Story: Blaze of Dreams

My long short story Blaze of Dreams was published in The Oxford American, The Southern Magazine of Good Writing, in 1995, when I was using my maiden name, Tremewan.  The OA is still a vibrant magazine with a great online presence.  It helps broaden the view South. I’m in the process of developing Blaze of Dreams into a full length novel.  Set in 1978, it’s based on my own experiences after developing epilepsy at age 16, which became a turning point for the better in my life, even though it was a rough road.  I believe having to deal with a serious and complicated health condition saved me from the alcoholism that ran in my family and gave me a way to imagine a better life for myself. Here is a slightly edited version of the original story.
The published story was illustrated by the wonderful artwork of Micheal Anthony Donato, which you can see better in the gallery at his website. 
Even though it’s about a teenager, it’s a story for adults. Although, so many of us were adults long before we reached 18, it’s not always clear where to draw the line.  I do hope to remain true to the real struggles of young girls, the ways they navigate the confusion of our culture and develop their own powerful spirits. 

Blaze of Dreams
By Joy Corcoran
            For a brief time, during my sixteenth year, I had a blaze of dreams so vivid I was convinced I’d become a visionary.  I lay down in my bed and a goddess emerged from the sheets and put flames in my heart.  Tigers stood on their hind legs and embraced me.  I wandered in elaborate and ornate castles where stone rooms expanded infinitely before me and doors collapsed in my hand.
            I didn’t know at the time I had nocturnal epilepsy.  My nightly travels were auras, neurological foreshadowings of oncoming seizures.  I thought I was becoming like the oracles I’d read about in history class.  My dreams were as fantastic as the posters of Buddha Dreaming my father hung in his room before he left.  I thought I’d be the recipient of insights that would let me, finally, understand the chaos around me.
            When I woke from these dreams a thin, rigid ache creased the center of my head.  The sheets, rank with urine and sweat, assaulted my nose.  This, I suppose, should have been evidence that I wasn’t entering a better world but descending deeper into this one.  I thought I was becoming a visionary because my first aura lied to me.
            In those first moments of sleep a woman who had my features – only she was radiant, with wider eyes, fuller lips and hair that curled gracefully around her face – took my hand in hers.  She wore a vapor of silver lace and told me she was my true mother.  Your time with Inez and her children is to give you wisdom, to teach you mortal frailty.  Soon you will fly out of here.  Through your words, houses will fall and mountains will crumble. 
            I shook with pleasure and then I just shook.  I woke and it was Inez, my mother, shaking me awake.  Her brassy hair in pink curlers, her face pinched against the smell of my sheets, she said, “We ain’t had this problem since you was a baby.  Get these sheets in the wash and your butt in the shower.”  The light reflected in her glasses and glared directly into my eyes.  My head pounded.  “You slept through the alarm and if you don’t hurry, you’ll miss the bus!”
            Her shrill bitching got me to the bus, to school, where I sat, numb, through the dull haze of History, English and Math.  It was well into evening before I could think straight, before I could remember my dream and realize I’d been visited by a goddess, my real mother, and that soon I’d leave Inez, her drinking, her boyfriends, and her piercing nasal voice.
            I went to work on my looks.  I painted dark, slanted lines around my eyes.  I chewed on my lips to make them fuller.  I combed and combed my hair to get the unruly curls to fall more gracefully around my face.  I put on a white gauze dress I found in Inez’s closet.  I floated around the house trying to figure out what I was supposed to learn about human frailty.
            “You look like one of them flower children,” hooted Elmer, Inez’s tattooed, orb-bellied, greasy-headed boyfriend.  Inez squinted and laughed, but I knew she couldn’t see me.  She never wore her glasses around men.  I figured that’s why all her boyfriends were so ugly to behold.
            Preston, my boyfriend, was extraordinary to behold.  “Wow, you look great!” he said when I floated up to him in my loose white pants and blousy white shirt.  He’d never seen me in eyeliner, or any make-up for that matter.  I didn’t tell him right away about my vision.  I didn’t know what to say and I wasn’t sure he’d understand.
            He’d laugh, probably.  He had a chortling, boisterous laugh that I loved.  I never heard anything like it, so pure and delighted, so in control.  When I stood beside him, I was elevated.  Everybody loved Preston, loved his laughter.  At my old school, that kind of laughter would be directed at me.
            There’s a way of hiding who you are that makes you popular.  Girls with bright, eager eyes and quick, sweet smiles were like that, even if they’d been taking deep drags of cigarettes and crying in the bathroom just minutes before.  They smirked at me as they would a child, my face mottled with frustration, unable for days to get my lips to curl into a smile.
            That was my old school.  When I started at Central, I was new.  I had thinned in the middle and blossomed on the edges.  Preston plucked me from the gaggle of girls before I had a chance to be pegged as weird.  I was under him in no time at all, all tongues and yearning.  I fit around him like a suede glove.
            I was crazy about him, his spindly legs and his little round butt, his face that opened up in laughter, his long knobby fingers that slipped so easily under your clothes.  I knew if I spoke in a loving voice, if I listened carefully and closely to him, he’d love me forever.
            And when I became a visionary, when the bud of my heart flowered into magnificence, he’d worship me.  He didn’t know about me yet.  He couldn’t stop kissing me long enough to learn I wanted power more than anything.
            I hated the rambling life my mother had taken to after my father left.  I thought at the time she could have kept Dad if she listened to him harder, if when he came home late she could have said, Glad to see you, instead of, Where the hell have you been?
            My brother, Marty, and my sister, Brenda, left with my dad and I couldn’t blame them.  They were older and Dad seemed so cool.  He got fired from the pickle factory for letting his hair grow long.  He took to drumming on the week-end for the house-band at the Starlight Cruise.  Hippie music, Inez said with disgust.  The Starlight Cruise was so hip, kids my age bragged about sneaking in.  Daddy wasn’t making much money, but he made friends, especially girls – flushed, laughing girls not much older than my sister and me.  Mama drank Blue Ribbon beer when he went out Friday night and had plenty of bottles to sling at him when he came home.
            The result was he moved in with a young girl named Miracle.  She had long, black hair and wore love beads, tank tops and no bra.  When he came to pack his clothes, Inez chased him all around the neighborhood with a dinky pistol.  Somebody called the police.  They helped my dad out of a tree but arrested Inez – took her to jail despite her tears and even though the pistol turned out to be a cigarette lighter.
            Miracle didn’t expect her drummer to arrive with three teenagers in tow, but she cooked us something called tofu goulash and let us eat hash brownies for dessert, so we were very quiet.  Mama came the next morning fresh from jail and found us all eating cinnamon rolls and drinking espresso from Miracle’s thimble sized cups.  Inez, her hair a lopsided cone of knots, tried to persuade us to come home with her.
            “I’m going to stay with Dad,” Brenda said.  She wore a tank top and shorts she borrowed from Miracle.
            “I’m going to stay with Dad,” Marty said.  He wore cut-offs and was laid out on a lime-green beanbag chair, lips glistening with cinnamon frosting.
            Inez took each announcement as if it were a physical blow, grunting and grasping her chest.  I sat on the floor, next to the table, which was really an industrial wire spool.  Miracle didn’t have enough chairs for us all.  Before I could make my intentions known, Inez yanked me up. 
            “Amanda stays with me!”  she shrieked.  “She’s too young for your hippie friends to poison.”
            Dad laughed at her.  “You should let her decide –“
            At the same time Miracle said, “Take the others too.”
            Miracle and Dad looked at each other in a moment of love and hate.  An argument immediately absorbed them.  I heard their voices rising as Inez dragged me down the rickety, wooden stairs from Miracle’s carriage-house apartment.
            It wasn’t long before we lost our house.   Dad said he didn’t have to help pay our rent since he was stuck with two of the children.  Mama clerked in a drugstore, but started missing work.  She drank in honky-tonks, where they played music more to her liking.  Different boyfriends brought her home all summer.  They helped her sell of what few pieces of furniture we had.  Then she met Elmer, who helped us get a new place just ahead of the eviction. 
            Our new place was closer to downtown, where nobody cared if people lived in unfit housing.  It was a rankled down, three-room A-frame with spongy floorboards that gave under your feet.  It was no house to dance in.
            “It ain’t that bad,” Elmer said, and Mama smiled up at him, seeing it all with her glasses off.
            The tiger fur tasted salty and cottony.  I buried my face in his chest as we waltzed to “The Stars of Loredo.”  As we danced I grew larger.  The tiger’s paws slipped from the back of my neck to my waist.  His hot breath warmed my chest.  As it is in dreams, things changed instantly.  All of the sudden, I was in the castle of turtles, a swampy place where the pace slowed to that of dribbling molasses.  Jewels adorned the turtles’ shells.  They walked like men, upright, their stubby front legs replaced with Preston’s thin arms and hands with three knobby fingers.  The way is long, the way is slow, they whispered as I wandered through damp rooms, my feet chilled by the carpet of moss.  Is this the room where my mother waits?  The turtle woman smiled in her lipless, toothless way, her green skin wrinkled and warty.  Her black eyes were barely visible, but in them I saw my reflection.  She urged me through the door, but the knob turned to liquid, hot liquid.  It burned my hand and then between my legs.  I cursed her.  The rooms opened before me and I ran and ran and stumbled over a ledge and landed on the floor of my bedroom, urine, now cold, chafing my thighs.
            A college student named Clovis Barnes taught poetics at Central as part of Arts-in-the-Schools.  He assigned animal poems.  My head hurt.  My eyes watered.  “Don’t write about the physical characteristics of your animal.  Write what the animal represents to you, what feeling the animal symbolizes.  And I don’t want to see any poems about favorite kitties or puppies.”  I wrote of the turtles –
The way is long.  The way is hard.
They plot and point
All warts and wrinkles
Turtles don’t waltz
They point the way
They don’t tell you that you will fall
            Clovis read it to the class.  I blushed red in my white dress.  “This is brilliant, Amanda.  This is visionary.”  He kept me after class, stared directly into my breasts and told me to consider writing seriously.  I had no intention of taking anything seriously.  Soon I would fly out of my life, away from crisp voices telling me what to do.
            I tried to tell Preston.  I never ate lunch, afraid some warp of fat would envelop me, change me into my mother.  I sipped a soda and watched him wolf down school slop:  rubbery burgers and sodden buns, a nest of iceberg lettuce and clots of shredded potatoes called “fritter fries.”
            “Clovis says I’m a visionary.”
            “You’re certainly a vision.”  Laughter like a song.
            “I’m meant to be great.  I feel it.”  I took a deep breath and sputtered.  “I’m destined to become great – a goddess.  I’ve had a few dreams –“
            “You were a goddess last week-end.  I felt it for true!  And Friday Mom and Dad are going to see a movie so I hope to feel it again.”
            “No, really, Preston.  I’m having visions.  I’m going to be like a Greek oracle, like we read about in history, remember, who advised the gods.  I’m going to be like….”  My head pounded.  I couldn’t think what I was going to be like.  The clatter of plates and forks ricocheted in my head.
            “Sure, baby,” he said and smiled.  “You don’t look so hot.  Aunt Sally’s not coming to ruin our week-end, is she?”
            Aunt Sally was my period.  He took my hand across the gray-flecked linoleum where years of high school love were scratched into the surface.  He had an all-knowing look in his eyes and a drip of pickle relish on his chin.
            “No,” I said and smiled till my face hurt.  After lunch, I went to the school nurse for aspirin.
            I sat on my bed in the lotus position, dressed in a white robe, a white towel wrapped on my head.  I breathed deep to clear my mind, then on the outbreath, I begged for power.  With every breath, every little movement, my bed crackled, informing me I was nowhere near Nirvana.  Inez lined the mattress with a thick plastic sheet without even asking.
            “You know why,” she said when I asked her why the hell it was there.
            When you’re sixteen, you can overlook many things.  You can reshape what’s in front of you into something that will never happen.  There were images in my dreams that promised nothing and made no sense: vicious yo-yos, barking cartoons and collages of bizarre happy TV characters.  When you want to believe something, you can ignore jumbled dreams in favor of any thread of hope that runs through your life.
            When you’re sixteen you can also be mean.  Inez embarrassed me. She was hopelessly redneck and her boyfriend was married.  I spit in the bottle of Jack Daniels that Elmer left at our house.  I told Inez that Miracle made homemade biscuits every morning for Dad, Brenda and Marty, even though Brenda complained all they ever got was cold granola and soymilk.  Inez worked in a drugstore while women burned their bras and screamed into microphones.  They marched around in mini-skirts and made advances in the world, why couldn’t she?  I told her she was stupid to work where they sold laxatives and tampons.
            “Honey, I’m lucky to have a job there.  I quit school to marry your no good father.  You don’t see women like me on that damned TV.  Am I right?  Got to be twenty with big tits and a saucy mouth.  Ask your father.”
            “You could at least learn to type.”
            She swigged her beer.  “You just don’t know.”
            I begged the goddess to rescue me, breathing in, breathing out.  I didn’t know where I wanted her to take me, but somewhere, anywhere else.  When I dreamed of her again, she wore a slinky gown of brushed gold, her shoulders creamy and slight.  I kissed her feet.  She spoke to me, but her voice sounded far away, a wave of warbles.  She took my hand and I faced her and she turned into a man.  We hid from Preston who called for me outside the door.  I buckled on to an ivory sofa with the man.  He lisped, my love goddess, pushed into me, jumped up naked and ran.  The goddess returned.  Tell me when, I begged.  Soon and soon and soon, she sang.  Again I sat at her feet.  Her shoes were long, flat turtles, the turtle faces grinning and nodding, like Inez’s loving gaze at Elmer, flat and unseeing.  I started to think it might be insanity, not immortality, that had gotten hold of me.
            Dad made me visit him once a month.  I don’t think he really wanted me.  He slept all day after drumming all night.  Brenda had dropped out of school and moved in with her boyfriend.  Marty had dropped out of school and was holed up with some bikers in a gutted gas station they called a club.  It was afternoon before Miracle stumbled out of bed, round and clumsy with her first pregnancy, and vomited in the sink.
            My visit was the only way Dad could cause a flash of anger on Inez’s face.  He couldn’t make her mad about Brenda and Marty anymore.  I guess any hellhole is better than what you gave them.
            Brenda told me Miracle and Dad laughed at Inez, her beehive hair, her Tammy Wynette records.  “At first it was funny, then Miracle upped and called me and Marty white trash.  My baby isn’t going to grow up with a bunch of rednecks, she told Dad. You better get us to California before my sweet angel is born.
            They didn’t leave right away – Dad had a hard time earning money.  Plus he wanted to bug Inez, I think.  She’s still my daughter.  I believe he missed Inez, at least a little.  Inez went to work when he decided to be a hippie, but Miracle told him he’d better get more gigs because there was no way he was sitting around on his ass every night.
            I sat in their apartment alone.  I tried to have a vision, but nothing came to me.  I sat in lotus position in the beanbag chair, breathing and begging until my mouth felt papery.  The visions were of Dad with Miracle, Brenda with her boyfriend, Marty with his live hard die young tattoo, Inez with Elmer and me with nothing.  I called Preston.
            His mother and father were at a dental convention in Burlington, North Carolina.  He had to call his grandmother every morning and evening to check in, but the house was his, he said.  When I went over he led me to his room, through the valleys of dirty laundry, and nudged me into a great slurping forgetfulness.
            Since I started wearing all white, since I lined my eyes with black kohl, since I seemed distracted and moody, he’d taken to calling me goddess.  He’d grunt goddess in my ear while his hands slid all over me.  It felt good and right.  I was lonely beyond my own ability to comprehend it.  I fell asleep in his tangled bed and was visited for the last time by my goddess, the goddess of lies and mortality.
            The dream started as a Gumby cartoon.  He will walk through the wall if you want him to, but she emerged from the block of clay and grabbed my hand.  They’re after you now.  They’ll catch you if you linger.   I clutched her hand and we leapt into the clay.  I turned to claymation, tripped and disintegrated into white tear-shaped pieces, then pulled back together.  Gumby and Poky watched, their eyes enormous, their clay mouths drooped in wormy frowns.  I ran alone, the hall got longer.  A ball of fire burned in my hand.  Mother, Mother!  I called.  Inez screamed Drop the ball!  I didn’t know I had a ball, I dropped it and it exploded in my face – a blinding light and searing pain that cut through my forehead.
            A dream is usually in black and white, but not an aura.  It’s as real as the floor beneath you.  When you’re pulled out of a seizure, the real world seems more like a dream that what just happened in your head.  I slowly became aware of the paramedics.  They were jowly men, the top buttons of their navy blue uniforms squeezing their necks so that their heads looked like trapped balloons.
            “I think she’s coming to.”
            Preston was far away, dressed only in red boxers.  The red boxers were a beacon that made it all real.  I sat up straight and naked in front of crew of men I’d never seen before.
            “Easy does it,” a man said.
            “You’ve had a seizure.  We’re going to have to take you to the hospital.”
            I covered myself with the sheets.  “My clothes?”  Preston scrambled to pick them up, handed them to me, then turned his back, but not before I saw his disgusted expression.  Then I smelled the urine.  Drapes parted.  A vision appeared, real this time.  The men looked at me with pity and condescension.  I was sixteen in bed with a boy.  Not the wise and lovely goddess – if anything a sad vision, an emblem of youth gone bad.
            The realization that you aren’t in control of anything, not even your own body, can be instructive. 
            It took awhile to get my seizures under control.  Pills were doled out to me in varying amounts.  I spent the school day laying my head down in one class after another.
            They reduced the medication and I had a seizure at school.  It began with a vision of Preston reaching for me with his fine hands and it ended with a broken nose and split lip.  The electricity of my own body threw me to the floor in front of the entire tenth grade geography class.
            My mother was drunk when she arrived at the hospital.  I was hooked up to a monitor, and they had just finished a cat scan so blue and red wired glued like snakes all over my head.  Inez screamed at the nurses, “Why are you doing this to her again?”
            They tried to calm her, then ran for my doctor, but by the time he arrived, she had passed out and was snoring in the chair next to my bed.  When she woke up, she took my hand in hers and wept into the sheets.
            I came home from the hospital with a huge bottle of Dilantin.  They looked like peppermint capsules, pure white with a bright red belt.  They turned out to be the right drug for me.  They kept me contained. 
            On the day I came home I shook my bottle of Dilantin like a rattle.  I didn’t want to put it down.  Inez and I sat on the porch steps and watched the traffic speed past our house.
            “I’m not going back to school.”
            She looked at me and opened her mouth as if to argue, but stopped at sight of the bandage on my nose and the red slit on my lip. 
            “You didn’t learn a thing there anyway, except how to sleep with boys.”  She took a sip of her beer.  “Elmer called.  Said he and his wife are going on a second honeymoon.  Said it was better to end our thing and do the right thing.  He took back the car he gave me.”
            I nodded.  Mom had told him my problem while she fixed his dinner.  He said, “Epilepsy?  That’s that geek disease, ain’t it?”  Inez chucked him in the head with a can of beef stew.
            Dad hadn’t come to visit.  Brenda said he was on his way to California.
            Inez’s face drooped.  “What in the hell’s going to happen to us?”
            I thought of Preston’s face as he turned in fear and disgust, his face that hid from me all he so easily revealed before. 
            Before, before, the great before, when my dreams promised an ethereal new life.—before when he reached for me, before he avoided eye contact, his hands nested deep in his pockets.
            “Probably nothing, Mom.”
            She laughed softly to herself, took a gulp of beer, then cast the can into the yard, its contents frothing wet circles in the afternoon air.  We sat there, on the porch, not talking, not looking at each other, until it was dark and the bright lights of cars passing made us tired enough to go inside.

Story: The Little Madonnas

A short, short story, originally published by Southern Voices 2.  I often use it in my storytelling programs, too.

Update: I’ve revised and illustrated this story.  You can see the new version here:
The Little Madonnas
By Joy Corcoran
It was a hot sticky day and I was waiting for a bus that was supposed to arrive 15 minutes ago.  I wasn’t too upset.  I had my bottle of water.  It was the first of the month and I’d cashed my social security check.  I’d done some shopping and it looked like financial ends were going to meet for the month. 
The bus stop was down the street from Memphis Tech, one of those last-chance high schools.  While I waited with a crowd of others, two girls in school uniforms joined us.  I say uniforms – but they had tied their shirts above their waists and hiked up the skirts so they showed plenty of leg.  They came cussing, gossiping and laughing.  Bling was the style that year, and the girls were wearing their hair in elaborate sculptures of swoops and curls studded with gold and silver combs, and fake diamond barrettes.  Their hair was piled so high it almost hid the fact they hadn’t grown to their full height.
They were each burdened with a massive backpack for their school work, a massive purse for their appearance work, and a big pink sling to carry their babies.  Tiny baby girls nestled in the slings, each with pierced ears and pink ribbons tied artfully around their sweet bald heads.  They looked serene, rocked in the bough of their flashy, trashy mothers.
I rolled my eyes at the other people waiting for the bus.  We all shared that sneer people tend to develop as they age – like an allergic reaction to the youth of today.
Time passed.  It got hotter.  Then to make matters worse, a crazy lady dodged traffic and crossed the street to join us.  She cussed at the cars as they swerved to avoid hitting her.  She was dressed in such thin clothes you could see every bony contour of her famine thin body. 
She carried a plastic shopping bag filled with rags, cans and something jingly.  She quieted when she got to our stop and so did we.  She smelled of dumpsters, alleys, and urban decay.  I looked down to avoid eye contact and saw her long brown toenails sprouted through her thin canvas shoes.
“Anybody here got a green dollar?”
I had plenty green dollars but wasn’t about to open my wallet in front of that woman – or those girls, for that matter.  I looked down the street and tried to conjure up the bus that just wouldn’t come.
“All I want is a green dollar.  I got change for it.”  She flashed a snaggled smile.
In unison, the girls shifted their baby slings to the side and their purses forward.  They both opened their wallets and each took out a dollar.
“Oh, I just need one,” the woman laughed.  She reached deep into her bag and drew up a handful of coins.  She picked up a few then moved the coins from one hand to the other, trying to count them out but not quite able to.
One of the girls took the woman’s filthy hand and said, “It’s alright, ma’am, I can count it for you.”  She picked out a dollar in dimes and nickels.  “Now put the rest back in your bag so you don’t lose it.”  The woman obeyed and the girl pressed the dollar into her hand.
“You need some more money, ma’am?” the other girl asked.  “I can spare this.”
“Oh no!  This is plenty.”  She started to walk away.
“Hey, the bus’ll be here in a minute, don’t go now.”
“I don’t need no bus.  I just needed a green dollar.”
“You got somewhere to stay, ma’am?  I know a place where you can….”
“No, no.  I’m a rich girl now.”  She sauntered away singing,
“I got a green dollar,
Ain’t no need to holler.
You got a dollar in your hand,
You can make it in this land…”
The girls took out their wet wipes and cleaned their hands.  They unbundled their babies and held them tight.
We all waited in silence for the bus.  We waited and waited and waited.
When it finally came, the driver said there was an accident downtown and everything had to be rerouted.  I sat down and let the air conditioning breeze over me. 
I only had a short ride, but the little Madonnas had miles and miles and another transfer to make before they reached home.
French Black Madonna
Little Madonnas by Joy Corcoran

Story: Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright

I’ve spent some time over the past month going back over the stories I had published back in the 1990s.  I wrote a lot of short fiction then.  I decided it would be a good idea to write a  novel, which I worked on for about 6 years and wasn’t really happy with the results.  My life took a lot of odd turns and writing got put on the back burner.  In the last two years, I’ve gotten re-involved in stories through storytelling and I’m feeling rooted enough to start working on my short fiction and essays again. 

I want to take my old stories off the shelf and get them back into circulation — at least the ones I feel stand the test of time.  I don’t have digital copies of anything I published anymore, so typing these out allows me to edit a bit and refamiliarize myself with an earlier self.  I have discovered that I am still a terrible typist, so my apologies for any typoos you find.

I wrote (and still write) about the problems of growing up in fractured families, so the themes can be pretty serious.  How children react to their families and how they find hope, energy and the will to survive is endlessly fascinating to me.  My characters tend to be quirky oddballs with obsessions and vivid imaginations.  

I write stories for both children and adults.  This one is definitely an adult or young adult story.  It was originally published in the magazine Sassy, a magazine for young women fans of indie music.  It was also a great social forum, as well as a standard teen magazine.  In the issue this was published in, there were articles about schizophrenia, girl drummers, big sisters and 23 Celebrities not to dress like.  I like that they took a chance and published this quirky but deep story about a young girl dealing with poverty, neglect and an escaped tiger. 

I closed comments on this because I was getting so much spam for drugs.  If you’d like to leave a comment, please contact me directly.  Thanks!

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright
By Joy Corcoran
            When the tiger escaped from the zoo, every mother kept her child indoors, except mine.  My mother locked me out. 
            “No tiger is going to eat you.  Things like that don’t happen.”  My mother put her hand on my back and shoved me into the hallway.
“But Mom….”
“You just want to sit in front of the TV till you’re cross-eyed.”  She shut the door in my face and turned the lock.
For a minute, I wondered if I should use my key to get back in.  She knew I had one.  I stole hers and had a copy made with her money when she was in one her deep afternoon sleeps.  She didn’t know how to count money after a deep sleep.  She shuffled her dollar bills, looked at me, then shuffled them again.  She didn’t remember what she’d done so she didn’t say anything – and neither did I.
“They only come out at night,” she hollered through the door.  I didn’t know if she was talking to me or not, but it didn’t matter.
What was she doing in there?  Fixing a drink?  Waiting for a man?  She wasn’t meant for motherhood, she told me often, as if I’d made myself.  She never wanted a brother or sister for me – pills and rubbers were always stocked in the bathroom cabinet.
I headed over to the park.  Although the traffic zipped by at the same speed, there were no people out.  Even Mrs. Freeman, who beat her kids with a belt, hadn’t let her five brats out.  The basketball court behind the High Life Bar was empty.
I’m braver than the boys, I laughed. They talk tough but they’re scared of a tiger.  I couldn’t wait to see them again.  “Tigers don’t come out in the daytime!” I’d say.
At school, teachers buzzed around.  “Why can’t they catch that tiger?  Where could a big thing like that hide?”  They said the same thing at every school.  I saw it on the news – Day Three Tiger Report – all the old teachers and kids crowded around the cameras.  “No tiger’s going to attack our children!”  Teachers, secretaries, security guards, janitors, even the cooks stood guard every time a kid went out of the building.  I couldn’t sneak a smoke in anywhere.
“Who’s picking you up, Briar?”
“Nobody, Miz Jones.  I always walk.”
“Your mother’s not coming to get you?”
I laughed.  “She’s at work,” I lied.  “I haven’t needed her to pick me up since kindergarten.”
I started to walk away, but she grabbed my shoulder.  “No, you just wait right here, young lady.  No.  Not another word!  I’ll give you a ride home.”
It was better to say yes to adults.
Miz Jones’s car smelled new and clean.  Miz Jones smelled old and powdered, like all the good Samaritans in their flower dresses who came to our house.  “We brought this food to help you out during the holidays.  And here’s a box of clothes.”  Raggedy clothes and rusty cans.  Smile, smile.  I liked the corned beef, though, and the canned peaches.  If they came while my mother was out, I ate all the good stuff before she even knew it was there. 
“Doesn’t your mom know about the tiger?” asked Miz Jones. 
“Yeah.  She says they only eat at night.”
“Lordy, child, surely she’s worried about you.  If she can’t get off work, I can give you a ride home until they catch that beast.”
No, ma’am.  I like walking.
“Okay, Briar?  Just meet me after school till they catch it.  Tell you mom I don’t mind.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
She eased to a stop in front of my house.  “So this is where you live?”  Her voice dripped and drooped.  She hated my life, I could tell.
“The whole house isn’t ours,” I said.  “It’s divided into apartments.”
“This used to be such a lovely neighborhood.”  She looked up and down the street and clucked at everything she saw.
“I have to go now, Miz Jones.  Get in on account of the tiger.”
“Yes, yes, you go on in.  I just don’t understand why they can’t catch that thing.”
There are lots of places to hide, Miz Jones.
The park was empty.  If there was someone to talk to, I did, until the sun set.  If not, my work was to swing 200 times and slide 200 times.  Then it would be late enough that my mother would usually let me in.  Or I could let myself in.
Used to be, if she didn’t open the door, I’d have to sit in the hall.  Sometimes all night.  Mr. Peterson, down the hall, if he saw me would let me in his place.  He had great food – pot pies, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers.  He’d cook and talk about the kind of girl he liked.  Someone young and sweet who didn’t talk back to a man.  When he served the food, he sat real close to me.  “In the country, we know girls are more mature than boys.  A girl of 12 can get married.”
I told him to buy me cigarettes.  He smiled and said, “Sure thing.”
The first time I let myself into our apartment, I expected my mother to have one of her screaming fits but she didn’t .  She didn’t even notice right away.  She was in her room, laughing.  I turned the TV on low to watch cartoons, even though I was too old for them.
My mother came into the kitchen in one of her shimmery short nightgowns.  She tried to pull it up and down at the same time but she couldn’t cover anything.
“You,” she said, “just please keep quiet.”
She got some ice and vodka and went back to her room.  So she wasn’t all bad.
“I’m not all bad,” she said every time she fixed a nice meal.  She watched me.  “How can you eat so much?”
“Your cooking is so good.”
“Oh, you’d eat anything,” she’d say but she’d grin.  Those nights everything was all right. 
I swung.  One up, two up, three up.  I only counted the upswing, not the down.  Once I started, the rhythm seemed to take care of itself and as long as I counted, everything felt like it should.
Already the tiger was blamed for the disappearance of 15 cats and 11 dogs.
“I saw my little Fifi in his jaws,” a woman cried to the newsman.  “I called 911 but when the police got here, he was gone.”
What does a tiger eat on vacation?  Anything it wants!
They didn’t allow newscasters to joke.  We did that at school.  At study hall, we all read the encyclopedia.  “Man eating tigers are not young, fierce beasts, but old tigers whose energy is dying and whose teeth are worn.  They find it easier to kill men than even tame cattle.  Some people may desert an entire district because a man-eating tiger is prowling about.”
I decided not to slide.  I was going go home and let myself in.  It was cold out.
If she threw me out, Mr. Peterson was always home. 
I was hungry, thinking about the tiger.  One day I would stroll through life eating anything I wanted – the thick red meat they sliced on commercials, the chocolate poured out in rippling puddles.
Even though I was cold, I walk home slowly, because my mother, she could get so angry.  I wasn’t what she wanted.  What did she want?  One boyfriend, then another.  She was forever throwing their rings at them.
“And stay out!”  she yelled at them. 
I was four blocks away from home when I saw the tiger.  He had knocked over a dumpster and was nosing through it.  At first, I thought someone threw away a striped couch.  Then he raised his head.  I froze.
Two hikers were walking the jungle when they came upon a tiger.  They’d been told to stand dead still and not to look in its eyes, but one hiker opened his pack, took out his running shoes and began unlacing his hiking boots.  “You’re not going to try to outrun that tiger, are you?” asked the other hiker.  “I don’t have to outrun it,” answered the other.  “I just have to outrun you.”
No matter which way I looked, there was no one to outrun.
He started to walk toward me.  All I could think of to do was light a cigarette — maybe the smoke would confuse him.
His name was Tom and he was the zoo’s oldest tiger, but not too old to swim a moat and scale a fence.  “It’s highly unlikely he could have escaped on his own in such a brief period.  We’re questioning all personnel on duty that night.”
Tom weighed 427 pounds.
“He’s never hunted before.  He’s been around humans all his life.  He’ll scavenge for food.  We doubt he’s sharp enough to attack even a domestic animal.”
His paws were the size of my head.  He stopped maybe 10 feet in front of me and looked me in the eye.  I blew smoke his way and he wrinkled his nose.  In cartoons, they were mean and dumb, but Tom looked soft, almost friendly.  I ticked my tongue.  “Kitty, kitty.”
It was a stupid thing to do.  He growled.
I closed my eyes and waited for him to chomp my head off, but nothing happened.  I opened my eyes and he’d moved closer.  His fur looked like a thick, warm bed.  His stripes were uneven, with little tufts of white poking out here and there.  I felt like stroking him, riding on his back, riding him around the world.  Then he opened his mouth and his slobbery yellow teeth showed.  Like a horror movie, they got bigger and bigger.
His ears pricked up.
Police cars quietly drove up behind him.  Silently, men got out, their rifles aimed.
The tiger’s eyes stared into mine, as if asking a question, as if asking what I was going to do.  I stepped back and looked at the men behind him.
The roar of the tiger was the loudest thing I’d ever heard.  I screamed and his front paws hit my chest like two bricks.  His face was right in mine, his teeth, his rank breath.  I gasped and breathed him in.  A great weight was lifted off me.  A warm darkness seeped over my eyes and I thought, I’m dead.
“Are you okay, little girl?”
A man stood over me.  He had a rifle in one hand and helped me up with the other. 
I checked all over me, but there was no blood, only an ache in my chest.  I struggled to breathe.
“Looks like he knocked the wind out of you.  I reckon he heard us behind him and ran over you to get away.  You’re damn lucky we came along when we did.”
“I’m the one who called!”  A woman came running up, stumbling in her flip flops.  “I saw it knock over my garbage.  Dear God, is that little girl all right?”
I saw the tiger lying there in the road.  “You killed him.” My voice was raspy.  I felt as if my skin had been  pulled too tight around my ribs.
“He ain’t dead.  We can’t use real bullets in a case like this.  He’s asleep.”
I looked again and saw quick shallow movement — he was breathing as fast as he could.
“Are you the girl who was almost eaten by the tiger?”  A microphone was in my face.  People were all around me.  They weren’t giving me enough air.  The tiger’s sour breath still filled my lungs.  I stepped back and bumped in to someone.  Too many people – I ran.
“Come back!” they yelled, but they didn’t run after me.
I made it home, got my key in the door and locked it behind me.  “Mom!”  She’d be surprised.  “He came out during the day!”
She’d be sorry she made me go out there so there’d be plenty to eat.
No one was home.
She threw me out then left!
I checked her bed –the sheets were twisted.  Someone must have asked her out.  “Let’s go dancing.  I love to dance.”
Several of her dresses were on the floor.  “Not this one,” she’d toss it at the man and he’d laugh. 
I wasn’t what she wanted.
I sat there on her bed until emptiness pulled at my stomach.
In the refrigerator there was a bottle of vodka and a dried out piece of chicken.  I ate it.  It was all there was.
The emptiness growled in my stomach so I decided to try some of the vodka.  She loved it so, swirled the ice around in it, took one little sip after another.
It burned then it was cool.  I turned on the TV.  Special news reports show the tiger being loaded into the zoo van.  They showed a girl running, getting smaller and smaller on the screen.
“Probably ran home to her mother,” the newscaster said.  “A thing like that could really scare a kid.”
I wasn’t scared.
It burned then it was cool.  That must be why she liked it.
“Police are still investigating the escape, but now the city can rest in peace, grateful there were no serious injuries.
They put the cartoons back on.  Coyote chased Roadrunner.  Stupid coyote.
The day before the tiger escaped, Old Mr. Peterson said he could teach me to drive.  “In the country, everyone drives by the time they’re 12.” 
“What country?”
He laughed and jangled the keys inside his pocket.  It was better to say yes to adults.  A no brought out the worst in them.
Once I knew how, I could drive out of there.  I knew I could take that old man’s car.  It only takes a second to reach into a pocket, to jump a moat, to scale a fence.
Once I drove out of there I could do anything I wanted.  I knew it.
I had been touched by a tiger.
I used my maiden name then, Tremewan.  The illustration was done by Jennifer Goldberg.

The Bouyancy of Storytellers

Anne Rutherford

Yesterday I went to a performance by the storyteller Anne Rutherford and was transported from reality to heaven and hell and all over the world – the poetry of baseball games, the humor of Irish wakes and the wisdom of lovelorn peacocks.  She told stories and sang songs around the theme of “The One That Got Away.”  She had two musicians and sometimes played the mandolin herself.  Anne has won first place twice at the Liar’s Contest at the Northwest Folklife Festival and I thought it would be a great way to spend April Fool’s day, in the presence of a woman who can spin a great yarn.  If we are all fools because of it, we are wise fools indeed.

On the way home, my husband commented that it was pretty amazing how she could bring so many different types of stories together in a coherent fashion.  “She’s buoyant.”

It was odd to me that he used that word, because I had been meditating on the buoyancy of storytellers since Friday.

Friday I had joined several members of the Portland Storyteller’s Guild to film storytelling promos at MetroEast Community Media.  MetroEast is launching a story program May called Welcome to the Conversation, East Side Stories.  They’re giving small HD video cameras to people to record stories from their communities.  Serra Schiflett, producer and educator, wanted Guild members to record story promts, pointers and very short stories to help guide and coach the participants.

Anne Penfound
Barbara Fankhauser

Ken Iverson, Anne Penfound, Barbara Fankhauser, Sarah Hauser and I were invited because we all love stories and want to promote storytelling.

Sarah Hauser, the board president of the Guild, called Ken ahead of time and said she wanted to be there, but probably wouldn’t be in any shape to be recorded.  The day before, she found out her assistant choir director had been shot multiple times on the way home from choir practice.  He was still alive, but in intensive care.  It was a senseless, violent act on a dear friend, who was also a husband and father of a baby girl.

Sarah Hauser

We had all shared our sympathies with her and there was no pressure on her to perform.  However, as the taping progressed, Sarah, the consummate storyteller, gave great feedback and positive encouragement, got into the spirit and was filmed for two excellent storytelling promos.  I had to marvel at her ability to be buoyant after having such a shocking thing happen.  For her to be so starkly reminded of the thin line between life and death, between health and sickness, and to still be so encouraging about our little stories was remarkable.

Ken Iverson

Ken told a story about being named after an uncle who died when the uncle was three, an

unexpected accident.  Sarah absorbed it, as we all did, with the reverence it deserved.  Ken talked about how stories keep a person who has died alive, keeps them with us, and gives them a legacy.

Sarah, and most members of the Guild, and most storytellers I know have, I think, have a kind of buoyancy that gives them the ability to get on with life after a tragedy.  Over of life time of listening and telling, stories form a very stable raft on which to sail through rough waters.  They train the soul to believe in itself.  With stories you know there will be endings, but also new beginnings.  Even the fiercest monsters and darkest forests are somehow part of a story that will have meaning, even if the meaning is not a huge comfort.

Sarah has always been very encouraging to me.  I used to feel very special about that, until I realized she was that way with every storyteller.  Then I felt even more special.  Sarah gives the shakiest of tellers a well thought out and encouraging critique.  Her interest in story is genuine and her enthusiasm for new tellers is sincere.  Her insight has made several of my tales deeper and a bit more direct.

I shared a ride home with Ken.  I told him a story about a recent conversation with a 7 year old girl concerning death, the soul and heaven.  I had told her a story which triggered her fears about death and blood.  She is in a safe foster home now, but in her young life she’d already seen brutal events.  Her eyes widened with fear and she stressed out about how she and I were going to die one day.  I immediately assured her she was safe and that when we did die, our souls would go to heaven, where they would be happy.

She asked me what heaven looked like, if there were houses in heaven.  I said I didn’t know; I wouldn’t know until I got there.  My ignorance amused her, and she launched into a fantastic story about visiting her grandfather with wings who lived in heaven in a blue house with many heavenly bunny rabbits.  She has a room is in the attic of that house and she has even more bunnies than her grandfather because they like her so much.  Her grandmother has a pink house next door.  She has a sister in heaven who married God.

Rainbow House

Her whole demeanor changed, the balm of story worked its magic.  Her eyes brightened as she developed rich detail and many plots and subplots, none of them completely resolved, so I’m sure there will be sequels.  She drew pictures, stapled them together and produced her first story book.

Ken and I talked about the significance of her imagery and many interpretations and beliefs about the spirit world and the soul.  He shared how a particular folk story’s meaning had changed over the years and gotten him more in touch with the life, death, and rebirth of the many aspects of himself.

That’s the thing about storytelling.  It ‘s more than find and appreciating a good story.  You take it into yourself.  The story becomes you – it’s rhythms, language, passages and transcendence.

I felt pretty blessed by his insights and the whole story project.  I know that stories have been a raft for me on the roiling waters of my life.  Story helps me in my struggles with depression and chronic health conditions.  I am able to see metaphorical values in life.  I have the words and images to describe what is unfathomable. I know I am not riding these waves alone because I’ve heard the stories of others who have kept afloat in much worse storms.

I saw Sarah again at Anne’s performance.  She was handing out programs and greeting people.  She told me she and the entire congregation of her church are still a bit shell-shocked.  I could see a look of weariness and hurt in her eyes, but there was also a spark of excitement.  We were going to hear Anne’s stories soon and for the next hour we would be transported into a magic place where, somehow, it would all make sense.  Anne told a wonderful story about Michael and Lucifer, ending with the cold, loneliness that the evil, egotistical Lucifer must feel.  We felt that in our bones.

And in our hearts, we felt light and warm, reassured once again that life has meaning and, perhaps it will not end but begin again, maybe with bunnies in heaven.

Once Upon a Time
(Now keep doing the book)