Thursday, July 24, 2014

Human Frailties

Another short story, this one about how disasters are rarely a result of what they seem to be.

by Christina Carson

Her hand reached through the blackness of the bedroom, hit the buzzer button after just one buzz and wearily slid back off the clock to hang limply over the edge of the bed. Lucy forced her eyes open to see the only thing visible in the room, the clock face indicating 3:00 AM. She dragged her weary body out from under the covers and was reminded of the temperature they suffered every winter in this wreck of an old house as she pulled the jeans on she’d left lying on the floor when she went to bed only hours earlier. They dragged the cold up her legs and over her butt as she gritted her teeth and shivered. She stuffed her long underwear shirt down in them to get something warm against her stomach again. Her wool socks were already on her feet which was a blessing, and she loaded a cotton turtleneck and then heavy wool sweater on top of it all. Her mate slept through her dressing, since his shifts were midnight and 6:00 AM. She always did the 3:00 AM shift, just that one, but the one the ewes were most fond of employing when it came time to birth their lambs.

The kitchen was a smidgen lighter, as the yard light entered the uncurtained windows but was checked by the coating of ice that encased them from the outside. Lucy next pulled on her quilted coveralls, laced up her snow boots, put a wool toque on her head and finally pulled on her parka. Her last act of dressing was sliding her hands into two sets of mittens – wool inners, leather outers. She took a breath, opened the porch door, and stepped into the porch the way astronauts step into their airlocks, only air was not her problem, cold was.

Sometimes at that hour of the morning she would be treated to the aurora, a waving curtain of brilliant colors in the deep darkness of a subarctic night. This night, however, was just dark and cold. She walked up the driveway, the dry snow squeaking loudly with each step. She went up around the log barn full of month-old lambs as yet unweaned and down a path worn in the grass and dirt from years of taking this same course. 

As she entered the lambing barn, her hand crept up the wall to the light switch overhead. It was utter pitch in that barn, and she didn't take one more step until the light was on. You never knew where a ewe would pick to lamb. As the room brightened, the ewes in their lambing pens, which were against the walls and ringed the room in orderly succession, blinked and squinted until they too adjusted to the light.

Lucy stood scanning the center section where they ewes awaiting birthing had free run in the thick, clean straw. She always left the radio on CBC, the only station available to them other than the local one which had been off for hours, as she felt the voices and music kept the ewes company. Their sheep were used to human contact and appeared to find it a calming and protective influence in their lives, so she thought the radio was good for them. 

As she looked to see if any ewe had lambed or was in the process, she heard the DJ, as part of his late night chatter, talking about the upcoming Challenger shuttle flight later in the morning. He was recounting the number of setbacks this particular launch had experienced so far. She paid it little mind as she heard a ewe in the far corner talking to her as yet unborn lamb, maa-ing out her foreknowledge as to what was about to happen. What it meant to Lucy was she wouldn't be getting back to bed for a while.

She checked to make sure the new born lambs and their mums  in the pens around the wall were fine. She picked up the occasional newborn to snuggle  against her cheek, smelling its fresh soapy scent, and tickled by its tiny lips that keep searching every inch of her face for something that might yield milk. She laughed softly at their determination dear and gentle as it was.

The ewe was now pawing the straw, bunching up a nest that she would soon lie in. Lucy slide down the wall into the soft straw herself and waited.

Once again the music stopped as the DJ offered some further difficulties with the shuttle. He was talking about how cold it was in Florida that morning.

She snorted. “Cold, she said, “What could they possible understand about cold?” She was accustomed to talking out loud as hers was a quiet world with few human interactions across the course of any day. Sometimes she’d treat the sheep as listeners and tell them about what was troubling her, or the jobs she had to get finished that day or ask them about their day, with her filling in possible answers. She loved sheep, their benign, joyful natures, and enjoyed their company. A ewe not ready to lamb, wandered around the room looking for tidbits of scattered alfalfa leaves, and then approached Lucy, moving up close enough to touch nose to nose. Lucy scratched her ears until the ewe decided to trundle on.

The DJ, obviously wanting someone to share this compelling interest he had in space flight, broke through the music again like an earnest newsman. His likely only audience at that hour was possibly six or so truckers on the lonely northern McKenzie Highway and a few shepherds perhaps. He alerted them to recent developments where the Thiokol engineers had informed the shuttle powers-to-be there could be potential problems with the O-rings that sealed the joints of the shuttle’s rocket boosters. They were vulnerable to failure at low temperatures.

Lucy listened a little more carefully for she knew about cold, its insidious nature and its power to ground human beings utterly. The station had picked up a broadcast coming from California. It offered snatches of conversation from various constituencies responsible for this amazing flight machine. She listened not just to their words, but was struck more by what they weren't saying. She lived in a world of frankness, after all the local farmers were in the same business, knew the same problems and didn't miss anything that happened in the community. To people whose fate rests in the hands of seeing things for what they are, she thought her neighbors could do a lot better job getting to the truth than these engineers, managers and NASA.

The ewe had lain down in her bed and was now breaking water. Lucy left the radio program to attend to her. Already two pointed hooves were pushing out. Aah, she thought, looks straightforward. Maybe I’ll get back to bed. But when the lamb didn't make any progress after ten minutes, Lucy washed up, and proceeded to enter the ewe and see what was wrong. 

To finish this story, click here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the Time of Love

A short story about life’s most complex arrangement – loving another human being.

by Christina Carson

It was the dog days of summer, the heat and humidity of July causing even the most motivated to sink into lethargy, sulky and brooding. Jill was a fine example. She lay stretched out on the sofa of her grandmother’s back porch shaded by two huge old maple trees. She was trying to finish one of the ten books she needed to read before her junior year in Literature began in September, but she was distracted. The heat had stuck her T-shirt to her like a second skin and her naturally curly hair now looked like Orphan Annie’s, but today she hardly noticed. She doodled on her legal pad where she had been taking notes on Ulysses. She drew a big “M” thickening the lines with each pass and thinning out to curlicues on the ends. She spoke her thoughts to the steamy air, “What has happened with him?” The him referred to her boyfriend of two years. Matt and she had seemed such a great fit she thought. They had the same sense of humor, the same dreams and seemed so compatible. Then he got a grant to work on a science project this summer and rather than encourage her to stay and seek work in the adjacent town, he suggested they take the summer off.

“Off from what,” she asked confused.

“You know.”

“No I don’t know.” She could feel her stomach knotting up.

“Sometimes it’s good for two people to have a break from each other.”

“Explain to me why? I’m not seeking a break from you. So that seems to leave you who need a break, I guess, from me. What’s going on?”

“I’m just feeling corralled.”

“I thought we were enjoying each other, that we both liked being together. How did I get that wrong?”

“I just need some space that’s all…” each word accented by his frustration. His face twisted in annoyance as he shoved himself away from the table with a force that pushed the table toward her. Somewhere between apologizing or being miffed, he chose to walk out with no reply. 

That night, Jill packed up her belongings, loaded them in her friend, Judy’s car and left school for the summer holiday. She asked Judy to drop her off in another small college town where her grandmother lived. Jill, a child of divorce, found living with her grandmother the best of her options. So late that same evening, she unloaded her belongings into her attic bedroom at her Granny Bette's and prepared to live there for the summer, alone.

Jill got up from the sofa, picked up James Joyce’s heavy tome and walked back into the house to find Granny Bette in the kitchen. She stood in the doorway staring at Bette. She hadn't noticed before just how young-looking this 62 year-old semi-retired English Lit professor was, but she had noticed how enigmatic. Usually old people walked about embarrassingly unmasked for Jill, like they didn't care anymore what you noticed about them.  But Bette, she displayed an air of dignity that made Jill comfortable in her presence.

Bette turned from the stove where she was making curry and stared back at Jill. “Is it Ulysses that’s proving in tolerable or just life in general?" 

Jill smiled, the kindness in Bette’s eyes softening her frustration.
“Life is beginning to make Ulysses look like child’s play.”

“Ooh. Sounds like heart disease to me.”

Jill chuckled this time, then asked, “Granny Bette, what do you know about men?”

“The worst and the best, my darling child, yes, the worst and the best.” Her gaze drifted off for a second as if she was recalling it all.

Jill didn't know where to start with that reply so she stuck to her present problem. “Matt says he needs space. I don’t understand that statement. Why would someone need space?”

Without a pause, Bette starting reeling off the reasons. “Possibility one, the most obvious, he’s flirting with another relationship. Possibility two, he’s getting nervous about the seriousness of his relationship with you. Responsibility scares him. Possibility three, he’s a cad and a liar. Let’s hope that isn't the case. Possibility four, he’s a dolt who truly can’t separate uncut gems from beach pebbles.”

“How many possibilities are there, for god sakes?”

“You don’t really want an answer to the question, do you?”

“What scares me most is that I never saw any of this coming. Am I that obtuse that I actually thought we were in love with each other, only one of us wasn't? What are the rules here? What about fair play?”

Bette considered her, studying the face of this sensitive, dark-eyed young woman. She reminded Bette of herself at that age, a believer in goodness rewarded, but she knew Jill’s understanding of men and women in love, however, was a fool’s tale at best.

“Dear girl, there is no greater treachery than the affairs of love. Anytime humans are attempting to complete the cosmic equation of one plus one equals one, stresses and strains abide. It’s then that each participant’s true character is revealed, often as surprising to oneself as to the other. Which way do they lean under pressure – toward kindness and tolerance, inflexibility and control, blame and judgment or do they just jump ship?  It’s the ultimate gamble.”

“Is it worth it? I mean what’s the point if it’s so difficult and the odds seem against you from the start? You’re single and your life looks full and satisfying.”

 “Does it?”

Jill stopped dead when Bette said that. She suddenly realized she didn't know the first thing about Granny Bette’s life other than the obvious.

To finish this story, click here

A Most Extraordinary Story

by Christina Carson

There are some books that present stories that would be impossible to imagine were they not true. And There Was Light is one of those. This is an autobiography of the first 21 years of Jacques Lusseyran, and though it might seem strange to write an autobiography of such a short and usually less than eventful period of one’s life, Jacques Lusseyran’s first 21 years were extraordinary.

Blinded by an accident at 8 years of age, this good-natured young boy never missed a step because of it. In fact, because he could no longer look out toward the world, he became aware of an inner life that is within us all, only he became involved with it and learned from it such that he developed an inner vision and awareness that grew over the years to serve him in all manner of capacities. He offers some of the most vivid descriptions of what he encountered and how he learned to function more fully as a result of it that I have ever read.

Where the book begins to take on epic proportions is when 17 year-old Lusseyran organizes a resistance group in his home country of France, which by then had been taken over by Germany in WW II. He manages to survive prison and 15 months in Buchenwald concentration camp and his descriptions of how he managed that are unlike anything you might have encountered from other survivors of such living hell.

This is not only a story about an unusual man but also one describing the equally amazing consciousness within us all, and what is possible were we to develop it as Lusseyran did. There was no mind numbing sadness in this man, no sense of victim or despair. His played to joy, deep friendship and an abiding optimism, in a life most could not have endured even as a sighted person.

This blind man has something to teach us all about seeing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Man Who Rolled Rocks

 Another short story...
by Christina Carson

“Do you ever feel like your life is empty, without meaning?”

Jen smirked as she pushed her coat off her shoulders and onto the back of her chair. Freed from it, she waved a waiter toward us. “Well that’s a hellavu start to the end-of-the-week happy hour. What’s got in your craw?

The noise of the Downtown Bar and Grill was still low as people were only beginning to arrive for the Friday night unwinding ritual. Jen and I often spent Friday evening here as the food was excellent and the crowd friendly. With a beer in front of her, Jen settled in her chair and stared at me like Mother Superior waiting for my confession.

“I was sitting in my cubicle today. Even that word, think about – cubicle. Like a cell or stall or pigeonhole. Well I was sitting in my cubicle at the bank keeping the numbers in the correct columns, receivables, payables, all of us trying to stay awake more than anything else, and a wailing siren screams past the building making the next moment just a fraction different from the last. I swear every head in that room lifted and stared in the direction of that sound as if paying silent tribute to it for its momentary reprieve. That’s my life. That’s why I asked that question. Do you ever feel like that?”

“Well, Abby, the harbor’s a bit different scene from a bank. There’s a certain mystique to international shipping. Besides, secretarial work there isn't so bad and there are some damned fine looking men that traipse through that office.”

“I guess you just answered my question, Jen. A little flirting, a lot of typing, that’s all you expect from life?”

“It’s not all that bad…”

“Let me stop you right there. Is ‘not all that bad’ all you expected from life? That’s my question, I guess. What did you expect? What were you hoping for when we graduated and went out into the world?”

“I think I was hoping that I’d never have to spend another night studying. I wasn't the greatest student. Not bright like you, Abby. So I think I was hoping for something that didn't tax me, something I could walk out of each night and have the rest of the time to myself.”

“To do what?”

“I watch TV. I go out to the pub. Occasionally I have a date, and I keep hoping to find Mr. Right. I don’t know, maybe I don’t have any big dreams or need much in the way of meaning.”

“Could you do thirty more years of that? What then?”

Jen sighed and let the carnival-like atmosphere of the bar and grill grab her attention. A burst of laughter came from one corner. At the center of the room, a table of ladies, who had arrived early and were now finished their meal, watched as a huge birthday cake with burning candles headed their way. It caught the eye of most of the patrons. Two waiters sang an operatic version of Happy Birthday that stopped the entire room for a moment. Everyone cheered the singers and the birthday girl after which the crowd quieted back into talk and eating.

Then Jen said quietly, “What’s the matter with this? It’s fun here. The energy is pleasant, though it might be better if I had a happier date.” She eyed me dolefully.

“But, Jen, this is called vicarious living, sort of like leeches which live off of someone else’s blood or parasites like mistletoe that live off other plants’ resources? They are the ones whose lives are making them laugh. We’re just jetsam on their sunny beaches.”

“Abby, I think your drink isn't quite stiff enough tonight. You need help.”

The food we ordered had arrived and made the silence that had settled between us feel less onerous. I noticed that Jen had started eyeing a guy two tables over, flirting in between forkfuls of Fettuccine Alfredo. By the time Jen had finished her plate; the fellow stopped by and invited us over to his table already hosting a few of his friends. I had barely eaten my supper and decided I’d do the world a favor and spend the rest of the evening at home.
The fellow made a point to ask me as well, which I found very thoughtful, but Jen butted in and said, “Leave her be. She’s in one of her philosophical moods. Trust me she could dampen the joie de vie of Mardi Gras when she gets like this.”

I raised my eyebrows and my hands as if to say, guilty. I pushed my chair back, folded my napkin, left it on the table and told her I get the check in penance. I winked at the fellow who, as he was directing Jen toward his table, looked back at me. He mouthed to me, “Maybe another time.” I shrugged and smiled laughingly and left.

I walked out into a perfect spring evening and decided to walk home. There was certainly something bothering me, and I wasn't sure it was as simple as finding a new job. The fullness of the apple blossoms made the trees look like low lying clouds. And the great silent forests that surrounded downtown Vancouver were scenting the night with cedar. It was a beautiful place to live, but my life didn't feel like it was doing it justice.

I lived in the attic suite of an old historic house. Four flights of outside stairs kept me in good shape. The top floor landing gave me a view west toward the ocean and included the tail end of a flaming orange sunset. I sat on the landing and let the night close down around me. What was it that was missing? I had a nice place to live, some good friends, fine health and a beautiful city, so I almost capitulated to Jen’s sentiment for it seemed I should be nothing but grateful. But even gratitude didn't fill in the emptiness I felt.

The very early light of the next morning found me on Third Beach. I wanted quiet. I wanted solitude. I sat on a wet log, one that had escaped from a logger’s boom somewhere up the coast and had found its way here. I was enjoying the unpeopled landscape when a stocky man carrying a length of six inch diameter iron pipe and a seven foot long iron bar walked onto the beach. I heard myself say, “Damn it.” I so wanted to be alone.

He walked purposefully and stopped at a shady spot, pushed his suspenders aside and removed his outer shirt leaving him in a long underwear type top. He pulled his suspenders back up and pushed his sleeves up to his elbows. He tucked his thermos and lunch bucket behind some driftwood, covered them with his shirt and stretched himself, first side to side, then tall. With that, like a man starting a day’s work, he picked up his pipe and bar and walked over to the closest large rock. I wasn't sure where these large rocks came from—off the jetty or in with the tide—but they were always showing up on that beach and were much too big to pick up. Between the pipe and the lever, he began to roll that rock back to a place in the jetty. I watched amazed. The rock was almost three feet in diameter and yet he moved it. The work was so strenuous that he was soon soaked with sweat.

The first couple of the day walked onto the beach around 9:00, and he gave them no notice. He was busy with his third rock. They too watched for a bit, curious, but soon lost interest and lay down in the sun. I hadn't moved. He intrigued me. Nothing I could come up with could explain why he was there involved in that activity. When he broke for lunch, I walked over to where he sat eating a sandwich and drinking his coffee.

“May I talk with you while you eat?” He nodded and I went on. “This is incredibly tough work. What possesses you to do this?

He smiled patiently as if he had answered this same question many times before. “Hit a bad patch some time back and ended up on the dole. I've never felt right ‘bout taking something for nothing, and I decided to tidy up the beach and shore up the jetty in return.”

“Every day?”


“Is it interesting to you. I mean do you get tired of doing it sometimes?”

He looked at me as one might look at a child who had just asked a question beyond their scope to understand. “Do you mean do I like it? Does it satisfy me?

“Yeah, I guess that’s what I meant?”

“Why wouldn't it?”

His question stopped me in my tracks. “Well I just thought it might get boring, doing this every day.”

“Something so mundane and without much value to the world? Is that the rest of your thought?”

I felt my certainties slipping away. Me, the great philosopher, had suddenly met a graduate of the school of life. “That’s how I've been feeling about my work. So I guess I just assumed most people feel like I do.”

He didn't reply so I trudged on, my thoughts tumbling out with no regard to how they were embarrassing me. “I told my friend yesterday I felt so empty, and yet couldn't imagine life was meant to feel that way. The answer feels bigger than just changing jobs. And now watching you, I get a sense that job may have little to do with it.” I stopped, feeling like I had just stripped down naked in front of someone I not only didn't know but also would never have imagined baring my soul to.

The stranger poured another cup of coffee, secured the top back into his thermos and stared at the sand in front of his boots. I was almost in tears by then. Hearing what I’d been stuffing down for so long come blurting out, left a frightening sense of desolation behind.

“You are right. It isn't work that gives meaning. In fact, interesting work can often hide the fact that your life is yet empty. Touching your soul is what brings peace. We mistake peace for meaning. We don’t need meaning. We need peace. I can be very peaceful when I roll rocks. What stops you from being peaceful at your work?”
 To finish this story click here.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Another short story ...

by Christina Carson
Those famous last words to the question, “Is your dog friendly?” I asked them that day as a large German shepherd left the side of its owner and walked toward me. 

I was a dog lover since I was a kid. I knew not to reach for a strange dog, but I was still in that naive stage of life that had me wanting to believe in the goodwill of others or at least good sense. Both were a mistake at that moment, even though the answer came with the assurance of truth behind it, “Yes, he’s friendly. He doesn't bite.” So I lifted my hand to invite the dog to sniff it, to feel comfortable with me. For no visible reason, he closed the gap between us like a lightning bolt and sunk his teeth deep into my palm and the back of my hand. The pain, as intense as red-hot pokers driving through my hand caused me to fold up like an old cot, right in the middle, head at my knees. Rather than fighting the dog or pulling my hand away, the anguish held me there immobile and limp. Time later, I realized that saved me from graver injury. Without a struggling victim, the dog took one more chomp and then walked away as if nothing had happened.

A young man came out of nowhere and squatted beside me as I clung to my bitten hand with my other one trying not to faint or throw up. Both he and I could see the drops of blood hitting the concrete sidewalk and spreading into jagged-edged circles. He asked quietly, “Can I help you to sit down?” His firm arm around my shoulder made it safe to straighten up a bit, and I crept over to the nearest park bench. Only then did the dog owner cease his conversation and look to see what was going on.

“What’s the matter with you?” He literally flung the words at me. 

The young helper answered. “Your dog just bit the hell out of her hand.”

Still he directed his comments to me. “What did you do to my dog that had him do that?” That was far too much to answer, especially with my teeth clenched against the pain.

“Your dog attacked her for no apparent reason,” my new friend said. Get that dog under control. I’m calling the cops.”

“Wait a minute. My dog’s never bitten anyone in its life. She had to do something that caused him to attack her. It’s her fault.” The dog was now sitting at the man’s side displaying the epitome of good behavior.

I wanted to defend myself. I had spent too much of my life falsely accused. But the nausea was real and my hand felt like it was on fire.

The park was patrolled by mounted police and as a small crowd assembled attracted by the shouting, one came trotting across the green. From his high perch, he could see the man and the dog with his small crowd, and me crumpled up on the bench with my sole supporter.

He dismounted and came to me first. The blood had now covered a noticeable area and the officer squatted down, locked my long brown hair behind my ear so he could see my face and said gently, “I've got an ambulance on the way. How are you doing?”

couldn't answer. Keeping my mouth shut felt like the only thing that was keeping me from vomiting. So I just nodded. My hand was beginning to swell. I prayed the owner had a rabies tag on that beast and beyond that I was a study in just hanging on.

The only person who seemed to see what happened was the young man who helped me. He made a point to tell the cop what he saw. I didn't know why he was being so kind, if kindness was what it was. In that moment, a layer of innocence peeled off me like skin after a sunburn. Nothing made sense at the moment and that rattled me.

The cop then went to talk with the dog owner who was still insisting I was responsible for getting bitten. I heard him say yet again, “Toby here, he’s never bitten anyone. I think she was teasing him.”

“Teasing him how,” the officer countered.

“I was talking and didn't really see what was going on, but she reached her hand out toward him. Maybe she’s nasty and he sensed it.”

The cop's mouth curved in a crooked smile as he raised his hand to stop any further conjecture on his part. Then he asked, “Does the dog have a current rabies tag?”

“Yeah, I just don’t have it on this harness.”

You've got 2 hours to produce it down at the station. If you don’t show with it in that time period, we’ll impound the dog and put him down. Up to you.”

The officer came back over to me. I had been watching his horse just stand there, not eating the grass or stomping impatiently. I wondered how long it took to train a horse to be that dependable. Dependable, a word that came up often in my conversations.

“You need to get that looked after right away; that’s why I called an ambulance, otherwise you might sit for hours in emergency, and you need a tetanus shot pronto and probably a few stitches.”

Finally, I felt like I could say a few words. “Officer, I didn't tease that dog. I asked the guy if he was friendly, and he assured me he was. I just stretched out my hand in case he wanted to sniff it, and for whatever reason, he lunged at me and grabbed my hand. I love dogs.”

“We'll check him out. Our dog people will take a look. But regardless, we can’t have dogs biting people in public places.”

I got the name and address of the young man who helped me and thanked him. He asked me to call and let him know how I was in a day or two. He felt dependable. I liked that.

I had a few stitches, but they like to keep dog bites open because they are “dirty bites,” that’s what the nurse called them. That way they can dress them daily to insure they heal from the inside out. By weeks end, the swelling was down but a yellow-purple hue still remained. I felt like going out and decided to call the young man, since he’d asked me to, and see if I could treat him to supper as a thank you. 

It was funny how I kept calling him that young man as if I were old enough to be his mother. I’m thirty-three. I suspect he’s mid-twenties or so. Not that much difference. Maybe it would be fun.

I punched in the numbers he’d given me and listened to the ring. The voice of a young woman answered. I asked, “Is Josh there?”

To finish this story, click here.