Sometimes when I sit down to craft short stories, another need crowds out other ideas and challenges my focus. This has happened more often, recently. I have been revisited by characters from a piece of fiction started long ago. Thus, this post is a revised, new excerpt from an older novel-in-progress, Other Than Words, unearthed for the arduous re-crafting process. In a previous, quite different incarnation an excerpt was published in the anthology VoiceCatcher, issue #2. It became nominated for a Pushcart Prize. But I abandoned that too-long novel after many years and another editor’s advice to revamp most of it. I was, in fact, just sick of working on it and thought I was done.
But sometimes tenacious stories will not move from one’s consciousness, something wants to be altogether redesigned and finally completed. To take a writer different places than unexpected, which is hard to turn down. I have a minuscule hope that Other Than Words can become what it was meant to be as the story is reshaped and more useless parts are eliminated. I want to at least to see what I might salvage, as I believe in the heart and soul of this story. It is about emotional resilience and spiritual hope found amid various daunting circumstances, how community can generate healing if they only rally and how trauma’s effects can be surmounted, released. And, of course, there is love of different kinds to weave it together.
Cal Rutgers is a photojournalist who is burned out, enervated by internal and external losses. He has been nudging me to tell more or tell things differently now that I have taken a long break from this story. But as before, his character seeks the solace of his childhood summer home in Snake Creek where once he enjoyed friends and mentors, where his sister, the only other family member alive, wants him try out a quieter life. He knows he is on empty but he can barely dare to find new fulfillment.
But there is someone else who has the village’s eyes on her. Sophie, a creative soul who harbors a strangely complicated story that cannot be told after a sudden death, struggles to re-balance her own life. Her thoughts and yearnings have been silenced and she may never speak again. She longs for normalcy but doesn’t know what that means now.Their lives intersect when Cal shows up for a forced vacation. The insights and experiences they discover together and separately may just free them both, while the village will illuminate more of its own truths in hard ways. And in the end, faith may have a fighting chance.
This chapter posted in WordPress is my first attempt to start over but likely only the beginning again of much work if it is sustained. Readers and fellow writers, I am hoping you will delve in and perhaps respond in the comments area so I have an idea if this chapter beckons you to seek more of the story. Thank you for reading.
Other Than Words
When I arrived in Snake Creek I was a barely congenial wreck, in dire need of a restorative break. I had tried to extricate myself from the effects of working in the Amazon: a just-healed infection from a small wound on my calf; recurrent dreams of tentacled plants wrapping themselves about my head and chest; a confounding sorrow. Joe, my mentor and often partner in the field, had disappeared while we were on assignment for an international travel magazine. Fitz, our editor in Chicago offices, had given up hope while I held on to the thought that Joe had just gotten too caught up in his usual hunt for the one true king of anacondas. He’d missed our plane, but he had a bad habit of this. Sometimes he stepped away and I didn’t hear from him for three or four months from another country. It was coming up on nine.
I had left all cameras at my rarely inhabited apartment on the Bay. My routine photographs had become innocuous, devoid of a decent clarity of life. Even in technicolor Hawaii I had been unable to capture one frame of magic. I just had to gain a different perspective[–on everything. That’s what I told Fitz but closer to the truth was that I was deeply sick of taking stills, of finding the perfect pictorial angle, all those awards, great assignments and my two books notwithstanding. And, too, there was the travelling from one place to another, one cramped plane seat to the next, time zones rendered meaningless. Who really cared when and where I was? I was a freelancer but the last year I had worked mostly for the magazine because it was a known entity, just easier.
“Yes, Cal, just get out of here, you’re making me nuts with your gloom and boredom. You should have gone back to visit long ago. Take a month if you want!” He leaned back and puffed delicately on the stogie as his penetrating eyes searched mine. “No, it’s an order. Take one month off. I’ll let you know what’s up next.”
“I don’t know about that, I can’t forecast how it’ll be to visit Kirsten and Louis the lawyer in Haston much less hang out in good ole Snake Creek, with, well, who?… I figure two weeks max. I could make it back for the Australia shoot.”
My sister, only remaining blood family (who still oddly tried to mother me via long distance)and her husband had been hounding me to come. the last two years. I only accepted the ticket she bought me when Fitz started in on me, too.
“Look, I need you sharp. I need you present. You have to let go of Joe Rasmuss, too. He’s not likely coming back to this world or we would have heard from him by now….”
“In the jungle things–people, food–can disappear in hours, minutes. I have seen it happen in seconds… But he knows it like his own hand! We’ve been there how many times now? A dozen?”
Fitz jumped up and stood close to me, his weathered face peering up at mine. Though small for a round bear of a man, his presence still packed a discernible force. He grabbed my forearms to impress his point, gravelly voice booming. “You didn’t get lost, did you? It was Joe, maybe he’s off his game! I’m telling you, you need a long time off, Cal. It’s not a request. You’ve burned out. I don’t want you back for at least a month. So go visit with family, eat, sleep, swim or sail, find women or go fish, whatever you do up there in the primitive northern Michigan woods!”
So after ten years of not visiting I came back to the summer community where I grew up a little more each year. Where my father taught music; where my mother re-energized and reorganized the village library. So near that thriving camp just on the other side of Snake Creek once called United Ministries Michigan Summer Arts Program, known as just MISAP. It have been started by my mister grandfather and his secular, visionary crew in 1920. It had taken off in a few short years and grown and diversified. It had been the fertile ground where I had planted my dreams. And just next door in Snake Creek, I had tended them in even more ways.
So after a night and day at my sister’s house (it turned out they had to attend the Georgia funeral of her father-in-law), I made my way to the Village of Snake Creek. After driving too fast on slush-covered roads I slowed to enter the quarter-mile road, then pulled over at the last bend. Unfolding my length from the rented yellow Mustang, I leaned against the hood and looked things over. The last of the snow was melting and pooling and the scent of it mixed with earth and white pines held a euphoric quality. I took a deep breath of it and relaxed. I could make out Main Street, all three blocks of it. It looked so good. My throat tightened, my eyes grew hot and damp. Home, such as it was, nicely brightened up but otherwise simple, tradition-bound. Chock full of stories. But I was not the same person, not the prodigal son I knew old Will, Snake Creek‘s The Clarion’s owner-editor, hoped to greet.
Will had met me with a long embrace at the weekly paper’s office, showing me the latest copies with dubious cheer–he was slowing down at seventy-two; his wife, our beloved Anna, was ill; who would take over?–and then we headed to the best place to eat outside of Haston, the Bluestone Cafe. It was run by my childhood friend.
“There’s Clarissa,” Will whispered as he hunched toward me. “She’s the owner now, you know that? She and Sonny bought out the other fifty percent. She looks pretty good, right? Sonny is a big real estate developer at last, heaven help us, building a fancy summer community.The Birches. We could use some cheaper family units but no…that won’t fatten his accounts.”
I followed her through the sun-warmed room, her gauntness more familiar than the cropped silvery hair. It had been dark forever and she was only forty-seven, a year younger than I. The first surprise, and more to come, no doubt. Will had never looked much different; he’d gone white early when I was a teenager. It was longer than I’d seen it and his back was hunched. He even had jowls but his light blue eyes behind glasses were sharp as they darted around the room, taking inventory of who was with whom, what was going on.
“I suspected the same.” I sipped the cheap and steaming drip coffee and found it delicious.”He’s always pushed for more and she wanted a restaurant thirty years ago.” I heard her belly laugh as she greeted someone. “Yes, I’d say Rissa looks fine.”
Will leaned back in his wooden chair and chuckled. “You’re the only one who calls her that, anymore. But you’re entitled, best buddies that you were. You two ran things, a townie and a summer kid.”
I wasn’t about to fall into some pastel-tinged reverie about the past, not then. If Rissa stopped to see us, I’d ask if we could meet down at Ring Lake sometime and catch up. If she didn’t say yes, I’d understand, like it or not. Sonny was a bully before and I’d heard over the years that he had only become more intense.
“I’m still sorry she ended up with Sonny but they seemed to need each other, had a way with each other. I sure had other plans, thanks in part to your encouragement. We’ve talked about her situation last time–I hope her marriage improved.”
Will looked down at the mug cupped between puffy, worn hands. “Not much.” He sucked his lower lip in as if to seal off any more words. I knew he was a secret keeper. Like a good detective, he observed and heard it all but held things close, letting pieces out only as needed. He changed tack. “So how long this time? A week or two at least? We’ll get some fishing in. And what’s your next assignment, any wild lands or dazzling cities on the list?”
I tried to smile back but couldn’t. “I’ll stay as long as I can be. Depending on how fast I get myself back together. I told you about Joe earlier but it’s more than that. I’m tired of my work, the first time ever, really. It’s been twenty-four years of globetrotting, hanging off precarious points to find that shot, too often eating food not fit for a street mongrel, camping out where the unknown lurks day and night….a bizarre life forged of adrenaline. I have to get a better sense of what I need to do now. I feel emptied, Will. Beaten up.”
“That doesn’t sound like you, son. You’ve thrived on that fast, risky life, stretching your limits. Running to the next thing. Even becoming–can we say it now?–rather famous. But I’m sort of relieved you’ve come to this point. I’ve worried about you. And now you’re at the right place to rest, store up more of what you really need. It’ll all straighten out, you’ll see.”
I shook my head.”‘You’ll see…’ You’re such an idealist, believing the best of people, having faith in life like always. You’re still basically happy–thank God! I think…”
“It just comes naturally, Cal, don’t you remember how it feels?”
I felt the rise of aching pulled into an undercurrent of a now-foreign feeling: shame. “I don’t think so, Will…I think that got lost somewhere in the Andes or Shanghai or just some unsanitary, cramped outpost corner. Amazonia did me in this time; it did Joe in worse, I fear. I doubt I can recapture all that youthful hope now! There comes a point, you know, when too much has happened. Been witnessed. The world is made of petty, conniving tyrants, of unconscionable and just weird happenings, Will, not only that panoramic beauty I capture in my pictures. ”
“Too true, Cal.” He rubbed his hand over his hair and left it sticking out at angles.
He endured me already, I could see: my ego, my arrogance, the negativity. I wanted to start over, use his essential goodness to help align me better with respect and care. But I was a man, not a kid anymore. I had to wise up on my own. I resolved to be a better friend to all there.
“So stay a month or two, it’ll come back to you.” He glanced at the door as the brass bell on top rang again and waved at the woman who’d arrived, beckoning her to join us. “Oh my, here’s Sophie,” he said, as if this explained everything, and he rose and met her halfway across the crowded room.
I stood, too, and saw first her height as every eye in the room noted. At least six feet tall (not far from my own six-three) she moved with sleek, concerted energy, with such an inborn sense of space and her point of balance that I knew at once she had to be an athlete. About her shoulders sprang wavy auburn hair laced with white. Her skin held the ivory luminescence of a true redhead. I averted my eyes just as she saw me, then composed my face in a calm, genial manner.
Will put one hand each on my shoulder and hers. “Sophie Swanson, this is Cal Rutgers. Cal, Sophie.”
“Glad to meet you, Sophie,” I said and I followed her lead and sat without the usual assertive handshakes.
She nodded at me but her lips barely curved, then she patted Will’s hand. He drank his coffee as if nothing else needed saying. After a moment, she looked at me and ran her gaze over my face before reaching into her purse, made in India, I surmised. It was a shapeless bright purple and orange cotton bag into which tiny round mirrors were sewn. She brought up a medium sized notebook and a silver mechanical pencil. They were laid beside her.
“Sophie doesn’t talk,” Will said quietly, as if his tone of voice made it less obvious he was informing me of this. “She’ll write things down if needed.”
“Ah, ” I said and glanced at her. She was gesturing at a waitress.
“I’m sure she’ll stay a bit but she is meeting Clarissa soon. They’ve become close.”
The waitress appeared with a full blue mug in hand and placed it before Sophie, who then set her head to one side and pointed at me, made a loose “come hither” motion.
“She’s asking you to tell her who you are, why you’re here.”
I thought: he’s like her interpreter but there must be more, like Rissa. “Well, Sophie, I’m an old summer kid who went to arts camp every June through August here with my sister, Kirsten. She’s a violinist.” Sophie’s face held a look of surprise. I rattled off more information, not knowing what else she was interested in. “We all lived at the camp each summer as my father was a pianist who taught at SAP. Also choir and history in a Detroit area private school during the calendar year. My mother was a librarian and got Snake Creek’s library back on track. Now I’m visiting Will and my sister from San Francisco.”
Sophie’s right eyebrow inched up and then fell. She put forth both hands then pulling them back toward her as if trying to pull me in. I felt like I should pantomime and the thought made me want to uncharitably snicker but I held back. I thought how much I could use a drink other than coffee. Rest before Kirsten and Louis returned to their lovely house, which I inhabited alone for now.
“She’d like more.”
But I didn’t want to tell her more. I wanted to have coffee with Will, steal looks at her, talk to Rissa a moment or two and then take a walk by Ring Lake. Besides, I wanted to know more about Sophie before I divulged a lot of personal information. I would be here awhile; I wanted to be careful with what I did and said. Getting to know more people was also not on my agenda. The old locals were enough, and my sister and Louis. I wanted to drift aimlessly, sleep and eat simple food, think of nothing. Not think of my profession.
“I’m a photographer. A plane hopping photojournalist. On vacation here for a couple weeks.”
She put her hands together, then opened them slowly and looked at her palms.
“She’s seen one of your books, I think?”
“In Haston, likely.”
“I appreciate it….”
And her full lips stretched almost to a grin, small creases deepening in her cheeks like dimples but finer, and her light brown almond-shaped eyes glimmered. She put her right hand to center forehead, then to heart and then towards me. Her exchange of energy hit me somewhere in my solar plexus. I sat still, stunned, moved and perplexed by the gesture. Not knowing exactly what it was but that it was a real thing given to me. Better than mere words. Did Will see that? Did he know something more about her?
“Cal Rutgers, how on earth did you sneak into town without me knowing it? Come here, boy!”
Rissa engulfed me, pulling me up and so close I felt many hard, tiny ribs under her sweater, fish bones, bones that should have more flesh over them, be kept safer from the world. This mermaid girl, my old friend, her colors fading. Like I supposed mine had.
All four of us huddled together as Rissa chattered.
“We have to have at least one party or a dinner or another get together sometime before you go.A bofire!–if it stops snowing altogether. I’ll have to take some time off and meet you somewhere, too.” She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and I knew that wouldn’t be easy, not even after all this time. There was my old enemy, Sonny, and he got everywhere. “How long are you in town this time? I mean, ten years, Cal, ten damned years it’s been and you just cannot creep in and out again like that!”
She looked a little hurt and I knew what she meant. I had slipped away after three days at my sister’s, only a day in Snake River last time.
“A couple of weeks. Maybe four.”
“Well, good for you, good for us!” She pumped her fists in the air.
Will looked triumphant. Sophie listened and drank her coffee, amber eyes peering at us over the top of the big blue mug or looking out the window as sunshine spilled and vanished. I wished she would hold that look, the one where her face was dreaming, I wished I had my camera to catch the play of light on her eyes and pale eyelashes….But I didn’t need my camera.
Did I? I could do all this without my damned cameras. I touched my shoulder where it would have been hanging.
Rissa sat back and studied me. “I want to hear all about it, where you’ve been, how your books are doing–you’re a celebrity around here, you know! I own them both, by the way.”
I let go a quick laugh. We three caught up a bit. Everything almost fell into familiar places with that raucousness, her easy welcoming. We made a plan to meet in a few days at the lake and she’d bring a picnic lunch. I would bring wine. She and Sophie got up and left, looking back in unison to wave goodbye. They were arm in arm as they crossed the street.
“What do you think?” Will asked as our white fish and fries arrived.
“I think I’m starving.”
“Come on, Cal.”
“I think Rissa has a winning cafe and more power to her- except Sonny is likely running her life otherwise. She seems herself, but tired, a little skinny even for her.”
Will vigorously chewed, something I had forgotten about him, his mouth half open. “Sophie Swanson?”
“Well, she’s beautiful, almost exotic, isn’t she. And she misses nothing, is smart. Curious. That’s enough of what I think for now.”
“You don’t want to know why she’s mute?” He took a sip of coffee and flattened his hands on the table. “Her husband, a retired biologist –they moved here from Boston–died last year. Drowned in Ring Lake. There was a big storm but he just went out in the rowboat alone that night. Sophie couldn’t find him, dialed 911 but when they got there, she couldn’t speak, or would not.”
He rested on his elbows and I put my fork down.
“You mean she chose not to speak or she went mute from traumatic shock?”
Will held both palms up in the air. “Either way, she’s not talking yet. She’s a dancer, had her own dance troupe, even, back East. But I don’t think she is dancing yet, either… And she lost her daughter, too. Mia is living with Sophie’s sister and family back in Vermont. I mean, Sophie is mute; Mia is thirteen. She needs her mother to be there for her but… it’s a crying shame. Sophie is healing slowly. Snake Creek finally accepts her okay. Some of us look after her. Well, she’s naturally very independent. She has enough money, as well–she inherited, of course, and his family is old money.”
“You’re saying even the police don’t know what happened? Wasn’t it ruled a bona fide drowning due to the storm? What do you really think?”
Will took a long, slow breath and let it softly whistle through his long nose. “I don’t know, Will. I think something more happened that night but I do not know what. There is no real evidence other than what they found, the boat, his body later. She’s not the woman who came here with her family a year and a half ago. Vibrant, had a beautiful mellow speaking voice. She adored her daughter, was proud of her husband’s contributions to biology–he specialized in lake and pond life. Anyway. I’ve said enough. But I’m glad you two met.”
“I’m not sure why you told me all that, but it’s quite interesting. I do wish her well.”
We finished our meal and Will returned to his office to see what his assistant was up to. I walked across the street and onto a broad, soggy park area, then paused by the field stone library where I had spent so many hours dreaming and reading. Where my shy, affectionate mother was in her element. I continued to Ring Lake, hands stuffed in my winter jacket pockets, the wind whipping my shaggy hair and running through my beard. Beyond the stony beach the navy blue expanse sparkled in the cold, clear sunlight, was as charmed with beauty as I recalled. My mind slowed as I walked around the north end of the undulating body of water.
Except, Rissa, how I still worried about her. And Sophie, what of that strange creature who watched from deep, secretive eyes? What would happen when she finally exited her silence–if she ever could? I would not likely get to hear her speak and felt a twinge of regret at the thought. For what, I didn’t even know.
But I knew I had to follow my instincts while in Snake Creek and see where they took me as I always did.