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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what if he doesn’t this year?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. Patience, I guess, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wonder. No invitations.”

“I know, I thought it was due.”

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

“It sounds like a crock.”

“It scares me for some weird reason.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I suppose so,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

Until now.

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

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

Mulligan shook his head, swung open the door.

“Surprise, Mulligan!” they called out.

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

“What on earth?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I Can Leave You

Yachats, MR 66, Days 3,4 252
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

When Tessa thought back to the day she first saw Cliffside Court, she couldn’t for the life of her recall seeing that thing standing like a relic amid sea salt-licked, sun-burnt grass. She’d only been drawn to the bluff’s edge, and the ocean’s roaring like a wild thing it was yet which from up there sounded like a comfort born of the neutrality of indifference. Acceptance, that was what she felt as she peered at cottages and stepped across the dry lawn which offered a shared area. She observed the kids squinting at her then scattering, an old man hunched over his walking stuck with cap pulled to his eyes. If one was inclined to share an area, that is, which she felt was unlikely overall. It suited her. She was here to do nothing, for as long as it took to feel at ease with that. Doctor’s orders, finally.

“I’m not yet a basket case; you can’t just order me to some obscure asylum where I  must lunch on a manicured lawn with the crazy ladies,” she’d protested when forced to see Dr. Matthews. “I have scads of excellent miles left on this mind and body.”

This was the day after her meltdown during a useless, contentious staff meeting wherein she threw her favorite Waterford pen across the room. It then bounced off the window and hit Jarrod’s cheekbone, her comrade but also boss. Then worse yet she began to weep as she mumbled another something regrettable and fumed out.

“The operant word there is ‘yet’, Tessa. You’ve given much and are paying for the 16 hour days and sleepless nights. You know I can more or less order you to take a leave since I work for this company–part of your perks, our wellness team. Your blood pressure is sky-high. You aren’t eating right. You have no one at home to corral you or advise you so I am sending you off. Six weeks, then do a check-in. Take the tranquilizer as needed, it can help. But go far away, and don’t answer emails or that phone.”

She hung her head like a chastised puppy and slunk out of the room, face burning with embarrassment and anger. No one dared look at her as she tidied her desk, watered her creamy white orchid with shaking hands, turned out the light in her office then walked very fast in her spike heels with head high to escape one more second of humiliation. No one was going to see her fall down, certainly not into any terrifying emotional rabbit hole. Jarrod observed Tessa with two fingers gingerly touching a tiny bruise on his cheek. He shook his head, turned away. He sure hoped she’d get a grip.

******

There certainly was no dependable internet connection at Cliffside Court or surrounds. Anyone would think this was not the place for her, such a step down in the world according to friends and family–why didn’t she take a month’s cruise to the south of France, for example? Find her way to a spa resort on St. Lucia? It was a getaway she needed, a break from a job that had begun to take her apart, her composure and authority disturbed like silky threads torn free of a fine embroidered work. She was VP of a well-tuned interior design business, after all; anyone would need a serious time out after ten years running. But at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on the road?

Tessa wanted nothing of chic or exclusive or trendy. She wanted unreachable, ordinary, earthy and weathered Cliffside Court fit the bill. After only a week, she had begun to sleep again. She’d found a Saturday farmer’s market in the hamlet four miles away and had begun to eat more than once a day, like a surprisingly hungry person. Off coffee bit by bit, she drank soothing medicinal teas the local coffee shop kept in a green glass jars beside homemade lemon peel and poppy seed scones.

She’d taken to sitting n the deck, careful to step around split or missing boards, settling into her plastic chair with mug in hand. When a thought from the rat race world wriggled into her mind she banished it with a choppy wave of a hand. Tessa primarily focused on the horizon when she could see through fog; she loved how things disappeared and reappeared as a brew of  sweet-tangy mist burned off or fell upon all. She watched fishing boats make careful progress, and the rolling, cresting waves were a like spell for healing. When her aching back yelled at her, she walked down a treacherous stairway that led to the miles-long beach and spent an hour loping up and down a blinking sandy stretch. She walked until her leg muscles and brain felt liquid, just another part of the sea. Blessed sea. Sea that scared her in the right way, like God was talking to her. She soon listened to the wordless poetry of it all and breathed in thick or shimmering damp air.

On the week-ends, it got busy; she kept to herself, inside. Or perhaps chatted with the old man who repeated much of what she said to make sure he got it, and had lived there four years since his wife passed. She liked the mischievous sister, Mae and brother, Ty, who soon approached her, and Elle, their mother with a close cap of silvered hair–it could be dyed but Tessa thought no, it belonged on her, framing olive skin and moody eyes. She admired it and Elle’s patience with those entertaining but madcap kids. A family of five from Canada stayed for ten days, friendly from afar at best which was fine with her. A single man came and went after three days; an older woman stayed for two, on to California next, she said as if relieved. People came and went as she stayed on.

The couple who owned the place was always busy. Mo hummed as she worked, sometimes chatted awhile; you’d have thought it the radio as her songs were tuneful and her voice sonorous. Henry tended to silence in a satisfied way. They’d been married on the bluff long ago, bought the cottages six years after their first son was born. Tessa believed the place and lifestyle were their dream come true.

It made her wonder: was her life the one she chose or one that chose her? It seemed a trite thought and dissolved as she relaxed into the pace of coastal life. It made her nervous that she was adapting so quickly to doing so little. Where was the adrenaline rush she loved of the looming deadline? That memory fell over the bluff and headlong into the sea.

So mostly it was good, better than she had imagined. The summer breezes left a kiss of salt on her lips, her hair frizzed and billowed off her loosening shoulders, her bare feet carried sand and dirt inside the cottage and she left it all as it was as long as she wanted. No one cared; not even she cared.

By the end of the second week, however, Tessa found herself unable to see past that odd thing, the two sturdy grey poles with a lateral top pole, and it rose in the middle of her sight line. Useless old beams cutting up the grand view. It struck her as a sort of gallows. She played with tat thought and found it morbid  but fascinating. It was as if her vision sharpened, her mind refocused in a fresh way so landscape and surroundings were perceived as more dramatic than soothing. But she began to feel that someone or more than one had hung from or hung onto those frayed rope ends. It scared her. Re-positioning her chair didn’t help; the thing was just there, a reminder of something that made her squirm. It was worrisome, that structure. And her wondering about it, so she’d get get busy with something pleasant, like quickly sketching the morning glories or the ocean, kids at its edge. To draw like that seemed like freedom, like play.

Days passed uneventfully, just sunning and walking and reading two good books she had put off for too long. The nights sweetly whispered to her, the push, lift and fall of endless water shushing her mind, the deep darkness gentle about her body.

One afternoon Old Man–he didn’t offer a name, saying his real one was ridiculous, no one could pronounce it–sat on the bench longer than usual, face to the glinting expanse of water and sand below.

“May I join you?”

“Eh? Join me? So you are.”

They sat a moment quietly. He liked to chew on an unlit pipe as he stroked his white beard, now scraggly but reasonably short.

“I have a feeling your beard has longer than this,” she said, pointing with her chin, her hands grasping the bench. There was a strong, chilling wind this time.

“My beard? You’d be right. Down to middle of my chest a long while.”

“Why’d you cut it?”

“Cut it? Well, my wife didn’t like it that long. But I didn’t whack it down until she died.”

“You waited until then?”

“Ah, yes, I waited…and then it seemed the right thing to do. Respect for her memory. And I didn’t enjoy it long, anymore. She used to brush it out, oil it up for me.” He puffed on his smokeless pipe a bit. “That’s the sort she was.” He glanced at her, heavy-lidded eyes keen and clear. “You married?”

“Oh, no. I mean, once. Not anymore.”

“Once, eh? Enough for some, that’s it. You look like one of them fancy lawyers, too busy for such.”

Tessa laughed. “No, not one of those. I work at an interior design company.” She wondered what it was that made him think that.

Old man shrugged as if he heard her. “I guess it’s how you talk.”

She started again. “We create interiors of houses and commercial buildings, make things functional but attractive.”

“You create, huh? Make house stuff? Well, that’s fine. I loved woodworking, myself. Made some money in handmade furniture.” He then held up a hand and showed her a pale scar running along his gnarled thumb all the way to the tip. “About cut it in half, but they got ‘er fixed.”

She shook her head, pulled her jacket about her. “Well, good thing. Going to storm?”

“Naw, not tonight. Just bluster, a little wet. Might even get a good sunset.”

She glanced at the moldy looking clouds, unable to see how that could happen.

“Just wait,” Old man said, “that sky will likely shine.” He pushed his stick into the ground and helped himself up. “I saw you looking at the thing out there. We all have, too much.” He pointed at the poles behind them. “Don’t ask Mo and Henry. Not a good story.” He lumbered off, all six feet of him, a long crackling branch bent over by time and wind.

Tessa waited for the sun to set, arms crossed tightly, hood pulled up over her head. She heard the children run inside as Elle called twice and almost wished they’d come sit with her. Her cottage could feel too ancient and quiet. Empty of much, not such a bad thing but sometimes a tad lonely. As she stared out to leaping and cresting waves, a yellowish-coral light seeped through heavy banks of clouds and there was a small thin line that grew, a spot amid the dimming distance that shone, just like he said.

It was beginning to feel right, being there, and she still had three more weeks of wonders. And then she did not know what next. She did not miss the power of her title, the problem solving to create a heftier profit. She missed making art.

******

In the morning she was possessed of an immense desire to find out why the thing was left to rot over the years. Though it still stood tall and straight it was a blight. And clearly someone wanted it to remain. She had awakened knowing it was just meant to be long swings, two by the looks of the ratty rope ends flapping away. Even if Mo and Henry weren’t going to tell her, she could explore it more. Set a chair by it and step up higher to look it over. So she perpared to do that after pancakes for breakfast and strong black tea she gave into and bought at the coffee shop.

Mae’s small face greeted her, nose pressed flat against the screen of the door.

“Miss Tessa, what’ve you been cooking?”

“Pancakes, want some?”

“Blueberries or raspeberries or what?”

“Gluten-free flour, no berries, but walnuts.”

“No thanks.” She shrugged, picked up a ladybug.

They sat on the deck and surveyed the bright blue sky when Elle sauntered around the corner with mail in her hand.

“Look at that, something from a Mr. Lance Forman.” She smacked it twice on her palm.

“Oh…a nice surprise, huh?”

Elle looked down, smiled widely.

“It’s Daddy! Read to me!” She tackled her mother’s waist.

“I guess he’ll get around to coming back one of these days, the kids are powerful magnets. Maybe I still can persuade him, too. Well, well.” She smoothed back the long bangs from her daughter’s forehead. “Not now. Wait for Ty to get back with Henry. Then we’ll see what’s what.” She unlatched her child. “So how’s it going, Tessa? Pretty out here today.”

“Yes, all except this thing, the weird blight on the bluff,” she said, pointing at it. It’s all I can see, anymore, until I get to the beach. And then I still see it as I look up. What is it, Elle?”

She studied Mae’s surprised eyes, then sighed, opened her mouth to speak.

“Mama-you said not to talk about it.”

“Yeah. And Ty’ll be back soon. Why not go find Mo, see if you can help her.”

Mae jumped down from the deck and ran off.

Tessa thought better of her inquiry. “Maybe… just forget it?”

“It’s just, it was tragic, that’s all.”

“I see. I felt maybe that was it. An accident?”

Elle nodded, ruffled glimmering hair. “I guess I can tell you. Just say nothing to anyone else.” She glanced around her. “Their other son. He fell from the top piece, way the heck from up there. He climbed all the way up to show off to his little brother, I guess, who was swinging down below him. Those swings could really fly, I guess, fun if a little dangerous if you pumped too hard and flew up too high. But it was the climbing that got him, not the swinging.”

Tessa’s right hand pressed hard against her chest. “Oh, no. Then why keep it there? Why not take it down so it isn’t a reminder every single day?”

Elle narrowed her eyes at the sea. “A kind of memorial, I guess, to Wally. The little brother, Rusty, didn’t talk for months but he finally turned out okay, he has a welding business over the mountains. Doesn’t come by much. I’ve met him, he was nice-looking and polite but oh, those eyes.” She shivered. “Like two deep wells of sorrow, you just want to fill them with happy times until he can smile without hurt fighting its way out… After one visit Mo came over, explained to me. She wanted to finally cut it down but Henry said no, not yet.” She let out a long sigh again, then got up to start dinner. “Best to try to overlook it, go on and enjoy your stay here. You’re a good sort, Tessa, say a prayer for them, huh?”

Tessa held herself very still as she looked up at the weathered wood and tattered ropes. The ghosts of two perfect swings, made for children and grownups alike, and  the remnants aged in the salty wind, rains that swept in from foreign places, the swift sunlight that cut through all the fog and burnished sturdy grasses and morning glories that grew wild. The people who withstood such a place of mysteries, and miseries.  Like people everyhwere, she guessed. But Wally seemed only half-gone, lingering upon the vehicle of his ending. It suddenly angered her to think that they would always see him just lying broken on the ground, or falling and falling, or cheerily waving so high up before that fall…that this was the last they would recall of him.

Tessa got out her camera from its soft case in the bedroom. She held it in her hands and thought about what she was doing. She needed a picture of this ghost thing and then she needed to think a lot more.

Outside she quickly snapped a dozen pictures from all angles, hoping no one would see her and ask questions. She then looked more closely, zoomed in right on the cross board. And her breath rushed out of her, eyes stung.

She flew back inside, shut the door and leaned against it, felt the universe swell and open as Wally or something more than she understood held a hand out to her. She closed her eyes, willed her heart to stop its rampage at her ribs. Did Rusty really climb up there a furtive hour to carve those words for his brother, take the same risk that ended Wally’s life? No one but he, surely, needed so badly do it.

Old Man sat on his deck, puffing invisible tobacco, watching her figure things out and then hiding behind her door. A thing of the past, the smoking business although his pipe fit just right there and so it stayed. So much was a thing of the past. Like that Wally. A good boy. A kid who’d have grown up handsome and smart like his sweet little brother though a lonely man he now had become, bless him. A hard knowledge to carry. But some things are not to be, others are, and what lies waiting between one or the other you just never can guess.

He wondered a lot about Tessa. A woman who instinctively knew a way to better things but couldn’t quite grasp onto it. Maybe soon she would. He tapped his pipe lightly against the chair leg, went inside and turned on the radio to the oldies. He and his lady used to dance to these tunes. Sometimes he still did.

******

It was barely dawn but she had to get it done and then–vanish. Tessa propped the tall, rickety ladder (taken from the shed with Elle’s help after midnight) against one pole, climbed slowly. At the top, she steadied herself. In the soft bag at her shoulder she fumbled for fabric. She had brought it along for her “work time out”, a few pieces she was considering for a project that had everyone else stumped. It was odd lengths of fabric she, herself,  had hand dyed with muted, mostly primary colors. Something for an airy white gazebo that overlooked multiple fancy water features for one of their bigger design contracts. No one had deemed it appropriate, but she remained engaged by her larger plan and had begun to re-imagine it the past month. To present it again, brilliantly. Though it gave her less and less pleasure to picture her suited silhouette against a window which framed the city’s mad bustle.

The night before she had torn them into narrow strips, leaving the edges raw. She had seen just what she needed to do, how to embrace but change the abandoned swing set. She enlisted Elle, who now steadied the ladder below her.

“Hurry!” she hissed. “They all get up early!”

“Patience…hold on tight,” Tessa cautioned.

She had tied each varied length of fabric, some a foot long, others several inches, on a sturdy cord and now secured one end of the cord on one pole, then climbed back down to re-position the ladder. Then up she went to tie off the other end to the opposing pole.

“Is it straight enough? Look quite taut?”

Elle gave two thumbs up.

She climbed back down and studied what Elle was seeing.

A dozen strips of colorful fabric fluttered in a light wind, flapping, twisting, spinning–sunny yellow, rich turquoise, fern green, soft rose, tender lavender, the bonus of a wider mango-bright strip in the center. Flags of fancy, signals of life, in remembrance of all the lovely, lively children. A beacon for others, a sign of hope despite harm that can happen to all. A reminder of Mo’s and Henry’s devotion, a gentle greeting for Rusty should he dare look up again at his carved words of love.

It was what Tessa could leave as a portion of her gratitude. For kindnesses. For a taste of freedom. For a glimpse of better living.

She was enveloped in a brisk hug from Elle, then loaded up her suitcase and then, “Give Old Man a farewell for me, hug the kids. I hope Mo and Henry don’t get distressed by it…”

“It’ll be a good change, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along.”

Waving, Tessa drove away. Elle patted the address and phone number Tessa had shared, safe in her jeans pocket. Such an odd thing, a city friend. The kids would miss her a little, too. She saw Mo come to the office door; Elle hurried away to Old Man. He sat on his deck gumming his pipe. He’d seen it all now. Elle nodded at his faint smile, his feathery eyebrows rising, falling, a clue to his feeling. Yet, too, he was steady as the tides. She leaned into his aged bony warmth.

“Going to be a good day,” he said, pointing past Elle’s boy Ty on the bench–or another Wally vision, he never knew which. Swaths of bright fog skimmed the horizon, glowing pink, the eye seeking the blues beyond, a bit of heaven.

 

 

 

Castoffs

Every morning they are already on the train and if I haven’t had my two cups of black coffee to wake me up, I find myself sitting across the aisle from them by default. I try to avoid them because I don’t think much of the dog.

It’s a couple in their sixties or more plus their dog. The woman wears those glasses that change with light conditions, big black frames. I like her purple bag. The man wears glasses, too, and somehow he looks like he has had good jobs. He always has that brown hat and leather jacket on. Their yipping, scrappy mongrel dog acts energized and whiney if I look at it very long. I want to say it’s a boy, I don’t know why, females can be scrappy, too–I’m one of them. The four-legged is maybe a terrier mix. My Great-uncle Ken had one once. I never liked it; it’s fur got knotted and it smelled bad like he did. It was too friendly, if you know what I mean, I had to give him a push, kick him away. Uncle Ken would laugh then pick him up then like he was the most adorable kid who did a cute trick.

So maybe that’s why I took an instant if minor dislike at the start. The couple is okay, chats to themselves very little; the woman hugs the little beast. I wonder when it will get kicked off the train. When has it been okay to bring animals onto public transit? No one looks blind, no one seems out of it. But she dotes on it more than necessary so I guess it’s her dog, a creature who helps people who’ve got trouble out in the world. A mental health dog. She mumbles to it at times, poor old gal.

I suppose you can say I was one of those people, though. That is, I got into trouble for years, used to make wrong decisions, not the reasonable ones. Like stealing stuff I could sell and hanging out with older criminal types and driving without a license and getting into a fight here and there.  But after a long vacation in “juvie”, that was enough. Now I’m twenty-two, go to work every day cleaning an old, once-fancy apartment building with thirty large units, thanks to my cousin’s friend who manages it. I don’t mind being paid to clean as I’m an orderly and clean-cut person now, you couldn’t spot me as anything else unless you were savvy. Anyway, I like to leave things better than when I arrive. One week-ends there are a few offices to clean. I make ends meet, barely, and live in a studio apartment twenty blocks from work.

One morning this dog lady and her husband or boyfriend, they’re directly across from me. I have a headache and don’t want that dog near me. But there’s nowhere else to sit so I plop down with a canvas bag full of my own special cleaning aids. The lady looks up, big eyes startled, as if I look weird or she recalled something serious or had sudden pain. And she hangs on tight to the dog who has gotten an interest in the bag I just dropped. I have a bologna sandwich in a paper bag in there, too, so pull it onto my lap.

The hungry pooch settles down a bit. The man glances my way, stares through me as if he is thinking hard and the woman follows his gaze. I look away, turn my body a bit, but when I look back she is still gazing at me. I tend to get a little paranoid. Do I know them from the past? Did I steal something of theirs? I doubt that’s the reason she’s looking at me, that was five years ago, but ignore her as usual without much luck.

“You a cleaner?” she asks, eying the bag which has a spray bottle or two sticking out.

Her voice sounds rusty and quiet; her eyes stay with my bag, her dog squirmy. I nod, look out a window.

“We got a place you could clean. We pay decent. See you here all the time, you seem okay.”

Her husband looks at me then, checking me out. I stare back, give a hint of smile, an acknowledgment.

“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”

The lady shakes her head, that bleached blond hair bouncing a bit. “Shame. We need somebody.” She hugs the dog.

But the man sits forward, leans forearms on his bony thighs. “I have a store. Pawn shop. Too dusty these days but the old help I had to fire, stole things.” His language sounds distinctive, like he was raised elsewhere and can’t shake the accent.

My head involuntarily turns to him and I try to be nicer “I’m sorry.”

He nods, slumps back, puts an arm around his lady. I’m surprised to see him act fond of her as she gives more attention to that half-cute, half-annoying dog than to him. It yaps at me but not meanly. I get off the next stop.

******

I think about the pawn shop all week. I like to collect things. Legitimately now. A powerful draw to a store full of odds and ends, of old stuff and junk. It must be good if they are still running it at their ages. But I’m busy already, tired of cleaning by Saturday.

One night I wake up and lie there in pitch black. I have been dreaming of a dog trotting and prancing about, and then I’m trying to catch him, rushing past aisles of towering shelves that teeter and fall about us as we start to run toward the exit, his tail disappearing out the bright door. He barks with joy; he does not attack my legs.

It is a sign of something.

******

This time I look for them. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot them down the way and find a small space to sit. They glance my way, say nothing. I don’t want to jumpstart a conversation when they got the message I wasn’t interested, but I’d like info, anyway.

“Hey, morning.”

The lady looks disinterested but politely. The dog is snoozing or pretending on her big lap.

“Do I have to apply for it? I might get a day free now and again.”

The man turns; the lady smiles down at her dog.

He says, “You could stop by tonight at five and fill out an application if you want. But we need someone soon and more than now and then…There’s a guy, he might take it.”

“Oh.” I think that over. “Okay, give me the address.”

It’s not so far from the apartment building I clean, two stops after mine. I try to recall if I have seen it but don’t think  so.

The lady pipes up. “Nice you’re thinking it over. You never know.”  She let the dog down. It was on a leash but manages to sniff my boots all over then sits up tall, looking me over. “That’s Kristoff.  He’s five.”

“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.

“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”

We relax a little as if relieved for that much to be over.

“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”

How corny, I think, but my stop is coming up and I stand. “Later, then.”

******

From the outside it looks sort of haunted, mysterious, a set for a Hitchcock movie, all that heavy grey stone so darkly wet now it is raining. A small gargoyle above the door. There are offices in the stories above, and at least their rooms look brighter. The store front windows are a jumble of objects arrayed on too-dark flowing cloth. Dusty looking. Immediately I think how it can be more eye-catching and I am unbalanced by eagerness. I’m just a cleaning woman and a good one.

I pull open the black metal door and a jangling bell rings. Kristoff runs forward, tail wagging, then sits with tongue out and waits. His face looks happy, like he’s had a good day. I feel like talking to him, not his humans, but of course say nothing. The low lighting casts a somber sheen on the tables and shelves full of shadowy items, and a display of shined up musical instruments and a pieces of furniture that look worth something.

“So, you came,” Cheslav strides forward, hand extended.

I shake it. I hadn’t suspected he had such energy, while Mel takes halting steps behind him. She has a paper in her hand that I am to fill out, which I do while sitting on a stool at a black metal cafe table in one corner. Afterwards, they take me on a quick tour. I am shocked that it looks a lot like it did in my dream, but aging pawn or junk shops just look this way, I realize: groaning with tools to watches and clocks to inlaid or otherwise exotic boxes to fancy lamps to roll top desks to a couple old-fashioned phones to brass candlesticks to glass bowls to…. I feel dizzy looking up, it’s not organized in any way that makes sense to me. Lots of hidden corners behind shelving, high ceilings rather cobwebby and making me sneeze several times. Mel hands me a tissue and also blows her own nose.

“What do you think?” she asks, wiping her nose dry. “Do you find it interesting, Jamie? Like odd stuff?”

I feel myself starting to shrug but that’s my old way so I offer, “I think I do.”

“Good, then we’ll check out the application,” Cheslav chimes in.

“Why bother?” Mel picks up Kristoff, who has been following us everywhere. “That other guy never came, after all,” she says glancing at me. “When would you start, say, once or twice a week at first?”

“What do you pay?”

Cheslav walks over to the front counter as I look at the sparkly earrings in the glass case between us. “What do you need?”

“Eighteen an hour, at least six hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. Your place needs a lot of help and I work hard.”

Cheslav rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll get back to you.”

Mel walks me to the door, fuzzy dog in her arms but reaching to lick my hand as I grab a door handle. “It’ll work out. Kristoff likes you.”

When Mel truly smiles her whole face changes, beams. I like how that happens, though clearly she doesn’t feel all that well with bum legs.

******

So, my adult work record and personal recommendations (a cousin and a friend of his) satisfies them and soon I work there every week-end. My friend Louise says I’m nuts, the offices are less taxing and more money if I work overtime. But they’re boring and Cheslav’s Castoffs is not, I tell her. Which is better, a good environment or just money? She doesn’t argue; she cleans bathrooms and more at two big gyms and a massage joint.

When I get done with the cleaning which is never-ending, really, taxing and requires me to wear a respirator, I start to order things a bit. Front windows are first. I find and shake out some bright red and yellow fabrics to replace the dirty velveteen cloths. I clean up and better situate fine tea sets and a violin, trumpets and two kinds of flutes and elegant vases with fake flowers and plants (need to talk to them about trying out real flowers now and then) and so on. I worry that I am too aggressive in my desire to fix up the appearance but after they tentatively agree, Cheslav and Mel take turns strolling by, checking things out yet say little after two weeks. I keep at it.

Kristoff finds me a few times a day though Mel calls after him. I don’t want to get too friendly, he’s her prized possession, I get it so I just acknowledge him with a short pat on his little head, let him look over my work, too. He likes the giant feather duster I use so I have to watch that but avoids the cleaners so it is okay, overall. I like his pep.

I begin to feel at home there, with the customers who notice me as they leave with their money or something they like. All sorts of strange things come in–embellished saddle for a small pony, a drum kit that has been bashed half to bits, a groups of so-called Native American rings that Cheslav insists are fake turquoise and what is the woman trying to pull? I steal looks at them, some from sketchy places and some from uptown, some desperate and others just passing time. But most often I’m cleaning, polishing, rearranging. And I find that although I admire most of the objects, I am not the least bit interested in pilfering them. I oddly like my work more, just being there.

After six weeks, Mel and Cheslav corner me by the five grandfather clocks.

“How is it going for you now? You’re pretty good.” Cheslav says this as if moderately interested and being nice.

“Do you like it enough to work here full-time?” Mel gets straight to the point, one hand holding the small of her sore back, lined face excited. Kindly.

“Going good. And yes.” I’m as surprised as they by my easy response. But I’d far rather be here than cleaning apartments. “Can you afford me, though? I have bills, you know, and my studio isn’t so cheap.”

“We have a house with much room–” She clutches Kristoff tightly and he yelps.

Cheslav takes the dog from her carefully, sets him down so he could explore. “We pay you well enough, Jamie, and if things work out well, we’ll talk more.”

“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”

At closing time about three weeks later, Cheslav finds me in the kitchenette where we took breaks and ate lunch.

“I want to tell you something. So you understand things.”

I respect him and I like to hear his accent–faintly Russian– but I feel a frisson of fear. He is going to get personal about things. I hate personal in general. Can’t we just be a good employee and two good employers and call it good?

“Mel has slowly changed since you came. She had two hip surgeries and didn’t much want to get back to the store. But I won’t yet retire. And when our son was killed last year…”

“Oh.”

“A war correspondent. Afghanistan.” His right fingers and thumb press closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“He was so good in every way. But he paid the price of such work. Our Kristoff…blasted away at forty-five.”

A chill runs through me; I feel a little sick. I don’t know what to say, how to comfort an old man, a father. The dog creeps up to my ankles, panting as if he’s made a last round of the store and is reporting in.

“Kristoff…” I pick up the dog. He licks me on nose and cheek before I can fend him off.

Cheslav gets a hold of himself. “Glad we found each other, Jamie, hope you can stick around.” He gave her a rare gap-toothed grin, then waved at his wife. “Here she comes. Don’t say anything, eh? Things take their time.”

“There you are, Kristoff! Found a new buddy, have you? Such a fine dog you are.” She takes him gently, pulls him close. “Another day comes, another goes, Jamie. Time to get home and rest.”

I turn away. I’m not ready to feel all this, I’m only a grown up delinquent who became a good cleaning woman to survive, and I’m grateful for this curious job. And they find me more than acceptable. That simple realization settling in my head is priceless.

 

The Convening, Part 2

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It was foolish to expect the riverine deer to come after darkness blanketed both village and countryside, but Naliya looked for them amid a grove of great trees. Firelight flickered over  gnarled trunks and the leaves and grasses flushed with its color. A night bird called to another and another, then fell silent. Terl poked at the bursting flames coming from sticks and logs, and talked to it.

“Bring rapturous energy into this night, grant us heat as chill leaves resting earth. Bless us with your beauty and power. And don’t take too long, the weather is fickle again…” She rubbed her hands over it and then held them, palm side down, above the licking, swaying flames. They jumped up in response. She pulled away from the fire, satisfied, and rested her arms on drawn up knees.

“Why couldn’t we stay inside, Mama? Lightning flashes in the east.” Naliya pulled her thick shawl about her shoulders and finely woven green robe. “The birds are still.”

“We need to be here, with fire under the heavens.”

“I know.” She looked at the sky’s tiny starry jewels rapidly hiding behind clouds, and found small comfort as another shard of light carved it into two parts.

“We will stay until I am done. Don’t be afraid.”

Naliya glanced at her mother. “I’m not afraid. When have I been? I want to be prepared. I can’t ignore natural signs; they tell me things.”

Terl looked at her daughter while adding more wood and answered sharply, “Yes, they do speak to you. But I have things to tell you, as well, and it can guide and even save your life if you will listen.”

Naliya, chastised, drew closer to the fire. She was opposite her mother so they could see one another. Firelight illumined Terl the Mistress of Rites, a powerful woman who used well her mind and will, a woman who also had bountiful love for her daughter.

“Of course, please say the words you mean to say.”

Terl sat tall even when she was slumping from weariness but now her height seemed to rival the trees. She closed her eyes and smoothed her forehead and temples, then shoulders, arms, hands, and flicked off the energy she had gathered throughout the day, putting it into the fire pit. Naliya followed suit, then waited. The fire accepted it, grew hotter.

Terl held Naliya’s clear grey eyes with her own deep, wide and burning eyes, a mark of Mistress of Rites.

“The Grand Baraxas’ time may soon near its end. We are in need of retrieval from his poor ruling before another generation ends up with too little nourishment of the soul. Food is never enough to quell the need here. Gemstones are not enough to satisfy. A better dole house for every person would not solve the problem. It is an ongoing, mind-numbing resignation that sinks its poison deep within, a malaise they don’t even recognize as moving through mind and marrow. The Grand Baraxas has every one under his spell, under his ownership of land and the village with his punitive ways and heavy, dour energy. If he had been cruel from the start it would have been alarming enough to raise a good rebellion, but it has been a slow deception, an easy sway of one man and woman after another. Everyone has basic needs met except those who’ve grievously lost Baraxas’ favor. Now it is time to take charge with the Prism again, the sacred Light at our center. To wake up and see the truth and rejuvenate life.”

“Yes, so you have said, so I understand.”

“You understand so little, daughter.” Terl’s voice rang out into the night. Her beautiful face grew paler then darkly bright with manifestation of energies. “This is why we are here, in this place, in this time. You must take heed and learn, experience and discover before you can begin to barely understand.”

The fire leapt into low hanging tree limbs then fell back to a moderate burn. Naliya knew to be silent until she was asked to speak again. Terl looked far past the woods then returned her gaze to her daughter. Naliya was afraid to look though she felt a tug. She was rooted to her place, stilled by the desire to please her mother. And the truth that was coming her way.

“Our great-great-great grandmothers once ruled Quazama with generous equity, with daily lessons from the complexity of music and a fortifying diversity of story. The people knew how to live of their own accord, overall, with little harm to one another then. But in time such good station and its power was wrested from their hands. Many became greedy for a complete sovereignty of self. Not for the common good. The grandmothers thought it best to share more power and responsibility with others of the Prism: men, who had always been our help meets in one capacity or another. There have been such disputes that rendered the collective wisdom weaker. We have always found our way back to harmony. We’ve had just and good Grand leaders of both genders, but then the one Grand Baraxas took his position by force– despite Martram’s efforts to keep steady the trusted balance.”

She rustled her robes in irritation, pressed her white hair back from her temples. The trees rustled, whispered.

“There is always something to tempt human beings away from the peace of good will. It is a waste of vital energy to fight so hard and often for matters and things of so little value. I will never get used to it, never, though some find greed a mere minor flaw of life.” Her charged demeanor gave her a fierceness that caused Naliya to look down, but soon it was replaced by her usual calmness as she took a good breath. “The saga is tiresome, I know, dear one, but it bears remembering that much.” She rolled her shoulders back as thunder gouged the silence. “Now here’s the current situation. You know Martram and Baraxas are bitter enemies since youthful years. And Martram was banished to Rumsfeldt Barriers for grave interference–commanding a band of rebels to conspire against him. He could’ve been executed but the Convening Twelve voted for a banishment to save him. He cannot return legally. But he can yet return illegally with help. And has decided to do so, at last.” She feared her emotion would gain the upper hand, and pressed her lips tightly a moment to regain control.

Naliya saw this, was about to question her then she checked herself.

Terl opened her arms in an emphatic gesture. “You have been chosen by the convening council decision to be the new Messenger and must travel to Rumsfeldt Barriers. You will meet up with Martram and escort him safely back home. Then smuggle him into Quazama. With our help from here. You have the swift feet and legs. The strength and energy. You know how to disappear and how to be well seen for who you are. And you have the protection, it was ingrained in you in your beginnings. You are meant to do this work not just soon but for life. And I suspect you have known that awhile.”

“But, Mama, Rumsfeldt Barriers? That is at the ends of the earth.” Naliya frowned, shook her head so that her ivory and black hair rose and fell.

Terl chortled in spite of herself. “Not to the very ends of this time and place, Naliya! You will go farther… This journey is only two days away.”

“It will feel like a lifetime….and it’s forbidden territory for good reason, inhabited by Roamers, the nameless ones who live there. And how will I find Martram? How will we get out without Roamers creating problems for us, demanding we liberate them all or struggle and die with them? How will we get back into the village without terrible consequences?” She was overcome with throttling fear.

Terl stood, robes sweeping over the fire before settling around her tall, taut body. “A Roamer brought us the needed word; this is an extraordinary thing. You know less than I thought, only what the prejudiced natter on about. You now will need to learn for yourself. You will find the way because, daughter, you are chosen to find it. There is no other to fulfill this pressing need. Even the Grand Baraxas is in agreement with this–so he can defeat Martram, of course. But that must not, will not happen…”

Naliya stood, also, voluminous drifts of hair flaying from her face in the sinew-chilling rush of winds gathering up yet unseen wetness.

“What must I do, then?”

Her mother walked right over the fire to her. “You will engage in the Life Title Ceremony and then you will leave, in just one day. You will bring Martram to us, our truest leader and–”

She seemed to collapse a little under the last words, her body softening, eyes going glossy, arms suddenly enfolding her daughter.

“And..? Mama?”

But her mother said no more. They stood thus, Naliya’s gaze probing the denser spaces between the old trees for her deer. Her soul resounded with love but her mind was nipped and turned by the nuisance of lesser, loose spirits, their trickery meant to distract and confuse her, she well knew. She moved them away from herself but the winds were no longer just winds nor the dark a thing that would only protect and hide her. Changes were bubbling around her. Naliya would have to be far more watchful now.

The lightning sliced the skies into trembling slivers of luminescence and thunder skewed the air with barbarous shouts. The fire blazed hugely and as a torrent of rain descended, they remained dry under the creaking branches, close to the fire pit. Naliya wondered over her mother’s influence even upon a storm. As flames danced inside dry air they told the girl what she could not put into her own words yet: Beginnings and endings, the grand circle will out; journeys unfold, destinations divined. The orange-gold light slipped over her feet, hands, neck, face and her skin tingled, eyes filled with water and rolled off her rosy cheeks. How would any of this knowledge or any title help her? But trust arrived on small wings despite her anxiety.

Her mother led her back to their house, each leaning on the other, each awash in their own imaginings, reaching for different conclusions. And they arrived still dry except for their feet, which tracked in bits of mud.

The riverine deer did not appear. Having watched from the edges, they moved deeper and deeper until they bedded down amid twisty tree roots and the constancy of crickets and rumblings of thunder. They faithfully waited, for the rain to relent and for sunrise to grace a new day. For the girl Naliya to come into herself.

******

“That’s sure not what I’d want to do, so far better you then me! You’re pretty tough, Naliya, you know you’ll be okay.”

Zanz was weaving willow into a small bowl by the river bank and gave her a sideways glance. Naliya fingered the necklace her mother had given her the night before, the small pink tourmaline stone glowing about her neck.

“It’s not as if I asked for anything to do yet–much less being Messenger. I mean, I suspected it but I thought I had more time to choose what I wanted. Instead, I get chosen, like it or not…”

“And what would it be that you’d want?”

“Healer,” she said and realized until that moment she hadn’t been certain. But that was what her heart yearned to do. How could her mother not see it, too? Or had she?

Zanz eyed her with confusion, then with appreciation.”Oh, right, you mean the wild creatures, of course. Yes, I knew that, I guess, you are in love with the natural worlds. As am I, I suppose, but healing is not my gift or desire.”

“No, I think I mean…healing anyone, everything,” she said, coming to sit closer to him but not too close. “I feel strong feelings, as you tease me about.  Quazama needs a good refreshing to allow for more happiness. I could help with that, maybe.” She reached across the bank and dipped her fingers into blue wavelets that rose up, coursed over her skin. She thought the day was itself happier since the rainstorm gave of its life and then blew on to another place.

“Yeah, freedom from that rotten old GB. He just needs to walk into the bush and expire.” he made a noise and set his hands parallel to each other and chopped the air.

“Shush,” she hissed, her head swiveling to check for others nearby but he laughed at her.

“I can say what I think out here, with you. But I’m wondering how, when you get back from Rumsfeldt Barriers–” he gave an involuntary shudder–“how it will be. I mean, will I have to make a special request to talk with you? Will you be gone all the time running more messages to far-away places? Will I be forbidden to be your friend, even? Our old Messenger was housed in the Central Place with Sentries and cooks and all others, close to the GB and our little used temple.” He put down his basket-in-progress. “I hadn’t thought of that–but you and your mother might have to go there?”

“No, no, she never said that. We have our singular dole house, plenty good for us. I just have to always be available, that’s all, and train harder each day for long distance running. I think, anyway. I do have to run this morning, be sure all parts are working right. But, oh, I don’t know! All the talk of a clash again, Martram being found by me, no less, and brought face to face with the Grand Baraxas. Then the Living Trust brought forward… a strange thing to contemplate, you and I have never seen that! But this is the main thing so nothing else is being explained. Makes me foggy headed, the entire thing.” She got up, twirled around and away.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving tomorrow, just like that. I’ll be repairing the looms with my uncle and tending my brothers while you will be off having adventures! I could almost resent all this.”

Naliya stopped, soft purple robes grabbing her legs, then unfurling in the other direction. It was like watching a flower open, close and re-open, Zanz thought. Her two-toned hair was a mad nest, a snaggy, wavy cascade down her back. The way he liked it. His hands ached to touch it so he looked down at his handwork.

“I will be going into wilderness, alone…and yet they trust me and my journey. It will be so much more than I even imagine, won’t it? But it’s Rumsfeldt, Zanz! I’m terrified and can’t believe they’re sending only me. But then the worry passes. I’m more excited. It’s almost the same feeling but the second one is much better. Who would have thought, and so soon…”

Zanz was bent over the basket, his fingers pressing and pulling the green willow, working faster. It was to be for her. For dipping water and gathering things she needed along the way. To think of him. “It’s not the best place for your first journey, I agree… In  truth, I would refuse if I were you. I will worry.”

“You would not refuse, you’re as brave as they come when it gets down to the hardest parts. I only wish you could come with me.” She knelt in the grass and looked into his serious face as it was altered with surprise. “I really do. You know by now that two minds can accomplish more, make better harmony than one struggling to do much.”

“I know, yes.”

He wanted to say something more and important but instead, he smiled long and broadly at her and in this was his heart which had been given to her long ago. If she only saw it. If she did, it didn’t show itself as she turned back to the river and stepped into it. She walked deeper, even deeper until her body was submerged and only her black and ivory hair floated around her small, open, fearless face, the river lifting and carrying her into its violet blue currents of water magic. She heard a wolf calling her name but she didn’t answer. She would soon meet them on the path, she expected that if nothing else. They ran with her long after the riverine deer fell back, anxious and exhausted.

******

Quazama villagers’ gathering was now completed, in three circles. The Convening Twelve then circled closer about her as she stood in the center of the great room with its large skylight in the dome above. Her arms were out held out by her mother and grandfather, Sentry O. Before her feet was a magnificent white and yellow bouquet of river and forest flowers. She, too, was dressed in bold yellow; her magnificent hair was woven tightly into a long braid. To see her face so entirely revealed was a surprise to most who attended, for some of her mother’s strange beauty was visited upon it, the eyes very deep set, nose small, lips full but pale and now pressed together in a grim solemnity. It was her hair that drew others’ attention before, the wildness of it and the old clan’s coloration, which commanded respect. But they knew her as hard working, friendly with old and young, quick–minded, fleet-footed yet an otherwise as ordinary as any young girl.

This was about to change.

The Grand Baraxas waddled up to the three of one clan and was bemused. How was it that they had managed to survive all the eons? But here they were; now the youngest was to take her place among a gilded few. She barely knew what was ahead. He secretly wondered of her capability, had hoped she might fail the vote, but the convening had claimed her as Quazama’s own new– and first female in a very long while, certainly way before his time–Messenger.

She was to bring his enemy back. That was all that mattered to  him.And then– then they would all know for certain whose blood would rule and whose would flood the temple and courtyards and roads in and out.

“Here is the daughter of Terl, Mistress of Rites, and the granddaughter of Sentry O, the longest ever to hold such a place in my service. They bring us the convening choice, Naliya of Terl, of the fourteenth generation. A runner from soon after birth, she is willed here, and now chosen to be our new Messenger.”

Terl steeped into the center and turned her back on the viewers as she moved ina circle about Naliya. She raised her hands above her daughter’s head. The Grand Baraxas followed behind Terl.

“Triumph here and on the journey, eternal Light. Instill the peace of mastery within Naliya. The Messenger’s loyalty will be unyielding. Her health will be of first concern and her life will be well guarded. A Messenger flees not from trouble but challenges it with strength. A Messenger never fails to get up if fallen. A Messenger never fails to forgo the oath of truth telling. A Messenger never gives her life greater value as Quazama villagers’ safety and well-being is her first and last duty. Naliya’s word is now the trusted word, for she carries those words to us, for us, among us. Her Messenger instincts are to be well heeded. The Messenger’s presence will be honored for work well done .”

She lowered and bowed her head at her, touched the lance and lightning symbols on the Grand Baraxas’ scarlet robes. They both lay their right forefingers on each of Nalyia’s arms. And then upon her head.

She squelched discomfort at the Gran Baraxas’ touch, feeling instead the deep warmth of her mother’s hands.  The villagers were happy, her body pulsing with adrenaline, her chest heaving with anticipation.

“May Naliya forever carry true words and run far, fast and strong as the winds!” Terl called out.

The villagers and even the Grand Baraxas raised their hands, repeated the words. “May Naliya forever carry true words and run far, fast and strong as the winds!”

Naliya was grasped under each armpit by her grandfather and mother and they lifted her, walked around the circle as each person clapped their approval and then released her onto the floor. She knelt down, facing a view of sunset sky arrayed in luminous colors.

The Convening Twelve lay down, bodies arrayed in a circle around her, making her as the center of a multi-hued flower, they the colorful petals. They clasped hands; their heads were pointed toward her, feet toward the encircled crowd. And then they began to hum. The sound flowed softly, then grew: one note filled the air magnified energy until it split into four notes to create a echoing harmony, then it became seven notes, and the luxuriant chord rose up and filled the temple, flowed about Naliya and then each villager, sonorous and clear. There came peace and pleasure, the sound a sustained resonance, the sound round, rich, dense with meaning.

This was a remnant of the ancient ways. It stilled their hearts, evoked in them forgotten wonder.

The Grand Baraxas felt it as the turning of times, a potential mending of life worn out and broken down, but he told himself it was only a pretty excuse for music, it was the trappings of ceremony and perhaps Martram’s sly influence, still, which he must destroy for good. He also, in fact, ought to consider banning music making to keep everything strictly orderly, to ensure only activities essential to his station and his greater plans were carried out. Such music had a stirring effect and that led to some very wrong, perhaps even traitorous thinking.

Naliya’s body and mind were struck profoundly by the music. It was as if she was made an instrument of new meaning and value she didn’t understand but yearned to claim. She felt courage and faith flow into her, while devotion to her village, family and the Prism’s Light made its dwelling place within, for all the days and nights to come. It was power of a new sort that she felt, if only she knew this was what it was. For now, she only knew to let herself be led by it.

And then the music stopped. Naliya carefully stood up. She caught a glimpse of Zanz as he disappeared into the crowd and he seemed very distant, too far away. The villagers and conveners parted, an opening made. Then came the herd of riverine deer. They stopped before her, the crowd whispering their amazement at such behavior. Naliya followed them out of the great temple room, out of the village, to the forest.

Terl and her father lowered their eyes, fervently and silently prayed for daughter and granddaughter a new prayer.

Blessings on Naliya’s flesh and soul, and blessings on her mind and heart for the Changing is begun, the Changing is begun.

 

Note to Readers:

(This is Part 2 of “The Convening”; Part 1 was posted last week. I am not certain I will go on with it in the WordPress posts, but if there is interest, I may add Part 3 here, as there is much more to happen in the journey into the Rumsfeldt Barriers, it seems. It has been a fun story thus far for me to write, either way! Let me know if it seems worth continuing a bit.

Please do not share this story without express permission from this writer, as well as all other writing posted. It is copyrighted by this author as noted on blog. Thank you kindly.)

 

Fragrance of Life

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Carolyn was getting sick and more than tired of the holiday hullabaloo. It was not going to happen for her. Why would it? Bills were starting to pile up, the building’s ancient heating system eked out puffs of tepid warmth, an upstairs neighbor’s recently rescued Border Collie puppy was looking for sheep to herd, his restless whining keeping her on edge. And it had snowed. Not a drifty dusting but a raging snow. She couldn’t see a well-defined anything from her second story window, just pillowy lumps of whiteness, nearly blinding her. The courtyard and beyond were slowly vanishing in thick swirling snowflakes. A wave of panic swept over her; she hugged close her ratty navy wool sweater and looped a thick gray scarf twice about her neck.

When she’d taken the airy, high ceilinged vintage apartment at Mistral Manor, Carolyn had harbored such hopes. But that was two years ago. The past year had been one of plenty, then rent by piercing losses. In November she’d finally gotten news of the end of her marketing job. The company’s local office had been downsizing awhile so she had half-expected this. Just much later. The resumes she’d sent out had thus far garnered only a couple of nibbles.

She let the sheer curtain flop over draped white twinkling lights she had put up before the news. They gave off a sparse but steady glow that proved heartening despite her distress and the cold that crept in through every window, sneaked under doors. She went to the hearty wood box by the fireplace and set about making a fire. She had first relied on childhood memories of helping her mother with the wood stove,  hands warmed by her mother’s as they directed hers: splintered sticks that way, smaller pieces this way about those, bigger kindling crisscrossed and then pungent split logs placed just so. The fire always responded to their joint (mostly Mother’s) efforts. Her mother said being a fire tender was woman’s work as it took equal parts ingenuity, delicacy and strength.

Once again being a fire tender felt like second nature as it had so long ago. Now the aged wood combusted and crackled, a fragrant offering of another downed tree permeating the rooms. Carolyn sat on her one overstuffed chair, slippered feet splayed before the plain, companionable hearth.

It felt, however, disorienting to have so much time to herself. She had grown accustomed to the chatter and bustle of work, lunches out with two good office mates, the critical demands of a trying boss with such large perfect teeth the woman scared Carolyn for a bit. She’d liked her business coursework, had done very well and enjoyed two other positions before the last. But her current job’s reality had been tough to embrace with gusto. It was tedious too often and unlike her friends, who’d fought their way to better situations and were now being dispatched to new offices, she had begun to flag.

She had thought it all mattered less than it did, even the friends. Now as she let herself be mesmerized by her fire’s erratic dance she realized she had taken the situtation much too lightly. That’s exactly what Damon had told her six months ago before he walked out. He’d found her lacking in ambition, something he fairly burst with, and it made him impatient. Carolyn was also smart and energetic, attractive in her off-beat vintage way, yet she had so much less enthusiasm about business than he desired in a partner. He had set up shop already, a small kitchen store that sold unusual, surprisingly handy items. It was her lack of aspirations that came between them, he said. But Carolyn knew better. It was his self-importance and her lack of true commitment to him. There was too much of the first and not enough of the second to make it work–better despite advantages of a lively companion, observing business success close-up, even sharing a passionate bed amid gross uncertainty.

What did she actually want?

First, to pay the most of the nagging bills on time. Second, to enjoy the effects of sustained heat with rest. Third, to just skip Christmas. Without her mother–living a deserved life of leisure in Florida, enjoying sunshine with her third husband– it meant so much less. But this year money was too scarce to flee like royalty into balmy days and nights unfolding way across the country.

Fourth: to stop feeling so damned lonely. Hallelujahs were lovely for others but to her were more like a too-long intermission with no second act to attend. Where was even the next two line paragraph of her story? In limbo, that’s where.

The tea kettle’s whistling startled her out of growing self-pity. She let it softly shriek a moment or two more; it sounded like comfort. As she dunked the cinnamon and orange tea bag up and down in the heavy white mug and sat again, Carolyn inhaled deeply. She jumped when someone pounded on the door.

Through the keyhole she saw Mr. Carpenter’s fuzzy white head. He didn’t peer back as he stood with a package, hand readied to bang again. He might have pressed the doorbell. When she opened up the door a crack, he looked up and she noticed his glasses were still held together with duck tape.

“Got a package here for you,” he softly growled and it was not an attempt to be ornery but his ordinary voice. He did not own the sort of voice that offered soothing words. Yet, they tended toward kindly.

She swung the door wide open, gesturing that he step out of the cold, drafty hallway.

“Thank you for bringing it to me. You dared go out on that porch to get the mail today?”

“I did! And it is blowing out there. No need to come in, thanks, I will get back to my reading–a great Sherlock Holmes.” He gave the package to her, leaned his wrinkled face into the room a bit. “It feels cold in here, too. Okay, you’ve got a roaring fire, that’s good. I need one.”

“Why don’t you come in, get warm, at least. I was just making tea.”

She didn’t want to sound desperate as she held out her hand to him. He was, after all, an old man, much older than her mother. Since she’d lived there they’d exchanged reasonable pleasantries, not overly friendly, not so aloof. Most all the tenants did when they bumped into someone. She felt welcome enough, but Carolyn had yet to get to know anyone well. It was the sort of bohemian community she had imagined she’d like to make home, creative types, young entrepreneurial sorts, old and young mixed together, some having been there for decades. But she hadn’t had the time.

Mr. Carpenter sniffed the air with his fine long nose. He had been a successful perfumer once, another tenant told her, but his smell had gone haywire or got worn out –he’d been ill, perhaps–and then he’d worked at Macy’s for a decade or more.

“Is that a grand old fir tree you’re burning?”

“Why, yes, lodgepole pine. How surprising you’d know that! I wanted to save the well-seasoned red alder and some madrone for a hotter, longer fire.”

Mr. Carpenter stepped in and looked around. She took the package, likely a gift from her mother, to the circular dining table.

“You might need that if the weather report can be trusted. Say, I guess I’d take that tea, after all, Miss Havers,” he said. “Any hearty black tea in your cupboard? With a dash of vanilla, too, perhaps”

“I do. Exactly that one, Mr. Carpenter, what a lucky thing.”

She took his faded black fleece and hung it on her coat tree, then prepared the tea. When she returned he had pulled up to the fire in the creaky rocking chair, the one she had found at roadside and had always planned to paint or refinish. His head bobbed up and his eyes smiled above his damaged glasses when she brought his mug. Taking her seat and settling again, wondering over how much warmer the whole place felt already, she sipped as they watched the fire lick at the air and twist about.

Mr. Carpenter cleared his throat though it made no difference in his gravelly tone. “You have any family coming around for Christmas?”

“I don’t. My mother and her husband live in Florida. I usually go there, but not this year. It’s…tight financially. Bound to get even tighter.”

“I don’t see you heading out at seven in every day, anymore.” She threw him a frown but he was still staring into the fire. “I often keep an eye on our people here. Not much else to do some days. You and most others leave each day for work. I did, too, but no more, of course. They threw me out ten years ago with flattery and persuasion and a pin of honor of some sort, but the truth is I reached seventy so that was the end. Imagine that!” He slurped from his mug and stretched out his spindly legs, then gave her an appraising look. “Beg pardon, I guess you can’t, Miss Havers. You’re a young one yet. But working hard comes naturally to you, I think, you carry yourself with confidence.”

“Maybe once upon a time. Not anymore. I lost my job last month. I worked in marketing. I’m not so valuable in the working world, either, it turns out.”

“I am sorry to hear it…well, on to the next good thing. I was a perfumer with my own shop for thirty years. We crafted bespoke fragrances as well as sold the most excellent scents. I dearly miss that work; it is an art, making perfume, and it well suited me. But I got sick with the cancer; my sense of smell was affected by chemotherapy. So I turned my business over to niece and nephew. They’re doing a capable job. After I got better I just took a job at Macys selling lesser scents but it was distraction, a paycheck. I tried to teach a little about perfume as I sold each bottle and had a ball. Then I was done there, too, so that’s how it goes. Life just flings surprises at us, distressing ones, sometimes beautiful, you know.” He stopped his gentle rocking and turned to her. “What’s next for you if I may ask?”

Form the corner of her eye she glimpsed the snow like a passing drape of white velvet, a near-ghostly thing. It struck her as wonderful. “I like design, maybe create packaging. That might sound odd but I like to draw and used to make things. But my degree doesn’t really support that wish. So I don’t know yet just what to do.” She closed her eyes, warmth flowing to her toes and calves and thighs and into her core and chest at last.

“It’ll come to you. Something always does if you’re willing to reconsider things. To try new avenues. I was glad to have my Macy’s job in the end. It saved me from deadly boredom, kept me engaged with people and, well, it was still perfume!”

Mr., Carpenter ended his sentence on such a gleeful note that Carolyn felt a pang of envy.

“I wish I had a deep passion like that…”

“Maybe it’s there and you just haven’t given it due respect and attention.”

She pursed her lips. “Maybe.”

They listened to the increasing wind and talked of weather, the endless oversell of a commercial Christmas, then the sorts of music they preferred–he, the old standards and opera; she, electronic and jazz–the food they wished they might eat and what they settled for on a limited budget. His late wife, gone long before he retired. How he’d then taken up painting after many years of forgetting all about it. He admitted to being fairly bad at it but no matter.

“Well, enough of an old man’s ramblings. I’ll head back upstairs, you have better things to do,” Mr. Carpenter said when their mugs were empty.

Carolyn bit back the words, Not really, please stay a bit longer. She could tell he was ready to go home; he probably had more to do than she did.

At the door he put his jacket over his arm and smiled sincerely, his wrinkles deepening about lips and folding around eyes. “Thank you kindly for the nice tea and talk.”

She felt overwhelmed by his friendliness and seized with a desire for another visit. “Want to come by for dinner Christmas Day? I’ll try to make something decent. Maybe start with a good glazed ham?”

His thin white eyebrows hovered above his glasses, then he stared past her, perhaps out the window, and for a moment she thought he’d gotten lost in thought, forgotten her altogether. Then he came back to the moment and rubbed his whiskery chin.

“I think I still have a scalloped potato recipe tucked away. Do you want to try a hand at throwing a small Christmas party–together? Invite a couple more folks? Mrs. Mize is alone this year, and so is young Trent Rafferty.”

Carolyn felt a small jolt of nerves as she imagined her apartment occupied by people she barely knew. She’d have to clean and maybe decorate. She hadn’t fixed a ham in a long time. They needed candles, too, and she was out. She knew wise-cracking Mrs. Mize but who was Trent Rafferty, a new tenant? Whatever had she been thinking, inviting him in for tea, then impulsively inviting him to dinner? Him, not three!

“Yes,” she heard herself say, “that’d be a good thing, I think. If they bring some dishes, too.”

“I’m sure of it. I’ll call them–or better yet, we’ll stop over later this week and figure it out better. They’re good folk. How about it?”

“Okay, Mr. Carpenter, sounds like a deal. And please–call me Carolyn.”

“Carolyn, then. I’m Elwyn, if you like, either way is good.” He nodded approval, as if of the way things were going. “And also, I’ll ask my niece and nephew if they need any good marketing done. Or package designing, perhaps. I still hold a place in our business. Oh, and maybe you’ll burn the madrone and oak for Christmas? Love those fine woods. I might have to steal a piece or two…”

He exited the doorway.

“What was that you said? About the work?”

But Mr. Carpenter’s thin, energetic visage, in burgundy flannel shirt and baggy dark chinos, shuffled down the hallway to the elevator.

After she shut the door, she poked at the fire to coax a hotter flare again. It’s tangy, sweet smoke smelled of well being, of good times, of a life lived better if only she could figure out how to make it happen. She moved to a frosted window, fingers splayed against sharp cold, melting icy filigree. The snow had stopped lambasting everything. It now lay upon the space below in a sparkling landscape of small hillocks and valleys. Streaming light created a bejeweled dream of a courtyard. She wasn’t entirely sold on a potluck for Christmas and she missed her mother terribly. But home had sneakily become Mistral Manor with its creaks and dripping faucets and chilly spots, her serviceable fireplace and small balcony that was a boon even in winter. It’s curious inhabitants. With Mr. Carpenter–she might call him Elwyn, more likely not–as new friend and perhaps adviser, anything might be possible, after all, given time.