Sunday, October 30, 2011

All Is Forgiven -- Part II

Herein and forthwith--the blood-curdling conclusion of our tale of a zombie cockatoo, an English teacher, and some really creepy music. If you missed Part I, scroll down to last week's blog entry--or Click here. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.

It should have come as no surprise when later that night there was an eerie scraping at the window and a scratching, scratching on the sill.  As if in a dream, Jeremiah went to the window and pulled back the curtain.  What he saw there made his blood run cold.  For on the window ledge, only inches away from his hand, perched a gruesome zombie‑like cockatoo.  He was beginning to show signs of decay, and his eyes shone like burning sulphur.

Jeremiah stood transfixed for he knew not how long.  He came to the next morning on the floor.  He did not remember falling.

Throughout the spring, the bird returned more and more frequently.  Jeremiah moved the cage back out of the garage and set it by the window.   He left the window open all the time and put fresh seeds on the sill every day.   He no longer got up to look at the bird when it came or took much notice of it.  But there was some strange cold comfort in its night visits.  Especially since he no longer had dinner with Philip and Bess or tea with any of their old friends.

One morning in June Jeremiah looked at himself in the mirror.  There were deep circles under his eyes.  He hadn't shaved in a week.  His nose was running and he had a cough--probably from leaving the window open, even on cold nights.  His skin was sallow, and his eyes red.  He had a nervous twitch, and he had trouble looking himself in the eyes.  He knew he needed help.

+ + + + +

And so it was that he found himself sitting in a dark, smoke‑filled tent across a folding card‑table from Madama Belusha, a black‑toothed gypsy with eyebrows so bushy she must have moussed them--and makeup so thick that he wondered what horrible secret it was hiding.

She looked strangely past him as he poured out his long tale of terror.  When he had finished, he hung his head and began to cry.  The smell of the dead bird hung all about him.

She clapped her hands together and shouted "Bl‑lyuck!  That's the most pathetic story I've ever heard--and I thought I'd heard 'em all."  

"Madama Belusha. . .you're my last hope.  Can you help me?"

"I think so."  Then to his amazement, she raised her wizened hand with the long black nails and peeled off one of her eyebrows.  "To start with, I'm not Madama Belusha."

"You're . . .  not?"

She peeled off the other eyebrow and pulled the black gum off her front teeth.

"I want my money back," demanded Jeremiah, rising from his chair.

"Sit down.  Do you want help, or don't you?"

"Well. . .I guess so."  He sat down and watched an amazing transformation.  Madama Belusha, by pulling off things that were glued here and there and by wiping off the thick makeup, was changed from a hideous hag into a rather attractive middle‑aged woman.  Her short blonde hair turned under at the neck.  Even her voice was different.  She no longer cackled when she talked.

"My name is Doris Murdock."

"I teach English at the community college."

"You're. . .a teacher?"

"Yes.  But in the warmer months, I supplement my income with this gig."

"Couldn't you just teach summer school?"

"Oh, sure.  You've never had to grade student themes.  Run‑ons, double negatives, misplaced modifiers--it's horrible.  Horrible!"

"Okay, okay," said a confused Jeremiah.  "Uh, did you say you could help me?"

"Oh yeah, sorry.  Let me ask you this.  Why did you put birdseed on the windowsill?"  Her new voice, though pleasant, had a hint of accusation.

"The birds are hungry.  Have you no compassion for helpless little creatures?"

"Mr. Grosbeck--may I call you Jerry?--let's be honest, Jerry.  Why did you put birdseed on the window?  Why did you bring the cage back into the house?  Why tell your friend that you forgive him and then go digging up the dead bird every chance you get?"

"I dig up the bird?  It just comes.  I have absolutely nothing to do with it."

"Sometimes when I'm angry at someone, it helps me to remind myself that I'm not perfect either.  Haven't you ever done anything wrong--perhaps to Philip?"

"What kind of question is that?"  

She looked at him impatiently.  "I have another appointment soon.  Can we hurry?"

"Well, once I borrowed his hunting dog, and--look, this was a really long time ago--it's not important."

"Just tell me," said Madama Belusha, aka Doris Murdock.

"Well, the dog got caught in a trap, and we had to shoot him.  I guess it was sort of my fault, I mean if you want to get nit‑picky about it, but that's been years ago."

"No matter.  Just remember that we all need forgiveness sometimes.  Uh, now if you'll excuse me, my next client is here."

"But you're not dressed."

She shrugged. "Theme conference."   

"Oh. . ."

A gangly young man swinging a nylon back‑pack entered through the beaded curtain.  "Hi, Mrs. Murdock."

When Jeremiah stepped out into the night, he felt better for some reason.  "We all need forgiveness sometimes," Madama, uh--Doris--had said.  He started walking toward Philip's house. 

Philip didn't mean to let Bogart die.  Of course, he was never that fond of the bird. . .but, best not to think of that now.  He used to joke about making cockatoo stew.  And what was the one about "Ring‑necked?  I'll wring his neck for you."  Always joking, that Philip.  I've missed his sense of humor. . . .Not as much, of course, as I've missed Humphrey Bogart.  He stopped in his tracks.  I wonder if Philip could have given him. . .bad liquor? 

Jeremiah almost didn't notice when the hideous creature fluttered down and landed on his shoulder.  Except for the smell.  The smell was stronger than ever. 

He walked to Philip's house and went around to the back porch where the light was on.  I was coming here to apologize, thought Jeremiah, but I may just give him a piece of my mind instead. 

He stopped again, just short of the porch.  That's odd.  When did Philip get a dog?  There's a dog dish on the porch.  And fresh meat in it!  He heard a strange sniffing and scratching but saw nothing.  Then suddenly, before him stood the ghastly apparition of the dead hunting dog.  When the dog saw Jeremiah, he began to bark, and the barking brought a haggard‑looking Philip to the door.

"What do you want?" growled Philip.

"Friend," called Jeremiah desperately, "may I come in?"  

"What for?"

"We've got to talk."
+ + + + +

A sorrowful wind moaned across the moor.  In the old church yard, dead leaves rattled among the tombstones.  And the creaking organ continued to wheeze under the assault of Toccata in D

Outside the church, the parson eventually erected a simple hand‑painted sign:  "If you've come here to bury the past, we recommend cremation."

Monday, October 24, 2011

All Is Forgiven -- Part I

A story by Patty Kyrlach

A sorrowful wind moaned across the moor.  Patches of dirty snow clung to clumps of weeds and to the roots of bare, mournful trees.  Gray skies threatened rain.

Jeremiah Grosbeck pulled his overcoat together and knelt in the churchyard by a simple grave.  He picked the brown grass from the marble headstone and lovingly fingered the engraving:  "Here lies H. B.--gone, but forgotten never."  Choking back tears, Jeremiah buried his face in his hands.  The strains of Toccata in D began to strain the wheezy organ in the old stone church.

On the way home, his steps were leaden but his mind was racing.  How was it possible that Humphrey Bogart's life had been cut off so soon?  Unfair it was that others, less deserving, should live while his worthy friend lay cold in his grave.  It seemed but yesterday they had supped together and shared a cup of wine--a California claret, Bogie's favorite. 

Of course, wine usually made Bogart sick, and Jeremiah did have rules about "No putting your feet in the glass," and "No blowing bubbles."  But Bogart had a mind of his own.  For Bogart was an aristocrat, even in his cups.  He was a rare breed of bird, was Bogart--a ring‑necked, crimson‑crested cockatoo to be exact.  And the unworthy world would not see his like again.

It was Philip's fault, and no denying it.  Philip Farnsworthy, Jeremiah's best friend, had been left in charge of the bird when Jeremiah went to South Glaston on business.  And when Jeremiah returned, the bird was dead.

Jeremiah was distraught, but he tried bravely not to show it.  He and Philip had been friends since childhood, and there was no sense in letting this tragic accident come between them.  "Don't worry, Friend," Jeremiah had told Philip, "all is forgiven."

But walking home from the cemetery with an ache in his chest and the wind whipping his coat, he had to ask himself, "Did Philip really remember to mix the sunflower seeds with hemp, millet, and peanuts?  Did he give him grit?  And what about the missing chew stick?"  Jeremiah might never know the answers to these haunting questions. 

It had started to rain.

+ + + + +

That night Jeremiah dreamed that Bogart rose from his grave and was pacing back and forth on the mantelpiece, holding a key‑ring in his beak.  As he paced, the key‑ring clanked and rattled like the chains of the damned.  He was, no doubt, looking for the key to the liquor cupboard. 

When Jeremiah woke, it was still dark.  There was a scraping at the window screen--probably only a tree limb--but it was such a lonesome, woeful sound that he finally rose and went to the window.  In the moonlight he could see, shimmering there on the window ledge, one white feather.

+ + + + +

The next day, business took Jeremiah by train to North Haven, but he returned in time for tea.  Philip joined him.

"I brought you some honey," said Philip.  "Three jars."

"I see Bess has been busy," said Jeremiah.  Bess, Philip's wife, was always busy.  "That's very kind of you."  He's probably trying to make up for what he did to Bogart.  

"And say, while I'm here, could I borrow your hedge clippers?  I want to trim the hedges back before the sap runs.  Never got to it last fall."

"Of course.  But. . .you will take good care of them, won't you?"

Philip gave Jeremiah a knowing look. "You mean, will I take better care of the clippers than I did the bird?"

"Don't be ridiculous.  That's all forgiven," said Jeremiah.  He slapped Philip on the back.  "Just take care of them, that's all."  

"I'll do my best.  Oh, by the way, Bess wants to know if you'll be there for dinner Saturday night.  Lamb stew."

"Wouldn't miss it."

Jeremiah watched through the window as Philip crossed the street.  He remembered the feather.  There was, after all, a perfectly reasonable explanation for the feather on his window ledge last night.  There must be countless white feathers lying about the place--hidden in chairs and under bookshelves--for Bogart had been with him for many years.  And with that he put it out of his mind.

Until a week later.  He awoke again in the middle of the night.  Again there was a mysterious scraping at the window.  Slowly, cautiously, he crept to the window and carefully pulled back the curtain.

As he did, he screamed.  A sudden flurry of wings startled him, and an ominous white blur fluttered away.  What was that?  A bird?  But it couldn't be Bogart.  Bogart was dead.  Dead and buried.  What was this madness that had seized him?  What melancholy spirit?  But, no--there on the ledge lay concrete proof that he was not losing his mind.  Droppings!  The distinctive droppings of a ring‑necked, crimson‑crested cockatoo.  He slumped into a chair, a vein throbbing in his neck. 

Over breakfast the next morning, he contrived an explanation for the ghostly visitation.  Bogart must have had a girlfriend!  Some bird fancier's pet had escaped and lived in the trees nearby.  She had heard Bogart singing and had taken to visiting at the window where the cage used to hang.  To think that Bogart had night visitors I knew nothing about!  The sly bird.  No wonder that rascal loved his wine so much.

Jeremiah felt that he must put the bird out of his mind.  Once and for all.  He took the cage out to the garage and put a blanket over it.  He put Bogart's toys away in a chest.  He found the jar of seed mix in the cupboard and started to throw it away.  But then he thought of all the hungry birds in the world.  Including Bogart's girlfriend.  I could give the seeds to Mrs. Dibble for her bird feeder.  Or. . .I could just spread some of them out here on the window sill and feed the birds myself.

He was pleased by his sudden burst of altruism.

+ + + + +

A few days passed.  He had dinner again with Philip and his wife.  Philip put Jeremiah's hedge clippers by the door so he wouldn't forget them.  Jeremiah did not remember a large chip in the wood on one of the handles, but he said nothing.  Friendship is more important than clippers, he told himself. 

"Three helpings!  Aren't you supposed to be watching your weight?" asked Philip, when Jeremiah passed his bowl for more dumplings.

"I'll work it off tomorrow, trimming the shrubs.  I expect the clippers will be a bit stiff, since you didn't oil them."

"I oiled them.  I should think you never oiled them.  They wouldn't even open when I got them."

"You just don't how to work them properly."

"I know how to work them as well as you."

"Then what's that chip on the handle?"

"What chip?  Oh--that?  That was already there.  Jeremiah, you are a fuss‑budget."

Jeremiah dropped his fork. He bolted up from the table and grabbed his hat and coat on his way out the door.  At the porch, he paused only to scream a parting malediction. "Bird killer!"
He forgot the hedge clippers.

+ + + + +

When he got home, Jeremiah stood by the window, looking into the spring night.   The snow was all gone.  "I could use some fresh air tonight," said Jeremiah out loud.  He left the window open.

It should have come as no surprise when later that night there was an eerie scraping at the window and a scratching, scratching on the sill.  As if in a dream, Jeremiah went to the window and pulled back the curtain.  What he saw there made his blood run cold.  For on the window ledge, only inches away from his hand, perched a gruesome zombie‑like cockatoo.  He was beginning to show signs of decay, and his eyes shone like burning sulphur.

Jeremiah stood transfixed for he knew not how long.  He came to the next morning on the floor.  He did not remember falling. 

Tune in next week to Stark Raving Mythopath for the soul-stirring conclusion to this bone-chilling tale of terror, zombies, and things that go squa-a-awk in the night. . . . 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Confessions of an Ugly Wicked Step-Sister

Okay, Princess. Wipe that smirk off your face. I see you there in your royal coach, waving at the peasants. You don’t even remember me, do you?

Do you?

Listen, Lipstick, you wouldn’t last five minutes in my job. When you’re an Ugly Wicked Step-Sister, you’re in the story, but you’re not the star. Nobody knows you’re alive. For example, I’m really good at math and tennis, but did you ever ask? No. You were always preoccupied with nose-wrinkling and eyelash-batting.

When you’re an Ugly Wicked Step-Sister, you always feel short-changed. You’re always asking, where’s my prince? Where’s my fairy godmother? Where’s my happily-ever-after? Huh?

And it’s not like I didn’t try—that fateful day when the prince came knocking at the door with the slipper. You know, the slipper. So what if the shoe was a sickly size 5 AA, and my feet are a robust 10 ½ EEE?  I mean, who wears a size 5, anyway? Besides you, Barbie Doll.

I gave it everything I had. I turned purple polka-dotted trying to cram my foot into that shoe. I broke two shoe horns and actually cut my foot with a knife to make it fit. That’s how hard I was trying to be you!

So I’m sitting there—bleeding on the carpet—but Mr. Charming has no mercy. No, he insists on trying the shoe on my half-wit step-sister. Yes, Dimples--you. And, of course, it fits like a dream. A dream for you, a nightmare for me.

That was the worst day of my life.

And the best.

Yeah, you heard me.  Because that was the day I decided not to be an extra in somebody else’s movie. I started living the story of ME. Me with the 10 ½ EEE feet. Me with an aptitude for math and a wicked backhand in tennis.

I lost weight. I got contacts. I got a job with the IRS, and I’m making pretty good money. I’m dating a guy who loves tennis and math. And me.

And get this. His last name is Prince. Ironic, huh? No, Pink Cheeks. Irony isn’t the art of pressing your gown for the ball.

Oh, and by the way, my mathematically-challenged Princess . . . next week I’m doing an audit of the Castle.

Life is good.   

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Paul Simon

Can you imagine us years from today, 
       sharing a park bench quietly? 
How terribly strange to be seventy. . . .
                        From “Old Friends” by Paul Simon

On October 13, 2011, singer/song-writer Paul Simon turns seventy.

When I was in college, I couldn't get enough of Simon & Garfunkel. I remember listening to the song “Old Friends” and to that haunting line. . . .

How terribly strange to be seventy.

What would it be like, I wondered, “years from today,” to find myself 70 years old? Unthinkable to a kid who can’t even imagine what it would be like to graduate, get a job, and live on my own—much less make it to three score and ten. I wonder what was going through Simon’s mind when he wrote those words so many years ago.

So, how did Paul Simon wind up as a topic in a blog about myth and story? Because Simon’s songs also tell stories.

We get a keyhole peek at some fascinating characters in songs like "Dangling Conversations," "The Boxer," or "America." And in some way I don’t quite understand, these glimpses into other people’s lives help us find a new perspective on our own.

For example, when I eavesdrop on the dysfunctional couple in "Dangling Conversations," I recognize both myself and those disconnected dialogues, complete with “superficial sighs.” I take this song, this story, as a warning. I don’t want to have meaningless conversations or relationships that are “verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme.”

“The Boxer” shows us a young man who left home to find his fortune in New York City, only to struggle and fail. He “carries the reminders of ev’ry glove that laid him down,” and he longs to leave the city--and yet “the fighter still remains.” Why does he stay? Maybe he can’t afford the bus ticket out of town. Maybe he’s afraid to leave the only life he knows. Maybe he has lost all hope. These unanswered questions linger and intrigue us.

In “America,” the unnamed narrator and his girlfriend Kathy, board a Greyhound “to look for America,” but we get the feeling they are really looking for themselves. All we know is that he hitchhiked four days from Saginaw, and he is on a journey. When Kathy falls asleep, he confesses that he is “lost” and “empty and aching.” He is “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,” and now we see that all of these faceless travelers are on a journey—the same journey that lies at the heart of myth and of your story and mine.

Paul Simon is a gifted lyricist—part poet, part prophet, part storyteller. In 2006, Time Magazine chose Simon as one of 100 people who have helped shape the world. I only know that his music and his lyrics have helped shape my world. And no, I don’t always share his political or philosophical convictions. But I do appreciate his artistry. He has set the bar higher for all song writers, and he has given us lyrics that keep us thinking, long after the music stops.

I don’t know what Paul Simon is doing on his birthday, but somehow I don’t think he’ll be “sharing a park bench quietly” (unless he’s posing for publicity pix). He’ll be singing and playing his guitar and writing and composing and living a life that’s better and richer in many ways from the youthful days when he wrote “Old Friends.” 

His creative journey has taken him around the world to many different cultures and musical styles, and I hope someday it will lead him to a place where “there’s a reason to believe / We all will be received.” Going to "Graceland." Homeward bound.

EPILOGUE:  What's your favorite Paul Simon song--and why?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ban the Butterflies!

We don’t need any more children’s books about seasons changing or caterpillars turning into butterflies.

That was the gist of a blog post I read recently. And I think I get what this guy is saying—that children’s writers could try looking around for some new material. And I agree.

Sort of.

But I can’t help thinking that if you get jaded to the miracle of changing seasons or of earthbound worms sprouting wings, maybe you shouldn’t write for children. Maybe you shouldn’t write for anybody. 

The cycle of the seasons and the metamorphosis of caterpillars both echo the theme of death and resurrection at the heart of the Master Story, the story at the root of all stories. Death and Resurrection are the climax of the mythic hero’s journey, as described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. Over and over we die to an old way of life--or an old way of thinking--and we are reborn into a new awareness, a new understanding.

May I never cease to be amazed by simple things. Like soap bubbles. Or dandelion fluff. Or spider webs. Or snow. May I never stop seeing the numinous in the ordinary. May I never forget that all beans are magic beans. Or in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.”

So maybe we don’t need more original subject matter--just new ways of telling the “old, old story.” We need a fresh voice, a fresh slant, a fresh pair of eyes.

And now that I think about it, we need more books about seasons and butterflies. Lots more.

EPILOGUE: a question for my readers--both of you.

What simple, everyday things fill you with wonder and awe?