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

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What? Myrna thought. An artist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, she speaks her truth.”

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

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

“Yeah. I have one week.”

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

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

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

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

With its lights on.

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

Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myrna and Roger continued to the house.

“I see what you mean.”

“About what?”

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

“Did I say that, Rog?”

“More or less.”

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

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

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

“Like fine cuisine to me!”

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she got mad.

She reached for her phone.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Shadows in the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Tally McBride, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really, a show?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, Tally, let’s talk now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re an old man, now, is that it?”

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

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

“And you the elusive object of interest.”

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Spoken, Unspoken

teenager-72-2 photo by Jeurgen Teller

What would she tell him and what would she keep to herself, she wondered as she trotted along the well-beaten path. Low branches snagged her sweater and bright flying hair. Wild blackberry bushes grabbed at her ankles. She made note of where they were so she could gather the last ripe offerings. How many Lil had harvested in late summer and still there were more. They hung on until the very end, fat with life, earthy and sweet. Stubbornly hanging on, those last berries. Stubborn like she was. And Quinn.

Lil was looking for him, zigzagging through the woods, up and down gentle hills but she was running from Ray and his words. Their father, more or less. He had it in for Quinn now and that meant likely Lil, too, in the end because they stuck together. The last of his words still rang in her ears.

“If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be a futile tug of war!”

It wasn’t a new threat, that his dominant role would insure authority. Yet the way it was said and when could mean little or much, and this time it was a warning she knew to heed. Quinn had shrugged off confrontations since he’d gotten a lot taller than Ray. If not as big otherwise. In fact, that was another thing Ray said a lot—Quinn had better grow up more if he planned on talking back all the time. And cut “that damned hair” or Ray would do something about it for him.

Lil pressed a palm to her forehead, swiped away sweat and stray hairs and something with wings that got away in time. She slowed her pace, calling out his name now and then. It was a lot of acreage, twenty acres and wooded for the most part, especially when you had to search. Quinn was fifteen, twelve months ahead of her, but he acted older, went his way as he pleased. To be honest both went their own way since their mother had died three years ago, but he’d be gone for a couple days or more, camping alone or staying with friends. She had bitterly argued against his taking off many times. Said he should take her with him, anyway.

“Why do you have to leave me here with him? He gets riled up and his mood turns sour. And he acts like I’m the only one who can make a bed or chop wood or simmer a pot of stew when you aren’t there to help us. I’m suddenly indispensable. Right in his line of vision like I’m some quarry. Well, maybe not quite that bad but still…”

Quinn always said, “If he ever hits you or anything else I’ll have to kill him.” He gave her that dramatic look beneath the fall of his hair, deep blue eyes going black.

How much he had changed, she thought, and yet not at all. Just tougher beneath his creative, pensive ways.

“Come on, you know it’s his words. They’re like rocks from a pile he hordes until he wants to throw his weight around. Ray can act mean, then he isn’t, anymore. You know, hot and cool.”

Quinn would lower his eyes, give her a quick hug, shake the hair from his face and say, “Yeah, but sometimes I have to leave before I lose my mind. Before I remind him again that Mom would never talk that way. He’s just privately a fool with a fat public job, he’s the one who needs to grow up–”

“Try to come home at night, though? I hate being in my room by yours and I can’t tap out a message on the wall because you aren’t there like before, any time I want. Lying there half-blind, listening to Ray snoring across the hall, muttering away. It’s worse when I’m alone. It makes me so want Mom back…”

Quinn calmed. “I can’t always have you with me, Lil, you know that. We just do guy stuff, we’re up too late and you have school.” He glanced at her. “I know I do, too, but it’s different for me. You were born with so much more potential.” A wry smile.

“Don’t be impossible!” She threw him a playful punch, he fended her off and they headed outdoors to Eagle River to forget the way things were. To take in unspoiled air, watch for beautiful, stealthy deer and name birds on the wing. Hope for a glimpse of the rare Sierra Nevada red fox, more silver than red one time they saw it. A lucky break, or a wilder magic.

Their talk was such a tired talk, anyway, repeated often. And she tried harder to hide her hurt from him so he wouldn’t feel guiltier, because it was true he had it worse with Ray. He took the brunt of all the grief and anger their mother’s death had poured into the man. Never mind that they had their own.

Ray was not their biological father, turning up two years after she—Surprise! Here’s Lillian Grace!–was born and their real father left with some stranger for parts unknown. Their mother was mostly okay with that, she’d said, in the end for the best, and then she met Ray in town one summer. Things rebalanced some, though he was more impatient than their own father if a steady man, a good provider, as she  let slip from her thoughts behind his back. Then she got sick  doing her own job, and left him on his own. Ray never expected to have to raise kids this way. Without the woman he adored with a doting if faulty love. And there they all were, three alone together. Except Quinn and Lil were a team, after that much more so.

It stung Lil deeply that her brother could ever leave her behind, though she understood he felt harassed, and he was older and a boy. As if that gave him extra rights.

The loamy river scent filled her nostrils as she ran. She thought of what Quinn always implied–that she’d finish school and have a chance at college. That he would not. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Their mother had had high hopes for them both and Quinn was just as smart. Just not as motivated to learn from school books. Not these days. And Lil wasn’t that clear what she wanted to do. But she did know she didn’t want to be a nurse like their mother, catch a terrible sickness from patients, end up dying too young.

She felt a wave of relief as she lightly panted, feet slowing. There were glimmerings of reflected light on Eagle River, just beyond a scrim of leaves starting to slip off  their greenery and put on gold and rust. Surely he had to be on this stretch of the bank, another favorite area. He hadn’t been at the dock or the stony ridge at the inlet. By then Ray had stopped yelling at her to come back; she’d known he wouldn’t try to follow her. A week ago he’d hurt his knee during a fall from his truck bed. He’d unloaded a half cord of wood for their wood stove and somehow toppled. It had been one more reason why he’d steamed at Quinn, who had of course taken off in the middle of it, having heard more about his hair and friends.

It had started as usual.

“That hair will blind or strangle you one of these days, it’s always in your eyes or hanging around your neck. You need to clean up, Quinn. Get a job after school. And also leave that Wilson girl alone, she’s not in your league.”

“My hair is none of your business and it’s ridiculous you make a big deal of it. And what would you know about who’s in my ‘league’, as you put it? It’s clear you don’t think I’m good enough, just say it!”

Quinn had stomped off, gotten his bike, stirred up the dirt and dust. Lil helped with the wood. It was no big deal, not really hard, she just wished Quinn was helping her stack it so they could exchange a look, get the work done faster while Ray moaned on the couch, frozen bag of peas clamped on his knee. In two days it was better but he still limped about.

This time, though, Quinn had just wanted to go fishing. He was anxious to take off and was waiting for her to get home. As usual, Ray had things to say first.

“Your brother got caught with the Wilson girl today, I heard.”

He said this as soon as she was dropped off by her friend Carol and her mother and entered the house. Like he’d wanted to drop this bombshell for her ears despite Quinn standing there, too. She nodded at Quinn, eating cold macaroni and cheese from a plastic container; he tossed it on the counter and it slid, fell into the sink.

“Don’t talk about Anne.” The fork in his hand was pointed toward Ray, emphasizing each word. “And don’t imply I did something wrong.” He turned to Lil, who stood in the kitchen doorway, eyebrows raised, half-smiling. “I talk with her before and after school–you’ve seen us, right?” He tossed the fork into the sink, put the leftovers away.

Lil shrugged. “And? So?”

“Nothing, he just likes to yak at us.” He lowered his voice. “But I did get a crappy grade on that world history test. That sucks, have to do a re-take.  But now I’m going fishing. Want to come?”

“Sorry about the test.. No, not yet, I have homework. Maybe in a half hour, but then there’s dinner…”

“Let him start it, he knows how.”

Ray looked around the living room corner where he sat at a small desk paying bills. “What’s that?”

Quinn grabbed his fishing gear and left by the side door, urging her to join him. And she should have right then–didn’t she want to hang with him more? But the door banged shut and she went to her room to work on Algebra. In fifteen minutes, there was a knock on her door.

She said, “”I’m busy, Ray, homework.”

“Sorry, but we should talk.”

She ignored him, kept working.

“It’s about Anne Wilson and Quinn.”

Her pencil hovered above the paper as she considered. Was he going to just complain to her, gossip as ever, then go on his way? Or was it serious?

Ray Leger managed the historic, expensive hotel on the edge of nearby “wine country heaven” and he had long, sometimes variable hours. It must be a day off or he’d go in later, be back in the wee hours. Ray got to hear a lot of stories being the big manager there. Everyone had info to swap about residents as well as upscale visitors. The Wilsons were a family that recently moved there after vacationing in wine country for some years. She didn’t know what the parents did but Anne was popular in school now– smart enough, chatty and sporty. Lil liked her alright but from a distance. She’d been surprised her brother found her that interesting.

Lil got up to open the door. At least Ray never just walked right in, he gave them that.

“Thanks, Lillian.” He looked around for her blue antiqued wood chair, pushed off her robe and sat. “I’m hoping you can persuade your brother to stop seeing this girl before there’s more trouble. Mr. Wilson came to see me today at the hotel and he’s worried about his daughter’s reputation.”

“Really? Doesn’t he know we’re a family with a good rep? Didn’t he know and accept you before when they came down as tourists? Didn’t Quinn and I get introduced to Anne by her own mom? In fact, Mom helped out when Mrs. Wilson was ill with–”

“He saw them smoke together today, Lillian, before school.” Ray leaned toward her, his hands splayed on his thighs, feet planted on the floor. “Pot, you know. That’s not good.”

Lil inclined her head, frowning. “What? Pot? You mean Quinn doesn’t even drink, but he smokes pot from time to time and that’s the whole nasty situation?”

“Well, Jud Wilson is a chemist or something–he knows about drugs, all the affects. And he feels pot is super bad for teens and doesn’t want his daughter mixed up with it. Plus, there’s the hair issue.”

“Almost all of Oregon smokes pot, Ray. It’s legal. Where has he been?”

“They’re from Utah, originally. I think they lived in Arizona awhile.”

“Oh, they’re religious, maybe… might be Mormon? No,  that can’t be it, he and his wife love the wine here.”

“I don’t know about all that. They’re not liberal, no, and not everyone is here, you know.”

“Well, Anne should make her own decision and that should be that, right? She needs to discuss it with Quinn and her dad. We don’t have to deal with it all.”

“Wrong, he said he doesn’t want her to see him again. And he was very put off by his hair down his back, said it’s not what he’d expect from my kids…and Anne has other friends and Quinn should back off.” He spread his hands wide. “Made it clear. And I will not disappoint long-time associates….”

“How rude!” But Lil bit her lower lip hard, blinked a few times. Where was her mother when she needed her? They were her kids, not his, really–weren’t they, still? She would know what to do. Really, his associates?

“But worse, he’s bound to tell the law. You have to be 21 to buy marijuana, you know, just like for alcohol.” He shuddered ever so slightly. “And my hotel cannot afford any bad press, not of my kids not doing the right thing. It reflects on me, after all, then it gets out and it’s bad for business. It has to stop now. But he won’t listen to me!”

“Quinn already knows about being seen smoking with her?”

“No. I didn’t get that far. But they–parents and Anne– are coming over tomorrow night. Luckily, they were busy tonight. Gives us time to talk, think things out.”

Lil got up and paced. “Actually, you want me to break it to him so you won’t have to face off, right?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Thought you’d be concerned, too.”

“Or were you concerned about your job? You know he smokes. I have a couple times and you have, too, I’m sure! And you like your wine wine, drink at the hotel bar sometimes after work. I mean….both are common here, so isn’t it that this might somehow ruin appearances, us teenagers who can’t seem to toe the line?”

She felt disgusted, done with the conversation. Let him fight his own social battles and deal with Quinn himself. It was not her problem.

“No, not entirely. Maybe that’s why he isn’t doing as well in school the past year or two, have you thought of that, Lillian? Maybe he’s too stoned to care.”

Well, maybe our mother died and we still want her here, have you thought of that, Ray? she wanted to shout back. But she just sat on the edge of her bed. Saw the late day sunlight seep through blinds and paint thin bright stripes on the hardwood floor. Her feet were cold. Her hands were almost cold. It was going to start raining every day and she’d be outdoors less as temperatures dropped. Quinn and she would be trapped here with this man who didn’t even know them…well, a man who watched over them but lacked the skills and love their mother had.

Had his own worries and frustrations, sure. Hard to hate him for any of it. His own loss. Like hers, but different.

Still. She let out a long sigh.

“I do care, Lil, I really do– for both of you but he sure won’t hear that. Maybe he’ll think things over if it’s your voice saying it.”

Lil got up and went to the door. “You could be nicer to him. And you should go now. I’ll think it over.”

He looked at her without wavering long enough for her to feel pinpricks of tears. Who were they for this time? Him? Or as usual, for herself? And for her almost twin, Quinn?

But she left the room first. Ray followed a few steps, the felt the familiar sad emptiness as she bounded toward the front door to go warn her brother of impending complications.

He couldn’t stop himself so he yelled: “If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be one futile tug of war!”

******

Lil parted the heavy branches and there he was.

“Quinn!”

He was not fishing. He was in the river, clothes still on from what she could see. Eyes were closed tight against the world. Looked like he’d churned up the river bed. His long hair streamed over his shoulders. He must have heard her but didn’t speak. It scared her, his being so still, and she slipped into the water, too. Stood near him, unwilling to disturb his reverie further.

And for a perfect moment, she saw their mother. In his features, in the way he stood so quiet with calm face tilted toward the muddied, swirling surface. How she loved it there, fishing or swimming in it, playing “catch” with her dog, Jersey Girl, or teaching them how to snorkel and ride rubber tubes downstream after it rained and the water ran faster.

People often remarked that they looked like twins, Quinn and Lil. That they took after their  graceful mother rather than their disappeared father who was tall, mammoth-shouldered and walked heavily and confidently like the lumberman he’d been.

They both had some of her for always.

“I know,” Quinn said, “I know.”

Lil waited.

“All of it, Anne told me. Don’t ask why I jumped in, just wanted to. It feels good.”

His eyes were still shut. His body was moved a little by current that ran swifter there. They both held their ground and she shut her eyes, too, just to feel it all with him. Chilly and warm as currents altered their courses; soft and strong; familiar and strange with its power.

“Okay, ” she said.

“It’ll be alright, Lil. Anyway, I know a couple other girls– Anne isn’t the only fish in the river. And I don’t like to smoke that much so stop worrying.”

She looked at him then as his eyes flashed open. He grinned at her, grabbed her arms and dunked her; she dunked him right back. Soon they were in full skirmish, laughing and gasping, swimming out of each other’s grasp. They finally gave up, fell into each other as they scrambled and slid on the muddy, stone-embedded river bank, water streaming from every limb and their dirty faces. When they reached the flatter grassy part, Lil and Quinn collapsed under a tree, more happy.

A few yards away Ray stood watching, recalling the past. Ache filled him. How he wished he had some of what they had, was welcomed into that circle as he had been when they were small. He wanted to remember her with them now. He took a step forward. But it felt too hard and he turned back to the house as the two teenagers got on their feet. And saw him thread through thickets of blackberries, then limp through cottonwood, alder, maple and fir that stood tall in a dusky autumn haze–this place that was now shared by three.

 

Views from Ona’s Clearing

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Of the many chores she had to finish each day, laundry was something Ona looked forward to doing. It was work that would come to something, tattered shorts or jeans made presentable, the shirts Arliss wore rinsed of grime and a rich tang of sweat, her own blouses brightened. Things were made right again. Ona hummed to herself as she filled the washer tub with suds. She wondered if Arliss suspected she occasionally washed a few clean things just to feel the satisfaction that came from washing, drying, folding, stacking. It was one more thing that replenished a well of peace for days when she needed more.

They had replaced the machines during winter, money that could have gone to other things, Arliss liked to remind her. She often hung the damp items on a line behind the house, less to appease him than to give her more reason to be outdoors. Spring had brought breezes that grazed her skin, butterflies that teased. The bees were like noisy royalty though she closed her eyes if they circled her too long.

“I’m going down to the alpacas,” he said. He slapped his leather gloves on a calloused palm and frowned. “You’re not done?”

She closed the washer lid on the last load. “I still have the garden. And clothes to hang.”

He left her with the familiar refrain. “I told you that dryer was a waste. But that garden will help pay for it.”

But it was spring going on summer, not winter, Ona wanted to retort. It wouldn’t matter. He was in one of his moods again. If she was lucky it’d pass sooner this time. He’d smiled at her in the morning. She’d been close to sitting down and chatting with him. Then he’d gotten up and taken the strong coffee, along with a plate of eggs made with dill and onion, to the porch. Hank trotted after him. The loyal mutt had been named after his brother, serving in the Army. Ona knew he loved that dog more than her, though he might deny it on a good day. It was his brother he missed.

It hadn’t always been this way. Arliss Jameson had been a different person in high school, all tousled hair and smiling eyes, quick to make a friend, slow to stir things up. She’d come from the city and knew how to play basketball hard and well. That impressed him, as did her unfettered laugh. But by the third year of their marriage he’d turned surly. The house was filled with silence and anger for days, sometimes weeks. She’d patiently waited for it to pass. Ona understood he’d hoped to leave like his brother, but to do bigger things, though she was never sure what. She had a few other dreams, too, but was pragmatic about it. After some research she’d suggested they get alpacas–she’d heard they were smart, good-natured and would make them money. His haunted look was replaced by a benign acceptance; dark introspection was curtailed. But it hadn’t ended. It could come back like a bad wind from nowhere over the years. He didn’t mean to be hard on her but being caught in his long shadow of misery made her feel caged. Uneasy. He forgot she was there or threw words at her that landed like small stones. She increasingly wondered why she’d fallen in love.

Ona settled the clothes basket on her hip and pushed open the back door. A rush of warm wind unfurled her long auburn hair. Treetops swished, rustled. The sunshine smelled like a small slice of lemon. Arliss would’ve told her that was foolish but nothing was impossible, she thought. If caterpillars became butterflies, why not lemon-scented sunlight? She pegged white socks and t-shirts, her flowered panties, his slacks and her long mint green skirt. Watched them flutter. They were already drying in an unusual May heat wave. And waiting for bodies. For a minute Ona imagined Arliss and herself slipping inside pants and skirt, swinging away. Two fools dangling, toes grazing the earth.

She smiled and shaded her eyes with her flattened palm. She could barely make out Arliss as he passed their oak grove. He’d be with gone an hour or more. If she just made a big salad with leftover chicken she’d have time to slip away. She grabbed her sandals and headed to the other side of the house.

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The Clearing is what she called it even though there was more open land elsewhere. But that is what it did for her–cleared her mind and soul. This was where she put aside work and financial worries and a thorny fear that snagged her when she wasn’t on guard. There was her little pond, really a muddy puddle until rain filled and sweetened it and frogs proliferated. There were the oaks and elms growing in such a way that they sheltered without isolating. She had seen deer graze here before moving down into the meadow. Ona suspected God paused here, grasses and wildflowers welcomed her, frogs sang out for her ears. She kept all this close. It delivered her.

On the other side of the white fence was the Evans’ ranch. She sometimes saw the owner, Charles’, riding or his Appaloosas and Andalusians grazing. He rode every day, usually earlier, but sometimes later. He sat on his horse as if custom-made to fit. He was perhaps fifteen years older than Ona, his wife long gone to New Mexico, his son in the family horse business. Ona was attentive to Charles Evans’ maneuvers when he was in the field; he was said to have an uncanny way with horses. Her observations were unschooled. Ona wouldn’t have known what skills he had except that she felt his calmness and confidence as she watched from her perch by the pond.

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This time she went to the fence, saw nothing but green pasture dotted with trees, topped by rich blueness, white clouds. It felt as though summer was taking over already. Heat found her and held fast. She knew she had only a few minutes so absorbed everything. She turned to face the clearing and leaned back against the fence. The verdant landscape cast its spell. Her eyelids lowered. The creek on the Evans’ side rushed and tumbled through its banks. Blue jays, robins, crows and those still unnamed called to each other in earnest.

Her chin hit her chest and she fell forward. Something had pushed her. She swung around, then stepped back so fast she fell to the ground. A mammoth gray horse was staring at her, thick mane half-covering intense eyes, heavy tail switching back and forth. Ona fought the urge to run. She had never been so close to such a large animal in its own element. Its muscular presence profoundly unsettled her. The horse exuded condensed power, a deeply quiet elegance. Its intelligent face was rugged but noble of design. She took one step forward and gazed back more calmly. The gray horse nodded at her, loped away, then began to trot, strong legs carrying him farther afield until hidden beyond tress.

But Evans was walking toward her. Where had he come from?

Ona thought she should go back to the house. She had the garden yet and dinner to make. Arliss would be looking for her. They knew of each other but they didn’t socialize. The Jamesons were just getting by, the Evanses thrived. And really, what did you say to a man who could speak the language of horses as if it was his own tongue? She had trouble enough with Arliss, the alpacas and a shaggy named for her brother-in-law. In fact, she didn’t talk much, anymore, and found it caem easy. Her aloneness had become a habit, and silence was an aura that surrounded them both too often.

Evans gave her a small smile, but his eyes were a friendly brown. He was tall but not as tall as Arliss, bulkier with muscle.

“That was an Andalusian, but you probably knew that, living out here.”

His voice was softer than she expected. She shook her head.

“I’m not a homegrown country girl. That horse scared me, to be honest.”

“That’s a shame, but if you aren’t familiar…I know you and Arliss live there. Alpacas are good animals. Nice place.” He gestured toward their red house and the barn, then adjusted his hat lower on his forehead. “I’ve seen you here sometimes.”

She felt embarrassed. Did he think she was spying on him? She didn’t mean to intrude; maybe she should stay far from his fence.

“My quiet place. I love this spot.”

Evans turned back to his land and she thought he was done so she looked back at the pond, finished as well.

“How about you and Arliss come by this week-end for barbecue? My son, Jack, knows your husband. We should’ve asked before.”

Ona took a breath and it stuck there a second. She looked right at him. Dinner at his ranch? She could make her coconut cake. She might peek at more terrifying, beautiful horses. Arliss and Jack and Mr. Evans could talk country business. She’d listen well.

He held out his hand. “Charlie Evans. Ask your husband and we’ll set a time.” He smiled widely. “And maybe you’ll make friends with my horses.”

“Ona here, sure, yes I will, Charlie. Ask Arliss, I mean. And check out your horses.”

Charlie Evans tipped his hat and strode off, whistling. The gray horse stepped from shadow and galloped toward him.

Ona returned to the pond–a swampy spot, really, but she liked it–and sat on a nurse log. Honeyed light streamed through the canopy. Spring peepers were in full chorus. The view of their house was nice from here. In truth, she hadn’t noticed for a while just how good it was. It could all get better. The alpaca business was turning a profit thanks to Arliss’ hard work and her research. She had to keep planting, hanging out laundry in fragrant air, visiting her Clearing but also reaching out to Arliss. Remind him she did still care even if he could be a hard case. Get to know those lovely alpacas better. And maybe Evans saw something in her, a hidden potential that suggested she might one day scale a horse and learn how to ride with it. Ona was so ready to round up more excitement, gather her courage. She still had what it took. Life was just waiting for her to say the word.

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Power of Place

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When I leave behind the congestion of the city and move into country stillness fills me inch by inch. There is an alertness coupled with serenity that blooms in my core. As Portland subsides with its array of tantalizing offerings and entertaining moments, it is like a long-held breath released, mind emptied of scattered thoughts, lists, a vagary of wants and needs. I begin to be at ease within the world again, and feel gentler towards self and others. Countryside affects me profoundly.

This is common for me and likely many people, though I have met those who prefer city’s jangle and jumble, its towering paeans to human progress and folly. They rarely leave it. I can’t imagine such reluctance. If I can’t find my way to less populated land regularly I feel less than content, full of longing. I am lonely for nature’s balm and beauties.

Place holds strong energy for me, be it human or not, constructed or deconstructed. I believe they are infused with remnants of past or present inhabitants’ and events. Buildings, houses, neighborhoods, parcels of land, anywhere there is or was life feels benignly neutral, compelling or repellant, with shades in between. I have felt this way all my life, impacted enough by it that my daily decisions are informed by it. I find it as natural a way of perceiving as with physical senses.

People are influenced, even if unconsciously, by intuitive responses. Think of real estate shows and how often folks reject or appreciate a house based on how it “feels.” It is a conscious experience for a great many people. Throughout our years of moving, I have chosen housing based on my internal perception of it far more than outward appearances. I intensely feel aftereffects of violence that has occurred, when great sorrow lingers, or if those who have inhabited it harbored various destructive behaviors. At times it seems like people have inserted their personalities and are still there. There have been many occasions I have driven up to a place and immediately left. Or knew instantly this was the place that would be home. I do not second-guess; I’ve learned it’s not worth it.

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I also am attuned when hiking, detouring when I feel unusually close to wild and possibly threatening creatures. There was the time in the Columbia Gorge that I knew bears were very near and I lagged behind my spouse. A few moments later I heard soft huffing sounds of cubs. Of course their mother kept an eye on things close by; they exchanged communications. I told my husband it was time to leave. And once hiking in a city forest something had created a wide swath of flattened grass and weeds where I was walking. My feet suddenly would not budge another step. I wasn’t certain yet what was near, only that it was wild, large and perhaps guarding or enjoying a meal. Despite my spouse’s stating it might be something but likely nothing, I turned and walked away, quietly calling him. At the nature center we were informed of a cougar’s recent sighting. Would we have been harmed either time? My instinct said “beware” and I don’t regret it.

We all have such guidance if we pay attention. It could be an angel or God or our own animal nature or all. We cross a street or become more guarded when we feel ill intention attached to a passerby. We have strong first impressions before we even know someone well; later we recall that first response. It isn’t the physical world we respond to but the inner one, the soul’s intention radiating outward. It is the measurable, palpable life energy of who we truly are. We can be as enchanted by one another or by a place as we are not. If warnings are given us, so are calls to come much closer.

We know people can inspire and draw us. So, too, places can move, heal, awaken and strengthen us. Think of a time you needed respite and found a spot where you felt deeply relieved, energized or calmed. Or when you needed hope and an experience of place gave you opportunities to release pain and embrace joy anew. Some people claim a spot and return to it always. Others search and discover them worldwide, like my family who regularly follow the call of unknown roads and the wilds.

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Just last Sunday some of us headed out to a Christmas tree farm. We had chosen a place new to us. As soon as we left the tangle of cars and houses and entered a misty, hilly terrain we knew we were onto something especially good. Foggy patches opened and closed about us, yet afternoon’s golden light brightened everything as though from inside out. The acreage stretched far and wide; the sky opened. We inhaled deeply the redolent, chilled air: damp earth and evergreen scents permeated all. The lots were overseen by a tall, burly man who was laughed readily, was helpful and liked to chat amiably. He seemed the quintessential lumberjack but he has a day job behind a desk. He loves this work on the side.

It took less than ten minutes to find what we wanted: a rotund, sturdy Douglas fir, straight of trunk. Nearby were equally lovely Nobles and Grand Firs. Every tree looked healthy and strong, showing off their needles of rich emerald or bluish-green. They cost a fraction of what we usually paid, as well. Our son cut it down quickly and his Noble, as well.

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We walked up the muddy road to the house and pole barn where attractive, fresh wreaths and coffee awaited. On the way we met sheep who mildly gazed back at us. Their thick wool, random voicings and gentle faces cheered us further. I gazed at the tree line against an alabaster and robin’s egg blue sky, heard brisk birdsong and wings caressing air, sheep baaaing and my family softly talking and laughing. A thick mist began to spread around trees and fields. We had stepped away from all the world and its worrisome matters, through a portal to a place where work built muscle and was valued; kindness thrived; peace prevailed. Though the cold increased I felt steady warmth gather within and around me.

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We met the owners, Tom and Harriet. They chatted easily with us. They had bought the land and house over twenty years prior; it called them. The older gentleman worked in the forestry service and worked the tree farm on his “off” hours. Impressive in their knowledge and congeniality, they are people one would like to have as neighbor, break bread with on a cold winter’s eve. We praised his trees and shared our city-folk love of their land.

“Every time I leave the city and country rolls around me, I feel all is aligned in the universe, and I’m happy,” I told Tom.

He smiled warmly. “Yes, that’s it.”

I was reluctant to leave. We all were. This was more than an exceptional business, it was a place of power, a spot of land where people, creatures and earth conspired to support and tend life together. Its magnificence was there long before it was settled but it had been respected and loved. It is still appreciated for the blessing it is. And it was shared with us, a gift we thankfully took home.

On the way back I saw the nearly full moon through a vaporous veil of fog and thought of Bethlehem. I wondered over the manger where animals surrounded an infant Jesus and his parents. The Wise Men and shepherds had travelled far from home to be part of a place and event of sacred power. What did they feel as they witnessed all? What was it like to stand beneath that star’s radiance as it fell upon them, obliterated darkness for a short while?

I hope for each of you that you claim your special place and moments of power are found this Christmas. Then share them with others. Count yourself fortunate to be able to be still and present, to acknowledge the perfect glory of God, the gifts of life now and through eternity.

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(All photographs taken by the author; please ask before using. Thanks!)