Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Story, part 3

Behind them a dog began barking with exuberant canine joy. They could hear it bounding in the sand, running nearby. A man called to the dog, which barked again in response. Cara moved slightly closer to Jack. He could almost sense a warmth emanating from her body and her breath.

She asked him: "Do you come here often?"

"No. This is only the third time I've come since she drowned. Today is the third anniversary."

"And her body was never found?" asked Cara.

"No. Not a trace."

They stood silently, hearing the waves, the seagulls, the bounding, barking dog. A ratty garland of seaweed washed up and rested on the wet sand a few feet in front of them.

"That strikes me as very odd," said Cara. "If she drowned, it seems her body should have washed up to shore. At least, eventually, it should have floated to the surface. For it to entirely disappear is so improbable."

"I've thought the same thing."

"Did she have any reason you know of to fake her death?"

Jack turned to Cara, startled by her question. "I don't think so. It's never occurred to me. I don't know." He stammered. "What an odd idea," he added. He pondered it for a few minutes.

"Where would she have gone?" he asked. "I don't recall a boat near enough by that day, that she could have swum to. Surely I, or someone, would have noticed if she had swum to the right or the left and come up on shore."

"Maybe not. If the focus was on that spot out there where you last saw her, she could have returned to the beach and not been noticed. You said she liked the water. Was she a strong swimmer?"

"Yes. I mean, I think so," he said in a puzzled voice. He thought, if that IS what happened, what would she have been running from? Would it have been me? Was I something in her life that she felt so oppressed by that she had to fake her own death?

But, he thought further, why must I assume it was me? It could have been anyone, or anything. He tried to recall what had been going on in her life at the time. Their relationship had been OK, nothing seriously wrong, but no great passion. He didn't recall any complaints about her job, or issues with her parents, or anyone or anything else. It seemed that everything was on pretty much an even keel.

As if reading his thoughts, Cara said, "It doesn't have to have been something explicitly BAD that might have driven her to fake her death. Of course, I know nothing of her life. But it could have been sameness, predictability, boredom. It could have been general stress, or fear."

Jack stared at Cara. How had she managed to evoke this strange drawn out reflection on Anna's death and life? She's nobody, nobody I know, who doesn't know me, didn't know...

"Did you know her," he asked. "Anna, I mean. My friend, the woman... who drowned?"

"I may have read about her death," she said. A non-answer thought Jack suspiciously. He didn't pursue it.

"I don't know," he said aloud. "I think she DID drown, DID die, and for some unexplained reason, her body simply has not been found. Maybe the tide, in that specific spot, was weird, and it pulled her body out to sea. Maybe some animal... took it. Maybe any number of things we can't think of now."

"Perhaps," said Cara.

A moment later, she asked, "Why did you lie about your name?"

"What!?" he retorted, startled. His heart was pounding. How did she know?

Why HAD he done it?

He tried to calm himself. "I did it because I wanted to be left alone. I think. Giving a false name is sort of like hiding. To be anonymous, like keeping to a corner in a dark alley. I guess I was drawing a curtain between us."

The two stood in silence for a few minutes. She noted that even now, he was not giving his name, which she knew from having read on the internet about Anna's presumed drowning. His name was Andrew. Andrew something with a B.

The dog appeared suddenly off to the left, spraying sand against Andrew's legs, as it halted abruptly, then immediately launched back in the direction it had come from, barking joyfully all the while. He ignored the dog, but Cara turned, and watched it run with wild abandon to and fro behind them. That's freedom, she thought, pure joy in freedom. She felt a slight pang of envy.

"Do you still want to be left alone," she asked the man.

"Oh, it hardly matters. No, I guess not," he said in a flat tone.


The sun poured down on the beach at that moment, released from behind a very large, heavy cloud. The air was briefly, startlingly warm, and the water and the sand were almost blindingly bright. The surf reached forward slyly, and took hold of the wretched seaweed, and pulled it back away from the beach. Andrew watched it float, away from him, bobbing about helplessly.

Isn't that so like life, he thought. We're pulled here and there by forces beyond our strength, out of any real control. I read something the other day everything not being really real, at least not as we like to think of real. Even particles, the tiniest basic parts of the universe aren't real. So, what is our strength? What are our thoughts? Our ideas, our actions, our choices? How real are they? How much does any of it matter? Are we all just... figments, pretenses of reality? In the end, do we just disappear like froth on top of the waves? Like Anna did three years ago? He shook his head. It was hard to imagine that everything was... nothing...

He glanced at Cara. She had been watching him. Perhaps reading his thoughts. Her eyes were intent and curious... and... concerned. Her hands were joined behind her hips. Her hair was almost golden in the bright sun. And a moment later, she was subsumed by shadow as the sun again was draped by a heavy cloud.

At that moment, in the shadow, she seemed jarringly dangerous, menacing. Andrew felt fear rising in his chest, his heart pounding again, as if Cara WERE reading his thoughts, viewing his soul, able to penetrate his very being.

What ARE you, he thought?

Then Cara looked away as the dog voiced a high-pitched yelp behind them. She watched for a moment while the happy beast circled tightly around and around its master, who held a ball, or something, up in the air, just out of the dog's reach. Sand sprayed up all around dog and master.

Andrew ignored all this commotion, and kept his eyes on the woman.


Why are you here? he asked again in his thoughts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What I've been reading lately

I just finished reading the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, orator, public servant, former slave.

Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey; c. February 1818[4] – February 20, 1895[5]) was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory[6] and incisive antislavery writings. In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.[7][8] Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.[9]



You can find his bio in eBook formats at Gutenberg.org.

I found the book to be very readable. He had a conversational style. Some of the descriptions of the hardships and abuses of slavery will be uncomfortable for some readers. I think it is important for us, even today, to understand what slaves were subjected to in 19th c. USA.

I was fascinated by his own development of a kind of self-awareness that led to a strong sense that he was (and all men are) created for something other than slavery, an awareness of his dignity, and of the hypocrisy of slavers who called themselves Christians. He has a poetical parody such Christianity at the end of the book. It's pretty harsh, but it's the truth.

It was also fascinating to read how he managed to learn reading and writing, and eventually develop speaking and oratory abilities.

All in all, I would say that reading Frederick Douglass and knowing of him, and the life he escaped from is a necessity. I wonder how many of us today have the self-awareness and reflection that Douglass as an enslaved Child had. I think he challenges us to look within ourselves a little more seriously to find our dignity, and live up to it. But as well, he calls us to find the dignity of others, and treat them according to that dignity. He challenges us to reflect on the consequences of our actions, our choices, our words and our beliefs. Further, he calls men and women to examine themselves to find the dangerous flaws of hypocrisy that may crack open and destroy us if we do not correct them.

I am currently reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, written in the same era, on similar topics, for a similar purpose, but in a very different style. It was written by Harriot Beecher Stowe...

June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was an American abolitionist and author. She came from the Beecher family, a famous religious family, and is best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which depicts the harsh conditions for enslaved African Americans. The book reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the United States and Great Britain, energizing anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. Stowe wrote 30 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential for both her writings and her public stances on social issues of the day.



Her style of writing in this book seems almost as if it had been written for children, though I am sure it was not. It is difficult to read the transliterated Southern white and black "dialect" and I sort of wish she hadn't bothered. But perhaps it was necessary. In any case, it is fascinating that, at least as the book indicates, the white southern characters spoke very similarly to how the black slaves spoke. One wonders if the slaves learned their "English" from "lower class" white slave merchants and overseers, rather than from the more educated and "higher class" owners.

Uncle Tom's Cabin seems to wish to evoke sympathy for the situation of the slaves by "making them human" real people with real issues, real children, real families, real human problems and concerns. She successfully contrasts the incredible faithfulness of some slaves to their masters, with the "rebelliousness" of others, who just can't take it any more, and will escape or change things by any means possible. And there are those for whom the love of their child motivates them above all other concerns, including their own well-being and safety. There is an incredible narrative of the slave woman, Eliza, who escapes from the farm, and reasonably decent (as slave situations go) situation in order to prevent her little son from being sold to a trader who is a dangerous and repulsive figure. She literally desperately jumps from "ice-islands" in the Ohio river to cross to the other side, while barefoot and carrying her child. I can believe a woman would, and could do this. It is a dramatic and affecting scene. I have not finished the book, and I dearly hope she is successful. The "new owner" has hired some men to track her down and recapture her. They will keep her, and will return the boy to the slaver.

Stowe also successfully, in an nearly sympathetic way, points out the incredible justifications some owners can use to blind themselves to their sins and crimes. The reader can almost come away from such illustrations feeling, "Well, they aren't so bad," or "He didn't really have much of a choice," but that would be a shallow reading. They did have a choice, and they were so bad. The mistress of Eliza is a somewhat sympathetic character, who absolutely does not want Eliza's child to be sold away. But I have the strong impression that she also is not prepared to live without a slave herself.

Interestingly, I think it was Douglass who pointed out that, while many in the South believed slavery was necessary for the economy, areas of the country with similar economies actually did better without resorting to slavery.

In the end, slavery degrades the slave owners as well as the slaves they keep, and those who were abusive were degraded even more, to the point of becoming worse than bestial, in fact demonic.

There is much about the origins of this nation that were abhorrent and hypocritical, and we should never allow ourselves to forget or be ignorant of them. We must learn, as individuals and as a nation, from the mistakes and the crimes of the past, in order to stop or prevent the crimes of the present. Again: as individuals and as a nation.

Come to think of it, if one is looking for horror stories to read, one doesn't need to rely on fiction. 

A Story, part 2

"Quite a dramatic day, isn't it?" He heard a voice ask. "Huh?" he muttered, turning right and left, to finally see the source of the voice.

She was a middle aged, attractive brunette, in a puffy, faded, red woolen sweater, black sweat pants, and rubber red clogs. She had come up behind him to the right. She wasn't looking at him, but over the ocean.

Why are you talking to me? He asked silently. Aloud he said, "Yes, it is." He returned his gaze to the watery horizon.

The woman stood to his right about eight feet away. Her arms were crossed over her abdomen. Her fine, straight, brown, chin-length hair flitted around her face in the wind.

The two stood in silence for several minutes. There seemed to be no sound but that of the waves and the wind, and the occasional gull-shriek.

He didn't understand, why, on this vast beach, this woman chose to position herself so near to him. It vaguely irritated him. She didn't move a muscle. The older couple had passed behind him and were now moving slowly away from him to his left. The person in the distance, with the fire, was still crouched near the fire. The mother and the child had disappeared. In the water, the sails were gone, but the tanker was still visible, barely, having moved out toward the horizon.

He returned his gaze to that spot, that fateful spot, where once he had seen a head disappear beneath the waves amid a swirl of hair and frothy water. He took in a slow deep breath, held it, then released it even more slowly, trying to make it inaudible.

"We like to think of the freedom of the birds," the woman said, "with all their floating and swooping about, especially in the heights they can ascend to, almost as if they could pierce heaven itself."

"But," she added, "they seem inexorably tied to the seashore, in a constant hunt for food. We like to think it must be fun, flying about as they do, but it may be more like an endless chore, hunting for something to eat."

"I'd never thought of that," he said after a few moments weighing whether or not to respond.

"Well, that's what I think, any way." She said.

He was so aware of her presence, it was like a weight, compressing the atmosphere to his right, as if it might pull him off balance, a kind of gravitational pull. He resented it.

Suddenly, she shifted. "You want to be alone," she said. "I'll move down the beach. I'm sorry."

He turned his head before she left, and gave her a weak, wan smile that conveyed his appreciation and regret. She headed off across the sand to the right. When he looked again a few minutes later, she was halfway to the campfire, and had assumed her same pose, facing the waters, her arms crossed over her abdomen, her feet planted in the sand in a stance slightly wider than her hips. "Like 'At Ease' he thought.

I still wonder why she chose to stand so close to me, he thought. Seems odd. If he were a conspiracy theorist, and if he had some dark secret, he'd have suspected some nefarious purpose, but he was just standing, mourning...

Is it mourning? He wondered. Or more like regret? Am I more sorry that she died, or that I was too cowardly to try to help her? A mixture of both, I guess...


A seagull shrieked and arrowed swiftly down toward the SPOT, and for a moment, his imagination inserted the swirling black hair onto the surface of the water, so that it seemed as if the gull were about to grab it and pull it away from the water. He dreaded the thought that the big bird might lift a decaying head from the sea, and he tried to push the image from his horrified imagination.

But the gull swerved upward a few feet over the waves, and headed again toward the high scattered clouds. The man, unaccountably to himself, glanced to his right again, and the woman was still there, in the same pose exactly, a statue in the sand, a reposing, uncrowned "Liberty" watching for the huddled masses. He sniffed a little laugh to himself at the image.

The distant fire now seemed to be out, sending a straight long plume of gray smoke into the air. The crouching person was gone. And, he realized, the ship was gone too. The ocean seemed empty, a restless, lonely entity thrusting frothy reaching claws into the air, finding nothing to grab onto.

Movement perceived in the corner of his eye caused the man to glance to the right. The woman was striding toward him, "Striding" he thought. "She's coming with purpose." He felt almost afraid. In a moment, she was a few feet from him, saying, "We are the only two humans on the beach right now."

"Oh?" He glanced around him. "So we are," he confirmed, with a puzzled note in his voice.

I could kill you and no one would see or know, he heard himself think in her voice. Why would you want to do that? he asked in his mind with his own voice.

"We need each other," she said. "We need connection, contact, interaction."

"What?" He asked with alarmed surprise. Is she some kind of a nut? he thought.

"We often think we need to be alone, isolated, free, like we think those birds are free," she said, her head turned toward the nearest seagull. "But our isolation is no more freedom than we think they have in their endless search for food. It's a tyranny, a servitude, a destructive error."

"Sometimes people do just need to be alone," he protested.

She stood facing him, her hands on her hips, her feet spread, the Wonder Woman pose. She seemed intimidating to him now, a power, a force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, she relaxed, relented. Her hands fell to her thighs, and she turned to face the ocean scape again. He continued to gaze at her profile, fascinated. Her short hair whipped around her face in the wind. Her cheeks were reddened by the cold air.

"I don't always accost strange men on the beach like this," she said without facing him. There was a soft resigned quality to her voice.

She must be very lonely, or something... he thought. "It's all right," he assured her. He took a deep breath.

He faced the water again. "A friend died out there, three years ago. Drowned. Suddenly just sank under the water and disappeared forever." He said.

"Man or woman," she asked.

"Woman," he said. "She was about 35. It was a warmer, calmer day, though still a little cool for swimming, but she liked the cold water." He added: "I don't like the water. I like to look at it, but not be IN it."

"I see," she said.

They were silent for a few minutes. They both noticed that another large ship had appeared in the distance. He wondered what a ship that size must sound like if he were close enough to hear it. Would it be deafening? he asked himself. What did it sound like to be on the Titanic?

"I'm Cara," the woman said, turning and extending her hand to him.

"Oh... I'm uh, Jack..." he said, giving a false name. Why did I do that? he wondered. He took her hand. It was cold and dry and strong.

Cara retrieved her hand, and crossed her arms over her belly again. "It must have been hard," she said.

"Hard?"

"To watch your friend drown like that." she explained.

"It was horrible." he said. "I was so afraid of the water that I could not bring myself to go into it after her." He looked around him almost frantically, as he had that day. "And there was no one else nearby on the beach. I called for help, but by the time any one heard and responded and had run over here, it was too late. It seemed like an eternity before they began to search for her body."

He fell silent and gazed at his feet.

Finally, "Everyone kept looking at me, as if accusing me, as if to say, 'Why didn't you go in after her?' As if they thought I'd murdered her. No one said it aloud though. When the police came, they asked me a few questions, but they seemed to believe me when I said I had been too afraid to go into the water, and some friends and my mother confirmed that I'd had this lifelong fear of the water."

"Was it caused by some childhood trauma?" asked Cara.

"Not that I, or anyone else, knows of. I've just always been afraid of the water. No one has ever been able to make me go in. Not even a kiddie-pool."

"Strange," she said.

"I love to swim," she added after a few minutes. "I swam competitively in high school and college. I still do laps nearly every day. My mother used to say I'm a selkie."

"What's a selkie," asked "Jack."

"It's a mythical creature, they live as seals in the sea but can shed their skin to become human on land."

"Do they then stay forever on the land?" he asked.

"No. As long as they have access to their sea skin, they can return to the sea. But if someone hides it from them, they're stuck. They can never return."

"Jack" gazed out over the waves for several moments.

"They never did find her body. I could hope," he finally said, almost dreamily, "That she was really a selkie who returned to her true home rather than a human who simply died a tragic young death."


"Yes," said Cara. "You could."

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Story, part 1

He stood on the shell-littered beach, and stared across the sea. In the far distance was a tanker, and nearer, a couple of barely visible sails. The water was choppy, with little, scattered waves kicked up by the cold, brisk wind. Gulls swooped back and forth above the beach, calling annoyingly with their shrill voices over the whoosh of the wind. The air smelled unpleasantly of salt and beach-rot.

To his left, a mother and a small child were walking away from him. To his right, an older couple were sauntering slowly toward him. All four, coincidentally, were wearing gray sweatshirts. All wore shoes. The sand was too cold, and the sharp, broken shells, too numerous for barefoot walking. Further to the right, where the beach curved into the sea, someone squatted at a fire. He was unable to make out the sex of the person, or whether or not the fire was being used to cook or merely to warm.

It was past midday, an early Spring day. The sky marked by small puffy clouds, like scattered clumps of bleached cotton. The blue was faded, washed out by the recent cold rains. Most of the time, the sun shone brightly, almost warmly, but unable to fully overcome the cold wind. There was no real promise yet of summer's warmth, only a hint of it.

His hands were deep in his pants pockets, and his shoulders were sore from being hunched against the cold, as if he had recently done some strenuous exercise. The thought flitted through his mind, "I wonder how many calories I've burned..." It quickly flew away, overtaken by the ever-present thought behind his reason for standing in the forbidding sand and shells on this cold day. It was the third anniversary of her drowning, the third time he had stood in this spot since that incident.

He pursed his lips, as he remembered, gazing absently in the general direction and distance of the spot where she slipped, struggling beneath the water's surface. He released his breath through his nose, felt cool moisture form on his upper lip. He could almost see her, again, succumb to the devouring waves, almost see her distant, tiny mouth, soundlessly forming the cry for help that he had been unable to hear, or respond to. He hadn't even been able to step into the water then: he couldn't swim, and he had a pernicious fear of the moving water, could get only so close before the fear clamped around his heart, nearly suffocating him. He hadn't been able to bring himself to move beyond that certain specific point, several feet from the lapping, taunting, evil waters. For a moment, he had been able to see her long black hair, floating, swirling on the surface where her head had disappeared. Now, closing his eyes, he couldn't free his mind of that final horrible sight.