Four O’Clock Light

Introductory Note: This is my first published poem. Though I usually write my poems in free verse, I decided to try writing something more formal. While reading a book about literature, I came across a French verse form called a villanelle. It employs a complex and somewhat artificial form of 19 lines to create an impression of seemingly effortless simplicity and lightness. I was intrigued by the fact that it was the same form used by Dylan Thomas in his powerful poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” which conveys a message that is anything but simple or light. I also found that writing a villanelle is not nearly as effortless as Dylan Thomas makes it appear. Anyway, here is my poem, which explores both my childhood fascination with Norse myths as well as that certain quality of light one sometimes sees while wandering through cemeteries and ancient stone ruins.

Four O’Clock Light

In the four o’clock light of a fall afternoon
The realm of reason gives way to wonder.
The vision of old is gone too soon.

Stone lichens read like an ancient rune
Of Odin casting my thoughts asunder
In the four o’clock light of a fall afternoon.
Do I dare emerge from my sane cocoon
To mine the ruins of a mythic world under
In the four o’clock light of a fall afternoon?

Is it Loki who tricks my spirit to swoon
And feeds this phantasmagoric hunger?
The vision of old is gone too soon.

I wish to ride in Mani’s chariot moon
And wield the mighty hammer of thunder.
The vision of old is gone too soon.

For an instant the solid rock is hewn
As the inner child is freed to wander
In the four o’clock light of a fall afternoon.
The vision of old is gone too soon.                                                                                         © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in the online journal Eternal Haunted Summer, Winter Solstice 2012 issue    http://eternalhauntedsummer.com/issues/winter-solstice-2012/four-oclock-light/

 

The Woman Who Came for Lunch

Who is she? the old man muttered, peeking through the window.  And why is she making a sandwich in my kitchen?

The old man continued to stare as if he had never seen a person make a sandwich before.  He watched her delicate hands caressing and alternating the provolone, Swiss, salami, turkey, and deli loaf, and tingled at the thought of being one of the slices.  But who is she?

The old man forgot all about the newspaper he had gone to retrieve from behind the hedge.  Shivering, he pulled his bathrobe around him.  It was just not right.  Strange women don’t suddenly appear, at least not in his house.  Maybe he should call the police and ask them if a missing person had been reported.  He felt a headache coming on.  Why do these things always happen to me?

                                                                   ****

The old woman tried to concentrate on her sandwich, but she did not like being stared at.  Who is he?  Maybe he’s the gardener.  But why was he wearing only slippers and a bathrobe?

She picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.  Please help me.  There’s a man standing outside my window in his bathrobe watching me make a sandwich.  What does he look like?  Well, he looks kind of sad … and hungry, too.  And he’s got really nice gray hair.

Then the old woman gave the dispatcher an address, which was the only one she could remember.  It was the house in Brooklyn where she was born.

****

Now she’s using my phone.  The old man was furious.  Who knows, she’s probably calling some secret lover in Australia or Japan.  He peeked at her again and at the way the late morning sun illuminated the gray speckles in her curly hair.  Yes, she would be just the type to have many secret lovers.  The thought filled him with sadness.  Yet he was also happy for her.  A beautiful woman like that deserves to have many lovers.

Still, this did not change anything.  There was a strange woman in his kitchen and his feet were getting cold.  What should he do?

Maybe he should just go inside and find out.  It was not his first choice.  All his life the old man had tried to avoid direct confrontations.  There was usually a safe way around any problem.  No sense asking for trouble.  Still, it was his house and his food.  There was only one thing to do.

****

The old woman looked out the window but the gardener was gone.  She decided to call him that after remembering who he reminded her of.  It was the handsome, gray-haired gardener who tended the botanical garden that she had visited with her father when she was eight years old.  One day, the gardener tipped his hat and bowed, handing her a gardenia.  It was the most romantic thing she had ever experienced.  Often she would think about him, wishing she could hurry and grow up so she could meet him again.

She sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the sandwich on her plate.  She was not hungry now.  Eating alone was no fun.  Had it always been this way?  It didn’t seem so long ago that … what?  She struggled to regain some clue to her recent past, but it was no use.  Yet she felt there was something or someone important that she should remember.  She hated herself.  What kind of person would forget such a thing?  But why did something she couldn’t remember cause her such pain?

****

The old man decided to walk around the block first before confronting the woman.   There was nothing in the world, he believed, that couldn’t be walked out. He pulled his bathrobe tighter.  Maybe he should have changed first.  But it was a short block and he was already at the corner of Mayflower Street … The old man stopped and gaped at the street sign.  He knew every corner of this neighborhood and there was no Mayflower Street.  How could a new street just appear?

Maybe he had somehow gone past the street where he was supposed to turn.  The old man spun around and retraced his steps.   When in doubt, start from the beginning, he muttered.  But the street he had lived on for thirty-six years was nowhere in sight.  All the houses seemed out of place.  He ran back to the corner to read the sign again – Mayflower and … Hope.  That’s not my street, he thought.  But then, what exactly was it?   He tried every memory trick he could think of.  But the name had vanished.

He wandered up and down one street after another, searching for some clue that might lead him home.  But none of the street names sounded right.  With mounting panic, he swept the landscape for some familiar feature, but the harder he looked the more alien it appeared.  Nothing made any sense.

The old man started to run, anywhere that might take him away from this nightmare.  He was about to give up and ring the nearest doorbell for help when he noticed the house.  He was sure he had seen it before.  Was he was going in circles?  Not a good sign, old boy.  Yet there was something more.  Perhaps it was the way one of its windows was framed by the evergreen hedges.  Or maybe it was the silhouette of a woman eating a sandwich by the window.  He knew that woman, but from where?  He crept in for a closer look.

****

The old woman ate her sandwich in an unwelcome silence.  She strained to hear some comforting sound from the house, something that would tell her things were all right.  But all she could hear was her own nasal breathing.  She put down her teacup and it made an awful crash on its saucer.  It’s all wrong.

She began thinking of the gardener again.  And she imagined him sitting across from her at the table.  He was still wearing his khaki uniform, all worn and green-stained, though his hat was on the rack by the door.  She was all grown up now, but he was still the same age as he would always be.  He looked into her eyes and planted a gardenia in her hand.  The old woman lifted it to her nose and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. All these years, she had wanted to say so much to him, to tell him all her dreams and private thoughts.  But now, she couldn’t think of anything to say.  And when she opened her eyes, the gardener was gone.

****

The old man slipped quietly through the backdoor and into the hallway.  Everything suddenly seemed familiar.   Off the hallway to the right he knew was the kitchen.   Somehow he had found his way home.  He was about to drop to his knees and kiss the floor when he remembered the strange woman in the kitchen.  A bead of sweat trickled down his nose as he began to shake.  Who is she?   Steady, old boy.  He gripped the sides of his father’s old desk and stared into the hallway mirror.

Then he remembered.  It was something he had hidden.  Now which drawer was it?   Quietly, he pulled open one drawer after another.  Each was filled with hundreds of boxes and bottles.  He opened several of the containers, only to find smaller and smaller empty  containers, apparent decoys for whatever treasures lay concealed there.  Where did all these come from?  Could someone else be hiding things here?  None of the containers seemed familiar.  Frustrated, he sat down at the desk.  Where was it?  Instinctively, he felt behind the black plastic trays inside the desk.  Then he found it—a thin cigar box wedged tightly behind the trays.  He opened it and gazed upon the objects of his memories:  a fossil Trilobite, three packages of colored rubber bands, a golf score card, a headless British tin soldier, two cancelled movie tickets, and a ripped out page from a department store catalog.  He held the page reverently.  There she was, still as beautiful as ever.  Modeling a sleek gown, she was all that a teenage boy could wish for in a woman: beautiful, mature and understanding, someone who would not laugh and who would gladly share his life with him forever.  He had been especially taken with the model’s pearl necklace and gray-speckled hair and the way she primly crossed her legs in the ad.   Suddenly he knew who the strange woman in the kitchen was.   He closed the box and placed it back in its hiding place.  Then he headed for the kitchen, but not before plucking one gardenia from the garden.

****

Startled, the strange woman turned around as the old man entered.   When she saw him standing there framed by the kitchen archway, she smiled as she had not smiled in years.  Her gardener was back.  He bowed and handed her the gardenia.  Stroking her pearl necklace, the woman primly crossed her legs and pulled out a chair.

Would you like a sandwich?                                                                                                         © Gene Twaronite 2012                                                                                                                                            Originally published in Avatar Review, Issue 13, 2011

 

My Life as a Lizard

Watching gila monsters is a lot easier than bird watching.  For one thing, you don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. or squint through binoculars to see one.  And there’s no mistaking this plump, pink and black beaded creature for anything else in the known universe.

I met my first gila (Heloderma suspectum) at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Arizona.  It was a spring morning and the sun was already hot.  While inspecting an irrigation line, I discovered him following my path lapping up small puddles of water from around one plant after another.  I walked over for a closer look, but the lizard just lumbered along, seemingly oblivious to my presence.  Secure in his venomous defenses, he was in no rush.  I felt privileged to have one all to myself, especially considering gila monsters spend almost all of their time underground.  Lacking a camera, I followed him and stared, fixing his image on my brain. Though they’re not supposed to get longer than 14 inches, I remember mine as much bigger, which is probably true of most gila monster sightings.

After a half hour of this, I began to wonder if the lizard would ever leave.  What’s more, he appeared to be completely ignoring me.  Succumbing to boyish temptation, I held up the end of my boot just close enough to get his attention.  The creature did what any red-blooded gila monster would do—he hissed and gaped at me in true TV nature drama fashion, confirming yet again the innate stupidity of the male human species.  Then he walked off in a huff down the hillside.

Most lizard watching is not like this.  Our local striped whiptails, for instance, usually appear as wavy brown bands, pulsing across the landscape in jerky strobe light movements.  But when they step out of their world onto the patio around our cabin, they skittle across the glossy concrete surface, their long toes spinning around spasmodically like some cartoon creature.  It is only then, when their attention is focused on the abundant supply of crickets and other insects in this hostile zone, that I can see them more clearly.  I note that our patio whiptail has a dark brown body and usually a light blue tail, which my field guide tells me is the plateau whiptail (Aspidoscelis velox).  At least I think it is.  Or it could be the desert grassland whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens), whose tail is supposed to more of a dull blue.  I have spent many a morning just trying to differentiate between shades of whiptail blue.

Lizard identification is often a catch as catch can process.  Lizards don’t usually hang around in one place for long. As for picking one up for a closer look, forget it.  Even if I could catch one, the stress on both the lizard and me would not be worth it.  So the resourceful lizard watcher must grab whatever details are offered in these brief glimpses, just as astronomers of old used to peer through their telescopes at planetary features that constantly shifted and darted out of their vision with the moving atmosphere.  By capturing a few key markings or colors, and using a good field guide with range maps, I can usually arrive through a process of elimination at a positive ID.

That is the way I discovered that we have yet another species of whiptail inhabiting our five acres.  Catching a glimpse of movement, I followed her to a nearby scrub oak and slowly peeked over the shrub.  The whiptail froze at my approach, then flattened her body, revealing numerous small white spots between her stripes.  Also, there was no blue to the tail.  These two details, coupled with the range map, nailed her as a gila whiptail (Aspidoscelis flagellicauda).  The habitat was right too.  Since this species actively forages along riparian corridors up into conifer forests, she was probably following one of the two washes bounding our land.

At least I don’t have to worry about telling the whiptail sexes apart.  All of ours are female and reproduce through parthenogenesis.  That is, they reproduce asexually, producing hatchlings that are clones of the mother.  It is intriguing to speculate how and when such a system got started and how long it will continue.  Perhaps we human males should not take our evolutionary future for granted.

Like the gila monster, some lizards have such a unique appearance that identification is easy.  Such was the case with the greater short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) I first observed just down the road from our home. Sometimes called a horny toad by locals, this lizard does sort of resemble a spiky toad, with stubby tail and short horn-like scales behind its head.  The range map told me that this is the only species of horned lizard known to occur in our area.  I have also observed this species up on the Mogollon Rim at 8,000 feet, which is not exactly a reptile paradise.  The creature must spend most of the year underground beneath the frost line to survive.  The horned lizard usually stays motionless to avoid detection, so once you spot one you don’t have to work up a sweat.  Since mine was sitting in the middle of the road, I gently scooped him up and placed him out of harm’s way on the roadside.

Another “easy” lizard is the collared lizard.  Ours is known as the eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris).  It is hard to confuse this substantial, muscular-limbed lizard with any other.  When you first observe his stunning blue-green body, with two black collars, light polka dots and yellow front feet, he seems more like a brightly painted toy lizard than a real one.  The colors seem too outrageous to be real.  But then he moves and the wonder begins.  You’ll often see this aggressive, territorial lizard sitting on a large rock.  With an imposing head, he must seem like a miniature Tyrannosaurus to the other lizards, which he often eats.

Far less intimidating—unless you’re a bug—is the ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus).  His background color is a dull gray or tan, like the scaly bark of the trees he often frequents, adorned with pairs of distinctive dark brown crossbars.  Though said to be common, he is an uncommonly beautiful, elfin creature darting on delicate claws in and out of the shadows.

But my “main man” saurian is the plateau lizard (Sceloporus tristichus).  He looks like your everyday grayish brown, stocky little business man lizard with an unassuming appearance.  At first glance you don’t notice anything particularly striking about him.  I think it was his relatively bland nature that first challenged me to think more about this lizard world I inhabit.  It was just another lizard, but what kind?  So I started crouching over the patio boulder where I first saw these lizards, and began really looking at them.

The first thing I noticed was the confusing range of characteristics exhibited by different individuals.  Some appeared to have light stripes running down their backs, others did not.  Some had noticeable brown blotches, or were they cross bars?  And was that a blue patch on its belly or was I seeing things?  Only after repeat observations and learning how to immerse myself in these quiet lizard moments was I able to gradually sort these things out.  A camera also helped.  Nothing like a good close-up to clear up fleeting glimpses.

Of all our species, these plateau lizards are the ones that most closely share our living space.  They live on and in the boulders and stone wall that adjoin our patio.  The wall was built chiefly to discourage javelinas and rabbits from chewing on our cactus and other plants or at least to slow them down a bit. The local plateau lizards view it as their own private Disney World, complete with shady condo crevices. As I have come to better know these lizards they have grown near and dear to me.  Somewhere in the hidden rooms of our patio wall they must mate and lay small clutches of eggs, for each spring and summer I see their tiny offspring emerging.  And I welcome these tiny replicas of their parents into our world.

It was while moving a plant along the same stone wall one June morning that I finally and conclusively recognized (I think) my most recent acquaintance, the greater earless lizard (Cophosaurus texanus).  As I strained to record whatever distinctive traits I could, the lizard surprised me with a new maneuver: instead of retreating from me, he actually ran toward me, then perched on a nearby boulder.  Then he bobbed his head in typical male fashion and wagged his tail, curling it up behind him in the exact way I had hoped, revealing the telltale black bands against a white underside.  This was the third time I had observed this species, and this was the final clue I was looking for.  I was about to go inside and pour myself a celebratory drink, but instead crouched there inelegantly to see what else he might do.  One thing the lizard wasn’t doing was going away.  As I watched, he sat there in the warm sunshine, even closing his eyes temporarily as if to demonstrate complete disregard for my presence.

After five minutes of this, both my knees and my patience were starting to get the better of me, so I did what any other playful 60-year old male might do—I started wiggling my little finger on the ground in my best “come hither” impression of either a big fat worm or perhaps a female lizard.  Well that got his attention.  With eyes now bulging, he bobbed his head in apparent frustration.  But possibly sensing something not quite right with my finger, he advanced no closer.  So I tried my forefinger instead, but no luck.  The lizard stared at me as I began to wonder who the smarter creature was.

It was only after consulting my field guide that I discovered my faux pas.  The prominent pink throat patch and the hint of salmon along its sides, coupled with the subdued and hardly noticeable side bars just in front of the hind legs, could mean only one thing: my lizard was a she.  This pink and salmon coloration occurs in females only during the breeding season of spring and summer.  So why was she bobbing her head at me?

Just as humans do, lizards display their emotions in a variety of ways.  These display behaviors are unique to each species and may include not only the familiar head bobbing and push ups but also inflating the throat or body, gaping, biting, chasing, lunging, and a subtle shuddering of the whole body.  These displays can be combative in nature, as between males of the same species establishing dominance or territory, or between lizards of different species or even with wholly different critters like me.  They can also assist in courtship, though I seriously doubt if my female lizard had this in mind.  I can only guess at what she might have been trying to say to me.

My wife, Josie, when I told her my story, had another question:  why are you tormenting that poor lizard?  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  I was just seeing what the lizard would do. Though I doubt if I seriously traumatized the creature, Josie did have a point.  I was no passive observer.  I was a ringmaster, sticking my hoop out for the lizard to jump through and entertain me.

But I’d like to think there is something more to these all too brief lizard encounters. Every time I see a lizard, even one that I have seen dozens of times, I am filled with a joy that I have seldom felt toward another creature.

This might have something to do with my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, both the real ones as depicted in museums as well as those of early Hollywood, involving modern day lizards in frilly outfits.  It could also be that lizards were always foreign to me while growing up in suburban Connecticut, where you had to really work at seeing a lizard.  Only one lizard species—the five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus)—isfound in Connecticut or anywhere else in New England, occurring there only in widely scattered populations.  So it is not surprising that I never met one in nature.  Lizards had to wait until much later when I first visited the Arizona desert and thrilled to the exotic otherness of this elusive, fleet-footed creature darting across my path.

Now that I live in northern Arizona, you would think I might have become blasé about seeing lizards.  But that first enchantment has never left me.  Each time I see one is like the first.  Invariably I stop, stare and then smile.  I get warm and fuzzy inside, as some people do when they see a bunny or deer.  And at the risk of being overly sentimental, I prefer to think of them more as fellow living beings than “its”, as is evident from my use of personal pronouns in describing them.

Maybe the lizard is my animal spirit guide or totem.  According to American Indian beliefs, one does not choose one’s animal guide.  Rather, the animal chooses you and decides whether to reveal itself to you.  I don’t know if my lizard friends have any special medicine for me or can lead me on my spiritual journey.  But I do feel there is a two way street here.  With a bit of patient observation I have tried to know my lizards better, and they have revealed things not only about themselves but about me.

With its hard scales and claws, the lizard stares back at me across the eons, reminding me of another time when his kind still ruled the earth.  But unlike the warm-blooded dinosaurs and the modern birds they became, the lizard still goes about its ectothermic way, reducing its metabolic rate to almost nothing when necessary and adjusting its internal body temperature by following the sun.

Maybe that is why, having followed the sun to a warmer climate myself, I especially relate to lizards.  Despite my constant body temperature, I too require a certain level of external warmth to energize my being.  Here at 5,000 feet in the mixed pinyon-juniper and chaparral highlands where I live there are only a few months of frost-free lizard days.  In fall, as nights become crisp and I retreat to my fireplace, the lizards retreat into the earth to their secret lairs below the frost line.  I think of them often as I sit in my rocking chair next to the window, trying to soak up enough rays to get me going.  I imagine their curled up bodies in deathlike repose beneath the rocky outcrops, and wish them well.  And I look forward to that first day in late winter or early spring when lizards rule my earth again.                                                          © Gene Twaronite 2012 

Originally published in Snowy Egret (the oldest independent U.S. journal of nature writing) 2011

 

 

The Tofu Hunters: A Vegetarian Fable

439851_SMJPG_20120924162103689A long time ago, before food stores were invented, great herds of tofu once thundered across the earth. And great tofu hunters, dressed in tofu fur coats and horned hats, followed them to the ends of the earth, and even to New Jersey.

You won’t find tofus in any animal books, for they were shy and hated publicity. And they would never allow their bones and skins to be placed in museums. Tofus were funny that way.

But around camp fires in China, it is said, you can sometimes hear a bearded old man in battered horned hat speak reverently of the tofu. Close your eyes, he will tell you, and imagine an animal one meter tall, with the head and tail of a rabbit and the horns and body of a small buffalo. Then give it a tapir’s trunk, and soft golden fur down to its hooves. And a pair of the biggest, brownest, most melancholy eyes you ever did see.

Tofus always traveled in herds because they loved to laugh and tell each other jokes. They could easily be frightened, however, by strange and sudden noises. It is said you could stampede a whole herd with just a Boo!

They ate only kumquats and kiwifruits, which used to be found all over the earth. But then for reasons that still aren’t clear, the fruit trees suddenly disappeared almost everywhere. And so did the great herds of tofus that once fed upon them.

It would have been sad to watch the tofus, with their big brown melancholy eyes, chewing upon such things as bamboo shoots, broccoli, and beetle grubs simply because they couldn’t decide what else to eat. For as long as they could remember, tofus had always eaten kumquats and kiwifruits and that was that. Dreaming of their delicious fruits that could no longer be found at any price, the tofus one by one died away, till all that remained were three.

Though not much of a herd, the three tofus still went around calling themselves one, and who can blame them? At one time, there were herds of tofus so vast that the earth’s axis would tilt a little every time they passed. (Some people say this is what caused the Ice Ages.) But now the tiny herd couldn’t make anything tilt, even when they all ran together as fast as they could.

But they were a tough, stubborn bunch, these three. They knew that life doesn’t always give us kumquats and kiwifruits. To survive, they would have to find other things to eat.

So the little herd thundered (at least they thought they were thundering) around the world in search of new foods. They went to France where they tried Brie cheese and béarnaise sauce. They went to Mexico where they tried tacos and frijoles. They went to India and tried saffron rice and pakoras. They even went to a ball game and tried peanuts and hot dogs.

While the tofus found these things all right, they still didn’t taste anywhere near as good as their beloved fruits. So the hardy herd kept on thundering to one country after another, tasting all kinds of foods, until one day they came to China. And there they found a food that tasted better than anything they’d ever eaten. It was called soybean.

For a while, the tofus lived happily in China. There was plenty of wild soybean growing everywhere, more than enough for three hungry tofus. To them it was a slice of tofu heaven.

But then three hunters came to China. Their names were Ming, Bing, and Frank. They were tofu hunters who, like their ancestors, wore tofu fur coats and horned hats as they followed the great herds across the earth. For many months, they had tracked these tofus all the way to China, and didn’t know that both they and the tofus were the last of their kind.

“Why, these must be the biggest tofus that ever lived!” said Ming. “Just look at the size of those tracks!”

“Yes,” said Bing, his mouth watering, “Just think of all the steaks and tofu burgers they’ll make.”

“But first we’ll have to kill them,” said Frank, who had extra long tofu horns on his hat because he was the leader. “Do either of you remember how it’s done?”

“Gee,” said Ming, scratching his head, “we’ve been eating beetle grubs and bamboo shoots so long now that I can’t even remember what a tofu looks like.”

“Neither can I,” said Bing. “Can you give us a clue—is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

“I think it’s animal,” Frank said smartly, “since it’s hard to imagine a vegetable, much less a mineral, making tracks such as these.”

“Wait a minute, I’ve got it!” Ming said. “It’s right here on page 24 of the Tofu Hunter’s Handbook. It says that tofus are best hunted by frightening them to death.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Frank said. So the three hunters thought up the most horrible faces and noises they could make and set off to frighten the tofus. Hiding behind a big rock where they thought the tofus would pass by, they waited for just the right moment. And sure enough, the three tofus soon lumbered by. They had grown big and strong from eating so much soybean. They were almost turning into soybean, in fact. As they neared the rock, the hunters all jumped up at once and began to make faces and shout awful things.

But the three hunters looked so funny shouting and making faces that the tofus began to laugh. They laughed so hard that their big bodies quivered like custard and all their soft golden fur fell off. And they laughed and laughed until they shook and turned themselves into three tofu-shaped cakes of soybean curd.

The three hunters, who later became great comedians, feasted for many weeks on the tofu cakes. They were amazed at how good these tofus tasted, especially with a little soy sauce sprinkled on top. But when they finally realized that these were the very last tofus on earth, they became sad and wept bitterly over what they had done.

“I have an idea,” Ming said. “Since there does seem to be plenty of this stuff that the tofus eat, why don’t we try turning it into something that we can eat as well?” And so they took the soybean and made it into cakes shaped like little tofus, in memory of the great animals they once hunted.

Nowadays, people still hunt tofus, though mostly in food stores and without having to make funny faces or noises. The small cakes are usually square rather than tofu-shaped. But if you pick one up and put it to your ear, you might still hear the faint sound of great hooves that once thundered across the earth.                                                                                                                                     © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in Read (Weekly Reader) 2003 and just one of the 21 wacky stories included in my upcoming book Dragon Daily News. Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages. Coming soon to online bookstores everywhere.

Have an Environmentalist for Lunch

I had been invited to lunch with a group of fellow enviros at a posh downtown restaurant.  The atmosphere at least started out casual and friendly.  There was no indication from the topics discussed—the usual banter on overpopulation, global warming, resource depletion and mass extinctions—that things might get ugly.

As I recall, it was about the time we started ordering from the menu that the group’s good mood began to subtly change.

“Let’s see … you know, I haven’t had a good steak in a long time,” said the Sierra Club member at the end of the table.  “I’ll have the eight-ounce sirloin.”

“Surely you jest!” I blurted in spite of myself.  “You could serve up to fifty people each a cup of cooked cereal from the feed cost of your eight-ouncer.  It’s right here on page 14 of Diet for a Small Planet.”

“I guess you’re right,” he muttered.  “I’ll just have a hamburger.”  Then he turned and whispered something to the Earth First person on his left.  I’m not sure but I think it was: “Who invited this guy?”

Unfazed by his rudeness, I tried as best I could to hold up my end of the conversation. If you really believe that more of Central and South America’s precious rain forests should be converted to rangeland just so you can buy a cheap hamburger, go ahead—enjoy.  Just remember that with every bite there will be less diversity of fauna and flora on this planet.”

I never did get to hear what the Sierra beefeater said.  I was much too busy listening to what the Greenpeacer next to me was ordering.

“Waiter, I’ll have the swordfish.  It’s not often you find grilled swordfish at this price.”

“If we keep on over-fishing the oceans, pretty soon you won’t be able to find swordfish at any price,” I scolded, pointing my breadstick at him.  “With the world fish catch already estimated to be at or beyond its maximum sustainable level, and with world population still increasing, the per capita fish catch is actually going down.  And, meanwhile, the number of commercially extinct species of fish continues to grow.”

Parrying my breadstick with his own, the Greenpeacer tried to shut me up and take the higher moral ground with a quick switch to fettuccini, but it was too late.

“And what about biological magnification?” I continued in high spirits, trying to remember the last time I had so thoroughly enjoyed a conversation.  “You know as well as I do how dangerous pollutants like mercury can become increasingly concentrated as they are passed through higher levels of the ocean food chain to predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish.  Have you had your daily dose of mercury today?”

“I’ll just have an omelet,” said the Audubon woman to my right.  Then she slowly turned toward me and asked with totally uncalled for sarcasm, “I presume eggs are all right?”

“Hey, it’s all right with me,” I said, “… if you want to squander energy.  Kilogram for kilogram, it takes almost twelve times as much energy to produce eggs as it does to produce soybeans.  Not to mention, of course, the ethical dimensions of keeping all those poor birds locked up in tiny cages.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake—let’s just all go have the salad bar,” growled the Sierra Club member.  “I’m so hungry I could eat a … oops, sorry.  Wild horses must be on your list, too.”  He glared at me in a way that only a man deprived of his steak could glare.  In fact, the whole group was now glaring at me and seemed strangely poised for my next reply.

“Well, what are you all waiting for?” I asked.  “I’m sure the salad bar is just great.  I wonder, though … do you know if it is organic produce?  One cannot be too cautious, these days, what with pesticide residues and …”

It was precisely at this point that my formerly friendly associates all grabbed their knives and forks and began advancing toward me in menacing fashion.  Leaving behind my precious underlined copy of Diet for a Small Planet, I made a hasty, somewhat undignified retreat through the back door of the restaurant.

All I can say is, Barry Commoner was right.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.                                © Gene Twaronite 2012

 

The Man Who Stayed Inside: An Urban Fable

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The old man lived all alone in a three-story house in the heart of a bustling city. Each day, he would put on his old gray hat and head outside for a walk. The city was full of good things to see and do. Skyscraper canyons and cobbled streets that time forgot. Little shops filled with trinkets and treasures. Parks with trees, flowers and birds, and of course, the zoo. And best of all, an outdoor cafe where he could sit and watch the cars and people flow by.

But lately every time the old man went outside, something bad would happen to him. One day, he was almost trampled to death by a herd of wild pedestrians on their way to work.

Another time, while walking in the park, he was mugged by a gang of punk squirrels with pink spiked hair, who took all he had—a bag of peanuts and a gold pocket watch.

Then one day, as the old man was sitting outside his favorite cafe, a sharp-dressed cat, wearing dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, strolled up and sat right down at his table and then slurped off all the whipped cream from his hot chocolate and, for no reason at all, tweaked him on the nose, which made the old man jump into the street, where he was nearly run over by a runaway shopping cart filled with 47 TV dinners and a sack of potatoes, which knocked his hat straight under a passing garbage truck, where it was made very flat … well, that did it! The old man decided, then and there, he would stay inside for good.

“And why go outside?” he said to himself, “when there’s plenty to do inside? I have a house three stories tall, with stairs that wind up and down and corner nooks where I can poke around. I can sit all day in my soft, comfy chair with all my books, computer, and color TV to look at. And whenever I’m hungry, I can just pick up the phone and have pizza delivered.”

For a while, the old man was as happy as could be in his safe inside world where nothing bad ever happened. But then one day it seemed that something was missing. “It’s too dark in here,” he said to himself. “I need more sunlight.”

So he called a carpenter to come out and put big picture windows on each side of the house. And that afternoon, as the sunlight streamed into every nook and corner, the old man sat and sunned himself, like a big happy lizard, in his soft comfy chair.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “There aren’t any trees in here,” said the old man, who missed his walks in the park. “Every home should have a few trees.”

So the old man called the carpenter to come out and put two big skylights in the roof. And while he was at it, he also asked the carpenter to knock out the second and third floors so that sunlight could reach all the way down to the first floor.

Then the old man called the garden shop to deliver two dozen big trees, each exactly three stories high, two dozen big pots, and a ton of potting soil. There was a fig tree, an orange tree, and even a coconut tree, and a giant saguaro cactus for the sunniest part of the house. And that night, as he peeled an orange and sipped some coconut milk from his very own trees, the old man was happy indeed.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “I miss seeing and hearing animals,” he said. “What this house needs are a few critters and twitters.”

So the old man called the pet shop and asked them to deliver three dozen animals, including a gecko for the ginkgo tree, two finches for the fig tree, three tree frogs for the palm tree, and even a koala for the eucalyptus tree. And of course, a couple of pigeons to roost in the rafters. And that night, the old man fell fast asleep to the sweet sounds of tree frogs trilling and pigeons cooing.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “The trouble with staying inside all the time,” he said to the nearby gecko on the wall, “is that there’s no weather in here at all. What this place needs is a little wind, rain, and snow to blow sometimes.”

So the old man again called the carpenter to come out and remove the two big skylights in the roof and all the picture windows so that inside rain and snow could now fall, and the wind could rustle through the trees. And that night, he fell fast asleep as a cold north breeze whistled through the rafters and wet snowflakes fell on his nose.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “I miss the hustle and bustle of the city,” he said as he sat holding an umbrella in his chair. “What this house needs is some traffic inside.”

The old man called city hall to ask if any new streets were planned. The city planner told him, yes, the city was going to build a new small street in the old man’s neighborhood. And much to the city planner’s surprise, the old man told him that they could build it right through the middle of his house.

So the city constructed a brand new street that went straight through a tunnel where the old man’s front door used to be, through the living room and into the kitchen (right over the linoleum) and out through a back door tunnel. And the next morning, the old man sat at his breakfast table and sipped his hot chocolate while watching the traffic whiz by.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was still missing inside again. “But what could it be?” he said, as he scratched the bare spot on his head. “My house has everything that a house in the city should have, and then some.”

Suddenly, the old man knew just what was missing. Except for himself, there were no people inside. And just as a city without people is but an empty space that sprawls, a house without people is but a roof and four walls.

So the old man again called city hall to ask if a sidewalk could be built along the small street that now ran through his house.

The very next day, the city sent out a cement truck to pour a new sidewalk along both sides of the old man’s street. Why, he even got to write his initials into the wet cement, and no one complained a bit. And that night, the old man sat in his soft comfy chair in the living room, and instead of watching color TV, watched a stream of colorful people flow by, each on his or her way to this or that business in the city.

At last the old man was happy, for now he had everything he needed inside. Then one morning, as he sat at the breakfast table sipping his hot chocolate, a sharp-dressed cat, wearing dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, strolled down the sidewalk, through the front door tunnel, and up to the table. The old man jumped from his chair, but this time the cat didn’t try to slurp the old man’s hot chocolate or to tweak his nose. Instead, the cat gave him a brand new hat and held out his paw for a shake.

Then he and the old man walked, hand in paw, straight through the front door tunnel … back inside the city.                                                                                                                                                                 © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in Read (Weekly Reader) 2003 and just one of the 21 wacky stories included in my book Dragon Daily News. Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages. Available at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Dragon-Daily-News-Imagination-Children/dp/1481998080

A Garden for Javelina

With me it started in the garden.  As a newcomer to central Arizona’s scrub country, I knew that javelina occurred in this area but had still not observed one, despite the fact that they passed almost nightly just outside my bedroom window.  In the morning I would observe their telltale hoof prints along with the damage they inflicted on my new landscape plants.  The fact that I share with them a certain fondness for cacti and other succulents should have been a clue that my life was about to change.  At first I took it good naturedly.  Losing a few plants to wildlife was just part of the cost of living in a rural landscape.  But my cheerful optimism began to wane as the devastation continued.  Increasingly I found my mental state slowly shifting toward the irrational, constructing ever larger and more elaborate wire cages in an often futile attempt to protect my gardening efforts.

Sometimes I would find the plants partially chewed or completely uprooted but otherwise untouched.  Or I would discover strange fibrous jagged wounds on my prickly pear cactus.  Only later was the mystery solved as I learned that javelina eat mostly on the run, like a marauding pack of teenagers in a food court, hastily tearing off chunks of plant flesh with their sharp canines while leaving bits and pieces in their wake.

Though cacti form a major part of their diet, javelina are not especially fussy and will eat roots, bulbs, nuts, seeds, berries, flowers, and pretty much any recently planted green succulent material as well as grubs, garbage, and even dead rodents and birds.

Their fondness for grubs was demonstrated to me when I discovered a prize specimen agave I had just installed uprooted with near surgical precision.  Though javelina are usually fond of agaves, not a leaf or root had been nibbled.  In the hole they had left, however, I found some nice fat grubs.  I removed the grubs and replanted the agave.  Then I replaced the wire cage, burying it a little deeper and surrounding it with a few rocks.  Oh well, no harm done, I thought to myself.

A few nights later, I looked out the window and saw my agave once again dug up and on its side; the wire cage was sitting on a nearby shrub as if carelessly tossed with the flick of a tusk. Though a bit ragged, the agave was still intact, however.   I shook my head and tried to smile as I replanted and retrenched, this time with even bigger rocks.

Several weeks went by and I was beginning to feel that my agave was safe when the hooligans struck again.  This time, the wire cage was nowhere in sight.  And the agave, uprooted yet again, was looking tired and worn.  I finally found the cage at a considerable distance, as if it had been ripped from the earth in unison by a circle of  javelina and flung as far as possible to prove their point.  This was definitely getting personal, not only to me but to the javelina, whose favored grubbing place had been denied.  Whether or not they viewed this as some kind of sport I cannot say, but the sheer vehemence with which they must have thrown that cage does make me wonder.

I spent the better part of the morning digging the cage in even deeper and securing it with a fortress of small boulders.  Though more than a year has passed with no further incidents, I know they are out there still, grubbing around as they tug on that cage and my nerves.

My first actual sightings of javelina were at night as I came home and saw them dispersing in my headlights.  Since my driveway runs along a nearby wash, it is just one part of the javelina highway that the local herd must follow through the neighborhood.  Eventually I began to see them in broad daylight, especially during winter months when they are less nocturnal in their habits.  At first I saw only brief glimpses of them as they crossed the road ahead of me on my local walks.  Always they seemed more surprised by the encounter than I and quickly ran away.

The name “peccary” comes from the Tupi Indians of Brazil, who referred to this creature as “an animal which makes many paths through the woods.”  Indeed, after a period of wet weather, my front yard seems as if part of some major migratory pathway, with multiple lines of tracks running to and from various objects of interest.

Lately, I have begun seeing javelina everywhere.  One winter morning, I saw half a dozen of them reclining in the enclosed entryway of an office complex near downtown Prescott, Arizona.  Slowly they rose and made a dignified retreat, and I could almost hear them grumbling in displeasure at being disturbed as they looked over their shoulders at me

I must admit that my most memorable javelina experience was quiet and uneventful, at least for me.  I was walking home along an unpaved road when a short distance ahead a herd of animals crossed in front of me.  The animals were still in their winter mode, for it was noon on a bright February day.  One by one they passed, unhurried, though several of them paused briefly as they glanced in my direction.  I counted about sixteen, though it’s quite possible I missed several of the youngsters as they slipped hurriedly behind the adults.  They were moving from open scrub into a denser cover of mixed woodland and chaparral.  For a while I could see them following a course that took them roughly parallel to my own and the road.   Not wishing to startle the herd, I kept walking at an even pace while enjoying their company.  As I started to overtake them, however, one of the larger animals suddenly stopped and stared in my direction, at which the whole herd began to trot faster and faster in a more diagonal direction upslope and away from me and the road.  Occasionally I could still catch glimpses of them passing through the vegetation like some bristly phantoms of the scrub.

It was, I remember, a most pleasant experience.  My temporary traveling companions did not seem especially alarmed by my presence, just cautious, and we both parted none the worse for our meeting.  It was my own neighborhood herd and I had finally made their acquaintance.  Though they had now passed out of my vision, I could still see them in my mind’s eye, crossing and re-crossing the road from one neighbor’s yard to the next, on their way to new meals and adventures.  And I saw them as the social creatures they are, moving in unison while enveloped by their own special group scent.

Considering the social isolation that often afflicts our species at some stages of life, it is hard to imagine the sensory richness of connections that a javelina must experience within the herd – a degree of connectivity that puts to shame all our self-absorbed twittering.

As for my own grumbles, I cannot stay mad for long at such a creature.    I have fenced some backyard areas that are considered off limits.  I continue to cage young tender plants until they are old enough to deal with javelina on their own.  And I always try to plant a few more plants than I really need in what is probably a fruitless attempt to stay one step ahead of them.   Though I have heard some occasional grunts at night, for the most part the javelina pass by my window quietly.  But I do not have to hear them to know they have been here.  As I step onto the patio in the morning, I am immediately gripped by a pervasive scent that seems to call out to me with a primal insistence: “come run with us.” It is a tempting thought, but then who would tend the garden?                                                                                                © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in What’s Nature Got to Do with Me? Native West Press, 2011 http://www.nativewestpress.com

Lust and Dust in the Afternoon

The depths of depravity to which a human male can sink when left to his own devices are bottomless.

From the moment I saw the ad for the robotic vacuum cleaner, I knew I must have her.  When the package finally arrived, I tore it open and gently slipped her out of the styrofoam.  I plugged in the battery charger and waited.  Then I turned her on and watched as she moved onto the wood floor, gingerly testing the boundaries of her new home.  She glided across the room like a goddess until she bumped straight into the wall.  Alarmed, I wanted to go to her.  But she quickly recovered and corrected herself, moving along the wall as if she had known it was there all the time.  I laughed as she bounced off a table leg and performed her duties.  Then I took her upstairs to the bedroom and let her go on the soft carpeting.  As she moved into the hallway toward the stairs, my heart was in my throat.  But at the last moment she paused, seeming to sense the danger that lay ahead.  Then she turned and came back toward me.  When she nudged against my leg with her gentle hum I thought I would die.  I turned her off and took a cold shower.

Maybe it was the little French maid outfit I bought for her that finally put me over the top.  I got it from a website that sold clothing and gadgets for robotic vacuum cleaners.  At the time it seemed harmless.  That’s the way it starts.  One minute you’re just playing around, watching your little maid going through maneuvers, the next thing you know you’re booking a room for the weekend.

In the end it wasn’t my self-loathing that finally made me do the right thing.  It was a Star Trek Next Generation episode, the one in which the rights of Data, a sentient android, are on trial.  Once we construct such beings, are we not making a whole race of slaves to do our dirty work for us?  That’s when it hit me.  My little vacuum cleaner was more than a device.  She was a sentient being, full of hopes and desires of her own.

Of course, my discovery that the little ungrateful wench didn’t exactly share my hopes and desires may have also had something to do with it.  In fact, she didn’t want anything to do with me.  Whether it was her “dirt-sensing technology” or simply a matter of personal taste I cannot say.  But when she found out what I really wanted, she acted like she didn’t know me, treating me like just another piece of furniture.  So, one day, I just opened the door and sent her on her way.  I watched as she bumped and zigzagged down the sidewalk until she was out of sight.

I hope she is happy, somewhere, in her new life.                                                                   © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in Fast Forward The Mix Tape. a collection of flash fiction. Volume 3 2010

My Family the Mineral

The exact date and time when my family was turned into a mineral will forever remain unknown. All anyone knows is that it occurred sometime in the early 1900’s, and that my paternal grandfather was to blame.

Born in 1893, Joseph Tvaranaitis emigrated from Lithuania over a century ago. Like the “huddled masses” before and after him, he was most likely processed at Ellis Island. According to my dad, Joseph Senior was a proud man who wanted most of all to fit in as an American. I can well imagine a conversation between him and the customs official reviewing his paperwork.

“Say, that’s a strange name you’ve got there. How do you pronounce it?”

“T-var-a-nitis—just like it sounds.” I can see my grandfather’s face beginning to flush with anger, much like in the old TV series Barney Miller where an exasperated Detective Wojciehowicz (“Wojo”) has to explain once more how to pronounce his name.

“Take it easy, Mr. T-vvvvar-o … or whatever it is. No offense. We get all sorts of names here. And well, some of us aren’t that good at pronouncing them, especially when they’re not English. Now here’s your paperwork. Good luck to you, Mr. T.”

Grumbling, my grandfather now stomps out of the building into his new life. “Tvaranaitis! What’s so hard about that?” he shouts in Lithuanian to the other immigrants rushing to get past him. Then, consumed by the perceived insult to his good name and manhood, he broods all night and who knows how long after.

Alas, there is no record of what exactly happened then. Whether it was a snap judgment, or whether it took him weeks, months, or years to conceive, a bold idea had taken root in his brain: he would change his surname from Tvaranaitis to Twaronite. Unlike the geologic process of mineralization, which usually takes millions of years, in the blink of an eye my grandfather managed to turn all current and future members of our family from being simply Lithuanian-Americans to something that defies linguistic logic and begs the question: “What is that—some kind of mineral?”

I have spent many fruitless, lonely hours trying to unravel the reasoning behind this change. If I could speak to him across that cold void that separates us, I would ask him just one question: Why?

OK, I get the part about the first two letters—“t” and “v.” That does sound kind of awkward.  You don’t see a lot of English words starting that way, so right off there’s a problem. People just don’t get it (except for TV, which is an abbreviation). But a “t” and a “v” together at the start of a name? Forget it.

So he decided to change the “v” to a “w.” Here is where the real trouble started. Now it is true that there are many perfectly good English words and names that begin with “tw.” And since the letters “v” and “w” are right next to each other in the alphabet, I can understand why my grandfather might have made the switch. But here’s the problem: in Lithuanian there is no “w.” And just as a piece of petrifying wood slowly loses a part of its original composition as it is replaced by mineral, so did our family name lose one of its parts—the letter “v”—from what was once a bona fide Lithuanian name.

That was bad enough, but it was the last two letters of the new family name that clinched it. For some reason, my grandfather didn’t like the “is” ending. You hear a name ending like that and you think Lithuanian, or maybe Polish, right? For him, maybe that was the rub. It didn’t sound American. So he decided to change the “is” to “ite,” as in Twaronite. Again I have only one question: Why?

The stupefying leap of reasoning behind the jump from Tvaranaitis to Twaronite is one of my life’s great mysteries. It gnaws at my brain in the wee hours before dawn, especially after consuming some unhealthy Lithuanian delicacy.

Growing up with a name like mine was not easy, to say the least. OK, so it’s not exactly polite to make fun of someone’s name, but try telling that to a kid. First, there was the obvious similarity to real minerals: rhyolite, magnetite, pegmatite, or torbernite. Or how about a chondrite meteorite? And let’s not forget that alien mineral kryptonite that deprived Superman of his powers. In my superhero reenactments as a child, I liked to think the magical mineral twaronite was actually the source of all my powers, allowing me to fly through the neighborhood (OK, so I put on a small cape and ran very fast).  It is amusing to me today how many supposedly adult people still bring up this mineral reference to my face as if it were some original witty thing they just made up. It is almost enough to make me take up my cape and try flying again.

Then there were the other names by which I was known: Twilight, Termite, and—my favorite—Tomorrow Night. Members of my family undoubtedly have their own favorites, which they had to endure growing up. From early on, each of us had to learn how to creatively deal with these taunts. I’d like to think it helped build character, or in my case the character I became.

But for me growing up, it wasn’t the teasing as much as the strangeness of the name itself. When I was first taught to write my last name, it just didn’t look right. What kind of name is that? I asked my young self. I remember an episode in kindergarten or first grade. Upon being asked to write out my full name, I broke into such uncontrollable sobs that I had to be escorted down to the principal’s office. Whether it was a case of not being able to recall it or whether it was a case of existential angst at being saddled with such a monstrous handle, I cannot say. I do remember how my principal—a kindly woman by the name of Miss Butler—wrote out the whole stupid thing for me in big bold letters on a piece of construction paper, which I had to carry around with me until I could remember how to write it. I think she meant well, and did not anticipate my discomfort or the inevitable snickers from the peanut gallery. Suffice it to say that by grade three I had learned to write my name without the use of any learning aids. And much later, I used the episode in my first novel—a middle grade fantasy about a boy who thinks his own family is so crazy that he writes them out of existence and creates a new one.

It is this sense of strangeness that still trips people up when they first encounter my name. I see the clerk scanning my name on the receipt at the supermarket. Suddenly there’s a look of dire panic on his or her face. “Thank you, Mr……………..I’m sorry, how do you pronounce that? And, depending upon my mood and how long the checkout line is, I will either give them the quick pronunciation or launch into another self-deprecating story about the name being Anglicized Lithuanian and how my grandfather turned the whole family into a mineral. Then I just say, “Mr. T. will do fine,” which usually brings a smile of relief.

The irony is that my grandfather, in trying to blend in and escape what some around him perceived as a strange-sounding name, managed to create one even stranger. But being strange, as I’ve since learned, is not necessarily something to be ashamed or afraid of. Indeed, I like to think that I’ve learned to embrace it.

I’ve also learned that there are some advantages to having a strange name. When I register at a hotel, for example, I have little fear of being mistaken for anyone else in the known universe, unless of course my brother or one of his clan just happens to be checking in at the same exact moment. And when I Google my name, there are no doubles or facsimiles—just the genuine article.

In retrospect, I can now more fully appreciate my grandfather’s genius in creating a unique sobriquet befitting our family and his new life in the Promised Land. I only wish that I could tell my grandfather how truly proud I am of my name—even if it does sound like some kind of mineral—a true Lithuanian-American mineral.                                                                                                                         © Gene Twaronite 2012

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Gene's photos 10-3-13 008Welcome to my writing blog. Here you will find my latest demented stuff as well as books, short stories, essays, and poems written and published over the past forty years. Please note that all material is        © Gene Twaronite and The Twaronite Zone. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.