UNI….a travel story about sea urchins



Stone Bridge Press focuses on Asian-themed literature. I am delighted that my piece entitled "Uni!" was selected for the February 2017 Stone Bridge Café website. Urchin, anyone?  Check it out here: http://stonebridge.com/…og/stone-bridge-cafe-uni

or Read it here:

UNI

The old lady waved to me as I backpacked through her seaside village on my way around Shikoku. She was clearly happy about something she had spotted off the end of the rough wooden pier.

Look over here! There’s uni!” she said, pointing below the surface of the water.

The Seto Sea gently slapped the shore. The water was the color of green tea, with a splash of cerulean. I glanced down, but I saw nothing. She pointed again.

“You eat uni?” she asked, looking into my foreign eyes.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve never tried it.”

As a walking pilgrim, I was mostly eating in the dining halls of the Buddhist temples where I slept. There was never sea urchin on the menu. I supplemented the temple food with cheap udon, veggies, and plenty of Shikoku’s ubiquitous citrus fruit.

I knew that fresh uni was a beloved Japanese food, a creature prized for its privates – not the roe but the testes…which were reportedly as soft as what? Sweet butter, lemon custard, a baby’s thumb?

“Ah, just wait, chotto matte,” said the old woman as she looked around on the dock for a spear.

I gathered that she was about to procure us some urchin. 

Perhaps she was offering me this delicacy as a form of o-settai, the special gift which Shikoku people bestow on walking pilgrims. I had already met hundreds of residents bearing o-settai, as I made my way along the circular 1200-kilometer route starting at Tokushima. They had come running after me with their blessings and their small presents: hand-crocheted Kleenex holders, ball point pens, hard candies, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, freshly made omigiri.

And now, today, I was being gifted with an opportunity to taste sea urchin. 

My Japanese was hesitant, but my palate was willing. I suddenly remembered an expression from a Japanese textbook. Waku waku shiteiru. I’m excited, I told the old woman. I hoped she could sense my gratitude.

I watched as she creaked to her knees, and then leaned over the water. At her age – she had told me she was almost eighty – her agility was remarkable. I understood that her fisherman husband must have died long ago, leaving her all alone in the little house by the sea.

I started to puff up at the thought of my good fortune. A chance meeting with someone who was kind enough to offer me a Japanese luxury. That’s the kind of thing that happens to real adventurers, I gloated to myself. In the moment, I completely forgot about my goal of being a humble o-henro on a spiritual quest.

The old lady stabbed once and missed. Then stabbed again and whooped like a schoolgirl.

She raised the spear out of the water and showed off the carapaced globe, symmetrically radial and as spiky as a garden teasel.

To arrive at the meaty jewel, she covered her hands in thick rubbery-fabric gloves, and worked slowly, but deftly, like a heart surgeon. 

A lone spine brushed her bare forearm and sliced a thin crimson trough in her skin. She stopped the bleeding with the edge of her apron and kept on working to pull apart the exoskeleton and expose the living treasure.

Mo sugu. Pretty soon,” she said, pulling off her gloves and rushing into her house. 

She returned with soy sauce and a plate. A single plate. Heavy stoneware with a dull finish, chipped on the side. 

Her plate. 

She placed the naked flesh in the center and bathed it in shoyu

“Now you can see how we Japanese eat uni,” she said. 

After a quick itadakimasu, she swallowed, before my very eyes, 

the entire delicacy in one quick mouthful.

 

UNI!

Hurricanes, love, and music

Allegro Poetry is a publication based in the United Kingdom and archived by the British Museum. They published my poem, Houston’s Ark, in their December 2017 issue.

allegropoetryhttps://www.allegropoetry.org/p/issue-15-december-2017.html

I wrote this poem after reading about a Houston man living in a flooded public housing project who was able to save his family piano.

 

HOUSTON’S ARK

When the river rose, and water came knocking like a stranger,
the family got out, somehow, to higher ground, leaving behind
the second-hand furniture, the neatly folded clothes, the new
toy elephant, and hardest of all, the old piano. Well-loved, but missing its pedals,
obtained for a song, a while back, from the local church, where the pastor
wanted to see it find a good home. Now the spinet would be orphaned once again,
abandoned to flood.

As they were leaving, the man raised a wet fist to the storm, and
cursed the housing project built too close. And he counted his children,
by head and number. Four, four. Thank God, there were still four.

And then the rains stopped.
And the man and his brood returned home, to the place where the windows were now
shattered from the wind, and the bedding and walls were plastered with frog-green
scum.

But the old piano had stood its ground, up to its knees in brown liquid, its guts still dry.
And the man, shaken, but safe, sat down to play,
his feet keeping time on the soggy floor, the linoleum squishing.
And all around him the air was damp, stenched, sweaty as an armpit.

And the man released music, like a dove, into the sky,
and it flew out the broken window and circled above the swallowed city,
and the bayous, and it cleansed the muddy places of his heart. And two children
clapped, and two children cried, and the man kept playing because he could.

 

 

Shelter….

Parks and Points is an interesting site. They celebrate nature and the out-of-doors, especially our state and national parks. I am delighted to be included in their 2017 Poetry Series with my poem about Asseateague Island National Seashore (the place with the wild ponies)

Read it below or on their site:     parksandpoints.com/poetry2017/shelter

Shelter

At night we hear them.
Not a stampede, exactly, but a rush of hooves.
Determined, breathy, equine. Loud.
Noisy enough to jolt our slumber.

The grandson, a city child, not yet nine years old, squeezes my hand and whispers,

Will they eat the tent?

No, I say, explaining that the wild horses don’t care for the taste of 70 denier nylon.

We talk about the two roans we saw today, off in the dunes.
They were swatting flies with their tails and quibbling over the sparse grass.
Now we lie in the dark and listen to the waves rolling against the shore, slapping,
retreating, rolling again.

Where do the ponies sleep? the grandson asks.

For this I have no answer. Maybe the rangers know.

The wind picks up, flutters the guy-lines of the tent, flaps our towels against the post.
The smell of fresh dung rides the island breeze.
The boy moves his sleeping bag closer to mine.
We lie awake for a little while, the two of us alone on this sliver of sand,
this shelter for the untamed,
splintered between ocean and dust.

The Wild Cherry Tree

BioStories.com is a great place for reading memoirs and recollections.

My piece, The Wild Cherry Tree, appears in Volume 7. Number 1. It was also subsequently reprinted in a BioStories anthology, published in 2018.

Read it below:

Mother hated that tree. The messy wild cherries that fell over our bluestone patio, the undisciplined way that the thin branches spread out like unkempt hair, the crookedness of the limbs.

“We should just chop it down,” she’d say every spring, when yellow-white tentacles of blossoms appeared, then gave way to small, pea-sized fruit.

“But it’s beautiful,” I’d say.

“We have other trees,” Mother would insist.

It was the 1950’s. We were living at the time in a historic valley in New Jersey, settled by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, rapidly becoming suburban. Our yard was full of mature maples and oaks, a solid hickory, a couple of weeping willows down by the shallow drainage brook that bordered our property.

In August, when the small reddish-purple cherries ripened, Mother would repeat her threat.

“This year,” she’d say. “We’re going to get rid of that monstrosity.”

Mother liked order. Precision. Cleanliness. Everything that the Prunus Serotia was not.

As the wild cherries fell, the air around the tree would smell slightly sour and fermented, like a child’s lunch bag left behind in a school locker.

 “Couldn’t we eat the cherries?” I once asked.

“Of course not,” said Mother, “They’re barely fit for birds. It’s a totally useless tree.”

I found that hard to believe. The cherries looked perfectly delicious. Besides,wasn’t Mother always talking about how people back in Europe, starving during World War II, had eaten shoe leather and bread made from cellulose? Animal carcasses?  Cats, even.

It was odd that she considered wild cherries to have no value.

But Mother had her firm opinions. I knew better than to try to sway her mind. She could give the impression of being steely or cold, but underneath, she was sensitive and emotional, largely ruled by melancholy, not meanness.

Even as a child, I knew that she struggled with inner ghosts. She was estranged from her far-away family of origin, with its traditional codes of honor and shame. Clearly something had happened, maybe during her childhood. There was the uncle whose name she refused to say, the distant cousin whose letters she destroyed.

Nor did her marriage seem to bring her happiness. Although she tried hard to be a dutiful mid-20th century American homemaker, collecting recipes from Good Housekeeping, decorating the house for Christmas, her heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“I don’t belong here,” she’d say.

But where was here? In suburban America? In the comfortable house with the cherry tree? In the big double bed she shared with my father, although she never spoke of loving him.

“If it weren’t for you kids,” she would say, but she would never finish the sentence.

She had lost one of us. One of her children. A little boy, my baby brother. I vaguely remembered his tiny coffin, fitted with brass handles like two half moons and a smooth satin pillow. Perhaps, because of that loss, she held a personal grudge against the wild cherry tree, so prolific and careless with its bounty.

Fortunately, Mother would always forget about chopping down the tree by the time autumn came around and the leaves had turned a lovely, benign shade of yellow. With the arrival of cold weather and the diminishing light, she would no longer go outside. Like a bear, she would hibernate within the thick walls of the house.

I, on the other hand, loved the outdoors in all kinds of weather, even in the grayness of a late winter afternoon. Out in the fresh air, I could breathe freely and sing silly songs and make snow angels and lie on by back looking up at bare branches creaking in the wind.

In summertime, I remember climbing up that wild cherry tree with a cloth bag slung over my shoulder. The pink bag was supposed to hold ballet shoes, toes shoes actually, the kind with small tufts of rabbit fur inside. A delicate, girly-girly bag, it was. But I preferred using it as a mountaineer’s back pack. I’d twist the bag around, depending on how I needed to maneuver as I climbed. Inside the bag would be a few books, maybe some colored pencils, a sketchpad, and contraband candy such as Necco Wafers or a Bonomo Turkish Taffy. About half-way up the tree, maybe ten feet or so, after scraping my knee against the coarse bark a couple of times, I’d stop and settle into a sort of seat that my older brother had helped me fashion out of hemp lashed between two limbs.

All morning long, I’d keep my nose in the silence of The Betsy-Tacy Stories, but I’d be serenaded by chickadees and warblers. They’d grab the purplish fruit and fly off. Sunlight would dapple the oblong leaves. I’d run my fingers along their fine, serrated edges. The cherry tree was my own cathedral, my sanctuary. Solid, tall, sheltering. Like a protective parent.

Did Mother, burdened with grief and memories, really know where I was? I don’t think so. Back in those days, most kids in small towns were largely unsupervised. When I wasn’t with friends or at summer camp, I left the house after breakfast and showed up at lunch time. I’d take long bike rides by myself, sometimes stopping at the candy store for fresh supplies of  forbidden sweets. Sometimes I’d walk along the brook that bordered our property. But I always made time to sit in the tree, invisible to the rest of the world.

Every day our town blew a whistle at the fire station at twelve noon sharp. The siren would crank up and the German Shepherd who belonged to the neighbors on the other side of the creek would start to howl. That’s how I knew to get down from the tree and show up at the lunch table, wiping the traces of Necco Wafers and wild cherries off my lips. By then I had discovered, through my own experimentation, that the fruit of the Prunus Serotia was perfectly edible.

One night, the year I was eleven, a particularly heavy summer storm blew through our valley. When I woke up in the morning, Mother began talking about storm damage. She had been worried about the brook overflowing and heading towards our house, but now the rain had stopped. I ran outside to explore.

Almost immediately, I saw what was left of my tree.

Lightning had sliced the graceful wild cherry down the middle, leaving a black slash in its wake, like the old movie character, Zorro. Higher limbs had fallen onto lower limbs. Branches had flown off, torpedo-like, across the lawn, and ripe cherries had bombed the patio, like small red grenades.

I came rushing back in, breathless.

“But you didn’t tell me about the tree!” I said. “The wild cherry tree!”

Mother shrugged. “Nature accomplished what I had meant to do years ago.”

I could feel myself on the verge of tears, but I didn’t want Mother to see me crying. I ran back outside and stared in shock at the destruction.

In those days our family had a book called Life’s Picture History of World War II. Black and white photographs of Normandy beaches. Dunkirk. The London Blitz. I sometimes would take down that book and leaf through it. Mother usually discouraged me from staring too long at the wreckage of war.

“It was a horrible time,” she’d say.

Now I knew, even as an eleven year old, that a tree struck by lightning was not in the same league as the bombing of Dresden. I knew that I shouldn’t be crying over a tree. A wild cherry tree was not a human being. The loss of one tree was not the same as the loss of a baby or the devastation of an entire city.  I wiped my tears and went down to the brook to calm myself down.

A couple of men with chainsaws arrived later that day. They clumped around in their heavy work boots and discussed the best way to clean up the heap of ripped greenery and split bark. Then they started cutting until only a stump remained.

Mother and I never talked about the tree. Eventually she planted herbs where the cherry tree had stood, and the smell of mint and tarragon and rosemary seemed to give her pleasure, but it was hard to tell for sure.

A second breakfast….

images

I‘m fortunate to have old friends, who have known me through the different stages of my life. I examine one of those cherished friendships in a poem entitled “The Lakeside Diner” which appears in January 2017 issue of Poetry Breakfast.   Check it out at:http://poetrybreakfast.com or read it below:

The Lakeside Diner

The LakeSide Diner, homemade donuts, no lake,
just a pond, slick and thick as the Navy Bean soup
offered as a lunch special with a half grilled cheese on the side.

We greet each other in the parking lot, admire the October
foliage just turning yellow like an old wedding dress,
a few fallen leaves slippery under our sensible shoes.

We take a seat by the window, two old and good friends
meeting in a strange town, equidistant from our current homes,
hungry for news and reassurance that the other still
breathes and lives and reads, but not as much as she used to.

Once, decades past, we watched our little boys
placing gumdrops on the roof of a gingerbread house,
racing toy trucks to the sofa, while we, then as now, and for years in between,
talked about sacred and quiet things.

Today we order scrambled eggs, no butter, tea,
each weighing private matters of digestion,
trying not to stare too long at the other’s face growing wiser by the minutes,
preferring at times to look out at the mallards gliding along
the surface of the scummy water
carrying on as if there will be no water, no ice, no need to fly south.

,

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Tethered….a poem about babies

Poetry Breakfast.com is a marvelous site which delivers  a daily poem, like a fresh croissant. (Or a scone, or a blueberry muffin, depending). My poem "Tethered" appeared in the January 6, 2017 edition.

Check it out here: https://poetrybreakfast.com/2017/01/06/tethered-a-poem-by-gabriella-brand/

or read it below:

Tethered

The grand-babies appeared among us, delivered on the doorstep,
wrinkled like little rutabagas.
They were new, untouched, plucked fresh from the garden, or wherever they come from, babies. No one knows.

They showed up just as I was thinking about my own departure,
Not that I’m ready to leave, but let’s face it, the earth, sometime soon, will call me home.

That’s how it is. Someone always arriving, someone always heading off.

Seven decades, moving towards eight, I am.
Getting a bit crusty around the edges, like stale bread, that’s what old folks are.
But the babies are wet and soft, like the flesh of summer plums.
They drip and drool and taste delicious.

I hold them tight, gumming them with kisses,
rocking them with cradle songs from the old country,
the ones my Nonna sang to me.

And I can feel time
like a feather, tickling my heart.

Puccini, in Those Days

One of my poems recently appeared in an anthology of work inspired by music, published by The Poetry Box. This is a literary journal based in Portland, Oregon.They held a launch on November 13, 2016.

Read it here:

Puccini, in those days.

 

Even when I was a toddler, I loved my Puccini.

Pooo chee nee. Pooo chee nee.

“She wants to come for a listen” Grandfather would say, yielding to my

outstretched hands.

While the rest of the family sat around the dinner table, everyone nursing the strong LaVazza, the women (in those days) refilling the cups,

I’d be carried out to the living room, to the velvet sofa, to the rows of records lining the walls.

“What’s that? “Grandpa would ask, pointing to his ancient Victrola,its bulbous cornucopia, the little dog logo.

Pooo chee nee. Pooo chee nee,

Grandpa would put a record on, newly vinyl (in those days) and we’d settle in. He’d put one arm around me like a shawl, the thin smoke of his Camel cigarette curling through my hair, the smell of tobacco mingling with baby powder. I’d stick my thumb in my mouth and fall asleep.

Later, at eight or nine, I looked forward to the same ritual, Grandpa and I on the sofa, Puccini between us like an old friend.

By then, I knew every scratch, every hesitation,

the crescendo of poor Butterfly left waiting,

the minor key of Mimi coughing in the night,

the arpeggios of longing and loss.

Sometimes the old man would close his eyes and doze,

not even awakening when the record needle began to wander towards the paper label.

Tosca’s last leaping cry just a whisper in his mind.

By then, I’d learned to gingerly take Puccini off the spindle by myself, and place him back in his cardboard sleeve, like tucking in a child for the night.

I’d tiptoe out of the room, my heart a little wider, the world a little softer. (In those days).

 

 

Like Kissing A Calf

IMG_1654

Good Mourning Press published a fiction anthology called “Unconventional Love”.  All the stories take place at a convention of some sort. My story is entitled “Like Kissing a Calf“.

You can read it here:

Like Kissing a Calf

“Didn’t I talk to you at last year’s event?” asked the red-headed woman standing by the display of shiny metal cream separators.

Elroy shook his head. “First time here,” he said.

“How’s that?” asked the woman, grinning.

She was about Elroy’s age, maybe thirty-five, with muscular arms and a soft pudgy face. Probably a farm wife, thought Elroy. She was wearing a blue and white striped apron. He assumed she was supplementing the family income hawking separators.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look a bit old to be just starting out in the dairy business,” said the woman with a soft smile.

Elroy mumbled something about switching jobs. His natural reserve kept him from doing much except nodding dumbly at the woman, whose apron slogan was “ Dorian Cream Separators, We Always Come Out On Top.”

She didn’t stop smiling. Her ID tag said Marjorie Hobbs. Elroy couldn’t take his eyes off her red hair which hung down her back in a thick plait.

Elroy wished he could think of something to say. Although he was good-looking and nicely built, shyness had plagued him his whole life. Plus he occasionally stuttered. It had started soon after he lost his mother, around the age of eight.

“But you’ve got yourself a herd, eh?” the woman named Marjorie Hobbs asked.

Elroy hesitated. “Uh…ye…ye..yes, yes I do,” he said.

Marjorie waited for him to continue, but when he didn’t, she threw out another question.

“So whaddya raise? Holsteins, like everybody else in Canada?” she asked, still smiling.

“No,” said Elroy. “Mos…mos…mostly Dutch Belteds.”

“No kiddin’. I love those gals. They’re beautiful,” said Marjorie. “How big a herd?”

“Fifty head,” he answered. “I’m just learning, really.”

He would have liked to elaborate, but he couldn’t get his words out without splintering his syllables.

“Well, maybe I’ll run into you again later, Mr. Dutch Belted,” said Marjorie, with another smile.

Her front bottom teeth were badly chipped, but she didn’t seem self-conscious about her grin. Her face was smooth and symmetric and somehow pleasing.

“Uh huh,” said Elroy.

He slunk off feeling foolishly tongue-tied. He had no idea that coming to a Dairy Farmer’s Convention would require so much socializing. He found it somewhat exhausting.

First, there had been the bearded men from up north, all of them raising Guernseys, who had invited Elroy to join them for breakfast at the motel. They were staying in two rooms adjacent to his. He declined, having already been awake for hours and driven out to LaChance’s on Route 207 to get some fried eggs and toast before the motel restaurant was open.

And then, later that morning, he was buttonholed by two students who were standing by the Ag School display. They were interviewing dairy farmers as part of their course work.

“Could I just ask you a few questions?” said one of the girls, who had long brown hair and a short denim skirt.

“O..o..okay,” said Elroy.

“What are some of the current challenges you’re facing as a dairy farmer?”

Elroy felt his palms growing moist. He opened his mouth to try to explain his own story. How he really wasn’t a dairy farmer. Not yet. He had just taken over his deceased uncle’s farm, down near Stanstead, on the Vermont border. At the same time, he continued working as an installer of oil and gas furnaces, that was his job. The same job his father had done.

But he liked cows. Always had. He loved they way they looked at him, passively, without judging. But he couldn’t get any words out.

The young college girl made him uncomfortable. The way she flipped her long hair, for instance.

He found himself staring at the girl’s thighs peeking out from under the denim skirt.

The girl smirked and flipped her hair again.

“Well, let’s try this one. What do you think farmers can do to increase milk consumption across Canada?”

Elroy shifted his weight from one foot to another.

“I…I…I have no idea,” Elroy finally answered.

He was so flustered that he turned the wrong way and ended up walking back through the same aisle with all the booths he had already seen.

He wondered how it was possible to take it all in. Just looking at the displays was overwhelming. And the workshops….“Setting Up Your Dairy for the Future”, “Sire Selection Made Easy”, “Manure Recycling For a Better Tomorrow”. There was so much to learn.

As a boy, whenever he visited his uncle, he had pitched in with the evening milking, checking the long black pulse tubes, attaching the claws to the udders, listening to the thumping of the pump. He would feel part of the earth in a way he never did when he was around his classmates or helping his dad tinker with an oil furnace.

The cows were his best friends. All knowing, peaceful, soulful, with their deep eyes taking him in and accepting him. His shyness. His stutter. Accepting everything, just as it was.

He hungered for that.

But running an entire dairy operation, as a business. Maybe that was beyond him.

He wasn’t even sure he could endure the bustle of the Dairy Convention much longer. But since he’d paid a hefty registration fee, he told himself to stick it out until closing.

In the afternoon, he trudged along the aisles in the large convention hall, his eyes narrowed as if he wanted to blot out the lights.

He gingerly collected pamphlets on everything from brucellosis to robotic milkers. Although he naturally avoided making eye contact, other people spoke to him constantly. A few salesmen even slapped his back in their zeal to talk about ways of preventing mastitis, or improving silage storage. Elroy had to retreat several times to the men’s room, to center himself, before returning to face the crowds, the noise, and the never-ending flood of information.

Just as he was exiting a presentation on feed conversion, he ran into Marjorie again, still wearing her Dorian Cream Separator apron.

“Hey, it’s you. The newbie,” said Marjorie, pulling off her apron and stuffing it into her shoulder bag. “Mr. Dutch Belted.”

“Uh…” said Elroy, “Uh…yes.”

“Finding your way around?” asked Marjorie. “Or do you need a guide? My next shift doesn’t start until four.”

She was standing very close to Elroy and her skin gave off a sweet, soapy smell, like fresh laundry and grass clippings. As he breathed in her fragrance, Elroy suddenly remembered his own mother, right before she died, hanging out his school shirts on the clothesline in the backyard. He remembered the fresh perfume of the clothes and way the sunlight patterned the lawn and his mother’s arms tight around him when she finished the chore.

Everything will be all right, his mother had said, from here on in.

“Let’s go see the champions, Mr. Dutch” suggested Marjorie. “That’s the best part of this place.”

Without waiting for Elroy to agree or disagree, she practically dragged him along and started walking towards the area reserved for the animals.

Elroy, too, had been saving the cows for last.

The animal hall felt like a sanctuary, quiet and still. People spoke almost reverently. The carnival atmosphere of the convention seemed far away and the air had a familiar milky odor.

Elroy could feel himself relaxing. Even Marjorie grew quiet. All they could hear was the swish-swish of the circulating fans, and an occasional soft gulping sound as a cow devoured a tidy pile of feed.

“Oh,” said Marjorie, “This is what makes me happy.”

Elroy and Marjorie stopped in front of each placid creature and looked into their deep, bovine eyes. The cows lowered their eyelids almost coquettishly.

The cows all had a sign above their stall, with their name and their milk production. Some cows had plastic stars next to their names for exceeding 9400 liters per year.

“Hello, Blue Babe,” Marjorie said to a particularly clean and curvy Jersey.

“Isn’t she a beauty?” asked Marjorie.

Elroy nodded and reached out to scratch the cow’s ears, then he ran his hand down her soft, solid neck.

Margaret leaned into the stall at the same time and brushed her bare arm against Elroy’s.

Elroy looked at the cow and then back at Marjorie, and suddenly he felt very warm. Little dabs of sweat formed along his hairline. His groin felt heavy. He took off his cap, and wiped his head with a handkerchief.

Marjorie continued to caress Blue Babe. When the cow opened her mouth, Marjorie extended her hand and let the animal lick her fingers with its rough tongue. Elroy did the same.

“I’d rather be in a cow barn than anywhere on earth,” said Marjorie.

“Me too,” said Elroy.

Elroy wasn’t sure what was happening to him, except he felt as if a sense of well-being was lapping at his feet, like a wave.

“Let’s go check out some of the others over there!” said Marjorie, enthusiastically.

“Ye…ye..yes…,” answered Elroy, following her across the floor.

As a young adolescent, while other boys were huddling over magazines featuring siliconed models with air-brushed bellies, Elroy breathed in the simple, natural sensuality of his uncle’s herd. He’d massage the shaved teats, as soft and spongy as pie dough. Occasionally, he’d help with the calving, marveling at the wet pinkness of new life.

He felt more comfortable with his uncle’s herd than with his school mates, especially the girls.

In high school, an older girl named Berdina pursued him. She said he was cute, even if “he couldn’t talk right.”

She boldly asked him to go to the movies, offering to pick him up in her father’s truck. When she arrived, the radio was blaring. He was grateful that she sang along with the songs because he wouldn’t have known what to say. After the movie, Berdina tried to kiss him, pinning the younger boy against the door of the truck with her hefty chest.

“Use your tongue, like this,” said Berdina, whose mouth tasted spicy and sharp like Doritos, with a faint aftertaste of beer.

“I….I…thin..think it’s late. You’d better bring me home,” said Elroy, after accepting a few more slippery attacks on his gums.

His first thought was that he would rather kiss a calf. Their breath smelled better than Berdina’s. Like buttermilk. Comforting and familiar.

Since then, as a young man, he’d slept a few times with prostitutes when he went up to Montreal for furnace installations. He’d meet them in bars, grateful that neither kissing nor conversation was expected. The putes were just as happy to make their money in silence. Elroy accepted the experience for what it was, but he sometimes gagged at the fermented, grainy smell of their bodies, as if they bathed in Scotch.

Now, standing in the demonstration barn with Marjorie, he suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss this sweet-smelling woman whom he had just met.

They were standing in front of a Milking Shorthorn, one of the rarer breeds on display.

“She’s got a pretty good bag on her, don’t you think?” asked Marjorie, casually, with no hesitation.

Elroy looked at the cow whose udders hung wide and full, like the full, soft, leathery saddle of a motorcycle.

“Yes,” he said.

He felt comfortable walking from stall to stall with this stranger, together admiring the robust body of each cow….staring at the secret, sensual folds of female skin which human beings normally only share with each other during moments of intimacy. Now and then one of the cows would gracefully lift her tail and ease her waste to the ground, or piss like a fire hose onto the hay.

“I’d love to have my own herd,” said Marjorie. “I’ve got this boring, boring job as a salesperson. It’s killing me. My parents sold our dairy fifteen years ago,”

“I’m so sorry,” said Elroy.

“Well, it’s because of my being alone. No husband. No siblings. I guess they thought I couldn’t handle the business. But I could have done it.”

“Do you think so?” asked Elroy. “I don’t mean to doubt you. It’s just….”

He stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly realizing that he had managed to speak more than ten words without stuttering.

“Go on,” said Marjorie. “You’re not going to offend me.

“Well, dairy farming seems to be a big job….for anyone… man or woman. I’m beginning to doubt that I’m up for it.”

Again he marveled at his words. They were coming out whole, not chopped into syllables.“But maybe you know things that I don’t,” he added politely.

He looked at Marjorie again.

“I bet I know lots of things that you don’t,” said Marjorie, with a tease in her voice.

Elroy gulped.

“I meant….about running a dairy,” explained Elroy.

Marjorie laughed. “I knew what you meant.”

She suddenly pulled her apron out of her bag.

“Listen, I have to go back to work soon. But I’ll give you my cell number. Call me. We’ll talk cows, plain and simple,” she said.

“Okay,” said Elroy. “I will.”

Marjorie wrote out her number on the back of a pamphlet concerning neonatal calf diseases which Elroy had picked up at one of the stands.

“There,” she said, handing the pamphlet back to him.

But neither one of them made a move to leave the barn. They stood there, with their hands growing damp and restless at their sides, and the cows stirring softly in their stanchions, while back in the Convention Hall, hundreds of dairy farmers continued talking about all sorts of things that didn’t really matter.

Check out “Unconventional Love”

Books

(Listed by most recently released)

Unconventional Love

Book cover for the convention-themed romance anthology 'Unconventional Love'An unconventional convention of stories: seven romantic tales of fandom, geekery, and dairy.

Unconventional Love is a collection of short stories that take place at the world’s greatest conventions attended by cosplayers, YouTube stars, bug enthusiasts, and more.

Whatever race, gender, or sexuality, everyone is welcome at the con!

Featuring stories by Gabriella Brand, Adam Clark, K Orion Fray, Charles Land, Tahni J. Nikitins, Frances Pauli, Lyn Thorne-Alder, and D.H. Tuck.

Published March 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0692671450 / ISBN-10: 0692671455

Anoles, anyone? The Beauty Underfoot….

0222-HOFO-ULIZARD

The Christian Science Monitor published my essay entitled “The Beauty Underfoot“.  Check it out here: https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2016/0217/The-beauty-underfoot

or read it here:

The Beauty Underfoot

The first day on the island of Saint John, when I open the sliding door to the deck, a dull brown anole skitters towards me and I jump. I know these little lizards are harmless, but I shudder nonetheless. I shake my flip-flops and hope he’ll go away. He doesn’t. My city feet stiffen as I feel the tickle of tiny reptilian toes on mine.

“Shoo!” I say, but by the time the word is out of my mouth, the creature…no bigger than a mouse – has noiselessly jumped to the belted trunk of a nearby coconut palm, where it hangs upside down, motionless, like a door knocker. Is it my imagination or is
his skin growing darker? He morphs from pewter to black in a matter of seconds. I feel as if I am watching tea steeping in a glass pot.

I hurry back inside the rental apartment, remembering to latch the sliding door.

The next day I go to drape wet towels over the railing and the anole reappears. He seems curious, perhaps tempted by the terry-cloth scaffolding of the beach towels. I watch as he climbs up the edge of the laundry, stopping to let the Caribbean sun warm his skin. Perhaps we’re not so different, he and I. Hadn’t I spent the afternoon in a similar way, hiking up and down the Reef Bay Trail, resting against the ancient rocks, soaking up warmth as if I could store sunshine in my bones until spring?

By the fifth day, when the lizard appears, I say, “Oh, it’s you, again!”

I stay slouched in the deck chair, a novel spine-split across my knees, as the anole scampers underneath. He lingers, checking out my chipped pedicure with his tongue. I look down and try to study his face, but he quickly drops his eyelid like a shutter. Then he’s gone. I see him leap into the flower box.

I stare at him,waiting for his next move. Suddenly his neck puffs up and stretches out until it is almost the size of his head, all the while turning a shocking shade of scarlet, like a neon turkey waddle. I reach for my cellphone and do a quick search. I learn about the display of the dewlap. According to Google, a male anole exposes his dewlap when he’s marking his territory, flirting like a fool, or exhibiting a major sign of stress. Sometimes all three conditions occur at once.

I try to look away so I don’t stress him further. Suddenly he leaps vertically onto the stucco wall behind my head. It turns out that anoles also have adhesive lamellae on their footpads. No wonder they can stick to any surface and defy gravity.

I put on my sunglasses, pick up my novel and start to read. The anole commutes frenetically back and forth from the wall to the palm tree. We give each other space, like strangers on a train, each of us stealing a glance now and then as discretely as possible.His back, I notice, is ridged and translucent, as beautiful as a paper fan. His tummy pulses as he breathes.

In time, long before I give up the key to the Saint John apartment and return to the slush and squirrels back in Connecticut, I’ll begin to hold the whole arc of animal ancestry in my hand, the haunches and the slinky back, the scurry of adaptation. I’ll see God’s light in the tiniest of bodies, my world will grow wider by a few inches and a tail.

Later, friends will ask me if I enjoyed my time in the Virgin Islands, and I’ll nod and say how lucky I was to have a change of scenery in the depths of winter. They’ll think sunsets and white sand, postcard beauty at its best. But I’ll be thinking of another sort of loveliness, always underfoot.

Continue reading Anoles, anyone? The Beauty Underfoot….