Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Her Oasis on a Tilt

It was very late afternoon, light sifting through treetops in a shower of gold, a slight pause before hearty or unusual fragrances of culinary works began sailing across one emerald, expansive yard to another. Songbirds, entertaining and costumed with fine feathers, rested. Heat had finally been turned up by the invisible hand of nature. The pool shimmered as if diamonds had been tossed across its surface, and for a moment Bella found herself blinded.

Her damp, straight hair hung about pale shoulders. She was a swimmer but not a sunbather and shade of the mountain ash, though patchy, soothed her drying skin. She didn’t want to move under great overhanging maples; her body was in repose. Nothing stirred her. Not even Remy, her golden doodle, snuffling about edges of things. Not even the phone ringing from the dining table where she had left it.

She was almost dreaming while awake. Images of her drawings bled through the pale orange to pink screen behind her eyelids and she saw their flaws and potential, meanings not noticed before. This was one reason she swam every day she could: mind released its contents as body unclenched its knotty parts. It was a feast of ideas, and Bella let them arrive and depart as if a click of old fashioned slides. Decades, now, of work. The actual, salable art was often removed from her faster than anticipated. Or desired. That was success, she mourned, and turned her face from the light that blared on all.

There was no reason to get up soon. No dinner to create. Antonio was gone, this time for perhaps a month. This was not unexpected; he was a corporate financial consultant and traveled widely. He conducted business she had only an inkling about and that suited her. If he was challenged enough… that was the tipping point– from bored to enthused, stressed to invigorated, irritable to expansive and more attentive when he returned. Otherwise, they could be more like two cautious partners fielding questions and flinging looks despite reaching for each other, and then suddenly there might come sparks that flared. But vanished, too soon. They both resisted an undertow of discontent for long. It damaged the landscape of their lives so had to be repaired. Bella learned to find her own way, to let Anthony realign himself. To nurture her own soul as needed.

It was mysteriousness, being married. Who was trained in the requisite skills? It was instinct and risk, or nothing. For them, a hoped for oneness was everything when together, even during trials. And the best way to survive in the wider world.

On the breeze came an almost acrid if rich odor that made her mouth water: choice beef on the grill. She turned over and glanced at the high fence, thought of Nance, wondered if she was home from work or, no, it was the chef they had in four evenings a week. Ridiculous. Nance, too, was one of just a couple over there–their son left for university, never quite returned. It was as if she and Rollie, her spouse, needed some sort of reward after their labors, their many sacrifices for success which Nance always referred to with a sigh, gaze lowering in a small show of self-pity.

What sacrifices, she wondered. What was lost or left behind, what had been given up or ripped away? Nance never said. There was something, maybe one day they would talk. Or not. Life was a private affair in that neighborhood.

Bella ran afoul of the norm lived around her: an art maker, not a professional woman in a business suit, not a mother hen gathering and exhibiting her chicks proudly. Married to a man she cared deeply about. She was not a scholar or any sort of teacher, nor a gallery director or curator. And never a commercial artist. Not close to becoming a mother, that was how it worked out for her body. Only an artist thinking, sketching, drawing, examining, transforming day after day. Her choice was made long ago to create. Antonio did not truly understand. But he loved her. It worked well enough.

He was in Spain again. Basking in the poetic sunlight, seeing family, working, working, an engine that never stopped until vague far off destination.

Her skin perspired under the last of the day’s deep rays. She lightly pressed her forehead with a palm so not to disturb the sun block, then tousled the dark drier strands that fell over her brow. She would work more after she ate, sit on the upper terrace with sketchbook. See if he called her.

Now, a cool shower. Candlelight with Remy at her side.

******

After she had showered off chlorine and sweat, dressed in a caftan and padded about the kitchen thinking of salad, Bella remembered the mail.

The small pile lay in a black lacquered tray; it was on a small entry table against the wall. The mail slot beside the massive door neatly released its contents into the tray. It was one of the things she loved about the house: it was efficient in design. Too showy for her but practical in its ways.

The mail was usually dull. Perhaps an invitation to a wedding now that it was summer–yes, there it was–advertising circulars (a waste that maddened her), thick or thin art magazines she wouldn’t give up as they felt so happy in her hands, a small order of something, oh, that lip gloss she found online (she’d use it only if they went out).

Then a plain white envelope. The white security kind you might have used to pay bills. Handwritten address, to Mr. Antonio Alvarado. The handwriting sloped downward a bit but was firm, even bold in a way that seemed studied: this address must look serious, confident. Unadorned, not quite printing, but close. She turned it over. Blank. Just a brownish smudge, as if dropped on the ground en route to a mailbox. Bella studied the front once more, frowning. Was that young or old handwriting? Male, female? Perhaps the second, something in an exaggerated curve or tail here and there. A personal letter, not business. No return address.

The postmark was San Francisco, CA. They were in New Mexico.

Eyebrows rose to high arches. Who might he know there? When had he been last? Two or more years, she thought. She stared hard at the front door as if Antonio was going to bound in so she might put an end to speculation.

She replaced it in the lacquered tray. Decided on salad with chopped smoky ham, the vegetables left she could scavenge. And iced black tea with a lemon slice. Her head was a tad swimmy until she sat and ate slowly, trying to not think of it further.

******

It didn’t make that much difference when her leg snapped as she hit the ground all those years ago. Though everyone cast pity her way, worried about her too long. She barely could keep her seat for longer than a half hour, they all knew that, but Antonio loved riding so she went along, and elegant beasts were wonderful. She had a dancer’s body, used it well but it was only another passion and though reined in, not quite dampened despite the leg. Of course, she didn’t publicly dance after that, not even for charity events or arts festivals or flamenco classes she’d attended. She was left with a limp, not so terrible that a stranger would gawk over two seconds. But everyone who knew her, saw her altered and looked away so they wouldn’t embarrass her. Or themselves.

It impacted her sense of self but Antonio was shaken–by the accident, her terrible broken bones, the difficult surgeries and rehabilitation. His guilt. If he hadn’t persuaded her to ride so often. Or at all. But she’d tried to reassure him.

“This doesn’t change so much–just my childish wish to perform. Well, it changes my gait, it might slow me down awhile. Does that disturb you?”

They suspected it would last indefinitely, the uneven walk, the chronic pain and nerve damage. And so he hesitated ever so little but it was there, a flicker of his eyes, and it was then she knew it did. Perhaps enough to change his view of her in an essential way.

“No. I love that you’re so positive about this, that you stand up to seeming defeat and take matters in hand. You can well temper you romantic side with your realistic attitude. You know how to make the best of things, can recreate the design of your living.”

“Really, what things do you mean? I can walk, I will one day hike again, I can swim–and there is making art, which if you recall requires little to no movement of my legs, right? I–“

He clasped her forearms, then slid fingertips over her face and smiled. She shivered, moved in closer, his warmth a magnet for her growing coolness. He kissed the tip of her nose, stepped away, looked at his phone as he replied.

“Bella, you inspire me…I’m proud of your hard work. A limp is nothing, we are grateful you can walk! But please excuse me, I have a call coming in.” He looked back as he left the living room. “Don’t forget I have to leave on Sunday for London. We’ll call that physical therapist- Stan? Steve?-back in–okay?” He held up a finger as he answered the clarion call to business and put ear to cell.

His back receded to a shadow beyond the doorway. She thought again that he admired too entirely her body, when she spent much of the time unaware of it. Creating, for her, took her out of flesh and bones in many ways. For Antonio, physicality brought him to a place where he felt most at home, felt elevated even by her presence, and there were times of jubilation. He was a person of action first and last. She admired and was pulled to this, too.

There was another hunger she sought to satisfy more: creating. And how graciously he deferred–usually. It was that or get less of her.

Still, it worried her a little as she struggled to heal. But nothing much did change. Oh, the nagging or lightning pains even after seventeen years. Bella had donated her collection of high heels. She gave up any desire for superficial perfection. She stopped dreaming of marathons. She worked on more secure, critical balance. Her endurance and strength improved as she swam, undertook vigorous exercise regimens, began short hikes with a custom made staff to keep her steadier and went with or without him–but always with Remy if possible. He was her look-out and her buddy.

The limp did not disappear. It was a part of her, like the brush of pale freckles across chest and cheeks. Irrelevant in the end.

Anyway, she still danced on their long, deep terraces at back of the house in dry weather. Nance, Rollie and few others about occasionally noticed her swaying, turning in less than perfect circles across space to soft music and murmuring to each other, what a shame, once such a graceful woman, an asset to Antonio –but a fine artist, thank god for that.

Now before she began brainstorming for the latest project she danced, no music, just movement like licks of wind, flicks of a paintbrush, a ringing of glass chimes a call for more beauty in the world as she turned, turned, reached and at last sat down with her tools for art.

Nance watched her from her patio and said to Rollie, “She’s become more of a ghost over the years, don’t you think? Secluded and pale, even with all the swimming. He’s gone so much and she draws, swims. Flutters about. In her own dream world.” She felt a proximity to envy, as if she wanted to join into those moments and see what it was she had. It was a moment gone as soon as it began.

Rollie laughed. “What do you expect? She’s an artiste, my dear. They don’t have an inclination for much else. Anthony could be a saint– or at least loyal as heck. Though she’s a fine person, but who could imagine that she would end up with him?”

“Come on, a saint– Antonio? You think so? She’s fascinating, but he’s as good looking and charming as they get after forty-five. And he’s all over the world, alone…Idle hands, they say. No saint, I wager.”

“Mmmm, yes.” He grimaced. “Well, now–a steak, dear? Thank you, Brett, you always do such a royal job on a rare chunk of meat!”

“Rollie, your manners. Just a smidgen, Brett, I’ve got to keep my health on the straight and narrow.”

Bella worked long after Nance and Rollie went indoors. The night air was light and cool, feathers drifting against arms and legs. And the quietness a balm, though their voices had been muted and even if she’d desired to, it wasn’t possible to eavesdrop readily. The residences were built to insure separateness.

She lit a lavender-scented pillar candle, sketched away. Antonio didn’t call–but he often did not for a week or so.

When she was done, she found trails of nonsensical writing across white pages, shapes at odds with each other, and objects from faraway places she had once visited floating across the expanse… yet at the edges were darkly shaded spaces with nothing to show. Like a graphite collage of random bits and worn out pieces of her past. Where was cohesiveness, a central idea? Why could she not get her brain and muse on the right track with this?

Not a good night, after all. Remy had nuzzled her leg more than once, then gave up and stretched out by her feet, soon snoring. The stars had come out. The yard was shaped by gradations of grey and black and treetops cut a fading filigreed silhouette again a lighter navy sky. All seemed calm in their home despite her angst.

Bella stood abruptly. It was that damned letter, it was just sitting there, waiting. Dizziness visited her, then she reoriented herself and went to bed.

******

In the morning after breakfast, Remy and Bella took a walk, then trotted inside, threw open the french doors and jumped into the pool’s silky, turquoise water. He liked to swim, too, if only a few minutes, while she swam easy laps for a half hour. She stopped when her left leg twinged. Some days it felt worse, some better. Sometimes she had to pull herself up by only the force of her arms; below her waist then it was as if much got heavier with a slow-aging lameness. Antonio hadn’t seen that yet.

As she dried off, she recalled a book on the kitchen island. Once inside, she dawdled, drinking remains of tepid coffee, then looked toward the foyer. Put the book down.

The letter was the only thing there. Should she take it to his study, lay it on his desk? Prop it up on his dresser? Casually leave it on the island or the dining table or…Why did it matter to her? It could sit there. It could wait for its recipient just as she could.

The book was more of a bore than she expected–an academic treatise from an old professor friend on how art creates smarter children and youth. Nothing new. But it had primarily made her feel different than her peers, as if she had x-ray vision while they were nearly blind. She still didn’t quite fit in many places. But it was no longer a problem she felt any desire to solve.

She swam more: backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke, crawl. She dove deep and moved along the bottom like another creature, then shot back up for air.

It is only a letter, a letter, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.

After sun’s heat roasted her–she’d fallen into a light sleep–she startled at a sports car roaring by. Stretched. She gathered up Remy, pushed her face into luxuriant fur, inhaled his good doggy scent, gave him a rub and compliments. More tea, a snack for them both, then back to the drawings.

They were for a new exhibit in three short months. This time, pastels and colored pencils. And more clarity, letting the unexpected move to the fore, accept it for what it was, transition, a sorting out. Alterations. All afternoon she worked and considered, made small progress. An imagined travelogue of a woman moving between places, people, stages. A map– of the verdant oasis of body and soul within which she lived. Then, a lure of more exotic unknowns. And how to make peace or encourage change, how to shape it to her, her to it.

She was a woman of deepening ideas and impulses, and nearing middle age she’d again realized that so much more was unknown. Like an infinity before her. Antonio didn’t seem to feel nit as acutely. He mastered what he could, let the rest slough off.

She got out of the pool, shook out her bundled hair.

Inside it waited, nearly glowed–a warning or an illumination?– it was inert in the tray’s glazed darkness when she checked for mail later. Bella, of course, got letters from those who had bought her work, or from her niece in fourth grade and sometimes her brother, a journalist. Anyone, she supposed, might send a letter to Anthony, it was nothing of such interest. Only a small thing, then. So why did she return to it and feel unnerved?

******

The fourth day after the letter had arrived–ninth since he’d left– he called. It came after a late dinner of salmon with rice and green beans on the patio.

“Darling, you answered–a quick hello from Madrid–I thought you’d be in your studio at work, no phone on, but glad you did.”

“Hello, Anthony, no, I made good progress today so am slacking off tonight.” She glanced at the orange kitchen wall clock–five a.m tomorrow over there.

“As well you should. The exhibit is not yet tomorrow.”

“You’re up early, as usual. How is your work going? Are you enjoying being with your uncle?”

“He misses seeing you, sends love. Work is work, going well enough, making money for all. Anything thrilling there?”

She updated him on the water bill–skyrocketing with all those sprinklers–and the boulevard repaving work begun and walks Remy and she had been taking on a long path in the woods. For the salvation of coolness, she said, but also for the birds. “We heard the calls and saw two Cooper’s hawks today, Remy nearly took chase.”

Antonio laughed. “Good, all sounds right. It’s sweltering here, already my shirt feels damp, of course. Bella, the reason for the call is I’m coming home sooner than anticipated, early next week.’

“Glad to hear it! But all goes well, you said?”

“It has, but there are changes in plans, another meeting will be held after a quick trip to L.A. So I will be home for a week between. Arrival is sometime next” -he tapped on his computer- “next Tuesday afternoon. I’ll send details. Get my car, then home for a late meal. It’ll be restful to have a week off for once.”

“Sounds wonderful. Maybe go to the lake a few days?”

“We’ll see, darling, that might be just the thing.” He sighed: days of simpler pleasures. Bella held close to him. “I should get something to eat and prepare more for my meetings. I just wanted to check in with you, inform of my earlier return. Te amo, Bella.” He offered last intimately, a whisper.

“Love you, too… Antonio, wait…ah, I…”

“Yes? What is it?”

Impatience book-ended his words; he had made the loving but dutiful call, had business to address.

“Nothing, it will wait.”

“Until next Tuesday, then.”

******

The next days and nights were like mud and molasses, Bella slogging her way through them. Yet loose sketches still were executed rapidly, then a few good drawings. The engagement truly buoyed her–discerning shapes and movement and meanings in her work. Remy pestered her less, romped more on his own after daily swims but she always scooped him up after her work, loyal companions.

Only once did she look at the letter. It seemed to have cooled down, was less intriguing to her, as if it was in stasis after too long untouched and unregarded. It seemed almost a frivolous thing the more she burrowed into work, aware of less time left for herself. She had not expected his return so soon, and so sought the greater and better sum of her artistic efforts.

She started to swim at night again, something she had not done for months, but lazily. Remy drowsed on the first floor terrace. The air was redolent of a rosiness freshened yet dimming as nightfall came, and the moon sat in its throne to survey lawns and inhabitants.

And what in Madrid? Was he staying out late with his uncle? Was he looking upward for a propitious sign, even rain? He could be superstitious. Maybe he had made plans for their jaunt to the lake resort–he was good at that–or did he puzzle over what he would do with himself every day?

Everything around her offered the usual magic but her eyes closed, ears were underwater. She floated, floated, keeping the revelations due on Tuesday out of mind.

******

Nance on the other side of the fence leaned toward Rollie.

“Why didn’t we get a pool? I can hear her swimming at night sometimes. It sounds so relaxing. For years I’ve asked for a pool. I know you don’t swim much and it costs, but we’ll get a big raft for you to float about.”

“It might be nice. Remember, she’s still young, strong, she’s…well, she has a lot of time, don’t you think?”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at him. “So do we, now that we’re retiring soon. Think of that.” She listened for Bella’s strokes, the water making a gentle shusssh when she resumed.

“Let’s go to Barbados, instead, before fall,” he said and lit his cigar. “Just wait until Tony gets back, they always have us over for a meal so you can have your swim then.”

“We can only hope. Or why not just put in a pool, Rollie, just do it.”

He studied the brilliant slip of moon and then the glow of the cigar’s end. Retirement might not be all he had hoped, or it might be more, time would tell.

******

She had made an effort to shine up the place, adding small bouquets here and there–they both liked that. He had long ago wanted her to get cleaning help, the house was so big, but she resisted. Instead, she spiffed it up well once a week and in between could care less. Neither did he–he barely noticed between trips. But this time it seemed important.

In the mirror’s reflection, she examined her face, found it acceptable. The fine lines about her eyes had deepened since working longer hours; she needed readers to better aid her focus. She had chosen flaxen-colored linen pants with a sleeveless white tunic, turquoise at ear lobes and neck. Unadorned, bare feet, the norm all summer. It was Antonio, not a guest, anyhow.

He arrived nearly on time for once, and when he unpacked and put on shorts and old polo shirt they chatted about this and that, then settled into the upper terrace chairs, cold drinks in hand–he, a beer, she, iced tea.

He looked good, burnished by the Spanish sunshine; he seemed pleased with the trip, seeing his uncle again. His kiss was long, almost spicy-fruity as if he’d consumed peaches with ginger. He always looked well even if crinkling about the edges, as if travel became him rather than wore him out, unlike herself. More importantly, his work was satisfactory; next steps were in place for clients. Bella liked how he’d mastered his career, knew his way in greater arenas and came right back to her, still. With the unseemly limp and all.

They were a pair, alright.

“Antonio, I held back something for you. It came in the mail last week.”

“Nothing of interest in the pile you handed me…something more?”

She pulled out the creased letter from her pants pocket, offered it to him. “It has felt a bit of a mystery…I will leave the room if you prefer.”

Antonio took the envelope, gazed at it, turned it over and back again as had she. “No return address? Ah, I see-California?”

“You don’t recognize the handwriting?”

“Not at all. Stay, Bella, it is only a letter!”

He tore it open without hesitation and read. He lay two pages on his thigh and then read it again, more slowly. His face betrayed puzzlement, then a dawning distress.

She leaned closer to him. “What is it? Who?”

He looked up at her, his mouth agape, eyes wide, and shook his head.

“Bella.” He wet his lips, took a frail breath. “I may have a daughter and she may have found me.”

******

“How old, Antonio, and who is she? When did this happen? Where? Answer me!”

She was standing above him, yelling as quietly as she could when her insides wanted to shriek. Her hand went to her mouth, before she did let out a harridan screech. He rose from his chair and his eyes swept over the vibrant garden and sparkling pool, then walked into their bedroom, letter in hand, and then he struck the door jamb with it three times.

She followed and they sat on the bed; her heart was running, running away from her. This was not what she expected, not what he ever imagined, she felt by his response. She’d long ago considered he might not be entirely faithful. She ignored the possibility, however. Her mother–so unbending yet certain of herself and well readied to corral the messiness of life– had taught her this was more or less the norm: how else could ambitious men manage for long periods out there? Bella’s own father may have strayed–“Too much, too much, stop!” she’d yelled at her mother when just a new wife–but one just gets on with it. It could be worse–gambling, drugs addiction abuse. She had to be at ease with men if they would be at ease with her.

She hated that advice. She’d struck out in her own direction, hadn’t she? Her needs mattered, too, it was an egalitarian marriage. Wasn’t it?

He folded the letter, slid it back into the envelope. Laid it on the dresser. She wanted to snatch it and read a loud.

“It was in Italy. That summer we were thinking of separating.” he rubbed his face with both hands. “So long ago, Bella! Such craziness then.”

“When were we thinking of that? You mean, during my long recovery?”

But she knew what he referred to, that she retreated, how long it was before she let him come closer, then even blamed him. Most days and nights she despaired in private, smiled in public. It was that it should not ever have happened, a ruined leg at age 28, a life unbalanced by pain.

“After the riding accident you became depressed about progress… and not being able to have kids, a last blow…we fought so much, remember?” He looked at her, brown eyes glassy, unfocused. “I was in Italy for two months, maybe more, working and staying with an old friend.”

“What friend? A woman friend?” Her words sliced the air. How could he simply roll out this story, hide his face?

“No, no, with Ian–who was with Trevor then. I told you where I stayed.”

“Apparently not all the time! And, who was the woman, Antonio? Who and why, dammit…”

“It doesn’t matter now. It was once, that is all…she was a friend of a business colleague. We all went out. I never dreamed it might happen, felt like hell about it, please Bella, believe me, it has haunted me ever since.”

She covered her face with her hands and lay back on the bed. “It has now come back in the shape of a daughter,” she mumbled. “How can you know for sure?”

He continued, voice quiet, trembling. “This…girl is seventeen. Adelina. The facts line up, she says she has a birth certificate copy with her. Here for college. Somehow she managed to get my name–and address. Through work contacts of her mother?” He made a sharp sound, bark of a laugh, once. “I don’t recall her name, her mother…”

Bella could not stop tears even if proffered a life of fame and a happily forever after. She would not believe him easily ever again–she also could not glibly accept this as truth.

“Bella, please forgive me, forgive me.” He lay down beside her. She didn’t move but wept soundlessly, then in gulps. Antonio’s eyes filled, too, as he stared at the shadowy ceiling, then let himself cry.

“What an idiot, what a fool and a failure I was that summer, Bella!”

She threw a hand out and smacked his chest once, twice. Then rolled halfway to him. Put an arm about him which he pressed close. They wept together, tried to speak but gave up and finally, silenced by hurts and regrets, they fell into a restless sleep.

Remy sat outside their door, whimpering, but no one came to him.

******

She swam three times the next day. Hid in her studio.

He moved to a guest room.

Remy looked from one to the other all day, and finally left for a breezy hallway, lay down, head on paws.

******

She swam and sat under the biggest maple with her sketchbooks and scanned each page, looking for direction, inspiration. Peace.

He swam. Drank chilled wine as he sat on the terrace. Nothing to do but wait. And think about Adelina more than he wanted.

Remy swam, too, caught the ball he threw him a few times.

******

Repeat.

In the middle of the night Antonio looked at their favorite lake spot, dreamed of a different reality.

Remy ate, chased his tail, ran in circles. Lay under the bushes until he joined first one, then the other.

******

She swam and he swam at the same time finally, though they didn’t come close or toss out words. A pantomime of a slow duel, a silent confab. Her eyes were clear beneath thick wet lashes. Her gaze held a simmering anger and it bored into him several times; even when he didn’t see her, he felt it. His own eyes, bloodshot in the high summer spotlight, did not look away.

That night they made a meal together, commenting on the tenderness of parsley and ripeness of the avocado, the smokiness of the turkey. They ate outdoors together by the pool. They sat at its edge, feet dangling in the water. Remy waited long enough, then bounded up to them.

“So. This girl. She wants to meet you, then.”

“Yes.”

“Her mother know?”

“No, she wrote. Her mother never spoke of me until Adelina pleaded with her a long time…her mother is long married, she likes her father. No one cares to talk about the unfortunate past…” He opened his hands up to the sky.

Bella kicked at the water, splashing him. She felt like she could dive in and maybe not resurface…or she could dive in and come back up and just try swimming with him. Her husband. The secret keeper, that fool. The man she loved, and deeply hurt long ago.

She had turned away from him. It wasn’t right, his impulsive diversion, no. But she’d left him with only his work, friends, no promise of better times ahead. She had forgotten those soul battered days and pain wracked nights. The well of loss. She had thought she’d been alright at first. She’d survived and overcome and kept on. A bit heroic perhaps–see how she learned to walk? To become a a more well known artist? See how she managed to beam at Antonio’s side, and that she was acceptable to him, still?

Until he left that summer. She no longer could face the scrutinizing realms within which they resided, any time in the world a reminder and her leg stealing her attention with roaring pain. Her awkwardness and weakness commandeering a life she had lived intensely, body, mind and soul. She had suffered, it was true. As had he, helpless. They made wrong choices–she with pain pills and isolation, he with a stranger. But they came round to one another again by that autumn, didn’t they. And that was a choice, too, but of a greater, not a lesser, love.

“She wrote that she is studying theater arts…costume design, maybe.”

Bella stared ahead. Then burst out laughing. “Her mother must have a few good genes.”

He inhaled a huge breath, let it slide out in a soft whistle so that Remy came running, barking, with tail a-wag.

“Oh, Antonio… what needs to be done, that’s the next question. Perhaps tell her to come–when you are ready,” Bella said as she slipped into the water. The half moon glowed, a pearl in night’s velvet hands. “I will help figure things out with you.”

he had hoped but was not expecting it. “Thank you.”

Antonio wiped his eyes. Never had he wept so much as the last three days.

“You see what kind of person she is, Remy? Do we deserve her? No. But she is still with us, she always perseveres, so we shall love her even better, and more.”

Remy licked his face of sadness. Bella embraced them both.

******

Rollie stood by the fence and tried to jump up to peek over it, but he wasn’t that tall and he got nothing even bouncing up and down. His wife smirked as she weeded.

“Nance, it’s just that I know he’s home already, I saw his car. Kinda miss the guy when he’s been gone long. Want to hear about those trips, the deals. Shouldn’t we stop over, say hi?”

Nance stood and shook her head as he gave up and sauntered over, hands in pockets.

“If they want us about, we’ll hear, Rollie. They’re still young and lovely, and interesting people. Her art really is wonderful. And he’s got that spark that makes a man reach farther. They aren’t half-bored out of their minds like we get. I suspect they could use more time alone, with each other.”

“You often have a nose about people. But we could ask them over here soon, too. And I was thinking about that pool. It might be fun. Our son might visit more, too.”

“Now you’re talking. Our son might or might not come, but it’ll be great. Drinks on a floating swan, imagine it.”

******

Bella and Antonio spread three comforters on the upper terrace that night. They watched the sky offer minuscule blooms of light, talked about the lake. They slept well, and Remy, too.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Songs for Better Living

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The first time my fingers felt a surrender of the strings, it was like the world was flung into outer space and I was riding it there. The sounds were tinny and screechy but the action felt so good I did it again, my left hand’s fingertips straining against light gauge steel. My right hand worked to strum and bang across the strings and as it all exploded into the atmosphere my head and chest caught vibrations on a shimmering wave.

“Naw, not good– it’s either you or the flea market guitar. Both, I’d say.”

My brother Terry was propped on his side and leaned into the edge of the top bunk bed to get a better look at me. I hit the strings again and the sound wailed through the room in search of a chord. I placed my fingers this way and that and strummed twice.

“Give it to me.”

“Dad said I could use it. And it actually is a Yamaha FG150.”

“It’s a piece of junk, you know he’s always bringing so called vintage stuff home and bragging about his deals–$200 just thrown away.”

Terry stretched himself over the edge, testing gravity. I waited for his body to slither down, giant snake of a brother. I fought the urge to remove myself but too late, he landed on his feet with a thud. Pointed at the guitar. I ignored him and tried a few more things, trying to get a feel for it in my hands, in my head. Terry sat beside me then, muscled weight causing the mattress to sink so that I listed too far, into him.

“Let me see it. Please, knucklehead.”

I shoved him away with hard shoulder against his.

“Okay, Danny, my turn!”

I gave up, my fingers raking the strings a last time. Terry got what he wanted; he was good at that, like most things.

He had studied piano since age 5 and I played the trumpet and though we both performed well, it was Terry’s capable pianist’s hands plus chestnut- curly hair and amber eyes that stole the show. Not that he loved piano; he just played it very well, so now he was in search of the next big thing he might conquer. All he needed was a guitar and his megalomania would increase by ten thousand. Everything about him screamed “star quality” by age 17, my buddy Jack once informed me with a shrug, and he noted he had a younger sister like that, center stage all the time.

I took that in as Jack tried to slam-dunk one in our driveway and of course it bounced right off. Then I got one in, if barely. We laughed as we flubbed more–all irritations slid off his back, he was easy for a friend– and went in search of food.

At 15, I was not only inches behind Terry in height but a seeming lifetime behind in accomplishments. Unless you counted billiards. At least I had that–our dad had found a billiards table with equipment and in a flash I’d found a sort of sporting call. Terry rarely beat me. And golf, I was pretty good at that. Terry complained it was too slow a game to excite him, he’d take basketball, anytime, or hockey. But then, I was always the tortoise and he was the rabbit, Mom said, and neither was better than the other, only different. Okay…I informed her it just didn’t sound good, so please quit.

As he carefully fingered the 6 strings and tried to pluck a tune, I got up and pulled the curtains back from the window. The undulating hills radiated warmth in the last of a warm caramel sunlight. Dad was throwing Riley a stick, who dutifully retrieved it and waited for the next toss. They could do that for an hour, easy. I had been the one who threw the sticks but Grey Dog, our aging, grey muzzled Labrador, died last year and since then I’d lost interest.

We’d daily walked the hills, in silence more often than not. I told him things. I even sang him songs, which he seemed to like.

I swiveled around to meet Terry’s stare as his hand took a break atop the pretty wood body.

“You done trying that out yet?” I asked.

Terry strummed away. Though it didn’t yet make much sense, he had a smart way with it like his piano notes did, clipped and sure. He shook his head and grinned. I left him to it. Fought the urge to slam the door on the way out, so pulled it to a hard close and went outside to watch Riley and Dad.

******

I played the Yamaha when I could, which was more often than expected. Terry had gradually and miraculously forgotten about it. He was cramming all the time to elevate already excellent grades–the goal was to get into University of Michigan. He and Dad had been discussing the merits of studying law, like he, himself, did before getting into global economics. I was less of a student–it bored me. I liked music, played trumpet in the orchestra and wrote things in my spare time, just loosely connected ideas and thoughts. I tried my hand at manuscript notation but found it hard, with no one to get help from; my music teacher didn’t write or even arrange music, he explained, embarrassed.

Sometimes Dad–eager to reassure me I was loved despite there being a star player in the family–I made things out of wood, our hands working with the grain, piecing pieces of a design together with respect for the trees that gave up their beauty. Like the oak coffee table for the basement rec room. I appreciated the shared hobby but it was that vintage guitar that was best. The rec room was where I usually played when people were gone. My hands were getting it, how the strings worked, how the notes felt under the less tender pads of each fingertip.

I had decided that song writing was a possibility only after I met Nance.

“I hear you play guitar,” she said after school. We’d just gotten out of chemistry class and we walked down the hall. It gave me jitters walking so close.

I cocked an eyebrow, surprised. “And–so?”

“Just think that’s cool, that’s all, you should play for us all sometime,” she said and was gone, her arm grabbed by her best friend. She looked back at me and I looked away. She was too amazing to look right at for long. And I had grown two and a half inches in the last four months and could barely walk down the hall without tripping. Besides, was she teasing me? Had Terry spread things around, made fun of me as he often did? I didn’t trust it. But I wondered about love at first sight, heretofore scorned as a real thing.

One night Terry and the parents were at a basketball game–I had to beg off, saying I had too much homework to watch him play. I started to work on a tune. It was just a few notes that sounded sloppy but then got silvery, then there came a verse with a mishmash of words, then a passable verse. I wrote the words down, revised them, tried again, again. Then a chorus came right to me. My voice had gone and changed, gotten deeper– it growled and caught but I found with less air pressure forced through my throat it could sound decent. I practiced that song for weeks, only when I was alone, but finally it came together. A victory. I told Jack but refused to perform it for him so he dropped it. He was into old rock and metal bands which was fine but it wasn’t really me. I didn’t know what I was trying to create. I just did it, then did it more.

Once I heard footsteps on the stair landing outside the rec room and kept on singing, as I was recording on my PC. But I knew they were my dad’s by the way his weight slogged up creaking steps; his pace picked up as he hurried on. I almost wished he’d come in but was relieved he hadn’t interrupted. A couple days later he stopped me on the way to the garage where he was repairing a lamp.

“You have a feel for that old Yamaha, son,” he said. “It was a worthwhile find.”

“Thanks,” I said, and that was that.

I wrote, played and sang what I could never say to Nance. She was going out with a guy already, I found out, but I still could look at her, wait to hear her speak in a hallway or class. Her voice was strong as a brass bell when excited, then rushed easy like water over a hill; it was soft as a leaf falling to ground when she whispered. Her presence filled a large part of me but all I wanted with her just became more music. I kept it all to myself. Not even Jack heard those songs. But he did like the spasms of hard, fast chords I put together for him.

There wasn’t much else I liked doing and my grades showed it. I worried the parents would take the Yamaha, at least limit me so I vowed to study more.

“You’d better get on those grades, bro,” Terry said. “You want to go to the local community college?” He popped a slice of last night’s pizza in his mouth.

I grunted, shrugged, stared out a window in my second story bedroom. A potential chorus to a new song looped around my head as clouds formed and re-formed. I needed to record a few bars. But there he was, lounging on my brown plaid love seat against the opposite wall, big feet and long legs all over as he dug in for awhile. Taking up my time.

I sat at my desk, guitar wedged between bookshelves and bed. Terry had moved to another room years before but at times stopped by our original bedroom. Which meant, I pointed out, that I’d not entirely had my own room since he just walked in as if it was his, still. No one seemed perturbed about that though Mom expressed sympathy and asked Terry to be more considerate. I had to yell at him to stay out more often. Finally he’d stopped by less and less.

“To what do I owe the honor of your annoying presence today?” I asked.

“And he did it, Terrance Michelson slipped right into U of M, touchdown, let’s hear it for blue and gold!” he announced in a bombastic sports commentator voice.

I regarded him evenly, unsurprised. He was fist-pumping the air, screaming a silent triumphal scream as air hissed from his mouth, overjoyed and proud of himself.

“Congratulations, wise ass,” I said with a fist pump of my own to be more brotherly. Fair. “A few more months and you’ll sweating it out in Ann Arbor and I’ll have this place to myself, at last.”

“And you can sing your heart out all you want, I won’t have to plug my ears but no one really cares, anyway. Maybe you can visit me sometime–I’ll get back to you on that.”

“What?” My heart thumped faster. They had all heard me? And he never let on?

“You think no one’s around. You get so into it! One of us comes home and can hear you in the basement or from up here, you don’t even know we come in. Singer slash songwriter stuff, huh?… What’s that about?”

The sneer under the words–singer songwriter stuff; I was surprised he’d gone that easy on me—told me what I already suspected: it meant little to nothing to them, it was stupid to his family. Otherwise, they’d have said something, anything by now. The trumpet, sure, that was a worthy instrument but guitar and songwriting? I flushed, studied my hands. I had great callouses now, the strings never bit flesh as they once had. My fingers fit with those strings.

Terry sat up, guzzled his soda. “You can do a lot better than that, right? I’m glad you got into the guitar, though–not my thing, too busy, anyway. Makes Dad feel good that someone uses it. ” He surveyed the bedroom, looked at me a beat or two and laughed. “A few more months, Danny boy, and I’ll be outta here!” He rolled off the couch, squashed his soda can and tossed it at me, then exited.

I shouted after him, “Guess what, it’s blue and maize, idiot, not gold– look it up!”

The room was so quiet then I already knew how it’d be when he was at U of M. Peaceful. Maybe lonely, occasionally. But I sincerely doubted that. I might let my music be heard by the parents, test it out. Maybe. I was tired of hiding what mattered most. Tired of being afraid to show who I was, not a rock ‘n roller like my brother and friends admired. I was, basically, a sort of poet who loved music, and if that felt awesome in deeper reaches of me, it was also terrifying.

And I was not going to college. I had to break this to our parents before long. I was going to make a lot more music. And make a basic living doing it. I could think of nothing else I wanted to do.

******

This stage was like every stage but smaller. Intimate, homey. The capacity crowd was cheering like every other audience, enthusiasm spilling over into manic energy, but the massive roar felt softer inside me than usual adrenaline surges in my body and mind. This time it was the hometown stage.

This time I had nothing to prove, right?

Yet even as I played as always, my head was bowed less toward the mike, there was less of my usual closed eyes–and before long rose an intensity that at times had been lacking as we toured. It was as if I needed to come home after the years of struggle, then success that I sweated to maintain. I wanted this audience to know that this–this was exactly what I had been made to do all those years when nobody knew me. When my music was kept under lock and key. The boy who was becoming the man whose music they now danced to–the kid transforming while no one noticed. Even, it seemed, my family.

I looked over the crowd, scanning, scanning as the band played and we sang out, music rising and falling. I had called my parents and we’d chatted–they were mildly supportive once they’d heard my earliest music, and more so when I started to make a decent living. I’d not gone to the house as they’d moved, it wouldn’t be the same; we were flying out early morning, too. Instead, we’d had an early dinner and a good catch-up. They’d be out there just as they had been at a handful of other concerts. “That Yamaha FG150,” Dad always said with a happy shake of his head.

I hadn’t heard from Terry in well over 2 years–he was a lawyer in Pennsylvania, married, had a son. He’d called and congratulated me on our second, more lucrative album and I’d sent kudos when he joined a good law firm–but we had little more to say.

Neither of us was to to blame. He was another kind of person, ambitious in another way– for our parents, for himself. I couldn’t share music twelve years ago; it hadn’t felt real or nearly good enough. Life felt so tentative then, made of dreams and longing, like a shaky attempt at a magic wish. Now music lived in my days and nights; it was the whole of it.

My band, Dan and the Grey Dogs, had made three albums in seven years. We had traveled thousands of miles, lost track of the countries, found ourselves with more money than we’d dreamed of having. I was doing what I had desired, and this great band had made every laborious moment and crazy dream connect and it worked. I sang out. My guitar cried and soared, quieted and called out– and the other guitar and percussion lines rose up, turned this way and that, unreeled the notes and carried the tunes into the universe.

The crowd was swaying, jumping about, calling back to us. I closed my eyes again, let my voice respond, guitar riffs reach out to grab or caress: this language that had given life to a boy’s lovelorn poems told broader, deeper stories. Stories I no longer needed to hoard or protect.

Back to our dressing room. Squeezed between band members. I threw my arms around each, thanked them as always. Jokes and criticisms, relief of laughter. Beers passed around. A loud knock on the door, three times. Our manager answered as we seldom saw fans at a dressing room. I ran my hand through dripping hair, grabbed a towel for my face, took off my soaking shirt and rubbed down, leaned against the wall. Waited.

“Dan, hey-is that you?” He glanced at me, then all over the space and back to me. Stared as if surprised to see me there in the flesh at last. As was I, him.

“Terry… come on in! My brother, guys.”

They nodded at Terry, a couple slapped him on the back, then the band melted away from us.

He looked too big in the noisy, cluttered room, sport jacket folded over his arm, shifting from one foot to another as the door closed, his eyes squinting, eyebrows unsettled. He put hand to forehead, rubbed at a crease. His shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly and he began to speak, then stopped. I stepped closer, held out my hand, which he grasped hard.

“Great show!” he said to the band, then, “Good one, Danny” to me but without much enthusiasm.

“Thanks. But where’s… Iris…?” I asked as we moved to a corner, that had to be right, a flower, yes. “I knew you wouldn’t bring little Thomas if you came tonight, but maybe Iris?…I know I only met her at your wedding four years ago, but–“

“Well, that’s the thing, you never knew each other, did you? We haven’t been much in touch. And she couldn’t come.”

“Oh, okay. Sorry, I hope all is well.”

Terry looked past my shoulder. I followed his gaze. He stared into the mirror above the counter where we got a bit made up, blown dry and so on, and his eyes drifted from the strain of his face to tiredness of mine in the reflection.

“She left,” he said to my image. “Five months ago. She has Thomas–for now, not all the time, either. I asked Mom and Dad to not tell you.” He gave me a weak half-smile, as if this was all there was to it and it was what it was.

“Terry, I’m sorry, man….” My hand went to his shoulder but he stepped away, looked around again.

“I always wanted to play, you know, but I had a lot on my plate, not enough time and you had a natural feel for it….I had to be the lawyer. It’s okay, I’m good at that. Anyway. You always had more true talent.”

“Always? I did?”

“Of course, so I ignored you, at least your music. I couldn’t compete well and win, for once.” He sighed hugely. “Competition, that relentless engine that has driven me so hard.”

“It does most of us. I guess we succeed when we push on, right? And you succeeded in your work, too, so we both did okay.”

One of the guys from the band pointed at the door asking if I was going to join them at a local bar or the hotel or stay. I inclined my head–go on.

“I should go, your band is ready to pack it in.” He started to the door after the Grey Dogs.

I felt an urge to leave just as he did. It had felt very personal fast. Uneasy at moments already. Maybe it was enough that he came and said it was a good show. Enough that he shared a hard thing, the truth. But I didn’t know when I’d be back that way again or if I’d get to Pennsylvania in the next year or two. Or ever, who knew? What else would happen in our lives? When would we get to know each other as adults, anyway? There was no more bunk bed in our lives, no yelling down the hallway. Time took us down a damn big river and here we were, both mid-stream for once.

I swiped my neck again with a towel and grabbed a clean T shirt from my battered duffel bag and pulled it on.

“Hey, want to get a drink and a bite to eat at the ole Eastlake Bar and Grill?”

Terry looked at his wristwatch, said, “I guess, sure.” He tapped the gold and diamond face, “a gift I got when I made junior partner at the most financially prosperous firm in town,” he noted proudly. “Dad would love this fancy throwback of a watch, right?”

“Just what I was thinking! It’s pretty nice, bro, hang onto that. Maybe you should go see them, show it off. Now I say let’s get out of here before more fans congregate at the back door, okay?”

“Wow, impressed.” Terry gave a small mock bow but it didn’t feel mean spirited. “Please–after you, Danny boy,” he said for the first time in his life, and maybe the last but it didn’t matter, anymore.

We ran for the car, flashes going off around us, people screaming as I grabbed my brother’s arm to drag him faster along–and there was Jack hanging at the edge of a growing clot of fans, both hands waving, smile infectious as always. I strode over to greet him and thought, Lucky dog I am, lucky life.

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.

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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!)

Other Than Words, an Excerpt

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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.

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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.