Crossing at Slaughter’s Runnel


Photo from Public Domain

“I cannot, I will not!”

She gapes at the churning water below then scurries back to her place by Dad.

I’m at the end of the family que but can feel Mom’s anxiety, even horror. Her toes are aligned with the edge of the one nearby bridge that connects our side of the river to the other. Slaughter’s Runnel is fast, deep, and it often swirls far below the banks. The reviews of this river are not uniformly great even though calling it a runnel (“just a word for stream of water, find that a bit odd”, dad interjects) makes it sound sweet, even tame. It’s not the best spot for fishing up here and you have to go a good mile to put in a canoe. But it’s beautiful, long, chilly and often clear. Dad says it must have been a pleasant trickle once. Now it’s good-sized, especially with snow run-off and rain.

But I feel prickles of impatience. When finally my parents bought the cabin, my first thought had been that we would hike daily, be outdoors all the time and just take off into the woods. And since we are by water, that meant that we could see it or hear it all the time. I want to hike alongside it, see where it takes me. I have a love of water; my dad says it’s an obsession. Dad and I have the outdoors in common. My mom, not so much.

If only she’d step out and walk behind Dad and be done with it. Our tribe of four–parents, little brother, myself– has attempted to cross three times so far. I came out by myself one early evening but Garret followed me so I had to convince him to go back to the cabin. He wouldn’t budge without me. He now operates under a delusion that the bridge is unsafe due to our mom’s carrying on. Dad has explained how and likely when it was built–he’s an engineer and such things come naturally to him–but no one believes him but me.

“Liz, I’ve got you–hang onto me. We’ll just take about six or eight steps and we’ll be there. This is a narrow spot. I’d never endanger you or the kids, you know that.”

“No.” Mom grabs the back of his belt but doesn’t step forward.

“I’ll even carry you, how’s that?”

“Of course not, not happening,” she mutters, releases his belt and turns back, stalking off to the our rustic but, she does admit, cozy place.

I don’t know why she’s afraid of heights or bridges or water. She won’t say exactly what it is. I don’t think it’s water, as she loves to go to the beach. She doesn’t act scared when we’re zipping up elevators or flying, like Christmas when we visit the grandparents. I’ve asked Dad about it but he refuses to say, tells me maybe she’ll explain it sometime, don’t worry about it.

Anyway, I’ve gone down to the bridge twice by myself. The first time I crossed over and went right back; the bridge seemed sound. This second time I manage to climb the rough trail a few minutes before I hear Garrett call me. I scramble back down and over the bridge. The last thing I need is for him to suddenly get brave and follow me or tell Mom I’ve gotten lost. His pinched face opens up in relief as I amble back over.

“Why you want to do that, Marly? Scare everybody! I wish I could go with you.”

His skinny arms are crossed over his chest. He can be a real pouter. Garret is seven; I’m fourteen. He’s way too young to understand the critical need for independence but old enough to want to have an adventure.

“Don’t tell or I’ll never take you anywhere again.”

He breaks the twig he’s twiddling and frowns. “You think you know everything. I can keep quiet.”

“You can’t keep anything to yourself, Rett Boy. One day you’ll figure out that the best stuff is often secret stuff.”

“Don’t call me Rett Boy. It sounds like Rat Boy!”

I laugh–that’s true, that’s why I say it–then shepherd him back to the cabin. Before we get there, Garrett turns and puts his palm up to stop me.

“I’ve been thinking. How come we got the cabin if Mom is afraid of things here?”

“She’s not afraid–well, the bridge or river, yeah–she’s just not used to so much nature.”

“Me, neither. Or you. We live in a city. But you like it a lot.”

He sees a dragonfly and tries to zigzag after it. I notice he didn’t include Dad but he grew up outdoors, helping his family farm, hunt and fish.

“I’m a nature nut, you know that, some people are and some fools aren’t. Mom is the second kind. Not a fool…of course.”

I hear the porch screen door squeak and know she was there. I make a side motion with my head at Garrett and we go in for dinner.

At nightfall I sit in a rickety Adirondack chair at the edge of our yard. Blackened silhouettes of trees stand in relief against a deep navy sky. The moon is beaming but I can see the Big and Little Dipper, locate the North star. The air is thick with damp earthy smells. The river chatters as usual, its music a complicated gurgle and rush of sounds. I try to imagine different rocks the water hits, the edges of its banks as water adds or subtracts bits of dirt and stone, the way it looks from each side different times of day and night. It has a whole complicated life. I think of the simple old bridge. Who built it? Dad has said it’s been there probably twenty years so maybe he should check it out more but we both know it’s a decent bridge. Six other families live on this stretch of road; we all use it from time to time.

It’s just Mom, just how it is, I guess.

Earlier in the day she was reading a magazine, the one with all the fancy houses and decor. She started to ask me something but as soon as I looked up she changed her mind.

“Never mind.”

“What, Mom?”

“Well… since you ask.” She closed the pages. “I just was wondering if there was anyone, you know, somebody you liked.”

I shook my head. “You mean, the boy thing, right?”

“You don’t talk about them much. Never, really.”

That’s true, I think, so why do you have to ask?

“Your girlfriends gossip away about different boys.”

“You listen in?” I wasn’t really angry because we’re careful what we say around our mothers; of course they listen, or try. “They do like a couple, true.” I shrug as this news changes weekly.

She looked at me intently, dark brown eyes often hard to interpret but the feeling is clear. She wanted to know something for certain. If I even think of boys. If I am always going to be disinterested in things she likes. Throwing parties. Shoe shopping. Trying on make up together. Even though it’s the twenty-first century she thinks I am not enough like a girl ought to be. It was hard for me to really like her because of this but I try to not judge her. I know she’s had a life that was laid out for her. “A good family”, as she called it. Meaning: a top-notch (sheltered) earlier education, then college that took her to Europe twice where she met my father. He was not so golden but he was brilliant and a great worker. So then: an excellent marriage. Mom was a high school global history teacher until she had me, then stayed home. She’s restless, I think. I would be.

Her palm flattened against the plaid sofa cushion beside her. I tensed up because next she likely would give it a little pat, try to bring me next to her for a chat about all I’d rather avoid.

I took a quick breath.”Maybe. I mean, I have good friends you haven’t met. It’s a big school.”

The lines around her mouth relaxed.

“Andy is pretty nice; we have general science together. We make a good team, figure things out well.”

But it’s not Andy; it’s his friend, Julian, that I think about after class ends.

“Oh? Do we know his parents?”

“No. Or his best friend’s parents. Julian.” I tried to not say his name aloud around here. It tendd to come out like it just did, with a little too much emphasis, quietly important.

“Julian.” Mom’s light eyebrows rose and fell. She got it. “He’s in sports or choir, too?”

“Julian? Track and field. Andy is in choir. He–Julian– likes to swim, too, so sometimes I see him at the pool.”

“Well, he’s athletic and smart, I gather?”

That’s all I’d tell her. Unless she told me something. She resumed reading her magazine, acting as if this is not the thrilling info she’d tell Dad as soon as she got him alone. I sat by her and she looked sideways, her sudden smile a sign of success.

“Mom. My turn. Why not the bridge crossing?”

She sucked in her lower lip, squashed it with her teeth then pursed them both. Her shoulders went up and back. I knew she was getting ready to argue before one was even in the making. That is how Mom can be sometimes.

Her voice was tight. “I don’t like bridges. Not on foot. And that one is not in the best shape, did you see the moss creeping in? Moss weakens things, I think. Slippery when wet, too. And the river runs fast there. I like it here, back from the water a little. It’s restful. The cabin was a good investment and a nice retreat for the family. But I’ll leave bridge crossings to you and Dad since you manage these things so well.”

The last sentence sounded like an accusation or complaint.

“You mean, we actually like the outdoors, getting dirty and taking that huge risk to cross the water?”

“Well, you take off with Dad a lot. Garrett and I can only play so many hands of Uno. Or his computer games. Which are dreary.”

“Okay, Mom, you can always drag him along and join in!”

I was more than irritated. She got something from me, something I wanted to stay private longer. But here we are in the woods at our wonderful new cabin. I’m happier and she lets down, too. So if I can take a chance and share, why not take her turn and reveal her secret? The one about the bridge? It seemed only fair.

“We do but it’d be nice to spend more time with you. You’re on the go all the time–always up and at ’em as if life is moving target. I’m trying to be understanding but I can’t keep up with you.”

I got up, the sofa releasing dust from years of use and also neglect. It faces the front cabin windows years of sunlight have faded the plaid.

“So the bridge is off-limits but you can interrogate me about boyfriends.” I started off then lookd back. “If you want to just hang out here, fade like the sofa, fine. Dad and I love nature and adventure, that’s all!”

“Marly, that’s not necessary!”

Dad entered the room with Garrett. He was holding up two trout, scales reflecting light. A sleek, smelly prize. I thoguth about trout dinner as I rushd out the cabin.

“Oh boy, Marly’s in trouble!” Garret called after me.


The next morning I take a run and end up at the bridge. I sit against a big white oak; its rich red leaves captivate me. Everywhere I look are prismatic colors of trees changing from summer to fall to winter. I want to cross over the bridge, make a beeline through the woods. Take a couple hours’ hike. But do not.

I just can’t worry anyone. I don’t want this gorgeous fall day to be influenced by yesterday’s fuss about boys and Mom’s middle age and the friction we try to avoid. But I can’t be the kind of daughter she wants most. I’m athletic and she has a delicate grace. I’m quiet where she is chatty. What matters to me is being out in the air, moving and observing, listening. I want to be a national park ranger or a botanist. She has suggested I’d make a great lawyer because she feels I have “equanimity, even as a youth, which is something.”

In, out: lungs fill with the brisk, pungent air, then compress. It’s mid-afternoon and it’s already cooling. Falling leaves twist and float in the barest breeze. I’m just about happy again and stand, shake my long hair out of its loose bun and stretch, then run in place. I feel like beating my chest like Tarzan’s Jane. My own Jane, that is.

“Marly, I want to tell you, but it’s not that easy.”

I turn to find Mom standing with her chic–to her–teal cape on and a hand held out to me.


I take her hand–its dry and strong–and we walk to this modest but seemingly powerful bridge. Stop to survey its narrow length. She releases me and stares into the tumbling green musical depths of the river.

“I was seventeen. We’d gone camping, my boyfriend at that time and his family. It was this time of year but the end of October–I never forget that it was almost Halloween–and I’d brought my dog, Eddie, a little terrier, a gift from my parents at thirteen.” She inhales as if only now finding the air sweet as I do. “Randy and I were on a long walk. The others had started a fire and dinner preparations. It was on the verge of getting dusky, everything softer and quieter. It had rained hard the night before and all still looked and smelled rich, fresh. Our boots were getting muddy and Eddie needed a hosing down but we were having a lovely time. We came to the edge of camp and almost turned around when we saw a rickety swinging bridge.”

I turn toward her but she doesn’t see me. She’s peering into the woods.

“We wondered where the bridge led to. It was held up by rope, thick prickly rope that looked strong. Randy took my hand and we started across but I said, “‘No, wait! Eddie is coming!’ ‘It’s okay’, he said, ‘he has better balance than we do; he won’t come if he doesn’t think he should.’ But I scooped him up in my right arm and the three of us gingerly started across. I remember the bridge swaying a little but it was only about eleven or twelve feet across a deep ravine. The water was swifter than I’d realized. But it was a bright fall day, I was with Randy. I was so confident and happy. Then we paused in the middle, suddenly uncertain as a sudden shift was felt beneath our feet. Eddie started to bark like crazy and squirm. We backed up. I held onto Randy with my left hand, Eddie with my right. Randy was pulling, I lost balance then fell against the rope. And it started to give more as we saw the other side loosening its anchorage in the softened earth. It was coming apart. We swung as it started to fall.”

She faces me, dark wide eyes illuminated by flashing whites.

“Mom, it’s okay, stop.”

“And I was hanging on to Randy with one hand, Eddie in the other when Randy grabbed the slack rope and me. But Eddie was slipping. ‘Let go of him’ Randy called ‘I can’t hold you both!’ But it didn’t matter because Eddie was falling already. It was that deluge of rainwater, the  muddy river banks caving. They took Eddie, covering him. And I fall right behind him. Or did I let go of Randy? I wanted Eddie safe but he was not to be seen. There was all that cascading wetness, little waves of it and the muck and bundles of splintered wood from the bridge. A weird sucking sound as I was pulled into more mud…”

“Oh no, Mom!” I hold onto her shoulders. My face must be mirroring her fear because she smooths my bangs away from my forehead as if she has to calm me.

“The thing is, I was only waist deep in the mess, pushed about but not drowning. But Eddie was a very small dog!” She closes her eyes. “He was just a lovely little dog and could not swim through strong swirling waters, not that day, anyway. I should never have taken him.”

We lower ourselves to the ground. I feel half-sick, dizzy. What an awful thing it was. But she isn’t sniffling. Her eyes are rimmed with wetness but tears don’t flow. I put my arm around her and we lean against each other.

“I truly hate foot bridges in the woods.” She shakes her head.

“I get it, Mom. A terrible thing happened to you–all of you, really.”

“It was, dear. Randy and I never went forward. I blamed me, him, me in the end. I never got another dog. And I developed a phobia of footbridges.” She pulled her cape close. “But today after you asked me about it, I thought: how absurd is this? How can this be seen as such a trauma in my life? It’s embarrassing! I’m forty-four years old. I adored Eddie and was heartbroken. But I have not ever tried to walk over even one ordinary bridge. So daughter, let’s get it done.”


She stands and I follow suit. We ready ourselves at the bridge where she indicates I start first. She does not hold on to me. Every step I take, I look back until she tells me to keep my eyes forward and don’t stop. I do not dawdle. As soon as we arrive she starts back, this time faster, with more sure steps. The light skims her ebony and greying hair. It brightens her teal fringed cape and when she lets go of the wooden railing and walks with hands held aloft, her gold bracelets gleaming, her knee-high chestnut leather boots glowing–well, she looks like some exotic bird-woman who has found her way home. And I see her –just for an instant, a brief glimpse into a private place that holds my heartfelt, dazzling, brave mother as a person separate from me. Then she is once more just my mom.

When we find the earth beneath us we whoop like a couple of wild women, our voices carrying all the way down the road. That’s what Rhett Boy and Dad say when they find us laughing and tossing leaves at each other along Slaughter’s Runnel.


Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wrestling with Writing Business: Submitting Work


Just a few of my writing books, not all read, by my computer desk. There are files–and piles–of manuscripts beneath this photo…

Uncharacteristically, I have felt less than motivated to write for the blog today. I have been engaged in the business of submission to lit journals, a couple of short stories. And I admit to being a little worn out.

Those formatting requirements take a lot of effort from me to complete without error. It may not be so for others who are speedy typists, who feel comfortable with all aspects of computer cues as well as various lit magazine idiosyncrasies. But for me, the requirements smack of applying for a passport. Such journals may not demand my birth certificate (I could hide behind a pen name and it matters little), but they want so much more than I expect or feel is truly reasonable when I am just a writer who wants to put my writing out there. But there is that pesky word count which changes as I see one more thing to excise or rearrange. There is certain spacing between title and first paragraph, there is a type of margin needed re: justification versus alignment. There is the font. Which of three is best?–and always use 12-point unless it states otherwise. I cannot seem to number pages beginning on the second; the first one always grabs number “1” even if I try and try and yell at it.

The cover letter if required, well. It’s like a grade making/breaking thesis assignment from the honors English teacher you couldn’t bear to listen to much less look at, she was so smartly arrogant–but who you knew you absolutely needed. And the paper was preparatory to something bigger and finer. Right? So the poetry or short story cover letter takes me days, possibly weeks. If it is a novel I am pitching to an agent, it takes months. May take years, in fact. I have gone to workshops for queries and cover letters and emerged refreshed with a dash of comfort while remaining puzzled. And afraid.

The road embarked upon each time I decide to submit a piece appears to have no tangible end. It is perforated with potholes. I cannot slip into autopilot. There is a proliferation of steps though one proceeds the others. It should be simple. My story started out fine but now it is being jostled and tugged and squashed as I follow directions of the online site. There are still paper routes to follow and those are even trickier. You have to sweat to propel a tale or two to their destinations where they may be deigned lovely and fit or ill-suited and irrelevant.

Because I also procrastinate this writer’s task, a deadline is noted in hours, then minutes and seconds, much like it was when taking exams as a student. I sigh, massage my forehead and get up and sit down. I eyeball each sentence to root out errant typos which proliferate like moss in the Northwest. I am the rock foolish enough to believe it won’t happen again on each crucial page if I am just watchful. And spell check is…let’s say it’s less than the finest proofreader but the best my money can buy for now.

I have a few bookshelves that hold in questionable order many volumes on writing. Do I read with earnestness those books that expound on how writing is an endeavor of mind, spirit and heart so I just need to be true to myself? Not so much; I know that already even if I need reminding at times. Like today, perhaps. But no, I read the manuscript formatting books, the writers’ handbooks that contain all the arcane info I need to succeed in clean, righteous submissions. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style, which intimidates me as much as my English teacher did. I mark pages in highlighter, circle most pertinent bits, draw arrows and stars, yes. The pages are soiled and wavy. They will save my story from the slush pile at first glance. Because I know any decent editor will not even read past the initial word of a manuscript that does not first follow the rules.

Luckily, I was well-trained to do that very thing. In my family home and in school knowing the rules and following them is what we were instructed to do. Must do. In point of fact, civilization was likely built upon several basic rules and they were meant to help us out, we were oft reminded. If I heard from my parents that I was “not acting civilized”, I knew what that meant immediately and self-corrected. But that didn’t mean, of course, I always liked or even followed them entirely. I just wanted to stick my foot outside the line of kids and shake it about.

However, I’ve tried to do as directed when it comes to submission protocols. I respect the command. I want to do right.

Online submissions are, happily, somewhat easier than the days when everything had to be typed and mailed. I appreciated the heft and clickety-clack of typewriters but hated that mistakes couldn’t be easily removed. I enjoy the tactile experience of paper, that feel and shape of a manuscript in my hand but disliked the postage it cost and length of time it took to get it there. And to hear back. Although it was thrilling to find a letter in the mail saying “yes, we love it.” Also disheartening to see the SASE envelope I had included in the first mailing that now enclosed my work, sure sign of no acceptance. There might be editorial comments, a bonus, a hope that I could try again. I recall one poetry magazine editor that initiated a correspondence about my poem which continued for a few months. She did not, in the end, accept it because I was not rewriting it any further. Maybe I’ll look it over and resubmit now that it has rested for thirty-odd years. Or maybe it wasn’t so good; hard to know until resurrected, then sent out again.

So it is still taking me time to master the business part of writing even though I am older than I imagined I’d be and here I am, still at it. I can sit at the computer working on a project for hours while the sun goes down and I don’t even think to turn on the lights. Until my husband speaks too loudly in my ear that dinner is ready now and it will get cold but it’s up to me. I rather sail away for long periods until it is either too hard to sit longer or I am finally as done as I can be–for the time being. It’s heaven, really.

But submitting the story I worked on all those moments–that is a hard thing to do. I’m not even noting the emotional part of it–because, really, it is not that devastating to be sent a rejection. It means work on it more or try another one. In the publishing world, stories and such are commodities. I don’t first write for an agent or editor. It’s not that I don’t know ethical, kind people who are both (and some are also writers, thank goodness). They are just not the ones I am writing for or with, most of the time. No one honestly understands the ways of a writer’s life other than those who do it day in, day out–or whenever they make time to do it. Family and friends–well-meaning, well-read and good folks– keep waiting for me to publish more, to become an author who might even sell. If only they knew about the submission process and how it can test one’s patience. And how it eats up my time. It’s perhaps not my main priority yet. Not holding my breath, either.

I write out of joy. A desire to let words gather surprises, to reap benefits for me–and I hope for you. I care for writing so much that it cannot use up or contain my love. There is always more to be discovered, to learn from, and to be shared. And the submissions happen in between the beautiful grind of it, my devotion to creation and craft.

I sent it off, that short story. This time it was one posted on this very blog, Tales for Life. You enjoyed it. Maybe others will, too. If not, I won’t be fussing over it. I’ll be working on a few longer stories teasing my mind. And another something will be sent out when the time (when there is some left over) feels right.


Posted in creative nonfiction, nonfiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

A Man with Better Clothes

Photo by Dorthea Lange

Photo by Dorthea Lange

Carolyn had only known men in her family very well, and that didn’t fill in any gaps. The family had lived outside of Marquette while her father worked long, backbreaking hours mining iron ore farther west in the Upper Peninsula. Reese took off at sixteen to live with Uncle Frank in St. Louis. She thought it cruel of her brother, leaving her behind. Her mother, it turned out, wished all three could have left,  but Uncle Frank had opened a bar that thrived and she found drink less useful than a bur under a saddle.

The Cronins lived over a mile out from Marquette, on a spit of land that had been cleared of trees. The house was more a ramshackle rectangular shed. It felt precarious in snow or thunderstorms yet stood stalwart against nature’s assaults to remain erect by springtime. Carolyn and her mother were more with each other than the men in the family, or any others, for that matter. After her daughter’s schooling was done–graduated despite bets against reasonable odds–Mrs. Cronin worried how the girl would use her good mind and yet make a living. Carolyn could sew like she did but wasn’t fast or careful enough. Yet her mother was not keen about sending her off to the next man who came calling or sending her anywhere far, period, for that matter. She was used to (and greatly fond of) her. As for men–they were more often unreliable and unsettling; she found herself able to carry on fine with her own husband absent so much.

When Hal was spotted eating alone at Mabel’s Table the Saturday in May that Carolyn turned nineteen, she and her mother were there, too. The clusters of other young women held their breath as if a bona fide Medieval knight was in their midst, or perhaps to appear more svelte. Carolyn was eating mashed potatoes with roast beef and her fork wavered in the air. Her mother bent toward her.

“Don’t mind him. He’s a Matherson home from the University of Michigan. Law, I think. You might as well stop gawking and save yourself trouble. And we have work to finish at home so eat up.”

“Well, of course he’s home from University of Michigan–look at that pressed shirt and tie, jacket slung on the back of his chair.” Her tone was arch, dry. “He’s way too cleaned up for me, you know I need dirt under the nails and rough approximations of manners.”

Mother cast me a sideways glance, then chuckled despite her irritation. Carolyn could be disrespectful of her father’s kind even in his absence. It was hard to deny the truth of her words but no need to say them aloud. In public.

She had hoped for her daughter what she’d never gotten: a chance. She missed going to teacher’s college and so would Carolyn, at least for now. Money was not often easy to gather, less so to squirrel away. At nineteen, they both knew the best she might hope for was someone a bit older who had a little kindness and was moderately well employed. Neither being in abundance around there unless a miner or timber workers. Miners were out of the question to Mrs. Cronin. Lumberjacks were a more reasonable option, she couldn’t think just why, while clerks and salesmen were better. But how to maneuver it?

Buttery whipped potatoes with garlic filled her with pleasure. She licked the last of them from her lips. As she reached for the napkin that had fallen on the floor, a clean one was offered.

“Please, have mine.”

The room quieted enough that she knew who it was before looking up.

Up close Hal looked even better than from far away, a model of masculinity with an encouraging smile that flooded his eyes to disarm. A pipe was held between good teeth, his hand cupped around it now. The smell from the tendrils of smoke made her mouth water.

“Oh, mine is good, thank you. It barely hit the floor.”

“This floor has seen way too many travelling shoes.” He planted the napkin in her left palm, took her right and pumped it twice. “Hal, Hal Matherson.”

“We’re the Cronins.” Mother touched her chest as if she was going to cough, then it retreated to her lap again and her thorat was cleared. “I’m Mrs. Cronin and Carolyn is my daughter.”

He took the older woman’s hand and shook it, too.

“Mr. Matherson,” Carolyn acknowledged after her mother did the same.

“Carolyn and Mrs. Cronin, a pleasure to meet you. We’ve not met before, I think. Glad to do so now.”

He bowed a little, coming closer; Carolyn pulled back. His gaze swept over her face. When their eyes met, they paused but only for a quick superficial assessment. He then surveyed the room as though wanting to memorize it. He studied the Cronins, too, as if this place, these customers and this moment were the best things to happen since returning home.

Which was absurd, Carolyn thought with a sniff as the thought left her. Hal had many more interesting times in life than this. She still watched the back of his very white shirt leave the building, jacket now folded over his forearm. As he exited, mostly female voices started up loudly, scattering across the room like mice scurrying for morsels. Carolyn was no fool if not apprised of sophisticated things. She knew the social barometer in the room indicated she had been given a generous dollop of attention from a handsome and well-to-do man. But she had had looks before, plenty. She knew she was attractive enough. It was his manner and words that intrigued her, anyway. There had never been anyone in her world like him, rough edges tucked in, sentences proferred as if wrapped in satin and unequivocal good will.

When they got outdoors, midday light was austere and stinging. Carolyn felt it an affront to skin beneath the thin cotton dress. She tugged her rumpled straw hat down on long hair.

“I don’t like him.”

Mrs. Cronin hurried on. “Good. He’s not quite trustworthy, you can feel it creep out from under the charm. And he’s much too well off, dear.” She impulsively put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Happy birthday. Cake later whether or not your father gets home tonight.”

Carolyn lay her head on her mother’s shoulder for an instant. She was full and content, no cake needed–or even her father. Guilt threatened, then faded.

Hal Matherson, though. He could be quite trustworthy or not; he might be a gentleman or not. But Carolyn felt strongly she didn’t want to like him. She didn’t wish to recall the smile and words, that slightly sweetened, piney fragrance that found her nose as he made a formal little bow. Such men were meant to be thought of only from a great distance and then with reservations of every kind. She knew he should walk out of sight in the rather ordinary, curious, blank horizon of her mind.

But that was before they met again at church two weeks later, and then again at the June “Berries and Brandies Fair”, after a rainstorm as they sought shelter under the drugstore awning one afternoon. And again, during the fireworks at lakeside. He always found a way to root her out. She began to look for him, too. It became obvious to all that he wanted to spend more time with her and Carolyn was not against the idea, anymore. His family was another thing.

“Why?” she asked him insistently. “Why make our lives harder? You being there and I, here.” She pointed in opposite directions, towards his family home and hers. “Your father owns a lumber mill and my father works in the mines. You will open a law practice this fall and I will…I will be helping my mother with her seamstress business.”

Hal started to hum tonelessly as if he could care less what she was reiterating. He traced the curve of her jaw and chin with an index finger, then sat back against the tree, close to her. “I say we make a run for it, skip all the boring, messy in-between matters of little consequence.”

“What?” She spoke more loudly as fireworks exploded several hundred yards away.

“I said, it’s simple, really. We both love to learn, we both have a fondness for nature, we enjoy music, share a faith, are hard workers, are basically optimistic despite indicators we should not be and you are ravishing to boot…”

He kissed her while she was held in thrall by red, blue and gold flowerlets that dazzled the darkness.

And pushed him with both hands on his chest, hard. “Wait! Wait one minute!”

Carolyn stood up so fast she about tipped over. She grabbed her purse and started to trot away.

“What? Carolyn!” he called. “I’m sorry, I thought…!”

But she couldn’t turn back. She couldn’t explain it, how that warm, lively kiss filled her with alarm. How she knew she had to stop things right then so no one would have regrets or be hurt. Even him. She had been taught by her mother to be wary, to be smart, to take the upper hand if necessary, to walk away rather than give her heart such leeway. He father had taken her mother’s own into his hands and held it and cared for it, then tossed it aside as bitterness took over his savory-sweet ways. Working so long and hard with little reward had slowly compressed him, made vulnerable points obdurate. He was a man of miles of stone when there should have been layers of life-giving earth mixed in. He was a man who forgot his children because, finally, he had nothing left to give.

Carolyn was terrified of love. And Hal knew it as he watched her run and vowed to overcome it.

It was early spring, 1929, when he asked her to marry him and it happened fast. She had thought long about her mother’s and father’s cramped bedroom stuffed with worn paper bags of fabrics, a sewing machine with boxes of pins, needles and threads and a sloping bed in the middle that looked never quite warm enough. She observed her father’s face when he came home, how he looked at his wife as if reaching inside to remember something important–but just out of reach. And how she made him Dutch apple pie, anyway, but only after she had sat on the back stoop to watch birds leave and return a few times, only after she had strengthened her resolve to be content.

Carolyn took a chance and said, “Yes, alright then. Yes, I will.”

They were in a park. He picked her up and spun around, her legs flying. People clapped when he shouted it out. Carolyn was pleased he cared little for propriety.

Hal had opened a law office and so they lived in town, three blocks away from N. High Street. Mrs. Cronin didn’t crow about it. She smiled indulgently at those who shook her hand. She knew her daughter would get out of their deep, old rut. Her husband didn’t understand all the fuss. He told his wife and daughter with a shrug, “He’s just a man in better clothes, don’t forget that. But God willing, it might work out.”


And then the Depression arrived, even in Marquette. Within a short time the mines closed, the elder Matherson went bankrupt and lost his home, and the Cronins migrated to St. Louis to live above the bar with Uncle Frank, Reese and Reese’s pregnant wife. Carolyn and Hal had to release their house and business with all the others. And they bid farewell to the lovely, erratic four seasons of Marquette.

Hal (and Carolyn) had saved in old cans enough cash to get them through a few months if they were conscientious. It had been a habit from childhood to hide money that was not his father’s. And the Ford ran alright. They made camp as they moved place to place. He knew how to build and even fix things, after all, sometimes cutting down young trees and fashioning slim poles to make a lean-to with stitched together burlap sacks and any other scraps Carolyn found. She repaired any item (even a torn canvass rooftop slung over a truck) for a little sugar, a spponful of peanut butter shared on two slices of dry bread, a hot cup of tea made of a teabag diluted by many dunkings. They ate better than a few and they were healthy enough. By winter they had landed in Arizona and he still couldn’t find work as a lawyer, or any work, at all. Odd jobs were almost impossible to come by. Since he was so strong and managed to stay affable he got them by, day-to-day. He sold the Ford at last to a man who had been able to avoid the worst of things and hoped to become a driver for the better-off in California. That goal had lept him going.

Hal chatted with other camp members readily as they came and went. It was as if they shared a real neighborhood, as if the poor squares of dirt they claimed had front porches. Carolyn wondered over this, how they bonded when even despairing. Because of. She struck up friendships with a few women but some days found it maddening to wander among the throng. To absorb all that grief. She prayed for them and they for her–if they could bear to yet seek or praise God. Hal seemed to crave more contact, to press hands into his, to hear their stories. She watched him manage to get them to smile and, rarely, to laugh. He returned to her and set down his pain, shared his admiration: that they had all survived thus far, that many kept alive a dream. And yet so many more had let go all they cared for and dignity was fleeing, too. They couldn’t imagine it would get worse and yet he feared it would. At least there was sunshine, no snow and no one made them leave yet.

Things had gone downhill in the camp with illness and outbreaks of violnce and more squatters when Carolyn, dozing in the heat, saw Hal slide into their lean-to. He’d been in Phoenix, three miles away, looking for odd jobs.

“Hey, Hal.” Her throat felt on fire from mositure-robbing heat so sipped from a cup of tepid water.

He joined her. They rested in warm shadows cast upon the sacls thay had hung. He was quiet so that she could hear the breeze twist up more dust. She scratched her ankle, skin like parchment. Her hair was never brushed clean of grit and she thought of chopping it off. Dirty or not, Hal was doomed to look fresh-faced, even vivified amid folks who were grey, hollow-eyed. Her eyes lingered on him and sadness bloomed within her again, a garden of wistful, sorrowful flowers. He stripped off his damp shirt and sat.

When he finally spoke it was in a hoarse whisper.

“I found a job today, law office clerk, very small, twenty hours a week. If even that. Someone to file, answer a phone, be a go-fer. But I’m okay with this, you know it’s a miracle…”

She grabbed his bicep and her hand slipped from the sweat, the muscle contracting under her touch. He turned toward her and held her face in both hands.

“A real job at last.”

He shared bare facts, eyes glistening, as if speaking more or louder would bring worse upon them. As if his working meant the others could not have their own little, badly paying job and he was responsible, he was to blame. He struggled to feel happy. It confused him to win something he might not even deserve, to be the one who could leave the camp.

Carolyn threw her arms around him in a clinch of relief.

He smoothed her ponytail, touched her lips with his. “And there’s a one room place, a garage really, Mr. Jensen said. Behind the law office.”

“A house? A job and a house?” She clamped a hand over her mouth. Felt she was dreaming.

“House? Well, Carolyn, that’s too much to call it… this garage is free because it’s a ramshackle, smelly wreck. But a job, yes. The pay is near nothing but it’ll be so good to work…”

“I don’t care. I’m in this with you. Always.”

She had never seen his tears fall like they did then, as if it caused him pain to let go each one made of relief and sorrow. He felt he hadn’t been able to protect her, but maybe this was too much to receive. He was just one man, no more deserving.

She looked away. She felt his need of her but sometimes being there meant waiting, being there but apart. In a few moments he found his pipe and setteld it between his lips. He let hope grab hold. Carolyn imagined she could smell burning tobacco and it filled her with excitement.

After having had an easier life and then having it be so hard, Carolyn believed as never before that she had made the right choice by marrying him. She had been so afraid but had taken a chance and they made a great match, not perfect but solid, even now. She vowed to never let it go bad, to not give up when she was running out of patience, to not hurl at him times he was dismisive of her ideas or still quick to tease her when she was weary or so silent she wondered if he had already left her like her father. She knew better; he cared about her more now, not less. A touch, a look. A found stone that shone when polished with dampened fingers.

Carolyn knew, too, that he was a man who was charming, smart, beautiful and such men were built to do excellent, even big, things–as well as fail spectacularly. She was already set like a compass, to move with him towards their true north. She had meant to love Hal a little but it had turned into something bigger. Carolyn brushed off her skirt and smoothed back her unruly hair. Hal Matherson was a man with more than better clothes. He had her.


Posted in prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Call for GodCalming


I am in need of it despite a surfeit of greenery in the Pacific Northwest; today’s cerulean sky with clouds to redesign it; jumbles of books that should be stocks as I have invested enough in them; sounds of living that lull and inspire from dawn to dark; the arms that catch and hold me fast in affection:  GodCalming.

Yes, I seek a good GodCalming every day.

Because, you see, I am so driven to get on with it and get things done that I have few skills for doing nothing. It seems nearly a waste, the inertia that is urged upon me at times. There is a blandness to it, colorless, empty. There is a lack of intrigue that stimulates me to do something. May I please read from at least magazines as I eat my meal? Can I work on lists for tomorrow as the television blares on? And excuse me, this song on the radio is so exotic and rhythmic I have to get up and dance–I can hear you, but just a minute. I’ll just dust a bit as I move about. And yesterday’s writing session: paragraphs light up in one small region of my brain and they need cutting or correcting, maybe a whole new ending. And bills to pay, those are not yet checked off. I wanted to look up something. There is stuff to be made and art supplies and all the ideas nag at me daily.

When I was still working as a mental health and addictions counselor, I admit you could count on me. I would work overtime. I would do extra research, get every bit of my documentation done before I left, volunteer for a committee, offer to train the new intern, clean up the kitchen mess. To get ahead? Please others? No, really; I was offered management opportunities but I deeply loved to work face-to-face clients. Rather, it was already my nature to stuff all I could into a ten-to-twelve hour day. I was interested in doing things, wanted to learn. Excessive engagement? Perfectionist? Hyperactive? Maybe some of all that, who is to say for certain? Sometimes it sure backfired–the more you do, the more bosses have you do. But this is America and we get used to being driven; it is the way we work.

Bu that is a perspective, not the whole picture. One of my personal fears is not having enough time to live all I want to live. Give what I have to share. Be of enough service. Embrace the love I can.

At a writing convention once, a speaker who is a better published and much younger writer told me, “Don’t worry, there is always time to publish. Just write your heart out; you’ll publish more as you’re ready and you’ll know when that time is.”

I answered, “You’re wrong. That time is here. I feel urgency every day, both to live and to write. For one thing, there is my aggressive form of heart disease but it could be anything, any time, right? For you that feels distant, or maybe you don’t think of it. But the years come and go and there really isn’t enough time to write all that wants to be written. Or do all else that is important to me, for that matter…”

I felt breathless. Her brow furrowed but she smiled as perhaps I was uninformed or a bit out of touch with real reality. I bought her book–she writes well–and walked on. Felt misunderstood and yet undaunted.

This was a scenario oft-repeated since I was a child. People not quite understanding such fervor for living, the undercurrent of urgency. From birth I felt the desire to embrace more and push forward, this life a beautiful puzzle box that contained never-ending mysteries. Let me be fully present, let me at it… it has not left me after six decades. I may be somewhat less dramatic about my choices but our essence rarely changes entirely.

GodCalming. I sought it from the start. A way through the mazes of need and desire. A key to the balance that can elude even as the weight on the scales is constantly redistributed. How to help true symmetry come forward from the free-form abundance of life, its vibrant intensity? As with invisible ink, I have held my life up to the light and sought more answers. Or perhaps only one that would work the best for me.

Sleep is a challenge. I am too busy to sleep. I am praying for everyone I can. Then in the wide-screen of my night mind arrive scenes I have visited and there is planning for places and people yet to see. Oh, no, that last line of the poem/essay/story, all wrong, must rewrite now, get pen and paper. Some times I replay things I should not–certainly could not if I had thought better of it– have said and weighing the pros and cons of being quiet more regularly. The past looms and I have to circumnavigate it. The coming years flare like an awesome firework display that then fizzles in the face of rock-hard realities. My several children float by, younger or older, marvelous, confounding. I wonder how they managed to be stitched into my crazy patchwork life but then think, naw, don’t think about all that. On to other things–I cannot wait to witness the superluna–how again does that work? The stars are out there, singing to themselves; if I listen I might hear them. I sit up, look out the window. My nearsighted, unaided eyes absorb glimmering darkness and my ears, its stillness. I am wide awake.

I lie back down, turn over and call on GodCalming.

I have many ways to root out peace and it’s a good thing. If you’re the sort of person who experiences life at high gear, unerringly attached to accomplishing goals daily, a surplus charge of energy even if sick or wounded, have a relentless curiosity about people and most any other topic–well, then, you’ll get this. Those who can just sit, be content, rest and be happily emptied of questions and concerns may not. I wish I could take that spot for a stretch and know how that is.

I have to stop myself. Make detours from tasks and goals. Quell the brain’s and body’s activities. I must remind myself to take deeper breaths, eat more slowly and better (I sometimes forget altogether), close my eyes and put up my feet. Or maybe stare out the window at the wind in the leaves.

Having a balcony was a bonus when I began living in this spacious, light-filled apartment. It would be an enticement to relax. The trouble is, my place is right next to a rambling three-story house. Sitting on my chair with my cold brew coffee I can see into the driveway but also kitchen and one of the bedrooms if I so choose. And I have heard people singing off-key in the shower. Sometimes this happens even if I try to assiduously avoid paying attention. But I got to watch a small family that lived downstairs grow up. The couples that lived above have seemed to come and go. I got used to all their work schedules, the sound of their cars. Their arguments and enthusiasms. But after many years, in this historical, leafy neighborhood, it became another scenario. I can, I think, safely note–now that some residents have been long gone–that it somehow morphed into a drug house, at least in one part. I know because I sat on my second story, partly covered, wide balcony to read, write, eat, talk on my phone and care for my little potted garden. So I gradually saw it unfold. My momentary refuge outdoors became a post from which I could observe too much. This ought to be another story so suffice it to say, they knew I could see them. I even complained to them about the activities. They just shrugged. And all the while I was going to work to treat addicted and/or mentally ill clients and I had to come back home and see teenagers buying drugs. The police seemed otherwise engaged. The balcony was no longer a place to retreat. Nor was it safe. Eventually it resolved by itself, like an illness that got so bad it created its own intervention.

Our tomato plants are thriving and the flowers are  still lovely. I sit and relax, sometimes. GodCalming. Believe me, I needed that during those couple of years. But I still need it daily, no matter what is going on.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained what GodCalming is for me. If you guessed prayer has something to do with it, that is true. And reading Scripture and various meditation books. I do these things in the morning, off and on in the day and at night. I go to church as often as I can or want to and appreciate the liturgy, the music, the fellowship. I attend a Christian women’s study group once a week that is lively and thought-provoking. But it isn’t just about engaging in traditional actions of my faith.

It might include daily walks (when I can walk well again–a broken toe forbids it for now) as I am most content outdoors unless writing. I am a seeker of forest trails, enamored of the mountain ranges that surround our valley. I am at home by water, the Pacific Ocean, the abundant rivers and even stony creeks. Yes, God resides in the elements and I hear, smell, touch, view the Presence as much as I can.

God may find me as I take out pencil and paint. Or listen to refined or funky music and sing and move to shake things up. Read or make poetry. Look for clues of spiritual wisdom woven in conversations, faces, hearts. God is present when I am with our grandchildren, extended family, trusted friends. And God is often right between a stranger and myself. In giving my hands work to do for others. There are so many ways I experience God it would take a long while to note them.

But this is my truest GodCalming: the opening of my being and flooding it with universal synchronicity. A deep reassurance that the infinite design is numinous if also ineffable, still orderly and humming. The absolute sense–of body, mind, spirit–that the meaning we need is in life itself, wherein we realize the intricacate cohesion of what has been, is, ever shall be. Suffering–there is so much–matters. So, too, compassion and mercy. GodCalming infuses me with hope with an acceptance of the duality of life and a unifying force of Love. I am not truly alone here. I am not very unique. I am a reflection of multitudinous wonders, just as are you and you. In this moment there is the essence of wholeness we are each given; we are to be it, use it, share it. We are made of stars, lest we forget.

So I am to rest within the vibrancy of God. Be unafraid. Know God calls to us to do good, walk in humility. To treasure this span of time on earth we each are given. To know there is no full stop, only a continuum. We are welcome travelers, if not always here, then truly in God’s realms.

The world is so frayed. Frantic and heartsick. How fast we all go, treading water at times to just keep our heads above it all. To make sense of chaos. To construct spiritual or actual protection, to hold in our lives peace. To bring to fruition our dearest endeavors. We do have our work to do; we also have need of calm.

And to just lie down at night and find goodness still is afoot in our thinking and doing and resting, in the tender woefulness of this world. It may seem hard to believe but try to trust a little more.

This is my GodCalming: to right now experience Divinity. To be alive with heartfelt abandon. Keep building kindness and courage. Accept the gifts. Take rest now for all to come. Expect miraculous things as they do occur, every moment, somewhere. Be faithful to my own calling, as we each have a place on earth and beyond. And no matter what, know God (in all glory) Is (with us, in this and all worlds).

Breath of God, find and fill us.


“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble… ‘Be still, and know that I am God’…”

–excerpted from Psalm 46




Posted in creative nonfiction, inspirational essay, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Hammer and Saw: A Concerto


Every time the sharp whirr of a power saw was heard, she lingered there, felt its power and intent, heard the industry behind the hand that held such a tool. Its stops and starts were like depressions of the soft pedal on her baby grand piano, interruptions that made her desire the music to resume. Reshaping rich woods, coaxing them into new creations–this mimicked the making of an exquisite composition.

Rita beamed at the second story window, glad it was open; iut was her ready connection to the world. As the saw labored she breathed a fragrance of wood separating from itself, fine sawdust floating upward. The carpenter was in the driveway below, at Mr. Bellingham’s. If only she could see what he was doing. It wasn’t Mr. B.; he was just able to keep up his garden now, his back bowed and fingers crooked with pain.

She shook her head to clear it, lay her own strong hands upon ten ivory and ebony piano keys. Her eyelids half-closed so they blurred pleasantly. Building things was a declaration of purpose with a revelation of incremental changes. She admired that, and so told her hands to play like that, impress upon the silence something substantial. For once. They moved each keys. A predetermined chord came alive. A whimper of a chord.

It had been seven months since the accident. The car in the twilit fog with no lights, pavement and tires colluding with disaster, brakes useless as two cars skidded across the road, crashed past the barrier and down the embankment. She had been sleeping until those moments; Aaron was wide awake but it was no use. As their car rammed into a tree, it seemed a violent dream.

The middle-aged driver, whose blood alcohol level should have killed him even before he drove, died instantly.

Later, after Aaron admitted he couldn’t form a bridge from his barely harmed body to Rita’s, they parted. It was more than that; he wasn’t good at adapting to life’s suddenness. Whatever circumstances he found uncontrollable, he abandoned. Just as the car was left and a new, fancier one replaced it, he found someone else better fit for him. Rita felt it less than disheartening that he left; she was rid of his random rancor, his impatience, the attempts at true decency. His pun-filled humor had annoyed her, as well.

Not that she wouldn’t rebuild wholeness, sooner than he’d thought. Each leg had been broken, an ankle less ruined. Surgeries commenced. Muscle became flaccid, bone held the pain. Rita was at first resistant to walking. There were many failures. Her face was redesigned a bit–angry scar under her eye, jaw broken then repaired. They said; it felt and loked otherwise.

But her hands had been safe. Without knowing it, she had tucked them under the sides of her thighs, an old habit to keep them warm due to poor circulation. They had not flown up or out at first, didn’t connect with anything dangerous. It was as if  God had known to save them as her body slammed back and forth.

As a pianist, Rita had to have hands that operated without thinking, each finger fully aligned with the others and the instrument. They were still capable. She exercised them, using small rubber balls even when she could not get up. When she at long last could, piano practice resumed, up to a couple of hours if she could stand sitting in the wheelchair her mother insisted still be used there.

But as a composer, she didn’t need special accommodation, not even a certain room or the smooth keys beneath fingers. The notes unfurled as if etheric winds blew them to her. Now more than ever. The accident and new physical limitations had seemed to reroute, perhaps excavate more neurological connections. Rita was charged with sensations and energy she hadn’t felt before. The core of creativity was broken open. Her industry, though, was greater than her stamina. And still she heard the music within and resumed the tasks of scribe with a new devotion, pen speeding across staffed paper.

And yet.

The music sounded, when voiced on the piano, remarkably less than what was ensconced in her brain. There was a similarity that plagued her, meter too repetitive, movements less than intriguing. She couldn’t pinpoint what was meant by the fervor that spilled over the keys, then how it weakened in the final soundings.

“Take a break, dear,” her mother insisted. Maybe because it was her house, partly–she lived in the newer annex–and she was irked by the chaotic attempts. Maybe because she worried her daughter was being worn out.

“I’m resting in between things,” Rita murmured to reassure.

“You don’t rest; you incubate.”

“Yes, mother, I am hatching something grand even now,” she said and executed a complicated run with trills and then a resounding trio of minor chords before abruptly stopping to stare out the window.

“And it may flee your insolence,” her mother retorted as if Rita was twelve instead of twenty-nine. But she left her daughter to her work, fighting back tears that rose unbidden too often since the fateful crash.

Her mother was right, of course, incubation was generally occurring, more so now. What else could even happen at this time? She couldn’t dance the music, shake them out, send them gliding to her hands. “Before” she might have done that. “After”, rest had been indulged–between daunting sessions of physical therapy. There was ever something on the edge of consciousness that needed to be written and played. Her mother had always believed she was a genius–and so needed infinitesimal care–when Rita knew she was just plain possessed. Terribly, gloriously. By music and whatever powers it commanded. By sound and its feelings set free, whatever vibrations and emanations it gave off.

Take the electric saw. Rita had listened to it for two days and every time it started its gentle whine she followed it as if a trail to somewhere mysterious. When it quit so did she, and turned back to her manuscript. But it struck her that a laborer’s machines sent distinctive voices careening through the atmosphere. The hammer and nails triggered a new part: staccato points of sound, was hearty and clean.

By the third day she wondered who was at it all those hours, how did they do it, hands and arms moving back and forth, muscles reacting to a plan, objects being built a testament to stamina. There was enthusiasm. She wheeled herself to the window and peered through mini-grids of screen.

The carpenter was in the driveway, his back to her as he hammered together boards into seeming walls. Maybe. It was beginning to resemble a roomy dog house. Chicken wire leaned against saw horses along with more pieces of wood. Was it a sort of fence for the small garden? Was Mr. B. getting a dog? The structure was taller than she imagined any dog would be.

The man wore a red plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves, a baseball cap pulled low. He was compact and wiry, medium height, maybe a decade older than she. He walked into the garage, moving with confidence and efficiency. When he came back he lay a large piece of plywood–was that what it was?–across saw horses and started up the saw again.

It arose and stuck in her throat, the old residue of anger. How easily he moved and lived! Her stationary life, the time it took to walk from her bed to bathroom, the way her legs felt as if they were made of aged wax and could buckle with undue stress. She’d had a ramp built so she could get downstairs and outdoors but she felt like a prisoner. Rita wheeled over to the piano and listened to him before she put her hands to piano keys once more.

And before long it came to her: mechanical or natural or human, a myriad insistent signs of life, fractious or joyous, cacophony of steel, wood and electric collisions, all a bonfire of activity. It cleared away her mind, rendered it bright and humming. She gave her hands to it, let fragments of music absolve her of burdens, let it find purchase on precarious ledges of memory and then set all free into a cosmos like an infinite net, gathering life music together into one entire symphony of songs. She let it crash and splinter in space, re-merge in new forms, melodies challenging one another, chord structures shifting and reconnecting measure after measure. Rhythm suffused each measure with complication and relief. Rita was engulfed by a shapeshifter music. And body and soul were pulsating with it.

Her mother stood in the corner, hand to throat. She was afraid for her daughter. That renewed power being released! The indicators of a life that was only now being better revealed, the journey to come. But she was moved even as she was confused by music so strangely wild, and left Rita to her work.

The carpenter stopped erecting the little house in the yard and listened. How could he not? Her playing had insisted he listen whenever he was between tasks or during lunch break. He didn’t know about classical music, what it meant. How people could abide it for long. But it had started to work on him. He heard things and when she paused he got back to work, tried to make up for lost time. He suspected he would pay attention to more tomorrow and the next day, as long as he was working beneath that window. And it gave him chills to hear her play, he couldn’t say why, it was just how she worked at it. No fear. The sounds she created, the excitement and nerve. He thought it remarkable, even if foreign. He was glad of being there.

When Rita awakened on the sofa the next day she felt empty. She had written as much as she could long into the night, paper and pen and piano engaged in deep discussion. Now it was afternoon. The relentless hammering had brought her to consciousness but now it seemed over and done. Silence. She pushed herself out of bed without aid of walker and stumbled to the window. The carpenter was talking to Mr. Bellingham. They were excited, hands expressive, arms flung open, looking back and forth across the half-hidden back lawn.

“Afternoon, Rita.”

“Mother–hello.” She turned to watch her carry a tray laden with a steaming mug of mint tea, a croissant with butter and jam, a sliced banana. Such unerring care touched her. “Thank you. Sorry if I kept you up. I’ll nibble while I play a bit.”

“Yes, I suppose you will. And you didn’t, not really. I’ll be next door.” She set it on a folding table close to the baby grand.

“Mr. B.’s?”

“I have to see what he’s up to with all that racket. Will we have a barking mad dog next door now? I’ll update you later.”

Rita spent the next few hours reworking what was dissatisfactory, trying out measures one by one, stopping to erase and notate once again, humming and playing, changing keys, revising again. As the afternoon waned–she realized coffee was needed to stay alert–a surprising set of noises shook the room.

She put her face to the window, uncertain she heard correctly but yes, it was ducks, good-sized, white restless quacking ducks. She could see two as they waddled from Mr. B. and her mother, then beyond line of sight.

A duck house and duck pen?

“What are you doing down there?” she called out when she saw her mother wave at her. “Opening up a mini-farm?”

The carpenter looked up and grinned. “What are you doing with that piano?”

She had been heard, it seemed. But those ducks! She liked the idea of ducks’ lovely feathers and blather, but wondered how they’d take to her music and it, to them. Rita walked back to the piano, sat a bit and flexed her fingers. They were tired; her piece could take a break.

The carpenter–what was she supposed to say back to him? Writing a concerto. Playing my fantastic baby grand, as usual. Using your work as a springboard for something I didn’t even know was inside me…? How about: Come on up and find out?  That might even be goodm, worth a cheap laugh for both.

It was time for coffee, a little stroll with the blasted walker. Then more work to be done.

When she carefully eased her way down the ramps to the kitchen they were all there, talking about the perils and pleasures of ducks in an urban setting, the enclosed runway that was built to keep them from eating everything, the palatial two-story duck house. Rita’s mother had fixed coffee and was setting out chocolate mint cookies.

The carpenter looked up, gaze falling on her walker.

“This is Will; Will, Rita, my daughter the pianist you hear.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said with a lift of his mug.

Rita straightened up her back and lifted her chin, winced despite herself. She tried to look congenial as she took herself to the table. He pulled out a chair and she sat without grace, her long legs encouraged under the table with a little shove of her palm.

“Your sawing and hammering–” she began.

“Sorry if it was too noisy but then, it’s my work and–”

“I found it arresting. It started up something, a host of new ideas. Industrial.”

“–then I heard you playing and it was distracting, but not a bad thing, pretty good thing. I mean, it was…different. Really something.”

“Okay, then.” She sipped her coffee. “Your work is just fine, sounds good, too.” He was taller than she thought as he leaned against the kitchen door jamb, but not tall in that way some men can be, lording over everyone. He was tan and had a friendly face. His hands were cupped about the mug, embedded with dirt.

“Mighty fine music, Rita,” Mr. B. said and nodded. “Loud but real good. You know I love your piano.”

“Thanks. But owning ducks, Mr. B., really?”

“Always wanted them. You’ll see. Good company.”

When they left, Will, looked back, touched the bill of his hat. Her eyes followed him as he entered the driveway, his certain stride a long line of sound only she can hear.

That night she was up late rewriting once more. Will’s face floated through her mind and she wondered if she could find him a place in it, then saw that it was his work, that was who he was, callouses and blood and sweat put into finely crafted things, hard labor–the weariness and satisfaction of it. It was what made the world go around, in part, Will and those of his trade being critical to much that mattered: shelter of all sorts, successful operation of commerce, innovation and repair of brokeness (you name it), helping dreams get built. Even Mr. Bellingham’s ducks need a place. The pedestrian nature of such interesting things pleased her.

Rita played the outlined first movement in full, felt it hold together better, then was drawn to work on the second of three she hoped would complete a robust piece. A beginning, a small act of bravery. Her hands led her.


One year later Rita Harkness walks onto the bright, wide stage, unaccompanied by even a cane. There is a cheerful burst of applause. She is stunning in a simple sapphire gown. It is a full house, buzzing with anticipation. No one expected she’d come back strong, not so soon after that accident, not after so long a public silence. But this is thought to be her best composition yet. Would she come through? They want so much to believe.

The lights dim, speech ceases and all rustling quiets. Rita sits at the gleaming black piano, adjusts the piano bench, then lifts her arms and hands. She lets fingers hover above keys that await an enlivening. And they descend with a force that makes her breath rush out, a sound like many wings taking flight. The audience sits up, leans forward, begins to surrender. Still wondering. Rita loses herself, finds herself sailing on eighth and sixteenth notes, their cascades and crests, rising upward and released. Boldness, now a playful vigor surging across the stage to those who can hear. As she created it. Or the muse created, with her help.

It will be well lived, this life, and her music shouting it out heals.

She has finally come back and then some, her mother thinks, tears sliding down soft, lined cheeks–and now what?

Will stands in the back, closes his eyes. Feels her all about. Some of the  music does sound like his soul filled out in so many notes he cannot name so that he hears his life call back to him. In ways he never knew existed, but which now seem natural. And then his life calls out to her. She doesn’t yet realize. He’ll wait. Until she recognizes him not only in this thrilling, even honorable music, but just as he is. Just a man. One who can help build whatever it is they might need. It could happen: against all odds he’s here. Rita Harkness, too.


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