Leaf Raker

Liam didn’t like offices so he raked leaves at St. Magdalene. He did other things as well; mowing, clipping, watering. But raking seemed to occupy most of his time during his school holiday job, tending to the shedding of indifferent elms. He nodded over his rake to the stoic locals, and the steady visitors who included the historic church in their itinerary of Nottinghamshire. They trickled past throughout the day, in ones, in twos, in lines and in groups.
Liam swept the last pile together next to the open sackcloth bale. The public had gone now, and he dropped to his haunches behind an elm for a quick cigarette. He’d returned to St. Magdalene to avoid his father’s generous offer to join him for five weeks at his city accountancy firm. Both parents had frowned when he declined once again, apparently clinging to the hope that Liam would become the third generation of McAllisters at the firm. Why, it would be such a sad waste of his school results if he didn’t plunge headlong into accountancy, crunching numbers and filing tax returns until he was a hundred and thirty.
Liam lit up a Marlboro, drawing slowly before sending a plume of silver smoke over the neat grass towards Nottingham. There his father; an overweight caricature and mother; a flittering socialite, ran their daily schemes and schedules. Oblivious both of course, to their troubled son’s love of only two things; his guitar and Geraldine Harker. Neither of whom seemed to love him back quite as much. Liam was in a holding pattern, neither content nor not. He teetered on the edge of introversion and he knew it. His job here is not just in opposition to his parent’s wishes. It’s almost like hiding out. He sent another trail of smoke crawling away into the setting sun, stubbing the cigarette into the soil. The wispy tendrils snaked and intertwined before breaking apart again, like the promise of a revelation snatched away. These are the best years of your life, people told him enviously. Liam seriously wondered if he would look back on them that way. The scourge of acne seemed a mountain in itself, let alone his dissatisfaction with his music or shyness around Geraldine. He bunched some grass in his fist, angry at the gods of adolescence and frustrated in that ongoing, yet unexplainable way of the young.
Liam sighed, stood up to bale the last of the leaves, and noticed him.
A man came down the long path towards him with a quiet gliding walk. Through a narrow gap in the tree Liam took in his strange appearance; a flamboyant felt hat pulled low in the front: a plume of feather crowning the purple brim. Out of place atop a long brown and ragged overcoat. A homeless prince.
The man stopped where thousands do, at a carved black stone book set in the lawn. Liam had looked at it a hundred times and still couldn’t remember exactly what it said besides the name and years. In fact, he only knew one quote from the poet by heart.
The man glanced up at the tree, catching Liam off guard. Not knowing if he could be seen or not from the other side, he simply remained still as the man looked away again. That choice now hastily made, Liam froze and waited for the man to move on.
A tall woman was now following the same path. Her laced boots clicked softly on the stones, under a full, deep green skirt. Her long hair, dark cocoa locks spilling over a white blouse buttoned at neck and sleeves. Illuminated by the low gold of the sun, Liam could see the dull powdered pallor of her face and bright painted lips. She clicked to a stop next to the man, peering as well at the marble pages.
“But I have lived, and not lived in vain;
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,”
her voice is steady and sincere.

Liam recognises the words from the memorial as the man recites:
“But there is that within me which shall tire,
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire.”
The man’s tone is quiet and flat.

It is a ritual, to mumble the verse on the black book while standing there.

The felt hat tips toward the woman. The man’s voice is a little louder, more genuine.
“Her glossy hair was clustered oe’r a brow
Bright with intelligence and fair, and smooth.”

“Thank you sir, that was lovely. I see you too are an admirer of the great Lord Byron.”
“Not at all.”
“Really? Yet you stand at his stone and quote from Don Juan?”
“Many know his words” replied the man coldly, “Not all fall at his feet.”
The woman frowned, lightly shaking her head.
“He was a brilliant man. Unique.”

“He was a spoilt pretender. A fake.”

“Though every scribe, in some slight of diction,
Will hint allusions never meant
Ne’er doubt This when I speak,
I don’t hint but speak out.”

She looked at the man as though pitying him.
“Doesn’t sound like pretence to me. He expressed himself freely and openly. Provoked thought and debate. He was no fake!”

“Self important and full of wind then.”

“I may stand alone
But would not change my free thoughts for a throne.”

She shook her head at the man in the coat beside her.
“I cannot agree with you sir. He fought for the freedom of Greece. The home of democracy.”

“No. He was bled dry by the Greeks in exchange for their worship. It was a futile quest.”

“At his funeral, the coffin was followed by forty seven black carriages representing the great houses of Britain.”
“The carriages were empty” the man snarled. “They showed their appreciation and disgust at the same time. Women left parties because of him. Men refused to speak to him. He was an animal. The passage of time does not change that.”

“But he was always going to be different. Handsome, but handicapped. Philandering deviant father. Wealthy and titled at ten? Sexually abused. I forgive him plenty.
Joy’s recollection is no longer joy,
While Sorrow’s memory is Sorrow still.”

“Do you have to keep quoting him?”
The woman turned away, her blush kept safe under the matte of her makeup.

“You speak of him as a forward thinker, but he didn’t move with progress. He wasn’t a forward thinker. He sought to encapsulate the moment, oblivious to, or at the expense of all around him. His only legitimate child was taken from him as a baby. Her mother feared his influence on the girl would be nothing but detrimental.”

“She wasn’t even allowed to see a picture of him until she was twenty years old” said the woman quietly.

The felt hat turned sharply from her countenance just as she looked over at him. Liam saw her troubled face, as though she’d been denied as much as the poet’s daughter. The woman’s long hair dropped just as the man glanced over again, this time his voice held the discomfort.
“Ada was force fed mathematics. Discouraged from literature, particularly poetry. Especially his poetry. Her imagination curbed, she still somehow managed to foresee the future of the modern computer. Her work with Charles Babbage pioneered the way the whole world now communicates. In the eighteen forties! She was ahead of her time. A century ahead.”

“And look at where computers have got us. What they have made us:
Society is now one polished horde,
Form’d of the two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.”

“Those tribes have always existed” admonished the man. “Byron was speaking of himself as well no doubt.”

The woman sighed.
“Now, by my foul, tis most delight
To view each other panting, dying.
In love’s extatic posture lying
Grateful to feeling, as to sight.
He was fourteen when he wrote that. Not many fourteen year olds speak with that kind of passion. Neither bored or a bore.”

“Perhaps not many fourteen year olds know that kind of passion.”

“Oh, I’m sure plenty do. But the writing is the thing. The bold cadence of the words. The rawness.”

“The raving of the insane.”

“Did you come here just to mock him at my shoulder?”

“I come to pay my respect to none of the Lord Byrons buried here. I’m only here because of Ada.”
“His daughter is in the family vault beneath the church” the woman said as if to direct him there.
The man looked over at the pretty church, clad in late afternoon shadow. “I don’t feel that welcome in churches.” He turned his head a little to look at her profile.
“Ada used logic. Incredible reasoning and foresight.”
“But the analytical engine they devised was never built. Her program never tested.”
“It was built. But it took another hundred years. Even then they only built what Babbage foresaw; a super calculator, not the vision of Ada. She predicted uses far beyond maths and simple problem solving. Ada envisaged computers fed more than numbers, machines analysing and creating music. No one else thought that way. Spared the impurities of her father, she changed the world!”
“But she wrote algorithms, the poetry of mathematics. She dreamt and doubted. Preened and struggled. Ripped and tore at her life. Tried to elope at sixteen. Confessed adultery to her husband on her death bed. Perhaps her father had more influence on her than he ever realised.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to influence her. Not in that way. He didn’t fight for her you know, no matter what his heart may have told him.”
“If he thought her life would be better without him, then doesn’t that make his decision quite noble?”
“None of his decisions were for others.”

Again she defended Byron.
“I am the very slave of circumstance
And impulse-borne away with every breath.”

“Yes, the impulses of a pig.”

“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes
Sin is a pleasure.”

This time a thin smile played upon her lips.

“You don’t have to keep quoting him.” He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “I know them all.”

“Of course you do.”

They looked at each other, actually face to face for the first time. The woman reached out, tilting back the felt hat. She traced a finger over his cheek. Across the nose so like hers. Like a baby daughter might, on her troubled father’s face.”
“So you knew it was me all along Ada?”

“Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.

God dad, look at that hat!”
Liam could see the glistening of her eyes. “Why, after all these years do you still hate yourself so much?

“To fold thee in a faint embrace,
Uphold thy drooping head;
And show that love, however vain,
Nor thou nor I can feel again.”

He smiled weakly at her. He covered her hand with his own.
Liam caught the chill of the moment. The cold certainty of confession and all its consequences. Like a statue, like part of the tree itself he was drawn to the pair at the black book. The sun had sunk to the horizon. The woman seemed so fragile in the last dying rays.
“I’ve only ever sought one thing. The approval of my father. This day I finally have it.” Her voice broke a little, the crystal chipping. “To know you think so much of my work means everything to me.”
The man swallows hard. Not as if he’d never given a compliment, but as though he’d waited so long to give this one.
“You are amazing Ada.”
“Thank you” she whispers as though the words hurt her throat.
Liam thinks they will embrace. They both flinch as if they will. But the man holds back so she does too.
“I seek a single thing as well. In this life or any other.” And now his eyes are wet. “The forgiveness of my daughter.”
She shakes her head softly. As daughters do to silly things their fathers say. She opens her arms and he fills them, weeping like a child. The ugly felt hat falls away. She strokes his wavy hair as he sobs and sobs.
“Then both of us have had our wish fulfilled.”

Liam is crying as well. Weeping at something he has seen in the light and overheard from the shadows. Knowing against all the things he does, that these two are no actors. No fans. That their performance is genuine. Their feelings raw and tears cathartic and oh too real. Liam has never believed in ghosts. He’s still not convinced even now. But what he’s witnessed cannot be explained. Neither can the feeling inside him, as though he’d been laid bare in the twilight and forever changed. He recalls the only lines of Byron he knows by heart. And as seems to be the way, it fits just right.
“Tis strange but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction.”

The two continue to hold each other, meshing into one. And Liam sees the most amazing sight he will see until he holds his own daughter in his arms five years later at Geraldine’s bedside.
The ragged coat turned to moths. Grey and brown and white they take flight, magical in the last rays of the sun. The brown hair, the white blouse, the green skirt explode as though a giant Christmas cracker has been pulled. They erupt into thousands of butterflies, intertwining with the moths. The flying creatures form a spiral, drawing the leaves from the open bale next to Liam. They join the fluttering wings, dancing on the air as they follow them towards the moon.
Liam laughs after them. He will never rake leaves again. Those or any others. Warmth washes across him. The swirling breeze of words and numbers and magic assaults him. It mixes with the honesty and simplicity of his love for Geraldine. He shuts his eyes as the music fills him. An orchestra of madness and emotion in a wave of simple beauty. He rocks back, nearly falling. It is beyond wonderful.

Under the confetti moon the leaves fall like snow.

This revelation doesn’t dissolve like cigarette smoke. It soaks him. Shakes him. Fills him.

He picks up the rake, humming the tune as he carries it back to the shed.
Then he’ll ride home to get his guitar.

He’s going to see Geraldine, the girl he knows he’ll marry. Who he’ll share everything with. He’ll show her first.

After all the song is about her.

(from the short story collection “nine”)

EPILOGUE

History provides great literary characters; it’s the angle that is the key, the fire to the coals. Sometimes the premise for a story reaches out and slaps your face, demanding you take action, as this one did for me.
The figure we know simply as “Lord Byron” was in fact the sixth Baron Byron, George. His father Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, squandered his mother’s family inheritance, then acquired enough debt to force him to leave England. Byron saw little of his father, who died in France aged just thirty six. Coincidentally, Byron died at the same age. And remarkably, so did Ada.
I knew Ada, famed for her mathematical contribution to computer programming, was Byron’s daughter. But that’s all.
I knew nothing of her, or even her father’s life, really. I was pretty sure Byron was the poet who wrote Don Juan (but didn’t know a word of it) and that he was a controversial figure in his time. Oh, and one other dinner table snippet of trivia: that Byron and some house guests once spent a stormy weekend swapping ghost stories. From that gathering came John Poldini’s inspiration for the novel Vampyre, and Mary Shelly’s for Frankenstein.
It interested me that father and daughter excelled in such different areas. I decided to do some research.
The incidents mentioned in my story are all reportedly true, both about Byron and his daughter. The poetry Ada quotes is of course all his. Byron was born with a club foot, an infirmity he apparently hid with the “gliding” stride he walked with. He became Lord Byron at the age of ten upon the death of his great uncle, inheriting a title and a rundown estate. Not quite the spoilt rich kid I’d imagined. His first published volume of poetry was recalled and censored. Some of his work was considered immoral, especially considering he was fourteen when he wrote them. In “The Leaf Raker”, Ada quotes from “To Mary”, one of the poems omitted at the time. Byron came to real prominence due to his use of satire, firstly targeted at not only critics, but other poets.
As his literary successes escalated, so did his excessive lifestyle. Byron accumulated a reputation with a debt to match. He was the prototype of the modern celebrity, revered and despised simultaneously. His sexual misadventures created the most scandal. Openly bisexual, adulterous, possibly incestuous, his passionate affairs consumed and inspired him. He spoke dramatically in parliament, kept a mind boggling cornucopia of animals and sailed warships at the powerful Ottoman Empire. People went to extraordinary lengths just to catch a glimpse of him. Upper class women would bribe and dress as hotel chambermaids to get close. His wife Annabella coined the term “Byronmania” to refer to the public’s fascination with him.
She also took her infant daughter Augusta Ada, and of course herself, away from him in fear of his self destructive lifestyle. Annabella, gifted in mathematics, kept “Ada” as separate from her father’s influence as possible, not even allowing her to look at his portrait. From this far removed household Ada followed a career in numbers instead of words, in time becoming one of the most famous mathematicians in history. Her revolutionary work with algorithms superseded the machines which would use them by a century. When she too died at thirty-six, it’s interesting that her body was placed next to her father’s in the Byron family vault. It seems Annabella could only trust him with her in death.
Having daughters of my own, I couldn’t imagine a lifetime of separation from them. How much did this affect Byron and Ada? How much genetic influence did he have upon her, for her private life too held a shadow of impropriety? Did they secretly communicate without Annabella’s knowledge? Presuming dangerously that history is giving us the truth here, and that their lives never intersected, father and daughter could only meet in the afterlife.
Unencumbered, they could talk freely. Argue, laugh, apologise, console. Because for all the scandal and stories, the fact that Byron and his daughter never spoke together has the most impact on me. And what magic would come from their meeting?
That’s the face slap. And that’s where “The Leaf Raker” comes from.

The inscription on the “black book” is from Canto IV of Childe Harolde. He quotes Don Juan to her. Byron’s work that Ada quotes to him from are in order: Don Juan, Don Juan, Marino Faliero, Don Juan, To Mary, Sardanapalus, Don Juan, Don Juan. When Ada asks Byron why he still hates himself, he quotes from And Thou Art Dead As Young As Fair. The line Liam remembers is from Don Juan.

And yes, Byron did keep a tame bear at school.

Catcher

It wasn’t that he remembered the sounds. He had never stopped hearing them.

The whip crack of the shots and watermelon wet of their impact. The clattering cacophony of metal and ceramic, tile and Formica. The rising screams of his divas. A lunatic opera, a symphony in the key of red.

She seemed to appear out of nowhere. Jess, her nametag read. She wore the faded gingham of a truck stop waitress, philosophic smile and all. Smelled of jasmine, cinnamon and ammonia. Though she cosseted a steel coffee pot on an oven mitt protected hand, Jess was as out of place in the uni cafeteria as he was. His fingers tightened as she filled his cup, but the noise dulled a little. He didn’t throw it in her face.

He took her all in; hair pulled back tight, west coast sun kissed and pretty, without looking at her. He looked at them. They were seated now, three rows away. Talking, laughing, no one really eating. Colorful and wonderful and full of life. Exchanging thoughts and hearts and spit. Eight at the table. One behind the counter. The stark lights illuminated them into movie stars.

The waitress hadn’t left and that confused him.

Jess tabled the coffee pot and slid into the chair next to him. She punched a small fist into the padding of the quilted mitt.

“I used to play with my two brothers. They always needed a catcher.” Jess tapped a finger to a faint crooked scar near her temple. “Bobby got me a good one the first time. Knocked me flat” she chuckled. Jess raised the glove, shaking her head. “I got better though. Fact is, I got real good at it. I loved it.” She pulled the mitt back, perhaps this time gloving that slider from Bobby. “What do you love doing?”Her smile was more cinnamon than ammonia.

“Don’t start that let’s fucking compare scars bullshit with me.”

A girl with glasses at the other table glanced over at him, a black pit where one eye should be.

“Do you know what happened here?” he spat.

“In eighty five? Sure. Everyone knows what happened here. Michael Vandover shot and killed eight students and one of the staff. Injured plenty more. Then he put the gun in his own mouth and blew his brains out.”

His nod was almost imperceptible. “What a coward.”

“Everyone knows the rest too. How he was mistreated, bullied. Abused. What his father did to him.”

The boy sat in silence, struggling to break the glue on his lips. “Guitar” he finally managed. “Playing guitar was what he lov-what he liked doing best” he muttered.

The others had moved one table closer, their friendly banter now a foreboding wind of whisper.

“None of the dead did a thing to him. Not one of them. Fucking coward.”

“It’s never too late to be brave.”

“Brave? There is no brave, lady. Everyone hides behind someone or something. A crew, a cause, a gun, a fucking cross! What do you know about brave?”

“My boyfriend was beating me. I stood up to him.” Jess unbuttoned her dress, exposing her breasts. No camera phones clicked. No one whistled. Not a murmur. The straight crimson kiss of a knife ran down the inside of one breast. The cut was deep, angry. There were others, continuing down her stomach and out of sight. He wondered if they ever ended; such was the hate in those wounds.

He swallowed it down with his own.

“Did it hurt?” he asked quietly as she rebuttoned.

“Only for a little while honey.”

He spun away quickly, angry for caring. “I told you I didn’t want to see any scars, bitch. So your courage got you stabbed? Great fucking job.”

“It got me free” smiled Jess, more jasmine than ammonia.

He looked up. The others were now at the next table. Their dead stares turned his gut to ice.

“Can’t you see them?”

“Who?”

“FUCKING THEMMMM!” he screamed. The girl with one eye raised her index finger at him with a sneer.

Jess scanned the neat and empty chairs and tables, chiaroscuro stark in pre dawn light.

He watched her face hopefully, but they were his phantoms alone.

“It was thirty years ago honey. “

He heard the whip crack bullets and watermelon wet. The lunatic opera. Saw the girl with glasses beg him not to shoot. Tasted the oil blue heat of the barrel.

“Not if you were there.”

The one eyed girl crawled under the table towards him.

“You need to get out of this place” whispered Jess.

He laughed, though his eyes were as dull and black as a shark. “There’s nowhere I can go.” His head dropped into his hands. The back of his head was a crater; a white chocolate, grey marshmallow Easter egg bitten by God. She stroked his hair nevertheless. He felt her touch, even where the nothing was, all jasmine and cinnamon.

“There’s no place I belong” he sobbed.

“There’s one place. All you have to do is get up out of that chair Mike.”

He looked down at his lap. The one eyed girl’s arms held him tight.

“Is there a heaven? A h-hell?

“No honey. There’s just after.”

The first thin strings of sunrise crept across the cafeteria.

“W-what do you do there?”

“Whatever you love.”
She rested her fingers on the back of his hand. Her thumb slipped under his wrist and her grip tightened, more ammonia than jasmine. He realized Jess could take him, just like that, if she really wanted to. But her eyes beseeched him to do it.

He knew what the brave thing was.

But he couldn’t forgive himself. Not yet. Maybe never.

The one eyed girl reached up. One by one she peeled back Jess’s fingers. The sunlight reached their table, dissolving all but Jess to the recurring dust of memories past.

She sighed, smoothing the stitches on the oven mitt. Remembering how hard it could be to truly set yourself free.

(written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge-Genre: ghost story, location: university cafeteria, item: oven mitt-1000 words/48 hours.)