Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Everything and More

Photo by Bunny Yeager 1959

There was that photo still kept in his Great-uncle Robert’s study, propped on his desk with everything else left untouched. She was outrageously attractive, you could see why he had kept it there, yet she was more wild-seeming than the foolishly attired chimpanzee–an impulsive gift from Robert but whom (which?) didn’t manage to make the wedding guest list; he was soon packed off to a chimp rehab sanctuary. She’d cried at that, but briefly, they said. And there was the MG, a beast of a sleeker sort which had long remained one of her joys. This was how people tended to think of her even still, he imagined. Even Andy, her great-nephew, thought of her like this despite physical evidence to the contrary. It was a fiery essence tamed by simple elegance, the kind of classiness that can’t be taught. The qualities stayed with her, reaching everyone, reflecting off everything. But the toil and trials of life had finally worn down the luster a bit.

Due to growing up around the world with nomadic parents, he’d only met her when she was well past generous middle age. It had been a happy meeting that became an inter-generational friendship. He’d grown up to work in business while she’d been a linguistics researcher. Built her life with Robert in Roxwood, more commonly referred to ( not quite with ill intent) as the “Devil’s Triangle”, a neighborhood fond of tall iron gates and streets jutting here, there and back on themselves amid copious trees and a palpable scarcity of activity. Only the well initiated could get in or out in under thirty minutes. Some had to summon help; even the GPS got confused. This had been the required design, of course. Andy had gotten the trip in and out down to fifteen minutes– less if he sped through annoying roundabouts.

The visits had gone on, soon a pleasant if obligatory act, a direct result of  cosmopolitan and mannerly upbringing: one did the right thing out of a primed social conscience, first of all. This included visits to an ancient great-aunt who lived a couple of hours and lifestyle away. But he liked her far more than anyone else in the family from the start. He also had appreciated right off  the hammocks she had hung here and there, shocking Robert at first. She had told all that it was the best way to nap, even deeply sleep; she’d had one in her bedroom until she fell out–one of many times–and broken an ankle last year. But she kept the others–in the front yard and back garden, in the study and screened sun room. Robert had grown to enjoy them on occasion, as well, though kept it secret.

And there were bright, artful flowers in most rooms, though often blossoms drooped and scents had begun to sour after they’d stood there, tired, in huge vases too long. He changed them out for new bouquets cut from her garden if Nora, her housekeeper, hadn’t gotten it done. Nora was quite good and affordable but just for two days a week. The house had slowly betrayed the wear of forty years’ life in Celeste’s (and one ought to add, Robert’s) hands and a good fifty of its own before that.

It had been some time since Andy had visited. About eight months. He made it twice a year since his  software business had taken over his life. So he tried to prepare for the worst as he pulled up to the fancy, heavy gate. He opened it with a remote’s click, and drove up a semi-circle drive, parked, got out and stretched. Yes, it was true what Mother had said, the painters had not been yet been contracted and the once creamy white with smart Wedgwood blue trim had finally given in to a dim blue and a brownish-green of creeping organisms showed on the white in spots, lots of peeling going on.

He was meant to persuade Aunt Celeste to allow them to help out if necessary. A delicate undertaking, to say the least. She could be so close with money, though maybe she had much less of it now, and cared less and less for appearances, it seemed. He tucked the lavender sport shirt into his grey shorts and combed back his dark hair; he would brook no comments on slovenly dress, even in such summer heat.

He rang the sonorous chime although he’d called her a week ago to remind of the visit. Before he could open it,  Nora answered, her graying topknot askew on her head, mouth betraying a remainder of ice cube that she liked to crunch, and quickly smiled at him. A dribble of water eked out and she blushed but he was sympathetic to her quirks. She was good to Celeste and the house was all shined up inside.

“Mr. Demart, so good to see you. She’s in the sun room, ready and waiting.”

He passed lively flowers on a half table under the foyer’s oval mirror, strode through shadowy lengths of hallway past a formal living and dining room–she seldom used these now–around brightening corners and past large kitchen and down another hall, finally coming to the sun room. The blue and green parakeets began to jabber, likely because Andy was there. He did not like them much  but they had always been there, one bird or another. Another eccentricity you took along with Celeste.

“Finally, there he is!”

She rose in one practiced movement then put a steadying hand on the armchair beside her. Then stood taller, held arms open to him. What an amazing sight, he thought as always and moved toward her–the silvered wavy hair cropped close, her signature cut; three glinting necklaces roped about her long, wrinkly neck; rose-colored, silver-trimmed caftan drifting about her smallness in a waltz of silken beauty. He inhaled her soft amber fragrance. The same as ever– how long? Did Robert buy it long ago because he loved it on her? Did she splurge on it herself and found it so alluring she forsook all other elixirs on her dressing table? It warmed up any atmosphere. She was seventy-nine and all the etchings in her loosening skin proved it, yet she seemed to most above and beyond a set age.

“Aren’t you smart today with your purple shirt. And flip-flops? Well, suitable for taking to the hammock,” she said gesturing to stretched yellow fabric on the spare frame waiting in a corner. “I can hear from here if you want to avail yourself of the fun now.”

“They’re leather, I’ll have you know, quite good ones. It’s summer!  But I have to stay awake part of the visit, don’t I? First a good catching up, later a hammock, Auntie.”

Celeste smirked at him, hand fluttering at her throat as vivid memories came forth. He liked to try every hammock when he first came to visit her, acting a child despite being eighteen, lanky and a it whiskery. She’d had one in nearly every room until Robert had finally confessed to being embarrassed by them when guests came. She was not entirely persuaded; they were made of gorgeous fabrics and such a practical thing. He’d indulged her whims most of the time, and now he wasn’t there to offer exasperated opinions or sweet compliments. Though she could still hear him at odd moments.

“I thought you’d forgotten me. What do you do all the time you’re not around besides run a business? Not that this doesn’t count but aren’t there a few days off? You’re looking a bit peaked about the gills, strained around the eyes. Premature aging, watch out. A sure sign of money madness and sleep aversion. Don’t forget to water your spirit. perhaps yy need a pet to slow you down.”

He nodded at her in vague agreement, picked out almonds from the nut mix nestled in a coral ceramic bowl, popped one, two into his mouth. He’d often considered a dog but they required serious attention. “Not that you would know anything about these topics, Auntie. And I do take a day off occasionally–I’m here now, for instance. Just got back from Venezuela but that was more business than footloose fun.”

He shrugged and snapped up more smokey almonds, ten in a palm that he bounced before tossing them back. This was what he’d hoped, relaxing in the airy sun room eating almonds and chatting easily with Aunt Celeste. Working up to that paint job. She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, and one with the large blue stone caught light. He’d always liked that one, hung on a long silver chain. He wondered briefly if it was a blue topaz or an aquamarine or what. Andy liked jewels but knew very little; later he’d ask. She always had interesting information.

“Well, Andrew, I assume no good, steady woman in your life yet?” she asked.

“Right to the point!”

The dating update couldn’t wait today. He stretched out long, muscled legs, leaned back. Nora brought a carafe of iced water and glasses on a tray, settled it on a coffee table and left again. How did Aunt Celeste always get to his business before he got to hers? He abruptly sat forward, forearms resting on knees.

“Tell me what you have been up to, how you’re feeling lately. I’m here to keep an eye on you, of course.”

“That’s an easy report. My annual check-up documented me as still ticking, with moderate to good energy levels. My steady vitals bored the doctor nearly to tears. It seems I shall live a very long time if I keep this up–a life of perhaps ill-gotten leisure punctuated by occasional bursts of industry, a few worthwhile efforts. I had my annual garden party about two months ago with forty well meaning, tiresome, well-combed ladies who came to donate money to our orphanage in Thailand. And the sprinkler system was finally repaired, not so bad as expected but rougher on the pocketbook than wished. And I have my usual book club meeting once a month though it gets harder to read fast and find the wit and will to offer intelligent comments. I may graduate to audible books and forego the group. Do something else. Ride a bike, for instance, there’s a thing I always planned to do more often.”

Her eyes were a clear bluish-grey and she winked at him. She could be disarming; that was her intention more often than not. But he didn’t anticipate her next words.

“Why are you here this time, Andrew? Beyond the usual great fondness bit, I mean.” He started to protest but she waved it away. “Is it that the house has gotten too big for me with Robert gone three years now? That the peeling paint is a debacle for my neighborhood? That I should get out more via the ole senior shuttle– or get home bound meals brought in, for heaven’s sake? Or that I need a keeper other than Nora since I am fast making the approach to eighty? And you are coming to my birthday celebration, aren’t you? It’s November in case you forgot. I must have you here, dear, you are the only relief in our crowd!”

She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, then her hands fell to her lap and she sat still, eyes coolly ablaze. The parakeets had begun to hop about again, all four of them enjoying a elaborate white penthouse of a cage, chittering at each other and then at the humans. She watched them and relaxed a tad. Such a mood she was in lately.

“Sorry, I just seem to be noticing I am getting older lately.

Andy was startled by that outpouring since this was mostly not even what had crossed his mind. The paint, yes, the shrubbery trimmed again, perhaps. The roof–had he checked the roof in a while?

“Why all this? Who has been bothering you with such ideas? My adamant but unreachable mother? Oh–Clarence?” He knew her neighbor wanted to buy the house, probably to demolish it and annex the land for his own expansion. A lot of that was going on in the area. She’d get a mint, even as things were. “You cook okay still, right? No one is worried much. Nora says nothing, she’s a trusty one but maybe you’ve threatened her with more dusting in dark corners or polishing each floor on hands and knees…” Andy wanted her to smile, damn it, he didn’t want her to feel such anger or fear. And he still had to address the need for an expensive paint job. And he longed for a stiff drink already. Though he adored her, life was complicated and it wasn’t easy to get away to see her here. And he hadn’t even told her about Eva.

“Well.” She touched the faceted blue stone, index fingertip alighting on it as if she sought reassurance from its heft and beauty. Her shoulders loosened,  eyes softened. “Alright then. I have too much spare time to worry, I suppose. Or not about the right things. Well, I never was one for fretting the day and night away– until I hit 77. And then I woke up and thought: life is moving too fast and here I am after Robert has died and yet nothing can be remotely the same, either. Your partner is gone and you are the sparest one, not a hearty two. Not the pair who faces the world together and then each other, one a mirror of sorts for the other. I didn’t like to speak of it back then; life and death are inevitable hurdles, at times. More so as you dig your heels in and stick it out, I’ll tell you what, Andrew Alger Demart, and you have to stay in good form. Top form, I do say. But it is a strange feeling all the same to feel such singularity. And life’s tempo, so fast and yet slow. It is enough to make my head spin some days.” She ran a hand through her waves. “And it’s good of you to be here and withstand my words each time.”

Andy thought about it, this ton of things. So much she kept to herself and yet barely a moment of doubt ever shown to others. “Yes, but Auntie Celeste you are certainly a marathon runner of sorts. I’d hate to get in your way, would not think of it… I only want to be of help.”

Celeste’s sparse, arched eyebrow’s lifted high as she took in a deep breath. “There really is no helping at this stage, darling, other than being a dear and seeing me from time to time. I can pay for other things to get done, but not the acquisition of kindness, laughter and love. My, doesn’t the rest seem so much nonsense in the end.”

She looked wistfully at her birds, two of which looked back obligingly, perhaps with good will. He wondered if she or they ever wished they could be freed; he certainly would but knew the consequence would be perilous. Like the chimp, they were not meant to be kept indebted to human company.

His throat tightened as he reached for the carafe and a glass, offering her the first one, which she took, drank quickly as she sputtered a bit, then asked for more. She smoothed back her cap of gleaming hair–mostly white but not thinning much, she thought, thank goodness. A touch of vanity was good for the soul on those days when nothing seemed to stay in the right places, anymore. But she did agree that she wasted too much time on vanity as a younger woman. It got her Robert, perhaps, but it wasn’t what kept him. Only patience, appreciation and her natural fire managed to do that. He did take good care of so much. He did have such a fine way with conversation when all was well and she loved his jaunty walk, even when that hip had trouble, the way he tossed his tweedy hats onto the back door coat tree and….

“Andrew, when are you going to find a wife? Or a partner, whatever you might call her?”

“Well, I– I’ve dated quite a few. I might know someone, we will see. But first, we must discuss–”

“Oh yes, I know, the house, this relic of a house, Andrew! Let’s sniff out a prime company or two, it’s been a decade or more, and we’ll entertain the best bids and get on with it. I still have money enough. Well, not perhaps ever enough, but enough, overall. One needs to protect one’s material goods, we are told, whatever they may be. One needs to be smart about getting old–is that even possible? Does it not arrive unexalted as well as uninvited yet demand you give its way? So I must have the painting done, too.”

“And I thought this was my great mission today! What a relief. You are full of surprises.”

He got up and looked out the windows to the garden. The light was shifting, burnishing petals, greenery, all blunt and soft edges. He felt his own smallish garden could use such warm and tender light but he had no time to address those sorts of things. He feared he would fail at it, too. He was better with numbers than sentient things, he believed.

Celeste joined him, hand on his shoulder. “Aren’t I? Of course, you were charged with that duty, your mother thought I would never cave and spend the cash.” She flashed a grin, the tiny overbite lovely in her once-again friendly face.”I might even sell it sometime, who knows? But not yet, not yet.”

Nora rapped on the French door, then stuck her head around. “Done with me for now? I made lemon bars if you’d like them before I go.”

“Yes, please,” Celeste said. “They’re to die for, Andrew!”

“Please don’t say that, Auntie…I can be superstitious.”

She rested her head against his upper arm, then patted his back, moved to the bird-cage to check on the parakeets’ antics. She poked her finger in a cage and a bird nibbled at it.

“Tell me what it is, darling. What it is you mean to say to me.”

For a minute, he thought she was talking to her absurdly adored birds. But no, she could feel it, all that he was carrying.

******

They took the plate Nora brought, thanked her and said farewell, then went outdoors. The garden was cooler and quiet, the humming of insects and chatter from the treetop aviaries softer as the sun slipped down, so they took to the heavy white iron chairs with fluffy green cushions at the koi pond. A miniature waterfall emitted slippery sounds that eased the chronic ache in his mind, that lodged in his shoulders. Everything smelled abundant, sweet in this oasis. He could not imagine Celeste no longer right here; she was the central part, the axis of the wheel he valued deeply.

And so he told her.

“I met a woman in South America almost two years ago.” He stared at the fish, orange-gold and white with black markings. “She works for a company I’ve done much business with and we got to know one another over each week we had together,  here and there.”

He fell silent. How did you tell an elderly aunt who married very well and did most of the right things in life this sort of thing? And yet it was his Auntie Celeste. She had lived through decades, learned much. She was right then looking at him, maybe past him, ready to wait all night. She had that flaring fire, yes, but it also was a flame that burned long and steady.

“Her name is Magdalena. I thought maybe I was falling in love, just a little. Enough to tell her so. But she…had other plans, not including a long-term anything with me.”

The fountain had begun to sound louder, the koi swam under the darkening surface of the pond quite fast now. Andy wanted to take it all back. Celeste stretched out her legs and the kaftan rustled a little.

“She has had a meteoric career, she is VP of…well, anyway, the point is.” He stopped and looked above. Venus was there, sparkling like brand new. Always Venus could be counted on. “The point is, she is not in my life, anymore, not really. It was impossible, the the worst when she left. I had to avoid you awhile. But that isn’t all of it.”

He took in a breath and it was a slow sharp knife that lodged in his heart, all he wanted to say and feared to tell and how it made life harder. How could any sort of love be like this?

A fish tail flipped above surface; the koi ran to the bottom. Light fell across the dark emerald lawn, its veil of dimmer gold changing into slower silvery light resting inside summered air.

“What is the child’s name, Andrew? When do we meet?”

His head fell forward, his hands covered his face. “Oh…!” he said between splayed fingers.

She hummed tunelessly, a new thing she liked. “I’ve been waiting for something. Don’t be afraid. We’ll set things in good motion, it will be alright.”

“How do I set things right when a child is here because of irresponsibility?”

She blew out air between her teeth, making a dismissive sound. “Don’t you think that’s often the case? Or it was when I was of age. No one knew what was smart or best though they thought they knew–life often just happens in ways one never expects.” She shooed away a moth that liked her necklaces. “I had a child once.”

He turned in his chair. “What?”

“I was, after all, the young woman in that photo, Andrew.  Not restrained about living an adventurous life. And I got pregnant. And I didn’t keep it. Her. My mother said the cruel reality of a motherhood would not bring comfort, good fortune or lasting security. That I was too smart and pretty to be a mother yet if at all. So the baby was taken. And a couple of years later I met Robert. But we couldn’t beget children. By then, that child was long gone if not forgotten. This was before birth control was legal, Andrew, don’t look so shocked, girls got pregnant often. Adoption was the solution then. I was not ungrateful. But, too, confounded and fearful, ashamed. But I was very sad later…”

“I never would have guessed. I’m sorry. You never spoke of wanting children. But, then, I never have, either.”

“Sometimes you don’t even know what you need or want until it is there before you. Or gone.”

Her voice had become a whisper and he ached for her as much as for himself. And lately for all the children who had no one or who had someone, then suddenly no one. It was new and too much sometimes, he had no noble words to encompass all such as these.

“Her name is Eva. She is one year old. And I want her with me but I don’t know how to do this, yet.”

“Okay. Me, either.” She turned to him, eyes clear, radiant with energy. “When can Eva come here?”

“Magdalena moved to LA. I might be able to get partial custody. I’m working on it, Auntie Celeste. Will you… can you help me?”

She sighed but it became tremulous laughter. “Look at us, Andrew. We thought we had everything, can you even imagine? But that was not the most of it, not even close. Now comes a miracle. Bring little Eva to me. Of course I will help you and love her!” She smiled at Andy, and touched the large blue jewel at her chest like a brilliant, voluptuous star fallen to earth. “And I have part of an inheritance for her already, right here, saved for this little one.” She crinkled her brow. “Oh, I need a new hammock, a lovely small one!”

He wanted to weep or perhaps giggle but remained in barest control. “You’re the first to know, Auntie. I had so hoped I could count on your generosity of spirit. To be there for me. Thank you… so much.”

Andy rose then bent to hug her but she stood up, too, and they held on as the air grew tender with night greenness. He had to hurry things up. Eva must have time to enjoy this wonderful great-great-auntie and Celeste needed time to properly adore her. But he felt better armed for any fight ahead, quite ready now. For fatherhood, yes, but for all the life that would come next. Still, he pulled away from Celeste to locate the garden hammock. He wanted to lie back, swing at will, take in the grand evening sky.

 

Sorrow is an Arrow with No Place to Land

Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The first sighting occurred on a late afternoon soon after Dae bounded out the door before her, barking furiously after a squirrel who’d just scampered off. The water before them was uncharacteristically still, mirror-smoothness reflecting only heavy clouds. Stillness, often a first sign of a thunderstorm, had settled deep in Sophie’s bones when she awakened and she’d felt a peace, despite knowing there might be a storm. She had worked hard at this, the coveted equilibrium required to live a life she valued.

She stood with flat of hand to brow as if that would help her better discern a cause of the flicker of light. Unease pricked her insides. A glimmering spot above a gun metal Ring Lake disturbed the day. No spare light filtered down as raindrops plopped onto the deck. As she stepped closer, the glinting glided away at a rapid pace. A green canoe was briefly outlined, a small body in it. The big dog had seen the person, too, as he or she rounded the narrow peninsula–Sophie’s land–then slipped away. His sharp barks were more greeting and farewell than warning; the canoe was gone.

Dae ran to her and licked her fingers; both hands hung at her sides limply, as if she was deflated. It was nothing to think twice about, the lake was open to all for boating and other pleasures as long as weather allowed. But not so often did she see people on the water when a storm was brewing. Sophie shivered in the cooling wind, her eyes unavoidably drawn to Stump Island. The community island. Thomas had nonetheless tried to commandeer it to work on limnology research notes.

That he’d tried to reach, perhaps, that summer night. But his boat faltered, his body sank, languished in muck on the lake bed.

She could not speak of it after nearly a year. In fact, could still not speak at all.

She signaled to Dae and they entered her remodeled and historical chapel-house. Once inside she paused. Distant thunder and lightning illuminated the expanse, now textured with waves. A curtain of rain fell and semi-darkness spilled over all. The husky-German Shepherd mix took his place on the rag rug before the fireplace, despite no fire. He panted lightly, blue eyes following his mistress. She closed the curtains on French doors to the deck as he lay his fine head on massive paws, eyes closing.

In the loft, Sophie removed the silk caftan that covered a leotard, then lit three pillar candles and danced, or rather acted as if she might still dig deep into that primal force and bring forth movement, coppery, white-streaked hair cast off her back as she floated, lips quivering. The elegant dog lifted its head. Listened.

******

The second sighting happened as Sophie was driving down 137 in her truck. She was off to Haston, not far from her village of Snake Creek. Dense white pine and hemlock, a grove of birch flew by as a mostly green blur as she barreled down the road. It was also that kind of day she thought of as cornflower blue and forsythia yellow, filled with a promise of more heat to come and a day of small pleasures. She would get errands done, then stop for a steaming chai and warm chocolate chip cookie at her favorite coffee house, then stroll along Lake Michigan. Clarissa–Rissa to closest friends–said she might meet them if she got done with her restaurant supply run in time and felt she could take a half hour to relax. Sophie turned up the music, a lively pop tune. Behind her Dae sat with twitching nose pressed into sweet air a half-opened window afforded.

They were perhaps fifteen minutes out, the road empty except for towering trees lining either side and a raptor circling above. Around a wide curve in the opposite direction roared a blue sports car, top down, and at the wheel was another bold shimmer as had been seen at the lake two days before. The two-seater began to slow, presumably to approach a private road to the new Nine Lives Spa and Resort. The woman’s long champagne blonde hair unfurled like a fancy scarf freed by spring wind. Soft sunlight bounced off it spinning golden filaments. Her skin appeared an ordinary, not tanned, tone. She wore something coral.

Sophie’s eyes shifted between blue car and winding road and resisted the impulse to slow down, as well. It was no doubt a woman from down state, likely Detroit, here for a pricey rejuvenation vacation. The patrons had begun to show up more in the village already. The place offered Tai Chi, Bikram yoga, a eucalyptus steam room, an indoor-outdoor Olympic sized pool with hot tub, fancy massages by the hour, earthy skin treatments and all the rest that no one she knew wanted to undergo, much less could afford. In truth, Sophie would like the steam room after a deep massage. She already practiced Tai Chi but swam in the lake as tolerable in summer like everyone else did. No one was happy about the resort other than Rissa’s husband, the developer who sold off the waterfront parcel; he was tight with the investors.

The blue car downshifted as it arrived at the turn off, then stopped just short of turning. Sat there idling. Sophie slowed enough to get a fast peek at the driver. The petite woman looked over a shoulder; huge sunglasses obscured most of her face. She caught her flying hair with a hand as she gazed at Sophie, then abruptly took off down the driveway, engine purring.

Dae had been keen to look as well but offered no response. Sophie pondered the coincidence. Was it the same person she had seen at the lake? And if so, who was she and why might she be interested in her? The driver looked too polished and self-impressed to be a regular Michigander. She didn’t even look like a usual buyer of northern summer cottages. More akin to Sophie, perhaps, an East coaster. Did Sophie know her from somewhere? Were she and Thomas acquaintances of Bostonian friends of hers; had they met at a dinner party or lecture?

Sophie gripped the steering wheel, sped along the curving road. Maybe the driver had another interest–if indeed, there was a true interest and not some prurient curiosity. Maybe Ms. Champagne Blonde was a reporter after the story of the suspicious death of Thomas Swanson, famous biologist. And his wife, Sophie Swanson, well-known dancer and choreographer. Once of the Bostonian bramin (which they were not unhappy to leave).

She hit the wheel with her palm; she wanted to be no one of any interest, to have less of Thomas in her life now. Dae’s head rose to rest at her shoulder and she patted his head. Her eyes burned; she blinked to refocus on the road. It wasn’t going to happen, a story. She didn’t want to be found, didn’t even respond to old friends’ cards and notes, nor to emails. That life was abandoned when Thomas retired. She had long ago agreed to come with him, leave her career behind at age 45. Despite any regrets, despite hellish losses–including that of Mia, her daughter, now living with an aunt–this was meant to be home. There was no turning back, anyway.

Grief had a way of weaving you into the landscape from which pain erupted. It was a sore comfort, a remembrance of hope and a scarring rawness even as the aching was, bit by bit, subdued. And she had to start over from here, nowhere else.

A fragrant, almost warm blast of air mellowed her thoughts as the window was rolled down. The day was still new, it would be salvaged. Sophie was a pro at such things.

She felt deep pressure under her ribs, an urge to scream but when her mouth opened only a rush of soft air mixed with the breeze. Dae, on the other hand, whined, eager to run.

******

And the third sighting was other than what Sophie might have imagined.

Rissa waved as she wound her way between tables then sat on the wooden chair with a thump, uniform askew, dark hair stuck to her forehead. She blew up at her bangs to cool off. It was busy at Bluestone Cafe, the thriving restaurant she owned and managed.

“What’s going on, lady? Sorry I couldn’t meet up but I was running late Thursday and the supply order wasn’t quite right and then I got into it with Stan about numbers tallied!” She flipped a hand in the air, dismissing the annoyance, and smiled. “I’m glad to sit a little. But you don’t usually come in during rush hours. Did an appointment bring you in?”

Sophie shook her head, pulled from her soft leather bag a medium-sized notebook and shoved it across the table top. This was the  means by which she talked to her few friends. She’d written about the two times in a few days she’d seen who might be the same woman. She hated to admit to such an odd and likely irrational worry but she was starting to think she was being followed by a stranger. She described her the best she could and asked if her friend had seen anyone like that.

Rissa frowned as she read. Sometimes Sophie had fears that couldn’t easily be tamped down, much less erased. But it was best to take what she intuited or felt seriously. She was not a crazy person despite what some suggested but a hurt human being who was still healing. That night of the drowning was a complicated story.

“A person who looks like that would stick out like a sore thumb. Summer people haven’t taken over yet…but the resort is up and running, yeah, so…Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity if she thinks she knows you, that can happen. But, no, I haven’t seen any one just like that. Champagne blonde? We just have badly bleached straw blondes!” She chuckled. “I think you should keep an eye out, tell others if it keeps happening, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and thought. “I wonder if that husband of mine has seen this person around. If anyone would recall a woman like that it’d be Sonny. I’ll ask.”

With a shrug, Sophie picked up her notebook and tucked it away. Rissa lay her hand on her friend’s.

“You do okay with the thunderstorm this week?’

Sophie smiled assent.

“That’s good. Not bad, no power losses. Gotta go, girlfriend, catch you soon.”

Sophie squeezed her hand and let go. After she finished off her iced tea and cinnamon scone she paid the bill and left.

Rissa watched her go, the tall, lithe form and legs and arms swinging, the gingery-white hair that fell nearly to her waist in a loose braid. She wished her a happy afternoon and no strange sightings.

The main thoroughfare of Snake Creek paralleled the eastern shore of Ring Lake. Right across from Bluestone Cafe was the old field stone library and behind that, an inviting grassy park. Beyond the library ran the waterfront with the public beach and boat rentals. Sophie ran across the street, toward the shoreline. She had brought a book to read on another unusually sunny day. Mainly she wanted to be among a few people though she was always somehow apart. At times her house felt so small, constraining, bound in echoing silence; it could barely contain her then and she either worked on the property or went into town.

In the morning Sophie had gotten up early, walked with Dae, made an apple pie for her older friends Will and Anna, who’d had a stroke. Then she’d sat on the deck listening to fado music, the most plaintive and bittersweet of all choices. She’d caught herself drifting into a dreaded state of longing and sorrow so put the pie in a bag and went for a short visit with her friends. Dae was left behind for once. She half-wished she’d brought him as he loved to race about park and shore. Everyone knew him, admired his friendliness, agility and handsomeness. He was her buffer, she knew that.

The waterfront was busier than usual but it was a Friday, almost May–more people were coming to visit. She sat on a bench under a newly leafed poplar. After reading a few pages she looked up and down the shore, watching people hunt for attractive rocks and toss a few, play ball.

And there sat Ms. Champagne at southern end of the rocky beach, knees drawn up to her chin, pale hair blowing about. Alone. Sophie started that direction, wishing she had a friend with her. What would she do when she got there? Ask who she was  and why she was always around when she was still so damned mute?

The woman turned and saw her before she got there, her legs flattening onto the rocks, hands grabbing the brilliant mass to tame it again in a ponytail. Then she got up, shifted her weight. Sophie stopped about ten feet before her. She dwarfed the stranger from her height of six feet; the other woman was nearly a foot shorter. And so much younger, perhaps 30, 35?

The woman offered a tentative smile that drew wider when Sophie did not respond in kind.

“Hello, I’m Signe Johansson. I know we’ve skirted each other a few days. I’m glad you came to greet me as I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you.”

Sophie inclined her head at Signe and found her open-faced, eager to talk so offered her hand.  Signe knew who she was, so no speaking was necessary. Her notebook might yet be useful, she would wait.

“Can we find a bench so I can explain…?”

They walked with only the lulling noise of waves to the spot Sophie had been reading, sat, then half-turned to each other. Sophie stared at the woman’s sparkling white and red tennis shoes. She glanced up, had burning desire to ask her ten questions and bit her lip. Signe smoothed her black khakis and took a deep breath.

“You are the Sophia Swanson, I know that. And I knew your husband, your famous partner.”

Sophie’s lips formed his name as alarm spread over her gaunt features.

“Yes, Thomas…I worked in the same building at Boston University. The Earth Sciences department where he lectured many years in between research trips.”

Her dark blue eyes–too bright, marred with redness– locked with Sophie’s.

“I know you’re at a disadvantage as you don’t talk. That’s what I heard. We heard. After his death. That it was too much. I’m sorry. He was…amazing. We were…friends, good friends… ”

Sophie fought the urge to get up and leave. Who was this Signe to be following her, trespassing on her life, talking as if they were bound to make a friendly connection via her spouse? Speaking of her entirely dead husband–familiarly, casually?

“Wait, Sophie– I’m here.” Rissa’s gravelly voice penetrated her distress and then she came around to stand before them. “I’m Clarissa, Sophie’s closest friend and ally–and you are, exactly?”

“Oh, hi. I’m Signe, an old friend of Thomas’.” She smiled sweetly, too fast. “I’m glad you came. Now maybe she and I can talk with your help. I know an investment partner of Nine Lives Spa and Resort and I thought I’d come up  and visit the new place and also…” her voice petered out.

Rissa sat on the end of the bench by Sophie and leaned forward . “I see, very nice, we have a great area to enjoy. My husband is a developer. I appreciate your interest. But what does any of this have to do with Sophie Swanson? Did you come to give your condolences?”

“Yes, I did.  I guess I wanted to share memories with her. He was a brilliant man and a gentleman.”

Sophie drew out her notebook and scribbled a few lines. Rissa read them.

“How well did you know him and for how long? And what do you teach?”

“Hydrology, environmental interventions. I knew him for six years, he was a mentor,  co-worker, a friend.” She looked at Sophie and then at Rissa. “A truly good friend,” she emphasized.

Sophie scribbled another few questions. Rissa spoke once again.

“How come Sophie never heard of you? Did you two meet, even at a public function? And why would you find it necessary to come here and talk about this friendship with Thomas? It’s peculiar.” Rissa’s nose wrinkled.

The woman took a deep breath and turned toward Rissa sharply. “Look, why are you interrogating me? I came to pay my respects, to tell Sophie how much we appreciated his work and his kindness, that’s all.”

“Funny, it doesn’t seem like that. She doesn’t even know you and you’re avoiding the real answers. My gut tells me you knew him a bit too well–“she put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as Sophie ‘s fingers clenched her sweater–” and you’d not planned on meeting her yet now you have and with an unsavory interest. Meeting his mourning widow now…I don’t like it any more than Sophie does.”

Signe sat up straight, shoulders back. “There was a lot she didn’t know about him, that she didn’t care to know more about–she was so busy with her career and he was alone a lot–who could he talk to about his research –and his dreams? Some of us were there, that’s all I want to say! I–I just wanted her to know how much I adored Thomas Swanson!” Her voice had risen like a frantic adolescent’s. Face flushed, her blue eyes darted about, filled with tears.

“Stop there, Siggie,” Rissa said. “You need to take this to your shrink. You’ve  no right to come here, say these things to her. You don’t know Sophie, not one bit.”

But Sophie got up and bent her graceful height over the sniveling Signe. Sophie tapped her lips so Signe would watch them. Carefully formed the silent words:

Thomas was never yours, he was mine–she touched her chest–our daughter’s. Now goodbye.

Rissa and Sophie left arm in arm. Sophie was not crying. She was not shaking, not wanting to run back and hurt that woman. She knew so many things Signe Johansson would never know. And she had long felt tired out by that knowledge and since his death, whittled down by grief of the darkest sorts. No, she felt sorry for this younger–and weaker– Signe, who must have been left alone. Far too lonely. And Sophie was not. She realized she finally missed her husband less than she ever had. Or, at least, the man she knew, his cynicism, his spurts of tenderness, his brilliance and dependence. And finally, the undoing of his life by a sly and ego-hungry madness in a boat on a thunderstruck night. Night of terrors, her life nearly lost, and Sophie had barely survived the man she had loved. She would keep searching for her own voice.

 

(Note: this is a story based on a novel of mine, Other Than Words, written many years ago. I keep revising/ coming back to it. Another post about Sophie can be found here: https://talesforlife.blog/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/

If you are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post more links.)

 

These Clues to a Hidden Life

Roxie was at it again despite Phillip throwing her a sidelong glance. Her eyes swept over the name cards on the long crystal-and-china-dressed table, the mail stacked on an inlaid tray in the hallway. Books in the library called to her with possible personal notations right inside the covers. She knew she should mind her own business but it was difficult to ignore her passionate interest in handwriting.

The party’s voluminous conviviality and scents of beer, wine and mixed drinks swirled about her like gladly deranged toxins. She sneaked past them, into the back garden. No one would notice. Phillip was again caught up in a mesmerizing narrative of his latest humanitarian medical trip, this time to the Colombian jungle.

Roxie was a fan of Phillip’s; he was her husband. She was not a fan of dinner parties but went to a minimum of four a year, maximum of six. It was part of their recent negotiation whereupon he agreed to no longer fret and fume about her graphology business, Interpretive Analysis Enterprises (IAE), and she pledged to put on a good front for his increasingly public medical career. More precisely, humanitarian medical work’s fundraising. Once a year she threw the party, which required significant expense for catering services. She was at best a turkey meatloaf with boiled potatoes and steamed asparagus sort of cook. Meanwhile, they had never specifically addressed snooping around in random places and taking a peek at “graphology samples”, as she called all writing on personal or business envelopes, guest books at weddings, email or address request sheets at shops and galleries, etc.

She had noticed a pale sage green envelope with interesting writing. It had spirit, a decided intelligence. It lay on top of a small pile of papers in the tray set upon the hall table in Ella’s house. The woman was a remarkable party-thrower and good neighbor, but not truly tidy despite having a housekeeper in twice a week. Roxie could get writing samples here anytime if she kept her eyes open.

It wasn’t that she actually needed any, she just enjoyed them. Her business was going well, she had roughly ten new inquiries per week, most resulting in a new graphoanalysis client. She would have to put a cap on it soon if it kept up this rate of growth. It felt more like a full time job and less like a fun experiment, which is what it originally was a year ago. Roxie had wanted to see where her newly acquired skills could take her. She had gotten dull, too sluggish-minded as her twelve year old daughter seemed always busy and too fussy for much chat or even shopping and lunch–plus a husband who was an in-demand doctor. So she got quietly certified for graphology on her own. He had first seemed amused, then annoyed, then angry that she chose “to actually in fact pursue foolish hocus pocus”–despite her offering evidence to the contrary. But in time he’d softened just barely enough. It did make money; there was virtually no overhead.

Ella’s landscaped garden looked almost animated, a high moon shining like a silver dollar, flowers glowing beneath fairy lights that marked the lawn’s edges and two pathways. Ever deepening, color-tinged shadows were affecting. A few couples stood about in quiet groups, as if nature’s lushness lent a gentling effect. Roxie’s eyes roamed over the landscape and registered a flash of yellow amid greenery. She watched the woman wearing the sunny dress sink to a bench beneath purple azaleas. Her hands went to her face, and then she looked blankly into a narrow pathway bordered by hyacinths and tulips. It was Ella. She must have slipped away, too. Roxie was torn between restfulness of taking in fragrant spring air as she waited for Phillip to find her and wanting to thank her for the delicious dinner. Ella turned her head, then saw her neighbor friend on the patio by the double French doors. After a small pause, she gestured at her so Roxie joined her in the sheltered area.

After settling on the bench and thanking Ella for the grilled salmon dinner, Ella laid a hand on her forearm.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something. A favor, of sorts, a bit of advice.”

“What? I might be able to help. No promises, though.”

Ella’s strong features were made more dramatic in moonlight, her thick black hair in a loose bun at her neck, an aquiline nose a statement of pedigree, her usually pouty lips thinned as she pressed them together. She smiled nervously at Roxie, then looked down the pathway once more.

“I got a letter a couple of months ago from someone I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear from…but after some detective work I decided the person was likely the person indicated and so I replied. I wasn’t too encouraging, however. It’s…a difficult matter….but this person wrote back again! I got a second letter today, in fact. I didn’t even open it yet–gosh, I forgot to put it away with all the activity around the party. I’d better do that right after we talk.”

Her voice was inflected with the slightest reveal of anxiety. She looked about to check the immediate area was clear of eavesdroppers. Roxie was calmly listening, having already deduced the favor and decided that naturally she would analyze the writing of whomever had written Ella.

“Is it someone who, well, scares you a little? You seem unnerved.”

“I am. Scared? Well, the person is not someone I’d expected to hear from, not now. No, not ever. It was a visitation from the past…a reminder of decisions made out of utter disregard for the future. I was eighteen and now here I am nearly middle aged and one might hope that the past stayed in its place rather than sneak up on you, a cunning snake.”

“I see. Look, Ella, I understand what you mean but I can’t know who or what this is about, exactly. Can you clue me in more?”

“There you are, gorgeous!”

The women, startled, surveyed the area beyond their inadequate refuge.

“We’ve looked all over for our fabulous but errant ladies!”

The women gave one another a raised eyebrow, then surveyed the two bodies that gave forth those voices. Phillip and Tag peered at them, sloshing glasses carried with a lack of grace, arms about each other’s shoulders. Their husbands were more than a little loosened up, it seemed.

“The hostess always need be about for adoring guests, my darling…so why run off into these unattendant azaleas? A party headache crept up? Oh, sorry, Roxie, you’re there, that’s better. Or more than usual, different.”

His loosely connected speech made Tag seem someone quite other than who he was, Theodore Taggert “Tag” Huntley, esteemed lawyer and sought-after master of ceremonies at numerous events. He tended to be sober when everyone else was not. Phillip had a couple of traditional holiday drunk fests in him each year but Tag had had his way with alcohol–or it, with him– long ago and now rarely drank much, if at all.  They were such good friends that the women wondered how Tag had gotten so into his cups without being checked by Phillip.

“Here we come to gather you up from said flowers, in any case,” laughed Phillip.

They both had thrown caution to the wind, now found it funny joke they were all hiding in the bushes.

Roxie patted Ella’s hand; she gave it a squeeze in response.

“We’ll talk more soon, Roxie. It’s been good to sit with you.” She got up and took her husband’s arm. “Yes, Tag, I’m the dutiful hostess and you’re the more charming host and here we go back to the party. Perhaps it has gone on long enough, do you think?”

“What’s that about?” Roxie asked Phillip. “Isn’t he sticking to the straighter and narrower road?”

“It appears he slipped up, enjoyed himself a mite too much.”

“I must say the same goes for you. You almost sound poetic. Let’s head home, shall we, Mr. Stannis?”

Phillip put his good face close to hers, noses touching, and gave her an off-center kiss that she found delicious if messy.

******

“I’m  glad you were able to come by today. I have two hours totally free.”

Roxie ushered Ella into the solarium where she had her desk, a comfortable setting for clients.

“I really had to–it was that or enter a useless depression which doesn’t suit me at all. I’ve enough on my hands lately and need to keep my wits about me.”

Roxie wanted to know if the “enough” included Tag’s alcohol use, but kept quiet. Her usually social friend looked beleaguered. It had been three days since the dinner party.

“I brought them with me, both letters from Philadelphia.” She rooted around in her enormous soft blue leather handbag until she found them at the bottom. “Here you are…”

Roxie took them and set them on the side table. “Tell me a little more before we start. What am I going to be looking at, Ella? All you said during the phone call was a rehash of what you noted before and a request for my services.”

Ella pulled her thin shoulders back. “You’re so right, I became alarmed enough to let loose some concerns and you don’t even know what or why yet. This will not be easy, Roxie, please know how daunting, even embarrassing it is.” She smoothed the floral fabric on both arms of the sumptuous chair, then clasped her hands in her lap. “I was eighteen. It was the summer before I went to Mills College. I was a camp counselor for the second year in a row and I valued that job. I’d always enjoyed kids, and it felt like the last time I’d be able to have fun while making a little money. I might have gone to Tuscany as my parents had planned a vacation, but I’d been to Europe the year before–and who wanted to go with parents at eighteen?– so I felt inclined to stay home. They went off for two months. I went to camp, so to speak, for the entire summer.”

She reached for a glass of iced water on the glass topped coffee table, next to a plate of apple slices and cheese. Roxie had missed lunch so grabbed a slice of both, then leaned close in.

“That was so independent of you–to turn down a cushy trip to work with rascally kids!”

“I know it doesn’t seem like the reasonable decision, but I also had another agenda. I knew there was freedom there–I had a day off once a week and a couple of evenings as well. Beyond the 8 to 6 routines and activities, I could be free as a second year counselor to other activities with a few co-workers We were on a pretty lake for sailing and swims, and Camp Clearwater was two miles from a small town. I had my car. There were things to do–a pool hall, a cafe where they had great BLT sandwiches– or at least it felt like there were interesting options then.”

Ella’s eyes warmed as she talked on, hands moving expressively with words. Roxie was distracted by the redundant buzzing of a captive fly and watched Wiley the cat’s tail switch as he stalked the insect. She let imagination take her to a lakefront with its hoards of bugs, simmering summer air. She imagined Ella as more captivating than even presently, already tall and willowy and tanned (Roxie had then felt like a cookie cutter girl, and was barely five foot five). There were boats zooming about the lake, kids swimming and diving, male counselors splashing female counselors, and all glittered in brazen summer light or glistened in that otherworldly manner of moon’s opalescent light.

Heavenly. And she got paid for all that? Roxie was washing and waxing cars at her uncle’s car wash her last summer at home.

“And there was Rod.”

Roxie shook off her reverie, attended to at her friend.

“Rod? Another counselor or a townie?”

“Oh, he was a counselor. I knew he’d be there again; we had written off and on during our senior year.”

“I see. So you two were… in love?”

“I didn’t really think so until I saw him again. He had bright auburn hair, freckles scattered over his nose and cheekbones and the deepest blue eyes…I mean, none of this had changed from before. But it was how he wore those freckles that summer, how he carried himself, how he talked to people. To me. As if he had something to say that I–we–might want to hear. A natural leader had started to form. The kids loved him, he was fun as well as just strict enough. And I certainly heard him loud and clear.” Ella turned to study Roxie, eyes squinted as if trying to ascertain more than she could see. “Didn’t you have a first love like that?”

“Sure. I married him.”

“Oh.” She seemed disappointed. “Well, this was something entirely unexpected. I was going to college in a couple of months and I just meant to have some fun but Rod was so, he was just …too much… for me. I fell in love, hard. But he entirely disappeared from my life after camp ended.”

Roxie frowned at the idea of heartbreak. Waited as Ella collected herself. It had to have been something pretty fantastic. Roxie helped herself to another cheddar and apple slice then settled into her matching floral love seat, two sage green envelopes now in hand.

“This is intriguing. Also tough. But I’m wondering who these letters are from. I look forward to studying the handwriting but my question is: who are they from, Ella? is it Rod? Did he reach out to you after all this time?”

Ella suddenly covered her face, then peered out from between gaping fingers, trying to steady her voice. “No. They are from…from, uh, our daughter. The one I gave birth to, then gave up for adoption the year I was supposed to be a college freshman! She’s now twenty four! And she’s tracked me down…”

Roxie nodded as Ella revealed her misery. She had about decided it was something like that. It had happened to too many girls. Abortion wasn’t necessarily a desired much less legal answer then. She could never have done it. But she was taken aback by the effect giving birth so young was having on Ella even now. She wasn’t just thrown off guard by the proffered letters–she assumed they’d arrived out of the blue–but Ella seemed fearful, as she had the night of the party.

“I understand, this is not an easy thing to assimilate after so long with such a lack of information available to you, I assume. Do you want to keep corresponding, find out more about her? Meet, perhaps?”

Ella’s face was slack with sorrow, marred by uncertainty. “I just don’t know. What I would like now is your very appreciated help. I need to know what you see in her handwriting, what you can tell me  about her. You will still do that?”

“Yes, of course.” She pulled out the letters, opened them up.

Roxie didn’t read for content at all the first few times. What sentences told meant far less to her than the actual means to the end product. So she rapidly scanned first, then studied diligently. The flow of the words told a story, the shapes of them and their separate letters, spaces between both, the pressure of pen or pencil or felt tip, the endings and beginnings of letters and loops above and below a central line. The slants of the writing, if and where it was cursive or printed. The rhythm of it and its size, the uniformity or the lack of it. How were the “ts” crossed, with a light line or a slashing one, a sturdy crossing or a bare half-line? Was the bottom loop athletic and sensual, thwarted, independent, efficient, angry? There was so much to take in that Roxie savored and noted and studied again, then memos were sent to her brain and she looked over things again. By the end of the writer’s second page, the script had relaxed a little, not surprisingly. And the signature was altogether different than the rest–as often it was: public persona versus private human being.

“Well? What do you see?” Ella was on the edge of her seat.

“It will take time, Ella, quite a bit of it. I can take an hour now and give you a very cursory evaluation or take several hours and get back to you.”

“Take your time, please. I need to know the truth, as much of it as you can possibly gather.”

“Alright. Give me a couple of days. I have another job or two ahead of this.”

“Of course. I’ll pay your rate, don’t say no.  But please don’t say anything to Phillip– or anyone.”

“I wouldn’t think of it; there are ethics involved.”

Roxie led her out to the front door and then got back to work.

******

It wasn’t hard to determine that Frances Reynolds was a bright, rather circumspect, hard working, emotionally sensitive person. She was an empathetic person but she was also likely to get prickly, was  given to dependence on others, ambitious in spite of that yet also self doubting. Given to excesses emotionally at times and perhaps behaviorally, likely not terrible things. The pronoun “I” was very small compared to the rest of the capital letters, nearly protectively enclosed in a circular stroke. Roxie mused over the young woman’s intense desire to meet her biological mother, over how much her being adopted might have impacted her sense of self worth. It might have been something else that created a sense of identity lacking in sturdy confidence. The sizable, even spacing indicated a more cautious nature despite her taking the chance to reach out to Ella. Full lower loops on letters “y” and “g” for two appeared to indicate Frances’ physicality, strong physical needs as well as a likely imaginative tendency, well supported by other indicators.

Roxie spent two afternoons going over the letters with singular concentration. She did not want to disappoint her friend with a sloppy review of personal characteristics belonging to someone this important. Rarely had anyone who requested her services done so as a mere lark. It was always serious business but if so. Roxie had noted on her website that she strongly advised against it (no “gag” gift certificates, please). Graphology could make a significant difference in a person’s view of another, for good or ill. It could ferret out tendencies if not also clear-cut behaviors that might be heretofore unknown to the requester. For police or psychological aid, this was entirely useful.

In the wrong hands, it could be devastating.

Ella had never even met the young woman who was likely her lost daughter, a pregnancy the result of a youthful, passionate and all too brief love affair. Roxie did not want to form a picture that would irrevocably influence a mother’s decision, even if she saw her once and that was that. It had to be an  addendum to Ella’s carefully wrought determination. Meeting the girl would tell the greater story.

She called Ella to set up another appointment.

******

When Roxie was finished the results of her analysis, Ella asked her if she thought Frances Reynolds was, after all was said and done, “the sort of person I truly should allow into my life. She seems to be!”

Roxie was taken aback by this. Frances was, after all, her daughter and despite the trauma adoption may or may not have incited, she had gone this far, replying to Frances’ letter once and asking for Roxie’s graphological insights.

“Is that the reason you actually brought the letters to me? I can’t decide for you, Ella, it has to be what you feel is right, how your see her presence in your life and what it means to your family. You have two grown sons, you have a husband. How do you see all this affecting the big picture?”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not only meeting Frances, having a serious cry and perhaps trying to make a kind of bridge–or perhaps just parting ways. She may want to enter our greater lives. I may even want her there.” She twisted a tissue in her hands. So far she had not wept. “But Tag will not, I can assure you…”

“Ah, I’d thought of that. But why assume this to be true?”

“He would find it entirely inconvenient right now since he’s running for the city council– and very embarrassing. Disappointing on one level or another. I worry every day he’ll find out she even wrote me. If I actually meet up with her…he would be so upset with me. With us.”

Roxie thought about Tag, his inherent sense of justice, his accolades in his field, a generous nature and seeming good humor. It was hard for her to believe he would turn his back on her at such a time. Unless she did not have a good idea of who he was. Or he was drinking heavily again–then things got messy. But Phillip had assured her it was not the case. So maybe she was too ashamed or conflicted, herself.

“Maybe that deduction allows you to feel…protected somehow. Like you have an automatic ‘out’…?”

“I think not, Roxie! I can make my own decisions but I DO have a family already, don’t I? We have a life, a future.”

Roxie looked out the window at the waning sun, a light rain spattering the flowers. “I think Frances–who also has a life– just wants to meet you, the woman who gave her life. You don’t have to decide anything much right off the bat, do you?” She cleared her throat, hesitantly asked, “Is Tag going at the booze again?”

Ella looked up sharply at her neighborly friend. Her new and only support. “No. But I worry he might again, especially after the party. Especially if I tell him this news, the big truth I omitted from the start…”

They sat in silence awhile. Wiley the cat got up from the floor, front paws stretched out long, back end in the air, then sauntered out the room, rubbing against Roxie’s leg as he went. How simple a life to live, sunning, eating, chasing more flies, sniffing flowers and yet another nap.

“Well, I do thank you, Roxie. Frances seems like a decent and lovely human being, a young woman who is making her own way after college. Who just wants to see if I am even worth knowing. I don’t blame her a bit after what I did, leaving her behind.” Her voice lapsed into a quiet rasp and one, then another tear trickled down.

Roxie let her be. She didn’t want to intrude on those innermost feelings and her private space. They were not that close though closer now. Keeping such secrets was a demanding part of her work. Anyway, she couldn’t pretend to know how this would all play out. It might become very rough.  Nor did she know how Ella felt in the middle of the night with memories breaking open, likely regrets of one kind or another, and Tag lying beside her with cozy with an innocent snore. She didn’t always have good news to offer people who came to her with the driving need to know the truth.

Did they really? she often speculated. Did people want the truth, after all, if it was not what was suspected or desired? Or did they want only confirmation of the best or worst of someone they loved or hated, or hoped to know or were trying like crazy to forget? The story was never exactly as it appeared, not even as Roxie discerned it on the page. She knew that. But people came to her hoping it would eliminate fear or worry or misgivings; bolster dreams or goals or arguments or clarify life when they could not clarify it themselves. She was not an oracle, not a soothsayer. She could only find the complex clues and offer what she thought would help. Not even all the clues. There was such depth of uniqueness, that layered singularity of a person, so that such shadows and secrets could be at times clouded by the hand that scrawled across the page. Did we even know ourselves, Roxie wondered?

So she was careful with the information that could make a needed difference. And was she right to determine which she told and which she held back? No, her work was getting harder the more she understood, the more she talked with her clients, and people had begun to seem more mysterious.

Ella pressed the tissue against her pale cheeks and stood up, life-altering letters pushed into the depths of her blue bag, the other hand protectively pressing it close to her side.

“Thank you for your help, your patience with all this,” she said and held Rosie’s warm hand in both of her cool ones. “I’ll let you know what happens. If anything happens.”

And she smiled that sunny welcoming smile that must have pulled Rod closer. But it was a mad hormone-fueled summer they got caught up in while trying on more freedom. A powerful trickery of summered water and earth, a time shared in delight and surprise. And then let go.

But Ella would look into her daughter’s eyes and discover a great deal more. Pain, yes, but also a chance at happiness she would not otherwise get to experience: the presence of her own blood and bone designed into an exquisitely new female human being. One of her own.

Roxie closed the heavy door, leaned on it a moment. She sighed deeply and wound her way through the quiet rambling house, out the back way to her damp and sweetly beckoning garden, Wiley, too, but dashing off.

 

Note to readers: This is the second of short stories about graphology and Roxie. The first may be read here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/more-hocus-pocus/

 

Life Study: My Mother, S. and Me

066-
brassai-theredlist

I am fascinated with the tall windows behind his large head. They are curved at the top. Arched is the correct adjective, my mother would have said after a barely discernible sniff, as if the wrong word carried a slight odor to it. But these are three in a row and more elegant than most, multi-paned. Trees are sectioned as if in stages of design. I like to study them as he studies me. But it is the light that finds me at last and then I am dazzled, unlocked.

I look at him then. His glasses have the barest of frames so appear to be windows, too, balanced before often unblinking eyes. I think of him as Captain Sorensen, but have never told him that. Since the name hails from Norway or Denmark, he may well have ancestors who sailed big ships. Instead of near water, though, we are landlocked in a small university town. He teaches psychology twice a week and otherwise does this–sorting out people’s lives–for a living. Listens to people like me.

“I took a walk, and ended up at the floral shop this morning,” I tell him. “To get flowers, as you suggested. I came away with dried lavender; that seemed enough. I don’t want to get in the habit of planting flowers in a vase on my dining table. It seems extravagant. You know I dislike extravagance for its own sake. I prefer the spareness of my rooms. I like the light to land on floor and walls as if on an empty stage.”

He tilts his head and a silvery mop of hair rustles out of place. I wonder why he doesn’t get regular haircuts, if his wife prefers it that way or he just doesn’t care. Perhaps both. I touch my own hair at the nape of my neck; it just curves over my shirt collar. I need a trim.

“You know by now that I love authentic beauty. But beauty tends to fade if you take it out of its natural environment. And I feel an absence of clutter in a human life renders the truth of beauty more vivid. In nature, more can be more and it all works well; I do study it. But a bundle lavender in a ceramic vase is good.”

I know he is waiting to hear more of what I managed over the week-end. Did I meet with a friend? Did I leave the apartment at all before Sunday night? Or did I try to paint, sitting there for hours on end? Feeling mad.

“Renders truth more vividly… ?”

He does that a lot, what I call parroting or parroting plus something else . It would be annoying in anyone but Captain –okay, Dr.– Sorensen is doing what he was taught in order to encourage me to spill my concerns. I would tell him things, anyway. It’s less forbidding in the coolness of his large, high-ceilinged office, his leather chair across from mine as if we are equals having a pleasant chat. Such a reasonable tableau, I think, though rather obvious. And he looks his part. Do I, I wonder?

“Well, renders more of beauty, is what I said but yes. Truth. It requires clarity, doesn’t it? How can I discover any thing when distracted by too much pressing around me? Painting is a miracle of light and color that seeks the canvas. I need little else. Well, it used to be that way until Mother died. Now the place can feel…too open. A surfeit of blankness.”

“Ah.”

“I’ve thought of it all more, finally. Her. The gaps in my memory and then sudden recollections. The hallway where we hung our coats, a low shelf for damp or dirty shoes with slippers handy if needed, and that brass umbrella stand. Then the room just to the right. It was a sitting room. It was too formal to be any else, really, but that is where she met people just as if it was still the nineteenth century, standing on formality as ever. The house, yes, but why did she cling to the past so? And it had such objects in it, all the porcelain bowls and showy flowers in heavy cut crystal, small statues and overwrought furniture. If a fire was lit it was finally suffocating, I don’t know how anyone could bear being there for long. Maybe that was the point. She kept most people at a distance, in their places.”

The good Captain is looking at me but it feels less like attention, more like probing.

“And you?”

“Yes, me, too, sometimes. I didn’t know differently, it was how things were. Father was gone most of the time. I think of him as a benign visitor, really.” I take in a sudden breath as his face floats into mind’s view. Face gaunt and lined, a slightly bulbous nose, eyes sharp and intelligent but so bleary from all work he did in too many countries. “A nice man who was full of small admonishments: remain studious, make him proud, get adequate exercise and rest.” I look toward the windows again as light illuminates dust. Fairy dust, Greta had called it with eyebrows raised. “He was an adviser more than a father, unlike Mother who not only oversaw things but tended us well in her fashion. Or perhaps that is what fathers are meant to do.”

“And your mother…”

“You know–she was important, as well. She oversaw committees, on various boards. She was a docent of the art museum. The last being a good thing; I got to go any time for free. Mother made things happen in town. And my brother and I entertained ourselves. Greta and Mary were running things in the crucial sense.”

“The nanny and cook.”

“Yes. Long gone, as well, who knows where.” I glance back at him as I consider my next words. “Look, there is something I have to say for once that is important.”

“What you say is always important.”

I put up my hand. “We both know I spend a lot of time intellectualizing about things, nice tidy boxes. Her death is not yet easily approached. So I waste a lot of time while you are obligated–paid–to steer me in right directions, so here we are again on a Monday morning. My mother is the point at which we ever return. She died. I am left numb, perhaps stunned. But today I need to tell you about the picture.”

Dr. Sorensen’s eyes widen in curiosity despite his skill at remaining mostly unreadable.

“My brother, Ernst, sent me a photograph. A few, actually. Only one interests me right now. He’s cleaning out things he got from her house, and is moving to Ecuador soon–did I tell you that?” I study a few branches of deciduous trees beyond the windows, imagining sunshine warming bark despite chilled winds that still swept over all. I often paint tree-like forms– always natural forms, rarely humanoid.” But this particular photograph…”

“It means something.”

“Yes.” I anchor myself in the moment and know he’ll appreciate what I offer. “It is taken perhaps in the forties, at the end of the war. I’m guessing… but it’s my mother standing at the end of an alley, in a foreign city–it simply appears foreign, how can I know? And there’s a man, in suit and hat. His hand is at her back.”

“Your father? Or was that before they met?”

I lean back into the smooth mold of the caramel colored chair. “I’m not sure. They didn’t reminisce. But it isn’t our father, no. There is this bold light above–it seems nearly evening. strangely hard to be certain– and behind, outlining their bodies, profiles.”

“Ah. And what do you interpret from it all?”

“They’re…kind of smiling.” I plow my hand though short bangs. over the top and back of my head. I am starting to get a headache, need air. “They look pleased to be there; she looks, I would say, happy…lovely. The photographer, Brassai, became famous; he was mostly around and about Paris. So it was likely France–or elsewhere. She studied abroad, traveled a great deal as a young woman. And yet I do wonder when and where it was.”

Captain Sorensen of my psychological fate seems suitably taken aback. He has waited for weeks for me to speak of something that can unlock more, that will turn the tide of my mindless melancholy. I have felt swamped by life yet at a loss for what usefulness. I am an artist, that is the one thing I know, but have stared at a blank canvas every day for three months.

He leans forward, hands folded between his knees.

“So, your mother had a somewhat curious past.”

I nod, then lower my head, press fingertips to eyelids and stave off a sweep of dizziness. It passes quickly.

“But my mother and that man–seeming so…cozy? Not at all like her.”

I shake my head to clear it. The sun has come out strongly now, billows in the room, and dark expensive furniture seems to lighten in both hue and heft. “I’m going to go home now. I need to look at my paints and smell the lavender.”

“Time’s up, in any case. Are you feeling well enough to walk home?”

“Yes, I’m quite alright, just tired. Until next week.” I rise with a fluid and careful movement, pick up my backpack, nod at him, exit.

He is watching me depart, I know. He told me once I appear and leave rather abruptly. Not the first time that’s been said. But this time I feel as if too much is left in that room, as if the information has divided and now part of it is owned by Dr. Captain Sorensen. As if who I am along with my feelings left a residue. I am not much at ease with this. I want the photograph and what it means to open carefully, entirely in my particular reality. Alone.

******

The canvas, four by four, mocks me at first.  Paint tubes and palettes are on the drawing table to my right. Brushes in the large blue jar on a black lacquer tray atop the ancient brocade ottoman. I am perched on a paint-dripped wooden stool, toes caught behind the second rung. There is a steak of white that barely registers on the stretched and primed surface. I have mixed a greyish-purplish tint; my brush in hand hovers in the air. I have for some time preferred black and white and ivory with gradations of same. The paintings have sold well enough for me. I have a solo show in two months, little to put in it.

These velvety shadow shapes take over yet they also resist being painted. Or I resist. I know the painting will somehow yield to my mother’s gauzy, hidden life, the unexpected part trying to make itself known. The one I never expected and that Ernst insists he always suspected.

We talked earlier. Ernst had called me.

“She was rather too amenable regarding Father. It didn’t make much sense but perhaps it was their way, the culture. He must have been difficult to live with; he was rarely there and when he was, forever thinking of diplomatic work, of colleagues, of minute health concerns. He seemed to forget her more often than not. Us, for that matter. How could she not care more about that? It didn’t fit together, add up, her unruffled surface and such success despite cracks that must have appeared in such a facade, even if unknown to most.”

Being older, being a mathematician, he always weighed things better than I although we end up talking in similar ways–perhaps because we had just one another for playmates for so long. But it wasn’t a jolt to him to find the photograph, to turn it over and see our mother’s handwriting: With S. while visiting Eva and Ott.

“But did she even know Father then?”

“Must have.” He cleared his throat delicately.” I think I know who he is.”

“What? Who?”

“I knew Stefan, of course. Didn’t you? The man who met them when Dad was at the Sorbonne?”

“Sorbonne?” My head swam again. “Oh, he studied there a very short time, way before we were around. I had forgotten that. They later lived in the U.S, of course, and I forget all the places they were before that. But what about this Stefan?”

“Maybe you weren’t born…well, I would have been seven or eight. You would’ve been two. He stayed awhile when he came, I recall. They played cards, talked interminably…liked drinking wine til late.”

“How on earth would you recall all that–you were so young.”

Ernst was silent, as if reliving a moment. “Because I have a good memory and I snooped about. And he was the first to try to teach me chess. Uncle Stefan, I called him.”

“Oh, I thought Father taught you.”

“Father did teach me after he realized I was capable of learning. But Uncle Stefan encouraged me enthusiastically. And then it seems he wasn’t around much, by the time I was perhaps ten, when I was getting a good at the game.”

“I didn’t have the fortitude to compete with you.”

He laughed his quiet laugh. “True. You were also too busy crafting pretty books or set designs for your funny plays, anyway. We each had our own passions even then.”

I smiled though he couldn’t see me. He had long lived in San Francisco; I, an hour out from Chicago. “Oh–was I funny then or are you mocking childish creative impulses?”

“Sometimes you were, Isabel, you still show a glimmer when you emerge from that notorious self-absorption.”

I said nothing to that, then asked that he email me anything else he recalled from those days.

“I mean, what if it wasn’t Stefan but someone else? Do you recall what he looked like?”

“Not so much, maybe, but time had passed, ten years or more. Well, something was there, however it happened or who it was…”

Now I take the paints and place the confoundment of her life and death, this ache onto the white space, smear it this way and that with fast strokes upward, outward. I think of Mother with her dourness the last ten years, how hard it was for her to see less well, then to hear smatterings of sounds. She told me she had lived longer than she’d hoped. Died at eighty-five and not too slowly. Father had preceded her by six years, a mountain car accident. She’d say Why was I left with so little to do when I never have been able to abide boredom?

She–the woman Marlene, who was my mother–was the sort of person whose presence required getting used tot: her subtle haughtiness off-putting, careful diction and measured manner of speaking formal even when she didn’t mean it to be. It was her upbringing, all that damned breeding, she complained, which circumvented efforts to be fully welcoming and welcomed more as friend than society matron. I could see her light eyes, how icy they appeared until she laughed, a glorious rush of sudden delight. She had a light, careful manner, was big-boned and yet softened by surprising padding as she aged. I have heard I resemble her.

“But you weren’t hard to know  once, everyone loved you, Marlene,” Father half-muttered under his breath.

My hand wavers in the air. I put down the brush. When did he say that, or did he say it? Was it the last year he was alive, when we gathered for Christmas? And what had been her response? I couldn’t recall. She may have laughed it off or asked if anyone needed anything else as she left to get dessert.

I continue working, a line, ripple, daub here and there, following the dancing drift of my hand. Shadows and revelations, a primordial sludge with emerging forms. All the slippery, shape-shifting paint tackling a vertical surface, at my command. The bottomless emptiness I’d felt becomes more of that slow sense of fullness I am used to feeling when painting. It has been so missed that I dare not think of it except at the periphery.

Time passes. The day’s light changes from voluminous and sheer, then broadens to alter all with a precocious golden sheen. Finally there is comes a seeping of night into day, an eking of slate blue into the clear air. Gradually veils of glimmering fall away from my world. I turn on an overhead work light, keep painting the rise and fall of what comes to me: a small part of an abstract map I now recognize as littered with a tangible lostness and foundness. Big and small deaths, with faint eruptions of renewal. New territory.

It was a rare love that once captured me and love that left me clearer if also emptied, my dear. If not for you and Ernst, what would have been left?

A tingling at the nape of my neck and I swivel on the stool, sweep the room with eyes and mind but of course, nothing, no one. It is something she’d let slip or wanted to say, now making me recall.

I feel her voice again, the measures of a slow-building andante, then a rapid allegro of speech. Echoes of her living careen into my own, right there in the small spotlight as I stand shivering. And my painting blazes at me with her startling shows of good will amid the silence of unshed tears. I cry for myself some. About what I lost before I was able to more fully accept the company of my bright, difficult, mysterious mother. And for her, what she’d had and then did not have.No one knew what she had longed for, even at the end. Until now, as I realize S. was a saving moment of joy.

I can’t imagine what this did to my father, to their marriage. But that picture: it spoke part of the truth.

******

“I have started to get up at dawn to paint a little before teaching, then go back to it later as I can manage it,” I inform Sorensen, today just Dr.

He doesn’t look or seem so much like my good Captain, just a competent therapist. Oh, I can see him on a boat alright,  thick crown of hair streaming in the wind–and think a good painting may some time reveal such elements of water and wild wind in hair with some spot of utter stillness–but it was his life and entirely apart from mine.

“Painting again, how is that for you?”

“Good. I might be on to something. Either way, it’s wonderful after three months of nothing.”

The arched windows wink in a hint of early spring light. Perhaps someone has cleaned them. The trees look ready to show off a little.

“And I thought about the photograph. About who it might be.”

“You learned more?”

“It may have been Stefan, a friend of both my parents’. But somehow I think not. I suspect it was someone different. Ernst found the picture in an envelope, taped under an ancient Federalist secretary in her storage unit. He recalls Stefan–the man taught him chess at an early age; I barely recall his name and not his presence. Yet it could be Samuel, or Silas or Siegfried, couldn’t it? We don’t know. But he looks at her with sweetness and tenderness.”

I reach for my backpack, then ease out the photograph and offer it to Dr. Sorensen. He looks closely at it a few moments, turns it over, read the back, then hands it back to me with care.

“It does appear they mattered a lot to one another.”

Relief. Not misgiving or confusion or even a deep slice of grief that has threatened me day and night for some time. Just to know that even Dr. Sorensen sees it: my mother, beaming at a man who reached for her in a way my father rarely had. Her beauty in her feeling and response, different from what I knew her to be.

“Love happened at least once. Perhaps twice. That is quite enough to know.”

The light from the windows fades as gathering clouds scuttled by. I close my eyes and then I see my childhood bedroom. Two mammoth windows arched at top, the dove grey and white silk curtains pulled back so that the outdoors was just beyond my paint-stained fingertips, there beyond my balcony. I look around and it’s like being there, enveloped by those colors, shapes, that great familiarity, inside a calm whorl of time and space.

I can smell paint and fading roses and then the heady French perfume my mother always wore.

“Isabel, dear–are you finished with that marvelous little painting yet? I want to show your father before he flies to Madrid to visit his ill second cousin, Silvestre. You may meet him one day. I hope. Now, that picture?”

I turn around. She frowns at my messiness, then she changes with a wide smile, hands held out for my art.

I once more open my eyes to meet Dr. Sorensen’s, full of intense interest.

“It’s what matters in the end, I gather. That love can happen at all in this world.”

I stand up; he stands, too. We shake hands and I say I may call him again, then pivot and head for my studio which is my particular beloved, my own crafted life. Alone. Free, for now.

 

Our Secrets, Our Stories

Spring signs 054

I have a secret and so, my cohorts or neighbors, do you. We may have known each other for decades and shared breakfast once a month. Perhaps lived across the hall from one another and picked up each other’s mail as a favor when one or the other was gone. Celebrated our children’s milestones. Participated in a support group, noting small nuances of our lives. Been related by blood or marriage–ample opportunities to get personal. But there is ever something kept to yourself, an experience, a feeling, a person, time or place set aside from the rest. It resides in a part unknown to anyone else. And the reality is that it is not singular but exists in multiples. We have so many secrets it is unlikely we could name them all if it was demanded of us. For some we have briefly acknowledged only to manage to hide forever–perhaps even from ourselves.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that definitions for the noun “secret” include:

1) information kept hidden from others

2)  an uncommon way of doing something to achieve good results  (and unknown to most others)

3) something mysterious, inexplicable

The evolution from the Latin secretus: to separate, distinguish, sift, keep apart.

This covers a fair amount of territory. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot in a time where it is getting harder to maintain privacy in our world. Everyone is concerned about having personal information kept that way, yet we are obliged to share critical details in order to manage our lived in multiple ways. For many of the younger generations it is so pervasive a condition that they often don’t blink an eye when asked for minute details to establish identity. And social media provides easier access each year to whoever puts information out there. Want some attention? Post something on YouTube or Instagram. For that matter, post anything on the internet at our own risk, as the virtual ticker tape of our lives may unspool before us. It seems to me the illusory fame some seek makes one’s identity more fluid–and rather indistinguishable.

And of course I see the irony as I write a post for WordPress, a platform for many millions around the world. Writers, after all, write from what they know or want/need to know and then tend to share it, and a reader gets to know much about the person who is penning the epistle.

Or do you? Do I?

Secrets–odds and ends as well as dramatic moments–naturally accumulate as the years accordion. There seems to be room for all despite one more item being added, pressed closer and denser, our minds and memories akin to striated rock. What surprises us at times is that secrets appear to have as big a role in creating our identities as obvious known factors do. Perhaps more so, at times. Who we are may not be who we appear to be, which seems rather ominous. The reality is, few if any of us are strictly as we appear because everyone has something kept private, held at bay. For one thing, there are too many moments lived, a glut of informative tidbits, each making an impression that is discarded or given closer examination. Our brains are ceaseless workhorses twenty-four hours a day to manage it all. So from a generalized view, it’s not surprising we don’t share close to all of what we experience–much may hardly reach awareness. Until perhaps a dream reveals it to us or a sudden thought leaps awake in the middle of some mundane activity. That aha moment–which we often tuck away.

There are those events we felt/knew/wondered/observed, then receded. But the real secrets are pieces of knowledge we are apt to be acutely conscious of but decide are better left alone. It is likely to our advantage when we choose to close the door to outside probing. The private fact, if given light of day, might compromise the secret holder’s principles, or diminish his or her efficacy. Render the person too emotionally vulnerable. Spark a conflict with another that will have onerous or at least unintended results. Or maybe it is about protecting another and keeping one’s word. And so one’s observation, a feeling or a nighttime dream may remain under wraps for awhile or forever. Details can undo us, we think, and there seems to be some truth in it.

The problem is the tendency to believe that unleashing a secret might end up taking something from someone. Ourselves, usually. We’re each born a (generally) separate human and have ownership of who we are–what we think, how we feel, why we act–until we do not. Until we give ourselves freedom to come forward with the entire, unadulterated truth of whatever it is. Until we take a risk and take someone into our confidence. And in this day and age, how many are willing to do that when it is so easy to live in subterfuge, masks switched at whim, a persona for each situation? It seems easier to do without the backdrop included–the real facts that uphold our individuality. And as human beings, we are undeniably versatile. We can keep secrets as well as divulge them; it only takes words or actions to set either in motion. How much could we lose or gain by not saying what we are so loathe to expose?

There’s a time for honesty and vulnerability, as well as maintaining that golden silence. It can get quite tricky.

The dictionary’s second definition seems reaonable while interesting. It refers to keeping hidden a special method or idea that has had a good outcome. Anyone can relate to that. If there is an arcane ingredient of a recipe or a revolutionary manufacturing technique a company uses, one is not about to spill the beans. There may be a provisional solution to a thorny problem and when it becomes verifiably tried and true, the minds behind that solution may choose to keep it closer for all posterity. Maybe it comes down to greed. But it could also be wise management of resources, depending on the personalities and circumstance. I would tend to go for the greater good, if it came to that–but even that could end up meaning sharing information or keeping it under lock and key.

I opt for both a privacy determined by self counsel as well as a more trusting openness. I want transparency in my living because it is authentic. Complete in a way that layers of diverting signals can never attain no matter how smart or intriguing. It is, however, a surprise to family that when I write I am willing to say so much about who I am. I have been perceived as a primarily pensive, calm, reserved person much of the time, especially in my career. True, all a significant part of who I am, having been raised to be circumspect. It was good manners if nothing else, and often a deciding factor in success and failure or happiness or misery. We take into our beings what we gleaned from earliest years. But there was also a fire within, a strong need to speak out, and so openness flowed more naturally as I grew up. I had discovered, too, that some secrets could do irreparable damage and why allow that if there was another way? Armed with questions for the world, I asked them of myself first and the one I loved the most was: What is the truth? I have never been one to accept a glib answer as the final say. It can make me a bit insufferable. I am not a good small talker, all that easy breezy stuff.

I might have made a better reporter, detective or spy. Let me at the innards of the object of my interest. Spy craft is another thing altogether but if there were no secrets, there would be no spies–real or created– and what would we do without those ramifications to engage and entertain or offend us? Secrets have played a significant part in the world’s history, I gather.

But there are vast amounts to uncover when evaluating the entirety of a person, a place, an experience. The truth, it turns out, tends to be complicated. The beauty of this is in the unmaking and remaking of it as well as the sheer existence of it. Each is a kaleidoscope to turn around, a puzzle to decipher. And memory alters it, as well.

If my impulse is more toward rooting out the gist of a matter, the unvarnished core, it may seem that secrets are not my preferred domain. But poetry can arise from secrets glimpsed within one moment. This is true of fiction, too, a story gathering shape from threads and the snags as its design is gradually woven. A writer develops tools from an array of generous offerings from mind and heart as well as strict information. And so it is the third definition of the word “secret” that draws me most of the three: the mystery of all things.

It matters to me, the numinous nature of mystery. Even more than it did decades ago, because of greater permeability of societal boundaries and the wider reach computers have brought. So much is far more than I want to see or hear. I have to block those distractions to give serious attention to what is going on inside and out.

I find there remains the same evidence of mystery I had as a child. Pulsing star maps of sky and undulating oceans emblazoned with sunrise. The give of grass beneath tender feet in summer. Songs of cicadas and loons; the calls of coyotes and a bear cub. The transitory radiance of fireflies on summer’s eve. The opening of one hand by another. Tears that ease a formidable grief. Victory that arrives in a moment after years of relentless work and the bitterness of failures. Love, how it can bless those downcast or those rising up.

Mystery in all honesty rules me. The secrets of God’s ineffable presence have illuminated my journey, the seeking and finding, bewilderment and awe. I stand here now only because of a power I can barely begin to identify with such small, poor language. I know I am impacted beyond all reason when I feel God-moving-here, and yet it is the lofty reason of science that reveals to me God’s business in the physics of our universe. I cannot get enough of this gorgeous, messy living, not even on tough days, not even when I feel my own secrets are the worse for wear yet make me foolish.

Why do we even need secrets? Why do we not? Such contradictions seem commonplace and that, too, is not wholly understood. There is so little we can well account for when we come to the end of the road. Why not take in and hold those set aside moments, our own secret knowledge close enough that it shakes us up so we break open to more jubilant life? There are times we have to rend our egoistic cloaks of darkness and let go the shame or fear, let it stir in the air. Shake out spasms of anger, of regret. Pronounce our liberation when our dream looms close–grab it before it passes. Say aloud the hesitant words as if everything depends on it: I love you, let me help, I honor your life, God’s peace to you.

If there is an experience that persists like a steady lamp along the way, a certain person who was a gift or a season in life that meant more than can be told, cherish it. It will nurture you. If there is something that dissipates your energy and shadows your soul, perhaps now is a time to speak or you may remain captive by its presence. What we decide to keep is ours and ours alone if we choose. Let it be a secret for the best of purposes. Otherwise, let it go and let the greater mysteries reign.