Tiny Pink Flowers: A Very Short Story in Verse

June 1, 2018 by

 

He wakes up to her scream, a jolt and his legs
kicking. He sees the pink flowered sheet
spilling over him like lava falling off the bed.
Hundreds of printed flowers falling.

He watches the fingernails of his own hand
dig deep furrows across the bottom sheet.
His hand drops over the side. The walls,
the ceiling shimmer with light.

In the doorway, a red, hard-set face with a gun.
The gun jerks. He hears the second shot, her gasp.
He sees the blue steel hole fixed in a drifting halo.
He smells gun smoke. The mattress wobbles.

Her buttocks rise up beside the bed. The top sheet
folds together as she pulls it back around her body.
She lurches forward, pink flowers trailing behind.
The hands of the gunman tremble.

The revolver extends before him, held with
both hands, still aiming. His feet are apart.
Her shoulders are bare above the sheet. Red oozes
through pink. Her voice is faint — “Bobby?”

As she turns back, the man’s face twists into grief.
The pink flowered sheet is ribboned red.
Muscles tighten in her arms and legs.
She staggers. Her eyes open. Her lips part.

From outside down the hall, a cuckoo calls three.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Window Light. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Window Light. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

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You Can’t Believe What Happened

May 29, 2018 by

 

You Can't Believe What Happened - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

You Can’t Believe What Happened – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

 

a) I wanted to see if I could use Granddad’s straight razor without having a strop to sharpen it. Apparently not.

b) Worst zit since high school. Could be flesh-eating bacteria!

c) Curling injury. I was sweeping so hard I lost my balance and poked myself with the end of the broom.

d) You should see the other side where the bullet came out!

e) I thought, I’ll just stand back and watch this bar fight. Then some guy throws wild and nails me with a bottle.

 

OK, I needed a prop to justify calling off work to go to the beach. Now I’m stuck with it.

Reconstructive Criticism: Not Just for Poets

May 23, 2018 by

 

When the Inquisitor comes you will be
in bed with your poems
He will summon you by banging pipes
in your dreams

His hands will knead your shoulders like clay
and he will speak as a just god 

     Who is the you of your poems?
     Why is he drowning in dreams?
     Why is he listening to stones? 

He will circumcise your excess with a pen

He will re-form your point of view
and when he leaves you will be he

 

First published in Mostly Maine.

 

At Palace Playland. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

At Palace Playland. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Bringing Home Our Dead: A Recovery Team Travels through Time

May 11, 2018 by


That morning, the rescue and recovery team’s hired truck left the dry wadi they had been following and wound up a trail to the top of a rocky ridge. Far off on the shrubby plains below they saw the skyline of the city called Tel-on-the-Plains.

“I don’t see any vehicles on the plains,” said Stan.

“No,” said Paul, “and by the end of the twentieth century, Tel must have had an electric line.”

Their driver stopped so his brother could climb up to man the machine gun mounted behind the truck’s cab.

Paul and his teammates were riding under a canvas in the truck’s bed. They were tired and sore from two days of bad shocks and the desert heat. The four men strapped on their sidearms as the driver let out the clutch and the truck descended onto the plains.

“I want this to be quick in and quick out!” announced Stan.

Paul looked closely at Stan. Not just his jaw was set. All the muscles in his body were tight. Stan reminded him of the drawn whipcord on a crossbow. He remembered the ones their escorts had used during the team’s mission to Genoa. Stan was intent on his goal and eager to act. He had always been that way, even when they were cadets.

Steve, the team’s linguist, looked old and tired. He was. This was his last mission before retirement. He was also sad, with the sadness of a man who has lost too many friends over too many years.

The fourth man, Andrew, was new to the team. He had been transferred into Rescue and Recovery from Personnel Records, to cover losses. He was a big guy and very fit, but the way he pulled in his arms and legs said he did not want to be there. He already had the start of a twitching tick below his left eye.

While his teammates studied the distant city, Paul closed his eyes to relax.

#

It was late November and just after dark. Paul’s parents led him, each taking a hand into the boarded-up house where his grandmother was waiting.

“You will be safe here,” his father told him.

The house had no electricity, no heat. Paul’s grandmother patted his head. Paul knew from her touch she was sick.

“We will come back when we can,” Paul’s mother told him. “No matter what happens, we love you, Paul.” His mother and father both hugged him goodbye, then hurried out to their car.

“I still have some food,” his grandmother reassured him.

Paul watched his parents’ car slip away through the dark with its lights off. He knew he would never see them, never again.

#

As the team’s truck approached Tel, it passed through cluster after cluster of low mounds, the tombs of Tel’s ancient dead. From among the mounds the team could not see the city. But Paul felt the presence of Tel’s dead in their tombs as little waves of pressure washing over him. Waves from lives lived long ago. The waves from these buried dead seemed like faint murmurs of content.

The little waves reminded Paul of very different waves. On a mission to the Dutch East Indies in 1883, the team had experienced the eruption and final explosion of Krakatoa. That explosion was the loudest sound humans have ever experienced. But it was not the massive explosion he remembered most. It was the tiny human waves he had felt among the final ripples from Krakatoa’s explosion. Little waves of fear and pain from thousands upon thousands of lost lives. A murmur of anguished death and soul’s discontent.

Krakatoa’s explosion continued below human hearing as a pressure wave in the air, moving silently around and around the earth three and a half times. Continuing after 100,000 people of the Indonesian coastline had tried to flee inland. After they had been caught, swallowed and drowned by the tsunamis. After their bodies had been left in trees or buried under wreckage or pulled back out to sea by the retreating flood.

The displaced dead. Left to float for months among the hungry gulls and the tsunamis’ debris. Only 36,000 people were identified in history. The rest were lost. Whole villages dead and scattered, unnamed, forgotten. The uncounted dead, never to be brought home.

Now, as they left the mounds, the city of Tel grew before them behind its ten-foot stone wall. Beyond the wall, they saw rows of adobe buildings rising up to the top of the steeply sloping tel. Beneath the mound on which the current buildings sat, Paul could feel the layered ruins upon ruins of the city’s ancient past. Broken stones, crumbled adobe, rotted wood. Layer on layer down to the holes for the posts that once supported the nomadic founders’ tents. The team’s driver stopped before the narrow gates. As the team’s intuitive, Paul was overwhelmed by the city’s heaviness and its age, and its otherness. He felt no kindred thoughts or feelings.

Stan, Andrew, and Paul jumped out and helped Steve climb over the truck’s gate. The four men stretched, and looked around. Their driver propped up the truck’s rusty hood with his baton and shifted his rifle back on his shoulder to look inside. His brother stayed with the machine gun. From his position behind the gun, the brother looked down at the faint distortions in the air that he knew to be the four men. Then he spit out his spent khat and muttered something in a local dialect of Arabic that Paul could not understand.

Steve shuddered and looked away. Already at 10 a.m. the sand under the men’s boots was as hot as the truck’s smoking manifold. No one approached them or spoke or even looked at them. All around them, the people of Tel were living a normal day. The team’s armed arrival in their world an apparent non-event.

#

When his grandmother returned from the city, Paul was waiting at the door. Christmas had almost come and it was snowing. She looked at him and she knew that he knew.

“Yes, Paul, your mother and father have passed on. I am so sorry, son! They wanted to find a new home and come back for you, but these are dangerous times.”

#

Moving past the men and in or out of the city were groups of half-starved donkeys and camels driven by tall, thin people with wrapped faces. An intense babel of human and animal voices mixed with the buzzing of flies.

“Shit!” said Stan, “This place doesn’t even look like the right century. It seems to be the right place. It could be the right reality. But it sure isn’t 1995.”

Andrew gave Stan a sick-looking smile. “Well, Stan, you definitely picked the wrong costume for the ball.” Andrew looked back into the bed of the truck. Paul knew he wanted to hop back in and leave.

Stan scowled. “What’s your read, Paul?”

“No kindred thoughts or feelings. If our people are here, we are probably doing pure recovery.”

“They could have put themselves into a dreamless trance,” said Steve.

“Maybe, Steve,” said Stan. “Why aren’t these people responding to the truck’s presence?”

“If we have changed times,” said Paul, “the encapsulizer in your backpack will have encapsuled the truck and the two brothers in their base reality and time, just as it did us when we came to their reality in 1995. The people of Tel will see barely a trace of them, just as the brothers can barely see a trace of us without a filter.”

“But why did the time change?” demanded Andrew. “And if it is no longer 1995 where we are now, how do we get back to our temporary bridge home!?” Andrew’s eye was twitching like an earthworm attacked by ants.

“We’ll deal with de-capsulating ourselves when we make it out of here!” barked Stan. “We have a recovery to complete. Having an invisible truck will only make it easier.”

It had been a year in Pre-Event time since the sudden onset of spacetime turbulence had cut off all travel and communication between Op Support and its embedded operations in alternate realities. The rescue and recovery teams were quickly assembled and began their work. But forming temporary bridges to other worlds and times was difficult and the results were uncertain. The intelligence outpost at Tel was already distressed by unexplained time anomalies before the turbulence arrived. With little chance of the outpost’s survival, Op Planning had given it a low priority during triage.

“Janet’s carrier transmission stopped months ago,” Andrew said. “It could take all day to find the right adobe from just this hologram.” He waved the hologram at the maze of buildings before them, “What is going to make this building even recognizable? We can’t look for Janet’s Kawasaki parked in front!”

The other men studied the image of the station house, circa 1995, and turned it through its full range. Then they looked at the world around them.

“We know it was near the city’s center in 1995, on a plaza,” said Steve.

“The station house would look the same to us,” Paul said, “if its encapsulizer is still working. The people of Tel can’t see it so it should be empty.”

“But everything around it could morph completely through time,” said Andrew. “The plaza might even be gone!”

“Stop whining, Andrew!” said Stan. “Let’s go find the damned building.”

The four men adjusted their packs and holsters and walked off on foot.

#

“Grandma?” Paul asked, “can we go to see Mom and Dad, like we did Granddad?”

“No, too many are dying, Paul. No one cares for the dead.”

“We should bring them home.”

“They are in heaven. They are thinking of you, but they cannot come back. Someday we will all gather in heaven, Paul. Your parents. Granddad. My parents too. All of us will finally be home.”

Paul again followed his parents’ car with his mind, but his search ended with a burned out shell in a snow-covered and empty lot. His mind did not reach heaven.

#

Adobe brick walls crowded in on narrow streets. No one looked at the men or swerved aside. Paul felt out of place but almost invisible.  Still he was sure the people of Tel were watching their traces, listening even as they seemed only to chat of their lives.

“Steve!” said Stan, glaring at the people around him. “What is all this chatter?”

“Don’t know. They could be speaking an obscure dialect of Arabic I haven’t encountered. It sounds more like an older Aramaic language. I don’t see any sign of a mosque.”

#

“God and heaven, Grandma, do they really exist?”

“They must exist, Paul. Otherwise, life would be too terrible.”

#

At times Paul caught glimpses of people sniffing like dogs at the team from around corners and through open windows. Neither Stan nor Steve noticed. Andrew did. Paul could see Andrew’s hands trembling.


The four men followed the flow of overloaded animals and people for an hour until they found a side street that emptied through a slit into a crowded plaza.

At the far end, Stan spotted a dark space between two jutting buildings. Set well back in the dark was a smaller building. “That looks like the place.”

They walked into the shadow and looked around. Paul noticed it felt less hot and was almost quiet.

The men walked up to the door. Steve had worked with Janet years before. He stepped forward and knocked hopefully at the door, then opened it part way. The air in the opening was cool as a refrigerator’s. He spoke softly into the darkness, “Janet?”

Stan stepped up and kicked the door open. “Janet!”

They saw no lights, no windows. No one answered. Just silence, and a stale, earthy smell. Paul took a flashlight from his pack and they all stepped inside. Andrew closed the door. It was actually cold.

Against the far wall a seated figure leaned stiffly on a pile of long bags. “Janet?” Steve asked, “are you sick?”

Stan walked up with a light. “Shit,” he mumbled. She was dead. She had been dead a long time. The skin looked mummified. Andrew set up a portable lamp from his pack. Paul noticed a group of flies clustered on the ceiling above the bags. They must have been resting, holding vigil in that cold darkness long before the men arrived. Now they woke up with the fresh air and the light. They began circling.

#

Paul and his grandmother were lying next to each other under all their blankets and clothing. It was a still, clear January night and very cold. Paul’s grandmother was snoring, but Paul was shivering and still wide awake.

“Paul?” He heard his mother’s voice and he looked around the room. It was her voice exactly. The tone had been full of concern. But he could see nothing, and he heard nothing more.

#

The men opened the twelve bags and found the others wrapped inside. Some had been sent shortly before Janet arrived. The men knew them. Of the older ones they knew nothing. They were all mummified. Andrew scanned their chip implants. Then Paul and Steve wrapped Janet like the others and zipped her in a bag from Steve’s pack. Stan removed the memory from the station’s transmitter for analysis.

“We need to get out now!” said Andrew. “Our scent is already in the air. It is probably drifting everywhere.”

“We have a job to do,” said Stan.

“Sure,” said Andrew, “but, Stan, time is unstable here. And we don’t know why!”

Paul heard the louder buzzing of the flies. Thirteen people were a lot to bring back. It would be very difficult with only one truck and a temporary bridge home. But they needed to do it. They couldn’t find peace here among the people of Tel. Paul looked up to find Steve watching him.

Steve seemed to be reading his thoughts, and he nodded.

At one end of the room, a cold draft blew out of the open end of a four-foot titanium tube. Paul studied the entry tube that only last year had been the mouth of the station’s traversable bridge to home. Then the spacetime turbulence had reached earth and destroyed all fixed bridges through spacetime. Now the tube was just a hole that led to a broken link opening somewhere far away into what felt like a frozen Icelandic version of Hell. Faint cracking sounds could be heard through the conduit, like the movement of ice. The cold draft passed through the dark room like a wind in a cave.

“We’ll get both gurneys from the truck,” said Stan. “We can transport all of them out of here before sunset and start them on their way to those Dr. Frankensteins at Restoration Services.”

“They do need to come home,” sighed Steve.

“Right, Steve. You can have Janet back for your retirement dinner.”

Yes, Paul thought, Restoration Services might restore life to some of these mummies. They would probably succeed in giving their bodies new life, in making them useful workers again. They could even restore their characteristic thoughts and feelings from their mental profiles, and reload their memories from backups of their mind data in Personnel Records. But talking to restored people was never the same. It was like talking to an AI avatar. Something essential was missing. The important thing, Paul thought, was to bring all of them home.

The four men trudged back through streets empty in the midday sun. Hungry dogs came out from under carts and followed Andrew at a distance. He kept looking back at them and mumbling.

“Where did everyone go?” asked Steve.

“It’s hot out!” barked Stan. “Haven’t you noticed?”

“Yes,” said Paul, “but I don’t even hear their chatter in the buildings.”

“The truck is gone!” shouted Andrew.

Not even its tracks were left in the sand. A searing wind blew in across the desert and it drew the moisture from their skin. They were all suddenly weak. Steve collapsed to his knees, vomiting in the sand.

“The truck didn’t have an encapsulizer,” said Paul. “It was only encapsuled for the time we arrived. If we have shifted time again, it is still back when we left it. And we have been re-encapsuled for a new time.”

“We have to get out!” said Andrew. “We can grab some camels and ride back along the wadi.”

“You can’t ride a camel,” said Stan.

“I’ll try!”

“Not in this wind!”

“We will have to return to the station house,” said Paul.

“Shit!” said Stan. “That’s enough puking, Steve. Let’s go!”

#

That morning Paul’s grandmother had walked off through the snow to find help in the city. Paul was afraid. All the nerves of his body tingled in the cold. By sunset she had not returned nor did she return that night.

In the morning Paul put on all his clothes and pulled out the plastic toboggan sled he had found in the shed. He followed his grandmother’s tracks down the road. The tracks stopped by an orchard and she was sitting there against a tree.

“Grandma?” Paul said, even though he knew she could not speak. Paul tugged her frozen body onto the sled and pulled her back to the house.

#

They saw, they heard no people, no animals in the streets. Just wind. And, in sheltered spots, they saw ghost lines rising through the air, shimmering from the heat. Sand had blown around the doors and in through the broken windows. Everywhere outside lay bleached, weathered carts and tools and bones. Inside, dirt-covered tables and chairs had collapsed onto floors in rooms long abandoned to shadows.

Back inside the station, Paul could hear sharp breaking sounds through the conduit. The air suddenly became much colder and a few gusts of snow blew into the room. His mind followed the sounds back to their source. A time fault! Breaks in the local fabric of spacetime could shift the mouth of the conduit in time. Such local stresses must have developed ahead of the main event. They would have been the source of the time anomalies that vexed the outpost before the general turbulence arrived.

The four men sat down and huddled against the bundles in the cold. Steve looked sick and sad. Andrew looked blank, almost comatose. Stan entered the team’s final status report. He had no way to send it home, but he locked on the transmitter’s carrier signal to serve as a beacon should anyone come looking for them. Despite the cold, the flies circled and bumped against them in the wind. Paul counted thirteen flies. Their combined buzzing was a chaos of frantic little voices.

Op Support might send another recovery team, Paul thought, if their algorithms could relocate this reality of Tel in time. If they came, the transmitter’s carrier wave would help locate the station house, but it would only last a few months.

“What does that mean?” asked Stan. The display on the encapsulizer read “Wait Mode Level 5.” They had all heard of Wait Mode, but none of them had experienced its levels.

#

“He’s skinny but he seems healthy, and he talks intelligently for a kid his age.”

As he studied Paul, the captain rubbed the arm above his missing hand.

“He may have a gift. We’ll keep this boy alive,” he told the other officers. “Implant an I.D. chip and set up a cot for him among our cadets.”

#

All they could do was wait in the cold and dark. They must wait to be brought home.

Paul’s tongue was already dry as it moved in and out of his mouth. He tried chasing flakes of snow through the air, but the few he caught didn’t help. Paul’s eyes ached as they swerved about the room and then came to rest looking down on the men from the ceiling. Sixteen flies had settled around him on the ceiling, and below four leaning figures were slumped among the bags.

I must be inside Wait Mode, Paul thought. All the flies around him had gone still.

Wait. We wait on the floor and on the ceiling. It is all we can do … but we are very dry and cold.

This dark is so very cold.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Desert Scene circa 1960. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

Desert Scene circa 1960. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

A Quiet Man: Someone You May Know

May 4, 2018 by

 

He’s somewhere with you in a crowd
walking along
perhaps beside you

thinking 

What the doctor gave him
turned his urine orange

If he were a braggart 

      He could startle old men in courthouse johns
      He could tell weeping women he has given them
            disease
      Believers could come to him to bathe and be
            healed 

But he is a quiet man
He will piss in pop bottles
to leave on the steps 

for your children

 

First published in Cottonwood Review’s Open House.

 

Rock City in Mid 1950s - Photo by Bernie Smetzer

Rock City in mid 1950s. Photo by Bernie Smetzer

Old Man of the Road

April 27, 2018 by

 

At dusk, an old man walks by these country houses.
Sometimes, as children lie in bed, they hear
the distant crunch of his feet in gravel.  Over
and over, but muffled, of course, out on the road.
Impossible to hear except on a warm spring night
when the house is quiet and the windows open
and the summer insects are yet to be born.
Then sometimes again in Indian summer. 

I used to hear his footsteps on our road.
Old man of evening.  Old man of ragged clothing.
I imagined him walking into the dark, never stopping,
but glancing sometimes at my window, wondering
what small child lived there.

 

First published in Kansas Quarterly.

 

Remains of Farm Wagon Behind Our House - photo by Mike Smetzer

Remains of Farm Wagon Behind My Parents’ House – photo by Mike Smetzer

Blonde with Fingers

April 23, 2018 by

 

In the rain a passing car and in the car
          one blonde head
and a white hand waving. Who? I wonder.
          Who is waving?

A red car, maroon red. One blonde, smiling head.
          A waving hand,
fingers spread. Slishing north. Who’s the girl
          with that blonde head?

The rain that ripples down the street
          at the corners ripples feet.
The drops that dripple from my ears
          trickle down my underwear.

My heart is damp and soaked with care,
          but my mind can only stare
After that girl with that blonde hair
          waving those fingers in the air.

 

First published in Mostly Maine.

 

Vera Lisa on a T-Bird - photo kept by Vera Lisa (Metastasio) Smetzer

Vera Lisa on a T-Bird

The One Who Saw God: A Short Story for Spring

April 20, 2018 by

 

Mrs. Kenworthy’s cows watched the heads of a dozen members of The Goodmen’s Benevolence Society bouncing like balloons above the iron-hard seats of the retired school bus. The Goodmen were hurrying ahead of the storm on their way down the gravel shortcut that led to Waterwheel Estates, the small new development where many of them lived.

It was Tom, staring out into the gloom of the dark afternoon sky, who first saw the tornado. It was tiny in the distant south. He couldn’t figure it out at first, and he wondered if it were only a dense body of rain held aloft in the clouds. But as he watched, the distant churning moved down to the earth, though its point of contact was hidden by the hills and trees that formed the horizon.

Tom’s announcement came with all the drama of a hiccup and just before the punch line of Bud’s joke about Brittany Jones, the local TV anchorwoman. “Isn’t that a tornado?” he asked. The crowd of men looked first at him with mild irritation, paused, then looked with a rush at the windows, following his gaze into the distance.

“My God! It is a tornado!” said Jack. “How far off do you think it is?”

“Can’t be more than three miles” Bud reflected, “or we’d never be able to see it against that dark sky.” General agreement followed. “Where do you think it’s going, Elias?” someone asked, and everyone turned to listen to the old man’s opinion.

Elias lived on what was left of his small farm. For fifty years, he had kept the farm going by working full time on a section gang repairing the railroads in northwestern Indiana. That was before most of the lines were abandoned and the tracks pulled up. For ten years now he had lived retired and virtually alone with his paralyzed wife in a warped old shack of a house in the little woods next to the development.

The ground on which the development sat had been his corn field, but now he sat for hours on his steps and watched his old barn slowly fall to ruin. Everyone knew Elias, and respected his knowledge of area geography; but not much was ever said to him and even less was ever heard from him, though the Goodmen sometimes carried him along on their baseball outings as an easy gesture toward their charitable mission.

The wrinkles tightened around the old man’s eyes as he watched the cloud. “It will be in Palmer in a minute,” he said, almost to himself.

“There’ll be the Devil to pay in Palmer,” announced Bud. “Damn glad I don’t live there!”

“Shouldn’t we call someone to warn them.” suggested Jack. Jack had a social conscious, which led him into more volunteer work than his wife, or his fellow Goodmen, could appreciate. “What will people think of us if we don’t even call?”

“Do you even know anyone in Palmer, Jack?” Bud responded. “Anyway, I guess the people in Palmer will know in a minute if they don’t know now.” He lit a Camel and looked out with eager interest at the storm. Tom remembered how much Bud enjoyed watching contact sports. Physical drama brought him to life.

Jack dialed 911 on his cell. No connection.

Elias sat deep in thought. Tom wondered if he were praying. Elias was known to be the oldest member of the little country church that served the remaining farmers in the area. The people of the development didn’t go there, although it was only a couple miles away. They went to large stained-glass churches in the nearby cities, or else they slept late.

Elias never swore or drank and was known to read the Bible daily. People respected him, in a patronizing sort of way. They thought about all those years he had taken care of his wife instead of putting her into a nursing home. It was sobering. It was a little frightening, too, all those days and nights living with a woman who could only make cries like an animal to tell him of her moods and needs. People couldn’t imagine what the world looked like inside his habitual and watchful silence.

Not that they worried about it. Elias was a small rock in the stream of their lives. Their conversations and projects bubbled around him without them really noticing his presence. If he didn’t function as a part of their society, he didn’t disrupt their society either. They just would once in a while notice that he was there.

The bus finally stopped at the entrance of Elias’s long driveway, and he began moving toward the door. “Hey, you’ve got a CB receiver, don’t you, Elias? Maybe we could pick up something on the air.” Tom did not want to go onto Elias’s land or into his house with the paralyzed wife. He wanted to go home to his wife and daughter.

“Come on, Tom!” ordered Bud. “You’re the one who called this thing,” and Bud pulled him out of his seat.

Five of the men piled out behind Elias and filed down the gravel path that curved around the head of a gully to the old single-story house hidden in the trees. Jack tried his cell again. Nothing. Following at the end of the group, Tom noticed how firm the ground was underneath the grass in the middle of the driveway. He felt like he was walking on pumped muscle. In the trees the tornado could not be seen. The cluttered old woods was dense with tangled brush and decay. The tornado was like a dream among the gently rustling oaks, except for the blackness of the southern sky.

Tom couldn’t imagine the old woods on a sunny day. If sunlight ever penetrated the treetops, he felt the woods would vanish. The woods was a cold place, dark and menacing like the sky. Together they seemed to form a world far removed from his life in Waterwheel Estates.

Everything in the Estates was carefully packaged and maintained. The waterwheel was a fake. There wasn’t even a creek nearby. The hollow plastic wheel sat in an artificial pool at the entrance. An electric motor pumped water up a small pipe to fall onto the blades and make the wheel slowly turn. Everything at the Estates was diagrammed and easy to understand.

Tom put his hands in his pockets and hunched up his shoulders. He heard no birds. He saw no squirrels. Everything in the woods was unnaturally silent. It reminded him of the Flying Dutchman, the phantom ship, tattered, with no living crew, that appeared to doomed sailors. What sins could Elias have committed, he wondered, that he and his wife should be the sole dwellers in this woods. But Tom felt his own inadequacy here more clearly than Elias’s remoteness. He had never been comfortable in nature, at least outside a city park. In a park you would have pleasant little squirrels to watch, and someone would have cleaned up all these dead limbs and brush.

Maybe Elias liked the woods. Tom couldn’t imagine why. There was nothing to do here. You couldn’t picnic in the brush and weeds. You could sit on a fallen log, he supposed, and watch the mushrooms grow. Could you eat the wild grapes that wound their vines up into the trees? Could you even reach them? There were patches of what Bud had told him were Mayapples. Bud said inside they were sweet and slimy and full of seeds. The thought of sucking out their pulp made him shudder. If there were worms, Bud said, you could spit them out with the seeds. What could Elias do in a woods like this?

Yet it seemed the right place for him. Both were old and decayed, with no real usefulness anymore. Both were forbiddingly silent and ghostly, deep but at the same time opaque. Like the black sky to the south, he thought, and he wondered if all the invisible churning and violence within those clouds had some parallel within Elias’s woods, inert and silent as it seemed. Perhaps a slow violence was moving just beneath the leaves, a violence in the ground to match the violence in the clouds, only much slower, too slow for men to notice who moved only on its surface, and harder to define or measure.

As they approached the house, Tom felt his skin tighten. He thought the house disliked him. The old house in the old woods seemed like a setting in some fearful fairy tale. What was he doing coming here with these men? The best answer he could give was that he was doing what he had always done – follow someone else’s plan. He hadn’t wanted to move out to the development. All his life he had lived in suburbs close to Chicago, comfortably surrounded by people like himself. But his wife wanted to raise their daughter in the country, so he had brought them to the development and now commuted forty miles to work.

Mrs. Kenworthy met the men at the door. She had been watching Elias’s wife, as she had off and on for twenty years, but now she wanted to hurry back to her farm before the storm.

The men stumbled their way through the tools and old clothes that were heaped about the narrow porch, walked through the kitchen and took various places leaning or sitting about the tiny living room where Elias had an old 23-channel CB receiver. Most of the men had never been in the house before, and the grunts and cries of his speechless wife in the next room made them glance about uneasily. An old leather-bound Bible lay open to Revelations on the table surrounded by bent nails, a coffee cup, and odd pieces of machinery and wire. The CB was on a shelf with old books and emergency candles.

After a few seconds of scanning they picked up a conversation.

“. . . she went right through Palmer and headed east. It looks like the end of the world over there. Go ahead.”

“Have you been able to pick up anything about the people?”

“I heard on the sheriff’s channel that someone reported six dead already, a couple of them children. I wonder . . .”

“It is Jehovah,” Elias whispered to himself.

“What?” asked Tom, but he was cut off by Bud.

“Six dead! Did you hear that? And in a village only three miles from here! Do you think we’ll make the national news? God, I’m glad I didn’t buy that house near Palmer!” Bud was always proud of his foresight.

“It is Jehovah,” said Elias, calmly but with force. “He has come to claim us.”

Everyone looked at Elias. Tom first tried to put his hands into his pockets, then folded them together and pressed them between his knees. He felt uncomfortable in this decayed house. He didn’t really know Elias, and he would have gladly gone home, if he could have slipped past Bud blocking his way to the door. The old man’s assertion frightened him almost as much as the tornado. What kind of man was he?

Jack reached over and began scanning the channels again.

“I wonder where that bugger’s going now,” Jack worried.

“The guy said it was going east,” replied Bud. “What will it hit east of Palmer, Elias?”

“Jehovah won’t forget us,” muttered Elias. Then, glancing sideways at Bud, he added, “It will hit nothing east of Palmer.”

A crack in the east window began to whistle softly and a branch began rubbing against the side of the house. “The wind has shifted around,” said Jack.

“Hey now, Elias, there must be something east of Palmer,” urged Bud, his eyes bright with enthusiasm. “What about that little place called Hurlbert? Isn’t that east of Palmer? They were both right along the railroad.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard of a Hurlbert,” said Jack. “It must be pretty small.”

“Yeah, they used to load cattle there. What do you think about Hurlbert, Elias?”

Elias said nothing. He sat listening, with one hand clenched on the table. Tom thought Elias looked like a prophet, and he felt as if he himself were among the worshippers of some false god about to be consumed by fire out of heaven.

He found himself staring at Elias. The old man’s eyes had never seemed so clear and full of life. But it was a life he could not fathom. It made him want to run. Elias wasn’t a man like him. He seemed an apparition conjured out of the forest, a spirit with which he had no way to deal. Tom felt like one of the children of Bethel must have felt when they saw the she-bears of Elisha coming out of the woods to maul them. He chewed hard on his lip and glanced quickly about the room.

“Hey, listen to this!” Jack had found something on the CB.

“. . . just about that corner. Then the damned thing turned back around. Hell, I think it’s heading back past Palmer but further north. I can still see it from my car. I’m gonna follow, if the road’s clear. Say you know it looks like it may hit that little Waterwheel development north of Palmer. . . .”

“Shit!” said Jack, “He said it’s heading here.” Everyone looked out the window, but all they could see were the gently swaying trees at the side of the house.

“Jehovah has come!” announced Elias, and he rose up beside the table. All the men poured through the house and spilled like marbles into the front yard. About a half mile before them in the sky the tornado loomed, twisting, weaving back and forth above them like a black cobra with a shifting hood of clouds.

“I’m going home!” cried Tom.

“My God! There are no basements in the development!” gasped Jack. “And we can’t even get home before it hits!”

Jack and another man grabbed Tom and held him back.

“Elias must have a cellar,” cried Bud.

The men turned to see Elias braced in his doorway with his wife in a wheelchair and a double-barreled shotgun in his hands: “Jehovah has come and we must meet Him.”

Christ, man! You can’t leave us out here to die,” pleaded Bud. “Quick, let’s get in the cellar.”

“No! You must give yourself to God! We shall meet Him on the hilltop.”

Bud stepped toward Elias, but the old man cocked both hammers and pointed the gun into his face. Bud backed off and turned to look at the approaching funnel. They all looked at the black twisting cloud before them. The roar came to them through the gently rustling leaves. They could not see the impact as it entered the development on the far side, but debris flew in the air above the tree line.

“Let’s get in the gully!” cried Bud.

The men broke and ran for the wooded ravine. Behind them they could hear Elias calling, “No! Jehovah has called you! Stand up with the elect!”

Tom and the others slipped down the eroded sides and hesitated among the trees at the bottom. Decades of rains had washed out much of the soil beneath the old trees. They stood there like giant, ruined pillars of the old forest, raised above the ground on arthritic roots that twisted everywhere into the clay. Some of the trees had broken down. Many leaned into each other or rested against the gully’s side.

“Get inside the roots!” cried Jack, and each man ran to a tree. As the other men squirmed their way beneath their trees, Tom heard a slow creaking above him in the wind. He looked up to see a tree with half its branches dead, leaning like an old slate tombstone neglected in a pioneer graveyard. He imagined its roots waking up around him, twisting like snakes, strangling his body, tightening, squeezing, choking off his throat and guts.

Tom ran up the side of the gully toward his house. “I’m going to my family!” he cried, more frightened by the gully than the storm.

“Tom, come back!” cried Jack. “You can’t make it.” But Tom reached the top and disappeared running toward the development.

The cloud came to the gully’s edge, roaring, black, angry, raging up to heaven, up into the dark sickly green richness of the sky, oversaturated with icy rain and power and what seemed a hatred of mankind. Then the men’s ears popped and, looking up, they saw someone flying in the sky.

*

Tom no longer felt the impact of the wind and debris. He felt quiet and at peace. Tom relaxed from his fetal position and opened his eyes. As he looked down he saw the world below circling round and round him. All kinds of things were moving with him in the air but no longer hitting him since all were moving together at the same speed. In the distance, he saw the ruins of the development. Nothing remained standing.

Then he saw Elias far below blowing like a rag across the fields. His wife’s wheelchair tumbled behind. In the gully the trees still writhed in their death agony, twisting around on their convulsing roots like berserk peasants treading grapes to wine. Tom thought he saw the wine seeping out from some of the roots. Inside the vortex Tom saw the development’s waterwheel spinning wildly like a dreidel, a little wheel spinning in the air within the giant wheel of the vortex.

Then Tom was carried further aloft through the clouds and up into the thunderhead above. The tornado must have passed over a lake because Tom found himself drenched with the smell of the marina and surrounded with a multitude of fish. A bluegill was suspended next to his face, its mouth slowly opening and closing. The updraft lifted him up and up.

Near the top of the thunderhead, tremendous and continuous lightning witnessed nature’s power to the clouds and earth below. A cloud tunnel suddenly opened above Tom, and looking into the upper sky far above the storm, Tom beheld the serene and solemn face of God. He was looking to the west, toward the sunset, looking intently at something far away from the dying people and fish and trees below. Then the cloud tunnel closed with cold, green clouds, and an intense downdraft of driving hail battered Tom’s body back toward the earth.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

“Grackle’s Ascension,” a precursor to this story, was published in Little Balkans Review. It is a different treatment of the same situation.

 

Angel with the Book - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Angel with the Book – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

 

Wasp on the Window Glass

April 18, 2018 by

 

I saw a wasp on the window glass today
a cold wet uncomfortable day 

The wasp hung unmoving in the cold
waiting for the sun to heat its blood 

Snappy yellow legs  Its body striped with black
glass-drawn and fresh but silent as an empty circus 

It did at times begin to clean itself
look active   come to life 

Yet it did not fly
Again it spread its legs upon the glass

 

First published in Cottonwood (formerly Cottonwood Review).

 

Waiting - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Waiting – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

First Attempt at Kindle Direct Publishing

April 13, 2018 by

My first attempt at publishing on Kindle is now live and for sale at a grand price of 99¢. It is a chapbook-length collection of brief political essays and epiphanies.

Overall, I am happy with how it came out, although the contents page from the draft appears to have gotten lost. I also thought I could select the parts to be shown under the Look Inside feature but apparently not so.

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders & George Armstrong Custer

Link to Book