The tavern
by the frozen lake
is a sensory feast
for weary travelers like him.
Wild boar roasting
in the huge fireplace,
mulled wine, minced pies,
conversation chatters,
warmth from the cold.
He plunks his pack
to the wide-beamed floor,
plunks himself in a chair,
and settles in to rest.

Book Review: We Are Wolves

We Are Wolves cover

We Are Wolves: A Horror Anthology. Editors: Gemma Amor, Laurel Hightower, Cynthia Pelayo. Authors of the short stories: Erin Al-Mehairi, Gemma Amor, V. Castro, S.H. Cooper, Cassie Daley, J. Danielle Dorn, Michelle Garza, Lilyn George, Jessica Guess, Eve Harms, Sadie Hartmann, Laurel Hightower, Red Lagoe, Melissa Lason, Beverley Lee, Amanda McHugh, Cynthia Pelayo, Hailey Piper, Sarah Read, Sara Tantlinger, and Sonora Taylor.

Earlier this year, I read the anthology Nevertheless She Persisted, which includes sci-fi/fantasy stories by women — and “We Are Wolves” is the horror equivalent: Stories of women rising up against forces that try to keep them down.

The characters in these stories (and a couple poems) are tired of enduring the passive suggestions and physical abuse and downright murder. “Though Your Heart Is Breaking” involves a man telling Sarah to smile, despite the turmoil inside her. “A Key for Any Lock” involves a popular guy on a college campus sexually assaulting the unnamed narrator. Several stories include murder.

Then the characters move past endurance to fight back, using their power and cleverness. As far as I can remember, in one story — “A Key for Any Lock” — the character tries to use the justice system to gain societally approved justice. But the system fails her. So she goes beyond it. In the other stories, characters don’t try the official system — they seek their own justice. These aren’t episodes of “Law and Order,” these are horror stories.

Justice here is gained by knives, contraptions, claws. The characters are wolves who hunt alone and in a pack with allies. Cliche has us believe that women are “the weaker sex.” Yet that is a box (cage) in which to place women. Of course they are far more complicated and strong than a simplistic stereotype. Stories can entertain us, and some can challenge us. These stories accomplish both.

I felt a couple stories were too rushed, and could’ve used a bit more to build the scenarios. But that’s a blip in the variety of characters and situations crafted by the variety of these talented writers. There’s horror aplenty along the different paths.

The proceeds from the book’s sales are given to organizations that help survivors of assault and abuse. So by purchasing the book, you’re not just getting stories, you’re donating to the packs who are helping those who need help.

Please note the book includes strong content: “abuse, sexual abuse, harm to children, childbirth, bodily harm, self-harm, and child death, as well as more not explicitly listed here. We do therefore advise you to read with caution, even as we encourage you to engage with some of the themes and stories within, many of which are highly personal to the authors who wrote them.” (Quoted from the book’s Foreword, by Gemma Amor.)

The White Dot

At first, the white dot
could be the dot created by holding
a magnifying lens to a brittle leaf
that landed on the sidewalk,
the dot shimmering in the intense heat,
then smoldering and searing and smoking.

But no, the dot is the ocular opening
in the domed ceiling of the Pantheon,
sunlight and blue sky showering through
on this fine Roman day,
expanding into a spotlight on part of
the floor and columned wall.

But no, the dot is one of the euro coins
in the front pocket of the tourist
who has his hands stuck in those pockets,
both because he thinks it looks cool
and he’s been told to be careful of
pickpockets who target tourists,
and he remembers coins in this country
used to be called lira,
and the value of the currency
still changes all during the day.

But no, the dot is a wheel
on the touring bus going
round and round on the street
outside the Pantheon,
wheels also on the scooters and
motorcycles and cars,
all blurring with the speed
as the machines rush onward.

Language of Plants

Their voices are softer
in winter:
pine, holly, juniper, hellebore.
Many gardeners turn indoors
during the cold months,
but she keeps busy
in the garden,
as she adores
the language of plants
year round:
the yawns and coos of spring
colorful babbles of summer
trees’ wisecracks of autumn
and murmurs of winter.

Waiting for Gift Man

Today, I have a flash fiction story for you, in the mood of Christmas. If you have a suspicion that the title of the story sounds very much like a movie, you’re right. That was the inspiration. I hope you enjoy the story…


Waiting for Gift Man

As we waited for the Gift Man to rappel down the chimney (no fire in the place, thank you very much), we regaled each other with tales of adventure.

“That time I went hang gliding down in Rio was a blast,” Mitch said. “You get a good running start and just launch yourself off the cliff, and you’re like, ‘this doesn’t feel right at all, I’m not supposed to jump off a cliff,’ but you tell yourself to shut up, that you’re strapped to this glider and it’s gonna be alright, ’cause you’ve just seen a bunch of people do it, and then you’re doing it, you realize you’re hanging there in the air, soaring. And you see the beautiful city below you and the beautiful beach and the beautiful ocean. And you’re so caught up in all of it that you’re not worried or scared, you’re just awed. Fucking beautiful, man.”

“Sounds sweet,” Zeke said. “Reminds me of the time I went skydiving. That being scared you feel when you step outside of this little prop plane and the land is way, way below you and you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this? Jumping out of a plane that’s working just fine and can take me to the ground and why the hell am I jumping out of it?’ But you keep pressing forward, sliding outside so the instructor who’s on your back can get out too, and then you let go, just let go. And then the air rushes into your face, you’re not thinking at all, just taking it all in, the air and the feeling and the rush of it. And when you finally hit the ground, your heart’s pounding from all the adrenaline. Like you said, fucking beautiful, man.”

I don’t have any hang gliding or skydiving stories, so I searched my memory for something that could stack up to them. “One time when I went hiking with some buddies, the trail on the mountain got thinner and thinner, and there was a chain you could hold on to. It was bolted to the rock every few feet or so and hanging down between the bolts so you could hold it and not fall off. ‘Cause the mountain dropped off, just dropped off on the other side of the trail from the chain, and every now and then we’d send some small rocks to drop, and they’d bounce down the mountain, and you’d imagine your body doing the same thing as those rocks and how crazy bad that would hurt. So, of course, that just made us hold on the chain harder and keep on going.”

“Cool, that sounds really cool,” Mitch said. “That reminds me …” then he launched himself into a new story.

And on the stories went, swinging on vines around the living room as we lounged on the couch and easy chairs and laughed and sipped eggnog (which partied with bourbon inside our glasses).

Until, that is, we heard footsteps above us.

“Someone’s coming!” Zeke whispered in an alarmed whisper.

But these footsteps were not on the roof. They were closer, as in from the upstairs hallway. Then closer still, on the stairway that led down to us in the living room. I will be honest with you here: we were disappointed that the footsteps did not come from the chimneyway.

Grandpa’s striped pajama bottoms appeared, and then his pajama tops, and then his head. A disapproving expression was on his head.

“What are you fellas still doing up?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“We’re waiting for Gift Man,” Mitch said.

“Oh,” Grandpa said and thought for a couple of moments. “Sounds like that movie Waiting for Guffman. You know, the one directed by Christopher Guest. It came out in the late Nineties, I believe.”

We nodded our heads. Yes, it did sound like the title of that funny movie.

Grandpa scratched his beard. “Which, I’m sure you know, was a play off the play Waiting for Godot. Written by Samuel Beckett, a master of absurdism.”

We nodded our heads. Yes, on some level of knowledge, we knew that.

Grandpa continued. “What you may not know is that Beckett was possibly inspired by Balzac. You see, Balzac wrote a play many years before called Mercadet. It was also about waiting.” He paused to let that sink into our eggnog-soaked brains. “In turn, Balzac may have been inspired by a play before him. Possibly something from the Greeks, who were masters of the theater. As you well know.”

The three of us looked at each other. This was getting much deeper than our regaling of adventures. It was plainly (maybe painfully as well) obvious that we doubted our brains were ready for Grandpa’s lecture about the history of theater.

Grandpa looked at the fireless fireplace (which may simply be called “place”). I don’t know about the other guys, but I fervently hoped Gift Man would appear and bring a big, bold dash of color and excitement. If this was a TV show or movie, that would’ve certainly happened right then.

Then Grandpa added, “Actually, the same thing may be said about Santa Claus. You could hop, skip, and jump through history and folk tales to see the many figures who came before the man we think of now.”

“Germany, wasn’t it?” Zeke asked.

“Among others, yes,” Grandpa answered and gazed over at the beautifully lit and decorated Christmas tree. “Many countries were involved in that progression.” He sighed, and you could read a bone-tiredness in that sigh. “I’m sure we could have a long conversation about this. But, as for me, that’ll have to wait for another day. I need my sleep. Goodnight, fellas. You should turn in soon. Tomorrow is a big day.”

We said we would and bade him goodnight, and then we listened to his footsteps ascend the stairs, proceed down the hall, and enter his bedroom.

“Absurdism,” Mitch said. Just offered the word out there, like a sugar cookie on a tray. “What the hell isn’t absurd?”

Zeke and I pondered that word on the invisible tray, and I beat out Zeke in my reply: “Nothing. Not a damn thing.”

“Here, here,” said Zeke and raised his glass.

We all raised our glasses of nog and took a drink.

Toboggan Ride

In a night
of eggnoggin

an idea sparks
in my buzzin noggin

Let’s zoom a toboggan
down Breakneck Hill

Don’t give me that look,
it’s just a name!

I’ve got a counterclaim:
it’ll be the greatest thrill
to speed down that hill.

C’mon, move your backside,
let’s drink and ride!