Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Last Kobzari

The wind kicked up on the apartment roof as Anna unclipped the last of her laundry off the line. She glanced up to see nothing but crawling gray swirls with darker ones in pursuit. A sigh slipped out as she thought about tonight’s dinner and the ingredients she still had to buy. Hefting the basket of clean linens, Anna decided it was time to give the boy some more responsibilities.
“Lexie? Where are you, child? Lexie!” She shook her head. He should have heard her coming down the stairs, but that was a boy for you. “ALEXAN—”
            “Yes, Mama?” Alex said as he popped out of their doorway. “And call me Alex—that’s what the other boys call me.”
            “When you stop scaring me like some baba yaha from the shadows, then I will call you what you want. You almost made me drop the laundry.” She glanced him over. He was only eight but already came up to her shoulder. Soon he’d be eye to eye with her and then taller still, just like his father. He had the same red hair, the same blue eyes, the same toothy smile—he would someday become quite the man. Wiping the sprouting memories from her eyes with a sniffle, she motioned with her head, and he followed.
            She set the laundry down with a thud on the kitchen table and looked at Lexie. Puzzled, he stood there nervous, not sure what she had to say.
            “Hands over your eyes and turn around.”
He did as he was told. A few silent seconds passed.
            “Okay, turn around. And uncover your eyes.” Anna was now holding a small wad of cash, her grocery money. She had always seemed to make it magically appear before they went shopping but he had no idea where she kept it. “I need potatoes, onions, and sausage. Just tell Mr. Gozdenovich I said ‘the usual amount’ and he’ll know how much you need.”
            Alex nodded as she handed him a bill. He wondered if money always felt this warm.
“If you bring me ALL of my change and ALL of my groceries, THEN you can run back and get five cents worth of candy.” He beamed at the thought of the possible combinations of penny candies he could buy. “Well get going! It’s six blocks one way. And no turns! I could watch the whole time if I wanted, but I won’t.” She cradled his cheeks in her hands “And it’s because I trust you.” She released his face and simply stared at him.
He snapped back to reality with these final words. She ‘trust me’ he thought. He paused, then grinned back at the large woman who beamed at him.
 Since his father had disappeared two years ago his mother had changed. The once boisterous woman now barely spoke to people when they went out. Besides the grocer, the landlord, and Father Jankowich at church, he couldn’t recall seeing his mother speak to any other adults. Maybe if they visited his dad’s cousins in Chicago she might talk with them, but he only met them once. They were the only other people at his father’s funeral. The cousins had stayed for almost two weeks, but he barely remembered it now.
“Well do you want candy or not? I can not cook what I do not have.”
“I’m going. Love you Mama!”
She went to call back, but he was already out the door.
When it came to school, Alex liked science and history but struggled with reading and arithmetic. He knew enough though that one penny got you five penny candies and that a nickel was five pennies. By his math that was… probably more candies than he could eat in a night. Alex never figured out the math, but he didn’t really care. Mr. Goz had that big cash register for adding and subtracting, so what was the point of him taxing his brain?
Alex’s pondering of his future fiscal endeavors were cut short as a strange sound caught his attention. Having crossed the street he could clearly pick out the sound of a string instrument. Its music was hauntingly simple yet sounded as complex as an ensemble. As he passed by the subway entrance, he came upon the source of the music.
On the back side of the stairs, next to the protective railing, sat the most peculiar man Alex had ever seen. His hair was stark white and long, the tip almost touching the ground where he sat. His beard and mustache were a match, reaching down past his lap. The shirt he wore was made of large swaths of brightly colored fabrics. Some seemed shiny and silky, while others velvety and soft. He wore a matching hat and funny, puffy shorts to complete the ensemble. Alex was reminded of costumes he had seen during the six grade play of Robin Hood, but only vaguely so. The old man’s outfit definitely seemed like stage garb, but old and well-worn, like an actor who was always performing. He sat on a short stool with odd-looking legs, a half-rusted coffee can in front of him. The instrument he played sat on his lap and reached up to his shoulder. It was wide and squat, with a short neck, and dozens of strings.
The man’s fingers moved in bizarre twisting patterns that produced a mellow and hypnotic sound. Alex’s mind was flooded with his mother’s tales of her childhood home outside of Kiev. His mother had called this instrument a kobza, and said that those who played them were called kobzari. Anna told her son that a horrible man did horrible things to all those who used to play the kobza. She said that the duma, the story songs of the kobzari, were too beautiful. His mother said this beauty frightened the horrible man, so he destroyed them all, and replaced them with another instrument called a bandura. Anna thought that using the bandura to play a duma was like using the moon to grow a flower. She said that those now called kobzari were not bad men, but fakes put in place by the horrible man. She told him the dumas they played now were also fake, and that the true dumas had been lost with the kobza and kobzari, but perhaps they were still out there somewhere, waiting to be found.
He knew their story well for he had heard it countless times. Every night after dinner his mother would sit in her room and stare at the same picture of his father. She would call Alex to her and retell the story of the kobzari until tears filled her eyes. He would hold her and they would sit, only the whimper of his mother breaking the silence of their apartment. As he thought about his mother, the song came to an end, and the man held up the old coffee can, no expression crossing his face.
Alex then realized the man’s eye were still closed and had, in fact, been that way the whole time. His mother had told him another fact as well.
“The blind kobzari sing the truest, most precious dumas of them all,” Alex whispered to himself.
As the man put the can down a large, snaggletoothed smile crossed his face. He opened his eyes to reveal two completely white orbs. The old man opened his mouth and Alex half expected a violent, sepulchral scream. When melodic laughter emerged the boy almost fell over in surprise.
“So there are those who still know of kobzari, da? And of the guild too I’m sure! And so young!” The voice bore a thick Ukrainian accent like Alex’s mother’s yet had the comfort of a warm towel after a cold shower. “Keep your money, I will treat you to a TRUE duma.” With that the man started playing again, only the melody was completely different.
To Alex, it seemed simpler, more hypnotic. Then the man began singing in a way that reminded Alex of the choir in church. It was slow and passionate, sad yet hopeful. He couldn’t make out most of the words but picked out the Ukrainian words for “road” and “towns”. He also picked out the words “duma” and “kobzari” several times. It was beautiful yet had undercurrents of sadness and longing. Alex wasn’t sure why he knew this, but he felt that this was right, that he needed to hear this song. At times the strings almost seemed to sparkle with a silvery light. Alex was transfixed, unable to move or even think. As the last note faded the world suddenly seemed more lively and fuller than a moment ago.
“You like it? Come tomorrow and I will play another for you again. But don’t tell your mother, no need to ruin dinner, da?”
Alex nodded excitedly, barely listening after ‘Come tomorrow…’ He did a quick bow and turned toward the market, running as fast as he could. As he ran, he heard a melody similar to the first one trailing off in the distance. The man was gone on Alex’s way back with groceries, and still missing on his way to and from getting candy.
He wasn’t there the next day either as Alex headed for the market again, this time picking up vinegar and cabbage for his mother. On his way back with the food however, Alex faintly heard music coming from the subway entrance. As he made his way down the steps the music steadily grew in loudness and clarity. It was the same tune he had heard the very first time from the old man. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he saw the man sitting at the far end of the platform, his back against a large green door. Underneath him was the same odd-legged chair and in front was the same half-rusted coffee can.
As the song ended the man looked up at Alex and a large, snaggletoothed smile enveloped his face. “My young fan! How pleased I am to see your return!”
“Why are you down here?”
His smile faded slightly at the question, yet he didn’t hesitate. “I feel I will need to be moving on soon, we kobzari are what you call ‘itinerant’. It is a fancy word for ‘moves around a lot’. Enough of that now, let us hear another duma, da?”
And with that his fingers again began conducting themselves in a strange, serpentine dance across the strings. From his mouth came again that hauntingly sweet yet sorrowful tone. This time Alex picked out the words “sleep” and “earth” but couldn’t make out much else. Again too, he kept hearing the words “kobzari” and “duma” repeated throughout the song. Despite the poor lighting Alex once again thought he could a see a faint silvery shimmer from the strings of the kobza. Transfixed by the instrument Alex failed to notice the golden hue the old man’s eyes took as they blinked open only to turn back pale white as he blinked again. As the last note echoed its way down the tunnels the world once again seemed to speed up for Alex. Alex could now hear the noise of an approaching train.
“Come again tomorrow, child, and another duma I will perform for you.”
Alex went to answer, but his reply was quickly drowned out by the sound of brakes screeching. The man simply smiled, nodded, and resumed his playing. As Alex approached the stairs, he could faintly hear the sound of the kobza amidst the sounds of people and trains. Halfway back to the surface he no longer heard the gentle tune. As he stepped onto the sidewalk, he thought he heard a distant rumble of thunder. Looking up at the roiling grey clouds overhead he wondered if rain might finally come this evening. He heard a rumble again as he reached his stoop, but again the clouds left the ground dry.
The following day brought even darker skies and near constant gusts of wind. Sent on a mission to procure borax for laundry, Alex was warned if he wanted to dawdle do it when he went for candy, not for soap that could be ruined in a storm. Heeding his mothers advice he swiftly made his way to and from the market. As he passed by the subway, he paused to listen for the music, but heard only the faint noises of people and trains. On his way to get candy he paused by the entrance and listened again, but heard no music. He made his way down the stairs but still failed to catch a note of the old man’s kobza.
Approaching the spot where the old man had been yesterday Alex noticed the green door the man had been leaning against was now ajar. Hesitating, then approaching cautiously, Alex reached for the door. At the slightest touch it creaked open. He immediately heard the faint sounds of the kobza.
Sparse light bulbs lit a vaulted service corridor as Alex slowly advanced. Reaching a “T” intersection, he stopped and listened in both directions. From the right came the distant sounds of an approaching train, to the left came the familiar melody he had quickly grown to love. He followed the passage left, hearing the music increase as he descended a series of short steps. The music grew steadily louder as the smell of  wood burning filled his nostrils. At the end were two alcoves to the left and right, and a chained-off doorway straight ahead. About waist high on an adult, about chest level for Alex, a large white sign with red lettering hung from a chain, but he didn’t care about that now.
The large alcove to the right had a small fire burning, a hole in the roof leading to some ventilation or drainage systems acting as a chimney. A bedroll lay nearby with an old blanket crumpled next to it. The man sat in the alcove to the left, sitting on the same odd-legged chair, the same half-rusted coffee can in front of him.
            As his song ended he looked up and showed his broad, snaggletoothed grin. “Welcome my young friend! Are you anxious to hear another duma, da?” He went to start his song but Alex quickly stopped him.
            “I want to hear it, but first I got a question.”
            The old man held the kobza for a moment as a strange expression, almost a frown, almost anger, crossed his face but was quickly replaced with the familiar snaggletoothed grin. Afraid of the sudden silence Alex began nervously chattering.
            “Why are you down here? There aren’t any people. How can you make any money if there aren’t any people?” He suddenly hoped he hadn’t sounded insulting.
            “Silly child, those who want to hear my music will always find it when they seek it. You yourself found me, so too will others as they have the need. Enough of this silly talk, let us hear another duma, da?” With that he began to play and sing.
            Once again Alex found himself ensnared in the complex web of the kobza’s sound and the kobzari’s voice. He thought he heard the words for “grandmother” and “woods” and again repeatedly heard mention of kobzari and duma. The faint light of the corridor and dancing light of the fire made the man’s fingers seem to come and go, almost seeming to disappear at times. This gave Alex the impression that the strings, which faintly shimmered silver, were moving of their own volition. As the song finally faded Alex was once again left with the feeling of the world speeding up.
            “Can I come tomorrow as well? Will you be here or elsewhere?”
            A stern look crossed the old man’s face, then instantly softened to a smile.
            “The music is always there for you child. But a storm is coming and I have to be moving on as is. But yes, you can come and seek me out to play for you tomorrow as well. Now off with you.”
A stomach growl reminded Alex of his awaiting candy. He gave a small bow, turned, and made his way back to the surface. The music he heard as he was leaving was once again the original tune he had first heard. By the time he reached the platform the only noises were of trains and commuters.
The next day the clouds in the sky took on a violent disposition. The wind to howled in pain as if to respond. Alex did not bother looking up this day, nor did he notice the winds whipping his face. His mother hadn’t needed anything from the store this day, she had just rewarded him with another nickel just for being a good errand boy. She said his timeliness had earned him an ‘incentive’. He wasn’t thinking about the candy. The only thing ‘sweet’ Alex wanted was to hear the enchanting melody of the kobza once again.
 He wore the grin of an eager child on Christmas morning as he approached the subway station. He took the terminal stairs three at a time while holding the hand rail for support. By the time Alex made it to the platform, he was giggling to himself. Quickly skipping his way to the door he failed to notice how still the station was. He pushed the neglected service door open and felt his pulse increase.
By the time he arrived at the “T” intersection, Alex thought his head might explode from anticipation. A sudden realization stopped him in his tracks. He couldn’t hear any music yet. Slowly, Alex made his way to where the old man’s camp was, pausing every few steps to listen for the kobza. His spirits were nearly destroyed when he arrived at the camp only to find it vacant. Just as the tendrils of despair were about to entwine his heart, a faint noise brought a ray of hope to his darkening mood.
“Could it…” Alex whispered to himself. He’d know soon enough.
As Alex approached the chest high metal chain the sound steadily grew louder. Eager for a new, fresh duma he lifted the sign and made his way deeper in. Even if he had bothered reading the words “warning” and “storm drain basin ahead” Alex still would have followed the music to its source. After a short curved hallway, and down several flights of stairs, the passage finally opened up into a large, circular room. This entire room was filled with the old man’s mysterious melody. In the middle of the room the old man sat on his odd-legged chair, playing his silvery stringed kobza. He stopped suddenly, looked up at Alex, and smiled.
“Now that I am having an audience proper, let us begin our duma for today, da?”
And with that the performance started. Alex nodded silently, his eyes already completely transfixed on the kobza.
“This will be like none other you have heard before, I promise” the man said as he blinked, his eyes turning golden. But Alex was already lost in the serpentine dance of his fingers. Mesmerized by the silver strings and entranced by the haunting melody, he had no clue that a storm raged outside. The rest of the world became a blur—only the duma existed now. Alex didn’t notice when water started coming into the room. Nor did he notice his shoes getting wet. He failed to notice when the water had risen to his knees, or to his waist, or even to his neck. All he heard, all he could think of, was the music.
 Alex also failed to notice changes in the old man. He failed to notice the stool growing bigger and bigger. He missed when it grew a fourth leg, all of which now resembled chicken feet. He missed when the strings grew longer and thicker until they were one long silver rod, almost like a broom handle. He never took note of when the man himself seemed to swell and pulse, becoming a massive and hunched crone. The music was still in his ears as darkness came over him and water filled the room.

Anna sat in the kitchen staring at the clock. What was holding that boy up, she almost thought, but her ponderings were cutoff. From the window, faintly audible over the rain and wind, she thought she heard a kobza. A real kobza. Outside, on the roof of the building across the alley, a strange old man sat on an odd-legged chair, playing a silvery stringed kobza, and singing a haunting tune.

Monday, December 24, 2012

An easy driving test

As the Jack Snyder sat in the all-wheel drive car with the five-star government crash-test rating, teetering back and forth on the edge of a half destroyed guardrail, he reflected how diligently following those same government guidelines got him in his current situation.
              Jack had been a motorcade driver for his command staff when he was enlisted. A DMV driving tester seemed like a cake job in comparison. A well paying, full-time position became available as soon as he was discharged, and so he took it. Looking over at the empty driver’s seat Jack glanced backwards to see his test student standing up about where she had jumped out of the car. She stood with her arms out stretched as if she were looking for something to lean on.
            “My glasses! I can’t see without them,” she screamed as tears ran down her eyes.
            Jack looked back at the driver's seat to see a thick set of horn-rimmed glasses sitting forgotten. As he started to lean towards them, the car began to creak, then gently sway forward. He quickly leaned back against the seat. The car creaked louder and teetered backwards towards the road.
            “I have them Ms. Benson, but you’ll have to work with me.”
            “What? I… AAAHHHH!!” Jack was too nervous to turn around and look now, but he was pretty sure she was crying. He had laughed when the other DMV workers told stories of the girl he was testing today. He thought they had made up stories of her almost hitting her own mother during a failed driving test. He hadn’t believed the rumors of her putting a giant hole in the testing center, and later on closing it for over a two weeks during another botched attempt. He had thoroughly dismissed the sordid gossip that she had ever caused one middle-aged tester to go into cardiac arrest.
            The reality Jack Snyder now faced told assured him that those rumors were scarily more fact than fiction. He had witnessed the woman’s own nervousness almost cause an accident three times before starting the ignition. He wondered if he could get her focused for just three or four seconds.
            “Listen, Ms. Benson. I can give you your glasses, but you need to work with me.”
            He was answered with silence. There was a loud blaring of sinuses being cleared, a cough, and then a throat being cleared.
            “This won’t go against my test scores?” She seemed to have stopped crying.
            “No, Ms. Benson, your scores will not be adversely affected. In fact, complete this next exercise and we’ll consider you having passed.”
            “Well, I’m not sure…” A loud groan from the car seemed to respond.
            “It’ll only take a moment, and you’ll finally have your license.” He was starting to go hoarse from yelling, but Jack was desperate.
            “Oh that’ll make me so happy!”
            “Everyone at the DMV will be happy as well. First, you have to help me though. Are you ready?”
            “Ok dear. What’s first?” She was facing the car with her arms out stretched, its exact shape and predicament being several feet away was apparently too much for her myopic vision to render.
            “Just walk forward until you touch the car, it’s not very far, when you do, push down for a few seconds, I’ll do the rest.”
            Surprisingly, there was only silence until the car swayed backwards slightly until it firmly stopped.
            “Now what dear?”
            “Hold it for five seconds.” Jack scooted to the driver side, shifted the car form neutral to reverse, then began backing it up ever so slightly. “Move with me Ms. Benson,” he directed. After a couple of feet, the vehicle stopped as the rail wedged behind the front tires.
            Jack climbed out, glasses in hand, then placed them on Ms. Benson.
“Before you can ask, yes, you passed. We’ll just call the rest “mechanical failure”.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Suitcase

Nelson placed his brown, travel-worn suitcase on the stiff hotel quilt, threw his coat behind him on the other bed, then popped open the half-tarnished latches. He quickly undid the safety straps and proceeded to deftly unpack his shirts, socks, and underwear into piles on the bed behind him. Nelson had discovered the joy of using two beds early on in his career. A leaky window and heavy autumn rains had caused his room to be switched with a vacant double. He found the extra bed worked better than hotel dressers that reeked of cheap cedar and varnish. With his clothes laid out he closed the suitcase and placed it at the foot of the bed next to the clothes piles.
            He stopped and stared at his brown, travel-worn suitcase. Ester had given it to him as a gift a week after he started with the company. She had told him that he was going to go places, both in the company and in the world, and that a sturdy suitcase would become his home away from home. He gently caressed one of the battered brass rivets, feeling the rough speckles of age and decay. He ran his finger along the worn edge, feeling the brown leathery exterior becoming a thin, sand-colored line of fuzz. Nelson stopped halfway to flick up the handle with a loud creak only to let gravity instantly return it with a louder creak and clatter. The faux wood grain pattern had long ago given away to the dark caramel color underneath.
            It’s seen better days… Nelson thought to himself, but it still does its job as good today as it did on its first day. No one outside of hotel staff and the occasional “companion” would ever see it, so what did it matter? Nelson had lived out of that suitcase for literately years. He was pretty sure that only one of his suits, and none of his socks and underwear, had ever seen his actual bedroom, or his house for that matter.             When was the last time he had seen his own bedroom, he suddenly wondered.
            His gaze once again returned to his brown, travel-worn suitcase. Again, he caressed the battered brass rivets, feeling the red-brown age of life on the road eat away at the lustrous yellow fasteners. Time had tried to break down and weaken the fasteners, scar and fade the leathery outside, and even remove the smallest accent of class from the handle.
            But time had failed. The suitcase was still sound. It still held its cargo. As long as it could still do its job, a use could be found for it. It would not be thrown away as long as it could still do its job…I wish I were a suitcase…
            Nelson started chuckling to himself at the ridiculousness of the thought. As he started laughing in earnest, he felt tears well-up in his eyes. His laughs became howls, then cries of pure anguish. The years and years of time alone, the miles and miles traveled without a companion, all of this flooded out in streams and wails. This robbed his legs of their strength and left him kneeling face down in front of the suitcase.
            Time spun by and he looked up through blurry eyes at the brown, travel-worn suitcase.
            I wish I were a suitcase… thought Nelson, then he dropped his head back down, his back heaving deeply between sobs of pain. I wish I were a suitcase…

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Racing the Desert Dawn

Just a few steps more and I can finally get some sleep.
            Those words became Paulo’s mantra as he made his way through sparse scrub under the relentlessly midday sun. His whole life had been in the desert and he would probably die here as well. As far back as anyone knew his kin had called the desert home. Some said that long, long ago they had once been seafarers, but that was a world away and a time long past.
            Sure he might someday wind up in a cushy suburban prison with all the luxuries and accommodations. Paulo could also envision living in a stately townhouse or condo in the city. He wouldn’t even mind being a celebrity up on stage for the whole world to see.
            But those were all just a haze in the distance, shimmering specters on the sand. His life was in the desert and would be until the day he died. He had no doubts about that.
What he was starting to have doubts about was whether or not he would make it out of the sun before he was baked to a crisp. Today’s work had brought farther than he usually liked to go. It’s not that he was concerned about the desert. To him it was simply being home. No matter what happened, no matter how far he had traveled, Paulo always managed to find his way back home.
Last spring had been a close call, but rain in the desert is a mixed blessing. A short, heavy shower had quickly oversaturated the barren hardpan causing flash floods. Paulo had barely crested the far bank when a roaring white and brown wall instantly refilled the once-dry river bed. On this day there was no rain in sight. Not even a single cloud in the sky.
But that didn’t matter. Soon enough he would be able to relax and maybe even get some sleep. He could rest in the shade, enjoying the cool comfort of his earthen home. The desert clay had been used by many in their home construction and Paulo was no exception. It was there, free to use, and home could be made from it, what more did he need to know?
He stopped. The tremor quickly grew until Paulo’s entire world was shaking and rumbling. Then just as quickly it was over. Life in the desert was a lot of things, but boring was definitely not one of them. Many, many things could end your life out here. The desert itself was enough to cull the weakest. The creatures that survived her could be even worse.
But I suppose I am one of them after all. If he could have chuckled he would have but right now there was only home and the prospect of getting there.
He stopped again. The tremor grew more slowly this time, then it started to lessen.
Maybe this time I’ll— but that was it. Everything had stopped, and he was already dead. It happened so fast he never even felt a thing.

“Ya got signal now?” Elmore reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and cleared the desert dust from his sinuses. “Well woman?”
“You ‘well woman’ ME one mo’ time and I’ll have you like them miners and them little girls—deep in the ground needin’ twenty dozen recue workers to free yo—”
“Do ya got signal or not? The good Lord may wait but the Shriners ain’t gonna an I’m representing our lodge at the national convention this year. You DO remember that’s why we came out here, dontcha Lucille?”
“Oh I KNOW why we came out here, just settle yo’self down before ya git yo ulcer flarin’ up again! I gotta step outta the car first anyhow…” Elmore was already gazing off in the distance as Lucille was climbing out of their Chevy to try her phone again.
“Elmore! Elmore! Get out here!”
Startled back to reality Elmore looked over to see his wife standing in the middle of the desert road pointing at the front of the car and dancing on the pavement. As he came around the front he saw her tormentor. Half sticking out from under the front passenger tire was a huge khaki-colored scorpion.
“Aww Lucille, is that all? Po’ fella was probably just trying to git home and git outta the sun.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Canadian Christmas Tart

The oven timer dinged.
            In an almost pavlovian response, Carmen jumped up from her seat. She placed her tiny hands in the large oven mitts, reached for the oven door, then paused.
            She had made lemon hazelnut tarts dozens of times with her grandmother, but this one was special. It was the first she had made completely on her own. The sense of responsibility was almost overwhelming, the weight of tradition crushing her young mind like walnuts in a nutcracker. Had she folded the eggs properly? Did she butter the pan sufficiently? Were the peaks of the meringue stiff enough?
            “The meringue!” she yelled to the empty room. Her grandmother had told her countless times how important timing was in baking. It was almost an hour until midnight, and if the tart wasn’t successful there wouldn’t be enough time to bake another.
            She opened the oven door, reached in with the over-sized mitts, and pulled out the tart. Carmen sighed in relief as she looked at the pie. The meringue had just started cracking. Her grandmother had said this was the sign of a well made tart. She giggled with glee as she set it on the counter to cool. Soon it would be placed out by the Christmas tree, a thank you for the merry gift giver.
            Her mother walked in just as she closed the oven door. She looked at the tart on the counter and beamed.
            “Très magnifique, ma fille! The viceregal consort would be proud.”
            A large smile filled Carmen’s face, then quickly faded.
            “Thank you, mama. But it is not the same, not without Mémé.” She dropped her head so her mother wouldn’t see the budding tear drops.
            She was surprised to find a pair of arms lovingly embracing her. A product of the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, her mother was the epitome of virtue, elegance, and sadly, emotional aloofness.
            “Let it out, ma fille, let it out.” Carmen felt her mother’s gentle hand caress her hair as she softly hummed Gloria, her grandmother’s favorite carol. This last gesture broke Carmen’s resolve, small streams running down her face.
            As she finished the song, her mother held up a handkerchief. As Carmen wiped her face, her mother spoke again.
            “Did you know that your grandmémé started the tradition of this tart?”
Carmen nodded.
            “When I asked her why we couldn’t have bûche de Noël or tourte à la viande like the other children, do you know what she said?”
            “No one was ever special by being just like everyone else.”
            “You were listening to her tales? Then know that she treasured you very dearly. You are the only one who can carry on this tradition.”
            “But why can’t you, mama?”
            “Have you ever seen me making food myself?”
            Carmen thought hard. Louis was the chef her parents had hired last year, but before that it had always been her grandmother doing the cooking and baking.
            “But didn’t she teach you?”
            “Oh she tried, ma fille, she tried.” Her mother started chuckling. “After the fourth time of the oven catching fire, we talked, and decided the kitchen was not a place I belonged in.”
            Carmen started giggling at the thought of her austere mother setting a confection aflame.
            “When she first took up residence with us, shortly after you were born, she insisted on doing all of the cooking and baking. She said she had to make up for the time she spent as the Châtelaine of Rideau Hall.” Her mother held her hands while smiling at her softly. “Enough of the past. There is still the réveillon to finish here in the present. When we are done, the tart will be cooled, and we can then leave it out for Père Noël.”
            Carmen smiled and nodded silently. She glanced back at the tart as she followed her mother out of the kitchen. She was the only one, she thought to herself, and smiled.

            With a heavy sigh, Carmen trod her way into the kitchen, letting the door swing freely closed behind her. The réveillon had all but exhausted her. Had she taken another bite, she was afraid her corset would have burst. The only food she cared about now was one she had no plans of eating immediately.
            She walked over and placed her slender hands on both sides of the now cooled tart. Deftly she removed it from the tart pan and placed it upon a silver serving dish. The crust was a perfect shade of gold while the meringue had a warm tinting of hazel, just like the delicious nuts that were baked inside. Mémé would have been proud indeed.
            “I almost forgot!” Carmen exclaimed in shock.
            She went over to an old, faded chartreuse cupboard and slid open the lowest drawer. She pulled forth a single small mug and small porcelain plate. Closing the drawer, she practically skipped back to the tart. She gazed at the former mason jar turned mug. A small glass handle was affixed by the same nameless craftsman who had etched the snowflake patterns on it, or so her grandmémé had told her. The plate had a single green ring painted crudely along the edge with an equally crude lone sprig of holly was painted slightly off center. Her grandmémé had told Carmen that she had bought both items many years ago, when she herself was a young girl. Regardless of their actual worth, to Carmen they were priceless heirlooms.
            She picked up a large chef’s knife and small silver pie server. She ‘blessed’ the cake quickly, as her grandmémé had taught her, then ever so delicately made the first slice into the fresh tart. It wasn’t until she slid the knife free and exhaled that Carmen realized she had been holding her breath. She could feel her pulse quicken with anticipation. Carefully she made the second cut, the knife seeming to stick briefly as if it had caught something, only to cleave the crust cleanly an instant later.
            Sudden fear began to rise up.
            Was the crust overcooked? Was the knife some how dull? Would the piece come out cleanly?
            Carmen once again held her breath as she slid the server carefully under the piece. She waited for the obstacle of a burnt crust to block her progress, but it was nowhere to be found. She gulped hard as she steadied herself. With the anxious concentration of a surgeon, she slowly lifted the piece. A huge smile enveloped her face as she saw that both sides were cleanly cut.
            Carmen placed the slice on the plate, and removed the server. She then went over to the refrigerator and produced a tall carafe filled with a pale yellow liquid that smelled strongly of nutmeg. Her mother, in a rare moment of capriciousness, called it ‘virgin nog’ and claimed that their regular eggnog might result in a slightly inebriated Santa, and that could have dire consequences such as falling off a roof or crashing his sleigh. While she didn’t want any part of a Christmas catastrophe, Carmen couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of an intoxicated gift bringer stumbling out of a fireplace.
            After filling the mug, she went to the fridge to return the carafe. As she stood in front of the open icebox door, she once again smelled the sweet aroma inside the carafe.
            Glancing around quickly, a devilish grin crossed her face.
            One little sip wouldn’t hurt, right?
            As soon as she swallowed her body felt warm, her mouth and throat assaulted by an unexpected sensation. Coughing roughly, she placed the vessel in the fridge, trying in vain to compose herself. Carmen coughed once more harshly and found her breath again.
            Who knew removing the alcohol from eggnog made it so harsh.
            She placed both plate and mug on a small silver tray and carried them out of the kitchen. The dining room was already empty, the adults having retired for the night as usual. She made her way to the sitting room where the great Christmas tree stood trimmed in silver and gold ornaments with strands of pale blue lights.
            Carmen set the tray on the end table next to the large armchair her father usually sat in. She took a step back, beaming at the small display. She wondered to herself what the reaction on Santa’s face would be when he tried her tart. She wondered if he would be able to tell the difference. Would he like it? Would he spit it out in disgust? Would she receive nothing but lumps of coal as a result? As thoughts began swirling in her head, she felt her balance start to wobble.
            She caught herself on the arm of the large chair as the spinning slowly stopped. Carmen lifted her head up, once again staring at the slice of tart and nog-filled mug on the small silver tray.
            What if she didn’t have to wait?
            A devilish grin once again filled the young girl’s face. She went over to the sofa and grabbed the throw off the back along with one of the large, ornamental pillows. She then found a spot deep in the shadows of the far side of the room. As she hunkered down, propping the pillow against her back, she covered herself with the large throw, leaving just enough of a space to view the table and the tree.
            Carmen jumped at the chime of the old grandfather clock. It was half past one and there were still no present.
            He would come soon—she was sure of it. She yawned in spite of her determination. Hopefully very soon. She was in the middle of a second yawn when another sound brought her to full alert.
            It was a faint muffled noise from the direction of the fireplace. As she was straining to see in the pale blue glow of the tree lights a sudden whump almost made her scream. Carmen watched breathlessly as a rotund, hoary man garbed in scarlet stepped out from the shadows onto the hearth, an immense satchel slung across his back.
            He made his way towards the tree, stopping in front of the end table with the small silver serving tray on it. He placed his bag on the floor and gave a hearty, familiar laugh. The jolly old elf picked up the glass mug and took a sip, then gave another hearty laugh as he set it back on the tray. He then reached for the slice of tart.
            A fork!
            Carmen knew she had forgotten something. As beads of sweat formed on her brow, she was instantly relieved. The venerable benefactor simply picked up the entire slice with his bare hand. She could feel her heart race speed up as the piece moved towards his mouth. As he bit down she felt herself swallowing reflexively.
            The eternal elf dropped the slice and grabbed his throat, the heirloom plate shattering on the floor. Immediately, he began pounding his chest, then punching his stomach. He stumbled around, seeming to lose his balance, then promptly fell over, flipping over the small silver serving tray as he fell, sending the antique mug flying across the room to shatter against the far wall.
            An intense fear mixed with realization sent a jumbled mix of emotions through Carmen’s body. She had forgotten to chop the hazelnuts, she coldly realized. When she had cut the slice it must have been one of the nuts being pushed aside that had interrupted the knife.
            She had forgotten to chop the nuts, and as a result she had just killed Santa Claus.
An eerie long silence passed before she started to move. She stood up, slowly, and made her way to where the body of the beloved figure now lay lifeless.
            Tentatively, she reached out her hand. With a single finger, she poked the old man’s belly, withdrawing it instantly. She poked a second, then third time, and still he did not respond. Tears welled up in her eyes as she dropped to her knees.
            “Why?” she screamed. She pounded her tiny fist against the broad barrel of a chest. She looked up at the ceiling. “Why?” she creaked inaudibly.
            The grandfather clock seemed to answer.
            It had all happened so fast—
            Carmen’s thoughts stopped.
            Just what time was it?
            Shouldn’t it be only two?
            What’s going on here?
            Now she knew something was amiss
            It was still dark outside.
            Was she . . .
            With the last chime, time seemed to slow down. Carmen felt her senses becoming odd and disjointed. She had the sensation of swimming. Suddenly, she was viewing the room and scene from above herself. She was paralyzed and couldn’t move. Nothing seemed right.

            The oven timer dinged.
            In an almost pavlovian response, Carmen jumped up from her seat. She was reaching for the oven mitts when she froze. Then she laughed. What a horrible, terrible dream she had just had.
            She opened the oven door, reached in with the over-sized mitts, and pulled out the tart. Carmen sighed in relief as she looked at the pie. The meringue had just started cracking. Her grandmother had said this was the sign of a well made tart. She giggled with glee as she set it on the counter to cool. She placed the oven mitts on the counter.
            “Mama, mama,” she cried out, half laughing to herself. Her mother would scold her for having such a dark dream.
            Her jovial mood was shattered as she entered the dining room. Several RCMP agents were in the room. One was speaking with her mother, who was seated at the table, sobbing profusely.
            “There she is!” one of the officers shouted. Instantly she was surrounded, her hands placed behind her back. The officers placed handcuffs on her wrists as they lead her out of the dining room.
            “Mama!” Carmen yelled. Her face was covered in tears.
            “Vous êtes mort pour moi! I have no daughter.” With that she spat on the young girl.             “Remove her from my sight.”
            “Mama!” she cried again, but her plea went ignored.
            Wordlessly the police led her through the house, past the sitting room.
            As she walked past she looked up to see more police and photographers surrounding the body.
            The grandfather clock seemed to reply.
            This was all too horrible.
            This was all too cruel.
            If only Mémé were still here, none of this would have happened.
            They were at the front door.
The police officer opened it.
            There, standing outside, was not more police officers. It was not a media circus. There simply stood a small, yet regal bearing old lady. She smiled softly at Carmen.
            “Mémé!” Carmen exclaimed.
            “What are you doing? Why are you not enjoying the morning?”
            Confused, Carmen blinked wordlessly at the matron.
            “Do you really believe this is happening?”
            With the last question, a familiar sensation returned to Carmen. Once again, her senses became disjointed. Once again, she had the sensation of swimming. As her whole world started to darken she looked at the old woman again.
            “Joyeux Noël,” Carmen heard faintly.
            Carmen sat up with a start. She was in the sitting room. She looked over to see the front of the tree filled with presents. Gone were the shattered heirlooms, gone was the overturned serving tray, gone was the tragic scene she had so vividly experienced.
            Carmen walked over to the now empty plate and mug. All that remained was a small folded piece of paper on the plate, her name written upon it in an exquisite golden script.
            Thank you, it read, your Mémé would be proud.
            Carmen collapsed into the large armchair, tears of joy running down her face.           


What this is . . .

This is a collection of stories I have written other times, for other reasons. They are a bit longer and more polished than on my other blog.