by Steve Carr
See Sister Monica as she bends over the furrow in the ground, her knees in the dirt, grasping a trowel in one hand. In the heat of the morning, sweat pours from under her coif and wimple and streams down her face. Watch as she examines the bright green shoot of a tomato plant, tenderly taking its small leaves between her fingers and peering at them intently. A hot breeze blows across the convent garden carrying with it bits of dirt she recently tilled in the dry, crumbling earth. The cawing of a crow flying overhead catches her attention. She looks up at it and shields her eyes from the glare of the sun, dropping bits of soil from her gardening gloves onto the front of her habit, above the chest hemline of a denim apron that protects the rest of it from getting dirty.
“Damn,” she mumbles.
See her look around to make sure she wasn’t heard. Except for her, there are no other sisters in the garden that covers a small square of land behind the convent. There is a small grove of lemon trees on the border of the garden. The unpicked lemons that dangle from the drooping limbs are brown and withered, like oversized walnuts. In the center of the grove standing on a white marble base is a bronze statue of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners. The patina that covers most of his beard and robe is a mixture of brown and green hues. His face enclosed in a hood is shiny as if it has just been polished. His expression on his bearded face is benevolent. On the bronze plate fixed to the front of the marble base the inscription reads: I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. Ecclesiatses 2:5.
Watch as Sister Monica bows her head and says a brief, silent prayer. She then places the trowel in the empty wicker basket sitting beside her and slowly stands. Her movements are slow, deliberate. She has learned to overcome her tendency to rush with anything she does. Prayer is sedation. She removes her gloves and puts them in the basket and then attempts to brush the dirt from her habit, causing the smudge to expand. Suppressing her frustration that wearing a white habit to do gardening in frequently causes such accidents, she steps across several rows of furrowed ground where dead sprouts from other recently planted tomato plants stick up from the earth. There is a pile of rotting wooden stakes sitting on the edge of the garden that were once used to hold up growing plants. See her walk around them, consciously avoiding glancing at the pile; they are a reminder that nothing no longer grows to maturity in the garden.
Hear the rusty hinges on the door to the garden shed squeak as she pulls it open. The heat inside the shed rushes out, escaping the entrapment of wood and corrugated tin, and washes over her, adding to her physical discomfort. She grew up in the southern United States, a daughter of an itinerant farm worker, but this weather – the unrelenting and unusual high temperatures – is almost more than she can bear. She hasn’t told anyone in the convent that she suffers in the heat, but she has frequently told God. Holding the door open with her foot, she pushes her sleeve up her forearm, closes her eyes, and wipes the sweat from her face with the back of her arm. Watch as she opens her eyes and sees the naked young man lying on the floor of the shed. His physique resembles that of Michaelangelo’s David. With her heart pounding, a gasp that escapes her lips is followed by her taking several staggered steps back. The door closes as she drops the basket and stares, dumbfounded, at the shed.
See her turn and stare at the convent as the bell is rung for the sisters to assemble in the chapel for pre-lunch prayers. Look at the small clouds of dust her shoes kick up as she runs across the garden and to the back door of the convent where she stops, hastily removes the apron and hangs it on a hook. Catching her breath, she says a quick prayer, crosses herself, and calmly opens the door and goes in.
At the doors to the chapel she inserts her hands into her sleeves, crosses her arms, and gets in line behind Sister Margret. She is bursting to tell someone, anyone, about the man in the shed, but entering the chapel she sees Mother Superior seated in her thrown-like chair on the dais at the end of the aisle that separates two long rows of pews where the sisters sit. She knows to say anything at all would incur the Mother Superior’s wrath, delivered with terrifying quietude.
Watch as Sister Monica sits on a pew on the left side of the aisle, crosses herself, bows her head, and begins to pray.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, there’s a man in the garden shed,” she utters in a whisper so low that she alone knows she spoke.
After lunch, Sister Monica is at the sink and scrubbing a large pot. Mother Superior had passed by her before they had sat down to eat and glanced at the spot of dirt and frowned, but said nothing. Sister Monica uses suds from the dishwater to try to remove the smudge of dirt on her habit, spreading the dirt even more, turning a small part of her habit just beneath the neckline a dull gray, like a gathering storm cloud. See how she glances at what has happened to her habit, and her own dour expression, reflected in the shiny pot. During the meal the only words spoken by any of the sisters were related to scriptures. Still rattled by the morning’s events and unable to think of a scripture that applied to finding a man in a garden shed, Sister Monica simply asked the other sisters to pray for her to be more accepting of God’s mysteries.
Hear Sister Angeline as she comes into the kitchen, the soles of her shoes shuffling across the tiled floor. She stops in the middle of the kitchen and gently claps her hands. Sister Monica and the other sisters stop what they are doing and turn to face Sister Angeline. Sister Angeline is very old, older than any of the sisters in the convent. Her face is lined with wrinkles. Her voice is raspy, from age and disuse. “Mother Superior wishes to remind those of you who work in the gardens and grounds of the convent to make sure everything is in readiness for the visit from the Bishop, who is fond of gardens and such. He will be here first thing tomorrow morning.”
Without looking directly at Sister Angeline’s face, whose eyes and fixed stare reminded her of a bird of prey, Sister Monica asks, “Will the Mother Superior permit us extra time this afternoon to prepare for the Bishop’s visit?”
“Yes,” Sister Angeline replies and then turns and leaves the kitchen.
The intense heat of late afternoon envelopes Sister Monica as soon as she steps out the back door of the convent. She stops for a moment and glances up at the sun that fills the sky like a glaring white neon light and shakes her head, dismayed. The dry spell has lasted longer than the previous summer, which lasted longer than the summer before that. First, making certain there is no one who will see her, she grabs the apron and rushes across the garden to the shed. She stands in front of the door for several moments before opening it. She ducks down as a dove flies out and disappears beyond the brick wall that surrounds the convent. Inside the shed, the man is still there, in the same position he was in that morning.
She steps into the shed, letting the door close behind her. In the ambient light, the man’s body emits a gentle glow of its own, as if he is lit from the inside. In the dim light, his nudity seems more pronounced; there is no escaping the sight of it. She lays the apron across his lower body and then kneels down beside his head and stares at his face. His complexion is smooth, without any imperfections. Light brown curls cascade over his forehead and encircle his ears. She places her hand on his forehead only because it is was the first thing her mother did whenever anyone was ill. His brow is damp; the slight perspiration that covers it feels like the cool spring water she swam in before leaving home seven years before. She then leans over him, placing her ear to his lips and listens to his slow, steady exhalations of air, and feels the warmth of his breath on her cheek, like the feel of a butterfly landing on cotton. There is an intimacy to the moment that embarrasses her and she sits back on her heels and watches the rise and fall of his chest.
“He doesn’t seem harmed in any way,” she mutters aloud and then says to him, “How did you get in here?”
See his eyelids flutter, and then open. His eyes as blue and clear as a cloudless sky gaze at her for several moments.
In his eyes she sees the world as she imagines it should be, as God meant it to be. She sees its purity and vastness. She also sees her own inadequacies as a nun; the impurities of her soul. She’s certain that the man who lies in the dirt is a messenger sent by the almighty. An angel.
He speaks one word, “Thirst.”
Startled by his voice, watch as she quickly rises from the floor, grabs the watering can, and leaves the shed.
Sister Francine is standing in the garden and turns to see Sister Monica.
“Is there any hope?” Sister Francine asks waving her hand around at the dead and dying vegetation. Sister Francine has cancer and has been on chemotherapy for several weeks. Despite being in constant pain, she has refused pain medication, preferring to pray instead. Her cheeks are sunken and her skin color sallow. Beneath her headdress her short red hair has fallen out, leaving her bald. Sister Francine and Sister Monica are friends even though friendships among the sisters is discouraged. “You’re here to serve Jesus,” Mother Superior often reminds the sisters.
Stammering, Sister Monica points at the shed and says, “In there, a man – an angel – sent by God.”
Sister Francine smiles, weakly. “What are you talking about?”
“In the shed, an angel, perhaps the archangel Michael,” Sister Monica responds breathlessly as she turns on the faucet attached to a garden hose. She puts the end of the hose in the watering can and begins filling it. “I looked into his eyes and saw my soul.”
Look at the befuddled expression on Sister Francine’s face. “Why would the archangel appear here, at this convent, in this garden?” she asks.
“Where better to begin to quench the earth?” Sister Monica replies. “The only word he has spoken is thirst. He speaks of his need and the earth’s need at the same time.”
Sister Francine would like to go to the shed to humor the only other sister in the convent who she can talk to in the middle of the night when the pain that courses through her body is at its worse, but this is not how or where the archangel would appear, not in a garden shed, that she feels certain of. “You’ve spent too much time out in this heat,” she says.
Sister Monica yanks the hose from the can and tosses it aside. As a stream of water runs from the hose into the garden and forms a small puddle on the hard ground, she stands, picks up the can, and goes to the door of the shed. “Come see for yourself,” she says.
She opens the door and looks in. See her drop the can and fall to her knees. The man is gone.
At evening meal, during which time limited casual conversation is permitted, Sister Monica silently eats the salad made from wilted and colorless vegetables brought to the convent from the market in the nearby town. Sister Angeline, sitting to her right, tremulously holds her spoon as she slurps her soup. Eating at the head of the table, Mother Superior frequently glances up from her salad at Sister Monica, causing the young nun to squirm uncomfortably in her chair knowing that it can’t be because of her habit; she was able to change into a clean one before supper.
See her try to surreptitiously try to get the attention of Sister Francine who is seated at another table by winking at her. Sister Francine has avoided her since the unfolding of events in the garden earlier in the day.
After the meal is finished and the dishes and silverware have been gathered up and taken into the kitchen, the sisters remain at the tables, their heads bowed, offering prayers of thanks for the meal while awaiting to be dismissed from the dining room by the Mother Superior. When she stands, a hush falls over the room and every sister looks at her, reverently and expectantly.
“In final preparation for the Bishop’s visit, I ask that Sisters Beatrice and Monica join me for a walk around the convent grounds before the evening prayers.”
See the stunned expression on Sister Monica’s face. The Mother Superior has been out in the garden many times, but has never asked her to accompany her there. She glances at Sister Francine to see if she can detect in her friend’s facial expression some sign that she had spoken to Mother Superior about the man in the garden shed. Or more precisely, and inexplicably, the man who wasn’t in the shed. Sister Francine’s face is a mask; a shield to block her from crying out from the intense pain.
As the other sisters rise and file out of the room to go to the chapel, Sisters Beatrice and Monica stand in place where they had eaten and do not move until Mother Superior waves her hand and leads them from the dining room. They walk down the long corridor of the convent in silence. Before Sister Beatrice opens the back door, Sister Monica raises her eyes heavenward and says a silent prayer that when the door is opened, a miracle performed by the archangel will have restored the garden to the days when what grew in it fed the sisters and the poor and needy in the surrounding towns with whom the bounty was shared.
The door is opened and where the garden stood is a large pool of muddy water fed by the garden hose that leads to it.
Watch as in the middle of the night Sister Monica gets out of her bed and quietly leaves her cell. The wing of the convent where the sisters sleep is quiet and full of shadows cast by the pale moonlight that streams in through the windows at both ends of the corridor. Barefoot, her footsteps on the tiles are no more than whispers as she treads lightly to the door of Sister Francine’s cell. She taps lightly on the door – a tap that could easily be mistaken for the fluttering of a bird’s wing from outside – and then enters her friend’s cell. She sees Sister Francine on her bed, lying on her back, her cover pulled up to her neck.
Standing at the door, Sister Monica says, “There was a man in the garden shed, I swear it. Maybe it wasn’t the archangel, but there was a man.”
Sister Francine says nothing.
Awaiting her friend to say something, to absolve her of the guilt she feels for destroying what was left of the garden just before the Bishop’s visit, Sister Monica sighs heavily. “Am I wrong to want to believe that the archangel would visit here, visit me?” she asks. Getting no response she turns and leaves Sister Francine’s cell.
Hear the shrillness in Mother Superior’s voice as she calls out from the end of the corridor. “What are you doing in Sister Francine’s cell?” she demands to know.
Unable to find the words, an explanation of any kind that would be acceptable, Sister Monica is struck mute.
Listen to the thudding of Mother Superior’s slippered feet on the tiles as she marches to Sister’s Francine’s cell, pushes Sister Monica aside, opens the door and goes in. A few moments later, Mother Superior calls out calmly, as if the words she says has no meaning, “Sister Francine is dead.”
The Bishop is thin and frail and appears lost sitting in Mother Superior’s chair behind her large mahogany desk. He has his hands folded and resting on the top of a small Bible that he brought with him. The bright red ribbon that divides the pages spills out of the Bible like streaming blood.
Sister Monica is unable to take her eyes off of it.
“Now, tell me again about this man who was in the shed,” he says, his voice as high-pitched and light as that of a flute.
“I was certain he was the archangel come to restore the garden,” Sister Monica replies.
“Why would the archangel Michael appear to you and no one else?”
Watch as Sister Monica slowly glances around the room, at the books on the shelves, the religious paintings on the walls, the iciness in Mother Superior’s stare.
“Because I have such thirst,” she says.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 450 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. He is the founder of Sweetycat Press.
by James Hartley
Atop the hill, Jureen holds his three-fingered hand to the heavens and makes the blessing. Soon, the ships will come again. He smiles, thinking of when they first arrived — how his people thought the ships were gods and the established religions were thrown into chaos. He sees the priests, flipping desperately through their various scriptures, looking for an answer, struggling to explain. They lost so much face that day.
Jureen looks down the gentle slope, down to the collection of rude wooden houses and the church buildings scattered between. Again, he smiles. What lives and loves are there in this simple place that he can leave behind and regret? He shakes his head. It can't matter; not if he is among the chosen — assuming any are chosen.
He scans the skies, but nothing more than clouds fly above him. The wind blows through the branches and rustles the grass at his feet. He sighs and wraps his scaly arms around himself. They will come soon; he knows they will. He bows his head and looks down at his simple homespun robe. He looks over to the village lying at the base of the hill. He wants more than coarse fabric and the shreds of life this place can offer. Society has been good to him, but there must be more.
After a moment he stirs. He walks down the well-trodden path to the ramshackle collection of houses and shops and churches, through the animal pens at the bottom, his heart heavy for yet another morning. As he nears the end of the stockyards, someone hobbles toward him.
"Ah, Jureen!" says the priest. "I thought I'd find you here. I wanted to talk to you."
The priest looks out of breath and his face is drawn. He wheezes and holds a hand to his chest.
"And what exactly did you want to talk about?" asks Jureen.
"When are you going to give up this nonsense about the ships? Come back to the Church, my son."
"It is not nonsense, priest," says Jureen. "And I am not your son."
"This madness has got to stop, Jureen."
Jureen reaches forward and grabs a handful of the priest's robes. He draws him close till they are face to face and he smells the meat stink of the old priest's breath.
He speaks carefully and slowly through clenched teeth. "It is not madness!" he says.
He lets go of the priest's robes, thrusting the old fool from him. Hissing his contempt, he turns and strides off down the path.
"Jureen!" the priest calls behind him.
Jureen ignores him. His back is turned on their petty ignorance.
The old priest is not alone. The other priests are shocked. It doesn't matter which church they come from. It doesn't matter which class they come from. It's just as well Jureen comes from the overclass and has the resources to support himself. Who would take him on now? Not that he cares. He'd rather look at the heavens and dream, not pray. He knows one day he will be there, away from all this. It was not such a bad thing to give up his life and position for the promise of what lay ahead.
Jureen strolls into the village and nods to one or two of the villagers. They nod back and he passes by them, his hands clasped behind his back. He knows they will be talking about him behind upraised hands after he passes. He grins his sharp-toothed grin at the thought. What do they know? Most of them are from the underclass anyway. They are a mere step above the mammals, nothing more.
He thinks about this as he strolls. Recently the distinction is becoming blurred. That they would dare to talk about him is a change. The underclasses are getting above themselves. They take liberties — even daring to appear in those places forbidden to them. He has to show them their place. What point is there if the social order breaks down? It is beyond comprehension. That an underclass priest should talk to him in that fashion is almost beyond comprehension. He shakes his head and wonders if there is a solution. Clearly, the Church no longer has the answer. It gives yet more justification to the great decision he has made.
The road to his house is wide and rutted with wagon tracks. Scraps of rotting garbage litter the edges and swarms of insects rise from them, then settle as he walks past. This part of town stinks. It stinks of the rot and the waste of the underclass. And yet the priests give solace to those who live like this. Jureen seals his nostrils against the stench and hurries on.
Nearer his home, the road divides and runs through fields and trees. His grand house fills him with pride as he strides toward it. The road is smooth and clean here, as it should be. A few underclass workers toil in the fields, but they leave their filth in the town behind him. They take the traces of themselves back to their small houses at night. At least some shreds of order survive. As he reaches his yard, he hopes the ships will return soon.
His wife is at the door to greet him and he smiles.
"Ah, my dear, you are so beautiful," he says. He reaches up to stroke the golden bands at her temples that mark her as the overclass. She smiles back at him, then her face becomes serious.
"You have a visitor, Jureen."
"Who can it be, at this time of day?"
"It is the Chief Priest," she says in a low voice.
"How could he?" says Jureen. "Has he no respect? Doesn't he know you're nesting? I'm sorry, my dear."
"No matter. I've put him in the parlor to wait for you."
"I'll get rid of him as soon as I can. You go back and see to the eggs. I'll make sure you're not disturbed again."
She closes her eyes and bows her head.
"As you wish," she says and turns back into the house.
He waits till she reaches the nursery room, then walks inside to the parlor. The priest sits waiting for him. This priest is younger than the one who spoke to him earlier. He sits chewing on a strip of meat thoughtfully provided by Jureen's wife. The muscles work beneath the golden bands that mark him as the overclass.
"Ah, Jureen, a good day to you," he says after carefully placing the meat strip to one side and wiping his hands. "I was hoping to find you in, so early in the day. I must admit, I was a little surprised to find you not here."
"What is it I can do for you?" Jureen asks, not caring to waste time with pleasantries. "My wife is nesting, and I don't want her disturbed. You should know that."
"I apologize for the intrusion, and I know it may appear insensitive, but I felt it was necessary. You know why I'm here, Jureen. We miss you. As a prominent member of the overclass, it's your place to be in Church. If people see your absence, they start to question. Order begins breaking down. It's your duty as a member of the overclass to see that doesn't happen."
Jureen sighs and shakes his head. So, it is still this.
"I'm sorry, but I've told you before, I can't accept that — not any more. Certainly, the scriptures speak of a defined order, that the overclass is the pinnacle of what you claim is a divinely sanctioned social hierarchy. You already know my views on this. If the Gods have dictated our elevation, how can you possibly explain the ships? Clearly there are those above us. I've seen them. They have abilities and tools far beyond our own capabilities. That tells me that we're not at the peak of anything. It gives the lie to your scriptures."
"No one is above us, Jureen. To say so is blasphemy."
"If that's the case, then give me your explanation for the ships. They travel through the sky. They are clearly more advanced than we are, and as far as I'm concerned, they've come here to show us the error of our ways. If I can understand that, then I will achieve true enlightenment. They have been sent by the Gods to show us."
"They have come to show you nothing. It's a mere aberration sent to test you. You should show your strength and ignore them."
"Look, I've told you what I believe. I can't simply ignore something that descends from the sky on a pillar of light. I can't believe you're foolish enough to think that I can. Nor can I believe that you are fool enough not to have seen the signs that have been here for the last few months. The order is breaking down. The underclasses get above themselves. Then this — the ships."
"I am not ignoring them. All I'm saying is that they are not part of our life; they're not part of your life, and you must see that. Because they have no place in the order dictated by scripture — none at all — they cannot interest us. We of the overclass have a duty — a God-given right — to maintain the place and order of all things. Anything that sits outside that order is beneath our notice. Surely you must see that."
"Yes, I see that," says Jureen. His patience is wearing thin. "But despite what you say, and you can quote from the scripture all you like, I have seen what I've seen. The scriptures are flawed and therefore the social order is flawed."
"So, there's nothing further I can say to you?" says the priest, as he leans forward.
"Nothing at all," says Jureen.
"But think what you are giving up...your status, your position —"
"Is as nothing," says Jureen.
The priest hisses at him then looks away.
"I believe you will live to regret your folly," he says. "But I won't give up hope. You'll come to your senses eventually, and when you do, the Church doors will still be open for you. It's your rightful place, Jureen."
The priest gets to his feet, and Jureen escorts him to the door. Just as the priest is about to leave, he turns.
"You're sure?" he asks.
"Yes, I'm sure," says Jureen.
The priest shrugs and looks disappointed, then walks up the path. Jureen closes the door and shakes his head. Can they still not see that they have nothing left to offer him?
The nursery door opens, and his wife walks up the corridor to join him.
"What did he want?" she asks.
"Never mind that ... are the eggs all right?"
"Of course. But I heard raised voices. Tell me, Jureen. What did he want?"
"The same thing as before. The fool wants me to come back to Church. He's convinced that my absence is going to break down the social order."
"Perhaps it might be an idea just to put in an appearance."
"No, we've discussed this already. Surely, I don't have to explain it to you again as well. I'm finished with all that nonsense."
His wife bows her head submissively, but he takes her arm and leads her into the parlor. He sits her down and crouches down before her, then looks up into her eyes.
"I tell you; I have found the truth. We have such things to look forward to, you and I. And the children too. When the ships come back, we'll go away from here. We will leave and we'll take up our true station in life. We are meant to be beyond all this. I want to give our children the future they deserve."
His wife nods, but there is a trace of doubt in her eyes.
"Listen, trust me. Have I not always done the best for you? How can we remain, when we know that all this is wrong?"
He pats her leg and stands.
"Now, you relax. I have to see to the stock pens. I must make sure the animals are looked after until the ships return. After that ... well it doesn't really matter."
Satisfied that his wife will be all right, Jureen walks from the parlor and out the front door. He wanders through the town toward the stockyards, still annoyed at the priest's intrusion. He only hopes the ships will come back soon and put an end to their nonsense. He knows he is so much better, than the foolish rabble in the Church.
He reaches the stockyard boundary and leans on the fence to look at the herd. He watches the furry beasts milling senselessly inside and wonders for a moment what it would be like to be so low down in the order of things; what would it be like to be a lowly mammal?
He's about to move to the next pen, when he feels the vibration stirring in his guts. At first, he thinks it is mere hopeful imagining, but the sensation persists. He gasps and looks up at the sky. There is no sign yet, but he knows they are coming. His mouth gone dry, he scans the clouds. Still nothing. He turns and starts to jog toward the hill. The vibration in his belly grows with each step, and he starts to sprint.
Jureen runs up the hill. His legs feel the strain, but he has to be there to greet them. His breath is fast, and he pants, the noise loud in his ears. He can see the light piercing the clouds. He prays he is not too late.
He hitches his robe up about his legs to give them the freedom to move. He has to get there on time. He reaches the hilltop and looks upward, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. The light is forming now, descending in a column to the ground. Any moment now the ship will appear above and drift slowly, silently to the ground. He stands and tracks its descent, with the noise of his own breath loud in his ears.
There, above him now, the rounded body sinks through the cloud layer, silver and white. The air vibrates with a sensation he can feel, but beyond the range of his hearing. The ship descends and Jureen hopes to himself. Perhaps this time they will take him away. He will come back later to fetch his wife — after the eggs are hatched. Then, together, with their children, they will take their rightful place above. She will understand.
Gently the silvery ovoid settles to the ground. Its shape reminds him of the clutch of eggs back home. What a future he will be able to give his offspring now. He waits expectantly, knowing what will happen next. A thin crack appears at one side of the ovoid towering above him and a ramp lowers to the ground. Jureen can see light and other things inside; things he does not understand. What more proof can he have that the owners of this ship are above him in the scheme of things? Then he sees the legs walking out into the hatchway.
Four of the ship's owners walk down the ramp, dressed in their silvery white clothes. The suits they wear are one piece, belted, with various projections and objects adorning the surface. Rounded hat-like things cover their heads completely. Upon the arms and shoulders there are pictures and writing, but in a script he cannot understand. The four stand in front of the ramp unmoving. One raises an arm to him and a noise issues from its headpiece.
Jureen stands and waits. He does not move. He does not say anything. They look the same as last time, but now there are two more.
One steps forward in front of its companions. It makes noises at him — noises he cannot understand. Jureen spreads his arms wide and tilts his head to the side. The creature steps forward again and makes the sounds. Is this the language of the Gods?
He waits for them to do something, to speak to him in a language he can understand. Surely, they must be able to speak to him. Jureen waits. It is not his place to do anything. They will show him what he must do. Slowly the creature reaches up and fiddles with something at its neck. It lifts its other arm, and with both hands, lifts the covering from its head.
The action reveals a head, not unlike his own, but the skin is smooth and pale, and the face is oddly flat. There are protrusions at the side of the head, rounded and strangely curled. In the center of the face is a long thin feature — a nose, with two nostrils at the bottom. On top, and in two thin lines above the eyes, the creature's head is covered in ... hair! Jureen steps back in shock.
It takes him but a moment to recover, but his wits are quick. Despite the shock, he knows precisely what to do. He turns and walks away. There is nothing else he can do but ignore them. Clearly the Chief Priest is right — an aberration sent to test him. How could a group of mere mammals be superior to the overclass? They don't even have golden bands at their temples.
The creatures make noises behind him, but he ignores them. He looks down at the village and he shuts out the sound. If he ignores them, perhaps then he'll pass this thing sent to test him and they'll go away.
What did the Chief Priest say? They're beneath his notice. He must ignore them.
He can do nothing else. He has to get to Church.
James A. Hartley is an Australian author based in Europe. His short fiction has appeared in many places worldwide. Sometimes, he writes as other people.
by Christine Heuner
Six months a widow, Helen sat with her son, Michael, in the ER. At age forty-seven, he’d had a mini-stroke: a gut-punch. Helen and her daughter-in-law, Susan argued about who would stay the night with Michael.
“He needs his mother,” Helen said, her skin heating up as it always did in Susan’s presence.
After Susan retorted that Michael needed his wife, Helen wanted to remind her of five years ago when she left for three months, just up and left with no explanation, abandoning Michael and their two kids, both under five at the time.
At home, Helen went into her bedroom, took the bottle of holy water from Lourdes by her bedside table, and touched a few drops of the water on her fingers, and made the sign of the cross on her body. She said three Hail Marys, the Lord’s Prayer, and sent a special petition to St. Jude, patron of lost souls.
When Helen went to return the holy water to its place, she remembered she had some rarely used throat drops in her bedside table. Her throat felt scratchy. Next to the drops, she saw a vial of yellow oil in a zippered baggie beside a prayer card of Padre Pio. The card was dampened from the oil, unreadable. She had received it in the mail long ago, gratis from some organization to whom she’d given money. Padre Pio was the saint of stress-relief and, my Lord, how she could use that now. The top of the vial, crusted at the rim, needed pressure to open up. The oil had a bitter, woodsy scent. Helen poured a quarter-sized amount in her palm. She considered rubbing the oil on her hands, but most likely she’d need to go to the bathroom soon and didn’t want to wash off the precious blessing the oil would bring like an answered prayer.
She rubbed the oil on her face, prayed to Padre Pio to relieve her stress, to heal Michael and keep her husband Vincent safe in the afterlife. She believed it was good to reach out to a saint, digging deeper into the well of God’s solace. But her face burned within moments of applying the oil; a dull heat amplified in waves into her cheeks and forehead and eyelids.
Helen had beautiful skin and had never used more than Dial soap to clean it. She went to the sink, took the cracked cake of soap from the dish, rubbed it in her hands, lathered it under the water, and rubbed at her cheeks and forehead. She felt a burn as if she were scraping her skin with a scrub brush. She rubbed and rubbed until soap got in her eyes and she cried out.
The doctor, who met with her on a video call, said, “You really did a number on yourself, Helen.”
He advised Benadryl and cold compresses, prescribed a cream.
“No more oils,” the doctor said.
“Padre Pio was a saint,” Helen said as if the doctor had insulted her friend.
The local pharmacy had delivery service, but it would take a while, so Helen sat with her face aflame, using Jergens for relief. It didn’t work; her cheeks felt like warm pudding.
The young man from the pharmacy who handed over the package mumbled something Helen couldn’t hear. He had to repeat himself four times, shouting so loud she had to step back. The words finally made themselves clear:
“A rash,” she snapped and did not tip him as she’d planned.
Helen, betrayed by Padre Pio, turned to St. Jude in her duress. She had a candle embossed with his image. She sat on the bed and clasped the candle, prayed to the light, prayed against the pull of her vanity. Still, she could not keep away from the mirror, a little handheld she put by the bed and carried in the storage compartment in her walker.
She wondered how such a small amount of thin oil could do such damage. The skin felt tight as if it were attached to strings that someone pulled from behind her head. The burn, though dull, persisted. As the skin scabbed, it looked like the crust of cooked lamb, a touch more red than brown.
Since Vincent’s death, Michael brought Helen groceries each Tuesday since her hip hurt too much to drive. The doctor didn’t want Michael driving for a week, so Susan brought the groceries.
Helen wanted to call Susan and tell her to leave the bags out front. She wasn’t feeling well, she’d say. But Helen felt a rebellion rise up, strong as her resentment, calcified these last five years. She wanted Susan to see what suffering looked like.
Helen opened the door. Susan didn’t flinch at the sight of her face.
She asked what happened.
“It’s Padre Pio’s fault,” Helen said. She gestured toward the kitchen where Susan set down the bags.
Susan stood there, not with a pitying look as Helen expected, but one of curiosity.
Helen stared at the wall behind Susan’s head, focused on the picture of Michael and Annie, her oldest.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Susan said.
Susan arrived just after lunch the following day. “I made this,” she said, taking out of a plastic bag an object that looked like a sausage-shaped wad of pantyhose.
“You put it on your face,” Susan said. “It’s herbs and essential oils.”
Just as Helen believed in the virtue of angels and saints, the gentle hand of a generous God, Susan believed in the healing power of herbs and berries, stones and crystals. She swore by the magic of fairies (seriously). Vitamins and supplements covered her kitchen counter, yet another example of her house’s unmanaged clutter.
The cream the doctor prescribed had given Helen some relief, but she could use it only once a day, and her face itched terribly, a protracted burn.
“C’mon,” Susan said, handing Helen the greasy stocking. “Give it a try.”
“The doctor sent the cream,” Helen insisted, though she was curious about the herbs and oils.
Susan sighed, shook her head. “I’m going to leave this here. I’ll come back tomorrow.” Standing at the open door, she said, “You really should try it, Helen.”
It would be giving in, Helen knew, absolving Susan of her escape.
Over her years of struggle with Susan, Helen often asked Father Al what she should do.
“I can’t forgive her,” Helen confessed, twisting a tissue in her hands. “I can’t get past it.”
“Yes, you can,” Father Al said, nodding. “You are a faithful woman.”
Yet her feelings wouldn’t turn. No matter how much time she spent at the pew on her knees, her faith had no legs. Susan only reminded her of all she lacked.
In Helen’s kitchen two days later, Susan heated water in the tea kettle for herself.
“Have a seat,” she told Helen. I’ll make you some coffee.”
Coffee is exactly what Helen wanted, but not from Susan’s hand.
“I’ll make it myself,” Helen said, moving in front of Susan before she could get to the coffee maker.
The two sat at the kitchen table, a plate of Lorna Doones between them. Susan took one of the teabags from the box she brought over; the minty scent filled the room, reminding Helen of last Easter when she criticized Susan’s store-bought cake.
“I want to ask you something, and I don’t want you to be mad,” Susan said, breaking a Lorna Doone in half.
For God’s sake. “I won’t promise anything, but try me.”
“How long is it going to take for you to forgive me?”
“For leaving, Helen,” she said, shaking her head impatiently. “For leaving.”
Helen touched her hot coffee cup. “Why did you leave?”
“I needed… I was young when I had Brownwyn. Only twenty. I needed… I don’t know what I needed, only that it was something different from what I had.”
“You didn’t have to shack up with some other guy.”
Her brow wrinkled. “I didn’t have an affair. Who told you that?”
Helen poured cream in her coffee, watched it swirl in the dark liquid. “No one. I just know.”
“I love Michael. I always have. I’ve never been unfaithful to him, Helen.”
Helen touched her cheek; pain rose up like a flame.
“Well, he’s been faithful to you, I know that. Even after you left.”
“I wonder if you’ll ever be able to forgive me,” Susan said. “I’m really trying.”
Helen remembered Marjorie Spellman crossing the church parking lot to tell her she saw Vincent with another woman in a booth at Rosina’s.
“Around one o’clock,” she said, her lips in a tight line. “Last Friday.”
Helen didn’t once consider leaving Vincent, not even packing a bag and staying at her sister’s house overnight in Jersey City. You stood beside the commitment you made at the altar. Vincent was probably treating his secretary to lunch anyway, a harmless gesture of gratitude.
Helen drank her coffee and Susan her tea in silence. Helen’s face still burned so terribly her eyes watered.
“You should try the poultice,” Susan said. “Try it, Helen.”
Her look was so mournful Helen understood that Susan was asking for forgiveness. Helen’s heart, scorched as richly as her skin, would not give it to her.
The grassy smell of oil and bitter herbs clotted on Helen’s fingers as she pulled apart the stocking. Her face flared with anxiety and fear. What if Susan was tricking her, selecting oils and herbs to melt her skin?
But her face felt singed as if she stood beside a flame. Desperate, she took a clump of the oily concoction, smeared its cool, wet heft on her cheeks. She expected the burn to intensify, but all she felt was a coolness, a reprieve. She looked at herself in the mirror, the greasy who-knows-what staining her cheeks. She looked like a swamp creature.
Feeling like an idiot, she washed off the grime, cursing herself for trying it in the first place. In the mirror, she saw her eyes were no longer swollen, her cheeks blushed as if nipped by winter’s chill. Her chin tingled. She turned off the bathroom light. In the mirror’s reflection, her skin seemed to glow in the darkness, luminous as angels.
Christine C. Heuner has been teaching high school English in New Jersey for over twenty years. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Flash Fiction Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, and others. It is available to read at Christineheuner.com.
by Larry Lefkowitz
He walked as if in a dream … as if guided by instinct …to find Hagar, who had been banished …he, too, had been banished …almost…
To get away from his father, Abraham, so dominant and active, while he, was passive and meditative. A father who could…he shut his eyes … to blot out the memory. Yes, to serve Heaven, but in that way?
He, the obedient son, and his father had been obedient, and had almost …
And his mother, Sara, when the rumor of his death reached her, had fainted unto death. Did he not now feel himself faint?
To find Hagar –and Ishmael, his brother. They would save him.
And so he continued south to the place of the “Well of Life” where Hagar and Ishmael dwelled. And they would heal him as the well had healed them. And he would bring Hagar, who had been banished for his sake, for which he had always felt guilt, together with her son, Ishmael, his brother, back to his father, Abraham.
But he would not return to him, not as a son to a father, He would meditate alone in the desert, his soul thirsting to commune with the Lord, even as his flesh thirsts for water in the dry desert.
And he would farm the land. He would begin all anew. A new beginning to his life, which had almost been taken from him. Like Noah after the flood. To open his heart to life –in work. Not for the purpose of making a living, or to fulfill a commandment, but for the work itself. Rooted in life in the land. That from it would come milk and honey.
And perhaps some joy to a man serious and sad that, ironically, he had been named for his mother’s laugh.
He returned to his father, only after Abraham’s death, when he and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah and he said to his father “Here am I.” And his reconnection to his father he would remember later when he reopened the wells his father had dug. A sign for him they were once more father and son.
Larry Lefkowitz has published over 150 stories, as well as poetry and humor. His humorous fantasy and science fiction collection, “Laughing into the Fourth Dimension” is available from Amazon books. His Jewish story collection, ”Enigmatic Tales” published by Fomite Press is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
by John Mueter
One day, in a sleepy village in South Asia, a place as ordinary as a thousand other villages in that part of the world, a remarkable thing happened. On that day, soon after daybreak, a stranger appeared in the village. He was dirty and unkempt, with a scraggly beard and long matted hair that looked like it had not been washed in a very long time. Draped around his shoulders there was a makeshift cloak, a thin cotton cloth that was meant to be a bedspread. The orange and gold and crimson shawl enveloped him nearly completely. No one could see how soiled and crumpled his once white trousers and shirt were.
The inhabitants were used to all sorts of wanderers passing through their village and at first they paid little attention to him. The few who looked up from their tasks, or those who were wiling away the morning in the chai shop, noticed that the young man had sandy blond hair and blue eyes, something that few of them had ever encountered before. No European had visited their humble village in decades.
He had spent the night sleeping in the rushes by the pond, wrapped in his gaudy bedspread. He had no money, no food, and what was worse, no ganja. He hadn’t smoked a decent joint in days. But he was an easy-going fellow and trusted in providence to provide him whatever he needed.
It cannot be explained why, but one of the stray dogs of the village, a mangy cur that belonged to no one and had suffered a lifetime of abuse from the villagers, fell into step with the young man. He glanced down at the pitiful creature and was amused at having acquired this unbidden companion. Just past the chai shop he stopped to have a better look at his canine friend. The dog, for the first time in its life getting some attention that didn’t involve a kick or the throwing of stones, wagged its tail feebly. The young man bent forward and began rubbing the dog’s head. He was careful to wrap his hands in his shawl as the animal was in a frightful state, covered in sores and mange. Its ribs were plainly visible.
Not having had anyone to talk to in days and remembering his childhood pet back in Denmark, he began talking softly to the creature. The dog sat before him, looking up at him curiously. The dog, too, had spent the night sleeping outside, in the dust and filth of a village alleyway. It hadn’t had anything to eat either and was on its way to inspect the discards in the local garbage heap.
The young man was moved by the dog’s attention and crouched down. He showered words of pity on it: “Du stakkels skabning–you poor creature,” he said, “you’ve had such a hard life, what did you do to deserve this horrible fate?” Some village children had gathered around and stared at the man talking to the dog. As he was mumbling in his native Danish, no one understood what he was saying. To the children it sounded like the mantras that the priests chanted in the temple. They thought that this strange man, appearing out of nowhere and intoning mysterious formulas, must be some sort of holy man. One resourceful lad presented him with a garland of marigolds, a used one that had been offered at the local temple the day before and cast away earlier that morning. It was all there was at hand, and it seemed good enough to the boy. With a shy smile he put the garland around the man’s neck. Since the garland was already coming apart, the stranger tore petals off the stems and flung them into the air. The children were amazed to see this. They laughed and giggled in delight. A few adults came over to view the curious spectacle.
During the first months of his stay in Asia the young man had participated in a retreat at a monastery and had learned the rudiments of meditation, along with a few chants. But the meditative life was not for him and he soon gave up on the attempt. He remembered the chants, however. One of them, as far as he could recall, was a mantra wishing for the propitious rebirth for all sentient beings. This he now chanted, repeating the words over and over again. He enjoyed being the center of attention–and there was nothing else to do anyway.
By now the dog was stretched out at his feet. The young man stood up as his knees were beginning to ache. He extended his arms out and tossed more flower petals into the air. They rained down upon the dog, nearly covering the poor creature. The bright golds and oranges of the marigolds seemed to magically emanate from his cloak. He chanted even louder and faster. It looked like he was imploring the heavens, invoking powerful deities. He had seen wandering monks doing this in villages he had passed through. The crowd, having increased to a few dozen people by now, adults and children, watched enthralled.
Growing bored with his own performance, he knelt once again and laid his hands, this time uncovered, on the head of the dog. The animal didn’t move at all. He whispered: “Farvel gamle ven–goodbye, old friend. I wish you well.” To the villagers this sounded like another secret incantation. He stood up, wrapped his cloak more tightly around his shoulders and strode off down the road. The villagers were sure that this was a holy man in their presence and rushed to him, thrusting bits of food and fruit into his hands, whatever they could manage to part with. Some knelt to touch his feet. The Dane was taken aback at this display, but he was grateful for the free food.
They were not surprised that the dog had been lying so still because, on closer inspection, it was found to be dead. The head priest of the temple decreed that, as the animal had been purified by the ritual mantras of a sadhu, it was to be cremated forthwith at the sacred cremation place. This was done in the presence of the whole village. Such a thing had never happened before in this village or in any other they knew of.
When the wife of a local landowner, who had been present at the cremation, went into labor early and delivered a healthy girl that very same night, the inhabitants were convinced that the soul of the sanctified dog had been elevated to human status and been reborn in their village. The girl was named Karishma, which means ‘miracle’. She received every consideration in her life and never tired of hearing the tale of the mysterious sadhu and the dog.
John Mueter is a pianist, composer, educator, translator, and writer residing in Kansas City, Missouri. His short fiction has appeared in many journals, including the American Athenaeum, Lowestoft Chronicle, Halfway Down the Stairs, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Simone Press Publishing and The Corona Book of Ghost Stories; poetry in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Literary Nest and the Haiku Journal. Website:
by Brianna Ridley
Whimpers leaked through the cracks of Shannon’s closed bedroom door––the sound of her older brother, Adam, crying in the kitchen. She tugged her comforter over her ears, and the doves that adorned it flocked around her face. It wasn’t enough; she could still hear Adam, but now her father’s gruff voice seeped into the gaps between her brother’s sniffles. Stuffing spilled through the seams of Shannon’s comforter, tumbling down the back of her neck. She peeled back the edges of her comforter, hooking a finger around a loop in the stitching. With shaking legs, Shannon propelled herself to her feet. She curled her arms around her greatest treasure: a wooden angel named Starlight. It was almost as if she’d interrupted the little angel’s nap; the wooden carving had been resting comfortably under a creased, canopied copy of the Holy Bible. Starlight was Shannon’s favorite gift she’d ever received from her mom. Even though Shannon was nine years old now, she still carried the wooden angel everywhere.
Shannon had tried penning a letter to her mom once, when she was eight. Hope was etched into every stroke and swish of her pen. She tried hard to keep her hand from shaking as she wrote it. If her mom knew how much her handwriting had improved, maybe she’d know how much she was missing. Maybe she’d realize she was wrong to leave.
It’s me, Shannon. We miss you here. Where did you go? Do you miss us? I hope you’re ok. When are you coming back? Dad’s mad all the time. I rub Starlight’s wings a lot. Are you scared to come back? If you’re scared, you can rub Starlight’s wings too. I’m giving you a piece. See? She’ll make you brave, Mommy. Now can you come back home?
But her mom never received that letter, because she never shared her new address. It remained on Shannon’s desk, its contents trapped behind the teeth of a white envelope.
On her way to the door, she dragged Starlight out of her resting place, sliding her finger into the empty notch in the wooden angel’s back. She peeled the door open slowly, turning the handle to the left and keeping it there so her dad wouldn’t hear. She inched carefully down the hallway, deliberately stepping on the edges of each floorboard on her way to the kitchen. Experience had taught Shannon that if you placed too much weight on them, the center of the floorboards squealed like a pen full of pigs. She crept towards the end of the hall, following the trail of light to the kitchen. Shannon tiptoed past the end table with the uneven leg, where a silver statue of the angel Gabriel guarded a bed of ripped lace. Half a halo encircled his head. “An archangel. To keep our house safe,” Dad had told her.
Shannon peeked around the corner, tucking her feet safely behind a wall that spanned the length of her arm. She was careful to keep out of the light pooling on the linoleum floor so that Dad didn’t see her shadow. Adam leaned against the kitchen table. The top of his head was inches from the stained glass light fixture dangling above him. White lilies, trapped within thin, cracked shards of glass, towered above piles of their fallen petals. The design always made Shannon want to cry. A flickering beam of light emanating from the fixture highlighted the fingertip-sized bruises dotting Adam’s arms.
Her father lunged forward and tugged on the tops of Adam’s ears, as if trying to tear them off of his body. Adam stared defiantly back at him, blinking away pain-induced tears.
“Do you know what these are for? Huh?” Her dad screamed so loud his voice went hoarse, his face only inches from one of Adam’s bright red ears. Adam tensed up, squeezing his eyes shut so tightly that tiny wrinkles emerged at the corners. A teardrop clung to the corner of trembling lips.
“I don’t know, hearing?” Adam shouted back, trying to match Dad’s tone. Even though he was trying to be brave, Shannon could still hear the tremors in his voice.
Her father spoke again, and this time, his voice was empty.
“Exactly. Maybe you should use them next time.”
“I do,” her brother replied. “Maybe I just know better than to listen to you, Paul.”
Her father’s name. Shannon winced, hugging Starlight tight to her chest. Saying his first name was a cardinal sin in that house. In response, Dad clamped two hands on Adam’s shoulders and slammed him into the wall. Above them, a picture of Jesus, framed in gold, oversaw the scene. He looked on disinterestedly as Adam’s ear took the brunt of the impact. Shannon swore she could hear Adam’s bones being crushed against the cinderblock wall. Vomit climbed up her throat.
She ought to go back and pray, she thought. If she prayed hard enough, maybe her dad would stop hurting Adam. Maybe the archangel Gabriel wouldn’t need to guard their house. But she couldn’t move. She wondered if this was how Starlight felt––like she existed in the world physically but never really felt real. Just hollow, like the wood from which she was carved.
“Your lips are to glorify God. Not to blaspheme,” her father said coolly, slamming his hand into Adam’s shoulder. The wall shuddered ever so slightly as her brother fell back against it once more. Adam wheezed, and his chest spasmed as it forced air out. Shannon knew without looking that Paul had punched him in the stomach. Her knees buckled, and she bit back a scream so hard she could feel the imprints of her teeth on the sides of her mouth.
“It’s ok, Starlight. It’ll be ok,” Shannon mouthed to her angel friend. Molding her lips into those five little words took tremendous effort, like she was forcing them through wooden lips. She swaddled Starlight in her sweater sleeve, and her fingers absentmindedly traced the curves of the heart the angel held in her intricate wooden hands. For a moment, she let herself pretend she wasn’t reaching for Starlight, but for her mom’s bruised fingers. Shannon could still picture them presenting the wooden angel to her.
“Hey, Sweet Angel. I bought something today. Wanna see?” her mom asked, pressing against the doorframe with trembling fingers.
“Sure, Mommy!” a four year-old Shannon exclaimed, springing to her feet and bounding down the hall after her.
“I found the cutest wooden angels at that thrift store we like,” her mom explained. “I thought I’d bring these little ones home.”
She fished around in the shopping bag and pulled out the first one. A tall man without a face, clad in a white robe, with two shallow holes where the wings used to be. Next came a little boy with shiny metal wings long enough to wrap around the width of the man. Unlike his taller counterpart, he was not faceless. The perpetual smile on his face was wide, but the paint used to draw it had smudged a little. The smallest angel, which she pulled out last, was a little girl. She clutched a heart in her tiny wooden fingers, tipping it forward as if to present it to the world.
“There’s three of them,” Shannon whispered, picking them up and inspecting them one by one. She ran her thumb over the grooves of the little girl’s wavy wooden hair.
A smile brightened her mom’s features. “Yup. One for each of you.” She knelt down before Shannon, and a playful smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “Don’t tell your dad, but his is the one without wings,” she whispered conspiratorially. Shannon giggled.
Her mom reached out and plopped the little angel girl into Shannon’s open palms.
“This one reminds me of you the most. She has a big heart, just like you. But she’s not afraid to show it. And you shouldn’t be either,” she said, squeezing Shannon’s shoulder.
“What’s her name, Mommy?”
“I was thinking Starlight.” As her mom spoke, the warmth seemed to drip off of Starlight’s wiry metal wings and soak into Shannon’s skin. She pushed down on the wings gently with her index finger and thumb, watching them flutter ever so slightly.
“That’s a pretty name,” Shannon mused. Her mom reached out and cupped her face with warm hands, tracing the outline of her cheekbone.
“I know life can get pretty scary here sometimes,” she whispered. “But that’s what she’s here for. She’ll protect you.”
“How, Mom?” Shannon asked.
“She makes people brave,” her mom explained. Shannon ran a finger over the craters in Starlight’s big, wooden heart. “All you have to do is rub her wings, ok?”
“Ok, Mommy,” she replied dutifully, tracing the thin, malleable metal of her new friend’s wings. Her friend that could fly. Her little guardian angel.
Three years later, her mom was gone. She never said why; she just said she couldn’t do it anymore. That it was getting to be “too much”. Whatever that meant. Shannon rubbed Starlight’s one remaining wing furiously, to the point where it became somewhat of a ritual. No matter what happened, she didn’t stop rubbing that wiry little wing. Not even then, as she clung to the thin wall of her hiding place. Unfortunately, Starlight’s wing had developed small, spur-like edges from the overuse. One of the barbs tore into her skin, and blood pooled around it. She gnawed on her bottom lip to conceal the pain.
Meanwhile, Adam was still gasping for air. He stumbled past Paul, gripping the edge of the kitchen table for support as he fell into a coughing attack. Paul studied him impassively. He sighed, long and loud, then muttered an apology through gritted teeth.
“I’m only trying to do right by you, Son,” he said, his voice low. “The world can teach you the wrong things. All I ever wanted was to teach you the right ones.”
Adam said nothing, choking out labored exhales instead. His bloodshot eyes bored deep into the ground. Dad once told him and Shannon that’s where Hell was. Adam strained his lips into a small, smudged smile. She thought about walking over to him. Maybe she didn’t have to say anything––just give him Starlight to hold. But the thought sent stones tumbling down into her stomach. She doubled over, gasping for air, like she’d been punched too. Shudders rattled her body as she pictured her brother’s bruises painted on her skin. Curling her pinkie around Starlight’s thorned wing, she scampered soundlessly back to her bedroom. Shannon learned long ago how to run quietly. Light footsteps, purposeful ones. Move on your toes, not your heels.
Coward, a little voice whispered, stitching the words into her mind.
Brianna Ridley is a sophomore at Susquehanna University with a double major in Creative Writing and Psychology. A semi-nocturnal creature and occasional Cheetos aficionado, she enjoys shamelessly binge-watching shows such as Gilmore Girls and The 100 in her spare time.
by Kathryn Ross
I don’t know what to say. Nothing feels like enough. I don’t know how I feel or what I think either, but I’m trying to figure it out. Nothing about this is simple.
She’s crying and I’m holding her hand in mine and her free arm is wrapped around her waist like a rope. I wish there was something I could say to make it better. I wish there was something I could do. But I know I can’t, and I don’t want to say anything empty.
She sniffles and pulls her hand way, wraps her other arm around her waist and leans forward, back and shoulders shaking. She looks like she’s transforming. Almost like a movie I saw once where a man became a werewolf and he leaned forward just like this, head bowed and back trembling. Maybe the werewolf was crying when it transformed, but that was more sad than scary, so the film didn’t show it. Or maybe the werewolf wanted to hide like she’s trying to—make itself small and closed like a ball that folds into itself until it’s nothing. I can’t tell her any of this, though, most of all because I know what she’d hear if I told her I was thinking of a horror movie at a time like this: you’re a monster.
It isn’t true, of course. It never could be. I wouldn’t ever look at her like that. Millie’s practically my sister, but even if she wasn’t, I still would never see her that way. She’s been my best friend since we were in college together, freshman year in the dorm by the ocean. Right now, all I see is her, huddled and small and scared, and it makes me love her so much more than I thought it was possible to love someone. I should tell her that, but I just don’t know how. Not in this context.
“Ella, come see.”
Mommy beckoned me over to her, squatting in the grass before the brick garden wall we’d built a couple of weeks before. It came out from the side of the house like a half moon, filled to the brim with dark, black soil, freshly watered. Mommy leaned forward on her knees and placed her hands flat against the brick. I came up beside her and looked. In the dirt, small and barely there, was a shoot of green. I raised my eyebrows at Mommy, and she smiled back.
“You know what that is?” she asked me.
“Grass,” I said leaning forward for a better look.
“Mhm, lemongrass. And over there, see? That’s where we put the arugula. It should show up in another week or so. And the basil over there, see?”
I nodded. The dirt looked dark and empty to me, save for the stalk of grass, but Mommy was so excited. She looked like she could already see all the plants spilling over the wall, ready to be picked.
“We’re gonna have green thumbs,” Mommy said.
“Green thumbs—it means someone who’s good at growing and caring for plants. That’s going to be us, just you wait.”
I spread my fingers out in front of me and frowned slightly. My hands were brown, not green, and so were Mommy’s. She laughed at me. “Don’t take it so literally, baby,” she said. Then she plunged her hands into the soil, up to her wrists.
Millie stands up and begins pacing. I sit here watching her, helpless still, afraid to break the silence. Her long thick locks fall down her back like a blanket, swaying with each step she takes, catching the sun and shining golden brown before being plunged into shadow as she turns and begins her course again.
“What did the doctor say?” I ask finally, looking up at her. She glances quickly at me and then away. “That it’s early,” she says, her voice small.
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
She looks at me again, longer this time. I look away, ashamed. “I just mean, the earlier it is…
She shakes her head and begins biting her thumb, something she started doing in college when she was first struggling with anxiety. “Why don’t you sit down?” I say, my eyes following her every move. “We’ll figure it out, okay? We always do.”
“No,” she says, wringing her hands. “You don’t understand, Ella. This isn’t like…isn’t like that.” She sits down abruptly and grips my hand again.
“Isn’t like what?”
“Like anything we’ve ever had to figure out before.” She hunches again, closing in on herself; I almost expect her to howl.
“I’ll go with you,” I say after a moment. “And then I’ll bring you home. Take care of you. Whatever you need.”
She glances at me again, softer this time, and squeezes my hand. “You don’t have to do all of that…”
“Millie,” I say, a lump sliding into my throat. “I’m here, okay?”
She doesn’t answer and I worry her bones are about to give way. That she’ll crumble like a house with rot running through the walls.
Mommy didn’t know enough about proper gardening to keep the plants alive for long, and one by one they died—first the lemongrass, then the basil, then the arugula, which had been the last to sprout. She didn’t know I saw her crying over the garden, head in her hands as she stood before the withered leaves and shoots. The soil was baked tan, hard and unyielding after days in the sun. We needed a watering system since neither of us was home enough to water the garden as much as it needed. I had school and she had work. We’d planted on the east side of the house, too, so from sunup to a little after midday, the garden was blasted with blazing light. It was dry here, drier than we were used to having lived by the ocean. Out there, Mommy hardly had to try—the moist air, cool breeze, and the leafy trees protected her seeds and sprouts from any extremes. The garden was smaller then, too. Just a window box under an awning, but it was always green.
“We can just place an umbrella over it, or a tarp, right Mommy?” I said when I finally got the courage to go out to her. “We made a mistake, but we can start again.” We still had seeds and the grocery store had plenty of herb trays she could replant in the garden. “It’ll come back.”
Mommy wiped her face and left shining tear stains on her cheeks. She smiled and nodded. “Just a mistake,” she repeated, looking into the dirt.
In a few weeks’ time, we had raised a tarp, re-tilled the soil, and watered it so it was nice and moist and loose. Mommy pushed the seeds deep into the ground, covered them with the soft, loamy dirt, and gave them a short shower with the watering can. With the tarp up, the garden was shady and cool; only a little sun peeked through. It felt like being underwater when we were beneath it, dappled light spilling through the blue fabric like the surface of the sea. Soon the garden came back, first the lemongrass, shoots and sprouts, then great green sprigs of basil, a soft growth of dill. The arugula was slow, but it came in eventually, robust and thick. It was followed by peppers and tomatoes I planted myself. Mommy was happy again, smiling at the bounty. A drip system she’d installed herself ran throughout the planter, soaking the soil a little at a time. Mommy held out her thumb to me and smiled wide. “Green,” she said, and pressed her hand into mine.
One night we were cutting up some fresh tomatoes and I asked Mommy if she missed the old house. Mommy waited a moment, bent over the cutting board with a small crease between her brows, and then shook her head. “That house was nice,” she said in a soft voice, “but it meant working at the hospital, and I don’t miss that.” She glanced at me. “Do you?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
Silence fell between us. Behind Mommy the contents of a large pan began to sizzle on the stove. She turned to tend to it and looked at me over her shoulder. “We’ll go back some time,” she said at last. “Have a visit.”
I nodded, and she turned away.
Neither Millie nor I really know what to expect, but I can’t stop thinking about Mommy all the same. When Mommy finally told me, I never forgot it. I don’t know how I ever could. But I can’t tell Millie and I feel like I did at the start of this: like I just don’t know what to say. We drive in silence and Millie is already crying, biting her thumb. It’s brown like mine, but maybe Mommy would say it’s green.
I wonder if I should hold Millie’s hand, but something tells me there’s nothing I can do right now to make her feel less alone. It’s sunny outside, but it’s cold. Millie is bundled up and her locks are piled on top of her head like a swirl of vines. There are gold cuffs placed here and there, catching the sun. She’s gilded.
We pull into a parking lot and I think we’re both surprised to see a normal building like any other. Inconspicuous even. Nondescript. Without the GPS, neither of us would know we’re here. We could’ve kept driving. I park close to the doors and we sit a minute in the silence that gathers as the engine dies.
“Do you want me to come in?” I ask, turning to her. Millie is staring straight ahead, thumb still in her mouth. “Millie?”
She shakes her head.
“Are you sure?”
She nods and slowly unbuckles her seatbelt. “Just wait for me.”
She’s out of the car before I can think of anything else to say and I watch her as she goes. She looks so small, like a little kid, and then she disappears behind the doors.
I have to remind myself that this isn’t like Mommy, not even close. What happened to her was awful, but this time it’s early. No one will have to go through what Mommy went through because Millie’s made up her mind. I glance at the doors—opaque and unassuming. The building could be empty. Millie could have vanished.
I see it as clearly as if I’d witnessed it myself. Mommy’s that good at describing, or maybe I’m that good at imagining, or maybe it just demands to be seen. It’s made me hesitant to open up, to take a risk, but I know Mommy never meant it that way. She just couldn’t carry it anymore, and I needed to know—because I just can’t face what Millie’s facing.
I wish I told her she’s strong before she got out of the car. And I love her so much. I wish I’d told her that this isn’t easy or okay, but it will get easier and it will be okay. I wish I told her love manifests in so many ways. That the height of love so often is mercy. Millie wouldn’t scoff or call it blind, but she might not believe it. I see her hunched over like the man becoming a wolf in my mind’s eye.
I don’t know if I’d believe it, either.
Mommy was a little older than I am now when it happened, and she was traumatized. Traumatized enough to pack us up and move us inland and take a job at the local middle school looking for a nurse onsite. It seemed to help her—helping kids and watching them grow. When I got into middle school myself, she opened up more, told me about God’s Garden.
In the winter Mommy would boil lemongrass from the garden on the stove, then pour the solution into a strainer over a mug. The whole kitchen was fragrant, sharp. I could breathe deep and feel air reaching for the base of my lungs. She’d add sweetener, agave or something similar, and take her tea to the couch and just hold it, breathing in the steam. We bought heat lamps for the garden on cloudier days, but we didn’t need to use them too often. When it rained, moisture seeped through the tarp and sprinkled the plants.
I was getting older and the garden was no longer mine as it had been. It was only Mommy’s; my thumbs had stopped being green. Whenever I couldn’t find Mommy in the house, whenever I’d call for her and she didn’t answer, I knew where she was. Kneeling in the grass before the planter box, head a bowed over the green as if in prayer.
“How can you look at gardens the same?” I asked her once, standing beside her beneath the tarp. She was quiet for a moment, then she reached for my hand.
“Because they still grow,” she said.
The first and only time Mommy gardened, it didn’t die.
She told me how she had to stand in the same room with it as it sat in a tub, unattended. She was forbidden to do anything for it, forbidden to help in any way. Mommy was just there to monitor it until it was all over. She stood in the corner of the room, watching the tiny thing silently moving in its blood. Its thin, raw skin was scabbed and burned from the solution and had it a voice, Mommy said she was sure it would be screaming.
“Do nothing,” the charge nurse had told her.
She wondered, could there be a soul in that small body? At what point does the soul enter flesh? When is it attached, or given?
“Nothing, okay?” the charge nurse repeated. “This happens sometimes, unfortunately. It was an emergency. Everything’ll be all right.”
Mommy cried in the corner as the minutes ticked by. Then it stopped moving; went completely still.
Later, when the charge nurse came back and it had been disposed of, she took Mommy to the hospital cafeteria and got her a strong coffee. “Look at it this way,” the charge nurse said, sitting across from her. “I believe children are a gift from God, but sometimes…well, sometimes they’re planted a little too early.” Mommy looked up. She held her coffee in her hands but didn’t drink. “Like, the soil isn’t right,” the charge nurse went on, then, “Do you have kids?”
The charge nurse smiled. “I do, too.”
They lapsed into a stiff silence. Voices murmured around them in a distant sort of way.
“But sometimes,” the charge nurse suddenly went on, “the time just isn’t right, you know? Growing conditions no good. Bad—or even dangerous—environment. They won’t survive under these circumstances.” She paused and took a sip of her own coffee. “It’d be too hard. Too much. Unfair, really. So, we send them back to God’s garden.” Mommy looked at her. The charge nurse smiled again and shrugged. “I just,” she said, turning towards the window, “I just see this vast, green garden, with so much space and so much beauty… And all we’re doing really is sending them back there to wait a little longer. Back to God to replant them when they’re really ready. When everything’s right. We—sometimes our job is just helping tend the garden.”
Mommy didn’t speak, and after a moment the charge nurse stood. She patted Mommy’s hand gently. “That’s what this is,” she said with a sad smile. “Tending the garden. We’re here to help people. If you take every time like this, you won’t last long.”
I look up and see Millie walking to the car, a paper bag clutched in her hand. I unlock the doors and she slips in, places the bag by her feet.
“That wasn’t too long,” I say. She nods and closes her eyes. “Are you okay?”
Millie nods again. “Yeah, I’m okay.” She looks at me and I want to say it now—everything about love and mercy and bravery. But Millie speaks first: “I take the first today, then the second tomorrow. It’ll make me really sick.” Her eyes are dry and her voice is steady. Something has shifted in her; the huddled wolf has gone. I think of Mommy.
“They say I shouldn’t be alone if I can help it,” she finishes.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say.
Millie smiles, the first one I’ve seen since before everything happened. It’s small and short-lived, but it’s there for at least a moment. I start the car.
“When we get back to your place, I think you should sleep, lie down at least,” I tell her. She nods. “And I’ll make you some soup and tea when you’re ready,” I say as we pull out of the space and head towards the street.
She looks at me.
“My mom,” I say, then swallow. The highway unfolds before us. “She says it helps.”
Kathryn H. Ross adores cats, warm baths, and of course, reading. Her debut book, Black Was Not A Label (2019), is a hybrid memoir of essays and poetry that was recently published with indie press PRONTO.
If Not Even Higher
by Sandy Schuman
The New Yorker was looking for a change. His Ph.D. completed, he searched for a post-doc position in a new place, another part of the country. Observant of Jewish laws and customs, he needed a place where he could continue to attend the daily minyan, obtain kosher food, and cultivate his Jewish learning. Although a scientist, Jewish practice and scholarship were essential to his being.
Of the few alternatives that met his requirements, he chose a research institute on the other side of the country, in California. His Internet search revealed a congregation with its daily minyan schedule and adult education classes posted online. He found an apartment within walking distance of the shul, so he wouldn’t have to drive on Shabbat. The research institute would be a short commute. No mass transit. He would have to buy a car. This was not New York, he reasoned, this was California. He could adapt.
His drive across the continent was an exciting adventure, though tiring and lonely. He arrived in his new hometown as sunset neared – time for minchah – and drove directly to the shul. As he entered the Beit Midrash, only a few minutes late, the congregants all turned to see. He found himself staring into a room full of graying, long-haired men and women, wearing beaded necklaces and headbands and smelling of patchouli and organic brown rice, carry-overs from the 1960s and ’70s.
What had he gotten himself into! He wasn’t going to be taken in by this West coast, new-age, hippie spirituality; this California, where pop stars study Kabbalah! Oh no, he was rational, traditional, a New York Jew who smelled not of incense, but of pickles and rye bread.
As soon as ma’ariv concluded, an elderly couple came over, introduced themselves, and invited him to their home for Shabbat dinner on Friday night. And they weren’t the only ones. Everyone was delighted to welcome him. Why, by his presence alone the average age of the congregation dropped to 65. He was assured of a Shabbat dinner invitation every Friday night.
In addition to becoming a regular minyanaire, he attended the rabbi’s weekly study group. The others were impressed by his knowledge of Torah and Talmud. They tried to involve him in other activities of the shul but, with his research and studies, he was too busy. Nonetheless, he was impressed by the rabbi’s sincerity and how the members of the congregation revered him.
At a Shabbat dinner, some months later, he asked a question. He was at the home of the couple that first befriended him. The old woman benched lecht, the old man made Kiddush, and he made motzi. Over a dinner of grilled tofu, broccoli, yams, and brown rice, they asked about his research and how he felt about his new surroundings. He felt comfortable enough to introduce his question. “I have noticed,” he began, “that the rabbi is at the minyan every morning, even on his days off, but never on Fridays. Where does he go?”
The old woman glowed with knowing pride, exchanged looks with her husband, and then back at the New Yorker. “On Friday mornings, our holy Rabbi ascends to heaven to give thanks for our blessings, to beg forgiveness for the wrongdoings of all of mankind, to plead, to pray for justice, for mercy, for the future of humanity, for the future of the world. On Friday mornings, our beloved Rabbi goes up to heaven.” The old man nodded slowly, affirming her words.
The New Yorker thought they were making a joke but, he realized, they were serious! He was dismayed. What meshugas! Such a bubbe meiseh! He had come to trust and respect these people and had even come to find meaning in their repetitious chanting and their Kiddush Levanah staring at the new moon and now, it seemed, they were, epes, too California for him.
For weeks afterward, at Friday night dinners in home after home, he presented the same question – and heard similar answers. He tried to reason with them, to point out the absurdity. His protests were met with the same reassuring nod. “On Friday mornings, our beloved Rabbi goes up to heaven.” He resolved to put an end to this narishkeit. He would follow the rabbi closely and see where he went.
On Thursday night, after minyan, he followed the rabbi in his car. The rabbi drove up a driveway and entered the house through the side door. A light went on inside. The New Yorker remained in his car, krekhtsing as he made himself comfortable, and watched. The downstairs light went out and, a minute later, an upstairs light went on. He waited. The upstairs light went out, takeh, it was late. Thursday became Friday. The rabbi slept, but not the New Yorker.
He kept himself awake by reciting from memory passages of Torah, pages of Talmud, recalling, chapter and verse, his favorite sayings from Pirke Avot. The house was still. Then, a light upstairs. Dawn was approaching. The light went off and, moments later, the downstairs light came on, but not for long. The New Yorker squinted to see more clearly in the dim light. The side door opened. A man left the house and entered the car but, it didn’t look like the rabbi. The car backed out of the driveway and headed down the street. The New Yorker started his own car and followed.
The rabbi’s car turned into a supermarket parking lot. The New Yorker pulled in too, but kept his distance. In the light of the early dawn, the man that emerged from the rabbi’s car was not dressed like the rabbi. He wore shorts, a T-shirt, sandals, and a straw cowboy hat. Could he have missed the rabbi? He waited while the man went into the supermarket.
By the time the man returned, the sun was up. Yes, it was the rabbi, strangely dressed though he was. He pushed a shopping cart full of paper bags, which he loaded into the back seat of the car. By the way he leaned over to lift the bags, the New Yorker could tell they were heavy. The rabbi drove out of the parking lot. The New Yorker followed, entering a neighborhood in an old part of town he had not visited before.
The rabbi parked in front of an old house. The wooden steps to the front door were weathered, the treads cracked; a window was covered with cardboard. The rabbi got out of his car, opened the rear passenger door and retrieved one of the grocery bags, placing a hand underneath to support the weight. In the stillness of the morning, the New Yorker heard the rabbi begin Birkhot Hashakhar as he carried the bag up the steps. The rabbi knocked loudly. “Delivery man!” he called out.
A fearful, shaky voice responded from inside. “I didn’t order anything. I have no money. Go away!”
“Please,” the rabbi replied, “I’m just the delivery man. I don’t collect any money. I just have to make the delivery.”
“Oh,” the voice replied, “my Friday delivery? Is it Friday? I was hoping you would come. Please, come in.”
“Of course,” the rabbi responded, “I’ll put the things away for you.”
The rabbi brought the bag inside. The New Yorker heard them chatting. It took several minutes. The rabbi returned to his car and the New Yorker followed to the next house, and the next, and the next. All morning long it was “Delivery man!”
Back in shul, the New Yorker said nothing. He continued to attend the rabbi’s classes and, when the sign-up sheet was passed around to help at the local soup kitchen, he added his name to the list. When the chair for Mitzvah Day took ill, he volunteered to take his place.
One morning, a young woman appeared at the minyan. A Mid-Westerner, she had just moved into the area for a job. The old members nearly cheered her arrival and invited her into their homes for Shabbat dinner.
Weeks later, at one of those Friday night Shabbat dinners, at the home of that first couple who invited him, the New Yorker and the Mid-Westerner found themselves sitting side-by-side. They talked with the old couple about their work and how they were feeling about the community. The young woman had obviously had dinner with them before and she conversed easily. Then, after a pause, she spoke hesitantly. “I have been at the daily minyan for several weeks now, and I have a question. I have noticed the rabbi is at the minyan every morning, even on his days off, but on Fridays he disappears! Where does he go?”
Nodding knowingly, the old man replied, “On Friday mornings, our holy Rabbi rises to heaven to give thanks for our blessings. He begs forgiveness for the wrongdoings of all mankind. He prays for guidance so that we may do what is right and good, so we can repair the world. On Friday mornings, our beloved Rabbi goes up to heaven.” The old woman smiled radiantly, affirming his words.
The Mid-Westerner stifled a laugh, realizing in disbelief they were serious. Desperately, she looked to the New Yorker. “Are they serious?” she whispered, “where does he go?”
The New Yorker turned to face her. “Where does he go?” he repeated, pondering how to answer. He took in a breath, and then nodded as he exhaled.
“Heaven,” he responded quietly, “if not even higher.”
Notes on the Background of this story
This story appears in many written forms. In The Jewish Story Finder (McFarland, 2012, pp. 328-329), Sharon Barcan Elswit recorded 22 reprints and retellings. The best-known version, “Oyb Nisht Noch Hecher” (“If Not Even Higher”), was written in Yiddish by I. L. Peretz, published in 1890. It has been translated into English and retold many times with titles such as “Even Higher,” “If Not Higher,” “And Maybe Even Higher,” and “The Rabbi of Nemirov” (see below).
The historical or legendary source of the story is likely a Hasidic story about Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov (1745–1807). The story was recorded by Uzziel Meisels and Joseph Karo in Sefer Menorah Ha-Tehorah (1883) and by Martin Buber in Tales of the Hasidim (1948) with the title, “Lamentations at Midnight.” In the story, Rabbi Hirsh of Zhydatchov follows Rabbi Moshe Leib at midnight to discover that Rabbi Moshe Leib chops wood and builds a fire for the mother of a newborn baby who cannot afford to pay. While doing so, he recites the nightly Tikkun Hatzot, the Midnight Prayer Service or Lamentations at Midnight.
In Peretz’s version, as in others, the rabbi performs his deed only during the time of Selichot, the penitential prayers that are recited for several days preceding Rosh Hashanah. I was troubled by the seasonality in Peretz’s version. How is this poor person supposed to get by during the rest of the year? I preferred the daily practice as described in the older version about Rabbi Moshe Leib. In my version, the rabbi makes this a weekly practice.
Sandy Schuman tells stories about songs and songwriters, personal adventures, historical sagas, folk tales, and stories in the Jewish storytelling tradition.
His stories have been published in Tablet, New Mitzvah Stories, Memoir Magazine, Distressing Damsels, Stories We Tell, Story Club Magazine, Storytelling Magazine, Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, 100 Lives, The Story Cookbook, and in his book, Welcome to Chelm’s Pond, and on his blog, Another Side to the Story.