There Are Many Paths to Tread

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As most of you know by now, my family has spent many, many months – many years, really – trying to get our house in shape to sell.

In September, we were almost there.  We had an eager buyer on our hands.  We (and I use the term “we” very loosely, here) had started the long and arduous process of cleaning out 30 years of accumulated stuff.  We had signed a contract, slogged through much of the legal process, and had a closing date in sight.

That date was supposed to be right before Thanksgiving.  Everything had been cleaned out, dusted down, and shined up.  My mom had found a lovely little apartment not too far away from her job and her church, and had moved out of the house with (gasp) a little time to spare.  My dad signed a lease in Massachusetts, and planned to move in by the beginning of December.

We weren’t that surprised when the closing date was delayed a little – this was a short sale, and the whole black-box process was mysterious and unclear.  The buyers needed to provide some extra paperwork, so the hand-off was pushed back until December 10th.

But then the buyer’s lawyer said he wasn’t ready on the 10th, either.  Some of the documents hadn’t come through.  My dad had already scheduled his moving truck, so he signed over power of attorney to our representative and said goodbye to New York.

A week later, the closing was cancelled.

That’s right.  It turns out that the buyers, a nice couple with three young kids, have decided to get a divorce.  They’ve called off the contract, and left us back at square one.

Our real estate agent has put the “for sale” sign back up, and has been showing the house non-stop over the past couple of days.  We have no idea when or if we will find a new buyer.  I hope I’m not jinxing it, but I think the chances look pretty good.  There are a lot of people interested, and at least we understand the process a little better after having gone through most of it already.

It’s just a major and unexpected letdown to be so close to watching the ink dry before having victory snatched away from us.

The weird thing is that we have all been at least partway through the process of emotionally detaching ourselves from the property.  Everyone (including all family felines) has settled into their new homes, and there’s nothing tying us to that house anymore.  My parents don’t even have to be there in person to sign the papers anymore.

And yet the house is still there, still in our possession, and still anchoring us to a past that seems less and less tangible as the days roll on.  The pain of leaving home behind has dulled a little, helped along by the process of getting everyone situated, and I feel more confident about where we are headed as a family that still has so much in common and cares so much for one another – even if we’re terrible at showing it.

I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold, or come through a thick and murky bank of fog, and now I can see that the future can be as bright and sunny as I want to make it.  It’s a good feeling.  I think it will be a better feeling when we finally find a new family to fill the house with life and laughter and their own complicated stories once again.

I don’t know when we’ll find the right people for the job.  I don’t know how long it will take to get approval again from the financial powers-that-be.  I don’t know when the new closing date will be, or how many times it’ll be postponed, or if we’ll suffer more disappointments along the way.

All I know is that both my parents have worked incredibly hard to get to this point, and I sincerely hope that it will pay off sooner rather than later.  I know we’ll get there eventually, but it would be nice to have an idea about when that might be.

In the meantime, we’ll all keep working on building our new lives in new places.  I’m sure we’ll strike the right balance as time goes on, and hopefully we’ll find that we’re on the right paths towards the best possible future.

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Home is Behind; the World Ahead

IS5eqngy07rd5k0000000000I visited New York this weekend, for a short but multi-purpose trip back to my ancestral homeland.  As many of you know, I spent the first 17 years of my life on Long Island, in a bustling yet somewhat brutal suburb of the great City itself.

New Yorkers are generally very proud of where they live, and remain proud of where they come from if they happen to move away.  They retain their stereotypical attitude (which is, if anything, underplayed in the media) and their propensity for tailgating on the highway.

They can never eat a bagel or slice of pizza without loudly proclaiming its inferiority to the cuisine of their youth (it’s the water, don’t you know), and they will forever be shocked that businesses, restaurants, and public transportation options close before midnight in towns that approach life at a slower pace.

While I’m certainly guilty of maintaining some of these traits, despite my eight years as a Massachusetts resident, I’ve never been as enamored with New York as many of my compatriots.  It’s a fascinating place, and there is something to be said for growing up in such a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with world-class museums and attractions and beaches being such a routine part of my childhood.

There’s something to be said for leaving it behind, too.  I was never a very good New Yorker.  I didn’t really like the city; I didn’t care for our sports teams, or take pride in being mouthy and brash.  I didn’t frequent the salons and the tanning parlors, or the bars and the clubs.  I don’t like stucco on houses.  I don’t flat-iron my hair and I’ve never been to the Jersey Shore.  I don’t wear yoga pants or velour sweat suits, and I prefer not to have rhinestone logos associated with my rear end.

As a teenager, I felt this disconnect very strongly, and I fled to Massachusetts almost as soon as I had the choice.  As a college student, I fell in love with its expansive woodlands and winding roads and 18th century villages.  I don’t mind that everything closes at 8:00 at night, because I like to be in bed just an hour or so later.  I like the quiet, and the comparative friendliness (yes, even in Boston proper), and the progressively liberal bent to our politics.

I chose to live in Massachusetts, to settle here and make a life for myself.  It has become home, but no matter how many years I end up living here, I don’t know that it will ever be where I’m from.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that distinction, because my family is facing a big change in the coming months.  We are selling the house I grew up in.

That might not seem like a momentous thing for people who have moved around a lot during their lives, but it’s the only house I have ever lived in.  It was the place I ran to when I was feeling overwhelmed by people I didn’t understand; it’s where I could shut myself away with a book and a cat (or two or three) and pretend like I was in control of my world.  Its old-fashioned character shaped my aesthetic senses with rich cherry wood moldings and glass knobs on the rickety doors.

In contrast to the open floor plans and master suites of my friends’ houses, our 1923 American four-square organized its living spaces in smaller, more dedicated ways.  Having only one full bathroom for three kids and two parents required everyone to invest in some serious negotiating tactics in the mornings.  The bedrooms are small and the kitchen never had enough counter space, but high ceilings made everything feel bigger.  There’s a basement my dad finished himself.  A screened-in back room gave us a little more space to spread out, and let us spend leisurely summer dinners as a family overlooking a grassy yard large enough to be the envy of our carefully subdivided neighbors.

I spent a lot of time in the house as a child – I was homeschooled for several years, and even when I returned to public school, I did not waste a lot of my scarce energy on after-school activities or late evenings with friends.  I just went home.

I went home to my books, which never made me feel anxious or out of place.  I went home to my cats, who would listen to my secrets without judgement or comment.  I went home to the internet, and the ability to interact with the world from the safety of my own private castle.  When my parents divorced, I went home to the only place that seemed solid in a foreign and confusing new reality.

My room now...a little different than it was when I still lived there.

My room now…a little different (cleaner) than it was when I still lived there.

I went home and cried myself into exhaustion after I failed my first driver’s test, too embarrassed to tell any of my friends.  I went home while putting college on hold after a truly heinous semester at Boston University, and stared at the ceiling all night as I lay sleepless in my familiar bed, convinced I had ruined my life.

I stayed home when I was too sick or just too tired to go to high school; I came home almost every weekend for months as my cat Solomon started to come to the end of his days, just to spend as much time with him as I could.

Home has always been there for me, and home has always been that house.  I know that makes me lucky.  That sense of permanence has been a gift that kept me going through a tumultuous youth that left me feeling isolated, frustrated, and poorly understood more often than not.

When I visit these days, I feel those negative memories first.  I feel the pain of my slowly splintering family, and the resonating anger of so many heated disagreements over our fundamental differences.  I feel like a lost child again, rooting around helplessly in my overwhelming sadness, searching for some sense of self I could hardly define, let alone capture.

I feel all the missteps I made when I didn’t know better, and all the mistakes that other people didn’t even know they were making with me.  I feel the heartbreak of wishing so hard that things could be different, and the defeat of recognizing how many things are still the same, no matter how much older I get.

It’s in my nature, perhaps, to think about the bad things first, but they certainly don’t reflect the sum total of my life there.  There are so many good memories that made that house the sanctuary it will always remain in my mind.

There were sunlit mornings in the kitchen, eating breakfast while my mother washed the dishes, and winter afternoons charting new trails through the unbroken snow of the backyard grass.  There was my dogwood tree to climb, and a pool for a while, and the chaise in the screen room where I would fall asleep in the dappled shade.

There was the grill on the deck for steaks and chicken, and the terror of discovering a hornet’s nest under the eaves.  There was the ill-fated garden behind the garage, where we planted sickly tomatoes next to the sandy pit where I pretended to be an archaeologist.

There was the crawl space in the basement, where the original builders had left mysterious bottles and jugs, and the swing set, and the basketball hoop that was too tall for me, and the wooden playhouse that had more spiders than I quite liked.

There was chocolate milk on Sunday, and visits from my grandmother, and running to the corner to meet my dad when he came home on the train.  There were bike rides up and down the driveway along chalk-drawn streets, and camping in a pop-up tent we never really put together properly.

There were bedtime stories and silly dances and the day my mom spilled half her yogurt down the sink.  The ritual recital of Passover seders; the smells of Thanksgiving and latkes and snuffed out Hanukkah candles so the cats wouldn’t burn their whiskers.

Every corner has a story for me.  Every creak of the stairs is as familiar as my own name.  So much of my life has happened there, and even though I know it’s time to let that house become home for some other family with their future ahead of them, my heart aches when I think about never being in those rooms again.

We still have a month or two before we have to be out of there completely, and we’ve all planned to come down again for another weekend – the last time we will all be in the house together.  The finality of that is frightening.  So is the inevitability.  The sense of detachment may, in time, become liberating, but right now it just feels like I’m losing something very important to the way I have always seen myself.

Change is good, and this change is necessary on many levels, but it is hard to leave behind so much of myself in a place that is so strongly ingrained in my consciousness.

I don’t know how this is going to affect my family and the independent lives we are now living.  I don’t know where we’ll have our Thanksgivings and Passovers – or if those will be a thing of the past, as well.  I don’t know how the world will feel without a home like that to go back to.

I’m hoping that finally making the break from an idea that has slowly been fading over time anyway will just help me feel more settled and comfortable in the life I’ve built for myself.  I hope to have my own permanent house someday, with a yard and brick steps and dogwood trees for my theoretical children to climb.

I don’t know if I will ever feel as secure as I used to when I was a child in my fortress of books and bedding, before I became old enough and jaded enough to think about the bad things first.  But I hope I can build upon my treasured memories of happy times, and let the other ones drift away.

Home may be behind, but the world is ahead, and that will have to be the thought that sustains me as I watch one long chapter of my life come to a close and another begins.

Death and Discworld: The Passing of Terry Pratchett

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If you haven’t heard by now, the literary world – and the fantasy genre in particular – has lost one of its most brilliant voices.  Terry Pratchett died today after several years battling an aggressive form of Alzheimer’s disease, leaving behind dozens of novels and one of the richest, cleverest, and most challenging fantasy worlds ever created, and one that had a profound impact on so many aspects of my life that I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve revisited the same books over and over and over.

I am probably so attached to Discworld because I discovered it in my early teens, when I was just starting to realize how difficult it was to make sense of the world I was living in.  It will hardly come as a surprise to those of you who know even a tiny bit about me that I was an awkward, angry, depressive, frustrated, and easily bored adolescent who took refuge in reading like a snail in a shell.  Most of my memories from that time are unpleasant ones about being told that I would have to come out someday to face reality head-on, and I should just suck it up, cut my hair, learn how to wear heels and get it over with.

I didn’t.  Not for a long time.  I liked my shell.  I liked thinking that fantasy was the way to hide my head in the sand while being anyone I wanted to be, and living any way I wanted to live.  It was all so different and exciting and exotic, as fantasy worlds should be.

There was the charm and nobility of Tolkien, the sweeping, soapy melodrama (and questionable suitability for my age group) of the Wheel of Time, the imaginative tangibility of Tad Williams, and the taste of blood and earth and hope in Stephen Lawhead.  I loved them, and I longed to inhabit those worlds, but part of me always knew that I wasn’t ever going to be cool enough or courageous enough or romantic enough to get much screen time in any of those places.

And then I met Rincewind.  And honestly, I really hated him.  He was awkward and frustrating and kind of whiny and a bit of a buffoon and – oh God, he was me, wasn’t he?  I hated me.  And honestly, I almost didn’t go back to the library for another one, because I couldn’t stand feeling so similar to someone who was basically just comic relief.

But I did go back.  And I met Sam Vimes, and everything kind of changed.  Here was someone who kept moving forward no matter how much he hated himself and struggled with flaws he couldn’t help having.  He was wry and abrasive and a little selfish, and he wasn’t quite sure if he was ever doing the right thing, but he was damned if that ever stopped him from trying.  Sam Vimes faced his world the same way I faced mine (only with slightly more alcohol), and suddenly I started to realize that not every hero has to laugh at death while waving their sword at the enemy from atop a noble steed.  Sometimes you can get away with standing to the side at a judicious distance, hiding a wheeze.

Ankh-Morpork and its environs were full of those not-quite-heroes.  Discworld was full of cowards and con men and outsiders and people who spouted nonsense and people who spoke so much truth that it had to be wrapped in humor just to get it past the filters in your brain.  It was full of hard and unexpected things to struggle with, and there was always someone willing to eat what you wanted to throw away.  It was full of life, bitingly observed and perfectly captured, and no matter how many new books I added to my shelf, there was always, always something new to learn about how to be smart enough to take on my own life in my real world, too.

And that’s really the beauty of Discworld.  Pratchett wrote fantasy that sticks a knife in your gut, rips you open and forces you to acknowledge that all people in all worlds are basically the same, and we’re all kind of equally gross and squishy inside.

His work taught me lessons that every teenager needs to hear – chief amongst them being how to kick ass – and he did it in terms that were so unexpectedly personal to me that they have sunk in deeply and stuck like nothing else.  I cherish his wit and his ability to make me laugh out loud, but more importantly I cherish his shrewdness of mind and the skill with which he infused his characters with such an ability to get under your skin, even while they were changing out of theirs.

I know I’m going to go home tonight, pour myself a glass of fruit juice, and spend some quality time with the six shelves of Discworld books I’ve collected over the years.  If you haven’t read one, now is as good a time as any.  I always tell people to start with Men at Arms, one of the first Vimes books, but Guards! Guards! is a good jumping off point, too.  Regardless of where you start, I hope you enjoy them even a fraction as much as I have.

I don’t think I’d be a fantasy writer without Discworld, but more importantly, I don’t think I’d be the same person.  I never met Terry Pratchett, and now I never will, but it’s funny how much you can owe to people who never even knew you existed.

Thank you for leaving such a marvelous legacy, and making us laugh the whole time.  We’re in your debt.

Short Story Monday: Manu and the Wall

Dear readers, a plea: If you have a few minutes, I would be eternally grateful if you downloaded and reviewed my excerpt for the Quarterfinal round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  While reviews and downloads don’t affect the judging at this stage, some honest feedback is always helpful for me as an author.

And now, have yourself a Short Story Day as preemptive thanks.

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It was wrong to sneak out of the house every night, wrapping soft rags around his bare feet to stifle the sound of his footsteps on the rusted tin roof of the first floor as he lowered himself carefully out of the upper story window.  Manu knew it was wrong.

The window shutters wouldn’t be bolted shut if he was supposed to leave.  His mother wouldn’t firmly keep her back to the door, a sliver of dirty light slanting through the small, misshapen hatch that let in their food and let out some portion their rubbish and waste every day.  His father wouldn’t sit in his chair, tucked into a corner far away from that cold block of sun, surrounded by high piles of everything that he wouldn’t let escape: old newspapers and boxes from the weekly food packets and clothes that no one had worn for years.

If it wasn’t wrong to leave, maybe his parents would do so once in a while, instead of having Aunt Yeno and Cousin Sou trudge to the depot every morning to bring back parcels to support both their families, twenty-five children between them, and poke paper tubes filled with dried beans and canned vegetables and soft, supple bags of uncooked rice, one by one, through the only portal they allowed into their dim and darkened home.

There was nothing wrong with the outside, at least not as far as Manu could see.  There was the rest of the village, of course, and the finger of Horse Head Lake that nearly cut the town in two, the cluster of little houses bending into a long, thin line as it traced the shore.  The line was filling up, now, ever since the Wall had crept along the edge of the lake, and the town had reared itself upward, block upon block of houses piled on top of each other to reach dirty fingers up into the sky, the poorest residents hovering like birds five stories in the fetid air.

Manu’s family was poor, but they were also long-established, and had moved into their residence back when the village was young.  The Wall hadn’t even reached them yet, all the way back when his great-great-great grandparents had worked at hauling water from the lake to fill the baths of the well-to-do for a penny a day, but Manu had lived behind it for all of his short life.  He thought it was a beautiful thing, but his mother frowned at him when he said so.  She didn’t think anything was beautiful.  She just wanted the Wall to leave them alone.

He had only seen it at night, since he was scared to leave the house when his father was awake.  They could hear it breathing all the time, of course, day and night and in their dreams, but seeing the unbelievably massive edifice, craning his neck upwards to hope to get a glimpse of the ridge of its back, was something else entirely.  He had seen it sleeping, heaving ever so gently as it lost itself in thoughts so far beyond Manu’s mind that they may well have been the musings of a god.  His mother had told him that.  That he couldn’t understand it – that there was safety in not knowing the Wall.  She had told him that there was no point in trying, but he wasn’t sure he could agree.

The Wall had been come a friend, of sorts.  Not his only friend – he had his brothers and sisters and his Cousin Sou, who sometimes came into the house and tried to scrub the floors, her lips firmly pinched together under the kerchief she wrapped around her nose.  There wasn’t much floor to see under his father’s piles of things, but he shouted at her when she tried to move them, and her brows lowered so far as to touch the edge of the flowery fabric that tried to keep out the worst of the smell.

The Wall wasn’t Manu’s only friend, but it was his most mysterious one.  Someone had told him once that it wasn’t a wall at all: it was the tail of an enormous beast made of stone, and each new scale, each inch that it grew and grew and grew to thread across the whole of the kingdom, was an unanswered wish.  The beast fed on disappointment, they said.  Every kind of discontent was its food, and that is why it had gotten so huge.  It was a good thing, they said.  They needed the Wall just as the Wall needed them.

Manu didn’t know if that was true.  He didn’t think so.  He had touched it once, and it felt as cold and dead as any of the pebbles he kicked down the road in the shadow of the moonlight, breathing as much free air as he could before his father woke up and bellowed at him for his breakfast.  It had been frightening to get so close.  He had had to dodge the guards, walking stiffly in rigid pairs as they tried to keep the curious peasants away from whatever the Wall was.  Sometimes someone would sneak past, and pin a piece of paper onto the stone, scrawled with a prayer or a hope or a bargain that the Wall never seemed to keep.

It would fly away some day, they said.  The tinker claimed to have seen its wings, coiled in anticipation around the unfathomable bulk of its body, lying deep in the Darkwood Valley where the river crashed down into the hollow between the mountains.  It would fly away and leave them defenseless – but what the Wall helped defend them against never seemed to be all that clear.

His father had said that he was keeping all his things for the day the Wall went away.  There would be panic, he predicted, and fear, and no more food.  Manu didn’t think he really had any food that would still be good when that happened, but he knew better than to argue.  His father would eat anything.  His mother would let him.  They still wouldn’t ever go outside.

Manu would, though.  He would stay outside forever if he didn’t fear a beating.  Aunt Yeno would bring him back, his ear clamped between her bony fingers, and his father would pick up something hard from the pile and hit him with it for a while.  Sometimes Manu didn’t mind so much.  Maybe his anger helped the Wall grow bigger.  If he kept going outside, and Aunt Yeno kept bringing him back, maybe he could help the Wall get big enough to soar away.

He would go outside to see it.  Maybe his mother would turn around and peer through the hatch, disapproving and scared.  Maybe his father would scramble over his walls, shouting in panic, and stand in front of the door so no one could see around him.  Maybe Manu would slither out the second story window and sprint for the Wall, grabbing on as it stretched its wings to block out the sun and took to the air, the boy clinging tightly and tiny to a corner of its tail.  Manu had dreams where it happened. Maybe that’s what the Wall dreamed of, too.  Hoping so might make it bigger, and maybe one day none of them would need disappointment anymore.

Sunglasses and Fake Pearls

No short story this week, because I wanted to talk about something else.  Obviously, today is Valentine’s Day, and couples all over the world will be enthusiastically (or resignedly) celebrating the requirement to be extra super squishy romantic tonight.  That’s great, if you’ve got someone (don’t forget to stay safe, kids), but Valentine’s Day has never been particularly happy for me.

In 2007, we had a big ice storm and I took a hard fall that left me with excruciating, debilitating back pain for the next eight months.  It was my senior year at Mount Holyoke and I was taking extra classes to make up for a semester off earlier in my career, including PE, from which I was not allowed an exemption.  Needless to say, it was a difficult time, and my spine is still feeling the lingering effects.

Two years later, on Valentine’s Day, my grandmother died with very little warning.  I called my mom that evening to wish her a happy holiday, and was met with the news that Mommom, as we called her, had died in her sleep the night before.  While she was notorious for a litany of low-grade health complaints, she was also rather disinclined to go to the doctor, and so succumbed to walking pneumonia at age 86.

Carol Geller as a young woman

Carol Geller as a young woman

She was not an apron-and-apple-pie grandmother.  She was stylish and full of irreverent humor and was married three times.  She had four children, losing one to cancer, and loved her apartment right on the sea.  She read voraciously and listened to Frank Sinatra, she went out to concerts and spent time at Bloomingdales and Loehmann’s.  She doted on her Siamese cat, Guido, and signed all her birthday cards with his picture alongside her X’s and O’s.

I get my fierce love of jewelry from her, and now proudly wear pieces from her beautiful collection each and every day.  I have art from her walls on my walls, these days, and am constantly reminded of the complex life she lived, surrounded by lovely, colorful, imaginative things.  We explored Japan together for nearly two weeks when my uncle got married there, and I will always treasure that time.

She was always wearing (and losing) her big sunglasses, whether she was taking me to the mall or the beach or coming for a Sunday visit, as she did every week.  She never learned to drive, so my mother would go down to Long Beach and pick her up.  I would sit in the back seat and listen as she gossiped about people I’d never met.  And when I was fourteen, she and my mother sat me down and told me that I needed to lose weight, dress better, and cut my hair because no one would ever love or respect me the way I was, which remains one of my most searingly painful memories.

A few days after she died, I drove down to New York so we could fly to Florida and start to settle her affairs.  I got severe food poisoning from a sandwich I ate the day before we were supposed to get on the plane, and spent the entire night delirious on the bathroom floor.  I remember my mom’s face when she brought me some tea at 3 in the morning, so tired and full of grief and unable to do anything to make either of us less miserable.

My grandmother and mother

My grandmother and mother

I learned more about her in the days following her death than I had during her lifetime, when I was too young to understand most of the things she had gone through.  A strict, spare childhood; an abusive first husband; an affair with a man she would go on to happily marry until his sudden death changed everything.

My mom and I sat on the floor of her empty apartment and sifted through black-and-white photos of my ancestors.  The great-grandmothers I was named for.  The one who accidentally killed her infant twins by scalding them in the bath.  The immigrants who came to New York from Russia and rose from nothing to be doctors and engineers.  Through her loss, I found a thread of connection to a past I was only vaguely aware of.  While I can’t say the benefits outweigh how much I miss her, love is about finding a way through the inevitable sadness of life and death.

I don’t have a Valentine this year.  I’ve never had one any other year, either, despite the fact that I’ve cut my hair at least a few times since I was fourteen.  Dating is not something I’ve ever been very competent at, and I have to admit that today does nothing more than remind me that it’s always been impossible for me to achieve even a shadow of such a connection with another human being, no matter how much I want to or how hard I try.

But thinking of my grandmother on a day like today helps me remember how tightly she would squeeze me when she gave me a hug.  It helps me remember bright pink lipstick on my cheek and how much I looked forwards to sleepovers at her house, when we’d get a movie from Blockbuster and stop in to gaze at the trinkets next door at Pier 1.  If I was lucky, her cat would come out of hiding and curl up next to me on the pull-out sofa bed, and I’m reminded of how much her brilliant life and constant love shaped my early world.

I’m fortunate to have had such an influence in my childhood, even if I didn’t always agree with some of her views or her actions.  I’m fortunate to have learned what I learned from her, and I’m sorry she can’t see the person I’ve become since she died.  If she could, maybe she’d tell me not to worry so much about Valentine’s Day.  After all, it’s a day dedicated to love, and she always had plenty to spare.

Mommom and me at 4 years old

Mommom and me at 4 years old

Short Story: Don’t Cry

School Door Closed

A writing exercise banning the use of the letter “e”

***

I don’t want to stay on my own, Tara thought, shaking a thick braid of brown hair drooping down.  “Don’t go, Daddy,” Tara said, wishing it could stay how it was, dropping salt sorrow onto a dirt floor.  A girl who could not say it is all right for him to walk away.  

“But I must, Tara,” said Dad, strong and sad, wishing similar things but knowing what is right.  “If I don’t go now, I must stay always, and how will you grow?  Your world must spin on, my darling.”

Tara, crying, thinks it’s unfair.  Unclasping his warm hand, watching as Dad walks away, too full of thoughts to stay.    But Tara turns, and stands up straight, and as Dad pulls on a black Volvo door, craning around for a last look, a small girl walks into a big scary room, without Mommy or Daddy.  Dad laughs, loving, and sits in a black Volvo to call Tara’s mom.  It was going all right.  Dad was proud and Mom should think so, too.

A long day passing for Dad, not Tara.  Dad is anxious but Tara has so much fun.  Painting, drawing, laughing, talking – all day a blur of sound and color.  Dad waits by a big, scary door that has shrunk into a normal thing for a grown up girl, but without knowing his child’s triumph.  So young, Dad thinks, as kids skip and play in a yard.  Finally Tara shows, giggling, companions surrounding a girl anything but sad now, bringing joy to him.

Dad waits a third day to bring Tara to school.  Again with crying and sobs – a tiny tantrum for a bright sun.  “Don’t go, Daddy!”

“But Tara, I must – I must again and you know why.  Don’t cry, Tara, you always find that it’s not so scary if you try to stay tough.”

Dad, strong and sad, walks away, and Tara’s sobs stop soon.  Big scary doors shrink by sundown, but morning is daunting and small girls must always find comfort in strong, sad dads who say, “Don’t cry.”

Short Story: Salt and Oil

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The maze appeared from nowhere one day, but it didn’t surprise me much.  Morchellas sprouted everywhere, and there was always a pattern to be found if I looked hard enough.  Most of the time they followed the same paths as the pigs, rooted in the dung they dropped as the hogs stopped to crunch up the spongy mushrooms, a cycle as timeless as the summer sun.

Mama called them fairy circles, but Pop just called it bollocks.  I was somewhere in between, on the cusp of sprouting myself, fourteen and disinclined to agree with anyone.  Mama shook her head when I got cross, arguing both sides but not really believing either. She would send me to the cupboard to take an herbal supplement she swore would fix me, the bottle marked with big red letters that said PMS, preferring to blame biology no matter what the calendar said, refusing to believe that there was something wrong with what had been crafted rather than what had been born.

So I spent a lot of time in the yard, looking through the broken fence at Mr. Calper’s pigs as they snuffled and rolled and pissed hard and steaming onto the ground.  He had named them all, but I had named them better, and they snorted happily at me and rubbed up against the wooden slats when I sat with my back against the barrier, reading my homework out loud to keep us company.

Mr. Calper went to the graveyard once a week to visit his wife, and I would sneak through the gate while he was gone, to scratch the pigs behind the ears and pick some wildflowers from the fields to leave in the old vase on his porch for when he returned.  I liked to see the look on his face.  He was a sad old man, but he liked the flowers.  He probably knew it was me who was leaving them, but he never let on.

The maze was in the back corner of his land, near the edge of the woods where the best pheasant’s eye grew.  The pigs never bothered to go that far, so the morchellas grew by the hundreds, in thick, spongy clusters like prune fingers after a swim.  I didn’t like how they tasted, and it was a good thing, too.  The way they grew in spirals didn’t feel quite right.  Mama had said to leave them alone, because sometimes there were poison ones mixed in.  For once, I listened.  And not for the first time, she was wrong.

I left them alone and walked right through, careful not to crush them.  There was a path, of sorts: a double line like a runway that I tiptoed between for the fun of it, curving one way and another in a snaking knot like the dancer I knew I didn’t have the grace to be.  If I had picked them, I wouldn’t have been caught in it.  I wouldn’t have stopped, shivering, wide-eyed and gasping, clutching my head like a flooding stroke, blurring and burrowing into the heart of me.

Insofar as I was having thoughts, they weren’t clear ones.  I’d felt the same, once, when the flu came to school and Pop drove me to the hospital at three in the morning, still wearing his slippers, the edge of the steering wheel brushing my forehead as I lay on his lap.  His hand on my forehead, warm and steady, as if he was trying to keep me from floating away.  Everything had felt like watching TV, and I didn’t like the hospital.  But Mama had let me drink Gatorade she bought from the gift shop, and even smiled when I showed her my tongue stained blue.

The doctor had been a funny man, but he wasn’t here now, and neither was Mama.  I was scared, and there were tears on my face as I dropped to my knees, my hands over my ears, squeezing like a watermelon to make it go away.  The mushrooms smelled like the pigs’ dung as I rolled onto my side, curled up and heedless of the rules I broke by bending and snapping the stems.  I thought I heard them cry, or maybe it was me, and I shut my eyes to wish it away.

Fairy circles, Mama had said, and I believed every word when I felt a hand on the back of my neck, not warm and firm like Pop’s, but rough and scaled and broad, grinding something sandy into my nape, pushing aside my ponytail.  I shrank away but the hand returned, wet and slimy, and rubbed something moist and soothing, slick and fragrant as I whimpered.

“There, now,” a voice said, the first sound in a hundred years as the overpowering earthy scent faded and the tide receded from my brain.  “Time to get up, girl.  Stand on your feet and let’s move along.”

I didn’t know how I obeyed, but I didn’t have much of a choice not to.  The voice was less compelling than the gritty wetness on the back of my neck.  It smelled like breakfast, and I craned my head to try to see, my arm held helplessly in Mr. Calper’s rough hand as he guided me away.

“I’m all gross,” I said, not sure what else I was supposed to do.  The liquid was squirming down my back, sticking my shirt to my shoulder blades, and it felt like someone had sneezed on me.

“Of course you are, girl,” he said, the sound of rocks grinding in a throat that had sucked down cigarette smoke for years and years.  “A gift for the earth.”

“What does that mean?”

“Them creatures’ll feast on anything, and it was about to be you.  Morchellas?  More like monsters.  I hate the damn things.  The pigs like ‘em, though, and I know you like the pigs.  Maybe there’s some good in you worth saving.”

“Thank you,” I said unsteadily, wiping as much of the oil out of my hair as I could.

“Run along,” he replied as we crested the corner and his house hove into view.  “Keep away from there next time, you hear?  I don’t much care for pheasant’s eye in any case.  Stick with daisies and we’ll both be all right.”

He let go of my arm and shoved me towards the gate, a little smile on his face despite his gruffness as he turned up the path.  Daisies grew on my side of the fence, safe and sunny.  “Can I help you feed the pigs?” I asked, suddenly not caring that I was a mess.

“Tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder, brushing the old, empty vase with his gnarled hand as he disappeared.  I waited a moment as the light went on in the parlor behind the glass, saw his shadow as he sat in his chair, and then spun around, sprinting for home, knowing I would never even bother to try to explain.