Necessary Shelter

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Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Lane had sought refuge, she mused as her eyes swept along an obscured rim of earth, for the last time. At least here, for these reasons. A bracing wind off the ocean whistled about; her mass of coppery hair swirled and fluttered. She was leaning over the edge of a thick rock wall of the old shelter at a viewpoint high above what almost appeared to be everything. She hoped her hair wasn’t notable from a distance, like some fulsome flag heralding an emergency. The thought made her give out a sharp laugh. She would deny it, say it was a lie, both the alarm and emergency.

Was there an emergency? Well, she’d left the office at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, just sent a fast email to her assistant stating that she would be back Monday or communicate otherwise. The Friday morning meeting would have been helmed by Drummond; he’d have liked that as he griped about Lane’s overblown sense of entitlement. She could imagine him settling in place at the conference table, that rasp erasing his normal vocal reediness (too many cigarettes by 9:00).

“Lane Moorland needs a break, well, she takes off and we’re left to tend the messes so let’s just dive in, damn it.”

How he would bask in his substitute power.

Lane just couldn’t stomach it another minute, the upcoming changes, the demands from the board, the tension regarding new salaries. She’d packed a bag, headed to the coast. Checked in at a mediocre motel off the highway after driving for hours. There was a fight between a small hope and futility as she wandered the miles of beach. That she was freed of all that wore her out, the ghosts that nipped at her heels–that was all she wanted.

The agency was a non-profit but it had been profitable, anyway. Fifteen years now, working her way up. The last nine at the helm overseeing programs for the homeless, for the hungry, weary and hurting. She got the money in, she got the action jump started and the right results. You could count on Lane to get the job done no matter how long it took, how many hands had to grasped and smiles exchanged with donors and movers she could barely withstand chatting up over rare beef at one more banquet table. While Drummond was yearning to be in her shoes and she had to placate and fend him off. Lane didn’t care what Drummond’s personal agenda was as much as she cared about an offhand shallowness when it came to greater humanity. He’d step around a quaking teen addict, cross the street without so much as a nod of his head and a dollar or better or offering their own tri-fold list of resources.  But she also knew Drummond had the experience, flair and political savvy to take over, that his biases could be shunted away from his primary goals: to have control at last and to do noteworthy good. His ambition would bring the organization more attention; that meant more progress and golden coffers.

Lane hoisted herself onto the substantial wall edge and sat, hands balancing her weight. Far below here was the powerful ruffling of endless waves, capturing her attention. Two young women sauntered up beside her, shot her sideways glances after they admired the ocean and beyond. They spoke to her, maybe what a gorgeous day, followed by, are you okay? But she recognized French; maybe they were Québécoise travelling the U.S. New adults at ease in nature, perhaps advocates for wolves or clean rivers but likely innocents in the world of politics, even conservation efforts. She felt their goodwill.

They noticed Lane’s exaggerated paleness overshadowing pleasant features, faded purplish circles beneath hazel eyes. Expensive pants, bright shirt and earrings in garrish contrast. They didn’t know how to add all this up or show their fleeting concern so smiled awkwardly. Continued down the trail into the forest, another sunny day in their blossoming lives. Lane wished they’d stayed a few moments longer, shared their optimisim.

The days of sunshine were just half a blessing; she needed so much more, but what? The answer always escaped her. She was less and less inclined to find it. The height from there to here, here to there was serious, vertiginous, the place from which Lane looked down was a marvel and a terror, sumptuous ocean now looking more just like an over-sized pond. Waiting to welcome her. She could swan dive into it, back arched, toes well pointed like the ballerina she barely had been.

She recalled the plane trips Grant had twice enticed her to take with him; he had developed a new hobby. She loved the plane rides even as her breath threatened to vanish. Their laughter spilled over with the adrenaline–riveting beauty below, the danger of his relative inexperience, being encased in metal in mere air. Even then she’d wanted to step out into the sky. In her sleep that night death came on the wings of a raptor.

Grant was perfect her friends said until she began to reply, Great, then please call him, because no, he wasn’t close to perfect. He was dynamic though also abrasive, smart, self-centered and nearly too good to look at. He was more interested in his ideas and thoughts than anyone else’s, he said, smiling, and he meant it. Grant was–she’d discovered this week after four months of dating–a long-time but anonymous donor to her agency. He had finally called her work number armed with a story about knowing a mutual colleague, a delightful person who had long admired Lane. That colleague, it came to light, was someone he’d dated briefly after meeting the woman’s ex-husband years back.

The mysterious person was Savannah, her own sister, who had died barely a year ago.

The pain was instant as he told her this, every nerve flamed and fired up and down her length. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. What sort of man cold-called the sister of someone recently deceased–someone he had even once dated? And then waited to tell Lane the whole true story? He was cavalier about it, irritated by her reaction. The connection was a good one, wasn’t it? She nearly struck out at him.

He went by Grant D. Evans around her city; he had been Dave to Savannah in another place years ago. She had no memory of her sister’s brief dating life after her hard divorce so his name had presaged nothing. Lane was shocked, furious, alone again in the span of fifteen minutes. He would leave little trace in another month or so, that she knew. But she still felt betrayed, and foolish.

What had happened to her life?

Lane sat down on the long rock bench against a shadowed wall. She had taken the sinuous trail up a less demanding part of the mountain for three mornings. Her reward for a sweaty neck and chest and aching thigh muscles–she rarely exercised, there was no time– was this decades-old place, built during the 1930s when the legendary Civilian Conservation Corps was in full force. Lane liked to think about how the men toiled to create trails, preserve forests, erect forestry visitor centers. And shelters for all to enjoy the view. How they must have put up big olive-green tents at dusk. Built a campfire, listened to nocturnal stirrings and calls as they drifted off to sleep. It gave her peace and reminded her of Savannah’s ranch. Which once was hers and now, an uncertain fate as family pondered its end.

Lane always brought a snack, this time an apple she nibbled. She wished it was her shelter alone, that she could put on doors and cover the windows for rainy season. That she didn’t have to leave. Which was absurd, a child’s wishfuless. But the longer she was absent from her high-rise in city center, the more she dreaded a return.

Not many others showed up at the shelter over a couple of hours. It was early September, kids were back in school, families too busy to come to the beach and mountains. A retired couple or two might drift by, greet her kindly and then take out binoculars, exclaiming in whispers over a whale spout. A vagabond or two–she could tell by laden backpacks, worn out hiking boots, wind burned faces. The last were friendly but just briefly. They had so many places to roam; she was clearly not one of them. She was what she felt, caught in limbo.

It got so hot up there much nearer the source of all light. She drank from her water bottle, closed her eyes, lay her head back. Imagined herself flying out over the ocean, her arms magnificent, steady wings, her legs feathered rudders. Soaring, dipping and ascending again, she came close, closer to the sun until her skin was shot through with darts of boiling heat but she kept on. In the distance she saw another who was fleeing the earth. Savannah sailed up to her, kissed her cheeks, informed her, Time to do something, as if this was a prearranged meeting and Lane the elder must listen now. But of course Savannah was long gone. Lane was falling fast.

Her chin hit her chest when something stepped over her outstretched legs and her eyes popped open. She had fallen asleep. Her hand was wet. A big dog was giving it slobbery licks.

“Hello,” she murmured, but the dog owner ignored her as he exited the shelter, his Labrador pulling at the leash, spotting every sort of thing to hunt.

Lane stretched. Sought a gusting wind at the open side of the shelter. Her hair plastered her face so sky and sea were caught in a burnished net. She pushed it back angrily and swallowed rising sadness. Why was Savannah gone so soon? She should be there. Lane couldn’t call her for sensible, sane input; she couldn’t fly to Montana to visit her for a fast week-end, or wrap her arms about Savannah’s angular, steely body, an oddity in their family. From her clear heart and mind flowed acceptance when needed though she was not a talker. Savannah was a hiker, camper and fisherwoman. A horse lover and trainer at her ranch, along with her son Troy.

She was the woman Lane could never become as she tallied those fickle numbers and presided over another circuitous meeting, allotted and ran programs that seemed to barely make inroads. It had been far too long since she had sat in a saddle, known the joy of it.

The infection had been swift with target cited, the end swifter for Savannah. There was no good reason it should have happened to her. A confounding universe.

Forbidden hidden depths of grief roiled and welled and she caught her breath. Held it. She pressed against the sturdy rock wall, then pulled herself up onto it, carefully perched on the flat ledge of it with back against the shelter, knees drawn up to chin, arms tight about them. From here you could see much of the coastal forests and mountains, the bright sandy shoreline that curved around headlands and ocean…an undulating span of silvered blue that hid mysteries less rife with health and less plentiful than even a decade ago. Clear morning light unspooled across the waves, but in the distance the growing fog hovered like a threat.

It is all loss, she thought, everything fading or buckling under or turning out to be lies or vanishing before my eyes. Dying or soon to die. Or to become some beast I don’t understand, like the agency. It was about to merge with two small ones that were faltering. That would ultimately cost programs and decent staff even as her organization expanded. Costs would have to be absorbed, budgets further streamlined. And their patients would line up in longer lines, more often go without, unless Lane finagled greater monies, fought more fearlessly, pushed and pleaded for change, another surgical removal of what wasn’t profitable.

Drummond had that ceaseless desire to push forward, the hunger for the pursuit of more and more. He had the ego and nerves for what looked from the outside as a heroic struggle. But it was human services business, not charity; it got cut-throat like any other business. She had finally seen and known it was true.

Lane was tired. Everything within her wanted to rest. Her gaze followed the horizon and she breathed in salt and pine-infused air. It filled her up with longing, the desire to surrender.

Her heart had been thumping along all these years, carrying her each step along a twisty, bumpy path that was leading to something other than what she expected. What she really wanted. Now it sometimes faltered, she noticed; it was finding it harder to keep in sync with itself and her. As if it was trying to do this one thing but she was trying to do another thing. But what? What was she doing but dragging herself from one day to the next? One event as meaningless as the next despite everyone reminding her they were all somehow critical? To whom was it so important in the end?

Far beyond her reach and yet so close: the etheric transparency of sky was more infinite than the sea, its blueness more penetrable and also less known. It pulled her. Lane needed to do something, her sister had said.  She wanted to let go, to separate herself from the pettiness and meanness, the humdrum machine of life with its intricate schemes, the hunger and satiation and missions accomplished and frontiers not yet named. She didn’t even want to know. She wanted peace. She wanted to her grip to relax, her life to be released from itself and Savannah there to pass timelessness with. Slowly, slowly, Lane stood up and held out her arms. Wavered, then straightened her back. Blinked away tears autumn wind provoked, felt a shift around her as light-governed moments faded, the promise of endless sleep speaking to her narrowing mind where all was darkening, snug and quiet.

“Mama, why is that lady standing up there?”

“Oh, gosh…what now? Come here, Abby. Miss?…you gonna get down?”

“But she’s standing good, she looks pretty strong up there. Think she’ll fall? I don’t.”

“Hush, Abby. Miss, how long you been there…planning on being there? Maybe come down now, hey?”

But Lane was hearing the sea’s roaring inhales and exhales as a pulsing, vibrant thing. It filled her heart with energy even as her sight seemed to dim. She lifted her arms out, caught a sun-scoured breeze in her shirt, felt sore muscles in her legs harden and lock, her balance center in her core and in her being.  She felt something loosen; it tried to frighten her. She then suddenly felt those behind her, felt the question but she was floating, if only she could figure out how to keep it going….everything breathing together.

The older Native woman reached for the tail of Lane’s shirt, afraid to tug on it. She might feel it, yank it away, fall. Abby held her mother’s hand as they held the edge of that soft floral shirt tail, got close enough to grab her legs, the possessed white lady’s calves were right there. But Lynelle wasn’t quite tall or big enough to get purchase and make sure she’d hold her… and then the woman would just fall down the steep bluff, anyway, into the rocks, the ocean. That would be that and on her conscience.

“Hey lady, if you don’t watch out there won’t be any tomorrows left!”

Lane heard the child’s voice as if a brass bell was rung, as if a horn blasted a fierce high C, as if someone called her name across a busy street in a storm. She turned her head to see a young girl with snapping dark eyes opening wide, her brown, dusty hands held palms-up in emphasis. Lane looked back down at the ocean and shivered, lowered herself to a sitting position, then jumped off the wall, landing in a crouch on hard-beaten ground.

Abby and her mother crouched down with her, hands on knees. They looked at Lane hard, but the older woman lowered her eyes. She didn’t care to see what she saw, the ache and tipping toward more. The child spoke first.

“I knew you’d do it. You looked good and strong. But not so smart.” She uttered a belly laugh.

Lane shook her head, more to clear it than in agreement. “Sorry if I scared you…”

“You didn’t, not really.” Abby smiled, a missing front tooth making it even more friendly.

The mother of Abby stood up. “You did, you scared me plenty, I couldn’t get a good hold. I thought you’d take a dive, then what? How would I manage with any more? I’ve got good shoulders but I can’t be responsible for everything.” She raised thinning eyebrows, widened her small black eyes at Lane. “We all have reasons to feel tired out. I see you got yours.”

Lane stood on quivering legs, found the stone bench inside the shelter and sat.

“What was that you told me, child?” She addressed the girl though she stared out at the scene.

“Name’s Abby, first off.” She sat beside Lane, her mother to her left. “I said: if you don’t watch out you won’t have more tomorrows.” She shrugged, slight shoulders pumping up and down twice.”It’s the truth.”

“How did you know to say that to me?”

“Oh,” her mother interjected, “she says that ’cause that’s what’s told her when she puts things off, tells us ‘Tomorrow I’ll do that, tomorrow I’ll do this.’ Or she does something foolish, unsafe. I’m Lynelle Crooked Tree.” She reached across Abby, opened her lined palm to Lane’s hand, who took it. “You need to watch it like she said, you’ll be out of chances. See it all the time.” She squinted at the stranger. “Got a name?”

“Lane. You have quite a girl here.”

“Yeah, she’s a wildcat, that one, sneaky-smart.”

Abby found her way under Lynelle’s arm and gave her a hug, then she leaned over the other way, pushed Lane with her narrow shoulder. Surprised, Lane pushed back, very gently.

They sat quietly, Abby swinging her legs slow and fast, Lynelle Crooked Tree taking off her sandals, rubbing each foot, putting sandals back on, then putting hands on wide hips. Then they got up, first Abby, then her mother, then Lane. They started down the trail. Lane looked back at that shelter and hesitated, then thought about the two of them turning up like good fortune. She’d been half-uncertain what action to take, she had to be honest. She didn’t know where they were headed next, but she had to make a decision of her own that she could stick with and find worth it.

They walked along, and Lane followed without more thought. In a short time, they came to a fork in the pathways.

“This is where we turn off, the parking lot is that way. Okay now, later Lane, Creator willing.” Lynelle Crooked Tree gave a small wave, took Abby’s hand. They tunneled deeper into the verdant cool of forest.

“Wait, how can I thank you?”

But they were walking as if in a hurry, blended into greenery’s slinky shadows and dappled light like small birds, flickering, rustling, gliding away until there no more.

Lane walked on, blinking along dim pathways between the old trees. She knew what she had to do. Drummond would have his spot at the head of the table. She would find another place, maybe at Savannah’s ranch where she might be of use, helping her bereaved nephew with accounting matters or the most menial of chores. Just sitting with him at the fire pit where they used to share stories of their day, maybe dreams, but their worries were mostly left to the ashes. The prospect of it spurred her into a powerful run, and all that red hair threw off its own light in the watchful forest.

Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

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