Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Myrna at the Minthorn Camp

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The Minthorns had kept a house on the wooded rise beyond wildflower-overtaken Lazy Meadow for three generations. The big rambling domain, Minthorn Camp, had been the talk of the farmers and the town for the first two and part of the third. But it had lost much of its rough-hewn grace and prosperous sheen, sadly evident by the time Earl Minthorn, II, left behind all earthly toils and gains. Now it looked weary, as if it had a hard time trying to keep up mere appearances. But Myrna was working on it.

Garth said it was hopeless when he drove up the rutted road, looked far and wide over sun scoured land and when he ate breakfast in the breakfast room and remarked on a lack of fresh flowers at the table because they’d drooped their blooms in a gasp of surrender due to record heat. The sturdy roses folded into themselves sooner than they should have, only some regaling under a brief rain here and there. Watering properly got very expensive. The place had come to him disrespected, even damaged

“It’s going to waste, nothing I can do about it,” he mumbled. “Look at those tenacious weeds edge of even the yard. When is there enough time to tend to all those?”

Myrna looked past him and at a ridge where a shimmer of light seeped through trees, spread like honey along the grassy horizon. It gave her a shiver every morning she could see it, every dawn she walked the hill.

He was not even complaining to her, but Myrna somehow felt responsible, as if she should be getting out there on her knees and wrenching them up from 100 rolling acres. Of course she did plenty, besides which most all was leased now, which was a good thing. But that still left ten acres to keep up. Which affable Roger Dell did on week-ends, and after his own long days, to the chagrin of Terri, his wife. But they were given two good-sized plots on the meadow’s south side and grew the best strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables. It had kept them nicely fed, made them a little cash. Plus they now stabled their horse at Minthorn’s for free.

Myrna bit her lip, then retrieved the coffee carafe from the bright, high-ceilinged kitchen. She leaned on the counter, tucked sweaty hair behind her ears. It hadn’t changed so much in her view; when she’d married Garth it looked much the same. True, the pictures he’d early shown her depicted the wealth of previous generations–that freshly painted, proud exterior, the beautiful stone work, carefully tended gardens, a maid in the long formal dining room and cook in the pantry. Rich acreage that prospered so well it was legendary. It was so big and beautiful in those shots it scared her to think she might actually have to live there. Then Garth explained it’d declined and she felt relief and ready to try it. There was nothing in her background that prepared her for such a place, but she knew how to keep order. How to work hard as she had on her grandfather’s humble land in the summers. And, too, make improvements others didn’t notice until done, how to learn fast what was needed.

One thing was saying nothing when Garth was caught by the web of discouragement and remorse. Maybe if he’d been a lawyer like his father, or a horse breeder and trainer like his grandfather (a side business), or an investment banker who made a fortune to bring back home–then things could be different. The cancer had taken so much money, and so soon even the will from his father.

Instead, Garth taught at the state college both American history and world culture (he was still trying to get that right) classes, as well as one economics class he hated, driving 45 minutes each way. Earl, his father, had belly laughed when he’d told him he was going to be a professor. Surely, he wasn’t serious–but he made his own way. Later, he thought living at the old place would be better than college faculty housing. When Earl passed four years ago following a grievously long battle with cancer, Garth and Myrna moved in.

“I should sell it, just unload it. You’ve done a great job refreshing many rooms…we might make a little now.”

“Maybe not decide today,” she murmured. “Maybe walk with me tonight, find ways to enjoy the land.”

Myrna poured a second cup, a hand placed on his shoulder. He tugged at her fingers then touched his lips to them. Her hands were that rare combination of smooth and strong, hearty enough to split wood. They’d met at grad school, yet here she was, trying to make him happy as she labored to maintain a 5500 sf dwelling (counting the guest cottage, but not counting barn with stable, and sheds) when she might have been teaching, too. But art history classes weren’t available for her to teach there. She had plenty to do, she said and he witnessed. If she wasn’t removing old wall paper, she was pruning trees and shrubs; if she wasn’t stripping wood, she was deterring mice from nesting in the attic.

He should be there more. But there were not only classes but multiple meetings and student conferences and papers to grade. It was enough to keep him out of her way and the place out of his mind. Until he came home.

“Aren’t you lonely out here?” But he knew the answer. She loved it more than he did.

He finished the cup and grabbed his sweater. It sweltered in the house even with strong cross breezes and multiple fans, while his rooms at work were air conditioned to an icy chill. He turned back to ask something about the fence but wasn’t sure what it needed now. She gently pushed him toward the door.

“Stay cool as you can, don’t work so hard.” He kissed her on the cheek and lips, then left.

Was she lonely…she could not imagine being less so, she thought, as she cleaned up and banged the screen door to the back. There were chickens not far off that she’d insisted they buy when they moved in. But did she wish he felt about this place as she did? Yes–it was his! Perhaps living a life more privileged caused you take things for granted; maybe it was the good and not-so-good ghosts of his past life, family he’d loved more or less. But she was fully engaged in the plan; she wanted to see it prosper. If he’d just hang on and not sell but keep faith. If he was home a bit more to actually roll up his sleeves, not just criticize.

Even Roger wondered if his old friend had given up, and said so one day as they’d shared a beer on the back veranda. Then he’d apologized.

“Sorry, Myrna. A Minthorn has deep pride in place. His father would have done more if he could have. I don’t think Garth will abandon it.”

He didn’t say, “And won’t abandon you, either,” but he thought it and wondered why. He shook off a ripple of unease as they gazed at the sheer blue prelude to twilight. She was smiling; that was good.

“See you tomorrow night to check on those fruit trees.”

“Thanks, Rog–what would I ever do without your help?”

He shrugged and tilted his hat at her, then turned on scuffed toes of his boots. “You’d learn, you’d be alright,” he said over his shoulder.

******

Her husband brought the young woman by one Saturday morning when a class had been cancelled due to air conditioning repairs. Myrna had forgotten they were coming by as she painted the cottage’s second bedroom. The ramshackle but appealing 1200 sf house was a quarter acre east of the house and she had walked there early to finish the task, naming birds as she went. It was true she’d had the idea to rent it out. Garth had mentioned he might have a potential renter. And then they were in the open doorway.

Garth smiled broadly as he flung wide his arms in the bedroom.

“Myrna, Sherrie Evans. Sherrie, my wife Myrna.”

Myrna wiped trickling sweat from her brow and stood to face a woman taller and younger than she, with a mane of streaked blonde-red-brown hair, a pale hand (with topaz ring on a finger) thrust at Myrna.

“Good to meet you–this is gorgeous!” She breathed in deeply, despite the prevalence of paint fumes

“Well, come on in– I guess you’re looking to rent awhile?”

“The rest of the school year, at least, and as soon as possible.”

The student–so Myrna deducted–swiftly apprised each room with enthusiastic commentary–“Great color and designs for rugs, walls and curtains, you must be a decorator!” –and in ten minutes said, “I can use one room for a studio, yes. When can I move in?” Her toothsome smile was a thousand watts.

What? Myrna thought. An artist?

And so it was done. The rent money was reliable because she was not a student, after all, but taught at the college. Fundamentals of Art and ceramics. Myrna looked at the woman sharply then; she did admit she missed teaching. Also, time to create more than restored houses and chicken coops and middling flower borders. She tried to not think of it because she enjoyed most she was learning and accomplishing.

But now Sherrie would be using their home to make whatever she wanted while Myrna scrubbed dirt stains from her fingernails and got up to tend hens in early morning.

Furthermore, she thought as the woman left, she didn’t like her laugh. It was brittle, could cut glass if she pushed it a bit more, her gaiety underscored by a recklessness. Also, what was with all that hair half-obscuring her eyes–was she hiding something? Or just into over-dyed long hair? And why did that matter–why was Myrna bothering with her? A tenant was what they wanted. The cottage was not that close to the house; she could be avoided.

“Well, she needed a place and will pay good money!” Garth hotly protested as she raised questions. “I checked around, she’s responsible, has taught there three years, is quite pleasant–look, you don’t have to be best friends! ” He gave her a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d like the fact that she’s an artist, too. It might be nice.”

“I know, I should be grateful. I am. It was so unexpected, just like that! Did you put up a notice up? How did she know about it?”

“I mentioned it at lunch when she complained of her roommates.” Then he glanced up at her quickly. “Well, it was an impromptu birthday lunch for four college staff, she was one of them, and I was invited by a guy in my department so I went–we started talking about rentals–“

“Okay. It’s done. We can use the money so I–we–can keep improving things.” She picked at a nubby spot on her light sweater and her torn fingernail caught at it. The temperature had cooled considerably since a hard rain the day before; lingering clouds yet kept the heat at bay. She wanted to leave and take a walk. “Just so I don’t have to be that friendly with her. I have work to do. She seems so extroverted–for an artist…”

She released a tight laugh. She wasn’t going to whine about not being able to work on her massive paintings or research about 18th century silk weavers or study her students’ critique sessions. She lived at the Minthorn Camp, it was where she needed to be now. And wanted to be. Here with Garth, after all.

If Sherrie Evans’ money could keep things running better, why not? She just needed to stay out of Myrna’s way. And yet her chest tightened a bit and her mind felt murky as a stirred up pond.

******

“If he’d talked to me more about it, I’d have felt better prepared to turn over the cottage soon.”

“That it?” Roger was dragging a birch branch to the side of a shed. There was always more to do but he was getting hungry. “Or don’t you like the idea of that cottage being someone else’s good spot?”

“What do you mean? That was the whole idea when I started fixing it up.”

“You said you might use it down the road. A refuge, was that it? And for your art work.”

She swiped at the air with her hands. “Oh, that, just a fantasy. Like a getaway for when I had time to read or draw or sit, listen to mice dance about and watch leaves drift to the ground in autumn. Right.” She looked at him more closely. “And we get along fine, don’t you worry about things. We just need our space at times. Or, I do.”

“I’m not worried about you and Garth. But now this Sherrie gal has put her mitts on it while you have all that extra space everywhere else– but you feel cramped? Go figure, Myrn! ”

She tried to punch his shoulder but he took ax to branch, then she piled up the cut pieces until they were done.

“I can use this pile if you don’t want it. Or should I ask Garth?”

“Go ahead, you know he won’t care. But it’s more psychic space, not literal space, I need sometimes, you know? Away from Minthorn energy, but also constant household chores and the yard’s mess. The cottage was a hidden treasure when we moved in–neglected and forgotten but waiting to be shined up and loved–by me.”

“Ah, she speaks her truth.”

“Oh, Roger, give me a break. I just like my solitude.”

“I know, now you won’t have the cottage for sure. I’m sorry but nice that rent will be coming in.”

“Yeah. I have one week.”

He took his handkerchief and wiped damp brow and face, then his neck and chest where a chambray shirt was unbuttoned a few inches. She gazed at the spot, then past him at the fence that required repair, then her eyes returned to him. He folded up the handkerchief, resettled his baseball cap and hitched up his jeans. Roger was six foot three and if he didn’t work outside so much he’d be thin as a willow branch. He was a telecommunications lineman all day, then often came to help. This had gone on the last three years. He never griped about it.

“You got anything to eat? I haven’t had sustenance since after noon and my stomach is howling.”

“Salami and cheese okay? Just salad and sandwich today, I didn’t go to the store. Garth will be home by ten.”

They tromped through swaying wild grasses, crossed over Kills Creek where a man was attacked by a cougar years ago, past the barn where Roger stopped to check on Pal, his (really, his daughter, Lou’s) horse and finally past the cottage.

With its lights on.

“Why are those blazing right now?” They climbed up five new steps to the back door.

Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.

“Hi there, I’m just measuring rooms since I move in next weekend.” Sherrie ushered them in.

“Sherrie, this is Roger, a friend who works for us. Garth gave you a key already?”

“Hello! Yes, today.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the living room. “I was thinking of my couch size, and then chairs over there and my buffet here and the dining table might be big for this area and what about my drawing table?…”

She nearly glided in low golden sandals to the other side of the room.

“Well, please don’t move in before the lease start date. I still have work to do in the kitchen and out back.”

“Sure, sure.” She turned back to her surmising of furniture and placed one foot delicately in front of the other, like a ballet dancer.

“Okay, just checking. I know you’re signing the lease tomorrow. So… just please lock up.”

Sherrie murmured something agreeable, flipped the surfeit of hair over her shoulders with both hands, stretched her arms up high and returned to inspection.

Myrna and Roger continued to the house.

“I see what you mean.”

“About what?”

“Not much caring for her….maybe not trusting her, either.”

“Did I say that, Rog?”

“More or less.”

“Sometimes I think you know me better than Garth.”

Roger stuck both hands in his pockets, sped up so that she had to run a bit to catch up. It was true, he probably did.

“Wait up, the sandwiches won’t be all that good!”

“Like fine cuisine to me!”

From behind he was outlined against the vibrant sunset, and how confident the set of his shoulders, how natural and easy in the landscape as he pointed to Venus suddenly sparking at them. She’d occasionally thought they might have more in common than she and Garth but what did that mean? They had become good fiends, perhaps best friends. They were both nicely married. He had a lovely child, a good horse, a job he liked, a pleasant home: it was a good, full life. And so was hers. Minus child and horse, both of which which mattered less to her than an art studio, she admitted. Minus husband rather too often, which also mattered somewhat less than she’d once imagined.

******

When she was considering getting ready for bed the next night, Myrna did not look at the clock. Nor check the driveway and peer down the long road that ran circuitous like a snake unwinding its tough, attractive length through their land. His and hers, Minthorn Camp.

Garth was to have been home for dinner but he called and said he was meeting Sherrie to sign the lease–he’d be home before long. It was far too late but she didn’t care when he got there–she knew all she had to know.

She was putting away his T-shirts in the dresser drawer earlier. They weren’t lying nice and flat and socks were bunched up, so she took them all out to organize. There at the back was a folded receipt, then one more, then another, and more. Garth saved receipts for work so she tossed them in the wastebasket, reordered the underwear but as she did so kept eyeing the receipts until her hand followed gaze. He filed such receipts in his desk drawer, not in a dresser.

They–eight of them–were from Palatini’s Food and Spirits. She’d heard of it, but they’d never been there; she wasn’t fond of Italian food. When she studied the credit card, she realized it was not a regular debit card but his credit card. The one he used for emergencies or big purchases. These purchases were meals, two meals each time and dated over the last four months.

Myrna lost her breath, time and space fell away; she grabbed the bedpost to keep from sliding to the floor. She put head in her hands, leaned toward her lap, took in slower breaths. She was not going to faint over this. She’d already sensed it: Garth was meeting someone and it was not for work.

She slipped on her Teva sandals and ran outside, leaned against the nearest tree, body going soft as if defenseless, and searched the sky. Nothing but a wash of soft blue-black, stars and ever more stars and a three quarter moon that glowed so bright she could see dry, brown grasses bending against the weathered fence. She felt relief: to know the truth, not be afraid, to know her gut was right despite rational excuses. Two tears slid down her face but that was all, and they dried fast in the heat of the wind.

Then she got mad.

She reached for her phone.

“Hello?” He sounded a bit annoyed but resigned.

“I know it’s getting late, but can we talk, Rog? Or will Terri be mad? I could use your help–I’d be glad to explain to her, too.”

“Terri and Lou are at her sister’s in Utah for two weeks, remember? It’s kinda late so what’s this about, buddy?” He wiped his face of sleep and got out of bed.

******

They shouldn’t have done it, of course, and if they’d have thought about it a few days and Myrna had let her mind settle and clear, heart becoming quiet as it tended to be, they might not have. But they went ahead with it, changed the locks on the cottage front and back doors. They could barely stop laughing on the way way back to his truck, then said good-bye with somber faces. It was no laughing matter. Roger wondered what on earth Garth was thinking and Myrna, was dumbfounded by a deep sadness.

When Sherrie arrived with her lovely possessions in a rental truck, she couldn’t get in. She called Garth and proceeded to yell, fuming like a child who has been denied. Roger and Myrna watched her carry on from their vantage point in a wooded stretch by Kills Creek. The not-to-be tenant waited for her–Myrna said it right out loud– lover. They couldn’t hear much but the activity–or lack thereof–said it all. Garth came to a a roaring, dust-swirling stop at the once-hoped-for-trysting spot and took Sherrie into his arms, then stomped around the place, trying all windows and doors. Then they were gone, each in a car, one after the other. The rental truck sat as evidence.

Myrna had seen far more than she’d desired; they skulked deeper into woods, then parted. Nothing was said, though Roger had reached for her and maybe she wanted more than anything to fall into someone’s arms–no, his arms–but she did not. Instead she returned home to wait for her husband.

Roger Dell drove all the way home singing loudly with the radio, not a song he even liked. It was better than the feelings he felt, heart pounding like wild hooves against the dirt.

******

The two of them, Garth and Myrna, dug for and found enough love and good sense to recover. It was also the pleasure and grip of Minthorn Camp, one place that belonged to Garth, and he to it. And the woman he married was not someone he cared to harm or lose again, and he told her he’d spend his life proving it. He knew that place had become part of her, as well. He found himself teaching better, returning earlier and in search of Myrna.

But Myrna didn’t believe or care if Garth proved it; she was simply there despite the pain. It had become her home. That was the half-answer answer she had for him; any more would take loads of time. So she finished up the cottage. She moved in and turned two rooms into one airy studio space. There she captured time enough to make large acrylic paintings that were a wilderness of colors, and to refine new skills in botanical drawings, their lushness made more potent by exacting lines. There was the research for articles she was determined to publish again. She went back to the big house only after she sold an article months later.

Roger stayed on part time at Minthorn Camp. He needed to work the challenging acreage; he had grown up roaming it with Garth and their friends. He liked the extra money he now was paid for his labors. It accrued over time for a second horse for Terri (as expert a rider as was he) and himself to share. He hoped one day for a third, maybe more. The Minthorns weren’t the only ones with a respectable history with horses.

And there was Myrna, wasn’t there. She was learning to ride–Garth didn’t enjoy it after he’d fallen as a kid and badly broken his an arm– and it was taking much effort and time. She was not quite at ease on the back of an animal that knew its own mind better than did she. Myrna needed extra help, they both knew it, and Roger was careful as she got better–and gained back ground. Before too long they rode together now and again, sharing a beer and a sandwich after each comforting, victorious ride.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: His and Hers

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He zeroes in, past feet beating pavement
where discarded minutiae gather and disperse
and it all counts to him, marred or unscathed,
this matter he dissembles, puzzles into patterns
to designate order in the world’s gaping chaos.

She scans breadth of east, west, south, north,
and whole or broken it is received as cosmology,
a kaleidoscope of the universe turning before her
as lassos of time capture, scatter light so she
gleans evidence of Grace, its mercurial designs.

The Convening, Part 1

In the village of Quazama there came restless spirits, snatching gold, green and red leaves from mammoth branches and spinning them to earth, making the sweet air heavier with heat, and sending an urgency squalling about the temple to assure the Grand Baraxus was paying attention. The dole houses were abuzz with labors as usual, and the fields were weighed down by vegetation that would feed well the many and spare the rest–those unable to work– any grief of starvation. The Grand Baraxus surveyed his small kingdom and found it good, while his chief Sentry whispered in his ear that a convening was soon needed.

“It is yet early, no need to move fast,” he said with the usual barest smile that preceded impatient reproval. “Surely Martram cannot be plotting once more when he knows so well who holds all power. Mind your attitude, Sentry.”

This was all said with an arrogant satisfaction; the feelings rested on his visage much like the expectancy of a victorious hunt. Yes, much had been done to himself by that scheming miscreant but much more had been undone by himself in the last brutal Discord.

Sentry O stepped two feet to the side and waited. He knew better than to press the matter though written word had arrived to him only moments ago. Time should not be wasted. He fingered the packet in his short robe now and felt the terrible heat of Martram’s rebellion. Sentry O was loyal to The Grand Baraxus as that was his only job. He was tired of trying to convince the man he was not entirely invincible. He had weaknesses others could spot even if he could not. Six times Quazama had given rise to leaders who had wielded the heft of their power and also discovered where it stopped. Not so Baraxus. Useful, potent insights could be obscured, even blotted out by the sheer force of ignorance of one’s self. This, Sentry O knew well. He had served nearly his entire life and now that his knees were bony and his skin loosening, eyes failing and hair leaving his lumpy head he wished only to rest. Not to plot with a ruler who cared less for all his people than one more rapacious bug. But rule he did. Sentry O blinked his eyes to erase this repugnant awareness. If such thoughts were seen in his face, he wouldn’t have time to plan his funeral celebration as he’d be vanquished in an instant. He had his family to consider, and his legacy.

Beyond the temple terracing lay the village Sentry O was so fortunate to be born into. Greenery and light were ubiquitous. The foliage flushed the air with a perfume by turns bright and sweet or darkly sweeter, depending on temperature of the air–or a warning spiritual agitation that came from far away, no one knew from where anymore. There were fifty dole houses, another to soon  be added after his granddaughter came of age and chose her path. Although Sentry O felt her path was already chosen. He wanted to see what she might do before he failed to wake once and for all. Naliya knew her heart; her mind knew far more than she yet realized. But her good mother, Terl, was loathe to let her go. He turned back to Grand Braxas and waited to hear what was expected next, and loosened a shuddering sigh.

******

Crickets greeted her with a chorus of beautiful noise. River slipped through its banks in a surge of energetic melody. Light fed the water, Naliya thought as she filled the jugs, that was why it always shone. But today it was swift and cool and its blueness verged on purplish in its whorls and spouts. She frowned, looked upward. The sky was the same, open and brilliant. Her half-pale, half-inky hair flew above her head in a sudden gust and she pivoted to look all about. Three of the riverine deer were there as usual but only bobbed their fine heads at her, then reared up and dashed away. Naliya listened to the water, crickets, wind and heard a frenzy. She  hoisted the jugs on her sturdy shoulders and half-ran back to the house. Her mother had been waiting by the fire, her long-fingered hands folded. She now stood, and went to the earthen tub.

“Mama, there’s something happening.”

“Child, don’t go on about signs now. Please bring me the water. There’s to be a convening tonight and I don’t have time to discuss your far flung meanings now.” Terl poured the contents of a jug into the deep tub, then sprinkled on top a smattering of dried herbs and flowers. She slipped off her blue robe and stepped in, then leaned back. Her eyes closed. “The Grand Baraxus must have an itch to create chaos again. I wonder why he bothers to call us all in for counsel when he will needs his own way in the end…Not like when our blessed ancestors toiled for and lived the peace, joined life in the realm of the Prism.”

“Mama, listen, the deer left the river before coming to me. This isn’t right–you know they visit me every day. They didn’t even wait for my new honeyed berry treats.” She handed her mother two vials of scented oil.

“Thank you for the oils. Naliya, calm yourself. You may stay here or sit with your cousins or neighbors. It will likely last into eventide.” She put her face in the water, then came up for air and smoothed her arms and neck with oils.

Naliya had only that year been allowed to sit by herself and this thought helped alleviate her concerns. It meant she could visit Zanz, her best friend and maybe more, and her mother wouldn’t know. She knew that now she was thirteen summers she wasn’t supposed to visit him without a chaperone. But they always found a way.

“Alright, but my riverine deer don’t deceive…”

“Daughter, we will see what is to be seen. Patience.”

Naliya sat by the tub and idly dipped swished her fingers in the tepid swirling water, awaiting a turn if she wanted one. Her long hair was lifted from her shoulders by a blast of wind through the  open doorway and tossed it over her face. For a moment she was blinded by its mass. A darkening sweetness found her nose and she sneezed, then coughed, out of breath until her mother’s hand grabbed hers. Terl’s face might have betrayed her own fears but Naliya thought only of Zanz.

******

Their typical back and forth worked its way around the circle many times. The dissenting had been civil as well as time wasting and also thought provoking. Now their words had found a more comfortable balance.

Except for the Grand Baraxas’ declarations.

“If that idiot Martram feels he must try to usurp me once more and be humiliated by losing again, then let it be done. Isn’t the far banishment enough? This time, the outcome must be final!”

There was a murmuring about the circle. Twelve plus the Grand Baraxas sat about the emblematic bolt of lightning and lance inlaid on the floor. Their current ruler had designed and fashioned this from gemstones and finest made tiles when he came into power sixteen years prior. It had replaced the River, Sun, Tree and Star within the Four Directions Cross that had forever been Quazama’s symbols until then.

“When was he last heard from?” another of the Sentries inquired. “He has been gone for over nine seasons this time. I had imagined him quite dead already.” He barked an angry laugh.

There was silence at that; no one imagined anyone much less Martram dead unless he or she planned on killing him, it was a bad seed of an idea. Did he know, perhaps, Braxas’ hidden plan, fueled by his greatest desire?

Terl shifted and looked up at their ruler who in his orange splendid robes appeared more corpulent than ever. She barely smiled but patiently. “I heard from him once not so long after he left. When the storms came and went and he was out seeking sustenance. It was past the Highland hills; I was searching for pink tourmaline for a necklace for Naliya. I told this at the convening for harvest back then. He said his intention was one day return–you know this so surely the latest news is no shock.”

The Grand Baraxus smoothed his unruly grey beard, flicking bits of food onto the floor as he found them.

“When exactly was the recent information given us and had he a name?” asked a woman.

“Late last evening. A Roamer, hence no name known, stopped for a meal with Hiri and his family. He left at dawn, having completed his task and being fed and rested. No one we ever seen around here before, so said Hiri.”

“And he said he had just met with Martram for food, as well…repeat the message you received from Hiri, Sentry O.”

“The river belongs to no one but the people, amen, and to perfect facets of the Light, amen.” He turned to Terl who gave her full attention as she listened. “This be the prayer we’ve said so long, of course. Then: the people determine worth and need as taught by the Prism’s Heart alone.”

“He never trusted the Grand Baraxus’ knowledge and words. It cost Martram greatly as is the law, and so it has been done,” the First Sentry asserted, and stomped his feet to underscore the point.

“Who does?” someone whispered but only a few heard and ignored it.

The Grand Baraxus got up with difficulty as Sentry O helped him, then left the circle and stood with hands behind him, staring out at Quazama. He hadn’t expected this, not so soon, and now that he had taken ill with increasing frequency the last thing he wanted was more trouble than he could manage well. He rubbed his head with a large, soft hand and turned back to his three best Sentries who sat three in a row. The third appeared to be close to dozing, idiot, in response no doubt to the warmth in the chamber, making it close. He wished it was storm weather again so it would cool. He wished he could just drink a large goblet of wine, lie at peace with his woman.

“I am about out of patience,” he said and reclaimed his spot in the circle, touching the lightning and lance once each, then his chest, as was required when coming to or leaving a convening.

“We might vote on holding a village court to determine his worth, as before this was not done as was once our custom,” Sentry O said, his once-rich and strong voice now tremulous. He cleared his throat. “What is your say Terl, Mistress of Rites?”

They all turned to her. She sat tall, her white hair pulled into a braid at the nape of her neck, rain flowers woven in. Her rose and silver robe glimmered in shifting light cast by candles in wall sconces. She felt deeply calm, almost out of body,  despite her heart jumping at the thought of Martram coming to Quazama. She knew exactly what to do.

“We will at last bring out the Living Trust and see what is known of its truth. Martram and the Grand Baraxas will answer the questions that are posed by the last originals among us, Jedmin and Kristoz. This is my offering of justice: guidance of our oldest Quazama rites, the Living Trust left us from our best origins. ”

A gasp went up and then a silence so loud it nearly shook the room.

“I forbid this! I have governed all this time and we prosper in grain and fruit and gemstones! I have been more than fair, more than I should have been despite the unruliness of our people! I need not defend myself with a mere display of words in the open square!” He stood bellowing into the rafters; everyone had to resist the urge to disperse.

But convening members gathered their breath. They locked eyes one pair to the next pair each person around the circle; they began to hum in four tones, a harmony rich and steady, singular. Mighty. Inside the small chamber, the sounds merged and curled about the group and then the Grand Baraxas, to the ceiling, out the windows.

It was determined: meant to be. The Grand Braxas stood with fists at his side, but even he would be tampering with strong power if he rebelled against a convening. And so he left.

A member spoke up. “Now we need the Messenger to send for Martram, the sooner the better. Who is the fastest runner since our last poor soul lost his life to a jungle cat? We have waited too long to choose the next!”

“I have a name,” Sentry O leaned into the circle and looked at Terl.

She closed her eyes, folded her arms against her chest and prayed.

******

“That’s it,” Zanz said and gave Naliya his cup for another drink. “They’re done. Do you know what it’s all about?”

They had come to the river in hopes of spotting a glimpse of the three deer but they weren’t so far visible. They, like all villagers, knew a convening decision was announced by the resonant humming which spread across the village, filling each dole house and then sailing over fields and grasslands to dissipate before reaching the boundary of the highlands.

Naliya sat with knees pulled up to chin, her arms around them. “I could guess but would rather not. It’s not a good moment. No deer, no happiness. Mama knew it when I told her they left me earlier. But she won’t ever quite agree with me, as if I am not supposed to know.”

He turned from his front onto his back. “She’s right; you’re too young. Just be easy with life, let the elders worry!” He tickled her arm with a long flat blade of grass, then stuck it between his teeth, blew on it until it vibrated and made a harsh sound. He wanted to impress her even with  simple things but usually failed at this.

Naliya pushed him so the grass fell away, then put her face close to his. “I am not too young. I am ready to do things, know things!”

“Like what?” He felt the pleasant warmth of her breath on his lips and thought he could taste  berries.

She nudged his long nose with her short one, then sat back, legs splayed. “Something smart, something good….”

Zanz sat up and stretched. “You’ll soon have to sweat like I do every day, working the looms or tending sheep or helping your mother find gemstones. Or train as a warrior–you’re very fast on your feet, have good balance, are strong. I might do that later. You can do more after you learn a trade, like anyone who has a strong body, is a quick thinker. And that, I’m afraid, is more true of you than most anyone I know.”

He wanted to touch each color of her thick hair, the unusual ivory and blue-black strands lustrous in the dusky light. They marked her as part of grand rulers many lines back, which was why her mother was Mistress of Rites. But to meet her–any girl her age but even more so, her– was forbidden enough. He instead tossed a wildflower onto her head and she grabbed a handful of grasses with earth attached to roots and threw them at him until they were on their feet, laughing and shouting.

Naliya put her hands out in a sudden motion to stop their play.

“Mama will soon come looking, I must return home.” She stood still and let her eyes boldly roam over him, then looked away as her cheeks flushed. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” Zanz said and they parted ways, he to the near valley and she to village center.

Terl waited on a stool at their dole house and told herself to be wise, be at ease with life and humble. She felt grateful for all the years they had made their home in lovely Quazama. It was a decent space, one that was comfortable, vibrant with hand woven fabrics she used to decorate, many gems she’d turned into mosaics and the voluptuous flowers her daughter planted last year and now tended in the side garden for their table. But even with much to appreciate and a future that seemed secure, she felt the fear race through her veins, as if someone had put in a taint of pulsing poison that sought only to ruin her or get out. She felt her mind expand, and in its dense center then illumine the hard truth. In her innermost being she begged for mercy. She tried to not weep but it was beginning. Now.

As Naliya came up to the door of the house, she stopped. She felt an involuntary shiver, willed the waning light shift into her sturdy body and wiry limbs. She looked up for the flock of birds she’d watched take wing, then dipped and turned away as she’d made her way through the grasslands. They were no longer there. Her riverine deer had left. Everything held its breath as before a great storm.

She stepped inside and found her mother seated on her stool, sunset’s graciousness spilling through the open skylight, onto her rose and silver garment. Naliya had such love for her but knew, too, the power she possessed even if she denied it, saying it was nothing, it was only beauty passed on and that vanished. Naliya knew otherwise. She knew her mother was one of the wise, just as her mother and the mother before them both had been. Her grandfather, Sentry O, remembered much more.

“Mama?”

The Mistress of Rites held a hand out to her long-legged strong child.

“Naliya. Little dove.” She lay her hands alongside her wind-and sun-burnished face, and looked deep into her unsettled face and still grey eyes. “It’s time. You are made the new Messenger. There is no turning away, no turning back.”

Naliya heard her but it was there is no turning away, no turning back that struck her to the core. She suspected she might become the Messenger as she was the fastest runner in the village and knew how to keep things safe. What else was her mother not saying aloud?

She knelt at her feet, accepted the strange blessing passed on from her very hands. And felt a terrifying courage rise up in her blood and bones, readying her for work to come as each fretful roving spirit tried to shake her. And soundly failed.

 

(Readers: Part 2 will be posted next Monday. The photographs are by this writer.)

Best Bargains for Life

3/4/17

Hello Diane,

Yesterday afternoon I could have been sold anything at all, and in fact it turned out I needed bronzed peach lipstick, baby pink blush, “age retraction” moisturizer and an introductory sized perfume (I’ve forgotten the name already, maybe “Intoxicate”. ) My hand barely trembled as I signed off on the surfeit of beauty products. I’m sure the saleswoman didn’t see that bounty coming. Me, a barely forty year old woman of modest means who was attired–can I even say that? maybe just covered up— in athletic wear, even if it was a good design with great colors, turquoise and yellow. Sweat was just evaporating from my upper lip, forehead and neck. That’s my style, not some pearly satin foundation. But I fell prey to her insistent good cheer. I became convinced while staring into the fancy hand mirror as she dabbed and daubed this and that, that any advice she offered I should believe. I needed it right then. I was under a serious spell; she ought to be given a bonus for her brainwashing skills. Otherwise, why would I have become so vulnerable, spent that money?

You know how I feel about spending on trifles. You and I are the ones who almost never indulge, only sometimes at a sale. Remember that white silky blouse and the form fitting black pants you said looked so perfect on me? I still haven’t worn them. The accusatory price tags dangle more like security tags not to be removed. The clothes hang in the back of my closet, a conspicuous lapse I don’t want to recall, another indicator that I am weak when I should be immune to such pitfalls. Especially flattery. But sometimes one needs such a thing. And if unnecessary beauty supplies are part of that need…you understand, I know. You do love lipstick.

Your usually pensive sister is feeling about as reasonable or spiritual as that hefty receipt. I sense danger here; I need a support group to get over this recurrent feeling that I deserve less than others. I am sure you can suggest a few.

But yesterday I had finally had enough of wounding asides from Ethan. What a time of it I’ve had lately. Can I tell you about things–again?

I get that he periodically engages in this mighty battle with depression. I get that he has daily free-form anxiety nipping at his heels. Who doesn’t get some anxiety and depression in this age and place? We live in the Age of Absolute Ambiguity Somewhere on the Edge of a Deep Reckoning. No, I know it’s more serious than flippancy. It’s all severe and impactful. Frightening, at times. And when I really get a good look at things eye-to-eye, I run. Literally, of course. And at times end up places not intended, like the mall yesterday. A brief escape.

He barked at me. Ethan not a real dog, of course, and not really like a dog, yet his words started to sound more like that than meaningful words offered in regular conversation. It was the opening insults–that I am a nitpicker, never understand him, have not the patience or perhaps intelligence to comprehend his complexity–hurled my way. Then finally an irritable refrain:”You always blame me, I’m the one who’s wrong, I’m the screw up, you’re Miss Perfect!”–and then his old victim mode clicks into place and there’s no way I can detour around it effectively. It’s like a double locked door. No sweet talking will budge that bolt of narcissism and the other of self pity. Or whatever it is. Nothing I say would be considered anything other than direct firing upon him. It matters not that I may even have a need of self defense. So I have to leave.

You know how this goes. How many times have I picked up the phone and tried not to complain but you heard the rumbles of trouble, anyway, and suggested I go for a run at the least? Me and my exercise, he says, all that matters when his world and the actual world are breaking apart. It is possible, I say under my breath, that maybe all we can do is walk or run or ride bikes or take the boat out, tear off in search of freeing relief at such times in our lives. It does not add harm.

Anyway, Diane, yesterday it all seemed to boil down to how I try to micro-manage him when I suggested that the container of hummus was also bought for me, could my chip get a chance in there, too? He had eaten half of it already, might’ve even killed the whole thing off unless I mentioned it. He sat in front of the TV with container and the crumpled bag of rice chips. I really like hummus and chips, too but he was offended, frustrated with me, then pissed off. I was acting like I was his micro manager, damn it!

What? I was trying to (jokingly) get my chip equal time. He didn’t think it cute or funny.

So, I ran about four miles, then ended up at the mall. I cannot imagine how much fun that woman was having as she wiped down my face with spongy cotton puffs soaked in astringent as I wiped away a drip of sweat. Slowed my breathing, my heart rate. Tried to breathe through my nose, quietly. It felt good to sit there, be taken care of even in a superficial way.

“Busy day, huh?” she asked.

I had an impulse to tell her what just sort of day it was but smiled, studied a number of similar lipstick shades. Let her sweep a fluffy, finely-haired brush over cheekbones and chin. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t know if it was that blush color, last vestiges of heat from running, or my private embarrassment. It was utterly unlike me to be at her mercy. And she didn’t have the right shade of lipstick so she’d mail it free of charge. Music to my ears! Someone cared enough for once to not charge me one more penny just to make me happy. Well, it actually cost seventeen dollars. Too much!

I know, crazy, all of it. But this is what Ethan does to me. Or what I let him do, right? I went home, hid the cosmetics in the bathroom–will I use them? He was watching–you guessed it–television, drug of choice. I made us both a salad and read a book of Ursula Le Guin’s essays. Not trying to one up him, but honestly I couldn’t deal with an auction show much less his snubbing me. Anyway, we didn’t talk the rest of the night.

I will send this email off to you and get to bed. I have another newish book awaiting me.

Any ideas of what I might do next time–rather than buy things I don’t want? No, don’t say cooking or canasta or a women’s choir. I mean truly good ideas. You are so very much cheaper than a real shrink, and I thank you from my heart, in advance.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/5/17, 2:24 a.m.

Hi Diane,

I have been reading for hours and I still am not sleepy. He’s on the couch. I didn’t awaken him. I try to awaken him every night when he falls asleep out there, then stays there and I head to  bed. I go back, try again. Then he gets cranky, refuses to budge. So I just left him there last night, whispered that it was up to him to get his grown self into bed, not me. I don’t want to awaken a dozing bumble bee. I know it’s supposed to be not awaken a sleeping dragon or dog but I like dragons as well as dogs much better, they are less apt to attack right off….Tomorrow night when he comes home he will grumble that I should not have let him sleep so long there, that he was late for work. So it doesn’t matter which I do in the end.

That’s the problem, I cannot please him for long. As you realize after fifteen years of us together.

Ethan was more fun those first years, remember? Spontaneous but steadier. I was once warned he was too sensitive, moody. But I am attracted to those who who are bright, a bit eccentric, perhaps. Or I thought that was what it was. But I tend to become bored with men who don’t prod ideas, explore new experiences with panache. You know how your spouse is a good guy but also, well, a handful… and yet…you do love each other. Is that what Ethan and I have going on underneath the crossed wires, sizzling arguments? I wonder if it’s more a fascinating conundrum that never gets resolved to the other’s satisfaction. Or a game of wits. Whose move? How do I strategize effectively? What does he truly intend despite an appearance of intention?

That does sound cold.

Is there anything else this might be? Okay, a misguided attempt to save someone who does not want to be saved. I am well aware I can’t do that. Yet… I just want to find the Answer. Help him feel good, too. I mean, lots of people have emotional issues that are tough. They get help. They get better. How could I have known he would have a bona fide illness, that his extreme emotional episodes were not just passing reactions to stress or actual crisis? He doesn’t want to get help thus perhaps does not want to get better. And I still, after all this time, just want him to know what it is to be happy. Because I though I’m not ecstatic every day, I’m pretty okay with it or better, finding cheer…except for his unhappiness. Help, maybe a twelve step program is next on my list? I know you think they go overboard. And it’s all just common sense, figuring out life. Until it isn’t, dear Sis. Then it hurts like hell.

Anyway, he is sleeping, snoring away, the noise echoes off ceilings, trundles along walls and enters the bedroom.

And I’m sitting up half the night again, digging about for more elusive hope. Hear that shovel digging away at a mountain of brainstorming? That tool must be getting dull.

Diane, that last book you sent me is fabulous. I read it voraciously, as if there was never such a good story written before. Good books stir up my faith in a fonder, wiser sort of life. And incite feelings that wash over me like peace. I’ll take a tentative, even transitory peace at times. There are moments I feel could live my whole life in books and never miss a thing! But mostly, of course, I sweat/ache/pray over my tangible life–what it is, can be. Will be.

I wish we could get coffee tomorrow and chat about books. Your always interesting being and doing. How was that experimental quartet last week-end?

Why are you so far away?

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/7/17

Dearest Diane,

After my rigorous run, after I had taken my messes to a country road a mile from our house, after I felt the swell and slope of land under my feet like a heralding of strength, the air so delicate, awakened earth and new flowery things shared like promises of renewal–after all this, I went back home to find him there, home an hour early.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking Oh, dear God no, he’s lost his job–they were sure to find out how unstable he has been feeling sooner or later. That happened once before, did you know that?

“Nothing. I came home to say something I’ve thought about a lot.”

I toweled off my head and chest, bent down to take off my running shoes and as I was untying the laces, I felt fear. The tension of anticipation and that worry he might do something stupid or rash, that all his pent up anxiety and depression he tamps way down to go to work, to live well enough every day in this hard world will have a deadly eruption. I took my time, rinsed off my face from the kitchen faucet, then filled a glass.

Then we sat down at the kitchen table, the one he made four years ago when we bought this place at the edge of the city. It’s a functional, recycled pine wood table, not glowing and elegant like he wanted it to be, but that’s why I like it. It’s our homely, sturdy, everyday place to rest and eat and play games, pay bills and dream and talk. It’s the spot that matters most, at least to me.

“I’ve decided I’m going to try therapy, after all.” He held up his hand; he knew I was about to gush with gratitude. “Just try it a couple times, to start. You know I don’t like shrinks. I don’t like their various potions, they never really work out. I feel nothing can make a permanent difference, anyway; this is just how I am. I have a basic condition. It rules me more than I dare admit. But I’ve been thinking about how all these years–thirty or more years–I have been run ragged by constant anxiety and terrifying bouts with depression, the obsessions and compulsions just getting harder to cope with as I age.”

I looked at him but he was staring out the window, at the leaning fence or at the trees that remained mostly naked of leaves. I looked at his hands because they catch my attention. They shook as he turned a fancy fat pen over and over in his fingers. Soon he would start writing. He writes almost without thinking, jots down anything, writes phrases, copies words on a magazine, sets down titles of songs or a long thoughts on a certain theme or maybe lines to some song–another compulsion. I find scraps of paper densely covered with his printing, they are everywhere, I don’t know what to do with them so stack them in a pile in a tray on the table. If I throw any out he will notice and be very annoyed. He wrote then on an used, unfolded napkin the word therapy up, across, down, over and over. I wondered if he would go online later and order five or ten more expensive, unneeded pens and more reams of paper to write more jottings now that he had even more to cogitate over.

“Okay,” I said and swallowed a gulp of cool water.

“But I need you to do something for me, too. I need your part done.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, then at the robin that landed on the fence.

“Stop asking so many questions? Especially when you get into… therapy?” Just saying that word brought me a relief that barely hid uncertainty.

“Take care of your own issues. Like stop writing to Diane, Lark. Please.”

A small shock traveled from spine to head where it lingered in my skull. I looked at his significant profile, nose large in a Roman way, whiskered jaw.

“What did you say?”

“You know what I mean. You write her a lot, I think. It really needs to end now.”

There arose a great jangle inside me. My heart revved up, felt huge in my chest. He ought not talk about my sister and me. He was just not happy; I could tell by how quiet his voice was, how he stopped writing.

“How could you know that? And why is it important?” I kept my voice even. Tried to recall when I might have left my computer open. What had he seen?

“I hear you pecking away at odd times. It’s got to be her. That’s how it always has been–so it continues. But after over a year, shouldn’t that be done with?” He put down the sleek pen. “I’m not the only one with issues, right? So you need to own up, address this. It’s not even vaguely…healthy, I don’t think.”

I was about to get up and shout at him: Really? Tell me about unhealthy versus healthy! Instead, I got up, put the kettle on the stove to heat water for tea or coffee, whatever he wanted.

He started to write again, I could hear the nib of the flowing ink pen inching its way across a fresh page, probably a bill envelope. “She left all this awhile back, you’ve got to find more friends or something,” he said.

“No.”

“What do you mean, ‘no’? Come on, she’s dead, Lark. You can’t undo that.”

I felt the scream all coiled up inside start to uncoil and it raced up to my lips but I ran. I ran out the kitchen door and kept pushing through all the fear, trying to outrun the scream. The cool of night came on with a sudden shadowing of earth, air that became wind was so cold it seared face and arms. Nature’s last word on things. Instead of peace filling my heart it pumped harder, my legs reached up and out, leaping over uneven ground. My feet crashed through weeds, I jumped over the fence, kept moving through twilight, an animal on the loose.

It was the stream that got me. It brought me to a halt ass my feet felt wetness, that gentle water a surprise trigger for tears that fell like warm rain on someone else’s stilled face. A storm sweeping across an empty parched plain. Me, lost.

“No! Diane, no leaving me here alone!”

It sounded like a prayer that was a demand but even if it wasn’t the right thing it just was. I felt it was foolish, though, because I have talked to you so long, written you so much… yet over time felt your presence less. You left first by dying, then by receding from the days as I got more used to your being somewhere else.

Not much around here, no, sister.

But at night I sit in the rocker by the window when Ethan is snoring away, harmless and feckless, and then I still feel you come by. Settle about the room with your smile. Your kind way. I guess the moon and stars have to shine for you to find me here. I’ll just wait. We are not that separated by death, are we?

I told him I would stop this. I cannot, yet, any more than we can choose to just ignore these tough times. Maybe I understand his desire for relief better than he thinks. But I know what I need; this part costs nothing. My talking to you is healing. I can just meditate on the days we had to enjoy, as well as all that causes me to pause, the sorrows. What I have to remember is what you always said, your hazel eyes shining: Life is what we must live so we do it as well as possible; it comes to an end soon enough. It’s always something, anyway (you’d laugh but never sounded bitter, just a laugh), so just got to roll with it, Sis, and pray like mad.

It was full of maxims but from you it has always sounded like wisdom of the ancients, another lesson from God’s mouth to my heart. I take it in, the love that still comes to me from you. I must write to your presence; it is a comfort now. When it’s time, I’ll figure out what to do next. And I will wait for Ethan to help himself, knowing we are not alone with the waiting, trying, failing, more trying– and maybe even succeeding.

I have to go now as I got a package I want to open. It may be the bronzed peach lipstick. I’ll let you know what I think– if I wear it. But if you catch a glimpse of it on me and give it the okay, send me a sign. A blossom or two at my door would be lovely or a bright birdsong one morning when I feel overwhelmed again. You have such good taste, I leave it to you.

Or even news of a really good sale. We always have such a time searching out bargains arm in arm, talking about things of import or pure foolishness, don’t we?

Didn’t we, Sister…and then some.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

 

A Man with Better Clothes

Photo by Dorthea Lange
Photo by Dorthea Lange

Carolyn had only known men in her family very well, and that didn’t fill in any gaps. The family had lived outside of Marquette while her father worked long, backbreaking hours mining iron ore farther west in the Upper Peninsula. Reese took off at sixteen to live with Uncle Frank in St. Louis. She thought it cruel of her brother, leaving her behind. Her mother, it turned out, wished all three could have left,  but Uncle Frank had opened a bar that thrived and she found drink less useful than a bur under a saddle.

The Cronins lived over a mile out from Marquette, on a spit of land that had been cleared of trees. The house was more a ramshackle rectangular shed. It felt precarious in snow or thunderstorms yet stood stalwart against nature’s assaults to remain erect by springtime. Carolyn and her mother were more with each other than the men in the family, or any others, for that matter. After her daughter’s schooling was done–graduated despite bets against reasonable odds–Mrs. Cronin worried how the girl would use her good mind and yet make a living. Carolyn could sew like she did but wasn’t fast or careful enough. Yet her mother was not keen about sending her off to the next man who came calling or sending her anywhere far, period, for that matter. She was used to (and greatly fond of) her. As for men–they were more often unreliable and unsettling; she found herself able to carry on fine with her own husband absent so much.

When Hal was spotted eating alone at Mabel’s Table the Saturday in May that Carolyn turned nineteen, she and her mother were there, too. The clusters of other young women held their breath as if a bona fide Medieval knight was in their midst, or perhaps to appear more svelte. Carolyn was eating mashed potatoes with roast beef and her fork wavered in the air. Her mother bent toward her.

“Don’t mind him. He’s a Matherson home from the University of Michigan. Law, I think. You might as well stop gawking and save yourself trouble. And we have work to finish at home so eat up.”

“Well, of course he’s home from University of Michigan–look at that pressed shirt and tie, jacket slung on the back of his chair.” Her tone was arch, dry. “He’s way too cleaned up for me, you know I need dirt under the nails and rough approximations of manners.”

Mother cast me a sideways glance, then chuckled despite her irritation. Carolyn could be disrespectful of her father’s kind even in his absence. It was hard to deny the truth of her words but no need to say them aloud. In public.

She had hoped for her daughter what she’d never gotten: a chance. She missed going to teacher’s college and so would Carolyn, at least for now. Money was not often easy to gather, less so to squirrel away. At nineteen, they both knew the best she might hope for was someone a bit older who had a little kindness and was moderately well employed. Neither being in abundance around there unless a miner or timber workers. Miners were out of the question to Mrs. Cronin. Lumberjacks were a more reasonable option, she couldn’t think just why, while clerks and salesmen were better. But how to maneuver it?

Buttery whipped potatoes with garlic filled her with pleasure. She licked the last of them from her lips. As she reached for the napkin that had fallen on the floor, a clean one was offered.

“Please, have mine.”

The room quieted enough that she knew who it was before looking up.

Up close Hal looked even better than from far away, a model of masculinity with an encouraging smile that flooded his eyes to disarm. A pipe was held between good teeth, his hand cupped around it now. The smell from the tendrils of smoke made her mouth water.

“Oh, mine is good, thank you. It barely hit the floor.”

“This floor has seen way too many travelling shoes.” He planted the napkin in her left palm, took her right and pumped it twice. “Hal, Hal Matherson.”

“We’re the Cronins.” Mother touched her chest as if she was going to cough, then it retreated to her lap again and her thorat was cleared. “I’m Mrs. Cronin and Carolyn is my daughter.”

He took the older woman’s hand and shook it, too.

“Mr. Matherson,” Carolyn acknowledged after her mother did the same.

“Carolyn and Mrs. Cronin, a pleasure to meet you. We’ve not met before, I think. Glad to do so now.”

He bowed a little, coming closer; Carolyn pulled back. His gaze swept over her face. When their eyes met, they paused but only for a quick superficial assessment. He then surveyed the room as though wanting to memorize it. He studied the Cronins, too, as if this place, these customers and this moment were the best things to happen since returning home.

Which was absurd, Carolyn thought with a sniff as the thought left her. Hal had many more interesting times in life than this. She still watched the back of his very white shirt leave the building, jacket now folded over his forearm. As he exited, mostly female voices started up loudly, scattering across the room like mice scurrying for morsels. Carolyn was no fool if not apprised of sophisticated things. She knew the social barometer in the room indicated she had been given a generous dollop of attention from a handsome and well-to-do man. But she had had looks before, plenty. She knew she was attractive enough. It was his manner and words that intrigued her, anyway. There had never been anyone in her world like him, rough edges tucked in, sentences proferred as if wrapped in satin and unequivocal good will.

When they got outdoors, midday light was austere and stinging. Carolyn felt it an affront to skin beneath the thin cotton dress. She tugged her rumpled straw hat down on long hair.

“I don’t like him.”

Mrs. Cronin hurried on. “Good. He’s not quite trustworthy, you can feel it creep out from under the charm. And he’s much too well off, dear.” She impulsively put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Happy birthday. Cake later whether or not your father gets home tonight.”

Carolyn lay her head on her mother’s shoulder for an instant. She was full and content, no cake needed–or even her father. Guilt threatened, then faded.

Hal Matherson, though. He could be quite trustworthy or not; he might be a gentleman or not. But Carolyn felt strongly she didn’t want to like him. She didn’t wish to recall the smile and words, that slightly sweetened, piney fragrance that found her nose as he made a formal little bow. Such men were meant to be thought of only from a great distance and then with reservations of every kind. She knew he should walk out of sight in the rather ordinary, curious, blank horizon of her mind.

But that was before they met again at church two weeks later, and then again at the June “Berries and Brandies Fair”, after a rainstorm as they sought shelter under the drugstore awning one afternoon. And again, during the fireworks at lakeside. He always found a way to root her out. She began to look for him, too. It became obvious to all that he wanted to spend more time with her and Carolyn was not against the idea, anymore. His family was another thing.

“Why?” she asked him insistently. “Why make our lives harder? You being there and I, here.” She pointed in opposite directions, towards his family home and hers. “Your father owns a lumber mill and my father works in the mines. You will open a law practice this fall and I will…I will be helping my mother with her seamstress business.”

Hal started to hum tonelessly as if he could care less what she was reiterating. He traced the curve of her jaw and chin with an index finger, then sat back against the tree, close to her. “I say we make a run for it, skip all the boring, messy in-between matters of little consequence.”

“What?” She spoke more loudly as fireworks exploded several hundred yards away.

“I said, it’s simple, really. We both love to learn, we both have a fondness for nature, we enjoy music, share a faith, are hard workers, are basically optimistic despite indicators we should not be and you are ravishing to boot…”

He kissed her while she was held in thrall by red, blue and gold flowerlets that dazzled the darkness.

And pushed him with both hands on his chest, hard. “Wait! Wait one minute!”

Carolyn stood up so fast she about tipped over. She grabbed her purse and started to trot away.

“What? Carolyn!” he called. “I’m sorry, I thought…!”

But she couldn’t turn back. She couldn’t explain it, how that warm, lively kiss filled her with alarm. How she knew she had to stop things right then so no one would have regrets or be hurt. Even him. She had been taught by her mother to be wary, to be smart, to take the upper hand if necessary, to walk away rather than give her heart such leeway. He father had taken her mother’s own into his hands and held it and cared for it, then tossed it aside as bitterness took over his savory-sweet ways. Working so long and hard with little reward had slowly compressed him, made vulnerable points obdurate. He was a man of miles of stone when there should have been layers of life-giving earth mixed in. He was a man who forgot his children because, finally, he had nothing left to give.

Carolyn was terrified of love. And Hal knew it as he watched her run and vowed to overcome it.

It was early spring, 1929, when he asked her to marry him and it happened fast. She had thought long about her mother’s and father’s cramped bedroom stuffed with worn paper bags of fabrics, a sewing machine with boxes of pins, needles and threads and a sloping bed in the middle that looked never quite warm enough. She observed her father’s face when he came home, how he looked at his wife as if reaching inside to remember something important–but just out of reach. And how she made him Dutch apple pie, anyway, but only after she had sat on the back stoop to watch birds leave and return a few times, only after she had strengthened her resolve to be content.

Carolyn took a chance and said, “Yes, alright then. Yes, I will.”

They were in a park. He picked her up and spun around, her legs flying. People clapped when he shouted it out. Carolyn was pleased he cared little for propriety.

Hal had opened a law office and so they lived in town, three blocks away from N. High Street. Mrs. Cronin didn’t crow about it. She smiled indulgently at those who shook her hand. She knew her daughter would get out of their deep, old rut. Her husband didn’t understand all the fuss. He told his wife and daughter with a shrug, “He’s just a man in better clothes, don’t forget that. But God willing, it might work out.”

******

And then the Depression arrived, even in Marquette. Within a short time the mines closed, the elder Matherson went bankrupt and lost his home, and the Cronins migrated to St. Louis to live above the bar with Uncle Frank, Reese and Reese’s pregnant wife. Carolyn and Hal had to release their house and business with all the others. And they bid farewell to the lovely, erratic four seasons of Marquette.

Hal (and Carolyn) had saved in old cans enough cash to get them through a few months if they were conscientious. It had been a habit from childhood to hide money that was not his father’s. And the Ford ran alright. They made camp as they moved place to place. He knew how to build and even fix things, after all, sometimes cutting down young trees and fashioning slim poles to make a lean-to with stitched together burlap sacks and any other scraps Carolyn found. She repaired any item (even a torn canvass rooftop slung over a truck) for a little sugar, a spponful of peanut butter shared on two slices of dry bread, a hot cup of tea made of a teabag diluted by many dunkings. They ate better than a few and they were healthy enough. By winter they had landed in Arizona and he still couldn’t find work as a lawyer, or any work, at all. Odd jobs were almost impossible to come by. Since he was so strong and managed to stay affable he got them by, day-to-day. He sold the Ford at last to a man who had been able to avoid the worst of things and hoped to become a driver for the better-off in California. That goal had lept him going.

Hal chatted with other camp members readily as they came and went. It was as if they shared a real neighborhood, as if the poor squares of dirt they claimed had front porches. Carolyn wondered over this, how they bonded when even despairing. Because of. She struck up friendships with a few women but some days found it maddening to wander among the throng. To absorb all that grief. She prayed for them and they for her–if they could bear to yet seek or praise God. Hal seemed to crave more contact, to press hands into his, to hear their stories. She watched him manage to get them to smile and, rarely, to laugh. He returned to her and set down his pain, shared his admiration: that they had all survived thus far, that many kept alive a dream. And yet so many more had let go all they cared for and dignity was fleeing, too. They couldn’t imagine it would get worse and yet he feared it would. At least there was sunshine, no snow and no one made them leave yet.

Things had gone downhill in the camp with illness and outbreaks of violnce and more squatters when Carolyn, dozing in the heat, saw Hal slide into their lean-to. He’d been in Phoenix, three miles away, looking for odd jobs.

“Hey, Hal.” Her throat felt on fire from mositure-robbing heat so sipped from a cup of tepid water.

He joined her. They rested in warm shadows cast upon the sacls thay had hung. He was quiet so that she could hear the breeze twist up more dust. She scratched her ankle, skin like parchment. Her hair was never brushed clean of grit and she thought of chopping it off. Dirty or not, Hal was doomed to look fresh-faced, even vivified amid folks who were grey, hollow-eyed. Her eyes lingered on him and sadness bloomed within her again, a garden of wistful, sorrowful flowers. He stripped off his damp shirt and sat.

When he finally spoke it was in a hoarse whisper.

“I found a job today, law office clerk, very small, twenty hours a week. If even that. Someone to file, answer a phone, be a go-fer. But I’m okay with this, you know it’s a miracle…”

She grabbed his bicep and her hand slipped from the sweat, the muscle contracting under her touch. He turned toward her and held her face in both hands.

“A real job at last.”

He shared bare facts, eyes glistening, as if speaking more or louder would bring worse upon them. As if his working meant the others could not have their own little, badly paying job and he was responsible, he was to blame. He struggled to feel happy. It confused him to win something he might not even deserve, to be the one who could leave the camp.

Carolyn threw her arms around him in a clinch of relief.

He smoothed her ponytail, touched her lips with his. “And there’s a one room place, a garage really, Mr. Jensen said. Behind the law office.”

“A house? A job and a house?” She clamped a hand over her mouth. Felt she was dreaming.

“House? Well, Carolyn, that’s too much to call it… this garage is free because it’s a ramshackle, smelly wreck. But a job, yes. The pay is near nothing but it’ll be so good to work…”

“I don’t care. I’m in this with you. Always.”

She had never seen his tears fall like they did then, as if it caused him pain to let go each one made of relief and sorrow. He felt he hadn’t been able to protect her, but maybe this was too much to receive. He was just one man, no more deserving.

She looked away. She felt his need of her but sometimes being there meant waiting, being there but apart. In a few moments he found his pipe and setteld it between his lips. He let hope grab hold. Carolyn imagined she could smell burning tobacco and it filled her with excitement.

After having had an easier life and then having it be so hard, Carolyn believed as never before that she had made the right choice by marrying him. She had been so afraid but had taken a chance and they made a great match, not perfect but solid, even now. She vowed to never let it go bad, to not give up when she was running out of patience, to not hurl at him times he was dismisive of her ideas or still quick to tease her when she was weary or so silent she wondered if he had already left her like her father. She knew better; he cared about her more now, not less. A touch, a look. A found stone that shone when polished with dampened fingers.

Carolyn knew, too, that he was a man who was charming, smart, beautiful and such men were built to do excellent, even big, things–as well as fail spectacularly. She was already set like a compass, to move with him towards their true north. She had meant to love Hal a little but it had turned into something bigger. Carolyn brushed off her skirt and smoothed back her unruly hair. Hal Matherson was a man with more than better clothes. He had her.