Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Getting Lost and Finding One’s Way

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I’ve been this way many times but manage to take one turn off too soon. We are heading into city center and a primary destination of Powell’s Bookstore, a favorite place recently reopened. Anticipation pumps up adrenaline. But I am embarrassed and frustrated about missing my turn and try to discern my way within a warren of unfamiliar streets that skirt the area desired. How did this happen? The traffic is moving along at a fast pace; I am talking with my daughter as I drive and didn’t bother with GPS because I know where I am going. Good reasons or not, I know I need to find 10th or 12th Avenues–or any north-south streets, for that matter– then head to east-west Burnside Street. It’s simple, after all; I know this city. Until I get turned around in notoriously puzzling hills in this section of SW Portland.

I shake my head, tell Alexandra, “I don’t know what happened, I do know where I am going!”

Or so I thought, until that glitch. I dislike being lost, truly lost. But I am only momentarily a little lost. I just need to relax and think clearly, but it is as if I am snagged in a quirky, confounding landscape. I turn this way and that and no matter which way I go I start to feel disoriented. What has happened to my internal compass, so accurate 99 percent of the time? Then she maps things out on her phone, calmly instructing me, sorting things out. Is this what adult children do when their parents get older and older? This thought makes me more irritated and impatient–me, a very patient and competent driver who always finds her way. I joke that this is why an exacting paper map to smooth on your lap to survey the whole picture works very well. And I want to defend myself and do, at which point she reassures me everyone gets lost at times, and the SW hills area is a tough one to figure out on the fly. And it is not a big problem to find the route out and get back on track.

She is correct. She consults her phone and shortly we are headed in the right direction, out of the maze and into the bustling city center. And before long we are in NW Portland, by the bookstore and coffee shop and all else with which we are familiar, happy, relieved to find still intact our beloved, recently beleaguered city.

We have a lovely afternoon. How can book hunting amid endless shelves and stacks of books with Peet’s excellent iced coffee in hand not be wonderful? It is akin to release from a year in jail-like isolation to wander down streets and window shop, walk past groups of chattering people, our eyes sweeping over interesting architecture. Smelling pungent scents of new and old books, noting heft and beauty of each in our hands. Add easy laughs and good talk, something we often plan but rarely get to do, just the two of us, anymore. A successful time for this mother and her youngest daughter. A sense of things being just a little more normal in the world–except for the masks, except for much less crowded stores.

And then, on the way home, I somehow fail to maneuver into a congested lane to avoid funneling onto the freeway, so there we are, caught up in accelerating clots of after-work traffic. Luckily, no true traffic jams. Luckily, I know where I am going. All I have to do is take the right exit and I do. This time Alexandra suggests a lane at end of exit ramp that is not the right one, so I am forced to turn another direction. But it is an easy fix.

At her place, we sit in my car and talk, reluctant to end the outing. I am so glad to have a few more moments together; she is animated, articulate, offers some of her daily life stories, then offers suggestions about an outdoor family reunion/picnic coming up. The first family get together in nearly two years that includes extra family from out of state. Masked and unmasked, all of us to gather to safely enjoy a few hours in blazing June sunshine–under the pavilion roof, under a canopy, extra chairs, grill and coolers lugged along. Once it is all coordinated well. More like normal, for once.

“We’ve got this, Mom, I do this all the time for event planning at my job,” she says, showing me links on her phone, talking logistics. I agree, she will help things go right, she has that knack. But she also has an eye on the time. It’s not easy to enjoy short periods of freedom when there awaits a return to a young family, the multiple demands and needs of twins trumping one’s own need to rest, even eat, work–much less play. I recall very well often lingering at the grocery another ten minutes, hiding out during yard work, finding a reason to delay a return to the fabulous madhouse shared with beloved children who eagerly awaited me. It is the reality: loving others fiercely while also yearning to care for one’s own self. But she says, finally, farewell for now.

I feel her leavetaking. The car empties of her shimmering, bristling, compacted energy. I see her in the rearview mirror, decisively making the way up steps to her home. Time for me to go home, too.

I know where home is, of course. I get there in ten minutes and sipping my iced mocha, I sit under the shade of towering, friendly trees and think on the afternoon. How several times I felt as if in a daze, and vulnerable to The Virus, to who knows what in the stores if I had to squeeze by someone. Then came heady joy when walking in the city under that blue jewel of sky, chatting with Alexandra at my side. Such juxtaposed feelings and moments. It is mind boggling how every person on earth continues to live with threats to our exposed human lives. Except those who do not live. We are, of course, as frail as we are sturdy.

And then I feel that accumulating heaviness descend upon my shoulders and mind. I have had a good afternoon, but I can slip right back to the grief-lined, deep well of restless silence. The lingering loss of a spirited granddaughter and her mother’s (another cherished daughter) everyday, secure life left behind, her harshly torn days, unsettled ache of night hours. The trauma a son experiences since hiking in a remote area and coming upon a violent scene of death of a person, that life gone horrifically wrong. The worry over a grandson’s health as he slowly recovers from Covid-19. The imaginings, the questions that run rampant in my head about the rest of my grandchildren: will they grow up brave and full of love and wonder? Will they- oh God please- just stay safe and alive a long, long, long time?

I don’t know exactly how to navigate all this lately. My head is clogged with it. I am dulled by rumination, stunned by all the events. The fallout makes me feel, at times, unwell. How does one avoid the emotional landmines of unexpected loss? Isn’t most loss unimagined? (Seven family members have now died over the last several years; who would have thought it?) But we cannot often sidestep what crosses our path. Or, frankly, never. The pandemic, for instance. And worse. It is enough to make me shudder and reel, despite getting up each morning and tackling or easing into each hour.

I remind myself that I have spiritual resources and mental resilience, yet cannot put my hand on a good and useful map. Every time I get lost in this life, I have to reinvent my way in and out of places of the heart, mind and soul. It can be like washing up on an island not even charted. I get off the boat/raft that carries me in and out of place and time, and make tentative footfall. But then cannot find balance enough to not stumble or sometimes plummet to ground. Gravity of earth, how tricky a superior force–and if body and mind are not in sync, it is not easy making one’s way after a long voyage. In fact, it isn’t too easy to roll out of bed, find the stable floor and walk in a nice straight line to the sink to splash water on my face. I am discombobulated. This is not my natural state. It is a state of subdued emergency that lingers.

I have a third daughter who suffered (for a year, to varying degrees) from Mal de Barquement syndrome, dizziness with attendant balance issues after leaving an old fashioned tall ship–a strange phenomenon. Seasickness on land. Or land sickness. (And she is an international traveler, independent, confident–imagine the distress over such loss of orientation.) This is an apt comparison when thinking of events during the last three months. I don’t get “dizzy” during most life crises. I function well, manage tasks, tend to others’ needs. Keep my emotions in enough check for all intensive purposes, though if I must cry, I cry; if I need to swear, I swear–and move on. The brain fires away; I take the steps required for the situation. I cope and cope and cope alright. And then, after things settle a bit more, I start to get tired, adrenaline losing steam. Lose sleep, acquire tension in a problematic neck that triggers big headaches, feel somewhat frayed by ordinary stressors, eat less as appetite decreases (chronic digestion issues flare). Mind and soul feel out of sync, thinking has less directed clarity, and I misplace my usual bountiful hope. Tears erupt and recede often. I forget many things throughout the day, have to remind myself again what it is I intend to be doing next. Time slithers by and I can’t make it behave as I desire. I might check the calendar to make sure what day, in actuality, it is. I ask myself: does it matter what day? People are dying everywhere and here I am, like a lame woman hanging from the curve of the earth, determined to get back on. For some reason.

Well, I am not in the moment, something I greatly value and am pretty good at being/doing. No, I am in the land of the grieving, the land of the exhausted, a place I wander through day and night, seeking a long lasting peace.

I spoke to my son, Joshua, today. We shared how we both feel this way since Krystal died almost two months ago. After his ordeal, too, then his son becoming so ill. I asked how he is doing with it all, how he labors with his commercial and residential painting business jobs while he also takes care of his family and himself. He told me what he always tells me: he creates things, that is, makes jewelry, paints scenes, makes music, rock hunts then cuts and polished them, works on his garden and yard, camps, builds things, like a handmade camper. And he holds onto Light of God.

“But I can’t even rustle up good enough energy or clear head to create much at all,” I admitted. “It can be tiring to even talk to my neighbor lately.” I think: My prayers have become weaker recently, too, as if signals are hampered.

“Yeah, I can’t do as much, either. I work and am at home and avoid seeing people right now; I need to have time alone. I rest more, yet sleep isn’t too easy, either.” He paused; I wondered over the pain kept close inside. He is a very macho guy but has a warm, responsive heart. “It’s the past and future that can throw us off badly. I try to stay in the moment as much as possible. The beautiful moment we have, or can make.”

“Yes, you are right,” I said, “I will try to be here right now more. Thanks, son. I love you.”

“You’ve been a pillar for us, let yourself rest more. I love you, Momma.”

How fortunate to have such a son, such daughters, I think again, even when we each pulse with our hurting. Even with our respective emotional junk seeping out everywhere, at times. The daughter who lost her daughter is going to get a summery pedicure with me. It is such a contradiction, to carry loss to the nail salon, us two sitting side by side, engaged in that pedestrian activity, chatting about nail polish colors, calloused heels. Another daughter shared her new Chaplain/ministerial website with me today, which looks good, and her job hunt for something different than usual is underway. The oldest daughter checks in with blurbs from an important Colorado visit, her paperwork for tenure, art pieces in progress. And Marc–well, he is back at work. At last.

I have more time alone. The buffer and elegance of a profound quietness. So much more time alone, so much quietness, it wraps around me. But he is glad to be working again. I can play my jazz, classical and Latin music all day long, dance anywhere I wish. When I feel like dancing. Sometimes I hum and sway, lift my hands to the universe.

So this is the only map I have right now. To be focused on the present, if possible. To be cared about and to care. But other than that, I may just stand still in this room a spell, sit on that verdant hill, eat this fresh food, read and write another line, speak to my friend about her own journey, greet my neighbor who is stony but talks to me a little. Take five steps forward, then turn, proceed down another rocky or warm earthen path, up the incline to see what is next. If unbalanced, pause. If stumbling, lift up each foot high and set it down firmly. Sit down, breathe in perfume of all the breezes from places unknown. Find a new spot, claim it, share it. I am my own mother, as my mother is not here in body, anymore. I lost may parents so long ago.

Because this is how it can be done, a piece at a time. I have experience with many things attendant to being a human creature. It is not an strange land but part of the process of being alive during seventy-one years. It isn’t just me, either; you are in the bigger story, of course. Even mine. It will take its own time, just slowly enough, this healing of being hurt then hollowed out, the dissipation of fears, the emptying of tears. I will find ways to release and let go, hold what is essential, the helpful truth-telling parts. And then the return of a strong embrace of ebullience can happen.

It is the circle, isn’t it, and we keep on moving with it. Sometimes we have to stand way back to see the whole blasted, masterful map. Other times we have to–at least I have to–get up close and find the identifying dot is and say “Yes, I am right here”–so that the greater picture will come into focus better.

So I will get there. Get back to my sharper and brighter, hopeful and grateful self. But if you ever wonder where I am when I don’t show up on this blog, or question the rambling words I write, it is only this: I am working and breathing and trying the best I can with a yoke of life’s sorrows about my shoulders. (I know you have yours and are doing the same if not today, tomorrow.) But I do know my way back home. It is following my heart, nourishing my spirit’s yearnings, placing my feet on the trail and my vision on mountains and rivers, the wild things, ocean and trees and the rest. Those close to me whom I care for more each day. And those not yet met. This is where I live, inside an awesome mystery. Today, I am where I am on the intricate map of the living, and I cannot help but feel for us all, even ghosts roaming this world and beyond. I am tired so need wings to carry me above the fray. But what I see, I wonder over; the unseen is simply unseen at this moment.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Invisible

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“Coming? Or is breakfast going to be your diner?”

Marni yelled upstairs toward Amanda’s and Tim’s bedrooms. Her son emerged immediately, his gangly length led by slipping, stockinged feet. She noted the hole in one sock toe. Darning was not a skill, though for her kids she’d do most anything. Darning socks was the least of it. He landed with a sliding thud.

She waited for Amanda, gave up and padded to the kitchen in her new navy scuffs with a trillium on each toe. Tim helped himself to eggs and sausage. She poured herself a big mug of coffee and sat across from him, chin propped in her hand. Every time she caught sight of her scuffs, she smiled to herself. Simplest pleasures made a difference.

As Tim ate, she thought over a conversation she’d had with her best friend a week ago. Lana had often suggested Marni begin to relinquish control of her family and was getting more adamant. “Or perceived control”, she’d added wryly. Now that Amanda was seventeen and Tim almost fifteen, it was time and then some. Time to get back into the workforce or into college studies or at least engage in a worthwhile hobby–ceramics, stained glass, anything but try to keep up her domestic goddess status. In fact, Lana insisted, Marni was the one and only such creature she knew–and that fact might give her a clue that it was an anachronistic state of being.

Their last lunch date was annoying to them both.

‘Unless you used it to build a gazillion dollar empire, let’s face it.” Lana smirked, knowing such a notion would never occur to her friend. “But, then, you’re undermotivated, being married to Rob the VP of Tomkins and Sons and a man with serious political leanings. You can afford to stay home, I grant you. The question is–“

Marni cut her off with a slice of the air with her fork. “You know why. I like being home and Rob likes me the way I am, and I am truly not ever unhappy as you think, so much so that I must go off in search of ‘fulfillment’, as you keep suggesting.” Lana’s words stung no matter how often she’d heard them, which was every few months.

Lana bit her tongue. Of course he did, Marni was everything he needed and more to aid and abet his career and keep their family ship afloat. “Yes, alright, I know…”

“Besides, we know you have a great career and travel often, are single and have one absent kid–so your perspective is askew. Not everyone is quite so independent and free.”

“He is not absent, he’s at university and busy practicing being an adult. I hope. I am also not what you’d call a free agent in my work position, either. And all you give me are rationalizations.” Lana sighed. It was useless to talk sense to her. “What will happen when they leave–like my Jason did? I had Plan B and C. You’ve spent years submerged in home life and you’ve well succeeded at all you’ve done. But don’t forget that dream you had recently. Your subconscious is knocking on your door, my friend.”

“It wasn’t a nightmare, it was just frustrating feelings emerging. Every mother has those!”

Lana’s highly arched eyebrows lifted. “Swinging high from a huge tree, people pushing and grabbing and pulling until you fall from that glorious moment of bliss halfway to the sky and then plunge into nothingness which wakes you up in a sweaty panic. Time’s a wastin’. Forty and counting, now.”

Marni toyed with her chef salad, then patted Lana’s elegant, bronzed hand flattened on the white expanse of tablecloth. “Relax, I’m okay. My life is good and you know it. Now tell me about your trip to Norway.”

“First commit to a spa day with me next month.”

“That’s easy, yes, if it has a eucalyptus steam room.”

Marni loved hearing about Lana’s adventures in work and life. Not that she hadn’t travelled some, attended concerts and plays, created interesting community events. But the truth was, she had long ago lost a taste for the kaleidoscopic, hectic, demanding world beyond her doorstep. She had long been aware of living in her own encapsulated time and space. It bothered her little–but lately, more often, for all the reasons Lana harped on. But what was actually worth more effort? Much of what mattered to her had gradually changed over the years–wasn’t that true of everyone? So she wasn’t as ambitious as she had once been, while most women she knew had gotten bolder, smarter, more accomplished. Well, once knew. She’d been left behind almost imperceptibly over the years and now it was an occasional meet-up, a shared charity responsibility. But sometimes they’d looked at her with a touch of envy when she talked about her life, while she found them more worn around the edges. If perhaps more confident in some ways. She’d make the same choices–would they?

But it was easy to be smug about one’s own life when you knew so little of the other person’s, or what all the options even were, she thought then. And thought again a few times.

When Lana and she had first met, Marni worked in publicity for a great regional magazine (which had become glossier and more literate). It was a good job, one that got her going each day and brought her to a restful closure, more often than not, by evening. But Lana had climbed the ladder fast, then moved on. And Marni stayed until Amanda was born and she never went back full-time. Then Tim arrived and it seemed right to be home awhile longer. Time passed. She followed the new parenting agenda. It soon felt as if she was on a train and there was no stopping it; she hunkered down, learned along the way, determined to excel at her more mundane job. But often treacherously difficult.

She thought over these things as Tim scarfed down the remains of his breakfast and slurped a latte. He watched her with dancing brown eyes and she smiled back.

She sat forward with a start as Amanda joined them–tall, lean, hair half-brushed, clothing disheveled.

“Okay there, Mom, or is that your third cup of coffee?” Amanda asked.

“Is virtual learning a reason to get sloppy?” Marni retorted, then regretted it as her daughter slumped into her chair.

“I’m dressed, not naked, right?”

Tim laughed, spewing latte, “Crap, no!”

Amanda threw a pinch of cold toast at him, then another.

“Enough, you two!” Marni did not think this exchange was hilarious. She longed for order at her tables.

Rob rushed by, grabbed his coat from the coat tree in the foyer. “Have a breakfast meeting at the club, remember?–See you all tonight!”

She rose, awaiting a quick kiss. He paused, blew an air kiss, and left whistling.

Go get ’em Tiger! she thought ungenerously and softly slapped at the countertop with a damp tea towel. She hoped the kids didn’t notice her irritation. She needed to get over the feeling of being snubbed by her own spouse.

******

With an hour to go before taking Tug, their collie, to the groomer’s, Marni later sought out Amanda in her room. After knocking and getting an assent, she entered and sat in the computer desk chair.

“What, Mom?” Her head was haloed in sunlight, a tangled cascade of hair resisting her brush-out.

“We have to talk about this summer.”

“Summer? It’s April. And I have to sign in for remote Calculus in a few.”

“Aren’t you going to apply to Blue Lake Summer Arts Camp this year? The due date is April 20 and you haven’t done a thing with your application.”

Amada rolled her eyes, pulled her hair into a messy ponytail. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Why is that?”

“Derrick will be in town, working at the golf course as a caddie.” She rubbed her face with her palms to wake up better. “So, that’s a no, I guess…”

“You’d miss a fabulous eight weeks of creative engagement for…some new boy? He’ll be here when you get back.”

“Mom! You can’t talk to me about missed opportunities! I actually do lots of stuff, you know. What have you tried lately that has been remotely interesting? Sorry–but true. You barely know Derrick, anyway–he is definitely not just ‘some boy’.”

That was true–she didn’t know him much though they’d met; he was well mannered and conversationally adept so those were pluses but that meant little when her daughter was out there with him.

“There isn’t much more to say, but can we talk later? Class begins in a minute.”

Dismissed, Marni left.

Days like that she wondered what she was doing there? It seemed as if her children had gotten their footing well enough that her advice meant little to nil. She was what to them all? A glorified cook/chauffeur/ occasional therapist/housekeeper. And she had to get Tug to the groomer. His hair was everywhere; she’d had enough of that, too. Otherwise, he was the only one that minded her, anymore.

******

That evening she swung on the porch swing in tender, bluish twilight, wondering if Rob was really at Capitol Steakhouse for dinner with a cronie. She saw him less and les, yet it meant little more to her. Everyone knew who Rob Henninger was. She was introduced to new people with: “You know, she’s married to Rob!” and people would beam at her until they realized she had nothing much to add to that. Plus, Marni was not gregarious and did not have a paying career. But she was good for helming causes behind the scenes, so was handy to have as an acquaintance.

All Marni could do was write a little. But no one knew that, not even Lana, it was not meant to be known. Well, Rob did in the abstract. He was aware she got up before anyone else to spend intense time at her computer and closed it when the house became more lively. He knew she loved fiction, kept trying to write it, and that was enough for him to know. Well, he had his coin collecting, a holdover from childhood. He had his passion, golf. Everyone needed something pleasing to do.

So she kept her ideas to herself. Her fantasy stories would draw giggles from her kids, a blank face from Rob. It was her quiet space, her private time, life outside the family.

Swinging gently, she thought of the current story she was working on. How, if it ever seemed good enough, maybe she’d finally want to share it, but with whom? Still, thinking of her characters, letting them walk about in her mind as if they were cohorts from an ethereal–yet very present–zone…this always cheered her. She pushed off from the porch to swing more.

The sweeping front yard was breathtaking. Daffodils proud and still along hedges, and daphne bushes letting loose their heady perfume to dazzle all who passed, and the delicate cherry blossoms so blush-white against the darkening sky. Marni feasted her eyes and soul on the opulence of early spring: nature in its powerful unfoldings held her in its thrall. She was welcome within it all. She never felt set apart by nature. Unlike her family. She was a part of all that occurred in nature’s stirrings. And, perhaps, art. Left to her own devices, unconstrained by timetables and ever-urgent voices. Her viewpoint opened to a wider, deeper vista then, her experiences a tapestry of peculiarities and wonderments. And nothing and no one could disturb the outcome of what she made of words and imaginings, but herself.

That was the rub, she saw with a shock. She had begun to feel less welcome in her family’s world, in the finely appointed home, the stratified society in which she maneuvered. But give her an hour alone with language and she was set free.

If only she might attend an adult summer arts camp. Like the one Amanda found meaningless this year after five years attending a diverse program, studying flute, at which she excelled. It saddened her to think her daughter might be moving away from such times. Tim had been drawn to outdoor camps; now he went on camping trips with friends and their less city-centric parents. A vacation is what all parents needed, her acquaintances admitted and she had agreed–though Rob always planned a luxurious trip for them in between his own career engagements. Trips that made her fretful, itchy with boredom by a turquoise pool as he mingled and played golf.

As Marni’s swinging slowed she was startled to feel a sharp twinge of desire, an ache of need for a new environment: the arts within nature’s arena. She felt like a flowering bush straining for more light and space. A plant stymied was like a life hemmed in, doomed to not rise up strong enough, eventually to wither unless given needed nurturing and nutrients. Oh, she’d go on being wife and mother. But beyond that, who?

She had to do something to move from the shadows, make her secret self known or be left behind. Barely visible, in the wings of a stage full of family bustle and drama. Indispensable, always at the ready. Rarely acknowledged.

Now she saw the sense of what Lana had seen, and knew things had to change.

******

She sat cross-legged in bed next to Rob as he snored away. She was scanning possibilities– book stores and art stores for part-time jobs opportunities; literary conferences for volunteer work; small spaces in the country where she might rent a studio or cabin for a couple weeks. She hopped from one idea to the next, dissatisfied, headachy and blurry-eyed. Personal brainstorming was laborious.

Until, a bit after midnight, she found something. Marni leaned hard against the headboard with a small “Huh…”

Rob mumbled, “Okay, honey?”

She patted his shoulder; he went back to sleep.

“Yes, I just might be.”

******

By mid-May the rains had slowed from a rowdy polka to a short waltz now and again. Spring was offering everyone an infusion of good cheer and the balm of brilliant beauty. So, one Saturday afternoon three -quarters of the family lounged in the screen in back porch, enjoying soft breezes, sipping iced tea with lemonade, snacking on pretzels and peanuts.

Amanda said in a rush of words, “I applied for a job at the golf course.”

“No brainer,” Tim said and went back to his cell phone.

Marni looked up from a warm dry jumble of laundry. “Doing what? You don’t like golf much.”

“At the snack bar right off the green.”

“You don’t even know how to make a decent turkey sandwich!” Tim snorted.

“If you went there you’d know it was just drinks and packaged snacks, dummy!”

“Good, you won’t accidentally poison him.”

“Poison who?” Marni asked. “Oh…Derrick is to work there.”

“I’d like making some of my own money but yeah, he will be.” Amanda blushed enough that Marni knew she had lost track of the burgeoning romance.

“I’m all for that,” Rob said, as he walked in following an emergency town council meeting about zoning problems. I can help you with references, call Stan–“

“No thanks, Dad.”

The family chattered on as Marnie folded clothing. Shortly she carried the heavy wicker basket upstairs to the five bedrooms, then stopped and left it on the hallway floor. Let them put away their own things. She entered a spare bedroom and rummaged in a desk drawer, found what she wanted and descended the stairs.

Waves of rippling laughter slowed her before she came to a stop at the open French doors. They had all seemed more relaxed the past weeks, or maybe it was her. The good weather had been part of it. But, too, they each had pleasing things going on–Tim gearing up to help with Little League; Amanda with her boyfriend, a new job ahead; and Ron playing more golf and working in the yard a bit with her. They both loved their yard and flower garden. But Marni had something of her own, too.

“I have something to share with you,” she announced.

They swiveled to her, eyes narrowing in bright sunlight, and fell silent. A flicker of anxiety crossed her daughter’s face, and Tim slightly frowned. Rob rubbed his cleft chin, a fidgety thing. She unfolded the long envelope and pulled out a letter, then cleared her throat.

“Dear Marni Henninger, it is our pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to join Wild Salmon Arts Colony for a summer residency. We have further waived half the tuition based on the merit of your fine writing sample. The residency session is to begin August 1st through August 31st.” She glanced up nervously. “There’s more but that’s the gist of it.”

Rob stood and took the letter from her. “Very interesting…an arts’ retreat, a summer school or what?”

“The residency people make their art. Writers, dancers, composers, artists. A dozen at most. The spend a month working on their creations, then sharing them with each other.” She couldn’t temper the excitement she felt and smiled widely at them all–but she wanted to shriek with joy.

Rob sat down. “That’s something, honey… who would have thought?”

The spike in adrenaline fell off and Marni’s heart began to sink. Didn’t they get it, at all? She could see Amanda and Tim were more perplexed than he was. But of course they would be.

Amanda spoke up, gingerly. “Oh, like my summer arts camp? That’s great, Mom…but what were you thinking of doing? Or is it more like a school?”

Tim gripped his knees as he used to as a nervous child. “You aren’t, uh, really craftsy–are you? What will you even do for a month? Make flower arrangements or something?”

She felt as if a giant bubble of weird giddiness was filling her head, or was it dizzying disbelief. Her own family! They didn’t even know who she was, did they?

“She does write in the mornings,” Rob interjected. “I just didn’t know it was so important to you, Marni.” His wide eyes searched her face.

She sat down again, set the letter on a side table, smoothed her khakis. “I write fantasy stories.” She looked at her hands, then her children. “I’ve started… a fantasy novel. When you all are sleeping.” Then she threw up her hands. “My gosh, it isn’t so strange as all that, is it? I’m going to an arts residency to write and enjoy a whole new experience with other people who love to create. That’s it! Get used to it!”

She jumped up and her daughter and son did, too, with a rush of flailing arms about her and words of congratulations floating around–while Rob stood back, wondering what this meant to him, to their marriage, to her. He felt proud, but also suddenly anxious.

“Fantasy stories! That’s too cool, you kept this from us!” Tim said.

“Mom, you’re a mystery, this is great!” Amanda said.”What next?”

She’d thought of calling Lana, but they had a lunch date tomorrow, so she’d wait, put it all on the table. It might shock or amuse her, but certainly please her. Lana was her greatest support even if she didn’t know it fully. Or maybe she did–she had a keen nose for truth and never backed down from it. Her caring was steady. She foresaw changes, saw Marni clearly before Marni had come to really see herself.

At the end of the day, when the kids took off with friends, Rob wrapped her in his arms a few moments, then retreated to the family room with a glass of wine and his sports channel. The house felt huge, he realized, with the kids gone so much these days.

Marni sat on the front porch swing, watching and listening. She wanted to discern the inner workings of the dark sky. It was all so great an unknown. Her skin got goosebumps, and she hugged herself close. Maybe it was best to mainly appreciate what she saw and heard and felt. Until she could write out her thoughts and sensations.

It all felt good and right. She had made a marriage and two children; none of it was an easy thing to do. But it got so familiar it all had blended into her, the good with the not-so-good, an everyday-ness. She was quite overdue to map new courses, to create more curious, astonishing worlds. To offer up what she’d long and secretly imagined.

“So. I’m not going to be invisible, anymore,” she whispered to Venus, set like a jewel in the crown of the heavens. As if Venus didn’t know such earthly and other things already.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Jottings on Sunshine, Contentment and the Wash

By Michael Gäbler, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Though I can’t recently locate it, I recall a photo my photographer brother shot and gave me years ago. It showed colorful clothing drying on a clothesline in a narrow alleyway. An older Italian woman, voluminous black hair piled about her head, leaned at the open window above the line of flapping laundry. I recall it being on a pulley system, a good way to reel in all that breezy laundry. Since it was stretched to the other side, presumably the neighbor shared it. I was struck by the friendliness of the shot, the attentive, perhaps pensive woman, the quiet comforts of an ordinary day, an alley with–if I am correct–one boy playing there, almost looking upward. Did he have a bike?…I am not certain now. Was he heading to a friend’s or going on an errand for the woman? Maybe they had spoken to each other; maybe she was his mother, more likely grandmother. It is an entire story. I miss that picture.

But, as much if not more, I was instantly taken with the sight of that laundry drying outside in a slash of sunlight splashed across the alley. I was impressed with the convenience of the set up. Wondered if the clothing still smelled fresh after drying between tall, old apartment buildings– and thought it would. Did the woman have to iron much or did she just shake it out? My senses woke right up as I imagined it all.

I recently had some significant problems with our washer/dryer combo in the laundry closet. It got me thinking of that photo, and the not unpleasant chore of doing laundry over the years, and why I don’t mind it much. In fact, it may be the one household task I manage without mild annoyance week after week.

I must have been well trained, as I did family laundry with my mother. When she was older and less well and I was still at home, I did it for us all as needed. The washer and dryer were in our dank, shadowy basement, the end not renovated with recreation room and Dad’s instrument workshop. As a young child I didn’t care to use those stairs, the back of the steps being open. I was never certain if there was anything or one waiting to snag my ankles. Maybe my older brothers spooked me or maybe it was just a dreary basement, but I was anxious for a few years. But down I went, especially if I was called to duty, even if alone.

Usually Mom and I did the work together. I stood close and watched her, committed to memory what she told me: this and this is how things need to be done to get the best result. I knew she knew such things; she was also a teacher. I had at first a little fear about laundry, too, as I’d heard the story more than once about the wringer she’d used many years to get most of the water wrung from wet clothes…and the terrible accident. My oldest brother had been helping–or maybe he was fooling around, he was a wild one– but his arm was pulled right in between the rollers of that operating machine. He nearly lost that arm; it was a painful, devastating injury that took many months from which to recover. I must not have been born when it happened as I was spared the actuality, if not the tears Mom shed when she mentioned it. I was careful around all machines.

Maybe that’s when they bought a dryer–it would have been an expensive item, as was the washer. I got the feeling that Mom was grateful for both. As a farmer’s daughter and an elder child of eleven children, she was used to near-back breaking work. Any convenient, time-saving helps she had as an adult were respected, maintained well and used til they could no longer be repaired (both my parents were good at repairing things). She once told me she came to inhabit a privileged life after marrying my father, a man with a masters degree, quietly refined, ambitious. No matter that they were starting out as young teachers, struggling. It was not the farming life. No matter that she, in time, raised five children and helped along my father’s career in music, and also taught elementary school. No matter that she was rarely off her feet, hands occupied with multiple tasks–it was not the old life, not the blasted farm, anymore. And the Depression was over, and, finally, the war. Life was gentler and better, at last. So a washer and a dryer? Wondrous.

Yet, Mom also liked to scrub clothes on a small washboard in the double utility sink if there were any stains. Fels Naptha in hand, she showed me how to rub the wet soap into fabric, rubbing it hard first between both hands of knuckles and and then on the metal washboard. I found it entertaining to help, appreciated the efficiency of her labors, and enjoyed the end result: the clean dress or shorts and shirt I might be wearing right then. But it did make my knuckles raw–her hands were toughened, deft and strong.

But despite the dryer, much of the time she liked to hang out the washing. She said they smelled of sunlight and wind. She was right, even as fall rolled into winter and the wash dried cold and stiff. Then she stopped hanging it out until spring.

There was a regular clothesline for years but I liked the umbrella line. It looked just like an umbrella half-turned inside out and one of them spun around. I’d help with hanging the heavy wet clothes, handing them to her or reaching up to do it as I grew. I liked the clever, simple wooden clothes pegs or clippy clothespins. Sometimes I stood by and handed them to her as needed. My favorite were colored plastic clothespins. (Wooden pegs also could be made into little dolls with yarn hair and colored pencil features; the others were useful for clipping arty things together, or lavish scarf dresses to fit me snugly as I played dress up.)

The great things about hanging wash out to dry: it is something to do outdoors, and work becomes fun; it is enjoyable to watch it flap and rise in the gusty breezes especially when swinging from a maple tree; it gets bleached and disinfected by sunshine; the scent of the garments seem made of something heavenly when dry; towels and sheets fill the hands with fabric that suddenly range from rough to newly, pleasingly textured. Nothing was so lovely as when beds were changed and the line-dried sheets put on at last, the corners squared, the top sheet pulled up smooth and snug. You slipped between them, inhaled deeply, moved about until your body was happy to sink in and rest. And even blankets, rugs, woolen coats and sweaters aired outdoors were better than they might be otherwise.

The folding took time, but it is satisfying to turn a pile of crumpled assorted articles into uniform, tidy items, then a few small tower-like piles, each intended for another person. A few were left out for ironing. I learned how to do that, too, and liked the reassuring motion of warm iron sizzling over various dampened fabrics, the fragrance of sunshine and heat a sweet mist; and the steam rising up as the iron slipped back and forth. I’d hold up ironed pieces to my face, each so warm and smooth and freshened. If starch was required for, say, a dress shirt of my father’s, I’d skip the sniffing and hang immediately onto a hanger. I ironed many cotton sheets, as well–that is how I was taught to care for simplest things.

I can’t imagine young women today feeling as I did back then. But when my father or mother put on clothing I had ironed, and they looked sleekly pulled together and handsome and pretty, all set for a day’s work–well, it gave me the smallest sense of pride in a humble job well done. Not to mention my own clothing being well tended. Somehow ironing out the wrinkles made the most ordinary clothing seem important. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up, a young girl and teen was required to look good and presentable, and that meant to ne clean and polished, well put together. Of course, I did grow up in the sixties and was soon not following most of my city’s middle class cultural norms. I was intent on feminism and freedoms; it then became clear the common way of doing things did not imprint enough on me. (Fashion de rigeur later became jeans, chambray work shirts and Frye knee-high boots–or peasant skirts and tops or caftans and leather huaraches–sandals– after 16. No ironing necessary.)

Off and on I continued to line dry the wash as an adult. But there were times when I could resent laundry chores. One was dousing, washing and hanging dozens of cloth diapers on a line near-daily, every week. It saved money. But the process was daunting enough that I gave in after the second child and began using disposable diapers, at times. Another period was when my own five children, during adolescence, got the bad habit of trying on many items, tossing them on floor or bed and later putting them into a laundry hamper, unworn. I was mad and tired of figuring out which items were dirty and which were supposedly clean. Finally I decided to put their growing heaps of laundry into garbage bags and put those in our basement laundry area. They had to figure it all out for themselves. In time, despite their whining about how mean and horrid I was, they relented and started to take better care of their own clothes. It was a relief to not have it all left to me; I wished I’d laid down the law earlier.

The children did more of their own laundry when I ran out of time or energy. Marc helped a little. I’d begun working more hours at my human services job. Laundry for seven family members could take me until midnight. And if someone shouted downstairs, frantic, “Mom, I need that ruffly blue blouse ironed, can you please do that before I get up tomorrow?”… I got more and more close to refusal. They all had been taught how to wash and iron, even my son (who cared less about tidiness than his four sisters). But somewhere between thirteen and sixteen they’d rebelled and stopped. They’d gotten “too busy.” Since four of them were teenagers at once, that was mostly true. (My last child hung around home a bit more, longer.) Fortunately, it all evened out by the time they graduated from high school and went on their way. They knew how to care for themselves, and have proven to be savvy at efficient task completion as adults…most now with their own kids.

Nostalgia can be useful occasionally. More so since the pandemic robs us of accumulating experiences we think we desire. A simpler time appeals; we may see it as better times, as well, even if not really true. So I still can miss the small pleasures of line drying a load of wet wash. The homeiness of it, the reassuring routine. The easy pleasantries swapped with my mother as I held up each requisite wooden peg or the companionable silence. I recall her pointing out backyard birds as they came and went for she was a bird lover, a nature beholder, despite not being a farming aficionado. She loved insects in their variety and usefulness; earth’s minerals and soils, their bounties; flowers’ magic from bulb to blossom; and the changing of seasons being as much a part of her as family life and its complex ways. Anything we could share outdoors thrilled me, and I was enrapt by her storytelling as natural as breathing.

Laundry freshly dried and folded is a task to take mundane pleasure in, still. If the day seems out of sorts one thing I can do is laundry–putting some things right and into good form. I like the movement of it, the swing from washer to dryer to flapping out wrinkles to smoothing and folding or hanging. My husband can do laundry but chooses not to, yet I seldom am bothered by this. The easy rhythm is lovely; it’s a small event that breaks up monotony or blends with the hours. Laundry has a small power to balance life, a counterweight to the philosophical with the banal and concrete.

The trouble I had with my original washer and dryer in our home was gradual and annoying at the start. The dryer kept leaving pale tawny smudge marks here and there on legs of pants, arms of nice shirts or knit tops. I felt the dryer was too hot, as well. The maintenance man came in and checked the machines, then noted a small metal vent looked a bit rusty and snaggy so he got out his steel wool and scoured it cleaner and smooth. I complained about our half dozen marred items but there seemed nothing to do about what was already done. The problem seemed to lessen. I relaxed. Then fall came and I noted dark smudges on heavier items, this time black, longer marks. I held the clothes up to my nose. I thought they were scorch marks this time, even burn marks, and I was not drying one more thing until it was resolved. I complained and got action fairly fast: a new large sized but stackable washer and dryer unit delivered in three days.

You might think I was delighted–no more marred clothing or perhaps, eventually, a fire. But they turned out to be futuristic machines with many settings and little push buttons. It had complicated directions in four languages that I finally read in English a few times before we could even begin. The washer tub filled itself to the right level; it has sensors to tell it precisely when to stop filling. I didn’t believe it at first and tried to open the loid, but it would not. I had to trust it and found that very hard without seeing it happen.

And the sounds it made. It didn’t fill with water immediately but started and stopped with strange electronic grumbles. I thought it was malfunctioning already. But on it went, filling and pausing until all was ready and it washed–with soft, whiny alien noises. The load came out fine, to my surprise, even with almost not water left in the clothes. The dryer was less hard to understand though I studied those buttons several minutes, too, before entrusting the heap to the perfectly heated tumbling apparatus. When it was done, I didn’t even realize it; there is no bell or alarm but just gently stops turning. I have to keep an eye and ear to it but find if things sit, they are not all wrinkled. It is admittedly much better than the former dryer’s obnoxious alarm; it could cause me to startle if I was deeply reading or writing. Every item comes out (mostly) wrinkle-free, way cooled down. I’m now accustomed to its funny humming and soft ratcheting, its gurgles and pauses and surges.

The truth is, it’s a wonderful advancement General Electric has made for cleaning and drying clothing. And I’m pleased we got it for nothing; I feel partly compensated for our stained clothing (worth a good $600-750). I can get the job done without worrying now.

Yet as warmer weather arrives, the balcony will offer an option once more. I will still sneak a hand washed top or dress, maybe even a silky camisole, just place the hangers on hooks or nails in the roof overhang. I might put a lap blanket over the balcony railing to air out, too, or a rug.

I am well aware it’s against the housing rules (as well as sonorous chimes I adore but had to put away). I know the fine print, I got their message–and who wants to see wash drying outside in a well-heeled community these days? It might even give the neighbors a story, a surprise.

I have to say: I do, I really do. And I suspect my clothing misses sunshine streaming down and a strong breeze.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Venus is a Planet/Feather on the Stoop, Part 2

Photo by Gantas Vaiu010diulu0117nas on Pexels.com

If it wasn’t for the drenching wind lashing windows and careening around corners, they both might have slept a little. Lydia changed position every time a rattling came. It was working itself up into a fury. She sprawled across the bed on her back, staring at the gaudy chandelier above her as it swayed ever so little, its glass pendeloques (her mother’s correct term or as she said, crystal drops) barely tinkling so her ears caught the sound. The train soon squealed by, unstoppable, and the drops shuddered with a more lively response. A kind of solace, that train. It was one reason she’d rented the place and why rent was low.

The twice daily train reminded her of the fall cross-country trip she’d taken with her father when she turned ten. It was his birthday present to them both; his birthday was four days later. They went from Virginia to the West coast and back in two weeks. She never missed her mother, who didn’t like trains and was busy selling houses, anyway. Lydia closed her eyes: wheels on the tracks through Southwest to California. Her father’s shoulder next to hers, faces beaming as they pointed at sights past the window.

Lydia thought of the homeless woman she called Feather. Sitting there on the stoop in the damp wind. Lying on it, hips and shoulders surely hurting. It made her ache. Which was ridiculous, but perhaps it was sympathetic…her bed was only two years old. It was an actual firm-with-pillowtop bed. Not concrete.

The rain pelted all outdoor surfaces, rat-a-tatted every window. She was not, then, to sleep much, harassed by stormy weather in every way. Lydia turned on the bedside light and grabbed a book to fend off her usual sad holiday memories– and new issues.

As winds sharpened, Feather crunched her long body against the abandoned shop’s brick façade. If she got any closer she might be holding the damned building up. Her knuckles got scraped when she turned over. She’d tried to pick the old watch repair shop door lock twice, but she had no talent for it and didn’t need criminals helping. She gave up; it was probably full of happy rodents. They got a dry home; she got the wintry street.

She had earlier stood at the entrance to the charity lady’s apartment building. Looked up at the rows of darkly glinting windows. It made her feel better for a second, knowing someone was up there. Even if it was a naïve woman who likely did good deeds to make her feel nicely superior. Feather then went back to the stoop to think. The shelters were claustrophobic, over-full. There was an alley a half- block down. It might offer cover from the wind. She bundled the now-grimy Native American blanket that lady left her–she knew what it was, she wasn’t stupid–into her arms and left. She had some Hopi in her, she heard, a great grandmother. She wasn’t enrolled so good did it do her? But the blanket, it gave her warmth. Maybe a sense of protection. Foolish girl, she scolded herself; protection was a dream.

The alley had a metal gate; it was ajar. The narrow area was pitch dark, quieter save for wind echoing. There was a short roof overhang; it was the part of town where business and residential mixed from way back. Garbage smells permeated the air but she was finally used to that. The big dumpster she stopped by wasn’t bad; the lid was down and it was shoved close to alley’s end–she could still see out to the sidewalk, in case she heard or saw something. She arranged her blanket and the fancy embroidered–was that that style called?–pillow she’d found in the bag with blanket on that stoop. Feather slumped against the wall as rain spattered down to her boots; she pulled them close to her chest. This spot would do until sunrise, even had potential for a few nights.

Tiny feet with a thick body and long tail charged past her and under the dumpster; she covered her face with both hands, squelched a cry. Disgusting rats. Monstrous night.

******

When Lydia got to work, the Head and Body Salon was hopping. Tony was so strapped for time that his usual patter was vastly shortened; he was listening to his clients talk for once. Alma was consulting with a younger woman whose beautiful long hair went prematurely grey hair. She wanted to chop it all off; Alma politely dissented but she’d cave soon. Whatever clients wanted, they got. She’d shave their heads if it suited. Changing times. She glanced at Lydia, and sighed. That girl was worn out today.

It was nearly a relief to be at work, for Lydia. Last night had been rough, unusually so. It was the holidays coming up, she guessed. Memories of past Christmases, missing a few people. He dad, gone nineteen years. She turned from her thoughts and noted the next walk-in customer whose tufts of dark blonde hair mimicked shards of butter brickle. Another came behind her, looking desperate for aid. Almost all appointment slots were booked up for days. Hair! Skin! Lydia had such simple needs that she daily strained to understand the urgency. She smoothed her own dark brown, chin-length hair, a small reassurance, and stayed on task.

Alma took a break and sauntered up to the reception desk.

“What you got going? You look tired today.”

“Sleep issues? Holiday blues? Sometimes I just sleep less? You and your ten second breaks. You manage to pack a lot into those.”

“I surely do! Well, you tell me, kiddo. I think you’ve got more going on than that, but I’m not one to pry. And breaks are what save me…all of us.”

Lydia looked at her ringing phone, then at Alma with wide eyes. But you are still prying, she mouthed. “Hello, Head and Body Salon, how can I help you?”

Tony sidled up close to Alma as she went back to her station; he threw a look over his shoulder at Lydia. “Maybe it is an actual man, after all. Love can steamroller you…”

“Says the man with a kid already and another on the way…She won’t say a peep. Our potluck’s not more than a week away. Maybe a few drinks to loosen her up…”

“Dubious. She seems to prefer Perrier with lime, barely drank a beer that time we went out. But we’ll get the truth out of her, girl.”

They high-fived and got back to work.

Three women lounged in tawny vintage leather chairs around a coffee table. They mused aloud about gifting issues, dinner plans, family squabbles. How they wished new hairdos could solve it all–if only! But Lydia mused about Feather. She wondered about her jet setting mother and Grant, the latest adoring male, one more too many. Counted minutes until she was off work.

At seven o’clock she waved to her co-workers and rushed down the few blocks to her building. She didn’t see Feather anywhere. How could she give her food again if the woman wasn’t there? Last time this happened, it had disappeared, to who knew where.

An hour later: delivery of a covered storage bowl with still-warm chili with plastic spoon, a thick piece of sourdough bread with butter, and a bottle of water. She wanted to leave coffee again, but her thermos had been left with Feather and was gone for good, maybe. A take-out coffee, next time.

Lydia turned in a circle to look better as the rain got more oomph. Blasted December rain. She wished it was still sunnier fall. How could anyone live outdoors in the cold Northwest damp? She stuck her hands deep into her raincoat pockets, hunched a bit.

“Hello Feather!–I don’t know your real name…you out here?” She scanned areas across the street, squinted at deeply shadowed sidewalks. A girl on a bicycle whizzed by, its headlight jumping as she went over bumps. A man hurried on the other side, briefcase clutched to chest. “It’s Lydia here! Helloooo? I left food here!”

Nothing. She scurried to her apartment building entrance, punched in her code, looked back a last time, shut the door behind her.

Feather whimpered softly where she leaned in a doorway across the street. Her ankle hurt–it had turned as she stepped off a curb downtown too fast without looking in the early morning dark. She had wrapped a scarf she had worn too long around it. Not that it made any difference. She stood, wobbled, took a few steps and winced. But she’d heard her, the lady. There was decent food over there. There was someone named Lydia.

******

“I told you, Lydia, I will do my best to get back but it’s not looking good. Heaven knows, Lydia, I try to cram as much into each work day as possible. This week’s executive management training, however, is absolutely not what I thought it was. Rather rudimentary, but still, I make contacts. I find new contacts, leads. Connect with old ones–that’s worth the trip. More properties to move as soon as I get back…but it’s New York in all its gritty, glamorous glory.” There was a languorous pause as she sipped her brandy. “How are you doing, my dear?”

“I’m perfect. I do what I do–you know, scheduling impatient clients to get hair done is a terribly difficult job.”

Her mother sighed as Grant rearranged pillows behind her back. “Beyond that, of course. Any new men moving into your building? Any leads on other job opportunities?”

Lydia laughed. “Not looking before Christmas, mother–I really like it there for now. Men? Wouldn’t know, I’m busier than you think.”

“Try me.”

“I’m studying train travel packages for next summer. Working on a montage to frame for my very beige bedroom. Reading three books off and on. And we have a work potluck soon.” She shook her wet hair out, combed tangles with fingers. “I’m well over thirty, Mother–just living my life.” There was a long silence. “And how is it with Grant?”

“Oh, well enough.”

“If he’s moving in, don’t tell me now. Wait till…the New Year.”

Her mother cleared her throat. “I’m glad you’re having a dinner gathering…. You aren’t by any chance still doing things for that street person, are you…not safe!”

“All is well.”

“Alright, then–see you on Christmas Eve, at least. Ciao.”

Lydia tossed her cell phone on the sofa and paced a little. No reason to be upset. They never had much of a Christmas together–there was always an urgent someone or something else. They didn’t buy each other much. They didn’t get trees. Well, Lydia put a small ceramic tree on the non-working fireplace mantel. The tree looked lovely all lit up. She went to look at it– a secondhand store treasure. She’d have someone over, she wasn’t sure who, maybe Diane from her last job, recently divorced. A good meal and large goblet of wine.

Saturday evening and it was getting late. She took leftover spaghetti and plopped it with its sauce into another disposable storage container, added now-cold peas, taped a fork on the lid. Got a bottle of pear juice.

On the way down the elevator, Lydia thought: why am I still doing this after over two weeks? Feather may not like pear juice or marinara sauce. She might hate that she was giving her food and throw it away. Maybe her mother was right–she should contribute in another way. Donation of money was so easy.

Feather sat cross-legged on the shop’s stoop. Her purple hat–the owl feather was missing– and coat were stained and damp. She looked up at Lydia. Their eyes met long enough that Lydia felt the force of her–strong, suspicious, intelligent, hurting. It was as if some weird electricity set on low hum connected the looks. Feather’s eyes flashed wide then looked away but not before Lydia saw their golden brown irises, the narrow pupils. Red-rimmed, dark circled, alert. She held out the food offering. Feather came closer, took it into both tanned, thin hands.

“Why all this? Again?” Feather asked as she eyed the contents and the woman who stood below the steps.

“Because you’re hungry, that’s all.”

“Okay. ” And she pried the fork off the lid, opened it, began to eat ravenously. “Thank you, then,” she said with mouth full.

Lydia went home. She stayed up late watching old movies, trying to guess Feather’s real name, munching a couple of rice cakes with strawberry cream cheese.

******

She heard it from the swirling center of her dream, a crying out as she awakened in a sweat. She waited for it to vanish, heart pounding. Looked at her phone: 2:34. It was still there, yelling, then the buzzer punched over and over for her apartment. She got out of bed, answered the intercom. But first she looked out the window, down three stories.

Feather on the sidewalk below.

Lydia pushed up the window sash a couple inches. “Feather? What’s going on?” Lydia asked, the cold air catching in her throat.

“I got beat up, can I come up a little?”

Lydia hesitated. Then pushed the button to unlock the front entry. Got a robe and padded to the elevator. The young woman came up with Lydia, shaking for the short ride. Her face was smeared with dirt and tears and blood. All she could do was mumble something about the alley, woman with a bad eye; then a dog scared her. Lydia put her arm around her, unwashed body odor nearly overpowering, Feather shaking hard.

They entered the apartment and Lydia turned on lights. Feather barely looked about but sank into the sofa, rubbing her hands together, swiping her face carefully.

“Shall I call the police? Take you to emergency?” She had never had to deal with a situation like this. What was best?

Feather shook her head “no”.

“You’re bleeding, you can wash your face in the bathroom…”

Feather didn’t move, just sat rigidly looking at her hands then the floor, then Lydia. Her eyes were dark in the dim living room. Blood trickled from her nose, a red lump rose under one eye, a split lower lip bled.

“Would you like some tea after you check your face? And I–I maybe could help you with a soft washcloth.”

Feather nodded, stood a little off-kilter. “Okay.”

Lydia pointed to the bathroom and followed with her hand on her elbow, took a fresh wash cloth from a shelf.

Standing so close felt rude, presumptuous–two strangers– as she wet the washcloth with a mild olive soap and gingerly dabbed wounded areas. Feather grabbed the cloth and ran it under hot water, then pressed it onto her face, breathing in the steamy heat. This she did several times, then added soap and moved the cloth in small circles about her face. Lydia stepped toward the door. Let her have space alone.

“Since I’m here now, can I ask….I’m sorry…but can I take a shower? It’s been over…it’s been so long. My body hurts so much tonight. If not it’s okay, I’ll go in a few minutes. Just wanted to see what she did to me.”

The punches she must have gotten. The painful swellings and cuts. Lydia wanted to ask who, where they went, get the police. But got a thick yellow bath towel, a matching hand towel and new wash cloth. Set them on the toilet seat.

“As long a long shower as you like.”

When she closed the door, she leaned against it and let tears run hot down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around her body. She put on the tea kettle and laid out clean clothing for sleeping.

******

Feather woke up with sunrise, as usual. She could not for the life of her figure out where she was. She wore a clean t-shirt and sweat pants, and lay on a vine-patterned sofa. She stood up too fast; every facet of her muscles and skin hurt.

Ah, Lydia’s…a heavenly shower for so long, cup of tea and sleep. Oh, blessed sleep in a warm place on a long sofa with snug, sweet-smelling blankets. She had an odd sense of unreality, as if she was not really there at all, but breathed slowly, evenly, and felt stronger. She had been so desperate last night. Now, more sore yet still better.

She didn’t know if she should bolt the smartest action, or wait. She waited, thinking of tea, of fresh toast despite her feeling this was all stupid, even sketchy, an unknown woman helping her for what? But Lydia was likely more worried than she was. She got up on tiptoe to use the bathroom. Her face looked like hell; her chest displayed a few raw lines from scratches. On the way back, she passed a closed door. Lydia’s room, she thought. She ought to explain more…but then Feather sank down on the sofa, pulled the blanket over her head, slept four hours more.

When she awakened once more there were fragrances long forgotten. The small dining table was set with mugs, real plates and silverware, and an aloe plant was at center, and a burning candle, cinnamon and orange. Like the old life, an ordinary table set in a simple way. Or the life before the last life…She felt a sweep of dizziness as longing threaten to grab hold and take her down the rabbit hole to the time and place she had vacated.

“Good morning, time for breakfast. Coffee?” Lydia stood in the kitchen, hand on coffeepot.

“Real breakfast? For free– or…? I can find food somewhere else!”

“Of course. Eggs? Toast with jam and peanut butter? Cereal, hot or cold?”

“You’re kidding–I can choose?”

“Feather…just a nice Sunday morning breakfast that I already ate as you slept.” She poured a mug of pungent coffee as the startled young woman sat down. “What is your name, anyway?”

Feather was at the table, the paper napkin put in her lap. Biting her lip and looking at the candle flame she shrugged. “Okay, I’m Genevieve. Called Gen. But being Feather has been nice in a weird way.”

“Gen… now order, please?”

She ate in silence, and though her split lip and cheeks hurt with each bite, she kept chewing fried eggs and toast and sipping fresh coffee. She didn’t want to be rude but there had been so many times of hunger. Days of it, even with Lydia’s food the grinding gnawed at her as a day fell toward night or night slid into day.

Lydia left her to it, got to work cleaning up.

After the food came the talking. Lydia glimpsed Gen’s face and demeanor as often as she could without being rude. The young woman had utterly changed with a shower, rest, decent food. Hair was shoulder length and auburn brown. Even with bruising along high cheekbones and swollen lip and abrasions and cuts–an open face touched with inquisitiveness and a latent softness. Her eyes were large, brighter. Yet striking features betrayed less feeling than she expected. She supposed it was the toll of the street. Having to be on guard, be tough. But Gen spoke carefully. Thoughtfully.

“Lydia, I’m homeless now for over three months but not for reasons you think.”

“What do I think?”

Gen put down her mug, breathed in heavily, let air out slowly. “What every one decides is true. Drugs, alcohol, can’t work because of mental illness and not being on meds. Well, I did lose my job and I guess I was struggling. ” She reached for the mug of coffee, tracing the cardinal on it, then took a drink. “I was working at a corner store across the river and had no place to live. I couldn’t find a spot to stay for long. Or always make it to work on time. On and on.”

“But you had a home, once?”

“Sure. An apartment.” She studied the folds of her napkin, shredded it to bits. “He was mean, you see, he drank, too, but he was just…too harsh. I reached my limit.”

Lydia felt herself lurch. “Domestic violence?”

“Why do they call it that? Like some neat label on a file?” Gen stood up, pushed back her chair, walked to the kitchen and back. “Why not get to the point: monstrous days or nights of cruelty, things you can’t figure out how to stop– emotionally or bodily, they just keep happening…?” She stopped. Sat. “I’m sorry, sorry…yes, he hit me, worse. Anyway, I had to go, so I did, and thought I’d be alright since I had a job, friends. Friends! No. They dried up when he came calling. Besides, no one really wants to get involved, they have their own lives to deal with. So I did what was necessary to survive. But then, you–why you?”

Lydia was riveted. This woman, ten years younger than she was–she had lived all that yet taken a great risk. Left but maybe ended up worse off, who could say this worked out at all? Violence and loneliness on the street or at home. Death, maybe. And she shared her life without embellishment as she rested with coffee and Lydia.

“I…I don’t know. I kept thinking about you every day I passed you. I thought it might help to feed you, that’s all. A small thing, when you consider the scope of your trouble.”

“No.” Gen placed her hands palms down on the table between them. “You saw me. Cared to stop.”

“I’m so sorry you’ve endured all this, Gen.”

Gen looked at her ragged fingernails, then at Lydia and gave a small smile, her eyes brimming. They stayed quiet then, drinking coffee, looking out the window at people rushing or sauntering by. Much had been said and left unsaid.

It was a Sunday. Laundry day in the basement laundry room. Lydia got up. “I can wash your clothes and give you some of mine to wear. The jeans might be short on you, but we’re both sort of tall and slim.”

“You’d do that?”

“You can stay all day if you like–talk things over tonight. Just rest. But if you have to go, then go.”

Gen got up and stretched. “It’s like I woke up in heaven.”

“It’s not all that much, really. I’m glad you took a chance to reach out.”

“I guess I am, too, but it’s pretty bizarre, too.”

Lydia had to agree. But why not trust her instincts, take a chance? Let life leave its telltale trails on hers; let herself be willing to accept this stranger named Gen.

******

They talked that night, the day and night after, and the next. More than either had talked in a long while. Nothing seemed too crazy to state as time rolled by. Lydia grasped Gen’s situation as well as she could. They defined boundaries each day. In the final agreement, Gen could stay until she got another job. Lydia would point her in the right direction for further help regarding housing. And counseling. They would take it a day at a time–that was the best way to approach the situation: practically. Carefully. Kindly. Gen was traumatized, Lydia saw that, but she wanted to be better and was persistent.

When the potluck rolled around a few days later, Lydia was ready, She was to host it at her apartment–she had leaves for the round table, it could seat all of them fine. When Gen suggested she just disappear, Lydia would not hear of it.

“No, you should know my co-workers and they ought to know you since you live here, for now.”

“But I don’t think I can do it. I don’t want to answer questions, have them look me over.”

“You face looks good now.”

“I don’t mean that, Lydia…I don’t want top be paraded out…”

Lydia was about to argue but only nodded.

So she left for the night and Lydia, Alma and Tony all got a bit tipsy, ate very well, played silly Charades and had fun getting a bit closer. But Alma and Tony didn’t know Lydia’s secret, still. As the three guests left the building, they passed Gen in the foyer and greeted her cheerfully as they would anyone after a pleasant evening. Gen waved at them, smiled back, her lips no longer hurting.

******

When her mother came back to town earlier than expected, there was no plan at all.

“Yes, well, here I am, flowers and food in hand! Why didn’t you answer you buzzer at first? I know I’m back four days early, but I wanted to see you, dear. Is this a good time?”

Lydia embraced her mother and her heady perfume, took the pink and red roses, sniffing them closely to get the fine rose fragrance in her nose, then arranged them in a vase. “Why the roses?”

“Oh, you know, Christmas.”

“That’s poinsettias, Mother, or red amaryllis.”

“I just felt like it, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” She looked around. “It looks good in here, what I’d call…homier. What did you do?” She took the Chinese take-out and plated it to heat in the microwave. “I meant to get you a great new scatter rug ordered for Christmas but ran out of time. There’s always something, I know, but it might slack off a couple weeks now.”

“Mother, it’s fine, but–“

“I’ll do it tomorrow, alright? Yes, and I have the reservation for Bartles, not to worry. A few days to go, then we’re done with it for another year. What did you get me this year, Lydia? ” She laughed her cascading laugh. “You know you’ll get money.”

“Mother, hold on. What’s up?” She took in her mother, a long, hard appraisal. Pale skin, sad droopy eyelids, tense mouth, a clenching and unclenching left hand. “He left… Grant is gone.”

“Well, so what if he is? They come, they go, nothing so terrible, he had a weak ego, anyway, and he makes less than I do as VP and, too, he has the most annoying–“

Lydia put her an arm around her mother’s silk-clad shoulder and led her to an armchair. “You sit down. I’m getting tea started. Then I have something to tell you, too. Let’s eat right here.”

The older woman sat, took off her black high heels and rubbed both insteps. She was full of curiosity but she was tired. A long, bad argument with Grant echoed in her ears. Done with that!

After the meal Lydia sat across from her mother.

“Mother, I have a roommate now.”

“Oh!” She lit up. “What’s he like? Is he hiding out in your room?”

“No, Mother, not that sort of roommate. I mean, a young woman who–“

“Lydia, you’re now leaning that way…?”

“Oh, stop for a minute! Let me explain. She’s–well, she’s the homeless woman. She got badly hurt out there, so I took her in, and it’s a long story but she needs a place to stay, she’s nice and respectable as you might say, just fell on hard times and–“

Her mother put up a hand. “Oh, Lydia. Whatever will become of you?”

Lydia had no answer for that. It was what her mother said when she ran out of words about her daughter, an old refrain.

“Where is she? How long will she be here? How do you know she isn’t dangerous?”

“She went to an interview awhile ago. She’ll be back shortly. It’s a good time to talk about that duplex you bought recently…”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Can’t we keep this simpler? And focus on us now? I lost my guy and the training was awful. I actullay booked an earlier flight because it all went to hell. I realized how much I miss you, Lydia…”

Lydia felt the impact of those words, and leaned into the sofa. “Missing me? I’m always here.”

“I have been, really. It was dreary sitting alone on the plane for hours, thinking of all the years we had more time together. Work and men always dominate my life.”

True, but now all this talk was getting to be too much; it wasn’t like her mother. It almost worried her. “Well, I think of all that, too. And now you’re home. So we’ll have our dinner, we can gather round a real tree, if you like. I, for one, would like that.”

“Done. A good change. I’ll see where I can find a lovely tree for my living room–they cost so much, but– yes.” She tilted her head, narrowed her eyes. “What about the duplex?”

“Maybe she can rent one when she gets a job? Or before. I’ll help with rent awhile, if needed.”

“What, your own money? You must have a lot of faith in this person! Take a minute to evaluate, Lydia.” She clasped her hands, then relaxed a bit. “We will see… she needs a decent job. I’d need to get references, not just from you.”

“Mother, she’s a domestic violence victim, just give her a break!”

“True. Men can be such beasts. Except for your too soon-departed father.”

“Yes, Mother, I know. Oh, please don’t cry–I have enough tears around here.”

The door swung open and in walked Gen who went straight to Lydia, clapping her hands like an excited school girl.

“I got the job–I think! She liked me–and may soon hire me if my work references pan out.”

That Genevieve was changing was clear, Lydia thought. For one, she looked amazing all clean and hair shining and dressed nicely. But even more she was standing taller, looked at her in the eye but not too hard; shoulders back, chin up a tad. She smiled enough as she shook Lydia’s mother, then sat and chatted, nothing too personal, just job hunting, her bookkeeping skills. And Lydia helping her out. She was not much intimidated by Lydia’s finely mannered, impeccably dressed mother, Leslie Settlefield, or did not reveal it. Gen knew how to cope, it seemed, to face life as required. She could figure out solutions–how to survive, start over.

Leslie thought, she had a spark, that girl, spunk. She’d manage alright. Past trials wouldn’t stop her if she could help it.

But it was Lydia who Leslie Settlefield wondered over. Her daughter had people skills, and an ability to believe in them when many did not. She had seen that when she was very young, how she defended the taunted kids in school, and sold friendship bracelets as a fund raiser for a little friend’s cancer treatment; how she stubbornly refused to stop being friends with a boy whose father had been to alcohol rehabilitation many times. She had faith in humans, unlike Leslie, who far more often had faith in property and the currency it generated.

Leslie, though, knew the man whose home goods store Gen applied at; she knew without asking that Lydia had called him ahead of time. It occurred to her than she should talk to her daughter again about a job opening in the real estate company. She’d be great at finding and welcoming new clients, connecting people with one another.

As Leslie prepared to leave, she held out a bejeweled hand to Gen.

“I have a property that may suit you– if you get and keep that job for a couple months. I’m renovating it but it will be ready by then.” She gave her a business card and looked back at her daughter. “See you for tree trimming–I’ll call you.” Turning back to Gen, she added, “You’re welcome to come, too, of course.”

Lydia and Gen made popcorn and watched surprising, fine snow drift past the window. Lydia was thinking that she might bring in Gen to work tomorrow. Introduce her, if she was okay with that. And they both could use a haircut for Christmas.

“It’s been a month since I first saw you out there,” Lydia mused.

“Too much to take in…I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes already,” Gen said, “and have more to go. I was never lucky before…thank you, did I say it enough?” She popped a handful of buttery goodness in her mouth. “Gads, isn’t it just something beautiful out there?”

“You did. And I know only a little of what it feels to live more than you expect. Still learning.” Lydia peered into the glimmering snowfall. “Yes, beautiful.”

She knew that Venus–her planet that shone like a star–was up there under dark layers, beaming its light about, still listening in on their hopes.

Wednesday’s Short Story: May Her Name be Called Among the Root Middens

Zaran was the only female born and before the final son, as foretold by Treese, the Truth Speaker. So when the girl came into the world her parents, the Royal Clan rulers of Mabat, were apprised of her potential. But the truth was, the Speaker didn’t speak of all things known. Nor the entire truth of a thing if he felt it unwise. Her parents, then, were left to wonder over her–why she often stood apart, how she listened, what she saw when studying sky’s changes or forest grove shadows or water’s magic surfaces. They only knew she was theirs to raise, though she seemed often elsewhere and that was a problem they could not well solve. She also gave answers that belied her mortal age. Or as if she had anticipated their thoughts. That was a condition they sought to demolish. With little success. Still, Zaran was their only daughter, and she was theirs, and she would do their bidding eventually. It was designated as being so.

One doesn’t note crucial details unless one is willing to take risks, perhaps make errors and then perhaps lose one’s life, Treese reminded his own daughter, Ilyat. But she was absorbed that moment by scooping water from the pool for the leather bladder. There were miles to go. She knew what he said came as a warning from his love for her. And she believed him.

And she knew much about Zaran; who could ignore her? These seventeen years passing, they both knew what they were meant to be. As did all others. Royal Clan news was unchanged, as well: Zaran would soon sit at her mother’s side; her younger brother, Raze, would be soon at his father’s. It was Double Protection, tradition that never deviated. Their two older sons were off claiming more land and goods, peacefully or not, to add to family fortunes. This was their designation, and their calling and they did it well. They had been gone ten years except when their grandfather was dying, then dead. It was a brief, unsentimental visit though well intended, of course.

Ilyat was the apprentice to her father’s tenets of Truth Speaking. She was the fifth generation to become so and did not question it. It was in her marrow. She liked the travelling, liked her father’s company mostly, and the taste of subtle powers she had begun to experience was not unpleasant. She might one day take his place if Dominion Seats found her favorable. If not, she would be a Vagabond Speaker, a poorer and harder life– in some ways, yet still worthy. There was time to worry about that. Now, it was water they needed for the last twenty miles to the Mabat Dominion Compound and Fortress.

She saw her father resting with eyes closed while standing by the water. She didn’t bother him; he could sleep deeply like that for a good hour if needed. Ilyat had yet to master that skill, called wake-rest, and many others. He was careful with his training but lately he was teaching her faster and more, so that at times her thinking and being were spun about. She learned to right herself.

Ilyat knew more about Zaran, even if the knowing was not yet made clear. She understood things were not always as they seemed–and certainly not with that one. Zaran almost seemed more like Treese and herself than the Royal Clan. But there was no evidence, no certainty of such a blasphemous thing. Unless her father hid it, which was possible–another remarkable skill called scrimming. He’d intimated he had something to add to Zaran’s life story, but Ilyat had to be patient to discover it. Truth telling and receiving required that more than anything except courage. That was the primary thing. You did not shirk Truth Speaking, no matter what.

Ilyat’s visions pulsed at edges of her mind; she wondered about the end of their trip this time. She knew it was the Initiation Ceremony they were to attend, but nothing more–yet. Tension snarled her chest and throat. She drank of the sparkling green water until anxiety receded. And then she sat still, surrounded by forest music, at ease. Waiting for Treese, beloved father, to fully awaken. For this journey to come to a close.

******

In the far distance of his sleep, Treese felt the Root Middens watching them, and he greeted them.

They always watched, from the uppermost boughs, from lichen-laden stumps, from damp caves behind waterfalls and vast meadows strewn with innocent flowers and slinking beasts. In forests they waited more quietly. So many passed this way, under cover of the strong giant trees. They understood it. They came from the roots, underground; they lived off root blood. Under the earth they especially were able to hear life moving in ways others did not. This was their first home, but they tolerated the passing ones if they did not do harm to any being, or take nothing unneeded. They were First Guardians, every one knew it but many feared them. They had ways and means to make a passage arduous, chancy.

Treese and Ilyat were another matter. They were watched because they pointed the way into time and energy beyond their scope–as long as the Royal Ones were in power, the Highnesses Nine and Eight. As long as their own clan of Root Middens was bound to shadow living, half visible, they could not expand their works. Treese held a major key to change.

It was best to be unseen, though they knew for certain Treese could make out their quicksilver forms in any degree of light. Treese was their ally. He knew Root Middens waited to be set free of Nine and Eight, also. He labored to bring the Truths forward to all. There was no harm in that, but help.

But who did not want liberation? The Royals cared little for life’s collective value or its unique expressions. Its innate spiritual power. They practiced blind ignorance and self-aggrandizement as if they were fierce competitions they must and would always win. And it seemed as if they were right, so far. They accumulated authority as the powerless accumulated stones for soup and aching exhaustion for nightfall.

The Root Middens waved Treese and Ilyat on and they slipped away long before the travelers did, before Ilyat used even her wisening eyes to find them. There was time for that meeting. There was more to be done.

******

In the beginning, in the beginning...was the Royal Clan Supreme.

Must it always start and end like that? The Tutor never tired of it, the mind-numbing retelling of the story that had kept her family’s history intact for all the ages. Wasn’t it enough that she had had to put it down on parchment from memory?

Zaran sat on the edge of her chair by the wide open window. A kestrel hovered not far off, wings flapping, tail undulating, then glided and dipped but changed course for more favorable fields. She would like to follow the bird. She already knew the requisites– “Principles: Cardinal and Lesser Rights” and “Highest Doctrines of Critical Figures”– she needed to be expert in so she might sit by Eight’s place. Her mother. And Tutor knew it, too; he had been astonished by her prodigious memory from an early age. Raze also had finished his studies but by tedious rote work, and late. He was a year ahead of her but only now prepared for their Initiation Ceremony. And his place by Nine. Their father. Finally official. He’d had to wait for her, he complained, but they all knew it was more the other way– Zaran was found close to ready. She also had another month to complete the last part her Tutor determined necessary so she’d be offered proper Ceremony, too.

But she– unlike Raze who hung on every bit of approval from their parents–much to her annoyance and distress–was not excited to make the Two Royals an official Four. She dreaded it. It was not the path she desired, and was lucky no one had found her out.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like leading. She could do that with some pleasure. But Zaran from the start of her youth didn’t agree with their ways, the proscribed life and duties set for her and Raze. Tutor had spent years drumming into her the importance of her position and the strict disciplining of intellect, the suppression of emotion. Calculation and strategy, endurance in body and mind, and the lack of sympathy were key. But when he left her to herself, she dreamed of another life, even though she knew it wouldn’t be given to her. Not even Raze knew who she wished to be, despite their childhood closeness…then he began to separate from her for Royal doctrine. He’d once teased her that she was a wild runabout, not easily tamed. True, she’d admitted. Soon she could not find a way back to him, nor forgive his blind obedience, his lack of openness with her. His heart, once vibrant as her own, was tucked away from sight, thrummed to the signs of power. He was slowly becoming who he was born to become: a future overseer of the Royal Clan. A kingly dictator. With her or not, though he hoped she’d change her attitude. They were, after all, blood.

Could she follow her named designation? It seemed harder as each day passed by.

“Dismissed for today. You’re staring out the window again.”

Tutor was less annoyed than disconcerted by this habit. He picked up his boar skin gloves, slapped them against a thigh. Moved to the corner of the room out of dutiful respect, his lame foot catching on the rug. When she left, he would depart staying a distance behind her.

All he wanted for her was success–which sealed his own. Perhaps he could take time to himself then. Years and years of this tedious but vitally necessary teaching. Yet Zaran had always wanted to learn and was better at it than Raze–but she also yearned for knowledge far beyond her ken. He’d had to rein her in every time. It got exhausting, though she was not arrogant or disrespectful as Raze often was. It was her way to gently, persistently push him for broader and more profound learning. Sometimes he didn’t know the answers, to his shame, and he cut her off. Lately he had half a notion to toss out his orders and start anew with her–she’d learned crucial material long ago. What might he prefer to teach? But even that passing thought could get him executed, so he kept to his decreed path, as she must keep to hers.

Zaran was no fool; she sat with face turned away toward trees and sky. He wouldn’t catch her sadness and longing. She saw him out of the corner of her eye, shifting in place due to his old war wounded foot; she knew he worried. And she couldn’t have that. Not now. He had to announce her final and excellent grades. Then she would go on without him, do what she must–one way or another.

She stood and smoothed her pale silk pants and tunic, placed her fingers on her forehead with a tiny bend at her waist in friendly gesture to him, then stepped toward the arched opening to the terrace. Tutor followed reluctantly. She swiveled around then and his eyes looked to ground as required.

“Tutor Mesor.”

He startled at the sound of his name. It was impolite, it was even outrageous.

“Now that we’re almost done, I may use this name, may I not? I’m finally grown and you’re soon to leave us. Just once I would like to say I called you by name, and you, mine. Face to face. You have taught me well, have been good to me more often than not despite my parents’ harsh demands. I have respect for your work. I wish to use your name, in great thanks.”

He kept eyes to floor. This was a setup, or it was genuine–which? “Mistress, if you can suffer my refusal I would rather not…it is not safe.”

“But wait, Tutor Mesor, will you not also use my given name of Zaran one time? An exchange of respect.”

But he stood mute and far off, blinking as panic rose. If anyone heard them, if he dared say her name–

“Then you may leave me now, I regret causing discomfort for both of us,” she said, and turned away. Too much for him, she thought; she must never ask such a reckless thing again.

Tutor Mesor hesitated. Would he not be in real trouble either way? Had she required so much of him in all her life? She had, but he cared about her; she had surely been a challenging but considerate student. Nine and Eight would, though, have his neck.

Zaran always sought a different choice, another option. It would do her in one day. He feared for her. But he would not be led astray at this time in his career, with a wife ailing and a daughter soon to wed. He backed away, bowed, was gone. He didn’t know how many more times he would see his scholastic charge. The sound of her voice speaking his name stayed with him a long while.

Zaran sat on wide stone steps leading to the gardens and fields, The small acrobatic kestrel had returned. It spotted its prey and dove into the grasses. Zaran turned to the west as the sun lowered. She heard something. Not a palomino’s hooves, not a red bear foraging berries, not a scurrying blue skink. It was lighter, faster, sounds of language dancing in air, words whistling about in a symphony.

She closed her eyes, held both palms up to the fragrant season’s billowing wind and smiled widely. Her palms tingled, her mind vibrated. Ilyat and Treese were coming. She ran indoors to wash her tawny face and tidy her platinum silver braid. They were there to help her with her life once more. They were coming for the Ceremony, yes, but they’d meet up, find favor with one another. Angels of mercy, she called them, though she had been told time and again there was no such thing as that, and thank the mountain god Gatomasha no one believed in that rubbish, anymore.

She believed, anyway.

******

“Welcome to Dominion Compound and Fortress once more, please take the seats, eat, and give us the latest news.”

King Nine pointed to the usual spots in middle of the long teak dining table and put his bulk into his mammoth chair with a thud. Queen Eight, presiding at the other end from her husband, nodded her coiffed head around to all. She arranged the voluminous scarlet gown about her; her ruby encrusted tiara was laid upon a small pillow on the crown side table so she might eat. No one wore anything on their heads when eating, it was vulgar.

Treese and Ilyat knew the routine and waited for the Royals to begin their servings. They were ravenous since they’d arrived after three days travel with only wild berries, roots and mushrooms and water. Their mouths watered. The piled dishes were steaming hot. They emitted rich scents of meat and creamy vegetables, warm breads and sweet fruits; they fairly swirled about the high-ceilinged hall. No one spoke while they ate, despite the King’s earlier inclusion of news in his greeting. They all ate first, talked later. Heavy tableware clanked and rang out, their mouths chewing enthusiastically.

Zaran and Raze sat at either ends, brother by father and daughter by mother. Across from Treese and Illyat were two empty places, to be used by the grandmother and her third husband if they felt sociable and well– or by other guests, if not. Tonight, no one else was there or they ate in their rooms, or later, presumably.

Treese never quite got the procedures for everyone’s mealtimes, who had the right and who did not to sit there. Visitors varied widely form what he had seen, as did the Royals preferences in private life. He had been sharing evening meals with Royals for thirty years and it was often the quietest room unless ripened wine flowed. But it was a show of confidence that he and Ilyat were offered seats every time. It was the major part of his designation– to be of service to them. He never forgot. But things could change for his life, he reminded himself.

Ilyat looked at him then. She’d heard his thought; she brushed his hand when reaching for a roll.

Table talk when it came was heavy on trade and a few continued wars to the far north. The other princes were not seen lately but it was known that they were having success finding new sources for replenishing silk worms and purveyors of fine weaponry. No major storms yet, but very soon would begin in Fourth Season. The news, then, was brief.

“So you are here for the duration,” Queen Eight inquired, meaning until the Initiation Ceremony was completed. “Your rooms are prepared and we’re glad you honor your duty to gather the story and make greater Royal History come alive for the generations. This is what I’ve been waiting for, over eighteen years.” She lifted her blue and gold goblet to the King and smiled that winning smile that was easy for her despite ill or good will.

King Nine banged the table once with his fists and roared as was his way, “Yes, a great moment in history, a perfect moment for the Royal Clan–our Double Protection in place so our Kingdom of Mabat shall hold firm! Praise Gatomasha!” Raze banged in hearty accord.

“And so be praised!” the group answered in unison, though it was hard for some to say.

Ilyat listened and watched. She wasn’t expected to speak in public yet, nor even encouraged, but her wandering eyes found Raze’s, then Zaran’s. Raze nodded at her, lips curved in a way that imitated friendliness yet not quite. He felt her far beneath him, yet found her lovely, perhaps a bit sly, and lively in a restrained manner. The last few times they’d met he’d gotten ideas. She always looked down immediately as expected. She hoped he never got close to her. She might just shove him aside and say things she shouldn’t say. He was of no interest.

But she held Zaran with her eyes. They spoke to one another without speaking, and had done so for years, if only briefly. They knew they should not pass between them any knowledge of import, but did so because they could. And because they understood one another–simply as people. It rarely happened that Ilyat found another who knew her instinctively. But Zaran had even when they were children full of carefree play. They were kept from being friends–one girl a subject and servant, as well as her father, to King and Queen–and another girl an inheritor of Royal wealth and power one day. They had always wanted more time. Now things were about to alter all of them.

And that day was coming soon.

Zaran reached out first: I’m glad you have arrived. Meet me on my third floor balcony after midnight.

Just after midnight, Ilyat agreed. I thank you, Princess.

And you for coming with your father.

Treese was talking to Queen Eight but their words slipped by his mind and he turned ever so slightly to his daughter–she knew he heard. Ilyat studiously speared more venison and prairie greens with her fork. Zaran kept her attention on Treese and he, startled by her warm energy as he spoke of sheep and boar prices, almost paused mid-sentence.

Zaran patted her lips with a silk napkin, then excused herself and walked softly from the hall.

Nine thought her impetuous to leave during such a dinner but Eight understood women; they soon tired of the dreary table talk. However, very soon Zaran would follow all rules and stay in place as she was required to be present. There would be no more excuses tolerated, not for her royal right hand. And perhaps one day, more–if Raze did not prove himself better at all that Zaran managed extraordinarily well.

******

They stood against the outer wall of the balcony, cloaks pulled close against a sharp chill. The moon was a pale half circle; low clouds bunched and scudded past its soft illumination.

Ilyat leaned toward her, still a foot away. “My father is going to be unhappy we’re meeting in secret- and yours would explode– but I had to speak in person. Something has changed. I know you have the Initiation Ceremony in two weeks, but…”

“Yes?” Zaran moved closer to place a cool hand on Ilyat’s arm with urgent pressure. “Speak truth now.”

“I will wait for my father’s direction, but I can say you must be ready for unexpected things. I know you sense it, but I’m telling you now that the future is not what was decreed. That much I do know; Father stated so.”

Zaran let out a short breath and she studied the distance as the trees hid in the dark, when the Root Middens rested. That reassured her somehow. She released Ilyat. “I have been waiting.”

“We’ve all been waiting for history to no longer stagnate–to fail us again.”

“I’m more than ready,” Zaran said, thinking of Raze, thinking of her parents who saw her as one thing and he, another. But they had it reversed. “It is to my advantage, then?”

“To have seen you as different by the family? In one way or another. Now they are blinded. But later another viewpoint will come full circle. But I don’t know quite what that all entails yet…”

“I wait for more understanding.”

“Think less, intuit and sense more.” Ilyat sent a clearing energy to Zaran’s forehead; the young princess trembled then relaxed. “We are present. Time will reveal us to each other.”

Ilyat left so quickly and quietly that as Zara turned to gesture her a kind farewell–right hand to center chest–she saw only the gauzy blue curtain lift and flutter over the arched doorway. She shivered, pulled her cloak hood over her head, watched the stars shining, listened for their humming. Satisfied that all was safe–they were not likely found out– she started for bed, only to find her cheeks dampening and heart beating like frantic wings against her ribs.

She must keep faith. She must be prepared for whatever came.

******

The time passed rapidly, as it did when much needed to be done in the Dominion Compound and Fortress. Servants rushed about doing chores times ten. Clothiers, jewel keepers, chefs and design masters, carriage restorers and farmers, art restorers and horse herders and Dominion guards were kept busy for long hours at their taxing labors. The Fortress was abuzz with a high excitement not felt in decades.

The Initiation Ceremony was a once in a generation event. King Nine and Queen Eight were driven by all matters pertaining to it and its greater outcome. They expected their children to be thus melded with the Royal Clan, and succeed them even when married off. They would spend their declining years entirely secure.

Raze was taking a last time to enjoy his relative freedom, drinking too much and looking for female companionship (soon women would be carefully screened; there’d be formal engagements only). He’d lost track of his sister and she said little to him. They had taken different mental routes to the same place, and he still wondered what she was up to though she betrayed so little. Yet she knew what he thought; he was taking his blood-earned and studies-gained spot and little else mattered. He loved the surge of power that was his as he became an adult, felt at home as Royal. He hoped to be married with a smart and hearty wife within two years, a child or two and a throne sooner or later. That covered his greatest desires.

For Zaran, who knew? She was as mysterious as firelight in deep forest, as moonlight in mountains.

Their parents were full of pride and plans. They were further cementing clear control with formal addition of two scholarly, well trained children. Their other sons were providing greater wealth and reach of rule. And if too many raised their voices in complaint of all their methods–often brutal, frequently illegal, nearly always unchecked–no matter, that was how it was done. No mercy given. They had each carried out their jobs as Royal forbearers had. The Royal Nine and Eight had fulfilled ancient foretellings, and thus far met their goals well.

And yet. There were gaps in their lives though they could not identify them. There was the unease that unknowing provides. They retired the night before the Ceremony with an ache under their skins, a jumble in their minds, a congestion in their blood that would not stay cleared. It was a question unanswered that they hadn’t once said aloud to one another.

What–truly–would become of Zaran with her unorthodox thinking and secretive ways? What did that mean ultimately for the Kingdom of Mabat? They should have been harder on her, they thought with regret, but they would be harder on her now. She had no idea.

“All shall fare well, a goodly rest,” they intoned as they always did to one another, and turned down the hallway lights and closed their doors behind them.

******

It was this way:

Treese and Ilyat did not sleep. They barely dozed and when the moon was hidden beneath clouds heavy with rainfall they got up and went into Zaran’s room.

She was not sleeping either, and stood with clothes and boots on, cloak and bag tied around her waist. She’d long a go decided she was not going through with the Initiation. It was not going to be her life, obedient to darkness and dirty plans, servile to conniving behaviors or at the least so many empty, boring duties. It was not her right designation no matter what they said. Her calling was still not clear but it could not be the Royal Dominion life. She felt things and knew things she could not even describe. She wanted a different path, though she knew not what–yet.

The only way to avoid it and retrieve her life was to leave. She’d rehearsed that leave-taking for months, and tried to keep up enough courage. She’d lower herself over her balcony three stories up, then down the side of the Fortress with the rope from the stables when all were asleep. She was strong, she was fit, she excelled in self defense. She was resolved when it came to action needed. Zaran was not backing away from any chance at freedom, even if short lived.. even if Royal soldiers hunted her down…But she had long believed she’d have help.

And it came.

They said nothing aloud; they knew each other’s thoughts well enough. She showed them the rope and they followed her down it, clumsily at first with greater effort for Treese, and each trying to void the massive stone wall with its bruising glances, then they were more steady, careful, their energy high and concentrated. The guards did not keep to this area, being stationed at the front watchtower and gateway–especially now, when the Ceremony would bring many invited attendees and perhaps many rabble rousers. The even would be at seven in the evening followed by a feast of celebration long into the night.

They heard a horse whinnying, someone riding off –perhaps a servant who forgot a last task that was critical, or a soldier gone home–and that was all. Laughter bold coming from the tower gates. They waited a moment and heard then the plaintive hoots of a barn owl, a sleek flight of bats, a few crickets that fell silent. The night thickened with clouds and the heavy stillness that spread itself high and low before a storm.

When landing on the ground, they fast sought the private path that led to the family garden for private relaxation. Zara had easy access to keys for all doors, so capably unlocked the heavy wooden gate and in they went, through and about bushes, trees, flower beds, threading their way around small hillocks and thorny bushes with radiant moon flowers and on and on– until they reached the far gate that let them onto the wooded acreage, Middens’ Forest.

They ran. They could not help it. It had long been a lifelong, beautiful dream for Zaran, a prayer for Treese, a vague hope grown strong for Ilyat, each having their reasons. They ran until they could not manage to jump another branch, to skip over another rock, to avoid the tangles of vines and biting prickers and the sting of savvy insects. They were parched; intense adrenalin was leaving them finally exhausted.

An hour later they had to stop and so rested awhile in the ebony interior of the woods. Treese reached for Zaran’s smooth hands and she gave them to his rough, warm ones in relief. He held them as if in a prayerful mode, enclosed within his. She felt familiarity, as if she knew these ways of being.

“We have waited a long while for you to join us.”

She adjusted to the lack of light but saw him as if a candle was lit. His face seemed to gleam in the dark woods, and his body average and wiry, face holding no age. Her own countenance was calm though silvery hair was askew about her cheeks, her deep eyes weary but bright. “And I, you. Since childhood.”

“Since we met,” Ilyat agreed. “I knew you then.” She pushed her own platinum hair from brow and chin to tie it back and Zaran saw similarity, in the shape of her face and eyes, as well. She wondered who this one was. No matter, she had an overwhelming gratitude.

Zaran carefully touched each of their foreheads in care and respect, then her own. “My Truth Speaker sister, father.”

Treese bowed his head and they clasped each other’s hands. He spoke a prayer of sturdy life, of deep learning, of truthfulness, of strong compassion.

Not to Gatomasha of the mountains. To a Creator of Love for all.

Zaran stood under treetops and sky as rain began to fall. “Let’s begin forging a new reign, good Speakers.”

And they jumped up–she was yet a princess–and left behind the past, Zaran looking over her shoulder, a pain inside squeezing her mind and soul. Then she moved on, as she was meant to do. She was eager to work on a future they could all bear to inhabit, to find greater wisdom that could salvage Mabat. Her kingdom by tradition, but the peoples’ home. One day…when she was prepared to claim Truth and its every guiding Speaker. Embracing whatever her destiny was to become.

The Root Middens watched them pass as they always did. But this time they rejoiced in depths of Under/Earth while freshening rain nurtured the forbearing trees.

Zaran comes, they intoned. And it was so.