Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Myrna at the Minthorn Camp

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The Minthorns had kept a house on the wooded rise beyond wildflower-overtaken Lazy Meadow for three generations. The big rambling domain, Minthorn Camp, had been the talk of the farmers and the town for the first two and part of the third. But it had lost much of its rough-hewn grace and prosperous sheen, sadly evident by the time Earl Minthorn, II, left behind all earthly toils and gains. Now it looked weary, as if it had a hard time trying to keep up mere appearances. But Myrna was working on it.

Garth said it was hopeless when he drove up the rutted road, looked far and wide over sun scoured land and when he ate breakfast in the breakfast room and remarked on a lack of fresh flowers at the table because they’d drooped their blooms in a gasp of surrender due to record heat. The sturdy roses folded into themselves sooner than they should have, only some regaling under a brief rain here and there. Watering properly got very expensive. The place had come to him disrespected, even damaged

“It’s going to waste, nothing I can do about it,” he mumbled. “Look at those tenacious weeds edge of even the yard. When is there enough time to tend to all those?”

Myrna looked past him and at a ridge where a shimmer of light seeped through trees, spread like honey along the grassy horizon. It gave her a shiver every morning she could see it, every dawn she walked the hill.

He was not even complaining to her, but Myrna somehow felt responsible, as if she should be getting out there on her knees and wrenching them up from 100 rolling acres. Of course she did plenty, besides which most all was leased now, which was a good thing. But that still left ten acres to keep up. Which affable Roger Dell did on week-ends, and after his own long days, to the chagrin of Terri, his wife. But they were given two good-sized plots on the meadow’s south side and grew the best strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables. It had kept them nicely fed, made them a little cash. Plus they now stabled their horse at Minthorn’s for free.

Myrna bit her lip, then retrieved the coffee carafe from the bright, high-ceilinged kitchen. She leaned on the counter, tucked sweaty hair behind her ears. It hadn’t changed so much in her view; when she’d married Garth it looked much the same. True, the pictures he’d early shown her depicted the wealth of previous generations–that freshly painted, proud exterior, the beautiful stone work, carefully tended gardens, a maid in the long formal dining room and cook in the pantry. Rich acreage that prospered so well it was legendary. It was so big and beautiful in those shots it scared her to think she might actually have to live there. Then Garth explained it’d declined and she felt relief and ready to try it. There was nothing in her background that prepared her for such a place, but she knew how to keep order. How to work hard as she had on her grandfather’s humble land in the summers. And, too, make improvements others didn’t notice until done, how to learn fast what was needed.

One thing was saying nothing when Garth was caught by the web of discouragement and remorse. Maybe if he’d been a lawyer like his father, or a horse breeder and trainer like his grandfather (a side business), or an investment banker who made a fortune to bring back home–then things could be different. The cancer had taken so much money, and so soon even the will from his father.

Instead, Garth taught at the state college both American history and world culture (he was still trying to get that right) classes, as well as one economics class he hated, driving 45 minutes each way. Earl, his father, had belly laughed when he’d told him he was going to be a professor. Surely, he wasn’t serious–but he made his own way. Later, he thought living at the old place would be better than college faculty housing. When Earl passed four years ago following a grievously long battle with cancer, Garth and Myrna moved in.

“I should sell it, just unload it. You’ve done a great job refreshing many rooms…we might make a little now.”

“Maybe not decide today,” she murmured. “Maybe walk with me tonight, find ways to enjoy the land.”

Myrna poured a second cup, a hand placed on his shoulder. He tugged at her fingers then touched his lips to them. Her hands were that rare combination of smooth and strong, hearty enough to split wood. They’d met at grad school, yet here she was, trying to make him happy as she labored to maintain a 5500 sf dwelling (counting the guest cottage, but not counting barn with stable, and sheds) when she might have been teaching, too. But art history classes weren’t available for her to teach there. She had plenty to do, she said and he witnessed. If she wasn’t removing old wall paper, she was pruning trees and shrubs; if she wasn’t stripping wood, she was deterring mice from nesting in the attic.

He should be there more. But there were not only classes but multiple meetings and student conferences and papers to grade. It was enough to keep him out of her way and the place out of his mind. Until he came home.

“Aren’t you lonely out here?” But he knew the answer. She loved it more than he did.

He finished the cup and grabbed his sweater. It sweltered in the house even with strong cross breezes and multiple fans, while his rooms at work were air conditioned to an icy chill. He turned back to ask something about the fence but wasn’t sure what it needed now. She gently pushed him toward the door.

“Stay cool as you can, don’t work so hard.” He kissed her on the cheek and lips, then left.

Was she lonely…she could not imagine being less so, she thought, as she cleaned up and banged the screen door to the back. There were chickens not far off that she’d insisted they buy when they moved in. But did she wish he felt about this place as she did? Yes–it was his! Perhaps living a life more privileged caused you take things for granted; maybe it was the good and not-so-good ghosts of his past life, family he’d loved more or less. But she was fully engaged in the plan; she wanted to see it prosper. If he’d just hang on and not sell but keep faith. If he was home a bit more to actually roll up his sleeves, not just criticize.

Even Roger wondered if his old friend had given up, and said so one day as they’d shared a beer on the back veranda. Then he’d apologized.

“Sorry, Myrna. A Minthorn has deep pride in place. His father would have done more if he could have. I don’t think Garth will abandon it.”

He didn’t say, “And won’t abandon you, either,” but he thought it and wondered why. He shook off a ripple of unease as they gazed at the sheer blue prelude to twilight. She was smiling; that was good.

“See you tomorrow night to check on those fruit trees.”

“Thanks, Rog–what would I ever do without your help?”

He shrugged and tilted his hat at her, then turned on scuffed toes of his boots. “You’d learn, you’d be alright,” he said over his shoulder.

******

Her husband brought the young woman by one Saturday morning when a class had been cancelled due to air conditioning repairs. Myrna had forgotten they were coming by as she painted the cottage’s second bedroom. The ramshackle but appealing 1200 sf house was a quarter acre east of the house and she had walked there early to finish the task, naming birds as she went. It was true she’d had the idea to rent it out. Garth had mentioned he might have a potential renter. And then they were in the open doorway.

Garth smiled broadly as he flung wide his arms in the bedroom.

“Myrna, Sherrie Evans. Sherrie, my wife Myrna.”

Myrna wiped trickling sweat from her brow and stood to face a woman taller and younger than she, with a mane of streaked blonde-red-brown hair, a pale hand (with topaz ring on a finger) thrust at Myrna.

“Good to meet you–this is gorgeous!” She breathed in deeply, despite the prevalence of paint fumes

“Well, come on in– I guess you’re looking to rent awhile?”

“The rest of the school year, at least, and as soon as possible.”

The student–so Myrna deducted–swiftly apprised each room with enthusiastic commentary–“Great color and designs for rugs, walls and curtains, you must be a decorator!” –and in ten minutes said, “I can use one room for a studio, yes. When can I move in?” Her toothsome smile was a thousand watts.

What? Myrna thought. An artist?

And so it was done. The rent money was reliable because she was not a student, after all, but taught at the college. Fundamentals of Art and ceramics. Myrna looked at the woman sharply then; she did admit she missed teaching. Also, time to create more than restored houses and chicken coops and middling flower borders. She tried to not think of it because she enjoyed most she was learning and accomplishing.

But now Sherrie would be using their home to make whatever she wanted while Myrna scrubbed dirt stains from her fingernails and got up to tend hens in early morning.

Furthermore, she thought as the woman left, she didn’t like her laugh. It was brittle, could cut glass if she pushed it a bit more, her gaiety underscored by a recklessness. Also, what was with all that hair half-obscuring her eyes–was she hiding something? Or just into over-dyed long hair? And why did that matter–why was Myrna bothering with her? A tenant was what they wanted. The cottage was not that close to the house; she could be avoided.

“Well, she needed a place and will pay good money!” Garth hotly protested as she raised questions. “I checked around, she’s responsible, has taught there three years, is quite pleasant–look, you don’t have to be best friends! ” He gave her a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d like the fact that she’s an artist, too. It might be nice.”

“I know, I should be grateful. I am. It was so unexpected, just like that! Did you put up a notice up? How did she know about it?”

“I mentioned it at lunch when she complained of her roommates.” Then he glanced up at her quickly. “Well, it was an impromptu birthday lunch for four college staff, she was one of them, and I was invited by a guy in my department so I went–we started talking about rentals–“

“Okay. It’s done. We can use the money so I–we–can keep improving things.” She picked at a nubby spot on her light sweater and her torn fingernail caught at it. The temperature had cooled considerably since a hard rain the day before; lingering clouds yet kept the heat at bay. She wanted to leave and take a walk. “Just so I don’t have to be that friendly with her. I have work to do. She seems so extroverted–for an artist…”

She released a tight laugh. She wasn’t going to whine about not being able to work on her massive paintings or research about 18th century silk weavers or study her students’ critique sessions. She lived at the Minthorn Camp, it was where she needed to be now. And wanted to be. Here with Garth, after all.

If Sherrie Evans’ money could keep things running better, why not? She just needed to stay out of Myrna’s way. And yet her chest tightened a bit and her mind felt murky as a stirred up pond.

******

“If he’d talked to me more about it, I’d have felt better prepared to turn over the cottage soon.”

“That it?” Roger was dragging a birch branch to the side of a shed. There was always more to do but he was getting hungry. “Or don’t you like the idea of that cottage being someone else’s good spot?”

“What do you mean? That was the whole idea when I started fixing it up.”

“You said you might use it down the road. A refuge, was that it? And for your art work.”

She swiped at the air with her hands. “Oh, that, just a fantasy. Like a getaway for when I had time to read or draw or sit, listen to mice dance about and watch leaves drift to the ground in autumn. Right.” She looked at him more closely. “And we get along fine, don’t you worry about things. We just need our space at times. Or, I do.”

“I’m not worried about you and Garth. But now this Sherrie gal has put her mitts on it while you have all that extra space everywhere else– but you feel cramped? Go figure, Myrn! ”

She tried to punch his shoulder but he took ax to branch, then she piled up the cut pieces until they were done.

“I can use this pile if you don’t want it. Or should I ask Garth?”

“Go ahead, you know he won’t care. But it’s more psychic space, not literal space, I need sometimes, you know? Away from Minthorn energy, but also constant household chores and the yard’s mess. The cottage was a hidden treasure when we moved in–neglected and forgotten but waiting to be shined up and loved–by me.”

“Ah, she speaks her truth.”

“Oh, Roger, give me a break. I just like my solitude.”

“I know, now you won’t have the cottage for sure. I’m sorry but nice that rent will be coming in.”

“Yeah. I have one week.”

He took his handkerchief and wiped damp brow and face, then his neck and chest where a chambray shirt was unbuttoned a few inches. She gazed at the spot, then past him at the fence that required repair, then her eyes returned to him. He folded up the handkerchief, resettled his baseball cap and hitched up his jeans. Roger was six foot three and if he didn’t work outside so much he’d be thin as a willow branch. He was a telecommunications lineman all day, then often came to help. This had gone on the last three years. He never griped about it.

“You got anything to eat? I haven’t had sustenance since after noon and my stomach is howling.”

“Salami and cheese okay? Just salad and sandwich today, I didn’t go to the store. Garth will be home by ten.”

They tromped through swaying wild grasses, crossed over Kills Creek where a man was attacked by a cougar years ago, past the barn where Roger stopped to check on Pal, his (really, his daughter, Lou’s) horse and finally past the cottage.

With its lights on.

“Why are those blazing right now?” They climbed up five new steps to the back door.

Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.

“Hi there, I’m just measuring rooms since I move in next weekend.” Sherrie ushered them in.

“Sherrie, this is Roger, a friend who works for us. Garth gave you a key already?”

“Hello! Yes, today.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the living room. “I was thinking of my couch size, and then chairs over there and my buffet here and the dining table might be big for this area and what about my drawing table?…”

She nearly glided in low golden sandals to the other side of the room.

“Well, please don’t move in before the lease start date. I still have work to do in the kitchen and out back.”

“Sure, sure.” She turned back to her surmising of furniture and placed one foot delicately in front of the other, like a ballet dancer.

“Okay, just checking. I know you’re signing the lease tomorrow. So… just please lock up.”

Sherrie murmured something agreeable, flipped the surfeit of hair over her shoulders with both hands, stretched her arms up high and returned to inspection.

Myrna and Roger continued to the house.

“I see what you mean.”

“About what?”

“Not much caring for her….maybe not trusting her, either.”

“Did I say that, Rog?”

“More or less.”

“Sometimes I think you know me better than Garth.”

Roger stuck both hands in his pockets, sped up so that she had to run a bit to catch up. It was true, he probably did.

“Wait up, the sandwiches won’t be all that good!”

“Like fine cuisine to me!”

From behind he was outlined against the vibrant sunset, and how confident the set of his shoulders, how natural and easy in the landscape as he pointed to Venus suddenly sparking at them. She’d occasionally thought they might have more in common than she and Garth but what did that mean? They had become good fiends, perhaps best friends. They were both nicely married. He had a lovely child, a good horse, a job he liked, a pleasant home: it was a good, full life. And so was hers. Minus child and horse, both of which which mattered less to her than an art studio, she admitted. Minus husband rather too often, which also mattered somewhat less than she’d once imagined.

******

When she was considering getting ready for bed the next night, Myrna did not look at the clock. Nor check the driveway and peer down the long road that ran circuitous like a snake unwinding its tough, attractive length through their land. His and hers, Minthorn Camp.

Garth was to have been home for dinner but he called and said he was meeting Sherrie to sign the lease–he’d be home before long. It was far too late but she didn’t care when he got there–she knew all she had to know.

She was putting away his T-shirts in the dresser drawer earlier. They weren’t lying nice and flat and socks were bunched up, so she took them all out to organize. There at the back was a folded receipt, then one more, then another, and more. Garth saved receipts for work so she tossed them in the wastebasket, reordered the underwear but as she did so kept eyeing the receipts until her hand followed gaze. He filed such receipts in his desk drawer, not in a dresser.

They–eight of them–were from Palatini’s Food and Spirits. She’d heard of it, but they’d never been there; she wasn’t fond of Italian food. When she studied the credit card, she realized it was not a regular debit card but his credit card. The one he used for emergencies or big purchases. These purchases were meals, two meals each time and dated over the last four months.

Myrna lost her breath, time and space fell away; she grabbed the bedpost to keep from sliding to the floor. She put head in her hands, leaned toward her lap, took in slower breaths. She was not going to faint over this. She’d already sensed it: Garth was meeting someone and it was not for work.

She slipped on her Teva sandals and ran outside, leaned against the nearest tree, body going soft as if defenseless, and searched the sky. Nothing but a wash of soft blue-black, stars and ever more stars and a three quarter moon that glowed so bright she could see dry, brown grasses bending against the weathered fence. She felt relief: to know the truth, not be afraid, to know her gut was right despite rational excuses. Two tears slid down her face but that was all, and they dried fast in the heat of the wind.

Then she got mad.

She reached for her phone.

“Hello?” He sounded a bit annoyed but resigned.

“I know it’s getting late, but can we talk, Rog? Or will Terri be mad? I could use your help–I’d be glad to explain to her, too.”

“Terri and Lou are at her sister’s in Utah for two weeks, remember? It’s kinda late so what’s this about, buddy?” He wiped his face of sleep and got out of bed.

******

They shouldn’t have done it, of course, and if they’d have thought about it a few days and Myrna had let her mind settle and clear, heart becoming quiet as it tended to be, they might not have. But they went ahead with it, changed the locks on the cottage front and back doors. They could barely stop laughing on the way way back to his truck, then said good-bye with somber faces. It was no laughing matter. Roger wondered what on earth Garth was thinking and Myrna, was dumbfounded by a deep sadness.

When Sherrie arrived with her lovely possessions in a rental truck, she couldn’t get in. She called Garth and proceeded to yell, fuming like a child who has been denied. Roger and Myrna watched her carry on from their vantage point in a wooded stretch by Kills Creek. The not-to-be tenant waited for her–Myrna said it right out loud– lover. They couldn’t hear much but the activity–or lack thereof–said it all. Garth came to a a roaring, dust-swirling stop at the once-hoped-for-trysting spot and took Sherrie into his arms, then stomped around the place, trying all windows and doors. Then they were gone, each in a car, one after the other. The rental truck sat as evidence.

Myrna had seen far more than she’d desired; they skulked deeper into woods, then parted. Nothing was said, though Roger had reached for her and maybe she wanted more than anything to fall into someone’s arms–no, his arms–but she did not. Instead she returned home to wait for her husband.

Roger Dell drove all the way home singing loudly with the radio, not a song he even liked. It was better than the feelings he felt, heart pounding like wild hooves against the dirt.

******

The two of them, Garth and Myrna, dug for and found enough love and good sense to recover. It was also the pleasure and grip of Minthorn Camp, one place that belonged to Garth, and he to it. And the woman he married was not someone he cared to harm or lose again, and he told her he’d spend his life proving it. He knew that place had become part of her, as well. He found himself teaching better, returning earlier and in search of Myrna.

But Myrna didn’t believe or care if Garth proved it; she was simply there despite the pain. It had become her home. That was the half-answer answer she had for him; any more would take loads of time. So she finished up the cottage. She moved in and turned two rooms into one airy studio space. There she captured time enough to make large acrylic paintings that were a wilderness of colors, and to refine new skills in botanical drawings, their lushness made more potent by exacting lines. There was the research for articles she was determined to publish again. She went back to the big house only after she sold an article months later.

Roger stayed on part time at Minthorn Camp. He needed to work the challenging acreage; he had grown up roaming it with Garth and their friends. He liked the extra money he now was paid for his labors. It accrued over time for a second horse for Terri (as expert a rider as was he) and himself to share. He hoped one day for a third, maybe more. The Minthorns weren’t the only ones with a respectable history with horses.

And there was Myrna, wasn’t there. She was learning to ride–Garth didn’t enjoy it after he’d fallen as a kid and badly broken his an arm– and it was taking much effort and time. She was not quite at ease on the back of an animal that knew its own mind better than did she. Myrna needed extra help, they both knew it, and Roger was careful as she got better–and gained back ground. Before too long they rode together now and again, sharing a beer and a sandwich after each comforting, victorious ride.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Shadows in the Light

They say sunlight is required to be happy, the more the healthier. I was not of that mind; I left the sun to its work, but lived beyond its searing touch when possible. It reveals far too much, demands my response. Barrow’s Forest removed yearnings for its direct reach when I was seventeen and was moved here from the city. From the other life.

It’s the usual story: child loses parents and is given to grandparents to continue on while everything is wrapped in fog, as if my body and mind were covered with a heavy scarf. Nothing was worth remembering for awhile, in any case. It was shock to everyone, a mad accident of fate as one lumbering, reckless car crossed the line and the other, a bright sporty thing booming with laughter, taken out of this reality. I know about the laughter because that’s how they were, especially when coming back from a tour. That time I was home, studying, ready to graduate. Which I did, barely. Then I was insistently removed and re-positioned in looming woods with two old people who knew me from afar. I was an obligation, if a not an altogether unpleasant one. Though they would and did tell it differently. But that is the gist of it. Out of the light and into shadows. But light can be unnerving, hard to dwell within. They were getting known, my parents, for their music, and for the last year the media was more and more at us.

So I was moved; I didn’t even resist after a day or two of loud protestations. What was there to hang onto without my parents? My grandparents, is all.

I took up residence on the cabin’s second floor. Stayed right there except to eat a bit for weeks. From my window I started to watch the woods, how it took over at the edge of the clearing. Those voluptuous greens turning black as I peered deeper and deeper until I felt blind with looking. There might be a rustle or flutter that I couldn’t name at all, the barest outline of something in motion. I felt drawn to the center except for that unknown thing or person. When I asked Gran she said pay no mind, someone from the other side, meaning other side of the forest, near the village, but it felt like another place altogether, perhaps where my parents were resting in limbo. Somewhere that finally held more meaning, or even a way into any sort of hope. That movement carried to me a respite of wishfulness that distracted me from sorrow.

Out my eastern window, though smaller, I could see a neat vegetable and flower patch, and past that chickens, a pig, two goats, two dogs, a cat that belonged to no one but took a liking to me because I paid no attention to it. In time, I grew to like the pig, its smart, odd expressions, but it was given away later that year. Or sold for meat, no one said. I liked best the birds that gathered and swooped about day and night, despite the cat. They sang and sang their hearts out.

It was, then, generally sunny on one side of the cabin while darker on the other. There was ample space. (Years later the cabin was encroached upon by bushes and underbrush, more Douglas firs and Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red cedar. No one beat it back but let it happen as nature wanted.) I was an oasis of shadowy light amid conifer-captured acreage.

I grew restless watching giant trees sway in dampening wind, coolness soothing my feet and neck as I leaned into my open window. I closed my eyes, heard the wind speak of ancient times as if it was the present, no beginning, no end. I did not speak much, only listened, and even to my grandparents as they grew less mournful. Eventually, Gran directed me to get moving, out and about, to help pick huckleberries and salmon berries. I don’t know how she figured it was time but she was right.

“Earn your keep now, Tally,” she said with sideways glance, “and learn where you live now, how to survive it all.”

PawPaw scratched his beard, winked at me. It was strange to actually look at them close up, their feelings hovering under the surface like fish that came up for air occasionally. But they were strong if also so worn. I didn’t smile in return. I just got ready to follow. In nubby navy sweater, ratty sweat pants and dirty sneakers, I trailed after her. And that was that.

Outside, the smells. I had once been surrounded by cigarettes, musky perfume, wine and pasta with sauces, overcooked beef. Here the cabin was imbued with woodstove’s tantalizing smokiness; the sweet, clean scents of vegetables right from the ground and waiting on the counter; a sharpness from fresh meat I could not often name. And beyond the door was a potpourri of tree bark and leaves that made me feel almost drunk in an hour.

The stained baskets swung on our arms, berries piling up in tender mounds. Gran quizzed me on salmon berries and huckleberries, others that were poisonous, which berries were ripest. I sampled, felt hunger surge in me. I sought sweet wood strawberry and tried to avoid blackberry brambles which caused itchy, painful scratches as discovered as a child. Gran carried a soft damp cloth to clean small wounds.

I was still alive, that’s what the pain told me and berries bursting on the tongue, an almost terrible wonder of happy juiciness–all, I felt, barely deserved. Great gulps of air were taken into my lungs, richness of forest and meadow life that egged me on, alongside birds, butterflies and bees as well as my grandmother far from and back to the cabin. A home that now included me. If I’d cried I would have known, wouldn’t I? But Gran’s rough fingers touched my cheek, wiped away wetness. I looked down and away from her grey-blue gaze. Her eyes were light and dark all at once and clear as water, a balance and rightness in a world off kilter, leaving me sad and grateful. Still adrift within that forest life…which pulled me like an earthly tide, right into its embrace.

I slowly relented; it was a relief. In time, I became known to the forest as it became known to me. I missed less and less of the old life as it was not a life at all without my parents–this was what I had left. My few friends had stopped contacting me. It mattered little. I had all I needed, or pretended it was so and then found it, more often, to be.

There was that shadowy figure that came and went in turn with the other creatures. It was as regular as any other happening. Once the person stepped out into a sun-filled meadow as I wandered at the other edge: lanky, gleaming blond, tanned, fleet of foot. An Irish Setter raced with him and they were that fast gone. I didn’t see them again but glimpsed them, knowing to look for that hair, their sounds and daydreamed of village life despite being well planted in my woodland refuge.

I was soon eighteen, nineteen, twenty and had started working at the nursery and garden supply. I had to adjust to relentless sunlight as best I could, took cover in shaded corners when I could. But I did not have a need to leave the general territory, run to the city to get lost and go wild. My parents had done all that for me when young. I rambled through my life with comfortable routines, counted the ways I loved the trees and my small family.

The forest boy disappeared for four years but though I missed our near- close encounters, the regularity of his passing through dim forest and farther off  the wide meadow, there were just enough people in my life. I had a friend or two, when there was time to see them. And I had discovered clay and my generous grandparents gave me a potter’s wheel. I built a kiln with PawPaw and things changed.

******

In good weather, Pawpaw read while to each morning with a big mug of coffee, chair set on the splintery porch. The village has expanded farther but the woods even more, and overlapping shadows dominated. Milky dapples of light slipped in and out. Soon his eyes closed; he dozed there or later settled in a creaky rocker inside. I worked in my potter’s shed if not at the nursery.

Gran had not been around for two years now to keep us in order, give a bit of chatter, to direct each day and ease us towards night. I somehow found my way but she taught me well. Her love was an engine; it  had empowered me again. It faltered, yes, but I knew how to keep on. Work and love, the same as she had done. PawPaw was a kind, decent if tough skinned man, often lost in his even more private thoughts. His presence reassured me as it always had, though I worried. He did not complain when I cooked with minimal enthusiasm or barely sorted animals’ needs. He pitched in as he could. We then had just one goat, a smattering of chickens and a half-lame terrier due to a coyote encounter which PawPaw ended with his shot gun. The cat had long ago left for better adventures, or so I imagined.

PawPaw did aright despite slowing way down. I could manage well enough, thanks to their training on all critical matters. I worked at the nursery and garden shop three to four days a week, labor that was good to me. Then I retreated to the wheel, creating, and sold ceramics in the village as tourism picked up more.

Before Gran passed she put a name to the mysterious flitting shadow figure when she pointed him out in town. She gave a shake of her head, let go a sudden short laugh.

“Lane Harold. Money there,” she said, “not a bad sort. They say he’s got talent, is an artist. Like you.” She tapped me on the shoulder to emphasize. “Your forest frolicker. They live right beyond the stands of red alders and firs, you know, that big place made of redwood and glass?”

Of course I knew, it was a village by us, everyone knew the Harolds. But I didn’t know it was him… I appraised him slyly: rangy, with a way of holding his head as if aloof and studying all, hands stuck in his pockets as he listened to a fawning young woman. As we passed he glanced at me, brow knitted. I thought he might say something, but it passed immediately, so on to the next errand. I did not look back but wondered often, of much.

Month melded into month. Gran woke up ill one day, passed without much suffering; winter arrived and then they both left us. The spring to summer transition was welcome–more work for me, more clement weather for PawPaw on our porch. It was a pace that spoke of reckoning with whatever came, one’s mind on one’s work or rest. No call for deep mourning then, we had each other and the land.

On a recent trip for supplies, I was frankly identified at Jack’s General Store.

“You’re Tally McBride, right?”

I nodded, knowing who he was already. “And you’re Lane Harold.”

He had a can of linseed oil as well as a box of gauze and bandages; I noted his hand was scraped. I had toothpaste, two bars of glycerin soap, tissues and coffee beans for PawPaw and a magazine that had newly arrived on the small rack. Surprised to see a periodical about crafts, I snatched it up.

He looked at the magazine and nodded. “I saw your ceramics at Moonstone Gifts. Good work.”

That touristy gift shop’s name uttered by him was embarrassing. I couldn’t say I saw his paintings because it would have sounded stupid. His art was everywhere in town and beyond, by then. He was making a very fine living, had his own place with a studio but it wasn’t like mine in a corner of our tumbledown shed, my handmade brick kiln at work outdoors. His was a whole building with glass walls and skylights, I had heard. He gave tours of it at times, it was that beautiful. I hadn’t seen it. The forest shadow had become other than what I had imagined, less magical, more flesh and blood –and profitable.

I paid for my items and started out when I felt a touch on my elbow.

“We should do a joint show at Pine Tree Gallery. I’ll talk to the owner, Madelyn, if you’re amenable.”

Was I amenable for an art show? I just made things to order, when a shop requested a few more. I enjoyed my hands in the tacky, malleable clay; the repetitive movements of palms and fingers molding and reshaping; the earthy glazes a series of chemical surprises. I was not an artiste, just a diligent potter. And I liked it that way.

“Really, a show?”

I turned toward him but leaned away like he did, ever so slightly, and stared almost unabashed for the first time. He met my eyes with a strange familiarity, surely aided by those years of not speaking while playing a sort of forest tag, not meeting directly but by way of random rustlings or swishes, grasses pressed to the side as any beast might do, twigs making arrows on a path, marsh marigolds trampled when leaping the spring and summer creeks. Faded blossoms left in a tree hollow.

My arms crossed over chest then uncrossed self consciously. Who was he? Just a childish shadow boy. A rich college guy, a townie who painted. But oh, so very well. “I make things for tourists now and then, not to exhibit. I am not in the business of showing cups and plates like art works. I can’t compete with your skill and talent.”

“It needn’t compete but complement one another. Paint and clay–a good combination.” The sales person awaited his purchase. “Think it over, we’ll talk.”

I bought my items and left. He was nowhere to be seen. My free hand clenched and unclenched as I walked off, irritated with myself. What was I thinking to turn him down right off? What was he thinking to accost me with that? Was it, perhaps, a little funny to him?

As I rounded a corner rapid steps rushed up behind me and I moved over to let the runner pass.

“Wait, Tally, let’s talk now.”

Lane halted beside me and his hand pulled at my forearm.  “You live at the Rollins’, right? Grandparents. So my mother said, she knew them. I’m sorry you lost your grandmother.”

I shielded my eyes. I rarely carried sunglasses and I was blinded trying to look at him as his back was to full sun. “That was some time ago, yes, and thanks. What’s so pressing you nearly ran me down?”

We resumed walking. “I remember, that’s all. You at the cabin’s upstairs window, both of us out there but never meeting in the Barrow’s Forest or the meadow. It was like you hid from me. From everyone. I often wondered about you–you didn’t grow up here. Your mother did…”

“Yes. We often played in parallel, true. I watched, you watched. But you looked up in my window? That is bold…”

He chuckled. “Occasionally, but don’t worry. My curiosity was harmless. I think.”

I stifled an urge to smack him on the shoulder but we didn’t even know each other. Did we? It felt more like walking and talking with an old acquaintance– at very the least–the longer they reminisced.

“Well, anyway, so you know, I tracked you like a dog, scouting out your direction, spying on your childish activities.”

“You didn’t, I would have realized! Or my dog.”

I shrugged, hands with palms up. Let him think about it. The dog was not always with him.

“The point is, you were sort of a part of my youth….an enigmatic part.”

“You’re an old man, now, is that it?”

“I’m pushing twenty-six–it has been a few years since our romping about.”

“I’d call it stealth practice, to pass the time.”

“And you the elusive object of interest.”

We both laughed at such foolishness, feet shuffling as if to go.

“Say, would you like coffee and a pastry or something? We’ll make art talk. ” He indicated the cafe behind them.

I imagined PawPaw snoring in his chair, Tim the terrier at his feet. They jaywalked to the cafe.

******

Two months later, nearly everything sold during the annual July holiday exhibit. This was was “Clay and Paint by Tally and Lane.” Tally was amazed Lane was listed second. But, then, everyone knew his fine, expensive oils and were barely familiar with her groupings of colorful dishes and vases, bird sculptures and bells. If at all.

But not after two weeks when the show closed. Tally McBride was “a refreshing talent worth admiring and supporting, and she held her own with Lane Harold’s fine nature renderings. May the pairing share offerings in the future.” That was per The Village Clarion, for starters. There was more good reviews elsewhere, many top notch about him.

Later, we sat on the cabin porch and PawPaw, who had attended proudly, chatted Lane up as if they all had been cozy forever and it was half-true. The families only a quarter mile from each other had been friends. So very long before Lane had come to be. Way back when Sylvie, my mother, was born a bit later in life, to their surprise. But the Harolds became more busy and prominent, had two sons of their own. There were other matters to attend to, different people to know. It all receded more each year, except for Sylvie and her gorgeous singing, and the marriage he shared and loved long and well. And the forest, their good little world. He ambled off with a contented sigh and a pat on Lane’s back.

We sat and looked into the heart of firs and alders and beyond. The sun’s last rays tinged treetops pink and coral, then vanished as if someone pulled the shade. Day birds settled. Creatures of the night hunted and romanced in their own language under soft cover of darkness. We were silent but our fingers found each others’. Summer’s eve glittered with cool pulses of starlight and the piney community exhaled, kept close the human secrets again.

Wednesday’s Fiction: To Those Who Wait

It was an odd, fateful accident, all that resulted from that day, and it started with running into George in the middle of the day on Mimosa Pond’s path. She’d been to the bank, going over her woeful balance with a teller. After it was shown to be still in her barest favor, she took time at water’s edge, walking and gawking with deliberate pleasure. There were silken layers of southern floral fragrances in the air that half-spooked her. It didn’t seem quite right although she knew better. Her latest home base in Idaho was under a heap of snow. Tennessee held a different scent altogether.

She needed such moments away from her mother, and to practice experiencing the relief of small pleasures. The past month had not been a choice string of events. Anyone who had lost a job would not fault her for a swear word derailing her thoughts. Even the sweet green light of early spring did little to cheer her. She refused to budge until her mood lightened. Then she might re-enter her mother’s cottage with the evening’s dinner groceries in hand and good news that she was not entirely broke. She endeavored to keep the full and bitter truth from her: it could be a slight month more before her bank balance became a total loss. Unless her art work sold fast.

The footsteps behind her slowed, then stopped. She registered the sound of gravel crunching and the pause of it but was busy examining a duck that looked as if it had mated perhaps with a random crow. Pretty thing. Yet it had a duck’s bill and way of dipping and floating; it had not made a sound yet. It had plenty of company, unlike herself since arriving in town.

A husky voice made murky by duck squawks and a riffling waterfall came through her reverie. She stepped aside as if used to being in the way when others approached. A bad new habit since her humiliation.

“Marietta?”

She looked up because the person said it right, the “Mari” syllable not mispronounced as “Mary” which strangers inevitably said, but rhyming with “far” as it should be. She was “Mari” to friends–but this man couldn’t be one of the two or three holdovers from twenty years past. Could he? They’d all moved elsewhere, as had she.

Mari blinked; her eyes slid over his face. “I am. And you are?”

“George,” he said, “George Hartsell.”

“Oh…?”

 A frown rippled over his tan face then vanished. Maybe it was a few day’s beard growth that darkened his jaw and cheekbones, an almost swarthy look; he was not recognizable. He looked taken aback that she didn’t know him right off and rocked on his heels a little, studied the ducks, waiting.

But Mari remembered enough. Her second best friend had been chummy with him and so they’d all done things together from time to time. Rita wasn’t serious about him–she was serious about no one. George was always in the background, though, and brought about when she was bored. Mari thought her capricious and a little mean but he didn’t seem to mind. Studious, with a quick wit, he was nice to her–that’s what she recalled. He’d been slight, a tad awkward, and companionable enough.

“Oh, George, sorry! I think we maybe ran into each other at the ten year reunion? Nice that you remembered me, and from a distance. What a surprise!”

“I wasn’t there, sorry– in Italy at the time, I think. It’s okay. But you don’t look so different. Same auburn hair, tall, lanky. A bright presence, overall, still.”

His lively look held her gaze a moment–he had certainly gotten tall somewhere along the line, too– and they smiled at each other with some embarrassment, which she could not decipher.

“Well, so how funny–here we are. I’m back …to tend to my mother. She had a bout of cancer and is on a slow mend. Never thought to find myself back in Tennessee. Just here a short time to make sure she is healing and doesn’t feel too alone. Though she has doting friends and, of course, the church.” She picked up a stick, tossed it into the water where it floated away with no destination. “I don’t know, guess duty called.”

“The same for me,” George said and squatted, long black coat sweeping over dirt and rocks as he studied the water fowl. “My uncle is about on his death bed. He was like a second father to me when I was a kid. Haven’t seen him in well over ten years, so my father called and asked that I come. Of course, I also wanted to see him.” He tossed a rock with some force toward a land mass that mimicked a miniature island. It hit solid ground. He stood and brushed his hands off. “It’s sad, seventy-nine, he’s been very ill. No doubt you and I have other obligations. But, you know, blood family is, first and last, family.”

“Right.” She sighed. “Terribly true despite our best efforts…”

He snickered. They began to follow the path together, despite her desire to be alone before once more being immersed in the hothouse tenor of her mother’s place. But he seemed at loose ends.

“Mind if I tag along? I have nowhere else to be right now.”

Mari shrugged. “Tell me what you ended up doing, then. You were good with numbers and played the…trumpet?”

“Yes, to both. I’m in business, worked for an international company and still travel a lot. And I still play the trumpet for relaxation.”

“Not a big surprise. You were–are–good at all you did.”

“Thanks for that.”

She had forgotten how and where she had heard him play, but she knew Rita, a drummer in a garage band, said he could be a jazz musician one day–he was that natural a musician, so creative. That was one reason she hung out with him, that tie with music. Not that Mari was averse to it. She just had had little satisfaction  pursuing piano so quit at twelve.

“You know Rita became a nurse, married a dentist and moved to Atlanta.”

“I didn’t, no. Hope that worked out for both.”

“It did, I suppose,” she said, deciding to not tell him she had no idea what had happened since 2010. Losing track of old friends happened so fast. And now how to tell him the state of her career?

“I am or was part of a large, booming gallery–the director. Boise, of all places. But I have long been an artist. It just didn’t pay my rent.”

“You are or were a gallery director?”

She stole a glance at him but he was staring across the pond so she kept on, uncertain how to answer. His arms were swinging, matching his long stride; they moved in sync when his right arm brushed against her left. Instantly, a mini-shock of warmth, that tingle of one person touching another. George touching her, accidentally. He slowed a little, turned back to her, ready to hear her story.

“I am, but I’m on leave. It’s a long saga. Not too interested in telling it. I am re-evaluating.” A laugh came out too loud and hard, bounced around a thicket of trees.

“We’re never interested in spotlighting tough times, just remarkable ones, right? I’ve had my share. I cannot imagine your not being a fine artist,  Mari. You have such talent.”

There, he said the more familiar name. It sounded good to her. “I was sure aspiring to be one. Making work much less these days.” She turned and put hands on hips. “Okay, none in four months.”

“Well. Huh.”

“Yeah.”

They had looped around the entire pond and stood near the parking lot. He took out car keys. His alert grey eyes held hers more than a moment, and there it was. An unmistakable recognition that went a little deeper, barely. A tentative, unexpected connection. o, she was imagining it, wasn’t she?

“I have to get going, but why not join me for coffee tomorrow?”

She wanted to say: what about a wife, maybe I have a partner, too; what about keeping it formal or maybe just keeping  the heck away? But she felt that he was alone. They both wore a lean, wan look tempered by surrender to their chronic but comfortable solitary state. They had stopped expecting anything to work out. They were savvy and they had also given up. They were fine like that. Mostly. She was almost broke but that was another issue, more or less.

“Alright, why not? About ten?”

“Jana’s? Where we once sucked up too much bitter black coffee-before it became so terribly gourmet and pricey!”

That brought forward memories of forbidden cigarettes, heavy white mugs of rancid coffee in shadowy back booths. But she already had misgivings. As he found his sporty car she realized he was attractive in a slightly asymmetrical, curious way and carried himself with easy confidence. George had grown right up, become a man of the world, a doer of things. And she was tired of that sort. In fact, she was steamrollered and worn out by all men. And George was just another, albeit one with a fine woolen overcoat and light beard, and an attentive, affable manner.

******

The door jingled its small tarnished bell just as it had all those years ago. Assuming it was a newer bell, but maybe not. She surveyed the scene. Jana’s Side Street Cafe had new charcoal tiled flooring and rich blue walls but otherwise seemed the same. The booths were still dark red but sported upgraded fabric.

Mari had told her mother she’d be a couple of hours and would bring home her new medicine. Tammy’s breast cancer had responded well to treatment; most of her chest was yet intact but this was the second bout and at sixty-three, she had been forced to retire from the library after so many months lost and too much weakness. Even if she had reported to her desk, it was time to take back the life she had left, she had told her daughter. She’d worked there thirty-four years.

Every time she looked at Mari she was filled with gratitude. This made Mari cringe with shame at the secrets she was keeping from her, and the fact that she found it hard to be there more than a couple weeks. They had not been very close during her youth; they had not become any more intimate with the passage of time. But Tammy was even more the optimist now, oddly, so kept trying to pull her closer, while Mari retreated more. For every kind hour there were those prickly with irritation, the subtle and often mutual criticism they tossed at one another. They had changed in opposite ways, it seemed. It frustrated them yet they never spoke of it, just carried on, each in their proscribed roles. Only now Mari was a caregiver, not the one aided. So far. She wanted to keep it that way. She liked her independence, her lifestyle. Still, her mother was her only mother. She loved her.

George waved at her from a sunny side booth; the favored back ones were filled with college students from the Baptist college. You could tell from the studied neatness and serious gleams in the eyes.


“Hey there,” she said and slid into her side. “You look more normal today, I have to say–and rested.”

Henodded. “I was getting over jet lag. Came from Columbia, then the Bahamas.”

“I see, tough life.”

That was an actual tan, then. He was clean shaven, wore a green T-shirt under a jacket with lots of pockets, safari-style. He smelled unusual, like cedar or the sea or a mix. Mari felt overdressed in tailored black slacks, high heeled boots and a teal cashmere sweater. She had met with a gift store manager earlier, giving her a sales pitch.

“I had business, forgive my cultivated look. I tried to push my nature prints at Nance’s Art and Knickknacks. I am trying not to cringe as I say that… hard to explain.” She felt her face flush so signaled a waitress.

George said nothing; he appraised her with eyebrows raised as cups were filled and cream brought.

“It is just that I have to keep making money on the side.  I don’t know how long  will be here and the job–it won’t tolerate my absence for long, and I have bills still coming in and–“

“Any good success at Nance’s or did you hightail it out of there?”

The vowels had relaxed already, just as hers had; the south was creeping in enough that they’d have to watch it or get sucked in to old habits of speech and behavior.

“Yeah, actually, she took four prints on trial. I hope they sell. I sell online, too, if you ever want to see what I do.” She played with her spoon, poured a heap of sugar into it, dumped it in, stirred. Her heat rate bumped up; she felt breathless. She just could not fake it to someone she had enjoyed and respected once.

“Hey, George, enough bull, alright? I was fired. I had an affair with the owner’s son and that was considered not acceptable as Joseph–the son–oversaw all accounts when his father was out of state.  Which was at times for weeks, months. Charles Meier considered it overt favoritism and double dipping on both our parts when Joseph pushed my work at customers. I wasn’t even showing there, of course. Although business happened outside our gallery walls. And Joseph saw to it I got paid quite a bit and he got a nice commission and…well, not okay  to Mr. Meier. So I was finally flat-out fired.”

“I see, you were both hustling.” George put an index finger to upper lip and pressed the indentation. He tried to not smile. “I guess it was a sort of ethics issue. Why didn’t he recommend you to another gallery or someone who could help without entanglements?”

“I don’t know. Laziness? He may have loved me?”

“Ah. Did you love him? Wait– that’s too frank a question, sorry. But I get it, he believed you deserved success. Plus he was smitten.”

Mari was stopped by smitten, how old fashioned it was and Southern it felt. “No. I mean, perhaps I was, but in the end it was more about the art…I didn’t separate the two very well. Love, art, men, business, work, art, love, life. It gets jumbled at times. It is not easy out there in the great art world, believe me. My prints and paintings are very good but so are plenty of others.” She lowered her face to the steaming mug and then looked up from under her eyebrows. “I took advantage of his contacts and interest, I admit it.”

He leaned back with mug grasped in both hands. “I understand some of this. I buy art.”

Her head jerked up. “What? Well, you make good money at your work, I can see that, so it must be great art you hang. What do you do? Your turn, George.”

“I’m an entrepreneur. I started out as an investor and did well fast, worked further in international banking and made a lot more money. Some years ago I got sick of working for others. I took my money and invested it in cutting edge tech industries of various sorts. Now I invest in others’ projects, businesses. “

Her mouth had dropped open enough that she made herself close it casually, sipped more coffee as she gathered her composure.

“Well, George Hartsell, we all thought you’d make it but more like an Ivy League mathematics professor or a ground breaking environmentalist, perhaps. I guess an entrepreneur is okay, too.” She let out a snort. “I mean, if you love it, why not?”

“It’s not a dirty word, is it? ” He smiled but his bright clear eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t a plan to take over the world or anything mad. I just had this knack. I took serious risks.” He looked out the window. “You know, most people don’t recognize me in my old hometown. I get the urge to extend my hand but they look me up and down, pass by quickly. It is the smell of money, I suspect, and a foreignness I seem to carry now. It’s a weird feeling. My parents are glad to see me, of course, and had a dinner with a few of their friends last night. But no one seems to know what to make of me. I want to say, ‘I’m just George–I love numbers and innovation, that’s all! It also made me money!'”

“No one knows me, either, George. Or, rather, they know me but aren’t interested. I think they all know I lost my biggest job, anyway. And I make art, after all. Most of it is not the sort they’d hang on their walls. The nature prints are one thing–and I love doing those, too– but the rest…I mean, what is art to this town?”

“Maybe a primitive painting of a farm scene? Not that that is not worthwhile.”

“Yes, likely so and I agree. And the quilts my mother and her friends make are beautiful. But I am not a success in the typical way, not like you. And now I don’t know quite what I will do next.”

“Make more art, Mari.”

She checked his expression to see if he was teasing or being downright snide, but he seemed serious. His demeanor was even gentle.

Kayla the waitress– no one they knew– brought more coffee but they had had their fill and grew restless. The sun streamed in; they were drawn outdoors.

“Let’s go to the park,” he said and guided her out by her elbow like a gentleman well raised.

******

“Here’s the thing,” he said, “you do need to create so you can’t stop now. I need to create, too, just with different materials, using different avenues. I love the way the human mind can imagine and devise an vast assortment of ideas. I had my own dreams as a kid. I’m holding onto them as long as I can work it right. You can do the same. Should do it.”

They’d walked around the shimmering pond. He’d mentioned he was divorced for over five years and she’d said good for him, he was brave–she’d never even tried a marriage. He’d told her he was tired of travelling and had two houses, one in Wisconsin on a lake and one in L.A. and “a modest apartment in New York” and he’d like to stay put awhile. She wondered how simple or small ‘modest’ meant but just having three homes seemed entirely excessive. A bit interesting. They’d talked about art a little, what he had bought and who she admired and what her next project might be.

“I know. I’m not giving up. I just am taking a break and really have to make money soon.”

“Okay, you know what? I can likely help with that. Now, don’t start being negative or suspicious until we talk over some things. I have a week to hang around; we’ll come up with ideas, think it over well.”

He leaned against a tree and reached out to push a stray lock of burnished gold hair from her eyes. She found the act lovely and natural. They both sensed there was something more underneath it all. They weren’t just two buddies passing the time of day to stave off boredom, catching up on old times, swapping stories to impress or garner attention. It was happening fast, but that didn’t negate the existence of something more stirring between them.

They liked each other’s company, had begun to click, even started to understand the direction and content of their thoughts before all the words were said. It was as if they had always known they might trust each other–when they were seventeen, more captivated by Rita’s boisterous energy?– but had put it aside and so now they resurrected the actual possibility.

Mari took a step backwards, then came forward once more as he carefully opened his arms. They stood there in the warm breeze, hip to hip and chest to chest, minds clarified, their hopefulness magnetic. Like they’d been needing such a moment a long while, and now they were meant to fit.

“Hey there! My gosh! Are you for real?  Is that Marietta Masters and George Hartsell from the good ole, bad ole days? I can’t believe this–twenty-five years later!”

Mari said into George’s ear, “Good grief, that’s Tommy Jenkins, isn’t it! Balding and slouchy but no mistaking him!” 

“Oh, no, not today if ever. Let’s get out of here, lady.”

George grabbed her hand and they ran around the bend of Mimosa pond until they came to his car, a vintage green MG. “Let’s head out to the country, what do you say?”

They had managed to leave the town a few miles behind when George shouted into the wind, grinning like a madman at Mari, “By the way, I already own six of your prints and two paintings!”

Mari smacked his arm as her eyes teared up. She wasn’t sure if it was the heady Tennessee spring wind that got to her or the sudden start up of actual happiness. But she did know her mother would forgive her for not sharing the whole truth. She would even cheer her on, then hug the breath right out of her and say, “Told you that all good things come to those who are just willing to hang on and wait, darlin’.”

Bravehearts, One and All

Photo: Man on balcony of Biltmore Estate by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of bravery. It intrigues and impresses me. I haven’t looked up the definition since elementary school, but I’m confident of its core meaning. It is generally equated with being willing to face and cope with unseen or unwanted challenges, to persist in holding steady or going forward despite strictures, opposition or hardship. It is about nurturing hope despite a current reality that serves to quash hope. Bravery involves finding reserves of strength though feeling weak, harnessing courage in presence of fear, and taking meaningful risks when one might be cautioned otherwise. It is standing up, stepping out, going forth because one must. Or one determines it more desirable. To do otherwise would be harder to live with even if there is reasonable chance of failure. Bravery calls for a deep moral fortitude, for a tensile mind and will.

Often it seems we don’t even know we possess these until we need to use them. They come to us at our command or perhaps with assistance. Surprised, we revel in new prowess it can afford us.

Then again, I may be kidding myself. How much do I know about the need of truly mighty bravery? It’s true I’ve had diverse experiences through which to assess such qualities in people, either first or second hand. But neither do they include the full spectrum of circumstances by which people develop then utilize an almost mythic bravery. I am not a trauma nurse or doctor, disaster aid worker, war veterans’ services provider–those who surely see this firsthand. But I am a retired alcohol/drug and mental health counselor. And I have been witness to a lot of true stories that caused my heart and spirit to lurch and weep and experience great joy for lives lost and found again.

But I don’t have to go to work to see lives being lived despite many perils. There are examples of this even on streets I traverse, places I go.

For months homeless men have made their shelter in a cement entryway of a nearby church. The doors remain locked but this area is free to use. In bone chill of rainy winter they huddled deep into worn sleeping bags or tattered blankets. Sometimes a radio could be heard. Sometimes they’d be talking with one another–perhaps two or three as if there was a limit–or sharing a hot or cold drink. As the seasons morphed into warmer days and nights, they’ve been there less. But mostly they are there, belongings piled up on carts or in plastic bags. They–or others–rummage in our garbage for salvageable food or cans and bottles to turn in. And when it’s a decent day for one reason or another or weather is more amenable, off they go. I rarely have seen them arrive or leave; they just are there and not there. They, like thousands more, live a nomadic life in our city. They are tough or get toughened in every way to just go on living.

They are brave urban street survivors. They endure so much of what we will not ever have to, if we enjoy better fortune. By that I mean we have adequate income to cover our needs, adequate care and medicines to help treat illnesses of all sorts, none of a variety of addictions (gambling is perhaps the worst) that plunge us far over the edge with little help of rescue. I’ve had many clients who lived in city’s forests, along streets in tents or boxes or in relentless heat and cold of the open air under the freeway overpass. Their feet get weary and wounded from walking–from poorly fitting shoes, no socks, no shoes. They live with hunger despite a free warm meal once a day and handouts. They get lonely except for a stray dog they feed scraps and then give a name to only to know it might be taken or die or run off, or a buddy or two they trust this week. They suffer from maladies that they just ignore or cannot get treated. Fight to keep what little they have from those who rob them, and suffer attacks from stronger and angrier people.

The ones who came to me for help desired a safe place for their own, even a very small room. Or a  corner under an awning or camping in bushes with no one bothering them since being in open air offers freedoms, too. Sitting in my comfy office I knew they came partly for respite a while, for dryness or warmth or air conditioning. And to talk and just be heard. To get help with an opiate, methamphetamine or benzodiazepine addiction; or bipolar  or psychotic episodes or recurrent depression with crippling anxiety. To find a way out of the particular rabbit  hole they found themselves in despite once dreaming and working for a far different life. No one expects to be homeless, after all.

Not often did they admit to being brave but they knew they coped with things a great many others cannot. And endurable and enduring street life is predicated on one’s wits, physical and psychic strength–being able to engage in fully operant survival mode. Some might say “dumb luck” also played a part in staying alive. Still, I’d remind them that basic bravery was a prime asset among internal  and external resources that worked on their behalf. That dipping into even a piddling spring of hope one day to the next enabled someone to not throw in the towel. Because often all appears lost to the mentally ill and physically debilitated, the addicted and traumatized. There is powerful value in this tool for survival, this bravery. To keep on until a better answer is found. And this often did bring them to my door, seeking change. Renewal.

Their sort of bravery works for them. It is not a choice often, but more a requirement. It is far different to have to deal with harsh realities and try to make a change than to choose to face fear in order to do something new that is engaging and meant for one’s own satisfaction.

Bravery is a potent quality for us all to use, however. There are people who stand up for basic human rights despite any backlash from naysayers. Those who sacrifice personal security or even their lives to help or defend others. People determined to generate improvements in quality of life despite opposition branding them variously as budget busters or out of touch with real communities or having too radical an approach to make viable change happen.

Then there are the rest of us, perhaps at first glance ordinary people, no celebrated dragon slayers. We live our lives quietly, industriously, but often with fervency, a sense of expectancy. We are visited by lesser and greater life problems. Our strong bodies get busted. The love of our life finds then marries someone else. A best friend behaves like an enemy, or worse yet drifts away without a backward glance. Our talents fail to bring us the supposed glory we envisioned. Our good education somehow prepared us for a mundane job. We fail our children in small ways that will haunt us or in a big way that is never beyond shamed and pained attention. Our lives can be dolorous, frayed by restlessness, thinned by loneliness. Tried in seven variations yet discovered wanting again.

But we prevail, anyway. We chose to continue tromping on our way. We’d rather try again–if nothing more than because we wonder what else is out there. Trying emphasizes seeking or finding opportunities; it implies better possibilities. Ones that are preferable to the present circumstance.

All that bobbing about on the river of life, or being impeded by rock, branch or uncharted, unnatural dam. All the re-routing we must make. It takes stamina, too. We do not get to live by instinct alone but also must engage brain and soul power.

When once I was struggling with my own upended life, a person of authority told me something that stayed with me ever after–but as an example of what was an untruth. She said, “Trying isn’t close to enough and is not the point here. Only victory over your trauma symptoms will be enough, but that’s unlikely.”

I was a teenager in a psychiatric ward where I was sent to “get over” a damaged childhood. I had had about enough of adults’ ignorant ways. I looked at the psychiatrist to see if she was joking. She was not.

I retorted, “Victory is right in this terrible trying I do every day and night. Don’t you tell me trying doesn’t count. I’ll succeed because I’ll try hard enough and long enough to figure things out. Get better, get out of here and go on.”

With her words to fight against and my stubborn pushing forward, I began to think of myself as someone who might rise above. Who could change things even if they needed to be done alone. I loathed that place with its high, narrow windows and guttural sounds all night long and the mind-numbing pills I rarely swallowed. I began to alter my internal life story from one of fear to a tentative then quiet boldness. I did not feel brave but profoundly longed to be. So I started to act as if I was. Increments of courage propelled me. I learned to endure a dim and haunted place where many seemed to be fading or forgotten. To feel their ruinous grief within echoing walls while sorting out my own. To scrub bathrooms with a toothbrush when I broke a rule. To float beyond it all while trying to block out someone screaming in the night. I would not succumb. I found even an approximation of bravery cast enough encouraging light to offer refuge until the real thing kicked in.

Of course more challenges lay ahead. But I saw a light and parsed out some of what might work to better reassemble the pieces.

That was an experience long ago lived. But today’s post has another, far happier genesis.

I was on the East coast last week and got to spend time with my oldest daughter, a sculptor who teaches at a university. Naomi (Falk, not Richardson if you look for her on Instagram) was buying rather esoteric and expensive items for an upcoming sailing trip to Greenland starting in July. (Rubber boots, dry pack, super dark sunglasses that cost plenty, special socks and other clothing, etc.) She made an iPad purchase and was been talking with the salesman about how she needed certain video editing capacities and waterproof features for a trip. He inquired about it further so she shared more. He “high-fived” her and peppered her with excited questions. A Hawaiian, he’d been following the return of a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe after three years at sea with navigation via only stars, wind and waves.

That conversation was a first and fascinating to hear. After two days with her I’d seen a different reaction. This man got it entirely. Usually when people asked and she shared the basics, they responded with mouth hanging open. Incredulous. Or they blinked at her blankly, repeated her statement but as a question, to make sure they heard right. She said something like this:

“I’m going on a trip in a fifty-one foot sailing vessel with a small crew and a few others for an artists’ residency. But it’s also about examining environmental issues, climate changes and how they’re impacting glaciers and Greenlanders. Yep, sailing up the East coast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and then to Greenland’s western coast. ”

And she’d note: “I know only basics of sailing, but may not need to use my limited knowledge. I’d like to, though. I hope to scuba dive at some point.”

Or she would say: “Why am I doing it? Well, it’s not something I’d be expected to do. It interests me, the whole experience. I took a boat around and to the Faroe Islands last year, had an artists’ residency in Iceland before that– I can do Europe, for example, any old time. In fact, have gone and will go again.”

She was generally grinning while speaking, yet her essential equanimity always struck me. But that is Naomi. She gathers much information, cogitates, makes a decision and goes forward, even if there are more questions to be answered. She trusts her process and gut. She takes calculated risks, ones that many would not consider much less do. I consider her brave in more ways than one. Born at two and a half pounds, two and a half months early in the mid-70s when such preemies were not often expected to live much less fully thrive, she seemed pretty brave from the start.

“My brave and foolish daughter, dear Naomi,” I teased as we headed back to the hotel laden with her purchases, and we laughed even as I gulped a little.

And then I thought more about those words.  It’s not that she feels no trepidation. It’s that she does/creates/investigates unusual things, anyway. Isn’t that what it takes in life to keep the wheels turning? I mean all the wheels–the wheel of invention, the wheels of learning and time and creativity, of us becoming adaptable, goals being met and life being lived? We need common sense; I’m a huge proponent of the homely quality that withstands many stressors. But we need to take risks, too, that teach us what we are made of and what we may need to know. Lessons and insights that can connect us to more than our claustrophobia-prone, exclusive ways of being. And it takes bravery to take the first step away from all familiar toward something imagined but not wholly known. It requires visionary breadth to position ourselves in a scenario far different than what we know in this moment.

Whether life is terribly hard and wounding or safe yet empty of curious impulses, we cannot forge any new path without resurrecting our waiting bravery. And to do that may mean being a little foolish at times. Conjuring and planning what may not seem to make complete sense but which triggers a compelling sync with who we’re meant to be. Energy of anticipation. Magnetism of secret dreams unveiled. A sense of embarking on a finer adventure. Being true to our best selves.

We all are capable of being brave. In fact, I believe we are born to it. Perhaps we just forget in the morass of daily duties what bravery is, how it feels. It feels vibrant. (Even dauntless, not so foolish a thing to feel as we stumble–it’s like having a burly staff for balance.) We would do well to call it forth for ourselves and others, then do more good and be who we long to be. Call it forth even more under the press of worldly burdens and losses. There are days when opening the door requires a mantle of bravery for an emboldened step beyond the threshold. Find the heart to claim it and take a chance.

Naomi posing good-naturedly at McColl Center for Art+Innovation, Charlotte, NC

The Watchman

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Heaven had hung the windsock she’d whipped up from remnants at the back of her house, near the fence enclosing her courtyard. Right where Jasper Dye could see it. It flapped and spun in gusting, humid breezes. The placement had been his idea. She’d walked up the hill and offered it to him last month. Thought it would liven up his house a bit. She preferred the numerous handmade wind chimes that called out from her eaves and elsewhere. Most of those hung in the front with the exception of a large chime back of the driveway by her business sign: “Heaven Steele’s Glass Chimes and Art”.

Jasper generally liked the mix of brittle and soft notes that lifted in the air, wound their way up and over the road to his place. Kept him company. The visit was a surprise despite being neighbors. He was third generation Marionville and she was new. He suggested he’d see the windsock better from his porch. It was a cheery decoration but sure not his style. He wondered if she was trying to tell him his place had gone to seed; that was old news, he’d been out of the genuine farming business awhile now. But the other thing was, he didn’t want to feel indebted.

He had grown used to the woman’s strangeness. She wasn’t like most people in Marionville, around Potts County. She was younger than she appeared with that silvery, cropped hair. She had one nearly violet eye and one brown, some defect that marked her more. It was true she was a hard worker (she had that in common with other folks), but was operating an art studio. He guessed she made hundreds of glass chimes year-round and other useless, pretty things. But her other business was all about desperate folks showing up at her door, day and night. Some sort of counseling, he’d heard, but he knew better. Maybe a money making hoax or some witchy thing going on. That made her somebody way outside of the box but he didn’t know quite what. He cared very little; he waved at her when she waved, shared a few words.

He could see a few goings-on from his porch up the hill, as his ratty–he admitted it–farm overlooked the back of Heaven’s nice house. Jasper hadn’t crossed her threshold yet, saw no need. It had to have things in there he couldn’t decipher. The fall one evening last week was a warning, anyway. He had inched down Heaven’s steep lot to get a better look at a girl–he thought he knew her; her father could be a violent man–pounding on Heaven’s window. But he’d slipped in mud and tripped over a root or rock and that was the end of that. He’d paid for his nosiness, drat the ole curiosity. The girl took off. Now he had a cast on his right arm and nasty bruises up and down his side. Felt nearly helpless though it could have been far worse.

“Jasper Dye’s Downfall!” His son Shawn laughed at the foolishness when he came by to help out. “Let people be, ole man. Don’t go where you’re not invited. Stay the hermit you usually are.”

Shawn got on his last stretched nerve some days. Acting like his own father was getting dumber rather than wiser. That was not the case, not yet. But he was a good son to help out so he just grunted, let it go.

So now Jasper truly had little better to do than watch plumes of dust stirred by infrequent trucks and cars that rumbled by or Heaven’s comings and goings. He wondered if she knew he could see her pretty well in one part of the spacious courtyard. Tree branches overhung more than half of it. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to have a water feature; the sound of water falling slipped in and out of his hearing range. That’s where she met with people if the weather was good. All he could make out was someone’s head or a flash of one of her bright outfits between thick leafy branches. When the wind was settled and the road empty, a murmur of voices might drift up to him. It was like having the TV on low, a barest semblance of company.

He felt a peculiar contentment knowing she was there. Had been for about ten years. Before that the place had been a vacation home, people in and out and noisy. This was better. Yet all Jasper truly knew about her were the rumors of unusual talents (Shawn said she was “just plain psychic; she advises people on stuff” and Jasper just laughed at the idea), her beautiful chimes and quiet ways. She had been friendly enough the few times they’d crossed paths. He wasn’t a big talker; she let him be.

One Thursday–he usually came on Thursdays–Shawn had done an errand for him and then barbecued burgers for dinner, cleaned up and left. Jasper sat on the creaky porch drinking coffee, rolling the same lumpy cigarette three times before he got it right. He needed one of those simple machines since his stiff fingers made a mess of things too often. It was about dusk, the light rich but sweet in the trees, tipping the swaying wild grasses. The air had a glossy sheerness that early summer lent it. Everything sparked with color. Jasper lit the cigarette as his gaze ran over the scene before him, resting briefly on Heaven’s darkening house. The windsock settled down as if done dancing for the day. He noted a silver car still parked in her long driveway. It wasn’t familiar but then lots of cars at her house weren’t, especially with high season getting into full swing. Heaven got people from all over wanting to see how she made those chimes and they always carried out bags bulging with purchases.

He rubbed his thigh and hip, smoked, thought about his wife, Jane, long gone. How she’d sit with him without a peep and it was like a whole conversation happened.  Jasper talked to her more now than before.

“I know it was stupid, but you wouldn’t say so. Just our son’s got that sort of mouth on him…Made burgers with his special sauce, my so tasty, he should be a chef not some greasy spoon cook…”

He leaned forward, squinted. Heaven walked into the courtyard and back again, talking to someone, hands wildly gesturing. There was a guy there, much taller than she was, which was saying something. Jasper strained to catch the tone of voice.

The man stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. She stood still, as if rooted to the spot. Jasper re-lit the last half of another cigarette. Well, this wasn’t his business. She’d made quite a life in Marionville and some excitement was part of it, whereas he got bored with things so paid too much attention to her place. Heaven, despite her soft name, could handle herself.

The glowing stub faded; he crushed it in a ceramic pot full of stones. Rubbing his eyes, winced at the deep ache in his left hip. Stood up. He looked out over the valley towards town and the water. Lake Minnatchee gave off a deep blue sheen. He imagined the young ones had gone home and teenagers were soon taking their places as darkness snuffed out coral and rose streaks of sunset. They’d be up to no good or romance, maybe the same thing. Jasper felt something like peace but a melancholy undertow yanked at him, as usual.

Jasper turned to go inside and threw a last glance at Heaven’s house. The silver car was still there. There were no sounds coming from the courtyard other than faintest tinkling of water. He frowned at the emptiness he felt there. Something had changed in the last few minutes. Well, they’d left the courtyard, no big deal, she likely was showing her art. Still, unease coursed through his legs. He rubbed his hip and rocked forward to redistribute his weight, then scanned lot and house again. It was the windsock; it wasn’t there. The air was dense with moist heat; no blasts of wind had swept over the hillside to shake it free. Windows in her house were grayed out; the courtyard’s bright lights, usually lit up at dusk, were off. He swallowed hard, then trudged down his bumpy footpath to the road and Heaven’s place, his hand carved cane aiding his decent.

It was slow going, half because Jasper didn’t want o feel he had to hurry for anything and half because he didn’t want to tumble into the soon-to-be twilit road. As he inched his way down, then crossed the road he noted the car was a Porsche and had an urge to lick a tire. He walked around to the courtyard fence. There was the pretty windsock, crumpled on the ground. He couldn’t quite reach the hook from which it had hung so stuffed it into his pocket.

“Jasper,”  Heaven whispered at him, more a hiss than his name.

“Yeah,” he whispered back but couldn’t find where she was.

“The window.”

Jasper moved three feet to his left, saw her face behind a screen. He felt a little embarrassed to be right at her private rooms and backed up.

“Don’t go. I need a little help.”

“Yeah?”

“There’s a man, a guy who came hoping to talk to his dead wife…I don’t do that kind of junk….but he’s drunk. I can’t get him off my rocking chair in the courtyard. I need to call a cop or a cab or something but earlier my phone was at the edge of the pillow on the chair–it has to be right under him. I stood on the garden bench just barely yanked off the windsock hoping you’d see. Well, that you’d understand. Which, of course, you did.”

Jasper studied her imploring eyes through a scrim of falling darkness. Those eyes were two beautiful magnets; he couldn’t stop himself from staring.

“Jasper!” She pressed her nose and lips against the screen, face flattened comically. “Can you come in and help me with him or just call a cab? Or the police?”

Jasper started, nodded, then hobbled around to the front of the house, past the glinting chimes, up to her door. Walked right in. He knew to turn left to find the courtyard and passed though part of the living room and a big kitchen first. Heaven met up with him. The man was sopping blitzed, slumped over in the rocking chair, reeking of something expensive. Jasper raised an unruly white eyebrow and pointed to his cast. Poor guy, hurting and stinking; he knew about wives dying too early. Needing to hear a word from them. But he just talked to his own Jane as before. That felt like something but she had a strong personality even after death.

Jasper did the easy thing, used his cell phone and called a cab, then waited at the door as Heaven sat in the courtyard keeping tabs on the guy. When he roused some from his stupor, he yelled at Heaven.

“Liar! Imposss-ter!”

“Okay, that’s right, you gave me nothing but a headache so we’re all good,” she reassured him as Jasper came forward.

“Thaz right, mista, real fake! Don’t give cash, I’ll tell who you are, lady! Or hey man, you part of this scheme…?”

Jasper reached to steady him with his good arm as well as his cast-hindered arm so the drunk wouldn’t come crashing down on the rocker. Or, worse, his bum leg. The man swung at him with sudden vigor and just as fast Jasper lifted his cane, whacked him good on a meaty but weakened fist. He yowled and stumbled back as the cab driver stuck his head into the front door and yelled out.

“Okay here or need a hand?”

“Hey Billy K! We’re all good, come get the fool!” Jasper yelled back.

Billy K, a big man but an affable one, had little trouble encouraging his new customer to take a break, sleep it off in the hotel, get his car the next day.

“He came all the way from Georgia…” Heaven stood there in a floaty turquoise dress, her big bare feet planted firmly and a calm look on her face.

As the cab disappeared in a swatch of darkness, he and Heaven stood in the middle of the empty road as if waiting for something, he didn’t know what.

“He was just perturbed, poor guy… That about it, then? You okay?” he said.

She smiled at him. There was a warm gleam, as ever, to her weirdly colored eyes. She took his good arm and the cane, steered him to her house. She smelled like lilies of the valley that grew back of his house and her hand was strong.

“Let’s have some good tea with a couple slices of mixed berry pie.”

He hadn’t seen an invite coming so was surprised. Nothing too crazy had happened yet. He went along as she guided him down softly lit steps and onto her walkway.

“How’d you know I’d see the windsock was gone and wonder about things?”

“I’ve got my eye on you, Jasper Dye.” She squeezed his arm and it wasn’t unpleasant.

“Is that right?”

“I see you walking about, see your cigarettes lit and smoke rising in the sunlight. You spend a lot of time with your good thoughts. And I know you watch me, too.”

“I do, that’s so,” he said and it was frankly strange that it didn’t bother him a bit to admit it. He crossed her threshold for the second time in one night out of those many years since Heaven Steele came to live in Marionville. He’d never felt he’d wanted or needed to. He supposed since he’d helped her out it was like being a real guest. Maybe, he suspected, even a friend.

 

(Note: This story about Heaven and Jasper is one of a series about various residents of the fictitious northern Michigan town of Marionville. First posted in 2013, this one has been revised for today’s offering. I’m in process of editing/rewriting the stories for possible submission for publication so may continue to share a few here. Feedback is welcome!)