The Alphabet Challenge: “M” Story No. 2 of 3 — Martha’s Morals

This is the 13th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “M”.

Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “M” as submitted by its author.

Martha’s Morals

Copyright 2020 — Gary Broxson

(3,326 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)

I first noticed my mom slipping that year when she called me by my brother’s name. No big deal, I thought, but then she did it again. My name is Ben and my mother is Martha, a tie dye-hard sister of the sixties. My boy Simon and I were visiting Mom on Labor Day weekend, just two days before Simon was set to start first grade. He was a bit nervous, so I asked my mother to tell him a story like she used to tell me when I was troubled.

We had just finished a wonderful dinner of roast, rice, and gravy—Mom’s specialty. She thought about it for a moment, then said, “Okay, Jerry, you get the dishes and I’ll serve up some dessert in the form of a great bed time story for little Simon.”

“Ben,” I said.

She looked at me funny.

“You just called me Jerry.”

“No I didn’t,” she said. “Now be a dear and pour me another glass of red, please. It will help get the story flowing.”

And she knew all about flowing. My mother loved to wear these long flowing gowns with paisley prints. She looked like a grandmother butterfly but she could still sting like a bee when crossed.

“Okay, Mom,” I conceded. “I must be hearing things.”

“Simon, why don’t you and I get cozy to the living room while your father cleans up. I’ll tell you the story of the The Jug-eared Prince.”

Simon stopped pushing peas around on his plate and his eyes lit up. “I love your stories, Martha. Dad only tells dumb Disney stories about Harry and the Turtle and Knock’n Boots.”

“That’s The Hare and the Tortoise and Puss in Boots, Simon—different stories.”

(And yes, my mother insisted on her grandson calling her by her given name)

“And a bowl of ice cream for this little genius, please,” she sang, as they disappeared into the living room.

“Sure, Mom. You two go ahead and get started without me. I’ll tidy up and be right there.”

In between the clatter of dishes and the spray of the faucet, I listened intently as my mother cleared her throat and began an old familiar story.

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Once upon a time, there was a white castle on a hilltop. It was called Camelot. King John and his queen were loved by everyone in the land except for the king’s evil adviser who thought he should sit on the throne. The Princess, a young girl named Caroline, played her lute in the great hall where friends of the Court would sing and dance and tell stories of old and make plans to bring joy to the world, all the boys and girls.

Lyndon B. Lyon, King John’s evil adviser and a power-hungry warmonger, hired an assassin to kill the King and take the Crown. It was a sad day in the Kingdom when King Lyndon stole the throne. He also forced Queen Jacqueline to marry him and he locked Princess Caroline away in a watchtower with only her electric lute to keep her company.

For years Princess Caroline only played mournful dirges, but sometimes she rally and would make up songs about the Prince that would one day save her. He would be strong and brave and would have small, delicate ears; for the two things she detested most were big jug-ears, so common among the commoners.

Then one day she heard the strains of a bizarre new type of music lift up to her tower window. The music was loud and chaotic; the lyrics were both repulsive and compelling. The minstrels played odd instruments and sang about love, war, peace and freedom that empowered the Princess to stop waiting for her errant Prince and find her own means to escape the watchtower.

It was useless. The tower was high and the once ivory-white walls were now dark and stained with slippery mold, making it impossible to climb down. In a final desperate attempt to escape Princess Caroline closed her eyes and leaped out of the tower window.

“Mom,” I interrupted, sticking my head into the living room. “I don’t remember the Princess committing, you know…” I half-whispered.

“Don’t worry, Jerry,” she said. “You remember what happens next… don’t you?”

“Ben,” I said. Then realized that Mom was half-right; I had forgotten the plot.

Turning back to Simon, she continued. “Just before the Princess splattered onto the cobble stones, she looked at me and sipped again at her wine, a great dragon swooped under her and she landed on its scaly back. The dragon flew high up into the clouds, then turned its huge head to the astonished girl and said, “I’m Puff, the Magic Dragon.” (Martha made the dragon’s voice raspy like a two-pack-a-day smoker)

Pleased to meet you,” said the Princess. “My name is Caroline.”

Yes, of course,” laughed the dragon, tiny puffs of smoke coming from his nostrils. “We all know who you are. I was sent to rescue you.”

By whom?” asked the Princess.

M’Lady, t’was my master the Prince sent me. He is busy making plans for your return.” Then the dragon pointed west and flew like an eagle to the sea, fast and true, with the bewildered Princess holding on so tight. They flew for a night and a day and when the Princess awoke she lay in a strawberry field glistening with dew. Right away she heard it again, the alluring music she had first experienced high in the evil king’s watchtower.

Princess Caroline followed her feet toward the hub of thumping vibrations and high octave amps. Strobes of every color shone from the windows of a pub called The Show-Tell California. She opened the tavern door and was nearly knocked off her feet by brilliant lights and raucous music. Smoke rolled out like a gray carpet, the warm smell of colitis rising up through the air. Caroline closed her eyes and was lifted off her feet. Drifting like a phantom, she was inhaled into the tavern. There inside, she opened her kaleidoscope eyes, smiling, surrounded by a purple haze.

Some of the minstrels saw how beautiful and innocent Princess Caroline was and they took her back into a private chamber. They gave her a cup of herbal tea…”

“Mom,” I interjected, “this is starting to sound like tales from an opium den.”

“Son, they’re harmless. I told you these same stories when you were a boy. It took you a while, but it looks like you are finally catching on,” she giggled-snorted; then took another drink of red wine.

“What happened to Princess Caroline?” Simon asked.

Some of the knaves in the band, calling themselves the Gangsters of Love, wanted to steal kisses from the Princess because she was so beautiful. But she refused, explaining that she was saving her kisses for her Prince. They became insistent and were making her feel very uncomfortable. Suddenly, the loud music stopped. The silence was deafening until she heard a clear, singular voice cutting through the haze.

She heard, Haaands, touching haaaaands,

Reaching out, touching me, touching youuuu

Then everyone in the tavern, everyone in the kingdom, joined in to sing her name.

Sweeeeet Car-o-line… Then they slammed their mugs of mead on the tables three times.

The Princess broke free from the men and ran out of the darkened room into the main hall. There he stood-her Prince. Fitted in the finest, shiniest helmet and armor, he took center stage and sang out her name. She ran to him and they embraced. Through his raised visor, she rose up on her tippy toes and she kissed him.

How did you find me, brave Prince?” Caroline whispered, breathless.

The old king sent me out on a quest many years ago to befriend a dragon. Upon return, I heard your mournful music coming from the prison tower.”

But how could you hear such sad, soft music, so high in the watchtower on the hilltop?”

The Prince placed both hands on the sides of his helmet and lifted, with some effort. Boing! Out sprang the biggest ears she’d ever seen.”

Simon giggled as Martha tugged gently on one of his over-sized earlobes.

M’Lady, I can hear the wings of a dove in a…” he stopped and stepped protectively in front of Caroline. “And I can hear the daggers of devils as they move to make malice.”

Three of the Gangsters that had harassed Caroline approached the royal couple. “Step aside, Tin Man,” said one of the rogues. “She’s our date tonight.” They unsheathed their steely knives and moved in closer.

The Prince reached into a hidden pouch and drew out a pen.

“A pen?” Simon asked. “Don’t you mean a big sword or a machine gun?”

“Who’s telling this story?” Martha scowled dramatically, and continued.

Behold!” the Prince said. “I wield Excalibur, the mightiest of all pens. Back away now and I shall do your credit no harm. Remain, and I shall scribe your names and social security numbers onto a scroll and submit your information to my colleagues at the IRS. From this day hence, you will be annually and anally audited.”

As the Gangsters of Love dropped their daggers and ran from the tavern, the courtiers all laughed. There was a joker, a smoker, and a…” Mom glanced at me and I shook my head. “And a Wall Street broker,” she finished. We both smiled at each other over Simon’s head.

“Outside, Puff waited. As the Prince and Princess climbed onto the back of the dragon, Caroline asked, “Where are we going from hear, dear Prince?”

“The Prince took her hand and bowed deeply. “M’Lady, if you will have me, I would ask you to give up your title and your sweet name, as will I, and live with me in the great plains of Iowa, far from the reach of the Evil King. There you will call me Carl and we will raise corn and kids and I will support you as a wizard of numbers—an accountant.

“Hey, wasn’t that Grampa’s name?” asked Simon.

Mom touched a finger to his lips and smiled. She continued.

“Caroline looked around the realm. She could stay and remain a fugitive Princess among the people or she could leave with the jug-eared Prince that was no longer even a prince.

“True,” he said, seeming to read her thoughts. “If you come with me you will never again be a Princess. “But,” he said, looking deeply into her eyes, “you will always and forever be my Queen.”

“Caroline picked up the shiny helmet. Twisting and turning, she screwed it back onto Carl’s head over his ever-so-large ears. She flipped up his visor revealing his kind and handsome face and she kissed him again. They flew off to Iowa on the back of old Puff with the cheers of the townspeople fading from below, and they lived happily ever after.”

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I’ll never forget that night, five years ago. That was the last time Mom was, you know, Mom. She had always been a fantastic storyteller but now she was silent; so silent. Her bright blue eyes were now vacant and her quick smile and quicker wit were stifled and still. I believe that in her mind, she was again a Princess of old, captured, imprisoned in a high tower, far, far away. This time the evil king’s name was Alzheimer, and his prisoners seldom escaped.

It was September, Simon was starting middle school. He no longer needed me to hold his hand or tell him silly bedtime stories, but my mother needed something from me that year that I was sorely afraid I couldn’t give her. As I sat stupidly by her hospital bed, she blindly said the one word I most dreaded to hear—“Camelot.” It was a question; it was an answer; it was an accusation.

She didn’t understand, I told myself. I sold insurance in Iowa. I was an actuary that wrote tedious policies based on life span probabilities and spread sheet tables. Jerry, he was the one that could spin a yarn or sing a ballad for a shot of tequila. Not me. Jerry had become a transient musician and now lived somewhere in the crazy state of California. He always seemed to be just out of reach in an emergency.

As the eldest, however, I remained dutifully close to my parents. I had handled my father’s funeral years ago with Christian efficiency, even though my mother had asked for some rather odd addendums. I remember gravely explaining to her that “No, we cannot burn my father atop a funeral pyre or set him adrift in a blazing boat—there are fire code restrictions.” I am oddly proud to say that Father now peacefully resides in Highland Gardens Cemetery, just west of Newton, Iowa, where I grew up and where we can visit on holidays.

Down deep, I knew exactly what my mother wanted, what she needed. My analytical brain, the one my father had nurtured, understood the task completely but balked at its ability to proceed. For the first time in my life I channeled my mom; I went home and did exactly what I thought my mother would do when faced with such an ordeal. I opened a bottle of Merlot to get things flowing and got out a clean sheet of paper. When I had finished the bottle and the story I Ubered back to the hospital, and I took my mother’s hand.

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“Mom…or Martha Caroline Kent, if it pleases you and if you can still hear me. Either way, you will always be Princess Caroline to me, Jerry and Simon.” She laid still, the heart monitor pinging slowly, erratically; her breathing labored and raspy. “We love you as we have always loved your stories. Now here I am, your oldest son, not literary Jerry, but Ben the bookkeeper, ready to tell you a tale. A simple story from my heart to yours.”

Once upon a time, there was a boy whose only wish was to become a robot. At home and school he was surrounded by family and friends that loved him but he was never quite sure how to return that love. He grew up in a time of turbulence. There were wars and protests; images of guns, doves and daisies delighted and confused young Benjamin. Many believed the world was ready for revolution and many thought peace would prevail through the power of music and magic.

Then the dragon crashed and burned, falling from the sky like a lead zeppelin. Believers around the world cried as Don McLean reminded us all that music, all real music, had died in a fiery crash in Clear Lake, Iowa. Arrows from assassins below had brought down Puff and all the troubadours and revolutionaries that believed in the magic he possessed. The boy’s mother, Martha, cried all that winter.

With the boy Benjamin and his brother in the backseat of a Bel Air, their parents drove the old Chevy to a dry levy where everyone cried except Benjamin. There in a scorched cornfield in east Iowa, Martha bent and with only her hands, she dug up a heart-shaped stone. She brought it home in the trunk of the family sedan.

On the way back to Newton, Martha told her family about the three men she admired the most. There was Uther, Jr., the Man that should be King; Elvis, the Man that would be King; and Robert, the brother of the old King of Camelot. They were her Holy Trinity.

The boy Benjamin asked his mother about the strange stone as she stored it in a clay jar and placed it high in the cupboard, well out of his reach. ‘One day,’ she said, ‘when you are old enough, tall enough, and wise enough, you will seek the power of the dragon’s heart.’

The boy Benjamin shrank from all the riots and rebellions that filled his world. He only found solace in numbers; they made perfect sense to him and they never needed a hug, a lecture, fire hoses, or German Shepherds to add up properly. He believed that if he was truly a robot, he would not have to worry about such silly things as war or peace, or even people.

He told his father about his wish and his father told him that the only way to really become a robot would be to seek out and find Excalibur. His father also whispered that this quest should begin in the attic.

That night, when all were asleep, the boy Benjamin climbed the stairs to the lightless loft. Behind a box of ornaments and under a pile of mothy blankets, he pressed down on a squeaky floorboard. He pried it back and saw something slim and shiny down below. He reached deep, deeper, until his shoulder was wedged in the slot. His fingertips brushed the cool metal and then grasped it tightly. Effortlessly, Benjamin retrieved his father’s old pen—Excalibur. The light coming off the Mont Blanc lit up the attic revealing a suit of armor hanging on a peg. It was tarnished and rusty and in need of repair.

The following morning, Benjamin wore the cleaned, gleaming, stainless-steel armor and helmet to breakfast. No one seemed to notice. This was perfect, he thought. Then sarcastically, Jerry asked him if he was a knight or a garbage can. Benjamin informed his brother that he was neither; he was a robot. Everyone at the table grunted in their cereal and Benjamin began his new life as a robot boy.

Years passed. Benjamin’s father died of acute suburbia, and Jerry spent his days sitting on the dock of a bay, wasted. Martha lingered to help raise a grandchild by telling him fairy tale stories of her youth. But when her days of youth finally faded into fading twilight, the man Benjamin looked across the land to find a way to reconnect with the mother he really never understood.

Then Benjamin remembered the stone, the heart. Taller now and perhaps somewhat wiser, he carefully removed the clay jar from the top shelf. Inside was the dragon stone, much smaller than he remembered, perhaps shrunken by time and cynicism. The boy, a man now, took off his tweed jacket and tapped his chest. There was the familiar thunk of flesh on metal.

Benjamin, there in the kitchen, took Excalibur and pried open a panel over his breast. Without ceremony, he placed the dragon’s heart inside and closed it up. Immediately he began to feel again, he was overwhelmed by emotions. For minutes he laughed so hard at all the punchlines he had missed; then there was bottomless sadness for his mother, a crazy anger for his brother, and futile frustration for a world that couldn’t see that love was the way, the only way to overcome its problems.

But there was also joy, joy to the world. And with that joy, a song filled his new heart. He raced to the hospital to be at his mother’s side. Standing beside her bed, Benjamin cleared his throat.

“Haaands, touching hands,” he started, grasping his mother’s frail hands.

“Reaching out, touching me, touching youuuu,” Looking into her closed eyes he sang out loudly, “Sweet Car-o-line,” and he felt it. Three strong squeezes from his mother’s hand. Her eyes fluttered open. She was back.

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Benjamin bent and kissed his mother’s cheek and she touched his face; she caressed one huge ear.

“My Prince, she whispered. “My brave Prince, you’ve come back for me.”

“Yes, my Queen. I was preparing the castle for your return.”

Mom’s eyes opened wider. “Camelot?” she whispered.

“Yes, my Queen,” I said, crying again, thanks to my new heart. “Camelot.”

She squeezed my hand one last time and then she closed her eyes and lived happily ever after.

The End

If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.

If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:

Monster <<Link

Missiles <<Link

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