Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Vesta Arrives on Tuesday

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The library was not like home, not like work or family’s or friends’ homes, in fact not like any other place, and that is why Vesta entered the ivy sheathed building twice weekly. It was a deeply neutral zone to step into, and that made up for much else in her life.

On Tuesdays she went by noon, after she had risen by ten and savored a leisurely breakfast–or, as her mother said with a cluck of the tongue, brunch. Since Tuesday was her day off she had more time to wander aisles, read through a pleasing spread of periodicals, then make black-inked, backward-leaning notations in a spiral notebook on many nonfiction books she had no intention of checking out.

On Fridays it was an after-work visit at 5. It was a comforting pause before the long night ahead. Vesta picked up a book on hold if there was one, examined New Arrivals, then perused the stacks, her forays dependent on last week’s choices. She chose one or two books to read over the week-end; she was a speed reader, thanks to a high school summer course. On Tuesday she returned books and stayed longer, settling into sway-bottomed armchairs chairs or hunching over smooth maple tabletops with her literary bounty.

This had gone on for years in one variation or another, since Vesta had graduated from college prepared to be a real estate legal assistant. At Marsh and Wright Properties she filed, managed inventory, answered calls and provided information, interfaced with banks, prepared documents and reports. In other words, she made sure all was in order, which some assumed was the dullest of positions, but she demurred. It held a small thrill when shoppers found their ideal home and all went slick as could be. But work could get fast and pressurized, impacted by sudden, errant matters, and could be rife with emotional fireworks due to the complex nature of human beings.

Vesta needed respite from all that despite being good at her job, passably content most weeks. Thank goodness for Tuesdays off, though it was not helpful for an extended week-end. But Ms. Marsh’s college age niece, Kendra, had a sort of internship on Tuesdays, so that was that. Not that Vesta objected much. Kendra would otherwise be in and out more. She was not a young woman to be trifled with, her pale face overcome by flaring glares which rendered her paler eyes mere slits. It was like being forced back into high school when Kendra waltzed in. So Tuesday off was perfect.

Vesta not only liked routine, she used it as a shield. Library visits were part of her scheme to maintain equilibrium in both the outer and inner worlds she inhabited. If work could seem full of screeching hawks on some days, well, her mother could be a character from a Wagnerian opera with her miseries, passionate wants and needs. She hit the booze too much and ruined everything she could, all the while calling her full glass the only faithful love she had ever known. It was more than sad to her daughter.

Inside Pine Grove Public Library, Vest found critical relief. She found random and persistent reasons to hope.

******

Libraries tend to be safely sociable but Vesta most often avoided people, even–or especially–their glances. In fact, they made her sweaty beyond the crisp, regulated office environment. It wasn’t hard to manage once she found the areas she wanted to pursue–she mad a beeline to it, got focused. Every patron did that, they weren’t there to chat up just anyone, though some made passing comments on books others had in hand, a free five second review. She ignored those; she made up her own mind. If stumped, she sought a librarian, though their formidable knowledge trotted out for the asking often made her feel lacking in greater intelligence. It wasn’t their fault, she knew. She had a lesser view of herself, anymore.

But there were some who too obviously were seeking hearts’ longings in the benign visage of an incoming visitor. She spotted singles in need of a partner; older folks who wanted a congenial conversation over a cup of coffee; a youth who longed for a research buddy to get him or her through tedious projects and then to hang out. Homeless folks who lounged, read and dozed in corners said nothing but their steady presence reminded Vesta that she should be more grateful and kind.

So she slunk down aisles until she fingered the spine of a book of intent, then stood quite still with back straight, feet apart, and turned pages fast as she could scan. The constant hum of electric lights, murmur of voices at the check out desk, people’s clothes rustling as bodies slipped by her–none of this marred concentration as nagging odds and ends of her life began to slink away, the thin pages offering portals into greater possibilities.

On a Tuesday in June Vesta had gathered three books about natural dyes, how to make and use them for ink or textiles. It was enough to keep her engaged, notebook at hand, for a good hour or two before the fiction section beckoned. Perhaps westerns, she hadn’t tried any western themes in years, or historical romance, though she doubted she would check out the latter–not usually written to her tastes. She claimed a rectangular table, though shortly there came a man who carried National Geographic magazines, glancing over from the other end, then getting engrossed in his pile. They were situated near four chairs in various positions, two at a farther distance.

Vesta was deep into dyes from plants whose names she was trying to memorize when a man and a woman entered the area. They were talking in more than a whisper, not that people did that much anymore. A flash of persimmon–this color name had leapt from a book she studied–startled her peripheral vision and she turned to see who it was stirring the air. Tall, reedy, the woman was nearly enveloped in an orange red cardigan worn over a black dress and fully crowned with burnished volumes of hair, feet clad in tall brown boots. Her companion listened to her but with head down, and wore a navy pea coat like ones Vesta admired in thrift shops, and jeans were black. When he looked up from the chair that faced the table–the woman’s position was sideways in relation to Vesta– his tanned face framed by black mop of hair was so startlingly, unavoidably handsome that Vesta let out a tiny gasp. Then she returned to her book, biting her lower lip and burning with embarrassment.

The guy at the end of her table didn’t raise his head, so intent was he on travelling to Mongolia’s vastness with its legendary horsemen and women, Iceland’s elf haunts or the Oceanic islands’ beauty. Vesta made two small boxes with her pen on a notebook page, underlined her last note, tried to refocus, turned to the next book. She leaned in, hand under chin, her handy veil of hair falling forward.

“Have you taken care of things? Is the vacation all booked yet?”

The mellifluous voice of Persimmon Woman came to Vesta and she stiffened, bent toward the pages. Quiet, she longed to shout.

“You should be dead!” Navy Man said, trying to control the volume and not much succeeding. “Why would we do that now?”

“Because you promised, and we have to go.”

“Of course we don’t–this is what is stuck in your head since the, uh, the accident–“

“Don’t even try to get out of it.”

“I’m not trying, I am out of this scenario, all that was then, this is now.” He made as if to get up but the woman yanked at his sleeve.

Vesta wriggled in her seat. The Nat Geo Guy remained mesmerized by his pages, never mind the odd conversation near them. None of her business, either, so she turned to an index, her fingertip sliding down the list until it landed on indigo, page 102.

“You should have died!” Navy Man whispered fiercely.

A pause, then hissed response, “You, too, Max–“

“But we didn’t so now–“

“–let’s move on. I’m well enough to get on with it, you know I am.”

Vesta cast a look their way. She sure didn’t sound convinced, though the woman made a good show of it, tossing her head, hair flying out from her like a banner of protest and courage as she moved in, knee-to-knee. Her mane had its own personality; she used it to effect, and he melted back into his chair. His patrician face–nose perhaps prominent, Vesta noted, but overall he was miracle–became obscured by Persimmon Woman’s bell-sleeved sweater as she sat taller and forward, as if to do something more, who knew what.

Why weren’t they at home talking this over? At a coffee shop or a park or anywhere else but in the library? This was a different space, not really public like all that. It was getting to Vesta; she closed her books. Then Navy Man sat forward, glanced around. Before Vesta could turn away, his gaze caught hers–she actually felt it, like a hook caught on an unsuspecting fish, an easy snag– his wide eyes, full of penetrating vision, only blinked and then slid away as he realigned with his companion. They resumed talking but softly, their voices a muted tapestry of higher and lower, darker and brighter, rougher and smoother.

The Nat Geo Guy leaned back and stretched, not a quick shake-off- drowsiness-stretch but one that betrayed tight muscles that had to release, arms held high with wriggling fingers, legs lengthened far under the table. He rubbed his palms over his balding head and then sat up straight.

He did not look at Vesta but looked straight ahead, then at the magazines, then at his phone. He was silent, rather inconspicuously alert, it struck her, and he looked…officious, official, perhaps a reporter, a researcher who was looking for more than good articles and photos. He was oddly still in the way a eavesdropper or even a predator might be… Oh, she made too much of his presence! He was only reading, paying no one any heed–as she certainly was.

She could not further sit there, ignore things. They were all three so intent on being contentious or immersed that she couldn’t regain her sense of gravity, that modulating calm that descended on her when she first walked in. The Navy Man had said, “You should have died!”–had he not? Did he mean he wished she had died or that she may well have died or that she wasn’t grateful enough or he was still feeling shocked by her almost-death?

Why did this matter to her?

She gathered her books and stood, pushing her chair back hard so that it almost fell backwards. The Nat Geo Guy never acknowledged her leaving.

“No trip right now, that’s that,” the Navy Man said and his partner laughed but not kindly.

The Nat Geo Guy didn’t move but his gaze slid over the table top, as if he was reaching for something she couldn’t see.

Vesta felt the urge to run.

She grabbed her books, loped away from them, and her heart shook off reins, galloped toward an unknown finish line. She entered the restroom, turned on the water, splashed her face with cool refreshment until she was calmer, leaned back against the white tiled wall. Her breath slowed. Vesta took out a comb to smooth back her damp, wavy bangs. She applied a pale sheen of lip gloss and pressed lips together, peered into her eyes and saw they were not too jumpy, were clear.

But she had been in the library for a little over an hour and nothing good had come of it. People airing personal lives was not what she looked forward to–she heard enough in her work–despite her curiosity about the entirety of it. She debated on staying or leaving and was definitely leaving momentarily when the door burst inward, thrusting Persimmon Woman into the path between door and sink.

“Take it, toss it, don’t care!” she said and dropped a small leather backpack at Vesta’s feet, then lost her balance a bit. As she grabbed the door handle the swift motion threw all that coppery hair away from her face. The woman turned, lips tight but breathing heavily, hands on hips, staring right at Vesta with eyes that could knock you through a wall and into next Sunday.

Her forehead were bruised, her neat nose scabbed over; her jaw and left side of her face were marred by a sinuous red wound held together by countless tiny stitches. The gauze had slipped, dangling by a bit of tape.

Vesta shook her head and pressed her back against the wall as Persimmon Woman surmised who she was, what was next. She looked as if she should sit, but the door began to open and the wounded woman pushed it hard, sweat coursing down her neck. She was feverish in all ways, Vesta saw.

“Don’t faint, shut up, you heard.” She pointed to her face. “Work-related, I’m in a risky business, unavoidable. Oh, so what!” She leaned onto the door, which bumped as someone tried to push it again and more successfully. But they both knew she’d fail in this fight.

“Open up! Put your hands up!” someone barked out and this was echoed by another.

Vesta tried to pull a deep breath, moved back from the backpack as the woman picked it up, slung it over her shoulder. Shrugged though her eyes still blazed, and the wound glared. “Sooo naive, sugar, well, too bad,” then she released the door and walked right into the presence of three policemen who spun her around, handcuffed her so fast that Vesta felt dizzy.

Vesta sank to the floor; it was impossible to stand.

The Navy Man looked over his shoulder as he was taken away, hands locked together. And his look of cunning combined with such force of life–and perhaps there was a twist of dismay–landed right inside her, setting off a quiver of fear that mixed with her own regrets–the latter of which she did not quite grasp yet.

And there he came, the Nat Geo Guy, talking into an electronic device as he offered her a hand. Pulled her up, took the backpack, led her out of the restroom to a public reprieve.

“Sorry, that got messy fast,” he said, “but you’ll be okay, right? There’ll be questions.” He pointed at another man on the periphery, muttered something more into his device, nodded at her and left the library.

Her knees quaked, feet felt like puddings as a bevy of librarians rushed to her, one with glass of water, another with blanket as if she was in dire need of help. They didn’t even know how little, or how much, they were helpers, after all. All she wanted to do was breathe clean air, book in hand. Go back home. To a life she could fathom.

There was the investigator who asked tons of questions, and then she was allowed to go. Outdoors, the bystanders–and news photographer by the size of the camera– managed to get several pictures as she left. The TV van screeched into the lot but she ran to her car. Vesta fought back the urge to smile and wave like a crazed beauty queen. She let tears eek out as she raced away.

******

“So what exactly happened?” her mother asked for the tenth time.

Her suddenly fawning mother (gone half-bad with alcohol in her blood) was only on her third beer at 4 pm. She was still enunciating well, not emotionally unpredictable, but Vesta didn’t want to say more than she had when she walked in–the bare facts. Her concerned mother’s voice was akin to a mosquito buzzing, circling, buzzing and she was sorry she felt that way. But it had been a weirdly exhilarating as well as a frightening day, so far. She could not explain all this to her mother–she was not a truly empathetic type.

And Vesta could not endure much of anything but a good run and steamy shower, then a layabout in the back yard, dark sunglasses and wide brimmed sunhat blocking out more questions. Read the paper, look online, she wanted to say to her, feeling guilty–just get the nutty details yourself.

But when the sun set, and smudged silver and charcoal glimmers gathered like voluminous, gentle creatures hiding in grassy corners, and her mother had retreated with a Tom Collins and TV, Vesta sorted it out in the back yard. She knew her mother would look out the kitchen window from time to time to check if she was there. It was enough of a comfort for the moment.

She had only, as usual, gone looking for those books which emptied her as they clarified details of nonessential matters, the topics that made her wonder and study, not seize up with life’s toxic detritus. She had been interrupted in that comforting process by three people. Two were mysterious, found to be criminals who triggered a nervousness while capturing her fancy. One person was an ordinary man with extraordinary skills. Vesta’s natural suspicion and growing irritation had sent her away from unknowns, a danger zone. But it had found her, anyway. And though the events were unusual and crazy to a degree and not expected by any stretch of imagination, the experience was not as bad as others might think.

It was jarring. Unusual. Compelling as well as repellent.

She said to no one but herself, “That Navy Man was the best looking man I will ever see and be seen by, for the duration of my entire life…”

She said, “And Persimmon Woman was something else, scary and extraordinary…”

She thought about the backpack, if it held weapons or drugs, something secret or worse. If the woman took it back because she was who she was, no denying it. Or if she thought she might still escape. Or she just wanted to be with her cohort– alive, imprisoned or soon dead.

What was the accident that had ruined her face? Did he care so much that he was reconsidering their plans– or was he evading her demand to run away with him? Or had he been the perpetrator of the so-called accident? No, she determined, he just did not keep Persimmon Woman safe enough. He had another part, and she would never know.

She had known real, deep fear. And a kind of awe. Repulsion, and wonder.

As she saw them move again through her mind with their energy of otherness, danger and beauty, she said to herself: “Will they ever be surprised at work, holy cow.” She looked up at the newly star-punched darkness. “And Kendra, upstaged…”

At last rosiness of sunset, she held onto her historical mystery novel like a frail armor. She decided her life would just go on as before on the outside– for now. But on the inside it would be different. Already who she was felt rearranged, loosened, reconsidered, dashed. Vesta might just take a two week vacation, finally–somewhere far away, get lost in the newness of things. There was more to investigate than what she’d been willing to learn for years and years. Until this Tuesday at the library when life erupted right out of the books and into her own.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Language for a Tangerine Life

He took his leave from his landscaping job (was it deemed a yard, garden or more generally, estate…so many acres for sweat to drip to dirt) noon on the dot and went to the Far Ridge, grass-swept where nothing but silken melodies of birds stroked his ears. The rough-shod language of the others, the smallness of their lives hemmed him in even as he chummed about, had made cohorts over time. That is, they worked alongside each other, shared their food if you ran short, and took turns with rumbling sighs.

But Lonny was a person made of a whole different cloth his mother said with quiet certainty, that was a lapse into generosity, her best part. What she meant was that Lonny was lucky to show such fine skills in manual labor, for he was even humbler, lost in another way. She had tried. But that was there was the consensus by so many when he was growing up: that he was stupid somehow, his tongue so tied that he didn’t speak most hours of any day. Few could interpret the jumble of consonants and vowels he let go if required. It was a birthing accident, a tongue so clumsy and slow, they surmised. So no one asked him much, he was Lonny, that said it all. A barest or rapid nod, eyebrow raised or lowered, mouth skewed, eyes shifting or smiling–these were his language if you cared to learn it. His hands filled in the blanks, part quasi-signing he’d picked up, more often a shorthand of miming. He could speak with the gravest strain but managed a short,gasping sentence at times. But, truly, he was not one to seek attention so he was more a benign shadow that fell across the path and unsettled one’s conversation here and there. For you never knew what he might hear or see, he might have super senses attuned, otherwise. They also noted he managed to do well in school, and yet how? His tongue had much less, it seemed, to do with a kind of sequestered intelligence as he grew older.

It was correct that he stayed well aware of many things, but Lonny had less care for their lies and truths and goings on than they imagined. He kept inward, tending thoughts which ran fathoms deeper than Lake Minatchee after a heavy spring rain. He was a reader, and liked everything from Aristotle to Lorca to Carver to the latest bestseller list. Mrs. Morton, the only full time librarian, saw that he got what he wanted, set aside topics or authors she liked for him. The past few years, though–such books on landscaping design, volumes on soil conservation, plant identification. He had been hired on at Morton Landworks at age 16, part time until he graduated–he had taken to the work as if it was his calling.

Lonny always had a book with him for lunch, and as he gnawed on a leftover chicken leg and baked beans or savored tart potato salad with cheese and apple on the side, he took in information at a rapid pace. He wasn’t a kid, no, but he wasn’t entirely an adult, so his mother saw to him despite his obscure intention to leave town and set up house on his own. But where would he do his work gardening if not in Marionville? His Achilles heel remained his blood deep, uncured state of silence.

There was almost no one who came by Far Ridge. It took fifteen to walk there and others felt it wasted time and effort at lunch hour. There was no longer a clear path weaving through swaths of tall bobbing grass–it had been swallowed up years ago, no one missed it. Other than wide views of the meadows spreading about like a wheat-colored skirt and Ferryman Woods, there was a firm breeze that swiped perspiration right off you in seconds. Or a hefty wind that about lifted you up as a storm brewed. The wind had its sundry ways and Lanny appreciated that in addition to the solitude that rested in open space. He looked about, closed his eyes for good measures of red-wing blackbirds’ songs. All in all, he was good with the world if he remembered to let demons of worry escape his grasp, that is, how could he better himself more, maybe rise in the company; who could love him and he, finally, her? That sort of thing. But he had few actual worthy complaints, twisted tongue be damned. There was much to like about his life.

And so that noon was like any early June lunch hour: full belly, smoothed mind, sun high yet not attacking him with heat, rest enough to sustain him another four or five hours on Westwind Estate. He stood and stretched.

It was a glimpse of orange that caught his eye, but then grasses hid it– until a gust pushed spindly stalks over. The vivid remnant suddenly ballooned up and out into full shape of color. He narrowed his eyes against white sunlight, resettled his cap. The orangeness flashed up and over the tops of wild grasses and two legs beneath it carried it up to the other side of the ridge by Ferryman Woods. The ancient trees’ shade thickened and darkened things, yet the legs and arm became more visible: they moved from and under the tangerine dress. The girl or woman inside it was leaping, spinning, bowing, turning along the earth as if an exotic, freed bird.

Lonny couldn’t further sharpen his vision but he knew one thing–he hadn’t seen her before. Nothing about her physical or any other aspect was familiar. He’d worked at the estate for years off and on, under direction of Morton Landworks, ever since he’d completed high school. The ridge, hills and meadows, the dense woods and the lake beyond–these were familiar as his own self and so, too, area farmers and stable owners, lake and country home residents. Yet here was an alien person. A wanderer into his paradise. He was struck that what he felt was not only mild shock but a pleasant sensation as he watched her. The swirling movement was softened and emboldened at once by the one who wore such clothing in midday summer heat.

Still–who was she and why was she doing all that dancing? Not even a stage around those parts, no tourist traps of theatrical offerings. She looked like some kind of dancer in the filmy summer dress as she stood a moment before that wooded hill, amid early June’s beauty. He’d never seen anything or one so light, fluid, as if water had been changed to a flame of orange light and decided to crest and spin, then ripen and bloom into something new.

Into her.

He watched her a few moments, a creature he was unable to describe much less understand but at the least she was entirely herself. That much was obvious–there was certainty in her every motion. Doing what she wanted, a-shimmer with enthusiasm. Celebrating, he guessed, no more than the rich tonic of the day. Her head bobbed, then she dove behind and into the woods.

Lonny took in a breath of sweet air and then he went down the ridge, back to labors. He had to, despite a hesitance to leave. Where was she going, where was she from? He might have imagined it, perhaps…a girl in a dress, dancing. Improbable. But he had witnessed it all while making quick work of lunch.

When he passed the others clustered at the back gardens, he said as usual nothing at all and what could he say even if he had the gift? That he had seen a tangerine goddess of a woman dancing by the woods? They’d immediately spoil it, heckling him. They’d run up the ridge, call and hoot for her to show herself. Unthinkable. He put himself hard into the pruning of bushes, then smiled to himself.

******

He never expected it but the next day and the next and then so many after, she was there. Of course, it was not the tangerine dress every time, but blue or black or red or yellow; sometimes, shorts with light summer tops. He had to keep a keen eye but soon she would flutter up or run into the light. Lonny could not imagine why she would choose this time and place to do what she did–part exercise, he thought, part dance, perhaps part mindless play. Perhaps she felt freer there than elsewhere, as did he, and she thought herself alone.

He had been near-tempted the fourth day to bring binoculars to identify her, maybe, to observe better but the thought felt tawdry–and it was unnecessary, as well. He could see her movements well enough as he ate his lunches and drank cold tea under the shade of a large white oak tree.

Sometimes she was there a short time, others for the whole hour, and not yet gone as he left. The dance was similar in grace but not always in steps and so often she displayed such strength when, with bare feet, she pushed off the ground, jumped high with legs out at angles or leapt or spun about with electric power. It was a free dance concert in the open air and he was mesmerized, he happily gave in to it. He admired her, that she was that expressive and unafraid, kicked up her heels, laughed for any reason, grabbed the world with her excitement. He, too, sensed how careful with it she could be with slower delicate motions. It was a spectacle that gave him uncommon shivers, yet there was a quality to her height–he’d decided she was nearly tall as he was, six feet– and her embracing reach and that loping gait that calmed him, too.

He had to shake his head after to clear it of her so he could once more focus on an everyday world. Lonny usually left before she did. Some days she melted back into Ferryman Woods or slipped down into golden meadow grasses and seemed an apparition, fast vanished. It occurred to Lonny that she stayed in a lake house on the other side of the woods. That she was summer folk. And that might have made him give up the watching altogether as a waste–summer people swanned in and out of town, leaving litter, making trouble as well as dropping cash– but instead it drew him in more. For she, then, was truly transitory, temporal, now here and gone again. She was at least an unknown, different from other women he knew… so he must not disturb her presence with any judgement, or any movements closer.

Five days a week Lonny watched from the tree and keep her secret and it was enough. He had the sixth and seventh day to contemplate the scenarios and found he did not want to find her there other days, only upon his arrival on Monday once more. But he did wonder, what of her life beyond that hill and those woods? And how long was she for Marionville…

His mother thought him more absent-minded than usual but she had enough on her hands with his younger sister disobeying rules and two part-time jobs, one at the dry cleaners, one at the marina. She knew that the fewer questions, the better; Lonny would then avoid her. Besides, at near twenty-two he knew how to make his way well enough despite a lack of asking and answering the usual way. He had been an awkward, timid but good kid, and now was more confident and capable than she’d hoped, a decent young man. Her guilt and sadness over his speech impediments were at times less than a growing pride in him. She kept him looking forward yet didn’t say much about things one way or another. To be sure, she was relieved he was yet home, for now.

******

By late June, Lonny thought he’d seen almost everything of which the woman was capable, at least on grassy earth in dimmed or searing sunlight. He also liked to picture her as a basketball or tennis player; she was surely an athlete as well as dancerly. He believed she must have a brilliant future, that she was on her way from summer’s ease to somewhere big and boisterous, New Chicago or Seattle, places he’d surely go if he had a way to get there. And then survive.

In private, he started to ask her things in the velvety interior of his mind. Did she go back to college in fall? Was she from a big or small family and did it include a father? Was she a bibliophile, nose stuck in printed pages every day even for awhile, as was his? Where had she traveled in the world or their continent? Did she like the night skies here? What was her favorite musical genre? Did she stretch her whole body before sleep as he did? What about moths that pulsed at the light bulbs on porches, did they scare or interest her? He put head in the cups of his hands and groaned. This was not a good thing, talking to her without a sound, that he had all these words that he could never speak aloud.

The eleventh work day, a Monday, Lonny found the indented spot under the overreaching tree and opened his rumpled brown bag to extricate lunch. He spread out a tea towel on bumpy grass where roots hunched up, then laid out a ham with lettuce and butter sandwich, a cup of corn chips and bottle of tea. He didn’t glance at the hilltop by the woods until he took a first bite. It was just trees and grasses green and golden with patches of tiny daisies opening before him. Sun’s rays targeted his outstretched legs, bees hovered about the tea bottle, bumped into his head. The green and brown earth smelled lake-damp and meadow warm and it felt like a secret island, with sky as a backdrop of blue so clear it was as if he could see into the far off universe.

He was glad to be sitting and eating in such a tree’s gift of shade. But she was not there. He finished eating, pulled out his book, in case he must read rather than watch her practice whatever was for today. It was an ancient book of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson with pages yellowing, binding cracked.

He was onto a second essay, head bent over, an eye on his pocket watch and one on the empty knoll when there was a flutter and flash at edge of his vision. Orange filament afloat in the burning air. He stood and spun to his right, book falling to ground as she appeared from behind the tree and stood opposite him, hands at hips.

“Well, here we are,” she said, her voice soft, hazy as smoke. “You have been watching me. And I have been watching you watch me.”

All those repetitious words felt like a squall of language but it was the sight of her that did him in. He stepped, no, stumbled back, hands finding armor of tree bark just in time. Her tanned fair face and deep blue eyes were not threatening, but neither were they brimming with delight. Rather, sharply questioning and appraising. Maybe open to further discussion. Of which he could offer none. He wished he might say: you are amazing, that’s why I watch you, why else?

“I-I-I…” he started and had to stop, not even the simplest thing would come out, of course, so he tapped his lips, then made a cross-cutting action with both hands before his waist to signal there was nothing he could say further.

“You’re done before we even begin? Well. You won’t advance like some jerk, after all?” She took a small step back, still. “I have to say, this is a surprise.”

He shook his head and made his face gentler as he saw she had a sizable rock grasped in a hand. They stared at each other in surprise and uncertainty when he found he had to sit down to avoid being made a fool by weakening knees that resulted in falling over. She dropped the rock and took a seat many feet across from him.

Lonny tried hard to think how to say his name without mangling it but gave up, his breathing too shallow, brain too numb. If there was anything that might still terrify him, it was the sudden need to speak, that expectation of another of his words, words, words.

“I wondered why you’re always here eating and watching me, that’s all. Two weeks now, at least.”

He looked at her still face then pointed to his lunch, half of which he had stepped on. He gestured back towards the estate, as well.

“Apparently a person of few words…? You work down there, eat lunch here… I see. I don’t really live here, so why should I think I own that spot?” She flapped her hand toward the wooded hill across the expanse of meadow. “I’m here for the summer so I dance for practice, partly, but also for fun. The rest of the year I study dance…and many other things.”

She smoothed down the hem of full skirted tangerine dress, then her light brown hair which was pulled back into a high ponytail. Looked out at Ferryman Woods. He let his eyes study her face closely then. Perspiration dotted her wide forehead and generous upper lip. Tiny waves were plastered to forehead, at her ears. Her nose was small. His own neck was prickly with heat and sweat so he scratched, looked away just as her eyes slid back to him. He glanced at his watch. It was high time to get back, and he gathered food detritus and stuffed it in the bag, then stood, gestured to the land below them.

She got up, then.”I’m Marni Bellingham,” she said. “You are?”

“L-l-l-lonnn,” Lonny spat out, then turned, ran down the hill while she observed the curious lumbering man grow smaller and smaller.

******

He avoided the ridge after that and ate with Giles, who had befriended him at the start; they both had initially been teased some, Giles for his Quebec accent and unusual thinness; Lonny for his speech problem, his enduring silence.

“All I can get is that you gave up your lunch spot because of some girl. But you are interested, I think? There must be a hundred different girls in summer months. I might let that one go, Lonny.”

Of course he had already determined that was the best course of action. Or inaction. If he did return to the ridge any time soon, he may or may not see her but even so, what was there to do or say? The fact was, he couldn’t tell her anything that might reassure or interest her.

“You’re a good looking guy, Lon, and a good man but honestly, why waste time? Marionville has plenty for you to consider–take Flora, for example, an industrious and attractive woman/ We went out with her and Evie twice but you gave up. I’m going to see Evie this week end, why not come and she’ll bring Flora along? “

Lonny hated these one-sided chats. They went nowhere. He had dated, since age 18, a tad more than he could count on one hand. Before then, none. No one wanted to be with a man who was considered if not actually stupid, then essentially a mute with only a small future. The fact that he made good money now at the landscaping company meant little to someone who, if honest, also needed to talk all day and night with her man. Well, if only.

Besides, there was Marni. She leapt through his mind any time he wasn’t considering something else, and then she might yet pop through as if crashing his brain from some other dimension, reminding him she was just off stage, but still there. Or was she?

******

In town on Saturday morning while downtown with his mother and sister Laura, he saw someone who might be her sitting with someone who might her father. He had to look twice, then indicated to his mother and sister he had another errand to get done. Laura frowned at him then followed their mother to the bakery for their scones.

Marni was sitting outdoors on the coffee shop terrace. The older man was reading a newspaper and she had her chin propped in her hand, the other hand around a coffee mug. Lonny was going to walk right past her and into the shop, just to see her that was all, then leave. He managed to get by and inside, then stood in line, heart tramping his chest.

“Hey there, Lonny.”

He turned to find Flora smiling at him with that bright pink lipstick but as he nodded at her, in swept Marni to stand behind her. Flora followed his changed gaze, scowled, then looked at the chalkboard menu above them.

“H-h-hi-uh…” Lon called out in Marni’s direction, then stepped out of line. Idiot, he thought, what are you up to?

“Lon!” She made room for him in front of her. “I wondered where you’d gone. Figured I’d scared you off. Sorry…If you’re getting a coffee, want to join Dad and me outside?”

Did he want to join her…yes! Did he want to join her father? No, and he would have to chat away. He moved ahead a notch; she moved with him.

“Listen,” she said in a near-whisper, “it’s okay if you’re quiet. Not every one is a talker. I can talk a lot or a little or none at all…”

He nodded his head at the barista who always knew Lonny’s order. Marni ordered her refill and they stepped away together.

“Marni girl?” The man who was decidedly Marni’s father in black polo shirt, khaki shorts and deck shoes had stuck his head in the half-open door and called out, “I’m off to the marina, meet in an hour?” He nodded at Lonny as if he was a nice guy he naturally trusted with his fabulous daughter and then left.

Flora departed, too, with a deeply heated backward glance at him as if he was a traitor.

The two of them sat at her table, cooled by shadows cast from as large blue and white striped sun umbrella. At first she said nothing but sipped her coffee, looking into the busy street. Her sleeveless white blouse with tiny green sailboats caught his eye, then her muscular arms, too, and her hand went to the vee of bare throat and chest. He felt the color rise in his face.

“Lonny, tell me if I am wrong. I get right to the crux of a matter… But you’re sorta mute, is that right? I suppose there is some fancy technical term, sorry.”

He lifted his chin a bit, held it there, his hands clasping the seat of the chair as he waited for the usual discomfort, tried to stave it off with perfect stillness. His eyes, he hoped, said little except he was glad to be there.

“I don’t care, that’s what I had to say. It’s different but means little to me.”

He shifted his eyes from her face to table top. Well, nothing to say to that even in his head–she might mean it or not, anyway. He wished it was not even a point to be made but there it was, and hopefully over with.

“Lonny, this is what you see about me but might not get: I’m a dancer. So I don’t love to indulge so much in regular language, not unless I can possibly help it. I’d rather dance, period.”

“Oh…” he uttered a well of a word, bottomless, and he fell into the moment.

Marni smiled, teeth flashing. “And I’d like to like you, maybe.” She put a index finger on his forearm, tapped it once, tentative yet telegraphing an affirmative.

He gulped his coffee, tried to not choke; that soft finger, her lilting voice. Some passageway inside him went from darker to lighter, and opened up enough that he felt his chest open, too, and his head expanded to accommodate her words: And I’d like to like you, I think.

He set the half-full mug down, rose up and offered the crook of his arm for a walk– along the lake, he gestured, in the sunny day. She held up another finger, then made her hands swoop and fly so that she took her body down the steps and dancing onto the sidewalk, not a care for what anyone thought. Lonny watched in amusement, then jogged after her. As he trotted he tried to say her name. The best he did was manage Ni. As she came to a measured stop, she was so brimming with laughter that he had to catch her hand in his and tug her along.

There were more than a few Marionville inhabitants who noticed all this that Saturday and were perplexed for days–but Lonny was still water running deep, you just never knew. That young woman, a summer girl, someone said a talented dancer? Well, she was a foolish or brave young woman to take that curious one on. But Giles, Lonny’s mother and sister Laura knew better. Marni was on the verge of discovering an astonishing man, someone about to come into his own– but they kept their thoughts to themselves, just as Lonny would hope. Just as Lonny almost always did.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Kudzu, Snakes and Poetry

Photo of kudzu vines by Frank DiBona 2009

“Why are you so resistant?”

Rennie leans back against the lawn chair, clasps hands behind his sweaty neck, puts his feet up on the stump. Listens to cicadas buzz their overpowering song–it feels like they’ve taken up residence in his head.

This is the weekly question, asked one way or another. It flees their mouths with little effort, words soft or rough, as an aside out of nowhere, after another discussion. It is Jillian, his mother or Zach, his older brother– and on alternate days, Pops, his grandfather. Mia has been gone near three years; she is never going to take him to task. She would not have before.

Rennie at first took it all seriously and tried to answer–a thoughtful, embroidered statement to keep them satisfied awhile–but then he tried to lighten up, have fun with it. Which aggravated them so they came back at him two-fold. But he’d had enough after the first few months they started on him. After a year it was noxious, tiresome. It made his head want to explode or just take off, running to unknown territory.

This now makes him laugh: his head running away, tiny legs trying to balance with their heavy load all the way to Iceland or the Galapagos Islands or India. What might they think about that image?

To be fair, their emphasis on words changes now and then: why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant–and so on. It’s a refrain or a chant he hears as background noise. So he has different answers, if he answers.

“Resistant to Sal Rogers’ charms? Her hair is just too shiny brown.”

“Resistant to the colds you get? Lucky, I’d guess.”

“Resistant to snake venom? Well, it depends on what type, if I am in the mountains, hills, marshes or fields. If I make it out. So far, so good.”

“Resistant to your words? Repetition does the trick. I don’t hear them, anymore.”

“I’m not resistant to lots of things–let’s talk about those, alright?”

Jillian is hanging out the sheets on the line. She could dry them in the dryer but she likes how they flap and billow–lavender, white and beige with faded leaves–and the sun soaks them with its natural disinfectant properties. When she takes them down she presses them to her face and breathes in the fresh happiness that imbues them for awhile. She likes to hang dry her underwear, too, and the boys’ and Pop’s t-shirts. Makes them whiter, last longer. Makes her feel more secure to smell the sunshine when she hugs them.

Rennie appreciates that she does this. He likes the sun sweetness and roughness of the cotton sheets when he crawls into bed. That moment will endure as a favorite memory when he is old, he realizes: sheets like crazy sails in the world, like peace covering him in bed.

He picks a tiny daisy from dew-dropped grass and twirls it, touches his nose to it though it has no perfume, and looks about. He needs to clip more of the hedge, so he gets up, searches for the pruners.

“Rennie. Please.”

“I don’t have a new answer yet, I’ll think on it.”

“You have to let the college know in a month or it is gone for good. They have lost their sympathy and very long patience.”

Jillian used to cry about it every single time he shot them a smart ass answer, every time he refused to share thoughts at a deeper level. It was hard beyond hard for awhile, what with Mia gone. Then Zach with a broken hip from the fall during a mountain hike. Rennie was there but couldn’t stop his brother’s sudden loss of footing right at the rocky, narrow path’s edge, of course. A pure accident, Zach said it was though Rennie felt to blame. It could have resulted in far worse. But Zach is good now, has re-started his HVAC trade apprenticeship. He’s lived at home to save money. And is about to move in with his girlfriend. She at least has Pops, he’s not leave her. Until he is done and gone one day… please God, not yet.

Sorrow and the clutch of stress has loosened its hold, though, year after year. They slowly got used to the way things were without her daughter…their granddaughter and sister.

Except for Rennie, they might move on a bit more. He is holding things up, she thinks often. He needs to go forward, too.

Pops says to ease up; he’ll just dig in his heels more if they don’t stop. But even he wonders why Rennie has about thrown away opportunity, that decent scholarship to Blue Ridge College. But he also thinks it is more complicated than they know. Might ever know. The boy–going on twenty, taller than he is and strong as an ox, both boys inherited their fool father’s strength and height–had been struck down by Mia’s illness as if it was his, too. And then she died. It might take a lifetime to get his head back together. She was his twin, yes. But being alive is right here and now; being dead is just gone, the past. It dims, despite what you think.

Rennie is different about things, they have to agree. He takes the raw of life into him and it carves out hollows or plants unexpected seeds or is churned into words that they rarely have gotten to read. Even though this is what got him the scholarship. Pops has lately for many nights seen him on the ramshackle back porch writing by candle light while the other two were to bed. It could be 1889 from the looks of him hunched over in baggy overalls and sweat-stained work shirt, face nearly to paper, the old fountain pen scratching away, his dark hair flopping forward, feet bare. His mind might be from a different time… maybe that is why he’s hard to reach at times. That, and the old visitor with havoc to unleash: the malingering of grief.

Pops gave him that pen as he turned thirteen, along with a new hunting knife. Why not? The boy always had such daydreams stuck in his head, may as well help him get them out. And the knife?–a good hunter when he puts his self to it. But like most things he does well–and there are quite a few–he seldom ever hunts now. He does what he does. Writes and works with his hands.

Why is he so resistant to college, bettering his lot? Though he can repair darned near any broken thing, so that’s good, It is Pops’ own fix-it gene passed to the boy. He learned–Zach, too, and Mia–right at Pops’ shoulder. Rennie can make a decent living with a repair business and that will make Pops feel calmer. Prouder than fancy words might do, if he’s entirely frank. But he wouldn’t stand in the way if the boy has to do his own calling. Too high a price to pay, his will versus the boy’s. They could lose him, too, and that would be impossible. Every man has to make a mark his own way.

Zach is moody lately; he wants his brother to make up his mind so they can all stop pushing and prodding. He isn’t as close as he may like but the several years difference and, well, he wasn’t part of the twindom, was he? But that’s how it goes, and he misses Mia, too…If only Rennie will face up to the next phase of life, get on with it, maybe they’ll be closer in time.

Rennie sees them. He hears them, pleasant creatures with deft mouths and mighty hands and good minds, with ways that are in his bones, too, as he lives on land his family has owned for one hundred-ten years. But he sees and hears as if they enter a stage, say their lines, do their bits and then saunter or dash off, taking their lives with them while he stands there in the middle, quietly observing, waiting for more, hands clenched by his sides, eyes straining at the dark swirling before him. What should he do? Even though he is tall and broad, owns any space in a manner he hasn’t quite realized, he feels invisible to them when it matters the most. It is not even his stage, not even his story–yet.

******

It takes an easy fifteen minutes to get there, through a wooded acre then down two hills, then following the music of tumbling water until he comes to Fielder and Backward Falls. The second name is due to the way the stream splits off there, around a boulder, and switches to the left. Most of the moving water goes its merry way forward as it should, over and down the earth and rock ledge in a cascade of clear liquid, pure enough to drink. But this is a small waterfall, diverted by a surprise route, and it pools in a natural dip in the land before seeping back to the main tributary eventually.

He settles on spongy dirt by a contortion of roots at pond’s edge. The falls splash and gurgle as it gathers, pools. He glances around to check for creatures, removes his sneakers, sticks feet into the warmish pond, plant debris floating on top. His toes stir up mud and it resettles. The odors of this spot are strong and reassuring, stones and rich dirt and mosses, waters carried from far away. Kudzu vines twist and reach, travel up trees in ownership. Birds call out and he calls back lightly with a thin whistling song that coincides enough with their chorus. The cicadas are relentless with urgent, rasping overtones.

Rennie falls silent. There, a stick cracking, a rustle. He waits. Another soft crackle, and a shushing among birds, their wings closing.

He feels her near, or does he only think it? There is a fine but penetrating charge in the air; his anticipation, yes, but it is their connection that re-makes this into a vibrant site he likes better than any other. It has always been their place. The one they disappeared to over and over. Where they found solitude, or found one another when no one else could or went to, together for a catch up. No one else knew for sure it was theirs, not in all their growing up years. Others might visit, but they alone claimed it at age nine and had a ceremony to mark it as such> Two poems were loudly intoned above the burning of wild grasses in a wide mouthed vase, and a song that Mia offered about trees’ eternal protection and the falls’ “most royal healing waters” and that was that. He closes his eyes.

It was a separate children’s time and place, and the moments made of simplicity in mind and heart. A true and perhaps holy place to Rennie. For she was there with him for everything that mattered all their shared lives.

His eyes blink open. The woods are unusually quiet; even the cicadas are talking in a dull buzzing note that descends into a lull.

“I’ve sure needed to talk to you,” he begins then pauses as his gaze sweeps the woods and water to check for anything or one else. “I miss sharing time and events with you. It doesn’t get easier, though I hear it will. It’s okay. I don’t expect it to be one way or another. I don’t expect you to come back. So I come here, you know.”

He waits; quietness enfolds him more densely.

“If I leave, then what? Will you still find me?”

He feels it, the sadness a net tossed about him and tightened, and he swallows hard, swipes a hand over forehead, stands in the pond. He looks again. It is only the woods, the moss-touched rocks and kudzu-encased trees. Mia is not now going to come out of the thickets and talk to him. He knows she never will, not really. But he wants it, anyway, yearns for the female reflection of his face to come forward, her being to offer words that make such good sense when spoken around his.

There is a distant call, perhaps deer or a bear on the move with a cub, or a grazing horse in fields even farther out. But suddenly he spots movement, a cottonmouth that slips into the pond at the other side, a younger one with light brown and banded scales, the telltale triangular head lifting as it swims. He sits down, scoots back, pulls up his feet and slips shoes on. Stands. He knows it will not harm him as long as he doesn’t threaten it but he backs up, instinct with a hold on him. The snake is placidly swimming into a murky spot and though for a moment it seems to eye Rennie squarely, it gracefully turns its thick body, silently moves across the pond.

It is the snake they saw most often, that semi-aquatic venomous creature at first scaring them, then just a part of the wild. At the falls they often stood on a rocky prominence and held contests, tossed stones into the pond or at any number of trees on the other side. Once Mia accidentally hit a cottonmouth and it raced across the pond and crawled out, searching for their heat. It was well-known for its often-deadly strike when disturbed; they knew better than to wait around. They fled as if for their lives, screaming then laughing all the way home.

He watches the snake now with keener eyes as it turns, swims back round to him, half-floating with head up as it again fixes on Rennie with it’s cat-eye pupils and opening its formidable white mouth. The young man freezes, heart throbbing, wonders if it will come to the ground…but just as quickly the three foot snake moves around the irregular edge of the pond in search of food, perhaps.

The cicadas start up again, unimpressed with his earlier speech or the snake; birds flap wings, chitchat among themselves, tend babies.

He rests at the rim of the woods before entering Tennessee sunshine that will beat on his skin and like a giant spotlight make him go blind a moment. He recalls the last time they came to Backward Falls. A bright blue and gold scarf was wrapped around her bald head; her eyes looked huge, turquoise in the light, her skin whiter than white, her full lips thinner then, slack. But they had read the poem in turns; they’d written together then buried it by the little waterfall. They knew it was their last time there. She leaned heavily on him as they made their way back, and they stopped often.

–Why you and not me? he asked her often. Why not both of us since we’re twins? And how will I manage, sister?

Finally, her answer came then.

–Because, you were meant to travel the world. To find its poetry. I was meant to make sure you did. I’ve been happy enough. I’ll pop up wherever you go. Don’t let us down, Rennie.”

The wind came up after that as a skirmish of storm clouds let rain down fast and hard, with lightning swift as jagged arrows piercing the dark sky. They’d walked as fast as they could hand in hand, drenched and unafraid. Jillian had been worried, waiting on the porch, but when she saw them together she just went in to heat up butter biscuits and make a pot of tea.

They always believed they were safer, better, smarter when closer to each other. Even near the end of the end, when they knew they’d not be in touch as they had all their lives. But the fact was, they weren’t really apart. Even when three days later she was gone.

He’s not disturbed the buried poem; it was a happy story of time together, and yet a stab in his center as they’d read it. Let the earth hold it close. Let their happiness be protected there.

******

They are done with dinner already, reading aloud the paper and chatting over coffee when Rennie comes in, panting some from running.

“So, family, I have an answer for you. I’m not going to college. I’m going to work at the hardware this year–already talked to Herb about it. I’ll continue small appliance and other repairs on the side for Herb and from home. I need to save a lot more. But then, by next June, I’m leaving.”

“Where to?” Zach asked, incredulous. He was on track to become a teacher but travelling sounded even better. Maybe he needed a road buddy? They hadn’t been all that close–he wasn’t in the Twindom, was he? But it was what it was. He’d like to know him better, it might happen before it was too late.

“First the West and Northwest, then Canada and Alaska, then…who knows. Might have to take a pause to work or come back now and then.”

“What about college? Your writing?” his mother asked, face gone softer with disappointment, her eyes damp, the barest amount. She managed a smile. “Though having you here longer will be nice.”

“I won’t stop. Have I ever? College won’t make me a writer. Writing will.”

Pops folded the newspaper and set it aside, stroked his beard in muted surprise. “Rennard Ames Collings: small appliances repairman. Traveler. Author. Good heavens, some life ahead of you.”

Rennie smiled at his grandfather and gave his mother a hug, his brother a quick tap on the shoulder. Then took a plate of potatoes, pork chops and fried okra and went to the porch. He settled on the top step to better see the dusky horizon, and Mia–it was what he felt so was what he believed–quietly sat down, too.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Business, Not as Usual

Columbia River, Oregon

“My skin is a brier patch–no one can go there without coming back wounded! I really have to find some magic moisturizer.”

“Well, time for my new creams–that, or an invisible fence around you, dear,” her mother said, blinking at the last thought, trying to not imagine someone on Elise’s skin. Though Elise was hardly a child. Still, what a thing to say to her, not the comment about her creams– no, they were excellent. But Jama was a dog lover and so the last slip, as if meant for protecting Elise…

But what else might Jama note? It was her daughter she was surmising. The dress was skimpy, boisterous with slashes of color and to make it worse, cheap on closer examination. She, herself, preferred tailored clothing, like the navy slacks with tiny white feathers and trusty white shirt she’d slipped on before coming by. It was one of the less offensive things she might wear in Elise’s estimation–the feathers made up for the vast navy-ness of it. But Jama was a quintessential classic woman–good solid colors, accents of gold or platinum at ears, neck or wrist. Elise? Chunky plastic or beads or whatever. She tried to overlook it all; to each her own.

Elise was posing in front of a full mirror, examining how the sundress hung on her newly curvy body. She had given up dieting when she turned forty, and good for her, her friends said as they rallied behind her fabulous self acceptance. If that was what it was; she was more lazy when it came to routine habits, and food fell under that listing. Not that it mattered for awhile, anyway…it had become a “go with the flow” thinking. She was taking things easy , that was it. Not coasting exactly–she had aspirations of many kinds, but not enough interest or energy to fuss over what she put on her plate every time she was hungry. She needed to be fed, that was all! Food: a basic need. Her figure had inflated. She felt more comfortable.

Even if she wasn’t like her mother, verging on petite. Thin. “Delicate” was not the word–the woman would reject that adjective herself–but feminine in ways, perhaps, Elise never got but so what?

“I read yesterday that celery green is the hyped color this year.” Jama stood up, smoothed her shirt and pants, stretched like a luxurious feline. She felt conscious that Elise had a diminutive space to live within as she went to get a drink of water. On the other hand, her own house was unwieldy, too much; she lately imagined living more simply. “I think I’ll try the hue as a small piece, maybe a scarf,” she called out in an afterthought.

“Ugh, named after my least favorite vegetable, stringy, tasteless.” Elise slipped off the cheery dress, pulled on leggings with a loose top. She hung up the summer dress and wondered how long would she have to wait to wear it–it was sixty degrees today, grey skies with raindrops spattering on her windows now and then.

And how long would her mother stay, that was the question. She filled a glass with iced tea but didn’t offer one to Jama as Jama drank cold water and hot tea, never combined.

She came by once every month lately after years of infrequent visits. There was more time free as Jama was edging more toward retirement, allowing her beauty products company, Jamalyn’s Rose Rescues, to be helmed by her right hand woman, along with the loyal band of staff she had built up over decades. It had started with a passion for roses and her small flower garden and soon it embraced a slew of plant-based products that had been ahead of the times. Now she relinquished control bit by bit as she prepared to have a different lifestyle for the first time since she was in her twenties.

What sort of lifestyle does an older single woman have, though? Elise had pondered it: she could not imagine her mother resting, or alone.

“I’m thinking of doing something different this summer. Marv has a boat, as you know, and he’s offered to take a few of us on a trip for a month around the San Juan Islands and north. Gino, Marissa and I are joining him.”

“That aging laggard, surprised you still hang out with him,” Jama said then tightened her lips in a line. She should know better than to offer such an opinion; the girl adored her first ex-husband’s nephew, they’d been friends for a lifetime. He supposedly got his life on track, anyway, and it was not her business, anymore “I hope it’s been kept up so it’s safe sailing.”

But Gino…that man Elise kept returning to the past few months. Successful but not so reliable. Jama had yet to meet him.

“It has a motor, mother, it’s a modest yacht. And Marv would never let me on if it wasn’t in good working order–as you know.” She wondered why this was her focus rather than Elise not teaching at Community Design Studios, as usual, fpr the whole summer. Didn’t she care? But Elise kept her thoughts on work to herself for the time being. She glanced at the leopard clock on her galley kitchen wall, watching its tail switch back and forth with each second.

Her mother snorted. A creaky ole thing, Marv’s boat–she had been aboard it once and the ensuing two hours were quite enough three years ago when Marv got engaged, threw an intimate party–and, of course, ended the engagement, as he had enjoyed a bachelor life too long. He adored his boat. She never understood the boating life, whiling away the hours on chilly open waters, risking life and limb and one’s digestion, calling it fun. Why couldn’t people be sensible, perhaps go by plane or train if they must have a little diversion? That was her plan in June, clickety-clack all the way down to sunny, beautiful San Diego.

“I guess your teaching will be fewer hours this summer, then. I do hope that works out. You need that job until you come up with a solid plan for whatever may come next…. But I can tell you have more on your agenda besides seeing me today. I did have a reason for stopping other than saying hello, Elise.”

The younger woman hesitated by her mother, as if to sit. Was it going to take that long, Elise wondered, but she smiled obediently and settled into her new, second-hand hanging rattan chair.

Jama perched on an overfilled couch cushion, leaned forward as she picked at invisible lint on her pants leg. From the corner, Elise tuned into her mother’s sudden quietness. Admired her half-Filipino tawny skin and shining striated-silver coif; fine boned hands, feet crossed at ankles and clad in pewter leather flats. Elise had her father’s fairness–but did have her mother’s caramel-toned skin, softly padded lips. There the similarities seemed to end. She did not have the full beauty or ambition. Lately she was making peace with who she was. Her own carefree style. Her search for love more open. Her creative spark finding different directions.

Jama had never been anything less than a sterling example many women aspired to, her incisive mind with a perfectionist attitude a tall order for her staff to meet, and natural grace enhanced by her own pricey organic products. Her strong nature was energetic if critical and efficient, more yielding with her dogs and verging on tender with her expansive gardens–which now were managed by professionals and which she rarely visited except when product development required it. They were miles from her big house now.

Jama–Elise called her that ever since she was thirteen, it felt more right than simply “Mom”–had doted on her daughter and son (four years Elise’s senior) when they were much younger, when she had time–if one could call teaching social graces and taking them on numerous educational forays “doting.” She did read them books, hugged them at bedtime; she did see to it they were healthy and managing alright. Mostly if no man distracted her much.

And then she was gone often as her business rapidly grew. Elise was on her own after her brother, Todd, left at 17 for university. By then she had her social circle and interests; their housekeeper was a constant, generous with her care. Jama’s absence felt more like the curious lack of a lustrous, valued family treasure– missed but nonessential, as it turned out, until searched for when truly needed. So there was that: the needing and the not having.

Elise swung gently in the suspended chair, and as seconds passed nervous quivers snaked across abdomen and chest.

“Okay, tell me!–are you alright, Jama? What is the mystery?”

Jama pushed a silvered lock from her forehead, eyes focused on her daughter; she licked her lips, a sure sign that something big was coming.

“It’s Wesley. Wes. Remember him?”

Elise frowned, slowed the swinging chair, bare toes skidding on the floor. “Wes…the only Wes I recall would be your second husband…” She sat up straight. “Did he finally die?” It sounded rude, but it wouldn’t cause her any pain.

“”Elise! No, he didn’t die. He got the diabetes under control long ago. No, I’m, we…oh, it’s this: I’m going down to see him. In June. For three weeks.”

Elise stood with arms dangling, mouth open. “Jama, no, tell me you’re joking! Surely you haven’t lost your mind!”

Her mother looked at her steadily, eyes shining but hard like topaz stones. And she waited until her daughter was done.

“It can’t be! You and Wes…you were like oil and water, no fire and ice–it ened badly, Jama. I would hate to see you with him ever again. He was not good for you, he was too much, he could be so tough, even disrespectful to us, and he never did compromise no matter how you tried to you said–“

“That was then, this is now. He has changed, believe me.”

“And you know this how?”

Dare she pry into her mother’s private life? They rarely did that, they let things be rather than stir things up. But why him, why now? When Jama was on the verge of at least semi-retirement at 68 and yet recently had considered other ventures to undertake. “You have been single for fifteen years and said you’ve liked it that way.”

“Fourteen years. Who said I was getting married? Don’t be ridiculous, Elise. I’m visiting him for three weeks. I just wanted you to know what my plans were ahead of time. To avoid explanations or fake apologies later…”

Elise paced, pulled her ponytail tighter–a nervous habit–and paused before her mother. “You mean you’re going to hang out with a man who threatened to sue you for alimony and almost hit you as he finally left. How can I forget? Todd and I were there, too, remember? He was home from college, you insisted we stay out of it but Todd had to put himself physically between you and Wes! And the ghastly man finally left.” She covered her face with her hands. She had been sixteen then but it came right back. “A brief but bad nightmare…oh Mother.”

Jama felt a shock wave of conflicting emotions. It first was hearing Elise saying “oh Mother.” Like she meant it. It was recalling Todd doing what she said, edging himself between Wes and herself when Wes had reached out to grab her or slap her or who knew what, maybe nothing but more pleading would have come of his anger and longing, it was all mixed up in their arguing. It was a bad moment, yes. But it was also wrong timing for such their alignment. And they were not much older than Elise was now. She had learned new lessons since then. Been married, even– again. And then alone.

“Please, calm down.” She patted the couch beside her and Elise sat gingerly. “I know, it was not good. My marriages… never worked out, I’m sorry that’s true. I have not been great life partner material…I was more about my business, my independence. But people change…I have changed some, too.”

“Really? Don’t we stay the same, essentially, Jama? Aren’t we products of our pasts? What can we do but try to do better, despite the mistakes, despite who we are? I know I am trying to not repeat your mistakes, Jama…to forge my own path, make my own legacy.”

Elise and her mother gazed at each other; sorrows and needs radiating from them, and a sad uncertainty that was laced with deeper love that had rooted despite difficult events and years lost. Jama looked away last, eyes watering.

She took her daughter’s hand in hers, and it was smooth and warm despite that earlier comment about being bristly and dry. And Elise didn’t tug it away-yet.

“Not in spite of, Elise, but because of who we are. We are always in a process of transformation, if you think about it. Just like nature, we adapt and adjust and come into new parts of ourselves. We just have to determine the whys and hows of it, shape things up.”

“A bit late to lecture me, Jama. Really, I don’t buy that Westley could have changed enough to make you happy.” Elise got up and refilled her glass.

“I’m already happy enough. I don’t need anyone to do that.”

“Exactly.” Her phone rang and she checked it, saw it was Gino. “One moment, I’ll be back.” She left the living area and closed a door.

Jama sighed and her shoulders slumped. It now seemed a mistake to come. She hadn’t expected whole acceptance of the idea. She had hoped for a curled lip and shrug to start, with improved response as time went on–if things went well enough in San Diego. She couldn’t predict a thing. Wes and she had talked for hours and hours over past months. He had flown up to see her once. It was still a slow reveal, a careful process but she was feeling almost optimistic for the first time. She might build something real with him this time. It was true they had failed and after two years despite fervor and intent. But so much had happened since. He had gentled, he had expanded his once rigid thinking; she had grown more secure and content with herself. Yet she knew from scathing experiences that anything could happen, and it could just as well be more bad news she ended up with as she limped off. And what then?

How could she explain why a return to him? Reassure her daughter? But in the end it wasn’t necessary. They were no longer young mother and daughter and had long diverged their paths. They had become naturally separate entities, determined to design lives their own way. Still, Jama had been anxious so long about sharing this with Elise.

Returning from her call, Elise leaned against a door jamb, index finger tapping her chin in thought.

“When did you say you were leaving?”

“I’m taking the train down late June, return early July–a nice vacation for me, don’t you agree?”

“Well– yes, I do.” She bent over the kitchen counter, forearms flattened. “Jama, will you make me a deal? First, let’s talk more about being safe around that man and second, have dinner with Gino and me before you go.”

“Stay safe…?”

The words snagged her mind, bringing the past back into focus. How Wes could be, his tendency to roughness not so passionate at times as controlling. But he was, well, they were, both drinking a bit then. He was magnetic, no way around that. Now, neither of them cared for the loosening and distortion of alcohol. They had lost that appetite and had been unwilling to give their dreams up for the pleasures and pain of it. Or so Wes had told her in many ways during their recent conversations. They had mellowed in some ways, sharpened their minds. Hence, the exploratory trip.

“We’re past all that. I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t feel feel it would turn out nicely, even better than that.”

“It’s just…you are not like some aging swinger, Mother, despite your fancy marriages and fancier divorces. I mean, you do have a good sense of propriety…I know you, you need order in your life and worthwhile ventures. He seems a throwaway; it seems reckless, okay?”

And there it was. “Mother” again, though with a sharp edge. The judgment of Wes and her, lacking understanding without knowing more, without any patience. It stung; Jama pulled back into the couch, arms crossed. It was getting late. She was getting tired of this. Well, she would not sell her daughter short. But she was done talking–for now.

Jama smiled sweetly and lifted her palms upward, then reached for her purse. She strode to to the brightly decorated coral and teal kitchen.

“Yes, let’s have dinner on the riverboat, alright? You’ve always loved that–“

“Wasn’t Wes a major boat lover? And now he’s in San Diego… Jama, you dislike them so.”

“No, he has a pontoon now. And I’ll manage. As I was saying, pick a date and time, let’s have a nice evening so Gino and I get to know one another better. You said he has promise and you may be right.” She reached across the counter, gave her daughter a peck on her cheek. “It’s been lovely talking, wanted you to know my plans– but I must dash, Elise dear, it’s getting late.”

Elise saw that she had failed to impress and she had to give it up, for now. Jama smiled warmly, graciously–but was there the tiniest hint of condescension?– and then was gone. Had she just managed the whole conversation and called the final shots? Again?

They had had a full adult conversation, hadn’t they. It had gone alright until Elise felt alarm that her mother might be off and running again, a replay of same risks. It worried her. But maybe she was wrong. Anything could happen, with time. She knew that by now. Just as she and Gino had found their way from breezy friendship to deepening love. Just as Marv had finally found someone he’d stay with for a lifetime. Like she was going to branch out and develop her own business in interior decorating. For boats.

She prepared a crisp salad for lunch and ate on the half-moon balcony in the energizing sunshine. Her business, how she loved the ring of that! Jama would be excited when she finally broke the news over the dinner. Gino was helping her start it. Bright Sails Interior Design. Home Cruise Designs. Ocean Decor by Elise Maddox . She tapped her lips with the fork. No, she decided, no time to waste on this. She must meet up with her mother sooner than later, and men were not to be invited.

San Diego Bay, Pacific Ocean


Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Talismans

“No, no, no, no,” she responded and turned her back hard against her father, looking out his study window, letting her gaze follow the rolling yard as it met up with Kayla’s yard and house. “Not there, not now! Why would we do that with Meredith coming back in two months and…everything else?”

Iris didn’t say what she most wanted to; she seldom did when it came to that topic, the missing mother matter. Chris Wells knew that; he didn’t say what he wanted to, either. It wasn’t appropriate to share such thoughts. He had a responsibility to two daughters, one smart and increasingly bold teenager, and one talented but more timid young woman soon to graduate with a Masters in Music Education. Who could a man talk to in this house? There was Ruffy, his aging half-wolf, half-German Shepherd companion, and Franklin-from university-and he got on well and…honestly, not many more wanted a good chat, much less an intimate one, with someone they had known as half a twosome for twenty years. Even if his wife–ex-wife– tended toward brash, more adventurous than he but easily bored and thus prickly, and remiss at home in ways he could not longer bear to well recall.

After almost two years, he had no wish to clearly recall anything of the life they had tried to build and turned into tinder.

So at this time, there was no one. He knew, as well, that Iris was still flailing and it wouldn’t be a picnic to trundle her off to the north woods. Despite the warming weather of late May, and their A-frame cabin and astonishing beauty of Lake Menatchee and its forests. Her mother had loved it there more than most places. And they had lasted only six days last year.

“Well,” Chris said calmly when Iris stamped her foot as if she was not sixteen but four, “it’s already settled. I need to get away to work on this book. So pack clothes and your other needs for two months.”

Iris threw him her deadly look as she rushed out the room. Wait until Kayla heard this one, they had had several plans. Good ones. And with that crushing thought, she raced downstairs, over to Kayla’s.

Chris sat back, hands locked behind his head; a tiny moan escaped, then he sat upright and poured over the last notes taken on the socioeconomic uses and meanings of color, his right knee bouncing in exasperation.

*****

Iris sat on the deck, crushing a small dry pine cone with the toe of her sandal. This place–her parents and Meredith who had loved it’s lofty ceilings and great windows, the bright lake frontage. The cabin had been a jumping off point for her mother’s outdoor adventures, while a meditative haven for her father. But for Iris it was halfway between the two, and now neither when she didn’t want to be there. Like the other two years since she her mother left.

Iris was desperate for company and Kayla was pleased with the invitation, as ever, but declined with tons of apologies. The annual trip to her grandparents was coming up sooner than later– and who wouldn’t prefer San Francisco to the backwoods?

Meredith would eventually come; they got along in a distant sort of way. Though she might persuade their father to stay the whole summer. In the meantime, Iris was on her own. She kicked the brittle, flattened pine cone off the deck and stood, hands on hips, uncertain what she wanted to do then ran down to lake’s edge. A beaten trail wound down a steep slope so her body was driven downwards, propelled into shadiness and washes of light as enormous fir trees simultaneously comforted and loomed over her.

“This was our mother’s place, too, but she’s living on a boat in the Mediterranean with that, that–rich rat, that creep, that disgusting old guy!” she said to the dirt and the sky. She almost tripped as gravity and speed thrust her onward until her feet met with large stones and she skidded, breath coming hard, hands on knees as she bent over a minute. She took a break on the end of the dock, scanning the lake. Feeling calmer as the gentle waves lapped close to her toes.

Our row boat, she thought, I love that heap of a boat. She completed the padlock combination, opened a dilapidated shed door and narrowed her eyes to make out things in the murky space. There it was, set up on a blocks, its green paint faded and peeling in spots, oars hung on a wall along with faded orange lifesaving vests, fishing equipment, various hand and yard tools. She leaned against the coat’s hull and studied the clear green-blue waves several feet past the door. It felt good there, safer, and Iris was more at ease than she had felt in a week. She thought of the dock, how they all used to jump off and make shallow dives, then swim to the floating raft several yards out for more diving and playing. Her jackknife dives.

It all seemed long ago, and she felt older than she wanted to be, for once.

“Hey.”

A dark shaggy head popped around the doorway and she was met by the grin of a stranger. She shrank back, then strode into the near-blinding sunshine, shutting the shed door. She glanced up to the A-frame for no good reason; her father was absorbed in his research.

“Hey, yourself, you’re standing on our beach–who are you?”

He stuck his hand deep into jeans pockets and shrugged. He looked a bit older than she was. His bare feet were late-spring-soft; it wasn’t easy to walk along a shore like that, the rocks were big, numerous. He wore a faded black T shirt with an ancient Jim Morrison photo on it. And on his right wrist was a worn piece of tied red yarn.

“We came early, staying awhile at Coan’s Cottages, over there. ” He pointed across the lake where there was a narrower width. Six pale shingled cottages sat in a row, a bit dreary but homey, one might deduct.

“I know where they are. I see people hanging out when we come up each summer. Never there long, though. So you’re new? Then you don’t know you have to get permission to cross other peoples’ lakefronts, I guess.”

“Sure, I know, but most people aren’t even at the lake yet, it’s not the week-end or summer. I didn’t know you were here until now.” He took his hands out of his pockets, scratched the back of his neck, slapped a forearm–a fleeing insect took off. “I’m Jax, anyhow.”

“Iris. Now you should leave, okay? I have things to do. Have a fun stay.”

Jax’s dark eyes flashed with a sharp humor; he motioned a sort of saluting goodbye with an index finger flicking off forehead. As he turned, all that mussed, longish hair flew away from his neck and he walked away, briefly into water as the shore disappeared, then past trees and bushes huddled close. She couldn’t see where he was going. But she was satisfied he was gone–for the time being.

During a long trek into green and teeming woods, she became acutely aware of chorusing birds, and flitting, sometimes biting insects and spring peepers and garter snakes escaping her feet and wildflowers in glowing groups here and there; scents of water, mud, rock, pine, life in its glory. She settled into herself and the landscape better. The young stranger crossed through her mind once and she shook him off.

When back on the deck, she could just make out a guy who looked a bit like Jax. He got out of a canoe, pulled it up by the Coan’s dock. Maybe he wasn’t walking, then. He’d just been on the lake, canoed over, pulled it ashore at the empty lot next door to her dad’s. To do nothing or mess around. She hoped it was an accident that he’d come upon her. She let go a shiver but it wasn’t fear, exactly. More like when Ruffy came up to her before she had seen or heard him, before she’d ever thought to call him.

Chris started dinner, tuna tossed with noodles, and a side salad. Food he thought pleased a teenager was often not what she wanted. She was back on the deck, he’d noticed. Seeing her there, light brown hair waving over her shoulders like her mother’s had…he winced. And what if Iris was miserable and he could never do anything about it? What if he couldn’t get his work done here, either?

She spun around, feeling his deep set eyes on her, waved and then to his surprise, smiled.

******

“What does the color red mean?” she asked him the next week. She could have looked it up but he knew certain things.

“It depends. It’s the color of blood, of course, and fire. It can symbolize energy, passion, strength, action. Courage. It is a powerful color, certainly. In the West we tend to think it means aggression or violence, but that is not the case in many places. I would say–“

“Hmm…got it.”

Iris shifted in her chair and he went back to his book. Ruffy lay down between them on the floor before a cold fireplace, his movements fluid, front paws placed one over the other. He was a quiet dog, hence the nickname in jest as he rarely, despite his intimidating appearance, let loose a loud bark or a growl. Oddly, his ex-wife didn’t like him much, thought he was too stealthy, might turn against them, so Ruffy avoided her, taking to Chris and the kids easily from the start. They had long ago become family. The oft-imposing, elegant Ruffy released a little groan as Iris smoothed wiry fur on his handsome head.

“Okay, just what does a piece of red yarn or thread on the wrist mean?”

“It is worn for a few reasons–it depends on which wrist, too. The person. What they mean to gain from it. Why?”

“I just saw it. Tell me what you know.”

“Well, a red bracelet might be knotted seven times in the Kabbalah tradition, and a prayer is said when knotting it. It is for positive energy and protection, but men wear it on the wright wrist; on the left, women do. It is a sign also of purity, and it gets more technical if I go on, Iris. But it also is a a sort of talisman to some who wear it, that is, to ward off the evil eye and bad luck.”

“Oh. How interesting. As a kid I always wanted to wrap ribbons or colored tape or found thread around my wrists. But that just made me feel more fancy…Still, there was that ring.” She glanced at it on her finger and smiled.

She fell still, musing about what sorts of things people did to feel better. Safe. Like her wearing a silver ring with two floral shapes on it. She and Kayla had spotted in a grassy place by a creek. It was after her mother had left them. It fit, and somehow it helped to have found it and it went right on as if meant to be, so she hadn’t taken it off.

Chris nodded at her, shut his book and watched his daughter and dog resting.

“Is it uncomfortable being here without your mother?”

“Sometimes.” She rubbed her forehead. “Not really, anymore. It was and is our family vacation hideaway. I mean, Meredith and you and me, not just her.”

“But she was so into the great outdoors…”

“We all have been in different ways, if you think about it, Dad. Like your big bonfires and ghost stories and s’mores. Meredith’s sailing with her friends. Me in the woods and diving off the raft. You and me trying to fish…”

“And your mother hiking in the hills on her own, taking you girls on long rides in the rowboat or setting up the tent for you two, then you and your friends some nights.”

“No- you remember it wrong, Meredith and I set it up a lot more as we got older just for! Mom did like to sit in there all alone, at times–she called it her time out…usually after she got mad at us. She got so frustrated with us! But you–you taught us about the stars, Dad, and fire building and wild plants.” She patted Ruffy a last time as he rolled onto his side, then she jumped up. “I sorta hate being here and sorta am glad, I miss her a lot at times, but still feel angry and confused about her decision. But I am also okay.”

She grabbed strands of hair and wound them around her fingers, a nervous habit from childhood. She gave them a small yank and let go.

“Stop worrying so much or you’ll drive me nuts! I’m not a child, right? I can deal more than you think. Since we needed to come up north for more of your writing and researching time, I can cope for a month or two–we both have to… Anyway, we’re here now. Just us. And Ruffy. Okay, Dad?”

“Deal,” he said and went back to his place in the botany book. “But if it gets too sad or weird, let me know…” he mumbled at her back. He glanced at Ruffy. It’s you and me, us two guys, and you are like my own talisman. But Ruffy was snoring, there but not there. In his own nirvana… as he always seemed to be, awake or asleep.

Chris suddenly longed to hug his daughter but it was too late–at least now, this time.

Iris was stuck in a hallway, half-wanting to run back and jump on his lap, throw her arms around him and plant a kiss on his stubbly cheek. But she wasn’t that little girl, anymore, was she. A lump rose up in her throat and she unstuck herself. Grabbing binoculars she walked closer to the water, checked on Coans’ Cottages. How dumb of her to resort to that! She walked on, wondering how Kayla was doing, loneliness felt like a small stab. She checked in with her phone.

******

By the time she and her dad got out the rowboat it was a bit humid and looked a little like rain. Nothing much was forecast that they knew of, so they lifted and pulled and slid it in the water. He took the oars and rowed with gusto while she and Ruffy sat relaxed, faces to a damp gusty breeze. The water was choppier than when they had begun but it was a good ride along the lake shore, then in deeper water. Sunlight sparked the water then hid, then was flung as sheer ribbons across waves, then was gone. And still gone. The wind cooled. Ruffy sat with nose up, ears, sharp.

They were moving closer to shore in a few minutes, just in case, and were soon to pass Coans’ Cottages when the first rumbles filled the air. Chris rested, looked into the darkening sky. Ruffy stared at the increasingly metal gray water and then at the shoreline. He liked water but he was not a happy long distance swimmer.

“We haven’t far to go, about fifteen or tenty minutes back to our place, maybe, if I row hard. The wind will make it harder to row against the wave action.”

“I can take a turn if you want, I’m pretty strong!” She had to shout over the thunder and the rising wind.

“That’s alright, Iris, I can manage! Have to get at it now!”

The wind came up hard out of the northwest, that bass rumbling grew, and raindrops splashed on their skin, fur, the boat. Even Ruffy blinked in the heavier wetness. Then thunder rumbled so loud and deeply that he lifted his head and howled briefly. Lightning gashed the heavy pewter sky. The rain let loose.

“Got to go ashore, Iris, we’ll go to in here!”

In under five minutes they were there and Jax was already waiting, wading out with an older man. They pulled the rowboat ashore and hightailed it up to the cottage as torrents of rain lashed all animate and inanimate things, Ruffy racing ahead of them, big body stretched out, so lithe and fast, looking even more like a wolf on the run.

Stamping small rivulets from their legs and then shaking their wet heads and tossing shoes and jackets in a pile, they were soon greeted by a slow burning fire and a woman holding out bowls of chili.

“How about some food and drink? You, too, doggie. Or wolfie!”

It was Garth and Kath Ruskin, Jax’s uncle and aunt, who welcomed them so readily. As they gathered on benches around a heavy trestle table they were soon jabbering as if they had known one another more than a few minutes. Chris and Jax thought separately how crisis did that, even if it was just a sudden spring storm, it made strangers into friendly partners in problem solving, or it maybe just felt safer huddling together. After the chili came more endless adult talk about work, economics and sports and Lake Menatchee as compared to other lakes so that finally Jax bent his head toward Iris, who slumped with chin on a hand.

“Want to move over to the couch?”

“That sounds… risky.” She smiled and rolled her eyes.

He acted shy and even blushed, she thought– his skin was tanner than she’d realized, it was hard to tell–and they moved themselves off the table bench and to the couch by the fireplace. Ruffy roused himself from beneath the table and trotted after them, his long tail hanging low.

“Wolf dog, eh? A good one.”

“Yes, he is. How did you know so fast?”

“Well, he looks wolf, and a neighbor had one. Not so good, killed all the chickens they had and rabbits, but he had a sister in crime.” He gave a shrug, eyebrows up. “That’s how that goes. We have lots of dogs on the reservation as well as other animals.”

She turned to look at him better then averted her eyes, embarrassed. She may not have guessed he was Native American–isn’t that what he meant? She wasn’t going to ask.

“I never liked rabbits, the’re rodents, I think.”

“Not at all, they’re both mammals but rabbits are only rabbits, harmless.”

“One bit me as a kid.”

“You handled it wrong?”

“True, I did.” She stuck her feet out toward sizzling red and orange flames. “Why are you here with your aunt and uncle, if I can ask.”

“I live with them. Auntie Kath is my mom’s sister…mom was white. I’m half Odawa, the reservation is in northwestern Michigan, not too far. But I’ve lived with my aunt and uncle for three years now. I might go back, don’t know yet. Depends on me and my dad…”

He placed one foot and then another on top of Ruffy’s back. Iris tensed, thinking the dog would rouse and be irritated but he didn’t move. Jax had said his mother was white, so she must have died, she thought.

“My mom lives on a boat, so she’s also, well, gone.”

“That’s kinda cool, though–nearby?”

“In the Mediterranean.”

He let out a low, quiet whistle and Ruffy lifted his head a second, put it back down.

“Yea, left with some idiot she met at a gaming table. She likes to gamble…”

“Huh, my dad likes to gamble but not lately. He drinks too much to gamble well. But he makes good art still.”

“Why? Oh, never mind, sorry.”

“It’s okay. She was climbing, on a narrow path in Idaho’s Rockies–after visiting her parents–and slipped, fell. My dad, he hasn’t gotten over it, I guess. No one has.” He touched the red yarn bracelet with his fingertips, put hand over heart. At his neck hung a cord with a black stone she hadn’t seen before. He caught her glance. “Obsidian, it grounds me more.” He touched her hand. “Nice ring. You might like pink opal- it helps heal.”

She bit her lip, breathed in and out slowly through her nose, it always helped.

Jax saw her then with a sweeping look: her open face; her hands which she used to talk; her bare feet, the square toenails –and fingernails– free of polish. Eyes that did not look away but noted him, too. He let his head lower and he watched the dance of flames. The soothing fire crackled. The adults’ talk had begun to be only a low drone, and they heard beer cans fizzing as they opened one by one.

“It’s stopped raining,” Jax said.

They got up, opened the door to press their hands against the screen door that remained shut.

“The perfume of it all, you know? So fresh out now,” she said.

“Yeah, good, isn’t it?” he said as he pushed the screen door wide open.

Ruffy followed them out the door as Chris, Garth and Kath found an easy lull in the conversation. They watched the young people; Kath nodded at her husband and he smiled back.

“Thanks, you two, what life savers,” Chris declared with beer can raised high. “Welcome to Lake Menatchee. Come by next week for the first bonfire of the season.”

“We’ll be there,” Kath and Garth agreed.

Jax, Iris and Ruffy were down the lake shore by then, skipping stones, Ruffy chasing them into the water. They later sat with knees pulled up on the dock and watched the sky. Venus blinked and shone, Mars took its reddish flare to its usual spot. The sun slipped lower and lower, then there appeared as if by magic brush the tender colors of a stormy day ending, the vast silvered and navy dome above waves rushing and hushing, trees swaying, and soon the air seemed lit with rose and coral and hues so delicate, so entwined it was hard to know where one left off and another began.