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 him 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?

The Opinionated Car

When Neal turned sixteen he took, and passed Driver’s Ed, and his parents gave him a car. It was a shiny four-year-old black Acura Integra. They were as pleased as Neal to have their responsible son mobile for it meant an end to their chauffeur responsibilities. Neal lavished attention on the car which he named Negra Integra. Every weekend, even in Houston’s hot, humid, 100-degree summer weather, he meticulously washed and polished the exterior and vacuumed the interior with its spiffy black leather seats. He used Glue-Gon to remove the past owner’s parking permits, including an A&M University on-campus permit from the front and back windows. He, likewise, removed a miscellaneous of stickers from the bumpers. Neal’s parents observed to each other, with a slight tinge of concern,

“Neal gives the impression of loving Negra Integra, perhaps even more than his girl-friend Isabella. Before we gave him the car they seemed devoted now, who knows?”

Both Neal and Isabella were good students set to graduate from high school in the top ten percent. Their college applications netted them several offers, including those from the two local rival universities: Texas A&M (Agriculture & Minerals), College Station and UT (University of Texas), Austin. The intense rivalry between maroon clad A&M students and burnt-orange sporting UT students slowly invaded their relationship as they evaluated options. The problem was that Neal favored UT with its urban campus flanked by the Texas State capital while Isabella favored A&M with its more rural setting at College Station. The two had lengthy discussions about their college choice and, foolishly, let the dialogue gradually drive them apart. In anger, Isabella chose A&M and Neal UT. They broke up. Neal poured his remorse into lavishing more attention on Negra Integra. While he polished and cleaned he told the      car his most unhappy regrets.

After his first session at UT for rush week Neal drove home and announced to his parents,

“Despite all the attention that I’ve given Negra Integra I now find that the car doesn’t like me!”

They looked at him with astonishment, both wondering what University was already doing to his mind,

“What do you mean?” inquired his mother, “Cars don’t have feelings and even if they did, how could they express this?”

“I dunno,” replied Neal, “all’s I know is that I get negative vibes. I know that Negra Integra dislikes me.” He went on to explain, “It’s like when you take out a girl who doesn’t like you, the feeling manifests itself without words.”

Neal’s parents nodded sagely, even though they didn’t understand what he meant.

For his drive back to Austin Neal turned on the Acura’s GPS (Global Positioning System). He didn’t need guidance for he knew the route; take I10 west and turn right onto 71 at Columbus. However, he also knew that the turn onto 71 was easy to miss and hoped that the GPS would ensure that he didn’t do so. He disregarded the UPS instruction to turn north at the Sam Houston toll road, Houston’s first outer ring road, and again at Addick’s dam. After passing Addick’s dam he began to worry and wondered if the GPS sensed traffic congestion on I10 west and was attempting to circumvent it by taking him to 290 west; so, when it suggested that he turn north on the outer loop he complied. When he came to 290 west the GPS instructed him to turn west. Neal felt that his suspicions were confirmed. However, just before Brenham the GPS instructed at turn north onto Highway 6 to College Station. Neal turned off the GPS.

When he called home that evening he told his parents,

“Either the GPS is malfunctioning or “that car” wants to return to A&M and its first owner. Now I have proof.” he said “That car’s dislike is morphing into hatred.”

Neal’s Dad offered a more probable explanation. Perhaps the previous owner, a student at A&M had the destination pre-set and Neal had mistakenly pressed the wrong button instructing the car that he wished to go to College Station. Neal was sure that this had not been so but conceded the possibility. During his next visit to Houston at Thanksgiving, Neal’s Dad took the car in for a check-up and annual safety inspection.  The mechanic checked the GPS which he announced to be in perfect working order with no pre-set destinations. The family put the previous mal-function to be “one of life’s little mysteries.”  Neal resolutely maintained the mystery to be a symptom of a simple fact, as he put it,

“That car detests me.”

Behind his back, Neal’s parents observed that it was clear that Neal didn’t have the same feelings toward his car which he now referred to as “that car” rather than “Negra Integra.”

After Thanksgiving Neal’s drive back to Austin was thwarted with problems, for he was picked up for speeding at both Columbus and Bastrop. He called his parents and told them that he was sure, nay certain, that he had NOT been speeding.

“I had my eyes on the speedometer. I’m sure.” He said.

Neal’s parents were not happy especially when Neal told them that he knew about holiday speed traps and had his eye on his speedometer the entire drive, he blamed “that car.” When he returned to Houston for Christmas his father again took the Acura in for an oil change and checkup. The mechanic reported the speedometer to be working perfectly.

In the spring Neal’s architecture class scheduled a visit to the Bush Presidential Library in College Station. Neal drove, 290 east, then 21 north east, in all, a less than two-hour drive. They approached the Library along the sweeping Barbara Bush Drive, and spent the rest of the day sketching and admiring the building. The group re-convened to return to Austin at a Starbucks close to the A&M quad. To his horror Neal’s car wouldn’t start. The general consensus was a failed battery although Neal knew better, the car was home and didn’t want to leave. He wisely did not share his diagnosis with his fellow students. They hooked up jumper cables with no avail bringing them to the collective conclusion that the problem was the starter motor. They discussed options and decided that Neal’s passengers should hitch rides with other cars while Neal called for a tow. He told them that he would have the car taken back to Houston, where he would stay with his parents, hopefully being able to drive back the next day.

Neal went into the Starbucks to wait for his tow. He noticed that one of the baristas looked like Isabella. When she turned he realized that she was Isabella. Suddenly Neal was swamped in suffocating emotion, his hands shook. He put them on his lap. When she saw him, she left the serving counter and slipped into a chair at his table.

“Missed ya.” she said.

“Me too”

Neal explained about his car. It was a balmy evening and Isabella said that her shift was over so they decided to wait in the car. She playfully suggested that Neal give it one more try, he turned the ignition and it started without hesitation.

 

 

 

The Face at the Window

My earliest memory is of the face looking at me through my bedroom window. I remember immediately feigning slumber because I deduced the face was there to make sure I went to sleep rather than get up to any shenanigans. I recall I was a strong-willed mischievous child who fought going to bed, especially when I believed interesting things to be happening in the adjacent rooms. Often, one of my maternal grand-parents would quietly sit on a chair in my room to ensure that I didn’t get up and engage in non-sleep activities. Looking back, I now find it strange that, even when she was around, my mother never took part in the ritual. However, the face, yes, the face, with its black hair and barely distinguishable dark features obscured by shadow, was often there. The street lights in the road beyond gave the head a halo-like silhouette. Far from fearing such an apparition, I found comfort in its demeanor and regularity. I regarded it a welcome watcher.

At that time, I lived in a small house with my grandparents, Mimi and Pop. I say, “I lived with my grandparents” for although my mother also technically domiciled with us, she frequently disappeared for weeks on end. How I loved the times when she was in residence. Her vivacity was contagious. We all felt it as she thrust our quiet home into temporary chaos. Often, she would spend entire days dedicated to me transporting me into a world full of fun and delight. Over time I became wary of these seductive times for they served to make her sudden absences more difficult to handle.

I remember one visit. I must have been about five or six years-old at the time, when Mama took to reading bed-time stories to me. She moved one of the living-room easy chairs into my bedroom so that we could cuddle together in its embrace. She smelled sweet and her long wildly luxuriant blond hair caressed my shoulders as I nestled my shock of straight black locks against her warm breast. I let her voice, which was always tinged with laughter, wash over me like the waters of a gurgling stream. It was heaven. The day everything got spoiled was when she was reading me a story about angels. As she turned the page I interrupted her to ask,

“Is the face at my window my guardian angel?”

“What face?” My mother’s voice sounded angry, and I instinctively knew she disapproved. I thought quickly,

“Oh, I sometimes imagine an angel. Is that bad?”

“Yes, my darling, faces at windows, real or imagined, are not good. I want you to tell me if you ever see one again.”

“But Mama after I’ve gone to bed I can’t get back up!”

“This is different. You have permission to get out of bed to come and get me.”

The next day she installed a black felt black-out over my bedroom window. I complained bitterly about my dismal windowless room, but Mama was emphatic. A week later, she packed up her nurse’s uniform and clothes into her back-pack and left on another of her jaunts. Mimi and Pop let me move into her bedroom. It was a second-floor room which looked out into the crown of a huge oak. Now there was no possibility of a face at that window. I don’t know for sure, but from time to time I thought that I saw the face looking at me from the sidelines of a playground, through the fence around the school play yard, or across the street as I boarded the school bus.

Mama continued her comings, and goings and sometimes sad men appeared looking for her. They were a mixed group from around the world; the English doctor who had served with her during an African Ebola crisis, the Thai, who knew her from the 2004 tsunami; the Pakistani from the 2005 earthquake. They kept coming. Their stories carried a repetitive theme, how her presence had brought hope, and even happiness, to a group of people struggling under dire circumstances. It was obvious that each was hopelessly in love with her and wanted to re-connect. Mimi and Pop let them stay a few days and then gently ushered them back to their lives without her, much as we were doing.

When I was about twelve Pop died, and Mimi sold the house and bought a smaller bungalow in the same neighborhood. She said that it was better suited to her advancing rheumatism. I was thrilled by the house, especially my bedroom which had a large window overlooking a manicured front yard. After we had been living there a few weeks, I saw the face again. It was partially in shadow again illuminated from behind by the street lights. I was happy for I liked the face which seemed to smile at me with a friendly grin. I decided that it would be best not to mention anything to either Mimi or my mother when she came to visit.

Time passed. The face continued to appear periodically even though it immediately disappeared if I moved in an attempt to make contact. Like the strangers who came looking for Mama, I knew the face to be a masculine one. I clung to the belief that he was my guardian angel and didn’t want me to acknowledge his presence. Sometimes I made up stories for myself to the tune that he was my guardian angel sent as a substitute for my missing father. Things might have gone on in this way except when my English teacher gave our class an assignment to write about their fathers I decided to write about the face in my window.

The resultant uproar was unexpected and immediate. The school called Mimi and together we were sent for a session with a visiting school counselor. We met in the tiny nurse’s office. The counselor was an attractive young woman who seemed to me to be not much older than I. She told us that my story fascinated and worried her, for, she explained, children are not supposed to see faces at their windows, real or imagined. Mimi said nothing; she just sat there, while I instinctively knew my story was a mistake. I liked my face and didn’t want to give him up. The counselor’s demeanor was quietly reassuring, but I was wary, determined not to be seduced by friendly good looks. On the spur of the moment, I decided to add voices to the face in the hope that the package would convince everyone that it was all my vivid imagination.

That backfired, a second session was scheduled with a doctor who was called in to assist. His large portly body with strained buttons across his chest changed the tone of our meeting. I was given an extensive barrage of tests. I thought that I was doing well until he leaned toward me and began to ask questions about the voices. I kept quiet for I realized that my fabrication was back-firing. He asked,

“How many voices?”

“Can you tell if they are male or female?”

“What is said, what message?”

I stared at him, acting dumb while my mind raced. I didn’t know what people’s inner voices said to them. I knew that I ‘d have to say something or my ruse might be discovered. Keeping my voice very low, I whispered,

“Sexual suggestions!”

A great hush descended over the room. The young councilor twisted her fingers together and looked down at the floor. The doctor leaned forward with a smirk on his face; I sensed he was enjoying this. I turned to Mimi and pleaded with my eyes. I think that she understood, for she announced,

“That’s enough: can’t you see that you’re distressing the child?”

I hid my face in her chest to further reinforce her statement. I thought to myself that maybe, one day, I’d become an actress.

By this time, I think even Mimi was becoming convinced the professionals were right, and I was having delusions. I was prescribed a medication. I managed to convey my unquestioning, obedient, acceptance of both their diagnosis and recommended treatment. Mimi and I picked up their prescription at the pharmacy. I carefully read the drug company description attached to my bottle of pills and systematically flushed a pill a day down the toilet.

At my next appointment, I reported experiencing nausea when I began the treatment but told them this had worn off in a week. I hoped that this additional fabrication would help to convince my audience that I was obediently taking my meds. The doctor nodded approvingly and delicately inquired about the voices and face at the window.

“Oh those,” I waved my arm dismissively, “gradually faded and are gone!”

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, believing my problem solved. I joined them, elated that my ruse had hoodwinked them. The consultation room hummed with the vibes of content people.

When I got home that evening, I decided that enough was enough, the face needed to unveil himself. I created a large sign on the back of an old science fair project. It read, “Who are You?” I propped it up against my bed in full view of the window. I went outside and looked in as the face did to make sure my writing was clear. It was, I knew he couldn’t miss it. A couple of weeks later, I got my answer. His message was written in bold letters on a similar piece of foam-core. I read “You KNOW who I am!” I leapt out of bed and ran to the window, when I got there he was gone leaving the board propped on the window sill. Early the next morning I retrieved it and stored it standing against my initial message.

When Mimi died, Mama appeared out of nowhere. She arranged an intimate memorial service. He came to the funeral home standing at the back his face, for the first time ever, fully illuminated. I was tormented by a plethora of mixed emotions; a deep sadness at Mimi’s death, coupled with a sense of completion as I watched my mother greet the face. I surreptitiously watched them, and realized she recognized and knew him. When she got ready to depart on her next jaunt, I was formally introduced and went to live with him; the most stable person in my life.

Graduating Mischief.

Late at night, after the cleaning crew had finished, graduating high-school valedictorian, Helen and her best friend, crept along the school corridor. They carried mobile phones illuminated as flash lights and grocery sacks filled with used jeans and shoes which they had obtained from Goodwill. The familiar spaces loomed eerily at them and they shivered partly from fear and partly from excitement. In the half-light strange shadows moved across the walls and familiar colors were muted into grays and blacks. They entered the girl’s toilet. They placed a pair of old shoes and scrunched down pants in front of each commode, locked the cubicle and squirmed out under the partition.

They crept back past the row of classroom doors to the elevator and stair lobby. Graduating seniors are permitted to use the elevator and so they called it. It arrived and ponderously opened its doors. They entered and glibly pressed the button for the ground floor, however the elevator did not stop at ground it went on to a lower level. During school hours this level was blocked, but now the elevator stopped and opened its door to a completely new world. Helen shone in her light to reveal a long passageway with pipes and cables bracketed to the walls and running overhead. At this point the prudent might have retreated back into the elevator and re-pressed the ground floor button; but Helen and her companion were still basking in the thought of a mission accomplished. Each wondered whether the passage led somewhere, to secret rooms, a concealed vault, something mysterious, somewhere that, during their twelve years at the school, they had never even dreamed of its existence.

“Let’s see where it goes!” said Helen. Her dumbstruck friend nodded in agreement.

They stepped into the gloom. The elevator doors closed and for a moment they felt fear gripping them, but then a light, probably triggered by a motion detector, went on. The place didn’t look so spooky now. The two girls began to walk. After a hundred yards or so the tunnel split. They paused for they didn’t want to get lost. While they were debating options in whispers they both started for they heard the sound of footsteps coming towards them. There was nowhere to hide, so they stood holding hands waiting for whoever or whatever was approaching.

“I wish we hadn’t come.”

“Me too.”

A figure appeared in the gloom and as it approached it began to materialize into not a ghost, or a zombie, but into the figure of a man. The girls were still filled with fear for meeting a strange man in a hidden tunnel which no-one even knew existed didn’t seem like a good situation. What if he turned out to be a rapist or murderer who inhabited this underground domain? When he got close enough for them to see his face they saw that he was wearing the uniform of a school night-guard. He carried a gun in a holster on his hips.

“What are you two doing here?” He asked. His voice was kind but stern.

“The elevator doors opened, it was the wrong floor. So, we entered.” Came their lame reply.

“This place is OFF LIMITS.” He said. “I need your identifications asap.”

Right there in the tunnel he took their names, class, addresses and contact information. He wrote everything down in a small notebook which he balanced against the wall. Then he hustled them back to the elevator and escorted them out of the building. They parted in the parking lot and each drove home in haste.

Helen’s heart beat was still elevated when she got home. She decided that she had better confess to her mother immediately, for she expected severe repercussions the following day.

“I shall probably be de-frocked” She told her mother. To her surprise her mother wasn’t angry, indeed quite the opposite, she clapped her hands and said,

“I love spunk! Bravo! Don’t worry about school. You are graduating that’s all that’s important.”

By morning Helen and her friend were calm enough to be able to enjoy the conclusion of their prank. At morning break a crowd of girls stood in line looking at a row of locked doors. After a while, they became impatient and several stooped to verify occupancy.

“Someone’s wearing the ugliest shoes!” came a comment from the class favorite.

“They are all wearing gross shoes!” agreed someone else.

“Who are they?” came their collective cry.

The conspirators stood in line smiling sweetly.

As for the rest of the accomplices’ nocturnal adventure there were never any repercussions it was as though it never happened.

Gabby Garter

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Before I encountered Gabby, I didn’t like snakes. It might be more accurate to say that I hated and feared them. My attitude was not unique; indeed, I think that it is a repugnance shared by most of humanity. Thinking about this makes me wonder whether our aversion dates back to Eve’s encounter in the Garden of Eden; or perhaps, there is something about the secretive slithering snake that triggers an innate human hatred. I like to believe that my reaction was rational, telling myself that it was founded on the simple acknowledgement that some snakes are poisonous.

It all began one balmy evening with a full moon flooding our garden in eerie beauty, and Dan, my husband, and I stood together admiring the serenity and loveliness of the night. Then, Dan decided to pop into our garden to adjust one of our solar-powered night lights. He wanted it to better highlight our pond feature. Instead of doing what he intended he immediately came back to the house to get me. I joined him. The night was beautiful and carried the aroma of jasmine. I paused to enjoy the moment, but Dan was hyped up and urged me down to our small concrete patio. That is when I also saw the snake. It was about three feet long and, in a gruesome way, attractive with a distinctive pattern on its body. Curiously, it was almost inert and made only a slight movement when Dan tickled it with a stick. The sight overwhelmed me with irrational fear and loathing. I turned to look at Dan as he aimed his ubiquitous mobile phone and took a picture.

“Look at its segmented tail. It’s a rattler.” I said. I shook with fear thinking how it could easily turn and strike with a venomous bite. “You have to kill it!”

By now both our hearts raced, and Adrenalin flowed. I regret to report that Dan took a gardening spade and slaughtered that snake by pinning its head to the concrete. It struggled for a while. When we deemed it to be dead Dan scooped up its body with his spade and tossed it in a long-arced projectile into the greenbelt behind our house for the ants to finish off.

Now that the crime was over, we felt a tinge of remorse about our destruction of life and retreated to our home office. We Googled the image. We discovered that it seemed that we had murdered a harmless garter snake not a rattler. We felt guilty and tried to rationalize that the two species have similar markings. We read on that garter snakes are beneficial to humans as they kill rats and mice. This knowledge triggered an “ah ha” from us as we recalled a reduction in the rat menace which plagued our garden shed. We also observed that there were fewer frogs croaking their mating songs at night after rain. To lessen our shame, we told ourselves that the next time we would be less hasty and more tolerant.

Fate tempted us for two days later we spotted a much larger, similarly-marked, snake who quickly glided into our garden shed and disappeared down a drainage pipe. A few moments later she put her head out and looked around. Our Googled authority told us that female garters are larger than males, and average about three feet. Our female, who we instantly named Gabby, was even longer. I’ve observed that most people over-estimate the length of the snakes they encounter and assume this to be a human frailty in direct response to fear. However, in Gabby’s case, I do not exaggerate, she was a giant snake at four to five feet in length. As we first saw her in early May, I assumed that she had just been impregnated, probably by her recently murdered spouse. I speculated that he was sluggish that night after a session with Gabby. I consoled myself with the speculation that he died happy.

Garter snakes, and incidentally, rattlers are ovoviviparous. This means that their eggs hatch internally, and they give birth to as many as 98 babies. I read that pregnant snakes are hungry so, a day later, when I dug up a fat bug chrysalis instead of ejecting it into the greenbelt, I placed it in front of Gabby’s drainage pipe. When I returned to put my spade away the chrysalis was gone. The following day I went through the same routine with a similar result. The next time that I went to the shed to retrieve a spade Gabby poked her head out of her drainage pipe. She looked at me as if asking for her food. I quickly went into the garden and dug up a couple of earth worms in our compost pile. When I returned, there was Gabby expectantly semi-emerged from her home. She took the worms from me with a swift strike.

Over time, Gabby and I struck up a friendship. I’d feed her morsels from my gardening exploits, and she became increasingly friendly until she took to accompanying me into the garden so that she could recover her spoils as they were unearthed. Our garden has stone strewn paths, which appeared to annoy Gabby so one day she slithered up into my wheelbarrow and rode to our destination. I wasn’t exactly pleased by this development as I generally load the wheelbarrow with tools and garden refuse. By now, Gabby was even larger and sported a rattler-like tail just like her murdered spouse. Seeing it gave me a sense of justification for our nocturnal killing, for surely it was a reasonable mistake. Every day Gabby became more one of our family and less garden snake.

One day when we had heavy rains, I worried about her home in the drainage pipe and delivered an abandoned dog basket complete with blanket to the shed. Gabby examined it with her mouth open to better use her vomeronasal organ. The smell must have pleased her for she thanked me by twisting her long body around mine before slinking into the basket and curling up in the folds of the blanket.

Unfortunately, Gabby gradually became discontented with her garden role and began to follow me to the house. She attempted to enter by stealthily moving between my feet when I opened the door. I turned and chided her, “NO” even though I know that snakes have limited hearing. On the first few occasions, she accepted my instruction, but one hot summer day when we had torrential rains in the form of a blown-out stalled hurricane Gabby came to the glass patio door and rapped on it with her head. The noise of the rain and the storm made noises difficult to decode, but I thought that she made a noise like the rattle of old bones. I did not open the door.

Summer was coming on when Gabby encountered the man who came to read the gas meter. He knocked on my door,

“Lady, you have a huge snake out there. It looks like a rattler.  I can’t read your meter.” The man was trembling.

“Oh, no Gabby is NOT a rattler,” I said “she is a harmless, and beneficial, garter snake.”

“I don’t know,” said the man as he shuffled from one foot to the other, “I just can’t read a meter with that THING lurking around. It’s just not proper!”

I realized that the situation was getting out of control, and worried that Gabby might not integrate well with visiting grand-children. I decided that, although we had something special in our relationship, it had to end. “After all,” I told myself, “Gabby is only a small-brained snake.” So, I lured her into my car and drove five miles out of town to an entry into the Barton Creek Greenbelt where I dumped her. I told her that it was for her own good, and that she was better off out here where no-one would mistake her for a rattler and put her life in danger.

Five days later Gabby reappeared. This was serious, for she appeared hurt and angry. She reared her body up outside our glass garden door and rattled her tail. I was terrified and called the local animal rescue group who, due to Gabby’s great size agreed to “adopt” her for one of their displays. When they arrived, they confirmed that Gabby was a poisonous rattler not a harmless garter snake. I did not watch the capture.

A week or so passed and I went to visit her in her new surroundings. She seemed lethargic and looked mournfully at me though the glass. She died a few days later.

Kent and Helen – short story

On 2/6/2013, I posted a story “A Dip With Helen” in which I introduced Kent, his mother’s erudite cat Mack, and his niece Helen. Due to Kent’s father’s two marriages Kent is about the same age as Helen. Kent is attracted to Helen and is thwarted by their uncle / niece relationship and society’s mores associated with unions between such close relatives. On 2/26/2018, I posted “The Hidden Treasure”which is another story about Kent. This story doesn’t mention Helen and doesn’t completely jibe with the 2013 story, although minor edits could make the two stories fit together. From this you can tell that I rather like Kent and so write this story about him.

KENT HELEN TREE 

Kent had been cleaning out his mother’s house for several hours before he came to her photograph albums. He took them to the dining room table to study carefully. He paused to enjoy every image of his niece Helen and book marked the pages on which her image appeared. There were only a few: the one of them sharing a bath as children: the one taken at his father’s funeral and the one of them in 2008 standing wet-haired under a “NO SWIMMING” sign at Pedernales Falls. He gathered the albums up and set them by the front door to take to his car. He would look at them again when he returned to his apartment. He didn’t need the photographs for his memory of her was vivid, but somehow having pictures and being able to touch them gave him a thrill. He stroked her luxuriant hair and outlined the curve of her lips. He traced her teasing eyes and blushed as he fondled the curves of her shapely body, as if the contact brought her closer. He shut his eyes and could see things not recorded in the albums. He saw the hidden pool at Pedernales Falls. He saw her seductive naked body slicing through the water. He felt the cool clear water against his body. He heard her voice.

He shook himself out of his reverie and spoke to Mack, his recently deceased mother’s cat, “It is such a shame that, although we are the same age, I am her uncle.” The cat meowed back, and Kent continued his monologue, “Yes. I know that an uncle / niece union is legal in Texas, but not in all States, but wouldn’t she and her parents frown on our having children?” Kent reached and stroked the cat who arched his back in response, “She is so beautiful, and I mean spiritually as well as physically. Humanity needs her to have children. She has to have children!”

Mack stood on the table and looked at Kent. He locked Kent’s eyes into glass-eyed cat stare. When Kent turned away he noticed a small snippet of paper torn from a newspaper lurking under Mack’s paw. He lifted the cat’s soft paw and looked at the paper. On it, he read the word ‘Helen’ accompanied by an e-mail address. It was written in his mother’s unmistakable hand. The newspaper date was a few days before her death. Kent’s mind flooded with questions. What was his mother doing with Helen’s phone number? If she hadn’t died suddenly might she have given it to him or did she intend to use it herself and if so why? He stroked the cat and as he did so he concluded that this was a subliminal message from his mother that a liaison with Helen was acceptable. As he thought about it he became increasingly convinced that this was maternal encouragement from the grave. He decided that he should waste no time, he shoved Mack off the table and opened his computer. He began to type.

His e-mail was a rambling affair in which he alluded to the fact that they hadn’t seen each other for several years, gave a brief outline of his activities and finally asked for her news. After he pressed “send” he re-read it again and wished that he hadn’t sent it for it seemed too brash. How surprised he was to get an almost immediate response. He learned that, yes indeed, she did remember him, and no, she was not in a relationship. Kent stood up, raised his arms in the air, shouted “Halleluiah” and danced around the table. He snatched up Mack to join in his jubilation. The cat did not appreciate this familiarity. He added meows to the halleluiahs until Kent set him down.

There is only so much that you can cover by e-mail and after a few weeks of daily exchanges, Kent suggested that they advanced to the telephone. They talked every evening, discussing the news, books, art, life, religion, and philosophy. They never alluded to their uncle / niece relationship and didn’t meet as Helen lived in Houston and Kent in Austin. There came a day when Helen, now a licensed architect running her own projects, informed Kent that her office had landed a project in Austin, and that she would be making a few business trips to Austin. Did Kent want to get together?

For their first date, for Kent regarded this business trip of hers a date, Kent took the day off work and met Helen at the airport. While he stood at the bottom of the escalator bearing down the incoming travelers, he worried that he might miss her but when she appeared, he had no doubt. His heart raced. He greeted her with a hug. He wanted to kiss her on lips right there on the concourse but restrained himself. He escorted her to the Magnolia Café on Lake Austin Boulevard where they ordered pancakes and coffee. Perhaps the excitement of their meeting or the day’s schedule stole their appetites for they drank their coffee but didn’t eat much. Kent drove her to her meeting, and late afternoon picked her up. She said that she had a busy day scheduled for the morrow, and so he took her to Mozart’s for a light supper overlooking the lake. When he dropped her off, he snatched a quick curb-side hug and a promise that she would be back. He sat mesmerized in his car watching her retreating figure until she disappeared, and he lost himself in dreaming about the impossibility of a real relationship with this love of his life. A uniformed airport police person broke through his reverie by tapping on his windshield with the admonition that he “move along please.” If only I could, he thought, as he drove slowly away.

Helen made a few more visits to Austin, and Kent managed to persuade her to spend a week-end. He talked one of his married female colleagues into letting Helen sleep in her spare room, for he still worried about where this seemingly doomed romance was going. On the one hand, he worried about their blood relationship and on the other, he was so addicted to the joy of her presence that he couldn’t give her up. He escorted her to Pedernales Falls, and they ate a picnic overlooking the waterway. Then they scrambled gazelle-like down over the smooth rock and crystal-clear pools. Their ‘secret’ pool was still there glittering in the sunlight. Kent wanted to relive that moment when they had slipped naked into the waters for an illicit swim, but this time, there were other visitors around and swimming was out of the question. They sat upon a rock and dabbled their feet in the water. Kent reached for her hand and held it. She turned and smiled at him “Yes. I remember” she said. He drew her into his arms and kissed her. She responded with equal longing.

“What shall we do?” he asked, and seeing her sad smile went on “I want to see you every day. I want to marry you. Oh Helen, how I love you!” He paused.

She didn’t move or draw away but looked at him with tears in her eyes. “Kent, I love you too; but what shall we do about this uncle / niece thing? I know that we could get married but would either of us be content with adopted children?”

“My Helen, my beautiful darling Helen, will you marry me and adopt children?” Kent was now on his knees before her. The bare rock surface cut into his patella but he hardly noticed.

Suddenly Helen was her usual bubbly self. “Get up. You fool,” she chided “Of course I’ll marry you, let’s talk to my parents.”

Kent and Helen arranged a weekend in Dallas with Helen’s parents. On Saturday afternoon, Kent found himself alone with them. He found it strange to be sitting there thinking of ways to ask his brother become his father-in-law. It took him half an hour to get to his point, but eventually he asked them to bless a union between himself and Helen. He bravely went on to admit that he knew their blood relationship gave such a marriage restrictions. He explained they had agreed to adopt children. At this point, Helen’s parents looked at each other and nodded.

“We have to tell him.” Said her mom.

“What, tell me what?”

“Well, Kent, your mother wanted this kept a secret, although just before she died, she told me that she was thinking about telling you. The truth is that the man we both knew as father was not your biological father.”

“What do you mean? Dad was not my dad?” Kent’s mind was in turmoil.

“Your Dad was your dad, just not your biological parent.”

“So, Mom had an affair, and they stayed married?” Kent was getting increasingly unhappy.

“No, your Mom did not have an affair. Let me explain, before they got married our father had a vasectomy because he felt that he was too old for any more children. However, as you know, your mother was a licensed practicing mid-wife and eventually told our father that she desperately wanted a child. Out of his devotion for her, he agreed to let her be artificially inseminated, and you were the result. Your biological father is some medical student somewhere.”

“So,” Kent’s head was spinning, “Helen and I are not related biologically – we can get married and have children!” He stood, hugged his brother and future father-in-law, raised his arms, and shouted “Halleluiah!”

Aunt Peggy – a memoir

Aunt Peggy wasn’t really an aunt. Indeed, I’m not sure how she and I were related. I think that she was the daughter of my father’s mother’s brother making her my father’s cousin. She was never married and carried my father’s mother’s maiden name. My father was an only child. He was modest and introverted such that, throughout my childhood, apart from his ailing widowed father, my Grand-pop, I never met any of his relatives. Until the appearance of Aunt Peggy in my life, I firmly believed that he didn’t have any; consequently, her materialization was a surprise.

It happened during my second year at University College London. I was a good student but so focused on my studies that I was incapable of making friends. This situation was further compounded by two factors; first my gradual emergence from Anorexia which had haunted me for over five years, and secondly my living arrangements. I lived in a “Student Rooming House” owned by the University. It was a lovely Georgian building scheduled for future demolition and temporarily converted into rooms for students. My room was on the first floor above ground level. I shared a tiny kitchen with the other two rooms of the floor. We used a communal bathroom located in the rear of the building on the landing between the first and second floors. This was shared between the rooms on both floors. I liked my room with its tall window and inaccessible Juliet balcony. The balcony had a beautiful Georgian wrought-iron balustrade which I photographed, and drew. Apart from the tiny kitchen, we had no communal area and didn’t interact with each other. Most weekends I would go from Friday evening to Monday morning without talking to anyone who knew my name. I was miserable.

This all took place in the late 1960s when telephones were still a luxury, indeed I don’t recall how I made or received calls; most of my communications were by letter. My father faithfully wrote every week; how I enjoyed his letters. They were always written on a folding flimsy blue air mail letters. His handwriting was small and since he only took his pen off the paper to change lines, the words blended together. Normally a fast reader, I’d have to take it slowly to decipher his meaning. I wrote back every Sunday evening. I attempted to be upbeat but my unhappiness often bled onto the pages of my text. Sometimes my mother wrote. He letters were long and literary written in her legible hand, she included wisdom about the future and exhortations on how to face my demons.

Aunt Peggy’s invitation came through the mail. She suggested a Sunday afternoon tea in her home in her home up Finchley Road. From my father’s letters, I gathered that he had asked her to make contact in an attempt to bring someone friendly into my life to break my loneliness. It was his attempt to make sure that I talked to someone who knew my name during those long weekends alone. There was no direct underground route from my rooming house on Bedford Way close to Russel Square tube station to her house in Hampstead. I took the Piccadilly Line from Russel Square to Kings Cross and changed to the Northern Line to get to Finchley Road. Upon arriving at Finchley Road tube station, I took the bus to her house. A house in London is a luxury, and Aunt Peggy’s was the best. It was a rambling red-brick place covered with Virginia creeper. It stood in its own gardens slightly set back from the main street. When I arrived, I looked in awe at this huge edifice and wondered if she lived alone.

Aunt Peggy turned out to be a matter-of-fact sort of woman of about my father’s age. She wore a tweed skirt, sweater, pearls and flat shoes. She looked comfortable in her home, which was furnished with non-descript antiques. Even though it was Sunday afternoon tea was served by a maid. We sat in her living room, with me perched anxiously on the edge of my chair as, I balanced a cup of tea and small plate laden with sandwich and cake. Conversation was strained as I was shy and awed by her home and presence. Half way through our tea joyous voices erupted in the hall, and two laughing girls came into the room. Aunt Peggy introduced them as her nieces and lodgers. Instead of showing an interest or asking questions of these girls with whom I must have been distantly related I politely shook hands and sank back into my chair to watch their happy interaction with their relative and landlady. I could tell that they had a special rapport and learned that Aunt Peggy shared her large home with a bevy of nieces.

The travel to and from Aunt Peggy’s took over an hour, so that, in conjunction with the tea, the entire excursion took in the order of four hours. Although I liked my interaction with Aunt Peggy, I didn’t exactly look forward to my visits because they took so much time. It was time I thought that I could otherwise have invested in studying. In June, at the end of my third, and last year I was awarded my degree. The Queen mother was scheduled to preside over our graduation ceremony and to hand us our official degrees. Unfortunately, this auspicious event was driven by her schedule and was set to occur the following April. The College made up for this by hosting a celebratory reception and tea for new graduates and their families. My parents couldn’t make the trip down from Durham, and so I invited Aunt Peggy to join me.

The on-campus event was the only time that I ever saw Aunt Peggy outside her home. She most graciously accompanied me to the reception which must have been very boring for her – it certainly was for me. Afterward, they served tea accompanied by cream puffs and other whipped cream filled cakes. Because the food was ‘free’, and I felt an obligation to eat as much as possible, this supported my emergence from Anorexia, which had swung me into a binge-eater. I loaded my plate and ate ravenously. I recall Aunt Peggy calmly remarking,

“If you eat like that you won’t remain slim.”

After that event, I never saw Aunt Peggy again. Life went on for me. I did a year out in Edinburgh. My mother died. I finished my studies at Newcastle University close to my widowed father, moved back to London for my first architectural position, became licensed, met my future husband and emigrated to America to be with him. I always believed that Aunt Peggy’s kindness was due to a sense of obligation coupled with a love of young people rather than any rapport that she may have felt for me. I sent her Christmas cards with my news scribbled inside next to the standard pre-printed Hallmark greetings. She never responded and so in time I took her off my Christmas card list.

Thirty years later, I received a strange letter from a London Solicitor inquiring whether I was myself. The Internet wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and I wondered how they had found me. I confirmed my identity and several months later received a check for approximately $5,000. Apparently, Aunt Peggy had remembered me, and left me 0.1% of her estate. I accepted the gift as I had accepted all Aunt Peggy’s graciousness and generosity. However, this time I felt saddened that I hadn’t given back more to this very special lady.