The Christmas Cactus

Shivering, she pulled herself up from the hearth using her cane and put the poker back on its hook. “I shouldn’t ought to have let that burn so low.” She eyed the four logs left, judging whether they’d be enough to get her through the night or not. Nope. Susie wobbled to her overcoat and went out to woodpile on the front porch in the blowing snow and retrieved four more fair-sized ones. She fretted about forgetting to do it in the daylight; she forgot so much anymore.

The fresh logs she’d just loaded in the fireplace still laid there, not wanting to burn. Working the bellows until she got a flame made her sweaty. She thought about taking the darned overcoat off because with two sweaters on it would cut off her circulation but good. Coming down with pneumonia wouldn’t be very smart, though.

Next she knew, she stood at the coatrack with her coat hung. Chilled to the bone, her hand fondled the other coat there, and she wiped the tears from her face. “Stanley, help me out here, will you please?” His camouflaged hunting coat felt so blessedly warm as she buttoned it up. “Yes, Stan, I’ll make us some tea.”

Instead of making the tea, she plopped heavily into the padded kitchen chair by the fire. Staring at the flames, she remembered how Stan would have brought in plenty of wood, and he would have banked it better. He more than once told her she didn’t have a lick of sense and she believed it. That Christmas cactus she’d insisted on getting so many years ago bloomed right on time anyhow, up until he went onward to the pearly gates. Since then, it hadn’t done its duty at all. She angrily remembered the tea and heaved up to put the kettle on the stove. The propane he’d put in heated it up quick and she fixed christmas-cactus-in-handa little pot of chamomile.

On the way back to her warm seat, she glanced over to the miserable cactus. She stopped, her tensed body falling slack. “Oh Stan, would you look at that!” She gently cradled the bright red blossom and smiled in that contained Mona Lisa way he liked. “Thank you, lover, I’m warm nose to toes now.” She sat and sipped her tea, hugging his coat tightly, feeling his embrace as they watched the fire dance. Merry Christmas.


The Severing

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Might of Defiance. The Elise t’Hoot series (including this volume) will come out in the New Year, but you can get a sneak peak now.Enjoy!

As much as Marta wanted to explore Kuiper 3, her sponsor obligated her to supervise each load as robots hoisted and carried them over to the Franklin’s shuttle; both Cartier and Bloom were frightened stiff of the robots mishandling their precious equipment. To her initial dismay, there were no people, only the mechanical-looking robots. She quickly discovered the vital import of tagging each pallet completely and legibly, learning that the extra lines on the tags designated what storeroom or cabin it went to and details like ‘place on top’ and ‘store at -20 C’. She wanted to ride a load over to scope out Dr. Cartier’s storage area to better understand what kind of directions they needed and how much room she had to work with, but found it forbidden.

She annotated and verified the tags on the remaining equipment and went back to the waiting room where Dr. Cartier glared at her. She shrugged and hop-sailed carefully over in the very light grav, using the handholds as taught and taking care of her ankles and wrists.

Cartier wagged a finger at her, “You have missed both the crew transports! They’ve gone on ahead without looking back.”

“Alain, don’t chide the child, she only did the shepherd bit you assigned her,” Naomi reminded him, neglecting to note her own part in it. “Marta, dear, I do wish you had come back in time; they did send that second transport back but it timed out and scuttled away. This looks ominous.”

Marta looked at the downcast faces; even Thao looked more glum than usual. “I’ll go with you guys, there has to be enough room, right?”

They all turned at a noise on the left and boarded a tram that took them to a small auditorium or theatre with just enough stools arrayed in a semicircle around the screen. Each victim took a seat with care in the scant gravity, lifting his or her magnetic shoes gently with every step. “Hon, that’s not the point,” she replied, sniffling. “This dog and pony show is for us outcasts.”

Cartier gruffly told her, “Don’t get snot in the air!” He sniffled, red-eyed, chose a stool and slumped back slack into his depressed reverie.

Barto slumped onto a stool, lost in another mental place and didn’t seem to notice her presence, his hair uncharacteristically ruffled, mumbling what she thought might be a catechism; his fingers seemed to be counting invisible beads and his head bobbed with the rhythm of it.

Thao motioned her over and quietly murmured something about severance. Then he also drifted into his thoughts. She sat carefully on the stool between him and Barto and pulled the strap across her lap to hold herself down as the others had. At the click of the last strap buckle, all of the stools shot up a couple meters or more, getting everyone’s attention, ratcheting up the anxiety.

The door she’d entered through closed and the lights went out, leaving no reference point except the cold, high, hard stool she clutched. Marta’s heart thumped hard and unevenly; picking up the mood. Blinking to accustom her eyes to the darkness, she yearned to keen like an unanchored soul, a wretch cast aground on a treacherous reef, shivering; she missed the ministering touch of the absent Cedric. She uttered no sound, no moan nor whimper nor shriek. The word ‘severance’ richocheted around her skull.

Abruptly, the giant screen on the wall across from the stools lit up with a bald man magnified a hundred times. He scowled, pale as a ghost with inky black eyes and a grim red scar-like mouth, a Patriot Official according to the seal on the podium. He stared malevolently into each person’s eyes for a total of several minutes, wresting each of the exile’s awareness, and Marta’s.

He suddenly thundered, “Attention!” Before the reverberations subsided, he blared, “Two doors will appear and open before you.”

The voice suffused the room, inundating the matte black space, the bright light from the screen failing to illuminate the coal sack blackness around them. They had no visual clues to hang onto, no visual at all except the executioner himself.

“If you choose this door (the one on the left glowed for a second), your case will be reviewed.”

All eyes riveted to that door as the only alternative to the screen.

He went on relentlessly, “Choose this door only if there is a creditable reason for your plea. The penalty for error is death by expulsion.”

He let the thought of a body cast into space sink in.

“If you accept your lawful and just exile from Earth and the Solar System that contains it, choose this door (the right door glowed).

You have one minute to decide and act if you choose the review.”

One minute ticked away and Marta, dazed, tried to understand what he said and what it meant; at enough volume, words are difficult to distinguish. The left door opened to an inviting pale light.

“I’m not convicted of anything!” She quickly decided to use that left door and let them know she was in the wrong place. She released the restraining strap and leaned forward, forgetting her height. She drifted quickly toward the terrible screen. Barto grabbed her ankle. He arrested her momentum and held her there like a balloon until the door on the left closed.

He pulled her leg gently to get her moving toward the stool and held her down as the lights came up with a dull red glow and the stools dropped precipitously back to the floor. He stood holding her hand on his right and Naomi’s on his left. Naomi’s far hand grasped Alain’s. They all stood in grim anticipation and she had fallen in with them. So be it. Marta reached around and took Thao’s hand; he gripped it hard.

The guillotine-like, unforgiving voice resumed. “You have pleaded guilty to your crimes and acknowledged just punishment. Once through this door (it opened to blackness, a wan yellow frame defining it) you will have no further contact with any person on the face of the Earth, no breath of Earth’s breezes, no taste of her waters and shall not partake of her beauty or bounty except at the mercy of the countrymen you have despised.

“You shall not communicate in any way to the birthplace of mankind, nor will any bit of data reach you forever more except by mercy. You are cast away from the cradle of humanity and land of your forbearers. You shall never return.” He hit his podium with a gavel that banged like a steel drum dropped ten meters to a concrete floor, striking it three times, echoes overlapping. He continued to flare at them until the aural effects dissipated, then said in deep bone-chilling chords, “You shall never go home.”

A great sob broke out when the screen blipped out, from the way he jerked, Marta knew it was Barto. A ruddy near-darkness replaced the utter blackness, punctuated by a sallow glow of the right-hand doorframe.

Naomi yelled, “What a steamin’ pile of horseshit! This melodrama has not changed ONE SINGLE THING!” She made a mucous-sucking snort that started deep in her throat and fought its way up noisily. She spat the accumulated gobbet toward the screen and the gushy splat of it shook the mood, pulling them back from the ugly echoes. No one complained about contaminating the atmosphere.

Thao led the way to the horrid door. Angrily, Naomi pulled the listless and pushed Barto. Marta fell into step. Soon they all filed through the dark doorway. When Alain cleared the door, it clanged shut making everyone duck and cringe. Then pale yellow lights along the floor showed the passageway that led to the Franklin. They shuffled apart in silence.

Angels Help, Bitte

Anya Sophia Ritter, nee Rommel, closed her book and held it tight to her bosom while she tried to assimilate the courage it offered. Living in the sweltering attic room, working at the rations factory, and missing her men defined her. The room in her married son’s house felt as if it were on the Flying Dutchman, forever sailing alone through Hell, with soup and a sandwich at 6:00 each night. Her husband, dead two years now, and her son facing Hitler somewhere in Europe, came to her in dreams in a sad, detached and mournful way. No touch, no smiles.

Mike had invited her to share his and MaryAnn’s home and had tried to make her feel welcome. She had made one dinner that she’d thought turned out so well. MaryAnn then informed her that the kitchen would be off-limits, that she had to manage her coupons. After Mike joined the Great War effort, MaryAnn made it clear that Anya should become invisible. The blow up with bathtub timing made Anya acquiesce. She found out about Mike when coming home from work; she saw the open Missing in Action letter on the side table.

She put the precious book on her nightstand. This Saturday she would become visible.

“MaryAnn, may I speak mit you?”

The pretty brunette lowered the newspaper and responded with a smirk. “What about? If it’s about the sandwiches, I get what they give me.” She folded the paper back to show Anya the illustrated coverage of Rommel’s newest campaign. “So out with it, I’m busy.”

Anya remained standing. “Will you go to church with me tomorrow morning?”

“Uh, no.” She buried her face in the newspaper again.

“The name Rommel is not so uncommon, I know Mike told you our branch of that line broke away generations ago.”

“If you want to keep living here, leave me alone and quit yapping about church. I’ll call them to take you to one of those camps.”

“MaryAnn, I ask so little of you.”

“You live in my house, eat my food, and intrude in my life. You ask a great deal of me.” She thrust the paper down and scowled at Anya. “Why don’t you go on back to Germany?”

“I am American, I was born in Chicago.”

MaryAnn shrugged. “I know, Mike told me his grandpa came over with the circus. Look, I’m torn up over all this news about the war getting worse and worse with no word on where Mike is. I don’t mean to be such a bitch.” She folded the paper properly and laid it on the side table. “Have a seat. You were born in Chicago yet you talk like a Kraut.”


Anya closed her eyes and asked her watching angels for aid; her gut hurt, the jabs hurt. She sat. “Ja, yes, that was Papa and he flew on the trapeze.”

“So go live with those people. If the neighbors found out your name was Rommel, they’d torch the house.”

“I left there because the man mit the little horses was trying to be nasty with me. I run away mit der truck driver who said he takes me to a German family he knew in Louisville, in Germantown. Papa found him as we arrived there and shot him mit der shotgun, I mean to say ‘with the shotgun’. Mama would never see me again as I was nothing but a trouble maker. I am no longer part of my own family.” She tried to visualize angels but only recalled the stone angels leaning from a great cathedral in Chicago. Were Catholic angels as evil as the Catholics inside the beautiful church?

MaryAnn reached for a peppermint and started sucking on it. “If you’re so American, why don’t you talk like one?”

Anya nodded and kept her gaze on the glass ashtray on the coffee table. “My family I grew in spoke German and so did he family I stayed with after, in Germantown. I learned English on my own so I could work and be Americanish. I understand it is difficult to lose the accent you had as a child. I read that.”

“You’ve lived here the whole year since Mike and I were married and he went off to fight in that war.” She lit a cigarette and grabbed the ashtray. “You never said two words to me, like I didn’t exist. Now you’re spilling your life story. Why is that?”

She watched the ashtray take a small gray chunk from the cigarette. “I knew you think bad of me from the dinner and the bath and other times. I did not wish to bother you. Now is only us two and we both miss Mike and wish him to return. Can we not miss him together? Can you not give me an opportunity?”

“I guess so, for Mike’s sake.” She mashed the cigarette into the ashtray and put it back in the coffee table. “You want something to drink? There’s some iced tea in the fridge.”

“Ja, yes, I get it.”

“Oh no, it’s my kitchen and I’ll get it.”

Cabin Copper Cookie Cutters

They moved to the narrow front porch and settled into the painted metal chairs in the shade of an ash tree. Anya thanked the angels for keeping the cars and trucks away from the street, no shouting children, no distractions. The next part would be difficult enough without a musical van rolling by selling popsicles.

“I would like to tell you of how I met Mike’s father, Freddy. He was Manfred, but always went with Freddy. I move to Louisville as I said and after school, I got a job at the hemp works. Freddy worked as a buyer for oil from the seeds. He was so hublisch, handsome. Our first date we walk along the Ohio River and he ask me to marry at the water plant. I agree and we start our house making just in time for the Bismarck to start that first big war. Manfred spoke very good English and Ritter is not so German sounding to keep him from volunteering for the Navy, you know, Tex Ritter the singer is loved.”

Her angels insisted she go on. She remembered her tea and had a long drink. “”Ja, Freddy was good to volunteer soon because after the Navy was full and the Army ate soldiers like strudel.”

MaryAnn gripped a rusted chair arm. “What?”

That drew Anya’s eyes. The alarm on he daughter-in-law’s face slapped her.

“Ach, dear, I am sorry, Army is better now, they have good machines and leaders like MacArthur and Eisenhower. Please forgive me?”

MaryAnn settled back down and tried to brush the flaked paint from her hand without spilling any tea.

Having MaryAnn’s attention diverted helped Anya’s struggle to keep going. “Freddy came home, right? Yes, Freddy came home and we make our house. Soon comes Sophie, our little girl.”

After a minute, MaryAnn stated,” I never heard Mike had a sister.”

“Sophie died of leukemia so young, no school yet. When we find she has this, I want no more kinderen, children, but it is too late. We bring baby Michael to the funeral to say goodbye to the sister he never knew.” She absently swallowed more tea and leaned back to study the marigolds along the front steps.

“Hey, I’m sorry I brought that up, really.”

The sympathy in the girl’s voice vied with the flowers, but she couldn’t look away from the red and yellow frills.

In a kinder voice, MaryAnn asked, “Who does Mike take after?”holland-173

“Take after?”

“Does he look like you family or Freddy’s?”

“Ach, he is so like Freddy, so handsome and kind.” The too-familiar memory of his placid, non-Freddy face in the casket assaulted her. “When Freddy was killed in the train accident, it was Mike who pulled me to the church. I go once and was so mad at God, I go no more.”

“Now you want to go again.”

“Yes. You see Mike said it was a sin to be mad at God and worse bad things would happen.”

“So you believe Mike will come back if you go to church?”

“No, I know it is not so simple. I have been reading the bible, though. The words of Jesus touch my cold heart. The angels, they kneel at his feet.”

MaryAnn finished her tea and placed the glass on the round, lacy metal table between the chairs. “Well, the closest church is that Apostolic one, the holy rollers. That Independent Baptist Church across the highway isn’t too far to walk and is probably more your speed. Instead of going east to work, go west on Orchard Street three blocks and you’ll see it across the highway from the car lot.”

“Bitte, please, will you not go with me?”

“Why would I need to go? It isn’t that far and Sunday morning there isn’t much traffic on the highway.”

The marigolds were wilting in the hot sun, not enough rain for them. Everything gets dirty, wilts, dies. She placed her tea glass on the little table. “Yes, okay, it was a silly idea anyway. I saw the posting at work for night shifts. It is for packing the rations into boxes which is not much different than I do now. As this will have me gone all meal times, you will not need to make the sandwiches for me. Also, I can live in the hostel nearer to work, if I may leave a few items here.” She stood, wanting to leave today, this hour, now. “You have been so kind and I will miss you.”

MaryAnn frowned with a studious look upon her face. She looked up at Anya and started to wag a finger at her, but clasped her hands again with her eyes darting right and left. All at once, her face lightened. She stood and reached across the little table to tentatively grasp Anya’s fingers. “Don’t do that. I’ll go to church with you.”