Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Roses, Perhaps, in the Morning

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Photo taken in the International Rose Test Gardens by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(Note: I am inspired this week by roses and their magic. In Portland, we celebrate our annual Rose Festival; it has begun this week. The  Pacific Northwest is entirely hospitable for rose growing and we have the honor of having the International Rose Test Gardens here. The Peace rose is my favorite of all, the name, its beauty and intoxicating fragrance. The story is entirely made up, of course. Enjoy!)

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“Let me tell you about the back yard. Something strange is happening there.” Erika held her breath, considering how to begin. But too long a breath, it seemed. She coughed lightly with hand over the receiver.

“You need to get back out there, Mom, shape things up. It’s not like you’re bedridden now, and it used to be your favorite place. My yard is about four by four, made of that terrible, uneven pockmarked brick but you know it works for me. If only there was a fountain, that would make all the difference in reducing traffic noise at night. And give it some charm. My one chair and a fountain. Did I tell you I got really expensive ear plugs? They fit so well I feel deaf with them on. But I can still hear people or raccoons rummaging in garbage and the sirens, let me tell you.”

“It keeps changing. I mean, there is always something I didn’t notice before.”

“The seasons do that, Mom, really, you need to get out more in general, enough of this malaise following that vicious bronchial infection. It lingered so long your body has forgotten how to function on a reasonable basis, you know? Maybe your thinking…Anyway, I checked online for fountains and just need to see them in person, maybe Home Depot?”

Erika could see her daughter sucking on the end of a pen as she corrected students’ papers, one eye on a pot of simmering homemade soup. Multi-tasking, made possible by ear buds used to talk on her phone. Jen would use her feet, too, if she could, to accomplish more. Probably had. She used to clean up clothes from the floor as she sat on her tattered fuchsia armchair while leisurely reading sci fi, lifting items deftly with clenched toes and tossing it onto her bed.

“I woke up to something yellow out there today. Northeast corner. I thought it was gold sunlight flashing through leaves but it wasn’t.”

“Maybe it was Mrs. Rosselini’s canary that got loose.” She emitted her snorting laugh. That bird took off in 1999, when Jen was a kid. Everyone suspected it was Mr. Rossellini, who couldn’t bear its ridiculously cheerful singing as it only sang for his wife. For years people thought they had spotted that bird; they suspected he’d forced its freedom.

“Jen, don’t be ridiculous–that was so long ago. But it wasn’t any bird. It was a pot of lilies.”

“From last year, then? They grow from bulbs, right?”

“Calla lilies, they’re mini calla lilies. Mine are the other sort. Tiger lilies. They’re now opening up, too, it seems.”

“So are you getting out there to check on things, cut the grass, trim the bushes and so on? Or getting Joe Hanes to come by with his push mower? Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that, here. But I am thinking of getting a community garden plot. You should see those, the things people plant and successfully raise! Urban farming, a miracle. I could eat very well from a smallish garden.”

“Yes. Well, no, I’m not out there much and yes, Joe cut the grass last week-end.” Erika gazed across a shadow-splashed street as the creaky porch swing swung to and fro. It made a nice breeze and lifted the hair off her neck. The neighbors’ yards were bountiful with flowers, empty of people. Lights were turning on, soft blurs of life moving between window frames. She closed her eyes and hummed.

Jen found the humming alarming, It was what her mother did when she was spacing out, feeling low. She had been sick so long there was worry that she’d tip into critical illness but it was thankfully only four days in hospital, then back home. Still, four months that upended her usually active life. And Jen lived four hours away, only got to visit three times.

“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”

“Oh, nothing, Jen. The calla lilies have good company in that jungley mess. I’ll let you go now, but try lettuce and a tomato plant to start.”

“Fresh tomatoes…! I do have a ton to get done tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” She snorted again. So much to do, so much life to live, a surfeit of activities and goals–how could she complain? She would not, not to her mother, at least not yet. “You’ll call if you need me to come see you sooner than end of the month?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, good, such a relief. Love you.”

“Love back. Good night, dear.”

Erika left the front porch, walked around to the back yard’s fence with gate and unlatched it. In the corner sat a large green pot of sunny mini calla lilies. Gingerly, as if her footsteps might jar the earth and disturb the plants, she moved closer, then knelt to look them over. She pinched a stem to assure herself they weren’t fake. The blossoms glowed in the opalescent air of a mild June evening. She had no idea how they got there. She felt her yard was not quite her own this year, that her neglect had taken it out of her hands. It unnerved her enough that she sneezed three times then coughed, so left the outdoors to its own devices. Whatever those might be.

*******

“Fran? Sorry to bother you but I know you’re usually awake late…”

“Erika, that you? It’s 2 a.m. Insomnia again?” She patted her mound of unruly hair as if they were face- to-face. She could now be seen without warning–all this technology.

“I heard something outdoors.”

“Did you call Joe and ask him to bring his hatchet? Probably nasty raccoons again, he’ll make good work of them.”

“What a friend–you are too awful! I don’t want to disturb him this time of night. I went downstairs with both big flashlights. Looked out the back door. Nothing. I checked all the locks again. But it gave me a chill. I should make some chamomile tea.”

“Naw, get your book and start reading, You’ll be asleep before you know it.”

“That doesn’t work for you.”

“Nothing works for me but the serious will to sleep four fair hours or so a night.” She yawned. “The callas still shining out there?”

“Where else would they be? Sneaking off to the next yard?”

“You never know.” Fran reached for her tablet, switched it on. “We could watch a movie together. What your pick?”

Erika fell silent and leaned back on two pillows. Listened hard. Nothing to speak of but the chimes swaying in a gust, sonorous tones soothing to her tense mind. She was too tired to keep this up so hoped the raccoons visited Fran or Joe a couple nights for a change. She hummed a corny love song to calm herself.

“Erika? You humming?”

“I don’t want to watch a movie until 3, but thanks for your friendly offer. I want to sleep a deep blessed sleep. I want my back yard to stay the same until I get back to it.”

“Those calla lilies–I bet someone wanted to get rid of them so dumped the pot at your place when you were out. Say, Carol Whitaker? She usually puts her puny plants at the curb. She could start an entire nursery with her rejects.”

“A whole sad nursery of rejects, yeah. Poor Carol, she tries hard but her thumb is nowhere near green.”

They both laughed and Erika felt relief at last. She also felt Fran winding up, ready to talk gardening tall tales and she just wasn’t up for it. She didn’t even want to think about her garden yet. Couldn’t it just rest this year? Like her, take a leisurely summer break? She still felt so weary.

“It’s so good to hear you in more fighting form again, Erika. Let’s get back to our hikes this summer.”

“Well, wait–in time. Right now I want to sleep off the remains of this day. That worthless conversation with Jen.”

“Oh, Jen and her intentions. She’s got a good life.  But keep your phone bedside–you can call any time.”

“I know, my friend. Happy movie watching.”

She turned out a bedside lamp with the crafty pressed-flower shade. Lowered her eyelids. She just hadn’t recovered fully, her mind was jumpy after feeling so powerless, felled by illness last part of winter and into the spring. Turning over, she pulled the white coverlet up to her ears, then up to her forehead and dropped off into an abyss of fretful dreaming.

******

She shaded her eyes against sudden revelation of sunshine. When she’d risen, the air was moist and thickened with fogginess. Two mugs of strong coffee later, her mind and the sky were much clearer. Her tricky neck ached and she rubbed it with both hands, then stepped onto the stoop and descended steps into the back yard.

Then stumbled backwards.

There was a small palm tree in the northwest corner, its big spiky leaves greeting her, the fuzzy trunk straight and strong in a huge clay pot. Astonished but curious, she went to it. She had never observed a palm up close; how funny yet attractive it was. How out of place in this Northwest habitat. Unasked for and alien on her property. And how did this get to be in her yard? Who entered without her permission?

That was what she had heard last night. She felt her heart drum hard as she walked about the grassy perimeter. The latch on the gate, that was the little sound. Yet no one and nothing was out of the norm when she’d swept the brilliant beam of her flashlight over each bush, tree and plant the night before. There was without a doubt an intruder hiding from her, that was the issue beyond an undesired palm and surprise calla lilies. She’d install a sturdier lock on the gate today; she’d always left it open but no more. She’d have motion detection lights installed on the house. All these years living in an established neighborhood that was unremarkable, just friendly and quiet. Now this–this felonious trespasser!

Had he or she taken anything? She canvassed the area carefully, found nothing altered. Just a palm tree and lilies. What next? She ate a rushed breakfast and dressed and was almost out the door when Fran called.

“I thought I’d better check on you, make sure you are still with us! You sure were nervous last night.”

“Well, I was left another unwanted gift and I’ve had enough.”

“What? Something good, I hope.”

“Fran, it isn’t funny. I got up this morning hoping for the best and there it was– a damned useless palm tree!–a real California palm! Well, I think.”

Fran chortled as she lounged in a fluffy robe on her porch around the corner. She could just picture Erika–stern-faced, brushed out and dressed well as always, confronting that errant palm tree.

Erika held the phone away from her ear, looked at it with serious impatience. When Fran caught her breath, she said, “I have to see it.”

“I’m putting it out n the street. A firm message to the intruder.”

“No–they cost too much to set it out like ole Carol does! Just wait in that. I’ll take it if you have to dump it. But why not just see what’s next? I mean, this is not plant thief, Erika, it’s a plant giver! Someone who maybe even cares!”

But Erika took off for the hardware store to get a good lock for her gate and to inquire about flood light systems. She was going to catch this planter person, an invisible trespasser, and get things back to normal.

******

“A palm tree? That’s wild, Mom–though they do make hardy ones that do alright here. Why not plant it?”

“Oh my gosh, you, too. I don’t want the stupid tree. I don’t want the flowers. They aren’t mine, they don’t belong and someone is sneaking into my yard! Doesn’t that worry you a little?”

“I think it’s kind of cool. I might even defend the culprit. How exciting, a bona fide mystery!” She paused. “Mom? If you’re scared, call Joe next door tonight. He’s getting a bit decrepit but he’s a good neighbor, he’ll give you back up.”

Erika moaned–Joe could barely push the mower around– and mumbled a hasty goodbye. She found her gardening gloves and visor and bucket of gardening tools, then set to work in the yard. It was high time. She’d get weeding done and see what she had to do to salvage her once-beloved refuge. And dump those calla lilies– and drag that crazy palm tree to the curb. If she could move it after all the weeding, and if she had breath left that didn’t trigger new wheezing.

******

It was 1:07 when Erika’s eyes flew open. She knew she was not alone when the back of her sore neck tingled and hairs on her forearms stood up. She picked up the heavy duty flashlight and her cell phone. She did not switch on the light yet but peered between the muslin curtains of her window into the quasi-dark yard. A three-quarter moon cast a cool, clean glow across thick grass and huddled bushes.

The gate was closed but that meant nothing to her. Erika stilled herself, waited. Instinct dictated  she not barge out the back door but listen, feel things out, see what moved, what else was different. She wet her dry lips and tried to tune in. There it was. A rustle of a bush, ever so slight but where exactly? Were those footsteps?–were they of  man or beast?

She yanked on jeans and a hoodie, opened her bedroom door, slunk to the kitchen where the back door led to the stoop. She studied her faintly lit phone, with shaking fingers found the keypad, ready to call 911 when there came another sound, soft but unmistakable, a guttural clearing of a throat. She pressed back against the door, braced her feet. And froze.

She could hear the soft grating sound of metal against dirt and stones, like someone was digging up a part of her yard. That did it. She unbolted the door, rushed out, the torch beam bouncing its glare off every nook and cranny. And then off a face, then hands held high and in one of those hands was what appeared to be a rose bush. Pink and yellow roses. The person stood next to a small hole in the ground.

‘Stop where you are, you are illegally on my property and I’m calling the police right now!”

“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”

“Who would even dare do all this? Speak your name now or I’m dialing the cops!”

“It’s just Antony, your old neighbor! Antony Rossellini!”

He was beating his chest now with smudgy hands, advancing toward her, dark eyes wide and desperate. She wanted to believe he was telling the truth. It was Antony, alright, in worn overalls that hung from his wiry frame over a dark t-shirt, with his Padres baseball cap and rubber flip flops slapping against his heels with eqch tentative step forward.

“Antony! What on earth…?” She aimed the beam downward so they could both see better as they met up in the middle of her yard. The one he was not supposed to be in whatever and not in the middle of night.

He wiped his perspiring forehead with a dirty palm and it left a streak so he took off his cap and used a forearm to wipe again, then smashed down his thick, damp salt and pepper hair. grooming in the midst of madness. Trying to present himself as less than trespasser, more as foolish but harmless neighbor.

“I don’t rightly know how to explain, Erika. I was just seized by this idea of doing something anonymously…of making things nicer. I sure didn’t meant to upset you…”

He shrank away from her with embarrassment, hung his head with hat in hand, and went mute.

Erika considered this man she had known for about twenty years now. He was older or perhaps only seemed older in his manner, and had been married to a woman who shuffled about as though she carried a hard burden, which she had, being a refugee from Cambodia. Then she died of cancer not long after Erika’s divorce, when Jen was fifteen. he lived down the street from her house; they had chatted in passing, during summer block parties. But when she had died Erika taken him fresh bread and her homemade strawberry jam. Had sat awhile with him. He’d seemed quite nice even after that but a man to himself, working long hours as a manufacturing manager. Keeping a tidy yard with its blossoms bright and abundant.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” she asked.

“They’re Peace roses, Erika! My favorite. Tea? Well. Sure.”

******

The two mugs steamed so they blew on it, sitting across from each other at the breakfast nook. She realized she had never had him in her house before. Very few neighbors, come to think of it. Now that she worked part time–not her own choice, a downsizing of sorts at the health clinic–she had become more aware of her neighbors comings and goings. But she rarely saw him out and about and heard little about him. Nothing had likely changed for years. Or she imagined.

“I wanted to do something nice for you,” he repeated. “I knew you had been ill–we all learn of each others’ crises sooner or later on this block– and I know you love yard work. I got this idea of a surprise. I didn’t want any thanks or refusal, not anything.” He toyed with his cap, his voice nearly a whisper. “You were so kind when Channay died. Not just your great bread and jam but your hug and words.”

“My words?”

“You just said: ‘I’m sorry. You were good to her; she will always love you. I’ll say a prayer for you.'” He looked at her with far-off eyes. “I believed you; it felt genuine for a change. You know some people just do things out of courtesy. So it sure helped me.”

“So little to do, really, Antony.”

She recalled sitting with him, making a small pot of coffee in his overloaded, messy kitchen, cutting bread for him and spreading a piece with jam. He had left it on the plate but sipped the coffee while she did hers. They had talked about nothing much, winter rains, their yards flooding, when Channay’s service was to be, her nearly non-existent family–long ago murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. They had just sat and listened to the storm beat upon the roof, the wind rattling branches like bones. He lit an amber candle, saying it reminded him of her. After a half hour or more she had left him to himself, and much later they chatted amiably now and then. She had wondered, though, how he had managed afterwards. If the smile given her way was mere civility as he’d said if others or if he did feel happier again. If he maybe felt friendly towards her. But time was packed with pressures and needs and years passed.

“No, it’s never too little to be considerate. And I never got over to see if I could help out when I knew you were so ill. So, one day a couple weeks ago I thought how you love your yard and garden. I decided to just add a couple new plants–for variety, I guess. But I didn’t want any thanks or issues, you know, I didn’t want you to think…anyway, it was impulsive of me, I know that. Foolish!”

Erika sighed, took a drink as did he. “Impulsive, yes. Unusual, I would say! But not really foolish. I think it’s good of you to think of cheering me up, of helping me out. In fact, I could really use someone to help me weed and plant anew… I am way behind.”

His black and white eyebrows lifted and his eyes sparked with hope. “Easy deal. To make up for my errors.”

She lifted her mug to his. “How about to starting a proper friendship?”

He clinked his mug against hers. They shared a smile, relaxed, congenial.

“I guess I should go, though. It’s late.”

“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”

“I’ll come back, alright? Properly plant the bush tomorrow evening if you’d like.”

“Please come to the front door this time, and before so late.”

He gave a quiet laugh that was almost a sigh of relief, waved good bye at the door. Erika locked it behind him, then laid her hand  on it a moment.

******

Jen called on her lunch hour.

“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”

“Not exactly, a few tracks in the dirt and palm and lilies remain. We’ll see what happens from here on out.”

“Well, that’s it? All the fun has ended just like that? Rather sad.”

“Yes, I guess. What are you up to, dear?”

Erika called Fran after she lay awake well past 1:00, thinking of pros and cons to beginning a friendship with an older man, a widower who loved gardens but had also gate-crashed her life. Maybe in the best possible way.

“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”

“You could say that.”

“Ah. Wait, what do you mean, Erika? Out with it.”

“It was Antony.”

“Antony Rossellini? He left the lilies and palm? Oh, my. What is that about, do you think?”

“Not sure. Guess I’ll find out. He said he had a kindly impulse…”

“Huh! Kind of weird, but downright intriguing.”

Erika checked beyond the open window after she hung up. She looked for a sign of something but there was none she could find so she lay down, rolled over, resigned to a return to normal and stared hard at her blank blue wall. There was a swell of silence in her house, waves of it, and she had begun to drown in it the past winter. Sickness makes some things more obvious. It stripped things down to the truth. She felt cleaner and edged toward freedom even now, slowly resurrecting a more goodly life. But she occupied these roomy spaces that were most often constrained by daily continuity and predictability. Time shaped by common tasks and expected comforts– and a forgetting of the extraordinary. As she watched shadows knit themselves along tiny cracks and in corners, she became drowsy, let herself give in to rest but she w wondered over what her life might become–and what was too late to search for and find.

Then from a distance she heard the metallic jostling, a small rustling of leaves or pant legs, perhaps the sound of the latch being jimmied and a man stealing across her yard. She pressed eyelids tightly closed, hugged herself: Peace roses, perhaps, come the morning.

 

 

Andalin, Alive/Chapter 2: A Series of Reckonings Begin

Those of you who read Chapter 1 (that post here: Andalin, Alive ) of my new novel-in progress already have met the newly arrived protagonist, Andalin Chiara Luvstrom, and her privileged if deeply conflicted family. Also significant is Tillie, the midwife who delivered her into this world.

In the second chapter we meet Oren and Huff and also learn a little about Andalin’s life as a child from an experience or two they shared with her.

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Chapter 2

A Series of Reckonings Begin

 

It was the start of something, he felt it in his very sinew. If he was sure of what it was, Oren might have told someone right then, shaped the words that would spark interest in the listener, first of all Huff, his best friend and fellow sojourner. Who would not call him a fool though he deserved the moniker. Oren had a knack for finding the wrong women. It was going to be harder to discern this time, but not for the usual reasons. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know who she was. More or less.

His stepfather would fling words of warning if Oren alluded to the encounter earlier that week. He would point out that the Luvstroms were marked by haughtiness, an innate pride worn like a medal and for little reason, since they had lost much of what the generations had built. Not that this caused Dane Luvstrom much consternation; the family fared far better than most of the merchants and land owners, still. And Dane was not a man who had foregone all respect for others. They might have been friends, his father and Dane, not just tenuous allies, if things had gone differently for his own family. If his mother had stayed alive.

No, it was best to keep it to himself as he mulled things over. It had been eight years since he had been home with Kent, said stepfather–alright, his father, for all intents and purposes–not since his mother had passed over. Time and its weathering had inevitably altered the land and people he’d left behind since boarding the first ship to the “Blue Bridge of the Beautiful World”, with a vista of vast mystery and beauty. That is what he called it privately, for part of the time he longed to be a bard–even a very minor poet–not a travelling merchant. He could barely indulge that fantasy. It was a poor way to be a man in this country or most others, that of his stepfather’s domain and others’.

Huff only said: “We left for the farthest waters and lands, did our duties for Fine-Verdur and Company. Then we stayed once we found those lands better– at least for awhile. Now we are back!”

“Eight years is only a while?” their old neighbors argued. “Eight have passed bitter slow, the fields have gone barren and just been returned to their happier natures but your fathers wear beards that have grown each year with mourning for wayward sons! No thanks to you that they managed to survive…”

Oren sat cross-legged on the low stone wall, finishing  his lunch of sunflower nut bread and hard cheese. Their acreage and animals were flourishing despite his assist or lack of it; Kent could not blame Oren’s leaving or returning for much of anything. Land produced of its own accord given time and a basic care. He had known Oren was not to be a devoted grower. By the time the young man was fifteen Kent had begun preparing for inevitability of more loss, employing a steady hired hand. If Oren was still supposed to feel shame, Kent was sure to be disappointed. He was was relieved that things had gone better than expected in the end. Now he was free to either travel soon again or find work in another realm.

But first he had to deal with a new dilemma: Andalin Chiara Luvstrom.

His center rustled, mind darted, full of glittering things, like a high sun zigzagging across deep water or shooting stars streaking across a day sky. He tried to look away from such stark, bright feeling and thoughts but could not. This was different than anything. And he had known her, he had already known who she was.

Or had he? Or had she known him while he was the one who was slow to understand and a stranger to himself? But Andalin had seemed in full possession of herself. Despite the childhood ordeals. Despite her gradual drifting away, clinging to the edges of known and unknown worlds.

Oren let his eyes roam over the verge of greenery, then the expanse of brown and yellow and rust of Kent’s land. He remembered well. He could see her even now as a kid, spindly but strong legs carrying her toward the wall that divided their farms, her corn silk hair tangling with wind. How he fast forgave her for not seeing him as he waited there. How he knew without thinking that she didn’t see him because she was traversing another place, always moving past his reach.

******

“I think she’s too much, you know that, but I like her,” Huff said. “We both have liked her around. As if it really matters to Andalin, though, it’s the way of things. Besides, she’s only just ten, a baby still.” He shrugged and pushed away the book, drummed the desk until their teacher gave him a scowl.

Oren was about to say she only seemed like a little kid, at times, it was just a disguise of sorts but thought better of it as he agreed she was far behind them in obvious ways.

They’d settled at their desks for more learning  but Huff was restless, unaccustomed to much reading and writing, unlike Oren. At twelve, Huff was raw-featured and wiry, tall already and used to being in motion, either working the farms with his parents or toiling away at the family’s semi-permanent campsite. He was the opposite of Oren, broader and sturdily built, showing a hint of power in his limbs and good looks in wide jaw and warmly observant eyes.

Oren paused in his vocabulary test to glance out the open window. He worried little about his work; he did it well and then had time to daydream. He was pulled to the figure sitting near the building.

Andalin was sitting on an ancient oak stump with tablet and pencil as schoolmates played in the trees, swung on the rope swings, ran races. Oren knew for a fact that she could out-climb any of them and dangle from one leg on a high rope swing. Not, in truth, because she was stronger than they–she tended to quietness of body and mind, loathe to stir for long periods– but she was limber, persistent. And brave, he admitted. But the others thought of her as frail and treated her as if she was deaf and mute, leaving her to her own devices. The one time during the current school year Oren had seen her included was when they needed someone to be a minor wood nymph in a play and since there were almost no lines and she was small of frame, the director and kids decided she was perfect for the role. And she was. She gave off a lovely, mischievous aura if you let your judgment go easy on her and noted the sheerness of her skin, hair, eyes (her eyebrows nearly nonexistent, emphasizing the impact of those ice blues) as a positive, not a negative. A refreshing change for a community made up of swarthy-skinned, richly tanned and quite ordinary spectrum of white-shaded folks that populated the land.

Or put another way, she looked and seemed more a freak.

After the play was performed to delighted applause, the classmates reverted to their usual dismissal of her–despite the Luvstrom wealth and their parent’s cautioning them to be civil. It was rather a fallen-down wealth, but the crumbs could employ or feed much of the community if the family was so moved. And Dane Luvstrom had helped as much as he could during those long barren years. He was not a man to be trifled with, yet a man of some principle. Nevertheless, Dane was only one member,  head of the family; Renata was quite another ruling party, the sort to be tolerated. And Andalin Chiara was more than different. Some felt her as threatening in a distant, indecipherable sense; they didn’t try too hard to figure her out. They had each other and she had her family. Let her have the status and her own kind–though they weren’t certain what sort that was, in the end.

Oren crushed a piece of paper into a compact ball and threw it hard out the raised window. It landed on Andalin’s back. She slowly turned, unsurprised. She raised a hand and moved it to one side in minor greeting. In response, he lifted shoulders and hands in question so she smiled back at him, arms sweeping up air as if wings, then her body following as she rose to her feet, ran off to a large tree and started to climb. She passed over or under the other few kids, scrambling to the top in no time. They were almost used to this sudden flurry of movement when she’d been stock-still, of her ability to surpass them despite her frailties, so pulled back away from her, then watched.

“Jump, Andalin!” one called out, a girl with coppery pigtails.

“Yes, jump and fly this time, weird fairy girl!” a boy shouted in a rush of laughter.

The others shouted similar things, getting into a rougher spirit of it.

Oren and Huff got up and went to the window despite the teacher calling them back. This happened too often; Oren always worried. Huff was usually impatient.

“Climb down now, Andalin!” he pleaded under his breath, for he knew if he shouted she’d be taunted further and he would be stopped on the way home for a fight.

Andalin, in a crook of the topmost branches, looked about her and down below. She set her feet apart so each was higher up on the branches and first stood precariously, then held the just-balanced stance. She let go one sinuous branch, jutted chin up and out, her near-white hair alight in a gentle wind, her eyes closed.

Oren’s and Huff’s hands felt slippery with sweat as they glanced at each other. Surely she was not going to listen to the classmates, she was too smart, too self preserved and generally unmoved by it all–wasn’t she? They had seen her evade stinging words for years, as if they were mere bubbles. Deal with mean tricks as though they were flimsy darts aimed her way as if to tease. They had seldom seen her cry and only for a moment after which she sighed as if there was nothing to be done but tolerate it all. She seemed more than anything to shake off the actions and intent and focus on other views of living. Her own views. And she was kindly in her quiet way despite the harm attempted. Which made the worst of the bullies more possessed of ill will.

She was, Oren thought, so much better than they were that they didn’t even know it, they didn’t realize who they were dealing with and this spurred him to leave his school room and lope down the hallway, Huff following in a sprint, the teacher now scared and crying out and running to catch up.

Andalin stood in the treetop, pulled into herself a tender scent of apple blossoms, the promise of heady lilac. The sharp taste of wind, salt-tinged with far-off seas, cooled with a sweet foretelling of rain much needed. Heard swallows and falcons and bluebirds on the wing and their babies calling with tiny beaks. She was so utterly in love with this world that she shivered, her skin alive with joy. Her body felt the world and just welcomed what was in it. But beyond the earth’s glowing spring horizon she knew well there was more and she reached for it with one hand and then with another. Her eyes were shut tight against sunlight that draped all the trees and her. Against all that impeded her knowing of the environs and the beyond. She stood still and fully alone, leg muscles taut, bright hair riffled by breeze, face shining.

Below they all watched her standing tall between branches, hands lifted to sky as if praying and they held their breath inside a collective rupture of fear.

Oren closed his eyes and Huff gawked.

When they heard the swift crash through branches Oren was the first to dash to her, then several others came. Only to find her not squashed on the ground, not bleeding with scrapes or brokenness but resting on the lowest branch, hands holding on, eyes wide open. Everyone gathered in a circle and stared at her, aghast, amazed by the lack of injury.

“She just jumped from one branch to another!”

“No, she slipped one to the next, like she was made of air…like a…”

“I saw her, she was flying, flew right down to the last branch…!” a third said, her face drained by fear and wonder.

“Will you please, please come down now?” the teacher asked, advancing with a hand outreached to her, as if the child was an unpredictable beast or simply a crazy one, not to be trusted. Impressed enough to want to tell everyone else about it.

Oren and Huff strode past the kids and adults milling about. Oren caught her eye and folded his arms tight against his chest to stop his heart from galloping.

“Andalin, stop showing off and just come down.” He tried to make it sound like an insult and a tease in one but failed for his voice shook.

She slid off the branch and gently landed on the ground on all fours, then popped up and walked away, head lowered, looking small and delicate, not like one who did what she just had done. Huff and Oren followed, trying not to check every inch for sudden gushes of blood or protruding bone fragments, the usual result of falling through tree branches. Their teacher followed but sharply turned back, seeing she was, indeed, oddly alright. But something worse? But what?  It was too noteworthy to ever forget. The girl had grace, strength and oddness beyond understanding,

“Why?” Huff asked, angry. “How were we to save you if branches impaled you or you hit the ground too fast and hard?”

She steadied herself before them, those grey-to-blue-to-clear-as-water eyes simmering with energy. Took one of their hands in each of hers.

“They’re wasting their time trying to scare me. I am not afraid. Just alone and lonely. We live on the edges of it all, the deep of this world. All of us. But I daily live between them. I live in the endless wake of things.” She pushed her flyaway hair back and looked right at Oren. “You know that by now, don’t you? How can they really hurt me if this is true?”

Huff opened his mouth but went blank. What did she say?

Oren felt tears well up and frowned. He had no idea why he felt this. Why he halfway understood. Why they had to endure her strangeness and could not turn away from her. She was like a compass, magnetically charged without anyone consciously realizing it and he had kept coming back to her side despite oft-feigned disinterest. Everyone found themselves watching her, waiting for something else although they changed their intense interest into more disdain. More wariness. Like knowing she holds secrets–what sort? whose?– and nothing can be done about it.

But Huff turned away then. He gave her a hard look and shook his head. Shuddered as if to release a spell and from his throat arose a grunt of frustration. He hustled back to the school.

“Oren,” she said again, “don’t you know that?”

But he could not answer her. Did he? He put an arm about her, pulled her boniness close, then released her. He thought he heard her whisper, “Sorry for scaring you”, but when he asked her to repeat it and look at him, she was silent, studied the clover beneath their feet, stopped to pick one. Put it to her lips then ate the honey of it, her countenance wreathed with pleasure.

They entered the school building, Andalin to face officials (Oren to fail his first math quiz ever) she barely knew. Who, despite their initial disbelief, were aware they were dealing with a child unlike any other, there was no more disputing it. And they were unhappy and intrigued in equal measure as they sent a bike messenger to get Dane Luvstrom. He must do a far better job at teaching her to not act in such foolish ways. To follow the rules. To not take big chances. To fit in even a little better– somehow. They knew they couldn’t count on Renata, who was above such difficult duties. Such a family. Such a girl.

******

Oren heard Kent seeking him out with the huge reverberating bell, then his name yelled loud and clear. He gazed one last time toward the Luvstroms’ land and remembered her running, smirking as she got closer and slowed to a saunter. He saw those glimmering eyes, how they recognized him still. Saw how she had changed but not changed at all. He had thought at first it couldn’t be her, he had worked so hard to erase her from his thoughts that he was certain she’d left or simply vanished. Besides, she didn’t belong here, in this harsh, constricted life. Why had she remained? He should have taken her with him. But, of course, could not, she was in school, yet a young girl. She was going nowhere, anyway, not then. And he had been relieved, at last, of her presence.

So why were they familiars still, after his extensive journeying, such good adventures, all the other women?

His chest squeezed, felt crowded with anticipation of the next time they might meet. He, too, was weighted with a vague unease. He had only half-known what she’d meant after she fell those years ago. She had never said the same words again yet ever after Oren had spent years trying to both acknowledge and retreat from the truth she revealed. To accept and still back away from her. Perhaps this is what had led him back home, for reasons yet to be made clear. And perhaps to Andalin–may Universal Spirit aid them both.

(I have often enjoyed sharing pieces of much longer projects. But please do not print or share these recent chapters, as the work is © 2018 Cynthia Guenther Richardson and an ongoing writing endeavor, constantly being revised. Andalin, Alive, being a novel-in-progress, is ultimately separate from my usual WordPress posts. Thanks for taking time to read any chapters as well as respecting this request–but your comments are always welcome!)

Andalin, Alive

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

I had some time ago written that I was cutting back to two posts a week rather than the usual three. My full intention was to work on more nonfiction, short fiction and poetry and to submit my writing more again. I found, however, that I could not write much beyond my usual posts for three and a half months. It has been miserable to wait it out. Then suddenly there came a name that stuck in my mind and soon I was whisked away to a seemingly bucolic yet rather mysterious setting in a time and  place I did not yet know and where an unusual baby was being born to wildly differing parents. I could almost see the life that lay ahead; I knew part of what was important about the story already but had to find out more. It is not the sort of thing I expected I’d write, for many reasons. But we will see. This is just a rough first draft–no editing, really–of a very first chapter of what seems to be a new novel…or at least a bunch of ideas for a first chapter… or a very long story. I have much to imagine, write and revise….and it is blissful to enter into this work again at last.  I may still write and submit those other pieces. Once the imagination’s floodgate is opened and hard work starts to shape up one creative endeavor, other unforeseen and good things can happen….

I hope you enjoy the first foray into my new novel idea.

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Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The infant was not what Renata had conjured in the dense, shadowy regions of her obstinate mind.  Or the blurry frontiers of imagination she preferred to the current reality. Nor was it what she desired, though compelled by decorum and convention to affect a satisfied smile as the minuscule human being was held aloft. Her long inhabited, now finally emptied womb throbbed, her back ached as if it had been pummeled, her nether regions surely ruined. How primitive the whole thing was, how unwieldy. And was it morning or night? Sometime strung between, she conceded, in a time of birth and disruptive change.

And Tillie the midwife’s hesitance telegraphed all was not going to proceed well. Renata turned her face to the wall so she could see the painting of swans adrift in a grassy-rimmed pool, gentle light skipping across the glassy surface. Her pond, her swans, not visited in too long. This bed had claimed her for weeks. She had only wanted some spare replica of herself if pressed for the truth. Or perhaps no infant at all. Certainly not one naturally given to screeching from moment of entrance, normal behavior or not. The ungodly sound reminded her of peacocks from her childhood. She had worked so hard to do this; could there not be a peaceable conclusion?

Tillie offered up the cleaned and swaddled baby with excitement even as her mind was riven by concern. A new being was reason for more hope, for a suspended few moments shaped by suggestions of future delights. She stayed in touch with many of her babies as they grew up. It filled her with pride to know she had  helped ease them into this realm of earth and air, into its defining gravity. They were manifestations of a higher energy to her, given complicated bodies with which to roam and learn and create for awhile. So short a time. Tillie never failed to find each a curious, holy astonishment.

Yet she knew this woman, this newest mother, well, how untidy and disagreeable she tended to find the world; they had been close friends, once, long ago. And being a mother was not something she had intended to occur and then there it was. It was true she accepted it as meant to be; she then formed distinct expectations. The birth was, surprisingly, not difficult despite Renata’s virulent protestations. Tillie felt a frisson of fear sweep over her: this mother was already obstinate, too wary.

And this infant was not what anyone might expect with those wide, strange eyes. Their translucence. Was this baby observing or not observing her landing spot? Oh, well, Tillie knew better; it would be awhile before the baby could make out much. Still. Something was different.

“She’s a hearty and fully unique child, one can see it already, Renata.” She smiled warmly at the pale-faced child who had quieted her voice at the sound of her own, as oft was the case.

The new mother resisted opening her arms, a wisp of breath and pounding heartbeat crowding her throat. “Her coloration before I chance a look–is it Dane’s or mine?”

The infant resembled no one so much as herself, whoever she was to be, yet gave off a magnetism the midwife found arresting as she nibbled a patch of dry skin on her chapped lips. The child had pursed lips now as she stared up at her. Tillie held her over the bed with its sighing occupant. To have any child to love was a wonder, but Renata was not a devotee of wonder, not these days. Rather, a cynic who might give way to higher leanings from time to time with prodding. May she find those within herself now.

There was no choice but to firmly nestle the bawling infant into her mother’s half-opened arms.

“See for yourself. She’s a strapping, lovely new person.”

Renata let escape a whimper as furrows creased her brow and full lips fell slack. “What on earth…Tillie, what of her eyes! Is this baby blind? Or even a…oh, please no–is she albino?” She loosened her arms so the again squalling infant rested atop the mound of emptied belly.

Tillie’s hands flew to help, pressing the baby once more to Renata’s chest. “No, really, I don’t think so! They’re just the color of… water under grey skies right now, and a nice shape, aren’t they, and all that downy hair–”

“Her hair is his, though nearly white but the eyes are–Tillie, they’re about translucent…unattractive and odd.” She shuddered, released the child then let her own dark, bloodshot eyes close. “I’m so worn out and sore. Can you please deal with things for me? Tuck the baby away in her bassinet? I’ll hold her later….of course I will. ..and you know her name already so please record any pertinent information.”

And with that she turned her head to the wall again, eyes shuttered. She already blamed him. Dane, who had been known to be a spoiled wastrel in his youth–maybe he had strayed recently, he was gone so much ad she had become more distant when he had returned home. No telling what he brought to their child’s genetic code. He’d naturally be more pleased to meet her; he’d wanted a family addition for years. Someone to guide, to dote upon, more so since his wife had grown prickly and vacant every other week. But a boy, that had been the plan, despite his desire for any child they might create. How typical, even common of him, she thought with impatience.

“Must keep the family blood line going and what fun to bring up a little person, to set free upon my land, to share knowledge with!”

Renata swallowed her tears–of physical discomfort and the burden of worry. How would she do this? And who was the person hiding inside such wrinkled, compact, pallid skin? Where was her Italian heritage in this child? Those eyes filled her with anxiety and distaste.

Tillie cradled the little one in her thick strong arms. “Andalin,” she said with proper emphasis, “Andalin Chiara Luvstrom, welcome to our world. Who shall you become,  little one?”

She stood in the brightening morning light, swaying side to side, humming to her old friend’s baby, praying for that love to surround the child, to infuse her with blessings. Andalin closed her petal-tender lips and blinked at Tillie. Then she seemed to gaze in bafflement beyond the window. As if this was not the  expected destination any more than she was the mother’s own sweet dream. As if there had been a mistake. As if she had made a last minute detour. But then she closed her eyes and her soul dreamed of the future, formless and billowy, colored by pain and beauty and care, a work of art not yet realized.

Tillie mused over the child in her rocking bassinet as she got a small bottle readied. She spoke softly although she knew the woman was enveloped in post-birthing deep sleep, would slip in and out.

“Eyes like water are for those who see far. They will change others, Andalin, and so shape you.” Dane’s heavy footsteps were on the stairs, his vibrant baritone calling out Renata’s name. She kissed her fingertips, placed them upon the infant’s forehead. “May you be safe and blessed today and ever after.”

The door burst open and he filled the room as was his way, now made greater with excitement. His large head with bristling crown of hair swung back and forth until he spotted the infant. He turned to Tillie, seeing his wife resting, almost reaching to touch her as she stepped forward. “So our child is really here at last?”

“Andalin has arrived,” Tillie said and he took her and brought her to his chest, laughing so that the room vibrated with it. Andalin made not a sound at first then squealed several times, whether in delight or distress, it was not easy to decode.

“Andalin Chiara Luvstrom, our shining daughter! Look what we made, Rennie!” He brought her to his whiskered face and his  words evaporated as Andalin opened her eyes. Such extraordinary beauty! Such magic in her stillness as she sleepily looked upon him, her newness primeval, her body bared to light and sounds and smells. Those wide, clear, colorless eyes…oh, this child!

“My wife is doing well enough?”

“She is. Give her time, Dane.” She looked down. “Mr. Luvstrom.”

His first name hung between them, a golden mist that obscured time, and then he rushed to Renata’s side but she had travelled far from him, floating into a sea of subconscious where she drifted far. She was loathe to come back. Which Dane recognized well. This was another start of her absence and his infrequent if enthusiastic presence, their child caught between in a fine net of their making. How would he keep her from falling? How could he not fail her?

But today he was a new father and proud and he held her close, beaming and sputtering, true to a vigorous personality. He had planned a feast for all his friends and neighbors, not yet but soon, perhaps in a week or two. In the meantime, he longed to take Andalin outdoors, show her the fields and hillocks, the flowers and birds. Let her breathe, let her feel it all.

Tillie held out her hands. “Later, Dane, she now needs to recover from her birthing.”

“Do you need anything?”

She shook her head. As Andalin was transferred from his arms to hers, Dane longed for it to be Renata there, but he would not speak to her for two more days when she finally allowed him in again. He avoided Tillie’s gaze and she, his, as was their habitual  manner. He hadn’t looked directly at her for many years now. A lifetime. But their gaze did not have to connect. They knew each other’s thoughts. This young one would be loved well; he could count on her to not forget her place in this home as well as utilize her natural compassion and bravery. Keep the child within her wide range of power. Dane suspected they would all need help and who better than Tillie Everlin to do whatever must be done?

When he left, his presence stayed behind. Tillie felt it like a warm veil of a sunrise glow and then, as moments passed, a sheer flicker of sadness that dissipated as she busied herself with cleaning up the room.

And then Andalin spoke.

“Home,” she whispered from the white, softly lined curvature of the rocking bassinette.

Along Tillie’s forearms the tiny hairs stood straight  up. She rushed to her. “Yes? Andalin?”

But Andalin was only and naturally dozing, breath oozing in and out of half opened mouth, a slight sizzle of a sigh, a tail end of infant melody roaming the room as she snored so gently that even Tillie knew she had to be mad to think a baby, even this one, could form one word. And yet she knew just what Andalin must mean, language or not.

Renata started, propped herself up on both elbows. “Is he back yet? Did he come in?” she asked, wiping her parched lips on the back of a finely veined hand, then reaching for a bedside glass of water.

“He did, Renata, and he held her so close. He’s very happy–shall I retrieve him now?”

She held up a finger and gulped all cool water, relieved to have slept if not nearly enough. “No, not yet. I need my brush, I want to wash. But first may I look at her once more?”

Tillie was heartened as she got the child and took her to the bed and the more welcoming arms. Maybe she would now glad to have Andalin and it was all worry for nothing. The months of encouragement and advice from herself and Renata’s two closest friends might have paid off. It took time, that’s all. Most births and the following days and nights were complex on every level; new parents had doubts and fears and wouldn’t anyone with such a raw creature in their hands? Though, rarely, a bonding between mother and infant did not come to fruition. It was this that Tillie dreaded most of all, even over several health hazards, even over unexpected, sometimes brutal deaths.

“Well,” Renata said. Andalin still slept, a tiny bubble issuing from her lips, then disappearing. She stroked an arm, a hand, the nose and forehead with a forefinger. “Goodness. So fragile.”

Tillie smiled to herself. So strong, she wanted to say, to be born of a woman who resisted allowing an ordinary though always remarkable passage here.

“Andalin,” Renata said but her daughter did not stir, did not open her eyes, did not gurgle slightly. Renata looked up in mild alarm. “Is she supposed to sleep so soundly not knowing me? Did she awaken when Dane held her?”

“She’s tired out, same as you.”

“Take her then, I want to clean up.”

“In time, my friend, all good things slowly unfold.”

“You always think you know what is needed but it isn’t always so,” she said sharply, smoothing her nest of piled mahogany hair. Her striking cheekbones had become fuller the last few months, lending a dramatic look to her otherwise ordinary face. Her face now came alive for the first time in a long while, thick eyebrows raised high, eyes flashing a warning, mouth in a small twist. “I would very much appreciate a wash if you can help before we call back Dane. Not more of your sage advice.”

“Of course, but first we should see if she will take the bottle,” Tillie said, although she wanted to remind her that she was not nursemaid to her, only to the child this day, and that in a few hours they would be on their own. She had other patients, duties elsewhere. Though Dane had suggested he would pay her for a week’s worth of assistance she had refused. He was to have asked his older sister from beyond Iron Mountain. Tillie wished her luck and Rebata twice more for Marga was not an open minded, patient woman the last she knew, but so it was.

Andalin did take the bottle and suckled well as Tillie got her started, then placed her with utmost care in Renata’s arms. Baby and mother settled into one another though Renata was anxious for the duration, casting frequent glances at Tillie, seeking approval. So it was with every new child and mother; nothing could erase uncertainties until they came to know one another’s ways. Yet Renata would have to overcome her fierce need for singularity in order to share her energy. Her life. It was fortunate Dane had more to spare–when he was home. His work required frequent travels as Mediator for the entire district; he was also a sought-after speaker at prime events.

They both dozed as Tillie cleaned the last of labor’s detritus and the expelled afterbirth which she placed in a terracotta jar for disposal in loamy dirt. She soon sought a welcome break in the heavy, creaky rocker by a leaded glass window, amd lazily sipped a tall glass of water.

Outside, two willow and several oak trees’ branches leaned and lifted gracefully, rustling in spring gusts, and further out by the blue sky-filled pond were elegant yet homey yellow, purple and white irises bobbing on sturdy stems. They had only just been blooming the last day or two, a good sign: yellow for passion; purple for wisdom; white for purity. The mated swans hovered at the edge, looking toward the house. Some would say she was old-fashioned, enamored of more ancient ways but she knew what she knew and it changed little if any. The child was being watched over.

Her own weary eyes unfocused as her thoughts roamed, present to past to future. To Renata, Dane, Andalin. Back to her own satisfying if sometimes lonely life in the octagonal lodging she had built with her late husband, Tar, in red earth. A right habitat to provide for and protect, a place for healing, for regathering love. She would be glad when the day was over and she could be at her leisure. Until tomorrow came to be.

Andalin awakened and with that her little bud fists and restless feet flailed until Tillie took her from Renata, now stirring, too, and ready for her bed bath. The midwife put the infant into its cocoon of blankets and studied her with her heart wide open. The child registered her presence with widening eyes like quiet, clear water which would before long change from season to season, shine on the world in cobalt or aqua or pearlescent grey and more, to a palette of colors that others couldn’t quite name and didn’t try, so mesmerized were they and sometimes, so afraid.

Yes, Andalin, I know. Home, the great longing.

Tillie got the porcelain wash basin, the thick ivory wash cloth and towels and luxurious bar of eucalyptus soap. Renata beamed up at her with gratitude. Only for her old friend would she do this last thing, taking her time to gently clean and then ply Renata with special healing lotion of virgin cocoa butter, calendula, yarrow and red clover. Chatting with her, encouraging her even more than required– before she slipped out, just as Dane returned to shower his renewed affection on his life partner and coo at this surprise of a daughter, Andalin Chiara.

It was already time for Tillie to depart–sooner than expected but he was filling up the spaces and his child and wife needed him more than herself. This time.

“May mercy and courage of the powers of Love remain steadfast here,” she murmured and touched center of chest, then forehead, and with a firm hand pulled tight the door behind her. She took two steps when Dane’s thankful words for her breached any thoughts and the rapidly heating air.

 

 

(Please do not print or share due to work © 2018 Cynthia Guenther Richardson and being an ongoing writing endeavor, separate from the usual WordPress posts. Thanks–but comments are always welcome!)

The Other Side of Things

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“Peter Barron, over here! It’s Mitch! How’re you doing, buddy?’

I didn’t slow my pace or look over my shoulder. He wasn’t talking to me, after all, despite what he thought. He was hoping to have a chat and to share his latest news, maybe finagle sharing a coffee, even, before heading to his elegant or cozy (maybe both) home. I didn’t know a Mitch. I knew Mick and Corey, Dante, Artie and TK. No Mitchell/Mitch, who likely hung out with a Laurence, Carter or Theo.

I could hear his shoes slapping the sidewalk, picking up speed. He was not going to let Peter Barron go without at least a brief and pleasant exchange. I followed the right-curving walkway of the park. This was the longest way to the creek, so he might give up if he was headed to work.

But I felt the tap on my shoulder and turned my head to look at Mitch, not varying my pace. He fell in step.

“Peter, it’s been a few years!  Mitchell Howe from the Key Club, we used to share a table now and then? Knew it was you, haven’t changed, well, so much, but you may not recognize me what with the balding and all…”

I down shifted my stride to give him a laser focused look for about five seconds, one that would erase the image he carried in his head and replace it with the view in front of him. Predictably, his forehead crinkled and he faltered, then stopped.

“You’re not Peter. No, well, I’m sorry, buddy. Pretty embarrassing, but you look just like–I mean, you could be his twin!”

“Right, it happens. Don’t worry about it.” With a curt nod of my head, I kept going.

I thought that was it when he called out, exasperation emphasizing his words. “Julian! I should have figured out it was you!”

And finally, that was all. I’d gotten away with no major fall-out for once. Hadn’t had to explain a thing or tell him I didn’t rally know about Peter’s life or no, I didn’t have his data to give out. Sometimes the person asked how I was doing but it was barely even cursory, a waste of words and air.

I found the creek where it always had been, along the edge of the wooded park, and found an empty bench. It was three o’clock according to the church bell–that booming, automated ring tone. I had a few minutes to spare.

Why did Mitch think he should have known it was me? I had no recollection of him but that wasn’t too strange. I knew very few people here. What gave me away in his reconsideration? Or was it just my similarity to Peter while I was not him? Simplest deduction, then. But I toyed with the possibilities. It might have been my height at nearly six four. It might have been the very slight limp that arose without warning. Or maybe my dirty blond hair is longer, that was likely, I didn’t make regular stops at the barber these days. Or maybe it was how I hunch my shoulders when someone I don’t know calls out to me–I prefer to fold up some, even disappear. Or my eyes when I stared at him, wintry blue and a little slanted, smallish. Or as my mother always said, wolfish–despite a reminding her wolves eyes are not blue.

I cited her genes, not my father’s–his eyes were like his brother’s, ordinary, light brown. My Uncle Albert, the chain store owner of Barron’s Appliance and Electronics. Peter Barron’s father. Peter and me, you see, we’re first cousins. Dad has had his own thing going with three stores, Barron’s Footwear. Businessmen.

I suppose I have been, too, but it all went down wrong. I have zero going right now. Peter, though, he’s a man of the cloth. Who knew? But it makes some sense to me.  He was thoughtful and good in a way many couldn’t quite muster much less sustain.

******

We grew up two blocks from each other. We were born barely a year apart. My mom and Aunt Lydia were thick as can be while their husbands, the brothers, got along sporadically. There was always some family gathering, and sometimes it was good and easy if boisterous and other times it was all drama, a few hours tied up and split apart by disagreements between Dad and Uncle Albert. Peter and I sneaked off any way it went, sooner or later. It was better to not be in the line of fire or radar-like watchfulness of the mothers. There was the back yard with its fruit trees at our house or at his, there were layers of flowers, bushed and trees with a centrally located pool and a comfortable pool house. We easily found something else to do and sometimes had to elude Karissa and Jeanette, our other cousins, the first one being my younger  sister and the second, his.

It was like the mothers planned it all, their kids close to the same ages and one of each gender, husbands in business. Aunt Laura came from the south, all those stretched, rounded vowels and charming ways, while Mom was no-nonsense and straight to the point. It worked for them and impacted our lives differently. Peter from the start was more naturally academic, halfway refined by the time he was ten. I did fine at school out of desire to keep my parents calm and was resistant to develop gentlemanly comportment. He liked to explore and push the limits some but he didn’t dare get caught, that was the thing that guided his every move. Whereas I had less concern about it if the activity got my adrenaline going and there was some sort of pay off, like we got to see horror movies that our neighbor watched after we climbed the fence and bribed their dog with hot dogs or pretzels if he was out. We’d watch through their back family room window until the dog demanded more and more food.

But as time went by, I was looking for more things to get into and Peter was backing off. We still talked after school and rode dirt bikes in summer. I swam at his house often and we had a few parties together. We stayed at each other’s houses every now and then and stayed up late eating junk food and comparing notes on girls we hoped to date some day.

But by the ninth grade we  had less time for each other. He was eager to play team sports, baseball especially, and played trumpet in the band. I’d watch him play ball but I gravitated to skateboarding and off-road biking and backpacking in the mountains. The one time he saw me at the skate park he cheered me on but after we kicked at the dirt and threw rocks into the trees; we just had too little to say. So when I had some trouble after lifting a couple of packs of smokes, a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store, things turned for good. I got taken down to jail and booked and stayed 24 hours in miserable quarters before my dad paid them off and got me, entirely infuriated. It didn’t end there, of course, but my fine and community service work weren’t tough.

When Peter came over and confronted me about it, not wanting to believe the rampant gossip that I was suddenly a juvenile delinquent, I started to deny things then shrugged, backed away. I’d had enough verbal flogging from the parents, privileges taken. After that, he gave me a worthwhile punch in the chest  and I smacked his head, then shoved him hard enough that he fell backwards with a thud.

As he scrambled up, he shouted,”Why, Julian? You’re not that person, not some mean idiot!”

I sat under a crab apple tree and oscillated between tears and cold anger. I didn’t know why I did it but it wasn’t all that terrible, was it? It had something to do with seeing how far I could go, getting something for nothing, outsmarting others, feeling energized by the risks–all the wrong stuff to feel, part of me intoned. I felt confused. But intrigued even more; the other part tugged at me.

The next day we eyed each other in school hallways like once-loyal co-conspirators or old buddy neighborhood dogs who could not or would not any longer leap over the wide ravine to even say hello. I quietly growled at him when I ran into him after that and he just shook his head, eyes flitting over my face, seeming almost amused–or disgusted, I wasn’t sure. I resolved to check my impulses and do things better and it was partly because I knew Peter knew I could do better. And my parents were on me, as was everyone.

Kids used to mistake us all the time for years but by then, we were so different in attitude and style that it happened less. I secretly missed that, and I suspected even Peter did, as it had been part of who we had always been, almost twins, cousins more like brothers who had been best friends.

I had more trouble, though. Trespassing on the golf course grounds after midnight while drunk on vodka, causing turf damage with my golf clubs. But all in all, I minded my own business, made a few friends my parents looked askance at and got my homework done. I unfortunately wrecked my car–bought with my own money after three summers working at the stores–when drag racing, a favorite hobby, on a country road. But in the end we both graduated, me by the skin of my teeth and Peter, of course, with honors and awards. He deserved it all. He was still my cousin and a decent guy. That was the last time I saw him, at a joint party our parents threw at his place. That was a hugely successful event with some wild and sad stories but, then, isn’t that what those parties are about in the first place? Farewell with a big bang for memories? But my parents and Aunt Lydia and Uncle Albert were full of generosity and good nature: we’d both (me, more or less) navigated a few rites of passage by eighteen.

Peter and I ended up hanging out as people left, horsed around in the pool almost like old times. We had survived those adolescent years and so, we moved on, he to a top university.

We still looked very like each other, though I was nearly three inches taller, and yet he was undeniably Peter and I was, of course, strictly Julian or “J” to my good friends.

******

I met Artie a year or so later at his old man’s body shop since I often had need of work on my older trucks, more often on my very fast Mustang. I had finished community college and gone on to work in residential construction and remodeling, All that work on interesting houses gave me a desire to buy my own small place and the move in with Bella, the woman I had vowed to marry–some day. Being impatient by nature, I kept coming up with mad schemes that would pay off well and faster.

“No need to think so hard about it,” Artie said as I admired the work he  had done on my Mustang once more, “you just need to join the crew I’ve got going and we’ll get you all set, man.”

“What do you mean?” I was only half-listening as I leaned against the building. Artie said things that skirted the edges of ludicrous sometimes so I usually nodded my head, then went my way.

“Why not come over tonight and I’ll explain it then. You can make some big money, that’s all you need to think over.”

“Sure,” I said, curious more than believing he had any insight into making money other than fixing cars up, a good skill but limited in profits as his father owned the shop and took a big cut.

“Eight tonight.”

He gave me a look that presaged things I could not imagine. I felt it in my spine, a shift of energies, fear and excitement and fascination all mixed together. I took the Mustang out on side roads and ran it hard. It held up good as ever but soon it would be gone.

******

The creek was flowing fast and soothed me. I shifted on the bench under the emerald density of trees. My hip hurt as it had for years since the near-catastrophic car accident when it had been broken. But the hurt had developed into a dark ache that had tunneled deeper the last few. I knew it was the rude bed and damp, chilled conditions of the prison that had housed me for eight. Grand larceny. And before that, petit larcenies, incarcerated one year and then another. I had gotten out two months ago and had so far made no dent in the job hunt. No big surprise.

I was staying at the parent’s house, in the apartment above the three car garage. But only just. Mom wanted me there and Dad did not. There were discussions that ended up sizzling and there were silences that held fast for days. Except for Mom I would have left, slept on the street. She was so glad to see me and wanted me to talk to her, “to recover from hell” as she put it, and then to move on toward the Good Life. Dad just wanted me to move on and out-of-town and maybe come back when I had changed identities if possible, or at least started to live decently again. I felt myself leaning more toward his viewpoint every passing day. I had much to recoup, and their tolerance, their tentaive kindness was half-real, half a fluke, I thought.

I picked up a twig at my feet, tossed it with an easy swing of my arm so that it made a tiny plop, spun and disappeared. It was spring already, I mused. It felt overwhelming sometimes, all those scents and colors and sounds, the many moving parts and bodies both human and otherwise. Everything was no longer what I knew. To think that this was what I had yearned for and here I was, finally. Yet I was not at all convinced I could even live a life like this, in the open world.

“Julian.”

I twisted around at the sound of his voice, rose up to face him.

“Peter.”

“So long since that crazy pool party, huh?…”

He looked himself, older but not poorly, face made more interesting by creases around his mouth and at the edges of his eyes. He had the white band of collar on, he was really an Episcopal priest, but he quickly undid it then removed it and put it in a pocket. Peter offered his hand which I took. Then we caught each other into a bear hug, brief but strong. I pushed back the pain of time lost. I was certain I looked haggard, honed down to basics.

When we sat down, we were quiet. It felt surprisingly alright. Just the creek and  trees swishing in the warm wind and robins adding to a soundtrack of nature in the city with their brash and welcoming song.

“Where do I even begin, cousin?” I asked, voice almost swallowed up in the words.

“How about starting with right now? That’s all we’ve ever got, my brother. And we already know who we truly are, maybe the only ones who can say that of us both.”

I shut my eyes and saw only a soft blur of light behind my eyelids, not bars cutting it into narrow pieces. When I opened them he was smiling his crooked smile at me.

“You may have that right. And I’ve had time to think over my place in the universe, you know. Not sure it’s in this town but today it seems to be.”

Peter bent to dig two medium hefty, irregular rocks from the damp soil. He gave one to me. We threw them to the other side of the exuberant creek, mine missing a squirrel before resting on a grassy knoll, his hitting a tree branch and landing near mine, and it all felt better than anything had in a long, long while.

 

 

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Projects

Variety of pics 033
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Ellen Tate ever intended to do with all that unruly front yard was anyone’s guess. And she had recently been hauling more bits and pieces from her station wagon after she backed it into her driveway, each item disappearing into the back yard. They couldn’t imagine what she was up to and strained to see just what it was she had in her arms this time–was that a peculiar table or another hunk of driftwood? Ellen liked beachy things, or at least she and Alec did some time ago.

The view from their porch was imperfect and Ellen was not just across from them but a house down to the left. And this ivy that crawled up one side of their brick bungalow and sometimes dangled over the roof edge needed a thorough whacking before the wisteria got strangled. A yearly dilemma and task.

“I suspect she’s only adding more stuff here and there, decorative touches or whatever it is that she calls it. The last time we saw that back yard was in 2011 when she had the block over for Annabelle’s graduation party. Pity.”

Clare blew her nose loudly. Simon looked away. He’d never gotten used to that alarming honking sound. Her spring allergies were kicking up already so this was just the start.

“Well, things have changed. Alec passed away way too soon. Annabelle got successful fast and hightailed it out of the country. Ellen still works too hard and you said she seems out a lot, just not around here.”

Simon stared at Ellen and Alec’s house, suddenly stirred, remembering things. Alec and he had swapped information about stocks, watched many a car race on TV and in the flesh, tried to out-do each other on their high performance grills several times a year. Even went fly fishing a few times, though Simon had little talent for it and needed repeated instruction. But Alec was naturally a man of patience, something Simon had come into far too late in life, not without considerable resistance. How had he really helped his friend? Maybe he’d been a good listener; Alec had things to get off his chest from time to time. Ellen’s love of knick-knacks, for one. He wondered if she still had that group of trolls from all over the world atop the fireplace mantle or the miniature dogs and cats on a bookshelf. He rather liked those but Alex disliked them greatly–though he never complained to her, only to friends.

Clare smoothed the heavy grey braid hanging over a shoulder. Before too long she’d have to wear her long hair up; the increased heat could fester the air and her neck. “I never knew anyone wanting to be a nurse so long. She could have retired five years ago. What if she can’t read the small print on medications and makes a fatal mistake? What is she gets tired out and doesn’t answer a call bell fast enough? She can’t need the money. Don’t her bunions hurt like heck by now?”

“Who doesn’t need more cash flow? Plus she likes it, keeps her engaged with life.” And death, he supposed, but she was aware of that probability when she took up the career. He didn’t know about any bunions, did she have such achy lumps like Clare? He’d admired her bright pink toenails in summer, he did recall that.

“I disengaged from that sort of hard work without a backward glance.” Clare stood up from her creaky rattan chair and peered at Ellen as she once more pulled something from the back of the station wagon. “Maybe Annabelle is moving back home? No, surely not, she’s in Lisbon…”

Simon swatted away the first fuzzy, noisy bee he’d seen in their yard thus far and that meant there were lots more moving in the neighborhood. Good for them; they had important work to get done. He admired their industrious, proscribed motions. How little he found to do some days. His last office responsibilities ended one year and eighteen days ago. He’d had all sorts of projects lined up and managed to get quite a few completed the first twelve months. This year he’d found himself spending more time being more still than not. Lazing around with an outdoors magazine or a crossword puzzle. A Ulysses S. Grant biography opened on his lap, trying to not doze off. Watching Clare neatly fold colorful laundry–he liked to watch her do this, he couldn’t say why–waiting until she told him for the third time that pots and pans needed drying and putting away. He fixed things, they took circuitous walks, he still met Herb and Morris once a month for breakfast, he was adept at keeping their property attractive. Some days, though, he didn’t feel like moving from the gentle warmth of their bed even after Clare had long been up and prattling about.

For her, retirement had been a breeze, transitioning from full time craft store manager to part time and now to on-call help which could amount to a couple days a week even. And she had plenty of artsy projects in the room next to the garage. Clare would have bought that crafts store if he felt they could swing it. “Clare’s Craft Haven,” that was what she’d dreamed of calling it (rather than “A to Z Craft Supply”). A place to shop but also meet others of the same ilk and a space for creating objects of useful attractiveness. Or rather, useless nonsense as Simon privately thought of it when she yet again had paste and felt and sequins and pins strewn about. But harmless enough; he had his own interests, after all.

She sank back into the chair. “Why not let her be? Either that or go on over and ask her what she’s up to?”

“Oh, I’d never intrude, you know she’s not open to idle chat, anymore, much less sharing private activities with others. I wish she was. I miss her. I’d like to figure out how to break through, make it like old times again.”

Simon knew what she meant, but he’d determined that old times were just that–done and gone. Everyone had to move on. But it was proving a challenge for himself like it was for Ellen, if for different reasons. Clare often had a pep talk about hobbies since she had more than enough but he thought the very word was indicative of their triviality. He wanted something meaty to dig into again.

“Well, we can walk by sometime when she’d out in front, start a conversation about any ole thing.”

Clare put a hand on his forearm. “Like now…she’s out there now. We can offer to help her with whatever she’d doing.”

So they got up and crossed the street when Ellen reappeared at the station wagon. Her head jerked up when she heard them call her name. The expression was neither welcoming or discouraging. She nodded at them and paused, one hand on the car as if her arm was a polite barrier to further progress toward her.

“How’s it going, Ellen? Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

She smiled, friendly enough if a bit tight around the edges. “That’s true, I’m still working and have plenty to do.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Church meetings, book club, a capella choir, hospice training, fitness club.”

“Hospice training?” Clare tried to keep her tone ordinary but the words came out too loud. Alec had died of pancreatic cancer, and rather fast.

Clare touched her prominent chin with a forefinger, was quiet a second. “I know, seems a bit late for that but they helped us so much, so it’s now my turn.” She smiled again, took her hand from the vehicle and reached in and grabbed a box.

“That’s quite wonderful of you,” Clare murmured.

“Can we be of any help with the stuff you’re getting out?” Simon asked. he had to admit she looked strong enough to handle it all on her own. She’d changed shape– from more of an apple shape to a pleasant pear, arms and legs quite strong. He wondered if he had changed, not for the better.

“No, I’m good. Well, on second thought, this is quite heavy, thanks.”

Simon took the box, awkwardly moved around her. The three of them entered the back yard, Clare filling with anticipation. At last, maybe the spell made of grief and loss was broken and she and Ellen could be real friends again, not just neighbors who waved at each other. They rounded the corner of the house and she stopped. The grassy expanse was nearly covered with what appeared to be household goods. Blue painted chairs, a table made of driftwood and perhaps an oak plank, lamps tall and small, a box of linens, another of dishes, a big rug with an ocean motif and things that could not be fully discerned due to be wrapped or bagged.

“What if it rains? Can we get this stuff inside for you?” Simon put down the box.

“Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve been covering it up at night with tarps and the sunny season is upon us. Besides, the plumber is coming tomorrow  to finish and when the bathroom is done soon, I’ll move it all in.”

“Wait, you have a new bathroom? And all this is being added to ….?”

“Well, Clare, that’s her business, not ours.”

Ellen put hands on hips and laughed as if Clare had made her day.

“Yes, that’s right, a new bathroom! In Alec’s old study. Remember?” She turned toward the small outbuilding several feet away to the right of the driveway. “Come on, you two, have a look.”

“What on earth can you mean?”

“I know–it’s an ADU.” Simon crossed in front of his wife to follow Ellen inside.

“What’s that?” Clare said, close behind.

“Accessory Dwelling Unit.”

The door opened and Ellen led them in, arms opening wide. The old space was looking new. Not completely altered but emptied of Alec’s things, freshly painted a warm blush color. The four small windows finally had repaired screens; the sashes were pushed up so fresh air wafted about, the floral ivory with coral curtains fluttering. Signs of progress on the new bathroom were apparent and they peeked inside. It was spare but tasteful with a sleek glassed shower stall in the far corner.

Ellen beamed at them. “I’m going to make additional money so I can retire and be comfortable, see?”

“Fantastic,”  Simon murmured as he walked about the living area. He imagined Alec at his desk, scribbling away and thought he’d like it.

“Oh gosh, you’re going to rent this out?”

“That’s the idea. Like an efficiency apartment, maybe just for travelers. They’ll have to use a microwave, eat with me or go out. I don’t want to spend more money yet for a kitchenette. Besides, it’d take up quite a bit of room.”

“Fantastic idea,” Simon said, arms folded across his broad chest, eyes gleaming.”Alec’s place for others to enjoy.”

“I never thought of it until I cleaned it all out. Took me forever. You know how he loved to write and read out here, enjoy alone time. And then I had to consider if I wanted anyone else in his  special place, you know? But he’d like this. Me being more secure and self sufficient, while having more company of sorts.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You really did all this?” Clare grabbed Ellen’s forearm without thinking of it–they’d been close friends once– and Ellen didn’t step away.

“Except the bathroom, that was Gerard and Sons’s responsibility.” She ushered them out and locked the door. “I have more to get done tonight, then a shift to work tomorrow, early.” She shook out her tired arms and hands. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be when I leave that hospital. Two more months.”

“What good news, at last you’ll be free! Well, now this…but far freer.”

They lingered by the station wagon a moment.

“You know, I think it’s high time for another backyard party –to celebrate my retirement. Are you interested in helping me some with that, Clare?”

“You know I am, I’ll wait for details and direction.”

Simon smiled warmly at Ellen. “And if we can help you with anything before that, let us know. I’d like to pick your brain some, too.”

Clare frowned at him ever so slightly.

“Well, I likely do need to clean up my front yard, and then my collections ought to be sorted. One thing just leads to another…never ending, really. Yes, we have to chat more, you guys. And nice that you stopped by.”

She looked comforted by it all. The brooding sorrow over Alec’s death was now a residual feeling peeking from the far edge of her deep brown eyes.

******

When the two of them climbed into bed, Clare eased toward her husband and admired his scratchy square in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

“I wonder about you sometimes, Simon, even at this time of our lives.”

“How’s that?” He looked at her narrowed eyes, admired how the deep blue sparked through the slits.

“I saw how you became engaged by her.” She poked his belly.

His unruly eyebrows shot up and he grunted. “I was engaged by her ADU, that’s what you saw.” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly, then cleared his throat. “Clare, I have found a new goal again, a worthy task! A kind of calling, even, in a humble form.”

“What now?”

“It’s a great idea and we need to steal it, make our own ADU. Maybe build on top of the garage. Or build a tiny house behind the apple tree. In the southwest corner, isn’t that a good spot? And think of it, we’ll get to meet new people, won’t that be interesting?”

Clare turned her head and stared at the tiny crack snaking into the ceiling from a far corner. Imagined being always at a stranger’s beck and call. More housework. Meals at certain times. It was one thing to admire Ellen’s initiative; she lived alone, she had no one else to tend to and share time with day in and out. But for them it would mean a third person about, in the way.

“I have so been needing this, a good project! Think of it, Clare, the money, yes, but the opportunity to learn about other people, stretch ourselves.”

She felt stretched plenty between her on-call work and hobbies and him. She wondered if he’d just crank that enthusiasm down a bit. And learn to automatically wash and dry the pots and pans. Maybe do some of his laundry, at last. Would he be making breakfast with her if they took on a, well, what did they call this person, a renter, a guest? Or was it going to be her load to carry, as ever? She was not the least bit fond of housework. She’d rather make nifty–even nonfunctional–things, create for the pleasure of it. And she recently sold some at an arts and crafts fair, to her surprise.

He pulled her into his still firm arms, fingers woven in her unbraided hair. “This is something we can plan and do on our own time frame, Clare. It will be great to have extra cash and we can choose who we want here and when. It could be a good time shared, my sweet darling, don’t you think? A whole new adventure!”

Maybe this could be his own project. She’d approach that later. She let herself fold into him, closer and closer. How could she refuse a man who called her “my sweet darling” after forty-six years? She realized how much they had–their storied past, the limited years ahead–and she would not spoil them with doubt or hesitation. He might go any time. Alec did, after all.

“Yes,” she said to it all and kissed him firmly, turned out the light.