a story by Gail Cleare
The old yellow tobacco barn crests the hill like a faded ship riding the swell of a great curling wave of rock. You can easily see the bones of the land here, bursting out of the earth. Sheets of stone were plowed up into slate gray outcroppings by the inexorable movement of glaciers in ancient times. Rocks pop out of the meadows and the forest floor, erupting from the surface like the bits of glass that still come out of the old scar on my forehead. It was all those years ago that I went through the windshield, but every once in a while I still find a sharp little crystal nugget pushing its way out of my body.
Today, when I walk up the hill with the dogs, I see that the rocky outcroppings across from the barn have shaken off two new boulders since the last time I looked. They have rolled down the hill and lie at its foot, like something the earth spit out after chewing up and swallowing the rest. The boulders have a texture and a grain to them, like wood, and they flake apart along the wavy, curling lines caused by that unrelenting force. There’s a lot of mica around here too, and the sun bounces off it. Bright sparkling rays shoot out of the hill between the fiddleheads and the grapevines, like power radiating from behind the veil.
The world up here has a fuzzy, soft-focus look to it on sunny days in the early spring. The silhouettes of trees are frilled with delicate little curls of leaf, unfolding translucent sensors that glow in the sunlight and throb with life. A flutter of pale feathers passes in a quick sputtering blur. The pussy willows are out, and the earliest ones have already turned into green caterpillar-shaped pods, but the rest are still furry little soft silver buds.
I reach the barn and walk slowly past it, looking up at the huge front doors, held shut by handles made of horseshoes welded onto old metal latches. Whistling to the dogs, I turn and walk along the side of the barn, next to the stone wall made by our industrious predecessors, who always found something useful to do with what the earth spit out in their day.
The dogs love this wall. It is an exotic world filled with rodents, snakes and bugs and rich, black dirt, an entire eco-system. It is mystery, adventure and fulfillment! Their tails curl and wave happily as they work the wall, sniffing and snorting, poking their noses into every nook and cranny. I walk along next to them waiting for the squeals that mean some creature has been found, and the chase is on. They rarely catch anything, but the journey is wildly exciting. The journey is everything, in fact. They come back feeling empowered and exhausted, their existence justified according to the canine code of honor by which they live and pant. Now they can throw themselves down on the grass in the sunshine and roll luxuriously, bathing in the sweet smell of light. They sit on guard watching down the hill as we wait for the others to arrive.
A few minutes later, the Beagle alarm goes off. Lifting her white and brown head to sniff the air delicately, that magnificent hunter nose determines that someone she knows has gotten out of a car about a quarter of a mile from here, and is walking up the farm road. “Bra-oooooo!” the Beagle sings loudly, making the announcement. She looks over at me, smiling and proud. “Good girl!” I say.
I walk over to the far end of the barn and reach for the horseshoe handles, tipping them around and down, spilling out all the luck as I unlatch the big doors. They are at least ten feet tall and wide enough to accommodate a big mowing machine. The first one swings open, slow and heavy, and I prop it back against the building with an old fencepost we keep up there for this purpose. I unhook the second door and swing that open too, propping it with a heavy stump. Our wicker chairs are sitting where we left them, just inside the doors. I haul them all out to position them in a semicircle around the blackened chunks that remain from our last campfire. The firewood piled up nearby is dry, it hasn’t rained in a week. I scout along the edge of the woods for some kindling, bringing it back to the fireplace to build a teepee-shaped wedge of sticks inside a triangle of logs, stuffing a scrap of newspaper down inside to help get it started. I’m just putting a match to this when the Beagle goes off again. I look up to see Susannah Jewel coming out of the trees, down by the stream at the foot of the hill.
She sees me too, and waves. She is wearing a long blue skirt and a white sweater, and looks gorgeous, as usual. She has sunglasses on and carries a brown paper grocery bag. Her hair, very blonde today, sparkles in the sun just like the mica. Susannah has a kind of soft-focus magic about her too, and it makes your eyes blur just a little bit whenever you look at her. Just enough to blend away the imperfections, round off the lines, soften the edges. I’ve never seen a bad photo of her, so it works through a camera lens too. It’s part of her natural charisma, which is considerable and dazzling.
Susannah crosses the field wearily and flops into the chair next to mine. She sits there unmoving for a minute, the grocery bag in her lap. I am poking at the fire with a long stick. “Hey!” I say, glancing at her and taking in the slouch, the hangdog expression, the deep sigh. The fire has flared up nicely and some of the larger wood is catching, so I put the stick down and turn around to look at her again. “What’s up?” I ask, but she just shakes her head, letting the bag slip to the ground. She keeps her sunglasses on, and I can’t see her eyes. A flicker of anxiety seems to ripple across her face, but then she shakes her head again and smiles at me, leaning over for a quick hug.
“Hey!” she says, “It’s been a long day, you know? I’m beat!”
“Really? Nothing’s wrong?”
“No, no, I’m sorry,” she says starting to unpack the bag. “I’m just exhausted, that’s all. Jack was home for school vacation all week, things have been chaotic!” She pulls out a bottle of wine, some corn chips, and a little tub of guacamole.
“Tell me about it,” I say. “I’ve been serving three meals a day to at least six kids all week. Nobody is happy at my house unless at least one or two friends stay over, too, right?” She laughs and nods, unwrapping the food and setting it out on the old bench we use for a table up here.
I go into the barn to get the corkscrew and some plastic cups from our stash in the box on the picnic table. She opens the wine and is pouring us each a glass while I hold the cups, when Sloan appears on the road below and hoots at us.
“Ahoy there!” Sloan bellows. “Permission to come aboard, ma’am?”
Sloan always knows what I’m thinking.
“Permission granted,” I call down the hill. The Beagle likes this so she bays again gently, just for fun.
“Hello, Phoebe Beagle!” Sloan says, coming across the field and patting her on the head. Then she pats the Lab too, for fairness. Sloan is small, dark and intellectual. A cute little gamine face wearing big glasses, red today, with her brown hair pulled back into a scraggly ponytail. She’s wearing jeans, sneakers and a faded red hooded sweatshirt that says HARVARD on it. She’s carrying a backpack with several long-necked beer bottles poking out of it.
“Hey girls!” Sloan says, putting her pack down on the ground next to the bench. We get up to hug her. Everybody talks at the same time for a few minutes while we all scoot the chairs around so we can enjoy the big blue view. The sky is soaring and wide from here on top of the hill. It is late afternoon and the sun is lowering, but not yet down behind the trees. A thin wash of pink is beginning to appear along the horizon, and the daily show is about to begin.
There’s a flapping and cawing in the treetops nearby, and a crow rises up, screaming angrily at a hawk that has ventured too close to her nest. The hawk soars over the trees and floats lazily on a column of warm air while the crow stays above it, teasing, trying to lead it away. The smaller bird dives at the raptor repeatedly, striking or nearly striking it on the back. The crow’s position above the hawk protects her from those deadly claws.
“How brave!” Susannah says, pointing.
“She’s protecting her babies,” Sloan says. “I’ve seen much smaller birds doing that when a hawk gets too close to home.”
“Wouldn’t you?” says Susannah, squinting up at the sky.
“You mean, don’t we?” I say. “Of course, I cried all through the last meeting at Sam’s school. Lot of help I was, right?”
“No! You did? Why?” they say.
“I don’t even know,” I answer, shaking my head. “There was something horribly humiliating about it. They were all so aloof. And, I had just gotten my period, that might have something to do with it.”
“Ohhhhh,” they say, nodding sympathetically.
Susannah takes off her sunglasses and I see that she looks haggard, there are dark circles under her eyes. This is so unusual for her that I stop talking and stare, my mouth falling open. Sloan turns to see what I’m looking at.
“Suz? You been feeling OK?” Sloan asks cautiously. She is a true diplomat.
“Yeah, you look awful!” I say, not known for mincing words.
Sloan reaches over and pats Susannah comfortingly. “What’s going on, honey?” she asks quietly. “Everything OK at home?”
“No!” Susannah blurts through pinched lips. “Everything is NOT! I want to kill my husband, and I’m worried about Jack. I really think I have to get a divorce. I just can’t take it any more.” She wipes gently under her eye with a knuckle, and I see she is crying. A little trail of tears and black mascara is running down her face.
“Why exactly do you want to kill your husband?” Sloan asks. “I’m sure we can all relate, to some degree,” she jokes, grinning. We smile and nod at her encouragingly.
“No,” says Susannah firmly. “I mean it. I’m meeting with a lawyer on Monday.” She uses a paper towel to blot around her eyes and straightens up in her chair, slugging down the rest of her wine and reaching for the bottle to pour herself a refill. We stare at her, shocked.
“Wow,” says Sloan, impressed. “It’s the real thing this time, eh?”
“All right,” I say in a boisterous voice, “I think this calls for a celebration! Here’s to the rest of your life, and getting rid of that loser.”
We raise our glasses and bottles, toasting Susannah and then the setting sun, which is now halfway down behind the trees, and sending rays of warm golden light slanting sideways across the fields. The wide blue sky is streaked with sunset colors now, from pale flower pink to deep salmon red, glowing hot along the edges of the purple clouds that hug the horizon.
He really is a loser, it’s true, and a psycho too. She’s been putting up with him for too long already, and I tell her so. I’m not just being mean, I’m being honest and we all know it. She has told us about some of the really creepy things he’s done. And she has a child to protect. Jack is ten, the same age as my Sam. Sloan’s older son, Max, is eleven. The three boys are close friends.
“Jack knows something is up,” Susannah says. “He always tunes right in on me.”
“Kids always know when the parents aren’t getting along, even if you don’t fight in front of them,” I say, knowingly. “We always knew, and we used to try to divert my father to stop him from going in and harassing my mother. You know, we’d make him check our homework, or tell him a joke, or whatever.”
“How old were you when they finally got divorced?” Susannah asks.
“Seventeen,” I say. “Everyone but me moved out of the house after school got out that spring. I stayed there alone for the summer, while it was on the market. Then that fall, I left for college.”
“It’s kind of like that when you go to college, anyhow,” says Sloan. “You leave behind your old life, your old self.”
“Yes,” I say, “But when it was time to go home for Christmas vacation, my home was gone.”
“Bridges burned, no going back, ” says Susannah, ominously.
“Anyhow, so don’t think Jack doesn’t know, even though he’s younger, “ I say. “You should start to talk to him about divorce, and tell his teacher so she can help.”
Sloan gets up and goes over to the fire, using my stick to poke the embers into the center, and throwing on another couple of logs. She squats next to the fire, feeding it kindling. “I know a good family counselor, if you want her number,” she says. “Somebody who could advocate for Jack. You can’t really do that, since you are one of the warring parties.”
“Good point,” I say. “He might be mad at you, and need someone neutral to talk to about it.”
“He’s mad at me?” Susannah says, “You mean, Jack is?”
“He probably will be,” I say. “I sure was mad at my parents. They destroyed my home, my world, just because they couldn’t work things out. It seemed totally selfish to me.”
“It is selfish,” Susannah says, “Divorce is about the most selfish thing you can do, isn’t it? It’s all about me.”
“I think you’re doing this for Jack, too,” says Sloan. The fire is going again now, and she returns to her chair, leaning over to scoop up some guacamole with a cracker and devour it. She pops open another beer.
“I am definitely doing it for Jack too,” says Susannah, “Though I know I’ll have to share custody and that means Rick will still have influence over him, unfortunately.”
“Maybe less than you think.” I say. “And don’t underestimate your son’s ability to recognize trouble when he sees it!”
“Yes, and now you’ll have a chance to meet someone else, and maybe some day there will be a good, strong, honest man in Jack’s life to show him the way,” says Sloan, ever the optimist.
“It will never happen,” says Susannah definitively.
“Oh, give me a break!” I say. “Like you are going to be alone for more than five minutes! Just wait until the word gets out, they’ll be swarming around you like bees to honey.”
She just shakes her head, no. No, no, no.
“It’s not going to be like that! If I’m ever with another man, I’m going to choose very carefully, not just get swept away by the first pretty face who comes knocking on my bedroom door,” Susannah says, starting to cheer up. She gives us one of her mischievous grins. Her white teeth and her cornflower blue eyes sparkle.
“I thought the sign on your door said ‘Come In, We’re Open,’ not ‘No Trespassing!’” I say, and we all laugh.
“It says, ‘Temporarily Closed for Renovations’,” Susannah says, “Right now, anyway.”
“Look!” says Sloan, pointing at the sky. “Heading for home.” We all raise our eyes.
A vee of Canada geese is cutting across the lower sky, silhouetted like black paper cutouts against the brilliant crimson and orange rays that blaze to the west of us. We sit quietly, listening, and then we hear them honking, off in the distance. It’s so lovely and peaceful up here. An ever-changing panorama, fascinating to watch and much better than TV in terms of quality entertainment. It’s the drama of real life, not a real-life drama. People get so wrapped up in the imaginary worlds created by writers and filmmakers, and by the celebrity gossip shows and magazines. But none of that is real. It’s all made up, it only exists in our minds. People should just step outside and take a look around, if they want to find out what’s really going on. Mothers defending their babies by offering themselves as targets, families migrating thousands of miles each year to find food and shelter, it’s the ultimate reality show.
The sun is all the way down now, it’s cooler and starting to get dark. The sky is indigo, striped dramatically with wine, plum and a deep, dark teal. The fingernail moon has risen a little way above the trees, with one huge white star hanging from its tip. I can hear the spring peepers calling. The Beagle raises her head and says quietly, “Brooo?” She peers into the darkness under the trees, ears and nose alert.
A doe suddenly steps out into the field, right in front of us.
She looks right at us, dogs and all, and takes a slow, cautious step toward us. Then something moves in the dark behind her, and another face turns our way. It’s a little fawn, not very old by the unsteady looks of him. His coat is covered with spots and dappling. Amazingly, the dogs do not bark or give chase. The doe ignores us and steps carefully toward the center of the field. Her baby follows in little wobbly spurts of trotting. With one last look at us, which mysteriously seems to reassure her in some way, the doe lowers her head to graze on the sweet tender spring grass. This is what she was after. Her baby rubs his head against her flank, flipping his tail in bursts of ecstatic wagging as he finds the teat and latches on. The two of them both feed contentedly, snuggled together as the fawn presses his body along her side to reach under her belly.
We sit and watch, remembering our own babies, remembering what it felt like to nurture them, to hold them close. We can do it for a few months, maybe even a few years, but then they want to run off into the world and experience adventure, danger. That’s when our job gets harder. We make a cozy, safe nest for them to return to every night, and we hope they come home safely. We tempt them with comfort food and hot showers, clean laundry, soft pillows. Sometimes we lure them with emotional support too, though this is much trickier. Basically, when kids complain that their mothers are trying to control them, they’re right. On a million subtle levels, that’s exactly what we’re doing, all the time. Trying to control destiny, trying to keep our babies alive and healthy, happy, successful and fulfilled. We have to try and keep this a secret from the children however, or they would be insulted and resist. They want to think we have ultimate confidence in them. That we think they are heroes. They don’t want to know how we worry about them late at night, lying in bed in the dark.
The doe raises her head and her ears flicker, then her black nose twitches as she sniffs the air. The Beagle makes a low noise in her throat. She smells something too. Turning to nudge the baby away from her belly, the doe gives us one last look and trots quickly across the field toward the stream. The fawn staggers for a moment, then he follows with a little bleat of dismay. They vanish into the shadows under the trees.
We sit in silence for a minute. The fire pops loudly and it seems to wake us up from a dream.
“Wow,” says Susannah.
“That was very cool,” says Sloan.
“Remember when the boys were that small?” I say.
We all stand up and stretch, shaking the kinks out.
“I’ll call you tomorrow for that phone number, OK Sloan?” Susannah asks, reaching out to her. They clasp hands. “Thanks, pal,” she says.
“You know that you and Jack can both come over to my house whenever you want, right?” I say. “My guest room is ready and waiting.”
She smiles brilliantly and reaches her other hand out to me.
“You know, what if Jack comes with us to Maine this summer?” Sloan says. “Max would have a lot more fun with a friend along.”
“Great idea!” I say enthusiastically.
“Yes!” says Susannah, “He’ll be totally thrilled!”
“And you’ll have some privacy to work things out,” I say. “Just don’t move while he’s away, that would be really bad.”
“No, I don’t think we’ll be moving right away. I think Rick had better find his own place,” she says. “That’s better for Jack, isn’t it? They’ll still see each other every few days. You know, whatever the judge decides.”
We start to pack up our things. I pour rain water from a sheetrock bucket onto the burning embers, and a thick white column of steam rises into the sky. Sloan collects all the garbage into a plastic bag, and puts it in her backpack. We carry the chairs back inside, and I close and latch the doors. The horseshoes are facing up again now, full of luck and love.
As the three of us head back across the field to the farm road, I see that the moon has risen higher in the navy blue sky and millions of stars are glittering overhead. The dogs run back and forth across our path, noses to the ground and tails up. They catch a scent and run ahead to the stream, where we often find the hoofed, clawed and padded tracks of many creatures. I whistle and they run back to the road and lead us down through the trees.
Down through the trees and out the other end, shifting our hearts and our ideas as we walk, back to the world. Maybe even shifting our shapes. Trying to look authoritative, trustworthy. Straightening our spines, brushing off our pants, our vulnerability. We shift into invincible defenders. We grow taller, stronger, and we walk with confident steps as we approach the cars parked near the farmhouse.
The back door slams, and a horde of small boys and girls bursts out of the house into the driveway. Several of them are mine, most of the rest belong to Sloan, and Susannah’s Jack is right in the middle of the gang. They are singing and silly and drunk with fun, comrades all, dirt smeared on their faces and knees, leaves in their hair and long sticks in their hands. My husband Dave comes out of the house and shouts a command, which reels them back in. He is grinning and waves to us, obviously having a good time. He loves it when they go wilding in the woods. They climb trees and pretend they are cave people. He teaches them survival skills disguised as prehistoric discoveries. And it gives the mothers a chance to sneak off and let down our guards for a little while.
Jack comes over to Susannah in the driveway and hugs her around the waist, nuzzling her. She says, “Did you have fun?” smiling at him and nodding encouragingly. He nods back and smiles shyly. He looks tired and skinny, and there are dark circles under his eyes too, just like his mother’s. They are both stressed, obviously.
“We’re going to go home now,” Susannah says, keeping her arm around his shoulders as she kisses each of us on the cheek fondly, smiling into our eyes. We know what we share. “I’ve got something great to tell you in the car,” she says to Jack, mysteriously, her eyes twinkling with fun. “You’ll never guess what you get to do this summer!” He looks excited and hops right into the passenger seat, no dilly dallying.
“Good luck!” I say, waving as they slowly pull out of the driveway.
Sloan and I stand there and watch them go.
“She’s doing the right thing,” I say.
“I know,” Sloan says, “It’s just so hard, for everyone.”
“He’ll get over it, you know,” I say. “Eventually. Maybe soon.”
“Is this your ‘it takes a village’ speech again?”
“Hey, you know exactly what it takes, woman!”
“Yes,” she says, “I do know. It takes all of us to show Jack what his real options are. He’s learning about the idea of family from us, too.”
We parents are adept at transformation, teamwork and distraction. I had an idea it wouldn’t be long before a second chance materialized for Susannah and Jack. Until then, we’d all do our best to make him feel safe and secure, part of our family, loved. My husband and Sloan’s would take him fishing, camping, and show up at his softball games to cheer for him. But we won’t ever tell the kids what’s going on, because they like to think they’re handling everything all by themselves.
Sloan and I walk up the path to the kitchen door, looking in through the screen to watch Dave serving hot dogs and baked beans. The kids are gathered around the table, jostling each other and holding out their plates. They are having a blast.
Their world is simple now, filled with cartoons, monsters, pirates and ballerinas. The boys are all Superman, and some of the girls are too. Their legs are bruised and scratched, their fingernails are dirty, and their faces glow with confidence. They are growing up brave and independent. No little nuggets of pain are going to push their way out of these minds twenty years from now. No scars will remind them of struggle and loneliness, or the wicked, evil things that grown-ups say to one another when they fight. They fall asleep at night in perfect trust, innocent and ever hopeful. They see a future filled with possibilities.
We wouldn’t ever let Jack know that the three of us were plotting to protect him. But the fact is that when things start to fall apart, there’s nothing like a little motherly magic to pull the giant spiral of life back on center again.
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