Wednesday's Words/Fiction: The Meaning of Frankincense

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Hugo Fontaine snugged his violin and then his viola into their purple satin-lined cases, called out farewells to his bluegrass band’s other members and headed out the back way of the music building. It had been a good rehearsal for an upcoming wedding gig.

Though he loped along, all 6’3″ of him loose and lithe, his shoulders ached and by the end of the session, the strain got to him. He’d already spent all day at his small but rising gallery, working on an exhibition. The ceramic sculptures were heavy and pedestals had to be moved several times. Of course he might have directed his assistant, Gage, to labor for him but this was a winning show of an old friend’s work. It had to be fresh, right. Marie and he went way back to childhood. They sometimes had thought they should be together but any spark felt at 15 had long ago cooled. They trusted each other; that was a lot. At 38, he had gotten comfortable with his life. She was facing marriage number two.

He needed food but coffee aroma on the breeze struck his nostrils and he crossed the street to Duchamp’s Sip and Dip. It was one of the few places in New York where people could be found to speak French, the owner being French-born, but oddly Hugo seldom did. He had worked a long time to develop a passable American accent. This possibility had disturbed his father when Hugo left Montreal at 22 to complete his Masters degree at NYU, but it had only further propelled him to leave his past behind.

He pushed open the door and found himself enveloped in sharp and sweet odors, voices amiably swirling about as people sipped drinks and dipped biscotti and other baked treats in the mugs. It was warm shelter within a megalopolis rife with traffic, smog, people and many fascinating options. he relaxed.

“Mon ami! Monsieur Fontaine!” The barista, busy steaming milk, bathed him in a brilliant smile him.

He nodded at her and smiled politely. She always was thrilled to see him, and knew he spoke French fluently so tried to engage him. Much too young, flirtatious and deferential, Hugo appreciated that she was a good barista and liked his music (she had been at an event they’d played) but kept his distance. Okay, he knew he was good looking–this had been hammered into him since childhood–but he was shy by nature, not self-impressed.

Hugo’s order given, he moved to a corner near the entrance and waited. His ears were filled with nearby French conversations and he let them come and go in his mind, not interested in eavesdropping then. The violins pulled at his shoulders so he set them on an tiny empty table and sat on chair’s edge, anxious to go home. His hands pressed lightly on closed eyes; his breathing calmed. The opening was soon, the wedding performance was shortly after, and he was supposed to go to Montreal for his mother’s 68th birthday in about a week. He tallied up his tasks and slumped back into the chair, vision unfocused on the black and white tile floor.

And then it hit him: frankincense. He’d know it anywhere. Nose lifted, his body almost rose, too, as eyes searched. That spicy, woody, lemony, amber-toned ,smokey scent, those layers of tantalizing notes–they always got to him but seldom was found this pure. It reminded him of a specific, expensive perfume his father’s parfumerie carried–what was its name? He was instantly back in the store his family had owned for three generations. He had left; his sister had taken his place by their father. But he still respected and loved the art and science of making perfume, and sharing its beauty. Frankincense had become a favorite scent, mysterious, luxuriant, primal while spiritual: powerful scent of sap of the Boswellia sacra had been important for centuries, and still used in a myriad of ways.

Rarefied majesty of a scent, a natural perfection alone yet a greatly flexible note when blended with others, his father always said. And Hugo, often at odds with him (more so since choosing his own path), agreed on that.

He didn’t have to look far to find the carrier of the scent. She was a few feet away, shifting from one foot to another as she studied the hand painted menu board of offerings. Her dark hair was pulled into a sleek long ponytail so that her pale, prominent features and high forehead were exposed. A beige woolen cape encased her sturdy frame and she held red gloves in one hand. He inhaled deeply, then closed his eyes. His cares began to melt away. But his name was called and he stood.

Was the woman speaking French? No, it was the barista again, clumsily working over the language with another victim in line. The frankincense lady was heading toward back of the shop. Hugo slung one violin case with a shoulder strap over his shoulder, took his coffee in its “to-go” cup, then hesitated. He wanted to ask her what it was she wore. But one doesn’t just saunter up to a strange woman and speak what sounds like a very lame come-on line. Did he dare do it? His pointed awareness of her perfume might seem odd. He took a few steps when she appeared to look his way, and their eyes then met.

She smiled a brief lopsided smile and looked at her cell phone, then glanced up again as he stood, uncertain. He closed the gap and found himself before her.

“Forgive me–but my family owns a parfumerie. I know that fragrance but can’t name it.”

She frowned as she bit her lower lip and he felt it best to go so turned around.

“Black Tourmaline.”

She said it quietly, as if reluctant to reveal it. Hugo turned back around. It was a cloud he stood within, invisible yet dense, light and dark, rich and deep. He was beginning to feel better by the moment, if awkward. But that wasn’t it, not the perfume he thought he knew but since she had answered, he reciprocated.

“Ah. So many perfumes! It is hard to identify them, even with strong notes as this. This is not one I recall. But then, I don’t pay attention usually, it’s just frankincense, it is so distinctive, of course….very nice…”

He felt heat in his cheeks as he fumbled for a more specific response. Had he forgotten everything his father taught him, then? The perfume he once knew so well had evaporated from his memory, in any case. This was ridiculous, it was only fragrance, what else could he say? He gripped the handle on his instrument case, shifted the other violin case, prepared to go.

The woman nibbled on her biscotti and stared at his hands. “Two violins? You are ambidextrous to the extreme?”

He was baffled by her words, then exhaled in a nervous laugh, relieved to move on. Which he needed to do now. He bent to extend his hand; he was not an oaf, he knew how to be courteous if nothing else and better now than not at all.

“Hugo Fontaine. Yes, a violinist–and violist–more bluegrass than classical.”

“Gina Corelli.”

“You’re kidding–Corelli? As in Arcangelo Corelli, Italian violinist and Baroque composer?”

“Right. Not kidding. No relation that I know, but I have never researched my genealogy. I am not that interested, it might set up expectations!” She laughed, too, but softly, and indicated a chair. “Have a seat, Hugo?”

“Well, I need to get back to my gallery. There’s a big show coming up, but–” She was wearing frankincense, she knew something of music, perhaps, there was an empty seat. An invitation. He looked at his watch and sat.

Seated, he could see crinkling blue eyes and that dark mane of hair– it had a startling effect. She might pass him by any time and he wouldn’t notice her–the quietness of her bearing, bland paleness. A sort of gentle yet strong kind of loveliness that melded into anywhere, anytime…. He lifted his coffee and drank deeply as she eyes scanned his face. Bold despite her calm energy, he thought, but he could not stop looking at her, either. He inhaled her perfume without ceremony, fell under its spell. Perhaps she was used to this, men asking to speak with her, men following her down the street and her waving them off or more. It was her fragrance…or was it her?

As if reading his thoughts, she said, “Most people can’t always place the frankincense; they don’t always like it. It has a headiness, right? But more. I’ve worn it a couple of years and nothing else feels right somehow. It has a soothing effect though it perks up my senses. Maybe that is logical since it is your family’s business…In New York?”

“Montreal. But I live here, have since university. Yes, I get that.”

“Born and raised here, myself. That must have been interesting, perfume and Montreal.”

He shrugged. It sounded exotic but it was just his growing up life, as hers was New York, which seemed better to him. Freer, more cosmopolitan, energizing.

“You play something, also?” He suspected she might, knowing about violins and ambidexterity. Corelli.

She shrugged as if it was irrelevant. “I have. Oboe. Flute. I’m in the publishing business now. Educational materials publishing. Not so wonderful as an art gallery owner.” She took another drink and nibble. “What sort of art?”

His phone rang with a Mark O’Connor Band song, “Coming Home”. He was about to ignore it when he saw it was from Gage.

“I’m sorry, Gina, I have to get this. Maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime?”

“Sure, maybe!”

Her gaze followed him as he wove through the tables and lines. Then she pulled a slim book from her leather bag, opened it, smoothed the pages, at once lost in the tender words. “If when you rise in the blue and green mists of woods at dawn, go farther, seek the meadows and willows by running waters, forego the spell of sleep, of cares…”

He got up and took off with his instruments. But as he hailed a taxi, then arrived at the gallery and started back to work, the few facts he had accompanied him like a vapor, hanging on into night and the next days: Gina, frankincense, flute, blue eyes, dark hair, beige cape, good energy.

And then it got busier and he tied to push such nonsense aside.

******

“What are you doing with that?” Marie asked an hour before the opening of her show. “I thought it was to be in the center of the room!”

It was a mammoth piece, a curvaceous, green-glazed form, one Hugo privately thought of a part octopus, part sea siren. He may have been right but they rarely discussed what her work meant or might represent. Every artists had their own intentions but it was up to the viewers to ascribe meaning. He loved it, but he liked the smaller trio of pieces in the center better and so had moved it without consent.

He put a hand on her shoulder. “But see how these complement the space and lighting so well?A sort of relief after the opening genius of the big piece.”

“Oh, really Hugo, the lighting can be altered, the space is so large and it isn’t what we decided.” She looked at it all, crossed her arms, tapped her foot.

“It’s now stationed by the window, near the door, a draw for passersby and a very good spot overall.”

“It’s the draw of people off the street you think best, really!” She walked around the room and inspected once again.

“Not a bad thing,” Gage said under his breath. “The piece looks wonderful there. She might sell it….”

“Oh, well, opening night nerves,” Hugo reminded.

The food and table with colorful candles set into her ceramic holders were being readied by the caterer. They were all dressed and ready. Hugo poured wine for each; they drank quite indelicately. It wasn’t easy, running a gallery, supporting artists’ desires and hoping for a good profit. Marie knew all that. Her work was selling well now, in fact. It was as much for his Fontaine Contemporary Arts that she was showing there. Though he was rising closer to the top of the list, himself, the last five years.

Gina, frankincense, flute. He shook his head and drank again. He had manged to shut off the repetitive musings, mostly, the past few days, but it was like a song repeating ad infinitum.

“Hugo? Did you hear me? The pedestal on the east side needs adjusting, can you help me?”

Gage snapped his fingers near his right ear and Hugo came back to the present, growling a bit at his assistant.

“Stop that.”

“What is it with you lately?”

“I have wondered the same, maybe you need time off, head to the Bahamas of something,” Marie said and dusted her sculptures lightly with a batik napkin taken from the table.

“Or Montreal…” Gage suggested, bravely. He well knew that Hugo did not want to go to his hometown next week. Not only was he busy with more shows coming up but his father wasn’t lately well and his mother was feeling anxious. His sister seemed more in charge. She had demanded he come.

Hugo shot him a warning look. He did not want to think of all that, though he did suspect there’d be good moments to share, as well as stressful times with his father. There usually were, even with his mother’s constant refrain: why was he insisting on staying single? Now he had to worry about their aging.

The time came to unlock the doors and begin the formal opening of Marie Werther’s show. People began to fill the doorway; they were keen to see her imaginative ceramic works and he hoped, too, they wanted to own some. It was fine art but it was business, after all.

Outside, glancing in the window as she slowly passed was a woman in a voluminous cape, dark hair flying about her face, hands snugly gloved in red leather. She paused to get a closer look at the work, then searched the crowd, palms pressed against the glass a moment. There. Hugo stood among admirers, goblet in hand, chatting away. His eyes swept over the large gallery spaces and afraid he might see her, she hurried on. She could not go in. That was too close to a sort of stalking, wasn’t it? Yet, she had looked him up and found out about Fontaine Contemporary Arts. She had wondered about him enough that she felt she had to see if it was all real– the person, the place. Now she knew more. His family had long been perfumers, Hugo was from Montreal.

Hugo took a break from chatting. He could have sworn he saw her. Gina. She was a shadowy figure passing by, beyond his bright windows, so he rushed to the front and peered into dark of night. Snow was starting to drift down, glistening in streetlamp and headlights light, and people hurried on their way. He stepped into the fall of soft flakes, and almost believed her perfume settled about him, warming him in the icy air. He took in a long breath of tingling air. But she was not there, just–surprisingly, strangely–stuck in the depths of mind.

Somewhere in that city she was living a whole life. And he was not in it.

******

The wedding reception was generously festooned with blue and white flowers, a pair of doves in one gilded cage and bluebirds in another (Hugo worried they’d be let out, he didn’t care for birds swooping onto his head), hangings of silvery tulle and white satin (he was told), and tons of food, fried chicken being a primary choice. The guests were festive, the bride and groom were well on their way to married bliss after several rounds of drinks. It was a pretentious-leaning yet earthy affair and the band, Down Home Times, was playing hot and happy. He could play these tunes with little thought, and yet he appreciated every crowd’s dancing and cheering. It paid okay, but it was his main outlet for fun. He’d veered onto a different musical road as a teen when leaving classical training, but this gave him a different– more satisfying–thrill. And it was with relief that his parents liked it when they’d heard his first set on stage at 18.

At a break between his current sets, he and the guys usually went outside, some for a smoke, some for the relief of open air. Hugo was the last one to the door when he heard a voice behind him.

“Hello.”

He stopped to look over his shoulder, expecting a bluegrass admirer but there: the frankincense, spicy-citrus-amber-smokey-woods suffusing his nostrils, altering his state of mind, bringing him to a full stop.

Gina.

She stood before him with a tentative smile, bright eyes. “I know the bride, but her cousin much better so I tagged along for the night. I did not know it was going to be you up there, I swear. A shock, I have to say.”

“No way.” He offered his hand and she took it a moment, warmth against warmth.

“I knew of your bluegrass interest, and it was on your gallery site. Yes, I found that. I looked up a bit more. But I didn’t know you were playing here until I arrived.”

“Well, then.” He ruffled his sweaty hair and looked away. “Too much. In New York, this is a wedding you just came to, out of nowhere–too weird.”

“I know…kind of different, I agree.”

“Wait, you are here with out an escort?”

“Male? No, no date!” She chortled. “Just the bride’s cousin.”

“Do you want a drink?”

“No, I’m not such a drinker. I just wanted to say hello once more. “

“I’m getting water, I need hydration right now. Coming?”

So they got his water and talked a bit, her about work, how she needed a vacation, it had bogged her down all that fine print, boring statistics. She did not plan on taking his time up when he asked if she wanted to come by the gallery on her lunch hour sometime.

“I’ve been.”

He wanted to be cool, but his mouth fell open a bit. “It was you, then, during the opening of Marie’s exhibit–you walked by the gallery and I went outdoors to find you.”

“Yes. You did that? I didn’t expect you to see me, that wasn’t the plan. I was trying to slip by.” She put her hand on his forearm. They sat with her fingers firm but careful on his shirt sleeve, skin under the fabric tingling where those fingertips lay.

He shook his head. “None of this was the plan. But I keep thinking about you, anyway.”

“Yes. Me, too–you.”

His bandmates were jogging up the stage steps. Hugo jumped up to join them.

“Don’t move too far. Please.”

“Not likely, this has gotten interesting!”

And she laughed, head tilted so that he could see the silver of a filling and her hair bounce and gleam. He thought how wonderful it was to see her, to smell her, to talk a bit with her, and then he took a giant leap. He was embedded with her presence already and so far there was no serious resistance. He was going with it.

“Want to go to Montreal with me next week-end, by any chance? My mother turns 68 and I must attend the family party.” He made a mock-sad face and then left her there.

Hugo picked up his violin and put bow to strings, tapped his foot with the stand up bass rhythm line, dove right into the music. After a few bars the intoxicating Gina Corelli moved up to the stage and raised both arms, gave him two thumbs up. He sure hoped one of those was for a madcap trip to his hometown. He thought it likely. With frankincense in the mix, anything seemed possible to him, as it had for people all through time.

Wednesday's Words/Short Story: Mulligan's Resplendent Holiday Feast

Each year the building looked forward to it–that is, if they had no other pressing or thrilling plans. They checked their lobby mailboxes a week ahead, anticipating the handwritten and simply illustrated (with perhaps a snow covered pine, a blue jay atop it) invitation to a Resplendent Holiday Feast. At the bottom, under the signature of PJ Mulligan, Sr.: You are all what makes it resplendent.

Mulligan had been a banker for many years and was happily all about retirement when his wife got ill. And did not recover. This changed things in every way. He sold his lovely Colonial and hightailed it to the nearby more moderate-sized town of Goosehollow where he took the first decent apartment he could find. Everyone who knew him well expected he would buy another house, a cottage, perhaps, but no he said he was not close to ready for one last permanent dwelling. His home had been Jean and their son. Now, five years had passed and he’d started to grow moss on his heels, he said, so that was that; he dug in and made it work.

He appreciated his neighbors, most of whom had lived in Mistral Manor for a good number of years. They were a varied bunch, not at all offish as some had been in the city. If people didn’t stay they likely had no business being there in the first place. The rent was good. The upper story views, especially, were great–tidy courtyard with a fountain in the center, bustling nearby streets and a sprawling park not far. The community had become close knit without becoming suffocating. For the most part. Obviously, if you were a loner, this might not sit well. Mulligan was at first on the verge but rallied the second year and all went well after his first Resplendent Holiday Feast as cooked and shared with whomever would like to come. And about 14 came then, and finally it became a more usual 8 or so.

Marty was the first one to notice the invite hadn’t appeared in a timely fashion.

“I suspect he’s tired after his Banff vacation to see his son, Phil,” he suggested.

Carrie from across the hall nodded in agreement. “I did see the cab drop him off two nights ago. He looked the same, just fine, but that was a big trip. He’s no spring chicken.”

“Two weeks he was gone. I missed his cheery waves in the hallway. He said he wanted to ski–a bunny hill, it was too long since he last raced his way downhill. Maybe he strained something.”

Carrie noticed Marty had shaved his beard and couldn’t decide whether or not it did his roundish face any justice, so she unlocked her door and hoisted her grocery bags again. “Patience. He always has the feast.”

“But what if he doesn’t this year?”

“Then… it is what it is.” She noted his look of consternation. “No worries, Marty, all will be well.”

Marty thought Carrie was too Zen, she might show more concern, at times, but he liked chatting with her and petting her half-feral orange cat, Spicer. Maybe he was just too worried about things; his mother always said so. Marty wish he felt more secure about life. Himself.

Carrie leaned against her door after she closed it. “What if Mulligan has no feast?” she said to Spicer, who flicked his tail and ran off. The thought made her uneasy. Mulligan was a favorite of hers, not the least because he was a fine cook. He also always tipped his hat at her, whether or not he actually had one on, and asked after her and Spicer. And she also liked his vinyl collection.

Marty had nowhere to go for holidays. His parents now lived in Amsterdam, of all places, a move that had disturbed him–they’d just retired! They’d been close, hadn’t they?–and his sister, Ellie, then moved to New York City. His beloved Cecily had broken up with him the first of September. The apartment now seemed nearly unsuitable or entirely sad; it needed her arts and crafts, her laughter. But Mulligan always cheered him up, he had a knack.

“Hey Marty! No invites yet, huh?” Lance bounded up the first inside steps. He raised bushy reddish eyebrows and shifted a backpack bulging with all the unknowns he crowded into it.

“Nope. Patience, I guess, right?”

“That feast is the event of winter–other than fantastic parties for New Year’s Eve!”

“Yes, it sure is.” Marty knew Lance had lots of invites to lots of things. He didn’t care, he hung out with Gerry and Pete on New Year’s Eve at Rasputin’s Bar and Grill. But he wondered about those parties.

Lance whizzed by him, then spun around. “You find a nice new girl, yet?”

Marty stepped back, pushed a hand though his hair. “No, no–of course not.”

“Well, let me now how it goes. I’d be glad to set you up on a blind date–“

“I’m good, thanks, Lance. More or less.”

“Alrighty, chat later!” And he bounded off to his place up the next three flights of stairs. He never took the elevator.

Lance slowed down on the third floor. Pressed hand to chest. He’d been a bit out of breath lately. He wondered if his heart was going to act up again. But he felt alright. He ascended the next set of steps and thought again of Mulligan, if he was feeling alright. Good man, congenial. And a skier for decades, he just went to Banff. Maybe he should check in on the guy this week-end. That man could cook, he might have missed his calling!

Meanwhile, Harold and Tina in number 14 were busy thinking over Christmas funds and lack of money in general when their daughter, Nance, came in and slumped on the couch, coat still on, boots kicked off.

“No invitation. Doesn’t Mulligan send them out by now?”

“Well, yeah,” Tina said, “but he was just at Banff. Give him a break–he has stuff to do.”

“Like us, kiddo.” Harold punched a few keys on his old school calculator as his wife looked over her gift list, chewing her lower lip. “You okay, glad to be off school awhile?”

“Sure.”

She had had a regular boring day at school, she was so glad it was out for the holidays. She thought about the boy who always ignored her when she really wanted him to just look her way. Was that bad or good?

And Nance wished her parents would quite calling her “kiddo.” She was fourteen. She was taller by the minute, would surpass her parents. Anyway, she had a good gift for each one. In art class she’d hand built a rectangular tray, then fired it with a fancy glaze streaked gold and teal, her mother’s favorite color combo. For her dad she had made a coffee mug, earth tones.

Harold gazed at Tina with sorrow. He showed her the final numbers when she lifted her head. She shrugged one shoulder, looked down, blinked lest a tear wet her cheek. His job had been a perfect fit and for forever, until it wasn’t. It ended the night before; Nance didn’t know yet.

Tina cleared her throat, blinked. “I have to work overtime– just have Christmas Day off this year, kiddo.”

Nance frowned; her mom worked way too much, she was hardly ever home. “Yeah, okay, Ma. Dad and I can manage, and we have the Feast on Christmas Eve.”

“Hey, Nance, I wanted to talk to you. Got a minute?”

She knowingly smiled at him–it was, of course, about his gift for Ma–but he was leaning forward in his chair, hands gripping knees, glasses perched on his head giving him a serious look.

“I’ll start dinner,” Tina said and left the living room thinking about the feast, how she’d have to miss it. Thinking about her husband, knowing he’d find another job, he just would, maybe even soon.

Between fourth and fifth floor, LaDonna sat with knees pulled up to chin on the staircase landing. She moved over as Luke came by, raised a hand in greeting.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Oh, LaDonna–Owen again?…You okay?”

She waved off his concern. “Never mind. He’s sleeping it off. He has ten days off, right? So he got an early start after work today.”

He sat down, shrugging free his jacket. “I imagine he’ll be at it the whole time.”

“I never know for sure but I won’t be here all that time. I work at the salon until Monday night, so he’ll mostly have the place to himself and Mugsy. Maybe he’ll go to his brother’s and drink–they do that every chance they get.”

“How is that big lump, Mugsy? Haven’t seen him awhile– for a fat ole bulldog, he’s pretty spry. Makes me think about getting one.”

LaDonna laughed. “You’ve said that three years. You’ll never have a pet. You’re too busy entertaining audiences here and there, everywhere. Next stop, big bad city for good, you wait.’

“I’d rather have more human company.” He glanced at her, expressive eyes saying all he could not but she turned her head.

“As if you don’t have any.” Her stomach flip-flopped. “We don’t always get what we want, Luke, you know that by age 33.”

“Huh. You know my real age. Not even my agent knows that.”

She swatted his arm. “You had your thirtieth birthday bash here and I showed up for the heck of it, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Luke sighed as she moved a tiny bit from him. “Anyway, we have the feast to go to, right?” She always went, sans Owen.

“I wonder. No invitations.”

“I know, I thought it was due.”

“We should check on Mulligan, see he’s okay.”

“You always put others first, you know that?” Luke stood up, slung his jacket over his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll walk you up. I’ll check to make sure he’s actually passed out.”

“No thanks. I have a book to read. I like it fine out here.” She picked up the paperback and began to read aloud using her storybook voice. “‘It was at last snowing heavily, and tracks left by the horses were deep and sparkling on the snow-covered road. She pulled the blanket closer about her shoulders and peered into the forest and saw a flash of red wings. It was a sign.’ See?” She smiled, a weary one, he thought, but generous all the same.

“I see, catch you later, but you could charm any audience, yourself, ” Luke said and hurried up to his apartment. If only she was not staying with that lout. If only she would give him a chance. If only!

******

If he had any sense, Mulligan might have remained at Ben’s longer. It was a winter wonderland in Banff, he’d successfully skied a little, and Ben was excellent company as was Sara, his wife. They’d wanted him to stay on until after Christmas but Ben ran an inn and Sara ran a boutique; they were so jammed up this time of year. Mulligan needed to get out of their way, let them have time alone as they could.

He wished they’d have a baby, he thought dreamily as he ladled the peppery-herbed chicken noodle soup into an antique porcelain bowl. Good thing he’d frozen some of it before he’d left. Yes, a little one would do all good. They’d have to slow down. And he’d be full of so very much more.

Because lately he felt emptier than he should. The travel was not bad, the vistas breathtaking, the visit lively. The snow pack, great. But he’d watched them scurry about, so successful and energized–and he’d felt powerless somehow rather than relaxed. What did he have to do when he got home, either? Not much. Volunteer twice a month at the Red Cross. Shelve a few books at the tiny corner library as hour twice a week. Meet with chess club once a month. Have brunch with Jack and Antonia from church on occasional Sundays. But what did they talk about? He didn’t like to mention aches and pains–they did and it took up easily twenty minutes– and they read supernatural thrillers, fine, but not poetry or nonfiction on science or biographies. But they liked a game of rummy, liked good food–that was good enough.

Wasn’t it? Life was what you made of it; he knew how to do that. He generally had liked his fine, had little to complain about. Well, until Jean left him hanging here. But he’d managed. He appreciated Goosehollow, his sunny apartment, the balcony where he could see everyone coming and going. The picturesque town that looked even better over tops of trees. He’d tried his hand at poetry writing, secretly. It was an experiment and was yet to be seen if it panned out as anything other than wisps of letters and imaginings set upon paper. Sometimes he liked to fantasize: A Banker’s Treasury of Verse. Silly, he knew.

But that time had come again: Christmas. And Mulligan knew he had to get invitations sent pronto for his yearly Resplendent Holiday Feast. Yet this feeling persisted, like he was scaling a mountain some mornings as soon as his crusty eyelids slid up. He’d seen the doc and nothing was more wrong than before, which meant only that he was older and not having as much fun. He took St. John’s Wort, called it good; it maybe helped a little.

He’d loved cooking the feast, having the garrulous bunch over around sevenish, a more civilized hour to share his offerings, then they’d play cards or charades or dance to his records or just sip wine, be peaceful. Luke usually read something to them since he was an actor. His voice was resonant, his words so infused with feeling they were spellbound. Marty might sing a little. People usually moseyed out by eleven after they helped clean up.

Every other year he’d anticipated it but clearly this year not so much. He wasn’t even inspired about a menu and that was serious. If Jean was here, she’d laugh, tell him to…well, no matter, she wasn’t. He didn’t have anything to say to her, either. Not right yet. She ought to have stayed with him, oughtn’t she? The years were not kinder without her. It wasn’t her fault, nothing was anyone’s fault, he knew that. Mulligan was only feeling sour; he had to shake it off.

But how was he going to tell them to make their own big deal meal for once? Just let him be, sulk a little in solitude, doze by a fire. Forget.

******

They hunched over chipped white mugs of coffee and whined companionably. Mulligan was skipping this year’s feast, terribly sorry, he was going to stick with soup and a sandwich Christmas Eve, and please don’t worry. He liked a little time to himself, too, so everybody have a good holiday!

That little note on green paper was tacked on the community bulletin board just beyond double lobby doors.

“It sounds like a crock.”

“It scares me for some weird reason.”

“It’s just that he’s getting up there, you think? He’s way over seventy.”

“Naw, trip just tired him, maybe it wasn’t a good visit. His son is a fancy inn owner. Met him once. Nice– but you know…important.”

“Well, Mulligan isn’t so regular a person in some ways. He’s kinder. But I suggest we consider reaching out to him.” Carrie reapplied lipstick, no mirror, a dash of mauve gloss. “Well?” she said when they stared at her.

They thought her comments worthwhile. Especially when she usually was more circumspect–and cool.

“I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? I haven’t even seen him since he returned. Not that I should, but it’s been nearly three days already. He usually is out and about!” Marty said.

“True,” Lance agreed. “We should stop by, offer some help.”

“We need to consider him,” Luke agreed. “Not just us, right, LaDonna? I mean, he’s the one who’s really alone, we all have something or someone to consume time and attention. Maybe we’ve been selfish.”

LaDonna dropped two cubes of sugar into her coffee and sloshed the mug back and forth. “Yes, we need to do something for him this time.” She sat up tall, grey eyes widening and lit up, which was something considering the deepening bruise near one of them. “Potluck!”

Luke reached for her hand without thinking. Others noticed, their eyes sliding over his finely featured face and warm eyes, at her beautiful black hair, blushing cheeks. LaDonna put her hand in her lap and Luke leaned back.

“I agree. I can barely cook but I do know how to make hash and baked beans,” Marty offered.

Harold laughed. “And I can make cinnamon tea–or mocha java from an instant packet.”

Lance signaled the waitress. “Another round of the coffee pot, Jill!” He took out a little notebook and stubby pencil. “Let’s figure this out.”

******

Mulligan opened his door to a group of babbling residents. Friends, alright, they were that. He couldn’t make out a word of what hey were saying so he ushered them in. What choice was there? Probably thought he was no longer breathing. But he was; he’d eventually get over whatever this mental virus was.

He stood with arms crossed over his broad chest, feet apart but he managed to look neutral. “I have a small case of woes. I’m pooped out. You’ll have to live without the feast for just this once. Now, is that what you wanted to know before I kindly ask you to move along?”

“You’re not contagious!” Lance grinned at him. “A relief, Mulligan, I’m in training for February marathon.”

“We wondered what’s up, that’s all,” Marty said.

Carrie shook her head at Mulligan, a little frown forming. “But everyone gets a bit blue at holidays if they’re honest, some just more than others. We came to see if you need anything.”

Mulligan sat down as they stood waiting and shifting one foot to another.

“I guess I’m out of commission for once. I’m not used to giving up on anything, but seeing my son and trying to ski, then coming home to an empty apartment–well, it is sometimes enough to stall a person. I just need a break from all the gung-ho festivities.”

“You might need a dog,” Luke said. “I might. Despite the applause I have my times, too. Look, you’re our friend, we want to cheer you up.”

LaDonna went to Mulligan, sat on the arm of the chair, put an arm about him.

“What’s with your eye being bruised?” Mulligan asked as if they were alone.

“Mugsy got in the way of my face. More important, I think you deserve a batch of my usual anise shortbread cookies. That’s the least I can do. Will you be home Christmas Eve? I’ll bring them by.”

“Well, I suppose so,” he said.

“I can help, too,” Harold said. “Well, maybe Nance can pull together a mac and cheese dish. “

Mulligan gave them the wannest smile, wrinkles deepening a touch. “I won’t lock the door, if that’s what you mean. Very nice of you folks to offer and to just come by.” He stood again but he felt uncertain, not sure if he might rush them out or if he should offer them a quick drink, which he did not really want to do.

“Let’s go, guys,” Carrie said. “I’ll come by with a couple treats next week, okay?”

Marty nodded and waved at Mulligan just as Mulligan had always done at him.

When they were gone and their voices had vanished down hallways, he sank back down into his easy chair. He should light the fire. He should put out the ceramic Christmas tree, he supposed, light a candle in the window as he always did for Jean. He should go to bed and read and doze, yes, that was the best action to take. So he did.

******

He’d forgotten what day it was. Time had slunk by. Oh, he had gone to the town square to gawk at the gaudy, huge tree that was going to waste after it was taken down. He had bought himself a small slab of ham for Christmas Day, fresh broccoli and carrots. So when there was a sharp and insistent rap on his door, he startled. He had knelt by the fireplace–he’d finally given in and lit a fire and was poking at one of those wax and sawdust logs. He hadn’t bothered to get the seasoned and fragrant logs yet. He struggled to get up, felt impatient and a little foolish about it even though he was alone.

Until now.

“Who is it?” he called out as he turned the doorknob.

“Mistral Manor calling!” someone called back, likely Luke.

Mulligan shook his head, swung open the door.

“Surprise, Mulligan!” they called out.

He stood back, mouth agape as they paraded in with their fragrant hot dishes and platters of redolent cheeses and meats, the tins of enticing cookies.

“What on earth?” he said.

“We have brought the Resplendent Holiday Feast to you,” Nance said, showing him the mac and cheese.

“From us to you,” Carrie and Marty said nearly at once and laughed.

Everyone turned to him after they set their dishes on his table–waited to see what he’d do or say.

And he didn’t know what to do. He’d let them down. What was it about? Should he rush to them, throw his arms around them? Should he let himself bawl like a baby, for the most ordinary reasons in the world? Should he caution them to please not scorch his teak tabletop? Or should he just thank them for their surprise of consideration, time and effort? Honestly, they had such generous spirits, he was stupefied. Not usual for him.

He stuttered a moment, then: “A real portable feast?” His voice came out in a regrettable mouse-y squeak.

He got himself together. “Well, for goodness’ sake, you sure did show up–and you have shown me up! Guess I will rise to the occasion and put on the coffee pot and get the good plates down. Carrie, find the Christmas tablecloth in the buffet drawer, and will you all please remove the hot dishes a moment. Luke, did you bring something to read? Oh, good man! Lance, grab those cookies, they belong in the kitchen, out of temptation’s way for now. And LaDonna…”

He stopped as she turned to him, the bruise discoloring a spot of tawny skin but her face was tinged with happiness.

“He’s gone to his brother’s, don’t worry!” And she got the silverware from the silver chest, smoothing the lustrous pieces, so relieved to be there. To be on her own a bit, but with friends.

Harold and Nance moved the table away from the bay window to make more room for everyone. She’d taken his layoff okay; she’d been glad to make the casserole and he was proud of her.

“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you…” Marty took a full breath and began once more.

He gleefully sang out as he and Carrie got chairs situated. The rest stopped to listen. Such a voice! He ought to be on the stage, not at a computer desk all day. But Mulligan felt a spark of happiness, and thought how his neighbor would always have an appreciative audience in Mistral Manor. And that counted for something.

PJ Mulligan, Sr. couldn’t help himself and he nibbled a corner of a perfect anise cookie. Then he joined in with clanking notes, loudly belted it out with the others, every word bright and clear–and with higher hopes crowding out that useless emptiness.

Wednesday Words/Fiction: The Messy Heart of the Matter

It wasn’t like they were meeting royalty. Teddy told Lola to stop fussing in front of the bathroom mirror and “let’s get on with it, you’re clean and combed” and he was barely 9 years old, too smart for his own good. He had little patience with his sister’s (15 years old last week) rituals and wished fervently for a brother before another year passed. Fat chance, the odds seemed against it. If anyone else got born, it’d more likely be a she; there were more girls than guys in their line up.

Mother got as done up as she’d ever get and was waiting downstairs. Dad was likely checking his bristly mustache a last time in the round flower etched mirror, standing too close to their mom. Lola could hear her from the bathroom: “Hands to self, now, Art”, when likely all he did was put arms around her for a quick squeeze. Lola once thought she and Teddy must have been adopted; Mother was not the cushy sweetie type. She was a supervisor at a huge shoe factory. Dad was a freelance cartoonist for various periodicals and a singing waiter on week-ends at Cutter’s Steak and Seafood. What did they expect when they met? Everything was a joke waiting to happen for Dad; she obviously went along with it for the long haul.

“She’s going to give me the ole one-two boot one of these days, kids,” he’d say with a mock sad face. “Those big ugly ones right out of Brown’s Shoe factory.” He nudged them toward a hardee har har and they’d exit the room.

Luckily, his cartoons were much better–few words, great drawings. Mother admired him for his talents, as he did hers. And he was a good father.

Lola pressed down her springy waves and surmised her reflection. Her best navy sweater and the ugly gray polyester ankle pants and flats that pinched her left big toe–for what?

This day came about because Dad had been claimed and called upon by Madeleine Taylor Froheimer, apparently his lost great-aunt. There had been stories abut her, how she’d run away from home at 17 to marry some bigwig she’d met at the cafe where she’d worked. It was a scandal; the guy was 28, already a successful businessman. They married, to everyone’s surprise, and moved to Chicago, which was a long away away from Missouri in everyone’s small minds. Madeleine did not keep in touch after she was disowned. She lived one life and the rest of the family lived another–everyone was poor to improving yearly to modestly secure. (Lola guessed they fit in the last category though they still rented–a nice enough–duplex on Gorman Street.)

Three years ago Madeleine’s husband died, likely due to complicated, long nights and rich dinners out and the stress of being so important. Then she came back to the hometown to see if anyone was still around and maybe considered her family. Not many were around, and those that were, were unimpressed now, or plain put off–did she offer them money all those years they were sweating the bills, did she send them holiday goodies or fruit baskets when in the hospital? No. Did they care if she was home again? Please.

But she located Art Taylor, her great nephew. Or, rather, she was in line behind him at the old corner pharmacy, a nostalgic gesture since she didn’t live in that area, anymore. When his name was called, she fluttered inside and out with astonishment, relief and a surge of nerves. Arthur Taylor. Her brother’s son’s son….was that right?…Yes. Her brother who stopped speaking to her, so disgusted was he that she eloped with an older man, a total stranger. She’d heard he got a job in Fort Worth and was nearing retirement. Not much chance of seeing him in Missouri or elsewhere.

But Arthur, maybe.

She tugged at his sleeve gently. He half-turned, a quizzical look on his craggy face.

She ventured forth, sonorous voice floating to him. “Arthur Taylor…that was my great nephew’s name…!”

A few customers looked her over well, then him. She wore a dark fur of some sort, nylons, a deep pink dress, black heels. He smiled, stood taller, then held up a finger. Frowning slightly–was she for real?– he got his medicine. Heart stuff, she recognized it, the Taylor family curse. She was next in line–antacid pills– so he took a seat in a plastic chair along the wall. Looked up at her dumbfounded. 

As they walked down an aisle together, she updated him. briefly.

“Well, I already heard,” he said amiably, mustache twitching in agreement. “Sorry for your loss. Mom mentioned it.”

“Did she snarl about it? Or refuse to say my name?”

He laughed. She had, in fact, snarled about it. She wasn’t interested in meeting “low-down, snooty Maddie”–but, then, his mom wasn’t interested in much but crocheting, eating, and gossiping about her senior housing cohorts. He wasn’t close to her. But Art was excited to meet up with this great aunt. His whole family then was invited to her condo on the river the following week-end. “Like a pre-holiday ice-breaker,” she had said which he didn’t get, but why not go?

“Oh, I was going to ask about your father, my nephew… he’s still around, I presume–how can I reach him?” she inquired as they parted.

“He’s about three hours from here now. Good luck, he’s been drinking lately.”

She softly grunted; it was clearly not news.

The next Saturday afternoon Lola, and her brother and parents spruced up and piled into the van just as a cold rain was dumped. Art knew Alison, his wife, was agreeing to go out of respect for family ties; she wasn’t a social person, really. Teddy and Lila were more than curious. Great-Aunt Maddie was almost famous in the family. And rich, maybe.

The condo was a contemporary behemoth that seemed more like a penthouse snug upside a few others overlooking the river, near the aging, status-soaked marina. Art recalled when several creaking houseboats and docks had been relocated and ostentatious condos were erected; there was public outcry but no matter, they were built. And here he was setting foot in them.

“Fifteen stories up and a rooftop garden,” Teddy whispered as they rode a partly glass elevator. “I read up on it. Only one other condo other side of the building up here. And she has the views! Might be a penthouse?”

Lola was also fully taken by them as they ascended. How far the gaze could penetrate the misty treeline and beyond. It made her feel like she was in a different country. She wondered if they could see to Illinois from the top. She wondered if she could take off her flats upon entry, and planned a decent selfie from the topmost floor. She shook off the rain before her dad rang the doorbell which sounded like deep chimes, a European church chiming, maybe.

“Welcome!”

Great-Aunt Maddie, elegant in a silky persimmon and lemon paisley caftan (Lola described it thus to her best friend) and her silver hair in a tidy chignon, opened the door immediately to shake everyone’s hand. Hers were surprisingly warm and strong. Her small feet wore gold slippers and she slid over the wood floors after taking their coats and hanging them on a brass coat stand. They were led to the long, open and bright living room. The rain did nothing to take away from the flooding of light. The ceilings went on forever. The rooms could hold hundreds, she imagined. Teddy elbowed her and they smiled.

Their dad had been stopped by the art work hanging in the grey ceramic tiled foyer, but caught up. He would rather just wander about looking at her art pieces than chat but sat himself beside Alison, his kids at either end. Teddy, though, required stern coaxing to peel himself from the west wall of windows.

“Sunsets must be incredible,” Teddy mumbled.

Maddie laughed. “They are! You must come back for a viewing if you are so inclined. Now tell me who you are and and something about yourselves. I have coffee brewing and will bring out cakes in a bit.”

The air smelled sumptuous Lola thought, and then, pleased with her pick of adjective, thought of waves of satin that smelled of coffee. It was that kind of air in there.

Who says if you are so inclined, Alison wondered as she smiled at her son’s observation. Who asks for personal information when you first meet?

“Well, you met me,” Art offered. “I do cartoons that help me make a pretty decent living. And I sing.”

“I’ve seen a few. Amusing and canny, and you’re very skilled at drawing!” She beamed at him. “I like to draw but only for myself. And you sing? What sort of singing?”

His family looked at him and back at Maddie. She had classical music turned low on stereo system.

“Popular music,” he said, “old big band standards, some lighter, more recent fare…well, eighties and nineties. I like some opera but am not good at even at pretending I can sing that. I tried it at home once and everyone banged on the bathroom door until I gave it up. My audience prefers the standards.”

“He sings at a restaurant, he’s a waiter on week-ends, and sings as he delivers orders,” Teddy offered, a hand gesturing dismissively. “A steak and seafood joint.”

“But it’s a nice place,” Alison said, throwing Teddy a warning look. “He has a good solid baritone, so they say. I know I like it.” She patted Art’s knee.

“I think that’s lovely–an artist and musician in the family. I’ll come hear you at–“

“Cutter’s, it’s called,” Lola said. “The songs get boring but no one asks him to stop, a good sign.”

Maddie gave up a light laugh. “And so–you are…?”

“Lola Lee Taylor, 15, tenth grade, and I like creating collages out of odds and ends and playing basketball. I can cook, I guess, if you like Italian food and certain cookies. And this is my brother.” She pointed at him and thought too late, never polite to point.

“Sounds promising. Fun. I do like Italian. And cookies.” Maddie leaned forward, hands clasped and in her lap. Her caftan rustled softly. Lola noticed that her earrings were gold, hung with tiny bells that swished and jingled.

“I can speak for myself. Teddy Taylor here.” He raised his hand as if being counted as present. “I think Theo sounds better–at least when I’m older. That’s short for Theodore. I am into bugs and chemical reactions. I prefer spring, summer and fall to winter because I’m all about being in the field.”

“He means literally,” Lola interjected. “He takes his insect collecting stuff out every spare hour and brings back exotic, odd stuff. Dissects bug wings and things. A bit strange, I guess, but generally alright for a little brother.” Was that an unsolicited defense of him? Lola blinked.

Art said proudly, “An aspiring scientist. And an athlete and collage artist. We have good kids.”

Alison was studying Maddie’s feet as slyly as possible. She’d secretly wished for gold shoes when she was a kid: utterly impractical, beautiful, just made for leisure or parties.

Maddie got up. “The coffee must be done. Water or pop or iced tea for you kids?”

“Sweet tea with ice, please,” Teddy answered.

“I’d love coffee with cream and sugar,” Lola said.

Her mother was about to deny her but her dad stopped that with a hand on her forearm and winked. Alison could not resist his winks.

“Can I help?” Alison said, but Lola got up first even though the answer from the kitchen around a corner was a negative.

It was all white, spotless, sparkling. Even cupboards, with brass pulls. Copper pans hung above the stove top. The deep counter tops were white with a golden flecks. Pendulous lights dangled from the high ceiling, shedding a warm glow–were there any other sorts of ceilings and light in this place? There was a skylight, even, and rain drummed on it, rhythmical and silvery and sheer.

Maddie held out an oval shiny tray of perfect, one-bite cakes, colorful in a muted way.

“Petit fours–do you know of them?” Maddie said.

“Only what I’ve seen in magazines. I always wondered how you made these!”

“Me, too!” She grinned. “These are from a bakery downtown. I don’t cook much or well. I might need lessons.”

“I’ll teach you…well, I could that is if you– I mean…” This woman probably had chefs come in, that’s why she didn’t now how to cook.

Maddie looked at her with a friendly, appraising gaze. “I bet you could. I just might take you up on that, Lola. Especially cookie baking–haven’t done that since I was a teenager. How I miss making cut-out sugar cookies for Christmas…I’ll get coffee cups filled, then you can come back to help me, okay?”

Lola did as told, came back and retrieved a black lacquered tray with three cups and a tall blue glass of iced tea. Maddie had the tray with cream and sugar and spoons. She set it down and they both served each person.

Alison watched all this with chin hanging. Since when did Lola offer to do anything much serve people? But it was good, it was polite and well done. She was impressed. But Maddie was a definitely too high brow for them. And Alison’s pantyhose were tight and itchy, her feet tired out by the heels.

After they’d sipped and enjoyed the rich tasty cakes, and oohed and aahed over more views, Maddie resumed the intros.

“Alison, could you share some of what you do or like? You have to be a patient, fun-loving person to be with Art–he is a bit, well arty, I gather?”

They got a kick out of that. Alison let out a long breath and jumped in.

“Not sure about being a fun person, but I supervise at Brown Shoe Company. Have been there eighteen years now. I hope to make manager soon; I like being a leader, working with a team.”

“That’s interesting, a long career there. What do you enjoy outside of work?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked over at her family members. “I like to read. Thrillers and mysteries. I like suspense movies. I try to take good care of my family.”

“You like to go on long bike rides, Mom, you have endurance,” Teddy said.

“You love gardening our little plot, too,” Art noted.

Lola thought about it a moment. “You make pretty Christmas ornaments–I know Dad helps with design–each year.” She smiled at her mother, then Maddie. “She started on some last week after Thanksgiving, the best yet.” And she realized it was true and that she loved seeing them on the tree.

Alison’s cheeks grew warm; she looked down with a smile.

Maddie sat across from them in her favorite velvet wing-back chair and felt something she hadn’t felt in awhile: delight. She liked these people. She liked them much more than she even dared hope.

“All admirable.” She put her coffee cup on a side lamp table. “My turn, right? You know I left home young, ran away with a business man who was over ten years my senior. I had an adventurous streak. My family and friends said I was wild but I wasn’t all that. I just needed something other than what they did. Marty and I shared an instant passion and I thought it was love, would have followed him anywhere. Chicago seemed far away and he had money, enough to show me a different life than the hard one I’d had with an alcoholic father and withdrawn mother. Martin Froheimer was a stern, very smart man who let me see his gentler, romantic side. We had quite the social life, lovely homes, traveled. But he was gone often on business. It got lonely, I can tell you. And as time went on he got more stern–ornery, to be honest, and then a bit mean…Anyway. That’s how things went.”

She paused to collect her thoughts, smoothed back lustrous hair, rested her thin hands on the arms of the chair and sank back. The family waited, surprised at her frankness. Alison looked away, a little embarrassed at Maddie’s self-disclosure but Art sat up, attuned to undercurrents of sadness. Pain not openly admitted before and there it was, popping out now.

“We talked of divorce, but decided to put it off for our daughter’s sake. Then he got sick. Pancreatic cancer. And he died shortly after.” She sat up again and stared out the wide windows, lifted her head. “That was two years ago. I needed a change. So here I am–for now, anyway. Lizzie, our daughter, lives in Amsterdam. We will see.”

“Wow,” Lola said. “That’s a lot. Maybe you can rest up here.”

Teddy squinted at the aging woman. “Yeah. Good you moved.”

“Well, Great-Aunt Maddie…I–“

“Please, just Maddie will be fine. I feel less aged than that.”

“Well, I sure am glad you ran into me. I wondered if maybe you’d like to come by our place for dinner soon.”

Alison shifted. “Or we could take you out.”

“I’d like that–dinner at your home. I was hoping we’d get on alright. And I feel that we really will. All this–“she opened her arms to indicate the finely appointed rooms–“is just this, but I’m only Maddie, you great-aunt, you’ll see.” Her amused smile warmed them.

They paused at that thought. She was different but, then, so were they.

“I think we should all go to the Christmas Village, it’s so pretty there, especially if it snows well enough to cover buildings and pathways, ” Lola said, cheered at the memory of years prior.

“She might not like the smelly animals and paths that get muddy,” Teddy muttered.

“Of course she will,” Art enthused. What was not to like about the corny, lovely Christmas Village?

Maddie felt the steamy heat of tears behind each eye threaten her composure and she blinked them away. They barely knew one another, even if it was off to a good start. She was certainly not going to ruin it with any bawling. “I’d love to go. Really. I can’t recall when I last tromped in the dirt and was around smelly animals. And a simulated village–it sounds wonderful.”

“The decorations and lighting are excellent,” Art said, encouraged.

“Festive is the word,” Teddy added as he got up to gaze at the soon-to-set sun. “A festival of Christmas!”

“We could make a day of it, have dinner after,” Lola said and went to stand by her brother, taking in the expansive view of the city and river.

Alison relaxed and gave a welcoming smile to her husband’s great-aunt. Now hers, she supposed. “Would you join us next week-end, then?”

Maddie nodded and rose. They got up and got their coats.

“Good to have you here, Maddie.” Art gave her a quick hug; she held on a moment longer, her thin arms strong about him.

On the way back down, seeing the lit up city landscape rolling, open and beautiful from their vantage point they fell silent. Teddy felt annoyed he hadn’t asked to see the rooftop garden but believed he would get to see it yet; he wondered over the insects that lived outside a luxurious condo. Lola imagined the gleaming kitchen steaming up from pasta and sausages bubbling away in savory sauce. But she didn’t get that selfie shot–yet. Alison thought how funny it was that a woman who manufactured sturdy, ordinary shoes knew someone who owned golden ones for such delicate feet–and that Maddie was likely a decent human being.

Art felt gratified that he knew the truth or at least more of it, and that he liked her a lot. It was mutual, too. They’d share this Christmas together–she wouldn’t have to be alone up there in the clouds. Then he started planning his next cartoon. It’d be about family ties. It’d be funny, of course, only more so. He might frame and give the original to her. He wouldn’t care if she put it in her bathroom or hung it outside among bushes on the rooftop–it wouldn’t be an investment like the expensive art. It was all the same to him, and a good inside joke; he’d be quite pleased that it was hung there for her.

 

Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

flowers-in-stone-1939(1)_jpg!HalfHD

                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archaeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for any creative types, thus our tolerance of perceived “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it slightly scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a “dirt buster” handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with unrelated objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Five fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, a very old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new white votives. A box of long matches was in a coffee can along with two overripe bananas. Books on every available spot. Dead plant–or perhaps it was just exceedingly wan, soaking up any thin rays that fell upon a wooden shelf, and next to two more that seemed much more willing to survive. Bones propped up on the next shelf between books: not quite menacing and of different sizes. Don’t ask me what, my imagination could run rampant; perhaps mementos from a student dig.

I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire or other health hazards but for some reason–intelligence, wit?–I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen a flickering glow from the sidewalk. That was always welcome to see as I trudged up the walkway.

I just backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

103713-M

Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a woolly bear caterpillar between us.

woolly111-300x197

I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

1730_Stoopendaal_Map_of_the_World - low

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Chapel House and the Lake Spirits

(Courtesy of Pexels; photo by Wendy Wei)

They’d been scheming for a couple of weeks, the four of them, meeting after school, texting far too late into the dark chill right before Halloween. Nels was a master planner; he could be counted on to come up with the best party ideas, or just stuff to do on Saturday nights. He could put together impulsive hi-jinks, outrageous and funny–at least to Casey, Tran and Marika. He stirred up their excitement with his words. Not even as tall as Tran, he seemed bigger and taller, and thick messy hair flopped over his forehead, almost hiding eyes. His friends and associates described him as “magnetic” and it wasn’t far off. Others gossiped, said sure, he was creative but sort of nuts, sometimes cool but also tacky. At times, unnerving. That energy infused him with a mixture of danger, mystery and ebullience, resulting in unusual scenarios which he sketched in his journal and colorfully imagined– quite cinematically. He wanted to be a director some day despite his father’s likely ridicule. That he was a theater nut softened his extreme reputation at school.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, rubbing his palms together, “I have the plan at last for Halloween. That mute woman. You know– on the peninsula, Ms. Swanson.”

“Sophia Swanson…why her?” Marika was braiding Casey’s hair but her hands paused. His words brought up a sense of unease, not excitement. She was widowed after her husband drowned and she hadn’t spoken for over two years.

Tran thrust his long, skinny legs out, closer to the heat of the fireplace. “She’s an interesting one. But maybe too chancy–she isn’t our usual Halloween target. Why not play it safer? I graduate this year, remember, and don’t need bad press.”

“Well, wait a sec, her husky-mix dog doesn’t run loose and she’s likely to be alone, so little risk. Nothing actually will be damaged, right? ” Casey hands felt the braiding progress and she indicated Marika could finish. “It depends on what you have in mind, Nels.”

“You know I believe a good scare is good fun, and there are advantages out there, like approaching by the lake in a boat, or walking up the dirt road and waiting until after midnight. Nobody goes out there to trick or treat. So we can be the first!” He opened wide his arms. “She could use a real Halloween moment, don’t you think? To shake things up?”

His booming laugh careened off vaulted ceilings of the large split log house. From the corner of his eye he saw his mother from her spot in the dining room. She got up, walked by them and upstairs, waving a cheery goodnight as she ascended. She went to bed early when Nels’ dad was on trips, which was often.

“So, what’s the plan already?” Tran asked as he jumped up, restless with interest already.

Marika shook her head, frowning, but she knew she’d join in. They’d been the Birch Woods Clan, BWC, since fifth grade, well over six years–a silly name they’d come up with during a childish secret ceremony so long ago. But it kept them loyal even now.

Casey checked out her braid, got up, and stood by Nels. Her man, first and last.

“Here’s the beauty of it…” Nels began, and they all stood at attention before him as if compelled, even though they weren’t, not really. And they’d never been caught, even if many suspected they did the crazy Halloween deeds. They knew how to act fast and get out in time.

******

“Here are your groceries,” Will said and handed the two bags over to Sophia.

She smiled gently, lightly bowed in her dancerly fashion, her hands set in prayerful mode as a thank you. He liked to watch her move in simplest ways, as she’d been a dancer for decades; perhaps one day she’d return to it. She managed her life alright despite not speaking. Will was kind to shop for her if she had a more challenging day. Sophia marveled that he had time or interest. At 74, he was not without impediments. And his wife Anna’s long recovery from a stroke didn’t seem to faze him much. The lines around his observant eyes just deepened and his dear face seemed thinner. His spirit stayed positive.

The chapel-house–so named since it’d been a historic chapel before the Swansons renovated it–was warm and fragrant. Scents of eucalyptus and clove as a white oak fire smoldered teased his nose. A smell he thought of as “the old chapel” lingered and made him think of thin, yellowing hymnal pages, winter’s damp woolens and bodies packed together in an iron wood stove kind of heat. And Daedalus– called Dae– her elegant big dog, wagged his luxurious tail, licked at his hands. It was not easy to leave her inviting domain but he had to hasten back to Anna. Their lives were changed but still good, if harder than they’d planned when he’d left his post as editor at The Clarion.

How fortunate I am, Sophia thought, to know this man and Anna. He had always and was now looking out for her yet ran these errands and stayed a few moments to catch up. She liked to visit them in town.

“So what’re you doing for Halloween tomorrow? I see you actually carved a jolly pumpkin for the porch. Coming out for the library’s family event? Or to the Bluestone for pumpkin cookies and coffee, at least?”

Her eyebrows shot up–she smiled, shook her head slowly.

He knew better than to ask. She didn’t naturally gravitate to social events; it was nearly impossible to communicate as it was. Sophia pointed to a DVD cover on the mantle. He couldn’t make out the title but knew she liked the classics, so nodded. Likely some old Boris Karloff. At least that–she could find some laughs here and there.

They exchanged a few more words and he took his leave after she gave him a quick hug. She was thirty years younger than Will was, but he appreciated her litheness, that long ginger (threaded with white) hair about her face (usually pulled back), appreciation in those strong arms. She needed to find someone to love her, someone who merited shine of her talent and smarts and beauty, he mused. He shut the door behind him with a tip of his hat.

Sophia wavered at the fire, undecided what to do next, leaned her forehead against the hand carved mantle. The flames sparked and leapt until they became a scarlet canvass upon which she saw herself dancing, dancing to Stravinsky’s breathtaking “Firebird Suite.” She straightened her back, lengthened her neck and thew back her shoulders, trying to keep back any release of nostalgia with its tears. Reaching for her ever watchful Daedalus, she ruffled his fur then got to the simple task of putting away the food. But the night stretched ahead like a hall of mirrors as gusts shook the pines beyond the safety of her home–and in every intangible mirror she saw Thomas drowning and drowned, his empty boat shattered as lightning illuminated the restless north woods waters.

******

TZ and Frank were glad to help out a friend with the library’s “Kids’ Fright Night Party” but they were keen to get down to the lake so after an hour they were done. It hadn’t rained. Though a prescience of snow slipped along the wind’s edge, it was a clear, starry night. If they were lucky they’d enjoy a last bonfire with the others.

By the time they arrived at the Ring Lake’s rocky shore, the bonfire was big enough to be glimpsed from town center. Buckets and buckets of water were lined up, circled around merrymakers. There was the requisite illegal beer, pot smoked, and costumes that people sported spanning from the ridiculous to frightening. They had opted for simplest masquerades: ghostly beings, created with white grease paint and a few holey sheets.

“No one comes as that, anymore!” Marika laughed. “Good one–if simple-minded!”

“You make a good Cleopatra, how fancy if overwhelming,” TZ admitted. She wanted to like Marika but it wasn’t easy. her group was so over-the-top, and you could only give offer so much attention before it wore you out.

Frank asked, “Where are the other mighty BWCs?”

“Ha ha, we don’t go by that, anymore! The guys are eating and Casey is dancing over there, wild creature. As usual.”

“She is dressed as a leopard…” Frank said admiringly.

“What are you four up to later?”

“What could you possibly mean, TZ?”

“Duh, your usual Halloween trespass and scare tactics. You never miss a year.”

“Can’t even prove it, can you?” Tran said as he sidled up with a hot dog in both hands then gave one to Marika.

Frank put an arm around Tran. “No, but so far nothing really bad has happened so there’s no reason to collect evidence, right? I know you’re up to something!”

Tran shook off his arm and gave a hard laugh. “Spoken like the cop you will become!”

“More likely a lawyer, or forest ranger…” Frank retorted as he strode closer to the bonfire.

“See you fools around, don’t get too crazy!” TZ shouted over her shoulder as she caught up with Frank.

Marika spine tingled all the way up to the nape of her neck. TZ and Frank had gotten close to Sophia Swanson, helped her out. It made her wonder even more if this was the right person, an okay thing even in so-called fun. But Tran had left already and was chatting up another girl; he was in high gear, as was Nels. She took a big bite of the charred, mustardy hot dog and looked for Casey. Her best friend, Casey: Nels’ girl, his most loyal and avid accomplice. What was Marika doing in this sticky web? Maybe it’d be the last Halloween mischief for her. She was 17; this was all getting old. She went to the fire, faded into the chattering, laughing groups. She had been drawn to the party’s gaiety, but for a moment she leaned closer to the scorching heat, closed her eyes, dreamed of escape, of growing up and having a real life.

******

Sophia looked up at the original clerestory windows in her loft. There was already a constellation or two to be seen up high, tiny dots of light for a heavenly map beyond treetops. They’d added a huge floor to ceiling window in the lakefront wall. They…she and Thomas. She had bargained hard for it so she could have a light-filled dance studio, and use it secondarily for painting. She got a tall wooden stool and watched as the panorama revealed itself though a gateway to the world.

Often she often did this: sat with hands flattened on thighs, eyes riveted by first a slow approaching sunset, then the 20 or so minutes of the stirring blue hour. She was calmed by it, sky above transformed in sheerest colors, the lake alive with the bloom of hues. The woods and water, their powerful green and blueness. Then: it was as if wind and waters of that horrible night so ferocious returned, and the rising in her of memory of his anger, his going out in his boat. Not coming back. Her growing muteness the response she had to give when first responders arrived.

She still could not swim though she was good at it. She avoided looking at Stump Island beyond the peninsula where the boat had crashed against earth, roots and stone, useless. It was too magnetic a scene even as it repelled her. But if she didn’t look out from her snug home she’d never enter it like any other person who loves the freer life of water, wind, minerals and plants. Which she did. Only from a distance since then, a voluntary jail. Hands pressed against a barrier of glass, eyes filling with beauty, heart quivering, mind wondering.

Cabins and cottages along the shoreline blinked on one by one in navy twilight. Hers could be easily seen from the water, but not quite her body at its post in shadow. There were excited shouts here and there; a late, last speedboat careened to a nearby dock. The night was just beginning for some, revelries intensifying. Dae put head on paws, mobile furry brows like additional commentary as his eyes searched the night. Sophia gathered her shawl and loosened it about her, then stood and spun around three times, head back, hair flying. And heard tree branches suddenly scratch and brush the chapel house, her house creak and crack. At least she had an escape with a good movie, “The Raven”– for some silliness.

Sophia started down the stairs but Dae stood, ears standing upright; he stayed stock still. Then lay down again, watching. Sophia ran lightly down the stairs and found the movie to begin. When he barked once, twice, then again, she only turned up the volume. He was always barking at night creatures and twinkling lights rippling on water’s surface.

But he didn’t quiet down. She paused the DVD and ran to see what he saw. Dae was focused on the scene beyond the window; he didn’t acknowledge her.

And she saw it, too. Fire. Fire on the water.

On or above it? Reflections were impossible to separate from original sights in growing darkness as the elements merged together. But the fire was moving, two–wait, four fires. Or red lights, lamps? No. It swayed and flared as did fire. Torches, then. Each held by someone in a boat. Dae barked more loudly but Sophia heard boisterous voices–and they were making a chant or a kind of song strange to her ears. Ominous rumbling slipped across water. She ran to get the pole that opened the clerestory windows high above and hooked a latch, then opened two. Now she could hear better; they came closer and closer. There was a drum beaten rhythmically as the boat approached the peninsula and the torches, large and held aloft, burned brighter, bigger. She stood at the window and listened intently, her shawl tight about her, Dae readied with body tensed, head high and still.

The odd rhyme was repeated loudly, almost yelled out:

“Four spirits move–into the night,

ghost beings–made of anger and fright,

and Thomas arrives –for Halloween,

Thomas Swanson–go to your queen!”

Sophia stumbled backwards.

The boat came to rest at the shore and they got out, dressed in white, torches held far above so faces were unseen. The ghastly chant continued as they moved toward the house. My god, were they conjuring him, these people? Had he the will to taunt her through them? Sophia stepped farther back, Dae barked wildly, dizziness overtook her as nausea stirred. She felt it, a terrible scream, but could not let it out, and stumbled across the floor to a corner here she tried to breathe slowly, tried to be rational. But she was failing and they were coming. And she had no voice with which to call for help.

The doorbell then, heard it it ringing insistently. Every cell in her body resisted it; she froze. Dae ran downstairs growling at the heavy pounding, more noise and then there were footsteps on the stairs and she thought, this is going to be the end of me...

Shortly there came before her one she knew so well.

TZ took her hands. “Sophia! It will be okay, stand up, it’s going to be okay, it’s stupid pranksters!”

She gathered Sophia into her strong young arms.

“It’s kids, a bad prank on you and I’m so, so sorry! Frank’s out back, he’ll get them if they’re still on your property!” She gave Sophia a little shake, her own five feet eight length plus full mental powers trying to gain a little control of this woman who, at six feet, looked frail now. But TZ knew Sophia; the woman had an extraordinary will and would come around.

“I need to go and help him,” TZ siad and left with Dae.

Sophia roused herself. She had to see what was going on so followed in a moment, then flipped on outdoor floodlights and slid open the sliding glass doors to the large patio. Dae was racing after the intruders in full voice, TZ not far behind him.

The apparitions had vanished, torches flung into the fire pit sunk into the wide stone deck–burning bright, plumes of smoke curling and with stink of kerosene, the only evidence of their presence. For the boat was gone, as well.

Frank jogged back from the front of the chapel house with Dae trotting beside him, both panting. TZ straggled. Frank’s palms pushed against his thighs and he bent over, head hanging. Then they gathered about the fire pit and TZ and Sophia poured water from watering cans over the hissing flames.

“I called police, they’ll flush them out,” he said. “I’m know who they are. Unbelievable–but that’s what they do on Halloween.”

TZ shot him a look. No need to further worry Sophia–they could inform her of any outcomes later.

But they knew she wanted to ask: why? Why would anyone do that when Thomas’ death had even been investigated, she had been heavily questioned, and it truly haunted her yet? And the little gang of BWC was made of those who gave little or no thought to consequences of their decisions. Or so it seemed. Nels, that is Nelson Hartman, talented, angry son of a high powered businessman who was rarely around. And Tran? Chinese-American, moved there with parents and grandparents who never quite adapted, and for good reason: deeply embedded racism. But Casey was, well, Casey–she didn’t care for most rules and expectations, was entirely loyal to Nels.

Then there was Marika who’d broken down when Frank grabbed her arm, begged him not to turn her in, she was done with BWC, old friends or not.

“Besides, I saw something out there, it was ….” It was more than she could say, apparently.

He left her sniffling at the side of the road though it was a bit harsh of him. It wouldn’t do to have Sophia see her in such a state. Let Marika ask for any forgiveness later. Frank knew the others would collect her–unless the cops got them first. Someone–he thought Tran was also less than all in–had just left, taken the boat rather than be caught. Daedalus nipped one of them–he heard one cursing at the dog as they dashed down the road, their sheets flying. How ironic that they’d had the same simple costume idea for worse.

Frank put an arm around the shaken woman–someone he admired and respected. Who was looked straight into his eyes, subdued and angered.

“We just felt you might be on their list–they do something crazy every year…a pact they made, I guess. Trying to make a creepier night of it…I don’t get it. But that was beyond mean. They’ll face charges if you press them.” He scrubbed the top of his head in exasperation. “We all worry about you out here.”

TZ shushed him. Of course he didn’t “get” the mini-terrorizing; Frank didn’t have a cruel bone in him. But at times he talked too much when staying quiet could help more. She beckoned to Sophia they went inside where she seemed to come back to herself.

After they’d had a fresh mug of coffee with cinnamon scones Will had brought, and they’d told her about the costumed kids at the library and showed pictures, and shared their week-end plans and asked if she wanted more leaves raked yet, which she shrugged about, Sophia gestured to the sofa as if to ask them to stay and see the film. Dae, however, jumped up beside her and lay his length there, put his head in her lap. TZ and Frank said it was time to go, they had more plans. Sophia waved goodbye, her silhouette clean and strong in the doorway.

“She always looks like some amazing…goddess…” TZ said.

“Yeah, a frozen-in-time-goddess. A famous dancer whose life was put on a long pause, such creativity and big emotions shut down…”

This was what TZ liked about Frank, He looked like a lumberjack but was so much more.They got into his truck, said nothing more of it all.

After they’d gone, Sophia went up to the loft to the tall widows. She studied the water’s surface gleaming like silver here and there in moonlight. Was that movement another boat, a sudden light another torch? Was that chilled mist hovering over the little island a thing she could not define? She pressed her nose against the glass, breath obscuring her view. Was Thomas still languishing in autumn waters? She heard him sometimes, felt his presence always, his rage and brilliance, his love and restlessness. She and Dae mused on the night’s events, shivered one after the other.

Sophia got the clerestory pole with its hook, closed the latches of both high windows so that all was shut out–please, Thomas, leave me–for one more night.