Monday, June 24, 2013

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Sunday, June 16, 2013


It was an exceptional bonfire even by his family’s standards, which were high because he had nurtured their appetite for campfires over the years. A storm earlier in the year had vanquished a gnarled old cedar, its root pediment exposed and sprawled out for all the world like an alien creature that had just keeled over. The late cedar had contributed several large branches to the fire and its boughs, seasoned in the relentless summer sun, had been ideal kindling, snapping and popping with ignited resin.

He leaned back against their fallen benefactor’s bare feet and worried and worked at a muscular root joint with one of the several knives always in his possession, eyeing his circle thoughtfully, deliberately building anticipation. Fifteen-odd pairs of eyes, aged two to 16, followed his movements patiently, knowing he wouldn’t begin to speak until they were all settled and still. Most of them knew him as “Uncle Charlie”, but to five of he was Daddy. Audience and acolytes, ready to believe, they willingly went where his voice took them. And as their shaman and elder, he felt the weight of his tribe’s trust as a sacred burden, careful to conceal the smoke and mirrors behind a feisty grin. Barely 5’5”, brown has a hazelnut and wiry as a cat, his thin frame was clad in madras plaid shorts, a vivid Hawaiian shirt that was both untucked and unbuttoned, and heavy work boots to protect his tender feet. To his tribe, those were sacramental vestments.

The shaman smiled his signature smile. If a facial expression could define the spirit of a person, a state of being or emotion, his grin was mischief incarnate. Without a whisp of malice, intimate with irony but awkward with sarcasm, his grin was his most effective medicine. It was well known that his storytelling was powerful medicine, of course, most often practiced as a group ritual and employed as both diversion and subtle teaching tool It was a healing room entered into by mutual consent and the willing suspension of disbelief. But his smile snuck up on you and made you a co-conspirator. That grin could contain a Cab Calloway tune, your birthday and the prize from the crackerjack box of life when he wanted it to. Or it could contain subtitles to a story that said “I’ll just keep playing out this line until the hook is set, then I’ll reel you in.” His face could dance jigs and reels with no more than the corners of his mouth struggling with a twitch and crinkling, twinkling eyes.

Like grandma might label a jar of preserves, his wife had slapped a label on it years before, calling it his “shit-eating grin” long before she succumbed to it. Marrying his friend Junior’s tomboy kid sister “Beanpole” had shocked and startled a lot of people. But by now the years had rounded her to his liking and he figured he would keep her, despite the fact that it made no sense to think someone might grin while consuming bodily waste. He just accepted the label as her way of expressing the difficult to define, and nowadays he only heard the depth of feeling behind it. Just as he accepted so many things about her that puzzled other people.

Working at a tricky spot in the wood, a knot into which he was carving a leprechaun’s ear, he covertly surveyed his audience. Nieces and nephews arrayed around the fire with his own children among them, the oldest at age 16 holding the baby who was only four.

“So what kind of story do you want tonight?” he asked the assembly.

“Space aliens!” “Robots” “Trains” “Dragons” and “Horses” were among the answers shouted back at him at once. Then his eldest asked for a story about his service in the U.S. Navy. He leaned back and stuck his legs out in front of the fire, crossed at the ankles, and began “I guess I could tell you about how I ended up in a military mental ward….” and with that the hook was set and he began reeling them in slowly.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

I. Prologue

It was a sweltering day in southwest Missouri under a relentless sun, as hot and humid as sin.  The boy couldn’t wait to cool off.  His brothers were busy plowing a field nearby, the old mule was crabbier than usual and he knew before long they’d be looking for him.  He slipped out of his britches, carefully rolled them up and stashed them in the crook of a gnarled root along the banks of the creek.  Under the lush arms of the trees lining Center Creek it was more like a deep green living cave the sun could only peek into.
The boy’s nut-brown skin revealed a tendency to shed his clothes whenever the opportunity arose and his jade green eyes twinkled with mischief.  He splashed noisily into the cool spring-fed water, submerged in familiar territory.  He swam happily in the cool shadows until judging it was about time to get back to his brothers.  The boy climbed onto a large rock that hung over the water in dappled sunlight and sat for a moment, dripping dry and dangling his feet in the water.  Half-drowsy and deep in his own thoughts, he nearly fell back into the water when a hand suddenly grabbed his foot.
His eyes followed the hand from his foot down into the water and found it attached to a woman with hair gently floating around her in the water.  She thrust her face above the surface and smiled slightly at him.
“You’re not frightened of me, are you boy?”  It was said like a statement, not really a question.
The boy shook his head quickly.  He wasn’t afraid, just awfully curious.
“You have a foot in both worlds, you know:  Yours and ours.  You swim like a fish and see better underwater than any of your brothers.  Never forget that you will always have friends under the surface of the waters of this world.”
Then suddenly she just wasn’t there.  And just as suddenly he realized that he hadn’t seen her mouth move despite clearly hearing her words.