Ruby – a short story

Over December I was embroiled with the pleasurable visit of my Honduran missionary doctor daughter and her family. We had three energetic children, 6,4 and 1, daily demonstrating their endless supply of energy. There was no time for blogging, reading or writing. I am now back with a story stemming from my other daughter’s daughter. I hope that I still have some faithful followers and am able to visit some of my favorite blogs again.! 

Today, we had a little ceremony as my husband, grand-daughter Sophie, and I wept and wrapped him in a shroud. We then solemnly buried him under the pecan tree in our back-yard. For you to understand our sadness, I’ll explain by starting at the beginning.

We celebrated my last birthday at a restaurant where my oldest grand-daughter, Sophie, gave me a poem.  On second reading I realized that Sophie’s poem told me that she intended to give me a living thing to keep on my desk. I panicked as I have been through the cat and dog routine and didn’t relish the thought of doing it again. Sophie sensed my panic and assured me that this living thing would be no trouble. My mind jumped to African violets as I have quite a collection. I inquired whether the living thing, to which she referred, would be a bright color and she assured me that it would. I worried no more.

At her next visit I was presented with a Betta fish. He was a brilliant red and came in a small sealed cup which held less than a pint of water. I wondered what I’d do with him. Sophie rescued me. She said that the Betta is a marsh fish which survives in ditches and rice paddies in water with little oxygenation. She waxed technical and told me that Bettas are anabantoids, who can breathe atmospheric air using a unique organ called the labyrinth; as a result a pump and constant aeration is unnecessary. While Sophie talked, I watched my birthday gift fish twirl his almost two inches of bright red body and delicate fins and tail. Yes, I thought, he is rather lovely and will make a decorative addition to my desk. We placed him in the largest of my cut-glass vases which gave him about 48 ounces of water. We added some decorative stones and water weeds from my outside pond. Sophie liked the set-up and commented that a happy Betta will blow bubbles on the surface of the water. I named him Ruby.

According to directions, I fed Ruby twice a day and changed his water on Sundays. He blew bubbles on the surface and grew. I looked him up on line and found that a Betta can grow to five inches and needs a gallon of water per inch of fish. I knew that Ruby needed bigger accommodations, so I moved him into a giant two-gallon mason jar which I previously used for serving iced tea and punch. It had a convenient faucet at the bottom so that I could use it to change the water. Everything was going well. Ruby began to recognize me when I fed him, and his bubble nest grew. He was mesmerizingly attractive when he swam with his fluttering red fins moving back and forth at speed, He was so captivating that I had to agree that Sophie had had a good idea. I would have loved to give him a companion but read that the Betta is very aggressive towards other males. Obviously, a female was out of the question for the last thing I wanted was a tank full of baby Bettas fighting for survival, or worse providing fodder for their father, Ruby. 

Instead, I cared for Ruby, who continued to demonstrate more and more affection for me. Sometimes he poked his head out of the water for a minute or so. He thrived and grew. When he was almost five inches long, I invested in a wide mouthed five-gallon wine-making carboy. By now, he would keep his head out of the water, for as long as I stood beside the tank. I hoped that he wouldn’t grow any more. He became selective over his food. When I fed him little pink betta fish pellets, he would take them in his mouth and then spit them out. Tiny dried blood worms were a different story he twirled in the water with glee and ate them fast. It was during one of these ecstatic feedings that I noticed that Beta’s body seemed to be changing. I best describe the changes by drawing an analogy to those of a tadpole. It seemed to me that daily, as he grew, his beautiful flowing, red side fins filled out and appeared to be morphing into arms, while his tail section became increasingly leg-like. These changes obliged him to adapt his swimming technique from graceful water glide to the square breast stroke of a small frog. He took to clinging to a surface branch of water weed. 

Soon Ruby grew to ten inches which is much larger than any statistic that I could find on line. When Sophie visited me, we discussed our conundrum and decided to move him into an old bath tub which I had in my garage. We set it up with some large stones in the middle. Ruby took to basking on the stones. I sent e-mail pictures to Sophie and we hypothesized that we were witnessing the unique birth of a primordial fish into a land animal. We were right for Ruby developed the ability to flip himself out of the tub and flop around the garage. His land propulsion, improved and he was soon walking.  A month later he was so proficient that he was able to accompany me on my daily constitutional walk. He enjoyed his walks, and looked, and behaved increasingly like a small dog. When neighbors, who I met along the way, inquired about his species. I gave vague muffled replies about strange mixed breeds. I was becoming too fond of him to risk the truth as I didn’t want to lose him to science. Finally, he abandoned the garage tub and took up residence in our den where he liked to sit on my knee or next to my husband on the couch. Thankfully he stopped growing. 

That winter we had torrential rains, which filled the creeks and dry water beds with gurgling clear water. On our walks, Ruby liked to stand on the bank and drink. That’s when the accident happened. He tripped and fell in. The current gently swept his floundering flailing body down-stream for he had clearly forgotten how to swim. By the time that I caught up with him all I could do was pull his inert body out of the water. He had drowned!

Uninvited

This piece, at almost 500 words doesn’t classify as a 300 word ‘flash’ fiction but I don’t want to cut 40% so I’m calling it a short, short story.

The front door bell rang when Silvia was in the bathroom. She ignored it. She was alone while her husband was out buying groceries, and they were not expecting visitors. She rationalized that it was probably a delivery which she could retrieve on her own time. When the bell rang a second time accompanied by knocking Silvia was annoyed. She told herself that there was no way that she was going to answer the summons for she now deduced that the person or persons on her porch were sales-people or worse Jehovah Witnesses. The radio in the den was playing Mozart. She listened to the music and hummed along with the Clarinet Concerto letting the familiarity of the music help to soothe her annoyance. How she loved the Clarinet! She smiled as she thought of her husband’s reference to his high-school band playing days when the brass derogatorily referred to the clarinet as a “liquorish stick”. She moussed her hair and began to blow it dry

She was about to go into the den when she thought that she heard hushed voices inside the house, Mozart was still playing so she knew that it wasn’t a radio announcer. She shivered. Hadn’t she just read the neighborhood newsletter in which they reported a spate of daylight robberies with instructions to residents to call 911 to report any suspicious activities. The article had gone on to warn residents not to approach the thieves who were described as “armed and dangerous”. Silvia’s earlier annoyance morphed into fear.

She thought that she might be able to hide in the closet to mask her voice so that she could make a 911 call, or better silently text her alarm, but then she realized that her mobile phone was in the den. She strained and heard the voices coming closer. In no time they would be in her bedroom and she had nowhere to hide.

On the spur of the moment Silvia decided that the only weapon she had was an element of surprise. She walked slowly to her bedroom door, took a deep breath, and opened it. She saw her two uninvited intruders standing in front of the television. They both carried bags. The morning sun streamed in through the den windows casting bright patches of light across the room. Silvia stood with the sun behind her. She hoped that the shadow would disguise the fear on her face. She waved her arms dismissively,

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you found the key, that’s good; but we weren’t expecting you today. You’ve got the wrong day! We agreed on Wednesday, that’s tomorrow. You have to leave now, and come back tomorrow!”

Nose

At a cocktail party, a middle-aged gentleman told his fishing story. It was about a snake; not about the colossus that got away. He said that the incident had happened years ago but was one of those life moments, which haunts forever. Apparently, he was doing some deep-water wading when he felt a long slimy body slither between his legs. He instinctively knew that this was not a fish. Then, his eyes agog, he told of his subsequent horror when a six-foot-long water snake reared out of the water to stare at him with cold unblinking eyes. Its head was a few inches from his nose. Thoughts flashed through his mind, “If it bites me on the nose, and I survive will I have a deformed face with no nose?” and “What should I do to survive even if I do lose my nose?”

The man paused to take a sip, and I looked at him skeptically. His nose was intact. I wondered whether he was exaggerating the size of the snake, for most do in an attempt to validate fear. A snake enthusiast in our group commented this was probably a benign water snake; easily distinguished, he said, because the poisonous Cottonmouths are aggressive and have fatter bodies. The gentleman looked at us, gauging our disbelief and went on to tell how he managed to keep his cool demeanor and slowly raise his hand to cover his vulnerable nose while he gently blew in the snake’s face. To his relief, the snake took his suggestion. It backed off and swam away almost as though it were as scared as he. As for the type, he said that he was too frightened to be able to distinguish what kind of snake it was. I don’t blame him.

Jane Stansfeld 296 words

MANGO MEMORIES

Although they found the community zip line broken the children and their grandparents chatted happily and waved sticks during their pedestrian descent. The path meandered down a mountainside overlooking a dark Honduran tropical jungle ravine. They were content for the hot mid-day sun diminished jungle terrors of large predator snakes, raucous bird song, and howling monkeys. At a turn, they came upon a wild mango tree. They gathered ripe fruit. At home the grandmother prepared it, and they ate.

The following day they were back shaking branches to gather more fruit. The mango aroma mingled pleasantly with the musty dampness of the jungle. This was Eden. Occupants in an overlooking residence came outside and stood in a gawking row, as though they considered gathering mangoes a forbidden activity. The fresh crop was taken home, peeled, prepared and consumed. All was well.

Three days later, the grandmother began to scratch an annoying, supposed, insect bite on her jaw. A couple of days later, it was swollen and spread across her face. It progressively proliferated; neck, chest, arms, legs, a veritable itchy red mess. She analyzed the last week in an attempt to identify something unusual, – a cause of this allergic reaction. Then she hit upon it – the mango.

Dr Google helped. Yes, mangoes contain Urushiol in their skins. This is the same allergen found in poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac as well as traces in pistachios and cashews. Grandmother’s problem was a prolonged exposure, including residues lurking on clothing and jewelry. We conclude this story with a praise for steroids and time, which work their combined magic in dispelling itchy eruptions. We add grandmother’s suspicion of a minor biblical error for the tropical Eden forbidden fruit is, surely, the mango not the apple.

GRIM REAPER

Aimee was with Peter the whole time. She sat by the hospital window and watched while the doctors administered to him. They explained that they hoped to prevent his minor TIA from morphing into a deadly stroke. When they kept him overnight  she moved beside his bed and held his hand. By 2:00 am, she was exhausted and let her eyes close to catch a brief nap.

Peter moaned; Aimee opened her eyes to see a dark figure looming over the bed. She recognized him and tried to thrust him away.

“Go.” she ordered, “It is not time.”

“You are wrong.” countered the figure.

“You don’t understand.” she replied, “We two are soul mates. We found each other late in life, we haven’t been married long. We must have more time together.”

“Time together?”

“Yes, we are together. You must not separate us!”

The figure nodded and disappeared.

By 4:00 am the ward was humming with action. The man in the adjacent room had died. Aimee knew that this was a result of her conversation.  She did not discuss her suspicions. The the next morning she was delighted when the doctor told her that Peter could go home. She brought her car round to the door of the hospital and watched the nurse wheel Peter out. He climbed into the passenger seat with ease. She loosened her seat belt and leaned over to kiss him on the lips. She turned on the radio and they laughed as she drove away. The dog appeared at the first intersection. She swerved to avoid it. In that prolonged awful second that they slammed, out of control, toward a concrete wall she saw the nocturnal visitor again.

“Wish granted,” he said “You are together!”

The Puppy

I’ve been reading the recently published book “New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction”. The forward informs me that “a good micro hangs in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke,” and that it needs to be under 300 words. The following is my first attempt at this literary form. I hope that my readers enjoy it!

The eighty-year-old man’s hands trembled. He gripped his chair making his veins stand out against his aging thin skin. He turned to his wife, his eyes tearing, “They shoot a horse with a broken leg, don’t they?” he asked. She heard his question as she had heard it before, and nodded in affirmation. She watched him cast his thoughts back to his childhood.

He went back over seventy years to himself as an eight-year-old boy on a farm in South Dakota. He stood and looked north the flatness stretched seemingly unending through Canada to the north pole, or south to the Rio Grande and beyond into Mexico. East and west were the same thing from sea to shining sea even though logic told of the Black Hills three hundred miles to the west. He remembered how you knew that a vehicle was approaching on the dirt road by the cloud of dust seen above the standing corn. You heard the engine about the time that the dogs on the adjacent farm started barking, then it passed and the whole sequence occurred in reverse.

He was doing his chores and being responsible, feeding chickens, gathering eggs, slopping the pigs; while his parents worked in a distant field. He could hear their voices, mingled with the sound of a nearby yelping puppy. He found it in the dairy limping miserably on three legs. He picked it up and stroked its soft fur. As he did so he reminded himself of the sentence for a farm animal with broken leg. He fetched a pail of water and a gunny sack. Then, he knelt beside the bucket. He didn’t cry through the ordeal even as he realized that doing the right thing carries a heavy burden.

294 words

Che Che

The wildlife biologist spent a year studying the Honduran Golden-mantled Howler monkey, (Alouatta Palliata) in the jungles of the Caribbean coast of Honduras. It was difficult for the monkeys spend their lives eating, sleeping and living high up in the tropical tree canopy. Their back fur with a patch of gold on either side earns them the name “golden-mantled, while the combination helps to blend their bodies into the shadows of the leaves and branches. Whenever the wildlife biologist could he studied skeletal remains so that he could measure bones. He was particularly interested in documenting the size of the enlarged hollow hyoid bone in the throat near the vocal chords because this bone is what enables the males to howl. He recorded howls and documented that the sound can be heard over three miles away. He confirmed the Guinness Book of Records entry, which gave the Howler Monkey the status of being the loudest land animal.

During his research, the remains of one monkey baffled the wildlife biologist for the skeleton evidenced a perfectly set right arm. He could find no rational explanation how this could have occurred especially in a species which relies on arms and hands, legs with feet with the agility of hands, and prehensile long tails; to enable swinging from tree to tree. How could a monkey, in the wild, suffer a breakage like that and recover so perfectly? He interviewed all the known wild life centers and parks in Honduras but found no explanation. No-one knew of set bones in monkeys who later escaped, or were released, into the wild. He wasn’t sure about including this baffling information in his final paper but decided that he ought to air the question so that some future scientist could unravel the mystery. Years later, he read a short story in an obscure anthology written by a young missionary doctor for her children. It went as follows.

CheChe lived in a semblance of paradise, but she was not happy. The evening sea breeze rustled the leaves at the tree tops, and the branch, on which she clung, swayed. The noise of the movement among the leaves blended with the remote sounds of waves washing ashore, and the movement of water at the stream in the bottom of the ravine. These background sounds soothed the senses of all but CheChe. She ate methodically and as she chewed she glanced down into the depths of the ravine in which her tree stood. Now that the sun was low in the sky everything was in shadow, but in her mind, she saw the noon sun penetrating the jungle growth throwing shafts of pulsating light into the depths of the ravine, indeed even down to the small stream between the mossy rocks at its deepest point. The memory brought her anguish back to her for this was where, only yesterday, her cherished baby, Chet, had got hurt. She methodically ate some more leaves.

The rest of the troop of Honduran Golden-mantled Howler monkeys, in which CheChe lived foraged for the best young leaves moving among the top branches of the trees. The seven other females who had lost their babies when Arrack took over as alfa male ate with apparent content. Now that they were childless they would soon start a new cycle, and Arrack would impregnate them with his genes. They accepted the scenario to be integral to life’s cycle as critical as the way that each had been evicted from their home troop at the onset of maturity.

CheChe loved Chet and screamed when Arrack tore him off her back. She turned and jumped upon him. Her counter attack was ferocious and unexpected; Arrack dropped Chet. The baby fell. He struggled as he passed through trees and vines, flailing his arms, legs and tail as he desperately tried to catch permeant hold of something. His actions broke his fall sufficiently so that, when he hit the ground, he was not killed, only suffering a broken arm. Arrack and CheChe followed him down. As Arrack swung forward to finish what he had begun CheChe attacked again. At twenty-one pounds and twenty-seven inches Arrack was bigger than CheChe who was a mere fifteen pounds and twenty-three inches. Unthinking, CheChe grabbed a stick and wacked her opponent. He looked at her in astonishment and might have responded by snatching the stick away from her; only, at that moment they heard cries from Chet. He wailed as he held up his arm bent in a distinct vee where the bones were broken. An injury like that spelt death, Arrack backed off. He climbed back into the tree canopy and settled down for an authoritative howling session.

CheChe often watched the people who lived on land, stolen, she thought, from her jungle. While she was pregnant, she had seen a little girl, hardly bigger than herself fall from a man-made tree house and raise her arm, which was bent in the same way that Chet’s was bent. She went on to witness the child with a stiff white arm and then, later, restored to new. She wondered if it might be possible that the child’s mother held a secret cure? She decided that she would find out.

Golden-mantled Howling Monkeys are naturally afraid of people and generally avoid them. However, CheChe rationalized the very worst that could happen would be she died trying to save her baby, the best, he might be cured. She saw the little girl’s mother station herself on her porch with a baby at her breast. CheChe felt a surge of hope. If the human fed her baby the same way that CheChe fed Chet then, surely, they could communicate.

Slowly, very slowly CheChe approached. The woman saw her and continued feeding her baby. CheChe pulled Chet off her back. She held him up to show the woman his broken arm. The woman nodded and got up. She made cooing noises and went into her house. CheChe was about to leave when the woman came back. The baby was gone, in its stead, she held a bag. She approached the monkeys and still making soft reassuring sounds gently touched the nasty cut which CheChe had received from Arrack in the fight. She rubbed on soothing lotion. At that moment, CheChe knew that this woman, a goddess, could help her. The woman took Chet’s arm in her hands and manipulated it gently all the time continuing her soft whispers. She tied a wooden spoon to the arm and bound it first in bandage and then in black cloth. She pointed at the setting sun and waved her arm to the east and back again to the west. She kept repeating the movement as she placed Chet on Che Che’s back. CheChe thought that she understood, “Come back tomorrow evening.”

At sunset, CheChe was back and the woman reappeared. Again, she held a bag. Again, she treated Che Che’s wound and took Chet in her arms. She felt and manipulated it until she was smiling and then wrapped it in plaster. She painted the plaster black to match Chet’s fur. She signaled to CheChe as she pointed at the moon. She held up a picture of a lunar cycle and kept pointing to the picture of the full moon which exactly replicated the moon of that day. CheChe understood, “Come back at the next full moon.”

At full moon, CheChe was back and found the woman waiting on her porch. Chet had grown considerably, and the plaster was scuffing his wrist. The woman brought out a tool and gently cut off the plaster. When she was finished Chet held up his arm; it seemed shrunken but was straight, and he was able to grab his mother’s fur and swing himself onto her back.

The wildlife biologist managed to track down the author of the story. When he found out that it was true he knew that his entire year of research had been misplaced. The mystery was not how a monkey got a perfectly set arm but rather how intelligent were these monkeys who could rationalize, and communicate with humans even to the extent of understanding the passage of time?