Poetry-Thing Thursday: Due Alas

Cold wind blows,
over ice-trapped crests.
The waves don’t crash,
for they too are frozen,
immobile,
immutable.

Sun sinks low.
Invisible behind gray skies.
No colors shift:
neither from red to orange,
nor blue to black.
There is,
only gray.

There is no warm.
No cold.
Only frigid.
And blistering.
The latter’s nowhere to be found,
in a season of the former.

Still we wish,
hope and dream,
of warmer days,
and sights unseen,
but they never come,
and though avast,
we seek them out,
with due alas.

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Poetry-Thing Thursday: Scars

Scars run deep,
in tissues that seep,
with blood and pus,
and memoried wounds that weep.

Steel sings sharp,
begs played harp,
from creatures with wings,
hanging o’er the body-covered tarp.

Words whispered from tongue,
in a madman that’s hung,
the sound knows no end,
bellows ever his lung.

Let snow blow and fall,
‘pon mountaintops tall,
and follow their slopes,
‘til warmth comes to call.

For in giant’s steps,
comes sadness that slept,
for the soul once ablaze,
knows not what it kept.

So remember each scar,
they’re important by far,
and no matter where you go,
each one sets a bar.

Short Story: The Secret Keeper

My hands are covered in blood, black and blue with bruises so I wipe them like an auto-mechanic with a shop towel. That metaphor feels the most apt, especially given I just worked the sunuvabitch over like a mechanic works a rust-bucket. He’s tied to a chair, jogging pants and wife-beater splattered with wide trails of blood. Between the sheen of sweat that covers his body like a greased hog, and the swollen-red bits of flesh beneath it, he has that same worn-out, beat-up look of a decades-old Ford that’s worked one too many days.

I don’t care why he’s tied to the chair. I never do. I just do my job.

As usual they brought me in after they’d nabbed the poor bastard in the night. They’d given him just about every other type of treatment known short of the MK Ultra-style drug and plug, and he’d still kept his mouth shut. That’s why I got the call. That’s always why I get the call. You know the one. It goes something like this: There’s a click as I thumb my burner-phone, half clothed in a towel and wet from a still-running shower or some other, mundane bullshit task of life. Then, there’s a deep, male voice– or maybe it’s high and feminine. Either way there’s a voice and it says; “we have a problem.”

That’s it. The phone clicks off. I finish my shower, lunch, or whatever, and leave. I toss the burner in a dumpster down the street during my walk to the pick-up point. It’s always the corner of eighth and Main. I picked it ’cause most days I can watch the petite book-shop owner across the street shuffle back and forth at the counter. She’s always leading with her left foot, but writing with her right hand.

It used to be I’d just stare at her ass, watch it buck left and right with those supple hips. Now though, I try to imagine what’s on her mind. Is it something good, bad? Maybe heartbreaking or even arousing? I’m never quite sure. Must be a sign of getting older and mellowing out. You think less about pussy and instead the person around it. There’s a lotta’ pussies in the world, half as many as there are bodies, but people are rarer. I’m not talking about a human creature. There’s more than enough of those to go around. No, I mean people– personalities and thoughts and dreams worth a god damn.

I always snuff my cigarette out with my left foot as the black sedan rolls up to the crosswalk. I never do it like that anywhere else, only when I’m watching her. The brakes on the sedan squeak as I give her frosted, platinum blonde hair a final look, then angle down into the car’s back-seat.

From there, each call’s a little different. Some days its a car-ride across town to an abandoned warehouse, or maybe a dry-docked tanker in for repairs at the harbor. Hell, we even used a hotel room once; rented out the whole damn floor so no-one would here the guy’s screams. What a waste of cash. He cracked like a damn egg and I’d barely touched him!

Sometimes though, when the situation calls for it, I get to really enjoy myself. Not in the torture, though in my line of work you find ways to enjoy what you do. Why live and work– and do your job well at that– if you can’t enjoy yourself? I mean I get to enjoy the life that accompanies the really swanky places they put me up in. We’re talking billionaire, yacht-club, coke from a G-an-hour stripper’s tit-crack level of swank. It’s the kind of shit you think only exists in movies ’til your numb face is between her plastic tits and shes pumpin’ you on the suite couch.

I’ve seen all of those types of places too. Not the places themselves. I’m not needed that often. But I’ve seen all their types; the tit-job, coked-out party places, the tea and crumpets, dusty-muff-stink places. Hell, even the ones where people address you as sir– because they know slavery’s still alive and well, and black, white, brown or flaming red, they’re whipped into sucking you off and thanking you for the privilege.

It’s the life to live when you’re young. You’ll never see anything like it unless you’re working for the black-box government-types like me, or get in deep with the hardcore mafioso like my bloody friend there. Let me tell you, take the former; the latter, always, always gets busted eventually. Even if they don’t– even if they’re one of the infinitesimally small numbers that slip through our fingers ’cause they’re greasier than a whore in tub of petroleum jelly– they still die younger than us. They spend half their lives looking over their shoulders for guys like me, hoping their time doesn’t come sooner than its planned to.

As for the poor fuck tied to the chair? Like I said, I don’t care why he’s here. Sure, I am too, but I just do the rough stuff. They ask the questions. Who are they? Pray you never find out, ’cause you’re either gonna’ be the one being asked, pissing yourself– oh yeah, a lot of ’em do that too, trust me– or you’re gonna’ be the one asking. There’s no two ways about it unless you hear about “them” and never more than that.

There’s a lot of people, mostly those bleeding-hearts who like to pretend their shit don’t stink. They “object” to my methods and line of work. Funny, they’re usually the ones begging us most to do this shit when their asses are on the line. I digress.

I do what I do because I’m good at it, and I’m good at it ’cause I like to push a person’s limits. It’s freeing. Something you can only understand after unleashing hell on a guy– or a chick, hey I don’t discriminate blood’s blood– and finding out his face is harder than you thought, and ending up with lacerated knuckles or torn tendons.

But it’s freeing for the mark, too. You have any idea what it’s like to keep secrets that’ll have you murdered if you tell them? No. How could you? Having that shit hanging over your head isn’t healthy. Eventually you reach a point where you’re helping ’em more than you’re hurting ’em. Which, even I know is a lot, but think how much better they’ll feel once they heal up in Witness Relocation and their conscience is clear. Not all of them make it there, but the doesn’t change facts. If they choose to give up what they’ve got, I get to free them of that burden.

I’m a secret-keeper; a sort of new-age sin-eater that swallows up all of these fuckers’ pain, bleeds it out the knuckles while I’m hammerin’ on ’em. In a way, I’m the one that suffers most for knowing what I do. Thank fuck for worker’s-comp and mandatory psych-evals. Maybe one day they’ll straighten me out enough to cover up my recurring wounds, then I can ask that cute minx out at the bookstore. I thought about saying I was a boxer once, but then realized I’d have to keep that cover by actually boxing. What fun is it when the other guy hits back?

There I go, digressing again. Anyway, that’s what I do. I beat the piss out of people for ol’ Uncle Sam, free them from their burdens, even help make the world a little safer in the process. I guess whatever my real title is, I’ll always just be the secret-keeper. Who knows, maybe even the minx has some secrets to tell.

Bonus Short Story: The Wound Thus Healed

A great sickness ravaged a group of tribals in the middle of an angry winter. Each day that the men rose to hunt game, they returned later, most often in fewer numbers. The women would leave to gather what few nuts and berries still grew in the freezing temperatures. At least one or two would not return, their bounties lost with them. The few that managed to survive both parties, would end up confined to a pair of huts, the fires in their centers stoked by the tribe’s Shaman.

He wore a garb of animal furs, white tattoos across his face and body, and carried a walking stick to aide his hobbled gait. Each morning and night he would stand beside the beds of the ill and dying, chanting his healing magics with mantras from the back of his throat. His two apprentices would remain beside him, eyes cast downward in prayer as the guttural sounds billowed robustly over distant screams from the wind. Even so, his power was not great enough, and none of his sparse humors or poultices seemed to help.

He was forced to make a trek in search of aid, leave his apprentices to observe the rituals. Through the driving winds and snow, he planted each step with unshakable faith, determination. First, to the North, to seek the spirit of the mountain and plead with it for guidance and mercy. The mountain was high, had taken the lives of many men and women in his lifetime alone. Like his people, he knew it had a wrath and beauty that entwined in one another, was as unshakable as his own determination to find a cure.

He stood at the foot of the mountain, prayed in silence for the Great Mountain Spirit to hear him. It did not reply. Such was the nature of it that many times the mountain was spiteful toward man. The Shaman could do little more than turn away after a day’s prayers, ready to weep at the losses his people suffered. He collected what few herbs and roots were to be found at the Mountain’s feet, grateful for what little the blessing the spirit had bestowed in the lateness of the season.

He turned next for the East, trekked through the forests filled with deer, rabbits, and the occasional wolf. In the distance, each of their heads rose at him in time. The deer’s eyes were frightful. The rabbit’s spine was cowardly. The wolf licked its lips with a sniff of the air. Still not one of them found him of interest, not even enough to run from. So rotten were the stenches of sickness and death on him that even the wolf turned its eyes away in respect. The Shaman was grateful that the forest had let him pass unhindered, unharmed. His people needed him, would not survive without their Shaman’s eventual return.

The Shaman then reached the hills, where even in the gray of winter the highest peaks graced the sky with a serene bliss. Upon the highest hill, he planted his staff and knelt to pray once more. This time, he pled with the sky to repeal its harsh proclamation of winter to lessen the people’s suffering, prevent the rest of the hunters and gatherers from contracting the sickness in the cold. Again there was no reply– and this time neither herbs nor roots. Still, he thanked the sky for its past blessings, and left.

He trekked back Westward, through the forests. The animals were nowhere to be found. He found no solace in the fact, but still thanked forest for allowing him to pass unharmed once more. Beyond it, he continued West, for a river that ran even in the harshness of the winter. He followed its winding pathways to a clearing where stones were laid out for tribal meetings. In their center, her sat to face the river, and prayed that the Great River Spirit once more nourish his people with life-giving water. In it, he asked for there to be something which might heal the sick, dying. He drank of the river only to sense that his prayers had once more gone unanswered.

He wept at the river’s edge.

All of the Great Spirits had abandoned them, unwilling to aid them through the harshest winter they cast upon the tribe. Though the Shaman’s people revered him as a great healer, and master of the white-magics, he knew it to be merely the concoctions created from the blessings of these great spirits. His only magic was that which allowed him to keep the secret confined to himself and his apprentices.

When he rose from the river’s edge, he trekked back eastward only to stop where his three sets of tracks led from the mountain, the forest and hills, and the running river. There was but one pathway left to him; the South, past his own people and toward those with whom they had so often warred. Were he not in such dire need, he might have never considered it. After all, they were usually hostile, and with good reason. Were he to fall at seeking respite, with him might go any hope his tribe had. He could not bear to think of the ills that would be suffered without him. But neither could he bare to watch his people die knowing he had not done all he could.

He walked South, skirted the tribe’s edge so that they might not have the moment of false-hopes his supposed return would bring. His path continued away from his village toward his rivals’. At its edge were no guards. Even in the season it was unusual. The Shaman’s tribe had no guards posted either, but only as a result of the sickness that ravaged it. He continued into the village’s interior and found their people, like his, scattered in states of sickness. The ill, dying, and dead told a similar story to that of the Shaman’s village. The sickness was here too.

He entered the hut of the black-tattooed tribal Shaman that had, for so long, been his rival. Like himself, the other man had healed the wounds of more than a few of the injured in their fighting. He was as competent as the white-tattooed Shaman himself.

He found the black-tattooed Shaman tending to his people as he had, waited beside the fire for the guttural chants and mantras to end. Then, with a swivel, the black-tattooed Shaman met the other’s eyes over the dance of a fire between them.

“It is here as well,” the first Shaman said. The second gave a nod. The first spoke again, “I have just been to ask the Great Spirits for aid. The Mountain, Sky, and River do not reply.”

The second Shaman responded, “I too have spoken with them, been refused replies as you.”

“They are angry then,” the first Shaman surmised. Again the second nodded.

Then, with a small gesture, the second Shaman drew the first to his side, then lowered his head to pray. Unsure of his intentions, the first also prayed– if only to show his own, peaceful intentions. The dual guttural sounds synchronized in harmony over the pain of the afflicted. For many hours they chanted their prayers and mantras, neither Shaman certain of why the other kept their peaceful bent.

It was late in the evening, after the sun had sunk and the stars rose, that the first man rose from his death-bed. The black-tattooed Shaman’s-apprentices made sounds of surprise, shock, leapt back with a start. The first Shaman opened his eyes, though he would not stop his chants, to see something miraculous: The man lived. He had been near death, drawing his last breaths when the white-tattooed Shaman entered the hut. It was miraculous the man had lived this long. That he now stood beside the bed to thank the Shamans and weep, was unbelievable. Still the Shamans prayed, chanted, heads bowed and eyes once more closed.

In time, each of the afflicted once more re-took their feet, no longer ill and now reinvigorated. When the Black-tattooed Shaman’s village was cured, he followed the other back to his village. As before, they took a place in the hut where the worst of the sick and dying were held. It was not long after, that they too, were all healed. Both men thanked one another after the last of the sick once more returned to their families. The white-tattooed Shaman then asked of the second what he believed had changed the Spirits’ minds.

The black-tattooed Shaman put a hand to his shoulder, his eyes and voice level, “The Great Spirits were angry… with us. For all the pain that our peoples have caused one another.”

The white-tattooed Shaman understood, “And it was our penance to seek brotherhood in one another if we wished to heal our sick and dying.”

The second Shaman gave a nod, “We are stronger together, the Spirits know–” he put a closed fist over his heart. “Brother.”

The first Shaman bowed his head, clenched a fist over his heart in turn. The Great Spirits did not wish to spite either tribe, but rather bring them together the only way they could: through their medicine men. In healing the sick, they too healed the wounds that had separated brother from brother, sister from sister, family and friend alike. The wound thus healed, a new era of peace and cooperation could begin.

Bonus Story: Stronger Without Them

Cold wind whipped snow and ice in drifts across a plain of white mounds and frozen boot-prints. The mounds were the size of a man tall, five or six men wide, and spotted the horizon for countless miles. The man was clad in furred leathers, well-insulated from the cold with only thick, wild hair and beard to shield his face. He planted each step with a stone’s determination. It made his resolve immovable. His head was kept upward, eyes small, squinted against the snow that pelted and plastered his face and furs, coated him with a fine layer.

His people had a legend, one that made the trek all the more unavoidable: if a man were to seek to rectify the past, he must first risk his future, his life, in the mounded flats. Only once he made it through, could he hope to seek out recompense for the slaughter of his wife and children. He made the journey alone, as a man should, was certain he would die before he found refuge in the Gods’ embrace. He refused to listen to reason from those in his tribe; the invaders, they said, were the ones to blame.

But he blamed the Gods. For millennia, their tribe had lived the way of the righteous, their gratitude and sacrifices never late nor without due praise or ritual. They had given to the Gods all that had been requested, earned nothing but their contempt in the process. He’d had enough. He was man, and no God– gracious or not– would keep him from seeking his bounty. The righteousness that compelled him forward was just as it had always been; with conviction of spirit, character.

The Gods had let the invaders come. In any case, had not prevented it. In the harsh of Winter, when their ardor was already dampened, his tribe had been half-slaughtered by the invaders clad in their fierce battle armor. With sword and musket alike, they pillaged, plundered, raped and conquered all they’d seen. It was only after their leader, in his bear skins and helm, was killed that the tribe had finally withdrawn.

The snows of the village were stained crimson like the hands of the Gods that had neither prevented nor appeared during the massacre to stop it. The seasonal perma-frost had been breached by the pyres of a dozen men, their women and children. What few did not die by the sword wished they had. Only the fear of reprisal in the after-life kept them from turning their weapons upon themselves. The echoes of men and their families wrenched billowed cries for absolution through the blizzard that came after the battle.

But he would no longer stand for it. They had done all the Gods had asked of them, more even, in the promise that the Gods would watch after them, protect them. They had failed. He would not. Once he found them, he would paint the hallowed grounds of their hidden refuge with their blood. He would bury his sword in their bellies for every life lost and given in vain. Then, satisfied with the carnage, he would turn the sword on himself to die alone, the Gods vanquished and his work done.

He had fought the cold and the snows for five days to cross the flats. Like others of his tribe, he’d taken to resting only to conserve his strength, eat stored morsels and drink from a water-skin. He was no fool, knew not to take the journey lightly. If he did, there would be no one left to avenge the fallen, seek retribution for the sacrificed.

By the sixth day, he stood before a clearing in the mounds where the storm that raged seemed not to exist. In that emptiness, the ground was stone, clear of snow. The mounds around its perimeter formed a wide circle open before him. A furious huff of hot breath blasted from above his white-covered beard, fogged the air with the fire of his heart and ready wrath. His last steps were even firmer than the thousands that had brought him here.

He stopped in the center of the clearing, in his tribal tongue, demanded an audience with his Gods. It was answered with an intense, blue glow of light that deposited three, elongated figures with bulbous heads and black-eyes before him.

“You seek an audience, primitive?” The center God asked.

He spat at their feet, then in his tribal tongue, barked, “You have forsaken us! Broken the bonds that bound us to your servitude. Your treachery must be answered for!”

“You speak of the battle passed,” the left-most God said.

“Yet there is little that can be done for the dead,” the right God said.

“No!” He shouted in defiance. “There is one thing that can repay us for their loss.”

“Blood.” The three chimed in unison.

Your blood!”

He drew a thick blade from his side with a sound of metal that rang through the open air.

“You mean to stand against your Gods?” The middle God asked.

“I mean to seek vengeance for all the blood spilled in your name, both in sacrifice and in the battles past– those you failed to protect, as was your promise to our people.”

The three Gods fell silent, as if to speak mentally. Then the middle one spoke with a bargaining air about him, “We cannot resurrect the dead. What is is what what must be. But we can offer something for the sacrifice your people have given this winter, both from the battle and when we did not think to aid you.”

He was unconvinced, his mind unchanged. He demanded they speak, “And what is that?”

“Bountiful harvests,” the middle God said.

“Warmth and fertility,” the left God added.

“And strength and protection in the battles to come,” the right God finished.

He growled from his throat. In a quick charge, he launched himself at the middle God, kicked him backward to rebound at the gut of the left God. The blade slice deep at its belly to ooze green. The curiously-colored blood did not faze him– blood was blood and it was to be spilled. With an outward spin, he moved for the God at the right, buried the blade in its belly as he’d planned. More green spilled out, leaked from the God’s mouth. He twisted the blade, heard the crunch of soft bones, then pulled it back. The second God fell dead.

His blade dripped a trail toward the God that still lay dazed on the stone ground. He dropped a heavy knee to its chest as it eeked out a few, last words.

“We would have… given you anything, made you the most powerful tribe,” it said, barely drawing breath.

“Your cowardice and bargaining only weaken us.” He grit his teeth, “We will be stronger without you.”

Then, the blade plunged into the belly of black-eyed God. The bulbous head gave a shudder with a last, rattling breath. Its eyes shut. The smallest bit of green oozed from the God’s mouth as the tribal rose to his feet, readied to bury the sword in his own gut and finally end things. Instead, something compelled him to look at the carnage around him, his three Gods slain about it. His own words resonated deeper than he’d first realized.

He lifted the blade to examine it, “No.” He sheathed it, spat at them once more, “Enough has been lost to you. I will lead my people now. Protect them as you should have. I will show them they are strong– stronger even without you. Then no man, woman, nor child will ever think to play servant to your kind again.”

With a steadfast resolve, he turned away from the green-stained ground, and left the mysterious clearing to show his people the way.