Woodcutting

Jack and Jill lived at the edge of a forest, in a great city. The city was the centre of trade for the region, a veritable hub for all life, and its forest was nature’s last bastion. Every morning, Jack would traverse the edge of the forest to get to work. He was a lumberjack. His Majesty’s carpenters were clearing a chunk from the forest for a new throne; it would not be sorely missed, the forest covered close to a thousand square miles. Jill stayed home every day, save for a trip just into the forest, to pick apples for her pies.

Jack worked hard, because he had to. Though he had a job for now, many in the area were very poor. Work was scarce, and those who had jobs clung to them, for their family’s sake. Occasionally, on his breaks, Jack would hear the local children telling ghost stories about the monsters that lived in the forest, saying that they stole little girls to make them their brides. Jack knew that this was just a fairy tale, but he did not know that deep in his subconscious, he was just as fearful as the children were. No one had ever crossed the length of the forest; even His Majesty refused to go more than 200 yards into the woods.

When Jack returned home one evening, he found his home empty. An apple pie sat on the windowsill, still warm, so he knew that Jill hadn’t been gone long. It was getting dark, and Jack was beginning to worry. He left for town, to see if she might be there. He searched the market, looking for his beloved, but the crowds were beginning to dwindle. As the sun finally set, Jack went off in search of the Guard Captain. When Jack informed him of his fiancee’s disappearance, the Guard Captain said that he would commit every available man to Jill’s search, and then told Jack to try and go home to sleep.

Morning came, but Jill did not. Jack was petrified at the thought of losing his fiancee, and decided that he must look for her himself; his work could wait. He knew that it would likely mean he would lose his job, but why would he need to work without a warm heart in his home? As he exited the house, a guardsman jogged over to him, saying that he had seen marks leading into the forest, as if someone had been dragged. Jack’s heart sank. He found the tracks himself, but following them into the forest was futile. He knew what he had to do.

A few hours later, he returned, ax in hand. He would cut down the entire forest if he had to, but he would find his fiancee. Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks, and weeks into a months. Jack was making progress, but with every tree he felled, his heart drooped lower. He began to console himself, turning the effort into recovering the body, instead of finding his love.

Fall was ending, and the air was crisp with winter. Jack had cut a thirty mile long path into the forest. He originally had carried the felled wood back to his home, but all four walls of the house were lined, now. He stopped only to eat and sleep, though he had not slept in his own bed in months. And then one day, he found her.

She looked tired, but still as beautiful as she ever was. Her hair had matted in places, and her clothing had torn. She looked thin. Jack dropped his ax and ran to his love, calling her name aloud. She turned and had a confused disposition. Then her eyes lit up, but not in the way Jack had expected. She did not remember him. She was excited to see another human, but she did not return his touch, she repelled it.

Jack explained to her who he was, and what he had done to find her. Jill looked behind him, seeing a clear path cut through the trees. It took a few repetitious moments, but she began to remember. Though she was still not happy to see him.

Jack carried his fiancee home, and she slept. He was weak, tired, and broken. He had cut down every tree in his path for the past eight months, and yet still had to convince his fiancee to leave the forest with him. He laid her in bed, and she slept for days.

Jack did end up finding another job, and Jill eventually treated her return to domestication with civility. Though one morning, Jill rose to wash, only to find her now-husband dead, still in bed. She stood over him, watching his pale face, and for the first time since her departure from the forest, longed for the warmth of her lover.

Proverbs 31 1/2

10 who can find a virtuous lover? for his price is far above rubies
12 he will do him good and not evil all the days of his life.
13 he seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with his hands.
14 he is like the merchants’ ships; he bringeth food from afar.
15 he riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to his household, and a portion to his madiens.
16 he considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of his hands he planteth a vineyard.
17 he girdeth his loins with strength, and strengtheneth his arms.
18 he perceiveth that his merchandise is good: his candle goeth not out by night.
19 he layeth his hands to the spindle, and his hands hold the distaff.
20 he stretcheth out his hands to the poor; yea, he reacheth forth his hands to the needy.
21he is not afraid of the snow for his household: for all his household is clothed with scarlet.
22 he maketh himself coverings of tapestry; his clothing is silk and purple.
23 his husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24 he maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
25 strength and honour are his clothing; and he shall rejoice in time to come.
26 he openeth his mouth with wisdom; and in his tongue is the law of kindness.
27 he looketh well to the ways of his household , and eateth not the bread of idleness.
28 his children arise up, and call him blessed; his husband also, and he praiseth him.
29 many sons have done virtuously, but thou is excellest them all.
30 favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a man who feareth his lover, he shall be praised.
31 give him the fruit of his hands, and let his own works praise him in the gates.

Show Down at the Drugstore: The Man in the Blue Khakis

Today, like every other day in April, was a mixed bag. It had started off as gloomy and foggy, but the sun gradually melted away this marine layer. The sunshine doesn’t really mean much though – next week will be the anniversary of my divorce. I haven’t seen my ex-wife lately. I think she’s doing well. I haven’t seen our son, either. I just send money once a month, and that’s the end of that.

It was April 3rd, and I needed to refill my prescriptions. There was really only one drugstore in town. By this, I mean there were three – one run by a shady looking Oriental couple, another by an older couple (only reliable if you didn’t need your medication in the same week), finally, the drugstore in the centre of town. The first Monday of the month is generally quiet. We live in a small town, and the semi-trucks don’t often make it here more than once a month, making inventory crucial.

I had made my way to the drugstore, and its familiar fluorescent lights hummed above me. The girl at the counter was very attractive, but seemed too young. I think my eyes drifted for too long, she seemed to follow me with her eyes, and that bothered me. I went to the back counter and dropped off my prescription. This is when things started to get ugly. My drug plan coverage was in my ex-wife’s name. It was extensive, because of her arthritis. When I attempted to fill my prescriptions, the plan was denied. It had been a rough week. I miss my wife, and my son, and I miss the life we used to have. I got a little angry and threw the stack of pamphlets behind the counter. Following that I turned back down the aisle, only to see my ex-wife standing there. She looked indignant, and I couldn’t care less. On my way out of the store, I smiled at the cashier and proceeded to stand in the designated smoking area so I could destress. And the next thing I knew, you were here interviewing me. All in all, that’s how it happened. Now the important part is getting accurate evidence from everyone else.

Captain’s Log.

“To My Beloved Family and Crew,

It may seem strange, writing a letter like this so early in advance, but in the event that I should need to give it to someone, there wouldn’t be much time to write it.

Being the captain of this ship has given me innumerable memories. Each and every one of you, I love as I do my family. Your support, your humour, your kindness, even your sarcasm, all of it has only made my time here more enjoyable (even when I could have easily throw half of you overboard).

I’m saying all of this because of an old saying I’d heard, when I was a young boy. ‘Sometimes, the only thing to do when you can’t paddle anymore is to sink the ship.’ Although I can’t say for sure at the moment, I can assume that if you’re reading this, we’re already in grave danger.

Gentlemen, and to my beloved wife Taylor, I have to say goodbye. I cannot say tell you why, exactly, because I do not know. It could be an iceberg, or pirates, a mutiny (which would make it strange to speak so fondly of the crew), or a creature from the deep. I can assure you though that if you’re reading this, then this is the last thing you’ll have of mine.

If you feel anger, or regret, or sadness, for my sake don’t. I can’t paddle anymore. The sea has won, and man, as he always has, has lost. And remember, any good captain will always go down with his ship. He relishes the ability to be in control of his own destiny – much better than to have some invisible puppet master controlling it, wouldn’t you agree?

So again, to my family and crew, I say farewell. I won’t be paddling anymore.

– Captain Jericho Grawley”

Show Down at the Drugstore: The Pharmacist

April 3 was the first Monday of the month, and it was a very busy workday. Suzanna had called in sick, so it was just me and the manager. We tried to get most of our inventory done during the off times, but when you run one of the few pharmacies in town, you don’t have many off times. It was generally uneventful until I saw one of our regular customers coming in for her arthritis medication. She and my wife have tea together on Thursdays, and I remembered that the anniversary of her husband’s death was coming up soon. She left, and then things got strange. A man with sandy-blonde hair in blue khakis came up to the counter and demanded to speak to the manager. I obliged, but as soon as I left the counter he called me back. He was whispering, so I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, but all of a sudden he started to shout and threw the stack of health books on the counter at my computer. My previous client was returning to the pharmacy counter as he left, but they seemed to hesitate in the aisle when they passed each other. At the time that seemed normal, but I guess now it seems kind of fishy, that’s why I mentioned it. After that, I told my manager to phone the police, and that’s about it. I hope you find out who he was. My computer screen is pretty trashed from falling off my counter.

Show Down at the Drugstore: The Manager

It had been a day like any other. It was a relatively brisk April 3rd, and I would say this all happened around…1:50 in the afternoon. I was taking inventory, like we normally do on the first Monday of every month, when I saw one of our regular clients approach. Her knuckles were exceptionally red, and I knew from experience she would want her medication. She had been coming to our pharmacy for her arthritis since…gosh, since I had started working there years ago. She looked a little flustered though, I will admit, which is unusual. She’s normally such a calm woman. She asked if she could pay for her things at this counte- what did she buy? Well, some Maxi Pads, a chocolate bar, an umbrella, some Halls, and Kleenex. Anyway, I had to turn her away because it was just two of us working the pharmacy counter and we were pretty busy. After she left I stepped into the back to finish counting when I heard a commotion. I returned to the front, and I saw a balding man in blue khakis storming off, the gaze of our regular client looking towards us, and my assistant looking petrified. He said to call the police, and that’s where we are now, officer. All in all, that’s what I remember.

Show Down at the Drugstore: The Cashier

I didn’t see much, officer, but this is what happened. It was 3:30 on April 3rd, and it was such a beautiful day out. I had cancelled my plans for the beach with my friends because I had to work, and I was pretty upset. Even so, it was a six-hour shift, and I wasn’t too worried. I remember seeing a middle aged woman come in and she looked confused. I offered her my help (like I’m supposed to), but she turned me down. As I was stocking my till, I couldn’t help but keep an eye on her…and the very attractive man in the blue khaki pants. She seemed a little lost in the store…she didn’t really buy anything that she would have needed, except for the Maxi Pads. She bought an umbrella, that was strange. It hadn’t rained in months. She went down another aisle, and the man in the khakis came into full view. I usually feel like I only see attractive people when I’m working, you know? I’m sorry, I’ll get back on topic. The man in the blue khakis approached me and asked me where the pharmacy counter was, and I managed to squeak out a reply. He even winked his green eyes at me after. I followed his walk down the aisle, when I noticed that the woman had finished browsing. I began to ring her items through, when she abruptly looked back to the the pharmacy and just walked off. I wasn’t really sure what had happened, but she left the till without a word. While she was gone though, the man in the blue khakis left, but not before he told me to “take care.” Guys like that are rare, officer. Regardless, the woman came back as if nothing had happened, and I finished the transaction. There was nothing really unusual actually, aside from the woman’s departure… and, well, she asked me to leave the umbrella out of the bag. I’m still not really sure why. She didn’t seem like one of those albino, “afraid-of-the-sun” types to me. All in all officer, that’s what I remember. I’ll have to get back to work now.

Show Down at the Drugstore: The Woman

(My next piece is going to be another short story, but there’s going to be a trick to it. If you read each of the posts with Show Down at the Drugstore, by the end you should be able to pick it up. Enjoy!)

I distinctly remember the event, yes. It was probably about…2:45 in the afternoon on April 3rd. It had been raining as I entered the drugstore – I remember because the rain makes my arthritis flare up. What did I buy? Let’s see…Kleenex; some Halls, for my son, he’s been sick for weeks; a Toblerone bar; some…well, feminine pads; Orangeous orange juice… Oh, and a new umbrella. I was heading to the checkout lineup, when my hands began to ache again. While I was here, I thought, I should get some medication. I approached the pharmacy but on my way back down the aisle, a man passed me quite abruptly. What did he look like? Well let’s see… He was tall. Relatively…maybe, 5’8? Brown hair, blue eyes. How did I notice his eye colour? I…well, he was attractive. He looked maybe…150 pounds, he was wearing a beige knit sweater and dark blue khaki pants. I approached the cashier when I heard a commotion from the back of the store. I went back, only to see that the man who had passed making some kind of motion with his fist at the pharmacist, and then he stormed off again. The pharmacist looked frightened, and his manager asked him to explain everything while she phoned the police. I knew that was my time to leave and I finished paying for my things and went home. It had stopped raining, thankfully, so I didn’t need to take as many painkillers. All in all, that’s what I remember, officer, can I go now?

Beautiful Strangers: Chapter 6 (final chapter)

The house we were driving home to was not the house I had left last February but a new, larger house in a fashionable suburb of Toronto with a patio and swimming pool in the backyard. They’d moved to give me a new start, Mommy told me. A brand-new start for a brand-new girl.

“You always loved to swim,” Mommy said to me as the car pulled into the circular driveway. “You’ve got the room with the window looking out onto the garden. It’s very nice, really. It’s the room I would have liked to have if I didn’t sleep in the master bedroom.”

“Really,” I said but I didn’t care. Bullet breasts grazing my arm, the material of my dress singed and bruised by all that hard-bullet mother-breast. Robert, she was saying, Robert this, and Robert that, and brand-new girl, and I just wanted to say, Oh shut up. That makes me feel kind of bad, soiled kind of, guilty, just like I feel guilty for wishing Maisie ill. Maisie who stood over my bed one night not long before the hospital and seeing my arms all burnt and cut and the pus from the burns on my legs, extended one hand, and laid it on my arm gently, tenderly, light as a butterfly wing, and kind as love, and said “Jazz, Jazz dear, what can I do?” Her voice breaking with tenderness for me. Imagine!

Robert this, and Robert that, mommy was prattling. I looked from under Mommy’s waving fingers at the new house. I didn’t know why but I was afraid of this house. Its emptiness. And would it too be a house of glass? I knew that every step I took from drive to vestibule to kitchen to garden would be like a test and I wished it all wouldn’t be so cruel. Him, her. It was a big brick house, a big, sprawling bungalow like all the other big sprawling bungalows on the street with their circular driveways and swimming pools, cabanas with a bar, and wood paneled rec rooms. I took one step, then another, another, and stopped. Stock-still.

“Where’s Daddy’s garden?”

Garden, there was no garden, not really. No peach trees laden with fat, gold fruit, no roses teeming scarlet and baby pink and buttercup yellow, not fat cherries hanging heavy from low boughs, no petunias, no snapdragons, or gladioluses or tulips, no apple trees in pink blossom, no, no, no, no – Eco! The garden at the new house is a scrap of garden, a small neat square with three antiseptic flowerbeds, a few carefully pruned bushes strategically placed in this poverty of a garden. Eco, Eco, where will I ever find you? Look, I knew somehow he’d been born in the garden before he became my friend. I saw him spring one winter night from the diamonds of the ice and white snow-laden branches of the cherry tree, and call to me, call to me as if he’d always been my friend and always knew my name. Eco, beautiful with his white hair, hair as white as winter breath streaming out behind him like smoke and white curling fire, emerald green eyes ablaze, long delicate fingers, the palate of whites, and he called from the cherry branches that he’d always loved me. I stood in the garden, Mommy prattling on and on, stood there and knew I’d lost the only thing I had.

Mommy took another picture of me and Daddy standing in front of a solitary scarlet red rosebush, the petals already drying and curling down brown, the rose had no more liking for the small garden than I.

“Smile,” Mommy said. “Smile, my brand-new –“

There was a sound, a roaring stuffing up my head, and I didn’t hear what she said anymore. Just the roar. I smiled. My eyes were emptying fast.

That night I lay in bed, held my poor head, just like now everything rhyming double-timing, nothing will stop me, stop me, stopmestopmestopme…

Jasmine wondered if they – her parents – would call the police when it reached the supper hour and she was not at her place, her eyes cast down to the supper plate. But by then the poison, she thought, will have done its work, and I will not have to see another winter or, for that matter, another night at the dinner table in Silence, my eyes fastened to a china plate.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Her hand grasped the photographs of her family in her pocket beside the jelly jar and was holding them close to her chest when the police car came over the little rise in the field, the shadows lengthening and falling over her like a dark angel claiming her, the branches of the skeletal black trees and spidery gray bushes sighing in a frozen cold winter wind, the sighs like the whispers of God.

Jasmine said, “Look, Mrs. Raskin, that’s me, and that’s my Daddy. Tall, isn’t he?”

She sat on the floor in the sanitarium. She’d been back there for nearly two months and was still in the dormitory under observation, had to sleep in a room with twenty other women and listen to their moans and groans and dreams. She’d received these photographs the day before in the mail with a letter from her father and a note from a mother. Among the photographs were two photographs of her parents and Maisie in the swimming pool, and another of the them having drinks by the cabana, and enclosed also was the snapshot her mother had taken of Jasmine and her father standing in front of the solitary scarlet red rosebush the day she came home. She’d been rifling through the photographs, shuffling them like cards for the past hour. She had shown them to two nurses and the dining-room aide, and now was showing them to Mrs. Raskin.

Suddenly, “Think you’re so smart with that fancy house. And it’s Miss Raskin, Miss, not Mrs.! How many times have I told you that, idiot?” And Miss Raskin stormed off in a flurry of housecoat and whispering slippers.

Tears sprang into Jasmine’s eyes. It wasn’t because Raskin called her an idiot. She rubbed her finger over the surface of the photographs. It occurred to her that she would always be looking at photographs of herself in front of Harvey’s restaurants, and rose bushes, and picturesque, dilapidated old farmhouses, and chic brick bungalows, and that she would always belong in none of these places, that she would always be staring back at herself standing beside Beautiful Strangers, her eyes emptying fast.

Beautiful Strangers: Chapter 5

Jasmine made a snow angel, her arms and legs fanning up and out, sweeping up and down through the white drift. An angel to carry angel-me skyward nearer to God and His whispers, she thought, and began to laugh. Oh, Eco, she thought, you were an alone and cruel loving god, loving me at your whim, punishing me on the bad days, making me burn and slash my arms, my legs, loving me on the good days with a kiss, an embrace, a downward curving smile. They told me at the hospital that you were a dream, an undigested bit of cheese, a mirage, and Mommy, well, Mommy always said I made you up so everyone I guess is right and happy and now we can all go home, can’t we?

Jasmine laughed and laughed, the crescents of eyelashes against her cheeks ice half white half-moons now.

Home. Nearly one year later I came home from the hospital which had been a private sanitarium located in the countryside. I wore a lemon-coloured dress, and pinned my hair up, and wore new white open-toed sandals that Mommy bought me just for the occasion. It was autumn, another autumn, leaves fell on the dry and dusty roads. I sat in between my parents in the front seat of the car, a roll of peppermints in my hand. The leaves fell like whispers sighing in the dry dust and every now and again I stole a glance from my father, his strong hands upon the steering wheel. Not trembling. His eyes upon the road, his ears closed to the whispering leaves.

Every so often I offered a peppermint to Daddy, then Mommy, and then several minutes later, having forgotten I offered them peppermints, I’d offer up another. They wanted to please. Their daughter was coming home. From a mental hospital. They took the peppermints.

We were driving past farmhouses that seemed no more than gray tinderboxes, so precarious were the wood sidings that held them upright, and past rusty water pumps, and fields of horses, and cows with sagging dirty white udders and big brown eyes.

“Dear”, Mommy said finally, “You just offered me a peppermint three minutes ago. Oh, look at the horse. Look, there’s a white horse. Say it.”

“Say what?” I asked.

“You know – ‘Lucky, lucky white horse, lucky, lucky Lee’ – Well, you know the rest. The old children’s rhyme.”

“Leave her alone,” Daddy said. “She’s older now, a young lady.”

“Bring your luck to me,” said Mommy. And then, “For god’s sake, I just thought it might take her mind off that place. It’s behind you now, Jazz dear. The hospital, well, it’s part of your past. It’s history and we’ll think of it like that. If you won’t let her say a nice little rhyme, Robert, will you at least let me take a picture of you two together? Would that be all right or is she too old to be in photographs with her father?” This last was flung out past me.

“I guess that would be all right,” he said.

“Good. Then when we stop for lunch I’ll take a snapshot of you both. The reports the hospital sent us were quite encouraging. They said you were eating better. How is your appetite dear?”

We drove.

Dusty streets.

Whispering leaves.

Me stealing looks at Daddy.

Mommy singing.

It was a happy day, a glad occasion, their daughter was coming home.

Outside of Harvey’s, fifth miles south of the small town where the sanitarium was located, Mommy took a snapshot of me and Daddy.

“Smile, dear, smile. We want those nice even teeth showing. A happy girl! A brand-new girl! There. Good. Now. That’s it, got it.” Mommy’s voice tinged with the high manic humour of a hysteric. She had her photograph, her brand-new daughter on film.