Snakecharmer Blues

I’ve started to revist short stories I wrote in the late ’90s, when I submitted them to magazines in the hope for publication. None of the stories were accepted, and they slept for many years in a filing box. This is the first story I revisited, then edited. It felt surreal, of traveling back in time to my younger self. In my mind, I saw the room where I typed the story. I can’t remember all that I thought and felt back then to come up with this story, blending a little mystery into the walk down memory lane.

I hope you enjoy the story…


Snakecharmer Blues
by Dave Williams

Henry Despres knew something was wrong as he sat on the barstool and watched his friend play guitar.

When Louis played in bars before, talking among the bar’s patrons typically stayed to a minimum. Murmurs at some of the tables. Drink orders said to bartenders. Over all of it, the music from Sweeter Than Night was clear.

Not this time. Zeke’s customers chatted, their din competing with the music. The music stayed on top, but not by much, like a wrestler barely outmuscling his opponent.

Up on stage, Louis looked like he was trying too hard. His face was twisted with effort, sweat sliding down his wrinkled forehead and cheeks in thin streams. Blue and purple stage lights danced across his face, giving it an ugly shine. His fingers jerked on the guitar, seemingly attacking the strings to force out each note.

Henry Despres sipped his beer. Shelly was right; the music was off. Henry was glad she had called him several days ago to share the news about her husband, even though the news had arrived in a voice heavy with concern: “He’s been moody. Sometimes he’s really, really happy, like he’s about to burst. Talks up a storm, says we’re gonna do this and that, and things are gonna be great. He’ll go on and on about he’s gonna take me on the road and play in other cities and we’ll have the time of our lives. Then other times he’ll be angry and complain about his boss and how he doesn’t give a shit about Louis and treats him like dirt. And about he doesn’t get the chances he deserves when he can play so good. But Henry, you know how he blew that chance he had.”

Since Shelly had paused, Henry had filled the gap: “Yeah, that was sad. Do you think his moodiness is because of that?”

“Don’t know,” Shelly had said. “Could be. But that was months ago, and he looked like he was rolling with it back then.”

“Maybe he was just acting like he was rolling with it,” Henry had said.

“Yeah,” Shelly had said. “Maybe you’re right. Could you talk with him? See if something’s bothering him that he won’t talk to me about? I know he doesn’t tell me everything. But I’d hope he’d talk to me about important things.”

Henry had said he’d have a chat with Louis, see if he could dig up what was bothering his good friend.

The old Louis bared his soul to the music. Played with every ounce of passion and heart inside him. The crowd in the bar stared at the man at center stage. The music was so mesmerizing, you couldn’t look away. Like a spell was cast over the bar patrons.

And when people danced to the old Louis, they did it with their eyes half-closed. They lost themselves in the music. They forgot about the mundane things of every day. As if in a trance, listeners swayed like wheat in a field blown by wind. Gerard’s drums and Nina’s bass guitar provided the backbone of the blues music played by Sweeter Than Night. Louis’s lead guitar rose and fell in driving riffs, searing to the ceiling, pulling you in, telling you to let go, release your worries and join the dance or sit there and nod your head and tap your feet. The important thing was to let go.

The dancers came to the bar with worries squeezing them into tight balls. Work, bills, rents, mortgages, troubles, regrets, anxieties, frustrations. Within the music, the people uncurled and stretched, writhed and shook their hips.

During each extended song, Gerard and Nina simmered their drums and bass guitar to a low groove, giving space for Louis to explore a freestyling jam, the notes swirling around the dancers. Then the drums and bass picked up volume and speed, catching up to Louis. The three musicians lifted to a peak, sustaining that for an ecstatic moment, ending the song in a long peal from Louis’s guitar. In the sudden silence, the music echoed in everyone’s ears, even seeming to hang in the air, holding on to any auditory crevice, reluctant to leave. Louis spoke banter into the microphone, gave a joke or two, and the band started the next song.

Louis knew he was a snakecharmer.

One night a few years ago, and this was before Louis and Shelly got married, two friends went out on the town. Henry and Louis did that on some weekday nights, since Louis played for crowds on Friday and Saturday nights. The friends listened to other bands. After last call in a bar, they stumbled—clumsy, noisy, bourbon-breathed—to Louis’s apartment. Henry collapsed on the couch.

Louis picked up an acoustic guitar before plunking on an easy chair. His mood fit the style of chair. He strummed a soft mellow rhythm, and said: “Nothing like it. When I’m playing and people’re dancing. Man, it’s a great feeling. And it goes on and on the whole night. Yeah, some of ’em get all drunk and sloppy like us right now, but not all of ’em.”

Henry grinned. Many times, he had heard Louis describe his feelings on playing music. Henry didn’t mind hearing it again. He drifted with the acoustic guitar’s melody and Louis’s words, like the musician was trying his hand and mouth at spoken poetry over music.

“I want to give ’em a break for a night,” Louis said. “Let me take all that sad shit away. And when I’m done, y’all go home and get some sleep and maybe you’re in better shape to deal with your problems in the morning. Not if you’re hung over, though.” Louis chuckled. “Then you got another problem. But everybody needs a break now and then.”

Even drunk, Louis played a good lullaby. Henry passed out on the couch. Like many other nights before Louis got hitched.

Tonight at Zeke’s, however, Louis was charming nobody. Gerard and Nina’s faces were hard to read; you couldn’t tell if they were disappointed in their lead guitarist’s stabbing out notes. Maybe they were used to it.

Henry hadn’t seen Louis play for a good bit. After the wedding, Louis didn’t go out drinking and seeing other bands. Just played with his band at bars. Part of that came with the life change. A newly married man’s friends figured the fresh groom was busy at home once he and the Missus returned home from the honeymoon. Also, Louis had started saying he and Shelly were saving money for a house. Everyone saw it as getting a larger nest to fit a family that planned to expand.

Henry’s focus had shifted to other buddies, work, his own wondering if he should get serious about settling down. Louis and Shelly had hosted Henry at their apartment for dinners, and those were enjoyable, but in a different way than the two bachelors used to spend time.

Taking a swig of beer, Henry remembered Louis’s excitement over the invitation to try out for a record label. A big executive in a pretty suit had asked Louis to “test drive” some songs. That’s the phrase the exec had used. If the test drive went well, they’d make a record and go on tour. Money would be made. Then more records and tours and more money. Louis showed up drunk to the studio and played decently. Far from his best. The exec threw a fit and threw Louis out.

And maybe Louis was merely acting that he was rolling with the smashed chance. Maybe his turmoil grew until it needed a release.

Last night, Shelly had called Henry again and got to the point, her voice cracking: “It’s drugs.”

“What? How … how can you know that? Did you see him take some?”

Shelly had sniffled. “I found a little bag of white powder in his guitar case. In the little box where he keeps picks and extra strings. You know how he always breaks strings.” A pause for another sniffle. “I know, I know. I was snooping. But I felt like I had to, with the way he’s been acting.”

Air seemed to rush out of Henry’s body, leaving him hollow. He had never guessed that as the reason for his best friend’s unusual behavior. Henry had said, “Don’t feel bad about snooping. Probably be a good thing in the long run.”

“If I confront him about this, he might lose his top,” Shelly had said. “That’s how he’s been. You’re gonna talk to him, right?”

“I said I would.”

“Tell me how it goes. I’m really worried.”

The music stopped and the guitarists set down their instruments to scattered applause. Louis approached the bar and smiled when he saw Henry. The friends clasped hands and embraced. Henry felt a familiar comfort he hadn’t realized he sorely missed.

Louis sat on a stool and said, “Been a helluva long time. How’ve you been?”

“Hanging in there,” Henry said. “How about yourself?”

The bartender pushed a drink across the counter to Louis. He hadn’t ordered the drink; it simply arrived.

Louis nodded to the bartender and knocked back some of what looked to be straight bourbon. Louis said, “Surviving. You know how it is.”

“Sometimes I don’t,” Henry said. “You looked mad up there.”

“Think so? Not so much. I’ve just been in a funk.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“Happens to everybody once in a while,” Louis said, his eyes looking annoyed. “Why? Did I sound bad?”

Henry considered a reply other than a rude, but honest, yes. He said, “You didn’t sound like you usually do.”

Louis gave a dismissive wave. “Can’t be on fire all the time, you know. I’ll get back to it soon.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Listen, let’s catch up more after the show. Have a couple and chill.” Louis took his drink backstage.

Henry supposed he had started too strong in the interrogation. Smarter would’ve been to grease the conversational wheels, then wait till later to bring out the observation about Louis seeming mad and forcing out the music.

In the second set, Louis’s playing was toned down. He came across as tired. As much as Henry hated to admit, Louis was phoning in the performance. Henry and Louis had quickly described other musicians that way, back in their bar-touring days. Now, Henry was reluctant to stick the same label on Louis.

Talking and laughter were easier to hear amid the customers, their attention away from Sweeter Than Night and joshing with each other.

When the music stopped, mediocre applause rewarded the band, then the musicians started packing up the drum kit and other equipment. No encore would happen tonight.

After the stage was cleared, Louis carried his guitar case over to Henry, who finished off his beer. The men waved bye to the bartender and headed out.

“Coffee at the diner?” Louis said.

“How about we walk some?” Henry said. “Be nice to stretch my legs, and I could use the fresh air.”

“You’re not the one who’s been standing for two sets.”

“I’ll carry the guitar,” Henry said. “Let’s go for a little ways, then hit up a diner.”

Louis grunted as he handed over the guitar case. Henry liked the feel of the handle and the appearance of the case, giving him a cooler look—to him, it did. While loving to listen to music, he seemed to have all thumbs when Louis had taught him several chords, and they eventually gave up the lessons.

Small talk started by Henry relaying news about the friends he had hung out with lately. Who had moved to another city. Who had gotten different jobs. A band that broke up. Changes. The city’s buildings stood still, but not much else did.

Louis offered comments, like: “Sam always kept going on about leaving for Chicago. Seemed like he would always think the grass was greener somewhere else.”

They walked without a specific destination, and Henry knew he was putting off the direct questioning to Louis, but Henry enjoyed this quiet time with an old friend. The streets were mostly empty of people, except for small groups of loud folks partying on the young weekend.

Louis said he needed a rest. Since no diner was in sight, the men sat on the front step of a darkened restaurant. Closed up, having fed Friday night customers and waiting until the Saturday lunch crowd. The sign above the door read Fais de Beaux Rêves in ornate lettering. The place looked fancy, the food surely costing more than the men could afford to spend on dinner.

Henry and Louis leaned their backs against the restaurant’s glass door. The guitar case was placed on the sidewalk before them.

Hefting a sigh, Henry said, “I’ve got to get serious. What’s really going on with this funk you’ve got?”

“This again?” Annoyance was spiked in the question. “Like I told you, it happens.”

“Just that I haven’t seen you like that before,” Henry said.

Louis’s eyes settled on him for a stretched moment, as Louis possibly weighed whether to continue pushing back or offer an explanation.

Then came Louis’s decision: “A lotta things’re going on. All those bills and shit. The stack of bills keeps getting higher. You pay one off, and two more take its place. And people’re calling up, asking for shit. Everybody wants a chunk out of you. I’m getting tired of it.”

Progress. A small flame of hope shone in Henry’s heart. He said, “Yeah, I get it. How’re you dealing with it?”

Louis tipped his head in the direction where they had come from. “Back there. Playing’s always been an outlet for me. You know that.”

“Sure, sure. But is it working like it used to?”

“Don’t mess around,” Louis said. “You already know the answer to that.”

“So if it’s not doing the trick, what else you doing?”

“What’s gotten into you? Why all these questions?”

“’Cause I’m worried,” Henry said. “Shelly’s worried. We want to know about what you’re going through.”

The disgust in Louis’s grunt-laugh could’ve offended the restaurant. “She called you. Figures. I should’ve fucking known. You show up out of nowhere. When’s the last time we talked? I should’ve known, hearing you talk like that at the bar after we haven’t seen each other in so long.”

“Sorry for not coming to see you before,” Henry said. “I’m gonna see you more often. Promise.”

“Okay, fine.”

“And, yeah, Shelly called me,” Henry said. “What do you expect? You’ve got her worried. You’re not talking straight to her. She’s your wife, for Christ’s sakes. Think about what that means.”

“You kidding me?” Louis said. “I know what that means. She’s been complaining about me being moody. She nags and nags, won’t give it a rest. I tell her what’s up, same as I just told you, but she keeps nagging at me. So goes and calls you.” He shook his head, apparently in disbelief at Shelly’s action.

Silence took over. They watched the lit sign of Ron’s Bakery across the street. The men sat side by side, but Henry felt they were on different parts of the country. He wondered what Louis was thinking. He missed his friend’s old ways: easy with a laugh and a smile, easy to sit for a bit and talk about anything that came up.

Louis said, “It gets tough. Yeah, I get angry sometimes. Everybody does. You get frustrated and mad at the stupid shit and sometimes I ain’t the best guy to be around. But I get through it. What’s the choice? That or go crazy. Crazy don’t appeal to me.”

“Me neither. I know how you get through it. Shelly told me.”

Louis’s head whipped around, to stare at Henry, and Louis said, “What? What’d she tell you?”

While the earlier part of the conversation had challenged Henry, the next part seemed a wide gap he needed to jump over. Or retreat from. The path would’ve been much smoother—for Henry—if Louis had fessed up.

“I wished it would’ve been booze,” Henry said. “That would’ve made more sense.”

“What’re you talking about? You’re not making sense.”

“Drugs.” Henry closed his eyes as he spoke. “Shelly said she found some in your guitar case.”

As Louis kept quiet, Henry looked over to see his friend staring ahead, with an expression in a mask that offered no evidence of the thoughts behind it. The guitar case also kept silent, with no excuse given for what it could be hiding now.

Louis looked beaten and sad. “I wasn’t looking for it. It wasn’t like that. Shit was getting to me, but I was dealing with it. Trying to, at least. Then one night we had a gig uptown. Classier place than Zeke’s. It was a good chance to get our sound out there more. You never know who’s in the audience. And we played a hot night. I was excited, ’cause we played so good, and a couple guys came up to us afterward. I forget their names. Anyway, they asked if we wanted to go to a party. Gerry and Nina said they were tired and wanted to get home. I was supposed to go back with them in the van, but one of the other guys said he’d drive me home. Said it was on his way, no problem. So I went with them to this sweet apartment. Well, we’re drinking and having a good time. Then somebody breaks this shit out. I’m feeling fine from the playing and the booze, I say, why not, you only live once.”

He didn’t need coaxing. As if he was lifting the secret off his chest. Henry absorbed each word.

“Those guys hooked me up with more of the stuff,” Louis said. “It gives me that same feeling I get when my music’s true and people’re dancing. That same high. Maybe I wouldn’t need the stuff if I had a gig every night. But I don’t. Gotta get through all those work days to get to the gigs. Then the shit piles up and pushes you down. Feels like happiness is so far away, you might never feel it again. But the stuff’s right at hand. When you got it, it is. So you go for that sweetness. It’s not complicated, man. I wanted to forget the pain and feel good.”

Henry waited in case Louis had more to say, but he seemed to have finished his piece. Somebody howled from another block. Sounded like a drunk answering an ancient urge to yell as a wolf at the moon.

“That stuff’s turning you into someone else,” Henry said. “You get that, right?”

Louis gazed at him from the corner of an eye. “Now I do, yeah.”

“I can help,” Henry said. “Shelly, too. Of course she would. You’ve got lots of friends. All of us can help. But you’ve got to be open to that. Are you?”

After a moment, Louis said softly, “Yeah.”

“Good. ’Cause I’ve got to wonder, if you keep playing like you did tonight, that Zeke’s and other places might not ask you to come back.”

“Was it that bad?”

Henry said, “It wasn’t great, I’ll tell you that. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ll come to your shows more. It was stupid how I got out of the habit. I’ll change that.”

“You better.”

“And you’re welcome to drop by my place anytime,” Henry said. “If you want to sit and have some beers and talk about shit that’s bothering you. If you want to talk to someone besides Shelly.”

Louis nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

As Henry stood, he felt lighter. He’d gotten through what he’d set out to do tonight. And they’d gotten through a difficult conversation. Louis was clearly embarrassed, and there was no need to beat the issue to death.

“Let’s get you home,” Henry said, extending a hand, and Louis clasped it for assistance in standing.

Henry picked up the guitar case. The men began walking back where they came, heading toward the nearest bus stop. Most of the city was asleep on this crisp, cool very early morning. The streetlamps created cones of illumination that broke up the darkness. Their lighted circles on the sidewalk and street could’ve been spotlights on a stage, or islands of hope.

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Deliveries from Past and Future

Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris

A couple weeks back, I learned a new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will be airing tonight on PBS, and last for three nights.

As a teenager, I enjoyed reading Hemingway — along with Stephen King, Tolkein, and comic books. And with the documentary soon arriving, I wondered about writing a short story with him as a character. I did that last year with Claude Monet, and the experiences of researching his life and crafting a story were fascinating: the research breathed life into Monet as a person, rather than a name on plaques next to his paintings in museums, and my attempt to capture some of that breathed life into a story that I hoped respected the man.

I started with Wikipedia’s Hemingway article to see if anything inspired an idea for a story, and I was immediately captured by this part:

In November 1956, while staying in Paris, he [Hemingway] was reminded of trunks he had stored in the Ritz Hotel in 1928 and never retrieved. Upon re-claiming and opening the trunks, Hemingway discovered they were filled with notebooks and writing from his Paris years. Excited about the discovery, when he returned to Cuba in early 1957, he began to shape the recovered work into his memoir A Moveable Feast.” — Wikipedia

I hadn’t heard of that event in Hemingway’s life, and the good fortune of it connected with me to begin a story. I made up a character, Lucien Clement, who claims to have known Hemingway in the ’20s and suggests the two of them spend a day visiting cafés and other spots that they frequented back then.

So I ask for the reader’s indulgence with the fictional actions and dialogue. Although, the locations are real.


Deliveries from Past and Future
by Dave Williams

The bearded man was so engrossed reading the newspaper article, he didn’t hear the question spoken by the bald man standing by him.

The bald man repeated the question, a notch louder—but not enough to be considered rude in the café of the Ritz Hotel: “Pardon?”

The bearded man gazed upward, supposing the person was the waiter. However, the standing man didn’t wear the formal uniform of a waiter. The bearded man said, “What is it?”

“I believe you are the person I seek,” the bald man said. “But I wish to check before I make a fool of myself. Are you the American writer Ernest Hemingway?”

The bearded man sized up the other man, done from the disadvantage of seated while the other stood. The bald man appeared to be in his early sixties, a little older than himself. The bald man had spoken with a French accent.

“I am,” the bearded man said. “Who are you?”

“Lucien Clement.” He extended a hand, which Hemingway clasped. Clement said, “We met many years ago, when you lived in Paris. I heard you were in town and I hoped to track you down. A wonderful opportunity to chat with you again.”

Hemingway squinted at the standing man. “You say we chatted back then? I don’t remember you. Did we talk only once?”

“More than that,” Lucien Clement said. “We talked in Madame Stein’s salons and the occasional café.”

After mentally reviewing the faces of people he had encountered thirty-plus years ago, Hemingway couldn’t find any who matched the face before him. But that could’ve been due to the man’s lack in standing out from the many people whom Hemingway had met. “I don’t remember you.”

“Ah, that is not a surprise,” Clement said, then smiled. “In the story of your life, I am a minor character. A very minor one. May I join you?”

Curiosity caused Hemingway to point his opened hand to the empty seat across the table. As the bald man sat, Hemingway said, “What are you playing at? Are you really a reporter trying to dig up dirt?”

Clement wore a sad expression. “I assure you I am not, sir. I could think of some incident or conversation from back then, and tell you. Would that convince you?”

“You could’ve read about it in the papers,” Hemingway said.

The waiter arrived and asked if the new gentleman would like to order. Clement asked for a café au lait, the same beverage in Hemingway’s cup. Hemingway asked for a refill. Clement put forth another request: if the waiter could ask Monsieur Ritz to pay them a visit.

Once the waiter departed, Hemingway said, “You know Charley?”

“A mutual friend of ours,” Clement said. “He is the reason I am here. He told me you are in Paris. He will vouch for me, that I am not a reporter.”

Hemingway was pleased. “I’d trust Charley’s word.”

“A trustworthy gentleman,” Clement said. “One who would keep a customer’s steamer trunks and not throw them in the rubbish.”

A chuckle came from Hemingway. “Old Charley told you about that, did he? That was a special moment. Day before yesterday, me and Charley and Aaron were having lunch here. Charley tells me outta nowhere that two of my trunks are in the basement.” Hemingway chuckled again. “Who would’ve thought? I figured they were lost. But Charley tells me nope, they’ve been stored away ever since the ’20s.”

“What a fantastic gift,” Lucien Clement said. “Those trunks even survived through a war.”

The last word darkened Hemingway’s face. “The damnable Nazis would’ve taken the trunks if they knew they were here. They stole a great deal of art in their invasions.”

“You had stories in the trunks? Your stories as art?”

“No,” Hemingway said. “They had a mish-mosh, clothes and letters and the like. But most important, my notebooks were still there. Notebooks filled with what I was up to back then.”

“Marvelous.” Clement grinned. “It is as if your younger self came back to talk with you.”

Pausing to think, Hemingway then said, “An odd way to describe it. But, yes, I suppose it’s like that.”

The waiter delivered two cups of café au lait on the table, said Monsieur Ritz would arrive shortly, and removed Hemingway’s old saucer and cup.

After Clement sipped the coffee and remarked on its good taste, Charles Ritz arrived tableside and bid good morning to the seated men. Thin mustached and wearing suit and tie, Charles said, “Ah, Lucien, good to see you’ve caught up to Papa.”

“Indeed,” Clement said.

“You know this fellow?” Hemingway said.

“Yes, yes, Lucien and I have been friends for many years,” Charley Ritz said.

“And he rambled around with us battered people back then?”

“He did,” Charley Ritz said. “Sometimes we talk of the old days. But we talk more of the present days. For some reason, he likes listening about my fly-fishing trips.”

Clement said, “I’ve told you. I like to imagine myself in the streams, forest all around.”

The three men made small talk, then Charles Ritz excused himself, saying he needed to return to his office. Clement asked Hemingway if the character reference satisfied Hemingway’s doubt. The writer said it did.

“I have a proposal for you,” Clement said. “If you are not busy today, I would enjoy visiting some café that were your favorites back then. A walk through memories. And I would very much like to talk about your books.”

Hemingway stroked his beard while mulling over the proposal. He had planned to read his notebooks, which he had done yesterday and the afternoon on the day before that. Yet here was the chance to revisit the old times in familiar places with an unfamiliar man, who might remember things that Hemingway had forgotten.

“I’m game,” Hemingway said. “Let’s do it.”

*****

From statue to statue, the taxi crossing the Seine between them. Outside the Ritz Hotel, a tall column — its bronze turned green — with Napoleon looking small as he stood on the column’s far top. Then, after the taxi stopped, the statue of Marshal Ney was seen much closer to the ground. Also green tinted, the marshal held a sword aloft.

Hemingway went to stand by the statue and thought, You’re as strong as ever, my old friend.

The writer was warmly welcomed in La Closerie des Lilas. Inside the restaurant, Hemingway acted cordially to the staff while memories flooded his mind. Writing alone and nursing coffee. Talking with Ezra. Reading Scott’s book about the rich bootlegger with an unpleasant, garish cover of a woman’s sad eyes and lips hovering in the night sky over a glowing city. Celebrating with Joyce over Syvia’s decision to publish his rambling novel about a man rambling about his town.

Much had happened among these red-backed booths, mahogany bar, and terrace bordered with lilacs—which were hibernating in this November chill. Other patrons were here and there. Two ladies chatted at a table; two men at another.

As Hemingway and Clement sat and ordered lunch, they overheard the men at the other table discussing French military action in Egypt. One man’s opinion was that more soldiers should’ve been sent in to ensure the Suez Canal was taken. The second man disagreed, saying the soldiers were needed more in Algiers, to put down the guerillas.

“Both conflicts are horrific,” Clement said to his lunch partner. “Man rushes too quickly to violence. The leaders should’ve tried harder to talk through our differences. That would save many lives.”

“War is dirty business,” Hemingway said. “I was reading about Egypt when we met. But that looks to be over quicker than Algiers. That’s much nastier.”

“Did your character do something similar?” Clement said. “Roger, I think his name is? From your book named for a tolling bell?”

Hemingway didn’t try to cover his distaste for Clement’s mistakes. “The book is For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the man’s name is Robert Jordan. And you’re wrong. They aren’t similar. Far from it. Robert blew up a bridge to help the guerrillas fight fascists. They aren’t guerrillas in Algiers. They’re terrorists that target civilians. That’s despicable.”

Clement, forearms on the table, opened his hands, palms up—as if to receive a bowl. “Please pardon me. I meant no offense. A time has passed since I read the book. I forgot that detail.”

“It’s an important one.”

“You are right, of course,” Clement said. “Could you tell me of your experiences in the Spanish Civil War? And how that led to the book? I’m very interested.”

Hemingway took a drink of the red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. Did he want to sit here and chat, after this Clement tried to equate terrorists with Robert Jordan? Except, the man could’ve made a mistake. He would give the fellow a chance. The day could still bear fruit. The fellow could’ve turned out to be a living embodiment to the notebooks. Filling gaps in Hemingway’s memory.

That would have to wait, if Hemingway was to indulge Clement’s request. Hemingway found no reason to deny it. He didn’t have to offer keen details, more of an outline. So he spoke of Spain, that beautiful, sun-drenched country, in a far different time than his earlier visits of chumming with friends and watching bullfights. The fighting had turned into the mess that men wreak on other men. And that time, Hemingway’s chums were reporters. Including Martha.

Clement made for an attentive audience. Listening while eating haddock, poached egg, and spinach in butter cream sauce — further lubricated with Pouilly Fuisé. Hemingway took breaks in his storytelling to chew forkfuls of filet of beef, fired with bourbon, and potatoes.

*****

Lunch had stretched from food with wine to just wine. Conversation had stretched from Spain to the ’20s, particularly of happenings inside La Closerie des Lilas.

Revisiting the memories brought a sadness to Hemingway. Some of those friends were no longer around: Gertrude, Scott, Joyce. Less painful to envision them as they had been rather than of the hole they had left. Better images showed when they were vigorous and exchanged ideas and argued and drank deep of life. As if each was a sculptor working on the sculpture of himself or herself, and contributing to the sculptures of their friends.

Back then they had no way of knowing about their futures, which were shrouded in mystery. Some people had met some successes in their arts. Others had written fine stories that did not excite the reading public. When he died, poor Scott had been the name of a chap from the Roaring Twenties. But Scott would’ve been over the moon if he’d been alive when the bootlegger book became popular, even given out to troops during the Second World War.

Hemingway and Clement crossed the short distance from the restaurant to Jardin des Grands Explorateurs. A break from eating and sitting.

Yet again, Hemingway fantasized for the health of his younger years. Walking would’ve been more enjoyable without discomfort. An obvious frustration of growing old was not being able to do what you used to, but crashes through the years had accelerated that trajectory for him.

Even with that, Hemingway was grateful to be outside and breathing the crisp air in Paris. He had always loved the city’s display of elegance through architecture and cafés and flowers and bridges. And, as this garden of explorers exemplified, through statues and rows of trees. At one garden’s side, a large fountain’s statuary of turtles spewed water toward the rearing horses in the fountain’s center.

The opposite side of the garden led to the Jardin du Luxembourg that expanded in width and depth. Here, the trees created hedge-like walls. The tree trunks were bare of branches from earth up to perhaps five feet, where branches began. The branches were trimmed, and the trees grew so close together, that the branches and leaves formed uniform walls in rows. Now they were orange walls, the color glowing in the sun.

“You told me before,” Clement said, “how you walked in these gardens to keep your mind away from food. I thought that was a good way to focus your thoughts. I enjoy walking here and try to let my thoughts wander. It’s beautiful. A garden of Eden within the city.”

“Doesn’t feel like Eden to me.” Hemingway gestured to the groups of people seated on chairs and benches. “All these folks instead of God’s array of animals.”

“They do take away from the Eden idea, yes,” Clement said. “I see them as islands scattered in the streams of pathways.”

Hemingway peered at his companion. “A curious way to say it. What do you do?”

Clement seemed pleased to be asked about himself, instead of the conversation centering on Hemingway. Clement said, “I am a philosopher. I teach, I publish books.”

“Books, huh?” Hemingway’s peering grew in curiosity. “Would I have heard of them?”

“I doubt you would,” Clement said. “They are not as successful as yours, but I like to imagine they have shaken up the thoughts of one or two people. They are thinking books, not books of action like yours.”

Only action?”

“No, no, please do not get the wrong impression,” Clement said. “The places in them are quite important. War, of course. And the sea. I much admired The Old Man and the Sea. It felt right to me. To my time in life. An old man struggles against a mighty fish. That fish could be other things to other old men and women. All of us have struggles. And they feel more difficult as we grow older.”

“They sure as hell do.”

“Would you like to see my books?” Clement asked. “I know a good bookstore.”

“Me too. There’s a decent chance both of us are thinking of the same one.”

They had reached the large octagonal fountain somewhat in the middle of the garden. Behind the fountain stood Palais du Luxembourg, looking like the stately home of a lord amid his richly manicured estate.

Heading east would’ve been shorter to reach a street on which to hail a taxi, but Clement requested they walk in the other direction, to stop at the Statue of Liberty before leaving the garden. Hemingway said that was fine. For him, seeing the statue had always caused the odd sensation of déjà vu. Before Paris, he had been used to Lady Liberty associated with New York City. However, here it stood. Different size, different place. As if the statue had decided to take a vacation and shrank to fit within airplane regulations. The vacation had turned into a permanent home.

*****

The smell of Shakespeare and Company was particular to the store, not the place—since the bookstore’s location had change from when Hemingway went there in the ’20s to now. From Rue de l’Odéon, a short walk north from Luxembourg Gardens, to next to the Seine on Rue de la Bûcherie, a farther walk from the gardens. Or a short taxi ride.

The shop made Hemingway think of learning and generosity. Of course customers could buy books, but the store also served as a library and temporary flat. Sylvia had generously allowed Hemingway to borrow books, and he had absorbed stories of Russian masters. A blessing to one with very few francs in his pocket. The single bed on the store’s second floor had been used by many travelers. Finding a refuge to rest during their journeys.

As Hemingway and Clement said “bonjour” to the clerk behind the counter, Hemingway thought of how some women consistently wore a signature perfume, so one associates a perfume’s aroma with specific woman.

Every available space on the walls’ shelves was fit with books. Spines stood and spines lay flat, as pieces in a puzzle. Hemingway had never seen another bookshop as crammed with books, and the bursting-at-the-seams image gave him comfort. Books should be treasured, and this place did that.

Clement led them to the philosophy section, moved his finger along the book spines as a guide for his eyes, found two books, slid them out, and handed them to Hemingway. On the cover of Babel d’escaliers et d’arcades, an illustration of a circular staircase heading up—or down—with no beginning or ending. On the cover of Un palais infini, a room with an archway leading to another room, repeating in the distance, reducing in size until the rooms and archways reached a vanishing point. Lucien Clement’s name was on the bottom of both books.

Hemingway easily translated the titles: “Babel of stairs and arcades. Infinite palace.” Flipping through Babel, he asked, “What are these about?”

Clement suggested they head up to the second floor to talk. They ascended the creaky staircase then walked to the front room with windows offering views of the Seine and Notre Dame. This room gave sources of warmth to Hemingway: sunlight, walls of books, joys he had of reading here. Chairs were next to two walls, and one chair was occupied by a lady who looked up from her book as the men entered.

“This is fortuitous,” Clement said as he and Hemingway sat on chairs in the row opposite to the lady. “When we were younger, you and I chatted for much of an afternoon here. Perhaps the only time we talked one on one.”

After a moment of thought, Hemingway said, “I don’t remember that. What we talk about?”

“Many things. I do not remember all the details, but I remember we talked of Proust, Dumas, Baudelaire, and Henri Bergson. I am sure there were others, but they do not come to mind.”

Hemingway chuckled. “That could’ve been in any conversation I had with any of my chums back then in any café.”

“As with me,” Clement said. “But I know it was here. You spoke of your admiration of In Search of Lost Time, of Proust’s concentration on his growing up. Although you found it long-winded and too long. You particularly enjoyed his recollection of the madeleines that Proust dipped in tea. How he could still remember that taste.”

“I still like that.” Hemingway smiled. “Something strong that sticks with you.”

“That influenced me in my philosophy.” Clement tipped his head toward the two books Hemingway held on his lap. Clement said, “Along with Bergson. He was a big influence.”

“And what is that philosophy? What is this Tower of Babel and this palace?” Hemingway’s finger tapped the top book, the one with stairs on the cover.

“They are us,” Clement said. “You, me, everyone. The titles try to tell the idea that we are constantly evolving and recreating ourselves.”

“Think so? So we don’t stay the same?”

“In some ways, yes,” the philosopher said. “But in other ways, we keep changing. Some ways are small. Others are larger, such as marrying your lover and becoming a parent.”

“Sure, sure, but those happen just a few times in a person’s life. Some more than others, of course.” Hemingway appeared wistful.

“Ah, the small changes are those we change more often,” Clement said. “That connects with my beliefs about time. I am not the first to come up with these beliefs. But I like to imagine that I have put my own fine point on them.”

“What, that we walk around and around some stairs somewhere and never reach the top?”

Clement grinned. “Close, actually. Time is a line and a spiral. We measure time, of course. Second after second. Counting them all the way up to days and years and more. That is the line. But it is only one way to think of time. There are other ways. Time is relative to each person and that person’s mood in the moment.”

“Okay,” Hemingway said. “Einstein came up with that idea.”

“Indeed,” Clement said. “To me, however, there is more complexity. How we see time on a large scale, more than a mere moment. How we see a year passing, a decade passing. A boy turns twenty years old, and his parents say, ‘Where did the time go? Wasn’t our son just a child a year ago? How did our son grow from five years old to twenty in the blink of an eye?’ I do not have children, but I have heard many parents say such a comment.”

“Same here.”

Clement continued, “Time changes in our mind. Our memories of the past change as we age. Our thoughts of the future also change. When we are young, our life feels that it will last forever. We cannot see the end. As we age, we know more about how there is an ending. And as we grow older, our sense of self changes. And we change our memories. For example, we can change memories that make us feel shame. We do that to soften the shame and make ourselves feel better. That is how we constantly evolve.”

Hemingway scratched his neck below his beard. “Interesting food for thought.”

“Much of what I believe is from Bergson. I fear I am a pale imitation of Bergson. His ideas have fascinated me, and I have added my own thoughts to them. But I am not a world-changer. Not like you.”

“You’ve contributed to the world,” Hemingway said as he tapped the book again.

“I tried.” Clement cleared his throat before shifting the conversation: “That is part of why I wished to talk with you today. Not just to reminisce, but to see how the discovery of your notebooks has affected you. A delivery from your past self. Does it change how you see the future?”

“Not really, no. Why would it? It’s about the past.”

“How about we talk about that over dinner?” Clement asked. “I could use the sustenance.”

“Fine. I could eat.”

Clement gazed out of the windows before they left, and he said, “I enjoy the afternoon sunlight in the city. What seemed true at the first light of dawn becomes more complicated. More nuanced.”

Hemingway followed the view of the river, church, and other buildings. “I don’t agree about nuanced. But the sun certainly changes throughout the day.”

*****

The taxi brought the gentlemen to Montparnasse, a street full of restaurants, to the corner where Le Dôme Café stood. Elegant as she always was. The warm lighting invited you inside, and once inside, you were embraced by its refined softness against the wood of the walls.

Tabled, Hemingway and Clement began with a dozen marennes oysters each and shared a bottle of Sancerre. They chose to not resume the paused conversation until the oysters were eaten. The combination of the sea and Paris was too delectable to move their focus elsewhere; the food and wine demanded their attention.

As the men sipped wine after a waiter took away the empty oyster trays, Clement said, “A marvelous way to continue our day. We are feasting our way through the past. A feast that moves from café to café and through our memories. A moveable feast, if you will?”

“Possibly,” Hemingway said. “I’d have to think that one over. Now what’s this business about how I see the future?”

Clement’s grin exuded warmth like the restaurant’s small lamps. “I meant if it changes your plans for the future. What of writing a book of your adventures? I imagine many people would find such a book interesting. I would. And not just for people who were there. People who are too young to have lived in that time.”

Hemingway scanned the other patrons, noting the ones who appeared young enough to fit that category. “The idea’s got merit, I’ll give you that.”

“It is a gamble I would take,” Clement said. “It would be history. A glimpse at another era through your eyes. But not just any era, but a time of much change. Picasso was changing art, James Joyce with literature. And you could write of your love for Paris. How the city is a celebration.”

“You know, I think you’re on to something there.”

“The notebooks are gifts,” Clement said. “That won’t happen with the suitcase Hadley lost at the train station.”

The door closed on Hemingway’s budding enthusiasm, replaced by bitterness unsmoothed after more years since the two trunks were left at the Ritz. In the early ’20s. Winter. Hadley boarded a train at Gare de Lyon to meet him in Geneva. She left the suitcase to buy refreshment. A spineless coward stole the suitcase while she was gone. Nearly all his manuscripts were in that suitcase. The thievery broke Hemingway into pieces which took a while to reassemble.

“Why the hell would you bring that up?” Hemingway demanded.

Clement spread his fingers. “My apologies. I meant no offense. I wished to show how a loss usually remains a loss. Not with your notebooks, however.”

The tension hung above the table as the waiter arrived and delivered plates: roasted turbo with hollandaise for Clement, sole meunière for Hemingway, who ordered another bottle of Sancerre. Neither man ate while the tension stayed.

“You’d have to know that’s a sore spot for me,” Hemingway said.

“Understandable,” Clement replied. “It was a great shame. And it serves to show how rare this event. Time has spiraled backward and created a loop.”

“You’re speaking English, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Clement said, “Please give me a few minutes to explain. When I was a younger man, I had hair on my head. Now it grows on the sides and back, but I shave it off.” The philosopher slid a hand on his bald head. “When you were a younger man, you wore a black mustache. Now you have a white beard. Of course this happens naturally as we age. Black to white. As if we switch sides on a chess board.”

“What does facial hair have to do with chess?”

“Merely a symbol for what I mean,” Clement said. “Please, we need to start this meal. We do not want it to get cold. Bon appétit, my friend.”

Hemingway didn’t argue, and the men ate a couple bites of the fish on the white octagonal plates. The delicious food helped calm Hemingway’s annoyance.

“We get older and our view of the world changes,” Clement said. “Similar to switching sides in chess. Here is your chance to switch sides back to your younger self with that admirable mustache.”

“You have a strange way of talking.”

“Perhaps because I am a philosopher,” Clement said. “Perhaps it is individual to who I am. But I try to communicate how the notebooks can rejuvenate you. I remember you and your wife were in horrible crashes a couple years ago.”

Just when Hemingway was heading toward a properly pleasant mood for dining in such a restaurant, he was yanked back to gloom. Up to the tragedies, the trip in Africa had been refreshing. In an aerial safari over the Belgian Congo, he and Mary were having a grand time. The plane’s wing collided with an electrical pole. Bruised, the Hemingways aimed to fly the next day to a city with a hospital. During take-off, the second plane burst into flames in a hellish scene. Ernest and Mary finally made it to that hospital, where he had the surreal experience of reading his obituaries in newspapers. That same year, he had won the Nobel.

Fortune smiled at you, but she also spit in your face. Or, like a boxer, landed two consecutive punches on your jaw because her hands were so quick, you didn’t see them flying at you.

Through the gloom, Hemingway could still see the lantern held by the odd man across the table. A rejuvenation. Hemingway had finished a set of short stories before embarking for Europe. Those stories were fine. Now he could head in a different direction. One that could breathe the vitality of youth into his battered body. A hopeful direction of new works and finished ones he’d started years ago.

Hemingway gently swirled his wine glass, sniffed the wine before sipping the cool liquid. He said, “I’m going to give it a shot. This book. But no more of this strange talk. And after this, I’m heading to Harry’s for a stiffer drink. Nobody makes a better cocktail than at Harry’s.”

Clement, clearly enjoying the writer’s decisions, said, “And I would very much like to join you with that drink.”

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Tree Made Into Flesh

Photo of a woman in a lavender dress, and tree branches with human hands at their ends are grabbing her.
by Brooke Shaden

I’m trying another photo prompt, this one from MindLoveMisery’s Menagerie. Thank you for hosting the prompt.

The photo immediately made me think of fairy tales, of Little Red Riding Hood running through a forest. Instead of going down that path, though, I wanted to try something different. A tree who wants to become a person. Pinocchio with roots rather than strings.

As I started writing, the story’s idea flourished. And the story grew much more than I anticipated. So it’s a bit on the long side. It’s not exactly flash fiction. I hope you enjoy it…


Tree Made Into Flesh

The eldest in the grove of druids heard the tree’s wish as he strolled the woods. Years of meditation had gifted Aelfraed — and a handful of other druids — with the ability to hear trees. But only when the trees spoke loudly enough. Their murmurings were never heard by humans.

This afternoon, a tree directed its voice to Aelfraed: I wish to become a person.

Startled, Aelfraed stood still and tried to figure out which tree had communicated.

Tis me, an oak said.

Why? Aelfraed projected his thought to the particular oak. Why not remain a tree?

I wish to move. Really move. The wind plays with me, and I can move my branches when I concentrate hard. I want more. I walk to walk and run and jump and dance. I want to see other places.

Aelfraed couldn’t remember hearing or reading about such a request from a tree. His heart’s sympathy shone toward the tree, yet his mind chose caution. He thought, I cannot give you an answer right away. I must mull on this dilemma. I don’t know if it can be done.

It can, the oak said. Stories have been passed down of trees becoming people. The druids made a magic to transform them. The tree-people were spotted by other trees who knew they weren’t real humans. Word spread of the journeys of the tree-people.

But that could be legend, Aelfraed thought. Made-up stories of old.

It was real, the oak said. Much more has passed in the lands than you humans know of and can even imagine.

Aelfraed nodded slowly. I will think it over and ask the others for advice.

Don’t waste your time, another tree said. It’s a foolish wish.

Stay a tree, yet another tree said to the oak. You are lucky to be one. Humans live the lives of twigs. We are of sturdier stuff.

I don’t expect you to understand, the oak said. I’ve been wanting it for years, and finally have expressed my desire.

Rather than continue his afternoon ramble, Aelfraed returned to the home of the druids — a circle created by several small cabins and a large dwelling, all log-walled, the trees of which had been prayed over for three days before felling for construction. The circle was centered by fruit trees and a garden of vegetables and herbs.

As Aelfraed called out to his fellow druids for a meeting, they stopped their tasks to assemble in the large dwelling’s main room. The elder spoke of his experience in the woods. The other druids listened with growing wonder, and flicked glances at each other. When Aelfraed finished relaying the tale, the fellows gave their opinions.

“We can’t offer assistance to this tree,” said a druid with long, gray hair. “It goes against nature.”

“Aye, that it does,” said one with an especially bushy beard.

“If we did it,” another druid said, “other trees could want the same treatment. Think of the consequences. The forest would lose trees.”

The long gray-haired druid (which, truth be told, described several of the gentlemen) said, “That would be a tragedy. And all the extra people walking about would need extra resources. More food, more houses.”

“That would throw the world off balance,” said the one who always had foul breath, no matter how many mint leaves he chewed.

Aelfraed said, “But that wouldn’t happen if we agreed to help the oak and stopped there. We could refuse other trees if they asked for the same metamorphosis.”

Many druids chirped their agreement with the elder’s statement.

“Why can’t the oak wait?” said a druid. “When it passes on — which will hopefully be years hence, God and Goddess willing — it will go to the Otherworld. It can move about there. Perhaps it will be reborn as a human.”

“No one knows if spirits have a choice in the Otherworld for their next life,” said one who sported a braided beard.

Aelfraed said, “Choice or no, the oak could be reborn as a moving creature. Doesn’t have to be a human. Could be bird, bear, or bug. Any of those would answer the oak’s wish.”

“I hope to be reborn a bird,” one druid said.

Many others chirped their agreement with that hope.

The druids voted on the topic of the oak, and the overwhelming majority chose against helping it turn into a person. One of the two voters on the other side was Garrick, the youngest in the grove.

That night, Garrick waited until his roommates were snoring, then quietly left the cabin and went into the large home. To the small library. Lighting a candle, he searched the crowded shelves for a tome that might include the spell. After a few tries that didn’t offer the answer, a book offered it on a page topped with the title, Transmutation From Tree To Human. The lettering curled ornately on the capital letters. Garrick read the spell once with enthusiasm, realized he didn’t comprehend, then read it multiple times until he memorized the incantations.

Garrick wolfed down breakfast the next morning, amid gentle reprimands of others who said his stomach was sure to gurgle. He paid them no mind. He volunteered for the chore of collecting nuts, so he could head deep into the forest.

There, Garrick whispered, “Which one of you wants to become a person?”

He closed his eyes and concentrated on sounds. Bird song. Wind. Rustling on the ground, perhaps a squirrel or chipmunk. Garrick had been jealous of the elders who could hear trees, and he wondered how many years of contemplation were required for him to accomplish that goal. Now, though, he had to gain the ability if he was to carry out his want to help the oak. Garrick found nothing wrong with the oak’s wish. Let the tree have its dream before shifting to the Otherworld.

However, no tree’s answer alighted on Garrick’s ears — that he could detect. Possibly, the trees talked to him, yet he didn’t have the power to listen. He continued walking, asking the same question in his normal voice. Shouting would’ve spread his query farther, and would’ve raised the risk of another druid overhearing Garrick, then telling the others.

Still no answer came for several days in which Garrick searched the woods, repeating the question. He ventured into different parts of the forest. His mind said this was a fool’s quest, to give up and carry on with his life. But he argued back that he should keep trying.

One afternoon, Garrick’s mind took a break from its debate, and he thought of nothing in particular. The kind of entrancement one gets while giving oneself to the moment, not concerned with past nor future. When one is lured by the rhythms of striding legs and fresh-air inhalations.

Amid the forest’s typical music came something different for Garrick. Tis me, a voice said. The two words appeared in Garrick’s head. But he figured someone had uttered them out loud.

“What?” Garrick asked, turning around and looking for the speaker of the words.

Me, the voice said. I’m the tree who wants to become a person.

It worked! Garrick thought, then he said, “Which tree are you?”

Here. As branches rustled, Garrick kept turning until he saw the trembling branches.

“I can do it for you!”

You don’t have to speak aloud, the oak said. Think on what you want to say, and I can hear it.

I’ll try, Garrick thought. Can you hear this?

I can. So you know the spell?

I used to, Garrick thought. But I can’t remember all of it. I have to study the book again.

Please do, the oak said. And please bring clothes. I doubt my bark will turn into some manner of clothes if the spell works. I hope it works.

As do I. Good idea about clothes. I had not thought of that.

Garrick sneaked into the library again that night, more excited this time about opening the book and reading the transmutation spell. After reading, he closed his eyes and mentally repeated the incantations. Opened his eyes to check if he was correct. Since a few words were wrong, he did the eyes-closed test a few more times to ensure he knew the words. On the way back to his cabin, Garrick took a set of robes from the room of supplies.

The next day, right after breakfast, Garrick set off into the woods. The extra robes were secreted underneath the robes adorning him, so he looked as if his belly was fuller than usual. He followed the trail he had prepared the day before. Two small stones next to trees served as markers for the path he needed. He smiled at the lesson gleaned from a children’s story. The last marker was a circle of pebbles at the base of the oak, now seeming as a necklace to Garrick.

I’m glad to see you, the oak said. I worried that you wouldn’t come back.

“I wouldn’t do that to you,” the young druid said, then realized his mistake and thought, Sorry. I’m not used to this way of talking.

It takes a while to get used to. Do you remember the spell?

I do, Garrick thought as he set the extra robes on the ground. Are you ready? Do you still want to become a woman?

After the oak answered both questions, Garrick drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. He envisioned the spell book’s page, the careful writing. He spoke the words, focusing on the specific words for female, not wanting to make an error for the gender.

The oak blurred, as rainfall can blur the edges of things. Except now, only one tree was affected. The oak’s blurriness grew in intensity. Garrick watched in fascination as the branches, leaves, and trunk could no longer be distinguished. The blurry mass lowered in size. Its edges began to sharpen. A silhouette came into focus. Then details, then no more blurriness remained. There stood a woman. A handsome woman with brown hair. A nude woman.

“Sorry!” Garrick cried out, whapping his hand over his eyes, which had snapped shut. Two layers to block his vision.

The woman let out a guttural yowl, as if she was suddenly in pain. Garrick asked what caused her the pain, but she still yowled. Garrick braved a peek. The woman was bent over and clasping her head with both hands. She fell, landed on her side. Garrick looked at the ground and went to the robe bundle and placed it on the woman, who had thankfully stopped yelling.

“Put on the robe,” Garrick said, hoping her pain had ended, not that she was getting accustomed to it.

As the druid replaced his hand as blindfold, he heard the woman grunting and the sound of fabric rustling.

“How?” The voice was feminine, with its owner suffering a sore throat. The woman coughed, cleared her throat. “This … this is your talking?” Her voice had smoothed a bit.

“Aye,” Garrick said. “Are you hurt?”

“The trees. They shouted. Shouted I am stupid. Shouted I make a mistake.”

Garrick had not heard the other trees in his head, and he felt sorrow for the woman to endure the punishment. He said, “I’m sorry. Are they still shouting?”

“No. This talking feels strange. And the clothes. I do not know how to wear the clothes.”

“Look at how the robes fit on me.” He tugged the bottom of his robe. “Put this part over your head, then pull it down yourself. Move your arms into the sleeves.”

The woman’s grunts mixed with rustling fabric again. Finally, the woman said she had finished. Garrick released his self-given blinder. Enrobed, the woman stood as if she was drunk or on a frozen pond. She trembled, and her arms windmilled.

“May I hold your hand, so you won’t fall?” Garrick asked.

She consented. Since the woman looked so off balance, Garrick held her left shoulder and her right forearm. His grip helped steady her. Garrick walked slowly, telling the woman to put one foot in front of the other. When she got the hang of it and walked by herself, both of them cheered. She said she was tired, so they sat with their backs resting on trees. The woman said she wanted her name to be Clover. Her tree name was quite long, so she preferred something simpler.

Clover kept looking down at herself. Raising her hands and wiggling their fingers. Sliding her legs to extend them, bending her knees to slide them back. She placed a hand on her belly and said that part felt uncomfortable. Garrick, assuming she had a stomach ache, stood and gazed around to see if mint grew nearby. The idea dawned on him that Clover might be hungry. He offered that as a possible explanation.

“What is hungry?” Clover asked.

Garrick was stunned into silence. Clover looked as a woman, yet her mind was as a toddler about being human. Garrick had been focused on the spell and had spent no consideration to what might happen afterward. While Clover continued to rest, Garrick hunted for edible plants and returned with wood sorrel and chickweed. Clover had no problem with chewing her first meal as a human. The motion came automatically.

The druid took the mantle of responsibility to begin Clover’s education. As a tree, she had never needed to move for nourishment. It was delivered to her. Now she had to work for food. As they walked hand-in-hand, Garrick pointed out which plants could be eaten. They followed a stream’s sound and soon came upon it. Garrick demonstrated how, while kneeling, to scoop up the water and drink it. He told Clover that he had to get back to his home. He would visit her tomorrow. In the meantime, she shouldn’t stray far from the stream, as she required its refreshment. Clover promised, and said she remembered the safe plants to eat. They were already well known to her, from her tree years of witnessing the cycle of growth and death.

In the days afterward, Garrick plunged into the forest and walked to Clover whenever he had the opportunity. He brought her bread, which Clover always ate with fervor. Her confidence and ability in movement grew quickly. Clover laughed as she jumped, skipped, twirled. Showing off her new skills for Garrick. Her excitement was infectious, and Garrick could not help but laugh with her and clap for her progress.

An unexpected feeling bloomed within Garrick. An earnest love for Clover, brighter than what he had felt as a teenager for a few maidens in the village, before he left and became a druid. That ardor differed greatly from the adoration Garrick had for nature and the camaraderie for other druids.

While walking alone and lying in bed, Garrick entertained visions of running off with Clover, stopping at a village where he was a stranger, and starting a new life. Husband and wife. They’d have children. Every day, Garrick would feel the warm glow of Clover’s light. Each time, however, he got after himself. That was a selfish dream. Clover should experience the world beyond him. Let her roam without him. She deserved that.

And so, Garrick didn’t suggest joining Clover as her impatience strengthened to leave the forest. From him, she had learned about village life, what to be careful about when around other people. The lessons helped to prepare her.

Clover had one last request. More comfortable clothes than the druid’s robes. Garrick scorned himself for not thinking more than the kind of Eden he enjoyed with Clover now, and a variation on Eden they could have in a town.

“I will have a dress made for you,” Garrick said. “It will take days to get made, though.”

“It would be worth the wait,” Clover said. “And I’d like it to be lavender colored, please.”

Garrick went to the tailor in the nearest village, and they sorted out a trade. A dress in exchange for many deliveries of fruits, vegetables, herbs, roots, and leaves. Some, Garrick would steal from the druids’ garden. More, he would find in the woods. Plants for eating and plants as medicine. Garrick would have to work for a time after the dress was finished to pay off the debt. Yet he was willing to expend those efforts for Clover’s happiness.

Happy she was when Garrick brought the lavender dress to Clover and held it up. She called it beautiful and marveled over its softness. Far softer than the robes. Garrick turned to face the opposite direction as Clover changed clothes.

When Clover said she was done, he turned back around. Here was a princess from fairy tales. Also a wood fairy from those tales. A combination of magical creature and human. Garrick was at a loss for words, and even more astounded when Clover hugged him.

“Thank you for all you have done for me,” Clover said. “I shall never forget you.”

A storm lashed within the druid. Joy and love for this woman. Shame for his thoughts. The embrace was a sanctuary and temptation.

After a moment, Garrick broke the embrace and stepped backward, saying, “And I’ll never forget you. You should go now. Go and have adventures.”

Tears slid down Clover’s cheek, toward her wide grin. She nodded and began to walk.

Branches reached for Clover, the ends sticking into the bodice and sleeves of her dress. This time, Garrick heard the trees yelling: Stay here! You belong here! You are not one of them! You’ve had your fun, now make him turn you back into an oak! That is your proper life! You defile nature!

Shock held Garrick in place. As if he had become a tree.

But Clover didn’t need a dashing prince to save her. She spun, like in her bursts of dancing, and freed herself. She ran faster than Garrick had seen her run before. Other branches reached, but could not snag her. Seeing the rips in Clover’s dress angered Garrick. This was her first time wearing the lovely garment. Even though it could be mended, the dress would never look the same.

He would never be the same, either. The lavender dress diminished as Clover extended her distance from him. When the lavender spot disappeared, Garrick went home, burdened by a heavy heart.

Several days later, he followed the trail of pebbles leading to the stones that once encircled an oak tree. The circle’s middle was dirt. Garrick found a patch of clover and, with his hands, dug up clumps of it and replanted them inside the circle.

Frequently, Garrick returned to the growing clover with its necklace of stones. He sat by it and spoke of his wishes for Clover, for rich experiences and a life of wonder. The trees did not say anything to him.

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Hello Dreamer

Hello dreamer,

I’m writing this letter in the hope it’ll get to someone who enjoys reading of adventure. Jolep said this letter will be delivered to such a household.

My name is Diego Suarez. My adventure started when my family vacationed in Nagua, Dominican Republic. We did the normal stuff people do on a beach vacation, and had lots of fun. One day, we went to a history museum. That was when I learned about Captain Vincente Ochoa. And that’s when my life changed.

In the late 1600s, pirates attacked Captain Ochoa’s galleon, the Nuestra Señora de la Valencia, to capture the load of gold on board. Captain Ochoa blasted the pirates with his cannon. But his ship was severely damaged, and he limped it to the island that became the Dominican Republic. He beached the ship and ordered his men to march into the jungle and bury the chests of gold. Then the men worked to make the Valencia sea-worthy again. But their numbers were decimated by fever, jaguars, and heat exhaustion. None of the sailors was rescued.

The buried gold became legendary. Treasure hunters have searched ever since, yet the gold has never been found.

The legend captured my imagination like nothing had in many years. My life back in Atlanta had become routine. I went out with friends, but getting drunk every weekend grows old after a while. While I dated around and had some great times, I wasn’t in the mood for a serious relationship. The gold gave me a mission above those things, to do something big with my life before I turned 30.

I bought books about Captain Ochoa and read them after work to learn all I could about the man. His life in Spain, becoming a sailor, his exploits on the high seas. Theories of locations where he could’ve beached the Valencia on that fateful day.

I went alone on my next trip to the Dominican Republic, and checked out the locations of the theories. I talked to the locals for clues that might help me. I followed their clues and found nothing. Wild goose chases resulting only in frustration.

Sad to say, the desire to find the treasure overwhelmed my life. I could hardly think of anything else. I quit my job, sold my car and belongings, broke the lease of my apartment.

Once again I went to the Dominican Republic, this time to search every possibility. Only after everything was tried would I have given up. I stayed past my tourist visa, and kept my head down to avoid the authorities.

One afternoon, I became lost in the jungle while following yet another clue. I was thirsty and exhausted. A sudden rainstorm made me seek shelter. A cave entrance on a mountainside beckoned. I slumped off my backpack and collapsed on the cave floor and fell asleep.

Hours later, I was shaken awake. A stranger’s face glared down at me. A face that could’ve belonged to a pirate. Wispy goatee, small gold loop earrings. The stranger demanded I tell what was I doing there. I broke down and told of my obsession with Captain Ochoa’s gold. The stranger took pity on me, said I needed to forget the gold and find a new direction in life. He would help me move toward that. He introduced himself as Jolep Teeko, an elf who lived in the World Beyond the Cave.

When you heard tales of Oz and Narnia, you probably thought places like those could never exist. But they do, dear reader. They do.

Jolep led me deeper into the cave, until it opened to a land that’s on no map. The jungle seemed similar to the one I had left. Teeming with tropical plants, colorful flowers, birds. Except this place had a village built by elves on a sunny spot along a river. When I was seen approaching the village with Jolep, word spread and soon a crowd stood around me. They were slender, long-haired, wore an odd assortment of clothes. I learned they took discarded shirts and dresses from the outside world and patched them together into new clothes.

After Jolep told the crowd my story, I was welcomed. I slept in a hammock until a bed was made. Their eagerness to hear about my life removed my initial shyness. I’ve made many friends. They’re huge soccer fans, and I’ve joined the daily games. I’m not nearly as good as them, and they playfully tease me about my clumsiness. And I’ve helped with fishing and retrieving fruit from high in the trees. The fish, fruit, and grains are so flavorful, they make you swoon. Nightly, they tell stories and play music.

I’m regaining my strength and sanity. Jolep was right: I need to forget the gold. I plan to stay for several more months, then I’ll head to the outside world and start over. The elves tell me once I leave, I can never return to this wondrous place. I wish I could come back, but I miss my family and friends.

Jolep encouraged me to write letters to my parents to tell them I’m okay. Jolep has stationery he stole from a cigar company. My letters will be delivered through an underground system of carrier-elves. And Jolep suggested I write a letter to a stranger, one who appreciates stories of magical places.

Keep your beliefs strong.

Sincerely,
Diego Suarez

copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

The Angry Dragon

Here’s the second dragon story, as a different take than yesterday’s story. This one is still meant for young readers, though it’s a bit shorter than the first story…

*****

The Angry Dragon

Once upon a time, there was a castle in the Land of Greengrass. A king and queen lived in the castle, along with their children, Prince Terry and Princess Mary. They were a happy family.

One day, Prince Terry and Princess Mary rode horses out of the castle. People in the village waved to the princess and prince as they passed by. Terry and Mary said cheerful “Hellos!” and “Good days!” to the villagers.

After the village were farms. The princess and prince said cheerful “Hellos!” and “Good days!” to the farmers and the grazing animals. The farmers waved back. The cows said, “Moo.” The sheep said, “Baa.” The pigs said, “Oink.”

After the farms was the forest. Terry and Mary kept going on the road and entered the forest. They liked seeing the many trees and hearing the birds chirp to each other.

Suddenly, there was a crash as tree branches snapped. A dragon landed on the road in front of Terry and Mary!

“I am Vuzgert the Terrible!” yelled the dragon, showing its sharp teeth.

The two horses stopped walking and stared in fear at the dragon. Terry and Mary patted their horses to calm them.

“Is ‘the Terrible’ really a part of your name?” asked Princess Mary.

“Yes!” roared the dragon. “I know who you are. I’m going to kidnap you and demand that the king and queen give me all their gold to get you back.”

The princess and prince drew their swords.

“You’ll have to capture us first,” said Princess Mary.

Vuzgert the Terrible rumbled with a mean laugh. He said, “You don’t have shields, and you’re not wearing any armor. I can burn you to a crisp.”

Princess Mary said, “If you burn us to a crisp, our parents won’t give you any gold. They’ll send an army of knights to come after you.”

Vuzgert the Terrible frowned and said, “Good point. I won’t burn you. Instead, I’ll fight you until you give up. Then I’ll bring you to my hideout. Then I’ll tie you up. Then I’ll fly to the castle and tell your parents to give me gold for you.”

Prince Terry raised his sword and said, “We’re not going to make it easy for you.”

“Wait a second,” said Princess Mary. “Let’s say your plan works. What are you going to do with all the gold?”

“Put it with my other gold,” said Vuzgert the Terrible.

“You don’t buy anything with it?” asked the princess.

“Nope,” said the dragon. “I don’t need to buy anything. I just find stuff to eat when I get hungry.”

“Why do you need the gold?”

“Because it’s beautiful!” yelled Vuzgert the Terrible. “It glitters in the sunlight. I love looking at it.”

“That doesn’t sound fun at all,” said Prince Terry.

The dragon snarled. “It is fun!”

“I have an idea,” said Princess Mary. “We could use your help. We’re going to build a new library that’s much bigger than the old one. You could help by lifting the heavy stones.”

“Ha!” laughed Vuzgert the Terrible. “Why would I work for you?”

“We’d give you a place to live and food,” said the princess. “Our cooks make delicious food. You could play games with the people in the castle and village. Do you play games in your hideout?”

The dragon didn’t look as angry. He said, “No. I just admire my gold.”

“Why not try something different?” asked Prince Terry. “You could have more fun.”

Vuzgert the Terrible thought for a moment, then he said, “It would be nice to try different food. And it would be nice to play some games.”

Princess Mary slid her sword back into its sheath. She said, “As long as you promise not to burn people or houses. And you don’t kill people with your claws and teeth.”

“Okay, I promise,” said Vuzgert the Terrible.

“How about you take off ‘the Terrible’ from your name?” asked Prince Terry.

“Then people wouldn’t shake in fear when they see me,” said the dragon.

“They’ll still be scared of you,” said the prince, who also put his sword away. “Until they realize you’re a nice guy.”

“I could be a nice guy?” asked the dragon.

“Sure, you can,” said Princess Mary. “People can change.”

The dragon smiled. “It’s a deal. My name is just Vuzgert from now on.”

And so, the prince and princess and dragon returned to the castle. The villagers were scared when they saw Vuzgert. But they relaxed after Princess Mary and Prince Terry explained the bargain they had made with the dragon.

Vuzgert was a big help in building the new library. He helped in other projects, such as digging a large hole for a pond, where kids loved to play. Vuzgert was given plenty of food, and he made lots of friends. He was happy with his new place to live.

End

Copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Dragon Trouble

Recently I wrote a couple dragon stories, very short ones (stories, not dragons) that are meant for young readers. I’m posting the first today, then the second tomorrow. They’re not sequels. They’re different takes on knights having to deal with a troublesome dragon. I’m curious to see which (story, not dragon) gets a better response in likes and comments. Hope you enjoy these!

*****

Dragon Trouble

Two people from the village of Pimfrob walked many miles to the castle. Their names were Osbert and Lefsy. They were glad to sit and rest their tired legs while waiting in line to talk with the king and queen.

When it was their turn, the two villagers were amazed by the beauty of the throne room. Columns rose to the ceiling high above. The walls were covered in gold decorations. The villagers knelt on the red rug.

“A dragon showed up, and it’s attacking our farms,” said Osbert.

“It’s stealing our pigs and cows,” said Lefsy.

“Can you help us?” asked Osbert.

The king and queen talked quietly between themselves. Then the king said, “We will send our best knights to deal with the dragon. You can leave with them tomorrow. Spend tonight at an inn outside the castle.”

The next day, the villagers rode on a wagon. A man named Cadmus sat in front of the wagon and held the reins of the two horses that pulled the wagon. Alongside them, three knights rode on horses. The names of the knights were Lady Regina, Lady Ingrid, and Sir Hartmut.

“Why are only three knights coming with us?” asked Osbert the villager. “Why not a big group?”

“A big group could alert the dragon that we are coming,” said Lady Regina. “Then it might fly to another part of the realm. Three of us can better surprise it.”

Osbert and Lefsy understood the wisdom of surprising the dragon, so they talked of other things during the trip.

The journey took most of the day. When they arrived at the village of Pimfrob, the knights and Cadmus rented rooms at an inn. The horses went into a stable, where they ate oats and rested.

The knights and Cadmus walked to the nearest tavern. The villagers were excited to see the knights, and thanked them for coming to deal with the dragon. The villagers said the dragon probably lived in the mountains near Pimfrob. The knights ate dinner with lots of vegetables, and they drank grape juice.

The next morning, Cadmus helped the knights put on their armor, which shone in the sunlight. Cadmus stayed in the village while the knights rode off on their horses.

Soon, the knights came across a fork in the road. One way continued along the flat land. The other way led to the mountains. The knights directed the horses to the second path, which was more narrow than the dirt road. The path became steep and rocky, but the strong horses easily made their way.

Once the knights reached the top of the first mountain, they looked around. They saw piles of stone on the next mountain. The stones were stacked in a wall in the shape of a circle. In the middle of the circle lay the sleeping dragon.

The horses strolled down the mountain, where more trees grew. The knights tied the horses to trees, because the horses were safer from the fighting that was about to start.

The knights carefully climbed up the second mountain. Their plan was to sneak up to the dragon and shove their swords between its scales while it slept. That would’ve been the quickest and safest way to defeat the dragon.

However, the beast woke up before the knights reached it. The knights were most of the way up the mountain. The dragon rose to sit on its hind legs. It roared and spread its wings. The dragon was scary, but beautiful. Its scales were a mix of blue and green.

“How dare you attack me?” said the dragon in a loud and rumbling voice.

“You’re stealing pigs and cows from the farmers!” shouted Lady Ingrid.

“I have to eat!” said the dragon. “And I shall eat you after roasting you!”

Flames rushed from the dragon’s mouth. Thankfully, the knights were ready. They crouched near the ground, then held up their shields. The fire hit the shields and did not burn the knights.

Lady Regina was an expert archer. When the dragon’s fire stopped, she let go of her shield and took the bow off her back and strung an arrow on the bowstring. Resting on one knee, she took aim and shot the arrow. However, it bounced off one of the dragon’s thick scales.

Laughing, the dragon lifted into the air, its huge wings flapping. It flew a little ways off.

“Hurry!” said Sir Hartmut. “Let’s climb higher!”

He grabbed Lady Regina’s shield, and the knights moved as quickly as they could up the mountain. They knew the dragon needed a break between each time it breathed fire. The fire had to build up in its body before it was released.

At the top of the mountain, the knights climbed over the wall of stones. Now they were more protected.

The dragon roared in anger and bellowed fire. But the rocks blocked the flames, so the knights were not hurt. When it was safe, all three knights lifted their bows and shot arrows. Lady Ingrid’s arrow missed the dragon. Sir Hartmut’s arrow pierced one of the dragon’s wings. Lady Regina’s arrow landed between two scales.

“Ouch!” yelled the dragon. “That hurt!”

“It was supposed to hurt!” yelled Lady Regina. “Now will you leave this place and go back to The Land of Dragons?”

“No!” yelled the dragon. “The Land of Dragons was getting so crowded back there, food was hard to find. Food is easier to find here. I’m staying!”

The battle continued in the same way as before. The dragon was becoming frustrated at not being able to scorch the humans with its fire. And the knights were becoming frustrated by not hurting the dragon. Their arrows plunked off the dragon’s scales. Also, the knights were worried because they were running out of arrows.

Lady Ingrid had an idea. She told it to the other knights, and they agreed to try her plan.

“Hey, dragon!” shouted Lady Ingrid. “Can we stop for a minute and talk?”

“Is this a trick?” growled the dragon, who hovered next to the mountain.

“No,” said Lady Ingrid. “We’re getting nowhere fighting like this. We need to find another way.”

“What other way?” asked the dragon.

“We could use you at the castle,” said Lady Ingrid. “We’re building a new library that’s much bigger than the old one. You could help by lifting the heavy stones. We would pay you with food, so you wouldn’t have to steal it.”

“That’s it?” asked the dragon. “Just lift stones?”

“We could find other jobs, too,” said Lady Regina. “You could pull up trees to make way for a new farm.”

The dragon looked suspiciously at the knights. The dragon asked, “And this isn’t a trick?”

“It’s not, we promise,” said Lady Ingrid.

“Okay, it’s a deal,” said the dragon. “By the way, my name is Maynard.”

The knights walked back to their horses, then rode to Pimfrob to tell the villagers what happened on the mountain. Maynard waited outside the village, so he wouldn’t scare anyone. The villagers were happy the dragon was leaving their area. But they said to be careful that the dragon didn’t cause trouble at the castle.

“Maynard deserves a chance,” said Lady Regina.

The knights and Cadmus left to where Maynard waited, and the group went to the castle. Maynard was a big help in building the new library. He helped in many other projects, such as digging a pond where the village kids loved to swim.

Maynard was given plenty of food, and he made lots of friends. He was happy with his new place to live.

End

Copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Emergence Published

I’m very happy to that my short story “Emergence” is published on 365 Tomorrows! It was actually published on May 31, so this announcement is several days late. Please check it out when you have a few moments. It’s a flash fiction, at just under 600 words, so it’s not a long read. It’s a science fiction story about a woman who escapes to a bunker during a missile attack.