Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Benevolence

It happened that she was walking through Cutter’s Field close to her parents’ home place, one she had enjoyed as a child when a rainbow of wildflowers bloomed and she ran barefoot through swaths of swaying grasses. Her name was called out of nowhere, not the one that carried her steadfastly into adulthood, but the one a chosen few had used to remind her she was loved. Or at times by others to torture her–but it had long been hers, whichever cause to use it was at hand.

“Bunny…”

It was born on the October wind, a remnant of the past. She sensed it a ghost name even as she slowed but spun around, anyway. No one in her current life knew she had been Bunny, and she’d have denied it, so absurd a nickname she’d had to bear so long. If also worn with some appreciation for the mantle of affection it brought. But she was in her old hometown and may not have managed to stay invisible.

The calling out tingled from ears to heart in a race to her mind. It felt much as the reason she’d been named it: a soft rabbit is a quiet creature, then suddenly can leap away so spritely, gone, invisible again in thicket of grass or bush. And, well, her sister had said, you have such a small, velvety face, Bree, then laughing though what she’d meant to say but never quite did was, Your skin is soft and beautiful on your cute bunny face, more lovely than mine. Bree knew what she meant, usually, but it was a fact that Esther was born beautiful and Bree was born…with a most pleasant, perhaps elfin face. And born quite a bit smarter.

Esther often put bunny ears on Bree from behind, two fingers sticking up above her head. Many a picture had captured it to Bree’s dismay. She was a circumspect child, and was on the way to becoming a poised albeit restrained young woman whose feelings ran far deeper than seen. The name stuck until Bunny nee Bree reached age 16, at which time she had put her foot down and ordered it to stop at Sunday dinner. There had been were hard times that weekend; she’d suddenly had enough. But it was not done with entirely in school. At home, her family reserved it for times like birthdays. She suffered it kindly with them until she left home for good. That was fourteen years ago, at age twenty-two.

So as she was walking across the untidy and welcoming field that fall day, she was not expecting it. The air pulsed with intoxicating warmth saved for tail end of fall, and earth’s scent and all it held rose to greet her. It certainly hadn’t been uttered by Esther, who also had left long ago for beaches of California. A deeper voice, she mused, but it was hard to say when the shimmying wind rustled and stole away sounds. She saw no one save their much older neighbor, Joe Harter, on his tractor farther afield. He had waved, she thought, as he turned a corner to start down another row.

It was only by chance she was there, visiting her father before moving 700 miles away from him– as he battled worsening health–to Chicago for her work as an interpreter. She had wondered when she might see him again if they didn’t have a good visit right then so she’d been there a week. He didn’t want to move with her, no; she was not to worry. This, after seeing him infrequently for years while working in Europe. It was difficult for them both. But soon the trip back home would be much shorter than from Milan.

She would leave him tomorrow, and the walk was a last consoling act in which she indulged, as she had also so loved the fields and woods. A roundup of memories during a bittersweet and soothing walk, with birds discoursing, wind dancing, open sky winking at her through the trees’ glimmering hues of autumn. She kept on, contented to look and listen and smell it all.

“Bunny!” The call was not loud but distinct and closer.

By then she’d reached the edge of the field and dashed to Bender’s Creek in Little Woods. She squatted in the leaves beside it, a hand trailing in a tiny waterfall as it rushed over rocks. But the faint voice rendered her immobile. She didn’t want to stand and verify who it was. She wanted to camouflage herself in shadowed greenery and dipping branches. Bree fell forward on her knees, bent close to the water, waited until that name disappeared with name caller.

Footsteps shuffled through the woods’ detritus. Each step quickened Bree’s pulse, and her features froze, her round cheeks stained bright as raspberries. Her dripping hand dampened her forehead, smoothed hair back, then she rose and turned.

He stood a hundred yards away among the birches, and in an instant it was that afternoon when many decisions were altered. A shock zigzagged through neural pathways but she stood taller, chin raised a notch.

“Rollie, is it you.” A small statement. She knew.

Saying the whisper of his name made it real; she wished to pull it back or bury it deep in ground. His step forward breached an internal wall and so she turned down her senses, stilled her mind. And looked at him with a steady gaze, readying for what was to come.

He came closer with a limp although he crossed earth between them without hesitation, a hand reaching. She remained in place, words like vapor in her mouth, flooding her tongue so all she could do was part her lips to exhale muteness into burnished air. He stopped, uncertain, took off and clutched his baseball cap. The once severe lines of his face were softened by a bristly half-shadow of reddish beard, and his head cocked at a half-deferential tilt.

It seemed impossible they’d both materialize at that way, in that place; it was a fearsome and strange alchemy of time and space. But he was present in much the same way as he’d ever been: solid, unimpeachably good looking in a craggy way–which she and Esther had first called feral, repeating the odd word, giggling–and potentially dangerous or simply alert but still charged by a wildness that lurked, rarely visible. But he was smaller, even caved in at chest as if pulled inward. And the limp an old injury, perhaps; he has been a person in perpetual motion, anything might happen to such a man. She felt his loss in a dim way. But Rollie still was present with the power of himself.

She spoke to break the tension or the spell, to make things easier. “Well, then. How is it you’re here?”

“My house–” he gestured toward town as if he thought she’d forgotten–“that is, my grandparents’. I inherited it, with Kevin.” He looked long at her. “Visiting–uh, we were looking it over. My cousin said he saw you walking down Ames Road. Thought he was joking but then….thought you might be coming here.” He put his baseball cap back on, adjusted the bill neatly, regaining lost composure enough. Taller again.

She watched as if from a distance, nodded agreeably, a nice girl who had become a well mannered woman.

“Can we talk, Bunny…”

It was said with such familiarity, still. But: he wanted to talk. She had no time for echoes of that past, Bunny’s past; it had been resoundingly empty of sound, far beyond her hearing range for what seemed a lifetime. She hadn’t even lived in the States for many years.

And then he leaned toward her the barest amount, as if to not seem too urgent. “Will you speak with me, Bree?”

“I can listen,” she offered and strode along the creek bank toward sunniness of meadow beyond.

Rollie followed, startling a bevy of wings above, the crows objecting, but his lame leg caused a tennis shoe to catch on a rock. She slowed. Bree wanted to escape the inviting shade of woods with its gurgle of creek, leave the place they’d last been when still young. Too naïve but in love. She shook her head to empty it of a gathering of mages.

Breaking through to open land was a relief. There were logs piled to one side, a few stumps. When they found two close–but not too close–they rested.

He pulled shoulders back, and was impressive as long ago, all pride and grace, maybe more so. But his face was softer, with added weight and age. With trails and labors. “You’ve been in Italy, I heard. A nice embassy job?”

She shrugged. “I’m an interpreter.”

“You were a genius with languages–what’s it called?”

“A polyglot.”

“You speak and understand how many?”

“Eight, almost nine, and a few dialects most have not heard about. It is what I do, what I was born to do, I guess.”

“That’s so much more than in high school!” Eyebrows raised and lowered, and he studied lines in his palms before giving them a rub. “Study and travel, I guess you’ve had a lot of both. Amazing how things change.”

“You meant to design things.”

“I’m an architect, residential, some commercial. I only come here on week-ends. I…we… live in St. Louis.”

“Ah, that all sounds good.”

Bustling bees were alighting on bendable stems, buzzing about the ground and nestling into things. She wanted to watch them instead of him and did so. The sweetness of grasses was so pure it made her heady. She willed Rollie to depart, then focused on the length of horizon, a simmering blue along treetops and fields. That openness, a great depth and width of things that always touched her. It meant home.

Bree swiveled her head back to him. “Rollie, what is it you want to say?”

With a smooth movement reflective of his nature, Rollie leaned forward, lifted his eyes, took her in, then sat back. “It has been a long time, Bunny, but still I think of how things were. How they ended. About you.”

Bree held herself in place. She’d not welcome that name any more from him but she gave him a promise of a smile, lips turning up ever so slightly.

“I knew I had to talk to you someday, once more. Make amends… tie up all the loose ends we left. I was going to send you an email or call one day but this is much better, to say these things to you, just do the right thing. Is that okay…I mean, now that a long time has passed?”

Was it alright? Was it better to speak truth? She wondered. He stared again at his hands, perhaps divining the outcome.

Did flesh and blood forming syllables add so much heft and meaning to words? Did they become greater instruments when spoken aloud to a person? His words had cut her away once; hers had left him with a complicated life. So, then, was one’s conscience assuaged when careful words, well practiced and well offered, found a place inside the listener? They might land with a thud or be met with open arms.

Or did the unpredictable power of language obscure the deepest meanings at times like this? And this tying up loose ends, just so… They had severed the past from one kind of future. And she now felt she’d awakened in a netherworld and wanted to exit.

But she knew more than many about language. She knew about interpreting other’s needs and desires. And about how defining and translating thought and feeling was a graver, more difficult task than people believed. So much could go wrong. So much was missed in the passing of one person’s words to another who was waiting. Nuances meant more than one realized. And the first interpreting of a language for herself was risky, demanding. Exhilarating, too. But such important matters were corroborated or shaded or entirely destroyed when she interpreted. It was that crucial a thing to get right–a true communication.

So it was with them, face-to-face at last, she thought: Could they even understand one another now? Might it be better to say nothing, just scurry through the fields? Or embrace a final time then walk on, waving to all that was behind them?

Words, words. She wondered what his would mean. Bree nodded and waited to hear his own truth.

“I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to revise what I did to you, and then had to tell you. It’s haunted me, has kept me restless and sleepless too often and too long. Why did I take such a chance when I knew it was really only you I ever wanted? Why did I give in to an insane moment when you were there, blameless, and I was the transgressor?” He held his head. “I know, I know, I said all that before, or tried to our last meeting. Sorry, sorry, I am so beyond sorry–how many times could I still say that and it not be enough? Sorry I betrayed you, even after I gave you the promise ring….And then…Denise getting pregnant, such a blow to all, you know? And it changed everything, you cannot imagine– for her, too.”

He gazed at her pale fingers; none was bedecked with rings. They were long and thin yet blunt at the ends, practical hands even while lovely. Hands he had held to his lips. He studied her face–pointed chin, satin smooth skin, eyes so clear and quietly emotive. They made him think of the creek water in early spring when it runs cool, fresh, reflecting the light. Yet they told him little at the moment except that she heard and understood. That she was patient, which she’d always been except for that last time.

“Even though I came to love Denise and more easily, our son, Dane. Even though I have built a good life, a life I’m proud of now, one that allows me to do more for our community than I ever imagined. Things got much better after I had a bad car accident eight years ago…then I had to look deeper and find a better path. I did and followed it. I design housing for the underprivileged, underserved. That’s my passion now. Oh Bunny, I could tell you so many things! As a youth I was arrogant, impetuous, maybe cruel. I am still burdened with this regret.”

His countenance, earlier lit with an infectious spirit of enthusiasm, suddenly darkened. Bree’s eyes traced the contours of Rollie so gently he felt there might be a chance to correct things. To find forgiveness.

Still, she didn’t talk.

He took in full breaths of the late fall air that settled over Cutter’s Field. Around his sorrow and hope. He squatted, then, before her, willing to do almost anything to make things good. It had to happen now or never.

It was almost alarming, his knees at hers, but she found such nearness did not move her in ways feared. It embarrassed her, and she felt the slow burn of that for them both. Enough had been released from him; she had to speak up.

She took his forearms in her hands. “Stand up, Rollie. Please.”

She rose with him, he wobbling more from her touch than impaired balance. Her light grip fell away and he righted himself. A gust of wind blew over them, lifted her long hair so that it covered her face. He started to brush it away, then thought better of it as she grabbed it, pulled a hair tie from her jeans pocket, made a ponytail. That small act: so like her, someone who knew how to restrain wilder impulses, how to make orderly what was chaotic. He found it so familiar. Yes, how to make sense of senselessness and find truth in details. And yet she was so fully alive as she stood in the caramel light, more vibrant than recalled. He loathed letting go of his longing–even as he did so, even as he knew it would fall away.

For there was, too, the fateful day when she’d screamed at him, struck him hard across the face, pummeled his chest and ran off, never to speak to him again. He knew it was the least she could have done, for nothing was told–she spread no awful tales, did not insult his name, did not let herself be called a victim of any sort. Did not speak ill of the girl he’d seen behind her back. His wife, Denise, who waited now in the city. Yet it had torn them from one another, his careless deceit and her outrage.

After that, she became Bree, she was not to be called Bunny. And though a hidden part of him longed for Bunny now, he saw it was not who she was. And that was right; the missing pieces fell in place as she began to respond.

Yet he took her hands in his and her grace and deeper strength flowed into him as his warmth and a wiser, subtler energy moved to her.

“It was not meant to be, staying here, Rollie, surely you see that. Getting married, having a family with you. Though you knew I loved you fiercely, I soon found my other dreams coming true. I am at home with it all, happy with my life. And you discovered what was best for you.” She touched his rough chin with a forefinger then fell away. “I healed well. Nothing can be done about what we leave behind but to respect it and say our farewells. We live within the gift of this moment. Rollie, you were so long ago and truly forgiven. And I’m sorry I was hard on you that day. But I have no pain left keeping me caged, and I hope this unlocks the creaky door for you, at last. Because, my fine old friend, all is well.”

Bree didn’t wait for his words. Didn’t need his arms about her again. She ran down the path taken all those years, the path that people still took across Cutter’s Field–the old and young, ecstatic and heartbroken–to Little Woods and Bender’s Creek, to that which bore all hopes and losses without complaint, and watched over them with benevolence until they were no more.


Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Preparation for Freedom

Oh for heat and length and ease of

our bodies returned, a simple certainty

of life even as time dwindles, loses track or forbids.

Yes, what I would give for a life lived

so as hands or feet or arms seek others

there comes a meeting of strength and balance,

a compromise between gravity and flight.

Such lightness and courage of bodies that trust…

Before these days, the poisonous winds,

people in their sporting selves

glowed inside the loosening of green

and warming saffron of fall days,

and perhaps there was a small anointing

of flesh, of spirit with safe exhalations,

and armfuls of praise which result

from such comraderie.

I watched them then with clear eyes;

they welcomed with gestures, smiling.

We now step into October’s gauzy air

streaked with smoke, as a myriad of

spinning leaves fall like shy visitors to earth,

and glance off our finely tempered skin.

Which we yet do own and don’t think otherwise:

our flesh has memorized our contentments–

how do we forget comfort when there is a lack?

–and they call to us as our bodies labor.

Still, we likely dance or tread as solitary over earth.

And all the while inside these besieged vessels,

our exquisite homo sapiens sheaths,

we are waiting as if cocooned,

readied for liberation, poised

to be released–and then to once more rise.

Freedom Comes for a Visit

“Been there and so done that and it’ll be a ‘ditto’ if you keep asking me things! Ask me in a few years…”

She said that with mock affront then a jolly smile and she usually turned away from me. But that answer never stopped me from trying to find out more about her life. How could I help myself? She was a source of endless speculation in the family and in my imagination.

“Aunt Cecily stepped right out of an interesting, questionable story when she was born and makes up the mad mess as she goes,” her oldest sister (my mother) stated with a wry look. “Of course, we all make up our lives, to be fair.”

I tried to trick Mom into giving me more information, but it didn’t work; she was oddly protective. Aunt C. was legendary in our family. That could be better than the truth, I conceded, but I thought there was more to it than we’d ever know.

Aunt Cecily had a way of gliding through the rooms of our rambling and in-need-of-a-good-shine house as if it was a mini-palace. My cousin Trish–my other maternal aunt’s kid–suggested that she acted like it, too. She had a flair for making ordinary occurrences and places seem better, more vivid just by being in the scene. Aunt Cecily wasn’t loud, necessarily, though she could be; she was dramatic. How she moved and expressed ideas, shared her feelings. She had done some acting on the stage. Dad suggested one time that she should have actually been in movies but she liked living a bigger-than-life kind of life even better. Mom didn’t disagree.

Trish and I were lazing in her back yard,  more like a field with a humongous garden where near the edges her father was planting or weeding something. Their house–the grandparents’ old place–was three miles out-of-town but it seemed like a hundred. I pulled the brim of my baseball cap down to create more shadow.

“Maybe that’s how she ended up rich. She acts like she’s all this and that even though they all grew up on a farm. Because she is no way what I’d call beautiful,” Trish said, chewing on a string bean. “She is fun.”

“I don’t know that she’s even rich. The people she knows seem to be, but she usually has everything in three fat, beat up suitcases. She moves a lot, you know, and travels. Mom tries to keep up with it but her address book has hers penciled in for another erasing. But I still think she’s a true exotic. I learn from watching her. She talks to me. She’s like an orchid…and her eyes are amazing.”

” ‘Exotic’ is a word people just use when someone’s not pretty, maybe odd. Her nose is too long, her mouth is big, her eyes are almost slanted, unlike anyone else’s in the family. Mom says she tells lurid stories….I got the message even if I didn’t know that word.”

I put my hand up  in protest. “No doubt she’d say that! Don’t you wonder what they are really all about? I adore her! She’s my favorite. And you’re being superficial.” I steal a glance to see if she’s irked that I don’t say her kindly mother is my fave but she just snatches another bean to chomp. “I do admire her.”

“Have it your way, Eve. She’s an funny duck, a wild thing. I’m thirsty. Going in for a soda, want one?”

“Sure, I’m sweltering out here in this overrated wilderness.”

All that manual labor her father was sweating over for vegetables impressed me, though. I couldn’t do all that. I swatted away a bee and ran in. But I thought my cousin had too little imagination to understand our aunt. It was it kind of sad but I didn’t say so; she wouldn’t get it, then would be pissed.

Trish and I wouldn’t be even that close later in life, it was how it was. She was all about finishing school and getting married to the same guy she’d known since second grade–no one and nothing had interfered with her predictable attachments. I found it interesting my mother got her Masters’ degree and taught at the nursing school nearby, encouraged two daughters and a son to pursue our dreams. But Trish’s mother, Aunt Marilyn, stayed at home and loved living in the country, all the canning, baking, cooking being the main events on her daily agenda.

Then there was Aunt Cecily, world traveler, an artists’ model, an actress, a feminist poet and who knew what else.

How could the three sisters be so different as to seem unrelated? The one thing they had in common were highly arched, expressive brows and graceful hands with pretty fingernails. Aunt Cecily wore a black-red polish, sometimes purple or coral. My mother, nude or clear and chip resistant; Aunt Marilyn, a pearly white, refreshed each week after having her hands in food, dirt or hot water all the time. Those manicures about summed things up.

Aunt C. had called me “Kiddo” since I was a child but this visit would be different. We hadn’t seen her in over two years. I’d done a lot of growing up, had turned seventeen. For one thing, I had gotten taller, more muscular and slim. I played tennis daily and had gotten good. While Trish was going to arts and crafts classes to make things out of beads and flowers, I was smacking a tennis ball as hard and fast as possible, and slammed it regularly beyond opponents’ racket reach and that brought me victories. Trish didn’t share my general passion for sports–I also liked softball and swam. I was at a loss when she handed me embroidery thread, a needle and fabric. We each had grave deficiencies in each other’s estimation. But we were cousins; we both adored our families. I just loved Aunt Cecily more; she got my growing athleticism, would be proud to hear about my improvement.

I walked into the pale yellow guest room to check on things before she arrived. I had put fresh reddish Gerber daisies in a squat glass vase on the dresser. Narrow, with a too-tight closet and a good twin bed, the room was upstairs and across from mine. You got a broad view of downtown, and in the distance the span of masterful mountains, breathtaking in sunsets. I had lived in the “baby room” for years, but had finally graduated to the next room size after my older sibs, Vanessa and Guy, left for college. Aunt Cecily had told Mom on the phone the same room was fine, don’t go to any bother, she liked the view, watching the old hometown morning until night as it revealed “its funny little life.”

She wasn’t usually in it much, anyway. Our place was more her bed and breakfast stop, but no one complained. We looked forward to seeing what she brought along with her this time–a weird house gift, a story to top all others, a new pet (like the pretty but obnoxious parrot she took everywhere for a year). One visit when I was ten, she brought a beautifully three-piece suited–with perfectly trimmed goatee and mustache–older man with her. He just stayed for a long brunch and flew right back to Chicago after a second home brewed iced tea, the best he’d ever tasted he told my mother, then touched his lips to her hand. Aunt Cecily had introduced him as a successful playwright, one of her best friends. It took Mom days to stop revisiting that experience. Dad got sick and tired of it and spoke up for a change. He said he was just some “Midwest dandy and luckily not all men were required to be so extremely gallant.” The “dandy” and “gallant” I’d had to look up. They were so old fashioned.

The room was perfect, down to new floral Laura Ashley pillow shams and the antique rocker in a corner. A sage green candle was next to the flowers. I’d also stacked a choice of books on the bedside table: one poetry, one mystery-thriller, one about outer space.

“Why outer space?” Mom had asked.

“She’ll like it. Aunt C.’s someone only interested in the future and is completely about travelling.”

Mom laughed, gave me a quick squeeze.

******

“I’m here, I’ve arrived, I can smell the potato salad and fresh rolls!”

Aunt C. swooped in after she set down her bags and threw her arms around Mom, then me, then Dad. I nearly got lost in the folds of her pink linen open cardigan, so voluminous and drapey. I admired her style: silver sandals, black linen pants, pink tank beneath the light cardigan. She vibrated with enthusiasm. And that fragrance, what is it? Light but warm. It’s her hair, I thought. Or her tawny skin–like sunlit wildflowers had hitched a ride with her.

“Well, look at you! I know, how uncouth of me to say it but you’ve sprouted like mad, Kiddo, and you look fabulous. And sister, your house, still a sight for sore eyes. I have barely slept the last three nights and all this–” she spun about, arms held out–“a sanctuary. I just know I’ll rest  here. And of course I’m starving, dear Amy and Trent–bring on the lunch.”

The sisters gabbed as Dad and I carried up the bags to her room.

“She knows her way around us, huh? Good to see her.” He grinned at me. “You wait for these visits with great anticipation, don’t you?”

“Of course. She’s like nobody else and she’s not ours that often.”

“She does add color, I agree! You mother is close to Cecily; I’m happy they get to catch up in person again.”

Dad was most happy when Mom’s happy, he is that sort of man, easy overall. A scientist, calm and quiet most of the time but when Aunt C. came he unwound more than he usually did, was more talkative and attentive, drank a couple of extra glasses of wine as the three of them–and sometimes Aunt Marilyn, Uncle Doug and maybe Trish–stayed up late. Sparring, swapping ideas and jokes in the back yard or living room until I wondered if they would ever pipe down and let Trish and me talk, too.

As we finished a meal of cold cuts and cheese, dill potato salad, tossed salad, sweet pickles and rolls, Aunt C. sat back and pulled her arms up behind her head. She stretched shoulders about and grabbed opposite wrists and tugged. She told me it helped with knotty kinks in the upper back. I adopted it and it helped, but restrained myself . I didn’t want it to seem I was mimicking her or took all her suggestions like a childish protégée.

“I won’t be here for as long as I’d planned, family. It’s off to Palm Springs, from whence I came this time. On the way I have a stop in San Francisco for a poetry reading–for my fifth chapbook, soon to part of a real collection. The venue is sold out. Life is about moving forward, right?”

“Fabulous,” Mom said. “Can’t wait to read the one you brought us.

“Can’t wait,” I echoed.

“Good for you,” Dad said.

She flashed one of her mega watt smiles. Shook back the mass of dark waves and studied our ancient chandelier as if suddenly loathe to look right at us. I gripped the edge of my chair as I studied her profile. How did she look enticing and fresh all the time? I pulled tighter my bedraggled ponytail, wondering what she was avoiding.

“Has that always been there? I like that fixture a lot. Which brings me to this: I’ve bought a house in Palm Springs! Really! I can’t even believe it.”

“A house, my gosh! Why now? What style, how big, how much?”  Mom clapped her hands like an excited child.

Dad murmured, “How wonderful for you, how did this come to fruition?”–as if he thought she was stretching the truth, at the least. He’d ask for proof later, no doubt.

I thought, That isn’t so far away from us, only a short plane ride, we’ll see her more often now. But I felt nervous about this new development. Aunt Cecily had lived out of hotels and even hostels; a condo one year; beach houses; villas and estates, friends’ or boyfriends’ houses and never once had a place of her own, or not for long. She’d said more than once that didn’t like the idea of “settling. Settle for what? Why? It’s only interesting when you know you’re moving on soon, finding a new geography, figuratively and literally, new people.”

“You’re the first to know in the family, of course. I didn’t want to create a terrible at the family barbecue, knock everyone over without some warning. Can you imagine what Marilyn will say? She’ll say I’ve had a transformation of epic impact and have given up my so-called hedonistic life and now am ready to succumb to stodginess. No offense to anyone. This will be a base camp, that’s all. I love the climate there, over three hundred days of sunshine, hot desert country and I got a good deal. It’s Spanish style and has four bedrooms…”

A sinking feeling spread out from my diaphragm. I heard her talking but I was already trying to imagine her living among leathery tan people who should just hole up indoors due to the ever-blazing sun. Most probably they did just that in summer. What sort of life was that for someone who enjoyed the outdoors, liked to freely roam? Was she going to join a golf club? An all female weekly book group? She might have picked a better spot, closer to us. And one thing we enjoyed together for years was swimming–she had a much more powerful side stroke than I. I’d have to visit her in winter to enjoy tamer temperatures, not easy with school. Or maybe she’d still come here. No, she had a real house now, she’d be tied down. My bohemian aunt! Why did things have to change?

“…I have a few friends in Southern California and those who’d like to visit already. What a lovely place to throw a party. I’ll still travel, just far less for now.” She leveled a piercing look at me. “What do you think, Kiddo? Aren’t you pleased for me?”

I was caught off guard so took a long sip of water.

“Well. I mean, an actual house! That’s a big thing to buy, right? It means something to do that. I’m glad you found a place you like and now will have one spot to call home, I think…I’d like to see it. And it’s not so far away which is great. ”

She appraised me with her slightly slanted, summer’s eve-lake-blue eyes, as if guessing my unease. “You’ll come visit me, won’t we have good times? You’re staying out west for college, too, right?”

“Sure, it’ll be good.” I spooned more potato salad on my plate. “Maybe UC Berkeley, or University of Washington or MIlls College–oh, I don’t really know yet where I should go. I eventually want a degree in anthropology or maybe linguistics.”

“Of course–perfect for you. But travel first, it will teach you more than you can fully absorb.”

The grownups went back to their chatter. I wanted to leave the table so finished the second helping and asked to be excused. Mom nodded, turned back to her sister. Things didn’t feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I said I’d be back for dessert, I was going out back a bit. Dad nodded at me blankly as I left.

I settled in a chaise lounge and called Trish.

“She went and did what? That’s amazing! Mom and Dad will be so happy. Don’t you agree? You sound like irritated.”

I wound a few locks of hair around my fingers and tugged, stared into dense maple leaves a dazzling green against a cloud-streaked blue sky. Two squirrels were racing up and down the tree, frantic for no good reason. My mind felt just like that.

“No.  Not yet, probably not ever.”

“Why not? She’s getting a little old to be some rootless person. It’s a good sign.”

“Wait a minute, she’s only thirty-five!”

“Your mom is forty-two, mine is forty. Aunt Cecily is getting older, she’s slowing down.”

I felt like gagging. “My gosh, Trish! Old is more like sixty, seventy and up. Our mothers are seeming older because they live the lives they do, in my opinion.”

“Because they had families, work hard and keep house? They’re too settled down? You’re being dumb.”

“Well, maybe they didn’t have the free, brave spirit Aunt Cecily has. They had their own paths, I admit. But I could always count on Aunt C. to be the wayfarer, an adventurer, the footloose woman of our family! The one who was never been trapped by the trappings of all this… in our little hothouse of a town. Is she really giving up already, giving in?”

It made me more than a little anxious to envision her out of circulation, in an ordinary house. Why did she betray her principles? I was being dramatic but I felt all this to be true.

I heard Trish breathe more laboriously. That was not a good sign; it meant she was frustrated, had lost the thread of the conversation, was mad or all three. And she had asthma, too.

“You mean, you think she has surrendered to real life? Or she has somehow let you down by finding a home of her own?” Her voice quietly shrieked at me. She coughed.

“Oh, I don’t know but calm down, I shouldn’t have called you. You don’t understand. And don’t tell your parents, either. Just sit on this, we’re getting together tomorrow, then she can share it with us all.”

She coughed again. “Yeah, we’ll be there. We can ask her about the details. I’ll bet she’s excited but you are thinking of yourself!” She took a hit off her inhaler. “I don’t get you sometimes, Eve. It’s like you have a phobia about others’ happiness. Or maybe like you think regular life an infectious disease and just try your hardest to avoid it. You should get over yourself and get with the program!”

“That is pretty creative thinking for you, cousin, I’ll just have to ponder all that in another lifetime!”

I hung up. But I had to laugh at the “infectious disease” comparison. Not quite true, but close. But “get with the program”? Ugh, never.

As Mom served strawberry pie, Dad winked at me–a cue when he wants me to lighten up. Mom slightly raised one arched eyebrow, gave me the look that goes with it. Aunt Cecily patted my hand then dug into her pie. I generally beamed at them like a good participant. She stopped to ask for “more whipped topping to celebrate.” I found it a little hard to swallow but managed to stay there another twenty minutes.

******

“Now that I have all of you here and we’ve stuffed ourselves with barbecued chicken and garden fresh veggies, shall we each have a glass of wine? Yes, even the girls, they’re not babes in arms, anymore!”

Dad poured for us all, then we took our webbed lawn chairs. Mom liked to put them into a loose circle. I wanted to only slip away. I had heard the news once; that was enough. It would take weeks, months, maybe years to figure out why my aunt was “settling down and settling.” We had chatted off and on about other things. She’d come to my tennis practice and applauded my progress. We’d talked about books and her poetry performances and perhaps swimming before she took off in one short day. Mostly she hung out with Mom since she had taken two days off. I hadn’t yet told my friends about Aunt Cecily’s purchase. I had to think it over, put my feelings aside until she left.

Aunt Cecily took her place in an opening of the circle. Her raven hair was softly pulled back at the sides. She wore a long sleeveless, low necked dress with full skirt. It was printed with slinky, almost neon vines on a sapphire background. It would have looked silly on most women but on her it was sexy-chic. She wore jangly bracelets on both arms and long chandelier earrings. Her feet were bare in the cool grass. It was like watching an outdoor stage set come to life.

“I’m going to jump right into it, family. I have gone and bought a house in Palm Springs. It’s a good-sized house and it has a wonderful pool and view. I got a good deal as the owner wants to soon exit the country for more tropical environs. I’ve long admired it there and visited a few times over the years. It will be my base of operations for several years. Then, who knows?” She looked at Marilyn and Doug, Mom and Dad. “So, what do you think about that?”

“Fabulous news! I am so relieved to hear this! I thought it might be bad news, the way you were acting as we circled up,” Marilyn said.

She jumped up, gave her little sister a gigantic hug, and Doug followed. My parents joined in the well-wishing as if they didn’t know already. Trish moved from the edge of things but didn’t look at me as I cheered from my spot on the grass by the azaleas. I thought: A few years, was that all? What was Aunt C. up to? The others bombarded her with questions until she asked them to back off a bit, more would be revealed in time but they should toast the good news with her. We all raised our glasses.

Dad spoke up. “Here’s to a whole new chapter in Cecily’s enchanting life, may she find her own hearth and home a happy adventure!”

And we gulped it down. It was red, delicious and I went for more. No one but Trish saw me, who sauntered over.

“So, you think there’s more to it, huh?”

“Of course. We know what she’s like and I have never even heard her say she loved the desert, by the way.”

“She loves the Mediterranean…”

“That’s entirely different, Trish. I think…” I took another deep drink. “You don’t think she’s getting married, do you? I mean, who are all those friends she has in Palm Springs, anyway? She’s usually in Europe or South America or somewhere else we lose track of her….anything might have happened. Is she pregnant?”

Trish laughed. “Seriously? No. And who doesn’t want a house of their own? Plus, she’s always been so independent and liked men too much to pick just one. But she’s smart. She’s making an investment?”

“That might be part of it. What do we know about her, really? And not everyone want roots. I figure there’s a bigger reason.” I drank the rest and poured a bit more.

“Eve, easy does it.”

“Sure.” I poured her some more. “The other thing is, maybe she’s–she’s—not well?”

Trish frowned at me. “Gosh, look at her!”

An ear ringing whistle reached our ears. “Hey, girls, back to the circle, I’m not done!”

Aunt C. waved us over, both arms wide open as if corralling us, bracelets jangling, a shepherdess calling her stray sheep. I scurried over, heart pounding, feet stumbling as Trish grabbed my arm. We were asked to sit again.

This time, Aunt Cecily did, too.

“Well, that was the best and easy part. Now comes the hard part. For me.”

She sat up, chin up, cascading hair all about her still-glowing face. Then her head tilted as she looked at us one by one. She spoke more at last.

“I met someone on my travels. His name is Stellan, Stellan Starngarten. He’s a wonderful artist, a sculptor, and has shown his work in Europe. I fell in love, is what happened. We have been seriously paired for a couple of years. We’ve traveled, of course; I’ve stayed at his place in Croatia at times. Recently, though, he decided to sell his home due to unforeseen circumstances–a need for more money for an upcoming event.”

As she hesitated, I could hear a few intakes of breath. I held my own. Here it was. Whatever it was.

“We’ve been thinking long term. Imagine, I’ve been free so long! Free enough to be able to look for and find a superior love, and also to be chosen. So we then made a plan of sorts. But life–it’s often unexpected in its ways. And that can be good even if it seems bad.”

“What is it, Cece?” Mom asked in a hushed voice.

What was my aunt saying? What was she doing? I could hardly bear it. I had an impulse to stand and yell at her: “Don’t leave, don’t hurt us, don’t change things!” But she just ran hands through all that hair, all those sparkly things she wore jingling and  glinting, and then pressed her palms against the back of her head and looked into the dusky sky, as if seeking the right words. Or an answer. I looked up, too, saw Venus and the North star, and wished more than anything her next sentence was a beautiful one. Concluding, redeeming words so we could all could go to bed relieved. My pulse raced a long.

“It turns out Stellan has a serious, inherited heart defect so he needs surgery, more than one procedure. Then long-term recovery time yet even so, we won’t know the end result for some time even if all goes well. So, I bought us a house. We will live in it while he gets the medical treatment he needs now that he has more money. I hope to God he stays with me a long while. But if not, we’ll have this time together. I’m the one who needed to be closer to my family. His is mostly dead and gone… He always wanted to live in the American West, the desert.” She closed her eyes a moment and they re-opened. “I’m afraid, family. But I’ll be with Stellan all the way in our house in the desert.”

She looked around our circle and her oddly restrained sadness and fears were just a pale sheen on her cheeks. Yet she was smiling. This was my aunt but she was not the same. Her face tender, words hesitant to leave her. She seemed still as a creature listening for the next snap of a branch beneath her. The fiery essence was there, just altered, revealed in new ways.

“Our house will be a house full of a–a most unreasonable, undaunted joy… as long as it can be,” she said and stood again.

She slunk away from us to get more wine and gather herself together as we absorbed this news.

Though we were silenced in the wake of it, I felt as if she had scooped me up in her arms the way she probably had Stellan. That vibrancy, strength, her belief in a good life ahead no matter what came: it filled our darkening summery yard with its own power. How could we feel sad for her? But we couldn’t ignore that she had found and perhaps would lose so much, so fast.

“Maybe it will end alright,” I whispered to Trish and she nodded solemnly.

After the food, after more talk and the wine got to me, when my other aunt and my uncle and Trish left, Aunt Cecily crossed the hallway and knocked on my bedroom door.

“You knew there was something more,” she whispered as she held me close. “Thank you for being my Eve. I know I’ll be able to count on you as the dragons are slayed and we carry on. You’re my rising star, Kiddo, I love you.”

And time was suspended and the sorrows and worries. My aunt was being my exotic, beloved aunt and she saw me as who I was and even hoped to be. I was already planning a visit as soon as she and Stellan could have me. He had to be amazing like her. And if not Croatia or Crete or Buenos Aires, then off to Aunt C.’s surprising Palm Springs I would gladly go.

Mapmaker Girl

COpurtesy Wikimeida Commons: 1823_darton_and_gardner_comparative_chart_of_world_mountains_and_rivers_-_geographicus_-_mountainsandrivers-darton-
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons: 1823, Darton and Gardner Comparative chart of world mountains and rivers

Suriya never planned on becoming a mapmaker. Her heart was set on architecture, creating place from wood and stone, glass and metals. It wasn’t only the imagining of an entire construction, it’s becoming an enlivened entity with breath made of those who dwelt within and without. Though as she held that in her central mind the idea astonished her. No, it was the work of it: conception of design, the measurements and rejection or acceptance of materials, every alteration to the plan. The blood heat of all that went on inside her thinking and being. The anticipation like fear that thrilled as the building was to be created.

She dreamed of this inside the small grey cinder block  house she shared with most of her family. It was a humble box lost among all the others built to withstand the winds and weather draped and dropped on their village, Milliad. She watched other, older Makers construct and erect the places she improved upon in her designing mind. Nearly cried out for a place among them. And tended to the work she was given and needs she perceived.

Except her father’s needs. Zel was a Traveler, and since it was an honor to be a trading man they endured his absence. But it was also inconvenient when a man had a wife and six children–to leave them to their own devices could be dangerous, as well. But they made do. Her mother, Aya, worked the water line from dawn to dusk, muscular arms hefting urns and pots in a sliding rhythm and managing the line when others grew slack. Her body’s sways and twists unleashed song; she was paid extra for it. Suriya’s older brother, Torn, corralled his siblings, getting them to the Community Classroom and collecting rocks to trade with the Stone Master for food passes. He yearned to one day leave as had their father, to see the world. To be free of the drudgery.

Torn charged Suriya with keeping track of their father’s voyages. Father drew them rough diagrams in the earth, acting as if it made little difference to them if he went north or east, south or west. But Torn was hungry for details and his sister knew how to capture them. Suriya could draw with such precision that at fourteen she already was being given jobs by the community, documenting people’s faces and possessions. Torn convinced their mother that she would bring more security and prestige to the family if she followed that path. Maybe they would even be allowed to move. Mapmaking would be useful to all. She should be apprenticed to Mapmaker Master Joss, who’d asked for her already.

Suriya went off to find and sign on with him, not unhappily. If she drew more she might gain skill for architectural blueprints, in time. She would also be out of the house. She would not carry water or pick rocks.

Joss was pleased to have her and the Tribune was relieved to have a new apprentice such as she. In very little time she caught on to the latitudinal and longitudinal manner of all Place, the bodies of earth and water, the divergence of many skies from endless horizon. She knew about the three moons and both fixed and unfixed stars from her father’s tales. She grasped directions, spacial orientation and markers before they were uttered. The Mapmaker Master found she had such a talent that he stood behind her watching over her tidy head with its small red scarf, following every line and mark with barely hidden awe. He gave her more complex measurements of various Travelers’ distances and topographical information and let her go to it. Joss encouraged her but gave faint, often no praise. He would know more as time went by. He would consult with the Tribune if needed but he suspected the truth and knew all would be revealed fully: Suriya could become Grand Mistress of Maps. But the longer she was not informed and not officially chosen, the better for Joss and the Tribune. He had separate work to get out of her first.

Suriya took home a pouch of small multi-colored orbs each week to exchange for household goods. Over time it came to mean more than she expected. Her mother was proud of her daughter’s fine skill and contribution and told her more than once. But Aya was well aware of her daughter’s passion for creating beautiful structures. She waited to see if Suriya would stay of her own accord. It was likely this child would bring something more than acclaim to their family but she didn’t yet know what. How much she might damage, how much illuminate. It frightened Aya but she kept the feeling wrapped up tight, tucked far away. Her husband expected her to work and live without probing for more than could be yet answered. It was safer that way.

Her son, Torn, on the other hand, always sought more despite the wisdom of patience. He fingered the smooth glass orbs and thought how much he would rather see a key to the gates and the route where his father roamed, for starters. Then he went to the trading place to obtain what was needed for his mother, wondering over the possibility of a life free of rocks and orbs and grains for the bread they ate to sustain them another day.

In the night’s lonely depth and width as the others slept, Suriya perched on the flat top of the rough roof, the part before it slanted downward. She pulled from her loose garment rough paper sheaves and a drawing charcoal, then drew the route she believed their father had taken this time.

Though without costly rich dyes to aid her, she knew in her mind what colored her sketches: black-blue and violet mountains, rust brown and grey for shorelines, wide expanses of flat land that had no color except for flecks of orange and green. The sweetness of red inside white for blossoms. The moist greeness of hollows where the animals roamed. There was no sound she could hear about her as there was none in the maps. The vivid silence was music to her and it reverberated within her, a cushioned thunder of great wings moving in soft air. She glimpsed feet running along steep, barren hillsides and then they were gone. Suriya drew until her hand cramped, stiffened, until night was frayed at the edges with tiny licks of light. Then she descended the ladder and crawled into her window and then into the loft’s bed swing. And slept deeply and briefly.

But even when the map appeared to succeed with its beauty, each intuitively discovered byway declared remarkable by an astonished Joss, Suriya could not tell if he was pleased. He seemed disconcerted, even dismayed in his stern, closed way.

“I think I’ve gotten very close to Father,” she told Torn as they washed after first meal. “In true fact, it is more that Father has gotten to me and my work.”

Torn took no care in keeping the water off the floor and her garment and he splashed his face another time. “You don’t want me to know, I’m sure. You’ve already figured out I want to leave, find and go with him. Then you’ll be stuck here with the others.”

Suriya dried her face on the tail of her frock. “It’s not that easy to go. It will take a miracle to get out of the gate until you are twenty years and even then, you have to be invited for a purpose as we know. No one does something without a purpose. That is our way.”

He roughed up his ebony black hair so it stuck out in small barbs. “That is your fate, not mine.”

“I didn’t say that–we can choose our own final fate once we’re called forth by the Tribune or the Highest Power. It may require sacrifice but… oh, why must you be contrary?” She drank from the cup of her palm then flung droplets at him.

Torn batted her away and she batted him back; it seemed like play until he gave her a small shove.

“You mean like Joss and soon the Tribune have called you forth- -and yet you have chosen well enough, have you?”

She stood with feet apart and hands on hips, then let out a rush of air  and shook her head. She brought her smooth strong hands together, one cupping the other before her chest. “Please don’t joke. Drawing chose me. The images chose me. You have always known that….You are not the same brother, Torn, as you were before Father was gone so much.”

Torn knit together his tanned, lined brow as he looked into her, then away. “I’m not a child anymore, that is all, well past your age. And soon you won’t be so childish, either. There are things you can’t imagine yet because your mind can’t hold them as real. They are too big– and bitter and simple. Not tender or complex like your sweet strange dreams, your mad fantasies.” He cackled as if he’d made a joke but she felt it as a sting.

“Come to the roof tonight,” she said, “and we’ll see what is and what isn’t.”

Torn considered her standing there, her hands now gathering her skirt. She could be so earnest and what did that even count in Milliad? He’d often asked her this. But her eyes had become luminous over the passing of time. Their color–dark blue with gold around the edges–startled him again as she refused to break her gaze from his. Her hair had fallen out of her scarf, unruly and thick, hence the scarf until she gave in and cut it chin length like the older girls. But her still, steeply planed face was inscrutable. They had once been told they favored one another. Torn didn’t know so much about her, anymore, he realized and she didn’t likely know about him.

Or did she? A chill twitched his shoulders as she smiled lightly, something more beneath its easiness.

“Help me with the children, it’s late,” he told her. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Together they rounded up the four young ones. The little ones had their pieces of fruit and bread and their woven bags. They pulled on soft-soled shoes. The six of them walked to the Community Classrooms, their older brother and sister so good to see when they looked back, then whispered among themselves. This was different, surprising, all of them leaving twelve footprints in the dusty paths, the wind hovering over them and then whisking away their tittering voices.

******

Suriya had had trouble at the Mapmaker Workshop and it followed her all the way home. It seemed Joss had wanted her to diverge from what made she’d drawn. He’d directed her to follow his mechanical compass as she worked on the paper flattened out on the work bench. Instinct told her he was wrong but how could she disagree? There were other Mapmakers who worked swiftly, quietly, but he was a Mapmaker Master held in great regard. She was young, had been there far less time than anyone else. But he had not disagreed with her renderings until this time.

Zel’s current trail was not as important now, Joss had told her, as were her findings of obscure passages, whether taken by others or none other yet. Could she see the off-shooting trails amid forests? The danger and mystery of distant mountains beckoning or did they recede from her mind? Could she feel where lesser rivers and tiny creeks turned or sudden rapids became impassable? And what about the towns they should record and visit or avoid? The hamlets that, like Milliad, meant something only to the inhabitants and thus, not to them at this time. He needed to find prosperous settlements that yielded greater profits. Zel was one among many and he had such irksome principles.

Joss knew how Suriya’s gift manifested by now: she made the maps come alive, each rendered from her interior visionary views, her sensations and sightings of place and energy. He didn’t know how it worked, only what it could likely do for them all; he’d have her proficiency honed into a power he could net and wield, too, one day. If she trusted him. But when she got too close to her father’s footsteps he urged her elsewhere. Joss had his own mission in that room with her, one that would be essential to Milliad’s growth,  more so for his status and security. But he knew he had to be watchful of all Suriya’s mapmaking skills could reveal lest he miss an important cue leading to those grander days.

Suriya walked home with a brisk pace, her hand trailing a stick in the dirt. The intrepid shadows at end of day greeted and cooled her as she blinked them out of her sight. They slowly melted into the golden hour. She needed to talk to Torn tonight, to unburden herself, to share with him her secret work. Was it even possible to speak the truth in this place where people said so little? Even then it was often obscured, layered in meanings. It was the Milliad way, born of harsh weather and tightly knit families and work that held them apart more than brought them together. The mill town kept people fed but also kept them exhausted in the vast fields and ancient large mill, quick to find privacy to rest, bodies limp, minds emptied. The Tribune wanted them to give their all to the community, not so to others. They were spokes of a wheel, yes, and those spokes did not touch but strengthened the wheel of Milliad.

The night fell upon Suriya without hesitation, twilight brief and darkness blurring the perplexing ways and means of humans while other creatures lay down and just slept.

“I can hear you, Torn. You think you’re so stealthy but your body resists the wind and gives you away.”

He unfolded himself at ladder’s top and came round to the flat spot near center, before the gradual slope of roof increased.

“A more sly four-legged I am not; I have to move as keeps me well alive.” He sat beside her. “Ah, too long since I have been up here.”

“I’ve always wanted to anchor a bench here,” she said. “The roof top is just a flattened length of stucco where we might even set up a small table. If we put a rail around it even the younger ones could join us–”

“That’s the point, right? This is not a children’s area; they belong inside until they’re old enough to climb safely.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. Her hair billowed out of the scarf as wind gusted; she held tightly her drawn-up knees. “Milliad’s ways, separating and dividing people except at school where we had to sit crunched side by side all day long in the stifling heat. I want to make more community spaces!”

She glanced at him but he was looking out over their village and beyond. The horizon brightened to opalescent then went black, crowded with starry bodies taking their places. He pulled his shoulders up high and let them drop, then leaned back on his hands.

“Out there….” Torn murmured, chin jutting toward the gate.

“…is what you hope to find…but also what you don’t want. Not all would be so wonderful. Father clarified that when Mother wanted to follow him, all of us like vagabonds.”

“No matter all that now. I know how to make my passage. I’m leaving soon. Don’t ask me how or when.”

Suriya felt a knot yank tight in her chest. “You can’t wait until you’re of age? Then just walk out safely?”

“There’s only so much time, sister. So many days I hate it here, the rules and cunning, the work designations and extra demands on families, the obedience to Tribunal methods. It is not a place to find more or better; everything is regulated, set to ancient law that needs amending. ”

“But what can you accomplish by running off?”

“I don’t know yet. It’s waiting to speak to me but I can almost hear the wisdom rising. I tell you this because you will find a way to understand…and you’ll forget to share it with others, am I right?”

She tapped his hand three times, their childhood signal of loyalty.

“Now what was it you wanted to tell me? Or are we to sit and gaze at the sky until we become stuporous?”

She turned sideways and placed her hands on his shoulders. “I know where father is going, brother.”

Torn grabbed her forearms and shook her a little.”You found him? How?”

Suriya reached into the middle pocket of her garment and pulled out four maps, then stopped his hands from snatching them.

“Because, Torn, I make the maps he follows.”

Torn released her and leaned back involuntarily, put his hand to his lips and gazed at her hard.

“I start out drawing what comes to my mind’s visual expanse. I feel directed in part by his thinking but that isn’t all.”

She said this as if she was explaining the way water erodes a riverbank, a thing common and expected.

“He directs you…?” Torn said, feeling scared but uncertain why.

“I just know where he wants to go, so I show him how to get there. I draw the maps for him here”–she held out the maps–“and he holds it in his mind while I work and finally when I’m done. And on he goes.”

Torn made a light snickering sound. “…and on he goes… Then how did he get places before, without your help?”

“He didn’t need my help then. Now he does. The Tribune and Joss have other plans; he has to be safe. He realizes I know things.”

Suriya turned away as he read her maps. She could hear the first moon rising, the second preparing to join it, or perhaps it was night birds lifting off from a faraway branch with a swoop. She wished she could stand up, leap out to follow, whatever the delicate ruffles of sound were. She wanted to do something unexpected, even to herself.

“These are amazing, Suriya, so detailed and beautifully made. And you believe he is headed this way?” Torn pointed to the upper edge of the second map.

“Yes. Tomorrow he crosses over a forgotten mountain here,” she said and moved her finger along lines she’d trailed in charcoal.

Her brother put his face close to the map to better see it in the deepening dark. He traced the way of her finger and let out a deep tremulous breath.

She smiled at him, knuckled his spiky hair. “They’re yours to keep. I have them in my memory. I figured you’d want them when you leave, which I suppose is quite soon. It seems the bitter, simple realities you’d mentioned revolve about people being greedy and selfish too often. They–Joss, the Tribune–want our father to bring back all he can forcibly take. But he isn’t that man. He’s a fine, hearty Traveler, a good trader, but fair and just. He knows much about many things and will not aggrieve others if he can avoid it…I so miss him. Now you will go…”

“Suriya, I can’t fathom that you’re giving me these powerful tools. Your work to help Father. You know I was to leave in three days time…? And now I will know where to go. Will you and I know each other’s ways, too? I don’t want us to get lost in all this change.”

She only nodded. Looked out into the tree branches that swayed against the elegant palette of nighttime, the stars winking at them as if they knew, too, their stories. At the rows and rows of pale squat homes lined up below, the people all ensconced inside their neat little house-prisons.

“I want to build such new places of worship, places of play, places of eating and talking and laughing. I want Mother to bring her dance and songs, bring us to our feet as she did when she was young. I want more happiness, Torn, and peace for Milliad. I ask you and Father to come back and help us. But for now you have been called, brother, so you must go.”

“Thank you, Suriya… from my soul. We will return home and we’ll find ways to make all kinds of changes.” Torn softly kissed her cheek, then left to further prepare.

Suriya stood tall, raised her arms into the enveloping darkness, then unknotted a small red scarf from her dark hair. It unfurled then floated away as wind blew the wavy strands from her gleaming blue-gold eyes envisioning even now the journey she’d soon map for her brother as well as their father. For perhaps their whole family. For where there would be new pathways there was need of the first lines made in dirt or on paper, of light to be cast ahead and a way to find and be found.

 

A Wholeness of One Amid Others

Neighborhood walk, periwinkle 042

Being more alone has become a curious experience; the more it occurs, the more its vagaries and useful qualities surface. And the longer I live within it, the more I find a home within its mutable parameters.

It’s similar–though granted, non-material in essential nature– to the first time wearing a new pair of jeans. I mean real jeans, not the ones with plenty of helpful stretch. Think how they feel somewhat stiff,  perhaps unfriendly to hips and other rounded bits when squatting, stretching, even sitting a long while. Much more in the newness except easing in, out and walking about is not that great until they relent under the bulk of your body. In time, though, they get used to your personal configurations and you, theirs. The denim and seams, zipper and brass button begin to conform to the owner’s shape and every requisite movement. After thorough washing several times and repeated wear and stretch, you begin to forget they were once new. They become much better than new–that is, comfortable, a pleasing part of your wardrobe and even the easiest option. Trustworthy, you might say.

The analogy works pretty well but it stops here since the state of being alone is not an object, of course, not disposable or shareable. Unlike blue jeans, its innate and defined nature would be altered entirely: it is no longer be aloneness when including another person. Since I am not talking about the trying experience of acute loneliness–which can move into a danger zone–being alone necessarily exists in a modified vacuum ( things and events can exist in the same time/space). A situation separate from others’ direct impact. This state is at the beck and call of the one who inhabits it. Aloneness can sought out, welcomed and then shaped by what is added or subtracted. It can be avidly protected and nurtured and made into something delectable. And also found wanting, even despised and rejected. Being alone in itself seems to me a neutral state that can be managed for various purposes. It can be a metamorphose into a deepening, complex thing whether it is left to itself or designed with care. It’s nature reflects the one who is alone, the current emotional needs, spiritual flux and physical health.

Since no longer working away from home in a 11-12 hour a day position, it has been a more frequent experience. The first couple of years of (somewhat early) retirement I felt out of sorts being home every day, was more restless than usual. Much was missing suddenly. I found myself seeking contact with storekeepers or people walking their dogs on the street, even the neighbor with a grumpy affect whom I usually avoided. I visited book stores or coffee shops for an hour or two to be a visible part of gathered Homo sapiens. And noticed for the first time that others might be doing the same. I often felt guilty about wasting time but no one else hung their heads in embarrassment or shame. So this was how it was to be anywhere I wanted with no scheduled appointments, doing little of import at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon. I found it extraordinary. Weird. I felt like a wastrel in between moments of enjoying myself.

Lest I forget, let me include the fact–for those who don’t know much about me–that I am married. So, I might agree, not strictly alone in the long run. But he works worse hours than I used to and his business can require travelling. Thus, I’ve ever not had adult company around day in and out. I am often asked if this has bothered me but it became status quo after the first few years of marriage. It was not that relevant even raising five children. We all do what we need to do; I certainly didn’t count myself heroic or unusual as a kind of single parent. Being an independent sort, anyway, I didn’t require his constant presence. I was seldom truly alone with all those kids–and their friends and the pets that came and went. My familial community thrived from my early twenties to late forties–and a couple children returned a short time.

So how much have I even had alone time? The truth is, I’ve had a lifelong kinship with introversion and solitude–as well as moderate extroversion. My work as a human services employee and later, a counselor, kept me connected to large networks of co-workers and clients with emotionally diverse exchanges each day. Beyond work, though not an avid seeker of memberships to groups, there have been some I did enjoy, like choirs or writing critique groups, dance classes and gyms–those which reflect interests.

So when being part of the fray in the work world ceased, I was surprised to find myself out of the loop. Alone. Not dismayed but discombobulated. I was unable to reconcile this outgoing part of my nature with such sudden loss of routine interactions. I am sure most who cannot or do not get up and go to work know what I mean. I had a few months of estrangement wherein a couple of “Meet Ups” with neighborhood writers and also some tai chi students were sampled. Those were dissatisfying. I decided to wait things out, see what developed. How I might change.

There was plenty to do in the meantime with all this elective isolation from the outside world. There were ubiquitous, repetitive household tasks and errands. I read and wrote several hours daily and prepared more submissions for journals. I spent time with my family and a handful of friends when they weren’t working or otherwise engaged. I power walked daily at least an hour–an old habit now possible before nightfall–and did finally join a gym for a year. And, of course, my marriage kept me engaged. We share activities every week-end possible.

Gradually I spent less and less time longing for and seeking others’ company. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it happened. I might take into account a few serious family needs that asked more of me. Or hurting my foot and not being able to exercise hard for months. But it started before then, perhaps the end of my first no-paycheck year, when I found the more I hung out with myself, the better it felt. Insidiously, imperceptibly, I changed from someone who longed to be with others every day–the chatty camaraderie and intense work and meetings and gatherings–to someone who didn’t miss it for days on end. Then weeks. That crammed schedule seven days a week faded from memory. The bone-deep tiredness that sometimes brought unbidden tears to my eyes as I finally drove home from work at nine o’clock at night accompanied by the thought: will I always feel overextended? It vanished.

There may have been a smear of loneliness hidden inside all that activity. It was partly an effect of being in a human services profession–it requires output of immense emotional energy, the mental presence that cannot afford to miss important cues, long hours that get longer if you want to do your best. But it was also a result of not refilling my emotional wellspring often enough. This is a hazard for counselors and others in helping professions. Oh, I believed I was exercising good self-care, allotting time to do things I enjoyed. But I needed more. I didn’t think “burn out” was hovering on my horizon nor the suffering from dreaded “compassion fatigue” that hits so many who do such work. Not even after decades. I had seen some bow out from this work after five years or ten. I knew how to avoid such a demise. Right? Of course.

But I may have to amend that now. I better understand I truly required more time…alone. To rest, to follow my separate creative passions, take assiduous care of my health to avoid another heart attack. To experience deep peace in sustainable, rewarding ways.

A memory comes forward of a younger co-worker, perhaps in her mid-thirties, who one day swiveled her chair away from her desk toward mine.

“Cynthia, I’m so tired  of working…. I’m up for a promotion, you know–supervisor of the team. But I hate being copped up in an office, at times find it hard to listen so long to clients. I care about them, sure, but what I want is–oh, never mind.”

She turned away, acutely aware that she had let down her guard. We had been friendly, yes, but neither of us had time or the inclination to get that personal.

“What is it that you really want?” I asked.

“I mean, I want to advance and make more money. I guess. But I am an outdoors person first of all. I love sports and nature and just being on the move physically. It kills me to be sitting every day.”

“I can see that–you fidget, stand up to type, move your legs and feet all over even when you’re at your computer. I keep waiting for you to get up and do jumping jacks. So if you don’t want to be in an office, what would you be doing for work?”

She frowned. “Maybe I shouldn’t be saying all this. I could be your manager.”

I laughed. “No worries. If you’re ever my supervisor, I know you’ll be organized and direct–we’d be fine. And as far as that position–in the last ten years I was offered opportunities twice to get into management. Obviously, I declined. In my earlier career I ran a whole department for a Detroit area aging and home-bound services center, hired and trained and fired people, oversaw 350 clients’ welfare. I wouldn’t do it again though I learned much. I did love the client contact just as I do therapeutic contact here. But you don’t want to even be here…do you?”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Well, no.” She rolled closer and whispered. “I want to be a firefighter or a police officer, maybe an EMT. Is that nuts? But I am an adrenaline junkie, I’m physical, I love those kinds of challenges.” Her face, usually so composed, even emotionless, was fully animated.

“That’s great. So what’s stopping you?”

“Maybe I’m too old to start all over. Or maybe I would fail. And I don’t want to let down some people.”

“You’re stopping you, that’s all. You ought to do what you truly want to do. You can figure it out step by step.”

She nodded, stood up, then turned back leaning against her desk. “What about you? Is this your true calling?”

“Well…I fell in love with it accidentally. But my first passion is writing and I’m thrilled by the arts, though I also crave being outdoors. I’ve enjoyed counselling, yet I’ve waited a long time to do more of what my heart desires. I feel like I need to change that, I’m quitting soon. I’m not that pleased with the clinic’s politics, long hours–I’m just done.”

Her face registered genuine surprise.”But you’re good at this work!”

“So are you. But do you want to keep doing it because you’re good at it or do you want to do what you love most before you’re my age and wish you hadn’t put it off?”

She–a woman known for composed manner, reserved nature– smiled at me warmly. I thought how beautiful she was when she let herself be herself.

“Don’t give up your real dream.” I said.

“You’re right. Thanks… for hearing me.”

“Thanks for talking with me.”

We both went back to work but whenever we saw each other in the halls or at meetings, we exchanged more personal looks and words. We knew each other now in a way no one else there quite did. We each had plans, I imagined.

A month or two later, I left that organization, the work that had become an avid calling. And have not looked back. Whether my co-worker made healthier choices, I do not know. But there needed to be a life change right then. I wanted to slip into a pool of sweet stillness, bask in a lifestyle of fewer demands, less crisis where one poor decision could impact a vulnerable client in terrible ways as well as good one.

I wanted to be more responsible to me, not just others and that mean more air and space inside and outside myself. Solitude beckoned me like along lost my intimate companion, resonating with possibilities. I believed in this separation from the one life for another. And after the first adjustments to make the fit better, my new schedule aligned more with body and mind. Life developed a different rhythm. It went from good to better.

The quietude in my home each morning is an edifying experience. I read meditations, pray while the tea kettle is brewing for a mug of Bengal Spice tea. Classical music is turned on, or jazz. I read from a few books or magazinea as I nibble a simple breakfast of toasted bagel and almond butter. I check my Moleskine planner–still useful. These lists include: WRITE, walk/dance, email or call (fill in blank), download and sort photographs, work on collage journal, WRITE. Paint, watch an online film, walk to tea shop, library, WRITE.

Yet sometimes I worry I could become a recluse. When I began this piece, that was the main thought while all the virtues of being alone rose up. I worry that I won’t do enough to aid others since I have not volunteered for any organization. Should I find ways to make a slew of new friends (who are also getting paid to work)? Will I look for more opportunities to just be kind and friendly? Will I run out of years before I get done all I find so compelling? Will I forget the value of social gatherings, how fascinating it is to spontaneously talk with strangers…will I lose the skill to interpret others’ unspoken selves or stop valuing the common ground of shared talents–and the brainstorming and the simple foolish moments?

You can see there is not a lack of things to stir up my brain even when I’m busy doing things I like. Perhaps it’s the lifetime spent rushing to assist others; one does get used to that mode of being. But it is natural, too, for me to seek other people; they intrigue me, mean something to me. Anyway, I worry, yes about the quality of this present life. And then I do not for long periods. I am becoming at home in the generous welcome of solitude.

I used to jot down story ideas between each clients. Now writing happens daily, and rewriting and more writing. So maybe I will become a woman whose life revolves around teetering towers of books, a love of photography and music. A woman whose life is defined by folders and stacks bursting with ramblings, odd musings, tales that will molder until someone is forced to come in and sweep things clean of all those odds and ends when my days here are done.

Perhaps this will be so. I feel less and less inclined to be concerned.

I trust the teachings of solitude. I see how it clears away my falseness, and renders me accessible to deeper feeling and being. It provides me with daily opportunities to take stock and blame no one but myself for errors. And to uphold my goals and ethics without constant defending of them or approval. My life is on me; the value comes from being alive, not accolades, not even responses from others. I have sought and honed the awareness that nourishment is yielded by constancy of God and I can respond with greater attention to my soul’s authenticity. I am carried into each moment. The directions taken arise from instinct and intuition, from sleep and waking. Small flashes of wonderment. I have a multitude of questions. Now there’s a good portion of time to seek knowledge.

There is also more to free up, snatches that circle within and then land well or clumsily on the page. Many stories may never leave this room. In solitude, who witnesses the joy or misery of what I discover know or undertake? We each face ourselves when alone. We sit with ourselves and are overwhelmed or find we are in acceptable company or some of both. I find it liberating, this going inward and beyond self to a greater embrace of life.

Some days aloneness can seem closer to lonely, its true. Not even my husband or family can abate that. It is being human. It may be the choices I have made. But it passes. I wrap myself in the beautiful patchwork cloak of solitude and it shelters me as I labor and meditate. I release it, let it fall away, and find the joy of other humans as I need to. Living is like being on a seesaw; we each find new points of gravity and balance. That requires careful thought and action.

We all maintain a symbiotic status that serves us well even when we do not share discourse. Whether you speak in the same room, I can still hear–feel–humanity’s hew and cry. Whether I need to come forward to respond more or not is part of what I am learning. How do I live a full and accountable life now that I am sixty-five? I am bursting with ideas. And I patiently toil and rest within this being alone, drawing inward toward more mysterious, opening doors. This time in my life I am giving my soul, mind, heart and body full permission to be still or to speak, to be alone or join others. To allow my writing its own power, relieved of the burden of any more punishing regrets.

Dear God, help me stay loyal to my chosen tasks and to give more freely. And dear readers, may you find your true path and make it a good home for your life.