Tuesday, August 11, 2015

From the files of Haint Hawkins: The Case of the Missing Ingredients


Haint Hawkins would have been bored to death if he hadn't been dead already.

Business was lousy, even for the best private eye in town. The only private eye, to be sure, but definitely the best.

There just wasn't anybody making any trouble for anybody else at the moment.

No sneaky characters to follow around.

No missing money to track down.

And no mysterious deaths. That was the worst of it.

The only cases Haint had worked on lately were a dead car battery (loose wiring was all) and a deadbolt that wouldn't turn (just needed a little grease).

But no cases of real-life deaths. The kind of case Haint preferred because he could go talk to the dead person directly to find out what had really happened.

It had been that way for Haint ever since the Case of the Curious Condiment, when he had fallen -- or was pushed, he would never say which -- into a huge vat of pepper over at the old spice mill.

Everyone in town thought he was gone for good, but a couple of days later there he was again, the same old Haint. But sneezing a lot.

No one could figure out how he had survived.

He hadn't. Not really.

Haint was dead all right, but a different kind of dead. The kind who could go back and forth between the living and the spirit worlds when he needed to.

But since lately he hadn't been needing to, he spent his days doing what he always did when he wasn't working on a case: coffee in the morning at the Excalibur Cafe, then a walk around town, then back to his office to wait for any cases that might come his way.


It was a morning like that when he picked up the paper and saw it was time again for the annual festival where people would come out to celebrate the town's history and especially to see and taste all the entries in the best-pie contest.

Days Gone Pie, it was called.

Haint headed over to the town square. He walked from table to table, almost dizzy from the smell of all those delicious pies. He could hardly wait for the judging to end and the tasting to begin.

He was standing there trying to decide which one he should try first -- the blueberry or the banana cream -- when he turned and at the end of his nose saw a plate piled high with slices of just-baked cornbread.

And glaring over the other end of the plate were the narrow eyes of Fussy May Cavanaugh.

Fussy May Cavanaugh was the kind of person who would make cornbread no matter what the occasion, even for Days Gone Pie, and then go around saying that she'd win the pie contest every year if she really wanted to.

She hadn't been born Fussy May -- her real name was Roselle -- but she had done all she could do to earn it over her long and contrary life. When she was just 6 or 7, people had started calling her Fussy because she always wanted her hair a certain way. And as the years went by, she was happy to have people think that she knew more about food than they did, so that when any kind of question about cooking came up, they could always say, "I don't know ... but Fussy may."

Not that she ever shared her recipes. Especially not the recipe to the cornbread she was holding at this very moment.

"Why, thank you, Miss Cavanaugh, don't mind if I do," Haint said as he reached for a slice.

"No!" Fussy May snapped as she yanked the plate away. "My recipe!"

"And a fine recipe it must be," Haint said. "Everyone speaks highly of it."

"That's not what I mean," Fussy May spat. "My recipe ... something's missing from it, and I can't figure out what." 

"Don't you have it written down somewhere?" asked Haint, by now a little bit curious.

"Written down? And have somebody steal it and call it their own? Never! That was my grandmother's recipe, Grandma Cavanaugh's, and I was the only person she ever shared it with. But I'm sure something's missing, and if I can't make it the right way, I won't make it at all."

Haint could see now that she was speaking more out of fear than of anger.

"I can try to help you," he said, "but I'll have to take a slice with me."

"And why is that?" Fussy May asked. "I've already told you the recipe's not right."

"I should need a taste to see if I can determine exactly what's missing," Haint said. "And then I can determine how best to find it."

"Well ... if you have to," said Fussy May, nodding her head at the plate.

Haint took a slice. Two slices. "This is a delicate matter indeed, Miss Cavanaugh. I will make some inquiries. But I assure you, that recipe will be yours again in no time."

Fussy May walked away, and Haint gobbled down one of the slices. Delicious as always. It would be such a shame, he thought, to never taste it again.


The next morning, after coffee at the cafe, Haint got to work. He started by talking to some of the people who knew Fussy May best, especially the ladies who sat with her at church bingo. (Haint figured that if Fussy May had forgotten what was in the recipe, she might have forgotten that she had slipped up and TOLD somebody what was in the recipe.)

He didn't learn much, only that one time Fussy May had once fought off a wild boar with her bare hands after it had wandered too close to her garden.

That was a bit of a surprise. Haint would have thought that Fussy May and the boar would have been the best of friends, given how similar their moods usually were.

But that didn't get Haint any closer to the missing ingredients.

This was, he decided, a question for the dead.


Later that evening, Haint made his way up to the high ground that rimmed the town.

Spirit Ridge, the townspeople called it. There was a local legend that the ghosts of the dead lived there, and that some nights, when the winds were still and the smell and smoke of logs crackling in a fireplace lay heavy on the air, you could hear them whispering.


In the first place, they were always making a racket, all times of the day and night, with their blaring music and barking dogs.

In the second place, they called their home Croaking Oaks.

Haint walked through the neighborhood, stopping every so often to catch up on the latest -- how the dead loved to gossip! --  before heading over to talk to Grandma Cavanugh, apparently the one person dead or alive who knew for certain what went into that cornbread.

Haint found her where she most always was, sitting on her porch humming softly to herself.

Grandma Cavanaugh laughed and laughed when she heard about Fussy May's predicament.

"That girl," she said, "I must have told her a thousand times to write down that recipe. I knew she never would, so I wrote it out and slipped it inside the cookbook I gave her before I passed. And do you know she's never once opened that cookbook, always thinking she knows everything about everything. I bet she's in a state now!"

Then Grandma Cavanaugh told Haint the recipe, every step and every ingredient.


Though it was the middle of the night, Haint hurried down from Spirit Ridge and went straight to Fussy May's house. He banged and banged on the door until she opened it just a crack, with an angry look on her face and a cast-iron skillet in her hand.

Haint smiled. "Now is that any way to greet the person who found your ingredients?"

Fussy May's eyes grew wide. "Let's have it," she said.

"Not until you put down that skillet," Haint said. "There may be a better use for it."

They sat at the kitchen table, where Haint told her the recipe, every step and every ingredient. (But not where it was written down.)

"Of course ..." Fussy May said. "But how on earth did you ever figure it out?"

Haint smiled. "Now Miss Cavanaugh, you're not the only person who can keep a secret."


Grandma Cavanaugh's
Cornbread To Die For

1 tablespoon bacon drippings
4 cups cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 eggs, beaten
4 cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons molasses

Preheat oven to 450. In a very large bowl, combine cornmeal and baking soda. Separately, combine eggs, buttermilk and molasses. Add to cornmeal mixture and beat until smooth. Grease large (12-inch) skillet with bacon drippings; place in oven until very hot. (Can also divide into two smaller skillets.) Pour batter into skillet. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, and the top is golden brown. Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes. IMPORTANT: SPRINKLE WITH A PINCH OF HOPE AND A DASH OF LUCK. Serve.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where tears come from and where they go

It all begins -- it always begins, really -- with a flock of fluffy ducks. More of a piddly flock, really.

Most days they're to be found in their Perfectly Happy Pond, never too cold and never too deep, where the water laps easily against the sloping banks.

The flock is small, but the Perfectly Happy Pond is almost smaller, so that from a distance it looks thick with ducks. There they frolic and bob and sometimes squawk, just being ducks, without so much as a care in the world.

Until the Cross Winds blow in. The Cross Winds are as cross as cross can be. They've been pushed a long, long way -- up the mountains, down the canyons, over the desert dunes -- and have been looking for something they can push around instead. And this Perfectly Happy Pond seems like just the place. And just look at all those ducks there, floating and dozing and happy as a duck can be.

Sneaking up on the ducks, the Cross Winds gently guide them to the farthest end of the Perfectly Happy Pond, careful not to jostle them too much. Near the edge ... to the edge ... and then with a sudden, low whistle, pushing them all of the way out of the pond and into the beginnings of the slow-moving Fitful Stream.

Awake but not alarmed, the ducks don't pay it much mind at first. The water is only a little bit wavy-er. They figure they'll just float along for a while and then fly back to their home.

But this being a Fitful Stream, the ducks find themselves caught in the grip of the ripples. And they hadn't counted on the Pouting Rain -- a plip here, a plop there. Pitter patter, sad and sadder, then pelting them all over and hurting too much to try and fly away.

The Fitful Stream deepens down, widens out and picks up speed, turning itself into a river. The ducks struggle to turn around and paddle back the way they came, but this river is, as it happens, The River of Some Regret. The flow is too fast, too strong. All they can manage to do is turn their heads around and look back to where the water was calmer, moving farther and farther away with every passing moment. But each time they do, they are almost pulled under by the past. So they give in to the currents and keep coursing forward.

Not just forward, but forward and ever faster, directly into the Unrequited Rapids, sending the flock into the dark, sharp Knockabout Rocks that clot the waters from one side to the other. Even the rapids have to go around them, but the ducks go crashing, bashing, dashing -- gnashing! -- slashing, thrashing and smashing right into the worst of them. And there is no safe passage through the pain.

Presently the Knockabout Rocks grow smaller and fewer, but the ducks scarcely have time to tend to their bruises -- the rapids have brought them to the very edge of All-But-Forsaken Falls, cascading so far down that the waters disappear in the bottomless mist below. A roaring sound fills the air. The ducks close their eyes rather than look down, but down they go just the same, flailing and falling into The Deep Deep Gorge of Deep Deep Grief. Tossed about, sloshed about, duck over duck, plunging through the mist and into the fierce waters, the foam churning up fears, unable to tell their up from their down or their bad from the worse.

All the ducks go under.

For the longest time.

Until finally one sore and soggy head pops to the surface. Then another, then all the others, much the weaker, being steered away from the bottom of the falls into Quivering Cove, where the water is calm but every bit as cold.

Heaving for air, the ducks take all the moments of rest that they can, then carefully toddle out of Quivering Cove and onto dry land.

Though their wings are still aching, they finally manage to start shaking off the cold, cold water. So awfully tired, with more than a few feathers lost along the way.

All their wing-shaking flings a sheen of tiny droplets into the air. The droplets don't fall to the ground -- they dangle there for a moment, then slowly begin to rise. One droplet touching another, forming a fuller drop, all the drops now attaching, drifting ever higher until they push through the top of the sky.

And that is when you start to feel the tears.

Trickling down a small, soft cheek, tear upon tear, more bringing more.

It never seems like it, but soon enough the tears will go away, for they are meant to have another home -- a puddle of a place called There, There that moms and dads and very best friends know all about. A gentle hand or a great big hug gathers up all the tears and puts them away, and There, There is where they will stay.

Now all the ducks are gone -- gone to find another Perfectly Happy Pond.

And all the tears are gone -- gone to be with the many tears that have come before.

And now you can start to smile -- still sniffling, but almost smiling just the same.

And your troubles are all behind you now.

Until the next time.

Because there are always more ducks.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

the helium museleum

The Helium Museleum sits way up in the sky,
it’s a great place to visit if you’re ever passing by.

Big round letters on the side say, quote,
“For The Preservation and Presentation Of Things That Float.”

You’ll see birthday balloons with their strings still attached
and parade balloons that got away and could never be catched.

There’s a store with gifts and helium prizes
and an exhibit that explains why helium rises.

The ticket taker greets the visitors and speaks:
“You’re the first guests I’ve had in a couple of weeks.”

The ticket taker’s name is Guten D. Goss
Owner, founder, handyman, boss.

While some folks are bankers and others are hatters,
Guten’s an expert on helium matters.

“We must not have holes,” he says, “so just to be clear,
we ask that you leave all your sharp objects here.”

“And if you find your head feeling light,
Air pockets are there on the left and the right.”

“Get in there quickly if you want them to work.”
“And what if I don’t?” a little boy smirked.

Guten replied: “Another boy once, too long he waited,
He’s up in the rafters, fully inflated.”

One day it happened, that out of the blue,
the king dropped in, and the queen did, too.

All hail the king, Good King Divine,
and his beautiful queen, the Lady Ermine.

As the king made his way down the helium hall
he tripped on his robe and he started to fall.

He fell head-first, fell all the way down
landing on top of the tips of his crown.

He got to his feet and rubbed the royal chin,
then noticed a hissing where his crown had just been.

A leak.
A ... ssssssssss ... LEAK!!!

Guten D. Goss rushed to the puncture
and tried to repair it with a big glob of gunkture.

But the hole became bigger than he could fix
proving that helium and royalty don’t mix.

Guten D. Goss rushed fore and aft
telling everyone to grab a lifewaft.

The lifewafts all had just enough air
to carry people down to the ground with care.

The sight of all those lifewafts descending
thickened the sky like a swarm unending.

When everyone else had fled the situation,
Guten D. Goss stayed aboard his creation.

As the hole grew bigger and the helium rushed out,
the museleum began to tumble about.

It lurched through the sky with a terrible whoosh
like an angry goosh or a moosh on the loosh.

The museleum spun around and around
falling ever closer to the ground and the ground.

With a thud and a thunk and a thunderous thump,
it crashed to the earth in a collapsible clump.

Guten crawled out, sore but not hurt,
and found himself in a field of fresh-tilled dirt.

He saw a road and walked toward it until
he got to a sign that said WELCOME TO PLAINSVILLE.

Just at that moment a truck happened by.
He waved and the driver looked him right in the eye.

The truck pulled up and there they sat,
a red-haired lady and a one-eared cat.

The lady said, “Hey, can I give you a lift?
Looks like your balloon has done gone piffed.”

Guten got in and straightened his tie
and told her how he’d dropped from the sky.

Before the truck had gotten too far,
he remembered his manners. “And you are ...?”

“The name is Jupiter Amulet Kimono Earthquake,
but most of my friends just call me Jake.”

The truck pulled into a garage with more cats
and a sign out front that said WE FIX FLATS.

“We’re the only place open these days in these parts
I mostly fix tractors and hay-baleing carts.”

“I can patch those holes easy enough,
but that much helium? That’ll be tough.”

“But I might know some folks who if they’re willing
would be delighted to help with all of that filling.”

Jake grabbed her tools, they returned to the spot
to see where the leaks were and were not.

She set right to work and started repairing
and tried not to notice that Guten was staring.

“It won’t leak now,” Jake said proudly,
then grabbed a walkie-talkie and said into it loudly,


In no time flat there came a collection
of clowns arriving from every direction.

Clowns with red noses, clowns with big flowers,
clowns who could do the chicken dance for hours.

The size of the sight left the clowns quite astounded.
Then they placed their helium tanks all around it.

They worked and they worked till their tanks were depleted,
and then when the filling was finally completed,

It slowly began to lift off the land
and hovered like only a museleum can.

With help from the clowns, Guten climbed aboard it,
then turned to Jake just before he unmoored it

And said, “Would you ... could you ... can you ... might you ...”
“Come along?” smiled Jake. “Yes, I’d like to.”

Though surrounded by helium all day and all night
never had his head and his heart felt so light.

Away they a-went, higher than high,
Till they reached that particular place in the sky.

The museleum reopened – up came the crowds!
(But kings and their crowns were no longer allowed.)

Guten and Jake lived their life in the helium.
They got married, had a son, and named him ...


(note: this appeared in The Charlotte Writers' Club anthology, "Journey Without," in 2009.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

tessa to the very end

Tessa and her mom and dad were just walking back from having a proper picnic on the hillside near their home when they found a message in a bottle.

Two of them, actually.

The smaller bottle had Tessa’s name on it. She pulled out the cork and some papers that were inside.

The first one, no bigger than a notecard, was written in a careful hand. Tessa read it out loud.

“A little birdie told us to give this to you.”

The second piece of paper, a longer, wider, thicker one, had long words in big golden letters. Too long for Tessa to read, even though she was a good reader for her age. She would be 6 and a half in another year and a half. 

Her mom read it out loud for her.


it said.

In the bigger bottle, the bottle with the names of Tessa’s parents on it, was a sheet of paper with a lot more words.

“Congratulations,” it began. “We are delighted to present this award to Tessa. We are not allowed to say what the award is for, nor who will give it to her, only that she will be well worthy of it. Sadly, she will not be honored until after the two of you are long gone. But we wanted you to be proud of her just the same.”

“How do we know all this? Let us introduce ourselves and explain. We are the Secret Order of Seers, Oracles and Soothsayers. We know the future, to a point. We do not presume to speak for the stars, nor can we claim to know where the planets may go in their courses. What we can divine are the deeds of mankind, from all the many choices we make here on this earth. We have seen the sign -- the tealed eagle soaring at sunset, alone. It tells us that Tessa’s journey will be a remarkable one. And it is with this knowledge that we honor her.”

Tessa’s mom and dad looked at each other, and then at their daughter.

“What was in your bottle, daddy?” she asked.

“The same thing, Tessa.”

“About a little birdie?”


“But what does it mean, mommy?”

“It means you are very, very special.”

“Do you think so, too?”


And not at that very moment, but soon enough, in a most distant part of space, a comet slipped its orbit ‘round a dying star and began a steady, pointed path.

Tessa taped the LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD to her bedroom door, hoping her parents would notice it every day and treat her a little more special.

It worked, for a while.

After a while, it did not.

She still had to clean up her room and put away her clothes and do her homework and go to sleep on time and sit up straight and all the other things little girls named Tessa were always being told to do.

And as the years passed -- five of them altogether -- Tessa grew to like the daisy shade of yellow, the sound of many violins together, and turtles.

Just months away from retirement, but still an official Searcher of Skies, Dr. Marco Darkly would not have been expected to be the one to find what he found.

He didn’t see quite as well as he once did. He had been squinting all his life.

And he seemed most interested in a part of space that wasn’t very special -- no good galaxies, no strange swirling clusters to speak of, just specks of light dotting the deep vastness.

Late one night he was having his cup of tea and making one last check of the skies when he saw it -- or rather, didn’t see it.

He didn’t see one of the stars he had always seen before.

He blinked and looked again.

The star was there. But a nearby one was not.

He blinked again and looked again.

Now another star was not there.

Six hours and just as many cups of tea later, he knew.

It was a comet, burning black, blocking out starlights as it passed in front of them, heading for earth.

And hitting in five days.

He told the world, and the comet was named for him.

Comet Darkly.

Everyone looked to the skies, but they couldn’t see it coming, in the night or in the day. That didn’t stop them from looking.

Some people cried and some people prayed. And some just laughed about it all.

Nobody paid for anything, and nobody wanted to go to sleep.

And then it was upon them.

As Comet Darkly bore down, it nudged the moon, knocking it from its place, making all the world’s oceans quickly rise up where they had not risen before.

So quickly that Tessa’s parents, who were saying goodbye to some friends just a few miles away, could not get to the hillside near their home in time.

Tessa did, all by herself.

The sky glowed red.

The water lapped at her feet.

She thought of the piece of paper on her door. 


She wondered what she might have done to deserve it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

one game at a time

The park was empty except for the two old robots playing checkers.

They played all day every day. Robot Ben and Robot Bill.

Except not at night.

They were powered by the sun, from their mechanical minds to their creaky fingers. So not at night.

Robot Ben was once the fastest grocery bagger in all the world. And Robot Bill had helped build the rocket ships that now circled the stars.

But newer robots had come along, faster baggers and better builders, replacing Robot Ben and Robot Bill.

Now they spent their days playing checkers.

Neither of them ever won a game, and neither of them ever lost. Being robots, they knew every move there was to make in checkers. They always tied.

"Score," said Robot Ben just before they began to play one sunny morning.

"Zero Ben, zero Bill, eighty-three million, six hundred forty-two thousand, nine hundred and twenty-one ties," said Robot Bill.

As they played, the sun crept across the sky, and neither of them noticed that it was catching up to the faint full moon that was up there too.

And just as Robot Ben was taking a turn, the sun slid completely behind the moon.

The sky went dark.

Robot Ben's eyes flickered and turned a dull gray. His head drooped, and he slumped over just enough to push his shoulder, arm, hand and fingers forward. Just enough to push the checker to the wrong square.

Both robots sat still for quite some time.

Then the sun and the moon began sliding apart, the light of the day returned, and the robots flickered back to life.

Robot Bill quickly won the game.

"One Bill, zero Ben," he said.

"How did that happen?" asked Robot Ben.

"A solar eclipse," said Robot Bill, now looking up at the sky. "The next one is three hundred seventy years, four months, twelve days and two hours from now."

Robot Ben stared at the board. For a long time.

"Set them up," he said.