She Knows Him Best

Tryon 1st hike 114

They’d known each other long and well enough that they kept secret the odd bits about each other’s parents. And how they really felt about cartoons or when they got a “C” or worse on a paper. What was special to them about each season. Little and bigger things. For example, she knew Quinn’s father smoked cherry tobacco for the last twenty years because it was what his father and grandfather smoked; it was the only good thing they’d handed down to him, he’d told Quinn. Which obviously wasn’t so great. And he knew that Marley felt it wasn’t just disappointing to get an average mark, it was her absolute duty to get straight “As” since she was the one in the family most likely to get into a top college–if she didn’t, what was the point of the dreaming and working?

“Spring, just like every year, has that loud raspy hum of the mowers, and somebody hammering away on a roof, this year it’s the Lee’s,” he said. “I could lie there all morning and listen to that. But then Benny barges in and jumps up and down on my bed so I have to whack him with my pillow until he leaves. Then the spell is broken, natch.”

Quinn crammed another six chips into his mouth, chewed and swallowed with the help of a long swig of canned vegetable juice. His Adam’s apple jumped up and down with each swallow. Afterwards he licked his full lips clean as if he had satisfied a terrible thirst.

Marley was fascinated by this even as she was vaguely repelled. “How can you eat this for breakfast? It’s gross. Try the juice with scrambled eggs and bacon.”

He leaned against the gnarled trunk of their–they claimed it long ago– London plane tree at the park across from his house, running his fingers through wavy black hair. He’d been up an hour. Marley had trotted over after spotting him from her bedroom window. She lived on the other side of the park that was on the boulevard’s green space. A few kids were spinning the merry-go-round, one little boy just hanging on as it gained speed.

“I hate scrambled eggs, as you know, so clumpy yet jiggly. So what do you like best this year?”

She pulled shoulders up high and held them there a minute to stretch kinks out. She’d slept wrong on her pillow. A headache was starting from the long muscles that tied into neck muscles that held up her head. Quinn reached up to squeeze, rather hard, on both sides until she swatted at him.

“I forget now–you spoiled it. Let me think. I guess it’s robins and the breeze that sneaks in my open window. Lilac perfume. The giant bush is starting to bloom.”

“Hmm.” He looked at her, smiled, then half-closed his eyes. She hadn’t brushed her reddish brown hair, either; it was still a wispy halo about her face, how he liked it but had never mentioned. “You leave your window open all seasons, I know that–I’ve advised against it. Not that safe.”

“Have to breathe fresh air! Don’t I share my room with Dee? It gets clogged up, her smelly eau de toilette and stuff. Or her slow moving thoughts just hanging there. I can find her trail by scent alone.”

“You’re a little reactive, maybe, but I agree your sister needs to move out. She’s nineteen, what’s she waiting for? I’d be long gone.” He pulled up a blade of grass, stuck it in the gap between his front teeth and sucked on it.

“She will. She’s even saving fat tips from waitressing. And what about Benny? Isn’t he going to have to move in with you when the baby arrives? Bunk beds or what?”

She shouldn’t have said that; he did not want to talk about that. His mother didn’t talk about it, either, as if it was the worst news even though Quinn’s dad seemed pleased, telling all it was  another boy. But Denny was eight and Quinn was fourteen and his mother was getting older. “A bonus baby,” her own  mother had said with left eyebrow arched, and Marla figured that was not that good. They had four kids in their own family; that was a lot. Her parents said they sure had other plans than more kids, like starting a nest egg for themselves one of these days, or seeing Tuscany when they retired. Like it was some real life plan. But they  actually liked each other and their kids.

He picked up a twig and flipped it at her, then another which she fended off with her palm. “All we need is another kid. You know Mom can barely keep up with us as it is. She’s always working, taking extra shifts at the hospital. She has to quit sometime in summer to have it. Him. Dad complained this morning that the laundry hasn’t been done in two weeks and that old argument got hot before ten. I slipped out, of course.”

“You do it, then, that might be a help–no, wait–you’d screw it up without lessons first. Your dad would have your hide, mom, too.”

“You do it, dodo, I do garden work!” He rustled her hair; his little finger caught.

Marla shook her head and pulled away. “Yeah, like you know how to raise good veggies, you just consume them, vegan freak!”

He softly tackled her to the ground. “Hee-yaa! Watch out! Don’t you talk bad about veggies!”

“What’s up, wanta fight, bean pole?”

She smacked him on the back with both hands as they rolled and tussled. His body felt bulky and loose-limbed like a big dog’s, his breath damp and soft on her cheek and slightly acrid. She laughed at him even when they squashed against each other, even when his lips slipped onto her cheek. Then she flipped him off with a sudden shove. Stood right up. Marla planted her bare foot  on his chest. She was breathing hard as he looked up with surprise, then grabbed her ankle.

The sheer morning light hit his eyes so the gold around his hazel irises shimmered. Marley couldn’t stop looking. Couldn’t stop a feeling of dizziness, a sensation of falling though she had excellent balance and knew she wouldn’t. He didn’t blink, mouth opened as if he might say something but Quinn lost any words, his eyes stayed on hers, then moved over her flushed, strong jawed face and skimmed her length. He held onto her smooth, strong ankle and waited for her to move. If she wanted to get loose she might have to yank. But she just stood still, then shivered as if something electric had passed through her. She looked at the merry-go-round.

“Let’s show those kids how to get a good ride going!”

And he let go of her. He stood up and they ran to the merry-go-round, spun it hard and fast and got the kids screeching until they, too, jumped on and held tight, their hair flying, their eyes watering in the wind, the pandemonium they’d generated a good way to state the week-end.

******

Marley sat by her bedroom window watching stars blink, pen poised over her diary. No one ever thought to ask how fourteen year old girls felt. They wrote about twelve or thirteen year olds as if that was the most important turning point of girls’ lives. They wrote about turning sixteen and it seemed like everyone needed a rockin’ party or if lucky got a new car with a bow on it. Being fourteen was being in between, it didn’t mean a rite of passage or a fantastic journey of discovery. It was only to be endured, she thought–unpredictable skin, legs and arms too long and hair that never did the right thing. It was all that, alright, but it was more. It was like living in a cave, mostly. You were in a small space and a portion of time that seems to go on forever, and you’re still too young but too big to stand up tall and if you did, you might bump against stuff you’d never seen before and get scared. So you had to keep your head down and your eyes on a dim path and just try to get through it until there was freedom and more air again.

She wrote on the blank page.

I feel captive in my body and mind. I think if I could identify just who I am and make sense of all the  experiences, I might be free. Instead, my face and feelings, wishes and fears are all mashed together into one crazy mess, some weird thing I’m living but don’t quite want to claim.

But then there’s Quinn. Both the key to some of the puzzle and the essential problem. I am so myself with him. But I am a stranger with him, too. And now I don’t know if I can ever really know who he is even after knowing him for six whole years of my life. But maybe I am the only one who does…and there will be more, I think.

Marley flipped the pen between forefinger and middle finger; it hit the page rhythmically as she pondered.

In the morning her eyes had opened wide and she felt clear and awake, for once. The day was fully ripe as soon as she got up. It was bursting with bold colors and nature songs and her finicky Siamese cat, Zelda,  smiled up at her. All was brimming with possibility. After a shower she had put on a long orange skirt with a sleeveless white cotton top and sandals. Small golden hoop earrings. She’d let her close-to-auburn, shoulder length hair air-dry even though the waves turned frizzy. Nothing on her face but a dab of glossy lip tint.

Her mother handed her a glass of cranberry juice as always. “You look how I always wish you’d look, sort of… well, it’s good on you. So what’s going on today?”

“Field trip.”

“Oh? Where’s this one?”

“At a state park, I forget right now. You signed the permission slip last week.”

Her mother stood with hands on her hips. “Right. You’re going like that? Granted, it’s going to get into the seventies later but that skirt will catch on everything.”

Marley laughed lightly. “I don’t care! I feel like it’s a fairy sort of day, you know, like I’m a wood sprite.”

“Okay, got it.”

Then Dee whistled at her as she ran out the door to work, the nut case.

Her younger brothers, Charles and Doughy, were fighting over the last piece of toast and jam and stopped to stare at her a moment before Dougy snatched the prize, then took off upstairs with Charles flying after him.

Her mother sighed and turned back to the sink. “Want a snack for the trip? One more banana, better get it now. And take a sweater in case. The woods can be chillier than you think.”

They were both in Mr. Hector’s science class, she and Quinn, and they were relieved to be outside all day. No dissecting, no vital tables to memorize. They’d be talking about insects and fungi and trees and the native plants the park protected. She spotted birds and wildflowers which he liked but was less impressed with. He stopped for nurse logs and kept an eye out for small mammals, but especially the elusive coyote. She agreed about the coyote. They were at the edge of the middle of their class and lagged at times, others passing them with an impatient nudge. One girl asked from what trash heap she’d picked up her “weird hippie costume”; another told her she looked beautiful, could she borrow the skirt sometime? Quinn had given her a lopsided smile with a frown when he’d seen her. That was just fine with Marley as he had absolutely no sense of style. It was for her own pleasure. More or less.

The first hour was a long walking tour plus mini-lectures. They’d stop every now and then, gather around their teacher, listening and fidgeting.  Volunteer parents chatted among themselves, exclaimed over a butterfly, a bird flying low–they seemed thrilled to be away from pressing chores and important boring meetings. Mr. Hector was a good teacher and they paid attention at first. But as time went on, they lost enthusiasm for his clinical speech and droning voice.

“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered.

“How? Where?”

“I just mean take another trail over there,” he said with a nod to the right. “We can lag a little more and then slip off when they stop again.”

“I don’t think the parents will let us get away for one minute!” she hissed back and yanked on his arm when he looked over his shoulder.

“Aw, come on, Marley…”

Mr. Hector stopped. “Are you two engaged in a more interesting conversation than we are up front? Maybe you missed my best lecture.”

“Maybe…” Marley agreed, blushing, as the others laughed.

“Quinn, any idea what I said?”

“No. But maybe we can have a treasure hunt sort of thing on the trails?”

A few of the boys gave high fives.

“Smart guy,” Mr. Hector said, “as that’s just what you’re going to do. I want you each to take this illustrated list with you and pair off with lab partners. See how many you can find. Take pictures with your phones for proof, please. Then return to this area in forty five minutes. Call someone or the park center if you get lost.”

They cheered, rustled about, found their partners and split up. Marley and Quinn set off together.

It was the best afternoon of her life so far. And the worst. They found twelve items on the list together within the first half hour: lichen, ferns and ivy, and different flowers and bugs. Quinn noted a garter snake rippling across the path right in front of them when they were squatting to better inspect an insect, name unknown, busy on a marsh marigold. Marley found the first trilliums, a trio of white, three-petaled beauties, and took more pictures than necessary.

“I want to blow up one and hang it in my room.”

“Cool, you’re coming to my side, the plant side, I see.”

“I’ve always loved science, dummy–you know that. I might become a botanist. And you need good protein if you want to get much taller than me.”

“I know. And your brilliance is noted, genius.”

He put his hand on the ground to steady himself and in the process his fingers touched her bare toes, the bright blue painted toenails flashing in the light. That glimmering spring light. It was all about them, it stole the shadows from their faces, set the trees aglow, burnished the green of  thick mosses clinging to knotty branches. Only the birds spoke, and in musical tongues. A woodpecker hammered at a tree but it was soon lost in swoops of wings and more avian song. Marley and Quinn heard bees hovering and zipping past. The wind stirred upper reaches of tree tops, setting leaves aflutter like verdant flags.

They both just stood up, then put their arms about the warm, generous life of each other, her head finding a spot right below his shoulder, his pressed against the top of her wild hair, which he loved to feel. She felt that dizziness again, as if she could topple over and he could, too. They would fly away, find the passageway into a place, a time, where everything was meant to be good and true and nothing could touch them. Wait, wait–was she completely mad? This was Quinn, her best friend for ages. This was Quinn…and he let out a small sound of happiness as she held him so his heart and her heart were side by side like perfect twins. His hands found the small of her back and hers found his shoulders and she pulled away just to find his eyes, his lips. He bent down close to meet her and–

“Quinn O’Keefe, release Marley Barrett and go back to the meeting spot! Right now.”

Mr. Newman was standing five feet away, with Mrs. Carter behind him.

Quinn stepped away and his arms flapped to his sides. Eyes flicked to hers; she saw his anger, then anxiety.

“Aw, really? I mean, we were just, we’re only best friends, we were just…”

“Marley, you alright, dear?”

She ran her sweaty palms down her skirt.”Of course I’m okay! It’s like he said, we’re besties, anyway, we–”

“You both come along right now.”

There wasn’t much more to it. Mr. Hector was informed so he took them aside and warned them to watch their step and keep apart from now on, looking at Quinn as if he’d come to a new conclusion. Their teacher didn’t look at her at all, as if seriously disappointed. Marley felt embarrassed–for each of them.

But it felt worse than that. As if what she had hoped for them was crudely exposed, made ridiculous. Marley let her pen slip from her hand. She studied the waxing moon. It looked back at her as if she were a tiny, pitiful creature unable to make sense of the most obvious things. As if all the heavens were waiting for her to get a real clue, take hold of herself. She wished she could more than anything else in the world. But everything had been rearranged. Not even her usual faith in life seemed to hold her steady.  She needed more courage. Smarts. Time with Quinn.

******

Six days after the field trip Marley was awakened by her sister shaking her shoulders with both hands.

“Wake up, Marley! You have to get up! They’ve got Quinn!”

Marley threw the covers off and stood up.

“Who? What do you mean?”

“They arrested Quinn…for…for…” Dee’s large blue eyes filled with tears that spilled over and coursed down her face.

“Dee.” Marley whispered. “What’s happened to Quinn…?”

But Dee just wept, then their mother came into the bedroom and shut the door hard, her back against it and hands flattening on it.

“Mom?” Marley moved toward her.

Her mother held open her arms but Marley did not enter them.

“They arrested Quinn this morning for a hit and run accident last night.” She said it fast then bit her bottom lip hard.

“What? That’s crazy. He doesn’t even know how to drive, not really!”

“He got drunk, took his dad’s car out last night. He hit an elderly lady who stepped off the curb…she may not live, baby, she may not make it…”

Marley backed away. “What is this? No, Mom, he doesn’t even drink! I would know if he drank, you know I would know that. He drank once a year ago and got sick. We both did…so you’re wrong, just dead wrong! Quinn would not do that…not ever!” And her voice ended on a note so loud she didn’t feel it hers. “They made a terrible mistake!”

“He is in jail, honey…It was Quinn. I’m so sorry!” Silent tears fell onto her lavender robe. “They have a photo of him from the surveillance camera. When he ran a red light, ran over the curb.” There was a heavy finality to her words. “Arlene, his mom, she called. She knew you would be so…well, he had a bad argument with his dad. I don’t know more than this.”

Dee and their mother came to her, enfolded her in their arms and then everything ripped apart. The room disappeared. Marley found herself swallowed up in the recesses of that dark cave where there was no way out. Not even Quinn would come now. Maybe never again.

******

Marley set down her diary. There was nothing she could write tonight. She opened her window wider, pushed on the screen with all her might, her body’s full force behind it. The screen relented, fell onto the ground. Marley climbed onto the sill and then jumped down, landing on cool thick grass, bare feet prickled. She pulled her hoodie close and walked across the street. The park was vacant as an empty field, faded by moonlight, still and patient under tree branches as if it knew she was coming. She sat under the plane tree they had hung out so often, Like the day when they’d wrestled and known something was happening to them. It felt terribly long ago, a different time zone when nothing bad had happened and all was sweet, gentle or brash on their lips. Beautiful or silly in their minds. New. It was going to get so good. But not anymore. He had done something she could not have imagined. Not that, nothing like that. Maybe truancy. Maybe a fist fight with someone; he could flame with anger. And his dad, yeah, the man was harsh, he said things like You think too much, feel too much, go lift some weights or punch a punching bag–come here, boy, try me. The ignoramus!

But then Quinn did this? Why why why? There seemed no good answer for something so strange that her very best friend, well, her only Someone, could have done. But Quinn had somehow kept secrets from her, in the end, hadn’t shared vital information. Hadn’t called her first–or last–that night. She’d have gone to him like that!

She could have stopped him, couldn’t she?

Unbearable. Everything withered inside a grip of pain.

Marley got up, walked to the merry-go-round, started it turning, slowly at first, gaining speed little by little, until she leapt on. Hung on with one hand, her tender-tough body flying outward and the other arm flailing, head agog with the moonlit night, soul stuffed with sorrow. Her being taut with blood-deep aching. But there was a small safe place where his heart had found hers long ago.

“Quiiinn!” she called, voice wobbling through treetops. “Quiiinn!”

And through the simmering darkness he did answer her. Marley heard him clear as anything and she understood this much: he would always answer her, no matter what was to come or where they might be. No matter what he had madly done. And could not now be undone.

The Safety of Birches

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It’s not easy here. It goes deep, the cold, and shadows push their way across each space as if they cannot hold back, as if the light is too great. I lean toward the small window but the fire is flaring in the hearth and water in a dented tea kettle is sizzling, ready to boil. No reason to leave the cabin mid-morning. Snow is in the air; I can sense it, the trees are not shivering, but waiting. I have come a long way to find a certain place in my soul, long-buried. I will sit until I begin to find it.

A few weeks ago there was the contained chaos of the city, important enough work, my body in concert with others dashing across streets, lifting our heads to stop lights and walk signs meant to keep us safe. Though not to be trifled with, I’ve certainly not been a despot in my mid-management (thus far) job. Rather, the sort of man who knows when to start up a conversation and just how to end it, who acts from a modicum of good will but alert to the right angles. I was an eager study of my grandfather, who used to tell me the way to advance was timing and a take charge attitude joined to quick, creative thinking. I was already good at the last by twenty or so I thought. Timing–I was impatient. Leadership–I’ve had to gain this step by step; it is the third that draws to mentors to me.

Life: success and failure have felt like second cousins, neither all important that great fuss should be made over them. I have been a man of habits. Gotten up daily, kissed my wife, Luann, hugged our young son and off I went. I locked my desk drawers and shut down my computer by 5:15, got home by six. I admired the city lights rather than curse the traffic jams; I liked to empty myself. Lucia got home earlier–she’s a nurse–so made dinner, something simple, color-balanced she says and substantial. The evenings were easy more often than not. We were good company to one another, loved without serious complaint. I would have said nothing could come between us. We were so close that any existent distances acted as required spacers between well-functioning parts. I didn’t know then that routine could be a drug, that if you don’t question things they can blindside you.

I hear the kettle whistling but remain in the heavy chair at fireside. Close my eyes. The sound recalls a train whistle, the train rumbling by my childhood bedroom each night around 10 pm and in the morning at 7. That whistle kept life in order, made the two halves of 24 hours fit right. Maybe the tea kettle will do that here.

I get up, pour scalding water into a stained white mug. There was a stag head emblazoned on it once; now it’s half gone. The fire crackles and hisses, a wild thing. I take my seat and locate its ravaging core, sip and remember things. I want nothing more than to be alone with peace, the surety and gentleness of it, but unease is having its way with me yet.

It was nothing that could have been surmised easily. Perhaps the way my employee rubbed her eyes at her corner desk, or how she seemed passive, just nodding during supervision the last couple of months, More often than not during meetings she stared out the window. I recall thinking then that she must have something on her mind but she smiled at me when I caught her eye. Alicia always looked right, that is, she was put together, long light hair smoothed back into a fancy knot, clothing well-chosen. She was about due for a promotion to supervisor. Alicia had come to us four years earlier freshly wedded; her spouse, Dane, was a young attorney. Someone mentioned she got “a good one”, he was ambitious and would do well. I noticed she didn’t keep any photos of them at her desk. Everything was tidy, almost empty save for a small fresh bouquet she brought in each Monday and tended as if she meant them to last forever.

But did he, her boss, know her at all? At work she was immersed in her job, revealing little else. I met Dane once, a medium-sized guy with a dusting of grey at his temples already and a noteworthy vocabulary. He surely noticed something at home. Did he share it with friends? Perhaps he talked with his dad when they had a weekly cup of coffee on Saturday morning? As I passed her and a cubicle partner, I heard her say he liked to do that. She later noted at a luncheon that her own family was gone except for an older male cousin in Ft. Collins. And now this still-new husband, she said giving a shake of her head. But they were facts reported.

I have always felt fairly in tune with Luann. She, however, says I need to think less, feel more to get the real picture. I differ on that, as just as I know the shapes of my ten digits intimately, admiring their varied functions and forms, so I know her. My wife is mother and lover, a persevering acoustic guitar player and a good water colorist. And more, of course–but what, exactly, have I missed?

I can’t understand–as her boss how could I have been blind to the signs? I asked Luann, ready to leave for the cabin.

Listen, it’s just, you men might look at us deeper. More. Us women. Sometimes we can’t explain things.

I paused at the door, wanting to stay as much as go. I frowned but she kissed my cheek. The more part? I persisted. How can I know if you aren’t clear?

You should just know by now. Or fight to know, she said. Anyway, I love you. I am so sorry about Alicia. I hope the cabin helps.

But her face drooped as she closed the door. I got into the truck, my mind dull yet crammed with things. On the way to the cabin, it was like a terrible chorus you can’t shake off: Should have known, could have known, guilty as charged. About Alicia. And perhaps about Luann, too.

How much had I missed in living day-to-day?

Now I grasp the wrought iron poker and jab at the fire. It spits and snarls at me. It is so still otherwise that the rooms seem to have held their breath until I entered. This is why I came for the week-end. That well of silence. I don’t want to think. I want to know. I want God to tell me things. I don’t go to church so often the minster knows my name right off but I am not a stranger to God. He comes to me in the meticulous design of the outdoors I love so much. In my wife and son. In wordlessness that is scarce. In the nights when I awaken to the lull of Luann’s breathing as there’s a shifting of tree limbs beyond us. I have felt God’s arms surrounding us. But now, this morning in the woods, I am still at a loss for what makes sense. A prayer feels far too much to ask of me. I sit and let the fire pull me to it, and wait for a new story to unfold like my father’s stories did right here, in this room once.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving vacation and as I had passed cubicles I’d tried to recall who had taken time off, who was set for Christmas vacation. I took off my coat, sat, turned on my computer. Then the phone rang. Dane was on the other line.

It’s Dane…Alicia. She’s gone, he told me, his voice hoarse and low.

Gone? I watched my laptop screen pop with images.

Gone…died very early in the morning. Car accident.

I stopped moving, pressed the phone closer to my ear.

What, you say?–she has died?

Dane’s hand covered his phone. Muffled voices. I waited, panic creeping into disbelief.

I had to call you right away, she would have wanted that, she says you’re a great boss … Mr. Larson, she’s crashed her car into a tree, she was to go to the airport around ten last night, but she got a little drunk, see, got in her car, I couldn’t stop her… well she drinks sometimes, she’s this quirky person and I’ve tried, God knows. And I love her, she’s so good…She’s not coming home, anymore. That’s all I can really say.

I said, No coming back, I see. Dane, I’m terribly sorry. Thank you for calling me. I don’t know…what to–if I can help in any way, please tell me.

But how do you help a man who has had his wife snatched away and with it a whole life of loving? I covered my face with my left hand so the fluorescent lights and taupe walls, tidy bookshelves with marble bookends were gone.

I’ll let you know when the funeral is, Dane said, his voice like something small and unsafe. She’d like that. She always said you were too good to her, made it the best job.

Ah, I said. Of course I’ll come.

We hung up, he to face bitter sorrow and terrors to come, me to face my staff, her empty desk chair, fine work undone. Those unbearable, soon to wilt flowers. I turned and looked out my window, my heart seeming flat as a stone. Alicia. Gone?

It wasn’t enough, the call. How did I miss a telltale odor of stale alcohol, not see difficulties? As I thought it over, somehow it made sense she drank. It might have been her avoidance of me some mornings. Or her perfume being heavy from time to time. Could I have not paid closer attention to her work and behavior those days? What of her apparent appreciation–which I never even imagined while she worked hard for the team? I felt miserable that he told me that now. Why did I never inquire as to why she seemed more apart from us lately, a quarter beat off? Because even then she was a stellar performer. I knew how special she was from day one.

But we’re not taught to be ready to aid, to be concerned. We are taught to achieve and manage, to organize, devise, conquer, put that best foot forward. Not to ask after one another, not open up a little more, never as a matter of course at least. And I am the boss, right?

The shadows lengthen; up north they do so as if there is a purpose. A signalling of minutes and hours falling away. It is long after noon. I am on my third mug of strong, black tea. My stomach gripes but I have no appetite. I am waiting for the snow. For some sign. I want this cabin and woods to fill in the blanks left by Alicia’s dying. Those gaps at home perhaps created by me. I need answers but I know smart thinking cannot provide them this time.

The wind whips the frosted air, slides down the chimney and causes fiery shapes to flail. I study the rich red and orange flames and they begin to mimic waves lapping at the logs I brought earlier. My body sinks back into the chair, conforms to the wide, old cushions. My grandfather and father sat here alone or with others and now I do and it feels as if I should be welcomed by them, a son among sons, a man among men. What would they tell me now? I know they still care. The fire settles; my eyelids falter and fall. I smell ghosts, cherry pipe tobacco and Old Spice, venison frying, snowballs with vanilla.

Two weeks before Alicia stopped living she knocked on my office door as I was finishing a phone call. I could see her through half-closed vertical blinds. She was looking at the floor, then looked up as a co-worker passed by. I noted the smile, not for the first time. It usually animated her fine, delicate features with surprising vivacity, as if she changed from black and white to full color. This time, it was muted in effect, smaller. She was younger than I but she might one day have my job. Time and practice, that’s all it took in the end. I have replayed this last interaction over and over but still, I wonder.

Come in, I called out as I hung up the phone.

Mr. Larson, I was hoping to talk to you about time off. I know the deadline is long-passed for turning in requests. But I may need to see my cousin for Thanksgiving.

Is that right? Plans change. Let me see if I can spare you. How long?

Just one day after Thanksgiving week-end. I’d fly back Monday, be back at work on Tuesday.

I looked up; she sounded breathless. She was biting her lower lip as if a chapped bit of skin bothered her. Her eyes were on the sleek brass clock Luann got me five years ago after five years at the company. It was the one thing I’d take with me when I left.

I can manage to give you that. You’re taking more time at Christmas but that’s okay, we need to do that if possible.

Oh, that’s good, I really am grateful. My cousin is ill so we should visit him. My last relative, right? Or maybe I will just fly there since Dane hasn’t even met him.

Her face quieted, closed.

I tapped my pen on the desk and said, I see, good, it’s settled.

Alicia cupped one hand into the other, then sat up straighter. Her pale mouth opened, then shut. I waited to see if she had something else to ask, fiddled with my pen. Her attention moved to my hand, the heavy golden pen that signed everything of importance. I stopped and she raised her gaze to my eyes, held it a split second. Another unwavering moment. I felt something. Then shifted.

Is there something else, Alicia? Is the new program going alright?

No, I mean, all is well, she said, rising, smoothing her skirt down. She headed out the door, turned to me at the last minute. I appreciate your expertise and help. I’ve learned so much here.

No problem, happy to encourage you, I said, returning her once-again warm smile. She left. I addressed my laptop. But I thought about it a moment, the late request, her seeming anxiousness. She is the best I have. Her smile is a welcome sight in a busy day. It all seems good. I got back to work.

Now as I doze in the cabin Alicia is walking across the arena of my mind. She is not smiling but lifts a hand. Walks slowly, nearly dances with long strides in the air, turns to me but doesn’t speak. She focuses on something I can’t discern. Her eyes flare blue as the heart of flames, her visage dazzles the smokey shadows. Then she’s gone.

The images are an electric jolt to my brain and I come to life, stand up, stretch. I look around and see only the comfortable living room, pine table, sturdy chairs and a galley kitchen with steaming tea kettle. I am suddenly hungry. After I eat I am going to look at my fathers’ and grandfathers’ dusty books on hunting and fishing as well as a few fine ones they passed on, some Faulkner, a collection of Twain, the poems of Longfellow. I will wait for the darkness to gather around by the cabin, by this fire. I will make sure it burns long and late. I likely will sleep little though I long for its restorative power.

******

In some endless tunnel of night I am more aware of being alone than I’ve been for decades although I often travel for work. I reach for Luann’s pillow and smash it against my chest. This seasoned cabin has been meant for respite. For hiding out while paying greater homage to nature. But also, meant for more than one.

I lift the pillow to my face and a searing ache wrenches from my throat. No sense running from it now.

I did not know, I tell Alicia and try to not cry out as I search for her. I did not know you cared, that you drank so much, that you were unhappy. Lonely.

Forgive me. That I could not, did not help you.

******

In the morning, snow, and more falling, a delight from above. I press my face against a lacy iced window. It isn’t deep but a soft and glittery sweep of snow laid beneath a sky that promises more. I make a bitter mug of instant coffee and instant oatmeal and eat. The fire is smoldering, has used itself up. I am sleepy but know the air beyond log walls will shake me out, keep me on my feet. Because I am going in search of birches, maybe fox and deer. Weaponless and empty of complex intentions. I pull on ponderous boots and my father’s ratty Navy pea coat and head out. The air bites my face and snowlight obscures my vision the first steps. As I progress snowflakes come more thickly, clinging to my shoulders and eyelashes.

It is at end of mile one that I see the birches shining. The sheer whiteness of the ground reflects enough so slender-trunks seem to rise into the early winter sky from a vast spread of gleaming white confetti. They reach up as all trees do but they are so proud, of their white and black and greyness, of the special peeling layers of bark that add mystery and texture.  You cannot strip it off or it will wound the inner and outer body of the tree. Their branches sway in topmost currents of breeze. Bare twig fingers at the ends of their branch arms seem to point in the four directions. As a child I came here with my father or grandfather on the way to the valley meadows. As a young man I dreamed with the birches and heard them breathe and rustle, watched them shed leaves, then gather snow and let it go, then once more favor new life.

They are whispering now, the sound a blessing on this winter’s day. It is a hymn. To life, to earth, to humans and all other miraculous creatures. I stand between them, raise my eyes. The birches crowd toward me, seem to make a broad circle with me in its center. I am not afraid because God lives here, holds me, my arms held out within this secure hold. I am no longer sad, do not feel lost. Am not alone. This copse of birches will remain upright and sturdy, will welcome the cycle of life and its leave-taking with quietude. From a ragged jacket pocket I remove her last small bunch of dried flowers. Place them at the snowy base of a birch. I step away from their ancient protection. As I move through the swirls of snow there is a flash of elegant red tail. There are deer out there, too, but it is time to go home. Be with my Luann, my beloved son.