Sal and the Phases of Sanity



Sometimes Sal didn’t know whether she was losing her mind or imagining it, but they both held weight enough to make the insides of her eyelids feel prickly, almost unbearable after looking at reality too long.

Well, it was the heat, she thought, which was bad already. Or maybe those brown speckled eggs delivered by Horace Tate to her mother every other morning. He had enough regret to poison anything, her mother said and all because he was jealous Sal’s dad married her first. Ma had a passion for those eggs in ten different ways; she cooked more egg-based meals than anyone else. Sal ate them out of duty but her dad with relish; it must have galled Horace to know it. She thought she knew what the man felt, because she was run by something unreasonable, too. If only she could figure it out.

Her different take on things might be due to the fact that she was born too early and her twin brother didn’t follow along, not of his own volition. Sal did feel something was remiss despite not knowing him beyond the dark waters of the cramped womb. But she rarely thought of him; she didn’t actually know him. It was her mother who sometimes blamed him, and even her, for Sal’s dreamy, ponderous views.

“Maybe he was crowding you out, poor thing. Or maybe if you had taken more time, you might have finished up in there better. There might have been a son, and a friend for you. But what it is, just is.”

“I don’t see how that’s any comfort, Ma. Or nice to say about us.”

“It’s not meant to be. It’s a possible explanation of your ways. Either that or you only got your father’s blood, which means it’s about hopeless.”

She laughed and gave Sal a swat with the tea towel as if this was a joke between them. Dad was a mechanic but also writer with only three poems in print so far, one in Poet’s Corner of the newspaper and one used for Lane’s Chapel and Mortuary ad. That one was more like a jingle, he admitted. The third, though, was accepted by a small literary journal and he displayed it atop the fireplace mantle. Sal didn’t know if she was proud enough of him but she liked his poem. And he liked her attempts.

Sal had read that losing one’s everyday, normal mind could be stimulated by a sudden turn of events. A shock could do it. Her friend, Marly, had told her that even a sudden shift of wind or barometric pressure could change brain function. In that case the mind might go off its usual rhythms but then get back in line, she’d added, by better weather. Sal scoffed at such a thought but who knew for sure?

This morning, like most, she had sat through classes like a puppet of her better working mind, doing what she needed to do, saying what made enough sense that teachers always called on her first. She had smiled her best which made two boys spin around and chat with her, one even saying she was too dazzling for daylight. Well, in different words, per Marly: “your sunny hair blinds me.” Sal thought him an idiot even though Marly assured her he was quite popular.

“Well, there you go,” Sal affirmed. “Idiocy, part and parcel.”

“You need to wake up.”

“Half-asleep is better. It’s a bit like a dream state and therefore easier to abide high school.”

“Creative types all go bonkers eventually–watch out.”

“Let me be full-on nuts, then. It’s preferred to full consciousness in this slight town.”

“‘Slight town’! Honestly, Sal! Where do you get this stuff?”

But Marly was right, her flights of fancy were getting out of hand. Like the time she was walking along the edge of the road and imagined she could leap over all the cars and land unscathed on the other side. Or the time she was swinging on the river rope swing and started to climb to the top of it, then onto the huge oak branches. Marly and a couple of passing guys yelled up at her.

“Hey! What are you doing? That’s too high!”

“I want to see all the way to heaven or the Arctic Circle, whichever comes into view first.”

“If you fall, you’ll see something a lot worse–please come down!”

Sal considered staying there–she liked the speculation that she might reach the ends of the world–until they left, then heard Marly’s voice shift into hysteria. She slid down on the rope, swung away from the trunk and jumped off. She was, at least, ahtletic.

More than once in the middle of the night she’d awakened sticky with sweat, the darkness claustrophobic, the night rattling about her room and making their outbuildings and trees and fields disappear under its sweeping force. She was sure she heard something or someone howling or moaning. She felt so alone.

It might have something to do with the number of losses in the past couple of years: four. Her aunt from asthma, her neighbor Jill in a car accident, her drama teacher, Mr. Johns, from cancer. And Millie, her beautiful tawny cat, a coyote’s prey. It was the easiest answer. Too much dying, not enough creation happening.

Sorrow could make people crazy enough so you’d want to step around them on tiptoe. She had seen that with Uncle Lonnie when Aunt Char died. He mowed his yard twice, then proceeded to mow everyone’s, like it or not, the riding lawn mower whacking off flower blossoms and chewing up weeds and fallen branches, spitting out stones and dirt clods out, a terrorizing, regurgitating beast. Her dad had suggested he work on farm fields, that could be beneficial to all. No luck. It went on like that for two days, a couple of neighbors yelling at him, one threatening to call the police, an old widow offering food as if that could halt his grief-fueled madness. Everyone watched him and felt more sad.

Then he just stopped mowing and also talking to people. Just Rusty, his one-eared dog. Good thing for that dog, he said later when he came back to himself six months later, or he might have stayed right on that mower, never come back. And Sal understood what he meant.

Another answer came as Sal was walking alongside the river one spring afternoon, distracted by dragonflies dancing their airborne tango, bees swiping her head before zooming into flowers. It was as if someone shouted it: maybe you was just growing up. The thought attacked her like a nettle’s sting. She sat on the hill above the riverbank in new skirt and white flats, and put her head in her hands.

This was not considered before for good reasons. She had long ago planned on keeping intelligent, determined thoughts at the forefront of her brain, staying aligned enough with ninety-five percent of the world. Staying happy. She did not intend on being swept up in emotions she didn’t understand. They got people in tough spots from what she had seen. A measured five percent of unhappiness she would commit to such things as mean snakes, bullying kids at school, tornado weather, her mother’s terrible goulash and worse Eggs Benedict, bad headaches when she wanted to keep reading or writing, and her parents’ infrequent but loud, pointless arguments which could only be worse if they got swords out. And unexpected deaths. Things she could not control no matter what. There were lesser misfortunes and some worse even then death, she suspected, but in general, these were the things that had bothered her before she turned fifteen.

Now everything bothered her. It seemed like there was something new each day. Her English teacher had a slight lisp that took center stage it was so irritating. Their house needed a new paint job and she suddenly felt embarrassed by its blistered, peeling bits. Marly said things that were obvious and irrelevant and sometimes Sal had the overwhelming urge to walk away, just leave her behind. And her hair, the sunny hair that boy liked so much, was about to be cut off, as its waves snarled and its color seemed frivolous, and who wanted to wear a long, sweaty ponytail all summer?

The world, though, was the worst, the rotten state of affairs everywhere, the news that brought it down on her like a load of twisted junk. Sal tried to not worry about all the kids being hurt, the countries battling drought, wars and environmental hazards and…it was only adding to the daily loss of her mind.

Her peace of mind, at least. The sort that is a deep and steady comfort until you’re old enough to no longer escape such outside influences with a simple adventure novel or a British romantic movie. A fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie. Her father’s wink and flash of smile after her mother told her to wash the dishes for the third time when all Sal wanted was to sit on the porch with him and watch for Venus. Please, she now yelled inside her head, the stars and planets are all I can deal with right now!

She rubbed her itchy nose and sat up as a movement on the edge of bushes nearby snagged her attention. She leaned away from the tree and narrowed her eyes. If it was a snake, she was out of there. But a quick swish through the greenery revealed what looked like pale fur. A rabbit? A chipmunk or vole? She got on her hands and knees, then lowered her head to better glimpse the creature. A tip of a nose edged out. Sal flattened her length on the grass, peered across the expanse and tried to see under the bushes. The dark nose pulled back. She lay still, breathing slowed. Moments passed. She was about to get up and return home but sunshine radiated across her back and bare legs, a butterfly paused on her forearm.

A paw reached into the overgrown grassy space, then two. She got up on hands and knees. Then froze.

Coyote. The cat eater. Sal looked around frantically for a stick or rock to throw. It wasn’t as though she had never seen them before, they were common but noted in passing. Her grandfather had shot them a few times. She had never been this close.

“Get out of here!”

Coyote lowered his head, stared up at her with his legs set apart tensed, ready to spring into a run from or toward her. Did he really think this was his territory when the land had been in her family for three generations? Sal wanted to tackle and throttle it. Was this the one that took down Mildred when she was an innocent, chasing moths or rabbits along the treeline? Did Coyote think he could intrude on others’ lives, put an end to a life, one Sal had loved–all without consequence? It seemed so. Even the natural world could not be trusted to be fair. She knew this was foolish thinking; nature was the one reliable comforter she had found. Yet her distress made her blood rush, heart flutter.

Coyote stood opposite her, relaxing some, watching her tremble in the unfamiliar four-legged stance. She wondered if he knew she was a perplexed and aching girl who came to the river to ponder her destiny. How simple it must be to hunt and eat, sleep and mate, hunt and eat and sleep and have babies. Or was it? How could she know except by imagining?

There they were, eye-to-eye, face-to-face. She was bigger, but not that much, nor was she as fleet on the ground or as wily in the ways of sheer survival. If not prey, then what was she to him? Nothing?

His amber eyes held fast, gauging who she was, what she felt, and there was such clarity of focus she feared she might cry. It was scary to be found without armour, without being prepared. It was even more unnerving that Coyote was so confident. What was it like to know exactly what you were, the true intention of your life? To know who was prey and who was not? To have the keenest senses to discern when disaster was to strike or when all was safe? She was less afraid of him than amazed, undone by being held captive in the gaze of a feral creature. Handsome, lithe and capable. Dauntless and persevering. He had a life to manage, used instinct and skills to thrive. Coyote had a purpose within the scheme of all things. Even if it was staring down a teen-aged human being.

Sal felt Coyote reaching deep inside to take stock of her. Was she a strong girl? Could she defend herself if necessary? Was she brave and cunning, too? Was she quite smart enough to appreciate this moment suspended in time? To let things be as they were? Was she paying close attention to this world? Coyote identified her in those moments, then was satisfied as tail fell and ears righted. He turned his face from hers and trotted, then ran away.

He had come and gone–as easily as wind snaring green reeds in its thrall, then releasing them to the earth again. The air shone.

Sal collapsed on the hard ground and wept. The sun descended along the horizon and still she cried, her face melding with the rich, dampened earth, hands clutching bright grass, her arms and legs tattooed by tiny yellow wildflowers that grew beneath her. The breezes which found her sighed and fell away. Her hot tears warmed stones and softened twigs. Sal’s heart emptied itself. Everything listened. If she had had her twin he would have breathed and sobbed with her rather than let her grow up so alone. She knew that now.

From the underbrush Coyote watched her, sniffing the air. A thunderstorm was due sometime in the coming night. He knew the human would take cover before it was upon them. So would he, next to his little ones and mate. Just to be sure she moved on, he ran past her so that she looked up, wiped her eyes and stood, brushed off her skirt. She was sobered by the swiftness of so much change and the strangeness of living through it. Letting go what wanted and needed to be left and then going on. Sal looked around for Coyote but he was long gone. She was ready to go back home. Let her life unfold. It was what she had to do, be both dreamer and doer.



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