Aunt Cara, Dragons and Crows

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Photo by William Eggelston

I hadn’t planned on a stop in town on my way to visit Aunt Cara but her last minute call–“Please get a six-pack of lemon seltzer and two giant chocolate bars”–demanded I park and shop. A Miracle Mart stood next to The Corner Store, another sign of change. It had only been a year since I was last this way, but it was jarring to see cement block and huge advertisement-covered windows jammed against aging timber saddled with the beloved wide sagging porch. A new job had kept me career-engaged. Aunt Cara had been busy getting unhitched from her husband of thirty years, then travelling. I had seen him one last time over a year ago, right before they split up. And now my uncle–no, he was just Lars now–was far away and she languished, alone, weakened.

I entered The General Store, of course, and there was Mr. Brunfeldt with his ancient stained Tigers baseball cap and a clean white long apron stretched about his middle. There was a story to that cap but I had forgotten it and wasn’t going to inquire. I was surprised to not see him chewing a cigar.

“There’s Gen Whitaker, how you been? Been a year, hasn’t it?”

A passing customer with a stuffed backpack nodded at me. I didn’t know him but likely he’d know me after I left thanks to Mr. Brunfeldt. I noded back.

“Hey, Mr. Brunfeldt. Tired from the five hour drive, eager to get to my aunt’s. Where’s the lemon seltzer?”

“Fancy or cheap?”

“Both, not sure what Aunt Cara prefers.”

“The cheap.”

I got both and studied the chocolate. Same dilemma. I got the best of four choices, two fat bars.

I paid him and offered a summary. “Been busy with my new job as Manager at the circuit board plant in Wicks. Still single. Looking for a good dog now that I got a town house. You?”

His eyes warmed in satisfaction. “Well and good for us both. Profits are up with people moving in from greater Wicks area. Jerry is finally gone with his girl over the mountain. My Myra is fair to middling. Isn’t it bad luck Cara got that mess? ”

“Pneumonia, nothing exotic. Of course, she’s getting on just a little like so many. Took its toll. As you likely know. Good for Jerry and his girl.”

The man with the backpack was tapping his foot behind me. I paid and left.

“She shoulda got the pneumonia vaccine like I did,” he added with a sudden cough to underline his smugness.

I let the door slam shut, its little silver bell tinkling furiously. Didn’t he ever replace that tinny thing? Pelton was the one place I’d hoped to avoid from here on out but that wasn’t likely with my mother’s only sister here. Not that I resented her, no. I just had little time for crises and miscellaneous causes. Still my very favorite aunt from both sides, and it had scared me when she took ill like that.

The main street and its buildings held a colorful tinge in late afternoon; sunlight glazed the winking store windows. Two blocks long when I was growing up just a street away, it looked as much as four now. I squinted in the amber light, then decided to stop for coffee. Not Starbucks but maybe better, a new shop with a black and red awning and in the center a small gold dragon. Fire and Water was its name. Not a bad choice, if out of place in provincial Pelton.

The room came to view through a soft murkiness as overhead lighting was spare. Electric candles were flickering upon wood tables, benches at the longer ones and chairs at smaller. There were drapes of red velveteen pulled back from two tall and narrow windows; dwindling light filtered through and on the counter.

“A grande iced, half-caf mocha with almond milk, no whip,” I announced to the barista, hardly believing this was offered or done right. But Hanna got on it. There was a young man humming along with the music track as he cleaned. All in all, a pleasant place.

Seven other customers had their heads in computers or phones. I felt a quiver of envy, wishing I could sit in quiet privacy, too. Guilt visited me with a thump in my heart. I was there for Aunt Cara, after all. It was not vacation time for me. She needed me. I took my chilled coffee, left a nice tip and vowed to return.

A few steps past the door was an alley. Above the entry was hung a sign: “Dragon Alley.” I looked down at the short end where there were two doors, both closed, one painted pine green, one deep red, address numbers above each. Apparently apartments or other businesses. I couldn’t recall what it had been but it looked curiously inviting, in an odd way. I hurried on to my SUV and headed to Aunt Cara’s. My diaphragm quivered at the thought of her drowsing in bed, mouth slack and her hair matted. Like a pitiable old lady. I nearly wept at the possibility.

******

“Here she is, here’s my girl, Genevieve!”

Aunt Cara wrapped her thin arms about my neck and pulled me in for a long one. It ended when chesty cough erupted. I waited, alarmed, until it faded, then pulled my suitcase to the staircase. She was propped up on the couch, her worn Pendleton blanket pulled close to chest. Just fifty-five, twenty years older than I yet she looked aged for a moment. Still, tenderness and elation filled me, so relieved was I to see her up at all.

“I thought you’d never get here, I was waiting all day. I know that traffic can be terrible. Look at you, good as gold to come see me! Cropped hair, looks pretty, but what’s that on your wrist?”

I covered the tattoo with my sleeve. “Just a bird. Time for a full once-over later, Aunt Cara. Let me look at you. You’ve lost about ten pounds and your color is, well, paler. But you’re sitting up. With a side plate of crackers and cheese!”

“You now I won’t starve. Marie’s just next door, you recall her?”

“I do, a great neighbor. I need to get your seltzer so you can cool your chest and swallow that snack. And I see pills.”

“The last of antibiotics, dear, that’s all. Well, a couple more things.”

As I got the ice for her seltzer, I shook off tentacles of fear. It was a new feeling in this home. Cara was always the hearty sunflower to my mother’s hothouse orchid. I was used to seeing her ruddy-cheeked, busy with work and chores and hobbies, volunteering. A hospital administrator, she was exposed to all sorts of things yet covered at work for those who got ill. She flew from one season to the next with nary a sore throat. Until this late summer, after a trip to Alaska. After she was left on her own.

“Here you go.”

She sipped on it with gratitude, popped a pill into her mouth, then another. “I know, it’s weird! It got a hold of me when I was in Anchorage, I think, just felt so tired, chest heavy in that beautiful air. In the mountains I thought, altitude. But it stayed on, a cough and shiver here and there. By the time my plane landed, I felt feverish. And then it hit me when the taxi driver let me out at the curb. I had to ask him to take my suitcase to the door, I was so weak.”

I had heard it all before but listened intently. “Humiliating, no doubt. I’m sorry, Auntie. I’m glad you didn’t end up in the hospital. It worried me so much but have come when I could. I’ll do all I can for the next week.”

She flapped her hand at me as if it was no big thing. “I’m not contagious, that’s good. But pretty wiped out. Still, I’ve had good help here and there…I knew I’d be better soon.”

“Marie is such a good friend, and I’m sure the book club, your hospital friends pitched in.”

She nodded, turned her head toward the bay window. I followed her dreamy gaze. Early fall sunset spreading its vibrancy, a warm backdrop behind other houses. No skyscrapers poking the dusk, no rumbling, clanging metro train to interrupt us.

Aunt Cara pushed herself up to sit a little taller. “Did you see it when you went to The General Store?”

“What? I could be in another town altogether, it was odd.”

“That fancy new coffee shop.”

I held out my iced mocha. “Yes, been there. Not that fancy…”

“Ah, but it’s excellent, right? Such an interesting place!” She gave me a slow, liquid smile, then lay back.

“You don’t like coffee that much, do you?”

“But the teas, they’re wonderful, homemade herbal blends.” She tilted her head at me. “Why not go on up to your room and unpack? We’ll order take-out soon, then we can talk until I’m ruined by all the news and excitement.”

Her laugh followed me up the stairs, then dissolved into a fit of coughing. I paused on the top step, listening to the deep bass of it. How it must hurt. I hurried to the guest room, really my room, unpacked the basics all the while thinking of quiet, steady and highly ambitious Uncle Lars. How I wished they had never divorced. So she wasn’t alone and could count on his level head and hearty ways. So he’d read to her, regale he with stories. But that was my fantasy. He was long gone, back in his native Sweden with his old company. Damn, why did he have to love work more than Aunt Cara? But I missed him, the good parts I’d known.

I ran back down to find her up and at the window, holding on to the forest green wingback chair, hand to chest, her thoughts far off. She looked so wane and small. Was she thinking of Sweden, too?

“Aunt Cara, you need to take it easy!” I bit my lip as a rush of tears blurred my vision.

“Yes,” she agreed, taking my arm, feeling light as a rag doll, “so let’s order Thai and then talk, talk, talk. Or you talk, Genevieve. I’ll listen.”

I tucked her in at the couch, took her order, called the Thai place from the screened back porch. I wanted to breathe the clear fall air one moment. A crickets’ chorus rounded out the night; a wave of longing rose and fell.

******

It was early and I was not in work gear but scrambling eggs with dill, shredded cheddar and sausage in  Aunt Cara’s white and blue kitchen. And she somehow shuffled down the stairs most of the way before I got to her.

I took her arm. “I wanted to serve you breakfast in bed.”

“Had enough of that.” She paused to catch her breath. “I want to sit with my niece in sunshine. Well, it’s peeking out behind clouds, it’ll be brighter soon.” She planted a damp kiss on my cheek. “Let’s go to the screened porch.”

“It’s cold there.”

“I have blankets for us and we have coffee and tea. We’ll be cozy. Who, by the way, is gorging on all that?”

“We are. Well, you’re going to eat little of it.” I finished the eggs and toasted two slices of bread, but helped her out to the porch then went back for two mugs and plates.

“Now, cover up or we’ll have to go back in,” I ordered and she did as told, tossing one to me.

The birds and squirrels were talking and we were, too, when her cell phone rang from her sweatpants’ pocket. Aunt Cara clutched an armrest and listened. Five rings, then nothing. She picked at more sausage as I told her about my co-workers. The phone rang again, three times, then nothing and she pulled the phone out, glanced at it then put it away.

“Someone important?” I asked, gathering dishes.

Her ivory skin flushed with pink. “Oh, just a neighbor. I’ll get it later.”

But as I busied myself in the kitchen she made her way back to the living room, blanket pulled snug about her. I could just hear her muffled voice. In a few moments, she wandered back in.

“Where did you put that chocolate?” she asked.

“What? At seven in the morning? You barely ate half the breakfast, your blood sugar will go haywire.”

“What am I, your charge? Goodness, Genevieve, give your ailing auntie her chocolate. It is elixer for goddesses and humans. Then I have an errand for you.”

“Where?”

“To Dragon Alley. Right by the coffee shop, Fire and Water.”

I balanced a big plate with silver edging on sudsy hands. Pointed to chocolate bars at the end of counter with my jutted chin.

“Whatever is there? I saw it yesterday. A little sign above an alley.”

“Right. I need you to pick up a blend of herbs for me–there’s an herbalist in business there.”

I squinted at her, trying to discern more of the truth.

She laughed. “No, not that sort of herb! Justin is a certified herbalist, he makes natural medicines. He’s helped me so much, you have no idea, even the doctor was amazed how well I seemed the last visit. He doesn’t agree with it all, but he doesn’t forbid me–as well he should not.” Eyebrows wiggled up and down and she laughed again.

And her face slowly softened as if time was melting away despite stubborn cough and weakness. It was like seeing my mother come back to me, those expressive brown eyes, the same full bottom lip and slender top one that gave generous smiles, how her brown hair with bits of shining grey swirled around her thin cheeks.

I caught my breath but shrugged. “Anything to make you get better faster. When does his shop open?”

“He’ll have it waiting for you in an hour.”

******

I ordered a hot regular coffee at Fire and Water, then lingered a moment until Hanna the barista had a moment. There were two others helping customers so I caught her eye again.

“Can you tell me something about Dragon Alley?”

She snickered.”Oh, that’s just for the fun of it, but the herbalist is excellent. Even in uptight Pelton people have finally agreed some products are useful. I go for the skin care.”

I had to admit her skin was smooth and bright even in the shadowy shop. “So he can help sick people?”

“He has, from what I hear. He doesn’t do any harm…and he owns this coffee shop, too. He moved here from, hmm, maybe British Columbia? He has a little bit of accent.” Lynn leaned closer. “He’s nice looking, too–doesn’t hurt as far as some are concerned. He’s a very good boss.” She ooked at my wrist. “Cool tatoo.”

I glanced down at it. “Thanks.”

She was tapped on the shoulder by the young man, so got to work.

I marched to Dragon’s Alley to find out who this person was who was feeding my aunt herbs and flowers and likely other mysteriously contrived concoctions.

It was the door to the right, Hanna had said; the place to the left was his home. As I reached for the door handle, I spotted the narrow brass name plate on the building: Justin Q. Michel, Herbalist. She entered.

The rush of air was redolent of so many scents I couldn’t separate one from the other. The effect was less disorienting than enlivening though I felt momentarily faint. I grabbed a stool by a narrow window. Rows and rows of clear glass bottles were shelved around the room. Tins of teas and pretty packets of sachet lined the counter. When I heard footsteps, I turned and found myself caught off guard by the disarming gaze of Justin Q. Michel.

“Good morning! How may I help you this lovely day?”

His accent was a lilting, gentle French–perhaps French Canadian, I guessed. And he was at least her aunt’s age, rangy but sturdy, his strong boned face weathered by wind, sun and extreme temperatures. Falling over his lined forehead was a curve of steel grey and wavy hair; it reached his sweater collar. Was he an agrarian, an adventurer or what? Justin barely tilted his head at me.

“I’m here for my aunt’s herbal medicine, for her cough.”

“Ah.” Justine set his feet apart, placed fngers and thumbs together in a tent shape. “You must be Genevieve.” It was prounounced the French way, soft, pretty. His hand then extended over the counter top; she took it. “She told me all about you, and now you are dispatched on her errands. How good of you to help her.”

“Of course, I’m her niece. Her son lives in Europe.I’m five hours away. I worry about her here, alone, but she never gets sick. I mean, she did get sick and I was so busy that I…” I pressed my lips together. What was I going on about? I needed the medicine. “Is it ready?”

“Yes, surely you worry, not living close enough to watch over her. But she undertands.”

He already had the order waiting and rang me up. I took the package, hesitating.

“She is in good hands, you must not be stressed. She has fine friends. She is strong and good-hearted, loves life deeply. She will be well soon, up and going again. I will personally see to it.”

“Okay, thanks for the reassurance. ” I eyed him. “Say, why that name of the alley? Is it something you did? It is quite fantasical.”

Justin laughed. “Dragons. Well, they were powerfully majestic according to some, beasts of destruction according to others. Were they real or fantasy creatures dreamed up by those who needed to believe in them? Does it even matter? We believe what we need to believe, eh? I believe in what speaks to our health, may connect us to wisdom, to the heart and spirit of life.” He lifted his hands, palms up. “And a good name to remember, right? It helps point the way to something different, to the power of nature’s healing.”

“Good answer. I think. And Aunt Cara is a romantic, a dreamer deep down inside, no wonder she likes this place.”

“Yes, she is; our Cara is… a good woman. Send her my best wishes.”

I thanked him, left, got in the SUV and suddenly felt rudely awakened.

“Our Cara.” It was Justin. It was he who helped her, was there for her, was important in recovery from her loss, the illness. Or maybe he was there before the divorce, she would never know. But she almost got it. Aunt Cara had been a woman often left to her own devices, someone who hoped to share a life more fully than Lars could ever manage. She was one to dance in the street, to try to count stars, to swing on the hammock while reading aloud the meaning of flowers. Who went the extra mile for her staff, still did for many others. Not because she had to. Because she cared and could not do otherwise. After Gen’s mother had died, Aunt Cara was there lifting me up with letters and  packages of pear jam and homemade brownies, phone calls to tell me I was going to make it, I was well-loved.

Now Cara was watched over by one Justin Q. Michel, herbalist. She was not lonely, anymore. Things were changing in Pelton, and even more for Aunt Cara.

When I arrived with the prescriptive plants, I held her close. Aunt Cara patted and rubbed my back like she had when I was a small child. Then they ate Thai leftovers on the couch.

“What is the tattoo, Genevieve?”

“A crow. He kept watch at my building for three years. Sat in an old oak tree, watching all, and sometimes he flew down to squawk at me. At least, I thought he tried to talk to me or maybe fuss at me and I always looked for him, even named him Cyrus. He was a comfort during that last terrible job that made me dread each work day for years. And then one morning Cyrus wasn’t there. Not dead to my knowledge and not lame. Just gone. He had moved out, moved on, found a better spot. I took it as a sign. I quit my job, got this new one and moved to another place. Now all is well.”

“And I thought you were the realist among us!” Aunt Cara chuckled.

“Aren’t I? Sometimes you have to interpret reality new ways.”

“That’s my girl, my Genevieve!”

“True, I am always and forever your girl.”

And that was the gist of the story in funny old Pelton, less me helping my aunt and more us helping each other. Sometimes, too, an old hometown is misunderstood or it changes, like magic.

Friday’s Poem: A Call to the Heart

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Nothing can be saved but that
we heed the call to our humanity,
take up hearts and minds  to
stave off the deafening winds
of disregard and retribution.

Our world has not yet perished.
These lives we carry withstand
errors and woundings, the heave
of grief and swell of need.
But it cannot hoard emptiness
that pretends as if it is fullness or
ignorance as if wisdom, and fare well.

Let not any thought render useless
the import of daily dreams and acts.

Instead create right and good of little,
be amazed, enamored of one another,
find strength in a more willing spirit
and walk with expectancy into that
center where light cannot be hidden.

Nor ourselves, though rent by hardship,
no less valiant, not undone, unmoved.

Nothing can be saved but that
we heed the call of our humanity.
Buoy up, protect heart and mind
then combat this maddening noise
of destruction and revenge.
Be one among the many who hold fast,
remind yourself this is necessary,
it is humane as it is brilliant:

to build the courageous engine of hope
even when hope may beg to flee.

(Photos taken at a Romani Festival, 2013.)

From Fire to Rain, Power to Power

iPhone late sumer, early fall 050
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I have long found weather fascinating– amazing, perplexing, harsh and daunting but always impressive. Its complexity, changeability. Beauty, strangeness, danger.

I grew up living along with four seasons: snow-driven winters and hot, humid summers, unstable yet welcome springs and the glorious palettes of crisp autumns. That meant four kinds of clothing for activities: thick woolens, snow boots, hats, scarves and mittens; delicate dresses, shorts, sandals; rain coats and umbrellas; light-to-medium sweaters with long pants. Being prepared for 12 months meant unboxing then boxing back up items just as one became adapted to the current season.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I discovered the novelty of basically two seasons: Rain and No Rain.

The last three days presents me with the giddy relief of this juxtapositioning: woolly clouds bunching up and releasing precious moisture onto cracked and dusty earth. Onto me. Areas of bare skin are soothed by a long-missed pleasure. An extravagant sweep of wind aids me in my walk as autumn leaves spiral then are swamped in puddles and pools, a few overflowing drains. I breathe more deeply than in months; it’s as if clarified air carries its gifts into hungry red blood cells. But even four days ago there were layers of smoke, vert little brisk walking if any. I am so grateful for autumn’s quick start.

Weather affects all of us, now more than we thought it could. Other places have been tormented by hurricanes and earthquakes and my heart cries out for those ensnared by chaos and loss. More temperate weather events and our safety seem less like something we can count on, and so we live in ever more anxious times. Nature does as nature will do, that is clear, and we adapt, experience threats, know great losses.

Pacific Northwesterners meanwhile are working and playing on and around the Cascadia subduction zone, too, and it gives us pause as we consider the projected catastrophic earthquake that likely will someday occur. There additionally are 18 volcanoes in the Cascade Range, most of which have been active, with 7 so far rumbling and spewing in the last 200 years. There was the eruption of Washington’s Mt. St. Helens in 1980 that choked even our city with ash. I can see Mt. Hood, majestic and formidable, when I cross our many bridges or drive east into the Columbia Gorge.

But lately here in my valley–between the active volcanic Cascade Range and the Tualatin and Coast Ranges–it has been a burning summer, a crackling expanse of vast place and time, fiery days to nights into days and more nights. My body basked in a fan’s whipped-up air, (even hot air) and the trusty AC in most living areas. At one point, 57 days elapsed without rain and then came a short drizzle, then more weeks of no rain. The average temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit but it hit 100 with no problem. And Oregon’s wildfires raged on with over 640,000 acres ravaged at last count. And this wasn’t the worst fire weather on record though it affected many more people right here. With the arrival of the rains, wildfires in the Columbia Gorge are smoldering, perhaps soon extinguished. Fire season may be wrapping up at last.

Those of us either born in the Northwest or who have lived here some time (25 years for me) know there will be doses of very warm weather with bright sunshine off and on for another month. And then the driving, dribbling and chilling, gusty rain will make itself at home and remain until next late spring. Snow has already fallen in the Cascades; ski season may be excellent this year. Unsuspecting newcomers arrive in droves early to late summer and are overjoyed by our dramatically green, dry landscape and sparkling skies, not considering how much rain will fall the remainder of time. We have lots of bars and coffee houses that are even more stuffed in winter. You have to appreciate cloudiness and accept being wet to put down roots.

It is not hard for me, the rainfall. Darker starts to the day with earlier nightfall gentles body and brain, can challenge with cold dampness and insularity but also delight. It works well for writers or for anyone who digs deep into greater depth and breadth of solitude to ponder, dream, create. And my daily walks do not stop. I only hike less in sloping hills, mountains, woodlands–too much muddy trail and threat of landslides. And after the fires, the earth is far more unstable than usual. But hiking can wait for the eventual drying out.

Rain. Water that sustains and wields great power. I chart a new sort of compositional latitude and longitude, how these movements map the autumnal sky. Rain music lifts on a breeze, sinks with a lull, peaks as water pours down and drums roofs, branches, pavement and dirt. The constancy of it. Syncopation and freshly scored tempo. The misty auras of light that rim a horizon and seep from behind mountains–for sun will come and go as rain accumulates, runs with rivers. It fills me with bittersweet longing amid a bone-deep calm. Moves me as it cleaves to growing things, a sheen on all it touches. Teaches me stillness within the whorls of beauty and motion.

I have had enough of blazing blue sky and relentless heat and sweat that thickens along my spine. Had enough of rapacious fire, daily warnings of more being ruined. Perhaps I am weary, too, of my own unexpected life strife, a summer of high hopes and pointed, hard truths for myself and my family. Love and its fractures. Faith that begs to be tested. Strength that shows at times only a fair resolve. Summer can paint everything glorious even amid weakness or pain. But fall and winter…they offer different architectures of internal and external space, those pops of color alongside greyness imbued with scent and sign of rain.

I welcome the wet season. Can manage the shift, shape it into this or that while long blue shadows spread over my desk. What I thought was cool silence is only a breath between notes of rain…like a skirt that is all hidden pattern until it flares in every direction when its wearer begins to dance. My own dances are formed of gratitude, head bowed or lifted high, soul brimming as rain soothes and charges me. Just Monday spontaneous movement unearthed tears as I watched rain streak the air, a tide of tension coming forward, moving away. And there was a good peace felt as God’s presence. There are days I just trust that whatever comes, life will move me along one way or another, even if carried by angels.

The senescence of autumn, its leading to winter is a kindred state for me. A friendly reminder of who I am and yet may become in the midst of upheavals of many sorts. They can bring us each into bolder maturity, richness of spirit as the miracle of life displays inventiveness. Even as circumstances–and weather–inform and press us to be patient. To hold steady, offer a hand. Attend even the ache of it, and then make better where the good must be done.

 

Since I have not yet photographed rain much this year, I wanted to share farmer’s market scenes enjoyed well before rain visited. How fortunate to partake of the abundance; I do not forget this as I peruse the options for healthy food, alone.

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A Last Summer Caper

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Junie sincerely hoped this person, this Guy, wasn’t going to fall for either of them but just in case, she was prepared for it. She had a handy store of diverting one liners, sizzling retorts. After weeks of correspondence he wrote he’d be passing through to pick up his cousin, Dale, and then they’d both be back to college. So, he said, wouldn’t it be good to at last meet in person? Junie supposed it just might. Her sister, Marta, could have found herself indisposed but no, she’d been excited. They had only been writing each other this last month of summer. It all started  after her sister’s friend mentioned him; she knew Dale, the cousin Guy was picking up on the way to Hartford College. They were both enrolled, it seemed. Guy was supposed to be “awesome” per Shelley’s descriptions and also Dale’s. It was complicated info thus, unreliable.

Junie was unmoved but it was Marta, anyway, who was informed about him. She was the one who intended on writing him from the start.

“But my handwriting is atrocious.”

“You could just type a letter, that’s the best way, more distant at first,” Junie said, tapping her fingers on the Olivetti’s worn keys, pausing midway in her poem. “You’re a very good typist.”

“You’re much better. And you form a convincing sentence so well….”

Marta gave her that easy-breezy smile she put on to sway someone yet undecided. It was her persuasive beguilement. Junie had practiced that look but her face just came across silly and insipid in the mirror no matter how much practice. She guessed it was because it was unnatural, a false presentation. Marta was her big sister if barely a year older at 18, but you’d think Junie had been a stray they took in to give Marta a toy or victim, depending on the older girl’s moods. It was absurd; it was Junie who had the common sense. Even a dash of flair all her own. But not the flashing, blinding lights of charismatic looks.

“No.” Junie walked out of their room. “Get another lackey.”

“Sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking about… I always have you!”

“Not for much longer–then what’ll you do?” Junie muttered.

But she became intrigued by the creative possibilities of composing improved–no, fake letters–to an unsuspecting male using a nom de plume. Well, using Marta’s name.

So it commenced. Marta dictated the bulk of each letter, Junie would type it on the onion skin paper she loved, and later after the first read and approved it Junie would go back and write a new and amended letter, soon more accentuated with her own content. She could not restrain herself. She edited her sister’s essays and term papers so felt this was much the same: a happy improvement of basic, boring text.

Marta’s letter:

Dear Guy,

This is the third letter in two weeks! Thank you for writing me back, it was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–such fun! I am not the water fan I could be, I suppose.

I got up late today, then played tennis with Shelley and I won. I like to compete, do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club, water cress salad and sliced fresh peach for dessert. I love fruit, it’s sweet and does no harm. I even picked strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. The only think I didn’t like was the dirt that got into everything. But worth it!

Anyway, do you play tennis? It’s one sporting event I have liked as spectator and player since childhood.

This week-end I am going to the movies with Shelley. Some action flick, not sure what it’s called. Bet you’d like it–lots of cars in it. You do have a car, don’t you? I drive my mom’s at times but we’ll see what I get when I graduate next spring.

Hope to hear from you soon!

Your friend, Marta

Junie’s edited letter:

Dear Guy,

This is the third letter in two weeks; thank you for writing back. It was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–that sounds far superior to what I’ve been up to in the ‘burbs. I ride my bike, jog. I’ve always wanted to learn to fish, but my father says I have no talent for fly fishing. I need to learn more, even give it a whirl on my own. Where do you go and what do you catch? What sort of bait do you use? Is there a special rod you use? I’d be grateful for tips to get started.

I got up late today but played tennis with Shelley and won. I thrive on competition–do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club where I ordered a chef salad topped with tuna and for dessert, a double chocolate brownie. I am fanatical about good chocolate, it’s a weakness I hear, but I contend it’s the perfect reward for any job well done. I did pick healthy strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. Then I dipped a dozen in chocolate. But I love getting out into nature, availing myself of its bounties. Even the bugs that flit and creep about are extraordinary to me.

This week-end I’m going to the movies with a couple of friends. Some action flick. It is full of car races, yes! I dream of becoming a race car driver after I see those movies and when I get my hands on Mom’s car… Do you have a car or at least like to drive? I might get lucky one day and get a sports car. That’s a goal, actually.

It’s excellent that you made it through the first college year, but what are you studying? Liberal arts or sciences or a mix? You write well. I haven’t decided where to apply but not likely Hartford–too close to home.

Look forward to hearing back.

Your friend, Marta

This went on for over seven weeks. Now he was due to arrive. Junie thought she’d done a good job at appealing to him, getting his curiosity stoked. She could not have left all that up to Marta, she had the imagination of a squid. She had other strengths than Junie. Guy–with a name like that, he might be be insufferable–seemed pleasant enough and smart given his brief but emphatic responses, a little macho but not so you’d refuse to hang out to see what else was there. It might work out for them. In the meantime, she was having more fun that she thought possible. Junie decided she ought to find a couple more pen pals and correspond for real next time.

But she did feel an odd stab of guilt: she had, of course, overstepped. She worried about Marta’s capacity for dealing with Guy’s once he was here in the flesh. But Marta had a way with people that made them want to follow her anywhere.

And physical attributes some might pronounce as spectacular. of course, Junie had seen her at her worst and knew how hard she worked at being a five star dazzler. Junie allowed nature to take its own course, let things fall as they may. It hadn’t hurt her much, it just hadn’t advanced her. Since she was reasonably intelligent, it didn’t aggravate her except for moments here and there during her whole and entire seventeen years when people met them and without fail leaned toward Marta and gushed about how pleased they were to finally meet her, she was so beautiful, what a popular gal. As if they had been waiting  to see her in the flesh with bated breath for eons. Like some movie star when it was only the big fish in a small fishbowl phenomenon.

Sometimes they didn’t even notice Junie standing there. Still, that made it easier to observe details as desired, then get back to more worthwhile activities. Like writing in her journal the countless petty, moving, surprising, infuriating details of life so far.

Maybe she felt sorry and pleased at once about these letters because she knew this was one area Marta had not peaked. Might never do so. There was an art of exchanging words, uncommon value of incisive communication. Letters were gateways to intimacy especially if one also had a willingness to say this is who I am, warts and all. Well, not that but at least being a less contrived person. Not so with Marta. It was necessary to present the best if most shallow front at all possible costs; it cost her in more ways than one but she didn’t see it yet. But Junie wanted to believe there was a deeper Marta who would be willing to show an unpolished toe in the light.

But did all this give Junie the right to alter her sister’s words drastically? Was it fair to be sneaky? To play a hoax on an innocent man? It was, in fact, underhanded. An entertainment, honestly. And what if he got mad at them both, figured out something was haywire? Then Marta would have her in her sights, too.

And Marta was already down on the porch, swinging her feet on the bench swing. It didn’t occur to her to wait, then casually answer the door. She was primed and ready to meet the latest prince who might sweep her off her feet. Junie’s face was pressed against the screen of their bedroom window and from this vantage point she would just see the approach to the house. She could hear well enough. Their plan was, if it all seemed a wash, Junie should come down and interrupt their conversation.

At half past one, Guy’s car rolled up to the curb. It was a blue 1983 Lebaron Coupe with a huge dent in the front fender. Junie clucked her tongue but Marta now arrayed herself along the banister in anticipation. The driver door opened and out popped Guy as if on a spring, trim and of average height, brown hair a pleasant shagginess, energetic stride taking him to the house. He held out a hand as Marta descended. She welcomed him with both of hers like a hostess, chatting gaily, when he looked up as if distracted or he was expecting someone else there. Junie stepped away from the window.

“Guy! Come on up. I’m so glad to meet you at last, sit with me,” Marta said with all the warmth she could muster. Guy obliged.

He was, Junie knew, not quite right: average nice looks, a bit short, slender, not tan enough, not jock enough, not magnetic enough. Junie suddenly felt terrible. He would fall for her sister in sixty seconds then be deflated by Marta’s quick dispensing of things: a crash landing.

She debated whether or not to go down. If the staircase didn’t descend right in front of the front door, she’d tiptoe down and eavesdrop in the foyer. Oh, why not? She’d do it, walk right outdoors to get her own view, give input, save Marta. Be a decoy so Marta could beg off.

“Hello, hello, who have we here this auspicious afternoon?” Junie stepped out the door, turned, put  hands on her hips and flashed her teeth, which were good.

“Why, it’s my new pen pal, Guy Alton, you remember, don’t you?” Marta was smiling but her eyes warned her to tone it down.

“Of course I do, a pleasure to meet you, Guy. I’m Junie, her sister.” She sat between the two, pressing Marta over with a quick shove of her bony hip. Guy smelled sort of tangy, maybe Old Spice. No, better than that, green leaves and sweat. “You’re the friend of Shelley’s cousin, Dale, correct? Now that’s clear, what do you think of my sister? You’ve been the mystery man a long while– the tension has been killing us. Me.” His jittery thigh touched hers so she moved it, scooted closer to Marta.

Guy snickered as he cast a hand over his forehead, then left it there as he propped his head up, elbow on back of the swing. “Junie. Well, I’m a bit confused. Dale said–”

“Confused about what?” Marta widened those maple brown eyes, pouty lips curving upward. “Dale said what, I’d like to know?”

“Yes, tell all, Dale said what of which of us? Or was it Marta, my gorgeous sister?” She couldn’t help but turn to look him in the eyes. Clear deep blue, like inviting summer pools.

Guy shifted uncomfortably. Perhaps better to get away from overbearing sisters, one pretty as noted, the other really curious. But he stayed put.

“Well, Dale did say and so did Shelley that Marta was the goodhearted life of any party and lovely while Junie was talented, outspoken. Different. I mean, you two ladies were different.”

A hum of uncertain silence met his words. Junie crossed her arms across her chest, suppressed a smile. He was so close she could hear the soft wheeze of each inhale and exhale of breath. Marta pushed off the floor with a sandaled foot, making the swing move.

“That’s the truth, we’re like night and day,” she said. “So can we start over? Tell me about your trip down here and if you’re looking forward to more college and so on. I feel we’ve just picked at the outer wrappings.” She elbowed her sister to get off and leave.

Junie about said she knew Guy better than that and she shared quite a bit but just caught herself. It was too late to fix the thing, Marta had fluffed her feathers a little, shown interest, and he was not missing much so far. Best to disappear. Let things take their course. It was more fun than she’d had in awhile but it was over and done.

“Yeah, that’s right, she’s the hot shot, I’m the lowly caterpillar of a scribe who’s not yet come out of her voluminous cocoon. I’ll let you two get on with it. But I have to say I’m pleased I got to meet you, anyway.” She slipped off the swing, cocked her head at him.

“Yeah, me, too… but I’m trying to figure it out.” He sat forward, forearms on thighs, hands clasped together and stopped the swing’s motion. “Who actually wrote the letters?” He looked back at Marta, then at Junie, who was at the door, hand on the brass pull.

Marta let loose her silvery jangle of a laugh. “Who do you think? I wrote you! I was interested in knowing you better and found it sweet to send and receive letters–wasn’t it? She just tidied and typed them for me! Credit where credit is due, of course, but I wanted to meet you. Not her.” She pointed at her sister as if accusing her.

Junie froze. Narrowed her eyes.

“I’m not so sure. I think it might have been her. Junie, you talk just like those letters are written…what’s going on?”

Marta’s mouth fell open and she stared at her sister. “Oh, no.”

Junie ran inside, slamming the door shut and then trotted upstairs, down the hallway, out the narrow door to the back sleeping porch. Then she sat on the little folding camp chair she’d kept the last ten years so she could view constellations or storm clouds or creatures in high trees. Sometimes she even dragged along her sleeping bag and lumpy goose down pillow and slept there. Alone, without distraction of sister or parents. This would be another good night for it if it didn’t rain as forecast. She gnawed at a hangnail, anxious about her sister’s reaction and payback.

A half hour later, the sleeping porch door squeaked open and shut. Marta lowered herself on a square pillow she’d grabbed.

“I sent him away. He knows it was you. I read a letter you sent him.” She yawned. “It was a good one.”

The wind rattled tangled branches of oaks and chestnuts. Clouds bunched and scudded across a darkening sky.

“He said to say goodbye and he’d write you when he gets to Hartford. He is quite intrigued by you, Junie. He was a gentleman, honestly. It’s all okay. But wow, that took real nerve, Junie.”

“I ruined it, I don’t know what I thought I was doing!”

“No, sister, he wasn’t someone I could go for but maybe he’ll become yours to figure out.”

“The guy named ‘Guy’, is that for real?…too much!”

They slapped at each other in a fit of giggles.

“He’s kinda old, 19–watch out.”

“My oh my, I will manage, especially with your long experience and nuggets of wisdom to guide me.” Junie grabbed her sister’s arm, squeezed it for emphasis. “My great letter caper, what a bust! I had high hopes it’d work out for you but he got much more interesting. It was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. And then he said he’d take you– me!–trout or bass fishing sometime and that did it.”

“Thank goodness it really is you, not me!”

“You just never know how things will really be–it’s weird.”

She slipped off the camp stool, onto the floor by Marta. They lay back with limbs outstretched when, eyes fluttering and voices screeching, the first dashes and dabs of rain raced through overhanging leaves and made tiny splashes on their warm skin. They let the brisk wetness soak them, such a relief after the interminable, fire-scouring, holding-one’s-breath-for-what’s-next summer.

 

 

Fridays’ Quick Pick/Poem: Beautiful Prison

 

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In the early morning as
visitations pause or fade,
past and future days that
will call upon one’s strength,
all bright wings and brokenness
left to such fading plum blackness,
its comforts, lessened terrors spilled as
sweet water over trespassed body, mind:

Lo, such a beautiful prison of humanness!
This right to wonder, to seek holiness
before hot tea and cinnamon bagel,
waking in shivery autumnal light
that tenders skin and bones and
illumines precious air as soul
nests within, home again,
just one sacred feather.