WHEN THE SEA CALLS

     It was the shiver of a late April chill that woke me in the in-between hours; just before the stars released their grip on the night sky and gave way to the brilliance of the eastern sun’s first rays.  It was Maggie’s favorite time of day.      

     How often in those first years of our marriage did I stumble downstairs to the kitchen in the early hours, bleary eyed and in desperate need of strong coffee, to find her sitting quietly at the kitchen table, cradling a cup of steaming herbal tea?  Her mind would be miles away – I could see it in the depths of her eyes – and then she would smile; a smile meant to cheer me, if not herself.  I had tried to be a dutiful husband, offering my company and companionship, but looking back, I’m sure that my doleful presence provided neither.  There are some places in a woman’s heart, I have learned, that a husband simply cannot fill.  Much to her credit, she never spoke words of restlessness at the time.   

     I knew there was no point in reaching for her now, she wouldn’t be there.  I had long since been accustomed to waking to an empty bed; it was enough that I knew where to find her.  She would be where I had first found her . . .

~ ~ ~

     The morning mist mingled with hard-earned sweat, plastering my unruly hair against my forehead, and I swiped incessantly with the palm of my hand to keep the dripping strands out of my eyes.  I had just purchased a cottage on the northern Oregon coast, and had taken up the routine of jogging along the beach during my seasonal stay.  The life of a teacher may have its ups and downs, but summer holidays more than compensated for it all.  My time to take Maya and escape suburban living . . . just me and my faithful dog; I was young and carefree then.  And lonely.  I just didn’t know it.  

     It was Maya that discovered Maggie to begin with, and for that singular reason I will forever be in her debt!  We had the beach to ourselves that particular morning, and I watched with envy as she raced up and down the sand, running circles around my slow, but steady, strides.  I chuckled at her antics, wishing I had half of her energy; it would take a good week to build up my wind again, and my lungs were brutally protesting my abuse of their capabilities. 

     I gave in at last – although, truth be told, I had little choice in the matter – and slowed to a walk.  Maya panted in delight as I found the sensitive spot behind her ear and scratched vigorously, shaking loose the sandy clumps and bits of seaweed that had lodged close to the roots of her Irish coat. 

     “You know,” I scolded affectionately in a tone that cushioned the brunt of my words, “it will take all afternoon to coax the sheen back into these sodden, red tresses of yours.”

     Warming to the ever-increasing pace of her wagging tail, I switched to my ‘doggy voice’, which sounded positively idiotic to my own ears, “Yes it will . . . oh, yes it will . . . that’s a good girl, Maya!”

     I glanced about self-consciously, assuring myself that there was indeed nobody else about to hear my one-sided conversation; relieved, I walked on.        

     Hopelessly delighted to receive such unexpected attention, Maya darted ahead to scatter a handful of seagulls that had clustered around something unidentifiable, yet by all accounts, worth their while.  She derived complete satisfaction from stealing treasures from the scavengers, and their affronted squawking echoed against the force of the rolling waves.  I mentally prepared myself to accept whatever disgusting tidbit she would retrieve as a token of affection for me, and hoped the stench of it would not overpower my already fragile insides.

     It was not the gulls’ prize that held her attention though, for instantly she assumed the poise of a true Irish Setter, nose and tail polar opposites of each other, fore paw curled to her breast; she was on to something.  Seconds later, Maya was in a full sprint, rounding the rocky outcropping and leaving a spray of sand in her wake.  I was left to follow – or not. 

     Dutifully, I followed.

     She was beautiful; that much I could sense, even from a distance.  It wasn’t so much her looks, I could make out no specific details, but the way she carried herself . . . the way she allowed herself to be engulfed by the uncultivated surroundings of the cove; she just . . . fit.  It was my first glimpse of Maggie, and a picture that will forever be imprinted in the archives of my memories.

     Whatever breath I had regained left me in an instant, and I stood staring like a schoolboy; God help me, I did.  I took it all in.  The unseen fingers of a light breeze played with her golden curls, curls that hung down her back and danced with every movement of her delicate head.  The shape of her long, straight back beneath the wool of an oversized cardigan, the molding of her ankle-length skirt around the gentle curves that whispered, ‘ woman’ to the man inside of me, and the musical ring of her laughter as Maya chased down the rocks she had been methodically skipping.    

     To this day, Maggie has never lost her laugh.

     And that was it for me – and for her as well, when she’s honest enough to admit it.  We fell for each other fast and hard, but our love was as strong as the rocks that sheltered our first embrace.  There is a popular saying going around these days, but my Maggie and I were practicing it long before it became a wall plaque; it goes something like this:  ‘Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often’.  Words to live by, and we did . . . along with a saying of my own, ‘Kiss Slowly’. 

     We spent the entire summer together hiking the craggy countryside by day and beachcombing, hand-in-hand, by moonlight.  Maggie became my wife that fall, beneath the steeple of a pristine white oceanside church overlooking the cliffs.  No music played, no voices raised in song; Maggie said it would drown out the melody of the sea.  I think it was the Ocean Song that put the salt in Maggie’s blood forever; while she and I spoke solemn vows between us, she had a silent understanding between her heart and the sea.  Both proved to be binding, in their own ways.

     The roll of the waves and fall of the tide never left Maggie, and every year for the next four years we returned to the sea to spend our summers . . . and lose ourselves in each other.  On the day our precious daughter was born, I presented Maggie with a gift:  it was a key . . . the key. 

     The key to our summer cottage.               

     It would be our permanent home from then on.  A place for us to raise our family; a place for Maggie to live without leaving part of her heart behind.  A place that had never stopped calling her.

~ ~ ~

          So I lay here, listening to the gentle roll of the morning surf followed by the splashing of waves against sand and stone; it was there – on that tranquil stretch of shoreline – that my Maggie would be.

    Children were born and raised; the love between her and I aged with slow precision to a perfect, ripened blend; but the passion Maggie held for the sea never waned.  You see, she hears its voice, and when the sea calls, Maggie answers; I expect she always will.

The End

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SALTWATER FOREST

     This wasn’t my idea, I reminded myself doggedly, and if I wanted to break down and have a pity party within the sanctuary of my own vehicle, who was there to stop me?  Holding back the tears was futile, so I let them trickle down my cheek, and drop noiselessly into the folds of my cowl neck sweater.  The wipers were a steady metronome, but my world remained a blur. 

     Mercilessly, and quite out of control by now, I subjected our Newfoundland to my monologue of woes, bearing my soul and sparing no details.  For once, she seemed utterly disinterested in my affairs.     

     Call it a sixth sense, an acute perception to my fragile state of emotions, or whatever you will, but I was upset at life in general –specifically my dog – and she knew it. 

     The two hundredth mile into our road trip had revealed a shocking and most unwelcomed disclosure, which had somehow remained hidden throughout our past, blissful years of dog ownership . . . Shadow was car-sick!  Although I had just managed to pull the Jeep off the road in time, all was not well between us.   

     Tension was in the air, and we eyed each other covertly.  Sighing heavily, Shadow leaned her sagging jowls against the coolness of the window glass, creating a foggy film around her nostrils that grew with each exhalation. 

~ ~ ~

     The chance for a new dream.  The next chapter in the story of our lives.  How long had it been since my husband had whispered those words to me in the dark?  It had sounded so romantic at the time; so promising and full of hope!  Oh yes, he had set the stage well.  Appealing to my sense of adventure and nomadic spirit, I was a captivated audience from the start.  His words held me, and I would have followed him off the edges of the map, had it been possible.  

     We diligently researched our options and inquired into every possible aspect of our new lives, and when the practicalities threatened to squelch our exuberance, it was then that we dreamed!

     We passed the winter this way, taking little notice of the storms that raged beyond our walls.  Lying together at night, my world was a cocoon of warmth and security; my heart confidently anchored in our future together.

~ ~ ~

     As the saying goes, “That was then, and this is now.”  How much had changed over the past ten years!  I learned firsthand the meaning of trade-offs, compromises, and those notorious back burners where dreams sat simmering.  A glance in the rear view told me that two of my trade-offs had fallen asleep in the backseat, heads knocked together in silent slumber with mouths sagging open.  My boys.     

~ ~ ~

     Twins.  One word, two heartbeats.  That’s all it took.  Our plans came to a screeching halt that day at the doctor’s office.  I remember having the distinct feeling of déjà vu; an acute sensation of . . . falling. 

     As a girl, I had attempted to jump my pony over a fallen tree; it was low enough, and she seemed game.  Moving at a brisk canter, I raised myself up in the stirrups, leaned over her neck, and readied myself.  I could feel the muscular hindquarters bunch up in preparation, and the moment of anticipation as her front hooves left the ground. 

     To this day, I’ll never know why she decided to balk, but I’ll never forget the helplessness of being caught up in forward motion and suddenly . . . falling.

~ ~ ~

     It must have been gradual, but it seemed as though the sky suddenly dimmed, and a curtain had been pulled shut.  The day had been drab and dismal with little difference between the hours, other than the various shades of gray.  I had hoped to make it through the Coastal Range before dark, but that was obviously not going to happen.  I did not relish the thought of driving half blind through unfamiliar territory!      

     Thankfully, Shadow’s stomach had stabilized and the boys had kept themselves content and occupied throughout the trip with their DVD players.  I smiled as cries of “All for one, and one for all!” rang out in stereo behind my seat, knowing that my children would battle as heroes in their sleep this night. 

~ ~ ~

          “I think it’s time to make that move.”  Just like that, out of the blue!  I had been in the kitchen, stirring the pot of spaghetti sauce, when my husband of fifteen years nonchalantly announced that he wanted to resume our plans of so many years ago.

     I scorched the sauce and burned the pot black that day.  A number of rebuttals came to my mind at once, nearly choking me, and I stumbled over each and every one.  Looking back, there must have been little to my tirade that actually made sense, but Alex listened patiently, his tall, lanky frame leaning against the archway.  Spent, I sputtered to an undignified halt, letting my words trail off into an awkward silence between us. 

     His face registered calm, but the furrowing of his brow belied his façade; he was trying to hold it all in check.

     “I thought you might have been pleased – you know, that second chance we never thought we’d get.”  He had not waited around for my reply. 

     I puttered around the house after he left, occupying myself with menial tasks, but I was forced to admit that no occupation would restore my sense of peace and tranquility.  Eventually, the chaos in my mind won out; I knew what had to be done. 

~ ~ ~

     It was on the descent, this last stretch of the journey, that I truly developed a renewed sense of appreciation for my husband.  Ironically, I never saw it coming.  Here I was, driving halfway across the country with two kids and a puking dog, while my husband is . . . well, while he’s  . . . it struck me then, and hard!

     I get the smooth ride, a mapped and detailed route [courtesy of my droning, but accurate-to-a-fault, GPS co-pilot], and the company of my precious sons and their dog, emphasis on their!  Here I cast a dubious glance in Shadow’s direction, but she looked so bereft and dejected that I relented with a sigh.  Reaching over, I gave her ear a vigorous tousle and was instantly rewarded with what could only be described as a blissful, doggy smile! 

     I considered then how Alex had made two previous trips, driving and pulling various types of rental vehicles.  He had set forth ahead solo, blazing a trail, and ironing out the wrinkles along the way.  And he did it for us

     While most men his age were in a full swing mid-life crisis or rapidly heading in that direction, my husband remained a devoted family man.  Alex thrived at being the visionary of our little clan, and industriously occupied himself with mapping out our future.  Literally.    

~ ~ ~

     Hiding out on the open prairie has its own set of difficulties, so I had little trouble finding Alex once I set my mind to it.  He was sitting by the trout pond, in plain sight, industriously chewing on a blade of grass; he had to have known that was the first place I’d look.  Quietly, I sat down behind him, letting my head rest gently against the plaid that stretched between his shoulder blades.  My cheek rose and fell to the rhythm of his breathing. 

     “Is it possible to just pick up and start over?” I asked, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. 

     “I’m willing.  For you.”

     “For me?  But why – why now?”

     “You told me you wanted to live by the ocean or in the middle of a forest . . . like the cottage in Sleeping Beauty,” Alex stated at last. 

     My head snapped up.  “I told you what??”

     “An ocean or a forest,” he repeated solidly.  “Those were your words.”

     “I . . . no!  I never said that!” I protested, scrambling around front to better read his face.  The man was dead serious!

     “You did,” Alex insisted, “on our third date when we jumped the horses over the straw bales and raced around the corn maze!  I distinctly remember.”  Alex lowered his eyes and then met mine full on.  “It was the night I first kissed you,” he said softly.

     As if I needed reminding of that!  We had ended up riding double and leading my horse on a very meandering route home. 

     “Well, I’m sure I didn’t mean it, literally,” I countered.  “I probably thought it was a romantic notion . . . under the circumstances,” I added, brushing a speck of dust from my pants.

     A roguish grin flashed across his face, and I allowed a small reminiscent smile to soften my features.  I could feel my defenses shifting ever so slightly, but I was not about to let my mind get carried away with flights of fancy!  Still, I glanced around, wondering why the wide open landscape surrounding us suddenly seemed so . . . lacking.

     Meeting his gaze once again, I stated firmly, “I am no longer a young girl lost in a fairy tale, and my dreams are different now.  I am content.”  My words were everything they should have been . . . resolute, persuasive, and heavy with the double weight of duty and conviction.  I wondered then, why was I having trouble believing them?         

     Alex was silent for several moments and I half expected him to call me a liar at any moment.  “So you don’t dream anymore,” he sighed, fingering a strand of my hair before tucking it behind my ear, “that’s a shame.” 

     “It’s not that I don’t have dreams!  They’re just – I don’t know, tucked away I guess . . . somewhere. ” My words trailed off, leaving me feeling restless and fidgety. 

     “Ok then,” he allowed, lying back and pulling me down to nestle against him, “tell them to me.”           

~ ~ ~

     The rain stopped the moment my tires turned off the pavement and crunched onto the gravelly drive.  Ranks of towering pine flanked me on each side, boughs bent and dripping with rainwater.  The stalwart giants would have been imposing, and even slightly ominous, had it not been for the glowing beacon of a porch light, beckoning me the last hundred yards. 

     As soon as I stepped out of the Jeep, the poem became clear.  Inhaling deeply, I filled my lungs with the pungent tang of earth and all things green and growing. Drifting through this intoxicating blend of nature, I detected a feral saltiness that permeated everything it touched.  Was it my imagination, or did I hear the distinct crash of a breaker against rock in the distance?

~ ~ ~

“Come, come away with me, and put my love to the test . . .

Come, oh come away with me, and we’ll dwell in the Saltwater Forest

Yes we’ll dwell in the Saltwater Forest . . . ”

     That was the last letter I received.  Cryptic, intriguing; very Alex! Those words were going through my mind as I took one last backward glance at the amber waves of grains before my boot hit the accelerator with a sense of purpose.  The boys shrieked with delight at the trail of prairie dust in our wake, oblivious to the reluctance that I had battled and conquered; for the most part. 

~ ~ ~

     And then he was there, the love of my life, walking towards me.  Impulsively, I sprang into his open arms and kissed him, lingering and appreciating the feel of being together.

     “I missed you, Alex!” I said in response to his unspoken question, and was instantly rewarded with one of his beguiling smiles.

     “Yeah, I missed you, too,” he whispered softly.  “Welcome home.”   

     From what I could see, the cabin needed painting, the porch rail tilted precariously, and a woman’s touch was sorely lacking throughout, but it was enough.  Enough to make a heart dream again.

The End       

SNOW FALLING WHITE

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood … ” 

     Sensing another presence in the room, I turned from my daughter’s bedside. My wife stood there in the doorway, arms crossed, casually leaning against the frame. The hallway sconces back-lit her silhouette and I admired her attractive shape as she strolled into the room.

     I continued reading to the slumbering form. “As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow.”

     “You know she can’t hear you, right?” my wife asked, snuggling up behind me on the chaise lounge. Resting her chin on my shoulder, she wrapped me in a warm embrace.

     I smiled. We had been through this before. “Not true,” I answered, stroking the ridges of her knuckles.

     “The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, ‘If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.’”

     My thumb rubbed against a hard object. Glancing down, I noticed that in addition to her durable tungsten carbide wedding band, my wife was wearing her engagement ring. The two were utterly mismatched and she rarely wore them together, except on special occasions.

     I fingered the cluster of diamonds, admiring their brilliant inner glow. I had selected the ring from a private jeweler’s elite Fairytale Collection, promising that it would be the beginning of our happily ever after together.

     Heather, pragmatic to a fault, had actually laughed at that part of my proposal. I was mortified.

     Despite countless rehearsals, my words, usually so eloquent and polished, lacked the poetry that I had envisioned and my cheeks had burned until the fear of rejection nearly paralyzed me.

     Then, in a show of extravagant mercy, Heather folded her arms around the back of my neck and pressed her beautiful mouth to my own. I was too dizzy to remember much of what happened next, but I can still hear her words in my ear as I did that day. “My love, you are a hopeless romantic.”

     And then she said yes.

     Six months later, amidst the clatter of cans and the hastily scrawled letters JUST MARRIED hanging precariously from the bumper of my Subaru, Heather and I left the hustle of urbanization in the rearview mirror.

     My transition was a no-brainer. I said goodbye to my editorial desk job and hello to the lifelong dream of becoming an independent author in the matter of a heartbeat. It took Heather, professor and mathematician extraordinaire, even less time to decide.      

     A month following our exodus found us comfortably cocooned by a forest of conifers at the end of a washboard gravel road. Deer and turkey abounded; people didn’t.

     Our newly-acquired property bordered USFS land on one side and dropped abruptly into Lake Pend Oreille on the other. We were living the north Idaho dream and loving the seclusion of mountain living, made all the more doable by our weekly trips to Costco and addiction to locally-roasted coffee.

~ ~ ~

     I felt Heather’s body expand and then contract with a sigh as she whispered now. “I remember the first time you read that story to her. She was sleeping then, too, and I thought you were … ”

     “Crazy?” I ventured before she had a chance to supply an adjective that was less flattering.

     Heather moved against me, chuckling. “Maybe just a little,” she conceded. I felt my body tremble as she traced my ear lightly. “But mostly,” she said, kissing my neck, “I thought you were … charming. Now, keep reading.”

     Slightly disoriented, I continued obediently. “Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood.” I reached down to stroke a thin wisp of raven-black hair from our little girl’s cheek, following the path of a wayward curl.

     “And therefore they called her Snow-White. As soon as the child was born …” my voice broke and I tried again. “As soon as the child was born the queen … the queen … died.

     My eyes drifted to the window. The panes were frosted around the edges and thick clouds obscured both moon and stars. Squeezing Heather’s hand meaningfully, I brought it to my lips. “I remember, too. It was the night I almost lost you both.”

~ ~ ~

     A frigid gust of wind followed Heather into the house as she stormed through the door. Removing the snow-covered balaclava, she gave her head a vigorous shake. A sudden-onset blizzard – the one they predicted would skirt to the north and miss our neck of the woods entirely – was hard on her heels. I stood by, anxiously waiting to lock up and batten down the hatches.

     Despite my protests, Heather insisted on walking to the barn each and every night to check on our menagerie of animals, no matter the weather. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would stay my wife from the swift completion of her appointed rounds. She would have excelled as a Postal Service worker.

     Taking in the sight of her roly-poly figure, I couldn’t help myself. “Hey gorgeous … want to build a snowman?”

     The joke had become a favorite of ours and usually sent her into a fit of estrogen-induced giggles, but one look at my wife’s face sent the blood draining from mine. “How long?” I croaked.

     Wide-eyed, Heather stood staring at me, her mouth slowly forming an elongated O. Time stood still, drawing out into – well, a pregnant moment – until a slight, audible pop echoed in the space between us. With a reflexive jerk of her head, the breath she had been holding escaped in a rush … along with the fluid that her body had been retaining for the past thirty-four weeks. She brought a hand to her belly. “Not long enough.”

     This can’t be happening. The baby is early. The roads are impassable. What should I do? We’re going to have a baby! Why won’t my legs move!?

     “Sweetheart, everything is going to be fine,” someone said in a voice that sounded strangely like my own. “Our little princess is on her way.”

~ ~ ~

     At the moment, a wrinkle was starting to form across our little princess’s forehead, scrunching into a frown with the puckering of pink, pouty lips. Leaning over my shoulder, Heather blew gently into her face and, as if by magic, the creases smoothed out.

     Heather nudged me out of my sentimental retrospect. “But I didn’t die, did I?” When I failed to answer, she pressed, “Hey – I didn’t die.”

     I shook my head, too choked up to speak. A year wasn’t long enough to diminish the debilitating fear I had battled that night.

   My wife, on the other hand, had recovered beautifully and derived a most irrational pleasure in the retelling. “I’ll never forget how Doc Gallaway came to our rescue! Riding in on his mighty black charger to save the day … that has got to qualify for some kind of a fairy tale, right?” 

     “You know, your childhood was seriously deficient,” I chided. “An old, retired, neighbor vet driving in on a black Polaris hardly constitutes a fairy tale. But I guess you’re right,” I admitted. “He did, most definitely, save the day.”

     “Well, a fairy tale-deficient childhood is certainly something this little girl will never have to worry about – not with you as a father. Now, skip to the ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’ part!” Heather commanded in a tone that, I assumed, was supposed to be menacing.

     Amused at her attempt, I turned the page. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?”

     “Mmm … I love the way your voice sounds there.”

     “Uh … excuse me?” I asked, baffled.

     With a mischievous grin, Heather crawled around to nestle comfortably in my lap. “Yeah, you know,” she said, arching a finely tapered eyebrow, “when you try to be dark and sinister. I love that!”

     Reaching up, she ran her fingertips along the stubble on my jaw. I could feel my eyes grow heavy and my neck flush hot. I could also feel myself blushing.

     “Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t want to be married to a villain or anything!”

     I struggled to open my eyes and murmured huskily, “Well, that’s a relief, because I kind of fancy myself as one of the good guys.”

     Heather drew herself up, suddenly serious. “You are so much more than a good guy … you’re like … a hero.” Grabbing my shirtfront in both fists, her eyes bored into my own. “You’re my hero!”

     Kissing me hard, she gushed more embarrassing praise, though I was sure there was more than a hint of sleep depravity driving her words.

     “You have turned my world upside down – in the best of ways!”

     “Heather, I – ”

     “No, I’m serious. You have opened my eyes to beauty … wonder, and – yes! – the promise of a happily ever after that I never even knew was possible before I met you. Just look what we have created!” Following her downward gaze, I sat holding my wife while we watched our little princess slumber.  

     Sitting there in the dark – it could have been minutes, or hours – it seemed like an eternity before I mustered the courage to speak. “Do you know why I read fairy tales the night she was born?” I asked tentatively.

     It wasn’t until I asked the question a second time that I realized Heather had fallen asleep in my arms. I sat quietly, content, but after a time I felt compelled to speak. I needed to say the words. Aloud.

     “I was afraid … more afraid than I had ever been in my whole life.” It was awkward, but I just sat there, whispering into the silence. “Words. Physical strength. Determination. None of them were of any use to me that night,” I confided, releasing a stream of confessions.

     The wind kicked up and I jumped at the sound of a branch tapping against the window. I felt stupid and exposed, but couldn’t stop talking.

     “All night, as your life balanced precariously on the edge, I sat by your bedside and there was nothing I could say or do to bring you relief … or comfort. I have never felt so emotionally depleted in my entire life.”

     At the memory, my breath faltered. “I was stripped bare and rendered completely … helpless.”

     “And so I read. I read all my hopes and dreams for our daughter’s life … for our life. I read of struggles, of battles, of rescues … of tales with happily ever afters because above all, I needed you in mine.”

     Heather stirred and, looking down, I saw that her cheek was wet. Caught in the reverie of pensive introspection, I sat staring, confused. When another drop splashed her face, I became aware that my tears had been falling.

     Feeling the gentle brush of my hand against her cheek, Heather’s eyes fluttered open and she said dreamily, “Hello there, charming.”

     Dashing a hand across my own eyes, I swear my heart swelled in my chest. Literally. “Hello there, beautiful.”

     Stretching, Heather groaned. “Were you saying something?”

     Kissing the top of my wife’s head, I allowed myself a small smile. “I was just telling our little princess about the night she came into this world. How it was dark, like tonight … but with the glimmer of snow falling white.”

The End

SIX MONTHS OF JUNE

     I stared, empty-eyed, as hammering rain lashed at the windows, running down the latticed panes until the shapes outside streaked together like a Cézanne painting caught in a torrent.  It was only 6:00 pm, but the pitch black of night had settled early, casting a bleak and ominous impression on my world. 

     “Hush a bye, don’t you cry … go to sleep my little baby …” I crooned softly, absently rocking back and forth in that innate, age-old rhythm that every mother possesses.    

     “When you wake, you will see … all the pretty little horses …” 

     The pendulum-like motion had become such a part of me ever since the baby was born, that I sometimes feared I would instill an unquenchable desire for perpetual motion in my little charge.

     “Blacks and bays, dapples and grays … all the pretty little horses.”

     I closed my eyes against the storm raging outside and brought my focus inward; to the quiet of my soul, to the warm weight in my arms, to the melodic vibrations thrumming in the back of my throat as I drew out the lullaby.

     White lightening and a resounding CRACK! jolted me out of my trance, illuminating my closed lids and reverberating throughout my ear drums.  Bat ears, as my husband calls them, can be an asset when listening for a baby’s whimper in the night, but sudden, deafening blasts are a curse altogether and I shrank back from the assault. 

     Frowning at the darkness, I changed my tune, nonsensically thinking that by mere words alone I could impact the course of the weather. 

     “Rain, rain, go away … come again … NEVER!” I finished defiantly, swaying away from the window and making my way towards the stairs. 

     I paused to stroke a stray wisp of strawberry blond hair away from the protruding bottom lip of my little girl, eliciting a sigh that smelled faintly sweet and milky.  Leaning down, I breathed deeply, inhaling the scent which is unique to baby’s breath.       

     Another flash illuminated the window, followed instantaneously by yet another cacophony that plunged the house into complete and utter darkness.  I froze, motionless, not trusting myself to circumnavigate hazardous obstacles – such as remotes, couch pillows, and carelessly discarded shoes – with a sleeping baby in my arms.

     Faced with the dilemma of calling out to my husband and risking a serious disruption of the REM sleep cycle, or inching my way, blind, to the upstairs nursery, I breathed a sigh of relief when two flickering candle flames bobbed their way towards me like a pair of disjointed eyes in the night. 

     “Hi, Sweetie … I’ve come to rescue you,” my husband whispered, glancing down at the bundle in my arms.  I could hear the smile in his voice and returned it with one of my own, acknowledging the chivalrous gesture, be it ever so domestic in nature.  

     “It just so happens we’re in need of rescuing,” I murmured, leaning in to meet his kiss.

     As we neared the top of the stairs, I was surprised at how well my eyes had begun to adjust to the dim lighting, but the reason for this soon became evident.  Aidan had strategically arranged a path of lighted candles leading into the nursery, setting the fairies of Pixie Hollow to flight as their iridescent wings seemed to flutter in the candle glow.  An oil lamp shone like a beacon on the knotty pine dresser, warming the wood with a soft aura of light.

     “Get Ellie tucked in and then join me downstairs,” he said softly, rubbing the soft down on his daughter’s fair head.  “We’ve got a few hours before she wakes up, right?” he asked, oh-so-casually.

     This time I suppressed the smile that was hovering around my lips, and raised my shoulder in a slow, deliberate shrug.  “Perhaps,” I replied ambiguously, indulging myself in a bit of mischief at my husband’s expense.

     It was true though.  While sleeping through the night may be a far off reality yet, we did, in fact, have some time on our hands.

     Glancing at the noisemaker lying silent and useless on the crib side table, I conceded that, if nothing else, the rain lent a much more natural element to the night; a pulse of nature that no device can accurately simulate.  As if deferring to a sleeping baby, the thunder and lightning had begun to diminish in both ferocity and volume, now casting only occasional flashes and mild rumblings from a safe and reasonable distance.  Quietly, I reached for the oil lamp as I tiptoed from the room, blowing out candles along the way and leaving the fairies cloaked in darkness.     

     From the direction of the kitchen, I heard the whoosh of a gas burner coming to life, followed by the muffled clunking of earthenware.  I knew any effort to investigate would only thwart a well-intentioned plan, so I chose, instead, to stand as sentinel at the window once more, as if my watchful presence could somehow keep the storm from re-asserting itself. 

     Warm breath ruffled my hair a moment before strong, plaid-covered arms wrapped carefully around my shoulders.  I accepted the steaming bowl of Masala chai with gratitude, relishing the heat of the stone against my fingers. 

     “Penny for your thoughts,” Aidan offered, nuzzling the hair at my temples.  His breath was warm and earthy; smelling of cinnamon, clove, and ginger root.

     “Oh, just  … thinking,” I answered evasively, bringing the bowl to my lips.

     Not satisfied with my response, Aidan shifted around to the window seat in front of me, drawing me onto his lap.  For a moment, we didn’t speak; eyes on the retreating storm as we drank in silence.

     “It’s the rain and gloom, hmm?” he asked, tenderly running his finger down my cheek.  “Too long in a season without sun.”    

     His perceptiveness, as usual, hit the mark and I nodded wordlessly, reluctant to surrender to my complaints.  Inside, a battle raged, but I fought against the urge to rail against a cold, wet winter devoid of sunlight and warmth. 

     Aidan drew me in closer, until I was leaning back against him.  “Tell me what you wished for.  Tonight – looking out there.”

     It was a fancy of mine, wishing on stars.  Not that I placed much stock in the outcome, of course.  In reality, it was the actual stargazing that gave me pleasure; the sheer enormity of out there.  The window seat had been my anniversary present the year after we had moved into our home … a comfortable place of my own to look into the vastness of the heavens. 

     “I couldn’t see any stars to wish on,” I managed, trying to force some semblance of a smile, but failing miserably.  “I can’t even remember the last time I saw the stars.” 

     “Ahhh,” he said knowingly, turning my head to look me in the eyes.  He held me in a strong, steady gaze.  “What is it you want, my love?” 

     Not knowing if his question was literal or rhetorical, I merely shook my head and answered tentatively, “More vitamin D?”

     Aidan chuckled at that, gently rocking me with the rumbling of his chest.  “Yeah, I suppose so … but I was thinking of something more … whimsical.”

     “Whimsical?” I repeated, trying to engage in the gist of his thinking.    

     Setting our empty bowls aside, he took me by the hand, drawing me away from the gray cast window and the cold shadows beyond.  “Sit here a moment,” he said, patting the couch, “and close your eyes  … and no peeking!” he added with mock sternness.

     After much shuffling, drawer thumping, and muttered oaths, I was finally allowed to open my eyes to behold his creation.  I sat, mouth agape, at the wonder before me.

     The room fairly pulsed with the life of every candle I was sure we owned, fluttering to its own rhythm in the primitive dance of raw flame.  We sat ourselves among the plethora of pillows that had been heaped around the Karastan rug, and I was instantly transported into a circle of warmth and light.  I was thoroughly enchanted.

     Reclining back against the cushions, Aidan laced his fingers with mine, bringing each of my fingers to his lips in a show of tender affection before expounding further.

     “Now …think whimsical,” he prompted, returning to our previous conversation.

     It was, admittedly, easier to enter into the mode of ‘make believe’ with such a captivating setting, but I was still hesitant about joining Aidan on this magic carpet ride of an amusement.

     “This is silly,” I protested, shaking my head in refusal.

     “Of course it’s silly,” he agreed, “but that’s the point, isn’t it?  To take our mind off the gloom of reality and imagine … ”

     “I know – whimsical,” I replied, finishing his sentence. 

     I was rewarded with an encouraging grin, which turned out to be mildly contagious. 

     Responding with the first idea that came to mind, I blurted out, “Six months of June!”

     “Six months of June?” Aidan wondered aloud, prompting more elaboration. 

     “Six months of June,” I sighed blissfully, contemplating the fairy tale that would embody.

     I inadvertently slipped into an imaginary realm of perpetual green grass, daisies in bloom, a garden bursting with bounty … T-shirts, flip flops, and lazy days at the lake.  Picnics, lemonade, crickets at night … berry picking, dust under my feet … and stargazing out of doors.

     “Would that make you happy?”  Aidan’s question broke into my reverie, derailing my escalating train of thought.

     His smile was still in place, but looking into his eyes, I saw it.  Deep down, past the smile.  Beyond the thick, black lashes.  Beneath the beautiful shade of moss green irises flecked with brown; it was there. 

     Fear.  Fear of failure.  Fear of not meeting my needs.  Fear of not being able to fix my discontentment.  A fear that should never be his to bear.   

     Would that make you happy? he had asked, but insinuating so much more!

     “No,” I answered, searching his eyes to see if it would go away.

     “No,” I stated again, this time with conviction, in response to Aidan’s questioning gaze.  “Six months of June would not make me happy.  It was a fanciful notion, nothing more.  Besides, that is much too big a responsibility for just one month!” I added playfully, fingering a strand of hair before brushing it back off his forehead.      

     Then more seriously, “You … this,” I said pressing my hand firmly against the strong beating of his heart, “Ellie, our home … ” I breathed in heavily with the weight of my words.  “That is my life’s blood and I am happy.”

     “Life’s blood,” he echoed softly, as if weighing the implication of the words.  Then his mouth curved into a slow smile, “I like the sound of that – did you get it from one of your books?” he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

     “Maybe,” I replied, blushing at being caught red-handed in the act of romantic plagiarism.  “Still,” I countered, “I meant it, so it has to count for something!”

     “Oh, it counts,” Aidan assured me, inching closer.  His five o’clock shadow gave him a roguish appearance, heightened all the more by the flash of white teeth in his curving smile.

     “Actually, it counts for everything,” he whispered, voice catching on the sentiment of his words. 

     The rain was still falling through a sky dark as coal, but the feral intensity was spent, a reflection of my own, inner well-being.  I became aware of a subtle, internal shift as the anxiety drained from my body and I absorbed the tranquility of the moment; emotional osmosis, no doubt – the ultimate balancing act.      Come what may, I resolved to embrace the time and season of my life, re-discovering peace, joy and contentment in those things that give it value beyond measure.  After all, what is six months of June compared to a lifetime of treasured memories, shared with those you love?

WRITER’S BLOCK

     I pulled the brim of my khaki boonie down fractionally in an attempt to buy a few moments of precious time before the sun broke out from behind the cloud cover.  I figured I had one – maybe two – attempts, and I was pretty darn sure this opportunity wouldn’t be knocking again any time soon.  Make it count! 

     Tucked into a vertical crevice of craggy overhang, my elevated vantage point set me up for a clear mark that the competition lacked.  Granted, the distance exceeded optimal, but if I controlled my breathing and steadied my hand, I just might have a chance.  Taking my eye away from the glass, I blinked in rapid succession, mentally cursing the incessant spray of salt mist that was wreaking havoc with my ability to focus.  No doubt about it, this was going to be challenging. 

     Deep breath in … slow and complete exhaleRepeat. 

     Drawing my focus inward, I absorbed the mounting tension of the throng; listening and feeling in turn.  An impression of pent up, charged energy exploded in a collective rush, and at that moment my suspicions were confirmed.  My target was approaching.  With deliberate calm, I closed my eyes and expanded my chest, filling my lungs to capacity before releasing my breath once again … and hold.  Drawing from years of experience, my sequence of moves was executed with calculated and mechanical motion; no faltering, no vacillating.  I simply heard the voice in my head whisper, and I responded.  Take the shot.  

     Although my first instincts shouted for me to vacate the area and beat a straight path back to base as the crow flies, the disciplined component of my brain forced me to disassemble my gear and compartmentally stow it away for safe keeping.  Task completed, I hoisted my field pack onto my shoulders, ensuring that no webbing or paracord straps had worked their way loose during the rigors of my mission. 

     Maneuvering down the jutting outcropping was a task that I could have carried out blindfolded, and my desert tan Outriders gripped the rock and held me fast.  I jumped the last six feet or so, landing in a crouch and allowing the sand to absorb the impact of my two hundred pound frame.  From there, I hit the beach at a lope and didn’t stop until I glimpsed the signal light, floating orb-like against the shadowy curtain of a descending night.

     Grinning, I sprinted the last fifty yards, overcoming the last incline with a calculated series of leaps and bounds.  I tagged the orb before collapsing in a wheezing heap, shifting the pack from my back as I fell. 

~ ~ ~

     It was perfect.  Picture perfect!  Those were the exact thoughts running through my head as I stepped out onto the multi-terraced, cedar-planked deck that fanned out from the western side of my beach cottage rental.  From there, I could enjoy the expansive, oceanic view, which overlooked the iconic monolith of basalt rock jutting from the edge of the northern Pacific like a rugged testament of an ancient and primitive epoch!  At least that’s what the property management advertisement boasted; a depiction that certainly sounded more glamorous than ‘from the deck you can see Haystack Rock’! 

Yes, this was just the sort of place where a fellow could find his focus; really dig in, hunker down, and let the world go by.  No obligations, commitments, or – might as well come out and say it – relationships!  Put it all together with a bow on top and what do you get?  Freedom!  A man’s best friend! 

     I whooped out loud, raising my fist to the storm-darkening sky in a symbolic gesture of masculine autonomy.  An invigorating rush, akin to some primordial awakening, began to quicken inside of me, and as if of their own accord, my hands began drumming out a steady, tribal rhythm against the wooden rail.  I had a beat, I had a groove, I had . . . an audience.     

     Had it not been for the over-sized, hollowed out sockets that housed the largest and saddest eyes on the planet, I would have mistaken the pale, dome-shaped knob for an exotic shell.  The kind they bleach and then light up with a candle to produce ambiance or some such nonsense.  This particular shell was backlit by a hurricane lantern, producing a halo effect and causing me to do a double take. 

     “You’re an urchin,” I guessed, thinking I had labeled the shell correctly.

     “Oui, I have been called that before,” the creature answered, rising up slightly above the rail of the adjacent deck to peer me full in the face.

     “Oh, I mean … no, not that kind of urchin!” I quickly asserted, jamming my hands deep into my denim pockets and trying desperately hard not to stare.

     The boy appeared to have a bioluminescent quality about him, but I suppose that was the glow of the lantern reflecting off his milky white skin.  Creepy.  

     “You have not seen many childreen with thee cancer, non?”

     “Uh …n-no, I guess I haven’t,” I replied, fighting to maintain composure.

     “I deed not think so, Monsieur,” the kid stated matter-of-factly, walking over to a bench and donning a knit beanie.  That was better! “So, I weel do something or you – yes?  I weel put on my hat so that you are not … how do you say … embarrassé?”

     “Embarrassed?” I asked, trying to follow his accent, which was proving to be somewhat of a stumbling block to my Yankee Doodle English.  “I’m not embarrassed, kid, it’s just kind of … ”

     “Awkward?” he supplied with a knowing look. 

     Apparently this wasn’t his first rodeo, and I decided to drop the façade and speak my mind, although I couldn’t quite meet his eye.  “Yeah, well, there’s a storm blowing in and, not to be rude, but don’t you have to – you know – take care of yourself better?” 

     He lifted a single shoulder in a casual shrug that seemed to dismiss my concern as an insignificant factor in the equation.  Somehow, the gesture seemed so very adult and so utterly … French. 

     I cleared my throat, feeling sheepish and crass; quite the far cry away from the self-determining man of a whole 10 minutes past.  I needed time to debrief.  Heading in, I called over my shoulder, “Hey, what’s your name, neighbor?”

     And then it happened … right before my very eyes.  He smiled and I swear that for a second – a split second – the urchin transformed into a boy.  Not a pitiful creature, but a happy, healthy, honest-to-goodness boy!

     “My name ees Gilen,” he replied, lifting a hand in parting.

~ ~ ~

     “You’re late,” a small voice scolded.  “And eet took you eight jumps to get to thee top – I counted.  You’re geeting slow. ”

     “Dude, you’re killing me!” I protested, groaning as I rolled over to face my accuser.  “Do you have any idea how far I just ran?”

     “A marathon?” and then as an afterthought, “you’re not going to die, are you?”

     “Gee, I appreciate the concern and all, but … hey! you’re not wearing your hat!” I chided, taking in the sight of the boy as he stepped into the glow of the emanating light.  It never ceased to unnerve me … seeing him without his hat.

  Idiot! I berated myself, watching his face fall as he furtively touched a hand to his bald head before shoving it into a corduroy pocket.  The last thing the kid needed was a lecture, and I cursed my insensitivity.

     “Ahh … well, hats are overrated,” I replied affably, extending the white flag.  “Besides,” I said conspiratorially, “I have more important matters to report back to you.  Matters concerning … ”

     “Your mission!?”  Gilen interrupted.  “Eet was … a …a …” he faltered, failing in the attempt to produce the proper English word.

     “A success?” I provided, nodding as the kid’s eyes doubled in size, if that was even possible.  Despite the dim light, I could see them bulging ever so slightly, and I chuckled softly.

     “Success … ouic’est ça!” he agreed emphatically, voice breaking into an alarming high-octave squeak.

     “Wow!” I winced, palpating my ear.  “Right – well, let’s rendezvous back at base camp in T-minus 10, after you check with your dad.”

     “Copy that!” the boy agreed, snapping a smart salute and clicking the heels of his slippers together.

     We both knew that keeping his father informed was mere formality; a courtesy that I extended entirely for Gilen’s sake. 

~ ~ ~

      His back-story was simple.  And tragic.

     As if the kid hadn’t received a raw deal enough in the form of leukemia, God decided He needed another gentle soul in Heaven and took Gilen’s mother just two months ago.  Grief-stricken, the boy’s father took his son and fled France in pursuit of a place to forget. 

     As it happened, his flight landed in a cottage on the Pacific Coast where he took up residence in the back room, sitting night and day.  Under the pretext of writer’s block, Gilen’s father would now stare, trance –like, at his laptop screen, waiting for inspiration to reach out and rip through the shroud of anguish that had rendered him paralyzed.  Once a prominent free-lance writer, he was now reduced to an empty shell of a man, haunted by death, both in memory and pending; confined to a prison of his own volition.

     “I call it thee oubliette,” Gilen had responded when I finally mustered up the nerve to ask one evening.  “A place to forget … or be forgotten,” he explained.

     Well, one thing was sure – Gilen had been forgotten; an innocent casualty of war.

     Our paths crossed often over the next couple of months, and it wasn’t long before I discovered that the kid demonstrated a keen appreciation and a critical eye for detail, challenging my skills and pushing me to exceed my own expectations.  Now it was time to see if my efforts had paid off.

~ ~ ~

     I flipped the master switch and immediately the room was flooded with light – all converging upon a central, rectangular table.  Gilen clambered up, sitting cross-legged in his usual spot, astutely observing as I unloaded my pack.  Dramatically, I removed the memory card from my Canon, covertly aware of Gilen’s rapt fascination with cameras and all their paraphernalia. 

     “Ready?” I asked, waving the chip in front of my duel-screen laptop, teasing my little friend.

     “Ouioui!” he clapped, bouncing with unchecked anticipation.

     I smiled, “K then, here goes.” 

     I’m not going to lie, it was a pivotal moment for me.  I could feel the sweat break out against my scalp as we hovered in front of the screens, noses practically touching the glass.  In a matter of clicks, there she was … an alabaster beauty of a Humpback whale in full breach, back arched with flippers fully splayed!  The spray of sea water fanned out in perfect symmetry against the silver-lined clouds, all overlaid against the glorious hues of a rose-tinged sunset. 

     Gilen gasped and his hand reached for the screen, stopping just short of touching the magnificent creature.  “Eet is a masterpiece, oui?”

     Chuckling, I assured him that it was indeed.  My pièce de résistance.  I ruffled his little bald head, envisioning the cover of National Wildlife with my whale on the cover for all the world to see!  There would be phone calls, interviews, speeches at conservation benefits, awards … hey

     My mind was careening recklessly down the path of prospective opportunity when it abruptly collided with a most logical inspiration.  I would need a journalist to write up an inspirational exposition to accompany my submission.  A prominent columnist familiar with the art of creative prose.

     I turned to regard my protégé, his eyes eager and responsive to my palpable energy.  “It’s time for a jailbreak, kid!  You and me – we’re going to bust your dad out of his oubliette!  This is no time for writer’s block … I think we just found something worth writing about!”

 The End