Tales of 100 Hearts

I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.

February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.

The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.

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I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…

I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.

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Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.

Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.

The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.

Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.

And I’m betting I’d find a story.

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Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: First, Face Myself.

Before my kid brother or true nightmares existed, I came across a blue jay on the sidewalk. Its plumage looked beautiful despite all the little bugs crawling all over it, and was it a problem its eye no longer stayed in place? I didn’t think so. I knew it wasn’t properly alive; a properly alive bird flies away when you get near it. But I really hadn’t thought too much about death apart from “Jesus died and rose again.” Death had no sense of permanence. When the time came, the bird would be properly alive again.

There is a difference, I think, in knowing something is not-right vs. knowing something is wrong. I knew the bird wasn’t alive like me, but I didn’t know it was wrong to put it in a dump truck and drive it around like any other stuffed animal. You better believe my mother made sure I knew after scrubbing my hands for several minutes. The disease, the dirt one can get from playing with the forbidden. It transfers. It festers.

telling-cover-3I still carry a dirtiness on me and in me, and I’ve never been able to scrub it off. Zoe Zolbrod used the same term: “my dirtiness, of which my victimhood was a part” in her memoir The Telling (71).

It was the first time I had seen the word tied to the Feeling. Experience. Person.

And through reading, that Person was me.

Zolbrod sent me reeling with the stench of old wounds and fears. When she recounted the first night her cousin came into her room, I remembered the hall light in my bedroom, and The Monster’s silhouette as my parents were occupied elsewhere in the house. Let’s play a game. His hands slipped under the elastic waistband of my pajamas. It felt wrong. It had to be wrong, but…but he’s family, so…so it couldn’t be THAT wrong, could it?

When Zolbrod wrote of the cousin’s coming in the day when her parents promised to be gone, all those afternoons pulled me back, those hours when The Monster knew my parents were bound to be at church for hours, got my kid brother to be quiet in the basement while he kept me in my room, knowing there was no way I could overpower him as he talked so damn calmly as he reached in. Pulled down. Slipped his tongue in. Put my hands there. This is what family does for each other. Don’t you want to be like other girls?

I didn’t. Yet The Monster spoke time and again, turning the wrongness into something normal-ish, practically traditional. It wasn’t properly wrong, just not-right.

Zolbrod takes readers through life after the abuse, including how she began to move beyond her cousin in a new “float of physical bliss” with the boyfriends of her youth  (76). She took back her sexuality, her body. I, on the other hand, retreated as far as I knew how. I wore sagging clothes that would have made my father look a wastrel, refused to do my hair or face. I was often mistaken for a man by strangers, and didn’t care. I didn’t want to be seen as other girls. I didn’t want to be seen. And no one could, not the proper me, so long as I hid it deep enough. Zolbrod calls it “personhood vacating” (121). I fled into myself where The Monster could never reach. Like Zolbrod, I discovered my own “inborn intricacies,” and thought that In Here, The Monster could never really hurt me (94). A body’s nothing, the soul everything. And he’ll never get that.

Until now.

Words make worlds, do they not? Writers create with language. And I had created a wall with the words of stories, metal so thick surely no villain could penetrate them.

But in reading Zolbrod’s memoir, words twisted into sinew and skin: the hands, calloused and hot, across my body. How does it feel?

Words betrayed me. They burned me so that every emotional poke from my children felt like an axe on firewood.

Little Loves, you’re better off tossing Mommy out with all that’s broken. I’m no good for you. You deserve someone whole. Clean. Better.

Does a phoenix feel like this when the fire finally comes and cleanses its rigid body of all the creepy-crawlies?

I have written of phoenixes before. They, too, live anew and beyond death. When I finished Zolbrod, I felt as she after reading Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: “I sensed some truth about armor and pure resolve arising from violence and shame” (41). For years I have struggled to make sense of why God put me through that pain. God’s plan is always sure and right, He never gives us more than we can bear, God knows best, etc. So apparently it was in my best interests to be abused?

At this point, a “Fuck you” screamed at heaven sounds near-logical. Sounds, but doesn’t feel. Perhaps it’s the preacher’s kid in me, who has always thought faith a second-breath, as important as blood and unable to be transfused if lost. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve already faced such horrible parts of myself during the years of post-partum that to look back on something even older and disown God on THAT seems…Petty?

Or maybe, and I think this may be the truth, it’s because I could feel the armor and resolve grow with me, and take me beyond the Monster’s reach. I have knowledge others do not: to be tortured year, after year, after year, to suffer on my own without hope of help, yet live. I fucking lived. My husband, my children, my friends, my masters, my teaching, my—well, this, here. MY words. They’re mine. And they don’t hurt.

Now the real duel awaits:

I must face The Monster, hands and all, in the present.

Click here for more on Zoe Zolbrod and THE TELLING.

Tone Deaf

Long, long ago, the ever-lovely lady Shehanne Moore and her hamster brood nominated me for The Respect Award.

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Such a reward requires questions answered, which I hope I can take out of order, since the questions led me to think some thinks that aren’t entirely respect-related, and this is a run-on sentence, so I best likely stop, shouldn’t I?

Who do you respect the most?

Now this I can confidently answer: my friend Rachel(Not the one from Polish Fest-the other one. (Have I mentioned I know a lot of Rachels?)) I have written a few past posts about her, and the roads traveled for her recovery. She dedicated herself to God’s Calling back when we were teenagers, and had been teaching in a two-room school in a small Nebraska town for ten years when a brain tumor wrapped its tentacles around her brain stem. Again. And again.

Yes, she’s been under the knife three times. She struggles to speak and walk. She may never be able to hold up her head again, since her neck muscles have atrophied. She had to step down from the ministry, never to return.

Now this would be the point where, at least I think, you give God the finger and tell Him to piss off. I gave my life to YOU, and You give me THIS. Fuck. You.

Nope. Not Rachel. She’s still determined to live on her own once the therapists give the okay, and tutor children. She looks to God, and hopes.

To lose your body and mind for months and struggle to find footing outside that which you’ve known all your life…to go through all that, and not lose faith…

Damn.

What is respect and what does it mean to you?

Right, so this question is weird for me to answer, and I’m not even sure why. My initial thought is: 4th Commandment. Honor the elders, and so on. Believe you me, that was instilled in we pastor’s children at a tiny age. I’m 34, and I STILL can’t refer to my friends’ parents by their first names despite their requests. Hell, I called my father-in-law “Sir” until Blondie was born. First names are informal, see. Respect starts with the address.

Listening, too. Listening is respectful. Visiting the old lady down the street because she goes to our church, she’s lonely, misses children, go ON Jean she just wants some company–

–sitting in a room shaded by thin white gauzey curtains, a room the shade of canned peas with that carpet and furniture that seemed to sap color and spoil it on the spot, the air heavy with cats who died years ago–

–and listen.

Not that I remember what she said. Respect is a lot of show at times. I learned that quickly: situate the body, say the right words, and inwardly back away. Away from the eyes and senses, and fly, over and through the firmament. Land in a world I build one rock at a time. Get back to work.

Nowadays, I DO listen. Hard. It’s the faith in the words of others where respect transforms into a weapon, the most valuable weapon I have. So many of you have only known me through my words. You met me here, befriended me here. For the few who’ve known me before I started this online venture, you know I love you, but you KNOW me. Your friendship and kindness put this syrupy taint on the comments you give on my writing. I’m compelled to purse my lips and think, you’re too sweet, you’re just saying that because you’re my friend…

For those who’ve met me here, your words come completely of your own volition. You would feel no need to say something unless you wanted to say what you really thought.  For so, so long, I always took a compliment as “I’m just doing God’s duty,” “you’re just being nice,” “you don’t really know me.”

But you do know me. You know me better than most people in my proper life. And you have given such outpourings of thoughts and ideas on your writing, and I’m compelled to give them back, and this sharing of sparks sets all the dark woods ablaze, burns away the black fog, sending it hissing in retreat. The stars reflect our sparks, we are the true lights of the heavens–

Respect is what I use to hack at the self-doubt. Because I respect you, I should believe you in what you say. And if you say, in no uncertain terms, that I am meant to do what I do, well then. Time I respect, and therefore defeat, that which holds me down.

What do I respect about myself?

This is the work-in-progress part. One of the reasons I held off on answering Shey’s questions is because I didn’t know how to answer this one. Lucky for me I hit a milestone not too long ago.

In the past few blogs I’ve mentioned my decision to finally try fiction again: a Middle-Grade fantasy story based on Michael Dellert’s Matter of Manred series. I’ve been posting my freewrites on my facebook page to help deal with my fear of sharing fiction. If I can be okay sharing the extremely rough stuff with others, then putting polished scenes out shouldn’t be so terrifying.

Once I finished Michael’s #13WeekNovel protagonist prompts, I started to work on the setting. The first freewrite didn’t go too terribly, even with the history gaps…

When I wake up, I smell old dung and hay. Scratched from the wool. Redo the braid that at least holds some hair back.

I have to share a room with Nutty, who snores, by the way. I’ve asked for a spot in the barn loft. Nope, not proper.

Damnation.

At least I only need this space to piss and sleep.

Speaking of…

Oh…it is so, so tempting to empty it upon her. My hand actually steadies at the thought. But then the whole room would smell.

Ah, well. Not worth it.

Best to dump just after Fiachna passes….There. That’s dumped.

And with Fiachna’s morning curse at my window, it’s time for the kitchen.

Down the stairs—watch it, the third from the bottom creaks, so best to leap down. White walls, we have one large tapestry made by Muirgurgle’s mother before she died. Saffir is Nutty’s mom, the one still around. She’s got her own in the works. Funny how each focuses on the kids: baby Muirgurgle’s discovery of an ermine nest on this one. How nice of the family to donate their lives and live in posterity as Father’s coat.

Not sure what Saffir’s making, though Nutty’s in the corner. Probably her talking to birds. Or ghosts. They’re both a touch off, if you get me.

I smell elderberries and hyssop from the fields. Hops, dandelions, and yarrow.

Our furniture is simple, for Father’s tastes are pretty functional which, really, is all this thorp can afford. Not that I mind. One thing, though: the mantle over the fireplace tells a story. It’s a battle of ____. My grandparents fought alongside Terrwyn against ______. They all three survived, but I’m told my grandmother was besot by nightmares ever after. Terrwyn had a hand in helping with Father’s upbringing, and in one of my grandmother’s final lucid moments, promised to keep an eye on him ever after. I can’t believe she would have stayed here otherwise as some lowly tinker.

Not that she sees herself as lowly. And no one would be foolish enough to call her that. And if someone did, Cinaedh would slice his manhood off.

Strange how Father came from such strong people, and can surround himself with good people.

And still be such an ass.

But I’m a middler, and the child of no one special in his eyes. My opinion is of little worth here.

So let’s go into the kitchen, where herbs hang from the beams and there’s always water hot for tea. Grab yourself some elderberries. Watch the spout, it’s got a chip there.

Here. This doorway? This, this is the best view of the thorp. The front door just takes you to a wide circle of thatch roofs and buildings that are old, but solid. Aberfa’s pottery workshop’s the newest thing, and even that’s several years old now.

That’s why I always come out from here. Demman doesn’t mind, so long as he didn’t want the bench for himself.

Watch the grass and flowers bend with the breeze downward. Follow with the slope to the River Aurnia. There’s the mill at the outermost point of the thorp, aaaaand, yes, that’s Aberfa with Bryn, the lady miller. You can bet master miller Pyrs is already in there, loading grains. Kids aren’t quite awake yet—you’d hear them arguing.

I don’t really dwell on the mill when I’m out here. I don’t dwell on the thorp at all, really.

I dwell on that, past the River Aurnia. See that? The Woods of Irial. No, it’s not mystical, or full of beasts, or the gateway to Annwn. It’s just far-reaching. Some smaller thorps are even inside it, and its southernmost, according to the drymyn, is this little place called Bailecrwth.

That’s where I’m going to go to find my mother’s family, if there are any left to find.

And south of them is the Khaibe tribe. They are the reason my mother fled and found herself here. They are the reason Father found my mother, took her, and put my creation into the works.

Dour talk for sunlight transforming the field into gold shimmers and diamonds from the dew. You’d think the sweet sharpness would ease my tongue.

Well it doesn’t.

Every day, I look past this thorp to the place I need to go, for I have a blood-feud that must be resolved. I refuse to carry this with me to the grave. They wronged my mother. Their sins drove me into existence.

They have to pay.

61MFCKK6V4LLife called: teaching, mothering. It took a few days before I could return to the Easavainn Mills. Initially blank, so I opened my copy of Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden and let the flowers inspire me.

It starts with eglantine.

Beautiful, aren’t they? Sweet as apples, and pleasing to the eye.

Banon, Muirgurgle’s mother, planted them here along the fence. Not sure why the fence; it doesn’t exactly keep anyone out, being vines and posts, but it’s a fine thing. Gentle, like she was. I’ll see Father out here sometimes, look upon this living boundary, and tear up.

She must have been quite a woman, to make a man like him cry.

So, down the slope. Let’s open the gate. Don’t worry, the vines are flexible.

The river’s quite full of fish—trout, mainly. A few leeches. Turtles—watch for them. Don’t step on the Alkanet—you’ll put Nutty and Saffir out. They insist on it for their faces.

The thorp keeps a few fruit trees on the edge of Irial. I’m honestly not sure who planted them—the trunks have this look of gnarled veins like the jeweler, but I don’t think pear and cherry trees came along on their own. Once I heard Father telling Muirgurgle that his namesake planted them to honor the river goddess. Not sure what this fruit has to do with her. Do gods eat?

Further in, when we’re brave, we can get the Damson fruit. I used to enjoy going in there…and then the…

Damn you hands, STOP SHAKING

The Cat-Eyed Man. I’ve told you about him.

I refuse to let the miller’s children go in there anymore without an escort, being me. They know what I did, so they always want me along when they go past the eglantine. Even Muirgurgle won’t bother with the woods, and HE is the one who’s supposed to hunt. So Fiachna’s left to scrounge up game whenever Father decides to teach the hapless twit how to hunt.

Me? I go in.

I go in alone. My hands may shake, throw my body into a quake, but I. will. Enter. Part of revenge is fearlessness. One can’t be afraid of meeting one’s own death. One can’t be afraid of looking evil in the eye, and pulling that eye out with one’s own fingers.

Follow me here.

Hmph.

I didn’t like it.

Something felt wrong.

The…voice. DAMMIT, the voice was missing.

I sent it to Michael, and he agreed that the tone had changed. “Maybe you’re exploring a new aspect of her character.”

I read it through again, tried to apply Michael’s suggestion to the feeling around the words, but no. No, it was wrong.

This wasn’t Gwen. Not Gwen at all. Where did she go?

And all the old panic came back, the failed WIPs of the past because the voice never. fucking. stuck. Years of looking, trying, finally getting, and then….gone.

And here I’m barely a month in, and already going tone-deaf with Gwen. She’s not pretty with words. She’s 14, and she’s an overlooked, unwanted middle-child in her home. She’s cocky. Stubborn. Angry. Kind to some, yes, but even they can’t always handle her. Such a girl would never, EVER talk like this.

No.

No, I’m not going deaf. Not this time.

Michael suggested going back to the early freewrites, where Gwen’s voice was clearest.

I listened to him, listened to myself, and…

Well?

Are you coming?

The damson trees grow a ways in. You carry the basket. I’ve got my dagger, and I keep a staff in the woods, just in case. Easy enough to hide, wood in a wood.

Why should anyone else find it? No one will go in here but drunken men and the miller’s children, and none will go in on a dare, or without me.

That’s right. Me. Ever since the Cat-Eyed Man, everyone else in the thorp sees the woods of Irial and thinks, “Get Gwen.” Gods, I think this is the only way I matter around here…Demman likes to call me the Honey Girl with the Barbed Tongue because I give him plenty of grief whenever he asks me to fetch some.

Yes, that’s why I have this bucket. Hush, I can reach my dagger easily enough.

It’s all about duty…watch the leaves, there. And don’t step there, it’s a bit of a small sink hole…the roots of the fruit trees have done strange things to the soil. It’s always moist, ready for planting. Not sure why, the river’s back quite a ways. Could be the trees. Cinaedh said once that if something ever happened to thorp, we could all live in the woods and never need for shelter. The leaves, you can see them, are as large as a mare’s hooves. You should see this place come autumn, when the green is burned over with reds and oranges, lots of orange. Damnation, but I miss the autumn, and the smell of the sap for tapping.

Sorry. I get very lost in feeling here.

For all the niceness back there…yes, there…with the flower fence and smoking chimneys, it’s not home. It’s never felt like home. At least in the workshops I’ve been useful—Aberfa lets me keep her company, and Terrwyn will tell stories when I help her haul wood for fires. But this…what is Easavainn but a place where I was nursed and let loose, like the runt of a litter?

DON’T STEP THERE. Can’t you pay attention? You’re going to attract the wolves, walking like that. By Catha, just…no, walk on front of your feet. Your toes. Yes, like that. Pish and shit, you’re worse than Terrwyn, and she’s the one with the iron leg.

Yes, there are wolves in this wood. I think some wild dogs, too…Luc saw a pack a month or so ago and insisted they were too small to be wolves. No one listened to him, of course, but I’m a generous soul DON’T TOUCH THAT. Don’t you know poison oak when you see it? By Catha, you’re dim. Feel like I should have you on a leash.

Where was I? Oh, yes, being generous. I am. I’m a wonderful listener, and let Luc say all he saw. Don’t underestimate those children. For all their bickering, they’re extremely quick, observant, and smart. Braith nearly made off with twenty gold trimmids from a merchant once because he was too dull to notice his money chest opening and closing. And I’m not even going to start on Drys. He’s either going to be a master thief, or a master…hmm. Assassin, if he ever gets the taste for blood. Either way, he’s never going to stay on the sunny side of the law.

Finally…you can feel we’re in the woods proper now. Everything’s got a touch of water to it. I like that feeling, that life-feeling of water in the air I breathe, the grass I touch. The sun can’t reach here, the trees are so thick. The whole world’s dark and soft. And here, in this place, my hands don’t quite shake as bad. Maybe there’s a dark magic here, and that darkness knows my intentions, and allows me to steady myself and practice.

Care to see?

Pish, we have time, set yourself down. Pick the centaury—that nettle-like plant there—take up a few chestnuts, and let me move.

Ah….I miss having good hands.

What do you mean, stalling? I am NOT stalling. We have all morning to fetch the honey from the Black Stone’s Glen—Domhnall named it—no not the Messor, the Constable, the one who actually WENT there—and the name stuck. What a gods-awful name. Oh, no, a black stone, how frightful…

They didn’t SEE the Cat-Eyed Man. They didn’t SEE how the blackness, like this, like a cave the moment after someone blows out the candle. They didn’t THAT seeping out from under him as though he had let loose his water inside his clothes like some mad old derelict.

And you didn’t see it either, so if I want to practice some moves before we go to THAT place, then I’M GOING TO BLOODY WELL PRACTICE. Shut up and eat your chestnuts.

I ended there, and felt different. Strange, a good strange.

I had listened to myself, believed myself, and it paid off.

I was starting to respect my instinct.

I could get used to this.

Discordant Melodies of Heaven

Some places only have character because of memory. This street, for one. It’s the primary thoroughfare for students between campus and the rest of the town.

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Rather than ride a bus and attend a “normal” high school, I attended a boarding high school where teens were prepared to attend a ministerial college. College graduates and seminarians were obligated to watch over us in the dorms, cell-like structures as old as my parents and older.

I should know: my parents met here.

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Some buildings have been left untouched. The auditorium, for one, an important place: it is where my mother practiced music, where my father performed on stage. Where I did both.

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Some spaces have changed. This new dorm was built on the only open green space on campus. Yes, I’m still miffed about that. It’s only been sixteen years…

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At least the little things still thrive. This fruit tree, for one.

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Crab apple? I honestly don’t think of the fruit much. It’s the blossoms I adored every spring. Each morning on the walk to the first mandatory chapel service of the day (for day must begin and end with Christ) we went by this tree. The petals are only waking up now, thanks to Wisconsin’s wonky spring temperament. One can never predict when the blossoms will peak, but I remember walks past that tree when the petals rained down as the organ marched off another hymn, calling His Disciples forth to be counted. I often tuned the organ out to watch the petals dance to their own song, one only they could hear in the breeze from heaven. It was always a beautiful melody. It must have been, the way they swirled about before laying spent on the sidewalk and trod under our feet.

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One day, I don’t know when, I stopped following the march. Oh, my body went along, sure, but my soul stayed behind with the petals. We sang “Here I am, Lord,” and I felt myself a liar, for I knew I was no longer among The Counted. As every pew creaked with our five-hundred-strong bow for silent prayer, I asked God if it was okay.

Please, God, let it be okay.

~*~

I turn to leave the campus. My boys will be done with school soon. Still, I can’t help but pause by the blooms:

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Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29)

Hope fills me as my fingers grace the branches, the flowers.

Just before my enrollment, the school changed its mascot to a phoenix. I always found that a bit strange, choosing a mythical creature to represent God’s Followers, but then, the phoenix rises up from the ashes of its old life to live again, brighter and stronger than before. There is certainly a bit of Christ in that.

And, I’d like to think, in me, too.

The Need for Place

Old Streich Land 6

I walked through hunting grounds on a frigid April morning. This used to be a farm I looked upon often from the cemetery, where my grandparents are buried. It is an old cemetery, as you can see by the stones, and the church itself has been locked away to the world for decades. I would look upon those broken stones and that gaping maw of a tree as a child and wonder if the stillness in the day truly continued into the night.

Why do I feel drawn to these places? My grandmother’s death was the first major loss I experienced as a child. It also helped me realize how much I depended on my grandparents for stability in the world.

When you’re a preacher’s kid, your allegiance is to your church. You go to the church’s school and hang out with other church kids. The town is to be held at a distance, what with all its heathens and *gasp* Catholics.

Yet even in the church, I felt held at arm’s length from everyone. The Powers That Be considered my dad to be something of a problem solver, so every few years he was sent to a new church to deal with frictions inside the church or between the church and the community. Every few years we had to pack up, say goodbye to people we were just barely beginning to know, and walk to the front of yet another church and be stared at by hundreds of people as the “and family” of the new pastor package. It’s hard to become a part of something when you’re set apart from the get-go.

My grandparents, however, never moved. For years, I walked with Grandpa to the same park and fed ducks. Every summer I dragged my feet behind Grandma to the same craft store so she could sift through dress patterns. (Note to Craft Stores: put something to do by those blastedly huge pattern catalogs!) We grilled out at their house every Fourth of July and parked on the same mosquito-addled hillside for fireworks. My grandparents knew contentment through place in their community, and with every visit, I knew it, too.

When Grandma died, they buried her in this small rural cemetery, not far from the open-mouthed tree. After the burial, my mother pointed across the street to a hollow yellow brick house. “That’s the Streich farm, your grandma’s.” I stopped listening after “grandma’s.” When you’re twelve, you don’t think much about cousins twice removed or however that works. You just hear that something else was once a part of your family’s place. I looked upon the fields of corn, the fallow lots of grasses, and inside made it mine. I imagined that land during my years in boarding school, where we learned to tie ourselves to God and prepare to move across the world on His Whim. I wanted that house and its fields. Let God maneuver other people about like game pieces. I put my time in. Let me have place.

Then they tore down the house and turned it into wild lands for hunters.

I don’t blame the Streich relative, however distant, for selling to the Department of Forest and Wildlife. At least the land won’t be buried under concrete and strip malls. It’s acquired a new beauty in this wild phase, with hidden pools, peculiar clumps of trees and shrubs, and grasses tall enough to hide wolves. The land may never physically be mine, but I can wander through it, touch its soil, and imagine, for a while, what it means to have place.

The Consequence of Denying “What If”

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Nurses in the intensive care unit step aside, for I move with purpose. It is my father’s gait, one I followed year after year as he brought me along to visit sick parishioners.

Rachel’s room is guarded by a cart armed with gowns and gloves. I cover myself as directed and enter a gallery of drawn flowers, suns, crosses, cakes—get-well cards sent from her students in the south. I lose track of all the tubes and where they connect and look for the girl I met in boarding school.

Rachel’s head tilts away from me, covered partly in bandages and partly with a blue Velcro noose. The note above her head explains how the noose is really a brace meant to keep her head upright. Towels are rolled up and positioned against her neck. The breathing and feeding tubes now have a guard that presses into her hollow cheeks; Rachel’s fingers look stuck inside the guard, like she had fallen asleep trying to pull it off. Which is quite likely, by the sounds of my last conversation with her mother.

-*-

“She keeps pulling out her tubes. I just don’t think she can take it anymore,” Mrs. Brim said to me as we stood over Rachel just a few nights ago. “She’s so sick of being here. She wants to go to her heavenly home.”

“Or she just wants to prove she doesn’t need them.” Why was this super-devout preacher’s wife talking about her daughter’s unconfirmed suicidal tendencies in front of her daughter, like she is something incapable of hearing or comprehension?

She waved me away then, like I didn’t really know her child. I shook my head like she didn’t know, either.

-*-

Rachel grew up a preacher’s child like me, and like me was sent to a Christian boarding school to learn how to serve God once adulthood hit. Unlike me, Rachel embraced this future. It was the only world she had known.

Reverend and Mrs. Brim put God above all things and taught their children to do the same. Music is for God. Read God-endorsed stories and Scripture. What you earn is for God. God, God, God.

I remember losing my voice more than once at their dinner table as I learned of the evils in society. The Brim parents ate like Jack Sprat and his wife, and looked the parts, too. “Imagine, these people call themselves Christian parents, but they let their children read about sorcery! Watch vampires and aliens on television! It’s all in defiance of God’s creation, Jean, you know that, don’t you?” Mrs. Brim always did the talking as Reverend Brim nodded along.

One weekend Mrs. Brim burst into Rachel’s room. “You won’t believe what I found today!” She held up a garment bag with a smile full of bravado. The smile faded when she noticed my copy of The Crying of Lot 49, but as she had no clue whether or not the book was evil, she did not comment. “I just couldn’t pass it up.” Mrs. Brim unzipped the bag. There hung a gold-white wedding dress, an unadorned gown of basic A-line shape, no train, and thin gauze for sleeves and collar. “It was such a bargain!” (All the Brims love bargains, but I don’t hold that against them. You have to when you’re a preacher’s family.) “Now you just need a husband.” Mrs. Brim laughed as though a wedding could happen once Rachel made up her mind with all those gentlemen callers, when in reality Rachel had yet to go on a date.

Rachel kept her face a complete blank, even when her mother insisted she try it on. I wanted to leave. That dress dictated the future: frugal marriage. Sensible lifestyle. Dedicated in duty. No-nonsense in family. A preacher’s wife.

“A perfect fit!”

I looked at Rachel. How could she not want to escape this? Didn’t she want to dictate her own life? The separation between her extremely conservative world and mine was bubble-thin. Just pop it and come out!

The next weekend I went home. There sat Dad in his favorite Doctor Who shirt (before it was cool) watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Wanna hit Hot Topic? I need a new Harry Potter shirt for the midnight premiere next week!”

Did a love of the worldly creations somehow make my father less godly? That’s what the Brims thought, hinting as much without saying it to my face. Yet I knew my father’s dedication to God was life-long and absolute. Grandma told me he played communion with his stuffed animals, for crying out loud, making little wafers with bread and putting grape juice in teeny cups. And then he’d go tie a red towel on his neck to be Superman. In the eyes of the Brims, one could not dabble in fantasy, for that meant you treated religion as fantasy. Now granted, Dad had Biblical commentaries shelved with Dragonriders of Pern, but that didn’t mean he took his divine vocation as a joke, nor did he consider dragon-riding a possible career change.

As my favorite writer Diana Wynne Jones wrote time and again, people need fantasy, to explore the “what if,” in order to work through the problems in real life. I, or I should say my children, are living proof of this: my post-partum depression reached levels so dangerous my rational self feared for my children’s safety. By writing about another world, I learned to cope with the one I’ve got.

-*-

The night before the surgery, Rachel explained that she hadn’t bothered seeing a doctor because she felt okay despite the weight loss. She just focused on her students. Being a dedicated servant to God’s flock, she knew God would see her through whatever ailment made her body act like an 80-year-old-woman’s. If not for her pastor specifically stating she needed to seek medical help, she would not have bothered with tests in the first place. Either God wanted her in heaven or He didn’t.

After years of hospital visits with strangers, church members, and grandparents, I knew how monotonous and confining those rooms could be. I raided my Diana Wynne Jones library and selected three favorites to help Rachel escape those sterile halls: Archer’s Goon, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and Charmed Life. I couldn’t wait for her to meet Chrestomanci and talk to her about how Jones blends worlds and pokes fun at all the clichés of the fantasy genre.

I stupidly pulled the books out with Mrs. Brim in the room.

“Oh what a nice card, Jean! And,” she paused at the sight of the books on the bedside table, “how nice. Thank you. Let’s move these for your supper, Rachel.” Mrs. Brim plunked the books on the windowsill behind the drapes. Rachel’s supper consisted of yogurt and Ensure. “Let’s not forget your owl!” Mrs. Brim balanced a large plush snowy owl where I had placed my books. I did not tell her the owl looked just like Hedwig from the Harry Potter series.

-*-

Now Rachel lay before me, barely sixty pounds, and unable to speak. The tumor had been wrapped around her brain stem for quite some time, according to the doctors. She needs a hole in her head to function as a drain, a permanent system where fluids could be siphoned into her stomach. And speaking of stomach, she needs a hole there too, so they can move the feeding tube. May as well put a hole in her throat so she can get her mouth back. All normal procedure—that is, until her fever goes away, which must stem from an infection we can’t find. We’ll just keep taking samples from all over and studying their cultures which could take days maybe weeks and keep her in intensive care which normally is just a short-term thing but what do you know, she’s been here five weeks. Well, what’s another week.

A week. I can’t imagine laying in that bed for an hour with all those tubes and noose on my head. I don’t blame Rachel for being so unresponsive. I just wish I could give her a new fantasy to live in, if only for a few hours, without backlash from her family. There are so many beautiful worlds out there, Rachel, beyond the Christian-approved Narnia and Middle Earth, where the quests are terrible and hilarious until the very end where all is well again. Without permission to share my fantasies, I resort to becoming Listener of Woes.

“It’s a shame her sister couldn’t come before the surgery,” Mrs. Brim says with a sigh, “but she had to play organ, and you know Ruth—she just has so many duties at the church, she didn’t want to let them down.”

I nod slowly because all I want to say is what   a   BITCH. Rachel may never be the same way again, and you put ORGAN before your sister? I do not say this because I know the answer: God first.

We say good-bye. “God has his plan for Rachel. We’ll see it someday.” She hugs me, which requires a very awkward bend forward on my part. I wonder if that wedding dress still hangs in Rachel’s old closet.

“The future is full of ‘what ifs’ to be explored, Mrs. Brim. Good night.”