by Bernie Brown
Hans dug down with his spade. Digging used to be easier; but now that he was eighty, it was slow going. Maybe he’d buy a garden tiller. Madge would have wanted one. She liked new- fangled stuff. Hans didn’t.
They used to argue. “Put the radishes first, then the peas,” she’d say.
“What does it matter?” he’d say.
“Companion gardening,” she’d say or some other high falutin’ reason.
Madge died at seventy five, when they were still pretty spry. Five years and losing your gardening partner made a difference.
“Damn,” he muttered. His neighbor Barker, a nice enough guy who talked too much, headed his way. Hans’s stomach twisted.
“Hi, there, neighbor. Wanna borrow my tiller?” Barker said.
Hans kept working. “No thanks.” He didn’t look up, hoping to discourage gabbing.
“I’ll leave it here, if you change your mind.” The cursed machine sat at the edge of the plot.
Hans was afraid of it. It sounds like a sick lawn mower.
After a goulash supper, Hans fell asleep to “Dancing with the Stars” until he jerked awake. Had he heard a lawn mower? Probably something on that stupid show. He turned off the TV and went to bed.
Next morning, he went out in his pajamas to fill the bird feeder. The big old flicker pecked away at the feeder, like always.
A look at his garden plot shocked him. What the . . ? He stepped closer. The plot looked pretty as a garden magazine picture, completely tilled. Did that damn Barker till it? In the dark? And leave the hated tiller behind?
Hans turned his back. This was too much to deal with before morning coffee and the newspaper.
Dressed and back outside, Hans studied the garden. If he asked Barker, the guy would never shut up. He pushed the matter out of his mind.
Lettuce would go in the first row and radishes in the second. The sweet tang of a fresh radish filled his mouth. He knelt down on Madge’s old rug. She’d said it was easier on the knees than the ground. He dug a hole, put in the lettuce plant, and gently pressed the soil down. “Press too hard and you break the roots,” Madge always said.
Busybody neighbor headed Hans’s way, and Hans ignored him.
“You used the tiller.”
“Hmmph,” Hans said. So it hadn’t been him.
“I’ll just take it home then.”
Another lettuce seedling, then another. Hans avoided thinking about who had tilled the garden. He finished the lettuce and radishes. Carrots and onions this afternoon. He went inside for lunch. Hans saved the crossword for lunchtime. He put chicken noodle soup in a pan, and set it on the stove. While it heated, he read the clue for one across. “Short name for mother.” Easy. M A.
The soup bubbled and he poured it in a bowl, grabbed a spoon, and took a seat. Slurp. One down, “A saying or proverb.” Five letters, first one A. Axiom? He penciled it in. But that wouldn’t work with two across, dorm “a place to sleep.” He cleared the table, put the dishes in the sink with a clink, and conked out on the couch.
Hans woke, a little stiff but ready to work. He finished off his cold coffee while watching the birds at the feeder. That greedy flicker was there again. He couldn’t resist a last glance at the crossword. Not axiom? What could it be?
After putting on his work shoes, he returned to the garden. Wait, didn’t I plant lettuce first? Then radishes. He would never mistake floppy radish leaves for stiff lettuce greenery. But the rows were reversed. He scratched his head. Am I going nuts? Maybe I should check into some old farts home.
The mystery troubled him as he planted. But when he finished the neat rows of carrots, onions, lettuce, and radishes, a warm satisfaction filled him. At the same time, the crossword answer came to him like a bolt of lightning.
Hans cleaned up and went inside. Like a champ, he filled in the word.
Too late to cook. He decided to hit MacDonald’s. He and Madge used to do that sometimes. She liked cheeseburgers and he liked fish sandwiches.
At MacDonald’s the happy buzz of families made him smile. A little girl toddled over and grinned at him. He shook her chubby hand and gave the mother a nod.
You know, one of those garden flags would be nice. He’d seen one with carrots and peas on it. Walmart might still have it.
And it did, putting a nice finish on a good gardening day.
When he got home, he set the flag by the back door to put out in the morning. He’d watch “American Idol” and then hit the hay.
That kid from Carolina did a nice job. Hans would have called in, except he didn’t do stuff like that. He yawned. Time for bed. He put today’s newspaper on top of the recycling bin outside the door. It had turned breezy.
Next morning, rain’s patter woke Hans early. He set the coffee pot perking and collected the newspaper. A look out the window showed rain didn’t keep the old flicker away. Hans glanced at the garden and frowned. The flag already blew in the breeze. He hadn’t put it out last night. Nosiree. Somebody was messing with him. And the wind had messed with the recycling papers, littering the grass like dandelions.
“Shit.” He tramped around picking up soggy papers. He wanted to yank the damn flag right out of the ground.
Rain had glued yesterday’s crossword to the flag’s pole. Only two words remained: M A and A D A G E. Their message came to Hans like another bolt of lightning, solving the mysteries.
His old gardening partner was back.
“You got me again, Madge.”
And the big flicker came and snatched the paper clean out of his hands.
Bernie Brown lives in Raleigh, NC where she writes, reads, and watches birds. Her stories have appeared in several journals, most recently Belle Reve, Modern Creative Life, and Watching Backyard Birds. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center.
by Bernie Brown
Josh hated playing piano.
But he loved listening to piano music.
One song, in particular, was wonderful to listen to, but impossible to play. At least for him. “Claire de Lune” gave him shivers when someone else played it, making him think of far away cities in the rain. When he played it, he thought of city dumps and air pollution.
Tempo rubato. What did that even mean? Self expression, his teacher said. Joshua’s self wasn’t very expressive.
“Claire de Lune” made him think of his sister. Now, she had been all over tempo rubato.
His parents wanted to remake him in her image, and he wanted to make them happy. So he tried to play piano. He wanted her back, too. She used to make the best chocolate chip cookies and take him to movies.
But he hated playing piano, and he loved playing golf with his middle school pals.
His father had made a deal with him. “Play your piece at the recital without mistakes, and we’ll sell the piano and buy golf clubs.”
Josh practiced day and night, but the tempo rubato part escaped him. He fumbled his way through it, dreading the passage so much he found excuses to stop playing. He had to pee, or he needed a cookie.
He left the piano in the living room, and walked into the kitchen, spying the Oreo package on the counter. While getting a couple of cookies, he heard the passage played just the way his sister had played it. Heartfelt. Slow and soft, and then louder and more plaintive. Was he imagining it? He and the piano were in different rooms.
He went back to the hated instrument, put the cookies down on the bench beside him, and started at the top. When he got to the hard part, the keys moved by themselves. It freaked him out. His arm hairs stood on end.
Gingerly, he touched the keys that had moved. They sounded when he pressed them, and were quiet when he released them.
His mom came in the kitchen back door carrying a bag of groceries. “Hi, Josh. How’s it going?”
“Fine. It’s going fine,” he said. It’s going weird, he thought.
His mom went in the back room, and he started from the top, pushing on through the rough part and sounding as bad as ever. No help came from the piano. He put an Oreo in his mouth, munching and thinking about a hole-in-one. He’d win school tournaments. Cindy Michaels would kiss him.
Tonight Cindy was playing a piece by Bach that went all over the keyboard. She was good, too, as good as his sister had been.
“Josh, I don’t hear anything,” his mom yelled.
Again, the piano played the hard part by itself. He grabbed the second Oreo and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth.
“That part sounds better today,” his mom yelled.
Jeez, he was dreading the recital tonight. If he was nervous before, he was a jiggling bowl of Jello now. He’d never get his clubs or a kiss from Cindy Michaels.
Josh took a shower, but he couldn’t stop sweating. Sweat poured down his armpits. Shit, he’d probably have big old sweat stains on his sport coat.
His dad had to tie his tie. “Can’t you do this yet, son? How many times do I have to show you?”
Just shut up and tie it already.
He rode in the backseat practicing his fingering on his knees. He wanted to keep going right on past the recital hall. Anywhere. Hell would be nice. He was doomed. He would shame his parents and the memory of his sister. He’d probably have a nutzo attack right at the keyboard and need a shot to calm him down, like on TV.
His dad stopped the car, and Josh got out like a man on the way to the gallows.
“Remember, son, your golf clubs are at stake.” His dad shook his sweaty hand.
“I have faith in you.” His mom kissed his cheek.
Why hadn’t he died instead of his sister?
Backstage, Josh sat fidgeting while Cindy played. She didn’t flub a note or miss a beat. The parents applauded as if she were Bach himself.
“Joshua Jones,” his teacher announced. “Josh will play “Claire de Lune” for us this evening.”
Yeah, right. Josh will make you wish you’d never heard of “Claire de Lune.” Josh will make you wish you’d brought noise-cancelling headphones.
He sat down at the baby grand. Seemed so wrong to butcher a song on a grand piano. He adjusted the bench twice, placed his hands in position, and the piano began. He hadn’t pressed a key. It played the second line, the third, and right on through the tempo rubato. He moved his hands above the keys, pretending. He thought of far away cities and mountain villages. He thought of Cindy Michaels. The piano kept playing.
Every day he wanted his sister back, his family whole again. Hearing the piano play “Claire de Lune” made his heart hurt.
He was sure he smelled chocolate chip cookies.
The piano finished. It was over. They could sell the piano and buy clubs.
He rose and did the little bow thing the teacher taught them.
Were his feet touching the ground? Had his fingers touched the keys?
Cindy Michaels waited for him behind the curtain. “Good job, Josh.” And, she kissed him on the cheek.
He grinned all over. Oh, please, God, don’t let me blush.
A kiss from Cindy Michaels. That was tempo rubato. That was the kind of self expression he understood. You bet your sweet ass it was.
He went to talk golf clubs with his dad.
Only, how had the piano played itself? And why could he smell chocolate chip cookies?
He suddenly knew, he’d get his clubs some other way.
He didn’t want to sell the piano. Ever.
Bernie Brown lives in Raleigh, NC where she writes, reads, and watches birds. She is a 2016 Pushcart Nominee. Her stories have appeared in several journals, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. She is a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot for her to work on her novel-in-progress.
by S.C. Hickman
was dead and gone. Only lines of kindness
in her face remained…
—Richard Hugo, Making Sure It Goes On
Mrs. Noraine stood on the porch silently listening to the dogs and children and sirens in the distance. The two girls playing across the street stopped and watched her, then waved. She waved back. They were nice girls, never had a bit of trouble out of them. But times were changing now. Some of the boys in the neighborhood were mean looking, and taunted her at times when they walked by. They never used to do that.
Ever since Roland passed on she’d felt a little fearful. Her daughter had been trying to get her to move down south for a while, but she’d lived in this old home for most of her life. She wouldn’t know what to do if she left it. But more and more things were not right, she was having those dreams again. Seeing her son crashing in that car, again. His big beautiful brown eyes so full of terror. She’d wake up feeling a knot in the pit of her stomach. She’d sit there the rest of the night unable to sleep. Things rattling in that old house now. Frightened her.
Even Roland seemed to come and go now. She’d be sitting there concentrating on a sweater for Amy or Tisha and feel a hand slide along her arm. Look up and see him standing there with his big grin just gazing at her. She’d say, “What you doing here, Roland?” Surprised he’d come to visit her. “She’d reach over to get her glasses to see him better and he’d be gone. She’d get up and wander around that big old house looking for him, but wouldn’t find him anywhere and then she’d remember. That would upset her so she couldn’t even drink her night tea.
Mostly she knew she wasn’t thinking right anymore. It was a terrible thing to be missing things, especially things one used to have so well preserved in one’s mind. She’d pull out the old photo albums and try to refresh her mind, but it just confused her more. Faces she knew she ought to know no longer registered a name she could attach to her thoughts. This disturbed her the most. Losing names and faces. She told her daughter about seeing Roland. Her daughter flew up the next day. “Mama, you coming home with me, you hear?” She was a nice girl, but she didn’t want to leave her home. So much to do, so many things left undone. She just couldn’t leave, not yet. But her daughter insisted. Said it was no longer up to her. “Mama it’s for your health, you have to come. I can’t take care of you, and I can’t leave my home. Billy and I have a nice place for you all fixed up. You’ll be happy. You’ll see.”
So she’d fretted over all the little things in her house. Her daughter hired some people to pack it all up, said she needn’t worry about that at all. That they were professionals and would take extra care to insure nothing was lost or broken in process. So she’d just sat there in her big green chair and watched strangers put her life away in box after box after box. She felt lost now standing here not knowing where her life had gone. She walked slowly through that empty house feeling sad and lonely. She didn’t want to leave Roland to roam that place alone, either. What would he do? Her daughter said: “Roland’s in a good place, Mama. He’s just fine. Don’t you worry about Roland. The Good Lord taking care of him.” She wasn’t quite sure of that. Roland wasn’t much on religion like she was. So she wasn’t at all convinced about the Good Lord taking care of him. She was fearful for her Man’s soul.
She walked back into the kitchen where she’d cooked so many meals. “Good times, here,” she thought. A woman shouldn’t have to leave her kitchen to strangers. Just didn’t seem right to her. Everything gone. All my pictures gone. It’s like saying goodbye to myself; it’s like I won’t exist anymore… just then she felt his hand on her shoulder. She wanted to fall into his big strong arms, let him hold her one last time…
"Mama," her daughter said, a little afraid. "You all right, Mama, we're packed up and ready. Let me take you out to the car."
She turned around and saw Roland standing there in the doorway just a smiling. He looked twenty years younger. His thick bushy black hair had a dusting of gray, but not much; and she could see he was plump, but not overly; in fact he even had on that smart new suit she'd bought him from the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue. "My, my," she thought: "How handsome he is in that suit." He nodded at her as if to say, "Go on now, sweetpea; it'll be all right, you wait and see. I'll take care of myself just fine, don't you fret none; so you get on down south..."
Rosie, her daughter, worrying and fretting herself, said: "Mama?" Her daughter shook her on the shoulder a little.
She opened her eyes and Roland was gone, and her daughter was standing there with that worrisome look on her face, so she said: "Okay, hun, it's all right, everything goin' be all right; let's go south, I'm ready."
S.C. Hickman writes daily on his blog Southern Nights. Having lived in the South most of his life he writes within the Country noir and Southern lit traditions. He dovetails the Southern lit in with his own brand of Southern humor and serious themes.
by Ed Nichols
Walking home from the mill, Boyd Johnson stopped and turned to look at the four-story brick monster. Ten years today, he’d spent in the bowels of the beast. In the weave room, fixing looms. “Keep ‘em running, BJ,” his boss would say every morning. Never called him by his real name—just BJ. Near the end of Boyd’s shift, his boss would always say, “Set ‘em up good now for the boys.” The boys being the men that followed Boyd on the night shift. The mill windows were half-open and he could hear the roar of the pulleys and gears, and shuttles moving back and forth on the looms. He caught the smell of oil and rubber and washed cotton coming from the ventilation fans on top of the mill. He shivered and rubbed his eyes. His back was hurting.
He walked up on the porch and opened the front door. He heard his wife, from the kitchen, “That you, Hon?”
He laughed softly and said, “Naw. It ain’t me.”
She met him in the hall, leaned up and kissed him. “Hard day?”
“Yea. Back’s killing me,” he said in a low voice.
She smoothed her apron, took his lunch pail, and went back to the kitchen. “Get you a hot bath. I’m frying some chicken for supper.”
“That’ll be good,” he said.
Relaxing in the bath tub, he let his mind go blank. He closed his eyes. For a while the water was still and nothing crossed his mind. The images appeared suddenly and without warning. Tom Benson, withering on the ground, staring at the two stumps where his legs used to be. Mike Caudell, half his face gone, trying to say something—his arms outstretched toward Boyd. Junior Sims, holding his guts in his hands. The smell of napalm and burning skin rushing up his nose. He suddenly spit in the tub water, before he realized what he’d done. Sometimes, the smells from the mill would remind him of odors from Vietnam.
For supper they ate fried chicken, green beans, potato salad and cornbread. He drank three glasses of iced tea. Then he helped her clean the table and wash the dishes. She kept telling him to go sit and watch television. “I know you’re tired,” she said. He wouldn’t go. Standing behind her at the sink, he put his arms around her waist. With her hands deep in the sink water, he moved his hands slowly up her body and cupped both of her breasts. He squeezed softly and kissed her on the side of her neck. She tilted her head back and they kissed. She smiled.
He released her, and said, “I think I will go to the sofa.”
“I guess it’s too cold to sit on the porch.”
“It is. I may go out later and smoke,” he said.
They sat in the living room on the sofa and watched television. He reached for her hand, and told her, “I have something important to say.”
Her eyes widened. “Okay. What is it?” she asked.
Boyd stretched his legs. He said, “You know what today is, don’t you?”
“November first. How come?” Then she put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my gosh. It’s your anniversary date at the mill.”
“That’s right. Ten years ago today, I started.”
She reached over and placed her hand on his thigh. She said, “It’s hard work, isn’t it? But, what’s something important—your anniversary date?”
“No. Not the date.” He paused. “I’ve been thinking about quitting the mill.” He reached for her hand. She was silent. “I keep searching, in my mind, for something different,” he said. “Something that will give us a better life.”
She said, “You know I love you, and whatever you…I don’t know. This mill village is all I’ve ever known. But you know what the mill did to daddy. If you hadn’t married me and lived with us…I don’t know what I’d done when he was so sick.”
“Mill work was all he ever knew,” he said.
She leaned over and kissed him. “You’re a fine man, Boyd Johnson, and if you want to quit the mill, then do so. You can find another line of work.”
“Here’s what’s been going around in my mind,” he said. “What if we move, away from here?”
“Leave this house?”
“Yea. Sell the house. Move to South Georgia or Florida. Get out of these mountains. Live where it’s warmer, all year.”
“Oh, Boyd,” she said, and then she went silent.
He looked at her and knew her mind was trying to grasp the idea. This proposition he had sprung on her, out of the blue. He said, “We can get a trailer for the pickup and load everything we want to keep, and go south.”
“Oh, Boyd,” she said, “this is the house I was born in, and the house where we lived with daddy—I don’t know. Maybe…we….”
“Well,” he said. “Think about it, okay? Moving south, I mean.” She laid her head on his shoulder and they watched television, and didn’t talk about it anymore.
Later, he stood on the front porch and smoked while she took a bath and got ready for bed. He looked up and down the street at the single light bulb glowing on the front porch of each mill house. All the houses looked just like their house. He stood and smoked, and looked and listened to the mill noises. Long enough, he thought.
He went in, locked the front door and turned the lights out. Then he went into the bedroom, undressed and got in bed under the covers. The bedroom was cold. She came out of the bathroom in her nightgown and slid in the bed. She was warm. He reached over and turned off the nightstand light. They lay on their backs in silence, eyes open to the ceiling.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked her.
She didn’t answer. He didn’t press her. He turned on his side facing her and put his arm over her stomach. He said, “You know, you are always on my mind. Always. And if you want to stay here, we will.”
She turned to face him. “Boyd, I read an article in a magazine at the library. About a little town near the ocean in Georgia. A place where there’s a lot of shops and restaurants and all. A neat, clean little town. The pictures in the article were so pretty.”
“What was the name of the town?”
“I don’t remember, right off. Saint something, I believe.” She put her hand on his arm and rubbed softly. “You know, now that I remember looking at the pictures, I remember wondering how it would be to live in such a nice place. Isn’t that weird, me thinking that, and then what you’ve been talking about tonight?”
“I’ll bet I could get work in that town. Repair work on shops, restaurants. Maybe painting and such,” he said.
“I’ll bet you could, too.”
They kissed. He slept peacefully, the roar from the mill a distant dream.
Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a journalism graduate from the University of Georgia, and is an award-winning writer from Southeastern Writer’s Association. He has had many short stories published, online and in print. He is currently working on a collection of stories.
Story by R.F. Grant
Art by Clinton Van Inman
That night, after lying in bed, Grace Thompson placed her head on her husband’s chest. She did this in the same manner a child places an ear to wall, heeding what lies beyond. Positing a palm upon his sternum, she outspread her fingers, listening to his beating heart.
For years, Grace did this every night. She sought her husband’s cadence because her own was fragile. Because the crimson angels of triumph did not play their trumpets for her when she was born. Grace hadn’t a heart blessed with fortuity, and was as intimate with the fact as her own face in the mirror. Listening to his heart, however, the oppressive reality of her own abated. She watched his ribs widen and fall, cage of marrow cradling the phoenix within. Indeed, Grace thought his heart a fiery bird. One which soared above war drums into a red, blazing horizon, whilst hers, fluttering and small, felt more like a hummingbird. Unpredictable, it darted from place to place. She never knew what it was going to do next.
As Grace listened, head undulating like a raft upon the sea, her eyes wandered across his sleeping portrait; the Adam's apple distending from his throat like the curled shell of a snail. His facial hair, rough as a forest of steel wool. His skin, dark as the olives from Nyon. Even his eyes, umber and opalescent like petrified wood, splinters cincturing their inner pupils. The qualities which made him, she adored. But his heart, knocking on his chest like a grandfather clock, was her favorite. Every night, it lulled her to sleep, her eyelids pulled by little anchors. It was a heart which insured safety, for Grace was a fragile being, knowing the fragility of life.
On that particular night, however, even her husband’s heart could not count the stepping stones into Grace’s dreams. Wrapping a nightgown around her body, Grace parted ways from the warmth of her sheets and approached the window overlooking the backyard.
Outside, a spotlight cast its lone ray across the greenery. It illuminated the stark-white paint of their tool shed, paint chipping away in portions. The rusted automobile parts, hiding in high patches of grass. The raggedy dog toys, devoid of stuffing. Through the window, she could hear the lamp buzzing, the chirping of crickets joining in a chorus of oddity. And as she listened, something caused her to pause. Something evoked the need to reflect, to remember.
There was a time when the veil of youth dissembled Grace’s sensibility. When the wrinkles on her husband’s body weren’t as salient, drawn down his figure like the ridges of a tree. When he didn’t appear as an old, abdicated oak staggering across the earth, the scent of oil and petrol on his clothes a permanency. Money is energy, it’s said. And in those days, the love which came from her husband—a life-long mechanic—metamorphosed into an energy Grace knew well. A hard-working man, the dollars he earned became the polished hardwood beneath her feet. They became the food which nourished the red streams inside her body, the soft clothing which nuzzled her skin, or the keepsakes dotting the rooms of their home. Even the radiator, as if cantankerous, grumbling heat from its metal columns on winter nights.
Because she paid attention to such things, Grace accustomed herself to the meaning of gratitude. How heeding gratitude as it flourished in one’s life caused blessings to increase. How spiritual feelings burgeoned the more they were acknowledged. But mostly, she witnessed a higher power working through her husband, and she cherished the fact like a closely-guarded secret. A treasure she hid in the attic of her mind.
On that night, however, above all else, Grace remembered her husband’s songs. By word-of-mouth, they had passed down to him in his youth. Every evening, their lyrics would flute through his throat. Jacket thrown over his shoulder, he would sing through through dry, cracked lips, voice dancing in echoes between the neighborhood houses.
Ooh, the sun is goin’ down, and I won't be here long.
Not on this earth, no, no.
Ooh, I’m goin’ home and
Can't let this dark cloud pass over me.
Can't stay here long.
Not on this earth, no, no.
Ooh, for I’m already home,
And the sun is goin’ down…
To this day, when Grace was alone, quiet evenings reaching a point of stillness, his voice breathed across her candles’ flames, haunting and resolute. At such moments, Grace could hear him singing; there, in her mind. And yet, outside of her mind, singing of the world and its sufferings. Of folks who had so much more than them, yet so little on the inside. This, above all else, she remembered.
Presently, Grace peered into her yard, illumined from the lone floodlight. Her gaze took in automobile parts no longer useable, sitting like hollowed oaks or giant shells on a mossy shore. It shifted to the dog toys, ragged and dead from the jaws of an unfortunate life. To the door of the tool shed, trinkets lying past the lock. All of these objects reminded her of him and his sacrifice. That eternal, beating heart of his, still teaching her the subconscious lessons of the soul. It was a heart which seemingly would never stop. And yet, if it did, would be the one thing granting him eternal life, for he spent his earthly life magnanimously.
Turning back to the bedroom, Grace lowered her eyes to his body, breathing in peace. She wanted to wake him and spill her musings, but refrained. She would return to bed instead. She would lie upon his chest and listen to his wonderful heart. And in the morning, she would wake to another day in the life of a sixty-year-old woman. She would tell him that she loved him. And that, somehow, was enough.
R. F. Grant is a published author. He was a Top 10 Finalist in the 2014 TIFERET: A Journal of Spiritual Literature's International Writing Contest and has been published extensively. A list of publications include the YSU Student Literary Arts Association | the Cold Mountain Review, Appalachian State University's MFA Literary Journal | Gravel Magazine: The University of Arkansas' MFA Literary Journal | Foliate Oak Literary Magazine | Ruminate Magazine | & Lalitamba: Journal of International Writings for Spiritual Liberation among others. For more, visit www.RFGRANT.com.
Clinton Van Inman grew up in North Carolina, graduated from San Diego State University in 1977, taught in South Carolina and is currently a high school teacher in Tampa Bay where he lives in Sun City Center, Florida with his wife, Elba.
by Jude Roy
Once a month, Daddy walks five miles to town, carrying the grocery list he cannot read in the back pocket of his torn khakis. He hitches a ride back in the public school bus, grocery bags stacked neatly on the front seat, like good obedient students.
The school children's prattle makes him nervous. They speak American in a sophisticated way that shames him. His Cajun sounds out of place.
The beer on his breath mingles with the smell of crayons, books, and school rooms—unfamiliar smells to him.
Daddy perches on the front seat edge and talks about weather, harvest, and politics—things he knows—with the bewhiskered bus driver, who drops him off at the end of the dirt lane that leads to our rundown shack in the middle of his shared cotton field. Daddy makes the half-mile trek, from bus to shack and shack to road, three times—one for each armload.
He picks me up when he is done and holds me out at arms' length.
"You are going to get an education," he tells me in his beer-tinted Cajun. "So that you’ll never feel ashamed."
I nod like a good obedient student.
Jude Roy's fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, PEN Syndicated Fiction's The Sound of Writing, The Writing Disorder, and numerous others. He also occasionally dabbles in poetry and essays. Originally from Chataignier, LA, he now resides in Madisonville, KY.
Story by Charles B. Cross
Art by Clinton Van Inman
“Cling to the land and wait; let nothing beguile it away from you.” -Orion Clemens
Teeming with roots and equanimous life struggling from the tawny earth, the mountain spoke to Ruth; it welcomed each bare step as an old woman’s simple supplication to return home. Moisture from the passing rain propagated the tract. Her denim legs soaked through and chilled the aged bone. The bottoms clinged to thorny vines and rigid limbs, tearing holes and halting her passage. Reaching acutely to her ankles, she rolled the hems up into a bulk to free her step. Further, she removed her footing and placed bare into the earth. A sheaf of twigs and leafs burrowed under the heel and snapped and echoed about the trees. The mountain spoke to her...
Every footstep forward on the mountain path is as brief in the present as it is an intimation toward the approaching past. Whether it’s the cries from a blighted pine or the hope reflected in the movement of a running stream, all things in the present were here before us.
Ruth thought nothing of the mountain law. It was not for her to mull over. It was instinctual. An inheritance from the ancestral life of her surroundings perpetuated and imprinted in Ruth’s being by Time’s will. It was a given as she raced up the mountain once called home following only her fondest memories—those of a daughter, a sister, an adventuress. The moments that play in the whimsical days of her heart’s youth streamed with wonder.
Roots ripped apart like the brittle hands of child friendship as she lunged with her back arched in the appropriate angle to meet the mountain slant.
Ruth and the mountain had an understanding. Their relationship was one without possession. It’s because they were family. People forget that they are born to more than man. Human hands and blood are only the beginning to an Appalachian who learns from all facets of the land and its breathing monuments. We learned to grow strong from the stretching limbs and bountiful needles of the White Pine. The wondrous formations of the worn-down rocks planted deep within the water’s motion gave us a lesson in what age had in store if we were stubborn enough. If we kept our head up, the circling Blue Ridge Raptors of the sky would teach us of death and its foreboding. And the mountain spring would learn us to drink. And we would drink in our youth with the belief that this water contained some mystique. As it trickled down our throat, we felt like some Virginia shaman had blessed us with the power from yonder. Nothing can compare to the sip of cool spring water fresh in the ground. It is the quintessence of life. The old woman thought of this as she dug into the mountain’s side.
Her daughter shouted from a distance, “Mom! What happened to your shoes? Put your shoes back on!”
“Mammaw...not so fast! Where are we going?” cried her grandson.
“I’m gonna leave y’all behind now if you don’t hurry it up!” shouted light-hearted Ruth in levity.
She sure did too. And it was no shinny up the mountain, but a graceful and commendable ascent as if a cherub gently arose to the high-top, before vanishing in the ethereal.
A narrow path of auspicious wealth was hiding between a fallen bough and a patch of scrambled sweetbriar. She reached down to further curl the bottom hems of the denims drenched and sullied by the coarseness of her journey. Swelling cuts on the tops and bottoms of her feet were worn like maimed badges of honor.
At the end of the trail, sat an old shack the size of an outhouse. It had no windows and the wood was so rotted that the structure was soon to cave. Closing in on the house, something wrapped itself around her toes. “Lester’s old guitar strings,” she, reminiscing, said to herself.
Cow and sheep intestines were once a regular ingredient used to make strings. Even cat-guts were improvised along with silk thread. This changed during WWII when nylon was introduced by a slick New Yorker; but in the poor lands of Southwest Virginia, folks weren’t accustomed to novel luxuries like city-folk. They made due anyway possible.
She tried to picture Little Les sitting on a tree stump with his homemade guitar pick’n to the old fiddle tunes and mountain ballads. And Glenn always the protector. He would help the others in the fields, or with livestock, any job that would help Ma at home, while Pa was slaving in the mines. Pa didn’t mind though. He said that working the earth was nothing to be ashamed of. At the table one night, he told the boys that finding the light in the darkest of places showed your closeness to God. And that work’n in those mines was how he felt that closeness. And sweet Samuel. Ruth tried to imagine, without crying, a boy with no demons who said “eenie-meeny-miney-mo” like the rest of them. But that was before the devil of the drink took him away. It was hard to imagine the brothers as children. Most of them had grown tall and stern with families of their own to fend for and provide.
An old dress with several patches hung with a pair of darned-up overalls in the center of the house. How they survived the decay of age when nothing else did was a mystery to Ruth. The dress belonged to her sister, Lee. There were three sisters growing up. Lee, the strong bird who always looked after the babes; Patsy, the light-hearted Robin who laughed and played and kept all merry and then there was Ruth. She was a bird untamed with wings that never wanted to let down. In fact, she was still flying.
A background noise suddenly caught her attention. She grabbed the garments, careful not to let the house close in on her, and started towards the sound. A ways down the mountain was the old spring barely visible. On her knees cupping her hands like a child beggar, she sipped with tired lips from the spring.
“Mammaw! What have you got there? What are you drinking?” asked her grandson who had finally caught up.
Her eyes were bright as the ray of light bouncing off the water; free as ever.
“This is from another time. And this is so you never go thirsty, baby boy,” said the untamed bird you will find to this day still flying.
Charles B. Cross is a young writer out of East Tennessee who's recently made his debut with a book of poetry titled If I Settle Down... The author is currently working on his second collection of short stories and poetry called Pedestrian.
Clinton Van Inman grew up in North Carolina, graduated from San Diego State University in 1977, taught in South Carolina and is currently a high school teacher in Tampa Bay where he lives in Sun City Center, Florida with his wife, Elba.
by June Saraceno
The Sample family graveyard was a favorite haunt. From the woods behind their barn, if I followed the field drainage ditch that Dare and me called the creek up to the blacktop, it was just across the road. Because of the trees, I could walk right over to the graveyard without being seen from any house nearby, even when I was crossing the road. There were three magnolias inside the wrought iron fence, one as tall as a skyscraper, with limbs low enough that it was easy to climb. Together, the three trees kept the little patch of graves shaded and cool. Some graves were sunken in a little, some markers just simple wooden crosses so deteriorated that I didn’t dare sneeze near them. I was careful to walk around the graves, not over them, but it was so unkempt it was hard to tell sometimes whether a patch was a grave or not.
There was one grave that I went to more than the others, even more than the mother and baby ones that always drew me. It was the Beloved Angel tombstone of Beverly Ann Sample who had died in the 1800s. On top it said “Beloved Angel on the Wings of Time” written in fancy cursive. Below that was “Beverly Ann Sample 1880-1890”and under that was “Our beloved angel, carried on the swift wings of time, home to God’s arms.” It was practically a book compared to most headstones.
It struck me on one particular day that Beverly and I were the same age – ten years old. It started me wondering what would it be like to be ten in 1890. And then to die. I pictured her with pigtails, an old timey dress like the drawings in Little Women in the bookcase at home. Under the dappled light of that big magnolia I sat there and pondered her life. Were there tractors or would she have been in the field with her whole family plowing and reaping? I wished I knew the details of her story. What could kill a ten year old? As full of words as the tombstone was there was no clue to how she died. Some of the markers told a plain story. The baby graves, usually just a small stone lying flat in the ground giving the dates, mostly in months, were clear. They died getting born or soon after. One was a mother and baby side by side. The baby, not even with a name or life span dates, just “and daughter,” told a clear tale. The mother died having that baby and nobody even bothered to give her a name, and no graveyard sweetness either, no “beloved” or anything. Seemed liked the dad was mad at the baby when he buried them.
Babies were one thing, but a ten-year-old girl was entirely different. Somebody that old could pretty much take care of herself. So what had happened? Had she got one of them diseases that kids now get vaccinated for? Had she got mangled up in some farm machinery? Awful things like that happened to farm kids a lot. I didn’t know a single farmer that didn’t have something missing, if only a half of a finger. There was that farmer at church who had a leg missing below the knee and I’d heard he had two fake legs, one for everyday use and the other the “dress up” leg that he wore to church. I’d stared at the real shoe on his wooden foot in church more than once.
“Beverly Ann Sample,” I gave myself goose bumps addressing the dead girl. “What happened to you?”
It felt funny to be talking out loud in the graveyard. I felt sorry for Beverly Ann who had been dead for about 100 years. Then the ground tilted a little. Not quite 100 years. I never did like arithmetic. I tried to do it in my head but couldn’t. I scratched some figures above my ashy kneecap. She died in 1890, and it was 1965 now. Minus the 1890 from 1965. That wasn’t 100; it was 75 years ago. I did it twice to make sure I had carried the numbers right. She would have been 85 if she had lived. I know for a fact that some of the ladies in my church are that old. I felt a funny spinning feeling. I had come here and looked at this grave so many times and thought about the dead girl from another century. She might have made it from that century to this one if only she hadn’t died at ten. It was unsettling how the distance between us seemed to shrink uncomfortably. The girl in pigtails that I sort of knew could be a white haired old woman in a patterned dress with pictures of grandbabies in her pocketbook. I had read the tombstones with the 1800 dates as if they were part of the long ago, the unknowable world. That far away time just became unexpectedly connected to the now because there were still people who had been in both.
Then another crazy thought struck me. If I don’t die, if I live to be 85 years old, I might be part of a different world. I used my leg again to add 1965 + 75 but it wasn’t coming out right. 2040 wasn’t a real year. I did it over and over and it kept coming out 2040. It would be a year. The thought of a year starting with 20 instead of 19 seemed crazy, like The Jetson’s or Lost in Space, maybe fun but definitely not real. But then every single day of my life up until today Beverly Ann Sample was someone who could have never have existed in my world because she was from another century. It was hard to get a handle on it. Beverly could be some old woman in church. I might live into a time past the 1900s, another century, as foreign and strange as a past century has always been.
My temple was throbbing a little with an idea that couldn’t quite take shape. It was about time. It was the way that Beverly had connected the far away to the now and the way the now was going to move forward, carrying me with it whether I wanted it to go or not, closer to some hazy place that I couldn’t even picture. Just like I didn’t know whether Beverly took baths in a real bathtub or in some wash tub with hot water poured in from off the kitchen stove, I couldn’t see what was ahead of me and for the first time ever I fretted about that. Time was like the Holy Spirit. You couldn’t see it but it moved in and around, invisible as air but still operating on things. I had only thought about it in practical ways before: time for dinner, close to Christmas, time for school to let out. But there was this whole other feature that couldn’t be seen and yet it was the real truth of time. It was connecting things like links in a chain and it went backwards and forwards as far as the mind could see. It stretched at some point into eternity where people were in heaven or hell.
That made me think of Beverly again. She was out of this time that had numbers marking centuries and into eternity. She was either in heaven or hell. I could feel the dread welling in me. If she had lived long enough she would undoubtedly be saved. Old people are always saved. But she was ten. I knew I wasn’t a good Christian and I wasn’t really sure of my spot in heaven but I always figured on having some time before that was critical. Now, I hoped fiercely that Beverly had been saved before she died. I prayed before I thought about it “God, please let Beverly have been saved.” But could it even work like that? Could God change something if it had already happened? She’d been dead a long time.
Then I was conscious of God looking at me and that made me feel a little cautious. Like maybe I should get out of the graveyard and go home. It didn’t seem wrong to keep figuring out how time worked, though, and that occupied my thoughts back across the road and through the woods on the way home. It was invisible but real, like the Holy Ghost it made things happen. Somehow the 1800s weren’t over because people who lived then lived now. And even though the 2000s seemed unbelievable, I could live in such a future time, unless the Rapture happened first, and that seemed a lot more likely.
I took a long looping path back towards the house. I could see Mother in the kitchen and me coming in to make a baloney sandwich. I could see that time had already changed me even though I looked like the same Willa Mae that left the house only a few hours ago. Mother wouldn’t notice, her shoulders curved over the sink in one of the endless kitchen chores. I could see this as if it were happening. And just barely, I could see a completely different me, a stranger, in a far off time. I knew that this would be how it was, the invisible world always working on the visible one. Inside we would be made up of different times but still every second moved us closer to the mystery ahead.
June Sylvester Saraceno is the author of two poetry collections, Of Dirt and Tar, and Altars of Ordinary Light, as well as a chapbook of prose poems, Mean Girl Trips. Her work has appeared in various journals including Poetry Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature, and Tar River Poetry. She is English program chair at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe, as well as MFA faculty and founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. For more information visit www.junesaraceno.com
by Edward Francisco
I was named for my great-grandfather, David Lang. David has long been a source of speculation and fascination owing to his disappearance near Gallatin, Tennessee, on September 23, 1880. He supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. Nor was his disappearance without witnesses. It was twilight. The afternoon sun had dropped behind the hills. Yet, even in the grainy light, David’s wife and children, sitting on the porch, saw him disappear.
As a boy I was teased beyond thought at the story of my great-grandfather. Imagine my delight when his saga appeared in 1959 in a book titled Stranger than Science by Frank Edwards. Edwards’ account squares with the stories I’ve heard at numerous family reunions:
David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.
Before my grandmother, David’s daughter, died in 1965 at the age of eighty-seven, she told me as I sat in wide-eyed wonder what happened afterwards.
“Six months or so later, my brother and I were playing near the spot. I don’t know why. We were just drawn to it. It was, after all, the last place we’d seen him alive – assuming that he was, in fact, dead.”
That last bit always intrigued me. Did my grandmother harbor a suspicion that her father’s disappearance had been the result of some inexplicable supernatural phenomenon? As a boy, I’d also begun to investigate paranormal subjects. I had a special interest in UFO sightings, radioactive mutations, and time travel. By some odd confluence of circumstances, had my great-grandfather been plucked out of this dimension and placed into another one? Was he a quantum being? My grandmother would bring me out of my reverie by returning to the spot of her father’s disappearance.
“As I said, my brother and I were drawn to play there. About six months later, we were searching for four-leaf clovers on Daddy’s grave – that’s how we’d come to think of it. All of a sudden we heard our father’s voice – both my brother and I heard it. It seemed to be coming from the base of a large rock. He was calling to us. We tried to answer but with no success. An hour later the voice faded. We never heard it again. Years later we hired an excavation crew to dig on the site. It didn’t take long before they struck a solid floor of granite. No sink holes were found, no wells, no Indian burial mounds – just rock.”
My grandmother’s stories lured me to the place of David Lang’s disappearance. I half-heartedly hoped that he would call out to me from under the big rock. Maybe I was under my grandmother’s suggestive spell, but I sometimes thought I detected the echo of a voice I’d never heard. Breezes in the trees can play tricks on the ears.
My grandmother’s death only intensified my interest in unusual happenings. I devoured as much information as possible on such diverse subjects as UFOs and alien abductions, séances and Ouija, the Illuminati and secret societies throughout the ages. I collected coins in order to detect Masonic symbols in U.S. currency. I spent hours contemplating the possibility of time travel. To that end I wore out three copies of H.G. Well’s Time Machine. I also encrypted codes and memorized the Cherokee alphabet, developed by a club-footed chieftain named Sequoyah, whose English surname, enigmatically, was Guess.
High school found me abandoning these interests in favor of other pursuits. Girls, cars, and sports comprised the reigning trinity of my teenage years. Girls, in particular, were just as mysterious as Stonehenge or Area 51. In short, space aliens had nothing on a species of nymphs whose innocence inspired in me the rankest sort of lust. No wonder Odysseus had ordered his crew to tie him to the mast of his ship so he couldn’t jump into the sea in pursuit of the sirens.
Senior year offered time to re-evaluate my priorities. I decided to enroll at Vanderbilt University to pursue a double major in English literature and particle physics. I wasn’t unaware that these subjects were at far ends of the academic spectrum. What I hoped, I now think, was that I’d find a theory unifying all fields of knowledge. What can I say? I was young. Shouldn’t youth be a time of enthusiastic speculation?
I didn’t give up on girls – certainly not. Nashville offered plenty of opportunities for romantic couples desiring to couple. Music bars like the Mercy, eateries like Holland House, and art crawls through the galleries on Fifth Avenue and the arcade, were part of an elaborate courtship ritual leading back to dorms where couples, inebriated, needed no justification for enjoying some midnight delight.
That was mostly on weekends. Vanderbilt is often termed a “Southern Ivy.” Its professors and courses proved rigorous during my days there. Classes, labs, and study sessions often meant sleep deprivation. There never seemed to be enough of me to go around. A date on a week night could ruin a GPA. At times I envied my great-grandfather’s seeming ability to be in two places at once.
Then one day two seemingly random events occurred but with such synchronicity as to erase any doubt they were somehow connected in ways unfathomable to me. The first took place in my eight a.m. American lit class. I’d been unable to read the assignment the night before because I’d been writing a physics lab report, already two days overdue. My English professor, a man in fifties with a shock of white hair and a goatee, and wearing a sport coat embodying Vanderbilt’s ideal of the shabby, genteel college don, told us to open the book to page 243. There on the printed page was Ambrose Bierce’s story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” As was his habit, the professor provided a summary of the piece, knowing that half the class was barely awake at eight, the other half hungry for having skipped breakfast.
“In this story,” the professor said, “a man is seen crossing a field, then disappears from existence.”
But wait! That’s what had happened to my great-grandfather. I strained to hear what else the professor was saying.
“Such a story could be thought of as a foreboding prophecy of Bierce’s own unexplained disappearance.”
Bierce disappeared? I cursed under my breath for not having read the story and the accompanying biographical notes before class. The professor went on to say that Bierce’s disappearance was one of the great mysteries in American literary history.
Between classes I rushed to the library, looking up Bierce and his work, awestruck that the author had written about a disappearance like one experienced by my great-grandfather. I got chill bumps as I read the inspiration for Bierce’s story: a sensational narrative evincing historical accuracy based on testimony by witnesses. In this account, said to have occurred on a morning in July, 1854, Bierce reported the fate of a planter named Williamson, who lived six miles from Selma, Alabama, who vanished before the eyes of his wife and child, and a neighbor and his son.
I could hardly tear myself away, but I’d spent all night working on the physics report and needed to attend class in order to turn it in. As it was, I was late on entering. I took a seat in the back. The young man next to me reeked of marijuana. In 1973 pot was pervasive on campus. When people weren’t toking, they were popping amphetamines like candy. Some nights it was the only way to prop up when studying. The professor was in mid-lecture – something about a thought experiment by an Austrian physicist named Schrodinger. The professor read a passage from our text summarizing the experiment:
A cat is placed in a steel box along with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer, and a radioactive substance. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger detects it and triggers the hammer to release the poison, subsequently killing the cat. The radioactive decay is a random process so that there is no way to predict when it will occur. Physicists say that the atom exists in a state known as a superposition – decayed and not decayed simultaneously. Until the box is opened, an observer can’t know whether the cat is dead or alive.
A person didn’t have to be a theoretical physicist to understand the implications of Schrodinger’s theory. In a quantum dimension, a thing could be in two places at once, could, in fact, be both alive and dead. Just because I was dead in this dimension didn’t mean I was dead in another. Envisioning time as a continuum meant that I was already dead as some point in the future. In that nanosecond in class, I had the undeniable sensation that a spark had crossed a commissure in my brain, resulting in an instantaneous linking of disparate entities: my great-grandfather’s bizarre disappearance, Ambrose Bierce’s prophetic vanishing act, and the paradoxical time-bending properties of quantum physics.
My epiphenomenal moment didn’t last long. People diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy sometimes describe experiencing an aura. There’s even a menu of diagnostic auras. If I had an aura that day, it dissolved quickly. Still, I was determined to discover what role I played in the cosmic theater of space-time.
However, every new discovery meets resistance almost at once. It’s as if with every intoxicating insight, a corresponding impulse arises to slam shut the windows of perception. The demon of doubt rears its head.
My own misgivings emerged with a reporter’s attempts to prove that my great-grandfather’s disappearance was a hoax – a species of folklore perpetrated after the publication of Bierce’s story inspired by a mid-century planter’s disappearance into the vortex of time. I was furious! Why was one story easier to believe than another? The reporter even conjectured that David Lang never existed. If so, then what did that say for me?
Still, I found mention of another reporter’s account, including an interview with David Lang’s daughter, Sara Lang, my grandmother! The reporter noted that Sara was reluctant to grant the interview but granted it to substantiate her family’s earlier claims about her father. She had verified the events of that day, acknowledging how eerily strange it was to be the daughter of the ghostly David Lang. She’d said little else, a fact consistent with my grandmother’s shy character and her almost obsessive desire to shun publicity beyond the scope of her family. Remember. My grandmother died in 1965, years before the Internet with its ubiquitous splash of images and lurid appeals of self-promotion. Hers was a mindset that doesn’t exist anymore. She was born and lived in a southern version of the Victorian era. She was a genteel lady and, as she was fond of saying, a lady’s name should appear in the newspaper twice only: once, when she was born, and once, when she died.
“These stories – do what you will with them,” she’d said to me.
I promised to revisit them in the future. That point would not materialize for years. After Vanderbilt, I pursued graduate degrees in English literature at Harvard, then at Christ’s College, Oxford. On completing the D. Phil. at Oxford, I returned to the happy coincidence of an available professorship at Vanderbilt. I aced the interview, was hired for the position, and settled into a comfortable life as a gentleman scholar. I taught and conducted research. Two years later I married my graduate teaching assistant. We had two children in fast succession – a boy and a girl, named David and Sara. Oddly, my wife chose both names. Our children are grown now. David teaches art at Vandy. Sara is an osteopath in Memphis. She’s expecting in November – a boy, according to the ultrasound. As for my wife and me, it’s as if we’ve hurtled through our children’s lives in a time machine. Imagine the bewildering effect of prolonged cosmic jetlag. That’s how it’s been for us these past few years.
Up until a few months ago, the only touchstone with any reality I’d known could be found only in dreams. In one of those dreams, I was a boy, walking hand in hand with my grandmother across the expanse of a field. She stopped and pointed to the spot where her father had disappeared. He seemed to vanish with the haze. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that my quantum state of dreaming seemed more real than the hours and days ticking off the clock with its assumptions of real time. Was I coming unhinged – besieged by regressive psychosis? I felt shaky and diaphanous. My doctor prescribed Beta blockers to stop my hands from trembling. The only time I seemed to relax was when attending the extraordinary lecture series hosted by Vanderbilt’s physics department in the Central Library. Lectures were open to the public, but I always received curious stares from the scientists who sensed that I was a creature not of their world. After all, mathematics, not words, comprised their code of communication. Sitting in the auditorium, I sometimes wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn, pursuing literature instead of physics. I suddenly felt as if I were living in two dimensions – torn between opposite modes of apprehending human existence.
However I might wish to pursue another life, I’d been hired to teach literature, and that’s what I’d done for almost thirty years. I consoled myself by thinking that if I hadn’t gone into literature, I might never have read Bierce’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” a story that haunted and intrigued me and that, in proprietary fashion, I’d come to claim as my own. For years I scoured the story for a key to the mystery of my origins and to the cosmic landscape swallowing up my great-grandfather before his family’s eyes. I sometimes intuited that through the medium of the story Bierce was speaking directly to me across a continuum of space and time.
So great was my obsession with Bierce that I offered a graduate seminar on his work two years ago in the fall. One brilliant October morning, I drove to campus, pulling into my reserved parking spot. On exiting the car, I dropped a Cross pen that I assumed rolled under the vehicle. When I bent to look, there was no pen in sight. I got back in the car, pulling into the parking space in front of me. Exiting the car once more, I scanned the lot. Still no pen. A young woman, an assistant professor in the history department, pulled in the spot beside me.
“Lose something?” she asked, striding over to help look.
She joined in the search. “Looks as if it’s vanished,” she said finally.
“Has anything like this ever happened to you?” I asked.
“Once,” she said, “a few years ago. My daughter was a baby. She threw her pacifier out the car window. My husband and I looked and looked for it but never found it. I suspect that there are cracks in the space-time continuum and that things disappear all the time.”
Had she said that? Did she mean it?
“Even people?” I ventured.
“Maybe. It would have to be an awfully big crack, I would think.”
A week later Nashville hosted its annual Southern Festival of Books on the capitol mall. Publishers, authors, and editors occupy booths, selling books to the throng of conference goers and tourists converging for the event. A fixture at the conference is an author who bills himself as an investigative mythologist, whose ranging interests include aliens, alchemical symbolism, and esoteric geometry. He theorizes that, like Rome, Nashville’s seven hills comprise “light centers” like those found on the site of Stonehenge or the Mayan ruins. I’ve visited those ancient artifacts and can attest to a confluence of strange, almost psychedelic, sensations associated with those places. Nashville, according to the author, emits the same patterns of energy.
“If you could unfold the universe,” the author told me in our last discussion, “the cosmic-axis would be on the spot where you’re standing.”
Although regarded by many of the locals as a star-gazing fanatic, he is the only person I know who’d ever investigated my great-grandfather’s disappearance. He also knew more about Nashville’s history than anyone I know.
“I’m curious,” I asked before leaving his booth. “Was Ambrose Bierce ever here?” Bierce, the cosmic trickster, seemed to make the rounds. It was safe to assume he’d been here too.
“December 1864. Battle of Nashville. Union side.”
In subsequent weeks, I visited Peach Orchard Hill, site of a two-day clash that broke the resistant back of the Confederate army in Tennessee. Bierce had been a cartographer during the war. Had he mapped this battlefield? Was I walking in his footsteps?
A month later I picked up a copy of Nashville’s weekly entertainment magazine, Metro Pulse. Between classes I browsed its contents when something caught my eye, then struck me with the force of a hammer. It was a full-page splash ad for the 2013 season for the Nashville Opera. Among the chamber listings: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. Imagine my shock when learning the name of the composer: David Lang! In what quadrant of the universe had I been not to have heard of this David Lang? He’d won a Pulitzer Prize in music and written an award-winning opera based on a story by Bierce, a writer, who by all rights, belonged to me. I stood in direct line of succession to the original David Lang. How many David Langs were there? My temples throbbed. I logged on to my computer to ask it my question. In the snap of a genie’s fingers, it found the answer: 1,216 people in the U.S. were named David Lang. Did we all exist at once, or did some of us disappear only to spring up in another dimension with only hazy recollections of our former state – what Wordsworth called “intimations of immortality”?
To make things worse, David Lang’s online bio contained the following paragraph:
In 1999, Lang and playwright Mac Wellman based their opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, about an Alabama planter named Williamson who purportedly vanished while walking across a field in 1854. Bierce’s story recurs in urban-legend form, in which, coincidentally, the vanished man is often given the name David Lang.
Not only had the composer David Lang co-opted my great-grandfather and his disappearance, but he’d also conflated my real ancestor with the character in Bierce’s story. Undoubtedly, David Lang the musician was attracted to the story because his name was the same as my great-grandfather’s. That was no coincidence, a synchronicity, perhaps, but no coincidence. Sitting at my desk, I envisioned the gifted composer as a time-traveling thief, wiggling in and out of dimensions, stealing identities in the name of David Lang, then arranging them like notes on a score to be played like a celestial ensemble at the end of time. I felt diaphanous again – like a ghost walking over my own grave.
Of course, there was another, more disturbing possibility. My ancestor had disappeared, stuck between the walls of time. A diaphragm between this world and that had reverberated with sounds of his voice which his children heard six months after he’d vanished. What if my great-grandfather had felt his way along the warp and woof of time’s curtain until finding a portal, enabling him to re-enter this temporal world on a finite continuum designated on the calendar as January 8, 1957 – musician David Lang’s date of birth? What if the composer was my great-grandfather? Or, a more disturbing prospect – and one just as likely: What if my great-grandfather was me?
I attended the opera, staged exactly a century after Bierce’s disappearance, long a subject of speculation and controversy. Consult a literature anthology, and you’ll find that the year of Bierce’s death – 1913 – is almost always followed by a question mark. No one really knows what happened to him, just as no one knows what happened to the planter in Alabama in 1853 or to David Lang in 1888.
Legend has it that Bierce went down to Mexico and joined up with Pancho Villa and his forces during the Mexican revolution. Someone reported that he was later executed by a firing squad. The problem is that these rumors don’t square with the fact, attested to by friends, that Bierce found Villa reprehensible and would likely never have joined his ranks. Then where did Bierce go? Did he engineer his own disappearance, or did the cosmos engineer it for him? How many people on the surface of the planet disappeared each day? And what of other famous disappearances in history – Amelia Earhart, entire ships in the Bermuda Triangle, and the lost colony at Roanoke?
These were my thoughts as I sat watching David Lang’s alluring and eerie opera based on what Bierce billed as fiction. Lately I’d noticed a phenomenon while teaching I’d never experienced before. I’d chalked it up to a widespread attention deficit disorder inspired by the memetic bombardment of e-mails, texts, and twitters. The phenomenon manifested itself in the following way: I’d offer some information or instruction and, after a discernable lapse, someone would ask me to repeat what I’d said, with my words, to my thinking, still hanging in the ether. It was on the order of saying, “We’ll have a quiz on Thursdays,” only to have someone ask, a bit later, “Will we have a quiz on Thursday?” This echoing pattern began to occur so frequently that I started checking my watch, seeing how long it would take for someone to ask me what I’d just said. On average, the lag time was two minutes. Odd that. I could only wonder: Were they two minutes behind on the cosmic clock, or was I two minutes ahead? Did thoughts travel at different speeds? I couldn’t help thinking of the words of Alice’s mad rabbit: “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!”
On my way home from the opera, I recalled something from an astronomy class I’d taken at Vanderbilt thirty-five years earlier. It was that it takes light 4.37 years to reach the earth from Alpha Centauri, the star closest to our solar system. That meant that if Alpha Centauri exploded, it would take 4.37 years for observers on earth to notice its absence. By analogy, would it take my students two minutes before noticing that I’d had a heart attack and died? In that period of time, would I be both alive and dead, theoretically speaking?
I went home, finding my wife asleep. Not wanting to disturb her, I sank onto the sofa in the sun room, glass of Chardonnay in hand. The more I sipped, the drowsier I got. I was beginning to feel like the speaker in Poe’s poem: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary…” I decided to stretch out, too tired to make my way to bed. My eyes folded on the next lines of the poem. I never knew if I finished reciting them: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly, there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
There he stood, a misty figure in a Victorian gentleman’s broad coat. It was not the image I expected, making it plain to him.
“But you were a farmer,” I said.
“A gentleman farmer,” he said in a soft drawl. “They left out that part of the story.”
“Are you the southern planter or my great-grandfather?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not.”
I could have been staring at my own face in a mirror – or mirrors. The effect was like one I’d experienced as a boy getting a haircut in the barber shop. The barber had mounted a mirror on the wall directly in front of his chair and a mirror on the wall behind it. Sitting in the chair, I could see an infinite succession of ever shrinking images of myself, exact replicas disappearing in a continuum. David Lang and I were seeing our past and future simultaneously.
“Are you and I the same person?” I asked, taking a sharp breath.
“Not exactly,” he drawled, “though we obviously share the same DNA. Our psychic fingerprints are different, however.”
“Did you ever wonder,” he asked, “why you’re interested in the things you’re interested in, why you pursued the career you did, why you married the woman in the next room?”
He clearly intended the questions as rhetorical.
“Everything,” he said, “everything in your life has led you to this point in time.” He paused, letting it sink in, before resuming. “Your childhood fascination with the disappearing David Lang, your curiosity about physics, and your odd penchant for always being a bit out of synch with time – are all manifestations of the David Lang that you’ve been in the past or will be in the future.”
“How many of us are there?”
“Oh, my,” he said. “Try to imagine an infinite number of David Langs living in an infinite number of dimensions running parallel to one another like cosmic strings.”
“But you and I are both in this dimension, at this point in time.”
“Do you recall from your physics classes years ago at Vanderbilt a concept known as superposition?”
“Yes. It occurs when two or more waves in the same place are superimposed on one another, meaning that they’re all added together.”
“Right!” He clapped his hands approvingly, sensing that I understood. “The principle of superposition tells us that waves cannot affect one another: one wave cannot alter the direction, frequency, wavelength, or amplitude of another wave.”
“Then how do you explain the presence of more than one David Lang in a single dimension?” I was thinking of the composer Lang, almost sure that he was a time traveler, too. My next thought was what if we met, would we superimpose upon each other, becoming one person?
“It will aid us conceptually,” he said, “to consider the ancient symbol for infinity: the shape of a sideways figure eight, or a snake eating its own tail. The figure folds upon itself at only one point.”
“The point of superposition,” I said.
“A point of timeless infinity. Another way of putting it is that we David Langs always arrive on time when it comes to disappearing.”
“You’ve discovered the blueprint of the universe. Why not go public with it?”
“Do you recall the Inquisition? Throughout history, David Langs have popped into this world intent on sharing esoteric knowledge, only to find extraordinary resistance. We’ve been drawn, quartered, hanged, drowned, and burned at the stake. The Illuminati? It’s why they went underground cloaking themselves in a tapestry of symbols decipherable only to a few. While we’re on the subject, I wouldn’t tell anybody about this dream if I were you. Your wife already suspects that you’re mentally ill given your habit of trying to decipher codes in the diagonals of crossword puzzles.”
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Go? Everywhere. Nowhere. Do you recall the origin of the word utopia?”
“It’s a Greek pun meaning no place and every place at once.”
“Utopia – that’s where I’ll be,” he said, with the conviction of a man who, like me, would experience no difficulty crossing a field.
Edward Francisco is a poet, novelist, an essayist, playwright and scholar. His poetry and fiction have appeared in more than seventy magazines and journals and a half dozen anthologies. He is the author of two novels, Till Shadows Flee, and The Dealmaker. His poetry collections include (Lie)fe Boat (winner of the 1995 Bluestone Press award); Death, Child, and Love (2000); The Alchemy of Words, (one of Small Press Review’s Top Picks for 2007); and Only the Word Gives Us Being (2012). His book of children’s poems, Mallory’s World from A to Z, will be published in fall of 2015 (Celtic Cat Press). Francisco was also principal editor of The South in Perspective, an anthology of Southern literature, published by Prentice-Hall publishers.
He is Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Professor Francisco is also a member of the Oxford Roundtable at the University of Oxford, England.
Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.
Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.