Monday, May 18, 2015


The metallic scent of blood reached him first through the sharpness of the snow. For a moment, his heart leapt and he thought the battle was still raging, cries of dying men filling his ears and stopping his senses; but no. The mountains up ahead were the foothills of home, and there was no one else around, no sounds, no battle cries.
Easing his shoulders under their heavy mail – he hadn’t dared leave it behind, not when old Tom would curse him halfway to the grave if he didn’t return it – he trudged on.
The path crested and he spotted the source of the blood-scent easily: a great dragon, rear half fully skinned, muscle and sinew left exposed to the elements. Blood had seeped into the snow around it, tinting it pink.
He ran a hand over his face. He’d been at battle for nine and a half months. The war was supposed be over; coming home was supposed to be the end of all the carnage. But no, someone had to drop a stinking great dead dragon in his path. He gritted his teeth, hefted his pack, and trudged towards the beast.
Halfway there the bushes off the side of the path rustled. He barely had time to check that his sword was still in its scabbard before five scruffy-looking bandits appeared, three bearing equally scruffy swords covered in nicks and dings. The other two held rough-hewn bats, and one tried for menacing as he tapped the bat against his free palm.
The soldier sighed and eased his sword free. He could take the five of them on with his eyes closed – but probably not if he tried to keep them all alive. Gods, he was so tired of death.
The leader of the bandits swaggered forward. “Come t’ steal our dragon, have ye?”
“Put your sword down, mate. All I want to do is go home.” The soldier shifted his grip on his own sword in case the bandit lunged.
In response, the bandit sneered. “That’s what they all say.” He turned to his lackeys. “All right, boys. You know what to do.”
He gave them the nod and as one they advanced towards the soldier.
Gods preserve us all. The soldier adjusted his stance and let his pack slip to the ground.
A creaky rumble sounded, and before anyone had a chance to react, the great dragon’s tail swept right through the midst of the bandits, knocking them all off their feet. Three were immediately rendered unconscious, and without hesitation the solider leapt forward to follow up on his advantage, knocking out a fourth with the flat of his blade.
The fifth – the leader – cried out and lunged at the soldier’s shoulder, but the soldier ducked and let the stroke go past him. He dodged left, dropped to one knee and drove upwards with his sword, aiming for the bandit leader’s chin and intending just to knock him out. But the dragon’s claws caught him around the leg, destabilised him, and the sword drove point-first into the bandit’s throat. Arterial blood spurted, red and bright, life gushing from the man before his eyes.
War cries sounded in his ears, the smell of blood blocked out thought, and the pounding of a thousand warrior feet shook the ground.
The soldier barely even felt it as the dragon shifted its grip and dragged him closer. The smell of rotting meat on the great carnivore’s breath mingled with blood until it could have belonged to week-old bodies decaying on the fields, and the pain that lanced through him as the dragon bit down was the piercing of swords.
A moment passed in rippling pain, and the soldier realised he was on his feet, facing the great dragon while blood dribbled from his shoulder. He clamped down on the wound, noted that the dragon’s skin now covered nearly three-quarters of its body, and gazed up at the great iridescent eye.
The dragon turned its head, staring pointedly at where the bandit leader lay dead in a pool of his own blood.
Guilt stung the soldier’s chest, and he gulped down air like a man drowning.
Gently, the dragon nudged him with muzzle whose nostrils wafted smoke, and the soldier fell down beside the bandit.
What? he shouted in his head. What do you want from me?
But the dragon simply stared, waiting.
Tears streaming down his cheeks, the soldier gathered up the bandit in his arms. Yes, he’d initiated the attack, and yes, he was probably responsible for causing much loss and harm to other people; there was no doubt the corpse in front of him had belonged to a bad man. But still the soldier couldn’t shake his frustration at the senselessness of it all.
He’d had enough of senselessness. He pressed his forehead to the bandit’s. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t want you to die.”
The bandit stirred in his lap, head tossing, eyes twitched beneath closed lids. The wound in his neck ceased bleeding; the skin began infinitesimally to seal.
The soldier’s gaze flicked to his own shoulder, where the bite mark had nearly closed beneath the tear in his chain-mailed shirt, then to the dragon, who was now fully clothed in skin again but for its tail.

“Oh,” the soldier murmured, eyes wide. “Thank you.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

My Grandma Carries A Machete

My grandmother carries a machete.
Really, it isn’t anything cool or exciting. She doesn’t fight crime or monsters. It’s just a gardening tool. And once you see the garden you realize what she really needs is napalm.
The garden of terror that requires a machete to hack your way to the center of started life as a discreet herb garden on the side yard of the house. It’s older than my grandmother, planted by some pioneering ancestor with more enthusiasm than gardening skill.
Planted by someone who didn’t realize that those small plants in tidy rows would grow so that the rosemary now resembles a small tree and the parsley is dense enough that small tribes of toddlers have been lost in there.
Perhaps the planter thought the Texas heat would be enough to keep the garden from taking on a life of its own.
Certainly it’s a theory that works for the rest of Texas. The easiest way to kill a plant is leave it outside during the month of August and wait for the plant to shoot itself in despair. Even cacti wither and die under the unrelenting heat of the Texas sun.
But not in grandma’s garden.
You can ignore the garden, walk away for months at a time, leave it unwatered for years, drop weed killer on it, curse it, exorcise it, even burn incense over it and yet the garden grows.
My great-grandmother tried giving the plants away. She uprooted the mint and gave it away to everyone who made eye contact. During the worst of Texas droughts you can tell who has the monster mint.
The media dubbed it the “Glenwood Mint”. The scientists at Texas A&M are still studying rogue clippings trying to determine how a plant can live with four inch roots and no water for two years.
That’s why Grandma needs the machete.
Every spring, around about March, she pulls the polished weapon from the cupboard over the washing machine, dons her gardening gloves and sandals, and marches into the backyard to see what damage has been done.
This year was different.
She sat in her rocking chair on March second, a tear in her eye as she watched the snapdragons bloom along the front walk. “I can’t do it this year,” she whispered to me. She raised a papery hand, set it on my knee. “Jenny. Go get the machete. It’s your turn.”
With a sense of impending doom I walked into the mudroom. I pulled on the gloves and the sandals. I pulled the machete from its case, put my cell phone in my pocket in case I needed to call for back up, and marched into the living room and out the back door.
“Grandma! There are tomatoes!”
Grandma moved with blazing speed to peer over my shoulder. “Good googlymoogly,” she breathes. “I forgot about them.”
“We haven’t planted tomatoes in two years!” I choke back fear. Four lush plants sit with their red fruit tempting the sinner like the apple in Eden.
“Get the pots!”
There are four burners on the stove, each large enough to hold a twenty-two gallon stockpot. We have two slow cookers, and each can hold sixteen gallons. I plunder the tomato orchard; the abandoned plants have grown well over six feet tall, they droop with heavy fruit, and spring upright as I pull the tomatoes away.
Stuffing the tomatoes into pots, and piling the excess on the long kitchen counter, my grandmother pours water over each set and turns on the heat. “Get garlic,” she orders. “You’ll find it behind the roses.”
I shudder, grab the machete, and stalk into the herb garden of terror.
The rosemary bush towers over me, a fragrant giant. Thick stalks of parsley reach to my knees. And all I can smell is the mint.
In the far corner I see the rambling roses that cascade over the front fence in a shower of red and pale pink. Beneath those roses the fresh garlic grows. I heft the machete in my hand. With grim determination I set out, hacking, slashing, pruning with fervor that is nigh on religious.
I bring the slaughter to Grandma: rosemary twigs as long as my arm, bunches of parsley, enough oregano to stuff a piƱata, garlic, wild onions that I found tucked in a corner next to the lavender.
“Tell your cousins to bring garlic bread,” Grandma instructs as she stirs the six pots, tasting, testing, and adjusting the flavors until they are perfect. “Call the in-laws, we need extra noodles!”
I go back to the garden to trim yellowed leaves that have never seen sunlight. I slip on fresh loam; my cell phone flies. I scream as my cell phone slips between the thorny canes of the roses, another casualty of the garden of terror. From my prone position I see a miracle.
“Grandma! Basil!” I hold the aromatic leaves up for her perusal.
“The mint must have insulated them from the snow this winter.” She rubbed the leaves between her fingers, releasing the scent like a lover’s perfume. “Perfect.”
The next day, as rosy-fingered dawn reaches out to her fleeing love, I roll out of bed and reach for the machete.
My machete. I have a cell phone to save and a legacy to keep. The garden must be tamed.
“Holler if you find a body!” Grandma calls.
I walk out the door.
I carry a machete.