Sept. 2, 2017

Here’s another short story.

  A COURTYARD OF GARNETS AND SUNLIGHT

PRINCESS MEGHAN WAS shocked when the doors into her father’s suite were flung open, and the Palace Guards, normally positioned outside his rooms, rushed in and grabbed King Hartman IV by the arms. Meghan and her father had been quietly discussing their upcoming dinner with a visiting prince, and she could not believe what was happening. The guards appeared to be mesmerized as they thrust her father out the doors.

“Damn you, how can you do this to me?” he exclaimed. “I am your king! By what right do you do this?” Despite his shouts and Meghan’s terror-filled screams, the Guards effortlessly propelled him out of the room and down the hall, past numerous spectators and into the stairwell to the lower floor and the dungeons. Meghan saw that no one tried to stop the Guards, nor did they respond to her yells and exhortations to “Help him!”

Astonished at the Guards’ behavior – Guards who were supposed to protect her father – Meghan followed them, bewilderment in every step, all the way to the dungeons. There the Palace Guards threw open a cell door and tossed their supposedly beloved king inside without regard to his comfort. Then, still seeming entranced, they locked the cell and took places on either side, their lances raised, threateningly it seemed to Meghan.

While the princess tried and tried to get the Guards to speak to her, and the king only sat staring into space, the new Queen Pamela was making an announcement to the people, stating that the king had been imprisoned for treason to the Crown!

****

IN THE FARAWAY land of Occulta, a jeweled chest called the Garnet Chest belonged to King Hartman IV. He had married the Silken Goddess, Analiza, and the Chest had become his as part of her dowry. It was believed that her mother, the Silken Goddess before her, had been in fact an actual goddess and had inherited the chest and jewels from her own father, a god. The chest was rumored to be filled with precious jewels, and was itself covered in rubies, emeralds and sapphires.

It was known throughout Occulta that the king owned this chest, so anything he wanted became his by right. He was awarded many beautiful things by his people and by his neighbors, because he had the chest and because he was a generous king. He built an exquisite castle, purchased many golden chariots and the best horses, and paid a hundred knights to work for him, clothing and housing them in comfort. Altogether, his kingdom was considered the most beautiful and charmed in the land.

After his wife, the Silken Goddess, died in childbirth, King Hartman’s beloved daughter grew to puberty in this beautiful and charmed kingdom. But the king himself was sad and depressed though he met his daughter’s every wish.

The king grew more and more lonely over the years of his widowhood. But when Meghan was ten years old, her father met a beautiful woman called Angelique, fell in love with her, and brought her home to meet his daughter.

“I am so pleased to meet such a lovely princess,” the woman said. Although her father beamed, Meghan could hear a patronizing and even sinister tone in her voice. She turned her head to look in her father’s face, where she saw that he was enchanted by this woman, through and through. Meghan realized he wouldn’t hear a thing against her, so she turned back to the woman and allowed her hug, feeling all the while that the hug was perfunctory and completely unloving.

A little later, Meghan met Angelique’s younger brother, who was called Erinyes. She was a little bewildered to see that he seemed a handsome, intelligent, clever young man; she couldn’t help but wonder how the two could possibly be related.

****

ONLY A FEW weeks after the wedding, Erinyes and Pamela somehow forced the king to hand over the Garnet Chest to them. Meghan knew nothing about this, of course, until she was shocked as the Palace Guards imprisoned her father, and he was accused of treason.

“He is to be imprisoned for twenty years,” the new queen announced. “We, my beloved brother and I, shall rule in his stead.

“Our first command is that taxes shall be raised to 50% of each farmhold’s profits. Secondly, all frivolous entertainment shall cease; there will be no more plays, no more concerts, no more fests on the palace grounds.” There was uproar in the kingdom.

By the time Meghan had grown disgusted with the Guards and headed up to the throne room to ask the queen for an explanation, everyone she met seemed depressed. In the kitchen, the chef sat staring gloomily at the large stew pot sitting alone on the usually crowded stove. He told Meghan he was preparing the midday meal.

“It’s a mushroom and venison stew,” he explained. “The Queen has informed us that there will be no more ‘fancy dishes,’ only stew, from now on. I do not think I can work like this.”

Meghan grew more and more puzzled as, one after another, she encountered the king’s servants, who told her the Queen had taken nearly all of their duties from them. Many of them seemed despondent, a couple of the serving wenches were almost violently angry, and the king’s favorite footman was as puzzled as she was. When he told her of the queen’s announcement about her father’s imprisonment for treason, Meghan was astonished. “But . . . he couldn’t . . . what evidence . . . ?”

The footman shrugged and walked on – towards his rooms, Meghan assumed. Her steps faltering and uncertain, the bewildered princess walked on. Finally making her way into the huge, heavily gilded throne room, she approached the queen’s lacy golden throne. As she neared it, she glimpsed the queen’s brother sitting on her father’s throne. No longer the handsome, cheerful young man she had met, his mouth now seemed thin as a scar and twisted into a sneer. His formerly twinkling blue eyes now had a black gleam, and his brows were lowered in a diabolical frown.

Neither would discuss her father’s situation with her, and the queen ordered her to her rooms.  “You will no longer be welcome in the throne room, Meghan, and you will stay in your rooms from mid-afternoon until your bedtime.  You are, after all, only ten years old so you have no reason to be wandering around the palace after your schooling.”

“But I have my fencing and boxing exercises in the afternoon! I can’t miss those!”

“Very well. But back to your rooms right afterwards, young lady,” the queen directed. She turned to her brother and smiled slyly at him, her eyes gleaming black like his.

****

MEGHAN WAS STINGILY allowed to visit the king only once every week. While she was in the dungeons, the queen seemed to forget all about her, so she could stay for a long time. When-ever she visited, her father spent hours telling her stories about her mother, many of which included a beautiful garden in Analiza’s homeland.

“Your mother told me all about the courtyard of the palace where she lived,” he said as Meghan listened, enthralled. “It was surrounded by a lovely white brick wall. Brilliant flowers bloomed all year long, and beautiful butterflies were everywhere. Her courtyard was always bathed in sunlight and sparkled with garnets of all shapes and colors.”

“What are garnets, father?” Meghan had asked the first time she heard this story. She was only six years old then, and her education had not included jewels.

“Garnets are precious stones,” he told her. “They are the birthstone of both you and your mother. They might be a deep red in color, but they might also be green or orange. Garnets are your own lucky gem.”

When Meghan was nearing her eighteenth birthday, she became aware that her step-mother and uncle had somehow left the kingdom; they were no longer anywhere to be found. But her father was still in prison, and his guards seemed forced in some way to keep him there.

On the day of her birthday, her father’s gift to her was an iron dagger which he said his own father had given to him. Her father’s friend, the wizard Wen Mikkle, gave her a sheath for the dagger and a belt, and she put them on and displayed them all proudly, to her father’s delight.

Rather than wishing her a happy birthday, though, the wizard began to chant. She listened for a moment as he said something weird about a wicked, malevolent sorcerer and a jeweled chest. She was suddenly aware for the first time that her father’s kingdom was no longer the most beautiful in the land. Instead, it was blighted and dark, and hardly any food still grew in the fields and gardens; almost all the farmers had abandoned them.

****

IN THE VERY next moment, Meghan realized that the king, his cell, and the wizard had all disappeared. She found herself standing in an astonishing garden surrounded by glittering stones. She gazed around in stunned silence. The young princess of the poverty-stricken Silken Kingdom stood in a strange courtyard, one she had never seen before. As she looked around, she saw the courtyard and garden were enclosed by a delicate white wall. The longest length of the wall was the side of a huge palace. She could see blue and gold pennants waving overhead, and turret windows far above.

On the ground, rich golden orange, emerald green and blood-red garnets of all sizes, from pebbles to boulders, were scattered among vividly colored blossoms. She nervously fingered her new dagger in its sheath, and wondered how she’d gotten there.

Meghan could see that as soon as the sun moved overhead, the courtyard would be bathed in sunlight. As she stood fascinated and intrigued, sunlight began to bounce off the rocks. The sun seemed to set the stones to glowing and gleaming, and to shower prisms and rainbows of light everywhere. Dozens of dainty butterflies rose as one, to flit delicately in and around the flowers and grasses.

How can I be here? she wondered. Maybe I’m asleep and dreaming. Or I’m simply insane and hallucinating. Could someone have given me something to eat or drink that made me delusional? Or perhaps . . .

She recalled that she had been talking with her father the king as she stood outside his cell in what had been his castle and was now in ruins. She knew that she had not eaten nor drank anything since the night before.

Thinking further back, Meghan realized she had been motherless and impoverished since she was ten years old, when her father had been put away in a prison of her uncle’s making. She had grown up in a ravished and ruined kingdom without her father, King Hartman IV, aside from her short visits to his cell.

Meghan recalled her beloved father telling her, “You must know everything now. As you are 18, I must make you aware of what our situation truly is.”

“Father?” Meghan had questioned, confused. To her, their poverty only meant that she had none of the trappings of the young royals she met now and then, but this didn’t worry her. She was happy, and she knew her father would have done everything in his power to see that she had whatever she needed.

“You know that I have been imprisoned for the past seven years,” the king said. She could hear great sorrow in his voice. “After my wedding to Pamela, her brother Erinyes told me that to avoid imprisonment, I would have to give him everything in my kingdom. I finally did that, but he put me here anyway. I am given to understand that his very name, Erinyes, is another word for demon. We are impoverished, and the only solution is that you find and return the Garnet Chest. With it, our kingdom may be enriched once again.”

“I?” At this point, Meghan had never heard of this chest.

The king went on. “The Garnet Chest was taken from me by Erinyes when I returned from my honeymoon with his sister, seven years ago. Your dear mother, Analiza, was a Silken Goddess, and you will be, too. A Silken Goddess was chosen by the gods of our people’s remote past. She must rule a happy and prosperous kingdom with a good king. Her jeweled Garnet Chest is always part of her dowry, and then her daughter’s dowry, and so on.

“When your mother’s parents were killed, the chest was stolen. The other gods and goddesses vowed that the young Silken Goddess, your dear mother, would get it back and would marry a good king. That did happen. They saw that her daughter, you my dear, would also be a Silken Goddess, and would bring the Garnet Chest to her own marriage.”

He sighed, with a reminiscent look in his eyes, and went on, “Your mother’s dying wish was that you should receive the chest when you turned 18. The wizard Wen Mikkle has told me you must discover and redeem it for the sake of our kingdom.”

****

AS SHE STOOD in the courtyard recalling this conversation, a strange figure materialized before her in a puff of smoke. The figure seemed to be a very handsome young man, dressed in a threadbare black suit. He grinned at Meghan.

“I am Yammah, Court Sorcerer for the vanished kingdom of Dread. You seek the jeweled chest that was stolen by your step-mother and her brother, do you not?”

“Yes,” she said. “How do you know that? And where am I? What am I doing here?”

“Well, you see, Princess, your uncle and step-mother no longer have your jeweled chest. They sold it and disappeared; no one knows where they went.” The sorcerer sneered. “But I am certain they will not bother you or your father again.”

“Then where is the chest, wizard?” Meghan demanded.

The sorcerer laughed and asked, “Where do you think all these beautiful things came from?”

“They’re the jewels that were in the chest?”

“And those that bedecked the chest.” The wizard turned and walked away from Meghan toward what she saw was an intricate lacy black gate in the white wall. She noted that he glanced often toward the sun, and kept to the shadowed part of the courtyard. When he reached the gate, it opened slowly and then closed after him as he passed through it. She reached for her new iron dagger but didn’t draw it, waiting to see what he would do.

“So the jewels are here, in the courtyard?” she called as the wizard walked away. “The garnets, the blossoms?”

But the sorcerer had vanished. Meghan stood for a long moment, thinking over what she had seen, and then turned slowly, gazing around her at the enchanting courtyard that no longer seemed so delightful.

****

NOT MUCH LATER, as she studied the flowers in the courtyard and the butterflies, Meghan was shocked to see the handsome wizard materialize once again, just inside the lacy black gate. Now he was dressed in a long crimson robe, and wore a heavily bejeweled belt from which a solid silver sheath hung. She could see the long hilt of a dagger inside.

He stood looking toward the princess with a peculiar smile, then declared, “They say I’m evil, but I think of myself as determined.” He chortled and his eyes twinkled, and Meghan was suddenly struck by how very good-looking he was. An evil wizard should not be so attractive, she told herself. But as he went on speaking and walking towards her, the princess saw that he was becoming less and less handsome; and by the time he faced her, he seemed quite ugly.

“You are here because I sent for you,” Yammah explained. “I took you from your father’s prison to fulfill a pledge I made to the demon Erinyes when I took the chest from him. He wanted the jewels so very, very much, and I promised him they would be his once I killed you. You are here so that I may do that.”

He means to kill me! Her stomach clenched and she felt nauseated. The thought filled her with terror: He brought me here to kill me! She allowed the horror to sink in for just a moment, but then began to remember what her father had told her as she practiced her exercises at the castle: “If you have an enemy, look first at his behavior and use it to defend against him.”

Other discussions she had had with her father over the years came back to her now. These had seemed at the time to be no more than tales the king hoped to entertain her with. But now she wondered. She recalled a story about a fabled box which had been taken from the queen of a Grand Kingdom by a cruel pirate. The box was thought to be cursed, and the pirate had dueled over it with a courageous prince from the Grand Kingdom. But the pirate had lost the duel, and the triumphant prince had returned home with his mother’s jeweled box.

Another story she recalled had to do with a poisoned dagger that had killed a mad dwarf from an enchanted forest. A young foundling called Ned had inherited this dagger from his dying foster father. Ned had been attacked by the mad dwarf as he rode down a path in the forest. The dwarf had pulled Ned from his horse and had begun to beat him, but the dagger had seemingly jumped out of its sheath into Ned’s hand and penetrated the armor worn by the mad dwarf, killing him and saving Ned’s life.

Still another tale came to mind. A beautiful maiden was attacked by a scarred bandit, wearing all black. This brigand rode into the maiden’s village on a huge black horse, scourged the town and killed all the men. Then he grabbed the beautiful maiden up and onto his horse and fled across the desert to his hut. He attempted to take what was most precious from the maiden, but she had studied with a master in her village and had learned to defend herself with a stave. She grabbed a poker from his hearth and fought off the brigand, escaping on his own horse to a land where she would be safe.

Recalling what her father had told her about observing her enemy’s behavior, she translated it as advice to go on the attack before she was attacked herself. She remembered thinking the sorcerer had made an effort to avoid the sunlight, so she called out in a loud commanding voice, “Wizard! Come out and face me, if you dare!”

She shivered inside as she flung this challenge, aware that if he did not come to her, she would have to go to him which, she felt, might be suicide. At least if she stood her ground, she should have the upper hand. She felt that her exercises in her father’s castle might help her get in at least one good strike at him.

****

THE SORCERER STEPPED arrogantly out onto the shadowed courtyard, stopping at the edge of the shade several feet from Meghan. She thought she saw fear in his eyes, but doubted that he could possibly be afraid of her.

“Come, wizard!” she exclaimed. “Are you afraid? Do you recognize in me your ruination, your downfall?  Come closer, so you may see your death in my eyes!”

The sorcerer’s face took on the clenched look of a man determined to stop the insults, and he took another step forward, now nearly out of the shadows. Meghan danced backwards just a bit and he took the bait. He stepped fully out into the sunlight that streamed onto the courtyard. Then he stiffened, seeming to realize how exposed he was. He stopped to glare at her. She could see that he had begun to perspire, and to gaze sideways at the sun.

Meghan moved forward with confidence, her iron dagger poised to strike, and circled the sorcerer. She poked it at him again and again despite his surprisingly awkward efforts to evade her. He finally danced backwards and drew the dagger she had noticed out of its sheath. He began to parry her thrusts, making some dangerous-seeming thrusts of his own.

Parry and thrust, thrust and parry. Each time he dodged, his crimson robe swirled around his muscled legs. He often had to reach down and loosen a length of robe that had gotten caught up in his black boot.  Meghan stalked forcefully toward him as he retreated. Then he strode toward her and she backed away. He pursued her, brandishing his dagger as the sun glinted off the colored jewels. She whirled and leaped onto his back, drawing her dagger forcefully down the length of his arm.

Crimson blood streamed from the wound to the courtyard, seeming to blend with his robe, and the wizard shrieked. He knocked Meghan to the ground and backed into the shadows, where she declined to follow. Rolling onto her feet she taunted him some more, waving her dagger. He darted forward to thrust wildly at her again. She parried, and they repeated the thrust and parry until the wizard seemed to slow his advances a bit.

The bleeding had stopped, and only small cuts and scrapes were now visible on either combatant. They continued to battle for a considerable time until Meghan saw that the wizard was definitely flagging, bleeding from several sizable cuts on his arms and face. She herself felt energized rather than tiring.

The wizard soon seemed unable to defend himself further, though he kept jabbing at her, and she worried that she would have to kill him.

Finally, recalling his earlier hesitation when he left the shadows and ventured into the sunlight, Meghan danced backwards into the sunlit center of the courtyard, away from where he crouched in the darkened shade of the palace wall. She taunted him until he charged toward her for what he apparently hoped would be the coup de grâce. But as he came fully into the sunlight, he seemed to realize he was no longer safely in the shadows. As if he were nothing more than a pile of rags, he fell to the ground.

Seeing the sorcerer collapsed in a heap, Meghan rushed to him. The blood from his arm pooled around his waist and appeared to blend into the crimson of his robe. She squatted beside him with her dagger held high, demanding, “Tell me how I may get the Garnet Chest back and return it to my father, or I will kill you.”

****

THE WIZARD HAD turned over the chest and the jewels to Meghan, seeming to be completely unnerved. As his minions rushed out of the palace to care for him, he managed to tell her, “The ancient gods and goddesses ruled that I may not have the chest, that it belongs to you and your father. That is the only reason that I was unable to beat you.”

“That’s why you couldn’t kill me?” Meghan wondered, suspiciously. She scoffed, but thinking back she could recall that it had seemed at the time that he should have been more successful. But then she shrugged; she didn’t really care how he had been defeated.

She had won the chest, and her father would be released from his prison. Their home would be returned to them, and everything would be back to the way it should have been all along.

Upon her return to Occulta with the Garnet Chest, Meghan found that her father was no longer in prison. The wizard Wen Mikkle told her that several nearby kingdoms had united to help get him back on his feet. “And many of the farmers who relocated to nearby kingdoms have returned and are reclaiming their lands,” he said.  “Fields are beginning to return to life, and a concert is planned for tomorrow.

“And all this is because you and our King Hartman IV are heroes,” the wizard Wen Mikkle, told her, “and because the gods truly wished their Silken Goddess to win.”

Hearing this, Meghan recalled that the sorcerer Yammah had taunted her from his bed in the local hospital, “In truth,” he had said with a wicked grin, “it was the gods who defeated me, not you.”

If that’s true, Meghan told herself, I will go to the palace chapel to thank and praise the gods and goddesses who watched over me, as my father had told me they would.

_____

Here’s a short story from my guest blogger, who is also my son, Andy Ballantine. He wrote the story a few years ago in response to a prompt I gave him, and he has never been convinced to try and publish it, though I think it’s quite publishable.

LAUGHTER IN THE RAIN

In the hall a phone was ringing. Rushing to get it was a middle-aged woman of medium height and heavy build, who had a head of gray hair. The hall was in a modest home situated on a hill in Nighthawk, Washington.

“Hello? Hi, Judy!” Judy was her eldest daughter and lived in California. “What is it, dear? Is something wrong?”

“Of course nothing’s wrong, mother. I just called to tell you that Bill and I would be coming down early this year. Isn’t that great?”

“Of course it is, dear. But aren’t you bringing Chuck?”

“Yes, mother. I didn’t really think to mention the child.”

“Well, you should. George,” she called into the living room. “It’s Judy. She says they can come down early this year.”

“Good, good. That’ll mean I can take Chuck fishing since the lake won’t have frozen over yet. When can they come?”

“When are you coming, dear?”

“Bill arranged to get a week off from work, and we thought we could make it by next Saturday. Is that all right?”

“Of course it’s all right! Any time you can be here is all right.”

“Well, I thought I’d ask anyway. Will you and dad be all right? I mean, if it happens while we’re gone, you can make it on your own?”

“Of course we’ll be all right. Besides, the authorities say it probably will never happen, so don’t worry about it.”

“All right, mom. Is there anything you’d like us to bring?”

“Only yourselves. Do you know the way?”

“Of course we know the way; I lived there for twenty years! And we’ve been coming there every year for the past five. We’ll be there.”

“Just make sure you do get here. And make it in three pieces – you, Bill, and Chuck.”

“We will, mother. But are you sure you’ll be all right?”

“We’ll be fine! Goodbye, sweetheart. Take care.”

“Goodbye, mother. YOU take care.”

She put the phone down and went into the kitchen to check on dinner.

“Are they coming, Gladys?” came George’s voice.

“Saturday.”

“Great! That means I’ll be able to take Chuck fishing this year, before the lake freezes over.”

It’s a shame, she thought, about him. Ever since they retired him at the plant, he’s been growing progressively more senile each year. This didn’t matter too much to her, though. She would love him no matter what.

“Come on, George. Dinner’s ready.” After a few minutes when he hadn’t yet appeared, she called again. This time he came. He was a tall man, but running to fat. His hair matched his wife’s.

“What are we having?” he asked.

“Roast beef. Did you wash your hands? Good. Now sit down and eat.”

“I’m eating, I’m eating. You are getting pushy in your old age. When are the kids coming down? I hope it’s soon, so I can take Chuck fishing before the lake freezes over.”

“They’re coming down Saturday. Will you eat already? Your food is getting cold.”

After a few quiet minutes, “George, let’s go on a picnic tomorrow. It’s going to be too cold soon, and then we won’t be able to for another three or four months.”

“Okay. Though it might be too cold, already.”

“It’s not that cold. Let’s do it, George. It’ll give us a chance to be alone.”

“We are alone.”

“I mean, away from all these people.”

“What people? Only about thirty people live here.”

“I know, but that’s still too many. Can’t we, George?”

“Of course we can, Gladys. It’s a fine idea. Why don’t we start getting ready now?” He started to get up but she pushed him back into his chair.

“Not now. We’ll start tomorrow. Besides, you haven’t finished your dinner yet.”

They finished dinner, and then went to bed. In the morning, George was the first one up, and when Gladys woke her husband was in the kitchen preparing food for the picnic.

“What are you doing?” asked his wife, when she got into the kitchen.

“Cutting up some leftovers from last night’s dinner for sandwiches. You do eat on a picnic, you know.”

“I know. I just meant that this is the first time you’ve ever done this, and besides, you didn’t really sound that enthusiastic about the idea last night.”

“That was last night. I think the idea is great. Now get ready, and stop gabbing.”

It took them about an hour to get the food, wine and cloth together for the basket and get it loaded in the car. They knew of a place near a lake where other people seldom went, and their only concern was whether they would be allowed to leave the city.

# # # # #

When they got to the city limits of Nighthawk, they were stopped by the guards and asked where they were headed.

“We’re going to Palmer Lake, officer,” said Gladys. “We can go, can’t we?”

“Don’t see why not, ma’am. There’s been no report of any immediate danger. But keep close to the shelter near this side, and if you hear any sirens, hurry there.

“Okay, they’re clear, Charlie,” to the other guard. “Let them through.”

The road block was raised and they drove through to the picnic site they had chosen. It took about half an hour to get there, and another half hour to set up and enjoy their picnic. Then,

“I’m feeling restless, George – do you mind if we take a walk?”

“No, honey, anything you want.”

They started walking around the East side of the lake where the going was easier. After a while, they started to talk.

“Why do you suppose Judy and Bill are coming down here this early in the year, George? They don’t usually come till around Christmas time. Do you think it has anything to do with the troubles?”

“Could be. But I’d would like to think it’s just because they got lonely without their parents telling them what to do. Anyway, why are you asking me about things like that when you keep saying it’s not going to happen at all?”

“I don’t know that nothing’s going to happen. That’s just what the government keeps saying, and who can ever believe them these days? They’re who said Russia would stay out of our affairs when we tried to take over Cuba.”

“Well, I like to think they’re telling the truth this time. It would be a shame if we couldn’t see our grandson grow up. Let’s not talk about this; it isn’t exactly a pretty subject.”

“You’re right, you’re right. What shall we talk about? Ever since they retired you, there hasn’t been a lot to talk about other than world affairs. We used to be able to talk about what you did at work after you got home.”

In the town, the first warnings went off to announce that the people had better take shelter. George and Gladys had been walking away from the shelter at the lake, and they were now too far away to hear the sirens.

“Isn’t that funny, George? Mother said that we would never be able to have a good life together, you and I, and that you would never rise above a cheap labor worker. We’ve been happily married for thirty-five years, and you never did rise above the job you had then.”

“That part is too bad, but I don’t care too much that she was wrong in the other aspect. I think we’d better start back now. It looks like it might rain.”

They started back and in the town the final warning sirens were sounding and the shelters would be closed in a short time. The two were still too far away to hear.

When they were at their picnic site, they started gathering their belongings and headed for the car. By this time, the sirens had stopped, and the shelters were locking up.

“I really hope you’re right about the bombs not being dropped. It would be a shame.”

They got in the car and started driving home. Just as they noticed the first fine misty rain, a blinding flash shot through the sky. They didn’t make it home.

 

MEREDITH AND THE PLAGUE YEARS

Saturday, June 8

Dear Diary:

Hi, it’s me again, your friend Ginny Fletcher, and summer has finally started.  Now that school’s out, my plans were to relax in my hammock near the lake every day, and go fishing with my dad on the weekends. And I was going back to the church camp where I went last year. I really enjoyed it then, and I was looking forward to it even more. Mom thinks it’ll help me cope with the stress at home, but I don’t think so.

There has been a lot of stress this last year, ever since Gram died.  She was Mom’s mother, and Mom always said the two of them had a very special relationship. I remember times when I’d hear them laughing over a game of Canasta hours after I went to bed. Mom was an only child, just like me, but she was very close to her mother and misses her terribly. I’m not as close to Mom as she was to her mother, but I’d still miss her a lot if she died.

Ever since Gram’s funeral, mom has been getting quieter and quieter. Before Gram died, mom used to kid me and tease me, and call me Ginny-Minnie. Sometimes she’d tickle me and I couldn’t stop laughing until I cried. We loved to cuddle together, me on her lap even after I was ‘way too big. And when dad got home from work, sometimes they’d dance to their oldies records for hours.

Now Dad says he can’t understand why Mom still needs time to get used to Gram’s death. He says it didn’t take him more than six months to get over his mom’s death – she died just before I was born, twelve years ago. He thinks there’s no reason Mom can’t be the same.  At first, he was patient and tender with her when she cried over nothing at all. But after a few months of that, he started to get irritated with her, and for the last six months or so, he’s been constantly yelling at her, even though it just makes her cry all the more.

And I’m just lost in the middle of it. Mom won’t talk to me about how she feels, and Dad just gets angry at both of us. But I do understand Mom’s pain – I know how I’d feel if she died. I tried to tell that to Dad one night, after Mom went to her bedroom early.  He yelled at me over something trivial, and told me he didn’t want to hear any more about Mom’s problems.

Monday, June 10

Dear Diary:

Yesterday was Sunday afternoon, and Mom and Dad called me into the dining room. Dad said they wanted to tell me they’ve decided to live apart for a while because they’re always fighting. They wouldn’t say what they fight about, but I know it’s because Mom misses her mother.  I think Dad wants all her attention for himself. But I didn’t say anything for fear Dad would start yelling again, and Mom would just start crying.

Mom and Dad used to have arguments a lot, sometimes getting a little louder than I liked. They had strong opinions, just like I do. But over the last year, whenever I asked Mom or Dad why they argued so much, they told me they couldn’t discuss it with me. I know they just don’t want to talk to me about it. I miss Gram too, but nobody will let me talk about that, either.

It used to be so nice living in this family.  I wish it could be that way again.  But if they get a divorce, it’s never going to be the same.

Wednesday, June 12

Dear Diary:

My guppy, Bullwinkle, was floating on top of his tank this morning.  It made me remember when Buster died last year.  Even though he was only a dog, we had a special connection. I missed him for a long time. Now Bullwinkle won’t be swimming up to the surface to greet me in the morning. And Dad just told me we probably won’t be going fishing this summer, and I won’t be going to camp. And I have no one to talk to about it. Since I’m an only child, I always talked to Mom or Gram, or even Dad, about things that bothered me. But now Gram’s gone, and Mom and Dad don’t want to talk about it, so I have to keep it all inside.  I don’t even have a best girlfriend to talk to – Jackie’s gone to Europe to spend this summer with her aunt.

I tried to talk to Donna Jean, my other best friend, but I kept getting mad at her because she really can’t understand what I’m feeling. Her parents are still together and they never argue; and best of all, they talk to her. Donna Jean just has no idea at all what I’m going through.

Thursday, June 13

Dear Diary:

Good grief!  Now, besides Mom and Dad separating, the Wilsons next door are fighting more than ever, and louder. They fight about money and church, but at least they usually end up talking to each other. And their twins, Eric and Phil, always have each other.  The twins’ little sister Bonnie is lucky – she’s too young to know what’s going on.

The twins and my best friend Jackie are the only kids I know who might understand how I’m feeling. But the twins, Eric and Phil, aren’t really going through the same thing so they just wouldn’t get it. And I can’t even call Jackie.

Sometimes, writing in you, Dear Diary, helps just a little, and before school let out, Miss Shaw let me cry on her shoulder sometimes. But now that Mom and Dad are separating, I just don’t know what I’m going to do.

What if we end up like other divorced families I know – me living in some tiny apartment with Mom, only seeing Dad on weekends, and hearing them scream at each other whenever they meet?  I don’t even want to think about it!

Sunday, June 23

Dear Diary:

Yesterday morning, I went into the Contentment Used Bookstore downtown. Jackie and I often spend time there, especially lately, and Mr. Davis is always really nice to us. He even recommends books he thinks we’d like.

Anyway, I guess I spent a long time just picking books up and putting them down. I had a vague feeling that there should be something that would make me feel better, or let me forget my problems, but I just wasn’t finding it. I looked at joke books, and tried reading the backs of romance novels, but most of them were about love and hate, stuff I’m just not interested in. And nothing really clicked.  But I stayed.

After a while, Mr. Davis put a book in my hand. It’s called “Meredith and the Plague Years.”  Even though I don’t know what it’s about, for some reason I trust Mr. Davis so I paid him six dollars for the book.  This afternoon I brought it out to the hammock to read.

As I opened it, I there was an odd tingling along my arms, as if something important was about to happen. I told myself to stop being silly, like Mom would say if she were feeling better. It was hot out in the yard, but the breeze from the lake cooled me off, and so did the cold lemonade Mom made for me.

When I started reading, I soon lost myself in the story. But I have to go now, and have dinner. I’ll write more about it tomorrow.

Monday, June 24

Dear Diary:

The book is all about a girl my own age who lived in England during the mid-1300’s. I don’t know a lot about this period in history, but the book brought her small town alive for me, and it felt as if I knew everyone in the family right away.

Meredith Fletcher and her parents lived in a small village just outside of London where things went along pretty well from one day to the next. Her father had a small vegetable farm that provided greens and potatoes for the family, and he helped out in the blacksmith’s shop for extra money to buy meat and bread. They shared the milk and eggs from a cow and some chickens with a neighbor, and rarely lacked for enough food.

Meredith’s dad was a deacon in their church, and Meredith and her mom and grandpa were active in the church too. The family didn’t have much extra money, but they played games and read to each other, and they laughed a lot. Then one day someone in the town got sick. In no time at all, half the village was down with the same sickness, and no one knew why.

After several weeks, and a number of deaths, a crier rode in and met with the priest, confirming what he’d dreaded for some time. The priest then told the townspeople that the Black Death, the bubonic plague, had struck in London and in most of the small towns around it.  He said that in many towns, and in London itself, the dead had begun to outnumber the living.  Bodies were piling up in the streets; many were buried in mass graves, and some were just thrown into the rivers, as there was by now no room and no time to bury them properly.

I had to stop reading for a while – I just felt sick to my stomach, and wondered for a moment if I might be coming down with the plague, too. But of course that was foolishness, and before long the book was calling to me again.

Soon more people got sick in Meredith’s town, including her mom and grandfather.  In the next few days, Meredith saw many funeral processions in the streets near her home, and feared there would be two more very soon. It began to seem as if Meredith and her dad, and Meredith’s little brother Clarence, weren’t going to get sick, so they all took care of Mother and Grandpa. But soon Meredith’s mom died, and then her baby brother Clarence took sick.

Oops, time to go to bed. I’ll write more about the story tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 25

Dear Diary:

Dad didn’t come home tonight, and Mom’s in her room crying.  She won’t let me in, and I can’t talk to Dad, or even Bullwinkle or Buster, so I’ll talk to you.  I don’t know if Mom’s crying because Dad isn’t here, or because she’s lonely and upset.

I just spent three hours reading the rest of Meredith’s story. After a short time, her grandpa died, and then Meredith’s father fell ill. Now she was caring for Clarence and her father.  She cleaned up after her patients and tried to keep them comfortable, and when she wasn’t ministering to what was left of her own family, she often went to the homes of friends nearby. They were also caring for sick and dying family members, and she did the best she could to help out.

Meredith was very unhappy, and now she was feeling as if everything was happening just to her, that God had abandoned her.  She blamed herself in some unclear way. I can’t help feeling a little like that about my own family right now. Meredith was depressed and sad even as she nursed her brother and dad and helped other townspeople, feeling guilty when she didn’t seem to be doing enough for them. She even got angry at God and decided never to go to church again.

Then one day, she overheard the priest talking with a flower vendor in the street below her brother’s window.  She heard the priest say that some of the villagers were not getting sick.  Her first thought on hearing this was that there must be something wrong with her for still being healthy.  Then the priest told the woman how important those people were to him. Meredith heard him say the whole town depended on them, and he felt very proud of them.

The priest told the flower vendor, “These wonderful people will go to heaven, without a doubt.”  He said they had rallied around and taken care of the sick, even people who weren’t in their own families, and no one could have done more for them.

Then the priest named Meredith herself as one of those he was most proud of.  She couldn’t believe what she was overhearing. He said that even though she’d lost her grandfather and her mother, and now her father and brother were sick, Meredith was still very responsible and caring, and was taking good care of them and of many of her neighbors as well.

The priest said, “I’m very humbled by our Meredith’s goodness, and so are all the remaining parishioners.” She stood there at the window listening, while tears flowed down her cheeks.

Gotta go.

Thursday afternoon, June 27

Dear Diary:

I’m back.  Dad was here Tuesday night for dinner and stayed, and he and my mom at least weren’t fighting.  They weren’t speaking, though, either.  I tried to draw Mom out about how she feels, but she doesn’t want me involved, and Dad just tells me everything will be all right.  But I know it won’t be. They’ve been sleeping in separate beds, even though he’s still living here.

When I finally understood that they really mean to separate and then divorce, I couldn’t help but feel that I was responsible – I don’t know why. But I knew it was up to me to get them back together.  I wanted to heal the breach, and thought there must be something I could do to change their minds.

Here are all the things I’ve done to try and bring them back together:  I tried to talk to each of them privately, telling Mom how much Dad means to me, and then telling Dad how important Mom is to me.  I also got angry at them for giving up and I yelled, and then I cried, and I’ve tried using sarcasm to point out how silly they’re being.

I also reminded them of all the great times we’ve had together as a family.  Then I got sort of desperate and tried out the idea that divorce is against God’s laws. When that didn’t work, I argued that it’s just not done in our family, and that it will definitely alienate all their friends.

Finally, when none of that did any good, I tried convincing Mom that Dad still loves and needs her, and I told Dad that Mom still needs and loves him.  But nothing I’ve tried has worked, and I just feel so helpless!

Thursday night

Dear Diary:

Here’s the last of the book. Meredith decided that God must have saved her from the plague so she could help the rest of the villagers, and she started feeling better about herself and her life. She worked even harder than before to help her family and friends, and finally her father and her little brother both pulled through.  She said it was a miracle, and that God had heard her prayers for them.

So I’m trying a little prayer of my own. It might work as well as Meredith’s prayers, but it might not. But I’m starting to believe that it isn’t really up to me, despite thinking that I’m the only one that can fix things.  If it’s going to work out, it will.  I’ve never really believed that our fates are set, like they said at church camp, but I guess I’m beginning to think that what must be, must be.

Saturday, June 29

Dear Diary:

After I finished the book, I thought long and hard about the similarities in our situations.  Although I don’t have the Plague to deal with, I do have my parents’ diseased marriage, and my need to take care of them both and maybe get them back together. I’ll have to rally and work hard, like Meredith did, to keep them from becoming even more unhappy.  So I do think this story had something important to teach me, after all.

I took the book back to Mr. Davis. When he asked me how I liked it, I told him that living in London during the Plague years had taught me that not only are my problems minor in comparison to some people’s, but that all I’ll ever be able to do is the best I can.  I’ll just have to hope that God will take care of my family, like He did Meredith’s.  I told him I’ll help Mom and Dad as much as I can, but their problems aren’t my fault and they aren’t abandoning me on purpose. When I said that, it really seemed to me that I’m going to be okay now.

I wonder if this wasn’t Mr. Davis’ plan all along.  And now, Dear Diary, I can really see how reading about other people’s lives can teach me a great deal about myself.

 

THE WATER DIP

Cindy lay on a flat surface and gazed around. She felt content and comfortable. The caretaker, who seemed to be called Mommy, cooed and smiled above her. A mobile attracted Cindy’s notice now and then when the light hit it just right, and she looked away from Mommy to the whirling things as she heard the familiar tinkling sound. Then the cooing started again, and the familiar motions of removing her diaper, although for once it was not dirty. But the diaper came off and then Mommy pulled the shirt over her head and a tiny chill settled over Cindy; she wasn’t usually exposed like this, but it felt good.

Then hands slipped under her head and bottom and, as she moved through space, lights and shadows kept changing all around her. Suddenly she felt wet — had she wet her diaper? But she knew she hadn’t. Puzzled, Cindy felt the sensation continue until warm water was all around her. Mommy kept her hand under Cindy’s head but let her bottom sink under the water, and Cindy’s legs jerked straight out at this exciting event. The water splashed and a drop fell on Cindy’s eye, but not before she closed it. Her hands jerked open and she gasped as she felt dampness on her cheek. This was quite odd and kind of pleasant.

Water splashed on her tummy and Cindy realized it was Mommy who was doing the splashing! What was going on? What should she make of this? Water was splashing everywhere, and Cindy felt her heart speed up. Her arms and legs jerked several more times, and she wondered if she was going to hurt; she had felt hurt before, when Mommy stuck her while changing her diaper, and she didn’t like it.

Mommy splashed her some more, keeping her hand under Cindy’s head, but there didn’t seem to be any kind of unpleasantness from the splashing. Finally, Cindy felt it might be okay to relax. Now she began to feel safer and only a little bit chilly on her parts still outside the water, and the warm splashing did help with the chill. She looked up at Mommy’s face smiling and cooing above her, and she just had to smile back. She blinked, and Mommy splashed her again. This was nice.

A rough but somehow soothing rubbing began with a warm, wet cloth. Whoa! What was going on now? With the hand that wasn’t under her head, Mommy was dunking the cloth into the water and then smoothing the warm wetness all over Cindy. But she quickly realized that this felt even better than the splashing, and smiled again. Odd as it was, Cindy decided she liked it.

But long before she was ready, Mommy was done sweeping the cloth over Cindy’s body. She was lifted again, out of the water and onto a dry rough cloth, which was then wrapped all around her. Mommy rubbed her a little harder all over, and sometimes it felt strange so Cindy smiled even more. When the cloth came off this time, Cindy was astonished to feel dry and warm again.

Back on the flat surface and dressed in a clean tee-shirt and diaper, Cindy could tell the splashing was over. She smiled up at Mommy anyway, hoping to get another water dip sometime soon.