The Red Cloche

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The house was old–ancient by some folks’ reckoning. The flagstone pathway ran in a somewhat straight fashion towards the entrance, and a few carefree wrens flitted around in the foliage. The grounds were in that state of disrepair that, while still showing the original care and love of minutia, clearly advertised the present state of dismal affairs. The property was not obviously abandoned, but a casual observer might have made that pronouncement, had he been asked. A few apple trees stood in one corner of the lawn, drooping with the weight of the load that came so predictably every year. The ground underneath was strewn with half-rotted fruit, and bees, birds, and other wild beasts from the smaller variant of the animal kingdom enjoyed the feast. Various foliar plants overgrew their bounds, and the grass rose in patches throughout the lawn. Helix Hedera had claimed half of the brick facade, and while at one time controlled, it now seemed to enjoy free reign of the mortar and whatever handy crevice might fall under its grasp.

WrenI say that the house might have been deemed abandoned; indeed, even the old iron gate out front seemed to have given leave of its duties and swung freely, unlatched, all the while moaning out some ancient song of dismal gloom. A total abandonment, however, was not the case, as you have probably already guessed. If you were to stand at the road, and carefully watch between the bars of the old fashioned windows with their wavy, opaque glass, you might think that, every so often, a fleeting glimpse of a stray ray of light could be caught, and in rare cases, when the wind howled and the lightning flashed, you might even get the notion that a face had appeared at one of the windows. Soon, after a time or ten, you might start to believe that the old house still served its purpose, and further, if the fancy took you to discuss this in the pub at night, under the influence of some spirit and in the presence of friends, you might decide that you should affirm your theories. Thus, I decided to brave the moaning iron gate and traverse the old flagstones.

The day was chillier than I had anticipated. The wind didn’t exactly whip through the shrubs, but I wouldn’t degrade Euros’ work to a mere breeze. I marched somewhat bravely to the front door. The door knocker was a great cat’s head. Its eyes looked into mine, and I found this the most unnerving thing since I had stepped foot onto the property. At that moment, a wren flitted by and sang on the ivy to my right. I took this as a good omen, and the knocker echoed into the dark hall beyond. The door knob turned, and clenching my teeth with what I hoped was an expression of goodwill, I prepared to meet my host.

A conflict of emotions welled up within me as the door swung open. Foremost in their ranks was surprise, for standing before me, clad in a cream colored silk dress with edges of black and wearing a bright red cloche hat, was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She wore her black hair fairly short, and her face wore an expression of mild amusement. Fright and confusion closely followed my surprise; I had not expected such a young host, and I certainly was not prepared for one this stunning. My visage must have betrayed me, for she smiled and laughed out, “why, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost!”

I stammered a bit before finding my manners. “Well, yes. I su-suppose I might! My apologies, miss!”

“Do come in; we so very rarely receive guests here. Jane, fix our visitor a cup of tea!”

With that, I quickly removed my shoes and was swept into the hall by the mere force of her personality. “Come with me, our sitting room is the second door on the right.”

The interior of the house could have possessed no greater a degree of a disparate mood to that of the exterior. On the walls hung paintings of men and women, not recognized by myself, but no doubt great in some form or place. The ceilings were made of a polished black wood of some sort, Ebony, if I were to hazard a guess. They reflected the light from the surprisingly bright gas fixtures that lined the halls. The walls were a mahogany paneling, inset with rings and various geometric shapes of cedar, cherry, and other fine woods. The paintings were not hung with any particular reference or pattern, but to say that they were imprecise would be a farce, for each hung as though it could hang in no other spot. The floor was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Someone had taken small pieces of wood, about one to two cubic centimeters in volume–some square, some not, some with no defined shape–and strewn them throughout the entire expanse of the hall so that they sat with corners upended and sides facing every which way. Lacquer had then been poured over all to create a smooth surface. Every so often a shiny trinket or coin had been trapped beneath the sea of clear coat, and the sheen mirrored itself in my hostess’s eyes. She beckoned me into the sitting room, and I took my seat in a plush chair beneath a great painting of some old hunting party.

My wonderment at the house was soon drowned. A chill had swept over my heart, and the reason stood in the second door of the room. An old hag, no doubt the Jane whom my host had summoned, stood with a tray of teapot and cups. If my host was beautiful beyond word, then this woman, if I may call her that, was frightening beyond thought. Her smile cracked the lines of her face as she looked towards my seat, but this expression showed no more pleasure or amiability than the rudest gesture of the most crass of my friends. Her hair sat as if it resented its position on top of such a vile mass, and her clothes, while kempt and undoubtedly expensive, hung on her frame as though they were ashamed of their duty. “Tea?” she said with a look, and though I made no verbal response, I took some with cream and sugar, but still, it was strangely bitter. Again, that horrid smile appeared as she turned away, and I swear that I saw a faint reflection of the same on my host’s face as she too took a cup from the tray.

The beautiful face turned to me and she began to speak, but soon, the room faded, and the red cloche bobbed back and forth as the melodic voice of my host melded into the background, aided, no doubt, by the drug in the cup.

I awoke in a new room. The ceiling was of the same design as the hall, but the floor here was carpeted with a fine, tall carpet that felt like grass beneath my feet. The walls here were barren, except for one painting. The outline of a man stood in depthless space, surrounding by nothing but gray brushstrokes. Almost every detail of the man was complete. His clothes possessed a realism that made me question his status as a painting, but there was one feature which stood out prominently as missing. His face contained no features. As though someone had blurred the head with a skin-tone paint, he stood with no eyes, mouth, nose, or facial hair. Beside him stood a woman. I blinked again, for I hadn’t seen her before in the painting. Her face was too, in the same manner as the man’s, blurred into oblivion. A red cloche sat upon her head, atop her short black hair.

A faint recognition dawned somewhere in the back of my head. I watched as the figures moved and conversed, while the gray made no changes. Slowly, swirling like ripples in water, the painting melded away to nothing, and once more, I fell asleep.

I lifted my head. The rest of my body felt as though it were restrained by some omnipotent force. My vision was foggy, and harsh lighting beat down from above. The voices around me were garbled, and I couldn’t make out my company, but I thought I imagined a blur of red and a menacing smile. I fell asleep.

“We found him last night. He seems to have passed in his sleep. We let him wander when he wanted; he didn’t pose a fall threat or seem to bother anyone else. We think he just came in here, sat down, and just never woke up.”

The man in the white jacket and well-organized attire spoke somberly. The elderly woman with the tear-stained face watched as a gurney was wheeled out towards the door. She didn’t say anything in reply, and her eyes wandered through the common room, pausing on a painting on the opposite wall. The Victorian house was attractive and somehow familiar. A flagstone path lead up to the door, and she moved closer to look into a window, for she was certain that a face had appeared, a familiar face, wearing something she recognized.

She decided that her eyes had deceived her, and walked out through the doors, which were adorned with paper hearts and cut flowers. She passed the desk and the calendar with February 14 circled in red felt pen. She walked down the stairs of the asylum, and as she did, she paused and pulled a hat from her purse, an old red hat that had seen many years and better days. She looked up into the sky and smiled, a smile that cracked the lines on her face. When she got home, she poured herself a cup of tea, a bitter-tasting tea. She fell asleep, and the red cloche fell to the floor.

I don’t often write short stories, but I enjoy them. I started writing a short story for Valentine’s Day four years ago, and I missed last year, so this makes story number three. Enjoy it? Have a great Valentine’s!

(2012’s story and 2013’s story (2014 took a break.))

~ Chris

You Don’t Have a Problem — Abstract

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A problem? There’s a problem with our world, you say? I cannot help but to agree less. Our world has no single problem. Our world is full of problems. Everyone who does something vile causes a new problem, and that problem in turn can initiate its own set of problems. Problems are the source of thousands of businesses. Plumbers, technicians, firemen, and police all exist because of problems. Problems make the world go ’round.

Problem is the name applied to millions of items: animals, devices, weather, and yes, even people. “He’s such a problem.” “Why is that a problem?” “Do you have to cause so many problems?”

Problems are the sources of our engagement in conversation. “What’s your problem?” “Can I help you (with your problem)?” “You too?”

Problems exist because problems are needed. Problems cannot be gotten rid of; problems are inherent to our society. A world without problems is a world with nothing. In our universe, nothing is perfect, and perfection is sham.

Without problems, we would have nothing to which we could aspire. Without problems, success would be meaningless. Without problems, we could not chase perfection. Until we are are in a perfect place, our problems bring us the motivation to be try, to chase, to excel.

Problems are a fact. You don’t have a problem, you are surrounded by them. They exist to make us better. Problems are given to us so that we can find our limits, hone our strengths, and sharpen our skills.

Sometimes our problems turn out to be helps. Sometimes the things we trust turn out to hurt us, but until we cannot be hurt, our hurts serve to help us grow. Until we reach a final state, we have choices–endless choices. One choice stands out above all.

How do we treat our problems?

This is the question that will guide your life. This is the question that will incalculably influence your character. Do you acknowledge your problems? Do you ignore them? Do you shrink from them or try to tackle them on your own? This is the basis upon which you must build your life. Decide to deal with problems with an attitude of grace, and the graciousness in your troubles will be amplified in your joy.

You don’t have a problem; you have many. You can’t run from your problems; they are everywhere. You can learn to accept them; you can grow from them, and eventually, they will kill you, but in your death, will others learn from you? Will the solutions you formed in your life serve to aid others? Will the problems others face be made easier by the problems you overcame in your own life?

Learn to accept your problems; learn to embrace them, and in the end, learn to defeat them or die trying.

Remember, you don’t have a problem–everyone does.

~ XK

On People, Guns, and Shopping (a semi-encouraging ramble)

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Have you ever wanted to just curl up in a ball and forget everyone else in the world? Maybe move to Wyoming and live in the middle of 10,000 acres with nobody but your favorite dog or mountain lion to keep you company? Perhaps you’ve seriously contemplated becoming a hermit in a cave in the middle of the woods of Arkansas (I’ve heard they have nice woods)? Perhaps that’s not the best idea, but sometimes, I can totally relate. I’m often amazed at how many times I hear people say that they “hate other people” or that (more commonly) “I’m just not a ‘people person.'” I worked in retail for the past year and a half at a firearms and outdoors store, and I saw all sorts of people, and I saw them in all sorts of interesting states.

Selling firearms in North Carolina is a fairly painless process. There’s a decent amount of paperwork to be done, but nothing that a high school graduate should struggle with. The basic requirements and process consist of a driver’s license, background check, and the filling of a federal form known as the 4473; pistols require a permit or license that substitutes for the background check.

Many people come in to the store knowing exactly what they want and how to go about the purchase process. Those people are easy. I generally didn’t mind dealing with them. These sorts of people usually own several firearms and are immensely familiar with shooting sports, defense, or hunting and the related things that are needed. The worst experiences that I had with these shoppers are the ones who were cocky or curt, and they were not a huge problem. I know how to ignore negativity.

Some people come in not knowing anything about firearms. These are the people who have to be talked through various aspects of owning a firearm, the legal intricacies, and how the firearm works. These are the people to whom I usually recommend a class or two. If the person is open to listening, then the process is usually fairly easy. If the person has been ill-informed or thinks that he (yes, it was almost always a guy) knows something when he doesn’t, then we had problems.

  • The “(I don’t really) Know-It-All”
    This guy just can’t wait to tell you all that he knows, and he’s never wrong, even when he plainly is. I’ve had customers argue with me even after I’ve shown them the contradicting text on a package, website, or whatever else. They simply cannot stand the thought of being incorrect. This is especially scary when dealing with an item like a firearm. One of the most cliché but but also most prevalent examples of this was the “oh, well it’s not loaded.” Yes, but if you develop a habit of treating loaded and unloaded firearms differently, then you might one day slip up.
  • The “Just-Tell-Me-What-I-Need-To-Know”
    Some people are simply impatient. I typically have little respect for (rude) impatient people, and I openly dislike impatient people with guns. One of the purposes of a firearms salesman (ew, nasty term, huh?) is to filter through the people who are attempting to purchase a firearm illegally or for illicit purposes. When people were overtly impatient or curt, I then had to probe more and attempt to find out why they were being that way, and my actions often, in turn, made them less happy with me, which made me less happy, and then no one was happy.
  • The “Whoah Buddy You Really Don’t Need A Gun”
    Several different types of people qualified for this category–the most obvious were the people who had no mechanical inclinations and knew nothing about firearms. If someone picked up a pistol, put their finger on the trigger, and then proceeded to point it at me or someone else, I would politely work with them on proper handling and etiquette. I would often dissuade these people from purchasing a firearm until they had the proper training.

The list could go on, but I think you get the general idea; many people were a pain to work with. That’s not the point, though. Many people were a pleasure to deal with. Many people were gracious, considerate, and easy-going. People have the capability to be a positive influence in others’ lives, and I think that most people want to be.

I no longer sell firearms; I quit that job not too long ago. It was an interesting experience, though. I learned a lot about people, retail business, and (of course) guns. So, to the people who want to curl up in a ball, move to Wyoming, and live with several cats or a large-breed dog, I say, give others a chance. People out there do care, and how you approach them often sets the tone for how your interactions will go.

That’s my semi-encouraging ramble for the year.

~ Chris