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.

***************************************************

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.

*********************************************************************************

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!)

Other Than Words, an Excerpt

IMG_0730

Sometimes when I sit down to craft short stories, another need crowds out other ideas and challenges my focus. This has happened more often, recently. I have been revisited by characters from a piece of fiction started long ago. Thus, this post is a revised, new excerpt from an older novel-in-progress, Other Than Words, unearthed for the arduous re-crafting process. In a previous, quite different incarnation an excerpt was published in the anthology VoiceCatcher, issue #2. It became nominated for a Pushcart Prize. But I abandoned that too-long novel after many years and another editor’s advice to revamp most of it. I was, in fact, just sick of working on it and thought I was done.

But sometimes tenacious stories will not move from one’s consciousness, something wants to be altogether redesigned and finally completed. To take a writer different places than unexpected, which is hard to turn down. I have a minuscule hope that Other Than Words can become what it was meant to be as the story is reshaped and more useless parts are eliminated. I want to at least to see what I might salvage, as I believe in the heart and soul of this story. It is about emotional resilience and spiritual hope found amid various daunting circumstances, how community can generate healing if they only rally and how trauma’s effects can be surmounted, released. And, of course, there is love of different kinds to weave it together.

Cal Rutgers is a photojournalist who is burned out, enervated by internal and external losses. He has been nudging me to tell more or tell things differently now that I have taken a long break from this story. But as before, his character seeks the solace of his childhood summer home in Snake Creek where once he enjoyed friends and mentors, where his sister, the only other family member alive, wants him try out a quieter life. He knows he is on empty but he can barely dare to find new fulfillment.

But there is someone else who has the village’s eyes on her. Sophie, a creative soul who harbors a strangely complicated story that cannot be told after a sudden death, struggles to re-balance her own life. Her thoughts and yearnings have been silenced and she may never speak again. She longs for normalcy but doesn’t know what that means now.Their lives intersect when Cal shows up for a forced vacation. The insights and experiences they discover together and separately may just free them both, while the village will illuminate more of its own truths in hard ways. And in the end, faith may have a fighting chance.

This chapter posted in WordPress is my first attempt to start over but likely only the beginning again of much work if it is sustained. Readers and fellow writers, I am hoping you will delve in and perhaps respond in the comments area so I have an idea if this chapter beckons you to seek more of the story. Thank you for reading.

*********

Other Than Words

CHAPTER 1

 

When I arrived in Snake Creek I was a barely congenial wreck, in dire need of a restorative break. I had tried to extricate myself from the effects of working in the Amazon: a just-healed infection from a small wound on my calf; recurrent dreams of tentacled plants wrapping themselves about my head and chest; a confounding sorrow. Joe, my mentor and often partner in the field,  had disappeared while we were on assignment for an international travel magazine. Fitz, our editor in Chicago offices, had given up hope while I held on to the thought that Joe had just gotten too caught up in his usual hunt for the one true king of anacondas. He’d missed our plane, but he had a bad habit of this. Sometimes he stepped away and I didn’t hear from him for three or four months from another country. It was coming up on nine.

I had left all cameras at my rarely inhabited apartment on the Bay. My routine photographs had become innocuous, devoid of a decent clarity of life. Even in technicolor Hawaii I had been unable to capture one frame of magic. I just had to gain a different perspective[–on everything. That’s what I told Fitz but closer to the truth was that I was deeply sick of taking stills, of finding the perfect pictorial angle, all those awards, great assignments and my two books notwithstanding. And, too, there was the travelling from one place to another, one cramped plane seat to the next, time zones rendered meaningless. Who really cared when and where I was? I was a freelancer but the last year I had worked mostly for the magazine because it was a known entity, just easier.

“Yes, Cal, just get out of here, you’re making me nuts with your gloom and boredom. You should have gone back to visit long ago. Take a month if you want!” He leaned back and puffed delicately on the stogie as his penetrating eyes searched mine. “No, it’s an order. Take one month off. I’ll let you know what’s up next.”

“I don’t know about that, I can’t forecast how it’ll be to visit Kirsten and Louis the lawyer in Haston much less hang out in good ole Snake Creek, with, well, who?… I figure two weeks max. I could make it back for the Australia shoot.”

My sister, only remaining blood family (who still oddly tried to mother me via long distance)and her husband had been hounding me to come. the last two years. I only accepted the ticket she bought me when Fitz started in on me, too.

“Look, I need you sharp. I need you present. You have to let go of Joe Rasmuss, too. He’s not likely coming back to this world or we would have heard from him by now….”

“In the jungle things–people, food–can disappear in hours, minutes. I have seen it happen in seconds… But he knows it like his own hand! We’ve been there how many times now? A dozen?”

Fitz jumped up and stood close to me, his weathered face peering up at mine. Though small for a round bear of a man, his presence still packed a discernible force. He grabbed my forearms to impress his point, gravelly voice booming. “You didn’t get lost, did you? It was Joe, maybe he’s off his game! I’m telling you, you need a long time off, Cal. It’s not a request. You’ve burned out. I don’t want you back for at least a month. So go visit with family, eat, sleep, swim or sail, find women or go fish, whatever you do up there in the primitive northern Michigan woods!”

So after ten years of not visiting I came back to the summer community where I grew up a little more each year. Where my father taught music; where my mother re-energized and reorganized the village library. So near that thriving camp just on the other side of Snake Creek once called United Ministries Michigan Summer Arts Program, known as just MISAP. It have been started by my mister grandfather and his secular, visionary crew in 1920. It had taken off in a few short years and grown and diversified. It had been the fertile ground where I had planted my dreams. And just next door in Snake Creek, I had tended them in even more ways.

So after a night and day at my sister’s house (it turned out they had to attend the Georgia funeral of her father-in-law), I made my way to the Village of Snake Creek. After driving too fast on slush-covered roads I slowed to enter the quarter-mile road, then pulled over at the last bend. Unfolding my length from the rented yellow Mustang, I leaned against the hood and looked things over. The last of the snow was melting and pooling and the scent of it mixed with earth and white pines held a euphoric quality. I took a deep breath of it and relaxed. I could make out Main Street, all three blocks of it. It looked so good. My throat tightened, my eyes grew hot and damp. Home, such as it was, nicely brightened up but otherwise simple, tradition-bound. Chock full of stories. But I was not the same person, not the prodigal son I knew old Will, Snake Creek‘s The Clarion’s owner-editor, hoped to greet.

 

******

Will had met me with a long embrace at the weekly paper’s office, showing me the latest copies with dubious cheer–he was slowing down at seventy-two; his wife, our beloved Anna, was ill; who would take over?–and then we headed to the best place to eat outside of Haston, the Bluestone Cafe. It was run by my childhood friend.

“There’s Clarissa,” Will whispered as he hunched toward me. “She’s the owner now, you know  that? She and Sonny bought out the other fifty percent. She looks pretty good, right? Sonny is a big real estate developer at last, heaven help us, building a fancy summer community.The Birches. We could use some cheaper family units but no…that won’t fatten his accounts.”

I followed her through the sun-warmed room, her gauntness more familiar than the cropped silvery hair. It had  been dark forever and she was only forty-seven, a year younger than I. The first surprise, and more to come, no doubt. Will had never looked much different; he’d gone white early when I was a teenager. It was longer than I’d seen it and his back was hunched. He even had jowls but his light blue eyes behind glasses were sharp as they darted around the room, taking inventory of who was with whom, what was going on.

“I suspected the same.” I sipped the cheap and steaming drip coffee and found it delicious.”He’s always pushed for more and she wanted a restaurant thirty years ago.” I heard her belly laugh as she greeted someone. “Yes, I’d say Rissa looks fine.”

Will leaned back in his wooden chair and chuckled. “You’re the only one who calls her that, anymore. But you’re entitled, best buddies that you were. You two ran things, a townie and a summer kid.”

I wasn’t about to fall into some pastel-tinged reverie about the past, not then. If Rissa stopped to see us, I’d ask if we could meet down at Ring Lake sometime and catch up. If she didn’t say yes, I’d understand, like it or not. Sonny was a bully before and I’d heard over the years that he had only become more intense.

“I’m still sorry she ended up with Sonny but they seemed to need each other, had a way with each other. I sure had other plans, thanks in part  to your encouragement. We’ve talked about her situation last time–I hope her marriage improved.”

Will looked down at the mug cupped between puffy, worn hands. “Not much.” He sucked his lower lip in as if to seal off any more words. I knew he was a secret keeper. Like a good detective, he observed and heard it all but held things close, letting pieces out only as needed. He changed tack. “So how long this time? A week or two at least? We’ll get some fishing in. And what’s your next assignment, any wild lands or dazzling cities on the list?”

I tried to smile back but couldn’t. “I’ll stay as long as I can be. Depending on how fast I get myself back together. I told you about Joe earlier but it’s more than that. I’m tired of my work, the first time ever, really. It’s been twenty-four years of globetrotting, hanging off precarious points to find that shot, too often eating food not fit for a street mongrel, camping out where the unknown lurks day and night….a bizarre life forged of adrenaline. I have to get a better sense of what I need to do now. I feel emptied, Will. Beaten up.”

“That doesn’t sound like you, son. You’ve thrived on that fast, risky life, stretching your limits. Running to the next thing. Even becoming–can we say it now?–rather famous. But I’m sort of relieved you’ve come to this point. I’ve worried about you. And now you’re at the right place to rest, store up more of what you really need. It’ll all straighten out, you’ll see.”

I shook my head.”‘You’ll see…’ You’re such an idealist, believing the best of people, having faith in life like always. You’re still basically happy–thank God! I think…”

“It just comes naturally, Cal, don’t you remember  how it feels?”

I felt the rise of aching pulled into an undercurrent of a now-foreign feeling: shame. “I don’t think so, Will…I think that got lost somewhere in the Andes or Shanghai or just some unsanitary, cramped outpost corner. Amazonia did me in this time; it did Joe in worse, I fear. I doubt I can recapture all that youthful hope now! There comes a point, you know, when too much has happened. Been witnessed. The world is made of petty, conniving tyrants, of unconscionable and just weird happenings, Will, not only that panoramic beauty I capture in my pictures. ”

“Too true, Cal.” He rubbed his hand over his hair and left it sticking out at angles.

He endured me already, I could see: my ego, my arrogance, the negativity. I wanted to start over, use his essential goodness to help align me better with respect and care. But I was a man, not a kid anymore. I had to wise up on my own. I resolved to be a better friend to all there.

“So stay a month or two, it’ll come back to you.” He glanced at the door as the brass bell on top rang again and waved at the woman who’d arrived, beckoning her to join us. “Oh my, here’s Sophie,” he said, as if this explained everything, and he rose and met her halfway across the crowded room.

I stood, too, and saw first her height as every eye in the room noted. At least six feet tall (not far from my own six-three) she moved with sleek, concerted energy, with such an inborn sense of space and her point of balance that I knew at once she had to be an athlete. About her shoulders sprang wavy auburn hair laced with white. Her skin held the ivory luminescence of a true redhead. I averted my eyes just as she saw me, then composed my face in a calm, genial manner.

Will put one hand each on my shoulder and hers. “Sophie Swanson, this is Cal Rutgers. Cal, Sophie.”

“Glad to meet you, Sophie,” I said and I followed her lead and sat without the usual assertive handshakes.

She nodded at me but her lips barely curved, then she patted Will’s hand. He drank his coffee as if nothing else needed saying. After a moment, she looked at me and ran her gaze over my face before reaching into her purse, made in India, I surmised. It was a shapeless bright purple and orange cotton bag into which tiny round mirrors were sewn. She brought up a medium sized notebook and a silver mechanical pencil. They were laid beside her.

“Sophie doesn’t talk,” Will said quietly, as if his tone of voice made it less obvious he was informing me of this. “She’ll write things down if needed.”

“Ah, ” I said and glanced at her. She was gesturing at a waitress.

“I’m sure she’ll stay a bit but she is meeting Clarissa soon. They’ve become close.”

The waitress appeared with a full blue mug in hand and placed it before Sophie, who then set her head to one side and pointed at me, made a loose “come hither” motion.

“She’s asking you to tell her who you are, why you’re here.”

I thought: he’s like her interpreter but there must be more, like Rissa. “Well, Sophie, I’m an old summer kid who went to arts camp every June through August here with my sister, Kirsten. She’s a violinist.” Sophie’s face held a look of surprise. I rattled off more information, not knowing what else she was interested in. “We all lived at the camp each summer as my father was a pianist who taught at SAP. Also choir and history in a Detroit area private school during the calendar year. My mother was a librarian and got Snake Creek’s library back on track. Now I’m visiting Will and my sister from San Francisco.”

Sophie’s right eyebrow inched up and then fell. She put forth both hands then pulling them  back toward her as if trying to pull me in. I felt like I should pantomime and the thought made me want to uncharitably snicker but I held back. I thought how much I could use a drink other than coffee. Rest before Kirsten and Louis returned to their lovely house, which I inhabited alone for now.

“She’d like more.”

But I didn’t want to tell her more. I wanted to have coffee with Will, steal looks at her, talk to Rissa a moment or two and then take a walk by Ring Lake. Besides, I wanted to know more about Sophie before I divulged a lot of personal information. I would be here awhile; I wanted to be careful with what I did and said. Getting to know more people was also not on my agenda. The old locals were enough, and my sister and Louis. I wanted to drift aimlessly, sleep and eat simple food, think of nothing. Not think of my profession.

“I’m a photographer. A plane hopping photojournalist. On vacation here for a couple weeks.”

She put her hands together, then opened them slowly and looked at her palms.

“She’s seen one of your books, I think?”

She nodded.

“In Haston, likely.”

“I appreciate it….”

And her full lips stretched almost to a grin, small creases deepening in her cheeks like dimples but finer, and her light brown almond-shaped eyes glimmered. She put her right hand to center forehead, then to heart and then towards  me. Her exchange of energy hit me somewhere in my solar plexus. I sat still, stunned, moved and perplexed by the gesture. Not knowing exactly what it was but that it was a real thing given to me. Better than mere words. Did Will see that? Did he know something more about her?

“Cal Rutgers, how on earth did you sneak into town without me knowing it? Come here, boy!”

Rissa engulfed me, pulling me up and so close I felt many hard, tiny ribs under her sweater, fish bones, bones that should have more flesh over them, be kept safer from the world. This mermaid girl, my old friend, her colors fading. Like I supposed mine had.

All four of us huddled together as Rissa chattered.

“We have to have at least one party or a dinner or another get together sometime before you go.A bofire!–if it stops snowing altogether. I’ll have to take some time off and meet you somewhere, too.” She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and I knew that wouldn’t be easy, not even after all this time. There was my old enemy, Sonny, and he got everywhere. “How long are you in town this time? I mean, ten years, Cal, ten damned years it’s been and you just cannot creep in and out again like that!”

She looked a little hurt and I knew what she meant. I had slipped away after three days at my sister’s, only a day in Snake River last time.

“A couple of weeks. Maybe four.”

“Well, good for you, good for us!” She pumped her fists in the air.

Will looked triumphant. Sophie listened and drank her coffee, amber eyes peering at us over the top of the big blue mug or looking out the window as sunshine spilled and vanished. I wished she would hold that look, the one where her face was dreaming, I wished I had my camera to catch the play of light on her eyes and pale eyelashes….But I didn’t need my camera.

Did I? I could do all this without my damned cameras. I touched my shoulder where it would have been hanging.

Rissa sat back and studied me. “I want to hear all about it, where you’ve been, how your books are doing–you’re a celebrity around here, you know! I own them both, by the way.”

I let go a quick laugh. We three caught up a bit. Everything almost fell into familiar places with that raucousness, her easy welcoming. We made a plan to meet in a few days at the lake and she’d bring a picnic lunch. I would bring wine. She and Sophie got up and left, looking back in unison to wave goodbye. They were arm in arm as they crossed the street.

“What do you think?” Will asked as our white fish and fries arrived.

“I think I’m starving.”

“Come on, Cal.”

“I think Rissa has a winning cafe and more power to her- except Sonny is likely running her life otherwise. She seems herself, but tired, a little skinny even for her.”

Will vigorously chewed, something I had forgotten about him, his mouth half open. “Sophie Swanson?”

“Well, she’s beautiful, almost exotic, isn’t she. And she misses nothing, is smart. Curious. That’s enough of what I think for now.”

“You don’t want to know why she’s mute?” He took a sip of coffee and flattened his hands on the table. “Her husband, a retired biologist –they moved here from Boston–died last year. Drowned in Ring Lake. There was a big storm but he just went out in the rowboat alone that night. Sophie couldn’t find him, dialed 911 but when they got there, she couldn’t speak, or would not.”

He rested on his elbows and I put my fork down.

“You mean she chose not to speak or she went mute from traumatic shock?”

Will held both palms up in the air. “Either way, she’s not talking yet. She’s a dancer, had her own dance troupe, even, back East. But I don’t think she is dancing yet, either… And she lost her  daughter, too. Mia is living with Sophie’s sister and family back in Vermont. I mean, Sophie is mute; Mia is thirteen. She needs her mother to be there for her but… it’s a crying shame. Sophie is healing slowly. Snake Creek finally accepts her okay. Some of us look after her. Well, she’s naturally very independent. She has enough money, as well–she inherited, of course, and his family is old money.”

“You’re saying even the police don’t know what happened? Wasn’t it ruled a bona fide drowning due to the storm? What do you really think?”

Will took a long, slow breath and let it softly whistle through his long nose. “I don’t know, Will. I think something more happened that night but I do not know what. There is no real evidence other than what they found, the boat, his body later. She’s not the woman who came here with her family a year and a half ago. Vibrant, had a beautiful mellow speaking voice. She adored her daughter, was proud of her husband’s contributions to biology–he specialized in lake and pond life. Anyway. I’ve said enough. But I’m glad you two met.”

“I’m not sure why you told me all that, but it’s quite interesting. I do wish her well.”

We finished our meal and Will returned to his office to see what his assistant was up to. I walked across the street and onto a broad, soggy park area, then paused by the field stone library where I had spent so many hours dreaming and reading. Where my shy, affectionate mother was in her element. I continued to Ring Lake, hands stuffed in my winter jacket pockets, the wind whipping my shaggy hair and running through my beard. Beyond the stony beach the navy blue expanse sparkled in the cold, clear sunlight, was as charmed with beauty as I recalled. My mind slowed as I walked around the north end of the undulating body of water.

Except, Rissa, how I still worried about her. And Sophie, what of that strange creature who watched from deep, secretive eyes? What would happen when she finally exited her silence–if she ever could? I would not likely get to hear her speak and felt a twinge of regret at the thought. For what, I didn’t even know.

But I knew I had to follow my instincts while in Snake Creek and see where they took me as I always did.