I don’t want to write about the pandemic, so you get this instead.

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Photo by David Mark for Pixabay

I shift closer to the fire, toss on a log, make the sparks fly. It’s my night to sit up with the children that can’t sleep and I’m damned if I’ll do it cold.

I look around the circle at their pale faces made healthy-rosy by the flames. We’re worse-off than some, better than most. It’s a rare day they go with nothing in their bellies.

Back when it all went to shit, lots of people rushed for their money. Don’t know where they thought to spend it. Maybe they figured it would buy them out of this nightmare. Some hoarded and barricaded indoors and turned their backs on those in need, then acted all surprised and hurty-feeling when those others turned their backs on them in turn and let them die in the Beyond.

Me, Gwennie, and Johnny took a wagon to the library. We been friends since way-back and book lovers before that, and it was the hardest job we ever had, saying yea or nay to this book or that, judging whose words would live and whose die, pages turned to pulp by seasons of rain and snow, or burned to ash in a fire lit by some poor jamoke trying to keep warm.

We come first for the books that would get us by physically–the how-tos on gardening and repair and building and putting up food for winter, root-cellaring and the like. We went back again, this time with two wagons, and took favorite novels and a dictionary and such to put aside for those evenings when a body’s soul flickers like a Tink-candle and all but goes out.

I hold my hands to the fire. “What’s it to be, then?” I wait for the shouts, each naming a favorite story. They don’t none of them really care; they just want to be read to. So I read, the cadence of my voice rising and falling, mouse-high or bone-deep depending on the character and what I think they might sound like. The children pillow their heads on arms, old backpacks, each other. One by one, they fall away, asleep, dreaming what I hope are pleasant dreams in this often unpleasant world.

“You’re a good teacher.”

I look up. Mallachy sits across the way, cross-legged tailor fashion. I never saw him arrive, but that’s nothing unusual. He’s a quiet one, but he loves the stories as much as any of them. Next year, when he turns twelve, he’ll take his place among the readers and his turn at the fire, keeping watch against whatever’s out there that wants to extinguish the light.

I shrug in reply.

“No,” he says. “You are. They learn. You make them feel safe.”

I poke the fire. The last thing they are is safe and they know it, which is why so many of them have trouble sleeping. If they feel safe, I’m doing them a disservice. But how long can a body go on, week after month after year, feeling nothing but terrified?

“I don’t want to be too good. Bad has its place.”

He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he doesn’t understand. I jab the sand with a stick and listen to the distant roar of breakers on the rocks beyond the dunes. One of these days, I’m walking into that surf and not coming out. Maybe tonight, because I don’t know if I can explain it the way Mallachy needs to hear. I can share what another has thought, but coming  up with my own words is a hardship.

“Look, I grew up in a place where children weren’t valued. Then I went off to school and it was more of the same. My first teacher hated kids, you could see it in her eyes. Another one physically segregated the class into the smart kids and the stupid ones. Used those words. And those of us at the stupid tables, well, we knew we weren’t stupid, but live through a year of that sort of ridicule and you come to believe it. Maybe they only hated their jobs and not us, but they certainly didn’t want to do the work of teaching. They’d rather paint us stupid so they wouldn’t have to.”

“You’re not stupid.”

“I know that. But for decades I thought I was. Too much and too many in the world painted it true, telling me over and over, no, you can’t have this good thing you want because you don’t deserve me, you’re this or you’re that and me taking it because I’d been taught it was so, and forgot the real truth hidden inside me.”

He sidles up close to the fire and stares across at me with eyes like a fox. “What changed?”

“Me.” I look past my fingers into the flames, cup my hands to hold the light. “I got mad. Furious. And so damned tired of being told no. I decided they were wrong, that they’d been wrong all along. I didn’t realize they were wrong, and I didn’t believe they were wrong. All that came later. But I made the decision they were wrong and told it to myself every day until I knew it was true.” I glance around at the sleeping children. “What I want for them is a little bit of rage to keep them warm, keep them honest and true to themselves.If I leave them with anything, it’s the knowledge that no one has the right to take the fight out of you.”

Mallachy nods. Between one eye blink and the next, he’s gone, faded back into the shadows. That’s one who sleeps soundly because he believes he has nothing to fear. But these here, they think they do.

I reach out and curl a small hand inside mine. Stretched out behind me, my years feel bigger than the Before, endless, and too damned many yet ahead.

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Copyright Melissa Crandall 2020

 

Me & My Big Mouth

Today_ Tomorrow_ Always_cover-v2-1.1Remember some time back when I mentioned how much I love editing? Yeah, that time. If I ever say it again, remind me that I need to keep my trap closed and not taunt the Powers That Be.

I’m only partly serious. I still love the E-word, but I’ve just come off the hands-down most  intense editing stint I’ve ever done (and that includes reworking an entire novel in seven days). I’m mentally flat-lined. I can even feel it in my muscles because, of course, you know all those hours in the chair, hunched over the keyboard, it takes a toll. We’re talking 8, 10, sometimes 12 hours a day in order to meet deadline (which I still had to extend by two weeks because I couldn’t seem to get off the launch pad for nearly 10 days not because I wasn’t working, but because I couldn’t find the center, the focus, from where to begin. It finally happened, thank God, but man …)

Best part of all this is that I’m pretty happy with what I produced. I can’t say “entirely happy” only because I’m so close to it by now, and so tired, that my ability to judge has gone a bit squiffy.

So, anyway, it’s in the hands of my editors and publishing team, and we’ll soon be talking cover, and title. (The working title remains “The Man Who Loves Elephants” but they’re talking about changing it, and I can only hope they laughed when I suggested “Fifty Shades of Gray.”

Until I have further news on that front, I’d like to share this: That the anthology in which my story “Trinity” appears is now available here on Amazon for $6.99. As always, thank you for all your support.

Story Snippet from “Thicker Than Water”

Three on a matchWhat’s gone before: Cora Coleman resides in a New England  village with her family — six-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and husband, Brendan, away to sea aboard a whaling ship. Cora is a good wife — loyal, true — and a goodwife, trained in the use of herbs to address everything from headaches to love sickness; a skill passed along the line of women that stretches back to her ancestors in Ireland.

Trusted by her neighbors, she’s unprepared when the spurned advances of a young buck results in her being accused of witchcraft. Suddenly, it seems that the entire village has turned against her. And now, witch hunter Orias King, has arrived …

Rebecca comes in as he’s descending the ladder. Her eyes are red and swollen, her cheeks blotchy with tears. She pauses just inside the door, struck dumb by the presence of strangers, then runs to the security of my lap and buries her face against me.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I whisper, but she remains silent.

King introduces himself to John and they shake hands. He looks at me. “This is your daughter?”

I nod. “This is Rebecca,” I say proudly, keeping my voice light. She’ll take her cues from me, and I don’t want her to fear this man or any other. I set her on her feet, wipe her face with the edge of my apron, straighten her cap, and turn her to face him.

The witch hunter’s steps are startlingly quiet on the wooden floor, like the cushioned footfalls of a cat. He squats in order to look her straight in the eye. “Hello, Rebecca,” he says cordially. “My name is Mr. King.”

She makes a quick curtsy. Then, overcome with shyness, she looks at her feet.

“You’ve been weeping,” he observes.

She peeks at him. After a moment, she nods.

He takes a white handkerchief from his pocket and holds it out to her. “Here. Wipe your eyes.”

I want to fiercely point out to him that her eyes have already been wiped–that have wiped them and I will take care of her because I’m her mother and he is nothing–but my voice lies in my chest like a dead thing.

She takes it from him and does as she’s told. When she goes to hand it back, the witch hunter shakes his head. “No, you keep it.” He smiles. “Consider it a little gift from me to you.”

Her own smile is brilliant, like the sun. I despise him for it. I wish Brendan were here to fling him into the street. Then again, none of this would be happening if Brendan were here.

“Did you fall and hurt yourself?” King asks. “Is that why you cried?”

Rebecca shakes her head. She glances at me, weighing my reaction to this man. I swallow my dislike for her sake. “What happened, love? What made you cry?”

“Mistress Sharp won’t let Fanny play with me.” Tears shiver across the surface of her eyes again, but do not fall. “She said,”–her breath hitches in her chest–“she said that Fanny isn’t allowed to play with witches.” She looks over her shoulder at me. “Are we witches, Mam?”

I could cheerfully slap Constance Sharp across her mean-spirited mouth. “No.” I meet King’s gaze over the top of her head. “No, we’re not witches.”

He shifts to sit cross-legged, like a tailor, like a child. “That wasn’t a very nice thing for her to say, Rebecca.” His voice is warm, inviting her confidence. I’d like nothing so much as to strike him. “Maybe you and I can play together instead.”

Fear grips my heart. I don’t want him anywhere near her, yet already she’s on the floor, mimicking his posture, a pair of old friends. The other adults in the room are silent, mesmerized, watching him charm my daughter.

“What’s your favorite game?” King asks. “Is it shuttlecock?”

She shakes her head.

“Knucklebones?” he says teasingly.

No, not that.

“Rolling the hoop?”

No.

King throws his hands up and lets them fall. “I’m out of guesses. You’ll have to tell me.”

She grins openly, triumphant at having stumped him. “Dollies.”

His eyes brighten with delight. “Dollies!” he crows, as if he should have guessed it all along. “That’s a wonderful game! Could you show me your dolly?”

Rebecca scrambles to her feet and hurries over to her pallet. She returns with a rag doll half her size and offers it to King. He’s already seen it, having inspected her bed along with everything else in the house, but he takes the time to exclaim over its perfection before handing it back.

Delighted to have met someone who appreciates the toy as much as she does, Rebecca cuddles the doll to her chest and swings back and forth, every bit the mother soothing her fussy baby.

The witch hunter watches her sway, his eyes drawn to the bell-like motion of her apron. “What have you got in your pockets?”

One hand dips readily and brings out a large clam shell bleached white by the sun.

King nods. “That’s lovely. What else?”

She puts the shell on the floor and produces another, a razor clam, long and narrow, mottled white and brown.

Fletcher Ellison makes a noise of annoyance. “We’ve better things to do than–”

A flick of the witch hunter’s obsidian eyes is all it takes to silence him. “What else?”

Next is a damp gull feather with a broken shaft. After that, a periwinkle, followed by a piece of oddly shaped driftwood. King barely glances at any of it. “What else?” he repeats, his gaze never leaving my daughter’s pockets.

Rebecca shakes her head, suddenly shy again.

He smiles. “Come now,” he chides in a teasing tone. “I thought we were friends. I can see there’s more in there. What else have you got?”

She looks at me. Her expression is one with which every parent is familiar, but in this context it takes me by surprise. What could she possibly have to feel guilty about? “Mam will be mad,” she murmurs.

Something in King’s expression shifts, like the shimmer of oil on water. His eyes lift to meet mine. “Oh, I’m sure that’s not true,” he croons.

My throat is unaccountably dry. “Of course not,” I say, unable to quell the tremor in my guts. “Show us what you have.”

Rebecca’s hand disappears deep into her pocket. What she brings out stops the heart in my chest.

To find out what happens next, you can purchase a copy of THREE ON A MATCH: The Terror Project, Volume 2 on Amazon or order a signed copy from me via email.  THREE ON A MATCH, a production of Books and Boos Press also includes stories by g. Elmer Munson and Kristi Petersen Schoonover.