Remotely Social

Heidi House AtaraKatz

Photo: Atara Katz

 

She’d have preferred to not have even as much contact with others as the job required, but the alternatives were worse, and she couldn’t argue with the benefits:

A roof over her head.

Supplies.

A stipend for the necessaries.

The most-days-solitude.

Granted, there were days when she could feel the walls press close around her and the vistas felt airless. She’d scan the horizon, then, wondering when someone would stop by that she could talk to. Vulnerable in her need, her fingers would reach for the radio, yearning to hear a voice that was not her own, and she’d make some excuse about checking the weather or changing the date of the next airdrop.

And yet she could not wait to end the conversation – if that was what one could call the brief exchange with the dispatch to arrange a fly-by or a stop-drop of supplies – so the last of the vowels could evaporate into the quiet.

Human contact suffocated her.

Its lack bore holes into her soul.

It was untenable, and all she could do is try and find some semblance of balance between loneliness and overwhelm.

There were no roads to the respite cabin, only footpaths, or for those who braved the crosswind, a rocky field in which to try and land a chopper. The nearest town was a hard three-days trek through the mountains.

Once in a while she’d see a shepherd who’d misread a storm and sought shelter. Sometimes another ranger would stop in during an upkeep task, to resupply or send an update to headquarters. Those were hardy, silent persons like herself, who welcomed a warm bowl of soup, a place to dry their clothes, and a break from the wind, but needed little in the way of clucking.

The trekkers, for whom the respite cabin was intended, thankfully limited themselves to the brief season when the weather was most forgiving. Her outpost was stationed on what was a remote route even for the most intrepid hikers, and yet some evenings in midsummer the small cabin would be bursting at the seams with chatter and the smell of unwashed feet, damp shoes, and giddy overconfidence. The bunks slept eight. To have even three occupied felt to her like eighty.

The trekkers would all leave in early morning, bellies full of oats and faces flushed with sleep, and she would not know if their eagerness was for the day’s exertions or to get to where they could safely gossip about the agonies of trying to wrest a word out of the reticent resident ranger.

She’d grow skinless by the time fall brought with it a piercing cold and the relief of rarer human sightings.

It would be weeks into winter before her fingers reached for the radio, pining to hear another person’s word.

So she was not prepared for the knock that came, an hour into night in early winter.

There was no storm. No ranger’s late arrival. No shepherd.

Just a youth. Half-frozen and her belly swollen, and in her eyes a look that pleaded urgent need even as it warned to keep a distance.

It could have been herself.

Fifteen years back.

 

 

 

For the SoCS prompt: Social

 

 

The Look

Atilla the tractor 1

 

“It is looking at me.”

“What is?” I was dozing off in the delicious sun on the first dry weekend we’d had in a while. The lush grass under me felt springy.

I thought the word was so apt. Springy. The double meaning of the season and the bouncy vivaciousness of it all.

“It is looking at me.”

I inhaled slowly with more resignation than irritation. I might’ve known this would not go as I had envisioned. While I was content to lie still and let the sounds of the birds and the hiss of the breeze and the faraway whir of a tractor in someone’s field fill and nourish me, Marlee had been tugging on grass-blades and clucking her tongue and shifting positions every three seconds.

She’s always been flighty. A flit-bit full of frown and furrow, forever on the edge of tumbling from one thing to another.

I loved it about her. She was the counter-weight to my molasses and the engine to my stasis. Her hypervigilance also made my idea of a relaxing afternoon where we do nothing, an utterly foreign thing.

Perhaps an even frightening one.

I opened my eyes. “What’s looking at you?”

“That.”

I raised myself on an elbow and scanned the field. There was no one there.

Marlee sat, violin-string-tight, eyes glued ahead.

I followed her line of sight. Nothing. Not even a bunny. Just a tractor that most likely belongs to the farmer whose land we might be trespassing on. I squinted against the glare – the cab was empty – there was no one there.

Marlee did not move.

Resigned now, I sat up and stared harder. A caterpillar undulated up a flower’s stem by my knee. A bird dove at the tractor, perched momentarily on a mirror, and flew away.

“The bird?” I chanced.

Marlee shook her head but her eyes remained trained on the vehicle. “The tractor,” she said. “That thing has eyes. I swear it blinked at me.”

 

 

 

For Crimson’s Creative Challenge

 

The Apprentice

The monochrome image shows the base of a tree with a hole, like a doorway, through its base...

Photo prompt: Sue Vincent

 

“It requires one step through.”

She squinted at the trunk. “I can see the other side.”

“So it would seem.”

She circled the tree and peeked through the opening. “It is as I said. I can see your legs.”

“I’m sure you believe you can.”

His calm voice infuriated her, but she knew that getting riled up will only lead to another long lesson in teaching her self-control.

She breathed.

He nodded.

She turned away from him and breathed again and then counted to ten for good measure. She could almost imagine him chuckling, though she knew he probably would not give her the satisfaction of seeing him react that way. Still, she could feel his amusement. It had been the hardest thing for her. His mild dismissing mockery. It was a constant reminder that she was a mere neophyte swimming furiously upstream in hope of getting even the smallest measure of trust, let alone recognition.

Why did he take her on when he had so little regard for her?

She circled the tree one more time. In part to move some of her agitation, but also to use the trunk as some shelter from her mentor’s scrutiny. She knew what her eyes told her: A hole in a tree, a gap she could toss a pebble through (not that she’d dare, now that he told her what it was), certainly of no size to fit a person.

She also knew that eyes can lie.

Still she resisted.

“Perhaps you aren’t ready.”

In spite of herself she felt her fingers clench. She hated when he did that. It made her feel like a child to be goaded.

Perhaps I am not, she retorted in her mind.

“Indeed, perhaps you’re not.”

Her eyes flew to meet his. She had suspected for some time that he could read her mind, and it felt like someone’s wandering hands rifling through her underwear drawer.

“I could read it in your eyes,” he noted, confirming rather than reassuring.

“What if I go through with it?” she sighed. She felt not so much resigned as she did defeated. He always got his way in the end. She could flail about and delay and prolong the path and belabor the process, but inevitably he got her to do things as he’d wanted. Half the time she thought his goal was to get her to where she would no longer resist him, while half the time she felt that the day she ceased rebelling would be the day he tell her that she’d failed completely.

Even now he did not answer till she asked again.

“You will see what there is for you to see.” He lifted his hand to indicate it was time for her to suspend all judgement, ignore her perceptions, and walk through the tree that he said was a portal.

“Is this the last test?” she fretted.

At that he chuckled. “It is never the last test …”

As she turned toward the tree she heard him add in a small voice that perhaps was made with mind, not larynx, “not for you, not for me.”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto

 

Rosie Rhymes

Ring-a-ring-a-roses KateGreenway MotherGooseNurseryRhymes 1881

Kate Greenway, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes 1881

 

“Ring-a-ring-a-roses; A pocket full of posies; Hush-hush, Hush-hush; We’re all tumbled down!”

“She can play like this for hours,” Mary sighed.

Alice gazed at the child, who with arms spread wide to the sides, continued to spin about the garden’s green, dipping a curtsy at the final line before going back again to the first. Her pitch was perfect and her voice was sweet, but the bouncy ringlets and pinafore over a knee-high calico dress only highlighted the oddity.

It was adorable when Rosie was six years old. The girl was nearly thirteen.

“How’s Rosie’s schooling coming along?” Alice tried.

Mary’s smile faltered for a second before a placid screen unfurled over her face. “Just fine,” she breathed. “It’s coming along just fine, dear. Did you try the rose-petal marmalade? Mrs. Hannah outdid herself this year.”

It is like watching a wind-up toy, Alice thought. She never could get her sister to speak candidly about the child. None of them could. They all knew much was wrong, yet it was nigh impossible to discuss it. There’d been some concerns before the accident, of course, though Rosie had been very young then and much was explained away as the idiosyncrasies of an only child with an active imagination.

Then the accident happened and it was as if Mary had stopped the clock. On her own life as well as Rosie’s. The child seemed content enough, delayed and mostly mute outside of singing as she was. But how much did any of them know about the child’s true reality and potential, and how much was her mother’s doing, impeding her growth?

“Ring-a-ring-a-roses …”

Rosie’s singing rang in Alice’s ears and suddenly she could not stand it any longer.

“Mary,” she pressed, “I know this expert …”

Her sister raised a delicate hand. “We have all we need, Alice.”

Alice shook her head. “No, you don’t. I love you, and I know you love Rosie dearly, but she’ll be a woman soon … and she can’t stay six forever. Let me get the both of you some help. It’s not about trying to force her to do what she cannot, if she cannot … I mean, I know she’s a little …” her sister’s eyes stopped her. Brittle. Angry. Warning.

“… I … I can see she seems happy,” Alice inhaled and paused, hoping for a relenting crack in her sister’s eyes.

There was none.

“Indeed she is happy,” Mary clipped. “And we shall keep it this way, shall we?” She turned her head a tad, so that her eyes rested partially on the closed wing of the manor where the stone would forever be a bit dark, and partially on the child she’d frozen in time. The sweet girl who did not need to know more than what she’d known the day before she had tipped a candle onto paper and accidentally, fatally, set fire to her father’s study. “Now, about that marmalade!”

 

 

 

For the SoCS prompt: Rhymes with rosy

 

Elves’ Dew

Basalt Fog KarenForte

Photo: Karen Forte

 

He was a Shrouder, ordained from birth to emerge in mist and fog to collect Elves’ Dew from basalt rocks. Ordinary persons could not discern the quality of water imbued by the Fair Folk. Detecting the elusive shimmer took innate talent and a good amount of training to trust what one saw right on the edge between the real and imagined.

Elves’ Dew. The world’s very spin depended on it, and yet most people did not know or believe it existed.

Thornsten used to think it odd. “Do they really not see or do they refuse to?” he’d asked Boulder. He must have been no taller than the large man’s knee at the time. Four or five summers old at most, and a wee one at height even for that.

Most of them were. Smaller.

Early born. Sickly. Odd in growing. The ones already half-way here and half-way in the other worlds.

Boulder was in that sense an anomaly for a Shrouder. Six-feet-tall and barrel-chested, he could lift rocks the size of a small man and break little sweat for it. He towered over most of common men, let alone the Shrouders he was training. And yet he was a Shrouder, and perhaps the better of them. Or was, some said, till Thornsten.

“They see only in parts,” Boulder had responded. “Like black and white instead of color.”

“But you do not see color,” Thornsten argued. Boulder’s eyes had been milky gray with whitish film from birth. “And anyway, the shimmer has no hue.”

But Boulder had only nodded and said no more and left the boy to wallow in a prolonged pouting and to wrestle whatever meaning he could out of the answer.

It was the way of Shrouders to do so.

A moody tendency that some saw as obstinacy and some excused as a product of having seen the afterlife and been sent back on delayed entry.

Thornsten thought that was odd, too. How else was one to ruminate an understanding without time spent submerged in one’s own moroseness?

In any event, by the time he reached eight summers, he came to think of others’ lack of belief in Elves’ Dew as more of a matter of need for adequate technology for visualizing the mythical. Perhaps a bit like how people hadn’t believed that germs were real only because they could not see them, and so had refused to wash their hands from the effluvia of death before they tended to laboring women. It had been a costly — and for some, a lingering — ignorance. Same could be said for the stubborn denial of the reality of Elves’ Dew, when the essence was mandatory for life’s survival. Would there ever be lenses that could translate Elves’ Dew into what ordinary people saw?

He asked Boulder about it the next time the mountain breathed in their souls and let them know it was time to go collecting.

The cool air pooled around their feet as they climbed. It filled their lungs with memories of moisture. In the midst of resting clouds there shimmered pearls of Elves’ Dew. It boggled Thornsten’s mind that some could not see them when they were clear as morning.

“Perhaps a way would be found,” Boulder answered. “But we best ensure life remains viable until people evolve sufficiently to manage it.”

He bent his bulk and siphoned a few drops into a cask, careful to leave some behind for the Fairies.

“But evolution itself depends on Elves’ Dew,” Thornsten countered.

The large man shrugged in reply and Thornsten knew he’d get no more out of him at the moment.

They worked in silence for a while. Behind him Thornsten felt more than heard the other Shrouders. The small troop had been listening to his conversation as well as to the mountain’s breath.

He pouted, but in spite of him the calm of the misty fog filled his inside eye and guided his hands from rocky dent to basalt shelf to precious drops to cask.

Long moments past.

“It may be you, if anyone,” Boulder added so quietly that Thornsten wasn’t sure he’d actually heard words. Recently he found that thoughts had their own voice, sometimes.

He looked up to see Boulder’s milky eyes resting on him.

“You will lead the Shrouders, Thor, and much sooner than I had imagined.” The man’s mouth did not move but the words formed, crystalline, in Thornsten’s mind. “And it won’t surprise me if you’ll somehow lead the ordinary folk to the marvels for which they had till now been blind.”

 

 

 

For the Friday Fun Foto challenge: Mythical

 

Tea For One

Reena Saxena

Photo Credit: Reena Saxena

 

It will be tea for one. Again.

She boiled the water in the pot they’d gotten on their honeymoon in Venice, and she spread the tablecloth he’d always said reminded him of his grandma’s parlor (and had always added “in the best way possible” when she’d frown).

She rearranged the mismatched chairs left from the two sets they’d combined when they moved in together, but then returned the plaid one so it rested half-turned to the table and half-facing the radio. Like old times. Like the many evenings when she’d mend some this or that or mark her students’ lessons, while he’d lean forward onto one palm and watch her from the corner of his eye even as his attention was on his favorite broadcast.

“I have eight favorites,” he’d often chuckle. “One for each day of the week and two on Sunday.”

“But none as favorite as you,” he’d always add, just because he knew it pleased her to be reminded that she mattered more …

 

She turned the burner off when the kettle wailed, a lone wolf in the night. She spooned some of the good tea into the teapot, and poured the water on the leaves to let it steep, then capped the pot and dressed it with the cozy she’d made from his favorite sweater when it had too many holes to patch and too much love to throw away.

“You don’t toss away much,” he’d tease her, and they both knew it was both compliment and understanding. They’d grown with little and later had even less, so she had learned to not let go of things too easily.

“I do keep you around, don’t I?” she’d tease back … some days only half in jest for how he’d manage to so exasperate her. Muddy shoes inside the house and socks that never quite made it into the hamper, and an infuriating tendency to not recall the milk or pay the mortgage. Never mind remembering her birthday or their anniversary.

Or the time he’d strayed from vows … and bore a hole into her heart that never fully mended.

She’d forgiven him for that. Of sort. Or as much as anyone can a betrayal. For she’d come to understand it was based less on his disrespect of her as it was on his embedded insecurities. He’d cried in shame when he’d confessed his indiscretion and she’d ended up comforting him, feeling both tender and resentful.

He’d bought her the tea caddie after that. The hand-carved thing of beauty had cost a ridiculous amount and did little to improve upon the one they’d had already … other than in how it served as a reminder for the cost of pain and of his commitment to penance.

 

She passed a finger over the caddie’s rounded top and felt each curve like a canyon of memories in her heart. When she’d fallen ill after their failed attempt at parenting, and the bills kept mounting, he’d almost sold his beloved radio to make payments. Yet he’d refused to discuss letting go of the caddie.

“It is worth a small fortune,” she had tried.

“And that is exactly why it is befitting of you that it stay,” he had replied.

 

She sighed and sat and poured the tea into her cup and watched the steam cloud the glass as the fluid rose like unabated sorrow.

It was their anniversary. The third since he’d left her, this time to where no tea caddie and no amount of tears could remedy.

“Do not hasten to follow,” he’d begged her promise when they both knew it was time. “Go on and live for me.”

Perhaps she wouldn’t have promised had she known quite how bereft she would be without him. Yet she had given him her word, and she was not about to introduce betrayal into the fabric they had so labored to repair.

It will be tea for one, again. Today.

 

 

For the Sunday Photo Fiction Challenge

 

The Key

Photo Credit: Sue Vincent

 

Practically everyone but the real-estate agent had been against him purchasing the place.

“That heap of rot is a death trap,” his friend Tomas had said.

“It is haunted,” Fran had shuddered. “You’ll get murdered in your sleep and become another ghost, just like them.”

Others hadn’t been much subtler:

“The place is a wreck!”

“This monster will eat up all your money and spit you out broke and homeless.”

“Are you out of your effing mind?”

“Gosh, Dude, you need a shrink!”

To be fair, the last two statements were probably true. … Not that this stopped him from finding ways to manage all these years without a shrink. Not that there weren’t times during the first year in the house, when the old thing seemed intent on falling about his ears and his bank account skied a Black Diamond toward zero, when he didn’t wonder whether his mental health was sliding south just as precipitously.

But he’d held on to his bootstraps and soldiered on. In part to not lose face but mostly because he had indeed sank so much of his limited assets into the house that there was no way out but through. He gave up his rental apartment in town and erected a tent in the middle of the mansion’s living room where the roof leaked the least. He uncovered the well and hauled out buckets of muck before clean water once more found purchase. He cleared paths through the overgrown hedges and the man-height weeds that overtook what had been a lawn around the house. He scraped moss and mold off of stone walls. He evicted pigeons, rats, squirrels, countless spiders, and a skunk that made sure her discontent lingered. He discovered woodwork under paint, a carved gate under briars, a clubfoot tub under rubble, and a door to a hidden passageway behind a rotting cabinet.

Here and there a friend would agree to help with this or that, and twice he’d hired someone with engine-muscle to lug out things that needed more than human-power. But most his friends couldn’t help (and some refused to ‘enable’ what they declared an insanity), and hiring anyone ate big bites out of a budget that wasn’t hefty to begin with. So he buckled down and did much of the work himself, making small but steady dents in a mountain he did not think would ever yield to order. The list of things left to do only kept growing: parts of the roof needed repair, the kitchen floor needed replacing, the electric lines were too ancient to hold power, the pipes leaked, and the sewers were more roots than flow. The work was Sisyphean.

And still … between moments of sheer desolation and utter despair, he realized that he was actually sleeping soundly for the first time in his life. A smile would sneak onto his lips as he sanded this or patched up that or cleared another mess of spider webs or thickets. He hummed an ear-worm for a whole weekend and no one shushed him for not being able to carry a tune.

It was as if he’d accepted the house and its flaws, and the house in return had accepted him. He felt happy. He felt at home.

The realization stunned him.

Though he wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, he came to understand that the reason he had been drawn to purchasing a run-down estate with overgrown grounds in the middle of a god-forsaken forest, was in part because of memories of another building surrounded by a tall stone fence: the “Home” that never truly was one and yet had been the only model he’d had.

He’d accumulated more moments of abject misery in the “Home” than he ever wanted to recall. Countless nights yearning to be old enough to leave … even as he’d feared the day he would be made to do so.

This long-neglected house with its aged stone fence and beautiful wide gate, was his. No one could tell him he’d aged out and could not stay. No one could tell him that his bed is needed to make room for someone else, or that it was time for him to fend for himself and no longer rely on the charity of others to feed and clothe and put a roof over his head.

It didn’t matter that the repairs would take years and that most of the rooms would not be usable for just as long. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a clear plan for what he’d use all these rooms for. What mattered was that this old place was real. That it was full of history and memory. That it stood firm onto the ground and offered to be the roots he’d otherwise have no way to lay claim to. This house was him. Healing it was the key to who he could become.

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo prompt invitation

 

Crowned Castle

Castle SmadarHalperinEpshtein

Photo: Smadar Halperin-Epshtein

 

“It doesn’t matter where you live,” they said.

She knew they lied. It most certainly did!

When rain leaked onto your mattress and the wind snuck in through the window and mice crawled over your cheek in the middle of the night, it more than mattered.

“The only thing that matters is who you are,” they said.

Perhaps. But what good was it being a princess if your room was drafty and the tower creaked and the stairs were grooved with age and slippery with sloshed-over chamber-pots?

She’d swap her chamber for a page’s pallet by the hearth, if she could.

 

 

For Sammi’s Weekend Writing Prompt: Castle in 100 words

 

Good Enough

PHOTO PROMPT © J.S. Brand

 

“Do you really think you can do it?”

I nodded into my coffee but my heart fluttered an I-don’t-know.

“You’ll ruin the whole thing.” Stacey stuffed the last bite of bagel in her mouth and grabbed her bag, leaving me the clean up. How symbolic.

I rinsed the pot and the grounds swirled like time into the sink.

My eyes gazed out the window. We hadn’t touched Dad’s stuff. The almost-finished totem. His tools.

“You’re good at this,” he’d once said.

His praise had sustained me, but was I good enough to complete the carving that now he never would?

 

For Rochelle’s Friday Fictioneers

 

She Checks, Mate.

PHOTO PROMPT © Jeff Arnold

 

Matt tapped his lip and danced his foot but I knew it had nothing to do with planning his next move.

“Is your mom home?” he grumbled.

“Yep.”

“So?”

“She’s not going anyplace,” I answered.

“Not like she understands any of this.” Matt was too proud to admit that her presence affected his concentration.

“Tammy’s staying.”

He scowled but must’ve heard the edge in my voice, and dropped it.

No one messed with my little sister. Nonverbal doesn’t mean stupid. Also, Tammy was memorizing all his moves. She’d show me, and next time Matt and I play, I’d win.

 

 

For Rochelle’s Friday Fictioneers