Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: " 'Tis the Season"

This poem is spillover from the March 18, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from wyld_dandelyon.  It also fills the "test / exam" square in my 1-31-14 card for the Origfic Bingo fest, and the "mistletoe kiss" square in my 1-2-13 card for the Trope Bingo fest.  Special thanks to DW user Rosieknight for discussions that helped me to develop Farce's asthma and how it affects her life.  This poem has been sponsored by technoshaman.  It belongs to the Damask thread in the Polychrome Heroics series.

'Tis the Season


I am so, so glad to be done
with Applied Kinesiology 233.

My shoulder throbs with a deep ache
where somebody's knife left a nasty gouge.
These are only practice blades,
made of wood and none too sharp,
but it turns out they can still hurt
if you fall on one.

Inside, Ham hides in the living room,
hunched into a corner of the couch.
Guilt pours off him like smoke from a fire.

It's not his fault that we got hurt
during the final exam --
he just got tangled up trying
to keep his opponent from falling.

We've learned a lot about knife fighting,
but I really look forward to taking
Self Defense for Women next semester.


I come out for the math final.
After all the things that have changed,
numbers still remain the same.
I love that about them.

It's relaxing in a way I can't explain,
and I enjoy the two hours
spent working through equations
as calm and clear as ice.

When I leave the building,
I see that it has snowed a little,
tufts of white caught in the corners
of the concrete staircase
and the bases of the treetrunks.


In the Student Union,
someone has set a mistletoe trap:
'tis the season for such things.

The sprig of green leaves and white berries
hangs from a twist of silver ribbon,
attached not to the doorframe
but to the wall on one side of the door,
so that it can't be seen from the other side.

I'm not the only person
sitting on a couch at the visible side,
pretending to study while actually
waiting for people to walk under it.

Every time someone does,
we laugh and point to the mistletoe,
and they're stuck in place
until someone rescues them with a kiss.

The pretty girls and handsome boys
have no trouble attracting attention.
Sometimes it takes longer for those
who aren't as conventionally appealing,
but I notice that there are at least
a couple of people taking it on themselves
to save anyone left standing for a few minutes.

Everyone hoots and cheers
when one boy screws up his courage
to kiss another out of the trap.

When the fat girl in the bad sweater gets caught,
it's clear from her face that she thinks
she's going to be stuck all afternoon.
I go to kiss her on the cheek
and whisper, "Merry Christmas."

I recognize Farce with her frizzy brown hair,
snared under the mistletoe and glaring at everyone.
One of the English majors goes to her rescue,
and I tense, but she lets him kiss her loose
without slapping him.

She doesn't look very good, though,
with dark circles under her eyes,
and I wonder if I should be calling Clement.
Fortunately Ham is napping and therefore
not inclined to leap out and start a fight.

As Farce walks past, I pat the couch.
She settles warily onto the far end of it.
At least I can keep her out of the cold.

"What brings you out today?" I ask.
"Need a place to study," she says,
her voice hoarse and low.

"There's plenty of room for that," I say.
"I'm here people-watching.
Method Acting 150 is the last final,
and I can always use more inspiration."

A football player steps into the trap.
Two cheerleaders tease him for several minutes,
flitting just out of reach, until he manages
to catch one and pull her in for a kiss.

"It's funnier from this side,"
Farce says with a smirk.

Next to get captured is a geeky guy
who shakes his head at the custom
and makes to walk away,
despite the scolding from the audience.

One of the art majors hurries to help him,
a pretty girl in a white sweater-dress
that clings to her curves.
She murmurs something in his ear,
and he says, shocked, "I'd love to get coffee."
She kisses him, and off they go.

Dace comes in through another door,
spies the glittering mistletoe trap,
and grabs his sketchbook.
I wave him onto the couch.

Farce flinches a bit,
but I slide over next to her so that
Dace can have an end to himself,
and she doesn't pick up to leave.

Every minute she spends
smirking at other students
caught under the mistletoe
is a minute she's NOT busy
making trouble somewhere else.


The sky is slobbering when I go out,
cold drops of water around pinheads of ice,
but I have to get to class so I just
duck my head and dash through it.

The exam for Method Acting 150
fills a three-hour block of time.

It consists of a written part
with multiple-choice questions
about the class readings
and a few essays covering
the basic principles.

The main body of the test,
however, is the Hat Rack.

Three hats sit on the teacher's desk:
a Gibson Girl for character,
an alpine hat for setting,
and a deerstalker for plot.

The idea is to ad lib a skit
lasting two to five minutes.
Everyone looks nervous.

Then the "characters"
turn out to be all animals,
and we laugh ourselves silly.

I spend three minutes
playacting a llama
on a rickety rope bridge
trying to sell a used car.

By the end of it, even the teacher
is cackling "Demon llama!"
so I think I'm passing.


As our classroom empties,
a sharp bang and a shrill whistle
jerk me to the forefront when
Maze flinches away from the noise.

Students come pouring out
of the room next door.

Professor Feldstein bends over his desk,
swearing and scrambling as he tries
to salvage piles of paper getting soaked
by the spurts from a ruptured radiator.

I yank him out of the way,
because that water is hot --
bad enough to speckle me with blisters
just from getting that close to the spray.

"Sorry, sir," I say to Professor Feldstein.
"Call the repair staff and wait
until the water stops gushing out.
The library can tell you how to
save wet paperwork."

He pulls away, but gives me a grim nod
and takes his phone from his pocket.

"Andosh, andosh!"   I say to
the other students, patting
shoulders and backs to herd them.
"Let's go, let's go, move it!"

Then I spot the frazzled brown hair
and slim frame of my nemesis.
She won't get away again.

"Not you, pucchiach' --
what did you do this   time?"
I say as I pull Farce aside.

She sags in my arms,
her backpack sliding loose.
Well, that's alarming.
I tuck both of us into
the nearest empty room.

In the better light, I can see
her lips turning blue.
She pisses me off, but
I don't want to watch her die.

I'm not too proud to yell for Clement.


The panicky note in Ham's voice
rouses me from a nap --
I hadn't expected anyone
to need me for an acting exam.

Instead the air smells
of hot metal and wet paper,
while Farce is barely breathing
and in no shape to help herself.

"Where's your inhaler?" I ask,
hoping that she has it and not
just another keychain of pepper spray.

She gives a feeble wave at her backpack.
I search it efficiently, turning up
bottles of cold and cough meds,
before I finally find what I'm looking for.

With the inhaler is an extra attachment
so she doesn't have to catch
the whole dose in one breath.
"It's bad enough that you need the spacer?"
I ask as I pull them out of the pocket.

Farce nods,
too winded to speak
or even move much.

I gather her into my arms
so I can lean her against me
and help her with the inhaler.

It seems to take a long time
before her breathing gets better,
and I don't like the wet sound
of her lungs -- she probably
has a cold again.  Or still.
It's the season.

"Do you think you can you walk
to the Student Health Center,
or do I need to call you a ride?" I ask.

Farce shakes her head.
"Won't help."

"Surely they can do something
to get your asthma under control,"
I say.  It shouldn't have gotten
this out of hand in the first place.

"End of semester," she reminds me.
"No college, no health care."
Because Professor Feldstein wouldn't
write her a reference, so she hadn't
gotten into graduate school.
"They won't do ... anything for me
but short-term stuff now."

Well, fuck.

I could drag her to the emergency room,
but she barely trusts me now,
and that would kill it completely.

There's one other thing
I could try, though.

"How do you feel about
being my guinea pig?" I ask.

She glares at me
through slitted eyes.

"I've been practicing my gift,"
I explain, waggling my fingers.
"If you let me, I could try
to get your lungs in better shape."

"Go for it."

I press my hand to her chest,
high up where her collarbones
frame the base of her throat.
Even through her sweater,
something seems wrong, but
I can't quite get a grip on it.

"I'm not being fresh here," I say,
"but I need skin contact.  May I
stick my hand down the back of your top?"

"Goose me and I'll curse you,"
Farce growls.

"No unprofessional touching," I promise,
though she's still sprawled in my lap
and leaning against me like I'm a chair.


It's awkward to shift her around
so I can touch her back, but I manage.
I slip my fingers under her sweater,
reaching for her ribcage.

It feels like
putting my hand on a lit stove.
I jerk away from her.

"Change your mind?"
Farce snarks.

"Sorry," I say, and I am.
"I wasn't expecting
the hot mess that is your lungs."

She laughs, and it
turns into a coughing fit.

Afterwards she pulls down her collar
to bare the front her chest.
It's easier to reach,
but I hadn't dared to ask.
Women are weird about their breasts,
and Farce doesn't know that I'm gay,
and it's not like I can explain.

The sensation isn't as bad
when I'm prepared for it,
and when I can slide over slowly.
It still feels like a hot mess, though,
and it takes a long time to figure out
what's wrong and how to fix it.

I can help her body fight off the cold,
and soothe the inflammation in her lungs.
I can't heal the asthma itself,
although I've heard of people who could.
They're as far beyond me
as I am from Maisie.

This is going to take time
and Farce is already starting to squirm.
I need some kind of distraction.
"So what happened in class?" I ask.

She shrinks into herself.
"I didn't mean to," she whispers.
"Just got so dizzy ... lost my grip."

"Your talent takes energy to control,
to hold back," I say slowly.
"You had an asthma attack building up,
and when you couldn't breathe properly,
the talent got away from you."

"Stress trigger,"
she says with a nod.

Finals week.
Yes, that would do it.

"Then it wasn't your fault," I say.
"I don't think anyone got hurt, or ..."
Ham would have called me sooner,
but I can't tell her that.

She taps the hand that
I don't have on her chest,
and I'm startled to find it
flecked with tiny blisters.

"Huh, wonder when that happened,"
I murmur, shifting a bit of my gift
to speed the healing.

"Pulled the Prof ... out of the spray,"
Farce says.  "Saw you."

Technically that had been Ham's doing,
but she doesn't know that.
"No serious injuries, then," I say.
"It was just an accident."

I wonder how many of the other scenes
have been accidents, or started as such.
Not the fiasco in the theatre, obviously,
or the laboratory fire, but maybe some.
I know better than to ask.

Under my touch, her lungs are cooling
toward normal, slowly but surely.
I grope for another topic.
"What are you doing for Christmas?"

"Going home for a bit,
I guess, but not for long.
It's not so great there,"
Farce says, sounding better now.
"What about you?"

"I plan to spend the holidays
with my family," I say.
"They drive me nuts, sometimes,
but I love them."

"You're lucky then," she says.

"I like to think so," I agree.
My talent sputters out,
her breathing not quite normal, but
as close as it's going to get for now.
I lift my hand away from her skin.
"Okay, I'm done.  How do you feel?"

Farce takes a slow, careful breath.
A swift smile flits across her face.
"Much better," she says.
"I owe you one."

"No you don't," I say.
"That's not why I do what I do."

"You are such a freak,"
Farce says with a shake of her head.
"Anyway, I'm taking winter break off.
Can't promise for anyone else,
but you won't have any trouble from me."

I wonder if I can trust her word --
I can't help but remember that time
when she nailed me with pepper spray --
and then I feel like a jerk for wondering.

"Thanks," I manage,
because I don't know
what else to say to that.

She holds out a hand.
"Hi.  I'm Mallory."

I close my fingers around hers,
wishing I could answer her honesty
with my own, but it's crazy
and it's dangerous, and
she'd never believe me anyway.

"Maisie," I reply,
because that's what
everyone calls me,
what I have to go by.

When we slip out of the classroom,
the workmen are already busy
with the broken radiator.

Nobody gives us a second look
as we leave the building.
The sleet has turned to snow,
sheer as a sheet over everything.

Mallory wraps her scarf
carefully across her face,
the teal one that I gave her.

"Merry Christmas," I say,
because this is the season
for peace and goodwill,
and I don't know
if I'll see her again.

I can't see if she's smiling,
but as I turn to go,
I hear very softly,
"... and a happy New Year."

* * *


Knife fighting is a useful combat skill, and part of some martial arts.  Some people like to spar with shockknives to add an element of risk without increasing the danger.

For some folks, math is comforting, and can help figure out relationships or other life situations.

Mistletoe is traditionally part of Christmas celebration.  A mistletoe trap is when one person knows it's there and another doesn't.  When used irresponsibly, mistletoe can contribute to sexual harassment.  The polite rules are that you don't touch anyone without permission, you say yes or no nicely, and you don't hassle people who don't want to play.  It's meant to provide an icebreaker for people who are too shy to ask for a kiss, not an opportunity to hurt each other.

Preventing mischief is a lot easier than correcting it after the factRedirection is a major technique for this, where you find something constructive instead of destructive for someone to do.  Along with stopping crimes in progress, SPOON has also put a lot of effort into figuring out how to prevent supervillains from misbehaving, or better yet, how to convince them that they don't want to be supervillains anymore.  This is one way: make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing.

There are many types of hats, including the Gibson girl, alpine, and deerstalker.

"Demon llama!" is a quote from The Emperor's New GrooveSee a video of it.

Radiators are common heat sources in old buildings, and they can burst.  Follow the safety tips for radiators.

andosh! – let’s go! (andiamo) [aan-DOESH]
-- Italian slang

pucchiach’ / bucchiach’ – bitch (pucchiacha) [poo-KYAAK]
-- Italian slang

Farce's symptoms this time indicate a more severe asthma attack than previous occasions.  Ideally, yes, she should be going to the emergency room; but trying to force someone to accept "help" is usually counterproductive.  A person with asthma should have a crisis plan in case they have an attack.  Know the first aid for an asthma attack.

Not being able to breathe is a perfectly plausible cause for power incontinence.  One difference between groups of superpowers is that some require energy or concentration to activate, while others require it to contain.  Most need focus in order to aim for a specific result.

"Hot mess" can mean disarrayed but still beautiful, a person of colorful character, or a situation that is extraordinarily bad.  Clement is also riffing on the medical use of "hot" to mean inflamed or otherwise acting up.

Friendship is like a bank.  You give and take, make deposits and withdrawals, and ideally maintain a balance.  Note that Farce is sensitive to the balance and acts to correct it if it shifts too far; she doesn't like feeling in someone's debt.  There are ways to invest in a friendship.

Christmas often brings out a sense of peace and goodwill, sometimes even under very contrary circumstances.  More than one war has spontaneously produced a Christmas truce on the front lines, and other times the leaders have arranged them.  It's a custom that supervillains have picked up.

Tags: cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, fantasy, fishbowl, gender studies, holiday, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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