Wintering

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Joe heard the snap of the door opening and the barest crack as she slammed it behind her. One more thing to have to repair sooner than later. He stubbed out his cigarette in the dirt of the dying African violet and glanced over his shoulder. Maddy stared at the picture window, eyes asquint in the late afternoon light,  pencil tight between her teeth. He imagined she was trying to see how hard she could bite down before it snapped but maybe that was his own feeling welling up. It was hard to say what she was feeling. They were alike that way.

The two of them had hunkered down early, right after breakfast. That’s when Isla had born that look of hers right into the living room and then back to the table then to the front door.

“I can’t stand the way the rooms turn in on you, the dust and smoke and silence choke me,” she said, shaking her mane of mahogany hair, trying to clear her head. “If there’s not more light soon, I’ll be gone to Arizona, wait and see, Joe Talford!” She touched the fern in the corner, then batted it. “The desert’s needing me, that makes it even harder! I’ve surely had enough!”

He found this amusing, as if a desert would need anyone. She meant You and Maddy don’t, so why put up with this endless snow and darkness if I get so little? It wasn’t true, they so needed her, just not so much like this.

She needed ubiquitous light like water needed sky, she felt not enough herself without it. She needed attention like the temperamental violet. He saw that and tried to do better even when he didn’t feel the urge. He’d never known anyone who required direct eye contact as much as Isla did. But then, he tended to be zeroing in on other things.

It was mostly this way every winter. Joe wasn’t sure if her tone had changed much but something in her shoulders had. The gentleness was eking away, the slopes had become ledges, sharp and taunting. At night in their cramped room if he’d reach for her, she’d surrender with little delight and afterward her warmth cooled so fast his hands were surprised. This Isla was not the Isla he knew and liked so well. But to be fair she’d had little idea what the winters were about when they’d moved back to his family’s land eight years ago. Words were nothing compared to reality.

“She didn’t take her gloves or button her coat,” Maddy noted.

“She’ll manage.”

Maddy chewed on the eraser, but when Joe lifted a bristly eyebrow at her, she lay the dented pencil on the table. What she really wanted was a cigarette. Her parents didn’t know she sneaked one from her dad’s pack once a week. She liked how the smoke shocked her mouth and lungs before sliding out in a mysterious whirl of smoke. She’d take one out back into the woods as she gathered kindling or followed a blue jay deeper down a packed, narrow trail or if it was about dark, just sat on the giant stump behind the tool shed, smoking away in peace. She liked how it made her feel foreign to her age, not quite fourteen but she felt she was leaning toward sixteen. But at sixteen she’d be close to executing her plan to get out of there: move into Marionville, start community college. Right now she could play at life a little. Pretend she was tougher than she felt, have a laugh all on her own. Sometimes she shared a smoke with Hanes, the boy down the road a half- mile, and the next time he’d bring one from his aunt’s pack. He was her age but smarter about some things, she thought, as he’d lived here all his life and his family before. But she never told him about her mom, though she could have. He’d likely know about cabin fever.

It had taken practice to not cry out when her mother took off like that. She used to run after her but her dad always caught her arm, tugged her back.

“She’s not going far, my girl, she only needs bigger space, more air awhile.”

“I know, but I want to go with her.”

“That’d be unwise. We’ll wait.”

He’d put one big flannel-clad arm about her and hold her still. Maddy knew what he meant even a few years ago but that didn’t make it any easier to see her mother unhappy. Mad as a trapped animal. Which she was, she told them many times. And they can get mean. Now Maddy didn’t even move from wherever she was.

She didn’t have the same problem as her mother; she couldn’t quite recall Arizona. The tightly sealed walls felt safe to her, the radiance of heat from the burning wood and its acrid-sweet fragrance lulled her into peace. And her dad was mostly how she liked him, quiet, and there when needed. He worked on illustrations from dawn to two or three in the afternoon (with lunch at his drafting table) and then he read or worked around the cabin or split more wood or went snowshoeing. She often went with him after school; sometimes her mom did, too, if it was a day when she found their life good or even enchanting again.

“Going up to the loft,” Maddy said, picked up her books and notebook, padded up steep steps in her heavy socks, ran past the narrow office space where her dad drew, slid past the half bath and into her room.

“Yep,” he said, too late to be heard.

Joe stirred in his chair, looked out the window. It’d been an hour since she’d left and he had work to finish and yet he sat. He knew she’d be at Twyla’s house (or Marty’s, her other good friend) by now after a long slog through snow in her heavy boots, so resisted calling her. He had a commission to finish in a week but was also intruded upon by a recent dream: a mad jumble of red rock, searing sand and scorpions with faces and Isla sailing about overhead. He’d liked the amazing desert plants and many mountain ranges, the sunrises and sunsets. He did some of his best work while they were there. But the brilliant sun was relentless, the merciless heat kept him caged like the snow did Isla.

In Arizona she had taught art to elementary school children but after twelve years she’d had enough of their racket and carelessness but even more, the yearly budget problems, having to buy her own classroom supplies. She quit and was at loose ends. Isla was meant to be a painter but the years of stressful teaching had taken a toll on the free flow of her own creativity. She had tried, found the well dry of much watercolor inspiration. She’d begun to sew everything from clothes to handbags to curtains. She sold a few things here and there, and then more and more.

And then Joe learned of his inheritance, the family land and cabin. They’d decided they could do the same work in the far north. But it was not easy for her. It was like an impossible course to run, she’d told him once in the middle of an argument, tipping a tentative truce, no more faking it.

“Or worse! It’s like a foot binding–I can’t even hobble about here with any sense of balance, can’t even take off my shoes most of the year much less walk freely in and out any day, any night, or even think half the time! My creative vision is dimmed by this–this pinched density of what you call God’s country! What I’d give to cut down all these trees to see the whole sky for once, Joe…”

He’d crouched by the wood stove while she’d gone on and on about how too much of the year she had too little nourishment, the outdoors and she had become estranged. She felt lost and small and sad. That night, like many, had ended with her tears and recriminations, his laying awake most of the night, awakening with a mean crook in his neck.

Yet Joe knew this: he loved her. He needed her in his life and so did their Maddy. And every winter crisis he feared she would not come back, either she’d perish or she’d find her way to the nearest airport. He had for years believed that the richness of the north country would loosen her with greater familiarity. That she’d learn to adore the dark rich earth and majestic forests, adapt to a rugged but comforting rural life. That she would delve into beauty, each season like magic as it spun new stories from old, the back country a balm, not a poison. He’d even believed each winter she’d made some progress. She enjoyed snow shoeing and watching birds and foxes and deer, the snow falling on the land like a pristine afghan, creating gentle shapes and bright swirls of ice on windows. He and Maddy had found their place. For Isla, it was never quite enough.

He saw with a shock that his wife was, heart and soul, a genuine desert flower. She could die here. Had all the anger and tears been warnings he had thought were passing eruptions?

He got up, pulled on his jacket and cap, grabbed her red woolen gloves and his stained leather ones and set out. It was not the first time but it had to be the last.

Maddy came out of her room and leaned over the loft railing as the door closed below her. She knew better than to follow. But she still wanted to as she eyed the sewing machine at one end of the living room. It’d been unused the past month, maybe more. She wondered if it was broken, like her mom might be, and a shiver of terror ran up and down her bones.

******

Isla knew her way around their little patch of country. She’d made the trek to Twyla’s or Marty’s often enough–or vice versa. The path through the acreage was covered partly as her last foray was a few days ago and more snow had laid itself down. Still, her feet knew how to find the trail to the fence and the broken slats where she either climbed over or pushed herself through the other side to Twyla’s a half mile away. She shoved her hands into her deep wool tweed pockets. It’d have been better to wear her so-called ski jacket and mittens but she’d been eager to leave Joe’s punishing silence, Maddy’s listening ears. Snow flurries danced about her face and barely skimmed the trees. Her mink-oiled boots squeaked on the path as snow packed down with each step.

Mustn’t forget Dan might be there. He was not the most sympathetic of men, neither easy to talk with or easy to avoid in a room, his bulk like that of one of the lovely beasts he liked to hunt and kill, whose heads adorned the walls. He seemed to want to stare her down. Twyla told Isla that he didn’t hear well so was straining to get all her words but Isla found him suspicious of any outsider. Joe was not one. His family owned the cabin and land for two, nearly three generations.

She knew Dan was expert at fixing all manner of ruined things. Twyla was stalwart and ingenious; she made do with little and made it look easy and good. She was born to this life, not the territory since she’d been raised in the upper Northeast but this was not so different. Isla and she would have had little in common except for Twyla’s quilting passion, her creative snug alongside her practical side. And, too, there was her nephew, Hanes, who she’d raised as her own. Maddy liked Hanes a lot. Isla could see why; he was resourceful, independent-minded and easy to look at. He taught her much about how to adapt there just as Twyla had done, or tried to do, for her. But Twyla knew Isla had not the heart for this life though she’d never said so. She had grown to like having neighbors who were an arty sort and Isla read to her as she quilted, helped Hanes with his homework sometimes.

Isla was grateful for this friendship; though hard to build at first, it was woven strong over the years there. But this time, she didn’t know what she’d tell her. It had started to seem like she could not stay in this land any longer. The past three months of winter nights had gotten rockier and mornings were shaped by sameness and chores and when she picked up the fabrics they felt heavy and useless in her hands. Her website had shown a dip in sales. She had so little motivation to fill orders, made excuses to customers and felt deeply embarrassed. If this kept on, she may as well quit. May as well pack her bags and go home.

“Home,” she said, her breath aloft in crystalline air. Then: “Arizona.”

She took an involuntary intake of the air and it hurt her lungs. She licked chapped lips and kept on, cold seeping into her flesh. The sky was low and thick with grey clouds as it always was in winter, no hope of sunlight getting through. In the distance, she barely made out smoke rising from Twyla’s chimneys. They had a fireplace in front as well as a woodstove in a back room–a sprawling house, larger than most if showing wear and tear. She could have called her friend but she was nearly always home this part of the day. They could show up at each other’s homes about any time. Dan would likely be gone.

There was a muffled sound behind Isla. She exposed an ear from her cap to listen and looked about but it was nothing, or a deer streaking through the pines as it saw her. She loved the wild creatures, it was true, this was the main part holding her here other than her own family. And sheer will. She started to leap-run across the field, boots sucked into the foot of snow at times, her strong legs pulling free. Heat soon radiated from her chest as she got closer to the side door, Her thicket of hair was damp so she pulled off her hat, stuffed it in a pocket and took long strides until she reached the steps.

The screen door was closed but the inside door was open.

Isla mounted the stairs fast. She pressed her face against the nylon mesh and peered into the darkened rooms.

“Hello? Twyla?…anyone?”

Nothing but the quiet crackle of flames in the fireplace. She pulled open the creaky door and entered the kitchen so redolent of apples, bananas and oranges in a bowl, fresh bread. She looked about, and in horror fell to her knees.

On the floor was Twyla, her legs and arms askew, wavy bottle-blonde hair now half-red as blood seeped and pooled on the cracked grey linoleum. Isla looked into her unfocused, half closed eyes, felt for a pulse so soft she wasn’t sure it was there, examined a gaping wound at the side of her head.

“She must have fallen, hit the counter edge!” She reached for her phone. Not in her pockets, nowhere.

“Mrs.T? … Isla?”

Her name careened through the rooms in a barely restrained scream. Hanes came around the corner with hands plastered to his face, breathing fast with cries caught in his throat, cell phone skidding across the floor.

“What happened, Hanes? Did you call for help?” She got up and put her hands on his boney forearms.

“She–she cried out, put a hand on her head, she fell, hit the counter edge… no not yet  I couldn’t find my phone at first…” He blinked back tears to no avail, face dazzled with fear. “What’s wrong with her? What do we do?”

She grabbed his phone, called 911, explained what she could then called Joe. No answer.

“What’s your uncle’s number, is it in here? Where is he?”

Hanes pointed out the door toward the woods, then ran to it, calling out his name. Hunting, likely; who knew if a signal would carry.

“Call him, Hanes. Tell him the ambulance will be here in less than fifteen minutes. Hanes!”

The boy was pressed against the screen door, looked about to run into the snow so she called his name again loudly. He turned and caught the phone when she tossed it. Dialed Dan. No answer.

She sat by Twyla, afraid to touch her but afraid not to and so she placed her hands on the woman and prayed. What to say? What words even mattered? She lowered her face to Twyla’s.

Keep this good woman alive, damn it, don’t let her go until she’d an old lady, she’s one we all need in the world. God, you hear me talking? We need help here. Save her from this trouble, such an ending. Give me a chance to love her more, for Hanes to know her longer, for Dan to care for her better. Lord, answer me with help now.

“I see someone,” Hanes whispered out the screen. “Who…?”

The sirens could be heard from a long way off, even through the tough old trees, even with the snow-laden earth and dull clouds that capped the world. She felt Twyla’s warmth and her blood saturating one jeans-clad thigh and time was a snail. Twyla’s face was so small. Isla closed her own eyes. Life was made of many smallnesses. Microscopic, really, such tiny moments and the fine-laced snow and shards of ice and cellular mystery of blood. Anguished and joyous hands of a child, this kind woman dying right in her bountiful kitchen. Her life staining Isla’s own skin, the wind freezing tears on her nephews–no, her boy’s–face. And it becomes an infinite flood of life careening here and there, you don’t know how much it all matters until its being torn into jigsaw pieces, life strewn across sand and dirt. If only she saw more good in the scheme, felt less the struggle. Twyla did. Gave much more than sought for herself.

Oh, Twyla.

Two hands fell upon her shoulders, someone’s breath warm on her neck as chill air moved about her.

“Isla, you can let go of her now.” Joe pulled her up, engulfed her in his arms. “Isla, they’re here for her. Could be a stroke but she’ll live, they think–thanks to you, my love.”

*****

It can happen just like that, she thought later as she sat with Dan and Joe, Maddy and Hanes and Twyla on the front porch. One day you believe you know what’s best for you and then the next you see how little you ever knew and everything changes and life goes one in a decent, even finer, way.

“Snow’s about done and look at that petal!” Twyla noted happily to Isla.

Dan smiled, teeth barely showing. “Spring is coming, as usual.” He looked at Isla and Joe with quite a bit less of a squint. “You made it another winter. Stayin’ on again?”

“Not sure, we’ll see,” Joe said but his voice held hope as much as caution.

Maddy elbowed Hanes, lifted an eyebrow. He returned the knowing look and they got up and went around the back of the cabin.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure we’re staying for another year, anyway,” Isla said  as she laced her fingers with Joe’s.

Flowers, some with snow 102

 

The Cost of a Good Day’s Lunch

It’s not often that he goes to Gideon’s for lunch but today is a good day so he celebrates with a small act of charity for himself. Charlene at the office suggested they share a meal but he persisted in watching his computer screen until she went away. It is better this way; she is loud and sometimes uncouth in ways that can annoy him, like slopping coffee when putting the pot back on the hotplate  or noting that so-and-so has about gone bald this year or clipping her shoulder painfully as she rushes around a corner. Not that Peter is the most graceful or civilized person. But he tries to be, at least at work, whereas she tends to let things fall where they may, words included, though her work is good. She sits four cubicles away from him, so there is relief in that. But he still sneaks around at times to avoid her; it depends on his mood he’s noticed.

“I’ll have to hogtie you one of these days, then take you out on my own dime to see what else can develop,” Charlene informed him once in the elevator, smiling rather wickedly before flouncing off. He has been afraid she might manage it somehow, and that image is not pleasant but its funny, too. He can’t imagine why she persists when he tends to feel flattened by such boldness.

To be fair, Peter avoids most people, they are all too much in some way. He has one good friend and their camaraderie is based on passion for video games, something they can’t quite abandon despite closer to thirty than they ever imagined. They get together on every other Saturday night to play and compete and share a couple beers and pizza. Peter doesn’t much like pizza but Tim does; they both enjoy the strange trance that playing provokes when adrenaline kicks in. Other than Tim and his sister, Everly, who lives twelve blocks north and occasionally comes by on a Sunday (though they text once or twice a week), his world is solitary. He prefers it that way, overall. He has had more friends but they end up being a distraction from his research on gemstones or forest canopies or alternative fuels–whatever grabs his interest. Gaining knowledge is his main activity after the workday at Drummond Systems. It staves off the bleakness that creeps in like mildew, a little at a time until it cannot be eradicated.

But today he has received clear praise from his manager. It goes a long way in scrubbing the grayness from his cynical being even if it is temporary. To prolong the upwelling of happiness he felt after supervision, he has come to Gideon’s on Rose Terrace Boulevard, so-called because there is an old and neatly terraced rose garden across from the restaurant.  Peter glances at the garden as he pushes the door open; it has a long way to go before pruned bushes grace them all with greenery and showy blossoms. When they erupt into color he will come more often, maybe twice a month until they die down again. A small extravagance he allows each summer.

“Mr. Ellison, welcome back.”

The hostess nods at him and he follows her. He has been coming here off and on for six years yet he still forgets her name, he could be more mindful. When seated he glances at her name tag, Ursula, that’s it alright. He smiles at her and when a new waitress arrives with coppery curls and an overbite he smiles and orders what he often does, a club sandwich on triple toasted sourdough with a premium dill pickle. And then he sighs audibly, glad to be here, and sips ice water.

Matt Carter has been a tough boss to please. In fact, very few do and Peter has not been different in that respect. But he wants to move up, make more money so he can save for a bicycle trip to Holland or France, perhaps both, he works harder and longer hours than most. So the talk today acknowledged this; Mr. Carter knows a loyal and upward bound employee when he sees one, and Peter Ellison is fast becoming most expert in his domain. A bonus is due.

It might actually happen, his trip, maybe a promotion before he knows it. Peter gleefully looks about the open space with its casual but certain loveliness as if to spread his unexpected good cheer. Everyone is, of course, busy with others or on phones or staring out the window. He gazes out at a news stand and the cars inching by, and imagines telling Tim, then wonders if it will matter or if he will be envious since he’s stuck in a low paying, tedious sales job. Everly will shriek and throw her arms about him so he’ll have to pry her off. He might call her at her museum job so she’ll maintain a calmer demeanor. He chuckles. She’s three years older, is kind and protective of him ever since their parents split up when he was sixteen. If he calls them tonight,  Dad and Mom will murmur “Good work, Peter, really, it’s about time”, then swamp him with details of their busy lives until he begs off and hangs up. No, he won’t share it with them. Not yet, he wants it to be his good news, safe and sound.

Looking down at his glass beading up from warmth of his hand, he removes it and studies a ragged cuticle, picks at it until it reddens.

Lunch arrives. Peter reaches for his earphones when someone roars with laughter. He looks  over at the red-faced, bulky man in a charcoal grey suit. He tenses, rumples his napkin. He’s so like his father, boisterous, big, commanding attention of two others at his table. Both Peter’s parents excel in making their presences known. It was a chore for Everly and him to be properly seen so they got by those years like overlapping shadows until they moved to this sprawling city for college and work. Let their parents have their world, they had made their own; sometimes they got together, but not too often.

He plugs in to a playlist of electronic music and takes a big bite. Savors tang and saltiness, crunch and chewiness, feels lucky to have a place like this to enjoy lunch. To feel a little relieved and even good about his success today. Peter half-closes his eyes as he follows along with the music softly soothing his brain, is in a silver roadster and head out on the highway, the top down, the wind gleefully wrecking his hair, and he’s headed to the mountains when there is a fast flick of a sinuous tail, almost a snap at his shoulder. Peter’s eyes widen.

A dingy white and rusty brown cat. Parading along a low room divider as if performing for treats, tail swaying, head high. It then licks a paw a couple seconds. There was never any mascot at Gideon’s, certainly no breathing, licking, scratching cat so what is it doing here, a restaurant at lunchtime? It thrusts its head at Peter, sniffs, whiskers twitching, then pulls back and primly sits right above his table. The cat–a girl, Peter decides–has no intention of leaving him to his sandwich, it smells wonderfully of thick bacon and turkey and ham so he looks nervously about for his waitress who’s at the far end of the room. Waves at her but she moves away. The next table’s occupants don’t notice the cat as they’re intent on coffee and dessert, so Peter shoos the creature away, who simply follows his hand with bobbing head, then eyes the food. He pulls out the ear buds, unnerved. Takes a bite, then another and chews with mouth shut and stares at the cat in defiance of its motives to make ruin of his meal. How irksome and odd to have a cat present. It has to have run in when a door opened wide.

Peter overall feels neutral about animals unless they’re in the wild, then he’s all eyes and ears. They’d had a terrier when growing up but he got hit by a taxi in a rush to get their father to the airport. That was that. Everly asked for a cat once but the answer was a resounding negative; their mother found them fussy and unpredictable. His sister now had no time for pets; Peter had no inclination.

“Go!” Peter commands of the calm statuesque cat.

“Oh dear, where did this one come from? Now aren’t you something, pretty thing?”

Marcy, the name tag announced, is smiling at the cat despite a tremor of alarm in her high voice. She pushes back long wispy bangs. Squints, reaches out with lips pursed as if about to kiss the furry thing but her plan is to grab and hold on despite fear of scratches. The cat leaps down and behind half-wall so she moves slowly around the end, whereupon the cat darts between her legs, under Peter’s table. He can feel its warm body atop his shoe and moves the foot but it moves, too, remains there wedged between the wall and the world, a benign bulk settling in.

“I need to tell the manager,” Marcy says frowning.”A shame, such a pretty feline. Not yours, I assume?”

“No, no, I was enjoying my meal and it appeared as if invited.”

Marcy giggles. “It likes you, apparently.” She looks under the table a moment. “We could offer it some bacon.”

Peter shakes his head emphatically. “Not acceptable to encourage finishing off my meal.”

“Oh, right, sorry, sir, it might just do that.” She leaves in search of the manager.

Peter pushes the cat off his foot with the other foot. It remains close at his ankle, purrs, rubs its head on his pant leg.

“Leaving your fur on me, are you? You need to go.”

It persists with rubbing its head on his pants. Peter  looks under the table again, worries his pressed jeans pants will be hairy with cat fur, shakes his leg. It–she?–stops but stares at him without any concern and rumbles its purr even more.

“I got a bonus today and you had to interrupt my victory meal. Why not bother someone else? I never much cared for cats.”

The next two tables’ occupants have taken notice and watch with either distaste or amusement. He reaches under, tries to snag the cat but it slips around the barrier.  It has begun to feel like a battle being lost so he quickly finishes the sandwich, determined to get back to work late. The cat reappears, disappears, hides under the table. About the time he is ready to get the check, the manager rushes toward him.

A lanky man with a long nose, he looks down through thick black rimmed glasses toward the floor, then at Peter and the others.

“I am so very sorry. This has never happened before. I’ll deal with it, don’t worry.” He studies Peter, his features exuding regret. “It didn’t nab your lunch, sir, did it?”

“No, she must be full of mice as she might have made a pounce for it. May I have the bill, please?”

The manager beckons Marcy, whispers to her, reiterates regrets to him then finds the recalcitrant cat. Swiftly he grabs her by scruff of the neck so four legs stick out straight, then they rush between tables toward the front doors. Out she goes. Peter can just see this from his spot, tossed out just like that. He wonders if the cat’s fate is to scrape by and die on the street.

“No charge, sir, we’re so sorry this happened but hope you’ll return,” Marcy says, blue eyes downcast–but no tip, either.

Peter unfolds himself from his chair, smiles vaguely in her direction. “How generous of you. Crafty cat. No worries, I’ll be back.” He gathers ear buds and phone, gets his wallet out and tucks a tip at plate’s edge as she steps away, lips parting to reveal bright big teeth. He grabs his backpack, eager to leave it all, and exits. Marcy finds him attractive in a disheveled, studious way, hopes next time he remembers her name.

Once outdoors, Peter consults his watch–ten minutes for two blocks–and steps forward, nearly squashing a mass of something. He just catches himself from falling and it yowls–damned cat! She’s been lurking, wishing to hold him up. Now she slinks along the building’s wall and eyes him suspiciously. Maybe she’ll at last go, he’s fed up with shenanigans when he just wants a few more moments to celebrate on the walk back.

She dashes out into the street as a truck lumbers up to the corner so that Peter must run out and hold up his hands to stop honking traffic, then scoops her up, presses her writhing mass to his chest and makes for the corner right by the garden. He plops on a bench, clutching her. She stops wiggling, pokes her nose at his, licks it to his mild dismay. Now he will have to be responsible, how can you not be when you save a life? Isn’t it a spiritual law?

Peter accepts he will now be late. He worries…he knows his boss will not like it–but he will also overlook this slight error of his man of the hour. The cat settles in his lap as he takes out his phone. It rings three, four times and he is about to hang up when it is answered.

“Everly, what are you doing after work? I have news, work-wise and otherwise, can’t say what just now. A surprise, yes. We can order take out, Indian.” He pets the cat firmly. “I have a favor to ask, also, not that big, maybe just advice.” The cat tries to turn a full circle on his now-ruined lap. “Good, see you at seven.”

When Peter enters the office he walks right to Charlene who is startled by his sweaty face. He crooks his finger at her and she gets up, follows him into the empty break room.

“Hold on, now, I just have a chore to ask of you.”

“What’s that?” she asks, curls shimmering at him.

“Where can we keep a cat until I leave?”

“A cat? Here? A real live one?”

“Sshhh!” He lifts his backpack, undoes the flap buckle so two ears and a pointy face pop out.

“Hello, gorgeous! How exciting, Peter, I never imagined you—”

“Pipe down, Charlene, this is serious, I can’t leave work until five but this cat followed me, more or less…so where to keep it? Without being found out and duly dismissed, both of us?”

“Oh, well, there’s the storage room, put it in a box maybe. I do sit right by the door, no one can get in without my knowing. I’ll check on it a couple times. Hopefully it won’t be noisy. I even have leftover ham sandwich, we have milk here, I can feed it if it fusses.” She beams up at Peter. She’s finally gotten into his good graces. Or will soon. “I hope it doesn’t make any messes, though…”

“Perfect, you’re a titan of fine ideas. I really appreciate it. And if you want a cat at the end of the day…”

“No thanks, I have a white poodle puppy to oversee.”

He shrugs, hands off his backpack and she takes over as he lopes back to his cubicle. He turns at his desk and goes back.

“Want to go out sometime, maybe?”

“I passed a test or something?”

She looks undone by his question and it tickles him.

“Maybe.”

“Sure, of course, why not?”

She almost glows some moments, he thinks, like a peachy-orange sunrise moving along the horizon.

Peter returns to work. He has plenty to do and he’s no slacker, that’s for sure. Neither is he a cat person much less a people person. He hypothesizes that life changes at times without his full approval or understanding. But he suddenly feels ready for more happenstance; he’ll figure out the necessary details and make a few accommodations as need be.

 

Sorrow is an Arrow with No Place to Land

Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The first sighting occurred on a late afternoon soon after Dae bounded out the door before her, barking furiously after a squirrel who’d just scampered off. The water before them was uncharacteristically still, mirror-smoothness reflecting only heavy clouds. Stillness, often a first sign of a thunderstorm, had settled deep in Sophie’s bones when she awakened and she’d felt a peace, despite knowing there might be a storm. She had worked hard at this, the coveted equilibrium required to live a life she valued.

She stood with flat of hand to brow as if that would help her better discern a cause of the flicker of light. Unease pricked her insides. A glimmering spot above a gun metal Ring Lake disturbed the day. No spare light filtered down as raindrops plopped onto the deck. As she stepped closer, the glinting glided away at a rapid pace. A green canoe was briefly outlined, a small body in it. The big dog had seen the person, too, as he or she rounded the narrow peninsula–Sophie’s land–then slipped away. His sharp barks were more greeting and farewell than warning; the canoe was gone.

Dae ran to her and licked her fingers; both hands hung at her sides limply, as if she was deflated. It was nothing to think twice about, the lake was open to all for boating and other pleasures as long as weather allowed. But not so often did she see people on the water when a storm was brewing. Sophie shivered in the cooling wind, her eyes unavoidably drawn to Stump Island. The community island. Thomas had nonetheless tried to commandeer it to work on limnology research notes.

That he’d tried to reach, perhaps, that summer night. But his boat faltered, his body sank, languished in muck on the lake bed.

She could not speak of it after nearly a year. In fact, could still not speak at all.

She signaled to Dae and they entered her remodeled and historical chapel-house. Once inside she paused. Distant thunder and lightning illuminated the expanse, now textured with waves. A curtain of rain fell and semi-darkness spilled over all. The husky-German Shepherd mix took his place on the rag rug before the fireplace, despite no fire. He panted lightly, blue eyes following his mistress. She closed the curtains on French doors to the deck as he lay his fine head on massive paws, eyes closing.

In the loft, Sophie removed the silk caftan that covered a leotard, then lit three pillar candles and danced, or rather acted as if she might still dig deep into that primal force and bring forth movement, coppery, white-streaked hair cast off her back as she floated, lips quivering. The elegant dog lifted its head. Listened.

******

The second sighting happened as Sophie was driving down 137 in her truck. She was off to Haston, not far from her village of Snake Creek. Dense white pine and hemlock, a grove of birch flew by as a mostly green blur as she barreled down the road. It was also that kind of day she thought of as cornflower blue and forsythia yellow, filled with a promise of more heat to come and a day of small pleasures. She would get errands done, then stop for a steaming chai and warm chocolate chip cookie at her favorite coffee house, then stroll along Lake Michigan. Clarissa–Rissa to closest friends–said she might meet them if she got done with her restaurant supply run in time and felt she could take a half hour to relax. Sophie turned up the music, a lively pop tune. Behind her Dae sat with twitching nose pressed into sweet air a half-opened window afforded.

They were perhaps fifteen minutes out, the road empty except for towering trees lining either side and a raptor circling above. Around a wide curve in the opposite direction roared a blue sports car, top down, and at the wheel was another bold shimmer as had been seen at the lake two days before. The two-seater began to slow, presumably to approach a private road to the new Nine Lives Spa and Resort. The woman’s long champagne blonde hair unfurled like a fancy scarf freed by spring wind. Soft sunlight bounced off it spinning golden filaments. Her skin appeared an ordinary, not tanned, tone. She wore something coral.

Sophie’s eyes shifted between blue car and winding road and resisted the impulse to slow down, as well. It was no doubt a woman from down state, likely Detroit, here for a pricey rejuvenation vacation. The patrons had begun to show up more in the village already. The place offered Tai Chi, Bikram yoga, a eucalyptus steam room, an indoor-outdoor Olympic sized pool with hot tub, fancy massages by the hour, earthy skin treatments and all the rest that no one she knew wanted to undergo, much less could afford. In truth, Sophie would like the steam room after a deep massage. She already practiced Tai Chi but swam in the lake as tolerable in summer like everyone else did. No one was happy about the resort other than Rissa’s husband, the developer who sold off the waterfront parcel; he was tight with the investors.

The blue car downshifted as it arrived at the turn off, then stopped just short of turning. Sat there idling. Sophie slowed enough to get a fast peek at the driver. The petite woman looked over a shoulder; huge sunglasses obscured most of her face. She caught her flying hair with a hand as she gazed at Sophie, then abruptly took off down the driveway, engine purring.

Dae had been keen to look as well but offered no response. Sophie pondered the coincidence. Was it the same person she had seen at the lake? And if so, who was she and why might she be interested in her? The driver looked too polished and self-impressed to be a regular Michigander. She didn’t even look like a usual buyer of northern summer cottages. More akin to Sophie, perhaps, an East coaster. Did Sophie know her from somewhere? Were she and Thomas acquaintances of Bostonian friends of hers; had they met at a dinner party or lecture?

Sophie gripped the steering wheel, sped along the curving road. Maybe the driver had another interest–if indeed, there was a true interest and not some prurient curiosity. Maybe Ms. Champagne Blonde was a reporter after the story of the suspicious death of Thomas Swanson, famous biologist. And his wife, Sophie Swanson, well-known dancer and choreographer. Once of the Bostonian bramin (which they were not unhappy to leave).

She hit the wheel with her palm; she wanted to be no one of any interest, to have less of Thomas in her life now. Dae’s head rose to rest at her shoulder and she patted his head. Her eyes burned; she blinked to refocus on the road. It wasn’t going to happen, a story. She didn’t want to be found, didn’t even respond to old friends’ cards and notes, nor to emails. That life was abandoned when Thomas retired. She had long ago agreed to come with him, leave her career behind at age 45. Despite any regrets, despite hellish losses–including that of Mia, her daughter, now living with an aunt–this was meant to be home. There was no turning back, anyway.

Grief had a way of weaving you into the landscape from which pain erupted. It was a sore comfort, a remembrance of hope and a scarring rawness even as the aching was, bit by bit, subdued. And she had to start over from here, nowhere else.

A fragrant, almost warm blast of air mellowed her thoughts as the window was rolled down. The day was still new, it would be salvaged. Sophie was a pro at such things.

She felt deep pressure under her ribs, an urge to scream but when her mouth opened only a rush of soft air mixed with the breeze. Dae, on the other hand, whined, eager to run.

******

And the third sighting was other than what Sophie might have imagined.

Rissa waved as she wound her way between tables then sat on the wooden chair with a thump, uniform askew, dark hair stuck to her forehead. She blew up at her bangs to cool off. It was busy at Bluestone Cafe, the thriving restaurant she owned and managed.

“What’s going on, lady? Sorry I couldn’t meet up but I was running late Thursday and the supply order wasn’t quite right and then I got into it with Stan about numbers tallied!” She flipped a hand in the air, dismissing the annoyance, and smiled. “I’m glad to sit a little. But you don’t usually come in during rush hours. Did an appointment bring you in?”

Sophie shook her head, pulled from her soft leather bag a medium-sized notebook and shoved it across the table top. This was the  means by which she talked to her few friends. She’d written about the two times in a few days she’d seen who might be the same woman. She hated to admit to such an odd and likely irrational worry but she was starting to think she was being followed by a stranger. She described her the best she could and asked if her friend had seen anyone like that.

Rissa frowned as she read. Sometimes Sophie had fears that couldn’t easily be tamped down, much less erased. But it was best to take what she intuited or felt seriously. She was not a crazy person despite what some suggested but a hurt human being who was still healing. That night of the drowning was a complicated story.

“A person who looks like that would stick out like a sore thumb. Summer people haven’t taken over yet…but the resort is up and running, yeah, so…Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity if she thinks she knows you, that can happen. But, no, I haven’t seen any one just like that. Champagne blonde? We just have badly bleached straw blondes!” She chuckled. “I think you should keep an eye out, tell others if it keeps happening, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and thought. “I wonder if that husband of mine has seen this person around. If anyone would recall a woman like that it’d be Sonny. I’ll ask.”

With a shrug, Sophie picked up her notebook and tucked it away. Rissa lay her hand on her friend’s.

“You do okay with the thunderstorm this week?’

Sophie smiled assent.

“That’s good. Not bad, no power losses. Gotta go, girlfriend, catch you soon.”

Sophie squeezed her hand and let go. After she finished off her iced tea and cinnamon scone she paid the bill and left.

Rissa watched her go, the tall, lithe form and legs and arms swinging, the gingery-white hair that fell nearly to her waist in a loose braid. She wished her a happy afternoon and no strange sightings.

The main thoroughfare of Snake Creek paralleled the eastern shore of Ring Lake. Right across from Bluestone Cafe was the old field stone library and behind that, an inviting grassy park. Beyond the library ran the waterfront with the public beach and boat rentals. Sophie ran across the street, toward the shoreline. She had brought a book to read on another unusually sunny day. Mainly she wanted to be among a few people though she was always somehow apart. At times her house felt so small, constraining, bound in echoing silence; it could barely contain her then and she either worked on the property or went into town.

In the morning Sophie had gotten up early, walked with Dae, made an apple pie for her older friends Will and Anna, who’d had a stroke. Then she’d sat on the deck listening to fado music, the most plaintive and bittersweet of all choices. She’d caught herself drifting into a dreaded state of longing and sorrow so put the pie in a bag and went for a short visit with her friends. Dae was left behind for once. She half-wished she’d brought him as he loved to race about park and shore. Everyone knew him, admired his friendliness, agility and handsomeness. He was her buffer, she knew that.

The waterfront was busier than usual but it was a Friday, almost May–more people were coming to visit. She sat on a bench under a newly leafed poplar. After reading a few pages she looked up and down the shore, watching people hunt for attractive rocks and toss a few, play ball.

And there sat Ms. Champagne at southern end of the rocky beach, knees drawn up to her chin, pale hair blowing about. Alone. Sophie started that direction, wishing she had a friend with her. What would she do when she got there? Ask who she was  and why she was always around when she was still so damned mute?

The woman turned and saw her before she got there, her legs flattening onto the rocks, hands grabbing the brilliant mass to tame it again in a ponytail. Then she got up, shifted her weight. Sophie stopped about ten feet before her. She dwarfed the stranger from her height of six feet; the other woman was nearly a foot shorter. And so much younger, perhaps 30, 35?

The woman offered a tentative smile that drew wider when Sophie did not respond in kind.

“Hello, I’m Signe Johansson. I know we’ve skirted each other a few days. I’m glad you came to greet me as I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you.”

Sophie inclined her head at Signe and found her open-faced, eager to talk so offered her hand.  Signe knew who she was, so no speaking was necessary. Her notebook might yet be useful, she would wait.

“Can we find a bench so I can explain…?”

They walked with only the lulling noise of waves to the spot Sophie had been reading, sat, then half-turned to each other. Sophie stared at the woman’s sparkling white and red tennis shoes. She glanced up, had burning desire to ask her ten questions and bit her lip. Signe smoothed her black khakis and took a deep breath.

“You are the Sophia Swanson, I know that. And I knew your husband, your famous partner.”

Sophie’s lips formed his name as alarm spread over her gaunt features.

“Yes, Thomas…I worked in the same building at Boston University. The Earth Sciences department where he lectured many years in between research trips.”

Her dark blue eyes–too bright, marred with redness– locked with Sophie’s.

“I know you’re at a disadvantage as you don’t talk. That’s what I heard. We heard. After his death. That it was too much. I’m sorry. He was…amazing. We were…friends, good friends… ”

Sophie fought the urge to get up and leave. Who was this Signe to be following her, trespassing on her life, talking as if they were bound to make a friendly connection via her spouse? Speaking of her entirely dead husband–familiarly, casually?

“Wait, Sophie– I’m here.” Rissa’s gravelly voice penetrated her distress and then she came around to stand before them. “I’m Clarissa, Sophie’s closest friend and ally–and you are, exactly?”

“Oh, hi. I’m Signe, an old friend of Thomas’.” She smiled sweetly, too fast. “I’m glad you came. Now maybe she and I can talk with your help. I know an investment partner of Nine Lives Spa and Resort and I thought I’d come up  and visit the new place and also…” her voice petered out.

Rissa sat on the end of the bench by Sophie and leaned forward . “I see, very nice, we have a great area to enjoy. My husband is a developer. I appreciate your interest. But what does any of this have to do with Sophie Swanson? Did you come to give your condolences?”

“Yes, I did.  I guess I wanted to share memories with her. He was a brilliant man and a gentleman.”

Sophie drew out her notebook and scribbled a few lines. Rissa read them.

“How well did you know him and for how long? And what do you teach?”

“Hydrology, environmental interventions. I knew him for six years, he was a mentor,  co-worker, a friend.” She looked at Sophie and then at Rissa. “A truly good friend,” she emphasized.

Sophie scribbled another few questions. Rissa spoke once again.

“How come Sophie never heard of you? Did you two meet, even at a public function? And why would you find it necessary to come here and talk about this friendship with Thomas? It’s peculiar.” Rissa’s nose wrinkled.

The woman took a deep breath and turned toward Rissa sharply. “Look, why are you interrogating me? I came to pay my respects, to tell Sophie how much we appreciated his work and his kindness, that’s all.”

“Funny, it doesn’t seem like that. She doesn’t even know you and you’re avoiding the real answers. My gut tells me you knew him a bit too well–“she put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as Sophie ‘s fingers clenched her sweater–” and you’d not planned on meeting her yet now you have and with an unsavory interest. Meeting his mourning widow now…I don’t like it any more than Sophie does.”

Signe sat up straight, shoulders back. “There was a lot she didn’t know about him, that she didn’t care to know more about–she was so busy with her career and he was alone a lot–who could he talk to about his research –and his dreams? Some of us were there, that’s all I want to say! I–I just wanted her to know how much I adored Thomas Swanson!” Her voice had risen like a frantic adolescent’s. Face flushed, her blue eyes darted about, filled with tears.

“Stop there, Siggie,” Rissa said. “You need to take this to your shrink. You’ve  no right to come here, say these things to her. You don’t know Sophie, not one bit.”

But Sophie got up and bent her graceful height over the sniveling Signe. Sophie tapped her lips so Signe would watch them. Carefully formed the silent words:

Thomas was never yours, he was mine–she touched her chest–our daughter’s. Now goodbye.

Rissa and Sophie left arm in arm. Sophie was not crying. She was not shaking, not wanting to run back and hurt that woman. She knew so many things Signe Johansson would never know. And she had long felt tired out by that knowledge and since his death, whittled down by grief of the darkest sorts. No, she felt sorry for this younger–and weaker– Signe, who must have been left alone. Far too lonely. And Sophie was not. She realized she finally missed her husband less than she ever had. Or, at least, the man she knew, his cynicism, his spurts of tenderness, his brilliance and dependence. And finally, the undoing of his life by a sly and ego-hungry madness in a boat on a thunderstruck night. Night of terrors, her life nearly lost, and Sophie had barely survived the man she had loved. She would keep searching for her own voice.

 

(Note: this is a story based on a novel of mine, Other Than Words, written many years ago. I keep revising/ coming back to it. Another post about Sophie can be found here: https://talesforlife.blog/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/

If you are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post more links.)

 

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Powder on Arch Mountain

standing-on-the-snowy-mountain-at-aletsch-glacier-fieschertal
Photo via Good Free Photos

The fire was steadily burning, a comfort to see even from a distance. As Virginia Li Taft, better known as Gin-Li, took her place in the half-circle about it, she found the group smaller than expected. Or it just felt that way, tightly drawn of six kids she’d known to one degree or another her whole life. They sat shoulder to shoulder; you had to squeeze your way in if you weren’t one of the gang–she’d seen that happen.

She thought some must have paired off, left for other places. It was the last of the afternoon, and without thinking she glanced to see if Robbie was there. Of course not. He’d be the last one in; his snowboard was about everything to him. Who could compete? Good thing she didn’t need to; she and Robbie were best friends. Just like she and Liz were, though Robbie was a male, yes. Some of the other girls said, “No, that one’s an actual man, right?” and then further emphasized with eyes widening that they were pleased one of the guys finally was. Gin-Li had noticed but it wasn’t relevant; Robbie was just Robbie. They were all sixteen or seventeen and it was true, though, that plenty of guys acted and looked like they’d gotten stuck in mid-to-late middle school. If Gin-Li was there, they didn’t bother her with speculations about him. He was single the past months but she was immune to his charms and there was no help for that.

Gin-Li felt relief change her limbs into jelly when she scooted closer to the mammoth fireplace. Sinuous flames flick light across shadowed skin. She sank into the rise and fall of laughter and chatter, though she remained quiet. Quietness, even stillness (despite the fact that she was a decent athlete) that caught people’s attention, was a hallmark of her personality–and  as defining of who she was as her sleek, dark hair and almond eyes.

Or so her mother said often enough. The statement sometimes held a resentful, even sharp edge, as if every time she saw Gin-Li she had to be reminded of her father, long gone, sorely if sadly remembered. As if Gin-Li was responsible for her continued irritation. But then it would pass as she spoke of other things–until next time. He’d been her mother’s hero, “The One”, until he’d left for the ill-fated rafting trip in Peru. He drowned and left Marley Taft, Gin-Li’s mother, pregnant and unmarried. Mostly Chinese and a tad this and that, John Li was a respected biologist and eager adventurer. Marley Taft, his fiancée, was a geology professor at UCLA. Things changed fast after his death. And after twelve years, Gin-Li had no memories and Marley had fewer good ones of California but they had fashioned a very good life in Colorado. Even though Marley hadn’t yet found another partner that seemed worth keeping.

Arch Mountain Ski Resort was close to the city so a bunch of kids piled into a couple of vehicles with parents at the wheel (they’d drive at least one more year, they all agreed). It got to be a regular trip on week-ends for some, even most of the time for Gin-Li and Liz. They weren’t, perhaps, top-notch skiers but enjoyed it. Gin-Li loved snowboarding and was getting pretty good at it. But they also liked the group camaraderie as they hit the runs, reconvening during breaks. It was a feast for the senses up there, the work out fun, even amazing. You could see the Continental Divide and the brisk sharp air revived Gin-Li even on her less thrilled days. Her mother skied, too, they noted each other in passing which was more than enough.

“You want a coffee or tea?” Liz asked as her elbow poked her friend’s ribs.

Gin-Li shrugged and she stared at the fire. Liz was getting on her nerves lately, always talking about Phil or Denny or Gavin. She knew Liz was going to get caught up in talk if she spotted one of those older boys; Gin-Li might not get her tea until it cooled off.

“Okay, peppermint tea, thanks.”

Then Frieda pressed a shoulder into hers as the semi-circle closed in Liz’s absence. “Frieda the Needy One”, Gin-Li often thought but she could be fun.

“Gin-Li, I’d watch out for Liz if I were you,” she hissed in her ear. “She’s going the wrong direction with those other guys. Better to stick with what we know, right? At least when we’re in school.” She winked. “I saw a guy from Newfield last summer awhile, a senior!”

“She’ll do what she wants. Liz has strong preferences.”

“Yeah, older and wilder. Not like Robbie who is about as mellow as you can get, right?”

She threw Frieda a questioning look. “Well, he’s my best friend.”

“What? More a best friend than Liz? You’ve known her since third grade. You give preferential treatment, too!” and giggled her childish giggle.

Gin-Li hunched her shoulders, hugged her knees and let her hair fall forward to blot out Frieda. She was the kind of person who could make something of nothing with little encouragement and Gin-Li chose to ignore her a bit as years went by, though Frieda was nice to her. She in fact told her she got smarter and more pretty every week; their school lockers were just two apart so she was hard to ignore. Liz suggested archly that maybe Frieda was flirting with her but Gin-Li knew she was lonely and wanted to be noticed. She didn’t have close friends as she gossiped a lot or maybe that was why she did, thinking people valued her speculations when the opposite was ultimately true. But she skied well and was a good sport. People liked that, Gin-Li did, too, even though her alluding to her bi-racial features–Frieda just had to use the adjective “exotic” more than once– could burn inside her. It was how it was. Some people never understood and how could they? Gin-Li was who she was and, in fact, that wasn’t entirely clear to her sometimes. Good thing she had a couple of truly trusted friends, who knew her insides about as well as she did.

“Here’s your tea,” Liz said as she made her place in the loosened group before the fire. A few had clearly gone back to the slopes. “I saw Robbie about to come in, from what I could see from the window. But he sure looked good out there–we all know he’s talented.”

Gin-Li smiled to herself and sipped. He’d taught her a few things that improved her own form and speed. He’d show her a few more things before they left, or tomorrow if they both came back. They’d dissect the moves and tricks, even into the early morning hours if they felt like crazy insomniacs. She yawned; Liz followed with a bigger one. It was either get back out there soon or get drowsier but the fire was so welcoming. If she was going to return tomorrow, she might as well rest now.

“I’m done being lazy, up and at ’em!” Frieda said as she rose and started toward the door.

“Watch this,” Liz leaned her head sharply toward the other girl. “Have you even seen this yet?”

Frieda nearly ran right into Robbie and she apologized with great flair, her hand on his shoulder, her face upturned. He looked down, briefly smiled back and kept on walking. Frieda scowled at his back and left.

Gin-Li saw it, drank her tea. When he got to them the piney mountain air came with him and she shivered with pleasure.

“Hey, you guys, more snow coming in!”

His voice boomed and others looked his way, waving, calling out.

“I want you to come out again Gin-Li, to show you something.”

“I’m tired. Maybe I’m getting a cold.”

“Of course you aren’t, you’re just out of condition, just coming twice last week. A trial to start over this winter, I get it.” He crouched down to her level, the snow melting, water beading and rolling off his pants. “The powder remains excellent and the lights are now on!” he added with a gentle force he used trying to persuade her. “Everything is blue and white out there, see? You know you love that, come on, slouchy girl!”

Gin-Li looked at his chiseled and pinked cheekbones, his lively blue eyes and almost got up. “Nope, six hours off and on is enough today, are you trying to make me suffer? You’re the snowboarding addict so go for it.” She gave him raised eyebrows with a smirk and inched toward the fire’s magnetic heat.

“Party pooper! You should let yourself give in, you’ve got such talent.”

His palm slid across her shoulders then lightly smacked her back so she reached out and slapped him on the leg as he moved away.

“Hey, Robbie, wait up!” Ted from the end of the line called out.

“Yeah, we’re coming.” Two more got up. The small group broke apart like a natural phenomenon.

“Did you notice he didn’t ask me?” Liz gave a short laugh. “I’d be left behind so fast he’d forget I was ever there, I’d be lost in the spray.” She got up, looked around. “Where did Frieda go?”

Gin-Li stood, as well, then walked to the huge glass wall of windows where she could see all. Evening draped the snow in a watery but deep blue. She could track Robbie going up the slope and she suddenly wished she’d joined him. But there would be tomorrow. She would see him dazzle his way down soon. Meanwhile, her mother was just calling it day and chatting with others. Frieda and a bunch of girls had their heads together, all animated, then they started for the lift. She was half in- and half-out the circle, ever seeking her place. Gin-Li was glad she felt mostly at home with what and who she knew and loved. She had learned that during last winter, an event she tried to not think about, anymore.

When she searched for Liz, she saw her at a table with a plate of burger and fries. Gin-Li wasn’t hungry yet but she was warmed up, felt strong and limber even if her muscles  and joints did ache a bit. She really could snowboard more, should have taken Robbie up on his tutoring.

But she took in the mountains’ jagged peaks, the snow bright and dark as electric lights more fully illuminated the scene, and that wide star-embroidered sky and all those people, and she was thinking of her father and how she might not have inherited his gene for daring, after all. Or maybe it would light her up tomorrow or next year or in her twenties. Wasn’t he twenty-six when he took off for Peru? Was he thinking that he’d be glad to hurry back to her mother or was he thinking nothing of the sort, only living in each moment until…he could no longer do so? She should try that, embrace it all more heartily rather than just sit with the moment. She wasn’t afraid, though. She was observing. For one example, for drawings she would make later in her candle lit room after her mother turned in. She would take all this and make it open up and tell her secrets  as her hand was moved by the pencil. Or so it seemed.

What would John Li think of it? He’d kept travel journals, made sketches of what he saw, too. She had taken one from her mother’s old trunk, hidden it in her closet. It was what she had of him. His eyes and  hair, yes, but even more, those rich words and pictures. So she could imagine him just a little better, live what he lived.

The scene below was perfect, astonishing in its beauty and it gave her the tingling feeling that told Gin-Li the whole universe was alive and busy with mystery. And then in the center of that expanse of opulent snow one person appeared in the distance and came forward and down and down and then a singular action multiplied and transformed into something else.

A snowboarder had completed a frontside 360 off a kicker, then landed wrong. Thudded–she could almost hear the body and snowboard, feel the vibrations enter the earth–and bounced once and slid and crumpled hard on the fast descent. Her hot hands pressed against the chill glass and she could hear shouts inside and out. Down the slope the body tumbled and then it stopped.

That unearthly stillness.

Gin-Li grabbed her jacket and raced out the building before Liz could call to her and Gin-Li down the stairs and out the doors, past her mother without seeing her and then slogged through snow partway up the slope where so many had stopped and were looking, gawking, reaching down and recoiling.

“No, don’t come close, we’ve called for help, stay back!” someone yelled at her and then more shouted but she knew what she saw and she was not stopping.

“Robbie!” she cried out and knelt in a twilit pillow of snow beside him, his body all zigzag. With three bare fingertips she smoothed away tiny crusts of ice like snowflake tattoos on the hair on his forehead, along his jaw.

His lips were perfect, chapped. His eyes were closed and his gaunt face, white as the moon but for flaring cheeks, said nothing to her but pain. He was hovering, she knew it, she had felt this last year after her bad car accident, such pain lifts you to another plane and leaves you there when all around people are doing things or not doing anything. Robbie was quieter than a hiding fox, quieter than the snow falling. More still than ever he had been unless he was sleeping in the ratty hammock or tents they’d set up in the woods and even then, she watched him breathe.

More still even than when he’d come last year to sit in the hospital with her, to keep watch as her own agony leaked out, as she ranted and raged about the meanness of rehab therapists. But she did not believe he could die, not now. She held him in her heart and told him so.

“He’s breathing, eyelids are twitching.”

Gin-Li took his freezing hand in hers and blew on it. Where was his glove? Robbie did not speak to her but he was telling her to just hold on, he was only floating nearby. Sudden lights flashed like mad carnival colors on whiteness. The siren wound down.

“Move aside, miss,” the EMTs said and touched him to find where and what things were doing as his eyes started to move behind his eyelids, as he started to come back to the pain.

She let go with the cry of an alarmed bird.

“Come, Gin-Li,” her mother said, arm about her. “We’ll follow the ambulance.” She had to keep blinking to not see John Li’s face looking back at her before he left for Peru. She squeezed her daughter’s hand and prayed.

Liz barely kept up with them she shook so hard. Not again, not another friend she might lose.

******

After the back surgery to put things together that threatened to come apart via fractured vertebrae and left shin that cracked, he came uneasily into consciousness. In the recovery room she stood behind his parents but Gin-Li kept well away from his bed to let his mother weep his father twist his cap. She was waiting until he could spot her and knew it might take a while. She waited all night and into early morning as her mother fretted, exhausted, with Liz in the waiting room. She now realized how her daughter felt. She so feared they would lose this good and kind one, too–her father, now Robbie. But Liz said she knew better, she felt it would be okay and Marley held onto this small thing.

It was just going to be like this, Gin-Li saw that at last. The difficult things he insisted on doing, the happy abandon he gave to all because he was an optimist. The risk taking. The near misses, downright failures and eager new beginnings. He wanted to find and push limits, “pursue the heart of living”, he’d confided in her as they’d hiked along a ridge that felt close to the sun. And she was willing to be there, cruising or working alongside him or quietly watching, whatever worked best, because she believed in him and he, in her.

He’d told her this last year after her own accident. And now she could not deny it.

“Gin-Li?” Robbie’s groggy voice made its way to her.

“I’m right here for you, my daredevil friend, dear Robbie,” she said as she leaned over, touched her lips to his forehead. His eyelids lowered; he smiled and slept. It was likely that she embraced all these possibilities because she was Gin-Li, the only honorable daughter of John Li, respected biologist and cheerful explorer of wild places (who missed her even now, as she missed him).

A Higher Life

Photo by Slim Aarons

“Oh, I suppose it seemed the theater of the absurd at times. It was the start of their high life, alright. Mom got most everything she wanted and too little of what she deserved,” Maggie said, watching the fire grow with a sudden catch of the dry tinder, then flicked over the logs.

A sudden wave of snowflakes gusted sideways. The cardinal she always looked for had come and gone and not returned but it had instincts and she had to be patient. The scene beyond was a swath of whiteness poked through with bits of green–the branches of surrounding evergreens.

“So she wasn’t happier later? That’d be a shame, all the work she put in.” The soles of Lynn’s feet were held closer to dancing flames.

Maggie pulled the crocheted blanket more tightly about her. “Well, Al was alright. He took care of her in most ways. I mean, they were living the sublime California dream, he a fledgling writer and new producer, she an actress with unstoppable optimism. All those auditions, she was off and running every day. At least she got some calls, acted here and there, finally got a pay off.”

Lynn slipped off her chair onto the frayed Persian rug, eased closer to the fireplace. “Hmm, she looked like Rita Hayworth. She had such ambition, so there’s no explaining things, how they worked out.”

Maggie felt the usual ripple of discomfort in her stomach. This was where she tended to stop talking. Since Maggie had moved to Boise months earlier, Lynn either tiptoed around the topic of her mother or tried to barge right in. Maggie didn’t want to have to manage any psychic fallout. Her mother had already died and too soon. Still, it was just Lynn; they went back forty years.

“There is always an explanation. But that story is long and at points, twisted.” She turned her head to meet Lynn’s eyes; they were curious but warm, like when they were growing up. “You remember enough.”

Lynn tipped her chin to study two golden candles on the mantel and sighed. “I recall that your knock-out mother was friendly. Often laughing. Your stepfather was sort of stern–compared to my father–and corny, and good looking in a quirky way. But they were also just busy adults; we were kids, had our own world.”

“Kids live in two worlds–their own bubble existence and then dips into odd goings- on outside of it. Ours was possibly more fun; theirs, more dramatic. Complicated–how it is when you grow up. But, honestly, it was like they strove to live out their movie-land fantasies right under my nose, not just at work. By the time I was on the an adolescent, we both heard and saw plenty.”

“I guess you’re right. It was just so fantastic, too…I never met anyone else like them.”

Maggie yawned, re-positioned in the armchair, hunkered down–it got so cold here– in the worn green and brown afghan. The only thing her mother had ever made by hand. The wine bottle was close by so she poured a second glass and offered a refill to Lynn. It was dismissed with a wave of her strong yet elegant hand, the hand of a massage therapist. Her surprised eyebrow raised a tad, as well. Maggie never drank as a teen though Lynn did; it was peculiar to see this almost reversed, and she hoped it didn’t get to slurred words. She hadn’t seen it yet but there had been snatches of that at times during her years of odd, inconvenient phone calls. But Maggie was supposedly “over” liquor, at least. And she seemed clear of mind. Well, they all had there challenges.

Lynn had once lived two houses down from the Thornbills’ place in suburban L.A. When Maggie Thornbill moved there at age eight, Lynn was thrilled to have a new playmate who was brave but not reckless, smart but not snotty. They hit it off with their dolls then roller skating, foot and bike races at the subdivision’s park, marathon gabs and games when they had sleepovers every other week-end. The Thornbills’ house was much like theirs, a large, newer mid-century modern house, its light-and shadow-filled rooms made more spacious with high ceilings and big windows. Plus there was the good sized pool. They loved to swim; they switched pools each time. Unless Mrs. Thornbill was paddling around in Maggie’s during daylight with a few friends. But her friend’s mother often swam at night and into  early morning, that’s what she heard from her parents.

But they didn’t have to note that, she was partly visible from Lynn’s bedroom window and she unabashedly spied sometimes. Everyone nearby would hear her at some point. The woman could be a real pistol or a riot after her first drink, everyone agreed. Lynn thought that was true of everyone who drank but it turned into a different thing. Lisa Thornbill became more of everything: ravishingly pretty, boisterous, unstoppable, daring. If she got in the pool with her drinks at hand, Al at poolside and watchful, her very own father would walk over by 1 a.m. and firmly ask Mr. Thornbill to please her rein in, other people had to get some shut eye even if they didn’t. The next day Maggie said nothing of the whole thing and neither did Lynn. Of course Maggie knew what went on, she lived there. But the two families were congenial and besides, it was just the way things were, old news very soon.

The other inescapable facts were that Mrs. Thornbill was fairly talented and gorgeous yet so were a few thousand others. She was lucky to get a smaller but recurrent role in a popular soap for ten years. Her husband’s promotions in the industry didn’t help speed up her career. But you’d think she was famous just to see her walk across the street, “natural grace lit with a preternatural fire”, her own mother had murmured once to a friend. Lynn had to look up the last adjective but she didn’t get it for years. When she did, the idea seemed right.

At sixteen, Lynn was forced to move to Illinois when her father got a transfer with bigger bucks in the advertising business. Her own life went downhill until she married and left home at nineteen, though she went on to college a bit late. Not like Maggie, off and running from the start and now at least regionally famous and her reputation spreading. She might be in Boise that long.

That was so long ago, Lynn mused, three children and five jobs and two husbands ago. It was fortuitous, she so wanted to feel, that Maggie had recently moved to Boise, Idaho where Lynn had lived the past half decade, single and with only one teen left at home. They’d lost touch but there they were, catching up. Lynn watched the leaping flames and  shook herself a little.

“You know, Mom called me almost every day after I graduated from Mills College and started teaching music,” Maggie said. “She had to admit she was proud of me, finally. She wanted to know everything–gosh, questions never ceased! I finally had to stop answering her calls much. She got the hint, always good at intuiting things if at times rather late. Her health by then had developed glitches–a bleeding ulcer, days long migraines, signs of early arthritis–but otherwise she seemed better than I imagined she’d be at forty-five. You would never know she lived through so much… still seemed nearly perfect. Looks can sure lie.” Maggie lowered her eyes as she gave a short laugh, sipped her wine then licked her lips as if satisfied. “Almost our age, weird, huh…” Her lips curved into a careful smile, eyes still dark with escaped anger. Then came a welling of relief. “But she could not endure more disaster.” She glanced at her friend. “I’ve outlived her, haven’t I,” and she smiled again.

It was unnerving to see that smile juxtaposed with the statement, as Lisa Thornbill had drowned during a boat trip in South America with her third husband. It was not likely an accident and her spouse was not to blame; he’d tried in vain to revive her.

Maggie’s face opened up as the edges of her anger softening, becoming satisfaction laced with mischief. And there it was: Mrs. Thornbill’s lively, charming presence stirring within Maggie. She finally saw that even Maggie’s features held many attributes of her mother. Or, perhaps, the mother’s own hopes had more fully come to bear fruition in her daughter.

Lynn plunged onward. “I remember the last Christmas we were still there, do you? We were busy packing and cleaning; we were to leave the day after New Year’s. Remember how I came over and cried on your shoulder for hours because we didn’t even get a Christmas, it cost too much, was a hassle and Dad had left for Chicago already? I thought that was heartless, it felt so cruel.”

“Well, it was, Lynn. But our parents often forgot we were still kids who actually needed them.”

Lynn wasn’t sure she wanted to fall into the pit of sadness that underlay Maggie’s words. They couldn’t tiptoe around it as they did as kids; everyone knew soon that Mrs. Thornbill was an alcoholic. It caused all manner of pain even then though she was–as when she was sober– most often a vivacious drunk, the hostess whose list everyone wanted to be on even if they knew something might go spectacularly wrong (“untoward”, her mother said) by the end of the event. Likely that was why some came.

As for Al Thornbill, he was a man with sublime equanimity and manifest ego. He was neither fazed by his wife’s antics nor her daughter’s snappish intelligence or growing sulkiness. He possessed a decisive manner, taking charge of any situation. Lynn wondered by the time she was a teen if he took charge a bit too much, unlike her own father who proudly proclaimed equality for all and seemed overall unperturbed which Lynn thought at times cowardly, also neglectful. For example, he scolded her for drinking up his scotch and made her pay him back for it but he never forbade her or monitored his bottles or her week-end drinking with friends, leaving hard experience as the teacher, too many times. She had to make up her own rules and she was still struggled to find what worked the best. But alcohol had lost its spell for the most part.

But Maggie seemed to have been born with a set of directives propelling her, many that didn’t match her parents’.  Her friend should have been a composer, perhaps–she thought up wonderful tunes as a kid, learned to write them down as a teen– not just a music teacher, a good thing but limiting, she thought. But Maggie had become a musical theater company director.

Maggie reached for the near-empty wine bottle, then pulled her hand back. “It was the holiday no one forgot in Belmont Estates.” She swept her dark, silver threaded hair into a long ponytail and slipped it in an elastic scrunchie. Her flecked amber eyes glowed in the firelight. “Of course, it was the tree that started it, the fact that dad didn’t want to wrestle with a real one again and Mom wanted a gold metallic and I was trying to convince them that only a real one would do, it was a tradition, they couldn’t change tradition. We didn’t have all that many, this one I needed.”

“I know, who among us wouldn’t need a tree? But us girls, especially, it was a tough teen-aged year. And I came over and we sneaked into the hallway to hear that argument your parents had.”

“We did? Well, Mom had begun an early cocktail hour by then, no doubt. But Al–Dad–ended up siding with me, well, maybe he just wanted to oppose Mom. The next day the two of us went out and found a scrawny tree that cost so much he almost took it back when it tried to fall off the car roof, but we got it home and into the yard. And Mom said, ‘What do you intend to do with that? It’s far and away too ugly to deposit in my living room, it must go!’, her manicured finger pointing somewhere into the distance. But he later wrestled it in, set it up with your dad’s help. Then Mom kicked it.” She looked at Lynn incredulously, shaking her head.

“Yes, I remember, she kicked it twice, a high heel was scraped and her big toe hurt. She hobbled off to their bedroom but we decorated it ’til late, stringing popcorn all of which we ate and I stayed over. I remember her high heels because they had pointed toes, spike heels and oh, that chartreuse green! I coveted them…”

“Yeah, heels were a serious need of hers. Then the next day we woke up and Mom was at it again, saying real trees dropped needles and looked such a mess, it was the ugly tree of the year and no one would be allowed into their house for their annual holiday party if it stayed there! She wanted gold! I was disgusted by the whole thing and told them I’d go get my own tree for my room, they should sort it out.”

“And your dad, usually so unruffled by her told us to go play at my house.”

Maggie unwrapped the blanket and got up to resposition falling chunks of embers, sparks jumping and spitting, wood sizzling. She turned to check out the snowfall beyond the picture window. “This endless snow. I still miss California sometimes.”

“Not me. I miss nothing but those good times we had. I’m so glad you called before you moved again, I never expected to be neighbors at this age. But you know I never wanted to leave, then.”

“It about defeated me to see you go, Lynn. But that day–a few days before Christmas and the usual party–was a fantastic way to wrap up things, right? We got up late and had our peanut butter slathered pancakes, I think…then I decided to check out Mom and Dad, see what they’d done. And what I saw as I rounded the corner of the house…”

“You ran back to get me and when we came up to the swimming pool, we went bonkers, just screamed!”

“My incredible, crazy mother! There she lay on the floating raft in all her glory and at the end of the pool bobbed our tree! Our decorations messed up, but still standing tall. I don’t recall how he rigged that up but it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. Those cheery bulbs bobbing in the warm blue water. Good grief!”

“I thought your mother was amazing, lying there in the buff, and that tree sparkling in the hot sun.”

“Was not naked! She had on her pinkish underwear –those impulses can still make me cringe–but at the same time it was sure something. The whole tableau, in some terrible, awesome way.” Maggie was surprised her throat constricted around the last words.

Lynn stood up then and put her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “What a party they threw. And no one was very embarrassing. You and I had fun, too, and your mom was great. She came up to me as we left and told me that she’d forever be grateful you and I got to be friends, that it was heaven-sent when you found a best girlfriend and to not let it slip away. Did you know that? It gives me goosebumps thinking of it, as here we are now.”

Maggie patted her hand and peered deeper into the fire. She felt so much  younger and older that she did at the start of the evening, as if she was caught in an accordion of time and hadn’t established her own spot in this new story, this new musical line yet.

“I think she was lonely, for all the so-called friends she made. Your own mother was much more domestic than she was, worked at the phone company part time; they didn’t have much in common. She didn’t easily let people in, it just looked that way I realized later, and when she did, they were taken with the physical beauty, not who she was. A woman who was a romantic at heart, a little lost, I think. Even scared. It was a time and place that made it so hard on women if you didn’t play the game. She wanted so much more, to be on the stage, not television. This is what she admitted during later talks we had. By then she was more sick than she let on but I didn’t want to call Dad… that is, my stepdad, but he was good to me. He had long  joined the ranks of Hollywood’s big fish.” She sighed. “We catch up every few months but, no,” she said to intercept more questions from Lynn like, was he finally rich now…”I don’t go visit him, anymore. It’s too much razzle dazzle mess for me. He told me he’s proud of my work. That’s enough. He can come visit me, if he likes.”

They sat down in their respective chairs, each lost in the past moving with its phantoms in and out of firelight. The silence had deepened as snowfall had thickened and begun begun to pile up

“Are you not going to get a tree?” Lynn asked.

Maggie chuckled. “I’d thought of it, then I didn’t get around to it, the current rehearsal schedule is killing me and then there are eight performances in one week. I’m alright with not having one. I mean, I’m alone here, who’d I share all the trimmings of Christmas with?”

“Me, of course, Maggie, who else? My son might even come if we whipped up a nice meal. I have no big plans for Christmas this year, just my usual New Years’ Eve party which you’re attending.”

“Well. A tree…sounds like some more work.” She stretched luxuriously, back arching, shoulders up to her ears, hands clasped together over her head, then she let it all drop into a slump. “But I’d do it. I do have a few acres out there.” She gestured out to a dim, snow-blinded view, nodded her head. “You two want to cut down a little tree with me tomorrow morning if we can slog through the drifts? I have the requisite snowshoes.” They hung on a back wall of her well-aged cabin and she got up to show them off to Maggie. “I’ve used them twice–got a small distance but I’ll get the hang of it.”

“Yeah, you’re a quick learner. I like that idea. Let’s do it!”

“Good. A Christmas tree is good.”

Once more they fell into quietness, a deeper cushion of comfort, the ease of an old familiarity resumed. They could hear snow being blown up, down and around by frigid winds, dashing against windows. Maggie wondered about her cardinal, if it would show up when the weather was spent of some of its power, when the snow lay sparkling like a stole upon sleeping earth. Somehow, that small red bird’s meanders among the proud trees, his stops at her bird feeder and his zigzag flybys past her big window meant more than she could say. Without those flashes of poppy red wings, she wouldn’t feel very at home in this frozen place; it was another stop on the road to a bigger career moving fast. The cardinal and often a mate had been there from the start and greeted her daily.

Come, red bird,” she said after Lynn left. “Don’t disappear.”

Maggie stood in the open doorway, arms pressed to chest, her hand then rising to cup a few snowflakes. As the wind shushed, a brilliant flash materialized from beneath trees to sweep through darkening and pristine air, his strong wings just missing her fingertips.