Sprinkles for Max: A Wing-Feather Fable

Fables-43

There were at least fifty coffee shops inside the city, and Max knew every one. If he heard about a new café, read the advert in the paper, he couldn’t rest until he’d tried it. He’d grab his Suze’s hand and they’d be off, a fedora and a pillbox hat, old folks on adventures.

He’d taken her to artsy joints with painted stools, where the waitresses had more metal in their faces than a scrap yard. There were yuppity salons with complicated menus, and bolt-hole dives, sludge in cups marked up with lipstick. Once, he’d brought her to a shop where every brew was made from beans extracted out of poop — elephant droppings, cat turd, or the crap of rare, endangered birds. Together, they had tried it all.

Now the sound of “widower” sat heavy on his tongue, and coffee wouldn’t wash it. He still went to all the shops — she might be keeping tabs on him — but everything was grey in taste and scent and texture. Max was never thirsty.

And then the Daily Grind appeared, a block from Max’s building. The trouble was, he’d never seen it, though the shop looked well-established. Hell, it looked as old as sin. And the strangest part of all? As soon as Max walked in, they hired him, right there on the spot. Before he knew it, he was in an apron, carrying a tray and taking orders with a fuchsia pen.

The clientele looked stunned. Each patron mumbled that the shop had just appeared. Out of the blue. They craned their necks to see the murals on the walls, the fairytales and myths — a wolf, a firebird, a castle, phoenix, unicorns and mice. The ceiling chimed with small glass balls, and the floor was made of marbles, pressed together into patterns.

The kitchen pumped out cakes and pastries, café mocha, cappuccinos and good old-fashioned brew, all with the flavor of happiness distilled, tailor-made for every heartache, nostalgia or inertia. Max delivered each libation and confection and then watched the slumping faces lift, transform, alight.

By the time the shop closed down at midnight, he felt as if he’d worked for years, shuffling through someone else’s dream come true. He collapsed into a chair decked out in feathers, and put his head into his heads. No Suze. Not now. Not ever.

When Max looked up, he had a cupcake and a mug, set out on a doily. The cupcake had a lot of sprinkles. The coffee was bright blue. Max shrugged. He took a bite, a sip. He scratched his head. The corners of his mouth twitched up. The cook gave him a wink. “Coming back tomorrow?” Max nodded, feeling lighter by the minute. When he put on the old fedora and headed for the door, he could swear he felt the pressure of Suze’s fingers on his forearm. Coffee really was a marvel. Outside the Daily Grind, the city caught his chuckle, like a swirl of cinnamon on foam.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

The Stone-Bound: A Wing-Feather Fable

Fables-42

They chose the former cable building because it was already wired for alarms. At first, the sirens howled every night, hours of screeching panic that shattered dreams and made a city of insomniacs. The noise was so hellish, so rending, that hospitals were deluged with fatal heart attacks. Babies born within those months have a peculiar tonal deafness. They are terrible musicians, prone to tics and schizophrenic mood disorders.

The sirens slowed, then stopped, once the executions started. By the time the jails were empty, swept clean and disinfected, the noise was just a bitter memory no one wished to claim. And if the city had completely lost its capacity to dream, no one talked about that either. No one talked about the Portal.

They were expected to forget, but Roslyn Withers did nothing but remember. She worked inside the building, Level One cafeteria staff, mopping floors and swiping tables with a noxious disinfectant. Her mother’s idea, from start to end. There were a lot of children of defectors in the building’s lower ranks, trying, like Roslyn, or her mother, to scrub the tarnish off their names. They all passed each day beneath the Guardians. Roslyn wondered if the others felt those eyes like bullets, aiming for the slightest tremble in the knees.

Did they know she could remember? Worse yet, had everyone else forgotten, truly, the world before the purge? All the history books described a time of chaos, promiscuity and indulgence dressed up in the guise of freedom. Too many choices, too much diversity and variation. The Guardians came and trimmed it all, cut away the random and the fluid, sent the ebb and flow of “freedom” to a place they conjured and contained, the world beyond the Portal.

(Roslyn heard the pulse of it, the steady, throbbing hum of exiled opportunity. It must be in her blood, she thought. After all, her father . . . well, he had failed like all the rest, jailed and hung, bodies swinging from the gates. )

Now, everyone was blessed with an ordered, tidy, metric life. (Pale, she thought, and shriveled.) People understood their place. No more striving, multiplicity, or indecision. No more pesky choices, like bees along the nape.

Roslyn wondered why they didn’t simply close the gate, seal it up with mortar, blast the opening to dust. Why leave the weak, the wounded, open to temptation? But, then again, she was her father’s daughter. Roslyn understood. This was the final, quiet stage of culling, a lure to catch the ones who are unwilling to forget.

Once or twice a year, alarms still split the night. She waits for them to stop completely. She waits for a silence that is definite and smug. In her dreams, she sees the Guardians complacent, unaware that she is coming. In her dreams, she splits the surface of the portal like an overripe and rotten fruit. She is drenched and nearly drowned in everything released. In her dreams, she sees the stone eyes weep.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

Star Dust: A Wing-Feather Fable

Fables-41 Aileen Murphy’s brother was stone-cold sober when he lost his left hand and his faith in the machinery of a fortune cookie plant. The sobriety, if nothing else, was entirely Aileen’s fault. Seamus was an amiable enough drunk, never fought or whored. Deep in pints, he bought his sister roses, knock-off Hermes scarves, and a white mouse in a gilded cage. It was the mouse that forced her hand, red eyes and midnight chitters. Their mother always said that nothing good could come of rodents. Aileen had to act.

Later, she wished she’d never lit those candles at St. Vincent’s, whispering her brother’s name three times into the flames. The miracle came quickly, Seamus off the drink and even wearing ties to work. He’d gotten her the job at Lucky’s, half a life ago, flipping small, soft pancakes from griddle to conveyor, watching as they vanished toward the plates that pressed them into butterflies. Seamus worked the batter vats, lifting, pouring, mixing, the muscles of his arms like seams within a rock.

They were the remnants of a family, sole survivors of a quiet dying-off. Each night, Aileen pressed her ear down to the floorboards and listened to the hollow clink of bottles. Once the miracle occurred, she was gratified by silence. It was hard to not feel smug.

Three weeks sober, then three months, and Seamus started reading brochures from the night school. He was buoyant on the line, and management took notice. Aileen felt their mother smiling down at her from Heaven.

Once, when she was barely out of diapers, her Da had pointed at the stars and described to her a world in constant motion, spinning planets, twirling suns, a vast, incomprehensible ballet. This is what she thinks of on the morning Seamus nearly dies. How many times before he fixed the line with Guinness in his veins.

In her memory, it happens in slow motion, his fingers in the gears, the awful stutter-grind and crack, a weight released, a massive lurch and bellow, fragmented bone, a slick of blood, strings of ligament and muscle.

In reality, the shearing-off was quick, a nearly-instant snap. The sirens keened, red lights swirled in puddles, and the paramedics carted him away like potatoes in a famine.

Seamus lived, but lost the hand that had delivered roses, scarves, a mouse. It was not what she intended, when she bent her knees to pray.

Back inside the shelter of the church, Aileen noticed shadows reaching, fingers splayed into the light. Stained glass glittered like a coded map of truth. Arches rose and crossed. Seamus sat beside her in the pews, quiet, sober, bandaged. There were so many pieces of this world that she didn’t understand — the hollowness of bird bones, the single-mindedness of ants, fortunes cast inside a butterfly of pancake. Miracles and mice. It was all fallout from the stars, she saw, bits of straw and sweepings from the dance floor, small confetti sifting, music, dusted from the skies.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

Andrew Windershins Finds His Talent: A Wing-Feather Fable

Fables-40

Andrew Windershins had failed at everything he tried. Even as an infant, he was a total disappointment. While other mothers bragged of babies sleeping through the night and gobbling their mush, poor Mrs. Windershins could only wring her hands and bite her lip. Andrew caterwauled from dusk to dawn and tried to snort his gruel. Violet asked her sister, “Do you think there’s something wrong?” but the sanguine Polly said, “He simply hasn’t found his talent.”

Mrs. Windershins was patient. But Andrew didn’t find his talent in the nursery where he jumbled all the crayons and spilled the paint, or in kindergarten where he consistently confused the letter B with 7s and tried to eat the blocks. First grade was no improvement. In fact, his entire elementary education was a mulligan of missives from exasperated teachers and clocks that somehow sprung their gears whenever Andrew was around. “It’s an unmitigated ruin,” said Mrs. Windershins. “Don’t exaggerate,” was Polly’s answer. “Wait until he finds his talent.”

After high school — a hash of nettled girls, botched chemistry experiments, and rank humiliation — Andrew tried to join the gypsies. They wouldn’t take him. “Our insurance premiums are through the roof. We can’t adopt a proven menace.” Luckily, the circus was less inclined to wade through public records. Beneath the big striped tent, Andrew tried — and failed — at acrobatics, clowning, and elephant waste removal. Finally, in a fit of desperation, the ringmaster tossed a bucket full of balls at him. Imagine his astonishment when Andrew — Hopeless Andrew! — started juggling like a pro.

“I told you so,” Aunt Polly murmured. He was twenty-one and an overnight sensation. Headlining every show in far-flung, exotic cities, Andrew juggled not just balls, but tangerines and lollipops, wicker chairs and ottomans, Hummel figurines and tightly-swaddled children. No object was too difficult for his gobsmacking pitch and twirl.

By thirty, Andrew Windershins was bored. “After the cactus and the armadillo, what’s the point?” he complained to his mother and his aunt. “Blather,” said Polly, “you just haven’t found your bête noire.” Andrew shrugged while juggling his lunch, taking bites of Shepherd’s Pie at every pass.

When the circus reached the Mirrored City, Andrew found his beast. In a metropolis built entirely of reflections, the population is not easily impressed. Andrew lobbed fire balls and scimitars before a bored and blasé crowd. He tossed sea urchins and hedgehogs, priceless violins and pythons — to polite, restrained applause.

It was nursery school all over, but without the blocks and paint. When they failed to marvel at a brace of beehives spun in tandem with forked lightening, Andrew set his talent loose upon the Mirrored City. Slowly, colonnades and cornices began to rise and spin. They were joined by fountains, gates, and stairways, and the audience in their seats. Andrew Windershins juggled up the City, swirling in his hands.

Now, he’s got it,” Polly said, and beside her, old Ma Windershins smiled from ear to ear.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

Broken Hearted: A Wing-Feather Fable

Fables-39

“Ain’t nothin’ easy ’bout fixin’ broken hearts.”

Poor advice, but it was all that Grandma Lucy gave her when she died. That, and Spangle’s Heart Repair, the family business. Grandma Lucy had been sour, but that didn’t mean she had a market on the truth. Natalie picked up a wrench, set out to prove her wrong.

She’d grown up inside the wheels and gears. She knew the many ways that hearts can break and how to grease the chains, replace the shattered bearings, polish off the rust. Still, she eased in, slowly, mending hearts that weren’t much more than knocked about, no substantial damage. There were spurned accountants, teenage girls crushed out on teachers, boys who lost their hamsters. Natalie tinkered with the casings and the pins. “Good as new,” she said. They were. She built a reputation.

The challenges got harder. Widowers came, peering through the grimy window, lifting their fedoras. There were runaways and vagrants, soldiers who had “Dear John” letters crumpled in their pockets, nuns who’d lost the sight of God, bakers weakened by remorse, pianists sunk in sorrow. Tough cases, every one — and yet they each left whistling, healed. Word began to spread. Customers came flocking. Natalie often winked at Grandma Lucy’s ghost, transparent in the mirror.

She fell in love, and more than once. Eventually, she married. And yet, with all of that, her own heart stayed untroubled, like a lake without a ripple. She had a child, a daughter marked with wild hair and sparkling eyes. Natalie named her Sunshine, and took to mothering with ease. All those years repairing hearts had set her up to soothe the early hurts of childhood, skinned knees and purple bruises, the cracks of minor disappointment. So many injuries could be fixed with kisses, a Band-Aid, a lollipop or cookie.

And Sunshine was a natural, gifted. Tucked beneath her mother’s wing, she learned to disassemble heartache, tally up love’s follies, replace the engine oil and fuses.  Natalie was proud, replete, and so, when she felt the first awful, wrenching pull, she didn’t recognize the cause. She didn’t know her heart was breaking.

Sunshine had become. . . less sunny. She tripped and fell more often, broke places that a bandage couldn’t reach. Her fingers shook, and her spark forgot its language. Sunshine . . . .wasn’t, and Natalie could not save her, no matter how she bent herself, contorted, thrashed or prayed.

“Ain’t nothin’ easy ’bout fixin’ broken hearts.” Grandma Lucy squinted from the mirror. Natalie didn’t need to ask her what she meant. Her own heart was a lake that roiled, thrashing, inconsolable, bereft.

The fact is, she should have known. Broken mothers never came into the shop, never asked for her repairs, never splayed their shattered mainsprings. They held tightly to their wounded children, hands pared down to iron bones, no matter. They did not release the broken hearts that rived them to the core.

Natalie dropped her wrench. She took hold of Sunshine, and she
did
not
let
go.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here