Life is One Long Storytime

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Scenario 1: A parent settles against a pillow propped on a bedroom wall next to his young son, now curved about the warm bulk of his father. Readied for a visit to a marvelous world, then sleep, dreamtime. A worn book is drawn from a jumbled pile on the nightstand and opened. The first well-thumbed page is gazed upon, soon given life as the father reads beginning paragraphs of a familiar, always  beloved tales of the Berenstain Bears. They’re family tales of daily living. They include a small adventure with a moral that teaches three cubs a lesson or two about ordinary but challenging scenarios: a visit to the dreaded dentist, a not-so-predictable fishing trip, going to school even when you feel unpopular, or how to manage when mother or dad is sick and how to weather death of a pet or friend. It satisfies every time, these stories, and the boy drifts off after the very last lines which are recited by heart.

Scenario 2: The children lean into the firelight, shoulder-to-shoulder with adult family members. One with a deeply lined face and hardened hands and feet sits tall within the circle. She intones a saga of fears and hardships, of courage and perseverance, survival and joyful victory. It is one that has been handed down for generations, and encompasses spiritual beliefs of the tribe. The ways of community are also inscribed in that tale, the prohibitions, rituals, customs. There arrives humor along with pathos and emotions fill the room as each listens and gains something anew. And takes comfort in the gathering of so much love and learning.

Scenario 3: On a falling down stoop an older boy sits above younger children. He half-playacts a story of the mad one who once lived in the neighborhood. He crept through shadows by day and later roamed the blind darkness, stealing food and even garbage, stealing day and night dreams, stealing light from the moon and streetlamps, leaving a mess of bad energy. There was a gang of kids who found then lost and found again the shadow man. But they got together and took turns keeping food safe and at least one street light on. The dreams, they had to be made up, shared with each other but kept safe from the shadow man, kept for the future.

The story is for children who must trust and depend on each other. Adults are chancy. Kids, it is clear, can adapt, are strong, are fleet of foot and mind, gather hope. They laugh and shiver and huddle together.

 

Stories: we enter the world as a collaboration of new and old story, a fresh new suit to live in, then at long last leave it, letting go of its billowing hem and frayed seams. In between birth and death flesh and soul are torn and banged up, repaired and made anew with stories. Ours and others’. Why are stories so vital in our lives, both youthful and grown up?

They can make or break us with reassurances or new ideas or warnings of worse to come. They can change our individual courses, reinforce what we know, challenge a community’s accepted ways. And they inform us of where we come from and who we are expected to be–or how to be someone unlike the usual, acceptable child, woman or man. We absorb these things before we can read, take a lead in the storytelling. We may even learn it from birth, when we are named for someone the parents value or given creative names unlike any other. They have meaning, our origins, our names, the textured stories woven with others we are told. There are legends with which we are gifted by a country’s long history, by cultures, by family, by friends and lovers.

Do you recall the first stories you were given as a small child? Was it a prayer you memorized alongside a small poem? Perhaps a family tale whether inspiring or unnerving to carry forward. Or a tattered book handed down from siblings. Later there is ongoing table talk, random neighborhood chatter about this person or that, our own individual moments–they all comprise a framework within which to grow, struggle. Every day, circuits of shared language operate within larger story talk. Language provides form and function to feelings, defines hopes and beliefs, strengthens attitudes, disavows what is not acceptable, tallies the truth.

Whatever truth is. Isn’t truth what we are told and at some point what we learn to tell ourselves? Even that blur between truth and lie becomes part of being informed about life’s puzzles and signals as we accessed that lie somehow. It impacts how well we may or may not operate with the personhood developed.

It can be argued that storytelling creates one’s real life viewpoint, values, expectations. It may determine the trajectory of our lives, our personas as well as our authentic, at times guarded selves. We are shaped from an early age by what we hear and see, by what we gather into us. Our families teach us first, those who cared for us or did not.

I grew up with a mother who was, by any standard, moderately verbose. She said it was because she was Irish, was strongly pulled into life with its characters and events. I hung on every word. I just thought she was born a natural storyteller, but perhaps that was one and the same. Animated, emotionally reflective, expressive with her hands as well as language, she could make a walk to the grocery and back an anecdote that entertained.

She tucked me into bed with amazing (to me, a little girl in the city) stories about growing up on a farm, playing tough games of basketball in school, being best friends and then falling in love with my father as a teenager, making her way to college despite stiff odds because she was not going to be a farmer’s wife. She loved talking about her large extended family. It was as if they walked in and out, sharing their own entertaining monologues.

What I learned was that her family was resilient, affectionate, stubborn and a bit rough around the edges at times and could create something from nothing. And that pigs were smart but could be mean. That cleaning a barn was a thankless job and that fresh eggs were the tastiest despite hands being pecked often. That strangers might come to the back door looking for a handout of food if times were hard and be given what could be spared. That Gypsy infants had pierced ears but other children did not get to have them. That losing his good farm in the Depression did my Grandfather Kelly, whom I never met, right in.

I also heard that persistence and belief in one’s self could change a life. Being a strong and athletic girl was a good and fun thing to be. And that curiosity was a near-sacred thing, imagination a great tool but I must leaven both with common sense. Her words reflected a basic bedrock of hope even amid despair. Her life was a vivid series of stories within stories and it seemed bigger than regular life to me–but she said all lives were like that, astonishing.

My father was quiet, some might say so introspective that he was silent much of the time. But his eyes spoke to me: thrilled, sad, angry, bemused, proud, amused, worried. A look from those large light blue eyes took the place of fifty fancy words. His fine grasp of language at home was used when he felt the words would add interest to a topic but felt my mother was better at elucidating matters. Yet I had heard him speak to large audiences when he conducted musical groups, for church affairs, in classrooms, at conferences, for public occasions–and his way with words was succinct while humorous and also wise. He was a born public speaker. He loved a good joke. He taught me pacing, ways to capture attention with that smooth delivery. People listened deeply to what he said, yet he spoke with a humble elegance that struck me each time.

But he also taught me about praying and faith. That riding a good bike well taught me balance and gave me strength, joy and a practical means to various ends. He taught me that learning world history provided a structure for the present and future, even mine. And any sort of travel meant opening a door to surprises that illuminated life in big or small ways. His many actions and fewer words instilled in me the idea that anything can be fixed as solutions abound; that civility is a valuable thing; and I am responsible for my actions. That music was God’s mouth. He told most of his stories, though, by conducting, teaching and arranging music, and by playing musical instruments. Best of all for me, he would play piano for fun, the notes nuanced and light and I would sing jazz standards beside him, his voice chiming in here and there.

Storytelling was a given in my life. It is for most people, no matter time or place. But sometimes one’s story seems not so easy a thing to tell, much less embrace.

When starting out as a mental health and addictions clinician I was given an opportunity to teach–more guidance with teaching tossed in–addicted, high risk, gang-affiliated or -affected youth. One of my duties was to help the actual teacher at the alternative school classroom in the residential treatment center. I tutored and engaged them in various activities as well as planned and facilitated field trips (including ballet and opera, which most even enjoyed). But what I longed to do was enable creative writing experiences. So I did.

Each day young men and women took their places at tables, bored and slouchy, irritated with one more class– writing, at that. My only objective two times a week was to encourage them to put a few words down on paper, then a few more until it might grow to a page full of phrases. Daydreams and feelings welcomed. I wasn’t correcting grammar, spelling, syntax–this was not my interest. The kids were asked to reach in and seize their complicated or simple stories and put them into a form that clarified things for them.

When traditional prompts of opening sentences or magazine photos provoked less than I had hoped, I sought aid beyond the usual box. I couldn’t fill up a whole 45 minutes with my own voice; they wouldn’t put up with that, either. One day I decided to bring in the facility’s “boom box”. I asked them to choose music to play as long as it didn’t center on drug use or violence–a hard thing for them. Then they were to write whatever came into their heads. What they wrote was still bombastic and violent, a loose stream of consciousness. Still, anything was a good start. It was the early nineties so I suggested they put those fragments into a rap of their own. It was poetry class that day in my mind, and in theirs it was a chance to voice their mind’s contents in ways the felt more comfortable.

After they were done–they all seemed to scribble down something–most were hesitant, masking it as usual as toughness and boredom. I picked a guy who had musical talent and he stood up and gave a short intense performance. The group hooted and tried to hurl insults but they responded rather than show their stoniest faces. They relaxed then better participated. Their offerings were vividly descriptive, at times bloody and bitter but each piece was a true creation of what they felt, saw, heard in their lives. Some may have exaggerated–they had to be as “bad” as the others– but the context was honest, feelings raw.

I had to be careful to not start a firestorm of emotion, to be calm and firm. Unafraid of what they wrote. “Just tell it like it is, tell your own story,” I encouraged each time, “no one is getting judged or graded.” As they worked away I stood nearby, answered a few questions, then sat at back of the room as they spoke aloud their words. Haltingly at first, then more expressively as time wore on. And if someone skipped saying parts aloud, that was alright for the moment. It was for their benefit, not mine, I assured them. They were at last engaging in story making and telling.

I tried other routes. I might choose a word or a pair that seemed opposites then put them on the chalkboard. Ask them what song they’d choose to sum up their day and then write additional verses. Or suggest they share what their mothers were like or what their fathers advised them. Or what it was to live on the street, need the next heroin fix, steal for alcohol and drugs or food–but all on their terms. Incomplete sentences was okay. Single words listed one after the other was fine. A rap song of their wars or their loves, the bullets dodged, a knife fight they survived. I asked them to put an object they cared about on the table, write about why they kept it close. A picture of family could free more words than anything despite their running away or being sent away.

It wasn’t fast or easy. But they knew I wouldn’t back down, either. They resisted, they argued, they refused to do much some days. I read them poetry they liked or dismissed or found stupid. I brought in books they might read and sometimes enjoyed. I played recordings of poetry slam poets that they enjoyed. And I told a few stories of my own life, not too much, just enough. They didn’t give up on me and the class nor I, on them.

Sometimes a braver kid would lead the way and other times a quieter one would show boldness. But soon I was being regaled with portraits of these youth. Fragmented, harsh, filled with hurt that gnawed at them and too often a lack of hope for better days. They were stories of daily adaptability, of survival, of some good intentions if even they may have failed. One of the most important subjects they wrote of was their mothers. And younger siblings. They said they would die for them, period; death was not the worst they could imagine. But they tried to stay alive for them, at least, despite a precarious existence.

Some were good writers, a few talented. But they all offered stories that moved me. Helped me think more deeply about who they were. Made me better understand various culture clashes. There were rival gang members sitting near one another, writing poetry or memoir. Most of them began to channel aggressions and pain more effectively–not so often shouting abuse or talking over everyone else or spewing racism or starting a senseless, black-out fight for which police would be called.

Their stories were imbued with greatness: their intimate voices, given some power and heard a better. They began to see writing as a tool to map the landscape of their lives and sussed out some of the whys of what they felt and thought, a dawning of insight and accomplishment. Over time, youths slid up to me after class and said, “I get it now (a feeling, problem, desire, loss) a lot better. I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Or I was too freaked out to say it out loud.” In that way, aspects of who they were became parts they could examine and feel, then piece together. This was no small feat for kids whose operative mode was a rage brewed from self-hate. Some decided to keep writing after classes. They had found an outlet, a way to frame their past and present with words. Ideas and possibilities. No one told me the class was worthless. And later in their rooms or in the hallways when some of the kids got obstreperous or combative, I would tell them: “Go write it down.” And more and more often, they chose to do that.

What did they learn about themselves by writing and telling their own stories? If nothing else, they more clearly identified from whom and where they had come and who they might be if not in gangs, on the street, in the drug house, in juvenile detention. There were moments of hope pushing between those fervid lines. They could say things that mattered. Their words were worth being heard. What I gained was deeper compassion. Patience. Even greater faith in the creative process. Gratitude for the chance to work with those teenagers for nearly five years.

I also worked with Native American women in another residential setting. The results were  strikingly similar but powerful in different ways. Many of those women were also wives, mothers and grandmothers; their burdens were heavy with years of experiences. The prohibition against speaking the truth of their private lives was intense. To speak of traumatic things that had happened was physically taxing. Writing was hard, too. But when encouraged to share histories and dreams and fears orally in their own tongue first, sing their songs, dance, they began to speak. And weep. We always stretched and breathed  deeply first to loosen the bones, to open the heart. We even danced our own simple line dances, snaking down hallways of the institution. And they began to smile, to even laugh, and to not often cry as if they could not stop. They embraced each other despite having held enmity toward one another due to multigenerational grudges between tribes or certain members. By speaking the truth, they came nearer the next steps needed to rebuild and share their lives. When they went from whispering with eyes downcast to raising arms and shouting out joy, I knew they had begun to save themselves with transformed stories.

The human body holds stories inside heart and mind. Sometimes finding them and excavating them is hard and sometimes they come as if riding a river to freedom. Other times they are in bits and spurts. But they are waiting to be given a chance. What stories do you tell your children, yourself? Are they true? That is, are they what you really mean? Do they tell something that is valued, that can mark you as who you are in this world or want to become?

My son and I were talking the other day about my lifelong urgent desire to know things, to root out and hold close authenticity in this life. That this is the writer’s way. He immediately understood what I meant. Since he writes songs and loves to orally share stories, I suggested he write them down more often.

“No, Mom, that’s for you. I am the story, I’m just living it,” he said and put his arm around my shoulders and squeezed.

That’s what we all do, after all: inhabiting a story we make anew each day. Share yours, won’t you?

 

Late to Arrive are True Confessions

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He didn’t like to take “no” for an answer if there was any hope, at all, so he went back again. He had passed the house once only and it struck him as a beacon in the dark. It was large, had a good veranda, was painted a stone grey, and he could see a portico at a side entrance. More importantly, in the parallel yard nestled by a back fence was a smaller dwelling painted a Wedgwood blue that needed a touch-up. A hand lettered “For Rent” sign was hung haphazardly by twine on its doorknob. It compelled him to stop and ask about it.

Jim Jameson, as tall as they came in those parts, swung open the door, leaned down to study the stranger to take in Van’s interest in renting the tiny cottage and said, “No. Not for rent right now.”

“But there’s a sign on the door announcing it’s for rent.”

“That was last week. I changed my mind. ”

And with that Mr. Jameson took the steps two at a time, huffed and strode over to the dwelling and yanked off the sign. He put it face down on the ground, scowled at the younger man who’d followed him and barked, “I’ve changed my mind. A man can be of two minds and oscillate, can’t he? Today, it is certainly not for rent. So excuse me, I’ll say good day now and good luck.”

Van wandered after that, thinking things over. He hadn’t been back to Chesterfield since he’d left Chesterfield College his second year. He’d never expected to return. But life did turnabouts in ways that baffled him. His old father died so the family business, Warrington Jewelry, Ltd., met its own untimely end. He’d grudgingly worked for him fifteen years, ever since Walt Warrington was unwell with a worsening heart. There were not more appealing options then and his mother had passed several years earlier, so it was up to him. They had long dealt in vintage items, fine jewelry; they’d managed well enough, or so he thought, keeping a pleasant  home and bills paid.

Van had little idea there were old debts stirring up secret dismay and stress in his father. Why had he waited until the end to tell him the truth? And Van worried extra college costs had further jeopardized the business–and to what end? By the time Van got the mess untangled and debts paid off, there was not so much left. Nothing enticing in the hometown, either.  He had managed to keep a precious few thousand after all was addressed, so he took a needed break from the misery.

Although one might argue that Chesterfield was nothing much, either, it had two colleges, one for medical degrees (Health Sciences Junior College), the other for liberal arts. Van had attended the liberal arts college on a partial scholarship, thinking of teaching high school kids. He hadn’t quit due to poor grades or lack of interest, it was more complicated than that, enough that he’d given it up and re–entered the family business.

After all had been squared away and sold, even the family house, after two peaceful but lonely weeks camping in state parks he’d had a happier idea. What if he went back to where things were better, before they got worse? Chesterfield had inspired him once; it might again. So he’d driven five hours toward that wavering glimmer of possibility and started looking for a place of his own. And then things got weird.

Van got a cheap room night just three blocks away and decided after his odd encounter about the cottage to inquire about Jim Jameson at the Pub ‘n Grub.

“I was interested in renting the little place he’s got but he flat out turned me away. There was a large ‘For Rent’ sign.”

“Big Jim?” The bartender said, shaking his neat head of dark hair. “He’s something, isn’t he? Teaches economics and world history at Chesterfield College. Married a gal who had just graduated, an artist. We all liked his wife a lot. They came in Friday nights for burgers and fries, a couple beers.” He paused wiping down the counter to check out Van from beneath bushy eyebrows. “You’re new in town, right? Don’t know too many who aren’t anymore, what with yearly expanded college campuses.”

“Well,” Van said, “I am, but not entirely. I used to live here as one of those invading students long ago. Left after two years to work in the family business, though. Now I’m back for awhile, anyway. My father died so I’m looking for work again and a place.”

“Sorry to hear of your loss. The town has changed a bit, no doubt. More people, more work in some areas, less in others. What was the business you owned?”

“It ended with my father…we bought and sold good vintage jewelry.”

The bartender stuck out his hand and Van took it. “I’m Bart Tilley, by the by. Been here since before you came around the first time. Don’t believe I knew you then but now we’re acquainted.” He pushed another beer over. “On me this time, then it’s yours to pay.”

“Thanks, Van Warrington here. I lived in the dorms on the other side of town. Hoped to be a teacher; had a dream back then. So what can you tell me about that rental property situation?”

Bart lifted a finger to indicate Van should hold the thought while he waited on more customers. The place was filling up; it was after eight. Van was suddenly exhausted from the drive, from looking for housing he could afford, from a few surges of muted grief which he could not quite name as such. Only a marrow deep weariness was recognized. He was on the verge of change, he felt it, but nothing good had happened yet.

Bart slid back and inclined his head close to Van’s. “She died, his wife, ovarian cancer. Big Jim has not been himself for awhile now. Gotten surly. He often decides to rent the place and then just as fast to un-rent it. You may as well look elsewhere. You seem like a good guy. I’ll ask around. But it was her studio, she was a potter. Good stuff. Sad story. Hey, by the way, there’s a new, hip jeweler taking over Dundee’s Diamonds and Gold downtown. In the big green building, just stop by, see if they need your expertise.”

Bart left him with that news as he got too busy to return. But he looked over his shoulder and frowned, rubbed his bristly jaw when Van was looking across the bar, mulling his own thoughts over.

Well, Van thought, that poor guy, no wonder. He went to his motel room. As he lay with hands tucked behind his head late into the noisy night, he mused, Jewelry appraisal, buying, selling–is that what I’ll have to do again? And then: Bart is alright, he seems solid, I’ll go back sometime and see what he’s heard–if he meant it.

******

But the next morning he returned to Big Jim’s house. He loved that part of town and imagined the rent more than workable for such a small abode.

Big Jim opened the door, looked Van up and down, shook his head sadly then closed it. Van remained on the veranda, turned toward the wide tree-lined street and looked over graceful lawns upon which stood old, well kept two-story houses. They had called this “Professor Row” in contrast to “Student Row” streets. He had sometimes ridden over on his bike, gawked at the pretty houses and dreamed of making it there, himself, in ten years. Ten years that had slipped away.

The door partly opened once more. “Why are you still here? I have a class in a half hour, I don’t have time to shoo you away every five minutes.” He hunched his thin shoulders as if he was too defeated to stand up and appear otherwise. “I don’t think I can rent it, it’s that simple. So for now, no deal.”

“Yes, I get it, Bart told me it was your…wife’s studio. I’m sorry she passed.” Big Jim only looked over Van’s head into the distance a wistful moment. “I love its appearance. I like this street. I need a place that is affordable and have money in the bank and can find work as a jeweler. Or something.”

“Right, a jeweler, that’s what I need here. If you’d said landscape maintenance person I might consider it a moment.” He gestured around the overgrown yard, flowers blooming out of control, rows of hedges in grave need of pruning. “But I don’t plan to lease it just yet. As already noted.”

“So you know, I can do that, too. My father had an imposing yard in Pineville and worsening ill health. I helped at home, the business he had. He died last fall.”

“I see.” Big Jim came outside, let the screen door bang, its whiny hinges scraping the still air.

Am I playing on his sympathies? Van wondered. But what I say is true. He was surprised when Big Jim gestured toward two dark blue painted wicker chairs nearby. He took a seat after his host did.

“Thanks for taking time to talk. I sure would appreciate this place, I have to get settled somewhere soon.”

“It’s not a proper house but part getaway and more a serious potter’s studio…a kitchenette, a tiny alcove for a couch or mattress…” He deflated more as his voice trailed off.

“I get that–not wanting others to live in it. Must be hard to see it there every day.”

“It was her refuge as well as work space, you see. I think she was happiest there. Married thirteen years, all we had. She got sick four years ago, died two years later. I just ignored the studio until recently.” He stopped himself, sat up and turned toward the congenial, pleasant looking man, perhaps the earlier end of middle age. “Well. And your name again?”

“Van Warrington. I studied education at Chesterfield College for a couple years, fifteen years ago. Then had to leave. But I understand that you don’t want to let anyone use the cottage, so I may as well move on and–”

“Cottage. That’s what she called it, her Potter’s Cottage, all six hundred twenty-four square feet of it. Look, Van Warrington, I have to go teach a blasted class now but stop by tomorrow and we’ll talk a bit more if you like.”

They said a hasty farewell and each went his own way. Van felt a stirring of hope. He wondered what sort of pottery she had made. He still wondered if the cottage might be rented in good time, and for how much. He went back to the motel, sat on his bed for awhile, trying to shake off drowsiness. He picked up his camera, put a few resumes in his backpack, then walked toward Stone River so he might follow its meander through soothing greens and floral cheer of Chesterfield. Maybe he’d stop by that jewelry store. Maybe not.

******

Jim Jameson found his way to the studio as he did each morning sleep eluded him before dawn arrived. He glanced at the kiln outdoors, then unlocked the door and pocketed the key for safety , patted  it inside the fabric as if it were an amulet. There was the still clay-coated potter’s wheel to right of the door. She liked to keep windows and door propped wide open in good weather as she worked, to encourage a fresh breeze. To move and out to think and use the kiln. There was the salvaged farmer’s double sink with cracked muddy splotches, and bags of clay lined up along the west wall. Cupboards hung above containing supplies of various sorts–he knew so little of it. On the east side were many shelves with last finished pieces crowding each other, bowls, mugs, plates, trays– and small free form sculptures not meant to resemble anything so much as a sensuous curve of a hill or a waterfall in mountains. It was the glazes that set them off, glossy or matte vibrant autumnal tones she loved, and natural textures she created.

Used to create,” he said in the dusty stillness, and took all in as long as he could stand it, not going near the day bed where she used to sometimes fall asleep and remain all night. More often than he’d wished. The worn coverlet with vines on rusty colored and quilted fabric was where it was when she died, the pillow scrunched up as she’d liked it.

But would she want it this way forever? Like a memorial to a life she once led but left behind? And without any serious complaint, he had to agree.

Jim blinked bloodshot eyes to dispel their dampness, shut the door softly, locked it and went into his house to make coffee. He took a stack of papers to grade into his study as he waited for Van Warrington to arrive.

******

When Van came and accepted the offer to enter the house, it was as if he remembered something, but he didn’t know what it might be. There was a familiarity about it but then, many of the houses were like this one and he had been in quite a few over those two years. Parties, a few suppers with profs’, study sessions at profs’, visiting friends who had snagged a shabbier version of such a house to share with five others. It could be the evocation of a time he lived, is all.

He followed Big Jim into the study. The walls were made of books and the scatter rug was a large old Persian. The light was dim, the room warm. It was early and too humid. The clouds outside regrouped, gathered more steam for rain.

They sat on the velvety burgundy sofa. On the coffee table was just that–a  carafe of coffee next to cream and sugar in cut glass bowl and pitcher. Jim poured one mug then a second for Van.

“So, I’m wondering just why I’m here,” Van said when silence settled between them a moment. He could hear a grandfather clock ticking, looked for but saw none.

“I thought I’d tell you more before you further considered how much you may desire to live there.”

“Alright. I guess.” The cottage was partly visible from the side bay window. Van wanted to see the inside but willed himself to be patient then drank the strong coffee.

“We built it right soon after we married because she decided to make art, not teach it–though she did teach a few workshops each year. It was easy to agree to anything she wanted. She was younger than I by nine years and had a laugh like gently falling water… and a smile that snared everyone who saw her. She had the kind of beauty that caught you off guard not because it was dazzling but because it was quietly unassuming, natural but unmistakable. Sweet and a tad zany at once.”

Van drank more, uncrossed his ankles. He felt embarrassed by the details shared. Was the professor going to wax on and on about his deceased wife? He should be kinder; Van was sure the woman was lovely and very talented. But he wasn’t a grief counselor, not even this man’s friend. He had his own sadness to sort out. Was this woman’s essence never going to let go of the man? It hovered about him, a cloak of sweet sorrow.

Van understood how that could feel. But Van didn’t speak of it, at least not to strangers.

Big Jim went on. “She had such a knack for pottery–she fully discovered it after she got her B.A.– that it was only a matter of time before she sold them at art fairs, then galleries were interested. She began to make money at it. But mostly she loved what she did. I was never creative. I’m a man of strict numbers and political pondering, neither of which interested her much. I don’t create a thing but decent meals.” He scanned his bookshelves as of there was something there he must recall. “But she was so vibrant, she shook me up. I wasn’t a fool; I knew she needed the security I offered her so she could be a potter. I didn’t care. Just to be near her, to know she was out there every day, would be here most of the time when I returned from work….” He covered his eyes with a large hand. “I will not marry again.”

Van felt a sharp twinge. He knew some of what Jim spoke about. But he had to move on, learn about the cottage availability.

“It must be wonderful to have such a marriage, Jim. And I’m truly sorry she got sick/ And died. I suspect you’re right–this is not the right time for you to rent it out. I appreciate your telling me how important it is to keep as it was. I couldn’t live there. honestly, knowing how you feel. I hope you’ll excuse my bothering you.”

He was feeling short of breath, as if the room was hotter and smaller than it was and he was taking up too much air and room by by sitting there. It was a little creepy listening to such longing, as if he was overhearing a confession of something more intimate or complicated but he didn’t know what. He began to stand up.

“Still, she’s want me to share her cottage with the right person. I feel Lily would like you.”

Van sank to the chair. Tiny hairs on the back of Van’s neck stood up. He felt vaguely nauseous. “What did you say her name was?”

Big Jim unfolded his clasped hands and gestured toward the cottage as if she was out there waiting for them to decide what was next. “Lily. Lily Hunter Jameson.” He stood and looked out the window. “My dear wife for far too short a time.”

Van had to leave the room. He wanted to crawl out on hands and knees, he felt weak and unable to stop the spinning of his mind, the unreal sense of everything there. Lily Hunter! The bright young woman he had fallen in love with the moment he had met her in freshman composition. The woman he’d wanted to be with the rest of his natural born days. The woman who loved him right back with her stirring spirit and searching mind, her resonant body like an instrument made of fantastic music–as if she had waited only and ever for him and could never let him go.

Except she did. Back in college she in fact was falling for someone else, she confessed so one spring day after they picnicked in the riverside park. Someone more established and secure in life. She had to be an artist–he surely could understand that, couldn’t he? And the man knew exactly what she needed whereas Van, truth be told, sometimes needed too much, gave more than she could easily handle. She need energy left to create.

He never knew who it was but now he was staring at the back of a very tall, thin man, an accomplished, kindly man who so loved her still. A man more secure and well off. A man who adored her from afar as long as she had lived.

Van left the room as swiftly as he could, as if he was being run out, without a backward glance, tripping down the steps of the lovely veranda, past the cottage he would never look at again. He started up his car and drove to Stone River, then got out. Such an ache that dug into his center. How could this have happened? Was she not done hurting him, chasing him after death, mocking him after all these years? Or had Big Jim Jameson figured out who he was? No, that would be too uncanny and cruel…

“Get a hold of yourself, Van!” he said aloud as the river swept by. Let it go.

“”Yeah, man, come on, it’s just a place to rent that you need,” Bart said as he lightly punched him on the shoulder.

“Hey Bart–what are you doing here?” Van threw a rock into the muddy current.

“You look pale as a…oh, wait, you’ve been talking to Big Jim about his haunted cottage. Listen, I tried to tell you–nice guy, but kinda nuts these days. Pay him no mind. I have a place for you, it’ll be fine.”

“What? Just like that?”

“I’ve lived here fifty eight years. I know things.” his glance slid over Van. “Like who you are.”

Van felt a strong need to move away from Bart or to push him. This town–he had thought this could be a good move.

“Wait, Van, I knew Lily a long time, too. She used to come into the bar and cry on my shoulder. Everyone does, right? It’s my job. But, yeah, she came in after she married Big Jim and drank a little much and finally told me how she’d ended up with the wrong man but it was too late for her and Van…how much she loved you, that she lost you. But I don’t think her husband ever knew the truth. She had to carry on with her life, didn’t she? A really good potter, a finer woman. My friend, glad to say. I miss her–she was a lively gal when she wasn’t swimming in regrets.”

Van gave Bart a hard look then turned away. He was ready to wake up from the unnerving dream he was stuck in. All he had to do was concentrate on the three dimensional world. He took in the trees’ lush greenery, the polished picnic table, three children laughing at river’s edge with their father. He listened to his heartbeat against his ribs, just beyond his shirt, ba-duh, ba-duh, ba-duh.

“I mean: Van. Your name is one you don’t forget! Old fashioned, kinda like Lily’s. I thought it was you when we met…and I had to say she did love you, buddy. She made a kind of mistake that couldn’t be undone easily so she was in it for life, she said, with Big Jim Jameson, a decent man. It just turned out it wasn’t for that long.”

As he steadied himself on a picnic table–newer, cleaner than the one he and Lily had used years ago–he slowly sat on the bench. Felt the strength leave him and run into the sky, river, ground.

Bart grabbed his arm. “Hey, take some slow deep breaths. It’s a lot, no need to rush into understanding it all. It’s a tough story.”

Van straightened up. Sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs. He felt better in a few minutes. But he felt half-undone. He jutted his chin into storm-prescient air. He was a man who knew how to make the best of things, wasn’t he?

“Yeah, a lot to take in. To think about later. It happened. But it’s over, done. The past can’t hurt us unless we invite it to do damage.” He felt Bart nodding agreement beside him. “Okay. I heard you say you have a room? If I stay, that is?”

“Oh, stay awhile. It’s a small bungalow on the west side. If you have cash and get yourself a job soon, it’s yours in two weeks. I own it so that’s a solid.”

Van felt like he had been taken too far back to make a victorious step forward. But hearing Bart give him new information made him recall his life was just a life like any other. There had been good breaks and bad, quirks and bad timing. Deeper pangs. But he believed better times were possible. It was his way and it was what made the best sense to him right now. That, and Lily loving him all along even as she cared for Big Jim. She was some woman.

Friday’s Photography/Poem: High Desert Enchantment

DSCF8593

(Over the years we’ve spent time in Oregon’s breathtaking high desert and ranch lands. Our state is nearly 45 percent desert despite having lush forests and much rain in the western part. We once stayed at Kah-nee-ta Lodge, a resort on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and owned by Warm Spring Tribes. I felt a stranger in a strange land….but found it all compelling. Enjoy some photos of the area below. You will soon understand the expressions on our faces: true enchantment.)

Winds talk. Shape time. I listen to
stories riding on brittle air,
Native, Caucasian, Hispanic
tales woven and split apart like
strands of rope, bracelets
of bright, hard beads,
rawhide twisted and turned.
I am silenced, prepare for
discovery, too much I do not know.

Those old, old voices mumble,
whisper and entreat. They shear
rock and sand, insistent,
striated with memory of blood
coursing, blood spilling.
A woman like me can be entranced
so slips through mirages, spirits,
springs for healing, treacherous passes.
A landscape erupting with grief.
Desire. Power. Peace.

Raw beauty is strong,
burrows deep in dreaming,
hallowed and dangerous like a charm.
The scents of heat in high desert:
harrowing and pungent so it stings
but brightens the senses. The mind.
Light on rocky buttes, in valleys–
so pure I pray as it bridges earth
to Crooked River, volcanic ridge to beyond.
Chase it, embrace the land’s heart,
magic of juniper, sagebrush,
common woolly sunflower.
Life recapitulating. Surviving.

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An Accidental Life

It was morning, end of August and blazing hot but humid. Now and then a lesser flame of wind swept in to further melt me. Perspiration evaporated then returned to linger on my pinkening skin. I drove along the familiar country road, elbow hanging out the window, thrilled with our new powder blue Opel Kadett. Heat waves shimmered off the pavement. On the radio Pat Metheny’s guitar was soaring, whining, reaching out to whomever had ears to hear. I was tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel, singing with Pat and his band. It was a so-yellow-blue-it-could-blind-you kind of day, the road mostly mine.

I was on my way to an art history college class, my first time back since the precarious birth of my first child in February at age 23. Jubilance filled me, I felt light as a balloon. First of all, tiny Naomi had fought a few battles but thrived despite coming to us two and a half months early. And I was going to be one step closer to my degree. I glanced at a blur of endless fields of corn, dense, tall and begging to be harvested. I missed Naomi even as I enjoyed a small rush of freedom. A perfect day all around.

But then: scramble of noises, painful jolts, car pushed and spinning, crashing forward fast and I was fading even faster. Aching head, breath heavy, pain shooting through every nerve. Car smashed into what, how, where?

“Miss, miss, oh dear God, can you hear me? I hit you, I am so sorry, didn’t see you just the corn! Stay awake now, stay awake!”

All vanished from presence of mind and body, all fell dark. Even the new silence ended as time recoiled, vanished.

Inside a small space I looked down, down, down from its ceiling at two people busy with another, a body that was mine. Wailing sirens, vehicle swaying.

“She’s in shock–lost consciousness again! Check vitals!” The man slapped the wall hard between cab and work space.

I hovered, amorphous, invisible, curious to see such a small creature, limbs flaccid, clothing askew, head and knee bleeding, body so frail. Cared for but emptied. The animal I knew well lay physically below and suffered, nothing I could do, only wait to return or leave. I felt sorry but detached and so very calm as the EMTs got busier. Flesh of me must have been charged with pain, but then more deeply stilled. What was to come of me? I desired to stay alive in that world. The men worked, I watched, waited. A breath and heartbeat called. Movement downward toward my body and slipping into that hardscrabble place of a perishable body. Then nothing at all for a very long while.

I came to amid brutal lights in the emergency room of a trauma center of inner city Saginaw, Michigan. Ned, my husband, and his mother stared down at me, relieved and talking to me, trying to explain things. I could hear so little. Feel surprisingly little; pain medicine coursed through my veins.

“Cynthia,” my husband said. His rough hand went to mine.

“I was watching a movie of me…from above,” I mumbled.

“What?”  My mother-in-law asked, startled. “What  does that mean?”

“You were? Oh…” Ned said. “Not good, but it could be worse. You had a concussion, banged and slashed your knee and forehead. They sewed you up. You’ve been out for hours, between medicine and slipping back and forth…somewhere.”

I squinted up at worried faces, closed my eyes again. I wanted more than anything to sleep a long while more. My whole being and body ached despite pain medicine, as if it had been shoved side to side and I hadn’t caught back up with it yet.

“Good to see you’ve awakened. You’re extremely fortunate, young lady, no internal damage. The nurse will keep monitoring you. I’ll be back in a bit.” A white coated doctor had stuck his head in; out it went again.

“We have to keep you more awake for the next 24 hours or more. I’ll keep waking you every hour to make sure you’re going to be alright–the concussion,” he explained.

I moaned. “Naomi! Where’s Naomi?”

“With Grandpa, of course.” My mother-in-law looked at me oddly, not the first time.

“For a minute, I thought… so glad she wasn’t with me.”

“You were going to class, remember?” Ned responded, worried I had lost track of all.

“Yeah,” I replied, a sweep of relief flooding me. As if I had lucked out to be in the car all alone, that she had been home and safe as needed. “What happened?”

“A man was driving along, about 50 mph at a perpendicular angle to your road and didn’t see his stop sign as he neared the crossroads. He said all there was, was cornfields. He assumed the intersecting road had the stop sign but wasn’t concerned and there you were. He kept talking about there being all that high corn.”

I shuddered: the shocking impact, that barest moment before I blacked out, then awakened then lost consciousness again. And the ambulance ride when I was on the top of the ceiling. But all else before and after those few moments was gone.

“He’s a minister,” Ned went on, “and he stayed for hours after he was looked over, worrying about you. He gave me his card; I said I’d let him know. He’s got a few bruises and small cuts but he had a much heavier car. He’s very sorry and of course it’s his fault. His car T-boned your side of the Opel and it spun around then finally crashed into a stop sign post opposite the one he should have seen. Our new car was totaled. They used the ‘jaws of life’ to get you out… you lost consciousness quite awhile. A pretty bad accident, Cynthia…”

His square, warm hand was one mine as I drifted on the edge of a netherworld, in and out. Our pretty new car, gone. I was alive, no internal injuries or broken bones! But my head and knee were starting to hurt like hell…my neck felt seared by awakening pain and I had on a stiff neck collar. Major whiplash, I guessed.

Did Ned say the man was a minster? I wondered who he was, where he had been going, and then recalled how distressed he was before I passed out.

******

After more hours I was deemed fit enough to go home since I seemed lucid and cognizant of all. I was given crutches. It would be over a month before I could walk unaided on the bashed kneecap–not broken, miraculously, but tissues deeply bruised and a wound across it about two inches now stitched up. On the way home we got stuck in evening traffic in city center. My body was returning to itself more fully; it was so hard to sit, and to bear the roaring of engines, honking and grinding of gears, the passersby staring at my bandaged head or so I thought. I worked at keeping at bay the fear that another car might zoom into us.

And then the full bladder suddenly awakened, too, and demanded attention.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait until we get home!”

“There aren’t restrooms nearby and we’re stuck. Everything must have slowed way down when you lost consciousness… If you can’t wait, you just can’t. Let her rip. It’s a truck seat, it can be cleaned.”

“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

I felt betrayed then by that simple physiological function, the body a bit battered yes and then it had to test me further. Embarrassed, even ashamed, I obeyed his suggestion as there as no other choice. He looked away. I began to cry as the seat got wetter and covered my face. Marriage brought many things unexpected and hard.

After that I examined my forehead in the visor mirror. A huge bandage covered the space above my left eye. Ned glanced at me from the corner of his eye, saying nothing, driving the rattling truck on home. Home to our daughter. Home where the back yard spread out like an open field, and wild grasses swayed in sweetest summer breezes, stars glittered and winked, and the moon glowed benignly upon us. We laughed a little as we rolled windows all the way down, tension easing as we moved through city congestion toward the outskirts where we made a life. Back to our miracle baby.

I was awakened every hour. I lay on my  back, Naomi close on my chest, and listened to her light breath, felt Ned’s quiet body gravitating to mine, his words few. The cooling breeze flew into the window, a summer night’s healing. I thanked God for being with us once again.

******

A couple of weeks later the gravel driveway announced the arrival of a car. Ned was home from work; I was tending to Naomi. It was a man’s voice and it sounded Southern. In a moment, Ned ushered him in. He wore a brown, fedora-style hat that he took off as he nodded at me.

I don’t even recall if his name was given though surely it was, preceded by “Pastor.” The name was not the important part to me. His presence was.

Ned looked skeptical but was polite enough. “This is the man from the accident…he wants to meet you.”

He was tall and bony so that his modest shiny suit hung loosely from his frame, a shock of pale hair was receding, and his light blue eyes were full of emotion. He clutched his hat in fidgety hands. He began to speak in earnest, voice soft and lilting.

“I just had to find you, Miss Cynthia, had to know what had happened to you and how you are doing. Your husband told me your names and I found you in the phone book…and here I am. I still feel terrible, toss and turn at night wondering how it could have been avoided. I should have known better; I’ve gone over and over it. The corn was so high everywhere I looked–the country roads…But that’s no excuse. I failed to stop. I hit your car and caused you grievous injury. I’m a Baptist minister. I have prayed every day and night for your good recovery. I hope you can forgive me.” His eyes welled up. “You hurt your head badly–and your knee! Will you be alright? What about the scarring? You’re so young. And you have a little baby!”

“There is really no forgiveness needed, it was a true accident,” I reassured him.  “All will be alright.”

We told him what the doctor had said, what we expected, which was that all would heal up and all should be well. I had barely thought about the scar with its twelve long stitches; it curved in an “S” shape, a deep red tiny snake a bit above my left eye and all the way to my hairline; it was true the doctor had not made an art of his stitchery. My kneecap skin was the same, less stitches but not pleasant.

We talked a little about the crash, but I spared him my details. I didn’t want to cause him more distress. Like being on that ambulance ceiling staring down at my body and feeling there was a choice to stay or go. And the pain and losing control of my bladder.

“I suspect the scars will fade in time. My hair naturally falls over my forehead, anyway!”

“I would pay for plastic surgery, if that would help–you are too young and lovely to have that all your life. And it’s a reminder.”

The very idea stunned me. Plastic surgery never entered my mind. It was simply unneeded. I was far more concerned about my knee so I’d soon have less hobbling about, return to more vigorous activity. There was physical therapy to help out.

“No, not necessary, really. Your insurance has covered everything else. That’s wonderful. And I’m going to be fine, healing up more by the hour. But it was very kind of you to come by and check on me. To offer more.”

He stood there with that sad hat in hand and I offered my hand to him. Then I felt a need to hug him; he hugged me back. We walked him outdoors.

He turned at his car door.”I’ll pray for more good healing. God be with you all. Thank you for seeing me.”

“God was with us both… I made it out alright and you did, too.”

We waved goodbye.

I got better fast. The accident seemed long past as autumn arrived. I never heard from him again. I thought about his compassion, his prayers, at the crash scene and their continuance. His accountability. Good will.

His genuine caring presence has stayed with me all these years.

******

I have written of that good man because I have had cause to remember him vividly again. The old neck injury flared in my early forties in the form of early onset arthritis of the upper spine. There had been a second injury from an assault to compound the matter. By the time I was in my late forties, there were increasingly difficult headaches caused by neck/shoulder muscle spasms and increased stiffness. I kept active and tried to stay limber and continued on. But into my fifties, that burning pain and headache could morph into a ceaseless state, a nightmare, lasting all day and into the next. I refused opiate pain medications and took acetaminophen and ibuprofen despite the latter causing stomach problems. After my heart disease diagnosis and new medications, my cardiologist said ibuprofen was out. I have had a great many physical therapy sessions over the years, chiropractor treatments, acupuncture, massage, have used heat and cold, frequent daily stretches. I love being active and so have done the things I always have loved, as much as possible.

One can certainly learn to live with and beyond even hounding pain without narcotics. I don’t want to use medication I don’t absolutely need to take. But now, occasionally, I do. To just rest, to keep blood pressure down and my heart rhythms happy when it is at that point where it has dug in too deep. It runs right up my neck to my skull, into my brain or so it seems. I cannot think of anything else when it will not let go.

There are far reaching effects of old injuries and damage done. I have been laid flat for parts of days at a time. I have had daily routines impaired, as certain head and arm movements aggravate bone-on-bone friction, those nerves a conduit of sensations not desired. Writing and sitting for long hours can agitate the inflammation and muscle spasms. I can’t turn my head fully from side to side and spinal stenosis is creating other problems. So something needs to be done before greater degeneration of the spine facets occurs. There will be a consult soon with a neurosurgeon to learn of the options.

But this week I think of that gentleman with hat in hand, recall his consideration. Empathy. Despite being a stranger he wanted what was good and helpful for me. Enough to find and see me face to face and offer regret for something that was not truly his fault. It was a freak accident, as accidents often are. My two long scars have remained, paler and softer yet I still do believe God was with us. And his prayers may well have held back the specter of death as I lay in that ambulance looking down at my damaged body, wondering: is it time?

How can this not be possible? Faith and prayer are potent in a world of disbelief, ironic disputes of spiritual matters. But I can tell you that anything is possible.

No, it was not the right time to go. A whole lifetime was yet given to me. I have come close more than once to leaving this world; it was not the first or last occasion to be jolted from my body, watching drama unfold below, wondering many things upon return to flesh, blood, bones–this temporary home we move within. But one does simply hold on if possible though I find it is little more loosely. Life can’t be clutched to love it well or for it to embrace us back. I am planning decades more to explore the gifts of this tilting planet. And to plow through rough spots. Something can be learned, no matter what. And I remain thankful for all chances to live life in its entirety, whatever comes.

I hope that good man has been happy with his chances, too.

Unexpected Beasts

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

She did not desire to visit the country much less live there, with its hidden creatures and ominpresent dirt. Nor anywhere other than their condo with a glass walled view of colorful, heaving throngs on streets below and a daily, even hourly variance of traffic patterns that created soothing and lively background for her work. And the ships leaving with horns blowing and trains trundling down more distant tracks.

Vera drew and painted just a few feet from that view so she wouldn’t be unduly distracted. Though her work was mostly cityscapes, this framed scene was hers and somehow intimate. Thus, not for sharing with strangers. Possessiveness was part of her; she held on to what she needed, was loathe to part with certain things and certainly persons.

The condo was one of them. They had lived there for over ten years, Vera and Putnam (“Put”) Rawlings, and it was the haven they had hoped it would be. He wrote and she made art and they were happier than imagined when meeting twelve years ago at an artists’ residency. Faster than expected–they worked taxing hours, doing even more than they had to but then they made their way into galleries and two museums and onto bookshelves and in libraries and into a fine spot on the tenth floor.

So why did Put want to move now? Unless to another floor above them, a bigger place, perhaps. But her erudite husband could be capricious. And single-minded when he had a wish to fulfill.

“Not entirely move, just acquire a little week-end place, a summer place.”

“How bourgeois of you, a quaint summer cottage,” she laughed, and dabbed a wash of purple and smidge of black then pearly grey onto the damp watercolor paper. “We’d miss so much in the city, week-ends are teeming with things to encounter and do.”

“It’s Chicago, there’ll not be a lack of cultural events if we go away for week-ends now and again. And summer is not the peak performance season in some areas, anyway. Come on…”

“You can’t be serious.” Vera looked him full face to discern the intent of these statements and felt a frisson of anxiety. “I won’t do it. I can barely stand dirt, the way it clings to everything. Me. You know I don’t like bugs up close and personal. I don’t even like to put my feet underneath a picnic table in the park, you never know.” She swished her brushes about in a big plastic cup of water and turned around. “Why are you even thinking of it?”

“I need inspiration. More quiet. I need to step outside and put my feet on ground, not pavement.”

“Your new book drafts are not going as well hoped, I know…but really, the countryside will not further your creative flow, believe me, it will only disturb your focus–all those mice and snakes, wasps and bees.”

She sidled up to him, put arms about his neck and drew him close, put her forehead to his and closed her eyes, beaming her will at him. But Put lifted her arms, let them drop.

“I’ve looked awhile now, sorry to inform you and I found one online that seems perfect. Not so much money and a companionable size. I’m going up this week-end to have a look around. I hope you’ll come along.”

With that he turned and retreated to his study. Vera padded after him, long coral dress billowing in an air conditioned draft. She leaned against the door jamb. She didn’t enter his study unless invited, generally. One thing she wanted was her own good studio space, not just the high-ceilinged living room by windows. It meant she had to put her art supplies in boxes at bottom of their closet each time they entertained. She felt second class with the arrangement but his study had poor light and was too small for her liking, anyway. And he didn’t like to look at any views when writing–“too many odds and ends of stories played out there,” he’d said.

“What on earth are you doing? Making unilateral decisions about something you know I am against…”

Put remained facing the desk. “I had to take charge of this situation and do what makes sense to me for once. I need a change. This may be it. Besides, I love the country, you already knew that. It’s near a lake, you do like water.”

“I do not, there are blood suckers there. Snakes that wrap around your legs and fish that bite your toes and lake muck.”

And with that he started to type again, murmuring, “I’m leaving Friday around three. Takes two hours, I’m told.”

“But…!”

He kept plunking one word after another onto the glimmering screen. She felt like slapping the doorjamb in a fit but left him to his work, pulling the door closed.

Put knew she expected they live in the city. As an urban artist that made the most sense–he could write anywhere–and he’d also concluded she was a little OCD about dirt and wildness. He hadn’t questioned it much. Should he?

Vera put her face close to the window pane, palms pressed alongside and making warm, damp outlines on the glass. Her heart was charging past her thoughts; she was dizzy when she glanced down ten stories. All those decent people and cars and trucks and shops. They were tiny as miniatures, she could scoop them up if she was only a giantess but she felt she, too, was shrinking by the second. Her world was being altered by Put’s whims masked as serious needs, and she had that sinking feeling: powerlessness.

She squeezed eyes tightly to block it all out, but the past took its place. Running, galloping into the present.

The country. She deeply and irrevocably did not want to go to that country.

******

All the way there she slept or was on the verge of sleep. Vera had not slumbered much the night before so drank a large glass of wine after breakfast. Put frowned at that b ut didn’t chastise her. He knew this was hard for her. His main objective was to get to the lakeside village of Callaway before dark. Hers was to stop him from making a foolish decision and she felt wine might fortify her.

A burgeoning community of trees enveloped them. Put whistled tunelessly. Vera opened one eye to see them encroach upon the state highway, their sedan. The sun got brighter, air became clearer and her breathing, faster. She rolled her window up, then down, then up, twisted in her seat.

“I think you’re going to like the house if it is anything what it appears to be. Alright, a cottage, a very old one but it has character, I can tell.” His spritely mood grated on her.

“‘Character’  means rundown, Put, not attractive and desirable. Likely nobody else will have it.”

Why was she being so resistant, verging on insensitive, even mean? he wondered. Was it because he’d gotten a hefty advance for his third book while she’d had trouble with her last series of paintings? Well, another reason he’d wanted to look at the place was to provide both with new environs, a set of unknowns to engage them in different ways.

Or was it simply because she hadn’t lived in the country since she was ten? After her father left her mother and she, with him. It had not been a good time of her life, he knew that but divorces happen,  and she’d grown up happier with him in Chicago. The man wremained a fine florist and she by all accounts was a developing artist and a happy helper. Yet, she did not now favor a spectrum of plants, seldom added flowers to their minimalist decor. He thought she even suffered from a paucity of nature’s delights, and he was not the most outdoorsy man. A thinker, a better spectator than doer– well, a writer of philosophical matters, darker than light-filled, subtly ironic literature. But he was a nature nut when he was a kid. It was their city attitude he hoped to challenge, to loosen with a part time stay in the country. He did like to sit on their balcony, watch the seasons play out their dramas.

He might even cut some wood if they wintered there. He accelerated, dodged in and out of swift shadows.

Vera was sound asleep by the time they arrived at a tiny real estate office at village edge. He left her in her seat and met with Darlene Howe.

“It just came on the market; you’re only the second person to view it,” Darlene informed him with a gregarious smile and handshake. “Follow me.”

“Are we at the end of the road yet? The dead end, I might note,” she murmured. “Can I just view it from the comfort of our Volvo?”

“No, Vera, time to get out and face the future with me.” He touched her nose and lips with index fingertip, then kissed her on a pale cheek. “Be brave, we’re only taking a look at it.”

She felt welded to the seat, so unwilling was she to join in, but Darlene was waiting for her, Put was staring at rustling treetops with a show of childlike pleasure. What did he know about trees and other green matter with roots that grew like tentacles into dense earth and took hold with wretched tenacity? Yes, it was magical. But whether good or not, well, she was of two minds–the florist’s and the wood nymph’s.

Her mother had floated around with butterflies, light as air and as erratic, too, though Mother would have said that butterflies did have a path they followed, we just couldn’t map it. Vera had wondered why her mother had acted like she was an interpreter of such things but now knew why.

The single story, dingy white cottage with blue trim had a blue door that was opening. If she went through it she might be swallowed up, but Vera yanked herself back from twenty years ago, she was not a child, this was now. Put was dear to her and would not leave her alone to bear the vicious pounce of an unknown fate. She was watchful, nonetheless. The trees and birds and scrabbling squirrels possibly watched back.

There were hydrangeas restrained by a peeling white picket fence and though it was almost too quaint in effect, they were encouraging. She had put together many an extravagant bouquet with the showy blue-to-purple flowers. As Put and Darlene entered the cottage, she lingered until a group of squirrels started to harangue each other. She gazed down the road; there were a handful of places, all undisturbed, most in need of some upkeep. She longed to see an older, smiling woman pop out, a regular cottage dweller who might share some gravity, tell her how wonderful it was and safe, full of community cohesion. Because Vera knew Put would buy this cottage if he liked it well enough. He’d had that look the moment he’d mentioned it: as if his life would was paused at a crossroads, ready to charge into happy fullness of a country gentleman’s life. So it was necessary. He needed her to be happy with him, too.

But Vera’s mother had told her father that, as well, and they’d moved to Escanaba. And then she’d meandered away, submerged herself in a dream world since she had a husband who was rock solid, a gardener and florist.  But it was for her a darker kingdom of shadows and hard river rocks and many challenging times obscured by her need for escape. They waited for her return. Her conspiring friends said she was only coming into her own, her own gifts, but what they were, Vera had no clue.  The woman knew wild plants and animal ways. She had a sense of unusual things. Her father said nothing of his grief but they both felt the sharpness of abandonment, he like the call to a strange battle, and he lost. They lost.

She shuddered as Put disappeared inside, and then ran up the few creaky wooden steps, into the cottage and with relief found both feet more firmly planted indoors.

“Vera, come into the living room, it faces the water.”

She left the modest foyer’s faded and cracked linoleum, moved past dining nook and small kitchen to find Put in a nearly spacious living room with fireplace as he’d required. He was nosing about and when seeing her broke into his lopsided smile and pointed out the picture window. There was another house across another dirt road. It, however, was sited on a large plot so it afforded an almost unobstructed view of the lake. The barest waves carried a golden glow from the receding sun.

Vera felt her diaphragm relax as Darlene showed them three bedrooms, “cozy” was the word she used, and the outdated bathroom with claw-foot tub and no shower, “vintage, of course, just like the cute kitchen.” Then she took them to the newer deck outside the back of the house which oversaw the very close water.

Put walked the deck, noted the railing as sturdy, stepped down into uneven yard, examined trees and bushes, the Gerber daisies, leggy zinnias, more hydrangeas and many weeds not vanquished. Vera almost wanted to get on hands and knees and start pulling when she recalled she hated the dirt, how it stuck to her skin, how it would not come out of her pores after playing in the forest making hapless camps. Digging a trench around her for protection and then–

“Vera? Sweetheart? What do you really think?”

“It’s an old place, true country lake cottage style, and not even dressed up to be enticing. I appreciate its long history–built in the nineteen thirties, maybe? But it is not for us.”

Darlene put a hand to chest, took in a long breath.

“Sorry, Darlene, she’s a city gal, it might take time for her to adapt but I like it, all of it. I so loved those summers in the Berkshires when I was a boy.”

Darlene offered him a cheery look but raised an eyebrow at the woman she found odd at best, disconcerting at worst.

“I know about country life, Darlene. I grew up in the forests of the Upper Peninsula, a few miles outside Escanaba, Michigan. On the wild shores of Lake Michigan…”

“Lovely up there,” Darlene felt encouraged again. She needed this commission and he was a nice man, maybe he’d be famous one day.

“It’s been years and she’s adapted to the city so well, this seems almost new to her, not easy to consider again.”

Darlene looked sympathetically at Vera. She’d had all the country taken out of her, clearly.

Vera knew better than to contradict him in front of Darlene. This was his adventure, she was also in it so just went along a bit. But she recoiled at the possibility that he was serious about this foray into unfathomable, unassailable forest.

“Your husband says you’re a painter and he’s a writer from Chicago. That’s exciting! I imagine there’d be so much to inspire you. We have a good potter down the road, sells things online mostly.”

Vera smiled obediently as Put held her in his gaze, but she could see the tumbling of his reasonable mind. She was no match for his new thrill. She walked around the cottage, left the other two sliding into business talk.

She wanted to be fair. It was his book advance; he could do whatever he wanted, within limits. Was this reasonable or reckless? He romanticized his family’s summer house but did regale her with funny and good-hearted stories. Put had thought they’d had that in common, experiences in deep, cold lakes and fast, fish-laden rivers., woods. Bonfires late into night and everyone singing, joking and telling ghost stories. Like it was camp night every night and no one wanted to go home.

But for Vera, it was not like that, certainly not after just one afternoon and night. She had shivered among looming trees as darkness dropped like a heavy cloak about her and she had waited for the sound of her name called out. She was nine years old. She knew a great deal about the woods. It had been her playground, her school, her home. But not then. And not after.

Vera shook her head, roused herself at the sound of footsteps and voices.

“Well, you and your wife should think it over and get a good night’s rest. Give me a call tomorrow, I’ll be around.”

Vera stood up from the rickety front steps where she’d waited. They shook hands all around and she made effort to show the woman she was a person who was civilized and could be amenable.

“Let’s get dinner and talk,” Put said, arm slung about her shoulders.

“No,” she said, shrugging him off. “Let’s first go by the water. I have my input for you.”

******

They sat on a bench made of rough-hewn oak. Vera pulled her knees up to her chin to avoid the bugs that certainly crawled about. For a time they watched motor boats head for the docks jutting from steely blue water, commenting on lingering hues of a soft sunset. It was a big lake, bigger than she’d thought but nothing like the inimitable Lake Michigan. Put leaned back, chatted about getting a sailboat if they bought the place. He’d been taught at an early age the happy ways of boating but he’d had very little opportunity to enjoy it with Chicago friends.

“It’s a smallish place but so is the price.”

Vera hugged her knees closer. “Put, hold that thought. There is a whole part of my life you do not know about. It’s time.”

He looked at her but didn’t change his easy stance. Her quieter voice stirred him yet this was not the time to let anything ruffle him. He wanted to be clear and steady about any real estate decisions. He would be steady about any new confessions, too.

“Okay, shoot.”

Vera kept her eyes on the water; she felt safe there with the water’s rhythmic motion, its song. That much was still good.

“You never met my mother because she died when I was twenty, but she was, as I’ve said, very quirky. Too smart, dreamy, rebellious, according to my dad, for that town in that time. He loved her, I loved her, that’s a fact. Did she love him, me? I don’t know. She was fascinated by the idea of having a child. She thought children were closer to the heavens, to earth’s mysteries, too. She was likely right but I was more like a human charm to her, a secret transport to other worlds … like the land of pixies or something nuttier, I never was clear. She may have been emotionally ill, I know, but I am not entirely convince. Just an unusual person and mother, a bit wild, beautiful in deed and appearance. She could be such fun, though. Impractical. Eventually she seemed too in the beyond, not truly connected to us. My father took care of me mostly even when I was younger. I’m grateful for it.”

“I know all this, Vera. But I still don’t know why you’re so repelled by the country you also admit you adored.”

“So I am telling you, if you’ll listen well.”

Would she really just tell him everything? She stood up with back to him, vision still of the water as darkness gathered, as moon’s light began to skim all surfaces and lend a silver sheen to easy waves. He was now alert and stood closer, not touching her.

“I had been playing in the woods that afternoon, as I did every day. Mother was nearby picking berries, plopping them into the metal bucket with a pleasing sound and also singing her made up songs, voice bright and pretty. I had picked my bucketful so kept moving on with a stick in hand, batting at tree branches and brambles and mosquitoes, leaping like a deer, going deeper into the trees and shadows where there was less sunlight illuminating all. I lost the phrases of mother’s songs but heard all the birds and scurrying animals and buzzing bees, saw an owl sleeping upright, of course, and a snake slithering through brush. This was all as usual. I was running, jumping about, stoking the air with my stick, becoming a ninja girl, something I believed might be possible. I remember looking back a few times. Noting sunlight through treetops, deciding the house was still in a certain direction. I had never gotten lost. I was never afraid out there. But then the light began to fade and I was tired of wandering, getting hungry. It would soon be full sunset, then twilight, then dark.”

Put saw her enrapt face, tried to take her hand but she shook him off as if he were a fly or a bee.

“I had half a homemade granola bar in my pocket so sat at the base of a big old white pine and ate, looking around, trying to figure it out. The way back. I’d always been told to not panic if I wasn’t sure of directions, find sun’s direction, listen and locate the lake shore then follow along it. Soon I would find something or someone or be found–we had not been deep into the wilderness. I listened to the blueish evening, and the bird song was less familiar. Twigs snapping, underbrush rustling. Wings overhead that sliced the air, bats careening. I rummaged in my jeans pockets and found a rubber band, a favorite Petoskey stone and one of my father’s lighters, borrowed for no good reason. I liked to see the flame flick on and off, that’s all, I knew to not light anything and supposed I’d get in trouble. But now I reconsidered the fire part. I was no longer sure of my way nor so secure in the gathering closeness of night.”

Put reached for her but she stepped close to water’s edge as evening sky began to scatter it’s jewels above. He ached for her but was restless with questions.

“I recalled my mother once taking me into the woods and digging a deep circular trench around her as she stood in the middle of it. She was talking in that special away as if reciting a poem though I was never sure what she meant. Years later I’d recognize it as chanting, in perhaps Romanian as her grandmother was from there. When she was done with the trench she put pieces of brush into it and cleared away all other areas. And then she lit the torn dry stuff and various twigs and they caught fire. I jumped back, warned her to get out but she was swaying a little, smiling at me as she spoke on and on. Afterwards, she seemed calm. She told me that would protect me if I needed help–to make a trench and light a fire in it, go to the center area but clear the spot of all else. And sing a song for courage.”

Vera closed her eyes, opened them again.

“So that’s what I did. I lit the smallest fire and it ran around the ring, then I remained in the center hoping and praying someone would see the firelight or a waft of smoke before it got much later.”

She walked a few paces from him, then turned back. But she was looking into that flame. Not at him.

“I must have gotten drowsy, as I jerked awake. There came a very soft, low growl, more a quiet guttural sound, right behind me. I turned my body, saw nothing. My heart was galloping, legs hurting from being cross-legged and I carefully straightened them but did not get up. A shiny beetle crawled over my ankle, and I saw a large spider following. The ring of fire burned low but steady. What did my mother chant? Why did she not give me words that would help, wasn’t she supposed to share such things? My senses sharpened; eyes penetrated deep into darkness, ears opened to small animal mutterings, whirs of wings, hoots of owls. Then silence. I was afraid I’d cry out and startle the unknown.”

Vera knelt by the lake and smoothed the cold lapping water with flattened fingers. Put watched her squat on her haunches and saw her anew, strangely like a creature deeply at home within woods and waters yet tethered by a terror of it. Somehow she remained aligned with the good even in that  very moment. He sat beside her.

“Then from the corner of my eye there was a movement, hot flash of amber eyes, a huge sleek body leaping toward me over fallen limbs and I screamed but no sound came out, I couldn’t move  so sat paralyzed in the center of a tiny circle of failing fire. I could do nothing to save myself. And no one coming… The beast’s great head came closer, mammoth paws trod earth carefully, those glowing eyes locked with mine. I stopped breathing. Everything in the whole world stopped. I blacked out.”

She was trembling from sudden chill of night, and memory’s loosed burden. He wrapped his arms around her and she wept. He bit his lip to keep from crying with her. Then she calmed some.

“I came to as soon as there were shouting voices, my father’s and his friends who searched for me. Discovered me, at last. It was a cougar!– that was what I met up with, that’s what the men said the next morning after examining the area. A cougar found me but somehow left me unharmed, alive… ”

Putnam Rawlings was dumbfounded. He held his wife so tightly she could not have have left his arms but he was right there with her that night and now this night, and he also was bursting with outrage. And her anguish. Where had that madwoman gone? Why ever had Vera been left to her own devices?

“My mother, she was gone most of the night, Dad said. Didn’t come home from our outing. She sometimes disappeared but never had left me alone like that. Oh, she threw her arms around me when we got home, made a fuss but I couldn’t bear to look at her. I’d lost basic trust in her. I soon despised her as much as loved her. But worse…” Vera took Put’s face into her hands and sputtered out words. “Worse, yes, even worse…a part of me wondered if maybe she had come to me as that cougar. I know it sounds absurd, but I was nine years old, left to roam deep into forest and she didn’t even call my name out, and something in that cougar’s manner–its wildness and yet curious gentleness…It’s how I felt. So awed. So scared. Of her, the forested land, then all country with its shadowy places and its roaming, unexpected beasts…but she did teach me of the fire ring.”

She began to shake violently so he rocked her, rocked her until she grew limp. So long to hold in such misery. So long to keep from him this story he found amazing and treacherous. How it had damaged her. And them, he imagined, in certain secret ways.

They stood and he held her upright; they left behind lake and cottage, the stars and moon, which winked and glowed benignly.

******

Vera holds her painting into a broadening stream of light. A picture is truly forming, beguiling her with uncharted territory, water and sky and richness of light with its twin, shadow, that show her each design as it comes alive from her fingers, her mind. She follows its calls. No more city sights, people mashed together on the buses, trucks and bicycles vying for space on endless streets, skyscrapers creating all manner of blinding light, graffiti scrawled across every blank spot. The noise and gritty smog and sudden sirens and its garish beauty: all gone. Her success, more than a little uncertain now.

“Vera” Put calls from across the hall, “I could use a break from this tiresome second draft. Ready for a stroll by the lake?”

Vera sets her rinsed brushes down. The painting will be very good in time. She glances out her studio window, through the thicket of trees and across a road to the shining expanse of water, now warmed by late summer sun. Inclines her head at the vivid scenes.

“More than ready.”

She still often shivers inwardly as she leaves the cottage and glances about to discern what may be there, if yet unseen. Then Vera moves forward, doesn’t look back. But keeps a lighter in her pocket just in case.