Naming the Beauties and Beasts

Sitting on the rickety bench made of well-seasoned wood, I chewed on the pencil eraser. It tasted rubbery but also like words, the little and big ones I had gotten rid of while list-making. I studied my list now: Anisa, Melody, Rena, Roan, Genevieve, Carter, Tupper, Link. There were more. I updated my notebook of names sometimes daily. They were people I had not yet fully met but wondered over, with their singular lives and vast stores of knowledge, their foolishness and kindnesses. Their violent hearts. Little lies. Arms full of flowers for anyone who was lucky enough to cross their paths. Hands of love like birds nesting.

They lived and breathed just as surely as I felt the dampness of leftover morning dew on my bare feet. Robins sang out a morning newscast. The pine trees leaned in to me with their dark greenness; I felt the spongy carpet of old pines needles with my toes. If I was lucky, no one would find me for awhile.

What next?

I wrote in a bigger notebook with smooth, grown up college-lined pages: “Rena and Roan knew their way up the path. They had been out to the mountain many times. Roan whinnied a little as his mistress settled on his back and then he picked up speed. Behind them, Tupper sat on the porch, worrying his pipe, the smoke disappearing into the cloudy sky. Somewhere out there Link was fixing fence and not thinking about anything else. Rena would change that.”

“Cindy! Time for breakfast and then chores!”

I scratched an old mosquito bite on my leg. Why did they sometimes call me that awful name? It was Cynthia. Names were pretty important. I knew that even at only ten years old and kept my Book of Names handy.

I propped my head on my hands and turned a little so that I could see a bright sliver of Stark’s Nursery through the branches. A dirt road cut through the swath of tiny new trees and bushes. It beckoned me. I could wander through the nursery for hours, thinking of girls who ran with Bengal tigers, or a ship of spies sailing to Shanghai. I acted out many parts in the stories in the nursery, away from prying eyes.

Something fell thorugh the branches, then stopped its descent. I suddenly thought of outlaws and shining knives that were hidden in leather sheaths on belts and shivered. That was not the story I was working on although it often came back to me. I hadn’t found a place for it in my notebook yet. No, it was Rena today. So, why was she going to that mountain? To take something to Link? Yes, a letter from far away, the one he had dreaded and wanted all at once…

The bushes parted and the hidden doorway cracked open.  My sister stuck her head in.

“Mom says come in now. What are you up to?”

“Writing a story.”

“Oh. Well, write later. We have to practice our music lesson and you have to straighten up the living room and then dust and I have my stuff to do. Their bridge party tonight, remember? The Halls and Grays are coming and I forget who else. I’ll be gone by then!”

Gloria squinched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, then stepped back, the bushes closing over her. I could see her shoes, mostly white tennis shoes. I reached down and grabbed a shoelace and as she walked off she tripped, then laughed as she righted herself. I waited for her to charge back into the hideaway; instead, she ran across the back yard. The screen door bounced once, twice, and then was quiet.

I sighed. Streaks of sunlight were sneaking in and warming me up. The pine needles gave off a toasted pine scent that made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and soon was half-dreaming, wandering into a woods somewhere far off, maybe the Black Forest in Germany. Where beautiful dragons lurked who could be friend or enemy in a flash, and powerful men kept watch over all trees and food. Where women and girls often fended for themselves. Only the smartest and fastest survived and when they did, they were made Victorious and Wise Queens of Hyacinth Castle.  The one they had rebuilt after the terrible winter storm…or maybe it was the smaller one they had taken from the weeping dragon…was she still around? Yes, Fraxonia.

A fly buzzed my nose. I shook it off and peered between the branches at the nursery. I thought about walking in the forests up north, near Interlochen Music Camp where we were all headed in a few weeks. That was it: the one real place I often longed to be. Interlochen. Where there was nothing but music and art and dance and plays and writing stories. Starlight on water. Sailboats breezey in the sun. Nothing else mattered there. Just letting wonder happen. Making something small become bigger and better, with work. What stories would come to me there?

The notebooks fell off my lap and I opened my eyes. The Book of Names had opened to the center page. And on it was one word: Charlisa. I whispered her name and picked up my pencil, drew the edge of a lake and placed Charlisa there. She held her hand to her eyes and surveyed the towering trees.

“This time,” Charlisa thought, “this time there will be an end to the dark mystery that imprisons our land and we will all walk free again.”

I sat up and studied the drawing. Not the best but no matter, Charlisa was about to…. what? Make a tree house? Find her friend the messenger? I could hear my mother walking across the yard. I reluctantly closed my notebooks and stuck my pencil behind my ear. Then I went through the hidden doorway and into the other world where my mother had paused at the cherry tree.

“I know, I know,” I said grumpily.

But she smiled the way she did when she was teasing, her grey-blue eyes bright in the spring morning, and asked,  “What did you write about today?”

I put my arm around her waist. “I was naming more characters. But then Rena and Roan came up again–out there on the ranch. But the best thing was Charlisa. The one I couldn’t figure out at all. It turns out she has found her lost country. Now she has to get to work and make things happen.”

“Good, more to come. But right now, food, and then other work,” my mother said and we entered the house where blueberries and french toast waited.

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A postscript: After my mother died in May 2001, I became disheartened when I was  diagnosed with heart disease and was unemployed; I have written of these events in other posts. One night I was watering flowers on the balcony, wondering what to do next– not with my life, exactly, but just how to best live it, especially as I was not sure (and still am not; is anyone?) how long there was left. Sadness seemed to follow me day and night. But that early evening I felt her presence strong and clear as though she stood by me, and she said one thing only: “You must write.”  I suppose she thought I needed a reminder that I have always had to “name the beauties and beasts” and let them speak in Story. So that is what I still try to do, even on those days when all appears to be a shadowy mystery, or when there seems nothing left to say, as it has seemed the past few days. There is always a story waiting to come forward, so I sit down and write once more.

New Tree City, as Pen Sees It

The look-out is the monster maple in our back yard; it’s the main place I like to be, especially when dad gets home and relaxes on the porch. His spot and my spot both overlook the hilly area behind our garden. He watches the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash or sugar peas grow and ripen–whatever is in season, we tend. I guess he  must look at the hills and woods and remembers what it was like when he grew up here with Pops and Gram, but they’re both long gone. He has told me how there wasn’t a house for at least a mile in all directions back then. Now we live on a paved street at the edge of town and Marionville just keeps creeping past the corner where they finally put a stop sign. A few good cars had to get bashed and a half-dozen lives of cats and dogs ended before it mattered. Now it’s a four-way stop. Dad says it doesn’t mean anything; nothing will stop the town from spilling over the hills and up here.

I’m who he has now. He calls me his blue-eyed soul girl because I like Motown music and because I’m the only girl left, I guess. Mom took off last year. She found out she could make more money as a medical receptionist down below, some small city by Ann Arbor. She has this new person in her life, a girlfriend named Lela. Don’t ask me what that’s all about because dad doesn’t say a thing so I’m not going to ask. I don’t see Mom much since she moved out. She calls once a week or I do. I haven’t met Lela but maybe one day I will. I miss mom too much some days, others not so much. When you get down to it, dad is about what I have, too, except for three good friends at school and a couple of neighbors I like to fish and ski with, meet for a Saturday movie at the Miracle Theater. It’s strange growing up with just a dad but we always did get along better than mom and me. I didn’t ask him to go school shopping with me, though. Telly’s mom took me and got me a bra, too. He hasn’t noticed which is a relief. I’m afraid it will upset him, my growing up already.

Dad says I’m better at climbing trees and running than most boys and he’s right about that. I’m eleven, I can outrun most of the guys around here, and I’m a strong cross-country skier and better downhill skier. He says when I turn twelve I might get faster or maybe slower. We’ll find out in three weeks, after my birthday. I have no intention of slowing down. I can’t help being strong and fast, it just suits me, as mom says.

The reason I spend so much time in the upper third of this maple is because I can see everything. And it’s peaceful. I can survey a small kingdom. There are the Scranton hills, named after Jonas Scranton’s farm that went under before I was born. They’re a relief no matter what the season, they just roll out their colors and designs: mind-freezing beauty. I get a great view of Marionville spreading out beyond the bottom of the hills, namely the south end of the lake, several businesses and the jumping waterfront park. The big woods on the far side of the lake are special after it goes dark. Yellow and white spots shine here and there until the dense trees are sparkling like they’re full of fairy lights.  And I get a decent view of Telly Martin’s place to my right, where he, his parents and sisters live by Silver Creek, in their chalet. Especially their back yard, which is where most of the interesting action is at any house. They’re always doing something, like badminton and barbecuing. I haven’t been there in a few weeks and I miss them even though the two girls are younger and like Barbies too much. My mom, I know, enjoyed Telly’s mom; they had coffee many mornings. But no one asks about her.

Telly and I used to hang out more; he’s fourteen now. I think he also wonders about my dad. One time Telly came by, dad was sitting in the rocker by the scarred square wooden table he uses for about everything. A glass was in his hand so he didn’t reach out to shake Telly’s, as is his way. A big ole bottle of Jack Daniels was next to his book, likely a complicated spy novel he can get lost in. The reading has always been his pleasure, but the whiskey came out after spring break. Before that, a cold beer on a warm week-end was all I saw.

“Come around to see my Penny, eh, Telly?” dad said. He’d had two small glasses already. Three is his limit but it should be one. Or none.

Telly shrugged. “We were going to take a walk. I keep seeing a red fox at the creek. Real pretty.” His hands were in his jeans pockets. He smiled nice.

“Never mind the fox, son, and never mind my daughter. She’s too young to go off with a young man.” 

“Dad, I’ve known Telly for six years–” I protested. It was shocking to hear him talk like that.

“That’s right. He was eight, you were barely six. Played all day.  That was then. This is now. We don’t need more trouble.”

Telly frowned, then winked at me with each eye, our way of saying “later.” He left before I could stop him. But I can see him in his yard; we keep an eye on each other in lots of ways. In fact, my dad doesn’t even know we leave notes under a big loose rock in the field stone wall that divides the Martin’s property from the empty lot between us. That goes back at least four years. Still, I’ve had some doubts about Telly this fall. He’s like a polite acquaintance when I see him in school and hangs out with the first person to move into New Tree City. That’s what dad and I call it.

A developer bought ten acres of the hills and planted skinny, skimpy trees, some maple and some poplar, a little bunch of white pine. It was re-named New Scranton Hills. They brought their big earth-moving machines and started digging up the rich, sweet earth. First time I saw it I winced. It hurt my bones, even my teeth. Dad swore.

So what dad really watches since spring are the new houses cropping up like morel mushrooms. Only he likes those so much he’s on a mission to gather them every spring.

“That’s what’s wrong with Marionville. It can’t stand being the same year after year. It keeps looking to progress but it’ll end up being just like any other fast-growing town. They’re all the  same. Like white bread, right, Pen?”

He took another swallow–I could hear him cough a little–and I grasped the next branch, got a familiar foothold and pulled myself up higher. The leaves were starting to fall and a red one landed on my face. It smelled ancient and comforting.

“Well, dad, nothing can stay the same forever, probably.” I zipped up my hoodie against the autumn chill.

“There you go, that’s the mentality your mother has, our county has, the whole blasted country has. Gotta be bigger, fancier, more, more, more.”

I looked down through a new hole made by leaves falling. He was on his second glass and already he was getting miserable. I had a mind to shimmy down and grab that whiskey bottle and pour it in the garden, let the bugs and squash get tipsy for once. They’d probably just get sick, though.

“Well, no one knows this land like all of us up here, dad. And for sure no one loves it more than you. Pops would be happy you haven’t sold out.”

He chuckled. “That’s right, Pen. No selling out. You can bury me right here, too.”

I looked out over the land and blinked, then looked again. There was a house going up that looked way too big for the land it had grabbed. The carpenters were done for the day, and the frame they had left was a three-story something that dwarfed the new trees and the houses on either side. It hinged on being a mini-mansion from what I could tell. I wondered if it was one of those community places where there would be an indoor swimming pool, rooms to throw big celebrations in, maybe a game room for things like billiards.  I pressed against the sturdy trunk and leaned out a bit, parted the leaves. But it might just be a house, with all those options in it. You could fit four of our house into that building. It made me dizzy to think of it,  excited and mad all at once.

“You hear me, Pen? I don’t want you to start making friends with any of those people, okay? That’s the type young Telly might go for now, you wait. New Tree City people just don’t belong up here.” He banged his glass on the table. “Period.”

But I was gazing out at the lake and the woods and the sky beyond. A silky wash of dusk and then twilight colors spread over the treetops of the lake’s far shore and they glowed for a minute. It got so intense, that’s all there was: oranges, pinks, yellows, then night blues but with a weird light of gold fanning out over the world. The tiny fairy brights lit up the blackened woods after that.  I was alone but happy in my treetop. My dad had given in to whiskey or sadness or maybe sleep. I understood this: he wanted to forget some things and remember others. But New Tree City sat mostly empty of memories while I had nearly twelve whole years in this place. I really held the whole world in my arms. It fit me just right. I’d write a note to Telly about it in the morning; he always got it.

The Heart Chronicles #14: The Heart is Made of Stories

My mother sat on the edge of my twin bed every evening to share a long good-night. No matter the hour, I would beseech her to “tell me stories of when you grew up.” And so she did, vignettes about living and working on “The Farm”. She told me about swinging on a rope in the hayloft and the sweet pungence of warm hay as it got stuck in her hair and inside clothes; the fat, ravenous pigs she fed slop; the stealth it took to steal the morning’s eggs from beneath the fussy hens. She explained how she washed clothes on a washboard in the big multipurpose sink until her knuckles were reddened and raw, then hung the billowing clothing on a line behind the house:  “Sun-purified and perfumed,” she explained. There was that ornery mare that kicked at her spine, causing a lifetime of back pain as they seldom went to doctors. And sometimes Gypsies passed by in the dark and snatched a pig or chicken, long gone as her father ran out yelling at the top of his lungs; I thought he probably had a rifle in hand.

 The farm animals my mother and her family raised did not have names; the cats were wild  creatures that hunted mice and other varmints. My mother also confided that she would rather have stayed after school to practice basketball for her girls’ team than return to hard labor each day. I imagined the sun setting over the fields: she created the colors, sounds and scents of the country as she walked all the way from the town’s school to home, swinging the bundle of books secured in an old leather belt. Cicadas buzzed in my brain or snow swirled in a frenzy but we always got there safe and sound.

When she finally turned off the lamp, I could hear her voice weaving its magic long after her footsteps disappeared downstairs. That faraway exotic time and place, life at The Farm, lingered in my dreams.

The truth is, my mother could have made a story of walking to the grocery store and often did–a humorous character study, a surprising event that was made more fascinating through sharing. Life was never ordinary to my mother; it was full of textures, vivid designs, and had grand presence simply by being lived.  Anything could be fascinating, much of life’s stories were moving, some brought bountiful tears and often there was a lesson to be gathered from her tales. She had a natural gift for it: her expressive voice,  bright eyes and hands that shaped the air and spoke the wordless bits. All conspired to make the renderings complete. And it issued from her attentive mind and open, responsive heart. 

So that is where I learned it–that life was endless stories within a story and it’s origins were home. That a story from the heart is the best kind. My mother shared compassion for others by telling of those she’d met along the way or still hoped to meet,  of those she had found and lost, and those she loved well. Her wit was quick and full of laughter, but she also unleashed words sharp with anger. There were whole paragraphs laced with tears due to all manner of injustice she witnessed. Struck by beauty in almost any place, she could as accurately describe a fine piece of millinery as an insect she spotted in the garden. I have known few people as moved by the fractious, wondrous complexity of being human. And she knew about forgiveness, which crept in to her dreaming and musings.

It seems entirely reasonable to me, then, that the human heart is constructed of stories. It is, in truth, what I knew from the start–my mother only provided me more evidence of it as I grew up. And if it was my father who gave me music which courses like life-giving blood in my veins, it was my mother who gave me the powerful keys to the kingdom of Story, where words shape-shift and play, toil and conspire, liberate and elevate. In so doing, she gave me precious freedom.

When all else seemed lost at various junctures in my journey through the years, when I found little to keep me steady or strong save the repeated prayer for help, I reached for pen and paper. In my car, there is a small notebook, as well as in my purse and at work–just in case a gaily dressed character runs across the stage of my mind, then beckons me down the street into a cafe surrounded by an ivy-covered fence, a meandering stone pathway. Or in case the first line of a poem– Daybreak spills over the sky and earth like holy water, and rescues us all–visits me. And at four in the morning, there is another notebook and pen at my bedside when I need to solve a puzzle of dreams, or sift through the detritus of my restless mind until I can find a single thread leading to the true center of the mess. The heart of the unfolding story.

My heart has known plenty of bad stories, ones I would rather have avoided, tossed out much sooner or even set afire under a full moon. A few have epilogues that refuse to be erased. But they all somehow led me to good ones as well, those I can still build on or revise so that the endings are neater, richer, better. Even perfect endings can be created, for at least that very moment.  

Lately there have been some struggles: with the alien process of aging, with the unhappy news of two heart valves eroding, with the revelation that my five children really have long set sail when I had thought they might still be floating closer to shore. Time seems a frail thing, until I remember that time is truly not a known quantity. It is not the be-all and end-all on earth, to me. It is certainly what we each make of it. The living heart never tires of one more tale that needs to be heard or told. And so I put pen to paper or fingers to computer keys and think of my mother, who always encouraged me, even once after her death as I stood on my balcony under the gentle stars, missing her: You must write the stories. She smiled, then vanished.

(Postscript: The last Christmas I saw my mother,  not so long before her passing, I gave her the manuscript of my novel. This is the picture of us after she looked at it. She was so happy to see it, and I to share it, that we kissed each other. She flew home with it. A couple weeks later she called: “It sure kept me turning the pages, moved right along. Good characters!” She passed in 2001 at age 92, four months before I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. She had congestive heart failure.)