Nighthawk Again

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

Now what?

As Julia shook herself from those bleak memories of occupied Paris, she considered what she knew. Not much. Maybe it had been a crazy idea to return to France, but there was no paper trail—only memories to guide her.

Think. What is crucial to finding the way? Is this? “There is no beginning or end to the story—time circles,” an old woman with jade green eyes in a war-weathered face had told her. She was one of thousands of refugees streaming back into post-war Paris.

Julia sighs. What is she missing? She needs the one puzzle piece that will let her see the entire picture. And somehow Paul, and her relationship with him is the key.

If there is no beginning or end, she needs to work from the middle. She needs to become Night Hawk again.

Perhaps this one doesn’t work as flash fiction, but. . .more on my non-linear make-it-up-as-I-go spy story. This is for Prosery on dVerse, where I’m hosting today using the line: “Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.”
From Jo Harjo’s “A Map to the Next World.”

The Sequel: Summer Stock

New_york_restaurant_by_edward_hopper

Edward Hopper, New York Restaurant

 

Perhaps the story did not end with the slam of a door and a parting of ways. Certainly–as with that other famous play–the audience thought that was that. They discussed the denouement. Then, they exited the theater and quickly forgot about it.

But stories always go on, even if we can’t see behind the curtain; even if what passes for drama is mundane or boring and closer to farce. Three kids in six years for him and a move to the suburbs (but not too far away); a steady corporate rise for her.

They connected again on social media. She saw photos of his children playing in their grandfather’s dentist office. There were not many shots of him and his wife together. He saw her photographed at business functions and vacationing in exotic locales. No steady partner in sight.

“I’m in New York for a conference. Do you want to get a drink and catch up?” He messaged her.

The audience thought, this time they will marry. And they did, moving back to their hometown, where he could be close to his children.

But they couldn’t go back to their old roles. Their characters had moved on from ingenue and young hero. Within three months, there were more slammed doors. And when she was offered a new job in another city, she took it and left.

 

A bit of flash fiction. Claudia McGill challenged me to write a sequel to her story-poem. Yeah, so the sequel is longer than the first part. 😏 Read hers first here.

 

 

Lux Mentis: Prosery

512px-Kuindzhi_Moonlit_night_on_the_Dnieper_1880_grm_x2

 

We sail the night sea in our silvered ark. We’re refugees with lives programmed by machines that tell us when it’s day or night. On the observation deck, I can see the distant light of faraway stars, beckoning but elusive, like dream fragments remembered as you wake. Somewhere out there is our destiny–yet I’m haunted by the memory of sunshine streaming through the trees and the sound of birdsong on a summer day. Sometimes I hear the crash of waves in the constant humming of machinery, and I can almost taste the salt of ocean breezes.

Last night I dreamt I was the moon. I looked down and cried for Earth, gone forever.

 

At dVerse, we’re trying something new: a flash fiction piece of 144 words or less based on a line taken from a poem. We’re calling it prosery. Sarah has offered us this wonderful line, “Last night I dreamt I was the moon” from Alice Oswald’s “Full Moon.”

 

 

 

Patterns

 

 

It was a gloomy November day. JFK had just been elected to a second term. Ed sat at his usual table at the diner and thought about the war going on in a faraway place called Vietnam. He wished he could stop it. Stop all wars.

Ed wasn’t the president though. He wasn’t a world leader. He was just an ordinary guy with a knack for working with numbers. He often saw patterns that no one else noticed. He had a steady, if boring job, as an accountant, and business was booming. Still, he sensed there was something more, something that he could do—maybe something he was destined to do. If only he could find the right combination of numbers.

So there he was at the diner, where he ate almost every day. Most of the staff knew him. They let him sit there and work, writing on pads of paper—or paper napkins when he ran out of paper–refilling his coffee cup as needed.

There were napkins and papers strewn about the table. He looked at the calculations. There. That was it. Yes! He had found the equations that could change the course of history. He sat back, savoring the moment.

A waitress came by, someone new. “Can I fill your cup, Hon?” she asked. Coffee streamed from the full carafe, some of it missed his cup and spread like hot lava across the table. “Ooops, sorry,” she said, as she gathered up the brown, sopping pile of papers. “I’ll get you some fresh napkins,” she added as she walked away from the table.

Bob lit a cigarette. Tomorrow’s another day, he thought.

 

Do you make up stories about people you see?  Marian Beaman’s post  on her blog “Plain and Fancy Girl” that featured some of her husband’s art inspired this story. I was thinking of the restaurant portraits she included, and in particular this one.  I hope Cliff Beaman doesn’t mind.

 

Left with the Poplars: Microfiction

 

Van_Gogh_-_Pappelallee_im_Herbst

Vincent van Gogh, “Poplars in Autumn,” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

As Agata hurried down the dirt road, the autumn sun was already sinking lower in the sky. Sunlight streamed between the poplars lining either side of the path, casting shadows that lay over her small, determined figure like a shroud. It would be dark by the time she arrived at the meeting place. Past curfew. She shivered and wrapped her cloak tighter around her body. She wondered how the children would survive the winter, if she couldn’t get them out.

She had some money—and her body. She would bargain with both if necessary to buy enough food and the necessary papers for the children. She had given up her theater career for a life of religious contemplation, but now she contemplated whether life was a tragedy or a farce.

She left the path and walked into the woods. Feliks—she was certain that was not his real name—was there waiting. Silently, he took Agata’s money and handed over the papers, along with some potatoes. No bargaining.

“I can’t meet you again. It’s too dangerous,” he said to her. “Go quickly now.”

But it was already too late. Hearing men and dogs, Agata thrust the papers into a hole behind a giant poplar root, hoping Maria would find them there tomorrow. Seconds later, the soldiers’ flashlights illuminated her like an actress on a stage. She stared at their boots, then looked up at their faces and thought, “This may be my final performance.”

 

This story is in response to Jane Dougherty’s Writing Challenge. The prompt was Van Gogh’s painting above.

I thought the figure looked like a nun, and it made me think of two recent Polish movies I’ve seen. Ida, the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film (2015) is about a young woman raised in a convent since WWII, who is about to take final vows. The Mother Superior tells her she must first meet her aunt. The two take a road trip, and Ida discovers her parents were Jewish.

The Innocents (2016) is about nuns in a Polish convent. It is December 1945.  One nun leaves the convent to find a French doctor. It seems there are several pregnant nuns—the result of Soviet soldiers invading the convent and raping the women there. The doctor, Mathilde, and the sisters form a bond, despite their differences.

 

 

Triple Challenge: Wine and Tears

This is the result of a triple challenge. Jane Dougherty of Jane Dougherty Writes came up with one of her usual gems in response to ronovanwrites’ Haiku Challenge.  I told her that there was much more to the story in the John Singer Sargent painting she chose. (You can see the painting by clicking on the link to Jane’s blog post here.) She challenged me to tell it. Although I’m not quite certain this is the true story, I’m posting it anyway.

She wore her hauteur like a mask at a masquerade ball. It was a flimsy veil to hide her true feelings, one that might easily slip, revealing the depth of her misery. She had been the queen of the county—the proud Marguerite Sommerville, living in the ground house on the hill. Now her husband was dead, leaving her with debts she had not known existed. There was also the discovery of other women in other towns who claimed his name for their children. The neighborhood gossips relished each tidbit as it was revealed; each dainty morsel multiplied and divided like fish and loaves. I remained her friend. She needed a true one. I would pour her another glass of wine and wait for the mask to slip. The salty tears would soon come. Tomorrow she would don her mask again, and I would help her face the future.

O Brave New World: The Phoenix and Survival

Monday Morning Musings:

“There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been the first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but . . .we know all the damn silly things we’ve done. . .someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.

–Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

In mythology, the phoenix is a bird that is constantly reborn. It is associated with the sun—sometimes pictured with a nimbus around its head—and it is said to rise from the ashes of its predecessor. Time and again, civilizations also fall, and others rise from their ashes. Humans seem to have an infinite capacity for destruction. We also seem to have an infinite capacity for expressing our feelings, emotions, and desires through various forms of artistic expression, whether it is painting on a cave wall, secretly writing in a journal, or performing theatrical works in varied and sometimes bizarre locales. We find friendship and love in times of destruction and strife, the need to connect with others often overpowering thoughts of surviving without them.

You know those “what if” games? What books would you want if you were stuck on a deserted island? What belongings would you rush to gather in a disaster? How would you survive a zombie apocalypse? I don’t know. How can anyone know?

The book, Station Eleven, explores survival in the aftermath of a worldwide plague, and along the way it discusses theater, comic books, love, and loss. The story moves back and forth through time and the characters’ lives. One horse-drawn wagon of the Traveling Symphony caravan carries the slogan, “survival is insufficient.” The author of the novel, Emily St. John Mandel, has said she “stole it [the line] shamelessly from Star Trek: Voyager.”

The novel is about how people survive after present day civilization and conveniences no longer exist. What would we value in this brave new world? The Traveling Symphony performs Shakespeare and classical music; one of the actresses collects editions of an obscure comic book and treasures a snow globe. The book makes the argument that art and music of all types are necessary—simply surviving is not enough. Human connection—friendship, love, family bonds—all of these are necessary, too. And sometimes strangers connect us in ways we can never imagine–and perhaps will never know. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, obtaining food and shelter are crucial, but Mandel argues they are not enough. Humans want more. We want stories and art, too.

After finishing the book, I watched the Star Trek Voyager episode that inspired Mandel. (“C’mon,” I said to my husband, “don’t you want to watch Voyager again after all these years?” He did not seem overjoyed, but he watched it with me, demonstrating that indeed in marriage, too, “Survival is insufficient.”) In the episode, Seven of Nine, formerly of the Borg collective, realizes that living in freedom, even for a brief time, is more valuable that living in bondage or in a life you did not choose.

The German movie, Phoenix, explores the idea of survival in a different way. In this 2014 film by director Christian Petzold (that just opened in Philadelphia), Nelly, a concentration camp survivor (the wonderful actress Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after undergoing reconstructive facial surgery because of injuries inflicted upon her during the war. She has endured unimaginable horrors, and now she wants to find her pianist husband, Johnny. She finds him working as a bus boy in a jazz club, the Phoenix, in the American zone. How did he survive? Did he betray her to the Nazis? How can he not know his own wife? The movie makes viewers reflect upon what we might do in order to survive, and what lies might we then tell ourselves to ease our guilt? We are shown photographs—that person is now dead; that person was a Nazi. “Who him?” asks Nelly. Secrets and lies. What is the truth? There are echoes of Hitchcock here. But in postwar Berlin, many people assumed new identities. Her friend Lene, who knows Nelly’s story, believes she and Nelly should immigrate to Palestine and build a new life. Nelly, however, wants to rebuild her old life—and herself—from the ruins that literally surround her. The song “Speak Low” by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash is repeated throughout the movie, the lyrics speaking words that the characters themselves cannot voice to one another.

“The curtain descends,

Everything ends

Too soon, too soon.”

Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, “Speak Low”

Station Eleven seems to offer more hope in its belief that love and art will triumph. It is set mainly in a post-apocalyptic world, but almost two decades removed from the plague that nearly wiped out humanity. Phoenix is set immediately after the end of WWII. Perhaps a re-born Nelly will, in time, rise in the post-war world. Perhaps she will find joy in song again. Phoenix may not be a great movie, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.

In Station Eleven, there is Shakespeare, comic books, art, music, and story telling. Those who remember the past, tell stories of air conditioning and the Internet to those who were born later. In Fahrenheit 451, a passage from which is quoted above, there is a future world where books and reading are banned. Rebel survivors memorize and tell stories so they will not be forgotten. In Phoenix, perhaps it is too soon. Yet Lene plays a record, saying that listening to it helped her survive the war in London. Nelly says she no longer can enjoy German songs. The survivors have survived, but at what cost? Can we be reborn in the aftermath of tragedy?

These are fictional works that share a common theme—they emphasize the importance of literature and art. Sometimes we need fiction to find the truth about our world and ourselves.

         “Some stories are true that never happened.”

-Elie Wiesel

Clouds and Illusions

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”

Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”

When I was a child, I thought clouds were soft and fluffy like cotton balls or a down comforter. I imagined stretching out on a cloud, and I thought it would feel like a soft bed. I half-believed I could touch the clouds. Even now, when I know they are composed of water droplets and far beyond my reach, I still half-believe I can reach up and grab a piece of cotton candy cloud.

"Clouds."  On the way home from Ocean City, NJ

“Clouds.”
On the way home from Ocean City, NJ

Illusions.

Our lives are filled with illusions—and only some are the optical type. In a dinner discussion a few nights, my younger daughter commented that she always found the villain in TV shows, movies, and plays to be much more interesting both to watch and to perform. I think that is often true. Very often in fiction, the villains get the interesting lines and the more complex back-stories. They get to be fun instead of righteous.

The most interesting fictional heroes are flawed. I like characters and stories in which people and the choices they make are not black and white. In John Le Carre’s elegant Cold War masterpieces, for example, the lies and half-truths of various governments are echoed in George Smiley’s personal life, and in the lives of many people he encounters.

In real life, I suspect few people know people who are always good and always right. Life is seldom that uncomplicated. Was it wrong for Jean Valjean to steal a loaf a bread to feed his sister’s hungry children? Yes, Inspector Javert says. Stealing is stealing, and there can be no straying from the legal road of right and wrong. Morally, however, was it wrong to steal to feed hungry children? That is

Português: Jean Valjean e Cosette perto do cas...

Português: Jean Valjean e Cosette perto do casamento (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the type of question that most people have to decide on their own.

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels feature a homicide detective/private detective in WWII era Berlin and in the immediate post-War period. Gunther is not a Nazi—he despises them–but he sometimes works for them to solve murders and find missing persons.  Of course, since there is no lack of either in this time and place, he always has work. He is cynical, and not always likeable, but he is a truly interesting character, the hard-boiled detective transposed to 1930s and 1940s Germany.

In the TV show The Walking Dead, the most interesting thing to me, is how the characters have had to evolve. Their world has changed, and each one of them must decide what he or she will do to survive in it. They must watch out for zombies all the time, but they also have to decide when to help and trust other humans. (I realize many people, if not most, watch the show only to see blood, guts, and gore, but I would be fine without viewing any of that.) Similarly, the young protagonists of  Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy and Julianna Baggott’s Pure trilogy must fight against the morally corrupt governments of their dystopian worlds without becoming corrupted themselves.

In the real world, even those of us not living in war zones or battling zombies must still make daily decisions about right and wrong and how we want to live our lives. In the novels of our lives, we choose to be the heroes or the villains. We may be flawed, but we can still try to be good, while remaining interesting. I can only speak for myself. In my own life, I want my daughters to be as proud of me, as I am of them.

I truly want to believe that most people are good, and that a rainbow will appear after a thunderstorm if I only keep looking for it.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at
heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of
confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned
into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will
destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look
up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this
cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Anne Frank

We decide what illusions we want to accept and which battles we want to fight. And we dream–because

what would we do without imagination? Who has not looked at the clouds and wondered–if only?

 For those who really enjoy clouds, I discovered there is a Cloud Appreciation Society.