“If you can’t have what you want, then you’d better learn to want what you have.”
Her mother, Maude, had tossed those words at her like a hard ball, and by instinct, she caught them with only a passing sting in her chest. She was used to her saying things like that, her life whittled down by farm work, days of tedium and nights defined by what she did not get enough of; sleep eluded her more and more, Leanne noted the purple shadows under her mother’s bleary eyes. Her father was decent enough, he just had no talent for love. Maude once told her, when Leanne was set on getting married, that a man might set her heart alight but that fire had to grow and it took a lot of tending. Leanne didn’t know if her father ever made her mother’s heart light up; by the time she was born, three others had caused trouble enough and her parents just seemed tired out, if accepting of their lot.
Leanne leaned against the fence post. The deep meadow was thick with windswept, pale grasses waiting to be overtaken by fresh green blades. Further on was the woods, where deer hid out sooner or later and whre Randy hunted, then usually came back empty-handed. She suspected it was because he dozed in the blind or didn’t want to kill anything since leaving the Army. He said it was because they were few and wily. She was happy her eyes could scan the grasses, trees and sky– everywhere she looked. It gave her relief from the sense of being caged. But it was what she’d called home most of her life.
And she was back when she’d thought she was gone for good.
This good land she and Randy owned: ten acres with a cabin they were fixing up. It was bought a shortly after they wed, thanks to an inheritence from his grandfather. Sometimes it was like overseeing their own country out there, and ten miles from her parents. But at times it also felt like one she’d been exiled to, and protesting a life they chose was worse than useless. As restless as the day she was born bawling and beating the air, she right then wanted to row a boat downriver or take a horseback ride to a whole other state. Reall, much farther. It had gotten to a point that when she was grading papers, she saw not words or numbers but those Rockies of Colorado where they had met. Or the cities they’d visited–Denver, Albuquerque, Sante Fe. It stirred her up, those thrilling memories, that landscape of heat and red and grey rocks and high open sky. The surprise ot it all. It made her long for things she didn’t have.
What did she have to complain about? He was now a full-time forester; she taught fifth and sixth graders. They treated each other well, better than most if she thought about the sad little town, the old friends who opined that her husband was the cutest-sweetest-smartest guy around and wasn;t Leanne so lucky. Well, that was true. But he also wasn’t from there; he was from Wyoming and so this was new to him. Why he’d actually wanted to be Michigan, she didn’t understand–she had so taken to Colorado. They’d met at the state university. But neither could find decent employment there after graduation. A teaching job for Leanne became available in northern Michigan; her family–still Michiganders, still stuck– encouraged a return. And when two people meet and see something special in each other, you do what seems timely and good to build a life. It’s becomes the right way to do things–reasonable actions undertaken for each other. And when he got there, he loved the greeness, its open land bounded by forest, “A little open like the West but much more interesting–lush.” And they needed her job until he found one.
Leanne leaned forward. In the distance a deer wandered to woods’ edge, lifted nose in the breeze, disappeared again. She slowly stood, alert, and fought an urge to follow it, to enter the sheltering crowd of trees and vanish, too. If she’d had her backpack, she might have done it. For awhile. Then what? Hitch hike to Colorado? Send Randy a postcard: I left but please come…? He’d guess why: she never wanted to return here. It was the fishbowl effect of a rural town, the certainty that her parents would draw a circle around them as they had her siblings. Pull it so tight about her. She wanted her own life–their own lives. But it was convenient, it was the first job when income was crucial as he continued to look for work. She had always thought they’d go back to Colorado.. But then he found his job in soil conservation and land and forest management. He was content.
The early March wind came up, lifted her ponytail off her back, swung it about. Leanne better secured her oilskin baseball cap. Redwing blackbirds were making a sweet song of bird talk further down the fence and nearby circled two vultures, looking to stave off hunger pangs. Was that what she was doing? Looking for more nourishment?
Still, she had a knack for teaching. Her students overall appreciated her– when they weren’t complaining about the work. Randy was good at his work. He was a man given to clear action, not talk, but he was also companionable, Steadfast. And he got on well enough with her parents, a miracle–much better than she did. It was the land that tied them, the potential as well as its history and how they could maximimze its bounties, Leanne mused. She had missed out on that family gene; her siblings owned lots of land, made it work for them well. She didn’t experience land lust, that fierce pride of ownership that drove people to sdo all sorts of things good and bad. She didn’t want or need to own it. Just to love it and admire it, treat it with respect no matter what it offered– and wherever she roamed. The desire to travel and see the world dogged her night and day.
When the vultures moved on and an eagle soared beyond the treeline, she wandered to the river that was a ribbon unfurled across rolling meadow. Her legs were embraced by rustling grass as she passed, a feeling evocative of childhood when she ran around barefoot, bare legged. She sat on the damp bank, knees pulled to her chin, designs of shadow and dappled light decorating her skin and the earth.
“It’s Todd Markham, that’s the problem,” she said aloud; she talked to herself when outdoors and secluded. “He had to take over Mrs. Helman’s class right across my classroom, then proceeed to tease and torment me with tales about off-road trips, snowboarding and camping in the Rockies. He knows I loved it there and miss it–as he does despite putting on a good front. He knows Randy loves it here and now we own a piece of land and a cabin in the grip of major renovation. We’re stuck here. Todd is single…so he might be here a couple of years then move on, he admitted last week–he has nothing to lose. he can do as he pleases…”
She picked up a twig and combed her hair with it, dug in the dirt with its sharp point, got a worm wrapped around it and tossed it to a safer spot. The river talked back to her with generous and soothing song, nothing complicated, nothing foreign. This was a river she knew all her life, wide and fast in spring and narrower and gentler in summer and in winter or the remnants of winter when it was often given to an icy slab or sparkly bits. But always it sang of mysteries and wildness she could taste, see, smell, hear. It carried with it the past and moved to an unknown.
She closed her eyes. This spot was sacred. But her mind wouldn’t stay calmed.
The first time Todd had looked at her she’d looked away. It was reflexive; she was married, and his clear baby blues held a searching look. The second time she’d acknowledged him to be courteous. The third time they’d lunch together in the teachers’ kitchen and lounge, getting to know one another a little in between comments from others, bites of sandwiches. Then it was lunch three or four days of the week, and some days Sandy or Thomas joined them. But it was Todd and Leanne who conversed smoothly as maple syrup on tap, to her surprise.
Sandy admonished, “You’d better make it clear to this one who you are and what your boundaries are.”
“Oh my gosh, we’re work friends like you and Thomas and the rest of us,” she’d protested.
Sandy raised an eyebrow and shook her head but left it alone. He was only being congenial, they had a a couple of things in common–like a love of Colorado, his home state. But when she anticipated seeing him she felt a slight flutter in her stomach, as if nervous. Yes, she liked his brash descriptions of his adventures. Todd’s obvious comittment to his students best interests, especially challenging ones, impressed her. His goal was to teach at a wilderness school but an ideal job hadn’t come his way. He said she was born to teach. And he understood her interest in travelling, expanding her life. He’d been to Europe twice, why didn’t she plan to enjoy Venice and Paris, Dublin and Berlin, too?
But she was with Randy, of course; she might or might not ever leave this continent for another. It was his choice, too, not just Leanne’s.
A week before, after a parent-teacher’s conference, Todd had walked her to her car . A purplish twilight began to fall. She was tired but satisfied with her teaching results, and they chatted about experiences with the parents. Then he asked abruptly if she was “happily married, you know, are you and Randy good totgether, are you glad about how things turned out?” The question jarred her. It felt unnnecessary and misguided. She got into her car, rolled down the window and looked at him with narrowed eyes.
“Todd, you need to get out there, date more, you know that? We’re friendly co-workers. If you need more than a pleasant friendship, look elsewhere.”
And she drove off too fast without looking back to see what he made of it. How dare he question her marriage? What did he think she was capable of here? But she felt the discomfit of guilt rising from the time spent with Todd Markham. It had not been, after all, a right choice; they could not be easy friends but friends who might skip over that line, it seemed. At least he imagined so. What a foolish idea, and how selfish she had been to want even that with a single man, new to town. All she needed was for gossip to come above ground and sully life.
The following day he avoided her; the next day he barely nodded at her in a meeting. They didn’t share lunch hour the following days. Sure, his spirit and its reflection of Colorado life had been fun and intriguing. Leanne’s uncertainty about living once more in Michigan, the uneasiness over what she and Randy were going to build together had shaken her up, made her vulnerable to wishful thinking. But it had never been about Todd Markham but a broader wistfulness. A naive daydream, a wanderlust.
On the other side of the river there was a blur of motion, and Leanne looked up in time to see the deer’s ears rise above bushes and brush between tree trunks. A lovely ear flicked, perhaps at a bug. She held her breath and stared hard, looking for its eyes, one of which barely shimmered in a golden slash of sunlight. The head came up into full view. When their eyes met for a split second her whole being tingled with delight. The white tailed doe scampered off with barely a sound. All was still except for a woodpecker, and the distant screech of a jay.
“I am crazy about this land,” she whispered, throat tightening with emotion. “I just want more…adventures with Randy before years pass in a blur, before life takes more than we can spare. Before we ever come close to forgetting how much we love each other. I do not ever want to end up in a rut, worn out like my parents seem to be as they get old…”
The river listened. It always bore her words patiently. It knew this was a young one with heart but also ignorance and simply saved by sincerity, curiosity. It gave her nothing but songs of beauty, constancy, clarity. All she had to do was live with honor, live by her spirit’s deeper wisdom.
She was ready to go home; she more than anything wanted to hold her husband. Work with him diligently on their cabin at the edge of the welcoming woods. Make their place much more of a home, a happy refuge, welcoming others into their lives. Maybe for five or ten years–maybe for a lifetime.
And they lived close to sprawling Canada; they could travel there as she had as a kid twice. Randy hadn’t even been there yet so it might seem like a whole new destination as they explored together.
She ran up five steps to their broad porch, thinking of the chicken stew with dumplings she wanted to make for dinner and if they had any brownies left for her quick snack.
Her mother met her at the door as she burst in, face scrunched in worry.
“Leanne, where have you been? We tried to call and call but there was no service! You’ve been gone for hours–it’s Randy!”
“I was at the river–what do you mean, it’s Randy?” Panic engulfed her.
“He got hurt, honey!”
Her mother’s words cut as she was yanked into their bedroom, heart pounding. Her father sat beside a supine Randy, his hooded eyes watching over him. When she crouched close to her husband she saw the blurry outline of blood seepage on a thick swath of protective bandage taped about it. His wounded hand–and fingers?–looked gigantic as it rested on his chest. Randy’s reddened face was lined with pain, sweaty below the wascoth that served to cool him. He breathed in slow breaths, eyes half-closed as he barely gazed up at her.
“Whatever happened?… Randy?”
“My Leelee…damned chainsaw kicked, not good….” he said, slurring his words. “Accident, guess my turn…”
Maude said, “Stitched his hand up at ER in Petoskey, saved his thumb for now but barely, another finger hurt. It may not heal right, honey….we have to make sure it’s cleaned, he takes all antibiotics–“
“He can live without a thumb if he has to, better than a whole hand. Galen Gilliam got his leg ripped up bad, might lose it… Randy here tried to help and got hurt, too,” her father said quietly. He patted his son-in-law on the shoulder and vacated the chair.
“Oh, Galen..and Randy’s body?” she asked.
“Luckily okay, just a hand.”
“He’s all drugged up, he’ll rest better, start his healing,” her mother added extraneously, then left the room as did her father, closing the door behind them.
Leanne’s mind emptied of thoughts; her body was stripped of a sense of balance as she sank into the chair, cradling her face in both hands until the spinning slowed. Her heart was melded with his. Fear was followed by dread, then it drained away as she looked him over. His wide forehead, sandy colored hair long at ordinary ears; his neat reddish beard was shaggier. She touched it wiriness with one finger, then his chapped lips. Kissed him. His eyelids didn’t flutter; he was asleep already. He’d trusted emergency interventions just as he trusted the earth and his friends and her–with faith in an essential goodness, a courage that was rooted deep from all she had seen in just three years. Now he rested. Her own breath evened, and her stomach unclenched as relief flowed through her. It was only a damaged hand, maybe loss of a thumb, maybe nerve damage but they’d figure things out. They could live with that much harm. She could attend to his regret or anger, even depression if that was what it was to be. But Randy was a born optimist, just as she was a born wanderer. And yet she’d not leave his side, just as he’d not give up.
His work shirt had been changed, maybe cut off by a nurse or her mother. The navy T-shirt he wore was clean and “Colorado Dreaming” was stamped across it with pine green letters strewn against jagged mountain peaks and bright blue sky. His muscled arms were strong but now slack, defenseless atop the bed clothes. She put her head on the patchwork quilt-covered bed and let tears flow, and all she longed for was him, husband and best friend. Randy, Randy, oh Lord. A fervent prayer for healing spilled into their room.
All she understood at that moment was that they’d arrived alone and vulnerable in the world, and then they’d found one another. But how much more helpless they could be made in an instant. They had to hold each other up, and be–or act–brave, come what may. They had to stand and face life together and when things got too much, they’d be wise to kneel together, too. It was how a life shared was created: moment by moment. Within peace and abundance, surely, but also with difficulty or uncertainty yapping at their heels. They had to handle the bad times, and use them, too, when linking together wants and needs, plans changed with sudden surprises to make room for greater dreams. Who knew where they’d end up? Maybe the Rocky Mountains were just a moment they had shared; they were older now, moving on. For the foreseeable future, Leanne was staying right there, in the middle of their home. Her hand on his free hand, her breath matching his as needed, as ready as she could be for what came next.