Life, in Pieces

lake with sun on horizon

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

“Mom? Mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

“Mom! Come see these wildflowers!”

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

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

******

Before we know it, afternoon slouches around us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

“Want to go down to the water?”

I look up sharply.

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

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

******

As we walk, my memory works despite my resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Fatal.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not well; she is lonely and lost.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Cat that Changed the Rest

 Hollywood California, 1961 Photographer- Ralph Crane Time Inc owned merlin- 1201638
Hollywood, California, 1961;
Photographer- Ralph Crane

He found cats unbearable to be near, so when Alice informed Tate she now not only owned one but was bringing it by “for a visit”, the very idea almost did him in. Tate locked the front door, went out back with an icy lemonade and a mystery book he’d been putting off starting. The air registered a degree of hotness that any smart person would avoid. Grabbing his stained, misshapen fishing hat, he patted it down and called it good.

He had no intention of answering the door and would hide out a long while if needed. It was unlikely she would come around back in her high heels after work. The ground was a bit spongy after last night’s drizzle. Curls of steam arose from the rich earth as sun’s heat settled into it.

Alice had been around for awhile. They had met at one of those useless parties at the start of the university’s year. They’d shared the end of a couch. She’d talked enough to save him from the onset of sleep. It turned out she was a new office person in his department–Geology was his domain. He had become lazy about meeting women. Proximity often had something to do with his relationships. That, and a shared interest in second-hand stores and antiques. Fishing helped but he’d not found a woman who fished willingly in over two years, a grave disappointment. Passion for desserts helped; he liked women who loved dessert as much as he did. Tate baked sometimes. She was into making homemade ice cream. It seemed a decent match. They went to movies, discussed cooking, ate many a good meal and listened to music. They had scoured the city for an Arts and Crafts sideboard recently. Tate said it was too pricey, though Alice was for it. She was good company, in general, and he did appreciate that.

Tate also liked the way her hair cascaded over her collarbone and that slow smile starting in her eyes. He wasn’t so sure what she liked about him. Perhaps his lake cottage; they had gone up for the holidays and she’d asked if they could return this summer. He was waiting to see. Or it was his easy-going attitude that encouraged students and faculty to interact with him, like it or not sometimes. He was more a man to himself than not. Alice had popped up and was already influencing his well-run, quiet life, like dill weed and lemon influenced the walleye he brought home.

But Tate didn’t have room, time or inclination for pets in his life. And not cats, certainly.

“Why ever not?” Alice asked a couple of months after they met. “Pets keep things interesting. They create friendly feelings yet are neutral, sometimes sympathetic listeners and give you reason to get out and roam.”

“That’s what actual friends are for. Pets can’t converse to any significant degree. They expect things–treats and regular meals, scratches around the ears, play time outside. They make a mess that they don’t even have to clean up! I may as well have a human child–which I do not yet have, as you noticed right off, and may never… and, anyway, four-legged animals deserve a life outdoors, not holed up with us.”

Alice gave him a look of mild disgust. “So, you never even had a dog to call your own?”

“No. Wait, yes. In my fraternity we had a mascot, called Barker for obvious reasons, and we all took turns dealing with him. I did like him. He was a shaggy rescue dog and did well by us. I enjoyed tossing him things. When we graduated, Barker was adopted by a dog-crazy guy–so it ended well for all.”

“What about cats?”

Tate shrank back, stared at her, eyes full of horror.

“You aren’t a cat person? Are you allergic?”

“No, not allergic. Who is really and truly ‘a cat person’? I don’t know many, maybe one or two. Cats are not intrinsically wired to appreciate humans. Tolerate is even a rather strong word in my opinion. They don’t even like each other that much after infancy. They do like hunting rodents and birds. Barn cats would be a good example of a useful type of cat.”

“Well, I adore cats.” Alice threw her hands up in defeat and headed to the kitchen. “For someone so easy to get along with, you sure are a surprise. Who on earth doesn’t like pets? That’s a first for me!” The refrigerator door opened, then shut hard. “Where are last week’s cookies? Oh, there they are.”

Tate got up, hands pressed deep into pants pockets. Stood rocking a little on the balls of his bare feet in front of the bay window. He liked creatures just fine. He stared at a distant tree line near a pond. Early Saturday mornings he sometimes walked there to meditate on herons and ducks and such. He’d not yet gone with Alice; it was his private routine. He thought of his brother, Alan, how they’d go to the lake after their parents passed and fished without talking, yet understood enough. How they’d weathered the hardest things and managed to remain as brothers should be, available–from a distance–trustworthy. Comfortable with an intimacy nothing could sever. He should call him again soon. Try to get the whole family out. There’d be no pets, as Alan had none, either.

“Cats,” he muttered under his breath, then forced a congenial smile as Alice brought out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He could smell coffee percolating and was suddenly grateful.

“Let’s listen to that Chet Atkins album,” she suggested. She set her head at an angle and narrowed her eyes as if trying get a better read on him, then her features lit up with good humor. “Maybe light a fire later?”

Cats, he thought again as got the album out, put it on, and turned up the stereo. Maybe Alice and I will get closer, maybe not.

“Yes, a fire. November is upon us.”

The cat topic never came up again. Until today. She’d gotten a cat and wanted to show it to him.

He could hear the gravel crunching under the SUV’s tires and panicked, then told himself to just remain at ease, she would go away when he didn’t answer the door. He’d said something to her about picking up dinner supplies so might not be home. His Jeep was in the garage. She wouldn’t bother to look in dusty garage windows. Still, he put the book down and slipped into shadows alongside the house where the juniper bushes were. Flattened inside shadow. He felt his chest tighten, heart jump.

“Pepper, you’d better stay put. Stop wiggling and behave. How will you ever audition? Wait a minute!”

Pepper, really? Tate was starting to perspire heavily but he pressed himself against the house, tried to slow respiration. He deeply wished he had a dog for the first time since that ole frat brother, Barker. It’d be one sorry cat, a cat held hostage on a tree branch. Why ever did Alice have to bring it over here?

And there it was, at his feet, sniffing about, then mewing. The whiskers of a cat on a man’s exposed shins is about the last straw when feeling contrary about the entire situation. It took considerable will power to not let his foot strike out. A midnight-black cat sat confidently, demurely, and appraised Tate. Unimpressed, it then began to clean a paw with delicate care.  It was enough to take his heart rate up a notch. He noticed a tiny rhinestone collar at its neck as he stepped around it and took off for the gate in a parody of power walking.

“Alice, aren’t you missing something? Why are you back here?”

“I am–but what are you doing outside? It’s too hot for man or beast and now Pepper has run off…”

“The beast part is debatable. Your very own, a large black cat is–” he pointed–“over there. In the cool of the shadows doing fine. Please don’t bring it any closer to me.”

Alice crept up on Pepper and deftly attached the leash to its collar. “There we go, all set now. I just wanted to introduce you to her, Tate. To show you my prize, to prove there’s not one thing unpleasant about this cat. I’d like you to be on good terms because she’s sticking around.”

Alice cautiously advanced, Pepper following behind her but with eyes on tree branches wherein perched robins. A cat is never a tame thing, Tate thought, and fought an impulse to grab the leash from his girlfriend’s hand, fling the cat out of the fenced yard in a graceful arc of farewell. But he did know this was irrational. Very wrong. Also impossible. She had a tight grasp on its leash and that cat had a clear intention of standing guard by the tree.

Tate took a step back. “Oh, no, that isn’t in the plan, sorry. I’m happy for you and so on but she will not be visiting further. I one hundred percent don’t like cats, Alice. I love many things, many sorts of people and do rather enjoy most animals–especially wild ones. But I just don’t appreciate cats. That is not going to change.”

He opened the gate and exited and she followed. Pepper came along; the birds had flown far off. The cat ran closer to him, stretched her neck out as if to rub her fuzzy head against Tate’s legs. He stepped aside and rushed on, Alice trotting after him.

“Alright, then, I give up for now! I’ll put her in the car, but it’s warm so I can’t stay. Hot cars are so dangerous for pets. It’s the A/C on or it’s a no go, lately.”

She picked up Pepper and placed her in a cushiony pet lounge on the back seat. The bed-lounge had built-in feed and water bowls attached. She rolled down car windows and closed the doors again. Then Alice joined Tate on the front porch steps.

“It’s like this, Tate, I have a cat who is trained for show business and I sure hope she makes me money.”

“What?Show business?’ He half-laugh came out in a  sputtering spray. “You can train a cat?”

“Well, not in the same way as dogs, of course, not exactly. Anyway, the training part is done. She’s my aunt’s project. She was diagnosed with skin cancer so can’t handle dealing with another need right now. Since I know Pepper and her talents, I stepped in. I learned with Aunt Lavonne.”

“You never mentioned this.”

“No, it seemed safer not to before. But now she’s in my life.”

“I thought I was, too.” He rubbed his bony shin. There was a phantom sensation there, a replay of those stiff whiskers sliding across his skin. It made his head feel like a vibrating high wire. “I’m starting to wonder.”

Alice grasped his forearm. “But Tate, you should see how she can act! Pepper looks so fine on film. She’s been in six commercials in three years and many magazine ads and has won some contests. She still has good years left, Aunt Lavonne says, and she’s made good money, too.” She released his arm; he’d tried to free himself of her emphatic grip. “Besides, I can’t let down my aunt. I’m the only one she trusts with Pepper. And there’s a movie audition next week. I have to get her in it. It’d make Aunt Lavonne so happy.”

She sighed. It was so delicate and tremulous that Tate put his arms about her. He felt something release his bunched up core, leaving it supine again. Pepper meowed loudly and poked her pink nose out the window but he chose to ignore her.

“I get the idea. I’m sorry about your aunt–a tough situation. You’re kind to help. I’m not going to ask you what the, uh, cat role is, though.”

“Yeah, well.” She fiddled with a straggling lock of hair. “I have to get Pepper into air conditioning. Also need to look at the script again–it’s a mystery story–and see what I have to make her do.” She smoothed Tate’s lined cheek., Kissed it. “I don’t get you about cats, it seems a phobia, even. But it’s okay for now. I’m doing what I need to do and I’ll call you after the audition.”

He went to the car, hugged her briefly, and as she got in he gave the cat a good sizing up. Pepper huddled down into the lounging bed again. She was as attractive as a cat might be, he supposed, glossy, well fed yet lithe in that dancerly cat way. Eyes so green the creature belonged to another place, not in a little bed in a car. He couldn’t imagine an acting cat, a real credit line in a movie, getting paid. Not a movie he’d go see without a major bribe.

Alice gave him a doleful look, eyes half-closed a moment, then tossed him a last kiss. He was surprised she still felt affection after his display of hostility, even when she’d explained such an important matter as illness and family. He felt a stab of shame. He ought to have better sympathized. He guessed Pepper would manage a better job of it, in her view.

But she’d stumbled upon his secret. Maybe he should have told her. Maybe it was time he let her know more of who he was. He shivered in the high noon sun.

******

Tate cast his line and looked out over the placid lake. Sunrise spread about tree limbs like a tangerine scarf opened wide. The boat rocked gently as he adjusted his position. He didn’t expect to catch much of anything. It was a good time of day but the summer saw less walleye activity. Trolling was one of his favorite things, the boat moving at a little over one mile per hour across the water, the line calm until it wasn’t. There were other ways to do this, other seasons–better waters, even–but when he awakened in the last of the dark he was relieved to be here, fish or no fish. He had to be in his boat.

He had called his brother but they had said the same old things, how the weather was getting weirder, how work was something that should be less bloodletting and more fun, how he should should catch a flight and share more time. Maybe August? Alan was 1800 miles away, his two kids were about to be teens, his wife was working more, not less. The brothers were rarely together, anymore, though they were never apart as kids.

He and Alan…and Rae. The triumphant trio that ruled the waterfront on Foxtail Lake. Or so it was for years, until more places sprang up and with them came kids to play with or avoid. They were wild and dirty and reckless with the happiness that comes from living close to the marrow and soul of nature. Their parents never argued there; the food tasted better; the water called them morning ’til night with its depth and shine.

Until the summer it all got torn apart.

Tate shook his head, blinked twice to better see the quiet sky lighting up a pale translucent blue. He loved this place more than anything. He owned it with his brother but it was more his than Alan’s due to the distance apart, the years he’d spent without his brother. Alan deserved to be here, too, and lately they had talked of growing old together at the cottage, then snickering at the thought. Just as they had grown up together, why not? But there would come that moment when they could talk no more of any of it. As a flashing red light dictated they had to stop, turn around, go elsewhere.

Tate was oldest, then Alan came three years after, then Rae the next year. Somehow they fit together like a handmade wood puzzle, seamless. Rae was the one most in trouble, not the boys, so that they felt compelled to try to outdo her at times. She emptied the tall change jar for dozens of packets of sweets, brought home worms to sneak into salad and sometimes scared the fish when their dad took them out, rocking the boat just to see wavelets gather and spread. She tried things that were dangerous, like try to swing by her hands from a tree branch over the lake. She would land in shallow water there so their dad grabbed her as she fell. Grounded her from the outdoors a whole day. Alan and Tate reeled her in a little, kept an eye out, as Rae was always laughing, her ideas were nutty and they were older and bigger.

And she was just theirs. The third voice in their trio.

Tate cast his line again, watching the lure sink. The birds were more talkative and he heard, then spotted other boats. He looked over his shoulder at the cottage light burning at the door, safe among the pines. He heard rumbling of a truck in the distance and turned back to the water, replaced that brash noise with a soliloquy of waves, more bright birdsong. If Alan was there they’d grill out later, enjoy a couple of beers at the fire pit later. Talk or not, remembrance a thing without language.

It had been just this sort of day. Clear as crystal but later in summer and an amber afternoon. Rae had been swimming with them–she could reach the far floating raft without tiring at age nine as she was wiry strong–but then went next door to her best friend’s, Jenny Molson’s. The boys weren’t ready to come in. They ignored their dad’s call to help him clean up some dead and downed wood and knew they’d have to make up for it the next day. Their mother had left for the market. Alan was determined to make more and fancier dives than Tate and so they kept at it as if they were training for the Olympics. Eventually they dragged themselves to shore, dried off inside the screened porch. Tate located Rae by her boisterous command.

“You dummy, come here!”

Jenny piped in. “Oh come on Rae, Red isn’t going to listen to you and, anyway, let’s get that broken tire swing by the shed so Dad will fix it for us.”

“I have to get Red into this carryall, then I’ll put him into the house!”

“It’s okay! Red likes being outdoors, that’s why we bring him.”

“He could get lost. I lost a gerbil once when I let it out.”

Tate grabbed a towel. He dried his hair and walked to the back of the house, which faced the road.

“Rae, what are you up to now? Leave that Red alone; he’s fine.”

Alan ran up behind him. “My gosh, is she really going to try to put him into that bag? That kid is goofy.” He guffawed at the sight of Rae with a grimy Army issue bag held wide open.

“Yeah, nothing like a mad cat in a bag!” Tate thought it hilarious right along with him.

“Come here, Red, come away from the road, here kitty, I’ve got something good for you, a big old smelly fish! We’ll swing in the tire swing, great fun!”

“Awww, geez,” Alan said, shaking his head.

“Rae come here, leave ole Red alone!” Tate called.

But Rae wanted to grab hold of that orange tabby cat. She had really taken to it. She stalked him as he sat by the side of the road. The boys watched to see who would win out and bet on Rae.

They could hear a vehicle coming down the road and thought it must be their mother. Rae glanced that way, too, then crept up to Red on tiptoe, the wide-mouthed bag held close. And Red jumped straight up when he saw it, eluded her as he dashed across the road like he was five years younger.

“No, you don’t!” she yelled and dashed after as the cat disappeared in weedy underbrush.

Tate saw the truck close in. A rusty, rattling truck that braked fast and hard full force. The driver’s face went slack, a kid not much older than they, racing down a country road on a perfect summer day, music blaring. But he saw her late.

Too late. Too late. She flew up a little, thin arms raised in surprise like a tossed rag doll’s, head thrown back with that sun bleached hair flying off her narrow, tanned back. Then she fell out of sight.

“Rae!” the brothers screamed in one terrible voice and ran.

The driver jumped from his truck. They pushed him aside, bent over her crumpled body. Blood came from somewhere they couldn’t identify and it spread into dirt and weeds as if it was only spilled juice, some bottle she’d held in her hand and dropped. It couldn’t be Rae’s. It couldn’t be her head cracked, her legs twisted. It had to be a nightmare. But she lay with her face to the side and her flesh was all so harmed. Emptied, even. Tate took the sunflower beach towel and lay it over her legs and touched her bleeding forehead, cried out without human sound and Alan got up and screamed for their father to come. But he was already there, he was falling into the road and as he scooped her up in his shaking arms, Rae was already leaving them.

******

The lake speaks to him like a wise one. It tells him to give himself up to the beauty, stay entirely alive. But the shore is lined with ghosts, not just Rae’s and their parents but Jenny Molson’s–she died at twenty-nine, haunted by that first death, while serving in the Army–and another playmate who had a heart attack at forty. This place holds things in the guts of the earth that he cannot name much less share. He thinks of the hearts of lake stones, how strong they must be to live on at the bottom, to endure the seasons and the errors of humans. He thinks of the ancient reeds that wave as his boat passes, how they know to lure fish and keep much more hidden. He thinks of the loons who infuse the waters and woods with a magic that cannot be stolen. All this is powerful balm every time he  comes, despite the stubborn ache.

Tate watches the cottage to make sure it is still there, that place they loved, played, were a family. The seam that held it all together came undone when Rae left them. The boys felt the emptiness like a sentence the rest of their growing up, and they had trouble carrying it even as they could not refuse its weight. But he thought Rae still ran along that shore, slipped in and out of the summer gilded water, flew with the passage of the sun. He can see her there sometimes, when afternoon light glints and beguiles, when other children are laughing as if nothing will ever be as good as that moment. And often this will be true in some way they cannot yet discern.

It may be time to tell Alice, if she is that much to him that her black cat could make him hurt again, want to flee in fear. But it was something he never could get over: that damned cat got away to safety, while their Rae died with her arms open–for nothing at all.

Her spirit lingered in their cottage, on the lake, among the trees and they told him to be still, wait. For her happy amazement to shake loose, be free. To unmoor himself (and Alan) from the long gone.

Maybe that was it, he thought, as he looked at his vibrating cell phone. Maybe joyous wonder was what she had to give–even to the last, even trying to catch a cat for a ride in a swing–and that’s what he had to remember. And let her be now. Release all cats of his insane blame. Forgive himself for not saving her. Somehow.

“Hello? Alice?…”

“Tate, Pepper got a part! Not the lead cat part but a fair part, at least.”

He laughed so softly she could barely hear him.

“I know, it’s minor in the real world of events, I get that, but–”

“No, no, good for you. Pepper…”

“It was something else, at least a hundred cats, can you imagine? It sort of creeped me out, too, but then we went in and–”

“Alice? Can you come up to the cottage? Right now. For the week-end?”

“Oh, I, well, I have Pepper, I’d love that but…”

“No, I mean with your movie star cat. We can get better acquainted, maybe, and she might like the country.”

The line was silent. Tate thought she’d hung up.

“Alright, we will! I’ll pack some things, get Pepper car-ready and we’ll be up in an hour. I’ll bring the cake I made yesterday. German Chocolate. Anything else?”

“Perfect. No, I’m good now.”

Tate hung up, reeled in nothing and headed back to the dock. June’s warm illumination slid across rippling water, over his face and body until he was giddy with it.

“Later, Rae,” he whispered and set a course for shore.

 

The Good Luck Girls

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“We have to be the best we can be!” Pen always said, and she should know. She was the one who brought home all the trophies, going way back to first grade when she was given a blue ribbon for best behaved at recess. She had broken up a fight by hugging an angry boy who started the fuss. After that, there were awards for reading excellence and penmanship, followed by tennis and debate team, then four years on the honors list. Finally, all the commendations garnered a scholarship for the top rated teacher’s college downstate. In 1949, three years after she began her career at North Village Day School, she was voted Teacher of the Year of the entire county, so was being sent to a state education conference in Five Lakes, an idyllic resort town. And that is where her sister, Bree, lived. Perch Lake, the largest body of water, clasped to its shore a rustic though well appointed conference lodge. There were events all year round, including that conference.

Bree was nervous about seeing her. She used to think they had been close siblings, four years apart but thick as thieves as children–“best friends, not thieves!” Pen corrected. They’d stayed in touch the last six years by letter and had seen each other at the homestead, as they called it, for their parents’ Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. These were arduous for Bree. In fact, she hadn’t gone often the last few years. There were brief phone calls every now and then. Pen filled creamy linen-like pages with rhapsodic descriptions of teaching experiences and little else. Maybe a brief description of a possible suitor, a recipe she’d tried, the undependable weather. Lately, notes about pieces she was trying to learn (“how time consuming, even painful it can be”) on her new (“aged, really, and I suspect out of tune, you should come and report on its condition”) upright piano.

Bree was jolted by this news. It was surprising that Pen would study piano after years of refusing an offer of lessons alongside herself. She’d also demonstrated a lack of natural rhythm when they had dance classes together. Pen could not even, if one was frank, carry an agreeable tune. But she loved music, that much was true. There was always had good music on the radio or record player. Their mother was abashed to admit she idolized opera singers though for her husband popular music called.

Music, in fact, was Bree’s specialty. Her one saving grace in a family where the older sister collected awards as if trinkets. For Bree began singing the moment she registered the robins outside her nursery window. Her mother still noted this as if it was a miracle a baby cooed in response to feathered warblers. But true, she sang without hesitation from the start, mimicking each sound she heard, later absorbing tunes and lyrics. Bree was born with a musical talent that surprised her musically untalented though otherwise capable parents. So they put her in a church children’s choir where she might elevate the congregation. They instructed her to sing when visiting the pharmacist, Mr. Gundell, himself a fine singer who pronounced her a marvel. She was lauded in school music classes. Given vocal lessons early. And at home soon was paraded in front of visitors like a show pony. There was a girls’ quartet in early adolescence, her soprano ringing bright and true. Solo recitals elicited large enthusiastic audiences. She learned how best to bow and smile with appreciation. For she was appreciative–to sing was her life; to hear applause, a lovely bonus.

The “Culture and Lifestyle” section of the newspaper had a loquacious reviewer who noted her vocalizing held “a certain piercing quality for mind, heart and soul” and “the range of a far more seasoned vocalist, according to this impressed reviewer and Solomon Hastings, Professor Emeritus of Music, Arbor-Kessling Conservatory. Breeanna Irving, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Reynold Irving, is in truth bound for great things.” She began to give recitals around the state a few times a year and participated in singing competitions. And won. Then she was courted by Arbor-Kessling, among others, before she was seventeen.

Bree mused over her sister’s piano and their upbringing while she misted lacy ferns on a side table. Her past. What she’d given others were the fruits of studying voice, the endless practicing, performing, competing. She’d wanted, yes, to attend a top notch music school, to study and perform more and then–if fate allowed–become a full-time concert soprano. To honor the greatest music with the best she could give.

“But get your degree in music education,” her father had advised one evening as they lingered after dinner.

“I don’t want to teach,” Bree insisted. “I’m singing or I’m doing very different.”

Her mother tittered. “What? Please let us in on it.”

Pen piped in. “You do want to be able to provide for yourself, right? I mean, in case you don’t catch a good man. It is, after all, the twentieth century, nearly decade four.”

“Is that why you’re going to college? To be able to pay your way in case you can’t snare the right man?”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Bree, it’s reasonable and I’m glad of her ambition,” mother inserted.

“Well, fine, but I’m going because of my passion for my art.”

Pen spoke with her usual authority. “Of course, and I shall want to teach even if I marry, otherwise it will be a waste.”

“You may decide differently, dear.” Mother was bent over a darning egg, one of dad’s heavy sport socks pulled taut around the wooden shape. Her stitching was so expert we could never feel the repair work.

“So, Bree, you will consider a practical degree to pull your head out of the clouds? It’s a necessary asset, even for one such as yourself. ” Dad smiled at her with a wink to cajole her into it.

“I’m either singing for my supper or going off to the pristine wilderness and living off the land, ” Bree pronounced. “If there isn’t singing I may as well leave civilization. I’ll commune with birds and swim naked. But I will not teach or get married for no good reason.”

Pen shook her burnished auburn head of hair, her hair ribbon awry, and sighed. “Don’t be so terribly dramatic, so–radical!”

Mother and Dad simply ignored Bree. The family was used to such pronouncements. Both parents thought them harmless if oddly idiotic (“eccentricity is a part of musicianship” Mother assured Dad after another odd statement), whereas Pen found them mildly alarming if annoying.

“You two are my good luck girls,” Dad said, not for the first time. “You’ll both do fine work, you’ll make us even prouder. We’ll be fulfilled in old age, to know we raised such capable young women.”

“And you will marry, too, have wonderful grandchildren!” Mother hastened to add, then bit off the thread under the knot and tossed the sock to Dad.

Bree knew she would attend music school, but the back-up plan was just as she said. Leaving behind the city for somewhere beautiful and wild. She only could enjoy cities if she sang in them.

And it was a good thing she had such a thought. In her third year at the music conservatory she contracted infectious tonsillitis and had a tonsillectomy. She did not rebound well or quickly. Her father felt helpless to work miracles but her convalescence finally ended. Then, as she was working on limbering up her voice for the umpteenth time, it became apparent she could no longer replicate those superior tones that drew an audience to their feet. The resonant, shimmering notes that lived in her higher range had vanished; the lower rich and warm ones faltered, sank. Bree could not coax them with skilled commands, not even her talent. Her vocal teacher worried some as weeks and months passed but reassured her it would take time, that was all.

Bree knew differently. Much had changed during feverish days and nights as rawness took over her swollen throat. The scalpel sliced away her tonsils and left her weak, almost empty. It was not the life for her now. It could never be the same after such a moratorium on singing. No amount of persuasive debates from her mentor and teacher or others, no pleading from her parents changed her mind. There was nothing worse than being a pitiable has-been trying to re-establish worthiness. More than that, she was utterly bereft. Bree would rather be that musician who once delivered flawless music full of heart, but then just no longer sang. Soon people would forget what was.

But Pen didn’t. And her parents never quite forgave her.

******

The sun slipped behind the rim of the earth and Perch Lake was splashed with golden and orange hues. Bree heard the low growl of a car engine, light rattling as it shuddered over the gravel road. It had to be Pen. She was given a raise so bought a good used Buick.

Bree didn’t have a car. There was Hardy’s work truck, and that was it; she drove it well after a time. He liked to see her behind the wheel, enjoyed being driven to town where they loaded up plumbing supplies for the business as well as their pantry. He’d taken a ribbing the first times she’d driven, as if giving her the keys made him a soft-touch or a fool. Soon residents saw Bree MacIntyre as Hardy’s indispensable right hand and a good woman, at that. She helped run Mac’s All Plumb Repair as expertly as she directed the Young Artists program at Five Lakes Retreat and Conference Lodge. The town was delighted to have someone who cared for their children’s artistic side and handed them over for a few classes each year.

Bree swatted at her neck. It was getting warm already; mosquitoes were hatching. She pulled her shoulder length hair back and slipped a rubber band around a neat ponytail. There was no time to change into a dress but her blue blouse was clean as were the tan slacks. She stared out at the lake. Languorous waves slapped against the shoreline a few hundred feet from their front porch; she listened to the water’s depths. Her heart beat harder though her mind told her all was fine, it always was in the end when they met up.

A car could be seen around the last bend now, the blue Buick. Would Hardy make it in time for dinner? It might be better if he did not, but Pen had said she’d be glad to see him. He’d had an emergency call at 5:00 at the lodge, of all places. Pen might have run into him there as she checked in. Bree laughed at the thought of Penelope Irving crossing paths unexpectedly with her husband in soiled work clothes. High heels clacking against the wood floor, her skirt too tight to make fast progress, wavy hair swinging. Then Hardy: high cheek boned face and powerful shoulders, clear but questioning eyes, broad, often dirt-smudged hands. Few words fell from him. She would have dodged his path, yet tried her best to be mannerly. Pen wasn’t fond of his country ways, the animal grace and strength as he moved and reposed. His pithy observances. Neither were her parents the three times they visited after the elopement. Hardy was nowhere close to what they’d wanted for her.
As with her singing, she had made a terrible choice, they’d all agreed.

The Buick honked twice and soon Pen, suit jacket off, shirttail hastily tucked in, was out of the car and up the steps. The sisters embraced.

“I thought I’d never get here! I nearly ran out of gas. How was I to know? Last time I visited I took a taxi from the train station, remember?” She held Bree at arm’s length. “My, you look healthy and gorgeous as ever, you get such sun!” Pen gazed at the lake, then blinked as if trying to break the spell before it interfered with her consciousness. She did not love the outdoors except from a good view indoors, but she did like Bree’s welcoming log house and this lake at sunset. “Lovely.”

“Of course, the sunset is courtesy of nature, just for you! Let’s go on in. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. I hope Hardy can make it. Want a beer?”

“Do you have a little scotch? Mmm, pot roast or beef stew.”

“Stew, I know you enjoy it.”

Bree got herself a cold beer and a scotch on the rocks for Pen. After they settled on the sofa Pen swept her gaze over the room. It had been repainted. New curtains with vines and birds were hung. A rectangular antique mirror gleamed above the sofa. She noticed they had a television on a painted bench in the corner. The business was going well.

Pen slipped off her heels and threw her head back, then spread out her hair along the back. She turned her neck and met her sister’s pensive eyes. “I can’t believe I’m here, Bree. It has been such a year! I never expected that award and now I have to make a speech and talk on that panel. You know I don’t like public speaking. The stage was your venue, not mine.”

Bree took a long drink and licked her lips. “It’s a learned thing. I got better as I got used to it. When do you get the trophy and give your speech? Should I sneak in?”

“It’s at the banquet dinner on Saturday night. It’s not a trophy, it’s a plaque of some sort, not showy. The presentation is tomorrow, too. I attend workshops all day, then the panel, then speak at the end. Exhausting. Success in teaching should be a humbling thing, less fanfare!” She said it lightly, as if she didn’t mean it, then sat up and faced Bree. ” Anything new since we talked a couple months ago?”

Bree knew this was a hint about the possibility of pregnancy but that hadn’t happened. She and Hardy were busy with their business. Bree had an affinity for numbers and organization, as well as outdoor life and her fledgling youth arts program. Not necessarily having children. Hardy was okay with that for now, too.

“I’m finding work satisfying on all fronts. My arts program is getting better monetary support and kids keep joining! Hardy and I are growing the business. We’re done with cross country skiing for now but fish, boat. Soon we’ll water ski, swim, hike. You know all this–how I love it here.” She tucked her lower lip under the upper a moment, then blurted it out. “Nope, no kids for now. I’m tied up with projects, Pen. Mom and Dad will have to wait.”

“Well, I’m not dating since Ted and I broke up.” She looked at the drink in her hands. “I guess they’ll survive.” She took a gulp. “We sure have lived lives other than what they imagined.”

“Not true, Pen. You’re the teacher they hoped–you hoped–to become. You’re more visible with this award. You’ll likely do much better as you pioneer those methods you keep talking about. A real educator. That’s what you want, right?”

Pen’s fine eyebrows rose, then settled. “You know, I do like teaching, implementing my ideas. But I enjoy public notice and want to research modern educational practices. I was to forge ahead! I’m pretty happy so far.”

“Losing Ted was tough. But I know you’re darned good on your own, too. Funny how I turned out to be marriage material, though!”

Bree brushed a dark lock from glowing skin, her eyes radiating pleasure. Pen thought again how extraordinary her sister was, how impressive she would have looked on the nation’s stages, even the world’s. With her face and that voice, what might have come to be? It pained her to think it.

Shifting against a plump pillow, Bree said, “Well, my ambitions took a turn. We all end up with quite curious lives.” She touched her sister’s forearm. “Say, what’s with the piano playing?”

“I adore my piano! It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for myself! I got it tuned last week and it sounds good. I think. It brings back good memories…”

Bree was silent. Glancing out the front door, she hoped it was Hardy’s truck she heard as dusk gathered and spread itself over trees, water, cottages and creatures. She thought of the bats swooping and darting by the pole barn, their electric cries. She hoped the barn owl would visit again.

Then she spoke carefully. “I admit I was surprised. Are lessons harder or easier than you expected? What is your goal?”

Pen grinned, her large eyes brightening.”The lessons aren’t so bad, it’s the daily practice that taxes me. I have much to learn as fast as I can. I plan on playing a few things for the parents by Thanksgiving. I can’t wait to see their faces, they’ll love it, won’t they? And I hope you’ll be there.” She took her sister’ s hand and squeezed it.

A charge of cold energy erupted in her spine, traveled to her neck, then spilled over her. Playing piano for their parents like she, herself, did long ago? A family performance. Would they expect her to play, try a song? Like when the girls presented a dance routine or a play. Or when Bree sang the newest tune. That house had a large space that only masqueraded as a family room; it was really a theater for their parents’ and their friends’ entertainment. For their pride to bloom with each new trick the girls learned.

She pulled her hand away, hoping her shudder wasn’t obvious.
“I don’t know. I’m glad you’re enjoying learning how to play.” She felt heat erase the chill as her heart pumped faster. “Are you playing for your own enjoyment? Or to please Mom and Dad? Or trying to rectify things somehow?”

Bree looked into her sister’s face, saw the deep blue irises and the pupils expand as she sank back, frowning.

“Maybe you’re trying to make things perfect, even now. That thing I dared do that hurt them. The disappointment I caused you all. Such a career I might have had, right? Perhaps even fame, likely some fortune, child so-called prodigy makes good and the family is lifted up in the eyes of all beholders. Isn’t it enough that Dad is a fine doctor? No, Mom and Dad had to preen at the supermarket, at church, at concerts.” Bree felt her voice as roiling steam trying to push out of her throat with a screech.

Pen pressed her lips into a taut line. After a slow, steadying breath Bree stood. She didn’t want to be so near her sister, nor look at her. Her eyes welled with forbidden tears. She never cried about this anymore, she rarely even thought of it. It was done with. But there it was, subterranean all this time, now rousing itself from a sleep in dark places where it had lived, now forcing itself into this tender spring light. Bree leaned against the doorjamb as Hardy’s truck pulled in. He sat in the cab, looking down at something. She took a deep breath.

Pen came close but not too close. “Bree, I can barely play right now and it isn’t about that. I knew you were the special one… I was the ordinary girl who worked damned hard to get what I wanted…” She reached out and touched Bree’s back but her sister’s shoulders hunched, recoiling. “Yes, alright, I wanted to do something for them, why not? They do like music, they miss it in the family! I can learn for myself and others, can’t I? I had no idea this would bother you so. I thought it would please you! That we could enjoy a little music with them again…Bree, look at me.”

But Bree didn’t want her sister’s words. She kept her tears at bay by watching cottage lights undulate on the lake, hearing the rhythmic rushing forward and falling back of water in a dance upon good earth. It was not so much Pen playing, it was the reminder of all that was lost. Her parents’ easy appreciation. Her sister’s pleasure and admiration. And that music that owned her, body and soul, oh dear God the feel of that music welling up from mysterious places and entering the atmosphere of the world like a healing thing. Making its primal, ethereal life deep in her blood, her being. It was what she had to offer them, as well as others. It had been almost the whole of her. And then it was gone.

Bree pressed her fingers against hot eyelids as Hardy got out of the truck, willed her heart to lie down and rest, her mind to uncoil. She turned back to Pen, who stood with arms crossed and her brow furrowed in anger.

“I don’t get you, Bree! I come to see you, we’re just talking and you have to pick this time to do this–”

“No time is a good time, is it? It was me who lost something, not you, not Mom and Dad! The one passion of my life. You had so many. I had one, Pen, one, and it carried me, fed me, loved me, transformed me–it shaped my every moment. And then, it was taken. That’s what I have wanted to say all these years. It wasn’t about disappointing any of you or my giving up or casting aspersions on more good fortune we might have had. Not being able to sing as before was…it was like dying. It was a terrible death. And no one came to pay their respects or offer true condolences, because no one really saw it my way. I let others down? The ruin of that passion was what was left me. And I was alone with it.”

Hardy waited on the porch as his wife finished speaking. He heard her but had sensed what it was about as he stepped down from the truck. He felt her pain, caught its signal of grief, and he knew to wait, be still. He clutched a bouquet of daisies in one hand and thermos in the other. When she was quiet he said her name and she opened the door. Bree stepped outside, sank into a rocking chair. Hardy went to her, put the flowers in her lap and his thermos on the floor. Then he knelt down and took her hands and kissed one palm, then the other.

“Hello love. Smells good, dinner,” he said.”Pen staying?”

Pen was passing them, then stopped and raised her hands in the hushed spring evening as if in surrender. “But we lost the real you, Bree. I lost you!”

Bree touched Hardy’s bushy head and he lifted it to see her. “That’s where you’re wrong. I’m still here, sister, just changed.”

But Pen was already in her car. As she backed up the tires spun against rocks and dirt. She turned the Buick around and sped down the country road.

Hardy walked to the top step of the porch, sat as Bree joined him. They put their arms about each other’s waists. Watched the lake change from a deep bruising blue to a swath of silvery black, as if the stars had fallen in love with water, spread themselves over its buoyant surface. And Bree sang a wordless song to the lake, the night, to him.

Exodus from Tattler Falls

Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon
Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon

At the end of the season–ending in August for some, late September for others–people left in droves so that the town felt like an over-inflated balloon losing its shape. Then finding a new one. The outward flow left the population at a measly 897, a number that jumped to about 1300 via magic arithmetic each summer. They noted the changes each summer and fall, then soon readjusted. Tim Melton, age 9, didn’t give it a lot of thought but found himself counting the days until they all disappeared. Then he could get back to his own business without all the “foreigners” interfering.

Once it had been a nondescript wayside requiring three turns off I-75. The road might be missed if you didn’t pay attention to the small green and white sign at the last turn. Tattler Falls had been voted one of the “Twenty Most Popular Great Lakes Tourist Spots” in the state’s tourism magazine. That was in 1978. The only reason it hadn’t grown a lot more is that there were very conservative zoning laws set in place by Garver T. “Tommy” Melton, Tim’s grandfather, and his crew back in 1950. Little had been altered despite occasional heated debates so there was only so much land to go around. The developers compensated for that by building upwards as much as possible. The fancier houses and a couple of hotels poked above the treeline and were eventually tolerated like warty growths.

Almost two-thirds of the year-around residents were third generation or more. They weren’t well-off but held the power because they held the land. Everybody feared a last family member dying off, as who would the will leave their land to? Often enough, it was bequeathed to friends or the Congregational church or the newer (1989) wildlife refuge at the far edge of town. It was a safety feature, something that folks had dreamed up back when Tommy ran things, more or less. Now he was faltering and staving off a nursing home. Tim liked to visit with him since he could still play a mean game of slap jack from his wheelchair. He also told him interesting things about the woods and lake. Historical stuff.

Tim, like his grandfather, wanted to run things but he was still in training. He knew he was smart but apparently not smart enough to get everything he wanted when he wanted it. Patience was not something he favored, as his mother said, but something he would eventually find.

He pulled up to their long oak table.

“Gosh, I don’t want chicken again, Mom. I want some yummy grilled steak, the ones you bought today.”

He poked at the plump piece of white breast meat that was huddled between mashed potatoes and canned peas. He hated canned peas. Who had come up with that idea? He might have to learn to cook one day.

“Sorry, the steaks are for tomorrow when everyone comes for our end-of-season party. As you well know. Oh, and Gus will be coming. I think.” His mother raised one arched eyebrow high, her mouth pulled into a crooked shape.

“Uuuh.” His mouth was stuffed with potatoes or he might have said ‘ugh.’ Gus was now thirteen and a menace. That’s what Gus’ dad called him when he got mad. Tim could have told him that long ago. But they’d grown up together; he used to be like a big brother. “Nice. I like the end-of-season parties.”

“I do, too, son. Except for all the preparations!”

He studied his mother from under his longish hair and worked on the chicken. Lynne, thirty-six, married to Adam, his dad. Only his dad was downstate working on some bridge construction for a couple more weeks. He was gone more than Tim liked. But his mom was a great one to have around in more ways than he’d admit in public. He peeked up at her. She looked pretty, too, in her blue and green plaid blouse and her reddish-blonde hair held back with a golden headband. Her freckles had been shared with him.

Just this morning she had gone out in the canoe with him. It was early with translucent fair skies. Since so many had left, the water was still and smooth near land’s edge. Quietness floated over the water and them. They watched eagles and red-tailed hawks dip and soar. She had taken pictures, her favorite thing besides fishing and her family.

“I like how empty it feels again. How things go back to the right places,” he said.

“You always say that–always so serious.” The words lit up in light laughter. “I know what you mean. We all do. Like everything is jostled around when the summer people come, things feel close and tight, even the trees feel off-kilter.”

Tim nodded and attacked the whole piece of chicken, put one end of it into his mouth and bit hard before she frowned at him. It tasted good and he kept nibbling away.

“I wish your dad was back,” she said, then bent over and kissed his forehead so softly he barely felt it. But he did feel it and this time did not complain.

“Me, too. He should be here for the party.” It came out as resentful but he couldn’t help it. He was usually scolded for being disrespectful but this time she didn’t say respond.

He finished his meal and carried the plate to the sink. His mom was humming to herself, counting the days until Adam returned–three–and thinking over her “To Do list” for the last big cook-out. If only Adam could be there. He’d been gone most of the summer. Tim saw her face set itself to the Things aren’t easy but I will get on with it and be fine mode.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?”

“Is Charlene Young going to be there? At the party?”

She turned to look at him, her hands in mid-air and dripping soapy water. “I think so, yes, she said she’ll try to make it. You remember to be nice to her, especially.”

Tim nodded, then left the kitchen and picked up his Frisbee. He stepped into their wide enclosed porch, pushed open the screen door and let it slam, heard his mom yell after him to “let it go easy not so hard!” He ran down the steps and stood gazing out over the lake. The air was laced with damp pine, chilly water, rich earth and far off winter smells. He took it all into himself like a powerful energy needed to recharge. There was a rustling movement to his left and Gator, their half-Lab, half-shepherd, dashed out of thick bushes and jumped up on him, eager to play. He threw the disc to Gator but thought about Charlene and June 21, then his dad being gone and for a moment he forgot he was happy.

********

It had been a perfect summer day. Tim and Missy had taken the rowboat out earlier and fished a little with homemade poles. Then they went swimming by her big old cabin.

“I can out-swim you any day!” She swam out to the floating dock.

“Beat ya!”

He took off after her. They were neck-and-neck until the last few feet when he burst ahead and he called it.

“Victory!”

Missy dunked him and they tussled in the water, gulping some lake, coughing and laughing. She dove deep and he followed, grabbing her toes. The plants waved at them as they torpedoed by. Fish grazed their legs and arms. They resurfaced, pulled themselves up, caught their breath as they leaned back.

“I’m getting my hair cut before school.” She pushed it back from her face now, long dark strands catching on chin and nose.

“So? We always get our hair cut for school. I don’t know why. I’d rather keep mine long.”

“No, I mean, I’m getting it cut really short. Like this.” She pulled the wet mass back so it looked like her head was a seal’s or a wet puppy’s.

Tim tilted his head, wiggling his index finger in his ear to get out the water. “That’s too short.”

“I need something new.”

“Why?”

“Because…I want to, because…it will look better shorter.”

“That’s stupid. You’re not even ten. You don’t have to change anything. Or ever.”

Missy scooted to middle of the slick wood surface and brought her knees to her chin. “You can change for no good reason. Or for fun.”

“Yeah, I guess do what you want.” He looked at her sideways. “Makes me think about Annie Young.”  He’d wanted to talk about Annie for once.

Missy’s head whipped around. “Annie? Why? Anyway, I’m not sure she’s having fun. You’re joking, right?”

“Maybe she’s having fun her own way but not such a great way. We hear stuff and I wonder.”

Missy sighed and stretched out white, bony legs. “I know. I mean, we live in Tattler Falls! Not the humongous city. How can she get that stuff? She’s just fifteen…”

“Dad says drugs just travel from downstate and before you know it, it infects all the best places and people. I agree. It’s awful when  nobody needs that stuff for anything good. Ridiculous!”

Missy shivered. “It’s gross. It’s spooky, too. If it can get to Annie, who’s next?”

“It won’t get us, right?”

“Right.”

Tim leaned toward her, shoulders making contact for a second, then kicked the water hard. They dove in one after the other. Missy won the race to shore by a length. They ambled ashore talking about playing badminton when Missy’s mom rushed out with big towels and wrapped them up. She burst into tears.

“Come in the house, kids, okay? I have bad news about Annie Young.”

********

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a smart ass,” Gus said, toothpick bouncing between his lips.

“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Tim tossed a flat stone into the water and watched it skip.

“Well, then keep it to yourself.” He smacked Tim on the back so it stung.

“All I said was–‘

“I heard you the first time. You told Missy you wondered where I was the afternoon Annie died. Everybody knows I was out on the dirt bike. I get so sick of everyone pointing their fingers at me!”

The lake rippled as the rock punctured the calm, burnished water. Dusk was gathering about the trees, and the sunset had left its afterglow upon the lake’s mirrored surface. Tim wished Gus would go away. He could smell the steaks about ready. There was a bonfire and he knew Missy and the others were finding good spots. But Gus had called him down to water’s edge.

“I’m going soon, anyway.” Gus picked up a knobby stick and tossed it into the lake where it floated away.

“What? Where to?”

“Maybe Ohio. My dad’s parents. I need a breather. Just because I like weed and tried a little meth…I’m good now but mom and dad…” He turned Tim around to face him, then drew himself up before plunging in. “Look, I of course saw Annie that day.  We were…more than friends, so I thought. That’s what I told the cops, too. I saw her with Jubal– they were on his BMW–when I headed to the trail. I knew Jubal was up to no good but Annie didn’t listen to me… So when I heard about the crash, I was as shocked as anybody, I was freaked out if you want to know the truth because I told her to stay away from him. He’s totally no good. So now he’s in jail after they found the drugs and good riddance. But Annie!” He covered his eyes, then stared into the distance. “I need to get out of here.”

Tim felt frozen to the stony earth. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Gus picked up a rock and threw it so hard Tim couldn’t see where it arced in the fading light. Laughter and loud voices overtook the soft shusshshusshshussh of lapping waves. Tim felt himself drift a moment. It would get windier soon, rain, then snow. He knew the fire was blazing and wished Missy would come down with some of their friends.

“I’m not sure, buddy. You’re pretty smart and I guess I thought you’d understand but maybe you’re too much of a kid, still. Yeah, you’re just a runty, snotty-nosed kid.” He backed away, then turned toward the house and rich smells of food and the bonfire. Stopped.

Tim watched the older boy’s face as the orange glow of the flames fell upon his face. Gus used to look so much bigger. Now he just looked worn out, a lot skinnier. Was it that meth drug or was it Annie leaving? Okay, the truth: overdose and death.

“But I kinda get it. You want to leave that day behind. Maybe the whole summer. And Ohio might have an answer…or something.” Tim dug the heel of his shoe into the dirt and rocks. “I wish that day had never happened, too, it’s like a nightmare took over our town and nothing is really the same.”

He was afraid he was going to let it jump out, the sharp-edged sadness, the fear that had crept into his life. New worries about his dad going so far away for work; why couldn’t he stay home? His mom feeling lonely sometimes, he could just tell. The summer people could come and go as they pleased, make things better or worse for the rest of them. But this was their own place, and it had been so right and good for so long. It was home. There were new things every year Tim didn’t understand. Or even want to. And this summer had been the hardest so far with Annie being taken.

Gus didn’t look at Tim but hung his arm loosely around the younger boy’s shoulders. “Yep, you’re a genius. A decent kid.” They started to walk back.

“Gus, I never told anyone, but the week Annie’s funeral took place? Her mom, Charlotte, saw me in town and she put her arms around me, squashed me so tight I thought I was going to choke. It scared me. All I could smell for hours was her perfume, something way too sweet…I’ll never forget it!”

“Yeah, that’s grief, buddy, that killer hug. I don’t know much about perfume yet.”

Missy saw them then and trotted down to grab onto him as Gus drifted into the boisterous, milling group. Tim thought for sure he was seeing things when his father’s face moved out of the shadows and into the beautiful October firelight but no, he was back. He had come home early, just for the party. Just for them. Tim started running, Missy calling after him to wait up.

 

The Blueness of Summer

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“The problem is clear, Reg–we have the wrong colors! Everything must be painted blue. Then we’ll have more peace. At least I will!”

She threw her up hands in disgust, then pointed at the living room’s pale yellow walls, orange floral couch with lime green and lemon yellow pillows, a tarnished goldtone floor lamp, all three tables an antique white.

Reg stood with hands on hips. This was the stand-off he had hoped to avoid. If she was going to tick off the terrible errors of each and every room he’d lose it. This was not their city house which “requires a more spare palette”, she’d insisted. This was a vacation home, a spiffed-up cottage, really, and he liked it just the way it was.

“Absolutely not. It required no renovations. The colors are lively. It’s a simple place. For once we can go outside the lines, relax. And I’m not buying a bunch of new furniture.” He ran a palm over his forehead. “You liked it well enough when we bought it in spring. We’re lucky to have it.”

Reg said this with satisfaction and pride. He’d saved a long time to afford the right place on Whitetail Lake. A moderate-sized, old but not too-creaky lake house on a half-acre. It made him happier than he’d been in years.

Marin turned away from him to face the view of water, let her eyes rest on birches and pines on the opposite shore. The lake was languid today, a smattering of clouds reflected in its gently sloshing surface. It made her feel moody and restless instead of calmer.

“I’ll shop at second-hand stores, garage sales if I must. But it has to be re-done in blues.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “The girls need blue, too. They’re too agitated here.”

With a dismissive wave of his hand, he left. The girls needed to fish with him, swim, get sweaty and dirty, water ski, meet new friends. They still had time to make good messes at ages ten and twelve. At home they were under Marin’s watchful gaze and tutelage. Here they could whoop and race around. He had no intention of falling prey to his wife’s obsession with color therapy out here in the northern woods, on this welcoming lake. It had become a strange keystone of her life but it was not his.

He worried she was losing it. This color thing was now impacting how she cooked, organized things, even wanted everyone to dress. He knew it was her attempt to re-exert control over her life. It had been hard. She’d lost her job ten months ago so she had more empty time. But they’d lost a helluva lot more than that. He understood she needed to adjust; he still did, too. He was lonely for her, for the past, and it felt like a black hole some nights. But time, it was all about time. And color, apparently.

Marin watched her husband head to the boat house where he stored his fishing tackle. He’d be gone all day, likely. She just couldn’t get into fishing, baiting the hook, the harm it did to fish tossed back in, the hours of boredom as you cast a line and waited, cast and waited. He cleaned and cooked them with relish. She ate them but felt haunted by their grace in the water, scales flashing as sunshine glanced off their sleek bodies. It almost made her cry.

Water. It was an ever-changing tableau of shadows, of light. A blue life. It was the reason she had agreed: to be by the lake, hear it all hours. Musical blueness. And she needed everything indoors to reflect calm and an inviting coolness, as well.

“Kel! Give that back! You have the old one!”

“Let go! You’ll tear it! Mom!”

Natalie and Kelly exploded into the room, the older, Nat, trying to pull her new beach towel from her sister’s hands. Nat knocked over stacks of books Marin had been sorting. She shot her mother a look but kept moving and holding onto the towel. They were like two harnessed, runaway horses.

“Stop galloping about! Walk!” Marin commanded, but they were already beyond hearing range.

She stood in the middle of the room and counted the items she wanted to dispose of. The tables were barely tolerable but at least not yellow or orange. It gave her a headache, all this vividness in the cramped living room, the old fireplace smelling of decades of fires. At home there were wide expanses, many windows, clean lines, grey, taupe, pale rose, ivory. It was really for Reg, this Whitetail Lake adventure with fishing and hunting, the nature he missed from childhood. Sorely needed at a crucial juncture in his career. And the girls loved it so far, even their small bedrooms that accommodated only twin beds. They said it was like going to camp. Reg insisted it was homey. What did that mean? Wasn’t their city house homey in a classic way, hadn’t she made it so?

What did she get? What did she even have left, anymore?

It was not a good time to examine or answer such questions. She grabbed her bag and keys, jotted a note and left it on the green lacquered breakfast table. She was going paint shopping.

*******

The whole next week they had to eat, sleep and live around their mother and her paint buckets. Their dad was fishing mostly. Sometimes he took them skiing or on boat rides of the deer’s tail-shaped lake. The three of them swam into the dusk, calling their mom to join them. She was too busy painting. In another week their dad would be going back to work. Worrisome.

“How’s it a deer’s tail? It’s so big you can’t even tell,” Kelly asked.

Nat snickered. “You can see from a plane what it’s like.”

“I’d do that.”

“You’d do anything, that’s the problem.”

Kel bit off a cherry licorice stick inch by inch but paused. “The problem is mom and that painting. We’d have more fun if she stopped.”

“I know. She’s…paint crazed! It’s blue madness!”

They laughed though it wasn’t very funny.

“I think,” Nat said, “she’s still trying to feel better. Dad says we have to be patient. It’s only painting walls, at least.”

Kel looked at her as she licked her fingers clean, then wiped them dry on her shirt. “She doesn’t drink at all. Danny’s been dead a year. She should be better by now.”

Nat put her arms around her sister’s shoulders. “Yeah, Danny’s gone…we’re here. So we can’t give up on her.”

“He hurt all the time. He couldn’t play, anymore. Danny had to go, didn’t he….? He’s better now, right?”

“I guess. Yeah.” She gave her a squeeze and stood up. “Want to swim out to the floating dock and lay out for a tan?”

******

Marin walked through the kitchen with its bright breakfast nook, the living room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Even Reg liked their bedroom, how it soothed. She had emptied them of extraneous things, found used natural wood furniture. But what delighted her were the aquamarine, cornflower blue, teal blue in variations of all three that covered walls and woodwork. No, illuminated. It was as if she was floating underwater, inside a small universe of blue, a skylit haven. It reminded her of bodies of water all over the world, places she had travelled when she had curated art for the museum. She was light-headed with pleasure. The panorama of tones loosened up straggling tension. Her heart unclenched.

At the doorway to the screened-in porch she had hesitated, paint brush and can in hand. The walls were knotty pine that felt warm with a sheen deepened from many years, hands, weather that passed through. It held a couch covered with a worn navy, red and cream plaid, two easy chairs that matched and a low table for books and random objects. Reg had left a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson essays there, the book she had bought him for his thirty-ninth birthday, when things had gotten tougher. Inside it she had inscribed: “To your soul from your love.”

Marin left the porch unpainted. Instead, she dug out the one picture she had brought of Danny. She painted a frame she had found at the local antiques store, a deep sapphire blue. It matched his eyes though a stranger wouldn’t know that. The five of them were sitting on the edge of a pool in Baja California, the last vacation he would be able to bear. But his smile was so powerful you could see God in it.

She hung the picture between two large screened windows. Under that she put a small white ship’s anchor and sat down on the couch. Danny would have loved the cottage. She felt the closing of her throat, the sting of tears and waited for them to etch hot trails down her face. But they didn’t fall. Her throat gradually opened again. A brisk breeze crisscrossed the porch and lifted the hair from her damp neck. She watched the girls playing badminton in the front. Reg was sitting on a chaise lounge near them, sipping a lemonade she’d made fresh earlier. She got up and left the cottage, pulled to the lapping water, trees and birds. The summer’s sweet light and her family.

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