Wednesday’s Passing Fancy/Nonfiction: In the Kitchen…and Dreaming of the Woods

I vowed decades ago to not cook as a general rule again –just a few basic dishes–unless it was crucial to get in there and have at it. Or, too, if I felt deeply moved to cook, say, for a very special occasion. My culinary activity and knowledge are pared way down. I’m talking about chili, spaghetti with sausage plus salad and steamed broccoli; long simmered beef stew; meatloaf with potatoes and green beans plus salad; or a dinner salad with a tuna mixture on top. You get the idea. I guess this is at the core of any cooking ease, but I worked harder at it to feed five kids, a husband and any others who straggled in. But I never liked it much. It was rush rush, get each dish going at the right time, get it on the table, hot, before they are out the door again. But I managed–the kids set the table, cleaned up a bit with me– and we almost always had a sit-down dinner with everyone.

The problem was, I was also reading a book or thinking of a poem or answering a child’s endless questions–I was not attentive in the correct manner. Which made for burned meals more often than I care to admit. It wasn’t so important to me, personally–I wanted the family to get adequate nutrition. My husband liked to cook some but he was often gone on business trips. It was simply get to it, get cooking or starve us all. (And these days if he isn’t here, it’s likely sandwiches, salads, soup, take out.)

My attitude likely has something to do with the fact that food and I have never gotten along so well. I have digestion disorders long treated with many medicines that only partially help. So, I have not craved food like most. A swift amendment: I did (do) crave all kinds of good food, but was/am not excited about eating=pain=suffering that occurs so often. I can’t even describe the heady longings that come over me for spicy Indian food or new Thai dishes or just great fresh salsa piled on a ton of tortilla chips along with a fat bean burrito. But I am cautious; I need to be. So I am used to milder and specific foods and less, not more. Rice and bananas, applesauce and toast are my Plan B pals–sort of like baby food, I know. But a back up that works. Some days a pear seems a rare luxury; I am in heaven as I sink my teeth in. But it’s just how it is, as if someone with a permanent lisp or chronic pain or itchy eyes and terrific sneezes around cats when your spouse adores cats–and you love each other, too. One manages the issue and keeps on living.

In any case–not to put you off, but most folks assume everyone loves to cook and eat during holidays–in any case: today I was in the kitchen, ready to go, despite longing for the woods, which I must have close to me every day.

I baked gingerbread cakes. Two. My plan was four, but after the two took half the afternoon, I said that was enough for one day. I am a tad rusty. I’ll consider more tomorrow. These are to share with our family in the area (to take to them, as they aren’t coming over). For the first half hour I was actually relaxed…even happy, mixing and measuring and greasing the pans. Very unusual to act as if I knew what I was doing and feel it’s true. But wouldn’t you know it, I got distracted by thinking about the amount of ginger the recipe listed, how strong that would be on the tongue, then no cloves anywhere to be found, only cinnamon and ginger. What would be best to do?

I had to research things again. And then got off track. So many options for basic gingerbread. When I got back to measuring and stirring, I looked in the huge bowl with half-blended ingredients. Then at the small amount of flour mixed with spices in a littler bowl. And I was suddenly not sure how much flour I’d already measured or how much had been already mixed in.

Remember, this is double the original recipe. It was a lot of flour and molasses and butter and other stuff. It took work to use the hand mixer, more work to use the wooden spoon. And even more flour had to go in–or was it a lot more?

Then came that seizure of uncertainty, the kind where I just want to run away and cry out. I am a reasonable grandmother; I do not need to panic over any cake. I need to take stock. But this can happen. I’ve been known to even throw in the towel occasionally, as this is what cooking can do: stare me down, threaten to defeat me. Especially if it is to be a special offering. Not born with natural cooking talents, I’m usually determined, organized. So to start like I did, relaxed and waltzing about the kitchen…it was stunning to be stopped by my own neglect/ forgetfulness/interest in research… if not actually baking.

My husband, trying to help (I think), said that next time I ought to measure out all the dry ingredients first and then… I tried to not glare at him. Well, I do know that, didn’t do it, thought all was well. Confidence in the kitchen is a dangerous thing for those like me. I wonder over the fact that so many people feel kitchen creativity is akin to tying nice new shoes with appropriate and attractive shoelaces–and there, good, off we go.

But words–I know how to call up, choose and measure those okay. So I talked to myself more sweetly and thought of my children whom I love beyond any sort of measure. Then looked at the cake batter and let Marc stir it a bit and give his opinion. I decided to go forward in my own way, to get it done. It got poured into pans and cooked in the oven, its spicy fragrance like forgiveness for any mistakes.

I then made the lemon sauce. He wanted to help with lemon peel grating but no, I grated, I squeezed with my bare hands then measured the juice, then stirred the saucepan and said to myself, This lovely, light, partly opaque sauce will be so good on that warm gingerbread. Just like my mother’s always was.

Oh, yes. Like my mother’s always was. Served richly warm with the sweet/tart lemony sauce and a small side of vanilla ice cream on pretty china plates, with water goblets shining in the final afternoon light, and a tablecloth so colorful and smelling of freshness made better with a steaming iron. And I knew she cared for us all; she made the effort, gave us beauty and good food along with good manners and a penchant for laughter and tale telling and so much more.

So that’s why I was in the kitchen today. Why I just stepped out on the balcony for a time, looking into the woods, feeling that magnetic pull to the trails. But then said no, not now. I can walk tomorrow, after I eat a bit of food Marc will mostly make. And in the morning we’ll chat with family over Zoom as so many will. And I’m daily relieved we’re well and doing nicely–no one has lost their mind, no one has died, o thank God…. Some days are much better than okay. Some not so acceptable. I some mornings do not easily rise from the warm covers, that naïve but tempting shelter. Then remember how much I get to learn and write, take pictures and read, and the walks and hikes and people to love. The ineffable mystery of it all which keeps me rising, anyway.

Life seems more moving and wonderful to me, if also more tender, fragile. The days are like a delicate span of a spider’s web strung with drops of shimmering beads of rain, and swaying in sunlight and wind and into a length of darkness. We live it a moment only, then another and another. It can be torn away without mercy. We can repair much of what is ripped or broken. Not all, no, surely not. It is this humanness we share, a clarion bell calling us to action or to repose, to deeper acceptance or to persistent re-creation. To get up, to be. Connect.

Meanwhile, in the coming ordinary day, another gingerbread will be made. Or not. Maybe I will add only scones. They also will go to children and grandchildren. Because I do care to make things in the kitchen for them.

My son and his wife are making turkey dinner to take to the streets, the homeless. That gives me pause. How dare I fuss over gingerbread? Is it shame I feel? No. All of life matters, that’s why I can write about gingerbread. And we do what we can, and do more when we are so moved. It all breaks my heart with its miracles and simplest things, and mends it, too.

Blessings to you and yours. And gratitude for all who have come before us.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Small Meditation on Winter’s Wishes

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

The rain drums, a powerful watery background chorus. It is snowing in nearby Cascade Mountains, and this makes me as happy as the rain music. I am warm and dry. At my feet, a tumbling stack of magazines and catalogs. Mug of tea at hand, I sort them into save/toss piles. The magazines once read must go. I hold back on catalogs. They are an invitation to good cheer and I will sit down with a few later.

They’ve been daily stuffed into the mailbox for weeks, then made the rounds from hands to a spot along a living room wall for leisurely browsing, in good company with a select group of nonfiction books on healing and travel, brushes with death and our wilder (nature-freed) selves. By now, just over a month before Christmas, companies have launched an all-out appeal to our vulnerable selves and skimpy wallets, hoping against hope that businesses will yet profit. Online, too, they try casting the spell. We’re held captive indoors again by threat of illness–and perhaps inclement weather– so we nestle into greater security of home. We wish for something that may comfort and reassure, I’d guess. So it is alright by me that I have one more vividly colored vehicle of wishfulness in my hands. (Except for paper waste, but I recycle them all).

The fact is, I’ve a long habit of delving into catalogs and for more time than sensible. It began in childhood, as it does with many. I took them aside– usually it was J.C. Penny or Sears–kept them unmarred for the moment when I’d thumb through each page, check off items I liked best with pencil or pen, turn down each requisite corner a tidy triangle to note their placement. And then a repeat until all my hopes were noted–despite knowing that Santa Claus or family would not be indulging me much. My parent’s were thrifty to the point of penny pinching, reflecting their generation’s trauma from the Depression again.

In any case, the looking gave rise to pleasure. (I liked all the details about colors, sizes, materials, usages–it appealed to my dream of becoming a reporter, I think, like Brenda Starr in the comics; it satisfied my need for specificity.) I felt something different from greed, though as a kid I wanted that blue Schwinn bike more than anything, new white leather figure skates–such extravagances– or more Nancy Drew books plus a clean new notebook and pencil. It was a simpler thing than desire that I felt. Magic. It was being transported into a realm other than the usual, a free jaunt through a quasi-fantasy land where everyone was smiling, all seemed unbreakable and guaranteed fun. I was a kid so I could afford time away from banality of chores and pressures of life. Catalogs, then, could be gateways to possibilities.

I kept getting them in the mail as I grew up, different ones reflecting my age added to the usual family types. I’d suspected after the internet there’d cease to be “wish books” printed for customers, but no, they kept coming. And decades later I look and wonder: would those narrow-wale, pewter-colored corduroy jeans hold up several years? The teal sweater be good from fall to spring? What about that unusual woven wild grass wreath with a straw bow? And the front outdoor mat is wearing out…perhaps an abstract design in warm hues? The things that are for sale out there astonish me. How can we want or need so much? Most of it appears irrelevant to me. I glance, move on to items that hold my attention well. T-shirts. Jewelry. Art. Good cotton socks. Books.

Still, catalogs have provided a practical means to an ends. I’ve tended to shop online part of the time for Christmas in addition to perusing tons of glossy pages, and shopping in-store the other part, often at small businesses. With five children and seven grandchildren to carefully consider, I need all the help I can get. Despite being a creative person and taking pleasure in giving, I’m not the most original gift chooser. I fuss over each, hoping it’s worth the money and will give the receiver enough satisfaction. We all hope for that…nothing worse than opening a gift one doesn’t need or like. I value unique ideas from shopkeepers as well as sources like Etsy, for example, or art galleries and independent booksellers– and occasionally big box stores with dependable varieties.

But then came 2020.

As the temperature lowers, I realize more each day it’s different this year, and not only because shopping in person will be tough at best, nonexistent at worst as the virus spirals out of control. Everything has begun to feel upside down this pre-holiday season. Things have also altered since my husband’s position was scrubbed from the company hierarchy in spring; a brutal streamlining due to decrease in business. Gift shopping, then, is not a high priority. Or maybe not even on the list.

Still, I gather catalogs at the dining table or easy chair or at bedtime bed—turn pages slowly, pen in hand to mark away. This lifetime habit is not going away easily. It doesn’t seem to bother me that I can’t enjoy a little extravagance. I still study interesting options, ruffle the paper and inhale its distinctive scent, hear the light, dry whisper of pages turning, feel its cool slickness–all part of an easy congeniality that’s become harder to find. It may even be more pleasant than other years. I don’t need to worry about appropriate gifts yet still enjoy the displays, and think of each family member fondly. Okay, I do love to buy things for people. Just…Not. Right. Now.

One yearly obsession is the Harry & David catalog. I usually order with some glee. An Oregon-based business, they offer healthier if traditional snack options (good cheeses, crackers, nut mixes) and sweet indulgences. But mainly it’s their beautiful, luscious fruit. Oh, those H & D pears– unlike any other I’ve tasted, sweet and juicy, velvety to tongue. It’s been a tradition to buy a pear box for everyone–and they’re always delighted.

But the next magnetic pull is to the toddler gifts. We have a Portland store called Finnegan’s, a very good toy store. My, our girl power twins are getting big and smart. I can nearly ditch common sense trying to not buy them goodies. Especially this year. I must use my restraint; they are not even two yet.

However, it’s not just holiday shopping that lures me. It’s the weather and how it turns. From six months of bright warm days to six of darkened, chilled, sodden ones, one starts to bundle up some. Farewell, capris and sandals and filmy tops. I love my jeans and black ankle boots, the worn waterproof trail shoes (I think the soles carry a little dirt from last year).

My Michigan childhood pointed the way to the lifelong plan: the temp goes down and the hunt was on for itchy woolen school attire. Multiple layers. And boots, mittens/gloves, hats, scarves: snow gear. A new toboggan would have made me more happy. I eagerly anticipated building snow forts in high drifts, and trudging through uninhabited Stark’s Nursery behind our house with my trusty sled in tow, setting out on an Arctic exploration…how far to the ice floe? Anyway, I’d begin perusing the pages, narrowing down the best options, then (as I got bigger) my mother and I often embarked on shopping trips to bigger cities,. Another pleasant diversion from the usual daily regimen, and studying, practicing my cello and working on figures for my skating class, and doing chores. Like shoveling heavy snow.

Preparation for changes of seasonal clothing happened four times a year, more or less into my twenties. Thus, this past September when I spotted an L.L.Bean hooded Primaloft jacket slashed from $189 to $29.99, I jumped on it. (Maybe it was last year’s color or there was a slight alteration in design.) Our winters are mild compared to those in my Michigan youth–almost no snow at 800 feet–but that doesn’t mean it’s ever balmy. It hit 39 degrees once already. So I pictured myself wearing the jacket instead at the wind-howling coast or on forest hikes half the year…and gifted myself. I was so excited to wear it at the beach, I basically advertised it on social media–despite it being a basic, warm jacket…well, simple things excite me.

That’s how it happened growing up. I’ve had to alter the habit. This year, only fabulous wool felt slippers to defend my feet against this west-facing place in the trees (by Glerups)–last year my toes fought against potential frostbite by nightfall– and then that jacket. I have other jackets. But this one was better. (I am not being paid to promote anything despite how it may look….that cheesy smile and all) I was trying to say in the pictures: Enjoy what’s good for you–nature, exercise! Get outdoors and love life now! while showing off my new jacket. Not as stylish as they come, but snuggly. Since I can get cold fast, this is a primo review.

Alas, I’ve long had a small addiction to certain outdoor or sports wear brands–so, too, catalogs. L.L.Bean, Land’s End, REI, Cabela’s, Columbia Sportswear. Thank goodness for sales. And pages to study, finding anticipation for more adventures. Some day. Any pleasant image can help these days.

It may seem superficial but it’s relaxing to browse catalogs. Kids’ educational games and toys; tools; electronics of many sorts; books/book lovers’ curios; home goods (ah, good linens and towels); food goodies; flowers in bunches; spring seed packets (dreams begin with small seeds); music and movies; Vermont old country store stuff (random); varieties of flours for baking; arts and crafts supplies; sports equipment; papers and pens; art prints; clothing–so on and so forth.

And it can fuel my curiosity, especially those from, say, the Museum of Modern Art or National Geographic Society. I may discover new things such as how a rechargeable tool is multiple-use, or a newly-spotted squid moving among enchanting undersea forms and colors. Or, too, that some youth-touting facial serum made from seaweed and other “organics” can lower my precious cash reserves by $250–give me splashes of cold spring water. I admit to an interest, however, in perfumes. The unusual olfactory-awakening combinations; scents created with all natural ingredients, and how they’re described so poetically: who wouldn’t want to wear “Dance of the Moonlit Sea”? Only, in Italian. Smells that much better in my mind. (And how can I get a job making up those names?)

By far the best are book catalogs which have me riveted for several sittings. A new book by an unknown but intriguing author. Look–a whole new genre! Dare I order this or that? I dare not. I have access to a free library; we can put things on hold now and pick them up… But I can look and consider. I make a wish list, file it in a notebook for safekeeping for the day when I can wander for hours in the intoxicating maze of Powell’s Bookstore downtown again.

I admit holiday catalogs impact me in a less festive manner now. I know I won’t be ordering much. I get excited for one person or another, then remember this year is a lean one. An isolated one. But I am not that crafts-y, so what next? Local nurseries for…something pretty…I was considering a lovely birch/pine centerpiece for a daughter (or us) when it hit me harder: no one will see it in person but Marc and me this year. Well, it’s still attractive. It still would smell woodsy-delicious.

I may get it for daughter, Aimee, anyway. Family love comes to us at no price; we still can share it one way or another. But, too, the new jacket will be donned in chilly dampness for years. My new slippers will do the job. I maintain that it’s good to have catalogs for occasional supplemental semi-reading. These are neutral or amusing moments we can spend that offer us choices. They bring back a wistfulness for what we want to believe were kinder days, perhaps. It’s healthy to daydream some. And it’s a bonus to find a great sale, no matter the time of year.

Back in the day…

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Benevolence

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

“Bunny…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we talk, Bunny…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “I’m an interpreter.”

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

“A polyglot.”

“You speak and understand how many?”

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

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

“You meant to design things.”

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

“Ah, that all sounds good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, she didn’t talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tutor Mesor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She believed, anyway.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that day was coming soon.

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

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

And you for coming with your father.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wait for more understanding.”

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

It was this way:

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

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

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

And it came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zaran comes, they intoned. And it was so.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Musical Family, Ensemble and Solo

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As wildfires in our county (in Oregon, so many places) threatened our safety, I got emails from two cousins I hadn’t heard from in years. They were checking in on me with concern and care from their homes in New Mexico. Shortly after came a package from one of my cousins. She’d found CDs from the 1950s and early 1960s of my hometown high school orchestra, which my father taught and conducted. I am not on the recordings; this was before I was an adolescent. But a couple of my older sisters’ cello and bassoon solos are noted. There is Gershwin, Dvorak, Bach, Mozart; pieces from Bizet, Handel, Tchaikovsky and more on the playlists. I haven’t listened yet, just gazed at them. I know the orchestra will sound very good–it won a fine reputation all over Michigan from the fifties on. I played my cello in Midland High School orchestra in the mid-to-late sixties. First seat, then second, then…well, I stopped rigorously practicing and competing with others by my senior year. And I was singing more and more.

What the CDs did, nonetheless, was reawaken memories of my family’s commitment to and love of music, the ways it shaped us. Though I don’t know Randie or Sally well now, I once did know them better–to love them was to love the music in their lives, too. My extended family enjoyed many reunions in Missouri where our fathers were raised as I grew up. Inevitably there were swapped music stories, and soon people played–just as we did in our homes if in different states from very early ages.

Randie has been a professional violinist and teacher all her adult life. Her sister, Sally, has made a career as a professional cellist. Their father, my Uncle Ralph, was a flutist and a composer with many published works, and a university professor. There are other musicians in the family–an opera singer and professional choir members, many instrumentalists who have played professionally. Nieces, nephews and on and on–we all played or sang, even without monetary reward. It hardly seemed we could shift the central focus from music. Not that folks wanted to, anyway; it was a major fixture of life.

So I am glad to hear from my Uncle Ralph’s daughters once more. Sally played cello in Bergen, Norway’s symphony for many years, then she played in New York, LA and who knows where else. Randie lived in Seattle, (where my cellist sister lived til the last two years of her life, so they were in touch often). These cousins seemed bigger than life when I was young–and, in fact, are six feet tall as were or are my uncles, father and brothers. (I am 5 ft. 2.5; perhaps I was 5 ft. 4, once…) But they were lovely and smart, as well as very talented.

We, as happens as kids grow up and move, lost touch. A childhood memory I have is of convening in my Grandfather and Grandmother Guenther’s white house with its back garden and front porch. We shared blankets on the living room floor at night, giggling and talking quietly, ran about and played games for a couple of days, music a bit less compelling under age 10. Our fathers made music; Grandfather shared thoughts and books(and sometimes his writings with me, an honor) and our grandmother cooked huge meals that we ate around a crowded dining room table. The last adult memory of my cousins and I together was for my Uncle Ralph birthday in Seattle. It was his 90th birthday, and Sally and Randie played a fine duet for the celebration. Elegant and aged Uncle Ralph sat quietly listening in a wheelchair, and he was so pleased we all came that could. (My Aunt LaVonne, his wife, was an excellent pianist.)

Musicians, then–even in my home town where most of my friends played instruments or sang–informed much of my life. Performing issues or goals, discussions of music-related topics, time filled with this passion and the increasing accomplishments. All four of my siblings played one or two instruments and later made money at it. Dad was a violinist and violist, an arranger of music, a conductor and teacher, piano tuner, instrument repairer and appraiser, and more. He was a man who was intimidating even as I found him mysterious at times and charming. I watched him often, head bent over a book or a musical score he studied for an upcoming performance. It was clear he had much on his mind, more to accomplish every day. He was certain about what mattered to him: music, providing for his family and God being highest on the list. In fact, that may have been the list despite having diverse interests.

One of Dad’s “side jobs” was repairing musical instruments, a fun thing for me if work for him, though he seemed more relaxed doing it. He specialized in violins, violas, cellos and basses, but it was not an unfamiliar sight to see woodwinds propped up–or, as the others, lying rather lifeless on a long table in various states of repair. Occasionally, a brass instrument showed up; his expertise reflected instruments he knew how to play, which were various. Dad counted string instruments his favorites, as far as I knew. But he also played trombone and saxophone in dance bands long before I came into his life–a revelation in my early teens. He even played them once in awhile for certain entertaining performances he participated in, like the City Band he conducted or a high school show which allowed teachers to also perform, called “Rhapsody Rendezvous.

One of my favorite things was to follow him down to the basement. It was like entering a country unto itself, populated by musical devices both beautiful and broken. I would stand at his shoulder. The not unpleasant odor of special glue he dabbed on seams of wooden bodies permeated the cubbyhole he called workshop. The overhead, flex-armed light illuminated a concentrated circle for close work. The room’s corners were swathed in friendly shadows. I sometimes fingered the instruments, admired their shapes and sounds. He got to it but with patience and precision but added very few comments, and mostly to himself. He knew I was there; he asked for pliers, brushes, clamps, just as he asked for tools when he worked on our cars in the driveway. He appreciated both kinds of work and I could be a helper if he needed it. And it was music-related without being music performance.

I loved being with him when he fixed things–it might also be a toaster or a lamp–because he was more accessible, down to earth, then; he could show me interesting problems to be solved and teach me things that weren’t lofty or important in the arts world, but in everyday life. More usually he was a man deep within himself and propelled by clear visions. I used to joke with friends that he seldom knew what I was up to–as long as I practiced my cello (my sister and I both played) and voice lessons, got excellent grades and was respectful, he didn’t notice much unless there was a huge crisis that he could not ignore–Mom took care of those, usually.

It is a gift growing up in a musical family, a joy that in time one realizes is not actually everyone’s experience. And it also could feel like a burden with its mandates to perform and do very well all the time, made more so when Dad intoned and thus imprinted on my brain: “It is a sin to not use a talent.” I doubt he meant to threaten or shame, but to remind me of the blessing of music and other innate abilities. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he might also say in his Bible study voice. But it still landed hard. Otherwise, he was the quintessential gentleman, a dreamy-eyed musician and amateur scholar of history, sciences, classical music and the Bible, a competitive player of many games, and possessed of an inventive bent–but there was no mistaking what he believed and expected. He worked so hard; he expected all of us to do the same, and to excel. To find fulfillment as he sought and often found. To use all the potential we could.

Music was so vital to my life that it truly directed and drove me, enriched and comforted me–and wounded me. I adored the cello my father and I bought together, to my utter surprise, when I was 12. I was moved by its large body pulled close, its resonance and ready responsiveness to placement of fingers and a strong bow across strings with sweeps of channeled emotions. I felt at home with it in my arms and greatly extended by its eloquent speech.

But it was singing that held me captive even more. Opening my mouth and throat and letting sounds smoothly, happily flow. How they could be shaped b y the body and mind to make all the difference in expression. I sang in every theatrical production, choir, and single event that I could. I performed with a trio and a couple of bands. I sang while trying to compose at our baby grand piano– but I dreamed of being a jazz singer, not a classical soloist. Jazz was not much played in our home, and never discussed as an option for us kids to study. Every fiber in my being woke up when I sang; life seemed much better embraced and interpreted. Decoded, even. It was also fun when much of my teen life was not. Human life was somehow magnified, cherished, given infusions of hope and joy with song. Music was, after all and no matter what, the purest form of love. So I believed.

But jazz, folk or pop music certainly was not what Dad planned for his children. He found these largely inferior forms, perhaps even inauthentic musical genres and only now and then did he grudgingly admit that there was other music that could be exceptional. There was one great music and it was classical–despite his playing in dance bands as a college student.

So I was bewildered why he agreed to play piano to accompany me when I sang–or he might even join his voice–old standards. But that was recreational, a relaxing downtime, not something for the finest musicians. It was like we shared a secret admiration of songs like “Stairway to the Stars” and “Embraceable You” and “Spring is here”. He smiled as I sang out, but it was understood that these didn’t quite count in the end, no matter how well I sang. He never deviated from the idea that classical music was meant to enlighten, challenge and enthrall while good popular music was “entertainment”, thus dismissible. I never knew why it had to be that way for him. I kept practicing my art songs, resentfully.

My mother–not a musician but a visual artist/creator/maker– all those years stood at the edges of our intense music making. Yet she watched, listened, intuited much–and gave out quiet praise, applause, was in attendance at all our concerts. She is who made Dad’s career in music reach a higher state. She is who believed in us always when we did not.

One of my bothers did manage to successfully move in another world to play jazz the rest of his life. Gary had a college plan of becoming a psychologist and he was for a few years. But jazz took him with it and that was that. I was thrilled to hear my gifted brother play sax, clarinet, oboe, flute, piccolo with bands in Portland after I moved here, and he sang, as well. He asked me to sing with him a few times–he was convinced I’d do well–but I always declined. By then I was 40, a newly single mother and recently moved to the NW. I hadn’t sung in a very long time. I did not want to disappoint him. Or myself. And, too, I was a little afraid I would fall back in love with singing. I could not afford to trod that route–and he played in bars while I was not about to drink again. I had to get serious about making money to support myself, a daughter and son–to just take care of business.

There had, in fact, been no dreams of being a singer since I was 20– right before my first marriage. I had learned long before how to not tell secrets. Leaning how to not sing was as hard, but just as doable. But to not want to sing? Incredibly hard.

It was a mystery to many who knew me why I left music almost entirely after a childhood and youth of being utterly immersed in it, and also having successes. For awhile I was baffled, but it was easy to blame various circumstances for not supporting easy access to music making. I sang to my babies or when teaching them songs; when alone outdoors; in the shower sometimes like everyone does; and when playing recording artists–comfortable favorites of 1960s, 70s and 80s like Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell; newer jazz singers such as Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and even–dare I say it–the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, whom I still so revere. I was happy when I sang at home in those days still, but alongside the pleasure was sorrow. It was becoming clear that there would be no good opportunities as I became daily more domesticated, less engaged in the arts as I lived out my twenties. As I struggled with more trials and a hope of some victory over demons of abuse and substance use.

I rarely sang for either of my husbands–the first liked my voice but didn’t encourage me; it felt embarrassing to even spontaneously sing out. He was a sculptor; for some reason he enjoyed my occasional cello playing more. Otherwise he liked quietness, didn’t talk much–so liked that I wrote–some poems were used in multi-media shows we did. The second husband liked to sing and play guitar, but he preferred doing it alone, both at home and in coffee houses back then. He didn’t have a desire to sing with me, and it shocked me that even though we worked on good harmonies when he did agree to let me join in, and when we wrote a song or two together, he still wanted to go solo. It didn’t take long to stop trying since my voice was an intrusion on his musical domain. It was fine that I played my cello, again–that was another thing altogether.

It is possible that people give up what they love because they get worn out by failing to get what they want or need. I can’t blame my spouses, really. But once married, I didn’t often live where musical options or performances were well accessible. And soon there wasn’t time with a growing family and husbands often gone for longer and longer for work. I stopped singing even at home as children kids grew up–they’d sing over me as kids do without thinking anything of it, or cover their ears when wanting to hear something they desire. I put on their music and sang with them then.

But, really, I began to let go of singing by age 20, when it all got difficult. When it hurt more than gave me happiness. It felt foreign but it was how it was. I was gradually losing the joy of my cello, of song.

Traumatic events can cause people to go mute. Cumulative trauma may have caused me to lose the natural capacity to sing–certainly to be pleased and fulfilled by singing, and finally to believe in the transformative, positive powers of music in the way I did as a child, then youth. Violent or disturbing experiences kept happening one after the other. For me it meant that music–the golden power and instinctual ways of it, the inspirational wonder and bold stories it offered–leaked away from deepest self, my very breath, so that soon I no longer wanted to or even could produce music from my lips. A few years later, when I tried, I wept and so gave it up again. Even in church when I sang familiar, pretty hymns. Maybe I recalled my father told me that to not use a talent was a sin; maybe that haunted me.

It was just as likely I no longer felt worthy of singing. I left music as I had known it because it’s immense mystery and passion had seeped away as I battled with life, learned how to be tougher, to survive alone. It felt like gorgeous, lively waters eroding and then abandoning a riverbed, to leave it it empty and useless. It was a hollowing out.

I sang almost nothing (“Happy Birthday” to loved ones, a holiday tune with others) for over a decade, not when alone, not even a little humming along with songs. It was not in me. My family of musicians made their music, and my children made some music and I listened and was glad of it. But I was no longer a part of that major experience, that special tradition. I was adrift like a castaway, and I steered by sheer instincts more than with my heart. And I got to where I needed to go, finally, one step and a day at a time.

Life went on. Then when I reached my mid-forties there came the day when my youngest daughter, who did sing with a lovely soprano, decided she wanted to join a women’s chorus. She asked me if I would, too. Terrified, I finally agreed. I figured I might be able to sing very quietly if there was a large group. So each week I practiced with the group as I attempted to loosen up, to remember the techniques to sing correctly, as well as enjoy the songs as my eyes scanned musical notations I had only half-recognized, anymore. It got a bit easier each time and it pleased us both that Alexandra and I were singing together. But my throat–my whole body– felt constricted, even sore after each rehearsal. I wanted to sing louder and better, but it was hard to stand there and hear the music, to encourage any sound to come out. I thought, well, I am trying.

Alexandra took voice lessons. I wondered if the right vocal teacher could show me how to recover my lost singing voice. If someone could help heal me. But the usual excuse was that there was not enough money for that, other things mattered more. I was writing as I had always been able to write– stories, poems and memoir. And I was publishing here and there, had found good writing groups. Maybe written language was truly enough–I’d loved stories my whole life, perhaps as much as I had loved music. But more like words and I were kindred spirits/ comrades. Music was…different. After so many years of disciplined effort and a deepening devotion, perhaps I could say I loved writing more. Perhaps. Why then reopen the wound of music? I did try to sing alone, now and then.

But when my mother died (Dad had passed years before) whole songs came to me out of the blue even as I grieved a long while. It was distressing and wonderful that I opened my mouth and they were right there, and I found it a liberation. Why? Maybe the wound was turning to scar tissue at last, and so pain was losing out to joy again. Maybe I was letting go of the burdens and opening my hands to more possibility.

I didn’t become a singer, I didn’t join a fine choir. I just sang a little more. There may not be a clear end to this story. I did sing with another community chorus or two; it became more pleasurable each time. But I learned to sing more in church–the times I don’t want to cry during the moving hymns are more frequent. I did not take voice lessons. I have sung a little at home when alone, along with a CD or the radio, but not often, and not loud. I have sung to my grandchildren. I do not sing with my second husband, who is with me and still sings alone. But–progress. Taking more chances helps incrementally, though my voice sounds rusty to me too often, and songs need to be cajoled and teased, enchanted out of me. I often choke on words or certain notes escape me just enough that I have to stop. But I know I might start again, even if it is in my living room or in the woods.

I am remembering more how it was. In my late teens I stopped competing with others and working to be a classical vocalist. Instead, I let my body move to music and my soul tell a story and tunes welled up to take me with them, then out to the listener–it was for awhile that easy to sing and know happiness was mine fully. And the memory is good, even if the talent was forsaken, the passion turned off for later survival. Sometimes it is better to leave what one loves the most than to slowly starve from hunger for it, the terrible relentless longing. It was what had to be done, I know now, to get on with my life at 19– after another rape, a breakdown and addiction, slow recovery, then a marriage. Discovering the miracle of being a mother and the salvation of putting one’s self quite aside for the sake of beloved others. It could be done, living for good moments, for love again. I found new goals, explored other creative impulses and was glad of remaining passions I have been fortunate to enjoy.

At 70, I have made more peace with what was not and with what is. I see the great benefits of forgiveness of self and others, of overcoming hurdles and striving onward. I can see a wound as a particular kind of reckoning with self and the world, and its healing as a process of surprising renewal. The spiritual warrior and seeker in me has better implemented clarity and found more bravery. As with all things that matter, it is a fact that I left music, but that doesn’t mean it ever left me. It waits and lets me find it as I can, to experience it as feels right.

I feel sometimes that I may sing a little more, be more okay with what comes out in spurts and pauses, with breathlessness, even if made slippery with tears. But I am aiming for lighter music, simpler fun tunes, melodies for the grandbabies–and perhaps some small sharing with others if it ever comes up. My three biological children happily make and share music in one way or another, and so do their children. I asked Dad when he lay dying, as I sat with him awhile, if he thought my youngest should keep singing more seriously. I don’t know why I asked; he just knew so much about music, though he hadn’t heard her voice in quite awhile. But he said: “If she sings like you have sung.” It was the first time he’d acknowledged what was left behind, and also told me he always did value my singing, no matter my style. No matter if I loved jazz and pop and world music and blue grass, and all the rest–as well as beloved classical (which still often fills hours of my time).

This is some of what it is like to be born into a musical family, and given a musical inheritance. It is a love story of many sorts, a madness and and a celebration. I cannot be untethered from my DNA, nor divorced from my true loves. I will likely sing whatever songs will have me and I, them. Even if no one is listening.