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The Noose of Judas – Part III

big-sur

Santa Lucia Mountains, near Big Sur, California – 1774

On arriving at the place of koxki asanax (hot water) Ishka, a young Ekheahan tribesman, slid his naked body into the steaming pool. When the water reached the wounds on his back, it stung like fire, but Ishka knew it was the beginning of healing and welcomed the pain.

In his language the word lasapa meant “to wash,” something the Españoles rarely did themselves, and would never allow the Indios to do. Of all the things Ishka missed, lasapa was one that he longed for the most. And as he lingered in the pool, he imagined he was washing away the nightmares of the last two years.

On the other side of the creek, on a small bluff overhead, Ishka noticed a young woman looking down at him. Her eyes were large; her skin smooth. He wondered if she was an isamis — a virgin. He could tell from her dress that she was Excelen. The Excelen were of the same people, but of a neighboring community. Technically, Ishka was on their land.
This was something he also missed. The touch of a woman. He motioned to her to come near.

Moments later, she stood over him, staring down into the roiling water.

“I am Ishka. I have fled from the Españoles. I was held at the Misión de Carmel for over two years. I escaped three days ago.”

The woman smiled. “I am Atimu.”

“I know I am on your land. I came into the mountains to find koxki asanax to wash my wounds.” Ishka stood up, revealing himself to Atimu. He turned around and showed her the places on his back where the whip of the padres had torn away his skin.

“I have fresh ami’ chanax (herbs) for healing. Let me help you,” said Atimu.

She knelt down and untied a small leather pouch from around her waist. She reached in and took out a handful of withered leaves and dipped them in the water.

“Come,” she said.

Ishka stepped backwards towards her.

“Closer,” she said.

He felt the hot juice from the leaves being squeezed onto his back. Then her soft hand touching him. Moments later she was in the water with him, her kisses bringing greater healing than the figwort or poppy ever could.

 

Later, as the two sunned themselves dry on a large flat rock, Ishka told Atimu his story.

“I was taken by the Españoles as I was carrying fish from the beach. On horseback, they surrounded me and two of my kinsmen. They threw ropes around us, and drug us through the sand, burning our skin. There were soldiers from the Presidio along with two priests. One they called Fermin. And then there was the tumasachpa — the devil — the one called Junípero. The one who wore the black rope around his waist.

“At the mission they put us into what are called dormitories. There was one for men and one for women and children.

“There, we were mixed with other tribes … Ohlone, Rumsen, Sarhentaruc. Some we understood; others we did not. But it did not matter, for we were all forced to learn the language of the Españoles. We were also forced to learn their religion – worshipping the man Jesús and his mother Maria.

“During the day we tended their herds and ploughed their fields. At sundown we were brought to the mission. We went to the chapel, prayed to Jesús on the cross and drank his blood from the cup.”

“You drank his blood?” asked Atami.

“Yes,” said Ishka. “We drank his blood and ate his body. These were just bread and the wine the padres made. But we were told they were real. And to keep from being beaten, we didn’t argue.

“After the chapel, we ate dinner. We ate whatever the Españoles fed us. Then we went back to the dormitories where we had no pace to wash. And when we urinated and defecated, it was into a common bucket.

Atami cringed at Ishka’s description of the mission. “How did you escape?” she asked.

“I tried two times before I succeeded,” answered Ishka. “On those times, after I was caught, I was brought back and whipped by the padre Junípero. On the third time, it was Junípero himself who caught me.

“I was tending sheep far away from the mission, in a pasture near the hills. I figured it would be an easy place for me to escape. As evening approached, I made sure I was at the edge to the pasture. When the others began moving back to the mission, I would simply slip away into the hills.

“I did so, but as I approached the hills, Junípero came riding towards me on horseback, along with one of the Mestizo foremen. This was my third time trying to escape I knew he would kill me.

“The Mestizo, his name was Carlos, roped me and pulled me to the ground, much the same way they had done when I was first captured. He dragged me to the fence and there they dismounted and Junípero took off the rope from around his waist and tied me around one the large fence posts.

“He then told Carlos to leave.

“With Carlos a distance away, Junípero took the whip hanging from his saddle and began lashing me. As he did so, I felt an immense anger well up inside. I suddenly felt strong. The power was coming from the rope around my wrists. It burned into my skin with a cold pain. In comparison, I was hardly even feeling the whip on my back. I was filled with a burst of power and I embraced the post in my arms and pulled it from the ground, swung it around, and knocked Junípero to the ground.

“Free from the post, I slipped the rope from my hands and ran.”

Atimu leaned over, kissed Ishka, and caressed his cheek.

“I should have taken the black rope,” said Ishka. “But I only wanted to be free of it. It made me hachoxpa. It turns a man into a devil.”

The Noose of Judas – Part II

Castillo_de_Loarre_-_Vista_croppedThis is a continuation of a something I wrote earlier this year:

https://harrystevenackley.com/2018/03/16/the-noose-of-judas/

It is an excerpt from the new book I’m working on, The Saint of El Camino Real.

The dungeon of Loarre Castle, Aragon, Spain, 1747 AD

Standing in the dim torchlight, Father Joaquín Hernandez, Maestro de la inquisición, appeared even more sinister than usual. His deep-set eyes were in shadow. His thin lips were perfectly horizontal … inscrutable. Along the walls, were instruments of torture.  Unused for years, they had fallen into eerie silence.

In his hands was a wooden box, about one-foot square and two inches deep.  It was solid on four sides and on the back, but the front was wire mesh. In the box was a coil of blackened rope.

Father Joaquín looked down at the box and then at his colleague, a young Franciscan named Junípero. As his face turned upward, the light caught his eyes, the icy stare of a torturer.

“This, Father Junípero, is the noose of Judas Iscariot. Or rather, it is the rope used for the noose. The knot was taken out long ago. I don’t know why.

“It has been the source of our power for centuries. Do know its story?”

“Other than what is in the gospels, no,” said the young priest.

“I will tell you then,” said Father Joaquín.

“The tradition is that it was taken from the body of Judas, by the Roman Emperor Vespasian, long before he became emperor. When he was a young centurion stationed in Palestine.

“The noose was the source for his rise to power and that of his sons, Titus and Domitian. It was the power behind the siege of Jerusalem and the persecution of the early church.

“After the death of Domitian, Emperor Nerva ordered the noose to be destroyed, claiming that it had made Domitian mad with rage. He tried to burn it, but it would not burn, hence its blackened color. He then ordered it be hidden.

“From time to time it would surface, used by the darkest of the emperors: Commodus, Severus, Diocletian, and the like. Some emperors used it; some abhorred it. However, it always had to be passed on. The legend is that, until it comes into the hand of a new owner, either by bequeathing or thievery, its current owner will not die.”

“And how did it come into the hands of the inquisition?”
asked Father Junípero.

“When the empire turned Christian and its capital changed from Rome to Constantinople, the noose was moved to avoid capture by the Visigoths. It ended up here, in Spain. Later it briefly fell into the hands of the Moors but was recovered by Sancho Garcés, the king of Pamplona. It eventually was given to us as an aide in our efforts to purify the church. Much like the instruments you see in this dungeon, we used it to help us when necessary.”

The old priest ended his sentence and, for the first time, his dry little mouth curled into a fiendish smile. The smile quickly disappeared and he added, “But now those days have come to an end. The inquisition is all but over. The enlightenment has made its way to our beloved España. I have even heard that the Jews are beginning to return.”

“And that is why you wish me to have it, Father. To take it to the new world?”

“Yes,” answered Father Joaquín. “Where you are going is land to be won, full of pagans and wild beasts. The noose will aid you.”

“But is it a dark thing. You said yourself it drove the emperors mad … mad with power.”

“You are naïve. Father Junípero. You will soon discover the necessity for power, the employment of which is neither dark nor light. It is those who wield such power that determine the outcome of its use. Yet, as with the ancient judges of Israel, sometimes blood is spilt. It is simply a consequence. You will see.”

“And what about the curse? By accepting this, am I doomed to possess it until I die?”

“Hardly,” snapped the old priest. “It’s simply a myth.”

Father Joaquín held the box out to Father Junípero who took it and looked through the crude wire screen at its contents, the darkened spiral tightly enclosed on four sides. It seemed an ordinary object. But as he continued to hold it, it grew heavy.

Father Junípero’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud gasp. Father Joaquín crumpled to the floor. The young priest dropped the box. He went to his knees, next to Father Joaquín.

Father Joaquín continued gasping, clutching his chest. A look of horror as his glazed eyes were fixed on the instruments of torture lining the walls.

“I see them,” croaked the old priest. “They have come for me.”

“What do you see, Father?” asked Junípero.

“Them,” said Father Joaquín pointing a trembling finger. “The heretics … the Jews.”

Father Junípero looked at the wall where Father Joaquín was pointing. All he saw was a rusted cage with spikes and a rack whose wood and straps had decayed in the wetness of the dungeon.

“There’s no one there, Father,” said Junípero.

But Father Joaquín was dead.

Texas Carnival

zipper

I realize this is my first blog post in a while. Perhaps I should just come to grips with the idea that these are gonna be quarterly, or maybe bi-annual, things … we’ll see.

I started a new job at the beginning of the year doing communications work for the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s been a very welcome change from the world of high tech marketing, which I’d been doing for almost twenty years. Nevertheless, learning the ropes of the new gig has taken up a lot of time, not leaving much room for writing.

The plot for my third book is still in what I call the gestation period … new ideas are still presenting themselves … parts are moving around … characters are asserting their personalities. I’ve been taking notes, but that’s about it.

What I have been doing instead is getting my memoir Mexicans Don’t Eat Pancakes ready for publication. “Mexicans” is a true story about my running away from home when I was seventeen. I wrote the book in my 20s when the memories were still somewhat fresh. For years, the handwritten manuscript sat in a box in my garage. Finally, in my 40s I typed it up. And now (pushing 60), I’m giving it one last edit before putting it to print. I’m hoping to get it out there sometime this fall. Again … we’ll see.

So, in lieu of any real blog content, I share with you an abridged passage from “Mexicans” about spending three days with a carnival in Texas. The opening pages are below. If you’d like to read the entire passage, here’s a link.


 

Texas Carnival

I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching from behind. Through it was still a ways off, I automatically turned and stuck my thumb out, squinting to see what it was. It was another truck.

“It’s probably another farmer. He won’t pick us up. Don’t waste your time,” said Blake.
I began to lower my thumb, then I stopped. “No, wait. He’s got a camper on the back. Maybe it’s not a farmer. And he’s got Oklahoma plates!”

The truck slowed down and pulled up alongside us. Three guys were inside the cab. One was middle-aged and the other two were young. The middle-aged guy was driving. He had on a black baseball hat that was about two sizes too small. The hat rode high up on the point of his football-shaped head. Hunched over the wheel, with a u-shaped neck and a beak nose, he looked like a buzzard. There was this kind of dim-witted expression on his face as he eyed us, his head bobbing up and down.

The other two looked normal. One was a clean-cut redhead about our age. The other was a pale-skinned guy with long stringy blond hair. He was probably in his twenties. He had thick glasses, which made him look the most intelligent of the three.

There was also a dog in the back. I couldn’t see what kind because of the camper shell. But from the sound it made as it pounced around, I could tell it was big.

The baseball hat guy spoke first.

“Where ya headed?”

“Up north … Oklahoma,” I answered.

He looked down the road in front of him … contemplating, I guess. Though, from the looks of the guy, I couldn’t imagine what thoughts that pointed head could possibly generate.

The other two just stared at us with these stupid grins as they puffed away on cigarettes. I had smoked all my mine and wanted one so bad — I had to ask.

“Can I have a smoke?”

“Sure,” said the guy with the glasses.

He extended a pack of Salems. I wasn’t really into menthol, but beggars can’t be choosers. I was grateful. He then offered me a light.

“What did these guys want?” I wondered. No one had ever questioned us before. We were either picked up, or we weren’t. The baseball hat, having thoroughly chewed through his thought, resumed…

“Why don’t ya come with uth … sthee the world!” He spoke louder this time and I could tell he had a speech impediment – an intense lisp. A lisp combined with a southern accent … oh boy.

“What d’ya mean?” asked Blake.

“Join da carnival! Sthee the world!”

“The carnival?”

“Sthure! We’ll pay ya and feed ya … you can work for uth.”

His eyes sparkled and it reminded me of the preacher at the Star of Hope rescue mission. He was preaching his gospel to us: The Gospel of The Carnival.

I was very suspicious. Blake, however, was sold on the idea.

“You can do what you want, Ackley. I’m gonna go.” Blake seemed desperate. Perhaps he saw this as a chance to avoid the disgraceful return home.

“Aw, what the hell … we’ll join the carnival,” I agreed.

We were gonna get in the back, but the guy with the glasses mentioned that the dog might bite. As a precaution, the redhead got out and hopped in the back, and the four of us crammed into the cab. We had joined the carnival!

Football head introduced himself simply as Dee. The guy with the glasses was Bud. The kid in the back was Clarence. We then introduced ourselves, and when Blake said his name, Dee tried to repeat it.

“Blahh …Blach …Blath …Blatch.” Each time it got worse. I saw Lockett wincing to hear his name massacred that way.

When we reached the carnival, a short woman holding a spatula and a frying pan gave us a look-what-the-cat-drug-in expression as we pulled into the grounds and filed out of the truck.

She was standing in front of a snack bar trailer. She had a small turned-up nose and straight black hair that was bobbed short. She actually could have been kind of cute, if it weren’t for her sour expression.

“Where’n the hell did ya get these fellers?” she bawled at Dee.

“Oh … teeth boys ith got da traflin spirit. Theys ith gonna join da carnival!” Dee persisted painting his picture about the romantic life on the road. We knew better though — from the moment he picked us up. And now, as we looked around, all was confirmed … dilapidated tin trailers that housed the ring toss and air rifle games … rusted old rides: The Hammer, The Zipper, The Scrambler, The Rock-O-Planes. And then there were the carnies themselves: discards of white trash America.

The frying pan woman was introduced to us as Marie, Dee’s sister. Clarence and Bud had taken off with the dog as soon as the truck stopped. This made Blake and I all the more conspicuous — there was no one to mill around with while Dee further explained our presence.

“I figure we needed thum mo help,” said Dee.

“Well, what a’ya gonna pay these boys?” Marie snapped.

“Oh, uh … uh, well … I take care uff it. Don’ thoo worry.” He purposely tried to avoid the mention of any sum to his sister, as that had not yet been discussed.

All the time they were bickering, she kept looking us up and down like we were meat or something — like we were slaves! I kept waiting for her to come over and pry my lips apart to see if my teeth were good. Or better yet, have us drop our drawers to see if we had any diseases … This one’s gotta cavity, Dee. I don’ want him. This one’s gotta big canker on his balls, Dee. I don’ want him.

Well, I guess we passed the test ok (and while keeping our clothes on, to boot). As soon as Marie seemed pacified, Dee whisked us off and had us follow him to his trailer. (I’m sure he too wanted to take his leave of her.)

All the trailers where the carnies lived were parked on the far side of the grounds, behind the game booths. Dee’s was the biggest – a long avocado-green box made of aluminum siding textured to have the appearance of real wood. Right next to it was an old teardrop-shaped job that had been painted white. The smaller trailer served as the carnival office and above the door was tacked a plywood sign that read: Citizens State Shows.

Inside Dee’s trailer there was nothing but chaos going on as two bratty kids ran back and forth screaming, hitting, and pulling each other’s hair. These, I later found out, were Dee’s son and niece. (The niece belonging to Marie back at the snack bar.) In the kitchen stood a voluptuous, yet somewhat whorish-looking redhead: Dee’s wife.

Dee had us sit down in the front room. Mrs. Dee (she was never introduced) finished whatever she was doing in the kitchen and then disappeared. There was a long pause until she was completely out of sight. Her big moon-shaped buns waved bye-bye to us through a pair of tight black stretch-pants. And that was the last we ever saw of her – a kept woman.

“S-tho, you boys wanna join da carnival?” he asked. We both just sort of looked at him, not sure if it was a rhetorical question.

Then he kind of leaned back and rubbed his chin, like he was mulling it over. What was this anyway? He pulls us off the road and tells us he’s gonna give us jobs, and now he’s holding this grand inquisition.

“Y’all know how to drive a truck?” he asked.

We both sort of nodded.

“Thhh-semi?”

I said no.

Blake, however, said he’d driven one before. Of course, Blake had an advantage over me there. That’s because Blake grew up on a farm and he knew about semis and crap like that. Blake then made mention of this fact — that he was a farmer’s son — and Dee sparked up.
“You’s a farmer’s boy, eh? Oooo-ie!” I don’t know why it touched him off the way it did, but who cares, it seemed to be our ticket.

“What’s you two’s nameses again?”

“Blake and Steve,” I answered.

“Steee?”

“Right,” I said with a shrug.

“And…?”

“Blake,” said Blake.

“Bwahhh.”

“Blake.”

“Bwachhh.” He couldn’t say it.

“Blake.”

“Bahh-ch.”

“No, B-L-A-K-E. Blake.”

“Mmmm …ah-wite, I work on it.”

“Y’alls ain’t afraid of hard work, ith ya?”

This seemed like a weird question to me. Afraid of hard work? Hmm? I suppose it was just his way of making sure we were gonna tote that barge and lift that bale. Blake then started to play with Dee a little.

“Heck no. I ain’t afraid of no herd werk,” said Blake. I laughed at his impromptu Texas redneck accent. It wasn’t half bad. The humor was lost on Dee.

Dee then turned to me. “An’ what ’bout you … You ain’t ‘fraid no hard work, ith ya?”
I couldn’t believe this guy. What the hell was he gonna do with us anyway, put us on a chain gang? No, I ain’t afraid of no hard work, Mr. Dee.

I shook my head no.

“Well, good then. I put ya ta work.” He looked at Blake and then me. “Ya gonna have ta shabe off them two beardseth.”

The idea of shaving off my beard didn’t make me happy. I’d let it go for nearly a month and was somewhat proud of my scant pubic-like growth. It wasn’t bad for a boy of 17.

“I don’t have a razor or anything,” I said.

“Oh, we find ya one.”

So, I went along with it – rules are rules.

Among Dee’s other rules were no drinking and no drugs.

“Y’all don’ th-smoke marijuana, do ya?” (I was amazed. He pronounced the word marijuana like a Fulbright scholar.)

“No! Who … us?”

But it was the last rule that really hit me. “And we don’ want ya leabin the carnival for no reason.”

“You mean we have to stay here all the time?”

“Dat’s right.”

“You mean we can’t walk into town or anything?”

“Dat’s the rule. Everythin’ you needs is right here at the carnival.”

At this, it seemed like he was finished with his talk. But there was something that still needed discussing…

“How much are you going to pay us?” I finally asked.

At this, ol’ Dee began to hem and haw around like an old professional. In the end, it came down to this: He was going to pay us each $7.00 a day in cash. Out of that we had to pay for our own food. But because we couldn’t go into town, we had to buy everything from the carnival food wagon. Thereby, plowing what little money we made back into the system. What a sham! He was going to put us on the chain gang!

He also muttered something vague about putting $5.00 a day into some employee matching fund that was supposed to gain some kind of interest in proportion to whatever profits the carnival made (sort of a hillbilly profit sharing scheme, I guess). Of course, this was a sham as well – it was obvious. The whole thing was a farce – a bald-faced lie he’d told over and over to indigent Okies with strong backs and weak minds. But, seeing as how we didn’t have anything better to do, we joined the carnival. Perhaps we’d at least get a ride up north out of it.

“How far do you travel, anyway?” I asked.

“Oh … s’far as Nebraska.” Join the carnival. See the world!

READ COMPLETE PASSAGE.

The Noose of Judas

Dracula 2000 (2000)

Amid the noise and haste of life, I have continued to chip away at the last installment of my angel trilogy, The Saint of El Camino Real. Here is how it begins. Tell me, does this make you want to continue reading?


When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

– The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Chapter 27

Jerusalem, 33 AD

The stench was so awful it almost made the young Vespasian vomit. He ordered Laelius, his slave, to grab the rope. No one was else near. The Jews would not approach the rotting flesh for fear of contamination. Roman slaves would later remove the corpse as a random punishment for some invented offense. But only after the Jewish Sabbath had passed, of course … everything had to be done in accordance with the Jewish schedule.

Vespasian’s cohort had been dispatched to Judea a month ago because of the Jewish holiday. Pilate, the Prefect of region, had requested that the Emperor send extra troops to quell the expected crowds.

Vespasian hated Judea. He’d been there once before, en route to Egypt. He hated the Jews and their strange religion. And the tolerances of Pax Romana — he hated that too. Why didn’t Rome just wipe them out and have it done with? Or leave the place altogether? For Vespasian, he couldn’t get back to Rome soon enough.

He wasn’t sure why wanted the noose. It was a quirk of his. He enjoyed collecting instruments of death. He believed they held power, the power of the victim. And this victim was quite unique. He’d been duped by the Jewish leaders into betraying one of his own kind — a man who had gained the reputation of a prophet. A man who the Jews saw as a threat. And after the weak Pilate acquiesced to the Jews’ demand for an execution, the betrayer felt remorse and hung himself.

As Vespasian and Laelius made their way back to their encampment, they saw a group of Jews coming towards them. A member of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, was leading an ox cart. Vespasian recognized him by his long beard and elaborate robe. Behind the cart were three women and a young man, all walking slowly. As the group came closer, he could see that they were in tears and that the cart was carrying a bloodied corpse wrapped in a large sheet. Over the side of the makeshift bier, an arm was hanging out from under the sheet. Blood trickled from a large deep gash just above the wrist bone. The unmistakable wound of crucifixion.

The prophet, thought Vespasian.

And no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he became gripped by panic. Vespasian, a man who had survived terrible battles against ruthless enemies, found himself feeling like a scared child.

Though it was a warm spring day, his hands suddenly grew cold. The rope he held felt heavy, even burdensome. He dropped it to the ground and immediately the sensation left him.

The small entourage came to where Vespasian and Laelius stood. The old Jew stopped, looked at Vespasian, and waited.

Vespasian eyed the body of the dead prophet in the cart. The sheet was dark brown where the blood had dried and crimson where still wet. Only small patches of the original white remained.

Vespasian nodded to the Jew and stepped back to let the group proceed.
After they had passed, Vespasian reached down and picked up the rope.

… Yes, there is power here. Dark power, true, but power none-the-less.

Maslow’s Tower

maslow_4_blog

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Abraham Maslow. Anyone who took General Psychology in college may recognize the name. In truth, I don’t know too much about him myself, only that he developed the hierarchy of needs model where he breaks down human needs into five categories, each built upon the other. This is often illustrated by a pyramid, or tower.

maslow_tower

Our basic physical needs (food, shelter, etc.) are at the bottom, then safety, then the need for belonging (the need to love and be loved), then success or accomplishment. The final step is self-actualization, where we reach our full potential and are able to contribute to our world – to “contribute our verse,” as Robin Williams said in the movie Dead Poets Society.

In the following poem, I examine Maslow’s theory..

Maslow’s Tower

Attempting Maslow’s Tower
My SELF got in the way.
I stopped at love and be loved
And lingered half the day.

When I rose another tier
The climb became intense.
Doubt spiked me with a twisted thorn
Causing countenance to wince.

I tumbled down to level two
And there felt safe again,
But as I heard my belly cry
The floor went caving in.

Like Sisyphus in Hades
I try to reach the top,
But sins distract my best intent
And my stone of virtue drops.

I must cast aside this human good
Which seemeth right, I know.
It’s now the middle of the day
And I’ve nothing yet to show.

I think I’ll journey to that hill
That lies off in the east.
Seek shade beneath the tree there
And find a moment’s peace.

Later, I may rise again
To try the dreaded tower,
But for now my strength is gone
It’s time to rest an hour.

*****

I lay beneath crossed branches
And dream of level five.
Oh, to be self-actualized
And sate this human drive.

If only I could stand aloft
Possessing all I want,
Imparting cosmic wisdom:
Behold, the great savant!

It is then the idea strikes me
That I may be deceived.
Perhaps this tower in the west
Is not to be believed.

I’m mindful of another tower
That men once tried to mount
Yet, in the end, their efforts
Did result in no account.

Just then, off in the distance
I hear a curdling cry,
And watch to see a body spinning
Downward through the sky.

Another soul on Maslow’s tower
Has reached the golden summit
And, with nothing left to live for,
Met its end in splendorous plummet.

© Harry Steven Ackley

The Two-Headed Baby

2-headed-baby_cropped

Mrs. Forsythe had consented to allow David to go to county fair with the Durkee family, but she did not relish the idea of turning her son over to them, even if it was only for a few hours.

As she turned into the driveway of the Durkee house, Mrs. Forsythe tightly gripped the steering wheel of the families’ brand new 1964 Ford Country Squire.  The afternoon sunlight caught her eyes as she made the turn and her well-made face crinkled up, as if she smelled something putrid. Mrs. Forsythe had attended a tea that afternoon and was wearing a red dress, with a pillbox hat and white gloves. She was a thin woman with refined features. At that moment, she just looked mean.

“Now if they try and get you to go to church, you just tell them, no thank you. You have you own church to go to,” said Mrs. Forsythe. The Forsythes were from a long line of Methodists; the Durkees belonged to one of those Pentecostal churches where they were always trying to convert everyone. Mrs. Forsythe resented the Durkees trying to get David to go along with them on Sundays.

“Aw, Mom!” said David.

“Aw nothing. You just do as I say.”

The big station wagon came to a stop and David exploded out to meet his friend Arlon who had been waiting on the front steps. The two boys quickly disappeared around the back of the house together.

“Hey Linda, how you been?” came a slow twangy voice from the direction of the front porch.

Mrs. Forsythe squinted to see where the voice was coming from and then finally made out the shape of Mrs. Durkee’s big silhouette veiled behind the screen door.

“I’ve been well, Betty. How about yourself?”

“The good Lord takes care,” said Mrs. Durkee, as she opened the door and motioned for Mrs. Forsythe to come in.

The inside of the Durkee house was filled with the smell of chicken fried steak. Mr. Durkee, a large man with an oversized forehead that made his face look like a lightbulb, sat at the kitchen counter, waiting for his supper. He nodded silently at Mrs. Forsythe as she entered the house.

“You weren’t planning on feeding the boys, were you, Betty?” asked Mrs. Forsythe. “I already gave David something to eat before we left.”

“Oh, why yes,” answered Mrs. Durkee. “I thought we’d all have supper together. Didn’t I tell ya?”

“No.”

“Oh, I am sorry. I just figured, if I didn’t give the boys something to eat, why they’d be munchin’ down a bunch of garbage at the fair,” said Mrs. Durkee. “Maybe Davey will still have room for a little something, huh?”

Mrs. Forsythe did not like her son being called Davey. She’d made that very clear in the past. However, at the moment, she did not wish to broach the subject.

“I don’t know, Betty, I suppose you’ll have to ask him and see,” said Mrs. Forsythe. “So you think you’ll be back around ten o’clock?”

“Oh yeah, but don’t trouble yourself to come back out. We’ll drop Davey off on our way home.”

“That’s awfully far out of your way, Betty. You only live a half mile from the fairgrounds. I’m all the way back in town.”

“Ain’t no trouble at all,” interjected Mr. Durkee in a powerful baritone voice. “We’ll bring him on by at ten.”

With that settled, Mrs. Forsythe saw no reason to stay around. So, after she bade the Durkees a quick and courteous farewell, she turned to go. As she did, the Durkee’s five year-old son Cloy came screaming at her from out of nowhere. He ran right past Mrs. Forsythe, jostling her and causing her hat to fall to the floor.

Cloy grabbed his mother around her waist, leaning his head into her side while fixing his gaze on the stranger in the room.

“Cloy!” barked Mr. Durkee. “That ain’t nice. What’s wrong with you, boy?”

Cloy clung even tighter to his mother, never taking his eyes off Mrs. Forsythe, who picked up her hat and smoothed the veil of netting that hung over the front.

“Now, Tucker, he’s alright. See, he’s just not used to Linda, that’s all. He musta been hidin’ just outside the front door.” Mrs. Durkee turned to Mrs. Forsythe and smiled with a doughy grin. “When he saw you comin’ towards him, he musta got scared.”

Cloy pointed a wet finger at Mrs. Forsythe and said, “Who’s that?”

“Why, that’s Mrs. Forsythe,” Said Mrs. Durkee. “Davey’s mom. You remember Mrs. Forsythe. They live around the corner from Arlon’s school.”

“Could you please refer to him as David?” asked Mrs. Forsythe. “He doesn’t like being called Davey.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, you mentioned that before,” said Mrs. Durkee.

Still staring at Mrs. Forsythe, Cloy breathed heavily through his nose, green snot flagging from his nostrils in rhythm with each breath. Cloy’s head jutted forward from his mother’s side and he stuck his tongue out at Mrs. Forsythe.

“Cloy!” yelled Mr. Durkee, getting up from his chair and lunging at the boy.

Cloy ran screaming down the hall to the back of the house. Mr. Durkee began to undo his belt and went after him. “You come here, boy!”

A minute later, a swatting sound came from the back of the house. In between swats was a high-pitched yelling. Mrs. Durkee pointed her large dopey nose towards the hallway. “Sounds like Cloy’s gettin’ himself a lickin’.”

Mrs. Forsythe stood in silence. She had been all ready to make her escape, now she felt obliged to stay until the commotion ceased.

Mr. Durkee reappeared and Cloy came running from behind him, his eyes running with tears. He bolted towards the front door, but Mrs. Durkee stepped in front of him, heading him off.

“Now where do you think you’re going? Supper’s ready,” said Mrs. Durkee, using her big hips to corral the boy back to her husband. Mr. Durkee snatched the boy by his armpits and forced his wiggling body into one of the dining room chairs.

“I’m awful sorry about all his, Linda,” said Mrs. Durkee.

“It’s OK. I —”

Mrs. Forsythe was interrupted by the sound of the screen door opening and closing with a loud WHAP. The two older boys came rushing into the house.

“Say, Linda, I got an idea,” said Mrs. Durkee. “Why don’t you stay for supper? Then you can go out to the fair along with us.”

There was nothing Linda Forsythe wanted more than to grab her son and get away from the Durkees. She and David could go the fair by themselves, or to a movie — anything to escape.

She watched as David and Arlon quickly sat down and scooted themselves up to the table, both wearing broad smiles. If she went along, at least she’d be able to keep an eye on things.

“Well, I’ll have to call Bill to see if he needs me at home tonight,” said Mrs. Forsythe. “Come to think of it, it might be nice to get out and see some of the exhibits.”

“Yeah, Betty’s got some of her stewed tomaters put up in Ball jars out there this year. Won an honorable mention,” said Mr. Durkee.

“Aw Tucker, shame on you. Why do ya have to go and tell all?” Mrs. Durkee said with a blush.

 

Big farm machines and the raucous crowd greeted the little entourage as they walked past the entrance gate and towards the great midway, the boys taking it all in with wonder. Mr. Durkee gave each of his sons three dollars to spend. Not to be shown up, Mrs. Forsythe matched he sum, which, when added to amount he’d been given at home, gave David a total of eight dollars.

As the fantasyland of roaring contraptions, whizzing lights, and tent-covered dime toss and three-for-a-quarter games opened before them, David and Arlon could not contain themselves. The two boys bolted away. Cloy immediately tried to follow but was restrained by his mother’s pudgy hands clutching tightly on his shoulders. In frustration, he socked his mother hard in the leg. Mrs. Durkee let go of her grip and Cloy ran after his brother. His father gave chase and caught up with the three boys at a cotton candy booth. Mrs. Durkee was left hunched over in pain, rubbing her thigh.

“Are you ok, Betty? Can you walk?” asked Mrs. Forsythe.

“Mmm … oh, I’ll be fine. He’s just a little mischief maker, that’s all.” Mrs. Durkee looked up. Her eyes were wide and sad. “It’s just cause of his mind, ya know. Cloy’s got himself a weak mind — one of God’s blessed ones. He can’t help what he does.”

Mrs. Forsythe had heard the story before. David had told it to her time and time again — how Cloy was always being let off the hook because of his being slow. Cloy would come up behind David and box his ears or pinch him real hard and David wouldn’t be able to retaliate or defend himself because Cloy ‘didn’t know no better.’

Mrs. Forsythe didn’t buy it. Why couldn’t they just reason with the boy? Why couldn’t they set rules and guidelines for the boy and teach him to respect them?

A few minutes later Mr. Durkee and the three boys returned, each with a big poof of cotton candy in hand. Cloy’s rage had been placated and the little unit was once again herded together.

Well, what d’ya all wanna see first?” asked Mr. Durkee.

“We wanna go on the rides!” shouted the two older boys in unison.

“Yeah, the rides,” said Cloy.

“You’re too young to be goin’ on any of them rides, Cloy,” said Mrs. Durkee in a stern voice.

Cloy began to whimper.

“Hush now!” said Mr. Durkee. He then bent over and put his face right up to Cloy’s. Now you can’t go on any of them rides, Cloy. You’re only five. Them others, Arlon and his friend, is nine. They’s bigger than you.”

The bear-like man then moved over to his wife, getting close to her so Cloy wouldn’t hear. “Betty, why don’t you and Mrs. Forsythe take Cloy and go and look at your booths and so on, and I’ll take the two older one on the rides.” He mumbled in a low dark voice, dipping his head as he spoke, as if to say, ‘This is what we WILL do. This IS the plan.’

“I think that’s wise,” answered Mrs. Durkee. “To take him along with you would only cause trouble. He’d be tempted to try and hop on all them rides and just be throwin’ fits all night long.

“Cloy, you come along with us,” ordered Mrs. Durkee.

 

In the Will Rogers memorial exhibit hall, as the two women viewed the dried flower arrangements, Mrs. DeeDee Asmuth, a church friend of the Durkees, came up and said hello.

“Why howdy, DeeDee! Where’s Joe? You here all by yourself?” asked Mrs. Durkee.

“Joe’s home. I came out to work alongside Billie Crandall in her patchwork booth. Mrs. Asmuth then cast an appraising eye on Mrs. Forsythe.

“DeeDee, this here’s Mrs. Forsythe. Her boy’s a friend of Arlon’s.”

“Howdy,” said Mrs. Asmuth. She wiped her hands against her barrel-shaped thighs and extended one to Mrs. Forsythe.

“Hello,” said Mrs. Forsythe, taking the hand and gently clasping it as though it was made of cigar ash.

With the formalities over, Mrs. Durkee interjected once again, “So how’s Joe’s tomatoes doing, DeeDee? Has Joe been able to get himself some Mexicans to do his pickin’? I remember you mentioning it to keep it in our prayers at last Sunday service. It’s terrible how them braceros is starting to unionize and all.”

Mrs. Durkee turned to Mrs. Forsythe, “DeeDee’s Joe farms near the basin. He had a bad time getting workers this season cause of the Mexicans striking.”

Mrs. Forsythe had nothing to add to the conversation about Mexican farmworkers. She was a Kennedy Democrat and supported the workers. But she wasn’t about to let her true feelings be known at this point. She simply wanted the night to end. She politely turned up the corners of her little mouth and nodded at Mrs. Asmuth as if she cared — as if she fully understood her plight.

Mrs. Asmuth smiled back, then turned to Mrs. Durkee and said, “Yeah, we was in a fix for a while. But we got ourselves some new boys last Tuesday. We’re OK now.”

“Oh, praise God!” said Mrs. Durkee with genuine relief.

“Yes, that’s right. Praise his name.”

The two women turned to Mrs. Forsythe for some additional spiritual affirmation. She responded only by widening her smile and nodding.

“Well Jesus did it,” added Mrs. Asmuth. They’s Guatemalan boys. Hard up, I guess. But Jesus brought ’em in.”

A mental picture of Jesus leading a train of impoverished Guatemalans onto the Asmuth ranch formed in Mrs. Forsythe’s mind — Jesus the labor contractor.

“Say, where is Arlon anyhow?” asked Mrs. Asmuth. “Where’s Tucker and Cloy?”

“Oh, the boys is off with Tucker going on rides. Except for Cloy. He’s…  Now where is he?”

The three women all looked around in the immediate vicinity for Cloy. Finally, Mrs. Durkee spied her son ripping apart cattails from a nearby dried flower arrangement. The cattail fluff was being scattered everywhere.

“CLOY!” Mrs. Durkee hollered as she shot after him. The boy screamed and ran away from her, knocking over a card table of dolls made out of tree bark.

“Cloy, you come here this instant! I’m gonna whip your little bottom.”

As Mrs. Durkee continued to give chase, Mrs. Asmuth turned to Mrs. Forsythe and shook her head piteously; her big eyes brooding doglike in their sagging sockets. “That poor boy. He’s just one of the simple ones of God.” She shook her head even more gravely. “Ya know, at first they thought it might have been a demon in him. They tried casting it out but it just didn’t take. Then they maybe figured he was just simple.”

 

After the women had viewed all the various exhibits, they went off to look for Mr. Durkee and the older boys. They found them at the far end of the midway, sitting on a bench. Mr. Durkee looked weary and disheveled. The deep folds of his face were all bunched up and he looked like an old man about to nod off during a long sermon.

“Why, Tucker. You look as if you’d died and gone to heaven,” said Mrs. Durkee with an amused tone.

“We went on the Zipper and the Rock-O-Planes!” shouted David.

“You did?” asked Mrs. Forsythe with a mixture of excitement and concern.

“Yeah,” answered Arlon. And now we wanna go see the two-headed baby. Can we go, Ma?”

“Yeah, can we?” repeated David.

The WHAT?” asked Mrs. Forsythe.

The boys simultaneously pointed past the woman to a tent made of red and yellow striped canvas. Above the entrance was a large sign that read 2 HEADED BABY. Below the words was a picture of a sinister looking nurse with dagger-like fingernails standing behind a two-headed baby. The diapered baby sat on a table, a grotesque cross between a hydra and a Gerber label.

“Oh my God,” gasped Mrs. Forsythe. There was no way her child was going to go inside that tent. But before she could say a thing, Mrs. Durkee was giving her approval.

“I’m too tired to take ’em, Betty,” said Mr. Durkee. “Ya mind if I just sit here while you go on in?”

“Betty, I don’t know about letting the boys go into a freak show,” said Mrs. Forsythe. “After all, they’re only nine years old.”

Mrs. Durkee looked at the two boys. “Well now, that never occurred to me.”

“Aw, Mom. C’mon,” pleaded David. “We already saw the woman who turns into a gorilla.”

Mrs. Forsythe shot a stern glance at Mr. Durkee, then turned to her son. “Well, I’m certainly not going to give you the money for it. After all those rides and candy, I doubt if you have anything left.”

“I have enough,” said David. “Remember that other money you gave me before we left home.” And with that, the boys got up and began to amble in the direction of the tent. Cloy followed.

“Now hold on boys! Cloy! You boys wait a minute,” snapped Mrs. Durkee. “Maybe it’d be best if Cloy stayed here with you, Tucker. After all, he is a young’un.”

Cloy began to cry and stomp his feet. “No! … I never get to go! I never get to go!” he wailed.

“Aw, let him go on in, Betty,” said Mr. Durkee. “He’s had to tag along with you gals all night long. Let him go in with the other boys.”

Of course Mrs. Forsythe had no intention of going in herself. But as the three boys and Mrs. Durkee began moving away, and she realized she was being left alone with Mr. Durkee, she followed. She justified the action by telling herself that, if David were to see something appalling, or that he wouldn’t understand, it’d be better if she were on hand to explain.

 

At the front of a group of about fifteen people, the five of them stood, silent and waiting. Facing them was a high narrow table and on top of the table, near the edge was a drum-sized object with a blue towel draped over the top. On either side of the object were two, flat, glass cases in which yellowed news clippings and photos were arranged, giving the history of the attraction.

The man who had sold them the tickets outside was a plump balding man, about fifty years old. He wore thick glasses and had a kind, even childish-looking face. It was he who came through the back of the tent and stood behind the table. He flicked a couple of overhead switches and, as he did, the lights where the crowd stood went dim. At the same time, a bare lightbulb came on above the table with object covered by the blue towel.

He lifted the towel.

“This is a two-headed baby. It is a real baby. It was born with two heads. His name is Terrell and Adrian Devorak and he was born in 1942 and lived for approximately two hours and forty minutes. He went on with his well-rehearsed yarn, accenting the same syllables he had accented a thousand times before.

As he spoke, the man looked down at a huge glass jar. He had an almost endearing expression on his face. The jar was on a Lazy Susan. He turned it slowly so it could be seen from all sides.

The baby was a grayish-yellow color, probably affected by the light and the liquid in the jar. At first glance it looked like a big wad of old chewing gum. The heads and the arms were curled in towards its chest and the only features that could be clearly seen were its tint feet and the raw purplish pigtail of what was left of its umbilical cord. Little pieces of flesh that had broken off of the child were dancing around in the formaldehyde as the man kept turning the jar.

Mrs. Forsythe stood stone-faced. What a vile thing to do for one’s livelihood, she thought. How could anyone live with that thing? She grew angry for having allowed the Durkees to talk her into this.

Suddenly Cloy spoke up. “What’s that?” he asked.

Mrs. Durkee bent over son and spoke softly. “Why, that’s a little boy, Cloy. It’s got two heads.”

The man, now finished speaking, kept turning the infant in a jar. Its heads came around to face the front again, and there he stopped. The solution, still swishing from all its turning, caused the small lips to move as if they were trying to speak.

A monster’s roar erupted from Cloy as he lunged for the jar and pulled it down onto the hard earth floor where it shattered and spilled its contents. The formaldehyde soaked into the ground leaving, a midst the glistening shards of glass, a twisted little heap of gray bulbous matter.

The man shouted and rushed from behind his table, knelt down beside the child and began to weep. He cried, “It’s my baby. You done in my baby! Oh Jesus, my baby’s gone.” He moved some of the pieces of glass and found a small hand.

 

On the way home that night Mrs. Forsythe was silent and remote. The big station wagon moved along quietly as hot air blew in through an open window.

When they got to the street where their house was, Mrs. Forsythe, her eyes gazing blindly in front of her, missed the turn.

© Harry Steven Ackley

Swimming with Pregnant Ladies

swimming

Since the publication of The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue, I realize I’ve sorely neglected my blog here. I hope to rectify that going forward.

I’m presently in the research phase for my third and last “angel book.” My working title, which most likely will stick, is The Saint of El Camino Real. The main character is Heather Campbell, daughter of Emily, who has just started college.

The historical background for the story goes from the Roman Empire, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the California Missions (hence the El Camino Real part). To educate myself, I am reading a couple of books. The first is The Spanish Inquisition, a History by Joseph Perez. The second book is A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo.

I imagine (hope) the book will see the light of day sometime in 2020.

In the meantime, I am editing and posting some of my earlier writings, just to “get them out there.” This includes a memoir I wrote about running away to Mexico, a few plays and screenplays, past blogs, and also some select poems and short stories.

I’d like to start out with a poem: Swimming with Pregnant Ladies. This was inspired by impressions gathered at the Community Center pool in Campbell, California. I was working nights as an adult education teacher. During the day, after dropping my daughter off at preschool, I’d go swimming.

Swimming with Pregnant Ladies

Their eyes beam at each other
As they ease themselves in.
As if bringing delicate odd-shaped packages
To some sort of gift exchange.

They bob and buoy through the water
As though to tell their babies
Of their eagerness to be with them
— A call to come out and play.

One young mother
Wears a two-piece.
Her navel protrudes down into the water
— A soft blip on her smooth southern hemisphere.

The light sifts down
Though shafts and shades of chlorine blue
Her skin glows a creamy yellow,
Supple and sensual.

They congregate at the end
Laughing, not swimming.
Their sleeping children
Rumbling in wonder.

© Harry Steven Ackley

 

Apologies to my followers…

wheat-field-with-reaper-and-sun-by-Vincent-Van-Gogh

Dear blog followers,

A Happy Easter to you all! My apologies for not writing for a while, but I’ve been fighting  some personal battles.

Throughout my adult life I’ve struggled with a clinical condition called major depressive disorder (MDD). It started in my twenties and I’ve had several bouts with it since. Sometimes it’s brought on by circumstances (like financial or family problems); sometimes it comes without much external provocation. Something very simple can trigger it. Research shows that the origins of MDD may be genetic. Perhaps this is true in my case. My dad experienced severe depression, as did his mother, my paternal grandmother.

I’ve been going through such an episode since mid-January. After a few weeks, I recognized it for what it was and sought help. I believe the mere act of seeking help is the beginning of healing. Things have since improved and I believe I’m now on the mend.

This is not easy to share. But I wanted to, because I want people out there who suffer from the same thing to  know you’re not alone. Many famous people suffer from MDD or other forms of mental health challenges…

http://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-depression-celebs

(And let’s not forget Vincent Van Gogh. He painted beautiful pictures but had immense trouble coping with daily life.)

All that said, I am pressing forward with publication of my next book, “The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue.” I need to do it for myself, if nothing else. Before all of the above happened, the book was pretty much finished. I just needed to upload it into the CreateSpace publishing tool and provide all the ancillary info (author bio, price, etc.). I’ve done that. Now all that remains is reviewing the final proof.

Thanks for listening. Keep me in your prayers. I’ll let you all know when the book is ready.

– Steve

For further reading:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_depressive_disorder
http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/major-depression

My brief tenure as a cartoonist…

3theologians

Last week I was cleaning out a closet and came across my old Ivory Towers cartoons.

While a student at Bethany Bible College, I was cartoonist for the school paper during the 1985-86 school year. Being a religious college, Bethany required its students to take systematic theology courses. And since it was a Protestant school, we spent time focusing on the early reformers … Martin Luther, John Calvin and so on.

Looking at pictures of the reformers, I was curious about the odd hats they wore. I still don’t know their origins. If anyone does, please comment. Perhaps they’re a forerunner of the mortar boards people wear at graduation. Anyway, that’s where the idea for the cartoon came from.

Ivory Towers takes place in a fictional seminary, presumably located in Protestant Northern Europe of long ago. (Where the ray gun and the change machine came from, I have no idea.)

You can see how the comics progressed during the school year (more detail and shading as I went along). I also eventually gave the characters names. Hippotus and Creetus were my two main theologians; Nuisance – the student who was always asking questions; Father Loopin – the priest from the village.

Poking fun at the stuffy theologians provided fun relief from my studies. Hope you enjoy the toons!

(Click on a panel to activate slideshow.)

Texting Through Glass

In Our Lady of West 74th Street there’s a short scene where Emily, the main character, is texting with her teenage daughter through a window at Starbucks…

The bus stopped at West 63rd Street and the two got off. Starbucks was located just a half-block from the bus stop. As Emily and Martin approached the corner, they could see the two girls through the window. They were chatting and laughing.

Emily went up and tapped on the glass. Rather than being met with expressions of excited welcome, the girls’ faces turned serious. Heather lifted her cup, pointed to it, and mouthed some words to Emily who shook her head and pointed at her watchless wrist. Heather typed something into her phone and a moment later, Emily heard her phone beep from inside her purse. She took it out and looked. The screen showed the words ‘almost finished.’ Emily then did the same and typed ‘hurry up!’

I’ve always liked this passage. It was an attempt to poke fun at the way our communication has grown so impersonal. How we have forgotten how to talk to each other … across generations, across philosophical barriers, and just in general. We text each other through glass.

It seems the practice of genteel conversation has all but disappeared. This was surely exhibited in the recent U.S. election. Political choices aside, there was very little decorum shown by either side. And it wasn’t just the candidates. From major news personalities down to individuals posting on social media, there seemed to be only one way communication. How can it be otherwise when everyone is talking at once?

WELCOME TO FACEBOOK: Let’s all talk at once.

We’ve forgotten the other part of conversation—listening. It’s the nature of social media. Everything is outbound. And in the midst of the resulting cacophony, we’ve lost the art of listening and considering what’s been said. There’s no time to think things through anymore. We must respond now or our comments will be lost in the fray.

Hat’s off to the monk…

I recently finished reading The Sign of Jonas by the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. The book is a memoir about his first years of living a monastic life. One of the things I was struck by was his intense desire for silence—for contemplation. To listen.

Though Merton wrote many books in his short life, he was a reluctant writer. He often had to be pressed by his abbot to write—to gain support for the monastery. Merton simply wanted silence. I think as a result of his reluctance, and his silence, he was a better writer.

I realize we’re not all monks. And that we must function in this age of digital clamor. However, let us remember take time to put down our phones and step out from behind the glass. To handle a printed page. To speak to each other with our breath and to listen with our ears of flesh.