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Friday, August 31, 2012

Laws of Ælfred

              The elegant shop sign read: 'Waterhouse & Francis - Garden Flowers, Herbs and Sundries for All Occasions'. It swung spiritlessly in the blazing languid light of a midsummer's day. The simple shop located on a small piece of land was once the only structure built atop a small rise near a knotted woodland that had been cleared of life in recent years to build a subdivision called Pereval. The well
manicured yards on Harfield Road and its cul de sacs and stove-pipe drives were long on order and short on variety. The little store and its gardens predated almost everyone who lived in or near the community. No one living was now alive when it was newly built.

            Elder folk here-abouts recalled a lost time when they were curious and young, and made adventurous journeys to visit Mother Waterhouse and Granny Eve in hopes of finding candy jars filled with unimaginably brightly colored sweets and candies arrayed in endless rows upon shelves of childhood dreams. Children would enter accompanied by Elizabeth, Granny Eve's other daughter, who was ever present outside tending to the gardens, but, no matter how necessary the garden task, would stop to escort the youngsters into the little shop.

            "Agnes," she would exclaim, "Look who have come to entertain us. Surely, now, we have something for them in one of our special glass jars? Lookie here! These young-uns came knowing that no one is closer to God's heart than in a Garden."

            Adults would come for fragrances and cures and cooking spices, and talk of weather, frosts and storms, even while the local clergy and wealthy merchants cast disparaging commentary about the women and their family. Local ladies appointed to garden social committees would come to discuss the latest color combinations or the tricks and magic of growing the perfect tomato. Farmers came for veterinary supplies
and advice for care of their herds. Elizabeth could even be coaxed into bringing her forked dowsing rod of hazel-wood that bloomed a delightful orange-apricot yellow even in the late spring snows. She was renowned for her unerring ability to find water underground for farmers needing new wells.

            In time, when the children's children were growing up and Granny was no longer there, the landscape around the shop that once was filled with so many different flowers of all sizes, shapes and textures that none could name them all began to be talked about in furtive conversation, for at night when the wind blew, people hurrying by saw strange forms and creatures of imagination wandering in moonlit gardens. Grandparents would tell small children that Eve was weeding out the bad from the good.

            Agnes and Elizabeth hung on when the woods were cleared and they could no longer harvest secret herbs and forbes by moonlight. The gardens around the shop began to grow tall, hiding much from the road, and soon children came no more. The school children whispered rumors about the little girl Joan who, with her mother,Agnes, rarely came to church and never said much at school. When Joan was grown, she ran the store alone, and her mother and aunt were seldom seen,except as fleeting shadows scurrying from back rooms to dark recesses within the garden.

            The locals gossiped to the residents of Peveral about the women of the wild gardens down the road and told tales about the black cat to children of all ages.
            "Sathan was his name," they said glancing at nearby shadows. "He was black as the night of a new moon and when you saw him you thought he were a stuffed toy. And then you'd reach out, unwarily to touch the shiny soft toy, and all of hell would open up as the cat jumped up and screamed and scratched," the old folks explained forgetting any mention of the sweets their parents once enjoyed.

            The visit for gardening chats fell off to nearly none at all as easily-accessed science replace garden-lore. And down the road, almost 50 years ago now, on the other side of Pereval a modern pharmacy and grocery had opened their doors drying up demand for fresh dried remedies for nose bleeds,sore throats, coughs and colds. Now digitalis could be bought packaged with a prescription all neatly signed by a doctor. Witch's bells were left to bloom alone, forgotten on the woodland edge in the company of toads and  the songs of frogs.

            Judge Alfred ruled at last that the family debts were to be paid by sale of the land. A developer had secured the rights to build a local stripped-down shopping mall which he grandly called Chelmsford because it had the perfect sound to highlight and emphasize the quality of the upscale discount stores he would bring to the community. It had been years since anyone had seen Agnes or Elizabeth, and Joan
had been declared incompetent and put away. The local paper claimed that she was selling unregulated medicines and dangerous plants that could harm the uninformed. The news report even mentioned that no one actually knew what happened to Eve's husband or those of Agnes and Elizabeth or if they even ever had been married, for the court house fires had long since destroyed any records,
and they certainly had not been married in a church. "Local Ladies Cultivate Hallucinogenic Belladonna!" the headline cried in late October without a sense of irony.
            The county archeologist watched the big machine move towards the remains of the little shop. The gardens had been ground into the hard pan; the trees long reduced to stumps - a minor inconvenience to technology. She watched the walls begin to fall and saw the doorway begin to lean. At that moment she saw an inscription in the stone arch: Tha faemnan, the gewuniath onfon gealdorcraeftigan and scinlaecan and wiccan, laet thu tha libban! She translated slowly. Females perhaps - better women, she thought - those accustomed to accept enchantresses, sorceresses and witches, let them live!~ August 28, 2012

Special thanks for Cindy McW. for her tireless edits, constructive criticisms and constant support.

version September 1, 2012

revised with thanks to @BillNigh September 5, 2012 

All rights reserved. THOMPSON, John Peter, 2012. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Who Benefits?

        His world had been at war his entire life. From the moment he awoke each day, bitter words forged by chronic poverty flew through the home, piercing the fabric of the family like emotional weapons. His father left before the sunrise to escape the verbal pounding and to begin his 2 hour trip to possible employment - a trip that cost the family money it did not have. His mother left for her job shortly thereafter, fleeing the millstones of a system grinding down her family. The
hardscape of the neighborhood directed life, much as conduits channel electricity and water.

        At 13 he knew only a world filled with random acts of violence that created a universe defined by terror. Every action from placing a bed against an inner wall to sitting with his grandmother on the front porch was fraught with the possibilities of death.

       Only yesterday, friends of his grandmother had been struck down by a car that had careened onto a sidewalk where people had been waiting for the breadline to open. The impact of the car had left its mark in the weathered brick walls, as had the 9mm rounds from last week's yet-another drive-by shooting framed by graffiti art of rival gangs.

       He eased out the door, cautiously assessing every movement in the stray shadows of dawn. The neighbor was up first thing, still trying to remove the stench from his car. No one knew exactly how he earned his living, but some unknown someone had put fresh fish and crabs under the back seat a few weeks ago, and now the smell of well rotted sea creatures, heated by the sun in the asphalt and concrete oven that was the city in summer, permeated the block wafting through the open windows where air conditioners were unaffordable.

       The sidewalk, buckled and broken by age and inattention, drew his eyes up towards the end of the block. The failing paint and desperate stoops showcased a parsimonious gathering of plant life that, like the residents, came from many exotic places. First arrivals from distant lands still predominated, but, here and there, newcomers from all over the world had put down roots and settled in. And in rare instances even a native or two could be found, though now headed for oblivion. At the corner was the market, a convenience store where patrons were greeted by proprietors behind thick glass who, like all the non native plants,
had little interaction with the community. And yet the lack of  connections and the aggregation of species and people from all over the world defined the neighborhood and gave it a feeling of something new, not quite defined, but somehow in the making.

       He now faced a decision. To the left, across Main Street was safety of a sort. To the left, the modern city beckoned with its busy denizens facing their daily struggle with paralyzing indecisions of the size and type of coffee to buy, and the ever vigilant police to guarantee their safety. To the right along the shadows of decaying buildings were the lands between the '3rd and Main' and the 'Novas', a shorter route by far, but fraught with choices that were uncertain. The '3rd and Main' were the elders challenged by novelty from a different place and
time. Here, along dark untended alleys and doorways that led to neon lit rooms, brave souls put rotted chicken on steel hooks and dared rats to make a stand.

       If he went to the left, he would face extra travel time and possible explanations to the private security guards of the old college and nearby stores. He would have to cross a park where the creek once was and the storm water now ran when the fingers of god lit up the sky and the sound of creation thundered across the skies. The well-worn path through the park wandered diagonally through the bramble and wild, unmanaged thickets filled with life with no particular name.

       A month or so ago, men in white protective suits with masks and air supply had scoured the disturbed abandoned lot he knew as the park. They had come when dead animals and dead fish began to smell much like his neighbor's car. Adults had whispered about something spilled uptown and mentioned words like cancer, but after a few days the men in white had disappeared.

       For him there was a fear in the landscape that was different from the normal terror of his world. He knew the names of friendly citizens of the street. He knew and could tell the peaceful from the dangerous, uncared-for souls who were to be avoided. He was street literate and could read the writing on the wall, but in the park nothing had a name and everything reached out to touch him in ways that only dreams could imagine. Even the sounds of nature had no names; the easily identified noises of the city were replaced by an unknown orchestra that haunted day dreams of the unwary. Down here he knew nothing at all except that
his day's journey ended on the other side.

       He had chosen to go left and brave the unmanaged lot and its wild ways. He had avoided the bites of insects; feral pets had avoided him. He had not become entangled in poisonous plants, and emerged unscathed to re-cross the road.

       He heard the yelling before he saw the commotion. The shouting and the screaming rushed over him drowning, out the real and imagined threats of nature. He saw at once the well dressed man pull a handgun from his bag and point it at the pursuing police. He clearly heard each distinct bite of gunfire -each individually delivered chance to live or die. He knew he had been hit, and that today he would not learn about someone dead some time ago. He understood as he began to fall that today he would not be going to school.

Special thanks for Cindy McW. @Gemswinc for her tireless edits, constructive criticisms and constant support. 
August 25, 2012

revised with thanks to @BillNigh September 3, 2012 

All rights reserved THOMPSON, John Peter 2012

Monday, August 27, 2012

Last Rites

       It would be his last graduation. He had seen over 50 such rites of passage in his time. Now he and the building he had worked in for over five decades were being retired. They had both served their purpose; time had passed them both by. People who thought they knew him told him often that events had passed him by; they were quick to note fault in a life that had never earned enough. The graduates would go off challenged by new dreams and newer tools scrambling to turn what they had learned into meaningful work that would support their aspirations, and he would be no more.

       He had seen them all - those that flourished and those that disappeared. He had raked the autumn leaves as students hurried to class, excited about the possibilities of discovery. He had seen the power of discovery and the forces of emotion that animated winter conversation about biology and love. He had shoveled late winter snow so that spring could hasten moments of inspiration and romance. He cleared the grassy walkways in the heat of the summer so that young poets and dreamers could fight revolutionary battles one more time before the cycle began anew.

       For the most part instructors and deans never knew his name; he was invisible to the great men and women of the institution, except when some inconvenience kept them from their important work. His building held the special collections and graduate library, along with three floors of classrooms in which he worked occasionally at night to keep the heat in and the cold out as well as the water running. He took the trash and those things that grew old too fast and removed them from sight so as not to disturb the great industry of learning.

       He heard the polite applause for the guest speaker, Senator Bourne. From his space off to the back-corner he did not need to see the dignitary that most of the students did not know. For even as his failing sight would have kept him from seeing the Senator, he could clearly see in his mind's eye the young Jack Bourne who had stormed from the building almost 40 years ago throwing his books down the custodian's basement stairwell convinced that he could not pass the history class. The youthful Bourne raging against the gods and fate had come face to face with the gentle man. In the ensuing moments, Jack learned much from the quiet man with the rake. He learned about the stories in history and about the power over people in stories. Jack Bourne learned that knowing where to find information is a source of power, and Jack Bourne went back to class and excelled at what he had learned.

       The current class knew nothing of a young frustrated student---only of a Senator older than imagination. Within the graduation class, at least one student unknowingly shared a knowledge of the gardener's gift. Jessica Longworth had seen little use for the calculus but she was told she must master it. The instructors droned on about mother functions written in increasingly incomprehensible Greek. She had stayed seated once class had ended until she was alone, staring at the board of indecipherable forms.

       He had come in quietly, and had asked her if she was done looking at the board. Silence was her answer. His response over the next hour explored the history of science and of the calculus, and the magic of the limit. Most importantly, as he had shared so many decades before with Jack Bourne, he had shared again how to find the information you need. He spoke with her as an equal.

She was not embarrassed to ask him questions, for he was just an old gardener, not a subject matter expert, but his answers gave her the knowledge necessary to master her fears and to master the calculus of learning. He had told of the collections and the library, and when, where and how to take the
limit of life.

Friends told him that he gave too much and asked too little. They sometimes berated him for volunteering. Some even pointed out that giving his knowledge away for free was why he had nothing. And it was true, he had nothing but what he had learned from over 70 years of helping people. He had become a part of events, a building to be forgotten. He and the buildings were structures past their prime. New ideas and technologies need new homes to fit the moment.

       The graduation was finished, the building closed and old man was gone now. He had said his good-byes to the building with which he had shared so many lives. The few who had met him and whose lives had been changed in meeting him had for the most part forgotten the smartest man they once knew. The building that had given them shelter was now to be torn down. Its ornate cornices, polished
floors and wooden doors were too old fashioned. 

       The Dean had once been young, too, and had studied here, and now was in the basement of the old man's building in the back corner where none had gone before, where the man who took care of problems had his space into which no one ever went or was invited.

       The silence thundered like a raging Greek chorus. Blackboards from a time of chalk lined the walls. On some of them were algebraic matrices like those that used to lace his conversations, determinates worked out by hand, when smart phones now power through such problems instantly today. The rows of books thrown out in the coming of digitization were meticulous indexed, as were papers
unfinished and reports discarded on projects never finished. And in the middle
stood the herbaria with every plant for 50 years dried, mounted and recorded
from the entire campus and beyond---silent sentinels to what could be if we only
noticed that Eduard had been here.

Appreciation and thanks for reviewing and editing : Cindy MvW. @Gemswinc July 2012

revised with thanks to @BillNigh and @Gemswinc September 3, 2012

all rights reserved THOMPSON, John Peter 2012