Cuckoo

I’ve been on sabbatical writing essays unsuitable for this blog and so I offer this 500 word “flash fiction” to prove that I am still alive and well! I hope that you enjoy it.

Seven-year-old Mary walked reluctantly to the piano. When she got there, she averted her eyes, and she turned to catch a glimpse of the last of pair of her class mates holding hands and walking, crocodile style, off to recess. How she hated this part of the music lesson when Miss Grey attempted to address her musical ineptitude. She didn’t know what ‘tone deafness’ was but had overheard her teacher discussing this with her mother. She began to feel hot and put one hand up to her neck to twist a stray lock of hair. She dearly wanted to suck her thumb but knew that this was forbidden.

“Come closer dear,” said Miss Grey as she put her hand on Mary’s shoulder.

“I’m going to play two notes, and I want you to sing along cuc-koo’, ‘cuc-koo’.” Mary gave Miss Grey a distressed blank look, for in her embarrassment at being singled out again,, she didn’t understand what was wanted.

“Let’s try – cuc–koo, cuc–koo” urged Miss Grey accompanying the words with notes on the piano. She chose the octave above middle and gently tapped G followed by C to accompany her singing; G-C, G-C; cuc-koo, cuc-koo.

Mary panicked and said, “Cuckoo. Cuckoo,” in a monotone child’s voice.

“No dear,” urged her teacher, that’s what you did last week. ‘sing the notes, can’t you hear the difference?” ‘She demonstrated “Cuc-koo, cuc-koo.”

But Mary didn’t get it even though she could hear the tone change she was far too flustered and frightened to do anything more than murmur, “Cuckoo, cuckoo”. She knew that when someone was referred to as being cuckoo it meant that they were very silly. Did all this mean that she was silly, did Miss Grey want her to chime like a cuckoo clock to announce her stupidity? Again, she gave a monotone “cuckoo, cuckoo.”

After a few additional attempts, Miss Grey escorted Mary back to her school room to join the other children. Here she relaxed and happily joined in the mathematics lesson.

When school was out Mary overheard her teacher explaining her deficit to her mother. She feared a reprimand and, feigning ignorance, skipped ahead as they walked home. Their route passed up a steep lane overhung by chestnut trees laden with spring blooms standing candle-like erect. They both paused when they heard the distinct call of a common European Cuckoo. They looked up but couldn’t see the bird among the profuse chestnut leaves.

“Do you hear the cuckoo? said her mother “they are active this time of year looking for nests to put their eggs in. They are known as brood parasites because they are able to trick other birds smaller than themselves into raising their chicks.

When the Cuckoo called again Mary’s mother responded with a laugh as she mimicked the bird. “cuc-koo, cuc-koo”. “Do you think that the bird understands my voice?” she asked.

Mary paused and then, feeling joyfully uplifted, joined her mother and bird in perfect mimicry, “cuc-koo, cuc-koo”

SPRING – a poem

At  present I am preoccupied with visiting grandchildren and so I dug up this poem, written in the early 1970s when I lived in London, and edited now in 2019. Grandchildren can’t relate to this time before even thier parents were born, the senitments are universal so I hope that some of my readers may enjoy it.

I am a child of the night,
City born and thrust
Into the darkness,
Of faceless urban millions,
Sharing stereotyped desires,
And mass-media emotions,
Predicted and predictable. 

But, today I was free.
For today I saw the sun shine,
A warm spring sun,
It dried the ground,
It nuzzled nature to action,
Even as I was excited, delighted,
My heart uplifted by the globe.

Then joyful, I sang,
Forgetting the gray city,
Forgetting the tubes and fumes,
Forgetting humanity, my heritage,
And like the March hare,
Madly exulted in the sun,
My heart worshipped a pagan God.

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.

Time – a poem by LEMS

The other day I was  going through some of my father’s old papers and came across this poem which my mother, LEMS (Lucy Edith Mary Stansfeld, wrote. It was dedicated to him. It appears to have been written in 1968 shortly before she died. I  find it beautiful and moving, worth of being shared. I regret that I didn’t know that she was writing at that time so that I could have discussed it with her.

My purse is nearly empty – this my pain,
to eek the few base coins that still remain.
How prodigal the shining gold I spent
thoughtless, thriftless, and incontinent
And there is none on whom to blame my loss,
this was no crock-of-gold to turn to dross,
But amply and sufficient from my birth
what I have wasted could supply this dearth.
TIME is the currency, DEATH the empty purse
few had more coin, and few have used it worse.
Tip in my hand my last poor pence, weigh my finds,
open my palm to look again – the brightness blinds!
All that was scant and dirty, base and old,
the alchemy of love has turned to gold!

Ski Romance

Amie loved skiing. She was always passionate about her loves, and this one began when she was in elementary school. It intensified every year. When she graduated from high school, her parents suggested that she take a ‘gap’ year to pander to her appetite for the slopes and to help her forget her high-school sweet-heart who ditched her after prom. Her parents managed to get her a waitress position including accommodation, in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Amie arrived in Colorado in mid-September. She had never visited the State in the fall and was greeted by a land of color instead of the white wonderland of winter. She immediately texted her best friend, Betty.

“Hey, Bets, Wish you were here. It’s beautiful. Bet you’ve never seen aspen in their fall color. Pic attached, It’s better than that Nat Geo article Mrs. X made us study last year. So much gold; and the silver bark adds to the image. All this haloed by giant rock outcroppings and dark evergreens. Even though it is too early for snow I’m off to inspect the slopes on Sunday – hope that it swarms with unattached handsome men. LOL, A.”

As planned Amie took the Sunday gondola up to the lowest ski lodge and staging area. Although she was accustomed to ski lifts, she found the ride scary. She kept thinking about a dramatic rescue which and been shown on national TV in which a passenger moved down the open wires to rescue a boy hanging by his back-pack. The support system struck her as precarious – one small connector between gondola and cables and a fifty-foot plunge to the slopes below.

She was relieved when she arrived at the top and walked briskly through the building to view the slopes beyond. A grassy green carpet surrounded by brilliantly colored trees spread out from the building. Visitors dawdled on a paved veranda at the top of the swale and gazed at a sole moose. The magnificent animal, with his head of multi-pointed antlers and large hanging dewlap under his chin pawed the ground and returned his audience’s stare. A park ranger stood between the animal and the spectators making sure that no-one got too close. Cameras snapped wildly. Amie overheard the ranger explaining to a group of boys that the moose is the most dangerous animal in Colorado. Unlike the black bear that avoids people, the moose is fearless and will charge at random. When it ambled sedately into the trees, the ranger waved his hand and allowed visitors to walk across the swath of green to a pedestrian trail leading up the mountain.

Amie followed the crowd. The wind was blowing up the mountainside through the trees. It roared like the sea as it swayed the evergreens. It rustled the stands of aspen whose brilliant golden-yellow leaves danced making a noise like rain upon water. Many of the leaves detached and floated onto the footpath and branches of the evergreens. Amie took photographs of this golden snow. By now, she was feeling tired and so, when she saw a bench next to the path, she sat down. She took a long drink from her water bottle, proud of herself in her knowledge that altitude adaptation requires the body to make more blood and needs extra water to do this. She took out her phone and texted a picture to Betty.

“It’s beautiful, would be even better if there were some beaus around! Feeling tired, must be the altitude. LOL, Amie”

She felt comfortable on her bench and watched other visitors walk by as they also enjoyed the well-used trail. She exchanged greetings with them and shared friendly comments on the beauty of the aspen. Gradually, she felt a presence next to her and turned to find that she was sharing her bench with an attractive young man of her own age. She deduced that she must have dozed off and not noticed his arrival.

“Hi,” he offered a gloved hand, “I’m Chas. I hope that you don’t mind sharing this bench with me.”

Sharing, heck no, Amie was happy to have him beside her, she shook his hand and murmured “Amie, pleased to meet you!”

They sat and chatted about the beauty of the fall colors. Then they joined the other visitors hiking up the path. Their conversation never lagged as they talked about skiing and their mutual expectations for the season. When they returned to the bench, they sat next to each-other. Chas took Amie’s hand in his. She already felt at ease with him and rested her head on his shoulder. She must have dozed off again for when she awoke he was gone.

That evening she called Betty and told her about the strange young man who had caused her heart to flutter. She described his tanned face, resolute stride, teasing blue eyes and gentle voice. During the following week, Amie worked learning the ropes of her waitress position and the layout of Steamboat Springs, all the while speculating about Chas and looking forward to Sunday, the only day the gondolas run in the pre-season. When it came she dressed carefully and took her ride.

This time the aspen stood bare and the golden landscape gone. The ground was bathed in a light cover of fresh snow. It silhouetted the bare aspen branches and coated the tops of the evergreen branches of green needles. Amie took photographs to text to Betty and her parents. She hiked up the path. She didn’t want to admit to herself that she was searching for Chas, although she knew that this was her purpose. He was nowhere to be seen. Each time that she saw a man she hurried to scrutinize his face hoping that one of them would turn out to be him. Disappointed, and tired by her exertion, she returned to her bench.

The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone warm melting the snow. She took out a book and began to read. She wasn’t sure when she first felt his presence, for it seemed to invade upon her gently. She turned and smiled. He put his arm around her,

“Been waiting long?”

“Not really,’ she lied ‘I’m glad that you came.”

“Me too.”

They conversed and walked up the path holding hands. She shared some of her innermost secrets with him and found him to be a sympathetic listener. He responded with stories about his youth but omitted to tell her why he was on the slopes. When they returned to the bench, and she cuddled up against his chest eventually dozing off. She awoke with a start as a park ranger shook her.

The sun, in a red sky, was setting behind the building to the west, and she realized that she was cold, very cold.

“It’s time to leave,” said the ranger “you don’t want to miss the last gondola.”

She looked into his friendly face and asked, “The young man who was with me. Did you see him?” The blank look on his face worried her. She went on, “He is tall, very good looking, and is wearing a navy-blue ski jacket and matching pants, both with hot pink stripes on the sides.

“Sounds like Chas!”

“Yes, yes,” she breathed with pleasure, “yes, that’s him, Chas.”

“You must’ve been dreaming. Chas is no longer with us.”

“But’ she stammered ‘he was here, beside me. Yes, what is more, he promised that he is going to ski with me when the slopes officially open.”

The ranger sighed, and touched Amie’s arm again, “My dear young lady. It’s been three years.” He raised his arms in exasperation, “You must remember, at the time it was all over the newspapers; our Olympic hopeful, Chas, died in an unfortunate skiing accident.”

Amie shook her head and turned away to disguise her clouded eyes. The ranger pressed on,

“Don’t you remember the story, just before his big jump he was spooked by a moose and landed wrong.’ He pointed at the bench,

“Look at the plaque on this bench, it carries his name. It was donated by his parents. You’re sitting on his memorial.”

No Ladies First

underground

No ladies first in this diurnal rush,
Like insects, we swarm to red circles,
Each for himself, thrusting, fighting,
Down, onto crowded dim platforms,
Pushing ourselves into gaping monsters,
To stand, or sit, lonely sentinels.
Lives brought momentarily together.
Here, a pair enjoy hints of each other,
Indicating by eye and movement,
Promises of love’s naked intimacy.
But most, eyes behind unseeing stares,
Rocked and stultified in accustomed whir,
Succumb together to soporific swing.
Suddenly, deadened senses jar into recognition,
Sleepy eyes refocus,
We push and shove out of that airless thing,
To join the busy crowd surging upwards,
And fumbling for forgotten tickets,
We heave sighs of relief to emerge into daylight,
And recapture our humanity.

© Copyright, 9/18/16 Jane Stansfeld

The Brothers – a short story

Mother lives in a small wood-frame house in one of the older neighborhoods of East Austin. My brother, Goeff, and I grew up there. I remember it as a place where people watch out for each other, and gather in the street to discuss the looming specter of gentrification. When we were young, we played in the street, and our neighbors sat on their front porches in the cool of the evening and waved to those passing by. Even now, 40 years later, the neighborhood still retains some of its friendliness. Mother says that was why she will never leave.

Mother looks healthy for her age even though she walks with a slight limp. Each time I visit I notice small indicators that her age is catching up with her. A minor blood clot blinded her in one eye; her poor hands are crippled by arthritis, and she is deaf enough to need a hearing aid. Of course, she doesn’t have a hearing aid which often makes communications difficult. I don’t think that she is lonely because she has her white cat Fluffy. Personally, I don’t like cats, and I hate Fluffy. I can never recall a time when Mother didn’t have Fluffy, or one of her predecessors, perched on her lap taking a place where I wished to be.

Apparently Mother’s neighbor, Alice who lives across the street, is the first to notice that something was amiss. The house is dark; newspapers pile up on the drive, and mail begins to overflow the mailbox. When I go there she meets me and tells me her story.  She has clearly already repeated it many times. To my surprise, she doesn’t ask me in but chooses to tell me her, oft repeated story, as we stand on her porch. She is agitated and closes her eyes from time to time as if she is attempting to relive her adventure.

“I approached Molly’s front door cautiously. I paused, to admire her geraniums and lantana blooming profusely on either side of her stoop. I rang the doorbell and getting no reply; I knocked. Still no reply; I called,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’

I turned the door knob; the door wasn’t locked. I entered, and shouted,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’

“I was getting anxious, but continued my search. Fluffy, your Ma’s cat, rubbed herself against my jeans, I could see white cat hair being deposited on them. The house had an ominous eerie feeling. It smelt vacant; I kept shouting,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’

I didn’t wish to intrude but when I saw no one in the neat and tidy kitchen where a half drunk cup of tea stood on the table, I become more concerned and passed quickly to the master bedroom, still calling as I went,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’”

At this point, in her narration Alice pauses, dabs her eyes and looks at me. I nod to reassure her that I wish her to finish her story. She sighs and continues,

“I saw her lying curled up on the bed. Of course, when I entered the house, I suspected something like this. I’ve seen death before, it has an odor, or presence, which emanates and pervades the air long before the, once live, body starts to decompose. Even with this ominous tell-tail warning, I wasn’t sure. I stepped up to the bed and touched her outstretched hand.  It was cold. For a few moments, the universe seemed to stand still. Fluffy jumped onto the  bed and started to mewl. That was the end for me; I grabbed Fluffy in my arms and left as quickly as possible. Of course, I called 911 and then your brother, Goeff.”

It pains me that she called Goeff rather than me; after all, I am local and Goeff isn’t. I may be the younger son, but surely proximity counts for something. I am angry and hurt on top of the sadness at Mother’s death. I want to shake Alice. I ask,

“Why didn’t you call me; I’m local after all?”

“Simple, you never gave me your contact information; Geoff did.”

I dislike her response. It is another example of how Geoff always does the right thing. I wonder how he manages. Alice offers to take in Fluffy and I agree. I secretly hope that she will be a nuisance and keep Alice on her side of the street. I retreat to Mother’s house and turn on the television; I need time to face what has happened.

********

It is amazing how quickly Goeff arrives fresh from the airport. He is pulsating with energy. He turns off the television, clears up my mess in the kitchen and opens beers for us both. We sit at the kitchen table and discuss what to do next. Soon we begin a systematic dismantling of their Mother’s possessions.

We rummage through Mother’s papers and find her Will. No surprise here except Goeff is the executor not me. Actually, I am hurt, not surprised – goody-goody Goeff, always the preferred one. It turns out that there is little estate. Mother’s house which we estimate is worth $400,000 has a $300,000 reverse mortgage against it. We uncover $100,000 in investments. We discuss what to do. I tell Geoff that I want the house. I tell him it’s for sentimental reasons and because my present apartment is so awful. He nods as though he understands but I know that he doesn’t. After all I suspect that he has all the money he needs while I am up to my ears in credit card debt and need some easy cash. Goeff must suspect my financial straits because he says that he understands about the house but says that the math just doesn’t work. I know that he is right. So, when he suggests that I take the $100,000 cash, I agree. He says that he will pay off the mortgage and either keep the house or sell it to recoup his $100,000.  I hate it but agree. What else can I do with my credit rating?

We sort through Mother’s things agreeing as we go which things each of us will keep and which things we will dispose of by; garage sale, charity, or estate sale. I smart when we get to the photograph albums. There are three covering Goeff’s first year of life while my whole childhood is stuffed into one album in which most of the photographs are loose.

The kitchen and garage take forever but when they are cleared, we think that we have finished until Goeff suggests that we check the attic. It is a cramped space. We know that Mother didn’t like climbing the access ladder; and so, we assume it to be empty. It is almost so except for an old suitcase of our Father’s, a portfolio of etchings which he collected years ago and a box of his clothes. The suitcase is tattered and goes to charity, the clothes moth eaten with the elastic rotted by the heat; we trash them. We sit at the kitchen table and look at the etchings. They are black, or sepia, and white on scrappy pieces of paper. We recall how much Father loved these images of old buildings, of animals and of ancient people in old-fashioned clothing. I don’t want to keep any of them,

“Throw them out.”

“No,” says Goeff as he fondles the ancient paper, “Father was no fool, if he liked them so much they may be too good to toss. If it is okay with you, I’ll take them back with me. You never know they might be worth something.” I acquiesce. I marvel at Goeff’s persistence.

********

My birthday rolls around on April 1st and I find a letter in my mail box. The return address on the envelope is Goeff’s. I hold it up to the light and deduce that it is a birthday card. That Geoff always sends a birthday card every year, but as I am still seething with anger and jealousy, I place the envelope on my kitchen counter among my other papers. Perhaps I’ll open it one day but now my birthday makes me feel too dejected to do so.

I drive over to Mother’s place and park outside. The vacant house looks forlorn, the grass in the front long and un-kept. There was still no “For Sale” sign, which makes me wonder if Goeff has had a lapse in efficiency. Then it hits me, Goeff hasn’t been inefficient he has decided to keep the house for himself. Yep, he is keeping house that I so wanted. I know that he keeps it to spite me. I still have a front door key, and so I go inside. The empty rooms echo as I walk across the floor. I can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering to me. That house ought to be mine. I am the one who should be living there. It crosses my mind that I don’t want anyone to enjoy this place, especially not Goeff. Over the next month, I make it a point to make a detour and go by every day on my way home. During that time, nothing changes except the house continues to beckon to me casting its spell.

Each visit I bring in miscellaneous flyers and papers, which have been delivered to the house. I place them on the kitchen counter next to a small stack of Goeff’s cards which he left on the counter. One day, I remember; it was May 1st, exactly a month after my birthday; I notice that we forgot to pack up Mother’s fancy toaster. It sits next to the pile of papers and winks at me. I decide to toast a couple of Goeff’s cards. It is good to see them burn. I take to toasting a couple of his cards each day. Each time they smolder and emanate a burnt paper smell along with a whiff of smoke. If I do more than four they give off a flame. Then, one day, about a week later, I place a few of the papers against the toaster, put in Goeff’s cards and push down the lever. I leave. I drive around the neighborhood and cannot resist returning to the fated street. When I see a small  plume of smoke seep from the roof, I feel a pang of regret and then a sense of justifiable release. I drive back to my apartment.

For the first time since Mother died I am at peace. I am almost happy. Tomorrow I’ll drive by again. I’m sure that Alice will call Goeff and give him the news. I go to my refrigerator, pour myself a beer and take up Goeff’s birthday card. I am now ready to open it.

“My dear brother;
Happy, Happy birthday.
Good news, Father was right; the etchings were valuable and included several unique originals. I managed to sell them for $700,000 bringing Mother’s total estate to $900,000, I delayed telling you this great news as I wanted to give you a very special birthday surprise. For this birthday, I have thrown in $50,000 of my own money so that I can now enclose the deeds to Mother’s house. It is yours.
Since you love the place so much my hope is that you are able to live there, but it is yours, so do what you want with it.
One caveat, I took temporary insurance out to cover it through April. Come May 1st it is your responsibility. You have a whole month to do it -please don’t forget; insurance is important.
No need to call, I know how much you hate the phone.
May the house bring you much happiness!
Your loving brother,
Goeff.”