12 November 2017

Awake By the Sea of Dreams

My right arm woke me up. I was dreaming. Bad dreaming. Fighting things I could not clearly see, I flailed and screamed in desperation. Clenched fist on the end of a swinging arm. In the real world my arm spasmed. My fingers smashed into a pencil cup crammed with pens and a small crafting knife. The pens spilled over the desk in muted tintinnabulation. The cup itself clattered like a cowbell against the steel sash of the window, ricocheting into my chest as I flung my self up and awake. The world swam into focus.

“Where am I?” I croaked. It was nearly dark except for lamplight and a gauzy moon rising over the headland. My face was wet on one side.

My hands shook. I raised the left one to my left cheek. It felt hot and damp. And flat. I had been sleeping, head down on the desk. The dampness turned out to be drool, confirmed by the wet patch on the note paper in front of me.

Night. No idea how late, or how early. The sea groaned and boomed down on the tide line. Breeze, salty and cool, blew softly through the open casements facing the beach. The fire I had lain hours ago was down to dull embers. Red patches like the eyes of spiders crouching in the firebox. Faint yellow rays leaked from the lantern perched at the end of the desk. Something told me it was in need of fuel.

I decided it could wait. My heart was still racing. Phantoms were fading from my mind. Shivering, anxious, I found myself with no desire to recall what they had been. Not now.

I looked around the cottage. Nothing unusual could I see. The louvers on the west side were in place. I remembered adjusting them earlier before I sat down to write. The fading sun had been a bit much, then. The door was still closed. Locked, too, from what I could see.

Turning back to the water I could make out some profiles in the weak moonlight glow. Clumps of seaweed on the beach. The curl of breakers, with faint phosphorescent edges, sliding up the beach. A dark blocky shape on the horizon, small and indistinct. Pinpoints of light wavered on the swell. A freighter, maybe? Bulk carrier? No way to tell. The shape momentarily disappeared, dipping I thought below the horizon. Fog might be gathering out there. Or heavy chop. The wind was picking up.

I shivered again. Manannan stirred, I could feel it in the thrum of the waves hitting the sand. How long I had been asleep, there was no way to know. I had no clear recollection of what I had done between arriving at the cottage earlier in the day and when I sat down to write. Except dinner. Dinner had been a hasty affair of roasted fish and day old cornbread washed down with tepid tea. Then I sat at the desk to write. I had hoped to cast off the jumbled emotions and stresses of the previous week.

The cottage is good for that sort of thing. To my chagrin it is not without failure now and then. Tonight had been less than a success.

A sharp puff of wind hit my face. The cool, briny air perked me up. With a napkin I wiped my face. The simple action brought my pulse down further. Anxiety receded not unlike the wavelets down the strand. The bad dream was dissolving like mist. The walls of the cottage lit up, brilliant white in the beam of the lighthouse up on the head.

Day bloomed briefly to sparkle on the disarray of pens strewn across the desk. I began to corral the pens into the cup. The crafting knife had lodged itself point first in the bead board paneling. I tugged gently to free it. It was then I noticed writing scrawled across the top sheet of paper. The light flared, was gone.

So. I must have written something. Not much from the looks of it, although the remaining light was too dim to make out what I had jotted down. I put the pens and the knife in the cup. In the shadows I sat breathing slowly for a few minutes. For some reason I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what I had written. The lighthouse beam pulsed and flared. I did not look down. My interest had attached itself to the ship or whatever it was out there on the horizon. I watched until the sea or fog or who knows what made it disappear.

I reached for the lantern. Turning up the wick, a pool of yellow light spilled across my desk. Leaning forward I could make out my spidery scrawl, dark blue ink tracking across the cream of the paper, curling slightly from damp and spit. There were two sentences written there. Terse, compact, brittle in the lamplight.

“In the battle for self-worth being your own worst enemy is a guaranteed path to defeat. In this arena, I exist to be rejected.”

I don’t know what surprised me more, the deep cuts of the words or the sudden tightening of throat and moistening of eye that stole over me. Head in my hands, the cottage dimmed in a swirl of emotions that took my breath away. The events of the week bowled me over. No amount of speed or finesse was going to take me from their path.

This explained the dreams. The shadows in the cave of the head and the heart. Fighting things I could not describe except through the dread and pain they laid upon my desperate soul. Well-mannered ghouls plucking at the flesh. The flesh itself recoiling and quivering as it sought escape.

I rocked back and forth until my breath was under control. The cool damp had made its way into my bones. The ghost of William Faulkner whispered in my ear “A man always falls back upon what he knows best in a crisis—the murderer upon murder, the thief thieving, the liar lying.” I had no plans to kill, steal, or lie, but what I was going to do was make a pot of tea. Warmth would help, Tea would have to do for warmth, as there was no one with me to offer theirs.

And probably wouldn’t be, pessimism congealing in my heart. I picked up the paper. The fire would need stoking. My hands ripped the paper into strips. The dry scrape of it abraded my heart. Leaning into the fireplace, I blew on the embers while casting about for the poker. A few thrusts of the cast iron, a few breaths, and the embers glowed as if eager to burn the past. The present. Telling omens for the future.

I cast the ragged strips into the coals. They writhed and curled and burst into flames as I watched. Shadows danced over my face and the walls. I fetched the teapot from the mantel as the paper swiftly burned down to ashes. Out past the eastern windows the Sea of Dreams muttered and moaned, waiting for me fall asleep once again.

05 November 2017


Joyful spires built on foundations
laid in bright white gold sunlight
Under a sky of ecstatic blue
growing as fast as hands
could pour the shells and quartz
Into the molds formed patiently
by eager heads and hearts
Gadding about in a newborn day
Made just for them, by them,
glistening eyes so blinded by glow
the proximity to the waves
was overlooked and unheeded
Until the sea swirled in, uninvited,
swiftly swallowing the hope
that grew along the tideline
Swept out into the breakers
leaving only marks below
a surface bearing bruised
memories that once knew
the secret at the heart of the world

29 October 2017

Conscience Bows to the Weight

There is nothing so heavy as a gun still warm from the firing. Riley could feel it radiating through the wool lining of the pocket in which his hand curled around the pistol. The oily smoothness of the backstrap contrasted by the tiny diamonds of the grip scratching his fingers. A cool wind rippled the slow swell in the harbor. The gun, Riley worried, might pull him off the wharf to drown.

No sirens or police cars on the cruise, so far. “Good sign,” Riley muttered. His usual MO was to use a silencer, but the red ball nature of the latest assignment left no time to scrounge one up. The usual sources were good, but not that fast. The wet work man reckoned a combination of pillows and thick cellar door had muffled enough.

But in his line of work, one could never be sure.

Slow Tuesday at the wharf. Erratic sunlight and a nip in the air maybe held back some of the typical crowd. Riley turned to look over his shoulder. The park behind was sparse with people. A mother and toddler, plus a stroller. Toddler clutching a half-eaten giant pretzel. Baby snoozing on the stroller. A few couples taking selfies or snuggling with hands wrapped around cups of boom town coffee. Two old guys wearing windbreakers, shorts, and topsiders, engaged in an animated discussion of boat minutia.

Riley swiveled his face back to the harbor. Nobody seemed to be paying him much attention. Some tension left his back. His hand still clutched the gun tightly, shaking, hot, sweating despite the fall air. Another gust skirled about, bringing to Riley’s nostrils the combined odors of cold saltwater and cordite. The crisp tang made him cough. He hawked and spat into the water.

Movement from below. A swelling in the water as a fish nipped at the sputum. In a recursive swipe at the universe, the fish spat it back out and disappeared back into the depths. Riley laughed. It sounded odd to his ears. A rusty, warbling croak showing the weight of disuse. He recalled how his ex-wife had loved his laugh, back when they were a thing and the world was very different. No way that she would like it now, assuming they had been face to face.

She would have no truck with anything he was now.

Ping, went the watch on his wrist. He twitched at the sound, having forgotten it was there. Letting go of the gun, he pulled back the cuff of his pea jacket to look. Ten minutes, said the message. Cold blue-green letters flashing the faint promise of salvation, or at least escape. Ten minutes until the car took him away. That left the small matter of the black hole in his pocket.

The gun had to go. This much was clear. Carrying it through downtown while dodging tourists and the beat cops was not an option. Too risky, he wagered. Still no sirens, so that was good. The nearest trash can was too close to people, plus too much risk it would be found. He would save the gloves for that. Riley looked down past his feet dangling over the low tide. Slow undulations of the glassy green water lapped at the pilings. It was the harbor that would swallow it up.

Riley turned his head, scanning the harbor. No movement of people out on the boats at their moorings. The tourist cruiser to his right was idle. He saw no crew. Twisting around, acting as if he were stretching his back, he looked over his shoulder at the park. No one close. Three loners engrossed in their smartphones. Riley huffed in relief.

Moving faster, he carefully palmed the pistol from his pocket. One hand would not cover it, but he hoped the sleek black metal would blend in with the gloves he wore. All he needed was a few seconds.

He slid the gun onto his lap. Another quick glance to assure no prying eyes, he leaned over the edge of the wharf. He pretended to be intensely interested in something in the water. The gun slid between his legs. It bounced off the edge of the wood decking with a loud thunk. Reflexively he snapped his legs together and kicked backward with his right foot. His heel caught the gun on the way down. The impact knocked the gun back towards the bulkhead, where it slid into the water. Riley was surprised it made so little noise as it slipped under the surface.

There were ripples, then nothing. The hitman straightened up. Breath whooshed into his lungs, air sharp and cool. Ten minutes to go. He had to make it uphill towards the church in that time, or his escape route was lost. A quick turn and he hoisted himself back up to his feet, facing the park.

One of the loners was looking at him. Half quizzically, half blank stare. Riley stared back. His heart raced, thinking that what if Loner was an agent, come to reel him back in? He pretended to check his watch. Loner blinked slowly, closed his mouth, and went back to scanning his phone.

Riley breathed out, breathed in. His heart slowed. Looking up past the marina, he could see the church spire up at the head of the street. Sunlight shone on it, a near solid bar of light piercing the clouds. The stores shouldering the street, the park, the traffic circle with its buzz of cars, all remained in nacreous half light. The faceted cone and cross blazed in white gold. His vision blurred.

Sharp whoop of a police siren snapped him out of his daydream. Shaking, Riley forced himself to march on past the moorings, beginning to fill up with ego boosters in anticipation of the weekend. The police car was nowhere in sight, but the dopplered cacophony of it filled his ears with haste and anxiety. 

He shouldered his way into a throng of people at the foot of the street. Six minutes to go. The car would be close. The pair of gloves were discreetly removed and deposited in different waste bins as he made his way up the hill. Another siren split the air. Riley thought they were headed in the general direction of the scene he had left, with its macabre tableau in the basement. But in this business, he reminded himself, you could never be sure.

Four minutes to go. The spire was mottled with cloud shadow and sunlight. Riley turned his collar up against the wind. A prayer crossed his lips unbidden. Night was not far away. He walked faster, uphill, headed for salvation or damnation he did not know.

22 October 2017

The Skillet Speaks of Humility and Care

You will know in your heart when it has been a good half year since the cornbread was last made. Mild shame on approaching the kitchen, reaching out a hand to grasp the smooth weight of cast iron that last felt human touch so long ago the occasion is beyond recall. The skillet has a voice. It calls to you. It is a pity that you have not answered.

Until now, that is. A bag of corn meal rested on the refrigerator shelf for at least two months. A latent desire to avoid waste was the catalyst for this latest venture into culinary redemption. A supposed absence of buttermilk on the store shelves was a flimsy excuse, a cover for impatience and laziness. You know deep down the attempts to find said buttermilk were halfhearted at best.

The buttermilk was spotted up high in a store you visited for the first time since settling in to your new home. Their reputation for higher prices held you at bay, it is true. Still that store could no longer avoided when it became clear it would almost certainly have buttermilk and other treats not easily procured at other establishments. The prophecy came true. Forty-five minutes and a much lighter wallet later, you were putting the grocery bags in the back of the car.

The accountant may not like it. The belly shouted it down. Hungers have their own imperatives. Treasures were garnered. Pitted olives, plump and spicy. Chubby jalapeño peppers confident in their glossy deep green jackets. The king of cheeses in the form of a craggy block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the like of which had not shown its tawny face in your house for what seemed a year. The belly will not be disappointed.

The buttermilk is the key player here. The liquid catalyst to a pan full of golden-brown goodness. Memories of melting butter swirled with sorghum coating the grainy cornbread, or a chunk dropped into the ‘pot likker’ at the bottom of a bowl of collard greens, to be spooned up and savored like the taste of heaven itself. You feel these memories. Your stomach rejoices. What feels like endorphins trickling through the brain as you recall the joys of the oven and stove. It wouldn’t be right without the buttermilk.

So it is you gather the wares and the ingredients. They populate the kitchen counter like so many eager helpers waiting to please. Buttermilk. Two eggs. Salt. Baking powder and baking soda. The heavy glass bowl that has followed you for tens of years and thousands of miles, its surface hazed from countless episodes of mixing and scraping. Old friends, sights for sore eyes.

Heat will be needed, of course. You turn on the oven. Ritual demands that a dollop of lard be melted in the skillet as the oven preheats. Into the fridge, out with the small plastic tub. Scoop of fat in hand, you turn to the skillet preparing to drop it in. The skillet perches on the stovetop. A glossy black mirror of reproach and melancholy reflecting your unease at having virtually abandoned it over the summer.

Lard in the pan. Pan in the oven. Its handle feels nearly alive in your hand. Smooth, ebony, sturdy. This is a pan that has survived for over fifty years and is likely to survive another fifty years. It knows itself. It knows you. The silence remains because it understands you are making a good faith effort to patch things up. It knows you have been busy with survival outside the home.

As the lard melts, the dry ingredients are blended gently in the glass bowl. A smaller bowl holds the buttermilk and the eggs. These partners in joy are whisked together. The resulting liquid has an appeal that cannot be explained. The urge to lap it up is strong. Almost as if it were an odd health drink, a tonic to buck up a distressed stomach while revitalizing a tired liver. But you won’t drink it. You know it is destined for the cornbread. This is a nobler fate for eggs and buttermilk.

Ticktockticktock. The oven creaks and softly groans. A quick peek confirms the shallow pool of melted lard is ready. The wet and the dry are brought together in a union of soon-to-be tasty alchemy. You slip on a mitt and grab the searing hot handle of the skillet. Quickly, quickly, the batter is poured into the skillet. That music of sizzle and pop fills the kitchen. Toasted corn aroma caresses the nose as you smooth the pupal cornbread into the pan. A swift bow to the oven god and the skillet is back on the rack to complete its journey to nirvana.

Ticktockticktock. Impatience mounts. The kitchen air smells of corn and crust. Your belly growls softly. It is a tiger cub anxious to be fed. A faint thrill of anticipation arises as the skillet is lifted carefully from the rack and placed on the stovetop. It is at this point you will know if the cornbread likes you, wants to give itself up to your plate.

It is here that you shake the pan. If the bread slides easily back and forth in the pan, grace has been granted. If it does not slide...well, then it may be that penance is required. A small prayer. A shake. And another.

The bread does not move.

Another shake. Perhaps a slight change in position is registered. But the cornbread stubbornly refuses to move. Your heart sinks a little. Still more shaking and the bread tenaciously clings to the pan. Well, you are for it now. Nothing to do but put the mesh rack over the skillet in preparation for flipping it upside. Good luck and godspeed with any luck it will pop right out.

Tonight there is no such luck. The disk of cornbread falls to the mesh with a tearing sound. Slight sinking stomach to see the large bright yellow patch surrounded by a ring of golden-brown deliciousness. It stuck, no doubt. The good news is that it is only a thin layer of crust that pulled away from the bread. Another quick flip brings the bread upright with a beautifully done top.

The stuck stuff is a different story. You know you have to get it out of the skillet as soon as possible. Over to the sink to douse the screeching hot pan with water. Follow it up with a bamboo spatula squeegeed over the bottom.

Joke’s on you, son. The stuck on crust comes away like a silk robe sliding off a smooth shoulder. A few swipes and nothing remains but for the sodden clump of grainy bread lying in the sink.

You hold the skillet up close. The residual heat warms your face, which is reflected faintly in the glossier patches of skillet. Listen closely and you hear a voice speaking softly in questions and remonstrances. A gentle sadness suffuses your stomach and heart. The skillet has you in the culinary hot seat, and you know it.

It knows you know better. It knows you have been busy with the big picture of recovery and survival. It does not hold these things against you. What it does want you to remember is that you need to take care of the things that will take care of you. And if a seasoned cast iron skillet filled with the spirit of love cannot make you pay attention, the kitchen god will not tolerate your whining if that skillet does not act in accord with your wishes.

You know you are lucky. To have that skillet. To be able to create goodness with it, and the desire to do so. These are quiet blessings.

The skillet goes back on the stove to cool down. The cornbread, slightly worse for the wear, steams gently on its perch of wire mesh. You cut a slice, plate it. Two pats of good butter accompanied by a generous flourish of sorghum drizzled over effectively gild the lily. The first bite confirms what you suspected: excellent cornbread, but you are damn lucky to have it.

Damn lucky. The next batch will be made soon, and the divinity within the skillet shall be properly acknowledged. You swallow another bite washed down with a humble prayer: You will not forget to take care of the things that will take care of you.