the boat drew closer


Pam Lazos

Chapter Eighty

Robbie sat on a small reed mat on the ground, his back propped against the base of a date palm tree. He ate a handful of dates and took small sips of water from a plastic Evian bottle. The sun scorched the earth almost everywhere else in this Godforsaken country, but right here in the Al Hawizeh Marshes life was lush and fecund, the river teeming with otter and minnows, and date palms lining the banks. An auger lay next to him and a cylindrical shaped mass of soil next to the auger.

Robbie analyzed the soil column against the Munsell Soil Color Chart and noted the lengths of the A, O and C horizons indicative of a hydric soil in his book. He squinted against the harsh sun and scanned the horizon.

Something small and swift approached, a mashuf with a single occupant, poling the boat through the marsh water: plant, pull, plant, pull, no struggle, no rush, just a sense of purpose with each movement. A light breeze blew across Robbie’s face and he raised his nose to sniff the air. The figure was closer now and he stood to get a better look.  A woman. She didn’t wear the abayas, the traditional black head-to-toe coverings of the Iraqi women, but the garb of a western university student: jeans and a t-shirt. He hesitated a moment before sitting back down. The way the military came through this place, one could never be too careful. But the military wouldn’t send a civilian or even an officer out of uniform to arrest him. It was probably somebody from Eden Again coming to help him take soil samples.

He popped another date in his mouth and waited as the boat drew closer. If this country had taught him anything, it was patience. Out here, life had made peace with time. But the truth was, here, like everywhere else, time was running out.

The sun cast a glare on the water making it impossible to see the woman’s face as she alighted onto the shore. She towed the mashuf another two feet out of the water so it wouldn’t drift away and Robbie thought he should stand or call out, offer a greeting of some sort, but his arms and legs felt weighted to the ground and his voice a sorry deserter. The woman walked right over to Robbie as if she’d known him forever, as if she’d known he’d be sitting under a date palm tree in the middle of the Al Hawizeh Marshes, eating flat bread and hard cheese, waiting.

He held his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun. Within a foot of him, her silhouette eclipsed those rays and he was able to make out her features. The vision made him choke.

“What are you doing here?” Robbie asked. “I thought you were…”

Ruth raised her hand to silence him. “We don’t need to say the “D” word, Robbie. It’s so… inconsequential. I mean, compared to other things.” Confusion swept across Robbie’s face like a push broom, leaving ragged trails its wake. He started to wheeze. Ruth grabbed his bottle of Evian and handed it to him.

“Are you all right?” Robbie took a long drink from the bottle and rubbed his eyes.

“You look wonderful, baby,” Ruth said. “Could it be this work agrees with you?” She knelt down and touched his cheek. He flinched. She drew him in, wrapping one arm around his neck and patting his back with the other, just like she used to when he was little.

For the next few minutes, Robbie cried: tears of grief and joy, long lodged in his heart and big as dates; tears that carried the sum total of his collective heartache, and of the absolute terror he’d felt every day since his plane touched down in this dry wasteland that only the last few weeks in the marshes had helped to dissipate; tears that every child saves up, be it minutes or weeks or lifetimes, to drop in their mother’s lap because only she knows how to dry them. Had he channeled those tears, Robbie could have re-hydrated the entirety of the Central and Al Hammar Marshes. Instead he stopped, dried his eyes and look into his mother’s eyes.

“Better?” Ruth asked.

Robbie nodded, took a deep breath. Ruth pushed back his hair and cupped his cheek in her hand. A small splash indicated of a school of minnows nearby and Robbie turned toward the noise. The midday sun sat high in a cloudless sky, unblinking, unmerciful and most undervalued. Robbie pulled the turban down to his eyebrows and mopped the sweat on his brow before its saltiness stung his eyes.

“What a completely underused resource,” he said, looking up at the sun.

“With that kind of solar energy, Dad could have powered the world.” Robbie kicked the dirt with the toe of his sandal.  “It’s not fair. None of it.”

“Mind if I ask . . .what happened?”

“You mean to me and Dad?” Ruth said. Robbie nodded.

Ruth searched his face before responding. “Does it matter? If you knew, you’d want to do something about it and there’s really nothing you can do. We think we’re in control. We strive and struggle and build our little empires to assure our safe passage. But life wrenches control from us every time.” Ruth stood up to face her son.

Robbie shrugged, picked up a spade and plunged it into the moist, fecund ground. Ruth watched as he dug a small hole.

“Six months ago, this dirt was dry as the Sahara. We did this. The Americans. By getting rid of Saddam, some of these people got their water back. A few anyway.” He dropped the spade and picked up the auger. “So it couldn’t have all been for nothing, right?” He twisted the auger back and forth, pushing it deeper and deeper into the ground.

Ruth shrugged. “On its face, nothing is good or bad. It just is.

“That’s not what you used to say.”

“I used to not be as smart as I am now,” Ruth said. “You can only do what feels right for you here.” She placed her hand over his heart. “And let the other guy do what feels right for him. Wouldn’t it be funny if at the end we discovered it wasn’t one religion or political ideology over another, but the simple acts of tolerance and forgiveness that were the most important?”

She pulled Robbie to her, wrapped him in a bear hug. “The only constant in life is change, Robbie. Have the wherewithal to go with the flow.” Ruth waved her hand over the flowing, abundant marshes. “I suspect you might learn a great deal about it here.” She smiled, then turned and walked to the mashuf.

“Amara’s pregnant!”

Ruth nodded. “I know.”

“Don’t leave, Mom.” Robbie dropped the auger and ran after her. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Of course you do.”

“No. Honest.”

Ruth smiled and pulled him in for another hug, this one soft and gentle. She smoothed back his hair and wiped the tears that fell from clenched eyelids.

“Not all who hesitate are lost,” Ruth said.


“Joseph Campbell.”

Robbie drew a deep breath. “That’s nice, Mom, but it doesn’t really help me. Just tell me what to do.”

“And deny you the opportunity of figuring it out?” Ruth said. “No way.” She kissed Robbie’s cheek. “You have lots to do. And your siblings need you. Especially Gil. His road will be difficult.” Ruth picked up the pole and pushed the mashuf back into the water. “He doesn’t even know yet what he’s being asked to bring forth into this world. But he’ll need your support and protection to do it.” Ruth climbed into the mashuf and held it steady on the shore with the pole. “There’s nothing else to tell.”      

“What if I need to talk to you. How will I do that?”

“Robbie… my first born.” Ruth’s eyes locked with his; Robbie could have held the moment forever. “I’m as close as your next thought.” She blew him a kiss and pushed off the shore.

Robbie watched her turn the mashuf around and pole away. He waved until she melded into the horizon.


Robbie returned to the auger, pulled it out of the ground and laid it down carefully. He released half a cylinder’s worth of soil, making sure to keep the column intact and went back to the hole for another half, sniffling all the while.

“What’s the matter?” Gil asked.

A startled Robbie jumped and held the auger forth as a weapon. “Jesus. First Mom, now you. What the hell’s going on today? You’re not dead, are you?”

Gil shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Robbie looked at the water, but there was no canoe. “How d’you get here?”

Gil nodded in the opposite direction.

“But that’s the desert!” They both looked toward the desert as if waiting for some mode of transportation to materialize. When he turned back, Robbie noticed Gil’s sling. “What happened?”

Gil shrugged. “I came to tell you we’re okay. It was scary for awhile, but it’s over.”

“What are you talking about, Gil? Talk in English.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t go into it now.” Gil looked around, surveying the area. “I mean, you might have some problems of your own.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“You’ll be okay though. I know it. Call us when you get in trouble. You know. When they catch you. I’ve recruited some outside help. A trouble shooter…”

“Mom said…”

“You talked to Mom, too, huh? I’m not totally sure what she was saying. Something about choices…

“Do you need me to come home?”

“I want you to come home. But I don’t want it to be like a Frank Capra movie with you going Jimmy Stewart on us. I’m no Clarence, you know.”

Robbie couldn’t suppress the smile. “I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve been away, but it seems I may have lost the ability to interpret whatever the heck it is your saying.”

“I know.” Gil toed the marshy soil with his foot. “Can you come home when you’re done?”

Robbie took off his turban and stuck it on Gil’s head. “First thing. I promise.”


Amara watched Robbie sleeping in the stern of the mashuf. In the time he’d been in Iraq his skin had turned a deep golden brown, weathered by sun and wind, a fact that probably saved his life on more than one occasion. That he looked like one of the Ma’adan when wearing the traditional robes and head scarf, and that he’d mastered the language in his short time here had helped him escape unnoticed from the various American and British troops that periodically patrolled the area. Amara knew his life was in danger. She had no doubt that he’d be subject to a court martial and forced to stand trial for going AWOL, or worse, letting the army think he was dead. And so she brought him here among her people, her father’s people, these people who governed by consensus, people who the Americans and Europeans considered lawless, people who desperately needed Amara’s and Robbie’s help before they were wiped off the face of the planet. Robbie murmured something in his sleep and Amara pushed at him with her toes. He mumbled again, opened his eyes and looked at her blankly.


“Such the dreamer you are,” Amara said and tugged at Robbie’s head scarf. You were talking in your sleep.” She tossed a canteen to him. “Drink. For I think you must be stroked by the sun.” Robbie said nothing, just smiled and took a long drink from the canteen.

“Thank you,” he said, handing it back to her.

“What were you dreaming about?” Amara asked.

Robbie stared blankly at her for several seconds. “I honestly don’t remember. But somehow I feel…better.”

“Then it was a good dream.”

“God be praised,” said Sayyid. “Our dreams are how we navigate the course of our lives. A good dream signals that you are following God’s path for you, and He is pleased.”

Robbie smiled and raised his head to see where they were going. “How about I drive for awhile, Uncle?” Robbie said.

Sayyid nodded and handed off the pole. Robbie took his place at the stern.

to be continued. . .

read backwards starting here

(c) 2013


we’re parched here on the west coast. . .and regardless of rhetoric and resource politics, one thing seems clear: extreme weather is the new normal.

That’s our story and we’re sticking with it. Read more here.


fiction valentine 1.4

cupid-and-psyche-1867Love. It’s everywhere. Some would even venture to say that if you haven’t found it, you’re not looking.We don’t know if that’s true. We do know that sometimes fictional love is better than no love at all.

Excerpted from “Jesus, Mary, Buddha”

Over warm olives and crusty sourdough, Helen learns that Nick’s third wife parked her Range Rover at the edge of town on the banks of the Snohomish River and washed down a handful of pentobarbital with a bottle of flinty Oregon pinot gris

It was his first year of mourning and he still hated her and loved her in ways he hadn’t yet explored. “I don’t know how I can do better than that,” he told Helen one night. “I mean fucking look at her.” He gestured toward a framed photo of them on his living room mantle. “She’s gorgeous.”

On Earth Day they up-cycle a pair of antique windows and build a table out of them. Later, they eat salmon with their fingers, straight out of his backyard smoker. After dark, they sit in deck chairs in the garden and watch shooting stars. Eight weeks into their affair, she drives home through the city streets late at night with the windows down, with air warm as a lover’s breath sliding up her arms, through her hair. The rhododendrons are in bloom. The azalea, lavender, chives, strawberries, raspberries,  pear, five kinds of apple, chestnuts. Even at 11 pm, there are couples walking, cyclists peddling down the quiet evening streets in thin cotton dresses, short sleeves. It is evident that even in the dark, they are sucking the juice out of the first days of summer, taking shy steps toward the grilling season.Through the car windows, Helen Okabe breathes in the perfume of lilac.

For his birthday she gives Nick an anatomically correct chocolate heart spiced with habanero pepper. He makes his signature clams and beer. Afterward, he builds a fire in the backyard firepit and they recline on deck chairs, watching the sky. He talks about his men’s group, about getting in touch with his feelings.

“I’ve been wondering,” he begins. “What if I’ve been sabotaging relationships my whole life?” Unlike so many middle aged men, Nick is messed up on love and he knows it. To his credit, he is actually trying to unpack that baggage.

Helen sucks an ice cube and lets the water slide down her throat. “I was just wondering that myself,” she says. She has. She has been doing her spiritual inventory and counting up the number of times that, when the going got tough, she got gone. She was up to four. It wasn’t pretty.

“I think I have intimacy issues,” he says.

“Wait,” she replies. “You said you and Reina were simpatico. You were married ten years. You renewed your vows every spring for God sake. That sounds awfully intimate to me.”

“Nah,” Nick waves the idea away. “That was only appearances. I checked out after two years, if I’m honest about it.”

Appearances, her Zen master said, not only fool, you they aren’t even real. Helen still hasn’t wrapped her head around that one.  

She offers the only solace she has, something from a piece of research she is working on. “The top five fears of most people are public speaking, followed by flying, heights, fear of the dark, and intimacy.” She counts them off on the fingers of her hand and refrains from adding that following this list, the fears continue with death, failure, rejection, spiders, commitment.

“That can’t be right,” Nick says.

“It’s from a university study,” she replies.

“I would say fear of intimacy is number one,” he continues.

“People are scared to death of intimacy. Just think what it means if you are right.”

“I am right.”

“If you are right, and I’m not saying you are, it means people would rather sleep with strangers than speak in front of a crowd of them.”

“It doesn’t mean that at all.”

“People are more afraid of emotional honesty than talking,” he says. “Look,” he says, pointing to a light moving across the night sky, “a satellite.”

It is a clear spring night and the sky is shy of clouds and the moon is new so they have space to shine. “Anyway. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.”


Cynthia Gregory

fiction valentine 1.3

shadowwe’re having fun sharing love stories this week. they come in all shapes and flavors. what’s yours?

It is not as you believe, my Angel. I am not a bad man.  You may think it odd that we have never spoken.  I stand within ten feet of you, my Love, and the words falter, trapped in my throat.  I wait for you on the platform this morning and when I don’t see you I begin my search.

You are in the last car, walking to your seat.  You prefer the solitude here in the “quiet car” over the chattering up front.

I juggle my briefcase and my coffee, taking up more than my allotted half of the aisle, but I see that you are nimble, my Love Light.  I stop, and wait, and hope, but you have contorted yourself into a time-space continuum where anything is possible.  You glide past me without so much as our arm hairs touching.

Now the interminable ticking of my watch is all that separates us.  The train slows; the  doors open.  I walk from the platform to the street, jostled by the nameless, the faceless, carrying backpacks and briefcases.  Their eyes do not shine like my Love’s.

And then you are there, barely yards from me, my Aphrodite, your white dress resplendent in the morning sun, your lush hair tousled by the gentle wind, surrounding a face that would make Venus jealous.  Your long, sinewy legs stride with an athlete’s grace.  I must hurry!

You sense me, but do not turn as I close the gap and we cross the street in tandem.   What bliss!  The sidewalk is deserted; just you, my Madonna, and me, our destinies intertwined, inevitable.

My footstep behind you, adoration at a glance.  Did you notice?  I run a hand through my thinning hair and smile.  But what is this?  What’s that look in your eye?  Are you upset this morning, my Goddess?  Perhaps tired?  I walk on, exactly one half-step behind you, but your pace quickens.  You are determined.  The heat rises to my cheeks; the odd bead of sweat now joined by half a dozen others.  I take several shallow breaths and plunge in; we walk side by side.

My ecstasy knows no bounds.  How many times have you looked away?  A hundred?  A thousand?  My Love, my Captive; now you cannot ignore me.  We walk, not an arm’s length apart.  I would encircle you with my own two, would you give me the slightest signal.

My eyes implore:  LOOK AT ME; but your eyes look only ahead, my Angel, as you float along on winged feet.  We cross the bridge in tandem.  Your proximity is intoxicating. You smell like a breeze off the ocean. I open my mouth to speak, but you are looking away, to the river below, some distant prize on the horizon.  Your feet belie their wings, my Love.  Are you flying?  My heart pounds the narrow walls of my chest seeking an audience.  Another bead of sweat careens along my cheekbone before dive-bombing to the ground.  I think I hear it plop.  More stand ready.  I steal a glance, but you do not notice.

Another breath, this one more shallow.  Your pace is unwavering and I struggle to keep up.  My lungs scream for a rest, a cigarette.  Your pace is maddening.  You pull away.  Don’t leave me!  Not now.  Now that we are so close.

I glance at your face, a goddess carved by Michelangelo himself.  Are you not tiring, my Love?  My arms and legs pump wildly, valiantly, trying to match your stride.  My love swells and my heart wrenches, threatening to burst its walls.  You show no signs of slowing.  Soon we will be at a cross street, the moment lost forever.

“It’s a lot easier walking than I thought it would be this morning.  I thought it would be hotter.”  Was that my voice?  I do not recognize it.

You turn your head to face me, the Goddess in you saluting the God in me.  But what is in your eyes?  Hostility?  Rebuke?  Or maybe just the heat.  Eternity passes.  Did you hear me, my Queen?

“Just wait until midday.”

Your first words!  But…now?  Sarcasm?  Vowels and consonants hang, suspended like greenhouse gasses.  Your eyes lance my skin.

Beads of sweat form armies on my brow.  Some disband, trekking out on reconnaissance missions.  A millennium passes much too slowly.  You walk faster still, if that is at all possible. Our thirty year age difference wears on me.  I pray for rain that I might offer you my umbrella, but the cloudless sky just laughs.  I am at a loss.  We stop at a light and I squeeze all the words clawing their way up back down into my heart.  I am reeling, all six acupuncture pulses echoing in my forehead.  I suck in ambient air like a vacuum; it pummels my lungs like shrapnel.

The light turns green and I charge ahead, taking the first step, knowing you will match my pace.  Half a block by I cast a cautious glance over my shoulder.  But you are not there?  I whirl around to see you buying fruit from a vendor.  I retreat into the shelter of a doorway and from there watch you unnoticed.  Your pace has slowed considerably.  Are you tired, my Beguiling One?

You arrive and I am standing before you.  You recoil, drop the fruit.  Fruit salad sprays the sidewalk.  Pineapple and orange and strawberry splatter your shoes.  You mouth goes slack.  The world tips on its axis.  I stand there, silent, pleading.  Your stare melts the glaciers.


I swallow, but my throat burns like wildfire.  I stoop, gather the fruit.   Remnants of melon and cantaloupe and mango trip through my fingers.  I offer them to you, my outstretched hands my reply.  We could lie on the beach, my Sweet One, eat fruit until our bellies were full….

What’s this, my Beauty?  Are you annoyed with me?

Juice slips through my fingers as a thousand needles pierce my arm.  My vision diffuses, my chest seizes.  I want to press my heart, but it’s my balls I grab.  I leave a sweet, sticky hand print on my khaki trousers.

“I thought so,” you say, and turn to leave.

I open my mouth to speak, to cry, to confess, but the words splinter as my heart explodes. Oh, please, PLEASE, wait.  Not this way, my Delicious One.  I drop to one knee, then to the ground as my cheek buries itself in a slice of golden pineapple.  The sharp, sweet aroma drifts into my sinuses.  I watch your fruit-splattered shoes recede.  I hear the distant wail of a siren.  They come for me, I know.  Will you ride with me, my Love?


Pam Lazos


fiction valentine 1.2

butterfieldwe’re sharing stories of love this week because love is so big and one day is so small. today we’re starting a little catalog here. sort of . decide for yourself.

excerpted from “ALMOST CANADA”

She moves up the aisle toward the dining car to pass the time until the train resumes its forward motion. At the narrow counter, she takes a stool beside to a dark haired man, orders a glass of ginger ale. The man is working on a burger.  He shifts his eyes toward her, measuring. His hair is glossy, black as a raven feather and close-cropped above his collar.  One long border of bristled hairs makes a ledge over his eyes, his nose hooking sharply over a pretty mouth.

“Gotta love ther rail, right?” he said. He hitches a smile in Antonia’s direction.

“Excuse me?”

“One goddam delay en anerther,” he explains. There is a mole on his neck, just behind his left ear that moves as he chews and talks. It is the size of a grain of rice.

The man tilts over the counter toward his food, hooks his arm around his plate forming a border between his fried potatoes and Antonia. He is not a small man, or bird-like, but his movements suggest the motions of the ravens that inhabit the tree outside of her office window. Antonia watches the bubbles rise in her glass of pop, thinks about what she knows about ravens, which begin to court at an early age, and then mate for life. In part of the mating process, a male raven will demonstrate intelligence and a willingness to procure food or shiny objects. Egg laying begins in February so courting must take place in early to mid-January.

Antonia is a vegetarian more by disposition than philosophy. This is to say, she will eat meat to avoid hurting her neighbor’s feelings if invited for dinner. In a restaurant, she will select venison if the side dishes or greens are inferior. The man makes the hamburger vanish, chunks at a time, washing it down with pale beer.  When he finishes, he wipes the corner of his mouth with a large, square thumb. His eyes rake her face, drop to her sweater.  “Wheer ya headed? Goina Canada?”

Antonia stares at the chip bisecting his incisor, wonders what it would feel like to run her tongue over that rough surface. Her mouth forms a watery smile. Common ravens are highly opportunistic. “Almost,” she says, leaving money for the pop and spinning away. “I’m going to Almost Canada.”

She is mutable, an object of desire. She is a screen upon which projections are made: a bold maiden, a volatile spinster, the girl with the long grey skirt and the blouse with pearl buttons.

The man swipes twin circles of pickle from his plate and drops them on this tongue like holy wafers. He watches the twin moons of her rump as she moves away.

Antonia returns to her seat to find that in her absence, the pair of facing seats across the aisle has been occupied by three girls, sisters, traveling on their own. The oldest, a teenager with sleek black hair, presses out text messages on her phone, while the two younger girls share a laptop computer and review the Facebook posts of friends. They are fundamentally beautiful in the way of youth and by heritage; their ancestors  inhabited these coastal meadows centuries before Europeans arrived with their fur trades and their thirst for whale oil. Antonia peers beneath her own lashes at the contrast between their dark hair and their alabaster skin, the curve of their lips above the slow arcs of their chins.

She feels a rush of gratitude for such vigorous charm, such tender virtue.  As the train begins to slow for the next station, the oldest, the managing sister, switches from texting to making a call to determine at which city the trio will depart the train. The girl says It’s me. We’re coming to the station. Do we get off here or the next one? Antonia wonders how there can be confusion about the care of beautiful dark-haired girls. Mom, the girl says. Mom, please don’t yell at me. I just need to know, which station?  And like that, a picture develops; the first one, the responsible child, the good girl.  Antonia’s heart breaks a little for these sylph.


Cynthia Gregory