From the Heart by Thomas Pluck

Wailing notes squeezed from metal strings pealed through the smoke-softened air. The stained maple body of the instrument as dark as the whiskey in my glass. The axe man clutched it to himself, bent and wracked as he reeled out a banshee’s call for a lost lover.

I sat alone at my table, boot heel snagged on a jagged tile on the beaten floor. Third cigarette burning down untasted between my fingers. My eyes pinned on the guitar player’s grimace.

“I haven’t seen you here before.”

I cupped my ear and leaned toward the woman who’d materialized at my left.

“Heard good things,” I said. “Thought I’d check it out.”

“If you like the real blues, this is the only place to be.”

I nodded, admiring the nut brown skin that revealed in the deep neckline of her dress. Her hair was back in a bun, her eyes flicking from the stage to me. Short clipped red nails tipped slender fingers, curled around her glass.

Under the blue lights, the bluesman sang of a woman too good for him, a woman now buried because of his jealous ways. He slipped back into the chorus.

“And now I got these prison bars, ain’t got her lovin’ arms…” His lip got that wicked curl again, giving a thin gleam of teeth.

“She’s too good for this old snake, and she’s too good for this world,” his voice rumbled over the finale, and the room broke into claps and hollers.

I clapped with the rest of them, his music was righteous. Now I knew what she’d seen in him.

Her chair scraped closer to mine. “I wonder how he channels that kind of pain.”

I almost flashed a smile, but cut it off. My hand dropped to my belt, where I’d tucked the cheap .32 the kid had sold me.

“Something like that has to come from the heart,” she said. “He’s gone through it.”

I nodded. “That’s the stone truth.”

I stood up and slipped through the thinning crowd, toward the stage.

Faggot by Thomas Pluck

In study hall Brandon sat like a little faggot so I said “Hey faggot.”

“That’s right, faggot. Don’t look at me. I don’t like faggots looking at me. I don’t want their faggot eyes on me, faggot.”

Bell rang and he walked like a faggot and held his books like a faggot so I knocked them out of his gay little hands.

I bumped past him as he bent to pick them up. “Fag.”

Last bell. Walked home, played X-Box.

Dad kicked my feet off the coffee table.

“Keep your damn shoes off my furniture, faggot.”

 

 

Shogun Honey by Thomas Pluck

Ishikari took the job for three rice balls a day and a dry place to sleep. By dark, he’d wished he drowned and starved. His blade caught the thin shaft of light by the door. The edge was notched from many blows.

Rain hammered the roof of the priest’s hut, beat a relentless tattoo. Droplets trickled down Ishi’s back. His head fell forward, exhausted, woken by the sting of water in his wound. He nodded like a crane hunting mudfish. Muddy river minnows were his last meal. Eaten on the priest’s last coin.

The girl huddled over the holy man’s body. Silent tears down her cheeks. She’d passed as a boy, his acolyte. Washwomen saw her squat to piss in the bushes. The ruse was over. Soon the oyabun, leader of the village yakuza, would know.

***

Ishikari walked into town lean and hungry. Gone to the temple to pray.

“She has not yet had her blood,” the old man said. “And he will whore her.”

“That is her road,” Ishi said. “Why protect her?”

The priest groaned, stroked his bald head. “She is last of the Mikatsuki clan.”

Ishikari grunted, thumbed the sword in his belt. His father’s. Last drawn on the red-soaked fields where the Shogun’s samurai slaughtered Lord Mikatsuki and his fiefdom. Ishi’s father wouldn’t roam as a ronin. He died with honor. Ishikari separated his head from his body with his own sword.

Ishi thought of the head’s stare. The way the lips parted, as if to impart some final wisdom.

“For a beggar’s meal and a roof,” Ishi laughed. He was weak; his sword was sharp. “Old man, I need more than rice to fight the oyabun’s men.”

The priest narrowed his eyes. “And I need proof that sword wasn’t stolen from the dead.”

Ishi flicked out the knife nestled alongside his sword from its scabbard, spun it at the door beam. It sank deep, pinning a lazy brown cockroach to the wood.

The priest grunted, and handed him a dirty iron coin.

***

“There is a stray bitch outside the boss’s kennel,” the dirty man chuckled to his comrades.

Ishi devoured his pot of simmered mudfish. Their silvery eyes gave him bowl of stars in the paper lamp’s light.

“We get her tonight from his hut,” another said. They were bearded and lean, like Ishi. Ronin fallen into the oyabun’s claws.

Ishikari finished his bowl. Slurped down the broth. Then drew his father’s blade and killed the three men in as many strokes.

The restaurant erupted in screams. Men shouted, flowed from the gambling house to nick his blade. Ronin with swords. Thieves with knives, chains. A woman dropped a noose from a window. He yanked her out by it. Her body crumpled in the mud like a dying bug. Ishi fought his way to the temple, limbs and writhing bodies in his wake.

Too many. A spear tore open his back. He ran his blade up the haft, severing the wielder’s fingers at the knuckles. Staggered back to the hut. Found a man giggling over the priest’s halved head, beckoning to the girl with a finger. Axe in the other hand.

Ishikari severed the hand, then spilled the man’s guts to the floor.

***

They waited.

The oyabun owned many men. Could lure dozens more, with the song of rattled silver. The crescent moon shone through the slats of the leaky hut.

“So,” Ishi said. “You are Sakura? My lord’s only daughter.”

She wept, tugging the priest’s robe over his ruined face. Failing.

“Tell me,” Ishi grunted. “Who do I die for today?”

She bit her lip in defiance. Eyes dead as those in Ishi’s dinner bowl.

“Tell me!”

“My name is Reiko,” she said. “I am the oyabun’s daughter.”

“Lies! From a priest,” Ishi spat.

“He lied twice,” she said. “I have had my blood. And my father’s child is in my belly.”

Ishi grunted.

Footsteps in the rain. Many. Hushed whispers. Ishi groaned out a sigh, nodded to the girl. And stepped out the doorway, sword held high.

The Last Sacrament by Thomas Pluck

Not many of my friends want to be altar boys anymore. I know what you think; the Church has done a lot of wrong, but there are still good people working to help the needy and change things from within.

I became an altar server right after I was Confirmed. My mother always wanted me to be a priest, and after Dad died, Father Horgan was like a father to me. So it was natural that he asked me, and I’ve been his favorite acolyte ever since. He says I treat things with the proper gravity, which means I keep my mouth shut. The other boys whisper a lot amongst themselves.

It’s not easy, either. You have to arrive early, put on your surplice and robe, and assist the deacons. You may be chosen to light the candles, or be the crucifer, who carries the brass cross up the aisle. The greatest is when you’re the thurifer, the one who carries and swings the incense, and leads the procession. I was proud when Father Horgan first chose me to do it. You have to swing the censer three times before the altar, after a priest blesses it. It’s an important duty, and I treat it very seriously.

Tonight, he told me to dress comfortably, in dark clothes. We would administer the sacrament of anointing the sick. He told me they used to call it extreme unction, before I was born. That sounded too severe, so they changed it, but he preferred the old name. I agreed; it does sound better. It has the proper gravity.

I found Father Horgan in his room in the rectory, as he knelt and prayed the rosary. He made his own rosary out of black parachute cord he got at the Army surplus store. He said it was strong and befitting a warrior of God. He told me he’d make me one someday, when the time was right.

I stood quietly in the doorway until he finished. He was in his vestments, and had brought my robe from the sacristy. I pulled it on over my hoodie and jeans. I asked about the white surplice but he said we wouldn’t wear that tonight, and I followed him to his car.

He drove to the deacon’s home. It was in the nice part of town. I’d never been there before. Father Horgan said the deacon was sick, and needed absolution. In many ways it is the most important of the seven sacraments, because it’s the last one you ever get. It prepares you for the hereafter, putting you in a state of grace. That’s what they taught us in catechism.

Another sacrament is penance, or confession. I go every week. It’s important for reflection, Father said. You may not know you’ve committed a minor sin like lustful thoughts, and soon enough they seem normal to you. And soon you’re thinking of fellow human beings as mere vessels for your lust. And that’s a big sin, he said. A mortal one.

My last confession was about lustful thoughts. Father said I’m at that age, when hormones take over, but I must keep watch over them. They are never stronger than our hearts, he told me. So when someone shows me dirty pictures, I look away. I’m not sure I’ll remain a virgin before priesthood, but I don’t need to look at that filth. So I told the Father about it.

We pulled into the deacon’s driveway. The lights were all out except for one upstairs. He was up there, sick and alone. The Father let me inside, and we tread carefully in case he was resting. He was not, when we found him in his bedroom. He was sitting in front of his laptop, looking at the same filthy photos of little children that he’d showed me before.

Father Horgan whipped his rosary over the deacon’s neck and yanked it taut.

My job was to recite the Act of Contrition. For us, not for him.

“Oh, my God. I am heartily sorry for having offended thee…”

I made sure to give it the proper gravity.