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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Distant Ties - No. 329

Suction prevented the towering glass door from opening on Irene's first tug.  After a glance at the scuffed face of her digital watch and the hours posted on the placard, she grasped the brass latch with both callused hands.  Bracing her feet, she pursed her thin lips and put her back into a firm yank.  The seal finally popped and a gust of chilled air swirled through the opening, countering the late summer's suffocating humidity.  With a shiver, she clutched her purse and notebook to her shirtfront and entered. 

Rubber mats muted her thick-soled sandals on her initial pad through the library's metal detectors, their red and watchful lights steady.  The marble floor, however, caused her cautious steps to echo. 

At a circular desk plopped into the center of the arched foyer a goateed gentleman with a receding hairline looked up from his computer screen, his tapping on the keys slowing.

"Morning," he said with a smile between his salt and pepper beard.  He lifted his hands from the keyboard and fetched a pencil from the rut above his ear.  "How can I help you?"

Glancing to either side, Irene tiptoed to his counter.  Keeping her voice at a far lower pitch, she glanced up and then back down, perusing his desk’s collection of crisp magazines. 

"I'm…I’m looking for your local newspaper section."

He nodded and plucked a scrap of note paper, the lead of his pencil poised.  "Any particular date range?" 

Irene watched the tip waver over the pristine sheet.  With a gulp, she dragged her gaze up, past his name tag with Newman in white letters, and locked upon his chin.

"The 1840s...."

"Ah," he jotted the year and circled it for good measure.  “That’ll be the Chronicle.  We only have those in hard copy."  Motioning to his right, Newman strode through the swinging door enclosing his mahogany desk.  "Let me show you where—"

"It's all right," said Irene, waving her hand with vigor.  "If you can just point out the way, I'm sure I can find it."

"It's no trouble.  We're always quiet first thing in the morning."

He closed the entrance to his fortress of reference tomes and glowing monitors.  "Are you looking for a particular issue?"

"Sort of," whispered Irene.

She fell in line while he led by a cluster of computers and then a row of cubicles.  Stacks flanked either side, the musk of age and paper floating on the air.

"Perhaps there’s a way we can narrow down—"

Irene shook her head and cut off his line of inquiry.  "I just want to see the papers."

Newman's grin stretched, like a pulled rubber band.  "All right." 

They walked in silence the rest of the way to a blocky map case sprouting from the tiles.  A laminated map of the United States occupied the waist-high top. 

"You can see the labels here," said Newman pointing to the front tabs on each drawer.  "They'll give you the date range of the newspapers inside."

"I understand" said Irene, finding the set up similar to those of the countless previous libraries she’d investigated.  She glanced about and spied a nearby span of vacant table with a doused lamp and tucked in chair.

"But if you are looking for something specific," said Newman, "it might be easier to find by looking through the catalog or in one of our databases."

"I'm sure I'll be fine," said Irene.

Newman twirled his pencil, and then returned it to his ear.  "You know where to find me if you have any questions."

"I do."

Bobbing his head, Newman started back toward his desk.

"Ah...Thanks," said Irene.

He glanced over his shoulder, a more authentic smile bunching his cheeks.  “You’re welcome.”

Irene waited until he vanished behind the stacks and his footsteps quieted.  His taps resumed, their faint pecks like rain on a tin roof.   With a long exhalation she uncurled her arms around her notebook and slipped her purse's straps from her bowed shoulder.  She set both onto the table beside the map case and then faced the drawers.  Pointing a finger with its chipped nail at the front tabs, she navigated down to the fourth drawer, her weathered jeans straining at her hips and knees. 

Metal shrieked against metal when she pulled out the shelf.  She stopped halfway, let the echo die, and then nudged the drawer the rest of the way, wincing with every steel yelp.

Disturbed newspaper edges fluttered and a puff smelling of autumn's dying leaves brushed against her cheeks.  The pages settled and beneath the Marshall Chronicle header the date of January 6, 1840 clung.  Articles about local events, damage caused by a fire set to ward off the winter's cold, and the proceeds gathered from the Christmas festival dominated the four columns.

Collecting the issue with care, Irene supported the flimsy pages and laid them quickly upon the table.  She flipped the sheets until she neared the end, where advertisements mixed with birth, death, and wedding announcements.  Following her finger, she noted names, addresses, and the brief summaries about the lives of the one or two who had arrived or passed on in the previous days or weeks.  None carried any of the names within her notebook and ingrained under her fading blonde locks.  Closing up the issue, she set it to the side and went back for the 13th.

She had plunged into September by the time Newman reappeared.

"I thought these might be of interest to you," he said.  He plopped a trio of dust smeared tomes onto the table.  "They're a composite history of the area in the mid-nineteenth century completed through a WPA project during the Depression.  It's a little easier to navigate that the newspapers, and more robust than the census, especially for that time period, with business records, residences, and obituaries I’m not sure they’ll ever get around to digitizing."

Irene's heart fluttered.  "Obituaries?"

"Yes," said Newman.  He seized volume three and began flipping through the sheets of onionskin. 

Irene neared and watched the near translucent papers crinkle and fall flat.

"Here we are," said Newman.  He spun the tome on his wide palm, up righting the beginning of an obituary section cast in a typewriter's dented script.  "They're arranged by date and then name."

Reaching up, Irene stopped short of taking the book.

"Please,” said Newman, inching the tome at her fingertips, “go ahead."

She managed a weak smile and took the tome in both hands, wary of its weight. Her gaze sank into the opened page despite the ding sounding at the entrance. 

"If you'll excuse me," said Newman.

Irene nodded absently, and noted his departure in passing.  She drifted down to the chair she'd yet to occupy and set the book before her.  Gulping down a sudden rise of nerves, she collected her pencil and drew her notebook along side.  With her left hand she turned the pages and scanned the columns of names, dates, and summaries typed decades earlier.  She jumped to the R's in 1840, then again in 41.  She didn't come across a Robinson until 1852, but the name stopped her search short.

Madelyn Robinson nee Tremont, born March 1823, died November 23, 1852 due to complications during the birth of her third child, a girl, who also perished.  She is survived by her husband Leon Robinson and their two children Paul, 7 and Martha, 4. 

"Tremont," whispered Irene. 

The image of a woman on her death bed floated into her thoughts.  Shaking away the vision, she etched the name into her notebook along with those of the children and husband.  She drew a circle around Madelyn and a line across her penciled web to a Ruth Tremont with a daughter of the same name and age.  Additional arrows pointed back to an Ada whose lineage walked back further generations and into townships thousands of miles away.  She traced the line back around, where it led in the opposite chronological direction, into more recent history none of them could have fathomed.

Irene sat back, staring at the web of people denoted on the college rule and the completed circuit connecting them to her name written in her cramped script at the bottom right corner. 

The seat beneath her and the tiles at her feet suddenly gained a sense of solidity.   She placed her pencil aside and laid her hand atop the sheet as if somehow the touch might further bond her to the past and the people who had come before.  The proof of their ties, however, would make all the difference in how her future would unfold. 

She grinned faintly at the security she anticipated from the evidence hidden beneath her hand.

Mr. Jenkins, she reflected, can't argue with fact.

Plumping her chest with a deep inhalation, she stood before weariness or exaltation gained the upper hand. 

There was still work left to be done, she reasoned.

She packed away the newspapers and closed up her notebook.  Tucking a scrap of paper in the gully of volume three to mark the page, she then slung her purse over her shoulder.  She collected the two unused tomes and balanced the third on top. After making sure to push in the chair, she headed back to Newman's counter.

"All done for the day?"

"Yes," said Irene.  She deposited the three volumes onto his desk.  "I found...I found the name I was looking for."

"That's wonderful," said Newman.  "Had you been looking long?"

Is a lifetime long? she wondered. 

"For a few years.  It's been a kind of...of a pet project."  She tapped the leather face of volume three.  "You don't have a photocopier here do you?"

"Of course," said Newman.  "Just around the corner.  Ten cents a page."

"I'll be right back then." 

She hugged the tome and walked briskly to the indicated alcove.  A dime deposit and swoop of neon-green light later and she held the replicated page in her hand.  She tucked it into her notebook before returning to the desk.

"Thanks again for your help."

Newman accepted the volume with a broad grin.  "It's my pleasure.  I hope we'll see you again."

"I'm sure you will," said Irene.  "I...I like to pay my debts."

He cocked his head.  "Debts?"

"To pay back those who help me out."

Newman seemed taken aback.  "I didn't mean it that way."

"I know...."  Irene reigned in her excitement over who else she might be able to award with the funds she might soon be able to access.  " helped me find an important answer.  I won't forget it."

Newman adjusted his grip on the tome, his cheeks flushing beneath his bristles. 

With a weaker mimic of his smile, Irene dropped her gaze and turned.  She headed for the doors and out into the summer heat with the evidence of a wintry death in hand and a long harbored hope about to be birthed. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Picked - No. 328

Darkness covered my blade.  A bit of mold left from the wedge of gorgonzola he’d eaten before...well, before…clung to a notch on my right edge complete with the stench of rotting eggs and ale.  Underlying the pungent smells, however, one remained, one no amount of scrubbing or honing would be able to cleanse.

I remember the night I earned the scent, the night I tasted my first blood, the pulsing flesh, the copper tang.  It was all I had left to ponder.  I hadn't been unsheathed since.

I missed the feel of picking a lock.  The way a bolt would give after a quick twist.  Of being held between my owner’s teeth while he climbed up an ivy-coated wall or opened a crate to reveal the gold, jewels, or silken goods within. 

The bloody night had started the same way as all the rest. 

After a bracing slice through hard cheddar and dried sausage and then a wipe with a rag, I had been stowed into my sheath.  I bobbed at his hip when we scurried through the lamp-lit streets and then again during the ascent up the manor’s stony face.  Brandished once more, he clutched me tight in his mouth while he secured his foot holds, the heat of his breath on my edge blanketing my face in moisture, his lips drawn back to keep them from my sharp touch. 

It had been a window's lock we'd unfastened, the bolt retracting with a dull snap at our deft thrust.  Opening the shutters had spilled out a wave of fire-stoked air, complete with smoke and a perfume as thick as brie. 

I didn’t worry about the disturbed curtains, however.  The cowled man had said the room would be deserted and my owner had feet as light as a cat’s.

Held in his dirt-smeared hand, we'd slipped inside, nothing more than a faint breeze.  A ray of moonlight gleamed on carpet, on the four polished posts of a velvet-draped bed, a snuffed fireplace, and the trunks and shelves heavy with books and boxes. 

After a tiptoe, we’d knelt by the table-sized chest stowed at the foot of the bed.  Another thrust and jerk and the lid succumbed.  We poked through the first layer of blankets and cloaks, then dug deeper.  I’d nipped the cedar sides with my tip and then grated along the back wall.  I hit a nub and we burrowed further.  With my edge and his rounded fingertips, we’d pried open the secret compartment.

It was then the mattress groaned; the squish of down and body stirring beneath sheets.

We'd frozen stiff and the sounds had settled, the sleeper’s breaths again at ease.  We hurried nonetheless, and out of the hidden panel collected the pouch, the one the cowled man had offered a year’s worth of coin for us to deliver. 

Replacing the disturbed clothes, we'd lowered the lid and didn't bother with the now broken bolt.  We'd padded toward the window, but having better ears than I, my owner stopped again.  I recognized the creak in the wall, one a heavier foot might have made.

The arrow had come fast, a quick zip and plunge into skin. My owner couldn't smother his gasp, and again the sleeper rolled. 

The velvet split and a woman’s voice called out in fear while wooden slats thudded and a growling man shouted in warning.  My owner had stumbled back, his own tenor raised in pleas of innocence, of mercy. 

I swung through the air as he defended himself against the roaring, ursine shadow bearing down like a charging bull.  Blows landed, making me shake when his arm trembled.  An arc down and I tasted skin, I sank into flesh, I found a throbbing darkness, one I'd never felt before, one I hope never to experience again.

Wheezing, and then stunned silence filled the room.

The leap from the window had been more routine.  We’d fallen forward, though.  He’d twisted a knee and I struck the ground when he’d cast out a bracing hand on the cobbled stones.  Regaining his feet, my owner had managed a staggered run down the alley.  Behind us voices dwindled, the spatter of our dash through puddles and mud became the sole attendant in our journey through streets.  The stones gave way to dirt, the buildings to either side shifting to planks and daub while the smell of the river beckoned.

The current on my edge that night had been crisp and swift.  He cleaned me like he did his hands and the glancing wound in his arm, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing again and again until I chilled to the inside and his fingers pruned around my handle.  Washed, but never to be clean, he’d stowed me at his hip and we'd moved on. 

The day passed in solitude within the cellar.  He'd paced and rocked, murmured and pined, bit his lip, snarled in rage, raked his fingers through greased locks, and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, holding back tears.

The cowled man arrived by nightfall.  In his hoarse timbre, he’d warned of forces seeking us, of pictures of my owner’s face drawn in charcoal and posted throughout town.  The money for the pouch, however, could buy passage and cowled man knew a Captain, one who asked little so long as the passenger paid or knew how to work.

With a choice between the sword and the sea, my owner had made his decision.

And so, we stood, enduring the sway of a ship and the retching of those not accustomed the elements.  At the railing, I imagine he looked out over the water.  He kept me sheathed though, even when we ate and I wondered, wherever we landed, if I'd ever taste air again.   

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bus Fare - No. 326

Everyone seated in the hall held a shared breath.

"And the last number is...."

Dale swept out his hand and Helen beamed.  With a forced wink to the crowd of faces staring up at the stage, she stopped the tumbler, opened the grated door, and plunged her hand into the pile of marked ping-pong balls.  She fetched one and raised the small orb aloft.

Drawing out the moment like Dale had taught her, she lowered her hand and turned the ball until she faced the stamped letter and number.

"B12," she said, loud enough for her voice to bounce off the far wall.

She ignored Dale's umpteenth glare of the round and placed the ping-pong in the rack with the rest on display atop the folding table covered in a red and white checkered table cloth.

"B…12 everyone," said Dale.  He turned toward the crowd and repeated himself into the microphone, his tenor regaining its salesman's slick.

Murmurs rippled between the arches flanking one side of the hall and the opened doorways whose curved tops allow in the ocean breezes tinged with salt and a steamy night.

"Do we have a winner?"  Dale switched the microphone into his other hand.  "Anyone?"

Helen laced her fingers behind her back and hoped for the best, hoped someone might suddenly find B12 and make a line of five chips in a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal formation.

No one did.

"Well...," said Dale.  "Perhaps we'll have better luck in round five."

Folded chairs groaned as folks sagged into the back rests, and metal legs scraped on the brick-lined floor of the old factory when others stood.  They tossed cardboard chips onto the cardboard squares arranged before them in rigid rows, disorganized clumps, or fanned layouts.  Some dumped their chips into the baskets, but most left the mess behind, gathered their spouse and their children, and began a collective exit from the straight-lined tables.

"We'll start the next round in five minutes," said Dale.  "Five minutes for another chance at our main prize."

He waved an arm at the bookcase they'd erected on stage, the beach pails and plastic shovels joining carnival-sized plush teddy bears and a cellophane wrapped crate bulging with jarred jams, boxed crackers, and a narrow-necked bottle of wine.

Despite the reminder and his vibrant blue sleeve flashing with its scaly sequins, the exodus failed to slow.  Dale dropped his arm and Helen winced when he flicked off the microphone.  He pivoted on a polished loafer, and rounded the table.  Keeping her eyes downcast, Helen began retrieving the impotent ping-pongs.

"What,” said Dale, “do you think you're doing?”

"My job," she said, tossing a handful of balls into the tumbler.

"You're job is to assist me in making this work."  Dale snatched her wrist when she reached for G26.  "And you're not helping."

Helen pursed her lips together and glared up at him.  "I pull the numbers.  I read the numbers.  I look cute doing it.  What more do you want me to do?"

Dale pulled her close, so close she could smell the cheddar cheese of the chili dog he'd had for dinner.

"I want you to read the right numbers."

"I'm not going to cheat," whispered Helen.

"It's not cheating," whispered Dale, "it's tipping the odds.  If these dupes don't think there's a chance to win, they're going to stop coming.  They stop coming, they don't pay, they don't pay we don't eat."

"I don't care," said Helen.  She ripped her arm out from his manicured grasp and cleared the rest of the balls from the table.  "I'm not going to manipulate the results.  They take their risks in playing and they deserve a fair shot.  It's a game of chance, of luck."

"Not for me," said Dale.  He set the microphone onto the table.  "And if that's not how you're willing to play, then I don't think this is for you either."

Staring at him, Helen forgot the latch on the tumbler.  The globe caught her when she staggered under the weight of his insinuation.

"You're…you’re firing me?"

"I'm letting you go, yes."

"Because I won't twist this into some preordained victory?"

"You're assistance," said Dale, blatantly avoiding the question, "is no longer required."

Helen slammed the lock down on the cage.  "I expect to get paid for this week."

"I'll have it ready.  Just get dressed and go."  Dale started storming off, stage right.  "You've got four minutes."

Helen watched him descend the stairs and then cut along the main wall.  He turned the corner leading to the restroom, his blue jacket dulled in the shadows.

"Jerk," she whispered.

Spinning from the tumbler, she pushed between the crimson curtains dividing the stage's apron from the back.  The boxes waiting to carry the prizes away sat stacked on the dolly beside the chair draped with her backpack and rumpled tank top and shorts.

Stepping out of the toe-cramping stilettos, she pulled the shorts on under the short skirt of her calico dress, cursing Dale with every tug.  Unclasping the costume's snaps, she wiggled her arms out and retained a modicum of decency while yanking on her tank top and stripping out of the blue and white plaid.  She left the dress pooled on the ground and slipped on her sandals.  Slinging her backpack over one shoulder, Helen marched with a floor smacking stride to the proscenium and through the curtain once again.

Dale waited at the foot of the stairs, perusing the next round of inquisitive players making their way to the tables.

"Here," he said, and shoved an envelope into her hands.  "Now get going."

"Happy to," said Helen.

Ripping her pay from his grasp, she blew past him and under the first doorway open to the outside.  Although sweltering, the air felt fresher compared to the stuffiness within the hall.

Breathing in the smell of the ocean she had once longed to see, Helen dashed through the throng and across the street to the promenade overlooking the water.  She found the railing and leaned onto the barricade, the envelope still clutched tight.  Opening the tab, she counted the twenties and then stuffed her pay into her backpack's pouch amid the dirty clothes and empty wallet within.

With a sigh, she subtracted an eventual breakfast and the bus fare from her earnings.  Her stomach grumbled.

Better to be out of here and hungry, she reflected, then stuck for another night and well fed.

Slipping her arms through her backpack’s straps, she cast her gaze out to sea.  The water slapped the stony grains with a calming rhythm, one countering the boisterous crowds meandering along the sidewalk at her back, or the lurch of cars and beeps of impatient horns.  Looking left and right, she spied happy clusters of teenagers, some only a few years younger than herself, enjoying a night on the town.  They nudged one another, teasing and flirting beneath the blinking lights of gaming halls and ice cream parlors.  Parent's harangued trains of unruly children racing from one window’s display to the next, pointing at the prizes and the sweets offered for those willing to play or with money to burn.  An elderly couple sat on a bench closer by, the lady people-watching while the man gestured during a winding ramble about what the coastal strip had become.

Helen sighed and turned away from the lot.  Looking up into the dotted sky, she found a bright star and wished herself away from the charade and to someplace where being honest didn't get you fired.  She wondered where that might be, and if Dale's money might get her there.  A pessimistic beast inside of her smirked at the innocent notion like it had when she’d first runaway believing adventure and a better life waited on the open road.

Then, from the hall, someone cried "Bingo" and finished driving in her despondency.

Shaking her head at the cash Dale would reap from that single word of advertising, Helen stuffed her hands into the pockets of her shorts and started strolling down the promenade.  She kept her gait slow, knowing she had a few hours to kill before the bus station opened and the first departure to anywhere other than where she'd already been or worse, where she'd started from, left for the day.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Open Window - No. 323

Clutching the lantern beneath her woolen cape, Prudence scurried through the opening in the stone wall framing her family’s farm and dashed along the main route leading to the Putnam’s.  Once covered in moon-cast shade, she lifted the flickering light out from under her cloak.  The yellow flames illuminated the smashed deer trail meandering off the wider path and fading in the undergrowth.

Pausing at the fork, Prudence stared into the darkness.  An owl hooted from distance branches and the wind tossed summer-flushed leaves. 

After a shudder at the sudden gust, she took a quick glance at the paneled house visible through the foliage, its squared edges silhouetted against the starry night sky.  Each window remained black, and only a faint trickle of smoke drifted out of the central chimney. 

Through the solid walls, however, she imagined her three brothers and two little sisters asleep, and the pinched faces of her parents as they tossed in pained slumber.

“Let them rest,” she whispered, the sentiment half order to her hesitant feet and half prayer.

Firming her grasp on the lantern, she started down the side trail at a trot.

The shadows danced as she made her way by lush oaks and maples, down the valley's first slope and along a small tributary of water her older brother Malcolm had named The Twig.  Up ahead, where the hill rose, she spied the dents of caves sunk into the granite.  She heard giggling and spotted wavering figures stretched upon the stone by other flames. 

Hitching her petticoats, Prudence exposed her leather shoes and stockings, and started her ascent.  Leaves crushed under her soles and she grasped onto lower branches to aid her climb.  As she neared, the laughter died beneath someone’s hushing.

"It's me," whispered Prudence. 

Coming to the cave's entrance, she held her hand against her waistcoat atop her fluttering stomach, and fought to catch her breath. 

Someone who sounded like Ruth coughed and her voice emerged in a melodious base.  "Speak your name so we may know the truth."

Another round of shushing quieted a rise of giggles.

Prudence straightened, pushed back the hood of her cape to reveal her face and coif, and raised the lantern.  The light fell upon her flushed cheeks.  "It’s me, Prudence Woods."

"Oh, let her in, Ruth," said Aphra.

"We have to be careful," said Ruth.

Aphra came to the cave's mouth shaking her head.  She grinned, showing off her best feature: an almost straight set of teeth. 

"Come inside, Pru."

Prudence handed over the lantern to the shorter girl.  Ducking to keep her head from brushing the rocky ceiling, she followed Aphra’s waddle into the shallow shelter and past Ruth who stood with her hands on her hips. 

“It’s almost time,” said Ruth.

"I didn't mean to be so late," said Prudence.  "My mother’s cold is keeping father awake.  I’ve been making pot of tea after pot of tea to soothe her cough so he can sleep and get enough rest so his leg can finally heal."  She covered a yawn with her hand.  "They’ve just gone to bed."

"Don't worry," said Aphra.  She placed the lantern onto the cave's floor beside two others, and knelt by the far wall.  Plucking a brush from a clay pot, she dabbed at a thin patch in the ebony oil coating the stone.  “We’re all set.”

Frowning, Prudence unbuckled her cloak's wooden toggle and folded the cape over her arm.  "Really?  It looks like a mess to me."

"That's because you don't know what you're doing,” said Ruth.  She strode in and passed a reverent hand over the painted surface but kept her fingers from touching the slick.

Prudence cocked an eyebrow.  "And you do?"

"Tichia showed me how."

"Tichia's gone."

"Don't be so sure."

Prudence jumped when the familiar voice seemed to resonate from the stones.  Goosebumps covered her skin and she clutched her cape close.


"You were always a disbelieving child," said Tichia.

This time Prudence turned and spotted the hunchback woman at the cave's entrance where she stood, bent and angled like one of the old apple trees in the Putnam’s orchard.  With her similarly gnarled cane in hand, Tichia shuffled forward.  Her limp left leg dragged along, making her gait a steady stump, stump, and scrape.

"Sit, sit," said Aphra. 

She jumped to her feet and snatched Prudence's cloak.  Making a quick cushion on the ground before the rock’s face, she smoothed the wrinkles from the wool.

"And you are a sweet one," said Tichia. 

Aphra smiled when the older woman patted her head, her own white coif covering her frazzled mousy plait. 

With the help of Aphra’s stubby arm, Tichia worked herself onto the cloak.  She crossed her legs beneath skirts of stitched rags and laid her cane across her lap. 

Ruth dropped down beside her, eyes locked on the oiled wall.  "How does it look?"

Tichia tipped her head and passed her hand over the circular smear, the movement more graceful and ponderous than Ruth's had been earlier.  Slowly, the older woman began to nod. 

"You've listened well."

Prudence stopped behind them and hugged her arms.  "Then it'll work?"

"There is only one way to tell."  Tichia beckoned and Ruth collected one of the lanterns.  With a sweep of her fingers she motioned for the light to be set before her.  As if fueled by fresh oil, the flame flickered and rose until it licked the wrought iron lid and caused blackened smoke to coil toward the ceiling.

"The time," said Tichia, dropping her voice to a hushed low, "is nearing."  She opened one of the lantern’s glass sides, allowing more light upon the stone.  "You should prepare yourselves."

With a hoot and clap of her hands, Aphra settled on Tichia's other side. She adjusted the fall of her apron over her dull-gray petticoats and seemed to fight to stay still.

Ruth, on the other hand, settled like winter's first flake.  She mimicked Tichia's crossed legged stance, set her hands on her knees, and lifted her chin.

Prudence’s stomach rolled.  “Are…are you sure about this?”

Tichia bowed her head.  “You’re scared?”

“Maybe,” whispered Prudence.

“Of what?”  Ruth scowled over her shoulder.  “It won’t hurt.”

“What if it doesn’t work?”  Prudence stared at the oil.  “What if it does and I don’t like what I see?” 

“Life is nothing more than moments of bravery,” whispered Tichia.  “Sit if you like, go if you wish.  You must make your choice.”

“It’ll be fun,” said Aphra with an eager bounce.  She patted the stone behind her and beamed an encouraging smile.  “You’ve already come all this way.  Stay.”

Prudence nibbled on her thumbnail and glanced at the cave’s entrance.  The dark oval gaped like a giant’s maw and she quivered at the thought of being swallowed.  Pivoting back to the trio, she tried to claim a sliver of Tichia’s calm, Ruth’s belief, and Aphra’s sense of anticipation. She knelt on the spot Aphra had indicated and kept her eyes locked on the oiled wall.  Within her chest, her heart fluttered like a hummingbird’s wing.

Around her though, silence fell while the air warmed with the lanterns’ light and their collective body heat. 

Prudence's legs began to tingle and then numb.  She fought against looking over her shoulder, wary dawn might have arrived and taken away her chance.  A deeper part of her feared looking might steal her courage and send her racing back along the deer trail and into the safety of her bed. 

Before one won her over, Tichia finally whispered, "Now we begin.”

She drew a stem from the coiled mass of silvery hair and weeds lumped upon her head.  Dipping the tip into the lantern's flame, she brought the ember end to the oil's edge.  Before putting the two together, she started humming a jagged tune.  The rhythm reminded Prudence of her little brother Ethan clanging pots in the kitchen.  But when the older woman cycled through the pattern, Ruth, and then Aphra joined in. 

Wetting her throat with a gulp, Prudence added her voice to the song. 

The notes seemed to soak into the rock and the very earth carried on even when Tichia spoke.

"Hold your questions close, my sweets.”

Ceasing her hum, Prudence gripped her petticoats and set her gaze on the wall.  In her mind she repeated the question she had wanted to answer, the one she had worried over and discussed with Aphra, then Ruth and then with Tichia when the older woman revealed this spell, the one that promised to open windows into the future.

Will Mama and Papa get better?

Her mother had been sick for so long, Prudence barely remembered her well and Papa hadn’t stood under his own power since last winter’s snows had fallen and he’d taken that tumble on the ice.  Now Mama lay withering and Papa needed Thomas to help him about the house while as the eldest, she knew Malcolm stewed in silence about how to pay their dues.  With all her cooking, caring and cleaning, she couldn’t recall a time she didn’t feel bone weary, and what it felt like to be carefree and hopeful about what the day might bring. 

She held on to her question, on her need to know how it might turn out, assuming Aphra would be asking about a husband and Ruth about fame or adventure.  Both seemed somehow too childish, too selfish to waste on such magical energies, whether they really could be conjured or were simply Tichia’s make believe. 

If this spell worked, reasoned Prudence, my question should be the one answered.

And so, when Tichia touched the flame to the painted smear, Prudence put all her concentration on to pleading for an answer, to seeing what the future might hold for her and for her family. 

The midnight oil caught and carried a sapphire tinge toward the ceiling.  The fire, however, remained trapped in the prepared circle and instead of heat, a crisp coolness radiated.  Tendrils of wintery breath washed out with the smoke and Prudence shivered when they wrapped around her as snug as an icy blanket.  The scent of mildew and pine burrowed into her nose and cast a sudden serenity over her agitated thoughts. 

In the lull, she repeated her question again and again.  She heard the words in her ears as if they fell from her lips and they blossomed until they filled her skull and seemed about to leak out the tips of her hair.  She shut her eyes, riding on the wave of her query’s chant.

"No," whispered Tichia, the older woman’s voice sounding from deep within Prudence’s chest, "you must look, you must see."

Tightening her grip on her petticoats, Prudence willed herself to peer into the oil-fueled fire.  Her eyes opened as slow as sun rise, but once she stared at the flames, she found herself sinking into the stone’s depths.  Shadows and light played with the shape and size of the cavern, of the forms of Aprha, Tichia and Ruth, shrinking and warping until only the wall remained in view.

Shades of blue swirled and then other colors swam in the ebony pool, mixing together into bodies and landscapes.  Prudence spied the empty bed waiting for her back at home, and then the scene expanded to show her the house itself.  A fresh swath of paint coated the planks, their whitewash glowing in an autumnal sun.  Tall stalks of corn and wheat filled the eastern fields while green rows lined the kitchen's garden with fattened squash and tomatoes, lettuce and the leaves of half a dozen vegetables swelling under the earth. Laughter blended with the chipper call of birds soaring overhead and a cluster of children poured from the front door.  Floating like a cloud, Prudence followed them around the house.  They chased one another beneath a line of laundry drying in the wind and gentle rays.  A linen sheet billowed and Prudence spied a woman.

Her heart leaped.

Mother, she thought.

She noted the woman’s rounded belly, plump with child and then her darker hair, dark like her fathers, dark like hers.  The woman pulled a clothespin from her apron and straightened from her bend over a mounded basket.  With a hand to her mouth, she called to the romping brood. Her lips moved but Prudence failed to hear the words.  One child spun, however, and pointed toward the path leading to the Putnam’s, where she knew the break existed in the stone wall. 

Following the child’s tiny finger, Prudence spied three men, one gray-haired, a second middle-aged and a third younger and coming to the older men’s shoulders.  They strode out of the shade and the middle-aged one waved. A haze obscured the details of their faces, but a flicker of clarity seemed to hint at familiar features.

Prudence squinted and thought of rubbing her eyes, but her hands seemed tied.  She looked down and discovered she had no hands, no body.  The blades of grass beneath her hovering consciousness blended together, their green fading into cooler shades of gray and merging with the darker soil underneath.  Edges began to blur and Prudence found herself falling into the darkness and then facing the oil smear and dimming flames.

"Oh my...." Aphra sniffed and covered her face with her hands.  Her curved back began to shake with her quiet sobs.

Meanwhile, Ruth, her mouth hanging open, reached out, almost touching the glistening slick.

Suddenly exhausted, Prudence drooped forward, catching herself with hands on the cold rock.  The jarring impact rattled up her arms.  In her mind, her thoughts whirled with the images, the smells, the scents from the vision.

"What…”  She licked her lips, working her tongue back into motion.  “What was that?" 

Her voice filled the cave and echoed when no one replied.  A part of her, however, already knew the answer.


Looking up, Prudence found the spot where the older woman had been vacant, her cloak-cushion smooth as if no one had ever sat.  Glancing right and left, she discovered stone, damp and bare.  She spun and sought the mouth of the cave. 

Morning light trickled through tree branches, creating columns in the fog.  Birds chirped and she sensed the sun rising and the world rousing as it would every day including one where she’d be pinning laundry in the backyard, flanked by her own children, and waiting for her son, her husband, and her father to return.