Printed copies are now available for The Land of Words, a collection of short stories published by Longshot Press.
Stories from the book are available for you to read on this blog.
She threw a rock at the window and the glass cracked. The rock skipped away from the car and landed in the grass. Wen-ling picked up her bucket and ran. The bucket flew from her hand as she lost her footing on the loose stones in the trail and it clattered down the hillside…kiong, kiong, kiong…bringing every animal and bird in the surrounding countryside to a sudden halt. She stopped and looked around. No one had seen her throw the rock.
She picked up the bucket and continued walking toward the river, carefully choosing her steps this time. The hillside where the car sat was filled with weeds, weed that grew up and entwined around the driveshaft and axles, holding it tightly in place, as if the car might roll away someday and leave the countryside deserted. Wen-ling passed by the car everyday on the way to the river and she resented its lingering presence here.
She stopped to look around. Then she heard it again. A horse stomped the hardened earth near the river, waiting for her to exit the tall succulent grass growing close to the water. Wen-ling approached the horse and reached out with her hand, hoping to caress it, but it reared and ran away.
She turned to the river and filled her bucket. As she walked back up the trail, she stopped by the car once more. She put the bucket down, water sloshing over the side and splashing her leg. She picked up another rock and threw it at the window, but this time she missed. With all the rage she could muster, she swung the bucket back behind her, the handle hard-pressed into her hand, and heaved it forward at the window. It landed on the hood of the vehicle with a dull thump and sent a spray of water out in every direction. The car simply refused to go away.
When Wen-ling went to retrieve the bucket, she noticed something bright just inside the window. It shown in the sun and dazzled her eyes. She leaned closer to see what it was, and suddenly, with the weight of her hand on the glass, the windshield gave way and came crashing down in tiny shards, pieces bouncing on the seat and scattering all over the floor inside. The glass sparkled like diamonds, blinding her for a moment. She screamed, grabbed her bucket and ran away.
Her hand stung as she doused it in the cold river water. She pulled it back out and watched the tiny drops of blood flow onward downstream. Wen-ling dashed her arm into the water again and held back another scream. Slowly, the bleeding stopped and the pain became a mere throbbing sensation in her arm. Then she lay back in the grass and looked up at the sky.
The horse had returned, this time chewing contentedly near her feet. She looked up into its eyes. On its neck were welts where a rope had rubbed the skin raw. She offered the horse some of the grass from her hand and it leaned closer, breathing noisily as it ate. But when she tried to put her hand on the horse’s jaw, it bolted upright and disappeared. She looked onward to where it had gone and only traces of dust stirring in the air along the rounded canyon convinced her that the horse had been real and not just a dream, that and the fading sound of hoofbeats echoing through the tall pines.
That night snow arrived in the countryside. Wen-ling had never seen snow before. It startled her in the morning as she walked toward the river. Across the field a thin white something covered the ground. Even the old car, which she loathed so much, appeared white and shiny and new.
Mei-li had gone ahead to wash clothes. When Wen-ling arrived, she found her sister looking down at the water. A thin layer of ice covered the surface of the river. Wen-ling tapped at it with a stick and it broke apart. She put one foot out and touched the water, then gasped and pulled her foot back. Mei-li picked up the clothes and went home without washing them.
Wen-ling stopped near the old car and looked blankly out across the hillside. Snow covered every green thing. She brushed snow off the weeds, but clearly nothing edible was living there. Usually she gathered herbs to cook for lunch, but today they would have nothing fresh to eat.
That night Pa grew seriously ill. He coughed a lot. Wen-ling and her mother stayed up late, serving him hot cups of ginger soup. But his coughing only worsened. In the morning, Ma told Wen-ling to go out into the woods and find a black chicken. These chickens were the best medicine for a cough, she said. Nothing else would do.
Wen-ling ran carefully across the hill to the trees on the other side of the field where the old car lay silent and dead. She looked for signs of chickens walking in the snow, but found none. Instead, she found something bigger, the footprints of an animal she didn’t know. She followed them for some time and then stopped when her breath made clouds in the air. On the ground, the tracks had changed, some now with red in them. She bent down to touch one. It smelled like blood.
She had never seen a wolf before. The world was changing in some strange way that she knew little about. When she found the wolf tearing into a feast of black chickens, she stopped. In the clearing there were feathers and carcasses everywhere, things killed for no reason, she figured, because a lone animal shouldn’t need to eat so much. The wolf looked up and spied her standing motionless.
Deep in the eyes of the wolf she saw a story of hate. Hate for the world and hate for the cold and hate for a hunger that never went away. Wen-ling knew right away that she should run. This was an animal that could kill her. But Pa was sick. She couldn’t go home without one of the black chickens. Surely there were enough for her to have one.
Without ever turning her eyes away from the wolf, she found a stick by feeling around carefully in the grass. She stretched the stick out slowly to see if she could retrieve the body of one of the chickens. The wolf took a step closer to her and waited. It looked at her curiously. It was curious about what it didn’t understand, and what it didn’t understand was any creature that did not run away.
Wen-ling held the stick over her head this time, waving it like a weapon. She took a step closer and the wolf stepped back. With her free hand she bent down and grabbed the leg of a chicken. It was still warm. She never let her eyes stray from the wolf, although she was beginning to fear for her life. The wolf, sensing this change in Wen-ling, crouched down as if to leap forward and rip her apart. It was time for her to run.
The wolf jumped the moment she turned. She crossed the field like she had never run before. The only thing that slowed the wolf down was the looseness of the snow. It slid down the hill just behind her, then bound forward again, merely a moment behind. Just as she felt the animal snapping at her dress, she reached the car. She leaped on to the hood and dived in through the front window. Glass shards bit at her hands, but she hardly noticed. She crawled into the back of the car and looked for somewhere to hide. The wolf had already bound up on top the hood, looking at her through the front window.
The rear seat fell back and she crawled into the trunk. She heard the wolf scrambling into the window and she pushed the seat into place with her feet and braced her back against the wall. The wolf pounced on the seat, snapping at her feet between the cushions. She still had the stick in her hand and she stabbed at the wolf time and time again. Then, almost fainting from exhaustion, she propped the stick up against the back of the seat. The stick held and the wolf gave up.
She lay quiet, holding her breath. She heard the wolf climb out the front window and move around the car and then she heard it sniffing at the back of the trunk. The frame of the car was still intact and there was no way it could get in from there.
She waited half a day. Finally, when Wen-ling was sure the wolf had moved on, she removed the stick and dropped the seat down. She looked out through the windows of the car on every side before climbing back into the snow. The wolf’s tracks ran away in several directions. It had left and come back again numerous times, waiting for her to leave the safety of the old car. She wasn’t sure how long before it might return again.
Wen-ling picked up the carcass of the chicken where she’d left it on the hillside. In her haste to escape the wolf she’d kept the stick and let go of the bird. She walked home, struggling with every step. When she arrived, Mei-li wrapped her in a towel and gave her something warm to drink. Ma took the bird and cleaned it and cooked it. Pa slept better that night, after eating half the animal and drinking more hot soup.
The next day, the snow was gone. Wen-ling felt stronger again as she walked down the hill to fill her bucket with water. The river was no longer covered in ice and the water tasted sweet. She returned back up the hill and stopped by the old car. It had saved her life.
She looked in the window and once again saw something sparkling in the sun. On the dashboard was a key. She picked it up and walked around to the back of the car. The key fit in the lock and the trunk sprang open with a rusty creak. Her stick was there, inside the rear compartment.
She looked at it closely and noticed the deep impressions that the wolf’s teeth had made. On one end of the stick the bark had been scraped clean away. The gashes from the wolf’s teeth went deep. The stick had nearly snapped in two. Wen-ling took the stick home and showed it to her mother.
She never saw the snow again.
The river rarely froze over, but that year it had. The frigid air from the north covered the land until the mercury dropped to minus nine. They warned us not to cross the ice on foot, but we didn’t listen. Immigrant kids, we boxed our ears with homemade earmuffs and slipped away into the night, bent on discovering new lands. At the time, we were hardly old enough to blow our own noses, and the pneumonia we caught as the wind plunged into our lungs nearly killed us.
In the summertime the heat was unbearable. Nights I spent looking out the window across the silhouetted landscape. To pass the time, or just to test me, my brother would ask me to count the lights on the horizon. They were in groups of twos and threes, belonging to short buildings or farmhouses, none clustered close together. But there were also the radio towers, lined up toward the heavens, sometimes with as many as four or five lights per rod. After a long silence I would tell my brother how many lights I thought I saw. I was rarely right. One time, my brother pointed up to the sky above and asked if I was ready yet to count the stars.
It made me realize how insignificant I was, looking up at all those stars in the night sky. I was nothing. I hardly mattered. The stars, they were everything, because they were uncountable.
My brother wanted to be an actor from an early age. He practiced every day, trying to be this or that famous person, just like on the silver screen. He worked at it the way a painter does, mimicking the canvases of the masters. One day my brother might be Charlie Chaplin and the next Albert Einstein. Wait, you say, Albert was hardly an actor. But we saw him on TV and so my brother would mess up his hair and stick out his tongue and say funny things in a foreign accent. It made me laugh until I nearly fell over on the floor.
My brother became so good at playing other people that his teachers were confused about who he really was. Or more accurately, I should say, they were concerned about who he really was. One teacher asked if my brother saw people who weren’t really there. Did they talk to him? Were any of them dead already? Could they tell him about the future? It bothered my brother. Instead of receiving acclaim like those actors in bright lights, those giants arising out of Hollywood, my brother was looked down on as if he might have had a tumor growing in his head.
From there, my brother went on to be a magician, because people can easily accept a magician who is a little off. It’s all part of the show, they say. My brother fit in perfectly with the circus. He traveled far and wide and I didn’t see him for many years.
As I grew older, entering the winter of my life, I dreamed of seeing my brother perform, even if just one time, on the big stage. I had hoped the circus would come to our little town, but it never did. One day I decided to go in search of my brother. There was a road leading away to the west with an open invitation to follow it. I’d never been down that road before. I wasn’t sure where it went, but I was sure it would take me somewhere important, and there I might find my brother.
On the map I saw a giant city. I’d heard that big shows appeared there often. I traveled west away from home until I came to the city and I bought a ticket for the circus. That night, the stars twinkled up above. My brother was the headlining act.
The auditorium was immaculate. It was packed to the brim. I’d never seen anything like it before. It left me feeling out of place. I was nothing more than a stranger from a small town. I took my seat with only minutes to spare, before the show began. Seeing all those faces, of people I didn’t know, pressed in tight around me like pages in a book, it left me at a loss for words. I looked down at my shoes and wondered why I’d really come here. I had no idea what I’d even say if I had the chance to talk to my brother again.
The show came to a climax, and there he was, my brother, center stage, all eyes upon him. Many of the tricks he did were simple, but still amazing. I couldn’t guess in the least how he did them. I knew little about magic. As his performance approached the end he explained that he was going to dazzle the world with a new trick, something he’d never done before. He was going to disappear, and then reappear, somewhere else, as somebody else, somebody similar, but not the same. Of course, right away I knew how it would be done. It was a foolish idea.
My brother entered a tall box dominating the center of the stage. The doors on the box were closed by a pair of lovely assistants. The crowd waited in suspense. The lights grew low. And then there was an ominous sound and after that the box was opened and he was gone. Next came the crash of an oriental cymbal and the stage lights shifted. They swung out upon the audience, dancing back and forth, blinding us. When the lights stopped moving, they were pointing at me.
I stood up and the crowd began to cheer. But this was no trick. I was not my brother. We might be twins, but still, I hardly dressed like him, hardly spoke like him, and even rarely had the same mannerisms that he did. How was I to go on stage and pretend to be him?
An assistant appeared beside me and took my hand. She was lovely. Her skin was so soft. She wore next to nothing. I followed her without hesitation. She took me down through the audience to the stage and then I was in front of the crowd and they were all looking at me and they were waiting for me to speak. I looked around for some help, any clue as to what I should do, but I had been abandoned on an empty stage.
As I scanned the crowd, seeing the light in their eyes, I was struck by how much they all looked like stars in the sky. There were so many of them that I could hardly count them. I felt small. I felt unimportant. I felt like I was standing on the frozen river and I’d just heard the ice splinter. We’d made it across the ice on a dare, nothing more. It was foolish of us to try. I knew that then and I know it now.
I smiled at the people out in the seats and I made a slight bow and waved my hands like I imagined a magician might do. I said, “Good night, ladies and gentlemen. The show is now over.” I said it so well I could have been an actor, acting like a magician. Perhaps I was more like my brother than I really knew.
I never did get the chance to talk to him. He went on to fame and fortune beyond anything I’d ever imagined and was never seen in our little town again.
A lot of people had died in the spring when the river thawed out. They wouldn’t stop crossing over on the ice, although it sounds hard to believe. They didn’t want to pay the toll to use the bridge. One day the weather warmed up and the ice cracked open and down they went into the frigid rushing water, carried away, never to be seen again. I think about those people sometimes. I think about what it must have been like to lose consciousness deep in the water and never awake to be who you really are. I hope it never happens to me. Someday I’d like to count the stars.
The bones felt brittle in his hands, brittle and cold and thin. Dennis Tank had never been thin in his life. He’d fought the battle of the bulge and never won. He’d had to suck in his gut a notch or two just to bend over the bones in the dirt so he could examine them. Perhaps even his bones were fat. He chuckled to himself. That was absurd. He had two PhD’s and new it was absurd. How could bones be fat?
A hiker had found the bones on a stretch of path just off the highway in a remote part of the county. You’d have to park ten miles up the road and follow this unmarked trail to find these bones. Dennis set the time of death at somewhere around six months ago, wintertime. The decay of the bones and other similar scientific discoveries about the brittleness of them helped him make a guess. Forensics was more of an art than a science when examining bones in the field, without a lab to analyze them. Later, he could have his assistant do a real job on them. He wrote down six months on the form without a second thought. He could always change the number at a later date.
The deceased was probably over sixty. Healthy. Liked to exercise. This particular John Doe might have even been out for a jog at the time of death, indicated by the sweat suit and jogging shoes the bones were wearing. John Doe might have slipped on the trail and come to a sudden end due to a lack of agility and the odd shaped rocks protruding from the earth in this region. Blame it on God. The deceased might or might not have died that way. Dennis saw no signs of a struggle, but it was not that easy to write a conclusive report just by looking at the bones in the dirt.
The bones were still lying mostly on the top of the soil. Perhaps it rained a lot here and the runoff kept them exposed. They were so brittle. And cold. And thin. He envied their thinness.
The left wrist was thicker than the right one, but not by much, a slight abnormality there, nothing to write home about. The jogging clothes were mostly tattered from exposure to the elements. The pockets were all empty. He found no jewelry, except a ring on a chain around the neck of the departed, one very thin Mr. John Doe. The ring looked valuable. If this had been a murder, the presence of the ring indicated it hadn’t been committed by someone intent on robbing the man.
Dennis found no identification of any kind. Who went jogging without at least bringing a wallet along? Or a phone? Murders weren’t rational members of society in the mind of the jury. They think they are, though. They think there is some kind of logic to justify what they’re doing. And it was Dennis’s job to get into the mind of the murderer. This criminal, if it had been a crime, had stripped the body of everything but the jogging suit and shoes and the ring on the chain.
The jogging suit wasn’t something cheap either. The deceased had been loaded. Dennis had never been either rich or thin. Perhaps that was why he was single. He tried to focus on the job but failed. His mind wandered, his thought roaming over his life. He should have called in sick today. Something didn’t feel right about bending over a pile of bones when he could have been at home reading about them in a book.
He thought for a moment about a girl in the office who might have liked him if he’d been either rich or thin. Why had he gotten two PhD’s? Couldn’t he have just been like everyone else and learned about these bones in the news? A fly landed on the back of his sweaty neck and he slapped at it but missed.
He picked up the skull and turned it a quarter to examine the ear hole. The neck separated and the chain fell off. He looked around. None of the patrol officers smoking just up the trail noticed. Later he could claim the neck had already been separated due to natural causes, filling in the report with a litany of terminology most people wouldn’t understand.
He put the skull down as carefully as he could in his rubber gloves, leaving no sign he’d just screwed up a crime scene. He should have known better. He should have looked more closely at the bones in the neck first to see if there had been any sign of force applied to them. He should have taken measurements and photos. It wasn’t a only rookie move, it was a royal mistake. Something like that could cost him his job.
Overall, the bones were just like any other bones he’d come across on the daily grind, except that they were so thin. Dennis still couldn’t be sure how John Doe had died. It certainly wasn’t from a lack of exercise. He looked closer at the ring. That’s when he noticed it belonged to his father who had been missing for some time now.
Dennis looked at the name John Doe on the paper. He sighed. He looked at the sky and wished again he’d called in sick today. He would never be thin. But he felt a little lighter now. He now knew what had become of his father. He also knew he never would get into the mind of the deceased — he never could understand the monster his father had become.
He began breaking the bones one by one. They were thin and brittle and broke easily in his fat hands. When the police handcuffed him and put him in a patrol car, he closed his eyes tight. He never wanted to look at the bones of his father again.
It’s like that feeling you get when you wake up and realize you’ve made a lot of mistakes in life. Your kids, they don’t talk to you much anymore. Your wife left you a long time ago. You know you’ve only got a few years remaining, if all goes well, and probably it won’t. You should have done things better. You should have been more ambitious a long time ago, when you had the time to do things better. It’s that feeling you get when you realize it might be too late.
You start by trying to make it up to your oldest son. You buy him a sports car. You offer to go on expensive vacations together. You throw money at him left and right, but he knows it’s all just a frail attempt to win him over. The last argument you had with the kid was over a dozen years ago and he’s never forgiven you. He’s nearly 50 by now, so what does he need with a hot looking car? He’s got a wife and kids of his own to look after. He’s got his own money. He doesn’t need yours.
You call up the ex-wife and ask if she’s OK. But of course she’s OK. Her new husband has made sure of that, just like you should have. She hangs up on you without much of a goodbye. You know you should have done better with her. You never cheated on her. You never beat her. In the end, she’d left you only because she’d felt like you never really loved her that much. You never showed it. You never said it. You acted like love was irrelevant…even though you did love her. You fooled yourself on the outside, saying she wasn’t the kind of broad who was into all that romantic stuff. But deep down, you knew she was. You were just too bullheaded to do anything about it.
One of the hardest parts about it all is the retirement. Your boss hadn’t cared that much that you were leaving. He’d had enough of your complaining all the time, even though you were right. He would never admit you were right, but you knew that he knew that you were. You were good at what you did and so in your eyes it was OK to take an occasional piss on the way he ran the business. You brought in the new accounts for the newspaper. You got those high dollar clients to cough up the big bucks for full page ads. And what was wrong with stepping on the younger guys once in awhile? It was good for them. It made them stronger. They had to pay their dues, just like you had, and you made damn sure they paid.
It wasn’t so hard leaving the job as it was finding something to do after you’d left. How were you supposed to fill the time? You were alone, with nobody to talk to, nobody to listen while you complained about how hard it was to sit at home all day and do nothing. You listened to the radio. You flipped through the newspaper. The hours just crawled by. You’d never noticed before how long a day really was. It’s the finding something to do when you’ve got too much time on your hands that made the pain of retirement almost unbearable.
You think about those days when you were younger, hanging out with the guys from town. The late night card games were great, the drinking, fishing out on the lake, and what was wrong with a cigar once in awhile? By now, those guys had all disappeared, but to where? After you’d retired, it was like they’d vanished into thin air. What had happened to Robbie Yang, that guy with the great laugh? Flipping through the phone book, a yellowish thing that just calls out for attention, you find his phone number, only to be told by some automated chick that the number you’ve called is no longer in service. He’d never even given you a forwarding address. He’d never even said goodbye.
The real feeling you ponder as you look out the blinds into the empty street in front of your house is the idea that there might still be time. You’ve already lived longer than the average male. Your heart is strong, so says the doctor, and he’s casually mentioned more than once that you haven’t got anything really serious to worry about, other than cutting back on the cigars. Smoking alone is pretty depressing stuff, anyway. It only made you think back to the days when you’d last seen the guys around a card table, and that memory brings you so low you can hardly bear to light up another one anymore.
Outside on the street you see some kids walking past, younger teens, one dragging a baseball bat. Your first instinct is to run outside and yell at him for destroying the fat end of a perfectly good stick. But you don’t. One of the kids drops a ball on the sidewalk and leans over to pick it up with his glove. You see he’s got a good grip on it this time. The next thing you know, you’re out on the front lawn, offering them some lemonade. They don’t want it. What do kids these days know about lemonade, anyway? It’s all colas for them, with artificial sugar. They probably think you’re weird. You’ve left the front door open, like you just wanted to invite them inside and do strange things to them. It doesn’t help that you’re in your pajamas.
You realize they’re smart kids, though, because there are plenty of pervs in this world today. They are better off avoiding someone like you. So you try to cover for your odd behavior by asking where they play ball. They tell you it’s down past the high school, on the right, in the old field. You remembered the bleachers there and the way they felt under your hands as you sat and watched the game every Friday night. You imagine the paint has peeled off them by now. You ask the boys if someone has cut the grass there recently, and they say no…but it sure could use it. You turn and point to the old push mower sticking half out your garage door. They smile and nod.
Over at the old field, the mower runs out of gas. The taller boy had been doing all the work, sweating it out, but making progress, right before the engine died. You tell them you’ll make a quick trip to the station on the other side of the high school to fill ‘er up. They look at you like they don’t understand a word you’re saying, until you wave some dollars in their faces. On the way over, gas container in hand, you try to remember when you changed clothes. You aren’t in your pajamas anymore — which is a good thing — but you can’t exactly remember changing out of them and into and your shorts and t-shirt. You notice your beer belly hangs out like a sore thumb.
There are a lot of things you can’t remember, but who cares? You can’t remember changing your clothes a week ago, so why should today matter? You can’t remember how much torque to put on spark plugs in the mower when they need to be replaced. You can’t remember the type-size for quarter page ads you used to sell in the newspaper. Sometimes you can’t even remember the names of your own grand-kids.
You don’t mind growing old so much. It’s just the cost of everything that bothers you. The way prices keep going up, taxes keep going up — and it’s all the same stuff you’ve been buying all your life, so why should it cost more? In fact, it might be cheaper stuff than what you bought years ago. Things sure broke fast. That time your ex-wife knocked over the TV set right in the middle of the World Series and you had to run down the street to Ernie’s Bar to catch the end of the game — that was something you couldn’t forget.
Looking back, you realize accidents just happen. As you stumble on the sidewalk and almost plant your face in the cement, you stop and catch your breath. You decide to take it a little slower on your way over to the gas station. Today is looking like a good day. The past is the past. These kids playing ball at the park, they might actually be pretty good. That tall one, Joe, he might have a pitcher’s arm. You decide to test him out when you get back.
You reach the gas station and fill up the container. Then you trudge your way around the high school and arrive out of breath back at the old field. The kids are warming up, getting ready to play. Half the field is mowed and the other half still needs a good trimming. The sun is hot. You wipe the sweat off your forehead and throw the kids a bag of candy bars — a surprise, something you picked up at the station. These suckers are the real deal, no artificial ingredients, and twice the sugar. They smile at you like you’ve just broken the law.
Let’s go, you say. I wanna see someone swing that bat. Don’t squint at the ball. He’s got the pitch. He’s winding up. Crack. The ball flies out of the park. Give me one of those candy bars, kid. Never mind what my doctor says. It’s never too late to be a winner, kid. You tell the kid he’s got the arm of a pro. He smiles back at you and nods. I knew just like you did that day that he’d make the national news. He’d go on to play in the World Series and throw a perfect game. We all had the feeling that day that something magical had happened out on the field.
You stand up and cheer as the whole team rounds the bases and heads for home. You nod. You smile. You realize nothing can stop the power of the wind. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re ready to get back in the game of life again.