The Flirt

Most people who were in the mood for looking, kept their gaze on his shoulders. He knew it. He’d known it for years, and focused on it. He practiced in front of two mirrors to learn the exact way to flex them for attention, spent hours with his tailor draping fabrics across his back and arms to see whether the cloth would ripple or cling, and at the last faire, colleagues taught him a dehydration technique that thinned his skin across the shape of his muscles. Beyond all that, he made certain to exercise. His career warranted it, of course, but he put in extra, because of the stares he garnered.

He’d fathered several children, on both sides of the blanket, because of his shoulders. He’d wed twice, both times to women, although there were some fine young men in the world, and he never turned away what they offered. Neither marriage lasted. None of his relationships did. They were intense and flattering, but invariably short-lived. It wasn’t because of him. He never did anything wrong. He took care to be polite, gentle, and supportive. No, it wasn’t him. It was them. They couldn’t accept his line of work. He was successful, in fact, renowned — as renowned as someone deliberately anonymous could be. He owned a large house, ate well, and kept a smart team of fast horses. Yet, every single lover he ever had abandoned him once they discovered his line of work. He supposed, since it was so small of a city, it was inevitable that they all knew someone he’d handled professionally. Someone whose head ended up on a spike outside the city gate.  

He wondered what more they wanted. After all, it was swinging the axe that kept his shoulders so strong.

Le provocateur du mal

 Jayne shuffled from foot to foot impatiently while her mother clanged the bronze ship’s bell at the entrance to the garden.

  “Put your phone away,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn said, dropping her hand from the rope dangling from the bell’s clapper. “I’ve searched for this sculpture a long time. You don’t need to be yakking away on that thing while we’re doing this.”

  “I’m looking it up online,” the teenager protested. She pushed back her mass of blonde hair, rolled her clear blue eyes, and sighed. “You know I need to provide references if I am going to present this at school. I can’t just say ‘Mom told me’.”

“You don’t need to look it up online,” her mother retorted. She held up an old leather bond journal with ragged pages. “If you want to do ground-breaking research, you must leave behind what other people have done and see things for yourself. This diary I discovered while curating the stacks clearly says that the author was certain The Angel is here.”

“You should have gotten your hair done today,” Jayne said, ignoring her mother’s admonishment. “I can see the gray roots.”

“It was that or help you,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn replied. She yanked her reading glasses from the top of her head and balanced them on her nose. Holding the journal open in one hand, she re-read the handwritten notations.

When the large, wooden door slid open, Jayne turned toward it. Her mother took advantage of the distraction to snatch the phone from Jayne’s hand and deposit it securely into her designer shoulder bag.

“Mom!” Jayne cried, indignantly.

The gatekeeper who appeared in the entrance had thin, straggly hair and round shoulders stooped to the point where he couldn’t stand upright. His nose was bulbous and red, his eyes lost in a multitude of fleshy folds.
“He looks like he’s even older than the park,” Jayne complained to her mother loudly.

Mrs. Marble-Lynn turned a stern, no-nonsense glare on her daughter. When the girl dropped her eyes in defeat, her mother offered the book to the old man, saying, “Good afternoon. We’re interested in looking at your sculptures. This one in particular.”

He took the journal from her hands, shifted it back and forth in front of him as if to find a spot where it would be in focus and then read the page marked with a sticky note.

“Ah, yes. Yes. Our best. You have very discerning taste,” he said, his smile exposing worn, yellow teeth. He peeled the sticky note off the page and crumpled it between his wrinkled fingers.

“Wait. What? You mean it’s really here,” Jayne stammered in disbelief. “Of all places.”

The gatekeeper closed the book and stepped to one side. Smiling kindly at the teenager, he gestured with one hand. “Please come in.”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn said as they crossed the gate’s threshold.

Once inside, both the girl and her mother gazed around in wonder. A quarter-mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, the garden had been in the historic district longer than anyone alive could remember. Tall stone walls pushed back against skyscrapers, steered traffic away from the garden, and hid it from the eyes of the world. Every inch seemed to be devoted to walkways meandering around a multitude of lifelike sculptures. Jayne danced over to the closest ones and inspected them.

“Look how detailed they are,” she exclaimed, incredulous. “This one has the most delicate tear coming from the corner of his eye. And this one is eating a small section of an orange.”

Glancing triumphantly at her daughter, Mrs. Marble-Lynn waited while the gatekeeper closed door then shuffled over to a cabinet where he hung a ring of keys on an empty hook. Turning back to his guests, he swept his hand in another grand, welcoming gesture. “Will you follow me, please?”
“There must be dozens of sculptures here,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn commented as they walked.

“Hundreds,” he agreed. “From several different eras. A new one comes along every few years. The one you are looking for is at the center.”
“The one of the really hot guy?” Jayne asked, her pout now replaced by a wide grin.

The old man smirked. “Some people say so…”

“I can’t believe it, Mom,” Jayne continued. “You were right. Guillaume Geefs’ L’ange du mal, Jozef Geefs’ Le génie du mal –and this one, the lost, third angel, Le provocateur du mal – The Provocateur of Evil. Right in our neighborhood all this time.”

“We’ll have to examine it carefully,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn cautioned with a smile. “There is no record of either Guillaume or Jozef Geefs sculpting a third angel.”

Jayne bounced from foot to foot excitedly.

“Run ahead, if you’d like,” her mother said indulgently, waving her off with her fingers.

Jayne murmured a quick “thanks” then sprinted off in the direction the gatekeeper indicated. The old man formally held out his arm to Mrs. Marble-Lynn who started to laugh, then composed herself and rested her hand on the inside of his elbow.

“I’m looking forward to seeing it,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn replied. It has taken so long to track it down…so long to…so….” Her voice made a grating sound, like cement in a mixer, and then stopped. Her skin stiffened.

“Why is the dais empty?” Jayne called from the middle of the sculpture garden.

The young gatekeeper removed his arm from Mrs. Marble-Lynn’s stone hand. He extended his arms, bounced on his toes a few times then stretched out his wings and shook them. Lifting the journal on one, open palm, he blew gently across the front cover. Within seconds the journal vanished. He stood with his head slightly tilted as if listening intensely then straighten once he was certain it had reappeared in the stacks of the city’s library.

“Mom?” Jayne called again, the concern in her voice obvious. “Mom, where are you two?”

“Be right there, Pet,” he answered in the old gatekeeper’s voice.Le provocateur du mal

Prisoner

To Amelia, the passing of time was important.

She stood proud as you please in the center of us, pointed her finger toward a blue sky we could only imagine, and declared: The eyes of posterity never blink. It knows who turns the keys in these locks and it will remember who shoveled dirt onto the bodies of our men.

The bit of illumination she followed was long and thin, taunting us through an arrow loop in the donjon wall the way guards sniggered through the iron bars. Long after the rest of us let go, she held on, tightly squeezing blood from welts and knife wounds to make one demarcation for dawn and another for dusk.

Dawn was easiest, not only for her but for all of us. The light would suddenly be there. Brilliant, even though without warmth. Tantalizing, even though unreachable.

Nightfall was harder, was always harder. Crying grew louder. Shrieking echoed off stone. Screams couldn’t be unheard no matter what we used to seal our ears. Amelia sprinkled a few drops where she thought the sun vanished. Coming back each day to scatter more, over and over. Loss of her drawing medium was never issue. What scabs dried and fell off one day would quickly be replaced, until finally she shouted triumphantly: Here. Right here. This is where day ends.

The next morning, they took her away. We sat quietly, watching the track of sunlight creep over the dirty, bare floor. They never brought her back.

I ask you: Does it matter where the shame lies, once the righteous are lost?

WATER WITCH

She rolled them in and out around her fingers, rubbed them between her palms. Small like stones, but not stones.
 
Nearby the octopus pressed between the wire wall and the cage floor, oozed onto the first shelf then the second then the third. She set the shark teeth on the counter and lifted the creature.
 
“Sweet, little thing,” she murmured, cradling it the way most would hold a baby. “Dear, sweet, little thing.”
 
Once the mollusk calmed, she used one hand to remove the hot cauldron lid then tossed the octopus into the boiling broth. Not everyone could hear its death scream, but she knew the sound was there, echoing over the rocks to the water, enchanting the sea. Next in were the shark teeth, then tiny flakes of barnacled hulls, followed by scrapings of mortar and bricks she’d collected the night before. Finally, she selected a tin canister from the array displayed on the counter, tipped it sideways and rattled dozens of bones from the toes of sailors into the mix. She gave the brew a thorough, final stir, raised her hands into the steam and repeated the ancient incantation in a language that was already old in her great-grandmother’s time.
 
She didn’t turn to the window to watch the results of the spell. She was confident that behind her the lighthouse slowly disappeared: First the base, then tamper, the stairs and living quarters, and last of all, the warning lantern, all of them gone.
 
At least, gone for the ship careening toward shoreline. The fishing vessels, dinghies and row boats could all see the beacon just fine. Only the man of war was blind. Only the man of war would rip apart on the rocks.
 
Before the fog lifted and the lighthouse returned, she hurried along the water’s edge with a sharp knife and sturdy basket.
 
The villagers would come, determined to save anyone who could be pulled from the wreckage. As they rounded the base of the cliff and came into view of the beach, she would call to them, “Hurry, this one’s alive.”
 
They’d run faster. They’d cry out, “Thank you. Thank you for helping them.”
 
They’d never think to question the missing toes.