Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Language for a Tangerine Life

He took his leave from his landscaping job (was it deemed a yard, garden or more generally, estate…so many acres for sweat to drip to dirt) noon on the dot and went to the Far Ridge, grass-swept where nothing but silken melodies of birds stroked his ears. The rough-shod language of the others, the smallness of their lives hemmed him in even as he chummed about, had made cohorts over time. That is, they worked alongside each other, shared their food if you ran short, and took turns with rumbling sighs.

But Lonny was a person made of a whole different cloth his mother said with quiet certainty, that was a lapse into generosity, her best part. What she meant was that Lonny was lucky to show such fine skills in manual labor, for he was even humbler, lost in another way. She had tried. But that was there was the consensus by so many when he was growing up: that he was stupid somehow, his tongue so tied that he didn’t speak most hours of any day. Few could interpret the jumble of consonants and vowels he let go if required. It was a birthing accident, a tongue so clumsy and slow, they surmised. So no one asked him much, he was Lonny, that said it all. A barest or rapid nod, eyebrow raised or lowered, mouth skewed, eyes shifting or smiling–these were his language if you cared to learn it. His hands filled in the blanks, part quasi-signing he’d picked up, more often a shorthand of miming. He could speak with the gravest strain but managed a short,gasping sentence at times. But, truly, he was not one to seek attention so he was more a benign shadow that fell across the path and unsettled one’s conversation here and there. For you never knew what he might hear or see, he might have super senses attuned, otherwise. They also noted he managed to do well in school, and yet how? His tongue had much less, it seemed, to do with a kind of sequestered intelligence as he grew older.

It was correct that he stayed well aware of many things, but Lonny had less care for their lies and truths and goings on than they imagined. He kept inward, tending thoughts which ran fathoms deeper than Lake Minatchee after a heavy spring rain. He was a reader, and liked everything from Aristotle to Lorca to Carver to the latest bestseller list. Mrs. Morton, the only full time librarian, saw that he got what he wanted, set aside topics or authors she liked for him. The past few years, though–such books on landscaping design, volumes on soil conservation, plant identification. He had been hired on at Morton Landworks at age 16, part time until he graduated–he had taken to the work as if it was his calling.

Lonny always had a book with him for lunch, and as he gnawed on a leftover chicken leg and baked beans or savored tart potato salad with cheese and apple on the side, he took in information at a rapid pace. He wasn’t a kid, no, but he wasn’t entirely an adult, so his mother saw to him despite his obscure intention to leave town and set up house on his own. But where would he do his work gardening if not in Marionville? His Achilles heel remained his blood deep, uncured state of silence.

There was almost no one who came by Far Ridge. It took fifteen to walk there and others felt it wasted time and effort at lunch hour. There was no longer a clear path weaving through swaths of tall bobbing grass–it had been swallowed up years ago, no one missed it. Other than wide views of the meadows spreading about like a wheat-colored skirt and Ferryman Woods, there was a firm breeze that swiped perspiration right off you in seconds. Or a hefty wind that about lifted you up as a storm brewed. The wind had its sundry ways and Lanny appreciated that in addition to the solitude that rested in open space. He looked about, closed his eyes for good measures of red-wing blackbirds’ songs. All in all, he was good with the world if he remembered to let demons of worry escape his grasp, that is, how could he better himself more, maybe rise in the company; who could love him and he, finally, her? That sort of thing. But he had few actual worthy complaints, twisted tongue be damned. There was much to like about his life.

And so that noon was like any early June lunch hour: full belly, smoothed mind, sun high yet not attacking him with heat, rest enough to sustain him another four or five hours on Westwind Estate. He stood and stretched.

It was a glimpse of orange that caught his eye, but then grasses hid it– until a gust pushed spindly stalks over. The vivid remnant suddenly ballooned up and out into full shape of color. He narrowed his eyes against white sunlight, resettled his cap. The orangeness flashed up and over the tops of wild grasses and two legs beneath it carried it up to the other side of the ridge by Ferryman Woods. The ancient trees’ shade thickened and darkened things, yet the legs and arm became more visible: they moved from and under the tangerine dress. The girl or woman inside it was leaping, spinning, bowing, turning along the earth as if an exotic, freed bird.

Lonny couldn’t further sharpen his vision but he knew one thing–he hadn’t seen her before. Nothing about her physical or any other aspect was familiar. He’d worked at the estate for years off and on, under direction of Morton Landworks, ever since he’d completed high school. The ridge, hills and meadows, the dense woods and the lake beyond–these were familiar as his own self and so, too, area farmers and stable owners, lake and country home residents. Yet here was an alien person. A wanderer into his paradise. He was struck that what he felt was not only mild shock but a pleasant sensation as he watched her. The swirling movement was softened and emboldened at once by the one who wore such clothing in midday summer heat.

Still–who was she and why was she doing all that dancing? Not even a stage around those parts, no tourist traps of theatrical offerings. She looked like some kind of dancer in the filmy summer dress as she stood a moment before that wooded hill, amid early June’s beauty. He’d never seen anything or one so light, fluid, as if water had been changed to a flame of orange light and decided to crest and spin, then ripen and bloom into something new.

Into her.

He watched her a few moments, a creature he was unable to describe much less understand but at the least she was entirely herself. That much was obvious–there was certainty in her every motion. Doing what she wanted, a-shimmer with enthusiasm. Celebrating, he guessed, no more than the rich tonic of the day. Her head bobbed, then she dove behind and into the woods.

Lonny took in a breath of sweet air and then he went down the ridge, back to labors. He had to, despite a hesitance to leave. Where was she going, where was she from? He might have imagined it, perhaps…a girl in a dress, dancing. Improbable. But he had witnessed it all while making quick work of lunch.

When he passed the others clustered at the back gardens, he said as usual nothing at all and what could he say even if he had the gift? That he had seen a tangerine goddess of a woman dancing by the woods? They’d immediately spoil it, heckling him. They’d run up the ridge, call and hoot for her to show herself. Unthinkable. He put himself hard into the pruning of bushes, then smiled to himself.

******

He never expected it but the next day and the next and then so many after, she was there. Of course, it was not the tangerine dress every time, but blue or black or red or yellow; sometimes, shorts with light summer tops. He had to keep a keen eye but soon she would flutter up or run into the light. Lonny could not imagine why she would choose this time and place to do what she did–part exercise, he thought, part dance, perhaps part mindless play. Perhaps she felt freer there than elsewhere, as did he, and she thought herself alone.

He had been near-tempted the fourth day to bring binoculars to identify her, maybe, to observe better but the thought felt tawdry–and it was unnecessary, as well. He could see her movements well enough as he ate his lunches and drank cold tea under the shade of a large white oak tree.

Sometimes she was there a short time, others for the whole hour, and not yet gone as he left. The dance was similar in grace but not always in steps and so often she displayed such strength when, with bare feet, she pushed off the ground, jumped high with legs out at angles or leapt or spun about with electric power. It was a free dance concert in the open air and he was mesmerized, he happily gave in to it. He admired her, that she was that expressive and unafraid, kicked up her heels, laughed for any reason, grabbed the world with her excitement. He, too, sensed how careful with it she could be with slower delicate motions. It was a spectacle that gave him uncommon shivers, yet there was a quality to her height–he’d decided she was nearly tall as he was, six feet– and her embracing reach and that loping gait that calmed him, too.

He had to shake his head after to clear it of her so he could once more focus on an everyday world. Lonny usually left before she did. Some days she melted back into Ferryman Woods or slipped down into golden meadow grasses and seemed an apparition, fast vanished. It occurred to Lonny that she stayed in a lake house on the other side of the woods. That she was summer folk. And that might have made him give up the watching altogether as a waste–summer people swanned in and out of town, leaving litter, making trouble as well as dropping cash– but instead it drew him in more. For she, then, was truly transitory, temporal, now here and gone again. She was at least an unknown, different from other women he knew… so he must not disturb her presence with any judgement, or any movements closer.

Five days a week Lonny watched from the tree and keep her secret and it was enough. He had the sixth and seventh day to contemplate the scenarios and found he did not want to find her there other days, only upon his arrival on Monday once more. But he did wonder, what of her life beyond that hill and those woods? And how long was she for Marionville…

His mother thought him more absent-minded than usual but she had enough on her hands with his younger sister disobeying rules and two part-time jobs, one at the dry cleaners, one at the marina. She knew that the fewer questions, the better; Lonny would then avoid her. Besides, at near twenty-two he knew how to make his way well enough despite a lack of asking and answering the usual way. He had been an awkward, timid but good kid, and now was more confident and capable than she’d hoped, a decent young man. Her guilt and sadness over his speech impediments were at times less than a growing pride in him. She kept him looking forward yet didn’t say much about things one way or another. To be sure, she was relieved he was yet home, for now.

******

By late June, Lonny thought he’d seen almost everything of which the woman was capable, at least on grassy earth in dimmed or searing sunlight. He also liked to picture her as a basketball or tennis player; she was surely an athlete as well as dancerly. He believed she must have a brilliant future, that she was on her way from summer’s ease to somewhere big and boisterous, New Chicago or Seattle, places he’d surely go if he had a way to get there. And then survive.

In private, he started to ask her things in the velvety interior of his mind. Did she go back to college in fall? Was she from a big or small family and did it include a father? Was she a bibliophile, nose stuck in printed pages every day even for awhile, as was his? Where had she traveled in the world or their continent? Did she like the night skies here? What was her favorite musical genre? Did she stretch her whole body before sleep as he did? What about moths that pulsed at the light bulbs on porches, did they scare or interest her? He put head in the cups of his hands and groaned. This was not a good thing, talking to her without a sound, that he had all these words that he could never speak aloud.

The eleventh work day, a Monday, Lonny found the indented spot under the overreaching tree and opened his rumpled brown bag to extricate lunch. He spread out a tea towel on bumpy grass where roots hunched up, then laid out a ham with lettuce and butter sandwich, a cup of corn chips and bottle of tea. He didn’t glance at the hilltop by the woods until he took a first bite. It was just trees and grasses green and golden with patches of tiny daisies opening before him. Sun’s rays targeted his outstretched legs, bees hovered about the tea bottle, bumped into his head. The green and brown earth smelled lake-damp and meadow warm and it felt like a secret island, with sky as a backdrop of blue so clear it was as if he could see into the far off universe.

He was glad to be sitting and eating in such a tree’s gift of shade. But she was not there. He finished eating, pulled out his book, in case he must read rather than watch her practice whatever was for today. It was an ancient book of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson with pages yellowing, binding cracked.

He was onto a second essay, head bent over, an eye on his pocket watch and one on the empty knoll when there was a flutter and flash at edge of his vision. Orange filament afloat in the burning air. He stood and spun to his right, book falling to ground as she appeared from behind the tree and stood opposite him, hands at hips.

“Well, here we are,” she said, her voice soft, hazy as smoke. “You have been watching me. And I have been watching you watch me.”

All those repetitious words felt like a squall of language but it was the sight of her that did him in. He stepped, no, stumbled back, hands finding armor of tree bark just in time. Her tanned fair face and deep blue eyes were not threatening, but neither were they brimming with delight. Rather, sharply questioning and appraising. Maybe open to further discussion. Of which he could offer none. He wished he might say: you are amazing, that’s why I watch you, why else?

“I-I-I…” he started and had to stop, not even the simplest thing would come out, of course, so he tapped his lips, then made a cross-cutting action with both hands before his waist to signal there was nothing he could say further.

“You’re done before we even begin? Well. You won’t advance like some jerk, after all?” She took a small step back, still. “I have to say, this is a surprise.”

He shook his head and made his face gentler as he saw she had a sizable rock grasped in a hand. They stared at each other in surprise and uncertainty when he found he had to sit down to avoid being made a fool by weakening knees that resulted in falling over. She dropped the rock and took a seat many feet across from him.

Lonny tried hard to think how to say his name without mangling it but gave up, his breathing too shallow, brain too numb. If there was anything that might still terrify him, it was the sudden need to speak, that expectation of another of his words, words, words.

“I wondered why you’re always here eating and watching me, that’s all. Two weeks now, at least.”

He looked at her still face then pointed to his lunch, half of which he had stepped on. He gestured back towards the estate, as well.

“Apparently a person of few words…? You work down there, eat lunch here… I see. I don’t really live here, so why should I think I own that spot?” She flapped her hand toward the wooded hill across the expanse of meadow. “I’m here for the summer so I dance for practice, partly, but also for fun. The rest of the year I study dance…and many other things.”

She smoothed down the hem of full skirted tangerine dress, then her light brown hair which was pulled back into a high ponytail. Looked out at Ferryman Woods. He let his eyes study her face closely then. Perspiration dotted her wide forehead and generous upper lip. Tiny waves were plastered to forehead, at her ears. Her nose was small. His own neck was prickly with heat and sweat so he scratched, looked away just as her eyes slid back to him. He glanced at his watch. It was high time to get back, and he gathered food detritus and stuffed it in the bag, then stood, gestured to the land below them.

She got up, then.”I’m Marni Bellingham,” she said. “You are?”

“L-l-l-lonnn,” Lonny spat out, then turned, ran down the hill while she observed the curious lumbering man grow smaller and smaller.

******

He avoided the ridge after that and ate with Giles, who had befriended him at the start; they both had initially been teased some, Giles for his Quebec accent and unusual thinness; Lonny for his speech problem, his enduring silence.

“All I can get is that you gave up your lunch spot because of some girl. But you are interested, I think? There must be a hundred different girls in summer months. I might let that one go, Lonny.”

Of course he had already determined that was the best course of action. Or inaction. If he did return to the ridge any time soon, he may or may not see her but even so, what was there to do or say? The fact was, he couldn’t tell her anything that might reassure or interest her.

“You’re a good looking guy, Lon, and a good man but honestly, why waste time? Marionville has plenty for you to consider–take Flora, for example, an industrious and attractive woman/ We went out with her and Evie twice but you gave up. I’m going to see Evie this week end, why not come and she’ll bring Flora along? “

Lonny hated these one-sided chats. They went nowhere. He had dated, since age 18, a tad more than he could count on one hand. Before then, none. No one wanted to be with a man who was considered if not actually stupid, then essentially a mute with only a small future. The fact that he made good money now at the landscaping company meant little to someone who, if honest, also needed to talk all day and night with her man. Well, if only.

Besides, there was Marni. She leapt through his mind any time he wasn’t considering something else, and then she might yet pop through as if crashing his brain from some other dimension, reminding him she was just off stage, but still there. Or was she?

******

In town on Saturday morning while downtown with his mother and sister Laura, he saw someone who might be her sitting with someone who might her father. He had to look twice, then indicated to his mother and sister he had another errand to get done. Laura frowned at him then followed their mother to the bakery for their scones.

Marni was sitting outdoors on the coffee shop terrace. The older man was reading a newspaper and she had her chin propped in her hand, the other hand around a coffee mug. Lonny was going to walk right past her and into the shop, just to see her that was all, then leave. He managed to get by and inside, then stood in line, heart tramping his chest.

“Hey there, Lonny.”

He turned to find Flora smiling at him with that bright pink lipstick but as he nodded at her, in swept Marni to stand behind her. Flora followed his changed gaze, scowled, then looked at the chalkboard menu above them.

“H-h-hi-uh…” Lon called out in Marni’s direction, then stepped out of line. Idiot, he thought, what are you up to?

“Lon!” She made room for him in front of her. “I wondered where you’d gone. Figured I’d scared you off. Sorry…If you’re getting a coffee, want to join Dad and me outside?”

Did he want to join her…yes! Did he want to join her father? No, and he would have to chat away. He moved ahead a notch; she moved with him.

“Listen,” she said in a near-whisper, “it’s okay if you’re quiet. Not every one is a talker. I can talk a lot or a little or none at all…”

He nodded his head at the barista who always knew Lonny’s order. Marni ordered her refill and they stepped away together.

“Marni girl?” The man who was decidedly Marni’s father in black polo shirt, khaki shorts and deck shoes had stuck his head in the half-open door and called out, “I’m off to the marina, meet in an hour?” He nodded at Lonny as if he was a nice guy he naturally trusted with his fabulous daughter and then left.

Flora departed, too, with a deeply heated backward glance at him as if he was a traitor.

The two of them sat at her table, cooled by shadows cast from as large blue and white striped sun umbrella. At first she said nothing but sipped her coffee, looking into the busy street. Her sleeveless white blouse with tiny green sailboats caught his eye, then her muscular arms, too, and her hand went to the vee of bare throat and chest. He felt the color rise in his face.

“Lonny, tell me if I am wrong. I get right to the crux of a matter… But you’re sorta mute, is that right? I suppose there is some fancy technical term, sorry.”

He lifted his chin a bit, held it there, his hands clasping the seat of the chair as he waited for the usual discomfort, tried to stave it off with perfect stillness. His eyes, he hoped, said little except he was glad to be there.

“I don’t care, that’s what I had to say. It’s different but means little to me.”

He shifted his eyes from her face to table top. Well, nothing to say to that even in his head–she might mean it or not, anyway. He wished it was not even a point to be made but there it was, and hopefully over with.

“Lonny, this is what you see about me but might not get: I’m a dancer. So I don’t love to indulge so much in regular language, not unless I can possibly help it. I’d rather dance, period.”

“Oh…” he uttered a well of a word, bottomless, and he fell into the moment.

Marni smiled, teeth flashing. “And I’d like to like you, maybe.” She put a index finger on his forearm, tapped it once, tentative yet telegraphing an affirmative.

He gulped his coffee, tried to not choke; that soft finger, her lilting voice. Some passageway inside him went from darker to lighter, and opened up enough that he felt his chest open, too, and his head expanded to accommodate her words: And I’d like to like you, I think.

He set the half-full mug down, rose up and offered the crook of his arm for a walk– along the lake, he gestured, in the sunny day. She held up another finger, then made her hands swoop and fly so that she took her body down the steps and dancing onto the sidewalk, not a care for what anyone thought. Lonny watched in amusement, then jogged after her. As he trotted he tried to say her name. The best he did was manage Ni. As she came to a measured stop, she was so brimming with laughter that he had to catch her hand in his and tug her along.

There were more than a few Marionville inhabitants who noticed all this that Saturday and were perplexed for days–but Lonny was still water running deep, you just never knew. That young woman, a summer girl, someone said a talented dancer? Well, she was a foolish or brave young woman to take that curious one on. But Giles, Lonny’s mother and sister Laura knew better. Marni was on the verge of discovering an astonishing man, someone about to come into his own– but they kept their thoughts to themselves, just as Lonny would hope. Just as Lonny almost always did.

A Night for a Madwoman

stars-and-cabin

Halloween, when everyone tries hard to be something other than who they are. Or succeeds in becoming who they may have been already, I mused, and slouched into the sofa. I sleepily watched “Key Largo” when Daedalus’ husky-German shepherd ears pricked and he came to attention.

Thundering feet hammering the earth roused me. Dae growled ominously, barked at the front door like the wild beast he wished to be. I swung it open, pushing Dae behind the door before it shut, his protestations increasing. Whoever was out there rustled the bushes, their voices a staccato of noise that fell quiet at my appearance. I sensed others lurking about my old chapel-house and fear flashed through me.

There it lay in hideous glory, flung upon the porch: a large effigy, an imaginative  rendering of a witch that, on closer inspection, might have been meant to resemble me. I picked it up amid snickering from dark foliage. I saw not a soul. I brought it inside, took off its rumpled pointy hat, examined the stuffed body, partly clothed in a black swath of cheap shiny fabric. Dae sniffed every inch, snarled, pounced at it. I signaled him to sit; he did so with head erect, watching. On the stuffed pillow case noggin was a garish red wig. The white squashed dumpling of a face was marked with dramatic black eyes, single line of nose, purple mouth gaping to reveal drawn jagged teeth. It’s body was overstuffed with damp leaves and rags; it wore a black cape safety pinned together and bloomers of grey and white ticking. But no pretend feet with ridiculous shoes. My stomach clenched.

I’m a dancer, after all.

I had learned to let whiffs of gossip and little digs roll off. I was overall accepted–as perhaps mentally unfit or at the least a sad, peculiar person. Most were not unkind while some stayed their distance. The villagers knew I fell mute the day of Thomas’ death, drowning on stormy Ring Lake. Mia, beloved daughter now thirteen, was recovering–father gone, mother, too, in vital ways–at her aunt’s in Vermont. It was going as well as could be expected. There was not a day or night I didn’t feel her absence like a thorn embedded that could only be excised by the sight and energy of her restored to our home. But I believed she’d be saner, safer there. Away from the rocky pit into which I’d tumbled.

Friends and neighbors recalled my life before such losses. Sophia, they said, remember when you swam and boated with us, danced spontaneously and entertained us with adventures of your dance troupe and more? We loved to hear you tell stories. We want to hear your voice. But I barely could recall it all. And I hadn’t tried to dance again in the airy loft space that echoed with bitter denouncement. Those sudden puncturings of illusion, revealing the frailty of my hope, the faulty design of expectations. My body and spirit were marred by a dense darkness that had transformed me. Set me apart from much that mattered. Still, I owned an unyielding will to stay alive. It was less certain I’d find a way back from a creeping madness that could steal clarity of mind, resilience of heart. I waffled.

But I was filled with a desire to take action now.

I pulled the hag-witch close, twirled once about the living room as Dae nipped at its straw nubbins of feet, his blue husky eyes lit by candlelight that warmed the rooms. I yanked the wig from the creature woman, placed it over my own, nearly waist-length sandy hair. Positioned the ratty hat at an angle.

I opened the door. Descended the porch steps with deliberate effort.

Bushes shook, whispers rifled brisk fall air. A rock was tossed over my head and hit the door, setting Dae off. Laughter, hard laughter. Was I an idiot to be out there? I lifted my hands skyward and began to dance in place, then galloped and lunged across the yard, legs loosening, arms flung out, about. Zigzagging, I felt almost lifted off my feet despite heavy hiking boots. I lurched and spun more than danced but I was moving, that was the thing. The intention was to give them what they wanted: a mad woman. My greying hair flew out from my head as wig and hat slipped away. I would not be put off. Let them think what they would; I was not bowing to their meanness.

A flurry of footsteps from the road–were there more coming?

“Did you kill him, crazy lady?” a girl shrieked.

“Did you do your ole man in, did ya?” a boy bellowed.

I went cold as brittle ice, went blind as well as deaf for brief seconds.

Then someone else hooted, another yelled words I couldn’t interpret, one more whistled, and it pierced me.

A roll of toilet paper then another were thrown in my direction. I grabbed and wrapped the end of tissue around my neck, walked back across the yard with head up, the roll unwinding behind. Laughter, more whistles, stamping feet followed as I disappeared around the back of my house. I pried open the sliders, ran indoors. Locked all doors, shaking. Ripped apart the ugly effigy and stuffed it into the garbage. Dae guarded me, pacing back and forth to check on doors.

I thought to leave the first floor. Climbing stairs that led to the loft, I at last sat on thetop step until breath slowed and diaphragm felt less quivery. A killer! That had been some talk, I knew, despite the circumstances and what was known. But it was the unknown that rattled people, the what ifs, the unanswered whys. Why hadn’t I done something to stop him from taking the boat out, what had happened before he left, had I suspected he might be reckless?

I could not say, that was the problem. And kids with mischief on their minds made it clear they had their opinions, even if stoked by the night’s wildness. It scratched at my recently found courage.

This space, a room full of unforgiving. I had tried to remake it over the months, change its character by painting huge canvases, playing great music on the stereo. But it had remained empty of what bone and sinew knew best.

Now I stood, took off shoes and socks, wandered over the wooden floor in bare feet, its smooth coolness greeting my skin. Familiar comfort to reaching arches and toes. I found and put a CD of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” on high volume. And then I began to move into an unspooling span of timelessness. Past the bruised and brightening colors, the defined yet forlorn shapes in my paintings; they leaned against wall-length mirrors like preternatural beings, waiting.

I located a center of balance and it rocked, then righted itself. I picked up speed, limbs lengthening, muscles contracting and releasing, skin stinging, my neck weary of holding a head weighted with need. I danced in a fury until the metallic taste of fear and sea-taste of sorrow dissolved on my tongue. Breathing harder, working up sweat, letting go more of what Thomas had left behind. As the musical movement resolved, I stopped, panting, frightened by what coursed through me. Coils of energy given access to my limbs, deep cave of my mind.

It was all of a few minutes and yet I was spent. Was I attempting to dance for life or back at death? In faith or in fear? What was this stirring me, taking charge of my blood and breath? How could rage align with mercy?

Suddenly I recalled words my female dancers and I had chanted on a stage. It was on a Boston stage, a performance before Halloween. After we’d woven ever-changing circles inside circles, we formed a “v”,  myself at the point in front, their hands on my shoulders and one by one on all other shoulders. And we spoke in unison as we, dressed in silver chemises, slipped through blue shadows:

            May all women seek their magic

             in ways light will seek the dark

             May our souls be deeper, stronger

             in the center of life’s spark

             May we transform every anger

             May we fight with powers of love

             Whether midnight or the morning

             Let your life become reborn

I looked through the old glass of a skylight high above, near roof’s peak. It opened onto a complex, sensuous natural world, one I had long believed in. Once long ago a church choirmaster had opened or closed it to circulate air or to protect earnest singers from the elements. I found it reasurring to imagine people vocalizing as birds and bugs flew in and out. Inside that rectangle a new moon and faraway stars beamed. Beyond that realm, as well, were my accusers, supporters and those undecided. But I had danced a few secret moments on Halloween Eve. I was closer to embracing the reawakening of my long-dormant power. And that revealed a modicum of freedom, if I could follow its call.

The night fell into itself. Dae rested his wooly head on big paws at an edge of my loft. Beyond my doors ran sugar-stunned children; teenagers found mischief and left their marks. But there was one timid group trying to be bold who’d pass around news: Sophia Swanson has gone freaking nuts, we saw her do a crazy zombie dance…she is seriously strange! We won’t go back to her place. 

One day, I may find the will to speak and they will no longer brand me someone they suspect I am. They will no longer wonder, at all.

 

(Readers, this story arose from a novel’s chapter, the novel in ongoing revision. Other posts featuring Sophie as well as a male protagonist named Cal may additionally be found here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/

Life, in Pieces

lake with sun on horizon

Morning rearranges itself into something I do not recognize, all stitched together after night’s rending. Translucent greys and rough patches align themselves in random order. I see them through the screen window and shut my eyes. It is a heavy quilt this early hour, and my body hides beneath it. It would take so much to throw it off,  just to rise.

They say it is July but I wonder, even as I sweat beneath the light layer covering me. It could be January. It is cold as ice inside the places that I think. Inside the rocky cave that has a hollowed out corner just for me. Yet a pine branch still waves at me through the skylight above the bed. The brilliance I see could be the snow for all I care. It matters less, what is imagined or is not.

A brash–so confident–robin trills. A sharp intake of breath but no, I will it to leave me to the stillness beckoning. My hand lifts to block sultry rays that prove the misconception: yes, it is summer, the burden and beauty of it both rude and magnetic. Here comes that light, it flails against my face and shoulders as if thrown from Ring Lake from a bigger, ultra sun. If it is a net it will surely capture me.

No, I will not have this, I will not rise.

Still, the day takes me in its wrenching grip, whispers: be alive.

******

I hear her feet now. How they tread wood planks lightly, moving from one side of this renovated chapel-house to the other. Mia paces in the wake of morning, as I resist. Her hair, so like mine, will fall away from her face when the breeze catches it, finally, as she seeks the tenor of the day outside on our deck. An amber light will cling to its waves and curls, revealing an innocence put on hold. Daedalus, our German shepherd-husky mix, will stay at her side. They will scan the water, waiting for something to break the tension of its surface. A fish. A floating plant. A hand. Some sign of life.

I want to call him. Dae. He knows all things, is the secret keeper, and Mia is the one who cannot bear to know. Or I suppose. She has asked things; I have not answered.

What that night of loss would bring was suddenness, like the lightning that skewered the sky’s earlier benign blackness. We sank into the abyss of a life gone sour, beautiful ripeness spoiling in our hands.

Mia was not a witness. She was with her friend, screeching, then carrying on like children do in summer storms. Now her eyes tell me she, too, is hiding despite her body moving, mouth speaking. She is almost thirteen. Not a child anymore, she has said all year. No. Not now.

I will miss her more than she will me. My sister comes soon to keep her safe from all that has happened here, may yet come. Her leaving may collapse my house. My friends or strangers will pass by, see it standing, eye its ingenious re-design. History made contemporary before their eyes. It may look like a country chapel that morphed into a house. But it is changed by ruin, a place sinking beneath its own weight. Once, as we began, it nearly floated by water’s edge with laughter.

They will say, She is in there, the door is locked against the living– we must find a way in. They will ring the bell and Dae will bark and I will sleep the way the left behind sleep, without a moment’s forethought, or any saving desire. With a fondness for forgetting.

******

“Mom? Mom.”

She touches my hand, which has strayed beyond the sheet. My fingers lift to meet hers. Eyes blink, try to focus. She likes the braid my hair is in, is almost always in. It gingery length trails down the middle of my back. She tugs at it. Perhaps she thinks this will prod me upward and out of bed.

It makes me think of the bell tower that is still there, without a bell. How many hands rang that bell, how many worshipers did it bring? To kneel and offer thanks. Or how many did it save when it was rung to alert loggers and fur traders to emergencies so long ago? To muster bravery and resolve.

How archaic is such courage— that ordinary men and women would answer the call to put out a neighbor’s fire, I think as Mia repeats my name. Does this still happen? Would someone have come to help me when…?

The bed frame creaks, mattress dips as dog and child climb up.

I turn to face them both. Such eyes, both blue as the clear northern horizon. Hers’ are from her father. I turn my head, face the wall, see photos of another life hung there. Then I do the right thing and look back at them both. But I cannot eek out a smile.

“Why won’t you just talk? To me. To Rissa, your best friend? They all keep calling for you. You can’t stay silent forever. It’s been three weeks since Dad…since he d-drowned…”

Nothing leaves me now and only enters if I can make room for it. I perhaps can stay silent forever. But I will let you know.

“Aunt Janice is coming back tomorrow, as you know. I’ll be gone the rest of this summer, stuck in Vermont, stuck helping at their bakery, probably, with Lily. I mean, I love them but–all because you won’t talk yet.”

Her pleading voice carries through the room. I take her hand in both of mine. Pressed between my palms it feels light and smooth as a flower, making a soft impression I will not forget.

Mia lies down bedside me, and Dae beside her. We are three survivors, marred by loss. Dae sighs so loudly and wetly she almost giggles and I reach my arm around to her back, press her closer to mine; we are moldable as clay these days. Our dog companion sits up, leans his head across her shoulder, reaches to mine, lays his muzzle on my upper arm.

If I weep any more, I will dissolve entirely. But I pat his head appreciatively.

“Dae! You’re suffocating me–your breath is bad!” Mia says sternly, pushing him back behind her. He obeys.

Wait, please suffuse us with your kind loyalty and vigilant regard. Your canine acceptance of such sorrows. Our dire endings, our desperate need for beginnings.

******

Mia left me to Dae’s watch. He’s nudging me. Food. We all require it.

I swing up and onto the edge of the bed with caution, swift dizziness accompanying this movement, then settling. Toes touch the floor and there, my feet, calloused, sturdy dancer’s feet, find their places and stand without wavering and take me from the bed, out the doorway, down the stairs though my hand grasps the railing like a woman old before her time.

“You’re up!” Mia cheers with both fists pumping air. “It’s only eight o’clock.”

The first day up before mid-afternoon and I immediately think: Return at once to bed. Nothing good will last once I’m in motion. She will get her hopes up, this is too soon to hope of anything but bare basics.

But breakfast begins to make things seem more reasonable. Daylight scatters shadows. My hands at work feel heavy but decent. The aroma of bacon, eggs, bread toasting pulls me closer to a familiarity with gravity. Still, the sounds of that water outside slapping against the peninsular shoreline is like a warning. I cover my ears without thinking and Mia frowns at me sadly, closes the sliding door.

The possibility of an upright day unfolds. There is more. This is real, not just the interminable mourning and bed. Not just memories and denial of the present. We might walk, even. But perhaps not by Ring Lake. It is bright as a mirror today, will blind us.

Dae joins us under the table. He licks my bare feet. He knows how they can dance, he remembers my dancing that night, even. Danced even though Thomas could not bear it. My dancing: freedom, passionate happiness.

“Mom, remember how we used to love to ski? I think winter will feel better, we can snowshoe and ice skate and cross-country ski again, right?” She held her fork aloft, awaiting my response, the soft yellow mass quivering, then ate it. “If you are talking by then.”

I get up, pretend I need more coffee. I toy with the sugar bowl.

Muteness is not a choice! I want to yell. Your father chose. He let his despair and anger win out. He took control in ways you will never know. He created  a whole identity out of esoteric matters, charted them like tiny bits of data, then tossed the whole experiment out. A scientist at odds with his love of science. The pond life Thomas adored teemed with organisms that eluded him in the end. Like us.

I am not trying to speak or not speak, daughter. I am trying to stay alive.

When I turn, I almost say her name: Mia honey.

Dae’s head rears up as if he hears my thought, as if to say, You must speak now. But my voice was tossed about, torn out, lost that night. My eyes fill up then are dry of tears before Mia can see the truth on my face. I make a poor facsimile of a smile, bring us both coffee, open the sliding door to encourage the wind’s music entry in my home. She smiles back, lopsided as usual, but with lower lip quivering.

I will not let you take more from us, I tell the lake. Let all the knowns and unknowns you harbor settle on that murky floor of earth. 

But the lake is unassailable. Not a suspect. The lake is a bystander, and cannot take the blame.

******

The trees welcome us as we traverse our acreage. How can these be so grand and yet so humble? They have lived long, survived longer than any other. The oaks, elms, maples, birches and poplars and pines, even more. I once wanted to name them all. I have such abiding love for them it is a mercy just to walk between then, touch the bark, smell their green fecundity. My daughter and our dog scamper, finally given license to race and roam for no good reason with this bigger person close at hand. Safety is an illusion, I want to shout, enjoy it for now!

The big person: me, Sophia, known here in Snake Creek as Sophie Swanson. Six feet tall. That’s right. The one who looks as if she might conquer small territories but cannot speak of things that cannot be undone. A mother, once a wife, now a widow. A dancer who cannot now dance at all. A friend who cannot find a way to construct the bridge from grief’s too-rich anger to hope-filled caring, one small powerful movement forward that will end this isolation. Perhaps one day.

Well, I am up and out and walking with my family, anyway. I shut my eyes. Dae’s raucous barking, Mia’s high voice calling out to him. Leaves shaking their brilliant forms. Summer water pulling me like a lost dream, a possibility to re-enter another time. My long penny-bright braid stirs against my bare back so insistent heat of July reaches skin. Spills its warmth. I open eyes to see cerulean sky filling space between treetops. Lean against papery thin, peeling bark of a birch and feel something course up my legs, into my own trunk. A remembrance of strength. I shiver in the breeze as the gauzy dress flutters about my knees.

“Mom! Come see these wildflowers!”

I pick up the skirt, run toward them and just like that slip from sleepwalking into a little more agreeable wakefulness. Into a decent and surprising  moment of living.

I will probably somehow survive all this and Mia and I will find our way, I tell the birch grove as I leave it. Their leaves turn but do not disagree.

******

Before we know it, afternoon slouches around us.

Her reading, then disappearing to charge her cell phone and then to pack. Standing on the stairway, talking down at me. I hear her words, muffled syllables. I sit on the sofa by the cold fireplace wishing for fire. Wait for the landline to stop ringing.

“Mom! It’s Aunt Janice. She’ll rent a car at Haston’s airport and be here around noon tomorrow.”

She hands me the old-fashioned heavy, black phone, the one we found at the second-hand store after we moved in. A year and a half ago; time feels unfriendly, even vicious now.

“So, it’s all set, Sophia. We’ll have her the rest of the summer like we agreed and then…see how she is by early September. How you are.”

I’m better than that night, than the funeral, than the week after. I’m better now than this morning. Maybe you and our parents were wrong–I really can keep her here with me. With Dae and me. I should, I should!

“It’s so frustrating! You’re not even making one sound. I’m sorry, but this is all just…hard.”

I let out a sudden rush of breath into the mouthpiece and imagine its soft roar invading her ear. I want to laugh at her foolishness, not mine. Whose frustration is tantamount here? Who wishes to speak of even mundane things?

“Don’t be ridiculous, you know what I mean, Sophia.”

She coughs, whether to clear her throat or to pause her words, I’m not sure. Janice can be officious and prickly but she is also trustworthy and steady. I am the dancer, after all, she is the bakery owner and businesswoman.

The elegant wood clock on the mantel ticks like a metronome. Tiresome, like this talk. My foot taps air along with it. I want to say loudly as if she is deaf: my name is Sophie now, just plain Sophie.

“I’m really sorry, sister. It will all take time, that’s what they say. Whatever happened that night…maybe one day you’ll tell me. I just want you to get through this. You should come with Mia, but no you have to stay there. The scene of his death. That house once a chapel–so strange. You should never have moved, never bought it. Oh, Sophia, I do not understand what it all means. But we will do our best to support you. We love Mia so much.”

Do you still love me, though I failed to inform you of the gravity of our situation? I am the same woman as I was before, I have just been robbed. Though the robber paid, I am left nearly empty.

“So I’ll see you guys tomorrow. It’ll be good to just be with you an hour, then we have to catch our plane back.” She blows her nose.”Sorry, summer cold. I know Mia wanted to fly out alone but this is better.”

Right, you have to see what’s going on, report to the parents, I think with irritation. Granted, I am a silent sister and daughter now.

Dae jumps on the sofa, makes himself smaller, groans tiredly. Mia runs down with arms overflowing with last-minute laundry. How do I inform Janice I must go? I catch Mia’s eye, wave the mouthpiece in her direction. She drops the pile, grabs the phone as I get up and gather dirty clothes. Head to the washer and dryer. I hold up her shirts and tank top, hold it to my chest. I do not listen to their conversation. Mia will love Vermont, always has.

She will be free of the poison, that deep bruise of anguish that covers me without permission. She will not know my bitterness, the shame, the rage that have taken hold of me.

But I still love it here as much as I dread the thought of enduring each day without Mia. The rafters above, the idea of a choir in the great loft. The bell tower that waits for another bell. The woods and lake giving up stories. The sky crisscrossed with stars, planets, moon, sun. It is my home. Despite the money I will receive from Thomas’ estate, I do not want to leave.

“Will you be alright, Mom? If i go? I don;t want to, but everyone says it is for the best, how do I know? And well, maybe we can manage for a month…”

I take both her hands and we start to move in a circle like when she was a child and we felt like being silly for no reason, round and round until our heads spin and we fall onto the couch and lie there, staring at the ceiling.

“I love you,” she says, those tears again coming forth.

I take her face in my hands, kiss her soft pudding cheeks and she shrieks.

Will you be alright, Mia my beloved, in the hands of your aunt and uncle and cousin and grandparents? Yes, you will. But nothing feels certain anymore. We have lost our places. But we will find them once more even if we have to make up an entirely new sign language, our very own. Because that is how love works.

******

There will come a time when the thought of dancing will not send me into panic but liberate me. But I don’t know when. Maybe another life altogether.

I had been working on choreographing a new piece. I’d thought he was still in town enjoying dinner with one of our new friends. I was hoping his mood would be better and that he wouldn’t have drunk much beer or wine. And he appeared sober. But he was not better; he was not alright at all.

“What? You will not dance any longer!” Thomas yelled. “You are done for, too old for this, I don’t care how strong you still are or beautiful or talented! I am so weary of this, it’s taken so many of your years with me. When we moved from Boston, you agreed to leave your dance company behind, leave dancing with it. No, no more, Sophia–you must just be mine awhile! I have my breakthrough work started here. This is our family home now. It’s my turn!”

More was said between us, but it all blurs in parts of the brain that are so hard to reach. I do know leotards and costumes were found, yanked out of my trunk. Cut into jagged shreds, heaped in a pile like a funeral pyre. He turned away as I collapsed on the floor, then walked with purpose toward me, scissors in hand. I started to run, he blocked me, then to the corner of the loft as I wailed and the storm whirled about our chapel house, treetops and their limbs calling back to me in vain.

The rest, I cannot say. He made my soul jump out. And then he left and took the boat into the thunderstorm. So they say.

I couldn’t answer their questions. I was no longer able to speak so wrote what was remembered. It amounted to more and less than they expected. He was, after all,   my husband until the end.

******

We have eaten dinner outdoors, now linger on the deck out back as the vivid July sunlight wanes. I thought she would want to talk but the meal was quiet.

“Want to go down to the water?”

I look up sharply.

“We could watch the sunset.” She pets Dae, ruffles his ears, avoids looking at me.”We could walk along the shore awhile, all…all of us. I want to be able to think good things of the lake with us three.”

That beauty, that beast of Ring Lake. I take her hand and we–Dae dashing ahead and circling back several times– walk down the sloping yard toward water’s edge. Stroll along the shore as if this was any night, any moment.

******

As we walk, my memory works despite my resistance.

This lake-and-forest country was something Thomas always desired. He vacationed in northern Michigan as a youngster, later as an adult. A limnologist, he studied inland waters for environmental purposes, and pond life in particular. After teaching for thirty-five years, winning accolades, publishing, he looked forward to semi-retirement in this land of his youth. We could have lived anywhere. His old East coast family had money; he garnered more as the years rolled by. But this is where he wanted no, had to be, he said often.

I am–was– younger by fifteen years. I had my own intergenerational dance company, was a choreographer and well-known dancer. But he declared he must have this–for his depression to ease up, for his old age to begin serenely– and so I dissolved my company regretting every pained goodbye. I thought, anything to ease his bouts with bleakness that was then further fueled by scotch. And I was sooner to be forty-eight. 

I got a teaching position at the esteemed summer arts camp at the edge of our new home, the village of Snake Creek; I knew it might turn into more. Thomas was angry with me long before that fateful night. He was jealous of my devotion to dance, my success. Independence.

I loved him for his brilliance, sophistication and attentiveness. He said he loved me because I simply cared without reservations from the start,  and his money bored me at best.

He needed me more than I did him, ultimately; I see that now. And I failed him, perhaps. Perhaps. 

I had had such hope of more. How wrong to believe it would work out well, this move, our contradicting needs. So many changes. How foolish.

 Fatal.

******

Dae prances about by the water, takes a drink, then zigzags back. He sniffs the air, the earth at water’s edge, mouths a rock and drops it. Then backs up, turns around, running to me. I stop. The waves roll in. Mia squats near the water, draws with a stick within a stretch of sandy earth but I can’t see what.

The western tree line across Ring Lake and the sky above it hold a mix of chiffon-warm colors, almost liquid as they spread. The air is humid, still too close to hot; the water is likely almost lukewarm. I inhale deeply the loamy scent of plants, mud, wet stones, lake water. It’s one I have need of, as much as forests and four seasons. As Thomas did. On that we did agree.

Dae is whining and circling me. I kneel beside him, store his great head. I never knew where he went that night, if he followed Thomas outside.

I know, it wasn’t  far from here, it was the island, they found him near Stump Island. His private haven.

We know so little of what someone really thinks or can do. We think we know, we live with a person, love, share, make it through toughest turns and boring times. Cheer each other on and raise a victory glass to each achievement and moment of bliss. And still there are those loose ends. There are subtle and bigger lies and misfired words and heartless nights in a wide, too empty bed.

You were there, Dae, I don’t know what I would have done without you.

That night, I saw him there, afterward. That much I knew for sure. His howling, his standing guard, his stalwart presence by even when the police came.

Daedalus wriggles free, runs to a clump of bushes by the stony beach. He roots for and grasps something with difficulty, then trots up to me. I open my hands, then draw back and look at him. He drops it at my feet, panting, blue eyes steadily holding my gaze.

“What’s he found?” Mia asks, suddenly beside me.

I touch the cold steel, plastic blue handles. The scissors, the scissors Thomas wielded.The blood now gone, of course, blood from the wound made on my upper back as he tried to cut my braid. The one I wrapped tight with a towel and pulled my loose robe over so no one would see it. That and all the rest that was done. And got cleaned up, stitched up in the city a half hour away early the next morning with my dearest friend, Rissa. She tried to get answers but I was not able to tell her, nor the doctor. 

That five-inch wound Mia doesn’t know about–my hair covers it–with all the other ugly details. And never will. I shrug so she won’t think anything of it. Maybe she won’t recognize they are the ones long kept in the desk drawer in the loft.

“Oh, I know those, those are ours. That’s odd.”

She picks them up, opens and closes them. I shudder. They don’t work well now. I look over the nearly still lake. The cooling breeze is elsewhere, I could pass out for lack,of oxygen.

“I guess we must have used them for something out here, yeah, maybe when I was making flags for our deck for…oh, Mom, the fourth of July…when Dad and I….when we were planning our party? The one we didn’t get to have.”

Her face crumples and I pull her to me. Let her moan again. I toss the object as far as I can. Dae picks up the scissors’ handle with his teeth, trots farther down the beach, just drops them. When he returns Mia’s head is on my shoulder, mine on top of her frizz. She takes my braid in her hand, squeezes it. I can tell, her grasp is tender, the sensation moves to my head. I blink back my own tears but fail. How can she go to Vermont? We both know it’s best for awhile. I

I am not well; she is lonely and lost.

“Why did he have to go out in that storm and just drown?” she asks for the hundredth time. “Why did he leave us?”

I almost respond,  words bubbling in my throat. They stall on my tongue. It is more like a tiny shush that slips from my lips. I don’t think Mia can even hear it. I am rocking her back and forth, back and forth while Dae lies apart with head on outstretched paws, watching the waves, the last of the sunset or maybe the oncoming darkness. This is the smallest of moments, one wedged in between millions of others. But it is one that will come back to me the time she is gone: Mia in my arms, trusting I will be more available again for her and the steely blue water flaring, afire with light and last heat as it slides away from us until morning. A morning I dread.

Her father seems near at times and now I look about and  stir. Dae’s head lifts, his ears pricked but it is nothing, only my uncertainty, a fear I never had before. This strange brew of sadness, longing and anger that makes me reel. I have much to do for my daughter. For myself. Language needs to surface, make for itself a new voice. But for now I am caught in the resonant core of silence, cannot yet leave it.

The three of us are bone tired. Twilight limns treetops and silvers the softly undulating lake. We find ourselves resting in a tentative ease. Taking in the music of Ring Lake, another woodland night settling like an old shawl about us.

 

[Dear Readers: This post about Sophie Swanson is part of a novel I am slowly re-developing. Tentatively titled Other Than Words,  it  was first completed a few years ago. An excerpt was then published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Still, the entirety needs a lot of work. Any comments would be helpful if you care to share them. Another chapter from the male protagonist’s viewpoint was shared this here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/other-than-words-an-excerpt/  It tells how Cal Rutgers feels about his life as a photojournalist and his first encounter with Sophie. Thank you for taking the time to get a glimpse into Sophie’s story!]

 

Enter Stage Right. Again.

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The day was met with my favorite floral china cup of strong Oolong tea, the newspaper and Arthur, my unkempt miniature labradoodle. Though the hour was often marred by the rushing of cars carrying workers to important positions in the world, I persisted. Before long things would settle into a companionable quietness rounded out by bird song or squirrel chatter or the occasional barking, all of which Arthur offered commentary on. I could hear all this from my kitchen window, Arthur having exited through the side doggie door to do his daily and sniff about the flowers and trees. The light fell in such a way at seven a.m. that I was neither too wrongly awakened or kept lagging in that leftover daze of slumber. It caressed the deepening lines in my face and warmed my cool fingers. The tea was quite good, the cranberry orange scones I got by the half dozen, better, and the paper fell somewhere below par.

When he came back inside, I took us both out to the front porch. Arthur got to romp about the yard up to our white fence. I got the rocker and a decent view of everything my eye could find. The lumpy but firm green and gold pillow was stuffed behind my back; otherwise, the sitting would have been hampered by a spine that has had too much stress for too many years. As a ballet and later a modern dancer for twenty-seven years, I had felt the strain of a body’s glory as well as the wonder. Now things–connective tissue, the spots between joints, the arches and toes of feet overused so long–they hurt me if I moved too much or too little. There is a more happy medium but it had eluded me recently. I still danced once a week, if you could call it that, at a local studio. And Arthur and I took to the neighborhood park as often as we could and what a good time we had there, myself on the swing as he met up with his buddies. One of the appreciated features of the park is that people with dogs like to chat, so I got my own socializing in for a few days. We both ended up feeling well enough satisfied.

But I did dislike being one of two who appear over seventy. The other one, Mr. Carney, was disagreeable at best, ear flaps pulled down from his red and grey plaid woolen cap–yes, even in warmer weather– and his subsequent complaint that I spoke quite unintelligibly. If he could understand more than five words in a half hour I felt victorious about my ability to shout without seeming idiotic or rude. But he really didn’t want to converse. He whined about things, not just my speech, which he said often resembles that of a child with cookies caught in her mouth.

So I tended to keep watch from my swing while Arthur bounded here and there and Mr. Carney shuffled along the path with his waddling corgi. I have feared for them both, their weight and lack of cordial interchange. They frankly seemed happier with each other. As for me, I have remained thin and if my doctor has cautioned that I could benefit from more fat, I have liked the lightness and ease of a body not carrying unnecessary cargo. I’ve imagined it’s due to being a dancer so long. One is loathe to disturb what has served one well for decades.

But who am I to ever make a point of it? I have not been the most generous with my own time and attention in the more recent past. There was a time for all that, when I didn’t mind being called upon, when I was needed and not at all bothered. Appreciated, too. But as the years went by even my children came armed with many demands or needs but with little else–either to offer or to say. It’s the way of things, I suppose. They with the complicated lives which I have already inhabited and shed, like a snake of its useless skin. I now fit in yet another one and will get rid of that, too, and more, in time. My granddaughter laughed when I said that but she, too, will hopefully live to see the truth of the analogy.

This morning Arthur started barking before I even got the kettle to a boil. I felt out of sorts, as if I couldn’t quite see the point in the sun rising to shine. I fiddled with my crooked glasses–I stepped on them a few days back–and swept up my long hair into a topknot and stuck a decorative chop stick in the wispy mass to secure it. The last scone was dried out. There was s sliver of butter left so I spread it on, then a thick layer of peach preserves to see if that helped. The first bite was not a delight but I continued masticating until I could manage a swallow. Arthur kept barking, not ferociously, but with an emphasis that drew me away from my paper. I could see him jumping against the fence a few times, so stuck my head out the door.

“Get your mad, noisy self in here, Arthur! Now.”

He turned to assess my intention, then kept on barking. I frowned at him and swung my gaze over the driveway next door. Nothing. There wouldn’t be. The Bellsons had moved three months ago, the empty windows and driveway finally seeming normal to me. But as I looked farther down the drive, I could make out something, a truck and maybe a car or even more. And three people waiting on the patch of overgrown grass that separated sidewalk from street.

Had the real estate sign been taken down and I not even noticed it? Well, I had stopped thinking about who might come there or if it would be torn down for a new monster of a house, if a renter with uncertain origins or intentions would take up residence and the poor house surrendering itself. I guess it didn’t matter in the end. I was on the corner, a boon. My back yard yielded some privacy. And no matter who took over the neighboring house, I would be in the same spot until I wasn’t.

Arthur came back in and headed to his food and water as I made tea. I spread open my paper and scanned the usual dreadful headlines about politics, car wrecks, a fire in the next county, yet the weather would remain fair. We could hear the sounds of things nearby, doors opening and closing, squeaky wheels, masculine voices directing one thing or another. After my scone was finished by force of habit and appreciation of the jam, we took ourselves out to the porch. Whereupon Arthur resumed barking until I was sharp in my reprimand. But I could see why he was flustered. Something was certainly changing next door and we had little idea just what it would bring.

There were a husband and wife, they appeared to be Asian, on the front lawn talking with restraint while gesturing at the furniture and boxes being hauled inside. Then I spotted who I guessed was a daughter of teenage years. She was slight, compact. She wore her hair blue-tinged and short. I glimpsed bright bangles on her wrists. Misgiving rose up in me even though I liked young people, if largely from a distance. The Bellsons had not yet had children if they ever would; they were eager to advance and moved off to New Zealand. Nothing had been complicated about their lifestyle and I missed them, at the very least for that. I wondered how this teenager would conduct her life, if that meant my sleep would be jarred by exuberant pop music, if the street would be lined with her friends cars, if there would be antics of all sorts. I hoped for better.

Arthur lay down with head on paws, watching with me. I got up to pour more tea and then returned. The sunlight made its way through the latticework that was on each end of my porch and set its pattern upon the wooden planks. My pink-slippered feet rose of their own accord to dance in the streaming light, then landed by Arthur and stretched, toes pointing and flexing back, pointing again. The motion gave me twinges of discomfort and pleasure in equal amounts, as always.

And then I saw it, a massive irregular shape all swaddled and tied up neatly as it was rolled up to the front door. I slunk over to peer through the lattice just as three men removed it from the big rolling carrier and got the bulk turned sideways and lifted with effort. Then they slid it through the front door and out of my sight, the three newcomers following.

“Arthur”, I whispered, “that was a grand piano! We may have a piano player. Oh, please let there be music.”

*******

Days later the sun brightened my dingy kitchen and the tea kettle let loose a steamy whistle as Arthur had his foray into the back yard. And I waited to hear the now daily piano scales. Up and down the piano keyboard, playing in major or minor keys, the girl worked her way with an expert touch. I knew it was only she  who played since a week had gone by and we saw the father leave for work, then the mother. That left the girl at home alone for a half hour. Each morning she played exercises. My window was open enough that on a breeze rode every single note, firmly sounded. Arthur cocked his head back and forth, ears pricked, and I awaited his comment about it, perhaps dislike. But he, adapted already, went on about his business as I read my paper. Sometimes we got to the porch before she left but usually she had since left for the bus stop at the corner. I found myself stepping slowly about the floor of the porch, stretching this way and that, arms held aloft, then sitting with legs raised and scissored, slippers dangling, then discarded as the weather leaned more toward spring. The daffodils were shooting forth from the dark earth as if in grateful response to live music in their territory. I wouldn’t be surprised if my garden just up and blossomed in a frenzy.

The Musgraves across the street waved at me one Thursday as I exercised-arms in and out, stretch side to side– in sweetening breezes. I hadn’t seen them for months except huddled in their cars, on their way downtown to their offices. I waved back, then pulled my soft blue shawl about me as I stood on the porch looking at the now-empty bus shelter. They were not the friendliest neighbors, but they were civil and we exchanged good wishes and general inquiries when we all emerged from behind the barrier of wintery rains. Could they have heard the piano, as well? Or were they just feeling more friendly with more sunshine, I wondered. I had also noticed the Engers had lingered at their door one afternoon when the grand piano had flung its notes into the street with some vigor.

In the late afternoons, the girl came home alone and after a short time, sat again at her piano. I could see her from my side living room windows. I put down my hobbies or my work–the crocheting or a large book of collages I was making from photographs and mementos. Or the tedious polishing of silver place settings taken from a red-velvet-lined, teak silverware case. I was thinking of giving it to my daughter-in-law for her upcoming birthday, as she liked to entertain. I had been thinking I had too many things I didn’t even like, anymore. But music wasn’t one of them. I still maintained a large collection of records and CDs that I listened to off and on.

Now this new family and with their arrival, piano music slipped out their walls and windows every day. As early spring turned up its heat bit by bit, it got so Arthur and I would settle ourselves on the porch even before the girl–Japanese, I’d decided, though I was no expert on such matters–got home. She walked fast and ran up the front steps and disappeared inside her house. I imagined she got a snack, something light, and set her books out on a desk for later study. The she pulled the piano bench up to the mammoth instrument, Lifted her lithe hands above the keys and placed fingers on each white or black key and began the sonata, the concerto, the specific measures she sought to master. And oh, the music produced with each touch of the keys.

And I remembered. I was sent back to that room with the wall of full length mirrors, the other wall of rectangular windows casting such light caught beyond the historic brick building. We were lined up along the barre. The standard ballet positions began, and plies ensued as the accompanist played the songs that gave us rhythm, that steady, encouraging practice music for our warm up. The common score of the dancer starting work. I remembered how my muscles pulled and lengthened, how feet found their places and held fast, then responded to the spoken and clapped commands, pushed from the floor for airy spaces. Strove for perfection, created beauty. Delved deep for disciplined and rich expressions of life. Such pain and sweat, that homely exchange of energy for minute or grand movements. And even elegance beneath each exacting motion. Leaping and bounding, then tattooing the old wood floor with a hundred tiny changes in step, in balance and form, in center of gravity as the body whirled and rose and fell, lengthened softly, and speaking with limbs and emoting with face, hands, feet. The neck and chin. All.

Art was wrought from primal animal life and a vigorous athleticism that pushed and prodded me until I found the needed connection as bone and muscle and tendon synchronized at last with mind, heart, soul. Heaven opened up for me as the rest of the world turned and tossed. The most ordinary paths of being and doing released me every hour I danced. It had gone on to carry me and I, it, into a lifetime of fulfillment.

But, of course, then the neighborhood piano would stop and silence would shock me back. I would refocus my eyes on the yard, our porch. Arthur would get restless. The night then began to gather in corners of sky. We we would go indoors. In awhile Arthur and I heard the girls’ parents’ car pull in and their voices using a language that confounded.

Then one night as the temperature rose to a balmy record-breaking high the girl opened wide her living room windows. Arthur and I stepped onto the porch again. There came music that was flashier, a semblance of jazzy notes that caught fire. I heard every note; each chord was insistent. I slipped off my woven flats, left my chair, and started to sway and turn and execute a few little steps, my knees resistant at first while my head filled with visions of stages from long ago. Arthur pawed at my long skirt as I swept about, wanting to join in, so we descended the steps and bobbed about the yard, the piano music swelling, cascading. My old flesh and bones answering with each feeling, the beckoning notes weaving and rising inside the measures.

And I was happy! I twirled about, feet feeling soft prickles of new grass, my skin slipping through tender air, a fragrance of flowers and green growing things a veil of perfume that forever entranced young and old. I was dancing and Arthur was singing along in his way and prancing about and all that was upside down was righted again, my solitude of widowhood; strangeness of finding my way inside a thinner, looser skin; the odd reality that everyone was on a fast train, thundering by without so much as a wave or my agreement.

I was dancing, I was still that dancer and no one and nothing would change that. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned and turned in the swirl of mysterious, life-giving music, felt my body transport from this time to another, I gave it my respect and permission to do what it wanted. Unfettered again.

Then bit by bit, I reigned myself in, slowed to a stop. My breath tore through my  lungs and it felt good. All was still. I opened my eyes.

In the faint sheer blueness of that time between dusk and twilight, outside my fence but right in front of my house, there stood the Musgraves and Carsons, the Engers and even the Harolds from way down the street and several others I barely knew anymore. They were staring at me, hands to mouths, arms linked with their mates’, their eyes so wide. I felt a sudden horror that they believed I had lost my mind, that I had finally succumbed to the threats of advancing old age and would never be the same. How could they even know anything of who I had been and was?

Unsettled and embarrassed, I stepped back, saw Arthur licking the new neighbor girl’s hand. She patted him, then advanced toward me. I stood my ground as she entered the yard, her small, quick steps bringing her closer and closer until she stopped and carefully put her hands together before her as if praying and gave a little bob of her head.

“I am Miyoko. Thank you for appreciating my music enough to feel like dancing.”

I said, “Oh. Yes…well, I’m Daphne. Thank you so much for sharing your fine gift, Miyoko.”

She gave me a good smile as her parents came forward, the faces made friendly with kind eyes. Then my old and new neighbors started to clap, the light, sharp sounds a lovely syncopation, filling the evening like bright confetti. Arthur barked in glee, I suspected, and raced about in circles.

And I bowed, almost full of grace now, nice and easy, head low so a vagrant tear would fall away, my trembling arms high above my head, heart and hands to sky.

Moon Face

Photo by Bill Brandt
Photo by Bill Brandt

The elderly man to my right, clutching a book of Blake’s sonnets in gnarled hands, whispers words to me all day. I will miss him, which is a surprise. I never expected to miss anything but freedom to do as I choose. I guess we all want that. But here, in these secured and sparse rooms, many of us find how much everything matters, even things you never thought of before. When you are stowed away in a halfway house, rights become privileges you have to fight to regain with all your creative might. It’s the system, and you are the systematized.

“Lovely tiny dancing doll,” he says now, eyes never leaving the floor. He has once looked right at me though he’s about blind–then he squeezed his eyes shut.

I forgive him–I don’t like my size being referred to, I am nobody’s doll and I’m not pretty–because he has lived a long time and he’s no longer quite with us. I guess it’s better than what “Q the King”, the giantess who had to leave due to violent outbursts, named me: Moon Face. She used to black out with rage, throw things, then fall onto the floor, the whole place shaking from her height and bulk. Mr. Eisenberg was terrified of her. I always smile at him–Mr. E., I just call him–though I doubt he sees me. He must feel it. I believe he needs more good smiles, at the very least. he deserves it and more. Because he is not leaving at all. He lives here with his granddaughter, our overseer, Mistress Manley.

“Dancing doll,” he says. “My dancing doll.”

The windows are a sieve for vapid light. I get up and look out. Everything about this place is marred with benign neglect, even the lawn and fields stretching out like ruined carpet. Not a hospitable home. It is a miracle we all are on speaking terms, even if in whispers. But far beyond this glass I see rolling green fields and in the distance a promise of hills. Past those hills is where I’m going.

Lucky, my big brother, will soon come get me; he really is lucky because he was born with simple wants and right thinking. My bag is packed. All I have to do is sign forms and then I will be closing the doors on this break in my life. That’s how I see it; a time apart from everything else, especially those who had no faith left in me. Others might see it differently but if I have learned anything here it is that our human eyes give us very different views of the world outside as well as inside ourselves. We can only think we understand. And you would not want to know everything even if you could. Still, plenty is worth discovering. I’ve had long, ponderous hours to watch, to listen and imagine, to feel and wonder over the lives of people who have lost their minds one way or another and are trying to retrieve them. I guess that includes me, as I have tried to clear some things up and reorder my life plan after terrible things happened.

“Well, Amanda, ready to take off, I see. Two months and one half-day and set to go. You did the work so now you get to do more life.”

Mistress Manley stands over me with hands on hips. She acts tougher than she is. It’s her job to be in control as supervisor but I know she is not, not really, as neither are the two part-time residential therapists. The doctor is, though he comes only once a week, as well as the mental health agency with which the Darren Manley House is aligned. She is not as big as she seemed the day I came but still, she is three times the size of me. I am small, so small I was told as a teen that I would not make a dancer. Thin is one thing, tiny is another. But I ignored the warning. I had to push all limits.

“Yes.” We had a more thorough conversation two hours ago after I stripped my bed and swabbed my part of the room, the last manual labor portion of my “therapy.” I lean against the wall and she steps back as if conscious of how her wide shadow can engulf us. Her next-to-last word can about seal our fates.

“Let’s have a chat.”

I follow her to the back room, the one that has the sign on the door that says “Private” as if anything in this rambling, 2900 square foot, two-story house can be very private for long. There are not enough places to fit sixteen of us so we have bunk beds in four bedrooms, genders separated. Until we are ready to leave, when we get a closet-sized room for a couple weeks, perhaps the reward for surviving.

We know everything about each other due to habitual contact. We are perhaps as close as some of us can be without being family. Lucky has always assumed that’s miserable but for me, it’s felt more than okay. Our own family is piecemeal by now. Only Lucky and I hold onto each other.

I sit in the wooden chair that had a seat cushion added recently, a small luxury. Mistress Manley leans her elbows on the massive scarred desk and stretches her lips into a smile that still looks suspect. Her blue and white striped blouse strains across her chest and shoulders, collar flopping open so her silver Celtic knot necklace  gleams. I cross my legs. In groups we had to sit with both feet on the floor and backs straight so we could oxygenate our brains. Pay attention to the wise one, Dr. Hannert. I have thought of him as moderately witless more often than not, I confess. His idea of health is not mine, though I half-faked it for him. But today I swing my foot back and forth, almost striking the desk. I’m wound up, ready to leave but have another hour to go.

Mistress Manley clears her throat in a rumble like a motor starting up. She can talk a lot if she has the chance. I have heard much of her life story, ending with how her parents left her this farm house. So after she got a Masters in clinical psychology and practiced at a city hospital and hated it, she decided to open the halfway house for aftercare of psychiatric patients. I can’t say she’s happy here but I think she might not be no matter where she is. Her life is burdened with sad, lost souls and her own dreary childhood. I respect her effort to make a difference even if she has little talent for it. I think she would prefer to run an old folks home, for her grandfather, at least. But he’s going senile now. She has to do what’s necessary; I hope she finds a way to do something else, though.

“Do you feel ready to strike out and take on the world yet?”

“No. But I can manage ordinary life better, I think, and I might make something of mine again. Eventually. I accept what I cannot do now. Or what I don’t want to do, more accurately.”

“Meaning what exactly?” Her hand goes to her Celtic knot. She often touches it like a talisman or a guide. I wonder what she thinks it does besides soothe. It was a gift from her one, long-gone boyfriend.

This meeting is a last test. If I am overly confident, she might second thoughts and get my departure cancelled with a swift phone call to Dr. Hannert. If I have too little confidence the same judgement could be made. I must have moderately aligned expectations. Be calm.

“I know better than to try to off myself. It’ll take a while longer for my sliced wrists to heal up. I still feel like a sort of puppet–my hands don’t want to perfectly cooperate even since surgery. The foot injury still aches at times. Time and physical therapy, the doc says. But my head is on straighter. I think about the future and it looks like a country I’d like to explore again…”

I stop my restless foot. I wonder where Lucky is, and strain my ear to hear the sound of his ’78 Mustang. I haven’t seen him in so long, almost five months now. I’m hoping I still recall all pertinent details, the baritone voice, the way he used to walk like a loping dog, his worn out cowboy boots caked with things Id rather not note. We both have probably changed but me more, I’m guessing.

Mistress Manley sits back, satisfied. “And that will include eastern Oregon now. The ranch life with Lucky and your friends. And Tammy. You’ll make a good helper now, Amanda.”

I swallow, find my throat dry. “Helper” is not what I was hoping for but she’s right. Tammy, aged four, is the daughter of Doug and Cassie, the ranch owners and our mutual friends, the ones who are willing to take me on as a kind housekeeper even though I tried to die a few months ago. They knew me long before my dancing passion became a profession. And then was deleted. Before Lucky left the city to work the ranch with them three years ago.

“And your plan for dancing?”

“That’s not fair.”

I want to leave. I have had more than enough. She  knows nothing of that life, despite my having to share the best and worst of it. I already got my release from the doctor, “acute severe depressive episode” no longer like a tattoo on my forehead. Coping skills duly noted, medications tried then slowly titrated off as I proved I was back to normal. I call it “my brief psychotic grief episode”, not a flat-out depression. I don’t remember feeling depressed before I got fired from the ballet company. After I broke my left ankle and then couldn’t get it all back, the overriding power and agility that kept me secure among other dancers, ones with longer legs or more grace, charisma. More beauty.

That Amanda, the one who succeeded against all odds and then lost it all, is fading to a fainter memory, an erased self-portrait on a weathered page. Folded up, put away. I don’t want to take it out again for a long while, if ever.

“Not fair at all,” I repeat, the flame of anger heating my face.

“Maybe not. But it’s never going away, your desire to dance.”

“No, but it can convert to something else, say, horseback riding– I’m good at that, too. I don’t know yet. Maybe still dance, just not ballet. Maybe country line dancing–wouldn’t that be something?–or tango!”

I shrug slowly, as if this is not the one bruised nerve that still cries out when pressed like this. One more hour to go.

She looks at me with skepticism, then slides paper and pen across the desk. She sets a white plastic bag with all extraneous belongings near my feet. I note the listed items, scan the doctor’s advice and so on, then sign and date with a flourish, my hand steadier than I feel.

“Good,” she says. “I want you to know once more how much I enjoyed having you in our little community. You’ve been a surprise, resourceful, hard-working, and helpful to others. You’re well on your way to recovery. But don’t get too bold at first. Take it slow. Don’t forget we’re here if you need us.”

Her pleasant choice of words about my behavior almost sound like skills I could list for a job now I am discharged. I sigh.

“Thanks. It’s been interesting. I appreciate your assistance.” Which is half-true. I appreciate her constancy, the rules she enforced even as I balked; her firm, even response when we all took turns freaking out. I appreciate her clinical insight into mad grief and worse maladies. But I haven’t enjoyed her overbearing ways or her own poor boundaries or slips of provincial attitude.

I hated the dirtiest menial chores. Found it hard to help care for physically ill patients when extra hands were needed, despite it being against the law. I hated the glaring, humming overhead lights in the group room twice a day, how it felt we were being interrogated. The demands to spill it all in front of people I didn’t really know, who could not truly understand what ballet is to me. The insistence that I was sick instead of devastated, betrayed by my body. The way the wind moaned and rattled the shutters when I couldn’t sleep but wasn’t allowed to get up and roam or sit outside on the porch and take in the night’s fertile air. The long days when no one laughed or commented on that glowing line of royal blue at the horizon before the sun set. How most acted deaf when I talked of the beauty of farm land, the mysterious alchemy going on at vineyards right down the road. Except for Gina, my unusual ally, who would exclaim that she thought things like that, too.

How they questioned why I wanted to die. How many times did I have to say: Because I am a dancer who now cannot dance! Until it made me want to quit it all. Until I decided: Enough. I have to–want to–stay alive even if I have to crawl a little longer. And then I stopped explaining. I just did the work they asked and talked to God in skies spilling over with moonlight and shape shifting clouds.

We exit the office and heads to the medication room; I go downstairs where a few of the women are sitting around. Three are new the last two weeks and don’t trust me and besides, I’m leaving. A couple others stir, put down knitting and books.

“Do we get to meet Lucky?”

“You’re finally being sprung, Moon Face!”

“Moon Face?” a new woman asks.

I laugh. “Yeah, and you’ll get one, too, like it or not.”

Gina aka “Catgirl”–used heroin for fifteen years until finally kicking it in a tent in some woods, then getting assaulted on her way back home–got up and put her arm around my shoulders, pulls me up to her boniness. “Moon Face. Look at her. All round, white as a moonstone. And she likes to sit on a windowsill, the moonlight on her–moon bathing! And she does have a kinda sweet light, see?” She turns me to her, hands holding me at arm’s length so we were face-to-face. “I’ll miss you, girl. Our fearless talks in the night.” Her dark almond eyes fill, then clear. She gives me a friendly smack on the top of the head and sits down.

Jana “Java Queen”, resident bi-polar thief, bursts into the room, riffing off-key. “My, my, soon on down the highway, brother at your side in a fantastic classy ride, you got it right this time, yes, Moon Face, my my!”

She has her usual thermos full of coffee and holds it up in a cheers!  gesture, then plops onto the couch by Gina, resuming the song.

“Gonna just get up and go, leave us alone with ole Manley-o, just like that, am I right or no? Not one of us will miss you, though. You got too many wants and needs, you gonna need more crazy therapy, gotta get the right pill they say, stop another spill, but your soul is–”

“Oh, please, Java Queen, spare us terrible rhymes!” Gina moves to the end of the couch.

Jana rises again, hands held out to me as she danced.”–your soul is riding high now and you’ll be flyin’ soon now, Moon Face, your little Moon Face will be moving past the clouds!”

She comes up and holds out a hot, dry hand and I take it in both of mine. Her brown eyes, lightening with a long-dormant spark beneath the haze of confusion, smile into mine.

“Thanks for the song.”

I can hear the Mustang coming down the road. My knees tremble until I stand with legs apart, feet splayed as if readying for plies.

Marilyn “Matchgirl”, the hoarder who collects old matchbooks and so many other useless items and dyed her short hair green, says, “Don’t forget us…? I’ll remember. Your kindness.”

“Of course she’ll forget us!” Gina the Catgirl snorts. “Who’d want to remember being here?” She shoos me to the door to urge me on: Go now!

I want to say, Wait, I see it’s all of you who have saved me. But Catgirl knows this, and more that I will never get to hear.

When I hear him cut the motor, I pick up my bags and step onto the porch. Some of the men are there, in a rocking chair, on a bench swing, sitting at a card table playing canasta. They wave and a couple say things both regrettable and sweet. I have known them less well; we women stuck together except at one group and mealtimes. But they have been there, too, have witnessed me as I have witnessed them. Their faces are so familiar that I wonder if any of them, women and men, will stop keeping me company in restless predawn hours or when Lucky and I butt heads as we do, or I wonder if I can get on with it all.

“Dance, my little doll!”

As I hurry down the stairs Mr. Eisenberg’s voice pipes up, quiet but clear. I look up and around to see his wizened, white-haired head stick out an open window. I put down my bag just as Lucky opens the door, starts to get out; he looks almost happy to see me. But I run the other direction, run faster with one good and one ruined foot, the steps a joyous ache and I leap high into the air, legs parallel to earth, arms lifted like wings, chin high, body leaving gravity to other creatures. As I reach the pinnacle of the jump I see Mr. E. stretching out his neck to see me, waving. Lucky looks as if ready to catch me, but I’m not in need of being caught. As I descend, a cheer goes up, then Mr. E.’s words, bright as bells, ring out.

“Dance, dance your way to the moon for me, little one!”

I land gently, soundly on my feet.