From Cover of Dark into Blur of Light

As a small child I experienced no consternation when getting up in a thicket of darkness to pad across the hall to my parents’ bedroom or the bathroom. Darkness was as comfortable as daylight and I liked its ways. I was good at maneuvering around objects as I made my way through childhood. I was then a happy innocent; it never occurred to me why I was unable to identify whether things were animal, mineral or vegetable farther than a couple of feet away. Everything was marked by a gentle softness; colorful forms melded into a haze of lush beauty. I had very good hearing, taste, touch, smell. Life was good just the way it was coming at me. I enjoyed the bounties of my senses every day like any healthy child.

One weekday morning in my seventh year my mother and I were walking along the sidewalk, soon to meet up with my best friend (also my first crush), Bruce H. I always met him to walk the half dozen blocks to school. I looked forward to it; we often held hands and chattered away and made plans to play after school.

“Oh, there he is! Hi there, Bruce, you’re early!” She waved at him and hurried me up.

I looked across the street. I saw the towering evergreens that partly lined his big yard–it took up a big chunk of the block. I saw cars whizzing by and heard the familiar voices of other children congregating outside their homes, getting ready to walk to our elementary school. But I didn’t see Bruce.

“Where? Oh, yeah, there he is!”

I had noticed Mom and others saw some things that I did not. Or perhaps not quite in the same ways. In fact, I had noticed this at school as well, only a little. And it bothered me, though I was not about to mention it. I just saw things a little differently, was all.

Mom bent down to look at me more closely. “You can’t actually see him, can you?…You’re squinting– again. And you hold your books up too close to your face when reading. Your teacher says you asked to be in the front row. I think you have trouble seeing–you need a vision test. I’m going to call and make an appointment for you today.”

“Well, he was so far away! I see him now–hi, Bruce!” I waved wildly, tried to shake off her  hand.

Mom made that face that said her mind was firm on this and the gig was up–I should not try to fool her again. But to be honest, I didn’t know I was trying to do that. I had simply thought my eyes were a little fuzzy and there seemed little harm in that, overall.

That walk to school was filled with quiet worry. The eye doctor was special; seeing him was not like the usual doctor visit for sore throats. I was going to have to be tested? What if I didn’t pass? Did that mean I’d have to change things, even get glasses like my father and my brother? I shuddered at the thought. I liked to race other kids, play Kick the Can and Red Rover and a bunch of other outdoor games–and go swimming and bike riding and I wanted to learn how to water and snow ski some day. What if not seeing right interfered with those? And what would I look like if I had to wear the awful things….? It ruined the day just thinking about it all.

Dr. Cummings was a patient man; he had lots of experience with families, with kids like me. He examined my eyes every which way as he explained what he was doing. You’d think we were having a friendly chat on a sunny patio  but I didn’t like it. That bright light he kept holding up to my eyes, the eye drops he squirted in, those letters on the far wall–it was so disorienting. I strained to read each letter, felt a bit dizzy and nauseous at the effort of getting them right. It was a very hard test and I was certain I wasn’t doing very well. Why couldn’t we have left things as they were? I was just fine with soft edges to things, to my life. And I could still read fine, no matter what anyone said.

Finally I hopped down from the big chair; we got my mother and met in his office. Diagnosis: myopia. nearsightedness. Not just a little bit, a lot. “Significant amount,” Mom murmured. So I needed glasses. Wait–it was true that things far away were not clear–okay, even identifiable–but so what? This was my immediate reaction plus a desire to run off, though I’d never have said it aloud to two grown-ups, important people. I meekly followed them to a wall of frames, picked out pale blue ones that looked a bite fancier. But I was not happy, not at all. When I finally returned for the fitting, I wore the homely things out of Dr. Cummings office, filled with an odd relief as well as grave uncertainty.

Yes, I could see. Really see like other kids must see! It was peculiar seeing like that–everything was in extreme detail, full spectrum color, like it was with a hand magnifier. Unless I glanced out each side. Then all went back to fuzzy mode, the familiar one. Distracting. Forward, clarity; side, fuzzy. But it was far better than before.

My first glasses in second grade brought everything into such vivid focus that it was like learning to live two different lives. One more rounded and out of focus, a lovely impressionistic view, less than practical or safe, but what I knew best. The other was clear, sharp, crammed full of faces, objects and movement that was glorious but also difficult to absorb, even harsh to body and mind. Incredibly tiny things I’d never even noticed unless I put my eyes up very, very close to them now popped out. I was astonished. It was as if I had not had real three-dimensional understanding all that time; now the world was full of corners and curbs, tiny seeds and leaves and faces with distinct features. Everything moved and changed or stayed completely perfect and still and I noted it all. Well, life suddenly had a literal perspective to appreciate, one that made things seem jumped out at me and into my new vision field. But it was beautiful to learn, satisfying to fully realize what before I had only guessed at.

But this was a given: I got teased at school. I was called “four eyes”, ridiculed by a few in my class but more by the meanest older kids about having “pop bottle bottoms” upon my face because the lenses were quite thick. I realized people were calling me by other names accidentally, as if for once no one knew who I was from a good distance. I was not the same Cynthia, apparently, and I was embarrassed, mad and disappointed that being able to see well somehow created bouts of ridicule. Bruce, loyal friend that he was, just smiled and shrugged; we got on as before. My good friends got used to them faster than did I. And since I was much better at seeing, also better at playing games– a partner or foe to be reckoned with– among other good things.

Yet I also found them a hindrance when engaged in physical activities. When I sweated in gym or on the playground, they slipped down my nose and sometimes fell off. If something–a ball, usually– hit my face, it hurt and the glasses came off. I quickly checked to make sure they weren’t bent or broken. I began to shield my eyes instinctively. When it was cold and I went into a warmer environment, they fogged up. This was a nuisance when ice skating, as I was in and out–and the snow made it hard to see, and they sometimes flew off when executing a spin or  jump. Rain was always a bother. When sunny, there were no good sunglasses to plop on–my parents wore the flip-up kind and I wasn’t going to do that. In any sort of weather, they were not the accouterments I wanted to wear.

I sometimes went home, took them off, put them in their case and sat on my bed bothered and fussy, but more at ease with them off and in my room. I read my books lying on my belly and propped up on elbows, hands holding up my head, face just a couple of inches from the page. And felt relief as the words came into focus, took me away with stories. Later when I went to bed my eyes roamed the darkness and I felt at peace. I knew exactly where things were in my house. I could, I believed, find my way in the darkest of places anywhere. My normal semi-blindness felt a familiar comfort in a more vibrant, confusing, cacophonous world.

But each morning I put on the glasses. My eyes adjusted a tad more. I got used to seeing them appear smaller behind two oval lenses. The frames redefined space around my features, as if a pricey plastic and glass magnifying device was facial jewelry of a peculiar sort. And I got used to the strangeness and wonder of remediated sight. I took them off, put them on again and just like that, so much changed. Thus, I had both the obscured but comforting vision of myopia plus intense clarity of corrected vision. I would learn how to navigate better wearing glasses with practice and time. Apparently many before me had, as I was not the only one in the world who needed them. They managed as if nothing was amiss, as per my study of my parents and brother and others indicated.

After a few weeks, no one said anything more. It turned out my mother’s advice to ignore the foolish schoolmates worked its magic. The improved vision made a real difference in the classroom or when reading music, when looking for friends, when crossing the street alone, and when trying to identify someone’s facial expressions, hence, feelings. The “positives” list kept growing. But I still was jolted when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

At fourteen Dr. Cummings suggested I switch to contact lenses. The idea thrilled me  but my parents weren’t convinced until he stated such lenses were thought to help improve myopia over time. I had also become more active as a figure skater and these made any sport easier. It was 1964; they weren’t very popular in my town even then. Although in 1508, Leonardo da Vinci first imagined something similar, it took research, trial and error for the next five centuries. In 1949 the first truly wearable corneal lenses were developed. In the sixties they were yet being refined and were also expensive. I couldn’t believe it when the parents agreed to the plan.

The first time I got them in, right onto my eyes (with much aid and cheering on from Dr. C.) I found them uncomfortable: irritating, almost gritty and it felt as if my eyes wanted them out. I blinked, wiped away the streaming tears, glanced about. Gradually my vision cleared; I could see most everything in the rooms quite well. Even my own unadorned face which looked once again different, quite unexpected. Added to this was the excitement, for the first time ever, of enjoying full peripheral vision.

Contact lens wearing was a magnificent hit. At first this was only allowed for a few hours daily as eyes adjusted to alterations, until both corneas accepted the plastic and glass amalgamation floating about on them. Oddly enough, it didn’t take more than a week or two before I could manage it all day ’til bedtime. It wasn’t too easy to put them in or take them out and I was always fearful of losing one (which happened innumerable times over decades, causing panic until I got a back up set) but overall I adapted well. My life became considerably enlarged simply by being able to see–from all angles at any time. Not many weather issues (though windiness can be a trial), no perspiration problems; no blindness peripherally, anymore; and no glasses to often clean or repair when dropped or keep track of and just put up with. It was a whole new world. I felt older somehow. More confident.

The first time I went to a youth dance at our large, busy community center, I was nervous. It had been only a few weeks since I had gotten the contacts. My eyes still teared a bit; I worried it might look like I was weeping. In eighth grade and in the throes of adolescence, any change a young teen undergoes is fast news at school.

I’d had plenty of reactions as I walked about in my junior high, participated as usual in classes, acted in theater and musically performed, chatted with friends–who still stared at my face. I was a cheerleader for our sports teams (“Go Cavaliers!”), as well. And reactions were pleasant if it seemed like I was now perceived differently; that was weird. Even though I had plenty of friends (and didn’t often physically “less than”) who cheered me regardless, I was taken aback by the extra attention this garnered. Flattery generally embarrassed me, put me into a near-frozen state only to be saved by very well-trained manners of a passable smile and a “Thank you.”

But I also was teased for these things: my so blue eyes had to be fake blue, were too big, really “bug-eyed” (large blue eyes: family traits), I was “getting stuck up now that you don’t have glasses”, I was “not really pretty just cute” and so on. It was way too big a deal, not appearing for years as I had behind glasses. I nearly wished I’d never gotten the contact lenses, despite being happy otherwise with their performance.

How could I be someone else, anyway? And maybe this person was who I more truly was, anyway–or becoming. It was confounding. I tried to ignore the fuss.

Then, when walking down the school hallway a handful of boys were hanging out, lined up in what we girls archly called “eyeball alley.” I fast thought of how I could avoid it, walking there alone of all things, but it was too late. It felt like passing through the gauntlet as they taunted me: “Make way for Queen Cynthia! We will let Her Highness pass this time!” They laughed and whistled and hooted and clapped.

What?! It deeply frightened me. Because I had changed one thing? I had also grown up some over the summer and returned with more curves, and now everything was more out of whack by being glasses-free. It was a horror getting through that day. I felt vulnerable in a way I had not with glasses and when a bit younger. I found myself protectively turning inward more after that. Inside that shiny, bouncy, performing teenager was a girl also wounded by life, given to creative endeavors and way too much thinking.

So I had more than a usual mix of feelings on the way to that Saturday afternoon dance. It was the first time I had been allowed to go, and with my girlfriends. We wore skirts and blouses with matching Capezio flats. We felt grown up even while preparing for such an event and when we entered that darkened basketball court, heard the pounding music, saw the mass of kids moving about and laughing, we stepped into an unknown territory. I love to dance and did, then, so as the records were played I “Twisted” and “Watusied” away with my gal pals and then, bit by bit, the boys began to ask me for a dance and we worked it out there on the floor. The Monkey, the Mashed Potato, the Pony, the Hully Gully and the Freddie”–it got fast and frenzied and was more fun as we all had in a long time. But when people gathered around and called out and clapped, I finally stopped, walked away, faded into the edges of the swaying, packed crowd. I just wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not to get whistles though I was having a blast. My eyes were starting to smart and tear more, my feet were tired, and it was suddenly such loud music and such a crowded space. I wanted out and to f ind a cold pop. A couple of other friends agreed and we trickled out, laughing and gabbing as we reentered the blinding afternoon light.

Back home, I took out my contact lenses, put on my old glasses. It felt so good to be free of  those small concave pieces of plastic that hovered over my eyes. I scrubbed my face, got my notebook and pen, began to write. Light beamed through the white curtains as they lifted, billowed, fell and shimmied in the silken breeze. I thought about the boys with their good scents and big smiles, the freeing music, the great fun of dancing and laughing. And about the ways everything was changing fast, like a rapidly turning rainbow of lights on the dance floor, and how to navigate the bends in the roads and where I was going. And then I put pen to paper and was pulled into a poem’s reflective depths and all once more made more sense, filled me up, was on its way to being righted.

I have worn contact lenses for 42 years now. To encourage more oxygen to my corneas, I have tried soft lenses and couldn’t manage to get them in for anything, finally bursting into humiliating tears from the sheer frustration of it. I tried gas permeable lenses and had an allergic reaction of serious inflammation, so I have stuck with the rigid lenses I have worn successfully.

A few years ago an optometrist told me he could hardly believe I’d worn them so easily for that long without one problem, and that most people got Lasik surgery after such length of time as this made it possible to see perfectly without more assistance, even in older years. But my eye health was honestly very good.

“They must have extra money to toss around that I don’t have, to get Lasik,” I said. “Besides, I’m happy with things as they are.”

“Your time in these is going to come to an end, you know, maybe even five or ten years,” he said frankly, “so you better get used to wearing glasses more often again. The adjustment will be trying since there are significant corneal changes with contact lens wearers. And use moisturizing eye drops a couple of times a day, at least, especially since you stare at a computer so long.”

“I know–for a while it was like looking out of a fish bowl. I could barely make my way across a room, it can be so dizzying. So I’ve been working on wearing them  more. I’ll up the number of daily hours.”

Even with contacts lenses, I have had to wear reading glasses to see up closer since my fifties. And the trifocals I had to get four years ago, the kind with gradual and invisible division lines supposedly mimic more natural vision, are pretty good. They look nice with a simple blue wire frame; they feel much better now that I’m getting used to them. So around nine each night I remove my contacts and put my glasses on to give my eyes a well deserved rest. I feel the same relief I’ve felt every night I’ve removed contacts even though I have enjoyed them. They changed my life in some fundamental way. Freed it up, allowed me to be more vigorously active and gave me a deeper, brighter view of everything I have perceived. And of course, they did nicely alter my appearance, as those with serious myopia can appreciate.

But I’ll get used to these glasses, my before-bed eyes, before my real night eyes. It occurs to me it has all nearly come full circle. I never have lost my sense of security in the dark, even if there are “bumps in the night.” I’m the one in the house who gets up and investigates as my philosophy tends to the “far better to turn on the light and see what’s to see” sort. Except I don’t really have to fully see. I have smell, hear, touch, taste and also just plain sense things with Mother Wit. So, a tiny bit like a cat or an owl, I make my way in darkness better than many. I am not afraid. It may well be that because I never saw well–not even one’s fully delineated face just from mine, not even a book that wasn’t nearly at my nose–that it was how I was born into world, I just knew no differently. We’re made to adapt, to compensate for characteristics that are weaker or some we may even be missing. Besides, the whole truth of the world does not depend entirely on what our bodies tell us. Sweeping portions of life as I experience it happen in mind and soul–and during exchanges of feeling and information with others.

My oldest sister got the Lasik surgery done when she was in her sixties–she didn’t have poor vision and only got what I considered weak “pretend” glasses in her forties–and extolled its wonders. She kept telling me what a miracle it was to once more awaken and see the world whole and clearly in all its colors and design. And to not have to fool with those danged glasses. I’m so glad she had that pleasure before she passed away; it seemed quite important. And I cannot imagine it. I still see very little when I awaken, mostly varying degrees of light and shadowy shapes tinged gently with a few hues and tones.

But I don’t regret that this is it, contacts by day and glasses by night or whenever I want. I have more worlds to enjoy–without corrective lenses of any kind; with contacts (two kinds as I have a pair for long distance if desired), additional reading glasses as needed and then the trifocals. I don’t mind how the trifocals look, at all, on me. Funny how one’s self perception and needs change.

I’ll do whatever is required to preserve this sight, to see a bit more normally. And when I cannot any longer do so it will be a sad day, I am certain. But remember, I can maneuver my way through blurry realms of sunlight as well as deeply enveloping dark. This earth is a mysterious and remarkable place to live, any which way we can look at it. And I am looking and looking; I am seeing all that I possibly can.

 

The Convening, Part 1

In the village of Quazama there came restless spirits, snatching gold, green and red leaves from mammoth branches and spinning them to earth, making the sweet air heavier with heat, and sending an urgency squalling about the temple to assure the Grand Baraxus was paying attention. The dole houses were abuzz with labors as usual, and the fields were weighed down by vegetation that would feed well the many and spare the rest–those unable to work– any grief of starvation. The Grand Baraxus surveyed his small kingdom and found it good, while his chief Sentry whispered in his ear that a convening was soon needed.

“It is yet early, no need to move fast,” he said with the usual barest smile that preceded impatient reproval. “Surely Martram cannot be plotting once more when he knows so well who holds all power. Mind your attitude, Sentry.”

This was all said with an arrogant satisfaction; the feelings rested on his visage much like the expectancy of a victorious hunt. Yes, much had been done to himself by that scheming miscreant but much more had been undone by himself in the last brutal Discord.

Sentry O stepped two feet to the side and waited. He knew better than to press the matter though written word had arrived to him only moments ago. Time should not be wasted. He fingered the packet in his short robe now and felt the terrible heat of Martram’s rebellion. Sentry O was loyal to The Grand Baraxus as that was his only job. He was tired of trying to convince the man he was not entirely invincible. he had weaknesses others could spot even if he could not. Six times Quazama had given rise to leaders who had wielded the heft of their power and also discovered where it stopped. Not so Baraxus. Useful, potent insights could be obscured, even blotted out by the sheer force of ignorance of one’s self. This, Sentry O knew well. He had served nearly his entire life and now that his knees were bony and his skin loosening, his eyes failing and his hair leaving his lumpy head he wished only to rest. Not to plot with a ruler who cared less for all his people than one more rapacious bug. But rule he did. Sentry O blinked his eyes to erase this repugnant awareness. If such thoughts were seen in his face, he wouldn’t have time to plan his funeral celebration as he’d be vanquished in an instant. He had his family to consider, and his legacy.

Beyond the temple terracing lay the village Sentry O was so fortunate to be born into. Greenery and light were ubiquitous. The foliage flushed the air with a perfume by turns bright and sweet or darkly sweeter, depending on temperature of the air–or a warning spiritual agitation that came from far away, no one knew from where anymore. There were fifty dole houses, another to soon  be added after his granddaughter came of age and chose her path. Although Sentry O felt her path was already chosen. He wanted to see what she might do before he failed to wake once and for all. Naliya knew her heart; her mind knew far more than she yet realized. But her good mother, Terl, was loathe to let her go. He turned back to Grand Braxas and waited to hear what was expected next, and loosened a shuddering sigh.

 

******

Crickets greeted her with a chorus of beautiful noise. River slipped through its banks in a surge of energetic melody. Light fed the water, Naliya thought as she filled the jugs, that was why it always shone. But today it was swift and cool and its blueness verged on purplish in its whorls and spouts. She frowned, looked upward. The sky was the same, open and brilliant. Her half-pale, half-inky hair flew above her head in a sudden gust and she pivoted to look all about. Three of the riverine deer were there as usual but only bobbed their fine heads at her, then reared up and dashed away. Naliya listened to the water, crickets, wind and heard a frenzy. She  hoisted the jugs on her sturdy shoulders and half-ran back to the house. Her mother had been waiting by the fire, her long-fingered hands folded. She now stood, and went to the earthen tub.

“Mama, there’s something happening.”

“Child, don’t go on about signs now. Please bring me the water. There’s to be a convening tonight and I don’t have time to discuss your far flung meanings now.” Terl poured the contents of a jug into the deep tub, then sprinkled on top a smattering of dried herbs and flowers. She slipped off her blue robe and stepped in, then leaned back. Her eyes closed. “The Grand Baraxus must have an itch to create chaos again. I wonder why he bothers to call us all in for counsel when he will needs his own way in the end…Not like when our blessed ancestors toiled for and lived the peace, joined life in the realm of the Prism.”

“Mama, listen, the deer left the river before coming to me. This isn’t right–you know they visit me every day. They didn’t even wait for my new honeyed berry treats.” She handed her mother two vials of scented oil.

“Bring me the oils, Naliya. Calm yourself. You may stay here or sit with your cousins or neighbors. It will likely last into eventide.” She put her face in the water, then came up for air and smoothed her arms and neck with oils.

Naliya had only that year been allowed to sit by herself and this thought helped alleviate her concerns. It meant she could visit Zanz, her best friend and maybe more, and her mother wouldn’t know. She knew that now she was thirteen summers she wasn’t supposed to visit him without a chaperone. But they always found a way.

“Alright, but my riverine deer don’t deceive…”

“Daughter, we will see what is to be seen. Patience.”

Naliya sat by the tub and idly dipped swished her fingers in the tepid swirling water, awaiting a turn if she wanted one. Her long hair was lifted from her shoulders by a blast of wind and tossed over her face. For a moment she was blinded by its mass. A darkening sweetness found her nose and she sneezed, then coughed, out of breath until her mother’s hand grabbed hers. Terl’s face might have betrayed her own fears but Naliya thought only of Zanz.

******

Their typical back and forth worked its way around the circle many times. The dissenting had been civil as well as time wasting and also thought provoking. Now their words had found a more comfortable balance.

Except for the Grand Baraxas’ declarations.

“If that idiot Martram feels he must try to usurp me once more and be humiliated by losing again, then let it be done. Isn’t the far banishment enough? This time, the outcome must be final!”

There was a murmuring about the circle. Twelve plus the Grand Baraxas sat about the emblematic bolt of lightning and lance inlaid on the floor. Their current ruler had designed and fashioned this from gemstones and finest made tiles when he came into power sixteen years prior. It had replaced the River, Sun, Tree and Star within the Four Directions Cross that had forever been Quazama’s symbols until then.

“When was he last heard from?” another of the Sentries inquired. “He has been gone for over nine seasons this time. I had imagined him quite dead already.” He barked an angry laugh.

There was silence at that; no one imagined anyone much less Martram dead unless he or she planned on killing him, it was a bad seed of an idea. Did he know, perhaps, Braxas’ hidden plan, fueled by his greatest desire?

Terl shifted and looked up at their ruler who in his orange splendid robes appeared more corpulent than ever. She barely smiled but patiently. “I heard from him once not so long after he left. When the storms came and went and he was out seeking sustenance. It was past the Highland hills; I was searching for pink tourmaline for a necklace for Naliya. I told this at the convening for harvest back then. He said his intention was one day return–you know this so surely the latest news is no shock.”

The Grand Baraxus smoothed his unruly grey beard, flicking bits of food onto the floor as he found them.

“When exactly was the recent information given us and had he a name?” asked a woman.

“Late last evening. A Roamer, hence no name known, stopped for a meal with Hiri and his family. He left at dawn, having completed his task and being fed and rested. No one we ever seen around here before, so said Hiri.”

“And he said he had just met with Martram for food, as well…repeat the message you received from Hiri, Sentry O.”

“The river belongs to no one but the people, amen, and to perfect facets of the Light, amen.” He turned to Terl who gave her full attention as she listened. “This be the prayer we’ve said so long, of course. Then: the people determine worth and need as taught by the Prism’s Heart alone.”

“He never trusted the Grand Baraxus’ knowledge and words. It cost Martram greatly as is the law, and so it has been done,” the First Sentry asserted, and stomped his feet to underscore the point.

“Who does?” someone whispered but only a few heard and ignored it.

The Grand Baraxus got up with difficulty as Sentry O helped him, then left the circle and stood with hands behind him, staring out at Quazama. He hadn’t expected this, not so soon, and now that he had taken ill with increasing frequency the last thing he wanted was more trouble than he could manage well. He rubbed his head with a large, soft hand and turned back to his three best Sentries who sat three in a row. The third appeared to be close to dozing, idiot, in response no doubt to the warmth in the chamber, making it close. He wished it was storm weather again so it would cool. He wished he could just drink a large goblet of wine, lie at peace with his woman.

“I am about out of patience,” he said and reclaimed his spot in the circle, touching the lightning and lance once each, then his chest, as was required when coming to or leaving a convening.

“We might vote on holding a village court to determine his worth, as before this was not done as was once our custom,” Sentry O said, his once-rich and strong voice now tremulous. He cleared his throat. “What is your say Terl, Mistress of Rites?”

They all turned to her. She sat tall, her white hair pulled into a braid at the nape of her neck, rain flowers woven in. Her rose and silver robe glimmered in shifting light cast by candles in wall sconces. She felt deeply calm, almost out of body,  despite her heart jumping at the thought of Martram coming to Quazama. She knew exactly what to do.

“We will at last bring out the Living Trust and see what is known of its truth. Martram and the Grand Baraxas will answer the questions that are posed by the last originals among us, Jedmin and Kristoz. This is my offering of justice: guidance of our oldest Quazama rites, the Living Trust left us from our best origins. ”

A gasp went up and then a silence so loud it nearly shook the room.

“I forbid this! I have governed all this time and we prosper in grain and fruit and gemstones! I have been more than fair, more than I should have been despite the unruliness of our people! I need not defend myself with a mere display of words in the open square!” He stood bellowing into the rafters; everyone had to resist the urge to disperse.

But convening members gathered their breath. They locked eyes one pair to the next pair each person around the circle; they began to hum in four tones, a harmony rich and steady, singular. Mighty. Inside the small chamber, the sounds merged and curled about the group and then the Grand Baraxas, to the ceiling, out the windows.

It was determined: meant to be. The Grand Braxas stood with fists at his side, but even he would be tampering with strong power if he rebelled against a convening. And so he left.

“Now we need the Messenger to send for Martram, the sooner the better. Who is the fastest runner since our last poor soul lost his life to a jungle cat? We have waited too long to choose the next!”

“I have a name,” Sentry O leaned into the circle and looked at Terl.

She closed her eyes, folded her arms against her chest and prayed.

******

“That’s it,” Zanz said and gave Naliya his cup for another drink. “They’re done. Do you know what it’s all about?”

They had come to the river in hopes of spotting a glimpse of the three deer but they weren’t so far visible. They, like all villagers, knew a convening decision was announced by the resonant humming which spread across the village, filling each dole house and then sailing over fields and grasslands to dissipate before reaching the boundary of the highlands.

Naliya sat with knees pulled up to chin, her arms around them. “I could guess but would rather not. It’s not a good moment. No deer, no happiness. Mama knew it when I told her they left me earlier. But she won’t ever quite agree with me, as if I am not supposed to know.”

He turned from his front onto his back. “She’s right; you’re too young. Just be easy with life, let the elders worry!” He tickled her arm with a long flat blade of grass, then stuck it between his teeth, blew on it until it vibrated and made a harsh sound. He wanted to impress her even with  simple things but usually failed at this.

Naliya pushed him so the grass fell away, then put her face close to his. “I am not too young. I am ready to do things, know things!”

“Like what?” He felt the pleasant warmth of her breath on his lips and thought he could taste  berries.

She nudged his long nose with her short one, then sat back, legs splayed. “Something smart, something good….”

Zanz sat up and stretched. “You’ll soon have to sweat like I do every day, working the looms or tending sheep or helping your mother find gemstones. Or train as a warrior–you’re very fast on your feet, have good balance, are strong. I might do that later. You can do more after you learn a trade, like anyone who has a strong body, is a quick thinker. And that, I’m afraid, is more true of you than most anyone I know.”

He wanted to touch each color of her thick hair, the unusual ivory and blue-black strands lustrous in the dusky light. They marked her as part of grand rulers many lines back, which was why her mother was Mistress of Rites. But to meet her–any girl her age but even more so, her– was forbidden enough. He instead tossed a wildflower onto her head and she grabbed a handful of grasses with earth attached to roots and threw them at him until they were on their feet, laughing and shouting.

Naliya put her hands out in a sudden motion to stop their play.

“Mama will soon come looking, I must return home.” She stood still and let her eyes boldly roam over him, then looked away as her cheeks flushed. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” Zanz said and they parted ways, he to the near valley and she to village center.

Terl waited on a stool at their dole house and told herself to be wise, be at ease with life and humble. She felt grateful for all the years they had made their home in lovely Quazama. It was a decent space, one that was comfortable, vibrant with hand woven fabrics she used to decorate, many gems she’d turned into mosaics and the voluptuous flowers her daughter planted last year and now tended in the side garden for their table. But even with much to appreciate and a future that seemed secure, she felt the fear race through her veins, as if someone had put in a taint of pulsing poison that sought only to ruin her or get out. She felt her mind expand, and in its dense center then illumine the hard truth. In her innermost being she begged for mercy. She tried to not weep but it was beginning. Now.

As Naliya came up to the door of the house, she stopped. She felt an involuntary shiver, willed the waning light shift into her sturdy body and wiry limbs. She looked up for the flock of birds she’d watched take wing, then dipped and turned away as she’d made her way through the grasslands. They were no longer there. Her riverine deer had left. Everything held its breath as before a great storm.

She stepped inside and found her mother seated on her stool, sunset’s graciousness spilling through the open skylight, onto her rose and silver garment. Naliya had such love for her but knew, too, the power she possessed even if she denied it, saying it was nothing, it was only beauty passed on and that vanished. Naliya knew otherwise. She knew her mother was one of the wise, just as her mother and the mother before them both had been. Her grandfather, Sentry O, remembered much more.

“Mama?”

The Mistress of Rites held a hand out to her long-legged strong child.

“Naliya. Little dove.” She lay her hands alongside her wind-and sun-burnished face, and looked deep into her unsettled face and still grey eyes. “It’s time. You are made the new Messenger. There is no turning away, no turning back.”

Naliya heard her but it was there is no turning away, no turning back that struck her to the core. She suspected she might become the Messenger as she was the fasted runner in the village and knew how to keep things safe. What else was her mother not saying aloud? She knelt at her feet, accepted the strange blessing passed on from her very hands. And felt a terrifying courage rise up in her blood and bones, readying her for work to come as each fretful roving spirit tried to shake her. And soundly failed.

 

(Readers: Part 2 will be posted next Monday. The photographs are by this writer.)

Friday’s Passing Fancy: Paean to a Fallen Tree

Walks in Irv and LPK 070

It has been lying there for weeks now, since winter’s windy deluges, limbs immobilized, outspread, sinking into the bottom muck of the pond bit by bit. I stop and watch it, as if it might get up and walk to its previous home and root itself again. This is what I want and feel nearly embarrassed by the depth of my feeling. I have an inordinate love of trees, especially the ancient, giant ones that have grown formidably hearty and sheltered such life for eons, have born weather and thoughtlessness of passersby and welcomed friendly, musical birds to their arms; squirrels who gossip and hide acorns and insects who find sustenance. All without complaint as far as I can know.

It thrived–it lived well and long. So when it went down by the pond I felt how it lay alone but not abandoned amid scattered and dense gatherings of the others, those who had survived and now watched. It is known that trees communicate with one another, know one another; it isn’t such foolishness to think they tend to one another even in death in ways we can only suspect. Humans have an innate desire to put hand to tree, to wrap arms about young and old ones, their rough, dense bark a comfort upon our far more frail skin. I sometimes felt as a child that only trees could easily access my heart and thoughts.Many of us know what it is to make our own nests in and of their branches. We utilize their primal wealth in endless ways. And do we thank the givers of such bounty?

But who really thinks so much of the death of a tree in a park? We gawk , pass on, and some of us return to look again.

Each time I have gone to the park, I’ve wondered over it. I have walked around it’s beauty and studied its stillness, imagine its energy leaving in increments, the water cradling its bulk, life draining to underwater creatures. To the power of nature’s needs. So I have taken pictures. It’s only a downed tree but when a young man climbed onto it I felt a resistance, a displeasure. He wanted me to take one of him standing on it with arms raised in victory. Instead there is just a snapshot of him climbing on it to show how it’s size, and how we are–animals who find an interesting thing and make it ours. I guess I have done the same. I’ve inhabited its place of dying, photographed an immensity that puts me in my place. The elegance of it even now; there is so much more beneath its slow-to-perish bark. What else will find its way there?

I wonder if the young man recalls childhood days when he claimed a spot in the branches of a good, sturdy tree…swung from its resilient branches, felt relief from summer’s heat. Was amazed at the views from the top. I remember and count myself fortunate to have known that happiness. So I praise you, great fallen tree, for your service and your loveliness, the hosting of so many.

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A White Attire Matter

Are they happy because it’s finally, after a grueling, claustrophobic winter, going to be SPRING? Then summer!

I’ve been considering the somewhat peculiar realm of white duds lately. It has to do with the faint possibility of spring. Of Easter coming up already. But it began when I took a long moment to consider my closet’s contents. What I beheld was an impressive spectrum of dark to darker colors that complement Portland’s steely grey weather, which is standard beginning November, ending sometime around late May; the city refuses to show off until then. I guess we tend to dress in sync with our environment except for rain gear, which needs to be vibrant, even garish, in order for us to be seen as we head out and about in the drenching downpour.

My current shirts, pants and a handful of skirts embrace respectable black/charcoal grey, muted berry tones and a faded red that gets ignored, deep purples/blues, a handful of piney and dark teal greens. There’s something fiery orange in there that must be a leftover from August or just a stray that should be recycled. Then hanging near the end of the wooden pole is a spot of white. Two spots. Why no white, even off-white, save for a shirt and a light tunic-type thing (got on sale, haven’t worn yet)? I’m not counting my old white (well off-white now) Gap long sleeved T-shirt for layering.

I have always had at least one wrinkle-free white blouse or shirt–the first being, I think, more form-fitting and maybe with an embellishment such as a discreet ruffle; the second being clean lined and tailored as possible. It’s what most of us include in our wardrobes; it’s a classic staple. Yet for me it tends to peek out from under a sweater or jacket, to complement a look. It doesn’t seek to bring attention to its own regrettable lack of rich pigment. Unless worn with excellent dark blue jeans or black slacks, sleeves rolled up to three-quarter length. Or with, say, artisan-made cuff links–then it becomes classy, not just an endurable classic, I suppose. At least, that’s what I see in fashion magazines. I’ve tried to be that woman at times; it takes a decided dash of panache, like an aging French actress who still dares to leave top buttons undone and glorious hair tossed about. But I wouldn’t know, anymore, just what I can do with it. It’s remained mostly uninhabited since retirement, before which I really dressed, and generally enjoyed it. I should throw it on to recall what it’s like to feel pulled together, refreshed with flair. Things have gradually gone south a tad. (Though I do still wear earrings and a favorite bracelet, tend to match things up–even when just at home. I mean, why bore myself? I enjoy even the facsimile of verve.)

But white is not something to play with when you’re a pale-to-sallow-skinned person like me; it can make me appear like death has one foot in the door. It actually gleams on someone with a warm color to their faces and eyes. Thus, it scares me; a little can change a lot, whether you are painting a picture or dressing. So much light bounces off of it so that there is a dual impact of innocuousness and dazzle. And am I supposed to accessorize it to add a bit of jazz or let its elegance or sportiness speak for itself?

Which brings me to the other thoughts about this wardrobe choice. I’m no fashion historian but I saw somewhere that the color white began to show up more in the 1930s, when the wealthy started to wear it in warm months, especially during leisurely activities. I conjure up a rousing game of croquet on a vast emerald lawn, or an outdoor court replete with tennis whites worn by attractive athletic couples. I imagine perspiration didn’t show on crisp togs. Finally by the fifties the wearing of this color trickled down to the middle class. Another few years white was just another color, take it or leave it, but stay mindful of that seasonal rule.

The more I think of it the more I realize white has tended to be a class marker as those who’ve worn it from the start were more likely (in this country) to be the “leisure” class– certainly when it first came in vogue. There are the whites that indicate summer or vacation life with sailing or outdoor games and sports, luncheon-and party-throwing. White has tended to more often be reserved for formal occasions– for women, at least (though men don white tuxes in warmer climes)–including grand dinner clothing or debutante gowns. I have heard that winning beauty contestants wear white more often. Formal attire and the color white do seem made for each other; you expect to stay clean for such events. The Navy has its dress whites. And let’s not forget brides who for an eon donned only a white wedding dress inspired, of course, by societal and moral expectations of “purity”–unrealistic or not.

White fabric, especially more expensive types, can mark a uniform so that it denotes a certain status, generally professional. The clothes of a doctor or nurse, dentist or scientific lab employee, chef, barber–these have traditionally been white fabric. (Why, I have wondered, given the various types of matter making their way onto such a pristine canvas? White collar workers came from the shirts (and suits/skirts) professionals in offices tended to wear for a few decades.

Generally white is a color one avoids when planning on getting dirty. Outdoors workers rescue personnel or police/military employees and various manual laborers–all have traditionally worn darker clothing, if not also uniforms of some sort. It makes most practical sense. Someone working on a construction site, engaged in gardening or putting out fires or doing field work tracking cougars or trumpet swans tend to get dirty. Their clothing gets messy without revealing wear too soon–then can be washed repeatedly without undo damage. My father didn’t work on his cars, the yard or even fix musical instruments in white clothing. (Though my son is a painter and wears white pants that quickly become an abstract painting…there must be a reason for this choice.) I don’t generally hike in the mountainous Columbia Gorge wearing my one pair of white jeans and have never scrubbed my long-ignored kitchen floor in matching white socks, shorts and top.

But when I began this post I was thinking a little of Easter. Wearing white meant it was the time to get fancy when I was a child. And the best occasion for this was Easter Sunday. My whole family spiffed up to the “nth degree” for church during such a time, and there was usually some white going on our bodies. The men in freshly pressed white shirts, the older females in perfectly white high heels and faux pearl-decorated gloves. Perhaps it had something to do with Jesus’ resurrection being equated with our own rebirth, but it was also–after an interminable wintry season–spring heralding nature’s glorious rejuvenation.

My childhood Easter dresses were often bright florals to reflect the special occasion. My favorite had a white cotton sateen background with large butterflies of blue, yellow, purple flitting about, and a belt tied in a big bow at the back. I was excited to put on white anklets with lace at the edges, paired with white patent leather Mary Jane shoes and topped off with short white gloves and often a small white bonnet with a small flower on it. I felt like a, well, a kind of princess. I wouldn’t dream of messing anything up before getting home where I changed for Easter Bunny time outside.

The notion that, as a general rule, white should not be worn before Memorial Day nor after Labor Day was ironclad most of my life. It seems particularly important in the South where my parents grew up; it just wasn’t done and I didn’t dream of making the gauche error of breaking of that rule. I suspect it had as much to do with the weather as anything, as everyone knows warmer months mean lighter clothing in both weight and coloration for comfort. Where the temperature rises into eighty or ninety degrees Fahrenheit and certainly above that, it is wisest to allow for even, rapid cooling of the body. In desert climates, people typically appear to cover themselves fully and loosely in lighter colors, more often white. Sun’s punishing heat is not so readily absorbed.

Fashion rules have been altered endlessly since my youth. And the rules for wearing white have, too. More women have gradually worn white and ivory woolens or other heavier and textured fabrics as autumn and winter months come and go. I’ve noticed white in shoes as well in all seasons for at least dressy affairs. I can barely keep up with what is in or out but I think it’s great styles have evolved into far more mix and match. It’s more playful, evocative and outright creative than in the more tradition-bound days. I can see fashion as an expressive art more and more, not just a whim or a necessity or something that denotes status. I have tended to feel less was more; my fashion-loving daughter and sister have had to nudge me toward more experimentation and I still swing back to a more classic style, certainly more casual. She’s in the forefront of these things; I am one standing middle of the road or the background, and that’s alright. Since not working for money, if I can’t wear it long hours writing, reading or making a little art or dancing about or working up a sweat outdoors, it doesn’t interest me much.

But I did buy that tunic-type, three-quarter-sleeved, white top not long ago at a great sale–maybe it was last year’s style. It’s a light linen blend and can be worn outside in the heat of summer’s day on a walk or dressed up with a long elegant necklace and shiny earrings or rich-hued scarf. For Easter, I’m thinking. That’s not really early and even so I’m wearing it, maybe with a pair of coral pants and goldish flats. Not so keen on white gloves or hat. But rainy chill or not, it’s time to liven things up around here, reawaken that warm weather brio, share a splash of sunshiny zest, add a good dash of elan. It seems white duds have their place and can even inspire, after all.

 

The Norliss Street Recluse

Henley Ann Mirabel was walking aimlessly in the gauzy bloom of heat, odds and ends crowding her head, like how absurdly high the cable bill was and Tony due to arrive from Maryland too soon (for her) and what was that extra ingredient in the peach cobbler she and her daughter consumed last night at Val’s Tasty Time Cafe. It was a morning like many others, the heat clinging like a web of plastic wrap so her clothes began to stick to her, too. It was not the best time to walk but when was it different? Ever since she had moved to Arlen, Tennessee she’d longed for a light breeze that was so void of moisture she could dry her hair on the patio over a cup of steaming coffee. Now she put ice in her mug. Her hair remained damp even when she pulled it back into a soft knot. She should know this; she had spent her first twelve years in Tennessee.

Sara didn’t care about any of that. As long as she had a nice second grade teacher–which she did, Miss Fran–and new friends (three so far), and her mom was waiting for her at the end of the day, all was alright. More or less. She missed her dad but he was around more than before and was again coming to visit. They always stayed in the terribly small but newer hotel (twenty-five rooms for a surprising boom) by the river. It had a giant outdoor pool, she informed her mom. It felt like a reprimand for leaving behind their private pool in Maryland; they’d enjoyed it only in brief summers.

They’d had a lot of things in Maryland: a bountiful flower garden just beyond the wraparound terrace, a contemporary glass and redwood home that allowed for parties of fifty, three cars, a housekeeper, a studio at the edge of the property for Henley’s writing of the next installment in her middle reader’s series. There was so much they had that it almost hid the danger spots in a marriage going off the rails. But sooner than expected it all fell apart.

Like Sara had finally yelled from the hall as her parents each slammed different bedroom doors and disappeared: “If you can’t actually be nice friends then why do you even say you’re trying to be better friends?”

That’s what did it for Henley. Even their child called them on their charade. Once the divorce was finalized, Aunt Roslyn suggested Henley and Sara come to Tennessee: time for them to spend more time with maternal family. Her parents lived in Florida; Henley refused to process her cracked up marriage on a Sarasota golf course. Her mother’s sister was her favorite aunt. Since Tony worked from home much of the time now, he could visit as often as he wished. The agreement was in place and so they tried it out.

Henley was not as malleable as her child, nor as accepting. She agreed to Tennessee because she had further nursing of woundedness. She was barely getting by more days than not. She wasn’t writing. The damage reversal took greater energy than expected. At least she wasn’t crawling back in bed after dropping Sara off, covering her head for two more hours. She now was able to keep eyelids pressed upward until she slumped into Great Grinds, ordered a mediocre cold brew coffee and requisite snack, then continued on her walk. This was a huge step. Within an hour she felt mostly conscious with less strain at frayed seams of her raw psyche.

In fact, walking was her one tangible pleasure, except when it thunderstormed or, rarely, acted wintry enough to spit slushy ice. She already had a route but was trying to change it up, relearn the lay of a once-familiar landscape. Their pleasant rental home wasn’t too close to her aunt and uncle, closer to countryside.

As she banished peckish thoughts, she turned onto a newer boulevard. She didn’t recall this street but the last time she’d spent more than a couple days in Arlen was in her late teens. Fifteen years ago.

The proud brick homes along Norliss Street sported good yards, wide porches and a several two car garages. It all looked fresh. She marveled over the newness until she walked halfway down to cross over. The structure before her was a two-story, a dulled white that had gone to the dogs, a peeling beige-to-grey. Henley saw it had been a farmhouse before development took over surrounding acreage, but didn’t stir a memory. Overgrown shrubbery obscured porch and windows. Its steps were crooked yet off the porch were hanging a limp, worn American flag by a second flag lively with daffodils and a fat robin. She felt sorry about its disrepair. She began to move on as she spotted in the unkempt yard a leaning post sporting a mailbox-type rectangle. Curious about it she stepped onto the grass and saw it was a poetry post with Plexiglas front. She could see behind the faded paper. It appeared indeed to hold a weathered poem.

She opened the lid, pulled it out, ran her eyes over it quickly then once more. It was about nature, “billowing treetops, elixir of water courting creatures…ebb and flow of light a sheer veil astir.. then a slow darkness like a tired magician fallen asleep.” Finding it interesting she read it again, then looked for the author’s name. E.R. was typed in the bottom right corner.

There was a creaking sound from the house. Henley looked deep into the shady porch but couldn’t make out a body or any other thing. She took a picture of the poem with her phone and started off, then changed her mind, returned. She rummaged for her tiny notebook and pen, took it out and held it against the poetry post and wrote, Lovely, keep at it-HM. Ripped off the page and stuck it in.

She hurried back home, for what she wasn’t sure. Slowly, she went to the small back room, a place meant for writing Number 6 of the Amanda Hartley series. It was painfully tidy, blaring with sunlight, claustrophobic. She longed to throw open a window but it would only taint things with moisture, make the stacked failed pages curl at the edges, waste air conditioning. She turned on her heel and left.

When Sara came home, tossed her book bag on the table and pulled out crackers to munch she asked her right away, “When are you writing another story?”

“Tomorrow.”

“But that’s what you said yesterday. And before.”

“Ask me tomorrow, maybe it will be different.”

Sara paused, a sesame studded cracker halfway into her small mouth. “You seem…tired, Mom. I like it better when you do the Amanda stories. When is Daddy coming for sure?”

Henley winced at the Daddy, his only name; when did Sara call her “Mama” or “Mommy”? Maybe when she got sick or scared. Daddy was the good times parent, it seemed.

“In three nights. Let me get you string cheese and juice to go with those, honey.”

“I finally told the kids at school you’re a writer and they didn’t believe me but Miss Fran said yes, you are, and told them about the books. She knows who you are! ” She giggled, perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, stuffed three crackers into her mouth, then reached for the glass of grape juice to make the crackers suitably mushy.

Henley took out her cell phone, looked at the picture of the poem, enlarged the words. It was almost–reaching toward–lyrical. It was in essence pretty good. She felt her spirits lift a little and smiled at Sara.

******

Before Tony came she went out and sat on the porch swing. His loping gait carried his well-conditioned body quickly up the steps. At the screen door he raised a hand to knock, looked around, spotted Henley. She raised her palm in neutral greeting; he gave her the barest smile, Chiclet teeth glinting, eyes wary behind courtesy.

“All is well?” he asked.

“Just dandy.”

“The south still suits you then.”

“In some ways. You?”

“All good. Busier than ever.”

“The house shown more yet?”

“Picking up.”

“Daddy!” Sara cried. Their wonderful child thrust open the door, jumped into his arms.

******

There were two days to do nothing and it was the “nothing” that got to her before she even got out of bed. It would have been easy to lie there, let her dreams pull her farther under. Take her into a land of strangeness, folly, impossible beauty. She thought of her daughter laughing with him, of the fun which she was no longer shared with them. The thought soured her more so she got up, showered, pulled on her black knit capris and a grey T shirt–did she wear anything else, anymore?– and walked to Great Grinds. Rex the barista nodded at her; his pleasing eyes were bleary, too, and with mutual congeniality didn’t force a long chat.

Henley took a bite of walnut and apple scone for more strength. She took her new route, having decided Norliss Street was a good amendment and walked faster to the derelict house. The poetry post still held a paper or two. She hesitated then moved closer to see if there was another poem. Instead, there was a hand written note that began “Dear Lady.” She pulled it out to read, feeling the rise of more interest.

Dear Lady,

Thanks much for liking poem. Maybe more to come. I leave them til they fade, fall apart. No one reads poetry anymore, usually.

You new here?

E.R.

Henley felt someone or even a critter might be watching her but she couldn’t discern anything. Tangled forsythia bushes grew close to the sides of the house. An aging fence with a once-pretty gate enclosed the back yard. She rolled tight shoulders and took a good breath in, let it out slowly. Looked looked down the sidewalk and across the street, then back at the old place.

A poet lived there. She wanted to know how anyone in Arlen wrote like that, then dared share their work. She considered going right up to the door, introducing herself. Still the poem was wrinkled, apparently wet often, smudged. No one had taken it out to keep; not one new poem had likely replaced it in awhile.

There was no one coming out to greet her despite her standing in their yard for ten minutes but then a squeaky noise was emitted from above. A window perhaps pushed open. There were cafe-style curtains of pale yellow floral with a window shade partway drawn, leaving a few inches to look out. There was sudden movement, a blueness that passed before the window and vanished. Henley waited but saw and heard nothing more.

It came to her that maybe she shouldn’t be there writing notes to someone she couldn’t even see much less name. But she took out her notebook and pen.

Dear E.R.,

Sort of new. I have some family here.

Where is the next poem?

I write, too.

HM

She placed it back into the poetry post box, looked about a last time.

As she walked she thought about words, how they meant more, held a more decent weight and value if someone heard or read them. Otherwise, they were echoes of the self’s discharges of energy and various rumblings, and they’d feel so insubstantial they’d float away into some universal recycling center of all language. It probably accumulated so much it tipped the letters into blackness where they floated to nowhere, or became fodder for something better. She laughed at herself: this was what happened to her brain when she thought about writing but didn’t commit one word to the tangible world. They teased her, wound her up, made a mess of her innermost recesses, called out to her like sad lost things. Even sent her to private poetry posts boxes to write strangers, for lack of better purpose.

******

The next morning, early, the phone rang. By the time she got to her cell, a message was left.

“Henley Ann? We’re off to church, of course…. but we’re having a cook out in the afternoon so bring a salad and come on around 2. Is Tony here this week-end? We’d love to see Sara, of course, but please RSVP so I know how many.”

Henley shook her head. She found her aunt’s accent startling, still. Sara was SAY-R; her name was HAINLE-ANN. She erased the message, said, “Yes, Ma’am.”

After she got herself a big iced coffee-it was hotter than blazes out already–plus almond scone, Henley went straight to the poetry house. It was relatively early but a few dozen cars loosely lined the streets. When she approached the area, uncertainty rose up. On one hand, she maybe ought to have two coffees and scones. On the other, she felt she was way too desperate for company or why else would she be there again, even contemplate ringing the door bell? The neighbors probably wondered about her being there and, as if on cue, there was a violent splash of water from a hose. She turned. Sure enough, a heavy man across the street corner was staring right at her as water flowed over his monstrous black truck, down his wide driveway. She lifted her coffee at him; he nodded, went back to his own business. Then he looked over his shoulder as she kept on.

The house looked as if it had gone to sleep long ago and never awakened. How could it be so empty of life? Was reading more poems the best idea? She could keep on going but sipped her chilled coffee, gazing at the poetry post. There seemed to be something else there. She glanced at the porch and upstairs window and then got it out.

In morning this foreign body passes like smoke,

as if dry leaves captured in whorls of wind.

But when day drains its unease into night

the feathery thing that is darkness

alights on sloping shoulders,

covers secrets as we give up hope

and all that which was, until

sunrise dazzles and dances.

                                        E.R.

Henley blinked, eyes prickling. Who was this E.M.? Was this an author she just hadn’t heard of yet? Was it an old, maybe stolen poem? Aunt Rosalyn might know more about this person.

In the house there could have been someone sitting by a table or resting in bed, some old man confined to a wheelchair and seen by a nurse aide daily who grudgingly posted the poems. Or a woman who long ago deserted social norms, spurned the company of others; she put her poems into the world while others slept.

Mixed voices by the truck made her turn towards them. The man’s wife had come out with giant sponge and bucket; they were talking. Then the woman gestured her way with a laugh. Henley felt the mild sting of their gossip, so took another picture of the poem, wrote a note, placed it back in and hurried on.

E.R.,

You’re a very good poet. I’m Rosalyn Horn’s niece. Want to meet sometime on the porch?

HM

******

“Oh Lawd, that’s Everly Rainard. He burned near half to death in the Wilton Hardware fire, 2011. Maybe about forty-five. He doesn’t talk to anybody, gets his groceries delivered, has help in once every couple weeks.” She sucked her lower lip in, shook her head. “Terrible thing but yes, he likely still writes. He taught at the high school for quite awhile. Ruined his life, that tragedy. Parents left him the house when they passed. He’ll not see people, best leave it alone, Henley. No, he’s not exactly crazy but he’s still not too good. It’s hard. He was very good looking and now…”

That’s what Aunt Rosalyn said at the cook-out but it was enough. As she nibbled at food, fielded questions and made conversation, Henley thought about how she’d go to the door tomorrow, ring the bell. She would do it because he could write, no matter what happened.

Later Sara called to ask if she could stay one more  night with Tony; he’d take her to school. He came by to get her clothes and she waved from his rented Lincoln.

“You really okay, Henley? We can talk if you need to. Sara says you’re not even writing, that’s not like you.”

“What? No, I don’t need to talk. I’m fine. Have fun with Sara.” But she wanted to say, How do you know what’s like me? How do you know what I need? I need beautiful words and kindness and the right to feel sad, even lost for awhile. I need you to just be gone.

******

The next morning Henley carefully carried the cardboard container with two coffees and two raspberry muffins perched on top. He might or might not be willing to share the offerings.

The steps were rickety; she climbed them gingerly, hands out, holding the coffee and treats steady as she kept her eyes on the scratched and stained front door. When she got there, she put the cargo on the porch floor and spotted the door bell. A simple button long disused, might not even ring anymore. She pressed it long and firmly with an index finger.It buzzed inside summoned Everly Rainard. There was the sounds of traffic behind her, raucous robins, a few bees about the porch. No footsteps, no voice. She pressed it once more, feeling the edge of fear pull at her.

The door opened. Slowly, so slowly that if the hinges hadn’t moaned she might not have even seen it move. But an inch, then another inch, then a bit more until she saw just the end of a sofa, the wooden floor. But there was just the barest outline of someone through green gingham curtains on the window.

“It’s HM. I have coffee, muffins…”

The door remained still.

She swallowed; her heart thundered at her throat. ” I really liked your poetry and since I write, too, I thought….I know about the fire, that’s not a reason for us to not talk. Is it?”

It opened more, enough so that if she wanted to she could’ve slipped in sideways but she waited until the space got wider, invited her in.

Henley moved through. Faced him. He wore a baseball cap over wispy hair. What remained of the skin on his neck and face was taut, rough and ruined, lizard skin she imagined it was cruelly whispered. His nose was off-kilter, lips were a once distorted shape that had healed into a reasonable state. Golden brown eyes stared at her shyly from under barest darkened lids, no eyelashes or eyebrows. His face seemed sparked with a furtive anxiety. And curiosity. He took the coffee and muffins from her, stepped away instinctively as she saw his hands, wrists, arms wrapped with more blotchy leathery skin. She felt a flush of pain in her own body that took her breath. Then a jittery relief to be let in, to get this far.

“Well, okay. Come in, Miss…” His deep voice was a soft scrape of the air.

“Henley, Henley Mirabel.”

Everly rested the drinks and food on a beat up coffee table and indicated she might sit down. He sat in a ragged armchair, lowered his head and held out a handful of more poems.

“Please, tell me about your writing first,” he said, raising his eyes and she felt him try to reach past fire’s wreckage, its damnation and its terror, to the refuge they both shared. Henley took his poems and held them gently like flowers in her lap.