Flash Fiction – Goodbye

For some reason, the word ‘goodbye’ popped into my head as soon as I saw this picture. And then a story about a mother and daughter grew from there.

Photo via Visualhunt.com

When I took that photo, Sierra was thinking about how to say goodbye. I understood that now. The oversized burgundy sunglasses shielded her eyes, but her lower lip drooped in the way that meant she cringed inwardly. Usually it meant I’d said something embarrassing – which seemed to happen often enough, in spite of my efforts to be a ‘cool Mom’.

Last week, when we’d taken advantage of the slanting golden light for a photo session, I thought she was merely pouting for the camera.

“We don’t need new photos already,” Sierra had complained, glancing up from her pink-cased iPhone. The silvery glitter on her nails gleamed as she scrolled. “My portfolio is fine. And Instagram is better anyway.”

“I know, but it can’t hurt to take a few more. You can put some on Instagram, too. It might be nice to post a few more before Nationals.”

She’d sighed, but that was nothing new, really. Teenagers sighed all the time. She flexed her foot en pointe and tossed her phone on the counter. Even that motion looked graceful. “Whatever. Let’s go now, then, because I have to do my barre exercises still and then I have math homework.”

“We’ll have plenty of time.” I tried to sound encouraging. “We can stop for Chinese takeout one the way home.” Even as I said it, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible, not with Nationals coming up.

Sierra rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. I can’t eat that right now.”

“I’ll make grilled vegetables and some fish,” I said, talking too fast, trying to cover my mistake.

Without her, the emptiness of the townhouse crushed in around me, and the tick of the clock echoed, knocking on my spine until I could hardly bear it. I imagined Sierra at her dad’s house, curled on the couch in the basement. I’d seen it once, when I picked her up. It was grey and soft. Maybe she’d be perched on the edge, eating pizza and laughing with her friends. She’d told me that he was letting her have a sleepover to celebrate her moving in with him.

“Are you coming back?” I remember how much I’d hated the tremor in my voice when I asked.

She lifted her hand to chew her thumbnail, a habitual nervous habit, and then dropped it again. Her lashes covered her eyes. “I don’t know. Not for a while.”

Panic bubbled in my chest, threatening to shatter. “What about Nationals? Are we still going?”

Her face scrunched up and she looked at the ground, kicking her toes against the corner of the tile. “I don’t know. No.”

The pain in my leg stabbed, sharper than the steady ache I’d been left with after a car accident smashed my bones and my own ballet dreams. I hobbled to the living room, and stared blankly at the muted TV.

Yoga for Desk People

A couple of years ago, I started doing yoga. I didn’t have any real intention to start, but the opportunity came up and my friend was also going to the class so I figured I might as well go too. Between my office day-job and my evening and weekend writing time, I spend an awful lot of time sitting at a desk, so any chance to stretch and move needs to be taken.

I loved the class, and I’m still doing yoga a couple times a week now, two years on. I’ve even managed to reach a point where I can have a decent session on my own at home. (My previous attempts ended with my mind going blank on what poses to do after about five minutes). Over time, I’ve become stronger and more flexible – not that I’ll be doing any crazy pretzel moves, but I can reach poses that I couldn’t at first. I’m better at those long, slow breaths than I used to be.

But it’s the mental benefits of yoga that surprised me the most. I never thought I would be a meditative person. I’m always thinking of plot holes and making up dialogue in my head and wondering what to cook etc. I certainly haven’t perfected the ability to let my mind enter a blank, quiet state, but improvement comes with time there, too. I find that regular yoga practise helps me to stay calm and focused. It can also re-energize and help me to shift gears between the very different worlds of my office job and slipping my mind back into the historical setting of the novel I’m currently writing. As an added bonus, I’ve also noticed it’s easier not to stress out over little things, like traffic.

Since I clearly recommend yoga, I thought I’d share my three favourite gentle stretches here, which are particularly useful for if you’ve been sitting at a desk all day. I’m not a yoga instructor though, so I’ve kept it to fairly simple stretches. I don’t want anyone to get hurt! I included additional links for each for added explanation.

Photo via Visualhunt

Arms and Shoulders

Stretch your arms as if you’re a cactus. Elbows bent at ninety degrees, fingertips pointing toward the sky. Look upward, stretching your neck and taking a slight back bend if that feels good (only go as far as it feels like it’s helping, there’s no need to force yourself deeper). It’ll open up your chest by pressing your shoulder blades toward each other. It’s especially helpful if you’ve been hunched over a mouse or keyboard all day. Take a deep breath and feel how much more open your chest and lungs are. This link has some further description.

Next, bring your arms forward as if you’re hugging someone, wrapping your arms around an invisible person (keep hands about face height or a little lower), right hand stacked on top of left, and round your neck and shoulders forward as well. It’s a gentle stretch between your shoulder blades.

Repeat steps 1 and 2, switching with hand is on top during the ‘hug’ part. You could easily do this one at your desk, if you’re not shy about any co-workers possibly seeing you. (The next two are better to do at home).

Low back and legs

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.  Bending at the hips, move into a forward fold, trying to press your stomach to your thighs. It’s okay to bend your knees – in fact, it’s easier to start that way to deepen the fold. It’s a good stretch for your low back. Do whatever feels comfortable with your arms; rest fingertips on the ground, gently grasp the back of your ankles, or clasp your elbows and rock gently from side to side. Hold for a minute or two, as long as it feels comfortable. If desired, you can gradually straighten your legs to extend the stretch into your hamstrings as well.

This link has a photo and some further description, while this one shares some more information on the benefits.

Legs

Lie down on the floor (use a blanket or a towel if the floor is too hard and you don’t have a yoga mat) and scoot as close to the wall as possible. You’re going to be lifting your legs up, resting them against the wall. It’s easier to start sideways, so your legs are parallel to the wall, and then inch closer as you lift the legs into the air, letting them rest against the wall. Feet can be touching, side by side, or you can stretch them further apart if that feels better. Keep your feet flexed so your toes sort of point toward your shins. Rest here for a minute or two, however long feels good. This one is also very nice to do before bed. It’s very calming.

More description and benefits at this link.

Bonus – eyes

If, like me, you spend way too many hours per day staring at a computer screen, it’s good to stretch your eyes once in a while too. Gentleness is the key here though. Let your eyes rest, unfocused, for a minute before starting the stretch.

Sit straight and raise your gaze upward, sweeping to the right, down, and back up, so that you do a full circumference of looking all around without moving your head. Try to move your eyes smoothly. Do this a few times, then switch directions, so you go to the left first for the second set.

Next, stretch your arm out in front of you, thumb up. Stare at your thumb while you slowly bring your hand all the way to touch your nose, keeping your gaze focused. Do this about ten times. Switch hands partway through if your arm gets tired.

Lastly, make sure you rest your eyes for a minute, letting them gently drift closed or stay unfocused before going straight back to another screen.

Check out this link for more details as well.

Happy Stretching! And make sure to do some deep breaths as well. Try to count to three for a big inhale, and then slowly exhale for a count of five. Doing that for even a minute really helps ease stress and reset focus.

Photo via Visual Hunt

 

And stay tuned for a new Bad Decisions in History next week!

 

Flash Fiction – Whispers

Now that it’s finally spring, I wrote a winter story for some reason. Still, it’s a pretty picture and I loved the idea of hearing eerie whispers in this setting.

 

His legs ached as he plodded forward, snow churning around his shins. Every gasping lungful of air squeezed his chest, and the exhales frosted his glasses. He focused on the nearest crooked pine, determined to pass it, and the next, each a landmark of laborious progress. The effort frustrated him, though it’d been his idea to go outside. His weakness felt unavoidable, almost appropriate, because it matched the stagnant crush of his repetitive days.

He was breaking that pattern, though, so it made sense that it hurt. Breaking something meant jagged pieces, cracked foundations. Painful rearranging. The thought unfurled a burst of energy and he charged forward in a cloud of snow. This was a good workout, if nothing else. After everything his sister said about nature and healing – well, it made sense to her; she did meditative yoga, too. The idea sounded dumb to him. And yet, here he was, voluntarily freezing and sweating at the same time, stumbling around in the dark.

Reaching the top of a swelling hill, he lurched to a halt. The heavy stillness of the clearing helped ease his breath. A hissing sound skated through the air, and he whirled, heart leaping. Only the friendly silhouettes of the trees circled, nothing else. A flicker of movement lifted his gaze, and he saw the sky, painted red and green. Mesmerized, he watched the colours sway across the stars and realized with an awed pang that the noise poured from the sky. The auroras crackled and whistled. Goosebumps prickled his skin.

It was just the sky, and it wasn’t. It was vast and cold but vital. The moment burned, imprinted on his bones, echoing through the trek home and through every step tomorrow. Just like hiking past the trees, the small milestones could make him free.


Here’s a link to a video if you want to hear the eerie sound of the northern lights.

 

Flash Fiction – Letters

I felt drawn to this beautiful, evocative photograph as soon as I saw it – the letters could contain so many secrets! The story that resulted ended up a little darker than I expected, though.

Photo via Visual hunt

The effort of moving the massive oak desk leaves me winded, with a dew of sweat on my forehead. Even with its drawers emptied, it wasn’t easy to drag its bulk sideways. It’s easy to imagine that the ancient desk was here before the house, that the walls of this study were propped up around it. It’s at least as old as the house; the soaring bird silhouette of the vineyard’s logo, designed by my great-grandfather, is scratched onto one corner.

I turn my attention to the loose floor board, the reason I’d needed to move the desk aside. It creaks as I prod it with my finger, but seems simple enough to hammer back into place. Small maintenance for century-old house.  The board resists the claw of the hammer, until I use both hands to lift and straighten it. An entire foot-square section of floor lifts up instead, hinging like a jaw over a gaping mouth. In shock, I nearly drop the hammer.

The small wooden box fills up the hollow space under the hidden trap door. I carry it carefully to the desk, and my fingers fumble over the latch. The papery smell of old books ghosts through the air, carrying a whiff of dust and a tinge of almonds. It isn’t books inside, though. Not exactly. Gently, I spread the contents out on the desk. An old diary, photographs of the vineyard in its first years, back when the California wineries were all new, and a packet of letters bound with crumbling black thread.

Fascinated, I pour a glass of wine and sit down at that sprawling desk, first examining the photographs. The binding of the diary threatens to dissolve under the lightest touch, and I must turn the pages very slowly. The string fastening the letters snaps under the barest pressure of my fingertips, and the letters themselves turn out to be the most illuminating of all, once I manage to decipher the twirls of faded brown ink.

My neck aches, and the clock chimes an echo of hours passed. One sip of ruby wine remains in my glass, which seems fitting. I swirl the glass idly, watching the crimson droplets scatter in the golden lamplight. One last taste – if I share the contents of the hidden packet, it would be the last vintage I bottled, the last produced by the vineyard under my name. The details of these papers would transfer everything to the overlooked but true heirs of the vineyard’s legacy.

I drink that mouthful. Against my dry tongue, it tastes bitter as old family secrets.

Replacing the floorboard cubbyhole is easy. I hammer it all the way down, so it can’t be lifted again, its hollow space, now empty, hidden forever. My head throbs when I lug the desk back into place. As I shove the packet of sepia-toned papers into the fireplace, the old book smell sweetens to vanilla, mingling with smoke and the sour emergence of a chemical odour, probably from the photographs. That bittersweet perfume lingers in my nostrils even when the ashes break to dust under the fire poker.

Flash fiction – Magic

This flash fiction piece is pretty short, less than 400 words. This photo made me think of magic – how could it not?

Photo via Visual Hunt

Photo via Visual Hunt

The scrape of curtain hooks sliding open provides scant warning before a shard of sunlight pierces the room. And my head. Eyes squinching closed against the red-bloom of light burning along my eyelids, I burrow my face into the pillow and resist the tickle of a lurking sneeze.

“Mom.” Molly’s whisper is soft, more soothing than the brash sunlight.

I crack one eyelid open. Her lower lip is tucked between her teeth, gnawing worriedly. “Dad said to let you sleep, but I brought you something.” Her small fingers curl around a white saucer, balancing a cup. “It will make you feel better.”

“Thank you, sweetie.” Sleep would make me feel better, dark nothingness to temporarily erase my aching temples, the parchment feel of my feverish skin. Sleep let me drift to a place where my sinuses weren’t bruises tracing the shape of my cheeks. “I’ll drink it when I wake up.” I make a kissing sound for her, helplessly drifting back against the pillow.

“No, please drink it now. It’s not too hot. I checked.” She places the cup on the bedside table with a quiet chink of glass. “You have to drink it all.” The desperation of her tone reminds me we’d just finished reading Ella Enchanted at bedtimes, and the story involved a fairy who could make curing soups. Always imaginative, Molly had loved it.

“It’s special tea,” Molly insists. “It will make you better, but you have to believe.” She stares at me. “Do you?”

My elbows ache as I dig them into the mattress and heave myself upright. Thankfully, the cup appears absent of any mysterious potion-like additions. I can’t smell ginger, but its taste heats my tongue as I inhale the steam.  I have to say something to appease Molly. The tea is thoughtful, and there’s something wondrous in her childlike belief in magic.

“Yes.” I lean close to the cup. The sunlight reflects in the golden surface of the tea. “I believe.” I imagine the steam drifts like spell smoke, wafting like clouds across a dawn sky. The sun would pierce through them, washing away the heavy moon. A flock of birds scatters, soaring with freedom, the whole world open to them. In an ephemeral, fever-dizzy moment, I see it all. Molly watches me with wide eyes.

 

Memory between Food and Literature

Sometimes, I get a craving for a fancy cup of hot chocolate and it’s all Marie Antoinette’s fault.

Sure, this might seem a little trivial compared to all the other blames heaped at her feet, and since she died almost two centuries before I was even born, it’s obviously a fairly indirect connection. But in my research for The Wardobe Mistress, I found that it was Marie Antoinette’s daily routine to start off her day with either a cup of coffee or chocolate, the latter often infused with orange blossom water.

I thought that sounded very luxurious. Imagine having a rich cup of hot chocolate, delicately flavoured with a hint of orange, brought to you while you lounged in bed or the bath, instead of rushing around at the crack of dawn, trying to get to your day job on time. I’d definitely prefer the first option.

Hot chocolate fit for a queen

When I found a dainty gold teacup and saucer at an antique shop shortly after, I couldn’t resist buying it. Now when I’m feeling fancy, I can sip hot chocolate (usually not with orange though, it turns out orange blossom water is not that easy to find) and it always reminds me of Marie Antoinette.

My example is quite specific to me, I think, but it’s not uncommon for a strong link between certain foods and works of literature. I’m sure I can’t be the only one who thinks of Narnia when Turkish delight is mentioned, or recalls the horror of Mrs. Havisham’s wedding cake when someone mentions Great Expectations.

Sometimes it’s the other way around, when a food inspires a literary work. Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (also translated as Remembrance of Things Past), was inspired by the taste of a madeleine with tea, which awakened his memories and transported him back to recollections of his childhood in a French provincial town. If not for that madeleine, In Search of Lost Time might never have been written.

Beautifully scalloped madeleines

Speaking of madeleines, I’ve always imagined that lembas bread from The Lord of the Rings had a similar airy texture and light flavour, albeit with more nourishment. I was a bit disappointed when the movie depiction of them seemed a lot harder and crunchier.

I’d forgotten about them until now, when I was brainstorming food and book combinations, but on the exceedingly rare occasion something reminds me of pickled limes, it makes me think of Little Women, because Amy longed to have a pickled lime because all the other girls had them. I have no idea what a pickled lime is, though. It’s certainly not the cool treat that all the kids covet anymore!

Does anyone else have a memory connection between a food and a book? There are enough fabulous meals in literature that someone once ate only foods from books for dinner for a week. Now there’s an adventure for foodies and literature buffs!

 

 

 

Flash Fiction – Three Days

This month’s flash fiction is called ‘Three Days’. As soon as I saw this photo, I knew it would be a fun flash fiction prompt, but the story had a mind of its own and went in a different direction than I expected. I thought each rock would represent a goal achieved, or maybe a special person, and instead they turned out to be mistakes. It’s okay though – a struggle before a triumph makes the victory even better.

white-rocks

Photo via Visualhunt.com

The flat white stone felt smooth against her palm, its rounded edges curling into her fingers. She squeezed it until her knuckles ached, tension straining through her hand. It felt good to let it go, the rush of blood tingling, the faint pulse in her fingertips with the rhythm of her heartbeat.  Nestling the rock flat against the sand, she reached for the second one, repeating the process. It dropped into place on top of the first stone with a soothing click. She savoured the final, heavy sound of the third rock settling into place. Her fingers throbbed, but that was fitting. She deserved that pain, and worse. Each pure white stone represented a mistake, something horrible and hurtful she’d said. The first two comments had burst from her fuzzy mouth in a wine-reeking fug, and she’d laughed, only curling with shame hours later, when remembrance stabbed at her temples. The third made her cheeks burn in memory. Sober and desperately hunting through the cabinet for a bottle, and only finding empty ones. Whirling on Tracey as she wandered into the kitchen, pink streaked hair half-covering her confused face. Lashing her humiliation into misdirected anger, the cruel words spilling like the last drops of wine as she knocked the bottles over with a clatter.

That was over now. Three days sober, one for each painful memory. A white stone for each, stacked into one, a tower of change. As she splayed her sore hand over her crossed knee and turned her face toward the sprawl of the sea, the answering leap of freedom surpassed the ache in her knuckles, the nausea flickering through her belly. Three days done, the rest looming as unending and restless as the waves. Just as harsh, just as beautiful.