They said she developed a powerful swagger after the fire, and not the sort that may bring pleasure to the eye. She had grown up fast since the fire that attacked her family’s tinder box of a house and left it ash. It took over three years for her to learn to cope at all with the loss of her younger brother and parents. It would take a lifetime to figure ways to live with and beyond it. No, the way she took up a space was not a welcome but warning, long legs moving forward in near-gallops, feet planted so hard the ground wanted to shake them off. Her arms swung rhythmically; her head, set above those Coverson broad shoulders, had chin up permanently in public, and once- sharp but dreamy eyes half-closed to survey any thing or person which crossed her path.
At nineteen Renee, known now as “RC” around town, rarely answered no matter any name called out by peers. Her presence gave off an air of having lived very long already and she was prepared to fight it out from there on. People avoided her quick tongue once she gave in to a casual conversation; how to answer someone who had suffered much yet brooked no fallibility in others?
It was a jolt at first. She’d been the Coverson family hope of a different future, the girl being smart and kind, hard working. After the fire, she still attended school but barely graduated. Her English teacher found her work often impressive but disturbing, yet gave her all As. Otherwise, she skated by, waking up in a cloud each day at her Aunt Dee’s house and met the hours with a long stare, like a rusty wind-up robot. When her aunt got her up and dressed, she just went on for lack of anything else to do. If her hair went unwashed and her clothing bore signs of an overdue cleaning (despite Aunt Dee’s tireless efforts), who cared. No one judged her back then. They were sorrier than they could say, but didn’t know what more to do much less talk about with her. So they watched her change from promising and sociable to closed, sad, even bitter. After high school, most lost much interest. RC was who she was; life did things to people.
Then Renee Coverson came down the street one day in early spring, dressed in usual plaid shirt and torn jeans and her mother’s worn boots–boots of her mother’s. When she entered Maddy’s Fashions, customers were surprised. You couldn’t avoid looking at her, either; she’d been touched with her mother’s exotic aura of beauty. They seldom saw her around, as she avoided unnecessary social situations since her family perished, including shopping done alone, at least.
“RC, hey,” Jana said from behind the counter, her mouth left hanging open.
“I need a dress. Something kinda dark, longer skirt, easy. Size 8, I guess.”
She plunked down a credit card on the counter and stood with hands on hips and feet apart, surveying the racks. Jana looked her over discreetly, considered the inventory. It was most all spring prints, light, airy, elegant or snazzy. Years ago as RC was growing up fast every one worried she’d end up being the one all the guys wanted. Now, it was a different story. Jana got married, so no big deal to her. And the guys were afraid of RC’s history which she carried everywhere like an invisible cape, with dagger.
After lots of shaking of her head, RC selected a maxi cotton dress with small scoop neck, a green-black color with a little cream–it was a viney print. It looked large for her, Jana said, but RC entered the dressing room as three young women whispered to one another, eyes watchful. Two other shoppers arrived. They surreptitiously waited to see if RC would come out in the dress. To their surprise, she did.
Renee Coverson looked in the three-way mirror, eyes narrowed as usual. She smoothed the fabric over her lithe body, slowly turned. You couldn’t say it was a terrific fit, Jana confided later to her best friend, as it hung too loose, was an odd length and the shoulder seams sloped off a bit. But with that thick, deep coppery hair, RC’s eyes opening wider, her pale muscular arms appearing, a curve of calves winking between boots and hem–well, it somehow looked very good. Forest green and ivory vines draped gently over a honed body so long hidden that no one knew what she looked like, anymore. And now that they did, the shoppers fell silent.
RC spun around, both palms up and glared at her audience.
“What are you all gaping at? You don’t have anything better to do with your money and time? It’s just a dress; I’m just me.”
The room was full of lightning, that’s how Jana described it later, and people pulled right back. RC vanished into the dressing room, came out with her old stuff on. Murmuring, the young women turned to each other, full of new gossip. Jana took Aunt Dee’s credit card, despite it not being quite right to do so, and the dress was Renee’s.
She took the bag and turned back to Jana. “Thanks. You aren’t so bad, you know?” then pushed out the door in a terrible hurry again.
It wasn’t a smile she had offered Jana. But it was still something. Maybe RC was coming back to a more ordinary life. God knew that the conflagration her daddy started was the worst day of RC’s life… or ever would be.
“RC, RC, RC. that’s all they ever call me. Did they forget my real name? It gets on my nerves hearing it.”
Aunt Dee looked up from potatoes she was peeling, then handed to her niece, the lettuce to tear up.
“It’s been a nickname awhile now, it’s only your initials,” her aunt said, her low voice going soft. Though she did know that was a white lie.
“Only since seventh grade when Rene James moved into town. Why didn’t they just call her RJ instead?”
“Maybe because you never objected. Or…”
“Never mind. That was then, this is now,” Renee said, tearing up the iceberg leaves, tossing them into a bowl. She grabbed a carrot and another peeler. “I’m Renee. Period. I need to do something about it sooner than later.”
Aunt Dee had heard once what RC really meant: “rough cut.” The young brats in town had started that, likely the boys, after Renee had changed into a brittle, grief hollowed girl. Rough cut: a major tree trunk sliced up with a serious saw and then left unfinished. Not pretty wood that was finished. Her brother Johnny, Renee’s father, had been a woodsman, eking out a living selling cords for fires in winter and snowplowing, and crafting furniture, or doing special projects for renovated houses of the well-off. Rough cut, a way to designate the sort she came from, perhaps. Not a good term for a human, not a fair one in this case. Her niece was better than that, more like teak, mahogany shined up, fine wood waiting to be made good and lovely once more after too long gathering dirt and dust.
She wondered why now she did it, got the dress. Two days before the anniversary of that horror of loss, she could hardly bear to think of it–Renee had gone out alone to get it done. Something about how she wanted to commemorate it for once, she mumbled. It spooked Dee. Her niece never wanted to make a note of it, refused even to visit the graveyard, instead going off to the woods for hours as Dee worried. And then she’d show up at the cabin, calmer than usual. But set apart, so alone.
“You like my dress?” Renee asked.
“Sure, but I’ll like it better if I see it on you and know what it’s about.”
Renee turned and leaned against the sink, pulled her hair back and slipped a rubber band on to make a ponytail. My, how she looked like her mother. Evelyn. A strong but too long suffering woman who took care of Dee’s alcoholic brother best she could, and what a wearing down sort of life it was til the end. It made her bones cry out. Dee shook her head.
“What’s up, Renee? What is going on lately? You’re up, down and more mysterious than ever. But you seem less angry.”
That was taking a big chance. Never talk about feelings if you could help it, the family motto. Since Dee was a teacher’s assistant, she’d had training and knew how to listen and to coax kids, and maybe that was why Renee talked to her a bit more over time. But they’d been overall good Renee’s whole life in many ways; after the fire, they got used to each other more, then got more trusting and their bond was nothing to trifle with, as her Russ used to say.
“I’ve got a plan, Aunt Dee. I’ll let you know about it soon. We stick together, bread and butter, right?”
This childish statement so touched Dee that she stretched out her arms to hug her but Renee didn’t respond in kind: paring knife and peeler in her hands, chin jutting a bit, eyes narrowed just enough so it was like shutters being pulled to again. And then she sliced up a tomato fast, chopped the carrots faster. And asked about salad dressing choices and if they still had sliced almonds.
Okay, then, perhaps tomorrow. Dee put the pot of potatoes to boil and hummed, ignoring her niece. Tucking away her heart, a wounded dove hiding in a thicket, waiting to heal up more.
If there was one thing Renee loved, it was dawn. It was the possibility of a new start each time, and that was what she needed to bear life. She had long awakened early, gone to bed late, and that pattern still felt better than most things. Aunt Dee lived only a half mile from where her own family had lived, yet harder to get to when it snowed or stormed. The roads were gravel the last bit to the cabin on a low hill. It was snug against forested acres like her parents’ had been, but here it was deeper, thicker, full of wild things that she might see if she was patient. Darker at night and greener by day, especially after winter.
She’d run here countless times when her father had been slobbering drunk and belly aching or, more rarely, swinging clumsily, then slumping over in inconvenient places, kitchen floor or the shed or the roadway when it was five below. She’d been at Aunt Dee’s that night, helping her with canning and then Dee helped her with exam study questions. That was not unusual; she was told she should not feel such heavy guilt every single day. Renee could hardly think at her own chaotic house, after all, Dee had said once, and then regretted it as the words were true but stung.
If she’d been there then. If Kenny, her brother, and their mother had come with her as Aunt Dee had suggested. If her father hadn’t drunk too much, built and lit a fire in the fireplace haphazardly– then spilled that damned whiskey bottle. It was finally determined by sheriff and firemen. Renee had already blamed him. She knew he’d been in a black out, took them with him out of the blind neglect that came with the powerful sickness.
Out here it was empty of all that, and peaceful. She craved it from the start. Uncle Russ was a kind man, only given to a beer now and then, then he was sick with cancer, gone when she was eleven. Only her harried, overworked mother’s needs even kept her at her own house. And her brother’s hunger for her attention, which she gave him as she could. She’d often felt guilty about wanting to leave but took off, anyway.
Still, she had risen at dawn there, too. Before he had awakened. Before Kenny asked her to take him with her. She needed that half hour. To breathe. To see clues of God. The creatures slinking about in shadows, then softening illumination of day. To just be herself, her own small, searching and more hopeful self. Blessedly alone. And now she was, that was one certain thing. Except for Aunt Dee.
And so in the morning she once more threw off light quilts and swung feet over the edge of bed, rubbed her eyes, pulled off bedclothes. Got into the bathroom before Aunt Dee beat her to it and then dressed. Opened the back door as silently as she could, then sat on the back stoop, knees pulled high, chin propped on her palms.
From there she could see it happen, a slow flare above treetops, navy sky doing its magic brightening, seeping watercolor hues a report of coming weather, birds chorusing, all things coming awake with her, scrabbling in that way that soothed her ears and filled her enough to go on. If not for the stealthy arrival of each dawn, she would have lost her mind and disappeared in the forest for good long ago.
Soon she would do what she’d planned for six months.
The calendar date marked came, the one Renee Coverson had dreaded and avoided commemorating for three years. But not today.
One with gray hair cut short and one with a burnished braid and an understated dress moved in expectant quietness through musky forest following a worn, rutted path.
Long ago Dee and Russ had hacked out the two mile route to gather kindling or search for dead and down trees to cut up; visit the west meadow and pick blackberries and wildflowers; run their beloved beagles or any other dog they took to–and it was comforting to trod, as she often did alone when Renee was gone. Sometimes they took it together but not much during snows, which finally had abated.
Her chest was drumming with anticipation as they wound deeper into pine and spruce, oak, ironwood and birches. Renee took the lead decisively, her stride steady and long, energy increasing the moment they began. She wore her backpack, bulkier than usual, over her new dress.
“Slow down, what’s the rush, we have all day,” Dee puffed words out as she picked up her feet faster. “I wait three years for you to join me for this date and now you may leave me behind…”
Renee stopped and frowned at her aunt, then inclined her head and gave a slow, small smile. “I’ve been waiting, too, I’m impatient, Auntie.” Then she took Aunt Dee’s arm. They tried to sync their steps and finally managed it..
“What is going to happen when we get wherever we’re going?”
But Renee said nothing more. It was quite enough that her arm was laced through hers.
In the meadow, a brilliant light had painted the land and its vegetation golden and emerald; it pulsed with life, itself. Dee wanted to sit in newly sprouted, greening grasses. Listen to the meadowlarks for hours.
“We aren’t there yet, keep going,” Renee prodded.
At the northern edge of meadow land there came a narrower path half-overgrown by vines and grasses. As they entered groups of tall trees again, the younger woman steered the older toward an opening that was filled with dapples of sunniness and shade.
“Cover your eyes now,” Renee half-whispered,”I will lead you.”
When Dee was stopped and instructed to stand still with eyes shut, she heard her niece open the backpack, then rustlings and steps here and there. She almost peeked but knew better–it had taken so long for Renee to come to this point. Finally, she was allowed to see.
She gasped, and hands flew to her mouth. She reached for a tree trunk, braced her weight as her head felt light.
Renee stood close by and Dee looked more. There in the small clearing among elegant birches stood a perfect tiny pine house. Perhaps two by two feet, it had a roof and windows and a doorway open to sweet air and light. With a partly open back, it about resembled a doll’s house. But it was not a doll’s house. It was a replica of a most ordinary simple house. Like her brother’s family house.
There, intact in the woods.
Dee knelt down in the dirt to look inside, eyes stinging, and Renee joined her.
“What on earth… Renee—how?”
“I made it.”
Aunt Dee studied the good proportions, clean corner and smooth edges, the neat, flush nails, then at Renee. “You did this? How and when?”
“I got a few supplies from the garage last summer, yeah, from our old place…it was hard, but anyway, I stored them in your smallest rundown shed of yours, hid things behind junk. Uncle Russ had tools, too. I waited until you were gone for long periods a few times. It wasn’t that complicated. But I have very slowly worked on the people who stay there…and just finished yesterday, so I could bring them on this date.”
“You have skills, and it’s wonderful, what you have done here…”
She saw then the wooden figures Renee had just placed, each in a different room, standing or sitting. They had jointed limbs. Narrow faces with clear hand-drawn eyes, line mouths. Just sitting there, apart. Not quite smiling but not grimacing. Again came a hand to her mouth as she held at bay tears, unwilling to mar the moment with her sorrows, which lessened by the moment.
“Yes, I have basic skills and ideas, so I just did it. It was helpful, I guess. To hammer and cut and put things together. To remember– but make something clean, new…know what I mean? To try to make it a little better than it was. But we did have some love, we did….”
Her face had begun to alter as she spoke. Anger melted from her– tension released her smooth lips, narrow creases eased from her brow. Her eyes were wide open and she was looking at the house, then into the woods, and finally at Aunt Dee. It was as if Renee was coming to, even finding it okay to look at life full-face more.
“Yes, I think I understand.” Dee got up from the damp ground.
Renee reached inside the back of her miniature house. She picked up each figure, then arranged one after the other in a circle, in the room at the front of the house. They stiffly faced each other, mutely obedient, and then she made the pegged arms and legs touch lightly.
She and Aunt Dee were still, too, arms linked. Benders Creek rushed downstream behind them, a jay screeched and took off, the red-winged blackbirds gathered in the meadow and carried on. They took in the creation that sat among trees, sunlight warming the constructed pine building, its few rooms brightening, the four figures resting in sweet symmetry.
Renee bent to pick a smattering of periwinkles and marsh marigolds about their feet. In the center of her pine family gathering, she placed blossoms. Aunt Dee bowed her head as her niece laid her hands a long moment upon the roof, placed a tender kiss on the sun-touched front doorway, then walked off, lanky body easing into sunshine, soul lighter with each step, new dress swinging above her boots.