Monday, April 21, 2014

Suburban Gothic: Tender Weeds XXI

     He drove onto a side road and parked his rental car behind some bushes.
     She had gotten to him. Making the visit all about Lorna had kept his anger focused,  the deeper injury hidden, but seeing her again had opened it just the same, reviving the weight of her hand on his arm, the whoosh of her bare soles against the carpet as she crept into his room at night.
     In those moments he forgot his distrust—their bodies, lives, had become enmeshed, he thought, forever.
     Until she met Hugo. And he was left with a yearning to be back inside her...and the sense of something chafing his throat.
     Another stupid move. He should have adjusted the shoulder strap before leaving, but he’d overslept and was afraid he was going to miss his flight home.
     So he'd sped back onto the main road and highway, weaving in and out of traffic, and soon found himself behind Hugo and Irene's jeep.
     Unbelievable. He yanked the shoulder strap down. His car swerved. He cursed.
     I must look drunk to them.
     Hugo’s Jeep pulled onto the right lane.
     Alex got ready to do the same, but a blue convertible threatened to cut him off.
     He sped up to get away from it, and checked his rear view mirror.  Two bruisers in baseball jerseys were hooting, laughing, and singing as their car zigzagged.
     Keep your distance.
     The gypsy’s warning. He could smell the dizzying and portentous fusion of herbs in her shop, feel her cinnamon breath on his face. And outside, he could see Lorna and Irene, their skin glistening in the summer sun, their gestures broad and exuberant.
     What a fool he was, to think that common animal penetration would make him privy to Irene's motives, let him know her. How she could abandon him so easily? Completely forget his sister?
     The convertible closed in on him, and as it did, the seat belt slipped from his grasp and hit his Adam’s Apple.
     Pain.
     He groaned, twisted, jerked his foot off the gas.
     And the convertible rammed into him at full speed.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Suburban Gothic: Tender Weeds and its Inspiration Pt. III Continued

The rest of Bierce's story. 

III (continued)

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great garden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which--once, twice, and again--he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue--he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene--perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Suburban Gothic: Tender Weeds XX

     That’s when it all became clear.
     There was a moment when Irene might have seen him, the glow on his cigarette butt, so he ducked behind the bushes.
     Idiot. You came this far. Walk up to the front door and face her, damn it.
     He took a moment to smash the stub beneath his boot, eat a mint, and gather his wits before ringing the bell. The mint was half gone by the time Irene opened the door.
     Flame-haired beauty, crisp as ever in her white shirt, black slacks, open mouth.
     Good.  He smiled.
     But before she could respond, Hugo appeared and draped an arm across her back. Mine. “Can we help you?”
     Irene pressed herself into Hugo’s side. “You remember Alex, honey. You met at Lorna’s funeral.”
     “Of course.” Hugo extended a strong, dry palm.  “Such a tragedy. Your sister was a lovely girl.”
     "Your sister."  She had a name. Why can’t you say it?
     Alex shook Hugo’s hand. Could they tell how difficult it was for him to keep from crushing it?    
     “I would have called,” Alex forced a flat smile, “but it was a last minute trip.”
     Hugo’s eyes plunged into him, probing, reading—executive instinct. “You’re a journalist, if I recall. Here on a story?”  
     “Yeah. I thought I’d take a chance and stop by, offer my congratulations. I read about the play.”
     “Thanks. Your timing couldn't be better. Rehearsals start tomorrow. Irene’s got an early flight.” He released her. “Come on in.” Hugo led him through the lobby into their living room—its hues culled from flocks of mourning doves. Was the rest of the house this colorless?
     Irene walked in his shadow, coiling a lock of hair around her forefinger.
     “What’s the story?”
     “Excuse me?”  I'm not interested in talking to you.
     “The one you’re writing.” Hugo faced him. “The reason you’re in Colorado.”
     “Environmental issues—ongoing.”
     “I see.”
     That’s when the phone rang, and Hugo excused himself to answer it.
     At last.
     As soon as he was gone, Irene said, “A story? After all these years?”
     He faced her. “Sharp as ever.” He smiled. “I’m here about your play—the one you stole from my sister.”
     “You can’t be serious.”
     “Oh, I am. The crumbling old house, strange plants, eccentric couple, that’s Lorna’s work. He watched Irene’s color drain. “You weren’t the only one she was going to for feedback.”
     “This is crazy.”
     “Is it?”
     “Yes. All I used were a few of her ideas. Everyone borrows."
     “Maybe so. But she was suspicious enough of your borrowing to stop sharing her work...over a month before she died. She didn't start the old house story until a week before she disappeared, which means the only way you could have known about it is if you had gone through her files.”
     Irene’s lips parted, “I…”
     Hugo strolled in. “What did I miss?”
     Irene ignored him.
     Alex shook his head, “Just tell me the truth: did you wait to call the police so that you’d have time to go through her notebooks, her computer?”
     Hugo’s face reddened. “I think you should leave.”
     “I think you’re right. I’ve got an early flight, too...and a story to write.” Alex turned and walked away. He could hear Irene curse behind him. But he kept going. He had what he needed.
     When he reached the front door, Irene ran toward him, breathless. “Alex, you’re right. I copied her notes...and files, and I shouldn’t have used what was in them. But it’s done now and the play is going on. What if I put Lorna’s name on it...give her a story credit…at least that would….”
      “What? Ease your conscience? You don’t have one. You’re just afraid of your reputation being ruined.”
     “There has to be a way to fix this...something I can do. The only part of the play that's Lorna's is the premise—a mere seed. Everything else is mine. If you’ll just read it….”
     “I’m not interested in reading it. And you’re missing the point.”  He opened the door. “Goodnight, Irene.” It slammed behind him.

Part XXI

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Suburban Gothic: Tender Weeds XIX

    They clashed about the suitcase first—Lorna’s blue Samsonite, vintage 1970’s. “Take it, please.”
    It was heavy, it had no wheels. And it smelled of Lorna’s cologne.
    "No."
     Then it was the trip.
    “It’s a mistake...”
     “It’s not. I have to go.”
    “Why?” The motherly voice, so-well known, this time, strident, frightened, pleading.
     Different than Varna’s: “Keep your distance.”
     “Will your life be so much better after? Will your heart rest easier? Because mine won’t. No matter how it comes out, I’ll still be alone.”
     “Give me the suitcase.
     The closet door whined as it opened. It always whined—a house in pain, grieving for its losses, lack of standing, weak will. Maybe once, it had spirit, hope, but not now.
     “Promise you’ll call when you get in, let me know you’re all right.”
     “I promise.”
* * *
      The plane rocked and groaned. 
      The woman in the next seat was gone. Just as well.  Flight attendants were bothersome enough in rough weather, whispering to each other as they walked by, gesturing, checking seat belts, watching for anomalies, trouble.  One of them, a man with unnaturally taut, glossy skin hovered a bit, waiting to be acknowledged.
     The throat, no doubt. But drooping eyelids, swirling thoughts led elsewhere.
* * *
     It was getting dark when the plane landed, so there was no time to call and say, “I’m here. Don’t worry. All will be fine.”  She would be worried, of course, but given the circumstances, it was best to stay alert, wait until it was safe to call. The drive to Hugo’s ranch wound through steep and unfamiliar terrain. The slightest distraction, even hands-free, might cause delay, invite danger.
     Forbidden territory. Sudden detours.
     Like the betrayal that lured Lorna into the hills, onto treacherous paths in the approaching darkness. She must have been crying, cursing herself for her gullibility, willingness to trust.
     The police weren't called until three days after Lorna disappeared. If they had been, maybe, maybe, they would have found Lorna under that old, roped off footbridge before her heart gave out, her chest filled with blood.
     The turnoff to Wolf’s ranch was well-lit and marked, and fed into a long driveway from which numerous narrow dirt roads took off.  It would be easy to double-back and conceal the car on one of them rather than risking accident on those night-cloaked mountains. Better to skulk away and stay put until dawn.
     At the end of the driveway, in a large clearing, was the house—a sprawling single-story structure bordered by colorful ornamental shrubs, ideal places to covertly observe the action within, and light up….

Part XX

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Suburban Gothic: Tender Weeds and its Inspiration Pt. III

As you'll recall, Section Two of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" served several purposes. First, it distracted readers from the critical action at the end of Section One through a radical shift in time and point of view. Second, it provided information about how Farquhar wound up on the bridge facing execution. Third, it left readers conflicted about how sympathetic they should be toward Farquhar. 

 

In Section Three, Bierce makes a temporal shift back to the point where Section One ended: "The sergeant stepped aside."

 

Once again, readers are now observing the action on the bridge, initially, from the objective point of view which dominated Section One. However, that point of view ends after the first sentence. From the second sentence on, readers are thrust into Farquar's consciousness, where the only thought is to escape and return to home and family. As Farquhar struggles to make it to safety, the emotional urgency and tension of the narrative increases. Whatever readers may feel about Farquhar, they want to know whether or not he will be successful; they become invested in the outcome. And, as a result, they are likely to overlook any of the numerous indications that Farquhar's point of view is unreliable.

 

As you read Section Three, you'll note that I've stopped it with the the note "To be continued." This is so that Bierce's tale will coincide with Tender Weeds as both points of view unravel and the action builds to a climax.... 

 

III

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fulness--of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface--knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought? "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."

He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!--what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. "Put it back, put it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat--all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.

Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieu. tenant on shore was taking a part in the morning's work. How coldly and pitilessly--with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquillity in the men--with what accurately measured inter vals fell those cruel words:

"Attention, company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready! . . . Aim! . . . Fire!"

Farquhar dived--dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.

The officer," he reasoned, "will not make that martinet's error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!"

An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!

A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.

"They will not do that again," he thought; "the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me--the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun."

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round--spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men--all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color--that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream--the southern bank--and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of ├ćolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape--was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.

To be continued....

Monday, March 10, 2014

Suburban Gothic: Tender Weeds XVIII

     There was no point in arguing. Irene wrenched the door open, and fled.
     When she cleared the Sachs’s ramshackle house, the cul-de-sac, the wasting forest, she took a breath.
     Funny how you can be aware of not breathing.
     The sky had lapsed into that lazy, gray spell between day and night.
     The road ahead beckoned in an endless line of tail lights.
     Her neck burned. Grainy beads of sweat oozed from her pores and ran down her face. More sutures could have given way. The incision could have become infected. But the airport wasn’t far.
     Mrs. Sachs had confused her—the accident did something to you—just because she mentioned Alex.
     Someone’s horn blared. She let them pass...and drifted.
     She had underestimated Lorna. That was a mistake. She never expected that the few details she’d extracted and threaded so ingeniously into her own ideas would be recognizable as anything beyond coincidence.
     Behind her, how far she couldn’t tell, there were tires screeching. Had a car spun out? Sucked others into a whirl? She adjusted her rearview mirror, but saw only wide swaths of brown hair where red should have been….
      ...and then she was in her seat on the airplane, straining for a sly, sidelong look at herself in a compact belonging to the woman next to her.
     Were all women this vain? Did another drop of powder matter? Why wash out what was already so blanched? 
    But for that spreading circle of blood….

Part XIX

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Suburban Gothic: Tender Weeds XVII

     She.
     Irene couldn’t rid herself of the reference, the chilling echo of Alex’s voice.
     He hadn’t liked her from the start.
     Irene had been pleasant enough—joked with him, complimented him on articles he’d written. She had even touched his arm as they strolled down Main Street looking in shop windows, giving in to a mid-afternoon craving for ice cream. Perhaps the gesture was too familiar, but hadn't his gaze swept deliberately over her before resting on her lips as she licked melting trickles of chocolate from her cone? How else was she to read him? He seemed so easy. 
     And then they walked into that Fortune Emporium, with its herbs and books and crystals, and she’d asked the gypsy behind the long counter for a palm reading.
     The woman regarded her as though she were vermin, sneering, “You vant palm reading? Look up on Google.  You don’t vant to know vat I see.” Varna leaned toward her. “Now do you?”
     She had met Varna’s dark stare fearlessly, and silently.
     Lorna had finally dragged her out, thanking the old woman, but Alex stayed, longer than he should have.
    That night, Lorna’s father burnt the burgers.
    The family gobbled them up and said they were delicious. But Irene ate only salad and pretended to enjoy their stories about campfire meals and run-ins with bears in national parks.
     “And still Lorna loves to hike,” Irene offered. “She’s up in those mountains behind campus every chance she gets.”
      “Lorna’s always been drawn to nature.” Mrs. Sachs collected the paper plates, now soaked with ketchup and salad dressing. “I just wish she’d be more careful. I can’t say I like the looks of that path you girls take. It’s a wonder no one breaks a leg up there.”     
     She
     Irene had known Lorna. They did have a relationship—a history.
     Hugo had lied.
    Suddenly, she didn’t know why she’d shut herself up in Lorna’s room, why she was still in the Sachs’s house at all.  Mrs. Sachs had given her all the information she needed with that first embrace.           
     She glanced around the room, at the lone dresser on one wall, and plain white kneehole desk next to the closet, on the other. No doubt, one of Mr. Sachs’s salvages. Their surfaces were bare. The police had probably taken everything…or Alex had brought it to them, along with his sister’s notes and sketches, and Meg's letters.
     Which meant they knew Irene was at The Bridge, too.
     No one would ever believe Lorna had sent men to attack her.
     She had survived.
     That had to be why Mrs. Sachs was so glad to see her. They were all looking for her and she came right to them. What an idiot! Mrs. Sachs had to have called them by now.
     She grabbed her purse, opened the door, and ran down the stairs.
     Mrs. Sachs was sitting on the sofa, clutching a patchwork pillow to her chest, watching TV. “Honey? Is that you?” She set the pillow aside, got up and hurried to the steps in time to meet Irene at the landing. “I thought you were going to have a nap.”
     Irene paused. Despite her suspicions, she could find no guile in the way Adele Sachs looked at her. The gaze was open and moist, still inviting, and temptingly warm. “You’re so kind, but I can’t stay,” she squeezed past the woman. “Please, tell Alex I'm sorry I missed him.”
    “Alex?” Mrs. Sachs blocked Irene’s path to the door. “What are you talking about?”
    “I know he came home to be with you after Lorna went missing. It was in the paper. I had hoped to see him, but….” Irene tried to get around Mrs. Sachs, reach the front door, but the woman wouldn’t budge.
    “Oh my God, you poor thing.” She pressed her fingertips to Irene’s cheek. She backed away from Irene, her face contorted.
    The path was clear. All Irene had to do was turn the knob. But she couldn’t. “I’m fine.”
     “No,” Mrs. Sachs shook her head. “I can see now: the accident did something to you. I’m going to call the doctor….”

Part XVIII

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