Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Roses, Perhaps, in the Morning

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Photo taken in the International Rose Test Gardens by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(Note: I am inspired this week by roses and their magic. In Portland, we celebrate our annual Rose Festival; it has begun this week. The  Pacific Northwest is entirely hospitable for rose growing and we have the honor of having the International Rose Test Gardens here. The Peace rose is my favorite of all, the name, its beauty and intoxicating fragrance. The story is entirely made up, of course. Enjoy!)

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“Let me tell you about the back yard. Something strange is happening there.” Erika held her breath, considering how to begin. But too long a breath, it seemed. She coughed lightly with hand over the receiver.

“You need to get back out there, Mom, shape things up. It’s not like you’re bedridden now, and it used to be your favorite place. My yard is about four by four, made of that terrible, uneven pockmarked brick but you know it works for me. If only there was a fountain, that would make all the difference in reducing traffic noise at night. And give it some charm. My one chair and a fountain. Did I tell you I got really expensive ear plugs? They fit so well I feel deaf with them on. But I can still hear people or raccoons rummaging in garbage and the sirens, let me tell you.”

“It keeps changing. I mean, there is always something I didn’t notice before.”

“The seasons do that, Mom, really, you need to get out more in general, enough of this malaise following that vicious bronchial infection. It lingered so long your body has forgotten how to function on a reasonable basis, you know? Maybe your thinking…Anyway, I checked online for fountains and just need to see them in person, maybe Home Depot?”

Erika could see her daughter sucking on the end of a pen as she corrected students’ papers, one eye on a pot of simmering homemade soup. Multi-tasking, made possible by ear buds used to talk on her phone. Jen would use her feet, too, if she could, to accomplish more. Probably had. She used to clean up clothes from the floor as she sat on her tattered fuchsia armchair while leisurely reading sci fi, lifting items deftly with clenched toes and tossing it onto her bed.

“I woke up to something yellow out there today. Northeast corner. I thought it was gold sunlight flashing through leaves but it wasn’t.”

“Maybe it was Mrs. Rosselini’s canary that got loose.” She emitted her snorting laugh. That bird took off in 1999, when Jen was a kid. Everyone suspected it was Mr. Rossellini, who couldn’t bear its ridiculously cheerful singing as it only sang for his wife. For years people thought they had spotted that bird; they suspected he’d forced its freedom.

“Jen, don’t be ridiculous–that was so long ago. But it wasn’t any bird. It was a pot of lilies.”

“From last year, then? They grow from bulbs, right?”

“Calla lilies, they’re mini calla lilies. Mine are the other sort. Tiger lilies. They’re now opening up, too, it seems.”

“So are you getting out there to check on things, cut the grass, trim the bushes and so on? Or getting Joe Hanes to come by with his push mower? Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that, here. But I am thinking of getting a community garden plot. You should see those, the things people plant and successfully raise! Urban farming, a miracle. I could eat very well from a smallish garden.”

“Yes. Well, no, I’m not out there much and yes, Joe cut the grass last week-end.” Erika gazed across a shadow-splashed street as the creaky porch swing swung to and fro. It made a nice breeze and lifted the hair off her neck. The neighbors’ yards were bountiful with flowers, empty of people. Lights were turning on, soft blurs of life moving between window frames. She closed her eyes and hummed.

Jen found the humming alarming, It was what her mother did when she was spacing out, feeling low. She had been sick so long there was worry that she’d tip into critical illness but it was thankfully only four days in hospital, then back home. Still, four months that upended her usually active life. And Jen lived four hours away, only got to visit three times.

“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”

“Oh, nothing, Jen. The calla lilies have good company in that jungley mess. I’ll let you go now, but try lettuce and a tomato plant to start.”

“Fresh tomatoes…! I do have a ton to get done tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” She snorted again. So much to do, so much life to live, a surfeit of activities and goals–how could she complain? She would not, not to her mother, at least not yet. “You’ll call if you need me to come see you sooner than end of the month?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, good, such a relief. Love you.”

“Love back. Good night, dear.”

Erika left the front porch, walked around to the back yard’s fence with gate and unlatched it. In the corner sat a large green pot of sunny mini calla lilies. Gingerly, as if her footsteps might jar the earth and disturb the plants, she moved closer, then knelt to look them over. She pinched a stem to assure herself they weren’t fake. The blossoms glowed in the opalescent air of a mild June evening. She had no idea how they got there. She felt her yard was not quite her own this year, that her neglect had taken it out of her hands. It unnerved her enough that she sneezed three times then coughed, so left the outdoors to its own devices. Whatever those might be.

*******

“Fran? Sorry to bother you but I know you’re usually awake late…”

“Erika, that you? It’s 2 a.m. Insomnia again?” She patted her mound of unruly hair as if they were face- to-face. She could now be seen without warning–all this technology.

“I heard something outdoors.”

“Did you call Joe and ask him to bring his hatchet? Probably nasty raccoons again, he’ll make good work of them.”

“What a friend–you are too awful! I don’t want to disturb him this time of night. I went downstairs with both big flashlights. Looked out the back door. Nothing. I checked all the locks again. But it gave me a chill. I should make some chamomile tea.”

“Naw, get your book and start reading, You’ll be asleep before you know it.”

“That doesn’t work for you.”

“Nothing works for me but the serious will to sleep four fair hours or so a night.” She yawned. “The callas still shining out there?”

“Where else would they be? Sneaking off to the next yard?”

“You never know.” Fran reached for her tablet, switched it on. “We could watch a movie together. What your pick?”

Erika fell silent and leaned back on two pillows. Listened hard. Nothing to speak of but the chimes swaying in a gust, sonorous tones soothing to her tense mind. She was too tired to keep this up so hoped the raccoons visited Fran or Joe a couple nights for a change. She hummed a corny love song to calm herself.

“Erika? You humming?”

“I don’t want to watch a movie until 3, but thanks for your friendly offer. I want to sleep a deep blessed sleep. I want my back yard to stay the same until I get back to it.”

“Those calla lilies–I bet someone wanted to get rid of them so dumped the pot at your place when you were out. Say, Carol Whitaker? She usually puts her puny plants at the curb. She could start an entire nursery with her rejects.”

“A whole sad nursery of rejects, yeah. Poor Carol, she tries hard but her thumb is nowhere near green.”

They both laughed and Erika felt relief at last. She also felt Fran winding up, ready to talk gardening tall tales and she just wasn’t up for it. She didn’t even want to think about her garden yet. Couldn’t it just rest this year? Like her, take a leisurely summer break? She still felt so weary.

“It’s so good to hear you in more fighting form again, Erika. Let’s get back to our hikes this summer.”

“Well, wait–in time. Right now I want to sleep off the remains of this day. That worthless conversation with Jen.”

“Oh, Jen and her intentions. She’s got a good life.  But keep your phone bedside–you can call any time.”

“I know, my friend. Happy movie watching.”

She turned out a bedside lamp with the crafty pressed-flower shade. Lowered her eyelids. She just hadn’t recovered fully, her mind was jumpy after feeling so powerless, felled by illness last part of winter and into the spring. Turning over, she pulled the white coverlet up to her ears, then up to her forehead and dropped off into an abyss of fretful dreaming.

******

She shaded her eyes against sudden revelation of sunshine. When she’d risen, the air was moist and thickened with fogginess. Two mugs of strong coffee later, her mind and the sky were much clearer. Her tricky neck ached and she rubbed it with both hands, then stepped onto the stoop and descended steps into the back yard.

Then stumbled backwards.

There was a small palm tree in the northwest corner, its big spiky leaves greeting her, the fuzzy trunk straight and strong in a huge clay pot. Astonished but curious, she went to it. She had never observed a palm up close; how funny yet attractive it was. How out of place in this Northwest habitat. Unasked for and alien on her property. And how did this get to be in her yard? Who entered without her permission?

That was what she had heard last night. She felt her heart drum hard as she walked about the grassy perimeter. The latch on the gate, that was the little sound. Yet no one and nothing was out of the norm when she’d swept the brilliant beam of her flashlight over each bush, tree and plant the night before. There was without a doubt an intruder hiding from her, that was the issue beyond an undesired palm and surprise calla lilies. She’d install a sturdier lock on the gate today; she’d always left it open but no more. She’d have motion detection lights installed on the house. All these years living in an established neighborhood that was unremarkable, just friendly and quiet. Now this–this felonious trespasser!

Had he or she taken anything? She canvassed the area carefully, found nothing altered. Just a palm tree and lilies. What next? She ate a rushed breakfast and dressed and was almost out the door when Fran called.

“I thought I’d better check on you, make sure you are still with us! You sure were nervous last night.”

“Well, I was left another unwanted gift and I’ve had enough.”

“What? Something good, I hope.”

“Fran, it isn’t funny. I got up this morning hoping for the best and there it was– a damned useless palm tree!–a real California palm! Well, I think.”

Fran chortled as she lounged in a fluffy robe on her porch around the corner. She could just picture Erika–stern-faced, brushed out and dressed well as always, confronting that errant palm tree.

Erika held the phone away from her ear, looked at it with serious impatience. When Fran caught her breath, she said, “I have to see it.”

“I’m putting it out n the street. A firm message to the intruder.”

“No–they cost too much to set it out like ole Carol does! Just wait in that. I’ll take it if you have to dump it. But why not just see what’s next? I mean, this is not plant thief, Erika, it’s a plant giver! Someone who maybe even cares!”

But Erika took off for the hardware store to get a good lock for her gate and to inquire about flood light systems. She was going to catch this planter person, an invisible trespasser, and get things back to normal.

******

“A palm tree? That’s wild, Mom–though they do make hardy ones that do alright here. Why not plant it?”

“Oh my gosh, you, too. I don’t want the stupid tree. I don’t want the flowers. They aren’t mine, they don’t belong and someone is sneaking into my yard! Doesn’t that worry you a little?”

“I think it’s kind of cool. I might even defend the culprit. How exciting, a bona fide mystery!” She paused. “Mom? If you’re scared, call Joe next door tonight. He’s getting a bit decrepit but he’s a good neighbor, he’ll give you back up.”

Erika moaned–Joe could barely push the mower around– and mumbled a hasty goodbye. She found her gardening gloves and visor and bucket of gardening tools, then set to work in the yard. It was high time. She’d get weeding done and see what she had to do to salvage her once-beloved refuge. And dump those calla lilies– and drag that crazy palm tree to the curb. If she could move it after all the weeding, and if she had breath left that didn’t trigger new wheezing.

******

It was 1:07 when Erika’s eyes flew open. She knew she was not alone when the back of her sore neck tingled and hairs on her forearms stood up. She picked up the heavy duty flashlight and her cell phone. She did not switch on the light yet but peered between the muslin curtains of her window into the quasi-dark yard. A three-quarter moon cast a cool, clean glow across thick grass and huddled bushes.

The gate was closed but that meant nothing to her. Erika stilled herself, waited. Instinct dictated  she not barge out the back door but listen, feel things out, see what moved, what else was different. She wet her dry lips and tried to tune in. There it was. A rustle of a bush, ever so slight but where exactly? Were those footsteps?–were they of  man or beast?

She yanked on jeans and a hoodie, opened her bedroom door, slunk to the kitchen where the back door led to the stoop. She studied her faintly lit phone, with shaking fingers found the keypad, ready to call 911 when there came another sound, soft but unmistakable, a guttural clearing of a throat. She pressed back against the door, braced her feet. And froze.

She could hear the soft grating sound of metal against dirt and stones, like someone was digging up a part of her yard. That did it. She unbolted the door, rushed out, the torch beam bouncing its glare off every nook and cranny. And then off a face, then hands held high and in one of those hands was what appeared to be a rose bush. Pink and yellow roses. The person stood next to a small hole in the ground.

‘Stop where you are, you are illegally on my property and I’m calling the police right now!”

“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”

“Who would even dare do all this? Speak your name now or I’m dialing the cops!”

“It’s just Antony, your old neighbor! Antony Rossellini!”

He was beating his chest now with smudgy hands, advancing toward her, dark eyes wide and desperate. She wanted to believe he was telling the truth. It was Antony, alright, in worn overalls that hung from his wiry frame over a dark t-shirt, with his Padres baseball cap and rubber flip flops slapping against his heels with eqch tentative step forward.

“Antony! What on earth…?” She aimed the beam downward so they could both see better as they met up in the middle of her yard. The one he was not supposed to be in whatever and not in the middle of night.

He wiped his perspiring forehead with a dirty palm and it left a streak so he took off his cap and used a forearm to wipe again, then smashed down his thick, damp salt and pepper hair. grooming in the midst of madness. Trying to present himself as less than trespasser, more as foolish but harmless neighbor.

“I don’t rightly know how to explain, Erika. I was just seized by this idea of doing something anonymously…of making things nicer. I sure didn’t meant to upset you…”

He shrank away from her with embarrassment, hung his head with hat in hand, and went mute.

Erika considered this man she had known for about twenty years now. He was older or perhaps only seemed older in his manner, and had been married to a woman who shuffled about as though she carried a hard burden, which she had, being a refugee from Cambodia. Then she died of cancer not long after Erika’s divorce, when Jen was fifteen. he lived down the street from her house; they had chatted in passing, during summer block parties. But when she had died Erika taken him fresh bread and her homemade strawberry jam. Had sat awhile with him. He’d seemed quite nice even after that but a man to himself, working long hours as a manufacturing manager. Keeping a tidy yard with its blossoms bright and abundant.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” she asked.

“They’re Peace roses, Erika! My favorite. Tea? Well. Sure.”

******

The two mugs steamed so they blew on it, sitting across from each other at the breakfast nook. She realized she had never had him in her house before. Very few neighbors, come to think of it. Now that she worked part time–not her own choice, a downsizing of sorts at the health clinic–she had become more aware of her neighbors comings and goings. But she rarely saw him out and about and heard little about him. Nothing had likely changed for years. Or she imagined.

“I wanted to do something nice for you,” he repeated. “I knew you had been ill–we all learn of each others’ crises sooner or later on this block– and I know you love yard work. I got this idea of a surprise. I didn’t want any thanks or refusal, not anything.” He toyed with his cap, his voice nearly a whisper. “You were so kind when Channay died. Not just your great bread and jam but your hug and words.”

“My words?”

“You just said: ‘I’m sorry. You were good to her; she will always love you. I’ll say a prayer for you.'” He looked at her with far-off eyes. “I believed you; it felt genuine for a change. You know some people just do things out of courtesy. So it sure helped me.”

“So little to do, really, Antony.”

She recalled sitting with him, making a small pot of coffee in his overloaded, messy kitchen, cutting bread for him and spreading a piece with jam. He had left it on the plate but sipped the coffee while she did hers. They had talked about nothing much, winter rains, their yards flooding, when Channay’s service was to be, her nearly non-existent family–long ago murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. They had just sat and listened to the storm beat upon the roof, the wind rattling branches like bones. He lit an amber candle, saying it reminded him of her. After a half hour or more she had left him to himself, and much later they chatted amiably now and then. She had wondered, though, how he had managed afterwards. If the smile given her way was mere civility as he’d said if others or if he did feel happier again. If he maybe felt friendly towards her. But time was packed with pressures and needs and years passed.

“No, it’s never too little to be considerate. And I never got over to see if I could help out when I knew you were so ill. So, one day a couple weeks ago I thought how you love your yard and garden. I decided to just add a couple new plants–for variety, I guess. But I didn’t want any thanks or issues, you know, I didn’t want you to think…anyway, it was impulsive of me, I know that. Foolish!”

Erika sighed, took a drink as did he. “Impulsive, yes. Unusual, I would say! But not really foolish. I think it’s good of you to think of cheering me up, of helping me out. In fact, I could really use someone to help me weed and plant anew… I am way behind.”

His black and white eyebrows lifted and his eyes sparked with hope. “Easy deal. To make up for my errors.”

She lifted her mug to his. “How about to starting a proper friendship?”

He clinked his mug against hers. They shared a smile, relaxed, congenial.

“I guess I should go, though. It’s late.”

“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”

“I’ll come back, alright? Properly plant the bush tomorrow evening if you’d like.”

“Please come to the front door this time, and before so late.”

He gave a quiet laugh that was almost a sigh of relief, waved good bye at the door. Erika locked it behind him, then laid her hand  on it a moment.

******

Jen called on her lunch hour.

“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”

“Not exactly, a few tracks in the dirt and palm and lilies remain. We’ll see what happens from here on out.”

“Well, that’s it? All the fun has ended just like that? Rather sad.”

“Yes, I guess. What are you up to, dear?”

Erika called Fran after she lay awake well past 1:00, thinking of pros and cons to beginning a friendship with an older man, a widower who loved gardens but had also gate-crashed her life. Maybe in the best possible way.

“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”

“You could say that.”

“Ah. Wait, what do you mean, Erika? Out with it.”

“It was Antony.”

“Antony Rossellini? He left the lilies and palm? Oh, my. What is that about, do you think?”

“Not sure. Guess I’ll find out. He said he had a kindly impulse…”

“Huh! Kind of weird, but downright intriguing.”

Erika checked beyond the open window after she hung up. She looked for a sign of something but there was none she could find so she lay down, rolled over, resigned to a return to normal and stared hard at her blank blue wall. There was a swell of silence in her house, waves of it, and she had begun to drown in it the past winter. Sickness makes some things more obvious. It stripped things down to the truth. She felt cleaner and edged toward freedom even now, slowly resurrecting a more goodly life. But she occupied these roomy spaces that were most often constrained by daily continuity and predictability. Time shaped by common tasks and expected comforts– and a forgetting of the extraordinary. As she watched shadows knit themselves along tiny cracks and in corners, she became drowsy, let herself give in to rest but she w wondered over what her life might become–and what was too late to search for and find.

Then from a distance she heard the metallic jostling, a small rustling of leaves or pant legs, perhaps the sound of the latch being jimmied and a man stealing across her yard. She pressed eyelids tightly closed, hugged herself: Peace roses, perhaps, come the morning.

 

 

Andalin, Alive/Chapter 2: A Series of Reckonings Begin

Those of you who read Chapter 1 (that post here: Andalin, Alive ) of my new novel-in progress already have met the newly arrived protagonist, Andalin Chiara Luvstrom, and her privileged if deeply conflicted family. Also significant is Tillie, the midwife who delivered her into this world.

In the second chapter we meet Oren and Huff and also learn a little about Andalin’s life as a child from an experience or two they shared with her.

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Chapter 2

A Series of Reckonings Begin

 

It was the start of something, he felt it in his very sinew. If he was sure of what it was, Oren might have told someone right then, shaped the words that would spark interest in the listener, first of all Huff, his best friend and fellow sojourner. Who would not call him a fool though he deserved the moniker. Oren had a knack for finding the wrong women. It was going to be harder to discern this time, but not for the usual reasons. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know who she was. More or less.

His stepfather would fling words of warning if Oren alluded to the encounter earlier that week. He would point out that the Luvstroms were marked by haughtiness, an innate pride worn like a medal and for little reason, since they had lost much of what the generations had built. Not that this caused Dane Luvstrom much consternation; the family fared far better than most of the merchants and land owners, still. And Dane was not a man who had foregone all respect for others. They might have been friends, his father and Dane, not just tenuous allies, if things had gone differently for his own family. If his mother had stayed alive.

No, it was best to keep it to himself as he mulled things over. It had been eight years since he had been home with Kent, said stepfather–alright, his father, for all intents and purposes–not since his mother had passed over. Time and its weathering had inevitably altered the land and people he’d left behind since boarding the first ship to the “Blue Bridge of the Beautiful World”, with a vista of vast mystery and beauty. That is what he called it privately, for part of the time he longed to be a bard–even a very minor poet–not a travelling merchant. He could barely indulge that fantasy. It was a poor way to be a man in this country or most others, that of his stepfather’s domain and others’.

Huff only said: “We left for the farthest waters and lands, did our duties for Fine-Verdur and Company. Then we stayed once we found those lands better– at least for awhile. Now we are back!”

“Eight years is only a while?” their old neighbors argued. “Eight have passed bitter slow, the fields have gone barren and just been returned to their happier natures but your fathers wear beards that have grown each year with mourning for wayward sons! No thanks to you that they managed to survive…”

Oren sat cross-legged on the low stone wall, finishing  his lunch of sunflower nut bread and hard cheese. Their acreage and animals were flourishing despite his assist or lack of it; Kent could not blame Oren’s leaving or returning for much of anything. Land produced of its own accord given time and a basic care. He had known Oren was not to be a devoted grower. By the time the young man was fifteen Kent had begun preparing for inevitability of more loss, employing a steady hired hand. If Oren was still supposed to feel shame, Kent was sure to be disappointed. He was was relieved that things had gone better than expected in the end. Now he was free to either travel soon again or find work in another realm.

But first he had to deal with a new dilemma: Andalin Chiara Luvstrom.

His center rustled, mind darted, full of glittering things, like a high sun zigzagging across deep water or shooting stars streaking across a day sky. He tried to look away from such stark, bright feeling and thoughts but could not. This was different than anything. And he had known her, he had already known who she was.

Or had he? Or had she known him while he was the one who was slow to understand and a stranger to himself? But Andalin had seemed in full possession of herself. Despite the childhood ordeals. Despite her gradual drifting away, clinging to the edges of known and unknown worlds.

Oren let his eyes roam over the verge of greenery, then the expanse of brown and yellow and rust of Kent’s land. He remembered well. He could see her even now as a kid, spindly but strong legs carrying her toward the wall that divided their farms, her corn silk hair tangling with wind. How he fast forgave her for not seeing him as he waited there. How he knew without thinking that she didn’t see him because she was traversing another place, always moving past his reach.

******

“I think she’s too much, you know that, but I like her,” Huff said. “We both have liked her around. As if it really matters to Andalin, though, it’s the way of things. Besides, she’s only just ten, a baby still.” He shrugged and pushed away the book, drummed the desk until their teacher gave him a scowl.

Oren was about to say she only seemed like a little kid, at times, it was just a disguise of sorts but thought better of it as he agreed she was far behind them in obvious ways.

They’d settled at their desks for more learning  but Huff was restless, unaccustomed to much reading and writing, unlike Oren. At twelve, Huff was raw-featured and wiry, tall already and used to being in motion, either working the farms with his parents or toiling away at the family’s semi-permanent campsite. He was the opposite of Oren, broader and sturdily built, showing a hint of power in his limbs and good looks in wide jaw and warmly observant eyes.

Oren paused in his vocabulary test to glance out the open window. He worried little about his work; he did it well and then had time to daydream. He was pulled to the figure sitting near the building.

Andalin was sitting on an ancient oak stump with tablet and pencil as schoolmates played in the trees, swung on the rope swings, ran races. Oren knew for a fact that she could out-climb any of them and dangle from one leg on a high rope swing. Not, in truth, because she was stronger than they–she tended to quietness of body and mind, loathe to stir for long periods– but she was limber, persistent. And brave, he admitted. But the others thought of her as frail and treated her as if she was deaf and mute, leaving her to her own devices. The one time during the current school year Oren had seen her included was when they needed someone to be a minor wood nymph in a play and since there were almost no lines and she was small of frame, the director and kids decided she was perfect for the role. And she was. She gave off a lovely, mischievous aura if you let your judgment go easy on her and noted the sheerness of her skin, hair, eyes (her eyebrows nearly nonexistent, emphasizing the impact of those ice blues) as a positive, not a negative. A refreshing change for a community made up of swarthy-skinned, richly tanned and quite ordinary spectrum of white-shaded folks that populated the land.

Or put another way, she looked and seemed more a freak.

After the play was performed to delighted applause, the classmates reverted to their usual dismissal of her–despite the Luvstrom wealth and their parent’s cautioning them to be civil. It was rather a fallen-down wealth, but the crumbs could employ or feed much of the community if the family was so moved. And Dane Luvstrom had helped as much as he could during those long barren years. He was not a man to be trifled with, yet a man of some principle. Nevertheless, Dane was only one member,  head of the family; Renata was quite another ruling party, the sort to be tolerated. And Andalin Chiara was more than different. Some felt her as threatening in a distant, indecipherable sense; they didn’t try too hard to figure her out. They had each other and she had her family. Let her have the status and her own kind–though they weren’t certain what sort that was, in the end.

Oren crushed a piece of paper into a compact ball and threw it hard out the raised window. It landed on Andalin’s back. She slowly turned, unsurprised. She raised a hand and moved it to one side in minor greeting. In response, he lifted shoulders and hands in question so she smiled back at him, arms sweeping up air as if wings, then her body following as she rose to her feet, ran off to a large tree and started to climb. She passed over or under the other few kids, scrambling to the top in no time. They were almost used to this sudden flurry of movement when she’d been stock-still, of her ability to surpass them despite her frailties, so pulled back away from her, then watched.

“Jump, Andalin!” one called out, a girl with coppery pigtails.

“Yes, jump and fly this time, weird fairy girl!” a boy shouted in a rush of laughter.

The others shouted similar things, getting into a rougher spirit of it.

Oren and Huff got up and went to the window despite the teacher calling them back. This happened too often; Oren always worried. Huff was usually impatient.

“Climb down now, Andalin!” he pleaded under his breath, for he knew if he shouted she’d be taunted further and he would be stopped on the way home for a fight.

Andalin, in a crook of the topmost branches, looked about her and down below. She set her feet apart so each was higher up on the branches and first stood precariously, then held the just-balanced stance. She let go one sinuous branch, jutted chin up and out, her near-white hair alight in a gentle wind, her eyes closed.

Oren’s and Huff’s hands felt slippery with sweat as they glanced at each other. Surely she was not going to listen to the classmates, she was too smart, too self preserved and generally unmoved by it all–wasn’t she? They had seen her evade stinging words for years, as if they were mere bubbles. Deal with mean tricks as though they were flimsy darts aimed her way as if to tease. They had seldom seen her cry and only for a moment after which she sighed as if there was nothing to be done but tolerate it all. She seemed more than anything to shake off the actions and intent and focus on other views of living. Her own views. And she was kindly in her quiet way despite the harm attempted. Which made the worst of the bullies more possessed of ill will.

She was, Oren thought, so much better than they were that they didn’t even know it, they didn’t realize who they were dealing with and this spurred him to leave his school room and lope down the hallway, Huff following in a sprint, the teacher now scared and crying out and running to catch up.

Andalin stood in the treetop, pulled into herself a tender scent of apple blossoms, the promise of heady lilac. The sharp taste of wind, salt-tinged with far-off seas, cooled with a sweet foretelling of rain much needed. Heard swallows and falcons and bluebirds on the wing and their babies calling with tiny beaks. She was so utterly in love with this world that she shivered, her skin alive with joy. Her body felt the world and just welcomed what was in it. But beyond the earth’s glowing spring horizon she knew well there was more and she reached for it with one hand and then with another. Her eyes were shut tight against sunlight that draped all the trees and her. Against all that impeded her knowing of the environs and the beyond. She stood still and fully alone, leg muscles taut, bright hair riffled by breeze, face shining.

Below they all watched her standing tall between branches, hands lifted to sky as if praying and they held their breath inside a collective rupture of fear.

Oren closed his eyes and Huff gawked.

When they heard the swift crash through branches Oren was the first to dash to her, then several others came. Only to find her not squashed on the ground, not bleeding with scrapes or brokenness but resting on the lowest branch, hands holding on, eyes wide open. Everyone gathered in a circle and stared at her, aghast, amazed by the lack of injury.

“She just jumped from one branch to another!”

“No, she slipped one to the next, like she was made of air…like a…”

“I saw her, she was flying, flew right down to the last branch…!” a third said, her face drained by fear and wonder.

“Will you please, please come down now?” the teacher asked, advancing with a hand outreached to her, as if the child was an unpredictable beast or simply a crazy one, not to be trusted. Impressed enough to want to tell everyone else about it.

Oren and Huff strode past the kids and adults milling about. Oren caught her eye and folded his arms tight against his chest to stop his heart from galloping.

“Andalin, stop showing off and just come down.” He tried to make it sound like an insult and a tease in one but failed for his voice shook.

She slid off the branch and gently landed on the ground on all fours, then popped up and walked away, head lowered, looking small and delicate, not like one who did what she just had done. Huff and Oren followed, trying not to check every inch for sudden gushes of blood or protruding bone fragments, the usual result of falling through tree branches. Their teacher followed but sharply turned back, seeing she was, indeed, oddly alright. But something worse? But what?  It was too noteworthy to ever forget. The girl had grace, strength and oddness beyond understanding,

“Why?” Huff asked, angry. “How were we to save you if branches impaled you or you hit the ground too fast and hard?”

She steadied herself before them, those grey-to-blue-to-clear-as-water eyes simmering with energy. Took one of their hands in each of hers.

“They’re wasting their time trying to scare me. I am not afraid. Just alone and lonely. We live on the edges of it all, the deep of this world. All of us. But I daily live between them. I live in the endless wake of things.” She pushed her flyaway hair back and looked right at Oren. “You know that by now, don’t you? How can they really hurt me if this is true?”

Huff opened his mouth but went blank. What did she say?

Oren felt tears well up and frowned. He had no idea why he felt this. Why he halfway understood. Why they had to endure her strangeness and could not turn away from her. She was like a compass, magnetically charged without anyone consciously realizing it and he had kept coming back to her side despite oft-feigned disinterest. Everyone found themselves watching her, waiting for something else although they changed their intense interest into more disdain. More wariness. Like knowing she holds secrets–what sort? whose?– and nothing can be done about it.

But Huff turned away then. He gave her a hard look and shook his head. Shuddered as if to release a spell and from his throat arose a grunt of frustration. He hustled back to the school.

“Oren,” she said again, “don’t you know that?”

But he could not answer her. Did he? He put an arm about her, pulled her boniness close, then released her. He thought he heard her whisper, “Sorry for scaring you”, but when he asked her to repeat it and look at him, she was silent, studied the clover beneath their feet, stopped to pick one. Put it to her lips then ate the honey of it, her countenance wreathed with pleasure.

They entered the school building, Andalin to face officials (Oren to fail his first math quiz ever) she barely knew. Who, despite their initial disbelief, were aware they were dealing with a child unlike any other, there was no more disputing it. And they were unhappy and intrigued in equal measure as they sent a bike messenger to get Dane Luvstrom. He must do a far better job at teaching her to not act in such foolish ways. To follow the rules. To not take big chances. To fit in even a little better– somehow. They knew they couldn’t count on Renata, who was above such difficult duties. Such a family. Such a girl.

******

Oren heard Kent seeking him out with the huge reverberating bell, then his name yelled loud and clear. He gazed one last time toward the Luvstroms’ land and remembered her running, smirking as she got closer and slowed to a saunter. He saw those glimmering eyes, how they recognized him still. Saw how she had changed but not changed at all. He had thought at first it couldn’t be her, he had worked so hard to erase her from his thoughts that he was certain she’d left or simply vanished. Besides, she didn’t belong here, in this harsh, constricted life. Why had she remained? He should have taken her with him. But, of course, could not, she was in school, yet a young girl. She was going nowhere, anyway, not then. And he had been relieved, at last, of her presence.

So why were they familiars still, after his extensive journeying, such good adventures, all the other women?

His chest squeezed, felt crowded with anticipation of the next time they might meet. He, too, was weighted with a vague unease. He had only half-known what she’d meant after she fell those years ago. She had never said the same words again yet ever after Oren had spent years trying to both acknowledge and retreat from the truth she revealed. To accept and still back away from her. Perhaps this is what had led him back home, for reasons yet to be made clear. And perhaps to Andalin–may Universal Spirit aid them both.

(I have often enjoyed sharing pieces of much longer projects. But please do not print or share these recent chapters, as the work is © 2018 Cynthia Guenther Richardson and an ongoing writing endeavor, constantly being revised. Andalin, Alive, being a novel-in-progress, is ultimately separate from my usual WordPress posts. Thanks for taking time to read any chapters as well as respecting this request–but your comments are always welcome!)

Ordinary Sojourners

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

It wasn’t my plan to stop at a neglected used book store but I needed a cooling breath or two and a drink from the water cooler. I’d been hurrying through a busy part of the city when I spotted it: Parson’s Bound Words and Fine Art the swinging wooden sign bragged, as if there were arcane, prized items beyond its dirty green door. It was proclaimed awkwardly, I thought, and it put me off but I noted a young woman and child appearing to enjoy heat relief as they browsed. I hesitated at the door. Perspiration made a beeline down back and chest. I turned the dented brass knob and went inside.

I had just been to lunch with Emory. It’s a date we manage every six months to keep a civil line open for our three adult children and six grandchildren. We don’t talk on the phone or, heaven forbid, text; Emory doesn’t believe either is good authentic communication and I can’t say I entirely disagree, at least in his case. Emory is not one who can grasp or respond well without the talking partner’s face providing constant and helpful clues. This was still true for us despite being married to one another for thirty-seven years. We’ve been divorced for ten. His need to clarify via constant overt signals might in part explain why we didn’t have patience enough to endure, much less fully enjoy each other, until death do us part. I don’t need to be duly examined, nor to regard another with full force in order to chat about an update on life. I don’t even need to be in the same rooms; I like to move about. Use your imagination, I used to urge him, listen to vocal inflections.

Still, we’ve somehow managed to talk without fisticuffs and it seems a useful meeting twice a year. Emory is not unpleasant from afar and close up he still looks pretty good. He says the same of me so that much we continue to agree upon. We each remain single. Just less complicated.

Although seeing him still can increase my blood pressure and thus, internal temperature, the city summer had already scorched us all. So that bookstore beckoned. I entered, the obligatory little bell on the top tinkling in a frenzy. A waft of cool air welcomed me immediately. Mr. Parson, I presumed, looked up from an opened notebook by the cash register, nodded, then returned to his writing or tallying. His black taped glasses perched on top of his head; he squinted at whatever was being entered in his own bound pages. He must have felt me staring at him–he was grizzled and rumpled but had a scholarly air about him, much like Emory. He looked up, tried on a smile with eyes that I suspected looked perpetually quizzical. He loved books, after all.

“May I help you this ghastly August afternoon?”

“Water first!–how generous of you to offer it– then to general browsing,” I said and headed to the cooler. He grunted in a congenial manner and let me be.

After a paper cone of lukewarm water was drunk, I glanced at section headings and went for visual arts, mostly because it was dimmer and farther back so perhaps cooler. There were three others besides the woman and child, each bent over a book in the aisles; I excused myself along the way. I  pulled out a few art tomes and thumbed through the pages. Seen one, seen them all, I felt at the moment, though at home was a sagging shelf devoted to classic and contemporary painters and a collection each of Mexican and Native American potters. Bored with books that held little interest I moved on to two long shelves of photography, fingers slipping over smooth or cracking spines as I dallied.

Henri Cartier-Bresson–that name so renowned but it had been years since I had even glanced at his work. I contemplated a heavy-looking book and pulled it out. Parson was passing me and pointed at a table and chairs alongside a window.

“Take a seat, have at it,” he said, then disappeared through a swinging office door.

It was pleasant there despite the predictable dry, musty smell of aging, oft-handled bindings and pages. The book I held needed to lay flat to be appreciated and so I sat and opened to the first pages. Though I knew he had died in 2004, Cartier-Bresson meant something to me still.

During the onset of the 1970s I had studied photography, before Emory and the bit and bridle of married life, and had had the good fortune to spend a year in Paris. There I’d wanted to practice certain techniques, to at the least mimic the sort of spontaneous shots which made the master photographer famous. I shamelessly shot every place and person I could, trying to not provoke. It was a time of unfettered days and nights, made of dreams I’d held close until they had come true, time in Paris with camera in hand: the extraordinary light and shadow, charming scenes and grand old architecture, revelations of life unlike any I’d witnessed or even suspected before. I had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and so embraced Paris with high expectations, a growing adoration.

I wished more than anything to become a female Henri Cartier-Bresson. I knew I had some basic talent but did I have the creative mind and eye it took to offer views that spoke volumes even remotely like the master’s? Roll after roll of film was shot, developed that year and so much of it was no good. But some of it was.

I turned more softly yellowed, slick pages, studied the pictures. Street life, fresh and fascinating. People paused to gaze into a long, bright alley; strolled hand in hand along the busy Seine; hunched over food at outdoor cafes or on a dock; loitered at street corners beneath glowing lamps; kissed in parks; toiled in the grime; dozed and gossiped on benches. The artist found the extraordinary in all that was ordinary, recorded subtle or dramatic changes in much of the world. Some of that time was mine, was where and when I lived.

I sighed, happy to have taken a few moments to come into the little dingy store. How could I have forgotten such treasures as these? I flipped through more pages, absorbing them with a flick of my eyes. I had to get home to feed Dana, my dachshund. The past only held so much magnetism for me, anymore. What had gone before was done. I hadn’t wasted time grieving over the cameras I put away, then sold; I had made a choice.

And as I about closed the book, I stopped.

There was a young man with aviator sunglasses, patterned bandanna snug about his forehead, books pushed aside as he lounged atop a ponderous stone wall, likely part of many steps to an immense building, his back to a pillar. Arms around a girl pressed deeply into the embrace, his fingers entwined for a stronger hold on her.

The boy was Phillipe and the girl he held was me, Natalie.

I gasped and my hand clasped my open mouth. The young woman with child looked at me with a small concern as she scooted around the table, hand clutching her daughter’s. But I just bent over the page and remembered.

How was that possible, to have had our picture taken and not know it, to never have seen it all these years? The thrill of this threatened to bring me to a faint and I took in and released long slow breaths. Parson walked by; I kept my eyes down. I couldn’t possibly inform a stranger that I was in a picture made by a famous photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken many thousands of photographs. We were just one more couple with a passerby eyeing us and perhaps disapproving on a sunny afternoon. We were in the master’s viewfinder, then he had moved on.

Phillipe was a student at the Sorbonne, studying philosophy and music. We had met at a cafe one afternoon when I was trying to not cry  over my espresso, feeling homesick despite the wonders found, wishing for someone with whom to share it all. He’d picked up my sunglasses from the ground as he walked by; we began to chat. He, too, missed his small town of Ornans but said this lessened as his studies became more interesting. Phillipe was studying music theory and composition, was working on a piece. I’d felt relief and gratitude that he had taken an interest in me, a foreigner, and he’d shared his struggles adjusting to living on his own.

I racked my brain –where was that taken? What had we been up to? It was like any romantic afternoon we shared in Paris; it may have been at the university after he got out of class. But I knew Phillipe such a short time, only three and a half months, and time trickled away so fast I kept a diary of our stolen and intimate days and nights, our falling easily into a tender love. He, the romantic French boy I’d longed to know; I, the American student he found so open and independent. I was afraid no one would believe me, or that I would forget somehow, so  I wrote it all  down each day. And took some pictures of him.

Where did all that end up? Crammed into taped up boxes in the attic, no doubt. I was twenty-one then, now sixty-seven.

I smoothed the page, tapped his hands. Recalled the weight of my hair in summer warmth, how he loved to hold it to his face; the prickle of his stubbly cheeks against mine. The books we read to one another, my French just passable, his English better. The music he played for me, very good songs. But I soon came to the end of my stay, the end of money left me by a beloved uncle. Phillipe had to continue at the Sorbonne. His carefree lust and easy affection for me were nothing compared to his passion for music. And though I found his words and touch gentling as well as incendiary, I suspected photography would bring me great comfort long after he was gone.

Yet it had stung, how could it not in 1971 for a young woman in Paris studiously snapping pictures while seeking a soul mate? He had walked into my life, we’d clung to one another in a free-fall of delights, then simply parted.

I took a last look at his face. It was so long ago it seemed impossible. I slowly closed the book. Henri Cartier-Bresson had frozen for all time one ordinary Phillipe, one everyday Natalie.

“Find something interesting? I couldn’t help but notice…” Parson grasped the back  of the wooden chair, leaned on it as he looked at me with interest.

I rolled hunched shoulders luxuriously–they needed a good stretch. “Oh, the past, it sneaks up on you at odd times. Or wallops you.”

“It can. May I ask–are you a photographer? I mean, since you poured over his work?” He patted the volume as if an object of his affection.

I considered the man. He was older than I, had a white trimmed beard and eyebrows that could scare you if he scowled. But he seemed more the benevolent sort. The poorly repaired glasses slid off his head, a hand catching them at the last moment. I wondered if he’d ever traveled or had only labored away in this little book shop all his life, an armchair sojourner. Did he like other things or only words and pictures he could catalog, keep handy in their places?

“I was once. At least thought so–or that I could be. I so admired Cartier-Bresson. I hoped to emulate his style. Then I stopped. You know, how we stop doing something because there seems no good reason to keep on? One thing just replaces another.”

He considered this, looking out the window. “Yes. I sailed and lived all over the world for over a decade and then I was done. Have not been on a boat since. I bought this store and stuck with it. Lately there are far fewer customers. But it’s what I enjoy still. For now.”

He acted as if he was about to pull out a chair and make himself comfortable, so I stood up. I had to feed Dana, it was getting late and I was tired out.

But Parson persisted. “What about your pictures–do you miss taking them?”

“I haven’t thought of it in a good long while. Until today. Perhaps I have, after all.” I started to move away from the table.

“Well,” he said, “maybe start again.”

I picked up the book and took it to the counter. “I for certain know I want to buy this.”

He grinned at me, crooked teeth homely but nice. “Good. Which one did you especially enjoy?

“Page sixty-four.”

He turned to it, peered at it a bit. “A fine capture of young lovers, in Paris, perhaps.”

“That was me… and Phillipe,” I said to my surprise and sudden embarrassment.

Parson raised those big eyebrows and his eyes grew huge. “That right? That’s marvelous, then, isn’t it?”

I paid for the book, a lot more than I expected. “Yes, I guess it really is. Quite a good memory but I value it because it’s by my idol. Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

“As well you should, Ms….”

“Just Natalie.” I half-winked at him, I don’t know why but it just seemed the right thing after all that.

“As well you should, Natalie, a wonderful find.”

“Yes, I’m so glad I came in. It’s a good bookshop. Thanks, Parson.”

“Jack, and I thank you, too.”

He offered his hand and I took it, held it a second or two, his palm slim but firm if aging, fitting into my bony, aging one.

“Goodbye for now, Jack.”

“Come back any time.”

I closed the door behind me and was swathed in a blanket of humid heat. But I hugged the book all the way home. I felt quite lucky at times in my life. Even with Emory, who had been kind if quite hard to bear as well. Weren’t we all. I did wonder what I’d find next at that bookstore. First I wanted to buy a good, cheap camera. I might tell Emory about that. Or even Jack.

Late to Arrive are True Confessions

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He didn’t like to take “no” for an answer if there was any hope, at all, so he went back again. He had passed the house once only and it struck him as a beacon in the dark. It was large, had a good veranda, was painted a stone grey, and he could see a portico at a side entrance. More importantly, in the parallel yard nestled by a back fence was a smaller dwelling painted a Wedgwood blue that needed a touch-up. A hand lettered “For Rent” sign was hung haphazardly by twine on its doorknob. It compelled him to stop and ask about it.

Jim Jameson, as tall as they came in those parts, swung open the door, leaned down to study the stranger to take in Van’s interest in renting the tiny cottage and said, “No. Not for rent right now.”

“But there’s a sign on the door announcing it’s for rent.”

“That was last week. I changed my mind. ”

And with that Mr. Jameson took the steps two at a time, huffed and strode over to the dwelling and yanked off the sign. He put it face down on the ground, scowled at the younger man who’d followed him and barked, “I’ve changed my mind. A man can be of two minds and oscillate, can’t he? Today, it is certainly not for rent. So excuse me, I’ll say good day now and good luck.”

Van wandered after that, thinking things over. He hadn’t been back to Chesterfield since he’d left Chesterfield College his second year. He’d never expected to return. But life did turnabouts in ways that baffled him. His old father died so the family business, Warrington Jewelry, Ltd., met its own untimely end. He’d grudgingly worked for him fifteen years, ever since Walt Warrington was unwell with a worsening heart. There were not more appealing options then and his mother had passed several years earlier, so it was up to him. They had long dealt in vintage items, fine jewelry; they’d managed well enough, or so he thought, keeping a pleasant  home and bills paid.

Van had little idea there were old debts stirring up secret dismay and stress in his father. Why had he waited until the end to tell him the truth? And Van worried extra college costs had further jeopardized the business–and to what end? By the time Van got the mess untangled and debts paid off, there was not so much left. Nothing enticing in the hometown, either.  He had managed to keep a precious few thousand after all was addressed, so he took a needed break from the misery.

Although one might argue that Chesterfield was nothing much, either, it had two colleges, one for medical degrees (Health Sciences Junior College), the other for liberal arts. Van had attended the liberal arts college on a partial scholarship, thinking of teaching high school kids. He hadn’t quit due to poor grades or lack of interest, it was more complicated than that, enough that he’d given it up and re–entered the family business.

After all had been squared away and sold, even the family house, after two peaceful but lonely weeks camping in state parks he’d had a happier idea. What if he went back to where things were better, before they got worse? Chesterfield had inspired him once; it might again. So he’d driven five hours toward that wavering glimmer of possibility and started looking for a place of his own. And then things got weird.

Van got a cheap room night just three blocks away and decided after his odd encounter about the cottage to inquire about Jim Jameson at the Pub ‘n Grub.

“I was interested in renting the little place he’s got but he flat out turned me away. There was a large ‘For Rent’ sign.”

“Big Jim?” The bartender said, shaking his neat head of dark hair. “He’s something, isn’t he? Teaches economics and world history at Chesterfield College. Married a gal who had just graduated, an artist. We all liked his wife a lot. They came in Friday nights for burgers and fries, a couple beers.” He paused wiping down the counter to check out Van from beneath bushy eyebrows. “You’re new in town, right? Don’t know too many who aren’t anymore, what with yearly expanded college campuses.”

“Well,” Van said, “I am, but not entirely. I used to live here as one of those invading students long ago. Left after two years to work in the family business, though. Now I’m back for awhile, anyway. My father died so I’m looking for work again and a place.”

“Sorry to hear of your loss. The town has changed a bit, no doubt. More people, more work in some areas, less in others. What was the business you owned?”

“It ended with my father…we bought and sold good vintage jewelry.”

The bartender stuck out his hand and Van took it. “I’m Bart Tilley, by the by. Been here since before you came around the first time. Don’t believe I knew you then but now we’re acquainted.” He pushed another beer over. “On me this time, then it’s yours to pay.”

“Thanks, Van Warrington here. I lived in the dorms on the other side of town. Hoped to be a teacher; had a dream back then. So what can you tell me about that rental property situation?”

Bart lifted a finger to indicate Van should hold the thought while he waited on more customers. The place was filling up; it was after eight. Van was suddenly exhausted from the drive, from looking for housing he could afford, from a few surges of muted grief which he could not quite name as such. Only a marrow deep weariness was recognized. He was on the verge of change, he felt it, but nothing good had happened yet.

Bart slid back and inclined his head close to Van’s. “She died, his wife, ovarian cancer. Big Jim has not been himself for awhile now. Gotten surly. He often decides to rent the place and then just as fast to un-rent it. You may as well look elsewhere. You seem like a good guy. I’ll ask around. But it was her studio, she was a potter. Good stuff. Sad story. Hey, by the way, there’s a new, hip jeweler taking over Dundee’s Diamonds and Gold downtown. In the big green building, just stop by, see if they need your expertise.”

Bart left him with that news as he got too busy to return. But he looked over his shoulder and frowned, rubbed his bristly jaw when Van was looking across the bar, mulling his own thoughts over.

Well, Van thought, that poor guy, no wonder. He went to his motel room. As he lay with hands tucked behind his head late into the noisy night, he mused, Jewelry appraisal, buying, selling–is that what I’ll have to do again? And then: Bart is alright, he seems solid, I’ll go back sometime and see what he’s heard–if he meant it.

******

But the next morning he returned to Big Jim’s house. He loved that part of town and imagined the rent more than workable for such a small abode.

Big Jim opened the door, looked Van up and down, shook his head sadly then closed it. Van remained on the veranda, turned toward the wide tree-lined street and looked over graceful lawns upon which stood old, well kept two-story houses. They had called this “Professor Row” in contrast to “Student Row” streets. He had sometimes ridden over on his bike, gawked at the pretty houses and dreamed of making it there, himself, in ten years. Ten years that had slipped away.

The door partly opened once more. “Why are you still here? I have a class in a half hour, I don’t have time to shoo you away every five minutes.” He hunched his thin shoulders as if he was too defeated to stand up and appear otherwise. “I don’t think I can rent it, it’s that simple. So for now, no deal.”

“Yes, I get it, Bart told me it was your…wife’s studio. I’m sorry she passed.” Big Jim only looked over Van’s head into the distance a wistful moment. “I love its appearance. I like this street. I need a place that is affordable and have money in the bank and can find work as a jeweler. Or something.”

“Right, a jeweler, that’s what I need here. If you’d said landscape maintenance person I might consider it a moment.” He gestured around the overgrown yard, flowers blooming out of control, rows of hedges in grave need of pruning. “But I don’t plan to lease it just yet. As already noted.”

“So you know, I can do that, too. My father had an imposing yard in Pineville and worsening ill health. I helped at home, the business he had. He died last fall.”

“I see.” Big Jim came outside, let the screen door bang, its whiny hinges scraping the still air.

Am I playing on his sympathies? Van wondered. But what I say is true. He was surprised when Big Jim gestured toward two dark blue painted wicker chairs nearby. He took a seat after his host did.

“Thanks for taking time to talk. I sure would appreciate this place, I have to get settled somewhere soon.”

“It’s not a proper house but part getaway and more a serious potter’s studio…a kitchenette, a tiny alcove for a couch or mattress…” He deflated more as his voice trailed off.

“I get that–not wanting others to live in it. Must be hard to see it there every day.”

“It was her refuge as well as work space, you see. I think she was happiest there. Married thirteen years, all we had. She got sick four years ago, died two years later. I just ignored the studio until recently.” He stopped himself, sat up and turned toward the congenial, pleasant looking man, perhaps the earlier end of middle age. “Well. And your name again?”

“Van Warrington. I studied education at Chesterfield College for a couple years, fifteen years ago. Then had to leave. But I understand that you don’t want to let anyone use the cottage, so I may as well move on and–”

“Cottage. That’s what she called it, her Potter’s Cottage, all six hundred twenty-four square feet of it. Look, Van Warrington, I have to go teach a blasted class now but stop by tomorrow and we’ll talk a bit more if you like.”

They said a hasty farewell and each went his own way. Van felt a stirring of hope. He wondered what sort of pottery she had made. He still wondered if the cottage might be rented in good time, and for how much. He went back to the motel, sat on his bed for awhile, trying to shake off drowsiness. He picked up his camera, put a few resumes in his backpack, then walked toward Stone River so he might follow its meander through soothing greens and floral cheer of Chesterfield. Maybe he’d stop by that jewelry store. Maybe not.

******

Jim Jameson found his way to the studio as he did each morning sleep eluded him before dawn arrived. He glanced at the kiln outdoors, then unlocked the door and pocketed the key for safety , patted  it inside the fabric as if it were an amulet. There was the still clay-coated potter’s wheel to right of the door. She liked to keep windows and door propped wide open in good weather as she worked, to encourage a fresh breeze. To move and out to think and use the kiln. There was the salvaged farmer’s double sink with cracked muddy splotches, and bags of clay lined up along the west wall. Cupboards hung above containing supplies of various sorts–he knew so little of it. On the east side were many shelves with last finished pieces crowding each other, bowls, mugs, plates, trays– and small free form sculptures not meant to resemble anything so much as a sensuous curve of a hill or a waterfall in mountains. It was the glazes that set them off, glossy or matte vibrant autumnal tones she loved, and natural textures she created.

Used to create,” he said in the dusty stillness, and took all in as long as he could stand it, not going near the day bed where she used to sometimes fall asleep and remain all night. More often than he’d wished. The worn coverlet with vines on rusty colored and quilted fabric was where it was when she died, the pillow scrunched up as she’d liked it.

But would she want it this way forever? Like a memorial to a life she once led but left behind? And without any serious complaint, he had to agree.

Jim blinked bloodshot eyes to dispel their dampness, shut the door softly, locked it and went into his house to make coffee. He took a stack of papers to grade into his study as he waited for Van Warrington to arrive.

******

When Van came and accepted the offer to enter the house, it was as if he remembered something, but he didn’t know what it might be. There was a familiarity about it but then, many of the houses were like this one and he had been in quite a few over those two years. Parties, a few suppers with profs’, study sessions at profs’, visiting friends who had snagged a shabbier version of such a house to share with five others. It could be the evocation of a time he lived, is all.

He followed Big Jim into the study. The walls were made of books and the scatter rug was a large old Persian. The light was dim, the room warm. It was early and too humid. The clouds outside regrouped, gathered more steam for rain.

They sat on the velvety burgundy sofa. On the coffee table was just that–a  carafe of coffee next to cream and sugar in cut glass bowl and pitcher. Jim poured one mug then a second for Van.

“So, I’m wondering just why I’m here,” Van said when silence settled between them a moment. He could hear a grandfather clock ticking, looked for but saw none.

“I thought I’d tell you more before you further considered how much you may desire to live there.”

“Alright. I guess.” The cottage was partly visible from the side bay window. Van wanted to see the inside but willed himself to be patient then drank the strong coffee.

“We built it right soon after we married because she decided to make art, not teach it–though she did teach a few workshops each year. It was easy to agree to anything she wanted. She was younger than I by nine years and had a laugh like gently falling water… and a smile that snared everyone who saw her. She had the kind of beauty that caught you off guard not because it was dazzling but because it was quietly unassuming, natural but unmistakable. Sweet and a tad zany at once.”

Van drank more, uncrossed his ankles. He felt embarrassed by the details shared. Was the professor going to wax on and on about his deceased wife? He should be kinder; Van was sure the woman was lovely and very talented. But he wasn’t a grief counselor, not even this man’s friend. He had his own sadness to sort out. Was this woman’s essence never going to let go of the man? It hovered about him, a cloak of sweet sorrow.

Van understood how that could feel. But Van didn’t speak of it, at least not to strangers.

Big Jim went on. “She had such a knack for pottery–she fully discovered it after she got her B.A.– that it was only a matter of time before she sold them at art fairs, then galleries were interested. She began to make money at it. But mostly she loved what she did. I was never creative. I’m a man of strict numbers and political pondering, neither of which interested her much. I don’t create a thing but decent meals.” He scanned his bookshelves as of there was something there he must recall. “But she was so vibrant, she shook me up. I wasn’t a fool; I knew she needed the security I offered her so she could be a potter. I didn’t care. Just to be near her, to know she was out there every day, would be here most of the time when I returned from work….” He covered his eyes with a large hand. “I will not marry again.”

Van felt a sharp twinge. He knew some of what Jim spoke about. But he had to move on, learn about the cottage availability.

“It must be wonderful to have such a marriage, Jim. And I’m truly sorry she got sick/ And died. I suspect you’re right–this is not the right time for you to rent it out. I appreciate your telling me how important it is to keep as it was. I couldn’t live there. honestly, knowing how you feel. I hope you’ll excuse my bothering you.”

He was feeling short of breath, as if the room was hotter and smaller than it was and he was taking up too much air and room by by sitting there. It was a little creepy listening to such longing, as if he was overhearing a confession of something more intimate or complicated but he didn’t know what. He began to stand up.

“Still, she’s want me to share her cottage with the right person. I feel Lily would like you.”

Van sank to the chair. Tiny hairs on the back of Van’s neck stood up. He felt vaguely nauseous. “What did you say her name was?”

Big Jim unfolded his clasped hands and gestured toward the cottage as if she was out there waiting for them to decide what was next. “Lily. Lily Hunter Jameson.” He stood and looked out the window. “My dear wife for far too short a time.”

Van had to leave the room. He wanted to crawl out on hands and knees, he felt weak and unable to stop the spinning of his mind, the unreal sense of everything there. Lily Hunter! The bright young woman he had fallen in love with the moment he had met her in freshman composition. The woman he’d wanted to be with the rest of his natural born days. The woman who loved him right back with her stirring spirit and searching mind, her resonant body like an instrument made of fantastic music–as if she had waited only and ever for him and could never let him go.

Except she did. Back in college she in fact was falling for someone else, she confessed so one spring day after they picnicked in the riverside park. Someone more established and secure in life. She had to be an artist–he surely could understand that, couldn’t he? And the man knew exactly what she needed whereas Van, truth be told, sometimes needed too much, gave more than she could easily handle. She need energy left to create.

He never knew who it was but now he was staring at the back of a very tall, thin man, an accomplished, kindly man who so loved her still. A man more secure and well off. A man who adored her from afar as long as she had lived.

Van left the room as swiftly as he could, as if he was being run out, without a backward glance, tripping down the steps of the lovely veranda, past the cottage he would never look at again. He started up his car and drove to Stone River, then got out. Such an ache that dug into his center. How could this have happened? Was she not done hurting him, chasing him after death, mocking him after all these years? Or had Big Jim Jameson figured out who he was? No, that would be too uncanny and cruel…

“Get a hold of yourself, Van!” he said aloud as the river swept by. Let it go.

“”Yeah, man, come on, it’s just a place to rent that you need,” Bart said as he lightly punched him on the shoulder.

“Hey Bart–what are you doing here?” Van threw a rock into the muddy current.

“You look pale as a…oh, wait, you’ve been talking to Big Jim about his haunted cottage. Listen, I tried to tell you–nice guy, but kinda nuts these days. Pay him no mind. I have a place for you, it’ll be fine.”

“What? Just like that?”

“I’ve lived here fifty eight years. I know things.” his glance slid over Van. “Like who you are.”

Van felt a strong need to move away from Bart or to push him. This town–he had thought this could be a good move.

“Wait, Van, I knew Lily a long time, too. She used to come into the bar and cry on my shoulder. Everyone does, right? It’s my job. But, yeah, she came in after she married Big Jim and drank a little much and finally told me how she’d ended up with the wrong man but it was too late for her and Van…how much she loved you, that she lost you. But I don’t think her husband ever knew the truth. She had to carry on with her life, didn’t she? A really good potter, a finer woman. My friend, glad to say. I miss her–she was a lively gal when she wasn’t swimming in regrets.”

Van gave Bart a hard look then turned away. He was ready to wake up from the unnerving dream he was stuck in. All he had to do was concentrate on the three dimensional world. He took in the trees’ lush greenery, the polished picnic table, three children laughing at river’s edge with their father. He listened to his heartbeat against his ribs, just beyond his shirt, ba-duh, ba-duh, ba-duh.

“I mean: Van. Your name is one you don’t forget! Old fashioned, kinda like Lily’s. I thought it was you when we met…and I had to say she did love you, buddy. She made a kind of mistake that couldn’t be undone easily so she was in it for life, she said, with Big Jim Jameson, a decent man. It just turned out it wasn’t for that long.”

As he steadied himself on a picnic table–newer, cleaner than the one he and Lily had used years ago–he slowly sat on the bench. Felt the strength leave him and run into the sky, river, ground.

Bart grabbed his arm. “Hey, take some slow deep breaths. It’s a lot, no need to rush into understanding it all. It’s a tough story.”

Van straightened up. Sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs. He felt better in a few minutes. But he felt half-undone. He jutted his chin into storm-prescient air. He was a man who knew how to make the best of things, wasn’t he?

“Yeah, a lot to take in. To think about later. It happened. But it’s over, done. The past can’t hurt us unless we invite it to do damage.” He felt Bart nodding agreement beside him. “Okay. I heard you say you have a room? If I stay, that is?”

“Oh, stay awhile. It’s a small bungalow on the west side. If you have cash and get yourself a job soon, it’s yours in two weeks. I own it so that’s a solid.”

Van felt like he had been taken too far back to make a victorious step forward. But hearing Bart give him new information made him recall his life was just a life like any other. There had been good breaks and bad, quirks and bad timing. Deeper pangs. But he believed better times were possible. It was his way and it was what made the best sense to him right now. That, and Lily loving him all along even as she cared for Big Jim. She was some woman.

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Truce

Cannon Beach-Astoria-Lg Beach, 5-17 534
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Let us, then, try to walk together
as if there were no more wars
waged between us, the gag of
damage picked apart with tender
fingers that tied the knots.

Shifting sea speaks to presiding sky
without complaining, no judgement
and no remorse; they work as one.
Can we not bear up each other, too,
in co-conspiring, with useful love?

But our battles hone mean edges
where vultures perch, waiting
for the bounty of our undoing.
Even woundings have reaped wounds
and begged for truce, it’s repose.

This, then, seems more a means to hope,
lighter steps toward the crux of us
that yet feel unnatural. Cool, sweet and
salty breezes soothe pain’s scouring.
You hesitate and turn. I am coming. Closer.