Sacrifice (Fiction & Emilio Pasquale Photo)

Photo by:  Emilio Pasquale
Photo by: Emilio Pasquale

I made myself small in the space between the beat up sofa and the metal TV tray that served as a table. Hunched with my knees pulled to my chest and arms wrapped around them, I strained to hear the hushed conversation between Mama and Aunt Celia. From this vantage point, I could only see Aunt Celia’s back and sometimes caught a glimpse of Mama’s face.

“I can’t do it,” Mama said.

“It’s been six days. If she’s not better tomorrow, you have to.”

“She’s my baby!”

“But the spirits ravage her.” Aunt Celia lowered her voice. “The ceremonial drapes have hung outside for six days. If Ariana isn’t released tomorrow, the spirits will claim the entire household.”

“She’s only three.” Mama leaned into Aunt Celia, sobbing into her shoulder. Her muffled cries echoed against the concrete floors and adobe walls of the sparsely furnished room.

Aunt Celia put her hands on Mama’s shoulders and set her upright. She then picked up a bundle that had been tucked under her thigh, the white cloth wrapping stark against the darkened room. Slivers of sunlight managed to sneak in between seams of fabric covering windows and through the warped door jam. I watched the back of my aunt’s thick arms move as she fiddled with the object in her lap and then extended her arms to present something to Mama.

Mama gasped. “No!” Metal clanged against the concrete floor.

I glimpsed the ornate silver handle, but my gaze settled on the long blade. I didn’t realize I’d broken my silence until I saw both women looking right at me.

“Mija…Cristina!” Mama and Aunt Celia exclaimed in unison.

“Mija, I thought you were outside playing with the other children.”

I slid out from the hiding place and stretched my legs. “Mama, I’m twelve. I don’t play anymore.”

Aunt Celia moaned as her eyes fluttered closed. “The premonition. It is true.” Her chin dropped to her chest and a string of words in an unfamiliar language tumbled into the otherwise silent room.

My eyes widened and I looked to Mama for direction. She appeared just as frightened. Lines creased her forehead and fear clouded her brown eyes.

“Go,” she whispered. “You should go play outside.”

Aunt Celia continued her chanting as if in a trance.

‘Alternate sacrifice’ were the only two words I understood. The hair prickled on my arms and a tingling sensation ran from my neck all the way down my spine. I sprinted for the door, not bothering to correct Mama that I’d passed the age of playing. Once outside, my toe caught the edge of one of the pavers making up the tiny porch. Stumbling into the adobe half-wall surrounding our house, I gulped several breaths while thinking of what to do. I knew my baby sister, Ariana, was in trouble. I stared at the ceremonial drapes; woven murals in bright colors that mocked life. I always thought that death slithered through night shadows shrouded in black, but the dawning came that death wore vivid hues of turquoise, yellow, red and purple. My eyes zeroed in on the skulls. Smiling skulls. They looked all too happy to rip souls from failing bodies.

I pushed off the wall, vaulting myself toward the brilliantly colored drapes. I screamed as I grasped and pulled at the fabric, tearing the cotton from nails that held them in place. I knocked statues and candle holders from the offering table butted up against the house. I dodged shards of ceramic that were intended to appease the spirits. I didn’t care. It was all just a tangled mess of superstitions, myths and wives tales. I didn’t agree with Mama and Aunt Celia; angry demons wouldn’t materialize and vengeful death wouldn’t steal the souls from healthy bodies in retribution. I believed Ariana would still be writhing in bed, face glistening from fever just as she had done for the last six days.

Aunt Celia bolted out of the front door, followed by Mama.

“No!” she shrieked and her hands flew up to cover her face.

“Oh, mija, what have you done?” Mama whispered, shaking her head.

I dropped shreds of fabric and stumbled a few steps backward. Silence descended; a heavy, stifling quiet that suppressed all noise, except the drum-like pounding of my heart against the bones in my chest. My pulse throbbed inside my head, but I resisted the urge to cup my hands over my ears.

“The alternate sacrifice,” Aunt Celia said.

I stood with my chin up. I didn’t believe in the death spirits, but still prepared for them to take me, just in case. Even in the balmy heat, a chill came over me and produced a dramatic shiver. My heart fluttered and then resumed its normal beat pattern. I sensed death spirits were among us, choosing souls like Mama selected meat from the market. God, please protect me.

Aunt Celia dropped to her knees. An anguished cry escaped her dry lips. “I am ready!” She reached toward the sky.

I stared in shock.  Aunt Celia collapsed into a heap and convulsed.

“Look away, Mija!” Mama called over her shoulder as she turned her back on her sister.

I obeyed and turned away from Aunt Celia. On my eighth birthday, Mama had explained that eyes were the windows to the soul. Mama told the story of her great-great grandmother, Anne, who had been caring for her sick brother when she watched him gasp his last breath. She witnessed his struggle and his eventual surrender, only to die minutes later. It was believed that the death spirits entered Anne’s body through her opened eyes, like a burglar slipping through an unlocked window.

Aunt Celia’s body stilled, but I kept my eyes clenched, too afraid to look.

“Mama, I hungry,” a timid voice called from the house.

Mama and I both whirled around to find Ariana peeking around the door. She had been bed-ridden and near death for six days.

“How about macaroni?” I asked. Ariana smiled and nodded her head vigorously before disappearing into the house.

Mama kneeled down beside Aunt Celia and gently tugged her eyelids shut.

Drawing the curtains. All the women in town knew this duty. After death, the eyelids had to be closed to prevent spirits from moving through the body. Male hands weren’t allowed to do this.

As I walked inside, I knew this would be a story told to my great-great grandchildren: the day Aunt Celia took my place as the alternate sacrifice.

~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-

This was another collaboration with Emilio Pasquale – he provided the photo to write whatever I could come up with for a story.  Be sure to check out his photo blog, if you haven’t already been there 🙂

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Set Free (Fiction) – Emilio Pasquale Photo

The photo below provided by Emilio Pasquale.  The story I wrote inspired by the photo follows…

An Emilio Pasquale Photo
An Emilio Pasquale Photo

She thought she’d find an ally in her sister, but as they engaged in a stare-down, it became obvious to Elaine that she’d miscalculated. Her stiffened legs and a crick in her back warned she should quit. Clearly, more than a laminate table divided them. Yet, she refused to show signs of wearing down. I inherited Dad’s stubbornness.

“She’s getting older. I think the stress of the trip will be too much for her. Please, convince her not to go,” Elaine said, mindful to keep desperation out of her voice. Jackie would never admit it, but they both knew she had more sway with their mom. It’d been that way from the beginning, when Jackie almost died the day she entered the world fifty-eight years ago. It took adulthood and having kids of her own for Elaine to forgive her for that.

Jackie snorted. “We’re all getting older, Elaine. There’s no way she’d not go.” She dunked her tea bag several times with the back of her spoon. Her mouth pressed into a thin line and a frown creased her eyebrows.

Three soggy tea bags rested on the saucer beneath Jackie’s cup. All spent. That’s how Elaine felt. After two hours, neither had budged. If the conversation translated into chess, it would be a stalemate. In their defense, there wasn’t much room for compromise; it’s not like they could half-way go.

Elaine shook her head. “She gets so upset. Besides, the Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point she doesn’t understand much anymore.” She hesitated before adding the root of her concern. “I have a bad feeling about it.”

Jackie smirked. “Another premonition?” She crooked her fingers in air quotes as she said premonition.

“Nothing specific; just a feeling.”

“Look, you know as well as I do she hasn’t forgotten that house.” With the back of her hand, she brushed her graying bangs off her forehead. “I don’t know why, but she has to visit that place on Halloween every year.” Jackie sipped her tea and set her mug back on the paper coaster. “If you won’t go, I’ll take her by myself.”

Elaine recognized the determination in her younger sister’s eyes. Just like Mom’s. “You can’t drive until your seizures are controlled.” She sighed. “Fine. I’ll drive. We’ll leave at noon so we can get there before dark. That house is darn creepy at night.”

Jackie laughed. “That, I’d have to agree with.” She pulled out her wallet. “I got this.” She dropped a ten on the table to cover the muffins and beverages.

After she slid out of the booth, Elaine left another few dollars to compensate for monopolizing the table for so long.

*** *** *** Continue reading

Down The Road (Fiction)

This story is prompted by the photo below, offered by Emilio Pasquale.  Click his name to check out his photography blog (you won’t be disappointed!)

This photo belongs to Emilio Pasquale
This is NOT my photo!  It belongs to Emilio Pasquale

The asphalt seams thumped a steady rhythm as she sped through the dust coagulating in the late-afternoon desert air.  Both hands gripped the steering wheel as if it was the only tether saving her from being swallowed by blackness. Part of her feared it might be too late; that the darkness which began as a pin-point deep in her soul had already bloomed into an inky pool that engulfed her heart and slithered through her veins.

Anna Morris hadn’t always been that way. She could remember a righteous childhood where God had smiled upon her. Growing up, she went to church with her parents every Sunday and sometimes Wednesday, clothed in frilly dresses, white ankle socks with ruffles, and patent leather Mary Janes. During middle school and high school, she focused on the likes of Newton, Pascal and Aristotle, rather than the boys in class who managed to distract her friends with their unpolished charms. It was her senior year in high school when the light shifted and shadows crept into her world.

To round out the credentials on her college application, Anna began volunteering at a care home. The first resident she visited was Mabel Pyerstrom. The fragile woman must’ve been no taller than five feet, and weighed about ninety pounds, judging by the small hump tucked under the crisp white linens. Anna could remember the conversation like it happened yesterday, not twenty years ago. Her voice laced with apprehension, she had introduced herself as “Anna.”

“Come, sit by me,” Mabel said, her trembled words both fragile and demanding.

Anna obeyed. Her gaze rested upon the woman’s bony hand, its pale, papery skin marred by sunspots and a road-map of bulging blue veins.

“Age takes prisoners.”

“Excuse me?”

The woman smiled, stacking wrinkles around her cloudy eyes. “We squander our youth, take our blessings for granted and then…” She worked a phlegmy cough that seemed to rattle all the way down to the bottom of her lungs. “And then, it leaves you a wrinkled shell until it finally lets you go.” The skin puckered around her lips as she spoke.

Anna cringed. She didn’t know what to say; she couldn’t argue against the cruelty of time. “W-would you like me to read to you?” She pulled Wizard of Oz from her tote bag.

Mabel turned toward her voice. “Ah, been a long time. Lost my sight some twenty years ago.”

“I’m sorry. It must be awful to live in darkness.”

“I said nothing of darkness. Just see different things, that’s all.”

Anna felt her cheeks flush. Thankful the woman couldn’t see, she ventured, “I-I don’t know what you mean.”

Mabel laughed. The rasp morphed into another cough.

A shudder ran through Anna’s body, ending at her curled toes. For a moment she wondered if the volunteer hours were worth it. Surely her grades alone could carry her into college. She contemplated leaving but stayed seated next to Mabel’s bed while the commingled odors of meatloaf, soiled linens, bleach and age taunted her gag reflex.

Mabel tapped the bed with her fingers. “Can you just hold my hand?”

Anna hesitated before closing the book and slipping it back into her bag. She reached for Mabel’s hand and gasped when the ice-cold skin pressed against her own sweaty palm. The woman clenched with surprising strength. As Anna’s gaze studied the contrast of Mabel’s pale wrinkles against her own tanned, smooth skin, she felt a sense of unease creep over her. Anna tried to pull away.

“I see death.”

“Huh?”

“Death roams these halls. Watching. Waiting. I can feel it. See it.”

“Okay.” Anna didn’t know what to say.

Mabel cleared her throat and continued in a gravelly voice, “I asked to go. After ninety-four years I’m ready. You know what the bastard said?”

Anna flinched, caught off-guard by the curse and angry tone. “Um, no.”

“Said I needed help over the bridge.”

“What does that mean?”

“A second chance. Said left was wrong. Lucifer left. Right was right… light.”

Anna feared the woman had lost her mind. She opened her mouth to call for a nurse, but words lodged in the back of her throat as if she’d swallowed an apple whole.

Mabel tugged Anna’s hand until her body leaned over the bed, face inches away. The old woman reached her left hand up and ran her fingertips along Anna’s cheek, and then trailed along her jawline. “You’re an angel sent to guide us right in death,   Anna Mary Claire Morris.”

Anna gasped and jerked back, knocking over the chair. She’d only given her first name. Again, she couldn’t break the woman’s hold.

“We’ve been waiting for you, Anna.”

We? Panic raged inside her.

The old woman’s breath grew shallower and her chest stilled.

Anna waved her free hand over Mabel’s nose and mouth to check for even the faintest wisp of warm air.

A nurse rushed through the door, glancing at the overturned chair. “What happened?”

“I-I don’t know. She was talking and then she wasn’t” Anna attempted to pry her hand free. “She won’t let go.”

The nurse checked Mabel’s pulse and noted the time of death on her chart. She peered over her glasses. “Are you okay?”

Anna pressed her left palm into her forehead. A blinding light seared through her brain. “Owwwwww!” She moaned as sharp pain started at her forehead and radiated to the back of her neck. It felt like waves of brain freezes timed seconds apart. A minute later, the misery halted, Mabel’s grip released, and Anna fell backwards, stumbling on the overturned chair.

That was the first time it happened.

A semi passed on the left, a whoosh of air rocking the car. Anna jolted into a present resembling the interstate she traveled: not an attraction of its own, rather a means to a final destination. Exhausted after reliving the experience with Mabel, she wondered how accurate the account. Memories were shifty like that. Similar to the greasy mirage shimmering on sunbaked blacktop before disappearing upon approach, memories tended to change shape over time.

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Again, thanks to Emilio for suggesting the challenge to write a story based on one of his photos, and for offering the photo to post with the story!

Goodbye (For Now)

 

Goodbye... until next year!
Goodbye… until next year!

I’m posting this photo in response to Jeanne @ Nolagirlatheart’s weekly photo prompt.  The subject this week is “goodbye.”  She chose to post a sunset photo, which is the perfect goodbye and so hard not to copy, but as I started un-decking the halls last night, I had this idea.

**********

I love decorating for Christmas.  Memories flood in when I unbox the tree ornaments of years past, dust off the snow globes, and string enough lights to temporarily double our carbon footprint.  When the season is over, I pack everything away with a little sadness.  I try to do this by the beginning of the year, which is harder to do when it doesn’t fall on a weekend.  Waiting any longer feels like I’m trying to hang on to the past.  I don’t flip through my yearbook pining for younger days, or read old love letters fantasizing about old flames, so I will embrace the present (and future) here, too.

After everyone went to bed, I had the feeling of being watched as I erased our traces of Christmas.

Why do I feel like somebody's watching me?
Why do I feel like somebody’s watching me?

Yeah, it felt kind of like this.

As I untied the 79 bows from our stair spindles and dropped them in the bag, I couldn’t shake the feeling.  Even though I was sober (maybe spiced eggnog would’ve helped?) the feeling only grew stronger.

Nope, nothin' to see here...
Nope, nothin’ to see here…

I guess it was all in my head.

Or, maybe I was the subject of covert stalking (cats, FBI agents, and serial killers do this.)  It couldn’t have had anything to do with me removing all bright red cat toys!  In retrospect, purchasing red bows with bells was probably not the best idea, but I’ll still put them up next year.  Even kitties should enjoy the festivity of the season.  Besides, it’s an inexpensive distraction from the allure of the always-fascinating Christmas tree 🙂

Oooh, pretty!  And they make noise when you swat them!
Oooh, pretty! And they make noise when you swat them!

I’m here typing this on Thursday morning, so I can rule out being watched by the FBI or a serial killer.

Or… maybe they’re coming back tonight.  In that case, this post title will become an eerie premonition to my fate.  But wait.  “For now” implies I’ll return… I don’t want to be a ghost blogger.

Gulp.

Whoa there, imagination!  Two days into it, I think it’s safe to say we’re all saying our final goodbyes to 2013, with our feet steadying in the New Year.  Apparently, I’m carrying through my paranoia and odd sense of humor into the New Year.  Life is better when enjoyed with old friends, right?  😛 I hope yours is off to a fabulous start!

Do you look forward to the new year, or miss the one that just ended?