New Short Stories

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve created a new category here to share my new short stories.

I hadn’t written fiction since my teens – memoir seemed more than enough. But when my life took off into great uncertainty last year when I lost job and house at once…I had to learn to go with the wind, where the wind wanted to take me.

Because of that, a new way of writing was freed up (completely to my surprise.) I discovered that I don’t need to know the plot ahead of time. In fact, much better i don’t. A scene appears to me, i write it, and go do something else. Later another scene appears. And so on. Completely free-wheeling.

And then, mysteriously, the disparate elements find their way to each other…somehow.

This is so much fun.

So I am proud to present…Tales the Wind Wove. Look under Short Stories.

And, somebody on FB insisted I should put a paypal button up too. It’s under Tips Jar.

Thank you…..

Shipment from Siena

Her eyes were the colour of moldavite – when you hold the stone up to the light, and see the green – a dignified, kelp-forest, pine-forest green.

Moldavite, but in these eyes there were gold flecks added, and the possibility of reflecting the sky – a blue somewhere in there too, waiting its time.

What he loved in her was her distance – the stern, almost eagle look of her as she sat facing him now in the train carriage. He was reminded again and again of the Eel River – that moody torrent that had beguiled his childhood. The river ten miles from his home that was too far for a little boy to walk in a day, and then walk home again. A place saved for a few family picnics per summer, his small sisters giving their dolls mud facials near the banks, his parents reclining on loungers, reading their separate sorts of books: sci-fi for him, lawyer thrillers for her. He, concocting far-flung adventures for himself, becoming a seal, becoming a bear. Once he tried to gnaw through a sapling, to become a beaver. But beavers’ teeth and jaws are so superior. He succeeded only in marring the bark and leaving a snaily patch of saliva on it.

The Eel had gotten closer when he acquired a 10-speed Raleigh bicycle. And a friend, Grayson Phipps. They’d bike there on a Saturday morning, with lunches in a paper bag, and spend the day diving, swimming, relaxing, dreaming adulthoods together. Grayson was blond and strong and short and he laughed like a hyena when he thought something Jad had said was funny. Their Mounds Bars and peanut butter sandwiches, celery sticks and apples and little bags of potato chips were the exact same lunches they took to school – a fact both disappointing and reassuring. It was as if their mothers were stuck in a hypnotized lunch-groove and, unless jarred out of it by a bigger family affair, could not produce a different bagged repast.

Yes, the Eel was for dessert – a longed-for place, not seen often. And so Jad felt when he looked into the eyes of this young woman across from him, who was reading Anna Karenina in deep absorption, but glanced up if he leaned to her or put a hand on her knee.

But if she opened her little pink crooked mouth – her lilting, soft lips, over white teeth that overlapped here and there – and began to speak…well, she was trying to draw him near. She told too much of herself, in a confessional, frank manner – told him her dreams of a morning, in all their concentrated symbology, and to him boringness – too much about her family in them; he only wanted to take her away from her family; not hear about them. Not know them better.

She tried to drag him close – near as near – by telling him all her woes and confusions. Especially after they’d made love she liked to do this – when he was feeling mellow as a banana milkshake, just wanting to glide through the ether and rest. And there she was, pulling him closer and closer, as if now she was just getting started.

And yet her eyes were so remote, and old, like the tundra – mysteriously coloured, wordless, fine.

They were headed towards Milan, and then Siena. They’d landed in Zurich, so that they could take in the sights on the long train journey south; the scenery was supposed to be amazing. And they were not disappointed – so many steep gorges with thread-thin train bridges spanning them high in the air; tunnels, and little villages between the tunnels, stuck in a wooded cleft, melancholic and tidy. They planned to retrace their steps on the way back and then swing on up into the high Alps for a few days’ R&R.

And now, on an impulse they jumped off in Locarno, and found a hotel; and dined in an empty restaurant on the lake, where an attentive waiter served them endlessly, graciously, with the best polenta Jad had ever had or could imagine having. It must, he thought secretly, have been cooked with meat broth – nothing veggie could ever taste that rich, that decadent – and its crust of parmesan crackled under the teeth most seducingly. Kerensa mmmm’d and sighed and sipped conservatively at her glass of red wine. The smoked fish starter – she was a Pescatarian, really – had been huge and delicious too, with its great hill of thick mayonnaise – and as they waited for their vanilla gelato with fresh figs, they told each other how nice it was that they’d gotten out in this dark, quiet town.

There was an old man who had a villa on the outskirts of Siena. He’d spent a privileged lifetime collecting beautiful stones. He’d travelled, and wherever he went, his goal was always the rock shop, the estate sale, the auction, where some passionate rock-hound had amassed his Aladdin’s cave of treasure.

Now, as he neared his end, he wanted his collection to go to someone who would appreciate it – his own children and grandchildren caring nothing for the old man’s rocks, but only what they might fetch. But to Signor Garibaldi, stones were magic portals to secret worlds of wonder. He revelled, he craved, he petted, he bought, he sold, he communed with – read the histories of untold aeons of transmutation, the pressures and upliftments of the earth, the fire and cold and the way sea and wind and mountains acted on the substances beneath them, pressing, polishing, scrubbing, millenium on millenium. And he felt the voices of them, these coloured messengers – some like princesses in a blue glass chamber, some like wise old men gone silent in a dwelling far away. Some were green and fresh as spring leaves. Some sang with the high dulcet tones of Himalayan maidens – some were serene as queens – some black as panthers in the dark – some chatoyant at cats’ eyes when they glance at you with a sudden alertness ,even as they’re purring in your chair. Some were warm as sunshine – some cold and blue as arctic ice – some radiant as moonshine – some dull and stodgy as a Bavarian village…But all of them he felt ownership for; a jealous guardianship.

Signor Garibaldi did not fear the parting from his treasures, though – for he felt that he would become part of them soon – part of their majesties and the way the weathers acted upon them, night and day.

He served Jad and Keri each with a large snifter in which was a little pomegranate brandy. They smelt it and tilted the glass and let the garnet liquid swirl, clinging with centrifugal force to the sides of the bowl. It smelt of autumn – of berries against wet brown leaves. It tasted like burning berries, tart and sweet, with something rich and mellow underneath, like caramel. Like skin…when you smell at your lover’s shoulder, and your lover is brown with the sun. They had some runny cheese all sassy with barnyard funk, unashamedly feet-smelling, barely contained in its virginal white rind. There were crisp, seeded crackers with it; a dish of white grapes nearby for the picking.

Jad felt himself begin to relax. This was good, he thought; this was good.

Kerensa was smiling at Signor Garibaldi with benign indulgence. So that was all right. She actually seemed to register his existence, though he was so very old. Kerensa was only twenty, and apt to shut out whatever didn’t speak to her personal interests: wildlife preservation, and snowboarding, and, of all things, Cuban literature – her Spanish was great, if her Italian was nonexistent. She’d grown up in Florida and Washington State – mom one place, dad another.

Signor Garibaldi was a well-fleshed man of medium height, mostly bald, with liver spots on his hands, his arms, his scalp. His nails were ridged and yellowed, though nicely manicured; his paunch noticeable, though not overwhelming, like American ones tended to be. His clothes, thought Jad, were very good – wool slacks, polo-neck sweater with the sleeves rolled up, loafers without socks. He wore one gold earring. His hands were long and sensitive-looking. His face was quite ordinary, except for a large mole below the right side of his fleshy mouth. His eyes, behind his glasses, were clear and sharp. He smelt of soap, and the many locked-in rooms of his house, and the lemon-flowers you could smell through the open window in the dining room, where they sat; and something bitter under that – an old man’s smell.

Jad was waiting to see the rooms where the stones were. But he knew that the socializing had to come first. A stout housekeeper with a disapproving air refilled the pitcher of water that sat on a ceramic tile on the large table. The lemon flowers lending their scent to the room…really were most incredible, thought Jad. That a room could smell like that.

Signor Garibaldi walked with a stick, the handle of which was shiny and polished damp from the grip of his hand. He led them haltingly down a long corridor to a room at the end. “And-a so-a, we start-a at-a the beginning-a,” said he cryptically. And he fitted a key into the modern lock on the stout, carven old door.

Grayson Phipps’s dad had had a filling station, but, telling no-one, he’d invested in Texas oil wells too. And he’d made it, two of the wells had come in, and so his son grew into his posh-sounding name, and drove low sports cars you had to fold yourself in half to get into. At twenty-six he’d already married and divorced twice, and young Mackenzie-Ann and young Taylora, his exes, were set up pretty well as a result of it. He’d grown away from Jad for a while, but when Jad needed bankrolling for his lapidary shop, Gray stepped forward and put up the money. He said the project helped him feel grounded. And then he laughed. Like a hyena. He was a good kid really, couldn’t help it if his blond, stocky good looks and his money made a certain sort of woman look past his lacking inches and pursue him cagily, cleverly. He was still finding his feet in the world, and at present was in Africa, photographing wildebeeste and the like. Something he was really interested in, or was just trying to be? wondered Jad. Gray was too biddable for a rich man, thought Jad, not for the first time.

In the dry mountain air the pale wood panelling on the walls gave the room a clean, silent feeling, stout and strong and yet light at the same time. The landlady, no-nonsense and squarely upholstered, had unlatched the shutters, thrown open the doors to the balcony. From there they saw the mountains…white and variegated, and felt their cold air touch their faces like an exciting invitation. The sky seemed bigger too, as if they’d been helped up into tit and could feel its wild nature a little better from here.

Jad had done all his phoning while they were still in Siena – arranging the packing, shipping, and receiving of Signor Garibaldi’s collection at Jad’s shop in Eureka, California. So now he could relax for a few days…he and Keri, and Grayson too when he arrived from Kenya tomorrow. He could feel the muscles in his legs in some eager answering to the bright, sunlit prominences all about the valley – Yes, yes! Out there! Walking!

They ate buttery little perch from the lake, with boiled potatoes and broccoli. They had some wine, and then sat back with a hot tisane, feeling the glow through their whole bodies – they’d hiked straight up the hill behind the hotel, up and up and up…as the valley went into chilly shadow, but the sun still fizzed above them, sweet and warm and complacent. They’d walked on a dirt road that had been cleared; snow lay off to the sides, crystalline, ageing. Snow paved the ground among the trees – pine woods, mixed with deciduous trees. It was all beautiful, beautiful – what was he doing in the flatlands? Why didn’t he live and breathe like this all the time?

The night was so dark. The hotel was on the side of a hill; the few street-lights in the village below did not make much difference in the thickness of the night. There was silence except for a stream somewhere, talking to itself as it ran along. Jad was buoyed on the goodness of the walk, the food, and their lovemaking…just about to be received by sleep, like a stream meeting a big dark lake. He was slipping under…

“Jad?” she began. “It’s really weird, but -” and he stiffened for a moment – for her knew that if he just fell asleep, and did not listen to her, he was not a good sort of guy. And he knew that he was a good sort of guy. Wasn’t he? And so he had to shake the sleep off for a little while – he hoped not too long -.

“Ungh?” he managed to utter.

“…I mean, I love making love with you,” she went on confessionally. “I love to feel your…um…beauty. Your…hardness, your…well, sometimes your heart. And it’s fun – we laugh – sometimes. But there’s always something kind of bothering me. Often…you know how, when you read books, and people make love, they have, like, simultaneous orgasms? And the woman, when he’s inside her, she’s, like, experiencing all this, like, pleasure? They describe it that way. ‘She reached a crescendo of pleasure.’ Or in Spanish, they call it ‘celebration.’ But it doesn’t feel like that for me. It feels different.

“I mean, when you touch me…first…it starts to feel really good, right there…there is something like pleasure – and when you suck my breasts…” (here her hands went to her little cones, her pink-tipped cones) “that can feel, like, really good! Exciting! Sweet! It’s like…I love your head, then – bent there.

“But when you’re inside, all that goes away. It’s not pleasure. Something else happens instead. I feel like…I’ve been thrown off a cliff backwards. It’s like I’m in a circus, and I’ve fallen off the trapeze. I don’t know where I’m gonna land. it’s like…all of me is taken over, y’know? And I keep waiting for some other, further thing to occur – to land, to explode, to finally breathe so hugely that I disappear and nobody is there anymore. Sometimes it’s like that. I forget my own name.

“…But…” she went on, as Jad listened, and kept falling into silky sleep, and pulling himself out again – trying to be interested, indeed, he was interested, but it all sounded so strange to him, so unbelievable – how could anyone do what they did together and manage to avoid pleasure? Pleasure was the very purpose, the very essence of the thing. You had pleasure, and then you went to sleep. Was Keri damaged somehow? Or was this what women were? No – he could not believe that; Keri was articulate – too articulate – but she could not be a spokeswoman for all the rest of them, too. He’d been with enough women to know…they loved it! They were all different, as different as cats with their stripes and blotches and colours of eyes and peculiarities of habit – but they all felt…pleasure. Didn’t they?

But Keri was going on. “…That part isn’t pleasure. I don’t feel it like I do in my clitoris, you know, when you touch me…I just feel…almost-annihilated; but not quite. Never altogether.

“So I wonder,” she breathed, snuggling closer to him, her arm over his chest, her small hand resting on his bicep – “what is wrong with me. Why I don’t feel it like I’m supposed to. Why I only feel like I’ve fallen out of a plane into the Amazon jungle, or something. Where are the mutual orgasms? Where is, even, an orgasm, for gosh sakes?

“It’s scary for me to tell you this,” she went on relentlessly. “You might think something’s wrong with me. Yes, sometimes I did have an orgasm – when you licked me – those couple of times – though I was worried that you might be getting tired…and that distracted me…the least little distraction ruins everything…but what about those mutual orgasms and, like, guaranteed pleasures people are supposed to have? I don’t get it…Jad? Are you awake?” she whispered.

“Ungh -” reiterated Jad. “Ung.”

And he fell deeply asleep.

She was amazing on a snowboard. She was something to watch. He liked sliding down a modest little slope, playing among the snow-hummocks – but she was an expert. She was so agile, so gracile, so quick and alert. It seemed effortless, what she did, flipping around over there like an elf in a white faux-furred jacket, a pointy snug fur-edged cap velcro-strapped under her chin. Her dark curls poking out, her arms out, balancing, going up and down the run like a skateboarding teen. He gazed on in admiration. She seemed so serious – she didn’t smile; she was absorbed in the combining of board, snow, cold, sky; her young body; all to a sort of music only she could hear.

He heard a whumpff behind him, then a laugh – turned – and saw Gray coming towards him, stomping and sliding in moon-boots, laughing, with a sort of bluster coming off of him, cap-less, his blond hair shining.

They gripped each other’s shoulders, clasped each other in a quick hug.

Gray stepped back. He looked like Heidi’s brother – like he was born here – red-cheeked, flaxen-haired, stocky and beaming. He tipped his chin towards Kerensa. “Pretty good, huh? Wow. I was watchin’.”

They had a morning ritual, Jad and Keri – rise about 7:00, and walk together on the path that ran along behind his house, down to the river. There a well-kept jogging path allowed a good long drink of morning woods-vibes – something essential, it seemed, like water or air. They’d walk down to the bridge, cross over, and come back up the other side, to the next bridge, and back to his house – about two miles all told. And they did this walk in silence. That had been Keri’s idea. He’d balked at first, not wanting to feel constrained in any regard; but soon he realized that this silence with her was blessed – perhaps the best thing they had between them. It gave the woods a chance to speak, and the woods were uncomplicatedly benig; even, he thought, actively healing. Like thousands of wise nurses, or good parents, standing over them, non-interfering, yet ready with the soothing hands that could heal.

After the walk they’d shower, then get in Jad’s truck and drive to the local not-Starbucks, a reassuringly shabby refuge with donated couches, real potted bushes, and a constantly-changing menu of coffees, teas, and breakfasts. The coffee was everything you could want it to be…and, under its influence, Keri would talk…She’d get Ideas – Ideas for all sorts of things – how mankind could be saved (everybody had to have a silent walk each day – or dance for an hour – or, all politicians inclined towards aggression had to duke it out with each other, mano a mano, and leave the rest of us alone.) She had Ideas what she might want to do with her life: after she got her literature degree she would go for another one, in biology and ecology. Or, she would move to Cuba and really live what she’d studied. Yes, she surely must do that. Did he think he could stand to live in Cuba for a while? They should take the train up to the Hudson Bay and see polar bears! They should do that this year! And soon she’d learn to tango; all those long, snakey leg movements…she’d do them too, even if she was kind of short. How could anyone say they’d lived if they hadn’t tangoed? Or seen pink dolphins in the Amazon, and helped protect them? But she’d take time off to snowboard down Mt Everest – or at least Mt McKinley. Mt Fuji, if it still had any snow.

Jad listened, having figured out that it was the caffeine speaking, making her think all this was as easy as 1-2-3. She was so…multi-compartmented. She jumped about among the parts of herself like a half-grown cat, serious, skewing for balance.

Jad had always known what he was going to do. Hunt rocks, buy rocks, sell rocks, study rocks. Have a shop. And for cutting loose, well, hiking did him just fine. He didn’t have any expensive sports fantasies.

So what was it about Keri that he loved? Why was he with her?

…She was so other. He was big and bluff and slow-moving; sandy-haired, precise and diffident. But he knew what he wanted, knew how to go about it. She was little and dark-haired, with very fair skin and a low center of gravity. Her hips were rounded, her torso slender. And she seemed so lost; and yet she also seemed to belong utterly to herself. That intrigued him – how could somebody be so what they were, and yet not know what they wanted to do?

…And then there was Keri in bed. Her velvety openness to him, her damp, blooming lily-petal interior. Her warmth, and her twining about him, and her way of looking into his eyes in the dark or the twilight – looking, searching, like she wanted to see him, really see him. It touched him, that – she was so young. Such a petal.

He was beginning to realize that all this last was his experience of her lovemaking – and that for her it might be different. That she didn’t know her own softness, her own wet. That she lived in some different place, where these things had not dawned yet.

Yes, she was searching him – but she might never find him where he lived. As a ready, elementary man. Her complexity got in the way, and her youth…but she was Keri, almost like a sister to him too; and he accepted her, there at his side.

The past few days she’d not wanted coffee – she’d brought her own fennel teabags. And she went to the restroom a lot suddenly. Jad wondered if she had cystitis – but knew she’d tell him if she did, as she had before. Coffee-less, she wasn’t talking a lot either. He felt vaguely uneasy. Where were all her plans? Ones without him in them – ones including him – . He realized he’d come to rely on these little morning dream-streams. They made him optimistic too.

On weekends she helped in the shop, and then they’d cook dinner together and eat at the picnic table behind his house, overlooking the river. Or they’d go out, there were a few great organic Mex places with really stellar, plentiful food heaped on long heated platters. They might see a flick, or visit friends.

Tonight they’d seen a docu-drama with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan – Judi Dench trying to look powerless, which didn’t really work. She was playing an old Irishwoman who had been seduced in her innocent youth and then forced to go to a Catholic Home for Unwed Mothers. Her son was taken from her and adopted away, she knew not where. Steve Coogan was the reporter who would find out what had become of this son. Keri muttered imprecations at the imperious, lying nuns; growled and beat on the armrest. Both Jad and Keri were much moved by the ending, and went out into the foggy night holding hands.

That night she told him…he was just falling into sleep, but she pulled him back out again with her sure, intense voice. “Jad. I’m quite sure I’m pregnant. I am. I’m scared, Jad. I’m really scared.”

He felt a bolt of cold metal move through his body. It was like being in a plane and thinking that the engines had stopped. But in those cases the engines really hadn’t stopped; it was some strange perception of standing still in the air. This coldness hit him, and it stayed.

“Are you sure?” he asked softly.

“Yeh. Did a test today,” she replied.

“But – what about the Pill?” he asked.

“I think it was the jet-lag – when we went to Europe,” she said. “I must have gotten confused about the time – left it too late. It got in there somehow.”

“Gosh,” he said, awake now, playing for time. “Um – what do you want to do? Do you know?”

Of course she wouldn’t know, he thought. Not yet. She’d have a dozen ideas about it all.

“Um,” she answered, hushed in the dark, lying naked next to him. She moved a little away. “Um – Jad – it it could be…Grayson’s. Or yours. I don’t know.”

Ice fell down the back of his neck. A cold boulder sat in his belly. He found he could not exactly breathe.

Gray?” He managed to get the word out, though his jaw seemed locked, but then it chattered, knocking his teeth together. He was so cold. But suddenly he didn’t want to feel warmth from her. He moved away too. The blankets weren’t enough to cover the two of them, yet they confined him. He threw them off.

“I’m sorry,” she said. There were tears in her voice, but they did not spill. Her body seemed braced, now, in the bed. Braced for whatever would come.

When?” he demanded. Nothing like this had ever happened to him. His life had been easy! Heat seemed to rise up through him now, getting into his teeth. They wanted to gnash, to bite something.

Gray?” he added, again – his voice breaking in a squeak.

“Switzerland,” she whispered. “When you went for a walk by yourself and then down to the village to buy picnic food that day. I knew we’d have time. I wanted…I wanted to see if it would be different. There’s only been you, and, and…my first boyfriend, when I was sixteen. I don’t feel what I’m supposed to! I wanted to see…if it would feel different – if I might have…those feelings.”

GRAY!” yelled Jad suddenly, and he jumped out of bed and threw on his flannel shirt, wrested on his jeans, pulled on woollen socks, his hiking boots, laced them up with a yank. “That FUCKING BASTARD!!!” and he ran out of the house into the night, truck-keys pointing out ahead like a knife.

It was all over, wasn’t it? His cozy, soft life – that little girl had betrayed him, she was nothing more than a green, callow teenager really – what was he thinking? – and his best friend, and business partner, had betrayed him too.

His mind raced about in his head as he steered the truck through the night.

He still owed Gray money, though he was servicing the loan at a good clip – did this mean he would lose his shop as well? No, no, surely not – he was the wounded party, he would go on paying, it was a business deal after all, above emotion – but could he stand to own the shop any longer, his beautiful shop, with that dirty money behind it? Oh, SHIT!

They fought behind Gray’s house, on the deck, in the dark. Punched each other like neither of them had ever punched anybody before. Tore each other’s clothes, bloodied each other’s noses, knuckles. Roared like bears, grappled – Jad wanted to beat Gray’s head against the deck, but his better sense finally prevailed, and he merely slapped the deck again and again with his open hand, gathering splinters, cursing the while. Punched Gray in the stomach then, a glancing blow, and Gray got him right back before they both fell back gasping onto the wooden floor, waiting for breath to return.

Then they hugged and sobbed, crying and yelling into each other’s ears – “YOU BASTARD!”

NO – YOU! YOU MOTHERFUCKER! AGHHHH! I TRUSTED YOUUUU!”

“You know me – I’m an adventurer,” Gray shrugged, later, while they sat in his cold kitchen drinking glasses of water. “She wanted me. How could I refuse? It would have been…ungentlemanly.”

“Oh, fuck you!” yelled Jad – but he almost laughed a little too. Bitterly.

“Jared -” said Gray pityingly. “You’re such a fool for love.”

“I don’t know if it’s love, exactly -” said Jad, head bowed, legs apart, feet planted – where he sat in a hard chair, at the table in the messy kitchen. And he contemplated freshly the indignity of things.

He had to go away. He had to think. He had to be alone.

He unlocked the front door of his long rambling shop and went inside. There were no other businesses just nearby – a dirt parking lot outside welcomed motorists from near or far. The building was long and many-winged, and there were outbuildings. It had been a lumber mill, once, and he’d converted the offices to retail and storage space.

He went from room to room, feeling the silent gorgeousness of the stones – some big as toddlers, others big as German Shepherds on their hind legs. Miniature Himalayan peaks they were, or burning bushes of jasper, polished on one face, showing the insides of themselves implacably, beauteously. They towered, they loomed, they rested, they reposed, like magicians in armchairs they presided, they held court. They were lemon-colored, grape-colored, earth-toned, spring-leaf-hued. Every natural color was here in these rooms, made with interminably slow magic by Mother Nature herself. And she’d given them personalities, characters, essences. It was as if he’d come into a Council of the Wise…they’d been here while all that noise and drama had been going on at Gray’s, and they’d just sat so silently.

He found the room where the shipment from Siena had been laid out for inventory. And in a room next to this one, he remembered, he’d stored some Afghan carpets he’d once bought at an estate auction. They were rolled up, tilted slightly against the wall in a corner. He dragged two of them into the larger room where the stones were, and unrolled them, one atop the other, on the wooden floor. In a nearby restroom he mopped his face of blood and dirt, using dampened paper towels, brushing himself off – he was dotted with damp leaves – and then he washed his hands. He turned off the light and went back out into the larger room. He had no plan – was just acting instinctively, moment by moment.

He wanted to cover his eyes – needed to cover his eyes – he didn’t know why. He cast about until he found an old woollen scarf, on a hat-stand in an office. Then he sat down on the rugs, facing a tall, greyish crystal; with several peaks or points on its top. A towel had been laid out on a long narrow table next to where the crystal sat atop its wooden packing crate. On the towel a collection of fine, lumpy moldavites stood about, like E.T.s at a cocktail party. Moldavites, he knew, were supposed to be , in New age parlance, “the starborne stone of transformation.” These greenish tektites were the product of a meteorite strike in Czechoslovakia 18 million years ago…The very earth had turned to glass, in little lumps, all along the path of the skidding meteor. Those gloppy bits carried the alchemies of heat and shock and unthinkable distance…carried the bearer to outer space, there to turn around and regard our earth, and his own life, from that formidably wisdom-producing perspective. He had heard (though he himself was pragmatic about his work and didn’t seek these often airy-fairy, wild-eyed and glib-seeming descriptives) that judicious use of moldavites would result in the shaking-up of a person’s life, while all things that did not feed his real purpose here on earth, broke and crumbled. But he didn’t know about this himself – he just loved stones, and this was an agreeably mysterious and ugly-beautiful one.

On the other side of the crystal, on another long table against the wall, was a selection of unusual stones, beautiful examples of each: selenite, prionite, honey calcite, labradorite, ulexite, lithium quartz, charoite, heulandite, diopside…in different shapes and sizes.

He found himself bowing to the great crystal as if it was a god.

Then he began to weep, harshly. Then suddenly he stopped, and keeled over onto his right side in foetal position. That felt wrong – going, somehow, backwards. He sat up again.

Something was pulling at his crown – just behind the very top of his head. Something was forcing him to be alert.

In the end he simply sat cross-legged on the floor, with his jacket wadded under him, and, closing his eyes, tied the muffler round his head, covering away his outer vision, so that he was taken into darkness.

He sat for a long time. At first his inner world was full of commotion – memories of thumping and being thumped; the sensation in his diaphragm when the air was knocked out of him. The similar sensation when Keri had told him what she’d told him.

By and by though he began to notice sounds, and other sensations – the weighty swwwsh of an occasional vehicle on the road, the round notes of an owl. The air on his arms, colder now. A kind of urgent heat in his chest that then lessened, and settled, and calmed. His breathing slowed…and with it his urgency, his panic.

His mind could not grapple with any plans of action – he was altogether too overwhelmed. He felt that there was nowhere to go that would make any sense – his best friend was lost to him, and his woman too – and perhaps his business, this place that he loved, that was his own creation, his very footprint.

Nothing could be done. And so he sat.

Somehow, in this sitting, he was falling deeper inside himself. He knew this; and marvelled that he had not known this place existed – this deep-inside place – a still place, gripping him gently so that he did not feel to move. His breath created little sensations, little muscular movements in the inner walls of his nostrils. His lungs…expanded and contracted and expanded again. His taut belly registered tiny movements with the breath. And inside his stomach, the pain of loss, of impact, pulled at him, yanking him deeper still.

After half an hour he lay down. He felt like the rug – flat, fringey with toes, full of a dark-woven design; still and receptive.

He did not sleep, but went on falling into himself. He perceived that jealousy leaves you no egress – you cannot do anything without making of yourself at best an ass, at worst a criminal. It drives you inwards, for there is no place else to go. People are free – they can love, or at least experiment with, whomsoever they please. Anything else is imprisonment, torture. There are rights you cannot deny people, and which you would not wish to be denied. If love is based on being in a state of captivity, it is no love at all – it is something else. Something we do to animals, and should not do to other people. He knew this – he could feel it, in his body, as a truth.

Kerensa had spun away from him. All he’d taken for granted was no longer true. And so he fell inwards layer by layer. And the deeper he fell, the more still things became…until he was a rather warm iceberg, floating in an unknown sea.

The great grey crystal rose from its perch and glided down to where he lay, coming to rest on the floor not far from his right shoulder. Then the moldavites descended, surrounding him, a circle of little stones. The the odd rocks twitched and flew into the air, moving soundlessly like a little flock of birds with the volume switched off; hovering over him, then coming to rest where they felt easiest, each somewhere about him on the floor.

He felt the music of them – the energies of each, communicating itself to him, passing through his body, making a kind of balance, a nourishment precisely placed to be just what he needed right now. He began to float more peacefully – almost a bliss overtook him. He forgot where he was, or what had happened. He was just here.

The grey crystal took on the aspect of a figure – tall, with a long grey beard and long, clean grey hair, it sat, wearing a robe, it seemed like; and just sort of being there. It was a sort of man, though he could not have told you what its face was like – it didn’t seem to need a face; or not one you could stare into. It was enough for Jad to be near it, and let it shine its particular energy at him – a kind of very intimate, personal, and yet calm and objective, welcoming.

Jad noticed the robe of the Crystal Man, from within his eyes-closed space. The cloth turned a deep, rich, vivid blue….the colour seemed to reach out to Jad and fill him with a peaceful sense of trust. His body relaxed; his breath slowed even more. He began to feel that he was in love…yet not with someone; rather, that something loved him. Something he could not name, yet had always known was there.

His belly and his heart seemed to open, and his questions came tumbling out – not spoken aloud, yet spoken inside himself quite firmly, to Mr Blue Robe Crystal:

What is happening?

She went with him! She has left me!

Has she left me?

Do I want to be with her, really?

Are we good for each other, really?

Is my best friend Grayson lost to me?

Why do I feel so destroyed?

Is it wrong, that I beat on Gray?

Is this shop safe? Can it continue?

What must I do now?

What can I do?

Then he lay back, and gave up, and waited…his belly, his heart, gaping wide.

The answers came not as words, but as knowings in his body – yet it was clear that these knowings were flowing into him from the stones, from Mr Blue Robe Crystal, from the very blue of his gown. And perhaps from some atmosphere, some place Mr Blue Robe Crystal came from…where lived a multitude of wisdoms.

A pinkish light began to glow in the room, he could feel it, see it all about him – though his eyes were covered.

And there was a Knowing that in his extremity he had become available; and that without that emergency, he was not.

The pinkish light now lay under him as well as around. He was floating on it. The sense of peace and goodness was amazing. He seemed to not truly have any troubles; all were just perceptions, changeable as dust.

As if from a distance, he saw Gray and Keri, meeting, trying things out.

He saw that they did not really care for, long for, each other – that he had no cause to feel afraid that she would go to Gray as a mate.

They were ‘just fooling around.’

This, however, did not reassure him – his body did not relax into any sort of submission with it – because the bigger question was, Did Jad really want to be with Keri?

He was shown, with the blue light seeping through his body, that he himself was a Singularity – unknown to himself, unborn. That he was precious beyond belief, beyond understanding.

That he was here to walk the walk of his own life, above all things.

And, once well begun, then he might look about him for a mate.

Gray was his wolf-brother.

They might fight – it was natural.

They might stray apart.

But they would meet again. No need to worry, push, or Do. Nothing had been destroyed that was real.

He was ashamed then, because he did not know himself. Because he had been caught out as the wild animal. But nothing is wrong in it – sometimes the bear has got to rage.

We are not all civilized. We are really barely civilized at all.

Most of all…Jad was welcomed in love by Those, cradled by Those, set gently and neatly back on his path, by Those.

A woman is not someone to take for granted – to live beside in animal solidity, without a question.

She is a daily, hourly, mystery – an Other, doing what she must for herself.

Do not take her lightly.

And he felt all his questions come apart…and leave him bobbing in a tropic sea of pink and blue, back in himself, with all who did not belong in the room, out of it now.

There were really no questions – for there was nothing to do. No decisions to make. Life would make them.

18 Months later…

The email pinged into his inbox while he was sitting in a departure lounge at Schiphol, waiting for a flight to Copenhagen. Another collector’s demise; another auction.

It was Keri. He’d not heard from her in more than a year.

“Hi Jad, I’m in Portugal. Want to Skype later?”

So, that night, after a lonely dinner which somehow contrived to cost a great deal without being filling, he sat in his hotel room and opened his screen.

And there she was.

She looked the same – and yet not. Her hair was longer, rippling down past her shoulders, parted on one side. She was wearing some little hot-weather top with straps – her shoulders were bare. She seemed relaxed. Silver earrings dangled from her ears.

“I dreamt about the baby last night,” she said. “I wanted to tell you.

“He had curly blond hair. He told me he was Gray’s son.”

Jad took a deep breath and let it out. So.

“I told him I couldn’t have gone through with it – having him, bringing him up. I was too young. Not ready. I said I was sorry.

“He said, ‘But I would have loved you.’ Then he added, ‘And I wanted to play football with Gray!’

“He was…sweet. Ready to come and be alive. I felt kind of sad…but not like I should have had him anyway. Not like that.

“And you know, I heard from a friend here, that the baby will just go somewhere else. It knocks on one door – if it’s not the right house, it’ll go elsewhere.

“And I thought, who knows, maybe it will still end up with Gray – somehow. …But really, Jad…I’m just so happy to be here. This is what I needed. To take some time off from school – I didn’t really know what I was doing – and go someplace where I could ask all the questions I want…real questions, not just about literature and stuff. And later, when I go back, maybe I’ll be clearer what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t know yet. it’s not time.

“I’m just revelling in being here, with Mooji Baba, with the other people, letting my spirit be the most important thing…not all those practicalities and pursuits. I’m so glad my new room-mate turned me onto this. This is the best thing I could have done. Because what is life if your spirit has been misplaced?

“But anyway I just wanted you to know.” She was gazing frankly at him, that old, confiding Keri, yet with a new quality in her voice – calmer, deeper, more at home. He liked it.

“And…umm…” she continued, “I’m learning too. There are things more important than trying to be some sex-talented woman? Like, being just real. Just…in the moment. Like it is. Not like it’s supposed to be.

“And then I like to…ummm…describe it. What’s happening. Not just jump into all sorts of excitement and stuff, which is anyway part pretense, I’m afraid. Slow down…look in eyes….feel what is really happening – in my heart, in my body, in my spirit. Let go of the shoulds. Sometimes it’s like…nothing much. And that’s okay. I always thought it had to be something, but it’s amazing when I just let it be…nothing, or only part of something. And sometimes…well, my spirit is, like, doing cartwheels, hand-stands, flying around in the air. Because the contact in the eyes is so awesome.

“This is really fun. Of course,” she went on, “sometimes this scares them away. The talking. The slowing down, too. But it feels right to me.

“Jad – is it okay that I’m telling you all this?” she asked earnestly, her little face wrinkling up with concern. She was tan, too, he realized – some sun-glow about her skin.

Not really, thought Jad. But it was a mild feeling only – and who knew, maybe later he’d be glad for the information, somehow.

“Glad you’re doing well,” he said gruffly.

“And you?” she asked, and on Skype he couldn’t really see the color of her eyes, the gloss in her hair – but there she was, she’d flown away. Well away.

“I’m good,” he said. “Giving classes now, in Stones Husbandry.”

She laughed.

“Um – I’m still looking,” he said. “Dated a bit – nothing conclusive. But I’m fine. I love my work, and when the right time comes, somebody will come along.”

“You’re an undiscovered treasure,” she said.

“Discovering,” he replied.

Was this tears coming up in him? A little?

And he knew that while he’d been with her, he hadn’t really been there. Not really. he’d been so determined to move about in his bumbling comfort, he hadn’t really heard her distress…had not wanted to know. Did not want to bestir himself. Would have thought some action would have been demanded of him, he would not have known what. He was glad that some bigger man than he, even if this man was somebody as oddball preposterous as a Jamaican guru who lived in Portugal – could take in her restless acumen and give it a home.

His heart, for this moment, was there for her, touched her.

And then it was enough.

Hebden Bridge, 2017

Winter on a Groovy Isle

A clear black night wrapped itself around the house with full embrace. New Year’s Eve is cold on Ibiza; soon an icy night in 1970 would become a frigid morning in 1971. In the main room the fireplace did its best to warm things, but it was the only heating in the house and could not do much, contributing more smoke than heat. The low beamed ceiling was black, and smoke hung there, rippling, seeking height. The other rooms were very cold.

The two brothers sat each with guitar on thigh, head bent, fingers moving over the strings or pausing arachnid-like to press the frets and wobble there, emphasizing a phrase. Their voices filled the room, sometimes tender, sometimes loud; bounced off the adobe walls and came back reassuringly; folded over them.

Sheldon, the elder, wore a bandana tied around his black curls; his eyes were dark, lids large. When he looked up mischief was in them as a slice of light across the depth. He sang again the refrain: I always come in a yellow cab,/ No, I never miss a ride…

His brother’s voice was tenor, his pitted face somehow softer, more girlish; despite the strength of its features, its black brows and large nose. His face seemed to say, I know I am not such a success in the world of swashbuckling coolness as my dear brother; so I will turn inwards, to my guitar, and find some comfort there, unworthy as it might be.

A bottle of the rough local red sat beside Sheldon’s tapping foot, and thick glasses perched on the untidy table along with packets of rolling papers, a baggie of weed, crisp and powdery and dark as spiders. There’d been a sort of feast – the eternal scrambled eggs, chalky, unsalted white bread, mantequilla de cacahuetes – and Starlight had cooked sliced onions in the big pan with a few gnarled vegetables, chopped up with a dull knife. Every crumb had been eaten, as always; but for this crowd the wine was the real thing, even if it was puckery with tannin and far too young.

The others sat in the straight-backed rope-strung chairs, tapping their feet and singing along off-key where they knew the words. It was a catchy tune. Every once in while someone would roll another joint and pass it round.

Starlight by this time had little tolerance for these nostrums, though she tried her best; they made her cloudy and uneasy, and seemed to erode the foundations of her being; of her connection with herself. Her body was refusing more and more the nourishments on which the rest of the crew depended.

It wasn’t midnight yet, but she was tired, and these incessant evenings of music were no longer novel, no longer fun. She could not tell Sheldon that she resented his guitar as she would a mistress. Never ever could she betray how uncool she was in herself – how un-free, how possessive, how insecure. She had to pretend, and try hard to be a better, more enlightened person. So she put up with Lady Guitar and stayed up as late as she could. But now it was enough -.

The pale weight of her hair fell down her back as, candle in hand, she mounted the wooden stairs to the upper floor. It was so hard to wash hair here – she had to heat water in a blackened pan on the fire, pour it into a tin bucket outside, add cold water from the pump, use a cup for the wetting, washing, rinsing. Bathing required the same sort of labor. They didn’t bathe or shampoo often, and everyone’s hair was dulled with smoke. Even her own beautiful golden waterfall could not be relied upon to hold Sheldon’s love, then. When she’d risen to go up the stairs he’d barely looked up – though she could see that his eyes were alert to her, just for a moment.

Up in the room, she tipped the melted wax from the candle’s burning end onto the bedside table, and then stuck the wide end of the taper into it and waited, holding it steady, while the wax cooled and trapped the little white pillar fast. She undressed as quickly as she could, laying her garments on the chair, and got into the low bed under the woolen blankets. None of them possessed nightclothes, of course, except for Mercer, the brother; he had a pair of brushed cotton pajamas in midnight blue with fraying, tarnished white piping, and he was generally accused of being an old maid.

So Starlight just had to lie there till she warmed up. She felt like a skinny white root under layers of cold burlap.

She looked about her at the familiar whitewashed walls, ceiling beam, the three wooden pegs jutting out of the wall for clothes. Two patched granny dresses hung there, one green, one Indian bedspread paisley in autumnal shades. A hole-y sweater of Sheldon’s hung beside them, getting its shoulder poked out. Behind the bed, stretched on the wall, was a woven wool hanging; she’d managed to put it up there herself, tying string through its corners and wrapping the cord around the hinges on the shutters of the two windows flanking the bed. And then she’d tidied things, made it all look nice. And Sheldon had been so angry! “This is bourgeois!” he’d railed. “You’re no better than my mother! I could have stayed back in Oakland, with her coming around interfering all the time!”

Starlight was a little warmer now – though her feet, her shoulders, were still cold. She leant over and blew out the candle. Closed her eyes.

She could hear the singing, the twanging, the melody, coming up the stairs, imperfectly through the closed door. They would go on for an hour or two yet. She settled down to wait for Sheldon – for he excited her. Worried and upset her. She could not know what he would do.

It was midnight,of course, when she heard them all outside, banging and crashing on whatever pans and things they could find, whooping and yelling. It didn’t last long – then the door could be heard closing as they retreated inside to resume their drinking, puffing, and song.

It was not too long after this that it happened: suddenly a great THWACK as something hit the end of the wooden bed! Then THWACK again! The bed shook! It was exactly as if someone had taken a wooden stave and hit the bedstead with it. THWACK! THA-WUMP! THA-WUMP-WUMP-WUMP-WUMP!

Starlight became still; very still. This was impossible. This was terrible. She barely breathed.

THA-LUMP! The bed shook again. Then there was quiet.

Oh god she wanted to run downstairs and get Sheldon! – But how could she get out of bed, naked, and cross the room? Something was here with her! …And she knew who it was; it wasn’t hard to guess. The old man who had died here the week before they’d moved in; that’s how they’d gotten the finca – his sister was eager for the money. Oh god.

She lay frozen for what seemed like hours till finally Sheldon, alert as always – he both bragged and mourned that he could never get really high, and had written a song about it – pushed open the door, came in, undressed in the dark, left his clothes on the floor, got in bed beside her, his cold limbs brushing hers. And then she told him. And, of course, he scoffed.

That night she dreamed…

She’s on one of the hilltops nearby their remote house; there is a kind of twilight everywhere. She has a fancy to fly, so she pumps her arms and pushes with her thighs, her feet moving like a baby getting born; and next thing she is airborne!

But then – some force pulls her suddenly high above the earth, all at once! And then hurls her back down, so that she almost hits a different hilltop; then again she is pulled out, so that she can see the earth far below her, violet with twilight, with copses and hedges and islands and sea…and then again she falls, fast, but does not hit…she just bounces back up again.

This is all delightful, if startling; she gives in to it, there is nothing else to do; until at length she finds herself drifting in an archipelago of little dry islands; and next she is sitting atop a rock on one of those, and the stone is warm beneath her as if there had been sunshine on it all day.

She looks around and sees that someone is sitting at a little distance away – and she recognizes him without being told who he is. It is Juan, the old man of the bedstead, formerly resident of the finca where she is living; Juan the ghost. But now he is young and robust, in a short black jacket and loose trousers and a white shirt that glows particularly alongside the sea around them as it gathers up the last of the light.

Juan!” she cries, in the dream. “I’m so happy to see you! But please, don’t beat on the bed again – it scared me half to death.”

Juan nods, his mustaches grand and dark, his eyes lively in the gloaming. “It was necessary, Chica,” he says. (In the dream they speak the same language.) “I had to get your attention.”

Why?” asks Starlight.

You are sleeping on my bed,” he replies. “I don’t mind you there – not in the least – but that young idiot you sleep with! That is the problem!”

He’s not an idiot!” protests Starlight. “In fact, he’s some kind of genius – he told me so!”

All men are geniuses when there is a rubia around,” observes the ghost.

No, really!” cries Starlight. “He can play the guitar, write beautiful songs – speaks three languages! And everything I only wonder about the world, he knows the answers to! He wants to be a leader of people,” she adds piously.

That is very bad,” says Juan. “Muy mal. And he is a drunkard, and so many drogas! That is not a real man.”

Starlight cannot follow this line of reasoning. She finds Sheldon amazing, provocative, masterful; slayingly so. Not a real man? He is more man than she’d ever known before.

I don’t want him in my bed,” says Juan firmly.

But the other beds are full!” cries Starlight. “And he is my old man! Of course we must sleep together!” and she shivers with the fear of losing Sheldon’s arms around her in the night.

Watch out, watch out,” says the Juan with a sinister lift of his eyebrow. “You’ll see.”

Starlight woke late. Sheldon wasn’t beside her – he must be drinking coffee by the fire. She pulled over her head the granny dress she’d made back in California, the Indian bedspread one; it had long pointy medieval sleeves, and long cords which she criss-crossed under her bosom and tied round her middle, with cord left to hang halfway to the hem. Her bare feet on the floor were cold, but wool socks just didn’t go with the dress.

In the kitchen Sheldon was staring at the wreckage from the night before – cold half-burnt wood in the fireplace, ashes spilling out onto the floor; dirty glasses, empty bottles, guitars leaning against the wall in the thin early light.

He looked up at her. “All dressed up like an Indian restaurant,” he observed, sourly, she thought. She flinched. “Let’s go to town for coffee,” he continued. “We can’t make good coffee here.”

And so the day went on in the direction of all the others they had passed here – cafes, beverages, dope deals made over little round leaning tables in muddy lanes; makeshift dinners, and then the long night of music and wine and, so often, love. When he stared into her eyes in the dark, petted her hair, said tender things suddenly, or hard things that purported to be true, about her youth and immaturity; and kissed her with his thin, bitter-tasting mouth and wound his skinny limbs about her and came to some sort of very meaning conclusion whilst she tried to keep up, and found that trying never helped at all; and never came to any conclusion herself at all.

Two days later he announced to her that he was about to begin an affair, and he hoped she would stay with him, because jealousy is nonsensical; he still loved her, but he would explore another girl too, and it would be good for everybody. Good for their growth.

The other girl, Perugina, was a short Italian with a deeply indented waist, large full breasts, and tiny feet. She had been, in their cafe conversations, deeply philosophical; she seemed about seventy in her mind; nothing bothered her. She accepted Starlight’s presence, and even invited her into bed with Sheldon and herself. Starlight endured these experiments as an actress must; and emerged even more chastened, and disgusted too as well, as if she’d been made to dine on slugs, if friendly and willing ones. There was something swamplike about Perugina when she was prone that made Starlight’s vitals close and turn away. But to refuse such an invitation was unthinkable. She would betray herself as less than ‘together,’ less than cool. She might miss something she must gather and understand if this life was to be successful. She might.

And so, after one of these encounters, Starlight would go for a walk alone, along the harbour and up a ways into the dry hills, past rosemary bushes and sun-warmed thyme; under the junipers – feeling herself poetical, tragic, and confused. How was she to become a person of value? So that Sheldon would respect her and find her indispensable? How was it helping, hanging out on this dark-limned island? And she would watch the crows picking insolently by the road, milling and talking among themselves; or watch them flying in their well-structured society, not prone to doubts and stumblings as she was. What was wrong with her? She scarcely knew who spoke when her mouth was open and words came out. She did not feel herself coherent, gathered-together, one; she was scattered as crows scatter when alarmed. She knew that being ‘together’ was the aim of any young person nowadays; and she was not. She trailed disconsolately up and down hills, feeling that her very soul was haunted. Even Juan was whole and healthy compared to her.

Perugina was very wealthy, and had a yacht which was moored in the harbour; she invited all the household there, and the usual pattern of the nights was repeated on board, with the addition of hash cookies, and spaghetti suppers prepared by Perugina’s manservant who was also, of course, her lover; these suppers were appreciated by everyone so much that they nearly succeeded in mopping up the excess chemicals everyone was consuming – but not quite.

There were eight or ten of them then, this haphazard crew that gathered to shut out the world with some pretense of camaraderie – an accidental grouping, coming together for no reason but to spread out and enjoy themselves as best they could – for was not freedom all and everything? Along with pleasure, along with…well, something – some further redemption everybody sought but nobody was quite clear about at all. (But the missing of it made them edgy, and their mouths turn down, young as they were.)

Starlight did not like the yacht’s rocking, or its narrowish bed they were all three supposed to fit on but somehow she was the one always left with her bottom out in the cold. She found the spaghetti, like the island’s bread, insufficiently nourishing. She longed for salad, but there never was any. She longed for Sheldon to be there for her alone; and knew that wish was unworthy.

The others had found and lost liaisons among each other; no chemistry that might be occurring seemed strong enough to justify more than a night or two together. But Starlight had noted one thing: the way Mercer’s river-green pupils with their white, gleaming surrounds followed Perugina as she moved about the roomy cabin of the boat. She liked to make pudding – a certain recipe from her grandmother, she said – involving blanched almonds and tinned cream and a real vanilla bean in a glass vial, and a great deal of sugar. She carried these ingredients with her wherever she sailed, she said, and made the pudding as therapy, as meditation; it soothed and uplifted her to make it and to eat it. And she served it to everyone in little glass dishes, and to Starlight (who loved sweets) it had a nasty under-taste, of old ladies and underwear drawers and things past their prime. But Mercer, sensible, practical, doubting-Thomas Mercer, ate his up every bit, and gazed at Perugina’s long hair and little shoulders and the dip of her blouse where her bosom parted and swelled and rose and fell with her breath and her laughter.

Sheldon thought everything wonderful. He realized soon that his brother coveted his mistress; he stopped short of inviting him for a menage a quatre – just as he had never offered him Starlight, come to that. (At this thought Starlight shivered again, for though Mercer was a good fellow, sensitive and true, he did not appeal to her at all in that way. Extremely not. He was a poor thing – he was not Sheldon!) But Starlight knew that Sheldon was considering some consolation prize for his brother in order to mollify and comfort him, and lead him off the track till he himself had had enough of the curvy Italian. She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did.

Sheldon never lost his cynicism though nor ever gained the ability to lose himself in the pleasures he arranged; nor to find himself in them either. There in the middle, he rocked with the boat and expected each girl, whichever was under him, on top of him, to receive his gift. The gift of him.

A few dayss later they were back at the finca for a much-needed rest and washing of clothes. Sheldon went off to the outhouse to relieve himself; he came out with his mouth open, his pointed brows comical above his astonished face. He was trying to do up his jeans but his hands wouldn’t obey him.

“Damn!” he exclaimed when Starlight came to him from the back door, “Damn. I’m taking too many drugs. I’ll have to stop.”

“What happened?” asked Starlight. She was eager to be of service. Perhaps she might prove herself after all?

“You know those newspaper squares all hooked on the wire – that wire loop on the nail -”

“Yes,” replied the girl, adding to herself, “Eeeuyuk!” (She’d learned not to complain about this sort of thing. It made the men cross.)

“The fucking thing – lifted up off the nail – I didn’t touch it! – and came flying into my face! My face got, uh, scrubbed with newspaper, as if somebody’s hand was holding it! It almost smothered me!”

“No!” cried the girl. “Really? Are you sure?”

“I think so,” replied Sheldon dubiously. “Am I that far gone? I’m hallucinating!” And he wore this sort of elder, mature-man-looking-inwards expression that made Starlight feel like she was losing him, and her throat pulsed and contracted.

The ghost’s campaign against Sheldon proceeded into more small violences, one nearly every day: his guitar is mysteriously right in his path as he’s heading out the door for a pee in the early morning, and he stumbles over it and nearly breaks his neck. The cup of Nescafe with milk in it he sneers at but drinks, tips over from the table into his lap while he’s sitting in a chair; he’d leapt up, roaring, but his jeans prevented damage. A bucketful of hot water he tips over his soapy hair has become ice cold, and he roars again. His cigarettes keep moving about, ending up in the outhouse, or a dusty, cobwebbed corner, or in the fire – the pack just seen as it melts into ignition. One day a jar of thin sickly jam slides very fast and decidedly across the table and crumps into an empty wine bottle; both fall to the floor and break, and there is much cleaning to be done whilst watching out for injury to bare feet.

On that particular day they had a visitor; Deedee (known as ‘Dodo’ or “dirigible’ behind her back.) She was a big, loud and buxom American girl with a very straight bang and a very wavy mass of russet hair; she spoke through her nose in declarative sentences: “Int’s awfuuul. I hanve a funcking BLAAANDER INFENCTION! AGAIN! I dunno whadda DO! I WANNA PAINKILLNER GODDAMNIT!” She was always running off to the toilet, or in this case the outhouse, about which she also richly complained. Everyone knew she was the mistress of the Jefe, the Chief of Police; a bulky man with a sadistic air who wore crisply ironed khaki and had the blackest of black brows meeting across his nose, and a bandito mustache. He was a parody of Guardia Civil officialdom, and was much feared. He had deported people for all sorts of minor transgressions as well as the usual major, drug-related ones. The males among the island hippies planned and schemed by the hour how to outwit him.

But Deedee, on seeing the galloping jam-pot, set up a new wail: “Onnh NO!!! It’s haaaaunted! Your hounse is haunted! Youn’ve got a PONLTERGEINST! I’m gonna tell my FREIIIIND!”

And so next day everyone smoked all the dope up and hid whatever they thought needed hiding, in preparation for a visit.

A day or two later Deedee dropped by to see if anyone had any grass – she was out – and that was the moment the Jefe chose to come by and inspect the ghost. He was off-duty, so was dressed in trousers and a shirt; and on his arm was his other mistress – who, it turned out, was none other than Perugina herself.

To say that Starlight was delighted would be to overstate the case – she was by that stage in the adventure quite difficult to delight – but certainly she felt a lightness in her chest, a lift in her knees, a certain gurgling, almost of laughter, somewhere back in her throat; even as she chid herself for this. Grownup doings were yet beyond her, and she could only sit and gawp as Deedee saw what she saw; lumbered to her feet, all bosom and spite, and stuck out her fleshy elbows for battle.

(Mercer, Starlight observed, simply turned away – and the complexity of expressions to be glimpsed on his subtle face was a wonder.) (Who could guess that two years hence he would be sending back postcards from exotic ports of call, manservant vanquished somehow, Perugina ripely and happily expecting their first? For God, even the god of the hippies, works in mysterious ways.)

Sheldon was rooted to his saggy straight-backed chair, a roll-up – straight tobacco this time, he’d taken to these as his cigarettes had vanished -. His big canny eyes took in the wiggling maiden in her bell-bottom trousers and gauzy top, her little sailor jacket, the way she clomped purposefully in platform shoes, her newly-cut shag waving like a field of half-shorn grain, her head just reaching the Jefe’s broad shoulder. He saw it all – the damp in Perugina’s fertile V at the top of her trousers; the bristle in the Jefe’s mustache. He saw it all – and Starlight, looking on, knew she was safe for a little while longer; though only that.

Later she thought that the screaming could not really have gone on for half an hour, as it seemed; it was probably five minutes. And though Deedee’s voice was definitely the louder – “WHANT ARE YOU DOOOOING? He’s MIIINE! Yannh, his wife, thant’s onhkay, bunt not YOUUUUU! URRRNNNNHH!” But Perugina stumped with queenly dignity to the table, sat down on an empty chair, took a pack of cigarettes out of her bag, and lit one up, without offering any to anybody. She blew the smoke upwards, and did nothing at all. Aplomb rustled around her like leaves.

Then suddenly her eyes flared open, she turned on her chair, and began a rapid diatribe of Italian right at Deedee – a formidable performance, rising and falling in rich waves of sound, full of rolling R’s and things that sounded like the curses cats make on dark nights; interspersed with trills and railroad-like trippings-over-the-ties – how could one tongue move so fast?

The Jefe backed out the door and stood out in the yard with his hands out at his sides. He seemed, thought Starlight, about to bolt. Where, she wondered, was Juan when he was most needed? “Juan? Juan?” she hissed within herself. “Come on! More tricks with jam! Please!”

She thought she heard a faint giggle. And suddenly there was a scrabbling sound from the chimney. Dust, smoke, ashes, fell with a whomp onto the cold fire, and then there they were – a dozen crows in the kitchen with them, flying about in an angry panic! Claws tore through hair! A window shattered with a thump-crash!!! And a black shape fell onto the bread-loaf, picked itself up, and flew out the door right onto the Jefe’s back! The Jefe wheeled, cursed, the bird climbed his face and rushed away with beating wings, leaving a truly mountainous greeny-white mess, looking like oil-paint where the oil’s collected at the top…right on the olive temple, from where it dripped down to the resplendent mustache. The Jefe roared like an angry bull and wiped at his face with his brown and hairy hand.

Perugina coolly batted a bird away and looked at the Jefe…his grimace, his furious digging for a handkerchief, his seriousness as he wiped his whole arm down his face, ruining his shirtsleeve – she saw him as if he was in a pink tutu, squeaking with a high voice, twirling and bleating and shuddering in dramatic charade. And she began to giggle…thinking that this should be a test for all great and powerful men – doll them up in pink ballet clothes and put them where a bird will drop its doo on them, and see how they handle it…that would be the thing! And she laughed….and laughed…until she nearly toppled off her chair – and Starlight couldn’t help it, she laughed too – even as she despised any accord with that talented, satin-skinned girl – and they both laughed, and fell off their chairs, and clutched at each other, and at their own stomachs – and, for a moment, each knew triumph in her own way, over her own tyrants.

And in Starlight’s yellow hair there had appeared a dandelion – she saw it, looking down, at the left there – a small, bitter, pretty, yellow dandelion, good enough, during a bleak winter, to eat. She held it in her hand and marvelled.

The Jefe was gone, his jeep spitting and grinding off down the hill. Sheldon stared in amazement, and when he lifted his arm to push his hair back, his hand came away with oil paint on it too. And then he laughed, for he was an intelligent man really; and went to find some soap and water – though there were no cloths or towels, and he had to use his wool jersey to dry himself, which didn’t work at all. So, how intelligent is that, really?

The crows left splots all over the house, and fled through the broken window and open door.

Nobody wanted to cook or clean up; and so they went out to dinner instead, though by now only Perugina and Deedee could afford it; but they didn’t offer to pay for anybody. They sat at opposite ends of the table and glared mildly at each other through the meager food on into the plentiful wine, while Shel and Mercer and the other men laughed in relief that they’d escaped official harassment, and said knowing, cool things about the afternoon’s happenings.

Three days later they were all deported – every one. The Guardia Civil came in the early morning and took their passports. They could get them back only at the dock when the ferry was in. The Jefe, at this official visit, was not present among his men.

“Thank you, Juan,” thought Starlight, straight to him, wherever he was.

A fly, out of season, appeared above Sheldon’s head as he argued patiently with the policeman who held his passport. Starlight could see Perugina on her yacht, in white bell bottoms and a striped top, her manservant nearby in full livery. She was waving, almost shyly. Deedee was bent over, complaining that her stomach ached and that she needed a pill. The other guys milled about, thinking no doubt each of his next adventure. They all settled on the boat at two small tables pushed together under a broad window. Sheldon went to the bar to get a bottle of wine and some glasses.

“I don’t want any,” said Starlight primly. She went and asked for a glass of water.

“Why,” asked Sheldon conversationally, as he’d asked before, “did you name yourself after a bar and lounge?”

And, as so often, she had nothing to say; but she thought: “Could I bring myself to sleep with his brother, just to prove a point, to rescue myself? Might Shel respect me more – he’s always telling us to do outrageous things to wake ourselves up. So that we’re not stuck in Bourgeois Sleep. That would be outrageous, wouldn’t it? But can I – Mercer’s skin is so…sort of clammy; his lips look too soft. Not manly somehow. I’m not attracted to him at all! But he’s kind…ought I to do it, just because I don’t want to? In order to grow, and to show I’m strong?”

But Juan couldn’t help her; he was tied to the finca, except when he flew.

Might he, she wondered, fly right out now – after that wonderful circus – go through the portal – there must be a portal – and be free? And, if he could fly by on his way, and tell her something….what would it be?

But then a ray of sun fell on her as she stood abstracted, water-glass in hand. And she felt curiously alone all of a sudden, and as if inside her there was nothing – not the usual crowd of fears and opinions all jousting with each other; just…a cool nothing-much-ness. And she did nothing to dissuade it, and just stood..and then by and by she felt as if a little rivulet of joy climbed her, inside her body, and came up to her heart.

“Tell Sheldon everything,” she seemed to hear Juan say; “all the concerns your heart has. Tell him the ways you try to prove yourself, and how it doesn’t work, and only makes you sadder and more scattered. How you want to find out what you are here for, and apply yourself to it; how you long to have order and peace and diligence, as well as love. That however anyone has made love to you, it has never been good enough; and that you suppose it your own fault, though it might not be. How you don’t want to waste yourself, that you are precious. Tell him. And if he doesn’t like it – and he might not – wait, wait…even if it’s hard for you. So very many more things will happen. Things you cannot dream of now – places you have no notion of will be familiar to you, people will appear who will teach you how to rest deep within yourself.

“For it’s natural to head towards that which is free.”

Shirehampton, 2016

Warm Planet

And just as our Tribes were poised to rush against each other, as their numbers increased and resources dwindled, and storms grew more violent and more prolonged – finally the planet Beelzabaloola reached down and made contact. It had always intended to do this, if the need got great; and the time had finally arrived.

An arrangement was made (though humanity was not told about it, for humanity would have argued,) that each person who was really in need would be whisked up to Beelzabaloola, and there given a particular cure: for a hundred days and nights, in Earth-time, he or she would be held gently in the embrace of a satiny and loving Giantess; a motherly being who carried none of the faults of earthly mothers, and many more virtues. These Giantesses numbered only one hundred, and they sat amidst huge foliage in a warm and fragrant land, where they rested all day on gargantuan leaf-mats and hugged whomsoever came along – be it creature (for there were many splendid beasts and birds there too) or stray traveller from another place.

While these Giantesses hugged, they beamed; and the hugged one felt as if the Giantess was loving particularly him, or her, and no-one else; that the vast honey-colored Beneficence could see the soul of the creature that lay in her massive arms, and looked kindly on it, and felt that it was an excellent soul altogether.

And then, at evening, the hugged creature was loosed to go to the clear cool lake nearby, and drink, or swim; or hike about on trails that led here and there under the trees. And then in the shade a feast was served, of the fine fruits and vegetables that grew nearby; and flowers too; sweet and many and shaped like whatever would make you laugh before you ate it.

And in the night, the hugged could return for more if they liked, or could choose to lie alone on a mat in the warm forest and sleep. And, next day, the hugging commenced again.

As these cures went on, people relaxed out of all recognition. Their flesh seemed to come away from their bones; their faces lost whatever tensings and grimaces they had worn, and smoothed out like a babe’s. A sort of hum seemed to enter their bodies, and all processes proceeded upon that hum; time seemed to dissolve away, and a music was heard, though very faintly, in the ears – as if it came from very far away, and very close by, at once, and made the very heart tender and touched with awe.

And after a hundred days of this the person was healed – his very bones had remembered his joy in being, his connection to all things. He was goofy and grinning – he could not stop himself even if he’d tried – and he was then, all at once, returned to Earth to stay, until his time was up there too.

And, of course, his return was a very different thing than his departure. He now glowed goodness on his family, and sat outside a lot, in the back garden, just gazing at the plants; and often did not go to work at all.

There was now a mandate upon the Planet Beelzabaloola, to bring there each soul who needed this medicine; and they were many. And so the oldest ones were taken first, for they might not have so long there more, and it would be best if they took with them their cure, so that their next steps would be lovelier, and clearer, and more calm. After them, then, would come the leaders – from every nation without exception; for their need was great.

But there were only a hundred giantesses, and so many feeble, confused, tired-out old folks! And then so many leaders and aspiring leaders, men who lusted after boss-hood, who badly needed marinating in the nectars of the Giantesses’ emanations. What could be done?

There had to be a way to adjust the different timings of the two planets, so that a hundred days on one would be very different than a hundred days on the other; so that in a breath or a whisker of Earth-time, a hundred Beelzabaloola days could occur, much to the good of all.

The idea was put forth, there on Beelzabaloola, that if children were also brought, their expanded sense s could perhaps help the ancient ones, with their compressed hours and years, to adjust backwards a little bit. And so this was tried; for each ancient one in the arms of a Giantess, a child played nearby. Some help was given by this – the elder relaxed more quickly, and the children throve and played enthusiastically. But still a great discrepancy remained.

And so animals were also brought – a cat, a donkey, a dog – whose sense of time is mysterious; and sometimes a Giantess might be cuddling an Ancient, a small child, and a cat, and perhaps a lemur too, all at once; with room for more. And this was very pleasant for all concerned; though the cats often preferred to sit on the Giantess’s shoulder, and gaze upon all about it, and purr; and the lemur might loop his tail about an overhanging branch, and do acrobatics, just to keep things lively.

But the Planet Earth was wobbling towards warfare in so many places that the people and animals that were being returned to it full of benevolence and good cheer were nothing compared to the general ire. And so the planet Beelzabaloola thought and thought about things…and it was a knotty problem indeed.

They solved it – oh yes indeed, they solved it – as we know. For when we look out from our open houses into the forest, the brightest of birds have come back to us; and our labours are gentle, and enough to feed us; but we no longer wrestle and hustle towards hard-edged things and volcanically-cratered dooms. And we have got the habit of hugging; and on our warm planet it has not left us, in all these hundreds of years.

But how did time get fixed, so that each one who needed the cure, could receive it? And all could breathe and beam again?

Nobody knows exactly – perhaps that sort of thing is a bit beyond us, still – but I have been told that it had something to do with a piano (just an analogy mind you, for there were no pianos on Beelzabaloola;) and the space between the keys.

Twilight

It is the time of the black ants dying. They topple like old men on long legs gone suddenly useless; lie folded in on themselves like fragments of blackberries. Penny does not know what seasons they observe; she doesn’t know their ceremonies or their marriage rites, or how long they are allowed to stay in their beady oval thoraxes, their round heads and striding purposeful limbs.

Alive, they are huge, they range silently on the sink-top in amongst the milk-powder cans and toast crumbs. Penny has to keep swabbing down the counter; even though the sweeper-lady comes daily to do the floors and toilet, she is not responsible for the kitchen.

The ants are big as fire engines, and they don’t make long stringy trails the way the small ants do; they are more like bumblebees; they range alone. They remind Penny of the wood-ants in the Sierra Nevada of California; rambling about on fallen mulchy logs. I love them, thinks Penny; they are somehow clean, and they walk about like great machines when we are gone, and run for cover when we return. They die in the milk can in sticky sweetness, dinosaurs in white tar.

Now she is in the shop. It is a proper shop, not just a cubicle; it has a big window in front displaying flowered sheets and stacks of pastel towels. Mahatma Gandhi Road bustles and toots and streams by outside, crowded and noisy.

At the front are tall shelves with bolts of cloth vertically arranged in them, like books. Then there are the sheets, on more shelves, stacked horizontally. Pillowcases are inside the packages with the sheets, but only one pillowcase per sheet; you have to buy another sheet to get another pillowcase. There are no fitted sheets. It doesn’t matter; for mattresses are pallets only, or scratchy coira, thicker, but of unpredictable dimension.

Penny has already bought as many of the beautiful soft crisp sheets as she can in good conscience get; she loves dressing up her bed like an English maiden. She has had tailors up and down the road create for her pillowcases frilled with lace and white cloth. No polyester mix is this; 100% cotton, requiring ironing by the dhobi.

At the back, the space reaches into piled weighty squares and labyrinths, into back alleys behind the soft main street of bright bolts and a cloth-covered bench for laying the heavy oblongs out on, opening out a portion, fwap, fwap, fwap. Little boys work back there, tickling each other with scissors and beating pillows with long sticks used for measuring.

Soon they will be old, she thinks, pressing the long pillows down with old hands. I love them, their limbs like ants’. Brown arms, brown legs.

She stares about her. Bolts of cloth fill shelves like pistons of a dead machine, metamorp’d into satiny langour. I love them, she thinks again; they are silky flattened cylinders, like the essences of bodies, stacked in coloured rows and muted curves. Rolls of sheeny smoothness with coned ends.

To the ceiling, respectable hefts of expensive clean-flanked brocades. Thirsty columns at rest like soldiers. Mosquito nets eased up beneath the ceiling in cupboards, children in bunk-beds, silent nothing in their heads like mosquito nets, babyish green. Soft. Dark back there behind the bolts.

He is at his desk. His mustache seems polite, his ears are clean-curved. Black, those dressed-up young moustaches; he wears black sharped trousers with thick cuffed bottoms. Heels on his shoes like she never sees here; like tiny desire-memories of her past city. She thinks of the two curves of his bottom like moustache curves, black; the shirt pale yellow like sunlight when it finally reaches the floor in a north-facing attic.

Does he know his effect?

He is beautiful. Don’t give me away so soon.

Eyes.

As liquid as a million other Indians’, and seven times beautiful. Quick sculpted hands.

He is sculpted and genteel, and she loves him already.

She is free to love. She came from far away, from a free city with spanning bridges shouting their arch of wild grace over glittering, freewheeling wave-caps. She came here to study the art of bending her body into calmer and calmer pretzels so that she can breathe the dubious air more perfectly; soothe her youthful troubles from within; can then tote the wisdom home and sell it to the questioning populace of her nativity.

She is studying Yoga at an institute over on the other side of the Mula-Mutha river.

“I like the rain best,” she replies to his animated asking. “The monsoon. For me it is best.” Skin becomes softer…and their mother used to sing when it rained. She jumped over puddles, and small green shoots fed from her eyes and ears, and she laughed and we cradled ourselves together.

“I like the hot,” he says. “The hotter the better. In the heat I am never ill.”

Do you live in a small clean hovel? she wonders. Does rain make it bleed? Does your mother care for you when you are unwell, or does a wife make chai and boss a scrawny ayah around with strident Marathi cries? Or do you live in a flat made of concrete built round leaning poles? Or a big house with an Ambassador car outside and a chauffeur in it, always ready to go?

He shows her the mosquito net she asks about, or rather has his man show her. From a high stool the brown hand holds the canopy, cream green, silky nylon, clean as lace, green sherbet lingerie. The skirt of it swirls round the floor like a belle.

“I never knew a mosquito net could be so beautiful!” she cries, in the broad child-speak she saves for ears full of strange Hindi.

“In India we have very beautiful mosquitoes!” he replies after a minute has gone on behind his liquid eyes.

So openly does she laugh, he then tells another shopper, a paunchy man: “In India we have very beautiful mosquitoes!”

She is thinking he is even-tempered, humorous, light. His dark-fringed eyes are sad, in the print of the cell it was made so, and lush are his eyes, luxuriant-souled, where soul is cheap.

They are discussing curtains. He stands in the window at the front of the shop, gesturing to colors, like a local veldt-animal beside a watering-hole, a pool of different hues. He speaks to his assistant, and their Hindi tramps through a thicket, moving fast as storm-tossed leaves.

He turns again to her. She is standing in the mirror half-sideways, in a beam of unknowing. Her dress is Punjabi style, long three-quarter-sleeved tunic over loose trousers with gathered ankles. Today it is a muted blue with gold trim. Her sandy hair is in kinship with the gold. Her face is startlingly pale, like, she thinks, something that has been under a log. Perhaps this is just the contrast with the people around her. Her gold braid is long down her back. She angles towards him.

She has come here broad and ordinary, on singing thighs. She has discovered that her studies (and they are generally serious) do not complete her the way this shop does – she needs to swathe herself in colors, dream up, in the night, new combinations of silks and rayons for salwar kameez. She needs to clothe her flat in experiments, and change them sometimes; for she is restless, and her yoga helps but does not quench this. Though that is why she travelled from so very far away.

Curtains move through her mind. Green cloth, the secret shade of leaves – many thousands of leaf-greens there are, a hundred per human finger, turning in wind. Only some can be represented here – but she celebrates the ones she sees – chartreuse, pond, grass, river.

Summer and dust make leaves thirsty, and those colors are there too. Her skin leafs the greens.

…Thighs that bind her to all women, all men.

They are alone in the shop now.

The little boys hum like ants and he has sent them out to get a Coke and Gold-spot; she heard those discussions trampling in the commotion of his speech.

He turns to her again.

“You would like a drink, hot or cold?” he asks in his lilting, formal way.

“No,” she says, turning her wide soft face side to side. The air ties gauze around her, making space where her head was.

The boys are back in a second.

“Straw,” he says, “Straw -” and they are gone again.

He beckons her to the back of the shop, opens a drawer and takes the bottle-top pryer out from paper layers, and opens with a warm hiss the juice of warm black ants.

The bottle of Coke is the temperature of flesh in her hand. She holds it, embarrassed, until the straw is brought and she puts it in, relieved at nothing, and pulls the tepid liquid to her mouth, not wanting it, and it is here, fuzzing down the back of her tongue to heat her belly and rise again as heated speed.

She glances again to the mirror. Her face seems to have been issued to her; she is not responsible for it. It is barely pink, it is somehow formless, the eyes cupped in standard sockets.

I am so plain, she thinks. Plain and beautiful – for if I exist I must be beautiful; nothing else could be possible, moral, bearable. I would lift a hand to touch the grainy quality from my eye, but it is there by choice: it is my longing, my cooking like a stove.

I will not see and therefore I am blind.

The bottom has been reached in the Coke. Good. She places the bottle on the table.

Her limbs feel as if they are in love. Thick thighs loving themselves like Rubens beneath her tunic and drawers.

Nobody has ever loved the keeper of a cushion shop. How could they? He is made for ordinary times, for women made of veils and duty, for intense duplication in so many other faces. His back is brown.

She thinks, I could open my eyes and see, but why? The blood is felt enough beneath my veins.

Ridges in bolts of cloth, too felt, too close, too perfectly done. How to see them? Too many. She looks into her veins and feels, secretly – blood blooming like roses.

There is a half-open loft above the shop, its railing above them. A narrow ladder goes up.

How did it happen? Some wind blew an open light across them.

He pauses over her diagram of curtains. His energy falls about her body like lamplight. She is leaning beside a velvet bolster, pine-tree green. He rearranges his hands. The wind has blown softly in and taken out everything between her ears, just airy cotton left, and this intimate mix of colors; buttes and landscapes in cloth, and the thick inner talk of blood. She is happy. She will let him in.

She is here for this – this afternoon, the levitated shop-floor; she has always been for this.

Now they’re in the room above the shop. He’s sent the boys home, tugged down the metal shop-front shutter like rippled elephant hide, a final thunder-rattle as it drops, pulled by the two firm arms.

It’s dark in here now, business walks the street but can’t get in, a wall has come like thunder to hide the silent den within. Far back in the shop, the ladder had ascended to hoped-for heaven. It is of bamboo, notched square on notched square, crosspieces to hold a man.

She must have pulled herself just so up a ladder as a pioneer woman in the Sierra foothills, where the gold had come and gone. She must have had honeymoons in rough lofts where the bark still clung to scratch her arms. The strength of him below her as she climbs, reaching up to cushion her. The glow all around her bottom-which-is-wrapped-in-dress. It has always been so.

She is a giraffe. At the watering-hole. Nature wakes tiny flowers from spread-out grasses. The veldt showers upwards. Some sort of love goes up the ladder to the sky. Their limbs are finding freedom as they come out into the dim room above. Get them to the bed.

It’s not a bed really, just an area where bolts of cloth can be pulled out onto a big cotton pallet covered in fabric. Maybe it was not there yesterday and won’t be tomorrow; maybe it was there always, unslept on, kept tidy by fastidious goblins. Maybe he naps on it during the long lunchtimes when the shop is closed.

It’s here now. The fabric is worn and dark. All about the vertical rolls of cloth watch like creatures in a packed jungle. They are third arms, indifferent policemen, guards beside the square. Plants around a hidden courtyard.

One small and dusty window lets in a modicum of light.

They are holding each other, standing. She is wrapped in strangeness. The backs of her nostrils register his scents like a blow of exotica. His thin shirt covers his muscles and her hands apprehend them, here at his shoulder-blades, then down to the smooth pillars beneath the skin of his back. He’s like a horse or a leopard, she thinks – and the sweat of him damps her palms.

Keep me faithful to myself. Keep me in my bones. Let me be here, where I am – not daydreaming on my yoga mat, but here where I want to be. My Shiva, my fate.

They turn together, holding each other in the dark hum of energy. They almost merge, two shadows into tree-shade. Unseen.

She can’t bring herself back now – she wants to scatter and fall after herself, as if she’s tumbled down into the hold of a ship. Into the abyss she wants to fly after herself, out her own ears and follow him around the room as he follows her, flying.

They are innocent. It is the taste she’s always wanted. His turmeric-and-Madrassiwallah scents elevate them beyond what she knows: bearded boys in lumberjack shirts, thin youths in muslin peasant blouses she has embroidered with her own hair. Pale octopus-arms, lost for true purpose, floundering apart from the meaning body of their own souls.

When she gets, she always wants. It is a sickness in her, she thinks; though perhaps it is just nature singing through blind woman, hungering for her own creation.

She tastes his skin. They are shining. His lips. She is wet on them. So quickly. They chase each other through their flesh. They cannot precisely find. They are a marvel in their shine.

They are so thirsty. Each drift and touch fires them. He is sweet and she imbibes him. They are embracing with the knowledge of what they are about to do. Some intuition whispers of folly; but she is tired of being sensible, counting her rupees, watching about her for danger in this crowded land. Each is in her/his private sin of joy.

They unbutton, unhook, untie. His yellow shirt drops onto the floor. Skim the slight hairs. Bite under chin-face. Now the magnet works like fever. There is no going; they are gone.

They fall to the bed in love-panic. The bed steals up and quiets them, brings in delight around the edges. Their clothes are mostly gone now, piled up with their brothers the bolts, out of the field of play.

They feel the human in each other all of a sudden, and stop for a moment and look at each other’s faces before embarrassment makes them hide in movement again.

The mystery bites their flesh. They are eaten by tiny crustaceans in a twilit jungle swamp. Deep in the green of mulch they twine and rot. They are holding each other deep beneath the surface, strangling for air.

He is saying something into her sweaty hair, her ear. His voice is tangled up by his desire.

“Sandhya -” he says. “Your name – I am naming you. Twilight – this light as it is now, in here – and in that nearly darkness, you see, the light of the sun is still captured in the trees or on the stones – like your hair. Sandhya – it is hidden and yet it is still light. That is you.”

Dusk seems to deepen in the window. With his flesh around her she feels for a moment as if she’s inside her mother, waiting to be born. She is a stalactite in a cave, in an earthquaked room, and soon the midwife will hold her up and crow.

Oh Mama, my bliss begun.

He says, “Twilight.” In his schoolboy tone, the ‘w’ a ‘v,’ the dark of a shoe.

“Do you know,” he says.

She had tasted where he was raised from the flesh like the thing that made her. Like ichtyosaurus from the swamp – no longer does she curse its name or cry ick or flinch.

She swamps and lies open like a fever, taking in her name as he calls it. He has jolted her in great black jolts. Fever spreads about her limbs like cavemen’s fire.

She hadn’t asked for this. She received like someone’s wife, who is someone’s mother, some normal woman on the face of the earth, not a constrained young tightrope-walker like herself, twisting herself into god-shapes for the amusement of some inner greed.

But this afternoon she wanted only drowning. She tasted, tasted, rolled in it, delight.

Somebody freed. Forgotten how – wiped, back to the insides of mountains, and the breath of skies. Nobody did it, but she is freed – some unknown magma flowed up and bloomed out of her like a volcano. All day long, every day, it has been longing to flow…She only hopes for the black principle to smite, crack open her fires. She only longs to open, open, shelter open under the sky. Sky, enter me. Make me thine.

They are lying quiet now, he has fallen away and snores just a little, like men do, oh, they do. She has leisure to think about her name. He has given her a name!

Her mother had named her Penelope, and her father had consented because he tended to consent, then. He was busy and distracted by his work, and was happy that his own lost mother was mentioned next – the middle name was Gloria. Terrible, old-fashioned name, and then to be called “penny” – after a coin, the lowest of coins! Or a shoe – the penny-loafer of her childhood. Mercantile! thought Penny/Sandhya. No, Sandhya it is to be – as if all her life she had been waiting for a better name and and now this cloth-merchant had given it to her. She was so grateful she didn’t know what to do, but tears came from her pale-lidded eyes. For a moment she feels he is not only lover and son and father but guru too – giving her back her proper name.

The black ants are crawling on her lover’s hand. Eating the juice. Running wide-legged on the floor like firemen to catch the flow. Apple jam, murmur the ants.

In the corner, cockroaches eat the ants that died. Summer awakes the ants, summer kills them. They thrive like flies and die. Dead ones lie like beggars curled out in the streets. Thick as thumbs. Fat as war, the cockroaches move in on them and eat, chiseling with sharp heads at the remains.

Her lover shakes the ant from his hand. He is awake, like a boy child. She thinks that out in the streets, the boys run like ants, the ants like boys. Thinly they thrive and die.

We are suspended in the shop-jungle, have descended bamboo stairs – clothes resumed, moist parts covered. The dark sings humming around us. Grains of stars.

I am not here, really, I am empty twilight, maybe that is why my name means that – the empty thing before night takes all away. How empty am I? she wonders. Has my lover given me a self? Do I need one? Here in India, where everything is taken away, everything given – everything a person could not hold, can’t exactly see, does not know the name of. So be it.

They stand in the dark without embracing, though their bodies touch and mold. The simple magnet has reversed its poles, and now it dances towards solitude and street. Who knows where he will go?

“I will go out to my motorbike,” he says, “it is not so far, it is just in the street.”

A small door is opened in the shutter. The swoon is over, the twilight had begun. “Look,” he says, and his body is made of tenderness, undeliberate and innocent, “it is twilight.”

Tenderness too is cheap.

“The time of your name.” He is pleased that he is saying something romantic to her, and he is proud of his own eloquence. It is over. The poles are reversed.

There is no thought about whether they will meet again. The time has been eaten, the bee has sucked the flower, the twilight has eaten the day.

As Sandhya, the re-named, starts across the pavement, shaking off from herself as from a dream the sweat-glow remembrances of the hour past…she must suddenly come awake to navigate the crowds milling and pushing about her everywhere.

Thin brown people, content to be shoved up onto each other. Trying to get somewhere, speeding nervously along in and out of the human stream like the traffic on the street – just like that; betel-stained mouths, white dhotis and kurtas, old men with rheumy eyes, plump matrons bustling in tight-wrapped saris.

She is looking for a rickshaw – hand raised – thinking now about her dinner, dhal and rice and bhaji, back at the Yoga Centre. Her stomach feels hollow.

Aha – a rickshaw – slowing to the curb – she runs towards it, only to see that someone has gotten there before her.

Her eye is caught by a swish of fabric moving as the woman ducks into the rickshaw and lifts the skirt of her robe in after her, swinging her parcels in to land with a thump on the floor. Something swings out before her as she stoops and then swings back again to rest at her belly.

The robe is peachy orange; the thing swinging out was some sort of necklace, on wooden beads….ah yes.

One of those Rajneesh people. A strange cult – she has heard they have sex at their ashram, lots of it, night and day; sometimes all together, or in smaller lots, like people in a yoga class only doing something…else.

Penny/Sandhya shudders a little – it all sounds so very public. No wonder there is dismay at their antics, India-wide.

She herself has never been to the place; nor would she go. She loves the solemnity of her yoga mornings, bending her body this way, relaxing into the pose, breathing, hoping to empty or at least quiet her mind; feeling her progress as the months advance. That is spirituality; discipline, order, taming the beast with procedure. Lawless wildness is…what her father has criticized the country for, during dinner-table exhortations; what she herself dislikes. What had just happened with…that man (she had never heard his name) was something different; a delicious aberration, forgivable; but private, private. Nobody will know.

The rickshaw speeds away into the fracas of traffic; Sandhya soon hails another, and rides the rocking swerving golf-cart back to her place across the river, in time for food.

A few weeks later she notices her breasts have swelled and look like someone else’s breasts – pointy, thrusting, like sassy torpedoes hunting for game. She is embarrassed and hides them under her shawl. But she cannot ignore the heaviness in her belly when she breakfasts and then has to run to the clean porcelain squat-toilet, to bend and bring up her chai and chappattis….

She stays as long as she can, letting out the cord in her trousers to allow her expanding waist. She does not know what to do; it is a nightmare come to pass.

She can no longer bend and flow like a cobra; her body seems to be telling her that this is no nonsense, that she is supposed now to lounge about and eat Californian goodies and go for aimless walks. Her body tells her that Indian traffic is intolerable; that the market where she buys papayas and custard apples is filthy and has terrible smells in it.

How can she do the Downward-Facing Dog? How can she slip in and out of doorways, shops, some dark man’s life – with this burden of numb grief jutting out in front of her like an old codger’s beer belly? This kettle of curry?

But she has been learning the language of pacifism here…the inertia of mild control: control of these limbs only, and of nobody else.

How could she have been so stupid, so lulled by this ancient, crowded scenery, that she did not use a rubber – those scratchy-on-lily-softness horrible things?

And of course she never carried them with her, for that would have been to admit intent; she had relied, in her occasional meetings with pale boys, on her notions of what the phase was of her inner moon.

And this last time she had ignored even that.

And so she discovers she is too shocked to plan, or take any action. She just hopes the unwanted visitor will feel her mood and go away.

In the end she writes to her family.

Her mother, holding her letter, took fright and fell down the steps to the street, but was unharmed and recovered quickly. Her sister, a drama student and more urbane, laughed and said she’d love to be an auntie. Her father, married these ten years to a different woman – lived now at some distance, a hardware-store owner in a small town in northern California; where shaggy, pot-redolent youths strolled on paths through woods beside the fallen mulchy logs where huge black ants carried on their own employments and errands, and centipedes hid under bark-shards, and beetles munched cellulose in peace and happiness. And, after his initial shock and outrage, he rallied too, seeing that times had changed; and did not censor her.

And so Sandhya went back to the city of bridges, the sparkling city like an amphitheater on the Bay, and gave birth quite easily to little Edward, which means ‘Guardian of Riches,’ and he became the love of her life and all the song she’d longed for, the celebration and the honey and the home-baked bread and homespun cheese. And he was of course golden and fringey-eylashed; and he loved her in return, and after he’d grown up a bit Sandhya – for she insisted on keeping the name – did teach Yoga finally, and was often happy.

A bout the time she began to teach, she decided that Edward’s father should know of his existence; otherwise was not fair to either of them. And, somehow, she wanted him to know what she’d been through; and that it was his responsibility too – though in her letter she did not say this.

She addressed her letter to the shop; and after two or three months she received a reply, written in a square hand on ruled exercise-book paper, which smelt distinctly of monsoon and cloth-finishing chemicals, with a hint of curry-spice, like a watching tiger.

The letter was passionate, old-fashioned, flowery of phrase, and insisted that Rajagopal, for that was his name, should come to America and see his son; and that Sandhya must pay for the ticket. He would tell his wife that he was going on business.

Sandhya had nearly forgotten him now, though his smell of spicy armpit and the cool scent of the pan-wallah outside the shop was lodged still somewhere in the root of her nose like old orange-rind oils under one’s nails…

His son, though, was all and everything.

And somehow Sandhya didn’t manage to save the fare to fetch Rajagopal, and somehow she began dating a fellow who fixed people’s cars from his garage under a skinny house in Sunset City, and did it beautifully and with sane prices and was much in demand; and Edward worshipped him and watched his deft machinations with wrenches in awestruck wonder.

And so Rajagopal stayed on his own side of the world, despite his frequent, finally angry and beseeching letters.

And Sandhya’s mother found a new purpose as Grandmother and baby-sitter; and her father on his infrequent visits carried the child on his shoulders and played horsey with him quite beamingly; and as Edward grew they all took him to the zoo, or Fisherman’s Wharf, or on tramcars, to visit relations and have fun along the way.

But sometimes she wondered…when she’d baked some new recipe of bread, and was eating it warm from a small plate with a knife and butter to the side – and the afternoon light came in and struck the pot of marmalade, and the sweet and bitter orange aura seemed to suddenly surround her – she wondered if perhaps there had actually been more to India than even her yoga class, with its undoubtedly superior tradition, had been able to teach her.

She wondered if her lover’s embraces had been so important after all; she wondered if, in all that great subcontinent with its zillion layers of human endeavor, like a vast forest hiding worlds in worlds – there was something she might, in her fecundity, have missed – something central, precious; something pertaining to us all.

1979/2016/2017

Poona/Hebden Bridge

The Leopard’s Leap

Mrs Brummel named her three children as follows:

1. Lionel Brummel

That was okay, nobody minded, nothing strange about that. Her husband continued to nod over his newspaper like a genteel, old-fashioned toy in the corner.

2. The next son she named Tiger T. Brummel. The T. didn’t stand for anything; she just liked the sound of it. People said it was a bit much, but Mr Brummel, in his way of ignoring the world and its more frivolous permutations, paid them no heed.

Mrs Brummel was just getting into her stride.

3. The next child, a daughter, was named Ocelotta Edwardina Summerglow Brummel. People scratched their heads and talked behind their hands. And in some countries, of course, it would not be allowed; Mrs. Brummel had read that in Germany, for example, you have to name your daughters things like ‘Irmtraut’ and ‘Edeltraut,’ from an approved list. But in little Deerpath Meadows, Kentucky, there were no such strictures.

Still, people talked.

“Poor child,” they said, and, “If she were mine, she’d be named Kayleigh Tiffani! Good solid names!”

And so Lionel, Tiger, and Lottie played their childhood away amongst the fruit trees and streams and wildflowers of their yard and the countryside around the little town; and Mrs Brummel took courage from the lack of retribution for the unusual names, and began to branch out.

She decided that when her children grew up they would start a Big Cat and Poetry Sanctuary. Her theory, contested by no-one, was that both of these were endangered species; and it was time to put them under the same roof, so to speak, and save them both from extinction.

Mrs Mary Lynn Brummel (she’d never forgiven her parents) read aloud, of course, to her children each evening before she put them to bed. And so they imbibed The Highwayman, and Overheard in a Salt Marsh, and Jabberwocky, as surely as they ate corn on the cob, with much buttery smunching, from the garden; and crunchy cucumbers, and little sweet-tart red tomatoes like Christmas tree baubles, and long, yellow, slightly-hairy squashes smelling wonderfully of leaf and earth and air; alive as hands when one’s own harvesting hand clasped one.

…For Mr Brummel, in all his absent distraction, nevertheless loved to garden; and in long summer evenings and hot muggy weekends he built raised beds and fenced them against deer and rabbits, and staked up his vines and admired his busy cauliflowers and heavenly sweetpeas and strutting sunflowers too – for he did not disdain to grow flowers.

And Mrs Brummel had much to cook with, and much to delight her eye. And so she gazed on Mr Brummel a little more fondly; for he had measured up, despite his silence; and her exacting nature found him plausible again.

There was a Big Cat Preserve in Arkansas, and every year the family would pack their SUV with sun hats and coolers and sweating glass bottles of water (for Mrs Brummel did not approve of plastic ones) and off they would go to observe the pacing lions, the climbing ocelots, the leaping cheetahs. And when they returned in the evening to the wood-sided motel under the ticky hardwoods, Mrs Brummel would set the children the task of writing about what they had seen. She’d make it a point too that they would picnic by a stream, and frolic in it in their bathing suits; and then, after a nap, they’d write about that; and they would, each trip, view a sunset and also a sunrise, and write about these. And each year they visited a different tourist attraction: Hot Springs, Arkansas; Garnet Hollow, a mine for semi-precious stones (just overturned dirt, really, and people in baseball caps with sieves, who’d paid $10 for the privilege) – or whatever they found along the way – a particularly high waterfall; or, once, the birthplace of that most joyous and earthy raconteur, Mark Twain, in Hannibal, Missouri – and the three children, like good pupils, set about writing on what they’d seen.

And Mrs Brummel kept these writings, and compared them year by year, to see how each child was doing in its own self (for she could feel this out from their prose or verses,) and how he or she was coming along in skills and inspirations, spelling and grammar and penmanship.

It is true that in the normal schools, which the children were obliged to attend, they got good grades in English; and Mrs Brummel insisted that each studied another language too – though these were hard to come by, and often needed separate tutors, which the Brummels could just barely afford.

And so the years went on; and eventually Lionel decided to study to be a veterinarian; and Tiger chose to be a forest ranger; and Lottie opted to become a chocolate-maker and, yes, a free-lance writer on subjects far and wide. She wrote about bridges, and ports, and satellites, and algae; about cat-habits, and kindergartens, and peonies, and WWII airplanes. And such was the deftness of her prose that she was published widely, and she flourished.

But still the mother’s precise dream was yet unlived by her children; and none of them was precisely a poet. They were happy and well-fed, and by and by they married and each begot children, and those children tumbled in their gardens with cats and large wheeled toys, while their harried mothers took a break.

And so it was that one day Mary Lynn Brummel sat by herself in the porch swing and idly looked out over her fecund homestead. Mr Brummel was away fishing (for he had retired,) and the hired girl was having a day off (for Mrs Brummel differed from her neighbors in that she indulged herself and had Help.) And as she gazed out over the misty grasses, the fruit-hung leafy tees, the near hills …she had an epiphany. It struck her like a cool spring of water suddenly arising in her breastbone and spreading into her throat; enthralling her tongue with its clean clear taste of nothing-and-everything…

”It is I who must go find tigers, where they sprang from! I who would write about them! I who will go to where ocelots live, and I who will seek lions in their natural habitat!” And as she sat, with the joy of her discovery swelling in her like music over fields of corn, she had a further understanding: “…and I who will have a different name!” For a name is the briefest, most succinct poetry of all.

And so it came to pass that Mrs Mary Lynn Brummel set out on her travels at last. She went here and she went there, she petted half-captive tigers in Thailand and listened to them purr, and marvelled at spotted jungle-cats in Brazil; and always she wrote – sometimes prose, sometimes poems, and sometimes prose-poems. And she enjoyed herself hugely, and carried her work around with her in a special cloth folder in her backpack.

One evening, just near dusk, she found herself beside a tall chain-link fence in a wooded parkland up in the foothills of the Himalayas. Beside her her host, a Colonel in the Indian Army, was discoursing on the marvels to be found in the Nature Preserve just beyond the fence – for all sorts of fauna lived there, bear and deer and leopard, owl and monkey; and much flora too of course – rhododendron and pine and dewy orchid, and daisy and escaped hollyhock and wild rose. And the Colonel, a shortish man with a fine thick grey mustache, well-pressed in his khakis and upright in his bearing, pointed into the dusky interior of the woods behind the fence. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “See, there! See! There is a fellow!”

Mrs Brummel raised her camera – for of course she photographed the beauties she saw, the striped fur and the gleaming or covert eyes of the felines she discovered – and pressed its long snout between the fence-wires through a hole just the right size. And she peered – and there, looking over his shoulder at them, was a large leopard, spotted and slouching, its rounded ears twitching, its muzzle opening slightly in what might be a snarl, so that she could just glimpse the pink.

And then suddenly, all in an instant, the leopard had covered the distance between them and had leapt and hurled his body, the whole side of himself, right against the fence, smashing the camera back through the opening! And what a grimace he wore, and how quickly he moved and with what force he pranged into the fence, so that it bulged back towards the two people, and then righted itself when the leopard slid away again, sneering and hissing, and slunk back with royal aplomb into the shadows!

Mary Lynn Brummel was much shocked. The impact, so near, had knocked the breath from her, and she bent over, unable to think or to rise. The Colonel was laughing, but he hastened then to her side and led her down to his little white-washed cottage among others in straight rows on a shaded green, and summoned a tall turbaned soldier to make some tea. “My dear, my dear, “ he commiserated in his old-fashioned way, “I am sorry that that is all the welcome you were offered! Ha ha ha ha!” For he had been quite thrilled by the action!

Mrs Brummel went back to her hotel that night, half an hour by taxi over the pot-holed roads through the hills, and she lay on her bed in the dark feeling….something, she could not yet say what…as if drilling down in to her being, the place behind the things that people say and do day-by-day. Something about the leap of the beast had reversed the usual direction of her thoughts – next adventure, next big and gorgeous twining, sauntering feline, with its whiskers and its fluid limbs – and sent the energy back towards her own self.

She let this happen, lying in the dark with the sound of a mountain stream coming in the window, and the whole vast looming world of the mountains watching over her silently – and it was as if her whole life she had been waiting for this moment. Waiting to turn away from the beauties and distractions of the outer world, just for a time; and go back in to where she started, and where she would return to; and where even now she truly dwelt.

And so one fine day, in a hill-town not far from that place, at a sort of sanctuary called a ‘meditation center,’ she received from the graceful hostess and her beautiful daughter a new name: Ma Udyata Pritipurvaka, ‘Uplifted in Loving Ecstasy;’ while on the wall behind them all a large photo of a man with luminous, huge and prescient eyes gazed at them with piercing and unanswerable mystery…and a joy of freedom and possibility lifted her up, and made her laugh and weep in turns. And then they all bowed to each other, and danced with their arms above their heads; and then had tea.

And she then began her real journey: to discover the sandy lion, stripeful tiger, brusque and sudden leopard, dappled ocelot, rebel highwayman, veiled and gauzy saltmarsh, ferocious Jabberwocky, within herself; in this thing called ‘meditation’, where, mysteriously, one goes to one place – inside one’s own strange self – to access the whole spring and sprang and sprung of life; and then beyond that – to the one who watches it all. The simple light which had hovered over her Kentucky hills, though she had not seen it; and which sat enthroned in these Himalayan mountains; and which observed each and every animal; plane and ship and tree that she felt herself becoming in her explorations.

And here her writing stopped, for a time; for there was too much to say, and nobody to say it. Or, nothing to say, and too many to speak the words. Or, simply, she could not be bothered, it felt irrelevant to scribble, when her heart was so full and the day so bright and the view so beautiful; and her companions always ready for a long and speechless hug.

But, later, she began again –

And she was happy.

And what did the neighbors say to each other, when she went back to Deerpath Meadows, Kentucky, in the summer when the peaches were ripe and spurted juice down to your elbow when you bit into one? And she, all lit up like a Christmas tree, from within?

“Oh, mmm, yah. Ah saw her las’ week, jus’ for a minute – she looked, you know, thin. But okay, yayuss, she seemed fahn. Don’t ‘spect she’ll stay round here though. Allus was a strange ‘un, when Ah look back. Allus had her head in the clouds. Cain’t live lak that. Thet’s just not how laf is.”

And they nodded to each other in agreement.

And what did Mr Brummel do, he who had been left at the homestead on his lonesome while his wife went gallivanting off to here and there? Was he angry? Had some pleasant widow comforted him? How did he feel when he saw this new Udyata Pritipurvaka, in her drapey cotton clothes in rich, uneven colors?

Did she seize him with joy and kiss him all up and down his face and shoulder? Or did she wait, at a respectful distance, gazing at him, looking into his eyes if he would let her; to see what he would do? Give him space to gather himself?

Did he want to divorce her? Or would he go with her when next she took off into the wide world?

Ah…that’s another story.

2012, Weston, MO

The heartbreaker

Hadleigh Jennings in her 37th year fell for a country-western singer. She loved his thin dry lips, which made her think, paradoxically, of unlikely springs in arid mountain ranges, something so important nestled near-hidden. Her inside went all funny when she saw him, and he seemed to her valuable then, life-giving, just being like he was, lounging in the doorway of Stompin’ Johnson’s Roadhouse, his cowboy hat tipped to the front, his long skinny legs in indigo jeans, one leg bent, his stacky, tapered boot-heels adding grace and height just like they do on a woman. Cigarette danglng from his idle hand, so loose and uninterested. Like he had all the time in the world. She was sure he had a heart in him, giving and pure – underneath his pearl-buttoned shirt, inside his bony chest.

She loved the way that hat shaded his face, made him mysterious; balanced out his long straight nose. The way his eyes were kept away from her, so that she wanted to seek them, and enjoy the seeking.

When he sat on his singing stool, up on the dusty old stage, one leg crossed over the other, guitar resting on a thigh – he looked like a loose and amiable pipe-cleaner man, bendable as spaghetti.

One of the songs he covered was Third-Rate Romance, Low-Rent Rendezvous – pronounced, of course, Ron-day-voo. Hadleigh kept that song tucked into her mind like a charm – a lozenge of tart tastiness in her heart – because that was the song that drew her to him that first night, and that was the song that played in her head, through her body, as later that same night he kissed her neck and then her cleavage where the plaid shirt parted, and then her cheekbone, and her thick short honey hair.

He stayed a week in Tulsa, and during one of those nights she conceived. And then he was gone; and nine months later Hadleigh, her sister Charla, their mother, and Hadleigh’s older daughter Marla-Boone welcomed little Rendezvous – Ronnie for short.

She was a bonny baby – blond, with eyes that went from blue to brown over the weeks – and Hadleigh took three months off from waitressing to take care of her, see her into this world as best she could; and hide out with her, too. She’d go back to work; had to – savings didn’t last long – but her mother would step in then. And meanwhile she beamed and cooed at the purtiest baby in the world.

Marla-Boone was old enough to help out – going on twelve – and too old to be jealous, too. So that was good.

Chetly Shaker had not forgotten Hadleigh. Nor had he forgotten Purcella, or Adella, or Shellabelinda Macintosh, come to that – all of them a-wishing he’d roll on back through, he was sure of that. But he had other things, other places, on his mind.

Some old Aunty had told him, long ago when he was just a child, that he was gonna grow up to be a heartbreaker. He’d been reading about Aztec human sacrifice just prior to that, where human hearts were ripped out of human chests and placed still beating on stone altars. He’d wondered if breaking a heart had anything to do with that. Perhaps they’d broken the hearts too, somehow, by picking them up and throwing them, like a melon? He’d broken a watermelon or two by that age – dropping it on the hot sidewalk, on the way to the kitchen from the truck – and he could just see a red heart, shaped like the ones in valentines; broken open with little black seeds coming out, like Oriental rodent eyes.

He liked the image. It made him feel strong.

Near about the time Ronnie was slipping out into the doctor’s hands in Tulsa, an experienced mother was squatting over a sterile sheet laid on a mat on the stone floor of the bedroom in a semi-detached dwelling in a suburb of New Delhi, India. Mrs Rajagopal was moaning, yelling, and her nightie stuck to her back with sweat. A fan turned overhead, and the midwife reached out with a cloth and wiped her brow, her face, her neck. “Rest, rest a little,” the midwife cautioned. “Soon he will be coming. Just a little longer. But do not be pushing yet. Asti, asti!

Mrs Rajagopal lay down on her side, then, with difficulty; her distended belly rippled with the active child inside it. She felt so very much like a cow, she thought, and wondered if indeed she could claim that sort of sacredness. But her thoughts were interrupted as another pain ripped through her like a lorry – she gasped, shrieked, nearly passed out – came to, heaved herself up onto her haunches again, squatting like she was over the toilet. There was a pause, and then, “Now bear down!” exhorted the midwife. “Push! Now!”

And there slid into the world, on a river of grue, a slippery, determined, slender little baby, cord pulsing and twisting like a veiny eel.

And Mrs Rajagopal, in her joy and relief, held on her belly her new daughter, and felt the Earth and Life and Skies all join as flesh and fate and blood and cord all met at once. (She had three sons already; one daughter was not going to be a problem at this stage; far from it.)

They called her Rani; and Mr Rajagopal was besotted with her, and came home from work every evening and stood by her cot and beamed, putting his big finger down to stroke her apricot-satin cheek; and she would grasp it in her little fist, and smile back at him, and kick her little feet quite athletically.

As she grew, Mrs Rajagopal dressed her in frilly, well-pressed little cotton dresses, and took her along when she went visiting, to kitty parties, or to teas. But Rani was soon outside with the sons of the house, playing with Batmobiles and jet planes and red waggons; her dolls came in handy as passengers, to be pulled about at a ferocious clip, whence they often tumbled, and become muddy if it was monsoon, as muddy as Rani’s frilled dresses. Mrs Rajagopal clucked her tongue, but the dobhi did not care who had dirtied a garment – he scrubbed it just the same, and lay it out on a rooftop, or hung it under shelter to dry.

When Rani was eleven she knew she wanted to be an astronaut. She loved science at school, and maths came naturally to her; and she earned a scholarship to a good preparatory academy. There she did so well that when she announced her intentions nobody felt to stand in her way, though indeed parents and teachers both were startled; and a course of study was worked out that would nourish her mind, support her ambition, and still include time for yoga and meditation. For a person should be well-rounded; and while she majored in the sciences, and studied aeronautical engineering, she read Urdu and English literature, as well.

The Rajagopals expected her to marry, and had been saving towards that end; but by and by they began to realize that that day might take longer than they thought to arrive.

And monsoon followed monsoon, and crisp cold winter was supplanted by breathless, muggy, sharp-heated summer; and still Rani studied, and throve.

Ronnie was ten when she told her mother Hadleigh and her sister Marla-Boone that she was going to be an astronaut when she grew up. Hadleigh said, “unh huh,” and then asked, “Would you lak some more chicken pah? There’s a li’l bit left,” and Marla-Boone said, “I’m just gettin’ me another Coke,” and then slid away to paint her nails the colour of spring leaves and dream about Bryant, her young man. Ronnie’s ambition meant nothing to her – just a bit of kid confabulation – next she’d want to be a policewoman, or a zoo-keeper.

But Hadleigh looked at her daughter consideringly. Ronnie was good at arithmetic – a fluke in the family – and certainly waitressing was nothing to aspire to. Why not? Why not let the kid reach the stars if she could? She probably wouldn’t make it – Hadleigh had no illusions about that – but it would give her something to strive for that wasn’t just ‘movie star’ or ‘famous singer’ or ‘cowgirl’ – like other girls her age. She decided, did Hadleigh, to listen closely to her daughter and see if the dream persisted. If it did, she’d help in any way she could.

Hadleigh had waited till another no-good Country-Western singer came to Stompin’ Johnson’s Roadhouse, and whispered in his ear that if he came across anybody who might see Chet Shaker, to pass on the word that little Rendezvous had been born, and was definitely his; and what was he gonna do about it? For she had no other way to contact him; but she expected the grapevine to work pretty well. And so it did…and Chet heard the news while he was in New York, of all places, and feeling not quite in prime condition, what with a hangover, and a broken foot where some bastard had kicked him sideways for he’d-forgotten-just-what. So his foot was in plaster, and he’d been drowning his sorrows, and the news of another little monkey-brat did nothing to cheer the jaggedy little mass that was his heart. And so he did his best to forget the news; and that worked pretty well.

Rani and Ronnie lay giggling on a huge bed in a nice hotel in Texas. The climate was controlled to a perfect coolness. They were going on their first mission tomorrow – the first all-female mission in history, out to the space station and then beyond, to check out the new asteroid that had edged into Earth’s orbit one night when hardly anybody was watching, and now rode confidently between Earth and Moon, glowing smugly at night as it bounced the sun’s rays off itself like a bathing beauty. It was all quite exciting. Nations, of course, had wanted to claim it for their own; but luckily, enough people realized the folly of this that it was now being declared an all-Earth treasure, like the moon is. Though even that was a bit silly, said Ronnie, and Rani agreed with her.

Rani had short black hair, a stocky yet curvy build, and a slim, patrician face, with a delicate, eagle-ish nose. She was quick to laugh, and had beautiful pearly teeth. She smelt of spices whenever her mother and father were in town to stay with her; otherwise she smelt of lemon and cedar-wood and something just a bit like warm roses.

Ronnie, on the other hand, was 5’8”, slim and flat-planed, with thick yellow hair to her shoulders. She was serious in repose, had very fair skin; you could see the blue veins in her elbow-insides and wrists. But she was quick and bright, and could laugh when it was called for. As it was now.

They were going flying! Really flying – not just up and down from the Earth’s crust like fleas, testing sonic-boom jets and so on, earning their stripes. They were really going up there! Rani giggled and reached out a finger to touch Ronnie’s cheekbone. Ronnie swatted her away – “No chance, kind sir! I’m straight! I’m straight!” she cried. And kissed Rani’s cheek – “That’s all you’ll get. Ted Hunter’s waiting for me when I get back. No hot tacos for me. I like hot dogs. Big ones. Too bad he’s such a stuck-up, prudish old maid. Really,” she added. And snorted. And they giggled some more, and when room service came, they sat up and, suddenly hungry, gazed at their specially-ordered dinners in appreciation – “Like being a condemned man,” observed Ronnie.

After dinner they sat, Rani on the bed, Ronnie in the big armchair, and grew ruminative. Rani had already taught Ronnie something about meditation – in fact, she’d pulled out statistical proof and convinced NASA that a bit of meditation was just the ticket for astronauts, who were going to go into such stressful situations, and have to be alert and bright, calm and mature and centered. It was a natural.

As they flew through space, the bobbing weightlessness seemed quite normal. It was like something in a dream, a classic human dream. It was funny to close your eyes up here and feel your inside get weightless too. Ronnie breathed, of course; but as she watched her breath, observed her own muddy, inchoate interior, things began to settle inside. And by and by a sort of radiance could be felt, pressing up from somewhere within.

She did not expect this so soon. It was as if, with Earth’s atmosphere lifted, they were right close to something thin and ineffable and inviting. Something grand.

She’d been floating for quite a while. Rani was monitoring the screens; she herself could rest. The stress of take-off was past, they were well on their way to the Space Station. She could indulge her curiosity, with NASA’s blessings, even. Sensors in her clothing monitored her state. But these could not know what she thought or dreamed or wished…As she floated, and watched her inner body, her thoughts…one idea kept arising. It welled up like a minor bit of joy, but soon blossomed into a creative, flow-like feeling, again and again: Contact Dad. Contact Dad.

Why not? Maybe, from up here, he’d hear. Maybe her reach was great enough. She’d heard all about him; Hadleigh had told her everything. She knew he’d never deigned to get in touch – just left them like discarded toys; and had never contributed a penny to their keep. Hadleigh had done all the bringing-up, working two jobs – the Roadhouse and a diner too. She was steady, the customers liked her, she got good tips; a gentleman friend, married but occasionally attentive, had made a discreet little investment for her once, and it was making good – not big, but steady. They’d done all right.

Like every child, Ronnie had longed for her parents to be together. Longed for it. She knew her daddy was handsome – wanted to meet him – had missed him a lot in her young life. Missed his praise, too, when she graduated from college; qualified for astronaut training.

And so she decided to contact him. Or better yet, ask the gods and goddesses – Jupiter, Minerva, Venus, Mars – whoever might be out there – to intercede, if they so wished.

And so she floated within the Space capsule, eyes closed, all her being in a flow of harmony, save just this one sticking-out idea – this hankering for Yin and Yang to meet and come back into line: Let my mama and daddy be together again, if it so pleases you! she prayed, she was not sure at all to whom…Chet Shaker, wherever you are – beam this thought down into your heart – get you to Tulsa, and find your old flame Hadleigh Jennings, and treat her really, really nice! You sonofabitch! she added, unable to help herself.

And as she watched her inner world, it felt just fine to ask this. It was what she’d always wanted, needed. And then, just to be ion the safe side, she added again, If it pleases you. And she felt the prayer go out from her body and make itself into an inverted cone that flashed down towards the blue, turning Earth, the most beautiful pebble in the Universe, and come to shine on…somewhere. Texas, perhaps? Arizona? They were so close together from up here.

In fact, Chetly Shaker was in bed in a borrowed house in the countryside near Tittle-Tattle, Arkansas. Some sort-of friends of his who’d gone on vacation said he could stay there and feed the pets, get himself rested up for his next tour.

He was getting pretty tired of moving by this stage of the game – didn’t seem to suit him so well any more – and he was enjoying the big- spread-out ranch house with its sliding glass doors onto a mowed lawn all surrounded by things like peonies – he guessed they were peonies, with their big, shaggy blooms – and shaded by tall, venerable trees. He did his best not to abuse the hospitality – wiped up coffee if he spilled it on the kitchen counter, and the like. Fed the two dogs, the cat, and the poor, big flapping birds in a sort of aviary outside. (One of the birds seemed to dislike him, made a big diving squawk when he came out there, as if it wanted to take off his hand with its talons. But the chicken wire kept him safe.)

But now he was asleep, in a narrow bed in the guest room, between cool sheets, under a quilted bedspread. And he had a dream…

Now, Chet did not normally dream – or if he did, he forgot it instantly, so that it did not wake with him to puzzle or annoy. But this was a different kind of dream…

There was a grizzly bear in the room. And what that bear was most of all, was TALL. Its head just brushed the ceiling, giving Chet a strange feeling on the top of his own head, where the thin comb-over was oiled and going grey. Like his very own head couldn’t breathe.

The bear was huge – just huge. And it was angry. It wove itself back and forth like a cobra, and its sloping shoulders and massive arms seemed therefore to take up even more space. It had great black curving claws. Its stumpy back legs were planted firmly on the guest room carpet, and its long long body just dwarfed the standing lamp, doorways, wardrobe – made the room like like it was in a doll’s house.

A great, yet somehow soundless roar was coming out of the grizzly – a roar for the ages, thought Chet in confusion – the only thought he had,really, before the full horror of the beast took him over…for it was as if the grizzly became the whole room, its roar subsuming everything in it and the man himself, taking them into it, converting, metabolising them to become itself…a behemoth of rage.

Chet could feel the red inside of its mouth as his own – the ferocity of its ready rage as his own, long-suppressed. Its readiness to do anything to survive – kill, stomp, tear, gash, munch, growl – and the spewing volcano of himself was a good thing, an orgasmic thing – he was tall as a mountain, desperate as a cornered wolverine. Yet he knew no fear, but only power. He wove back and forth, slobbering through gaping teeth, pawing the air, all menace and no kindness at all – just a roar as big as all the skies.

G R A A A A A A H H H H H H H H H

roared the bear.

This went on and on, as if a lifetime of rage and rancor, frustrations and missed opportunities, people ignoring him and not giving a shit, his looks fading, people starting to slight him more and more – the drinks alone finally, the people in the audience who just talked to each other when he was singing – G G G R R A A A A H H H !

And that stupid shit lying on the bed – was that him? Washed-up, lonely, ugly as an old shovel with the dirt still on it – No! This would not be him! G R A A A H H !

And it was as if the skies, the roof, the house around him, shook and roared, and his inside was all woke up and alive, and it felt good to howl and shriek – he was ready to take on the neighborhood, tear the roofs off, hurl the sleeping people in the air with his mighty claws. He grinned, as much as a grizzly can grin; he exulted now as he roared. G R A A A H H ! And it was as if life itself was flooding back into him, as the bile poured out. G R R A A A H H ! Shouting the house down, waving his paws into the endless night sky.

He woke up, shaking, and lay for a long time in the silent house, feeling what had just happened to him. The most powerful thing he could ever remember seeing was a locomotive, charging its massive weight down the tracks across the plains – but this had been five times that, it had been off the tracks, all over the place, into the sky…he could still feel the satisfaction of it, all those roars; his body now vibrated with aliveness. He was drenched in sweat. He stank.

After a while he got up and took a shower, feeling with a kind of awe the goodness of the hot water pounding down, rinsing, scraping away the smell of bear. Then he went back to bed and slept, as deeply as he ever had, for another hour or two. And then he woke to a new day, with the hedges glistening with dew, the hummingbirds already at work on the hummingbird feeder out on the terrace. He knew the long grass on the meadow would be dew-laden, the path through the woods shy and sheltered from the heat of the rising sun. He prepared to take the two old dogs out for a walk.

Chet had to realize that he was having a Feeling. He didn’t recall ever having had a Feeling before except to get out of Dodge; that he’d felt a lot. But now the Feeling was, to go back to Dodge. Why would he want to do that? Why should that ol’ girl, Hadleigh Jennings, be any more special to him than any of the other ones he’d left behind? Why would he be feeling he had to go see her? This was just weird – it was against his religion, was what it was. How many times had he chuckled to himself, “I’se just born bad,” and felt that some immortal brilliance attached to this?

But here it was – as if some great invisible hand was steering him – pushing him back in some direction he’d come from long before. His whole body was being swivelled, in the fresh morning; back towards Oklahoma.

Ronnie Jennings was high above the Earth, turned inwards, silent. Her prayer had fallen away now – her hunger for love and for redemption had paused. What, her body began to ask her, are you doing? We don’t feel quite right here, it said. Look again. The past is over. It wasn’t real satisfactory – that’s true – but whose is? Dull people, that’s who – people who never go sailing, or flying, or anything. Stay-at-home stick-in-the-muds (for this was her theory.) But most of all – it’s just not feeling right, any more, to ask for my mom and dad to meet and love each other. What am I, a child?

Yes, something whispered inside.

Well, okay…she thought, and looked again.

She’d sent her kernel of desire out into the Universe – that was enough. It came from her heart – that was okay. But what she didn’t have the right to do – what was not okay, and therefore not good for her either – was to hope to control anybody. Mess with their fate. Their fate was their own business. She could only feel her own lonesome child inside, and honor it; feel its longings – but she couldn’t ask for anybody else to change.

And it was as if inside her something settled – a new peace – and then she noticed that the space between things seemed to be opening – like space between the stars she could see out the window of the craft (it was like a 60’s picture window, so big and generous it was;) like the space between thoughts, or between her own bones; the space each cell is mostly filled with. And a deep happiness came into her as all those spaces vibrated gently under her attention. A kind of radiance flowed into her; and she understood that whatever anybody had ever taken from her, or never gave her in the first place; this could never be taken. And the glow increased – and she floated in it for a bit, in the ineffable, and yet the thing which is truest. It felt so amazing.

…She bowed inwardly, to whom, she did not know; and opened her eyes. There was Rani’s back as she monitored the controls – sweet Rani – and Ronnie’s heart was filled with love for her.

She looked then at the window…the virgin jewel of Earth, sparkling, so pretty you wanted to put it in your mouth and feel it tremble there, like a living chocolate with a praline center.

The massive heavens, not quite silent after all…strange whooshes and musics almost like whale-sounds, seemed to come from it all. So beautiful. Was there anything more beautiful? How could there be? For this was…everything.

She could barely breathe, she tingled so…and yet she breathed. And gazed. And participated.

Let them go, she thought, in joyful relief. Let them go – Mom, my dad, my sister – who knows what their story is? Not mine to guide. Let them go. Freedom is so…ecstatic! And she began to bob about the cabin, doing pretzelly twists in the air, feeling her levitant muscles trying to work, to push against each other, to give themselves some traction not allowed by weightlessness. Isometrics in the air – and it felt so good, this funny dancing; and Rani looked up and smiled, and said, “In a little while, take over here, okay? I would also like to dance.”

They’d ferried supplies to the Space Station; after the automated unloading, they’d had a tour of the surprisingly large place, with its international crew looking a little bleached, a little wan, but of good cheer. They’d drunk tea together, and even had a dance – research had shown the benefits of this. (There was a little argument about what music to play, but soon a compromise was reached – one track you like, one track I like, sort of thing. Maturity prevailed.) They’d slept ten hours, exhausted; and woken to gaze out more picture windows at the wondrous view. So much vastness – so many stars – and the turning, sun-and-shadow Earth there…

On their way back to Earth they passed Aphrodite, the asteroid; while the spacecraft itself took photographs, the women gazed.

“We’ll all look like that one day,” thought Ronnie,

“How beautiful it is! How silent and pure!” thought Rani.

“How like a dinosaur,” thought Ronnie, quite happily.

“How like a dead body, half-burnt, laid in the current of the river…” thought Rani.

The asteroid floated, jagged and pitted, a dark grey-green. It had no symmetry yet – not enough aeons had passed to weather and turn it on the lathe of heaven – so it looked like a half-eaten whale. It moved in the current of its orbit like a container that had fallen from a ship and been battered well by waves.

They namaste‘d it as they passed by. Going home.

Our Earth. The treasure of it caught in their hearts, their throats. There was no way to contain the majesty of their experience – of being out here, of seeing their own planet from a distance – in just their minds…the whole being registered it, and knew so well its inability to comprehend.

Chet Shaker, long-time music man, never wrote his own songs – he just sang other people’s. He figured it like this: If you go on vacation to the beach, why take pictures? Some postcard has already done it better. Hell, he didn’t feel like writing songs – never had. So now, when this new feeling had him, of going back to Tulsa; and it felt a bit like something a person might want to write a song about – the way it kind of ached at his chest, and wouldn’t let him alone – he did the only thing that really came naturally – he went out and courted a much-younger girl, with black lipstick and white liner round her eyes – the opposite of how girls made up in his youth. She was jail-bait, and her platinum-bleached hair had wispy, split ends, and her large bosom stretched her spandex and bulged out the arm-holes. She kept crossing her arms in front of her chest. She had a few piercings – ears, nose, navel – and a tattoo on the back of her neck, right where otherwise some boy might have wanted to kiss her. It was a scraper, goddamn it, it said John Deere on the side of it – piece a heavy equipment she had back there. Said her daddy drove one.

He brought her back to his house-sit and fed her Johnny Walker, and pancakes he made himself – he could be a caring man. They picked blackberries from the canes in the garden, and peaches from the trees; soaked the halved, pitted peaches in whiskey and charred ’em on the grill while the steaks roasted beside ’em. It was a fine feast; and they sat out there late, smoking and swatting away mosquitoes, while the girl told him her life story, which was short but she made it long; and he didn’t tell her his. Then he plucked a tune or two, classics, Waylon or Johnny or Merle or whoever. And she liked that, mostly, though then she asked him to play some stuff he’d never heard of.

They spent a week like that, and then he loaded her up with a bag of peaches and sent her back to her trailer, where her mama, who’d been appeased by frequent phone calls, had troubles of her own.

And then, exhausted, soothed, irritated, and all out of excuses to postpone, Chet Shaker turned his sights towards Tulsa. The owners of the house were due back back in a few days anyway, so Chet piled up the dog dishes with food, cleaned the house up nice, changed the sheets, left a note, and set out with his guitar and his rolling suitcase (which he always carried, never rolled,) for the Greyhound station.

He found the house without much difficulty – she’d moved, of course, but all the waitresses knew each other, and he just had to ask.

He rang the doorbell. He’d bought new white running shoes, and gotten himself a better jacket at the Goodwill. His hat was his same old one, a fedora, greasy inside, on the leather band. He hadn’t got another – lost his cowboy hat in a high wind a long time back, hadn’t bought a replacement.

She’d been warned, of course – Sherilyn had phoned her right away – “You’ll never believe who’s back in town!”

It was her day off, she was vacuuming the back bedroom right at that moment, but she heard the bell after it had ding-a-linged a few times. She turned off the vacuum, went out into the living room. She opened the door.

Marla-Boone was visiting. She was a para-legal, and in the midst of an addictive affair with a married lawyer, going nowhere. She was inclined to be grumpy, tearful, or explosive, according to the hour. She was in the back yard, sitting morosely in a chaise longue, staring at her fingernails and sometimes taking a savage little bite. When she heard voices from inside she got up and shook out her summer dress where it stuck to her body with the heat. Then she mounted the concrete steps and went inside the house. She caught their voices, the end of an exchange. Something roiled up in her; she marched into the living room and, ignoring the old guy lounging against the wall, bag and guitar-case nearby, she marched up to her mother and hissed, “Mom! Ah met him once, remember? When Ah was little, and he came by the diner while yew were at work? This bastard is as rotten as a barn full of termites and cow-shit! Yore not actually gonna invite him for dinner? Ugh!” And she whirled around and headed for the back yard again.

“It’s mah house,” called Hadleigh after her, not unkindly. “He’s welcome – and yo’re welcome too, mah girl. Ah’ve got some chicken in the fridge, Ah’ll just marinate the pieces in Kraft Dressing, and bake ’em with cut-up sweet potato. An’ Ah’ve got some frozen peas? Come on, honey!”

“Mom!” cried Marla-Boone, who had become a little more sophisticated than her mother – “That shit’s made with propylene glycol? Like, anti-freeze? That stuff is nasty! Ah didn’t used to know any better, but Ah don’t want it now! Ah only cook mah chicken in olive oil or grapeseed oil?”

“But you allus lakked it!” called out Hadleigh, and got Chet sat down on the couch to wait, his hat still in his hands, while she bustled off to the kitchen to get him some iced tea.

“You’ll never guess who’s turned up like a bad penny,” Hadleigh’s email said.

“Oh yes I will!” thought Ronnie, and exulted within herself. “Oh – my – god. It worked!”

“He’s just here for a while,” the email continued. “Doesn’t know where he wants to end up. But I said he could stay till Christmas, then we’ll see. He’s been helping me paint the laundry room – real model prisoner, heh heh.

“He don’t look too good – life’s been hard, I guess. Your sister don’t got much use for him. Thinks he’s a stinker, a has-been cad. I said, well, if he has been a cad, but he ain’t no more, then he’s a has-been cad. She didn’t think it was funny.

“But he makes me pancakes, and trims the hedge, and suchlike things. When you gonna visit, oh my special, famous daughter? I’m so proud of you. It’ll do your dad good to see you too – see that at least he did one thing right in his sorry life. Though he did sing a few nice songs too…I’ll say that for ‘im.

“Miss you sweetheart!”

What she didn’t say, though, was that when Chet found out who his daughter was – when they were sitting in the living room after the chicken and the salad with iceberg lettuce and the rest of the Kraft dressing on it – and she showed him the pictures, Ronnie and Rani side by side, in their space clothes, each holding her helmet, grinning yet dignified – she watched Chet’s face…and after the first gulp of astonishment – the raised brows, the sphincter lips tightening into an O, the chin lifting – she saw a look of calculation pass through his little piss-hole eyes, that used to be so fine and dark and dangerous, and now just looked like crabby old webby hangy things. She knew that he was considering how he might benefit by this news. How it might profit him somehow.

Ronnie and Rani both came to visit, on their way to New Delhi to visit Rani’s family – and introduce Ronnie to India which she’d flown so high above, but never set foot in. The affair with Ted Hunter was simmering along, so Ronnie was a little distracted by that – she couldn’t see him for a month, and they sent each other lustful emails. But she wanted to meet her father properly, so she prepared herself by meditating in the hotel they were staying in – a surprisingly cushy place downtown, old building, well-kept and refurbished. Rani said she’d just sit in the coffee shop and do emails for a while and let Ronnie go on ahead to meet Chet; she’d come in an hour or two.

Ronnie knocked loudly, ringing the bell seemed silly. Like a stranger. She knew they were waiting for her.

The door opened, and there they all were – Hadleigh, Marla-Boone, and Chet – standing there, all agog, arms open – at least, the women\s were. Chet looked like ‘arms open’ was a position he hadn’t learnt yet.

He was taller than she’d thought. His lips were scored with vertical lines. He had stubble on his chin. His eyes were narrowed up like there was sun in ’em. She moved towards him, thinking, This is it! – or, not exactly thinking at all. Her tummy did a few belly-flops, not disagreeable.

They hugged – she throwing herself into it; he stiff and hanging back. “Well, hello there!” he said, in a fake-avuncular sort of way, with his deep voice. Like he really didn’t know what to say.

She sat beside him on the green fabric couch, aware of his smell – recent shower, recent cigarette. And something old and long-contained, like the inside of a closet. She wanted to hold his hand – to reach out to him, feel some warmth pass between them. Her very blood called out to him, singing with possible joys. Joys that could come – joys that had not emerged, but were supposed to have. All that lost daddy-and-daughter time. All the rhinestone tiaras he hadn’t bought her. All the Barbie dolls. All the swings he’d never pushed her in, the bicycles he didn’t help her learn to ride.

He tapped his foot restlessly on the floor. Drank his iced tea, looked sideways.

“He’s still got energy to burn,” thought Ronnie.

“So, heard you’re a famous wo-man,” said Chet finally. There was something funny in his tone – like he was competing with her, but didn’t want to say it. Like, a famous wo-man was a strange thing to be; and if he’d been famous, Chet Shaker, it woulda been more in the natural way of things.

She laughed. “I work hard. Not my fault what the press makes out of it. And you know, Chet, it’s good – ’cause it encourages other little girls to try for their dreams too. Shows ’em it’s possible.”

“Yeah, I guess,” allowed Chet, but Ronnie could tell he didn’t necessarily want to compete with more girls than just her.

Rani arrived then, and Hadleigh and Marla-Boone made tuna fish sandwiches for everybody, Marla-Boone grumbling about mercury; and they ate potato chips and drank iced tea. Rani inspected all the rooms of the modest, tidy house, and the photo albums came out, and the day went on until nearly evening; then suddenly Ronnie said to her father, “Um – Chet – will you play a song? We’d all like to hear….Play my song!” she cried, realizing that of course that would have to be the thing. And so he fetched his guitar, unbuckled the case, lifted out the curvy hollow thing, laid it on his knee, and tuned it up…then sang, sweetly and huskily, rusty to be sure:

…When they left the bar/they got in his car/ and they drove away/he drove to the Family Inn/she didn’t even have to pretend/she didn’t know what for… /And he said, “I’ll even tell you that I love you/if you want me to,/Third rate romance, low-rent ron-day-voo..“ all about an illicit couple who gets it on in some crappy motel. A good song – about real life. He was proud of it. He could see that foreign girl liked it, she smiled and shook her shortish hair and swayed in time to the tune.

Ronnie stared at him, as if seeing her own conception.

Hadleigh beamed quietly and looked at him with something like fondness. Marla-Boone just said a little “humph!” It was not her story.

And then Ronnie hugged her mom and took Rani out for a walk, just to look around at the suburb and stretch their legs and dodge cars, since there weren’t any sidewalks. And Ronnie wondered whether she’d done a good thing or not, up there in space.

On Halloween, as he was aiming himself down the hall from the TV room to answer the door to one more trick-or-treater, Chet Shaker felt a terrible great dread all of a sudden, clutched his side, and next thing he knew he was lying on a stretcher, staring up at the night sky all opaque with the streetlights, while the paramedics carried him to the ambulance.

When he came back from the hospital he stopped making pancakes – left off the helpful home repairs. Didn’t even get out his guitar and pick at it on the front porch, like he’d been used to. He sat in his old bathrobe, gazing at nothing. He’d still wanted Hadleigh – she was a fine-lookin’ woman still, he’d thought – but his hints had gone unanswered, and it got to him. It was like he wasn’t good enough – like he’d failed somehow. Chet didn’t like that. He slept in his daughter’s old room, which was a tad bit small, while Hadleigh had the master bedroom. It didn’t seem right.

And so one night, while Hadleigh was at work at Stompin’ Johnson’s (Chet felt too poorly to sing down there these days, and the manager hadn’t seemed over-thrilled to see him, though he’d let him play a time or two, when things were slow – the applause had been all right;) Chet wrote a brief note, packed up his rolling bag and his instrument, and left 2363 Opal Crescent, headed off for parts unknown. He still had some life left in him, was what he thought; all those women in that house, they just didn’t seem to need him – they shoulda asked him to play the guitar, but after that one time they forgot to do that. Shoulda cooked a little more variety of things. Shoulda invited him to bed. Shoulda not looked at him like he’d missed something important. He’d just gotta fend for himself then – too proud to beg, that’s for sure.

There weren’t any songs about men whose daughters were astronauts, and Chet wasn’t about to write one. So when he was introducing his sets, in Harp Castle, Texas, or Friar’s Lick, Wyoming, or Titanic Rock, South Dakota, he somehow couldn’t figure out how to brag on her without making himself look a fool. So he kept it to himself; but that was a little hard on him too. What was a man to do? That radiance she’d had when she’d come in the door – like she was bringing all that…Outer Space with her, and something more besides. He could see her arms open, and her heart – oh yes, he had seen that. But it was too late for him to pay attention to a thing like that. All that radiance. What the hell had happened to the world? A man couldn’t keep up; and couldn’t be seen not to.

Many years passed. Ronnie and Rani stayed friends, and went to India together every year or two. Their work, separately and together, went on evolving, and by and by they became lecturers, educators, grand old women of Space, spreading benevolence and understanding. They were revolutionaries of sorts; with their message about the limitless horizons females could now explore; and they were the voice of peace and unity for this troubled planet, everywhere they went. They had the overview, and people knew it.

Rani had discreet relationships with women; Ronnie never married, but tended to have affairs which didn’t last – but that didn’t seem too dreadful a thing. She enjoyed living in her own place, after the tumult of NASA; her cat Akbar, after a misspent youth (he spent it pulling books out of shelves, climbing drapes like a rock-climber on a Yosemite cliff-face, turning on taps when she wasn’t home) became a wise, settled old smoke-grey gentleman, who chirruped a friendly greeting when she came in the door.

The message came late one night, pinging into her inbox.

“Chet’s bad – I think you’d better go,” wrote her mother.

Hadleigh Jennings looked like what she was – a hard-working woman who didn’t smoke any more; who sat down and put her feet up every chance she got. She was practical; if she cooked for you, she knew she was going to do something for herself later too. She took long baths, had joined an astronomy club so she could be more educated about her daughter’s calling, and had an arrangement with a little Chinese lady for cheap massages. She wasn’t too loquacious. She had strong shoulders, greeny eyes, and her short hair, now blonde-white, was still thick and fluffy. She wore athletic shoes, and jeans, and different pretty blouses that went okay with the jeans. She’d managed to keep it all together somehow.

She had never expected much from Chetly Shaker, though it’s true that for a little while she had hoped. She knew about those travelling musicians – but now, now that she’d looked after the man, served him, given him a room to live in – all, really, for the sake of her youngest daughter, though pity was in it too – she felt she had a stake in things. She wanted that sorry old coot, that used-ta-be-heartbreaker, to at least pony up on his deathbed. At least there, show the girl some humanity. Show her who he really might be, under all that shtick.

Marla-Boone wasn’t coming – too busy; not innerested. But Hadleigh Jennings got a cheap Southwest flight to Buffalo, New York. Ronnie had offered to pay for a nice hotel for both of them.

The hospice was in an old disused office building. Each large room, with its hard-worn beige industrial carpet and sliding aluminum windows and no-nonsense squareness, had been curtained into six cubicles. A smaller room got two. There was a kitchen at the back, where meals were prepared; and a small office. Lavatories were two to a floor, male and female; and on each floor one office had been made into a bathroom, with three showers and a tub each. It wasn’t great, but it was functional. Funded by donations (government felt no responsibility for the dying,) it limped along.

Some of the cubicles were open on the end, the curtain pulled back. Family members sat in chairs beside beds, murmuring or just holding a dying person’s hand. Some patients were alone, just lying with closed eyes. A few beds were empty.

Chetly Shaker was at the end of a row, with a flowered curtain dividing his bed from the next. The end of his cubicle was open. As Hadleigh and Ronnie edged through the room towards him, they looked discreetly, nervously, from side to side. The kindly older woman who guided them bustled quietly ahead. They took in the rasping, the sheer mass of wrinkles; the acceptingness, the resignation. They saw scalps through thin hair, gnarly toes sticking out at the feet of beds, people curled up in foetal position. Fat people, thin people – but mostly thin. The smells were complex and disturbing – registered by one’s body with apprehension and a desire to flee. There were shapes that shouldn’t be on human bodies – lumps, hills – scaly and shocking – and craters that shouldn’t be there either.

Ronnie realized just how sheltered she’d been. She’d travelled, and she’d been into Space – but all of it was somehow protected, the province of youthful, vital people. Astronauts had to be healthy and in their prime. Hotel rooms were sterile and orderly. Even India, with its poverty, had a vitality that was undeniable, unquenchable. It barely slept – industry started well before dawn and celebration and haranguing continued late. But this…this weird netherworld, this waiting room – a place of transition – seemed to consist only of decay. Like one element was isolated, and lonely in its fate. She shivered.

The carer had brought in another chair, and so the two women sat beside Chet, and gazed at him.

It was as if, thought Ronnie through her horror, a little asteroid had lodged in this throat, and was sticking out there, under the thin flesh. The point of it stretched the skin almost to breaking; there was a redness there at the end like a clown nose, but sharp. And the thing was big – big as the long toe of a woman’s high-heeled shoe.

Chet’s eyes were wide open. He looked like a man in a scary movie who has just seen his fate coming at him.

He had had time to ponder things – lots of time – but it still didn’t seem right. He’d had a lot of fun when he was young – his kind of fun – the kind he liked to have. That was natural, wasn’t it? For a man to be his own kind of person? So what happened? Why couldn’t that sort of thing just carry on till the end? Why did there have to be this indignity, this helplessness, this pain and confusion? Every man smoked; every man drank – and not all ended up like this. But who was there to tell, even? The chaplain, he had decided, was gay; he couldn’t open up to a man like that, with his spiffy suit coat with its narrow lapels, the little ways his chin had of moving about more than a man’s chin had to move. The little lilts in his voice.

Chet’s eyes moved over, now – to the women. His visitors. And his eyes filled with tears. What the hell was happening? He didn’t cry! What the hell?

As his eyes fell on them, theirs came to his own. A flow began, back and forth.

He didn’t want it; if he had to leave this life, he wanted to do it as his own self, damn it – but somehow he couldn’t look away.

Couldn’t.

He was stuck – caught in a current. Their eyes – first one, then the other – as he looked back and forth – Hadleigh for a while; then his daughter – seemed to both emit some sort of beam; and draw him in to a soundless world held deep within a chasm – a place at the bottom of the sea where all things are revealed. And by and by, as the shock and embarrassment began to wear thin and then seemed to cast themselves aside – a sense of comfort, of pleasure even, began to come up from his stomach – quite deep, at the base of his gut – and overflow in him, warm like a tropic sea.

And then again a cool slab of something would enter his chest, and the warmth would stop – and he’d gaze into the green eyes, then the brown ones; and they held sparkles, and questions, and answers without words; which then broke through into new depths, and new transparencies, and so on. Opaque/clear, opaque/clear.

And as this pulse continued, strange phenomena began to occur within his body – all unbidden. Great gasps came out of him – and a place in his chest seemed to crack (he could hear it,) and come open – and a huge warm flood overtook him – and he wept; wept at last and finally, wept for all he had not known, all he had ignored, all he had denied himself. Wept for the surface of things, that he had clung to; for the nights in strange towns where he’d had to armor himself with a bottle and a sense of pride. Wept for the women he’d stroked to get the right reaction, kissed so that he could get them down under him; notched up on his belt and ignored then. The depth hiding in any one of them put him now to shame.

Wept for his mother, who had worked too hard, and his father, who’d played baseball with him but also wielded a strap and buckle. For the schooling he’d spurned, the dog who’d died under a truck. The young love who’d left him for a male librarian. Librarian!

He didn’t know how he kept his eyes open, with all these tears – but he had to; stuck in place like a fish with a harpoon in it. Clear mucus poured out his nose and down his face but he ignored it. Hadleigh took a Kleenex from a box on the stand by the bed, leaned over and mopped him up; she never looked away.

His throat hurt like hell. His neck hurt. The thing hurt, hurt so bad. He cried then because he was a little boy, and he hurt, and had been hurting for a while. And it was so sad.

And his daughter’s brown eyes. What they’d seen; what they’d brought back with them, irrevocably. Was that where he was going? …Good an answer as any. He’d best not look away.

And he perceived then that women pour love out of their chests, their pretty breasts, and just above their breasts – they just do. That they only want to be able to give it to you and have you let it in. Whatever else they might have wanted from him, all his life – and there was plenty, oh yes – they also just wanted to have a place to pour the fountains of their breasts, like milk and honey. And now – oh lord, yes, now – he no longer had anything to lose. They couldn’t catch him and hold him down, ’cause he was leaving! Oh yes, like he’d always left, he was leaving again – but this time was different.

And he began to laugh. At the absurdity of it – that he was leaving anyway. So they couldn’t catch him.

But then he started to cry again. His chest cracked open again – tears poured out of it like it was an eye itself, flooding – and he saw his daughter’s heart – mirroring his own – brown-eyed, deep as the Marianas Trench; a place to go; a place to go.

….And everybody held hands with everybody, by and by; and the women’s faces were wet too; and each of the women placed a hand on Chet’s thin chest, and felt the warmth still there, and the rise and fall. And the whole room was relieved – the very air was lighter, all over, all through. Every part of Chet’s body felt better – so good, in fact.

And they kissed his face; beautiful where it was wet. Like a baby’s.

And then he turned on his side, and curled up a bit, and went to sleep.

April 2017, Hebden Bridge

The Cave

He had unzipped the lower part of the legs of his Goretex hiking pants and stepped out of them, while he leaned against a rough stone wall. Then he had folded them and pushed them into his rucksack, pulled its drawstring tight again, and gone on. His long legs, suddenly freed to the air, were hairy and knobble-kneed.

He had been walking since dawn – a small revelation, the hushy ruddiness of an hour he rarely saw. Sharp cold, and the spreading flush seeming to tickle the undersides of low, distant banks of cloud.

But the sun had grown hot hours ago now, and he was looking for shade. He’d struck out over the hills behind the guest-house, away from the sea; up and over and down through scrub and rock, sometimes clumps of cedar, or an isolated olive grove. But there’d been no shade for a while, and he’d drunk the last of his water. He should have brought more. If he’d stayed on the roads he would have passed through villages – but he hadn’t the stomach now for people, not even some swarthy shopkeeper with a half-genial grunt; not even for a minute. He needed to get away, and to think; or rather walk through his thinking, and feel something beyond it – just his tread, his sweating shoulders, his long steps up the inclines.

There, at some distance before him, was a dark-green hill – the whole hill covered with olives. He couldn’t see a farmhouse, but often the groves belonged to people who lived in one of the villages. He clumped down through rocks and thin dry bushes and made for the grove.

There was an opening into the trees that looked just like a cave – dark and arched and inviting. He stepped into it, and was suddenly in a different world.

It’s true, what antiquity says: if you offer a foe an olive branch, you are offering to surrender to peace. Olive groves are uncannily soothing. There is something in the trees themselves that confers tranquillity. Each tree is a specimen, an individual – gnarled, swirly as a Van Gogh painting, all its dimensions rounded. It doesn’t thrust into the sky like a pine, but lies in wait like a mother to kiss your face etherically and soothe you as you pass by.

The tree seems wise with its centuries, its long waiting. There is no hurry in it.

He tramped between the rows in old dry grass, watching his step on the uneven ground. The grove was huge – there was no other thing on the hill but trees, and their sheltering creatures he could sense but could not see – owls, insects, maybe snakes, rodents, tortoises. Cicadas there were surely – their dessicated purr furled through the afternoon. He was heading towards the summit when he espied a thicket of some sort of bush he didn’t know the name of. Peering behind it, he found that he was looking at the entrance of a cave.

It resembled that initial cave of trees – an arched darkness – but was not so high. He’d have to kneel to enter it. He wondered at himself – why should he go in there?…And yet he knew he would.

His bare knees complained of the rough ground. Those knees were usually in jeans, and tucked under a desk – utterly forgotten. The pale skin shuddered at sharp leaf-edges, gravel, dirt, poky sticks.

He was surprised to see that the cave he was entering was not as dark as one might expect. It was about five feet tall, the same wide; and at the back it sloped down to show the entrance to a low tunnel, with light coming through.

So. This was just an antechamber he was in.

He’d been crouched over – he was over six feet tall, and had to stoop – but now he knelt again to survey the tunnel.

It was low – perhaps only eighteen inches from floor to ceiling – and appeared to be about four feet long. He thought of squirming through it on his belly, but notions of dirt in his mouth stopped him. So he lay down on his back with his head in the entrance and pushed with his feet while keeping his arms right beside him, using his elbows for traction. It was distinctly claustrophobic, looking right up at the bumpy rock in front of his face. But at least he knew the tunnel ended soon. He was not a spelunker and had no taste for labyrinthine adventures, thinking them foolhardy, and redolent of catacombs and mausoleums.

Quite soon his head had emerged…into a much grander atrium. Quickly he urged the rest of his body through the tunnel, and then, reclaiming his arms and legs, he sat up smartly and looked about him.

This chamber was much larger – about twenty feet across, and roughly the shape of a dome. The high ceiling had many humps and bumps, and he could see light coming through it in several places.

So. The hill was hollow, at least partly. And the top of it, among the rocks, must be shot through with holes. It would make for a leaky roof in a rainstorm.

But the place was somehow cheerful – cool, but not cold; with a pleasing dimness, and yet the rays of sun brought optimism and a good measure of visual clarity.

Again he looked about him, more slowly this time. The uneven sandy floor met the walls in all manner of lumps and hummocks, but there was a flattish place about six feet across, not far from where he sat.

He was not surprised to see man-made objects there. Surely this cave must have been known to people for thousands of years…How could it not be? This part of the world had been well-trod since pre-antiquity. The hidey-hole must have been used for all kinds of things – rituals, trysts, concealment during wars, storage, perhaps…and more.

He stood up, enjoying the sense of space above him – the top of the chamber rose at least thirty feet – and went over to the two objects.

One was a single bedstead, made of wood and rope. Someone must have pushed the components of it down the tunnel, then assembled it here. The rope was coming loose in places, and a frayed end stuck out. The bed looked old – no plastic anywhere about it.

The other object was less easy to identify.

He turned, bent and picked it up; gave it his full attention.

It was round – a sort of flattened cylinder – about eight inches high and maybe twenty inches broad, and made, as far as he could see, entirely of wood. Around the edge were strange little vertical dowels, like on a drum. The center part seemed to be movable; it could be rotated by means of a carved crank at the top – something like a salad-spinner.

But what was it for?

He turned it over, feeling its dry weight in his hands.

The bottom was…well, the bottom. It looked just like the top, but without the crank.

He turned it upright again.

Was it some sort of agricultural implement? For winnowing grain, perhaps? But where would you put the grain in? There were no holes visible.

But then he noticed something odd, as he turned it in his hands, sniffed it – no perceivable smell.

Some of the struts – each maybe the thickness of his small finger – had, near the bottom, an inset of stone.

That was very odd.

Was it some sort of ceremonial object?

He looked more closely.

The stones were a dark blood-maroon…garnet? He’d almost missed them, against the dark wood; but then, he could not have expected to see such a thing. Each was the size of his little fingernail, and was raised a little – a cabuchon.

Every third strut had a stone.

What could this thing be? It was not a drum – there was no resonating skin on it. It seemed hollow – almost like an old-fashioned ice-cream maker; but again, where would you put the ingredients in?

He sat back on his heels. He was quite thirsty now; he ought to leave this place, go find the road, a village. He shouldn’t leave it too long.

But he did not want to leave…not yet. His mind began to play and muse over possibilities.

Could it be…a time machine? Somehow?

Ha ha, he thought. And then the idea caught at him – if it were a time machine…he could go back…do…he knew not what…something…so that things might have ended differently. Surely, somehow they could have.

A flash of an inner movie came to him – a scene, oft-repeated.

He’s standing in front of their house in Carmel, California. The car is driving away. He can only see its hind end – a sight he now finds more ugly than anything else he can imagine: the blunt, careless, farting, stupid back end of a car.

Going away.

She was so…curvy. And soft. In his arms at night. so…steely. Determined. That part he often ignored, not knowing what to do with it. Though he probably relied on it too. Terribly. Oh god. It scared him, that fierce intention of hers, though it seemed to him that she herself might not know where it wanted to lead her. But it might very well take her…where he couldn’t follow.

Her hair. Amber, fragrant with the essential oils she added to her shampoo – cinnamon, clove, bergamot. she’d told him the names.

Her breasts – her sacred, drooping-yet-jutting, tanned and pretty breasts – his; yet not his at all. Her strong hips and thighs, her belly criss-crossed with the lattice of stretch-marks.

And then his mind skittered, glancing off the next thing. His stomach lurched. He bent over.

The small one. Honey-haired too. Slim and vibrant, leaping, questioning, tugging at his hand, having breathy little conversations with him he could not exactly follow. Confiding things he did not feel equal to receiving.

How could they both just get in a car and drive off to fucking CANADA?

He did not think the rift was mendable. He himself lacked something – something human, important. That at least he could see.

He knew that of course he’d be able to spend time with his little girl – that was only legal – but he’d not made any threats of legal action. They’d not gone to lawyers. Not yet.

He’d not stood in Shara’s way. He knew the fault for whatever had gone wrong, was his.

He’d simply watched them drive up the street, past the neighbors’ houses with their cedars and crape myrtle, trumpet vine, oak and walnut. Then turn at the end, to the right, away from the sea; heading for the freeway.

He was kneeling now, the strange object lain down beside him in the sandy dirt. His stomach hurt. His throat was dry, so dry it was closing. He swallowed, but there was no moisture. He sat down on his narrow behind, hands beside him, digging into the soil.

And then came the bolt of pain through his hand, up into his arm.

His hand flew up by itself – he saw the scorpion clinging to it, tail curled over towards his thumb, fangs in his flesh – he shook and shook his hand in panic. The creature stayed on! It was hideous to see, bluish-tan, with a kind of sectioned yellow underbelly, and that tail curled right over its back. Horrid!

He was sobbing, gibbering as he flung out his hand. The scorpion suddenly flew free and hit the wall. Vanished into a crevice.

He was amazed at the pain. Had anything that painful ever happened to him before? He didn’t think so. Not falling off a bicycle, not skinning his leg raw on a tree he’d slid down, not even getting his shoulder punched by a big boy when he was nine. This was bad.

He was staring at his hand – the sting was on the web between the thumb and forefinger. It was already swelling.

Soon his hand was swollen hard and he felt dizzy. He sat down on the bed. What was he going to do? If he slid back out into the antechamber, retrieved his rucksack – he’d left it there, thinking it unnecessary to push it through the tunnel when he’d only be gone a few minutes – he would perish before he’d got down off the hills, ill, in the hot sun, without water or a hat. Why hadn’t he brought a hat? It was because Shara always told him to wear one…His phone was in his rucksack, but there would be no reception out here. He had part of a cellophane packet of dried figs, all packed tight together in a brick; and a bag of salted pistachios. That would keep him from starving, if he could manage to get through the tunnel with his hand like this…though that was a big If, it hurt like hell, throbbing and yet half numb too.

Now weird little spasms started to go through his arm. His hand swelled even as he watched – hard as a baseball, fat and round, with tinges of red, purple, green, white about it.

The worst thing was, he didn’t know what to expect. How bad were scorpion stings supposed to be? He had a vague notion that scorpions would be different in different parts of the world – but he didn’t know just how. There were scorpions in California – they liked the hot dry desert, the rocky uplands of the coastal range – but when he’d been a child he’d always headed to the beach, not up into the stickery hills. When his father belittled him or yelled around the house, he’d slipped out and down to the cool and soothing sands where the tide was just flowing out, walk there barefoot. Sat on a rock and gazed at the sea. So he didn’t know much about scorpions and spiders and things.

Did scorpions kill you? He thought they might.

His breath was shallower now. He was so thirsty! Was there no moisture anywhere? He looked wildly about him, but saw no telltale darkness in the sand.

What would it feel like, to die of a scorpion sting? Was his arm beginning to swell too? His ribs seemed too small for his heart.

Why had he come here? Run off to Greece, just because he’d loved and respected one of his professors in college, who’d happened to be Greek – who’d been kind, and very patient with him, and who loved to lecture and make jokes, and made mathematics come alive; who’d treated him as a whole human being, as if he mattered.

As Ben’s father had never done.

So Ben had lit off here when Shara left, and now look at him – stuck in a cave on a fucking mountain, dying of a scorpion sting. He should have studied up on the fauna! The various hazards! But he’d been too upset and in a hurry…determined to do something rash. Show Shara that he could strike out too, into the wider world. That he didn’t only need her. He should have stayed in Carmel, gotten some kind of therapy, that’s what Shara was always trying to get him to do…She loved therapy, did Shara – she and her girlfriends, with their tarot cards and crystals and past-life regressions. They’d stay in the den for hours, twittering and guffawing. Hunh.

How did girls get so happy? he mused moodily. Shara and Tallulah, spry as cats, bouncy and energetic and laughing, playing with clothes, or dandelions, or Tallulah’s dolls; or even swinging together in the swing-set out in the back yard. Like Shara was still a kid. How did they do that?

…But this thought was over in a tiny mote of time – because the hand yanked his terrified attention back with its throbbing doom.

Oh god, oh god – what should he do? What could he do?

Then he had an idea.

Perhaps, if his hand hurt so much, he should yell? It couldn’t do any harm – he was past caring if he looked like an idiot – and someone might hear him, and come to investigate.

He had to get past his father to do this – his father, yelling at him not to yell – telling him he was a wuss, a pansy.

He squared his chin and then opened up his mouth. He visualized the agony in his hand – it was like the poor thing had been smashed in a car door – springing out his mouth as he screamed. He yelled, howled, even cussed like a demented harpy, waving his hands about and letting the injured one scream out his wide-open mouth.

Then he found he was screaming for Shara – and then screaming at her – all the buried rage he kept for her, her facilities, slidiness, brightness – and her self-preservation; that took her far away. He screamed at her for leaving him, for taking their daughter, for making their daughter just like her. How could she do this to him????

He howled, raged, even beat the hurt hand on the edge of the bedstead – an explosion of the fiercest agony he’d ever felt –

Then he fainted.

When he came to a moment later he was lying face-down across the rope webbing of the bedstead. His hand was an angry purple and absolutely huge.

He broke into sobs – as if he’d cracked open suddenly, like an egg. He wept and howled and cried the tears his father never let him cry…thinking to himself that he was a wuss, was pitiful – he cried for fifteen minutes, half an hour, he didn’t know how long.

He never cried – what the hell was going on?

But the strange thing was, he was starting to feel better inside himself, in his chest, his stomach – even as his hand and arm burned and burst with pain, as if a car was running over it now, squashing it into the rocky ground…as if someone had thrust a pointed burning sharpened branch into it and was grinding the point around.

If he was going to die, at least let him get his tears out first, then -.

And he got the notion that this was an opportunity, an excuse to let his demons out, on the wake of the pain in his hand. And so, for the first time ever, he turned his attention deliberately to a sorrow and deliberately let it find egress: he thought about his father.

He sat up now on the bed and opened his mouth and yelled at his father – everything he’d ever wanted to yell. “You FUCKING BASTARD! YOU FUCKED UP MY WHOLE LIFE! Because of you i’m a FUCKING WIMP! FUCK YOU! I HATE YOUR FUCKING GUTS! YOU ASSHOLE! YOU STUPID – OLD – SHIT! You fucking BASTARD!” And he smote with his good hand into the air, imagining his father’s florid face there, his puffy eyes. Punched his dad in the puffed-out gut, ARGH! ERGH! THERE! “YOU SHIT! I lost my woman because of you! I KIIIIIIL YOU!” …and he imagined that his good hand held a knife.

By and by he felt a little better – actually a lot better.

In fact, he felt pretty damned good – except for the hand, except for that he was dying – but he was going out strong, fuck the fucking bastard, “WHY DID YOU HAVE KIDS IN THE FIRST PLACE IF YOU WERE GOING TO HATE THEM? ARGGHHH….” And then he cried some more.

All the childhood he had lost! All the brave adventures they should have had together! That ASSHOLE!!!

He was standing up now, sobbing, and somehow there was moisture enough in his body to make the mucus that ran down his face, the tears that wet his cheeks and dripped from his chin while he scrubbed at them with his good hand.

He felt amazing now – like he’d had a good bowel movement, only it was from his heart, from all over.

He just wanted to lie down.

Did that mean he was dying?

Well – nothing to be done. He couldn’t get outside now – his arm was too swollen, he’d not make it through that tight squeeze, you needed to scootch along with your elbows -what if he passed out in there, inside the tunnel, with all that rock right up around him?

His stomach and chest went cold, and he felt sweat come out on them.

What if another scorpion stung him while he was in there? His legs were bare, and his arms -.

But anyway he didn’t feel like going out there. It was all too much out there. He’d just stay in here, and maybe perish…

He lay down on the bed, face upwards. His eyes were now puffed slits, like his dad’s ha, but different…

But he could see that the light coming through the holes in the ceiling had changed. It was softer, not so bright.

He fell downwards towards sleep…

When suddenly he heard someone call his name!

Clear and strong.

It was Shara’s voice, as if she was just near him, in the cave.

Ben!!! Benjamin!

He came full awake.

That was weird! All that commotion he’d made, and no Greek peasants had come to rescue him – but this?

What was going on?

He lay back and pondered the matter. How had her voice sounded? What was she trying to say?

She’d sounded peremptory, but also alarmed. Like she wanted his attention. Like something was going on.

She would call him, then – if she was in trouble? He’d doubted himself…but he was her husband, he was Tallulah’s dad – he was a fixit guy, he knew cars, he knew tools, he knew all kinds of stuff – she’d called him!

No – maybe she knew he was in a fix?

Surely not.

But maybe, somehow, unbeknownst or conscious as it might be, for some reason something in both of them reached out to touch the other?

He tried, in his mind’s eye, to picture her route.

Her parents lived in Edmonton, Alberta.

That was a long drive. There were all sorts of places on the way where mishaps could occur.

Why hadn’t he been worried about her, not only himself?…and he realized that he had been, underneath…

His arm, his hand, seemed to hurt a bit less now.

He went back to looking at the map in his mind.

If she’d stayed at motels each night…it was still a trip of days. She might just be getting near there today, if all had gone well…

And if it hadn’t?

He closed his eyes and strained into the dark, trying to see.

One of his feet, still in the hiking boot, was on the ground, his knee bent; one leg was on the cot. The foot down there touched something. He opened his eyes – oh yeah, the weird object. The round thing.

Then a picture came to him, a feeling – almost as if his own body had issued a command: Put the round thing on your belly.

He felt his flat, skinny belly calling out for the thing, wanting to feel its circular shape.

What was that thing anyway? A petrified drum? No – it had that crank on it. Ah, well…

And he leaned over and grasped the thing by one of its struts, and lifted it – it was heavier than it looked, yet too light to be solid wood – and he brought his other foot up too, and lay full length on the old cot, with the object resting on his belly, half-on, half-off his loose shorts.

He closed his eyes.

His hand was getting better now – quite definitely. It was a bit smaller and the pain was distinctly less. Maybe he wasn’t going to die now after all. Maybe a Greek scorpion sting wasn’t the worst sort of scorpion sting in the world.

It was much darker now in the cave. Gloaming outside then, in the trees. The owls would be coming out.

He could feel the silence grow watchful around him. The new darkness was touching his face, holding him; touching his eyelids. At least he was safe in here, he supposed – whatever that meant. He laughed to himself.

These thoughts settled by and by and he felt the round object on his belly, anchoring him with its gentle weight.

He was falling into something like sleep; and yet it was not sleep, not yet. Such a good, soothing feeling…his soul seeming washed clean, even as his painful hand throbbed; yet less than it had.

It was as if the thing on his belly was dialling him like an old-fashioned rotary phone. Calling his number. Right down through the horror of his thirst, the pain in his hand, the relief in him. He didn’t know why he wanted it there – he just did – it was centering him, pulling him in to some important, central location in himself.

His body was contracted, shrinking – screaming silently for water – and yet he was falling into some place that had sweetness. Dialling round.

His body seemed now to begin to spin…

He finds himself in some deeper cave – as if there is a chamber below this one. It is circular, and has narrow pillars of stone around the perimeter, at regular intervals, just as on the mysterious object.

In each stone pillar is set a large garnet – he can see the rich maroon glow of it.

There are Beings in the chamber – he can sense them, though he can’t see them.

They seem to be watching him, inspecting him curiously. He can feel their attention kneading him like soft cats’ paws.

They are in some way garnet-beings – there is the same maroon glow about them as about the stones; yet with more light in it. He feels they are benign. They want the best for him – are coming closer, to see what he is made of – how they might be able to help.

It is like they are wearing robes – he can almost see the reddish glow of them slipping through the dark, whisking here and there.

Things go on turning. He is quite off his head now – lost in this deeper place.

He is not in charge of anything.

They come close to where he lies on this same old bedstead, but in that deeper room. They reach out and begin to touch…not his body, but around his body.

They are working on him.

They are entering his universe on the level where their color lives – their deep resonance of earth and longing and lust – yet all of it transformed to a kind of silent beauty, through some alchemy he cannot name.

They knead at his aura.

A kind of fragrance comes to him – rich, cinnamony. Impossibly sweet…

They are kneading at him. Replacing his lonely anguish with a sense of belonging, of welcome.

As if he is loved.

Tears burn his eyes under the lids. No, no, no more water going out! he thinks.

Instantly a new thing occurs: it is as if the mountain has yielded up sweet, pure water and this is being transferred into his body by the Beings. They are squeezing out the stuck poison from the insect with the bowed tail; the bruising of his whole body in its fight with life, its sullen, wounded mien.

The legacy of his father.

His dad is being squeezed out of him, the yellow and purple and green of the venom is being drained out – and the coolest, most delicious, earth-borne water is washing through him instead. He makes a huge sigh…

He sees his mother – her timidity – and the timid way he himself loves.

His heart spins like a daisy.

The Beings cover him with a soft, soft blanket, for the night has grown cold. The blanket is of love – soft, light, non-interfering.

They pluck thorns out of his flesh – old thorns, made of past hurts.

They tell him he has done well tonight.

One leans over and kisses his face gently.

Then they knead away the last of the pain and the poison, the bruised colors of his life and who he thought he was.

Now, one plants a bush of the reddest roses in the aura above his chest; he sees the bush’s great root-system wrap him round, the streaming sap within the roots integrating all that has occurred…and there are thorns if he needs them, to repel invaders of whatever stripe.

The roses themselves, a multitude, are both his gifts and his gratitude, blooming there.

And he is filling with cool clear water…the rosebush nourishing him like a smile.

There is a mighty squeeze – all over him – and something exits his body down near his bottom. It looks like a huge raw liver.

His dad. His dad’s life. Leaving him.

It is not his own. It is Other.

It belongs out of him.

The liver slides away on a torrent of underground water, a river; and he can see that as it moves off round a bend, flowers have appeared upon it, to decorate it – the beginning of what his father must go through to find his own redemption, in his own time, in his own way.

It will be taken care of.

He is suddenly hungry. Yet he knows that he is not harmed by waiting – he is cleaning now, cleaning out.

Lying there on his back, in the dark and the shelter and the increasing chill, the ropes rough through his shirt, he hears a voice-that-isn’t-a-voice – just a sort of command, as if from both inside and outside of him – Go.

And he knows this means, Go to Edmonton.

Things are still now. The Beings have gone back into the walls.

He sleeps.

He wakes later, here in the normal, upper cave, shivering with cold. He is so thirsty he feels possessed – yet his heart is floating, billowing, transcendent.

The taste of cinnamon clings around him, like those Red-Hot candies he had when he was young. A sweet smell is in his nose.

It is absolutely black in here.

He lies still, thinking about the condensation that surely must be gathering on the walls. When it’s light enough he will find some, lick it off. Maybe he will even try to do this in the dark. Then, at dawn, he will get out of here, go seek a village and water, and phone reception.

His hand feels much better now. Still swollen, still hurting – but better.

He’s drifting back into sleep, hugging himself with his good arm. He thinks about his trouser legs, out in the rucksack in the antechamber. About his flannel shirt, stuffed in there too.

He’s woken by a sound.

What was that?

As if there was a road nearby, and a car was rolling along on it.

Again.

A long, low grumble.

Thunder.

Then there’s a crack – nearer. Light flashes into the cave, goes out again.

He’s breathless, waiting. Makes himself draw breath in, let it out…slowly. No point in getting het up.

It begins to rain.

He can barely hear it – but he can feel the cool swish of air as it moves through the cave. There’s another crack, louder this time. More light.

He’s read someplace that caves aren’t safe from lightning. Lightning can strike inside a cave. You need to be in a building grounded by metal plumbing pipes, if you want to be sure you don’t get struck.

He draws himself in.

But, what to do?

Of course, nothing.

Wait it out.

Soon water is pouring down from the holes in the roof – here, there, there – he can hear it.

He can’t see anything, but he unlaces and takes off his boots and holds one up under a tiny waterfall coming down right beside him. The boot is a quarter-full in a moment. He lifts it to his mouth and drinks down the water passionately, greedily.

It soaks into him instantly, and his body feels exactly like a plant coming back to life – straightening, filling up. He holds the boot up again. Water falls in his eyes, onto his hurt hand. Onto his head.

He drinks and drinks. The boot is smelly, but it is wonderful, wonderful, to drink from it. So wonderful.

The cracks of lightning are fainter now.

Finally the storm passes and, a bit later, the rivulets from above grow silent and disappear.

He’s lying back on the bed in blessed gratefulness, his body swelling up with joy, with life, with relief.

He’d put the round wooden thing aside in his sleep. It’s knocking against his side, so he goes to put it down on the ground beside the bed.

His hand meets water.

Oh my god.

Why didn’t he think of that? In his huge relief – why didn’t he think of that?

The cave is flooding!

Reason tells him that the cave’s position within the top of a hill means it is very unlikely to fill with water. But still, the water has come in from somewhere – it could not have all come through the roof. There must be other, smaller tunnels leading into the broad hill. Anything could happen.

And, of course, his tunnel must be filled. His way out of the cave.

He falls back on the bed again, exhausted. Thank god for the bed! he thinks – astonished, suddenly, at his luck.

Nothing to do but wait.

And he falls asleep again…wet, shivering, hungry – but no longer thirsty; and with a curious lightness in his heart.

Fingers of light probing down into the cave wake him. He is very cold. He stretches – stretches , like a happy cat! – and looks at his arm, his hand. The swelling is further reduced – about tennis-ball size. He can move the arm pretty well.

Then he turns over cautiously, and looks down at the floor.

The water is gone. There’s just mud now, shining a bit in the dawn light.

He rolls off the bed, stands in the cold stuff in his bare feet.

He laughs.

A spark of light travels from his laugh, up to the holes in the roof. Out into the sky.

Some kind of connection – a strange connection, of Nothing to Nothing – for a laugh seems like the pop of a bubble – a little explosion of happy nothingness, saying hello to the sky, which salutes it likewise.

Hello, nothingness!

Hello!

And in that spark, he has his first inkling that emptiness is good.

That it behooves us to befriend it, as often as it appears before us, as often as we can.

This is the light part, then – the crown on the hill, the answer, the counterpoint, to the deep red place he went last night.

The dessert; the reward.

It asks nothing of us…and everything.

Just let there be Nothing, it says. That is where I do my work.

And he laughs again.

As if he’s been given a great secret.

How could this be?

The thing everyone, everything, has taught him to revile?

But he feels it.

Like a thread of light running between him and those holes to the sky – not burdened by content.

That was the thing.

The world was so full of content.

He shook his head now, and bent to the business of getting out of the cave.

It took only a few minutes really. And plenty of mud, wet all over his back; and not thinking about scorpions. They must be safe within the walls. They’d be canny enough for that.

He was in the antechamber now.

His rucksack was gone.

He crawled out through the arch, stood up.

What a wonderful morning! Fog and damp clung to the olives. The pale sky, with its margin of reddish bloom in the east, its subtle pinkish ribbons, barely seen, striating the overreaching dome – was as beautiful a thing as he had ever seen.

Just twenty paces from the entrance, and down the hill a bit, he found his rucksack, lodged in the roots of a big old tree. He sat down, not caring at all about the muck and mud, and foraged around in it.

The figs were wet – that was fine – he began plucking them off the brick and putting them in his mouth, chewing, feeling the sweetness, the tiny crunchy seeds. What fantastic things dried figs were! Made of this place!

The pistachios were fine, still in their sealed plastic pouch. He tore it open and began to pry the shells apart, taking the meat out with his teeth and tongue, putting his tongue-tip, childlike, into each salty shell to taste the goodness, maybe get the bit of husk out, fitting over his tongue-tip dry and thin and salty. Eat that too. Throw the shell away, till the brownish, bent grasses about him were littered.

Biodegradable, he thought.

And then he rose to go.

But he saw it – just there – the round object. The shamanic drum.

It had come open! The action of the water – or it had been hit upon the cave wall – but it was in two parts.

He picked it up, a piece in each hand, and turned it over.

My god.

It was an ice cream maker! There was a metal chamber inside, with a space around it for ice and salt.

The shape and dimensions were such that his engineer’s eye told him it would be very efficient at cooling down the mixture fast – the shallowness and breadth gave it a lot of surface area. The crank would turn and turn, and the mixture would move, meeting the icy face of the metal everywhere.

But the garnets? What were the garnets about?

Some young tinkerer, in love with his ice-cream-loving bride. Making her a present – a jewelled confectionery. Some young, strange genius of these hills, some long-dead man he’d never know. Hell, people did build strange things – he had neighbours in California, grown men with money to play with, living out years of quiet dedication building the damnedest things in their garages. Hot-rods with lightning on the sides, powered by banana peels. Helium balloons they sent aloft carrying messages in foreign languages, that came down in a parking lot in the next valley, startling innocent would-be parkers.

Even, sometimes, something nice for their wives – a spice-rack with the names of the spices carved in it. A computer table, inlaid with the names of their children. Agates, polished in their own tumbler; made into a bracelet using copper wire twisted all about the stones, secured with a silver catch they’d bought online.

Why not a garnet-set ice-cream maker?…So that the work of her turning the wheel (and perhaps he turned it some too) would be done in the light of his secret worship.

For Ben was sure that such a man would not much speak.

He turned the two pieces over again in his hands, pondering the mechanism – how did it open? How did you put the ingredients in? An idea came to him, and he pushed on the cabuchons, one by one…and on the third stone, yes, it seemed to yield to the pressure of his finger – he pressed it as far as it would go – and saw a little metal plate stick up above the cylinder…a little latch, then, freed by the button of garnet. Ingenious!

He thought of carrying the relic with him – but knew that he would not. He did not need to keep his revelation. It would keep him.

He went back up and laid the two pieces in the antechamber of the cave.

He flew to Athens, then to Toronto; and on to Edmonton.

Tallulah was bouncing on her grandparents’ couch. It was a long dark-blue velvet-brocade couch, with strong fat armrests. A variety of cushions were strewn about, some on the floor.

Tallulah flew high, legs straight, ponytail aloft. She wore skinny leggings, blue, and a top with pandas on it. Her feet were bare; long and golden. She seemed too tall to be only nine.

He felt keenly the raw fact that he would not always be able to keep her safe – had not been able to, even in this last week.

“Tallulah,” he said. “Would you like to tell me what happened? I would like to hear it from you. Mommy told me last night – but that was Mommy’s scary adventure. May I hear yours?”

Her chin went down. When next she landed, she stopped bouncing. She sat on the edge of the couch. Then she scooted back, turned towards him. Wriggled over and nudged up against him. Breathed a great sigh.

“Yes, Daddy,” she said. (Lisped, really.) “May I tell you, please?”

“I’m so sorry I wasn’t there,” he said. He looked into her face. Her slender, elegant little face, like that of Lady Somebody who would ride to hounds. But honey-colored – like Lady Somebody had been born in California.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t take care of you and Mommy. I hope that that never happens again.”

“But if you’d been there,” said Tallulah reasonably, “your weight would have tipped the car. Tipped it over? The cliff?” (She said ‘cwiff.’) “If you were driving. And had fallen asleep. And gone through the guard-rail. And then you might have died. And us too.” Her voice was clear and lilting. Like Lady Somebody with a lisp.

“So,” he said, “You want to tell me?”

“Well…It was night,” she began, breathily, haltingly. “We were driving. I was scared. It was so dark. The sky was so big. Like a circus tent, but you knew it just keeps on going and going. No stars, Daddy. Because of our headlights.

“i was missing you. Even though you’re usually kind of glum, Daddy.” (She said ‘gwum.’)

“Like, as if you are turned away in some other direction. Like you would be waiting for somebody to call you, but they never do. So you aren’t really here with me and Mommy. Daddy, like you lost something far away and you think it’s too far away to ever get it back again.

“But now you’re different,” she went on, laying her head against his arm. “I don’t feel scared. I can feel my Daddy is here.

“I feel better too, Daddy, kind of stronger, I noticed that this morning. Like now I can grow up and be a vet-er-a-narian and I will be able to never let any of the animals die.

“So anyway…Daddy, Daddy,” she crooned, and dug her head against his bicep, her long legs bending and flexing, against her body, away – “We were scared. Mommy was too. She said we would have to stop at a motel as soon as we came around the mountain.

“It was dark, but down far, far below the road there was the lake. That really big lake, remember, Daddy?”

“Yes,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders.

What a big arm. What a narrow little slip of a girl.

“So we knew there was a lake down there, but we couldn’t see it. It was late, we were trying to talk to stay awake. I was trying to imagine you in Greece. That Greecey place. Like, they must have grease on all the roads.” She laughed.

“And I didn’t know why you were there. Mommy was trying to tell me but it didn’t make sense. You have us. Why would you go someplace else? For no reason?”

He could not answer that, at first. Then he said, “Sometimes people – maybe everybody, sometime – just has to find out something all by themselves. You might do that sometime too, when you’re really, really big.”

“Hmmm,” she said, in a grownup, considering way. Then, “Well, right now I don’t like that idea. But you never know, I guess.

Anyway,” she went on, “It was late and then Mommy fell asleep. Just a little while. Her eyes closed and next thing we knew the car just went boom, over there at the side of the road, the side where the lake was, way down below.

“The car hit the guardrail thingie and there was this THUMP and a lurching like when you go in the Bumper Cars at the park and you bump somebody.

“And the guardrail was this silver metal thing like a car bumper, but all along the road. And it was all mangled, Daddy, and our car was sticking out with no road underneath the front. And we were in front.

“If you had been there I would have been in back. But Mommy and I were in front, and the car was just stopped there. But kind of moving, up and down.”

He drew in his breath. Let it out.

“Mommy looked at me,” she continued, “and her eyes were really big like an owl. And she said, ‘Oh, shit, Tallulah!’

“And I said, ‘Mommy, can we get out if we climb over the seat to the back?’ Because if we had opened the front doors, we would have fallen right down the cliff into the trees and the lake! And no parachute!

“Mommy said she was afraid to move at all because the car might tip over the edge. So we sat there. But we were so scared, and finally Mommy said, ‘Right, Taloolie-bean, we have got to climb over. It’s so late, nobody is coming, and even if they did, they can’t help us because if they got too close they might accidentally push the car down. Maybe they could open the back doors and give us a rope…but then we might as well just climb over.”

He let his breath out again. He’d been holding it. She was here. She was really here. It was okay.

“So we did. We slid upwards with our backs, first I went, and it was easy, but the car did rock a little bit. I just fell over backwards into the back seat, and Mommy had already unclicked the lock so I just opened the door and got out.

“I was standing right near the cliff but still the guardrail was there, just bent and busted. So I walked back to the road, and it was so dark.

“Then Mommy did the same as me, she tipped over backwards, but she had to turn around too, she couldn’t just do, like, acrobatics. Kids do that much better.”

“Mmm hmmm,” he agreed, holding her, feeling the fear in his throat, the heavy engine-end of the car, out over the tops of the tall, tall pines. He knew that road. The grand and glorious lake was far, far below.

“And so,” she went on, “Mommy and I, we got the blanket out of the back seat and we sat down in the grass by the road and we wrapped the blanket around us, both of us.

“And Mommy told me stories. She made me warm, but I couldn’t make her as warm.”

She looked up at him, to make sure he understood.

He nodded, acknowledging her efforts, her understanding.

“And Mommy said, maybe somebody would come by. But maybe they wouldn’t be nice. Or maybe they would.

“And I could tell she was worried. Her forehead was wrinkled up. I hate it when Mom’s worried, Daddy. I hate it when you are worried.

“So we just sat there, and I kind of slept a little bit, but I think Mommy didn’t.

“Of course there was no reception there so we couldn’t phone. I would have wanted to phone you immediately. Even if you were very far away. Even in China, I would have wanted to phone you.”

He thought of the cave. No reception. He would not have heard them…But he did. He had heard them. He breathed deep again. Let it out.

“It was just dark and cold and nothing happened except we heard some owls. Coo-wooo, coowooo,” she imitated. “And noises in the trees and stuff. But no animals came, and then it finally got very dark grey and then less dark grey. And we could see.

“We saw the trees across the road, and the sky was all wet kind of, and the grass was wet, where we were sitting. And we got up and went and peed behind a tree. Mommy said it was fine.

“Then we walked around on the road, up and down. And I saw a moose far below beside the lake when I looked down there. He had big antlers. Like a thing you would put coats on, you know.

“Finally somebody came. It was a big van. The driver said we could ride with him.

“But Mommy said No, please just phone the police when he got to town. We wanted to stay with the car.

“So he drove away.” (She said dwove.) “And Mommy unlocked the trunk and we had some snacks and water from the box. Some crackers and peanut butter and bananas and stuff.

“Then we walked up and down and more cars came. They all wanted to help us. But Mommy said the police should get there soon.

“Then finally the police came. They said they had to come from far away. They were nice. They said we were lucky.

“We got to ride in their car. It was warm. We had to go to the police station. It was warm too. There was an old lady cleaning. They gave us tea and Mommy had to tell the policeman everything while he wrote it all down.

“Then we went to a motel. It was this little, little town. Then we slept and Mommy cried. But I felt not too sad. We didn’t die. I still had Mommy.

“Then later the car got rescued. We went there with the police again. I wondered if the toe truck would just push it off the cliff with its toe and then try to rescue it from the water. But instead they hooked a huge hook on it, on the back of the car. And they pulled and pulled and the car came out of the guard rail and off the cliff backwards. And then it was on the road. And everybody kept saying how lucky we were. So we got the car back. It was okay. Just dented in front.”

Shara had come in from the kitchen where she’d been talking with her mother. She stood for a moment, silhouetted against the doorway; a dark figure against a light void, the window behind her in the kitchen letting in the summer brightness.

He felt a sort of ulp in his throat, but it did not go anywhere. It was not an ulp that led to tensing up and avoiding people’s eyes. It was just an ordinary ulp, which gave way almost immediately to a flooding warmth – and, most of all, a sense that, like any self-respecting pine tree, he had a backbone.

He was not quite sure how he’d acquired it – it had not been there before. But there was simply a sense in his body, of standing up and being here.

As if that was enough.

“So then,” went on Tallulah, “we drove to Gramma and Grampa’s. And then we really ate and really slept. And we waited for you.”

“How did you know I was coming?”

“Well, you always come,” she said, as if it were self-evident. “You’re the daddy. You have to come! You want us to be your home!

“And then you phoned.

“And now here we are. We’re all here together. I like Gramma and Grampa’s house. Some parts smell funny. But mostly it smells fine. The kitchen specially. And the back porch.

“Mom feels safe here. I can tell. When we were scared she was trying to be a mommy but she was also a little girl.

“The whole world felt like a little girl then. In the dark.

“But here it feels like both parents are here. And so the house doesn’t tip.”

He put his lips, his nose, in her hair. It smelled of shampoo, but also there was the musky tang of human. She sighed aloud. “I much prefer this,” she said. “To be safe.”

He looked up. Shara was sitting on the other end of the couch now. She was watching them. He could feel her chagrin at the adventure she had caused. He could see her eyes’ light, their alertness.

Their gazes caught. Something flowed between them. An old message, long abandoned.

A rivulet of desire ran up through the center of his body. Yet he did not wobble in himself. He stayed at home.

Later they lay in the dark, and there were a new man and a new woman in that bed. The balance of power had shifted. Things had come came back to true. To the middle of the see-saw. There was a man in the bed now. She didn’t have to do both.

She was very wet for him.

He bought an ice-cream maker, and a few weeks later, in September, when it was still hot in California, he placed, and then whirred, the ingredients in the blender: coconut milk, ripe banana, pineapple chunks, cashews.

Then he put the creamy slush in the machine and closed the lid tightly. He packed ice and salt into the cavity around the central cylinder.

Electricity made it whirr round and round, nobody cranked it; he regretted that, rather. But you couldn’t even find a cranking one anymore.

Tallulah danced about, excited. Shara lined up the pottery bowls and little wooden spoons on the counter. She insisted the spoons made things taste better.

It wasn’t hard, making ice cream.

Sept./Oct., ‘17, Corfu/Hebden Bridge

Smoke and Mirrors

1989

They had parked the camper in one of the spots by the river – paid their $5.00 at the entrance, into the hand of a cheery ranger in khaki who stood in a kiosk behind a wooden counter – and now it was evening, of a hot June day. The baby was restive and cried, but Amy gave her some apple juice in her bottle and sat her down on a blanket under a pine. The heat brought out the fragrance of the pine-needles strongly, and all the forest seemed to breathe a specially-medicated breath at them, as if inviting them into its healing arms. Amy felt that nobody could be unhappy here – the smell was wonderful, like childhood, like friendship, like magic – and she wanted just to sit down with baby Cindy and lean her own back against the rough bark of the tree.

But there was supper to get; at least Clem had started the fire in the grate; at least that. And then he’d gone off into the woods to smoke, down near the stream but a ways away from them – Amy could just see the red plaid of his shirtsleeve, near a curve in the creek. Even from here she could feel that he was disconsolate – as usual these days.

And so, keeping one eye on the little girl, Amy set about assembling the meal: hot dogs laid on the grill, buns ready to place cut-side-down beside them just before they were done. Supermarket potato salad, the jar of dill pickles, the carton of red fruit punch.

As they were finishing the meal – Amy patiently trying to feed a little more mashed-up potato salad to the child, Clem muttering that he was going for another cigarette – Amy smelt something more than the smoke from the barbecue, or the light and yet musky, acrid odor of Clem’s body as he raised his arms to swing himself up off the picnic bench and turn away. The hot breath of the pines.

And she heard it, too – a stealthy crackling, as if an army of homeless men were advancing one by one, with designs on the trailer. She looked up sharply.

She stood, knees bent in between the bench and table; extricated herself, stood then behind the bench and looked around. Her ears seemed to swivel searchingly, like a rabbit’s or a deer’s. She knew that Clem had the keys to the camper – he always carried them – and she could not see him any more. Where was he?

And how far was it to the main road? Ten minutes by car? To the kiosk where the Ranger was? Closer, of course…. She bent to pick up the little girl – heavy now on her hip – at eighteen months she was getting almost too big to pick up.

“CLEM? CLEM?” she shouted, as loudly as she could. No answer. “CLEM?” Only the distant crackles answered her, and a hot pressure in the air.

Amy moved as fast as she could with the burden of the child. She was going to go away from the fire, back towards the Ranger’s hut. Clem could look after himself, but she had a child to protect. When she reached the hut, the Ranger was gone. She looked around but could not see his truck. The noise was louder – like a crowd, talking amongst themselves out of sight.

Where could they go? She knew there was another road, on the other side of the park, beyond a low range of hills – she could picture it from the map – but it was too far to run to – and the fire seemed to be coming from that direction. Where was Clem? They needed to get out of here, now!

He had the keys! She called his name again, loudly; competing with the voices of the crowd. She was moving back towards it, the danger; cracking through the dry needles underfoot, scuffing on sandy soil. Hunting for her husband. Just a little way.

“CLEM? CLEM?” Her voice caught in her throat – smoke making it husky. The air was thicker now, like the smogs of her childhood, but smelling of pine. The evening had grown hot – so much hotter.

She was looking up and down the stream now. No sight of him. They hadn’t much longer – “CLEM? CLEM?”

What was that, over there between the trees? His red shirt? Or was it the hot mouth of the fire, reared up on hind legs? There had been a sign, at the entrance to the park – Red Alert – Fire danger – No Smoking. But would Clem listen?

She had had to give up on his listening, some time ago.

“Daddy?” said Cindy, sticking out her little pointy finger. “Daddy?” Her tiny teeth showed, her eyes were rimmed with red. Little bubbles of saliva at the corners of her lips.

Birds were flying out of the woods, some falling onto the dry needles. A deer came bounding towards them, arcing over the stream in a huge leap, swerving at the last minute in another. Amy turned away from it, shielding Cindy uselessly with her body. But the deer was gone, bounding high, away into the woods towards the road they’d come in on, far off…too far.

Amy looked at the stream, searching for a deep pool – the deeper the better. If she could just find such a pool, cold and clear, it might be all right. Because no dwelling would be safe in fire, no roof would help. They needed either distance; or cold and wet.

There – just at that far bend, in the shadow of overhanging rocks. Grasping Cindy more firmly to her, Amy waded into the wide stream.

2009

Amy and Cindy strode side by side up Commercial Street in Vancouver, looking about them with pleasure. An organic grocers’ spilled out onto the pavement in a profusion of colourful vegetables and fruits. A boutique offered locally handmade knitwear, including, Amy noticed, a calf-length sky-blue open vest she immediately coveted; along with big pouffy hats with tassels, and leg-warmers striped in as many colours as the fruits and veggies they’d just passed.

They’d walked for miles already today, checking out the city where Cindy was to go to school. They were staying in a B&B near the water – such calm water here, sheltered by islands; different than the California coast – and had already explored Cindy’s campus – three buildings on a courtyard; housing a progressive culinary institute where Cindy was to learn the science of what she most wanted to do: become a healthy pastry chef! Raw cakes made with berries and cashews and coconut – pumpkin foam – edible flowers – agave-sweetened macaroons – wedding cakes for the health-conscious bride. She was beaming, was Cindy – out of her somewhat-difficult teens, well into assuming the creative mantel of her adulthood. She’d been making healthy goodies since she was twelve, and now she would go pro – this tall, slender, full-lipped, lovely young woman with the cyclist’s wiriness (she also raced) and her hair in a ballerina knot.

Amy felt privileged to be allowed to accompany her – for the young are not always so forgiving, so broad-minded.

Amy herself had weathered well – her curly honey hair and slender build feminized the jeans and boots she favoured. Today she’d added a ladylike cardigan and a pair of amber earrings.

As they crossed a street, Amy’s glance fell on a large placard outside what appeared to be a school building. There was a photo on it, of a beaming man in his forties, with red-gold hair and dark brows and very white and even teeth. (You could see lots of these teeth; they were good all the way to the back.) His shoulders in a casual shirt were broad, and he seemed to radiate good will to all. Lettering beneath the picture announced:

GARETH TWIST

WORLD-RENOWNED MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER

YOUR LIFE IS ABOUT TO TAKE OFF LIKE A ROCKET!”

Gareth Twist is promising to light a fire under your…ummm…you know what, to take you out of old habits and doldrums and get your life into a brand new groove!

TODAY AT 3:00

Amy was stuck in mid-stride. She could not move! Firmly then she pulled her feet together and planted them on the sidewalk. Still she stared at the poster. Her mouth had opened a little, and she brushed a curl from the side of her face. And stared some more.

“What is it, Mom?” demanded Cindy. “Why are you staring at that thing like you just saw a UFO?”

“That,” announced Amy with finality, “Is your father. Clem. I don’t know where he got that weird name – but that’s him. I thought he’d died in the fire – like we almost died. It was so hot, even bones were mostly burnt. No trace of him was ever found. You know this – I’ve told you before. Clem Bob Aldritch – your dad. His obituary was in the paper – that’s how I met the editor, that’s how I got that job, later – the drawing-portraits-of-each-person-in-town one. That’s how. And here he is – it’s him, it’s him, it couldn’t be anybody else. That scar in his right eyebrow – the bend in his nose – that’s him.” She was trembling. “That’s god-damn him!”

Cindy gawped at her. “What are you gonna do?”

“It’s nearly three. We’re going in.” And Amy took her daughter’s hand and pulled her up the walkway towards the school.

Gareth Twist was describing his moment of revelation.

“My wife had left me…I might never see my child again. I was depressed, I went for a walk in the woods. It wasn’t a wide belt of woods, there were two highways not very far away, but it was one of those hot days they have down south – you could hear the toads go boom as they burst in the heat – really. The trees were nearly too hot to touch. It hadn’t rained in months.

“I was at my lowest point ever…and as I walked through the woods hoping for a little peace to touch my soul, I smelled smoke… I didn’t know if it was behind me or in front of me. Some idiot must have tossed a lit cigarette out the window of a car…

“I started to run – the heat increased. In a minute I could see flames – I veered off to the left, crashing through the brush on uneven terrain. My lungs were burning -”

He was not a tall man, but his arms seemed to grow longer as he held them out to the sides. His hair shone in the stage lights as if, Amy thought, he’d had it glossed. She thought dispassionately that he must have been to the dentist too – his teeth had been slightly crooked, not unattractively; but with a smoker’s yellow tinge. That was gone. But it was Clem…oh, it was Clem.

But where had he got this passion? This was new. Yes, he’d been excited about her in the beginning, but when the newness wore off so did his enthusiasm. At least that’s how, looking back, it seemed to her. Classic story, of course. But he’d stopped talking…so how could she know?

Gareth Twist wore a very clean, ironed, blue-and-green plaid flannel shirt and pressed jeans, and stout new hiking boots. He had a little ponytail. Amy had read in The New Yorker – her day job as a medical receptionist in an upscale practice had introduced her to this magazine and, over the years, many other marvels – that this was in New York the new urban chic – outdoor clothes, suitable for hiking the Appalachian or Pacific trail. Whether you did that hiking, or just hiked to the subway or nearest taxi was up to you. Gareth Twist looked as if he had not even made his own coffee in those clothes.

His arms were spread wide again, welcoming everyone into his world. Light gleamed on his teeth, his hair, the brass studs on his boots.

His expression grew humble, rapt.

“I found myself crashing out of some stickery brush and next thing I knew, I was falling….falling through the air! And then I splashed – right into a deep pool of water! I’d fallen off a bluff right into the river, where it meandered back on itself – way downstream from where I’d crossed it earlier. It was in a real steep ravine here. I fell under the surface, came back up spluttering…and I saw, everybody, I saw that fire pass right over my head. It jumped over the river like it was being welcomed by loving relations! And then y’know what? It was gone.

“The air had been hot as hell but it was cool at the bottom of the pool, just took a minute of holding my breath down there and I was safe. I came up again, looked at all the devastation – still coughing, but on me, nothing was even singed. It had been that quick. It was like the air was all gone though and I was gasping for breath.

“By and by things settled. And as I stood there, feet on the bottom of the pool, head above water, a peculiar thing happened.”

Cindy was hissing. “Mom? Mom? Is it? Is it him? Dad? Really?

“Wait a minute,” Amy hissed back – but she had to bring her jaw back up to say anything at all – she was so astonished that it had fallen literally to her collarbone, or so it seemed. She needed to hear the rest. “Just a minute! Shhh!” she whispered fiercely.

Gareth Twist was speaking. “And that was…nothing. Nothing happened. The fire had gone, everything was silent. Even the creek stood still. It was like…a balloon had popped, and it had woken me up.

“There I was, soggy as anything, but alive; and there was nothing there. It was like the trees, the rocks, even the hot sunlight on my face – was made of Nothing; and all this Nothing was rushing into me, and it got into my heart and broke it open. And I was crying and laughing – it was like I was the sunlight, the stream. And there was this great big pressure all around me – like something more was getting ready to happen.

“And then I saw her, heard her voice – my grandmother, my father’s mother: Ettawanda…Twist. Her old voice, still strong, proclaiming, ‘Empty hands are the devil’s workshop!’

“She raised me, see, and she believed in Tough Love. So half the time she was telling me I was the stupidest kid that ever lived, and half the time she was saying ‘You can do it, you can get anything you want. You can be President. You just gotta try, do it, don’t give up. Just keep goin’. God made us different than the animals for one reason, that’s so we can show we’re better than them. Stay clean, shave daily, and be busy with worthwhile things. Nothingness‘ – she would have said – ‘is nonsense – useless – dangerous – you’ve got to fill it up with good things, do some good while you’re here in the world!’

“That’s my old grandma, in her flowered dress, leaning over the kitchen table where she fed me every day with food and love and….words for Right Living.

“So then I had my bright idea.

“Suppose I vowed, right from the start, that I’d support three charities – always three – there’s a magic number – at the same time as I was pulling my sorry self up with my own bootstraps? I’m gonna change my life here, that’s clear; and the way I keep myself motivated is that I know I’m responsible to those charities too. They’re depending on me, waiting for my monthly donation, straight out of the bank. ‘Cause if you think you have too much responsibility, folks, or too much work – the cure is to take on a little more. It gives you more energy. So already it wasn’t just one I was gonna work for – sorry bum that I was – it was more people, maybe more worthwhile than I was. Sick kids. Poor little pandas. That sort of thing.

“And I did that. And that’s what I’m telling you today – choose your charities! Open your pockets! If you don’t know which ones are genuine, I’ve got a list, see me after! When you give, the world gives to you.

“I started buying real estate – after I’d worked for a few years, at various jobs – and things went on from there.” He stamped his feet apart now, his chin lifted, remembering – his arms shifted fractionally back towards his body. “But I always knew, from that great moment, that the way I was really gonna give back would be to tell people all about it, and help them realize they too have enough energy to take care of themselves and more deserving folks.

“And to stay au courant so to speak; to keep things moving, I change those charities from time to time – like you’d change the living room furniture. Right now it’s the Policemen’s Retirement Fund, The Old Lawyers’ Home, and the Journalists Felled in Action Memorial Fund.

“And of course, I wouldn’t have made this awesome step up in my life…or, well, I could have, thanks to Granny Ettawanda, bless her soul, wherever she may be – but on this plane, these days, I owe so very much to my beautiful wife, Sheree. Sheree, want to come on up, honey?”

Amy, back in the third row to the end, reached over and took Cindy’s hand. It was a cold hand, sweaty in the palm. She heard Cindy gulp, softly. “Mom? Mom?” said Cindy.

“Shhh…wait,” Amy said again.

The line was long, and the more time they spent in it the more electric became Amy’s unease. She felt like a war-tank armed with projectiles, lumbering slowly, slowly forward. Gareth Twist had a word for everybody, a handshake, a hug. He peered earnestly into people’s eyes.

Finally Amy stood before him, Cindy at her side. Amy looked right into the man’s face; to see if he would know. She said nothing, nor did she touch him – she just stood there. There they were, his eyes, those windows to his soul – medium-size, hazel, with pale lashes. The brows dark as if by artifice, though they at least were the real deal. His hair had been glossed.

The pupils widened suddenly, then narrowed. He looked away to the left and down. Then he glanced up as if involuntarily and his gaze moved over to Cindy. The pupils widened again; and the sockets seemed to droop. “Yes?” he said.

“Clem Bob Aldritch,” Amy said. “You idiot. You lying sonofabitch.”

Later the two women sat in a cozy juice bar with Afghani rugs on the walls, low velvet divans, and quiet sitar music. They had carrot juice first, then rice and dal and salad, and afterwards, tea. And they talked.

“Mom,” said Cindy, leaning back on the couch away from the wooden table, stretching her long arms up over her head, then putting her hands back in her lap and leaning forward again – “Dad said his whole success had to do with filling up emptiness with good works. Right? But you know how in Yoga class, when we relax at the end, and we’re kind of floating…the teacher doesn’t say anything like that. She just…affirms the emptiness. Supports it. Like nothing needs to get in it. Like…whatever comes and goes is okay. Like…life is like that. Mom – is Dad afraid of something?”

“I’d say so,” replied Amy.

“That was amazing, Mom – when you screamed out for everybody to hear? ‘THIS IS MY GODDAMNED HUSBAND! HE PRETENDED HE’D DIED!!!”

Amy nodded ruefully. Her biceps felt bruised from the big hands that had appeared from behind and grabbed them. The wall – the actual wall she’d seen come down over Clem Bob’s face – had given her a sense of cold in her middle – like she was a bullied child, an outsider to the feast.

“Sorry,” he’d said, “I just don’t know anybody by that name.” There was another expression in there somewhere too – or maybe two expressions, one right after the other – a kind of breathing alternation, very fast, like wind ruffling Venetian blinds: self-pity. Triumph. Self-pity. Triumph.

…And his wife, who looked, thought Amy in the tiny glance she’d given her, like someone in a catalogue of middle-aged business clothes worn by improbably-young models – stood by his side with large, liquid eyes, smiling, unmoving except to lean in towards her husband a bit. Like a politician’s wife.

Amy had begun to plot furiously in her mind, but as they sat in the cafe she realized that for now, Cindy needed her more than she herself needed to figure out any plan of action. She reached across the table and took her daughter’s hand.

2029

Amy was meditating. She did this in her own way; lying down, on a yoga mat with a shawl over it, in the screened back porch, so that a mild breeze occasionally touched her face. She could smell the bowl of fruit on the table across the room – it was a large porch – and she could, as it were, feel the view, too – the mountains back there, the deep arroyo before them. Traffic on the street out front was light, always, and she barely heard it. The houses were big and far apart.

Amy had the sense that there was a floor within her body, made of boards; and when she had rested on it a while, not doing anything, just letting it be what it was and she on it as she was; suddenly she would fall beneath that floor, and find herself in another place. If she observed without ambition or disturbance this new place – populated, usually, by characters from her childhood – and allowed herself to feel whatever she felt, however uncomfortable, and allowed her body to shake off things it felt finished with, if it so chose, without her interfering – sometimes gasping involuntarily as some old memory, adequately perused, shot out the top of her head and was gone – she would fall again, into a place beneath this. At some point, very often, and without planning for it in the least, she would find herself flying – out of herself, out of the house.

There were trees beneath and an ocean not far away – an ocean easier to cross than going to the kitchen for a glass of water.

On these journeys she often met people – again without intending to; it was as if she was sent, in a thoroughly random way, to check up on someone; yet she was to remain detached and indifferent. The moment she became interested in their fate she was returned to her body with a little thump.

It was curious though – although she flew and observed, she registered all that she beheld, in her body; it was through that curious truthfulness the body has that she knew if a picture she saw was right; accurate on the levels that counted; the underneath ones.

Recently, for example, she’d found herself shadowing Persimmon, her cat; she had certainly never imagined she’d need to spend a few hours, compressed no doubt into a few minutes, for time is indeed elastic – she didn’t time her excursions – sitting under a car with him. The street was hot, it was cooler under there; he could see without being seen. He sat in Zen-like composure for a very long time, and when he stood up he scraped his head on something that left oil on it. He shuddered in himself, but had the sense not to try to clean it off alone. Amy felt him agreeing with himself to find her for this task, as well as for his supper.

Strangely, she could also see the person’s soul when she encountered them this way; or in this case, the cat’s soul. Persimmon’s was a sort of amalgam of a mountain, a large topaz, a snake, a tiger-lily, and a ballerina. It was tall and willowy, and it swayed above him in a very sure fashion. Amy gave it a little bow, and it bowed quite formally back to her.

Today though Amy relaxed through the layers and things then began began to hum internally, as if her substance had begun to vibrate all of a piece with itself, and was coming apart like a bridge all tramped-upon-in-unison by soldiers. She breathed very slowly, with long gaps between, almost as if not breathing at all; her body knew how to do this without her bothering it. She was very, very still.

She was in a vehicle with Clem Bob. She felt her body recoil and a queasy wave pass through it. She neither subscribed to nor rejected this wave; but simply remained, watching. In all her journeys she’d never bumped into him before. Her heart was not asking or rejecting; only her body registered its knowledge. She herself was indifferent to his life and doings.

There was however a sort of cool feeling at her left ear – as if someone stretched the cartilage and skin of its outer curve – and this she knew was her attachment to Cindy; for Cindy cared deeply and would always care, about Clem Bob; she would have to pass through sorrows and adventures with men in accordance with this.

Cindy had searched for him in Vancouver and, when it was discovered that both he and his young dark-haired wife had vanished, she searched further away – but without result, and neither she nor Amy had seen him again…That one sighting, so electric in its surprise, was the only time either had laid eyes on husband and father since that hot day long ago when he’d vanished, and the young Ranger had come back and rescued them from where they stood in the stream, right in the teeth of the fire.

Cindy was beautiful and laughing (though not as much as she should laugh) and solemn and kind and even practical. Amy felt blessed and proud. And she could not help Cindy about her father; about men.

The first check had arrived the next week, when they were home from Vancouver, back in California. The next arrived six months later; the last, a year after that. It had been enough – enough for Cindy to finish school, then travel and try out her craft as first a student and then a teacher, in many other countries; to keep a flat she could return to; where she made her plans to open her own institute by and by. She had expanded from pastry chef to vegan warrior, and was busy inventing dishes and waving her flag of vigour and compassion in various forums.

The money was enough for Amy to stop working full-time; she could devote herself much more to painting and other forms of play. She went to a few women’s empowerment groups in Hawaii, and beat pillows with Clem-Bob’s name on them. She strode out in the moonlight with her fellows and screamed with bitch-goddess fury into a dead volcano. She danced and sweated and laughed with the other women, till they fell down on their backs on their mats and lay in joyous relaxation till the session was over.

And all of it was good.

She took the occasional adventure vacation with a man friend. She did not marry; she did not pursue the legalities of Clem Bob’s situation. She understood that that was what the money was for – to keep her away from hounding him. And that was fine with her.

Now she observed, with lucid calm, this scene: a strange, new sort of vehicle, powered by puffs of air over a grassy road: puff, puff, said the motor. The entire domed top was transparent. Clem Bob drove, or piloted, or whatever you’d call it; and beside him was a young man of perhaps twenty; Amy was given somehow to know that this was his great-nephew on his wife’s side.

There were many trees bordering the road; Amy sensed that this was a large island, and that Clem Bob owned it. His hair was now black, which sat oddly on his complexion. His hands were knotted and wrinkled and dry where he held the steering wheel. Amy could smell the mangoes in a bag in the back seat; she knew that Clem Bob’s wife had requested them, and he was taking them back for her.

Clem Bob/Gareth’s soul looked like a mosquito made of light. It kept coming up and biting him on the ear, or even on the shoulder through his shirt; sometimes it hissed into his hair. He ignored it or tried to flap it away; but it persisted. Amy felt it was always there, bothering him.

Clem Bob/Gareth was holding forth. “Yup, Dashiell,” he was saying, “there’s one thing I’ve really learned in all these years of living – the most important thing in life is family. When you get to my age, you look back at your younger years – and you regret losing the people you lost through your own ignorance, your own arrogance. Listen to me, young man…If you have a child with some young woman who took your fancy, and you don’t want anything to do with the kid, and you make yourself scarce…when you’re my age, you’ll wish you had done it different. You’ll miss that person, you’ll need them by and by. Every old man finds that out. I know that now.”

“But,” said Dash, “is family really more important than revelation?”

“Oh, revelation, : said Clem Bob, narrowing his eyes as he swerved to avoid a low-flying bird with a fabulously colourful plumage and a long tail – “It’s not the revelation that matters. It’s what you do with it.”

Hebden Bridge, 2016

From Whinge to Wings

There was once a woman who found herself at 16,000 feet in a fabled mountain range, hiking a rocky track that barely clung to a steep slope, and failing badly with the altitude. Her companions, two men, were hale and happy and stepping out, but the woman felt herself to be ninety-six years old, with rubber bands for knees and elbows, and gasping lungs and a stagger in her slow, slow gait. She felt that she would soon be defeated; that she would be unable to go on. She sat down on a stone in a wide place on the path, a little sort of circle flatter than the rest, and hung her head and breathed great sobbing breaths, and mourned, and explained aloud that she was tired, tired!

In fact, if truth were known, four months before that day a fine polished surgeon had operated on her right knee, and pronounced the effort a failure, and said that she would never walk in the mountains again, nor even be able to squat down nicely upon a floor, come to that. But here she was – her walking stick beside her, her shoulders slumped in her thin jacket; at the end of her strength.

Her lover, for he was one of the men, and a tall, strapping fellow he was too, with the blond gleam of the best sort of ski instructor, strode about the little area waving his long arms and snarling in rage and frustration, for he did not like to be slowed: “You don’t take responsibility! You don’t take responsibility!” For when he had shown her a map before the trek began, she had not really looked at it, and so had underestimated the difficulties that she would face. (Her lover’s intention, you see, had been to descend to a lake that had called to him from the map – an uneven, inviting puddle of blue – but the slow pace of his partner had made that plan impossible if they were to be out of the valley by dark. For this was a day-trip only. And so bitter was the disappointment of the adventurer at having to forgo his dream. Too, he did not like seeing weakness.)

But they went on; away from the distant lake and in the direction instead of a planned meeting at dusk with a driver they had employed. The distance to travel was still ambitiously great. And so the leader took big strides forward on his long legs, his merry friend and colleague coming after; while she, a woman of only thirty-nine summers, came gasping and staggering behind, and stopped often to sit and open her mouth and try to take in enough of the thin air to sustain her.

They proceeded along that vertiginous path, with its view of colossal peaks and looming cliffsides, steep drops and further, random enormous hulks of rock – for a considerable time, until they descended a field of scree and came thence to a series of meadows, like broad stairs between two peaks, and connected by small waterfalls; and trampled upon by sheep.

Finally they sat beside a clear stream wherein stones glowed in lucent, subtle colours like agates – carnelian and cream, sage and gold and lilac; seeming to breathe in magical collusion with the high, clear and radiant blue of the sky. Here the trekkers ate a modest and delicious lunch of oiled paranthas and imported remoulade from a tube; and drank water from their flasks. And then they made their way across the stream with difficulty, removing their boots first and then balancing upon the rocks, and, after putting on their socks and boots again, climbed a steep grassy bank to another portion of the trail.

The woman was dejected, frightened; she felt she was in a half-living state, a frantic and yet somehow banal effort to keep walking, keep breathing; using her stick as another leg and putting much of her slight weight upon it. As she set out upon this new trail along another steep slope in these mountains the scale of which awed and terrified her, the unthinkable volume of them turning all she had ever known to beetle-size; something peculiar occurred.

As she stood up straighter for a moment, leaning though on her stick – she felt a great in-rush of something through her back. It was as if some deity of the place, seeing her distress, and not wanting her to capsize here, just now; had invaded her body with a great soundless whoooosh, and then brought in after it some great power of the mountains – a female power it was, a wild, tameless dark and yet brilliant and fearless capability. The woman stood up straighter still, and lifted her stick from the ground and strode out again…supported now by this unknown force. A smile stretched her face, her head went back to take in the awesome scene…and she began, as it were, to fly.

For hours still they three walked on and the woman did not need her stick, and her knee was healed and painless, and the moon showed itself as afternoon fell towards evening; and she felt that she could hike to that moon and back and never tire.

While the men flagged now, and walked more slowly, and pushed themselves; and while the third man stayed cheerful – for it was his first trek in the mountains that lay in the north of his own homeland, and he was claiming his birthright as he strode – the blond lover himself grew more and more doleful, and angry and unable to keep up…as they hiked along that narrow rabbit-trail through those vast edifices, massifs, cliffs and valleys – towards the rendezvous at a pass. And dark came falling, they had to hurry; and the woman glided beaming, her stick poised horizontal for balance like a tap-dancer’s, her teeth shining in the blue dusk.

And they made that rendezvous, and clambered into the jeep with much huffing; and all the time that woman knew, as she had known from the moment of the invasion of Help from somewhere: that she could receive that help, could wholly allow and embody and make use of it, because she had complained so much and been so whiny and sad and forlorn and exhausted and unashamed to gasp and groan and be miserable...that was what had cleared the space in her body for the dark Goddess to come in and lift her up and take her away along the mountain…flying, flying with joy.

Her lover never forgave her, and they separated during the next year; and the lady was much bereft – for what had she done wrong?