Saturday’s Passing Fancy: This Wintry House

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This sturdy house of seven,
how it gathered close snow and people,
the ice-light of winter a magic reveal;
how yellow circled thrumming life, a
collective heat of its dense center:
such music, affection, courage, prayer.

And she lept into the beauty of it,
dove into wide, steep snowbanks,
rode the glistening waves on her
Radio Flyer or creaky toboggan
which transported her to Alaska
or Antarctica, toward the edge of dreams.
On her tongue snow melted sweet-sharp,
water for the thirsty child
who could have been lost but was given
doorways to joy, exploratory powers to
forge freedom in December treks.

Oh, such dancing flakes sparked air, drifted
in tenderness to kiss her face,
wind sang out, trees waving bared arms;
her mittens and boots grew encrusted with snow,
feet were certain of their simple fate as she made her way.

This house with simple Christmas greetings
on door and porch goes blood deep,
felt like our hearts worn on our sleeves.

And I confess each year my spirit strengthens:

how the God of Love reaches to uphold us,
how the winters can rescue a woeful child
how wonders cannot be separated from the living
and those gone weave a music of their own

how Christmas still carries hope of peace,
a great promise of healing that cannot be undone,
a blessing of mercy folded ’round broken hearts,
how good will can reign when all else has fallen away

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Winged Nights

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Alan J. was a boy who no one quite wanted around, not really. Even if they didn’t hound him with that fact, he felt it. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance; that would be something to note, make him easier to relate to. It might have made life easier in the school yard where he was ignored, generally, and at home, where he suffered the ignoble status as youngest and smallest–a “runt” as his siblings said. He could make the fiercest faces at them (which incited more taunts) but had even less to say as the years rolled by. It was not his nature to spout off or to mumble on about things. It made many people uncomfortable. He observed and learned quickly, he asked such questions for just an eleven year old, his teachers assured his parents; he was an unusually introspective child.

Maybe, he thought, he was just not ready to tell the world what he thought of its silliness and beauty and puzzles.

Even the house, once rather grand, seemed to ignore him, perhaps in relief, as it was full of raucous activity. He could fade away into its dusty far corners. It was a big house, if now worn about the edges. Gran and Grandpop (the J. of his name: for his grandfather, Jackson) had run it as a bed and breakfast for many years, then Grandpop died. The past nearly four years she had relinquished it to her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. It had become more a home, not a business, Gran said with a long sigh–as if she missed the latter and didn’t so much crave the former, anymore. At least in its present state. She was slowing down and let them deal with the greater matters.

Wintry rainfall pattered and dashed against the roof, under which Alan J. sat with flashlight in hand, illuminating the bead board of his sloped ceiling. Once an attic, the room was a reasonable size if a bit dank, separated by a small bathroom from his oldest sister’s bedroom. Sarah was now relegated to visitor status since attending college. And big brother Gerry didn’t want the room, as he was well installed at the end of the third floor hallway, the opposite end of his parents’, separated by a guest room and bath; the second floor was primarily commandeered by Hannah and Gran though there was a also study (and bath) used by both his father and mother. Alan J. wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out getting an attic room. It suited him, and he was nagged about taking too frequent refuge in the so-named “AJ Cave.”

Grandpop used to take refuge with him in either attic room way back then if none was rented, as they loved to watch the sunset, the moon and stars from up there. The old man had a telescope which was in the den now, and he’d also read some of any book Alan J. chose, then the boy would read haltingly for his soft-spoken, hunched over Grandpop. He was the one tourists loved to see again; Gran was hospitable, unruffled but sheathed in a coolness, ever the businesswoman. But that was all a long time ago, three and a half years now. Grandpop was sometimes nearby yet not there, at all, a baffling thing.

He smiled as he studied the darkening blur beyond his window. Treetops whipped about in a glistening wind. His flashlight beam then zigzagged about the bead board ceiling, then back to his personal balcony which was long and narrow. It stretched from his small outside door to his decamped sister’s. Sarah had long ago put up a bamboo screen and nailed it to the railing and outer wall. It was decrepit but ivy she’d had in pots crept up the house and over the top into his sunny or dreary part. He liked seeing it there still. Alan J. missed her some, especially the last year when there were midnight bombs of marshmallows and chocolate drops and dumb missives thrown over the screen, at his windows. She had gotten drunk a few too many times. He’d not complained as she laughed more then, and he generally liked her surprises. Sometimes he had tossed marshmallows and miscellaneous junk back and then total madness was on.

She had at least seen him, noted his presence often. But Sarah would not be home for holidays; too much money for a quick plane trip.

It was getting closer to Christmas, a week or so now. This bothered him. Alan J. usually knew what to get people, something simple like packets of seeds for spring or a good if used book or a drawing of the brick-red covered bridge over D Street Canal or a flamingo or a race car or bouquet (his one talent, his brother conceded, was that he drew well). This year he was empty of ideas, probably because they’d had to tighten the purse strings, as mother said, so the mood was less inflated. Dad, a big manufacturing plant’s supervisor (soon to be manager, they still hoped), was laid off with the rest of the workers for six weeks, on a sharply reduced pay. That meant their allowances were suspended, other budgetary cuts made.

No, he was not yet inspired to draw much of interest, but it might still come. Or he’d come up with a crafty thing.

Alan J. stood and looked out over neighbors’ houses. The whole block had houses two stories or even one. People thought they lived in a mini-mansion but the truth was, they lived in a rambling house that looked good across the street but up close showed age, even an unmistakable neglect. Still, the view from his attic room and balcony stirred in Alan J. a sense of confidence and expectancy, as if he was a ship’s captain or an airport watchtower’s commander and there were important things to see, do and plan. He liked being able to glimpse quick scenes of neighbors’ activities, too, as darkness fell and lights cast a golden glow over inhabitants. Sometimes he tried to sketch them at their tables or lolling on porches or watering gardens. He found it all worthy of a long look.

Tonight he watched various goings-on, and the black bare tree branches and gleaming streets, and felt something like a longing with discontent, even as he smelled pot roast aromas stealing upstairs. Or he imagined it, since Gran and his mother– after she’d rushed home from her bank job–were preparing it earlier. His father had been in the basement, fixing a scratched old toaster or at least looking busy at the workbench and he’d nodded at his son, asked how the day was. Then they both fell silent. His father was down there a lot lately, and he cracked jokes less often than Alana J. would have liked, despite how corny they were.

The trash cans banged and crashed about; the wind had tossed things here or there. Another sudden crash disturbed the falling dark, and then another. It could be a homeless person or a raccoon or even a coyote. Alan J. had seen the last only one time, and he hoped to see another, so he tossed on a heavy grey hoodie and went onto his balcony to take a look.

As he bent over the railing and peered down below he just made out a scrawny figure with a backpack poking about the trash cans, tossing a couple of cans into a plastic bag. His father might yell out a window at a vagrant, as he called most who came onto their lot, but Alan J. always looked. Waited. He wondered where they came from and where they were going, what they most hoped to find. Any tossed food–even if  it was not spoiled–would be a sodden mess in winter and the thought of having to eat such a thing made him feel ill.

He’d left outgrown tennis shoes out there; they were gone faster than he expected. So he left other things in bags by the cans, like a sweater he hated (had a dog on it) and a pillow that had fuzzy yarn daisies which Sarah left behind in her closet. Gran had seen him do it. And Hannah, now thirteen and too busy for him, so she just shrugged and flounced off. Gran shook her head, said nothing.

The rummaging didn’t stop despite the inclement evening, chilled and wet. Alan J. was afraid the person might fall face first into the can, so far into it was his or her body. He shivered, pulled the hood closer. He felt like calling down. What was needed at six o’clock at night in the rainy dark? His mother called up the stairs loudly; dinner was ready. Still he felt compelled to watch and when finally he was about to go indoors and dry off, the person three and a half stories below looked up, scarf falling away from the face.

Her face, he saw as light, long hair was tossed back in a chilled gust. She stood stock still, stared at him a long moment, then slowly raised a gloved hand to him. He saw she couldn’t be so much than fourteen, maybe less or more. She was short and looked terribly thin even in a puffy jacket, face also narrow, small. Alan J. raised his hand to her in almost a wave, and a rush of feelings coursed through his body, a shock of something. He wanted to call out, ask her why she was out there all alone, or what was it she needed. But she quick like a rabbit scurried right into the street and beyond.

******

Alan J. took his perch by the bedroom window to watch for her the next three late afternoons and evenings like he was an appointed sentinel. He’d tried to recall the color of her jacket–black or was it navy?–how her eyes were, how she stood with arms dangling, a half-empty plastic bag slumped on the ground, her fingers wrapped around the top. Bedraggled and worn out was his impression and yet he thought she must have been roaming all day long and still would roam more. She had to be brave, strong. Or entirely out of luck and options. Both, he decided. But she did not return.

The fourth night he decided to get something ready for her just in case, he told himself. Hannah saw him put a sweet roll, box of crackers and slab of cheese into a bag and rolled her eyes. He liked snacks late at night–she did, too– and only told on him when he once took the last three chocolate cupcakes. He then took it all to his room, found a basket of hair stuff in Sarah’s room and emptied it onto her bed. They had used all the string last week threading together plastic glow stars, which they neatly hung atop the windows. So he got the very long, doubled piece of yarn he’d cut from Gran’s stash of skeins and tied it around the basket handle.

It had stopped raining awhile, but he had slicker and flashlight at the ready. A half hour later he caught a glint of that blond hair under the corner street lamp by their house, then saw her run to the garbage cans. He left the flashlight behind–he didn’t want to startle her– but got the basket and entered the balcony to stand at the railing. His heart was beating almost like a hummingbird’s; his breath caught in his throat. Would she look up? He was afraid if he called out she’d dash off. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Worry he’d be mean.

After she found a few empty cans and a small portion of last night’s pizza, she ate hungrily and drank from a large water bottle. Alan J. took the newly food-filled basket, placed it over balcony edge and lowered it down to the ground. It thumped on sodden earth and she glanced that way then away, then back again. It spooked him to imagine her distrust as her elfin face slowly lifted up, up, up until she might have thought she saw someone at the top balcony of the house. But Alan J. had crouched down, made himself small, and leaned against his door, yarn taut in his hands. He did not intend on being seen. It would spoil things. He could hear her run to the basket, rummage in the contents and then, right before she left, there was a tug on the yarn. After listening a few moments, he heard only crows and the slight damp wind. He stood and pulled up the basket. Empty.

Triumph.

Each night when Alan J. could manage it, he put something good in the basket. A soft scarf  no one really needed. Four dollars from the makeshift Mason jar “bank” on his dresser. A small summer sausage with a can of seltzer. A paperback fantasy novel he’d enjoyed and Tootsie Rolls. Each time he hid under cover of darkness–she came roughly around 5:30–as the girl stealthily arrived and left. She always tugged on the basket and he never came forward. It occurred to him that she was counting on him, and that made him feel good. Alan J. had a new purpose and it propelled him through the days, gave him an uncommon sense of fullness.

His family was oblivious. His father was in the basement or at the table eating or in the den with the TV muted. His mother was frantic with Christmas preparations, working on a wreath, and Gran was busy knitting and crocheting, or up to her elbows with kitchen matters. Hannah was with friends, doing homework or telling him to stop looking over her shoulder as she read–she’d pass her sci-fi book along if it was any good. Gerry was just gone; at seventeen he had a junker car and it was his freedom ticket. Plus, he worked part-time.

On the fourth night he stole a look at her. He knew she knew it, as she turned in an oddly careful way toward him, showed him a big smile. Then she dallied a bit over trail mix and a single bottle of apple juice he’d put in the basket, and raised the empty to him in a “cheers” before heading off with bright steps.

He waited to see her from then on. They didn’t speak but communicated with a look, a gesture. He wondered if she could talk, then realized she might wonder the same. Once they both looked at the stars at the same time. It gave him chills when she waved at him without even turning and kept waving as she melted into shadow.

After the seventh time it also came to him that, since she was counting on him, what would she do if he quit this? Strictly garbage can living again–unless others were doing the same as he was. It seemed almost wrong of him to ever consider stopping, yet how could he for certain keep with it? He just would.

The ninth night, three days before Christmas, there was a weather warning: rain mixed with sleet. Possibly snow but likely the dreaded black ice. Maybe she wouldn’t come at all. Maybe she’d found shelter; that would be perfect. But he filled the basket, anyway: a pair of Sarah’s worn mittens, his striped knit cap, a small crocheted throw from his reading chair. And a fat sandwich, lots of turkey with big slab of cheddar. Gran had seen him fix that at four o’clock. She’d warned him to not eat the whole thing before dinner, for goodness’ sake, or his chicken dinner would be unwanted. And then she’d put hands on hips and narrowed her eyes with head cocked to one side. Stopped him cold a minute. He kept his face impassive and waited, but she just threw up her hands and went back to her work.

The sleet hit like bits of glass on glass of the many tall windows. There was a steady fire roaring in the living room and Alan J. sat on the floor near Gran and Big Cat, her black Persian. He listened to the clicking of knitting needles. Heard his father’s footsteps as they trudged up basement stairs.  The Christmas tree, as fancy with decor as each year, was beaming at them. His mother was running quite late and Hannah was dozing under a blanket on the couch. He had worried the cuticle of his right index finger until it bled. He re-checked the time on his cell until it was closer to when the girl might come by. If she’d bother. Gran got up to check on the browning chicken so he slipped away to his room.

He put on his winter coat, went to his balcony, lowered the basket. When he looked down, there she was beneath him the three and a half stories below. And she was looking up. The lights from the house illumined her softly. Her wide eyes were dark and her hair long and straight, the color of straw but streaked with black. She was very pale, perhaps older than he thought, but not as old as Gerry or young as Hannah. She had a grown up air to her as she stood with one hand on hip, jaunty-like.

“Hey, brother, what’s your name?”

Her voice was much louder than he expected; it cut through low howling wind.

“AJ,” he called out, thinking it easier to catch than his whole name. Sleet stung his cheeks, wind seared his eyes. She pulled her hoodie closer to her face and head. He cupped his hands, said, “So here it comes.” The basket slid down over the railing.

“AJ, okay, I’m Marley! Thanks for everything, you’re the best. Saved my belly–you’re a real prince of a guy!” She grinned at him, a big smile that showed uneven teeth.

As soon as it neared her reaching hands, she sorted through it all, tucked the sandwich into a pocket, put on the hat, pulled the mittens over her gloves. He saw her slap and rub newly layered hands together and thought of their radiant fireplace. Of the delicious dinner waiting. Marley took the warm throw and put it around her shoulders and managed to tie a fat knot in the ends. She hesitated a second then pulled out the sandwich and took a giant bite, then another. He wanted to invite her in, to make a ladder and pull her up. She kept eating as he waited; they endured darts of ice and the bitter air. He wished he had stairs to his balcony and a chair for her. What a sight she made, all decked out with the added layers. Somehow she gave off cheer and this made him smile.

Gran set plates and glasses on the table, hoping for her daughter-in-law’s safe drive home. Big Cat sat alert on a window ledge, ears pricked, head turning back and forth. Gran checked to see what she was seeing. It was a medium-sized basket dangling, swaying in the air close to ground, and a slight young girl, alone. Right there in the middle of a storm, she stood eating a sandwich. A basket in mid-air? She grabbed her coat from the coat tree, rushed to the kitchen side door. As soon as she stuck her head out, the girl started, then froze, her fingers releasing the remaining sandwich fall to the ground.

“What’s going on here?”

The girl looked over with saucer eyes as Gran followed the basket string to the crouching boy at the other end. When she looked for the youth again she was gone.

“Alan J.!” she yelled up the balcony. “What are you up to?”

But she knew full well. Her hand pressed against her heart as she closed the door to shut out all the storm.

******

His mother got home and walked into a murmur of excitement. At dinner the event was all they wanted to talk about: a homeless girl and the basket idea and Alan J.’s initiative and how good of him to think of it– but, too, rather risky. Pats on the back, hair ruffled. But still, you never knew…. he should be more careful. No more good deeds that might endanger them all, right?

He didn’t tell them how many nights it had been, just that he’d noticed her once out back, so he’d given her some stuff. All he thought about was how full his stomach was, how warm the rooms and where did Marley have to go next? Gran scared her off. He felt angry. Alarm at that and sadness. Still, the bigger thing was that no one had ever called him “brother” who was not blood, nor called him a “prince”; he heard her voice ring out, carried to him on raw wind. No one had said “thanks for everything” to him like that. He found it sad, yes, but she was amazing, out there on her own, surviving somehow when he’d curl up in a ball and die. She deserved to have more than a small basket now and then, didn’t she? To have a better life, not root about for crumbs.

After dinner, he was glad to get away and scampered upstairs to do math homework. Tried to. He knew she wasn’t still out there; black ice was laid over all now, she’d at least be inside a store or fast seeking shelter. He had a name now, he knew who she was; they’d talked a little. But that was it. It all stuck in his mind like tantalizing clues.

A few minutes later there was rapping on his door. Alan J. didn’t want to answer. But Gran walked right in–he could not recall when she had done that—and sat herself at the end of his bed.

“I want you to know I’m proud of you. Grandpop would be happy to hear it, and likely he does… And I suspect it wasn’t this one time. I didn’t want to embarrass you at the table but, Alan J., you have his spirit, his kind ways.”

At the thought of his grandfather, Alan J. nearly choked up; he was the one he wanted to talk to about the girl. Gran moved closer, put a strong arm about him. The door pushed open and in came his mother and father and they, too, sat on his bed and briefly hugged him.

“But what about Marley?” he asked, tears hot as coals sizzling down cool cheeks.

“I think she’ll be back,” his mother said, laughing, “to see if you were real.”

“You’re a sort of angel for her, son,” his father said with uncharacteristic emotion.

He shook his head. “No.” His words were gulped, hard to get out. “Marley is.”

But he knew they wouldn’t understand. She’d called him “brother” though he was a stranger; she’d called him “the best” when he’d only done the easy thing. A “prince”– for what? For giving her stuff he didn’t need. Marley had welcomed his offerings, and that made him feel rounded with contentment. He’d received the most.

“Maybe she’ll turn up soon,” Gran said as she stood up and peered out the window at the sudden snow. “Getting rougher out there.”

“If she does, can we invite her inside? For dinner at least?” He wiped his nose on a sleeve and stood next to Gran as his parents fidgeted.

She sighed. “I imagine so, we’re in the hospitality business, aren’t we? Of course we are.”

He nodded, wondering if it’d ever really happen. If she’d come in, take off her puff jacket, mittens and the thin gloves and sit by the fire and warm herself, lean in at their table and share hot food. He had to shut his eyes to remember how she’d waved at him, spoken to him. She could fade so fast.

The grownups saw he had gone inside himself again so left, carefully shut his door behind them.

But Alan Jackson Havers III didn’t leave his post at the cold, filigreed window for a long while. He was watching the thickening confetti of snow soften a treachery of ice, watching his street turn into a velvety blanket of white and garbage cans turn into bright, frosty mounds. Watching for Marley with yellow and black hair streaming from beneath his favorite striped hat, a tattered angel sliding along icy sidewalks, roaming the street for good finds.

He felt his fingers itch for drawing pencils and prepared to recreate what he could of her smallness and bigness, which felt to him like unfolding wings in the great secret of darkness.

 

Friday’s Quick Pick: Farewell to Heart Concerns (for now!) and Beck’s Tree Farm

 

Well, I came through the heart angiogram just fine and am about back on my feet, after a fine conclusion: the third stent implant is not needed! Now I happily turn my attention to the Season’s preparations once more and must think about where we will get our fresh tree this year.

Beck’s Tree Farm was visited over the years as it was our favorite place to get a tree. It was bought later in life by a charming and friendly couple who finally retired from the business; now new owners apparently have other plans. We quite enjoyed the woolly sheep, our endless walks across muddy fields to discover the very best tree which we (or, if our son wasn’t there, a helper) cut down. Such panoramic views were beheld, including glimpses of Mt. Hood. The air was crisp and sweet. It was fun, felt magical to us.

Here are a few pictures from 2013 and 2015 of the annual trip out there with our son, Joshua and his children, Asher and Avery. Happy memories, indeed! (Now Asher is 13; Avery is 16, soon to graduate early from high school.) You will note Joshua is wearing a more  typical Northwest attire even in winter: shorts (if at all possible) with a heavy fleece-lined flannel and sneakers (or hiking shoes). Of course, the Santa hat is required for these Christmas forays!

No matter where we discover our next and best piney tree, then decorate and light it  up, it will be more good times shared. I can’t imagine anything better. Though I may have a less than perfect heart, it is beating strong and true, overflowing with love for my family and friends as we gather around table and tree.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Here We Go Again

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Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

So here we go again, a-swim in burgundy blood,
minuscule camera moved upstream into secrets,
the interior business of the engine of all.
The precocity of this act!
The magisterial powers of science and flesh,
the thrum of the vessel which
allows me enchantments by day and
freedoms by night–such privileges do I have.

My heart today matched my footsteps,
the trundling and climbing as the
fist-sized drum spoke of work and wear,
and small terrors and triumphs.
But it labored right, almost lightly, a gift.
My heart’s dense interior, inner sanctum
of a great house that bears my thinking,
doing and being, how it transforms into
a fortress of peace, rock of resolve.
It offers promises of loving and giving
for this small person, my passionate designs.

My simple devotion is to serve it well,
as it serves me even with remediation.
To uphold its intentions,
as it upholds me even when under fire.

So here we go again my genius companion,
tender ally, key to breath and bone,
sinew and pore, taskmaster and teacher
of wisdoms, stirred with rhythms, a symphony
weaving ache with ardor, this open heart
that sings of all I will not yet lay down.

Let us enter your temple once more;
let us bless and heal, reap more miracles

 

(My WordPress readers/friends: I was diagnosed with heart disease at 51, and have two stent implants that have worked beautifully for 15 years. Lately things has been a bit wonky so Monday I will once more undergo an angiogram, with a possible intervention. Thus, I may miss posting next week– but I intend on returning soon!)

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Whispering River

She didn’t know why the river said things to her it said to no one else but she didn’t question it. It had started when she was five, the way its talk reached out to her, told her things with the ease of breezes skimming the rippling surface.

Today Dina was twenty-five, to her surprise. Nothing had changed much, not the watery offerings or her little house or distant, industrious neighbors or the life in the river that knew many secrets and gave much to people. Its tumbling, flowing, often unpredictable energy seemed nearly like her own blood in her body, a nourishment, an ancient force coursing into and out of her heart. So she never ignored its language and it spoke to her every time she was nearby. Not always did it make sense but it offered music if nothing else. And its vital spirit took from her all her awkwardness and fear.

One of the few who accepted her river secret shares as nothing to get too excited about was her aunt. She fished so much, she knew the river talked truth; it was correct in things that mattered most. For Aunt Tandy, that was bodily sustenance and common comfort.

“It talks different to each one of us, see. It tells me where to put that line and hook and when the best times are.”

She nodded at Dina, eyes on eddy and swirl of chilled water, her muddy wellies washed clean as she went a bit deeper. The two women were dressed in wool sweaters, oilskin jackets and sturdy pants and usual boots but snow had not yet fallen again. Instead, it had reached 40 degrees; the lush white blanketing of woodland and meadow from the previous week had gone dingy, from patchy to nothing.

Aunt Tandy was never one to expect the best of things, except with fishing. But she was a moderate, even yielding cynic. This day was a bonus before ice fishing started om the lakes. She’d predicted for the winter cascades of snow and high drifts and days, even weeks of no electricity–“but do we really need it when you get right down to it?”– and a lack of general services as well as contact with others. She deemed it a decent momentous winter, not the worst.

“I’ll get basic needs met. No distractions, just daily upkeep of the cabin. Got a couple of seasoned cords lined up.” Her laugh rang out and one arm flung out to indicate their surroundings. “Oh, the snowshoeing I’ll do!”

Aunt Tandy went on like this, as though Dina didn’t  know full well about her independence and work ethic. The buck she had shot already. Her famous toughness. The woman was fully skilled in nature if not a good fit for most people. She had friends and enemies, both but never married, never worked inside, never tried to fit into the community of Marionville. And she’d counseled her niece to do the same, ignore the general populace with their boring opinions, and be glad of it.

That was easy to say. Dina lived among those who chattered and that meant gossip. It meant she was expected to interact. She spoke little and listened to everything. There were many who strove after all money could buy and an elusive true love– while she strove to live simply. Alone. If you could call living on the hill in the woods being alone. There was never a lack of creatures or activity around her. And there were other solitary ones not far off, including her aunt. And Jasper Dye. And Heaven Steele down the lower hill.

“We’re alike but not alike.” Aunt Tandy droned on, “the same blood but runs in our veins in different ways, wayward tributaries of a big river.” She smiled toward Dina then held fast to her pole, responded to a tug on her line and reeled in the captured fish. “So what about your birthday, Dina? Hey! Another fine rainbow trout, I’ll fry ’em up for you later at Jasper’s.”

But Dina had begun to climb up the muddy slope and didn’t turn around, grasping branches to pull herself up until she reached the path. Her jeans were damp on the back from an earlier slip, and her thin blond hair straggled over her eyes; she shook her head so it fell away from her forehead.

She had heard the river; she would pay heed. It was whispering about Jasper, that he was in trouble again with no one near.  It disheartened her. He toiled in earnest while his son stayed too busy in town. 

Nonetheless, she’d stop first at home, have a strong cup of coffee to burn off the chill. Fortify herself. She didn’t like to rush into things, to bother others until she was ready. People were not that easy to be around and not always glad she arrived out of the blue. Heaven Steele certainly understood how that was but she was gone, in Chicago for business again, an exhibit of her unusual wind chimes and paintings. She’d one day suggested Dina might accompany her but it was shocking to consider. Dina would never set foot on a plane. Heaven smiled at her, as if there could be a tiny possibility, anyway.

She would not leave Marionville, the land and its river. Not unless it was for a funeral, like her mother’s burial last year. And how relieved she was to be home, even though it was only a four hour drive down for two days and then back. Her one close friend, Jean, a librarian, had gone with her.

She always thought it best to know her limitations. To work with what she had. To stay true to her purpose and needs; that worked best. She could not be any other as well as herself, no matter her imperfections. This brought her peace where illusions only hampered her. Her life was what it was meant to be.

Her house was not a house in the usual manner but a large shed that was more attractive than one expected. It was enlivened by a deep periwinkle blue, pretty ivy crept along its front, small windows were trimmed in black. A rock-lined path led to a dark blue door. Towering bare oaks, a scattering of birches plus an ancient willow bounded the deep, broad yard. It had been a gardening shed and then added onto for a dog kennel when Dina was growing up–her parents had bred collies for years. 

When Dina was eighteen, her father took off for the Upper Peninsula. Her mother finally left with Linc Harlen, her friend Mary Harlen’s estranged husband. That didn’t work out but her mother stayed downstate, left the place for her to deal with.

So, Dina rented out the main house which sat snug to the road for income while she renovated the reasonably sized shed-kennel, added a simple bathroom and minimal kitchen courtesy of the Jamison brothers. She cleaned their place twice a week for a few months; it was a good bargain. The small wood stove was Aunt Tandy’s generous offering; she sided with her niece on the decision.

Dina wanted nothing to do with that house which her mother stuffed with so-called collectibles, a slew of vintage clothing and moldering magazines and bad memories. Even after she returned north to sell off her things or to sort and ship them, all Dina could see and hear was her father roaring at them both and worse, and her mother roaring right back. The mess was in them to start and it spread. It had been important to stay quiet, be transparent in a room, even more than when Dina dragged to school her worries and her growing stutter. She was mocked daily.

And so it took nothing from her to rent it out; it just brought more freedom and cash.

The stove top percolator burbled away. Warm coffee aroma swept away her pensive mood. Red the orange tabby sidled up to her while Big Dog relaxed on the huge worn leather chair. The place was now a one room home; she’d partitioned off one end for her bedroom with two folding screens. She had lived there for seven years and it suited her. Once Jasper had inquired as to whether she was going to stay stuck there forever or if she had thought of taking the family house back and renting out the cramped shed. He said summer people and hunters would pay a good price for it, though.  She’d studied him with brow furrowed until he rubbed at his beard and mumbled, “Well, then…sorry.”

Dina was happy there. Nothing went haywire, nothing made life harder than it should be and she could count on it to be a solace every day as long as she took care. As long as her animals were healthy. And she was left to live as she pleased.

She could only talk alright with her two trusty pets.

“I’m good, right?” she said to Red and Big Dog as she poured a mug of steaming brew. “I have a part-time job sorting and shelving books at the library. Get to read every new book. I have Jean as a friend, Heaven and Jasper. My aunt. It’s good. And you two are also family. But here is this birthday business…you don’t even care. Me, either…”

She got up to put more wood in the wood stove and wondered about Jasper, if his health was taking a dip, if it would hold out. She knew it might not be so sterling, anymore; he was battling loneliness, getting older than he admitted. She worried sometimes.

Today the river had seemed to indicate there was time for her to take a break, so she was, but then she should be quick. The river often offered her both yes and no, this way and that. Nothing was really clear but the currents of pale blue-green when it didn’t storm. Every movement had a counter movement and she had to let it settle in her mind. But her impressions got stronger one way or another if Dina was well focused. Listened beyond whisperings for more revelation, the core of the warning.

At five years of age, when playing by the river banks, she drew back in alarm. She heard from the roiling water, she’d almost told her parents, that a day later Mr. Jamison’s back might break as he did barn work. She had tried to say this again on the fated day: he’ll fall, he’s falling, crying. But when the frantic woman couldn’t sort her daughter’s stuttering words, Dina began to run the distance, pulling her along until they got there and found it to be about true. He’d fractured many bones as he thundered onto the floor and was ever after plagued by back pain and dizzy spells.

She was afraid of the river awhile, as it seemed to never happen other places, and she was afraid to say anything or to say nothing. What if she was wrong? What if she was too late? What if she imagined things like some said? And too, she was afraid it would only tell her bad things. It wasn’t to be so. Dina and the running waters cared for one another . She spent hours on its banks; later she entered the tricky flow for fun or work and learned more of its ways.

Dina liked primarily to talk with animals, mostly her own; she never stuttered–and didn’t have to say one thing. Her job made silence easy, too; everyone knew she didn’t speak unless necessary. All that extra help hadn’t helped her talk well so she was the quiet girl in childhood and youth, then the quiet woman.

It could be restful near Dina with her graceful manner. Her expressions, if guarded, were kindly or noncommittal. So it was all good unless a person was put off by her separateness, the sudden odd pronouncements with a harsh staccato language, and so found her presence unsettling. In that case, she was avoided and this was more frequent than not.

Everyone knew to let her be now. She finally found her life safer than she could have imagined.

Big Dog yawned, emitted a groan, then put his head on his big paws while Red sniffed about her feet with a tiny meow, tail waving. She savored the coffee as she closed her eyes. An image of Jasper came: his leaning back in bed, mouth tight, blankets pulled over his eyes. She got up and gave them each a pat and smoothing of fur, took a last lingering sip of coffee, then set the mug on the round wood table.

“Must go, lovelies. Keep watch.”

She put on her jacket, shut the door fast so neither would get out to follow her.

It wasn’t far to Jasper Dye’s, ten minutes on foot. She had thought about driving but running came naturally to her and she had good stamina. It cleared her mind; she became acutely alert with the steady beat of her boots upon the ground, her breath traversing in and out, in, out. He owned a truck; she could use it if he needed more help.

When she entered Jasper’s neat house, Rags the mutt jumped on her excitedly, then trotted to his bedroom with a whine. She found him lying in the darkened space, and was still a moment to feel the tenor of the air. It felt urgent but not so dire as she had feared.

Jasper thought he was seeing things, an apparition. He was dying, he had probably crossed over. Yellow hair alight with brightness of day, a face round with concern, hands on his forehead like pale flowers lain over his sweaty skin, a poultice of flowers and mercy, mercy and flowers of coolness, tenderness…light of life, balm for pain… 

He was too warm under the blankets and he flailed his arms, awash in hurt. She felt him cringe at his imagined weakness, these damned migraines that plagued him more lately or was it some fever or worse? He felt aflame with it, floated in an endless field of sharp stings and stabs that banded together to torment his brain, his body alive with it. He felt the room upside down but her presence righted it some. It had begun three hours ago, had dug in for forever. Where were the magic pills? Where was the end of it? He moaned, heard her speak to him on light waves, sounds carried on a fanning of air… He remembered this: he once visited Florida, sat on a dock, all breeze and sweetness, a bouquet of warmth and salt-tinged scent.. but again that pain, a drowning time, he was sure to meet his end even if he was no longer utterly alone.

Dina found his pills, coaxed him to take two with sips of cool water, then they both sat with him, Rags and her, waiting to see what came of it. She watched wintered sunlight fade, the branches outside grow blacker; saw his breathing slow, his brow smooth. Time melted like snow. She idly wondered about Aunt Tandy’s prediction, if they would have to live by candlelight this winter. Smiled at the thought.

“Dina…birthday…?” he said as he drifted, less tormented as exhaustion took him away.

She patted his arm, smoothed back the scrappy grey mane, studied his good country face. He would be better in a while. For now. He had to do something about this malady, he was under its command. She would talk to Heaven Steele when she came home to see what she knew. What could be done to work out his dilemmas.

“A fish fry…for you, you’re …so…so…”

He fell away from the waking world. Dina put the kettle on to boil and sat a spell more by Jasper’s bed, touched her lips to his broad, veiny hand. Told him he would live to be quite old, no getting out of it.

A sharp knock on the door. Into the stillness rushed Aunt Tandy and Jean.

After they assessed the situation and peered at him, Aunt Tandy put the fine trout in the refrigerator.

“Best not to worsen a man’s condition with fish cooking when he can’t even eat. Good thing you stopped by to check on him and give him his pills! Some big pain, eh? They need to find a cure.”

“It’s h-h-hard since his w-w-wife p-p-passed….”

Jean loped over, hugged her friend, then slumped her six-foot frame on the couch by Rags. “What a birthday dinner. At least we have my salad and warmish buttermilk biscuits. Tandy made you a pie. And it’s toasty in here, thank goodness Jasper made a fresh fire in the wood stove before he got hit with it or we’d be unthawing him bit by bit.”

“Sp–sp–” Dina stopped and went to the cupboard for the box of pasta Jasper always kept on hand. She held it up and announced, “Make this!”

The other two women cheered in subdued tones lest they awaken Jasper, their host, now deeply asleep. Jean got out three bottles of beer for a toast to Dina.

“Here’s to my best friend, the finest, most courageous woman I know!” Jean loudly whispered.

“Here’s to the only niece I’ll ever need around, strong and true as they come!” Tandy intoned in her alto voice.

“T-t-t to t-t-twenty-f-fii—Oh, more life!”

Dina lifted her beer and clinked it against the others as the kettle whistled and Rags yelped in agreement. She shivered with pleasure, knew the coming year would work out right, any way it came.

Still, she would go to the river early in the morning, as was her habit, to hear what she could hear. Then do whatever she might do.

Jasper stirred in the darkness, pain like a film negative, dim and more frail, at last. He heard the murmuring of love, din of laughter and ole Rags’ delight and knew he was saved by the charity of friends, the strong comfort of good women. And Dina, the quiet one, strange and lovely child of the river–Dina had known what was needed once more. He’d cook up that trout for her tomorrow.