The Totem

by ivanhope - March 9th, 2011

"Haida Slate Carvings" by Edward S Curtis, 1907
[Haida Slate Carvings, by Edward S Curtis, 1907]

She chewed quietly at the pencil. From time to time, between bursts of frenetic key banging, she would yank the gnarled wood down from its familiar perch to scrawl some illegible note across the cluttered page. Screen, keyboard, pencil and paper, they were all tied together in a sort of circulatory system for the same primitive, hot-birthing creature: her story.

It had been this way, the same process, the same components, since that very first publication. She could still recall herself sitting, bathing in the warm glow of the magazine’s electronic acceptance for so long that her face began to flush. That’s when she noticed the pencil for the first time. It was brand new then, and only barely gnawed from its first story. It smiled back at her, matching her euphoria with its own hungry indentations. It was love at first bite.

A dozen written journeys soon followed, all of them chewed down into the welcome wooden body of her creative partner. Each shared piece had found its place in magazine, chapbook or e-fiction. It was miraculous, stupefying. Magical. Sitting at her desk, firing up the computer for another go, she knew she would never put the pencil down again.

Until that day when her totem-self snapped in two. It happened as she approached the climax of her most recent story: our heroine chained to a guillotine, no escape in sight. The blade descends. And. The pencil splintered between her teeth. Her mouth filled with the potent mix of blood and stale graphite. She spat the shrapnel into the wastebasket; was forced to stare down at her mangled accomplice. She wanted to cry, but that felt too silly. Too contrived.

She finished the story with an empty mouth. Her tongue felt dry and the prose came out flaccid. She told herself it was in her head. She sent the story out anyway. Rejection.

She tried every sort of pencil after that. All colors, designs, and lead grades. She even tried a mechanical version. Nothing. Pens. Quills. It was no use. The words would no longer sink past the surface of the paper. Her fingers could not press them onto the screen so that they held.

Finally, desperately, she took the fractured limbs of her old friend and ground them up in a sharpener. All that remained was a pouch of grey-tinged sawdust. She would use it as snuff. Conjure the old magic a lip-full at a time. It tasted bitter as it mixed with her saliva and ran rough streaks down her throat.

And so she writes now. Even dictating these strange events to you. She chews slowly, lovingly, on her old charm; hoping the magic will resurface. Knowing it is all in her head. And no longer on the paper. Nor screen.

[originally published as a contest winner for CoolStuff4Writers.com]

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Smoke at both ends

by ivanhope - February 15th, 2011

"Still life with rooster" by Louis Ducos du Hauron
[Still life with rooster, by Louis Ducos du Hauron, 1869]

Lost and profound, the two sit amidst the wide spray of chatchky half-memories. The boy can’t take his eyes off the beak: the brightest splash of sunshine yellow he’s ever seen. The elder speaks over his circling thoughts. She’s talking about porcelain eyes and lacework hems. It’s the bird that has the better story to tell. Perched on the shelf, just behind her whispy glome of errant hair, all color and curve and in your face spirit. It stands out from the line of fragile ballerinas and cottage families like a good blast of cigar smoke caught between layers of saccharine perfume.

“Where’d that one come from?” he asks, cutting her off mid-anecdote. Now he’ll never know which is her preferred style of miniature button.

“Oh, the spring dancer. That’s one of my favorites. I found her–”

“No, the bird,” again he slices with an embarrassing lack of delicacy. But it’s crept under his nerves. He has come to the home for a week now; his community service is almost up. He has to know.

“The rooster?” she composes herself enough to ask. There’s a sudden flush to her; the eyes are still murky, but now with a whiff of dream.

“That was my first pipe,” the woman says, finally. The playful vitality of her voice stealing the boy’s breath.

She stares at him, her challenge of a smile spanning the three-score years that separate them.

The glass rooster stands bright and proud, crowing over them both.

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Anticipation

by ivanhope - January 30th, 2011

"Come In" by Katie Towers
[Come In, by Katie Tower, 2010]

The room was dark. It was too dark to see the covers; too dark to sleep.

“You ever notice your ears twitch when something unexpected happens?”

“What?”

“You know, like when a loud bang makes your face just sort of jerk real tight. It’s weird.”

She was silent. It made the darkness insecure. He began to wonder if he wasn’t the weird one.

“You mean that’s never happened to you?”

“No.”

“Maybe it’s my glasses. Could the weight of the frames make my ears more sensitive?”

“Maybe.”

He was concerned now. His ears were forgotten. The thought entered his head that the bed was empty beside him. She was gone; she had left a tape recorder in her place. Voice activated, it spat out a series of one-word answers in response to his noise. The theory must be tested.

“Am I bonkers?”

“What?”

“Answer the question.”

“No.”

His mind tripped through the dark. Was he asleep or was this real? There was something wrong with him. It was too dark. He couldn’t breath. Was his heart beating? He couldn’t hear it.

“Am I dying?”

“Maybe.”

It was too much for him. He flung himself across the bed and throttled the mattress. It was empty. He was alone. He bunched the covers around him, knotting them into restraints. This was death; his self-imposed prison of darkness and paranoia.

A blinding light appeared through the door.

“You’re bonkers,” she said and left the room.

The door slammed. His ears didn’t flinch.

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Homebound

by ivanhope - December 15th, 2010

"Grass at night" by Elliot Moore
[Grass at Night, by Elliot Moore, 2007]

The engine idled beneath him, its occasional cough and sputter mirroring the hiccups in his own head. The lights were on inside the house. His mom would still be up, watching the late show; his dad likely passed out like a drunken uncle on the couch. There was still time to change his mind. Still time to go back to the airport and pretend none of this was necessary.

“Yo, buddy, you want to close this thing out or keep the meter running?” the cab driver jarred him out of his decision-making.

“Here,” Henry pulled the plastic from his wallet and offered it through a slot in the Plexiglas partition.

“You ain’t got no cash?” the cabby asked with no small accusation.

Henry shook his head and the man snatched his credit card. As the driver mumbled under his breath, Henry pulled his things together. He hadn’t brought much; his saddlebag was packed with exactly one change of clothes, a single book of Kipling, and the small sundry of hygienics you might expect. He wrapped the scarf around the neck of his coat and hoisted the bag over his shoulder. Outside the vehicle, the cold night wind felt clean against his flushed features.

The cabby shoved the card and crumpled receipt out the window.

“Thanks,” Henry whispered to the spiral of exhaust the taxi left in its wake.

He stood there, at the head of the long driveway, waiting for something to happen. The gaze of the stars from above; the layered shriek of a siren in the distance; the cold babble of wind over his collar; none of it was enough to dissuade the inevitable. He’d made this long trip for one reason only. A singular, unavoidable responsibility.

The frozen grass crunched beneath his feet. It was still quieter than the click of the pavement, he supposed. He reached the front doorway, casting about for fast fading distractions. All that he remained was a heavy wooden door ripe for the knocking.

The light in the front window went out then. His mother must have finished with the late show. He thought he heard the tired tromp of feet shuffling up a staircase. Well, he’d missed his window. A real tragedy. He was already considering which hotel he should take for the night; where he was least likely to be recognized.

He turned his back to the door and escaped across the pavement. The light click of his heels snapped along to the staccato beat of his heart.

“Who’s there?” the ragged, swollen voice barked out from the suddenly open doorway behind him. It was a voice that had just woken, likely been shaken awake by his mother’s frightened hands.

Henry turned slowly, clearing his throat to stave off the darkness. “Hey, Dad.”

The flip of a switch; the blaze of an exterior flood lamp. Henry closed his eyes against the wash of blinding, white incandescence.

“No,” came the high, strangled shriek of his mother.

“You son of a—” came the low snarl of his father’s surprise.

They both rushed him then; his mother in her worn, peach robe, his father in a t-shirt and flannel boxers. He thought to run, to turn and bolt and never look back. Clearly he’d outpace these two; neither wore shoes and the hard, cold ground would swallow up their toes as he disappeared back into the open-ended night.

Instead, he stood his ground. He studied their anguished features as they reached for him. The pain of his mother was ugly and raw, her face distorted into a sob that reached up from her stomach and made no sound. The anger of his father trembled from elbow to gnarled fingertips; his reach had a clear weight to it, a heavy mix of desperate clutch and lunging violence.

They fell upon him in an awkward press of bodies and emotion. It was all too much for his skittish frame and the three of them fell over in a tangle of bathrobe and frost.

They all lay there for a moment, sharing a heavy breath and taking in the surreal beauty of the twinkling night sky.

“You’re alive,” his mother said, at last. “It’s really you.”

“Yes,” he nodded with an embarrassed smile.

“Damn you,” his father huffed.

I love you, too, Henry thought to himself and realized he actually meant it.

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Scaring crows

by ivanhope - October 22nd, 2010

Falling Leaf by Rosh
[Falling Leaf, by Rosh, 2009]

I knew a scarecrow once. He was not afraid of crows. Not at all; though they smelled poorly, and hacked away viciously, and infested him with lice and mites. He didn’t mind the violence. He overlooked their sundry ills. For you see they kept him company, as they were not afraid of him.

Within his daily gaze there stood a little puddle of a pond. In the summer it produced frogs in abundance as well as flies for them to eat. In the fall its few fish grew sluggish. By winter it was frozen through within an inch of its shallow bottom. I happen to know the scarecrow cared a great deal for these fish. He would number them around Hallow’s Eve and that number stayed with him through the slow drift of snow and creeping ice that called itself winter.

When the thaw came crawling cross the ground, waking tiny swishing tails to the challenge of a crisping water, the scarecrow’s number would often prove too much. He would let the old tally drift off with the fresh breath of spring. He knew the crows would soon return.

And there were always more crows than he could count.

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Streaks

by ivanhope - April 6th, 2010


[Man at window, Haymarket Theater by Robert James Lucas, 1925]

He stared through the perfectly unstreaked surface. Beyond lay the vacuum of night; between he could see his reflection trapped within one-quarter inch of glass. The blackness made his eyes look hollow, his open mouth capable of swallowing a midnight’s worth of regret. The old scar pulsed fresh. Pink and swollen, it was over his left eye now: the mark of her lipstick. Away from the glass the pale white jag remained on the right side, where her ring had met his face.

He took a sip of both drinks, catching his own empty eye and nodding to his health. On the near side of the glass his lip passed a string of oozing red into the tumbler. He watched himself from the far side and set the neat bourbon down. Looking in he didn’t like what he saw of the hotel room: a borrowed suitcase, half-empty; an unlined, plastic trashcan chocked with takeout; a bruised and weepy face that dared not hold his gaze.

“Here’s to you, lover boy.” One lidless eye winked atop the glass. She was waiting for him downstairs. He straightened his tie; he had a pair of rings in his jacket pocket. He’d had enough of these macabre reflections. She was the one. He knew that as well as he knew himself.

From the hotel room he watched himself snap his fingers, point up in the air and sashay out. He shut off the lamp and the reflection disappeared. The unstreaked midnight sky remained.

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The Lady and the Wolf

by ivanhope - November 18th, 2009

Dunham Massey by Christophe Furlong
[Dunham Massey, by Christopher Furlong, 2009]

There was a bug. A lady bug. She was the promise of life. She came in the time of flowers and first figs. She brought with her the dream of smiles and ruffled hair and laughter.

In the winter she was not to be found.

There was a wolf. A rabid wolf. He was the harbinger of death. He came in the coldest, darkest times. He fed upon the fear of each day’s change, and broken things, and words that were spit at the night.

By the coming of spring he had all but eaten himself.

It was a late frost the first and only time they met. Savage and silent, having slunk through the barren trees, he approached her within the long reach of his shadow. The lady was slowed by the cold, and clinging to the first brittle shoot of the season.

“I am hungry,” said the wolf, “and you have broken our arrangement. Why should I not snatch you up and lock you away in my belly?”

The lady was too weak to open her eyes. She nodded instead. “It is your right,” she agreed. “I am in trespass upon your last morn. If you wish to eat me, there is nothing to stop you.”

She clung to the slender blade of grass. He loped closer to her, frosting her back with his heavy breath.

“If I eat you now, this world will not bloom. If I devour your life, no life will remain to be chased in its proper season. This banquet you offer can only bring more hunger in time.”

“What you say is true,” the lady conceded.

“Then you have set me a trap, and I will not fall,” huffed the wolf and receded back into the shadows.

The morning sun rose higher and the night’s chill melted away. The first fruits were soon to take life again. When she had warmed, the lady bug flitted free of the shoot and rode away on the wind.

They never met again, the lady and the wolf. The wolf made sure of that.

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An Attempt

by ivanhope - November 14th, 2009

Reaching For Heaven Genesis 11 by Ruth Palmer
[Reaching for Heaven Genesis 11, by Ruth Palmer, 2009]

He tried.

Not once or twice. Not in passing, nor just for the show of the thing. He tried with the quiet, unflinching confidence of internal necessity: with certain fingers reaching after a thing that they must, at any cost, acquire. He tried with all he had.

And still, he failed.

He was made to kneel upon the remains of his broken promise. He had not enough left within him to express any anguish or grief. All such energies had been spent, if in vain. There was no more fuel to stoke a fire, neither for mourning nor for celebration.

And then, he realized.

The ground beneath him would have as willingly held his triumph as his failure. The totality of his resources spent, the result was beyond purchase. His travail, this moment’s attempt, was ended. The point of decision had past.

And so, he stood.

An opportunity had been lost, but that was all. The drive, the necessity, the inspiration: they all remained for him, ready to be assumed in each and every situation that would follow this singular — and so it would remain, no matter how many times it recurred — miss.

He tried again.

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Fading Together

by ivanhope - May 1st, 2009

Rust on White by Bruce Gunion
[Rust on White, by Bruce Gunion, 2009]

A splash of rust freckled her long waves of hair. Or maybe that was just the sun winking down at him, reminding of the deep red curls she once wore. Her talc white skin was not smooth, as it had been. Time had blanched her features with the same slow bleed that stole the flash of life from her hair. Only the tight curls and ringlets remained, a memory of vitality now lost within the maze of white and shadow.

She reached her hand out to his: one pattern of wrinkles searching another, crevices and grooves finding comfort as they eased into their familiar hold. He wondered how much of himself remained within her eyes. How much of the man she married was still there to study, and how much needed to be painted in with watercolor from the past. Once upon a time their eyes had been quite different. His an earthen brown, hers a flickering green. Somewhere along the laughing, crying, wonderfully awful march together they’d met at the same worn shade of grey.

It was a good place to meet, he decided. Like a Sunday afternoon spent reading together, or the warm mound of one body they created when making old love new again. A place of life wholly lived and love well used. It was their home, more so than any construct of mailing address or mortar foundation. It was a singularity that only existed between them. The sort of place that took both their looks to see: if either were to ever glance away, it would all just cease to be.

He seized his guts then and coughed out as much of the pain as he could. Through grunting tears he remained focused only on his wife.

“It will be alright,” he lied to her.
“I know it will,” and she really did.

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How’d That Get in There…?

by ivanhope - April 5th, 2009

Scott Eaton's Prometheus
[Digital Prometheus, by Scott Eaton, 2006]

They wanted a super-soldier. A thing of muscle and testosterone and unchecked aggression. They stirred him together in a deoxyribose cocktail: Frankenstein’s Prometheus unbound, one nucleus at a time, in a blender.

“Here’s Patton’s pinky toe”, one said. “Don’t forget Sun-Tzu’s wisdom tooth”, said another. They argued over the morality of including a hair from Hitler’s mustache. In the end they went with Dahmer’s incisor instead.

He emerged from the tank, naked and fully formed. His muscles indeed rippled. His testes were suitably gigantic. His face all afrown.

“What have you to say?”

He proceeded to hug them to death.

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