Short Stories you can read right now

                                         A CHANUKAH STORY

    It was the coldest Chanukah anyone could remember. Icicles hung from the eaves and a cold wind blew the snow into drifts on the lawn. It was the last night of Chanukah and the fully lit menorah would do what it could to compete with the multi-colored twinkling displays of Christmas lights on all the other houses in Stony Glen Estates.. As the subdivision’s only Jewish family, little Sarah Greenstein took special pride showing the menorah in the living-room window. The menorah was a heavy silver antique passed down, like her Jewishness, from her Mother. Unfortunately, it required a rather large odd sized candle which the Greenstiens had to special order many weeks in advance from a Judiaca store in Brooklyn. The candles were kept in the drawer with the tablecloths until they were needed.
    This is how Chanukah had been for all of Sarah’s nine years. But this year something had gone wrong with the candle order. The count was wrong and the box from Brooklyn was short the nine candles needed for the last night. Instead of containing 44 candles, which covered all the nights of Chanukah, the candle box was completely empty after the seventh night. Not only were there no special candles left, there were no candles in the house at all and the storm outside made driving to the store impossible.
    The mood inside the Greenstein’s house was as dark as the menorah. All around them the neighbor’s houses twinkled and flashed with Christmas color. Some houses had illuminated Santas and sleighs on their roof or lawn, some had reindeer and wise men, and one had a huge inflated snowman. Everywhere there were lights; cascades of lights hung off the roofs and engulfed every shrub and tree. The menorah’s slow build up to its fully lit splendor was all but lost in the Christmas glare.
    Alas, it appeared that there was nothing  to be done to salvage the situation.  The festival of lights was headed for a cold and dark conclusion. Sarah sat in her room disappointed and stared out her window. The neighbor’s colored light show reflected off the icicles hanging from the eaves giving them the appearance of colored rods. Maybe it was that colored glow that gave Sarah the idea that saved this story and her final night. Running down the steps she ran to her father and told him her idea.
    “Put icicles in the menorah”? her incredulous father asked. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea. They’ll only melt and make a mess”. But Sarah begged and pleaded until her father put on his winter coat and went to fetch the ladder from the garage. In a few minutes he returned with a pail containing nine icicles just about the size of the menorah’s candles. Sarah set them in their sockets ready for lighting. It looked a little strange but there was no denying it had a certain charm about it. The family gathered around the curious candelabra, joined hands and said the Chanukah prayer. Father even went as far as to light a match and touch it to the shamus, the center candle that lights the others.
    No one was more surprised than the Greenstein’s when the icy shamus held the flame just like a real candle. In a few moments all the ice candles were lit and
the menorah burned in full glory. Not only did the menorah burn all night long but, if that weren’t miracle enough, the storm knocked out all the power in Stony Glen Estates plunging it into darkness. The Greenstein menorah was the only light anyone could see  for miles around.

1.      Porch Rockers
    In the boogeyman old age home Grolph rocked on the porch chuckling mindlessly to himself.
    "What's so amusing?" asked Boodrum, his long time companion.
    "I was just thinking about that teacher I used to haunt. Made his life miserable. Scared him so bad he never got out of third grade. God I was good."
    "We were all good in our day. I could match you tale for tale. But what's the use? Those days are gone, gone forever." Boodrum heaved a sigh that sang of lost youth and  missed opportunities, so many lives left un-ruined. "Ever think of the ones that got away?" Boo asks.
    "Say what?" Grolph groping for his ear trumpet. "What'd you say?"
    "The ones that got away," Boo said slowly and loudly.
    "You don't have to shout, I ain't deaf yet," said a mostly deaf Grolph.
    This is what it had come to. The rest home for our greatest fears. Fears grown as old and toothless as their hosts. Fangs long replaced with expensive bridgework. Boiled flesh only these days, can't risk breaking a tooth on bones.
    "Did you hear about Droolp?" shouted Boodrum into the trumpet.
    "What about him?"
    "Went off to scare his human one last time. The myopic son of a bitch scared the wrong person completely. Got so embarrassed he missed the evening meal. And then there was old Vinegar, you heard about him?" Boodrum sat back and rocked exhausted from all the conversation.
    "I heard," said Grolph. "Wandered off one day and couldn't find his way back. He's still missing. This isn't cheering me up any, you know. I got to tell you something, Boo, I'm scared."
    "Oh c'mon, a big bad nightmare like you. What have you got to be scared of?"
    "Irrelevance. Remember that teacher I was telling you about? Well he's a senile old fool now. There's nothing I can do to scare him anymore. I'm irrelevant, Boo, isn't that the cruelest fate of all?"
    Boodrum heaved a great sigh and looked over at his friend, tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Even boogeymen get the blues,” was what he finally said.


2. Fate--A Short Story

The old soothsayer blew into his fist three times and tossed the bones on the rabbit skin. Then he studied their arrangement and drew a diagram on his palm with a charcoal stick. There were many patterns and each was a message from the spirit world. The shaman knew them all by heart but looked it up in the old book anyway as was the custom. He then pointed to the pattern in the book and opened his hand to show that they were the same. Only then did he give his reading.
“There is trouble coming. Two, three days hence. Arm yourself or flee but prepare to meet your fate.”
The young man paled at the pronouncement. It was the second time he had heard it that morning. The same pattern twice in a row from two different shaman. It was unprecidented. This was bad, really bad. Two days maybe three. “What should I do?” he asked the old man, “What’s coming? How do I prepare?” The old man shrugged his bony shoulders. He could say no more than what the bones told him. He rolled up his rabbit skin, returned the bones to their leather sack and held out his hand for payment. The boy placed a copper coin in the dirty palm and walked away.
There was no use in trying another soothsayer—two was enough. His fate was sealed. Big trouble was on its way. He walked down the crowded street lost in thought. He could flee the bones said but could you really escape your fate? What if he sailed across the sea and the boat sank in a storm? or he took a carriage to another city and was killed by highwaymen? Would that be escaping ones fate or rushing to meet it? How could you flee your fate?
He could stay and fight. Arm yourself the bones said. That sounded more nobel than fleeing but he was no fighter. He was hopeless with weapons. He’d certainly be killed if he drew a sword on anyone. He was a musician, after all, not a fighter. He had a kind heart and a gentle nature.
Two or three days hence the bones said. Why the uncertainty? It gave him a glimmer of hope. Maybe the bones didn’t know everything. Did it mean that he couldn’t be killed today? And what about that phrase, “There is trouble coming?” What did that mean? When wasn’t there trouble? All his life that’s all there’d ever been. It was the same for everyone in this city. Life was trouble.
So over and over the youth parsed the prediction until he thought he would go mad. He stopped into a tavern and ordered a flagon of ale from a comely wench and took his lute from its sack and started to play. Some people threw coins to him so he ordered dinner. The same shy, pretty girl brought him a bowl of stew and a rusk of bread. He sang to her and she smiled at him. Sated, he sang some more. Singing greatly improved his mood and, sometime later, lying with the serving girl in the barn, boosted his spirits even more.
They spent the next day together. He learned her name and told her his. She was a country girl new to the city. They walked beyond the city walls talking and laughing. The day was fair, the fields full of flowers. They felt a strong attraction for each other as only two young people on the verge of falling in love can. That night they slept together in his bed. The boy was never happier, the soothsayer’s gloomy prediction all but forgotten. The next morning they made plans to meet when her working day was through. She told the boy she loved him and he pledged his love to her. All that day he spent composing love songs and by the evening he had written three.
He went to the tavern to see her. He sat at a table and played his new songs to her as she worked. It was a rough crowd but she flitted amongst the soldiers and farmers like sunlight. A fight broke out, as common an ocurance as ale in a place like that. Knives were drawn and pistols fired. The constables came and hauled the ruffians away. In the confusion, no one noticed the serving girl shot and bleeding in the corner.
The boy felt his heart break. He held her until she died. He wept and cursed his fate. Then he understood the meaning of the soothsayer’s prediction. You can not flee your fate, you can not fight it, you can not even know what form it will take. You can only live your life and accept whatever comes.


       Maybe it came in with the firewood, sleeping in some rotten log until the warmth of the stove revived it and brought it to life. Or maybe it had been dormant in the walls of the old house and it awoke because it was time. Whatever its origins, it was a unique creature, half mouse half crab and very hungry. It stretched its legs and groomed its body. After so long a sleep, waking felt good. Its need for food was strong.
       The house was dark but it could see. It was wary but all was quiet. It crawled from a hole in the wood box and made its way off the hearth. It scuttled along the room's perimeter in little bursts of speed followed by an alert silence. Its claws made a soft clicking sound on the wood floor. In the dim light of the room it could make out the darker rectangle of a doorway. It made a dash for the opening.
      To the old tabby cat sitting motionless in the corner, this was just too tempting a target to resist. As silent as only a cat can be it pounces on the intruder, all its weaponry at the ready. The crab thing reacts instinctively and strikes with its poison claw. The cat sinks to the floor a glassy eyed corpse. The thing's venom liquifies the cat's organs and bones. A mosquito-like proboscis drinks the pre-digested pussy cat innards and leaves an empty bag of cat fur in the middle of the room.
Having fed, the creature feels stronger though not yet satisfied. It finds the box of kittens in the kitchen and one by one it leaves six little bags of fur in place of animated cuteness. It's hunger now sated the crab thing heads back to its hole. It has sensed the big black lab asleep by the back door and the family asleep upstairs. Tomorrow is another day.


The Element of Ritual

From the NY Times May 4, 2010 idea would be to deliberately increase the element of formal ritual in medicine. Studies of “alternative” therapies show that strong placebo effects can be induced by ritual. Indeed, in mainstream medicine, surgery is the treatment most surrounded by ritual; perhaps this is one reason it appears to be the most powerful placebo.

     Nurse Smithers straightened Dr. Baumgartner’s feathered head dress. it had slipped down below the caduceus so carefully painted on his forehead by the medical ritual staff. The MR (Medical Ritual) dressing room looked more like the backstage at a Broadway show— racks of costumes, shelves piled high with musical instruments, make up artists and hair stylists scurried about helping physicians prepare their illusions. It was a far cry from the old days before doctors finally understood what healing was all about—illusion. It was illusions that kept the patient’s belief system functioning and if the patient really believed, they were practically cured.
     Ritual was Placebo General’s way of maximizing the curative powers locked away in each patients own belief system. Modern medicine was all about placebos much to the chagrin of big pharma. There was precious little money to be made from a science fiction set and a shot of salt water. These days medical treatment was more show than substance. If the patient believed he was being cured, his mind took care of the rest.  His attending physician, Dr. Baumgartner, knew that the contents of the syringe he was holding was not nearly as important to the patient’s recovery than the ritual that preceded it.
      In this case, the patient, Mr. Louis Silverblank, a portly 60 year old from New Jersey, was just waking up from his placebo heart surgery and was expecting a shot of painkiller. His pre-surgical work up revealed that Mr. Silverblank was superstitious and distrusted modern medicine. He tended to a strong belief in more primitive forms of treatment. As a result, his surgical team dressed for the occasion in a combination of Haitian Voodoo and Amazon rain forest garb. His surgeon, Dr. Numsey, performed the operation in a sterile loin cloth and body paint. Numsey was highly regarded throughout the region as a master of the elaborate and effective primitive scenario.
     Nurse Smithers, herself dressed in a flowing muumuu with a colorful tropical theme and a hat filled with colorful fruits, began a rhythmic beating on a small drum hung around her neck. Dr. Baumgartner accented her rhythm with staccato shakes of a rattle made from a tortoise shell. Together they entered Silverblank’s room in a shuffling Samba chanting in a language no one present understood. A semi conscious  Silverblank seemed impressed by the ceremony and felt much improved just watching the medicos working so hard to stimulate his trust. Nodding his head to the rhythm he gave nurse Smithers a shy smile.
      His smile increased as Dr. Baumgartner raised the syringe high in the air and called upon the mystic forces of healing to flow into it. Nurse Smithers beat a furious crescendo on the drum. Dr. Baumgartner turned around three times, produced a puff of smoke from his palms and injected the saline solution into Silverblank’s enormous rump. Mr. Silverblank heaved a blissful sigh and lapsed back into sleep.
      Dr. Baumgartner and Nurse Smithers turned and left the sleeping Silverblank’s room and hurried down the corridor to the MR ready room. They had to change out of their feathers and beads into a futuristic costume consisting entirely of chrome and plastic prosthetics. Nurse Smithers donned an android mask while Dr. Baumgartner slipped into a breastplate filled with flashing lights and gauges and hurried off to operating theater 4, the Doctor From Tomorrow set. Mrs. Hackman was having her gall bladder removed or at least thought she was.

A Cold Beer In Hell
© Harris Tobias 2013

There’s a story they tell in Killkenny
A story I think you should hear
It involves a local fellow named Murphy
A wager, a contest, and beer

One day down at Paddy’s a stranger came in
Old Murphy was already there
Murph said hello to the stranger
And offered to buy him a beer

You know who I am asked the stranger
I’m the devil and I’ve come here for you
Drink up because where you’re going
There ain’t gonna be any brew

Now if there’s one thing we know about Murphy,
Was that the man lived to drink beer
And he’d taken the devil’s full measure
And knew he had nothing to fear

Old Murphy turned to the devil
He said I bet I could drink more than you
The devil said son, you’ve picked the wrong man
I’m the fella that invented the brew

But Murphy just laughed and ordered a draft
And agreed that that probably was so
I suppose when I’m dead old Murphy said
There’s no drinking where I’m gonna go

That’s true said the devil there isn’t no beer
Not where you’re gonna go
We ain’t got no pubs just demons and grubs
It’s all fire and pain down below

No one had ever seen Murphy
Without a mug in his fist
If there was only one thing that he lived for
Drinking was top of the list

Tell you what said Murph to the devil
As he hoisted a beer to his lips
Let us keep score and whoever drinks more
Has to grant the winner one wish

It’s a deal said the devil and held out his claw
Pour a pint for me and my mate
Paddy pulled on the lever
Then chalked a one on his slate

Now Murphy was known in the village
As a man who enjoyed drinking beer
And if somebody else was abuyin’
You can bet that old Murphy was there

A few hours later the tavern was packed
Every man woman and child in town
Murph and the devil were tied neck and neck
Each man was tossing them down

By evening it looked like Murphy was whipped
Paddy had chalked forty five
Murphy’s hand shook as he picked up his glass
No one thought that Murph would survive

When the folk began cheering and calling his name
Old Murphy seemed to revive
He tossed down the next two pints in a row
Now the devil had fear in his eyes

The devil hung on for couple a more rounds
Then he starting to wobble and sway
Then he slipped from his stool and looked like a fool
Old Murphy had carried the day

Great jubilation, people danced in the street
Old Murphy had done them all proud
The devil was faced with discrace and defeat
Everyone cheered long and loud

Well, said the devil, you won fair and square
And I guess I owe you a wish
So what’ll it be money or fame
That’s usually top of the list

Old Murphy just laughed and shook his grey head
And said this’ll probably sound queer
But the one thing I wish for the one thing I want
Is for hell to begin serving beer

So listen to me all you sinners
In a world filled with liars and cranks
In hell when they hand you a cold one

It’s Murph who deserves all the thanks

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