Wednesday, March 6, 2019

ABOUT MY COLLECTED STORIES


I've been writing short fiction for seven years. To date, I've had 30 stories published - 29 by e-zines in the US, Canada and the UK; one in a hard copy book published in Canada. 

I'm a Fall 2017 graduate of the famous Sarah Selecky Writing School's 'Story Intensive' program. I highly recommend this four-month, online classroom experience using a very effective virtual classroom tool that allows anyone to easily share their class assignments, new work and comments with other members of their class no matter where in the world each member may live.

I regularly submit new work to competitions and the editors of online journals and e-zines that I find interesting and potentially accepting of my style of telling a story. While I've enjoyed some success, I have accumulated over one hundred of those dreaded 'thanks, it's not for us' emails from editors!

My published work is spread out across the internet so it would take a lot of work on your part to find it all. So I've collected the stories all in one place. It's my equivalent of 'one-stop shopping' just for you!

Now you can browse to your heart's content, enjoying what you choose to read and making a note of a story or two to read at a later time. I hope you will tell your friends about my stories and invite them to drop by at this blogspot.com location.

Please respect that I've retained legal rights to each of my stories. Therefore they cannot be copied and posted elsewhere. But ask me if you want to do that with one of my stories. I'm open to considering what you're proposing to do with it. But ask please; don't 'borrow' it from my page!

I will be adding to this blog as each new accepted, and published piece of my writing becomes available. Some editors have exclusive rights that extend well beyond the published date; others let me post it on my own page as soon as the story first appears in print. All of this to say that you will need to check back with my story blog from time to time to read new material. 

An easier way to ensure you are current is to become an official Follower of the blog. That way, you will receive a notice in your Inbox whenever something new is posted here. There's a convenient 'Follow' button on the top right of the page. It asks for your email address so you can receive update notices in your Inbox.

I welcome your comments and suggestions. I carefully consider each comment, and often the ideas find their way into future stories. Use the 'comment' bar at the end of each story to register your comments with me.

Thank you for stopping by and reading some of my stories.

Down By The River


Will squints over the top of the Sunday paper.

He just finished reading aloud a short piece about a recent ‘reveal all’ book in the UK. It was a collection of actual love letters, written by politicians, celebrities and theatre people. Reuben St. Clair had persuaded each of them and their lovers to let some of their intimate, but up to now private letters, be shared with the public.

The story finished, Will launches into a rant about how intimate thoughts should never be shared in such an exploitive and voyeuristic manner.

“Besides,” he concludes, “How on earth does a guy ever think up all that stuff they write to their lovers?”

Throughout Will’s entire reading and rant, Esther offers up the obligatory ‘uh huh,' ‘oh dear' and ‘oh my god, she wrote that?’

That’s when she realizes that if there is ever going to be the right time to tell Will, it’s now. The UK story is an unexpected gift from the gods.

Esther places her reading glasses onto the side table between them. Standing, she slowly makes her way toward the front hall.

“Where you heading?” Will asks.

“Upstairs. Back in a minute.”

For months Esther has been stressing about a coffee stained, slightly ripped brown paper bag she’s kept hidden in her bedroom dresser. Second drawer from the top, the one that mostly holds lingerie. Because of the bras and panties, she was pretty sure it’s a place her husband would never look.

Now in her hands, Esther holds the bag tenderly as if it were a chick fallen from the nest. She pauses at the top of the stairs. Doubt clutches at her resolve, filling her with misgivings about the rightness of what she is about to do. Several deep, calming breaths. Then slowly down into the hall, through the open kitchen and into the back sunroom where Esther and Will have their Sunday reading chairs.

“I’m back.”

It’s a whisper, but Will hears her words.

He lowers the paper onto his lap, picks up the coffee mug and lifts it to his lips. Esther’s tone is unexpected. Something is bothering her. He searches her face. Esther’s expression gives him nothing. Searching for a clue, his eyes drift downward, coming to rest on a brown bag in her hands.

Will’s eyebrows arch up in his familiar ‘what’s up?’ look. In all their years together, Esther has come to love his predictable little gestures.

She has rehearsed many times how she will begin this conversation. Now those words fail her.

So this time, she’ll let her heart find the right words. Not her head, as she usually does. She takes a deep breath. Then plunges into it.

“It’s something important. Something I’ve wanted to tell you for a very long time.”

Esther pauses, carefully choosing her next words.  

“You remember, many years ago, we vowed not to keep secrets from each other.”

Will looks confused, not yet sure where this is going.

Esther nods toward the bag resting between open palms in her lap.

“At first, I just told myself that keeping this from you would be ok. No harm done, I thought. After all, it’s about us.”

Esther lifts the beat-up paper bag, offering it to Will.

Taking it, Will tries to judge its weight by shifting it slowly back and forth in his hands. She knows he’s curious about the bag.

“Do I get a chance to guess what’s inside?” Esther expected this.

For as long as she’s known him, Will always likes to guess the contents of a birthday present or Christmas gift. Once that was done, he’d eagerly rip it open. Guessing the contents of wrapped packages is just one of many things she has come to love about him. Even more remarkable to Esther, his track record for right guesses is probably running close to ninety percent. In many ways, he’s still just a little kid wrapped up in the body of a man.

“Sure,” she says with a faint smile. “Be my guest.”

In his child-like excitement, Will doesn’t notice the tight anxiety lines at the corners of her mouth.

“By the look of the beat up bag and the weight of it” – a dramatic pause - “I’d guess this is an old lunch bag with two, maybe more, fossilized bologna and mustard sandwiches. Most probably from when we were kids.”

With a theatrical flourish, Will holds the bag to his nose and loudly sniffs for several seconds.

“No. Change that. Not bologna. Definitely rancid peanut butter.” His eyes sparkle with excitement.

He pauses again.

“Dried up strawberry jam too. And yes, my good lady, that’s my final answer.”

Will grins at his wit. Until he notices Esther isn’t laughing.
Nodding toward the bag in his hands, she says, “Nope. Wrong guess. Go ahead. Open it. See for yourself.” Robotic. Flat. No emotion.

Esther’s tone unsettles him.

Will fumbles with the folded opening of the bag. It makes stiff, crinkling sounds as he shakes it open. Not really knowing what to expect, he reaches inside.

A large bundle of papers. Yes, he can see it now. Yellowed envelopes along with some loose pages. All bundled together with a crisscross of red string made of rough, raw wool.

The string looks vaguely familiar, but he’s unable to pull it from memory.

Will looks up at Esther, silently asking permission to untie the string, freeing the pages and envelopes.

She nods but again does not smile.

The red wool string looks as old and worn as the bag itself. The rough feel on his fingers stops him for a moment. Now he knows. 

“Is this the red string I think it is?” Will pauses. “The one I gave you senior year? I called it a promise string back then. My promise we’d marry after college? My god, Esther! You still have it after all these years? It was our….”

He stops.

In one hand, the red string hangs limply from between his fingers. In his other, from a side of the packet, he wriggles free an opened envelope. Scrawled across the front in an awkward adolescent hand is ‘I love You.'

“My love letters? You kept them?”

Holding the envelope, Will waits. Still not quite believing this is happening, he looks at Esther.

Esther reaches across the table between them and takes the envelope. She slowly slides it across her cheek as if it is a lover’s soft caress.

“Yeah, it’s hard to believe, I know. But I saved every last one.”

She gazes at the packet of letters for a few silent moments. And then back to him.

“These are some of my most precious possessions. I want you to know I still have them.”

Tears come now, trickling down flushed cheeks, settling one by one onto her blue denim shirt. ‘Damn it,’ she thinks, ‘I’d wanted so bad not to cry when I told him.’
Will sees her distress and feels embarrassed for her.

His voice soft, he whispers “Esther, can I have it back?” 

She hands it to him then wipes a sleeve along her damp cheeks.

Lowering his eyes to the envelope, Will opens it with great care. He begins to read silently read.

Esther waits. Occasionally, she blots tears from her cheeks with the damp sleeve.

Now finished, Will slowly folds the letter back into its envelope. It’s as if he has been given something of great value.

He breathes into the silent space between them.

“Esther? Why?”

She feels her heart flutter. She begins to talk, capturing his gaze with just her words and the emotion in her voice.
As she speaks, Esther sees tears pooling in the corners of Will’s pale grey eyes. A painful memory rushes back about the last time she’d seen him cry.

It was several years ago. His parents, Terri and Gus, had died in a fiery crash on their first ever road trip to western Canada. In those weeks and months, everyone cried a lot. And Will had gradually changed, becoming distant, moody, resisting her comfort and support.

Will’s voice interrupts, snapping her back from those terrible days.

“Esther? I… I love that you kept my letters. I really do. I can’t wait to read them with you. Just like we used to. But first, I really need to understand. Why on earth did you keep it a secret all these years?”

Without thinking, he brushes away a tear forming a shiny path down through the dark, early morning stubble on his cheek. He will wait her out. In his years with Esther, Will has learned that in such moments, it’s better just to wait. When ready, she will talk.

Will’s tears are unexpected. Since the accident, Esther has convinced herself that he’d put all those feelings in a box and locked them away somewhere deep inside. A dark place she hadn’t been able to reach. But now he’s asked ‘why.' She needs to find the right words for him. She trusts that her heart will speak the truth of it.

“Will, I can’t explain it really. They’re like dear friends. Over our years together, I often visit them. Somehow, they comfort me.” She pauses, then smiles. “I keep them in my lingerie drawer, tucked away at the back under the soft T’s and comfy socks.”

Another hesitation. Then, as if an afterthought, she adds, “I knew you wouldn’t dare look there.”

Will smiles. In spite of himself, he winks in his most wicked, delightful way.

That prompts a faint smile from her. He knew it would. Esther continues slowly as if measuring the meaning and importance of each word.

“Most times, I read them silently. Sometimes though, it just feels better to read them out loud.” She hesitates, eyes still on the bundle of letters in his lap.

“That’s when I pretend. I pretend it’s you talking to me. In that special way, you used to have.”

She glances up at him, a bit embarrassed to share such a private thing; to finally say it out loud to him in so direct a way.

Her eyes seem distant as if she’s not really seeing him next to her.

“Will, I miss that special way you had with words back when we were younger. I know it sounds silly, but your words on those pages remind me when you were both my best friend and my lover.”

He smiles, shifting uncomfortably at the feelings wrapped heavily around her words. She gestures toward her purse on the kitchen counter.

“I still have your poem, you know. It’s in my wallet. Tucked behind my driver’s license and health card. Remember when you wrote me that poem? Spent all that money putting it into the Star’s Personal column? How we laughed and read it aloud to each other over and over again down at Riverside Park? You even put it into music, you remember? You’d play it on your guitar when we were alone. You remember that?”

He nods, no longer bothering to hide the tears. She leans across the table and takes his fingers into hers.

“And afterwards, when we made love for our first time? On the fresh cut grass down by the river? Oh, back then we were such eager, passionate young lovers.”

She giggles shyly at the memory.

“Will, you are my love. My husband. My oh so cool, wonderful guy who does crazy, unexpected, goofy things. Our kids adore you. I can’t imagine myself ever being with anyone else. Some of my friends still say you and me, that we’re soul mates. They’re right, you know. We truly are.”

“I hadn't the courage to tell you this until now. I don't know why.”

He opens his mouth as if to speak.

She leans toward him, lightly putting a finger to his lips.

“Please. Just listen. I miss your love letters. A lot. I miss our desire for each other. I ache not having more of you. I miss how I used to feel about myself when I’m with you. When I’m feeling alone, your letters, they anchor me. They comfort me. Remind me I’m deeply loved, even though some days when our life together gnaws away at me, I wonder if I deserve your love.”

Esther pauses, tears now flowing freely, wetting her shirt into dark, deepening patches.

Will has shifted forward on his chair, the packet of letters now on the small table. The red wool promise string in his hand, is winding slowly in and out between his fingers. 

From her own experience over the years, Esther knows he’ll find its roughness strangely comforting.

“Oh, Esther. I’m so sorry. I had no idea. We’ve been together since we were high school seniors. Married well over twenty-five years.”

He stops, faking confusion. “Or maybe it’s twenty-six.”

As he expected, she frowns then laughs at his old joke. Just like she always does. It’s a family legend that he can never remember how many years they’ve been married.
Will continues. As if he’s hearing each word for the first time.

“Sometimes…a few maybe, I’ve wanted to write you a love letter like the old days. Surprise you. Leave it under your pillow like I used to when we were first married. A few times, I’ve actually written something. About my love for you.”

He raises her hand to his lips, tenderly kissing each finger. 

Just like he did down by the river so long ago.

“But then something tells me a forty-something man shouldn’t have to write anything like that to his wife. Somehow, you’ll just know it. That there’s really no need to remind you in such a gushy, teenage kind of way. So I throw the letters away. Not in the house wastebaskets where you might find them. But out in the garage where I know you’d never look.”

Esther is deeply moved by Will’s words. She hasn’t seen or felt his desire so raw, so present for her in a very long time. It feels terrific to see it. To hear it. To feel it again.
She looks at him. Dare she ask him?

“Will, do you think we can read your letters out loud again? Maybe the poem, too? You read. I listen. Just like the old days?”

He smiles, leaning toward her as if wanting to share something intimately personal.

“On two conditions.” He pauses. “Well ok, maybe it’s three.”

He has her full attention. He pauses several heartbeats for the best effect.

“One. You rescue my poem from your wallet.”

“Two. I get out my guitar. And I sing my poem to you once again.”

“And three. We make love again.”

He pulls Esther into him and whispers, “Just like the old days. Down by the river.”



First Published: This story was published on March 3rd, 2019 in the American online magazine 'Potato Soup'.

The Backstory: Years ago, a friend asked me to clean out her apartment upon her death. She told me that on the top shelf of her bedroom there was a brown box that was very special to her. After her death, I looked into the box and discovered a large packet of letters from her husband. He was a navigator in an RCAF bomber during WWII. He and his crew were killed in action. They had been married only a few months before he was posted to England.

I began to read a letter from the packet. I felt like a voyeur into the most intimate part of their lives together. I returned the letter to the box. I still have that box in my cupboard, but I have never read another letter again.

A secret packet of love letters is at the heart of this story.

Legal Rights. ‘Down By The River' is the intellectual property of the author, Don Herald. No part of this story may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED


This is a personal story. It happened quite a few years back, but it has an appropriately seasonal theme. I may not have all the details quite right – sometimes my memory plays tricks on me – but the bare bones of it are true.

It was the last week of November. I was wandering around our large suburban mall. I had no particular destination in mind. I thought the food court might be the perfect place to hang out and engage in some serious people watching. So that’s where I headed.

I was sipping from a warm can of Diet Coke when I noticed him.

He was sitting over in a corner, deep in the shadow of a scraggly Christmas tree with only about half of its slowly blinking lights actually working. Maybe it was because I’ve read far too many spy novels over the years, but I immediately realized he was pretending to read a large mall flyer but in actual fact was watching me over the top of the page.

So I tried an old spy trick of my own. 

I deliberately looked away from him but used the reflection of the nearby HMV store window. I could see him still watching but with even more intensity.

Unsettled at all of the man’s odd behaviour, I got up and headed down toward the Sears store. On the way, I paused in front of Laura Secord, pretending to consider what type of dark chocolate I was going to buy. A quick glance confirmed he was indeed following me. But he was also pretending to be window shopping while trying to keep me always in sight.

Over the next half hour, I lead him on quite a wide-ranging, zig-zag tour of the mall.

I even tried spending some time in the Victoria Secret outlet, admiring but of course, not touching, the many lacy bras and panties. He didn’t follow me into the store. Thankfully, he disappeared. When I could take no more of the withering stares and obvious whisperings of the VS sales clerks, I stood as tall as I could. Looking straight ahead, I walked confidently out of the store, winking knowingly to the stern looking manager who had been slowly working her way toward me.

Outside the store, there was no sign of my stalker. I decided to quickly leave the mall. But first I needed to make a brief pit stop at the men’s room.

Standing at the urinal, I was congratulating myself on how professionally and efficiently I had given him the slip. But then there he was. Standing at the very end of the row, smiling over at me.

OK, this was now too weird. I quickly washed up and headed into the mall again. I decided to go directly to the Security desk and report the man’s stalking behaviour. I’d let them handle it while I made my timely escape out to the car.

I was about thirty feet from the Security desk when the man tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, sir.” His voice was raspy, and he gulped noisily for air with each phrase. “Can I speak with you privately for just a moment?”

With a firm grip on my sleeve, he expertly guided me away from the Security desk toward a cluster of four chairs and a table.

“If you just give me a few minutes of your valuable time, I have a business proposition for you. One I think you will be very interested in hearing. First, let me clarify. I’m not a stalker. I’m not a weirdo.”

He pulled a seasonally appropriate red and green lanyard out from under his jacket. Hanging from the end was a photo ID. It looked like your average passport photo, only far worse.

“James O’Connor. I work in the mall as their Human Resources advisor.”

He held out his hand. I made a show of ignoring it.

“What can I do for you, James?” I replied with as much frosty cool as I could muster under the circumstances.

“Well, I won’t beat about the bush with what I have to say.” James O’ Connor hesitated as if choosing his next words carefully.

“I think you would make a great Mall Santa” enthused James.

“Your white beard is great. You have a Santa type voice the kids would love. Given that little hide and seek tour you just took me on around the mall, your patience must be amazing. They’re the perfect qualities we’re looking for in our Santa.”

He paused for a breath, then resumed with even more enthusiasm.

“The pay is great. We could work out the hours that fit best with whatever it is you do in real life.”

As an apparent afterthought which he hoped would be the deal closer, he blurted out “And we supply the red suit, belt, hat, bells and black boots!” He glanced down at my feet. “I’m certain we have your size.” Continuing with his list, “And of course, we provide all your elf helpers. We give you the works.”

James arched his bushy eyebrows higher than anyone I’d ever seen do before. He waited for my answer.

Well, I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t say that James’ offer to become that year’s Mall Santa was quite flattering. Perhaps I could even write a best-selling book about my Santa experience.

But as politely as I could, I declined James’ offer. As an afterthought, perhaps to soften my refusal, I apologized for behaving like an ignorant dork for my earlier behaviour and comments.

Before James could protest, I slipped back out into the mall and disappeared into the throngs of overly eager, early shoppers.

Since then, every year as the Christmas season approaches, I find myself wondering what would have happened had I taken the red road less travelled and become the Mall Santa.

Now that I’m retired, I’m thinking that perhaps I should give it a try.

I know that all these years later, I’d look even better in that red suit!



First Published: This story was published on December 12th, 2018 in the American online magazine Beneath The Rainbow.

The Backstory: This is a true story that happened to me many years ago while visiting a local shopping mall about a month before Christmas. I vouch that the key details are true but given that a great deal of time has passed since that incident, some of the descriptive details may not be quite what they were at the time.

Legal Rights. ‘The Road Less Travelled' is the intellectual property of the author, Don Herald. No part of this story may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

THE KING'S TREE


The Lombardi family lived in a small wood-sided bungalow with peeling paint and sagging roof line. All of it had a worrisome right-leaning tilt. The fenced yard was a stone’s throw from the main tracks that ran down the middle of town on their way to the smoky steel mills of Hamilton where Tony’s Dad worked.

Everybody in Fraserville called Tony’s neighbourhood ‘Wog Town’ because that’s where all the poor immigrants lived. It was only when he grew older that Tony realized Wog Town was definitely on the wrong side of the tracks and life there was a difficult one.

Spreading out beyond the tracks was a bush. To young Tony, it was an enormous forest, full of tall trees, scrub brush and a small, ever-flowing creek slowly working its way from one corner to the other. Tony’s mother, like all the other mothers on Station Street, warned the kids to never go into that bush to play.

“It’s a dangerous place.”

Her voice always had a weird edge whenever she talked about it.

“Before you were born, little Jasper Santos wandered in there one afternoon and was never seen again. Oh, the sniffer dog found one of his shoes. And the small red ball Jasper always had with him. But never no body.” 

Tony knew this was serious stuff. At the mention of the Santos kid, his mother always crossed herself, then whispered a quick ‘Blessed Father hold him dear to you.’

Occasionally Tony overheard his mother talking about the bush to Mrs. Ryder from next door. The mothers called it the Devil’s Bowl. But it was with hushed tones and always when they thought the boys weren’t listening.

Tony and best friends Randy, Brian and Clifford all yearned to go exploring in Devil’s Bowl. What made their desire even more intense was the giant tree. It towered way above everything else. The boys had a name for it. The King’s Tree.

The tree was a natural magnet. It drew the imagination and attention of ten-year-old boys like nothing else could possibly do. It would be an excellent tree to climb. Maybe even build a fantastic fort in its lower branches.

The boys drew up some rough plans of what their tree fort would look like. Secretly, from the many piles of discarded debris the work crews frequently left along the track, they began stealing odd sized lumber pieces, a half dozen weather-warped plywood sheets, a couple of small wooden barrels with old nails, a few rolls of rusty wire. The boys hid their stash in the tall grass of the weed-choked field behind Cliff’s house. 

It took them an entire summer to collect everything. By the next summer, the boys were almost ready to sneak into Devil’s Bowl to build their fort. And, of course, to climb as high into the King’s Tree as they dared.

But then a totally unexpected thing happened. 

One Saturday morning in early July, Tony’s mom announced that since the boys were older now, all the Station Street moms had decided that Devil’s Bowl was now a safe place to play.

Tony and his friends hollered and danced, then took off at full gallop, wildly crossing into the mysterious, once- forbidden Devil’s Bowl.

The bush was thick and dark, a glorious and scary place to explore. At the base of the King’s Tree, the boys found the remains of campfires, old shelters made of wooden packing crates, dirty chunks of grey canvas, mouldy bits of clothing including an orphan leather boot, an old pocket knife with its single blade open and a massive pile of rusty cans. But one treasured find fed the fires of their wild imaginations like no other. It was a bunch of gnawed upon bones. The boys decided these were the remains of human sacrifices surely done by the Devil himself.

But their greatest prize was an old two-handled push saw with big, sharp teeth. Randy found it wrapped in an oily grey Army blanket, hidden in a hollowed out tree. Immediately, the boys began to awkwardly practice the two-person sawing technique on smaller trees. With a few hours of concentrated practice, they had just about perfected the smooth push and pull rhythm of the long blade.

A week later Randy suggested they cut down the King’s Tree. They could saw it up into long, wide boards to build an even better fort in one of the smaller but easier to climb trees.

Tony’s real mission was to climb to the very top branches of the King’s Tree. So he wasn’t in favour of cutting it down. But he was out-voted. The felling of the King’s Tree began in earnest.

Tony believed it would never happen. He was sure it would take months of hard cutting on the tough trunk, so he continued to practice climbing the King’s Tree whenever he could. He would leap and grab the lowest branch, pull himself slowly up, then cautiously move from branch to branch using the naturally staggered limb placement like a ladder.

The higher he went, the scarier it became. Up there the tree was thinner, the branches less strong and spaced further apart. With a wind blowing, the top of the King’s Tree swayed back and forth. At that height, Tony realized it was much harder to climb and still hang on safely.

Young Tony was determined to get to the very top. His natural passion for climbing was fueled even more by a book he had recently smuggled out of the Fraserville Library. It was about the two men who were first to climb Mount Everest. Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese guide Norgay Tensing reached the mountain’s 29,000-foot summit in 1953.

To ten-year-old Tony, this was an incredibly inspiring tale. He imagined himself as Hillary each and every day he climbed one more branch upwards. Summiting the King’s Tree was his goal. And he would surely do it.

But sometimes, life has its own plans for ten-year-old boys. 

Randy, Cliff and Brian were equally determined to bring down the King’s Tree. Whenever they could, the three boys worked with focused energy at the base of the tree. They made fun of Tony’s story about the climbing of Mount Everest and teased him terribly about his silly goal of summiting the King’s Tree.

On a bright, cool late September day, the boys went into Devil’s Bowl for another day of working and climbing the tree. Tony had decided that this was going to be his Everest moment. But he didn’t tell his friends. He quickly made his way up to the remaining tiers of upper branches.

Way down below, his friends pushed and pulled with a steady and experienced rhythm. They loudly sang a lumberjack song Randy had learned from a storyteller at the library. It was about rough men who cut tall trees and dragged them to the river for floating down to the mill. The song was inspiring and helped keep a steady swishing beat for the saw.

The wind was gusty and strong that day. Tony carefully pulled himself onto the uppermost branches and hung on tightly. The treetop swayed and bent with his added weight and a more than usual force of the wind. He could see for miles. All of Wog Town and over the tracks into downtown Fraserville. In the hazy distance, Tony was sure he could see the blue Caledon Hills. To his left, over toward the lake, the faint outline of the four slender smokestacks of the steel mill in Hamilton where his father worked.

Victory at last!

Just like Hillary and Tensing, ten-year-old Tony Lombardi raised his arm in triumph. He shouted out, “I am the King of Wog Town and Fraserville! God bless the King!”

Beneath him, the King’s Tree began to shake and sway. Much farther than any time before. He faintly heard someone shout.

“Timber! Run for your life! It’s going down!”

Under Tony, the giant tree seemed to sigh deeply. A short, silent pause. Then a deafening crack echoed up to him.

Suddenly he was on his way down.

It was all over in an instant. But to young Tony, the moment seemed to go on forever.

Clinging desperately to the top branches, Tony rode his King’s Tree down into the forest canopy far below. Air rushed by. Branches slashed at his face as the King’s Tree hit the top foliage of the surrounding trees, bounced hard to the left, then bucked right as the trunk snapped cleanly off and slammed into the ground with a loud wump.

Cliff was shouting “My god, oh my god he’s dead.” Brian was running for Tony’s house crying and yelling for Mrs. Lombardi to come quick. Randy, who had the good sense to jump away from the trunk as it started to crack and fall, dropped the saw and just stood there, his mouth frozen open in a silent scream.

Tony awoke on his back among the branches of his King’s Tree. He was lying in the rocky and damp stream bed of the creek that ran kitty corner through the Devil’s Bowl. He couldn’t breathe easily. His chest felt like the time when Big Dave from school had pushed him down in the playground and flopped on his chest like a tv wrestler. His right arm, the one he had just raised so triumphantly in victory, felt odd. It didn’t move too well when he tried to pull it out from under a large branch. His crotch and underpants seemed very wet. He prayed to the Holy Mother that it was from the stream and not from pissing himself. He knew the boys would never let him forget it.

Tony just wanted to close his eyes and sleep. He did.

Dr. Roberts kept him in the hospital overnight for observation. ‘It’s just a precaution,’ he told Tony’s mother. She sat by his bed all night, wiping his head with a damp cloth, stroking his left hand. Tony’s Dad arrived at the hospital in a company truck that his foreman signed out when the mill learned of the accident. He sat in the corner of Tony’s small cubicle, staring blankly into space, sometimes leaning forward to whisper quietly with his fretting wife.

The boys never again went back into the bush.

When the railway heard of Tony’s accident, they quickly sent in a crew with saws and cleared out all the tall trees from Devil’s Bowl. The railwaymen carted away the remains of the hobo encampment using stained, rough burlap bags left over from storing coal in the old abandoned sheds that lined the tracks. And of course, a long-bladed, two-handed saw they found at the stump of the tree the Lombardi kid had ridden to earth a few days before.

As so often happens with adventures of ten-year-old boys, the story of the King’s Tree was told again and again. The entire tale took on legendary status among all the kids in Wog Town. And to the delight of the Wog Town boys, it even crossed over the tracks into the posh schools and ever-so-safe playgrounds of downtown Fraserville.

THIRTY-FOUR YEARS LATER…

When his wife had first raised the idea of a personal Bucket List project, Tony had taken it up with enthusiasm.
It helped that in the past couple of months he had been thinking about the King’s Tree from his childhood. How that unfortunate experience had ended his tree-summiting career right then and there. Tony knew it would sound silly to Terri and his friends if he confessed it openly. But now, as a forty-four-year-old man, he was determined once again to climb and summit on another tall tree.

The Bucket List offered a safe way to go public with it. The King’s Tree became Tony’s number eight: ‘Climb the tallest tree in the forest like I did when I was ten.’

Without telling Terri, he immediately began a search for the tallest, most suitable tree to climb. He checked out nearby conservation areas, old bush lots on farmers’ back acreage and of course every city park of reasonable size.
 
Two weeks ago, he discovered it.

The tree was a fifty, maybe even sixty foot Jack Pine in the heart of Emily Park on the eastern edge of town. The park was a popular area, partly because of its heavily forested grounds of mature trees of both the needle and leaf varieties.

Tony’s chosen tree towered above most of the nearby ones. It had stout branches that spiralled lazily up and around the trunk, spaced just about right for climbing. From the ground, he was sure the top-most branches would support his two hundred plus pounds. Even better, the tree was at least a hundred feet from a popular running and biking trail so he would be assured of some privacy as he climbed.

On his final recon visit, Tony tried to jump up, catch onto a lower branch and pull himself up. It took some effort because he was out of shape, but eventually, he was able to struggle up onto the branch. Satisfied, he jumped down, wondering if he should bring a short step ladder to help conserve his energy for the climb.

Tony knew he would have to climb early in the morning before any of the runners and bikers would be on the trail. Given his obvious age, it might be hard to explain to a curious passerby. So he’d have to start just before daybreak.

The adult, rational side of Tony’s brain repeatedly whispered that this was an absolutely crazy idea. But the wild, unpredictable ten-year-old kid side of his brain was a loud and persuasive cheerleader for doing the climb.

So, climb it he would.

As he began his preparations, Tony recalled Terri’s words when she saw the ‘climb the tallest tree’ item on his Bucket List.

“When you find the right tree, let me know. I’ll be there with my cell phone to take some pictures. And of course, to call 911…just in case.”

It was an unnecessary afterthought. But she didn’t regret saying it, given the circumstances.

This past weekend, over their usual morning coffee and pastry, he told Terri that he had found the ideal tree in Emily Park.

“Next Sunday. Just before dawn. That’s when I’m going to climb. You still up for it?”

Terri knew there was no point in arguing all the reasons why this was such a stupid and really dangerous stunt.

“Ok,” she said, forcing a tight smile. “Let’s do it!”

So just before dawn, she found herself standing beneath a ginormous pine tree. She had her cell and a large Thermos of black coffee they had picked up on the drive to Emily Park.

Tony had chosen his climbing gear with care. Tight fitting black T-shirt and riding shorts. So he wouldn’t get snagged on the branches. New fluorescent orange runners, bought specifically for the climb. Tony assured Terri that ‘these beauties have an odd tread pattern that is perfect for clinging and grabbing.’ He’d tried to get them in a darker, less conspicuous colour. But the store clerk at Drane’s had insisted they came only in bright orange. On his hands, Tony wore a pair of black, ventilated fabric gloves. He told Terri that all the NFL pass receivers used them for their guaranteed sticky grip. A black wool seaman’s watch cap topped it all off.

Terri asked him to pose at the trunk of the tree. Unfortunately, she left the flash on. The bright light temporarily destroyed Tony’s night vision, so he had to wait a few minutes impatiently until it returned.

Just before leaving home, Tony had decided against the step ladder. So with a deep, loud breath, he leapt up, grabbed the lowest branch and with lots of moaning and groaning, slowly pulled himself onto it. Against her better judgment, Terri even gave him a final boost upwards with cupped hands. She tried taking another picture of Tony heading up the tree. But this time she left the flash off, hoping it would turn out in the semi-darkness.

First light was peaking over the distant horizon.

The first thirty or so feet were relatively easy. In the pre-dawn mist, Tony could faintly make out the town’s white water tank and the limestone clock tower on the red slate roof of City Hall.

As expected, going upwards from branch to branch was no problem. But Tony hadn’t counted on the tree sap and pitch that started to cover his gloves, shirt and shorts. Big, gooey chunks of it were also getting tangled in the hairs on his arms and legs.

Now, the sun was just up over the water tank.

The next twenty feet or so were more difficult. The branches were spaced further apart, not in a regular spiral pattern like lower down. Tony noticed that every branch seemed to have slightly more flex to it than the previous one.

Flashbacks came unbidden about climbing the original King’s Tree in Devil’s Bowl. His concentration on climbing was starting to drift a bit. He forced himself to stay mentally focused. To lose concentration at this height would put him at too much risk.

Far below, Terri would occasionally yell up to him, asking how he was doing. Sometimes she offered words of encouragement. For some odd reason, her shouts reminded him of the cheerleaders’ chants when he was playing football at Fraserville High. It had pumped him up then and did again now.

His watch showed three minutes to seven. The early morning sunlight seemed to be bathing the upper branches with a soft, almost mystical light. He was still making progress, but it was slower than before.

A slight wind started to sway the treetop slowly back and forth. The higher he climbed, the more aware he became of the swishing rasp of his breath coming in shorter, somewhat laboured gasps. He heard a bird making a racket somewhere below. He wondered what that was all about.

Tony was almost at the top. Only a couple more branches. It was as far up as he could safely go. He dared to glance to his left, then right. He was awestruck by the spreading landscape of the waking city and the distant sounds of early morning traffic. Oddly at this moment, he thought about his usual double-double and fried egg breakfast sandwich from the drive through over on River Road.

He was at the top. Or as close to it as he could possibly get and not risk breaking a branch and crashing down into the tree canopy beneath.

Over the past couple of days, Tony had given quite a bit of thought to what he might shout to the mostly slumbering world of Fraserville spreading out below him. Now he knew first-hand what Neil Armstrong must have gone through as the astronaut tried to decide what to say as he set foot on the surface of the moon.

But in his heart, Tony knew there was really only one set of words that was worthy of this special moment.

Here at the top of the tree in Emily Park, it felt exactly like when he was ten years old, swaying wildly at the very top of the original the King’s Tree in the Devil’s Bowl.

Forty-four year old Tony Lombardi shouted at the top his lungs.

“I am the King of Wog Town and Fraserville! God bless the King!”

And just as he had imagined his childhood hero Edmund Hillary doing at the top of Everest, Tony raised and pumped his right arm in triumph.

He had done it!

For the first time in decades, he was once again at the top of the tallest tree around. It felt utterly amazing.

Way down below, he heard Terri whooping and hollering. She was probably dancing around the trunk, celebrating his accomplishment. He knew that Terri believed it was a totally crazy, wildly immature thing to do. But he hoped she’d got some good shots of him striking his Hillary pose.
Juiced on adrenalin, Tony reluctantly started down.

It was far trickier than coming up. He had to feel blindly for a secure branch below him. Sometimes his runners slipped, forcing him to hang on tightly to the branch above until he could find a new toehold.

All the goop from the tree syrup was messing up the treads causing the slipping. But there was nothing he could do about it now. He just wanted to get down and celebrate his victory with Terri. Maybe they’d each have that double-double with a breakfast sandwich he’d promised himself.

By Terri’s estimate, Tony was about halfway down, making slow progress, when it happened.

A woman’s voice pierced the crisp, early morning air. It was shrill, excited and shouting from somewhere over by the trail.

“Hey! For god’s sake, what the hell are you doing up there? Are you crazy? You’re a man for god’s sake! Shit! Get a grip. Get out of that damn tree! Now!”

A whistle started blowing very loudly. Apparently, the woman always carried one for just such an emergency. But until this very moment, she’d never used it.

Startled by the combination of excited shouts and loud, long whistle blasts, Tony immediately lost his toehold and slipped off the branch. He hung on desperately to the now sagging branch above, feeling wildly for another somewhere below him.

“Oh my god, you’re going to fall. Shit, I’m calling the cops!” It was the woman with the whistle again.

Terri was now in panic mode. High above her, Tony was desperately scrambling to find a toehold while hanging bat-like from an upper branch. She could hear him calling out with a noticeable measure of panic to the unknown woman.

“Please, don’t call the police! I’m ok. I’m on my way down! No need for the police. Everything’s under control.”

But everything was happening too quickly.

Tony now knew with certainty that the cops would soon arrive. Maybe even the film crew from the local television station who monitored the police radio communications. There’d be roof lights flashing. Maybe sirens wailing too. They would catch him in his silly stunt. He knew it would all be totally embarrassing and tough to explain in any rational way to anyone other than Terri.

His toes briefly found a semi-solid hold. But then he started sliding down, branch to branch. Sometimes, in fleeting glimpses, he thought he could see Terri beneath the tree looking frantically off toward the trail.

He had to hurry.

His rapid, erratic bouncing descent from branch to branch finally came to an awkward and painful stop about ten feet from the ground. Looking down, he realized he was just above the big branch he had used to pull himself up into the tree.

Terri was yelling at him.

“Tony! Hurry the hell up!”

There was an angry buzzing. Instantly, Tony was swarmed with what must be dozens of Yellow Jacket bees. Somehow in the dark, on his way up the tree, he had avoided waking the bees nesting inside a large crack of a twisted branch.

In his blind haste down, he had accidentally put a searching toe firmly into the entrance of the nest. The bees were now fully awake, angrily determined to punish the intruder.

Looking up, Terri realized that something was horribly wrong. Tony was hanging on with one hand, twisting wildly while swatting at some invisible thing with the other.

That was about the time flashing red, white and blue lights flooded the space over by the distant roadway. From the general direction of the path, a bunch of people were noisily crashing through the low bushes toward her.

“Oh my god,” she blurted out. “This can’t be happening!”

Terri quickly realized that not only was it the cops but also the paramedics and firefighters! All of it in response to that screaming woman’s frantic 911 call.

Above her, there was a sudden groan mixed in with a ripping, wush type sound.

Tony came crashing down, bouncing painfully off the lowest branch, miraculously landing on both feet an arm’s reach away from her, legs immediately collapsing, his limp body corkscrewing awkwardly to the ground. Terri could see that Tony was wildly but feebly swatting at what she now realized were dozens of bees darting angrily at his face and hands.

A red-faced cop and a fresh looking woman paramedic were the first to reach them. The cop demanded to know what the hell was going on while the kneeling paramedic started to immediately work on a groaning, twitching Tony.

Inexplicably, the bees ignored the paramedic, preferring to punish the creature that had damaged their nest. A stretcher was eventually produced. Tony was carted off to the hospital for assessment, and whatever treatment was necessary.

Terri spent the next hour explaining as best she could to the cop Sergeant about Tony’s Bucket List wish to climb a tall tree. But she could see that he was just not buying such a crazy-ass idea.

However, the cop eventually decided it was just another stupid, wacky stunt. Since nobody but Tony had been hurt, no harm was done to the public.

As Terri began to slide out of the rear seat of the Sergeant’s cruiser, he stopped her.

“I’ll have to talk this over with my boss downtown. But you and your husband may have to pay for the costs of three emergency services being dispatched to this ….”

The Sergeant hesitated. It was clear to Terri that he really didn’t know exactly what to call what he had just witnessed. She smiled. She didn’t either.

After a couple of hours in the ER, the hospital sent Tony home with bruised ribs, some raw looking scrapes and lots of white calamine lotion splotches smeared on many bee stings. His dirty, sap-scarred fluorescent orange runners and torn black climbing gloves were in a clear plastic bag along with what Terri figured was Tony’s badly dented ego and reputation.

After gingerly settling into the passenger seat of their car, Tony took a deep breath. And then he began to laugh.

“What you say we get some coffees and pastries at the Silver Bean? My treat!”

Flashing Terri his ten-year-old boy smile, Tony held up one slightly swollen and scraped finger.


“One down. Nine more to go.”

First Published: This story was published in two parts on November 19th and 20th, 2018 in the Canadian online magazine CommuterLit.

The Backstory: When I was a kid I enjoyed climbing tall trees - the taller, the better. The first part of this story is based on the real-life experience that ended my tree climbing passion.

As an adult, I have often thought about that experience and wondered what it would be like to once again climb the tallest tree in a forest. But mature, sane male adults just don't do that. So I created a fictional Bucket List for the main character and had him set about to repeat his childhood tree climbing passion.



Legal Rights. ‘The King's Tree' is the intellectual property of the author, Don Herald. No part of this story may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.

ABOUT MY COLLECTED STORIES

I've been writing short fiction for seven years. To date, I've had 30 stories published - 29 by e-zines in the US, Canada and the...