Late Home – a short story

The sisters enjoyed their drive home. They thrived in each other’s company and had much to be happy about. As they exchanged dreams they agreed that prospects were good that New Year’s day. The party in Edinburg had been a success with a classic Scottish celebration. During their hundred-mile drive home they had plenty of time to make plans’ only regretting that they had started off late and would not be home until 3pm.

The red Volkswagen which they drove was their mother’s. She had lent it to them accompanied by the strict provision that they return it by 2 pm. They knew that they had promised, but didn’t consider an hour to be so critical; the worst, they reassured each other, would be one of her dramatic tongue-lashings. They expected that she would give them half an hour of berating. It would be half-an-hour in which she told them how irresponsible they were, how disappointed she was, et cetera, et cetera. They knew the routine and looked forward to the aftermath when they would apologize and kiss and make-up and their transgression would be forgiven and, more important, forgotten.

They were still giggling and happy when they parked the car in the garage next to their father’s Rover. They were a little surprised to see it parked there as he generally returned from his clinic later in the day. They accepted this break in his routine as a good sign, giving an additional boost to their joyous stance. They walked down the drive to their home with happy raised voices. Their father met them at the door, his normally calm face, which generally cracked a faint smile when he greeted them, was bathed in disappointment.

“How could you girls break your word?” he asked. “She had to leave your brother next door with neighbors and call me to come home. Then she had to walk to Dr. Shaw’s office. You know what a long hike up hill that is. How could you girls do that? How could you?”

“We didn’t know. It was only an hour,” hazarded the oldest, although, even as she spoke, her heart sank for she knew that her father was a stickler for honesty and for keeping one’s word. The younger knew that such an excuse wouldn’t appease him. She thought of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If framed on his wall and the maxim of honesty and perfect reliability which formed the foundation of his code.

“It doesn’t matter what you knew, you broke your word. You failed. This is not the behavior that I expect from my daughters.” His accusation carried sadness and disappointment tinged with anger. They shuffled uneasily from foot to foot, knowing how much his approval meant to them and how miserable they were, standing before him, having failed. They both wondered what they could say.

The elder volunteered, “Can we go and pick her up?”

But, just then the telephone rang. Their father answered it, “Durham 43068, Dr. Stevens speaking.” The sisters couldn’t hear the other end of the line, but, from his pallor they both sensed that something critical had happened. “I’ll leave at once,” he said. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

When he placed the telephone back on its cradle he sighed, “That was Dr. Shaw.” he said. His voice quivered; something his daughters had never witnessed before. From his face they both thought that he looked as though he was going to cry.

“What’s wrong? Is it Mom? Is she alright?” the elder asked.

Their father seemed to be taking his time in answering as the sisters watched the grandfather clock behind him ticking second by second. When he spoke, his voice was quiet with no anger in it, just an intense sadness.

“Dr. Shaw says that he suspects that it is an advanced colon cancer. Your poor mother, she had to walk to the appointment alone.” He paused and put his hand up to his face, shielding his eyes from their view. His voice rasped out, barely a whisper and yet full of intensity, “We all, and I do mean all, let her down, both you girls and me. I should have been with her.” Again he paused and now his voice was a little louder, almost a gentle wail, “She is my wife and she received this prognosis without me. I should have been with her.”

Taking their cue from him his daughters immediately wanted to cry; their mother had always seemed so full of life. What did this mean? How should they react to this change in the year’s prospects?

The following is advice, which no one gave the sisters. It is advanced to all those in similar circumstances:

“When you hear the news, act immediately. Don’t deny this event in trivia for it will change your life forever. Accept the inevitable, and take instant action. Quit your pressing education, career, and normal obligations; leave them behind and go home. In less than a year you can reassume your life with ease: right now your dying mother needs your love.”

“Sit beside her in the garden room among your father’s red fuchsia; enjoy the last whiff of her Fleurs De Rocaille. Talk to her about her beliefs, love her. Of course you love her, but does she know it? Did you show her instead of telling her? Show her when you cook her favorite foods. Let the house teem with the sweet aroma. Coax her to eat. Read with her, listen to her voice and ask her about her life. Immerse yourself in her precious last days. For this short interlude of time savor her life, by forgetting yours.”

© July 2015 Jane Stansfeld

Father’s Love – a short story

The father was a wiry slender man who was frugal, hard-working, and asked for few comforts in life. He was a staunch South Dakota Mennonite and, during World War II, resolutely supported their belief that the fifth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill”, means exactly what it says. He could not join a war effort whose goal was to defeat an enemy though violence and the destruction of human life. He had quietly suffered for this belief. During the long war years after Pearl Harbor he never complained but accepted menial home front tasks to which he was assigned. When the war was over he took a position teaching elementary school. Over the period of a few years he managed to save up enough to purchase a car and drove to town to date his sweetheart. After they were married they took a mortgage and set up to farm a quarter (one hundred sixty acres). Their tiny homestead consisted of two rooms on the main level topped by two small attic bedrooms accessed by ship’s ladder. There was a lean to add-on kitchen. They had a two hole outside toilet and no bathroom.

Over the years their union was blessed with three sons who arrived into the world in regular three year intervals. The boys ran the farmyard in bare feet and made dens in the hay bales in the barn. The South Dakota weather kept the little family one step away from destitution as each year the winds, lack of rain, or too much rain, tested the father’s farming skills and jeopardized his crops. He was constantly worrying and scribbling sums on scraps of paper as he attempted to allocate their meager funds and keep the little family solvent and fed. His wife, a motherly sort, prayed constantly and did all she could to help make her husband’s life easier.

One day their oldest son was sent home from school for fighting. The boy was generally obedient and well behaved, but, on this occasion, he came home pouting and belligerent. He appeared hurt and angry. Both his parents attempted to get him to tell them what worried him, but he remained taciturn. How could he explain the teasing at school when it related to his own father’s role in the war before he was even born? How could he justify fighting about the very thing for which his father had so bravely suffered? He was not a violent child, but there came a moment when he had to defend his father, and so he had lashed out. His punch had been unexpected and effective, and astonished the bullying boys. They had responded with equal violence, which might have resulted in more than a few bruises had not a teacher heard the commotion, and intervened by separating the boys. She sent them all home in disgrace.

Both parents could see that their son was distressed and did their best to try to coax the boy into telling them what prompted the fight. But, he remained uncommunicative. Eventually the quiet father sat down and drew his son towards him to stand him between his knees.

“Son, what was the problem? The note which the teacher sent says that you were fighting. Son, haven’t you learned anything. You know that we don’t fight? Isn’t there something which you need to tell us, something we could pray about?” He was gentle, calm, and loving.

The boy looked into his father’s kind grey eyes, felt his father’s strong thin fingers on his waist and experienced a surge of anger. There was something to talk about but he couldn’t explain his pain. He couldn’t explain the constant teasing which was a direct result of who his father was. At that moment he blamed his father for his passivism, he blamed his father for his quiet love, and he blamed him for the bullies at school. He drew back his arm, formed a fist and punched his father’s nose. The impact made a thud and blood began to flow. The father let go of the boy’s waist and cupped his hands. He quietly held them up to his face to catch the blood. The son drew back; his eyes were wide with terror. Had he done this? Had he killed his father? He ran to his mother in the lean-to kitchen.

“Mama, Mama, come quickly Daddy is bleeding.”

She came into the room, but the father did not speak he continued to sit, immobile, quietly letting the blood drip from his nose into his cupped hands. The son urged his mother.

“Do something Mama, do something.”

But the father was gently shaking his head. His wife understood him and did nothing. The dripping continued and gradually a small reservoir of blood accumulated in the father’s cupped hands. It seemed an eternity before the bleeding stopped, and the father got up. The mother drew water and poured it into a basin. The son silently watched him wash away the blood. He hoped that the cleansing washed away his guilt. A little blood goes a long way and, in this case, the watching boy saw more than he believed possible. Some of it had browned where it had begun to dry on the edges of the father’s hands but most of it was still bright red. The father scrubbed his hands clean and wiped the blood stains off his face. Then he took the basin and tossed the reddened water onto the plants outside their kitchen door. He didn’t say a word. His watching son never forgot that image of his father’s blood flowing, drip by painful drip, into his cupped hands.

© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, April 2014

Hippo – a short story

This story is 2,846 words. I was tempted to divide it into three episodes in the hope that this might make it more blog friendly but finally concluded that the flow works better without interruption. Please give me your input about the length versus the episode approach as I am still learning about this medium.

Zoe and Zach were, “Like two Zs in a pod” as someone succinctly put it at their wedding. Some of the guests wondered whether this referred to their empathy for each other, their similar interests or even to Zoe’s non aggressive, sleepy, approach to life. In fact the comment, made by Zach’s best man, was merely a nifty allusion to their names and their union; it came with no additional hidden message, other than his desire to amuse.

Those who wondered whether the comment referred to Zoe’s personality were right in their assessment that she did have a sleepy, non-aggressive, approach to life. Most of them didn’t know that she could also become fierce, and verged on irrational, when riled. She was like a volcano, normally dormant, but occasionally capable of spectacular eruption. This being so it was fortunate that she and Zach had similar belief systems, including a staunch faith in reincarnation.

Until Zoe met Zach her belief system included reincarnation but the concept only lurked, hardly acknowledged and unexpressed, in her subconscious. It became fully entrenched after she accepted Zach’s marriage proposal, because it was then that Zach told her about his residual memories of one of his previous lives. He confided that he had lived another life as an indigenous American Indian. He firmly believed that he was killed by the US cavalry in 1890 as part of the Wounded Knee massacre. Now Zach was born in 1947 which means that his jiva either spent a long time in limbo, or packed in another, perhaps less memorable life, into the 57 years between 1890 and 1947. Zach harbored no memories of this intervening period, but his recollections of the massacre were vivid. They were triggered by action, times of stress and loud noises, such as thunderstorms, rather as Marcel Proust’s ‘petit madeleine’ gave him his remembrances recorded in his book, ‘In Search of Lost Time.’

Zoe based her conviction on Zack’s testimony, and her own uncanny realization that every time that she stood alone in the kitchen chopping vegetables she thought about holocaust victims. At those times her brain synapses somehow became entangled, and as she chopped, she identified with a young, thin, and very beautiful, girl (always beautiful, way to go Zoe), who was temporarily saved from the gas chambers to serve as a cook in one of the Nazi guard’s houses. Her eyes teared when she told Zack,

“As I chop I wonder about each scrap which I reject, wonder whether it will go into the thin gruel that we will eat tonight. I am hungry, but too scared to taste the food, for someone may be spying on me. I know that the 1940’s Nazi guard does not have a hidden camera, but I am frightened as there are other, more direct ways, of watching. Sometimes I can feel his watchful eye upon me. I chop more diligently knowing that my life depends on my doing this job correctly. I start to think about my lost family and then, suddenly, something brings me back to my present self and I question what I did wrong – how I died so that I came back so quickly into my present life in 1945.”

Zoe’s initial belief was triggered by her father, Rex. To be sure she never ascertained whether Rex genuinely endorsed reincarnation. Until she met Zach she speculated that he spoke of it in jest, for he unfalteringly asserted that, “If I come back, I wished to come as a hippopotamus.” The suggestion seemed to her to be counter culture for, surely, a hippo is a lower life form to that of a man. When questioned, her father gave his reasons. They almost made sense.

To understand his reasons, Zoe thought about the man. Up until the time of Zoe’s mother’s death in 1973, he was a slender, self-controlled, faithful one-woman man, who never over-indulged. When she died he was still able to wear a leather coat which he had bought for himself forty years earlier when he was 21. The world saw him as virile, intelligent, and selfless in his service of others, surely as one who was far advanced up the life continuum. “So why,” Zoe asked herself, “why does he wish to go backward? Why does he wish to reincarnate as a hippopotamus?” His hippo obsession, for she believed that it was an obsession, invaded his life, he collected hippo images, he acted like an elementary preschooler when at the zoo, and he drew and sculpted them. Sometimes, she even wondered whether his ‘thing’ about hippos was also because they are easy, for the amateur artist, such as himself, to depict.

Rex had a good sense of humor and, when questioned closely about his reincarnation wish, he said, “What a lifestyle! What could be better than being a vegetarian, without natural enemies? I can image nothing better than to be able to lounge all day in water, and to peacefully, unreservedly, eat everything I want all night. What joy to live a life, surrounded by an abundance of food yet unencumbered by obesity problems. A life in which one’s weight is counterbalanced by buoyancy in water. A life enjoyed in the everlasting warmth of the African sun.” At this point in his explanation Rex’s eyes would shine mischievously and he’d continue, “Best of all I look forward to unrestrained underwater copulation! I see myself as an alpha dominant bull hippopotamus with a herd of cows at my disposal.”

After Zoe’s mother died Rex began to put some of his future life plans into practice. It began with the installation of a swimming pool in his back yard. He commissioned a life sized concrete sculpture of a hippopotamus which he installed as a seat in the pool and took to swimming next to it every day. He had the rear end of a companion ‘female’ hippopotamus custom-made and installed on the façade of his house. He claimed that it represented the female retreating into to house to hide after action with the male in the pool.

Over time Zoe and Zach wondered about his sanity and were additionally confused to find that every time that they visited he had a different woman for them to meet. This was bad enough, what made it worse was that each progressive woman was younger than the last. They tried to tell themselves that this was of no concern of theirs until the girl who met them at the front door was Annabel, one of Zoe’s old school friends.

Zoe was indignant and upset, and the next day after Annabel had left, she coerced Zach into supporting her in confronting the old man. Rex flared up in anger, in a rage such as Zoe had never seen before. He declared that he would do as he wished and that if she and Zach didn’t approve of his lifestyle then they should stay away. They attempted to get him to see reason but he was too enraged and even appeared to be enjoying this ‘fight for his rights,’ as he put it.

Zoe, who had never fought with her father before, flared up and gave him a spontaneous vindictive response. She told him how much she disapproved of his actions. He responded in form and then, Zoe erupted, losing all semblance of control. She morosely told him that he slighted the memory of her mother. She told him that she hated what he was doing. She told him that if he persisted she never wanted to see him again. He told her that if she felt that way she should leave.

She left, still shouting, angry and unhappy. On their drive home Zach persuaded her that what the old man did was his concern. He went on to suggest that Zoe should apologize. Eventually she reluctantly put hurt aside and agreed. She was too riled up and full of righteous wrath to call immediately. She decided that she would wait a week or so before calling. She secretly hoped that some of her words might have sunk in. Unfortunately, Zoe never got a chance to apologize for the next week Rex had a sudden stoke. He died in his pool draped over his concrete hippopotamus where he appeared to be gazing up at the female rear on the side of his house. Instead of a frozen face of anguish his face was bathed in a smile.

As is often the case when someone dies Zoe was filled with regrets. Those haunting ‘could have’s and ‘should have’s kept playing over in her mind. Her grief was acute as she couldn’t reconcile herself to the cruelty of her angry words. She played and replayed the fight in her mind constantly regretting that Rex had died before they were reconciled and she had had a chance to explain that her words sprang from love not hate.

Rex left his hippo collection to his progeny. At that point in her life Zoe discovered that if one owns more than three of an ornament type one becomes a collector and so, by default, she became a hippo collector. Her favorite piece was a two-foot long sculpture of hippo’s head, with 35 degree open gaping mouth, and teeth showing. It was sculpted by Rex, in white Carrera marble shortly before he died. The curious thing about the sculpture was that Rex had given the head a strange ‘Z’ shaped scar on the forehead between the little ears. Zoe’s siblings insisted that this mark defined the head as being intended for her. The rest of the collection grew as friends and relatives gave Zoe hippos and she even bought herself a two foot long model which purported to have been made from a solid teak African railroad tie.

In 2007, on the occasion of Zack’s 60th birthday, Zoe gave Zack a trip to Africa. Ostensibly, the trip was for Zack to reconnect with some cousins who lived in Johannesburg, but Zoe also planned a three-day African Safari. This was because her hippo obsession, inherited from her father, and her continued pain at the circumstances of their last words to each other, had become sufficiently compelling that she wanted to see hippos in the wild. At the beginning of the Safari Zoe took their guide aside and told him that she was mainly interested in seeing hippopotami. She told him that, as far as she was concerned, the other animals were irrelevant. The guide registered some surprise and warned Zoe that the hippo is the most dangerous animal in Africa. He told her that there are more human fatalities associated with hippos than with any other animal, including alligators, crocodiles and lions.

On the first morning the guide took Zoe and Zach, and another couple, out in an open jeep equipped with protective steel bars and manned, by himself as driver, and two armed local scouts. The dawn was dusty and hazy and the countryside a mixture of scrub and clumps of trees. Strange birds made loud raucous calls and insects buzzed. The guide told them that he was taking them to a nearby hippo viewing spot. After a ten minute drive, over rough country, they arrived at a water hole in an estuary off a slow-moving river. They parked some distance away on a small hillock so that they could watch a group of about thirty hippos wallowing in the water.

Zoe took out her binoculars while Zach photographed with a powerful telephoto lens. The smell was pungent and fetid. Zoe commented on it, to which their guide responded, “The male hippo marks his zone in the water by defecating while swinging his tail so that his waste is scattered as far as possible. This defines his territory. He aggressively protects it and his cows.” As if in answer to the guide’s words a large body rose from the dirty water, mouth open to emit a loud bellow which resounded above the grunts of the rest of the group. The guide stood and pointed, “There he is! The alpha male! Do you see the strange scar on his head?”

Zoe trained her binoculars on the animal. She gasped with excitement, “Zach look. Zach look, the alpha hippo has a ‘Z’ shaped scar on his head! Here, take the glasses. Look.”

Zack looked, “Isn’t that scar curiously similar to the scar on Rex’s sculpture? Wait, Zoe, wait, it is the same as the scar on the sculpture. No one will believe this. Here, Zoe, you take the glasses again. I’m going to shoot a movie.”

They watched in disbelief as their guide expounded additional hippopotami facts, “The fully grown male hippo, such as the one that you are looking at, weighs about 3 ½ tons: They are second only, in size, to the land animals of the elephant and white rhino. The alpha male that you see there is probably about twenty years old and may live to fifty. His skin is thick and tough but he is scarred from the many fights in which he engages to maintain his leadership position in the herd.”

The group spent over an hour watching the hippos as they bellowed, grunted, and moved around in the water. Just as they were about to leave the ‘Z’ male and another slightly smaller animal emerged from the water bellowing through open mouths. Their conflict intensified and they lumbered out of the water taking their fight to the bank. They both had their mouths open to almost 180 degrees. Their teeth glistened in the sun and their bellows pierced the air. Even from a distance you could see that the ‘Z’ male was winning and soon the smaller animal was bleeding with several gashes on his sides. He ceded victory and turned tail to lumber into the bushes beside the water. The ‘Z’ male followed goring his retreating rear end with his teeth. Zoe was fascinated and began to climb out of the jeep.

The guide reprimanded her in a loud whisper, “Here, Zoe, it’s not safe you must stay in the jeep.” His voice carried well now that the combatants were no longer bellowing. A few minutes after he spoke the ‘Z’ male re-emerged from the scrub much closer to them. He stood in the long grass and stared at the jeep flipping his tail and flapping his tiny ears. He opened his mouth but did not bellow, then, he turned and ambled back to the water.

On the following days they travelled in other directions and saw other animals including more hippos. Sometimes at night they heard hippos moving about foraging for food in the surrounding undergrowth. Each time Zoe would wander fearlessly to the perimeter of the camp to gaze, intrepid, into the night. On the dawn of their last day she rose with the sun and silently left the camp to follow the sounds of hippo activity. She had no idea what she was doing or why she was doing it. She was zombie-like on auto pilot.

When she felt the hippo presence bearing upon her Zoe stopped and stood in a daze. She gazed intently at the undergrowth, and saw it part a couple of hundred feet from her, to allow a huge hippo to emerge. For several minutes he stood and gazed at her. She didn’t move. Then he began to move towards her gathering speed into a charge, bringing 3 ½ tons of angry hippo down towards her. She stood immobile, like a scared rabbit captured in a car’s headlights. She was unable to run, and knew that even if she tried she would never be able to out-run the beast. “Anyway,” she thought, “it will be better to die facing him, than to have him kill me from behind.” When the hippo was less than 100 feet away Zoe saw the scar and recognized the ‘Z’ alpha male. There was no time to wonder why he was so far from his water hole only time to address him. Her voice registered no panic, it was gentle almost conversational, “Who are you? Don’t hurt me. It’s me, Zoe.”

Now the hippo was so close that Zoe could feel ground tremor caused by his stampede. Then he stopped and slid to a halt in front of her. Dust enveloped them. For a moment Zoe and the animal stood and stared at each other taking in every detail. Then Zoe felt an inner urge and knew what to do. She reached out and touched his huge, slimy wet, nose. She felt the stiff hairs on his chin which contrasted with the smoothness of the soap-like skin under her hand. The contact filled her with happiness and she smiled.

It was a smile of recognition. She murmured “Daddy, peace. Forgive me. I love you so very much” She began to cry soft gentle sobs of joy and love. The hippo blinked his eyes, as though in recognition, he flapped his small ears, and gently waved his huge head to and fro to rub her extended hand. Then he snorted a low, almost soothing noise, turned and walked away.

© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, March 2014