Ella Marie will Ride Fast Horses

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“This is Ella Marie, your subject,” Cecile Harnett announces as she enters. The child half-curtsies and mumbles what I take to be a greeting.

Ella Marie has been ushered into my studio with a push at her back, and I see a cloth bag of what her mother calls accouterments held snug against an expensive navy purse. A vase of brilliant flowers leans in the crook of one arm. The vase shimmies perilously in the pull of gravity so I offer to take the vase and look for a spot to set it. A teetering pile on my desk is shoved aside to free up a couple bare inches.

“For you. Or for the portrait, your call.”

Her young daughter peeks around her elbow, then steps apart from her and she takes in the studio, arms crooked behind her back.

She looks around, her freed hand smoothing feathery champagne bangs from her forehead, lips in a straight line as if trying to not leak a sigh of distaste. I admit my studio does not reflect a rising artist. More a cultural dilettante who likes making messes in an overcrowded attic space. I know at first glance my planned Blue Studio didn’t inspire confidence in others as much as it did myself. But I liked the sad little bungalow with large garage–a garage that became a two story art space. Of course, it’s been shined up since then. A lot of business has increased for me within four years in this touristy village. Thus, the trying customer with her lovely but bored and bland (might be overreacting to such even features, the blank stare) daughter.

“Gretchen says you’re as good as it gets here, Tessa, and we sure need a good portraitist since Harold Zimpter left. Though how anyone could aspire to take his place is stretching credulity. He was the creme de la creme and so enchanting one wanted to sit for him just to listen to him rattle on about his world travels and arcane interests.”

She lifts her right eyebrow at me, a delicate feather glued upon her vast forehead. We have already discussed what is desired, agreed on the price, the rapid timeline. I think she is waiting for a response, like noting how I studied in Paris (did not) or that I am an avid admirer of Zimpter’s work (though old school conventional, he has his strengths). I had expected a few pretenses but not this much. Her daughter looks at the floor, as if drawn to the cracks in the reclaimed pine floorboards I used, then nudges the toe of one of her black Mary Jane shoes into a wiser crack.

I take a diversionary route.”Yes, he is well known though paints far less now he’s ninety. Gretchen has commissioned three paintings of various sorts. But today I’m looking forward to painting Ella Marie.”

I get down on a bended knee and murmur, “Hello, Ella Marie, new to this painting business, I guess?”

Not how I usually greet children. Even if disgruntled by the whole business, they are often eager to chat and poke about. Some even pose from the start, as if coached by parents or believe they’re dazzling and desire my certain appreciation, as well. Ella Marie just glances at me so quickly that I suspect she is just be blinking in the bright, paint-imbued atmosphere.

“I’m not too certain she returns that feeling. But it must be done. She’s seven and her grandparents have wanted a portrait at least a couple of years– for their gallery, as they call it, a long, broad hallway where they hang family portraiture.”

“So you said, and I’m glad to oblige.” I stand up and let Ella Marie’s shoe explore more cracks. Her eyes follow me ever so little. “You brought some items, I see?”

“Ah, yes, to help things go right and rosy.”

She isn’t kidding. She opens the bag and pulls out a circlet of realistic white roses; a necklace in a pretty turquoise box that when opened reveals a simple open silver star on a fine chain (“A Tiffany’s trinket, yes”); a headband made of ivory lace and one tiny pink rosebud; and a dress that looks more like a miniature plum colored evening gown than a child’s tog. There is also a pair of white gloves. I am borderline appalled but smile and wait to hear what she says. Ella Marie is perusing the pile son my desk but shoots her mother a look that indicates she may not be so thrilled, either.

“Just ideas. Mama loves roses and they’re more formal so those are a must whichever we use. The dress was handmade for this. But I don’t want her too overly adorned. Shall we get started, then?”

I’m thinking that the child looks fine as she is, in dark green paisley slacks and a white blouse. I direct them to a corner and a quadruple-fold screen that I made, more comfortable a change area than my cramped bathroom.

When Ella Marie emerges, she says nothing, still is taken with the floor and its cracks. There is no doubt she wears an elegant, expensive dress. She steps cautiously into a swath of early morning rays thrown across the floor. My eyes catch hers, which sparkle in the light, and I see her running across an open field, barefooted, golden curls flying, her face wreathed in smiles and honeyed sunshine, arms swinging for joy.

Her mother beams with inordinate pride but the girl I envision is not at all this fake princess before me.

******

I can hear Cecile sigh as she taps on her phone. I start a quick sketch on the canvass, looking at her daughter off and on. Ella Marie is sitting dutifully before me in a wicker chair, feet set upon a matching footstool, her face half-sunlit and turned toward me. If there was more time, I would have just sketched over a couple sittings, then begun the painting but no, the Harness family wants this before Christmas rush begins. I happen to have a loose hour here and there twice a week if I cram more into the rest of the time. It may have been a mistake. A painting can take months, of course, but at times a small portrait comes to me fast and furious and can turn out as well or better as the more painstaking ones. With acrylics, I work fast, anyway; they dry quickly.

“So what motivated you to move to Greenpointe, Tessa?”

I do not like to talk on and on so offer a usual line. “Got tired of the city like most who move here.”

“I’m told your father grew up here, that grey rambling house on the western shore? I suppose you visited here years later. Was he also an artist?”

“Advertising,”I mumble, then clamped lips shut. Enough; I have work to do. “I’m sorry, I need calm my mind, concentrate.”

Another long sigh, nearly a whistle of restless annoyance. “I think I’ll get a coffee and scone down the block. Okay, Ella Marie? Back in an hour, is that okay?”

We both nod, the child giving a prim wave, and Cecile leaves with designer bag in tow, her Sperry Topsiders thumping on each step as she navigates the steep stairs.

Ella Marie, taking after her mother, lets go a rush of air that is surprising considering her stature.

“I don’t want to do this, you know.” She doesn’t change her posture, just speaks quietly but with certainty.

“I can see that nor am I surprised, most kids do not.”

“You can tell? Mom says smile, make things work.”

“I can see you are bored and annoyed and uncomfortable in that fancy dress.”

Ella Marie grimly stretches her lips into a disgruntled curve that states agreement. Looks straight at me until I look back “Did you ever have to do this?”

“No. I always had to draw for adults.”

She thinks about that as I sketch quickly now, pencil seeking her personality, lightly trying it on canvas. She bristles with energy, but softly, perhaps told a million times to take it down a notch and trained in absolute manners. She is a child doomed to perfection-seeking unless she can find a way to wiggle past all that until she finds herself.

Wait, I think, she is only seven. And a half, as she pointed out recently.

“I said I’d only do it if she let me ride the horse next door, Ms. Gretchen’s horse.”

I draw the light fluff of curls that spiral around her chin as she speaks, catch the loose-limbed ease she displays as she relaxes, small shoulders squared with a quiet confidence.

“She agreed, I guess.”

Ella Marie bounces twice, arms up as she raises her fists into a victory punch. “Yes! I take a first lesson tomorrow with Hanna, her teenager.”

There it is, there’s the kid who will try her hardest to find the paths into woods and hills with their wild beauties, the stream full of frogs and salamanders and squishy mud where bloodsuckers may lie in wait but she’ll take that chance. At least I imagine.

The sketch feels more right than wrong and I announce to her that after a few tweaks we will start painting at the next session. I am finding her easy to recreate on paper.

“But what about this dress? Any chance your mom could pick something else?”

She shakes her head. “Oh no, this is what Grandmother and Grandfather would like the best.”

“Okay, then, we’ll do the best we can with what we have, right?”

She giggles, a silvery chime floating in my studio. “Right, Miss Tessa.”

******

The next weeks Cecile is either on the phone and pacing as she discusses apparent re-decorating plans with controlled irritation, or she is anxious to be released from quiet waiting and so exits to the coffee shop as I work. She has asked twice to see the painting, but I never show a painting in progress, despite it being commissioned. Not until I decide it is developing well, at the least. No sense distressing those who know nothing of portraiture.

Ella Marie seems assured that whatever I do is fine.

“I like how you dance a little with your paintbrushes. I like the smell of things up here. Can I see it this time?”

“No, not til it’s done. It won’t be a good surprise until it is finished.”

“What if Mom doesn’t like it?”

“Then I won’t get paid–or paid well.”

“That’s not good.” She frowns and a subtle fierceness leaks out, despite the plum dress and the lacy headband her mother chose. “You’re a nice lady. You’re a special painter, no one can decide any different.” She clasps her hands, shakes them once for emphasis.

My own tired hand pauses mid-air. The small brush I hold is loaded with delicate, tender pinkness of rose that blooms from the ornate headband set on the canvas. I want to sit across from the girl, tell her how wonderful she is and to not mind the terribly plum dress and all smiling falseness and even impatient, demanding parents.

But she is a client, not my daughter, not even a niece or good friend’s child. She has been here twice a week for nearly four weeks. I have heard her horse stories, her childish gossip, her night dreams of winged horses and pixies that kindly rule the forest, and have seen her wilt as her mother corrects her syntax at such a young age and tidily pulls up each sock before they leave.

I have to wonder if this kid ever gets to scrape her knees or wear battered tennis shoes or use bad grammar. But maybe that will come, it is none of my business, after all.

“Why don’t we take that little rose off your headband? I have a bobby pin to set the flower into your hair. Let me get the mirror.”

We affix the rose into a wave at her temple but it still looks too….theatrical, contrived. I don’t want her to look too “cute,” it doesn’t suit her.  She shrugs.

“Next time, I’ll have a wildflower crown for you.”

She shrugs. “I’d like that better but Grandmother…”

I’ve already started two portraits, the other on my own time. I can’t only paint one of Ella Marie in that chair, her Tiffany necklace positioned in the center of her chest, hands folded in her lap. She is a patient model now that we’ve established more of whom she is or may be, a truly free child at heart, an ordinary young wild thing, but  she knows she has to get at it in a careful manner. Like horseback riding, which is reportedly going well. The youngster has a knack for it.

“At first I thought I might break my neck, was bouncing way too much. But now I just feel what the horse does and follow along, sort of. It’s not too hard. It’s–“she snaps her fingers and the sharp sound almost rings in my studio–“like, presto changeo! when I get with itI’m really happy there.”

I laugh for the pleasure of her enthusiasm and she tosses shoulder length curls like a horse tosses its mane, and paws at the ground with one of her Mary Janes.

“Whoa, horsey!”

“School is boring, though. You like school?”

“Art school. Now hold still, chatterbox.”

“Yes, all those paints and things! Okay, we must get it done, huh?”

I wonder how Cecile got so lucky to have this kid and find I am almost bracing for her departure. I’m just the village artist-in-residence, the new portraitist.

When her mother returns, she sneaks a glimpse from the side before I carefully turn the easel aside. Out escapes a sibilant response that, from Cecile, denotes a kind of pleasure.

“Such sweetness and delight, fine work, my dear!”

“Can I see?” Ella Marie asks her blue-grey eyes pleading.

I shake my head. I don’t want her to see, not yet. She puts hands on skinny hips, stands with feet apart in the long velvety dress as if to do battle, but briefly. She returns to a more approved standing position, waiting, as her mother is watching out for bad manners,  her glinty eyes narrowed above shining teeth.

******

After four weeks, the commissioned piece is finished and when Ella Marie arrives we are both quiet. I have set aside two other projects to rush this order and Cecile Harnett will pay extra for that. One will be perky yet radiant, I hope, wedged between the other good looking, well-behaved, precious grandchildren, like trophies gleaming along a special byway of fame–granted, they are the trophies all families love the best. Ella Marie’s determination, her intelligence and burbling delight, her inclination to push a bit beyond boundaries may not be blazing fact to the everyday eye. But I study her and see it, and care enough to strongly hint at it.

The other painting needs more finesse, time to rest. No one will see that one; it stays with me, unknown to even Ella Marie.

“Is the painting going to make them so happy for Christmas?”

“It will, indeed, their lovely wonder girl.”

Ella Marie laughs as if I’m teasing yet maybe she likes the idea.

“Come and see.”

She gets up and very carefully tiptoes over to where I sit on my stool, then covers her eyes. She one by one spreads her fingers and peeks through to view the 15 by 15 inch portrait, now about dry after late night last touches.

“Ohhh.” Her hands drop to her sides. “That’s what it is….yeah, Miss Tessa, that’s sure what they like.”

Her mouth hangs open a little as she breathes and she reaches to touch the colors representing her face, the flowing velvet, the rose on the headband but stops just short of marring the paint.

“So many colors to make up skin…” she whispers. “Look at the little rose, it might open up right there.”

I step away, let her gaze upon her rendered likeness.

Should I show her the other portrait, the one in close-up where she is the girl riding the wind on a galloping horse, face half-turned to the viewer, her curls like streaming ribbons of light, a restless aura of energy on the verge of something even more: the brave future mirrored in her lively eyes and proud stance?

Someday. Not now.

Cecile comes up all out of breath, full of anticipation, and when she takes a long, intense look at her daughter’s portrait, she pulls out her money, counts upon my drawing table more than agreed upon.

“You captured her essence, our Ella Marie, they’ll adore it! I’ll spread the word, Tessa–fantastic work. Now to find just the right frame!”

As they perch on the top of the stairway, Ella Marie looks back, eyes soft but clear. I can see her mind is busy and all that energy is only pausing between one thing and the next. But she runs back and throws her arms around me, grinning up at me.

“Ella Marie, do a proper thank you and let’s move on now!”

I speak up, releasing her. “Ella Marie, you’ve been a wonderful painting subject and kid, thank you for sitting for me. ”

“Tessa, you’re a wonderful painter, thank you for being you, too!”

And she “high fives” me, then leaves with her mother, just like that.

******

The holidays are upon us in full force and I have a new show at Gina’s Galeria de Arte in the Gaslight District. The other Ella Marie painting is hung with ten others and it is the one attracting most attention. It’s the opening reception and people are drinking and networking and gossiping and I am exhausted as ever by the small talk I must engage in.

Many come up and ask: is that the young Harnett child we all know and how did I capture her that way, did I take photos of her on a horse? It’s so real and yet ethereal… how much do I want for it? Do her parents know yet?

“It is not for sale,” I tell them over and over. The other paintings are good, they are selling well enough but this is exempted. I’m keeping it for one person in case she ever forgets who she is some day.

Then comes little Miss Ella Marie, and she’s pulling at her mother’s purse so in they come. Cecile and husband Thom Harnett hurry forward as they realize now the exhibit is mine. They look for me. I shrink back against a far wall, consider an escape route. I knew they’d see it at some point, I just didn’t think it would be tonight, maybe they’d wander in while holiday shopping one Saturday while I was at Blue Studio, just working.

The three of them meander, the child borderline giddy as she points to the art, her parents perusing each one. And then they’re in front of it, the other one.

“It’s me!” Ella Marie claps her hands and people gather around. “Where’s Tessa? Where is she?”

I slink forward, grasp her proffered hand, then look around at the crowd. Can we not do this another time and place? Can I leave now? Such public attention isn’t good for my stress level but it’s too much to ask; money is necessary so I do these shows.

“This is new and you kept it secret!” she says.

“Secret…” Cecile parrots.

She looks at the painting, then at me and back at the painting. Thom appraises it, zooming in close, pulling back.

“Remarkable. A bit fantastical perhaps, but so remarkably my daughter,” he pronounces.

“What do you think?” I ask Ella Marie.

“I love it, me riding a great horse–how did you do that? It’s really me, Tessa! And you put the daisy crown on me!” She squeals then acts embarrassed and calms herself a bit.

But Cecile slides over with eyes brimming and presses her shoulder against mine a moment before standing apart. She dabs wetness away with a leather gloved finger, quick to avert mascara smears, but still, I feel moved by her open response.

“How much shall I give you for this?”

“Yes,” Thom concurs, stroking his trim salt and pepper beard. “It’s better than the other one, you must know that. It deserves a fine price.”

I let go of her hand, drop to a crouch so I can better speak to her among the holiday gallery trollers. “It was painted for just me at first. Now it is just for you, Ella Marie. No one gets to buy it. Only you can let it go if someday that is what you want to do.”

“Oh…” She places her palm alongside my cheek a  moment, then pats my shoulder. “I want it. I will always want it, no one else can have it.” She bends over to whisper, “I want you to see me ride! I’ll ask Mom to call you.”

“I’d like that. And the picture goes home with you after this show ends. I’ll be in touch.”

“Okay, Miss Tessa.” She neatly curtsies, then giggles.

I notice she has on bright red tennis shoes beneath jeans and a blue puffy jacket and am oddly heartened.

We three grownups chat more. They’re so pleased with the new painting, thrilled their daughter may own art by someone who might be famous one day (maybe, not at all likely). And they are congenial because it’s that time of year and they’re suddenly a topic at the event as people come by to congratulate them–and me.

But as they leave, Ella Marie walking with head high between them and each holding a hand, I see more than I did before. I see a family filled with the certainty of love and I’m gratified I can be this close to such a fine thing, even in passing.

 

I’m Still Here, Amazonia

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the night, something misses me. I sit up and peer into the blur of darkness, check to see if Bodhi is at my feet but know he isn’t. He likes Kara’s bed more, it has a hollow where he buries his cat pink nose and white paws, his furred tail more like a slinky snake about her feet. There he is, babied in blankets. If she would go back to her room, he might come visit me.

But it isn’t Bodhi that awakens me; it never is. It isn’t Kara, either. Nothing wakes her. It’s just the sounds of our house, clunks and groans so soft I might have dreamed them. I used to get up and tiptoe out into the hall, call Mom and Dad to their door but that was many months ago, way before I was ten. Now I know everyone else sleeps or pretends to sleep and I’m the only one rubbing my eyes, pushing back the curtains to check the yard. The house must only catnap like Bodhi. Only humans worry about things like the right amount of sleep, I guess.

It’s only me here at three in the morning. I wave a childish wave at the apple trees down below, then the tire swing that hangs from one naked maple, its arms reaching around in search of birds or me. That’s what misses me tonight, I think. Last night it was the forsythia bush doing nothing but waiting to bloom. Tomorrow it might be the iron bench with my gathered  sticks left on the seat. I lie down, pull the soft blankets to my forehead and drift off, plunge in deeper, am gone.

“Roxie? Roxie!”

Kara’s dagger-nailed fingers are yanking the bedding off me.

“It’s seven-fifteen, get up or you’ll be late. Tim and I aren’t driving you again this week.”

The air feels cold so I jump up, grab clean undies I laid out last night then head into the bathroom. In the shower, I go to Amazonia, as usual; steam swirls around me, rising heat is thick with something good. Flowers, big and brilliant. My soap is a floral, lilies-of-the-valley scent. I don’t know if Amazonia has any sort of lilies but one day I’ll find out. I also need to look up how many kinds of butterflies there are. I plan on being a ecologist and expect to be an adventuress.

There is heavy thudding on the door.

“Open up! You don’t need to lock our bathroom door, you’re just a kid, I need the hair dryer right now!”

Sometimes Kara’s voice sounds like a train, the old kind like at the train museum, one that makes all the racket as the wheels grind and turn. I don’t have to hear her words to know what she means. When she yells I’m supposed to do something different. If she’s late, she for sure won’t take me to my school on her way to high school so I rinse off, grab the towel, unlock the door. It’s thrown open, proof that she was leaning on it, getting ready to apply her weight–all one hundred and five pounds of it, bones and boobs. She thinks she’s fantastic.

I toss the hair dryer at her.

“Hey!”

“Hey nothing, I’ll still beat you. I don’t have to paint on a face to leave the house. I already have one.”

She swats me with the hand towel, her laugh more like a sigh.

Downstairs, Mom is stacking toast on a plate beside a sickening mound of scrambled eggs. I take two slices and three bacons and make a sandwich. Dad is trying to kiss  her on the cheek but she bats him off with irritation as she turns the last bacon, and he disappears out the side door into the garage, hand making a backward wave at me.

I’m not sure how anyone can even cook in the kitchen. It’s in various stages of being undone. Upgraded. Renovation, they call it, but so far it’s just torn apart more each day, right down to the studs. I learned that word by harassing a carpenter on Saturday until Dad made me go to the store with Kara. We’re often sent on errands, useless missions or our friends’ when the noise gets feverish or sawdust falls about us like some lethal downpour. I pretended I was choking to death on it once and Mom got so upset and mad, she about cried.

I hear big trucks pull up, doors slam, grumbled greetings, heavy footsteps: the reno people are here already. I wonder what Mom will do today? Maybe leave like the rest of us. She used to teach yoga in our passable basement but that’s been suspended, she says with a frown.

Everything feels upside down since the parents decided to fix up the house. I don’t get it. It was good before, though Kara insists we’ll finally not be the almost-worst house on the block but closer to best. Still, even on a cruddy day our rambling house has been the sort of place you’d want to hang out. Our friends loved coming over, especially to be in the back yard, a half acre with fruit trees and overgrown hedges, the usual flowers and random, pretty weeds gone crazy.

We have a deck that seats thousands. Mom proudly stated this once as she carried out more food-laden platters for a summer party. But Dad is about have it taken out. He wants a big screened in porch to keep out hungry mosquitoes, what he says are mean-looking moths and so on. He is not too bug friendly despite often playing golf.

How am I ever going to get used to them for my Amazonia trip if I am protected from them? He makes me put on repellent any time I go out for long. He plans on a new patio with a “discreet water feature.” What is that? Lame. I will so miss the deck. Underneath it Bodhi can scamper and catch things and I can make myself narrow as a noodle, too, slip into an opening in the ancient lattice. Can hide awhile as needed, along with Bodhi.

There’s nowhere to hide now. Kara has taken over my quarters too much. Her own room is wrecked, being made bigger and soon will have a bathroom just for her. I call that extravagant, totally unnecessary; she leaves in three years for college if she studies harder. I have to fly across the hallway to use the one public bathroom. Mildew creeps onto loose caulking edging the tub. There’s a hole in the one high screened window. Will they fix these things? I don’t care. I like my house, broken things and all; why can’t they?

I stuff the last of the bacon sandwich into my mouth and leave before Mom can insist I need eggs. I hate eggs; they make me think of dead yellow, fluffy little chicks though I know they aren’t. It just doesn’t seem right whereas eating pork seems reasonable. I’m not fond of pigs when alive. Bodhi agrees. I toss him a small piece and his purr machine starts up.

“Wait up!” I call out to a threesome huddled in a bulky knot across the sidewalk, their puffer jackets too warm for the temperature today. I have on my sweatshirt hoodie, as usual. Lately, they–two girls and a guy, more or less friends since age six–seem like all that’s left for me. It’s the house’s fault, that’s why. The house changes, so everything else does–even they hardly ever come by now.

This all hits me like a bunch of cherries falling from our tree right between my eyes: a demonstration of gravity, a truth maybe a little too obvious. But that’s how things occur to me sometimes.

******

Kara is at the library tonight studying with the newest guy, Yuri, which is a lie. They’re hanging out at the Ridge with the rest of the fools. I will never go there; it’s dumb what they do, drink beers and smoke cigs and suck face, plan escapades they won’t carry out. But it’s some relief she’s gone awhile.

Bodhi sits at the end of my bed, wetting his paws, grooming his head and face. I’m reading things, a fashion magazine of hers that I tear pictures from–she’ll never miss those, it’s old and I like to make collages. Then I do homework, read a geography book. This part is about Mongolia, how they live and work outside like I want to. It’s a huge land and they have no neighbors nearby, only their family which might be trying. I’ll bet they don’t worry about remodeling their ready-to-go houses. They’re nomads, a word with a meaning I like. Everything in the picture looks like it has its place. Not so much is needed. I wish we had less stuff cluttering floors, corners, closets. And now even more with remodeling. Sometimes I still put up the tent in the back and sleep there–until Mom or Dad insist it’s time to come in, it’s not safe out there. It’s been fine for years–okay, usually Kara or my friends slept out with me–but not so much now. Anyway, now the parents want to spoil my fun; what used to be easy, good, is suddenly off-limits or irritating to them. The girl in my book looks like she could go miles away on her own, hunt, round up goats, sleep through a cold and lonely midnight and never get worried.

But that’s what I feel lately. A little worried. I don’t know what about exactly. I shake my head, open my notebook to answer questions about Mongolia. Bodhi snuggles in a bit more, warms up my feet. I feel more content than when Kara is nearby, when my parents are hovering and slinking around between words. Cats seem to know certain things, I think. I might be let in on the secret if I just have patience. I rub his ears and he half-blinks then closes bright eyes, shutting me out.

******

I hear the door creak open and shut as Kara creeps in way late and climbs in bed. I stay still, hoping Bodhi will remain happy where he is. He’s still awhile and then, as if awake the whole time, springs up and bounds off, goes to her. She blows her nose, shudders, turns and twists, little sobs eking out here and there, then muffled into nothing. I think I can smell the beers from an opening in covers where my nose pokes out. Bodhi jumps back onto my bed, startling me. I stare into darkness long after they both are dead still then give in, myself.

Sleep is a genie. It turns off the world, lets me enter a magic kingdom where I live in a tree house. All passing creatures tell me things, like how to blend in and make my way in the dark, where the best food is, and who will be enemies and trusted allies. They tell me how to never be lost. But this will mostly disappear when I awaken. Turning, there comes a wave of sadness.

Then there it is, something missing me again. It tugs like a boat trying to get me off a dock and jump into it. It’s like something I know but don’t quite understand even as I sense it more each night. My eyes adjust to see a barely lit outline of my bedside window so I sit up, listen. There is nothing except the strange but deeply familiar forms of sleeping cat and sister, a soft snore from their own dream surfing. There’s a bird, one of the first robins. I know it by its insistent song as morning light rises and tilts into our deep, wide yard. I push off covers, hold my arms close against the cold, then nudge back the curtain to look out.

There’s heavy white mist hovering about trees. It’s chilly but gentle; I’ve been into it many times. But as my eyes wander, someone else stands in it. It is no stranger, I know that form. I get up, slip into a flannel shirt with sweatpants. Press my face against the cool pane of glass to get a better look.

It’s Mom. She’s wearing her robe, the heavy blue velveteen robe Kara and I got her for Christmas. Her hair, thickly woven with white, spreads over her shoulders. Her arms are holding onto herself good and tight; her back looks small, bent. Her feet are bare. Out of nowhere comes the thought that maybe she is praying. I realize it’s an odd thought, my mother out in a cold March fog talking to God, as if God wasn’t available in a cozy room. But it seems the thing she has to do this early spring morning, the hard-to-hold fog dressing her like a tired goddess. Her head bows deeper and I feel afraid.

The house seems lighter, as if it could float away. It feels as if it needs something to hold it down this instant, but I don’t know what. My sister slumbers on; I have no desire to wake her. I must know what Mom is saying and leave my room, down the stairs on whispering feet, out the back door and into the grass. I step through ghostly fringes of mist, let it encase me like a mysterious cape of dawn. It might hold me and my mother in one piece.

When I reach her she glances over her shoulder as if waiting for me then lets me in, under the warmth of her enveloping wing. We watch as golden light spreads through the fogginess, then begins to pull apart. It’s like gold as it touches tree limbs and bushes, daffodils that are blooming early, lights up the deep pink daphne that fills my nose with sweetness.

I lean into her, one living thing into another, and she knows I know.

“Dad left…” I whisper.

“Yes,” she says and her free hand covers her mouth.

“It didn’t help, fixing our house.”

“No,” she says and crumples a second before standing tall again for me. For us.

“I never wanted things to change,” I say loudly now and scare the robin from its perch.

“We found we were wrong about…. well, some things have to first change inside no matter what we want to believe.”

I think of the creaky old deck, how it will remain standing now. How the mosquitoes will try to feast on us all and how I can bear their bites, have and will. But part of me wants terribly to have the porch screen between me and the world, and my skin slathered with that repellent every time I step out. I hug my mother closer and she reaches down, her lips planting a kiss on my forehead but before she smooths back my mess of tangled hair, I lurch away, follow the mist as it leaves the outer reaches. I look into a baby blue sky that melts away the night.

I am being missed somewhere. By Amazonia, by Mongolia, or our tent and my scared-of-the-dark-friends, or Bodhi, our warm, watchful cat. My father, even as he turned the corner at the end of our terribly quiet street, drove around the block and down the main street and who knows where next. He might be humming for all I know. His chest might have a hole in it, too, where we have always been.

I want to make him weak with my mightiest hug so he’ll have to come back and stay. I want to find Kara, scream at her until she screams with me, then collapse into her arms. I want to tell my mother how her sadness fills me with terror, with love.

None of this will happen, at least not now.

Because mostly there’s just me standing here. Mostly there is an awful longing for how it was before now. Before the house began to change and fall down around us. And now I know that all those weird nights as I woke up wondering it was only me who was being missed– the little kid Roxie who was happy before the past year, who carried on as if all was just fine. Me, before I knew I had to grow up. And having Amazon dreams means I had better be as brave as I imagined.

Come to Me, My Shining Time

Williim Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

Though I’d just awakened, I was to get up and meet him at the Tacos ‘n Thai cart owned by Javier and Apsara. Not my favorite place at the moment. Food and I have not been on good terms even when I can afford more than this. Stress attacks my insides. The scraping for money. The nights I try to trick my body into sleep as I rock back and forth, all knees and elbows in the hammock Neal left on my porch when he disappeared. I am not often left with an appetite for breakfast. Hunger for relief, yes. I just want to live normally, take care of my business and do good things with no whining. Not so remarkable, but you’d never know it from the fears that threaten to abscond with my brain.

“Lily, back at last!”

Apsara flashes her monumental smile and the morning is improved. Her good will makes every dollar I spend here worthwhile so I order a side of rice noodles with egg, carrots and mushrooms with a bubble tea.

“You got something going on now?” She means work; she dabs her brow with the hem of her apron. “Shining that sweetie face in more glossies?”

“Modelling…well, no. I’ve been cleaning more houses for the past couple months. It covers gaps since Neal left.”

“Cleaning still… ” Her round face clouds and her lips purse.  “No good!” But her smile returns as she pushes a pen further into her hair and stands tall. She never prods for information, unlike her husband. “I’ll get you fed.”

I don’t know if she means “no-good man” or just “that’s bad news”, but either way it may come down to the same thing: not the best situation. I find the man who was with me for two and a half years entering my mental screen, all lankiness, blustery talk and warmly lit pools for eyes. A filmmaker, he was often gone. This time gone for good, and it’s not as hard as it looks to others. He was difficult to take in doses bigger than a few days after the first six months. It wasn’t his roving mind, the constant storytelling; I like stories and ideas. It was his expansive self-appreciation. I got bored. Even though he helped me out as my money dwindled, it was not such a sad day when he left on a promising European project, gone before dawn.

I need rent and grocery money, not him. I need things to go just right for me for once. My own time to come, my own passion to be acknowledged and enjoyed. And it’s sure not modelling, which shocked Neal. Well, it would.

Javier sticks his head out and waves. “Back for the best, I see!” he shouts, causing a handful of customers to gawk. “That good-for-nothing guy gone or what?” He makes a motion with his hand as if saying “good riddance” or worse, then is yanked back in by Apsara.

As I walk to a far table, I cringe. My personal life doesn’t need to go public in my neighborhood. I know I should get used to this, a different life. A harder one. I’ve considered the food bank but can’t handle the thought of lining up behind parents who have kids crying in their arms. Patient and often disoriented homeless. Clots of women pared down in size and spirit who are spurred to action by their men or a gnawing pain in their stomachs. It doesn’t seem right; I should be able to manage by now, not take from those who need it when I eat unevenly, that’s all. I’m almost thirty and haven’t gotten off to a roaring success. Well, the modelling paid well but that isn’t the success I aim to have.

As my madly successful family reminds me.

“You might consider getting a skill at last that equals a dependable and decent paycheck,” my father, a mover and shaker in biotech, advised on the phone. I had called for two hundred dollars to pay past due water and electricity. Every word including a “please and sorry” felt like failure. His voice can disguise itself as an audible grater, shredding both my eardrum and self esteem.

I pinned my cell between ear and shoulder as I folded clothes on the bed, then let it slip to the quilt as he continued to enumerate all I might have done or still could do. I counted in sevens as I did even as a kid. It still helps calm me.

“–instead of trying to become some sort of photographer! Art for dear art’s sake does not make for very fortuitous ends. Why couldn’t you have stayed with modelling longer?At least that got you in some doors and offered tangible rewards.”

“Yes, dad,” I murmured into the pause.

“Lily? You still there? You want your mother to talk to you? She’s just back from her book club.”

I clutched the phone and let my eyes rest on a dark corner of my room. I thought how it might look in a wide angle shot, a young woman with voluminous flame-red hair facing a dark plum wall, shoulders and feet bare, soft light slipping over her back. Her shadow flimsier than she imagines. I closed my eyes. “No, dad, it’s fine, I’ll call her another time. And thanks for the money, I’ll keep you posted.”

“Right, will do and love you, just get back on track.”

I’ve lived off my modelling savings for over eleven months and it is about gone now. My three year contract with the agency ran out. I haven’t returned phone calls from other agencies. I don’t want to be anyone else’s mannequin. Beauty alone can carry you for a great many miles. But long ago it left me at a dead end where its meaning and values are at odds with my idea of a real life. How can anyone pay such big money to hang clothes and jewels on my torso? To use me as a canvass for someone else’s often hallucinatory visions? It’s all disposable, even meaningless as I take the longer view.

It was a convenience from the start–easy money before, during and after college where I garnered an Art History degree. But I’m sick of it, want to shed that persona like a coat both heavy and sweaty. I am a burning creature inside this muscle and bone, burning with dreams and impatience.

Neal did not understand my doubts, nor did he try. He found my career invigorating, a jump start for his tendency toward sluggish ambition. I got to be his muse for a bit, gratifying at first. And a useful asset when we went to the endless parties and he could say, “This is my partner, Lily, who last had a starring role in British Vogue. Isn’t that wild?”

“Noodles steaming hot!” Apsara calls out.

I get up and walk near an occupied table. There is “the look” from three young men, that ten second stare as I come and go. The hair, the legs and so on.

“Got a minute?” one asks and another elbows him. The third whistles low and tunefully.

I want to snap my teeth at him and make terrible faces.

Javier is right behind his wife, grilling and turning meat and peppers and onions for tacos but he stops to turn to me.

“So what about it? Gonna go back to modelling jobs or still trying to sell those pictures of yours?”

I pick up the plate, succulent steam flowing from Apsara’s noodles into my nostrils. “No, done with the first and working on the second. I’ll figure it out.” I dole out ten dollars, glad for change.

“And we’ll put a few pounds back on for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll help out if you need it.”

He gives his head an affirmative nod and his dark eyes fill with an odd mixture of compassion and gentle mirth. I want to take their photographs: hustling side by side in early mornings and into late nights, the joking and running into each other and cussing and stealing kisses. They’re life being lived on maximum volume, quick to respond, full of enthusiasm, cooking a way of life and an offering of affection.

“You got what it takes, little sister,” Apsara says, leaning in the open window. “I know you make it. Your dream life. Look us, we get it done, so too you, Lily.”

Tears arise hot behind my eyes but I shoot her a grateful smile and head back to my spot, the fragrance of noodles and veggies a rich perfume. I thought I wasn’t even hungry but I had thought I wasn’t lonely, either.

“Hey, you lookin’ so good!” The whistler gets up and ambles over. “Got a number?”

“It’s not available, just move on.”

He makes a sour face, as if he put his hand in the shimmering water and got stung.  “You got sass, my oh my!” he says but takes off to catch up with his friends.

True enough, I’ve shown it all: sass, melancholy, wide-eyed surprise, riotous excitement, wild fierceness, seductiveness, tender innocence–you name it, I can locate each and work it into my face and my limbs as fast as demanded. But today I feel tired, vulnerable, transparent to the world. Just like yesterday.

Except for that early phone call. Even the persistent ring sounded official and yet I hung back, unwilling to find out who was on the other line. It wasn’t a familiar number.

“Lily here; hello?”

“Herb Winters. We talked last month, remember? Meet me at the food cart, that Mexican and Thai one by the park in an hour. I like it for lunch sometimes.”

I ate half my food when my stomach began to balk. I wanted to leave before Mr. Winters arrived. His voice was devoid of clues as to whether he had good news or bad. That might mean exactly that: indifference. The worst sort of response to baring one’s soul. No one has ever seen my photos up close in person except for two people: my oldest friend and then Neal. It took all I had of small courage to take my portfolio to his gallery. Leave it there for his scrutiny. When I didn’t hear anything after two weeks, then three and four, I knew I had made a serious miscalculation. I hoped Mr. Winters would be open to my work because I admire what he hangs in Winters’ Photographic Arts Gallery: pictures exposing human foibles; scenes of ordinary life so vivid with insight, perspective; moments captured that revealed deeper truth; such layers of texture and form and hue.

If my photography has any true power, it will hold onto one millisecond of life that renders it visible to many, each person bringing with them their history and inquiries, emotions and intuition. A slice of life is brought close not entirely by me in a blink of focus, a suspension of time–but also by the vision others bring to the result. Their eyes see with mine. And I want that intersection to be transformative for them. I’m not sure I want to invoke anything except attentiveness, an experience of all else falling away so the one standing before my visual notations knows some of what I observed and felt, then adds adds his and her embroidering to it.

Exploration can begin that easily. I want us all to be witnesses to lives we carry and lead. To say: I am here; I acknowledge this moment, feel this life force move, regenerate.

And what else is there? A series of truths to absorb and share. I think about all this every day now. About how much I want to make pictures, have them in shows. Put them in print. Hope others emerge from the seeing with a greater sense of life’s density and transparency, too. I guess what I want is to find each essence, then be a person who will tell her truth.

I tried to explain this to Neal. He found me contradictory–“A foxy model longing to be profound?” he teased. I was thought ridiculous with my desire to create something more worthy. Change the ways we know the world, even for even one person? No, not this pretty woman.

“Entertain them,” he said, “that’s exactly what every one wants and that is my aim. Distraction–not being more present in this miserable world.”

I slipped away without answering, the moment emptying me of it.

I have never been very religious in ways I suppose I might be, but photography is a kind of conduit to God. Through my cameras I begin to discover what makes things as they are. The mysterious otherness of each perceived creation shows me a holy Presence. Stillness, astonishment, awe, grace: all I could otherwise lose possesses me with magic. I feel as if caught inside the perfect whorl of time, a still point where everything is unified. Makes sense or may, one day. I feel rent and made whole all at once.

This I could never experience as the posed subject of a camera, as a person to oggle, study or use as a vehicle to advertise material goods. To design an identity that was as foreign to me as my cohorts’ (including Neal’s) hunger for wealth and public adulation. My beauty was a destination for many; for me, simple DNA. Then a reckoning. Then a barrier. But I will define myself through and beyond these. Be a human being who does, not only who is.

I shred the paper napkin in my hands, look at my watch, sip the chilled bubble tea. Herb Winters is late. Nerves jiggle my leg and foot.

Javier is wiping sweat from his forehead with his plaid-shirted forearm, fists full of cooking tools. The lunch crowd lines up, then disperses. Some shift their weight as they check the menu, others stand with arms crossed, patient. A moving tableau of color and form. I reach for my camera and start to shoot, get up and move quietly, my old friends unaware, lunch people shuffling and taking places at tables. The high sun is clear, golden in the autumn coolness, an element that competes with the faces, then complements expressions rippling one to another. A wave of fascination for my eye.

Apsara looks up, past me, her eyes locked on the far treeline, perhaps, and she is turning luminous, black hair almost sparking, her mouth a ripe berry as happiness gathers and she turns toward Javier. He slips his arms about her, pulls her close so their foreheads meet. Another customer arrives, waits, rubbing his tired neck as he watches such big love. But there are so many aromatic choices for lunch. He speaks up. They laugh. My camera finds them all somehow exquisite and I take them in, fill up with images as they are framed and snapped, spellbound.

A shadow splays itself across my path.

“Lily Rossiter?”

I look up. It is Mr.Winters. He has my portfolio under his arm.

We find our way back to my picnic table but it is full up now, so we walk.

“I have spent good time studying your work. I’ve begun to see what you’re doing.”

“Yes? You have?”

He’s a big man, has a girth that is not enviable but he walks with a long, easy stride. I match his steps.

He nods. His beard is more silver than black I see now, his face more lined. It is a good, open face, the sort that’s both distinguished and capable of humor. My heart takes off and I wait for his final report.

“You want to love everything and everyone. The longing is there, the care.”

I steal a glance at him but he is not looking my way. What he says is true, I realize. I feel my insides have been exposed.

“But not everything is lovable, not everyone commands the valor of it.”

“Maybe so… I hope otherwise. I know there’s much more to taking pictures than beautiful design or engaging people or other creatures.”

He says nothing as we enter the park. We’re walking faster. The birds are chorusing and kids are playing basketball; there’s a woman with a red and white striped dress on and she’s reading under trees. I want him to just tell me–that it isn’t going to happen, he doesn’t find my attempts at photography commendable yet; I must work and study harder. Maybe he’s a man like my father, wanting me to wake up and get back to real life, that making art, honoring life and giving it my heart needs to stop before I make a fool of myself.

“You have a lot to learn, Lily Rossiter, but you have both eye and courage, I suspect, to do this. I want to hang a few of your photographs soon. You have much more to do to prepare for inclusion in my next show, ‘Discovery: Works of Rising Photographers’.”

I am about to burst with fear. “I know I need education or a mentor but I had to take a chance. Maybe you can tell me what to improve…wait, hold on…you want my photographs?”

Mr. Winters takes my hand, presses it between both of his thick, warm palms. “I think you have a gift. Let’s see what happens. I’ll call to set up a formal meeting.”

“Thank you… so much.” It comes out a hoarse whisper.

He heads for the Tacos ‘n Thai food cart. I’m standing by the merry-go-round with my portfolio so put it under a bush and hop on, push off from the ground so it starts to spin and gathers speed, and the sunshine is velvet on my skin and the breeze is sweetness and then children call out and jump on. We turn, turn, turn and there’s laughter and squealing. I lie back, let all my mad hair go and it flings itself over the dusty earth like a brazen, happy flag of victory.

 

Rescued by Rilke

DSCN6412

Saturday night, the rain less a deluge and more a tuneful patter. I am sitting with my grey tabby, Dickens, and reading poets Denise Levertov and Louise Gluck and just finishing a perfect poem, “Autumn” by Rilke. And the phone rings. I ignore it. I am reading the four stanzas for the fourth time because they break my heart in a way that floods me with tenderness, even joy. I want to feel it completely. What can I say? I’m a therapist but my inclination is toward mysticism. The beauty of life was shaken up long ago but still I see it and reach for it.

The phone keeps ringing, jarring the quietude, until the voice mail takes over. I read again each line, then close my eyes. Dickens sleeps or pretends to as rain drums on the awning of the window. It is the kind of night I wait for, when everything is comforting. Meaningful without being hard. All I need is a mug of tea and a shortbread cookie so I ease myself off the couch, Dickens stretching gracefully, hind legs to front paws.

I stop at the phone on the way to the kitchen and check the voice mail. Nothing. I rarely answer the landline but I can’t give it up. It is my business line, the one that fields after-hour calls from the office, intercepts fundraisers and records appointment reminders. The kettle boils as I read a few pages of Levertov, then add a tea bag that releases peppermint, cinnamon, and ginger, along with catnip and other delights. Dickens will poke his nose into the cooling steam.

I am settling down with Hirsch, a new poet, when the phone rings again. I hesitate, get up to check the number. Same unknown number as before. Wait to see if there is a message left this time. There is not. I sit down and resolve to ignore it, turn to the first page of the new book.

Dickens is unsettled; he smells the catnip or maybe he feels restless after so much napping with me. Rainfall has started to drum harder; rivulets stream from the black and white awning, all the way down to the ground which is at a near-flood stage. I watch as headlights from cars suffuse them with brilliance. I am sleepy. Tea beckons. Dickens walks along the back of the couch and finally sits, but stretches his neck out, catches a whiff of my tea.

The jangling of the phone dissipates my reverie so I get up and grab the receiver.

“Hello?”

Silence except for rain in the background.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

Not even a breath released. I start to hang up.

“Wait, don’t hang up, it’s Renee.” Her voice is low and rich, slow to move. Thick honey. “Maynard’s friend. He gave me your number.”

I mentally run through my client list and cannot recall a Renee. Maynard. Did he ever mention a Renee? No. But Maynard Gentilly, the trombone player with MS and too many bottles of bourbon, is a long-term client.

“Yes, Maynard…he referred you? I’m so sorry, you’ll need to call the office on Monday. The voice mail message gives that information. If it is an emergency–”

“Well, I’m not sure it’s all that. But it’s something. Something big, bigger than me. You’re Martha Berring, right?”

“Marta. Marta Berringer. Do you have the right number? Renee…what is your last name now?”

“Marta, Martha, either way you’re the one. It’s about Elias and Sarita. My kids. They seem to be in trouble and I don’t know what to do. Maynard, he said you could help me out. I think they got with that guy Arnie Z., runs so much around here, you know”–her voice softens to a whisper–“drugs and stuff.”

I glance at Dickens sniffing my tea delicately. “Look, you have the wrong number. You might call the police.” I frown at him when he taps the mug with his paw. “Are you safe? Can you make that call if needed?”

“No, no, no police! Just someone to check things out. You know, see what’s up. You do that, I know, Maynard told me you’re very observant, he pays you good money to get the details and you work pretty fast. He said I’d better call. But that’s all I need, really. Information. I’ll take over from there. It will be better when I know.”

“Renee…what’s your last name?” I write down the two alleged kids’ names on the note pad by the phone. “I’m not a private detective. People come to my office and talk about problems. Issues in their lives. I try to help them make better sense of things, heal from difficult experiences. Recover from addiction. Maybe that’s why he gave you my number. You mentioned drugs. Do you want help with drug problems?”

“I can’t come to your office. I don’t have a drug problem! I should never have left my apartment. Cold here.” Renee coughed hard. “Elias, he was gone a week, then Sarita took off after him in the Buick. Then they both… just…gone. They’re kids, Martha, just kids….good kids who turned the wrong corner.”

My sleepy mind stands at attention. Kids disappearing, not good. But I need more; she is very distraught. I take the note pad and pen with me, then remove the tea from Dickens and lean back into the couch. Dickens settles once more on my lap. The wind comes up and the awning riffles, making a slapping sound. I grab a woolen throw, toss it over Dickens and my lap.

“Your kids… that is worrisome. How old are they, Renee?”

“Sixteen, seventeen. They took to the streets over summer. June, it was early summer 2013, no, it’s 2014. Right? Right. Now school’s started they’ve stayed out late, never do see them anymore. They fell into the wrong crowd, you know, drugs, do nothing but hang out. Sarita, she’s not like that, she’s smart, she’s got talent. Elias, well, he’s his daddy all over but he could be different, learn a trade, make good money. But they’re just… gone, I tell you! I called because I don’t know who or what else, oh, hell, I don’t know anything, anymore, it gets all mixed up…”

I hold the mug under my chin, warmth spreading to my cheeks and ear lobes. The ginger and mint perk me up more. I’m hungry but forgot the shortbread. In stead, I start to jot things down. “They’re gone, you feel, for good…disappeared? Or they’re gone right now and you don’t know quite where?”

“That’s the thing, I need someone to find out. I called you because you do that, figure things out. Maynard says he trusts you with his life. His life. Sarita and Elias, they left last month and nothing since then. Not a word from them, no one answers their cell phones. I have called a thousand times, Martha. I can’t even leave a message.” Her voice trembles, an undulation of sound that treis to be clear words. “I–I last saw them… in the plaza. They were running past Cal’s Kitchen. I heard it then, all that screaming, those shots like a war starting up. They kept running, running even though I yelled their names, told them to stop! I fell, caught my head on a bench, then got up a few minutes later. They were just…gone. Maynard, he said to I need to lie low now, take it easy but I can’t, I have to find them. You can do this, right?”

“Wait. Gunshots? You heard gunshots in the plaza, is that right? And your kids were there, you watched them run.”

My mouth feels dry despite having sipped tea as Renee talked. I now recall news on television, two weeks ago. Drug house raided. Full of customers. People ran, scattered when shots were fired. Three dead, three on the run. Drug dealer apprehended. But who was it that died? Who disappeared?

“They were there, ran, then gone.” A crying out that was more stifled scream than crying. “What can I do? Where can I look, Martha? They say it’s too late. Maynard even says so!”

The blanket is pulled close around my shoulders and Dickens leaves, no longer intrigued by catnip-dosed tea. My vacated lap is chilly. I shiver. Why did I answer the phone? What can I possibly do for this woman?

Three dead, three runners. If Elias and Sarita were there they were either shot or are in jail or off to points unknown. Renee is terribly lost, too. Grief has throttled her and won’t let go of her mind, body or soul. Maynard knew this. Gave her my number so she could get help. But when the office recording came on, she dialed this number, hoping I would answer.

“Renee, what’s your last name? Number? So I have it in case I need to call you.”

Silence. Perhaps she is looking for her number on her cell phone. I can hear her rummaging in a bag or purse. “Ostrowski. It’s 772-2821. No, 774-3821 or… what is it? What did Sarita say it was changed to? Maybe 772-8321? I don’t know her number anymore!”

“Renee. Listen a minute. Will you do that? Sit down wherever you are. Hear me now. I don’t need your children’s numbers. I would like yours. Maybe I can help you.”

I know I can check my caller ID but I want her to be present right now, focus, alleviate the growing hysteria. I hear her warm voice slip into tears. The phone is held away, perhaps set down, and she is inside sorrow, that place where darkness sifts through all losses and leaves nothing unturned. Pain rises to the surface and forms a bright wound that drains the ache.

I know so well this sound. It replicates, echoing through my dreams. It careens off my office walls. It can tangle my thoughts when I am trying to pursue a simple, good time with friends, pull me back when I let down my guard with the man I am seeing. It can reel me back to those steep ledges where life is perched above a deep valley as I am asked to witness one more person’s hidden truth. Unspeakable, heart-stopping things. But I do know how to step aside–this is my work, discovering trouble and extricating those mired in it– and let anger and hurt run like a river, let it spill from the person who cannot hold it inside any longer. I can be a very still island amid drowning emotions. The world’s mothers and fathers cry out all night and day for their children, for themselves. I can only pray for this patchwork human world.

I hear the need underlining Renee’s voice. She is floundering, becoming more weary.

“I cannot give you more than this, my children are gone, my life is an empty sack, Martha, emptied of everything. I cannot find them in my desperation. It is terrible, terrible, the awful longing.”

“Where are you?”

“Wh-what’s that? Me? I’m at the plaza. Hoping they come back.”

“Wait there. Please don’t leave for a few minutes. Alright?”

I should never do this, not ever, leave my home when work hours are done and then go to someone who is a stranger and there are so many unanswered questions. I have not done this before. But tonight is different. I have read poetry that opened me up, exposed me to abiding Spirit again. And I cannot find a way to staunch the bleeding of this woman’s heart by taking notes. It spills into my life, no matter inconvenience or common sense. I leave my books and Dickens the cat and steaming sweet tea. Leave my safety zone. I hurry down the street in dauntless rain and take a near-empty bus. I get off at the plaza.

Renee is there, alone, sitting on a  bench in the covered bus stop. I know it is she. Clutching a phone to her chest. She looks up, wordless, head shaking back and forth. I am a tall woman in a navy trench coat with long wet hair stuck to my face, tennis shoes and jeans soaked, my glasses beaded with water. I take them off and look at her. See her soft, round, lined face. Her darkened blue eyes, the creases in her forehead. Her anguish a mark upon her.

“I’m Marta, remember?” When she doesn’t respond I start again. “Hello, Renee. I’m Martha Berring.”

She stands up, throws her arms around me, her life turning into sand in an hourglass, her body passing through my grasp, so I grab her under the arms. Grip her back until my fingers hurt. I ask for help and the rain falls like stars tossed down. The night is a cloak pulled about us, taming outrage and despair. We are standing together and rock and rock and the weeping late autumn air gathers about us like the Breath of God.

 

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(NOTE: We all know this world is far too full of sorrow. So today I read poetry by Rainier Maria Rilke, a favorite poet. I came across “Autumn” again, absorbed it, and then this story began to form. Please find the poem; read it yourself. Especially the very last two lines. You will be glad you did.)