People of the Sand

Christopher and Lois Helfman loved their children more than they could express, but they understood that not everyone could accept them. They were fraternal triplets – two boys and a girl, born one bitter December morning five years ago while Papa was on maneuvers with the Royal Marines. He’d not even gotten to see his wife bloom into her pregnancy,having just one home visit a year at that point. His wife joked that he made the best of his time while he was at home, but she wasn’t laughing when she was told it was triplets she was expecting not long after he returned to the lines.

How would they ever manage three babies,  , and then corrected herself. Why ever did she think they would do anything? It would be all her doing, as it was for all the women in her time. Women had always done it all – all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the child raising. They did it because this is how it was. There weren’t other options as far as they knew.

Lois sent her husband a letter as soon as she was sure the pregnancy was viable. It wouldn’t do to get his hopes up for nothing. Because it was triplets, she waited an extra month just to be sure. So when the letter finally reached him he didn’t have a lot of time to adjust to the idea he was going to be a father.

Of course, they wanted children. They hadn’t planned exactly when, just leaving that particular to God. That was the best practice anyway, they finally realized after years of struggle. So many years of trying to do things their way and plans not working out. Why would they?Plans of mice and men never measured up to a hill of beans.

But the babies had been born early, too early for the happiness of the nurses at the village clinic. Doctors were in short supply, what with the war and all. They had been sent to the field to tend the soldiers. Civilians had to fend for themselves. Their needs were much less. It was quietly understood this was one of the many sacrifices they’d have to make to win the war.

And who was the war with? Desert dwellers, the People of the Sand. They’d finally ventured out of their domain and discovered the delights of temperate climates. No longer did they have to settle for the arid lands they’d been born in. No longer did they have to settle for a nomadic life of tents and beasts of burden. Now they knew there were choices, options other than a life of wandering from campsite to campsite, from bad pasture to only slightly better pasture. The herds were growing gaunt with all the work it took to forage for food, and so were they. So when they saw these new people, these fair skinned layabouts who didn’t have to fight the land for food, they knew they had to take over.

At first they sent sentries, spies, to move into and among these newfound neighbors. No weapons among them other than walking sticks and knives for butchering their supper meant diplomacy was the order of the day. They never had to fight anyone before and hoped not to now, but they weren’t above it. Their ancestor, the great Mahd had firmly said that violence was acceptable if peace failed. The survival of the People of the Sand was paramount. It would not do for them to be erased in the same way that footprints were in their landscape.

A life of shifting terrain shaped people into never settling down, never feeling stable. It made them suspicious of outsiders, of intermingling, so they clung to their traditions all the more.  It was the only thing holding them together. It was who they were as a people –not anything material but all in manner. How you acted was what marked you as a member of the People.

War finally came inch by inch and day by day, until suddenly there was fighting in the streets of the Helfman’s little village. Unrest had come to the town in dribs and drabs, two different cultures mixing like oil and water. There had been attempts to integrate. There were evening classes at the local library to teach both languages, but they were sparsely attended. If only they had asked the people what hours they were available – or even if they were interested. There were other barriers too -where there were misunderstandings and confusion. There were little arguments over use of the community center for worship services. The newcomers didn’t understand the denial wasn’t personal – they didn’t allow anybody to have services there of any sort.

When war came, Mr. Helfman had volunteered straight away, knowing that if he waited to be drafted he’d most likely get a less than desirable position. Not like any position in a war was desirable –but some were better than others. He became a captain in the Signal Corps because he had worked in the village radio station for over a decade and had a ham radio license. Sending messages back-and-forth across the battlefield without the other side listening was his forte, and he relished his role. It was important, essential even, and he didn’t have to worry about getting shot.Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He’d been trained the same as everyone else in the unit how to handle a gun. This was war, after all. The time for talking was over. Diplomacy had been exchanged for destruction, and may the best side win.

And yet he still held out hope that they could work something out. The good Lord didn’t put these people on the earth – and especially in his village – for nothing. But there were so many barriers! The culture was unusual, that was for sure, but the language – that was a real stumper. They didn’t even use the same alphabet, just a bunch of squiggles and dots. It didn’t make any sense. So he began to test the limits of his radio technology. Perhaps he could get it to translate the sounds it heard while he was intercepting their signals. If his phone could figure out what song was playing by listening, surely he could rig up a way to get some sense out of their language.

He’d always done well with the belief that if he could imagine it, it was possible. Surely the Lord wouldn’t have put such an idea in his head if he didn’t want him to try. Now, plenty of folks took that the wrong way and turn God’s dreams into nightmares. They focused the signal on themselves, not on others. Christopher Helfman had been raised to serve others,so his experiments always worked out for the best. It wasn’t long before he had worked out a translator, and within months every person in the battlefield had a portable version.

They’d left ones for the People of the Sand in conspicuous places, knowing that if they simply tried to give them away it would be met with suspicion. So they waited, and were wary. But the experiment worked – they started using the translators! A few brave souls talked with each other across the lines, sharing words and not bullets for a change. An agreement was reached and more of the devices were handed over. Before long, the war was over because they could finally, truly, understand each other. The devices didn’t just translate words but feelings and emotions as well. The full range of meaning was conveyed, and the two sides discovered they had more in common than not.They decided to share their resources, creating a whole new kind of community.

And that is how the masks came to be on the heads of the Helfman triplets. Born too soon, their lungs weren’t fully developed.They were prone to allergies and asthma, and nothing seemed to soothe them.That was, until the village got a People of the Sand doctor, who decided to try something new. These people had long relied on their unusual and somewhat intimidating face masks to survive in their arid desert home. Now that many had relocated to the village, they had no need for the cumbersome devices. Thankfully,many kept them out of nostalgia, so several were available to the doctor. He decided to try one on the children after the usual tricks had failed. Unusual was the order of the day in the village at that point, what with the two cultures openly blending and sharing, so the children didn’t stick out too much.

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Hits the spot

A world bloomed in her mug. A forest emerged, complete with a circle of ravens to welcome the dawn. Perhaps this blend of tea was more magical than advertised?

Bergamot, hyssop, and a dash of hinoki oil were the listed ingredients, but she was sure there had to be some surprises. There always were. No cook gave away all her secrets. They were like magicians in that way. Revealing just enough but not too much … any more and the gig was up and you’d be out of a job.

People paid for secrets. They paid to be surprised. People paid to suspend their disbelief if only for an hour. It was how writers survived – this compulsive need for lies of all sizes and shades. White lies were still lies after all,still less than the truth. But the truth was too much for most people. Little white lies kept the wheels of society greased.

But this tea might take some serious adjusting to. Was she tall enough for this ride? She’d gone to this tea blender for several months now but this was the first time she’d considered that the mix wasn’t for her. Perhaps it was for another customer? Or perhaps the blender (more alchemist than anything else) had over estimated her needs this time.

For this was no ordinary tea shop that she found. The tea resided in dark brown glass jars, with handwritten labels. Some were blends, but most were raw ingredients, ready to be whisked together into the need of the day. Patrons didn’t even tell the clerk what they wanted. That wouldn’t do. They could not be expected to be objective enough to know what they really needed, after all.So they came in, waited their turn, and then sat before the clerk who observed them. Sometimes s/he would take their pulse. Sometimes s/he would ask the patron to stick out their tongue. But nothing more – no medical history, no list of prescriptions or supplements written down or spoken.

It was a simple affair, but one that required over a decade of training, and that was only after a rigorous testing just to be considered for the role of student. Students had to be impeccable in their words and actions,diplomatic, and able to raise all the funds for their training upfront. There were no scholarships. There were no loans. The entire tuition had to be fully funded from the start. The teacher wished for each student to be able to serve her whole-heartedly upon the completion of their apprenticeship (not graduation, for they would never cease to learn) so the patrons could be served without distraction or hesitation.

So this had to be what she needed, but was she ready for it? It tasted like no other tea she’d ever had. Was that a woodpecker call she heard from her mug? Did she see antlers? She’d never hallucinated before, college being at a private Christian school, but she suspected this was what it must feel like. And feel was the right word – she didn’t just see the trees and animals in her tea, she could hear and smell them too. They were there, but in miniature, in her mug.

Well, there was nothing to it but to do it, so she took a sip. The forest stayed horizontally oriented, the birds continued to fly, and the still hot tea tasted like earth and moss and stone as it slid down her throat.

Strangely, it was exactly what she needed.

The bones of the matter

She’d asked for a dog but they gave her an alligator instead.Or maybe it was a crocodile? She wasn’t sure and they weren’t telling. They never told her anything anyway. Just gave her chores to do and no instructions and there was hell to pay if she didn’t do it right – whatever that may be. She never knew because they never said.

And yet, somehow, at her tender age, she’d sussed it out.Without training or guidance or even an instruction book she knew how to do it,whatever it was, in spite of them. Were they trying to test her? Or were they simply evil, hoping for her downfall, wanting an excuse to yell at her for not doing well?

Was this how they were raised? Was this how they thought they should treat others? What goes around comes around, after all, and people can’t treat people like how they want to be treated if they don’t know any better.

So she suffered from these teachers, these guides, these “superiors”who left her a box of materials and not even a picture of it go by for what she was supposed to build. Sometime she built whatever she wanted. If they didn’t watch it, she might build a rocket launcher. It would serve them right.

Right now she was training her reptilian companion to fetch,but soon would start the real training. He had sharp teeth and a surprisingly strong tail. It would be easy to teach him to attack on command. It was part of this nature, after all, to grab a victim and pull it down under the water,thrashing and turning until he could bite down a few more times. Puncture wounds usually took the fight out of anything rather quickly.

She didn’t want to resort to that, having spent more time in Sunday school than she cared to consider. Perhaps that was their plan all along– make her docile, unwilling to fight for her rights, unwilling to follow her own nature. Humans were selfish creatures once you got down to the bare bones of the matter, and religion was nothing more than a way to civilize them, make it possible for them to live together in close quarters.

But that wasn’t who they really were, all that forgiveness and “turn the other cheek” hooey. What person in her right mind would give away her only coat, either? And yet they’d done it, mostly, had trained women to be passive, to apologize for speaking their minds, to forgive even when the other person hadn’t apologized. Maybe this was why women were majority of those who suffered depression and anxiety attacks. The dissonance was unbearable.

She started to wonder if maybe she wasn’t truly female, at least all the way. Maybe she was just female on the outside. She didn’t feel one way or the other on the inside, but she had nothing to compare it to so she didn’t know any better. But she did know she wasn’t swallowing what they were trying to feed her. She wondered how all her classmates and friends could stomach this madness, this meal of compliance and conformity. It tasted bitter to her, and bare. It tasted of bones and bile, nothing nutritious, and certainly nothing to benefit a growing girl.

Maybe that was their point – to stunt her, to slow her down.Maybe their treatment of her was for the same reason a horse was handicapped –to not give it an unfair advantage, to level the playing field. Maybe they were afraid the other children would feel low around her, so they brought her down to their level. But when ever has dimming a light helped those in darkness find their way?

It was time to shine.

But first, she was going to train her pet to do some tricks they didn’t see coming. They needed to know it wasn’t right to mess with nature.

Music for Monkeys

music for monkeys

They gave up trying to teach a monkey to type the next Shakespeare play. But since music supposedly calms the savage, they taught him to play a tiny guitar instead. It made sense after all – he could play tunes to calm himself down, rather than a researcher having to do it. Once he had access to the guitar and finally understood that it was for making music and not for hitting people or other monkeys over the head, he calmed down dramatically. Just being able to express himself had the desired effect.

They’d tried to teach Abe how to sign but he wasn’t having it. It didn’t make sense to him – this gesture meant what? It was too abstract for him. Why make a sign with his hand, when he could grunt or scream at them? They eventually figured out what he wanted. Meanwhile, he enjoyed screaming. It was fun and made his keepers (his jailers) so anxious. It was funny to watch, to see how he could make them so upset and nervous.

But then they brought the guitar to him. The jailer played it at first and the tones were different, weren’t like their voices. The jailer even sang – and his voice was different, was kinder. If only they could always speak to him like that!

Abe thought  that maybe they could learn how to talk with music, so these dimwits could finally get him what he wanted faster. The amusement of their confusion was wearing off. He wanted to deal with them as little as possible. Even fighting was getting old.

Finally, after nearly a year of practice, he was ready for his first public performance. He was no longer in his cage – the audience would be shocked to think of how he been imprisoned. Most thought of it as a zoo, and either forgot or overlooked the fact that he didn’t choose to be there. He wasn’t asked when he was taken from his home. It wasn’t voluntary. He didn’t want to be an example of his kind.

Many thought of the zoo as an educational opportunity, a chance for people to learn about animals in a safe and clean environment. They also thought they were doing the animals a favor. The same “safe and clean environment” was so much better than a wilderness home, the people told themselves. They pointed out how the animals lived so much longer in captivity. They didn’t understand that quantity wasn’t the same as quality. Longer wasn’t necessarily better.

Abe was supposed to play a nursery song, one that was easy and would show off his talents. Nothing too complicated or he’d fumble and the audience would stare or laugh. It was important to get this right.

The audience wasn’t just any old audience. They were benefactors, donors, patrons of the arts. It was their generosity that made the “Music for Monkeys” program possible. If this failed, the whole program would end. It was all riding on Abe, but he had not been told this.

Yet he played better than expected, and more. He played flawlessly, with real feeling, for the first 20 minutes. Perhaps something took over then, some deep down part of him, because that feeling came up and out and over and suddenly he was playing a new song, a sad song. A song sadder than standing on the platform as the last train leaves for the evening. A song sadder than the end of summer break. A song so sad that the audience caught the feeling tied up inside it without words, and they understood the pain of imprisonment in the name of “education” or “rescue”. They heard within the notes his longing for a home he would never see again, a family he would never again embrace. It didn’t matter if they might no longer be alive because of disease or poachers. They had lived as monkeys, not as exhibits, as specimens, as one-off examples of their kind, meant to be on display to any and all, young and old, as the epitome of “monkey” to these rubes, these ticket holding members of this permanent circus that is a zoo (sometimes euphemistically termed a “wildlife park” for much the same reason cemeteries are now memorial gardens).

The audience felt through Abe’s new music the joy of waking up with the sunrise, embraced by the arms of a tree, with leaves as a blanket. It felt the joy of wandering every day to see new places and other animals, every night a new bed in a new tree. Every day was the first day for Abe’s kind – a new adventure and excuse to discover. No worries about a car or mortgage or clothes, so no worries about a job or reputation either.

The people thought they were safe because of all they owned but now they understood that it owned them. They had become chained themselves, slowly, but surely. They had put themselves into a zoo of their own making. They had forgotten their own wildness, their own true nature, in their striving to be civilized. Abe, with his monkey music, reminded them of who they really were, and who they could become again.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. When the music finally stopped, when the guitar strings stilled, they all sat in silence for what seemed like forever. Finally a child spoke, and asked Abe what his real name was, the one before his capture. What was the sound his family, blood and otherwise, called him? And he didn’t know. It was lost to him, trained out of him for so many years. So the child gave him a new name, a snippet of that song that awoke them all, as a reminder of who he truly was.

Monkey boy

monkey boy

Phil loved his monkey mask. Maybe he loved it more than his big clunky shoes. It was hard to tell. Just to be sure he never wore them separately. Why ruin a good thing?

It didn’t take long for him to settle on this routine. Every day after school he put on his mask and boots and sat on the front stoop. It made the rest of the evening go better. Otherwise he was out of sorts and not really worth being around. If he forgot, his Mom reminded him. She was the one who was most affected by his behavior if he forgot.

All day long at school he thought about being able to wear the mask and the boots, and it made the day tolerable. Sometimes he would hold his hand up showing three fingers to his teacher, meaning “is it 3 o’clock yet?” – meaning “is it time to go home yet?”

Class was unbearable most days. It was too bright, or too noisy, or the food was too rich. Life was too much for Phil, but he didn’t know it. Every day at school his shoulders were tense and his head ached. Only by sitting on the steps with his mask and boots on could he begin to feel somewhat normal again.

He’d asked if he could wear them to school but the teacher said no, said that it would be too distracting to the other children. So the pain of one little boy wasn’t important, but the discomfort of 28 other kids was, apparently. It didn’t make sense. How did she know how they would feel?

Maybe they would like his mask. Maybe they would want one too. Maybe they all felt the same way and all were overwhelmed by the noise, the clutter, the all-too-much-ness of it all. Maybe they were being loud to compensate, to hide their terror.

In the meantime, Phil would continue to sit on the stoop staring at the cars that whizzed by. His Mom could tell what kind of day he’d had by how long he sat outside. Sometimes it was an hour. Rarely was it less than 20 minutes. One day he sat outside like that for nearly 3 hours. When it had become dark his Mom insisted he come in. Sometimes the day was so bad that no length of time outside would fix it. Then it was best to just come in and try again another day.

His mother was unsure if she should teach him better coping techniques since this one seemed to work so well. He was in seventh grade when she realized he’d stopped doing it, and assumed this meant he’d outgrown the need. She couldn’t be further from the truth.

A schoolmate had seen him in his mask on the front porch and told his friends. He’d been walking by on the way to the ballpark and noticed. Enough shrubbery was in the way that he’d not been spotted, but he had no reason to worry. Phil couldn’t see anything anyway in that mask, and that was part of its appeal. But the damage was done. The next day it seemed like the whole school was calling him “monkey boy” and that was it.

The dog-sitter

monkey baby

It was hard to get good help those days. The Brown family had a bear, a young one, mind you, to tend the children. The Nelsons, however, had a dog. You might say having a dog to keep the children company was to be expected, and it was, but not in this way.

Simon was a spaniel mix of some sort. They weren’t sure. It wasn’t like they got him from a kennel. He was found along with his littermates under their back shed one spring day, all mewling and trembling. All of them were cute, but only Simon was attuned to them.

They’d gone to check on the litter several times, admiring the way the mother was caring for them. This was probably her first litter, but she was doing great, like this was her favorite thing to do. The Nelsons had heard of animal mothers instinctually knowing what to do, and this one sure did. They wondered how it was possible that some “lesser” animal could know more about tending an infant than humans did. Maybe humans did know, they’d just forgotten in the race to be “civilized”. Maybe they still knew, very deep down.

They found homes for the rest of the puppies, but Simon they had to keep. He was too perfect to give away. They’d only briefly considered giving him a dog name like King or Spot, but no such name fit him. He really was like a human in dog form, so they gave him a human name. He was a full-fledged member of the family then, albeit one who slept in the garage.

That was until they had their third child. There was no time for taking off from work, no money for daycare. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson’s parents had died long before they got married, so there were no free babysitters to be had. So Simon would have to do.

He was normally a very serious and sober dog, but he became even more so when they put his uniform on. It was as if he knew he was on duty once they dressed him in his apron and cap.

Simon was the best babysitter they could have ever hoped for. He was alert to every cry and always made sure the baby was warm enough. He’d either drag a blanket over her or just lay down next to her.

There was only one problem. The baby thought Simon was her mother, and refused to even recognize her real mother when she returned home from work. It was as if her own mother was a piece of furniture that moved. She didn’t hate her mother – she didn’t even know her to hate her. Simon was all she’d ever needed and not even known it.

Them Bones

How long was she supposed to wait? How long was long enough to know that she’d been cured of her phobia of death?

He could wait all day. He could wait forever, in fact. Well, forever meaning until his bones finally crumbled apart, became just calcium and not bones, in the way that boulders became pebbles over time. It all decays, after all – all that is physical – and that was exactly why she was here for this treatment.

Mary Frances’ fear of death was pervasive. She wasn’t simply afraid of her own death or of the deaths of her parents or spouse. She was afraid of all death, of all change. Any evidence of time passing rendered her inert, full-stop. She no longer could go to doctor’s appointments downtown because of all the change happening there. Too many new apartments! Too many new parking garages! All of her landmarks were gone, well, all save for the Krispy Kreme and Sitar, the Indian buffet. They thankfully never changed and still had actual parking lots right next to their buildings. She wondered how long it would be before some developer snatched them away.

Even the season’s change through her for a loop. She dressed for the weather she wanted and not what was forecast. Her friends were always listening to her complaints about how hot or cold it was, and their efforts to get her to dress more appropriately fell on deaf ears.

Her friend Theresa heard about a new treatment for people who were afraid of change. It was based on something that young Buddhist monks had to undergo as part of their novitiate. They had to spend several days with a corpse to learn non-attachment. She talked Mary Frances into the program by saying it was a fashion show. She was told she’d take all off her clothes and be measured as precisely as possible, and then bespoke clothes would be produced for her. Everything would finally fit perfectly for a change. This sound like a grand idea even though it involved an alteration of her rigid routine. Even though going to this appointment was a change, in the end it would mean no more change – no more having to go to the shop to buy clothes, then to the tailor to have them altered…it was a great trade-off.

But things hadn’t ended up as she had planned. She was welcomed into the office, with its stiff high-back old-fashioned sofa. Mary Frances finally identified it as a camelback and not a Chesterfield as she had first suspected. It was a bit drab but serviceable. She noted that the window was high over her head, like at the gynecologist’s office.

After she removed her clothes in the attached bathroom, she was instructed to return to the room with the sofa. She was disconcerted to notice that there was then someone else in the room – or at least the remains of someone else. By the time she recovered herself the door had been locked. She was stuck with the skeleton. She beat upon the door with her fists but to no avail. All the therapist would say was “It is for your own good”. Over and over she repeated this, regardless of the question from Mary Frances.

After an hour of pacing the room, Mary Frances needed to sit. However, the only option was that couch. There was no way she was sitting with a skeleton! And propriety also demanded she not sit on fabric while naked. That just wasn’t hygienic, and certainly not ladylike. It was two hours later when she finally sat, after a small tray of food was pushed through a low slot in the door. She’d not noticed that before. Why would she? She hadn’t suspected she’d be trapped here.

The therapist made sure she wanted for nothing. The temperature was a pleasant 74° and there was a half-bath attached to the room. Mary Frances considered hiding out in there initially but thought twice about that idea. The room was cold with its porcelain tile and really just too small for staying in very long.

She finally decided to sit on the sofa anyway. If they didn’t care enough about her to provide her with an alternative, they deserved what they got. But there was still the matter of the skeleton.

Something shifted in her after she finally got settled. The skeleton started to look less intimidating. Her years of making art became the way out of her fear. She started to observe the skeleton, not as a reminder of death but as a sculpture, a collection of lines and shadows. She started to look at it – really look at it – and see how beautiful it was. She became an observer, no longer possessed by her fears, but now able to be objective and present.

When the therapist finally opened the door she found her client contentedly gazing at the skeleton, instead of recoiled, huddling in the corner. The treatment was a success.