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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…

———

I Stood Upon a High Place

By Stephen Crane

Crane S

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

———

Not Waving but Drowning

By Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith, March 1966

Florence Margaret Smith (1902-1971)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead.
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

———

Trees

By Joyce Kilmer

Kilmer-J

Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

———

I Am

By Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Wilcox EW2

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

I Know not whence I came,
I know not whither I go;
But the fact stands clear that I am here
In this world of pleasure and woe.
And out of the mist and murk
Another truth shines plain —
It is my power each day and hour
To add to its joy or its pain.

———

Invictus

By William Ernest Henley

Henley WE

By William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

 

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This vintage sci-fi short story by a little-known author is, in so many ways, silly and unrealistic. On the other hand, it’s friendly, pleasant, and charming. I say that makes it a winner.

———

Say “Hello” for Me

By Frank W. Coggins
Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, May 1953

This was to be the day, but of course Professor Pettibone had no way of knowing it. He arose, as he had been doing for the previous twenty years, donned the tattered remnants of his space suit, and went out into the open. He stood erect, bronzed, magnificent, faced distant Earth, and recited:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world happy,
And bring us good cheer.”

It was something he had heard as a child and, isolated here on Mars, he had remembered it and used it to keep from losing his power of speech.

The ritual finished, he walked to the edge of the nearest canal, and gathered a bushel or so of dried Martian moss. He returned and began polishing the shiny exterior of the wrecked space ship. It had to really glitter if it was to be an effective beacon in guiding the rescue ship.

Professor Pettibone knew — had known for years — that a ship would come. It was just a matter of time, and as the years slipped by, his faith diminished not a whit.

With his task half completed, he glanced up at the sun and quickened the polishing. It was a long walk to the place the berry bushes grew, and if he arrived too late, the sun would have dried out the night’s crop of fragile berries and he would wait until the morrow for nourishment.

But on this day, he was fated to arrive at the bush area not at all, because an alien sound from above again drew the Professor’s eyes from his work, and he knew that the day had arrived.

The ship was three times as large as any he had ever visualized, and its futuristic design told him, sharply, how far he had fallen behind in his dreaming. He smiled and said, quite calmly, “I daresay I am about to be rescued.”

And he experienced a thrill as the great ship set down and two men emerged therefrom. A thrill tinged with a guilt-sense, because emotional experiences were rare in an isolated life and seemed somehow indecent.

The two men held weapons. They advanced upon Professor Pettibone, looked up into his face, reflected a certain wary hostility. That the hostility was tinged with instinctive respect, even awe, made it no less potent.

One of them asked, “Fella — man came in ship — sky boat — long time ago. Him dead? Where?” Appropriate gestures accompanied the words.

Professor Pettibone smiled down at the little men and bowed. “You are of course referring to me. I came in the ship. I am Professor Pettibone. It was nice of you to hunt me up.”

The eyes of the two Terran spacemen met and locked in startled inquiry. One of them voiced the reaction of both when he said, “What the hell –”

“You no doubt are curious as to the fate of the other members of the expedition. They were killed, all save Fletcher, who lasted a week.” Professor Pettibone waved a hand. “There — in the graveyard.”

But their eyes remained on the only survivor of that ill-fated first expedition. It was hard to accept him as the man they sought, but, faced with undeniable similarity between what they expected and what they had found, the two spacemen had no alternative.

“I hope your food supply is ample — and varied,” Professor Pettibone said.

This seemed to bring them out of their bemusement. “Of course, Professor. Would you care to come aboard?”

The other made a try at congenial levity. “You must be pretty hungry after twenty years.”

“Really — has it been that long? I tried to keep track at first…”

“We can blast off anytime you say. You’re probably pretty anxious to get back.”

“Indeed, I am. The changes, in twenty years — must be breathtaking. I wonder if they’ll remember me?”

A short time later, the Professor said, “It’s amazing. A ship of this size handled by only two men.” Then he sat down to a repast laid out by one of the awed spacemen.

But, after nibbling a bit of this, a forkful of that, he found that satisfaction lay in the anticipation more so than in the eating.

“We’ll look around and see what we can find in the way of clothing for you, Professor,” one of the spacemen said. Then the man’s bemusement returned. His eyes traveled over the magnificent physique before him. The perfect giant of a man; the great, Apollo-like head with the calm, clear eyes; the expression of complete contentment and serenity.

The space man said, “Professor — to what do you attribute the changes in your body. What is there about this planet –?”

“I really don’t know.” Professor Pettibone looked down his torso with an impersonal eye. “I think the greenish skin pigmentation is a result of mineral-heavy vapors that occur during certain seasons. The growth. As to my body — I really don’t know.”

But the two spacemen — though they didn’t refer to it — were not concerned with the body so much as the aura of completeness, the radiation of contentment which came from somewhere within.

And it was passing strange that nothing more was said about the Professor returning to Earth. No great revelation, suddenly arrived at, that he would not go. Rather, they discussed various things, that three gentlemen, meeting casually, would discuss.

Then Professor Pettibone arose from his chair and said, “It was kind of you to drop off and see me.”

And one of the spacemen replied, “A pleasure, sir. A real pleasure indeed.”

Then the Professor left the ship and watched it lift up on a tail of red fire and go away. He raised an arm and waved. “Say ‘hello’ for me,” he called. Then he turned away and, from force of habit, he began again to polish the hull, knowing that he would keep it shining, and be proud of it, for many years to come.

Almost beyond reach of the planet, one of the spacemen flipped a switch and put certain sensitive communication mechanisms to work. So sensitive, they could pick up etheric vibrations far away and make them audible.

But only faintly, came the pleasant voice of a contented man:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world…”

Sunrise on Mars

 

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There was a time a handful of decades ago when people read newspapers. They did it because newspapers (and magazines) were primary sources of news and entertainment. Imagine that.

Back in those days, the syndicated humor column “At Wit’s End” by Erma Bombeck was hugely popular. It appeared three times a week in 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. A staggering level of readership.

Nowadays, people may know her name vaguely, but probably haven’t read any of her stuff. I aim to fix that, because everyone should read themselves some Erma Bombeck.

Someone wrote that “motherhood was her beat.” Well, she covered it with remarkable insight and wit. Bombeck had a knack for finding and sharing the humor and absurdity in the life of a typical suburban mom. Her columns, whether biting, ironic, sardonic, sentimental, or a combination thereof, rarely disappointed.

Here is a sampling.

———

Waking Up Momma (1966)

How I am awakened in the morning usually determines how I feel the rest of the day.

When allowed to wake up in the natural way, I find myself quite civil and reasonable to cope with the routine. When the children do the job for me, I awake surly, uncommunicative and tire easily. (I once fell asleep while I was having my tooth filled.)

It all begins at some small hour in the morning. The children line up at my bedside and stare at me as if I’m a white whale that has been washed onto the beach.

“I think she hears us. Her eyelids fluttered.”

“Wait till she turns over, then everybody cough.”

“Get him out of here.”

“She’s pulling the covers over her ears. Start coughing.”

I don’t know how long it will be before one of them discovers that by taking my pulse they will be able to figure out by its rapid beat if I am faking or not. But it will come.

When they were smaller, they were even less subtle. They would stick their wet fingers in the openings of my face and whisper, “You awake yet?” Or good old Daddy would simply heave a flannel-wrapped bundle at me and say, “Here’s Mommy’s little boy.”

(Any mother with half a skull knows that when Daddy’s little boy becomes Mommy’s little boy, Daddy’s little boy is so wet he’s treading water.)

The imagination of children never fails to stagger me. Once they put a hamster on my chest, and when I bolted upright (my throat muscles paralyzed with fright) they asked, “Do you have any alcohol for the chemistry set?”

Probably the most unnerving eye-opener was a couple of weeks ago, when my eyes popped open without the slightest provocation. “Those rotten kids have done it again,” I grumbled. “How can I sleep with that infernal quiet? The last time it was this quiet they were eating cereal on the front lawn in raggy pajamas.” I hurried to find them.

I found them in the kitchen intent on their cereal. No noise. No nonsense. “Go back to bed,” they yelled. “We won’t want any lunch until nine-thirty or so.”

It was going to be another one of those days.

———

The Paint Tint Caper (1965)

Once… just once… I’d like to be dressed for an emergency.

I don’t mean like my grandmother used to warn: “That is not underwear to be hit by a car in.” I mean just to be glued together, so you’re not standing in a hospital hallway in a sweatshirt (PROPERTY OF NOTRE DAME ATHLETIC DEPT.) and a pair of bedroom slippers.

In a way, it’s almost as if fate were waging a cruel war and you’re in the middle of it. Not only are you (a) bleeding to death, (b) grimacing in pain, and (c) worried half out of your skull, you are also plagued with the fear that the nurses in East Wing C are passing the hat to adopt you and your family for Thanksgiving.

Take our Paint Tint Caper, for example. Our small son climbed into bed with us early one morning and smiled broadly. I’m intuitive. I’m a mother. I sensed something was wrong. His teeth were blue. He had bitten into a tube of paint tint. Now if you’re visualizing some sweet, tousled-hair boy in his fire-engine pajamas, forget it. This kid looked like he was being raised by werewolves!

In addition to his blue teeth, he was wearing a pair of training pants and his father’s old T-shirt, which caught him loosely around the ankles. This was obviously no time to be proud or to explain that I was a few years behind in the laundry. We rode like the wind to the emergency ward of the hospital, where the doctor checked over his blue teeth so calmly I thought there was something wrong with mine because they were white.

“What kind of paint tint?” he asked clinically.

“Sky blue,” we said shakily, pointing to the color on his T-shirt.

“I can see that,” he said irritably. “I mean, what did it contain chemically?”

My husband and I stared at each other. Normally, you understand, we don’t let a can of paint into the house until we’ve committed the chemical contents and their percentages to memory. This one had escaped us somehow.

While they were pumping his stomach, we took a good look at ourselves. My husband was in a pair of thrown-over-the-chair denims and his pajama top. I was wearing yesterday’s house dress with no belt, no hose, and a scarf around my uncombed hair. I was clutching a dish towel, my only accessory. We looked like a family of Okies who had just stepped into the corridor long enough to get a tin can of water for our boiling radiator.

There are other stories, other dilemmas, but the characters never change. We’re always standing around, unwashed, uncurled, harried, penniless, memory gone, no lipstick, no hose, unmatched shoes, and using the dirtiest cloth in the house to bind our wounds.

Makes you want to plan your next accident, doesn’t it?

———

When God Created Mothers (1974)

When the Good Lord was creating mothers, He was into his sixth day of “overtime” when an angel appeared and said, “You’re doing a lot of fiddling around on this one.”

And the Lord said, “Have you read the specs on this order? She has to be completely washable, but not plastic. Have 180 movable parts… all replaceable. Run on black coffee and leftovers. Have a lap that disappears when she stands up. A kiss that can cure anything from a broken leg to a disappointed love affair. And six pairs of hands.”

The angel shook her head slowly and said, “Six pairs of hands… no way.”

It’s not the hands that are causing me problems,” said the Lord. “It’s the three pairs of eyes that mothers have to have.”

That’s on the standard model?” asked the angel.

The Lord nodded. “One pair that sees through closed doors when she asks, ’What are you kids doing in there?’ when she already knows. Another here in the back of her head that sees what she shouldn’t but what she has to know, and of course the ones here in front that can look at a child when he goofs up and say, ’I understand and I love you’ without so much as uttering a word.”

Lord,” said the angel, touching His sleeve gently, “Go to bed. Tomorrow…”

I can’t,” said the Lord, “I’m so close to creating something so close to myself. Already I have one who heals herself when she is sick… can feed a family of six on one pound of hamburger… and can get a nine-year-old to stand under a shower.”

The angel circled the model of a mother very slowly. “It’s too soft,” she sighed.

But she’s tough!” said the Lord excitedly. “You cannot imagine what this mother can do or endure.”

Can it think?”

Not only can it think, but it can reason and compromise,” said the Creator.

Finally, the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek. “There’s a leak,” she pronounced. “I told You You were trying to push too much into this model.”

It’s not a leak,” said the Lord. “It’s a tear.”

What’s it for?”

It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and pride.”

You are a genius,” said the angel.

The Lord looked somber. “I didn’t put it there,” He said.

———

A Mother’s Love (1985)

Someday, when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I’ll tell them…

I loved you enough to bug you about where you were going, with whom, and what time you would get home.

I loved you enough to insist you buy a bike with your own money, which we could afford, and you couldn’t.

I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your handpicked friend was a creep.

I loved you enough to stand over you for two hours while you cleaned your bedroom, a job that would have taken me 15 minutes.

I loved you enough to say, “Yes, you can go to Disney World on Mother’s Day.”

I loved you enough to let you see anger, disappointment, disgust, and tears in my eyes.

I loved you enough not to make excuses for your lack of respect or your bad manners.

I loved you enough to admit that I was wrong and ask for your forgiveness.

I loved you enough to ignore “what every other mother” did or said.

I loved you enough to let you stumble, fall, hurt, and fail.

I loved you enough to let you assume the responsibility for your own actions, at 6, 10, or 16.

I loved you enough to figure you would lie about the party being chaperoned, but forgave you for it… after discovering I was right.

I loved you enough to shove you off my lap, let go of your hand, be mute to your pleas and insensitive to your demands… so that you had to stand alone.

I loved you enough to accept you for what you are, and not what I wanted you to be.

But most of all, I loved you enough to say no when you hated me for it. That was the hardest part of all.

———

Are We Rich? (1971)

The other day out of a clear blue sky Brucie asked, “Are we rich?”

I paused on my knees as I retrieved a dime from the sweeper bag, blew the dust off it and asked, “Not so you can notice. Why?”

How can you tell?” he asked.

I straightened up and thought a bit. Being rich is a relative sort of thing. Here’s how I can always tell.

You’re rich when you buy your gas at the same service station all the time so your glasses match.

You’re rich when you can have eight people to dinner and don’t have to wash forks between the main course and dessert.

You’re rich when you buy clothes for your kids that are two sizes too big for the one you buy ‘em for and four sizes too big for the one that comes after him.

You’re rich when you own a boat — without oars.

You can tell people have money when they record a check and don’t have to subtract it right away.

People have money when they sit around and joke with the cashier while she’s calling in their charge to see if it’s still open.

You’re rich when you write notes to the teacher on paper without lines.

You’re rich when your television set has all the knobs on it.

You’re rich when you can throw away a pair of pantyhose just because it has a large hole in it.

You know people are loaded when they don’t have to save rubber bands from the celery and store them on a doorknob.

You’re rich when you can have a home wedding without HAVEN FUNERAL HOME stamped on the folding chairs.

You’re rich when the Scouts have a paper drive and you have a stack of The New York Times in your basement.

You’re rich when your dog is wet and smells good.

You’re rich when your own hair looks so great everyone thinks it’s a wig.

Brucie sat quietly for a moment, then said, “I think my friend Ronny is rich.”

How can you tell?” I asked.

His mom buys his birthday cake at a bakery, and it isn’t even cracked on top.”

He’s rich, all right,” I sighed.

———

No More Oatmeal Kisses (1969)

A young mother writes: “I know you’ve written before about the empty-nest syndrome — that lonely period after the children are grown and gone. Right now, I’m up to my eyeballs in laundry and muddy boots. The baby is teething; the boys are fighting. My husband just called and said to eat without him, and I fell off my diet. Lay it on me again, will you?”

OK. One of these days, you’ll shout, “Why don’t you kids grow up and act your age!” And they will. Or, “You guys get outside and find yourselves something to do, and don’t slam the door!” And they won’t.

You’ll straighten up the boys’ bedroom neat and tidy — bumper stickers discarded, bedspread tucked and smooth, toys displayed on the shelves. Hangers in the closet. Animals caged. And you’ll say out loud, “Now I want it to stay this way.” And it will.

You’ll prepare a perfect dinner with a salad that hasn’t been picked to death and a cake with no finger traces in the icing, and you’ll say, “Now, there’s a meal for company.” And you’ll eat it alone.

You’ll say: “I want complete privacy on the phone. No dancing around. No demolition crews. Silence! Do you hear?” And you’ll have it.

No more plastic tablecloths stained with spaghetti. No more bedspreads to protect the sofa from damp bottoms. No more gates to stumble over at the top of the basement steps. No more clothespins under the sofa. No more playpens to arrange a room around.

No more anxious nights under a vaporizer tent. No more sand on the sheets or Popeye movies in the bathroom. No more iron-on patches, rubber bands for ponytails, tight boots or wet knotted shoestrings.

Imagine. A lipstick with a point on it. No babysitter for New Year’s Eve. Washing only once a week. Seeing a steak that isn’t ground. Having your teeth cleaned without a baby on your lap.

No PTA meetings. No car pools. No blaring radios. No one washing her hair at 11 o’clock at night. Having your own roll of Scotch tape.

Think about it. No more Christmas presents out of toothpicks and library paste. No more sloppy oatmeal kisses. No more tooth fairy. No giggles in the dark. No knees to heal, no responsibility.

Only a voice crying, “Why don’t you grow up?” and the silence echoing, “I did.”

———

Plenty of Erma Bombeck’s columns are in print, and many are available online. Do yourself a favor and read some more Bombeck.

Bombeck E

Erma Louise Bombeck (1927-1996)

 

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In 1956, Truman Capote wrote a famous recollection about Christmas in the 1930s in rural Alabama. It tells of Capote’s close relationship at age seven with an elderly spinster cousin, his best friend and confidante. The story is warm, sentimental, and clearly heartfelt.

Capote grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where, you may recall, his neighbor and childhood friend was Harper Lee. The spinster cousin, unnamed in the story, was Miss Nanny Rumbley Faulk, who was called Sook.

Central to “A Christmas Memory” is Sook’s magnificent home-made fruitcakes, which consisted of 21 ingredients and took half a day to prepare. Each fruitcake weighed almost 10 pounds. In case you’re feeling ambitious, here’s the recipe.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, peace, and good tidings.

———

A Christmas Memory

By Truman Capote
Originally published in Mademoiselle Magazine, December 1956.

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together — well, as long as I can remember.

Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unravelled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs.

But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.”

The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.

But before these Purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings.

Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.”; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”).

To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.

But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show.

My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, travelled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry.

Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.

Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies.

Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13.

“I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.

Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river.

We’ve been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs.

As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by.

People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted.

I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?”

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”

For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”

“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking.”

This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”

“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

Who are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year.

Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken).

Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.

Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating — with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle.

Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwed-up expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously.

I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips.

Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.

Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-in-law? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”

Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.

“Don’t cry,” I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter’s cough syrup, “Don’t cry,” I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, “you’re too old for that.”

“It’s because,” she hiccups, “I am too old. Old and funny.”

“Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don’t stop crying you’ll be so tired tomorrow we can’t go cut a tree.”

She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. “I know where we’ll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It’s way off in the woods. Farther than we’ve ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That’s fifty years ago. Well, now: I can’t wait for morning.”

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy.

Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south.

Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”

The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on.

Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Give ya two-bits” cash for that ol tree.”

Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.

A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime.

So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they’re easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree; as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose).

My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. “Now honest, Buddy. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat!” Queenie tries to eat an angel.

After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting.” But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly.

I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: “I could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could — and that’s not taking his name in vain”). Instead, I am building her a kite.

She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on several million occasions: “If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don’t ask how. Steal it, maybe”).

Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite — the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors; my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn’t enough breeze to carry clouds.

Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher’s to buy Queenie’s traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge.

Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer’s night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.

“Buddy, are you awake!” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you.

“Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy” — she hesitates, as though embarrassed — “I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh.

The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences.

Possibly we doze; but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we’re up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors.

One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine — from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.

Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But she says her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful; though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars; moreover, my name is painted on it, “Buddy.”

“Buddy, the wind is blowing.”

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind.

Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond.

“I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling.

But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are” — her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone — “just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This is our last Christmas together.

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones…”)

For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: “See a picture show and write me the story.”

But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather! “

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string.

That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

Capote-1

Capote-2

The photo taken of Truman and Sook by Mr. Wiston from California when his car broke down.

 

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Feeling the chill of winter? Here’s something to make it worse.

Writer and activist Jack London (1876-1916) became famous by writing stories about life in the frozen wilds of Alaska and the Yukon. He is the author of “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” and a host of memorable short stories.

One of his most famous short stories is “To Build a Fire,” which tells of a lone man’s struggle to survive in the wilderness after he falls through the ice and into a creek.

London wrote two versions of the story, one in 1902 and one in 1908. The 1908 story is longer, more detailed, and better known; the original is shorter and simpler, apparently written for a juvenile audience.

Here’s the original version.

———

To Build a Fire

By Jack London
Published in Youth’s Companion, May 1902.

For land travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable. In the Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out, such a companion is absolutely essential. But he found it out, not by precept, but through bitter experience.

“Never travel alone,” is a precept of the north. He had heard it many times and laughed; for he was a strapping young fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of his head and hands.

It was on a bleak January day when the experience came that taught him respect for the frost, and for the wisdom of the men who had battled with it.

He had left Calumet Camp on the Yukon with a light pack on his back, to go up Paul Creek to the divide between it and Cherry Creek, where his party was prospecting and hunting moose.

The frost was sixty-degrees below zero, and he had thirty miles of lonely trail to cover, but he did not mind. In fact, be enjoyed it, swinging along through the silence, his blood pounding warmly through veins, and his mind carefree and happy. For he and his comrades were certain they had struck “pay” up there on the Cherry Creek Divide; and, further, he was returning to them from Dawson with cheery home letters from the States.

At seven o’clock, when he turned the heels of his moccasins toward Calumet Camp, it was still black night. And when day broke at half past nine he had made the four-mile cut-off across the flats and was six miles up Paul Creek. The trail, which had seen little travel, followed the bed of the creek, and there was no possibility of his getting lost. He had gone to Dawson by way of Cherry Creek and Indian River, so Paul Creek was new and strange.

By half past eleven he was at the forks, which had been described to him, and he knew he had covered fifteen miles, half the distance. He knew that in the nature of things the trail was bound to grow worse from there on, and thought that, considering the good time he had made, he merited lunch. Casting off his pack and taking a seat on a fallen tree, he unmittened his right hand, reached inside his shirt next to the skin, and fished out a couple of biscuits sandwiched with sliced bacon and wrapped in a handkerchief — the only way they could be carried without freezing solid.

He had barely chewed the first mouthful when his numbing fingers warned him to put his mitten on again. This he did, not without surprise at the bitter swiftness with which the frost bit in. Undoubtedly it was the coldest snap he had ever experienced, he thought.

He spat upon the snow, — a favorite northland trick, — and the sharp crackle of the instantly congealed spittle startled him. The spirit thermometer at Calumet had registered sixty below when he left, but he was certain it had grown much colder, how much colder he could not imagine.

Half of the first biscuit was yet untouched, but he could feel himself beginning to chill — a thing most unusual for him. This would never do, he decided, and slipping the packstraps across his shoulders, he leaped to his feet and ran briskly up the trail.

A few minutes of this made him warm again, and he settled down to a steady stride, munching the biscuits as be went along. The moisture that exhaled with his breath crusted his lips and mustache with pendent ice and formed a miniature glacier on his chin. Now and again sensation forsook his nose and cheeks, and he rubbed them till they burned with the returning blood.

Most men wore nose-straps; his partners did, but he had scorned such “feminine contraptions,” and till now had never felt the need of them. Now he did feel the need, for he was rubbing constantly.

Nevertheless he was aware of a thrill of joy, of exultation. He was doing something, achieving something, mastering the elements. Once he laughed aloud in sheer strength of life, and with his clenched fist defied the frost. He was its master. What he did he did in spite of it. It could not stop him. He was going on to the Cherry Creek Divide.

Strong as were the elements, he was stronger. At such times animals crawled away into their holes and remained in hiding. But he did not hide. He was out in it, facing it, fighting it. He was a man, a master of things.

In such fashion, rejoicing proudly, he tramped on. After an hour he rounded a bend, where the creek ran close to the mountainside, and came upon one of the most insignificant-appearing but most formidable dangers in northern travel.

The creek itself was frozen solid to its rocky bottom, but from the mountain came the outflow of several springs. These springs never froze, and the only effect of the severest cold snaps was to lessen their discharge. Protected from the frost by the blanket of snow, the water of these springs seeped down into the creek and, on top of the creek ice, formed shallow pools.

The surface of these pools, in turn, took on a skin of ice which grew thicker and thicker, until the water overran, and so formed a second ice-skinned pool above the first.

Thus at the bottom was the solid creek ice, then probably six to eight inches of water, then the thin ice-skin, then another six inches of water and another ice-skin. And on top of this last skin was about an inch of recent snow to make the trap complete.

To Tom Vincent’s eye the unbroken snow surface gave no warning of the lurking danger. As the crust was thicker at the edge, he was well toward the middle before he broke through.

In itself it was a very insignificant mishap, — a man does not drown in twelve inches of water, — but in its consequences as serious an accident as could possibly befall him.

At the instant he broke through he felt the cold water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a dozen lunges he made the bank. He was quite cool and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing to do, was to build a fire. For another precept of the north runs: Travel with wet socks down to twenty below zero; after that build a fire. And it was three times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.

He knew, further, that great care must be exercised; that with failure at the first attempt, the chance was made greater for failure at the second attempt. In short, he knew that there must be no failure. The moment before a strong, exulting man, boastful of his mastery of the elements, he was now fighting for his life against those same elements — such was the difference caused by the injection of a quart of water into a northland traveller’s calculations.

In a clump of pines on the rim of the bank the spring high-water had lodged many twigs and small branches. Thoroughly dried by the summer sun, they now waited the match.

It is impossible to build a fire with heavy Alaskan mittens on one’s hands, so Vincent bared his, gathered a sufficient number of twigs, and knocking the snow from them, knelt down to kindle his fire. From an inside pocket he drew out his matches and a strip of thin birch bark. The matches were of the Klondike kind, sulphur matches, one hundred in a bunch.

He noticed how quickly his fingers had chilled as he separated one match from the bunch and scratched it on his trousers. The birch bark, like the dryest of paper, burst into bright flame. This he carefully fed with the smallest twigs and finest debris, cherishing the flame with the utmost care. It did not do to hurry things, as he well knew, and although his fingers were now quite stiff, he did not hurry.

After the first quick, biting sensation of cold, his feet had ached with a heavy, dull ache and were rapidly growing numb. But the fire, although a very young one, was now a success; he knew that a little snow, briskly rubbed, would speedily cure his feet.

But at the moment he was adding the first thick twigs to the fire a grievous thing happened. The pine boughs above his head were burdened with a four months snowfall, and so finely adjusted were the burdens that his slight movement in collecting the twigs had been sufficient to disturb the balance.

The snow from the topmost bough was the first to fall, striking and dislodging the snow on the boughs beneath. And all this snow, accumulating as it fell, smote Tom Vincent’s head and shoulders and blotted out his fire.

He still kept his presence of mind, for he knew how great his danger was. He started at once to rebuild the fire, but his fingers were now so numb that he could not bend them, and he was forced to pick up each twig and splinter between the tips of the fingers of either hand.

When he came to the match he encountered great difficulty in separating one from the bunch. This he succeeded in managing, however, and also, by great effort, in clutching the match between his thumb and forefinger. But in scratching it, he dropped it in the snow and could not pick it up again.

He stood up, desperate. He could not feel even his weight on his feet, although the ankles were aching painfully. Putting on his mittens, he stepped to one side, so that the snow would not fall upon the new fire he was to build, and beat his hands violently against a tree-trunk.

This enabled him to separate and strike a second match and to set fire to the remaining fragment of birch bark. But his body had now begun to chill and he was shivering, so that when be tried to add the first twigs his hand shook and the tiny flame was quenched.

The frost had beaten him. His hands were worthless. But he had the foresight to drop the bunch of matches into his wide-mouthed outside pocket before he slipped on his mittens in despair, and started to run up the trail. One cannot run the frost out of wet feet at sixty below and colder, however, as he quickly discovered.

He came round a sharp turn of the creek to where he could look ahead for a mile. But there was no help, no sign of help, only the white trees and the white hills, and the quiet cold and the brazen silence! If only he had a comrade whose feet were not freezing, he thought, only such a comrade to start the fire that could save him!

Then his eyes chanced upon another high-water lodgment of twigs and branches. If he could strike a match, all might yet be well. With stiff fingers which he could not bend, he got out a bunch of matches, but found it impossible to separate them.

He sat down and awkwardly shuffled the bunch about on his knees, until he got it resting on his palm with the sulphur ends projecting, somewhat in the manner the blade of a hunting-knife would project when clutched in the fist.

But his fingers stood straight out. They could not clutch. This he overcame by pressing the wrist of the other hand against them, and so forcing them down upon the bunch. Time and again, holding thus by both hands, he scratched the bunch on his leg and finally ignited it. But the flame burned into the flesh of his hand, and he involuntarily relaxed his hold. The bunch fell into the snow, and while he tried vainly to pick it up, sizzled and went out.

Again he ran, by this time badly frightened. His feet were utterly devoid of sensation. He stubbed his toes once on a buried log, but beyond pitching him into the snow and wrenching his back, it gave him no feelings.

He recollected being told of a camp of moose-hunters somewhere above the forks of Paul Creek. He must be somewhere near it, he thought, and if he could find it he yet might be saved. Five minutes later he came upon it, lone and deserted, with drifted snow sprinkled inside the pine-bough shelter in which the hunters had slept. He sank down, sobbing. All was over, and in an hour at best, in that terrific temperature, he would be an icy corpse.

But the love of life was strong in him, and he sprang again to his feet. He was thinking quickly. What if the matches did burn his hands? Burned hands were better than dead hands. No hands at all were better than death. He floundered along the trail until be came upon another high-water lodgment. There were twigs and branches, leaves and grasses, all dry and waiting the fire.

Again he sat down and shuffled the bunch of matches on his knees, got it into place on his palm, with the wrist of his other hand forced the nerveless fingers down against the bunch, and with the wrist kept them there. At the second scratch the bunch caught fire, and he knew that if he could stand the pain he was saved. He choked with the sulphur fumes, and the blue flame licked the flesh of his hands.

At first he could not feel it, but it burned quickly in through the frosted surface. The odor of the burning flesh — his flesh — was strong in his nostrils. He writhed about in his torment, yet held on. He set his teeth and swayed back and forth, until the clear white flame of the burning match shot up, and he had applied that flame to the leaves and grasses.

An anxious five minutes followed, but the fire gained steadily. Then he set to work to save himself. Heroic measures were necessary, such was his extremity, and he took them.

Alternately rubbing his hands with snow and thrusting them into the flames, and now and again beating them against the hard trees, he restored their circulation sufficiently for them to be of use to him. With his hunting-knife he slashed the straps from his pack, unrolled his blanket, and got out dry socks and footgear.

Then he cut away his moccasins and bared his feet. But while he had taken liberties with his hands, he kept his feet fairly away from the fire and rubbed them with snow. He rubbed till his hands grew numb, when he would cover his feet with the blanket, warm his hands by the fire, and return to the rubbing.

For three hours he worked, till the worst effects of the freezing had been counteracted. All that night he stayed by the fire, and it was late the next day when he limped pitifully into the camp on the Cherry Creek Divide.

In a month’s time he was able to be about on his feet, although the toes were destined always after that to be very sensitive to frost. But the scars on his hands he knows he will carry to the grave. And — “Never travel alone!” he now lays down the precept of the North.

To Build a Fire

———

London’s more intense 1908 version of “To Build a Fire” is a bit long for the confines of a blog post. No worries. You can read it here.

 

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More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time.

———


Forgotten Language

By Shel Silverstein

Silverstein S

Sheldon Allan Silverstein (1930-1999)

Once I spoke the language of the flowers,
Once I understood each word the caterpillar said,
Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings,
And shared a conversation with the housefly
in my bed.

Once I heard and answered all the questions
of the crickets,
And joined the crying of each falling dying
flake of snow,
Once I spoke the language of the flowers.
.
.
.

How did it go?
How did it go?

——–

 

Percy and Books

By Mary Oliver

Oliver M

Mary Oliver (B. 1935)

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it, and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out, and the neighbor’s dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say, Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.
Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough. Let’s go.

 

———


Still Here

By Langston Hughes

Hughes-L

James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

I been scared and battered.

My hopes the wind done scattered.

Snow has friz me,
Sun has baked me,

Looks like between 'em they done
Tried to make me

Stop laughin', stop lovin', stop livin' --
But I don't care!
I'm still here!

---------

We Alone

By Alice Walker

Walker A

Alice Malsenior Walker (B. 1944)

We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
if it falls or rises
in the marketplace.

Wherever there is gold
there is a chain, you know,
and if your chain
is gold
so much the worse
for you.

Feathers, shells
and sea-shaped stones
are all as rare.

This could be our revolution:
to love what is plentiful
as much as
what's scarce.


---------

 

A Red, Red Rose

By Robert Burns

Burns R

Robert Burns (1759-1796)

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

 

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Author Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was a gifted wordsmith and for years a creative powerhouse in Hollywood. In addition to writing science fiction, he had overlapping careers as a copywriter, scriptwriter, and screenwriter.

I’ve featured Slesar’s sci-fi stories twice before on this blog. You can read them here and here. The dude was quite a talent.

———

The Stuff

By Henry Slesar
Published in Galaxy Magazine, August 1961

“No more lies,” Paula said. “For God’s sake, Doctor, no more lies. I’ve been living with lies for the past year and I’m tired of them.”

Bernstein closed the white door before answering, mercifully obscuring the sheeted, motionless mound on the hospital bed. He took the young woman’s elbow and walked with her down the tiled corridor.

“He’s dying, of course,” he said conversationally. “We’ve never lied to you about that, Mrs. Hills; you know what we’ve told you all along. I hoped that by now you’d feel more resigned.”

“I was,” she said bitterly. They had stopped in front of Bernstein’s small office, and she drew her arm away. “But then you called me. About this drug of yours.”

“We had to call you. Senopoline can’t be administered without permission of the patient, and since your husband has been in coma for the last four days –”

He opened the door and nodded her inside. She hesitated, then walked in. He took his place behind the cluttered desk, his grave face distracted, and waited until she sat down in the facing chair. He picked up his telephone receiver, replaced it, shuffled papers, and then locked his hands on the desk blotter.

“Senopoline is a curious drug,” he said. “I’ve had little experience with it myself. You may have heard about the controversy surrounding it.”

“No,” she whispered. “I don’t know about it. I haven’t cared about anything since Andy’s illness.”

“At any rate, you’re the only person in the world that can decide whether your husband receives it. It’s strange stuff, as I said, but in the light of your husband’s present condition, I can tell you this — it can do him absolutely no harm.”

But it will do him good?”

“There,” Bernstein sighed, “is the crux of the controversy, Mrs. Hills.”

###

Row, row, row your boat, he sang in his mind, feeling the lapping tongues of the cool lake water against his fingers, drifting, drifting, under obeisant willows. Paula’s hands were resting gently on his eyes and he lifted them away. Then he kissed the soft palms and pressed them on his cheek. When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find that the boat was a bed, the water only pelting rain against the window, and the willow trees long shadows on the walls. Only Paula’s hands were real, solid and real and comforting against his face.

He grinned at her. “Funniest damn thing,” he said. “For a minute there, I thought we were back at Finger Lake. Remember that night we sprang a leak? I’ll never forget the way you looked when you saw the hem of your dress.”

“Andy,” she said quietly. “Andy, do you know what’s happened?”

He scratched his head. “Seems to me Doc Bernstein was in here a while ago. Or was he? Didn’t they jab me again or something?”

“It was a drug, Andy. Don’t you remember? They have this new miracle drug, senopoline. Dr. Bernstein told you about it, said it was worth the try…”

“Oh, sure, I remember.”

He sat up in bed, casually, as if sitting up in bed were an everyday occurrence. He took a cigarette from the table beside him and lit one. He smoked reflectively for a moment, and then recalled that he hadn’t been anything but horizontal for almost eight months. Swiftly, he put his hand on his rib cage and touched the firm flesh.

“The girdle,” he said wonderingly. “Where the hell’s the girdle?”

“They took it off,” Paula said tearfully. “Oh, Andy, they took it off. You don’t need it any more. You’re healed, completely healed. It’s a miracle!”

“A miracle…”

She threw her arms about him; they hadn’t held each other since the accident a year ago, the accident that had snapped his spine in several places. He had been twenty-two when it happened.

###

They released him from the hospital three days later; after half a year in the hushed white world, the city outside seemed wildly clamorous and riotously colorful, like a town at the height of carnival. He had never felt so well in his life; he was eager to put the strong springs of his muscles back into play. Bernstein had made the usual speech about rest, but a week after his discharge Andy and Paula were at the courts in tennis clothes.

Andy had always been a dedicated player, but his stiff-armed forehand and poor net game had always prevented him from being anything more than a passable amateur. Now he was a demon on the court, no ball escaping his swift-moving racket. He astounded himself with the accuracy of his crashing serves, his incredible play at the net.

Paula, a junior champion during her college years, couldn’t begin to cope with him; laughingly, she gave up and watched him battle the club professional. He took the first set 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, and Andy knew that something more magical than medicinal had happened to him.

They talked it over, excited as schoolchildren, all the way home. Andy, who had taken a job in a stock-brokerage house after college, and who had been bored silly with the whole business until the accident, began wondering if he could make a career on the tennis court.

To make sure his superb playing wasn’t a fluke, they returned to the club the next day. This time, Andy found a former Davis Cup challenger to compete with. At the end of the afternoon, his heart pounding to the beat of victory, he knew it was true.

That night, with Paula in his lap, he stroked her long auburn hair and said: “No, Paula, it’s all wrong. I’d like to keep it up, maybe enter the Nationals, but that’s no life for me. It’s only a game, after all.”

“Only a game?” she said mockingly. “That’s a fine thing for the next top-seeded man to say.”

“No, I’m serious. Oh, I don’t mean I intend to stay in Wall Street; that’s not my ambition either. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of painting again.”

“Painting? You haven’t painted since your freshman year. You think you can make a living at it?”

“I was always pretty good, you know that. I’d like to try doing some commercial illustration; that’s for the bread and potatoes. Then, when we don’t have to worry about creditors, I’d like to do some things on my own.”

“Don’t pull a Gauguin on me, friend.” She kissed his cheek lightly. “Don’t desert your wife and family for some Tahitian idyll…”

“What family?”

She pulled away from him and got up to stir the ashes in the fireplace. When she returned, her face was glowing with the heat of the fire and warmth of her news.

Andrew Hills, Junior, was born in September. Two years later, little Denise took over the hand-me-down cradle. By that time, Andy Hills was signing his name to the magazine covers of America’s top-circulation weeklies, and they were happy to feature it. His added fame as America’s top-ranked amateur tennis champion made the signature all the more desirable.

When Andrew Junior was three, Andrew Senior made his most important advance in the field of art — not on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, but in the halls of the Modern Museum of Art. His first exhibit evoked such a torrent of superlatives that the New York Times found the reaction newsworthy enough for a box on the front page.

There was a celebration in the Hills household that night, attended by their closest friends: copies of slick magazines were ceremoniously burned and the ashes placed in a dime-store urn that Paula had bought for the occasion.

A month later, they were signing the documents that entitled them to a sprawling hilltop house in Westchester, with a north-light glassed-in studio the size of their former apartment.

He was thirty-five when the urge struck him to rectify a sordid political situation in their town. His fame as an artist and tennis-champion (even at thirty-five, he was top-seeded in the Nationals) gave him an easy entree into the political melee. At first, the idea of vote-seeking appalled him; but he couldn’t retreat once the movement started.

He won easily and was elected to the town council. The office was a minor one, but he was enough of a celebrity to attract country-wide attention. During the following year, he began to receive visits from important men in party circles; in the next state election, his name was on the ballot. By the time he was forty, Andrew Hills was a U.S. Senator.

That spring, he and Paula spent a month in Acapulco, in an enchanting home they had erected in the cool shadows of the steep mountains that faced the bay. It was there that Andy talked about his future.

“I know what the party’s planning,” he told his wife, “but I know they’re wrong. I’m not Presidential timber, Paula.”

But the decision wasn’t necessary; by summer, the Asiatic Alliance had tired of the incessant talks with the peacemakers and had launched their attack on the Alaskan frontier. Andy was commissioned at once as a major.

His gallantry in action, his brilliant recapture of Shaktolik, White Mountain, and eventual triumphant march into Nome guaranteed him a place in the High Command of the Allied Armies.

By the end of the first year of fighting, there were two silver stars on his shoulder and he was given the most critical assignment of all — to represent the Allies in the negotiations that were taking place in Fox Island in the Aleutians. Later, he denied that he was solely responsible for the successful culmination of the peace talks, but the American populace thought him hero enough to sweep him into the White House the following year in a landslide victory unparalleled in political history.

He was fifty by the time he left Washington, but his greatest triumphs were yet to come. In his second term, his interest in the World Organization had given him a major role in world politics. As First Secretary of the World Council, his ability to effect a working compromise between the ideological factions was directly responsible for the establishment of the World Government.

When he was sixty-four, Andrew Hills was elected World President, and he held the office until his voluntary retirement at seventy-five. Still active and vigorous, still capable of a commanding tennis game, of a painting that set art circles gasping, he and Paula moved permanently into the house in Acapulco.

He was ninety-six when the fatigue of living overtook him. Andrew Junior, with his four grandchildren, and Denise, with her charming twins, paid him one last visit before he took to his bed.

###

“But what is the stuff?” Paula said. “Does it cure or what? I have a right to know!”

Dr. Bernstein frowned. “It’s rather hard to describe. It has no curative powers. It’s more in the nature of a hypnotic drug, but it has a rather peculiar effect. It provokes a dream.”

“A dream?”

“Yes. An incredibly long and detailed dream, in which the patient lives an entire lifetime, and lives it just the way he would like it to be. You might say it’s an opiate, but the most humane one ever developed.”

Paula looked down at the still figure on the bed. His hand was moving slowly across the bed-sheet, the fingers groping toward her.

“Andy,” she breathed. “Andy darling…”

His hand fell across hers, the touch feeble and aged.

“Paula,” he whispered, “say good-by to the children for me.”

The Stuff

Original illustration from Galaxy Magazine by “Ritter.”

 

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