The Constitutional

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“He never would’ve been out there without his hat.”

Elizabeth shook her head in suppressed exasperation. Of course her mother would find fault.

The older woman perched on the edge of the folding chair that Elizabeth and the fresh-faced health-carer had dragged over for her. The flickering episodes of weakness and disorientation had grown more frequent since Grandfather died. Perhaps it had been the shock of finding him, as her mother had, slumped against the edge of the bathtub. Perhaps it had been the letting go that followed endless years of caring for an increasingly ailing parent. Perhaps it was her mother taking on the role of family invalid.

The doctors certainly did not seem to know.

Or know the difference.

Not that Elizabeth could not understand the wish to let go. She could. Very much so.

Caring for her increasingly moody mother gave her a taste of what it had to have been like for her mother to endure the constant worry over and never-ending bitterness of a man who could no longer do what had sustained him. The amicable if somewhat taciturn grandfather had turned into a fussy, verbally cruel, bed-bound tyrant. Her mother’s father had to have become insufferable.

A little like her mother was becoming.

“They should’ve made a hat. It’s all wrong without a hat.” Her mother scowled.

The figure on the hill leaned into the wind. Impossibly lithe and utterly determined, it embodied how Elizabeth the young child had known him. As far back as she could remember, Grandfather never missed a day of what he’d called his “constitutional.” Rain or shine or wind or hail or mist or blazing sun, her grandfather would leave on his solitary afternoon walk, returning — like clockwork — when the sun had disappeared behind the hill.

Elizabeth would wait for him, her child’s body pressed against the stone fence that bordered the estate, and watch his shadow edge on home, his walking stick as part of him as any limb could be. At some point his tweed pants would materialize at the bottom of the shadow, and in another step or two the rest of him would unveil into certainty.

By the time he’d reach the gate, his windblown face would hold a smile for her. He’d nod a welcome, compensating with it for the long wait, for the yearning that he’d take her along (he never did, nor had he taken any of his children before that), and for the fluttery worry that perhaps the shadowed figure was not Grandfather at all, but in fact an elf or ghost or some trickster’s apparition.

She gazed at the silhouette on the hill, its stride frozen forever in the time before a stroke changed everything.

Hat or not, this was how he’d want to be remembered.

“He’d stuff the hat in his pocket when the wind was high,” she whispered, her voice full of sudden sorrow. “He’d pull it out and put it on a step before he reached the gate.”

Her mother’s mouth opened in preparation for automatic argument, but then the wrinkled corners turned down as a quiver shook her chin.

“He did,” her voice a child’s in elder’s clothing. “It is exactly what he’d do.”

Elizabeth squeezed her mother’s shoulder and the older woman placed a trembling hand over her daughter’s.

“It is perfect, then,” her mother murmured. “I’d forgotten. Take me home, Lizzy. Let us allow him his constitutional in peace, now that he can once more go about it.”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto Challenge

 

 

Faith in Stones

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They none of them could explain when it had been built or how it had been done. The standing stones were magic enough, but the slab of solid rock perching above their heads against the laws of order and human power — it went beyond what anyone understood.

Even The Sage did not know.

And she knew everything there was to learn and some of what could not be taught yet she ascertained anyhow.

“Though I heard say …” The Sage stretched the words as every child and many an adult leaned into her speaking. It was the mid-of-day that followed the longest morning. A time of pause and story. “… that it could have been the Angel Bird.”

The elder’s wisps of hair haloed her face. The oval itself was shadowed by the relative darkness under the stone overhang.

A child shifted in his mother’s lap. An errant toddler was reprimanded. A baby’s wail was quieted by its mother’s nipple. The people settled.

The Sage lifted her chin and many eyes followed. Soot and marks of time tanned the gray expanse above.

“In her beak, the Angel Bird can carry many men into the sea. Her wings can mask the stars so fishers lose the way back to their hearths. She can lift a whale and place it on the shore to feed the people. She can bring the howling wind. She can ice the river. She can slash the fire in the skies. Yet she can also pluck a clover and carve a snowflake. She can blow a single hair off of an ailing person’s forehead and lead them back to health or to the place-of-no-more-breath. … ” The Sage paused and filled her own lungs with air. “Perhaps the Angel Bird was the one to lift the slab atop the pillars.”

“Can she take it down?”

An admonishing murmur rose. Young voice or not, saying a thing made it. Now the notion hung above them like storm-clouds. Fear thickened the air but to state the worry might make it, too.

The Sage raised her palm but let the silence linger. Her eyes wandered over the cracks and small crevices of the ancient stone.

The questioning child was not to blame. The Sage had wondered similarly herself. Had her thoughts manifested through the young one’s mind? It had been known to happen. Sometimes it was a sign of too-easy a persuasion. At other times it signaled the nascent perceptiveness of a future apprentice.

The girl met The Sage’s eyes with tears brimming at the unfairness of collective condemnation, but stared on, defiant.

The latter then. The Sage allowed a corner of her lip to twitch. She’ll take it on herself to observe the child. In the meantime the girl deserved the response that had chased away many an hour of The Sage’s sleep.

“Indeed the Angel Bird can …”

People gasped. More frowns were directed at the girl, who pulled herself straighter, pushed a mess of tangled hair off her face, and squared her shoulders.

The latter. No question now.

“And she likely will. In time,” The Sage added.

An audible inhale rippled through the group as more and more faces lifted to inspect the heavy ceiling. No longer a taken-for-granted solid refuge, but a slide-between-the-fingers sand.

“All things die,” The Sage pressed on, aware that the answer had become the opportunity for its own story. “It is no curse nor blessing. No different than the change of seasons or the leaves that bud and green and grow and brown and fall. In early summer it may seem that foliage had always been and always will be, and yet we know that time will come when the leaves will die and the branches be laid bare.”

“This is no leaf,” a woman murmured, eyes uneasily on the rock and her body curled over a nursing infant.

Several other women fidgeted and darted glances at the sunny meadow at the shelter’s side.

The Sage sighed. Panic tended to have its fingers intertwined with knowledge. She knew it better than most.

“Life requires faith,” she said. “Every person who ever took shelter under this place of magic — from the first ancestors to the persons sitting here today — accepted that it is not of our doing. Whether by the Angel Bird or a different magic, this marvel means that our people do not suffer in the rain or ice or burning sun. We did not build this. It is our home but we do not own it. The most we can do is ensure we keep it well and are not the ones to destroy it.”

 

 

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto prompt

A Look Out

Photo prompt © Randy Mazie

 

“What is this place?” My eyes were glued to the small window. Next to me Bertie shuddered and it shook the rickety bench we stood on.

“The place we’re in, or the place out there?” he croaked. We were both of us hoarse from crying, but had moved beyond fear halfway into resignation.

At least it was daytime.

“It looks deserted,” I didn’t really answer.

It’s been hours since all movement above us ceased. Hours since we woke, terrified and hungry, in this basement. The men had left us crackers. At least they didn’t mean for us to die. Yet.

 

 

For Rochelle’s Friday Fictioneers

 

 

A Bit Of Clarity

Photo: Sue Vincent

She always went to the beach for a bit of clarity.

The movement of the water on the sand brought her back into her own breath. The rush of energy reminded her of the push of arteries, the pull of veins. The predictably irregular rhythm of the surf reminded her how ebb and flow do not mean that things will be uniform. They’ll come and go. Each unique. Each set its own and inseparable from what flowed forth before and what is following.

She could count on a wave and then another and another, on the rise and fall, the crash and wash, the small detritus that each leaves and yet is part of what had been and what will be and what just is.

Like life.

Like the muddy, murky, uncertainties of everything.

Where the one thing she could trust was that another wave will come, and that even the biggest wave retreats, at some point, in wavelets of resignation. As another one rolls in.

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto challenge

 

 

The Proposal

Photo prompt: Sue Vincent

 

“You might as well open your eyes now.”

His gravely voice was somewhat amused but carried in it the edge of impatience she’d recognized from her own father. A dismissive tone that simultaneously mocked and tolerated females’ flair for the emotional while also warning said females to not mistake momentary patience for leniency.

Muriel swallowed any sign of sigh. Her body ached from three days rattling on wooden wheels over rocks and gravel and muddy ruts and unexpected pits. To make matters worse, the girl-servant who’d been her companion since childhood, hadn’t been allowed to accompany her, and the rough hands of service women who did not know her, had tied her stays too tight and left the knots digging at her ribs and the small of her back.

She’d closed her eyes in part to manage the ever present nausea of travel forced on her at the opposite direction of movement. However, a goodly bit of it was in order to allow herself at least a semblance of private space in the confines of the carriage. His eyes undressed her either way, but at least she could pretend to not see it.

Her time for privacy was up.

She forced her eyes open and nodded the politest smile she could manage at the man who would be her lord and father-in-law (and if his leering told her anything, also the master of her body, son or no son).

He scared her and his eyes were cruel, but she’d learned at a young age to hide revulsion under a lowering of lashes and to nod compliance as means to reduce inevitable harm.

“You are a girl-child, Muriel,” her mother would soothe and scold her as she gently rubbed salve onto what new welts and bruises another lashing had left on the child. “No matter what they do or ask of you, you must not disobey.”

And yet even her mother, the mistress of the manor, who embodied the balance of stately conduct and humility before her betters, sported the occasional split lip from her husband, Muriel’s father, along with other wounds in areas best left unmentioned. All a female could do was walk the tightrope in attempt to limit scope and frequency of pain.

Muriel raised her eyes to meet the heavy brow of the man who occupied the seat across from her. She calmed her voice so it not reflect her fretting mind.

“Have we almost arrived, My Lord?”

His eyes flicked to the window and she leaned to look through the opening, acutely aware that this brought her body perilously close to his lap.

The lake sprawled at the side of their conveyance, the water undulating lightly in the breeze as afternoon clouds gathered. Into it grew a spit of rock and on top it a castle, stout in stone and strong in somber presence. It was far larger than the house she’d left behind. Gloomier and more glorious, too.

She wondered how long it would be before she could once again see it from this or any vantage point. Some lords did not allow their women to leave their rooms, let alone the courtyard. Especially not the newly arrived, who might attempt to steal a path out of marriage by seeking the luring company of nymphs at the bottom of lakes.

She let her gaze linger on the castle before straightening.

“It is beautiful, My Lord,” she said.

His eyes narrowed then relaxed and she was glad she didn’t need to lie about it. He’d probably know if she had.

“Your new home,” he noted, almost kindly.

Her stomach lurched. Home or jail, there may not really be a difference. Still, as the carriage continued toward the future that this man had proposed and her father had accepted, she felt she may have passed some test that if she managed to maintain the credit of, could bring her — if not safety or protection — then perhaps a lesser measure of misery.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto challenge

 

Keepsake

Photo prompt: http://mrg.bz/n22FGA 

 

He kept it all these years.

A memento of sorts. Something to remember things by. A penance, perhaps. Or a tribute. Sometimes he wasn’t sure which one it was. Or both.

Some nights he’d leave their bed, her light breath highlighting the heaviness that had kept him from sleeping, and walk to the garage just to look at it. To remind himself of what is real and what was possible and what should never once again take place.

Even if it could.

It was the only lie he’d ever told her, though in truth it had led to many more lies — of omission, of deflection, of withholding aspects of himself he could not let her know about. Not ever.

Or did he someplace hope to one day let her know?

For why else would he keep it?

Sometimes he thought that his refusal to do away with it was his way of warning. Himself. To not allow himself to fall into an illusion of what he was not. Perhaps a warning to her, too, to read between the lines of what he couldn’t tell her.

Of the damage he could do. Even in accident. To the ones he’d loved.

 

 

 

For the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge

 

Blessings and a Whisper

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

Lush grass now grew over the span of stones, though none had grown there in the many years when the passage of feet had mowed and flattened any seedling that had found a crack in which to nestle.

The water gurgled as it had, though, flowing like a ribbon of careless abandon underneath. Incoming. Through. Not one look back. Away.

She wondered if the fish silvering in the stream were the descendants of the ones who’d flapped among the rocks and dove out of the reach of all manner of two-legged hunters. Their instincts certainly remained the same.

Like hers.

Honed by years of flight, and generations of bare escape from calamity and disaster and all manner of two-legged hunters’ spread of misery.

For centuries the stones of the old bridge had been the thoroughfare of goods and news — both good and not — from isolated farms to the town’s market and from the town into the farms, and in that order. It had withstood war and fights and blight and playful dares and cruel shove-overs. It streamed with rain and baked with sun and creaked with ice and endured more than one direct hit of lightning. It had heard the laughter of small children and the cries of same, sometimes not much later after. Where rugged wheels and heavy hooves had carved ruts of rattling passage, now weeds took hold to cover any sign of man.

It stood deserted, and perhaps relieved, since the new and wider bridge was built a bit further downstream. The modern pathway accommodated simultaneous travel in both directions as it carried the weight of the machines that belched dark stains onto its tar.

She’d been warned against attempting to put any weight on the old bridge. They all were. “It’s held by no more than blessings and a whisper,” her grandmother had cautioned. “One step onto the wrong stone and it could collapse.”

And yet, it had outlasted both Grandmother’s life and Mother’s and seemed poised to outlast hers, as well. Perhaps blessings and a whisper were better mortar than the speeding up of time.

“And you don’t have much long to wait to outlast me,” she murmured as she walked to the water and bent to dip her palm. Cold.

As she would be, sans blessings or a whisper, before much more water churned indifferently along, passed under the bridge, and was gone.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto Challenge

 

Contented

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

There was nothing wrong with her beyond that she could not abide much in the way of interference, and had always preferred the company of fair-folk and the song of wind and dust-in-light to the over-stimulating presence of other humans.

She’d gotten through the requisites of growing up: the schools, the get-togethers, the expectation of having friends, the beck and call of work one needed in order to make a living. She’d endured the close proximity when needful, but mostly let the din of people’s voices wash over her like an avalanche, while she curled up inside her mind and sustained herself on preserved pockets of precious solitude.

Most wouldn’t have believed her had she laid bare her wistfulness for isolation. Or perhaps some would have, but had never said it. She did not much care to find out which of the two or neither it was.

Three decades had passed and the half of another, before she began wondering if she’d live to see the exit of another year or self-combust under the pressure of life’s demands for what felt like constant interaction.

Then Aunt Carolina passed. She left behind a small fortune in savings bonds and an old house no one would have wanted. The latter was to be torn down and the land sold to become someone else’s problem.

Or so the estate managers thought.

Cilia fought them with a ferociousness that surprised her at least as much as it had anyone who’d ever known her. It wasn’t that she’d been a pushover till then, only that she had never found it worth the effort to try and exchange one relative discomfort with another. This was different.

This house was what she suddenly did not know how she had ever lived without.

In the end they relented after she gave up all claims to any of the funds Aunt Carolina had left. She’d get only the cottage and its contents. None of her cousins — not even Marley-the-Meddler — objected. Their share grew with her out of the pie.

The attorney warned her that the house would sooner gobble up what savings she had than be a home that could house her. “The gloomy place is centuries old,” he warned. “It doesn’t even have running water.”

“Aunt Carolina had lived there till she died,” was her retort.”She bathed. I’ll manage.”

She did much more than that.

For the first time in her life she could feel herself actually breathing.

The garden’s stone walls wrapped around her like a hug of moss and ancient patience. The cottage creaked and cracked and breathed as if it was itself alive with memories and whispered sighs of times before. And she did not have to explain to anyone how none of that was a menace. The walls held echoes of calm solitude. The garden wreathed itself in growth. The birds chirped. The kits of a fox mewled. The silence gleamed.

She knew why Aunt Carolina had refused to leave.

“We are like twins stretched over several generations,” she murmured into the fire as the wind whistled in the chimney and the elves made a racket in the trees outside her door. “You must have known, someplace, that I will need to find this. As you had, in your time.”

She stretched her feet and giggled at the big toe that the hole in her sock had liberated. A wooden box sat, heavy, in her lap.

She’d come across it in the crawlspace earlier that afternoon. She’d climbed up after a noise she thought was a squirrel’s nestlings. Instead she found a loose board, half-an-inch of dust, and a pile of rags atop a box.

“The house and all its contents,” she smiled in recollection of Aunt Carolina’s will. “I should have known you’d leave more than enough behind to keep the roof above us for another eon.”

 

 

 

For the Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto Challenge

 

 

Cryptography

https://crimsonprose.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/no-junk-mail-1.jpg?w=640&h=427

 

“How would this work, exactly?”

Jason shrugged and bent to scratch a bug-bite on his ankle, shaggy mane covering his face.

Mark narrowed his eyes. “Seriously, Man, who’d put a mailbox on a crypt?”

Jason straightened, and not for the first time, Mark couldn’t help but think of puppets with too many strings and too few fingers to operate them. Everything about Jason was too long, too lanky, too loose. It was as if someone had forgotten to tighten the screws in his friend’s joints. He’d known Jason since Second-grade, yet something about seeing his classmate’s movements in this setting, woke a bell of alarm in Mark’s belly.

He moves like a mummy, he realized. Shuddered. Shook it off.

“My Granny says some use it,” Jason replied, oblivious.

“For real?”

The tow-headed boy nodded. “Requests for revenge, mostly, she says. After all, it is the crypt of a mass-murderer.”

 

 

For Crimson’s Creative Challenge

 

Endless Harmony

a solitary figure on a beach against a wide ocean.

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

She’d never have believed the vastness had she not been there to see it.

In person.

On the edge of endlessness.

The breath of eons crashing at her feet.

The spray of ancient rhythms that had been there

All along.

Through war and storm and hope and flood and cold and warm and days like this when no one but herself was there to witness it.

She’d never have believed the power that it held, contained within each curl of wave, in every roll of whitecap licking sand.

It filled her.

With awe and ache and gnawing yearning to something that went beyond her words and into thoughts unformed, or perhaps ones made of memories in utero: the hiss, the beat, the drums of hearts.

And this.

Another memory

To merge into

In endless harmony.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto (2nd week)