Here We Go

“Maybe I love trains because they’re a lot like life,” explained a father to his young son. The two sat together on the City Park Railroad, waiting for the short ride around the duck pond to begin. “You’re always moving forward, seeing something new–”

The small boy looked excitedly out the window.

He wondered what he would see.

He knew he’d see a whole lot of ducks floating out on the calm green water, and fishermen on the muddy banks casting their lines hoping to catch a prize bass.

He knew he’d see the short wooden pier jutting into the pond, and the bench near the end where he and his father had fished last summer.

He knew the train would eventually go over a bridge. His father had promised there was a bridge. It spanned a small creek that bubbled down into the pond through a patch of cattails.

And then the train might turn to follow the creek.

Looking out of the train’s window, waiting for his short journey to begin, the boy imagined the branches of willow trees fluttering over the sparkling creek. And dappled sunlight on long leaves. And a flock of blackbirds rising. And, as the creek wound upward into the nearby hills, a curtain of pine trees ahead.

Then the train might enter the pine forest.

And black towering trees would close all around, like a place in a dream, wind-whispering, wind-whispering.

The boy thought of stories he’d been told.

His father had been a young man hiking alone in the forest. Miles from home. He had heard the faraway sound of a wild turkey. He had turned to follow the call. It is rare thing to see a wild turkey. A very magical and lucky thing. His father had plunged forward through the deep forest, over slippery autumn leaves, pushing aside tangled branches, always turning, because that wild call kept shifting, from direction to direction, distance to distance. No, he never found what he sought. But he had found his way home.

And the story of how his very old grandfather, for one instant, had glimpsed a rare white deer in the forest. Nobody else in that forest had ever seen it. It was a chance encounter. Pure white. Like new snow. And then the vision had melted into shadow.

The magical deer was said to have vanished into the same dark trees where the boy’s great grandfather had faced a raging grizzly bear.

Perhaps, thought the young boy, he might also see a grizzly bear.

Then the train might emerge from the forest, climbing, winding, chugging over slopes of naked rock to high levels beyond the wildest turkeys, deer, bears. The cloudless sun, now so close, would shine brightly as the boy stared out the train’s window down upon a small patch of green forest and an endless world of hills, lakes and ponds scattered like shining pebbles below.

And then he would reach the highest mountain’s summit.

Suddenly the train rumbled and lurched.

“Here we go!”

How to Catch a Crab

While his sister flew a kite in the sunshine, skipping across the park’s green grass, Jason hunted a crab down in the dark rocks by the water.

With careful limbs Jason slowly descended the rocks. He kept his eyes on his prey. The tiny crab was motionless in the middle of one glistening slab just inside the spray of waves.

“You don’t know how to swim!” Jason’s mother called from a distant picnic table.

The young boy ignored her.

The dark, jagged rocks had been dumped at the harbor’s edge. They protected the grassy park from the eternal ocean. Traps containing rat poison had been placed among the rocks.

Above the churning water the rocks capped a labyrinth. From spaces beneath the rocks an odor of death rose. From small caves the crabs crept, moving slowly upon glistening slime near the restless water, feeding, extending strange claws.

Jason kept his eye on the tiny crab. Working his way even closer to the water, the boy placed his left foot on an edge of wet rock. A few missteps had already soaked his shoes.

Hardly daring to breathe, eyes down, Jason regarded the creature minutely.

How strange it appeared.

The crab, with its raised claws, seemed ancient. It resembled a mythical monster he’d seen in a picture book. A miniature monster, unconquerable, upon a mountain.

The crab’s body, its face-like shell, its bent spider legs and claws–formed a mask–from a lurking dream. It was a thing sensed in a nightmare. A shape. A shiver.

The jagged shape was that abomination penned as a warning at the borders of old maps. The shape was a nightmare upon which voyaging ships were wrecked.

Jason bent his knees, leaned slowly over, reached out his hand, keeping balance on the slippery rock as the crash of a small wave tickled his fingers.

The crab skittered into a space between rocks.

Jason leaned even lower.

The odor was repulsive.

He peered into the watery space. Possibly, possibly, the grinning mask lay within simple reach.

Unseen hungry claws waited inside that well of swirling blackness. A fatal Charybdis, squatting in her cave. Motionless and waiting.

The boy reached in.

“I caught it! I caught it” he shouted, lifting an arm high in triumph.

The tiny crab clung to the young boy’s finger.

A Bottle of Polish

A cashier at the hardware store scanned the small bottle of metal polish. “Be careful with this stuff,” she said. “I hope you realize it can be dangerous.”

A store employee watching from one aisle whispered to another: “Oh my god! What do you think that guy is going to do with a bottle of polish? I wonder if he’s going to drink it. He’s probably going to sniff it.”

Dirk took his purchase into the weeds near the freeway off-ramp. He settled into a spot that no one could see. He felt a little safe there. Just to be careful, he made a castle with his bulging plastic bags and hid himself.

He ate a several mouthfuls of hard pizza, drank some warm water. Then he began carefully searching through his bags.

Dirk suddenly realized what he sought was in one of his pockets.

Lying down, stretching out, he reached into the pocket, pulled out the small round brass medal. He held it up with a trembling hand and gazed at it.

The ribbon of the medal had disintegrated long ago. But the brass and the words stamped on the brass shined brightly in the sun. So brightly that he could almost see his own face.

Dirk slowly sat up. Carefully, he opened the small can of metal polish and put some on a rag.

“We know you’re there!”

Dirk shoved the medal back into his pocket.

Two people he knew came crashing through the weeds. One grabbed a plastic bag and picked it up and scattered its contents everywhere. “What are you doing?” asked the thin one with a sneer.

Dirk didn’t say anything. He turned his head, pretending to ignore them.

“I’m talking to you dumbass! What are you doing? You got any money?”

“No,” Dirk replied without looking up.

A hand came down and snatched the small open bottle of metal polish. “What’s this?”

“Don’t know.”

A foot kicked Dirk, then the two scrambled off through the weeds.

“Metal polish!” said one to the other as they followed the dry ditch under the freeway. “What can we do with this?”

“Nothing,” said the other.

The Child and the Koi

“What’s that, Mommy?”

“That is a koi.”

The child leaned over the still water to stare down at the beautiful koi. The water was perfectly clear, like crystal. The koi rose to the surface, mouth working.

“Hello,” said the fish. “Why are you looking at me?”

“Because you’re orange.”

“Is there something wrong with orange?” asked the fish.

“No. I like it.”

“I’m glad you like my color. But if there’s nothing wrong with orange, then why do so many of you people stand there and stare down at me?”

“I know why!” said the child.

“Then please tell me.”

“Because they think you look like fire.”

“I look like fire? What is fire?”

“Fire is a mouth that rises.

“Fire is always hungry, like you. It eats every little thing it sees.

“Fire eats houses.  Fire eats schools.  Fire swallows cities and sacred temples and palaces of adamant.

“And fire is very beautiful.”

“It is?”

“But fire quickly vanishes in clear water,” explained the child.

“Now I understand. So I must go.”

The koi swam away.

An Old Man on a Bus

The old man appeared very frail.  From the few white hairs on his scabbed head . . . to his watery eyes . . . to his trembling hands.

“Good morning,” he said politely as he boarded the city bus.

The driver ignored him.

The old man nodded and struggled down the aisle to get to an empty seat. His feet shuffled. Slowly, painfully, he turned his body, grabbed the rail, bent like a skeleton to sit. The passengers on either side did not look up from their phones.

The bus started with a sudden jolt and the old man tipped into a neighbor. “I’m so sorry,” he laughed with embarrassment.

No reply.

Each stop on Fourth Avenue brought a fresh tide of riders. The old man sat without moving–except trembling hands. All eyes avoided him.

Until the arrival of a young man.

“You’re really, really old,” said the youth, who sat across the aisle and stared directly at him from behind dark sunglasses.

“I am.”

“Doesn’t life suck when you’re old and about to die?” The young man spoke mockingly.

“It does.”

“You have to be at least a hundred years old. Don’t you worry someone like me might beat you up?”

“I can tell that you won’t,” smiled the old man.

“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

“Because I can see you’re just an ordinary person.”

The youth turned his head and laughed at the window. Outside the city blurred past.

The old man said: “I know you’re an ordinary person because a long time ago I was exactly like you. I thought I was something special, nothing could touch me. I could insult the entire world and nothing would happen.

“Nothing could stop me. I would beat up every person that stood in my way. The future was mine.

“Now what do you see?”

The young man saw in his window the old man’s smiling reflection.

At the next stop the young man jumped up and hurried off.

A Dance in the Lightning

Angie was dead tired. The steep, stony hike up to the mountain’s summit had taken longer than she and her sister had planned. The air was very thin.

Karen was anxious to begin back down. “I don’t like this. Look at the clouds.”

“Let me rest for a minute,” said Angie, gazing down.

Silent, very far below, the familiar Earth seemed empty, unpeopled. The tan and green plains, like a rumpled quilt, stretched curving into the distance. A river one hundred miles distant made a loose thread. The world’s floor was dappled with creeping shadows.

It seemed the two sisters could reach out to touch moving white clouds.

“We better head down. Staying up here is dangerous,” warned Karen.

“Just one more minute,” begged Angie.

The shadows of scattered clouds marched across the world below. The amorphous shadows seemed like creeping ink. Up on the mountain’s high summit the atmosphere was clear and icy. The wind shivered Angie’s skin. Range upon range rose to the east, raking more boiled white clouds. The farthest peaks were minuscule and dreamlike.

Up in that heaven everything was like perfect crystal: the air, a shining glacial lake nestled straight below in a cathedral of rising granite, the sharp stone walls, panels of sky painted blue. The white clouds, now so close, seemed the only things that were alive.

They were moving, growing, indefinite, changing. Becoming deeper. Deeper. Dark.

“Come on!”

But Angie couldn’t move. The strange beauty of the darkening arrested her.

The freezing wind became razor sharp.

A shadow came.

“Hurry!” shouted Karen, running over tumbled boulders to reach a small shelter that had been built on the mountain’s summit. The shelter was made of carefully assembled stones, built by someone long ago. One who feared heaven turned dark.

Angie did not follow.

A cloud very close above blackened.  A hard rain began.  Angie stood alone, watched for the first flash of lightning.

That first revelation was a blinding, searing spear of fire. It pierced a mountain ridge just below.

The lightning flashed just a moment, a jagged burning finger, cracking open the height of heaven, transforming the rain into sparks. The booming rebound from unseen blasted stone was the voice of thundering, echoing power. A momentary awful power shaking the deepest foundations.

A second flash.  Closer.

The power descended from somewhere–from some place beyond the highest peak or reach of mind.  It was a pure light, a heedless Something, manifested from gathered blackness. A burning truth.  Then an explosion.

Another.

The white light burned in front of Angie. It was the light from an open door. Her eyes saw through for just a moment.

Then came another flash. And another. Even closer. Much closer. Exploding nearer and nearer. Angie’s sky-reaching arms waved in abandon.

She felt dizziness, danger, amazement, joy.

Angie danced in the lightning.