Wednesday’s Short Story: May Her Name be Called Among the Root Middens

Zaran was the only female born and before the final son, as foretold by Treese, the Truth Speaker. So when the girl came into the world her parents, the Royal Clan rulers of Mabat, were apprised of her potential. But the truth was, the Speaker didn’t speak of all things known. Nor the entire truth of a thing if he felt it unwise. Her parents, then, were left to wonder over her–why she often stood apart, how she listened, what she saw when studying sky’s changes or forest grove shadows or water’s magic surfaces. They only knew she was theirs to raise, though she seemed often elsewhere and that was a problem they could not well solve. She also gave answers that belied her mortal age. Or as if she had anticipated their thoughts. That was a condition they sought to demolish. With little success. Still, Zaran was their only daughter, and she was theirs, and she would do their bidding eventually. It was designated as being so.

One doesn’t note crucial details unless one is willing to take risks, perhaps make errors and then perhaps lose one’s life, Treese reminded his own daughter, Ilyat. But she was absorbed that moment by scooping water from the pool for the leather bladder. There were miles to go. She knew what he said came as a warning from his love for her. And she believed him.

And she knew much about Zaran; who could ignore her? These seventeen years passing, they both knew what they were meant to be. As did all others. Royal Clan news was unchanged, as well: Zaran would soon sit at her mother’s side; her younger brother, Raze, would be soon at his father’s. It was Double Protection, tradition that never deviated. Their two older sons were off claiming more land and goods, peacefully or not, to add to family fortunes. This was their designation, and their calling and they did it well. They had been gone ten years except when their grandfather was dying, then dead. It was a brief, unsentimental visit though well intended, of course.

Ilyat was the apprentice to her father’s tenets of Truth Speaking. She was the fifth generation to become so and did not question it. It was in her marrow. She liked the travelling, liked her father’s company mostly, and the taste of subtle powers she had begun to experience was not unpleasant. She might one day take his place if Dominion Seats found her favorable. If not, she would be a Vagabond Speaker, a poorer and harder life– in some ways, yet still worthy. There was time to worry about that. Now, it was water they needed for the last twenty miles to the Mabat Dominion Compound and Fortress.

She saw her father resting with eyes closed while standing by the water. She didn’t bother him; he could sleep deeply like that for a good hour if needed. Ilyat had yet to master that skill, called wake-rest, and many others. He was careful with his training but lately he was teaching her faster and more, so that at times her thinking and being were spun about. She learned to right herself.

Ilyat knew more about Zaran, even if the knowing was not yet made clear. She understood things were not always as they seemed–and certainly not with that one. Zaran almost seemed more like Treese and herself than the Royal Clan. But there was no evidence, no certainty of such a blasphemous thing. Unless her father hid it, which was possible–another remarkable skill called scrimming. He’d intimated he had something to add to Zaran’s life story, but Ilyat had to be patient to discover it. Truth telling and receiving required that more than anything except courage. That was the primary thing. You did not shirk Truth Speaking, no matter what.

Ilyat’s visions pulsed at edges of her mind; she wondered about the end of their trip this time. She knew it was the Initiation Ceremony they were to attend, but nothing more–yet. Tension snarled her chest and throat. She drank of the sparkling green water until anxiety receded. And then she sat still, surrounded by forest music, at ease. Waiting for Treese, beloved father, to fully awaken. For this journey to come to a close.

******

In the far distance of his sleep, Treese felt the Root Middens watching them, and he greeted them.

They always watched, from the uppermost boughs, from lichen-laden stumps, from damp caves behind waterfalls and vast meadows strewn with innocent flowers and slinking beasts. In forests they waited more quietly. So many passed this way, under cover of the strong giant trees. They understood it. They came from the roots, underground; they lived off root blood. Under the earth they especially were able to hear life moving in ways others did not. This was their first home, but they tolerated the passing ones if they did not do harm to any being, or take nothing unneeded. They were First Guardians, every one knew it but many feared them. They had ways and means to make a passage arduous, chancy.

Treese and Ilyat were another matter. They were watched because they pointed the way into time and energy beyond their scope–as long as the Royal Ones were in power, the Highnesses Nine and Eight. As long as their own clan of Root Middens was bound to shadow living, half visible, they could not expand their works. Treese held a major key to change.

It was best to be unseen, though they knew for certain Treese could make out their quicksilver forms in any degree of light. Treese was their ally. He knew Root Middens waited to be set free of Nine and Eight, also. He labored to bring the Truths forward to all. There was no harm in that, but help.

But who did not want liberation? The Royals cared little for life’s collective value or its unique expressions. Its innate spiritual power. They practiced blind ignorance and self-aggrandizement as if they were fierce competitions they must and would always win. And it seemed as if they were right, so far. They accumulated authority as the powerless accumulated stones for soup and aching exhaustion for nightfall.

The Root Middens waved Treese and Ilyat on and they slipped away long before the travelers did, before Ilyat used even her wisening eyes to find them. There was time for that meeting. There was more to be done.

******

In the beginning, in the beginning...was the Royal Clan Supreme.

Must it always start and end like that? The Tutor never tired of it, the mind-numbing retelling of the story that had kept her family’s history intact for all the ages. Wasn’t it enough that she had had to put it down on parchment from memory?

Zaran sat on the edge of her chair by the wide open window. A kestrel hovered not far off, wings flapping, tail undulating, then glided and dipped but changed course for more favorable fields. She would like to follow the bird. She already knew the requisites– “Principles: Cardinal and Lesser Rights” and “Highest Doctrines of Critical Figures”– she needed to be expert in so she might sit by Eight’s place. Her mother. And Tutor knew it, too; he had been astonished by her prodigious memory from an early age. Raze also had finished his studies but by tedious rote work, and late. He was a year ahead of her but only now prepared for their Initiation Ceremony. And his place by Nine. Their father. Finally official. He’d had to wait for her, he complained, but they all knew it was more the other way– Zaran was found close to ready. She also had another month to complete the last part her Tutor determined necessary so she’d be offered proper Ceremony, too.

But she– unlike Raze who hung on every bit of approval from their parents–much to her annoyance and distress–was not excited to make the Two Royals an official Four. She dreaded it. It was not the path she desired, and was lucky no one had found her out.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like leading. She could do that with some pleasure. But Zaran from the start of her youth didn’t agree with their ways, the proscribed life and duties set for her and Raze. Tutor had spent years drumming into her the importance of her position and the strict disciplining of intellect, the suppression of emotion. Calculation and strategy, endurance in body and mind, and the lack of sympathy were key. But when he left her to herself, she dreamed of another life, even though she knew it wouldn’t be given to her. Not even Raze knew who she wished to be, despite their childhood closeness…then he began to separate from her for Royal doctrine. He’d once teased her that she was a wild runabout, not easily tamed. True, she’d admitted. Soon she could not find a way back to him, nor forgive his blind obedience, his lack of openness with her. His heart, once vibrant as her own, was tucked away from sight, thrummed to the signs of power. He was slowly becoming who he was born to become: a future overseer of the Royal Clan. A kingly dictator. With her or not, though he hoped she’d change her attitude. They were, after all, blood.

Could she follow her named designation? It seemed harder as each day passed by.

“Dismissed for today. You’re staring out the window again.”

Tutor was less annoyed than disconcerted by this habit. He picked up his boar skin gloves, slapped them against a thigh. Moved to the corner of the room out of dutiful respect, his lame foot catching on the rug. When she left, he would depart staying a distance behind her.

All he wanted for her was success–which sealed his own. Perhaps he could take time to himself then. Years and years of this tedious but vitally necessary teaching. Yet Zaran had always wanted to learn and was better at it than Raze–but she also yearned for knowledge far beyond her ken. He’d had to rein her in every time. It got exhausting, though she was not arrogant or disrespectful as Raze often was. It was her way to gently, persistently push him for broader and more profound learning. Sometimes he didn’t know the answers, to his shame, and he cut her off. Lately he had half a notion to toss out his orders and start anew with her–she’d learned crucial material long ago. What might he prefer to teach? But even that passing thought could get him executed, so he kept to his decreed path, as she must keep to hers.

Zaran was no fool; she sat with face turned away toward trees and sky. He wouldn’t catch her sadness and longing. She saw him out of the corner of her eye, shifting in place due to his old war wounded foot; she knew he worried. And she couldn’t have that. Not now. He had to announce her final and excellent grades. Then she would go on without him, do what she must–one way or another.

She stood and smoothed her pale silk pants and tunic, placed her fingers on her forehead with a tiny bend at her waist in friendly gesture to him, then stepped toward the arched opening to the terrace. Tutor followed reluctantly. She swiveled around then and his eyes looked to ground as required.

“Tutor Mesor.”

He startled at the sound of his name. It was impolite, it was even outrageous.

“Now that we’re almost done, I may use this name, may I not? I’m finally grown and you’re soon to leave us. Just once I would like to say I called you by name, and you, mine. Face to face. You have taught me well, have been good to me more often than not despite my parents’ harsh demands. I have respect for your work. I wish to use your name, in great thanks.”

He kept eyes to floor. This was a setup, or it was genuine–which? “Mistress, if you can suffer my refusal I would rather not…it is not safe.”

“But wait, Tutor Mesor, will you not also use my given name of Zaran one time? An exchange of respect.”

But he stood mute and far off, blinking as panic rose. If anyone heard them, if he dared say her name–

“Then you may leave me now, I regret causing discomfort for both of us,” she said, and turned away. Too much for him, she thought; she must never ask such a reckless thing again.

Tutor Mesor hesitated. Would he not be in real trouble either way? Had she required so much of him in all her life? She had, but he cared about her; she had surely been a challenging but considerate student. Nine and Eight would, though, have his neck.

Zaran always sought a different choice, another option. It would do her in one day. He feared for her. But he would not be led astray at this time in his career, with a wife ailing and a daughter soon to wed. He backed away, bowed, was gone. He didn’t know how many more times he would see his scholastic charge. The sound of her voice speaking his name stayed with him a long while.

Zaran sat on wide stone steps leading to the gardens and fields, The small acrobatic kestrel had returned. It spotted its prey and dove into the grasses. Zaran turned to the west as the sun lowered. She heard something. Not a palomino’s hooves, not a red bear foraging berries, not a scurrying blue skink. It was lighter, faster, sounds of language dancing in air, words whistling about in a symphony.

She closed her eyes, held both palms up to the fragrant season’s billowing wind and smiled widely. Her palms tingled, her mind vibrated. Ilyat and Treese were coming. She ran indoors to wash her tawny face and tidy her platinum silver braid. They were there to help her with her life once more. They were coming for the Ceremony, yes, but they’d meet up, find favor with one another. Angels of mercy, she called them, though she had been told time and again there was no such thing as that, and thank the mountain god Gatomasha no one believed in that rubbish, anymore.

She believed, anyway.

******

“Welcome to Dominion Compound and Fortress once more, please take the seats, eat, and give us the latest news.”

King Nine pointed to the usual spots in middle of the long teak dining table and put his bulk into his mammoth chair with a thud. Queen Eight, presiding at the other end from her husband, nodded her coiffed head around to all. She arranged the voluminous scarlet gown about her; her ruby encrusted tiara was laid upon a small pillow on the crown side table so she might eat. No one wore anything on their heads when eating, it was vulgar.

Treese and Ilyat knew the routine and waited for the Royals to begin their servings. They were ravenous since they’d arrived after three days travel with only wild berries, roots and mushrooms and water. Their mouths watered. The piled dishes were steaming hot. They emitted rich scents of meat and creamy vegetables, warm breads and sweet fruits; they fairly swirled about the high-ceilinged hall. No one spoke while they ate, despite the King’s earlier inclusion of news in his greeting. They all ate first, talked later. Heavy tableware clanked and rang out, their mouths chewing enthusiastically.

Zaran and Raze sat at either ends, brother by father and daughter by mother. Across from Treese and Illyat were two empty places, to be used by the grandmother and her third husband if they felt sociable and well– or by other guests, if not. Tonight, no one else was there or they ate in their rooms, or later, presumably.

Treese never quite got the procedures for everyone’s mealtimes, who had the right and who did not to sit there. Visitors varied widely form what he had seen, as did the Royals preferences in private life. He had been sharing evening meals with Royals for thirty years and it was often the quietest room unless ripened wine flowed. But it was a show of confidence that he and Ilyat were offered seats every time. It was the major part of his designation– to be of service to them. He never forgot. But things could change for his life, he reminded himself.

Ilyat looked at him then. She’d heard his thought; she brushed his hand when reaching for a roll.

Table talk when it came was heavy on trade and a few continued wars to the far north. The other princes were not seen lately but it was known that they were having success finding new sources for replenishing silk worms and purveyors of fine weaponry. No major storms yet, but very soon would begin in Fourth Season. The news, then, was brief.

“So you are here for the duration,” Queen Eight inquired, meaning until the Initiation Ceremony was completed. “Your rooms are prepared and we’re glad you honor your duty to gather the story and make greater Royal History come alive for the generations. This is what I’ve been waiting for, over eighteen years.” She lifted her blue and gold goblet to the King and smiled that winning smile that was easy for her despite ill or good will.

King Nine banged the table once with his fists and roared as was his way, “Yes, a great moment in history, a perfect moment for the Royal Clan–our Double Protection in place so our Kingdom of Mabat shall hold firm! Praise Gatomasha!” Raze banged in hearty accord.

“And so be praised!” the group answered in unison, though it was hard for some to say.

Ilyat listened and watched. She wasn’t expected to speak in public yet, nor even encouraged, but her wandering eyes found Raze’s, then Zaran’s. Raze nodded at her, lips curved in a way that imitated friendliness yet not quite. He felt her far beneath him, yet found her lovely, perhaps a bit sly, and lively in a restrained manner. The last few times they’d met he’d gotten ideas. She always looked down immediately as expected. She hoped he never got close to her. She might just shove him aside and say things she shouldn’t say. He was of no interest.

But she held Zaran with her eyes. They spoke to one another without speaking, and had done so for years, if only briefly. They knew they should not pass between them any knowledge of import, but did so because they could. And because they understood one another–simply as people. It rarely happened that Ilyat found another who knew her instinctively. But Zaran had even when they were children full of carefree play. They were kept from being friends–one girl a subject and servant, as well as her father, to King and Queen–and another girl an inheritor of Royal wealth and power one day. They had always wanted more time. Now things were about to alter all of them.

And that day was coming soon.

Zaran reached out first: I’m glad you have arrived. Meet me on my third floor balcony after midnight.

Just after midnight, Ilyat agreed. I thank you, Princess.

And you for coming with your father.

Treese was talking to Queen Eight but their words slipped by his mind and he turned ever so slightly to his daughter–she knew he heard. Ilyat studiously speared more venison and prairie greens with her fork. Zaran kept her attention on Treese and he, startled by her warm energy as he spoke of sheep and boar prices, almost paused mid-sentence.

Zaran patted her lips with a silk napkin, then excused herself and walked softly from the hall.

Nine thought her impetuous to leave during such a dinner but Eight understood women; they soon tired of the dreary table talk. However, very soon Zaran would follow all rules and stay in place as she was required to be present. There would be no more excuses tolerated, not for her royal right hand. And perhaps one day, more–if Raze did not prove himself better at all that Zaran managed extraordinarily well.

******

They stood against the outer wall of the balcony, cloaks pulled close against a sharp chill. The moon was a pale half circle; low clouds bunched and scudded past its soft illumination.

Ilyat leaned toward her, still a foot away. “My father is going to be unhappy we’re meeting in secret- and yours would explode– but I had to speak in person. Something has changed. I know you have the Initiation Ceremony in two weeks, but…”

“Yes?” Zaran moved closer to place a cool hand on Ilyat’s arm with urgent pressure. “Speak truth now.”

“I will wait for my father’s direction, but I can say you must be ready for unexpected things. I know you sense it, but I’m telling you now that the future is not what was decreed. That much I do know; Father stated so.”

Zaran let out a short breath and she studied the distance as the trees hid in the dark, when the Root Middens rested. That reassured her somehow. She released Ilyat. “I have been waiting.”

“We’ve all been waiting for history to no longer stagnate–to fail us again.”

“I’m more than ready,” Zaran said, thinking of Raze, thinking of her parents who saw her as one thing and he, another. But they had it reversed. “It is to my advantage, then?”

“To have seen you as different by the family? In one way or another. Now they are blinded. But later another viewpoint will come full circle. But I don’t know quite what that all entails yet…”

“I wait for more understanding.”

“Think less, intuit and sense more.” Ilyat sent a clearing energy to Zaran’s forehead; the young princess trembled then relaxed. “We are present. Time will reveal us to each other.”

Ilyat left so quickly and quietly that as Zara turned to gesture her a kind farewell–right hand to center chest–she saw only the gauzy blue curtain lift and flutter over the arched doorway. She shivered, pulled her cloak hood over her head, watched the stars shining, listened for their humming. Satisfied that all was safe–they were not likely found out– she started for bed, only to find her cheeks dampening and heart beating like frantic wings against her ribs.

She must keep faith. She must be prepared for whatever came.

******

The time passed rapidly, as it did when much needed to be done in the Dominion Compound and Fortress. Servants rushed about doing chores times ten. Clothiers, jewel keepers, chefs and design masters, carriage restorers and farmers, art restorers and horse herders and Dominion guards were kept busy for long hours at their taxing labors. The Fortress was abuzz with a high excitement not felt in decades.

The Initiation Ceremony was a once in a generation event. King Nine and Queen Eight were driven by all matters pertaining to it and its greater outcome. They expected their children to be thus melded with the Royal Clan, and succeed them even when married off. They would spend their declining years entirely secure.

Raze was taking a last time to enjoy his relative freedom, drinking too much and looking for female companionship (soon women would be carefully screened; there’d be formal engagements only). He’d lost track of his sister and she said little to him. They had taken different mental routes to the same place, and he still wondered what she was up to though she betrayed so little. Yet she knew what he thought; he was taking his blood-earned and studies-gained spot and little else mattered. He loved the surge of power that was his as he became an adult, felt at home as Royal. He hoped to be married with a smart and hearty wife within two years, a child or two and a throne sooner or later. That covered his greatest desires.

For Zaran, who knew? She was as mysterious as firelight in deep forest, as moonlight in mountains.

Their parents were full of pride and plans. They were further cementing clear control with formal addition of two scholarly, well trained children. Their other sons were providing greater wealth and reach of rule. And if too many raised their voices in complaint of all their methods–often brutal, frequently illegal, nearly always unchecked–no matter, that was how it was done. No mercy given. They had each carried out their jobs as Royal forbearers had. The Royal Nine and Eight had fulfilled ancient foretellings, and thus far met their goals well.

And yet. There were gaps in their lives though they could not identify them. There was the unease that unknowing provides. They retired the night before the Ceremony with an ache under their skins, a jumble in their minds, a congestion in their blood that would not stay cleared. It was a question unanswered that they hadn’t once said aloud to one another.

What–truly–would become of Zaran with her unorthodox thinking and secretive ways? What did that mean ultimately for the Kingdom of Mabat? They should have been harder on her, they thought with regret, but they would be harder on her now. She had no idea.

“All shall fare well, a goodly rest,” they intoned as they always did to one another, and turned down the hallway lights and closed their doors behind them.

******

It was this way:

Treese and Ilyat did not sleep. They barely dozed and when the moon was hidden beneath clouds heavy with rainfall they got up and went into Zaran’s room.

She was not sleeping either, and stood with clothes and boots on, cloak and bag tied around her waist. She’d long a go decided she was not going through with the Initiation. It was not going to be her life, obedient to darkness and dirty plans, servile to conniving behaviors or at the least so many empty, boring duties. It was not her right designation no matter what they said. Her calling was still not clear but it could not be the Royal Dominion life. She felt things and knew things she could not even describe. She wanted a different path, though she knew not what–yet.

The only way to avoid it and retrieve her life was to leave. She’d rehearsed that leave-taking for months, and tried to keep up enough courage. She’d lower herself over her balcony three stories up, then down the side of the Fortress with the rope from the stables when all were asleep. She was strong, she was fit, she excelled in self defense. She was resolved when it came to action needed. Zaran was not backing away from any chance at freedom, even if short lived.. even if Royal soldiers hunted her down…But she had long believed she’d have help.

And it came.

They said nothing aloud; they knew each other’s thoughts well enough. She showed them the rope and they followed her down it, clumsily at first with greater effort for Treese, and each trying to void the massive stone wall with its bruising glances, then they were more steady, careful, their energy high and concentrated. The guards did not keep to this area, being stationed at the front watchtower and gateway–especially now, when the Ceremony would bring many invited attendees and perhaps many rabble rousers. The even would be at seven in the evening followed by a feast of celebration long into the night.

They heard a horse whinnying, someone riding off –perhaps a servant who forgot a last task that was critical, or a soldier gone home–and that was all. Laughter bold coming from the tower gates. They waited a moment and heard then the plaintive hoots of a barn owl, a sleek flight of bats, a few crickets that fell silent. The night thickened with clouds and the heavy stillness that spread itself high and low before a storm.

When landing on the ground, they fast sought the private path that led to the family garden for private relaxation. Zara had easy access to keys for all doors, so capably unlocked the heavy wooden gate and in they went, through and about bushes, trees, flower beds, threading their way around small hillocks and thorny bushes with radiant moon flowers and on and on– until they reached the far gate that let them onto the wooded acreage, Middens’ Forest.

They ran. They could not help it. It had long been a lifelong, beautiful dream for Zaran, a prayer for Treese, a vague hope grown strong for Ilyat, each having their reasons. They ran until they could not manage to jump another branch, to skip over another rock, to avoid the tangles of vines and biting prickers and the sting of savvy insects. They were parched; intense adrenalin was leaving them finally exhausted.

An hour later they had to stop and so rested awhile in the ebony interior of the woods. Treese reached for Zaran’s smooth hands and she gave them to his rough, warm ones in relief. He held them as if in a prayerful mode, enclosed within his. She felt familiarity, as if she knew these ways of being.

“We have waited a long while for you to join us.”

She adjusted to the lack of light but saw him as if a candle was lit. His face seemed to gleam in the dark woods, and his body average and wiry, face holding no age. Her own countenance was calm though silvery hair was askew about her cheeks, her deep eyes weary but bright. “And I, you. Since childhood.”

“Since we met,” Ilyat agreed. “I knew you then.” She pushed her own platinum hair from brow and chin to tie it back and Zaran saw similarity, in the shape of her face and eyes, as well. She wondered who this one was. No matter, she had an overwhelming gratitude.

Zaran carefully touched each of their foreheads in care and respect, then her own. “My Truth Speaker sister, father.”

Treese bowed his head and they clasped each other’s hands. He spoke a prayer of sturdy life, of deep learning, of truthfulness, of strong compassion.

Not to Gatomasha of the mountains. To a Creator of Love for all.

Zaran stood under treetops and sky as rain began to fall. “Let’s begin forging a new reign, good Speakers.”

And they jumped up–she was yet a princess–and left behind the past, Zaran looking over her shoulder, a pain inside squeezing her mind and soul. Then she moved on, as she was meant to do. She was eager to work on a future they could all bear to inhabit, to find greater wisdom that could salvage Mabat. Her kingdom by tradition, but the peoples’ home. One day…when she was prepared to claim Truth and its every guiding Speaker. Embracing whatever her destiny was to become.

The Root Middens watched them pass as they always did. But this time they rejoiced in depths of Under/Earth while freshening rain nurtured the forbearing trees.

Zaran comes, they intoned. And it was so.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Musical Family, Ensemble and Solo

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

As wildfires in our county (in Oregon, so many places) threatened our safety, I got emails from two cousins I hadn’t heard from in years. They were checking in on me with concern and care from their homes in New Mexico. Shortly after came a package from one of my cousins. She’d found CDs from the 1950s and early 1960s of my hometown high school orchestra, which my father taught and conducted. I am not on the recordings; this was before I was an adolescent. But a couple of my older sisters’ cello and bassoon solos are noted. There is Gershwin, Dvorak, Bach, Mozart; pieces from Bizet, Handel, Tchaikovsky and more on the playlists. I haven’t listened yet, just gazed at them. I know the orchestra will sound very good–it won a fine reputation all over Michigan from the fifties on. I played my cello in Midland High School orchestra in the mid-to-late sixties. First seat, then second, then…well, I stopped rigorously practicing and competing with others by my senior year. And I was singing more and more.

What the CDs did, nonetheless, was reawaken memories of my family’s commitment to and love of music, the ways it shaped us. Though I don’t know Randie or Sally well now, I once did know them better–to love them was to love the music in their lives, too. My extended family enjoyed many reunions in Missouri where our fathers were raised as I grew up. Inevitably there were swapped music stories, and soon people played–just as we did in our homes if in different states from very early ages.

Randie has been a professional violinist and teacher all her adult life. Her sister, Sally, has made a career as a professional cellist. Their father, my Uncle Ralph, was a flutist and a composer with many published works, and a university professor. There are other musicians in the family–an opera singer and professional choir members, many instrumentalists who have played professionally. Nieces, nephews and on and on–we all played or sang, even without monetary reward. It hardly seemed we could shift the central focus from music. Not that folks wanted to, anyway; it was a major fixture of life.

So I am glad to hear from my Uncle Ralph’s daughters once more. Sally played cello in Bergen, Norway’s symphony for many years, then she played in New York, LA and who knows where else. Randie lived in Seattle, (where my cellist sister lived til the last two years of her life, so they were in touch often). These cousins seemed bigger than life when I was young–and, in fact, are six feet tall as were or are my uncles, father and brothers. (I am 5 ft. 2.5; perhaps I was 5 ft. 4, once…) But they were lovely and smart, as well as very talented.

We, as happens as kids grow up and move, lost touch. A childhood memory I have is of convening in my Grandfather and Grandmother Guenther’s white house with its back garden and front porch. We shared blankets on the living room floor at night, giggling and talking quietly, ran about and played games for a couple of days, music a bit less compelling under age 10. Our fathers made music; Grandfather shared thoughts and books(and sometimes his writings with me, an honor) and our grandmother cooked huge meals that we ate around a crowded dining room table. The last adult memory of my cousins and I together was for my Uncle Ralph birthday in Seattle. It was his 90th birthday, and Sally and Randie played a fine duet for the celebration. Elegant and aged Uncle Ralph sat quietly listening in a wheelchair, and he was so pleased we all came that could. (My Aunt LaVonne, his wife, was an excellent pianist.)

Musicians, then–even in my home town where most of my friends played instruments or sang–informed much of my life. Performing issues or goals, discussions of music-related topics, time filled with this passion and the increasing accomplishments. All four of my siblings played one or two instruments and later made money at it. Dad was a violinist and violist, an arranger of music, a conductor and teacher, piano tuner, instrument repairer and appraiser, and more. He was a man who was intimidating even as I found him mysterious at times and charming. I watched him often, head bent over a book or a musical score he studied for an upcoming performance. It was clear he had much on his mind, more to accomplish every day. He was certain about what mattered to him: music, providing for his family and God being highest on the list. In fact, that may have been the list despite having diverse interests.

One of Dad’s “side jobs” was repairing musical instruments, a fun thing for me if work for him, though he seemed more relaxed doing it. He specialized in violins, violas, cellos and basses, but it was not an unfamiliar sight to see woodwinds propped up–or, as the others, lying rather lifeless on a long table in various states of repair. Occasionally, a brass instrument showed up; his expertise reflected instruments he knew how to play, which were various. Dad counted string instruments his favorites, as far as I knew. But he also played trombone and saxophone in dance bands long before I came into his life–a revelation in my early teens. He even played them once in awhile for certain entertaining performances he participated in, like the City Band he conducted or a high school show which allowed teachers to also perform, called “Rhapsody Rendezvous.

One of my favorite things was to follow him down to the basement. It was like entering a country unto itself, populated by musical devices both beautiful and broken. I would stand at his shoulder. The not unpleasant odor of special glue he dabbed on seams of wooden bodies permeated the cubbyhole he called workshop. The overhead, flex-armed light illuminated a concentrated circle for close work. The room’s corners were swathed in friendly shadows. I sometimes fingered the instruments, admired their shapes and sounds. He got to it but with patience and precision but added very few comments, and mostly to himself. He knew I was there; he asked for pliers, brushes, clamps, just as he asked for tools when he worked on our cars in the driveway. He appreciated both kinds of work and I could be a helper if he needed it. And it was music-related without being music performance.

I loved being with him when he fixed things–it might also be a toaster or a lamp–because he was more accessible, down to earth, then; he could show me interesting problems to be solved and teach me things that weren’t lofty or important in the arts world, but in everyday life. More usually he was a man deep within himself and propelled by clear visions. I used to joke with friends that he seldom knew what I was up to–as long as I practiced my cello (my sister and I both played) and voice lessons, got excellent grades and was respectful, he didn’t notice much unless there was a huge crisis that he could not ignore–Mom took care of those, usually.

It is a gift growing up in a musical family, a joy that in time one realizes is not actually everyone’s experience. And it also could feel like a burden with its mandates to perform and do very well all the time, made more so when Dad intoned and thus imprinted on my brain: “It is a sin to not use a talent.” I doubt he meant to threaten or shame, but to remind me of the blessing of music and other innate abilities. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he might also say in his Bible study voice. But it still landed hard. Otherwise, he was the quintessential gentleman, a dreamy-eyed musician and amateur scholar of history, sciences, classical music and the Bible, a competitive player of many games, and possessed of an inventive bent–but there was no mistaking what he believed and expected. He worked so hard; he expected all of us to do the same, and to excel. To find fulfillment as he sought and often found. To use all the potential we could.

Music was so vital to my life that it truly directed and drove me, enriched and comforted me–and wounded me. I adored the cello my father and I bought together, to my utter surprise, when I was 12. I was moved by its large body pulled close, its resonance and ready responsiveness to placement of fingers and a strong bow across strings with sweeps of channeled emotions. I felt at home with it in my arms and greatly extended by its eloquent speech.

But it was singing that held me captive even more. Opening my mouth and throat and letting sounds smoothly, happily flow. How they could be shaped b y the body and mind to make all the difference in expression. I sang in every theatrical production, choir, and single event that I could. I performed with a trio and a couple of bands. I sang while trying to compose at our baby grand piano– but I dreamed of being a jazz singer, not a classical soloist. Jazz was not much played in our home, and never discussed as an option for us kids to study. Every fiber in my being woke up when I sang; life seemed much better embraced and interpreted. Decoded, even. It was also fun when much of my teen life was not. Human life was somehow magnified, cherished, given infusions of hope and joy with song. Music was, after all and no matter what, the purest form of love. So I believed.

But jazz, folk or pop music certainly was not what Dad planned for his children. He found these largely inferior forms, perhaps even inauthentic musical genres and only now and then did he grudgingly admit that there was other music that could be exceptional. There was one great music and it was classical–despite his playing in dance bands as a college student.

So I was bewildered why he agreed to play piano to accompany me when I sang–or he might even join his voice–old standards. But that was recreational, a relaxing downtime, not something for the finest musicians. It was like we shared a secret admiration of songs like “Stairway to the Stars” and “Embraceable You” and “Spring is here”. He smiled as I sang out, but it was understood that these didn’t quite count in the end, no matter how well I sang. He never deviated from the idea that classical music was meant to enlighten, challenge and enthrall while good popular music was “entertainment”, thus dismissible. I never knew why it had to be that way for him. I kept practicing my art songs, resentfully.

My mother–not a musician but a visual artist/creator/maker– all those years stood at the edges of our intense music making. Yet she watched, listened, intuited much–and gave out quiet praise, applause, was in attendance at all our concerts. She is who made Dad’s career in music reach a higher state. She is who believed in us always when we did not.

One of my bothers did manage to successfully move in another world to play jazz the rest of his life. Gary had a college plan of becoming a psychologist and he was for a few years. But jazz took him with it and that was that. I was thrilled to hear my gifted brother play sax, clarinet, oboe, flute, piccolo with bands in Portland after I moved here, and he sang, as well. He asked me to sing with him a few times–he was convinced I’d do well–but I always declined. By then I was 40, a newly single mother and recently moved to the NW. I hadn’t sung in a very long time. I did not want to disappoint him. Or myself. And, too, I was a little afraid I would fall back in love with singing. I could not afford to trod that route–and he played in bars while I was not about to drink again. I had to get serious about making money to support myself, a daughter and son–to just take care of business.

There had, in fact, been no dreams of being a singer since I was 20– right before my first marriage. I had learned long before how to not tell secrets. Leaning how to not sing was as hard, but just as doable. But to not want to sing? Incredibly hard.

It was a mystery to many who knew me why I left music almost entirely after a childhood and youth of being utterly immersed in it, and also having successes. For awhile I was baffled, but it was easy to blame various circumstances for not supporting easy access to music making. I sang to my babies or when teaching them songs; when alone outdoors; in the shower sometimes like everyone does; and when playing recording artists–comfortable favorites of 1960s, 70s and 80s like Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell; newer jazz singers such as Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and even–dare I say it–the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, whom I still so revere. I was happy when I sang at home in those days still, but alongside the pleasure was sorrow. It was becoming clear that there would be no good opportunities as I became daily more domesticated, less engaged in the arts as I lived out my twenties. As I struggled with more trials and a hope of some victory over demons of abuse and substance use.

I rarely sang for either of my husbands–the first liked my voice but didn’t encourage me; it felt embarrassing to even spontaneously sing out. He was a sculptor; for some reason he enjoyed my occasional cello playing more. Otherwise he liked quietness, didn’t talk much–so liked that I wrote–some poems were used in multi-media shows we did. The second husband liked to sing and play guitar, but he preferred doing it alone, both at home and in coffee houses back then. He didn’t have a desire to sing with me, and it shocked me that even though we worked on good harmonies when he did agree to let me join in, and when we wrote a song or two together, he still wanted to go solo. It didn’t take long to stop trying since my voice was an intrusion on his musical domain. It was fine that I played my cello, again–that was another thing altogether.

It is possible that people give up what they love because they get worn out by failing to get what they want or need. I can’t blame my spouses, really. But once married, I didn’t often live where musical options or performances were well accessible. And soon there wasn’t time with a growing family and husbands often gone for longer and longer for work. I stopped singing even at home as children kids grew up–they’d sing over me as kids do without thinking anything of it, or cover their ears when wanting to hear something they desire. I put on their music and sang with them then.

But, really, I began to let go of singing by age 20, when it all got difficult. When it hurt more than gave me happiness. It felt foreign but it was how it was. I was gradually losing the joy of my cello, of song.

Traumatic events can cause people to go mute. Cumulative trauma may have caused me to lose the natural capacity to sing–certainly to be pleased and fulfilled by singing, and finally to believe in the transformative, positive powers of music in the way I did as a child, then youth. Violent or disturbing experiences kept happening one after the other. For me it meant that music–the golden power and instinctual ways of it, the inspirational wonder and bold stories it offered–leaked away from deepest self, my very breath, so that soon I no longer wanted to or even could produce music from my lips. A few years later, when I tried, I wept and so gave it up again. Even in church when I sang familiar, pretty hymns. Maybe I recalled my father told me that to not use a talent was a sin; maybe that haunted me.

It was just as likely I no longer felt worthy of singing. I left music as I had known it because it’s immense mystery and passion had seeped away as I battled with life, learned how to be tougher, to survive alone. It felt like gorgeous, lively waters eroding and then abandoning a riverbed, to leave it it empty and useless. It was a hollowing out.

I sang almost nothing (“Happy Birthday” to loved ones, a holiday tune with others) for over a decade, not when alone, not even a little humming along with songs. It was not in me. My family of musicians made their music, and my children made some music and I listened and was glad of it. But I was no longer a part of that major experience, that special tradition. I was adrift like a castaway, and I steered by sheer instincts more than with my heart. And I got to where I needed to go, finally, one step and a day at a time.

Life went on. Then when I reached my mid-forties there came the day when my youngest daughter, who did sing with a lovely soprano, decided she wanted to join a women’s chorus. She asked me if I would, too. Terrified, I finally agreed. I figured I might be able to sing very quietly if there was a large group. So each week I practiced with the group as I attempted to loosen up, to remember the techniques to sing correctly, as well as enjoy the songs as my eyes scanned musical notations I had only half-recognized, anymore. It got a bit easier each time and it pleased us both that Alexandra and I were singing together. But my throat–my whole body– felt constricted, even sore after each rehearsal. I wanted to sing louder and better, but it was hard to stand there and hear the music, to encourage any sound to come out. I thought, well, I am trying.

Alexandra took voice lessons. I wondered if the right vocal teacher could show me how to recover my lost singing voice. If someone could help heal me. But the usual excuse was that there was not enough money for that, other things mattered more. I was writing as I had always been able to write– stories, poems and memoir. And I was publishing here and there, had found good writing groups. Maybe written language was truly enough–I’d loved stories my whole life, perhaps as much as I had loved music. But more like words and I were kindred spirits/ comrades. Music was…different. After so many years of disciplined effort and a deepening devotion, perhaps I could say I loved writing more. Perhaps. Why then reopen the wound of music? I did try to sing alone, now and then.

But when my mother died (Dad had passed years before) whole songs came to me out of the blue even as I grieved a long while. It was distressing and wonderful that I opened my mouth and they were right there, and I found it a liberation. Why? Maybe the wound was turning to scar tissue at last, and so pain was losing out to joy again. Maybe I was letting go of the burdens and opening my hands to more possibility.

I didn’t become a singer, I didn’t join a fine choir. I just sang a little more. There may not be a clear end to this story. I did sing with another community chorus or two; it became more pleasurable each time. But I learned to sing more in church–the times I don’t want to cry during the moving hymns are more frequent. I did not take voice lessons. I have sung a little at home when alone, along with a CD or the radio, but not often, and not loud. I have sung to my grandchildren. I do not sing with my second husband, who is with me and still sings alone. But–progress. Taking more chances helps incrementally, though my voice sounds rusty to me too often, and songs need to be cajoled and teased, enchanted out of me. I often choke on words or certain notes escape me just enough that I have to stop. But I know I might start again, even if it is in my living room or in the woods.

I am remembering more how it was. In my late teens I stopped competing with others and working to be a classical vocalist. Instead, I let my body move to music and my soul tell a story and tunes welled up to take me with them, then out to the listener–it was for awhile that easy to sing and know happiness was mine fully. And the memory is good, even if the talent was forsaken, the passion turned off for later survival. Sometimes it is better to leave what one loves the most than to slowly starve from hunger for it, the terrible relentless longing. It was what had to be done, I know now, to get on with my life at 19– after another rape, a breakdown and addiction, slow recovery, then a marriage. Discovering the miracle of being a mother and the salvation of putting one’s self quite aside for the sake of beloved others. It could be done, living for good moments, for love again. I found new goals, explored other creative impulses and was glad of remaining passions I have been fortunate to enjoy.

At 70, I have made more peace with what was not and with what is. I see the great benefits of forgiveness of self and others, of overcoming hurdles and striving onward. I can see a wound as a particular kind of reckoning with self and the world, and its healing as a process of surprising renewal. The spiritual warrior and seeker in me has better implemented clarity and found more bravery. As with all things that matter, it is a fact that I left music, but that doesn’t mean it ever left me. It waits and lets me find it as I can, to experience it as feels right.

I feel sometimes that I may sing a little more, be more okay with what comes out in spurts and pauses, with breathlessness, even if made slippery with tears. But I am aiming for lighter music, simpler fun tunes, melodies for the grandbabies–and perhaps some small sharing with others if it ever comes up. My three biological children happily make and share music in one way or another, and so do their children. I asked Dad when he lay dying, as I sat with him awhile, if he thought my youngest should keep singing more seriously. I don’t know why I asked; he just knew so much about music, though he hadn’t heard her voice in quite awhile. But he said: “If she sings like you have sung.” It was the first time he’d acknowledged what was left behind, and also told me he always did value my singing, no matter my style. No matter if I loved jazz and pop and world music and blue grass, and all the rest–as well as beloved classical (which still often fills hours of my time).

This is some of what it is like to be born into a musical family, and given a musical inheritance. It is a love story of many sorts, a madness and and a celebration. I cannot be untethered from my DNA, nor divorced from my true loves. I will likely sing whatever songs will have me and I, them. Even if no one is listening.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Sober Club

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

The three of them were drinking and zinging haphazard barbs at various political figures (who of course could not respond), and generally commiserating about the unholy state of the world. It was cool enough to wear jackets, but they still preferred Mel’s patio–that’s what she called it, despite it being a rectangular, cracked slab of concrete with tufts of weeds winning out. Mel was a natural yard keeper, she said in self defense once. Veralynn and Kat waved her off, retorted that it was simple if benign neglect, case closed.

Kat got up to grab another bag of lime favored rice chips from a grocery bag, then popped it open behind them, startling Veralynn, who reacted strongly.

“Please do package opening in the kitchen–that was a bit irritating!” She chugged her remaining beer and reached for another bottle.

“Hardly a big noise–but we are loud, the neighbors will be peering over my fence in a few, then lobbing things next.” Mel said, eyebrow raised. “Anyway, I like that Kat leaps and gallops to the kitchen for more food. That’s the spirit! Even if it is shameful junk food.”

Mel had thought about suggesting that they needed to meet elsewhere awhile, it was becoming a point of contention for the Johnsons across the alley and was wearing her out, all the clean up. Soon they’d be forced indoors by winter rain. She shivered thinking of those temps and pulled muscled legs close to her chest. She considered one more beer, but three were likely enough.

Kat giggled–she became a giggler as alcohol relaxed her– and plopped down with a sigh, pushing three chips past her toothy smile, giving off a strong beam of her mischievousness. Her lips were one of her better features–perpetually colored candy apple red, and then those expensive teeth nearly glowing day or night. And long limbs, dancerly and lithe. She must have been a persuasive real estate agent before the kids were born.

“Well, they’re only envious–or dreadfully sober,” Veralynn said, pushing a sweep of dark hair from her forehead.

The others laughed at that, and munched on chips greedily.

But the last phrase echoed in her head. Which was in fact more dreadful–a hangover or no hangover? She was the senior technical writing editor for a large company–she freelanced, as well–and sometimes on Thursday mornings, the morning after they drank, the words she had to read zigzagged or receded. Thank goodness she was good enough to not be badly chastised–yet. It had been hard to jockey for such a good position.

They clinked bottles–Mel had grabbed one more–and settled back for a last few minutes. They all had early morning obligations, they reminded each other once more–it was only mid-week for two of them. Veralynn only worked four days a week at last. But they liked their sessions (our therapy, Kat thought, and I need these desperately), each Wednesday and again on Friday. It helped smooth the wrinkles that had begun to etch about their forty-ish faces, to ease pressures of their busy lives. It was their little club.

They were finally talked out–work, relationships or lack thereof, kids (Kat’s two plus a husband), health goals (Mel was into taekwondo), emotional balance (much was left unspoken but all had their troubles) and maybe toss in supplemental topics like books, films, art, spiritual well being–if they had time. No one wanted to lean too much toward intellectual discourse at their drinking sessions, they had agreed from the start.

As Veralynn was compelled to note, “Drinking and rigorous intellectual activity–that is an oxymoron, ladies. We must use this time to drown our tiny sorrows and act foolish.”

So they said goodnight, quick hugs all around. Kat and Veralynn left as Mel placed bottles in recycling and wiped down counters, turned out the kitchen light. She watched Kat’s SUV drive off with Veralynn beside her, Mel’s hand lightly pressed against the living room window. The window pane fogged under her nose. It was getting colder already out. How she loved the sun’s heat…

The house was so empty after their gatherings, it crowded her with its silence. Since Bill had left her when she’d fallen asleep last spring, nights were the worst.

******

It was Thursday, getting late. Veralynn finished up a last proofread of the document and switched off her computer. It was nearly 9 pm and everyone else had left, as usual, except for cleaning staff whose vacuums ripped apart the stillness. Working four, ten hours days meant she was at her desk for twelve–she was always trying to catch up. She put her shoes back on, grabbed her tan leather tote and coat. She would not take work home this time, she’d had enough.

The long drive from city to suburb was an easy one at this hour. Her mind ran over meetings of the past week, assignments, documents still needing touch ups. As she passed three bars, one after the other before she got on the highway, she felt the old pull. Tomorrow she could sleep in, after all, unlike her friends. She exited and pulled into a half-filled parking lot.

The Royal was anything but, yet its worn black leatherette seats and amber lighting, the three pool tables at the back, the nostalgic music that played and the usual line up of regulars at the bar,–it held an odd allure. It was suitably rundown, in a cozy way–at least when she felt ragged from work. Nobody was impressed with her professional manicure, expensive haircut or–of course, they hadn’t seen it–her luxe condo. They had come to accept her as an off-type–a visitor and just enough friendly–and her money was good as anyone’s.

Sid leaned on the bar, a towel bunched in one reddened fist

“What’ll it be, Vera, whiskey neat?”

“That’ll do it.” She put elbows on the marred black counter, chin in hands then half-turned her head. They were all engaged in chatter and drink–she didn’t know many that night except for a couple who lifted their palms to her and a guy at the end of the bar, Nels, who was usually there. He was a guy she didn’t really like or dislike, but she felt his eyes on her often and she didn’t return his gaze. She only nodded if unavoidable as she passed by on the way to the ladies’ room.

The rest were the usual. A small bunch of older men, four younger to older women, three hearty guys in work shirts and flannel who also preferred the counter. One by one, most eventually noted her presence and raised a glass. But no talk. Tonight they had their eyes on the flat screen above them.

Veralynn did not have the attention span, nor the interest. Newsy stuff with a sports review blared on. She sipped the whisky, accepting its rich burn. About half a glass finished, she realized she hadn’t really wanted or needed a drink. She wondered why she’d even stopped. It was just a habit–she had begun to come by two or three times a month, always Thursdays. It had been precipitated by a change of bosses, a tougher, surlier one, and by end of the work week she was running on empty and a bit raw. Yet, that was seven months ago. Now she was attuned to the new rhythm, and brusque Glenn Hannon had come to appreciate what he called her “backbone” for sticking to her decisions and her fastidiousness in editing. She had her eye on a promotion but wasn’t sure when, so she kept up the long hours.

Sid paused on his way elsewhere. “Got what you need? All ok?”

“I’m good, thanks, just realized I don’t need to dawdle.” Her shoulders ached, her eyes were computer- bleary, her stomach rumbled even more since the whiskey.

He gave a short laugh; only that Vera used words like “dawdle.” He kind of liked that.

“Gotcha, catch you next time.”

Veralynn left the drink, shoved off the bar stool and started across the room.

So did Nels.

As Veralyn exited, she felt him by her elbow; he nearly touched her andhis presence seemed sloppy but intense. She moved away though not too fast, lest she offend him. He always seemed the more offendable type. She wasn’t up for any of it; she wished him away.

“Always wanted your full name,” he said in his low, smoke-roughened voice. “Number. I seen you come and go, wondered–why’s she coming here? What’s her game?”

Veralynn approached her car and was ready to beep it unlocked.
“No game, just a drink now and then after work.” She glanced back at the bar entrance. No one there. He’d began to crowd her between her car and the next.

“Hey, you can’t look at me when I talk?” His words spattered out, he was wobbly on his feet, calmed a bit as he looked over her Mustang. “Nice wheels…”

She turned her face a little toward him. He was not quite a foot away. “I know who you are, a longtime regular, right, Nels? I bet everyone knows you and you know them.” She offered a sideways smile and beeped the car, hand on the door handle, tote snug to her body, all senses blazing.

“Yeah, that’s right, this is my neighborhood.” The words were drawn out, almost slurred but he tried hard to speak clearly. “Yeah, everybody but you….waltz in, waltz out.” An arm with hand wiggled in the air for emphasis. “I says to myself, Nels, she’s something this woman, one drink and gone, no friendly chat, no how d’ya do.”

She could smell his breath, sour and thick with drink, a lack of dental care. His sandy hair–what there was of it– was slicked back, and baggy pants hung a bit too low, shirt opened to a dark t-shirt. She thought, he’s likely harmless, he’s an aging drunk, but it didn’t help. Her only choice was to very fast open her door. She slid in, jammed key in ignition. But Nels’ hand caught the door edge, and it didn’t close–his hand was lodged.

“Just wanted your pretty hand, don’t crush my fingers!”

But Veralynn didn’t want to shake his hand. And she did not want it stuck in her door as she slammed it again and took off, either, so she opned the door a bit to shove her large, overstuffed leather tote hard against his hand and wrist–and because of the drink, being off guard, he staggered backwards.

She started the car, put it in drive and peeled out, but not before she heard Nels yell: “No friend of mine, are ya, damn good riddance!”

But she thought, as she shook all the way home: what if he had gotten in my car? Or what if I had slammed the door on his hand and half-dragged him with me onto the highway? What was she even doing at an established neighborhood bar where she was politely–usually–tolerated? But she liked it there, more or less. Well, it was about her drinking, that’s what. Not being neighborly. Another convenient pit stop at end of week where drinks were cheaper, no one bothered her, no pressure to say the right witty things.

Until Nels called her out–even if he was dicey about it, even if he had other ideas.

There was only fear with her filling that night. And finding solace in a drink didn’t enter her mind. She took a long hot shower, bathroom door locked. It wasn’t that bar, not really. There had been other bars, other unnerving encounters. This it had hit her differently. She could be anybody; alcohol leveled the playing field, as they said in articles she’d skimmed.

It was a long night of nattering in her brain.

******

In the morning, after a night of rooting within her covers and tossing about with pillows, Veralynn made a decision.

She splashed cold water on her face, ate a slice of toast, and called Kat, then Mel.

“You’re not sick? Why, then? It’s a Friday and we always meet Fridays… Jamie is on kid duty tonight as usual and I have stuff to tell you all. Geez, Veralynn, don’t do this to us, we’ve been a trio of best friends, and it’s just not right to beg off entirely. I need these nights out, you know? We need them! I mean, no offense, I like your place, but without the booze, what will we actually do? Not the same, lady.”

The call to Mel went better. Maybe.

“Well, I saw it coming, Veralynn. You just haven’t had the heart for the sessions, lately. I can’t say it has been the best highlight of my weekdays lately, either. I mean, I am trying to get healthier since Bill took off, and taekwondo is a rigorous sport, as you know. I am fully committed to it and also cycling on week-ends with my bike buddies. I always indulged in my beer, but it’s starting to feel hypocritical, you know? I need to clean it up. But meeting without our usual drinks–though I appreciate the offer of your home, believe me!–I don’t know…Let me call Kat, see if I can convince her. I mean, Veralynn, calling it ‘the sober club’ sounds a little…off-putting, I have to say. No one is an alcoholic here. We’ve called our nights ‘our sessions’ for ages–for a reason. I’ll see what I can do, no promises.”

Veralynn turned on the first gas lit fire of autumn in the marble fireplace–it had rained and threatened more– at 7 pm. She’d arranged on a white platter the cheese wedges and crackers, plus pumpkin spice mini-muffins (courtesy of deli and bakery). She had stocked up on seltzers and made hot water for tea. She put on Tony Bennet’s newer CD with Lady Gaga on it–his voice could soothe anybody–and put on grey cashmere lounge pants and top. She felt excited but nervous. She couldn’t recall one single time they had met that there weren’t alcoholic beverages of some sort.

They had met in a classy bar opening downtown, introduced by a friend who knew Veralynn from a gym in her old neighborhood. That friend had moved out of state shortly, but the three of them kept on meeting. Becoming better friends was easy, despite Mel being very attached to Bill then, as well as being a high school math teacher; and Kat having been long married to Jamie, a mother of twin boys–once a high end real estate agent, longing to return to it one day. They had things in common, like classic and foreign movies, Italian and Asian food and novels that had strong female protagonists. And micro beer. Well, any beer. They moved to meeting mostly at Mel’s house–it was centrally located, cozier–and drank, talked, laughed. Even shed a few tears together. And they felt grateful to have those times.

They’ll come, she thought, nibbling at a cracker, trying not to eye her clock. They’ll come to their senses if they’re honest about things, finally see we don’t need alcohol to be friends. They wouldn’t refuse to visit just because I’ve decided it isn’t in my best interests to drink, anymore… would they? A couple hours with no drinking, just talk? Not a big deal. It sounded so good to her the more she thought it over.

But Veralynn began to pace before her full length windows on the tenth floor at 7:20. She felt tense, anxious, worried as 7:20 became 7:30. She checked her phone multiple times–nothing. Maybe it had been a stupid overreaction to Nels’ sloppy, leering, behavior. It had scared her enough that she knew she’d not return to the The Royal. Or any other bars. They had seldom served her well, in the end. She got too drunk and had to call a cab while leaving her Mustang overnight–risky; she’d had near-run-ins with those who became belligerent because she hated bullies and said so; she’d had many men following her with drinks in hand, bribes for a one night stand. I am a competent career woman, she’d wanted to yell; I just need a decompressing night of drinking not a man or a fight or greasy bar food.

She hadn’t told Mel and Kat about last night. She wanted to have them there to share these concerns– last night’s experience being one of too many that had made her wonder about benefits versus disadvantages of drinking. Now she knew–like she woke up with the clear solution to a heavily nagging problem–it was not what she wanted in her life, and she wanted to tell them why. And find out how they felt, bottom line, about alcohol in their own scheme of things.

Could they do that with her, learn more about each other– and enjoy differences as well as commonalities? There was one way to find out–sit together minus alcohol. But if they didn’t they felt it a waste of their time or foolish or boring so did not come–well, then, maybe they weren’t interested in sincere connection. She’d just have to live with it somehow. Veralynn felt that certain about her choice.

At 7:45, Veralynn put away the cheese and crackers and cakes. “Rude, just rude,” she complained aloud. “How could they be so inconsiderate? Just one call!”

She padded to her bedroom, got her quilt and the novel she’d begun to read and settled deeply into the sofa. Then she stared at the fire, hugged the quilt closer, a heaviness clogging up her chest and mind. Maybe I need that drink, anyway, she thought, but bit her lip, closed her eyes until the impulse passed. She listened to the rain pelting her windows, grew dozy.

When the buzzer went off, she nearly threw off the quilt. She went to the intercom with its screen and view of the main floor entrance.

“Oh! What on earth?…”

She buzzed to allow entry, then stood by her half open door.

In pranced Kat with a huge pizza box in each hand, and Mel followed with two bottles of sparkling cider.

“How do you like that?” Mel said. “You get all cozied up and we’ve been tromping about in a chilly drizzle. Here, I brought a deck of cards, in case we decide to play rummy or something…”

“It took way too long to get the pizza, really sorry, Verlaynn–we went to Rico’s, it’s Friday night, you know.” She put her face close to the boxes, sniffed aromas of cheese, onions, tomato sauce with sausage and bacon. “Well, we wanted to surprise you, too!”

Mel stepped forward, held up her phone and pulled out a cord from her coat pocket. “My phone needs recharging, it went dead.” She looked around. “I have missed the bright lights and that wide angle view of the city from up here, Veralynn.” She held out her arms as if to embrace blur of lights within the rainy scene.

“I’d about forgotten how fantastic your place is–and we have a fire burning… how perfect is that?” Kat ran over and sat right down, long legs stretched before it, a gazelle settling into the gentling dark.

“I can’t believe you finally came,” Verlaynn said as she plated pizza and poured cider. “I had given up….if you’d called– well, I am such a doubter, aren’t I?”

She put the plates down. Her chin fell to her chest, eyes blurred with the tears of sudden relief. There came an rising of deep affection for the women before her, so different than she was, but willing to stick by her. As she had hoped. As she was prepared to do for them.

And then came arms about her. Of course they were there–even late. They had been friends for five years; they’d always said they’d be friends, no matter what or where they were. Until they became wrinkly and tottery–and that seemed such a long way off.

They gathered at the coffee table by firelight, wolfed down the pizza with swigs of sparkling nonalcoholic cider when Kat said, “So–tell us what happened.”

Mel added, “And what we can do to make things a little better.”

Veralynn took a deep breath. “I came to the understanding last night that I need to be sober. I have come so close to being caught up in bad events, and I bet you’ve had scary times, too. No, wait–if I am honest here, I’ve lived through things I’ve not even told you about. Because it’s embarrassing. Or too frightening to recall. And it has nearly always stemmed from alcohol. My drinking has been less and it has been more. And I think it has to end before it gets just worse.” She looked up at their intent gazes. “Maybe not you–but for me. Just for me.” She crossed her hands over her chest. “But this guy last night–Nels–he helped me wake up to facts…”

They were not a little stunned. Pizza was pushed aside, glasses set down.

Veralynn laid before them a story of alcohol taking up more and more of her time, her life’s design, how it had taken things, maybe even relationships, from her. How Nels had scared her badly. How grateful she was that she had not drunk more than usual and had driven home safely.

She needed it to change.

“Will you honestly be able to be my friends without the booze? I do want to offer more good times to you.”

Mel and Kat looked at each other a long moment, then at her.

******

That’s how the Sober Club started. Plus a homemade Friday night dinner made if they had desired and time. Mel and Veralynn met every time they could, swapping homes for meetings every other week. Kat came, though, as she could. She was beginning the process of a return to real estate; there were Fridays she just couldn’t make it. At least that’s what she said. Veralynn was inclined to believe her; she’d become more serious about her career goals after the night they’d talked so openly.

Mel had already been headed toward a no drinking lifestyle. She loved her beer but she loved a healthier, active lifestyle more. And it was a relief to get her house back on Wednesdays.

“Plus, it was getting tiresome in the middle of the week with us getting half-crocked–and neighbors talked this past summer, snide remarks, funny looks as I took took out the garbage, that sort of thing. I’m a teacher, after all, and now that classes have resumed, I need a clear head. I need to set an example, too. Three high school students, maybe more, live on my street!”

It wasn’t always relaxed at first, nor the same idiotic fun. But in time no one minded not drinking. In a few weeks, they even forgot about it and did other things–went to the movies or out to eat, for a walk even in evening rain, to a concert. It was more often that Kat randomly came and went; they thought it likely she drank with her husband, with real estate friends after a deal was closed or at open houses. But that was alright. When she did come over, she looked great and sounded even better and it seemed she had her pre-motherhood independence and spark back. She never mentioned their old drinking sessions; she was just glad to catch up with them.

They seemed to bring to any table more fascinating, engaging, funny stories. In the end, sharing more of those was what carried them forward as they kept the Sober Club going. That, and the well tested bonds of affection they made a priority to protect and strengthen.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: From Fall to Winter- My Initial Plan for Adaptation

I walk into clear sunlight, but the morning air lightly frosts hands and cheeks. It isn’t really cold, yet the fall sunshine is less rosy, warm. I grab a jacket and think: the layering of clothing is begun. This is not such a complaint, though gloves are required by October’s end or my hands ache outside (indoors I’ll wear fingerless woolen gloves). Before long I’ll pull a rain jacket over a sweater, pocket my fleece cap.

But not quite yet. The air is still dry as overturned dirt and redolent of a faint summer fragrance, semi-sweetly rich, a tinge of mustiness. Squirrels are gathering nuts by the bunches. Crickets still sing out each evening. Flowers remain abloom as if determined to stave off any greyness that may creep above the horizon. I watch a redheaded, pileated woodpecker working for a good meal, then move on, hands in pockets.

This time on my brisk walk, crisp leaves twirl, then skim my hair, one landing on my head, and crunch as I scuff the path, that brief crackling sound as pleasing as when I was a child. But now I know that it means they are dying, are dead, and will carpet grass, break down in the soil until spring’s uprising. With a pause and gaze at their diminishing vitality, it rises upward in me: that strange meld of emotion that equals “bittersweet.” I linger on the wooded path, then stand in a meadow and something in me wants to stay there. To set up camp, make a circle of rocks and lay a fire. Not budge until the rains become relentless, and even then, shelter in a tent until birds’ nests fill with new eggs. At least I will be close to the earth’s innards and the great trees.

I realize now that I am not welcoming winter this time. Not a bit. I want the summer to extend itself a little longer. To go back and pick lots more berries, to lie on daisy-strewn hills and stare at the open face of the sky. To visit with family or friends across a picnic table or under a huge old oak, share an iced mocha to cool off, our foreheads damp with a glaze of heat. Our eyes full of summer wonders, our minds nourished by a reparative earth.

As I rest under the big maple tree that shelters so well– this tree must be a hundred years old– it’s easy to recall these pathways inundated with rain, then more rain, and skies weighted with thick slate clouds. But another good feature of living in primarily woods in rainy season is that I’ll be protected some from downpours as I walk, off and on–such huge branches offer their arms as coverage.

I turn and take in a wide stretch of mossy rocks and meadow with its still-dry gulch, the bronze leaves thickening into piles, the wild grasses brittle and bent. I listen for Cooper’s hawks, but they are silent while jays and crows keep up their prattle. There is suddenly a longing for what is present, but will soon pass. It puzzles me, this reluctance to leave behind what always must be left, the sharp heat settled into greenery, the high blueness of the heavens. I have never worried about the rain, nor dreaded Pacific Northwest winters. But today head toward that state a bit.

Winter was not soggy where I grew up, Winter was bitter and glittering and welcomed as I grew up. I lived in places–excepting a brief diversion in Texas– until age 30> It was a blazing showcase of autumn that transformed into bold silver tones of winter, hardened by very low temperatures. The air rang with cold. Soon, the straight lines of landscape were scrubbed by icy wind, made voluptuous with heaps of snow. It was a natural progression. I didn’t find any fault with this pattern–the four seasons were a comfort, reliable.

A deepening cold that settled in the parents’ bones meant heat got turned up or woodstove fires stoked, and blankets were unfurled and hot tea and chocolate sipped, fingers warmed about mugs. One’s nose and cheeks were reddened for months. But as I left my youth in Michigan and moved South, West and Northwest, I lost the special taste for snow, its sharp purity on tongue and in the blood. I took with me, instead, two chronically (if not badly) frostbitten hands from ice skating with no mittens for years–they encumbered me, I had no need of them– hands which finally could not retain much warmth below 60 degrees. Still, I tucked away a stubborn happiness for snow and winter, though any snowfall heaped and then melted as I came over miles of slick mountain passes and found the verdant valleys of Oregon. It all became an extended, inventive performance of rain.

I swing my arms in concert with my feet as I tackle steep inclines that mark the southwest hills, muscles in thighs and lower back pulling and softly burning, then the body cheering as another peak is reached. And then another series of around and up and down commences. I smell the fecund leaves that fly past. Cool gusts skim my skin. The light is amber, not brash like it can seem in summer–it is a light that burnishes, and no scalding. I am suddenly pleased more than sorry and want to sing out.

It is, I know, not the weather changes, not entirely-even this confounding year. I adore the outdoors any way I can experience it, usually. It is a primal comfort and joy, a way of gathering peace and generating healing–full of minute and amazing revelations that render a teachable holiness. I have seen four wooly bear caterpillars and their bands instruct me about it not being such a cold or long winter, if one believes folklore (I often do). The weather may, gratefully, be a reassuring repeat after the shock and hell of wildfire storms.

Yet, a remnant of melancholy tries to take root for other reasons, not due to leaves floating from host branches, the winds sharpening.

It is so many episodes we have had to face despite initial resistance: the deadly, omnipresent pandemic; the US chief commander’s failings; the vastly scorched west/northwest forests; global warming on the rise; worldwide economic crises; the loss of face-to-face contact with friends and family as we once knew it. What seeming luxuries we’ve enjoyed in our lives, it now seems. They talk of “pandemic fatigue” in the news, but also feels like “reality fatigue.” I am pressed into weariness some days, as we all must feel.

But in the summer, it was more surmountable for me, or at least manageable. Stepping into nature has been a liberation from constraints we’ve all had to adopt every hour of each day in some manner, whether disinfecting groceries and our skin or masking up or being bombarded by new data and graver concerns, and anxiety about every cough and sniffle.

And I worry about my twin grandchildren not being able to play with other little kids seen in the park or next door; not enjoying various playground equipment (they’ve never tried); not being able to nuzzle their faces against mine or hang out in their clever cardboard box playhouse with grandparents and all other “outsiders.”

Outsiders… we, the grandparents–it has come to that onerous state. We meet them in parks, stay 6 feet apart as much as possible even with masks. My arms ache for them, my heart longs for them but I banish sadness and laugh at their antics, touch their beautiful hair, grab a chubby, strong hand–which will be sanitized as we part… Oh, farewell, sweet pea and sugar plum, until next time. Once a week we usually see them an hour or two, and I am so glad of it, knowing others may have far less access to families.

I do yearn to see the rest of my flock, the entirety of five adult kids in my living room–or outdoors. There is a daughter in South Carolina who will not be here for Thanksgiving this time–nor will anyone, likely. It has been nearly a year since Naomi visited us–and most of her family–in OR. And another daughter (who was estranged from the family for 2 years) cannot come to visit now that things are gratefully back in sync and all is well. The youngest daughter and mother of the twins works full time–at home, somehow. A fourth daughter is in a deepening relationship and works many hours. My son works even seven days a week; his painting jobs diminish in winter months. It is not as easy to get together now, that is for certain. Other grandchildren either live elsewhere or are working full time, too. (That they all have jobs is a blessing; my husband still sends out resumes as he seeks a new one. It has been a 6 month search.)

But even Thanksgiving or Christmas are not what will be most surely missed. We can’t cook up any old pot of soup together and share crusty warm bread just fresh-baked, nor put on the kettle and bring out apple pie with ice cream, nor sit around our big table and talk and laugh as time rolls by, our motley crew brought together by love.

Isn’t this the hard thing that sticks under the skin like a relentless thorn? How does one get rid of the deeper sting even if the thorns can be more or less managed?

This autumn feels like that long wave of farewell, ’til we meet again, my dears-– waving to the beautiful days and nights we’ve managed to hold c lose since the start of the pandemic, despite such a variety of challenges. It was less terrible in some ways than expected, but that is only because I daily could (and yet can) step outside for an hour, even if it is on the wide balcony overlooking woods and toward the not-so-distant Coast Mountains. I am not a creature well contained indoors; I crave movement and open air, with plants and animals all about. I am fully alive when finding my place within nature. There is a heartbeat that is not only mine. There is a sky that covers all of us, everywhere. There is a wild mountain range that gives way to an exotic desert, an emerald valley that reaches to forest, rivers that connect to lakes and to seas, and flax- colored plains that go on and on and are being trod by someone or something else out there. I meet myself there but lose myself, too, in the enormity of this planet and universe. Life makes sense to me more than usual. I am alone but not ever truly lonely; I feel the connection to all as surely if we were each a silken thread in the fantastic web of life.

This year it was a relief that, though we’ve had COVID-19 around every bend, we–if fortunate enough to avoid the virus; so many suffering thousands have not–were given a bit of kindness in weather. There was spring, summer and fall within which to engage in daily lives, perhaps even to play a little. We have been now warned that winter will be rougher with such close, stuffy indoor time, and fewer chances to be with people safely. It pains me that we step back from one another routinely now, that we are afraid of others despite wanting–needing–to come closer.

And yet, I know I can get through this winter– if I have the good fortune to stay well enough. I want to make it as positive as I can and the simple determination carries a strong impetus. And, anyway, one does as one must; we all have to put one foot in front of the other as before, for whoever knows what can come next?

But I will miss the bright green days and running through the grassy hills with the twins and our loose gatherings with family we occasionally have enjoyed. I need to locate covered pavilions, as many places as possible so we can come together if only for a half hour in wet, chilly weather.

That I will walk daily is a given. I do it for well being, as humans do all over the globe, and also out of necessity. It is then my head clears and I find my footing in both the interior and exterior design of matters. Any leftover detritus I can give to creative activity, and to prayer.

Rain, rain–we need it. It is a part of everyone’s/everything’s life cycle, especially here. It is second nature to become waterproofed–to take precautions for a deluge. It can be a time of hibernation, seizing opportunities to get cozy, or delve deeper into depths and unearth even better creations or finding new forms of labor, exercise and entertainment. I may feel bittersweetness coming on here and there, but I am not without curiosity. What will be learned in the months to come? Nothing is beautiful all the time, and hardship can make us heartier as long as we have the will.

I will leave my window open a crack to hear, smell and watch rain showers, thunderous deluges, damp winds off the churning rivers, a dazzle of light snowfalls. It is part of the rhythm here. It is what I choose to embrace in the valley, in the hills. Melancholy may come as a visitor. It will leave, as well.

And I have bought two pricey pairs of insulated rainboots for the twins so we are ready to get out there. The next thing: looking for a waterproof canopy to rig up for our wide, deep balcony. We can fit a few under that when it pours, after all.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Quartz Creek Trio

Photo by Nashwan Guherzi on Pexels.com

The upright bass player, JD, was not in Quartz Creek Valley, New York because he had long craved a life in the country. Rima had dragged him there so she could nurse her mother back to health–hopefully–and give a helpful hand to her father. They now shared the 62 acre spread, and lived in the tiny cottage that was built ten years earlier to accommodate visitors and now themselves. There came with the shelter the tasks of keeping chickens, grooming and feeding and exercising two horses, tending the three dogs whose names he barely kept straight and a black, dusty one eyed cat. JD was okay with cats–they minded themselves.

He liked her parents, Neal and Emma, fine and the cottage was good enough–a nice change from the apartment they’d had in Pittsburgh, though so quiet he could hear his heart beating every night when it went dark. That was the worst part–the dark w hen in bed, lying still as can be so as not to wake Rima. For one thing, he was used to being awake until 2, 3 even 4 in the morning. And there could conceivably be menacing spiders creeping out from the corners, and random rustlings that could be anything from bears to racoons to snakes outside their screened bedroom window. They were in a huge forest. (Rima said it was just the woods, with meadows about, too.)

He lay there wide awake, then got up to sit with a book until his head drooped or another foreign noise shook him up. He’d especially never liked racoons, with their mean little faces and grabby hands, how they stood on hind legs ready for a fight he could care less about. They were welcome to his garbage, have at it, party on. But that was a city alley, not here.

Rima had been hesitant at first to ask him to go with her; he and the city were one, she believed. He could have stayed in Pittsburgh, yes. The truth was, his gigs had been less than satisfying and then he got sick. In the last month he’d recovered from a bout of pneumonia; he was still tired out. Not only physically. The club scene had felt a little stale after twenty years. So he said sure, let’s go hang out on a country lane, rescue your parents awhile. It made her happier than he had seen in years. So, Rima left her position as an Admissions Coordinator at a community college and he took time from from his most recent band once assured they’d take him back. They rented their place to a friend of a friend, packed a couple bags.

JD had grown up in Pittsburgh and though he had left twice before for a couple years, he always returned. And he had played in two bit dives, then decent bars, then supper clubs and cabaret, summer jazz festivals. Then strictly jazz clubs, at last. Not that he had trained for that.

Jamisen Dean Hardisty was the son of two prominent Pittsburghers (or Yinzers if you were truly local). By age 10 he knew he wasn’t meant for cello but the upright bass. From then on it was “JD” he answered to, and it was the bass he studied and played with enthusiasm. Jazz crept up on him. Before long he had a bad case of falling in love, and classical music, though it left its mark on him, was pushed to the periphery, to his parents’ misgivings.

Jazz was his life anchor. Rima often said it was his mistress, but in fact it was his first and would be his last love. His wife was his treasured everyday partner, his fine lover–she put up with his music obsession, after all. But jazz– just another category altogether. A different passion he could not explain to those who didn’t get it.

Emma was showing improvement after four months; the chemo was working. They all began to dare to hope. Neal was roused by this change and by JD and Rima’s help with daily chores so he could just be with her more. Although JD did mainly yard work and took the dogs out for runs, he had a quiet presence that helped steady Neal’s nerves. He was surprised; his son-in-law might be moody some days but he was rock solid, it turned out. Rima was the best daughter he could ask for in troubled times.

For a month, JD only played exercises, plucked and bowed whatever came to mind, then he took a break for a couple weeks. His fingertips softened and got grimed over from outdoor work so he kept to the routine, playing after dinner for an hour or two. No one complained; he played, after all, very well even if that music–the more contemporary of the stuff– was not their cup of tea. Sometimes he’d play a tune that Emma requested. it cheered her; he liked that it did.

So things went on like that the first couple months, until he got restless. This bucolic daytime life was not a comfortable fit for him, though it suited Rima. They got on well as ever despite a few misunderstandings about how to do things in Quartz Creek Valley–JD never would blend in–and she was grateful he’d come. Still…the music he wasn’t playing began to yank at him all day and night long.

And then one afternoon when he went in for groceries and a new hoe, he saw the woman sitting at front door of Enid’s Grill. She had ear phones on and was bobbing her head to the beat, and singing softly–he couldn’t hear her but he surmised–and her right foot was tapping away. Her eyes were closed. He stopped in his tracks, two big bags in his arms, one hand grasping the hoe. He wanted to run across the street, ask who, what, and why. Because she was not a local–he could see that by her clothing, colorful and verging on outlandish compared to what most people wore (jeans and old t-shirts and work boots or sneakers). And her body was full of music. And her mind, because she was surely another musician. Wasn’t she?

She looked up as if she had felt him watching, and pulled off the ear phones, lips moving to the lyrics and music she still heard in her brain. She lifted a hand and smiled across the street at him, then got up and went inside.

It took JD three days to find out who she was from the bakery owner where he stopped to get coffee and bagels often.

“Oh, that’s Kelsey, has a week-end house but can be gone for many weeks so we don’t see her much. She tours and such.”

“Tours? She plays with some famous band?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the woman said, looking anxiously at the line behind him. “She sings but jazz or pop, not good bluegrass or–well, look, can we get a move on now?”

“Kelsey lives–where?”

The woman frowned at him then shrugged. “Well, JD…since you’re a musician, too– it’s on Brookhaven Road but that’s all I will say. Next order!”

The next day JD drove up her long gravel driveway, heart happily pounding in his throat.

******

Kelsey was not born a singer. Her father said she was, but she was born a dancer per her mother and Kelsey agreed, some of the time. She was so often swaying and turning about, tapping and swiveling and bending when she reached a year old and walking. Her feet were happiest sliding and stomping, her arms lifting and reaching to beats of cheery children’s songs. She’d hum a bit and squeal. But put on classical music and she was transfixed. She got so still that it scared her mother at first–it was like she was possessed of a spirit, she told her husband: “Look at her face, she’s seeing angels or something!”

He shooed her away and glanced at Kelsey with a pleased look–he knew she would sing even if she danced well enough. He could feel it; he sang once, after all, in the men’s chorus in college, but teaching suited him best so maybe it was her turn to sing on and out, make things happen.

Kelsey did take rhythm classes, then ballet and jazz dance, and she was good at it, everyone said so. But after her classes she’d put on the old records her dad had of jazz standards and a little opera and learn the words and tunes as best she would. By twelve, she sang a few songs for her parents and their friends on a bridge game day. It was decided: she was a singer and then some.

It was all in the body, that’s why she danced so soon–the music took hold and her nervous system worked it out, but then it went straight to the soul. She practiced and before long she was in a few choirs, then it was bands and she rehearsed and performed so much it threatened her school work. At nineteen she started to sing at a local Detroit club, a few songs here and there, and gradually, one thing led to another until she sang three nights a week with their house band. Jazz was what she did the best. Before long she was full time, then touring with this band or that, small potatoes in the beginning but she stepped up and up. Chicago, at last. A home base. She had no doubt this was meant to be her life. She travelled and made decent money. Each year she became better known and in Europe they turned out in droves.

And then a week before her thirty-fifth birthday her older sister died. The one with cerebral palsy, the one she adored and always visited first when she had a few days free. Ellen, with whom she shared all her secrets. Ellen, who had more patience and compassion than anyone else, and who easily made her laugh and vice versa.

Kelsey quit the band she was with and hid out at Quartz Creek Valley. New York, the countryside, far from the city. It was recommended by someone who loved to vacation there–“a quaint country village, an anonymous kind of place to relax.”

Kelsey had bought a cheap, ramshackle house there. Over time it was fixed up by a team she talked to via texts and long calls and she made quick visits. It was finally a good structure again, inviting and eclectic, a refuge from the stress of travel and performing too much. Ellen liked it, too, but hadn’t visited her there in a year, to their mutual dismay. There never seemed time enough, then Ellen was less and less well.

Everything came to a stop with her death. Kelsey didn’t enjoy eating as before; she didn’t want to go out with friends; she slept long hours, day and night; she had no interest in returning calls from men who had given off a spark. She knew it was the river of sorrow that carried her, that dulled her usual appetites. Even singing became less wanted, a guest that wasn’t welcome, then soon a bothersome ghost that could not remain unobtrusive and stay under the eaves to let her be.

Yet at Quartz Creek Valley she was removed from her large grieving family and from the hustle of the music scene, and from the endless sympathy of friends. This was a good thing, peace. She settled in and was relieved to find it helped ease tension and sadness–woods surrounding her, the creek behind the new deck. Her very house seemed to know how much she needed it and had been waiting, so closed about her in the green shady setting and held her snug, protected.

There was a second hand upright piano in the living room that she played sometimes, tinkering, really–but it, too, failed to move her to do more. Instead, she recalled songs Ellen and she loved as kids and teens and that made music come faster–and more painful. The best she could seem to manage listen to music on her iPod, let it all come as it wished, or not. It seemed enough for a couple weeks, at start.

And then that day the doorbell rang, two short rings and a long third. She peered out her window and determined he looked more or less okay, so opened the door a crack.

“Yes, what is it?”

“You must be Kelsey–I’m JD Hardisty,” he’d said, grinning at her as if they’d had an appointment set up and she was expecting him. He looked pleased. “Tanya at the bakery said you were a musician, and so am I.”

Kelsey opened it a bit more and stuck out her hand. His palm was broad and cool; she gave it a firm professional shake. Did this make them quasi-friends so soon? She took a deep breath, wary and impatient.

“That right? Kelsey Minor. And you thought…that maybe you would just pop on by?”

With a slight frown he noted her drawn, pale face, her pressed lips and bright hair in the sunlight, then let his glance sweep over the big, flower-bordered yard.

“I don’t know, I thought we might talk a little. Maybe I’d find out what kind of gigs you do.” He paused but she said nothing. “That sort of thing.” He hesitated again, stepped back. “I’m from Pittsburgh, play jazz bass–but, hey, maybe this is a bad time? If it helps to know, I am staying with my wife at the Lane’s house. Her mother has cancer…”

She tilted her head at him, then looked up at the sky, then at his flannel covered shoulders. New plaid flannel. So he was a city transplant. How could it help to know his mother-in-law was sick and maybe dying? It felt like a sharp pain in her chest. Still, he was being friendly, that’s all.

“It could be a bad time, all things considered, but maybe not. Go around the side of the house. We can sit out back.” She gestured at the corner of the house and went indoors, then came back out to meet him there.

They got caught up–her sister’s passing, his wife’s devotion to her mother and father. He had been there a couple of months; she had been there barely one month, had taken her time to wrap things up with her band.

“Millstones and the Feast, you may have heard of us…? We play more in Europe.”

“I have. Good band, I think one of my friends played with them awhile-Art G, drums.”

“Must have been before me; I joined them three years ago. I’ve sung with quite a few bands since I started out. How it is. And you?”

“The Evan Blake Quartet. We’ve played in Pittsburgh for many years. Hate to say how many. It’s a decent living, great guys. I toured once, too, but I got older, more sleep deprived and ornery than I wanted to be.”

He laughed easily and she felt his good nature spread among the trees.

“I miss it already,” she said, smoothing her long denim skirt over her knees, fiddling with a silver and turquoise necklace which shone in the sun. She then crossed her arms. I want to sing but can’t quite do it yet…You still play wherever you’re living? I mean, staying in good shape? I worry I will totally lose the skills. But not much to do in this little berg, is there?”

“I’m adjusting alright except for the nights. I play daily. Have to keep the fingers supple, calloused. Why don’t you sing at all?”

“I hum, I pull out notes, I run over lyrics. But everything comes back to my sister. We were that close.” She crossed her forefinger with middle finger.

JD said nothing and neither did she as the crows squawked at them from strategic perches. He was thinking how they could try a few things out together. He had noted a piano as he walked by the front windows. He felt that leap in his pulse, anticipation of making music with others once more. Even once a week, a couple times a week–it would feel so good to get back in touch with music in real-time, in the flesh, not just in his head or only exercises, some noodling. Not playing along with tunes on the radio.

But Kelsey thought of how it hurt to sing, how she wanted to cry when she sang, How to ease away from this, yet be kind to the guy? Why would she want to sing with a stranger, anyway? It could take a long time to mesh with other musicians. They had their style; she had hers. JD had his life to tend, she had hers. She did not want to get into their repertoire, into the intricacies of interpretation or performance, or of name dropping–shooting the breeze all afternoon. She had not planned this social call.

“Well, JD, I’m not much of a piano player, and my voice is on hiatus. Maybe another few weeks. I need to just hide out, you know what I mean? Sometimes we need to step back. I am so far back from all of it, I spend my time reading and sleeping pretty much, not dreaming of music.” But as she said it, it felt like a lie and she wondered if he caught it, too.

She rose from her chair and stretched, shaking her chestnut mane off her face and shoulders. When she turned he was standing, too, hands in jeans pockets, face closing, quiet.

“I see. Well, if I find a pianist, I might stop by again, okay?”

Kelsey held out her hand to him. “Maybe. I don’t mind talking music, I guess. Bring your wife–Rima? Is she a musician? Lovely name.”

“No, no, not a musician!” He guffawed at the thought. “Well, thanks, Kelsey, and take care, pleasure to meet you,” JD said, shook her hand, nodded and left.

As he drove away in the rattling truck that no doubt was his father in law’s, she shaded her eyes from midday ight that struck her square in the face. It made her eyes sting, all that streaming early autumn sun power, and the air cooler and richer all at once, and the heady talk of music.

JD Hardisty. Had she heard of him or was she only thinking so? People knew all the good people in the world of jazz and word gets around. He hadn’t heard of her, or so he said and so what, they were both working musicians, thank God–if not actually famous. She might be a little but not for now. She was ready to hibernate. Turn the lock in the door and close the curtains–that was the way she’d intended.

But his face–one that you immediately feel is familiar. The eyes…no rancor, no comeuppance, likely no big agenda, she concluded, other than wanting to play more jazz. He was likely for real, stuck out here in Quartz Creek Valley with an ailing in-law. In backwoods country, did they have to forget jazz?

What or who was she? Too damned good for him since she toured much of the world? Or maybe afraid she wasn’t so good, anymore? Or was she just worn out? Like her heart and soul had been overused. Now her voice was weakened, too. How much did it matter now, no news to give Ellen, no reports of the tours, no songs to share with her as she lay contorted in bed, the pain of it.

Still. It might have been his dark blue eyes. They were so kind it nearly hurt her to look at them. And she’d had enough of that. Did he play like his eyes spoke?

“Ellen, what can I do with myself now? Dig a hole and pull the ivy over top of me?” she asked, face to an empty sky. It was absurd to talk like that, wrong, even–but some days it was all she could do.

******

He had not been a regular in this circle nor was there a desire to be but there he was, almost a fixture at Frannie Palmer’s house. It had become a week-end thing, and she’d suggested it become a longer term thing until he got his feet back under him. All the booze-drenched parties, then his partner leaving, and his concert schedule heavier than was healthy–it was enough to drive anyone over the edge.

They’d finished a scrumptious dinner once again and were relaxing in the study, which was really a brainstorming room where Frannie worked on marketing and product development for body and face products. He picked up a jar and opened it, gave it a sniff, gave it the thumbs up and closed it again.

“That’s yours now, dear. Really, you have to get off the fast track and take a breather, Rodney, you can see how it has helped me! Anytime I’ve had enough I come to my country house, lick my annoying little wounds and repair any broken brain circuits. I wholly recommend it.”

He sipped his elegant goblet of red wine rather than downing it as he felt a gripping desire to do. “If it’s good for a CEO of a thriving beauty company it must be good for an aging bonnie boy slash pianist headed for rack and ruin from alcohol and a bleeding heart. Right? I swear, if Tony had half a brain he’d know what he’s missing, get humble and come to his senses.”

“You are neglecting to consider the upside in this situation, my dear.”

“There is no upside! I have lost the love of my life…and it’s all your fault since you introduced me to him.”

“Oh, do get over it. More fish in the sea.” Frannie jumped up and opened the French doors to the distant tinkling of the creek and a gust of piney air. “The upside is that you get to start over to a degree, alone and with a clean slate.”

Rodney felt the scrape of those words but ignore it, joining her. The air was soft and sweet and he thought how fortunate his oldest friend had this beautiful second home. Since she was getting older she’d spoken of retirement in this place but Rodney felt it was premature–she was too glamorous to take up residence in Quartz Creek Valley, surely. On the other hand, she was at least ten years his senior– and he was already getting grey at the edges, signs of loosening jowls. Perhaps it would be good to get a few things fixed – Frannie would steer him the right way.

He joined her at the open doors. “I think I’d like to have more fun with music, for a change. One can only be a classical pianist for so long unless you are a genius, and far more devoted than I tend to be…”

He stated this with wistfulness; Rodney truly did want to be much more dedicated to the finest of all performing standards yet had had to be. He had to work very hard to even remain where he was after thirty years–far better than above mediocre, of course, but also a very far cry from the top of the heap. There was always some up-and-comer to take his place, and fast. His days might be numbered.

“I’m getting more accompanist jobs, Frannie. My concerts average a couple times a week at most, in maybe eight or ten states. It has slowly and surely changed. The rest of it… all the playing for someone else. Not that this is so dishonorable…it takes talent and skill to play for the best soloists…”

She lay a hand on his back, nudged him toward the pool and patio. “Better to get paid than not; and better to play some than none. I know you, Roddie, you would not be happy unless you played something until the day you died!”

“I could play for old people, I suppose, if it came to that, just sign me up for the boomers’ dances and swanky retirement homes, darling Frannie.”

“You already play for old people–me, my friends and so many more! We love you as much as the rest of the audiences do.”

“Maybe more, ” he said with chagrin. “Well, I’m based in Coral Gables, Florida–as are you–so how can I lose? I always have a good crowd in that state.” He put an arm around her shoulders as they walked to the chaise lounges. “To think I almost like this place in the northern woods. You came from around here? I forget.”

“No, Roddie, I hatched from a golden egg outside of Chicago, you know that, and was born with this beautiful hair. It was hubby’s summer tromping grounds, not mine.” She giggled as she patted her champagne coiffure and then they fell quiet, at ease.

He stared into the underwater lighting of her turquoise pool and wanted to dive in and paddle about but he’d smell of chlorine, then have to shower. He had no energy for all that. He licked his lips clean after a last bit of wine, closed his eyes, leaned back and listened to the crickets begin their songs.

Fran cleared her throat. “Well, it seems I do know someone who sings, Rodney. She’s had a vacation home here for some time but often is gone on tours. I saw her yesterday. Kelsey Minor.”

“Hmm, never heard of her.”

“She’s a jazz singer.”

“Oh, swell. No arias to belt out for me?”

“Rodney Cannon, you really must ease off the snobbery-“

“Says the pot to the kettle–“

“–because she is that good. Maybe that would cheer you up. I can call her tomorrow, set up a meeting. Maybe you can even do a run-through with our piano.”

Rodney grunted. He was busy feeling wine loosen every muscle and then every knot that squeezed his overwrought mind. “Maybe.” He yawned. “Sure, why not…you often know best, Frannie.”

She smiled to herself and got up to dip her toes in the water. Mission accomplished.

And that was what sealed it, Rodney realized later.

******

The first time they all got together at Fran’s–she had that shiny grand piano–thanks to her determination and Rodney’s charm–it seemed like a madhouse. Kelsey was trilling away between scales and vocal exercises. JD was tuning and retuning, then playing tunes with pizzicato as if the strings were wild things to be tamed, while Rodney was working on chord progressions that sounded as if they might be be overjoyed to be let lose in a cathedral. But when all got quiet, they tossed around ideas and settled down some though no one wanted to take the lead.

“Well, how about just trying an old standard?” JD suggested.

“How old do you mean?” Rodney asked. “I only do old, that supreme age from when my father loved standards.”

“You know, like Sinatra?” Kelsey suggested, eyebrow raised as Rodney looked at his hands with a smirk. “Or-okay, then, earlier?”

JD had been scrutinizing Rodney from the minute he came in. “Do you even play jazz, my friend? I mean, not can you imitate it… can you play it?”

“Yes, bud, I do play it when I run out of my usual classical repertoire and every one is begging for more…” Rodney’s words held an edge.

Rodney suspected JD was like every other jazz club musician he’d come in contact with–maybe three or four of them, anyway. Leaning towards arrogance and cloaked in a ultra calm cool. Kelsey was nicer so far but she had probably been trained to be nicer from the cradle, sadly.

JD suspected Rodney was once deemed too fabulous for his own good, and his classical rigor stymied all hope of experimentation. But JD was willing to give it a try. He’d had cello lessons for years as a youth, after all, but he wasn’t sharing that with Rodney. The guy ought to know better.

“Come on, you idiots, let’s get the music going or give it up!” Kelsey bellowed, hand to weary head. “I don’t have the wherewithal to play games. It’s hard enough to consider singing much less with bickering men…”

Both men shut their mouths, composed themselves and were sheepish. Kelsey was, then, not just a lovely gal with impeccable manners–all the better for it, Rodney decided. It took grit to keep in the game.

“Suggestions, then?” JD asked.

“‘April in Paris’? ‘Stairway to the Stars’?” Kelsey said.

“Right,” JD agreed and picked up his bass bow.

Rodney flexed his hands, lay fingers atop piano keys and soon the familiar tune of “April in Paris” was slipping into the dimly lit room like a somewhat crumpled satin ribbon.

Kelsey hummed at first, voice warming a bit more each measure as the musician found their places, out of sync at times but urging themselves closer to the heart of melody, the luxurious beauty of sweetly emphasized notes. They were professionals; they knew how to do this, even Rodney, who was surprisingly adept at the genre. And it seemed they might have promise.

Then Kelsey opened her mouth wide and the richness of her alto suffused the spaces like liquid into hands. The men puzzled out and played with each other’s lines and her interpretation. She, however, soon shaped it, the song growing, breathing, her command of her instrument creating an embraceable tune. It was an offering to them– as if she was singing of their times in Paris, their love affairs as well as hers–and many others’. She swayed to the music, her body gone fluid, too, and they all leaned toward one another, face to face, sounds to sounds, following each other down flowing measures, and to the tender end.

Rodney dabbed at his eyes, then sat up tall. He smoothed his pants legs and nodded at them. Kelsey and JD nodded back, not entirely displeased.

“Well,” he said. “Let’s try it again… JD?”

JD led them into the melody and they were off once more, fewer odd bumps, more attentiveness to one another and the song. Then again they ran through it, embellishing here, simplifying there, interweaving, correcting, emoting more but not too much, making the song a lovelier thing.

Frannie was at the back of the room with Rick, her husband, who had come to the house after a trip to and from Columbus. He leaned against a wall, her hand in the crook of his white shirt-sleeved elbow. As the song started up once more, he took her in his arms and they danced ever so quietly, careful not to disrupt the trio, their movements restrained in the small area.

She patted him on the back as he deftly stepped along with her. “Now that’s a great tune, wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed Frannie, let’s keep them on, shall we?”

She hummed along in his ear, and he kissed her plump cheek.

Frannie Palmer, CEO, was also quickly planning how she could get them to form a new band, then market them to friends. And, of course, beyond.

One day, she dreamed. For al her brusqueness and learned gentility, she was often just a gladdened dreamer.

******

That was the start of it, the Quartz Creek Trio. They played every day after that. The name was suggested by Rima, who was glad JD had a purpose other than labors he’d been willing to do (basically forced to do) in that dull, jazz-club-less country life.

JD was encouraged to slough off chores. The family was getting back to a more normal routine. He was so grateful that he yet took the dogs for runs morning and night, still mowed the yard weekly and continued to grocery shop for them. Rima foresaw their moving back home by early to mid-November–he had gigs galore then what with holidays. But for now, peace and easier days reigned.

Kelsey got up in the morning and attended to a healthy bowl of oatmeal and toast, then ran a couple of miles and finally practiced, banging away at her second hand, tuned up piano as needed. She found her voice was getting deeper and wondered if it was all the crying. Or just rustiness. But she was better than she had been before the guys came along. Before the music was gradually returned to her.

Rodney was a perfectly pleasing guest. He entertained them daily with “Breakfast with Roddie” which entailed English muffins with cream cheese and scrambled eggs; fresh coffee; and piano music while they ate. He was fired from cooking but they adored his music, as usual. “Bach for Breakfast” they called it–changing the composer’s name as required. But he enjoyed the jazz standards more as days went by so he slipped one in now and again, to their delight.

The Quartz Creek Trio played that fall for three weddings and two retirement luncheons and two big parties of Frannie’s for which people from New York to Florida came. A few wanted to hire them right then for their future soirees. It left the trio privately gasping with laughter–to think they would do such gigs, just like in the first days of their careers! But they had fun, that was the point of it all, wasn’t it. They enjoyed playing together and they’d’ gotten to know one another. It was a good thing all around.

Their time was short, they knew that. It made the hours seem more potent, at times quite worthy of remembrance and always instructive as they worked out the kinks. They got to know their unique moods, their ins and outs–the individual styles and inside knowledge of each piece. It was building a complex and careful dialogue even as it became freer of constraints, all their playing and singing.

So it got harder to think of saying goodbye. They might cross paths, though. Kelsey would remain there through the winter–she needed more healing rest. JD would be coming over once a month–or as feasible– with Rima to visit her parents. And Rodney, well, he flew all the time, anyway, and he figured he’d make a stop at Frannie and Rick’s, too.

Just once Rodney suggested, “Maybe when we run out of steam doing our usual programs and plans, we can form an official trio. Not just for entertainment of friends and family here…I mean, when we get older, or bored with things. Try a new path.”

“Speak for yourself, buddy. Will it pay the bills? Rima is finally pregnant!” The reality of that scared the heck out of him, but a kid later in life was also a boon, he imagined, and he felt very good about how things were turning out. He had plenty of gigs lined up, anyway–yet, he wondered, too.

“What? And spoil what we have now?” Kelsey said, somewhat appalled at the idea of leaving her band and engaging in this little act once more. But she’d been surprised how it had helped with the loss of Ellen, and how good hearted the guys were–not to say, very fine musicians.

She’d think it over. They’d all think it over. Their worlds connected at the outer edges of the music world, they overlapped in theory, they admired each other greatly. But it would take a lot of effort to make a new commitment. It was a rather serendipitous series of events that demanded greater consideration: a chance meeting, an odd connection, a creative process that grew and made them feel more themselves than they had felt in a long while. Well on the way to being rejuvenated musicians, they were more excited to share music–and also ready to further open up their lives. Together, and apart.