Fiction

 

Alun Nikis awoke to the screams of a young woman outside his hovel. He sat up, disoriented for a moment unsure if it had been but a dream. A very real cry of anguish brought him to his feet.

Firelight flickered through the gaps in his door and angry voices carried on the air. He distinguished one above all others, the harsh unforgiving voice of Toltan Miklos. Alarmed, Alun groped for his cape, for the night was chill, and for his stave, for the mood was nasty.

He was enraged at the scene that met him once outside. Toltan, and two of his cronies, were dragging Alyiona Roka across the ground by her hair and wrists, she kicking and screaming the whole way, toward a tree where three other men were stacking fagots round the bole while a lad held a lighted torch nearby. The smell of smoke and oil was heavy in the air. The entire scene was awash in the glow of Alyiona’s home ablaze, just yards away from his own.

“What is this? What is this?” Alun shouted, bringing his stave down sharply across the forearm of Hald Cureil. Hald barked out in pain, releasing his grip on Alyiona’s wrist. With that she twisted round and landed a sharp kick in the meaty part of Petof Kozma’s thigh. Petof retaliated with a swift kick to her side, which took most of the fight out of her.

Alun quickly jabbed the heavy end of his stave into the front of Petof’s knee. There was a sickening snap and Petof fell to the ground, roiling in pain.

The three men near the tree dropped their bundles and started toward Alun, but the way he flourished his stave gave them pause.

Toltan, still gripping Alyiona’s hair,  stood forward to assert his authority. He demanded Alun stand down. By now much of the village had come outdoors, gathered in cowed clutches, whispering behind their hands.

“This woman is a witch,” Toltan asserted, lifting his voice so all could hear. “We cannot abide having a witch among us.”

Alun moved to put the wall of his home behind him, keeping his staff at ready, keenly aware of where all of Toltan’s men stood, or lie.

“Why do you claim this, Toltan? What harm has Alyiona ever done you? Or anyone?” He too raised his voice so that all could hear. “She is a gentle and kind soul.”

“She has cursed my chickens,” Toltan countered. “Nine have died just this week.”

“You’re chickens have the flux,” Alun shouted back. “I told you to burn your coops last month. Did you? No. Now it is spread across the valley.”

“He’s one of them!” Toltan said, turning toward the crowd while pointing an accusing finger toward Alun. “He’s a witch too. A fornicator!”

“As are you,” Alun said, then casting a mischievous grin toward the villagers, “assuming you are the rightful sire of Rita’s spawn?”

This perhaps was too much, for as the crowd laughed, Toltan released Alyiona’s hair and lept toward Alun. Alun was too quick, burying the head of his stave in Toltan’s gut, then with a firm follow thru sending him reeling onto his back.

“Go home, Toltan, and take your jackals with you.” He cast an accusing eye at the henchmen. “This woman is no witch. Her father has died, and you just want to take her holdings. The only real evil in this village is you.”

Merd Guri stepped from the crowd to stand beside Alun, bearing no weapon save his sheer size. Then two women rushed forward and gathered Alyiona up, ushering her away.

Toltan labored to his feet, then sensing the mood of the crowd had turned against him, staggered away. Two of the wood gathers helped Petof up from the ground, his left leg almost useless, and followed in Toltan’s angry wake. As Toltan passed Imre, stil holding the torch, he yanked the brand from the lad and dashed it into the oil soaked wood.

“It’s a shame,” Alun said to Merd as they watched the seven men go, “to lose such a fine tree.”

~
© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

I work for a rather enlightened company. It has a gym on site, complete with an Olympic sized swimming pool and a jacuzzi. It’s a nice fringe benny, considering the price fitness centers charge these days. And it’s a lot more convenient, being right on site and being open 24 hours a day.

I used to try and work out right after work. But the gym is pretty crowded then (it’s the most popular time according to the attendant). Plus I soon leaned that I really just wanted to go home at the end of the day and found it harder and harder to get up the energy to face the weights and treadmill after a hard day at the office. So I dropped it for a while.

A recent glance at the scale told me that dropping the gym was a mistake. So I decided to try working out before the start of the day instead. It was hard to force myself up at 5am, but I found a predawn workout much preferable to a late afternoon one. And as a side bonus the gym is virtually abandoned at 6am. It’s usually just me and the attendant.

It’s so abandoned, in fact, that sometimes it gets kind of creepy. Occasionally I seem to catch some movement out of the corner of my eye, but when I look, no one is there. There is the occasional odd noise too. The sound of a door closing. The isolated clank of metal as if someone just set down the weights.

It got really creepy last week. I was in the shower and I could swear that someone was out in the gym using the weight machines. I could definitely hear the rhythmic clank clank of someone pressing iron. But when I dressed and went back out into the gym to leave, no one was there. It was dead still. As I went through the anteroom I asked Charlie, the attendant, who else was in the gym. He shook his head. “Just you, bud.” I started to object, but then shrugged and went on to work.

The next day I could have sworn I saw the door to the women’s locker room closing just as I got there. I went to the men’s and changed out, but found no one in the gym when I came back out. As I was about to go on and start my routine I heard a distinct splash from the pool. It is on the other side of the pass-through locker rooms, so I went back the way I had come and stepped out on the deck to the pool.

No one was there. There was only the gentle lapping of the water in the side gutters. Very odd.

I don’t use the pool myself. I’m not a good swimmer, and would never dream of swimming alone. Since I’m usually the only one there in the early morning the pool is out of the question for me. In a way I was relieved that no one was swimming. I would have been sort of worried about them the whole time. Face it, swimming solo is dangerous.

But no one was there, so I went back to the gym for my work out. Just as I reentered the gym the door to the anteroom was closing and I smiled. So that was it. Charlie was trying to spook me, the nasty trickster.

“So, we got ghosts?” I jibbed on the way out.

He just grinned. ‘Gotcha!’, I thought.

On Thursday last I was just getting ready to strip for my shower when I heard a splash out in the pool again. This time I was closer and there could be no doubt. I quit unlacing my sneakers and dashed to the pool entrance to catch the culprit red handed – or wet handed.

But there was no one there. “I’ll catch that bast…” Wait a minute. I took a few steps out onto the deck. Wet foot prints on concrete. Petite foot prints, like those of a woman. I glanced at the women’s locker room and scratched my head. Who the Hell was trying to spook me? I started to turn back to take my shower when I thought I saw something in the water. My heart jumped to my throat and I dashed down the side of the pool, yelling for help. There was a body in the water!

But as I drew near what I thought had been a body melted away into just some odd reflections from the overhead lights. I cringed and hoped Charlie had not heard my frantic cries for help. Damn, I was starting to scare myself!

As I gazed into the water someone gave me a shove from behind. I hurtled into the water in a panic. I was fully dressed, except for the left shoe, which came off and floated to the bottom. I’m a terrible swimmer in the first place and my wet clothes were dragging me down.

As I drifted towards the bottom of the pool I looked up and saw a woman standing poolside. I reached out, beseechingly, silently begging for help as I sucked water into my lungs. She dove in! She was going to save me. But as she approached I saw the bloated face of a dead woman. She grinned with lifeless eyes, her long hair twining around her face and shoulders. My vision went white then, and I blacked out.

The next thing I knew I was coughing up water and struggling under Charlie’s face. He dropped back and gave me room. He had indeed heard me cry out, but by the time he got there I was already in the water and flailing away. He had pulled me out with the dead-man’s pole and administered mouth-to-mouth, and just in time.

I’m told there was a woman that used do an early morning work out with the weights, and then do laps in the pool. She swam alone and drowned.

I still exercise in the mornings before work. I jog my neighborhood. You’ll never see me in a gym, any gym, ever again.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

The entire lab gathered round the small TV watching Omar Suleiman make the announcement, listening in disbelief to the CNN translation. People drifted away from Anwar Mahrous, casting furtive glances at the Senior Researcher of the small bio-tech company. His face was inches from the tiny screen.

“Go!” Anwar startled at the grasp of a hand on his shoulder, jerked upright to meet the concerned gaze of his boss. It was still hours before quitting time. “We can cover for you,” Mr. Perez said. “Get home to Mariam.” Anwar did not hesitate. He rushed to drop his notes off at his desk, pulled on his coat, and headed out to the icy parking lot.

It was unbelievable. Mubarak actually gone. His heart was nearly rent apart in a tumult of emotions; sheer disbelief that the revolution had actually succeeded, the sudden heart swell of joy, yet overarching dread – eight days now since he’d heard from his daughter-in-law, Hala, in Cairo. Nine since he’d seen his son, Kamal, run down on CNN by club wielding baltagiya on horseback in Tahrir Square.

Phone calls to Kamal’s mobile went unanswered. Likewise, they could not get through to Hala. He and Mariam had never spent such a miserable night together, wandering around the house in a half dazed stupor, stopping occasionally to rage in front of the TV. He called in to the lab the next day and was told he could stay home. They sat together on the sofa flipping from channel to channel hoping against hope to see some sign of their son or daughter-in-law. Finally around two in the afternoon his mobile chirped. It was Hala on the other end, crying, trying to talk over a very bad connection. It took some time for them to realize they were sobs of joy – Kamal was out of surgery. Kamal was alive.

Yes, I am sorry …lost my phone. I borrowed this one. …alled as soon as…ew anything. I can’t hear you. Yes, I’m OK. I … to go now. I’ll call again.

But she did not call again. It was now eight long miserable days since they had heard anything. Now, Mubarak was out, and the joy in his heart struggled with the pain.

He found Mariam standing in the living room, watching the celebration unfold before the world. There was no joy on her face as she scrutinized the crowds for a sign, any sign at all, of her son or Hala. Anwar went to her and they held each other in desperate support. “Have you heard anything?” he asked. Tight lipped, tears welling at her eyes, she simply shook her head.

He jumped when his mobile chirped. He nearly dropped it in his frantic grab, did not recognize the number but answered, held it to his ear. At first all he could hear was chanting, singing, celebration. Again the connection was very bad. Then his heart leapt when he heard Kamal’s voice on the other end.

“It’s done!” Kamal shouted over the noise. “Egypt is free!”

“It’s Kamal!” Mariam suddenly hunched over, then sank onto the sofa, her face suddenly awash in relief and tears. Anwar came and sat beside her.

“Where have you been?” he shouted into his phone, hoping Kamal could hear.

“I just got out of hospital,” Kamal shouted back. He said something else but it could not be heard over the poor connection.

“Why didn’t you call?”

“We lost our… using Rami’s. I called… I could.”

“What happened to you?”

“Hit on the head. Needed surgery. Don’t worry, I’m fine.” Praise God, the connection stayed good for that.

“How is Hala?”

There was a long pause. Anwar felt a knot form in his gut.

“I need to tell you,” Kamal shouted over the phone. “Been meaning to… crazy. You and mamma are going to be grandparents.” Anwar sucked in a huge breath, startled – tears started down his face. Mariam looked at him, concerned.

“They’re going to have a baby,” he managed to tell his wife. Her face shifted from concern to overwhelming joy.

“We are going to name her Tahrir.”

 

Eric glanced over his shoulder wishing the trees here were more dense. The rear grounds of St. Mary Catholic High School abutted woods he and Steve played in all their lives. There wasn’t a rabbit run or honeysuckle thicket they were not intimately familiar with. So when Kevin Murphy described the old sycamore tree near the school’s fence line they knew exactly which one he meant.

“Remember,” Kevin told them, “You have to get all the way up to the third big limb, then shinny out on it five or six feet. It forks there, so it’s easy to sit up.”

Eric licked his lips out of nervousness and glanced up at his friend. “Hurry up.”

Steve finally managed to haul himself up onto the first big bough. He never would have reached it without a boost from Eric. It had been a long time since he last climbed a tree, and his center of gravity had shifted substantially south since his younger days. Once he managed to haul himself onto the limb he laid there, hugging it, trying to force down his fear of heights.

Eric, always the taller and more wiry of the two, called up after his friend. “Dude, get going.”

Steve waved him off with one hand, but at last managed to sit up and shinny out onto the limb.

“I’ll let you pass me,” he called down. “You’re a better climber than me. I’ll just slow you down.”

The bell announcing the end of 5th period gym class rang, lending Eric a new sense of urgency. He leapt up, cupped his right hand into a hollow about eight feet off the ground, and began scrabbling with both feet. He managed to work himself upward until he was able to throw his left hand into the crook of the branch Steve sat upon. When he shifted his full weight to that arm so he could throw the right arm up the tendons in his wrists and forearm stretched so taut as to cause real pain. He failed to grab the branch and nearly fell but managed to hook it with a second Herculean effort. Then, to his surprise, he felt hands grab him just below the elbow and haul him upward. Somehow Steve had managed to turn himself around and lend a hand.

“Thanks man.” Eric sat in the crotch of the tree limb and caught his breath for a moment. “I almost fell.” Steve did not reply, still gasping from his efforts.

“I’m heading up. You’re coming, right?”

“I’m coming,” Steve assured him. “Go ahead, before it’s too late.”

“It’s easier from here on,” Eric encouraged. Once past the first high bough the limbs of the sycamore came out in a most obliging pattern.

“I know. Go on.”

Kevin told them that on warm days, like this one, the louvered windows of the old building were cranked wide open for ventilation. This afforded a young man perched in the third tier of the ancient sycamore a clear shot into the shower room of the all-girl high school. He said that’s why he was not at school last Wednesday – he had climbed the tree himself to check out the validity of the rumors. “It was so worth it.” Kevin winked, then sauntered off. 5th period on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was when Carla Ferguson, the best stacked girl in all Montgomery County, had gym class.

Eric hurried upward.

The third major branch shot out directly toward the high school gymnasium. Eric paused there and glanced down at his friend. Steve was making slow but steady progress upward. He briefly considered waiting, but chucked that idea with the thought of Carla Ferguson taking off for 6th period before he even got a peek. He started shinnying out, mentally noting that the fork Kevin told them about was more like ten or twelve feet out. He worried about Steve making it all the way out there.

His heart skipped a beat when a small limb he grabbed for leverage broke off in his hand. He let out a long slow breath and let the thing drop to the ground. “Don’t grab the little branches,” he called back to Steve. He formed a circle with his thumb and forefinger. “Make sure they’re at least this big.”

“Got it.”

Eric worked his way out by tucking his legs under the branch and scooting forward by using his hands. When he reached the fork he looked up with great expectations. The bell for 6th period still had not rung. As Kevin promised the louvers were fully open.

His eyes widened in horror. Instead of the girls shower room he was looking straight down into the office of Sister Karen Thomas. She still wore a referee whistle around her neck. His movement must have caught her eye for she looked up and spotted him before he could duck down. Then she lifted the receiver of the phone that sat on her desk.

“May Day, May Day!” Eric called out as loud as he dare. He began scooting backwards and bumped into Steve’s head.”

“Hey!”

“Abort! Abort! We’re dead man. She’s calling the cops.”

“Carla?

“No, not Carla. Sister Karen Thomas. Go on, get down.”

“What…”

“Just go.” Oh god, how they’d been set up. He was going to kill Kevin Murphy.

Steve ever so slowly worked his way back down the branch toward the tree trunk. Eric kept urging him on, which only made him more nervous, which in turn made him more cautious – and slower. Cold sweat was soaking Eric’s tee. His old man would kill him, ground him for a month, maybe two.

They were about half way down the tree when they heard footsteps in the leaf litter below. Officer Johnson, youth liaison officer at the public high school, stepped up to the bole of the tree and peered up, a smirk playing across his lips. “Good afternoon, boys.”

At the back entrance to the high school a group of nuns and girls stood, pointing and laughing. To his dismay Eric spotted Carla Ferguson among them, snickering behind her hand.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

I turn on my light and glance over at my sister. She doesn’t stir, already deep enough asleep that the sudden illumination didn’t register. Good. Just because I’m too excited to sleep doesn’t mean I can interrupt hers. I glance at my books, wondering which story would be best for taking my mind off presents. It is impossible to sleep with thoughts of new toys running through my head, so maybe a few pages of – a noise downstairs interrupts my thoughts and gives me a better idea.

I switch off the lamp and slide to the floor as quietly as possible. The door squeaks a bit as I opened it, but not enough to alert “Santa Clause.” I’ve suspected – no, known – for a while that Mom and Dad were the ones placing presents below the tree, but I’ve never caught them in the act. From the doorway of my room I can see the lights on downstairs. I don’t have to go far, just to the edge of the steps.

As quietly as possible I settle into the spot at the top of the stairs. The way the house is laid out is perfect. From my angle, I can see the pictures hanging along the wall going up the stairwell. More importantly, I can see the reflections of my parents stuffing stockings in the glass.

“These instructions are hard to read,” Dad complains as he puts a new play-set together. (Presents from “Santa” come unwrapped and set up: my guess is this is so my parents could avoid questions about Santa using the same wrapping paper as they did.) Mom laughs and leans down to help. I smile. I can’t see the toy from my position (at least I didn’t ruin the surprise!), but I can tell it’s big.

I sit and listen to Mom and Dad as they finish in the hallway and head into the living room to set up the wrapped presents around the tree. They’re enjoying themselves, eating the cookies we baked for “Santa.” Oh well, at least there are always some left over for us. From their conversation, I can tell they’re finishing up and planning on heading back upstairs. They’re in no hurry, so I take my time quietly sneaking back to bed.

I drift off happily, thinking of how much my parents seem to enjoy setting up Christmas as “Santa.” I won’t tell them I know. It’s best to let parents believe as long as possible.
~
© 2010 by Emelie E. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

I roll my lips together to even out the lipstick. Bistro – not exactly my shade. But Jane Crandel gave it to me last week and will be hurt if I don’t wear it to her Christmas party. Maybe I can add a scarf as an accent to mute the effect.

“You ready, dear?” Henry calls from downstairs. He’s been dressed for about a half-hour already, no doubt pacing by the door.

“Just a sec.” I root through my top drawer and find a scarf I think will do. I tie a loose knot and head down the stairs. Henry wanders into the hall from the kitchen and I stop dead in my tracks.

“What?” he asks, knowing something’s up.

“You’re not wearing that sweater?” I ask.

He looks down, surveying himself. “Why not? Red’s a Christmas color.”

He’s wearing a bright red shirt and a maroon sweater vest. I love the man dearly but he has no sense of fashion. This is the man who jogs in shorts, white trainers, and black socks.

“It’s not red,” I tell him. “It’s maroon. They don’t go together. Honestly.”

“They’re both reds.”

“You have that nice green sweater,” I say. “Why not change into that?”

“And look like an elf?”

“What says Christmas more than red and green?” I ask.

“No way.” But he comes up the stairs. As he works his way past me we exchange a quick kiss. “I just don’t get it,” he says.

No truer words were spoken. This is the man who tried to wear a brown shirt with khaki slacks to work – could have passed for a UPS driver. All he was missing was the name tag. A few minutes later he comes back down wearing a sleeveless black sweater.

“Does this go?” he asks.

I nod. Black goes with anything. How festive.

As we are heading up the walk to Jane’s I notice Henry’s left shoe is untied and point it out. He stops at the porch steps and hikes his cuff, revealing his yellow socks.

“Henry.”

“Yes, dear?”

“If your shoe comes untied this evening, don’t tie it in public.”

Jane comes to the door bedecked in red and green, looking remarkably like an elf.

 

Every other Sunday we all packed into the car, a behemoth maroon Chevy Impala (back when cars could easily be mistaken for battleships), and headed into the German immigrant neighborhood on the south-side of St. Louis. We all loved going to Grandma’s house – it meant homemade oatmeal cookies the size of saucers, or vanilla ice cream with Bosco chocolate syrup, or (if she was in the right mood and I made puppy dog eyes at her) maybe even both. I also liked the smell of the place – Grandpa smoked a pipe (though never while we were there), and the living room always carried the faint sweet smell of smokey cherries in the air. To this day the whiff of pipe smoke brings back fond memories.

Grandma and Grandpa had a ping pong table in the basement. I now suspect it was intended to keep the grandchildren preoccupied downstairs and out of their hair. Gramps also had an extensive workshop down there, with all manner of tools neatly hung on peg boards. The cuckoo clock hanging near the front door was built by Gramps himself, and kept perfect time. He also built my desk and small chair, both of which I have to this day. His tools fascinated me. I gazed at them with longing, for I was not allowed to touch them. Perhaps this explains my abiding love of woodworking.

We also were not allowed to touch Grandma’s bric-a-brac, which she had in abundance. She had a particular fancy for small ceramic figurines, some of which were missing appendages. I learned later that my cousin Walt (three years my elder) was responsible for the “no-touch” rule. Even with the rule in place Grandma stayed on high alert whenever Walt came for a visit.

Her most prized knickknacks were kept behind glass in her four-shelved curio. Here she kept her antique music box (which she would actually allow me to play if Walt wasn’t there), a pair of ceramic pointers, three white poodles on a golden chain, various dancing girls, a three-legged teak wood elephant (anatomy courtesy of Walt), an old leather flask, and the one thing in Grandma’s house that always scared the bejesus out of me – a shrunken head. If it weren’t for the Bosco and ice cream I think that head would have been enough to keep me away.

The head was the first thing I noticed when I walked in the front door. My eye was drawn to it even though I was determined not to look. It always seemed to be leering at me, daring me to approach. I would hug Grams and Gramps, then sort of scoot on by the curio on my way to the kitchen.

“He must want that Bosco,” Grandma would say, and follow me down the shotgun hallway. Inevitably before the evening was over I would be drawn back upstairs, back up the narrow hallway, and end up in front of the curio to stare at the head.

According to Walt, Grandpa brought it home from Borneo when he returned from the war. Walt knew all kinds of stuff I never knew, him being three years older and all, and I believed it all. He told me Gramps and his buddies were captured by Pygmy headhunters and that the head in the curio was no other than that of Sergeant Smith, whom the Pygmies cooked and ate. The very thought terrified me.

Grandma inevitably saw me sitting in front of the curio, and assuming she knew what fascinated me so, would come over, unlock the cabinet, and get out the music box. I always half expected the head to jump out at me when she opened the door. Needless to say, it never did. Thankfully the soothing tones of Brahms’s Lullaby somewhat settled my unease.

Years later, at a Thanksgiving dinner at our house, I broached the topic of Grandma’s shrunken head. The after dinner conversation fell quiet, all eyes on me, some perplexed, some bemused, Grandma thoroughly confused.

“You know,” I said. “That head sitting on the bottom shelf next to the old leather flask.”

Sudden understanding washed across Grandma’s face, then she burst out laughing, fit to be tied. I colored red to the roots.

“What on earth ever made you think it was a shrunken head?” she asked at last.

“Walt told me it was the head of Grandpa’s friend, Sergeant Smith, which they shrunk after they cooked and ate him.”

Smiles and sniggering danced across the room.

“Oh, sweetie,” Grandma said with a kind smile, “You should know better than to believe your cousin Walt.”

“Then it didn’t come from Borneo?”

“Oh, it came from the South Pacific,” she said. “But it isn’t a shrunken head.”

“Then what is it?” I asked.

“It’s me.”

I looked confused.

“Grandpa wasn’t always that good with wood, sweetie. I was pregnant with your momma when he got shipped overseas. He carved that head to be a likeness of me, which he carried throughout the war to remind him of the wife he had at home.” She flashed me a mostly toothless grin. “I look more like it all the time, don’t you think?”

 

5 Thing ThursdayYesterday I wrote about the 100 Books meme going around on Facebook. Sadly, I’ve only read 26 of them, which is nothing to write home about. But I think I deserve credit for reading some great books that were not on the “BBC” list. Today I add five books I’ve read that should be on the list. Feel free to agree or disagree, and to add your own forgotten five.

Here are mine:

The Iliad, and The Odyssey, by Homer: No, not Homer Simpson – Homer, the famous poet of ancient Greece. These are of course two separate books, but if the “BBC” can list all the Harry Potter series as one entry, then I can list these two classics by Homer under one banner. It give me more room to add more books. I have always been a fan of mythology, which the epics surrounding the Trojan War are steeped in. I think there is great value in reading old classics – they provide much of the common foundation for what is written (and often taken for granted) today.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain: This is the seminal work of arguably the seminal American author. How could it not be on the list of 100? Do you mean to tell me the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will have less of a lasting impact than The Da Vinci Code? Get real. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the Code, but in the hierarchy of works of merit there is no comparison. (I could pick many other books on the list that could be booted in deference to Huckleberry Finn rather than the Code). I first read this as a young boy and relished the adventure. It was not until later that I fully understood the deeper social commentary which was its whole point.

The Well At the World’s End, and The Wood Beyond the World, by William Morris: These two fantasy novels, dating from the 1890s, are fundamental building blocks in the realm of high fantasy. Tolkien, and many others, got inspiration from Morris and his works. I read these in the 1970s after reading The Lord of the Rings. While I still prefer Tolkien, I think these two are must reads both for fans of and authors in the fantasy genre.

The Once and Future King by T. H. White: Hello? BBC, ever hear of a little something called the Arthurian Legend? While T. H. White did not father the Arthurian legend he certainly cemented it into modern literary tradition. I’m a little stunned it does not appear on the Facebook meme, nor on any of the other lists of 100 I’ve looked at. (It did appear at place 198 on The Big Read.) The Little Prince beats out The Once and Future King? You have got to be kidding me.

So hard to pick #5 – I still have many that probably deserve mention. But I have to pick one.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott: I am ashamed to admit that Ivanhoe is one of those “classic” novels I avoided like the plague in my youth simply because it was a classic. In my rebellious youth I did not want to read things I was supposed to read – I was convinced they would be boring (which is why I did not truly discover Dickens until I was in my early 50s). Once I finally got around to reading Ivanhoe I kicked myself for having put it off. What a great story, and probably just a little dangerous for its time. Like Huck Finn, there was a lot of social commentary in this book. I highly recommend it.

There you have it. My five top picks of books that should have been in the Facebook meme but were left out. What do you think? Good choices? Bad? Do you have others to suggest? Let me know. I might discover some great new reads.
~jon

 

Eric lowered himself onto fragile knees and said a Hail Mary. He then paused, silently reflecting on the life of the man laying before him. George Winstom looked good – many of the ravishes of the past five years in the nursing home eliminated by the mortician’s skilled hand – they did good work here.

A gnarled hand came to rest on Eric’s shoulder, drawing him from his reverie. He glanced up to see Mitch gazing down at George, his gray eyes moist, thoughtful.

“He was a good man,” Mitch said.

Eric worked his way back to his feet. “Yes, he was.” The three, George, Mitch, and Eric all served on the USS Juneau during the Korean War. “But I still say he cheated at cards.” They both laughed – an old inside joke. At the time, the night before the shelling of Bokuko Ko, George quickly stashed the cards as the Chief came through. The Chief paused, wondering out loud what an Ace of Spades was doing on the floor under George’s seat. They’d ribbed him ever since.

“Come on,” Mitch said. “Vern Cooper and Larry Kinsella are over by the ferns.”

“Mike Harte?” Eric shot Mitch a worried look.

“Been and gone. His kids took him home around four.” Mitch shook his head and frowned. “Guy didn’t really know where he was, who we were. Sad.”

They joined the other two men seated by the ferns. Both Vern and Larry stood up to shake hands. Eric leaned down and gave Larry’s wife a hug.

“Don’t get up for me.”

Sandy smiled, replying she’d take him up on that offer and remained seated. Vern’s two girls – ha! girls – hovered nearby, as if expecting to be needed at any moment.

Mitch took a few minutes to point out folks in the room. The couple over there – that was George’s younger sister, Mary, and her husband… “Tom,” Larry prompted.

The crowd over yonder were all cousins, nephews, or some such relation. There was his youngest daughter, Marylou, or was it Marian? and her whole brood.

“Is she the lawyer?” Eric asked.

“Nope, that’d be the other daughter, Alison.” Mitch glanced around. “Don’t see her about just now, but she came in from New York.”

They heard a loud voice cut across the room, a tall sandy haired man, telling an off-color joke.

“That’s his son, Kevin. Kind of surprised he’s here.”

It was no secret George and Kevin were estranged – oil and water those two. When George had been lucid he often spoke of Kevin with great regret, but Eric had never met the man. Now, hearing his inappropriate joke, spoken too loudly at such a time and place – Eric disliked him immediately. But he managed, “Looks a lot like George, doesn’t he?”

They were reminiscing about the old days when they heard Kevin’s voice again.

“He was a liar,” Kevin said. “He told the nurse he was a fighter pilot during the Korean War. Pure bullshit. He was a Seaman, for God’s sake, on a cruiser. He never even saw combat.”

Mitch saw the fire in Eric’s eye but was too late in trying to grab his arm. Eric closed on Kevin in no time.

“That’s not true.” Kevin looked down at the old man confronting him. He furrowed his brow and started to open his mouth – his big fat mouth, Eric thought. “The Juneau saw plenty of combat,” Eric continued, not allowing the younger man to speak. “No, he wasn’t a Navy Airman – that’s the damned History Channel talking. An old man gets confused watching the War over and over again almost every day. But he was a damned fine Bosun’s Mate on a damned fine cruiser, son. Give your old man some credit.”

Mitch pulled Eric away.

“Who the hell was that?” Kevin asked.

It took some minutes for normal chatter to refill the room. Furtive glances continued to come their way for quite some time.

Eventually Alison and Mary Ellen (it was Mary Ellen) made their way around and chatted pleasantly for several minutes. Alison said her father had often spoken of them, and that she was pleased to meet them, forgetting they had all been at her wedding going on twenty-five years ago. She and Mary Ellen were pulled aside by new arrivals and wandered off as if nothing had happened. The four men all exchanged looks of relief.

“No hard feelings?” Mitch wondered aloud.

“I suppose,” Eric said.

Larry jerked his head toward the door. “He’s leaving.”

Eric turned in time to see the sandy mop of hair leave through the parlor door. He wondered if Kevin would be at the funeral tomorrow.

Eric certainly would be.
~
© 2010 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Min Lee pulled the bowstring back to full draw, concentrating on his target, a blackened X scrawled on a dead oak tree some fifty yards from the door of his hovel. He had worked on the bow for months, learning patience in his first two failed attempts. Lacking the tools of Master Ong’s workshop, with only his knife to work with, this bow was long in coming.

Since leaving Shan Shiaw in disgrace at midwinter Min Lee had lost considerable weight. While he found periodic work based on his purple sash, the symbol of an Adept, it was never enough to buy more than bare essentials. The coppers he earned for blessing homes, finding lost objects, or tending to sick children came few and far between. He was an unknown entity, unproven, therefore unable to command much in remuneration. He dare not stay in one area long enough to build a reputation. He decided hunting might serve him better than his skills as an Adept.

He closed his eyes and called up the image of the charcoal X in his mind’s eye. He let the world around him flow in, let his ears hear, his nose smell all that surrounded him. The dead oak tree seemed to call his name. He let the arrow fly.

His eyes sprang open before the arrow struck. He heard something, a horse, not far off.

Thwack!

The arrow landed true, dead center in the blackened X.

He ignored the twang of the vibrating shaft, concentrating on the sound of the approaching horse. A road ran nearby, just over the hill behind his home.

Had they found him?

He rushed into his hovel, emerged with a rough hide blanket. He tossed it over the entrance then hurriedly scattered leaves and bracken over it. His home was carved into the very hillside – concealing the entrance concealed his home.

He glanced at the oak tree. The arrow and foolish black X stood out like beacons for any passersby. He went to the tree. The steady clop of the horse’s hooves changed to a gallop, then stomping. It began to neigh frantically. He heard someone cry out.

He paused, hand on arrow, listening. There were thrashing sounds, screams from the horse. Min Lee dashed up the hill.

On the road below he saw a bear mauling a prostrate horse. A man on the ground was trapped under his mount, struggling to protect himself from the blows of the bear. Min Lee ran forward, waving his arms and shouting.

“Oy! Oy! Look at me!”

The bear swiped at the man, landing a heavy blow on his arm.

“Oy!” Min Lee stooped, picked up a stone, and threw it at the bear. That got her attention. The bear reared up, then dropped down to all fours and charged toward him.

Min Lee stood his ground, looking directly at the bear as it charged. He cleared his mind, concentrating on bear, on cub, on honey, on home. The bear paused, then reared again. On cub. On home. The bear shook her head. Cub. Home. The bear dropped down, shook her head, then shambled off into the woods.

Min Lee rushed to the horse and man trapped under it. The horse was broken, bleeding, rocking and kicking in agony. Its movements ground down on the man, threatening to kill him. Min Lee laid his hand on the horse’s head. “Sleep, friend.” He slowed the heart of the beast, calming it, stroked it with his free hand. The man beneath the animal passed out from the pain. “Sleep.” The animal’s heart slowed further, then stopped. When he was sure the horse was dead he turned his attention to the man.

~

It took three days for Min Lee to drag the one-man litter to the outskirts of Noat Dol, the closest village. While his broken bones were set properly, or at least to the best of Min Lee’s abilities, the man was growing feverish. The gashes inflicted by the bear were festering. He needed the attention of a proper healer.

On the rise of a hill Min Lee stopped dead in his tracks. Noat Dol lie before him, a small but bustling village. A market was underway. The colors of the Emperor flew above the town hall . The traveling Prefect was in town.

Min Lee saw some farmers working the fields to his right. He called for them.

“I can go no further,” he told his charge. The field workers set their tools aside and began toward them. “These men will take you the rest of the way.”

“Thank you, my friend. You saved my life.” He pressed a bag of coins into Min Lee’s hands.

Min Lee opened the bag and withdrew three silver coins, then handed the bag back.

“I want you to have it,” the man protested.

Min Lee shook his head. “Use it to pay the healer who actually saves your life, saves your arm, your leg. I simply staunched the bleeding.”

The man nodded his head.

As the farmers approached Min Lee stood and prepared to leave.

“I don’t even know your name,” the man said.

“Wen Ho,” Min Lee lied.

The farmers came up and looked at the two of them as if awaiting instruction. “This man was attacked by a bear. Take him into town, to your healer.” The two men looked back toward their field. Min Lee pressed a piece of silver into the hands of each man. The farmers agreed. One moved forward, the other to the rear, and stooped to lift the litter.

“So tell me, Wen Ho, why didn’t you simply shoot the bear?” the man asked as the farmers hoisted him up and adjusted to his weight.

Min Lee looked off toward the horizon, toward the home he would not be returning to. “She had a cub.”

With that Min Lee walked away.
~
© 2010 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

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