Friday, September 11, 2009

Eternal Tears

Eternal Tears

The crackle of a classroom speaker.

Dozens of small voices, stilled

by the sudden intrusion,

stop at once.

A silence.

No movement in the room but

the rhythmic metronome of the teacher’s ruler

swinging back and forth in her craggy hands.

The crackle sounds once more,

and our faces turn in unison,

in anticipation,

towards its source.

A small, broken voice—

recognizable but not normal,

not the rich, strong voice usually carried into the room that way,

but a fragment of it,

a shell, without depth,

cracking like the speaker itself—

interrupts the silence.

“Bow your heads in prayer,” it says.

Confused eyes stare at the oval grill

awkwardly jutting out of an ancient beige wall.

The voice, more broken now, continues.

“We have just received word that the President has been shot.”

Vaguely we try to recall just what a President is—

visions of white-haired men in blue coats leap out of history books into

our brains, blur, roll into each other. Names, mostly from holidays,

flash through our minds.

And one more…

Again the electronic crackling,

as if the speaker itself does not wish to hear the news:

“President Kennedy was shot this afternoon in Dallas.”

A pause. A sound like weeping. “Pray for him.”

Dozens of eyes,



watch the teacher sit in stunned silence at her desk,

tears welling in her gray eyes,

the ruler grasped still tightly in her palm,

some connection to the world which has ended so abruptly.

Her face quivers, the gray in her hair even duller,

and her head slips to the desk.

We look at each other, recognizing

that something is terribly, unalterably wrong,

and bow our heads as well.

Eternity goes by.

No sound in the room but the humming of the clock

and the almost imperceptible click of its hand

every minute.

An airplane in the distance rattles the blinds on the window.

Somewhere a woman is calling someone,

her pained voice reaching out into the bright autumn sky.

Somewhere a baby is crying.

And we sit, heads on our desks, unsure exactly

what it all means,

still as we have ever been, waiting.


And the history book images flood back in:

Abraham Lincoln was a President who had been shot, but that was long ago,

very long ago,

and the quaking voice from the speaker had said, “this afternoon.”

Voices from the mind: fathers’ voices, mothers’ voices,

in dinner conversation,

working around the edge of a roast,

red and dripping,

saying something about a new age, a new life for the country,

a new hope.

The speaker comes to life again, startling us out of our thoughts;

the voice is choking back tears.

“President John F. Kennedy died this afternoon in a Dallas hospital.”

Wailing from somewhere down the hall.

Silence in the classroom.

Our faces blank, our minds blank.

All silent.

The speaker fades.

In the halls, there is silence.

Something terrible has happened, something

which will shape and define our lives.

So young, but we know that.

And we file quietly to our buses,

no tears in our eyes.

On this day, the tears are left to the grownups.

On this day, it helps to be a child.

And the buses roll through empty streets,

early afternoon traffic

stilled by the flickering blue light

of the television screens all are staring at,

and we go home to the arms of our waiting mothers,

and the blue lights transfix us too.

Perhaps some of us cry then.

Perhaps some of us wait

for the scratchy images

of a frigid November morning

with a horse-drawn carriage

rolling along the street lined

with men in black and

women in dark veils and

the young boy raising his hand

in a silent salute,

or perhaps we wait until the small flame

begins its eternal vigil,

solitary on the hillside,

or perhaps we never cry at all,

and return to our desks

on Monday,

bursting with children’s vigor,

forgetting what we have seen

and heard,

not fearing the next crackle of the tiny speaker.

But there are some memories,

stark or vivid,

that haunt and cling and will not let go.

And there are some tears—shed or withheld—that never go away.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


A cool breeze taunted the few plants that somehow managed, despite the altitude, to flourish on the outcropping where she sat. Winter’s chill had relented long ago and the cliffs and crags no longer held any remnants of the snow that, only months before, had helped to shield her from outside view. Not that she really needed help; she could easily manage to stay hidden. In all of these years, that at least was something she had become very, very good at.

Below her, a seasonally sporadic line of cars traversed the meandering roadway that cut through the mountains toward Ostbergen and Aldamia Castle. Tourists, she thought, and wondered for perhaps the millionth time why Myra permitted it, why indeed Myra had arranged for it. Wouldn’t St. Aldamia’s be better served if its location had remained a secret, if the castle had remained, as it was for centuries, closed to the public? But ever since Myra, with her ridiculous ideas, had ascended to the leadership of the Council, things had been…askew. If she had been the chair instead…

But that was not the way it had played out. And now diminutive Myra was running the show. How long had it been now? She couldn’t quite remember. She stared down at the tiny cars, like so many ants winding around the long, twisting road whose only destination was that tiny mountain hamlet. These cliffs were no good for skiing, and she had made darn sure they were unattractive to mountain climbers, though she supposed Myra too had taken precautions in that area. So Ostbergen’s only charm was its remoteness, its quaintness, its authenticity, and…the castle.

For centuries only her people had known about its existence, and it should have stayed that way. Now it was an elite tourist destination, not very accessible but highly desirable, and for the several months of the year in which the roads up to the town were passable there seemed a never-ending stream of people coming to fill the small town with visitors and the castle with…what? History buffs? Architecture fanatics? Art lovers? Thrill seekers? Surely Aldamia Castle offered something for all with its centuries-old, complicated, highly unusual structure and the rumors—patently untrue but fostered by the villagers—of ghosts.

She had to give Myra one thing: it took brass balls to invite the world right into the building that housed both the school and Council headquarters and still manage to keep both hidden from them. There had even been that BBC documentary on the place, “The Hidden Beauty of Aldamia Castle.” She laughed aloud at the thought of it. They had no clue what they had not been able to film. Like, for example, the dragons that were housed in the rear of the castle grounds. That might have made a fun bit of footage. But there had been no great winged beasts on the BBC; the documentary had instead focused on the castle’s mysterious and shrouded history and some of the incredible artwork that lay within its walls. It was just as well. Let the dragons alone. They didn’t ask to have the bloody world brought into their private space, after all.

She had not been on the Council when Myra opened up the castle, though she understood that it had been, to some degree, a reaction to her mistakes. Interaction with the rest of the world, the new Council leader had said, will help us all to become better citizens of that world. As if we ever had existed outside of the “rest of the world,” she thought. Their people had been a part of all of world history, had played prominent roles in much of it that had usually gone pretty well undetected, as Myra still decreed that they should. So what was the big deal?

Myra had changed the school calendar to make sure that all children were educated in their home country in whatever was the normal way for their cultures and spent only a fraction of the year at St. Aldamia’s. And even while they were here, outsiders were around. They were never as insulated as they once had been, as she had been, as Myra had been. And their world was suffering as a result. She had seen it, watched it happening now for years. The signs were everywhere.

The “rest of the world” was imploding. Surely Myra could see that. Surely she knew and understood that. And surely she knew also that the magic was not strong enough anymore to do anything about it. It had been spread too thin. If she had been successful on that day, so many years ago, if she had managed to consolidate the powers of the magic, it all could have been so much better. She could have seen to it. But not Myra with her egalitarian insanity. She was destroying everything.

The cars slid silently along the road into Ostbergen. She allowed her eyes to follow the little dots back along the trail as it made its way through the mountains. Finally, her long gaze found what she was looking for. There, she thought. That would be one way to do it.

Smiling, she stood up and moved back up over the outcropping to a ledge near the top of the cliff face on the other side. She looked across the great chasm that divided her from another wall of rock, pockmarked with small craters from what appeared to be hundreds of direct mortar hits. Nothing was stirring on the other side. Withdrawing a small wooden wand from her cloak, she casually flicked it in the direction of the wall. A flash of light flew from its end, hurtling across the divide, opening yet another hole in the rock face. Nothing was there, but that didn't matter. This time, she was just taking out her aggression.

The wand disappeared back into the cloak in a movement so subtle as to be almost invisible. Then, turning, she waved a hand at the face of the cliff on her own side, and a large section of the granite faded into a shimmering red before vanishing altogether, revealing the mouth of a hidden cave.

She looked back at the pockmarked cliff opposite her. “I will find you,” she snarled. “I’m closer than ever.”

The cliff made no reply. She spun back around and walked through the opening, waving a hand behind her as the shimmering rock face faded back into a solid wall once again.