Sunday, October 10, 2010

Listen ...Forest Song: Letting Go

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Chapter One

“Oh, good, Inga, you’re back. You were gone a long time,” Babcia’s grin was maternal when she welcomed me home. Pixie small and candle straight, her white hair loose to her waist, she flicked her wrist when I shrugged to explain my days-long absence. “No, I said to take your time. I knew where you were. I wasn’t worried. Have you made your decision?” I nodded. “Good, good. Now have some vegetable soup.” Sitting at her table, I accepted the soup and told her about my adventure. She didn’t eat. Instead she sat on the edge of her chair and, leaning on her elbows, tilted toward me, her peridot eyes changed to rapturous blue, anticipating a long and complex story.

Three days before, I had gone to explore the forest I would mother if I stayed. Pretending to feel safe, I’d hummed a cheerful little ditty while treading only on the sunny spots. But every rustle, every crunch, every snap of a twig had hauled my heart to my throat, had stopped me short. Arms extended, my fingers defensively splayed, muscles clenched into panicky knots, I couldn’t move my head but, working on their own, my eyes had scuttled to the menacing shadows.

Finding nothing, or at best a scampering squirrel, I’d gone on, fiercely working to trust September’s warmth. Ever watchful for snakes or the signs of a bear, though I didn’t know what those signs could be, I placed one foot in front of me, sniffed the air like a hare, hummed a note, and eased the other foot forward. In a month all the leaves would be gone from the trees, and the woods would be more light than shade. The snakes and bears would be safely tucked away in hibernation. In a month I would be much less endangered. In a month, I told myself, I could walk through the trees and smile at my soul-squeezing fear. But on that September day I dared not let my guard slip, for I could not see what lurked behind the curtain of leaves or what prowled among the whispering gloom.

“What are you doing?” I demanded of myself. The afternoon breeze puffed my hair into my face. “You don’t have to do this. It’s not your job to save the woods. Just say no and go back to your life.” My life wasn’t so bad if I squinted just right and ignored the dismal fact of Mama’s death. I could tell Babcia that I had decided not to stay. I’d go home and make peace with my father. I’d quit school, find a job. And when I had some time off, I’d visit the old woman, maybe bring her a gift. She’d understand and forgive. I turned around to go back, but I could no longer see her house.

Which way had I walked? All the trees looked the same. All the shading held the same pernicious secrets. Heart thudding, I studied the ominous dark. Not a stone or a twig looked familiar. I plopped down on a rock and swore at myself. If I had stayed and refused the old woman’s request, I’d be safe by her hearth. I’d have a bed and a meal. She’d guide me home in the morning. I would live. Or, better, if I hadn’t ever come to the woods, I’d be home with my father, not entirely safe, but at least not a lunch for some bear. Tears stinging my eyes, I berated myself. “Don’t you dare give in to tears! Keep your head, Inga! Think!”

When I’d entered the woods, a slim golden path had led me to the old woman’s house. Intrigued, I had followed and knocked at her door having no plans to stay overnight. But her tale so intrigued me that I couldn’t walk away until she had finished the telling. And maybe that was a mistake. This time there was no path. While I knew the way home to be generally west, I couldn’t see the sun, nor could I see in the dark which way the jumbled shadows were pointing. “Someone help me,” I pleaded to the afternoon breeze. But the foliage swallowed up my prayer.

Working without thought, my fingers fondled a fern while I fretted over what to do. A tickling snatched at my attention and, shuddering with horror, I shook an ant that had crawled onto my hand. Ants are the housekeepers of the woods. Respect the work they do to keep the forest clean. Where had that thought come from? I didn’t remember Babcia ever saying such a thing. I watched the ant, or one like it, skitter over the leaves. How many times had I thoughtlessly stepped on an ant or reflexively killed another insect? “We are all made of star stuff and kitten breath,” Babcia had repeated in her story. “Every living thing has a spark of the divine.” Did that include the common ant? And was I like that little being, as fragile looking as a breath but Goddess strong? Bending so low I nearly touched it with my nose, I breathed an apology. Unimpressed, the little insect disappeared beneath a leaf, but I was sure that I had learned something important.

“Well, all that’s nice, but it doesn’t get me closer to home. And it won’t put anything into my belly.” Once again I scrutinized the sun-splotched foliage of the woods and begged it for a clue of where to go. The woods were still. They offered nothing. Even the breeze had decided to take a nap. I huffed a sigh. I didn’t see anything to do but to walk and hope I’d find the forest’s edge.

Getting up, I dusted imaginary dirt from the seat of my jeans then looked around. I took a step. A crow cawed. Was that a warning I was wrong? Or was the cry just the sound of an indifferent bird taking care of its own agenda? I waited. The crow was silent. I took another careful step. Again it cawed. I didn’t know what to do. “Oh does it matter?” I chided. “Whichever way I choose, if I go in a straight line, I’ll find a town.” But in a few short steps, I discovered that the trees prohibited walking a straight line. “Well, okay then. I’ll just walk.” But I couldn’t move my feet. ...

Listen ...No Easy Way

NO EASY WAY by S.R. Claridge
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Chapter One

Kate sat in the reception area with her stomach in knots. Tom was late. Again. After eighteen years of marriage, she should be used to it, but it still infuriated her. Tucking her shoulder length dark brown hair behind her ears, she pulled a small spiral notebook from her purse and began to jot down thoughts. She found it helped her stay calm and focused when dealing with emotional situations. Her therapist encouraged her to journal as often as needed. “Getting your thoughts on paper,” he told her, “makes them clearer to understand and assign emotion to.” She didn’t know if that was true, but it did pass the time. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty. Kate set the notebook on the chair next to her and began to fiddle with her wedding band. Another nervous tick she had, twisting her ring counterclockwise around her finger. It had been Tom’s grandmother, Madeline’s band. Kate grinned as she pictured Madeline, with her white hair tied tightly in a bun and her bright pink lipstick.

“Pulling my hair back real tight,” she would say, “is like getting a face lift for free.” Kate thought this was true, but it also made her big blue eyes sort of bulge out of her head like a Chihuahua.

Madeline gave Kate the wedding band the same year Tom’s grandfather, Lou, died in a tragic hit and run accident. The driver who killed him was never found and the case was labeled “unsolved.” Though rumors about Lou circulated around the small town of Stilwell, Kansas, Grandmother Madeline assured everyone she believed there was no foul play. “It was a terrible accident,” she told Tom and Kate, “but accidents happen and life goes on.” After the funeral, Madeline pulled Kate aside and gave her the wedding ring. “It is time,” she said, taking Kate’s hand in hers and patting it. Madeline’s eyes always had a discerning twinkle, but that day they beamed with kid-like excitement.

Kate often wondered why Madeline wanted her to have the ring instead of saving it for Tom’s brother Martin to give a future bride. After all, Martin was the older grandson. Madeline dismissed the question with a quick shrug of her boney shoulders and a roll of her bulging eyes. “This ring,” she said, “embodies a promise.” Kate was puzzled. “This ring,” she whispered, squeezing Kate’s hand, “covers a multitude of sins.” She said it as if it were something magical. Something that would ensure a marriage would last forever.

“What does that mean; it covers a multitude of sins?” Kate asked.

Madeline’s answer came swiftly, “forgiveness.” Kate studied her eyes as they sparkled with wisdom and truth she hoped would one day be hers. “God joins spouses in marriage. He created marriage. What He joins let no man,” Madeline paused and drew in a deep breath, “and no woman separate.” She pointed her long, skinny finger in the air for effect. Then placing Kate’s hand between hers she emphasized, “forgiveness is the key and you are strong enough to carry its burden.” Replaying more of the conversation in her mind, Kate felt she could almost hear Madeline’s voice telling her marriage was both a mountainous journey and a joyous adventure. “Never give up,” she said, patting Kate’s hand, “never give up.”

Now, staring at the band, Kate fought back tears as a feeling of guilt rushed through her. She knew Madeline would be ashamed of what she and Tom were about to do. They had given up and this was the last step to make it final. Kate kicked Tom out of their home six months ago, shortly after her fortieth birthday. She knew Tom blamed her behavior on mid-life crisis, but Kate knew it was more than that. Maybe she and Tom were both going through a change of life in some regard, but what tore their marriage apart was deeper than any physical change or hormonal imbalance. For ten years they tried to get pregnant and the four times they did ended in miscarriage. The cost of in vitro fertilization put financial strain on Tom, while the fertility drugs took their toll on Kate. Each time they lost a baby, a piece of Kate shut down. She couldn’t handle the guilt, knowing it was her fault they couldn’t conceive. Tom’s sperm was doing its job. He was perfect and she was not. She was failing. Kate’s depression became all encompassing and it drove Tom toward the one stable part of his world, work. He became a workaholic and Kate grew resentful of what she viewed as his inability to help her cope. Ten years later, they had not only grown distant, but had fallen apart.

“Mrs. Miller?” The young woman’s voice jolted Kate from her thoughts. “Your attorney has another hearing to go to now. Since Mr. Miller hasn’t arrived yet, we’re going to have to reschedule your appointment.”

Kate starred blankly. She felt disappointed, yet not completely deflated. Maybe this meant Tom had the same reservations she did about preceding down this path. Maybe it meant there was still some hope left in them, somewhere deep down. Maybe it merely meant he was too irresponsible to show up. She rescheduled the appointment and left. ...

Listen ...Defending Glory

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Aidan “Mac” McKeown palmed the bullets doctors removed from his right thigh and stared out his office window. Daffodils, tulips, and marsh marigolds lined garden paths beyond the alleyway at the back of the building. The fragrant scent of lilacs sweetened the air. Robins chirped on their endless hunt for worms. It was a perfect Thursday morning in northern Minnesota. The kind his partner would have cherished.

If he were alive.

A true hero and all around good guy, Ben should have been the one to survive the ambush. He had every reason to live. A loving wife. Two adorable children.

Mac’s fist tightened around the spent ammo. If only he could remember what went wrong that day. He had snippets of blurred images, fragments of shouted warnings, but nothing concrete. He woke up in the hospital two days later, and at the grand old age of thirty one learned a valuable lesson. There was no grand scheme. No master plan. And most certainly, no merciful God in heaven.

He tossed the bullets into the middle drawer of his desk. Why rehash the past? If Ben were alive, he’d order Mac to snap out of it and focus on the here and now.

“Pay attention,” Ben would say. “Never let your heart rule your head. It’ll get you every time.”

Exhaling slowly, Mac began to sort through a stack of bills. He divided them into two piles. Those he could pay and those he could not. Topping the former was the rent for the century old, red brick building that housed his office on the ground floor and a small two-bedroom apartment he called home on the second. After that he could pay the minimum amount required on the electric and telephone bills. The rest would have to wait until next month.

Or the month after that.

The recent downturn in the economy affected everyone. The good news was he did not have the added responsibility of a family to take care of, but many of his creditors, local entrepreneurs like himself, did. That bothered Mac. His bills were more than just a bunch of numbers or tallies of services rendered. They were mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. He had to find a solution to his cash flow problem before it became their problem, too.

A warm breeze whooshed through the open office window, whipping the items he’d pinned to a cork bulletin board on the wall opposite his desk. One photograph and accompanying article snipped from the local newspaper caught his attention. Written less than a year earlier to coincide with the grand opening of McKeown General Contracting, it told readers how as a young boy he had worked with his grandfather, a master tradesman in Minneapolis. Fond memories of their fishing trips to Piedmont Island spurred Mac to move north and open his own business.

He had felt so confident then. So certain he’d made the right decision. But with few construction projects on the horizon, and cash so tight he could not afford to paint his company’s name or phone number on the side of his truck to attract future clients, it was doubtful he’d still be in business by the end of summer.

Then what?

The buzzer inside his shop blared. A quick glance at the wall clock provided a spark of hope. 8:00 A.M. on the dot. Someone must need his services to come by so early in the morning. Reaching for his cane, he pushed himself up from the chair, and headed to the front of the building. A couple stood near the counter with their backs toward him.

“Good morning,” he said. “How may I help you?”

They turned to face him and his optimism fizzled. Although he did not recognize the woman, he was acquainted with the man. The pastor’s appearance inside his shop could mean only one thing. They had no desire to save his business. Their only concern was his soul.

Pastor Rick Wainwright’s eyelids flickered as he spied Mac’s cane. “How’re you today?”

Mac forced a smile. “I can’t complain.”

“I’d been under the impression you’d purchased tickets for last week’s church supper, but I don’t recall seeing you there.”

“I had other plans.” And he did. He rarely missed Monday Night Football. “I gave the tickets to my landlord. He and his wife said they had a lovely evening.”


The single word spoke volumes, making Mac wonder how far the pastor would pursue it today. He found the minister’s concern for his welfare irritating and unwarranted. To his relief, Wainwright gestured to the woman by his side.

“I’d like to introduce you to Glory Palmer. Glory, this is Aidan McKeown. The man I told you about.”

Mac groaned inwardly. He could only imagine the things she’d heard. Besides skipping out on church suppers and declining repeated invitations to attend services at the Piedmont Community Church, he’d also refused to provide any details about his life prior to moving to the island.

Nonetheless, he extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you. And call me, Mac.”

She gave his hand a quick, but firm shake. Her straight, strawberry blonde hair swished against narrow shoulders. A tiny gold cross at her throat shimmered in the soft fluorescent light.

“I own a cottage at Hanover Point,” she said. “Are you familiar with it?”

“I’ve motored past a couple of times when I’ve been out that way fishing.”

“It needs a major overhaul.”

Well, well, well. Perhaps he had been a little hasty in assessing the reason for their visit. She had a renovation project and the pastor had obviously recommended him for the job. Mac did a mental arm pump.

“It needs a new kitchen,” she said. “But I’m unsure what else to do.”

If memory served him correctly, the building was approximately twenty years old. “It depends on how often you plan to use it.”

“Year round. I’m going to live there.”

At Hanover Point? He did a double take. Dressed in navy slacks and a white silk blouse, the petite young woman had ‘city girl’ written all over her.

“It’s isolated,” he pointed out. “During winter the road is often closed due to blowing and drifting snow. You could be stranded for days without heat or hydro.”

She arched a brow, as if to suggest it was no concern of his. And she was right. Still, he could not deny how he felt. Imagining her alone and at the mercy of the elements kick started every protective cell in his body. Or was it something else? It had been a very long time since he’d fallen under the spell of a pretty woman. And Glory Palmer definitely fit into that category.

“My family’s owned the property for years,” she continued. “But until last fall I’d never had any reason to visit. This may sound silly, but from the moment I arrived I felt as if I’d come home. This is where I belong.” Her eyes darted to the pastor. “My future’s here.”

Listen ...Mistress of the Moons

MISTRESS OF THE MOONS by Janet Lane Walters
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Prologue — Eclipse

The setting sun brought shadows creeping along the mountain slopes. From the battle lines stretched across the plateau, the smell of blood mingled with the dust. Metal clanged against metal. Shouts, curses and screams filled the air. The moans of the wounded broke the Seer’s concentration on the amber light streaming from the crystal atop her staff. The beam sent a jagged pattern through the growing darkness.

A piercing cry arose. The ruby ray from the Warrior’s sword shot toward the sky. The Healer darted among the fallen and knelt beside the sorely wounded woman. Blue light from the Healer’s wand focused on the Warrior’s wounds. The Healer poured life-sustaining energy through the azure beam.

Gusts of wind drove thick waves of fog from the mountain peaks to obscure the plain and to cover the retreat of the women. A cluster of the servants of the Mistress of the Moons, clad in tunics of amber, red and blue, stumbled after those who bore the Warrior. They carried her between a pair of standing stones into a narrow passage that led to a crater lake and the Place of Choosing.

The Seer stumbled and would have fallen if the Healer hadn’t caught her arm. Together they moved through the fog. The edges of their cloaks brushed the standing stones.

“How much time have we?” the Healer asked.

The Seer tightened her grip on the staff. “I pray enough to complete the ritual before the eclipse hides the light of the moon.”

The Healer guided the other woman into the narrow passage. “With the coming of the fog, the bright moon and the dark moon have risen. We must succeed or all is lost for the One we serve.”

“Pray our call is answered before the next eclipse and the time of the lunar of the dark moon. For now and to all eternity, the thirteenth moon, the dark moon will rise each year to fill the sky.”

“We must wait thirteen years before this comes to pass. Pray the Mistress of the Moons will hold the Queen of Darkness at bay so the ones we call will have a chance.”

“Unless those who serve the Lord of Shadows call the Queen forth.”

The Healer sucked in a breath. “Never will the ones who serve the shadowed one share the rule.”

The Seer sighed. “Mistress bless. So be it. We will call, the Three will come and all will be as it has been. Unlike those in the other nomes, we can’t allow a drastic change to alter what we’ve built.”

“Agreed,” the Healer said.

They emerged from the passage and walked across the rock-strewn earth to the crater lake. The walls on three sides formed a crescent around the pool.

The Seer marshaled enough strength to walk unassisted. Her hair, darkened by age, flew wildly around her face. The Healer’s hair was as black as a night beneath the dark moon.

The remaining women clustered at the edge of the lake. The Seer and the Healer took the ends of the stretcher on which the Warrior lay. They waded through the cool water to the isle in the center of the lake. Gently they laid their companion on the pale rock. The Healer placed the Warrior’s sword on her chest and crossed the woman’s arms beneath the orb in the hilt.

Those who served the Mistress as seers, warriors and healers held torches aloft.

The ebony globe slid across the surface of the pale golden moon. The Seer passed her hand over the head of her staff. From the depths of the amber crystal, a band of pale yellow light flowed.

“From out of time and out of space, we three, Seer, Warrior, Healer, send our spirits questing for those who will continue the battle against the Lord of Shadows. We call for those who will keep the faith exactly as we have. Mistress of the Moons, pray keep the Queen of Darkness in bonds so You will prevail.”

The Healer raised her wand. The blue crystal on the tip flared and glue light shone. “The time of passing is upon us.” Her voice held neither fear nor anticipation. “Moon bright becomes Moon dark. May this eclipse add strength to our quest.”

The dark orb continued its stately progress across the face of the moon. The Seer held her staff so the light shone across the body of the Warrior. “How fares our sister?”

The Healer pressed a hand against the Warrior’s chest. “Her heart beats, but her body weakens. Can she bring forth the light of her sword?”

“The Mistress will sustain her.”

The Healer gasped. From the ruby crystal embedded in the hilt of the Warrior’s sword, a red ray rose to touch the blue and amber. “Just as our lights unite, we three are one.”

Moon Bright, Moon dark

Mistress of the Moons

From out of time

From the depths of space

Call the Three

Seer, Warrior, Healer.

Empower them.

From conception comes the thought.

From the thought rises the desire.

From desire springs the seed.

And the fruit becomes the harvest,

Ending shadows, bringing light.

Listen ...Appalachian Justice

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Cedar Hollow, West Virginia, 2010

The stairway was much steeper than she remembered, dark and narrow, and the railings were not secure. Some of the anchoring bolts were missing and the banisters wobbled under the slight pressure of her hands. In the stifling humidity, paint was peeling off the walls, the same dark green paint she remembered from seventy years ago, the first and last time she had climbed the bell tower.

She was a slight woman, stooped gently by age, fine wrinkles mapping out a face that was still pretty in spite of the passage of time. One trembling hand gripped the unsteady rail and she paused to catch her breath, faintly dizzy from the exertion. She felt claustrophobic in the tower, as if the surrounding mountains were closing in, pressing down on the little hamlet, squeezing the very air out of the narrow access. From a distance, she could hear disembodied voices floating outside in the late spring evening. The funeral was over, but people still mingled, reluctant to leave.

Leaning against the rail, she smoothed flyaway strands of silver hair away from her face, tucked the wayward tresses back into the low bun she had worn nearly the whole of her adult life. In her memory, the locks were blonde, and it was pigtails into which she tucked them.

She had just placed her foot on the next step, preparing to resume her climb in spite of her misgivings, when she heard movement below.

“Good God almighty, woman! Have you gone plumb crazy?” The voice echoed in the narrow stairwell. “What in the hell are you doin’ up there?”

Recognizing the voice, she glanced down to see the worried faces of two old men peering up at her through the shadows, their expressions nearly comical in exaggerated concern, what was left of their remaining hair mirrored in identical shades of gray. Seventy years ago one had had hair as black as the coal that was mined throughout the mountains, while the other had been shaved bald, a consequence of a recent lice infestation in the village. She smiled to herself as she remembered that even then, both had been afraid of the bell tower.

Facing forward again, she surveyed the steep climb ahead before responding. “I have to ring the bell,” she answered finally, irritated that they hadn’t known. “It’s the right way to end it.” Resolute, she tightened her grip on the rail and coaxed her stiff knee joints to advance another step.

At the bottom of the rickety staircase the two old men looked at each other. One shrugged and the other sighed, adjusting the straps of his oxygen tank. Without a word they, too, began to climb, muscles quivering with the unexpected exercise. They paused often to rest; after a lifetime of mining, the coal dust made breathing difficult. Slowly but steadily they followed her up the precarious passageway, praying the steps would hold all the way to the cupola. In spite of the difficulty of the climb, they were determined to make it to the top.

She was right, of course. It was the only way to end the story.