A strange place for a theophany

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story with a beginning, middle and end in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

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Photoprompt © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

She had been in her bedsit for days, reading, thinking, praying. What did it mean to live a good life? Why did she feel love? Above all, who was she?

The questions consumed her. She never noticed the gathering dust. The clothes in her wardrobe, her pretty things no longer interested her. She hardly ate, and drank only water.

Then, abruptly, she shook her matted hair, stretched, thought, ‘I must wash’.

As she moved towards the shower cubicle, she saw a great light, and felt a holy awe.

She knelt, and deep joy overwhelmed her.

“It’s true then,” she gasped.

A long shadow

We are all shaped by joy and sadness. We all experience tragedy at some point in our life. Sometimes events echo down generations. Sometimes healing takes many years to accomplish. How we deal with tragedy makes a difference to its effect on us. If we can accept it, we can find healing. It’s a different matter if we rail against it, and curse…

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A long shadow

The ocean at Khao Lak was pellucid aquamarine, and it glittered with a million shards of reflected light. Throughout the rehearsal for his son’s betrothal, Narong seemed uneasy, glancing repeatedly at the water, swallowing, clenching his fists. Rehearsal over, the other participants drifted away, laughing and chattering; Narong began to weep.

Seeing a grown man cry was horrible. Narong had always shown iron self-control and yet suddenly he was broken. He no longer seemed to care what other people would think of him. The tears flooded, the nose streamed, the mouth drooled, the body heaved in great sobs. It was disgusting. No son should ever feel disgusted by his father.

“Dad! Wipe your face. Duangkamol will see you. She’ll think you’re mad!”

I urged my father across the hotel lobby towards the lift. Please let it come soon, and be empty!

In the lift, I handed my father my handkerchief.

“Here, clean yourself up. This is my betrothal, for goodness sake.”

I kept my finger on the button to keep the doors closed until he was presentable, then I pushed him onwards until he was safely out of sight in our suite.

“Now, pull yourself together. You must be over this by eight o’clock, ready for the banquet.” He nodded, then his eyes filled again and he curled into a ball on the bed, sobbing as though his heart was broken.

I headed for the bar. I needed a whisky.

“Somchair!”

I turned.

“Aunt Lamai! It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you, too!” She gave me a beaming smile, and held out her arms for a hug. I embraced her heartily, engulfed by the brightly patterned silk of her clothing.

“I’m sorry, I need a drink, Auntie. Would you like to join me? I’m going to the bar.”

After a glance at me, she said, “I would love a glass of iced tea, Somchair. Is the bar the best place for that? I’m not used to luxury like this hotel.”

“I don’t know about the best place, Auntie, but they’ll certainly serve it, and I’m afraid I need something stronger.”

I made her comfortable in a corner, and ordered the iced tea and a double scotch.

“Nerves?”

I shook my head.

“Well you don’t have to tell me, of course.”

Aunt Lamai looked disappointed. I loved my aunt. After my mum died, she’d given me the same love she’d given her own children. I felt like her child.

“It’s Dad. We’d just finished a rehearsal for tomorrow’s ceremony when he broke down. I mean, totally broke down. I had to rush him back to the suite.”

Aunt Lamai thought for a moment. “Could you see the sea?” she asked.

I was surprised by her question.

“Yes, we could. Why do you ask?”

“Well, this is where it happened, isn’t it, Somchair? Have you forgotten the wave?”

It had all been so quick. One moment I had been happily playing at the water’s edge, the next Dad had seized me, picked me up. He was yelling, “Achara! Run! Run!”

I remembered my mother’s face, stiff with shock, staring out to sea. With a last despairing shout of “Run, Achara!” my father had started to race shorewards.

The wave struck.

My memory thereafter is of a wild, brown confusion, of being now under the water, now on my father’s chest as he held me above him; of pain, as the water scrubbed me against obstacles; and, finally, of darkness that ended with agonising retching as I coughed brine and mud out of my lungs and came back into the light.

And then the blankness of learning that Achara, my beloved mama, was dead.

“Why do you think your Dad never remarried, Somchair?” asked Lamai, softly.

“I should never have come here again. I should have guessed.”

Lamai shook her head.

“No. You were right to come. These are your roots, yours and Duangkamol’s too. You were born here, and you were reborn here when your father saved you.”

“What do I do, Lamai? How can I help him? What a burden he must have carried!”

“I always wished he’d married again. Achara and I were very close. After she had died, I could feel her longing for him to find someone else. But Narong is a strong man. He once said to me, ‘I saved my dear son, but I should have been able to save them both. I left her to die.’”

Lamai sighed.

“Go and talk to him, Somchair. No, go and listen to him. Make him tell you what it has been like. Help him to feel he hasn’t failed. Help him to lay her to rest.”

She patted my hand. “I must join my family. Thank you for the drink.”

Her smile was as soft as goosedown, her eyes filled with a wistful hope.

My father rarely drank, but when he did it was cognac that he chose. I bought a large one, and went up to our suite. Narong was lying on the bed, rigid, eyes staring at the ceiling.

“Dad. Dad!”

Slowly he turned his face to me.

“I’ve brought you a cognac. Would you like to sit up?”

I thought he wasn’t going to answer. He looked at me, wooden-faced. At last he cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You are a good son, and I shamed you.”

“Here, let me help you up.”

He glared at me and sat up, then rose to his feet and moved towards the balcony. I followed, shaking with agitation. My father opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the sea. He walked to the rail. I stood beside him. Together we gazed at the ilne where sky and water met. I saw beauty; but what nightmares was my father confronting?

“I couldn’t save you both,” he said at last. “I don’t really know if I saved you. It was sheer dumb luck that we weren’t washed against concrete, or…” He stopped, swallowed. “Or a tree. I never told you. That was how your mother…” he paused again, “how Achara, my beloved Achara, died. She had escaped drowning, only to be broken against a tree.”

There was a depth of sorrow in his eyes that I had never noticed before; I had seen only the fierceness of the thin, straight mouth in his domineering face; and yet, now that I had perceived the sorrow, I knew it had always been there.

I put my arm around him. He stiffened, but then relaxed.

“I cursed that tree, Somchair. I cursed the sea. I cursed this town. They took my beloved from me, and I hated them all. But here they are; and I have been the one living under a curse.

Achara is at peace now, Somchair. I am at peace. Will you come with me to her grave? We will take flowers, lotus, her favourite.”

For a few minutes longer we gazed into the infinite. I poured out the cognac as an offering; to whom I could not say, but it seemed right; and my father and I left arm in arm to find flowers.

 

Thai names, and their meanings

Lamai – a woman of soft skin, a caring person

Narong – one who creates war, or is always ready for war

Somchair – one who is macho or manly

Duangkamol – right from the heart

Achara – an angel, who is very pretty or beautiful

Khao Lak – a small town devastated by the tsunami in 2004. Somchair is 21, nearly 22, so he was 9 at the time.

Song without words

This story was written with two types of reader in mind: the general reader; and readers who are passionate about classical music. However, it is fiction, pure and simple, and not historical speculation. Note, too, that I am aware of the date Mendelssohn died, and the date that Clara and Robert’s son, Felix, was born. The story is not suggesting that he is Mendelssohn’s son.

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That way lies madness
Clara reached out her hand, and laid it on Robert’s naked shoulder. He flinched and tensed.
“He’s not my son, is he?” His voice was despairing.
“Oh, Robert, please, not this again.”
Robert spun round. His hands reached out as though to strangle, but dropped instead to Clara’s hips. He buried his face in the thick, raven hair cascading over her shoulder. She held him, rocked him, sang gently to him as though to a small child.
She led him towards the bed, coaxed him into it with little gestures and murmurs, endearments and caresses.
“You are an angel,” he said, eyes wide-open in wonder, “a glorious angel, with golden wings and a dark halo, and – I heard it, you know.”
He smiled, smirked rather.
“I heard it. He told me on the piano.”
“Robert, stop it. This is nonsense. You’re upsetting yourself needlessly.”
“You tell me it’s nonsense?” He emphasized the pronouns grotesquely. “He told me on the piano yesterday afternoon when he played to us both. That ‘Song without Words’. The rubato between bars twenty-six and twenty-seven, and, just to make sure, in case I missed it, again between bars twenty-nine and thirty.”
Clara sighed.
“Lie down, Robert. You’re imagining things. You are so sensitive, so creative. I love you for that, I really do, but not when you use it to torture yourself. Lie down my dearest, lie down my love.” She gentled him with words and touches until he lay down beneath the covers.
He looked at her sadly, so sadly.
“Your grief will be my only regret when I jump into the Rhine.”
Clara said nothing, just stroked his cheek tenderly. Robert’s eyes closed, and his breathing became gentle and regular.
From the nursery next door, young Felix began to wail.

Friday Fictioneers – A failure of trust

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story with a beginning, middle and end in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

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Photoprompt (c) C E Ayr

A failure of trust

A stone wall stood between two families’ fields. A sapling sprouted in the wall, and grew to be a mighty oak. After hundreds of years the tree perished, men cut it down, and left the stump to petrify with weather and time.

The wall was dismantled, and the two fields it had separated became one. The families worked together, prospered, and grew to love each other.

But some family members still disliked and mistrusted the other family. Now they’re rebuilding the wall, piling old stones about the stump and talking about the days the oak stood alone, tall and proud.

In the moment – Growing Older

In the moment – Growing Older

When I was young – and even when I was mature – I had quite the wrong idea about what it was like to be old. I thought it was just slower, everything a little less acute. Perhaps, too, I felt that grey hair was an indication of a greyer, less vivid experience of life.

Now I know that I move slowly because I have less energy; that hearing less well makes it harder to have a conversation in a roomful of chattering people; that my sense of smell has deteriorated.

And yet, I’m more joyful now than I’ve ever been.

Largely that’s because I know and accept who I am. It’s also because I have learned, at least to some extent, to live ‘in the moment’ – savouring the experience of life, whatever it is, moment by moment.

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There are also blessings that are reserved for older people; grandchildren, plenty of time to reflect, leisure to spend with those you love.

So, although it’s been years since I could run upstairs, I can walk up them and read a bedtime story to my grandchildren.

Although I can’t smell the coffee in the morning, I don’t have to rush off to work. I sit with my wife over breakfast and enjoy her company.

I’m no longer the fastest to solve problems and learn new skills, but I can quarry my experience for memories and images, wisdom that I can share with others.

I no longer have the responsibility and status of working as a manager, but I have time for the privilege and joy of sharing love with my friends.

And as for ‘a less vivid experience of life’ – nothing of the sort! Life is great!

 

Payment in full

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Payment in full

Joe Caradonna was done, cleaned out. He scooped his jacket off the back of the chair and slouched away from the table towards the bar. Tomorrow he would have to face the reality of his $250,000 debt; for now, he would drink.

“Cash only, Mr Caradonna,” the barman told him.

He slumped into a chair near the bar. He’d have to sell his house and move back to a rented apartment. The kids weren’t going to like that. All things considered, it would be easier just to put a bullet through his brain, and let his wife collect on the insurance.

A smartly dressed man beckoned the barman, slipped a $100 bill to him.

“Bourbon, isn’t it, Mr Caradonna?”

Joe grunted. The barman poured two doubles, handed one to the stranger, the other to Joe.

“I’m Harry, by the way. Can we talk?”

They moved to a secluded booth. Nobody else was near.

“Quite a mountain to climb, $250,000. I guess you could use a little help.”

Joe looked up sharply. Harry laughed gently.

“Don’t worry, Joe. I’m not here to break your legs.”

Joe winced.

“No, I have a proposition for you. You work for Winston Davies, the architects, don’t you?”

Joe stared at Harry silently.

“I need to get into their building, in, shall we say, a clandestine fashion.”

He raised a hand to silence Joe’s immediate objection. “Hear me out, won’t you?

Winston Davies have swindled me; stolen my intellectual property. Help me, and you’ll be helping to right an injustice.

All I need from you is to know where certain building plans are filed, and the detailed security arrangements that protect the office. When I have recovered my property, I will give you a quarter million, cash, untraceable.”

Joe dropped his eyes before Harry’s compelling gaze.

By the time Joe and Harry left the building, Harry had exactly what he needed and Joe had a manilla envelope containing $10,000; a gesture of good faith, Harry called it. Joe called it a lifeline. What a fool he’d been with the gambling! He stood more upright and walked more confidently than he had done for months.

The following night, a nondescript figure walked up to the office of Winston Davies. He unlocked the door with a key and punched in Joe Caradonna’s six digit pass code. The door opened smoothly and he went in, locking it carefully behind him. Once at the back of the atrium, in the shadows, he slipped on a face mask, and then took the elevator to the fifth floor.

The files were where Joe had said they would be. The intruder carefully photographed them, checked to make sure he’d found them all, tidied up, and locked the cabinet again. He went back to the ground floor, took off the face mask, and left. Nobody would know that the office had been burgled. Harry would be pleased with that.

Harry was indeed pleased. He gave the burglar $10,000 and a bonus of $5,000. At $15,000 dollars, the detailed plans of the Monod Institute were a snip. His patient research was paying off. He now had a map that would show him a way into one of the most secret and secure places in the world, the biological weapons facility in Yeruham, Israel.

A night later, Joe waited until his wife was asleep before slipping out of the house. The address he had been given was in a dirty, ill-lit street. He realized suddenly that it was behind a club where he had played some high stakes poker. That had been in the days when he won more than he lost. He felt a flicker of excitement. Maybe at last his luck had changed, and those days of triumph would come again!

He was early. He glanced up and down the street. No-one. He checked the entrance against the description he’d been given. It matched. The door was unlocked and he walked in. The room behind was empty. Joe looked for a light, but there was no bulb in the fitting.

The door to the street opened again. Confident, smiling, Harry came in. He reached into his breast pocket.

“Here’s your payment, Joe.”

His hand swept out, concealing the gun until the last second. He jammed the muzzle under Joe’s throat. Joe had just enough time to feel the cold metal and half raise his arms as Harry squeezed the trigger, and then he slumped to he ground.

Harry pressed the gun into each of Joe’s hands in turn, and then placed it into his right hand as though he’d killed himself. The only other prints on the gun were those of the salesman who’d sold Harry the gun that afternoon. Harry put the receipt into Joe’s wallet. That should be enough to convince the police, hard-pressed as they were for resources. Open and shut case.

Harry said a quick prayer for the dead man; and left.

 

The Music Festival

Short Story – The Music Festival

This arose from a 100 word piece of flash fiction, ‘A Writer’s Perspective’. One of my fellow bloggers, Noonespecial, commented “Oh, Penny! Couldn´t you change the last sentence? Than I would say I understand!” This short story is specially for her.

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It was the second concert of the Festival. There was a modest audience – perhaps a hundred or so – and the venue, while visually attractive, had an atrocious acoustic for classical music. Those who were to perform sat in the front few rows of the audience. I noticed two very young men, sixteen or seventeen perhaps, sitting side by side in the second row.

The compere introduced a piece for solo piano, to be played by Jeremy. Both young men stood up. Jeremy went to the piano, while the other stood at the side of the auditorium recording a video of the performance on his cellphone.

Were they a gay couple, I wondered? I felt sure that Jeremy, the pianist, with his wavy hair, passionate face and confident manner would have appealed to both men and women, and when he started to play I could feel the strong pull of his magnetic personality. Even the poor acoustic couldn’t conceal that he was a virtuoso in the making. The youth making the video was engrossed in the performance. His face glowed with pride and delight.

At the end of the concert, I spoke to the Festival Director, to let her know how much I’d enjoyed it. I think she saw me as a potential donor, because she invited me backstage and offered me raki. The performers were tidying up, and Jeremy and his friend were talking in a corner.

“Doesn’t this last week mean anything to you?” I heard as we passed them.

“Of course it does. It’s been great fun, but I just don’t swing that way, Calvin.”

A girl came over, and pecked Jeremy on the cheek.

And then the Director and I were in her office and she closed the door.

Quite by chance, I saw the young men again the following evening, in a party of eight students in a taverna. Jeremy sat at one end of the table, and every so often I saw him look at the girl opposite. She was blushing. Her eyes were sparkling. She tossed her head, and spoke quickly and excitedly. The boy who had made the video sat on the opposite side of the table, at the far end. He was quiet. Occasionally he glanced in Jeremy’s direction, his expression a mixture of hero-worship and longing.

As the party left the taverna, Jeremy put an arm around the girl and she rested her head against his shoulder. I saw the quiet boy notice, and wince.

The final concert was the following evening. By now people had realised that the standard of performance was high, and the venue was packed. I found a seat on the outside end of a row, about halfway back. Jeremy was sitting on the other side of the auditorium, next to the girl with whom he’d left the taverna. The quiet boy was sitting at the end of the second row on the same side as me. He looked sad.

The third item of the programme was the ‘Habanera’ from Carmen, to be performed by Victoria, accompanied by Calvin. The girl next to Jeremy, the girl from the taverna, prowled sinuously onto the platform. The quiet boy, who I’d seen first with Jeremy, unobtrusively took his seat at the piano ready to play for her.

Her voice was superb; her manner both seductive and dramatic. Calvin’s accompaniment was musical and self-effacing, supporting her and never overpowering her. It was perfect accompanying; Calvin was an excellent pianist, I realised.

“And if I love you, Ah! then take care!” sang Victoria to Jeremy. I could see him beam.

The applause at the end of the piece was enthusiastic, but it was almost over before Victoria realised that Calvin hadn’t joined her for his share. Instead, he had slipped back to his seat in the auditorium. She gestured in his direction, as though she hoped he would stand and bow, but he just shook his head in negation. Victoria gave one last curtsey and smile and sat down beside Jeremy, whispering in his ear. Jeremy stared across at Calvin.

We came at length to the final item of the concert, Chopin’s ‘Heroic Polonaise’. Victoria kissed Jeremy on the cheek as he rose, and held his hand just a little longer than you might expect, before he strode to the piano and sat down.

The performance was bravura, brilliant. The notes poured out. The rhythm was as crisp as a military heel click. There was a fiery energy, and a stern strength to the playing. It was indeed a heroic interpretation. I was watching Victoria. She sat very straight in her seat, aflame with emotion.

Then I noticed Calvin. He had moved stealthily to the side aisle where he held up his cellphone, once again recording the performance. Tears trickled one after the other down his cheeks, as he wept in perfect silence.

And now, at a signal from the Director, the musicians gathered at the front. Calvin dried his cheeks and joined them. Jeremy and Victoria were centre stage, holding hands, triumphant, elated, already a couple.

We rose, in a standing ovation. The performers bowed, once, twice, thrice, and that was it.

The Festival was over for another year.