Three-Minute Memoir

October 9, 2017

Witchcraft

By Florence Newman

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One Halloween night, when my friend Ellie and I were about eight or nine, we went trick-or-treating door to door around our neighborhood. This was in those dangerous days before parents hovered protectively behind their costumed children to make sure that they didn’t get snatched by predators posing as genial homeowners or receive apples lanced with razor blades. Back then, we two girls were alone as we approached a stranger’s house where a glowing porch light beckoned. I recall the house being set back among some trees, with a long, serpentine brick walk leading to an old-fashioned gabled portico, but such “memories” are no doubt later embellishments conjured up to match the eeriness of what happened there.

Ellie rang the doorbell. We were dressed as society ladies in our mothers’ long gloves and pearl necklaces (we loved playing dress-up), or maybe I was Peter Pan and Ellie was Wendy, as we were one year for a class play called “Midnight in the Library,” in which characters escaped from their books and frolicked on the stage. The light from the doorway must have fallen over a charming picture of childish expectation as we stood there with our innocent, upturned faces and outstretched paper bags. “Trick or treat!” But the woman who had opened the door didn’t offer us candy. Was she short and silver-haired or young, willowy, and brunette? I guess I’ve forgotten. Or else it was hard to make out the details of her figure, back lit in the frame of the door. Certainly we were dazzled when she leaned over and told us, conspiratorially, that she was a witch.

“And I have a gift for each of you. Hold out your hand.”

Of course we did. Into my palm she pressed two copper pennies, then two more into Ellie’s.

“These are magic pennies. Promise you won’t lose them.”

We nodded solemnly, conscious of the awesome power with which we were being entrusted. As we left, Ellie and I looked at each other: she was grinning and her eyes had a mischievous twinkle. Did we believe the pennies were really magic? I, at least, believed they might be. After all, we had read about magic in the Narnia stories and in The Hobbit and The Time Garden and The Enchanted Castle. And before those, there had been fairy tales, like Jack and the Beanstalk, which taught us that the world was filled with magic that one could stumble across at any time and that only grown-ups foolishly rejected. Now here was a grown-up who not only believed in magic but was herself a witch, proving what every child secretly wishes to be true.

I never put the pennies to the test: what if they failed, shattering my fragile faith, already under assault by life’s steady barrage of the banal and ordinary? But neither did I lose them. Every now and then, 55-odd years on, when I’m looking for something else, I come across a battered leather box in a bureau drawer and discover inside it an ornate, antique key, badly tarnished; several unmatched buttons; and a square plastic container, about one inch by one inch, through whose top I can see two copper pennies. All thoughts of my original purpose are crowded out by recollections of that night, my friend Ellie (does she still have her pennies?), and the remarkable woman who claimed to be a witch. I am old enough now to be such a witch—a short, silver-haired one—though, as I mentioned, it’s hard to catch children alone on Halloween anymore. Witches were probably scarce even in those long-ago days. Still, I can aspire to be the rare woman who passes along that truly magical gift.

Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

Copyright © 2017, Florence Newman
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Five-Minute Memoir

October 23, 2016

A Bat Tale from Poe and Me

Jo-Ann Pilardi

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“It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.[1]

Well, not exactly, but I hope I now have your attention.

On a mid-August night this year, August 15, 2016, in fact, a fierce and sudden thunderstorm broke loose as I drove the four blocks home from the Giant food market, my thirteen-year-old Chevy wincing under squalls of violent wind and heavy rain. I parked outside my home and waited in dread: was death more certain if I sat in my car (under an 80 year old sycamore whose branches sometimes fall in storms) or if I ran into the house (across my porch, whose ornamental iron fencing was sure to attract a lightning bolt)?

So, yes, “there are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell.” [2] In this particular hellish moment, I decided to make a run for it, from car to porch in the driving rain, as my heart beat wildly—and, I hoped, not for the last few times. Fingers clutching my house key, my body shaking at the encircling bolts of lightning and claps of thunder, battered by a strong wind from the north, I unlocked the heavy oaken door. And was blown inside.

As I entered, I felt a spooky, indeed ungodly, flutter of wind above and around me. Scenes of Young Frankenstein (Marty Feldman’s Igor, in particular) flitted through my mind, but I put those aside. Enter I did and happy I was, finally safe in my sturdy little home. I put away the groceries and, after that, enjoyed an extended phone talk with my daughter-in-law. I then turned off the large lamp, leaving on only a small one, and turned on the television, wanting to find Rachel Maddow defending all things good and right, a beacon of hope on this stormy night. As I did, a flutter appeared at the very edge of my vision, indeed at its outermost edge. Was there a large black moth in the room, or did I just imagine it? Or was it something else? Was there something—or was there nothing? Stay with me here, reader. “Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”[3]

Within the space of no more than ten seconds, I saw that flutter turn into a broadly winged creature: a bat! (So that was the spooky movement I’d felt above me as I’d entered the house! The flimsy creature was blown inside, as was I, both victims of an evil storm.) It fluttered near, then disappeared, then fluttered back again, and disappeared again, into the unlit back rooms of the house. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing/Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,“[4] so I grabbed a large broom and opened the front door, because I’d heard that was the way to purge one’s home of bats. But it was not to be. Once I even thought the accursed creature had left, so I closed and bolted the door, only to find it dipping and soaring around me a few seconds later. I was becoming quite agitated, and even may have cried out: “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” But predictably, “quoth the raven, bat, ‘Nevermore.’ “ [5]

Surely a call to my sister in California would help, I thought (because “the ingenious man person is often remarkably incapable of analysis” [6]), so I dialed her up and told her my story. Alas! Its telling was interrupted by my repeated shrieks, as the bat looped around me, its trumpery and deplorable self constantly mocking me. At times I could even hear a humiliating chuckle emanate from its mouth. All this and more I bore that despicable night. “The thousand insults of Fortunato the bat I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I swore revenge.” [7] I decided it was time to call out the cavalry: I would call 911! So I said good night to my sister. This next call would surely save me: Nine. One. One.

Me: “There’s a bat in my house and I can’t get it out. Could you send firemen out to remove it?” Visions of First Responders courageously rushing to my doorstep, bringing survival for me and death for the monstrous creature, filled my deteriorating mind; I could almost “Hear the loud alarum bells/Brazen bells!/ What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”[8]

911 Operator: “Firemen? Absolutely not. They don’t do that. I’ll send out a police officer.” (?) And she did. Not one but two. It was 10:30 p.m. by now, close to the end of their shift, and evidently, though I live in Baltimore, they had time on their hands. We talked and joked; I offered them coffee; we even looked for the bat sometimes, but never did we see it. Their visit was a nice relief, but pointless—except that one of them suggested I call City Animal Control the next day, because they were closed at that time. (I would learn later that Animal Control was on duty 24/7 and should have been sent to my house that night by the 911 Operator.)

That was all on Monday. On Tuesday I called Animal Control.  A nice man showed up, rather quickly, bearing a large net and an air of confidence, but the bat was in full hiding mode. Yet it flaunted to me its continued existence by leaving its “droppings” for the next two nights (yes, they look like mouse droppings). I slept uneasily each night, and the stress started to mount. Friends kept me company; some brought me nets and hats to wear, others (tall ones) came to search for the bat in the higher regions of my cupboards and windows. But little did it help and shockingly, “I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language.” [9] (This was not me!) On Wednesday, the Baltimore City Health Department (alerted by Animal Control) called to say I must run, not walk, to the nearest hospital E.R. to start a series of rabies shots, for “you’ve been living with a bat for three days!” My own primary care physician also insisted—and so, reluctantly, I started the shots. It was the week from hell, as I rotated trips to the hospital with trips home, where I donned a large-brimmed hat and clutched wooden tennis rackets (all hurriedly acquired at Goodwill—see accompanying photo). Verily it must be said that increasingly “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” [10]

Friends helped a great deal, in fact two of them insisted I not sleep at home and invited me to stay with them, which I did. But, sadly, once I overheard one saying to the other: “I was cautious in what I said before the young lady; for I could not be sure that she was sane; and in fact, there was a certain restless brilliancy about her eyes which half led me to imagine she was not.”[11] (I told myself this “restless brilliancy” might be blamed on the rabies shots, but even I doubted that.) Things got worse as the universe began to conspire against me and for the bat.[12] Whenever I turned on the t.v., there were bat movies on the screen. Whenever I answered the phone, friends and relatives reported unending stories of bats: bats in washing machines in Pittsburgh; bat bites in bedrooms in Baltimore and apartments in Texas; bat infestations in colonial homes in Connecticut; a bat birth in a bath tub in Belfast, Maine. Bat. Bat. Bat.

It was all becoming too much, so that “then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.”[13] I have been able to reject that thought so far, ever hopeful that truth and goodness still exist (cf., Rachel Maddow), even in the midst of the 2016 American presidential campaign, wherein I have seen a Creature infinitely worse than any bat. It is now mid-October, and the bat has never been spotted again. Assuredly, I will find its dried-out corpse some day behind a major appliance or in a corner of my moldy cellar, next to the case of Amontillado. Gradually, hope and confidence have re-emerged in me, for I remind myself that “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,”[14] but dream or not, Hillary will crush The Donald.

And as “literature is the most noble of professions . . . and there is no seducing me from the path,”[15] I hope you’ve enjoyed this bat tale wrought by a four-handed monster: Poe and me.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, “Silence – A Fable” [2] Poe, “The Premature Burial” [3] Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” [4] Poe, “The Raven” [5] Poe, “The Raven” [6] Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” [7] Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” [8] Poe, “The Bells” [9] Poe, “The Black Cat” [10] Poe, Letter to G.W. Eveleth, 1848 [11] Poe, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” [12] Bats are excellent for the environment, but not in my house! [13] Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum” [14] Poe, “A Dream within a Dream” (poem) [15] Poe, Letter to F.W. Thomas, 1849

Copyright © 2016 Jo-Ann Pilardi.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years.  A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.

Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to 1,000 words, on any subject, in any style. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for a light tone. We’ll help you to edit and reduce the word count of your piece, if needed. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at jimscartoons@aol.com

Halloween Poem

October 14, 2016

The Physics of Pumpkins

By Florence Newman

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“The top’s too heavy, too much space below,”
my neighbor says. “’Spect she’ll start sagging soon.”
He’d lugged the massive thing out front for me.
I realize with horror that he’s right.
I’d carved my share of pumpkins through the years,
protected them from predatory squirrels,
from Mischief Night marauders: hubris had
at last undone me. A slightly wider grin,
an extra tooth or two—I should have known
the plan was flawed, the architecture tenuous.
Before too long the carriage will collapse,
sides slump, rind pit and wrinkle, pulp dissolve
and putrify. The oblique eyes, the arching brows,
isosceles nose are doomed to droop and molder.
Look on those overweening teeth, ye mighty,
and descry their graying edges fold and sear,
like the striate skin of a stitched cadaver.
Now soon a press of princesses, pop stars,
pirates, pixies, vampires, ninjas, sprites,
enchanters, supermen, and bumblebees
will throng the street, importunate to take
their turn, while my poor jack-o-lantern, claimed
by gravity, sits rotting at the door
before I’ve even got the candle lit.
Copyright © 2016, Florence Newman

Halloween 2014 III

November 9, 2014

Hip Shots

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Copyright © 2014, Jim Sizemore

Halloween 2014 II

November 7, 2014

Costumes

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Copyright © 2014, Jim Sizemore

Halloween 2014

November 5, 2014

Dancers 

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Copyright © 2014, Jim Sizemore