The last trip home.

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Fouad rode his bicycle to the souk every day, except Friday, of course. Then, if he had to, he walked, carrying just the essentials of his trade. All week long he sold gold jewelry that he had made, but on Fridays he only did repairs, and then only by appointment. Otherwise he was at the mosque along with most of the town. Sure, there were some who went early in the morning and were done for the day, but not Fouad. He spent all day there.

He wasn’t especially virtuous or vile. He just liked being there, seeing the men in their best djellebas, hearing the drone of the chanted prayers. He’d be there every day, all day long if he could, but the only way to do that would be to get paid by the mosque, and this mosque didn’t pay anybody. The imam wasn’t hired in his town and the imam wasn’t even a particularly noted scholar. It was whoever the congregation decided upon for the month. It was always a man who was learned, for sure, and respected, someone who was comfortable leading the congregation in the prayers.

They all knew the words and the postures, sure, but it was important to have someone set the pace. A prayer service was a lot like a musical performance. Every musician knows his part, but still needs a rhythm, a framework to rely upon for all of them to work together. For a band, that was the drummer. For a mosque, that was the imam. The imam set the pace, and his demeanor determined the experience. Some were nervous and went too fast, others were more hesitant and self-conscious and waited too long between movements. The mark of a leader was to be decisive, even if the decision was sometimes wrong. You could always fix it later but you had to have something to work with. Fear of making any decision at all was death.

Fouad had no worries about ever being picked as the imam. He was liked but nobody ever would mistake him for a leader. He could barely keep his own house together. It looked held together with twine and hopes. Everybody knew that leaders had something extra. They had more than enough. People who were just barely getting by weren’t leaders.

And then one day this all changed. It had been raining for a week by that point, and the roads were all but impassable with a thick mud that grabbed at the ankles. Most of the townspeople stayed home the whole week. Either the mud was too much to negotiate with or they were bailing water out of their first floor. Friday found only three people at the mosque – Fouad, and two old men who lived just two houses away. The men went to the services there every day to get out from under their wives. They learned early on in their marriages that it was best to give a wife some space every day or the household didn’t work as smoothly as you might hope.

The two men were so old that they could barely speak above a whisper, and they couldn’t even remember the order of the Salat if asked to recite it. They had performed the ritual movement so often that their bodies remembered them more than their minds. They both chose Fouad to be the imam for the day, and he agreed because, well, somebody had to do it, and it would be rude to refuse the request of your elders.

His performance was flawless. Every bow, every recitation, every note was impeccable. He enacted the role as if he was born to it. The two old men could hardly believe it. This was Fouad? Fouad the goldsmith who never said a word unless absolutely necessary? He was an untapped treasure! He wasn’t a diamond in the rough – he was already cut and polished, ready to be shown to those with the most discriminating tastes. And here! In their little town! It would never be the same.

And it wasn’t. After much explaining to the rest of the congregation once the roads improved, it was decided that they had to ask him to be the imam for a week as a trial. They had just as difficult a time believing it was true as the two old men – and they had heard for themselves! A week would be plenty of time to discern the truth of things. Maybe the old men were mistaken? Maybe it was a fluke? But they had to know.

It took a lot longer to convince Fouad. He was quite shy by nature, and very modest. This is part of why he was a goldsmith. Per Islamic law, he was only allowed to charge by the weight of the gold and not his artistry. He never had to worry about overinflating his prices because of the time and effort involved, or of underselling out of modesty. Charging by the gold’s weight meant he was just a middleman, getting to play with the magical metal in the meantime. Imagine if the Western art world did this with paintings. A paint-spattered piece like a Jackson Pollock would cost the same as a Rembrandt.

Another reason Fouad was hesitant was that he’d have to take a week off from selling his wares at the souk. He had no other source of income, but he’d saved his dirhams over the years. Yes. He could take a week off. It would be good practice to not worry about money for a while. He was serving Allah, after all, so who was he to worry about money? If he was following a true calling, the money would sort itself out.

The elders of the community were skeptical until they saw it for themselves. Even then, they were sure there couldn’t be a repeat performance. Every day for a week they were surprised. They decided that they must make a way for this hidden treasure to be their imam for as long as he would allow. Even though they’d never paid an imam before, they knew they’d have to do something different now in order to keep him.

There wasn’t enough money to have an actual salary, per se, but there was a way to cover his basic needs. Fortunately Fouad was a man of simple needs. They selected a corner storeroom inside the mosque to be his new home, and every day grateful congregation members brought him his meals. And as for his bicycle? He no longer needed it, so he rode it to his old ramshackle home and left it on the front stoop for anyone to borrow if they needed. That walk to the mosque was the last one he’d ever have to do from that direction, so he savored the sights.

 

(This story came about because my friend Doug S. posted this picture on his Facebook page.  Another friend commented “That’s strangely beautiful” to which he replied “Yeah, it’s kind of like a picture of a story that you haven’t been told yet.”  I commented “Maybe I can help with that…”  And so I did.  I asked him to give it a name without seeing the story I’d written.  It was a good name, but I had to adjust the end of the story a little to make it fit.)

The blue door. Abandoned project #2

The door was locked. I expected nothing less. Every day for three months I’d tested this door, every day since I’d first noticed it. Why hadn’t I stepped down this alleyway before? What was it about that Tuesday in July that had made me take a different path? My walk to the university had been boring, predictable even, up until that day.

Had I even seen that alleyway before – really seen it? Certainly it had passed before my eyes, but just as certainly it had not passed before my mind.

A new path, once taken, changed the path-taker forever.

A part of me wanted to drink in every nook and cranny, every crease and crevice. I wanted it to stay new, stay fresh. I was wary of this new path becoming worn like my old one, so familiar and comfortable that I didn’t even see it anymore. Of becoming just a way to get somewhere, instead of a destination in and of itself.

But this door was different. I’d tested it unthinkingly that first afternoon because of the aromas wafting through the gaps created by a century of settling. I was certain it must be the gateway to the side courtyard of a restaurant. Only when the portal did not budge did I take the time to look for a sign on the wall. Finding none, I halted. If this was a home and not a restaurant, I should not persist.

The next day I chose to walk down that alleyway again, noticing even more than I had the day before. How much I had missed! Yet again I was drawn to this door. This time I could hear a child’s laughter and the sounds of a fountain. What treasures lay behind this ancient door? What Paradise was hidden just beyond these walls? To imagine that just a few inches of stone and stucco separated me from this treasure! A hand’s breadth away from the dirt and grime of this forgotten alley-street lay another world. I would have to check this door every day from now on until it yielded to me.

 

(The image is from Pinterest – copyright belongs to the photographer.)

The Pickers

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Charlie and Rex played together every day, but not like most. Little boys and mutts were usually fast friends, playing tag or chase or tug-of-war. But not these two. Charlie’s dad got him the banjo the same time he got him the dog. Sure, the banjo wasn’t child-sized. Mr. Jason Reinsch didn’t have enough money to buy something that Charlie would outgrow soon enough. So he got him an adult one at a used musical instrument store. He got Rex from what he liked to think of as the used dog store.

There were a lot of choices of instruments there – all castoffs from the hundreds of hopeful people who came to their city every month, trying to become the next big star. Trouble was that very few of them had much talent, and even fewer had the discipline to make anything of it. There were instruments in there that had been bought and sold a half-dozen times, all at a small profit to Zeke, the owner. He didn’t want to charge too much, but he had bills to pay the same as anybody else, so he did what he had to do.

Charlie had never met Zeke or anybody else in the music business before then, but things changed. Once word got out about his act with Rex, he met nearly everybody who was attached to the music business. It seemed like that was most of the town in one way or another. If they weren’t actual musicians, they were songwriters, or producers, or agents, or roadies, or fans. Everybody wanted to see Charlie and Rex play. It hadn’t been like that at the beginning.

Charlie first learned bluegrass songs because that was what his dad knew. Why try to pretend to be an expert in something you know nothing about? That was a sure path to ruin. No, best to stick with what you know and build up on that. It wasn’t long before he was picking out a passable rendition of such classics as “Muddy Road to Ducktown” and “Dream of a Miner’s Child”. The latter was especially well-received because he hammed it up with a little soot on his cheeks to play the part.

He wasn’t a miner’s child, of course, but there were some similarities. His dad, Jason, dug out precious gems in a way – he was a picker. He never could see a way to having a full-time job, even when he had a wife and five children to support. He was too independent for that. He wasn’t one to submit to a boss, especially one who thought he could tell Jason how to complete the task he’d never even personally tried. Why did so many businesses think it was a good idea to have a supervisor who was a stranger to the task at hand? He had bosses try to tell him what to do in his first couple of jobs, thought better of it, and decided that as soon as he could, he’d never have anybody above him

Times were sure lean when he was married with children. All those mouths to feed and backs to clothe! A few years ago his wife and the children had wanted a dog and he put his foot down. He couldn’t see clear to how that would even be possible. It was hard enough making do with the earnings he made from up-selling his finds to antique malls and consignment shops. Did they expect him to rent a booth at the flea market as well to pay for the dog’s needs? That was too much like what he was trying to avoid.

Spring left him and took four of the kids one afternoon to her sister’s house and never came back. Jason had taken Charlie to the hardware store to get some chicken wire. He had the idea that raising his own chickens would save a lot of money in the long run, what with not having to buy eggs or meat ever again. He didn’t know anything about raising chickens, but he hadn’t known anything about raising children either and hadn’t done too bad. Or so he thought.

Spring was fed up with his get-rich-quick schemes that always turned out to be get-poor-slow ones instead. He never gave up, which in some situations is an admirable trait. But sometimes it is good to know when the time has come to move on and let go.

Like now. Spring was through with his promises that never work fulfilled, his dreams that seemed more like nightmares. Without even leaving a note, she left. Sure, she missed Charlie, but four other children were plenty enough to keep up with, and Charlie had been Jason’s favorite after all.

Jason noticed the quiet first when he got home. It seemed so peaceful. He couldn’t ever remember a time when the house didn’t have at least some noise from some child banging on something or his wife complaining about something else. He then noticed why it was so quiet. It was just him and Charlie there. This was unusual for his wife to leave without saying anything.

He was so grateful for the quiet that he decided to take a nap right then and there in the middle of the day. The last time he’d done that he’d been in kindergarten. It was just as delicious and just as needed now. Jason decided he’d take a nap every day from now on out. This was yet another reason not having to work for “the man” was a great idea. He could nap anytime he felt like it.

What did Spring know anyway? Always whining at him about how he needed to grow up and be a man. What did she know about being a man? She wasn’t one. She had no idea how hard it was to carry all this responsibility. It was a miracle he hadn’t snapped like some guys did and started killing people. Mass murder and road rage came from the same root after all – unexpressed anger. Jason figured it was best to not get angry in the first place, so he avoided everything and everyone that made him angry. Well, except for his wife of course. He meant it when he said his vows. Divorce wasn’t an option in his mind, no matter how hard it got.

Things were easier now that it was just him and Charlie. Less to keep up with. Sure it was harder without Mary to keep on top of the household things, but he could manage. He did before he met her, didn’t he? If the dishes didn’t get washed for a week, who would it bother? It seemed a waste of time to have to do it so often. She was always nagging about every little thing. He was better off with her elsewhere. He kind of missed the other kids, but Charlie really was his favorite. This meant they got to spend more time together, undisturbed by everyone else.

Of course, with Mary gone, he had to keep up with Charlie all the time now. He was too young to leave alone at home, like you could with a dog. That was how Jason came up with the idea of getting a dog and teaching them both to sing for their supper. This way he could set them outside on the curb to perform while he was doing the grocery shopping. The home farm hadn’t yet taken off like he thought, so there were still carrots and broccoli and potatoes to buy. Even when his crop did come in, he’d still have to go get milk and fruit. No way was he going to raise a cow or fruit trees. Too much work, and Jason was all about putting in the least amount of effort. If he could get someone else to do the work for him, all the better.

Charlie took to the banjo like a duck takes to water, and Rex was happy to howl along. Jason hadn’t figured having him as part of the act but it was sure funny to see him crooning in more or less in the right pitch. His timing was a little off but practice would fix that. Plus, he soon realized, people weren’t as likely to call the authorities when they saw them together. It was as if they thought the dog was a suitable guardian for Charlie, little as he was. Alone, they thought he was abandoned or had wandered off and tended to call the police to check up on things. But the dog there? That was okay somehow and they let them be.

Jason was through trying to figure out why people thought and acted the way they did, so as long as things worked out in his favor. His wife leaving him was certainly working out, better than he’d ever expected. Not like he’d even imagine she’d leave. But he certainly wasn’t one to pass up a good thing that came his way. That was part of the picker mentality, after all.

Eye contact

Their parents never knew. To them, their children were kind. Sure, they were quiet around strangers, but that was to be expected, even desired. It kept them safe to be wary. They were sure their children were polite to any and all. Little did they know that their children’s eyes lit up only for them. Otherwise they were as cold as the grave, as dangerous as ice on a March pond.

It was easy for Jenny’s mother Stephanie to brush off concerns from her Mother’s-day-out program. They told her how little Jenny was hostile to workers, that the other children stayed away from her. They were scared of her. Her eyes bored through, searching for hidden darkness. The children had never seen anything like this before. The adults had, those with sons who come back from the Army, scarred in body and soul. They made it back in body only. A part of them was still out there, searching for the enemy, always alert for danger.

Some went one way, and jumped at every car backfire or firecracker blast. Some went the other – went dark. Kill or be killed. Do unto others before they do unto you.

Jenny’s eyes were like those folks, but she was only five. She had no reason to look that way. Both of her parents were loving and kind. There was no abuse of any sort. She was well provided for, wanted for nothing. Maybe if she’d had a sibling they would have noticed, the signs would’ve been heeded. Probably not, though, siblings are always suspect. The petty rivalries and squabbles that naturally ensued guaranteed that unfavorable reports were always seasoned with a handful of salt.
The boy named Andrew was the same. He first spoke on his fifth birthday, his eyes still dead. He was intelligible only to his grandmother, who translated their birthday lunch plans that he muttered as “a visit to McDonald’s” and not to “Aunt Dee” as he’d said.  Even she didn’t understand why he said this, because the clerk’s name was Judy.

The problem was that he wasn’t here in this place. Neither child was. In bodies in this dimension, but otherwise elsewhere. Or else-when. Perhaps they weren’t defective, but inadvertent time travelers, unaware of their failure to truly be in one place at a time. How would their caregivers notice, after all, what with their own distractions? Perhaps these children were the newest iteration, designed by natural selection to never be truly anywhere. It was a good psychic defense against the insensitivity that was now endemic.

Corner

She sat there, alone, in the corner, until she cried it all out. Nobody had told her how to grieve. All she knew were two things – the rocking chair was where you sat to be soothed by your parents, and the corner was where you stood to reflect upon your sins. So she put the two ideas together. Her parents were no longer here to soothe her by rocking her back to sleep after a nightmare or to read her picture book filled with bunnies or bears.

The corner was where you stood facing inward, away from other people, a cheap form of solitary confinement. Bereft of company, you were stuck with your own thoughts. It was a foretaste of hell for those who feel guilty, felt wrong, felt broken. Never in her life had she voluntarily put herself there. This time was different. Everything was different now.

They died, both of them, not quite together, but a bit like dominoes anyway. People couldn’t quite grasp it, and assumed there’d been an accident. It wasn’t sudden. The signs were there all along. It was tragic only so much as it was preventable. It was sad that they’d squandered their lives, dissolved into nothingness, and for so long.

So now, not knowing what else to do, she sat, in the corner, in the chair. No need to face into the corner – nobody was there. Not just in the room, but the whole house. It was so quiet it was deafening. So here she sat, in the space of consoling isolation, to visit with the ghosts of her parents. They’d never left. Sure their bodies were gone, buried in the cemetery on the other side of the city. Cemeteries and city dumps were always near each other, always in the low-rent part of town. The industrial waste recycling center was in the same block along the section 8 houses. It wasn’t an accident.

She noted she was getting distracted. Grief was like this, too, this veering away, then closer, like a moth to the flame at times. Dangerous to get too close. So usually we stay away. It hurts too much to look at it directly.

But after a while the phantom pains don’t fade. The anxiety stays long enough to pay rent. They both don’t have nameable causes, so when she finally notices her spirit is off-balance, she knows it is time to stop and face it.

How did she learn this? They certainly didn’t teach her. Death wasn’t something you talked about, like politics or religion. It wasn’t nice to talk about in polite company. They acted like it was something that happened other people, less fortunate people, people who deserved it. They weren’t even in the same state when their own parents died. They skipped the funerals and cashed the inheritance checks. They wore black for about a month and told friends of their loss, but otherwise didn’t grieve. Maybe that is what killed them so young. If grief doesn’t get out by tears or wailing, it gets bottled up inside and starts eating you up from the inside out.

She was determined not to join them.

The cuckoo

They studied the population carefully. Select only the isolated ones, the weak ones as hosts. Select the ones who have low self-esteem, who feel grateful for any attention, even if it was from an “other”, an alien, an outsider. Humans need attention from others like flowers need rain. Not enough and they fail to bloom.

They watched large wild cats too, saw how they would select the weakest of the herd, separate it out from the pack. This was who they would feed on – not the strongest. No, that was dangerous. It was too much risk, too much effort. Playing this invasion on the quiet was the best course, they realized – no need to show your hand. You might get shown the door, and in this case it meant not just homeless but planet-less.

This was a one-way trip for the Xohni, and they knew it from the beginning. Outnumbered and running low on resources, they left their dying planet decades ago. The invaders let some go voluntarily into the transport ships, packed together like sardines, feet to head, barely room enough to scratch an itch. Some were given up by their own kinsman – the misfits, the outlaws, the ne’er-do-wells, to be sold at auction like so much cattle. However they ended up on Earth – voluntarily or not, they had to adapt to their greatly reduced circumstances. They had to breed, and fast. They barely had enough resources to shelter and feed themselves, however. There was no room on the ships to bring more than the basics for even those who went willingly. Those who were given up by their kinsman had less than that.

There was no time to set up homes with nurseries, no time to raise their offspring. If they’d taken the time, they wouldn’t stand a chance of recovering their home world. Many held out hope that they could return, somehow, some when, and rebuild their smoking husks of cities, razed to the ground by the invaders. They needed to breed, to create troops from their own flesh, to be able to do this.

So the men found the softhearted ones, the quiet ones. The ones who were a little or a lot overweight. The poor ones, the less than clever ones. The host didn’t matter. Their DNA would not contribute in the slightest to this process. They were unknowingly broodmares, surrogates only. They would carry a child in their bodies but it would not be theirs. The alien men would mate with one of their own women before this event, and like the seahorse, would carry the fertilized eggs. Up to a year could go by before they had to find a cow, as they call the unsuspecting human women. Meanwhile, the embryo waited, not dividing, not growing, in their father’s womb sacs.

Once a cow was located, it was quick work to charm her enough to take her to bed and deposit his precious cargo inside her. Pregnancy was guaranteed. It didn’t matter if she was ovulating or not, on the pill or not. Her fertility was not in question because her eggs never came into the equation. What was deposited in her womb was already fertilized, already alive, and already stronger than anything she might have provided. These alien offspring were engineered to grow faster and larger than any human baby ever did. They were more aggressive, louder, more belligerent too. There was no debate that they were different, for sure. Everyone knew it, but none were willing to talk about it openly.

Teachers and pediatricians chalked the differences up to the fact that they were raised by single mothers, because they all were. The alien fathers never stayed around to raise their children. That would slow them down, take up too much time, and require resources they didn’t have. They left town the same day they talked their sad targets into spreading their legs for them. Once fertilization was over, they had no need of them. It was time to find another cow.

In this way, it was all too easy to double their population in a matter of a few years after landfall. Sure, the offspring were young, but they were strong. Native Xohni customarily went into the army at age 12 anyway. It was their coming-of-age ritual. While some cultures would have a party or give the child a new name to mark the crossing of the threshold of maturity, the Xohni went to the battlefield, and did so joyfully. Violence was as much a part of them as hair or eye color. It wasn’t a choice. Those who tried to suppress their violence by attempting to continue their education or by choosing to marry a cow were shamed by their family and peers.

The red doors. Abandoned project #1

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And tomorrow I will go into the smaller door, the lesser door. Always and forever the grand door, the steps leading upwards, but not to the light, no, never that. You’d think so, with the wide entrance, the columns and the arch. You’d think so, but you’d be wrong. That is the way that leads to the world. This world, the world of doing, of broken promises and prom dates and first kisses and grandparents who die. The whole ball of wax is there for the taking. But the other door? The plain one, the one you can’t see in until you’d reached the top step, the landing? It isn’t for nothing that you have to take eight steps to get there. Too high for anybody in the room too peer in. It is the best kept secret after all. Door not locked, not even there, even. Not even any hinges for the door. Never were. And that light! Warm and low, like a late afternoon in September, when the skies are clear and the summer heat is a memory. No, that doorway you only go through once, because there’s no coming back, no backtracking – not as far as anyone knew. There could be a mind wipe, a re-cycling, an up-cycling, but we’d never know. Yes, tomorrow it shall be.

 

(Photo from Pinterest. Bramham House, England. Copyright belongs to the photographer.)