Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Iris and the Legend of Spirit Lake

The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.

“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.

“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”

“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.

It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.

“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.

“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”

“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.

“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.

Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.

Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.

Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.

She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.

Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.

Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”

“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”

The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.

Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.

Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.

“There is a reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.

But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.

It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.

******

“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.

“Mmmm.”

“I keep hearing things out there.”

“Probably so.”

“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”

“Uh-huh.”

He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.

Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.

He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?

He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.

And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.

No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.

There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.

******

At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.

It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.

At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.

As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.

Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.

Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.

If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.

He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.

Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.

Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.

Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.

“Had breakfast already?”

“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”

She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.

Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.

******

In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.

“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.

Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.

“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”

“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”

“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”

“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”

“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”

He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.

Iris put up her oars, one on each side.

“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”

“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”

“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”

Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.

“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”

She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”

He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”

“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”

Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.

Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.

She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”

“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”

“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”

“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”

“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”

Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?

“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”

She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”

“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.

Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.

“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”

“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”

The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.

“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.

But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.

“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”

He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.

“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”

The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.

Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”

“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”

“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”

Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.

“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.

******

“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”

“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”

“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.

Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”

“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”

“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”

“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”

“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.

He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”

He shook his head, waved at her, then left.

Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.

“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”

“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”

Iris squinted at her. “Why?”

“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”

Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.

“Nana, what next?”

“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”

“That’s terrible.”

“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”

Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”

Nana Nell nodded.

“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”

“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”

Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”

Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.

“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.

But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.

When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Venus is a Planet/Feather on the Stoop, Part 2

Photo by Gantas Vaiu010diulu0117nas on Pexels.com

If it wasn’t for the drenching wind lashing windows and careening around corners, they both might have slept a little. Lydia changed position every time a rattling came. It was working itself up into a fury. She sprawled across the bed on her back, staring at the gaudy chandelier above her as it swayed ever so little, its glass pendeloques (her mother’s correct term or as she said, crystal drops) barely tinkling so her ears caught the sound. The train soon squealed by, unstoppable, and the drops shuddered with a more lively response. A kind of solace, that train. It was one reason she’d rented the place and why rent was low.

The twice daily train reminded her of the fall cross-country trip she’d taken with her father when she turned ten. It was his birthday present to them both; his birthday was four days later. They went from Virginia to the West coast and back in two weeks. She never missed her mother, who didn’t like trains and was busy selling houses, anyway. Lydia closed her eyes: wheels on the tracks through Southwest to California. Her father’s shoulder next to hers, faces beaming as they pointed at sights past the window.

Lydia thought of the homeless woman she called Feather. Sitting there on the stoop in the damp wind. Lying on it, hips and shoulders surely hurting. It made her ache. Which was ridiculous, but perhaps it was sympathetic…her bed was only two years old. It was an actual firm-with-pillowtop bed. Not concrete.

The rain pelted all outdoor surfaces, rat-a-tatted every window. She was not, then, to sleep much, harassed by stormy weather in every way. Lydia turned on the bedside light and grabbed a book to fend off her usual sad holiday memories– and new issues.

As winds sharpened, Feather crunched her long body against the abandoned shop’s brick façade. If she got any closer she might be holding the damned building up. Her knuckles got scraped when she turned over. She’d tried to pick the old watch repair shop door lock twice, but she had no talent for it and didn’t need criminals helping. She gave up; it was probably full of happy rodents. They got a dry home; she got the wintry street.

She had earlier stood at the entrance to the charity lady’s apartment building. Looked up at the rows of darkly glinting windows. It made her feel better for a second, knowing someone was up there. Even if it was a naïve woman who likely did good deeds to make her feel nicely superior. Feather then went back to the stoop to think. The shelters were claustrophobic, over-full. There was an alley a half- block down. It might offer cover from the wind. She bundled the now-grimy Native American blanket that lady left her–she knew what it was, she wasn’t stupid–into her arms and left. She had some Hopi in her, she heard, a great grandmother. She wasn’t enrolled so good did it do her? But the blanket, it gave her warmth. Maybe a sense of protection. Foolish girl, she scolded herself; protection was a dream.

The alley had a metal gate; it was ajar. The narrow area was pitch dark, quieter save for wind echoing. There was a short roof overhang; it was the part of town where business and residential mixed from way back. Garbage smells permeated the air but she was finally used to that. The big dumpster she stopped by wasn’t bad; the lid was down and it was shoved close to alley’s end–she could still see out to the sidewalk, in case she heard or saw something. She arranged her blanket and the fancy embroidered–was that that style called?–pillow she’d found in the bag with blanket on that stoop. Feather slumped against the wall as rain spattered down to her boots; she pulled them close to her chest. This spot would do until sunrise, even had potential for a few nights.

Tiny feet with a thick body and long tail charged past her and under the dumpster; she covered her face with both hands, squelched a cry. Disgusting rats. Monstrous night.

******

When Lydia got to work, the Head and Body Salon was hopping. Tony was so strapped for time that his usual patter was vastly shortened; he was listening to his clients talk for once. Alma was consulting with a younger woman whose beautiful long hair went prematurely grey hair. She wanted to chop it all off; Alma politely dissented but she’d cave soon. Whatever clients wanted, they got. She’d shave their heads if it suited. Changing times. She glanced at Lydia, and sighed. That girl was worn out today.

It was nearly a relief to be at work, for Lydia. Last night had been rough, unusually so. It was the holidays coming up, she guessed. Memories of past Christmases, missing a few people. He dad, gone nineteen years. She turned from her thoughts and noted the next walk-in customer whose tufts of dark blonde hair mimicked shards of butter brickle. Another came behind her, looking desperate for aid. Almost all appointment slots were booked up for days. Hair! Skin! Lydia had such simple needs that she daily strained to understand the urgency. She smoothed her own dark brown, chin-length hair, a small reassurance, and stayed on task.

Alma took a break and sauntered up to the reception desk.

“What you got going? You look tired today.”

“Sleep issues? Holiday blues? Sometimes I just sleep less? You and your ten second breaks. You manage to pack a lot into those.”

“I surely do! Well, you tell me, kiddo. I think you’ve got more going on than that, but I’m not one to pry. And breaks are what save me…all of us.”

Lydia looked at her ringing phone, then at Alma with wide eyes. But you are still prying, she mouthed. “Hello, Head and Body Salon, how can I help you?”

Tony sidled up close to Alma as she went back to her station; he threw a look over his shoulder at Lydia. “Maybe it is an actual man, after all. Love can steamroller you…”

“Says the man with a kid already and another on the way…She won’t say a peep. Our potluck’s not more than a week away. Maybe a few drinks to loosen her up…”

“Dubious. She seems to prefer Perrier with lime, barely drank a beer that time we went out. But we’ll get the truth out of her, girl.”

They high-fived and got back to work.

Three women lounged in tawny vintage leather chairs around a coffee table. They mused aloud about gifting issues, dinner plans, family squabbles. How they wished new hairdos could solve it all–if only! But Lydia mused about Feather. She wondered about her jet setting mother and Grant, the latest adoring male, one more too many. Counted minutes until she was off work.

At seven o’clock she waved to her co-workers and rushed down the few blocks to her building. She didn’t see Feather anywhere. How could she give her food again if the woman wasn’t there? Last time this happened, it had disappeared, to who knew where.

An hour later: delivery of a covered storage bowl with still-warm chili with plastic spoon, a thick piece of sourdough bread with butter, and a bottle of water. She wanted to leave coffee again, but her thermos had been left with Feather and was gone for good, maybe. A take-out coffee, next time.

Lydia turned in a circle to look better as the rain got more oomph. Blasted December rain. She wished it was still sunnier fall. How could anyone live outdoors in the cold Northwest damp? She stuck her hands deep into her raincoat pockets, hunched a bit.

“Hello Feather!–I don’t know your real name…you out here?” She scanned areas across the street, squinted at deeply shadowed sidewalks. A girl on a bicycle whizzed by, its headlight jumping as she went over bumps. A man hurried on the other side, briefcase clutched to chest. “It’s Lydia here! Helloooo? I left food here!”

Nothing. She scurried to her apartment building entrance, punched in her code, looked back a last time, shut the door behind her.

Feather whimpered softly where she leaned in a doorway across the street. Her ankle hurt–it had turned as she stepped off a curb downtown too fast without looking in the early morning dark. She had wrapped a scarf she had worn too long around it. Not that it made any difference. She stood, wobbled, took a few steps and winced. But she’d heard her, the lady. There was decent food over there. There was someone named Lydia.

******

“I told you, Lydia, I will do my best to get back but it’s not looking good. Heaven knows, Lydia, I try to cram as much into each work day as possible. This week’s executive management training, however, is absolutely not what I thought it was. Rather rudimentary, but still, I make contacts. I find new contacts, leads. Connect with old ones–that’s worth the trip. More properties to move as soon as I get back…but it’s New York in all its gritty, glamorous glory.” There was a languorous pause as she sipped her brandy. “How are you doing, my dear?”

“I’m perfect. I do what I do–you know, scheduling impatient clients to get hair done is a terribly difficult job.”

Her mother sighed as Grant rearranged pillows behind her back. “Beyond that, of course. Any new men moving into your building? Any leads on other job opportunities?”

Lydia laughed. “Not looking before Christmas, mother–I really like it there for now. Men? Wouldn’t know, I’m busier than you think.”

“Try me.”

“I’m studying train travel packages for next summer. Working on a montage to frame for my very beige bedroom. Reading three books off and on. And we have a work potluck soon.” She shook her wet hair out, combed tangles with fingers. “I’m well over thirty, Mother–just living my life.” There was a long silence. “And how is it with Grant?”

“Oh, well enough.”

“If he’s moving in, don’t tell me now. Wait till…the New Year.”

Her mother cleared her throat. “I’m glad you’re having a dinner gathering…. You aren’t by any chance still doing things for that street person, are you…not safe!”

“All is well.”

“Alright, then–see you on Christmas Eve, at least. Ciao.”

Lydia tossed her cell phone on the sofa and paced a little. No reason to be upset. They never had much of a Christmas together–there was always an urgent someone or something else. They didn’t buy each other much. They didn’t get trees. Well, Lydia put a small ceramic tree on the non-working fireplace mantel. The tree looked lovely all lit up. She went to look at it– a secondhand store treasure. She’d have someone over, she wasn’t sure who, maybe Diane from her last job, recently divorced. A good meal and large goblet of wine.

Saturday evening and it was getting late. She took leftover spaghetti and plopped it with its sauce into another disposable storage container, added now-cold peas, taped a fork on the lid. Got a bottle of pear juice.

On the way down the elevator, Lydia thought: why am I still doing this after over two weeks? Feather may not like pear juice or marinara sauce. She might hate that she was giving her food and throw it away. Maybe her mother was right–she should contribute in another way. Donation of money was so easy.

Feather sat cross-legged on the shop’s stoop. Her purple hat–the owl feather was missing– and coat were stained and damp. She looked up at Lydia. Their eyes met long enough that Lydia felt the force of her–strong, suspicious, intelligent, hurting. It was as if some weird electricity set on low hum connected the looks. Feather’s eyes flashed wide then looked away but not before Lydia saw their golden brown irises, the narrow pupils. Red-rimmed, dark circled, alert. She held out the food offering. Feather came closer, took it into both tanned, thin hands.

“Why all this? Again?” Feather asked as she eyed the contents and the woman who stood below the steps.

“Because you’re hungry, that’s all.”

“Okay. ” And she pried the fork off the lid, opened it, began to eat ravenously. “Thank you, then,” she said with mouth full.

Lydia went home. She stayed up late watching old movies, trying to guess Feather’s real name, munching a couple of rice cakes with strawberry cream cheese.

******

She heard it from the swirling center of her dream, a crying out as she awakened in a sweat. She waited for it to vanish, heart pounding. Looked at her phone: 2:34. It was still there, yelling, then the buzzer punched over and over for her apartment. She got out of bed, answered the intercom. But first she looked out the window, down three stories.

Feather on the sidewalk below.

Lydia pushed up the window sash a couple inches. “Feather? What’s going on?” Lydia asked, the cold air catching in her throat.

“I got beat up, can I come up a little?”

Lydia hesitated. Then pushed the button to unlock the front entry. Got a robe and padded to the elevator. The young woman came up with Lydia, shaking for the short ride. Her face was smeared with dirt and tears and blood. All she could do was mumble something about the alley, woman with a bad eye; then a dog scared her. Lydia put her arm around her, unwashed body odor nearly overpowering, Feather shaking hard.

They entered the apartment and Lydia turned on lights. Feather barely looked about but sank into the sofa, rubbing her hands together, swiping her face carefully.

“Shall I call the police? Take you to emergency?” She had never had to deal with a situation like this. What was best?

Feather shook her head “no”.

“You’re bleeding, you can wash your face in the bathroom…”

Feather didn’t move, just sat rigidly looking at her hands then the floor, then Lydia. Her eyes were dark in the dim living room. Blood trickled from her nose, a red lump rose under one eye, a split lower lip bled.

“Would you like some tea after you check your face? And I–I maybe could help you with a soft washcloth.”

Feather nodded, stood a little off-kilter. “Okay.”

Lydia pointed to the bathroom and followed with her hand on her elbow, took a fresh wash cloth from a shelf.

Standing so close felt rude, presumptuous–two strangers– as she wet the washcloth with a mild olive soap and gingerly dabbed wounded areas. Feather grabbed the cloth and ran it under hot water, then pressed it onto her face, breathing in the steamy heat. This she did several times, then added soap and moved the cloth in small circles about her face. Lydia stepped toward the door. Let her have space alone.

“Since I’m here now, can I ask….I’m sorry…but can I take a shower? It’s been over…it’s been so long. My body hurts so much tonight. If not it’s okay, I’ll go in a few minutes. Just wanted to see what she did to me.”

The punches she must have gotten. The painful swellings and cuts. Lydia wanted to ask who, where they went, get the police. But got a thick yellow bath towel, a matching hand towel and new wash cloth. Set them on the toilet seat.

“As long a long shower as you like.”

When she closed the door, she leaned against it and let tears run hot down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around her body. She put on the tea kettle and laid out clean clothing for sleeping.

******

Feather woke up with sunrise, as usual. She could not for the life of her figure out where she was. She wore a clean t-shirt and sweat pants, and lay on a vine-patterned sofa. She stood up too fast; every facet of her muscles and skin hurt.

Ah, Lydia’s…a heavenly shower for so long, cup of tea and sleep. Oh, blessed sleep in a warm place on a long sofa with snug, sweet-smelling blankets. She had an odd sense of unreality, as if she was not really there at all, but breathed slowly, evenly, and felt stronger. She had been so desperate last night. Now, more sore yet still better.

She didn’t know if she should bolt the smartest action, or wait. She waited, thinking of tea, of fresh toast despite her feeling this was all stupid, even sketchy, an unknown woman helping her for what? But Lydia was likely more worried than she was. She got up on tiptoe to use the bathroom. Her face looked like hell; her chest displayed a few raw lines from scratches. On the way back, she passed a closed door. Lydia’s room, she thought. She ought to explain more…but then Feather sank down on the sofa, pulled the blanket over her head, slept four hours more.

When she awakened once more there were fragrances long forgotten. The small dining table was set with mugs, real plates and silverware, and an aloe plant was at center, and a burning candle, cinnamon and orange. Like the old life, an ordinary table set in a simple way. Or the life before the last life…She felt a sweep of dizziness as longing threaten to grab hold and take her down the rabbit hole to the time and place she had vacated.

“Good morning, time for breakfast. Coffee?” Lydia stood in the kitchen, hand on coffeepot.

“Real breakfast? For free– or…? I can find food somewhere else!”

“Of course. Eggs? Toast with jam and peanut butter? Cereal, hot or cold?”

“You’re kidding–I can choose?”

“Feather…just a nice Sunday morning breakfast that I already ate as you slept.” She poured a mug of pungent coffee as the startled young woman sat down. “What is your name, anyway?”

Feather was at the table, the paper napkin put in her lap. Biting her lip and looking at the candle flame she shrugged. “Okay, I’m Genevieve. Called Gen. But being Feather has been nice in a weird way.”

“Gen… now order, please?”

She ate in silence, and though her split lip and cheeks hurt with each bite, she kept chewing fried eggs and toast and sipping fresh coffee. She didn’t want to be rude but there had been so many times of hunger. Days of it, even with Lydia’s food the grinding gnawed at her as a day fell toward night or night slid into day.

Lydia left her to it, got to work cleaning up.

After the food came the talking. Lydia glimpsed Gen’s face and demeanor as often as she could without being rude. The young woman had utterly changed with a shower, rest, decent food. Hair was shoulder length and auburn brown. Even with bruising along high cheekbones and swollen lip and abrasions and cuts–an open face touched with inquisitiveness and a latent softness. Her eyes were large, brighter. Yet striking features betrayed less feeling than she expected. She supposed it was the toll of the street. Having to be on guard, be tough. But Gen spoke carefully. Thoughtfully.

“Lydia, I’m homeless now for over three months but not for reasons you think.”

“What do I think?”

Gen put down her mug, breathed in heavily, let air out slowly. “What every one decides is true. Drugs, alcohol, can’t work because of mental illness and not being on meds. Well, I did lose my job and I guess I was struggling. ” She reached for the mug of coffee, tracing the cardinal on it, then took a drink. “I was working at a corner store across the river and had no place to live. I couldn’t find a spot to stay for long. Or always make it to work on time. On and on.”

“But you had a home, once?”

“Sure. An apartment.” She studied the folds of her napkin, shredded it to bits. “He was mean, you see, he drank, too, but he was just…too harsh. I reached my limit.”

Lydia felt herself lurch. “Domestic violence?”

“Why do they call it that? Like some neat label on a file?” Gen stood up, pushed back her chair, walked to the kitchen and back. “Why not get to the point: monstrous days or nights of cruelty, things you can’t figure out how to stop– emotionally or bodily, they just keep happening…?” She stopped. Sat. “I’m sorry, sorry…yes, he hit me, worse. Anyway, I had to go, so I did, and thought I’d be alright since I had a job, friends. Friends! No. They dried up when he came calling. Besides, no one really wants to get involved, they have their own lives to deal with. So I did what was necessary to survive. But then, you–why you?”

Lydia was riveted. This woman, ten years younger than she was–she had lived all that yet taken a great risk. Left but maybe ended up worse off, who could say this worked out at all? Violence and loneliness on the street or at home. Death, maybe. And she shared her life without embellishment as she rested with coffee and Lydia.

“I…I don’t know. I kept thinking about you every day I passed you. I thought it might help to feed you, that’s all. A small thing, when you consider the scope of your trouble.”

“No.” Gen placed her hands palms down on the table between them. “You saw me. Cared to stop.”

“I’m so sorry you’ve endured all this, Gen.”

Gen looked at her ragged fingernails, then at Lydia and gave a small smile, her eyes brimming. They stayed quiet then, drinking coffee, looking out the window at people rushing or sauntering by. Much had been said and left unsaid.

It was a Sunday. Laundry day in the basement laundry room. Lydia got up. “I can wash your clothes and give you some of mine to wear. The jeans might be short on you, but we’re both sort of tall and slim.”

“You’d do that?”

“You can stay all day if you like–talk things over tonight. Just rest. But if you have to go, then go.”

Gen got up and stretched. “It’s like I woke up in heaven.”

“It’s not all that much, really. I’m glad you took a chance to reach out.”

“I guess I am, too, but it’s pretty bizarre, too.”

Lydia had to agree. But why not trust her instincts, take a chance? Let life leave its telltale trails on hers; let herself be willing to accept this stranger named Gen.

******

They talked that night, the day and night after, and the next. More than either had talked in a long while. Nothing seemed too crazy to state as time rolled by. Lydia grasped Gen’s situation as well as she could. They defined boundaries each day. In the final agreement, Gen could stay until she got another job. Lydia would point her in the right direction for further help regarding housing. And counseling. They would take it a day at a time–that was the best way to approach the situation: practically. Carefully. Kindly. Gen was traumatized, Lydia saw that, but she wanted to be better and was persistent.

When the potluck rolled around a few days later, Lydia was ready, She was to host it at her apartment–she had leaves for the round table, it could seat all of them fine. When Gen suggested she just disappear, Lydia would not hear of it.

“No, you should know my co-workers and they ought to know you since you live here, for now.”

“But I don’t think I can do it. I don’t want to answer questions, have them look me over.”

“You face looks good now.”

“I don’t mean that, Lydia…I don’t want top be paraded out…”

Lydia was about to argue but only nodded.

So she left for the night and Lydia, Alma and Tony all got a bit tipsy, ate very well, played silly Charades and had fun getting a bit closer. But Alma and Tony didn’t know Lydia’s secret, still. As the three guests left the building, they passed Gen in the foyer and greeted her cheerfully as they would anyone after a pleasant evening. Gen waved at them, smiled back, her lips no longer hurting.

******

When her mother came back to town earlier than expected, there was no plan at all.

“Yes, well, here I am, flowers and food in hand! Why didn’t you answer you buzzer at first? I know I’m back four days early, but I wanted to see you, dear. Is this a good time?”

Lydia embraced her mother and her heady perfume, took the pink and red roses, sniffing them closely to get the fine rose fragrance in her nose, then arranged them in a vase. “Why the roses?”

“Oh, you know, Christmas.”

“That’s poinsettias, Mother, or red amaryllis.”

“I just felt like it, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” She looked around. “It looks good in here, what I’d call…homier. What did you do?” She took the Chinese take-out and plated it to heat in the microwave. “I meant to get you a great new scatter rug ordered for Christmas but ran out of time. There’s always something, I know, but it might slack off a couple weeks now.”

“Mother, it’s fine, but–“

“I’ll do it tomorrow, alright? Yes, and I have the reservation for Bartles, not to worry. A few days to go, then we’re done with it for another year. What did you get me this year, Lydia? ” She laughed her cascading laugh. “You know you’ll get money.”

“Mother, hold on. What’s up?” She took in her mother, a long, hard appraisal. Pale skin, sad droopy eyelids, tense mouth, a clenching and unclenching left hand. “He left… Grant is gone.”

“Well, so what if he is? They come, they go, nothing so terrible, he had a weak ego, anyway, and he makes less than I do as VP and, too, he has the most annoying–“

Lydia put her an arm around her mother’s silk-clad shoulder and led her to an armchair. “You sit down. I’m getting tea started. Then I have something to tell you, too. Let’s eat right here.”

The older woman sat, took off her black high heels and rubbed both insteps. She was full of curiosity but she was tired. A long, bad argument with Grant echoed in her ears. Done with that!

After the meal Lydia sat across from her mother.

“Mother, I have a roommate now.”

“Oh!” She lit up. “What’s he like? Is he hiding out in your room?”

“No, Mother, not that sort of roommate. I mean, a young woman who–“

“Lydia, you’re now leaning that way…?”

“Oh, stop for a minute! Let me explain. She’s–well, she’s the homeless woman. She got badly hurt out there, so I took her in, and it’s a long story but she needs a place to stay, she’s nice and respectable as you might say, just fell on hard times and–“

Her mother put up a hand. “Oh, Lydia. Whatever will become of you?”

Lydia had no answer for that. It was what her mother said when she ran out of words about her daughter, an old refrain.

“Where is she? How long will she be here? How do you know she isn’t dangerous?”

“She went to an interview awhile ago. She’ll be back shortly. It’s a good time to talk about that duplex you bought recently…”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Can’t we keep this simpler? And focus on us now? I lost my guy and the training was awful. I actullay booked an earlier flight because it all went to hell. I realized how much I miss you, Lydia…”

Lydia felt the impact of those words, and leaned into the sofa. “Missing me? I’m always here.”

“I have been, really. It was dreary sitting alone on the plane for hours, thinking of all the years we had more time together. Work and men always dominate my life.”

True, but now all this talk was getting to be too much; it wasn’t like her mother. It almost worried her. “Well, I think of all that, too. And now you’re home. So we’ll have our dinner, we can gather round a real tree, if you like. I, for one, would like that.”

“Done. A good change. I’ll see where I can find a lovely tree for my living room–they cost so much, but– yes.” She tilted her head, narrowed her eyes. “What about the duplex?”

“Maybe she can rent one when she gets a job? Or before. I’ll help with rent awhile, if needed.”

“What, your own money? You must have a lot of faith in this person! Take a minute to evaluate, Lydia.” She clasped her hands, then relaxed a bit. “We will see… she needs a decent job. I’d need to get references, not just from you.”

“Mother, she’s a domestic violence victim, just give her a break!”

“True. Men can be such beasts. Except for your too soon-departed father.”

“Yes, Mother, I know. Oh, please don’t cry–I have enough tears around here.”

The door swung open and in walked Gen who went straight to Lydia, clapping her hands like an excited school girl.

“I got the job–I think! She liked me–and may soon hire me if my work references pan out.”

That Genevieve was changing was clear, Lydia thought. For one, she looked amazing all clean and hair shining and dressed nicely. But even more she was standing taller, looked at her in the eye but not too hard; shoulders back, chin up a tad. She smiled enough as she shook Lydia’s mother, then sat and chatted, nothing too personal, just job hunting, her bookkeeping skills. And Lydia helping her out. She was not much intimidated by Lydia’s finely mannered, impeccably dressed mother, Leslie Settlefield, or did not reveal it. Gen knew how to cope, it seemed, to face life as required. She could figure out solutions–how to survive, start over.

Leslie thought, she had a spark, that girl, spunk. She’d manage alright. Past trials wouldn’t stop her if she could help it.

But it was Lydia who Leslie Settlefield wondered over. Her daughter had people skills, and an ability to believe in them when many did not. She had seen that when she was very young, how she defended the taunted kids in school, and sold friendship bracelets as a fund raiser for a little friend’s cancer treatment; how she stubbornly refused to stop being friends with a boy whose father had been to alcohol rehabilitation many times. She had faith in humans, unlike Leslie, who far more often had faith in property and the currency it generated.

Leslie, though, knew the man whose home goods store Gen applied at; she knew without asking that Lydia had called him ahead of time. It occurred to her than she should talk to her daughter again about a job opening in the real estate company. She’d be great at finding and welcoming new clients, connecting people with one another.

As Leslie prepared to leave, she held out a bejeweled hand to Gen.

“I have a property that may suit you– if you get and keep that job for a couple months. I’m renovating it but it will be ready by then.” She gave her a business card and looked back at her daughter. “See you for tree trimming–I’ll call you.” Turning back to Gen, she added, “You’re welcome to come, too, of course.”

Lydia and Gen made popcorn and watched surprising, fine snow drift past the window. Lydia was thinking that she might bring in Gen to work tomorrow. Introduce her, if she was okay with that. And they both could use a haircut for Christmas.

“It’s been a month since I first saw you out there,” Lydia mused.

“Too much to take in…I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes already,” Gen said, “and have more to go. I was never lucky before…thank you, did I say it enough?” She popped a handful of buttery goodness in her mouth. “Gads, isn’t it just something beautiful out there?”

“You did. And I know only a little of what it feels to live more than you expect. Still learning.” Lydia peered into the glimmering snowfall. “Yes, beautiful.”

She knew that Venus–her planet that shone like a star–was up there under dark layers, beaming its light about, still listening in on their hopes.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Venus is a Planet (Feather on the Stoop), Part 1

Lydia was a homebody; she liked the everydayness of things there. How, when she returned to her small one bedroom apartment after work, everything looked the same. Unremarkable, perhaps, but undisturbed. The tea kettle on the right back burner where it whistled and sighed as it ran out of steam each morning. The bronze, burgundy and green paisley tablecloth, smooth and clean, slipped over a round table by a main window. Her bed refreshingly unmussed, three pillows plumped for bedtime. Her books lining the wall stacked by size. Such simplicity and order gave her a ping of happiness as her eyes swept over all a last time, then closed the front door firmly behind her. And when she opened it later in the day, she released a pleasant sigh before the door even shut.

At least she told herself this was all true. At the Head and Body Salon an older co-worker, Alma (who said they were the same age though Lydia saw the crow’s feet and loose skin about her neck–she didn’t care, anyway) challenged her sharing of such a peaceful tableau.

“But to have it so quiet every single day? I can’t imagine not having my husband griping about something. Or the canaries not singing–they keep me company when he doesn’t.” She smiled; such thoughts gave her a grudging pleasure.

“I have car and foot traffic, don’t forget–or the train lumbering by at night, its whistle almost a comforting shriek. There is a big dog, a Lab, above me–I hear Riley romping, big barking at times. I know my neighbors, sort of, Riley’s owner, his name–” She picked up the phone to answer a customer call. “Hello? Just a refresh? Hmm, yes, maybe next Monday? Let me check and we’ll get you taken care of, not to worry.”

Alma rolled her eyes at Lydia, then waved at a regular who just came in–the gal insisted on a rinse that made her mostly white hair more bluish. Alma longed to just dye it all royal blue and be done with it. But that wasn’t her way. Tony had more fun with clients. He started to chatter at her and the young one in his chair; she could barely follow his staccato speech so often just nodded. She and Tony worked long hours since Ginny, the owner had her baby and took leave. Anyway, Tony got the younger ones, and gloriously experimented. But a job was a job, thank God for it, Alma thought, as she aimed the hair drier onto a champagne blonde’s thick fluffy mop. She worried about Lydia sometimes, though. She had worked there over a year, and never seemed to go out afterwards–she was maybe thirty-five. Still half a kid, really. She harrumphed.

Lydia tapped her teeth with a pencil as she watched the two stylists plying their trade. Alma could do what she did with eyes covered after all her years experience. Tony got excited, took risks–sometimes too great a risk. But the salon made decent money. She should be happier in the mini-beehive of activity so awash in pleasantries. Who came and left a hair and skin treatment salon feeling miserable? No one that she heard about. She worked efficiently and nicely, took satisfaction in her multi-tasking. Yet Lydia’s mother always had said, “You have the mindset of a dizzy moth–you stare at the light, take in little and do even less, get burned. I can’t understand daydreamers–it does nothing for you but slow you down.”

Or a variation on those sentences. Moths were far better than that; she needed to read the facts. But, no. .. she was the space cadet, poor Lydia the laggard, Lydia the forgetful. In fact, she recalled a great deal; she just didn’t pay much attention to her mother. Her mother was so busy, too ambitious in her opinion. She was a hyper overachiever by any stretch and Lydia–she was just herself. So what if she got dreamy-eyed? She still knew how to live fine. Didn’t she?

“How can I have birthed a slacker daughter?” asked the mother who had become VP at a small real estate agency last year. “Have you looked into a civil servant exam yet? Even the legal assistant program? It isn’t too late to forge ahead. I will still pay for a four year degree!”

Lydia no longer quite answered; she mostly slid about those words like a cat slipping between legs, there and not there, not even rude. She found something to do with her hands when confronted– like rearrange the flower bouquet her mother dropped off after work with take-out twice a month. They had dinner, if you could call it that, and in 35 minutes maximum her mother was gone and not a word until the next time.

Like her mother, now Alma seemed to be saying she wasn’t making much of a mark on life. Or life wasn’t leaving any interesting marks upon her days and nights. That’s how it sounded to her, at least.

In bed at night Lydia stared at the ceiling light fixture before drifting off. It was a very old, fake chandelier. She watched various lights bounce from street and windows, then off the teardrop crystals. When the train rumbled by, the crystals shook the smallest bit. She loved that, a little sassiness of light and form. But she’d feel a sadness well up from time to time. Her bed was terrifically big some nights, the room seeming emptier for all the lovely dances of crystal and light and shadow.

It wasn’t easy to meet people that she really wanted to meet, or who cared to understand her. Deep inside, Lydia feared that she’d never really know anyone, and that she would live and die without being truly known. It haunted her when she least wanted to think on it.

*****

That the lady was there at all startled her. Lydia had to step back fast to avoid falling over an outstretched leg. She was slumped onto her side over on the landing above three short steps, not far from a doorway. The watch repair shop had closed month ago when the owner passed away. No one seemed to desire it’s worn homeliness. But random people didn’t just hang out on unused steps. Four blocks down, maybe. Not there.

Lydia checked her grandmother’s delicate watch, then looked closely at the form. She knew it was a woman because of the shoes and hat. The former were brown lace up, calf-high boots with a narrow, worn heel; the hat was purple, crumpled, wide-brimmed and with a kind of dirty feather stuck in the hatband. Her form was large but likely tall, not overweight. Her coat was a stained Mackintosh. It seemed too cold to be wearing such a coat. Was it lined for warmth?

“You alright? Should I call someone for you?” She reached out to touch a shoulder, then drew back. Maybe no one ever had come for her or she didn’t want anyone around. She guessed the person had been living pretty rough for some time. She might be angry that anyone bothered her.

Lydia felt jittery– yet curious. What was wrong, anyway? What could she do? Her watch showed she was running late. The woman stirred, pulled her knees up close to her chest. Her pale face turned enough that it was partly revealed in the weak morning winter light. Her eyelids fluttered, then squeezed tightly against the light. She lifted a gloved hand–finger poking out the ends–and rubbed her lips gently. There was what looked like dried blood on the upper lip. Then she buried her head into folded arms, relaxed again.

Her heart beating fast, Lydia stood there a long moment, then looked up at the sky. It was getting bluer and brighter. Perhaps no rain, then. She glanced at the woman and frowned, then went on her way. She kept turning back, but nothing seemed different there. Just her entire morning.

******

When work wound down at seven o’clock, she tidied her desk, waved to her co-workers, and left. Alma and Tony exchanged a look–where was she off to so fast?

As she walked down her street, Lydia strained to see the shopfront where the strange woman had been. In her mind, her name was Feather, nothing else had come to her. It appeared dark, empty; the sun had long gone down. But as she slowed and peered into the area, she saw her sitting with back against the doorway, head bowed, arms crossed over her chest. She had on frayed jeans and they now covered her boots.

“Are you okay?” Lyida said softly.

But the woman didn’t speak, only held herself closer in with her arms, lowered her head deeper, and seemed to be asleep shortly after.

After a quick dinner, she paced a bit, thinking of what to do. In her bedroom at the foot of her bed there was a cedar chest with wool blankets and extra throw pillows and some other items she rarely used. She pulled out a wool Pendleton blanket ivory with yellow, red and green stripes at each end, one she’d gotten used. And a crewel floral-covered pillow. She found a large cotton bag she’d well used for market trips, so folded the blanket and pillow and stuffed them into it.

She threw on her jacket and shoes, then ran down one flight of steps and out the door, walked briskly down the street. But when she got to the steps where the feather hat woman had been, the spot was full of nothing. Hesitating a moment, she put down the bag and retreated, standing with hands on hips looking about. A bicyclist wheezed by and glanced over his shoulder at her; two cars passed, one slowing as a passenger eyed the bag. What was the point if someone stole it or tossed it in a dumpster? She ran up the steps and grabbed the bag, turning slowly to check one last time for the now-named Feather. The street got busier as people headed home after a dinner out or a late day at work. A gust of wind lifted her dark hair and strands covered her eyes. Pushing them out of the way, she walked back home, shoulders crunched in the growling wind. Well, it was presumptuous of her, she thought. Her dumb ideas!

Across the street another woman watched as she thought, It’s her, that one who stopped. Why would she stop for her, what did she want? She wasn’t begging. She’d have none of that. This was temporary, a kink in the road, that’s all. But, Lordy, that blanket would feel sweet and toasty against her cool prickled skin. She pulled the thin coat close at her neck and rambled down the street to look for discarded restaurant food. Dumpsters were never an easy thing. But she was strong enough.

******

In the morning, Lydia saw that just the purple hat lay on the top step of Feather’s spot, so she went back upstairs, got the bag, then carried it back into sprinkling rain. She looked about–no one paying any attention, the homeless woman was not about–so set it by the hat.

She made it to work on time but all morning considered: surely she wouldn’t leave that worn but pretty hat?

“Lydia, calling Lydia, you there?”

Tony called out, waving a brush–other hand deep in red-streaked black hair– at the ringing phone.

“Head and Body Salon, good morning!” she chirped.

“What is that girl about the past couple days?” Alma whispered as she washed her client’s hair in the shampooing sink. “You’d wager she met a man…oh, not that, right?” She smirked as he raised his eyebrows.

“Okay,” Alma said, hunched over the counter clients leaned on above the desk, “give.”

Lydia sometimes didn’t understand Alma or Tony; they too often talked in shorthand. “Huh?”

“Whatdya mean, ‘huh’. You’re more drifty than usual, my dear–and look like you’re planning a secret trip somewhere far away and it’s all you can do to keep it quiet.”

Lydia rearranged her pens and pencils before her, lined each one up. “Well, that’s not true. I have no plans. Just a few things on my mind. You know, the holidays are coming up…”

“Well, that should be easy. Your mom always takes you to Bartles for a swanky dinner and gives you a gift card for thousands. Or is she taking you to Tahiti this year like you said she did three years ago?” Alma laughed; Lydia always worried about what to give her mother in return. She got that but really, it was not such a problem. “Did you make the idea list for her yet? You should come to my house–the hubby wants everything but he’s getting far less than that.”

“Alma, take it easy on our coworker!” Tony called out and smiled sweetly at the receptionist. He’d been pondering his own ideas of what he could swap with her and the other two at their annual holiday potluck. “She’s doing her job, which is more than I can say for you.” He pointed emphatically with his rattail comb at the mess Alma had left at her station. It was a slower day.

“Yeah, yeah,” Alma said. “Chin up, Sweetie, your mom will be fine, she gets nice stuff. Make her a poppy seed cake… I’d like that.”

“I’m not sure what this Christmas has going for it. Mother will be in New York for some conference-slash-social getaway–likely time with Grant, her newest–until the last minute. And it’s not thousands, by the way…only a few hundred!” She snickered and batted at Alma’s arm with a pen topped with plastic daisy, then was answered the phone.

On the way back home, Lydia walked rapidly to try to avoid the sudden downpour which only made her wetter as the wind rushed her faster. It was darker than usual with the curtain of rain, the heavy clouds above. But as she passed the steps where Feather had been before she slowed, anyway, pushing wet bangs off her forehead to get a good look. There she was, crouched under the metal awning of the doorway. Wrapped in the wool blanket, the pillow behind her head while leaned against the long glass pane in the door frame. The cloth bag was stuffed with something Lydia couldn’t discern.

“Hello,” she said, nodding at the blanketed figure. “Glad you found it.”

Feather looked away as the train clackety-clacked on tracks from a block away. Lydia hurried on. It was late. She needed hot soup, a grilled cheese and steaming tea, then a warm bubble bath and a book as she grew dozy on the couch.

It was only when she slipped her tired lean body into the inviting frothy water that she thought: did Feather get to eat tonight? When did she last have a basic hot bath? She sank deeper into the gentle warmth. Such comfort and relief in her ordinary, secure world…and she felt shame, and wondered what else she– a fumbling human who understood so little– might do. Tears sprang up as sandalwood perfume wafted into her nose, clung to her rosy skin. She wept, grew sleepy, then got out.

That night the rain stopped a handful of drops at a time. In bed, looking up at the shimmery chandelier and listening for the ten o’clock train whistle, she thought how things might be different for Feather, if only…. or for herself… who knew? The whistle blew and she closed her eyes, imagined that she who lived on those steps might have blinked hers open wide to check for the blanket and pillow–to make sure the world in all its violence was not coming upon her in the rain skidded dark.

******

The next morning Lydia found the blanket folded carefully on top the pillow, all pressed against the door. But Feather and the bag were gone. She looked up and down the street, found it as usual, busy but calm, and left a plastic storage container of macaroni and cheese and green beans piled at the side. It had a plastic fork; she added bottled seltzer. She looked about a last time and, satisfied no one saw her at it, she hid all under the blanket.

As she pushed open the salon door, she was surprised so many were waiting. Was she late?

Alma sidled up to her. “You know that holiday special we ran? This is the start of an avalanche, get ready girl.”

The whole day was hectic, full of talk and extra chores that when they were finishing up, Lydia wasn’t prepared to chat. She wanted to get home. The book she had started was excellent and the bath awaited.

“Wait a second, Lydia. We wanted to talk to you, “Alma said, grabbing her bag. “How about coming down to Shorty’s with us and having a beer and fries?”

“Oh, I can’t– not tonight, have things at home to tie up and–“

Tony shook her loosely by the arm. “You can’t spare us an hour?”

Lydia frowned. Could she? Not really, not now. “How about Saturday night unless my mother comes by as supposedly planned? Or next week? I really have stuff to address…”

“Don’t say we haven’t offered… again…you’re a dodger!”

Lydia winked at them and was out the door.

She took her time. The wind was up but the sky was a radiant darkness from which stars beamed like heaven’s eyes. She recalled as a child, when wishing on one, how she felt certain her wish had been heard. But her mother, sitting on her bed beside her.

“If you wished on that bright one”–she pointed it out–“well, sorry, that’s a planet. Venus. Try another one.”

But that year her wish–wasn’t it the science kit?– came true at Christmas, so she kept wishing on Venus, or what she thought was Venus–even after learning it rained sulfuric acid and would flatten you dead if you went there. Now she didn’t wish, of course. But she still believed the sky with its remarkable planets and beautiful stars might hear her pleas, if distantly. She gave up a few secrets when they shone as they did tonight; they were perhaps God’s guardians at the gateway to the great beyond. Possibilities reigned in Lydia’s thinking, even if that’s where they simply stayed.

From the steps Feather watched Lydia walk closer. On the bottom step was the container and plastic fork, cleaned. She had the heavy Pendleton blanket around her shoulders and over her lap. Her hat was on.

Lydia bent and picked up the container and fork, smiled. But Feather was looking up at the sky with its stars saved up after days of rain.

******

Lydia finished her cup of coffee at ten o-clock in the morning, grabbed the bagel made of almond butter and raspberry jam, and a sausage and cheddar-filled whole wheat sandwich, a cold seltzer and put them in a large paper bag.

Feather was sleeping. Or she was pretending well. Her rumpled hat covered her face; the feather looked like a wet owl feather. It occurred to Lydia that this was a better name, then thought she ought to know her real name; Feather was just silly to call her. Like an owl, though, she was still most of the time, then looking everywhere but at her. Likely awake at night, standing guard of her stoop, few possessions, her safety. And then she’d fly off.

At work it was a regular day–that is, it was hectic again, as it would be until the New Year. She thought about little, working the phone, greeting customers, who for some reason were talking her ear off with their excitement for parties coming up. It was an infectious thing, their trilling away. They looked at her closer, and she responded with eyes warm and bright. Lydia was feeling pleased with things, it seemed.

Her friends knew nothing of Feather. It would stay that way. It was her personal life, her own experience.

That night, the stoop was empty. The items were gone. Lydia studied the street, waited a bit, then went to her home. Anxiety snagged her as she fixed a meal. Had she done too much, was that possible? The woman hadn’t asked for one thing; maybe she didn’t want anything. No, she ate the food, used the blanket and pillow. Maybe it was too hard, any “charity” taken. It confused her, and though she did not rest as well that night, she awakened feeling hopeful, anyway. She packed a few protein bars, a peanut butter sandwich, and filled a thermos with coffee. She tossed together a small baggie of sugar and one of powdered creamer plus a plastic spoon and fork. Added a can of tuna fish with a lid that could be pulled open with a tab. Lydia stopped. Did the woman drink? She didn’t think so. She never looked drunk or smelled of alcohol. She looked lost and very tired, but almost proud when she sat up

She was there, on her feet, and the blanket had slipped into a bunched tower of brightly striped wool. She was talking to someone, a man. He was listening, stood so close to her that Lydia knew they were familiar with one another, or she hoped. Then he slapped her across the face and charged off.

“What’s going on? Can I help?” Lydia’s heart crashed against her chest as she took in every feature of the woman. loveliness bloomed beneath grime and pain, and a youthfulness that was wearing thin.

Feather’s hands went to her cheek, but shook her head. She looked down the street and saw he was gone.

“I’m okay, wanted money, haha,” she said, her voice surprisingly low and a bit hoarse. Back to the stoop. She climbed and sat with elbows on knees, chin propped in her hands. Her hair, tangled by a long time unwashed, stuck close by her ears and face. She put the hat back on; the feather wobbled. She stuck it in better, looked away after she spotted the bag of food.

“Can I leave this with you? Will you be alright?”

She nodded, looked at her hands a long moment, rubbing them as if trying to warm them up. Or remove the street. “Who are you?” she asked as if to herself, but mostly to the odd woman.

But Lydia was on her way. She was trying to calm down. That man had hurt Feather. It made her feel ill, but she didn’t want to be late, either.

******

“Why is there a woman camping out on the watch repair stoop? And she had a blanket that looked much like your old one.” She took a bite of food, then shook her head. “Don’t get involved! I should buy that place… well, maybe not.”

Her mother was rushed more than usual, and she was barely finishing some Thai takeout; she had a meeting at Bartles. Had to leave room for great drinks.

Lydia said, “She’s homeless, Mother. But she’s okay.

“Is that your blanket, Lydia? I’ll get you a new one, but only if you don’t give it away.”

“It’s fine, I have enough. When do you leave for New York? Are you going to be back in time for our annual night out?”

Her mother shrugged luxuriously, her hands palms up. “Who knows for certain, my dear. I will try my best. Grant and I–“

“I know. It’s okay.”

Her mother got up. “So sorry to rush. I’m glad to see you looking well. Now, don’t give anything more away, you hear? Hard earned money and all that. Donate to a reputable charity if so moved. And if I can’t be here on the date we chose, I’ll make it up to you, of course! And I will call or text you.”

With that, her mother laid a slim hand against her cheek, gave her a peck where coolness was left by her touch. After she was gone, her signature perfume lingered on her skin and in the air. Lydia waited a few minutes, then washed it off.

She took the rest of her Thai dinner downstairs, left it beside the softly snoring body and returned to her refuge.

******

The next morning was Sunday and no work to take up time and energy.

The stoop was empty. The blanket was gone, the pillow was gone, there was no bag full of anything. The woman who lived there, the owl feather, had drifted elsewhere. Lydia left a bag with two croissants and two little tubs of butter and a plastic knife; also, a fat wedge of cheese and a giant sized water, plain. Then she yawned, put head on arms crossed on her knees. She welcomed thin sunshine on her shoulders and head. She had slept fitfully. There was rain in the air but it was holding back. The sharpening breeze was moving about buildings, pushing down the streets with its wintry intent. She decided to walk to the park a block and a half away, where there were skeletal oaks and green laden pine trees lining the walks and a small fountain burbling–if it was on in December, she could not recall. A walk before the downpour and very little to do at home.

At the park she circled twice, and thought she saw her. The brown coat hanging crookedly, the cloth bag stuffed overly full–the blanket, pillow?– hair tangled and lifting in a mass as the wind blew hard. She was talking with another woman and a man, people who might also be homeless if one determined such a thing based on clothing and heavy slump of shoulders, the way they huddled together like co-conspirators. Trying figuring out the next place to shelter. But they were far ay and it was not her business who they were or what they did.

Lydia sat on a bench, stared at the fountain a moment–no water–and opened her book. It would likely soon fall, the rain, but she had a few minutes to read, to be taken away; to watch and listen for the cranky train that would pass. Then she’d be home and listen to music, putter about her apartment, plan what to give her mother for a gift and also Feather the next time they met up. If they did. She hoped they might, unless it meant she’d instead found a safe harbor that was clean and warm–where folks were nice to her. No one slapping her, either.

Later, when the rain took a long needed break for the night, after Lydia had been knitting a scarf just like some old person with nothing better to do–Alma would tell her that; Tony would offer to take it off her hands but it was for someone else–much later, as the sun parted skittish clouds and daubs of blue were offering visitation, Feather opened the sack left for her. She had walked a long time. She had talked with others, found them hard to be around. The shelters were filling up already. A cold wet night again, soon, too soon. She found the croissants mostly dry–the bag had been left way under the awning, where little rain had splashed. She held the opened butter tub close to her nose and inhaled deeply its richness. Then the sweet and toasty croissants. She could imagine how tasty they’d be if they were warm and moist and…. she shook her head.

Of course they were cold as she pressed the butter on them. She took a big bite and then another, another, another, and she hummed with delight, then started on the second and Lordy, so good to me, she thought. So tasty, it nearly hurt but she licked her fingers clean one by one. Feather pulled the yellow and green striped blanket closer, its rough heat like a tent of power, her eyes shut against the confounding world. She prayed for the shy, skinny woman He’d sent her way, that she would sleep just fine inside the fresh starlight. Like she felt she might, too, with her belly fuller. The train whistle cried out to her one last time for the night and she let herself be at rest awhile.

(Readers, Part 2 is coming up next week. Stay tuned.)

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Benevolence

It happened that she was walking through Cutter’s Field close to her parents’ home place, one she had enjoyed as a child when a rainbow of wildflowers bloomed and she ran barefoot through swaths of swaying grasses. Her name was called out of nowhere, not the one that carried her steadfastly into adulthood, but the one a chosen few had used to remind her she was loved. Or at times by others to torture her–but it had long been hers, whichever cause to use it was at hand.

“Bunny…”

It was born on the October wind, a remnant of the past. She sensed it a ghost name even as she slowed but spun around, anyway. No one in her current life knew she had been Bunny, and she’d have denied it, so absurd a nickname she’d had to bear so long. If also worn with some appreciation for the mantle of affection it brought. But she was in her old hometown and may not have managed to stay invisible.

The calling out tingled from ears to heart in a race to her mind. It felt much as the reason she’d been named it: a soft rabbit is a quiet creature, then suddenly can leap away so spritely, gone, invisible again in thicket of grass or bush. And, well, her sister had said, you have such a small, velvety face, Bree, then laughing though what she’d meant to say but never quite did was, Your skin is soft and beautiful on your cute bunny face, more lovely than mine. Bree knew what she meant, usually, but it was a fact that Esther was born beautiful and Bree was born…with a most pleasant, perhaps elfin face. And born quite a bit smarter.

Esther often put bunny ears on Bree from behind, two fingers sticking up above her head. Many a picture had captured it to Bree’s dismay. She was a circumspect child, and was on the way to becoming a poised albeit restrained young woman whose feelings ran far deeper than seen. The name stuck until Bunny nee Bree reached age 16, at which time she had put her foot down and ordered it to stop at Sunday dinner. There had been were hard times that weekend; she’d suddenly had enough. But it was not done with entirely in school. At home, her family reserved it for times like birthdays. She suffered it kindly with them until she left home for good. That was fourteen years ago, at age twenty-two.

So as she was walking across the untidy and welcoming field that fall day, she was not expecting it. The air pulsed with intoxicating warmth saved for tail end of fall, and earth’s scent and all it held rose to greet her. It certainly hadn’t been uttered by Esther, who also had left long ago for beaches of California. A deeper voice, she mused, but it was hard to say when the shimmying wind rustled and stole away sounds. She saw no one save their much older neighbor, Joe Harter, on his tractor farther afield. He had waved, she thought, as he turned a corner to start down another row.

It was only by chance she was there, visiting her father before moving 700 miles away from him– as he battled worsening health–to Chicago for her work as an interpreter. She had wondered when she might see him again if they didn’t have a good visit right then so she’d been there a week. He didn’t want to move with her, no; she was not to worry. This, after seeing him infrequently for years while working in Europe. It was difficult for them both. But soon the trip back home would be much shorter than from Milan.

She would leave him tomorrow, and the walk was a last consoling act in which she indulged, as she had also so loved the fields and woods. A roundup of memories during a bittersweet and soothing walk, with birds discoursing, wind dancing, open sky winking at her through the trees’ glimmering hues of autumn. She kept on, contented to look and listen and smell it all.

“Bunny!” The call was not loud but distinct and closer.

By then she’d reached the edge of the field and dashed to Bender’s Creek in Little Woods. She squatted in the leaves beside it, a hand trailing in a tiny waterfall as it rushed over rocks. But the faint voice rendered her immobile. She didn’t want to stand and verify who it was. She wanted to camouflage herself in shadowed greenery and dipping branches. Bree fell forward on her knees, bent close to the water, waited until that name disappeared with name caller.

Footsteps shuffled through the woods’ detritus. Each step quickened Bree’s pulse, and her features froze, her round cheeks stained bright as raspberries. Her dripping hand dampened her forehead, smoothed hair back, then she rose and turned.

He stood a hundred yards away among the birches, and in an instant it was that afternoon when many decisions were altered. A shock zigzagged through neural pathways but she stood taller, chin raised a notch.

“Rollie, is it you.” A small statement. She knew.

Saying the whisper of his name made it real; she wished to pull it back or bury it deep in ground. His step forward breached an internal wall and so she turned down her senses, stilled her mind. And looked at him with a steady gaze, readying for what was to come.

He came closer with a limp although he crossed earth between them without hesitation, a hand reaching. She remained in place, words like vapor in her mouth, flooding her tongue so all she could do was part her lips to exhale muteness into burnished air. He stopped, uncertain, took off and clutched his baseball cap. The once severe lines of his face were softened by a bristly half-shadow of reddish beard, and his head cocked at a half-deferential tilt.

It seemed impossible they’d both materialize at that way, in that place; it was a fearsome and strange alchemy of time and space. But he was present in much the same way as he’d ever been: solid, unimpeachably good looking in a craggy way–which she and Esther had first called feral, repeating the odd word, giggling–and potentially dangerous or simply alert but still charged by a wildness that lurked, rarely visible. But he was smaller, even caved in at chest as if pulled inward. And the limp an old injury, perhaps; he has been a person in perpetual motion, anything might happen to such a man. She felt his loss in a dim way. But Rollie still was present with the power of himself.

She spoke to break the tension or the spell, to make things easier. “Well, then. How is it you’re here?”

“My house–” he gestured toward town as if he thought she’d forgotten–“that is, my grandparents’. I inherited it, with Kevin.” He looked long at her. “Visiting–uh, we were looking it over. My cousin said he saw you walking down Ames Road. Thought he was joking but then….thought you might be coming here.” He put his baseball cap back on, adjusted the bill neatly, regaining lost composure enough. Taller again.

She watched as if from a distance, nodded agreeably, a nice girl who had become a well mannered woman.

“Can we talk, Bunny…”

It was said with such familiarity, still. But: he wanted to talk. She had no time for echoes of that past, Bunny’s past; it had been resoundingly empty of sound, far beyond her hearing range for what seemed a lifetime. She hadn’t even lived in the States for many years.

And then he leaned toward her the barest amount, as if to not seem too urgent. “Will you speak with me, Bree?”

“I can listen,” she offered and strode along the creek bank toward sunniness of meadow beyond.

Rollie followed, startling a bevy of wings above, the crows objecting, but his lame leg caused a tennis shoe to catch on a rock. She slowed. Bree wanted to escape the inviting shade of woods with its gurgle of creek, leave the place they’d last been when still young. Too naïve but in love. She shook her head to empty it of a gathering of mages.

Breaking through to open land was a relief. There were logs piled to one side, a few stumps. When they found two close–but not too close–they rested.

He pulled shoulders back, and was impressive as long ago, all pride and grace, maybe more so. But his face was softer, with added weight and age. With trails and labors. “You’ve been in Italy, I heard. A nice embassy job?”

She shrugged. “I’m an interpreter.”

“You were a genius with languages–what’s it called?”

“A polyglot.”

“You speak and understand how many?”

“Eight, almost nine, and a few dialects most have not heard about. It is what I do, what I was born to do, I guess.”

“That’s so much more than in high school!” Eyebrows raised and lowered, and he studied lines in his palms before giving them a rub. “Study and travel, I guess you’ve had a lot of both. Amazing how things change.”

“You meant to design things.”

“I’m an architect, residential, some commercial. I only come here on week-ends. I…we… live in St. Louis.”

“Ah, that all sounds good.”

Bustling bees were alighting on bendable stems, buzzing about the ground and nestling into things. She wanted to watch them instead of him and did so. The sweetness of grasses was so pure it made her heady. She willed Rollie to depart, then focused on the length of horizon, a simmering blue along treetops and fields. That openness, a great depth and width of things that always touched her. It meant home.

Bree swiveled her head back to him. “Rollie, what is it you want to say?”

With a smooth movement reflective of his nature, Rollie leaned forward, lifted his eyes, took her in, then sat back. “It has been a long time, Bunny, but still I think of how things were. How they ended. About you.”

Bree held herself in place. She’d not welcome that name any more from him but she gave him a promise of a smile, lips turning up ever so slightly.

“I knew I had to talk to you someday, once more. Make amends… tie up all the loose ends we left. I was going to send you an email or call one day but this is much better, to say these things to you, just do the right thing. Is that okay…I mean, now that a long time has passed?”

Was it alright? Was it better to speak truth? She wondered. He stared again at his hands, perhaps divining the outcome.

Did flesh and blood forming syllables add so much heft and meaning to words? Did they become greater instruments when spoken aloud to a person? His words had cut her away once; hers had left him with a complicated life. So, then, was one’s conscience assuaged when careful words, well practiced and well offered, found a place inside the listener? They might land with a thud or be met with open arms.

Or did the unpredictable power of language obscure the deepest meanings at times like this? And this tying up loose ends, just so… They had severed the past from one kind of future. And she now felt she’d awakened in a netherworld and wanted to exit.

But she knew more than many about language. She knew about interpreting other’s needs and desires. And about how defining and translating thought and feeling was a graver, more difficult task than people believed. So much could go wrong. So much was missed in the passing of one person’s words to another who was waiting. Nuances meant more than one realized. And the first interpreting of a language for herself was risky, demanding. Exhilarating, too. But such important matters were corroborated or shaded or entirely destroyed when she interpreted. It was that crucial a thing to get right–a true communication.

So it was with them, face-to-face at last, she thought: Could they even understand one another now? Might it be better to say nothing, just scurry through the fields? Or embrace a final time then walk on, waving to all that was behind them?

Words, words. She wondered what his would mean. Bree nodded and waited to hear his own truth.

“I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to revise what I did to you, and then had to tell you. It’s haunted me, has kept me restless and sleepless too often and too long. Why did I take such a chance when I knew it was really only you I ever wanted? Why did I give in to an insane moment when you were there, blameless, and I was the transgressor?” He held his head. “I know, I know, I said all that before, or tried to our last meeting. Sorry, sorry, I am so beyond sorry–how many times could I still say that and it not be enough? Sorry I betrayed you, even after I gave you the promise ring….And then…Denise getting pregnant, such a blow to all, you know? And it changed everything, you cannot imagine– for her, too.”

He gazed at her pale fingers; none was bedecked with rings. They were long and thin yet blunt at the ends, practical hands even while lovely. Hands he had held to his lips. He studied her face–pointed chin, satin smooth skin, eyes so clear and quietly emotive. They made him think of the creek water in early spring when it runs cool, fresh, reflecting the light. Yet they told him little at the moment except that she heard and understood. That she was patient, which she’d always been except for that last time.

“Even though I came to love Denise and more easily, our son, Dane. Even though I have built a good life, a life I’m proud of now, one that allows me to do more for our community than I ever imagined. Things got much better after I had a bad car accident eight years ago…then I had to look deeper and find a better path. I did and followed it. I design housing for the underprivileged, underserved. That’s my passion now. Oh Bunny, I could tell you so many things! As a youth I was arrogant, impetuous, maybe cruel. I am still burdened with this regret.”

His countenance, earlier lit with an infectious spirit of enthusiasm, suddenly darkened. Bree’s eyes traced the contours of Rollie so gently he felt there might be a chance to correct things. To find forgiveness.

Still, she didn’t talk.

He took in full breaths of the late fall air that settled over Cutter’s Field. Around his sorrow and hope. He squatted, then, before her, willing to do almost anything to make things good. It had to happen now or never.

It was almost alarming, his knees at hers, but she found such nearness did not move her in ways feared. It embarrassed her, and she felt the slow burn of that for them both. Enough had been released from him; she had to speak up.

She took his forearms in her hands. “Stand up, Rollie. Please.”

She rose with him, he wobbling more from her touch than impaired balance. Her light grip fell away and he righted himself. A gust of wind blew over them, lifted her long hair so that it covered her face. He started to brush it away, then thought better of it as she grabbed it, pulled a hair tie from her jeans pocket, made a ponytail. That small act: so like her, someone who knew how to restrain wilder impulses, how to make orderly what was chaotic. He found it so familiar. Yes, how to make sense of senselessness and find truth in details. And yet she was so fully alive as she stood in the caramel light, more vibrant than recalled. He loathed letting go of his longing–even as he did so, even as he knew it would fall away.

For there was, too, the fateful day when she’d screamed at him, struck him hard across the face, pummeled his chest and ran off, never to speak to him again. He knew it was the least she could have done, for nothing was told–she spread no awful tales, did not insult his name, did not let herself be called a victim of any sort. Did not speak ill of the girl he’d seen behind her back. His wife, Denise, who waited now in the city. Yet it had torn them from one another, his careless deceit and her outrage.

After that, she became Bree, she was not to be called Bunny. And though a hidden part of him longed for Bunny now, he saw it was not who she was. And that was right; the missing pieces fell in place as she began to respond.

Yet he took her hands in his and her grace and deeper strength flowed into him as his warmth and a wiser, subtler energy moved to her.

“It was not meant to be, staying here, Rollie, surely you see that. Getting married, having a family with you. Though you knew I loved you fiercely, I soon found my other dreams coming true. I am at home with it all, happy with my life. And you discovered what was best for you.” She touched his rough chin with a forefinger then fell away. “I healed well. Nothing can be done about what we leave behind but to respect it and say our farewells. We live within the gift of this moment. Rollie, you were so long ago and truly forgiven. And I’m sorry I was hard on you that day. But I have no pain left keeping me caged, and I hope this unlocks the creaky door for you, at last. Because, my fine old friend, all is well.”

Bree didn’t wait for his words. Didn’t need his arms about her again. She ran down the path taken all those years, the path that people still took across Cutter’s Field–the old and young, ecstatic and heartbroken–to Little Woods and Bender’s Creek, to that which bore all hopes and losses without complaint, and watched over them with benevolence until they were no more.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tutor Mesor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She believed, anyway.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that day was coming soon.

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

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

And you for coming with your father.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wait for more understanding.”

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

It was this way:

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

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

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

And it came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zaran comes, they intoned. And it was so.