The Convening, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

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

“Mama, there’s something happening.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

Except for the Grand Baraxas’ declarations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama?”

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

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

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

 

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

The Norliss Street Recluse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

“All is well?” he asked.

“Just dandy.”

“The south still suits you then.”

“In some ways. You?”

“All good. Busier than ever.”

“The house shown more yet?”

“Picking up.”

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

******

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

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

Dear Lady,

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

You new here?

E.R.

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

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

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

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

Dear E.R.,

Sort of new. I have some family here.

Where is the next poem?

I write, too.

HM

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

In morning this foreign body passes like smoke,

as if dry leaves captured in whorls of wind.

But when day drains its unease into night

the feathery thing that is darkness

alights on sloping shoulders,

covers secrets as we give up hope

and all that which was, until

sunrise dazzles and dances.

                                        E.R.

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

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

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

E.R.,

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

HM

******

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

“It’s HM. I have coffee, muffins…”

The door remained still.

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

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

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

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

“Henley, Henley Mirabel.”

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

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

 

Best Bargains for Life

3/4/17

Hello Diane,

Yesterday afternoon I could have been sold anything at all, and in fact it turned out I needed bronzed peach lipstick, baby pink blush, “age retraction” moisturizer and an introductory sized perfume (I’ve forgotten the name already, maybe “Intoxicate”. ) My hand barely trembled as I signed off on the surfeit of beauty products. I’m sure the saleswoman didn’t see that bounty coming. Me, a barely forty year old woman of modest means who was attired–can I even say that? maybe just covered up— in athletic wear, even if it was a good design with great colors, turquoise and yellow. Sweat was just evaporating from my upper lip, forehead and neck. That’s my style, not some pearly satin foundation. But I fell prey to her insistent good cheer. I became convinced while staring into the fancy hand mirror as she dabbed and daubed this and that, that any advice she offered I should believe. I needed it right then. I was under a serious spell; she ought to be given a bonus for her brainwashing skills. Otherwise, why would I have become so vulnerable, spent that money?

You know how I feel about spending on trifles. You and I are the ones who almost never indulge, only sometimes at a sale. Remember that white silky blouse and the form fitting black pants you said looked so perfect on me? I still haven’t worn them. The accusatory price tags dangle more like security tags not to be removed. The clothes hang in the back of my closet, a conspicuous lapse I don’t want to recall, another indicator that I am weak when I should be immune to such pitfalls. Especially flattery. But sometimes one needs such a thing. And if unnecessary beauty supplies are part of that need…you understand, I know. You do love lipstick.

Your usually pensive sister is feeling about as reasonable or spiritual as that hefty receipt. I sense danger here; I need a support group to get over this recurrent feeling that I deserve less than others. I am sure you can suggest a few.

But yesterday I had finally had enough of wounding asides from Ethan. What a time of it I’ve had lately. Can I tell you about things–again?

I get that he periodically engages in this mighty battle with depression. I get that he has daily free-form anxiety nipping at his heels. Who doesn’t get some anxiety and depression in this age and place? We live in the Age of Absolute Ambiguity Somewhere on the Edge of a Deep Reckoning. No, I know it’s more serious than flippancy. It’s all severe and impactful. Frightening, at times. And when I really get a good look at things eye-to-eye, I run. Literally, of course. And at times end up places not intended, like the mall yesterday. A brief escape.

He barked at me. Ethan not a real dog, of course, and not really like a dog, yet his words started to sound more like that than meaningful words offered in regular conversation. It was the opening insults–that I am a nitpicker, never understand him, have not the patience or perhaps intelligence to comprehend his complexity–hurled my way. Then finally an irritable refrain:”You always blame me, I’m the one who’s wrong, I’m the screw up, you’re Miss Perfect!”–and then his old victim mode clicks into place and there’s no way I can detour around it effectively. It’s like a double locked door. No sweet talking will budge that bolt of narcissism and the other of self pity. Or whatever it is. Nothing I say would be considered anything other than direct firing upon him. It matters not that I may even have a need of self defense. So I have to leave.

You know how this goes. How many times have I picked up the phone and tried not to complain but you heard the rumbles of trouble, anyway, and suggested I go for a run at the least? Me and my exercise, he says, all that matters when his world and the actual world are breaking apart. It is possible, I say under my breath, that maybe all we can do is walk or run or ride bikes or take the boat out, tear off in search of freeing relief at such times in our lives. It does not add harm.

Anyway, Diane, yesterday it all seemed to boil down to how I try to micro-manage him when I suggested that the container of hummus was also bought for me, could my chip get a chance in there, too? He had eaten half of it already, might’ve even killed the whole thing off unless I mentioned it. He sat in front of the TV with container and the crumpled bag of rice chips. I really like hummus and chips, too but he was offended, frustrated with me, then pissed off. I was acting like I was his micro manager, damn it!

What? I was trying to (jokingly) get my chip equal time. He didn’t think it cute or funny.

So, I ran about four miles, then ended up at the mall. I cannot imagine how much fun that woman was having as she wiped down my face with spongy cotton puffs soaked in astringent as I wiped away a drip of sweat. Slowed my breathing, my heart rate. Tried to breathe through my nose, quietly. It felt good to sit there, be taken care of even in a superficial way.

“Busy day, huh?” she asked.

I had an impulse to tell her what just sort of day it was but smiled, studied a number of similar lipstick shades. Let her sweep a fluffy, finely-haired brush over cheekbones and chin. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t know if it was that blush color, last vestiges of heat from running, or my private embarrassment. It was utterly unlike me to be at her mercy. And she didn’t have the right shade of lipstick so she’d mail it free of charge. Music to my ears! Someone cared enough for once to not charge me one more penny just to make me happy. Well, it actually cost seventeen dollars. Too much!

I know, crazy, all of it. But this is what Ethan does to me. Or what I let him do, right? I went home, hid the cosmetics in the bathroom–will I use them? He was watching–you guessed it–television, drug of choice. I made us both a salad and read a book of Ursula Le Guin’s essays. Not trying to one up him, but honestly I couldn’t deal with an auction show much less his snubbing me. Anyway, we didn’t talk the rest of the night.

I will send this email off to you and get to bed. I have another newish book awaiting me.

Any ideas of what I might do next time–rather than buy things I don’t want? No, don’t say cooking or canasta or a women’s choir. I mean truly good ideas. You are so very much cheaper than a real shrink, and I thank you from my heart, in advance.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/5/17, 2:24 a.m.

Hi Diane,

I have been reading for hours and I still am not sleepy. He’s on the couch. I didn’t awaken him. I try to awaken him every night when he falls asleep out there, then stays there and I head to  bed. I go back, try again. Then he gets cranky, refuses to budge. So I just left him there last night, whispered that it was up to him to get his grown self into bed, not me. I don’t want to awaken a dozing bumble bee. I know it’s supposed to be not awaken a sleeping dragon or dog but I like dragons as well as dogs much better, they are less apt to attack right off….Tomorrow night when he comes home he will grumble that I should not have let him sleep so long there, that he was late for work. So it doesn’t matter which I do in the end.

That’s the problem, I cannot please him for long. As you realize after fifteen years of us together.

Ethan was more fun those first years, remember? Spontaneous but steadier. I was once warned he was too sensitive, moody. But I am attracted to those who who are bright, a bit eccentric, perhaps. Or I thought that was what it was. But I tend to become bored with men who don’t prod ideas, explore new experiences with panache. You know how your spouse is a good guy but also, well, a handful… and yet…you do love each other. Is that what Ethan and I have going on underneath the crossed wires, sizzling arguments? I wonder if it’s more a fascinating conundrum that never gets resolved to the other’s satisfaction. Or a game of wits. Whose move? How do I strategize effectively? What does he truly intend despite an appearance of intention?

That does sound cold.

Is there anything else this might be? Okay, a misguided attempt to save someone who does not want to be saved. I am well aware I can’t do that. Yet… I just want to find the Answer. Help him feel good, too. I mean, lots of people have emotional issues that are tough. They get help. They get better. How could I have known he would have a bona fide illness, that his extreme emotional episodes were not just passing reactions to stress or actual crisis? He doesn’t want to get help thus perhaps does not want to get better. And I still, after all this time, just want him to know what it is to be happy. Because I though I’m not ecstatic every day, I’m pretty okay with it or better, finding cheer…except for his unhappiness. Help, maybe a twelve step program is next on my list? I know you think they go overboard. And it’s all just common sense, figuring out life. Until it isn’t, dear Sis. Then it hurts like hell.

Anyway, he is sleeping, snoring away, the noise echoes off ceilings, trundles along walls and enters the bedroom.

And I’m sitting up half the night again, digging about for more elusive hope. Hear that shovel digging away at a mountain of brainstorming? That tool must be getting dull.

Diane, that last book you sent me is fabulous. I read it voraciously, as if there was never such a good story written before. Good books stir up my faith in a fonder, wiser sort of life. And incite feelings that wash over me like peace. I’ll take a tentative, even transitory peace at times. There are moments I feel could live my whole life in books and never miss a thing! But mostly, of course, I sweat/ache/pray over my tangible life–what it is, can be. Will be.

I wish we could get coffee tomorrow and chat about books. Your always interesting being and doing. How was that experimental quartet last week-end?

Why are you so far away?

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/7/17

Dearest Diane,

After my rigorous run, after I had taken my messes to a country road a mile from our house, after I felt the swell and slope of land under my feet like a heralding of strength, the air so delicate, awakened earth and new flowery things shared like promises of renewal–after all this, I went back home to find him there, home an hour early.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking Oh, dear God no, he’s lost his job–they were sure to find out how unstable he has been feeling sooner or later. That happened once before, did you know that?

“Nothing. I came home to say something I’ve thought about a lot.”

I toweled off my head and chest, bent down to take off my running shoes and as I was untying the laces, I felt fear. The tension of anticipation and that worry he might do something stupid or rash, that all his pent up anxiety and depression he tamps way down to go to work, to live well enough every day in this hard world will have a deadly eruption. I took my time, rinsed off my face from the kitchen faucet, then filled a glass.

Then we sat down at the kitchen table, the one he made four years ago when we bought this place at the edge of the city. It’s a functional, recycled pine wood table, not glowing and elegant like he wanted it to be, but that’s why I like it. It’s our homely, sturdy, everyday place to rest and eat and play games, pay bills and dream and talk. It’s the spot that matters most, at least to me.

“I’ve decided I’m going to try therapy, after all.” He held up his hand; he knew I was about to gush with gratitude. “Just try it a couple times, to start. You know I don’t like shrinks. I don’t like their various potions, they never really work out. I feel nothing can make a permanent difference, anyway; this is just how I am. I have a basic condition. It rules me more than I dare admit. But I’ve been thinking about how all these years–thirty or more years–I have been run ragged by constant anxiety and terrifying bouts with depression, the obsessions and compulsions just getting harder to cope with as I age.”

I looked at him but he was staring out the window, at the leaning fence or at the trees that remained mostly naked of leaves. I looked at his hands because they catch my attention. They shook as he turned a fancy fat pen over and over in his fingers. Soon he would start writing. He writes almost without thinking, jots down anything, writes phrases, copies words on a magazine, sets down titles of songs or a long thoughts on a certain theme or maybe lines to some song–another compulsion. I find scraps of paper densely covered with his printing, they are everywhere, I don’t know what to do with them so stack them in a pile in a tray on the table. If I throw any out he will notice and be very annoyed. He wrote then on an used, unfolded napkin the word therapy up, across, down, over and over. I wondered if he would go online later and order five or ten more expensive, unneeded pens and more reams of paper to write more jottings now that he had even more to cogitate over.

“Okay,” I said and swallowed a gulp of cool water.

“But I need you to do something for me, too. I need your part done.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, then at the robin that landed on the fence.

“Stop asking so many questions? Especially when you get into… therapy?” Just saying that word brought me a relief that barely hid uncertainty.

“Take care of your own issues. Like stop writing to Diane, Lark. Please.”

A small shock traveled from spine to head where it lingered in my skull. I looked at his significant profile, nose large in a Roman way, whiskered jaw.

“What did you say?”

“You know what I mean. You write her a lot, I think. It really needs to end now.”

There arose a great jangle inside me. My heart revved up, felt huge in my chest. He ought not talk about my sister and me. He was just not happy; I could tell by how quiet his voice was, how he stopped writing.

“How could you know that? And why is it important?” I kept my voice even. Tried to recall when I might have left my computer open. What had he seen?

“I hear you pecking away at odd times. It’s got to be her. That’s how it always has been–so it continues. But after over a year, shouldn’t that be done with?” He put down the sleek pen. “I’m not the only one with issues, right? So you need to own up, address this. It’s not even vaguely…healthy, I don’t think.”

I was about to get up and shout at him: Really? Tell me about unhealthy versus healthy! Instead, I got up, put the kettle on the stove to heat water for tea or coffee, whatever he wanted.

He started to write again, I could hear the nib of the flowing ink pen inching its way across a fresh page, probably a bill envelope. “She left all this awhile back, you’ve got to find more friends or something,” he said.

“No.”

“What do you mean, ‘no’? Come on, she’s dead, Lark. You can’t undo that.”

I felt the scream all coiled up inside start to uncoil and it raced up to my lips but I ran. I ran out the kitchen door and kept pushing through all the fear, trying to outrun the scream. The cool of night came on with a sudden shadowing of earth, air that became wind was so cold it seared face and arms. Nature’s last word on things. Instead of peace filling my heart it pumped harder, my legs reached up and out, leaping over uneven ground. My feet crashed through weeds, I jumped over the fence, kept moving through twilight, an animal on the loose.

It was the stream that got me. It brought me to a halt ass my feet felt wetness, that gentle water a surprise trigger for tears that fell like warm rain on someone else’s stilled face. A storm sweeping across an empty parched plain. Me, lost.

“No! Diane, no leaving me here alone!”

It sounded like a prayer that was a demand but even if it wasn’t the right thing it just was. I felt it was foolish, though, because I have talked to you so long, written you so much… yet over time felt your presence less. You left first by dying, then by receding from the days as I got more used to your being somewhere else.

Not much around here, no, sister.

But at night I sit in the rocker by the window when Ethan is snoring away, harmless and feckless, and then I still feel you come by. Settle about the room with your smile. Your kind way. I guess the moon and stars have to shine for you to find me here. I’ll just wait. We are not that separated by death, are we?

I told him I would stop this. I cannot, yet, any more than we can choose to just ignore these tough times. Maybe I understand his desire for relief better than he thinks. But I know what I need; this part costs nothing. My talking to you is healing. I can just meditate on the days we had to enjoy, as well as all that causes me to pause, the sorrows. What I have to remember is what you always said, your hazel eyes shining: Life is what we must live so we do it as well as possible; it comes to an end soon enough. It’s always something, anyway (you’d laugh but never sounded bitter, just a laugh), so just got to roll with it, Sis, and pray like mad.

It was full of maxims but from you it has always sounded like wisdom of the ancients, another lesson from God’s mouth to my heart. I take it in, the love that still comes to me from you. I must write to your presence; it is a comfort now. When it’s time, I’ll figure out what to do next. And I will wait for Ethan to help himself, knowing we are not alone with the waiting, trying, failing, more trying– and maybe even succeeding.

I have to go now as I got a package I want to open. It may be the bronzed peach lipstick. I’ll let you know what I think– if I wear it. But if you catch a glimpse of it on me and give it the okay, send me a sign. A blossom or two at my door would be lovely or a bright birdsong one morning when I feel overwhelmed again. You have such good taste, I leave it to you.

Or even news of a really good sale. We always have such a time searching out bargains arm in arm, talking about things of import or pure foolishness, don’t we?

Didn’t we, Sister…and then some.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

 

I’m Still Here, Amazonia

fog-light-driving-to-eugene-angel-card-005
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the night, something misses me. I sit up and peer into the blur of darkness, check to see if Bodhi is at my feet but know he isn’t. He likes Kara’s bed more, it has a hollow where he buries his cat pink nose and white paws, his furred tail more like a slinky snake about her feet. There he is, babied in blankets. If she would go back to her room, he might come visit me.

But it isn’t Bodhi that awakens me; it never is. It isn’t Kara, either. Nothing wakes her. It’s just the sounds of our house, clunks and groans so soft I might have dreamed them. I used to get up and tiptoe out into the hall, call Mom and Dad to their door but that was many months ago, way before I was ten. Now I know everyone else sleeps or pretends to sleep and I’m the only one rubbing my eyes, pushing back the curtains to check the yard. The house must only catnap like Bodhi. Only humans worry about things like the right amount of sleep, I guess.

It’s only me here at three in the morning. I wave a childish wave at the apple trees down below, then the tire swing that hangs from one naked maple, its arms reaching around in search of birds or me. That’s what misses me tonight, I think. Last night it was the forsythia bush doing nothing but waiting to bloom. Tomorrow it might be the iron bench with my gathered  sticks left on the seat. I lie down, pull the soft blankets to my forehead and drift off, plunge in deeper, am gone.

“Roxie? Roxie!”

Kara’s dagger-nailed fingers are yanking the bedding off me.

“It’s seven-fifteen, get up or you’ll be late. Tim and I aren’t driving you again this week.”

The air feels cold so I jump up, grab clean undies I laid out last night then head into the bathroom. In the shower, I go to Amazonia, as usual; steam swirls around me, rising heat is thick with something good. Flowers, big and brilliant. My soap is a floral, lilies-of-the-valley scent. I don’t know if Amazonia has any sort of lilies but one day I’ll find out. I also need to look up how many kinds of butterflies there are. I plan on being a ecologist and expect to be an adventuress.

There is heavy thudding on the door.

“Open up! You don’t need to lock our bathroom door, you’re just a kid, I need the hair dryer right now!”

Sometimes Kara’s voice sounds like a train, the old kind like at the train museum, one that makes all the racket as the wheels grind and turn. I don’t have to hear her words to know what she means. When she yells I’m supposed to do something different. If she’s late, she for sure won’t take me to my school on her way to high school so I rinse off, grab the towel, unlock the door. It’s thrown open, proof that she was leaning on it, getting ready to apply her weight–all one hundred and five pounds of it, bones and boobs. She thinks she’s fantastic.

I toss the hair dryer at her.

“Hey!”

“Hey nothing, I’ll still beat you. I don’t have to paint on a face to leave the house. I already have one.”

She swats me with the hand towel, her laugh more like a sigh.

Downstairs, Mom is stacking toast on a plate beside a sickening mound of scrambled eggs. I take two slices and three bacons and make a sandwich. Dad is trying to kiss  her on the cheek but she bats him off with irritation as she turns the last bacon, and he disappears out the side door into the garage, hand making a backward wave at me.

I’m not sure how anyone can even cook in the kitchen. It’s in various stages of being undone. Upgraded. Renovation, they call it, but so far it’s just torn apart more each day, right down to the studs. I learned that word by harassing a carpenter on Saturday until Dad made me go to the store with Kara. We’re often sent on errands, useless missions or our friends’ when the noise gets feverish or sawdust falls about us like some lethal downpour. I pretended I was choking to death on it once and Mom got so upset and mad, she about cried.

I hear big trucks pull up, doors slam, grumbled greetings, heavy footsteps: the reno people are here already. I wonder what Mom will do today? Maybe leave like the rest of us. She used to teach yoga in our passable basement but that’s been suspended, she says with a frown.

Everything feels upside down since the parents decided to fix up the house. I don’t get it. It was good before, though Kara insists we’ll finally not be the almost-worst house on the block but closer to best. Still, even on a cruddy day our rambling house has been the sort of place you’d want to hang out. Our friends loved coming over, especially to be in the back yard, a half acre with fruit trees and overgrown hedges, the usual flowers and random, pretty weeds gone crazy.

We have a deck that seats thousands. Mom proudly stated this once as she carried out more food-laden platters for a summer party. But Dad is about have it taken out. He wants a big screened in porch to keep out hungry mosquitoes, what he says are mean-looking moths and so on. He is not too bug friendly despite often playing golf.

How am I ever going to get used to them for my Amazonia trip if I am protected from them? He makes me put on repellent any time I go out for long. He plans on a new patio with a “discreet water feature.” What is that? Lame. I will so miss the deck. Underneath it Bodhi can scamper and catch things and I can make myself narrow as a noodle, too, slip into an opening in the ancient lattice. Can hide awhile as needed, along with Bodhi.

There’s nowhere to hide now. Kara has taken over my quarters too much. Her own room is wrecked, being made bigger and soon will have a bathroom just for her. I call that extravagant, totally unnecessary; she leaves in three years for college if she studies harder. I have to fly across the hallway to use the one public bathroom. Mildew creeps onto loose caulking edging the tub. There’s a hole in the one high screened window. Will they fix these things? I don’t care. I like my house, broken things and all; why can’t they?

I stuff the last of the bacon sandwich into my mouth and leave before Mom can insist I need eggs. I hate eggs; they make me think of dead yellow, fluffy little chicks though I know they aren’t. It just doesn’t seem right whereas eating pork seems reasonable. I’m not fond of pigs when alive. Bodhi agrees. I toss him a small piece and his purr machine starts up.

“Wait up!” I call out to a threesome huddled in a bulky knot across the sidewalk, their puffer jackets too warm for the temperature today. I have on my sweatshirt hoodie, as usual. Lately, they–two girls and a guy, more or less friends since age six–seem like all that’s left for me. It’s the house’s fault, that’s why. The house changes, so everything else does–even they hardly ever come by now.

This all hits me like a bunch of cherries falling from our tree right between my eyes: a demonstration of gravity, a truth maybe a little too obvious. But that’s how things occur to me sometimes.

******

Kara is at the library tonight studying with the newest guy, Yuri, which is a lie. They’re hanging out at the Ridge with the rest of the fools. I will never go there; it’s dumb what they do, drink beers and smoke cigs and suck face, plan escapades they won’t carry out. But it’s some relief she’s gone awhile.

Bodhi sits at the end of my bed, wetting his paws, grooming his head and face. I’m reading things, a fashion magazine of hers that I tear pictures from–she’ll never miss those, it’s old and I like to make collages. Then I do homework, read a geography book. This part is about Mongolia, how they live and work outside like I want to. It’s a huge land and they have no neighbors nearby, only their family which might be trying. I’ll bet they don’t worry about remodeling their ready-to-go houses. They’re nomads, a word with a meaning I like. Everything in the picture looks like it has its place. Not so much is needed. I wish we had less stuff cluttering floors, corners, closets. And now even more with remodeling. Sometimes I still put up the tent in the back and sleep there–until Mom or Dad insist it’s time to come in, it’s not safe out there. It’s been fine for years–okay, usually Kara or my friends slept out with me–but not so much now. Anyway, now the parents want to spoil my fun; what used to be easy, good, is suddenly off-limits or irritating to them. The girl in my book looks like she could go miles away on her own, hunt, round up goats, sleep through a cold and lonely midnight and never get worried.

But that’s what I feel lately. A little worried. I don’t know what about exactly. I shake my head, open my notebook to answer questions about Mongolia. Bodhi snuggles in a bit more, warms up my feet. I feel more content than when Kara is nearby, when my parents are hovering and slinking around between words. Cats seem to know certain things, I think. I might be let in on the secret if I just have patience. I rub his ears and he half-blinks then closes bright eyes, shutting me out.

******

I hear the door creak open and shut as Kara creeps in way late and climbs in bed. I stay still, hoping Bodhi will remain happy where he is. He’s still awhile and then, as if awake the whole time, springs up and bounds off, goes to her. She blows her nose, shudders, turns and twists, little sobs eking out here and there, then muffled into nothing. I think I can smell the beers from an opening in covers where my nose pokes out. Bodhi jumps back onto my bed, startling me. I stare into darkness long after they both are dead still then give in, myself.

Sleep is a genie. It turns off the world, lets me enter a magic kingdom where I live in a tree house. All passing creatures tell me things, like how to blend in and make my way in the dark, where the best food is, and who will be enemies and trusted allies. They tell me how to never be lost. But this will mostly disappear when I awaken. Turning, there comes a wave of sadness.

Then there it is, something missing me again. It tugs like a boat trying to get me off a dock and jump into it. It’s like something I know but don’t quite understand even as I sense it more each night. My eyes adjust to see a barely lit outline of my bedside window so I sit up, listen. There is nothing except the strange but deeply familiar forms of sleeping cat and sister, a soft snore from their own dream surfing. There’s a bird, one of the first robins. I know it by its insistent song as morning light rises and tilts into our deep, wide yard. I push off covers, hold my arms close against the cold, then nudge back the curtain to look out.

There’s heavy white mist hovering about trees. It’s chilly but gentle; I’ve been into it many times. But as my eyes wander, someone else stands in it. It is no stranger, I know that form. I get up, slip into a flannel shirt with sweatpants. Press my face against the cool pane of glass to get a better look.

It’s Mom. She’s wearing her robe, the heavy blue velveteen robe Kara and I got her for Christmas. Her hair, thickly woven with white, spreads over her shoulders. Her arms are holding onto herself good and tight; her back looks small, bent. Her feet are bare. Out of nowhere comes the thought that maybe she is praying. I realize it’s an odd thought, my mother out in a cold March fog talking to God, as if God wasn’t available in a cozy room. But it seems the thing she has to do this early spring morning, the hard-to-hold fog dressing her like a tired goddess. Her head bows deeper and I feel afraid.

The house seems lighter, as if it could float away. It feels as if it needs something to hold it down this instant, but I don’t know what. My sister slumbers on; I have no desire to wake her. I must know what Mom is saying and leave my room, down the stairs on whispering feet, out the back door and into the grass. I step through ghostly fringes of mist, let it encase me like a mysterious cape of dawn. It might hold me and my mother in one piece.

When I reach her she glances over her shoulder as if waiting for me then lets me in, under the warmth of her enveloping wing. We watch as golden light spreads through the fogginess, then begins to pull apart. It’s like gold as it touches tree limbs and bushes, daffodils that are blooming early, lights up the deep pink daphne that fills my nose with sweetness.

I lean into her, one living thing into another, and she knows I know.

“Dad left…” I whisper.

“Yes,” she says and her free hand covers her mouth.

“It didn’t help, fixing our house.”

“No,” she says and crumples a second before standing tall again for me. For us.

“I never wanted things to change,” I say loudly now and scare the robin from its perch.

“We found we were wrong about…. well, some things have to first change inside no matter what we want to believe.”

I think of the creaky old deck, how it will remain standing now. How the mosquitoes will try to feast on us all and how I can bear their bites, have and will. But part of me wants terribly to have the porch screen between me and the world, and my skin slathered with that repellent every time I step out. I hug my mother closer and she reaches down, her lips planting a kiss on my forehead but before she smooths back my mess of tangled hair, I lurch away, follow the mist as it leaves the outer reaches. I look into a baby blue sky that melts away the night.

I am being missed somewhere. By Amazonia, by Mongolia, or our tent and my scared-of-the-dark-friends, or Bodhi, our warm, watchful cat. My father, even as he turned the corner at the end of our terribly quiet street, drove around the block and down the main street and who knows where next. He might be humming for all I know. His chest might have a hole in it, too, where we have always been.

I want to make him weak with my mightiest hug so he’ll have to come back and stay. I want to find Kara, scream at her until she screams with me, then collapse into her arms. I want to tell my mother how her sadness fills me with terror, with love.

None of this will happen, at least not now.

Because mostly there’s just me standing here. Mostly there is an awful longing for how it was before now. Before the house began to change and fall down around us. And now I know that all those weird nights as I woke up wondering it was only me who was being missed– the little kid Roxie who was happy before the past year, who carried on as if all was just fine. Me, before I knew I had to grow up. And having Amazon dreams means I had better be as brave as I imagined.

Blood and Love Among Us

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

It’s only natural that one should take stock of one’s life a few times. I don’t mean the facile review that accompanies each turning of the year, but the kind that digs deep and turns everything you thought you knew into a foreign milieu–which, nonetheless, reverberates with truth.

I was doing this as I drove from Missouri to northern Michigan, a trip made now and again to see my extended family over the last thirty years. I liked to drive, it relaxed me. In the countryside the newly assertive spring sun created a parchment-like whiteness. Roadsides once snow-hugged were murky, taupe and grey. And yet it was empty in the way a new canvas is before Darren, my husband, charts a bold line across unsuspecting space with his oil paints.

Joplin, MO. was the place I’d left behind; Marionville, MI. the village I was moving toward. I cracked the window and inhaled a lightly chilled breeze. As I cruised at 75 mph through fecund fields and rolling hills I determined it’d been a reasonably satisfying visit, if one can say being crammed into various spaces with nearly twenty-five others can be meaningful. But we do it to assure ourselves we are yet loved merely because we are part of family, and we don’t have to do anything else to garner general affection. Thus, we can take with us the belief that we are not truly as alone as imagined. It is also a gathering that reminds me there is no judgment that cannot be done or undone when blood comes into the picture.

The topic of this reunion–the 99th birthday for Great Aunt Mattie; she was not likely to make it all the way to 100–was no less than MaeLynn (she insisted it was to be spelled “Mailin” later) and Jacques (many called him Jake despite his dislike of it). It seems they finally got divorced after forty-some years together–I wasn’t counting. I hadn’t thought much of them for awhile. They had lived in France and Spain, and despite my closeness with cousin MaeLynn, they had drifted far. After a couple of years I had to let it be; she and I would always be family though things had changed. I knew there was more beneath the emotional distancing but I didn’t want to disturb the surface.

But it’s a shock to the others. Our family got all stirred up with disbelief and speculations, that such a perfect match should be dissolved. He was so successful and she, so talented. A foolish thing to undo after all this time. It made me laugh to think how most had distrusted the match at first. What I thought I understood was kept to myself.

MaeLynn was my cousin, though if you set us side by side you might have doubts. I had what my mother, an enthusiastic colorist, dubbed “a twilight look” with black-brown hair and deep blue eyes. While my cousin’s fairness–“a dawn look”, Mom said– gleamed soft and bright. Those were not the only differences. She seemed almost made up with her achievements, prettiness and an ingrained shyness and then she went away and came out a whole new person. That’s what family said, anyway, after she studied at the Sorbonne –she had a gift for French and other languages, as well as drawing and design. Not much later she found Jacques. She admitted to me she thought him a muse.

As for my personality: faster on my feet, less academic but a problem solver, someone with ambition and yet slower to find her true liberating element. “Quirky” was a word attached to me when younger. My mother thought me a sad-eyed one, akin to a gypsy child who might range far and wide before finally setting up camp. I was alright with that. And the melancholy part came and went, bothering me far less than the parents.

My cousin and her beau said they met via acquaintances at the horse races, which scandalized our Southern Baptist genes. But this Jacques was not to be corralled into anything serious quite yet. He decided to come with MaeLynn to check out her roots.  His family tree was old, even illustrious. Our family tree has many kinds of roots. He could choose from mighty or humble, tenacious or weakened, creative, given to a few touches of madness–or humdrum but reliable.

I had graduated from University of Michigan two years prior, three years behind MaeLynn. The summer she brought him home I’d had a promotion at a fledgling lawyers’ office: executive legal assistant. Sounded grand. It was tedious at times but engaging as I came to know the cases and was soon keeping up with demands. I had wanted to be a lawyer, myself, but that had fizzled when money ran low, so I worked and saved like mad. I longed to get an apartment but my parents’ house accommodated me as I aimed for a future with law school. Still, I often felt the tug to run away. Where was all that life I was expecting to happen?

One night I came home to find pork roast simmering in the oven. The kitchen was dense and humid with cooking and my mother in motion.

“Get upstairs and clean up–put on that navy and green outfit, it suits you well, Jessamine–before MaeLynn comes around with her French gentleman.”

I nibbled on a large romaine leaf with a drizzle of oil and vinegar. “She’s here so soon? I thought that was day after tomorrow.”

“I don’t know where you’ve been–stuck at that desk too long, head full of murder or mayhem, no doubt. In less than an hour! Go on, now–then help with the table.”

On the way past the living room I glanced at father and he felt it, so lowered the paper and threw me that look: yes, we must get with it, it’s family reveal night–then turned the page and tried to hide himself a few more minutes. It’s not that he didn’t love his niece, he just didn’t relish being the first to determine the Frenchman’s suitability for the family, his brother’s possible son-in-law. I stifled a laugh. Dad wouldn’t likely commit either way, at least not admit much to his brother; he kept his own counsel more often than not. I saw the value of that.

After splashing cold water on my face, I dragged a brush through tangled hair. I didn’t see the point in trying to impress my own cousin and as far as her man was concerned, he’d come and go. Or if she really loved him as she insisted and he was good to her, that was that; we were all stuck with each other. I pulled on royal blue slacks and a white mandarin collared blouse which my mother found too tailored. Slipping on flats and thin silver bangles, I was done. But I hesitated at the mirror, fingers pinching cheeks, then smoothing back dark waves. I was twenty-four. MaeLynn was twenty-seven and felt aged she admitted, and if Jacques didn’t marry her soon she was coming back to the States and starting over. I studied my reflection thoughtfully. I had not once thought to get married. Had, in fact, turned down two proposals. I had wanted what my cousin got–travels abroad, exotic friends, experiences–and bided my time, reminding myself the best things came to those who worked hard and were open to opportunity. I had enough patience, even too much. Perhaps I needed more imagination or courage.

The table was fresh with yellow tulips, sparkling with lit white candles and crystal water goblets, and the food smelled perfectly seasoned when the door bell chimed twice. Dad got up to answer it and Mom came up beside him. I held back with Terra, our white American Eskimo dog.

“Sit and just smile,” I informed her and was obeyed though her tail indicated a desire to dance about. If Terra liked Jacques, I would, too.

“Hello, welcome!”

Mom and Dad’s voices rang through the foyer and when I was on the verge of stepping forward MaeLynn’s light rise and fall of laughter stopped me. I hadn’t properly heard her voice (only on the phone) in three years and its lilt draped the rooms in silkiness. I had forgotten that elegance. Happiness swept over me. When could we leave all this, catch up on everything? Not soon, though, with Jacques DuFresne at her side, the man who had kept her from us, from me, too long.

As they rounded a corner I came forward, hands held out to her. And stopped the barest split second but still it felt like a stumble, a giveaway.

Jacques was remarkable. Handsome and lithe with conviviality, and as soon as his inquisitive dark eyes found mine I looked away. But it was too late. I felt his presence hit me like a small firework blasting in my chest. His smile radiated through space and back to me before I threw my arms around MaeLynn and held her tightly.

“Jess! Hello, hello, hello!” she said squeezing me back until we were breathless with excitement and anxiety. “Jacques–my favorite cousin, Jessamine; Jess, meet Jacques, my favorite Frenchman!”

He took my hand in both of his, kissed both my cheeks. Such contact put me off balance, and I was enveloped in an aura of brisk lime. I righted myself before fresh air became any more scarce, responded with politeness, smiled back. Terra pranced about our feet, barking with the thrill of old and new converging, and she managed a good whiff of Jacques’ pants legs before bounding over to Dad, who called her firmly. I felt vaguely alarmed by this man’s presence and was glad we sat some distance apart. On second glance I saw he was older, perhaps five years, than Mae Lynn. I immediately wondered why he hadn’t paired off for good before. Probably because he was too attractive to hold onto; no one was foolish enough to believe she’d be the one and only. Except perhaps my cousin.

“Let’s sit, eat and talk!” Mom directed, her face flushed, silvered hair glimmering in candle light.

“So here we are,” MaeLynn started as she passed potatoes au gratin, “and so much has happened. I just had to stop here before we fly on to St. Louis. I told him my cousin comes first–well, along with Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Ian–then best for last, of course, my parents. Well, so far Jacques is impressed by the scope of our country. He kept pointing out various landscapes from the plane window.”

“It’s true. I’ve been to Scandinavia, most of Europe, Asia on business but not here. Ridiculous!”

Clear English accented by his native tongue flowed gracefully. I looked at my father, who seemed a little skeptical but was at ease as he inquired of Jacques’ business.

“Textiles. A fourth generation family business, can’t get away from it, I’m afraid.”

And then they were off and running with talk of work and the market place and related safe topics. Mother kept the food coming and directed the conversation from time to time. Mae Lynn and I got in a few words about our work and family.

“What do you think?” MaeLynn mouthed at me across the table.

I nodded slowly, then asked her about her plans. They were meeting family but also taking in sights and then he would return to Paris and work; she would follow later.

“So, tell me, Jessamine, of yourself.”

I shivered at the sound of my name spoken by him, found myself fidgeting with my napkin. I plunged into work scenarios, when he asked about what I liked to do for enjoyment.

“Well, the outdoors is paramount.”

“She dances,” MaeLynn said. “She’s marvelous, unlike me.”

“Oh?” he said, head cocked to one side, eyes revealing pleasure.

“I studied ballet for years, but that was then, and then ballroom dancing. Waltzes, Latin dancing, and so on. I get out to dance now and then. You have this  hobby in France?”

“Oh, yes. I too like to dance, it’s like creatures freed by joy, more when moonlight arrives, wonderful to do.”

“He’s a simple romantic, I suspect, despite being built of tough male genes,” Mae Lynn said. “It’s a French thing, perhaps. Everything is steeped in a subtext of poetics. Charming! But you’ve met your match in Jessamine, Jacques. Be careful, she will one day be a fierce lawyer even if her heart is made of gentler sentiments. Give me clear palpable edges of a design aesthetic, where art rises to meet every practical need.”

“Here, here,” my mother agreed as dad rolled his eyes just a little.

“A fine combining of opposites,” Jacques said looking my way and then lifted his goblet to mine, his gaze steady, magnetic. I blazed inwardly but reciprocated with a shrug, then inclined my own to each and every goblet.

“To the reign of poetry’s wisdom, to compassionate justice, and also design’s triumph,” I said.

Shifting candlelight flared then softened as we sipped and it was off into talk of travel and obligations and the necessary glue of family and back to more workaday matters. Time accordioned and before we knew it, the evening came to a close. Terra had made tentative friends with Jacques, doted on MaeLynn and she doted right back. As they left for the hotel, we waved  farewells, my happiness tinged with longing. I felt we all had barely shared what mattered. They had one more day before flying to St. Louis. I would join them for sightseeing along the shores of Lake Michigan.

“He’s rather impressive, don’t you think?” Mom asked us.

Dad put his arm around her waist. “We’ll see. Smart man, could be a good catch for our MaeLynn.”

“And vice versa, dear,” she added. “And she said she is spelling it that new way: M-a-l-i-n–now, accent the first part.”

He grunted; this was irrelevant to him. To us, the family.

I slipped away, found the privacy to process our evening. I passed my mirror, stopped and scrutinized my reflection, startled by such vulnerability. It was a dangerous nakedness glimpsed, as if my sallow skin had become translucent. I was myself yet lit from deeper within and that strange glow permeated me, threatening to reveal even more.

Fear, though, gave way to curiosity, a frisson of excitement.

******

Waves lapped against curvaceous beaches bringing to us a song of the ancients. Skin reddened with wilderness gusts. Stoned fell into our palms, gifts from winter and the turbulence of cold meeting warmer currents. The trails were winding and long and we were strong and full of energy. Conversation was less important than the fanning out of complex life forms, a primordial mystique that came upon us, seemed to spring from our very limbs and breath. The top of Jacques’ head nearly glanced off limbs and his face radiated excitement. MaeLynn’s hand caught mine, then his, dragging us up to a peak. A valley’s loveliness swept us up, held us still. He stood between us, one arm about her, one about me so I could hardly bear it but did, then let happiness take rein. Then we were three again, set into motion again.

The laughter of that day, clean and rough and easy. Words traded as if we were the smartest and best the world had to offer. Hands grazing hands, legs pumping blood to heart to everywhere and such rich oxygen rushed to our brains we were drunk on promises of spring. We believed in all we envisioned, we were young, and it was good. We felt what we felt, thought of little beyond that moment.

I felt it coming apart beneath the seams of our childhood devotion, and perhaps so did she but we acted as if we were all meant to know and care for one another.  But at the end of the trail when MaeLynn was yards ahead of us, Jacques stopped in his tracks, right before me.

“Jessamine. ” His forefinger raising my chin, his moving closer. “Always, I suspect, Jessamine.”

I lifted my hand to his, gripped it, then moved it from me just in time, before touching his strongly lined palm to my lips. The urgency of want crackled between trees, earth, us. I caught a glimpse of my cousin’s narrow back disappearing. Best friend for a lifetime.

“Jacques, be wise,” I whispered.

He looked into my eyes, intense with disquiet and brooding, and a sharp sliver of sadness cut through me. He was so close the musky heat of him seared me. I feared I might weaken or, worse, collapse from the combined weight of desire and loyalty. So I broke into a hard run. His voice trailed behind me, calling my and then her name, asking us to wait.

It has to be blood, I told myself, it has to be blood, not ever this beautiful sea of longing and bit down on my lip, the blood a taste of primal sorrow, of joy refused.

******

Missouri, Illinois, Indiana,  my childhood left behind only to reveal more of my youth and adulthood as I drove into the giant mitten of Michigan. But somewhere along the way those times had settled in with me. Many miles I heard our names repeated–MaeLynn, Jacques, Jessamine, Darren–and I’d have to pull over, drink or eat something, listen to music turned up loud in my car. I’d commune with cows, seek new leaves and gaudy wildflowers that felt like balm of peace. I’d walk a little if there was a spot to enjoy, then get into the car again. I stopped d late at night to fall dead asleep in nameless hotels. I called Darren a few times, checked in with his personal care aide, who was steady and likely kinder than I could hope to be.

How does one explain love? I have asked myself this a thousand times since then. There were other men–men I stayed with, until I was enamored no longer. Then in my thirties there was my husband who cared for me in ways that made a difference and I, for him. Was it love that drew us to marriage and cinched us tighter with time? Is that what kept textiles and furniture pioneer Jacques, and the successful interior designer, Mailin, partnered all those years? Despite the rifts and crises, the gaps each year widening? Was it the strength of love or was it a deepening commitment and were the two so different in the end?

Darren had a stroke four years ago that left him in a wheelchair though his upper body and language were rescued mostly. We left–I left my career as a lawyer; he sold his plumbing business– a megapolis lifestyle for woods and lakes again, our first stomping grounds, and now our likely final domain. I push him outdoors each morning he can bear the air and light and effort to accept limitation. I spend my time writing poetry that sometimes I send out and sometimes tear up, take the dogs for walks that feel might never end if I kept walking. The beauty fills me as much and more than I had hoped. Solitude is unbroken unless we desire it and then we find a few friends among the woods hideaways, play cards or listen to stories or make music, remember past times and wonder over the rocky human course. Darren paints, not all that well, but he loves it. I admire his uncomplicated joy in form and color.

For me, poems are things that have to be given great breadth and depth of soul and there are days I cannot do it, at all. But I do not live without gratitude and an abiding affection for life.

This evening when the phone rang, I knew something, call it intuition or an old fear come to pass, call it a crossing of two moments beyond time that became one. I looked out the window, past the scrubby yard and dock where one weathered boat is tied up, past sway of lake water with dusk’s coral a sheen. Past the black-green evergreens’ spiky tops that always reminded me of steeples. Steeples of an infinite church that rose out of the earth, reaching skyward. I could see the North star and Venus and Mars and so much more.

“Jessamine?”

Jacques. I heard his voice and it struck me to the marrow, nearly shook me apart then held me still in a thrall like a beautiful chord struck in the pure night air.

His voice vibrated along some invisible zigzag line that reached there to here.

“Are you looking at the sky? The same grand sky I can see? We can look up, know each other there. Or we might actually meet…We never danced.” Silence echoed. “Jessamine?”

My hand with phone in it slid to my chest and I prayed he could hear my heart beating. I closed my eyes. Swallowed a swell of tears. Lifted the phone back to my ear. I could hear him breathing; it was one of the tenderest sounds I would likely ever hear. And then I disconnected from silence and remnants of words, turned from that life-charging heat once and for all.

That sky beyond, the blood tie with MaeLynn–those would remain.

Readers, I have written a series of stories about Marionville, some of which have been posted here, such as: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/the-watchman-2/ and