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THE FERAL

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The Feral was awarded Honourable Mention in the 2008 Dorothy Shoemaker Literary Awards Contest and published in The Changing Image by the Kitchener Public Library

The Feral

He sat on the edge of the porch stoop – waiting. It was almost four o’clock. That’s normally when she would cautiously raise her head above the notch in the trunk of the willow and leisurely scan the perimeter.

The old tree’s canopy covered the entire front yard of the boy’s new home. On hot summer afternoons the willow’s welcome shade extended from the edge of the driveway to the porch at the front of the house. Taller than the farmhouse, the great sweep of its drooping branches provided safe haven for birds. The tall grasses around its trunk sheltered small animals. But, they all stayed well away from the deep hole in the notch of the trunk. That’s where she slept for most of the day.

Disturbing her resting place meant trouble for any intruder. The boy experienced this the first week he arrived. In the morning, while waiting for the school bus, he looked back at the willow and plotted the best way to climb it. That notch was just a few feet above the grass. It would be a simple to get a leg up to the main cross-branches and an easy path to the top. Later, after school, instead of homework, he began his conquest of the willow. 

Just as he placed his foot on the notch, a low guttural growl came keening out of the hollow darkness. He tried to peer inside but the high-pitched wail coming from deep within had the voice of imminent danger. Retreating a few steps, he picked up a fallen branch and poked in the direction of the unholy noise. A serpentine hissing and slashing of leaves by invisible claws sent him running to the safety of the porch. 

Something in that sound resonated deep in his memory. Staccato flashes unreeled a loop of incessant screeching and squealing synced to unfocussed pictures of a car on a rain-drenched mountain highway. He put his hands to his face trying to block the flashing light behind his eyes. He did not want a replay of that vision strobing in his mind. It was too painful. He pushed it deeper into his subconscious.  

When he felt calm return he looked back at the willow. That’s when he saw her. They looked into each other’s eyes as if searching for some touch point that would connect them. But it was a long, languid stare full of menace and unspoken warning. 

A slight disturbance in the grass caught her attention. Without a second look she jumped down. She was hungry. It was time to hunt.

The boy watched her slip quietly into the high weeds. “It was just a cat. Thinks she owns the willow,” he told himself. Behind him the screen door squeaked open.

“I see you’ve met the feral,” said his grandfather with a chuckle.

“The what?”

“The cat that lives in the willow. You best leave her be. She can be a mean one if you get too close.”

“Yeah. I saw that,” the boy replied, turning to acknowledge his grandfather’s presence. 

“Feral cats are loners. This one’s no different. She won’t let you near her.”

The grandfather looked directly at his grandson and reached out to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. With a shrug that spoke volumes the boy shifted his weight in a way that made the old man hesitate and pull back.

“No, you just can’t get close to her,” he said looking directly at his grandson. It was a summation of the problem between them. 

For weeks now, he and his wife had tried to unravel the solitude the boy had spun around himself. They felt his sadness. They shared his grief. They lost their only child in that accident. With the death of their daughter and son-in-law there was no one else to take the boy. At a time in their life when the stamina and concentration required to raise a child had long left them, they were faced with doing it all over again.

 Children were supposed to outlive their parents. Burdened with the fatigue of old age they only had enough energy to care for each other. Privately, each wondered if they had the will to get through the uncertain years ahead. But, there was no other option. 

Money wasn’t a problem. Most of the farmland had been sold off. They kept the house, the barn and a few acres of forest with a stream running through it. Their plan was a peaceful life of leisure with now and then visits from their grandson. Raising a young boy on their own unsettled them. It was never part of their vision.

His nightmares disturbed them the most. Every night since he arrived they found him standing at the foot of the bed, arms outstretched, reaching for someone or something he desperately wanted to hold. On his face was a pleading look that brought his grandmother to tears. To wake him she softly spoke the name his mother gave him when he was a baby. 

“Adie, I’m here,” she would say gently touching his hand. He would blankly stare at her, then wordlessly return to his bed. The morning after the first incident they asked if he could recall his dream. He looked at them with the same blank stare of the night before and slowly shook his head. They never asked again.

The feral could feel the cycle of her day changing. As it grew warmer she slept longer avoiding the afternoon heat. It was usually well after four o’clock when she climbed out of the cool darkness into the late afternoon light. Satisfied that everything was as she had left it, everything including that young boy watching her from the porch, she sniffed out the remains of the mouse she buried the day before and devoured it. Hunger satisfied she was off to patrol her hunting grounds. The hunt would take her mind off that meddlesome boy. She felt that she had warned him away for good.

Sniffing the air the feral stopped in her tracks. Her muscles tightened and she pressed her body close to the ground. Her fur puffed out catching what air currents and motion she was sensing. Although there was a slight breeze ruffling the grass, she shut her eyes and listened for the high-pitched sound mice make when hunting. Low to the ground, stopping every few steps, she stealthily crept closer to her quarry.  Feeling the distance was right she sprang. The mouse, sensing danger ran. In midair the feral suddenly changed direction. Her instincts were right. With one swift pounce she bit the mouse at the top of its neck, raised and swung her head, breaking the helpless creature’s back. As quietly as she came she left with her prey. 

When she returned to the willow she was startled to see the boy standing there peering into her lair. Instantly hair prickled all over her body. Pupils dilated into slits of anger. She flattened her ears and furiously swished her tail. The mouse fell from her mouth as her low guttural growl let him know he was trespassing. 

The boy’s tentative steps forward infuriated her. Backing up against the willow she flattened herself against the trunk. When he took another step forward she flew at his legs with a fury. But, he was just as quick and jumped back before her claws could find their mark.

“Adam come away!” His grandfather’s voice broke the tension. 

As the boy turned, the feral disappeared into the hollow. She felt safe in the darkness. She knew he was gone but her anger stayed. Sleep finally drifted in and crowded out all the thoughts that were upsetting her tight little world. Her willow was not for sharing. Surely the boy knew this.

Breathing hard Adam stared at the dead mouse. He felt a need to pick it up. He could feel its warmth and noticed a small trickle of blood at the back of its head. The feel of hot metal shot from the dead mouse searing his palm. A flash of memory. He dropped it. Adam stared at his hand. There was nothing there. Still shaking he grabbed the dead creature by the tail, tossed it into the notch of the willow and ran.

Thunderheads towered high in the evening sky. To the North rolling thunder resonated continuously. Sporadic lightning illuminated the dark gathering clouds. Adam was sitting on the porch when he felt a chill cut through him. The willow’s branches swirled helplessly in the roaring wind. Closing his eyes he tried to shut out the familiarity of that sound. Somewhere in the back of his mind a night such as this was waiting to replay the fragments of a painful memory.

“A cold wind always blows before the rain.” 

Opening his eyes Adam saw his grandfather.  Over the old man’s shoulder lightning danced in the sky. A deep rumble of thunder announced the beginning of the evening’s storm.

“We’d better get ourselves inside.”

“Can I stay and watch for a little while?”

His grandfather remembered how his daughter loved to sit on the porch swing during a rainstorm. There was something in a storm that fascinated her. Rain, wind, thunder and lightening dancing in unison seemed to carry her away to another world. He wondered if that could be the reason she lost control. Had she been hypnotized by the storm that night? 

“Can I stay?” 

Reality brought him out of his reverie. With a gentle warning that Adam must come in when rain hit the porch, the old man stepped inside to find his wife. She was probably thinking the same thing.

The feral stirred not wanting to wake from her deep sleep. Sniffing the air she sensed the change in temperature. Above her branches twisted in the wind. Thunder echoed in her hollow chamber. Curling up tighter she tried to make herself invisible as rain fell hard outside her lair. There was protection enough deep in the hollow. Overhead, branches thick with leaves would keep her dry. Breathing a deep, uneasy sigh she closed her eyes content to wait this out.

Lightning lit up the darkness in the yard. With each flash Adam saw the tree’s branches bending back and forth as if an invisible hand held the trunk and snapped it like a whip. Lightning and thunder struck as one all around him yet he stood stoically, mesmerized by the hypnotic repetition of light and sound.

In the fleeting brilliance of each flash his mind began replaying a vision – a car speeding through a night just as this. Heavy rain drenching the windshield, wipers whipping back and forth like the branches of the willow. Without warning lightning seared the night, lighting up fallen rocks in front of the vehicle and just as quickly shrouding them with darkness. In the minuscule moment between light and dark, life and death were decided.

Adam felt himself flying. 

He saw himself standing beside an overturned car staring in at the faces of his mother and father. A nauseating aura of helplessness overcame him as he struggled with a car door that would not open. Tears mixed with rain on his face. Grabbing a small boulder he smashed the window shattering it into small crystals that fell on his hands and arms. Brushing them off he felt the pain of glass cutting into his hands.

“Adie, don’t cry,” he heard his mother say as everything around him receded deep in to the darkest recesses of his memory.

Still heavy with sleep the feral wasn’t sure what was happening. She felt hands close around her body and the lightness of being lifted into space. When the rain hit her she screamed. Obeying her first instincts she dug her claws into the hands holding her and bit down hard. Twisting her body she brought her hind legs up against the pressure and scratched fiercely until the grip on her torso loosened enough for her to squirm away. Landing in the wet grass she looked up and saw the boy standing over her. As his bleeding hands came towards her she ran. 

In a flash of lightning Adam saw her disappear into the deep grass. After the thunder he heard the creaking sound of splitting wood. In the darkness he felt the willow’s branches brushing his body. As he lay on the wet ground he heard his grandfather calling him. With the weight of the branches holding him down he could not answer. 

Drenched and angry the feral watched from a safe distance as a beam of light swept the grass with an agitated sense of urgency. When the beam moved up the willow she saw her home, just above the hollow, charred and still smouldering in spite of the rain. A large branch lay on the ground with the boy beneath it. She shook to rid her fur of the water and watched the beam of light come to rest on the boy.

s “Adam.”

“Mom?”

“Adie, I’m here.”

“Grandma?”

Gentle hands brushed leaves and rain from his face.“He looks OK,”Adam’s mind raced.  Where’s the car? Are my mom and dad safe? What are my grandparents doing here?

Confusion. His mind wildly processing visions, memories, and questions emerging from a buried memory into a startling reality. 

“Adie take my hand, “ said his grandmother. 

Slowly he stood up and allowed himself to be cradled in his grandmother’s arms. 

“Your hands and arms, they’re scratched and bleeding,” said his grandfather. “I sure hope that feral realizes you saved her life. Not that she cares.”

“I remember the accident,” the boy said.

Silence surrounded them. A look of relief passed between his grandparents.

When the rain stopped, the feral cautiously made her way through the tangle of fallen branches to the trunk of the willow. Looking up at the notch she guessed that her home was still habitable. She sprayed so everyone would know, lightning or no lightning, this tree was still hers. Leaping up to the notch she was startled by the strong smell of burnt wood. Gingerly she stepped past the gash left by the ripped branch and into the damp hollow. She circled a few times, kneaded the remains of her wet bedding and curled herself into a tight ball. Sleep is what she wanted. Come morning the sun would dry everything. Life would return to normal. 

And somehow she knew that the boy would not bother her again.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

April 5, 2020 at 1:38 PM

Penny For Your Thoughts

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Something about our last conversation bothered me. Something in your voice – the way it trailed off – those long pauses – your vagueness. You sounded uncertain. And I need to talk to you again. I try to call, just to be sure, but now my cell is showing No Service.

The Northlander is two hours late leaving North Bay. This I know because I kept telling Siri to hit their Info Line every 10 minutes on the drive down from the lake. Your train isn’t arriving until 2:00 AM and it’s just gone past midnight. Where do you go with two hours to kill in Temagami at this ridiculous time of the morning?

A few cars and trucks are in the station lot. It looks like people are trying to get some sleep until the train arrives. Me? Im just standing here watching 18-wheelers rumbling south leaving dust, infused with the stench of diesel, swirling waist high above Highway 11. One after another they race through town with impunity. Toronto bound. So much for the speed limit. All they care about is hitting the 401 before the morning rush so they can make their destinations without penalties. The OPP could be making a fortune right now. Too early in the morning or too late at night for them, I guess.

I know the Legion stays open late on Friday nights. They’re supposed to close at 1:00 AM. But no one in this town pays much attention to things like that since the Ministry has fire-fighting crews in the county. Besides, the guys need a place to let off some steam. And the locals are not above earning some extra cash.

There’s probably a pay phone there. A landline will me get through to you. If we talked again before you get here, you might tell me what’s on your mind. Then I would be ready. I could prepare myself for whatever is coming.

I wait for a gap in traffic and race across the highway. It’s kind of like playing chicken. These big rigs don’t slow down. All these guys do is lean on their air horns and smirk as they blast pass you.

Walking down to the Legion I’m a little concerned because the building is dark. The front door is locked. I make my way around back. There are a few pickups in the parking lot so I figure they can’t be closed. One solitary light bulb is burning above the back door. Inside, on the wall, an arrow with the words Blue Room stenciled on it points me in the right direction. When I walk in the stench of cigarettes and stale beer hits me hard.

Five guys are sitting at a table next to the bar laughing and loudly talking over each other. They all need a shave. Their unkempt hair sticks out of their truckers caps. Pitchers of beer, empty chip bags, butt–filled ashtrays and crushed, empty cigarette packages tell me they’ve been here a while.

When they see me they raise their glasses and call me over. They have no idea who I am. But, single guy in a bar, late at night…kindred spirits. A newbie to buy the next pitcher and retell all their stories too. Why not. 

One guy starts to pour me a beer. I look around and spot the pay phone on the wall beside the bulletin board. I give them the universal thumb-and-baby-finger-phone-sign. They all give me that look that says, hey, right, go make your call –  join us when you’re done

I call your apartment. No answer. So you have to be on the train. You never could read on anything moving. Upsets your stomach you said. So, fine, you’re probably sleeping away a boring couple of hours on a not very comfortable seat in a run down coach. I’ve taken the Northlander before. I can accept that. 

You’re not leaving me much choice though.  You have to understand how I feel when I can’t get through. Why isn’t your cell on? Not being able to reach you is starting to bother me. If you’re not on the train, where could you be this time of night?

There was no point wasting any more quarters. It is late. There isn’t much else I can do. I can’t imagine you not coming. You and I alone on the island; the perfect place for us to talk about us, as you so mysteriously put it. That was the plan. We agreed on it yesterday. 

I sure don’t like this feeling. Strange isn’t it, what with cell phones, e-mail and texting, how we panic when we can’t reach someone? 

Maybe a few beers will calm me down. It will do me good to just sit and forget about you and this notion that is gradually moving from the back of my mind to an uncomfortable place of prominence. These guys are a welcome distraction. At least for a couple of hours. 

We talk about sports, work, women and what it is like to be out of touch and away from everything familiar. Fighting forest fires keeps these boys on crazy shifts 24/7. They’re missing their girl friends and family. They’re tired of wasting their off-time drinking in The Blue Room. When I tell them I’m meeting you at the train station they all smile that smile guys get when girls are involved…the one you hate so much. 

They are jealous. I can understand that. Each one of them wishes they were in my shoes. Little do they know. When I get up to leave they give me the kind of advice a guy about to meet his girl friend that he hasn’t seen in a while doesn’t really need. I won’t tell you what they said.

Back at the railway station people are leaving their vehicles; stretching out the kinks from sitting too long in a cramped space. Moving to the platform they arrange themselves in haphazard little clusters along the tracks. People like to try and guess where the railway car carrying the person they’re meeting will stop. Blind anticipation. It’s an emotion that keeps you from knowing whether or not you’ll be happy until the last moment. 

Tonight it is really playing with my head. 

As I walk down the tracks away from the station I turn my cell on.  Searching for Network lights up the screen. When the bars finally jump to full I hit your number and hold my breath. Still no answer. What gives with you? 

I feel kind of good that the train is only about 10 minutes out so I don’t bother trying again. A young boy is placing pennies on the track against his parents’ wishes. I remember how, as a kid, my friends and I used to do that. Once the train ran over them you ended up with pennies flatter than communion wafers. Now and then, depending on the engine’s speed, the pennies flew off in every direction. Sometimes you had to search between the railway ties and gravel to find them.

A blast of the Northlander’s horn announces your arrival. Bells clang and barriers fall across the road. A beam of light coming around a curve slashes across the station house. The sound of grinding steel on steel slowly brings the train to a halt. 

Finally. 

Anticipation is making me crazy…I’m singing to myself as I watch the conductor unfold his portable stairs. The few sleepy passengers drag their bags and themselves across the platform. Those haphazard clusters now swallow up their loved ones. Hugs all around. Smiles. Kisses. Hand shaking. Arms around shoulders. Small units of happiness making their way back to their cars.

But there is no you.

I don’t know how long I stood there after the train crept out of the station and disappeared into the darkness. You’re doing the same, aren’t you? Creeping out of my life and leaving me in darkness? 

I’m not sure if I’m angry or upset. Confused? Yes. Puzzled? Yeah. Anxious? How else should I be feeling? Really. The worst of it all is that you’ve done whatever it is you’re doing without saying a word. No explanation. Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye. I hear Leonard Cohen singing that song in my head. And you know what its like when you can’t get a song out of your head.

Damn you!

I’m barreling down Highway 11 in the slipstream of 18-wheeler hauling a full load of granite; probably for landscaping some monster home in North Toronto. Remember the truck stop just north of North Bay? That’s where I met Al the driver. He wanted to know which rig in the parking lot was mine.  I laughed. Bought him a coffee and told him my sad story.

He’s got a CB, so he knows where the O.P.P. are. We’re making good time. I’ll be in Toronto by morning.

I’ve stopped calling because I know you’re avoiding me. But, I still don’t know why. Which is the reason I’m coming into town. You owe me…something. 

Before I left I found one of those flattened pennies on the platform. The kid never came back to pick them up. His parents wouldn’t let him. Probably not really that important to him anyway.

I thought it would be a good idea to give it to you when, and if, we talk. You know. A penny for your thoughts?

This story won third prize in The Alice Monroe Literary Festival Short Story Contest in May of 2008. I earned $50.00 for it. The money wasn’t a big deal. I was happy to be among the winners of a Festival bearing Alice Munro’s name. But I realized that writing for a living wasn’t really realistic – for me. I’ve written a lot more since then and entered a lot more contests. You win some. You lose some. Enjoy.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 22, 2020 at 1:25 PM

SNAGGED

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He takes an old plastic pail from the back of his Chevy Silverado, flips it upside down and twists the open end into the sand and gravel shore close to the edge of the river. He returns to his truck and briefly rummages around in the back, mumbling to himself until he finds what he’s looking for – a well-worn red cushion with duct-taped corners now split from wear and revealing fraying foam edges. He gently places the cushion on the top of the pail, shifts it around searching for what he feels is the right angle.  He pats it twice just to make sure that it still has the support he needs for a long day of sitting. 

He leans his rod against the pail and opens the lid to his tackle box. It doesn’t take him long to rig his line. Flipping back his rod he casts out over the muddy brown, slow-moving water. The lure traces a high arc before plopping down in the middle of the river. The bobber surfaces and floats uneasily with the current. Satisfied that he hit a deep enough spot he slowly lowers himself on to the cushion.

“Now we wait.” A slim smile cracks his normally stoic face. He lights a cigarette and looks up at the traffic heading in and out of town over the long concrete bridge spanning the river. 

“They’re going somewhere.” He exhales a long, thin stream of smoke. “I ain’t going anywhere but here.” 

He knows there is nothing better for him, nothing more that he wants to do other than what he’s doing right now. Sitting. Waiting. Watching. Willing the fish to his lure.

His wife is at home, reading, as she does when he goes fishing. It’s a good thing the town has a library, he often says to her, otherwise we’d be broke if you had to pay for all the books you go through

Aren’t you the lucky one, then. She is happy to get him out of her hair. She prefers to have the mornings to herself.

He can’t stand her kind of doing nothing. Even as a boy he was always outside, wandering on his own…exploring…letting the world pass him by. To him solitude is a state of grace.

It is cold down on the river shore. The slow rising sun isn’t warming things up yet. That’s the way he likes it. He squints into the stubborn early morning light. A small breeze sends ripples across the water’s surface moving his line back and forth, so he has nothing to do but light up another cigarette and wait. He doesn’t mind if the fish ignore him.

Out of the corner of his eye he notices a young man setting up a folding chair just down shore from him. The old man smiles when he sees what the fellow is wearing – ball cap, jacket and pants with more zippered pockets than needed and boots, all in that dark green and beige camouflage pattern you see a lot of come deer hunting season. When he sees the fellow arranging a thermos, cooler, iPhone and ear buds, and one of those big, plastic, multi-drawer tackle boxes neatly beside his chair, the old man just shakes his head and smiles.

When the young man starts casting out his line and reeling it in repeatedly, the old man senses something that he’s familiar with. With each cast he the feels it building inside. It’s a frustration the boy should be feeling, not him. But, he can’t help himself.

“You ought to let your lure just sit a bit so they can get at good look at what you’re offering them. Doesn’t look like the fish will be chasing bait this morning,” he says in a loud voice. 

“What?” The young man doesn’t look up. He keeps casting and reeling in. 

“I said, relax, the fish don’t seem to be in much of a hurry right now.”

“What makes you the bloody expert?”

The tone of voice surprises the old man. He didn’t expect that kind of response, but he was familiar with it. Since his suggestion isn’t welcome he turns away, content to stare at the water and take shelter in his own thoughts.

He never did deal well with confrontation. Whenever he came up against anyone with strong opinions he would shrug and allow that they had a right to what they were thinking. This was his way of avoiding arguments. He didn’t like conflict. To him, people who put so much effort in wanting to be right all the time didn’t have a sense of peace about them. 

His wife said he was always in retreat, that he had no spirit for a good argument or discussion. Her gentle criticism didn’t bother him. Throughout his working life he wanted nothing more than to be left alone to do his job. Those he worked with saw him as a calm, easy going, but private individual…what they called ‘a good worker’. He managed to survive, retire well and still feel good about himself. 

“Are there any fish in this river?” The young man is shouting at him.

True to the person he’s always been, the old man doesn’t respond. He looks away, drops his cigarette into the sand grinding it out with the heel of his boot. In his own time, on his own terms, he might get around to answering.

“Do you ever catch anything off this shore?” There is a tinge of agitation in the fellow’s voice.

The old man sighs, shifts his weight on the cushion and slowly turns to him. “Sometimes. Sometimes you just have to wait them out. Sometimes you only wait a few minutes. Sometimes you wait all day long. Sometimes you wait for nothing.” 

“Thanks for the advice.” The fellow puts as much sarcasm into the words as he can. 

The old man hears it, but isn’t bothered. It isn’t his fault if this fellow doesn’t see the truth in his answer. If this young man could put his impatience on hold for a second and listen to what he was being told, he would understand. He’s like most of the people the old man dealt with throughout his life. They were all in a big hurry. Expecting a quick solution. Demanding satisfaction right away. When they didn’t get what they thought they deserved he could see how it diminished them little by little. 

The old man stands up and reels in his line. It takes less than a minute. He knows that he’s being watched. He can see the fellow swaying from one foot to another. From the body language the old man can tell that this young man is annoyed with him. The realization that he is getting under the fellow’s skin makes him feel good…makes him bold.

“Son, what is it you want me to say, exactly?”

“You could answer my question straight up.”

“I did. You just need to listen more. It isn’t my fault if the fish aren’t biting.” 

He paused a moment deliberating whether to keep talking.

“It certainly isn’t my fault if you aren’t catching anything. I’m not either. So, really, what is the problem?”

 All he is doing is trying to communicate the reality of the moment. If this guy isn’t prepared to deal with reality, then fine. He isn’t prepared to let him upset his morning. 

Toying with someone like this isn’t something he’s done very often. It comes as a surprise that he can bring himself to this point. He knows he is deliberately taunting the fellow. If his wife were here she’d say this was certainly no retreat. Finally found some spirit is what she would probably say. He laughs softly at the thought.

The fellow ignores the old man’s last comment and casts his line down river. He turns his back to the old man who stands watching, serene and satisfied…doing what feels right to him…enjoying this moment. 

As the young man reels in, his line goes taut. His rod bends and moves in the direction of the current. He jerks it back quick and hard to set the hook and turns to the old man.

“Looks like sometimes is right now for me,” 

There’s a look of triumph on his face. His rod bends even more as he struggles to bring in his catch. With each turn of the spool he looks in the old man’s direction and lets out a short, high pitched whoop. About a minute passes. Nothing happens. Nothing moves except the river.

“Looks like you caught bottom,” says the old man.

Ignoring him, the fellow whips his rod up, down and sideways trying to get free. His face grows red with frustration.

“You keep pulling on it like that, the hook’ll only set deeper into whatever you snagged.” 

“Got an answer for everything, don’t you old man.” 

“I’m just…”  

“I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”

It  feels as if the wind off the river is blowing these words into the old man’s face, collapsing the moment, forcing it to fall in on him. He doesn’t have control of this situation like he thought he did. At this point his will gives way to a crushing weariness. For years he has unconsciously given in to a fatigue so palpable, so deep that it weakened his spirit. He suddenly realizes how exhausted he is.

The old man closes his eyes, trying to shut out this feeling that he has known all his life.

He feels the fellow’s anger flow into his body on some invisible conduit. Tension grows tighter in his head as he watches the young man struggle to pull his line free. He feels the fellow’s frustration pressing down on his chest. Like the line that is caught on an unknown obstacle deep beneath the surface he feels hooked to some unfathomable reality laying deep in his soul. He can’t breath. An unseen snag at the bottom of his brain holds him fast and won’t let go…won’t let him surface so he can suck in a lung-full of air. He squeezes his eyes shut hoping it will all go away.

Something snaps inside like a switch, releasing feelings he’s resisted for too long. Pain burns momentarily across his palms. 

Opening his eyes he finds himself standing beside the young man, holding the remnants of the fishing line in his bare hands. 

The young man looks at him not realizing what happened. He lifts his rod, free now from the hold of the river. Wind catches the severed line. 

The old man walks back to his pail and sits down on his tattered cushion. He looks at his hands and sees a thin trace of blood where the line cut into the skin of his palms.

There is no pain, just a feeling of liberation.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

December 16, 2019 at 12:45 PM

SLEEPLESSNESS

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At 4:00 AM – when sleep won’t come – I sense a stirring in the darkness.

The night begins to weaken – loses its grip – and allows hints of grey to appear.

The change of light awakens the crows and they begin to call to each other as if to welcome – or at least encourage the sun to appear.

Come 5:00 AM night is almost gone.

By 6:00 AM the light brightens.

And I begin to understand

How slowly up the darkness daybreak climbs.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

January 17, 2019 at 4:10 PM

THE OLD JACKKNIFE

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Memories sometimes fade.

The events that spawned those memories become vague

as years grow on you. One ember of memory rekindled itself

when I found his jackknife at the back of a drawer.

 

My father was a bricklayer.

He was the only one of his crew allowed to raise the corners. As he crafted a perfect pyramid of bricks, he sang “As Time Goes By,” under his breath thinking himself Humphrey Bogart. The others watched and waited.

With line and level he laid out precise right angles as a guide for each course to come, a leads for the others to follow. When done he would stand back and throw down his trowel, the point thunking into the mortarboard. The other bricklayers took this as their cue to raise the wall to the exactness of his corners.

After a brief moment he would smile, spit in his hands, grab the hockey-taped handle of his trowel, and with one smooth, powerful motion scoop up mortar, spread it straight, and slice a crevice down the center of the cement with the point of his trowel. At the same time he grabbed a brick with his free hand, tossed it into the air so that it turned to the right surface, caught it and placed it deftly at the start of another course.

“Ragazzi,” he would shout, “Guardi un vero muratore al lavoro.” Hey boys, watch a real bricklayer at work. The exchange of good-natured insults kept coming until he was ready to raise the next corner.

Sometimes he hockey-taped his hands and fingers. Mostly when he was handling solid sixteen-inch blocks, laying the foundation of some larger building. The black tape protected the calluses that had grown thick over the years. As a child I could feel their roughness when he grabbed my wrist when I misbehaved. His vice like grip was unbreakable. Although he was a small man, he had the arms of a bodybuilder.

Over the years arthritis stiffened his fingers. His health began to fail. His skill followed. Even though he taped his hands, he took to wearing leather gloves to keep the calluses from tearing with the coarseness of the brick

All the bricklayers he worked with realized what was happening. When he began letting others raise the corners they knew he was done, as did he.

One night he came home, dropped his tool bag on the landing at the top of the cellar stairs, and left it there.

“Non ne ho piu bisogno,” he said. I don’t need these anymore.

I bring him fresh peaches from the corner fruit market. We sit at the kitchen table, his jackknife in front of him. He takes the peaches out of the bag, one by one, weighing each in his trembling hand, gauging their firmness. Those that are too ripe he sets aside.

“I like to slice them and dip them in wine,” he says. The anticipation brings a smile to his face.

As he tries to pull the blade open, the knife falls to the table. He can’t control the spasms in his hands. Transparent skin is drawn tight making the tendons prominent. There is a slight shaking in his movement. But he clasps his fingers together and raises his hands to his chin as if he’s praying and it disappears.

His frustration quickly changes to anger as he stares at the knife as if it too has betrayed him. Staring out of the kitchen window he lets out a small sigh.

Magenta veins bulge on the back of the hand that pushes the knife toward me. “Lo prendi,” he says. You take it.

“It was my father’s knife.” He places his hand on mine. “Now I give it to you.”

The jackknife’s stag horn handle is worn thin from use. On one side, a slim silver plate is engraved with a barely visible name. Each blade unfolds easily. One must have broken some time ago. It is less than half the length of the main blade. You can see where it was ground down to a sharp point. The cutting edge has a deep half-moon curve in it from constant sharpening. Along the back, a corkscrew fits snugly in an indentation in the bone. Beside it rests a needle-like awl. Between them, running the length of the knife is a steel shaft that hooks over the end. Its purpose is still a mystery to me. Two grooves, one on each side, are cut into the bone end. They are empty. I can only guess that they held removable needles or picks that were lost over the years. With the blade fully extended the weight of its steel forged decades ago gives way to a delicate balance.

As I slice the peach cleanly, the knife has never lost its edge.

I still have it. I’ve never used it since that day.

Joe Nanni

Remembering you on Father’s day, Peppino.

 

 

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

June 18, 2017 at 6:00 AM

BRUCE COUNTY BACKROADS

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Side roads. Concession roads. Hardtop and hard-pack gravel. Graded and ungraded. Rutted and rain-eroded. They can get your car dust covered or mud caked depending on weather and which road you’re on. They are Bruce County two-lanes leading you everywhere and not necessarily where you want to go.

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We often drive these Bruce County back-roads. She is looking for birds. I’m looking for pictures. I don’t care much about shooting birds. My meager 250 mm lens fails in comparison to some of the big glass that other shooters carry. Most times, birds are just too far way to capture anything decent.

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I’m OK with that. I’m more interested in what was…the abandoned barns and farmhouses, the fences, the fallen in roofs and stone foundations…the what’s-left-on-the-land from times gone away.

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The structures that faced years of winds and weather, that struggled to stay upright and remain proud of what they provided to their hard-working owners…structures of shelter and warmth, places, markers that families once called home.

Some markers are different.

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This pockmarked weathered stone, its carved inscription unreadable, sits solitarily, a sentinel overlooking a vista of fields un-ploughed or planted. It seems out of place. More often than not you’ll see clusters of resurrected tombstones sitting on the side of secondary roads salvaged from some long forgotten cemetery to make room for more farmable fields. This one stands alone.

Cloud shadows silently drift across the fields it watches over. Why is it there? Is there meaning in its placement? Or is it just a photo-op for a wandering amateur with a camera? I doubt if I will ever know. But I take the shot anyway and move on.

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There is a great deal more to discover and capture on these roads.

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So we drive on.

NORWAY AND SORROW’S END

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The Spitsbergen’s thrusters whine into full power and gently push us away from the dock. In mid-harbour the helmsman takes advantage of the ship’s momentum and deftly executes an arc that turns the bow towards the channel markers. The main engines take over and we move, dead-slow, to the waiting open water just beyond the towering, treeless granite mountains standing on each side of the harbour mouth. Angry crags of rock dark from cloud shadow are sucking what sunlight they can into their crevices before the dark night clouds roll in.

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With the sun sinking behind us we are outward bound. A certain sadness sails with us.

September 19 – 3:30. On a soft, sun-filled afternoon Alice left us. She hadn’t the strength to fight any longer. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. Now it wanted her spirit. We were with her. She knew because she held Norma’s hand tightly. It was one of those late September days that borders on autumn but is reluctant to cross over. You know this because you can see the light changing – loosing its softness – the colours becoming vivid and taking on a harder edge as the sun prepares for the oncoming fall.

She was days away from her 94th birthday. We were days away from our trip to Norway.

 There was little time to grieve. Just time enough for us to stop in our tracks and think about what just happened. Time enough for arrangements and lawyers and wills and settlements and a multitude of phone calls and of course, packing and travel needs. In the midst of it all we realized that we would have to pack our sorrow and take it with us as we sailed the coast of Norway.

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There is nothing as exasperating as travel to take your mind off everything else. Caught in the computer labyrinth of check-in and customs. The lateness of flight departures. The guaranteed jet lag. The stress of tight transfer timelines. The unknown of arriving sleep deprived in an unfamiliar country. Some would say this is the down side of travel; taking yourself out of your comfort zone – trying to create a new “now” even though it is only temporary but must be mastered, quickly. Lawrence Durrell in “Bitter Lemons” described it well: “Journeys…A 1000 different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”

A new level of determination is needed because it is ‘travel’ – a personal challenge – a unfamiliar situation where you willingly place yourself – where the puzzle of logistics – the unfamiliar of an unknown place – the solving of ‘the way’ is your task. Maps, guidebooks, Internet recommendations don’t accurately deal with the new reality of location, language and customs. Hauling belongings. Running for trains. Searching for streets with unpronounceable names. Fighting fatigue. Lost in the din of strange words. Your best currency is your wit and your intelligence.

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When I was young. When I was dreaming dreams of traveling the world, I dreamt of sailing to strange places on a tramp steamer or a cargo ship crewed by misfits and lost souls running from their past – escaping from themselves. We would put-in to strange ports, drink rum in some noisy quayside bar, off-load cargo then sail on to repeat the same process in yet another port many nautical miles away.

I read stories of people who left their lives behind or vacationed recklessly as passengers on a rusty, creaky ship for months at a time seeking solitude, anonymity and the peace of just being themselves without the bother of having to be a tourist. This trip would be something like that only more civilized.

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The Spitsbergen is a supply ship for 200 travelers that stops in small ports up the coast of Norway, past the Arctic Circle turning at the Russian Border and heading back down again…a working ship with cruise ship amenities, but none of the luxury liner nonsense. It would be twelve days on the Norwegian Sea, time enough to move through the silent sorrow that was traveling with us.

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Lights creep towards us. As they come closer, they flash revealing a bigger ship approaching. Our bridge lights come full on. A blast from our ship’s horn startles us. Now the bridge lights of both vessels illuminate the darkness. Spitsbergen’s sister ship rushes past lights flashing as if waving. We rock with its wake. With engines full now we race ahead into the night of dark water.

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It was on this day that I learned of Henry’s passing. Henry had been a close friend since grade school. The loss of a childhood friend brings on a completely different feeling of grief than that of the loss of a family member. What is taken from you is a close relationship forged independently of family prerequisites. It is something deeply personal. A friendship founded on a sharing of intimate life-moments and experiences that infused your personality and contributed to your independence. And this independence let you leave your family; so to speak, so that you could become the individual you are now…the individual that only your friends would understand because they were there most steps of the way. Henry was one of those friends. But, like Alice, he left. And now we are sailing with the memory of them both.

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As we sailed this rugged, rocky mystic coast with its cliffs, crags, snow-capped mountains, mist, fog and fiords – this shrouded landscape with steep scree strewn slopes that slide straight into the Norwegian sea – where rain clouds chased the light until they both blended into a kaleidoscope of colours – where stars dominate the night skies and the aurorae dance to the unheard music of the universe – we realized this is the perfect place for remembrance:

 But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

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On a cold rainy overcast day, in an old wooden Sami church in Trumso, we lit a candle for Alice and a candle for Henry. And then we got on with our journey.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

November 13, 2016 at 3:13 PM

RIPRAP

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Lay down these words before your mind like rocks placed solid by hands in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time. Solidity of bark, leaf or or wall…riprap of things.  Gary Snyder

If you’re a scribbler, you tend to record your experiences, your encounters, your thoughts and impressions on whatever scrap of paper you have handy. Then you stuff it in a file, in a pile of stuff on your desk, in a drawer or between the pages of a notebook, which when full, gets shelved and, no doubt, forgotten. I was searching through such things the other day when I found this folded up scribble on a torn-out page of a diary. Such discoveries always spark memories. This one takes me years back to a time when summer always meant two weeks on a small island in Lake Anima Nipissing. We left the world behind when we were there. There was very little to do…so we did very little. Each day set its own pace. Here’s what I wrote back then.

Jennifer Harvard…thanks for the shot

Jennifer Harvard…thanks for the shot

A Sunday in August – 1987

My daughter and I search for crayfish along the rock-strewn shoreline.

As we wade in the water we come across random piles of slate, granite and limestone lying on the bed of the slim, shallow channel that stretches some twenty feet between our cottage and its diminutive island neighbour. Haphazardly piled one on top of the other, the stones look like a crude underwater foundation for a rock bridge. But, their span doesn’t make it all the way across.

“Looks like someone tried to fill in this channel a while back,” I said.

“How can you tell?”

“From the riprap, there, just under the water’s surface.”

She turned to me with that child’s stop-talking-to-me-like-a-grown-up look on her face. “Riprap? What’s that mean?”

“It’s the loose rocks that they lay down as a foundation,” I explain, trying not to sound too pedantic. “Riprap…”

“But islands are never supposed to be joined, are they,” she says trying to show me that she has a fundamental grasp of geography. “They wouldn’t be islands then, would they?”

“Not necessarily,” I answer as she wades in carefully. “But maybe these stones were meant to be built up so they, natives I guess, could walk across. They chose this spot because the water is shallow and easier to build a path across. Which is good for us.”

“But, not for the crayfish, I hope.”

I was glad she came back to our reason for being here. “Do you see any?”

“No,” she says shading her eyes with her hands as she peers into the clear shallows.

“Then it is good for them because they think they’re safe.”

Intent on finding her first crayfish, she pays me no attention.

“They hide underneath…in the tiny spaces between the rocks, safe from your evil, clutching, human hands.” That makes her laugh.

She continues staring into the water, straining for a glimpse of her prey. The day is slightly overcast. There is still enough light filtering through the clouds to keep the surface transparent and free of cloud shadows.

“Their colour and markings are rock-like…perfect camouflage under water. That’s what makes them so difficult to spot. You have to concentrate.”

Gingerly lifting a stone she finds her quarry. But it is quicker than her young reflexes can manage. The crayfish propels itself backwards skittering under another piece of slate. She moves its new hideout aside but the elusive creature is gone again before she can grab it. There follows a flurry of splashing from stones yanked and thrown helter skelter, muddying the water and taking away any advantage we have.

“Easy,” I said. “You’re not thinking about what you’re doing.”

“I am. I’m gonna’ keep looking under the stones.”

“You won’t find crayfish if you stomp around like that. You’re driving them deeper under the stones. We need to stop and let things settle.”

We move on shore to wait for the water to clear. I look at her sitting there innocently hugging her legs, resting her chin on her knees, eyes straight ahead. I sense her frustration with me in every loud breath she takes.

“You have to be patient.” I say softly, “Crayfish are kind of like people. They back away when they feel threatened. They look for someplace safe…something to hide behind”

“People don’t hide under rocks.”

I can’t argue with her logic. She is testing me. My analogy is obviously too obtuse for her to understand. I can see she has no idea of what I’m talking about. In trying to get through to her I just dig myself a deeper hole.

“Looking for crayfish is a lot like trying to understand people,” I say. “You have to let them know you’re not going to harm them so they’ll show themselves to you. And just like you peel away people’s defenses to find their real selves you must gently lift away the rocks without disturbing the water to find the crayfish.”

With a deep sigh she reaches down and carefully picks up a small piece of flat slate. A crayfish sits there not moving. I am surprised at the speed with which she grabs it.

“He had no other place to hide,” she says happily dropping the helpless crayfish into her sand pail.

Pleased with herself she takes a bigger pail, fills it with water and throws in a few small rocks. “I’m making him his own riprap,” she says with that mocking tone of voice all kids have.

When she pours the crayfish in she looks at me mischievously “Do you think it feels safe now?”

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

October 23, 2015 at 12:41 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Night Snow

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Under the street lamps that pool their light on the now white road wind whips the flurries into individual cyclones whirling about helter skelter. Cedars on the roadside go dark, lost in the shadows, lost in the black of night. In the cone of the streetlights the snow takes on highlights that accentuate its movement. It dances with the wind, blurring in flight, never, it seems, touching down, hovering around and inside the beam’s pool bringing new life to the light. Night Snow is different than snow falling at daybreak…more menacing. You are unsure of what it leaves behind until dawn crawls up the dark trailing early morning light to show you its night work. Night Snow is like a secret gathering, an army, a relentless force building for an attack at daybreak when the world wakes and is forced to face the consequences of all that Night Snow has left behind.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 4, 2015 at 8:16 PM

SHOOTING ICE

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Ice is hard. Resistant. Stubborn. Ice can withstand any single human effort to break through…especially if ice has transformed concrete steps into a glistening, smooth, intransient obstacle that should be left alone. There is no point in trying to break it down (as I did) to get a better foothold – to get a better angle on the object you’re trying to photograph.

Such foolishness can possibly lead to disaster. I sometimes hurry to get things done – and in my unfocussed haste – misjudge and make mistakes that do not end well. I am a victim of my own stupidity.

There is a millisecond between attempt and failure when you are completely unaware of what you’ve just done. In that microscopic moment between slipping and landing you see nothing. The world around you becomes blank. First it’s simply, “Here I am trying to break through the ice with my foot. Here I am on my back lying on the ice. How did that happen?” Your next thought is, “Where’s my brand new expensive camera? Did I land on it? NO! Here it is secure in my hand that’s extended above my prone body. AT LEAST I WAS CONCIOUS ENOUGH TO SACRIFICE MY BODY TO PROTECT IT!” Then it’s, “Why can’t I get up?”

Because you’re lying at the bottom of uneven ice-coated steps, stupid!

Thankfully there are no witnesses to my next ridiculous act. Camera held high, I rolled over, grabbed the ice-coated railing with my free hand and painfully pulled myself to a more secure level. It took a while. Ice does not give up its victims without making them struggle. Eventually I made it. Looking down at the frozen steps I just scaled I chastised myself for being so reckless. And stupid.

When we take chances success is usually 50-50. Clearly this was a chance I shouldn’t have taken. Any go or no-go decision is often quick and thoughtless. Spur of the moment as they say. It is always difficult to judge the wisdom of one’s next move until after you’ve made it.

Life, the pundits say, is about taking chances. “Find a Way or Make One. Just Do It. Who Dares Wins. Deeds Not Words.” Pick any current phrase that suits you. Sometimes the taking works – sometimes it doesn’t. This time for me, it didn’t. That’s just the way it is.

I didn’t get that just-right angle for the shot I was looking for. But, I hurt too much to be disappointed.

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