A King’s Ransom

There once was a king who ruled his kingdom with a strong and even hand. He was as firm with his sons as he was with his servants and subjects. Justice was pronounced swiftly but surely in his court, punishment meted out in the strictest sort of confidence, unswayed by doubtful cries of innocence or desolate pleas for mercy. Rebellion was unthought of, or if thought, and spoken aloud, quickly dispelled by the king’s strong and even hand.

All this changed, though, when the king died, leaving his entire kingdom in the hands of his eldest son, a stupid and silly man whose only virtue was that he didn’t know a thing about a king’s strength, and still less about a king’s justice.

– MWP 2011

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Bookish

Malcolm loved The Book Nook, that rambling, rickety bookstore on West Second Street.

It was something about the smell, that universal book smell: crisp and crackly with a hint of dusty wisdom and just a touch of unexpected spice, like musky vanilla. And the sounds: all that silence echoing provocatively around the swish of pages turning, the occasional cough or muted conversation, the rasp of a chair on the hardwood floor.

And of course the books. Old books, new books, bestsellers, classics, cheap books, leather-bound rare books—it didn’t matter. Books beckoned him higher up and further in, worlds unending, whole worlds unexplored.

The coffee shop in the front corner was a bonus. As was the brunette barista with the mischievous smile, the kind that makes you think there’s more to the story than a mere blurb might suggest.

– MWP 2012

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Lost in the Music

The music overtook him, as it always did. It played him like a well-worn guitar, like a drum notched and bruised from the beating. It plucked and pulled and picked him, buzzing him with its intoxicating rhythm, humming him with its heaven-spent rhyme, its melody and harmony ransacking his soul. And then it dumped him, flopped all spent, on the floor of his piano bench, hands draped on the keyboard, head lolling forward.

There was silence. Not a cough, not a word, not a scrape of a chair on the hard wooden floor. A full minute passed before he lifted his head, and pushed his sagging body into a wavering, upright stance.

Then the applause came. Like ocean waves it came, rolling in with the tide of pent-up emotion that swelled through the old hall. They stood up, one after another after another, standing together in reverence, in comprehensive awe.

The soldiers stepped forward then, their swastikas emblazoned in crimson on their sleeves, and the ragged pianist was pulled, limping, from the stage, the final glimpse a yellow star.

– MWP 2012

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The Wood between the Worlds

Alex stood up from the table, the bills and figures left in piles, taunting. Stretching his hands above his head, he willed the hunch from his body. He walked to the window, where the sun peered in through the shadow-casting trees.

It was no use. No amount of stretching or sunshine could shake the burden from his mind. The anxiety gnawed at him, chewing away at his thoughts, spitting out worry upon worry.

There was movement in the shadows then, and from the depths of sunlight a small form bounded toward him, oblivious to his watching eyes. It was his daughter, Olivia, skipping nimbly among the bending branches.

She stopped. Turning back toward the sunshine, she opened her arms wide, as if she could embrace the trees, the sky, the sun. Then, leaning forward, hands outstretched, she began to sing. Spontaneous, disjointed, nonsensical: the words and melody caught between them a joy unbounded, deep and raw.

Alex pressed his hands to the window, bent his head to the glass, and wept.

– MWP 2012

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West of Eden

The coulees look just like I remember them, yellow-brown and flowing in the relentless west wind. They dip and curve, cutting through long grasses and juttings of coal-dust dirt, down, down to the slow-flowing Old Man River.

We never got to the river, me and my friend. We got stuck in the time-warp of the coulees’ twists and bends: heroes of the past, warriors of the future, explorers in some far-flung galaxy.

On good days we would start out early. We would get supplies at the local convenience store, stocking up on all the necessary provisions young boys need: licorice, pop rock candy, a cream soda slush. Then the trek to our most treasured place, a deep gorge impossibly furnished with trees and bushes and a trickle of a stream. Epic battles of will were fought there; the fates of entire civilizations rested in our hands. The gorge was our oasis, our Eden, our raison d’être for a glorious afternoon.

I still remember the day we emerged from the coulees toward the river, and looked down on manicured greens colonized by grown men with clubs in their hands, their flags planted as if in conquest, a declaration of a war we knew we could not win.

– MWP 2014

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A Hand Held Sideways

When Rachel glanced back at him, he was still sitting on the park bench, still staring out across the lake with that look of empty longing. It was as if there was something he desperately wanted to see but could see no longer, as if, though, he might weep should he see it again.

It had been years since her father had looked otherwise. In fact, she remembered the day it all had changed. It was the day she had leapt up, anger bursting from inside her, and reached out, trembling in rage, to pin back his arm and keep him from striking her mother one more time, holding his hand sideways against the sun-flowered wallpaper of the dusk-covered kitchen.

– MWP 2011

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Born Again, Again

Mahmoud squats in the shade, eyes narrowed as he studies the scene before him. It is a scene all too familiar. The Christians are back in the village square, handing out their bread and bibles. The bread is always stale, and never enough—just enough to draw a crowd of children, a charcoal sketched in skinny sticks and sharpened angles. Just enough bread to draw the crowd, but more than enough bibles to immerse the crowd, baptizing them in the name of the numbers and of the statistics and of the holy conversion.

Mahmoud snorts to himself in derision, then catches himself. He cocks his head to the left, eyes opening wider, as the miracle unfolds before him: a village girl, threadbare and dusty, holds out a cup of water to one of the least of these Christians, who sips it silently with a puzzled smile.

– MWP 2011

This is copyrighted material. If you enjoy this, please pass it around with a mention of my name and a link to this page or the website (www.michaelwilliampahl.com).