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Self-reflection – Chapter 25 of The Informant’s Agenda

The below story is fiction. It is chapter 25 in the ongoing story, The Informant’s Agenda. You can find chapters 1-25 posted under the heading,  The Informant’s Agenda

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The minutes, hours and days tick on, but one loses track of all under heavy sedation and can seem an eternity has passed making one feel like a part of their life has gone missing. There was a sterile smell, the sound of the soft padding of feet near my bed, and hands adjusting tubes, IVs and monitors. When the bandages were removed from my eyes shapes and shadows moved in and out of my blurred vision like apparitions. My skin was red and blistered. My throat felt as if scraped with glass.

My family, and my supervisor in the U.S. were notified of what had happened. My mumbled pleas to speak to them went unnoticed until I would be, “physically able to talk coherently and process emotionally what happened.” I was told by the ‘doctor in charge’.

“You need rest right now. We’re taking care of everything. You’re getting the best care and attention. Then we’ll be able to assess what you need, and approve visitors and calls.”

Before I was released from the hospital I was put in touch with the American liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Odessa. They arranged for my things at the Ayvazovsky Hotel to be packed up and moved to my new room at an American agent’s home while in recovery. A nurse came in on scheduled visits to check on my recovery process and see to any additional care I needed.

Irina came to visit me twice to give me news and updates on the investigation of the explosion, and to tell me that it was reported that Vasyli’s and the superintendent’s bodies had not been found if they were indeed dead as reports speculated. It was then that I just lost it. I felt as if the train in my dreams had run over me, crushing me. What stared back at me in the mirror was not the ‘Monica Mengelder, archivist from Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.’, but a scarred, frightened woman, broken and alone in a country trying to make sense of what had happened, and why.

My heart ached to be home with my family. In my thoughts I was still sitting with grandmother Lisle at the kitchen table. We’d go through a whole pot of coffee and plate of cookies while looking at old family pictures scattered across the dining room table, some with grandfather Jacob’s sisters siting erect in front of the men on straight back chairs, their dour faces looking like they were constipated or something. Grandmother said whenever she tried to lighten things up with a funny joke or story the two unmarried spinsters hardly smiled.

“It was as if they just sat there with a pained expression on their face, so it was nearly impossible to get them to relax, or even open up, share anything about family secrets.”

“Did it ever work?” I asked.

“Rarely. At times I thought I saw a faint crack in their plaster face, until maybe they thought it was an indiscretion of some kind to loosen their corset strings a little.”

I laughed so hard I had to run to the bathroom to keep from wetting my pants. Too much caffeine that morning.

My tears now met with the energy bar when I thought about the fun we had in the kitchen stirring up a batch of Oatmeal Raisin cookies.

Such a long time ago. I will never have those moments again with her.

My head ached. The dizziness and fatigue returned. There remained just a few pain pills from the prescription provided for me after my release from the hospital.

Newsprint swirled around on the paper before me. Reports of the accident filled space in local, regional, national, even some international issues. It was presumed an “accident,” an “irreversible mistake in judgement…to allow anyone other than construction personnel down in the unpredictable subterranean underground structure before the completed restoration, when there had not been a full inspection…” authorities were quoted to have said. The stories went on, “although the investigation continues, it has not been determined an intentional incident in nature,” but the blame and speculation seemed clearly directed at the superintendent and Vasyli, consulate of Ukraine, Odessa, both, “presumed dead.”

Maybe, if I had not ‘requested’ a tour of the Catacombs Vasyli and the superintendent…. If only I had not…

There is no time for self-reflection. I cannot do anything to bring back Vasyli or the superintendent, if they are… But, what I keep only to myself is not fair to those who deserve to know the truth. And, I know I cannot leave this country knowing what I know if first I did not try to report my findings, or inform the authorities of what I have learned.

______________

Joyce E. Johnson (2016)

           

 

Dusting off my ‘old projects’

There is still only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. It is a new year and we’ve barely started 2016. But, as I have said before, for me each moment counts in itself, and there are those times when I have to reorganize, juggle those priorities, projects and promise (only to myself) that I would finish what I started so very long ago. Admitting to how long I’ve put off my book ‘project’ is too embarrassing to share. 🙂

I lack only a few chapters to complete,  The Informant’s Agenda, re-edit again and do a final draft. But, it is only a third of the way done on another book project, When Dark Closes In, that is also a long-awaited goal shelved for way too long.

Procrastination is what I do best.  🙂  Organizing my time is what I want/hope to do better, and working on those book projects is what suffers as the result of too much time spent on other things. As the minutes of each day tick away into history, those uncompleted projects become more a part of my writing ‘history’ than a possibility or probability of its future. The characters and I in each book have sadly become strangers because of too little contact, and they are not on social media networks.  Now I must resurrect them so I can feel as if they are once again a part of my life in the sense that we can be ‘friends’, and I can begin again to mold them into the characters I see and know.

In the meantime I am absorbing all the instruction and mentoring I can get from a well-known, well published writer friend to help me along the way towards seeing my goal, or goals accomplished. But, sometimes what takes center stage and pushes my book projects to the back is the posting and creating new posts for the blog. So, at times I will need to post less frequently in order to put that required time into my book projects. From time to time I might add a new chapter here to all others posted before, but if not it is not an indication I have not completed it, but because I have improved it, revised or rewritten parts of it, and want it to be the best. We’ll see.

As life goes on, and the minutes and days tick by, so do the years, and we ‘baby boomers’ don’t want to waste any.  This one doesn’t. 🙂

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Joyce E. Johnson (2016)

 

Posted January 11, 2016 by Joyce in My Novel, My Writings, The Informant's Agenda, WHEN DARK CLOSES IN

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Emerging – Chapter 24 of The Informant’s Agenda

The Informant’s Agenda

Chapter XXIV (24)

Searing pain in my eyes from the explosion left me incapable of seeing anything or anyone beyond the smoke and debris. Yet, my feet were compelled to take one step at a time.

“The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not…want…” In spite of the oxygen mask I wore I could not contain the sobs that broke as I remembered each word, each verse of the 23rd Psalm, the one I learned as a child and recited to my Sunday school teacher.

My throat felt as if it had been scraped raw. It was difficult to swallow, but with each step feeling my way along I mentally recited it again as if standing before the class.  “He makes me lie down in green pastures…” An image of green pastures on a Nebraska farm where cattle grazed contentedly came to mind. I coughed and felt the sticky bloody mucus make its way up to my lips.

He leads me beside quiet waters.” There was the hiking trail my cousins and I took along the Blue River where the water narrowed in places and we walked across the river on rocks. The water was so still and transparent in places we could count the fish swimming downstream as we sat with our legs dangling over high boulders while fishing.

“He restoreth my soul.”  Tears washed the sting from my eyes when I thought of the time I walked down to the altar in our Lutheran Church to pray and asked Jesus to be  my ‘Shepherd.’ The pastor told us we were like His little lambs following the ‘Shepherd’.

“He guides me in the paths of righteousness.” He spoke about the ‘cost’ of what it meant to ‘follow.’  I knew my faith walk would not be an easy one as I entered college, and hung with kids that partied hard.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” No matter how many times I felt fear and anxiety while here in the former Soviet Union countries I told myself that He was with me wherever I went. And, yet I still went to sleep afraid and dreamed those dreams that came to me each night.

Your rod and your staff; they comfort me.” Though, I kept my bible with me at all times, promising God to read some each night I was too exhausted much of the time from a day of archiving names, documenting records, and photographing cemeteries.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” All those times I  shared meals with Irina, Vasily or ones served by Olga at her Inn I did not know if they were my  ‘enemy’ or ‘friend.’ There were so many strange things that happened during these months that made no sense I continually wondered who it was spying on me.

“You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” Lord, I don’t know if there is anything in my life that seems worthy to be anointed by you, but my cup certainly overflows right now with more than I can handle of bad luck, but I will trust you either way.  I will believe there is going to be good that will come from this, as I follow after you, and dwell in your house, that secret place where you reside in my soul, but I pray that you do not let this stream of bad luck continue if I make it out of here alive.”       

What felt like a nudge came from behind like the arm of someone pushing me. It thrust me upward, forward through a fissure that opened before me.

A rush of sweet, fresh air engulfed my senses. Hands lifted me, wrapping me in what felt like cool, soft sheets under and over my body, and I heard the sounds of sirens and screams everywhere, people yelling, “Over here!

When I drifted off and quiet returned there was a sterile smell and the soft padding of feet, and hands adjusting tubes, IVs and monitors around me in a hospital.

My eyes stung from the effects of the gases emitted during the explosion, my skin still burned like that of a very bad sunburn, and my throat was painful and tender, but knew I was making progress. When I was released to go back to my hotel to rest up and recuperate I decided it was time to prepare for my return home to the states. In my heart I knew I was more than ready, anxious even, but I knew too there was still some last-minute things I needed to see to, or people at least I wanted to say ‘goodbye’ to.

Irina came to visit me more than once to give me news and updates on the investigation of the explosion. And also to inform me that Vasily and the superintendent had both died of injuries sustained in the explosion.

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Catacombs – Chapter 23 of The Informant’s Agenda

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XXIII (23)

 The Catacombs

Odessa, Ukraine

 “Hi, Vasily. I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I’m sorry I’m a little late.”

He smiled. “No problem. If you’re ready then, we’ll go. We’ve a long day. We’ll be using the headlamps. It’s dark and cold down there.”

“I thought the catacombs were not open to the public. Irina told me they weren’t ready yet, that there’s still work being done in the tunnels.”

“We can get into some parts right now if we go down with the engineer on the project. We’ll be meeting him there.”

Two hours later we descended the narrow passageway deep into the bowels of Odessa’s underground city, and pulled on our headlamps adjusting it to the darkness. An oxygen mask was included. The smell of dampness trapped between centuries old earthen layers of limestone and bedrock filled the interior cavernous tunnels. Compressed clay and mortar filled gaps where water or sand from the Black Sea had seeped through openings leaving its salty residue to merge with the mold.

“Much of this area that is decayed will be sand blasted and redone using a composite of granite and marble, eventually. Electricity will run throughout and plumbing put in. Shops, museums and such will be added in time.”

“Do you wonder if there were any who ever went mad while confined down here under the earth for months or years at a time?” I said.

Vasily nodded. “Possibly. But, it was a fortress designed to shelter them from many things, including their enemies. The alternative was death or captivity. Dating back to the late 1700’s under the reign of Czarina Katherine the Great it would make the Zemlyanka seem like a mere anthill or dugout in comparison. The catacombs are as old as Odessa’s history. Their tentacles stretch for 1,500 miles, the largest and longest on record in the world.” he added.

Our voices seemed to bounce off the walls of the open chambers we entered but when we came through the narrow pass we could hear other voices reverberate through the tunnels we navigated through. We were not alone. Assuming they were the voices of the construction crew Vasily and the engineer did not seem overly concerned we had come so close to encroaching upon their work site.

We continued on, while he told me more of the catacombs’ history.

“Over time leaks and slime deposits from the Black Sea formed the smooth surface on the stone floor beneath giving it that slick, wet finish, so step carefully when coming down into the interior chambers.” He pointed to what looked like hieroglyphic symbols and ancient drawings on the limestone walls. “Early inhabitants of the tunnels used tools to carve pictures leaving their deep impressions for the generations after of the things that went on. All of it tells a story, stories of war, their adversaries and the life they led while in hiding.”

As I stepped from one chamber into another Vasily and the engineer stopped to talk. When I turned back to them to wait for their lead Vasily said, “It’s OK, Monica. I’ll catch up. I just need to speak to the engineer for a moment.”

Nodding, I turned a corner to view another wall. Unaware of any concern, or their conversation I walked through the chamber studying the pictures carved on the walls.

“Oh, this is amazing, all these symbols, drawings and signs. There is one of the Czarina Katherine in a carriage, or troika with a caravan of sorts, wagons following, and Cossack soldiers guarding it.” I mumbled to myself.

It was all so surreal, like De ja vu all over again, the dream I had the night before. The sound of the train with its screeching wheels rolling along the tracks. But, it wasn’t.

It was a hissing sound coming from the direction of a connecting chamber. Then I heard what sounded like an explosion from inside the tunnel and it started filling with a cloudy substance. When I yanked on the oxygen mask and tried to run back towards Vasily and the engineer I could not find them. Walls buckled as if straining under the weight of the earth, large sections broken, lying everywhere.  Scared out of my wits and thinking they might not be able to reach me, or worse that they were caught in the explosion, or cave-in where I’d left them I felt vulnerable and alone in a cloud of sickening fog that smelled like gas.

The dizziness, fatigue and nausea I experienced grew stronger as I braced myself against the walls for support. I screamed for Vasily, the engineer, anyone who could hear, but no one answered or came back. The blackness rushed like a wave, surrounding me. It soon grew quiet, eerily quiet.

There was little I remembered about the turns and passages we came through earlier. Everything happened so fast I could not think clearly, but knew I needed every bit of strength I had left in me to make my way out of there. The tunnels seemed to branch off in all directions and I could not be certain which way to go as I could barely see anything beyond the cloud that smothered what air there was left to breathe. My legs felt heavy, unable to move. My eyes were burning from the gas or smoke emitted in spite of the headlamp and the oxygen mask I wore. My lungs were stinging. Struggling to breathe I yelled again for help. But, no one came. Running my hands along the wall I felt cool air drafts wafting down from fissures nearby and stumbled about following it as I breathed in the fresh salt air and tried to make my way back the way we had come, praying as I went. God, help me. I don’t want to die here. Show me the way to go.

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The above story and characters is fictional, but the Catacombs do exist under the city of Odessa, Ukraine. They hold mysteries and stories as old as the city itself. There is information and images available on Wikipedia and the internet of the catacombs. The above image is one I took from the internet. When I visited the former soviet republics and Russia in 1989 and toured the city of Odessa our tour group was able to see parts of the catacombs open to the public. This  is chapter 23 of, THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA, a novel and work still in progress to be continued as new chapters are drafted and edited. Thank you for following the story if you have been, and for any comments.

Joyce E. Johnson  (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XIV (14), ‘Jacob’s Story,’ continued (Part 3)

Chapter XIV, ‘Jacob’s Story,’ continued (Part 3)

“I was very young when all that happened. But, the faces of the soldiers, the evil things done. Those things I cannot forget, even as I have tried to…they stay with me.”

“We were living in Odessa. The Jews were all confined to the cities during that time. My father would show my brother and me how to garden, plant seeds in tiny plots and teach us what he’d learned from his father. He was educated and trained in Odessa as a doctor, but later lost his medical license to practice when Jews were moved and confined to ghettos. When the ghettos got overcrowded the Jews were transported to other places. It became very unsanitary and people were always ill. So much sickness and hunger. No one cared to help us, or treat the sick. By then there were no seeds of anything to plant. We were just thankful to get food, clothing, and clean water to drink.”

“The Romanians put in charge of the Jews kept us all isolated. Fences were erected and places sealed up. Then the Nazi soldiers came and ordered the liquidation of the ghettos. The Romanian soldiers aided them in helping to carry out the massacres and deportations.”

“My older brother, Joseph died of typhus, like so many others. I got very sick, and my father squeezed out one night through a hole in the wall. He told my mother he was going out to find us food, and medicine. But, he was gone for days. We did not know where he was. We heard shots so thought they had found him, killed him. Then soldiers came for all of us, to transport us to Transnistria. They thought there were others who had escaped, searched everywhere, sealed up everything, and marched us all out of the ghetto with guns to our backs.”

“I was seven when the soldiers came to transport us to the concentration camp in Transnistria.”

“They shot all the sick, the old ones and any who were not strong enough to work. The old and weak ones were the first to be killed, thrown into ditches, or burned alive while crammed and locked into storage sheds. Some were hung up alive by meat hooks. They threw screaming babies and children into the fires until their cries were silenced. Some were  thrown from high windows onto the street, while the mothers were made to watch, wanting to die with them. Many were asphyxiated in mobile vans as they were shoved in and the gas turned on through exhaust pipes.”

“Grandmother Magdalena was one of the old ones that could no longer work. She was about the age I am now when they shot her in the back as she ran screaming into the freezing waters of the Dniester River. I watched as her body jerked violently from the bullets, then went down under the ice floes exploding from machine guns.”

“The younger ones that could work were forced into cattle cars packed so tight they could barely breathe. My mother and I were in that group. She held me up over her shoulders to keep me from being trampled. Many suffocated and died, their bodies all bunched together. We had to step over them to get out. People were fighting for just the air to breath. They could not get out fast enough climbing over the corpses. Those who were not taken by train to Transnistria were forced to march the rest of the way through the icy waters of the Dniester, and frozen steppes in nothing more than the rags they wore, or put on ferries.  People sold or gave away their clothes to anyone in exchange for food. The rest of our time was spent at Transnistria waiting the day when they would kill us all, or leave us to starve to death.”

“What about your mother, and you? Were you together at the camps?”

“When we got to the camps in Transnistria the children were yanked away from their parents and separated, some never seeing one another again. A soldier pulled me from my mother’s arms and she screamed at him as he hit her repeatedly. I was dragged away. They would not let us say goodbye, hug or anything. She started crying out, “Yeshua, Yeshua!’” His voice broke, trying to hold back sobs as he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose.

“Finally, when the Russians advanced westward in their pursuit of the German army Transnistria was liberated, and the Germans and Romanians retreated.  The remains of thousands of Jews murdered lay wherever they were killed. We never learned where my brother’s or my father’s bodies were. To prevent the spread of more disease there were mass graves dug, or bodies burned in piles to cleanse the areas. My mother was still alive when the camps were liberated, but her skin hung loose over her thin bones. Her eyes looked sunken in her drawn face. I remember how beautiful she was once…long dark hair, soft clear skin, eyes that laughed when… well, before all that happened.”

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To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

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