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Marie White Small

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    multi-scared word baker

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  1. Anaïs Cigogne Giroux was born in Paris, France in 1927 and tumbled into this world haphazardly, like an airy, windborne dandelion. No one could explain such children, the lineage she inherited, or her quiet determination that secured her gifts early on, unusual abilities that she would need, even as a child. She was the daughter of Brigette Czajka and called Anastazja Czajka. Her stepfather, Boyrs Czajka loved the name Anastazja, and although he had not officially adopted Ani, she was known as Anastazja Czajka. They lived in Krakow, Poland and when she was eighteen years old, she took her final vows as a Benedictine nun, from then on known as Sister Ani. That she was given a different name at birth was something she would not learn until her escape from Poland during World War II. She arrived in America in 1940 as the Prioress of a small community dedicated to refugees, what name she used and who she was seemed unimportant. Sister Ani knew only that she had survived the invasion of Poland and had saved her infant daughter as well. The boy, Nikko Yasui, a refugee under her care, immediately saw was her otherworldliness. At five years old, he could not yet articulate his perceptions. His inability to give voice to his intuitive nature confused and frustrated him. But Sister Ani, was patient and kind, affirming his natural abilities; she grasped his predicament long before he did. She had stolen his innocent heart when she told him he was a gift. Her words stayed with him his whole life . . .that he was a gift. To Nikko, she was perfect and in his child's mind, he thought she was beyond the frailty of human nature. Nay, she struggled with the messiness of life in ways all humans do, and acknowledged the presence of evil in the world . . . In his older years Nikko understood so much of what had seemed inscrutable about Sister Ani, that she was a woman who had crossed boundaries into darkness and had emerged as lionhearted, bathed in a kaleidoscope of contrast and light. She was the incarnation of piety and worldliness; pigment and solvent; equal proportions in a magnetic field, while he grew into an old man who was nearly invisible. When Nikko first came to the priory in Northern Vermont, Sister Ani asked him to sit at the kitchen table. She wanted to talk with him. He was a child who liked to hide in the shadows and listen in on adult conversations. At his age, she had been no different. He was curious, nosey and would grow into a man who loved gossip. And so, they chatted. He promised from then on to ask before eavesdropping; that some conversations were only for adults. He tried briefly, but soon learned to tiptoe up to the second story and lie on the floor, his ear pressed against the heating vent, listening to the rasp and warble of a story. This was all that mattered. He felt uneasy and troubled listening to Sister Ani and his mother, Tsukiko Yasui talking about the war, and the internment camp where her parents were locked away. Mostly, his mother worried about Jiji, his grandfather; she was certain Baa-ba would adapt and survive. As Nikko pressed his ear to the upstairs vent, he wondered if Jiji had brought the big red tractor with him. He tried to imagine Jiji riding under the beautiful western skies just as he had always done on the farm in Montana, and when he did, he felt more at ease. When Nikko wasn't eavesdropping, he often sat with Sister Ani listening to her tales about strange and far-away places. “There were wolves in Poland,” she said, “and feral children too, hiding in the forests during the war years.” They sat at the kitchen table, and he watched her add cocoa and sugar to cold milk in a white enamel pan, soon setting the pot on top of the wood stove. “What does that mean, Sister Ani?” “When the chocolate is warmed, you will come with me, yes?” He nodded. She held his hand, carrying the cup of hot chocolate as they climbed the winder staircase up to the third floor of the Priory. Nikko was fascinated with the triangular shaped treads that made half-turns in the middle of each section of treads. At the very top, they stepped into a short entryway, with a wide door that opened to a sun-filled space. In the center of the room was an enormous paper mâché globe more than nine feet in diameter. It hung from rafter hooks, with the ceiling above painted in stars and planets and galaxies that scattered to every corner of the room. “You have seen maps before, yes?” she asked. Nikko nodded. “Well, this is a map, not flat like the ones we use for automobile trips, but round like the earth. You see? I painted this pretty map so that you and Théa-Sophie could understand how we all came together here in Vermont. “Théa-Sophie and I came from Poland,” she added. She pointed out Poland and then the city of Krakow, with a tiny painted street scene of tall rowhouses where she lived as a little girl. Beyond was a painted brick path with a jaunty horse and cart on its way, she explained, “to a monastery in Staniątki, where I lived when I was a little girl.” “And here, Nikko, you see this? This is Montana. We can paint in a road with a shiny black car on it showing how you came to Vermont. Would you like that?” He bobbed his head and wondered if she would paint in the dark barns that he and his Momma drove past in the inky black of night? He was transported back and forth in time . . . to places he knew and in awe of all the new towns the huge blue globe showed; surely there were many more stories to hear, but for he wanted to know what feral children were, and where she might paint them on the big blue world? “This is nothing you need to be concerned with, Nikko. There are no feral children in America.” He tried to accept what she said but understood that the story of feral children was something not meant for his ears; she had mumbled words intended for the heart and ears of God. His favorite scenes on the big blue globe were the images of the Carpathian Mountains with eagles and owls and packs of wolves. Sister Ani told him that the wolves taught her how to be a warrior. He didn’t understand what that meant or what Sister Anni looked like when she was a warrior, but he hoped someday he would know. “But what about Jiji and Baa-ba, Sister Ani? Where are they? Can we paint them on the big blue globe?” “When we know where they are, yes, that is a wonderful idea.” Nikko waited for weeks, asking again and again when they would hear from Jiji and Baa-ba. His mother's answer was always the same, “Soon,” she’d say, drifting away and gazing out the window. “Well, then can I open the present.” “No, little man, not yet.” He opened it, anyway. Stealing into her room, Nikko pried the taped edges apart. Nestled in the pretty wrappings were stacks of jewel-colored origami paper. He wanted to run to his mother and beg her to teach him new and exotic folds, but she was lost during those first weeks in Vermont. She sat by the window day after day, and when the first letter arrived, she carefully opened the envelope that had travelled from Utah to the bishopric in Helena, Montana. From there, it was securely sent to the motherhouse of The Sisters of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then onto Sister Ani and their secure hideaway in the mountains of Northern Vermont. The letter explained that Baa-ba had carried a large, potted sugar beet plant from their farm in Montana to the Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta, Utah, but the plant had not survived. “This is bad luck, very bad luck . . . an omen,” Tsukiko whispered. “I worry now, will my parents be warm and fed well through the snows of a Utah winter?” The curled letter paper, filled with blackened sentences, fell to floor around Tsukiko’s feet as she read each page, losing her way between the lines. “I am like the snow ghost Yuki-onna,” Nikko's mother whispered. “I have lost all who have ever loved me. I am left to the barking, bitter winds.” “Okaachan, Okaachan, you have me,” he implored. “Oh yes, of course, we love each other and always will, but your purpose is to grow beyond me. When you do, you will know that some snow ghost could capture your heart as well, and you will know how to protect yourself.” Nikko was confused, not understanding what a snow ghost was, but he didn’t dare ask; the answer might have been more frightening. What seemed most pressing was to understand the strange letter from Jiji. “What does it, mean?” my mother asked Sister Ani. “All these blackened lines?” “It is . . . what is called, ah—redaction. The words smudged so you cannot know the whole truth. Government agents—this is what they do.” “But this is America, and we are Americans. Everyone back home . . . everyone with Japanese heritage, is ashamed of what Hirohito has done. We carry his shame on your behalf, and now on our backs, shunned and locked away. All that my mother wrote about was the cold and the wind and waiting in lines with soldiers guarding them. What has my mother or father done other than to provide food for thousands of Americans year after year? We are good Americans.” “It was the same and worse in Poland,” Sister Ani said. “In Scandinavia, in France and the low countries, too, the world has turned upside down, inside out; what was right, is now wrong. Truth is a lie and false, reversed. It is like that story, Alice in the Wonderland. I do not know why Mr. Roosevelt fights Hitler with one arm and imitates him with the other?” Kansas City, 2018 Nikko, now at eighty-years, understood Phin was much like Sister Ani; they were both warriors with tales they would never fully tell. But his brother, Phineas Zachary Doran had two secret lives—one prowling the city, photo scouting for iconic images, but his other furtive nighttime habit—the one that electrified his every nerve ending was a game of hide and seek on snowy winter nights. He retold his adventures at breakfast, while Nikko floated on every word. Phin's voice chimed and warbled; his stories were like wild rivers running in Nikko's mind. It was past midnight when Phin pressed through the falling sky into what Thoreau called, “the sweep of Heaven’s floor.” As Phin trekked along the legendary south wall of the Kansas City Library on West Tenth, between Wyandotte and Baltimore, his breath froze in the air and his feet were cold—they were always cold, but beneath his jacket, sweat clung to his body. “Push on,” he whispered below his fluming breath. His legs wobbled against the whoosh of falling snow, but his feet wouldn’t move. He had been stalked for more than an hour by an iconic predator. He crouched against the building and told himself he had time. Above him loomed the huge image of a book spine: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man tucked between other towering book images: Black Elk Speaks and To Kill a Mockingbird. The colorful book spines which measured twenty-five feet tall and nine feet wide were made of sign board mylar and showcased twenty-two titles selected by Kansas City residents. Whenever he passed this side of the library, he imagined the board meeting where this plan was hatched—the confused, quixotic expressions hovering above bow ties or stringed pearls. He chuckled and bent against the spindrift of a hard blizzard. The wind howled. His heartbeat surged but he waited a moment longer to slow his breath and calm his pulse. When he rose to stand, he heard the roar and rumble of snow falling from the roof and in that instant, felt the tingle of fur as it brushed his face. The rancid breath of the animal arcing over him filled the air. The coywolf landed, turned toward him, baring his teeth, leaping, and toppling Phin onto his back. The wild dog whined and mewed, licking Phin’s face and open mouth. “Good boy,” Phin murmured, holding his hands high enough to put the canine at ease. “I thought I’d won—you’re growing stronger and stealthier, Marcus Aurelius.” Phin’s moniker for the canine honored the Roman emperor. The dog understood Kansas City just as his namesake grasped Rome and its culture. Both were clever and ethical. The coywolf tugged at his coat sleeve, tossing his head back and forth, as if to say, “Get up. Quit stalling!” “All right, go!” Phin responded. The animal bounded off toward Baltimore Avenue. Phin ran in the opposite direction; rounding the corner just after midnight and immediately he spotted him. The wild dog with touches of red in his thick coat was at the bus plaza sniffing around the garbage bins. “Hey!” Phin’s voice crackled in the ireful wind. “Don’t be eating that damn white bread. It’s not fit for man or beast. If your mother were alive, she’d tell you the same.” Phin squatted, holding out a treat. The dog looked up, sniffing the air. “Come on—it tastes like chicken.” He eyed Phin, then loped over and grabbed the treat. “You know, I’m not used to a guy who doesn’t understand irony. You want more?” He tossed the shredded meat toward the dog. “Where you laying your head tonight? You coming by my place?” There were nights when Marcus followed him home. The coywolf would wait in the shadows outside the jazz club for Phin to finish his one beer, or bivouac by the garage entrance to the loft apartment, hiding in the shrubbery. “I know we’re family, mutt, but you can’t come home anymore. Tough love and all that. Someday you’ll thank me.” But it killed Phin to turn him away. The coywolf cocked his head. “You got that all-night look in your eyes. Me, you ask? A beer and some live jazz. You know what I'm gonna, right? You need to make some friends of your own species.” The dog barked. “Fine. I get it. You’re right, I need to find that one special human. This is what love’s about: do as I say, not as I do.” He whistled and nodded to the dog, then stood, but avoided eye contact. Phin plodded back up the hill, keeping the animal in his periphery. This was enough for one night—traipsing through snowy alleys and walkways, skirting the edges of highways and retention ponds. They had their codes. “Go on home, Marcus.” He watched the coywolf backtrack, it’s white blaze glistened under the streetlamp. Phin dropped to one knee, focused his camera, and caught rapid-fire images of the canine bounding from the bus plaza into the darkness between buildings. Rising, and sidestepping the curb, Phin pushed on. The dense snowfall flew against the streetlights and into his face, filling the traffic lanes and sidewalks. His hand stuffed into his jeans, he hurried around the jog onto Ninth Street and finally to the intersection of West Eighth and Central and the Phoenix Jazz Club with its replica gaslights out front. Someone held the door. He slipped in, stomping the snow from his boots. A warm yellow light buzzed through the room; it lit the tall windows and danced among the amber-filled glasses along the bar. A small crowd congregated—mostly people from the neighborhood, foot tapping and chattering, moving to the jazz quartet in the corner. Katbirds, they called themselves, playing with the swish and brush of a snare, the high wheeze of a clarinet, and always a piano man and a girl singer with some slow, low whine of love gone sideways. He darted into the men’s room to wash the dog smell off, returning, he stood behind a girl on a barstool waiting to order his beer. He’d not seen her before, and this was nightly hang. Her face was framed in a scarf holding back ginger curls that spiraled to her shoulders. She shifted toward him and smiled; draped her arm over his. She wore prayer beads wrapped around her wrist, rustic droplets of pyrite and garnet with a simple silver cross. To him she appeared to be a refugee in this snow-covered Midwestern land. He recognized the look and stared at her bracelet. “Nice beads on your wrist. Mind if I take a picture?” “Of these?” She answered his query in a soft-pitched voice. “My granddaddy made them for my mother. She gave them to me the day she split. I was six years old.” She flipped her dark red hair from shoulder to shoulder as her words trailed. Without looking up, she squeezed his hand. “I bet you know what that’s like.” Her lips pouted and puckered, protruding when she spoke. He watched her every move, not answering, but meeting her made him reassess; he thought the miraculous had passed him by years ago. It was if the Bee Girl had reappeared, red hair and all. He once thought she was the love of his life. She wasn’t. He stopped looking, but this woman . . . The prayer bead woman prattled on in her silk-covered voice. “What else you saved in that camera?” “Shots of a coywolf. I’ve run into him here and there around the city.” “I never heard of a coywolf?” He watched her mouth, the way her lips moved, and her eyes, always roaming. “A hybrid,” he answered. “Part domesticated dog, part coyote, and part red wolf. A species more adaptable than any of its ancestors.” She touched his hand. “I bet you got some of that DNA in you.” He smirked. “I got a story to tell . . .” “Spill it.” “About a year ago, I saw an article in the Star about how some guy with a quick on the trigger, how he spotted the den, killed the mother and one pup and nicked the male. He told the reporter there was a second pup but couldn’t find it. “I went scouting for the tiny orphan. Two days with an instant heat pack and a feeding bottle before I spied him through the zoom lens. Poor thing, he stood rawboned on a promontory above the Current River at Cave Spring Park, watching boys skip stones into the river. The pup’s legs shook. He folded to the ground, rested his head on his paws all the while following the kids’ movements. “I had to wait till dusk when the park cleared out, then inched up the rock face. By then the dog was sleeping. I warmed the bottle and nuzzled the nipple into its mouth. He nursed in his sleep—any mammal will do that.” He didn’t tell her the rest of the story . . . how he lingered long into the night, feeding the tiny dog every couple of hours while the city quieted below the murky sky. Nor did he mention that he tucked the tiny ball of fur into his backpack, reeling toward home, or that few stars shone that night; the fourteen-billion-year-old galaxy was dulled by a city filled with Edison’s incandescent lights. “Wow. So, where’s this coywolf now?” “We meet up a couple nights a week, a game of late-night hide and seek. We’re an interspecies family.” “No wonder I like you.” She giggled and hooked her arm through his. He didn’t pull away. “You think I’m flirting with you . . . Maybe I am a little. But you’re not the average barfly coming out of the storm of the century.” She sipped her drink. He grinned and paid for his beer, taking the empty seat next to her. “So far, the eighth notable century storm this season.” She drummed her finger to the music. “Even the weatherman needs a little drama.” “I guess.” “What’s your name, guy?” “Phineas. I’m called Phin.” “That’s it?” He nodded, now knowing how to answer. He and Marcus Aurelius shared a commonality—someone, not of their clan, arbitrarily named each of them. “And you’re what—a crime scene photographer, an undercover agent?” “Something like that. I’m a journalist at the Star and a sometimes stringer—not the typical stringer looking for murder and mayhem. I look at environmental changes, stories of humanity—articles that are harder to publish.” “I get it. You got no money in the bank, you drive a beat car. You’re just do-gooder.” She cooed as the words fell from her mouth. “Yup. That’s the team I was picked for.” He waited, expecting sarcasm. None came “You?” he asked “Oh, I’m just high-maintenance, but I like thought-provoking guys with pithy first names. Only right now, love, I gotta run. Next time . . .” “How about I call you sometime?” “Sure.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a business card. and handed to him, sliding off the stool and fleetingly holding his arm. “There's no email address on here . . .” “Yeah, I haven't got it set up yet. New in town, ya know?” He watched her breeze out the door while he gulped back his beer, imagining the girl with the prayer beads in a knife-pleated pink skirt, the tucks of fabric sweeping across her long legs and swaying over her box-shaped hips. His first-grade teacher wore a skirt like that. He wondered if anyone still made them . . . Into his jacket and back on the street, with a mouthful of ditties, Phin looked for her along the snow filled boulevard. Moving like a scat man, he stuttered from toe-to-heel in rhythm to some internal rasping tune, nodding to the proles and boofer boys in search of shelter or relief. He scouted for her footprints or tire tracks in the snow. There were none along West Eighth, though he picked up dull impressions further up the street and followed them for two miles. With the storm whipping him past his building, he soon rounded the corner onto Prospect and then to Peery Avenue, only to lose all traces at Independence Plaza. Phin sat on one of the courtyard’s snowy benches, exhaling flumes that melted the icy air. He imagined himself permanently affixed to the seat, forever the frozen man to be sidled up to on an August afternoon but otherwise given a wide berth. I am a foolish man, he thought. The girl with the beaded bracelet, why would she want me? It’s just like she said: I have no money in the bank, I have nothing to offer, I drive a used car and I live with my brother. He rose from the bench and walked home while Nikko stared out the window from his fourth-floor loft, thinkingGod must be a trickster; he dropped me into a world dominated first by Sister Ani and now by Phin—both orphaned, both had some mystic association with wolves, and yet in their chance circle, he was mesmerized. He watched the snow from his darkened window, wondering at what late hour his kid brother would walk through the door, talking about the wild whipping winds, how the streetlights flickered, but he knew such was merely an illusion. Light is constant; Its speed does not vary from second to second. The illusion was the result of time and velocity, a change in perception. Nikko had succumbed to the tedious night and while he awaited his benediction, this was his liminal interregnum. The storm would be remembered snow by only a few, otherwise, a forgotten skiff, not a blizzard soon stilled, hardened, then fired like clay from below its protectorate. This was a snow that would blow in morning eddies, pillow drift across the streets, beard below balusters and gates, becoming ordinary drifts. In the end it would melt from slush to water sluicing through culverts and storm drains that flowed into Kansas City’s Big Muddy.
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