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Category: Stories

A Christmas Memoir

Her Voice Rising Above All the Others

                                                (A Christmas story for family and friends who are family)

My grandmother’s voice held Scottish ballads; a voice brought down from Nova Scotia when my grandfather married her. I imagined her voice wrapped in newspaper, tied off in twine. Her voice dominated family tale telling, caroling, and I imagined myself drinking in that voice so that one day it would become part of mine.

            Aunts and uncles and older cousins and grandparents told stories how times were getting better, the Canadian Railways they worked for were again employing men, and with the layoffs further behind them, living conditions in Vermont were looking up. My aunt was able to buy a Christmas turkey for the first time in two years, and Grandmother Ella sighed with relief she could again put homemade presents underneath the tree.

            My grandparents’ modest home in the Northeast Kingdom seemed to hold numerous rooms, and there was always room enough for those who traveled from far away to Island Pond, the small town of my grandparents, for the holidays. Our family stayed over while other relatives lived close enough to safely return home after the festivities. We were always the first to arrive and the last to leave, or perhaps that’s the way memory works in order to cherish what it will later embellish.

            Following our family’s arrival was my aunt and uncle and seven cousins. My aunt carried in boxes of mincemeat, pecan, apple and pumpkin pies. These were stored in the small pantry. My grandmother would wrap newspaper around the pies to keep the winter hungry mice from eating them. 

Sometimes I’d sneak into the pantry, mischief painted on my face, and wiggle a finger underneath the pie-wrap, diving into the soft filling for a taste, small flakes of crust caving in. I’d patch the crust back so there would be few tell-tale signs, but there prevailed a secret expectation that children did such things. So long as the favored pies remained somewhat complete, no harm was done.

            Winter in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom was an endless tarp of white. No worry as to whether there’d be a picturesque Christmas in that part of New England. Dagger-like icicles hung from the eves, icicles that could tear a kid’s tongue raw if not approached carefully. 

Icicles became an endless supply for my cousins and myself and we’d stock several in our igloo, dipping them in salt or sugar snuck from the house. Sometimes we’d roll them in turkey fat drippings left to cool in the shed. With a stack of broken branches, we’d make forbidden fires, our shadows pantomiming on packed snow, our breath anxious that the adults might catch and scold us for making a fire behind their backs.

            Uncles carried in ukuleles they’d later play when we gathered, singers and non-singers alike, around the piano for Christmas carols, a few cousins twanged on their jew’s-harps as though they serenaded heaven itself. Grandmother Ella always led the caroling, her hand on her chest, head thrown back like a great throated robin, and although her voice was objectionable to some, I was fascinated by the gusto that thrust her words into the visible world of sound. If she didn’t know a song, she’d invent.

            Mother played the piano as though she’d become a great swan floating above the keys, and she’d give my grandmother a scowl each time her mother belted out a wrong note. My cousins and I always sought first row around the piano. Elbows became weapons we shoved into each other as we edged closer. Perhaps we wanted a bird’s eye view of my mother’s hands as they flew down the ivory notes, the majesty of movement making sounds.

                                                            *  *  *

            Grandmother Ella held the undisputed reputation of master of the main meal. She sautéed the turkey liver and giblets with chopped onion and garlic on the kerosene fueled stove. The jug holding the kerosene belched with bubbles as it grew low. When turkey innards were tender to a knife’s touch Grandmother chopped and added them to the dressing smothered in home-made butter. With pinched fingers, she’d measure out sage and thyme. The dressing consisted of very old bread brought in from the shed, frozen hard—bread so belligerent that everyone kidded her about needing an axe to hack it into bite sizes.

            She boiled the neck of the turkey until that too grew tender and would easily peel in long strips from the knobby connected bones. She poured broth from the neck over the dressing until it held just the right consistency. Then she scooped the dressing into the bird’s cavity, packing it firm with the backside of her wooden spoon. Whatever dressing was left over was tucked under the long flap of skin that cloaked the neck.

            With the turkey in the oven, she would ask me, “Want to split the neck?” Everyone thought we were out of our minds to eat the neck, but I liked pulling off the long strips of dark meat. “Each part strengthens a part,” she’d say, a bit of mischief taking up the larger part of her eyes.

“Girl, with your asthma you need a good neck to funnel air through.” I never questioned her. It would have been unthinkable. She was the woman who brought down the moon, who propped me night after night in the rocker by the kitchen window, the rocker normally reserved for grandfather, so that I could better breathe. She’d tell me stories until my wheezing abated. “Healing stories,” she called them.

                                                            *   *   *

            I think bone is a voice and that she gave me a voice by sharing the turkey’s neck which she split in half. No one else wanted the neck. It seemed everyone desired only the white meat, and I felt gifted being allowed the very first taste of our holiday dinner, our tongues diving between the bone links. She’d look intently on to make sure I cleaned off every strand. 

She would tell me, as well as the other grandchildren gathered by, stories of West Branch, Nova Scotia, how she had lived in an eight-room house. Her father, a blacksmith, also owned riding stables. The only entertainments aside from horseback riding were barn dances or skating parties, both of which were closely chaperoned. She told us about sleigh rides over the crisp white snow and how the brilliant sheen of the moon cast its hue as far as the eye could see. Returning to their woodstove warmed home, she and her friends ate cookies and drank warm milk, but never a touch of alcohol because spirits were forbidden by her strict Presbyterian family that regularly held bible readings. Her favorite place on earth, always remained her original home of Nova Scotia.

                                                            *   *   *

            Christmas at Grandmother’s meant the men retired to the front parlor where they traded hunting, fishing and railroading stories. Grandfather would slap his knee with a loud By Jove over some fish story that stretched each year with the telling. “That trout,” he’d say in his New England vintage twang, “was four inches bigger than any other fish caught in that damn brook.” 

While the men gabbed, the women bustled about in the kitchen and they never thought about roles, gender or the division of labor. It was as if they alone knew they participated in some type of alchemy held only in kitchens, in the mix and batter of ingredients. 

            Aunt Marjory was in charge of the gravy, stirring it until it thickened and turned a warm brown. I ground pepper for her and tipped the water tumbler whenever she asked me to thin out the gravy. My sister and cousins set the dining room table with the blue willow plates stored in the china cabinet for holidays, plates grandmother brought down in a trunk on the train from Nova Scotia. By the time everyone was seated in the dining room where the piano took prominence, there was not an inch to spare. That meant all food, sweet potatoes, salt and pepper must be on the table, and everyone better have used the bathroom before sitting down to eat. If not, one whole side of seated relatives would have to move for whatever one errant person forgot. 

            Later, my aunt served pie with milk. After desert, uncles, father and grandfather would retire to the parlor to resume stories they’d earlier left, but we knew the spaces between their words would grow until sleep shepherded them into silence. Soon they would doze. To us children, they were the great walrus people, and their concert of snores grew so deep we were certain they came from the root cellar where grandmother kept her squash, turnips and preserves.  

                                                            *  *  *

            Kitchen alchemy and singing around the piano are what I remember best. My Cousin Claudia’s ringlets rose and fell with her voice, her eyes earnest as prayer. She was lead singer in the church choir and I envied the rich quality of her voice that reached notes I could never achieve. Cousins would tug on my long hair to get a rise from me as we sang “Silent Night,” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Uncle Claude would belt out an occasional yodel, his voice, a round of canons. 

            The smells of the holidays were the smells of turkey and simmering apple juice that stewed in a cast iron pot, cinnamon sticks floating like rafts on its surface. Christmas was also the smell of liniments grandmother rubbed into her skin to soothe her arthritis. The louder she sang the stronger the liniment scent, sweat dripping from her face, her red hair cocked into damp curls along her neck. 

I’d look at my grandmother as she sang, and there was no doubt that Christmas was grandmother, the two of us sucking juice from the turkey’s neck, her voice rising above all the others.

The Cornrow Fire

(Published in Red Rock Review, 2007)


The Cornrow Fire

The fire took off as though it were a living thing. Hissing, it danced over the dry grasses and up into the resinous pines. As though it were a strange recital, the blaze tangoed onto the boughs where its dance widened in skirts of flame. Snaps and crackles from falling limbs bruised the air; popping sounds slid through the canyon as the fire grew higher; pine trunks burst, smudges of smoke blemishing the sky.

Firefighters arrived at Roy McCartney’s trailer to advise he promptly leave. They explained that the winds suddenly shifted, and that the fire bent back on itself to switch directions. Better pack up that tin can, get what you absolutely need they warned. Did he know if anyone else lived off these back roads?

Roy pointed south toward a house across the dry field, just barely visible through the foliage, although the porch was easily seen with binoculars and Roy practiced checking on the place. A woman who lived alone needed a man’s keen eye, needed someone to hold safety in check. From a distance his neighbor looked like a small twig, and sometimes when Roy honed his binoculars on her house, he completely missed her. Roy supposed himself an old-fashioned sort.

“That’s my landlady, Emmy Adams, over there,” Roy pointed.

When the fire crew drove off, dust billowing behind them, he tried his telephone to warn Emmy before the firemen got to her place, but the line was dead. It was a silence like his son Lad, the one who never learned to talk despite his coaching, despite all the extra help the school offered poor folks. Even his lightly cuffing his son alongside his head to knock a clear channel straight into his hearing did little good. The lad was entirely clogged, or so it appeared.

“I’d better have myself a look,” Roy concluded. The fire was only an idea until he pegged it onto sight, but he could see puffs of smoke on the horizon, their dreamy impression against the sky, and there was a burnt pine odor in the air. He slugged a wad of chew into the thistle burs, fetched a fresh batch from his pocket, and went back inside to find his field-glasses.

Somehow, the encroaching smoke reminded Roy of Lola, how things level off once they get burnt. He’d slugged through his days, got by on Unemployment, and Emmy his landlady spared him a few rough times by letting him work off the rent. He cleaned out her garage, fixed water pipes that froze up, and replaced two broken windows blown in by heavy winds.

He’d been married until his lay-off from Wilder’s Lumber Yard. This put his luck back some. Lola, his former wife, liked to shoot craps, play poker and all that entertainment dearly cost a man. He hardly noticed Lola’s absence. She’d been out late most nights, and when she was home she’d sit on the front stoop, smoke and look through old film star magazines. Sometimes she’d point out to him, “I look as good as that broad.” Her hair was broom colored and about as stiff as dry wheat from all the peroxide she’d sopped over it, the ends split like forked tongues. Roy called the duration of their marriage a baker’s dozen, thirteen years doing hard labor in kitchen’s trouble.

One day Lola simply lifted off the trailer’s stoop to say she was heading out and that he’d not likely see her again. He did nothing to stop her. He actually sighed from relief. Freedom. Freedom, at last, Roy thought. There hadn’t been much between them since the kids left. Penny worked a casino in Reno. Lad was missing—no one except Roy and one other person knew where, and there’d been several rescue teams scouring the woods for traces of him.

He wasn’t telling anyone what he found by the river. No, that was one hell of a window that looked straight out onto trouble. Some things a man holds close to his chest, needs to honor the secrecy which, like the winter woods, were plum out of light.

“Darn, why did Lola leave her underwear behind?” Underneath the phone table a crumpled pair of panties rested by the phone cord. He reached down and plucked the panties, her silk in his fist. He couldn’t figure that one. Did she think he’d stop by Burger Barn in Doyle where she waitressed on one of his long drives into Reno?

No, he’d best burn all her remaining stuff, take it across the river. He’d already hauled off a goodly amount of her clothes, set fire to them near the same spot where he’d found Lad after the kid went astray two years back. 

*     *

Emmy lingered at her kitchen window, her bobbed hair flat against her neck and so straight across it that she joked to him that only a guillotine was capable of such accuracy. She thought it a little hazy outside but counted herself fortunate that she didn’t live down where those flatlanders were in the San Joaquin Valley. No, the air was bad there with all the crop dusting and chemicals. There were massive amounts of pollution to contend with there that breezed in from Fresno and LA and drifted across the orchards to settle deep underneath the soil itself. Emmy wondered what happened to crops raised from tainted soil, if the resulting food made learning more difficult for youngsters.

Here, in the mountains, you could almost drink the air. It was that pure, that good, and it tasted like an untouched mountain stream, although she was somewhat hesitant to think of streams, especially when a certain memory kicked in. But it hadn’t always been that way. She’d spent many picnics with her classes on nature hunts alongside the riverbanks and paused as she heard the sweet sound of water strum over rocks.

Sometimes when Emmy sat on her front porch to watch dusk fall and charcoal-in the trees, she’d suck in a gulp of early evening air and smack her lips, running her tongue over their chapped surface. She counted her blessings, thanked the Lord for her good fortune that made her home a country home.

Her life wasn’t lonely either, although she did live alone. It was by choice, not by circumstance that she never married. Emmy Adams liked to recall her three proposals after finishing college and her teacher’s training, how she’d quietly turned them down, not that she didn’t care about the men. She just didn’t want to be ruled over. No, a man was best kept from a safe emotional distance. Let one too close and he’d come to think he owned her outright.

As a young girl, sensitive and shy, she looked through the window of marriage by observing some of her relatives quarrel with their partners. No, she didn’t want to hold her will ransom, didn’t want to gnarl her mind with contrary opinions. With her teaching years behind her, she lived exactly the way she’d always intended, simple and without frills. She breakfasted when she wanted; she ran errands when she wanted; she walked her Great Dane, Spike, when she wanted.

The growing smoke irritated her eyes, but not enough to set forth and charge into its origins. What was aging if not reverie? Did she hear sirens? Oh well, she wasn’t entirely sure and not motivated enough to look into what seemed but hints of trouble. No, she’d post her eyes to the trees and their long trunks of bark, the way light silently laddered up them.

The poplars, aspen and pines shimmered in their green. Emmy couldn’t count all the fascinations of the seasons. In March the frogs returned, their songs enchanting the night air. Come May, songbirds returned, and wildflowers grew in the meadows. Nature was her book and she carefully turned its pages.

*     *

           But there was a time when nature didn’t seem so calm, a time when fear riveted through her and she nearly tripped over a bed of rocks on the other side of Gray Eagle River.

She’d been out berry picking, her bucket full of plump blackberries, and she’d been humming “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes,” as she headed back to her cozy yellow clapboard home where Spike eagerly awaited release from his pen. Emmy couldn’t pick berries and keep a dog on a leash at the same time. He always tugged at the end of his tether nearly tipping her over, and although she felt bad hearing him whine when she left, she concluded firm footing more important.

“What’s that lying over there? Hey, you taking a nap or what?” she’d called out.

She could see the lengthy torso of someone stretched near the riverbed and she thought rocks a rough spot to catch a nap. Thumping her leg with her hand, the berry pail set on the ground, she snapped her attention wide-eyed awake. Perhaps I stumbled upon this for a reason, she thought.

            “You got a problem not answering me? Are you trying to make an old lady fearful?”

Odd, she noted, not a mumble from the heap. Emmy used branches to hold her footing steady as she roped her way downhill, hands clasping upper branches for support.

The man, she assumed the pile resting there was a man due to the camouflage clothing and sheer size, was on his side facing away from her, his arms jumbled like he’d taken a bad spill, a tear alongside the leg’s cuff. His hands were strangely bent, a few deep gouges around his wrists.

Emmy was fearful to grab his collar to turn him. She heard the river roiling downstream and that gave her strength enough to tug him full round. There was a sour smell to the air, like cider gone rancid. Holding her breath, she rolled him over and let out a gasp.

“Oh, my God. It’s Lad. Hey, Laddy, it’s time to wake up.”

But Emmy knew from the stone-cold face, the bluish hue of skin and the god-awful rolled eyes that it was unlikely Lad would be waking anytime soon. She let go and squatted next to him, lifted his wrist to check for a pulse. Nothing in his veins ran like a river, and his mouth remained ajar like he was ready to poke out a few words.

             I’ve got to rest him back on the rocks, find someone to help me. Roy came to mind. Fetch the boy’s daddy. Yes, she’d head for Roy’s place, but if she ran into that wretch Lola, she’d exchange no pleasantries. There were some people so down under, so done in by life and by what they’d done to themselves that they were not only seedy, but soulless. Emmy never thought of someone as soulless until she’d met Lola who lived on the cusp of life by ignoring things. No regard for the trees into which she snuffed out her cigarettes, no regard for her own children who’d run naked most summers, not for Roy or anyone. Sucking on a fag meant more to that woman than her family.

Emmy parked the berries in a ditch alongside Waverly Road, a dirt road as most were in these Northern California parts, hitched up her corduroy pants, and headed for Roy’s place. She practiced in her head what she’d say to him and how she’d say it. 

Can’t say too much until I ply him away from the trailer. Don’t know if I should extend my sympathies or offer hope that his son might be ok. It could be Lad will rouse himself while I’m off fetching his daddy, but she didn’t really think that possible. No, that was death I saw back there.

She dug her hiking boots into the gravel as she walked, stuffed her hands in her pockets and started to hum, She’ll be driving six white horses when she comes. Tunes never failed to sooth her frayed nerves. It was her way of being a river, something flowing. Rivers, to her, were the earth’s sweetest songs, but after Lad’s demise their melody changed.

Roy was working on his truck’s engine, rags hanging out his jean pockets. He was so far into the engine he was nearly off the ground and tunneled under the hood. Emmy didn’t see Lola’s Camero and sighed relief she wouldn’t have to deal with the woman.

I’ve got to handle this right she thought. Her heart pounded harder as she approached him. “Roy, you got time to talk?” He swung himself down from his truck, eyes squinting in the full blast of sunlight. “Yup,” he said as he fished a rag from his pocket, wiped grease from his face.

     “Well, I think we’ve a problem back there in the woods on the other side of the river.”

     “What kind of stew are we speaking of?”

     “Lad’s not well. I found him by the river all stretched this way and that like broken rubber bands,” she explained, her eyes fastening themselves on the propped hood of the truck.

     “That kid gets himself into more messes. Knowing him he’s napping from taking too much of that pot weed.”

     Emmy thought on that. Lad won’t be getting into any trouble now, but she’d say nothing until Roy took a look. She needed verification of another set of eyes. After all, all those years of grading papers she saw things at a slight eclipse.

     Roy put his things down, and they walked back along the road she’d just tromped over. “We’d better take Sneed’s Bridge across Gray Eagle,” he said. The worn planks of the bridge creaked as they hurried over it. In the distance frogs began singing. Kingfishers dove alongside the river’s little eddies, snagging hatchlings and a few velvety moths.

When Roy came upon Lad, he let out a gasp. He cupped the boy’s head in his hands; softly spoke like a mother would when rousing a baby for feeding. “Son,” he said. “You’re daddy’s here. Now you look up boy and answer your father.” Only silence rang through the woods.

Emmy covered her face with her hands and wept. She’d never seen this tenderness between the two and never believed Roy filled with an abundance of compassion. She’d suspected he might be a feeling man when he shot her dog Pepper after Pepper got mangled in her neighbor’s farm machinery. Roy talked to Pepper, told him he was sorry on account of what he must do. Pepper raised his head as though nodding, “OK, do what you must.”

Roy got down close to his son’s face. “Boy, I’m awfully sorry for what’s happened to you. It was never my intention you’d stumble out here and crack your head open. You should’ve listened to your daddy about taking off on your own. You were never quite right, but I loved you just the same. My only son. My only…”

Roy didn’t finish his sentence, but looked at Emmy and said, “Not a word of this to a soul. You know how those town-folks are about rules and regulations and you can’t bury your kin where you damn well please, only in the village cemetery. Rules. Rules. Rules. Remember how they made me dig up my mama from the garden where I’d put her after she’d died from lung cancer?”

            I’m going back to fetch a shovel. Lad would want to be buried by this river he swam and fished in, and that’s my intention, honor his love of the place. If the boy ever had a mother, it was this here river. You sit with Lad until I return.”

Emmy sat by the boy. Dusk was beginning to fall, and the river seemed to hum louder in the absence of light. Emmy sang lullabies to Lad, the words splashing in the air. Blue jays sat on pine boughs harping for food, but she’d left the only food, the berries, back in the ditch. “Shoo birds,” she hollered at them and picked up twigs and tossed them at the jays.

It didn’t take long for Roy to return and to dig the hole. The man was riveting motion once he got started, and he dug deep too, reaching down with his gloved hand to clear away stones, anything that might make his son’s sleep uncomfortable. His hair hung in damp strings as he worked. Emmy admired his stubborn strength.

She took hold of Lad’s feet while Roy clenched the boy’s under-arms and they guided him into his resting place. Roy took off his bandana and folded it into a pillow for Lad’s head. Out of his pocket he pulled a penny and placed it on Lad’s tongue. “For the ferry-man,” he told Emmy. Quickly, the place returned to its natural state, Roy pulled some twigs, leaves and a few stones and scattered them over his son’s spot in the earth. Afterwards he rinsed his hands in the river, and the two broke for the road before dark locked them out.

           “Don’t say a word to anyone,” he told Emmy as they sauntered back. “They’ll come in here with dogs and a crew to search for my son but say nothing. The coming rains will soon wash out any scent.”

             Emmy promised her word was good and the two parted at the bridge, damp moss emitting a pungent, nutty smell. 

           The tall pines bordering the road guided Emmy home, the place as dark as a gopher’s hole, only a wedge of light left. She tugged her cardigan around her. Yes, Lad was out there by the river, and soon she’d be making for bed, a slice of salted water-melon on the bedside table, her spectacles on the bridge of her nose as she caught up on her mystery novel, a flashlight on the night-stand aimed at the book’s opened pages.

*     *

           By now Roy could see the flames heave and spit at the edge of the forest. It was like a storybook, everything coming to life, animals running for safety as though driven by a giant shepherd. He wondered if the fuel breaks would keep his place safe and if Emmy was ok. His eyes were starting to burn. The flames jumped from treetop to treetop in the form of a crown fire and he heard the growl of tankers overhead. He wished the fire crew had thinned out the forest like they’d promised the community earlier in the year, but he didn’t ponder long.

           It seemed the heat was rising, and he wondered if he should head back for his truck but decided otherwise. 

He wasn’t sure if it was gravel or bark from the trees in his mouth, but his mouth and throat felt clogged, and dang it was hot as a devil’s pot of black beans pitched over a campfire. His clogged throat made him think of Lad, how the boy never spoke a single word.

           Roy reminisced backwards onto Lad and Penny sitting next to the campfire when they camped out at Hog Flat one summer, the reservoir smoother than a griddle cake. He heard Lad laugh at one of Penny’s jokes, both kids roasting marshmallows black as embers. The sky had turned the color of fresh picked apricots and he sank back in his Coleman sling-chair, a Coors’s in the arm-rest pocket, thinking himself a lucky man to have clean country air, no one looking down their backs and enough food to keep them healthy.

           Although Lad never spoke a single distinguishable word, his boy wore a grin that shot straight for the heart, and the kid could laugh as though such laughter were words. Roy wondered if the penny was enough to get Lad from one life to the next. He wondered if the river spoke to his son in his sleep.

Rounding up the Water

(Published in the Red Rock Review, Summer 2001: Honorable Mention for Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction)

The moon pressed into the lake that night—the surface of the water placid as sleep. There were no noisy boats cutting up, only the guttural chorus of frogs, and their ballooning lungs. A lone woman sat in a nylon ribbed lawn chair, her face toward the lake. One gathered she was waiting for someone by the way she shifted her head this way and that, throwing glances over her lovely shoulder. Her longing hung in the moss-quilted trees, draped itself across the lawn. Lights shone on the other side of the lake. Like lanterns, they cast their warm appeal and the night had a golden feel.

I had just stepped onto the front porch of the cottage and was about to take my place in a chair by the lake, but upon approaching where the Silent Woman sat, caution warned me. From the shadows, there was no certainty I had seen her before. New, I surmised, to these parts. Her fingers quilted pleats in her shirt. She had a bun at the back of her head. A schoolmistress perhaps. An air about her made me renege on returning up the cottage steps to put myself back to bed. My parents expected I was fast asleep. Instead, I tiptoed closer, hid behind lilac bushes. I was the Nancy Drew of mystery and my dream was to solve the unexplained. At twelve, this was my consuming desire.

The New England air was sweet—rich in the right mix of hemlock, birch, pine and damp earth. In looking back, I should have bottled that smell, kept it handy so that I could pull it out whenever my life needed sprucing up. For a very long time, I watched her from my grandmother’s summer place. Some of the vacationers that yearly summered at the lake had no beachfront so my grandmother allowed them to use the property adjoining hers. This must explain the Silent Woman’s presence.

She had something I needed to know. My legs became wood. For the first time, as I stood there watching her, I was quite certain I had grown from the ground like the birch, my skin white as bark on its trunk and branches.

The Silent Woman put something down. Was it a journal and pen? Was she the pastor’s wife, the one we heard suffered terrible bouts of delirium? There was nothing terribly unusual about her, just a silence that cloaked her. She removed her shoes, slowly made her way into the lake. Only the slippery sound of water issued forth as she cautiously stepped over the rocks.

Was she going to give herself to the water? Horrid thought I almost said aloud. What perverse jackal sat at my heart wanting to see how far she would go? The Silent Woman took off her shirt, threw it casually onto the beach; bangles on her arms clinked against each other. She next removed her bra and tossed it too. This woman made lovelier by moonlight, bent to cup her piano player hands, splashing water onto her face, under her arms. It was as though she were rounding up the water, holding it to her nose to breathe memory back.

I parted the bushes so I could see her. She seemed to care little whether her rolled-up-jeans were wet. Perhaps a lover was quietly whispering in her ear, his lips brushing aside wisps of hair. I imagined secrets between them. The water she stood in was full with the fierce attenuation of the moon.

What could I, at my age, have known a grown woman to think as she stood knee deep in the water? No, she could not possibly be the pastor’s wife. She was too graceful for that. We heard his wife was crazier than a loon. She threw a frosted cake at the judge’s face and then proceeded to husk down every inch of clothing in public and pranced about on the lawn of the Elks. This woman was not in the least like what I had heard of the poor pastor’s wife. She was softer, and quieter.

The Silent Woman inched several feet further into the water. I held my breath. She stopped right at the spot where the drop-off abruptly bent into its darkened delirium. She must be well versed in the lay of this place, I thought, or she would have most certainly stepped into a sharp descent. I could almost see her arms, oars fighting their way up to the heavens, and the terrible whirl of water that would issue forth as she sank. However, she did not.

Her memory seemed stoked by the moon, and she carried her memory in her entire body. I had seen that before in aunts who barely spoke because memory and grief so filled them—each finger of their hands, a departed family member. I could hear the lives of others living in her. I strongly suspected she had sisters. She looked like a woman wrapped in the arms of siblings. She was familiar with her womanhood—the ease of its grace moved within her. This clued me she was most certainly from a family of daughters; sisters making sisters, participating in the creative art of being.

Oh woman of the water what do you think as you head back to your chair? Do you know that I, dressed in my twelve-year-old-eyes, have been watching you as you watched whatever you saw out on that lake? The woman lifted the towel and patted her underarms, tilted her head to dry her face. She then reached behind her head, undid the bun; a windfall of hair fell over her shoulders.

I imagined her sisters like mine, tall and willowy. That’s it I thought. She has lost her sisters to the water. Several years back there was a terrible boating accident. The man at the helm of the motor boat was drunk and he made a sharp turn, catapulting the occupants, himself included, all of whom drowned. No way would I swim in the lake after that. I imagined their hair tying up my feet, their hands like wet powder puffs brushing against my legs. For nights, after hearing my relatives speak of this, I got no sleep. From the depths of the water, I saw their watery lives; the way dance would be a constant state of being as they moved with the current. So far as I knew not one body ever surfaced from the lake’s depths. I imagined that if one had it would look much as a cookie soaked in tea.

The loons on the other side of the lake rendered the night more memorable, their plaintive calls thick as mystery. Loons had always been my favorite. ”You’re a reclusive child,” my aunts would say, ”Just like the loons across the lake.“

What is this? The Silent Woman is putting a note in a bottle, capping it with a cork. Again, she’s wading out past the dock. Swinging her arm she tosses the bottle, but not too far. I hear it splash down. Returning to the shore she folds her chair, her towel hung around her neck. The Silent Woman leaves. She simply vanishes into the night and is no more.

Curious. I am curious. With my flashlight in hand, I edge into the water. The stones seem to move under my flashlight and they look more vivid than in daylight. The frame of the dark world enhances them to the point they seem alive. Fish the size of my little finger fan out from my trespassing. I do not venture far into the water. There is a point beyond which nothing prompts me further. Remember, I am afraid of the drowned, that they might reach up and touch me with their death. I catch sight of the bottle. Waves let me pass. Holding back my hair with the ring of my forefinger and thumb, I reach down; retrieve the bottle the Silent Woman tossed.

Back on the beach, I wiggle myself into the accommodating sand. I hurry to remove the cork, take hold of one corner of the note, and slip it free from the bottle. I am spying on someone else’s life. I know this. The water placid as sleep, and the moon, like a saucer, simply floated. With my hand, I smoothed out the note—my flashlight studious. What is this? What does it say? For a moment, I held my breath, as those lost to the water must have done.


To the One Who Watched me From the Shadows:

I saw you spying on me from the bushes. The hot coals of your eyes warned me of your presence. I was, like you, once a child in the land of the moon coming down the mountains. I also watched a woman as you have watched me. My sisters and I picked Indian PaintBrushes and the illusive Ladyslippers, illegal to pick, but irresistible nonetheless. This was our favorite childhood place. The world was a circle then, and we were the center of that circle. Now my eyes fill with the labor of loss, forever searching for what has gone. My sisters will not return. Enjoy what you have. Time is a slow memory moving out—it is the boat disappearing in the fog.

In the way of care,


It has been years since I spied on the Silent Woman. I kept her note and the bottle. She is probably dead, or, at the least, very old. I often go back to the lake of my childhood. My sisters are still alive. On moonlit nights, nights of the moon coming down the mountain, I make a wreath of my arms and wrap myself in them. I often wonder if the Silent Woman’s sisters are still in the lake, if they blow bubbles with their soft mouths.


by Dianna Henning      (First published in The Iowa Source)

It’s precisely the way Miguel Flores irons his shirt, the thin run of each crease down the front’s two sections, the exactness of the press from shoulder to cuff on the blue chambray that’s intriguing. He wears his shirt over the whitest of white T-shirts, tails of the chambray untucked the same way other wards at Juvenile Hall wear theirs: his blue-jeans baggy like the other Mexicans, and lightly bleached from the Clorox he and his buddies smuggled from laundry. Miguel looks so scrubbed, so fine, he has become art.

     He tells me how his grandparents moved back to Mexico. “Too much trouble in this country,” he says. “They prefer the old ways.” His grandmother Nina ran her hand through his hair while she read him folk tales in Spanish. She called him “my dark one,” because he occasionally broods over the simplest things. Nina must have known what I now see—the slightest rebuke causes Miguel’s face to cloud until he looks as though he’s pondering a dilemma so deep, so wide there’s no way to bridge a route back to him. This gives him a depth beyond his years, a depth he’s totally unaware of.

     “Can you unlock the art room?” Miguel asks me. That’s where we keep the iron used for papermaking although he sometimes uses it for his shirt. Each morning and evening I check the shadow-boards where the paintbrushes, scissors and T-square are hung. After inventorying them I initial a security sheet that will later be cross-checked by an officer.  My Art Therapy cupboard has several kinds of paper, watercolors, art books and acrylics. For the wards of the state this art room is a sanctuary, a place to get away from all the gang brouhaha on the fenced-in exercise yard. The Border Brothers have been at it again—a kid shanked while eating in the chow-hall just as he was about to shovel spaghetti into his mouth.

     Miguel spits on his finger, tests the flat of the iron to assure himself it has cooled. His hair is so dark it is ink. He waters it down throughout the day and slicks it with both hands moving from his forehead back, the small residue of water picking up sequins of light. His blue chambray hangs on a peg to save it from wrinkling and paint spatters. Throughout his hours in my art therapy program, I watch him the way a parent would. He returns the iron to its cubby-hole, his large shoulders crescent shaped as he hangs his chit back on its clip. Chits indicate a ward’s state number and if something comes up missing it can be traced, traced the same way memory is tracked, one thing becoming a clue to another.

     His mother adores him. He tells me that and more. He’s her favorite, always has been according to his sisters. “Miguel, I’m counting on you my little man,” his mother Maria would say as she folded him into her arms. His sisters, in their pretty taffeta dresses, behind their mother would make faces at him, their hair cupped softly around their silky necks. They silently mouthed their mother’s words while they fanned out her skirt as a shield to hide behind.

     It’s the little stories people tell on themselves that endear us to them—we continually breathe in the oxygen of other people’s lives until they become part of us, our skin threaded with their stories. By the end of our lives, we must inhabit many bodies. This makes me particularly glad because I’m assured of my dear one’s presence in my last hours.

     In his yard at home Miguel had a lemon tree planted by his grandparents to celebrate his birth. When he grew older, he picked lemons in the spring, each one plunking down into the sweet-grass basket sent to his family by an aunt. He remembers the cookies his aunt packed in their Christmas basket: molasses cookies made with lard, and persimmon cookies glazed with a light snowfall of sugar. When he gathered enough lemons, he’d leave them in the basket on the front porch.

     “Lemon cookies,” he called the fresh picked fruit as he ran back into the house to fetch a spray bottle and a washcloth fresh from his mother’s laundry basket. He’d put both into his back pocket. As Miguel traveled door to door selling his lemons, each one was first showered before he handed it over to his customer. “Lemons for a quarter, five for a dollar,” he’d say. His pockets bulged with change at day’s end.

     Even then he must have had big shoulders. He carries his shoulders as though something important was about to be asked of him. After his return from his business ventures, his mother would cup his cheeks in her hands, kiss him lightly on the forehead. He swears those kisses burned through his forehead, that they gave him another eye. I believe this, for I sense something in him that sees beyond the ordinary.

     Miguel tells me his shoulders were so wide that the doctor used forceps at his birth. The forceps looked like stainless-steel tongs his mother said. The terrible wrenching to extract him from the boat of her body rocked her back and forth until she thought she would drown from motion sickness on the delivery table. The lights of the hospital room dimmed, and she didn’t know if she was slipping away, or if the world itself was vanishing. He tells me this story several times because he likes the thought of his life being so clearly earned. It’s a sign he’ll one day do something significant. This is the belief from the lore of his family which goes back many generations.

     His grandfather Pedro, as was predicted, wrote a history book on Mexico when he worked at the University in the States. This brought many blessings upon the family and enabled his grandmother and grandfather to return to Mexico. They never really fit in in this country, he adds, and wanted the quiet and familiarity of the old country.

     Last year he slipped up bad, hit a 7-Eleven one midnight in November. Miguel said he did it because his dad skipped town and they didn’t have a clue where he went. His mom had just been diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t be seen at the out-patient clinic until she had a co-payment in hand. They had insurance, although minimal, what he called ghost insurance because it was almost non-existent. During her convalescence he saw first-hand how circumstances could snatch up a person’s home and everything gets auctioned off so fast one’s life seems a mirage.

     On his midnight rendezvous with the store the cops nabbed him. I swear it was his shiny hair, the way it picks up light that tipped them off. He’d parked his mother’s VW Bug at the back of the 7-Eleven. It was late and Miguel thought it would be easy. He’d simply ask the attendant to tilt the cash register and empty it into his bag. This particular 7-Eleven was jinxed from the start. The cops heard about a hit via an informant, so they planted two plain clothes cops in the parking lot.

     Miguel used one of his mother’s nylon stockings to distort his face. “When I pulled it over my head, I looked like Frankenstein,” he tells me.” Even you would have been afraid.” He held the bag open, ordered the man at the register to empty the till or he’d blast him away, although he had no gun, never owned one. The man sweat, his bald head glistened, the ring of outer hair dotted with sweat beads.

     ”His head was a large bird’s nest minus the birds,” Miguel comments. Just as the man at the register started to dish out the cash, the cops came up behind Miguel. One of them stuck his finger in Miguel’s back and the other one cuffed him. That’s how he arrived at the detention hall and finally Juvenile Hall. That’s how I got him in my Art Therapy class. You can’t make trouble while you paint. In classification the staff concluded he was “salvageable” which means some effort and money will be spent to rehabilitate him.


     Yesterday, Miguel came ambling into my office, speech already written on his face, his eyes rapidly surveying a spot to sit. He cleared a stack of art books off the extra swivel chair and sat down. He knows how to navigate his world, claims it as though it’s every person’s right to make comfort in the midst of chaos.

     “Do you think people can change?” he asks.

     No answers come and moments swim in the air between us. I like to look at him, as I said earlier, to see who he is on the inside.

     In such moments I recall an earlier story he told me.

     Why, momma, does the bird fly and not us?” he’d asked his mother.

     ” Well, my darling, “she answered,” We are not gods and the birds are. “He looked up at her amazed and began to flap his child arms as though they were wings as he darted between the Joshua trees in their back yard. Now his wings have been clipped he tells me.     Miguel is still seated on the swivel chair in my office. His eyes are so clear they are luminous. In their brown globes I see infinity. Before I answer his question, he’s gone on to the next.

     ” You know the passage in the story you asked me to read on free time? What I liked best in this story by Tim O’Brien is this: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it hoping that others might then dream along with you and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”     For a moment he holds onto his words as though savoring them, then eagerly, as though about to burst, he adds:” I know about spirits. I’ve seen friends shot up really bad in drive-byes. At night their spirits come to my bedside and tell me how to kick butt in heaven. “

     This is the last thing I want for Miguel, and I shudder at the thought of his friends being hunted down, their young lives spattered like some abstract painting. Oddly enough the excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s book that Miguel quoted is also my favorite. Since I believe him already near angel, he has no problem in sniffing out the purest parts of language.

     “Do you like to travel?” he asks.

     “Yes, although I’ve not done nearly enough of it. But now I can afford to go places.”

     “I went to college for a year,” he says. “Pulled good grades. Now I’ve royally f——ed that up. I liked learning. Can you believe that?”

     I can. I listen and do not deny his messing up, although I know human nature is capable of great change, given the opportunity, that life specializes in reinventing itself. I suggest that he return to school after he paroles. The only problem is he has no place to parole to with his mother in hospice and they haven’t a clue where his father is. Both his sisters have been farmed out to relatives who have no room for Miguel.

     “We have a spare bedroom,” I say to Ivan my husband, but he won’t have anything to do with an ex-felon paroling to our house, and besides that’s not what I really want. It’s from the distance grandparents have that a wider range of influence can cause a positive outcome. Ivan knows this and responds to my wistful thinking: “Now that Edward’s grown up you want another kid around?” There’s irony in his tone as well as disbelief.

     “You’re a die-hard romantic,” he tells me. “You think these guys will be good, will curb their old ways. Well, I’ve seen enough and know differently.”

     Since Ivan is a self-made man, he thinks he has the mark of truth blazed into his chest. “There’s so little we can do for the suffering masses,” he pontificates, then clouds himself behind The Times.

     I talk about Miguel all the time. Who can blame Ivan? Behind his certainty there’s an element of truth. It’s up to the individual to make of his life what he will. Much will fall upon Miguel’s shoulders when he gets out. His shoulders are wide because of what will be asked of him.

     “Colleges want bright young men like you,” I tell him. “You won’t have any trouble getting a scholarship.” Ivan clips some newspaper information on minorities applying to schools and says to pass it on to Miguel. Silently, and together, Ivan and I are working towards Miguel’s future, although Ivan would never admit any part in it.


     My grandmother Nellie would have taken Miguel in. She would have said society’s shot to hell. She would have fed him tea and doughnuts and told him about the magical people who lived in the woods and who are so tiny a mushroom could house their entire village.

Nellie might have gone on to tell Miguel about Ottis who lived at the edge of Summerville, and how he became blind. It was as though drapes had been drawn across Ottis, she said. Yet, despite this handicap he took his daily jaunt into the village, his cane pecking sparks of light from the sidewalk. Ottis paused at all the spring flowers in the neighboring yards and cupped them in his hands. He could name plants by feel or smell. From this alone he knew what ailed various species and he’d engage gardeners in remedies for blight and other garden problems.

     “To be blind and know where you’re going, that’s courage,” Nellie would say. She would have told Miguel stories to empower him. He would have listened because of the earnestness with which she spoke. Despite his youth he is wise in ways that could sadden one. He’s seen more than he should have for his years. It is written in his eyes. Eyes so large you can almost walk in them. Sometimes when I look at him, I see a wise sage, and other times a reckless adventurer lurking beneath his expression. How could it be otherwise?

     Miguel picks up the pencil he’s been tapping and the light glints off his hair. His hair is as dark as the blackberries I picked with Nellie as a child. He smells of lemons, of little suns. He has so many stories inside him that he’s already become a book. The first chapter might have had some disturbing moments, but I see future chapters of his life unfolding in accordance with who he is—a young man whose pain is brought into wisdom.

     This is how I’ll remember him: he’s walking up the hill to my house, a son’s hand clasped in his. He wears casual clothes and holds a forthright look in his face, a look that is steady. He will introduce me to his son. I will get down on my knees, look his boy in the eyes and see his father. Miguel will tell me school wasn’t that bad, that he graduated with honors and is now in Graduate School.

     I will know this before he tells me. I will have seen it in a dream. We will have tea and cookies. He will smell of lemon.