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.

6 thoughts on “Unexpected Beasts

  1. Perfectly composed, keeping us waiting for the reason that surely must come. As so often it is the small details and turns of phrase that I enjoy. The colours on the painting in progress, the swish of the brush, the scrabbling squirrels, the shiny beetle, ‘tethered by a terror’. Well done, Cynthia

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