This Thing Called Courage

Monday, February 07, 2011

New Short Fiction

A few weeks ago I took this mini-course at the Cambridge Center where I occasionally teach. The course was entitled Flash Fiction, 'the hot new thing,' pieces that are 300-1200 words in length. Brevity has never been one of my strong suits so I looked upon this as a challenge. Our first assignment was to write something about someone's profession/occupation, and the result is the story below.

Copyright J.G.Hayes

Due North

“George! How are you feeling? I’m not…disturbing you?”

“Come in, my friend, come in,” George says, smiling, half rising from his easy chair by the window. There are three pots of bright red geraniums on the sill. Beyond the glass, the lawns and woods are leaking their colors, as October becomes November.

“Oh don’t get up, please.”

The orange blob of the setting sun—“So soon! So early!” George protests, jerking his head at it-- smears its last light onto the blue plaid afghan spread over his knees. With a courtly unfurling of his hand, he motions me to the chair across from him. His gestures seem Mediterranean today. He’s a king, granting favors.

“Paolo has left for the day, so I can only offer you these,” he adds, motioning to a dish of dusty mints on the table between us.

“I’m fine George, thank you,” I answer, fascinated. I loosen my suit jacket and take the proffered seat. George’s palms are joined together, the long index fingers resting on his lips as we regard each other. His brown eyes shine.

“How well you look!” he enthuses, sitting back. “Certainly you appeal to me more than your predecessor. I believe marriage suits you!”

“When I see her. We’re working all the time, we’re both…we both have similar professions. What were you thinking, when I came in?”

“Ah! Down to business, eh? Well-- two things, really. Mostly I was at sea.”

“Really? At sea?”

“Remembering the days. Dipping into…how to say it…dipping into the river of time. Dipping into the river of time, and extracting a few drops to quench the thirst for days gone by. What else, at my age?” He laughs silently, shakes his head. He looks at me with something like pity. “How free we were then, my friend, how very free! I do not believe such freedom is to be had today.”

“Mmmm, you may be right. I like your beret, George. French?”

“Corsican, in fact-- the Isle of Deep Ravines. If this thing could talk! But as it can’t, perhaps I should?”

“Oh, please—I want you to.”

His magnificent head eases back. He joins his hands as he smiles at the ceiling. “Wherever to begin? How to make you see—perhaps…well, it was at this time of year one heard the old and sacred call. And didn’t we answer it, following the seasonal urgings!”

“And ahhh…what call was that?”

“Ah! Ask the birds! The south, the south! I heard it earlier, as the wind came through those pines outside. The very trees, the south! The south! Urging on whoever might be left. ” He sighed. “I pity I can answer that call no more.”

“So this wasn’t—you weren’t living round here then, these times of…uhm, freedom?”

“The merchant marine, my friend, the merchant marine. We were called merchant mavericks, for we signed on for only one hitch at a time, so we might follow the heart’s instructions.”

“And this time of year—you were saying--”

“Yes! But summers—let me begin with summers. They were sweeter then, greener--summers would find us in some place of great Northern gaiety—Copenhagen, Oslo, Reykjavik—the farther north the better.”


“Of course! You see, after such darkness as visits these winters every winter, the people come out to feast and dance in the never-ending light of spring and summer, until life loses its dullness entirely and one cannot distinguish today from tomorrow. All days become holy when they are freed from the burden of names and their corresponding behaviors. The bright red and yellow local costumes, a green that astonished the eye, made from the dye of a particular flax known to grow only in the northern realms of the Reindeer--the processions, the holidays, learning the dances, following your lover into the fragrant boreal forest to feast on wild berries and each other—ah!

“But--” George shrugs, opens up his palms. “All too soon the northern shadows return. The nights begin to assert themselves, the people grow thoughtful—but then, here comes the sweet voice of the south, singing her songs. One finds oneself gazing southward more often, always southward, wondering what might be over that horizon. Then down to the docks we would hurry, the only question being to which southern port would we embark? My own favorite route often found me on what we called ‘the cheese boat.’ Rotterdam and Le Havre, then Normandy, the harvest dances round the hay piles, but then of course Paris, to slake the insatiable French appetite for cheese—and we would find ourselves catching up to summer all over again. Ah, those smells and colors…and the Sunday mornings of Paris…”

He leans in closer and holds my eye.

“There are several Sunday mornings in particular I am recalling now. Mmmm, her name was Claudette—a student of art. Her father fished for eels by night farther up the Seine, beneath Burgundian stars. We would take his boat Sundays and let the waters lead us where they might. Drifting, the green poplars and copper beeches and chartreuse willows leaning in to watch us and they meeting overhead, their leaves and branches entwining, and the light coming down all spangled, all lime-colored. Then, a shower of bird-song falling down upon us, and our words and cooings of love intermingled did not seem out of place with these songs. And after love, I would play my squeezebox, while Claudette would sing—though sometimes she would lean over the gunwales and wash her hair in the river water, which she said was beneficial—the color of burnished copper, her hair.

“But then, soon enough, the leaves take on this same color, as if in sympathy. One afternoon, it pleases the Bois de Boulogne to flush up like a robin’s breast and one morning, a week later, the sun stabs you awake, you among the tangled sheets alone. In the kitchen with the view of Montmartre, there is a lingering aroma of coffee, and a note, alongside a croissant-- and she is back to University, back to her favorite odors of oils and gouache and linen canvas-- which is just as well, as one’s own southern smells are rising in the fresh yeast of memory. And these are…ripening olives. Orange blossoms, the lavender fields of Provence and, farther along, cliff-hanging, sun-bleached villages of white, beneath an Aegean sky so blue it is nearly black, beneath the wine-dark sea that Homer speaks of, and the wine that our ships would carry across it, calling, always calling…can’t you hear it? And the scent of your lover’s skin in those isles of love, gleaming skin and limbs bathed in rosemary and lemons, sometimes a young woman, sometimes a young man and it makes no difference, everyone is a lover in these isles-- everyone loves, nobody minds. Somewhere I have sketches, as I drew then, a habit from Claudette…some are private as you can understand, but perhaps the next time—and one evening, oh, one evening we ascended a mountain sacred to Aphrodite. How the junipers poured out their aromas, like confessions to the midnight air! As we climbed higher the stars blazed out, and they seemed to whisper encouragement, to call out their names and ask to be known, and I distinctly remember how when we reached the summit—“

We both start as my beeper goes off intrusively. I hunt for it, my notebook clattering to the floor, only to find it’s the new Blackberry, hiding in my bottomless kit bag. George looks startled, accusatory.

‘I’m Sorry, George, it’s just…one moment…just…”

“As you wish. It must…be important.”

“Not really, but…necessary,” I fumble, as I send a distinctly ungrammatical response. “Okay, I’m good. So…you were saying?”

But George’s arms are folded, his head turned to the wall. The day has leaked away from this room, as days will. The attendant has not yet put on the lights. I know from experience there will be no more today. But still—

“Please, George?” I try to hide the pleading quality, fail.


“Until the next time, then,” I mumble, rising.

In the adjacent nurses’ station, I fill out the necessary forms. “I’m cutting most of these scripts in half,” I mumble, as a nurse plods in. “For George. George Shattuck.” From the corner of my eye I see her halting, abrupt displeasure.


“You object?”

“He’s…he’s more trouble when you do that,” she says, observing my wedding ring. “He gives us fits and keeps the other patients up half the night with his stories. Yesterday to sail a hot air balloon across the Pacific.” She pauses. “Dr. Miller never did that.”

“I’m not Dr. Miller. I…don’t suppose you know much of his personal history? George?”

“As it turns out, I do. I grew up here. He was in my mother’s high school class.”

“He was never…he wasn’t in the merchant marine?

“Oh no, Doctor-- oh God, no.” She laughs, as if this might be something we could make common cause over. “I never knew him. But I knew who he was. Used to write endless letters to the editor, and recite his poetry at Town Day. When they had Town Day. Took over his father’s hardware store and never left town. Went out of business when Wal-Mart came in. Been here ever since.”

Later, driving home-- and however to explain this lingering in a nameless parking lot? Stolen minutes, when I’m expected, and perhaps mildly wanted, elsewhere? And all to watch the November wind push an empty plastic bag across the infinity of empty space--

Here’s that odd dismay again, lying bitter upon my tongue like a strange medieval poison. I resume my cold way home, but my malaise grows keener when the car’s guidance system informs me that I am traveling due north.


Blogger Nigel said...

Stunning, consummate, poignant. As ever.

Oh, how small but how perfect it is.

I'm pointing my blog readers to it.

6:11 PM  
OpenID berlinorama said...

Lovely to read something new of yours, Joe!!!! A delightful and evocative morsel. Thanks so much for posting it. I hope you and the adorable Fionn are keeping well and warm in this blustery and snowy time.

6:44 AM  
Blogger BiscuitsBoy said...

Hey Nigel and Pam, thanks for the lovely comments-- SO need spring-- I had pneumonia for three weeks-- just getting better now....

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