Chicken Soup

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“He had a well-bred face,” her mother said, stirring a pot on the stove. “Or as my mama would say, a horsey face. He would have made a handsome horse in fact. Teeth that were a bit over-sized and looked real chompy, and a smile that showed too much of those clopper teeth. You know what I mean?”

Cassie nodded and pulled more of the old quilt about her shoulders.  She was sitting in the low-slung cozy armchair in the corner of the kitchen.  It was her favorite seat in the house.

“He looked cultured and a bit skittish, like a loud noise would make him bolt for the stables. I kept waiting for him to blow air through his nostrils, like a horse would do.”

Cassie laughed, and then coughed a bit.  The phlegm in her lungs was getting worse.

“Hang in there, pudding,” her mother said. “Chicken soup will be coming your way soon.”

“Thanks, Ma.”

“It was the spring after Casper died and I was still looking for the glimpse of white out in the pasture. It took awhile for that to go away. I missed him something fierce. It was too quiet without his silly whinny antics. The other horses weren’t doing much, just being regular horses. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but oh that Casper.”

Her mother sighed. “It’s back when your dad was doing real poorly, with the cancer and all that. We weren’t sure if he was going to make it. He’s a tough onion and he pulled through but it was touch and go for a while there, and Peter was still in diapers. You came along pretty quick after he got better, but back then it was rough times.”

“I can only imagine,” Cassie said.

“So this Ricky started coming around, with his well-bred face and gentry manners. He lived in town and he’d heard about your dad and I think he had the notion that he’d be first in line with the new widow, if he hung around enough. It was appalling behavior through and through and your dad and I knew what he was doing. We hadn’t lost our sense of humor though, so we starting thinking up chores for Ricky to do while he was here secretly courting me. He’d ask if he could help and we gave him the worst things we could think of, like cleaning up after one of the horses had the runs, things like that. Oh, we were evil,” her mother said, laughing.

“In fact, I got into the habit of stopping into the downstairs bedroom where your dad was bed staying and I’d tell him the latest Ricky sweet talk and what horrible chore I made him do. Complete with doing a Ricky horse face, which made your dad laugh and laugh. It wasn’t nice, but what Ricky was doing wasn’t nice either, and I was beyond nice at that point. If I could make your father laugh, it was a good day. And we needed good days every chance we could get. We didn’t know how many good days we had left.”

Her mother ladled soup into two bowls and handed one to Cassie, with a spoon. She settled down at the kitchen table with the other.

“In the meantime, I’d hired a girl from town to come out and help with some of the household chores like laundry, so I could do some of the work your father would normally do, or oversee it at least. Her name was Nancee and she was a flirty little thing with an annoying giggle and she wore lipstick even while doing chores, which I couldn’t believe. I am sure the cows appreciated the lipstick when she milked them, but I didn’t ask the cows, so I don’t know for sure.”

“This is getting better and better,” Cassie said.

“I am sure you can imagine what happened. They started flirting with each other, thinking I wouldn’t notice, but of course I did. Then one day I sent him out to muck out the stables and I sent her to gather some early summer vegetables from the garden for our dinner, and they came back in together, which was stupid, first, and here’s where it gets good.  She had tried, bless her heart, but she had made a poor job of hiding the damage. Her lipstick was smeared and her apron was twisted to one side, and best of all, she smelled like horse manure. He had a smear of lipstick under one ear and that big horsey grin, and I saw my chance.”

“How dare you! I said to him, and here I thought you were going to be my next husband!  And YOU, I said to her. How dare you fool around with my new beau!”

Cassie sprayed out chicken soup in a huge laugh. “MA! Don’t make me laugh when I’m eating! Oh my GOSH!”

“Oh it’s just another thing in the laundry dear,” her mother said. “But here’s the best part. Your dad could hear some of the commotion from the bedroom and I told him the rest after I made them leave. He got out of bed, standing upright for the first time in days, still laughing, and said, “I can’t go off and die now. I have to see what you do next. You are a peach.” And he got a little better every day after that, until he was well again. So God bless Ricky. He’ll never know what a gift his silly antics were for us. Gifts come from all directions, Cassie. Never forget that.”

“I won’t, Ma,” Cassie said, and handed her mother the empty bowl. “More please.”

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Swim

 

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She felt for the lock in the dark locker room.  She knew the combination by feel, the tumblers clicking in their familiar pattern. She dare not turn on the light in case the security guard saw. At this time of night he was usually snoring on the boldly patterned couch in the teacher’s lounge, but she didn’t want to chance it. The lock clicked open and she opened the locker door. She had oiled the hinges months ago so it made no noise.

She silently slipped off her clothing and reached for the silky one-piece swimsuit. It was so lightweight it felt like wearing gossamer wings. Cut high on the thighs and straps criss-crossing her back.  It was built for speed, it was built to fly, and flying was what she intended to do. She put her clothing into the locker and shut the door, crossing the room to enter the room where her kingdom waited for her.

She’d swam in many pools, but this one was special. There were large skylights across the enormous ceiling, which showcased the weather, day and night. The pool floors and walls were painted metallic gold, so it was like swimming in a giant gold tea-cup. Pinpoint lights had been installed in the upper walls that curved into the ceiling so the water glimmered with tiny sparks here and there. The pool was a bequest by a wealthy parent, and while there were mutters about the gaudiness of it all, at night, with the main lights off, it was magical.

She sat on the edge of the pool and then quietly slipped into the water. Her arms began the familiar breast stroke, her legs frog kicking behind her. It was her favorite stroke, because it was relatively quiet, and more importantly, she could look about the room and up into the sky as she swam. The sky was clear tonight and the half full moon cast a pearl shine on her forearms as she swam. No sounds except the water as she pushed it in firm strokes, moving down the length of the pool. She closed her eyes for a moment, just feeling the water caress her skin. She reached the end of the pool and turned to swim back, and then paused.  There was a figure standing at the other end. It was too dark to see who it was. She pretended not to notice and began to swim back.

As she drew close she could see it was her husband Jonathan. She reached the edge and looked up at him.

“You’ve found me out,” she said.

“So this is where you slip off to……..so late at night,” he said evenly. “You’re so lovely when you swim, Katherine. You always have been.”

“Lovely was not the intention,” she said.

“But lovely all the same.”

“Don’t you want to know my intention?”

“Oh, I think I can guess,” he said. “It’s your rabbit hole, your hidey-place. Where you leave all your cares behind.”

“Yes.”  How well he knew her.

“I wish I had one myself.”

She reached out of the water and placed her hand on his foot.

“I can share. I can share my refuge with you. I didn’t think you needed one. You are always so stalwart. So strong-shouldered.”

He was smiling. “Would you share with me, Kat?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Aren’t you worried about getting caught?”

“What’s the worst that can happen?  We get caught, there’s a tiny scandal, and we find another refuge. Come join me, my love.”

He took off his clothes slowly, shyly. “What a spell you cast on me, Katherine,” he said and joined her in the pool. They kissed extravagantly, and then sweetly, and then together, they began to swim down the length of the pool.

 

 

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Mischka and the Tree

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There was something not quite right about the window. He looked at it again. What was wrong?  Ah, he thought. Mischka has pushed one of the window slats out of line. He reached over his desk and pushed the slat back in line with the others. He glanced out of the second story window and saw his neighbor Greg mowing the lawn in the back yard next door. He pulled back abruptly. No, no, no, he thought. I didn’t want to see Greg. I don’t want to think about Greg. What if that’s the last time I see Greg? That would be unbearable. His left hand wrenched the skin on his right arm…stop thinking about Greg.

He went downstairs. There were light shades on all the windows so he didn’t have to see outside, except for the window overlooking the part of the backyard where there weren’t any neighbors. He checked his front porch by looking through the eye hole quickly. Nobody was in sight. He opened the door and carried all his mail and packages inside, hurrying so Mischka wouldn’t be tempted to go outside and explore the front yard. Fortunately, she wasn’t a very curious cat, but he was always cautious all the same.

He’d always had issues with obsession-compulsion tendencies but they kicked into overdrive after his mother died and he was alone in the house. It had been so hard to accept the fact that he’d never see her again, and he began to feel the same way about everyone he saw. When he went to the grocery store, it was difficult to say goodbye to the check-out clerk, because, what if he never saw her again? He’d never see her smile or learn more about her. And that child in the next aisle over, how was he supposed to live without finding out what he liked to eat for lunch or what his favorite toys were? It was unbearable not to know. The child would leave with his mother and he’d never see him again and it was ridiculous but he had tears in his eyes. He was coherent enough not to say anything, but once he got into his car he wept.

Driving home he tried not to look inside other cars but he glanced at one coming the other way and saw an older woman with a serene smile on her face and he thought, I want to know why she is smiling. Her car drove past him and he felt a pull to do a u-turn and follow her so he could keep her in his life somehow, but there wasn’t a safe place to turn and then her car was gone and the pain of losing her wrenched his stomach.

He stopped opening the door to delivery men and they soon all learned to leave his groceries and other packages on the porch. He had a data entry job he could do from home and he left his house less and less. He had his work and he had Mischka and he had books to read and that was enough for him.

It was Summer which was his least favorite time of the year. Lots of kids playing up and down the street and neighbors out and people strolling out for a pleasant walk in the early evenings. He had to put his garbage can out for collection well after midnight, to make sure he didn’t see anyone. He saw a few of the neighborhood dogs running around but he didn’t feel the same way about dogs, so they were safe. Occasionally he’d hear the crackle and pop of firecrackers as it got closer to the Fourth of July.

The day before the holiday he opened his front door to get his packages, just as a loud bottle rocket went off just one house over. Mischka scooted out the front door. He’d never seen her run so fast.

“Mischka!” he yelled.  “Come back!”

He quickly went across the porch and down the front steps after her, as she raced across the yard to the big Elm on the right corner of the lawn. She scurried up the tree and out of sight. It was his worst nightmare. He stood at the base of the tree, calling up to her.

“Mischka, sweetie, it’s okay. Daddy’s here. Come on Sweetie. Come down from there.”

A couple of kids riding their bikes screeched to a stop on the sidewalk, close to the tree.

“Is your cat up in the tree Mister?” one said.

“Yes,” he said, trying not to turn to look at them. “She got scared by a firecracker noise.”

“My dad can help,” the other said. “You want me to get my dad?”

There was nothing for it but to say yes.

“Please,” he said. “and hurry. She’s awfully scared I bet.”

They raced off on their bikes and shortly after he heard sirens.

“What is going on?” he thought, just as a fire truck came down the street and stopped next to him. The kid jumped out, as well as several firemen. Several neighbors came out of their houses to watch.

“Here’s my dad,” the kid said. One of the firemen shook his hand briskly, and shielded his eyes to look up into the tree. “I think one of the basic ladders,” he said to the other firemen. “She’s not real high up, at least not yet.”

They braced the ladder against the tree and in short order he was up the ladder and down again with Mischka cradled under one arm.

“Good as new,” the fireman said, and handed the cat to him. He held her tightly and looked around at the crowd that had gathered. “Thank you,” he said. “I don’t have the words.”

“It’s so good to see you Sam,” his neighbor Amanda across the street said. There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd, and one after the other began to come up and pat him on the back or shake his hand. A few of the women gave him brief hugs and they all mentioned how much they had missed him.

He stood there, as they came up and the knot in his chest loosened with each touch. He nodded and said something back to each one and then as they started going back to their houses he went inside his.

He murmured to Mischka as he walked through the front door.

” I should be so mad at you for scaring me, but I am just so glad you are okay.”

He glanced at the front hall mirror and then looked again. There was something in the mirror he hadn’t seen for some time. There was a huge smile on his face.

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Sea Dance

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She was a stranger in a very strange land and yet everything felt so familiar, like it can in the most impossible of dreams. She wasn’t dreaming, but it felt like she was, as she moved among the different sculptures in the new art exhibit. The walls in the large gallery were painted in wavy patterns of swimmy blues and murky greens and the effect was like being in an underwater cavern and the statues and sculptures seemed to sway in a current unfelt by human skin.

She’d worn a modest bathing suit, as instructed by the art gallery owner and she shivered a little as she walked among the statues. They were almost familiar too, like child drawings of sea creatures. There was a mermaid with a forked tail so it was like she had large fins, instead of legs, and silvery hair sweeping down her scaly back. A porpoise with whiskers drooping on each side of its snout. A very large lobster, with tentacles instead of claws. She gasped, as one of the statues opened its eyes and turned towards her. It was a man, dressed in a coat that looked like intricately woven seaweed.

“Do you like my creatures?” he asked.

“Oh, yes!” she said. “They feel like I know them from a dream. I mean, they seem so unreal and yet so familiar.”

He patted the back of a sea turtle that had rows of centipede legs on each side of its shell.

“You very well may be dreaming,” he said, and smiled an impish grin at her.

“I most certainly am NOT dreaming,” she said. “but I may as well be.”  He was quite handsome, she thought, with his goatee and boyish red curls. She had sworn off dating artists but now she couldn’t remember why.

He moved closer to her. “Do you know how to swim?” he asked.

“I do, but not well. I don’t get the opportunity very often. Why do you ask?”

“It’s part of my show. But you have to trust me. You need to not be afraid of water.”

“I would never be afraid,” she said. “There may be things that scare me, but water is not one of them.”

“I knew that when I saw you,” he said, and raised his hand to blow three sharp notes on a small pipe whistle.

Water started pouring out of the base of each statue, quickly filling the floor of the gallery and starting to rise. Soon it was a foot deep, and then two, and as it began to reach the creatures they began to move languidly, stretching and tossing their heads back and forth. At three feet deep some were able to rise off their bases and they began to swim around the gallery, diving and weaving among each other. The porpoise nudged her leg and the whiskers tickled.

“Shall we?” he said, and taking her by the elbow, he guided her to climb on the back of the porpoise. The water rose higher and he swam with strong strokes beside her as the porpoise moved here and there around the other creatures in the room. The water kept rising and soon it was just a few feet from the ceiling. There was a bell hanging from one of the chandeliers and he swam to it and rang it, once. The creatures began to dive, one after another and he swam to her, pulling her off the porpoise into his arms.

There was a loud rushing sound and the water began to lower, and as it lowered he held her tight and swung her into a tumble. They tumbled and rolled together as the water lever kept dropping and the creatures settled back onto their bases. One last tumble and they felt the floor of the gallery beneath them. She had starting laughing in sheer joy as they tumbled and as they pulled apart she laughed again.

“I have made quite a mess of your seaweed coat,” she said.

“Ah, well, that’s the beauty of seaweed, you see,” he said. “There’s plenty of it.”

“I still think I might be dreaming,” she said.

“That’s for you to decide,” he said. “Would you rather this be a dream? Or real?”

“Real,”  she said. “I’d rather my real life be this intoxicating. Given the choice, I’d rather have more fun awake, than asleep.”

“Good choice,” he said. “Real, it is, then.”

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Slide

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With her faded dress and worn shoes, she knew she couldn’t go to her normal haunts, like her favorite bookstore or the tea shop where they served her favorite scones. She’d dashed out of the house intending to just drop some things off at the thrift shop on the edge of town but then her car kept going and soon she was on Main Street on a unseasonably warm sunny day. The last time she’d gone out dressed like this luck would have it that she ran into Bill at the grocery store, with her hair uncombed and no makeup on. He’d grinned and said, “Slumming it today are we?” and she blushed and said the first thing that came into her head, “I didn’t think I’d run into anyone important.” That made her blush deeper and he just laughed and patted her on the head like she was his kid sister. She hated to blush. And she hated the pat on the head even more. She was 31 and he was 32 and they weren’t neighborhood kids growing up together now–they were full grown adults. He was already married and then divorced, for Pete’s sake.  He’d married his high school sweetheart and they’d had two kids together and then at some point she up and moved out with another guy, leaving both Bill and the kids behind.

She turned down 4th Street and her car seemed to know where it was going so she just kept driving and she wound through side streets until she realized she was close to the prettiest park in town. She parked her car in the parking lot and took a blanket out of the trunk, and cradled under one arm the book she was currently reading. As she headed for the shade of one of the large Elms that curved the borders of the small lake, she heard a familiar voice and stopped short. You’ve got to be kidding me, she thought.

There was a small children’s playground on the south shore of the lake and standing there on the edge of the chipped wood playground surface was Bill, standing with his back towards her, his hands on his hips.  Two small children were climbing the jungle gym apparatus.

“Keep going, Emily,” he called. “You are doing really good.”

A small boy reached the top and stood at the top of the slide. He put one foot on the slide and then moved it back. Slowly he sat down on the slide.

“You can do it,” Bill said. “It’s fun to slide, remember?”

The boy stayed at the top of the slide.

She found herself walking over to the playground.

“It IS fun to slide,” she said. She enjoyed the look on Bill’s face. She stood at the bottom of the slide. “It’s like riding a rainbow down to the ground. Do you want me to slide with you?”

The boy nodded. She set down her things and climbed nimbly to the top of the structure, picking the boy up to place him in her lap on the slide. They slid down together.

“Do you want to go again?” she asked.

“YES! YES!” the boy shouted. They climbed up to slide down several more times.

“You see?” she said. “It’s fun and easy.”

She turned to Bill. “I’m slumming again.  Hope you don’t mind.”

He blushed. “We’re going for hamburgers and fries after this,” he said. “Want to join us?”

“Sure,” she said, and smiled. It looks like she wore the right thing after all.

 

 

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Lucinda and the Barn

 

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They say everyone who looks into their family history will find a secret sooner or later. My sister sat down with my grandfather shortly before he died and asked him about his life and relatives and anything he might be able to share about our family history. She had one of those old-fashioned click on click off tape recorders, so when you listen to the tape you can hear all the times she turned it on and off. She says she turned it off a few times when he started rambling too much or when she wanted to give him a break because he was getting tired. She also kept turning it off when he would start talking about Lucinda. His sister Lucinda. She knew he didn’t have a sister Lucinda. He had an older brother Bart but no sisters.

He grew up on a farm in Nebraska and went into the military at age 18. He never went back to Nebraska to live.  After his service he settled down in Iowa and opened up a feed store in a little town and married the daughter of the town doctor. By all accounts, he’d had a remarkably easy going life, raising three boys and a daughter with his loving wife.  He told stories about his brother being kicked by a horse and his crazy uncles who were the town hooligans when they were teenagers back in the 1920s.

I kept hearing more and more clicks as the tape progressed. I asked my sister what had happened. He kept talking more and more about Lucinda, she said. Aren’t you curious? I asked. There’s no Lucinda, she replied. How do you know for sure? I asked.  Our parents would have told us, she said, getting irritated. Somebody would have told us about Lucinda. You don’t know that for sure, I said. You are SO ANNOYING, she said. Stop listening to the tape if it bothers you so much. Why can’t I be curious? I asked. Go ask him yourself! she said. Fine, I said, I will.

The next day I went to the nursing home where he was living and after kissing him hello, sat down next to his hospital bed, holding onto his nearest hand.

Poppa, tell me about Lucinda, I said.

His eyes filled with tears and one ran down his cheek. He brushed it away with his free hand. Oh Lucinda, he said. She had the most beautiful brown hair. She was a year and a half younger than me and just the light of our eyes. She was so sweet and simple.

His voice shook as he talked. She was just so innocent, he said. Even though she saw animals together she was innocent and pure. We didn’t expect what happened. We didn’t think that….

He stopped.

What, Poppa, I said.

A boy from church was starting to court her, even though she was but 15. He’d come over and they’d sit on the front porch together. We never saw them anywhere else. We didn’t.

He stopped again.

The boy stopped coming over. She grew sickly. She kept mostly to her room up under the eaves. Until one day I heard crying coming from the barn. I went in and…

It’s okay Poppa, I said.

He was crying in full earnest then.

I went in and there she was, lying in one corner, bloody with something wrapped in some rags next to her.

It was a baby. And it had died during the birth. She was lying there and I didn’t know what to do so I got my parents. They buried the baby behind the barn and brought Lucinda into the house. There were some harsh words spoken. Then the next day Lucinda was gone. My brother and I were told that we weren’t to ever speak of her. It’s like she never existed. I never felt the same way about the farm after that. I left as soon as I could.

I am so sorry Poppa, I said.

He looked at the empty doorway. He smiled.

Lucinda, he said.

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Soot on the Fireplace

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 Soot covered the walls around the perimeter of the fireplace tiles, like a small child fighting to color within the lines. There was a light spot in the soot like someone had scribbled with a finger. She chose a high-back woven reed chair close to the fireplace and in the farthest corner, facing the door, with her back to the stained walls. Waving away the approach of the sullen slouching mead maid, she nervously played with the folds of her long dark skirt, watching the door.

Malicson came through the door in his usual brusk rush and nodded to her, before making a drinking motion with his hand to the suddenly much cheerier mead maid. In three strides he was at the fireplace and settling into a large carved wood chair, by far the best seat in the small  room.

“How be you, Katydid?” he asked her.

She smiled at the nickname. “Better now,” she said. “But I fear…”

He raised his hand slightly to quiet her as the mead maid approached with his drink.

“Thank you darlin,” he crooned and tucked a few coins into the pocket of her apron. She blushed and curtsied and backed out of the room slowly. When the inner door was shut he took a long draught of the beer, both hands clenched around the mug.

“You charmer you,” she murmured.

“Not charm, love,” Malicson said. There was foam above his upper lip. “Just keeping loose lips hopefully sealed.”

She made a wiping motion to her own lips. He grinned and with one long finger swiped the foam off his lip. He leaned forward and presented the finger to her. Keeping her eyes on his, she bent half out of her chair and took his finger into her mouth….sucking the foam off it.

His face went blank. “Who’s the charmer now?” he said.

“No time for spooning nonsense, Malic,” she said. “I need to know what the primson hell my mother is up to. That’s why we’re here. I chose this place because this street is spell blocked by the Chartlatain family living two houses up.”

He sighed and drank the rest of his beer. “It’s no good Katy,” he said somberly. “Your mother has started movement to shut down the pavilion palace. She’s weaving her loom with threads pulling in all directions and one of those threads is you. There’s talk that you are a threat.”

“Me?” she said. “Why in Clamant’s Ring would I be a threat? I couldn’t possible keep my head any lower. I’d be eating mugbugs out of the gutter.”

“I don’t know why yet,” he said. “But it’s a very real rumor. I trust the people who have told me.”  He glanced at the sooty wall to the left of the fireplace and stood up quickly. “What is this place Katy? Where have you brought us?”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“That mark by the fireplace, where the soot is. That’s the emblem of the Cannarego Society. They’re a nasty bunch.”

There was a thump outside the front door.

He yanked her up out of her chair. “Let’s do hope there’s a back way out of this place,” he said. “Otherwise, your mother will be the least of our worries.”

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