THE UNHOLY CROSS — A SHORT STORY, PART ONE

HIDDEN

Katriel kneels where the blood pools from his brother’s ribs. The knife, now stained crimson with his crime, seems to gather the moonlight and reflect it out, exposing him. He slips it beneath the fold of his cloak and with one last dismissive glance toward the pale face, turns away.
Must leave now. Danger. Must leave now.
Crisp and cool on his cheeks, the air itself seems to know. Not a footfall, nor a whisper. But they know. He’s sure of it. Turning to the left and to the right, Katriel weaves his way between the cobblestone streets of his childhood, the modest homes of Jerusalem’s labourers and merchants lining its perimeters. Omer’s face lurks in the moonlit shadows cast by Katriel’s own movements, the bloodied figure hunches in open doorways. At every creak and on every corner, Omer points a fleshless finger at his brother’s throat. “You will be found out,” it seems to whisper in the silence. The end of the street. Katriel quickens his pace and his footsteps ring out like bells. In the distance, the murmur of livestock waking is like a warning: Hurry! He turns a corner and before him are the city gates. His heart leaps with relief, but a moment too soon.
The voice speaks out of the darkness. Like when God created the world, Katriel thinks. Is this how it happened? Darkness, light, revealed. “Katriel.”
It’s not a resounding shout nor a frantic scream as he expects. No sword pierces his side as his pierced Omer’s. No threatening hands grip his throat, squeezing the oxygen from his lungs. Instead, it is quiet, almost a whisper.
“Katriel.”
He stops, his joints locked, his skin iced with terror. Only his eyes retain their movement. They flick like a horse’s tail, back and forth, trying to locate the pest, or in his case, his captor.
“Katriel.” The voice is still soft. His name seems to slip from the speaker’s lips like rain, smooth and with the hint of a smile. Katriel’s heartbeat quickens. Is it? No, it couldn’t be”’
“Katriel.” A pause and then, “Why do you not turn to face me or greet me? Why do you stand as you did when we played soldier as little children? Will you not acknowledge me, friend?”
He’s sure of it now. His heartbeat softens to a dull but persistent thud, and the blood in his ears cools. It is only Eshkol. The sky above him is splitting into threads of marigold and crimson. Dawn. There isn’t much time.
His boyhood friend stands silently at his back, awaiting movement. The broad-shouldered man, still clutching the sin-stained knife, calms his breathing to a normal rhythm and turns around. “Ah,” says Eshkol. Even in the dim light of imminent morning, Katriel can see his smile, a smile that shows neither emotion nor motivation. Reserved. Masked. The identical smile he has donned since adolescence. But it seemed different now. Is it the dim light, or something else? “At last you show courage.”
“Why do I need courage? You are a friend, are you not? Unless perhaps, you were following me?” His voice sounds scratched and worn, as though a mere whisper might tear his vocal chords from his throat. He steps closer to Eshkol. The other man does not move.
“Following you? I am hurt, Katriel. Will you accuse your closest confidante of such a thing?” That smile. Spears pierce Katriel’s heart, suspicion growing ever present like the coming of day. “Would a friend follow a friend? Isn’t he more trustworthy than that? Even in the dead of night, Jerusalem asleep in peace… what would I gain?”
Katriel’s fists clench by his side. Fingers tighten, nails dig into tender flesh. What is this game?
“Well? Will you not answer me?” Expectant silence.
Katriel realizes with a sudden wave that he is exhausted. The darkness of night seems to pull at him from every direction, beckoning him to an unknown place where he might rest and find relief. His sandaled feet feel weary from holding up his dense figure, his eyes falter in their steadfast stare. No, he mustn’t. Be strong, be cunning. Awake! Katriel brings himself upright, squares his shoulders and musters up what resolve he has left.
“What manner of game is this, Eshkol? What do you mean by this, this, interrogation? Did you not say a moment ago that we are friends? What do you think I have done?” Even as the words leave his lips, Katriel knows they are fruitless. His captor smiles and raises his right hand.

REVEALED

Surrounded. Six men, dressed in Roman armour, swords at their sides and ready to strike, press closer to their victim. In Katriel’s mind, he sees again the Roman from Seleucia who imprisoned him. His tall, overshadowing figure suffocating Katriel’s chances for escape, his smile of gleeful malice painted with broad strokes on his lips, and when rage had filled his heart to the brim and then overflowed, Katriel’s fists landing on the Roman’s jaw, sending him sprawling. He had made his escape then, but what about now?
Katriel looks about him, from left to right, then back to left. He is surrounded. Not just one this time, but six, maybe seven. He can’t see clearly enough to know precise numbers. But what he does see is Eshkol. Standing on the outskirts of the soldiers’ enclosure, his fingers intertwine casually, almost contentedly, as though this capture was merely another trip to the market for fish. His shoulders are back, but not in a manner with which to intimidate, rather one of pure satisfaction at watching the scene before him unfold. The smile upon his lips, which had moments ago seemed achingly familiar to Katriel, now stabs his heart. It is the smile of the Seleucian. He knows now, without a doubt, that he will not escape this time.
A centurion grips Katriel’s wrist, the mere force nearly disjointing it. “You are under arrest by the authority of Rome. Come.” Katriel comes. A second man grabs hold of his free wrist and they march him forward, the remaining soldiers following with these swords drawn in preparation of an escape attempt.
“What crime have I committed that you arrest me?” Katriel’s lips are dry and his throat aches to release the words. His question does not sound as steadfast as he hopes.
“Murder of a Roman spy. I believe you know him well. A certain Omer Ben Rachamin.”
His capture becomes real in this moment. In his heart, he had hoped beyond hope that it was a mistake, an error, or at best, even a framing, wherein he would declare himself innocent and go free. But now, as the words echo against the backdrop of the rising dawn—perhaps his last—he cannot escape the truth. He is found out.
Omer is right.
“Keep moving!” a soldier barks at Katriel. A yank on his wrist and Katriel quickens his steps. Looking about him, he sees the sleepy houses of his home city, where mothers sing their newborns to sleep and fathers teach their sons of the Law and the Scriptures. In one of them, he knows, sleeps his father, Rachamin, fragile with age, his bones brittle from the battles between his two sons. In another, he envisions Rhoda, her black curls sprawled across the pillow as her delicate chest rises and falls with every breath, unknowing as to her lover’s fate. And in a ditch behind a red brick wall, is Omer, the blood now run dry and congealed at the seams of his skin, his eyes open and blank with death, his soul, Katriel hopes in his anger, rotting in hell. His heart aches at the memories and he pushes them from his mind. He will not remember… he will not… remember.
They walk for many minutes in utter silence, the only sound the boot-clad footfalls of the soldiers and Katriel’s sandals shuffling along the cobblestones. His breath comes in laboured inhalations as he struggles to keep pace with the marching Romans.
Before them in the distance, framed in the transfiguration of moonlight to daylight, is the official residence of Herod Antipas, the Fortress Antonia. Government officials roam the grounds, crowds of people mill about impatiently for their hearings. Katriel knows this is where he is being taken, to appear before Governor Pilate, the dictator of his fate. As they approach, Katriel’s ears catch drifts of frantic voices, rising in waves from near the palace.
“Blasphemy! Blasphemy! Crucify him!” He cocks his head toward the noise, a desperate curiosity rising in his belly. What could be so urgent as to disrupt the Preparation Day of the Passover with such antics?
The soldiers march Katriel on, the voices of the crowd growing louder with every step. His body aches, his joints screech with fatigue as they attempt to match the vigor with which he is being made to walk. His eyelids slip over the vacant blue and gray that had once been so full of life—not this vile and malicious intent they possess now. Dragging his feet, he fears for the events of the next few hours.
“Wait here,” a guard grunts at the prisoner and marches off toward the raging storm of spectators. Katriel can now see the man for whom they are gathered to condemn.
The man is filmed with blood, no doubt from the soldier’s whippings. His tunic and cloak are torn and his sandals broken, only held together by a few withered straps of leather. A makeshift crown sits on the man’s head. Amidst his own premature suffering, Katriel cannot help but gaze at it, astounded. Thistles woven together, thick as Katriel’s leathery fingers, each spike pushed deep into the man’s skull. Blood drips from it, as rain from the heavens. His hair is matted from the excretion, blood streaming down his arms and torso to join what flows from the gashes of the flagrum.
He can now hear what the crowd is shouting. “Crucify him! Crucify him! King of the Jews! Messiah! He must die for his blasphemy!” The man with the crown of thorns is convicted of blasphemy? What are his claims that they accuse him with such severity? To the imprisoned onlooker, the wretch in the rags appears feeble and weak, not a man that would pose a threat.
His eyes are still fixed to the man with the crown of thistles when the centurion returns. Gesturing to his comrades, they lead Katriel forward into the Praetorium. Here, Pilate’s judgment falls on the unfortunate souls to enter its confines.

ANNIE — A SHORT STORY

It’s a quirky thing about people that when they know your name, they think they know you. Mrs. Biggs, for example. Every church has a Mrs. Biggs, middle-aged, nosy as all get out and entirely without shame. You know her; we all do. But when you belong to a family like mine, notorious throughout the churchgoing populace of a small town, there’s no keeping her nose out of the latest dirt.

She cornered me on the Sunday after it made the Saturday morning headlines. “You’re the Montgomery’s girl,” she said, her eyes zeroing in on me like a pair of headlights. All I could see was how much sharper her nose appeared when she stared like that. “I know all about your sister, dear. You poor thing. You must be traumatized. I must give you the name of my therapist. She’s wonderful and has the cheapest rates of anyone in town. It would be good for you, dear. Being the sister of someone who was murdered, well, it’ll leave you scarred for life, I just know it. Oh my, how tragic.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and I truly couldn’t distinguish if she was a brilliant actress or just oblivious. I stared at her with one of my expressions of unfiltered disdain that always earned me an elbow to the ribs from my mother. But I couldn’t respond even if I wanted to—which I didn’t. She knew nothing, not even my name. I walked away, comforting myself with thinking about how unattractive she looked in her too tight dress that revealed every lump and roll (of which there were plenty, I must add).

“For real,” my mother huffed on the drive home, “why can’t you believe in people more? They have good intentions. Why not let them get to know you?”

But that’s just it, I wanted to scream. They aren’t trying to know me. They’re like the Eeyore cross-stitch I did when I was five; the front, a perfect facade of grays and good intentions but on the back, the mess of knots and threads reveal the true motives that create it. I always felt like I saw life inside out with the tangles facing outward, obscuring my view.

Mrs. Biggs died of an aneurysm on Christmas Eve. At the service that night, she had put a hand on my shoulder, going on and on about what a difficult Christmas this must be and that she’d pray for the peace of God to be on me and my family as we grieve our loss. I didn’t look at her, just shimmied out from beneath her grasp and grabbed a slice of coffee cake off the dessert table. I got an elbow in the ribs but I didn’t care. It wouldn’t change my mind or put Mrs. Biggs’ nose back on her face and out of my life.

During the eulogy, I was on my phone, changing my name on all my social media accounts. Girl with the Murdered Sister, Just Another Traumatized Teenager, Blank. If my name didn’t matter, then I’d go without. By the time the punch was served, I was a nameless blob with a story that everyone knew about but no one cared to know.

My parents soon gave up calling me by my name. In fact, everyone seemed to talk to me less and less as time passed, I suppose, because they didn’t know how to relate to me anymore. I was like a book with a missing title page; it confused people who picked me up off the shelf and rendered me beyond comprehension. They didn’t realize though, that my story was still intact, with characters, plot and a good twist that readers never see coming.

Without a name, I was like the label on my bottle of antidepressants. I was only what happened to me, not who I was on the inside. To Mrs. Biggs, I was the sister of the murdered girl. To my parents, I was the headstrong teenager. And when I went searching for love and found a night with the high school quarterback, I became the teen mom.

The only thing I was asked more than if I was going to marry the father—which was an emphatic no since he blocked my number after I texted him a photo of the positive pregnancy test—was what I was going to name the baby. I got everything from Allison to Abcde. I just rolled my eyes and spouted my automatic reply: “I won’t know until she’s born.”

“You have to think about it before she arrives,” my mother said, flipping through a name book as fat as my expanding belly. “It won’t just come to you, not when you’re sweating and exhausted from a 24-hour labour.” She handed me the book, waving her hand across the highlighted page. “I think these would be just gorgeous.” I snapped it shut without even glancing at my mother and got up to waddle off toward the kitchen.

Talk about being exhausted. Was no one else thinking about how a sixteen-year-old was planning to pay for diapers and childcare while she tried to finish high school? Whether my daughter had a three or a ten-digit identity tag meant nothing if I couldn’t provide for her. Yet, it was the name that mattered most. I groaned. I would never be known as anything other than a name, and neither would my baby.

I was due on the first anniversary of my sister’s murder. My contractions were coming twenty minutes apart but I figured I still had time to visit her grave before getting dragged to the hospital. I walked down the path, reading the names and dates on the headstones I passed. I paused by the headstone of Aldis McCain, born 1941, died 1959. He was the same age as my sister. And all that was left of him was a name. I knelt down and felt the cool stone beneath my palm.

“You’re more than a name,” I said. “You have a story, and I hope you had someone who cared to read it.”

Next to Aldis was a grave with a blank headstone. There was just a date of death written: November 27, 1919. I wondered who lay interred there; maybe a World War I veteran, or maybe it was a boy who died of pneumonia in his mother’s arms. Whoever it was, they had a story, even if we didn’t know it.

Why was I the only one who understood that? I touched the nameless headstone, and let the first tear slide down my cheek since she died. I prayed—maybe to God, maybe to something else, I didn’t know—that no matter if everyone else only remembered her name, I would remember her story and be brave enough to tell it as long as I lived. She would never be forgotten.

I almost delivered my baby in the cemetery that day. That sure would have made the headlines, I thought, and I smiled thinking of how Mrs. Biggs would have been all over that. But I managed to waddle back to the parking lot where my frantic mother drove way too fast toward the emergency entrance of the general hospital. And there I was, sprawled out on a bed, pushing and panting. But as she came out, I came into something, something that I hadn’t expected. This new world of being a mother was a bewildering mess and it would only get messier. But I promised myself that my baby would not be only a name, but a tapestry of everything she loved—everything she hated, dreamed about, failed at, and all that comes with living a beautiful, messed up life. Her name was only a small piece. She would grow to be much more than just a name. And I knew exactly what it would be.

When the nurse asked me for a name for the birth certificate, I said, “Annie.” She smiled and I felt my mother sigh with relief from across the room. Life was normal again.

But joke’s on them. Annie is short for Anonymous.

GREEN PAINT — A SHORT STORY

He sold the house with the spare room to a woman who painted it yellow. Not the bright, cheerful yellow of sunflower petals, but the faded yellow edges of my father’s Bible which sat for forty years unopened on the mantel. I felt sorry for that Bible; its words misquoted and its pages worn only by age and not use. But I suppose the entire house was like that.

My grandfather had built it when the war ended. A small, cramped space, room enough only to hold his always pregnant wife and babies stacked against the wall in cardboard boxes. But it was all he could afford. The blood and tears soaked into the walls became a mark of distinction and he never tired of telling his guests that he built this grand place with his bare hands. That was the only thing Grandfather was ever prideful about.

But it was the only thing my father wasn’t. Grandfather stayed in the house until he dropped dead cleaning the breakfast dishes in 1998. And before I could sweep up the shattered pieces of the serving tray he’d been scrubbing, my father had sold the house to the first bidder.

And she is the one who painted the spare room yellow. And I am the only one who noticed.

I often wondered why my father was so eager to sell the family home after his father died. “Progress,” he said in his gravely voice as he beat his first on the kitchen table. “Can’t live in the past. The future’s coming and I ain’t going to be late.” So there went the house, the family photo albums and my grandmother’s book of handwritten poetry, the one bound in leather with the title embossed in cursive. All in the name of modernity.

But when my father died not six months after the house was sold, I discovered the truth in a hatbox. I have my mother to thank for that; it’s the one thing she got past my father when cleaning out the house, and she had the brains to keep it hidden until he was good and gone. I waited until he was interred and mourning had passed—something he hadn’t respected for his own father—before I opened it. And that’s where I found my grandfather’s journal, tear stained and tattered, which held the secret that he was an addict.

The sixties had left my grandfather in a delirium. His veins ran with alcohol and he had long since given up reading his Bible and had taken to beating his children over the head with it. Grandmother tried to calm his rages, to help him off the pills and liquor, but he wouldn’t have it. That’s how she lost baby number eleven. And my father, ten years old and two feet too short to stand up to him, just tried to keep out of his way.

It worked until my father’s eleventh birthday on April 27, 1971. Grandfather had come home drunk, his steps shuffling and swerving as he progressed down the hall toward the spare room where he slept. After the miscarriage, Grandmother had banned him to the back of the house, never to touch her nor share her bed. But she was too religious to divorce him. “For the children’s sake,” she said. But I think she was too scared of the backlash from the Baptists. I would be too.

“Good for nothing bar…” Grandfather muttered. He tried to twist the doorknob but it slipped from his grip and snapped back to its upright position. Trying again and failing, he cursed.

Shielded behind the slightly ajar bathroom door, my father held his toothbrush and stared down at the toothpaste dripping down his arm. He kept one eye on his father, still trying clumsily to open the spare room door, and noticing how quickly the paste dried and stuck to his arm hair. He pivoted, reaching for the towel to wipe it off but banged his shoulder into the side of the mirror. Down went the toothbrush with a clatter to the tile floor. It echoed in the silence of the broken down home.

Grandfather spun around and nearly toppled over. “Stop that racket, boy! Come help me with this blasted door.” My father froze, his eyes darting about the darkened hall like a flashlight beam, searching for an escape. But there was none.

“Now, boy.” Grandfather roared, gripping the doorknob. It twisted right, swung back and Grandfather went down. He was still, a tangle of limbs too confused to unravel themselves. “Help me up!”

My father, shaking in his socks and his mussed brown hair falling in his eyes, ran toward the one he tried every night to run from. I reckon it was the fear that pushed him into it. How Grandfather expected a boy to lift his limp, 250-pound frame I still don’t know, but he did.

My father got him sitting up and leaning against the wooden slats of the bed frame. He was halfway around, desperate for the door, when a hand shot out and clipped his left cheek. Tears streamed from his eyes, the salty wetness soothing the burning skin.

“Take it like a man,” Grandfather growled. “No son of mine cries like a girl. Come here, boy.”

My father didn’t move. But two broken ribs later, and my father had been hardened to any semblance of love. And my grandfather was still drunk. But not enough to forget.

Grandfather sobered up after Grandmother died in ’82. But he never forgave himself for not changing in time to ask for her forgiveness. But that didn’t hurt him as much as never receiving it from the only person who could truly help him heal.

They never spoke once my father left home at seventeen, though Grandfather tried time and again to mend things. The only reason I knew him at all was because of my mother. “Just because you won’t associate with him,” she told my father one night when I was eight, “doesn’t mean you can deprive our daughter of a loving grandfather.”

“Loving!” he scoffed. “Have you met the man?”

“Yes, I have,” Mother said, “but you haven’t.” They never discussed it again, but my father always paced angrily, muttering to himself or buried himself in paperwork at the office whenever we visited Grandfather’s house.

My mother was right. He didn’t care to meet the man Grandfather had become once he got sober and saved. That didn’t change what he had done when he was a kid. Nothing could change that. Not even God. No wonder why he never opened his Bible.

But I saw the man Grandfather really was. Even as a kid, looking through what everyone presumed was rose-coloured glasses but was really just an aid for my nearsightedness, I could see what my father wouldn’t admit was there. I remember sitting for hours on Grandfather’s lap, pretending to sleep so that he’d keep singing my favourite song. “I’ve got sixpence. Jolly, jolly sixpence,” he crooned. I know now that I never fooled him, not for a minute. He was gentle and wise, and had a faith as unbreakable as my father’s stubbornness. And so, he sold the house and scrubbed the memories from the walls of the spare room, in hopes that if he used enough detergent and distraction, they would disappear.

But even the yellow paint can’t hide it. It’s still there, buried beneath that hideous shade, and it will always be there unless you completely strip it and start over. But why put in the effort when you can sell the house and hand over the burden to the new owner?
So there it sits, the spare room in Grandfather’s house, with fading yellow paint and hurts that only stain the walls like blood.

But you know, my father wasn’t the only one needing to heal. And that’s why, after a trip to Vegas, I bought a Bible, that old house and a can of forest green paint.

WHY I WAS AFRAID TO WRITE BLIND CHARACTERS AND WHY I’M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE

On April 6, 2020, beloved Canadian children’s author, Jean Little, passed away at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy of love and best sellers, including Mine For Keeps Hand in Hand, Dancing Through the Snow and From Anna.

But having been wrapped up in earning my English degree, training with my first guide dog, moving cities and of course, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’d lost touch with many of my beloved childhood authors and their books—like Jean Little. For two years after graduating university, I couldn’t pick up a book; my brain was so spent from four years of literary analyses and creative writing portfolios that I couldn’t enjoy the act of reading.
But with the announcement of Little’s passing and all the fond memories that flooded back with it, I resolved to re-acquaint myself with her books.

My favourite as a kid was From Anna. My TVI (Teacher of the Visually Impaired) had embossed a braille copy for me, and I kept the volumes next to my bed within easy reach for late-night reading sprees. The dots wore down, and the pages adopted a permanent curve from leaning against the wall on an angle, but that just speaks to how much I loved this book.
And I wasn’t the only one. This tribute to Jean counts From Anna among her most cherished works.

It was a few weeks ago now that I read Forward, Shakespeare!, a story that follows a young dog called Shakespeare as he trains at The Seeing Eye to become a guide dog, and is matched with a teenaged boy named Tim who wants nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare or his blindness. I was captivated by this book, reading it front to back in one night; it’s masterfully written, engaging and is an accurate representation of the lifestyle of working with a guide dog. Jean herself received her guide dogs from this same school.

But as I laid awake, long after I’d turned the final page, I was struck by such an overwhelming feeling that it took me many nights to process what it truly was.

It was that near indescribable feeling of being known. Of being understood and validated and accepted for who you are and where you are in your story.

I was just like Tim.
As a teenager, and even in my early twenties, I felt the same things as Tim—I was angry, guarded, bitter and unwilling to accept the circumstances of my blindness as they were. I had closed myself off and wouldn’t let anyone help me. But somehow, in the pages of one children’s book, I found a friend. I met someone who understood me and my story, someone who wasn’t ashamed to feel what they felt, even though others might wish that he would just let it go and move on. Through Tim, Jean Little said, “I understand you, Rhianna, and it’s okay.”

But as wonderful as it felt to be understood and “gotten” by this one character, it is the very thing I resolved never to do in my own books.

Follow this blog for any length of time and you’ll become very familiar with my fear of being known only by my blindness. With God’s help, I’m overcoming this fear—this blog itself is a testament to that—yet, it still lingers in the corners of my mind with each post that I publish. And when plotting and outlining for future books, I kept to this one, non-negotiable rule:

No. Blind. Characters.

If I wrote a character with a visual impairment, I was driving the final nail into the identity coffin—there would be no chance of shaking the dreaded “blind writer” label after that. After all, other disabled authors are only known by their disability.

Right?

Wrong.

While Jean Little was blind, worked with guide dogs and wrote books about children with varying disabilities, she isn’t remembered because of her blindness.

She’s remembered for who she was and how her books changed lives. Though her characters were primarily children with disabilities, that isn’t what endears her books to our hearts. It’s the humanity that those characters bring. It’s “her ability to see the truth within her characters, and her willingness to follow wherever they [choose] to take her and her readers.” It’s in the heart of characters like Tim which give readers like me a way to feel known and loved.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I realized that the outline for my current novel contains a blind character, guide dog and all! I hadn’t even realized what I’d done.
I, a blind writer, would write a book with a blind character. Or shall I be more precise and say, I will write a book with a blind character.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great!

Besides, who better to write a blind character than an author who “gets” it? I think that’s why Tim meant so much to me, because I knew that through him, Jean Little got me, too.

And so, I’ve resolved to change my resolve.

If Jean Little could do it, I can do it. If she could fearlessly write characters with visual impairments and be confident in herself as a writer and as a blind woman, then maybe I can, too.

And if Tim, a blind character in a children’s story could be someone that I saw myself in and in so doing, see a way out of the darkness we both experienced, I think it’s time I become a rule breaker.

It’s time to embrace who I am, both as a blind woman and as a writer.

Thank you Jean Little… you are dearly missed, but your books will live on and continue to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Like they have in mine.