It was the middle of winter then, the wind a hundred slaps of ice on her face, its meanness stealing her breath. Heavy flakes of snow were starting to swirl and plummet onto tree branches and her shoulders. No one who knew anything about the north stepped outside longer than a short time to grab more wood from the stacked cord, or to let the dogs out, or–if crucial–go to work, and then often under duress. It could get bad fast. Blizzard warnings were nothing to fuss much over but nothing to laugh at. No need. Everyone prepared for days or nights like that when they were accustomed to it. You took it like you took the long humid summer, or the muddy, stormy weather in spring, or scores of brilliant leaves shaking in the wind, then falling in heaps each autumn.
It wasn’t that she was ignorant of weather and its might; she was born and raised there. If that meant sledding headlong and screeching down Miller’s Ridge, it also meant fingers that reddened and burned with a rush of blood when warming up. If it meant working to cut a decent figure eight on the pond’s rough surface, it brought, too, sweat turning to icicles along her neck and spine. It meant snow boots that kept her from moving fast enough after the deer or fox she spotted and nights trapped inside with her parents as winter howled– and dates that were nothing but a whispered phone call in the warmish stairwell or corner of her chilly room–and their hushed voices cutting out until there came the dead line droning.
It wasn’t happenstance, then, that Freida was there, hanging onto the splintered wood railing of Moon Bridge which spanned the widest part of Otter River. Below her, the river parted from itself in a jagged oval around which the thickening ice was starting to jam up the flow. Freida frowned at it. Was it large or small? It was hard to determine as daylight faded and the whiteness gathered. Was the ice as thin as she reckoned or was it hardening into a board that would not break? How long would it take for something fairly heavy to be pitched over the rail and land smack in the middle of that opening? And then sink?
Freida pulled her red knitted hat further down, then released a short puff of a laugh. It didn’t matter, her nubby hat. Nor the growing blizzard or her stinging forehead; not the water temperature or time of day.
She looked into the sky and if it had been bright with stars, much may have mattered. If the moon had winked at her from behind bare birch branches. If a blazing cardinal had appeared nearby and called out. If she had brought her sadness to them, found their singular beauty a gentle caution, a promise of patience, a show of kindness–then things might be different. But it was not so. She was seventeen while the great stretch of sky had been there forever, perfect, powerful. She was not willing to wait for this storm to pass.
She had had enough.
She unbuttoned and let drop her slightly moth-eaten camel hair coat and worn leather gloves, then yanked off her bulky sweater and tugged off the jeans. Lay them in a heap with the other items, her skin gone goose flesh and her legs starting to shake. Then she pulled each warm foot from their comforting boots. Underwear, socks and hat still on, she climbed one split log running horizontal in the bridge railing, hands clutching the top guardrail.
The snow started to thicken and rush at her as Canadian winds swept her of all natural heat, taunting her. It was now or nothing. She held her breath and put one foot atop the last rung, arms lifting at her sides.
And then there was a sudden rustle in bushes across the river, and a sharp cry. Freida lowered her foot, red-hatted head turned as she peered into a jumble of snowflakes. Was that a person, then, someone watching her? Who would be out here now? A shriek then, high-pitched and wild.
The single word was slung across brittle air, suspended above the river halfway from the far bank and Freida–yet it reverberated as loudly as if a truck’s brakes had suddenly been stomped.
Another teen– drinking, messing around? A woman on her way somewhere else. Or a kid? Who was going to tell when nothing much could be made out in the snow, anyway? Worst of all, what sort of ending would this be?
Her balance lost itself in a grip of fear; she fell backwards onto old and new snow, her back and legs scorched by deepening cold. She began to tremble, then shake hard as she, while lying down and so stiff-bodied every move was a terrible chore, pulled on all the clothing. She stood unsteadily, forced herself to not look back, then tromped back to the road slowly, achingly, her hands and feet numb. She was angry and disgusted–with her timing, with her crazed feelings, with the invisible one who had to see, had to cry out.
It was getting dark. She found herself trying to run home to her demanding mother and sour stepfather. She tried to focus on the fragrant, radiant heat of the wood stove that would rise up to the second story where her room caught and would hold it for her. They’d bark at her for being out too long, fuss over all the snow brought in,ask if she was frozen yet but after that, she could slip off to a quiet, thawing bath. She reassured herself that no one could have seen her closely. No one lived around there. Unless it was the old Riley wreck of a house being squatted in. Even she avoided the place after the barn burned down thanks to the owner, mad John Riley, who vanished soon after and let the wild things take over the rooms. No, no person would hang out there now–it’d crash down sooner than later and you wouldn’t want to be in it.
She looked behind her a few times. The early evening had gone slate dark, with masses of white gauziness clinging to all. It was nothing, that cry. An animal caught in a trap. A vagrant surprised by something. Nothing would come of it. And she’d have to manage to stay alive, stupid person that she was. She had music, didn’t she–still, no matter what? She had to keep on.
****** Twelve years later******
She heard a man’s footsteps quicken but she hurried into the drugstore, her large sunglasses a shield, a straw hat a small comfort with wide brim shutting out prying eyes. All she had to do was buy soap, hand lotion and get the prescription for her mother, she’d be done in a wink. Items were gotten and she marched to the counter. No one waited before her so she slid up to the cashier, pulled out a credit card.
“Freida, there you are,” he said with relief, panting behind her, but she didn’t turn, not even when he got close. He smelled of beer. She had no idea who he was, and the cashier was looking her over, skeptical and admiring at once, so she ran out the door, found her blue convertible and started it up.
“Lanie, wait, can’t I get a picture, please?!”
Someone else and then another yelled her stage name, the only name she answered to easily anymore. Not Freida, never again. She put it into reverse and zoomed off, trying to not speed but desperate to get off North Malley Street. She had expected side routes to be discreet but no, there they were, and now two people on motorcycles trying to ride alongside of her. Like so often no matter what she did or where she went, anymore.
Well, she did grow up here. She had made a bit of a splash out there.
She had been gone twelve years, had made a name for herself on Broadway and, recently, much farther beyond. And returned here as Lanie Hartman, no longer Freida Jean Rossiter. But her mother still called her by her birth name, first and middle. There was no getting away from that, either.
She pulled up to the A-frame set back on the shady acreage, got out and unlocked the gate, then drove to the end of the gravel driveway. Studied it in the late afternoon light which draped all in a sheer wave of gold. It was a stone’s throw from looking run down–she’d have to find out what it needed–yet still stood proud on a grassy spot within wooded land. The front porch was empty now, and Freida aka Lanie, resolved to get her mother onto it and into the reviving air of summer, humid or not. After a hip replacement at only fifty-eight, that woman could be ornerier than ever.
“It runs in the family, arthritis and bone deficiencies, so you better be prepared. No more prancing around on a stage after a precious few years, Freida Jean.”
“Lanie…” she said, then took a swig from a chilled, beaded root beer bottle.
The sunlight was soft on her feet, and her mother’s face got gentler the longer she sat under their patch of open sky.
“What’s wrong with the old one? Oh, well, what’s the difference in the end. You’re still Freida Jean to whoever matters. Just like I’m Cece, not Cecelia.” She frowned, unsure that made sense. “Right?”
“Debatable, Mom. But lots of people–friends– call me Lanie, that’s who they know. They love me, too, as Lanie Hartman, they never had the chance to like or dislike Freida. I’m used to that name now, not the birth name, sorry. It’s been many years since I used it.”
An eagle startled the air, swooped to a perch on a pine tree. The fragrance of pines, warm earth, river water out back–it all swept over her like a hypnotic medicine. This, she missed. Not the rest.
“Well, Marsha and Clyde–remember them? Big house down the road two miles or so?–they saw you in that oddball musical. “Why Hello, Ms. Manners”, was that it? weird title. They saw it last spring when they were in New York. They said you were good. So, that was nice…that’s very good, of course. They have good taste, you know.”
Lanie flushed with smattering of schoolgirl pleasure, leaned forward and tried to catch her mother’s eye. “I’m so happy they liked it. Why haven’t you ever come to see me, Mom? I have asked you so many times, told you I’d pay for a plane ticket and get you in free, put you up in a good hotel, we could–“
“Oh, no, I told you long ago there has never been a plane I trusted. Went once in 1987 to my father’s funeral and that was enough. And it’s too far–how long would I be up in the air, anyway?” She shuddered. “And you know Hal never would go for that.”
“But Hal died six years ago.”
“And I haven’t gone anywhere much since. Then, you know, my hips and knees.” She turned her face to her daughter’s and almost smiled. “I saw you on TV once. You were wonderful enough. I told Hal–she always had a fine big voice, that girl.”
And she winked with a crooked grin–it was usually this instead of an expansive smile—and placed a thin cool hand on her Freida’s forearm and squeezed a mite, then let go. Her girl had become a woman and she hardly recognized her even after a week together. Coppery hair. Glistening peach lips. Too skinny. It scared her sometimes to think of her as famous. What could that mean in the world but sensational or plain bad news?
Lanie smiled back, shutting her eyes against tears a split second. Yes, her mother and Hal had said things. They’d said, Stop that racket, can’t you find something useful to do? Why do you have to yell when you do a song? Try the piano, maybe, we all love that upright but it sits there gathering dust. You had a talent for that, it’s entertaining. Get back to work, music is a hobby after all work is done.
“Thanks, Mom, that’s nice of you to say.”
Yes, they had loved that piano, her mother and herself, she didn’t believe Hal cared for any kind of music much since he generally complained of it, not just hers. Her father, though, had played it every night, happy ragtime, a thumbed and tattered book of standards, old hymns. But he had died in a logging accident when she was eleven. And it had stayed silent–except when the house was empty and it was just her and the smudged keyboard. Herself settled in with music she tried to recall–but then made up her own, and her exuberant singing rang out. She had thought there was nothing better than singing and playing into that A-frame emptiness, how it nearly echoed. And nothing lonelier, too.
“By the way, Freida Jean, someone came by when you ran errands for me.”
“Who? A stranger passing off as an old friend again? No calls will be answered, no doors opened, remember?”
Cece shook her head slowly. “No, dear. It was Della Garner, quite sure of it.”
Lanie looked at her blankly. “Della?”
“Old John Ryan’s granddaughter. Remember her? Of course, she’s ten years younger than you, maybe eight.” She reached for her iced tea glass and drank long and noisily. “Let’s see, would’ve been young enough you might not recall that one, but her mother, Nance–John’s smart and only daughter– married into that good family who owns the fancy stables down the road.”
Cece seemed to fade, She drank more, sighed. The pain pills were kicking in at last.
“Della,” she repeated, “yes, that’s her, came by and wants to see you, honey.”
Lanie saw the drug smooth her mother’s lined face, heard it loosen her tongue. She needn’t worry about her mother and pills–she was moderate in everything but opinions about the world and rapidly offered sarcasm–but she did, anyway. A hip replacement was not so easy to get over as she made it seem. She might stay another two weeks.
Lanie vaguely recalled the child, not the mother much, she’d known them in passing, such as on side roads when Lanie was walking and Nance Ryan Garner and her daughter were riding beautiful horses. They were horse crazy, she had thought, whereas she was horse shy.
“I wonder what that’s about. Surely she isn’t into musicals since she is a teen now, but maybe she is, or her mother.”
But Cece’s eyelids were closed for the duration, her mouth was hanging open; a little drool trickled down the corner of her lips. Lanie retrieved her glass from an arm of the Adirondack chair and went inside to consider what she’d do about dinner. It was a challenge cooking for someone like her mother. But she was glad she could be there, anyway, in that yellow sunshine, that her mother had called her to come.
“Well, Della, glad to meet you–again, I suppose. Why don’t we sit here on the porch?”
It was not a child (as Lanie had still thought of Della) who stood before her, but an attractive young woman. Twelve years had changed them both, certainly, but Della was still paler than fair, with lots of hair straight and light as straw.
Della stepped back from her, fingers to lips, grey eyes round as two moons. “I can’t believe I’m here talking to you. My mother almost came, but she’s too shy. We saw you on the Tonight Show…you were fantastic.”
Lanie sat, Della followed suit. “I’m so glad you liked it, really! Can I get you anything, a sweet tea or a soda? A CD of mine, perhaps?”
“Oh, that’s okay.” She looked at her hands, then stole a glance at Lanie again, gaze then sliding off her face. “Well, yes, your autograph on one of your CDs– that would be wonderful!” She grasped the arms of her chair. “But I came for another reason. One I’ve thought about for years.”
“What’s that, Della?”
The visitor took a deep breath, held it in, then words rushed out in a torrent of feeling, as if to keep the words in any longer might cause her to start on fire–and she’d explode into who knows how many shreds of emotion out there in the beauty of the woods? It had to be said aloud.
“It was me. That night. The one who saw you, I was there in the woods later than I should’ve been, my dog got loose and ran off. and I knew my parents were going to punish me, come searching for us, so I was in a big hurry to get home and then… there you were. On the bridge, and you took off most of your clothes right there in the blizzard and climbed on the railing ..I knew something bad was happening, and I had to yell stop!”
Lanie clamped her mouth with both hands, her brows bunched together and her face went nearly white with horror. A small sound eked out.
Della breathed, her chest opening like vault whose lock had been picked at last. She watched the now-famous woman and wondered if she had made a mistake; tried to be calmer as old fears came up, then a wisp of sorrow. But there it was, the secret undone like a spell broken.
“I felt you might want to know, finally…”
“My gosh, Della! I can’t even imagine…you were–what? Only eight or so? What a terrible thing for you! I am so, so sorry, Della…it was long ago, but neither of us have forgotten it.” She closed her eyes and it all came back. “But your calling out made the difference. It froze me in the moment and I came back to myself…”
“Oh, Lanie, far more terrible thing for you! I didn’t understand it. All I knew is that you were in danger.I couldn’t do anything, too small, too slow, and the blizzard coming on us and no one else nearby. I was so afraid you would jump in the water– or fall– then what would I do?”
Lanie knelt beside her,pressed her hands between her own. Her face was damp with unbidden tears. “But you saved me, anyway. You have to grasp that! I was not okay, I was deeply discouraged, felt so lonely. I wanted music to rule in my life, I wanted to sing, you see, more than anything. But could not, not with my parents against it, not without any chance for training, not then…and I was ready to give up. Everything. It was that hellish a thing to me– a life without music. “
Lanie stood, walked to the side of the porch where she leaned out over the grass and Della followed. They took in the relief of sweeping summer greenness, sky winking its blue brilliance, breezes like sweet and unruly caresses.
“Well, now I understand. You had to sing. Just like I have to ride horses, train them. They’re my life, just like music is yours. I don’t know what I’d do without my passion for horses, my being in their world. But the thing is, many years later, that very moment saved me, too–that’s the other part you should know.”
Lanie hooked her arm in Della’s, surprised how small the younger woman felt next to her own bony tallness, but the smaller was muscular and straight-backed. A conditioned rider, a hearty one.
“I was barely fifteen and had endured a full year of bullying. I was always too pale, you know, so fair that you could barely see eyebrows or eyelashes, my skin almost translucent, my hair like the a straw doll’s hair. I had to wear strong sunscreen all the time–I was usually outdoors. A favorite name was “freak albino” though I’m not. Everyone teased me, harassed me, adding crude things on social media…the whole works. I starting skipping school. I also had a hard time with equestrian training, I couldn’t keep up, too many errors in important competitions.”
Lanie took in the young woman’s face, its fluid animation and how it glowed. She was brave to dare to come, to speak of such things to a woman she didn’t know except for a public face, and one snowy evening. Della observed her but gave her space.
“I wanted to either disappear or…die. I couldn’t bear the exclusion and meanness, anymore, at school, or my parents’ disappointment. I’d wanted to bring my family up even more–my grandpa didn’t have a great reputation–but I kept missing my mark. So I went to Otter River one day, feeling sorry for myself and letting myself have a hard cry. And then looked over the railing at the river rushing below, thought about just slipping under and away…and I recalled that night. It had scared me so much. I’d also felt relief when you left and so glad. Even though I got in trouble for being late and kept what I saw to myself.”
She gave herself a little shake as if to slough off the past.
“You’d been where I was, right there, feeling like that. And then–you were walking away into the blizzard. And years passed while you began to perform, become well known. I had no idea what it all meant to you from start to finish. But you’d changed your mind, went on. I kept track of you in your show news and interview to know what played out. And saw you succeeding. It was because you believed in what was meant for you, then worked hard. Achieved things that are meaningful for others, too. It’s beautiful what you’ve done, you know? What if you’d given up that night? But you got stronger, found a way to be yourself. So I thought I should try to do the same. I walked away, too. I never gave up again, either.”
Lanie folded Della in her arms, and they were like that long enough for Cece to struggle to the window with her walker and get a good gaze out at them. The scene puzzled her. Maybe Della was a great admirer–so many were. She went to the kitchen and wondered about dinner. Lanie was no real cook but she’d done alright. It was just real good to have her there after so long apart. Her sensitive daughter who sang too damned loud, left home too young. Her grown, now-famous daughter. Strange things happened sometimes, she guessed she’d become a believer.
The two young women spoke a bit about lighter things, when Lanie suddenly stopped and asked, “What about your dog? Did it perish in the blizzard? Please tell me it worked out okay.”
Della laughed. “Oh, no, Tommy got home way before me! He’s still limping about, a leg gone lame after a raccoon fight.”
Finally Della got her CD with case autographed, plus two tickets for a tour date in Chicago. Lanie walked her down the driveway to her truck. She waved even after Della vanished in whorls of summer’s dust. And she sang to herself and the trees on, then took her song into the house, and shared it with her quieted, soft eyed mother as she made dinner.
Later when dishing out a dessert of two chocolate chip cookies with one scoop of maple nut ice cream, she announced she was buying “for you, my irascible and beloved mother, a two-way train ticket for a new show opening in New York–you are coming late November, no excuses this time, it’s for a shared Thanksgiving.”