THE THIRD DAUGHTER

Dr. Lawrence Medford was forty-nine when his wife of twenty-five years died. It had taken six months from diagnosis to that fateful day when he stood with their daughters silently watching her simple coffin roll behind the undertaker’s doors leading to a cremation chamber. He showed no emotion, but his two college-age daughters didn’t share his stoicism and openly wept. The red-carpeted funeral home room was cold, and all three shivered even as they considered the heat of a furnace behind the unforgiving doors which had closed on their last link to their wife and mother. One of her dying requests was that they should not have an official memorial service, and so her death passed without fanfare and left them bereft of a sense of closure. Lawrence gathered up the solitary bouquet of flowers, a gorgeous arrangement of white roses, and carried it out to his car. His girls followed. If they hadn’t been so unhappy, they might have enjoyed the sweet aroma of roses as they drove home.

A few days later, their Dad stood on the platform at Durham’s train station, escorting his daughters off to London so that they could pick up their lives as apprentice architect and lawyer. He was pleased, but mildly surprised at their professional successes and even momentarily wondered whether he had been right to steer both away from his calling as a pediatrician. His argument was that medicine needs its practitioners to be fully up-to-date, something, he believed, to be impossible if a woman is also a mother.

After they had gone Dr. Lawrence Medford went home to embrace his loneliness by investing his time in medicine and gardening. He kept his large five bed room home and hired a live-in housekeeper to cook his meals and keep the home running. He was a slender, quiet-spoken, good-looking bachelor and several women, including his housekeeper, tried to capture his attention. He hardly noticed and didn’t respond for he was wrapped in his isolation and in his fond memories of his former life raising his family and communing with his late wife. He wasn’t one to engage in self-pity, although there were times when he questioned the way that his daughters had moved so far away in a semblance of abandonment. He wrote of his loneliness in his private journal but was too self-effacing to open up his feelings to anyone including his daughters.

A year later, this lonely man stood in Durham railway station waiting to meet his new resident, pediatrician-in-training, who was to arrive on the three-o-clock London train. When it swept into the station, he eagerly scanned the descending passengers for his contact, but all he saw was an elderly gentleman and three young women. As was his custom, he showed no emotion while inwardly debating that this didn’t make sense. Here he was waiting to pick up his new pediatrics resident, and the young man didn’t appear to have arrived; this was not a good start. The sun shone on the platform, so he held a hand to shield his eyes, thinking that perhaps the brilliant light had interfered with his vision. A whistle sounded, a flag waved, and the train left the station. Now he saw that the smallest of the three young women was approaching him with her hand outstretched.

“Dr. Lawrence Medford, I presume,” she paused, while she momentarily sensed his momentary hesitation.

“I’m Dr. Aytana Gupta, how-do-you-do.”

He held himself together while his mind whirled. A woman, how could this be? He expected, even welcomed, an Indian with a strong work ethic, good grades and sound references; however, a woman, and so young. His world, already miserably upside down seemed to be heading for another upset. He concealed his concern smiled, and said,

“Welcome Dr Gupta, come this way.”

Fortunately, Dr. Lawrence Medford had an open mind for, within a few weeks, he realized the error of his conception about women in medicine. He had misjudged Aytana. She might be small in stature and look young with her long flowing black hair, but she had a mind of a titan equipped with excellent medical knowledge. Her only problem was her shyness and lack of poise. He worked diligently to build up her self-confidence and helped her adjust into the mores and peculiarities of medical practice in a hospital in the north of England. They spent so much time together, two superb professionals with a common goal, that they developed a mutual attraction. Fortunately, their roles as teacher and student, coupled with his high moral and ethical standards melded their personal relationship into one similar to that between father and daughter.

At the conclusion of her residency, to Aytana’s delight, Dr. Lawrence Medford managed to persuade the Hospital Board to retain her as a full-time associated pediatrician. Before engaging in her new position, she took a long vacation in India. She returned with a husband in tow and laden with gifts, including an antique Indian painting of a tiger hunt as a special gift for her mentor. The gift overwhelmed him. In his entire life no-one including his parents, late wife, and daughters, ever gave him such a treasured gift. His eyes teared and his hands shook as he accepted it with a rare glimpse of his inner feelings..

He had influence with the Hospital Board and found a residency position for Aytana’s husband, Raj, whose medical training was two years behind that of his wife, He observed the young couple as they got to know each-other and to adjust to married life. He stepped in to gently counsel Aytana not to be overly critical or interfering with her husband’s residency. He urged her to let him form his own relationships.

Aytana’s content saw her gradually growing in stature both professionally and physically while she wore her hair shorter and shorter. When she was hospitalized with a bad case of German Measles her most frequent visitor was Al. He came with snowdrops, books, candy, love, and news from the wards. A year later, she was hospitalized again after a difficult delivery which ended with a cesarean. Al quickly realized that Aytana was heading into post-partum depression, he spoke to Raj and suggested that he take his wife out to dinner. This was accomplished with great secrecy. Raj arrived in Aytana’s room with red roses and a coat. She slipped into the coat. He escorted her to the best restaurant in the city where they dined in luxury. Although urged by the restaurant staff to take off her coat Aytana wisely kept it on. The episode with its element of subterfuge and love served to snap Aytana into herself again.

Doctors should never attempt to treat their own families because familiarity clouds perception, and so it was with Aytana and Raj. By the time that their daughter was seven months old they began to suspect that something was wrong. Aytana who shared everything with her mentor mentioned this to Al. A short time later, he invited the young family to afternoon tea. He served it English style in his drawing room. During the course of the occasion he periodically got up to play with the baby offering her various toys, and generally treating her with the empathy with which he served all his patients. When Aytana arrived at work the following morning, she found a carefully written diagnosis accompanied with letters of introduction to the country’s two top specialists who treated children with right-sided hemiplegia. (Hemiplegia is an irreversible one-sided, stroke-like brain injury, generally occurring in the womb or associated with a very difficult delivery. It is manifested by paralysis to one side of the body and can be partially mitigated by therapy, especially if administered at an early age). Aytana then realized that his attention to her daughter had been so that he could evaluate her and make a diagnosis.

When Aytana and Raj bought their first house, they invited Al to dinner. He came laden with the best wine. He admired their new accommodations but himself an avid gardener, looked woefully at their small garden, which was no garden merely a daunting plot rampant with weeds. The following Saturday he arrived with a mechanical digger in the trunk of his car and proceeded to spend the entire day digging up the weeds and preparing the ground. His investment stimulated Aytana and Raj to make another giant step into their assimilation into English culture, thereafter enjoying their garden as much as any English couple.

When Al retired, he urged the Hospital Board to appoint Aytana as his successor. Regrettably, they still espoused to his former belief that medicine is not a good profession for a woman and couldn’t see their pediatrics’ department led by one. She stayed on in her old role as second in command and she and Raj kept in close contact with Al.

A decade later, Al had a massive stroke and died. Dr Aytana Gupta wrote a long four letter of condolence to his daughters citing the many manifestations of his person which she treasured. She concluded with the words:

“Your father was a loving and giving person who asked for nothing. I wish more than anything that we had given him more than nothing.
“We are consumed with grief at this loss and will remember him as mentor, guide, father, grandfather, brother and loving friend – all that we had nothing of once – in this lovely and handsome person.
“We are proud to have known him and to have gained, so undeservedly, the affection of a beautiful and unique person.
“You must know that we shall not forget him.”

When Dr Lawrence Medford’s coffin rolled into the cremation chamber, his daughters stood weeping and watching. They thought about him and their self-imposed distance, and let Aytana’s words flow over their sadness and regrets. Her words described a closeness and love surpassing their relationship with their father, for she was, indeed his third daughter.

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!

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?

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.