I am not your Valentine. I will not wake up on a cold February morning and try to find my reddest most wanton dress. I will not carefully style my hair to look as if I did nothing at all. I will not paint my lips to draw your attention.
I am not your Valentine. I will not go about my day while casting furtive glances at my phone, waiting for a call, a text, notification that might change my outlook. I will not hope that when my secretary pages me it will because there are tiger lilies in reception with a sweet note attached to them, they are my favorite and you know it. I will not pick at expensive chocolates in a red velvet case.
I am not your Valentine. I will not slide silk seamed stockings over my legs. I will not put perfume on so that you smell it briefly when you lean in. I will not leave lip gloss on your cheek, a mark to show I was there. I will not press against you and you will not long to do the same.
I am not your Valentine. I will wake up and celebrate that it is Friday. I will dress in slacks and flats. I will pull my hair away from my face. I will put on chapstick.
I am not your Valentine. I will go about my day answering emails, text messages, and phone calls, writing about events that change the outlook of others. I will answer my secretary’s memo about a missed call or a moved meeting. I will eat the lunch I packed.
I am not your Valentine. I will slide into casual clothing. I will wash my face clean. I will lay in bed and stare at the ceiling. Maybe you will do the same.
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To say I grew up poor would be diminuative. But yes, I grew up poor. The daughter of an uneducated single parent of two. One of my earliest memories is waking up in the trailer we lived in with my hair frozen into a three inch thick sheet of ice that had crept up the wall and spread onto the ceiling. My father would bring home groceries in brown paper bags, groceries that didn’t make sense, as if pulled from a food bin. My Mother had moved on to a new family. I worried about the things all little girls worry about, not having new clothes, new toys, not having heat or lights, not being able to have friends over. And then came the proverbial boot-strap pulling. My Father put himself through school, getting three bachelors degrees and completing his masters course work.
After my dad got a job at the local university my family went from zero to what felt like sixty. We ate out at restaurants, we bought clothes. We moved out of a run-down rental and into a real life house, on the same bus route as the wealthier kids in my school. I began to forget what it felt like to not know where the money was going to come from, or if it was going to come at all. I got a car for my sixteenth birthday, I worried about how old it was. I went to a private university for college, I complained about having to work and go to school. I got to go to Washington, D.C. for a semester, had to wait tables while I was there instead of enjoying the night life. I was upset when I didn’t get to travel to Egypt with my classmates, or New York for Model UN, or England for Regents. I watched people with more money than me continually get more opportunities, and I could see nothing but their dollar signs contributing.
Today I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop in my home town and a man came up to me and held out a lily. “Ma’am, I am selling some flowers because I can’t feed my two kids tonight, anything you could give would be appreciated.” My automatic reaction was “There is no way this guy is going to take this money to feed his kids, this is a scam.” But his eyes looked down, he did not smile, he did not plea, he did not invoke God. His clothes were clean, his hands well calloused. I had tracked him coming through the tables, stopping at each one. He took a dollar, two, change, anything.
I had spent four dollars on the cup of coffee I was drinking. I was watching a movie on a MacBook. Sitting next to me was a brand new smartphone. I saw the coffee as a necessity, the computer as being four years old, and the phone is not an iPhone. When had I become spoiled? When had I become so cynical? I looked at the flower in his hand. A tiger lily, its stem carefully trimmed. My favorite kind of flower. I reached into my purse and pulled two dollars out of the wallet my best friend gave me years ago. I don’t care if the man really has two kids he is trying to feed. Exchanging green money for pink flower all that I can care about is there was a time where that man could have been my Papa, and there are days when I need to be reminded of that. Days when we all need to recall that our comforts are not things that we are entitled to. That every spring doesn’t mean flowers, and certainly having lilies in your life is no guarantee.
It was weird, usually the new music that I hear does not come to me in the isles of an Office Depot. But this time it did. I was attempting to ship some items via UPS when a man came up to me and said “Do you like music?” I wanted to blythly answer “Why no, no I don’t.” but there was an earnestness there. The gentleman introduced himself as Nick Venceil, a recently relocated recording artist of the singer/songwriter variety. “What kind of music?” He looked taken aback, what kind of a question is that? “Rock and roll.” It was a statement. It meant that there were musical roots there, a foundation in something that was found to be good, to be pure, from the heart. Listening to Vinceil’s music, this truth is more important than the sound itself.
The sound itself is uncomplicated, hand on a drum, acoustic guitar, harmonizing voices, tamboreen. The stories are classic, human, archetypal. The issue that comes with beautiful simplicity and univeral experiences are just that. Venceil nearly carbons himself, don’t listen to Chardonnay, a shared moment and memory, before or after listening to Amsterdam, where the sound is too familiar and the switch up is between drinking coffee or white wine.
Venceil is a talent destined to a artful following, people who want their music to be a reflection of themselves. However the issue with that is artful music types usually make music of their own, and may not need Nick to show them how to feel.
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“Ayelet? Ayelet wake up.”
Her eyes opened slowly. She saw the concrete floor. The brick walls, damp, dripping. A curtain did it’s best to separate her from the rest of the large, open room. Beyond it she could see people huddled around a stove, its feeble flames flickering against the oppressive darkness. She began the focus on things closer to her. The curtain was really a thread bare olive green wool blanket. The walls were covered in a similarly green moss. The floor was cracked and stained. The woman calling her from sleep had a soft face, its sagging lines suggesting it had once been full. The wrinkles around her mouth and eyes suggesting she had once, perhaps still, smiled a great deal.
“Ayelet, meri jara, you are awake! You must get up, I will bring you something hot to drink.”
“How long was I asleep?” She rubbed her eyes, ran her hands through her hair, trying to grab at memories that were flying away. She had been in the woods, but before that? After that?
“Devi, where is…” She stopped, closing her eyes. Seeing. His eyes. His skin. Everything. Ayelet folded herself in half, putting her head down on her knees. Devi reached out a warm hand to her shoulder, attempting to comfort, but Ayelet moved away. Devi cleared her throat.
“You need to get cleaned up. Malcolm is waiting for you. I’ve kept him back for this long, but…well, you know Malcolm.” She smiled, and rolled her eyes, trying to attempt some sort of co-conspiracy against Malcolm, who had been his best friend, a loyal follower, a great warrior, if not quite a great mind.
Ayelet could not think of Malcolm. She played with the blood stained bracelet on her wrist, gazed as serenely as possible on the mud caked between her toes. She just wanted to sleep. To go back to a time when she hadn’t known what she knew now. When she didn’t know that he was gone. When she didn’t know who, what he was, or anything about the war, the Adumbrations, the Underground.
Ayelet had grown up away from the world, just her and her mother. And her brother, Jakob. She and Jakob would play in the seemingly endless woods and fields surrounding their small cabin. Games of non-sense, enjoying nothing more than the freedom of being together. At times they would fight, once Jakob smeared mud in Ayelet’s long, red hair, she threw mud back at him. They settled their fights together, the same way they played. There had been a time when Ayelet would have ran to her mother, crying, wanted her hair smoothed and tears wiped. Then around the age of ten or eleven, her mother began to go days without looking at her, and then would suddenly grab her by the shoulders, peering at her green eyes as if she was searching for something. It was beyond Ayelet’s grasp. She just wanted to be a child, and to play. Until Jakob was taken.
The day was hot, hotter than most. The heat radiated up from the ground, sticky and sweet, smelling of grass. The air was buzzing, vibrant and full. Jakob and Ayelet were heading down the hill their house sat on, out of the woods, across a wide field to a cool running stream. Jakob had ran ahead of her, he always sprinted to the edge of the woods, bursting from the forest as water from a dam. This day Ayelet had stopped to watch a nest of birds, craning her neck to the point of impossibility. And then something changed. At her young age, she couldn’t put a name to what it was. The air? The energy? The spin of the Earth? She was dizzy. She didn’t know. She only knew that something was different, and that she had to find Jakob. She thrust each skinny little girl leg into the ground, trying to reach them out as far as possible, to eat away at the ground between herself and the treeline. She broke out into dazzling sunlight, gasping, both from running and from this new sensation which was now baring down on her with more force than the sun.
In the field was a…she had no words for it. She had never seen any human besides her mother and Jakob, never knew anything besides the descriptions she had read in the dusty, grainy pages of the books scattered around the house. This creature was not in those volumes. It certainly had the form of a human, but its skin was translucent, its nose flat, and its eyes naught but saucers. Its long, slim, scaley limbs restrained Jakob, who was lying face down in the grass in front of it. One clawed hand traced lines into his young flesh. It stopped when it saw Ayelet. The creature began to move as if it were going to lunge at her, reaching out a hand dripping with her brother’s blood, and then quickly withdrawing it as if burned by flame. The creature made a sound, a screech, a whisper, a scream, nothing, and wrapped its arms once again around Jakob’s body, and was gone, leaving nothing but shimmering summer heat in its wake.
Her heart, maybe it started to pound, she was not quite sure. She was only aware of the fact that she could discern herself in the reflective surface of two sets of dark glasses. Aware of their slow, floating steps as they moved towards her. And the others moving over him. She should run. Their hands were clamping down on his waxen flesh, jerking him up in a surprisingly careless manner. She could not convince herself that she had not seen one of them smile at the markings carved into his back. She barely noticed the hands reaching out for her, deliberate, no rush, performing the task of capturing her methodically. Cool fingers intwined into her hair, bringing at once searing pain and glorious relief. It was almost over. Maybe she would see him again. She had been removed of the ground, held up so that her bare toes just brushed the clean dirt floor of the forest. Ayelet could not focus on the reflection in the Adumbration’s glasses, it was not worth the distraction from the sensation. She closed her eyes.
“Ayelet? You have to run.” His voice, warm, in her mind.
“No, just wait, I’m coming.” She replied, comforting herself, playing the scene out on the back of her eyelids.
“Ayelet. Run.” A command, followed by a very real commotion in the clearing. Her captor dropped her, removing its glasses. Ayelet saw the opaque eyes widen, taking in the birds swarming up from no place, a black cloud to the sky, the pollen of a million flowers filling the air, trees falling at random. Snakes came up from the ground, undulating in front of the Adumbration before striking with purpose. Ayelet got to her feet, but those feet did not run, they rooted as the trees, allowing her to see the Adumbration turn towards her, for her to see the panic in its eyes as it backed away from her.
“Ayelet. You know why you must go. Now RUN!”
There was a nudge from deep inside her, a sudden energy and fear not her own. She ran. They did not follow her.
She ran for miles, out of the woods, away from the green life and death. She ran until she could no longer see him lying on the forest floor. She ran until their opaque eyes could not see her. Until their gray hearts (if they had such a thing) could not care. She ran until the air set a match to her lungs and bit at her legs. Until her feet hit gravel. Until her feet hit pavement. Until her arms were grabbed by friends and she was held close and carried into the darkness. Until there was nothing.
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The sky was whispering down through the greening foliage. There was a rustling in the grass towards her right. A bird kiltered off of a tree branch. The sun just barely touched his skin, illuminating a pale lavender tint. The shells of beetles, the slow crawl of maggots, the vibrating wings of flies, the hummingbird, all made the ground and the air around where he lay shimmer. She walked towards him, singing softly, placing each foot down carefully. As she approached she made sure her long cotton skirt was lifted off the ever softening ground. She saw his eyes were cloudy, she paused to gaze upwards and see if the sky was the same. Kneeling beside him she picked up his waxen hand, removed the woven bracelet from his wrist. She stayed there for a time, taking in the mud in his shaggy, curly hair. Noting she could not see the chain of his necklace. Seeing the marks carved into his bare back. The filth on his jeans, his bare feet. She sat on the ground, her legs crossed, her skirt spread over her lap like a blanket, soaking up the blood and bile from the ground. She played with the bracelet absentmindedly as her singing became humming. As the sky became the soft lavender of his skin, as the moon rose unseeing like his eyes, as the air became cool as his blood, she sat there, vocalizing a song whose name she did not know, or did not care to think about.
They came just after dawn, the sweeper team, taking up those who were not able to get away fast enough, those who had given up caring how fast they could run. The old, the sick, the weak, were always sent away, but some slipped, and were sieved through the net of the sweeper team. Behind this net were Shadows. A shadow touches, engulfs, darkens and extinguishes everything it passes over. A Shadow lays itself over the people left behind, those smart enough to hide, strong enough to run. The Shadows drape themselves over the landscape, and when they are gone, so are their targets. And so it was in the forest just after the hint of chill had began to burn out of the air, the sweeper team lead through, somewhat loudly, taking sickles to the undergrowth, staining their flashing, sharpened blades with the sticky green blood of the plants. They found no one, and did not look at his body as they passed over it. They did not seem to notice the mix of wild, red curls among the green and purple leaves surrounding a towering tree.
Ayelet noticed everything. From her place behind the jeweled leaves she noticed the Sweepers kicking up the dirt, the dust into the air. She watched them unintentionally disturb the flies around his body. She noticed the hummingbird fly away. They fumbled their way through the forest, past her, with no art, finding no lives to tow in their wake. No sooner than they had gone, than did the air begin to still. Around his body the shimmering stopped, the wings of the flies hovered in the light of his skin, the maggots stopped their feasting. The particles of sunlight that had been washing over her, over him, past his eyes, slowed their descent to the ground on which he laid. It was at the edge of her line of vision that they came. As darkness formed from nothing, from a lack of light, they came. They lay over the landscape, not quite belonging to the ground, not quite to the sky, something about the way they shifted, Ayelet thought, something about the way they moved, not moving, not quite belonging to themselves. This is why they call them the Shadows. Or possibly their soft gray suits, the way their cars made no sound, they appeared seemingly from nowhere. In the underground, they were called Adumbrations, things that obscured.
They stood still, eyes not scanning, but flicking from one thing to the next. To the greening sky. To the dead leaves picked up by the strengthening wind. To the bugs and insects and all things crawling retreating slowly into the ground. To the body before them. And then away. To the patch of green and purple leaves surrounding a towering tree.
They’d seen her.
Outside of my bedroom window there is a Black Walnut tree. The summer before I started high school the Missouri weather shifted (surprisingly), and half the tree succumbed to the wind, but obligingly missed the house. Now the green foliage peeks timidly over the roof line, an awkward but jaunty hat. The tree has scars down its right side, new leaves growing around them, it might be trying to hide. Today there is a woodpecker on the tree, pecking at the scars. Initially, there is no effect. The woodpecker is persistent, continually piercing the scarred bark, trying to reach the softer parts. But after so many years of being broken, of being exposed, of being beaten by the elements, the tree is too much for the woodpecker to handle. He flies away before getting past the difficult parts, unaware if there was something worthwhile underneath.