beginning to numb his extremities deeper, he decided to go back. He picked up his rifle, and used it to ease himself up from the tree. When he turned and looked down the path, his eyes met those of a frightened man.  John clung to his rifle, and ducked behind the tree.

The stranger, startled by John’s reaction, tucked himself behind a fallen tree.

A suffocating silence heightened their senses.

     Do you speak French?

The stranger finally said, in perfect French.

     Do you speak German?  

He said, in perfect German.

John hesitated.

     French or German?

The stranger hollered.

     French!

John replied.

     Are you German?

John asked.

     Are you German?

The stranger asked.

     No.

     What are you doing out here?

     Hunting.

     Do you live out here?

     What’s your name?

     Alex.

     Alex what?

     Alex Blinn.

     That sounds German.

     I assure you it’s not. What’s your name?

     John.

     John what?

He refused to answer.

     Look, I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, but I’m going to freeze to death soon if I don’t find some shelter.

     Do you have food?

     Yes, I have some. I’m going to come out now. My hands are above my head. I don’t want any trouble. I just want to get warm.

John watched the man steadily approach. He gripped his rifle tightly and raised it to his eye. The stranger halted, his eyes widened with fear.

     Don’t move. Throw over your satchel and your gun.

     Why?

     Do it!

Alex pulled the satchel and gun off his shoulder and tossed them to John.  The gun didn’t make it all the way, and landed in between them.  It sunk into the deep snow.

John knelt and fumbled to open the satchel while keeping his gun pointed at the stranger.

     Is this all the food you have?

     Yes, and it’s enough to feed both of us.

He stood and threw the satchel over his shoulder.  He was terrified by the hopeless look of the stranger. He wanted to kill him. If he didn’t, he felt he risked everything.

     Please don’t kill me. You could just let me go.

John crept closer, and dug the rifle out of the snow. He stepped back before he leveled the gun off at the stranger’s forehead. They both stood as still as the trees, and held their breath for what felt like hours.

     Let me go, please. I don’t mean you any harm. You don’t want to do this.

     I’ve killed men before.

Alex tried not to look at John. He kept his eyes fixed on the imprint his rifle had made in the snow.

     How long have you been out here?

     Two days, and I won’t survive another night.

     Where are you coming from?

     That’s a difficult question to answer—

     Where are you coming from?

     Paris…I’m from Paris.

     Why are you out here?

     Please, I’ll answer any questions you have if you just let me get warm.

Feeling the panic in Alex’s voice, John got the sense the battered looking stranger wanted to run. He lowered his weapon carefully.

     Even if you are a German you’d still be begging for your life.

     Either way, I’m defenseless.

What was one night in exchange for a meal?

     I’ll give you one night. Then tomorrow you’re gone.

     I can’t thank you enough. You won’t regret this.

 Continued in part 5…

Wildflowers: part 3

Three Months Later…

By the middle of the summer, Marla and John felt they had exceeded expectations. They were getting used to this new life, keeping the fears of winter buried in the garden.

They were looking gaunt in the face, and grey around the eyes, but they were still healthy.  Marla’s garden was a success. It was keeping them alive, despite their cravings for protein. They yearned for a meal more satiating than potatoes and the little fish from the creek. It was an unsatisfactory hunger that lingered between growling stomachs.

It had been 22 days since they last heard the gun in the distance. Its silence allowed them to sleep again. It’s not that the gun was loud; it’s that it was just loud enough to sound like the distant footfalls of giants.

They were evolving with their misery, adapting to its nature, and every day it got a little tamer.

On this particular day they almost felt safe, taking a scavenger’s walk through the woods, resembling carefree lovers.

Marla enjoyed picking mushrooms, and quizzing John as to whether or not they were poisonous.  She’d always pretend to eat one to test his judgment.

She felt at home in this place, and she did her best to swat away doubts, but she was getting weaker. It’s not that she hated John’s face, it’s that she hated how it was the only face she saw. Her own reflection was distorted, either in water, or a cracked mirror above the wash basin. They needed more than the bored murmurs of survival, and she knew winter would be worse.

Marla spotted a rabbit darting across the path.

     Jonathon, give me the gun.

     No.

     I can get it, give me the gun.

     I’ll get it.

The rabbit froze between two trees.

John lifted his rifle to his eye.

     It’s right there, get it.

     Shh…

John had the animal in his rusty sights. He knew there was a good chance if he pulled the trigger he’d kill it. But, he hesitated, and waited for it to run off.

     Ah…I lost it.

A look of worry was permanently fixed on his face. It aged his bristled face.

He worried about how his hand trembled whenever he held a gun, but he just couldn’t stand the sounds of war anymore. And even if he could, what would a half-blind with a rusty rifle hit anyway?  Most days he’d just go into the woods and sit under a tree.  He spent his time waiting for anything to happen that might change their circumstances.

Marla knew he couldn’t hunt, her love for him kept her quiet though. It was all they had left, a blind promise made in happier times. And wouldn’t they love to play out a scene across their bed in golden strands of sunshine and forgetful passion, just a moment to drown out the toll of the hours. But the sparks of those moments were doused by dirty hands and knotted stomachs. Their love was now proven by the smiles they worked for, and a familiar presence they’d go mad without.

At night they sat by the fire, and yawned through the last moments of the day. Very little was said.

She often liked to break the stillness with:

     Well, we’re not dead.

To which he would reply:

     Not, yet anyway.

Moments would pass before either spoke again.

     We’re almost out of peanuts.

     But we brought so many.

     We knew they weren’t going to last forever.

     I wish I could grow some

only with the pops of the fire, and the squeaky shifts in their chairs.

     A lot of people are dying right now.

He said.

     Yes, I know.

They turn their attention back to the fire, and won’t speak another word until they say goodnight.

continued in part 4…

Wildflowers: part 2

But first. a note from James:

To the four or five people who read this blog, I just want to let you know I changed the name of the male lead in this story from Jacob to John. I just didn’t like the name Jacob.

I’ve also done away with the chapter numbers. I hated the way they cluttered the titles of the stories.

This blog is constantly evolving, so I don’t know what changes will be next, but thank you for reading.

The Clearing and The Cottage

The black convertible rumbled deeper into the night, slipping unnoticed out of the city. Marla held onto her veil as she looked back at the fading silhouette of a darkened Paris. It was painted like velvet across the starry sky. Marla had never seen so many stars.

She watched her city get smaller and smaller, before it sunk below the tree tops. Then everything felt bigger. Headed toward a rumored oasis somewhere north, Marla grew increasingly uncomfortable with the dark.

The houses became scarcer as the road got weaker. The trees got uglier, but the air felt thinner, cleaner. For the first time in their lives they were somewhere else.

     Are we lost?

     If I’m following these directions properly, no.

     How much further then?

     I’d guess we have an hour, maybe two.

     Have you ever been there?

     No.

     Your mother said it was beautiful there, but I think she was lying to make me feel better.

     You’re right. I don’t think she’s ever been there. But maybe she was judging by the pictures she’s seen.

     Maybe she was. It feels like this road will never end. I hate it.

     Just relax, we’ll get there.

Marla slumped down in her seat, and pulled her veil over her eyes. She relaxed and allowed the crooked road to rattle her body to sleep.

She woke up when the car left the road and got onto a narrow cut through the woods. She kept her eyes closed and listened to the curious sound of grass brushing the underbelly of the car, and branches reaching out to scrape the doors.

Leaning her head back, she opened her eyes to see the tree tops crowding the stars.

     We should be there soon. The directions say it’s only a few kilometers off the road.

The dark felt like it would swallow them if not for the headlights.

Finally, a clearing opened up before them. Its tall grass gently sloped upwards north. At the top of the slope, spotlighted by the car’s headlights was the cottage, leaning slightly against the edge of the unknown forest behind it.  Its windows felt like hollow eyes, long past the point of caring who or what stared back at them.

     It feels haunted.

They found a place to hide the car under a low hanging tree. When the engine stopped they were immediately greeted with the gentle gasp of wind passing through the trees and over the grass.

John crept closer to the old structure, and peered into a broken window. Dead curtains waved pathetically in the breeze.  He looked back at Marla, leaning against the car in the blue moonlight, glowing in her white wedding dress.

     I can’t see anything. Do you have a match?

Marla lights a cigarette and hands him the match book.

     Why don’t we just go in?

     I’m not going in there now. It could be overrun with animals. We’ll go in in the morning. For now, I just want to look inside.

     The animals will be there tomorrow too. (to herself)

John lit the entire matchbook and carefully eased the flame through the broken window. He narrowed his eyes to focus, but before he could make sense of the darkened shapes in the cottage the dry rotted curtains caught fire.

He panicked and let out an involuntary yelp, as he slapped and blew at the rapidly growing flame. Then with one quick move, he yanked the curtain through the window and stomped them out.

Marla did her best to hide her laughter as John, shaking his stinging hand, slowly walked back to her. He was grateful for the dark to hide the red of his embarrassment.

     This might be more difficult than we thought.

     Did the curtains tell you that?

She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his forehead.

     I may never get used to this silence.

She looked out over the moonlit field. It was foreign, and uninviting to her.

     We could go back if you want.

     Your parents would be upset if we went back.

     We should have stayed with them.

     Don’t worry about them. They have each other the same way we do. They’ll be okay.

He smelled her neck, and her veil tickled his cheek.

     Why are you still wearing this?

     It’s my wedding night.

You could have at least taken off the dress.

     No.

His lips pressed gently against her ear with eyes closed.

     Marla

Her eyes stayed focused on the decaying cottage.

     John

That night they slept in the middle of the grassy field on a blanket. Marla laid awake long after John had fallen asleep. She watched the stars slowly turn from her, and listened to the ominous night sounds while her fingers unconsciously traced the woven pattern on her dress.

She woke up to the yellow glow of dawn. She could smell the fragrant life around her. The air was clean, and pleasurable to take in. It smelled like clean soil, and sweet grass. It reminded her of her grandmother’s garden.

Like a spooked deer, she poked her head up over the tall grass. The field ahead of her was hung with a misty fog as the sun lit up the dew.  She locked on to a proud tree at the end of the clearing, and thought it looked like the perfect place to be buried. Just like in all those movies she’d seen, a restful shade, teary eyes, and the setting sun in the west. She laughed at herself, and looked back down at John, still snoring.

At the end of the gentle slope was a string of trees cutting through the middle of the clearing. As Marla headed towards them, she found the remnants of a path leading from the cottage. She knew it must be water.

The creek sounded the same as the one that cut through her village. It was a low chatter that sounded almost like laughter. But this creek felt cleaner to her. She drank from it, frightened its tiny fish, and watched her reflection dance in the clear water.

She enjoyed the sound of the grass brushing against her dress as she walked toward the cottage. John was there, shielding his eyes as he stood tip-toed assessing the roof.

He heard her coming before she was there. He watched his wife, cutting through the grass without worry, and in her bare feet. All the beauty and strength of that little clearing revolved around her.

     You’re back.

     Were you looking for me?

     No.

     Why not?

     I knew you were okay.

Her eyes fixed on the cottage, tilting her head slightly to the right to compensate for the slight lean in the structure.

     You should go inside.

     I was going too, but then I decided to wait for you.

     It’s because you’re afraid to go in alone.

     Of course I’m not afraid. I simply wanted the two of us to enter our new home together, as much as one could call it a home.

     How thoughtful of you.

She tucked her arm under his, and warmly leaned against him as they looked over the warped wooden cottage.

     It’s going to need some work for sure.

     I could see a hole in the roof. I hope that’s the only one.

     Let’s hope not, because I haven’t even looked at the other side yet.

     We’ll do that after. I want to go inside.

     Okay, you lead the way.

     I knew you were scared.

     I’m not scared.

The two of them forced the warped door open to a burst of dust and feathers from escaping birds. They waited for the last one to leave before they walked in further. Everything was covered in dust and bird shit, but it was remarkably livable. It had sturdy furniture, a strong wood floor, and a wood stove clear of rust.

On the far end of the cottage were two bedrooms separated by a thin wall and a hallway. Marla said they would use the room facing the field, so she could watch the sunrise every morning.

John spotted an old hunting rifle in the kitchen. He quickly snatched it up and began working on the rusted weapon.

     Do you know how to use that?

     Yes, of course.

     This place needs a good cleaning. I could get water from the creek I found earlier. Did I tell you I found a creek just down the way, under those trees? It’s very pretty down there.

She stared out the window towards the creek with the sounds of John working on the gun behind her.

     Are you listening?

     Yes.

     Would you like to come with me to get some water?

     I’ll be right with you, as soon as I get this hammer unjammed.

     Have you ever hunted before?

     No.

     Do you think you could do it?

Marla watched her husband with the gun in his hands. He looked unnatural, somehow weaker.

     I have no choice. The food we brought won’t last forever.

     I’m going to plant a garden. That should help.

     It will, but we’ll need a lot more than that to survive.

When she thought of survival it made her feel like someone else. This wasn’t her life. This wasn’t anything at all. Everything she would do from now on would be for her survival, and none of it would be recognizable to her.

     I found some cans of food on the shelf by the stove. The labels are too faded to read, but it doesn’t matter, we can use them.

     That might not be a good idea. Those cans look pretty old.

John finally pried loose the rusted hammer.

     We could still eat them, they’re canned. We need all the food we can get.

     Then I’ll do my best to see to it you won’t have to eat them.

He pointed the cocked rifle at an imaginary target, carefully squeezed the trigger, letting the hammer slap loudly shut.

 Continued in part 3…

Wildflowers

The Wedding Scene

The banquet hall had seen better days. Its marble floors were fogged over, and its high ceilings were decorated with sagging cobwebs. They caught the light streaming in through the stained glass ceiling. Very little light still came through in those days. It was the last stream of light that would ever shine through those windows.

The grand staircase in the back of the candlelit hall was flanked by statues of angels. They casted menacing shadows on the walls.

The wood trim of the grand room, once an impossible red, had aged and greyed seemingly overnight. And the square pillars circling the room felt unsure of themselves.

The hall was owned by a man who had abandoned it a year earlier. He left the doors open, but no one dared enter until now, for a wedding, conceived, planned, and performed in less than a day.

Shadows leered heavily over the small circle of light in the middle of the hall. Within the circle, painted in the blues, whites, and reds of the stained glass, was a small wedding party.

A handful of round tables were scattered about the light. They were filled with people too old to go to war. The ones that were too young were hiding under the tables, or being scolded for playing too close to the candles. Their laughter and cackles made music with the hushed and respectful tones of the adults.

In the backs of everyone’s mind they feared this might be the last time they’d all be together again, so they lingered, soaking up every moment they could retain. They slowly slid the party through the day from one end of the hall to the other, following the circle of sunlight as it moved across the floor.

The party stayed into the night, familiar faces coming through the red-yellow dim of candle light. The newlyweds, Jacob and Marla, sat alone at the head table, slightly elevated from the rest. Their table had the whitest cloth, and was bordered by pink and white flowers.

There was no entertainment, except when Cousin Peter periodically played his accordion for a glass of wine. All the music of Paris was drowned out by the rolling thunder in the east

Marla and Jacob appeared nervous. They smiled back at the faces below them, but the corners of their mouths trembled slightly.  No one could predict what was waiting for them. They knew they were going to have to feel their way through the dark, and it terrified them.

They had been in love for four years, but a wedding never seemed likely, since Jacob was Jewish and Marla was raised Catholic.

Marla had run away to Paris five years earlier. Her grandmother did the best she could, but she couldn’t stop Marla from leaving. She knew one morning she’d look up from her coffee and biscuits and her granddaughter, full of angst, would be gone. She knew before she even learned Marla’s name.

Marla never went back either. She would send her grandmother letters when she remembered, but the very thought of that village nauseated her. She hated all of it, its streets, its houses, its people, all of them so sad as they slowly died of mediocrity.

The day after Marla got word of her grandmother’s death, she converted to Judaism to marry Jacob.

Jacob had a robust family, full of conversational memories, and the infinite faces of love. It was a family that protected its own, but recently had begun measuring its losses in lives.

Jacob’s brother Frank was killed a week earlier, and David had not been heard from since they received a letter reporting he had been taken prisoner by the Germans.

The youngest son, Jacob, spent two months in the hospital, recovering after a blast from a Nazi mortar. He came home partially blind, but with renewed health, and ready to marry Marla. Two days later, they sat in a darkened hall, surrounded by the kind of fear that only comes from love.

     Will we have trouble leaving the city this late?

     No, my father made sure we’d be okay.

     I still wish we could stay. Isn’t there any way we could?

     We won’t be safe here. It’s better this way.

     What about your parents?

     They’re too old to run away, but don’t worry they’ll be fine.

Marla could see the fear in her husband’s eyes. It comforted her knowing she wasn’t alone.

     I want to marry you again when this is all over. I don’t want anyone to be there though,  just you and me. Are you listening Jacob?

     Yes, of course, just you and me.

A rickety old man stood up and raised his glass for a toast. He smiled at the young couple and began to speak in Yiddish.

Jacob leaned over, and whispered the translation in Marla’s ear.

     …in the end all we have are the people we give ourselves too, and the reasons we give ourselves to them.

continued in part 2…

Strange: part 2

Anna hung back from the rest of the tour group. She watched her muted reflection in the polished marble floor while the tour guide’s voice echoed through the vaulted spaces of the museum.

She felt the hopelessness creeping behind her again.  It was the kind of hopelessness that buries futures in cold soil and blocks out the sun while you mourn, and epitaphs no one will read.

She was an unsettled young woman from the Midwest, who ran to the city with her hair on fire, having burned all the dry fields of the heartland behind her, back when she had a spine like an oak tree. But soon the fire burned from the inside out, a slow burn, unnoticed until her hands were smeared with ash.

Someday fragments of her life would be treated with all the delicacy and care her present day lacked. Centuries later, people would finally wonder who she was.

     And here we have an interesting piece. This was one of the first artifacts discovered in a part of the grid thought to be destroyed during the Great Information Wars of the 23nd century. Does anyone know what this is?

     Is it a God Calculation?

     Yes, many ancient civilizations believed they could speak to their God through numbers, of course that sounds ridiculous to us today, but ancients were still a long way off from the discoveries and enlightenments we have now. However, this particular God Calculation is unique. Can anyone tell me why?

     It isn’t finished?

     Well, technically no God Calculation is complete, since we know none of them reached ‘God’.

Anna stepped closer to the display. She felt an unfamiliar magnetism between her and the numbers. She scrolled through the calculation, slipping deeper into it.

     It is finished

She said.

     Yes, but what else is odd about it?

Her mind raced through the calculation again and again, devouring the numbers, until she reached the final conclusion.

     The answer, it doesn’t seem to represent anything. It’s just a number.

     Correct, this calculation seems uninterested in god. It’s almost as if it’s calling out to us instead.

     What does it say?

     And that is where the mystery seems to end. Our museum’s own Dr. Fuller, who has studied the artifact since its discovery 10 years ago, hasn’t been able to translate it yet.

     What does he think it says?

     Well, she fears it translates into an ancient language we still have very little knowledge of. If that were the case we may not have it translated for a while.

     Why does she think it translates into a language at all?

     That’s just one of the theories.

Being aware of the time, and growing tired of the group’s questions, the guide began to direct everyone’s attention towards the next display.

The tour group slipped away from Anna as she remained stationed in front of the calculation. Her hands pressed against the display with an odd magnetism. She felt like she was at a funeral viewing.

She ended her tour and quickly returned home with a copy of her fascination.

Three days passed in her small apartment, scrolling through the numbers one line after another. The meaning continued to evade her. The twist of desperation tightened in her stomach.

She studied her frustrated reflection in the window that overlooked the park. Her green eyes were distant, her hair hung ragged over her bare shoulders. She pretended to smile.

Maxwell’s calculation was just as frustrated. It had waited so long to be touched. It felt Anna’s doubt hovering in the room. There was so much it wanted to tell her.

She moved to the bedroom. Maybe she’d sleep. She thought of her former lover, and wondered how much of him remained. She looked under the bed for traces of him. How would she feel if she found something? Even lonelier, she suspected.

All her life she wished to be understood, but she spited her wishes with rebellion, her last thought before sleep overtook her.

The morning brought no memory of dreams, as she shuffled into the living room. The gnawing presence of the calculation weighted the air.

She curled her lip in disgust at the sight of it. She had failed. There was no use in continuing her obsession. It would probably end in disappointment anyway.

But, she knew she wouldn’t let it go. It was the best company she had.

Casually sipping her coffee in the kitchen, the scrolling of numbers crept over her mind. A breathless silence filled the room with a feeling of home, familiar, safe.

Her mind relaxed, and she began to spin through the numbers with a thumping rhythm, steady and precise. They moved together in one motion, waves rolling.

They told her such secrets, so many confessions of passion, all echoed from a voice longing to be heard. It was beauty untouched, without piers. It was the unmistakable warmth of one soul lending itself to another.

Anna and Maxwell spoke softly to each other with simple phrases uttered through time. Both of them squinting in each other’s light, reaching to touch the other side. And with a sudden flash it was over, sparks darted into the black, destined to spark again.

Anna wept.

End