By Ed Davis
/ Fiction /
Marla hadn’t been home five minutes before the doorbell rang. Shit. She’d’ve ignored it except she was expecting a FedEx delivery. Tossing the frozen dinner back into the freezer she walked to the door and threw it open on a woman wearing a baseball cap, thick white hair leaking beneath it. Quickly she drew the door back, leaving only a crack.
“Can I help you?”
The woman grinned as if Marla’d said something funny. The mutt behind her, leashed at least, glanced away guiltily when Marla glared. The beast was all black except for a big white spot on his side, like a child’s spread fingers. She’d seen the mongrel leading the woman down the other side of Ambrosia Lane when she’d put the trash at the curb for the first time yesterday.
“I was wondering how you liked the gazpacho—and if I might have my bowl back. I wouldn’t bother you but I sort of need it.”
Wrong house! was Marla’s first reaction. Then she remembered the object lying on the top step last night.
“Gazpacho?” she stalled.
“Yep. Left it right here on your step. Todd—the mailman—told me you’d moved in. Sorry it took me a couple days to get over here. I’m usually faster getting to newbies in the ‘hood.”
Shouldn’t it be illegal for government employees to divulge private information like who lives where? Looking down, she saw the woman wore black and red cowboy boots with pointy toes. Holy hell.
On autopilot, Marla sped to the kitchen, opened the fridge and removed the bowl where she’d stuffed it behind the chardonnay. She strode back to the door, where Bootsie peered nosily through the crack. You’ll get in here when Hell hosts the Winter Olympics. When Marla handed her the bowl, the intruder pulled back.
“Oh, that’s all right. You haven’t had time to eat it yet.”
“I don’t want it,” Marla said.
The woman accepted the bowl, looking neither hurt or shocked. “Okay then,” she said, turned and pulled Muttsie away, the hand on his side waving goodbye.
Marla slammed the door and stomped back to the kitchen before the lingering odor of garlic hit her: homemade gazpacho! What if Bootsie were a gourmet? But food was bait. Next thing she’d want Marla to dog-sit. Reopening the freezer, she plucked out a frozen dinner: country-fried-steak-green-beans-mashed- potatoes-vanilla-pudding. But now she was imagining tomatoes, glistening wetly in summer sunlight, cucumbers, peppers, onions. She slammed the fridge as if it were her front door. Shit.
Out on the sun porch, things felt better. This house was not a bit like the quaint old two-story farmhouse on four acres that she and Matthew bought when she was still pregnant with Sam—ten years before pancreatic cancer killed her husband and son’s father. This house was as far as you could get from those high ceilings and tall windows that had saturated the downstairs rooms with light. She’d bought this place because it was not that one. Less than ten years old, it had low ceilings and few windows, reducing the inside to a dark cavern. Plus, this porch—all glass, surrounded by tall arborvitaes on one side, rhododendron and honeysuckle tangle on the other—permitted an illusion of solitude.
And it was inside the village of Shawnee Springs, at the edge of which sprawled the nature preserve her son had so loved and which she planned to visit soon. Proximity to Glenora Wood was her reason for moving here in the first place, when four acres became way too much maintenance for a single woman. She and her son had history in those woods.
She hadn’t been sitting in her sanctuary five minutes before bursts of laughter reached her, the sound amplified between her house and the neighbor’s on the arborvitae side. “She’s reclusive,” the realtor had said. Well, the neighbor didn’t sound reclusive tonight.
Getting up to close the windows she’d opened earlier, Marla was clobbered by memory: Sam stomping on the back porch to get the mud off his boots before entering the house after hiking Glenora alone for hours. She’d always fretted herself into a frenzy imagining him unconscious, even dead, after a fall from the limestone cliffs. But that was nothing compared to her worry after he started driving. Before she could close the last window, she fell back into the chair just as the laugh track repeated next door. Closing her eyes, she resisted the image of that lonely country road where, a high school senior, her boy had smashed his VW bug into a tree. Now voices from next door rose like an audience watching dolphins leap. Bootsie’s high-pitched voice cut through the others:
“She could be socialized if she’d only come out from behind the door.”
It cut Marla quick—one sure stroke, parting flesh that would quickly bleed if she didn’t apply pressure instantly. Rising on the same shaky legs that got her through two viewings, funerals and burials, plus all manner of boardroom bullshit, she made it to the open window.
“Go to hell!” she screamed, though in such close quarters a shout would’ve sufficed. Utter silence ensued. Tonight would undoubtedly require several flutes of Chardonnay. So be it. At least battle lines were now drawn.
Two days later, Marla was heaving groceries out of the Mercedes when Bootsie and Muttsie materialized as if they’d been hiding in the honeysuckle. They grinned like pet food actors in the commercial from hell.
“Give you a hand?” the woman said, her smile a mere 400 lumens today compared to 900 the day she’d retrieved her bowl. Marla’s explosion the other night had required a full bottle of wine to extinguish the resulting blaze. Rising late and hungover the next morning, she’d barely made an 8:15 meeting. Now Marla eyed her visitor up and down. Her boots were snakeskin this time.
“What do you want?” It was the pre-emptive tone she used on subordinates with one foot inside her office. Oblivious, the woman continued to grin.
“We wonder if you might want to adopt a kitten.”
It was so unexpected that Marla lowered her bag back to the trunk. So that’s what all the racket had been about over there at Ms. Reclusive’s. It hadn’t been about her after all.
The dog owner bobbed her head toward the arborvitaes. “Since August, me and Vivienne have been taking care of two adorable kittens who came from a stray. They’re nearly two months old now and as lively as squirrels on speed. Viv’s keeping them on her screened porch, ‘cause she already has three indoor cats. And Handsome here has self-esteem issues that a cat might make even worse. You oughta come and meet ‘em. The little boy, Apollo, jumps like he’s got springs for legs, and Aphrodite, the little girl, is a fuzzball that—”
Marla stepped forward, invading the woman’s personal space. “There are people who like animals and there are people like me who do not.”
Bootsie’s face became grave. “Oh no. There are only people who think they don’t.”
Did the imbecile think she, a Corporate Communications Director, would debate such an issue here in her driveway? With the wine growing tepid?
“No kittens. No drop-ins. No more food. I want to be left alone.”
Marla stepped back and lifted the bag from the trunk, shocked to find her hands shook—she who gave press conferences announcing imminent layoffs with a slow, steady pulse. She must be exhausted. She glanced back to find Bootsie bent over doing something to the dog’s leash. The beast looked as mournful as Matthew’s elderly father had at his son’s funeral.
“And if that dog ever shits on my lawn, I’m calling the cops.”
“No worries. Always carry one of these. Come on, Handsome.” Waving a blue newspaper bag, the woman led her dog down the street.
Later, after devouring her frozen burrito, chased with two glasses of Mr. Sparkle, Marla was finally feeling relaxed inside her glass bubble. Planting her flag with Bootsie earlier had paid off. She hated playing defense. Attack had been her m.o. for decades. Matthew would just smile and say, “She who lives by the sword . . . “ But attack worked. Without the privilege a penis conferred, all you had to back yourself up was guts or you were dead in the corporate world. How many women had Director of Communications after their names in a company the size of hers? Or had beaten out myriad penised power hogs for the position?
She was almost feeling benign toward Bootsie till she remembered how her hands shook for a moment. Was she developing a tremor? At 47? Now she held her hands straight out. They remained as motionless as Matthew’s in his coffin, clasped at his middle. As still as Sam’s lips, bluish beneath the mortician’s rouge. Since tomorrow was Saturday, she refilled her glass.
* * *
When the doorbell woke her at 8:30, she groaned and lapsed back into a daze until it rang again. And again. She seethed beneath the covers. This was goddamn war. Grabbing her robe, she hugged it around her and ran downstairs. She’d expected Bootsie, but it was a man—a couple of inches shorter than she, bald with tiny round glasses and a thick blond mustache with flecks of grey.
“They’re fledging out back,” he said in a high, breathy voice.
“What in the hell are you talking about?” Marla pulled the robe tighter, having dressed for female rather than male nincompoopery. His face seemed professionally impassive. Census taker, meter reader, cable guy? But he wore jeans and polo shirt, no uniform.
“The baby hawks,” he continued. “Between our yards. You’ve heard them, right?”
Tilting his head back, he replicated flawlessly the high-pitched screech she’d heard on the sun porch. The idiot was so beneath contempt that she quit hugging her robe closed and stepped right into his space, wielding wine-sour morning breath.
“Baby hawks can go fuck themselves. I was asleep, dipshit.”
Amazingly he seemed unfazed. Hard of hearing? On the spectrum? How could she be more direct? But his face remained affectless.
“Beatrice said you’re a bit testy.” Then, as if mentioning the name reminded him, he added, “Would you like to have a kitten? I’d take one, but Mahler would—”
“Please don’t tell me you have a dog named Mauler.”
“He’s named for Gustav Mahler, the composer. I’m a classical music host. Maybe you’ve heard my program on—”
“I quit classical music years ago. And if I took one of those kittens it would be to feed it to my associate Ron’s pet boa.”
Finally: a frown of concern. “Is your friend aware of Ohio’s new exotic species law? He could be prosecuted.”
“You crazy fuckers!” She raised both arms, not caring if he’d see cleavage. “Get off my property. If I owned a gun, I’d use your eagles for target practice.”
After staring for fully five seconds, he turned and shuffled down the steps, epitomizing unflappable, a title formerly hers. He’d taken several steps down the sidewalk before he stopped and turned.
“Hawks, not eagles—Cooper’s hawks, actually. If you want to see a pair of nesting bald eagles, I recommend Carillon Park in Dayton.”
“GO!” She aimed both of her pointer fingers like pistols, robe gapping open. After staring a moment, he sped down the path. Was her body that scary? She didn’t care. She could weaponize anything.
Sunday doorbell. She threw open the door ready to pounce, only to find empty air. Taking a tentative step onto the stoop, Marla nearly kicked the object sitting on the top step. She glanced around. Wherever they were hiding, they were going to witness her hurling the contents of this . . . what? The white china casserole dish shone in the dim light leaking through cloud cover. When she picked it up, she found it delicate, fragile, and very light. Burgundy roses, possibly hand-painted, shone on each side of the ornate golden handle. One more quick glance around—nothing moving—then she stepped back inside and closed the door gently.
Clutching the object breast-high with both hands, she decided that whatever lay inside could not possibly be more interesting than this heirloom dish itself. She let her gaze rove across her living room at the stacks of boxes. She’d hardly unpacked a thing. That took a kind of energy she lacked. Dining room, kitchen: same thing. Then her gaze reached the sun porch, door still partly open, revealing the brightest, most unearthly light she’d yet seen out there. It drew her instantly. On the porch, she set the dish down on the wicker table and removed the lid. An overpowering odor arose like incense, invading her sinuses. And memories.
“Artemisia annua,” her botanist Grandpa said when they encountered this same plant while walking on his property near the creek.
“Most call it Sweet Annie,” Gran added. “Best medicine for fever you ever saw!”
Recalled from childhood, the overpowering scent took her back to late August nights beginning to turn cold, while she sat with Matthew on the deck of their modest ranch home, him sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon, her white Zinfindel, talking about their desire to get pregnant. Not if but when.
Marla waited for her eyes to fill. Nothing. A minute passed while she stared at the dish before realizing something lay beneath the aromatic sprigs with their tiny greenish-brown flowers already gone to seed. Reaching carefully, she extracted a folded quarter-sheet. The tremor returned as she unfolded; it was Sam’s obituary, the hardest thing she’d ever written.
Scanning, Marla caught a word here and there: honor student . . . junior naturalist . . . son of forest, child of dreams . . . preceded in death by . . . At the edges of her vision, a red curtain shimmered—her antagonist after Sam’s accident, when she’d slept twelve hours a day, only eating when her sister Georgina forced her to. Though Marla willed her hand to crumple the clipping in her fist, her body refused. Somehow—maybe she was in shock—she read the entire piece as objectively as she would an email at work. She’d hit all the right notes, an outstanding example of the genre. Superb—the Director of Communication’s highest accolade for an underling’s performance she now awarded herself.
The red frame around her vision faded. After a year and a half, she thought she’d closed that curtain forever, suffocating the fire in her gut by refusing to feed it oxygen. She realized the obit was her neighbors’ crude way of saying they knew. But they didn’t know shit; otherwise, Bootsie would never have offered her a kitten. Kittens grew into cats—like Miss Pearl, Sam’s tabby, who’d watched hopefully from her window perch for days following the funeral until she made Georgina take the cat back to Boston with her.
Marla stood, surprisingly steady, went upstairs, showered and dressed, ate a breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt and berries, then began unpacking boxes in the kitchen. In one, she found her old flute and clutched the battered case to her chest. Her father had so wanted her to pursue music; she’d even declared it her first college major, switching after his death to a field that might actually make her employable.
Standing, she walked to the stereo and tuned into the local NPR station, where she found the birdwatcher’s toneless voice extolling the virtues of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin in B flat. The music filled the space and let her work till past six.
Later, she ordered a calzone from Aha Pizza and gulped down two fast glasses of Mr. Sparkle. No voices came from next door, and she thought she might rest her eyes before going upstairs to read reports. She awoke sometime later to find the sun simmering low on the horizon, gilding the leaves on the maples at the edge of the yard. The scent of Artemisia brought her entirely to her senses, her former buzz gone. Plucking a tiny branch off the plant, she crushed the seeds between her fingers. The spicy scent enveloped her like invisible smoke, awakening a desire to move—and she knew exactly where she needed to go.
She was thankful so much of the leaf canopy was gone or she would’ve been hard-pressed to stay on the dim path. Intersecting the rim trail, Marla sped up. She still had on the old jogging shorts and faded tee shirt she’d worn to unpack, but the October day had been beyond Indian summer warm, almost 80 degrees, so she’d probably be fine. Maybe she wouldn’t need to stay long this first visit to Sam’s beloved woods. Another time she might check out the preserve’s sheer limestone cliffs, natural springs and roaring cascades, but right now she was headed to the spot she’d forever associate with her son.
The long bridge above Shawnee Springs Creek wasn’t far. It was where, at 16, Sam came out to her—a shock but one she’d quickly accepted: her boy would never belong to another woman. That he might belong to a man—men—and pay dearly for it . . . that agony came to her later, with enough terror to make her wake Matthew and beg him to hold her till she stopped shaking. Our bridge, she’d thought of it ever since, to his future, to him finding what he needs after us.
Now she heard her flip-flops slap the cedar planks. Peeking over the rail, she beheld the gleaming creek below, then glanced up to see a nearly full moon rising above the trees. The silver orb, creek water and crickets held no interest without Sam by her side to enthuse about them. Feeling tears, she reached to swipe away wetness and smelled Sweet Annie’s lingering scent, firing her senses—and memory. She had never suspected, never noticed his disinterest in girls—no dates, not even prom—and never paid the slightest heed to the amount of time he spent with guy friends camping weekends at Lake Hope, Hocking Hills, Red River Gorge in Kentucky. All the while, he’d been . . .
She leaned heavily against the rail and gazed sightlessly at the water below. Son of forest, child of dreams. Romantic crap. She’d hadn’t known her boy at all, so she’d made him up. And she was still doing it. Yes, he’d loved nature, but he’d also loved men. It felt like betrayal to think about all the things sons love and do that mothers know nothing of.
Again, she lifted her hand to her face. The aroma increased her concentration. Crickets were kicking up a racket now the sun was gone. If these woods, alive as they seemed, were not her sacred place, then where did she belong? She looked deeply into the creek, perfect sheen of stillness, like glass, while beneath life roiled and teemed. She shivered as a thrill coursed up her spine, playing each vertebra like piano keys, bass to treble, then off the scale entirely. All right, okay. She’d go down there and have a look.
Sandals in her left hand, she only slid once on the rocky bank before making it to water’s edge. Moonlight illuminated protruding large rocks and tangled branches of a downed tree extending halfway across. A bitter mud-crustacean odor rose off the drought-low water. Once more she sniffed her fingers, pleased to find the spicy cinnamon-cedar scent still alive. All right. Okay.
Tossing her sandals on the bank, she waded in. Looking up, she saw the moon had risen higher. It watched patiently, apparently neutral. Eyes shut, she stood in ankle-deep water and waited. Nothing came, neither image nor thought, her mind blissfully empty. For tonight, that was plenty, right? One more glance at the moon, though, and she knew it wasn’t. Sighing, she carefully lowered herself, feeling the water rise to meet her. It was not as cold as she expected, so she sat and felt her soaked shorts cleave to her body, a not-bad sensation. But still not enough.
Stretching her arms wide, she lay back gently as she used to do in her bathtub, sinking almost to her ears. The creek water was cold enough to make her breath quicken. She imagined creatures—tiny, green, tentacled—flowing past, touching her without clinging. Her flattened breasts, belly, knees and toes swelled from the shallows. Moving her head side to side, she felt her hair tendril outward like algae. She shuddered, an almost sexual thrill radiating from her lower abdomen. Night sounds played rhythmically inside her head and she was heavy, solid, a waterskin within water, a creature commingling with creatures.
Turning her head, she glimpsed peripherally the bridge, a shining hulk like a ship’s prow high above her. Eyes back on the moonlit sky, she extended fingers to probe lower, lower . . . Touching her center, she felt something give, like a soap bubble popping soundlessly. Warmth seemed to flood out of her, dissolving into the water and she imagined it as the mucus and blood that accompanied Sam into the world. Closing her eyes, she ascended high above, watching the stream carry her vital elements to rivers and oceans before rising back into the air.
She lay perfectly still. The voice inside her head was both hers and not hers. Yes, Sam and Matthew were dead, and, yes, tomorrow it would start hurting all over again, but this moment, spread-eagled in moonwater, she felt all right. After a few more moments, she opened her eyes, sat up straight and hugged herself. While the moon continued to blaze down, she laughed, gasped and sobbed, and laughed again.
Then she stood, walked out of the water, slipped her sandals back on and climbed back up the bank.
The next morning, Marla called in sick though she felt fine, marveling at her lack of guilt. She devoured cold leftover calzone in bed, then tackled the boxes in the living room, making serious headway. She had to fight the desire to return to Glenora Wood—too soon—and instead began reading Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, one of Sam’s favorite novels, while she baked gingerbread. Toward evening she heard the neighbors through the arborvitaes, talking and laughing, as she knew she would. She was ready.
Rounding the bushy trees, Marla found them gathered before the screened porch examining a large cage. A tall middle-aged Black woman in a long purple velvet dress smiled at her knowingly. “You found us!” she said in a low, throaty voice contradicted by her small stature. Bootsie, muttless for once, stood up from where she was bent over beside Bird Man.
“You came to see the kittens!”
“No, I came to return this.” Approaching Bootsie, Marla thrust the dish toward her.
“It’s not hers. It’s mine.”
Birdman and Bootsie slowly turned their heads as if on synchronized wires. The Black woman took a step forward and pressed long-nailed, tallow-thin fingers on either side of the container. Marla’s own fingers tingled, as if ready to be guided by the talking triangle on a Ouija board. The whole scene might’ve seemed surreal except for the fact that she’d lain in a creek last night and felt like she was giving birth. Not much would surprise her after that, and yet . . .
“Good evening, fellow traveler. I’m Vivienne. As soon as I glimpsed you the other day, your body’s aura said sorrow. The way you slam your car door, your hunched shoulders, the way you flee from us. A quick Internet search told me the rest—there aren’t that many McIntyres and none with your losses. ‘Son of forest, child of dreams . . . ’”
Marla breathed in, out. She imagined her arms outstretched, palms open to receive moonwater. “When I wrote that,” she finally said. “I thought it captured his essence. I had no idea. I didn’t know—” Her voice shredded for a moment. They waited in silence for her to continue. Finally: “I didn’t know my son at all.”
She glanced face to face. Now they were nodding. Maybe something similar had happened to them, too? Marla locked eyes with the enchantress. The strong, sweet odor exuded by the dish reminded her of something.
“How did you know I love Artemisia?” she demanded.
Vivienne’s smile widened. “Oh, honey, everybody loves Artemis. Daughter of Zeus and Leto, Mistress of Animals, Moon goddess, torch-bringer!” When Marla just stared, the woman lowered the dish and looked solemnly at her. “The right goddess always arises when you need her.”
Marla instantly imagined the patient, nonjudgmental moon riding the sky.
“Isn’t that ‘teacher?’” she asked softly. “The right teacher arises?”
Vivienne nodded. “Goddesses are your best teachers, always.”
“Fuckin’ A,” said Bootsie. “They beat the hell out of gods any day.”
A gale of laughter like wind chimes tinkled from the direction of Vivienne’s shadow before she spoke again. “Craig’s idea. I suggested saffron rice and a pomegranate to stimulate your immune system, but something to reduce fever seemed right. I’m a naturopath.”
Marla turned toward the bald man. “Sorry I dissed your hawks, Craig,” she said.
He looked at her blankly. “The hawks are fine.”
“Yeah, but I dissed you for going on and on about them.”
He shrugged while the others laughed.
“Craig’s undissable,” Bootsie explained. “After brain surgery, he lost his ego. Must’ve been the part they cut out.”
More laughter, during which Craig grinned and shrugged some more. When they quieted, he said, “The hell with ego. Ego never helped me see a single warbler.”
“Or other people!” Bootsie cried, punching his arm. “Praise Athena you got over yourself. Sorry it took surgery. Speaking of which,” she said, turning back to Marla, “we’re getting ready to capture and neuter Adonis tomorrow. He’s the kittens’ dad. Snip snip, no more batter-dippin’ the old hot dog.”
Marla realized that the light, fading when she’d stepped off her porch, was suddenly gone and these people, who no longer felt like strangers, had become ghostly figures. Yesterday, she’d’ve felt she’d stumbled into a witches’ coven or maybe a séance. Today was different. Once you’d been baptized in creek water, you saw things differently.
“So, honey, would you like to just see the kittens?” Bootsie said. “They’re right here on the porch, and they’re more fun than a sack o’ stirred toads.”
“And we can see what you’ve brought us,” added the enchantress, lifting the dish to her nose. “Mmmm, do I smell ginger?”
Though no one moved yet, Marla felt the energy shifting toward the dark porch. She hesitated to see if the glass walls of her own empty porch would draw her. Nothing. She stood rooted where she was.
“Okay, here’s the thing.” Marla swallowed hard, then inhaled a draught of gingerbread-and-Artemisian night air. “If I take a kitten, it will just die. And I don’t think I could—” Her throat closed again.
“It’s true,” Bootsie said. “We mostly out-live our animals. I mean, you will. Not me. I’m seventy-five!”
“Big whoop,” Craig added tonelessly. “I’ve got no more than a year left myself.”
“Oh, give it a rest.” Bootsie punched him again. “You’ve been saying that for four years. Doc gave you a clean bill.”
“Friends, friends,” Vivienne interrupted, lifting her arms, holding the dish in one hand, purple sleeves billowing like heron wings. “Grief so devours our species. Give grief to animals and let them devour it, let them devour you.”
Marla found herself nodding. “Water and moonlight, too,” she murmured.
“Absolutely,” Vivienne declared, lowering the dish. Then louder: “Animals are our conscience, but water accesses the unconscious.”
“Amen, sister,” Bootsie agreed. “Animals beat the hell outta humans. ’Cept skeeters—if you call them animals, which I do. They’re starting to get bad. Wanna come inside, Marla? We can finish getting the cage ready later. Come on in and meet ‘Pollo and Aphro.”
Opening the creaky screen, Craig bowed low, beckoning like an usher. When Marla hesitated, Vivienne touched her arm and whispered, “Can you imagine in your wildest fantasia infant felines named for magic, medicine, prophecy and poetry?”
And while Marla joined the procession inside, hardly noticing the aromatic transition from sweet grass to litter box, she found that she could, she definitely could.