Other Than Words, an Excerpt

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Sometimes when I sit down to craft short stories, another need crowds out other ideas and challenges my focus. This has happened more often, recently. I have been revisited by characters from a piece of fiction started long ago. Thus, this post is a revised, new excerpt from an older novel-in-progress, Other Than Words, unearthed for the arduous re-crafting process. In a previous, quite different incarnation an excerpt was published in the anthology VoiceCatcher, issue #2. It became nominated for a Pushcart Prize. But I abandoned that too-long novel after many years and another editor’s advice to revamp most of it. I was, in fact, just sick of working on it and thought I was done.

But sometimes tenacious stories will not move from one’s consciousness, something wants to be altogether redesigned and finally completed. To take a writer different places than unexpected, which is hard to turn down. I have a minuscule hope that Other Than Words can become what it was meant to be as the story is reshaped and more useless parts are eliminated. I want to at least to see what I might salvage, as I believe in the heart and soul of this story. It is about emotional resilience and spiritual hope found amid various daunting circumstances, how community can generate healing if they only rally and how trauma’s effects can be surmounted, released. And, of course, there is love of different kinds to weave it together.

Cal Rutgers is a photojournalist who is burned out, enervated by internal and external losses. He has been nudging me to tell more or tell things differently now that I have taken a long break from this story. But as before, his character seeks the solace of his childhood summer home in Snake Creek where once he enjoyed friends and mentors, where his sister, the only other family member alive, wants him try out a quieter life. He knows he is on empty but he can barely dare to find new fulfillment.

But there is someone else who has the village’s eyes on her. Sophie, a creative soul who harbors a strangely complicated story that cannot be told after a sudden death, struggles to re-balance her own life. Her thoughts and yearnings have been silenced and she may never speak again. She longs for normalcy but doesn’t know what that means now.Their lives intersect when Cal shows up for a forced vacation. The insights and experiences they discover together and separately may just free them both, while the village will illuminate more of its own truths in hard ways. And in the end, faith may have a fighting chance.

This chapter posted in WordPress is my first attempt to start over but likely only the beginning again of much work if it is sustained. Readers and fellow writers, I am hoping you will delve in and perhaps respond in the comments area so I have an idea if this chapter beckons you to seek more of the story. Thank you for reading.

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Other Than Words

CHAPTER 1

 

When I arrived in Snake Creek I was a barely congenial wreck, in dire need of a restorative break. I had tried to extricate myself from the effects of working in the Amazon: a just-healed infection from a small wound on my calf; recurrent dreams of tentacled plants wrapping themselves about my head and chest; a confounding sorrow. Joe, my mentor and often partner in the field,  had disappeared while we were on assignment for an international travel magazine. Fitz, our editor in Chicago offices, had given up hope while I held on to the thought that Joe had just gotten too caught up in his usual hunt for the one true king of anacondas. He’d missed our plane, but he had a bad habit of this. Sometimes he stepped away and I didn’t hear from him for three or four months from another country. It was coming up on nine.

I had left all cameras at my rarely inhabited apartment on the Bay. My routine photographs had become innocuous, devoid of a decent clarity of life. Even in technicolor Hawaii I had been unable to capture one frame of magic. I just had to gain a different perspective[–on everything. That’s what I told Fitz but closer to the truth was that I was deeply sick of taking stills, of finding the perfect pictorial angle, all those awards, great assignments and my two books notwithstanding. And, too, there was the travelling from one place to another, one cramped plane seat to the next, time zones rendered meaningless. Who really cared when and where I was? I was a freelancer but the last year I had worked mostly for the magazine because it was a known entity, just easier.

“Yes, Cal, just get out of here, you’re making me nuts with your gloom and boredom. You should have gone back to visit long ago. Take a month if you want!” He leaned back and puffed delicately on the stogie as his penetrating eyes searched mine. “No, it’s an order. Take one month off. I’ll let you know what’s up next.”

“I don’t know about that, I can’t forecast how it’ll be to visit Kirsten and Louis the lawyer in Haston much less hang out in good ole Snake Creek, with, well, who?… I figure two weeks max. I could make it back for the Australia shoot.”

My sister, only remaining blood family (who still oddly tried to mother me via long distance)and her husband had been hounding me to come. the last two years. I only accepted the ticket she bought me when Fitz started in on me, too.

“Look, I need you sharp. I need you present. You have to let go of Joe Rasmuss, too. He’s not likely coming back to this world or we would have heard from him by now….”

“In the jungle things–people, food–can disappear in hours, minutes. I have seen it happen in seconds… But he knows it like his own hand! We’ve been there how many times now? A dozen?”

Fitz jumped up and stood close to me, his weathered face peering up at mine. Though small for a round bear of a man, his presence still packed a discernible force. He grabbed my forearms to impress his point, gravelly voice booming. “You didn’t get lost, did you? It was Joe, maybe he’s off his game! I’m telling you, you need a long time off, Cal. It’s not a request. You’ve burned out. I don’t want you back for at least a month. So go visit with family, eat, sleep, swim or sail, find women or go fish, whatever you do up there in the primitive northern Michigan woods!”

So after ten years of not visiting I came back to the summer community where I grew up a little more each year. Where my father taught music; where my mother re-energized and reorganized the village library. So near that thriving camp just on the other side of Snake Creek once called United Ministries Michigan Summer Arts Program, known as just MISAP. It have been started by my mister grandfather and his secular, visionary crew in 1920. It had taken off in a few short years and grown and diversified. It had been the fertile ground where I had planted my dreams. And just next door in Snake Creek, I had tended them in even more ways.

So after a night and day at my sister’s house (it turned out they had to attend the Georgia funeral of her father-in-law), I made my way to the Village of Snake Creek. After driving too fast on slush-covered roads I slowed to enter the quarter-mile road, then pulled over at the last bend. Unfolding my length from the rented yellow Mustang, I leaned against the hood and looked things over. The last of the snow was melting and pooling and the scent of it mixed with earth and white pines held a euphoric quality. I took a deep breath of it and relaxed. I could make out Main Street, all three blocks of it. It looked so good. My throat tightened, my eyes grew hot and damp. Home, such as it was, nicely brightened up but otherwise simple, tradition-bound. Chock full of stories. But I was not the same person, not the prodigal son I knew old Will, Snake Creek‘s The Clarion’s owner-editor, hoped to greet.

 

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Will had met me with a long embrace at the weekly paper’s office, showing me the latest copies with dubious cheer–he was slowing down at seventy-two; his wife, our beloved Anna, was ill; who would take over?–and then we headed to the best place to eat outside of Haston, the Bluestone Cafe. It was run by my childhood friend.

“There’s Clarissa,” Will whispered as he hunched toward me. “She’s the owner now, you know  that? She and Sonny bought out the other fifty percent. She looks pretty good, right? Sonny is a big real estate developer at last, heaven help us, building a fancy summer community.The Birches. We could use some cheaper family units but no…that won’t fatten his accounts.”

I followed her through the sun-warmed room, her gauntness more familiar than the cropped silvery hair. It had  been dark forever and she was only forty-seven, a year younger than I. The first surprise, and more to come, no doubt. Will had never looked much different; he’d gone white early when I was a teenager. It was longer than I’d seen it and his back was hunched. He even had jowls but his light blue eyes behind glasses were sharp as they darted around the room, taking inventory of who was with whom, what was going on.

“I suspected the same.” I sipped the cheap and steaming drip coffee and found it delicious.”He’s always pushed for more and she wanted a restaurant thirty years ago.” I heard her belly laugh as she greeted someone. “Yes, I’d say Rissa looks fine.”

Will leaned back in his wooden chair and chuckled. “You’re the only one who calls her that, anymore. But you’re entitled, best buddies that you were. You two ran things, a townie and a summer kid.”

I wasn’t about to fall into some pastel-tinged reverie about the past, not then. If Rissa stopped to see us, I’d ask if we could meet down at Ring Lake sometime and catch up. If she didn’t say yes, I’d understand, like it or not. Sonny was a bully before and I’d heard over the years that he had only become more intense.

“I’m still sorry she ended up with Sonny but they seemed to need each other, had a way with each other. I sure had other plans, thanks in part  to your encouragement. We’ve talked about her situation last time–I hope her marriage improved.”

Will looked down at the mug cupped between puffy, worn hands. “Not much.” He sucked his lower lip in as if to seal off any more words. I knew he was a secret keeper. Like a good detective, he observed and heard it all but held things close, letting pieces out only as needed. He changed tack. “So how long this time? A week or two at least? We’ll get some fishing in. And what’s your next assignment, any wild lands or dazzling cities on the list?”

I tried to smile back but couldn’t. “I’ll stay as long as I can be. Depending on how fast I get myself back together. I told you about Joe earlier but it’s more than that. I’m tired of my work, the first time ever, really. It’s been twenty-four years of globetrotting, hanging off precarious points to find that shot, too often eating food not fit for a street mongrel, camping out where the unknown lurks day and night….a bizarre life forged of adrenaline. I have to get a better sense of what I need to do now. I feel emptied, Will. Beaten up.”

“That doesn’t sound like you, son. You’ve thrived on that fast, risky life, stretching your limits. Running to the next thing. Even becoming–can we say it now?–rather famous. But I’m sort of relieved you’ve come to this point. I’ve worried about you. And now you’re at the right place to rest, store up more of what you really need. It’ll all straighten out, you’ll see.”

I shook my head.”‘You’ll see…’ You’re such an idealist, believing the best of people, having faith in life like always. You’re still basically happy–thank God! I think…”

“It just comes naturally, Cal, don’t you remember  how it feels?”

I felt the rise of aching pulled into an undercurrent of a now-foreign feeling: shame. “I don’t think so, Will…I think that got lost somewhere in the Andes or Shanghai or just some unsanitary, cramped outpost corner. Amazonia did me in this time; it did Joe in worse, I fear. I doubt I can recapture all that youthful hope now! There comes a point, you know, when too much has happened. Been witnessed. The world is made of petty, conniving tyrants, of unconscionable and just weird happenings, Will, not only that panoramic beauty I capture in my pictures. ”

“Too true, Cal.” He rubbed his hand over his hair and left it sticking out at angles.

He endured me already, I could see: my ego, my arrogance, the negativity. I wanted to start over, use his essential goodness to help align me better with respect and care. But I was a man, not a kid anymore. I had to wise up on my own. I resolved to be a better friend to all there.

“So stay a month or two, it’ll come back to you.” He glanced at the door as the brass bell on top rang again and waved at the woman who’d arrived, beckoning her to join us. “Oh my, here’s Sophie,” he said, as if this explained everything, and he rose and met her halfway across the crowded room.

I stood, too, and saw first her height as every eye in the room noted. At least six feet tall (not far from my own six-three) she moved with sleek, concerted energy, with such an inborn sense of space and her point of balance that I knew at once she had to be an athlete. About her shoulders sprang wavy auburn hair laced with white. Her skin held the ivory luminescence of a true redhead. I averted my eyes just as she saw me, then composed my face in a calm, genial manner.

Will put one hand each on my shoulder and hers. “Sophie Swanson, this is Cal Rutgers. Cal, Sophie.”

“Glad to meet you, Sophie,” I said and I followed her lead and sat without the usual assertive handshakes.

She nodded at me but her lips barely curved, then she patted Will’s hand. He drank his coffee as if nothing else needed saying. After a moment, she looked at me and ran her gaze over my face before reaching into her purse, made in India, I surmised. It was a shapeless bright purple and orange cotton bag into which tiny round mirrors were sewn. She brought up a medium sized notebook and a silver mechanical pencil. They were laid beside her.

“Sophie doesn’t talk,” Will said quietly, as if his tone of voice made it less obvious he was informing me of this. “She’ll write things down if needed.”

“Ah, ” I said and glanced at her. She was gesturing at a waitress.

“I’m sure she’ll stay a bit but she is meeting Clarissa soon. They’ve become close.”

The waitress appeared with a full blue mug in hand and placed it before Sophie, who then set her head to one side and pointed at me, made a loose “come hither” motion.

“She’s asking you to tell her who you are, why you’re here.”

I thought: he’s like her interpreter but there must be more, like Rissa. “Well, Sophie, I’m an old summer kid who went to arts camp every June through August here with my sister, Kirsten. She’s a violinist.” Sophie’s face held a look of surprise. I rattled off more information, not knowing what else she was interested in. “We all lived at the camp each summer as my father was a pianist who taught at SAP. Also choir and history in a Detroit area private school during the calendar year. My mother was a librarian and got Snake Creek’s library back on track. Now I’m visiting Will and my sister from San Francisco.”

Sophie’s right eyebrow inched up and then fell. She put forth both hands then pulling them  back toward her as if trying to pull me in. I felt like I should pantomime and the thought made me want to uncharitably snicker but I held back. I thought how much I could use a drink other than coffee. Rest before Kirsten and Louis returned to their lovely house, which I inhabited alone for now.

“She’d like more.”

But I didn’t want to tell her more. I wanted to have coffee with Will, steal looks at her, talk to Rissa a moment or two and then take a walk by Ring Lake. Besides, I wanted to know more about Sophie before I divulged a lot of personal information. I would be here awhile; I wanted to be careful with what I did and said. Getting to know more people was also not on my agenda. The old locals were enough, and my sister and Louis. I wanted to drift aimlessly, sleep and eat simple food, think of nothing. Not think of my profession.

“I’m a photographer. A plane hopping photojournalist. On vacation here for a couple weeks.”

She put her hands together, then opened them slowly and looked at her palms.

“She’s seen one of your books, I think?”

She nodded.

“In Haston, likely.”

“I appreciate it….”

And her full lips stretched almost to a grin, small creases deepening in her cheeks like dimples but finer, and her light brown almond-shaped eyes glimmered. She put her right hand to center forehead, then to heart and then towards  me. Her exchange of energy hit me somewhere in my solar plexus. I sat still, stunned, moved and perplexed by the gesture. Not knowing exactly what it was but that it was a real thing given to me. Better than mere words. Did Will see that? Did he know something more about her?

“Cal Rutgers, how on earth did you sneak into town without me knowing it? Come here, boy!”

Rissa engulfed me, pulling me up and so close I felt many hard, tiny ribs under her sweater, fish bones, bones that should have more flesh over them, be kept safer from the world. This mermaid girl, my old friend, her colors fading. Like I supposed mine had.

All four of us huddled together as Rissa chattered.

“We have to have at least one party or a dinner or another get together sometime before you go.A bofire!–if it stops snowing altogether. I’ll have to take some time off and meet you somewhere, too.” She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and I knew that wouldn’t be easy, not even after all this time. There was my old enemy, Sonny, and he got everywhere. “How long are you in town this time? I mean, ten years, Cal, ten damned years it’s been and you just cannot creep in and out again like that!”

She looked a little hurt and I knew what she meant. I had slipped away after three days at my sister’s, only a day in Snake River last time.

“A couple of weeks. Maybe four.”

“Well, good for you, good for us!” She pumped her fists in the air.

Will looked triumphant. Sophie listened and drank her coffee, amber eyes peering at us over the top of the big blue mug or looking out the window as sunshine spilled and vanished. I wished she would hold that look, the one where her face was dreaming, I wished I had my camera to catch the play of light on her eyes and pale eyelashes….But I didn’t need my camera.

Did I? I could do all this without my damned cameras. I touched my shoulder where it would have been hanging.

Rissa sat back and studied me. “I want to hear all about it, where you’ve been, how your books are doing–you’re a celebrity around here, you know! I own them both, by the way.”

I let go a quick laugh. We three caught up a bit. Everything almost fell into familiar places with that raucousness, her easy welcoming. We made a plan to meet in a few days at the lake and she’d bring a picnic lunch. I would bring wine. She and Sophie got up and left, looking back in unison to wave goodbye. They were arm in arm as they crossed the street.

“What do you think?” Will asked as our white fish and fries arrived.

“I think I’m starving.”

“Come on, Cal.”

“I think Rissa has a winning cafe and more power to her- except Sonny is likely running her life otherwise. She seems herself, but tired, a little skinny even for her.”

Will vigorously chewed, something I had forgotten about him, his mouth half open. “Sophie Swanson?”

“Well, she’s beautiful, almost exotic, isn’t she. And she misses nothing, is smart. Curious. That’s enough of what I think for now.”

“You don’t want to know why she’s mute?” He took a sip of coffee and flattened his hands on the table. “Her husband, a retired biologist –they moved here from Boston–died last year. Drowned in Ring Lake. There was a big storm but he just went out in the rowboat alone that night. Sophie couldn’t find him, dialed 911 but when they got there, she couldn’t speak, or would not.”

He rested on his elbows and I put my fork down.

“You mean she chose not to speak or she went mute from traumatic shock?”

Will held both palms up in the air. “Either way, she’s not talking yet. She’s a dancer, had her own dance troupe, even, back East. But I don’t think she is dancing yet, either… And she lost her  daughter, too. Mia is living with Sophie’s sister and family back in Vermont. I mean, Sophie is mute; Mia is thirteen. She needs her mother to be there for her but… it’s a crying shame. Sophie is healing slowly. Snake Creek finally accepts her okay. Some of us look after her. Well, she’s naturally very independent. She has enough money, as well–she inherited, of course, and his family is old money.”

“You’re saying even the police don’t know what happened? Wasn’t it ruled a bona fide drowning due to the storm? What do you really think?”

Will took a long, slow breath and let it softly whistle through his long nose. “I don’t know, Will. I think something more happened that night but I do not know what. There is no real evidence other than what they found, the boat, his body later. She’s not the woman who came here with her family a year and a half ago. Vibrant, had a beautiful mellow speaking voice. She adored her daughter, was proud of her husband’s contributions to biology–he specialized in lake and pond life. Anyway. I’ve said enough. But I’m glad you two met.”

“I’m not sure why you told me all that, but it’s quite interesting. I do wish her well.”

We finished our meal and Will returned to his office to see what his assistant was up to. I walked across the street and onto a broad, soggy park area, then paused by the field stone library where I had spent so many hours dreaming and reading. Where my shy, affectionate mother was in her element. I continued to Ring Lake, hands stuffed in my winter jacket pockets, the wind whipping my shaggy hair and running through my beard. Beyond the stony beach the navy blue expanse sparkled in the cold, clear sunlight, was as charmed with beauty as I recalled. My mind slowed as I walked around the north end of the undulating body of water.

Except, Rissa, how I still worried about her. And Sophie, what of that strange creature who watched from deep, secretive eyes? What would happen when she finally exited her silence–if she ever could? I would not likely get to hear her speak and felt a twinge of regret at the thought. For what, I didn’t even know.

But I knew I had to follow my instincts while in Snake Creek and see where they took me as I always did.

 

Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

New Tree City, as Pen Sees It

The look-out is the monster maple in our back yard; it’s the main place I like to be, especially when dad gets home and relaxes on the porch. His spot and my spot both overlook the hilly area behind our garden. He watches the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash or sugar peas grow and ripen–whatever is in season, we tend. I guess he  must look at the hills and woods and remembers what it was like when he grew up here with Pops and Gram, but they’re both long gone. He has told me how there wasn’t a house for at least a mile in all directions back then. Now we live on a paved street at the edge of town and Marionville just keeps creeping past the corner where they finally put a stop sign. A few good cars had to get bashed and a half-dozen lives of cats and dogs ended before it mattered. Now it’s a four-way stop. Dad says it doesn’t mean anything; nothing will stop the town from spilling over the hills and up here.

I’m who he has now. He calls me his blue-eyed soul girl because I like Motown music and because I’m the only girl left, I guess. Mom took off last year. She found out she could make more money as a medical receptionist down below, some small city by Ann Arbor. She has this new person in her life, a girlfriend named Lela. Don’t ask me what that’s all about because dad doesn’t say a thing so I’m not going to ask. I don’t see Mom much since she moved out. She calls once a week or I do. I haven’t met Lela but maybe one day I will. I miss mom too much some days, others not so much. When you get down to it, dad is about what I have, too, except for three good friends at school and a couple of neighbors I like to fish and ski with, meet for a Saturday movie at the Miracle Theater. It’s strange growing up with just a dad but we always did get along better than mom and me. I didn’t ask him to go school shopping with me, though. Telly’s mom took me and got me a bra, too. He hasn’t noticed which is a relief. I’m afraid it will upset him, my growing up already.

Dad says I’m better at climbing trees and running than most boys and he’s right about that. I’m eleven, I can outrun most of the guys around here, and I’m a strong cross-country skier and better downhill skier. He says when I turn twelve I might get faster or maybe slower. We’ll find out in three weeks, after my birthday. I have no intention of slowing down. I can’t help being strong and fast, it just suits me, as mom says.

The reason I spend so much time in the upper third of this maple is because I can see everything. And it’s peaceful. I can survey a small kingdom. There are the Scranton hills, named after Jonas Scranton’s farm that went under before I was born. They’re a relief no matter what the season, they just roll out their colors and designs: mind-freezing beauty. I get a great view of Marionville spreading out beyond the bottom of the hills, namely the south end of the lake, several businesses and the jumping waterfront park. The big woods on the far side of the lake are special after it goes dark. Yellow and white spots shine here and there until the dense trees are sparkling like they’re full of fairy lights.  And I get a decent view of Telly Martin’s place to my right, where he, his parents and sisters live by Silver Creek, in their chalet. Especially their back yard, which is where most of the interesting action is at any house. They’re always doing something, like badminton and barbecuing. I haven’t been there in a few weeks and I miss them even though the two girls are younger and like Barbies too much. My mom, I know, enjoyed Telly’s mom; they had coffee many mornings. But no one asks about her.

Telly and I used to hang out more; he’s fourteen now. I think he also wonders about my dad. One time Telly came by, dad was sitting in the rocker by the scarred square wooden table he uses for about everything. A glass was in his hand so he didn’t reach out to shake Telly’s, as is his way. A big ole bottle of Jack Daniels was next to his book, likely a complicated spy novel he can get lost in. The reading has always been his pleasure, but the whiskey came out after spring break. Before that, a cold beer on a warm week-end was all I saw.

“Come around to see my Penny, eh, Telly?” dad said. He’d had two small glasses already. Three is his limit but it should be one. Or none.

Telly shrugged. “We were going to take a walk. I keep seeing a red fox at the creek. Real pretty.” His hands were in his jeans pockets. He smiled nice.

“Never mind the fox, son, and never mind my daughter. She’s too young to go off with a young man.” 

“Dad, I’ve known Telly for six years–” I protested. It was shocking to hear him talk like that.

“That’s right. He was eight, you were barely six. Played all day.  That was then. This is now. We don’t need more trouble.”

Telly frowned, then winked at me with each eye, our way of saying “later.” He left before I could stop him. But I can see him in his yard; we keep an eye on each other in lots of ways. In fact, my dad doesn’t even know we leave notes under a big loose rock in the field stone wall that divides the Martin’s property from the empty lot between us. That goes back at least four years. Still, I’ve had some doubts about Telly this fall. He’s like a polite acquaintance when I see him in school and hangs out with the first person to move into New Tree City. That’s what dad and I call it.

A developer bought ten acres of the hills and planted skinny, skimpy trees, some maple and some poplar, a little bunch of white pine. It was re-named New Scranton Hills. They brought their big earth-moving machines and started digging up the rich, sweet earth. First time I saw it I winced. It hurt my bones, even my teeth. Dad swore.

So what dad really watches since spring are the new houses cropping up like morel mushrooms. Only he likes those so much he’s on a mission to gather them every spring.

“That’s what’s wrong with Marionville. It can’t stand being the same year after year. It keeps looking to progress but it’ll end up being just like any other fast-growing town. They’re all the  same. Like white bread, right, Pen?”

He took another swallow–I could hear him cough a little–and I grasped the next branch, got a familiar foothold and pulled myself up higher. The leaves were starting to fall and a red one landed on my face. It smelled ancient and comforting.

“Well, dad, nothing can stay the same forever, probably.” I zipped up my hoodie against the autumn chill.

“There you go, that’s the mentality your mother has, our county has, the whole blasted country has. Gotta be bigger, fancier, more, more, more.”

I looked down through a new hole made by leaves falling. He was on his second glass and already he was getting miserable. I had a mind to shimmy down and grab that whiskey bottle and pour it in the garden, let the bugs and squash get tipsy for once. They’d probably just get sick, though.

“Well, no one knows this land like all of us up here, dad. And for sure no one loves it more than you. Pops would be happy you haven’t sold out.”

He chuckled. “That’s right, Pen. No selling out. You can bury me right here, too.”

I looked out over the land and blinked, then looked again. There was a house going up that looked way too big for the land it had grabbed. The carpenters were done for the day, and the frame they had left was a three-story something that dwarfed the new trees and the houses on either side. It hinged on being a mini-mansion from what I could tell. I wondered if it was one of those community places where there would be an indoor swimming pool, rooms to throw big celebrations in, maybe a game room for things like billiards.  I pressed against the sturdy trunk and leaned out a bit, parted the leaves. But it might just be a house, with all those options in it. You could fit four of our house into that building. It made me dizzy to think of it,  excited and mad all at once.

“You hear me, Pen? I don’t want you to start making friends with any of those people, okay? That’s the type young Telly might go for now, you wait. New Tree City people just don’t belong up here.” He banged his glass on the table. “Period.”

But I was gazing out at the lake and the woods and the sky beyond. A silky wash of dusk and then twilight colors spread over the treetops of the lake’s far shore and they glowed for a minute. It got so intense, that’s all there was: oranges, pinks, yellows, then night blues but with a weird light of gold fanning out over the world. The tiny fairy brights lit up the blackened woods after that.  I was alone but happy in my treetop. My dad had given in to whiskey or sadness or maybe sleep. I understood this: he wanted to forget some things and remember others. But New Tree City sat mostly empty of memories while I had nearly twelve whole years in this place. I really held the whole world in my arms. It fit me just right. I’d write a note to Telly about it in the morning; he always got it.