Summer House: Ch. 19

ferry3

Sonya had wanted to take Elise to the mainland to shop for school clothes, but she got called in for a workshop the school board was hosting, for the teachers at all the island schools, on trauma-informed care.

“What do these sheltered kids know about trauma?” Elise asked.

But I knew that wherever there are people, there is trauma.

“Farming accidents, storms, fishing accidents,” I said, “not to mention domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual harassment, and bullying. Trauma’s everywhere.”

“I’ll just wear these clothes,” Elise said. “I only need t-shirts and jeans.”

But her shoes had holes, so she agreed to let me take her instead.

We left our car at the island terminal and walked on board, to the accompaniment of wolf whistles from workers on the dock.

“Those are for you,” Elise said.

I laughed. “I hardly think so.” It had been decades since anyone whistled at me, not since I’d perfected the self-assured stride that says, “Not available, not interested,” and certainly not since my hair turned white.

“They’d better not be whistling at me,” Elise said.

“Does it bother you?”

“Hell, yes!”

There had been a time, when I was around Elise’s age, and I was first feeling what it was like to inhabit a young woman’s body, with hips, a thin waist, breasts, when my best friend and I collected wolf whistles. We held a friendly contest. I never garnered more than thirteen a day, while she often racked up fifteen. We called a halt to the contest suddenly, after a saunter through a park filled with Hell’s Angels drew more than whistles. We stopped sauntering, kept our gaze on the path, and walked as quickly as we could without running back to our bicycles. As we raced off, our hearts beating, I realized I didn’t want that kind of attention, not from a biker, not from anybody.

Elise and I ordered coffee on board and sat looking out over the straights.

“What are the boys like at school?” she asked. “Are there many?”

“There are four,” I said. “They’re good kids. One’s the son of a fisherman. Another’s the son of the librarian. And you met Devon and Shire selling their mom’s honey and organic herbs at the farmers’ market.”

“Do they have girlfriends?”

The fisherman’s son did. I’d heard that dating for island teens was a slow affair–there simply weren’t enough kids living year-round on the island. Some of them met teens from other islands. Some held online romances. Some hooked up with summerers for short romances. But mostly, from what I’d heard, the kids waited to date until leaving the island for college or work.

“I think I like that,” Elise said. “Less pressure, right? Is it a clicquish school?”

It couldn’t be, with only seven, now eight, students in the entire high school. Besides, the school had been practicing its particular blend of Steiner/Reggio Emilia since before these kids entered kindergarten.

“It’s pretty egalitarian,” I said. “I think you’ll like it. When you’ve only got enough kids for one group, everyone pretty much gets along.”

“That would be different,” Elise said. “My old school was awful. There was this hall you walked down, in the math wing–it was called ‘butt-grab’ hall, because that’s what happened there. When you walked down it, the guys grabbed your butt.”

“That’s awful!”

Elise nodded. “So we had a buddy system. We’d walk in a group, and the ones in front held their binders in front of their chests, and the ones in the back held them behind their… behinds. And we walked like that. Safety in numbers.”

“You shouldn’t have to do that. You should be able to be safe in school.”

“One would think. The system worked, though. Then, in April, my friends stopped being my friends, so I had to walk alone. I was always late for math, then.”

“Couldn’t you report that?”

“Yes. And the report asks for names, and when I put down the names, that’s when my friends stopped being my friends, but the behavior didn’t stop.”

I flashed on my student Sasha and her complaint against Denny, my friend and former colleague. I felt thoroughly relieved, grateful, even, that her claims had been acted on.

“I hope we can find some decent clothes,” Elise said as we approached the shoreline. “I hate girls’ clothes. They make me look like this.” She scrunched up her lips, cinched in the waist of her t-shirt, and stuck out her chest. “Like I’m a target.”

“We don’t have to buy off the girls’ rack,” I said.

We walked from the ferry terminal into town. The road was shaded, with mushrooms growing alongside it. We fell silent, after our long conversation on the crossing. My attention went to the birds singing in the forest, vireos, nuthatches, and chickadees. Elise seemed lost in her own thoughts.

We stopped at Starbucks and then hit up the discount retail stores. On the boys’ rack, we found skinny black jeans, relaxed-fit stonewashed jeans, and a pair of baggy brown cords. In a record store, Elise found GOT7 and BTS t-shirts.  We bought black sneakers and brown canvas ankle boots. By the time we needed to catch the evening ferry, we’d filled four big shopping bags of clothes.

“I’m exhausted,” Elise said, as we boarded the bus to take us back to the ferry terminal.

We didn’t talk much on the ride back. I bought us veggie wraps for supper and we ate facing the front windows. The water danced with sun gems.

“I’m gonna look so cool,” Elise said.

She was right. In her new clothes, she looked confident and hip.

“This was fun, Elise,” I said. “I’m glad I got to take you shopping. Thanks.”

She nodded. “Yup,” she said. “I think it’s gonna be my best year yet.”

As the sun set, the ferry moved into the golden path. In June, when I rode the ferry out to the summer house, I knew that this time of year, at summer’s end, I’d be riding the ferry again. Only then, I thought I’d riding it the other way, away from the sunset path, back to my busy life of conflict and demand.

But here I was, riding it home, and not alone, but with a new friend who shared that home. So many changes, such a short time.

Change isn’t always bad. And sometimes, good things happen after bad. The college would get along without me. Bernard’s dad would get along without his family. And in our new lives, in our new home, we’d all get on just fine.

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Summer House: Ch. 18

school

“I suppose I could work as a hostess at the restaurant,” Sonya said.

“They cut staff once summer’s over,” I replied.

“How about I get a job with the ferries? Serving food? I used to work in a cafeteria back in college.”

Ferry employees, including food services, all live on the mainland, I explained, since the ferries run out of Anacortes. They cut back during the winter, too.

“Babysitting?” she asked. “I could take the day shifts when Elise is at school.”

“It’s only the summerers who hire babysitters,” I observed. “The islanders don’t have need or resources. If kids are too little to stay home alone, there’s someone there to be with them or they’ve brought along. And by the time they’re six or seven, they’re allowed to be unsupervised, since it’s safe and there’s not a lot of trouble they can get into.”

“There’s always trouble for kids to find.”

But island kids were of a different sort, more self-reliant, less plugged-in.

“I guess we’ll just keep making jam!” She said, exasperated. “I know, I know! ‘The island farmers’ market only runs in the summer!’ You already said! But I’ll just make a bunch and head into Anacortes every Thursday, if only there were enough berries on the island left to pick.” We’d nearly harvested all the berry patches, leaving just a few up at the north end.

A few days after this conversation, when I went to the grocery store in the village to pick up some ginger for our stir-fry, I ran into the school’s K-8 teacher. She looked about four months pregnant, just beginning to show.

“I’m going to need a good long-term sub when winter break’s over,” she said, laying a hand on her belly. “You wouldn’t be available, would you?”

“Maternity leave?” I asked.  She nodded. Of course, I wasn’t available. I was retiring from full-time teaching, not picking it up again with a younger set of students. But Sonya…

I mentioned the conversation to her when I returned home. Her eyes lit up.

“Back in the classroom? I would’ve looked for a teaching position if we’d gone back to the mainland, and if it weren’t so close to start of school. I never dreamed there could be anything on the island!”

“Usually, a lot of teachers are interested in any positions that open–and they hardly every open. Most teachers here keep the job for life. But subs–and good ones–are harder to find. And certificated ones are nearly impossible!”

She called the teacher. Then she spent the afternoon filling out forms online and emailing references. A few days later, we received word from the principal, who oversaw the schools on all the three islands in the Straights, that she was approved. When the regular teacher went on maternity leave, Sonya would have the long-term substitute position, through the rest of this school year, at least, and possible into the beginning of the next.

“This will work out!” Sonya said. “We can make the jam fund stretch out until then. It’ll be tight. No extras. But we can do it!”

Of course, I kept to myself that I’d be covering utilities, and, if we kept up our current dining arrangements, the grocery bills, too.

A few weeks later, just a week before school started, we received a frantic call from the principal. The teacher woke up bleeding and was air-vacced to the hospital in Bellingham. They were able to stop the bleeding, everything seemed OK, but it was now deemed a high-risk pregnancy, requiring bed-rest. The teacher wouldn’t be starting the school year. Not only that, but she and her husband decided to move to Bellingham, since her specialists were there.

The school needed a full-time teacher to start the year. Was Sonya available?

It would be the class Bernard was in, but she’d already talked with him about it, when she was preparing to sub, and he seemed excited, if a little bashful, to have his mom for a teacher.

After interviews with the county school board in Anacortes, meetings with the island school site council, and answering scores of questions about educational philosophy (“What’s the best response for dealing with classroom disruption?”; “How do you handle bullies?” ;”Do you use worksheets, at all?”), Sonya had the job. She signed the contract.

“I have a job,” she said, over and over again. “I’ve got a salary! I start the day after Labor Day. That’s Tuesday!”

I smiled to think how happy I’d been, just a few short months before, to make the decision not to sign my own teaching contract. And now, in my kitchen, stood a woman grinning ear-to-ear at having signed her own. It felt right to have a teacher in the house.

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Summer House: Ch. 17

stayhere

“When is Dad coming?” I heard Bernard ask his sister.

“I don’t know,” she replied. It was the first time she told him she didn’t know, rather than saying he wasn’t coming.

“Why don’t you know? You know everything! He isn’t coming, is he?”

Bernard raced through the kitchen and out the back door.

“I don’t know what to tell him,” Elise said.

“You told him the truth,” I replied. “That you don’t know.”

“Yeah, but it leaves out a big half of the real truth, which is that we’re not a whole family anymore.”

“There are all sorts of ways to make a family, Elise.”

She looked at me with a flash of hope before her eyes clouded over and she shuffled up the stairs.

That evening, after Bernard was tucked in, and Elise, who’d discovered my Jane Austen collection, was nestled in her room with Mansfield Park, Sonya and I sat in my kitchen to share a pot of mint tisane. We brewed it from our own garden mix of spearmint, peppermint, Bergamot mint, and apple mint.

“We can sell this,” Sonya said.

“It’s good mix. Maybe a bit sharp. I think we should add some basil–round it out.”

“Or chamomile.”

We looked out the window at the narrow garden between the two houses. A porch light hid our reflections, illuminating the canna lilies and hanging fuschias.

“I need to figure out what we’re going to do after Labor Day,” Sonya said. “It’ll be here so soon.”

“Stay here,” I said. She looked at me, as if I’d said it too suddenly. She didn’t know that I’d devoted hours to thinking this through. What I wanted, what I really wanted, was to let them stay rent-free. I didn’t need the other half of the duplex empty all winter. I really didn’t want to rent it out to anyone else. I didn’t need the income–not really. Not with my only housing expenses being property tax and insurance. I had so much, more than I needed, and I wanted to share.

“Are you kidding?” she replied. “There’s no way  I can afford this! We’re only able to be here this summer because he paid the summer rent. There’s no way I can continue with this on my own. No, we’ll move back to the mainland, to some one-room apartment, while I figure out what I’m going to do.”

I wasn’t new to being in a position to share what I had, and I’d learned through experience that even with the best intentions, generosity won’t always be received.

I’d ruined friendships before through giving. I had a student once. He took all the classes from me he could, then during the last few years while he focused on his major, when he was no longer my student, we became friends. He dropped by several times a week during office hours. We took long walks through campus together. We talked about Thoreau and Margaret Fuller and finding ways to live a true life in a false world. During the end of his junior year, he feared he’d have to drop out. He’d run out of funds. I had extra. I found a way to pay his tuition, anonymously. He discovered it was me. My gift allowed him to finish his degree. But it ruined our friendship. We always played that we were equals–peers. And, of course, as humans, we were. So when we were together, we were together as two humans. But of course, I was older. I had completed my degrees. I was a professor. And, he now felt he was in my debt. The power differential between us got jammed up. He stopped coming by as often, and when he did, he felt obliged to ask my advice, as if he were asking permission, and I felt reluctant to give it, as if it would be construed as a directive.

I didn’t trust the power differential between Sonya and me to withstand the gift of free rent. I needed things to feel equal between us. There needed to be an exchange, something flowing two ways.

I researched winter rental rates. I thought carefully about what she might be able to afford, so I was prepared when I suggested that she and her family stay here, and ready when she protested that she couldn’t afford it.

“You’re thinking of summer rates,” I said. “Winter rates are lower, especially if it’s a year-round lease. Saves me the trouble of having to find new tenants.”

“What are you talking?”

“Five-fifty a month.”

“Seriously?”

It was high enough not to feel like charity, but low enough to be affordable, with careful budgeting and good late-summer farmers’ market sales.

“It’s a lifestyle change,” she said. She looked inside her mug of tea and sighed. “You know I love it here. I’ll have to talk with the kids. What’s the school like?”

The island had a two-room school for twenty-five students, eighteen kindergarten through eighth graders in one room, and seven high school students in the other. Two teachers, one for each mixed-grade class, provided the main instruction, and specialists in various fields offered extra instruction. I’d been asked to provide writing and literature courses for the high-schoolers, and Shingo had agreed to teach art workshops for all the kids.

It was a progressive school, with an integrated, project-based curriculum tied closely to the island community, reflecting the peculiar blend of hippie/new-age/artist/drop-out and rural subsistence lifestyles that formed the peculiar culture here.

When I compared it to an amalgam of Rudolph Stiener, Reggio-Emilia, and John Holt, Sonya caught my meaning immediately.

“Now that sounds like my kind of school!” she said. “I’ve been searching for a school like that for Bernard back home, and the closest I could find was a Montessori magnet school run by the district.”

“Do you have an education background?” I asked.

“I do!” she replied. “I used to be a teacher before Bernard was born.”

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Summer House: Ch. 16

this

“This!” Sonya shouted, fist to sky. “This!” She yelled out over the cove, over the waves. The willets rose in a flock, circled, and as the echoes died down and the shorebirds settled, Sonya lowered her arms and sighed. I watched the tension flow out of her shoulders.

“He can’t take this from me,” she said, gesturing over the bay.  “He can’t take this.” She opened her arms to the edge of the forest along the bluff. “He can cut off our money. He can sell our house. He can rip apart my life. He can break our boy’s heart. But he can’t take this. He can’t stop me from loving this earth.”

I felt the dirt beneath my feet. We breathed in the smell of kelp and salt and the distant dust of the agricultural fields on the mainland.

“This earth,” she said. “I may be homeless. I may not know where me and my kids will be staying, six weeks from now, but I know this earth is my container. No one can keep me from loving this earth.”

We sat on the edge of the bluff, listening the waves roll over the pebbles, and the willets call back and forth to each other.

“I haven’t asked questions,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. It just means I respect you and your need to work things out. I am here to listen to whatever you want to share.”

“I appreciate that,” Sonya said. “I can feel your caring. So, I knew why you were quiet.”

We were alone on the bluff. Elise was babysitting the Delgado kids at the other end of the bay. Shingo was teaching Bernard how to paint ducks, back at the house, and the three anachronisms stayed back with them.

Sonya and I had headed out to pick thimbleberries and huckleberries. The thimbleberries were for us, not for selling. They’re too dry to make a decent pie, and too scarce to cook up for jam or jelly, but a handful tossed over granola made one of the best breakfasts we could think of.

We had taken the long way back, through the north woods, for I had wanted to see if the pileated woodpecker still nested in the old Doug fir. When we emerged through the woods, and the sun caught our eyes, and the light danced off the bay, that’s when Sonya set down her basket of berries and cried out to the sky.

“It was nothing dramatic,” she said. “It was the opposite of fire and ice. You ever watch a houseplant wither? It was like that. No matter how much you water. How tender your care. It drops leaf by leaf. You don’t throw it out. You keep it, holding out hope. You think that it’s OK if it sheds its leaves. It will grow new ones, right? You keep vigil over the crooks in the branches, those intersects where the new leaves form, and sometimes, you even imagine that you see glimmers of new green.”

We lay on our backs under the late summer sun. I closed my eyes and the warmth descended. It’s impossible to feel a broken heart when the summer shines like this, so I let Sonya talk.

“I kept hoping, like Bernard, that he’d join us,” Sonya said. “But Elise knew better. He’s not her father, you know. She was two when I met him. Her dad passed. It was…” she waved her hand against a stray cloud. “Anyway, he’s not her dad. I kept holding out hope. You know, a break would do us good, right?”

I turned on my side to watch Sonya’s face. She tried to smile, but as she continued to speak, the light faded from her eyes. “It was when he closed the Verizon account that I knew he was done. For good. And we were on our own. We are on our own. And do you know why?”

Of course I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine what might make a man who’d had a child with this beautiful strong woman leave her, especially when that child was a bright and funny boy like Bernard.

“It must have happened years ago,” she said, “when those leaves started withering. Yes, I think it was after Bernard was born. You know, he told me a few nights before the kids and I left to come here that he couldn’t live without love. ‘You don’t have to,’ I said. ‘I love you. We love you.’ ‘Not like that,’ he said.”

I heard the pileated woodpecker drumming against the Douglas fir deep in the woods. “Listen!”

We listened for a moment, and Sonya smiled at me. “Your bird is still here!” she said.

We heard its laugh-like call.

Sonya turned on her side to face me. “So, you know what he said? He said he felt like he was dying inside. He couldn’t live without that spark. He wanted to be in love again, and he couldn’t live without it. For me, being a family was always enough. Even once it started fading, I could look at him and say to myself, ‘This is my family,’ and I would feel a rush of warmth that filled me with strength and patience to carry on. For me, that’s enough in life. That’s all I need. But for him, he told me he felt that he was dying. He needed that rush, like what we had in the beginning, and he couldn’t see a way to get that with me.”

I saw the pain in Sonya’s face, and my mind went intellectual all of a sudden. Analytical. I started thinking of the powerful chemicals of romance and infatuation. They’re addictive. I thought of the sociobiological reasons for a man to feel like that, to get hooked on that neurochemical, hormonal high. Sonya’s eyes were large and moist. I didn’t think she’d find comfort in my analysis.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I am, too,” she replied. “I always thought that family was enough to keep us together.”

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Summer House: Open Doors

opendoor2

Open Doors

Kitchen doors open
to let loose the scents
of stew, roast squash,
steaming peas,
brownies,
coffee,
tea.

Kitchen doors open
to send free the sounds
of humming the song
that grandma sang,
the C major scale
played by stumbling
fingers of a child,
the shouts that
supper is ready,
that the cake
is done,
that it’s
time to
eat.

Kitchen doors open
and in you come,
with your hurried
laughter, your
impatient joke
your muddy
footprints
across the
floor.

Kitchen doors open
but you fall silent
with a sigh.
Somethings
must wait
for a different
door to find release.

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Summer House: Ch. 9

opendoor1

The doors between our two homes stay open. On the island, no one locks doors, anyway.

A custom of knocking never even began for us, not since Bernard raced over for pancakes and “white honey coffee” his first morning here.

I’ve discovered it’s just as convenient to make a meal for four as it is for one, and I appreciate not having so many left-overs.

Bernard has taken it upon himself to keep the anachronisms’ supper bowls filled, and Elise has decided that walking Dixie each morning and taking Crystal with her on her evening jog fits into her exercise regime.

“I am going to get so fit this summer,” she said. “When I get back to school, everyone will think we got a new athlete, or something. Track star! That’s me!”

I love becoming immersed in the rhythms of a family. It reminds me of the best parts of the childhood summers here. Voices call from room to room. The sounds of chairs scraping against the floor when someone sits at a table, the gurgles of water running through the pipes, the hiss of the kettle on the stove, the dissonant explorations of small fingers across the piano’s keyboard, the distant strain from a radio–this bustle of family life brings a feeling of belonging, even if this isn’t my family.

My favorite times are when Sonya joins me at the porch while the children splash in the pool, or when she stops by late at night, after they’re tucked into bed.  When I was a little girl, my room was above the kitchen, and on hot nights, we kept all the windows open. I often woke late at night when the moon shone in, and I heard, below me, at the kitchen table, the voices of my mother and aunts, sharing all the secrets that women share. These evenings with Sonya remind me of that.

Only Sonya has not yet begun to share secrets. I can hear them, waiting for expression, behind every full stop and pause. I can see them in the dark semi-circle that rings the brown iris of her eyes, as she glances down or away.

Secrets can wait. There is a time for secrets to be kept, and a time for them to be divulged. We’ve only known each other a week now. We’re just getting the feel for what we each value, for what we share in confidence and at large.

Friendships grow at their own paces, depending, perhaps, on how much is at stake. With Shingo, neither of us had anything to lose, anything to protect, and so our trust of each other happened instantly. It’s a rare friendship, and an easy one, too–easy to gain, easy to keep.

This friendship that’s developing with Sonya, what feels like a sistership to me who’s never had a sister, comes with a great deal to risk for Sonya. What’s keeping her husband away: what’s in store for her and her children–how to keep them safe, healthy, and feeling loved–all of that is at risk. I view the family with tenderness, seeing how fragile they are, how vulnerable during this summer of change and uncertainty.

And so Sonya shields the harsh truths, and I proceed tentatively. But this quiet, gentle time brings a poignant sense of the ripening of love.

“I never knew my grandfather,” Sonya said, after I’d made a casual reference to mine. She poured the tea from the steeping pot into the serving pot. “Mmmm. Darjeeling! Smell. It’s fruity.”

“Spicy,” I said. “You didn’t know either grandfather?”

“Oh!” Sonya laughed. “I forgot there were two! No, I never knew my father’s father, either, not surprising.”

She added the last words under her breath and looked away, the way she does when closing the door to secrets.

“My grandfather was everything to me,” I said. “My mother’s step-father, actually. I never knew her birth-father. But the man I knew as my grandfather, he felt like kin to me more than any of my other family. He got me.”

“Soul family?” Sonya asked.

“Yeah, like that. Like our souls knew each other from lifetimes and lifetimes of connection.”

“Now that’s family,” Sonya said.

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Summer House: Ch. 8

1july3

Late in the evening on July 3, the family that had rented the other half of the duplex showed up on the front porch. At least, most of the family did: Sonya Minor and her teen daughter, Elise, and young son, Bernard. Chet Minor, Sonya’s husband and the children’s father, was not with them.

Rain had begun to fall that afternoon–not a gentle drizzle, as was typical during the beach summers of my childhood, but a drenching downpour with lightning and thunder. I’d gone next door to check for leaks when the family arrived.

“Come on in,” I said, after Sonya introduced herself. They looked tired, chilled, and bedraggled. “How was the ferry crossing?”

I suppose this type of summer storm is what we can expect now that the jet stream has fizzled. Clouds linger without a current to drive them.

I helped the family with their luggage, then fetched fresh linens from my place. Sonya and I made the beds while Elise hopped into a bath and Bernard took a hot shower.

“I can put their jammies in the dryer so they’re warm when they get out,” I suggested.

“That would be nice,” Sonya replied. “They’ve had a rough day.”

From the way Sonya’s face drooped, it looked like she’d had a tough time of late, too.

“So rent’s all paid up?” Sonya asked me when I met her in the room that would be Bernard’s. We pulled the quilt tight. “This is a nice pattern,” she added. “Was it made by your kin?”

“My grandma, yes,” I said. It was a log-cabin quilt, with green and blue patches. I called it the forest quilt. “And yes! Rent is all paid up, through Labor Day.”

“Through Labor Day!” sighed Sonya, as if this were a gift from heaven. “And did it clear? The check?”

It had.

“And what about the deposit?” she asked.

“It cleared, too.”

“And it’s refundable?”

“Sure is,” I said, “provided the place is clean and undamaged.”

“And how do you usually pay it?”

“The deposit? By check, usually,” I said. “But you know, I could always give you a cashier’s check for it, if that’s helpful. It’s for quite a lot, you know, $2500.”

Sonya’s lips smiled while a dart of fear dashed through her eyes. “Yes, cashier’s check. That would be useful.”

We walked into Elise’s room.

“So. Until Labor Day,” Sonya said softly, more to herself than to me, “and a check for $2500 then. That’s something, at least.”

I woke early the next morning to take Turtle for a run. At dawn, the sun peeked through a crack in the clouds, and the light strung out in ribbons. As we returned to the duplex, I realized I hadn’t stocked the fridge in the rental, and all the stores would be closed for the 4th of July.

I left a note on their kitchen counter:

Pancakes and scrambled eggs! Hot coffee! Fresh, squeezed orange juice!

Please join me for a holiday breakfast to welcome you to summer.

–Cathy, next door

I didn’t know if they’d accept–it tells a lot about a family and their boundaries how they respond to a neighbor’s invitation. Of course, I was the landlady, too, which complicated the relationship, a bit. But Sonya had been so grateful last night that I felt hopeful as I stirred the pancake batter and ground the coffee.

I’d finished eating when Bernard came in, still wearing his PJs. He’d slipped on an oversized pair of red rubber rainboots that we kept in the guest closet next door.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Sit there,” I pointed at the stool at the counter and poured him a glass of juice.

“I’ll have coffee,” he said.

“Are you allowed?

He nodded. “Lotsa milk. Lotsa sugar.”

“We don’t have sugar,” I replied. “Do you like honey?”

I found a big red mug and filled it a quarter with coffee and three-quarters with milk.

“What’s that?” He pointed at the plate with the honeycomb on it.

“It’s fresh honey. From the farmer’s market. This is how it comes from the hive.”

I showed him how to break off a chunk of comb and chew on it. When his pancakes were done, we spread the honeycomb on them.

“Will you still have this when my dad comes?” he asked. “I hope my dad gets to eat this.”

Elise came in as he said that. “Dad’s not coming,” she said.

“He is,” said Bernard, “when he’s done with work.”

“It’s not work that’s keeping him,” she replied.

“What’s this about work?” Sonya entered, shaking off her umbrella on the doorstep. “This is vacation, children! Nobody’s working! We are resting and rejuvenating and relishing!”

We sat at the kitchen table while the rain poured down and the garden space between the two houses filled with puddles. Tree frogs croaked, and one tiny one, fluorescent green with orange toe pads, climbed up the window.

“There’ll be pollywogs in a few days,” I said, and Bernard’s eyes grew wide.

“Oh, I love tadpoles and pollywogs,” said Sonya. “Did I ever tell you?” She launched into a childhood story, and I realized that we had that in common–long years of childhood roaming through the natural world. Energy filled her as she spoke, and the weariness she wore last night had left her completely. Bernard laughed, and even his sister smiled.

We spent the day together. When the storm broke, we raced outside to check the puddles for frog eggs, to play wild games of tag, to slip and slide on the wet grass in the meadow. My anachronisms raced alongside us, barking and smiling and leaping. When the rain fell again, we ran back inside, trying to dodge the fat raindrops, jumping at the thunder.

I made pots of tea, and Elise and I baked batches of cookies. Bernard told us stories of “The First Fourth of July,” which seemed to be an amalgam of Star Wars, the Lone Ranger, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. “It all happened a really long time ago,” he said.

At nightfall, after a supper of grilled fruit and veggie burgers, we stood under the back porch and watched the lightning over the bay.

“Guess there won’t be any fireworks this summer,” I said, “because of the rain. Usually, they shoot them off from Lighthouse Island, and we can see them real well from here.”

A bolt of lightning cracked and in the split second when it lit up the bay, we could see the fishing boats and the buoys from crab pots tossed on the waves.

“I like this better than fireworks,” said Elise.

Sonya stood between her children, an arm around each, and the rain drew curtains around the porch.

Maybe this summer would do this family good even if–especially if?–their father couldn’t join them.

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Lighthouse: Name the Sky

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I finished the novel around the time that Naavre was learning to walk.

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We felt grateful to have the project complete since our free time diminished as Naavre’s mobility rose, and it took both of us to keep up with him.

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Overall, this was such a happy time for us.

Ritu, who had connections in the publishing industry, volunteered to be my agent.

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I found it almost incomprehensible that a novel about extinction, told from the points of view of a mammoth family, a single redwood whose descendants live today, and a colony of cyanobacteria, would find its way to print. I found it unbelievable that anyone would read it. But, surprisingly, Ritu got the novel published. Even more surprisingly, it sold. In fact, it sold remarkably well!

Ritu credited the timing.

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“People want this now,” she said. “Xirra and Teko were right! This is a story people not only needed to hear, but one they wanted to hear!”

I didn’t publish under my name. I wanted to protect our family’s privacy, and I’d never sought or desired recognition or fame. I wrote to scratch the itch–to discover, to learn, to communicate. I chose to publish under the name Sky Linden.

When the reviews began coming in and Mammoth’s Tale started making the lists, Ritu handled all the publicity. She went on the book tours, did the talk-radio circuits, opened the Twitter account. We had a set list of questions that I answered, which she used as the basis for promotion. The mystique of the reclusive author contributed to the novel’s buzz.

We funneled the profits back to our causes. Our family’s personal needs, financial and otherwise, were covered by the rebels, so we had no use for hefty bank accounts.

A quarter went to funds managed by Amie Alarcon, a councilmember from Windenberg and rebel ally, a quarter to the account held by Valentin Harvey for the terrestrial rebel delegation, a quarter to Ritu’s collective, and the final quarter was invested for an endowment for the pagotogo from the crash.

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We felt grateful, and very humbled, to be in a position to do something good.

I took a break from writing to let the wellsprings refill and focused on being a mom.

Santi and Naavre kept us happy and busy.

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Though she spent the weekdays at Seb’s one-room school, when she was home, Santi needed nearly as much attention as Naavre. Her language skills sprouted, and when she wasn’t practicing the new words and phrases, she was asking questions.

“Why are some words funny?”

“It’s probably either the sound or the association,” I replied.

“Monkey cheese!” she cracked up.

“I’m not sure that one is funny,” Sept said.

“Oh, yes! It definootely is!”

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She could be very serious and earnest, too. In some ways, she reminded me of myself when I was a child, and when I was just beginning to find out that injustice happened out in the world.

“It makes no sense for people to sell people,” she said. “Yes, OK. It happened back in the other place. I was to be sold. I know that and that’s why Xirra took me here. But she took me here! This is supposed to be good place.”

“Well, technically, slavery is illegal,” I said, knowing that changes in law didn’t erase history.

“Yes, but, wrong should never be,” she said quietly.

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She did a research project addressing the history of slavery on this planet, comparing it to the practices by the Kfvico’kyastorr.

“This is very sad,” she said.

“You could write about a happier topic,” I suggested.

“Sure,” added Sept, “like global climate change and mass extinctions.”

I had to laugh. OK, maybe she was like me, and writing about difficult topics somehow made it easier for her to live in this challenging world.

We did everything in our power to create a safe, happy, nurturing home, so that the outside dangers might not feel so threatening.

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But even the happiest of families can’t keep all dangers out. Viruses don’t respect the boundaries of home.

Around that time, Sept began experiencing fever and fatigue.

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He shrugged it off at first, and he seemed to get better. When, a week later, he still had fevers and chills, I asked Seb to get in touch with Xirra for us. She and Teko took blood and saliva samples from all of us. It only took Teko a few hours in her lab to get the results.

“It’s not pfura,” Xirra said.

“Thank God!” Pfura is an extra-terrestrial virus which can be fatal, and when it’s not, it can destroy a person’s telepathic abilities. I couldn’t imagine a life for Sept where he wasn’t always listening and singing inside.

“It’s terrestrial.” It was an obscure virus, a symbiont for most of us, but in some blood types, like Sept’s, it created toxic reactions.

“What can we do?” I asked. It was the usual course: rest, liquid, healthy food.

“Try blueberries,” suggested Teko. “And lots and lots of green tea.”

“And Ceylon cinnamon,” said Xirra.

“And cloves. Anise, barberry, elderberry, licorice, dandelion, and black pepper.”

I brewed pot after pot of chai.

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Sept had a strong constitution–that man is made of energy. I felt fairly confident that he would recover.

But Santi worried.

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She and Sept are from the same ethnic group–their DNA are very similar, and they have the same blood type.

When Santi became quiet, she gave me such a scare.

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“Do feel OK, moSanti?”

She shook her head.

“What hurts?”

“My eyes. I have to squint. I have droop-eyes. My throat hurts. Here.” She pointed to her larynx. “When I swallow. My heart-of-feeling. I have pins in it.”

“Are you sad?” I asked. “Is it like the feeling of having to cry?”

She nodded.

“Then you’re not sick?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

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She was sad that Sept was sick.

“I miss he jokes,” she said.

I did, too. “He’s getting better,” I said. “He told me three jokes today!”

“OK,” she said. “Will he tell five tomorrow?”

“I think so.”

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She took a keen interest in a doctor kit that Teko had given us, with a stethoscope and thermometer. She listened to all our hearts, even Mojo’s and her teddy bears.

“Everybody well,” she said.

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And soon enough, everybody was well again. Sept’s fever left, his appetite grew ravenous for tofu tacos, not just herbal tisanes and blueberries.

Before we knew it, he was joking all day long, just like usual, and Santi’s droop-eyes turned to laughing eyes.

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I asked him to take it easy, but he insisted he was stronger than ever.

“I love life!” he said, and I couldn’t get him to slow down.

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It was hard to argue when his activity filled our home with so much joy.

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I still worried sometimes. Teko said that this particular virus was hard to get rid of–it’s an established part of the human virome on this planet. It has periods of dormancy, and it can be kept in check, but it’s hard, if not impossible, to fully eradicate.

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Sept recovered his strength, though.

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For a little while, everything else fell away, once he was healthy again. In my cocoon, I didn’t care about the novel’s success, I didn’t worry about the AAC riots, or the collapse of the polar vortex, or the fate of krill and all the creatures that depended on it. I just focused, again, on the warmth inside our home. Naavre was growing and learning, Santi was thriving, and Sept was well.

I needed that man. I still do.

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Puppy Love 17

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Lucas had something I never had. He had brothers.

Gunther called, and for a moment, Lucas’s black mood lifted.

“It’s good to hear your voice, brother,” he said. “I’ve got sad news, and I’ve been wanting to talk to you?”

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“It’s Otter,” he said, his voice catching. “No, not sick. Worse? Like the worst.”

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They talked for a while. Lucas’s voice gained some strength as they shared memories of the very good cat, but when the call ended, he lifted his head and howled, more mournful than I’ve heard any of the pups howl, ever.

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I did my best to help out. There was always so much that needed to be done, and Lucas was hardly in any shape to resume his typical chipper attitude towards the housekeeping tasks.

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He thanked me. Even broken-hearted, this boy’s polite.

“It’s all right, Lukie!” I replied. “You eat! Leave the rest to me!”

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I looked into the household financial records. The saving were slowly chipping away. The amount Lucas’s mediocre paintings brought couldn’t cover the bills. There was enough for the near future, but I was thinking of the long run.

I could help with that, too, I realized, opening a Word Doc and beginning to type. “Six Pups and a Cat,” I wrote, “by Lucas Munch.”

I knew I made a great ghost writer, and I had hopes that, with any luck, this book would be a best-seller. Its profits would funnel back into the household account.

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My writing was interrupted by happy barking. Out back, Chloe and Dustin played pounce.

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I’ll pounce you! Chloe barked.

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Not if I pounce you first! yapped Dustin.

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You’re cute when you’re pouncing! Chloe said.

Oh, no, you don’t! barked Dustin. You’re not going to distract me with flattery!

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My heart jumped a happy skip. Would these two become mates?

But when the game ended, they sat, back to back, looking into the darkness.

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Poor Dustin! Otter was such a good friend to him.

“It’s OK, White Lightning,” I said. “You’ll get your spark back again.”

He only whimpered in reply.

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Dustin took the slow march to the line of graves, and Chloe followed. They cocked their heads, as if they were counting each and every headstone.

“There you are, you two!” said Lucas. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Dustin raised his head, his white tail wagging.

“You know?” said Lucas. “One thing makes it easier? It’s friends. Friends and family? You and Chloe, you’re friends already, but if you wanted, you could become family. Do you think you would like that?”

Dustin wagged his tail harder.

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“Gunther told me you could use a hug.” It was Wolfgang, who wrapped his brother in his arms and squeezed. “You’ll be OK, little brother.”

“I know,” replied Lucas. “I’ve got you?”

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Lighthouse: The Concertmaster

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One afternoon, shortly before Naavre was born, Whisper dropped by Seb’s when I was watching Octy and November. We hadn’t seen Whisper since she and Manny broke up the year before, though we’d heard that she’d moved to the bay.

I was so glad to see her. We didn’t want her to feel awkward around us. Manny might be cloned from the brother of Sept’s sko, but to Sept, all the bubigotogo were his siblings. I’ve always felt a strong connection with Whisper.

We took our tea to the back patio while November napped and Octy ran along the beach with the dogs.

“I’m glad you’re here, Whisper,” I said.

Since the break-up, Manny had refused all contact with us, burying himself in his studies. I felt relieved that Whisper hadn’t taken the separation as hard.

“I’m glad to be here, too,” she said. “I’ve been settling into my house and observing everyone from afar. I felt like I needed to give everyone enough time to… stop disliking me.”

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My heart melted.

“Oh, gosh! How could anyone ever dislike you, Whisper? You are the definition of all that’s wonderful!”

“Well, you know,” she said lightly. “Breakups. Generally family dislikes the ex. Especially so when the ex does the dumping, and I know Emmanuel was close to Sept. But thank you for saying that. I think you’re wonderful, too!”

“Manny’s been out of touch,” I said. “Sept writes, emails, texts, sings those inside songs. And we hear nothing. We’re giving Manny space, but we want him to know we’re here to support him, too. It’s been hard. Anyway, I think Sept’s always felt as connected to you as to Manny–I know I have! More so, even.”

November began to cry. “Time for a feeding!” I said. We went inside.

The sink was overflowing with dishes, and when I finished with Novy, Whisper and I worked together for a few hours, cleaning the house, bathing the dogs (who always seemed to return filthy from every beachside expedition), preparing supper, helping Octy with his homework. I enjoyed the quiet, relaxed company of another woman.

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“Thanks, Whisper,” I said when we settled in for a break while the rice cooked. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a nice time doing housework before!”

“You’re welcome! I’ve enjoyed spending this time with you. I haven’t had much female company as of late. My dad, he stayed with me for a little while after I moved here, and then Zaidi and I spent a lot of time together while he was here. Other than my interaction with those two, I’ve mostly been alone. Not lonely, but alone!”

I hadn’t realized that Zaidi and Whisper knew each other. I knew that Zaidi had just left for a mission, though neither Xirra nor Sept had told me much about it. Whisper’s eyes lit up when she said Zaidi’s name, and I wondered how much there was between them.

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“I like Zaidi,” I said, remembering his vigilance the afternoon Navi dropped by with the cookies. “He always seems ready to help out.”

“He’s super helpful! He has such a servant nature and a kind soul. Zaidi is absolutely one of the most fascinating people I know.”

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“He’s cute, too, no?” I’ve always thought, both in and out of disguise, Zaidi’s one of the most handsome men I know.

Whisper’s lips pursed into a smile. “He’s very visually appealing.”

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And that was when I first began to think of Whisper and Zaidi together, in the same sentence, in the same phrase, in between the commas.

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Octy and Mop tumbled in, both hungry. Whisper and I laughed as she dished up Octy’s supper. I realized that this would soon be the pattern of my domesticity–conversations punctuated by hungry kids and hungry dogs!

“So what’s next for you, Whisper? Are you settling here for a while?” I was imagining her as auntie to Naavre and Santi, thinking how lucky these children would be to grow up with her in their lives. At the time, I wanted to surround our children with everyone kind, strong, wise, courageous, so that they would grow in safety, nurtured in shelter within a world that felt, to me, at that time, very threatening.

“I don’t know about settling,” she replied. “My house will be my sanctuary–my home base. I plan to travel because I want to see the world. All of it. I crave movement and color, so I don’t think I can live an overly stationary life. The idea of more school seems constricting. As of this very moment, I’m satisfied with painting for the Rebellion.”

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“What kind of painting are you doing for rebels?” I asked.

“Mostly murals in public spaces and canvas paintings for private residences. To show people where it’s safe. You might have seen some of the pieces around. Things by The Concertmaster? That’s me!”

“Wait! You’re The Concertmaster?”

I thought of a Concertmaster mural near the ferry station in the city. A yellow chrysanthemum, slightly left of center, filled nearly half of the composition. Petals dropped in a Fibonacci spiral. Impressed into the yellow paint, in intaglio fashion, lay the code, for anyone who could read it, providing the coordinates, in longitude and latitude, of safe houses. One pair of coordinates led here.

“Your work is exquisite,” I said.

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Octy interrupted our conversation. “Mallory is going to have my uncle,” he said. He was fascinated by family connections, but he kept inverting the relationships.

“You will be the uncle, Octy,” I said. “The baby will be your niece or nephew.”

“Are you excited for your little one to come?” Whisper asked. “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

“We don’t know! We have hunches, but we’re not sure. What do you think? Boy or girl?”

“I can find out if you’d like.”

I wanted to know. I closed my eyes and relaxed.

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“You’re having a boy!” she said.

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“I knew it!”

The morning sickness, all the way through the pregnancy, was so severe, and I’d read it’s usually worse with boys. But aside from that, Sept and I both had the feeling Naavre was a boy. We talked to him all the time. I thought I could sense his feelings, his little emotions, and Sept was sure he heard him humming, deep inside of me.

Sept would be so happy to find out our intuitions were correct!

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Octy recited the litany of relations: cousins, siblings, brothers, sisters, in-laws, on and on.

As the words swirled around us, I felt them spin the magic of family. Something relaxed in me then. This tiny knot at the back of my heart that twisted tight late at night, when I worried that Naavre might grow up in a world without polar bears, or when I feared that one day the luminescent plankton that shimmered when Santi played her violin at the edge of the cliff on moonlit nights would be come still–that knot that twisted when I remembered the steel hate of the voices of the rioters at the Willow Creek park, when they shouted, “Shove off! Move on!”–that knot, that heart-noose, untied itself in the warmth of Octy’s words, in the presence of Whisper. In my father-in-law’s kitchen. I had a family.

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And Whisper, Octy, Lemon and Mop, November, and Naavre, they were part of it. If someone were to ask me what I’d done that day, I could reply, “I spent it with my family.”

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While we waited for Seb to come home, I pulled up a game he had on his computer. We’d boycotted this particular game at home, after the developers tweeted some xenophobic comments regarding a recent patch, but Seb still had it on his machine. I was slightly hooked on it, and it was hard to resist playing when it was within reach.

“I can”t believe this game!” I said. “These two are drawn to the hot-tub like… well, like me and Sept, if I’m to be perfectly candid!”

“The hot tub?” Whisper laughed. “I’ve never… not in a hot tub. Then again, I’m not experienced in that area! I never felt the desire to have sex, not until recently, so I never have.”

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“Hi, peoples,” said Octy, walking through. “Little kid here! I gots ears!”

Just then, Naavre kicked my kidneys.

“Ooph! There’s not enough room inside for this kid and all the rest of me for much longer!” I said. “I kinda like being pregnant, for the most part, but the inner squeeze is something I could do without!”

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“I can only imagine!” Whisper said. “You only have a little while longer until he’s out! Do you plan on having more biological after this one?”

“My hormones say yes, but my environmental ethics say no. We’ll see who wins out in the end!” I laughed, knowing full well that the rebels had some say in it, too. Xirra and Teko talked so often about the ecological benefits of genetic diversity that sometimes I felt they looked upon me and Seb as their personal petri dishes.

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We stayed talking so late, long after we’d read Octy his bedtime story and given November her last feeding. When I finally got home, my mind was full from the conversation, and my body tired from the walk.

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Stillness surrounded me while I rested on the porch, and I carried it in with me when I went upstairs to find Sept.

“Hi, byu! Hi, Naavre!” Sept greeted us.

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We sat together on the edge of the bed. I told him about Whisper’s visit, about her being The Concertmaster, that she and Zaidi were becoming a couple, and that Octy was going to have a nephew.

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“I knew it!” Sept giggled.

“About Naavre being a boy?”

“All of it!”

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“You didn’t tell me,” I said.

“No,” he replied. “I didn’t have to. I knew you would learn it all, when the time was right.”

“The time is right,” I said to him.

“I know,” he replied.

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Author’s Notes: Did you read about the special visitors from Ny’s story “Whisper” that would be showing up in this and the previous chapter? We’re so excited they were here! 🙂 We’re still smiling.  Ny and I co-wrote this chapter, with Ny contrinbuting some of the plot elements, including what’s been going on in Whisper’s life and the concept and details of The Concertmaster. She also wrote all of Whisper’s portion of the conversations. Thank you, Ny! I’m so happy Whisper and Zaidi are neighbors and family!