Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Talismans

“No, no, no, no,” she responded and turned her back hard against her father, looking out his study window, letting her gaze follow the rolling yard as it met up with Kayla’s yard and house. “Not there, not now! Why would we do that with Meredith coming back in two months and…everything else?”

Iris didn’t say what she most wanted to; she seldom did when it came to that topic, the missing mother matter. Chris Wells knew that; he didn’t say what he wanted to, either. It wasn’t appropriate to share such thoughts. He had a responsibility to two daughters, one smart and increasingly bold teenager, and one talented but more timid young woman soon to graduate with a Masters in Music Education. Who could a man talk to in this house? There was Ruffy, his aging half-wolf, half-German Shepherd companion, and Franklin-from university-and he got on well and…honestly, not many more wanted a good chat, much less an intimate one, with someone they had known as half a twosome for twenty years. Even if his wife–ex-wife– tended toward brash, more adventurous than he but easily bored and thus prickly, and remiss at home in ways he could not longer bear to well recall.

After almost two years, he had no wish to clearly recall anything of the life they had tried to build and turned into tinder.

So at this time, there was no one. He knew, as well, that Iris was still flailing and it wouldn’t be a picnic to trundle her off to the north woods. Despite the warming weather of late May, and their A-frame cabin and astonishing beauty of Lake Menatchee and its forests. Her mother had loved it there more than most places. And they had lasted only six days last year.

“Well,” Chris said calmly when Iris stamped her foot as if she was not sixteen but four, “it’s already settled. I need to get away to work on this book. So pack clothes and your other needs for two months.”

Iris threw him her deadly look as she rushed out the room. Wait until Kayla heard this one, they had had several plans. Good ones. And with that crushing thought, she raced downstairs, over to Kayla’s.

Chris sat back, hands locked behind his head; a tiny moan escaped, then he sat upright and poured over the last notes taken on the socioeconomic uses and meanings of color, his right knee bouncing in exasperation.

*****

Iris sat on the deck, crushing a small dry pine cone with the toe of her sandal. This place–her parents and Meredith who had loved it’s lofty ceilings and great windows, the bright lake frontage. The cabin had been a jumping off point for her mother’s outdoor adventures, while a meditative haven for her father. But for Iris it was halfway between the two, and now neither when she didn’t want to be there. Like the other two years since she her mother left.

Iris was desperate for company and Kayla was pleased with the invitation, as ever, but declined with tons of apologies. The annual trip to her grandparents was coming up sooner than later– and who wouldn’t prefer San Francisco to the backwoods?

Meredith would eventually come; they got along in a distant sort of way. Though she might persuade their father to stay the whole summer. In the meantime, Iris was on her own. She kicked the brittle, flattened pine cone off the deck and stood, hands on hips, uncertain what she wanted to do then ran down to lake’s edge. A beaten trail wound down a steep slope so her body was driven downwards, propelled into shadiness and washes of light as enormous fir trees simultaneously comforted and loomed over her.

“This was our mother’s place, too, but she’s living on a boat in the Mediterranean with that, that–rich rat, that creep, that disgusting old guy!” she said to the dirt and the sky. She almost tripped as gravity and speed thrust her onward until her feet met with large stones and she skidded, breath coming hard, hands on knees as she bent over a minute. She took a break on the end of the dock, scanning the lake. Feeling calmer as the gentle waves lapped close to her toes.

Our row boat, she thought, I love that heap of a boat. She completed the padlock combination, opened a dilapidated shed door and narrowed her eyes to make out things in the murky space. There it was, set up on a blocks, its green paint faded and peeling in spots, oars hung on a wall along with faded orange lifesaving vests, fishing equipment, various hand and yard tools. She leaned against the coat’s hull and studied the clear green-blue waves several feet past the door. It felt good there, safer, and Iris was more at ease than she had felt in a week. She thought of the dock, how they all used to jump off and make shallow dives, then swim to the floating raft several yards out for more diving and playing. Her jackknife dives.

It all seemed long ago, and she felt older than she wanted to be, for once.

“Hey.”

A dark shaggy head popped around the doorway and she was met by the grin of a stranger. She shrank back, then strode into the near-blinding sunshine, shutting the shed door. She glanced up to the A-frame for no good reason; her father was absorbed in his research.

“Hey, yourself, you’re standing on our beach–who are you?”

He stuck his hand deep into jeans pockets and shrugged. He looked a bit older than she was. His bare feet were late-spring-soft; it wasn’t easy to walk along a shore like that, the rocks were big, numerous. He wore a faded black T shirt with an ancient Jim Morrison photo on it. And on his right wrist was a worn piece of tied red yarn.

“We came early, staying awhile at Coan’s Cottages, over there. ” He pointed across the lake where there was a narrower width. Six pale shingled cottages sat in a row, a bit dreary but homey, one might deduct.

“I know where they are. I see people hanging out when we come up each summer. Never there long, though. So you’re new? Then you don’t know you have to get permission to cross other peoples’ lakefronts, I guess.”

“Sure, I know, but most people aren’t even at the lake yet, it’s not the week-end or summer. I didn’t know you were here until now.” He took his hands out of his pockets, scratched the back of his neck, slapped a forearm–a fleeing insect took off. “I’m Jax, anyhow.”

“Iris. Now you should leave, okay? I have things to do. Have a fun stay.”

Jax’s dark eyes flashed with a sharp humor; he motioned a sort of saluting goodbye with an index finger flicking off forehead. As he turned, all that mussed, longish hair flew away from his neck and he walked away, briefly into water as the shore disappeared, then past trees and bushes huddled close. She couldn’t see where he was going. But she was satisfied he was gone–for the time being.

During a long trek into green and teeming woods, she became acutely aware of chorusing birds, and flitting, sometimes biting insects and spring peepers and garter snakes escaping her feet and wildflowers in glowing groups here and there; scents of water, mud, rock, pine, life in its glory. She settled into herself and the landscape better. The young stranger crossed through her mind once and she shook him off.

When back on the deck, she could just make out a guy who looked a bit like Jax. He got out of a canoe, pulled it up by the Coan’s dock. Maybe he wasn’t walking, then. He’d just been on the lake, canoed over, pulled it ashore at the empty lot next door to her dad’s. To do nothing or mess around. She hoped it was an accident that he’d come upon her. She let go a shiver but it wasn’t fear, exactly. More like when Ruffy came up to her before she had seen or heard him, before she’d ever thought to call him.

Chris started dinner, tuna tossed with noodles, and a side salad. Food he thought pleased a teenager was often not what she wanted. She was back on the deck, he’d noticed. Seeing her there, light brown hair waving over her shoulders like her mother’s had…he winced. And what if Iris was miserable and he could never do anything about it? What if he couldn’t get his work done here, either?

She spun around, feeling his deep set eyes on her, waved and then to his surprise, smiled.

******

“What does the color red mean?” she asked him the next week. She could have looked it up but he knew certain things.

“It depends. It’s the color of blood, of course, and fire. It can symbolize energy, passion, strength, action. Courage. It is a powerful color, certainly. In the West we tend to think it means aggression or violence, but that is not the case in many places. I would say–“

“Hmm…got it.”

Iris shifted in her chair and he went back to his book. Ruffy lay down between them on the floor before a cold fireplace, his movements fluid, front paws placed one over the other. He was a quiet dog, hence the nickname in jest as he rarely, despite his intimidating appearance, let loose a loud bark or a growl. Oddly, his ex-wife didn’t like him much, thought he was too stealthy, might turn against them, so Ruffy avoided her, taking to Chris and the kids easily from the start. They had long ago become family. The oft-imposing, elegant Ruffy released a little groan as Iris smoothed wiry fur on his handsome head.

“Okay, just what does a piece of red yarn or thread on the wrist mean?”

“It is worn for a few reasons–it depends on which wrist, too. The person. What they mean to gain from it. Why?”

“I just saw it. Tell me what you know.”

“Well, a red bracelet might be knotted seven times in the Kabbalah tradition, and a prayer is said when knotting it. It is for positive energy and protection, but men wear it on the wright wrist; on the left, women do. It is a sign also of purity, and it gets more technical if I go on, Iris. But it also is a a sort of talisman to some who wear it, that is, to ward off the evil eye and bad luck.”

“Oh. How interesting. As a kid I always wanted to wrap ribbons or colored tape or found thread around my wrists. But that just made me feel more fancy…Still, there was that ring.” She glanced at it on her finger and smiled.

She fell still, musing about what sorts of things people did to feel better. Safe. Like her wearing a silver ring with two floral shapes on it. She and Kayla had spotted in a grassy place by a creek. It was after her mother had left them. It fit, and somehow it helped to have found it and it went right on as if meant to be, so she hadn’t taken it off.

Chris nodded at her, shut his book and watched his daughter and dog resting.

“Is it uncomfortable being here without your mother?”

“Sometimes.” She rubbed her forehead. “Not really, anymore. It was and is our family vacation hideaway. I mean, Meredith and you and me, not just her.”

“But she was so into the great outdoors…”

“We all have been in different ways, if you think about it, Dad. Like your big bonfires and ghost stories and s’mores. Meredith’s sailing with her friends. Me in the woods and diving off the raft. You and me trying to fish…”

“And your mother hiking in the hills on her own, taking you girls on long rides in the rowboat or setting up the tent for you two, then you and your friends some nights.”

“No- you remember it wrong, Meredith and I set it up a lot more as we got older just for! Mom did like to sit in there all alone, at times–she called it her time out…usually after she got mad at us. She got so frustrated with us! But you–you taught us about the stars, Dad, and fire building and wild plants.” She patted Ruffy a last time as he rolled onto his side, then she jumped up. “I sorta hate being here and sorta am glad, I miss her a lot at times, but still feel angry and confused about her decision. But I am also okay.”

She grabbed strands of hair and wound them around her fingers, a nervous habit from childhood. She gave them a small yank and let go.

“Stop worrying so much or you’ll drive me nuts! I’m not a child, right? I can deal more than you think. Since we needed to come up north for more of your writing and researching time, I can cope for a month or two–we both have to… Anyway, we’re here now. Just us. And Ruffy. Okay, Dad?”

“Deal,” he said and went back to his place in the botany book. “But if it gets too sad or weird, let me know…” he mumbled at her back. He glanced at Ruffy. It’s you and me, us two guys, and you are like my own talisman. But Ruffy was snoring, there but not there. In his own nirvana… as he always seemed to be, awake or asleep.

Chris suddenly longed to hug his daughter but it was too late–at least now, this time.

Iris was stuck in a hallway, half-wanting to run back and jump on his lap, throw her arms around him and plant a kiss on his stubbly cheek. But she wasn’t that little girl, anymore, was she. A lump rose up in her throat and she unstuck herself. Grabbing binoculars she walked closer to the water, checked on Coans’ Cottages. How dumb of her to resort to that! She walked on, wondering how Kayla was doing, loneliness felt like a small stab. She checked in with her phone.

******

By the time she and her dad got out the rowboat it was a bit humid and looked a little like rain. Nothing much was forecast that they knew of, so they lifted and pulled and slid it in the water. He took the oars and rowed with gusto while she and Ruffy sat relaxed, faces to a damp gusty breeze. The water was choppier than when they had begun but it was a good ride along the lake shore, then in deeper water. Sunlight sparked the water then hid, then was flung as sheer ribbons across waves, then was gone. And still gone. The wind cooled. Ruffy sat with nose up, ears, sharp.

They were moving closer to shore in a few minutes, just in case, and were soon to pass Coans’ Cottages when the first rumbles filled the air. Chris rested, looked into the darkening sky. Ruffy stared at the increasingly metal gray water and then at the shoreline. He liked water but he was not a happy long distance swimmer.

“We haven’t far to go, about fifteen or tenty minutes back to our place, maybe, if I row hard. The wind will make it harder to row against the wave action.”

“I can take a turn if you want, I’m pretty strong!” She had to shout over the thunder and the rising wind.

“That’s alright, Iris, I can manage! Have to get at it now!”

The wind came up hard out of the northwest, that bass rumbling grew, and raindrops splashed on their skin, fur, the boat. Even Ruffy blinked in the heavier wetness. Then thunder rumbled so loud and deeply that he lifted his head and howled briefly. Lightning gashed the heavy pewter sky. The rain let loose.

“Got to go ashore, Iris, we’ll go to in here!”

In under five minutes they were there and Jax was already waiting, wading out with an older man. They pulled the rowboat ashore and hightailed it up to the cottage as torrents of rain lashed all animate and inanimate things, Ruffy racing ahead of them, big body stretched out, so lithe and fast, looking even more like a wolf on the run.

Stamping small rivulets from their legs and then shaking their wet heads and tossing shoes and jackets in a pile, they were soon greeted by a slow burning fire and a woman holding out bowls of chili.

“How about some food and drink? You, too, doggie. Or wolfie!”

It was Garth and Kath Ruskin, Jax’s uncle and aunt, who welcomed them so readily. As they gathered on benches around a heavy trestle table they were soon jabbering as if they had known one another more than a few minutes. Chris and Jax thought separately how crisis did that, even if it was just a sudden spring storm, it made strangers into friendly partners in problem solving, or it maybe just felt safer huddling together. After the chili came more endless adult talk about work, economics and sports and Lake Menatchee as compared to other lakes so that finally Jax bent his head toward Iris, who slumped with chin on a hand.

“Want to move over to the couch?”

“That sounds… risky.” She smiled and rolled her eyes.

He acted shy and even blushed, she thought– his skin was tanner than she’d realized, it was hard to tell–and they moved themselves off the table bench and to the couch by the fireplace. Ruffy roused himself from beneath the table and trotted after them, his long tail hanging low.

“Wolf dog, eh? A good one.”

“Yes, he is. How did you know so fast?”

“Well, he looks wolf, and a neighbor had one. Not so good, killed all the chickens they had and rabbits, but he had a sister in crime.” He gave a shrug, eyebrows up. “That’s how that goes. We have lots of dogs on the reservation as well as other animals.”

She turned to look at him better then averted her eyes, embarrassed. She may not have guessed he was Native American–isn’t that what he meant? She wasn’t going to ask.

“I never liked rabbits, the’re rodents, I think.”

“Not at all, they’re both mammals but rabbits are only rabbits, harmless.”

“One bit me as a kid.”

“You handled it wrong?”

“True, I did.” She stuck her feet out toward sizzling red and orange flames. “Why are you here with your aunt and uncle, if I can ask.”

“I live with them. Auntie Kath is my mom’s sister…mom was white. I’m half Odawa, the reservation is in northwestern Michigan, not too far. But I’ve lived with my aunt and uncle for three years now. I might go back, don’t know yet. Depends on me and my dad…”

He placed one foot and then another on top of Ruffy’s back. Iris tensed, thinking the dog would rouse and be irritated but he didn’t move. Jax had said his mother was white, so she must have died, she thought.

“My mom lives on a boat, so she’s also, well, gone.”

“That’s kinda cool, though–nearby?”

“In the Mediterranean.”

He let out a low, quiet whistle and Ruffy lifted his head a second, put it back down.

“Yea, left with some idiot she met at a gaming table. She likes to gamble…”

“Huh, my dad likes to gamble but not lately. He drinks too much to gamble well. But he makes good art still.”

“Why? Oh, never mind, sorry.”

“It’s okay. She was climbing, on a narrow path in Idaho’s Rockies–after visiting her parents–and slipped, fell. My dad, he hasn’t gotten over it, I guess. No one has.” He touched the red yarn bracelet with his fingertips, put hand over heart. At his neck hung a cord with a black stone she hadn’t seen before. He caught her glance. “Obsidian, it grounds me more.” He touched her hand. “Nice ring. You might like pink opal- it helps heal.”

She bit her lip, breathed in and out slowly through her nose, it always helped.

Jax saw her then with a sweeping look: her open face; her hands which she used to talk; her bare feet, the square toenails –and fingernails– free of polish. Eyes that did not look away but noted him, too. He let his head lower and he watched the dance of flames. The soothing fire crackled. The adults’ talk had begun to be only a low drone, and they heard beer cans fizzing as they opened one by one.

“It’s stopped raining,” Jax said.

They got up, opened the door to press their hands against the screen door that remained shut.

“The perfume of it all, you know? So fresh out now,” she said.

“Yeah, good, isn’t it?” he said as he pushed the screen door wide open.

Ruffy followed them out the door as Chris, Garth and Kath found an easy lull in the conversation. They watched the young people; Kath nodded at her husband and he smiled back.

“Thanks, you two, what life savers,” Chris declared with beer can raised high. “Welcome to Lake Menatchee. Come by next week for the first bonfire of the season.”

“We’ll be there,” Kath and Garth agreed.

Jax, Iris and Ruffy were down the lake shore by then, skipping stones, Ruffy chasing them into the water. They later sat with knees pulled up on the dock and watched the sky. Venus blinked and shone, Mars took its reddish flare to its usual spot. The sun slipped lower and lower, then there appeared as if by magic brush the tender colors of a stormy day ending, the vast silvered and navy dome above waves rushing and hushing, trees swaying, and soon the air seemed lit with rose and coral and hues so delicate, so entwined it was hard to know where one left off and another began.


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