The Light of Day

The following short story was inspired by the hauntingly beautiful winter scene pictured. I found this small, 4 x 6, unsigned, pen and ink on paper at a barn sale in Wisconsin many years ago. It remains one of my very favorite pieces. 

Katie keeps the meager fire burning in the small cottage at the edge of the woods, watching her mother twist and turn. Hearing her quietly moan.

Looking around the cabin, she’s desperate for something to do – some way to be useful. But all’s been done in the last two days since the contractions began. So all there is to do is be there when her mother calls, and wait.

Motionless at the kitchen window, she watches the rising sun slowly define the intricate silhouettes of the barren trees behind the barn.

What will the new light bring?

But she’s exhausted and the light is dim. Wiping away the frost and the fog with the apron she’s been wringing in her small hands, Katie watches her father through the kitchen window as he prepares the wagon to fetch the midwife from town. Hitching the horses in the pale light of the lantern, she marvels at his ease and compassion. Patting each of theirs rumps and their necks, and rubbing their broad, long noses, he gently rouses his team to their unexpected task.

Clouds of breath rise from their nostrils and disappear into the cold and still of the mid-winter’s morning as he moves swiftly around the massive beasts, laying the harness as he has hunderds of times before. With bridles slung over each shoulder, he warms both metal bits beneath his thick coat before putting it in their mouths; and for his daily thoughtfulness, each horse lowers his high, heavy head toward him when he holds out their bridle.

Katie smiles.

Until another moan comes from behind and she’s at the side of the bed before the contraction ends and her mom can see again. Gently wiping her brow with the apron, she squeezes tight when her mother grabs hold of her hand and clutches it to her chest.

Smiling again when her mother turns toward her.

Opening her eyes to her daughter, no pain can blur the struggle she sees in her young heart and old hands. She wants to hold her, to hug her tight and tell her everything will be well, but another bolt of pain seizes her thoughts and intents, and she releases her daughter’s hand, clutching the bedsheets instead.

Twice the dawn has come and gone and still the little one is all turned around and stubborn to leave. But I’m stubborn too, she repeats as she squeezes. And the midwife will be here soon.

Pacing the room, Katie hears a horse whinny and looks through the glass and the ice to see the foggy figure of her father climb to his seat, lift his collar against the cold, and call to his team. Running out the door to the edge of the yard, she watches her father disappear into the expanding light.

The horses’ hooves and wagon wheels crush the thin, icy layer that’s formed on top of yesterday’s heavy, wet snowfall, and the sounds of the departing wagon cut through the silence, the winter and the morning, like a tear in the universe.

His universe.

His happy home.

“Click-click,” he urges his horses, while urging himself to peace; to steady his breathing and steady their pace.

All will be fine. She’s a strong woman. Far stronger than me.

“And what would she say of this mood beyond hope?” he calls to his team, resting his eyes on the road up ahead, as the dim and grey of the dawning, winter day becomes brighter and whiter with the strengthening light.

The Gift Inside

The following piece of fiction was inspired by this box, found many years ago at an estate sale in southern Wisconsin, and by a trip to Portugal a couple of years ago.

The tuk-tuk spun around the corner of the centuries-old church, just missing a mother standing in the middle of the busy road, trying to get her miserable-looking teenagers to stand within spitting distance of each other, their father, and the stained glass building they walked three tension-laced miles to see.

Maria didn’t flinch.

Her long, brown hair sailed behind her as the little, red tuk-tuk jerked momentarily left, then hugged the turn and hummed up the narrow street to a shady spot below a gnarly, old tree growing through the courtyard wall of the ancient church.

Daily spirited by the desire to pay off the money she borrowed to buy the three-wheeler she’d been driving for someone else for long enough, Maria had been out looking for fares each morning as soon as the day’s first voices rose to her third floor window from the narrow streets cramped with crumbling, pastel buildings.

And in a couple of hours, eager tourists.

“Such a hard worker,” the old ladies on the streets called to her each morning from different stoops and stories where they hung their gossip and their laundry and looked to the cloudy skies with defiance.

“Such a lovely girl,” they’d laugh and shout down the narrow streets, good and loud, so Maria (already around the block) could still hear, “but too much putt-puttering and not any kissing!”

Setting off a chain reaction of neighboring howls coming from behind damp sheets and dangling undergarments.

Even the young men from the neighborhood would stop what they were doing to watch her pass as she doggedly criss-crossed the city in her shiny, red tuk-tuk.

And if they caught her eye and she smiled their way…

But Maria just saw her city.

And curious faces – of all shapes and sizes – in her rear view mirror. Swaying and smiling at each twist and turn. With cartloads in her care each day, she putt-puttered up and down the city’s rolling hills; laying bare the love of her birthplace, with its pocked and weathered walls and bustling river banks, its many histories and specialities.

The city’s recent reawakening filled Maria with such joy that she wore her smile like her old, lace-up sneakers – daily and for the same reason – from the moment she uncovered her bright red partner, until the deep dark of a new day dragged weary sightseers indoors to rest their blistered feet, and Maria up the stairs.

Each exhausted, but eager for the morning.

Quieting in the wake of the high season, the young guide with the easy smile decided to linger longer than usual in the shade of the churchyard tree and the stillness of the dead end. Taking a rag from below her seat, she circled her tuk-tuk.

Inspecting.

Polishing.

Proud of it – and herself.

But the tuk-tuk already sparkled in the filtered light of the autumn tree. She put the rag beneath her seat and reached into the striped canvas bag next to it, lifting out an oval box with thick metal molding, pointed and curved, and crownlike.

Sitting with her feet on the dashboard and the box on her knees, Maria carefully examined it – the cold of its molding and warmth of its wood; its tiny lock, with its tiny key hanging from a string tied to the handle.

Which, as she’d promised on the day she received it, still hadn’t been used in the lock.

Nuno, the young man Maria knew from the bodega around the corner from where she parked the tuk-tuk, surprised her one day, coming out from behind the wide, low wooden counter.

And she noticed how very tall he was.

She had never seen the dark-haired, dark-eyed, somber young man anywhere but behind the cash register and he hadn’t spoken a word to her in two years, just a smile-less nod each day he handed her change and her purchase. Now, all of a sudden, he wasn’t surrounded by massive walls of shelves stacked with bottles and boxes and tin mountains of sardines and appeared larger than life. His dark eyes looking straight into hers, but his face still and unrevealing, he was walking straight at her, with what looked like a small treasure chest in his hands.

He thrust the box toward Maria with great urgency, causing her to stumble back and nearly topple a tower of tourist magnets. With barely a moment to right herself, Nuno was unapologetically upon her, with the box still clutched in his outstretched arms.

“I made this for you,” his words tumbled out.

Maria had just found her balance when his words made her knees give way.

Bracing herself, she searched for something to say.

“That’s very sweet, Nuno, but I couldn’t take such a treasure from you.”

As she said it, the young clerk’s face dropped, as did his arms holding his handmade gift. Maria lunged forward to save it from hitting the old, stone floor, catching the box by its thick, wire handle.

She leaned against the thick, well-worn counter, comforted by its steadfast timbers.

“I’m so sorry, Nuno,” she smiled as she held the box up and began to admire its strength, warmth, uniqueness.

Why would you make me such a thing, Nuno?” she said looking at him for the first time since she first rejected his gift.

“The gift is not the box,” he said, surprising Maria again. “The gift is inside.”

Maria turned the handsome, oval box of carefully bent wood and skillfully molded metal. It seemed far lighter than it should. She gently shook it near her ear and winked.

“You’re teasing me,” she said as she felt her cheeks turned red.

“I promise, I’m not,” Nuno insisted.

Setting the gift on the counter, Maria reached for the key on the string and slipped it into the tiny lock, but before she turned it, she found Nuno’s hand gently, but firmly on top of hers.

“Please promise me you won’t open it… Not yet.”

Maria looked into the eyes of the serious, young shopkeeper and even though the promise and its many unanswered questions made her uneasy, after her last rejection, she decided it best to accept this unexpected present.

Picking the box back up, she briefly hugged it to her chest with a smile, thanked him, and made the promise.

“You’ll let me know when it’s time?” she smiled as she turned toward the stained glass shop door, glowing red and blue in the waning sun.

“You’ll know,” replied Nuno, meeting her eyes for a moment then disappearing to the back of the shop, behind the large wall of warped shelves, thick with as many layers of paint as the generations who piled them high with boxes of goods not paid for with promises.

Lost in thoughts of what had happened just last week, Maria, rubbing the small key in her fingers, didn’t notice the elderly American couple until they were at her side, holding hands and umbrellas, with tired feet and hopeful smiles below ever darkening skies.

Putting the box into its bag and grabbing her plastic-coated maps, the young guide is soon taking the Americans to her favorite spots, where the tuk-tuk trails behind the city tram rattling along well-trodden tracks, passing worn buildings covered in weatherbeaten tiles, still bold and bright and remarkable in their variety and design.

Within seconds of the tuk-tuk rolling forward, uneasy thoughts of Nuno and his gift are replaced with the familiar smells and sights of her beloved city, its bustling centers filled with buses and tour guides and taxis, and tourists wanting to see it all in two and a half days.

Its ancient walls built upon ancient layers, held upright and together by scaffolding, hope, and netting like the graffiti which tags every part of the city.

A multicolored net cast over nearly every building.

Some powerful and profoundly beautiful.

Some angry, ugly, and rueful.

Telltale scars of its 20th century life.

But the city survived. Battered, but proud. Heart beating strong.

Maria sensed it around every corner, in stacks of salted cod on the shelves and fresh meats hanging from the windows; in the terraced, cobbled steps heavy with the scent of citrus trees, where residents sip dark amber wine and listen for the Fado singers to begin their nightly performance.

She heard it in the sounds of children laughing and screaming from the school’s rooftop garden and saw it in the dark, narrow shops piled high with dusty, unwanted goods, where crumpled shopkeepers long past keeping shop, hover at the entrance, searching more for conversation than customers.

Parked in front of one of these sleepy, old stores waiting while the American couple explores the ruins of a Roman arena, Maria’s thoughts wandered back to the box, her questions and, especially, her promise – none of which had left her since that day and all of which were beginning to weigh down her smile.

People in the neighborhood began to take notice.

“She hasn’t smiled since she got that box from Nuno,” they’d whisper down the alleys, as she slowly puttered past, wearing a distracted look like a pair of sunglasses trying to hide her unrest.

“What has he done to our happy girl?” they’d moan like the start of a sad folk song. “He must let her see what’s in the box before it drives her mad.”

And that’s just how Maria was beginning to feel, completely mad.

Each time she lifted it from its canvas bag to examine it and question it – which she did, again and again – she swore the box felt heavier. And the heavier it got, the more compelled she was to carry it with her.

Within a few days, Maria could be seen toting the burden down the long, narrow stairs and alleys, straining and frowning, but keeping her promise, until one day the box became too heavy for even her faithful, old, three-wheeled friend to carry up and down the hills of her treasured city.

She couldn’t take it any longer and leaving the onerous box in the immobilized tuk-tuk, she fumed and stomped toward Nuno’s shop, repeating all of the questions that had been troubling her nights and days.

Nuno saw her enter the shop out of the corner of his eye as he helped a young boy count his change to buy the very last pastry of the day. Only when the boy was out the door with a mouthful of custard and the tart half-eaten, did the young storeowner look toward Maria and nod.

“You must come and take your gift back,” she said loudly and without hesitation.

The young man stood frozen and silent behind the counter.

“Please, Nuno,” she begged with tears already falling from her tired eyes, “I can’t accept it and it’s too heavy for me to carry.”

The young man stared at her until she began to question her decision. Then, without a word, he walked out of the store, passing so close to Maria she could smell his disappointment.

But not looking at her.

Maria followed him out onto the cobbled street, jogging to keep up with his long, determined strides.

Approaching the shiny, red tuk-tuk, riding even lower with the weight of its mysterious gift, Nuno looked for the familiar canvas bag and reached inside, hesitating before lifting the box out.

His head sunk low.

“Inside is everything,” he groaned and shook as he strained to lift his gift. Maria’s heart sank, but she could already feel herself lighten as Nuno took the locked wood and metal box in his trembling arms and walked away.

It was days before she could drive past Nuno’s shop, she was shocked to see the shutters on its windows and a sale sign hanging from the stained glass door.

Maria brought the tuk-tuk to a sudden stop in front of the shop and jumped out, looking both ways down the street before peeking through a small pane of clear glass on the door.

Everything was gone.

The well-tended floors were now littered with newspaper and the once brimming shelves were barren and beaten. Maria’s eyes quickly found the only thing that remained, the oval box sitting in the middle of the low, wooden counter in the back of the shop.

Maria’s insides twinged.

The lock was open, but still latched, and its tiny key, which had always hung by the box’s handle, was nowhere to be seen.

She leaned her head heavily against the door and sighed. “How can I leave that box for a stranger?”

Stepping toward the door, she reached for the handle but stopped herself as soon as her fingers touched the cold brass.

Placing her hands in the pockets of her jeans, Maria turned away from the shop with a smile, climbed into her shiny, red tuk-tuk, and put-puttered away.

The Girl in the Red Velvet Hat

I saw a girl in a red velvet hat with feathers to one side.
Meeting her eyes, I smiled.
She grinned, but shyly turned her gaze.
So I studied her young silhouette
and thought of long past days.
Of ladies in fabulous hats and fitted suits,
with cigarettes and sassy comebacks
for men in Fedoras, white shirts and ties
who secretly longed for the pretty, young ladies
in red, velvet hats with feathers to one side.

This hat is available at my Etsy shop, ChannelingNonna.

The Toy Train

Staring at the corner of his small, shaded, shared room which smells of disinfectant, death and old wool, all that’s left of Jake’s life stands on the shelf before him: a couple of dusty, unframed photos (faded images of lost faces, youth and health) on a teetering pile of once comforting books, earmarked and yellowed, barely held together by their cracked and broken bindings.

Lifting them from their place would reveal a thick outline of their long neglect but the books are now just painful reminders of his last stroke and the words are un-consoling strangers among the unclear images that come, and mostly go, of what’s come and all but gone in Jake’s long, lonely life of merely living long.

Yet there’s something on that meager shelf the old man treasures which came to him one summer from his only uncle, Joe, a large, quiet man with the strength of a bull, who worked his whole life in the northern logging camps, bringing down trees, building other men’s wealth.

The meeting was brief but the moment still strong in a desperate childhood filled with hunger and want. He’d come down from the highland forests the August Jake turned six. The air was stifling – thick, as was Joe’s large frame filling the door of the derelict cabin where the boy and his mom scratched out their living mending shirts, washing laundry, running errands – any work to be found up and down the great, green mountain.

The unexpected visit surprised Jake’s mom, who hadn’t seen her brother since they were young. Sent off as soon as they could earn a living on their own. She embraced the waist of the burly, bearded man, who returned the hug with one, massive, tree-trunk-of-an-arm, then turning to his only nephew with a wide, toothy grin, Joe revealed his hidden arm, where two objects lay in his giant, calloused palm.

With fingers big as branches, with bits of paper, bark and wire, the woodsman had turned simple scraps he’d found around the camp into a logging train, with its smokestack engine coupled to a car fully loaded with tiny, timbered logs tied up with string.

“Ain’t much.”

But it was everything.

Sitting at the large, well-worn work table together, Jake’s uncle and mother searched for words to close the gap of so many years, while the boy rested his chin against his sinewy, tanned arms, crossed atop the hard-scrubbed pine, staring eye-level at the train.

Hesitant to touch it for fear it would, like a fidgety spirit, fade away.

Or worse, break in his young, but hardened hands.

Just studying it – knowing it was his – was more than enough for the boy.

The brief visit would be the first and last time he would see his Uncle Joe, whose large, lumberjack’s frame had barely left the shadow of the shack before the grind of what would be Jake’s life had begun again.

Having that train in his sight each day – the one made just for him a lifetime away – made even the strangest places left behind and those ahead, endurable.

And Jake feel fairly human.

Just West of the Midwest Chapter 13: A Very Short Story Loosely Based on the Truth

With a book that held no interest sitting open in her lap, she sat on the train bound for Shintomi-cho, quietly taking in the faces of the passengers surrounding her.

The conflicting smells of bento [box lunches] and local chicken farms filled the air, creating vastly different sensations that ranged from cravings to queasiness.

The idle train, which had been stopped for quite some time at Kawaminami Station waiting for a freighter to pass, sporadically shuddered and rattled. The taunting motion made her more and more anxious to be moving.

It had been a long and exhausting weekend and the only exercise her mind would allow was staring out the window at the Japanese countryside with the same glazed intensity of a mannequin in a store window.

Acutely focused.

Seeing nothing.

Until, from the murky depths of her gaze, she saw something strange in the woods just fifty feet from the train’s window. At first, all reason told her that what she saw was simply a pile of garbage. After all, just a short while ago, as the train rattled down the tracks toward home, she had mistaken ugly, metal silos for primitive grass shacks, attributing the error to her tired eyes and all but drained mental faculty.

Still… she stared at the object beneath the tree for quite some time.

She wiped her glasses.

Then looked again.

There, lying against an old, gnarly tree was an old man, dressed in the traditional, ancient attire of a Japanese farmer, sleeping.

His face was blackened and worn from the years of working all day in the fields. His rough, bony hands held tightly to a walking stick, as knobbly as the tree itself.

Squinting in an attempt to refocus, she waited for the scene to change.

Or, for the old man’s eyes to blink, his nose to twitch, his body to jerk – even slightly – in order to give life to this strange vision.

Or was it an illusion?

But there he slept.

Motionless.

Turning her attention back to the truth of the train car, where she hoped her mind would find a tangible distraction, she found nothing and no one which held the same interest than what she was sure she was imagining on the other side of the window.

She turned back to the object beneath the tree, expecting to see her ancient farmer replaced by a tarp or some fallen branches.

She shuddered as she focused again on the old man as he slept.

“This can’t be,” she laughed quietly and whispered to no one, becoming more and more uneasy at the sight of it.

Sliding to the edge of her seat, she looked around the train car for a friendly face who would lay this apparition to waste, but hesitated.

“Exactly what would I say?” she thought to herself. “Excuse me, but do you see that ghost beneath the tree?”

So, she remained silent and turned, once again, toward the window, intent on dispelling the strange manifestation once and forever.

Just as she turned, the train began to pull away.

Her heart began to beat faster, as she pressed her nose against the pane. She watched her one last chance to dispel the vivid vision fade into the distance.

The old farmer licked his lips and rubbed his tired eyes.

He stretched, long and slow, then rose from the shade of the tree.

As he righted his ragged straw hat and steadied himself with his walking stick, he cocked his head to hear a strange sound.

A steadily accelerating drumbeat.

The old man looked all around for the source of the sound, but it soon faded into the day.

And the day was fading away.

So on he went.

Down the road.

Toward home.

The Ant and Other Farm Stories: Noble’s Deeds, illustrated by Jodi Maas

3. Noble

Noble, a Labrador black as the night
oversees all life on the farm.
With the sun, he bounds across the land.
With the moon, he makes sure none see harm.

With great pride, he meanders across the old farm
sniffing out every scent to be found.
With a wag of his tail and a bark here and there,
he covers each inch of the ground.

His name is quite apt, as you will see.
For his kindness and courage he’s known.
From the time he was only a wee, little pup,
a goodness he’s gallantly shown.

His coat is as shiny as silver and gold
His tongue is as pink as a rose.
His big, brown eyes watch with great care
all that goes past the tip of his nose.

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Now and again, there’s a rabbit to tease
or a chicken to chase ‘round the barn.
But then there’s a time to be sober and staid
when Noble must guard the old farm.

A few summers back, great trouble arose
when some children were playing with matches.
A bale of hay caught fire in the barn.
And we all know how quickly hay catches.

Now Noble, whose nose is as keen as they come
was the first to smell trouble nearby.
He raced to the barn and saw the great flames
and barked out a loud warning cry.

The children had found their way out of the barn,
but still left were two cows and a horse.
By now the thick smoke billowed out the barn doors
and the flames of the fire raged full force.

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From the field Farmer Jim had run to the scene
and called for all hands that could aid.
He knew that he’d have to go into that barn
if those animals were to be saved.

The smoke was too thick to be able to see
and the farmhands were set to resign,
when into the barn ran the farmer, called Jim
with Noble, his dog, close behind.

With wondrous speed, Noble found the poor beasts
all huddled in fright in one section.
He “Woofed!” and he “Woofed!” as loud as he could,
thus guiding the farmer’s direction.

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All were saved in the end, but the barn was destroyed.
All that’s left now are three walls of stone.
Yet oddly enough, it’s a functional spot
where Noble likes burying bones.

Like the barn, it’s most certain that things come and go
and sometimes the change is alarming.
In fact, on the day little Lauren arrived,
Noble watched his folk buzzing and swarming.

At first, Noble found this small creature a pest
as he sat there and watched her make faces.
But as the seasons gradually passed,
Lauren managed to earn Noble’s graces.

Now anytime little Lauren’s at play,
you’re sure to find Noble around –
giving wet doggy kisses on each rosy cheek
as they run, and they romp, and they bound.

Noble discovered change wasn’t so bad.
It adds more to the life that he tends.
Not only is Lauren a change that he loves,
she’s also his very best friend.

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