Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: A Man, His Dog and That Two-eyed Woman

MI trip, day 5, TC 036

I.

So, I tell Rags my trusty mutt, this here is our Marionville, a nice spatter of land that sidles up to Lake Minnatchee, encased in the humming woods that crowd our eastern hillside and make a barrier along western meadows, then spreads about here and there, willy-nilly. We might call the generous sky ours, too, if we want; it lights us up, hides us in dark, too, rains and snows on everyone like we were chosen for it. Though nobody can own sky. But those stars do such tricks for us, I tell him, and he yawns as if this is old hat, get on with it. And this here, I tell him, anyway, throwing my hands out to indicate the acreage around me, this is ours because I won it from my brother Darnell when we tossed an old silver dollar for it. Damn fool, he liked the drink more than life itself. Some said it must have been luck, him being the oldest, but I know better. It was Daddy’s land, was his daddy’s. Next it came to me and that was right and good.

And that makes it not just mine but yours, I say, lightly stomping the ground with my boot to make a bigger point.

Rags looks at me sideways, lifts his graying muzzle to a bright breeze, watches another few red leaves falling and lays his furry black and white head on outstretched paws again. He makes that throaty noise that tells me he is bearing my words because he has nothing else to do but he’s tired of them already. He could chase a small, insignificant thing that rustles the grass beyond us or sniff around property edges for something good but why bother this moment. It’s a perfect Saturday morning. After our chores we are sitting pretty up here in the September heat and cool. Sometime we’ll need to go into town. We’re putting it off as long as we want.

So here’s our Marionville, I say again and it’s like some poem just saying it out loud but don’t let anyone else hear me. I’m Jasper Dye; nobody expects me to think a feeling thought even ten feet close to poetry. But things change as much as they stay the same. Even up here on the hill where I have worked the land and hunted and fished and taken care of the old place near as long as I’ve been alive and kicking. That makes it seventy-two years, if I count from start. And Ma strapped me on her that afternoon after a quick early morning birthing and we tended the corn, which she mumbled about deer getting into again. If you had been there, Rags, that could have been avoided, we both know how skilled you are. Anyway, Daddy yelled at her, she said, but I was happy swaying and hugging her chest in a worn sling of a blanket piece until he sent her back into bed and told Darnell to get to work. My brother was lazy even then.

This Marionville, we can nearly see it all from up here, save for the trees–soon they’ll open up the view as the leaves turn and go–but we know what’s there. And it’s damn good. My home. Sweeter words never spoken, I say to rags and he moves closer and licks the scuffed, dusty toe of my boot. I sit back and just breathe along with him, counting all the reasons why I am so lucky.

Then I reach for the crumpled pack of smokes in my jacket pocket. And leave it. I promised her I’d try to quit. Maybe I at least ought to really try, do you agree, Rags? No one ever put her arms around me like she can, much less asked me anything once. And so kindly. And she always brings you something good to chew. Rags, you hear me? No more smokes.

He sighs. Rags has heard me say this many times before but now I mean it. I settle into my Adirondack chair, the one my son and I built twenty years ago. It really should be called a Michigan chair, it is here, not over there. Anyway, it might need work so I can avoid splinters. For now it’s good enough. Sunlight pours on us with a rich warmth that in just a few more weeks we will sorely miss.

 

II.

The 1986 Ford F-250 truck rattles its way down our dirt road, then calms down on the pavement as I turn the corner and go toward town. The hill is steep here and I slip it in neutral. Rags sticks his head out the open window and his ears go flying, his tongue lolls, eyes go squinty and he’s happy. He used to ride in the back but now he’s getting older like me. I spoil him some.

We reach Marionville sooner than I’d like. It used to take me at least ten, fifteen minutes. But houses have cropped up along the county road in recent years. Big ones, take up so much space us wonder how many are in such families, don’t we, Rags? First one, then another, then more. The sounds of earth movers and chain saws and carpenters at their jobs, it used to grate on me, and Rags you’d bark at the din like a crazy boy. Enough chaos to put us both in an early grave. Now they’re here and that’s that. And some trees were planted to make up for bare spots they made. Still, look at ’em, too big, waste of space and supplies–those summer and winter week-enders, right? But good for the building trades. Thing called progress has its bad and its good. I mostly think poorly of it. I’d rather be like before. Undisturbed.

I ruffle his head now that he’s sat down and looking out the windshield again, at the bugs that hit and fallen summer and early fall leaves that fly off. I don’t get out as much as some think I should. My truck’s tank can be full a long while. Unless I go further north to hunt and that happens soon, eh, Rags? A saving grace for winter coffers. If I bag my whitetail this year. If Shawn goes along we should do okay, but that son of mine, he’s gotten away from it. Let’s check out my bows and arrows tonight, in case he wants to go out with his old man. You know he’ll tell me I don’t have what it takes, anymore. Ancient, that’s what I’ve become! We will see. Last three years I’ve missed but you never know, we can get blessed again.

Rags ignores me. He’s over my rambling, perks up at first sight of the busy streets. Unlike me, he loves to visit civilization, as they call it. Everybody chats with him and gives his rubs, and so many smells. I slow down, put it into second, then first and Rags barks cheerfully at passersby and cars and stores, brash hellos. The main street is inviting as far as town streets go, that hasn’t changed too much, we all want the charm of it to stay. Colorful awnings now, freshened paint, businesses booming more than not. The lake draws lots of people, is decorated with boats and moving bodies until it starts to freeze up. Then there’s ice fishing. Skiing not too far off and more. Marionville, though, is a place you search for. Once you find it, you don’t care to leave. Unless you’re Jasper Dye as I  surely am and you’d rather admire it from the wooded hill.

I park and we get out, head to the hardware. Don’t need a leash, Rags is good at minding. If they make me get one–there’s talk of one of those leash laws–we won’t be coming down but once a month or less.

Here comes Hank Butler, his thick body moving like a freight train toward us. His long red nose is a warning of his approach; it shines today in the sun. We try to ditch him, stepping over and lowering our heads.

“Jaasss! My man, long time no see, what’s up?” He thrusts out a paw to me. I ignore it. Rags sniffs his leg and backs off. “Hey there, good seeing you, too.”

“A few nuts and bolts is all.” I start to go on.

“Got a new grand-baby, another boy,” he says, all puffed up.

“Okay, nice for the others.” I nod at him, make to move forward but he blocks me.

“Yeah, now there’s five. Ellie and me are pleased as all get out. Still, she hangs in there for a girl baby. Let me show you the picture. ”

He pulls out his wallet, then the picture, holds it right before my eyes like I’m a blind man. I nod at the wrinkled infant. Seen one seen ’em all in the Butler line, anyway, and I have to hold back from saying it.

“Okay, there you go, good for you, Hank. Gotta go.”

“What about Shawn? He ever getting married? I seen him with Melissa Everlin again, he’s going out with her, right? What’s he now, thirty-some?”

“Can’t say. Better ask him about any gal.” I step around the nosy hulk and Rags trots along. “Regards to Ellie, see you around.”

“See you at Fall Fest pig roast and bonfire?”

“Might at that.” I touch the rim of my baseball cap so he can’t say I’m terrible rude, then finally hurry off. Tough guy I am thought to be, I still do my manners unless provoked beyond the usual.

That’s what I get for being a silent type. Old-time loner, one of the few left around here, and Shawn says I’ve alienated folks along the way. Alienated? I said. Really, Shawn.  He’s gotten fancy on me. Says it almost like I went out of my way to put off people. Maybe I do, sometimes. I don’t worry over none of it.

I’m about to step into Mike’s Hardware when my eye catches sight of someone else. Rags runs over to a woman with silvered hair, who wears a long skirt with boots, black fleece vest over a red shirt. Her large wire and blue stone earrings sway as she walks. I bet she made those–she can create anything, I suspect.

“There goes Jasper Dye,” she calls out in that soft but firm voice she has. Her steps lengthen as she moves down the sidewalk, a shopping basket hooked over her arm. “I was thinking of you today. How’s it going up the hill? Mister Rags, a pleasure.” She squats to smooth back his rough fur and he licks her hands, then she stands again and her earrings make clinking sounds as all parts shimmy.

I let her hug me, give it back. Only her, outside of family. Because we are friends. And she always asks me the same thing despite knowing my answer. It’s how we talk if we haven’t seen each other face-to-face in a spell. Like we know but don’t know things.

“Well, now, Heaven Steele. I see your house and more day and night, across the road and right above you. And it’s all still good.” I smile, that is, I show my teeth and my lips curl up a little. “You were gone awhile.”

“I was, and I’m back, gratefully. Come by for tea tomorrow if you can. I’m off to the bookstore.”

“I might do that. ”

Of course I’ll make time. Rags and I wave goodbye. We head into Mike’s Hardware for the nails I need to fix my leaning fence.

 

III.

Ten years ago I didn’t like her anymore than most when she moved in across the road, down the slope a little. Her name for one: Heaven Steele. Who carries such a name? And that house she bought belonged to Millie and Carroll Johnson, neighbors forever before they retired to Florida. Snowbirds. Just had enough of winters like more and more do. But it was harder to deal with when she built an addition on the pretty ranch house, a studio space nearly as long as the original house.

She scared people right off. Not hard to see why.

The scuttlebutt was she was a divorced artist from Chicago, had money and seemed purely different, kinda strange. Two strikes against her (didn’t care about strangeness)–three counting her renovating my neighbors’ house. It was big enough already, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living and dining room, expensive kitchen (Millie was some cook), a big side yard and patio that were good to look be in. Land about her, a wooded acre total. Why did she need a huge addition if she was alone? More trees downed, that racket. I could hear and see it unfold.

It was for making her paintings and her chimes. Glass chimes. They sell all over the world and she makes a good living between those and her paintings. And those chimes make sounds like you’ve never heard when the air moves over them. Like from another planet or farther out. So I learned that chimes aren’t all equal. But I’m a plain sort of man, an everyday person, and that isn’t what got me.

First, I should say, are her eyes. Everyone says that, can’t help it. One is blue, for seconds can seem blue-violet; another one is maple brown. A fluke of nature, she says when people stare at her too long, shows up in less than one percent of babies born. Then there is how those eyes have their way of looking at you. Steady, straight into yours. You want to look away long before she does, and I think she knows that so tries to not stare much. And then there was gossip that she was one of those woo-woo people. A psychic lady. Really, they said she was near-crazy. Artist plus those eyes makes up a person that makes people cringe. Wonder. The psychic part she laughed at from the start but lots argue it. An artist is all, that’s enough, she still says, never mind mismatched eyes, they work the same. She didn’t say never mind how she looks at you. Never mind how she can read you. It’s something just her way. I don’t notice it now.

But what she is actually like is another thing.

One day after a year of her living there, remodel complete and business booming, I was slumped in my chair on the rise of my front yard. Dozing. Feeling dark and weighted with misery like the skies above. Even Rags couldn’t make it better. It was early May, cold still, and had rained recently. I found myself longing for more flowers, which was a clue to how bad I felt. I never tended flowers, my wife did. Her passion and pleasure. That was the day that marked twelve years since she passed. I was sick with the absence of her. Her easy talk and deep silences. Her chicken and dumpling soup and pork chops and whipped herb and butter potatoes, her flaky fruity pies. Softness of her skin when I sought her across the bed, the creaking sound and lightening of the bedstead as she got up early to wash up and get out to the chickens. How she accepted me. Laughed out loud. I was too empty of her goodness. All she shared with me.

It was Yancy–an obedient, lame German shepherd mix I had then– who heard her moving up the slope, over the road and up my hill. She waited by my stand of  birch trees, almost invisible but not to Yancy. He slunk over to her, a low growl held in his teeth. She moved through light fog, silver hair crowned with it. She made quiet sounds to my dog. They came over; she sat next to me, uninvited. Was quiet ’til I looked right at her, not friendly. She had nerve.

“I was making new chimes, and felt like I should come over, say my hello. You’ve been out here a long time. It’s damp and cold. And you are heavy with it, too sad…. Come, let me make tea for you, and I made brownies earlier. I’ll give you a tour of my studio, we can sit in my new garden.”

I was more than surprised. I admit it, some scared off. Her knowing my feeling from down in her studio. Her welcoming me. The unasked-for kindness. Her realness went deep  and like that it was a sudden light turned on me. I went along with her, down the hill, over the road, into her house where she showed me what she did. Then we sat at her table awhile. She wasn’t at all nosy, just gave me mint tea, chewy brownies. Me, sipping on tea. Nibbling brownies made by an unknown woman. Young enough still to be my little sister, an idea that came to me later. A crotchey farmer-archer and an arty chimes maker (and something else), like family.

It’s changed me a little. Week by week, we were better friends. Heaven, Jasper. We couldn’t get along without each other now, the three of us. Right Rags? We watch over her place and all from up here; really, talk doesn’t matter. She watches over us in her ways. We now understand each other.

Rags puts his head on my lap and I scratch that one spot he loves scratched. We watch a big moon sit just right in the fall night sky. I say again, This is our Marionville, old boy, a decent smudge of land, water, trees, people coming in, going out. Kindness restored more often than not. It’s home, Rags, all we need.

 

Castoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

It is a sign of something.

******

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

“Hey, morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.

“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”

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

“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you pay?”

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!]