Old Bear’s Children

Something different this week…a fable. I hope you enjoy it.


Old Bear’s Children

Once upon a time, there was a bear cub who lived in the deep woods. He loved his family, but he especially loved his den. So cozy and warm and good-smelling. He’d nestle down against his mama’s soft belly and take long naps, and he’d drift off to sleep while Mama stroked his fur. There’s a good cub, she’d croon, and then softly sing about Old Bear, one of their ancestors, who was a great and wise creature who watched over them all. In his younger days, Old Bear was quite the thing, snatching salmon from the stream, protecting the little ones from wolves, so powerful he could have his pick of mates. He chose Sonia, the most beautiful female in the land, but most of the others didn’t know she was so smart. She wanted him for her mate, and knew the competition would be stiff, but she also knew from watching the males of her family that she had to make his choice look like his idea. So she waited until the other females were engaged with taking care of the cubs and wandered off on her own. She spied him nearby and casually went about her way of collecting berries, until he drifted over. She held her tongue while he watched her, until he said, “Why do you paw so deep into the bushes when the outside ones are easier to pick?”

“Because those are the sweetest,” she said, and offered him one, and that was that.

They lived a long and happy life together, eating sweet berries and raising their cubs and collecting wisdom they would share with each new generation. They passed on the stories of how they met and how they lived and how they fought, when it was necessary.

The little bear cub wanted a life like that, when he was grown. He wanted a wise mate to share berries and salmon and stories with, to have his own cubs with, to grow old with. But he didn’t know that any of the females would choose him. He was born with a short front right paw. Most of the other cubs made fun of him, even the girl cubs, and that hurt the most. Mama often told him that it shouldn’t matter to the ones who loved him. That even though Old Bear was strong and protective, he wasn’t the most handsome of the bears and in fact one eye was smaller than the other which tended to make him squint.

“You’re not yet full-grown,” Mama would say, and suggested that the paw might yet catch up with the rest of him. It never did. “One day you’ll find a mate just for you,” she said. But that didn’t happen yet, either.

When he was finally grown, and he saw the others of his age group choose mates, he decided he had only one choice. Reluctantly he said goodbye to his mama and papa and sought out to start his adult life somewhere new. For a while he roamed, plucking sweet berries and catching salmon. He made his own den, tried to make it as good-smelling as the one he’d left, and it came close but it was never quite the same.

One day he was out hunting the best berries and heard a rustle in the bushes behind him.

He turned.

“You’re digging deep for berries,” she said. “You must have learned the ways of Old Bear.”

He froze, the berry in his mouth mashed against his tongue. Hiding his short paw the way he always did, not meeting her eye.

“Are you hurt?” she said, gesturing at his paw with her snout.

He shook his head. Something about her manner said “trust.”

So he did. She made a noise of comfort, so like his mama’s, deep in her throat.

“I’m missing three claws on my left paw from fighting off a wolf when I was small,” she said. The next noise sounded like a short laugh. “We can be a hunting team then, me with my better right and you with your left. It would make it easier to catch salmon.”

This sounded like a good idea to him. It was hard work catching salmon alone, and it might be nice to have a friend. Then he raised his snout to look her in the eye. And froze again.

“I know.” She sighed. “I tend to squint. Mama says it means I’m a descendent of Old Bear. Although with mama stories, it’s hard to know which are actually true and which are meant for comfort.”

His heart beat a little faster. “A true descendent of Old Bear surely would have the courage to fight off a wolf when just a cub.”

She fluttered her eyes at him, and something about the squint made that look kind of pretty. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“I do not,” he huffed. “I—”

Then she laughed again, and extended her partially declawed paw, and they ran off to the stream.

Stories of Brooklyn in the Rain

I can tell with one sniff what kind of day it’s going to be. The apartment always smells of onions and corned beef and dill pickles, that’s a given when you grow up over the family delicatessen. Every article of clothing, every piece of typing paper smells like Brooklyn and always will, I’d imagine. But under that, the scent-fingers of wintergreen feather through. I know, lying in my bed and before I register that it’s raining that Mom has boiled up the homemade liniment that helps my zayda with his rheumatism. Always worse when it’s raining.

I get up quickly and dress. A rainy Friday means I’ll be called on to do more. More lifting, more bending, more hours on my feet. I don’t mind. One thing my father always says about being born into a family business is true—it gets into your kishkas. It’s family, and you want to do for your family.

A rainy day also means I’ll be doing more lunch deliveries, and seeing a certain young lady on my route, and I smile.

“Hey, save me some of that, zeeskeit,” I hear my father say as I enter the kitchen. Another bellwether of the weather. My father’s own aches and pains worse at the end of the day, although he’ll never admit to it. Every line etched into his face tells a story. Today I read the one about a deli owner worried that he’ll run out of all his specialties before the Sabbath.

“Don’t I always?” she says, turning back to the tiny stove in our tiny kitchen. Here, we don’t keep to the strict kosher law of not mixing meat and dairy that we do downstairs. Here, we can have milk for my father’s coffee. Here, we can cook with butter. The reasons are practical, my mother says. There’s no room for two sets of dishes, no outside eyes to tell our secrets. Only my cousin Artie knows, and he wouldn’t tell a soul.

Downstairs, the morning is busy—women wanting to do their marketing and get home, the alter cockers lingering over their tea and breakfasts, grumbling to each other that they should have gone to Katz’s, at least there they could have had a schmear. Yet, each morning they return.

My heart beats harder, it seems, with each tick of the clock leading up to lunchtime. The furrier is last on the route, owing to the geography of the Williamsburg streets and their preference for a later lunch hour for the employees. Pop won’t expect me back so soon.

I pack up the truck, the side stenciled with “Abramowitz and Son,” and start my deliveries. Everything is going my way. Traffic, parking, virtually no mix-ups, and some nice tips for coming out in the rain. I barely have time to be nervous until I check my list and see one stop left. When I park near the delivery entrance of the storied retailer that had draped Vanderbilts and Morgans and Astors with furs, I take a few deep breaths and slick a hand through my hair and dab my sweating face with a handkerchief. Then put on a smile.

Laura Zimmerman answers the door. It could be my imagination, but she’s surrounded by a halo of light. Her soft curls shine as bright as her mink-brown eyes. “Eli!” My name on her tantalizing lips is a memory that follows me into my dreams. “Are we ever so pleased to see you! We’re absolutely ravenous.”

She speaks and dresses like a cultured girl, a Fifth Avenue girl, even though she’s as Jewish as I am and her zayda came over on a boat just like mine. Well, probably not just like mine. Mine was in steerage, with his secondhand steamer trunk and ten dollars to his name—or so he says. I wipe my feet on the mat and enter, hoping no one notices my knees quaking, and set the box on the employee lunchroom table. I take a moment before turning to her. I know I should be going. Sometimes we chat, just for a little, until she touches my arm and says she doesn’t want to keep me. Artie says that’s a cultured girl’s way of telling you to scram.

But today I have something to ask her. Something I’ve been rehearsing in my head for days and haven’t yet gotten up the nerve to say.

I turn. I smile. She’s not there. Then she is. With a checkbook. I nearly forget she pays their tab on Fridays. “What is it this week?” she asks, pen poised. I see the check is already made out, signed by her father, leaving it to her to fill in the numbers. I mumble the amount.

Her hands are grace. Her curls, swept forward as she bends her head, an untouchable enchanted forest. Then the perfume hits me, something expensive. My throat is dry and the words are gone.

She tears the paper from the book, thrusts it toward me with a smile of accomplishment. “Sorry,” she says, a bit sheepish. “We have a big sale on.”

Artie would say that means leave and leave now. I clear my throat. “Okay. Thanks.” I fumble the check into my pocket with the others. Her soft mink eyes say “Is there something else I can help you with?” I ignore what Artie might say that meant.

“Do you… I mean… Maybe you’d…like to get a soda with me sometime? Go for a walk in Prospect Park? When it’s not raining, of course…”

The shift in her eyes lands in my stomach like bad corned beef. “Oh… Well, I don’t believe my father would like that. And, well, frankly, Eli, you’re a very nice boy, and it’s flattering to be thought of that way, but I don’t see that kind of future with someone who smells like pickles and pastrami.” She brightened. “But thank you for lunch. See you Monday?”

——-

Fortunately the afternoon is busy. I lift and bend and carry.

“Boychik,” my mother says, nodding me into a corner. Her eyes tell stories too. Of a mother who knows something’s wrong. She straightens my shirt collar. She smells like chicken soup. “Go up and check on your zayda, would you? He might like a little company.”

I go, glad for the reprieve, glad even to rub wintergreen into my grandfather’s aching joints. But zayda is sleeping. I watch him in slumber. Remembering his stories. Of coming to America. Of opening the delicatessen. That’s the perfume I love best. Artie might say it was fate, me and the furrier’s daughter. “You do smell like pickles and pastrami,” he’ll say. “But maybe one day you’ll find a girl who likes that.”

 

Edgar

The crumbling house in the woods was enveloped by vegetation and time. Edgar found it while he still worked for the government; he’d been tracking a runaway and noticed the anomaly. There’d been no heat signature in the mound of overgrowth, other than small blips which might have belonged to chipmunks or squirrels, so he’d moved on. But when the emergency had passed, he’d returned. He poked around the vines, some as thick as his wrist, until he found a window. Dull with centuries of dirt and pollen, slightly thicker at the bottom. Glass is essentially liquid, he’d learned in some long-ago seminar on architecture and American history. You could guesstimate the historical era by the windows, and nearly all colonial structures showed a similar settling over time.

We all settle, he thought.

He was loath to break the pane; from his youth he’d retained a respect for antiquity. But he did note the coordinates. He had a strong sense that one day he might need this knowledge.

Then that day had come. Technology had made him redundant; tracking was done through satellites and artificial intelligence on the ground.

They’d named the first trackbot Edgar. Not because the concept had been his idea or his invention, but because he’d been good at his job. Too good. Searching for a runaway, he’d stumbled onto a scandal that went high up the ranks. Those high ranks hadn’t liked it. In dastardly Orwellian fashion, they turned the truth on him. He lost his job. His pension. His fiancée. His home. His dignity.

Now Edgar was a runaway. The hows, the whys, the what-nexts…he couldn’t waste brain power on those. They were hunting him. He had to find shelter. The downpour and heavy cloud cover that helped conceal him from the sensors wouldn’t last much longer. His chest and legs ached from running; he’d twisted an ankle in the sodden undergrowth; he needed to get to the food and water and dry clothing in his pack. And his own cloaking device. Assuming the equipment he’d stolen after he escaped would do what he needed.

He was close; he could feel it. Up the next rise and down, near a fallen oak and a stout maple with a double trunk. There.

He whipped a knife from a pocket and loosened the vines enough to get to the window, in a place that could easily be re-covered. Trying not to think about snakes or spiders or whatever else might have made the overgrowth its habitat, he slipped inside the vegetation and flattened himself against the disintegrating brick and went to work on the pane. He couldn’t chance breaking it. Couldn’t leave an opening for the trackbots. The grout was degraded enough to chip away. The rain helped. Heart pounding in his ears and ordering his fingers not to shake, he freed the pane as quickly and quietly as he could. Then…success. The pane came away whole in his hands. The dim light revealed a simple, one-room cottage, mostly empty. Maybe it had been raided long ago, before the forest had claimed it and infused it with a fetid smell of decay. Worry about the accommodations later. Now he had to get in and seal the place back up. He eased the pane against the brick and climbed inside. Reached back through for the glass and angled it in after him. Beneath the rain he could hear the faint buzz of the tracker drone. He had to work faster. He set the glass down. Pulled the curtain of vines closed. Dug for the roll of duct tape in his pack. Braced the pane in position and taped it in place.

But he wasn’t safe yet.

He moved himself and his pack to the center of the cottage. The device was about the size of a pack of cigarettes. He wasn’t sure which battery it would take, so he’d stolen a range of them, then played a terrifying game of which would fit and which might damage the device beyond use.

The first battery did nothing. The buzz grew closer, angrier. He dropped the second one and felt around the filthy rotted wood plank floor until he found it. The tiny beep was his reward. He hadn’t worked with this model in years, but he was grateful for what was left of his memory. He set the range and frequency, hit “go” and it went. The gentle hum had him sighing in relief. He lay back on the floor to catch his breath, to evaluate his chances, to figure out what came next.

“Edgar?”

He leapt into a battle-ready crouch.

The sound had come from the southeast corner of the room. It was too dark to identify the shape. When he’d first glanced through the open pane, he thought it had been a chair draped with fabric. But he knew that voice. Small, breathy, almost broken. “Lucy?”

“Yeah.” The shape in the corner rose and moved closer. “What took you so long?”

“Oh, the usual. Traffic’s a bitch. How the hell did you esc—”

She was close enough now for him to identify the unwashed scent of her underneath the vegetative rot.

“We don’t have time for backstory. The trackbot’s coming closer. I can get us out of here.”

His eyes had not yet adjusted to the wan light filtering through the vines, but still, he could imagine no way out except breaking through a window or door. Even then, that would leave them exposed. The best he’d hoped for was the seventy-two hours of cloaking the battery would provide. By then the trackers would have surely moved on and he—they—could figure out their next move.

“How?” he said.

She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I stole the prototype.”

He gasped. How she’d done that, after security had barred her from her own project, would definitely be a longer story than they had time for. But if it worked as she’d intended, it could phase them into the no-extradition zone.

Vaguely he saw her arm lift, a squarish device in her hand. “Do you trust me?”

He smiled in the almost-dark. She’d asked the same question the night he proposed. He answered as he had then: “Do I have a choice?”

“Ride or die. But you have to turn your cloaker off.”

His smile fell. “What?”

“It won’t work otherwise.”

A buzz like killer hornets hovered above the house. Waiting. Knowing.

“On three,” he said. “One.”

“Two.”

“Three!”

A blinding flash. An ungodly roar.

Then, nothing.

Edgar blinked. Blinked again. Gradually he sensed a warm breeze against his face. The tickle of rough sheets beneath his body. An arm across his chest. And over him, blue sky through a clean, open, unsettled window.

“Good morning.” The voice sounded so far away, even though she was right next to him.

He labored to get his mouth to work. “Are we…”

Lucy was smiling. “Yes. We are. So, are you gonna marry me or what?”

Jake

I went a little dark for this week’s flash fiction, but I couldn’t help myself.


Jake had been out of the killing business since the kids came along. When first he saw his little Emma, so pink and vulnerable and innocent, and felt the crushing weight of his responsibility for her, he told Leo he wanted done. “I’ll miss ya,” the big man said, as they downed one last shot in the seedy Orlando bar they’d called home, “but I get where you’re comin’ from. Still. A girl. Girls are expensive. You gotta pay for the clothes, college, the wedding…” Jake said thanks but no thanks, paid for his drinks, and left.

It had been a good life, being a family man. Mostly a good life. He had an honest living as a foreman for a construction company, a modest house in a decent neighborhood, two weeks’ vacation every year. He took care of his girls. Three of them now, pretty like their mother, and he showed their pictures to anyone who would look. There were soccer games, sleepovers, birthday parties, trips to Disney World, and he was up for all of it. 

But he hadn’t been feeling so well lately. First he thought allergies, maybe a cold, then when the cough lingered maybe an infection, and his wife and Emma nagged him to get it checked out. He put off the appointment, once, twice. He’d lived with worse. Can’t work construction without getting hurt once in a while. If it was something that would eventually get better on its own, why waste the money only to find out he was okay? 

Then he wasn’t so okay. He thought it was one of those perfect storm things. Working outdoors on a hot afternoon after a greasy lunch that he shouldn’t have eaten. Next thing he knew he was in the ER, tubes all over the place, monitors that wouldn’t stop beeping. His wife sat quietly beside him, her face a warring mix of fear and worry and told-you-so.

They said he had cancer. “Just give me the specs, Doc,” he said when his wife had gone to the cafeteria for coffee. The others were too young for hospitals; Emma stayed home with them. “How long do I got?”

The doctor shrugged. It was inoperable. He talked about stages and types of treatments and general expectations and quality of life. Somehow having a blueprint, seeing the shape of it, made Jake more comfortable about his situation, or as comfortable as a man can be when his days were numbered.

Physically, he didn’t feel so bad, not yet, just got tired easier than he used to. But, as they had every other minute, his thoughts returned to his girls, his wife, how he would take care of them now that he couldn’t work more than a few days a week, short ones at that, confined to his office. He didn’t have life insurance; the whole deal seemed like a long con to him so he’d never signed up. His mind replayed his last meeting with Leo. “Girls are expensive…” How hard would it be, to take a job or two? He could still drive. Could get around with his oxygen belt-pack. His wife didn’t need to know. A dying man deserves some time to himself, doesn’t he, without having to explain every little thing he did? 

But Leo had his doubts. “Look, Jakey, I get it. But I want you to sleep on this. Really think about it. If this is the way you want to spend your last days. Sixteen years ago you stood in that same spot and seemed awful determined that this wasn’t the life you wanted anymore.” Jake was ready with his decision but Leo wouldn’t take him up on it yet. “You feel the same in a few days, you know how to reach me.”

So he took a few days. Emma, his first, his heart, wanted to take him places, now that she had her license and a vacation from school. They went to Daytona Beach, took long drives up the coast. During one trip, they stopped at a place that cooked shrimp straight from the boats, and a TV news network was blaring from the bar. “Who’s that schmuck?” he said. “I’ve been seeing him everywhere.”

Emma made an expression he remembered from the first time his wife had tried to get her to eat peas. “He’s gross, a total perv. He, like, sold girls to his friends. Girls younger than me, even. Disgusting. I hope they lock him and his sick friends up for the rest of their lives.”

The picture changed to a video of a girl, maybe a little older than Emma. Looked a little like her, too. She was crying. The caption below her face made his blood boil. If Leo gave him a job like that, Jake would do him for half price at least.

“You ready, let’s go.” Jake pulled some bills from his wallet.

She filled the car with nervous chatter on the way home, and he wanted to listen, wanted to soak up the music of her voice, but it was hard to concentrate. All he saw was that bastard’s smug face. When she pulled into the driveway, he said he had to run a quick errand. Something he forgot to do when they were out. Something that wouldn’t take long.

He still saw the questions in her eyes, the fear and worry, all the way into town. He saw them while he parked, while he took a last hit of oxygen before walking into the bar.

“I won’t take no bullshit jobs this time,” Jake said. “I want guys like that Epstein creep.”

Leo hesitated a moment. Then stuck out his hand. “Welcome home, Jakey.”

The Mission

At o’dark thirty, John stood tall in his black vest, his sturdy boots, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them as they were given their final orders. Again his stomach punched at him. Again his higher functions punched back, harder. Telling him that he’d signed on for this mission. That it had to be done and done right. This behavior could no longer be tolerated. And someone had to stand up for it. It might as well be him and his loyal soldiers.

The captain continued to bark. Talking about the whens and hows and such. Who would go to which houses, what to do when they got there, how to avoid the press.

“Wouldn’t they like those optics?” the captain sneered. “Us leading away their children? You watch yourselves out there. There’s bound to be some sneaky early risers. You deal with them and you deal with them fast. Confiscate those cameras. Break ’em if you have to. They start to squawk, call it a national emergency. Hell, the president already called it that, so you got cover. Understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” John shouted with the others. Even though he knew he was not going to break any cameras. He had cover, too. He could always claim that in the heat of the moment, focusing on his mission, he couldn’t handle the children and the photographers. Besides, he thought getting a few snaps out there might be welcomed by the higher-ups, a way to warn the migrants that were thinking of coming here what could happen if they weren’t careful.

“Move out,” the captain said. They were split into squads and loaded into the waiting black vans. His group was silent as they rolled through the streets, last night’s rain raising a fog that glowed eerily in the early light. Then one of the young men bowed his head, mumbling, a chant it seemed like, and it grew loud enough that John recognized it as a prayer.

The large man to John’s left didn’t like that. “Fer fuck’s sake,” he muttered, then raised his voice. “Shut the fuck up, soldier. Unless you’re prayin’ for the success of our mission. Getting those fucking illegals out of our country.”

The praying soldier stopped, turned his head, a look of disbelief forming on his young, freshly shaven face. “They’re people, Rico.”

“And you’re a pansy ass,” Rico said. “You shouldn’t even be on this mission.” 

The soldier drew himself up taller. “I’m on this mission so they’ll be treated humanely.”

John knew enough to stay silent. He had other worries. Could he even do this? He had children at home. When he first heard about the separations at the border, he’d been livid. He couldn’t object publicly, of course. He’d taken a vow to fight for his country. But he did what he could. Watched over the children. Brought them food, toys, candy. He wished he could give them promises that they’d see their parents soon, that they’d be freed, but he figured giving them false hope would be cruel. If it was one of his kids in there…well, he couldn’t even let himself think about that.

And now this. He took surreptitious glances at the men in his unit. At their shields, their flak vests, their guns. Of course they were playing for the media. These were women and children, mostly. It’s not like they were fighting another army. He wouldn’t be surprised if the captain had automatic cameras or video or whatever and had already snuck it to reliable contacts. His fears ratcheted up higher. Another thing to worry about.

After what seemed like a horrifically long trip of probably less than ten miles, the van stopped, in an abandoned lot where several other vans and trucks were already parked.

John took a deep breath and said his own prayer. Please God, he thought. Help me find these families and get them away from these monsters. Help me keep them unharmed and get them to the safe houses. And please watch over the rest of my team in the other vans and the other units as they do the same.

The captain lifted his arm and gave the signal. 

They were dispersed.

The End of the Argument

The vitriol settled into the stained linoleum. Still, neither of us moved. Ashley focused on the dripping faucet behind me; I took a sudden interest in my shoelaces. It should have been the end of the argument. The part where we’d take a deep breath and agree to disagree, like mature people. My original aim had been simple, or so I’d thought. I’d hoped to convince her not to worry so much. The time we had left on this planet was limited. Why spend it consumed with anxiety?

Yet I bumbled forward, as if choosing different words or rearranging them would suddenly make her understand. “I only wanted to say that—”

She gripped her purse strap tighter and looked at me like I’d slaughtered baby animals or something.

“What? What did I do wrong now?”

Her voice was brittle. “All I asked is if you were coming with me or not. You’re the one who had to turn it into an existential nightmare.”

“An existential… I am not going to your theoretical end-of-the-world pray-in. I refuse to spend what could be my last New Year’s Eve on earth sitting outside in the cold lighting candles and atoning for the sins of humanity. Most of which I didn’t commit.”

“Suit yourself.” Ashley began to turn, then stopped. “You really want me to kiss someone else at midnight?”

“You have free will and a can of mace on your keychain. I seriously doubt you’d let yourself be kissed by someone if you didn’t want to.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m an asshole. Try to have some fun. But don’t get pregnant. You know, in case the world doesn’t end and you need something extra to atone for.”

And then she left. I cursed myself and flopped on the couch, arm over my eyes. Why do I say stupid shit like that? Why, when she stands there looking like the ripest peach on the shelf, does something break inside my head and whatever words happen to be hanging on for dear life come flying out?

As usual, post-argument, I turned to the television for solace. It wasn’t helping. All they were playing, it seemed, was an endless loop of war updates. Glowing green streaks across the night sky in a country I didn’t know how to spell. As if it was all just a big video game. The announcers sounded like it, too. Professional voices barely concealing their ratings-hungry glee. I couldn’t move for a while, transfixed by the flashing lights, the air-raid sirens, the incongruously perfect hair of the correspondent in her flak jacket, gas mask dangling from her neck. How did she do that? Why were we fighting this one, again? The money? The oil? Someone’s little feelings got hurt? I couldn’t even remember anymore. With some alarm I realized three hours had passed. And that I was a total hypocrite. Who was out immersed in the world, and who was a soppy loser bemoaning the state of it?

I grabbed my own gas mask and went out to find Ashley. Hopefully I could catch up with her before midnight.

But What Are They Eating?

Where I talk about food and offer you a free book.

Shelley Workinger has a cool blog called “But What Are They Eating?” where she invites authors to talk about—you guessed it—what their characters actually have on their plates. Food for thought, as they say. She’s also been nice enough to have me back for a guest post about the foodiest of my food-laden novels, The Kitchen Brigade. I hope you’ll visit my post on Shelley’s blog, drop a comment, share the love, and maybe subscribe. And…

Because it’s been a tough week, maybe for you, too, just for today you can grab a Kindle e-copy of The Kitchen Brigade free. For all y’all, not just the KU folks. I hope you like it. 

Gato

It’s not the first time Talisman has come across a human child in this part of his territory. But the sour scent tells him the girl is not well. She’s curled on her side beneath the scratching tree, her dark hair dull and matted, her eyes glassy, her chest nearly still beneath her thin, dirty clothing. Talisman bats at her with a soft paw the way he’s seen the humans do; the only reaction is a delayed shift of her eyes to his. He wills her to hold his gaze. One second. Two seconds. Her lids then fall closed as if keeping them open is too much effort. Has it been enough to convey trust? It’ll have to be. Night falls hard and cold in the desert and he’s loath to leave her unprotected from the coyotes and the grown humans, but she needs nourishment. 

He calls for the human’s mother; surely she’ll not have gone far with her young one so ill, but his cries go unanswered. Still yowling, less and less often as he gets no response, Talisman stretches his body over hers to provide heat and to warn predators away; they’ll also sense the sour aroma on the wind.

Soon Talisman’s mate Kowloon arrives, mewing apologies for being too far afield to hear him. Her amber eyes widen in alarm as she quickly absorbs the situation.

“No grown human tends her?”

Talisman shakes his head.

Then a sound comes from the girl’s throat. “Gato,” she breathes.

Every inch of Kowloon freezes except her tail, which paints the scrubby grass in a slow swish.

Talisman’s throat vibrates to calm the girl…and his mate. Kowloon has bad memories of grown humans, so in a soft mew, trying not to break his soothing spell, he asks her to take his place while he finds the one the humans call Esperanza.

“Don’t worry,” Talisman purrs. “This girl is small and weak and too ill to hurt you.”

“I worry more for you,” Kowloon growls.

“Esperanza is good. I was sick once and she found me and poked me with something sharp like a claw but I got better. She leaves water in the desert for the mothers and children who travel in the night. I’ve seen her do it. The water is trapped in a big container but sometimes she’ll leave a bowl. Agua para los gatos, she said once, and her voice was as soothing as the water itself.”

Kowloon still has reservations, but she changes places with him to keep the girl warm. Talisman presses his forehead to Kowloon’s then slinks off toward the village. It’s better this way. Kowloon is a fierce fighter, and several times tangled with coyote pups who tried to hurt their kittens. She won’t let anything harm the girl.

Esperanza lives in a small house on the far edge of Talisman’s territory. Sometimes he hides in the brush and watches her tend her garden. Always with her eyes soft and smiling.

“Gato,” she says, when he hops up to the windowsill. She’s the only grown human he’ll allow so close. Her hands are rough but her touch is light and warm. “Gato, what is wrong?”

He mews one continuous note of alarm, telling her about the sick young girl, while holding her gaze with his. He hopes she’ll understand. Her mouth presses tight and her eyes narrow. “I will get my things and meet you outside.”

Soon they’re walking through the scrubby grass. Esperanza has a light attached to her head. Light makes Talisman jittery and he wants to hide. A much bigger light suddenly pops on over them and Talisman is all claws, clinging to the base of a small tree. Esperanza stops and puts a hand above her eyes.

Her words are angry now. Two grown human males appear from the dark and Talisman hisses low in his throat. They speak angry words back. Their language is different from hers. One grabs her arm. She jerks it away. Her bag spills as Talisman stalks forward. One human shines his big light on what’s spilled on the ground.

“Soy medica,” Esperanza says. “Doctor.”

The males look at each other and smile. Not a friendly smile. Talisman growls.

“Go on, Esperanza la medica,” one of them says, sweeping his arm forward. “Show us who you are looking for who needs doctoring.”

“El gato knew where to…”

But Talisman’s already gone. He must protect Kowloon, and the child. He’s fast, and strong, and he sees them, a lump of cat and girl beneath the scratching tree.

“Cover her,” Talisman pants, already using his claws and mouth to drag deadfall around the base of the tree. Kowloon helps. “She’s okay?”

“Sleeping,” Kowloon says. Then stops, whiskers twitching. “Humans are coming. I can smell them.”

“Cover her up good and hide with me.” 

They huddle between the scent and the girl.

Talisman sees them. One male to either side of Esperanza, pushing her along. Each male has something shiny attached to his hip. She looks sad and lost. The fur rises on Talisman’s back. “On my count,” he says. “I’ll go left, you go right. One…two…NOW!”

They sink teeth and claws into flesh. They bite and scratch and growl. The men yelp and cry and attempt to slap them away. But they’re too fierce. So fierce that Talisman didn’t see when Esperanza rushed in and stole the shiny things from the men. But she’s screaming at them to leave el gatos alone.

Talisman turns his head just enough to see Esperanza raise one of those shiny things in the air. There’s a noise so loud Talisman leaps back and grabs Kowloon and they roll off into the grass. Talisman quickly rights himself to see Esperanza now pointing the shiny things at the men. They lift their hands to the star-filled sky.

“¡Váyase!” she yells. “If you are not running when I count three, I will shoot. What you do, with the women and children, is very bad.”

And they run. She watches them go, then puts the shiny things in her pockets and starts picking up the items from her spilled bag.

“Gatos,” she whispers. “Gatos, come. We will see to the girl.”

Family Business

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some preliminary research for a historical novel that’s been nagging at me for a while. I learned that in the early twentieth century, there were about 10,000 kosher delicatessens in Brooklyn. Now there are just a few dozen. This fact inspired a story for #2minutesGo this week. Happy Passover or Easter or Sunday, whichever you celebrate.

——–

The masonry and wood in the basement smelled like decades of everything it had absorbed: corned beef curing in stainless steel bins, cucumbers pickling in barrels, even the German and Yiddish and Russian and Polish words that had been spoken here, as the newer immigrants in Williamsburg supplanted the old. 

Eli’s first trip to the basement was as etched into his memory as the hash marks on the support beams. “See these, boychik?” his father had said. “This is where I keep track of employees that don’t work out so well.”

Pop had been smiling when he said it, so it was probably a lie; nobody knew the real answer. Eli eventually surmised that the marks represented a mundane system of accounting: how many rounds of pastrami, how many pounds of kosher salt, how much black pepper.

He ran a finger over a segment of them, ticked off like days a man might count his prison sentence. 

Eli had never counted.

“Grandpa?”

He swiveled toward his granddaughter. “Yes, Miriam?”

“I’m so hungry for Chinese food and this place is giving me the creeps. Can we please go back up to our table soon?”

“Yes. Very soon.” He peered up along the tops of the walls. It didn’t look much different, except for some new wiring. Telephone. Cable. All the modern conveniences. He took another deep inhale of the literal melting pot the space had become. “You know, I found it immensely comforting to be down here when I was your age.”

“Why, because you could hide from Papa Abramowitz?”

He grinned. Remembering all the hours he’d spent here. “Your great-grandfather was a pussycat. No. It wasn’t like that. I liked that it was quiet. I liked when we were working down here, just the two of us. He was so busy running the restaurant that this was sometimes the only time we spent alone together.”

Still with her arms hugged around her skinny middle, she picked her way over, through what was now extra cases of paper take-out containers and soy sauce packets. She stopped a few feet away from him. How much of her mother, her grandmother he could see in her face.

“That sounds nice,” she said. “I wish I could work like that with my dad. Well. I can’t paint like he can. But, you know. Help with stuff. Buy new brushes and write in the little book which paintings he’s sold.”

So serious, my little Miriam.He was thrilled that she agreed to this weekend together. Soon she would be of an age not to be caught dead wandering around Brooklyn with an old man. Eli plucked his hat off his head and plopped it onto hers; she tilted it at a jaunty angle and made a movie star face at him, which always made him laugh.

“But let me ask you something, mein aynikl. Did you ever ask if you could?”

Her gaze dropped to the concrete floor. Then she peered up at him. “Did you ask Papa Abramowitz?”

“Ask! There was no asking back then. It was the family business. We just did.”

“But we have a family business.”

“Yes. I suppose you do.”

She took off his hat and smooshed it back on his head. “I’ll ask him. I’ll ask him when we get home. But please. Please, please, can we go upstairs and eat now?”

“Go on.” He pressed a hand to her thin shoulder. “I’ll be right behind you.” He had a feeling he would never see this place again, and, unlike the last time he’d left, he wanted to say a proper goodbye.

————

Photo: City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D