Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Mailman

The Mailman
By Michael Cannata

           The mailman neared the end of his long daily route feeling completely drained. He sat at a table in his favorite cafĂ©, sipping a late cup of coffee, hoping for a boost that would get him back to the post office and then home where he could finally relax.

            For over 40 years he'd worked the same route, the same neighborhood, delivering the daily mail to the same people. He used to know virtually all of them by name. They weren't just names on a mailbox, they were friends that welcomed him and greeted him by his first name.

            During Christmas week he would often end his day carrying more packages than he delivered; Gifts from his regular customers. A lifelong bachelor, he considered the people on his route his family. He'd had more than his share of daily trysts with lonely housewives over the years. Even the dogs seemed to like him. He'd loved his job when he started and looked forward to going to work.

            But the world of 40 years ago was long gone. The homes along his route had slowly slipped into disrepair and strangers began to replace the familiar faces. The close knit feeling he felt as he walked the streets had disappeared to the point where the term "neighborhood" was a misnomer. People today shared the homes on the streets, but they were far from neighbors.  Now he was impressed if he found two tenants in the same four unit building that knew each other.

            His doctors had been telling him to retire for years and now the postal service was forcing the issue. His health was affecting his ability to complete his work in his usual timely manner.  Most of the people he knew the best, the ones that always had a smile and the time for a chat or to share a glass of lemonade on a hot summer morning, had passed away or moved to safer places.

            Still, spread among the surly and poor people that took over once friendly and prosperous area, there were a lot of old friends along his route that he cared for. They had grown old together as he watched their children grow and move on to lives far away from their parents. Now, alone in their empty nests, they stayed inside and rarely opened the door when he came past. He hated to see them barricaded in their apartments living in fear of a world that had turned against them.

            He spent his lifetime delivering their mail. Now he would deliver their souls. He couldn't leave them behind to waste away slowly. He came up with a plan to take them to a place where they could all be together and happy again.

            Today he would deliver the letters laced with the poison, Ricin, to all his favorite tenants. They would be the last letters they ever receive and tomorrow would be his last day on the job. If he was lucky, it would be his last day on earth as well. It was the first time in a decade that he could recall being excited about tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness
By Michael Cannata
           Sister Agnes looked at the hardened faces of the men staring back at her in the group meeting. Each one of them had a heart of darkness. They displayed looks of anger and threat at the world around them. But, after years of working with them, counseling them and caring for them. she knew in her own heart, they weren't as hard as they looked. Many of them were behind bars more because of their circumstances than their character.

            Their stories would leave anyone with shivers of terror. They were among the most violent and dangerous men in the penitentiary, rapists and killers one and all. She knew that almost all of them had suffered more pain as children than they ever inflicted as adults. They were the lucky ones. They survived. Most of them did not kill accidentally; they had killed with brutal anger, savage cruelty and deliberate violence.

            Despite their horrible acts, inside, they were still children of God. Her job as counselor was to reach into those dark hearts and cast out the darkness so that the light of the lord might replace it.

            She was always amazed by the conflicting personalities that so many of the prisoners exhibited. Despite the fact that their crimes were vicious and heinous, many of the men displayed outwardly gentle and caring demeanors. Some were new arrivals and they were the ones that would be the hardest to reach; most however, had spent the greater part of their life behind bars and sincerely sought forgiveness.

            Sister Agnes was hard in her own right. She had grown up with fiercely strict and abusive parents. When the chance came to escape from her parents and join the church as a nun she leapt at the opportunity. She would get on her knees every night and give thanks to the Lord for giving her the chance to serve him. She wore a cross under her vestments that weighed at least five pounds. It was a burden that strained her back and cut into her neck. But she felt it weighed far less than the pain the Lord had saved her from.

            After years of ministering and study she got the chance to work with prisoners at the state penitentiary. She never feared any of them and the respect they showed her was better mannered than her average Sunday school class.

            Every week she led the group in therapy sessions. Hoping to get them to open their hearts; to honestly repent and beg for the Lord's forgiveness. That was all it took if they wanted to make their way into the Lord's kingdom. God forgave everyone who asked it of him. It was her job to identify with their anger so she could save their souls. To help them learn from her in the same way she had learned from them.

            Instead of lingering to talk quietly with those that had questions that were too personal to share with the group, she excused herself and hurried home after the session. Tonight she would be doing God's work and that was what she lived for. The homeless plumber she'd met at the church shelter would be at her house soon and she didn't want to be late. He needed the work and she needed his service. He arrived at the back door exactly as she instructed and she led him to the basement entrance.

            "The leak started out small, but I'm afraid it will get a lot worse if I don't deal with it now," she explained. "Thank you so much for offering to help."

            She showed him to the door that led down to the basement. As the man peered down the dark stairs, she smashed the sharp edge of the heavy crucifix against the back of his skull. She smiled as he tumbled down to the bottom and landed in a heap.

            She smiled in an almost radiant manner as she walked down the stairs and hit him again... and again. She believed that in order to truly understand the men she wanted to save, she had to experience the same emotions they held in their hearts of darkness. As she continued to strike him repeatedly, she thanked the Lord again for the chance to save and for the forgiveness he promised.

            The homeless man would now have a home in heaven with God. She could hardly wait until she joined them. But she had much work to do before that day. She knew that God was happy with her work and would look favorably on her when her time came.

            No heart was so dark that the lord wouldn't forgive it… even hers.

The Patriot

The Patriot
By Michael Cannata

            He was raised in a family that considered military service the proudest tradition they had. So, like his father and his grandfather before him, he passed on going to college and enlisted in the Marines.  He became one of the top recruits in his class.

            When he volunteered to go to Afghanistan his family, despite their tremendous pride in their son, did their best to dissuade him. He was still so young and they feared for his life a lot more than he did. He was an excellent soldier and felt, having lived in the greatest country on the planet and knowing the value of freedom, it wasn't just his duty, it was a moral obligation to do his part.

            The freedom of the people in the war torn country had been destroyed by the Taliban; Zealots who served God by imposing their extreme religious tenets on those who didn't share their absurd devotion through violence, persecution and death.

            He wasn't a believer in God. He believed that people were responsible for their fate. He wasn't content to wait for God to change things. He believed that all people, given the chance, would simply want to live their lives in peace. But those zealots and dictators that claimed to be servants of God or politics carried war into the lives of the innocent as well as the enemy.

            When he saw the condition the people were forced to live in, the hunger and the fear in their eyes, especially the eyes of the children, it just furthered his resolve to help... to fight in any way he could.

            He had made many friends on his tour, both in his unit and among the local people. One young boy in particular became one of the friendly faces that would bring a little light into the dark days. The boy's commitment to caring for his family, and his willingness to brave dangers that even soldiers would shrink from, inspired him. If a young boy was willing to fight and die for his people, he could do no less.

            For eighteen long, deadly months he fought alongside his fellow soldiers and many of the local militia against the horrors that the war inflicted on the country. He fought in many battles but experienced few victories. His hopes of making a difference in the lives of the people had faded. All the people he saw die, all the people he killed, none of it had made any difference. In the beginning He believed that America was there to help. In the end all he felt was helpless. The only people that he felt he had been any help to was the boy and his family.

            He got the welcome news that his tour was finished and he would be heading home. His family was thrilled and told him to be prepared for a hero's welcome. He made a point to find the boy and say goodbye. When he told him when he was leaving along with the other members of his unit the boy cried and promised he would be by the road to say goodbye.

            The last face he saw was that of the young boy, waving and smiling as his unit drove towards the air strip to board the flight home.  The boy ran towards him until they were almost close enough to touch hands. The boy smiled right up to the moment he detonated the suicide vest he was wearing under his clothing.

            Four of the members of his unit were killed instantly, several others were injured.

            He lay resting on the flight home where his family waited anxiously to welcome their hero… and say their goodbyes. He was buried with little ceremony and his service to his country faded in memory from his people. For all his efforts, he was still just another soldier.

            In Afghanistan, the family of the young boy was showered with praise, gifts and money. Their son had done his service to Allah and his family could live free from fear and attack from the Taliban. He was declared, Hewaad Paala, a Patriot and honored as a martyr.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle
By Michael Cannata

            Carol sat alone in the corner of the damp basement playing with the length of string entwined between her fingers. "Cat's Cradle," was her favorite game. It was a game her mother had taught her a long time ago.  The fear wasn't as great during the day when she was playing it waiting for her mother, free to dream about the home she once had.

            She never knew her father. He'd left them both just after she was born. All she knew of him came from the stories her mother had told her. Some of the stories were nice and when she was telling them her mother seemed to wish he would come back someday. But most of them weren't nice at all and the way her mother would curse and cry made Carol almost happy he had gone away.

            Her mother was the center of her world as a child. Unfortunately, she was far from the best thing in her mother's world. Her mother lived for her "medicine" as she called it. Most afternoons, she went with her mother to the place where she got her medicine. Once back home, her mother would go into the bathroom. After a long while her mother would come out and they would play together for hours into the night. It was those special times that she remembered the most that helped make her life bearable.

            Men were always coming to their house during the day. Most of them paid no attention to her while others made her afraid. Others would bring her candy or other treats. She would sit quietly, eating the sweets, while her mother took the men into her room.

            One day her mother went to a different house to meet a man Carol had never seen before. She introduced the man as, "Fred," and told her that he would be babysitting her until she could get back. Carol saw Fred hand her mother an envelope. As they talked in low voices, her mother seemed nervous. She came and hugged Carol closely and promised she would be back soon.

            She cried uncontrollably as her mother kissed her good-bye. She prayed fiercely all day, but Carol's mother never came back. After her mother left and she had eaten all the pizza Fred had given her she knew things were never going to be the same. After dark, just about the time she should have gone to bed, Fred asked Carol if she wanted to play. He took her down some stairs into the damp basement.

            "This is where you'll be staying," he explained. There was only one mattress on the floor. As he started to take off his shirt he smiled in a way that made her start shaking. "Now, let's have some fun, OK? I know a game you're going to like. It's one your mother and I play a lot."  She started to cry and said "No." Fred hit her hard enough that she fell back on the mattress with her mouth bleeding. That was the last time she had ever said no to Fred. After that they played the game almost every night.

            She heard the front door open and close with a loud slam the way it did every night. The heavy footsteps thudded above her as Fred staggered around the house from room to room, doing whatever it was he did before he came down to her.

            Sometimes she could smell the dinner he made for himself. It always made her stomach rumble and her mouth water. Just once she wished he would share the hot, delicious smelling meal with her.

            As she heard him coming down the stairs she knew her playtime was over.  Nighttime was when she had to play Fred's games. She began to cry quietly and wished again for her mom.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Librarian

The Librarian
By Michael Cannata

          Once upon a time in a land that never aged, where legends and lore ruled the minds and beliefs of the people, there lived a man that didn't want to "Believe"… he wanted to know.

His real name is unknown but the town's people called him, "Cat," because of his insatiable curiosity. He was a simple man whose only passion was seeking out and writing the truth whenever and wherever he discovered it.

Cat knew the only way to find the truth was to ask questions. However, questions were considered dangerous and a threat to the way of life in his country. Asking questions was against the Old King's law.

People couldn't explain why they never saw a dragon or a wizard in all the years they lived, yet they lived in fear of them. While they absolutely believed that every demon and specter of doom known in the legends truly existed, they were always at a loss for proof or evidence to explain where they could be found. And although he spoke to them constantly, his stately voice filling the air around them, no one had ever seen the Old King in real life.

The truth was no one could answer a simple question, simply because they had no answers.

No matter what he was told growing up, Cat never believed in wizards, celebrity idols or the magic powers they embodied. He doubted most of the legends that people told their children religiously. He didn't believe the Old King had been the mightiest warrior or the wisest king in his country's history. He didn't believe there even was an "Old King.” He didn't believe there was any such thing as a question that didn’t have an answer. And most of all, he didn't believe there were no such things as books.

Long ago, when he was too young to even know what a book was, the Old King had outlawed books. Legend had it that he preferred to make up his own stories about his kingdoms history and his place in it. Every story, every legend, every tale told about his country was told by elders in oral sermons. The fables his people knew as history were taught faithfully without deviation, or so the elders claimed.

Gradually, the traditional stories changed after generations of retellings. It came to the point where no one was sure what was true. The elders simply kept repeating the version they had been taught. When they found themselves unable to remember a detail, they would make it up. Ancient interpretations and revised opinions made each story different depending on who told it.  "The Truth" was what the Old King declared it to be at any given time. Writing anything that questioned the Old King could lead to death for anyone who dared.

There was one legend Cat knew in his heart to be true. The legend about a place known only to those that believed in the Free Thinkers world. It was whispered to be a place where such things as dragons and warlocks really could exist, in a place called a "Library." Desperately, more than anything else, Cat wished to become a "Librarian."

There was a time when people were free to travel and roam the other countries that surrounded his own. However, when people started to return with stories that belied the tales of the elders, especially those about the Old King, laws were passed that forbade people from traveling. If anyone dared leave his land they would be subject to exile forever, never allowed to return.

One day, as he sat in the sun, dreaming of lands he would never see, Cat was shocked to see a stranger coming down the road leading to the village. Strangers were rare in his country. Adventurous people occasionally left his country, but no one ever returned. Those that tried were immediately arrested by the Old King's guard and never seen again.

"Good day sir," Cat called out to the stranger. "You look lost… like a stranger in a strange land!" He said jovially, quoting from one of his favorite legends. At the sound of Cat's words the stranger stopped and glared with such a look of suspicion that Cat suddenly feared for his very life.

"I seek a man known as, Cat. I'm told he is a man of great words and wisdom. I am a Librarian," the stranger declared. "I've come to seek help from this man in building a library."

Cat looked at the man with fear and quickly bade him sit. Deciding the stranger was telling the truth, he quietly told him of the laws in his land and how, just by coming there, he was subject to death.

"Why would a man of such wisdom as you stay in a country that had no want of him!?" the stranger asked incredulously!

Cat took the stranger into his home and showed him his most secret and precious possessions. A hidden room filled with the most dangerous objects a man could possess… books. Books his father and his father before him had collected in secret; Hiding them from the Old King's eyes to prevent both the books and themselves from being burned into oblivion.

"I would come to your land in a heartbeat," Cat explained," I would abandon all my worldly belongings, leave the life I have lived willingly, but I could never leave my books. I am their guardian. They belong to the world, not just me.  If I could take my books I would leave this minute."

"Your people need a library," declared the stranger. "If they will not build one, they need a champion who will come to my land and build one in their name. A devoted librarian that will fill the shelves with books recording the legends they cherish and the truths they discovered during their history.

"I cannot ask you to come back to my world. People are not asked to become librarians. They must ask for the honor… and ask properly!"

Cat looked at the stranger and asked with all the enthusiasm he could express, "Can I be a…" yet, as soon as started the question, Cat knew by the look on the strangers face he it was the wrong question. After some consideration, in a way his mother would have been proud of, the way a gentleman asks for something. Cat looked the stranger in the eye and, with the most earnest countenance possible asked, "May I be a Librarian?"

He never did learn how the stranger did it, in fact he never saw the stranger again. Incredibly, as soon as he asked, Cat, along with his all of his precious books,was instantly transported to a different world. A world where questions were not only allowed, they were encouraged. A land where he could finally learn everything he wanted to know.

            Cat gazed with wonder at the shelves stretching from floor to ceiling in the enormous room filled with books of all sizes and shapes. One wall had a section with shelves that were empty. Those were the shelves that would hold the books Cat would write. The books that would tell the stories Cat had brought to the Free Thinkers world. Above all, they would be filled with books that told "The Truth."

On that sunny day when Cat disappeared from his village, a new legend was born; a legend that told of the “man who asked too many questions.” To this day, whenever children ask a question, they are warned by the elders to remember that curiosity killed the man called Cat.

As he sat down at his librarian's station to begin writing the first book about the history of his country, Cat knew that he’d found the world he belonged to. He spent the rest of his days writing down the legends he had been told by the elders in his land. While there were times he wondered what became of his country and the Old King he never even considered returning. He was where he belonged and, as in any good tale, he lived happily ever after.