A SCRAP WRITTEN IN 2009

They hadn’t been out of college long, were at their first jobs and settled in enough to see that it was going to be a while before they began to rise through the ranks. They’d had a lot of plans but now everything was sort of on hold and they’d stopped even talking about marriage. The woman was beginning to think about her old dream of being a writer. The man wanted her to take cooking classes. She said not until they had a dishwasher.

Meals were the minimum necessary. They had a tendency to coffee a lot, but not really eat out. On this Sunday afternoon they were just sort of dawdling when one of them came across a story identifying the worst writing about sex. That was enough to sort of kick conversation up a bit.
“Okay”, he said. “You want to be a writer. Let’s play a little game. I’ll name a sexy singer, and then you compose a little scene to go with whoever it is.” She laughed. It sounded like fun.
“Louis Armstrong,” he said.
__________________

The bar is smoky, which is a little mysterious since tobacco is forbidden these days. There’s almost no light, just what reflects from the glass shelves of bottles against the bar mirror. The two of them are getting a little older now; it has been a long time ago that they . . . well. They smile and sip old Scotch, knowing that’s as far as it will go. They have obligations now. Loyalties. Vows to keep. Good jobs.
Right.
But their knees seek each other under the little table and they smile. It’s almost Christmas. It was nearer the Fourth of July last time. They were sweaty, even smelly, and loved it because it was the beloved’s skin and smell. A little fishy. A little grassy.
They inhale.
___________________
“I love it,” he said. Then he suggested Nina Simone.
_________________

It was college and they thought they were so smart, but also they were scared. So they played at being hip and put on sophisticated records in the little apartment in the top of a garage. It was getting towards graduation and they would go different directions. The afternoon sun pounded on the roof of the space, now furnished with whiskey boxes of things to be taken back home. They’d had to open a box to get the records out.
Home. A foreign place now. It was a temptation to run away, maybe to Mexico.
But no. They hold each other. They cry. They play the record over and over. They fall asleep in each other’s arms.
__________________________
By now he worries a little that these are both far in the future and merely remembering the past with some sweet regret. None are about now. He says, “Miles Davis.”
_____________________

He was black — she was not. it was a beach town and he picked her up, so easy, sooooo easy. She just wanted it. He didn’t care one way or the other, but it was interesting.
Then she was so . . . different, that he began to heat up. But as he began to spread and grow, she began to shrink. Her pink cheeks became a red face and her fluffy curls began to soak and stick. Her eyes flew open and wide, looking at him.
Then he knew what to do. He sat up and took her onto his lap like a little child, to be rocked and kissed until she relaxed. Then he laid her down with her head on the pillow and slipped into her so easy, soooooo easy.
________________________

“You’re good at this,” he said.
“Does it worry you?”
“Of course not, but maybe it’s time we went home.” They walked casually, holding hands, not really hurrying.
When they got home, he tried to take her in his arms, so he could kiss her neck. But she bent away from him. “No, no, no! I’ve got to write that stuff down before I forget it. Might be good enough to sell.” She headed into the little alcove where her computer was set up, ready to go.
“What have I done?” he thought. “I’d better think this through.”

THE GIRL WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH AN OCTOPUS

The aquarium tank for the big octopus was twenty feet on a side, very big for a little seaside establishment but not really big enough for a Giant Pacific Octopus. At least it might not offer enough growing room since they’ve been known to go to thirty feet. He was floating at the moment, spread out and almost touching all sides like a big pink silk parachute or parasol, except for the blob of a head with its two eyes and pumping gill slits. He had three hearts: one for each gill slit and one for his head. They weren’t working hard now, because he was just listening. Funny that humans had finally figured out that the whales were singing opera to each other, but still didn’t know about the wave lengths the octopuses used.
It used to be that sailors thought octopuses would come with their giant tentacles and rip up their ships, devour their crews, so that they were called Devilfish. But now one scientist said they ought to be called “primates of the sea” because of their brains. The fact that octos have blue blood, based on copper instead of iron (but then why does copper in their water kill them?) and that they have 500 million neurons, distributed throughout head and body, compared to the 100 billion neurons in human brains, just doesn’t compute to humans.

Dexterous as their tentacles are, suction cups made them alien; and they didn’t live long enough to evolve. At most they had a half-dozen years and some species only a year. They simply don’t have enough time to build experience and are too solitary to share a culture from one generation to another.
It was a small seaside town, but had an excellent small aquarium run by a old retired biologist. She saved her allowance to buy tickets and lingered at each tank of small fish, typical hobby fish except that they were salt water species since the establishment was on the board walk, close enough to pump in water from the sea. The tanks were actually in a back room with the pumps and supplies, but the front glass wall of each was a window. In the middle of the darkened space was an open pool full of sea anemones and for a while the octopus was living there, until it learned how to climb out, how to open the door to the back warehouse, climb the stairs and plunder the tanks.

Now he lived in a tall custom tank, bigger than a clothes closet and under a metal mesh lid. Rather fine mesh since an octopus can slip through anything the size of cyclone fence, but he was very strong and they had to check the edges of the lid often to make sure he wasn’t prying it up.

She had loved him from the first moment she had seen him in that pool of fabulous anemones in all the colors and beckoning-finger allure of chorus girls. They didn’t sting him — nor did he ink them as he drifted among them. But she couldn’t get very close until he was in the tall custom tank.

But then the girl showed up, in that apparitional way humans had, appearing white-faced out of the gloom, and somehow he was able to make mind contact with her. She knew things and she knew he could access them. She even offered her mind to him. And she could hear his. He folded up and roman candled down to the bottom of the tank to confront her.

The first time she walked up to the glass, he was so startled that he changed color, turning mustard covered with red polka dots. She couldn’t help but laugh, which made him slip to the bank of the tank where a little cave had been arranged for him. It looked too small, but he handily shrank down until he fitted. After that, she came to the tank slowly and spoke to him, which he seemed to hear through the glass.

This girl, about twelve or thirteen, was a great reader. At home she got out the encyclopedia (this was before computers) to begin studying cephalopods, so she would understand her friend. She learned that his first amazing color change had been meant to scare her, so he must have been a little disgusted that she laughed. It’s called “deimatic behavior”, she informed him, though he didn’t care at all. That was the first time she felt him in her mind . . . and her belly.

When she’d been coming for quite a while — in fact, so often that the owner biologist stopped charging her admission — the octopus would come down to the glass to meet her. He still changed color, but not so dramatically, — rather like someone with fair skin blushing and blanching. Once she thought he had escaped but he was only practicing his camouflage. His eyes were big; they gazed across at each other. She often felt that they were attuned enough to hear thoughts, though his were rather — well, floaty. Their very difference seemed to be part of their relationship, with the main aspect that they were so interested in each other. Then there was more.

She longed to touch him, to stroke him. She was sure that those suction cups on his tentacles would feel on her skin like kisses, little smooches. But she was aware that the tentacles themselves were quite brawny and could squeeze her as though they were pythons. Plus she had read about the beak and the poison.

He finally took her hydrosailing with him — in their minds — through the Pacific and into the tropics where the fish were bright as candies. He warned her about the blue-ring octopus, so pretty but carrying bacteria that secreted a poison so intense that it would paralyze her, prevent her from breathing. He himself could breathe air for short periods of time. But this was a mind trip, so both were safe, of one mind, a shared virtuality.
It took almost a year of him searching her mind and character before he got to his goal. He wanted back into the sea. He’d been born in the jumbled and sharp-edged debris under the long pier out from town, where the dark timbers under the walkway were coated with algae and festooned with kelp. That’s where he wanted to go, not to the wide open miles of water beyond. Home is what we know.

At the beginning of every day he used the tips of his tentacles to feel around every edge and corner of his enclosure, looking for a way to get out. He’d heard all the stories about octos slipping out when drain covers were loose or a pump hose was a little wider than it should be. They were his hope.

But now he saw that humans had imprisoned him here and so he should look for the crevices in humans. This girl had just such a point of entry. She called it love. He told her about the early days when he was the size of her hand and she seemed to understand. It made her maternal and protective.

People liked the old biologist and brought him things to explain, so he was not surprised that the girl brought him crabs to feed the octo. In fact, he showed her how to unpadlock the lid above and behind the tank, so she could toss them in. After a few months he began to let her sell tickets out front while he went home to grab a nap, and then he made her a key of her own. The octo was careful not to let her know how interested he was in all this, because he began to realize that she would interpret freeing him as losing him. Human beings, with all their warm-blooded hugginess didn’t like to be separated. But if she didn’t love him enough, she might not set him free.

He searched through her mind for clues to human attachment and pair-bonds. He asked her things and found intimate places, little crevices for the small ends of tentacles where even human fingers couldn’t go. Indeed, his suction-cupped arms learned to kiss except for one that balked. He threatened to tear it off and leave it behind.

As for the girl, she was not a fool. She knew he was alone because octos are cannibals and it was not unusual for males to be eaten by females they had just fertilized because the females would linger to defend the eggs, starving, and they could use the protein. But this octo didn’t give her eggs; he gave her powerful dreams that stained her nightgown in ways new to her.
Freeing an octopus was neither kind nor idealistic. Taking it back to its birthplace, even though the pier wasn’t far away, would be a logistic nightmare because he weighed a LOT. But she thought, “I guess maybe I could use a shopping cart,” and the octopus knew he had her. They both understood that he was about out of time. He was nearly at the limit of his growth and would have maybe only months or weeks to be under the pier.

They just did it. It might have been a more dramatic story if they had used a bit of poison from a blue-ringed octopus to put the old man to sleep forever, but that was too complicated. She was no killer. She just came one night with her key, unpadlocked the feeding hatch, lugged the octo out to the cart, and pushed him down the walkway to the long pier.

The only glitch was that about a fourth of the way down, a wheel came off the cart. The tide was way out, which at Seaside means a mile of sand. She carried the octo as far as she could, then sprawled, dumping him out of her arms. He set off to get there on his own, which was difficult on sand, a crawling glob of Jello thrashing his arms side-to-side with nothing solid to grab. She hated to see him that way. It was the cruelest part of the adventure and it haunted her later. He was far from the tall bright swimmer she was used to in his tank.

Finally he came to an outcrop of rock and then a backwash of tidewater that took him under the pier so he could grab the pilings under it. There was no goodbye. But there was love and remembrance. She never saw the octo again and was grateful, because he would not have been alive.

ISADORA DANCES ON THE MOON

 

When she had been in high school, she had read Isadora Duncan’s autobiography called “My Life,” and never forgot a few sentences where Isadora said of her first lover, “You have never known true happiness until you have slept with someone you love.” She was so naive that she thought Isadora meant really “sleep” but she agreed with her own version.

Euphemisms are always a little tricky because they are the culture’s metaphors and not one’s own. “Sleep” suggests unconscious, flat, no climax, not even a lot of passion. Just innocent in a dark way. Dark. Can’t see. Psyche dripping wax on Cupid. Dream not real.

But in fact her first lover really was wonderful to innocently sleep with. He had a high body temperature and relaxed totally. He didn’t move around a lot but if she did, it didn’t wake him. She loved his body, the first other person’s body she’d had real access to explore since she was an infant. Fingertips up ribs, down spine —bumps in a row. She loved to cup one butt cheek in her palm. Mostly she didn’t look at him until summer mornings when he pushed the sheets off. They didn’t wear nightclothes, not even baggy old t-shirts. It was skin-against-skin. When she slid as close as she could get, he didn’t pull away or make room, he just stayed solidly anchored, bubbling and pulsing with life.

He was a good lover but not splendid or inspired. The truth was that she was a little too heavy and inflexible to be as responsive as she felt she ought to be. She read and learned and explored herself with a vibrator but felt protective about it and didn’t tell him. She didn’t climax but pretended well.

She slid her palms down from his armpits along his silky sides to the Adonis belt she studied in summer, thinking about the tops of his thighs and how they fitted into his body. That fuzzy tousle she named “Short” and “Curly.” She cherished the little bird in its nest and gently embraced and pressed his balls, teased his . . . oh, there were so many euphemisms and she couldn’t remember what Isadora used at a time when no one ever said penis out loud, not even a doctor.

So all was well for years and then he got restless. His body didn’t change; he played sports and was reasonable about eating. Neither of them watched television in the bedroom, partly because it mostly meant they would go sleep while it was nattering and wake to the unpleasant feeling that the world had gone on without them. Then one day he bought an e-tablet and began to read in bed, not even needing to switch on a light or rustle pages by turning them.
At first she didn’t mind, turned her back against him and enjoyed feeling that. He was reading politics, then he spoke about running for office, and pretty soon he had joined the staff of the local state senator. He was driving a lot and sometimes was too far away to make it home for the night. When he did, he kicked and jerked with dreaming. But he was very pleased with the work and she was satisfied with hers, which was academic clerical. She didn’t want to teach, but she enjoyed editing.

There was no real conflict or unhappiness, but when he felt ready to move to the federal level, meaning actually moving to Washington, D.C., the silky bulk of the physical relationship had thinned and stiffened. It was easy to just let it go. She reflected that as much as she loved him, they had not reached any big ecstatic heights, neither emotionally nor erotically. It was a steady happiness and she knew that was rare and valuable, that some women were beaten and abused, so she was grateful.

When he went, he left his reading tablet behind because by now he was constantly in communication with unseen people on a smartphone — no time for reading. She looked at his books, wasn’t interested, learned how to delete them and loaded books she really wanted, most of them natural history with a strong poetic flavor.

When she had burned through Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and all the other carefully shifting kaleidoscope of female attention to the planet, it seemed necessary to be more of an activist, but she was not inclined to leave home and sleep on a cot under a mosquito net in some remote place. Nevertheless, she began to investigate the many groups all over the planet struggling to know and protect little creatures, even the nasty ones. She signed up for websites and newsletters. That’s how she met him.

She had no idea what he looked like and didn’t care, wasn’t even aware of his age or credentials. It was his “voice” in print that strangely rang in her ears. The precision and color of what he said was more eloquent than poetry, though he was only explaining how things worked. His specialty was the tide pool. He was working from the Oregon Coast, along the edge of the ocean in the tide pools.

Not the tanned young man with bleached hair we associate with the California surfing crew, but rather a bearded older guy like a Steinbeck character. Someone who looked at the world slantwise, peering into relationships, tides and cycles. Moon jellyfish — she had not known there was a such thing and, when looking at them on vids, was smitten with them. The real moon, the planetary satellite, that had more to do with us that we thought, its subliminal pull sliding under the windowshades and into female flesh with a tide of blood. The embeddedness of the ordinary in the cosmic.

He explained sea urchins which were his specialty. “Urchin” meant “hedgehog” and so, she thought, a feral child in the streets instead of a kelp forest, might be — in his spiny resourcefulness — a kind of tidal creature scraping a living from offal as though it were algae, a street urchin in the surge of the city.

They were not bilateral, those sea urchins, but globular, and related to sea cucumbers with a five fold pattern like flowers. Indeed, they looked like spherical flowers and she spent hours looking for photos of their splendid tiny explosions, which he said were so thick in little depressions on the black volcanic rock that one couldn’t help but step on them. Red urchins, pencil-spined urchins — the slide shows she found and liked the best were the ones that included diagrams and scientific explanations. “Sea urchins’ tube feet arise from the five ambulacral grooves. Tube feet are moved by a water vascular system, which works through hydraulic pressure, allowing the sea urchin to pump water into and out of the tube feet, enabling it to move.”

“Sea creatures have no muscles,” he explained. “They operate through the dynamics of their own body fluids within the context of the sea water. This is totally unlike the muscle-worshipping humans who work by leveraging against bones, always working in paired opposition.”
She moved in her chair, the bilateral smooth curving of gluteus maximus trying to make a bit more room for her internal swelling sea creature. Her mouth puckered as though to whistle and that was also a swelling. She felt her heart, that muscle, swell and squeeze and then her whole body. This must be an orgasm, she thought. It was her first, mind and flesh together, and she went to the moon.

THE SHORE MAN

It was clear from his gingerbread beard and far-seeing eyes that he had descended way back there from Vikings who went to sea and dominated the northern European islands. His more immediate ancestors had not been afraid to cross the great oceans, but then they didn’t want to be sea captains because it was good to come home at the end of the day.

So some settled on the Great Lakes of America to run a fishing boat and there it soon became clear that it wasn’t the family home that the shore man needed, but rather the tavern, the convivial company of roaring men where he could tell stories and sing out the hero songs about surviving impossible storms. The family home is where he went to eat and sleep when he was drunk and worn out — the family itself merely a necessary nuisance, always wanting more.

Sometimes he didn’t care so much about the tavern and came home before the children went to bed. He liked to wrestle with them, the puppies, and tumble about with them on the floor. So he got a little carried away with it sometimes and the kids refused to settle and sleep, but so what? His wife objected but what did she have to do with it? He made the babies. She was only a container. He was the maker, the owner, the ruler and his son would be him in the future to make him proud.

Women were a terrible nuisance, always trying to keep him away from danger because they needed the income, not because they really cared about him. Women were a hole where a man pounded in his money to make the investment that created the future. All that nagging didn’t make him safer. What could she possibly know about life on the water?

At least he was free from nagging out there, trying to develop strategy for catching the wily salmon. He was really good at it. People called him Captain and meant it as a title of respect. Sometimes home didn’t feel like home at all, but someplace where he was an alien and not a welcome one at that. Maybe he was so full of rage that even the tavern wouldn’t have him. Then he left. He just left. When his son got old enough to leave his mother — though his mother didn’t think so — he threw the boy into the car and took him along. What boy wouldn’t want to light out for the territories with his dad.

The shore man wasn’t into hunting so much. Too much warm and fuzzy.. Too much blood. But he was a good enough fisherman for the companies to ask him to evaluate their gear and he was literate enough to draw up an article about fishing strategy. He taught all this to his boy. And the boy came in handy when he began to drink out in the woods, on an alpine lake, or even on the ice when throwing a line down a hole. Talk about cold-blooded!

It was a great life and it lasted for a decade, which people didn’t quite think was possible. But then life began to slide and contract at the same time. The salmon catches diminished. The wilderness contracted. The boy was always gone somewhere and he could never figure out where, just slid away into some secret hole or other. Only the woman stayed, though he wouldn’t have minded much if she’d taken the girl and left. He’d get by. Eat out of cans, he didn’t mind.

In those days people thought families should eat supper together. His wife always made a fuss about it, telling him what time they would eat, and if he forgot all about that stuff — he didn’t go by clocks, he went by the sun! — keeping his food warm and sitting with him while he ate though he’d rather have peace and quiet. Once in the middle of a meal they all complained, ganged up on him, and demanded so much that he couldn’t stand it and threw the whole damned table against the wall, roast and all. Then they screamed and cried and blamed until he went down to the tavern. He knew his family wouldn’t shut him out for long because they needed him too much.

But then he began to see his boy with other men, big important politicians. What could they possibly want him around for? Running errands? He had told the boy he should get a job, but what kind of job paid enough for him to have leather jackets? He bought the boy a motorcycle. He knew nothing could top that. But something did. The boy never slept at home.

The thing about a shoreman was he knew his boat and how to handle it in every weather, out there on the water was freedom and self-reliance, but he still needed to come back to the dock to sell the fish and take on fuel, because sails didn’t always have wind or the right kind of wind. He didn’t like to use the engine — no skill to it. He respected the wind and felt his sails were wings, soaring.

The end was inevitable. There was a storm that it was stupid to go out in, but he did it because his wife nagged him not to. The engine broke somehow — lack of maintenance. The sails were fine but the wind was too much for them and in the end the boat capsized. He was a strong swimmer but too far from shore. The sinking boat created a vortex, a whirling hole in the water.

Anyway, as he went overboard somehow he got tangled in the sails, wrapped up under the water so he couldn’t use his arms. He wished he carried a knife. He wished for his son. He wondered whether his wife would miss him. That was a first. When he washed up on the shore, he was still cocooned in the sail, shrouded.

His son wore his motorcycle jacket to the funeral. His wife was genuinely heartbroken, because she had really loved him, but she found it easy to get a job now that people didn’t have to worry about him storming in to claim her back. The daughter? No one remembers.

No one suggested a Viking funeral, the Captain’s corpse aflame on his boat. What a primitive idea!

THE BOY WHO DIDN’T WANT TO BE KISSED

“Get away! I don’t WANT to be kissed!” Tom shouted. Then he opened his eyes and stared into the bulging eye of his horse, who had been nuzzling him awake. “Oh.” The horse’s stiff whiskers tickled his face and he pushed the nose away.

He couldn’t remember why he had been asleep. It wasn’t morning. He wasn’t in the habit of taking naps. His horse was was not saddled or bridled. There was tall grass under him and he could hear a creek nearby. His head hurt. When he put up his hand to investigate, there was a mess, and when he brought his hand back into his line of sight, it was bright red. Then a torrent of water hit him in the face.

When, sputtering, he opened his eyes again there was a female in pigtails and straw hat looking at him. Too close. Maybe she wanted to kiss him! He yelped and tried to scramble, but his limbs were strangely slow. “Hold still,” she scolded. “You got a head wound. I’m trying to see whether the pupils of your eyes are the same size.” She screwed up her face quizzically, squinting while she considered. “Well, I guess so. But you still might have had a concussion. You were out so long even your horse was worried.”

“My horse worries too much.”

“But why weren’t you riding your regular horse?”

He couldn’t figure out what she meant. So he ignored the question. “How bad is my head?”

“Take a look.” She had a small circular mirror, the kind traded to Indians.

“You’re so vain you carry a mirror?” He was defensive, a little scared of mirrors. He had almost no experience with them, having grown up in menfolk places that kept no mirrors because they neither cut nor combed their hair or beards. (Well, he wouldn’t if he ever managed to grow a beard.) They lived in a cabin and bathed rarely. Why do it, if you didn’t have to?

“No, silly! It’s for signaling. I send Morse code to my friends with it. Why can’t you remember that?”

“Your friend is named Morse?”

She laughed “You’re still pretty confused.”

He scowled, which made his head wound hurt, so he accepted the mirror. It was disconcerting to look into his own eyes but he paused a moment before he managed to get it to reflect his front hair. “Looks like a bullet graze.”

“That’s what I think, too, especially since it made a hole in your hat. Luckily it was only in the brim so it would still hold water. My straw hat is useless for that.” She put his holed and soaked hat on his chest. “Why would anyone shoot at you? You’re hardly a rustler.”

How would she know? Things didn’t make sense. “I don’t get any of this.”

“Let’s go back to town. I put your saddle over there.” Nicely tipped up on the front to keep from curling the square skirts.

But what town? He didn’t know anything about any town. He was only passing through this part of the world, coming down onto the flats from the foothills cabin where he and his dad had always lived. Not that he wanted to be here, but after his pa was killed he’d gotten lonesome. You could call it that. And he didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t even want to think about it. But when the girl mounted, he saddled and followed.

When they entered the little town with its one main street, church at one end, courthouse at the other, and a dozen businesses ranged between, the people they passed smiled and greeted the two of them as though they knew them, but they kept using the wrong name: Don instead of Tom. At first he thought he might not be hearing properly. One smart aleck called, “Hey, when did you stop combing your hair?”

“Never started,” he growled truthfully. The girl laughed as though it were a joke. They rode to a parallel street and pulled up outside a picket fence where there was an actual hitching post in addition to the fence. Pretty fancy.

A recently ridden horse was tied there, one foot patiently tipped up as it waited. “There’s your horse!” the girl said. A porch across the front of the painted house held chairs. One of them was occupied by a boy his age, who rose to his feet in astonishment.

“Why. . . ” the boy exclaimed. “How is this possible?” In a moment he added, “You look just like ME !”

The girl was equally stunned, staring from one boy to the other. Tom was thoroughly irritated. What in blazes was going on, anyway? He was getting tired of all these jokes. Seeing his confusion, the girl took his hand and towed him up onto the porch and into the house where the front hall contained a full-length mirror. The other boy followed and there they were, same all over except for clothes and grooming. Both their mouths hung open, both their eyes were wide.

The girl recovered first. “This is very lucky. Don, we know your clothes will fit so go get a set of clean clothes for Tom. It’s easy to tell you apart now. We’ll see what a washup will do. Then we’ll only be able to tell which is which by the sticking plaster I’m going to put on your wound.”

Don did not want to go get clothes for an unexpected duplicate of himself. Tom did not want to put on any clothes he hadn’t owned for long enough to get used to them. But this young woman had a lot of force to her personality. They did what she said, except that Tom refused to hand over his clothes for washing. When Tom met the parents, the two boys were indeed identical except for haircuts. Daphne’s mother, Amelia, did not kiss Tom, but she was obviously having to fight so hard to keep from doing it that the effect was more powerful than an actual kiss. She was actually holding her hands locked together behind her back. Mr. Torrance showed little emotion. That was his style. He enjoyed playing poker. And chess. Checkers were too easy.

Fortunately, the first thing was supper, where Don demonstrated proper manners and Tom was totally boggled by the strange food and implements. The parents seemed to know more about all this than they were telling. They kept exchanging glances. There was half as much meat as Tom was used to and it had a lot of bland fat on it. He appreciated the pie.

After supper, on the porch, Mr. Torrance offered cigars and Tom, thanking him but refusing, went out to fetch his pipe from his saddlebags so he could check on his horse, Tulip. He loved Tulip and it was mutual. “Whuh, huh, huh,” she whickered before plunging her nose back into the manger. She wasn’t named for any domestic yard flower, but for the wild lavender “prairie tulips” some called crocus and others nicknamed “kitten ears.” They covered the hillsides in spring. Domestic or not, Tulip was enjoying this bounty. Tom rolled his familiar clothes in his saddle blanket. He had a feeling one of those women might steal them and wash them against his wishes.

While the women were doing kitchen things, the men sat smoking in silence. The twins said nothing, Don because he knew that Mr. Torrance would tell nothing until he had thought it over and Tom because he had been taught to hold his tongue. When the women came out, Mr. Torrance was ready to speak.

“It’s like this,” finally said the older man. “You were born identical twins. Your first names are the ones your mother gave you before she died, but you’ve been raised by different people. Don, you came to us and Tom, here, went with his real father. I’d have liked to have talked to him a bit before he died, but it appears he did a good job of raising you, Tom. That’s really about all there is to it.” There were wreaths of smoke overhead but no one was talking. They were all thinking hard.

How could identical twins have different fathers? They must have had the same mother. Of course, twins would be a lot to handle so, in a way, Tom could see why they had been split up. But why had a mountain trapper taken on single parenthood? On the other hand, lots of solitary people raised small animals as pets and isn’t a human child a small animal? “My pa said my mother died in childbirth,” he blurted.

“Oh, yes. That’s true.” Amelia said. And then something else under her breath that he didn’t catch.

“What was she like?”

“Oh,” Amelia arranged her skirt across her knees. “She was quite a lot like me.”

“Tom,” interrupted Mr. Torrance, “You can stay with us now — if you want to. Don can share his room.” Daphne was grinning. Don was not.

Tom was not able to sleep. Across the room in the other bed Don’s resentful back was turned to him. He had far too much to think about. He still had not really accepted his pa’s death. It was so abrupt and unexpected, and yet his pa had said to him a week or so earlier, “If anything happens to me, go find Parnassas McClure.” He wished he’d thought to ask the Torrances whether they knew Parnassas McClure.

In the middle of the night Tom rose silently, stole a loaf of bread, put on his own clothes, and took off on Tulip, feeling as though he were taking his life back from a terrible kidnapping incident. In his mind the bullet that grazed his head was part of a confusing nightmare he could not figure out, so he mostly ignored it. But now he HAD to think about his pa’s death. And then his ma’s death.

He found a place where Tulip had grass and, while the sun came up in the distance, lay down to chew on the loaf of bread and sort through what he knew. He was a horizontal thinker, reclining his body and laying out the facts in his mind. On that deadly morning his pa had opened the front door to go out for water and, after a gunshot, abruptly had fallen over — flat on his back — as though he’d tripped on the threshold, though if that were the cause of falling, he’d have gone frontwards rather than being knocked backwards. Then slowly the blood had spread from under him until it looked as though he were lying on a freeform red Hudson’s Bay trade blanket.

Tom was not in doubt that his pa was dead. He and Pa were hunters. Their safety depended on recognizing dead when they saw it. Who would hunt his pa? He simply sat down on the floor just outside the pool of blood, silently, and stared until the sun was straight overhead. Then he carefully undressed his pa and washed him. He found a note in the shirt pocket, soaked in blood, so he could barely figure out what it said: “Find Parnassas McClure.”

There was a grizzly hide they had Indian-tanned but couldn’t quite bring themselves to sell. He laid his father on it with the fur side inside, and sewed him in as tight as he could with the big three-edge buckskin needle. Then he went out and dug a hole. When his father was buried, he and Tulip left. He’d only taken food and ammunition. There wasn’t much more in the cabin anyway. They were subsistence hunters who had built the cabin and made almost everything. It wasn’t fancy but everything in it was part of them. Their time and energy made each object into something useful and therefore cherished. Tom paid no attention to money.

Now, lying in the grass adding things up — the sun finally high enough not to be in his eyes — it occurred to him that he ought to have checked their hidey-hole. It was a place in one of the log rafters that had a big knothole. Behind that knot was a hollowed-out space big enough to hide things. Hard to find unless you knew where to look.

No money had been in there — that was in a buckskin bag they kept in the bottom of the bed under the covers, so their feet touched it reassuringly in the night. That small bag was in his pocket now. There wasn’t a lot. Sugar and gunpowder money was about all. What possible motive for a killing could there be? They rarely even saw other people, much less riled them. Then the gunshot that had creased his own head. And Daphne.

*********

Back in town, reactions to Tom’s departure were mixed. Daphne thought about it most, but then she knew the most about what was really happening, or thought she did. Over the years she’d overheard scraps, which meeting Tom had formed into a pattern like a quilt design. She knew there was something dangerous and forbidden about the deaths of Tom’s parents. She knew that Tom’s mother had been her own mother’s sister and that something about that had caused her death, but she knew nothing about the death of Tom’s father except that Mr. Torrance seemed relieved when it happened. Like something was over. She was pretty sure Don knew nothing. But Don had a secret life he didn’t share. He had some dubious friends and sometimes she thought they had corrupted him.

In the back of the parlor clock was a hidden compartment where she knew her mother kept things. She didn’t often trespass, but this seemed like the right time to do some investigating. She found a few photos was all, but they were interesting. One was her mother holding identical twin boys, nearly infants. Another was two beautiful young girls in white dresses, sitting side-by-side on two identical chairs that had been carried out onto the sunlit lawn. The girls were also identical. She could not tell which one was her mother. She had not known that her mother was a twin. So was it her mother holding the boys? She scrutinized her evidence closely. There was also an image of a man she had never seen before. Curiosity and wanting to figure it out made her forget scruples and slide the photos into her apron pocket.

She was thinking about the cabin where Tom and his dad had lived. He had explained where it was.

**********

Tom got back to the cabin without incident. The front door was standing open and the place was ransacked. It had probably happened as soon as he left and he thought at first it was animals, since their footprints were in the spilled flour. Then he saw human footprints. He stood alongside them and saw that the feet were the same size as his own. But the trespasser seemed not to have lingered and neither Tulip nor himself could detect anyone around now.

He went to the knothole hiding place and drew out only a few papers. One was a birth certificate for twin boys — mother’s name Cecilia — and one was a marriage certificate. The groom’s name was his father’s. The bride’s name was Cecilia. One of the witnesses was named Amelia Torrance and the other was named Parnassas McClure. He felt in his pocket for the folded bit of paper he’d found on his pa but it was glued together with his pa’s blood. Still, he could see the name clearly in his mind’s eye.

The straw-stuffed mattresses had been slashed and strewn, but he piled them together and lay down to think, holding the certificates in case new writing might magically appear — something that would explain things. Soon he was snoring. Good thing he’d already turned Tulip into the corral. The hay that had been in the top of the small barn had been pitched out and scattered so the horse had to lip it off the ground.

Someone had really put their mind to searching. Were these certificates what they were looking for? Why? He slept. When he dreamt that some woman — so familiar — was kissing him, he jerked and muttered, but didn’t wake even when a horse approached.

A step on the porch woke him. A form in the open door. It was female. Daphne. No sooner did she get inside than she began straightening up, while he stared at her without saying anything. Soon she had him sitting at the table with coffee and beans, plus the last of the purloined bread. She put her stolen photos on the table between them. “We’ve got to get a handle on this,” she declared. “I think you may be my brother.”

Surprised, Tom cried out when he picked up the photo of the man. “This is certainly my father! A lot younger, of course.”

After supper, on the porch in the dwindling golden light of sunset while Tom puffed his pipe, Daphne let her talk ramble on typical female subjects. “I’m a little disappointed that you might be my brother. It’s not the same to kiss a brother as it would be to kiss someone you liked pretty well but weren’t related to. On the other hand, you might merely be my cousin — maybe kissing cousin.”

“What does THAT mean?” demanded Tom, distracted by looking at the photos.

“Oh, cousins close enough to kiss!” she explained and leaned over to kiss him on the ear. It was nicer than a horse kiss.

That night he rolled out his soogan on the floor, too tired to notice whether mice ran over him. Daphne slept on the reconstituted mattress on the bed, extra fat because it held the straw from both previous stuffings. “This place would be pretty nice if it had curtains and a tablecloth,” she was muttering as she fell asleep.

In the morning they were back on the porch, nursing coffee, when a light flashed in Daphne’s eyes. Bright, gone, bright, gone. . .

Tom was startled. “What the heck was that?”

Daphne was also surprised. “Heliograph signals. It’s Don — I recognize his style — but why doesn’t he just come on up here? How did he know where I was anyway? He must have followed me.” Flash, dark, dark, flash. Then she looked even more surprised, then angry.

“What? What? Tell me what he’s saying.”

“He has no right! He’s telling me to go home, right now, and to leave you behind. The jealous beast! He’s my brother, not my master.” Then she caught herself. “Maybe he’s only my cousin.”

“L-E-A-V- N-O-W- D-A-N-J-ER.”

A spring wagon was traveling on the road, still a ways off, coming fast enough to raise a lot of dust. A bullet from somewhere nearby zinged past them and plunked into the side of the cabin. They scuttled into the cabin where Tom scrambled for his rifle. Side-by-side, they cautiously peeked over the sill of the front window. Now Don stepped out into the open, rifle to shoulder, carefully aiming as he walked towards the cabin. Maybe he thought Tom had no gun.

He thought wrong.

But when Tom pulled the trigger, there was only a snap. No bullets. Don knew he had the gun, but he also knew it wasn’t loaded. He’d had access to it at the Torrances. He was close now.

The spring wagon came tearing around the last stand of aspen, rocking up on its wheels like a boat in whitewater. Mr. Torrance was driving. Amelia had a handgun, a big pistol. Using both hands, rocking as they hurtled too close to miss, she emptied it into Don. No one there could understand what had happened, particularly Don, who was dead and had no need to understand anything again. The women began to scream and wail. Amelia threw the gun into the bed of the spring wagon and leapt down to cradle Don. Daphne ran to hold them both at once.

*********

“You and Don were born right here in this cabin,” said Amelia. “I really am your mother, the both of you boys.” Tom didn’t know where to look but Daphne’s gaze was riveted. Being told about your own birth didn’t bear much thinking about. Especially when it was your mother doing the telling. Mr. Torrance was out in the yard, loading Don’s blanket-wrapped body into the back of the spring wagon.

“Don was blue when he came into the world. He’d been suffocated on the way and he never was quite right. He SEEMED all right, but he wasn’t.” She took Tom’s hand. “I blamed your father, who was the only midwife I had. I blamed him for getting me with child in the first place and then not managing the birth properly. I took you twins and ran away to my sister, Cecelia, who was married to Mr. Torrance. She was pregnant with you, Daphne.”

Daphne gasped. “You’re not my mother?”

“You came prematurely and I delivered you. Cecilia died. I was sorry for blaming your father then. I worked so hard to keep you alive, it does seem to me as though I gave birth to you.” She sighed, out of tears. “I just took her place. I was still nursing. There was no town then, we were just on a farm and no one really knew us yet, so it solved a lot of problems. Parnassas McClure knew, but he approved.”

Tom pounded his fists on the two certificates and several photos laid on the table. “Except that you were still married to my father!”

She nodded. “And then one day he found us and demanded his sons. He threatened to turn us in for bigamy unless he got his sons. I agreed to give him you, arguing that Don would always need a little protection and guidance. He saw the sense in that.”

Now she began to weep and even to wail. “I must have let slip where this cabin was and that he was a twin. He was an eavesdropper. I failed to protect him. I gave that boy life! But I had to take it back! It was my right and my duty.” Daphne embraced the woman who was her aunt, but still felt like her mother, and rocked her.

The little procession back to town was a slow and sorrowful one. Mr. Torrance took care of things. Amelia/Cecilia went to bed, her face taut and pale with grief.

Escaping the house, Daphne and Tom perched in the hay window of the barn, watching the horses pull hay out of the rack below their feet, a mouthful at a time. “Who is Parnassus McClure?” asked Tom, remembering.

“How can you think of legal things at a time like this? He’s the judge. You’re not in trouble, you know. Even my — um — aunt will get off since Don was trying to kill us.”

Mr. Torrance came to pour water into the horse trough. He never said much, but what he said counted. He looked up at them. “Parnassas McClure is holding the deed to this place and your dad’s cabin until you come of age. Your pa was the only one of us who had money. He’s the one bought this place. He put it in the names of you three children. Kept the wedding and birth certificates to prove he had the right. Don just didn’t want to share — he wanted more than his third.” Stiffly, he walked back around the corner, his galvanized bucket clanging a bit.

The setting sun painted the faces of the youngsters bright red. There was a fire somewhere making a lot of smoke. Tom looked at Daphne. “Would you mind if we traded bedrooms? I don’t want to feel I’m displacing my twin. Even though I am. I didn’t much like being a twin.”

“You remember when we rode up to the house and he was so surprised? It wasn’t because you looked just like him. It was because he thought he’d killed you.”

“He DID kill my pa. His pa, too, come to that. I loved my pa. Did Don love anyone at all?”

“I think he sort of loved me, but in a bad way.” They were quiet for a bit. The birds were making evensong.

Tom speculated, “Which bond is stronger, do you suppose? The one between mother and son or the one between twins? I guess we have to say mothers and sons, even when they don’t know the son.” They swung their feet while they pondered. They were really quite young.

“What about lovers?” More silence.

“That kissing I dreamt about must have been my mother kissing me goodbye.” More silence. “I sure do miss my pa.”

“I’ll share mine. He’s a pretty good one. But you’ve got my mother!”

“I never had a mom. Guess I’ll let her kiss me.”

“And from now on you can kiss her hello every morning! ”

They held hands. But that was all. It was plenty.

THE STARFISH

This is not about Christmas. It is not about Christianity. It is not about reality, nor about any religion, nor any person. Rather this is an investigation, a poem, into the principle of father/son, a male relationship of such overwhelming power that it reduces the woman to being only a cradle, a nipple, a means to an end.

The little boy said, “I wish I could be a mother. I wish I had a baby.”

They say Jehovah told Abraham to take his son up on the mountain and kill him — not abandon him like Oedipus, because Oedipus (whose name means he-who-limps because he was pinioned by the ankle when he was abandoned on the mountain) came back to murder his father and marry his mother. “Take a knife and cut his guts out. Burn them on my altar.” Jehovah was the father of everything, the only Father, the only God, the infinity and the inscrutable. The overwhelming and the source of everything.

The little boy lived with his mother, nourished and cherished.

Let’s call the mother Moon, the wife of Sun. Let’s call the son Star.

Then his father came back. Maybe he was a ship captain. Maybe he was a ship. Maybe he was the sea. He was an engulfment. He wrapped and penetrated the woman, became a storm that knocked her across the room, left her bloody and gasping. “You will have no other gods than me.” She drowned. He turned to the son. It was Star’s turn to be engulfed, wrapped, penetrated, violated, torn to bloody ribbons, emptied.

The Sun wished no rivals. He wished Star to be a belonging, an extension, a simulacrum that would extend and perpetuate him. His lips became tender, his eyes were soft, his hands stroked the pearly boyskin until Star was aroused, and then Sun flayed Star with ecstasy again. To own him. He had created him and he owned him. He could kill him and he could bring him back to life even as the blood drooled from his knife.

Star was often insensate. When he could, he hated his father. He loved his father. He yearned for the disembowelment, but puked with fear. He wished to be exactly like his father; he wished to destroy his father; he swore he would never ever be his father. He looked in the mirror, hoping to be his father. When he saw he was — a little bit — he smashed the mirror.

Sun was Life, the very principle, the goal of existence. Star only wandered. He began to think and drew up ideas from the sea as though they were fishes, using strategies to find them, cooking them on sticks in sandy beach fires. He grew, but as he grew he became more like Sun and didn’t like it. He ached and cramped. Where the sand was wet he used his stick to write and draw, but the Sea was the Sun’s mirror and wiped it all away with foam.

“Life is torture.” Ssssssssssso? “There is no meaning.” Yessssssssss.

“I wish to be only me.” A million sea birds descended to tear him to bits while a million newborn turtles burst up from the sand and desperately scurried for the sea, which ate them. (Well, the sea birds did.) He was nothing. He was a blood smear.

He learned to walk and was careful to do it only when the Sun slipped down, down, to where He could not see and there were a million stars. “Ssssssssstarssssssss.” He left footprints in the sand and then he turned inland.

What happened to him then, among the humans, I do not know. They didn’t know what to make of him either. “You are a victim of abuse,” announced some. “You were torn apart by love,” said others. “You’re a fake,” laughed the scornful small ones. They were all men. He didn’t know women.

“You are very ssssspecial,” said a soothsayer, “because you are your Father but you can transform. You need not destroy. You can learn to protect, to create. This is a transformation, a mutation, a transcendence. You are illuminated, but also shadowed with darkness that burnsssss like fire. It will always be like that.”

“We will love you, but you will turn that away, because it’s small, meaningless, just more fish.”

Star began to walk on. Then paused.

“One more thing. Soon the moon will rise. It won’t stay, but for a while . . . you will feel what your father felt, but you will not consume the moon — only embrace it as it emptiesssss.”

That might be the end of the story. Maybe not.

JESUS, ONCE AGAIN

I occasionally venture into rewrites of Biblical tales so as to restore their shock value. I started doing it in seminary. If such ideas upset you, skip this story.

JESUS, ONCE AGAIN (Hebrews 13.2)

God (the anthropomorphized version) was feeling adventurous and contemporary.  He’d been watching the planet called Earth and saw that it needed another good jolt.  They’d just about worn the Biblical Jesus the Christ into little tatters and most of the meaning had leaked out of Him.  God thought about sending a woman this time, but it had been done.  There was even a t-shirt.  (“This time God is sending his Daughter and She is pissed.”)  What hadn’t been done?  What would make these goofy humans rethink again?  Maybe even feel something?  Jesus as a gay man had been tried.  It was sort of lame since the version of Jesus many accepted already had long hair and wore a dress.  Jesus the super-virile SuperChrist rock-star had also been done.  Jesus as hippie, Jesus as black man.  Jesus as lover.  Wait now . . .

He noticed that everyone was very pre-occupied with the idea of same sex marriage — why not move the idea of a gay Jesus to his parents:  two gay men.  It was a little problematic, but then, so was a virgin accepting the fertilization of a God (unless you’d been hanging around with those Greeks and Romans whose gods were always doing that).  None of the gay guys had ovums waiting to bud into usefulness by pairing chromosomes with a sperm, but that wasn’t a problem for God.  He just used a standard guy cell and added the super-genetic stuff on a third set of chromosomes.  After all, the extra stuff wasn’t about glowing in the dark or levitating — it was mostly spiritual, which is not the same as parlor tricks.

Even Jesus can’t really overcome a bad start at birth, so God sent this infant to Joseph and Markie.  Joseph was a little old, but he was a protective man with a lot of resources.  Markie was a man of joy.  He got up every morning welcoming every sunrise, even in the winter rain.  Even when he gave birth in a rathole motel on the California coast, a place no one would ever consider sacred.  It wasn’t easy, since the baby had to come out his asshole.

Of course, the baby was gay but Joseph and Markie would have accepted a het baby.  They didn’t ask any questions — just cuddled and fed and gazed into that baby’s blue eyes.  Well, on the days the baby’s eyes were blue — they changed a lot.  Sometimes they had a feeling they were looking into the eyes of the universe, but all loving parents feel that way.

So then one day the big census started and they lit out for Mexico in an old rackety van because Joseph couldn’t get his money out of the ATM without revealing where they were.  They knew that being atypical was dangerous in the United States where the majority rules.  Mexico is a religious country, a Catholic country, but their religion taught them that nothing was more sacred than family.  It was not like the United States.

But Joseph and Markie were killed in the drug wars.  By then Jesus was maybe eight years old.  He didn’t know what to do.  Then a man came and wanted the boy to go with him.  Jesus was about to find out what it meant to have a body (corpus) that was vulnerable to earthly events.  It was painful and there was blood.  He didn’t need drugs afterwards because of his third chromosomes, which took him to a spiritual place during this act of invasion.  It also infected the trick, but not with anything bad from God’s point of view.  It was Heavenly Inspiration Dedication Syndrome, which made him want to help street boys everywhere.  God got the idea from this little worm that gets into rat brains and makes them love cats.  (You could look it up.)

After that, Jesus was also a street boy, starving and sometimes beaten up or cut.  The only advantage he had was that he didn’t need drugs — he just spaced out — and when tricks infected him with AIDS, he just infected them right back with his own HIDS (See above.)

Finally one day in a major city in the US of A, the authorities captured Jesus along with other street boys.  They knew he was a street boy because he was filthy, bruised, hungry, and shivering.  This meant to them that he was bad and no one cared about him.  If they had fucked him, they would have been infected with his HIDS, but they didn’t even check him for the earthly version because then they would have to pay money for the drugs to treat it.  Well, they would if anyone figured out they weren’t doing it, because they were supposed to take care of the people in their custody.  Money meant much more to them than sex.  Sex was common, everyone had sex, you didn’t have to pay for it, you just took it.  Sex is just a hole.  Money is everything.

So Jesus was loaded into a bus and transported to the middle of Mexico and just dumped there.  No one knows what happened to him after that.  Some think that he has come back to America but there have been very few new cases of Heavenly Inspiration Dedication Syndrome.  It’s just not very contagious because greed kills it and there’s a lot of greed around.

But some people say that he’s on the streets again and he might be the very next ragged, dirty, starving, shivering boy you run across.  This is the reason that the believers will kiss such a boy on the mouth and buy him a meal.  Because you never know which one of them is a carrier.  People might not believe in miracles anymore, but they’d damn well better believe in epidemics.  Sooner or later.  It’s a kind of crucifixion, which means “open arms.”