2020 Journal RoadSchooling The Story

Of Fire and Water

In the darkness they gather, drawn by the song of running water and the promise of the flame. The teacher trails behind, holding aloft the lamp that his companions might see the winding path. Around fallen branches and down vertiginous steps carved from the mountainside they travel until, at the edge of the bog, they pause to light the ceremonial torches.

“Be cautious as you cross the bog. The rocks are treacherous and the torches throw little light. You must pass this place as much by memory as by light,” the teacher whispers as he sparks each of the torches in turn.

“What about…” the initiate asks, but before he can finish speaking the acolyte cuffs him across the back of his head. He turns on her, fury flashing in his eyes, but she fixes him with a barely contained feral glare.

He nods, accepts his torch from the teacher in silence, and turns to pick his way across the mossy black stones which peek out above the waterline.

“Hold strong,” the teacher whispers.

The acolyte nods and turns her eyes to the mountains, visible now only as black voids jagging against the starry sky. She breathes deeply of the night air and, silently, wishes for the hundredth time that she possessed the wings which she wears in her dreams.

Behind them, the matriarchs watch from their seat on a fallen log. Three generations of woods women listen as forest slowly heaves a sigh and returns to steady breathing as the night creatures begin to crawl and trill in the cold air. They wait in silence, knowing that the softest word will scare the forest into holding its breath again.

Down in the ravine, they cross the bog safely and arrive at the stony riverbank. The gurgle of water across half submerged rocks is interrupted only by the grating of stone on stone beneath the feet of the approaching ceremonialists. Out across the waters waits the pyre, prepared stick by twig by leaf by stone, each carried to its place at the middle of the river by the initiate and his teacher while the acolyte and matriarchs watched from the shore.

The three pause at the edge and gaze into the darkness. After a moment the teacher turns to the initiate and says, “Take your torch and wade out into the river. Place each step with care so you are not sweets away by the current. When you reach the pyre, light it with your torch and allow the rising flames to burn away your past life.”

The initiate blinked, unsure how to take the dramatic speech, but eventually nodded and walked out into the black water.

The acolyte and the teacher watched as the golden circle of torchlight moved slowly across the rippling surface. Soon the light revealed the pyre: Stone had been laid atop flat stone to create an altar which rose a hands breadth above the black water, atop which stood the pyre. The initiate pushed his torch into it, kindling a flame in its dry heart. With a burst of light and the crackle of hungry flame, the pyre ignited and cast a wide circle of golden light across the river.

On the ridge, the matriarchs smile as a golden light rises up across the mountainside. Reflecting from the wide waters, the flames glow like a sunrise to paint the autumn leaves.

The initiate returns, bearing his torch and a wide grin. He is soaked and more than a little cold, but the glow of the fire warms his spirit. The three stand there at the river’s edge, watching in silence as the flames rise and embers drift into the night sky. The cracking of the fire joins in with the burbling river and the insectile night song to form a wild, secret chorus.

1988 The Story


She’d gone out to walk the dog that morning, shivering as her breath hung in the chill air, and found Thumper laying in the back corner of the hutch. The large brown rabbit was already cold, so she knew that it had died sometime during the night. The other rabbits were gathered together for warmth on the far side of the hutch, their little blue and red eyes blinking as their noses wriggled with discontent. They knew that Thumper was dead too. 

Susan sighed and pulled the dead rabbit from the hutch. She couldn’t just throw it in the trash. Anne might be willing to accept just being told that it had died, but Andrew was already upset enough at Tony leaving for sea duty. Susan couldn’t just tell him that his favorite rabbit had disappeared. She stood there for a few minutes, listening to the rustling of the cold morning wind through the trees as she cradled the corpse in her left arm and stroked between the ears. Once long and perky and utterly adorable, they now flopped over her fingers like loose rags. 

 Eventually, she set the dead rabbit atop the stump beneath which the bunnies had made a burrow and, pushing through the fence, whistled for the elderly Saint Bernard to come back from her morning patrol of the property. 

Above the washing machine she found a shoebox half filled with scraps of dryer lint that Anne had been saving to make fire starters for Girl Scouts. Susan stuffed the lint into an empty pickle jar and carried the box back outside. Thumper was a large rabbit, but she just managed to fit his corpse into the shoebox and set it in the mudroom before returning to the kitchen table to drink her coffee.

Anne woke first. She took the news well enough for a girl of thirteen. Tears welled up behind her Coke bottle glasses, but she snuffled them away and asked after the other rabbits.

“They’re alright, honey,” Susan said, holding her daughter’s hand across the chipped formica tabletop.

“And the cats?”

“They’re fine too. It wasn’t a predator. I think Thumper was just old. He was fully grown when we got him, remember.”

Anne nodded, her lips set in a grave line, and pushed her glasses back up her nose.

Andrew toddled out of his room a while later, completely naked, as Anne read her book and Susan was in the midst of setting a pot of black beans to soak for dinner.

“You need pants, mister,” Susan said.

Andrew grinned, but didn’t reply as he stumbled past his mother and sister, then turned into the small bathroom off the kitchen.

Anne groaned. “He’s going to make a mess.” She stuck her face back in her book, hoping to avoid the fate of cleaning the bathroom for after her little brother. 

“At least he didn’t wet the bed,” Susan replied.

“You hope.”

“Get dressed. We need to have a funeral.”

It took nearly twenty minutes for Susan to herd both of her children into warm clothing and assemble them in the mudroom. It was a cramped space, with low benches set into the walls and coat hooks hung about, but Tony had built it for the family before going out to sea so Susan would have an easier time of keeping the house warm while he was gone. Then the three of them tramped out the door and up the hill behind the house, their breath ghosting in the chill autumn air. 

It was a simple funeral. Susan worked the shovel into the cold ground, still a couple weeks from fully freezing for the season, and dug out a hole deep enough for a small shrub or the even smaller shape of a rabbit in a shoebox. Anne set the improvised coffin into the hole and, prompted by his mother, little Andrew tried to scrape the dirt back in with the shovel. That effort ended quickly as the handle of the school whipped wildly through the air. Susan caught the handle before it struck her in the face, then finished filling the hole. 

And that ought to have been the end of it. 

The next morning, Susan took the family Saint Bernard out for its morning walk. While checking on the rabbits, who were all alive this morning, she heard the dog snorting nearby. Looking around the left side of the rabbit hutch, she saw thumper laying on the large stump at the edge of the fence. 

“Where did you come from?” she exclaimed. 

The rabbit stared back at her with glassy eyes. 

“I’m still dead,” it seemed to say. “How would I know how I got here.”

Perplexed, Susan whistled for the dog to follow. She whimpered at first, very much wanting to remain and keep staring at the dead rabbit on the stump, but at Susan’s second call she followed. Up the hill they went, through the dead scraps of the garden, and to the place where the family had buried Thumper yesterday morning. 

The hole was still filled in. 

Susan wasn’t one for cursing, nor was she superstitious, but in that moment she let slip a silent obscenity and glanced around, feeling cold fingertips brush agains the back of her neck. 

How did the rabbit get back on the stump?

Not wanting to upset the children by letting them see Thumper again, and spurred by curiosity, Susan walked down to the garden shed, listening to the morning birdsong more intently than usual. She now found herself unexpectedly on edge, searching the twitter and squawk of the daily chorus for a discordant note that might indicate the presence of a fox or a wolf or even another human. She heard nothing out of the usual. 

Susan found the shovel where she had left it, leaning against the wall on the right side of the tool shed. Returning to the garden grave, she made quick work of the still loose soil. Turning it up, she found the shoebox resting at the bottom. Rather the worse for having been buried and then uncovered again, but still intact. 

She eyed the shoebox. 

It had to be empty. Right? No matter that the master of horror himself lived two hours north of her home, Maine was not actually a hotbed of horror. The box would be empty and it would turn out that the kids had simply retrieved the rabbit out of misguided grief. That had to be it. 

With more trepidation than she liked, Susan used the tip of the shovel to ease the lid from the box. 

The box was empty. 

She heaved a sigh. Of course the box was empty, but she still felt relief discovering it to be so. 

Susan bundled the dead rabbit back into the box and buried it again, adding a couple more inches to the depth for good measure. Whistling for the dog, she returned to the house and went about her day. She said nothing about the rabbit, but watched both Anne and Andrew carefully, looking for any clue that one of them had retrieved the rabbit during the night, but both acted normally. 

The only deviation from the normal daily ritual came when Andrew paused at filling in one of his coloring books and announced that he missed Thumper. 

 As if an answer to Andrew’s wish, the next morning Susan found the dead rabbit resting on the stump again. By now it looked rather the worse for wear. Its eyes had gone dull. Its fur was matted. Some of the grave dirt was clumped up in its right ear. 

This time she buried the rabbit a foot deeper and put a stone over the shoebox lid before filling in the dirt. She then confronted Andrew and Anne over breakfast, but both denied digging up Thumper.

“Why would I dig up a dead rabbit?” Anne asked

“Where is he?” Andrew asked. “Did he come back to life?”

Susan scowled and shook her head. “No. No… I think Suzy must have dug him up,” she said, trying to drop the subject before the kids became upset. 

But even if the Saint Bernard was responsible, that didn’t explain how the rabbit grave had been neatly filled back in atop the re-closed shoebox coffin.

The rabbit did not come back the next morning, or the one after. A part of Susan wondered if she ought to dig the grave up one last time, just to see if the rabbit was still there. 

She never did. 

2020 The Story

the bridge

2020 – August 

The bridge loomed ahead of them, a two mile span of low-slung elevated roadway leading up to a sudden rise. Weathered, streaked with rust, and just wide enough for two tractor trailers to pass without kissing sides, hopefully. 

Andrew gripped the steering wheel and took in a deep breath. Bridges aren’t usually a problem for him, but he’s never been a fan of narrow two-way roads. Give him a sweeping curve of asphalt running between cotton and soybean fields and he’ll unchain his inner speed demon for a minute or two at a time, but the one time he lost control and spun out on an unexpected gravel patch was enough to make him appreciate having a wide, level shoulder. And right there: A black streak of burnt rubber underlining a fresh scab in the side of the jersey barrier, fifteen feet above the choppy water. That is his nightmare. 

“You ok?”

Andrew spared a glance for Alli and pulled a half smile before locking his eyes on the bridge again. “Fine. I just hate this bridge.”

“You want me to drive?” she asked. 

A genuine offer, but not one he could take. “You’re too anxious to drive right now.”

Her brown eyes narrowed and darkened above cheeks turning to pink. “Hey, buddy. I’m a better driver than you.”

“I’m not going to argue that point, but I’m serious. You need to relax before you… dammit.”

He nudged the black F-150 as close to the barrier as he dared and gritted his teeth as a flatbed carrying half of a house roared by. 

“Anxious much?” she teased after the flatbed had passed.  

“Not as much as you,” he replied. 

She twisted herself into the corner of the bucket seat, leaning against the B column and hiking her bad ankle up into her left knee. “So tell me why I’m so anxious,” she grinned as the white and rusted framework of the bridge whipped past her window. 

There she went, digging into his brain again.

Andrew gritted his teeth and spoke through the strain of keeping his eyes on the road and the steering wheel pointed straight ahead. “I’m not saying you’re having a panic attack right now, but just think of your baseline anxiety. We’re living through a global pandemic, in a nation sliding ever closer to fascism, riding in a car with a nail in the tire…” He spared a glance for the tire pressure monitor on the dash and was relieved to see that the rear-right indicator was still reading at exactly one point less than the others. “… because my camper died on us going over another bridge.”

That had been two days before. She had been driving at the time. Fortunately, Alli genuinely is a better driver than Andrew, or most other people. She’d coaxed the thirty foot RV to the side of the road and kept the kids contained until James showed up to take them back home, while Andrew dealt with the towing and insurance companies. With plans suddenly altered, Gerry had picked up the kids for their vacation the next day and now, after hashing out their options, Andrew and Alli were driving to her parents with the truck packed to the roof.  

“So let’s count it off.” Andrew held up one hand and ticked the points on his fingers, “Pandemic, fascism, nail, dead camper, kids with your ex, and, to top it all off, we are on our way to help with your dying father.”

“You’re forgetting the animals.”

“Of course!” He jerked his thumb at the rear seat before putting his hand back on the wheel. “How could I forget a rat, a rabbit, and two dogs. I’m just glad we decided to leave my diabetic cat home with the boys this time.”

“Sure does sound like a lot.”

Andrew mmhmmed his agreement and leaned back into the seat, feeling relief as the road at the foot of the bridge opened up into a divided highway again. 

“At least talking about it got us across the bridge.”

He shot her a glance. She was drumming her fingertips on her knee and giving him her best “I got you” grin. 

“I’m not wrong about you,” he muttered,

“No, you aren’t,” she agreed, smile fading. “But I have to keep going. I have to be there for him.”

“I know.”

“I just… wish James could come too,” she said.

“You and me both. This is going to be a rough couple weeks without him around to cheer everyone up.”