Monday, August 3, 2015

Love of My Life

By Lisabet Sarai

I figure my parents must have started teaching me to read when I was four. Certainly I remember my pride when at the age of five, I could make it all the way through Dick, Jane and Sally on my own. Even before then, my dad and mom read aloud to my brother and me, not just stories but poetry, too. Words—beautiful, lively, evocative words—were a part of my earliest experience.

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat.
They took some money and plenty of honey
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up at the stars above
And sang to a small guitar.
Oh beautiful Pussy, oh Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are, you are,
What a beautiful pussy you are.

That’s from memory, laid down close to sixty years ago.

By the time I was six, I had a library card. I read whatever I could get my hands on, diving into alternative literary worlds that seemed at least as real as the one in which I lived. I remember the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron haunted me. Then there was book entitled The City Under the Back Steps (now out of print, apparently), a cautionary tale about girl who’s shrunk and imprisoned in an ant colony as punishment for her deliberate squashing of the ants on her back walk. That (obviously) made a huge impression on me—and I learned a lot about ants. A few years on, I was devouring Nancy Drew mysteries, practicing to improve my powers of observation and imagining myself as a clever detective, and a series called Childhood of Famous Americans, bios of people like Sacajawea, Betsy Ross, Helen Keller and Juliet Lowe. (According to Amazon, this series is still alive and well. It now includes the likes of Neil Armstrong and, heaven help us, Ronald Reagan!)

Science fiction—Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov—came a bit later. I read the Foundation Trilogy in junior high school and was sufficiently influenced by those books that I actually called a local talk show to ask Isaac Asimov a question. Before you shrug and say “so what?”, you should know that I was pathologically shy at that point and would do anything to avoid using the telephone. (Remind me to tell you the lost library book story some time.) My passion for his story overcame my terror. (As it turned out, he was rude and dismissive. I was crushed.)

Another milestone I recall was The Count of Monte Cristo, at 1100+ pages the longest book I’d ever read. That was in 8th grade. And Gone with the Wind—when would that have been? Probably around the same time. All I know is that I cried at the end, devastated that Scarlet’s blindness and pride had robbed her of Rhett’s love. Meanwhile, Stranger in a Strange Land, also consumed during my mid-teens, had a huge impact on my imagination and my developing sexuality. I’m certain my tendencies toward polyamory can be traced to the Valentine Michael Smith’s “sharing water”.

For years, I spent my afternoons sprawled on my bed with nose in a book, as my mother would say. She would prod me to get up, go outside, get some fresh air, play with friends. I far preferred the company of the characters in my most recent read to the kids in my suburban neighborhood. Sherlock Holmes—Catherine and Heathcliff—Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester—Frodo and Gandalf—Captain Nemo—the eponymous Rebecca in Daphne Du Maurier’s tale and “She” who must be obeyed, in H. Rider Haggard’s classic—there weren’t enough hours in the day to spend with them, as far as I was concerned. Reading let me explore ancient Egypt, classical Greece, medieval France and Celtic Britain, wandering in both space and time. How could the backyard or the local mall compete?

I have vivid recollections of many wonderful books, up until my late teens. Anorexia really messed up my memory, perhaps due to a lack of nutrients. Or maybe my mental abilities were impaired by the anti-depressants I took regularly for several years. Certainly I read voraciously while I was bouncing around from one hospital or temporary home to another. What else was I going to do? Dropped out of college, estranged from my family, suspicious of all the people who wanted me to eat, torn by anxiety and self-disgust, I took refuge in books. I hardly recall anything I read, however, though for some reason I know The Brothers Karamazov was on the list. Or maybe Crime and Punishment? It’s all a blur.

I hadn’t really read much erotica until I got involved with the man I call my master, while I was in grad school. He assigned me various texts: The Story of O, of course, and Anne Rice’s Beauty Trilogy, for a start. I discovered Victorian porn, The Pearl, My Secret Life and Laura, a book I’ve discussed here in the past which might not be Victorian at all, but which had a profound emotional and erotic effect on me.

Then in 1998, I happened on a used copy of Portia da Costa’s debut Black Lace book, Gemini Heat, which inspired me to pen my own first novel, and changed my life.

Since then I’ve consumed enormous quantities of erotica, as a reviewer, an editor, and just for fun. My reading tastes remain catholic, however. Usually I’ll have several books in process, at least one of which will not be erotic. Currently I’m reading The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, a literary novel about family and neurophysiology; Carousel by Aurelia T. Evans, which I guess would be categorized as kinky erotic horror; Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons (though I’ve gotten bogged down in this and haven’t opened it for months); and Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Sexualities and Communities, by David A. Ortmann and Richard A. Sprott. I still adore a solid science fiction tale; The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Baccigalupi and Anathem by Neal Stephenson are highlights from recent years, enthusiastically recommended. Well-written historical fiction can still sweep me away, too, though I was a bit disappointed by my recent read of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In short, reading is my first and perhaps my most enduring love. The pleasure I’ve experienced writing this post, remembering my favorite books and reliving my first encounters with them, recalls the secret glow I feel after a night of erotic pleasure. Lovers come and gosexual need fades with age—but books will always be there, or so I pray.

When I imagine my future, I see myself, perhaps infirm, perhaps indigent, even alone, but still reading. Without books, I wonder if life would be worth living.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Knock on the Door

by Jean Roberta

It could happen to almost anyone, and it has. If you know something that the establishment wants buried, or you’ve broken a tradition by belonging to the "wrong" demographic, or you’ve signed a petition, they could come to take you away. “They” could be police or members of the military in uniform, or they could be “health” workers in white coats, or they could be thugs waiting in the shadows on a dark street.

“You won’t see it coming,” says my spouse, a survivor of the military takeover of Chile on September 11, 1973. The government had been elected by a popular vote, and much of the population was highly educated. The arts were revered, and leftist thought was part of the culture. The nation, somewhat like a Spanish-speaking (or more Spanish-speaking) version of California, had never been a Banana Republic like the small countries of Central America.

Augusto Pinochet, a member of the military, didn’t seem likely to replace the elected President and run the country as a dictator. Until he did.

Germany was a fairly enlightened place between approximately 1750 and 1930. Liberal-humanism and the romantic movement in literature were well underway there before they reached England. Antisemitism was a kind of stubborn medieval Christian prejudice that lingered on in most European countries, but no one seemed to suspect that Germany in the twentieth century would become notorious as the birthplace of the systematic massacre that came to be known as the Holocaust.

Muslims and Hindus were spread throughout India before 1947, and the chaos that came to be called Partition. Some Indian writers even wrote philosophical works showing that Hinduism and Islam were very compatible. Then the nation gained its independence from Britain, and the bigots ruled. Overnight, families who had lived in India for generations were told to go “home” to Pakistan (East or West) because they were Muslim, and therefore not truly Indian. Hindus in Muslim territory were treated the same way. One unfortunate man who still lived in India during Partition was told that as a Muslim, he was no longer an Indian citizen, so he was sent to Pakistan. The Pakistani government claimed he was Indian, and they deported him back. He was fined and imprisoned for being in the “wrong” place as both governments deported him back and forth for years.

Most of the millions of people (mostly women) who were convicted of “witchcraft” probably weren’t guilty of anything. At worst, they might have used some herbal cures for common ailments instead of relying on prayer alone. They probably didn’t foresee the Inquisition, even after the Pope issued a Papal Bull (in Latin, of course) on “un-Christian” behaviour in the 1480s.

I fear political and social cataclysms even more than I fear natural disasters. As a child in the U.S. during the Red Scare of the 1950s, I learned how whole populations can be made paranoid, afraid of something that isn’t real, or that they don’t understand. None of my classmates seemed to know what “Communism” was except that it was the boogeyman, and it was threatening our “free country.” Academics like my parents were suspected of being Communists because they read too many books, and spread ideas like viruses.

My spouse warns me not to sign on-line petitions, including several current ones about the American dentist who killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe. The petitions call for him to be charged with a crime, and/or for the laws about this kind of thing to be tightened. This seems logical to me. Would the Canadian government hunt me for opposing big-game hunters who kill endangered species for sport? It’s possible.

Under the current right-wing government of Canada, a recent bill was passed into law making it possible to revoke the Canadian citizenship and deport anyone who was born outside of Canada and who engages in “terrorism,” widely defined. Word on the street is that this law is aimed at environmentalists, who throw monkey wrenches in the big machinery of corporations with big plans to accelerate the selling of natural resources. I haven’t been highly visible in protests and demonstrations (including the current “Shell No”’ campaign to prevent Shell Oil from drilling in the Arctic Sea and further polluting the world’s oceans). If anything, I haven’t been active enough when the fate of the planet is at stake.

But I know from experience that I don’t even have to actively oppose the current establishment to be labelled a problem.

In my nightmares, a SWAT team in riot gear breaks down the door of my house to haul me out of bed and take me away. If I ask what I’m charged with, the enforcers of the law seem outraged that I think I have the right to ask questions. As representatives of the government in power, they can do anything to me – even make me “disappear.” Realistically, who could stop them?

I may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Way It Feels At the End

by Annabeth Leong

Angst - (in Existentialist philosophy) the dread caused by man's awareness that his future is not determined but must be freely chosen

This is an excerpt from an unpublished early erotic story of mine, “The Way It Feels At the End.” The main characters, Siri and Liz, can’t get over their angst about the events of Siri’s drunken binge a year ago.


Siri ran her fingers down Liz’s now-naked calves, a light layer of stubble roughening the smooth curve of the muscle. She wanted to put every part of her lover in her mouth, but had refrained in the past from paying too much attention in odd places. Now, she swirled her tongue over the back of Liz’s knee, and pressed her lips to the swell of the calf muscle and sucked hard.

Liz swayed, gripping the shower curtain rod with one hand and a shelf with the other. Siri looked up. “Don’t move. Stay just like that.”

She rose to her feet, stretching the stockings out so they weren’t lumps anymore. “I’ve heard we should have some word to say in case something goes wrong and you want me to stop.”

“How about ‘tequila?’” Liz said, raising an eyebrow.

Siri dropped her gaze. “It fits,” she said, and busied herself with attaching Liz’s wrists to the bathroom fixtures. When she’d finished, she stepped back to look at her lover. Her chest felt contracted from the reproach in Liz’s choice of safeword. Still avoiding Liz’s eyes, Siri unbuttoned her lover’s shirt, tucking it open and watching the water hit her nipples. She pulled off Liz’s skirt and panties and dropped them on the bathroom floor outside the shower stall.

Then Siri stepped back and stared at the body that had been her object of desire for some seven years now. She knew the trail of beauty marks that went down Liz’s left shoulder. She knew how she’d gotten the scars on her knees. She felt the full force of all her mixed emotions, the build-up of lust and guilt, despair and love. She stepped out of the shower and closed the curtain to put a screen between herself and Liz.

“Where are you going?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Siri said, forcing her voice to stay light and teasing. She watched Liz’s shape through the filmy curtain. Not stopping to question her impulse, Siri reached back into the shower and turned the water all the way to cold. Liz screamed as the water changed, and the sound sent a shiver all the way up Siri’s spine.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Siri tore the curtain off the rod, ignoring the water spraying out of the tub. “Do you want me to turn it off?”

Liz jerked her arms against the restraints. “Jesus! Yes! What the hell?” The sight of her lover wet, cold, and struggling sent a sudden surge of desire through Siri’s body.

“You know what to say if you want me to stop,” Siri said. She pulled off her own soaked clothes and dumped them on the floor, ignoring Liz’s continued shrieks of outrage.

Siri stepped back into the shower, stifling her own shriek when the cold water hit her body. Liz’s skin, covered with gooseflesh, felt stiff and cool to the touch. Siri flicked her fingernails against the hard tips of Liz’s nipples. She kissed Liz hard, shutting off another shriek. Her mouth tasted flame-hot. A shiver rose from deep in Siri’s spine, half from the cold and half lust, and she didn’t know her own hands as they clutched and clawed at Liz’s back, arms, and legs.

Siri pulled back from the kiss, Liz’s panting breath loud and hoarse even above the sound of the shower water. She reached between Liz’s legs and pushed two fingers up inside. “Cold,” Liz gasped. “It’s cold. It’s cold.”

Siri lifted Liz’s chin and looked at her face. “Now tell me whatever it is that’s on your mind.”

“Are you serious?”

Siri shifted so the full force of the cold water fell on Liz again. She forced herself to meet her lover’s eyes and keep her gaze hard and her fingers inside Liz’s pussy harder.

Liz tipped her forehead toward Siri. “I never forgave you,” she said, the words coming out tight and sharp.

Siri closed her eyes and reached for Liz. “Say it all.”

“I don’t trust you. When you go away, I’m always afraid you’re not coming home. I fucking hate that you slept with another woman. When you touch me, I always wonder how you touched her.”

“Keep talking.”

“I left you because you were leaving me,” Liz said. “That’s what you never seemed to understand.” Siri slid her fingers in and out of Liz, toying with her body as the painful words flowed over her with a deeper chill than the water. The words began to slow as the sensations took over. Liz gave a full-body shudder and arched her neck back. Siri leaned forward and bit hard at the base. Liz went quiet. Siri felt her trembling under her hands.

“You’re wet,” Siri said. She continued to work her fingers in Liz’s pussy, and went in for a deep kiss. She rubbed her thumb against Liz’s clit until again she felt Liz surrender something. Her lover’s hips began to swirl, and the chill of the water faded into the background. Siri kissed so hard her jaw began to hurt. She stroked Liz’s tongue, the inside of her cheek. She wanted something from Liz that she didn’t know how to get--to be inside of her, to fuck her, something beyond just making her come.


If anyone would like to read the whole story, shoot me an email, and I'll send over the whole file!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I Think Not

by Daddy X

According to the “Internets,” 'angst' rears its ugly head when one feels apprehensive for the world and its future. Sorta like a more encompassing ‘anxiety’—pushed to the nth power to include fear for all life forms—combined with the all-consuming lure of a far-fetched vision of a smidgen of hope.

Angst hasn’t been much of a problem for me of late. During a year of debilitating Interferon/Ribavirin treatment back in 2005/06, I did listen to a lot of leftist talk radio, which turned me into a different person. Not only was I laid low by physical anguish, but I also became upset with every perceived wrong I observed around me. I had become a drag. The fix was to not listen to a particular station.

It wasn’t a matter of suddenly being made aware of what was out of kilter with society. I had always harbored leftist thought. And, to the extent I could, tried to live my life accordingly. But the inundation of all that negativity had created a miserable guy.

The ills of the world are now so overwhelming that I wonder what one person can do. Momma X has remained on the front lines of environmental activism, now with a group that, in addition to trying influence government, actually searches out funding to purchase open space for permanent protection, bypassing many slower-moving machinations of legal entanglement. Direct action, so to speak.

I still manage to write a ‘letter to the editor’ every now and then, and support Momma in her endeavors, helping her edit articles and engaging in functions geared to the environment— but wonder again—why?  Younger people don't seem to be getting involved with the established groups. The local Audubon Society looks like an old age home, as does the Sierra Club. Where is the next generation? I know of existing high school enviro clubs, but the kids seem to get lost once they get to college age. Life must get in their way.

That figures.

In some sense, I would love to go back to a younger age. But thinking one step further, I wonder if I could do as well in this chip-oriented society we’ve shifted to. When I was young, with the proper education (which cost much less than now) we could pretty much go into any field we wanted. Now, kids fresh out of college don’t have that luxury. Those with basic degrees are competing for fast-food jobs. Whatever will the future hold for those like me without a college education?

What does the future of the world look like? In some ways, Momma and I are tired of beating our heads against a wall of capitalist abuse. But where are the troops to follow upon our heels? They’ll be dealing with a dire situation where machines accomplish many of the jobs once done by humans. Their ways of living are on the line, but on a very basic level at such a young age, with virtually all their lives yet to live. What is to be their future?

So just this morning, I’m reading the paper and see an article that tells me this year’s Columbia River salmon run may be depleted by up to 80%, due largely to drought and high temperatures in the greater Northwest. Elsewhere in the world, elephants are on their way out from poaching. Ditto for the tiger and rhinoceros. In fact, we’re witnessing a mass extinction to rival the demise of dinosaurs.

Maybe it’s better not to think.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Angst Through the Ages--Suz deMello edition

I've found that my level of angst and stress has fluctuated through my life stages. 

Apparently I was a happy baby:

As a child, I had moments of stress:

and happiness:

My angst level zipped up to the stratosphere when I entered middle school. The onset of menstruation and the appearance of social anxiety were way too much for a sheltered little girl, which I continued to be for decades. I became an insomniac. I used and abused drugs, mostly pot, in an effort to control undiagnosed depression. 

But I was pretty cute--that's my HS grad pic:

As I entered my twenties, my drug use increased as I added more drugs to my pharmacopeia, most notably booze, cocaine and meth, plus occasional use of hallucinogens. I was still suffering from depression and insomnia, but was less concerned about existential angst than I was when a college student--the genesis of the universe was of less interest to me than when I could get to the Holy City Zoo and catch some live comedy, laughing my cares away in a drug-induced fog.

Then came law school graduation and the establishment of my law practice. 

No angst, but serious stress and depression as I struggled to present a happy, successful face to the world when I was torn to shreds inside.

Then I married, allegedly the happiest day of my life. Not. I wasn't sure of my decision, and though I've been apart from my ex for ten years now, still can't decide whether that marriage was a good idea--though I am certain that I will never remarry. What for?

image by Cienfuegos 241

Menopause brought a measure of peace. After working through the hot flashes and other assorted symptoms, everything mellowed out. The depression that had plagued me had gone, victim to the massive chemical changes wrought by menopause. YAY!

I'm still a highly stressed person--that seems to be a part of me. But my angst is gone forever.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? That angst has mellowed with age?

Monday, July 27, 2015

High Anxiety

Sacchi Green

Sometimes writing what you know is the last thing you want to do, and the last thing people want to read. I’ll tack on a short story excerpt at the end of this, so feel free to skip to that if you’d like. The story is from an historical anthology coming out later this year, and is about PTSD (or shell-shock as it was called during WWI), which may or may not qualify as angst, but is probably close enough.

 First, though, before the story excerpt, here's my write-what-you-know tale of angst, or something like it.

I’m not sure how different angst is from common anxiety—maybe an upscale, existential form. In any case, I have all too much of both for comfort. There are valid reasons for my anxiety, but when it extends into unrelated areas of life, becoming the default setting of one’s mood, I think we’re pretty much in angst territory. Situational angst, if that’s even a thing.

I’m not really that badly off, except when I’m semi-awake and it isn’t really quite morning and my defenses are down and I still need more sleep but worries both genuine and imagined get tangled together in dreams that feel too real. Daytimes, most of the time, I cope with whatever needs coping with, which right now means writing about angst.

In a stroke of serendipitous coincidence, I just came this bit of information in a local newspaper, a welcome aid to putting off getting personal:  

“Research suggests that anxiety is at least partly temperamental. A recent study of 592 Rhesus monkeys found that some of them responded more anxiously than others and that as much as 30 per cent of early anxiety may be inherited. Yet what is inherited is the potential for anxiety, not anxiety itself.”

How can they tell that a trait like anxiety is inherited rather than learned unless they separate the youngsters from their parents? And wouldn’t doing so quite naturally cause anxiety? Well, never mind. Let’s not get anxious about those poor baby monkeys.

Back to the hereditary theory. My mother was always on the pessimistic side, apparently in the philosophical belief that it was better to expect the worst so that it wouldn’t take you by surprise. That’s not to say that she was always in a state of anxiety, but especially in her later years she went out of her way to find things to worry about. She’d answer my phone calls, even those she was expecting and knew to be on benign topics, with a lugubrious, “What’s wrong?” (I don’t ever recall telling her anything was wrong over the phone.) In her last several years, when her health was declining and there were real things to worry about, she accepted her own condition fairly calmly, but worried all the more about other family members and various other factors. When I semi-kidded her about some really far–fetched idea, she admitted it, but said with a bit of a laugh that worrying was her hobby. “What else do I have to occupy me?”

I have plenty to occupy me, but lately I find myself getting uptight with far-fetched (but not impossible) worries. If family or friends are traveling I’m on edge until I know they’re safely home. My granddaughter is the light of my life, but as soon as she was born I thought of her as another hostage of fate. I think my mother did, too. Well, if anxiety is hereditary, I hope we haven’t passed it on to that next generation.

I’m not obsessed with worries all the time, or if I am, it’s more of an undercurrent. I don’t have a real claim to angst. I’m sitting beside a swift mountain stream right now, enjoying my surroundings, pleased to have harvested at least two gallons of wild blueberries in the last three days, plus a bountiful crop of wild golden chanterelle mushrooms, one of the kinds you can find in Whole Foods, but mine are much fresher, and free.

Life is, on the whole, good. Even when death has to be taken into account. A week from next Saturday I’ll be taking my ninety-five-year-old father for a PETscan, one more test for what looks right now as probably, but not quite conclusively, lung cancer. He knows this. He’s still quite sharp, just a bit on the forgetful side. He tells doctors that I come with him because of his poor hearing, but we both know it’s just as much so that I can remember and keep track of what’s going on. It’s also because he isn’t driving any more, thank goodness!

I know how lucky I’ve been to be on good terms with my parents, and how remarkably lucky I’ve been for them to live so long. My mother made it to ninety-three. What we’re dealing with now usually happens to people far sooner, and is a natural phase of life. But it’s never easy. Uncertainties, tough decisions to be made, questions that can’t be fully answered. If he does have lung cancer, we have to think in terms of how much arduous treatment would be worth it, and what the prognosis would be with treatment or without it. If it turns out that he doesn’t have cancer, he still has recent and worsening breathing problems, even though his health in most other ways is remarkably good considering his age. He was heroic in taking care of my mother the last while before she had to be in a nursing home for care, and he visited her there every single day. (My brothers and I made sure one of us went with him three or four days a week.) But he has a horror of being in a nursing home situation himself. He has so far resisted living with me, an hour or so away from where he lives now and where I grew up, or at an assisted living place near me, but those options are open to him. He wants to stay in the home he shared with my mother, with friends nearby, his church, his twice-a-week bridge games at the senior center.

I want whatever is best for him. I worry about what is best for him. I’m the one he depends on, and however much I worry in those early morning hours when I need to sleep but can’t, and often in the earlier night hours when I’m first trying to get to sleep, I’ll cope with whatever needs coping with. Anxiety is a natural phase of life, too, a repeating one.

Now for the story excerpt. This will be in Through the Hourglass, one of the three anthologies I’ve been editing lately, and isn’t actually erotica, although I’m tempted to expand on it sometime in the future and include the steamy bits I know are there between the lines later in the piece.

Crossing Bridges
Sacchi Green

Upstream the river riffled over stony outcroppings, but under the bridge it ran deep and clear.  Reggie leaned over the wooden railing and stared down into those amber-green depths, willing herself to see only the great speckled trout balanced in perfect stillness against the current. An ordinary Midlands English stream, all green shadow and shimmering sunlight and blue reflected sky. Just a big fish. Yet she could not block out visions of bodies submerged in other streams flowing ever redder with blood through the ravaged countryside of France, until they reached the Somme. Even the songs of birds in flight, spilling over with rapture, warped in her mind into cries for help, help that could never be enough.

"Shell-shock," the doctors might say, but it scarcely mattered what one called it. Pure, searing grief, not war itself—though war would have been enough—had breached her defenses. Grief for Vic. For herself without Vic.
Reggie's hands tightened to the point of pain on the railing. By what right did England bask in such a May morning, calm and lovely, while over there artillery’s thunder still shook the fields, and men rotted in muddy trenches? How could she bear to stand idle in the midst of such peace when her place was over there, even…even with Vic gone? All the more with Vic gone.
But she must adjust, must let the peace of home heal her—not that anywhere felt like home now. Or ever could again, without Vic. If Reggie could prove herself recovered, not just from her physical injuries but those of the spirit--capable once more, normal, clear-minded--they just might send her back to the war.  An experienced ambulance driver, strong as most men, skilled at repairing motorcars and field-dressing wounded men; here in pastoral England she was of no use, but over there she was desperately needed.

Reggie straightened abruptly, trying to focus on the tender green of new leaves, the glint of sunlight on the flitting gold and peacock blue of dragonflies. She shook herself like a retriever emerging from deep water.

“Don’t move!”

The low, terse command froze her in mid shake.

“There’s a nest…” The voice came from below, less peremptory now, but Reggie’s mind raced. A machine gun nest? She fought the impulse to drop to the wooden planks of the bridge. Surely not gunners, not here. A nest of wasps?
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” The speaker was almost whispering. “It’s just that swallows are nesting below you on the supports of the bridge, and I’ve been sketching them, but they get uneasy when you move so suddenly and might leave the eggs.”

A flush of fury heated Reggie’s face. Forced to the verge of panic by some silly schoolgirl! She bent over the wooden railing, an angry shout surging into her throat, and saw, first, a head of tousled light brown hair cut short about the ears. A schoolboy, then! All the worse! “WHAT do you bloody mean—“

The artist looked up. The remainder of Reggie’s words halted, burning like mustard gas in her mouth.

Not a boy. Not a child at all, though she might have been taken for one if it weren’t for tiny lines at the corners of mouth and eyes, and a certain look in those eyes that spoke of a share of pain in her life; rather like what Reggie saw in her own when she was careless enough to look in a mirror. Her hair was really no shorter than Vic’s pale curls had been in France, and Reggie’s own dark thatch had been cropped a good deal shorter then, a necessity in the filth and chaos of battlefields. She realized uneasily that it was about time she cut it again. Five months in hospital had left it just long enough to tie back in a straggly knot, which she would have hated if she had cared in the least about appearance these days.

“I really am terribly sorry,” the woman said. “I shouldn’t have startled you like that. I get too engrossed in what I’m working on; it’s my besetting sin. One of them, at any rate.” A flashing smile turned her rather ordinary face into something quite different, almost enchanting, in the elven manner of an illustration from a fairy tale. “You must be Lady Margaret’s cousin, and this is her bridge, so really you’ve much more right here than I. We’d heard you were spending the summer with her. I’m Emma Greening from downstream at Foxbanks.” She stood from her perch on a mossy rock and made as if to extend a hand, then realized that she couldn’t possibly reach up to where Reggie stood and withdrew it in some confusion. “Just a second and I’ll climb out of here with my gear.“

Reggie found her voice, or at least a version of it just barely suitable for the occasion. The hoarseness couldn’t be helped. Vic had claimed to quite like what being a little too slow to get her gas mask on had done to her tone.

“No, you can go on sketching. I was about to move along at any rate.” Emma Greening…what had Margaret said about her? Something, in all that chatter about the local population, something about being an artist, but Reggie had paid no attention to any of it. No one in this dull, placid, countryside mattered to her.

Now she wondered just how much Margaret had told the local population about her. Or how much Margaret herself understood.

“I should be going myself,” Emma said. “I can sketch swallows in my sleep—it was the bridge itself I wanted to catch in a certain light, and I think I have enough now to be going on with.” She packed her sketchbook and paint box into a satchel slung over her shoulder, and stepped from the rock onto the steep riverbank.

“Here, I’ll give you a hand with that.” Reggie heard the brusqueness in her own voice, and couldn’t quite erase the remnants of her angry frown, but found herself reaching down from the top of the riverbank without remembering how she’d got there. Emma’s sun-browned hand met hers in a firm grip, and she was up the slope so quickly and easily that it was clear she hadn’t needed any help at all.

“Thanks. I’ll be getting along now, and I do apologize for disturbing you.” Her smile now was merely polite.

This would be as good a time as ever to practice behaving normally, Reggie thought. Best to scotch any gossip about her being a bit odd. “Don’t leave on my account, Miss…Greening, is it? I’m Regina Lennox. Make that Reggie. Sketch here all you like. I’m the one who should apologize for being such a troll when you startled me.”

Emma’s smile flashed brilliantly again. “A troll? How funny that you’d say that! This is indeed a perfect troll bridge, which is why I was sketching it, for a book I’m illustrating. A children’s story, the one with the three goats.”

“Trip, trap, trip, trap over the bridge?”

“That’s the one,” Emma confirmed. “For now I wanted to get the bridge itself, rustic and charming, with the swallows, and that wren darting in and out of the bittersweet vines on the other side—she must have a nest there—and the clump of purple orchis just where the bridge meets the bank. All lovely and peaceful before the goats or troll appear. A lull before the storm sort of thing.”

“So the troll got here prematurely.” There was something comfortably familiar about the conversation.

Emma tilted her head, surveying Reggie with mock seriousness. “No, I wouldn’t cast you as the troll, exactly. In any case, I was the one below the bridge, or nearly so, so I’m a better candidate for trolldom.” She leaned her head the other way with a frown of concentration belied by a twitching at the corners of her mouth. “I see you more as the biggest Billy Goat Gruff, stern, shaggy, putting up with no nonsense from any troll.”

“Certainly shaggy…” Reggie stopped short. Memory hit her like an icy blast. Vic used to tease her, rumpling her hair when it got shaggy and needed cutting, calling her a troll—often followed by, ‘Well, get on with it, you slouch, kiss me if you’re going to!’ She felt her face freeze into grim stillness, bracing against the familiar onslaught of grief.

Emma stepped back. “Sorry again,” she said, sounding embarrassed. “I have such a bad habit of blurting outrageous things without thinking.”

“It’s not you,” Reggie got out, but no more words would come.

 “I really should be going now, anyhow.” Emma said quickly. “I’ll just leave you in peace.  I expect we’ll run across each other in the village from time to time.”

Reggie watched in silence as Emma picked up the bicycle lying beside the lane, settled her art supplies in the canvas panniers at the back, mounted it, and rode away. Her divided skirt revealed a brief glimpse of quite nice lisle-stockinged calves above sturdy boots—and a smudge of moss stain where she’d been sitting on the rock.

So much for behaving normally! Reggie’s spasm of grief was subsiding, and she wished she could call Emma back, but the bicycle had disappeared around a bend edged with dense shrubbery. And what could she have said? “I froze up because you reminded me of someone.” Which wasn’t even true. Emma didn’t particularly resemble Vic. It was more the light, pleasant conversation, the brief exchange of banter…

Ah. That was it. Just as the rehabilitation counselor had said, but Reggie had resisted. Guilt. Survivor’s guilt, they called it. Why should she be the one to survive? How could she deserve, or accept, even the least bit of pleasure?

Well, she had enjoyed herself, if only for a few minutes. Maybe that was a sign of healing. She rubbed her hands across her eyes, then turned back to the bridge. A swallow darted under the arch, and a second bird took flight from the nest on the wooden underpinnings while the first took over hatching duty. On the far side a wren darted in and out between clusters of tiny white flowers on a trailing tangle of vines—bittersweet, Emma had called it. A small butterfly speckled like polished tortoiseshell flitted between masses of ferns on the upper bank. Emma would probably know what it was called.

It occurred to Reggie that this side of the bridge was the farthest she’d been from Margaret’s house since she’d come here, and also that it must be close to time for lunch. A quick sound in the water and a spreading ring of ripples showed that the trout concurred, and had snatched a mayfly from the surface.

She went back across the bridge, pausing to look down into the water. Only when she was well along the lane did she realize that her mind had played no tricks this time, and she’d seen only the river, and the fish, and reflections of a swallow in flight.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Size Doesn't Matter

Angst can be a ravenous and insatiable beast. Whilst in an overall sense, it’s quite an unfocussed and global fear, the less formal usage of the word is applied to a fear both quite personal and at times, quite trivial. When it comes to the source of angst, though, truly size does not matter.

I was a difficult child. Not in a running-around, tearing-the-place-apart way. More in a quiet and sulky way. I slept poorly as a baby, and had rather particular rules to which only I was privy–until those rules were broken. Suddenly everyone else knew the rules too! Behaviour needed to be patterned and predictable. Peas could not be mixed with carrots once on my plate (though if they arrived mixed, that was no trouble). Biscuits (the cookie kind) needed to be whole, not broken. My mother, in fact, was concerned that I might be autistic.

From my perspective, which is the only one I have regular access to, I felt the world had a certain sense of order, yet it seemed nobody else understood just how important it was to keep that order. The doody-heads.

It all came to a head once I began school. I’d attended kindergarten, and had been in child care many times, but school somehow overwhelmed me; to the point that I didn’t speak out loud that first day.

That, then, became the trend for the whole year. My not speaking that first day had a few of the kids looking at me funny. At least, in my own perception, it did. From the perspective of an extra 40+ years of experience, I can recognise that they were all sunk just as deeply in their own psyches at that moment.

So, because I’d not spoken out loud in the classroom that first day, when day two arrived I just knew that if I spoke out loud, all eyes would suddenly be staring in my direction. “He spoke! At last!” It was one of those snowball effects, where every day of silence built up the pressure—in my own head and nowhere else, of course—to ultimately verbalise.

I hasten to add that at home, and in the playground, and even in the hallways, I was an average kid who spoke and shouted and played around. It was just the formalised nature of the classroom, I think, which gave me initial pause.

I lasted the whole of the first year without speaking out loud in class. At show and tell I would whisper in the teacher’s ear. My friends simultaneously acted as helpers and enablers. They would get up and ask the teacher if I could go to the toilet, rather than forcing me to confront whatever damned cat it was that had my tongue.

Despite being an on-stage musical performer, that kind of angst is still a part of who I am and what I do. It’s made a few appearances in my stories, as is always the way for anyone who writes.

Most notably, there’s a small section in my FF story, “Her Majesty” (edited by the lovely Lisabet!) It’s a first person story, which has long been my go-to POV (which is probably a branch of the same tree from which all this initial angst grew–a self-centredness which feels like protection).

This paragraph is, to my mind, my most accurate description of how that angst manifested in my mind. I wrote earlier of my childhood need for patterning and predictability, for vegetable segregation unless already intermingled. The last two lines of this paragraph…that sums up what was going on in my head.

“With a fortifying breath, I walked out until the water tickled the tops of my knees. Every passing wave slipped up my thighs like a drunken jerk’s hands until finally I bit the bullet and sat, squealing and shivering as the cold water coated my skin. It wasn’t just the temperature. Change has always been hard for me. Even when it’s just the change from dry to wet.”

Thankfully, life and experience and the arrival of genuine things to be scared of have broken those early fears and left them sprinkled on the floor of my mind. I could easily pick them up and weld them back together. But I have too much else to do right now.