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.

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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 :)

Beyond The Fog

We don't always see where we're going, but we have faith we'll get there
We don’t always see where we’re going, but we have faith we’ll get there

Faith isn’t walking into a fire, certain you won’t get burned.  Faith isn’t blind, either, but it does mean facing the unseen and the unknown with the conviction that we are not alone and the experience will somehow sculpt us into a new version of ourselves.

Faith is easy to proclaim, but when it comes down to it, it can be really hard to live by.  It’s kind of like putting on a blindfold and running down a busy street (if the street is in Phoenix, this would be insane.)  In our minds, we recognize the dangers- we could stumble into a light pole, wander into traffic, get hit by a bus, fall into a ditch… the list goes on.  Would you have enough faith to do this?

When adversity hits, my tendency is to obsess over the facts, mentally travel the possible actions and their consequences, and then I make decisions accordingly.  I rush in and “do” something.

To me, faith is the ultimate trust.  Kind of like running down a busy street blindfolded.  Faith is relying on something other than my own abilities.  Faith is believing that there is hope even when all the evidence I see says otherwise.

What is faith to you?

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If you’re looking for fiction, please stop by next week.  I plan to have a response to another one of Emilio Pasquale’s amazing photos.  Hope you’ll check it out :)

Between Faith and a Hard Place

02-20 Steeple

I recently found myself at a crossroads of sorts; sandwiched between my faith and a desire for freedom from my circumstances.  For many crushing weeks, I’ve wrestled with the rub of choices (mistakes) I’ve made. I’m coming to terms with my life being an “is what it is” situation, for now. I don’t see hope when I look forward, but I’m trying to have faith that God has more planned for me than what I can see. Some days it’s harder to have faith than others, but I take each day as it comes.

In the depths of all-consuming darkness, I came to a realization: rather than focus on what’s missing or what should be, I need to turn my attention to what I already am. It occurred to me that I’ve never depended on anyone to provide me with happiness, so why would I allow someone to steal it from me and disrupt my inner peace? My answer: I shouldn’t- and I have to change this.

I have obligations to keep.  Most of the time, the weight is too much to bear and I want to just sleep, but I can’t allow this to immobilize me any longer.  I can’t let my future to be so burdened by past mistakes that today is lost. In this moment, I see my life is worth more than that. Tomorrow, I may be snared once again by the trap of what isn’t, but I will try to refocus and remind myself that my success/failure is not dependent on only one aspect of my life.

I’m still surrounded by uncertainty, but if my state of mind holds, I hope to return to more regular writing – once a week for now. Thanks again to all the wonderful people (both online and in person) who have encouraged, prayed and otherwise helped me during this low period in my life. You are special to me :)

Oh, Dear (Fiction inspired by Emilio Pasquale photo)

This story is inspired by Emilio Pasquale’s photo. I didn’t ask permission to post the photo here, but you can view it in another window by clicking the link on the first sentence. (Trust me, you should see it!)

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“Yes, Mr. Collins. The cabin will be set just how you requested. I took excellent notes.”

Samuel tapped his fingers on his desk. “You’ve got the dozen pink roses and the box of truffles in the bedroom?”

“Yes, sir.”

He exhaled. “Thank you, Josie. Everything has to be perfect; exactly like it was twenty years ago.”

He hung up the phone and rested his forehead in his hands. He knew his future depended on the success of the upcoming weekend. Twenty years ago, he had taken Deana to the rustic cabin on their honeymoon. They hadn’t had much money and, although the cabin was only two hours north of Phoenix, the climate was a world away. Three weeks ago, Deana moved out. Now, he had to prove to her that he still loved her. Recreating our honeymoon for Valentine’s Day is perfect!

He picked up the phone again and pressed the first programmed call number.

“What do you want?”

He gulped. “Listen, Deana. Just give me a chance.”

“I’ve already given you too many.”

“Please, just meet me at the Ponderosa Inn and Cabins on Saturday.” When the silence dragged on for several awkward seconds, he continued, “Cabin 9. Just one more chance. Please.

“That’s where we spent our honeymoon.”

“I remember.”

“I don’t think-”

“Don’t think, just show up.”

She sighed. “Fine.”

He exhaled and his shoulders slumped with the release of tension. “The room is ours at two, if you want to head up early. I have a couple things to take care of, but I’ll be there by four.”

She snorted. “Another one of your business weekends, huh? Never mind. We’ve been through-”

“No!” He took a breath to calm his panic. “No, wait, it’s not like that. I’ve reserved two hours of spa time; you pick the services.”

“Oh.” She paused. “They have a spa now?”

“They added it a few years ago.”

“Okay.”

He smiled. “You won’t be disappointed.”

He hung up the phone and dialed the Ponderosa Inn.

“Hi, this is Samuel Collins,” he said once the front desk picked up the line. “I need to schedule two hours of spa services for Saturday.”

“I’m sorry. The spa is fully booked until Sunday afternoon.”

“How much would it cost to make it happen?”

“Sir, it’s Valentine’s Day. The schedule is full.”

“Okay, okay.” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Can you call people who are scheduled between two and four to find out if they will sell their appointment? I’ll pay any price.”

“Sure, Mr. Collins. I’ll see what I can do.”

“I appreciate it, Josie.”

***        ***        ***

On Valentine’s Day, Samuel called Deana. “Yes, the spa appointment is all set. When you check in at the front desk, ask for Yolanda and she’ll get you started.”

“I’m impressed. I didn’t think you could pull it off. I always planned our vacations.”

“I’m full of surprises.”

“Wait a second; you didn’t have your assistant set everything up, did you?”

“Actually, no.” That would’ve been smarter. “I’ve made our dinner reservations for 6pm, so that should give you enough time to get ready.”

“All right.”

“I love you, Deana.”

The line disconnected. She’d avoided saying she loved him for months. He didn’t pick up on it at first. A twinge of pain ran through his chest. He should’ve asked questions. He counted out twenty-three one hundred dollar bills; enough to cover the spa appointment and tips. He folded the wad in half and shoved it into his blazer pocket. He grabbed his overnight bag and headed to the car.

At four-twenty, he parked his car in the dirt parking to the left of the main building. He patted his pocket and strode into the lobby. The heat from the fireplace across from the front desk enveloped him as the door eased closed. He detected a sweet smell commingling with the pine scent, and just then, he noticed the plate of chocolate chip cookies on counter.

A brunette with large eyeliner-rimmed brown eyes greeted him with a smile. “Good afternoon.”

“Hi. You must be Josie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m Samuel Collins. I wanted to thank you for your help getting this weekend set up.” He pulled out the wad of bills and peeled four bills away. He handed her the cash. “This is for you.”

Her eyes widened. “No way!”

“Do you have an envelope?”

Josie reached into a drawer to her right and pulled out a letter-sized envelope with three green pine trees stamped in the upper left corner.

He took the envelope from her manicured fingers. “Are the Davenports dining in the main room tonight?”

Josie’s nails clicked the laptop keys. “They have a six-thirty reservation.”

“Perfect. I owe them for the spa appointment.” He stuffed a few bills into the envelope and tucked the rest into his pocket. He handed the envelope to Josie. “Please see that this gets to those who attended to my wife today.” His phone vibrated in his pocket and he checked the screen. Deana. He tapped the screen. “Hi, hon-”

“What is wrong with you?” she shrieked.

He pulled the phone from his ear and turned away from Josie after catching sight of her perplexed expression. “I have no idea.” He didn’t know how to answer. “How was the spa?”

“Nice, until I got back to the cabin!”

“Why? I had them set it up exactly how it was for our honeymoon.”

“We didn’t have two deer in our bed on our honeymoon!”

“What?”

“Two deer. In our bed!”

“Hold on.” He turned to Josie. “She says there are two deer in our bed?”

Josie nodded. “Yes sir, just as you requested.”

“I didn’t ask for that!”

She pulled out a manila folder and flipped through some papers. “Right here.” She handed the paper to him. Scrawled in purple ink was, ‘two deer for our anniversary.’

Samuel rubbed his forehead. “No!  It was supposed to be a card that read, “To my dear for our anniversary.”

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If you didn’t check out the link to Emilio’s photo at the beginning of the story, here’s a second chance. You really should see the photo that inspired this story – it’s awesome!

I purposely left the ending open so you can determine how it plays out. If you’re a romantic, then she ended up finding the mixup “endeering” (sorry, that was really bad) and laughed at the mishap and they lived happily ever after. If you are a cynic, then she was so mad she drove home that night and reconciliation hopes were dashed :)

I still have a lot of “stuff” going on, but I couldn’t resist this distraction from the weight of life. I appreciate all the kind comments and prayers that many of you have sent my way. You all rock! I hope to be back more regularly soon.

It Is Done – Poetry and Blog Hiatus

Nature's representation of my life at the moment...
Nature’s representation of my life at the moment…

I just let go-

my last precarious hold

on my final shred

of battered sanity.

My soul sinks low,

 a free-fall plummet

to the depths

of I-don’t-know where.

I’m so alone,

fearful, uncertain-

my anguished prayer

is that misery isn’t forever.

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Here is where I usually provide my inspiration for the poem.  About all I can tell you is that I wrote this poem on Saturday after a particularly gut-wrenching event.  I still cry whenever I think about it, which is quite often.    Beyond this, I have to leave you to your own interpretations, as it would reveal too much.  This brings me to the real point of this post…

For almost five years (in March) I’ve posted regularly, at least twice a week, except for maybe a week off here or there.  Circumstances are such that I need to take a longer break.  I don’t know if it will be a matter of weeks or months at this point, but I will be back.  I love this place and it makes me sad to do this, but with what’s going on, I can’t chance posting my emotions “real time.”  I fully intend to fill in some of the details when I’m on “the other side.” Even though I can’t see the other side through the darkness I’m in right now, I expect I will get there.  I don’t know who I’ll be at that point.  God willing, someone stronger.  Maybe more confident, too.

I hope you don’t forget about me during my absence and are willing to get re-acquainted with me when I return.  I have many regular readers that I consider friends and I will miss you!  I will try to do some reading, but may not comment much.  I look forward to the time when I can experience some sort of happiness again and can share it here :)

If you are the praying type, I could really use your prayers right now.

JannaT.