The Owl Dancers

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
S.B. Jonassen


At 8 o’clock P.M., Tammy Snyder pulls the shade string, compacting the sun-repulsing fins of her mini-blinds. Her moist arms glow, orange. She has not raised the blind in many years. She says, “Let’s allow some light inside tonight.”

The sun is sinking late on Tammy’s 40th June birthday.

“One cup of coffee in the evening never killed anyone, right Chimera?” Tammy regards the head-cocked beagle. “Anyway, we don’t want to sleep tonight, do we now?”

“No.” Tammy hauls up the windowsill. “We will not sleep tonight.”

Late day bird song intrudes upon the small cabin. The sounds ebb and surge, like raindrops on a tin roof. Last night, this down winding twitter would have made Tammy’s stomach queasy. Instead of hearing, Hurry! Hurry! Time to sleep— tonight’s birds seem to sing, Hallelujah.

“There!”

The coffee grinds send steamy lines into the orange sun shaft. It was unwise, Tammy knows, to have drunk Colombian dark on a hot June night. The shower is still wet on her skin, the lilac powder coagulated at her fingernails—and yet the sweat, in a flash, pushes up through her every pore, as the dark liquid whirlpools inside her second mugful.

“I say it’s time for a morsel or two.” Bent at the waist, Tammy Snyder tips the bag towards the ceramic bowl on the floor. It is encrusted with painted bones. Dusty, round dog feed jangles inside the previously vacant crater. “Eat, Chimera, eat! It’s my big birthday. There won’t be much sleep for you tonight, old girl.”

The beagle shuffles, ears flapping, to the bowl. She sniffs, and then looks up over her shoulder, brow wrinkled.

“It happens, old girl. Why should we fight it?” Tammy sips off the top of her second mug. “It’s not the worst thing in the world, after all.”

Chimera regards her mistress with a quizzical expression. Her brown earflaps face forward. Tammy pouts down at the beagle and says, “Well, it isn’t!”

Every year, a persistent bout of insomnia encroaches upon Tammy Snyder, like an ailment, in response to the sultry summer heat. Raised in the cool mountain shadows of a ski slope, the heat of this Southern valley presses her into fitful wakefulness. And it does so with nightly regularity.

Tammy reviles the heat. The heat makes her skin slippery from the moment she steps from the bed until her evening shower. It has been like living in purgatory—but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Tammy Snyder grew up out of doors. Most of their A-frame house was window, sliding door, sunroof, and wraparound deck. Everything outside was welcomed inside: cats, dogs, dragonflies, mosquitoes, bumblebees and gnats. At the dinner table they’d find red-backed ladybugs in the spinach salad; horses shuffled and nickered in the paddock beyond the mailbox; the creek was built for long distance ice skating. That crusty white mountain invigorated Tammy, made her human. Snow crunching beneath her galoshes, the sting of her nose-tip, a squall in late May, icy-white breath…

Because they land smack-dab in the middle of June, her birthdays make Tammy especially sleepless. Even 30 years after the crash, Tammy’s birthdays are long, hot days smelling of sweat- and tear-salt. She accepts no gifts, no phone calls, no visitors, no well-wishing. It was why she moved from the beloved ski mountain in the first place, as a sort of penitence for having survived her family. Humidity made foul her spirit. Especially on this, her significant day.

“But please tell me, Madam Chimera! Which days lack significance?” Tammy asks. “They died on a Tuesday, a plain old Tuesday, there was nothing significant about it. Why should birthdays matter? They shouldn’t. Especially not mine. Especially not this one.”

The beagle settles onto her haunches, jerks her pink tongue into panting.

“God, it’s hot. And no chance of rain tonight, old girl. We’ll get no reprieve.”

Tammy Snyder was in the car too. She was 10 years old when she survived her brothers and parents without so much as a bump or bruise. And how could that have happened anyway? It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

“Tonight,” Tammy Snyder declared, “We’ll will not sleep at all.”

 

At 10 o’clock, Tammy waters her hanging spider plant, taking care to dribble the droplets onto the soil-base in a mottled, random way, such as rain tends to fall. The soil expands slightly, darkens, and then recedes. Chimera looks straight up. A perfect globule of translucence splashes on the beagle’s wrinkled nose bridge, breaking into quartered droplets. Tammy giggles. Last night she would have wept.

There is a rustling in the bushes outside the cabin window.

Chimera says, ‘A-roo-roo.’

A red fox eats berries there nightly. Most nights he frightens Tammy. With his slender, berry-stained jowls and phosphorescent eyes. But tonight he poses no threat. There will be no attempts made to frighten him underground. Or drone out his high-pitched howling with radio broadcasts of far away, crackling baseball games.

“Gonna go get him, huh Chimera? Get us a foxy-loxy?”

The beagle whirls on its hind legs, into a spinning yelp. Gallops to the screened-porch door. She looks foxy herself, Tammy thinks; mostly russet-brown with a hint of white on the chest and tail-tip. Last night it would have irked her, the beagle’s busybody patrolling at such a bedtime hour.

“Gonna get us a foxy, huh old girl? Gonna get him?”

The beagle leaps upright and paws for the screen door handle, squealing with eagerness.

“Oh look.” Tammy opens the door a narrow width and the beagle scurries onto the shadow slats of the porch, then bullets into the shrubbery. “A moon is rising.”

The lake makes the heat worthwhile to Tammy. The lake steams and ripples like a hot cup of Colombian. A moon rising over the lake is a dollop of cream in her coffee mug. Chimera’s ecstatic yelping grows dimmer. There will be a hooting owl tonight, in the poorly insulated eaves of Tammy’s sequestered cabin. But that will not perturb Tammy, as it did last night and the night before.

“An acceptable night for an owl dance, I suppose.”

 

Owl-shaped lanterns once hung throughout the oak branches in the Snyder backyard. Same time of year, decades ago, at the northern end of the States. About the time school let out, early summertime evenings, when Dad packed the freezers with hot dogs and steaks, when mom decorated the oaks with blinking lights and lanterns. Their backyard, behind the hill upon which settled their A-frame home, cozy. Newly middle-class Americans in good cheer, truly believing in the goodness of the future, the profitability of hard work and cautious spending. Her parents, who thought they were giving their children something better, much better, than they’d had been given. The backyard. Where friends and neighbors gathered, as if to take precious sips of the delight that the Snyder home produced in seemingly endless supply. They’d danced beneath the moonlight, wearing puffy vests and double-wrapped scarves, cheerfully striped. The crisp, mountain air steamed out of smiling faces and into the moonlight—merriment abounded.

Only a child sees such things, Tammy muses, only a child commits such things to memory and then sucks them out on a hot sleepless night—even amidst the persisting heat of adulthood—like an ice-cream cone.

The plastic, sharp-beaked lanterns. The faces of the people glowing too, from the inside out, like fireflies. Her mother and father, dancing arm in arm. Heels in the air, knee slapping, like wine-fed drunkards. Big brother, Thomas, swinging her up onto his bulky-strong shoulders and prancing about the lawn grasses like a spry pony. Dancing, dancing, dancing! Little brother, Daniel, exhausted from a day of exuberant play, straining to keep his eyes open, so that he might further partake in the late evening reverie. All of Tammy’s lifeblood, linked together, dancing. Dancing out the brevity of their lives.

Who could have guessed they’d be taken so soon? And in such a stunning, indifferent fashion?

Perhaps Tammy Snyder was a sorceress of invention. Perhaps those dancing, steamy-breathed figures in her backyard dazzled to a lesser degree, but it was the way Tammy referenced, having no memory of the fateful crash, and their ending. She recalls the slip of tires on black ice, the spinning, the smack against the guardrail, the long drop sideways—yes, she almost certainly recalls that, can feel the flip-flopping in her stomach—and rolling into the ditch. But she does not remember impacting the tree. Or what she saw next…

 

“Owl dances should be danced in numbers.”

At midnight, the moon has risen and Tammy pours the tepid coffee from the carafe into the sink drain. She is humming a song her mother used to sing. It is a poignant melody lacking words, but she hasn’t thought of it in decades.

“Where in the world is the old girl?” Chimera is still gone missing. Tammy wraps her silvery-brown hair into a braided-bun, and sets her weight onto the creaking porch wood planks. She wonders if she’s been color-blinded by her hefty age. The yellows and reds of her marigolds are gray. The lake water is blackened, save for a quivering stripe of white moonlight. Small quips of beagle-taunts filter through the tight-weaved netting of orchestrated cricket symphony. “That foolish old hound.”

The lakeside grasses are spongy and sparkling. A hot breeze shuffles the hairs on Tammy’s neck, laps wetly at her thighs. “Come to me, Chimera!” she bellows. Swarms of winged insects hover above the mossy lake edge. Tammy whistles through her fingers and the beagle’s frantic yowling grows nearer. A bead of sweat meanders between her shoulder blades at the tantalizing pace of a lover’s fingertip touch. It surprises Tammy. How un-extraordinary it feels, disrobing herself in the moonlight.

“Let’s go, old girl!” Tammy wriggles her underwear around her hips with her thumbs. Shuffles it aside with a naked foot. “Hey there, moonshine!” Chimera bounds from the farthest reaches of lawn shadow. At once joyful, the beagle circles her mistress in chipper greeting. “You get that crafty foxy-loxy berry thief?”

Hands clasped high above her head, up on tippy-toes, Tammy stretches out the body that survived her all these 40 years. It still feels beautiful and vibrant. Inside moonlight. The first milky—

Tootle-hoot-hoot!

—from the cabin eaves. Tammy strokes her middle, palms down. Moves her hips in sinuous circles, moves her hips to the beat of tootle-hoot-hoot! Says,

“Together we are two, Chimera!”

The circling beagle says, “A-roo!”

“Let us dance!”

 

At 2 o’clock in the morning, Tammy dives into the surface of the lake.

It feels lukewarm, not an unpleasant surprise, like Chimera’s licking kisses. It flushes around her body made invisible in its yielding grasp. Last night she would have feared this. Last night it would have taken Chimera’s drowning to spur her dive. However, tonight the lake bottom pulls her inside its mystery without hesitation. Tammy’s breath quickens. Eyes-wide below, she sees the water mass that engulfs her. It glows like thousands of emeralds. The bump of fish-muscle against her calf arouses Tammy. The feel of lake grasses tickling her belly enlivens her. Had she submerged herself last night, the glowing lake would have held a thousand sets of nefarious eyes within its skull.

Bursting to the surface in a bubble of fresh-water displacement, Tammy says, “Oh!”

And then, “Happy birthday, baby.”

Pivoting at her midsection, Tammy darts below the surface of the lake. It’s like a recollection from a dream state. Or a life lived well. On the surface, a mirror—but below that mirror… thousands of emeralds.

Was this what Tammy’s life was lacking? And the owl dancers? Were they a mirror too? Or had Tammy spied their vast, deep-lake treasures?

 

At 4 o’clock in the morning, Tammy soaks in moonlight like a sunbather, splayed on a flat rock the size of her entire cabin. A large-voiced bullfrog announces his presence, and then makes the lakeside exceedingly silent again. Presence. Silence. Presence. Silence.

“Nice to meet you,” Tammy Snyder tells the bullfrog. “I am old too.”

There have been stars in the sky with which to fill Tammy’s eyes for countless summer nights. However, the bedroom ceiling obscured even the brightest, not to mention her anxiety. Tonight they appear, in their luminous glory, as nameless points of light.

“Hello. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

A hot breeze wafts the mirrored-flat lake into ripples. They bend the moonlight and tree shadows, quiver the cloud patches. A trillion tree-leaves whisper: live.

Tammy says, “I am not sleeping tonight. I am awake.”

Tammy wants to be bitter, but there is nothing hungry inside her cells. Chimera dances in small bounding strides that follow the lead of her blunt nose, in and out of the shadow-striped lawn. Tammy is not bitter. She has never felt jaded, forsaken or impoverished. She has never wept without gratitude for the weeping. The car crashing into the tree had set her beloved family free. Tammy’s suffering, barb-sharp for 3 decades, seems moderate, even tolerable now. All at once. The steam rises from the lake as if it were a hot cup of Columbian. Tammy’s pain seems relatively small within the context of a world teeming with weighty woes. Soon, she will go into the cabin and brew a fresh pot. There is nothing lacking. Nothing hungry inside her cells.

 

At 6 o’clock in the morning, a red sun breaches the eastern horizon, fading the moon into a paper-thin yellow leaf.

Tammy Snyder rises from the rock: a woman. She pats her naked thigh, praises Chimera, and bursts forth into the rest of her life.

pencil

E-mail: SBJonassen[at]juno.com

Where did it come from? Where will it go?

Fiction
Sara Beth Jonassen


“Listen,” my mother says on the telephone. “Just because you’ve moved out don’t mean you can’t come and visit once and a while. You don’t got to be a stranger.”

I cannot bring myself to stop by my mother’s house.

The four plastic jugs I filled with water as a favor to her sit in the footwell of the passenger seat of the station wagon that she bought for me from a loan on her pension when I graduated college in May. The jugs sweat and drip. My mother, Elizabeth, boasts that her sulfur well makes for delightful showering but I think it serves as a stinky, rotten-egg reminder that Elizabeth has to buy fresh water for eating and drinking, unless I fill up the old jugs for her, as a favor, of course, and to save her money and hassle. But I just cannot stop by.

It becomes harder, ironically, as I grow older, to be a good daughter. I thought that growing up was the hardest part. But in truth that part was harder for her, not me. Back then I had teeth, nails, and the force of the argument on my side. Allowing Elizabeth her mothering is an unfortunate result of maturity, and so is compassion. Compassion is like a bird that flies up from deep inside of you and makes your relationships complex. It is this bird that gets caught in the back of my throat whenever I look into my mother’s round, hazel eyes. Imploring eyes. Eyes like those of a dog that tremble at my departure.

“Listen,” she says. “Just because you’ve moved out don’t mean you can’t come and visit once and a while. You don’t got to be a stranger.”

*

My lover, Dana, has a big, red dog of uncertain breeding named Hercules. Sometimes he looks like a rottweiler when he is threatened. His hackles go up, he paces from the two of us on the couch to the door, then back to us two. Most times he looks like a big, red dog of uncertain breeding. But always he is a delicate, emotional being.

Today is Labor Day and it is early and gray. Dana is already halfway up the mountain to work the holiday at the ranch. As I leave the cottage to do the chores, I sense the anxiety of school-fearing children all over the country. Sense them biting their hangnails and wishing for summer all over again. Hercules is anxious too, wondering how long I will be gone and if I intend to truly abandon him this time. It is difficult to walk out the door without first reassuring him by patting the top of his broad, soft head.

Today I have chores to do. Wash the bedspread, pillowcases and sheets that Dana and I make love on top of and sleep underneath. Grocery shopping. Uncertain as to whether or not I will stop, I fill the four plastic jugs with cold water in our sink and put them at the feet of the passenger seat in the station wagon where they begin to sweat.

Beyond that, there is nothing I can do. On Labor Day almost everything closes, forcing busy minds to close too. On the road, driving, I am in a perfect capsule of motion and purpose. I realize (strangely as the mist on the windshield obscures my vision) that there has been a cloud over the mountains and the valleys of New York State for days. It clings; vaporous and sticky with humidity. Low to the road. I cannot see far ahead of me for the fog. But I know the road precisely, and I have done these same chores as precisely since Dana and I moved into the cottage three months ago. The familiar routine gives clarity to a foggy perspective of the world.

On the face of the road, dark triangular smudges turn into crows at the moment they see my vehicle coming. They alight into the fog. I am relieved that they fly. The West Nile Virus produces dead crows, and we have numerous mosquitoes outside our cottage by the pond. Moving crows mean we will not fall ill. This week, anyway. Still, at the back of my mind I know that we will all fall ill eventually. That we will all end up frail, helpless and dependent—if only briefly—before we fly up into the fog. It is this thought that makes me honk my horn twice (as you might honk to a friend passing in the opposite lane) at the birds on the wire. The mist slung over the Catskills creates a gauzy backdrop to a string of birds like black beads on the wire. They weren’t there an instant before and then suddenly—BIRDS! I had hoped the honking would cause the intensely perched mob to take off in synchronized flight. But no. A couple swooped down to the grass at the foot of the telephone pole, and those two appeared to have been headed that way for breakfast anyway.

Inside the laundromat there is heat and humming but I am the first paying customer which relaxes me. I always put too much soap into the machine because I like to think I am making things clean. So many things cannot be made clean. Like dead crows, emotional dogs, and broken childhoods. I relish the process of making clean the things that I can. After the sheets and bedspread go into the dryer I consider driving over to my mother’s house in the valley. The plastic jugs are, after all, filled up in the car. But I cannot yet consider it. Instead, I sit in a scoop bucket orange chair and allow my mind a foggy space to fly off in.

*

And at once I am back there. Where did it come from? Where will it go afterwards? My mother is a tower before me, a tower of anger, which concentrates itself into her one pointer finger, the one pointing at belligerent me. She recites, in her schoolteacher manner, my wrongdoings. Using elevated language that I do not understand. The language is not the point, anyway. Her anger comes in loud and clear. I cannot look at her face for fear the force of fury will knock me right off of my feet. I stare straight ahead, into her stomach. The place she tells me she wishes I had never come from.

*

The laundry smells good. I pull it out of the washer in tight, damp knots. It looks like the roots of colorful trees. Last month I ran over a large root in our backyard with the lawnmower. It is surprising, really, that I even had a chance to mow at all, what with the incessant rain. In New York it rained enough even for a rainlover like me to resent it, even though it was badly needed out West, where the fires raged all summer, eating up the timber and acreage like so much kindling. Who is in charge of dropping down the moisture? I wonder, shaking wrinkles from damp pillowcases and tossing them into the drier. And why don’t They ration it around a bit?

Today the mist sucks and laps at the juicy earth. Much as it did yesterday and the day before. There is mold growing in our closet from the dampness. I noticed it yesterday. In out-of-proportion panic I pointed, hysterical, telling Dana,

“Everything is covered in mold! Can you believe it? Can you believe it?” It seems that there is always something popping up which takes away the cleanliness of things.

But Dana takes the moldy closet with a grain of salt, as she does everything, keeping the small things in perspective and only allowing the big things a moment of astonishment. Big things like shooting a broken horse in the head for compassion. Or the fact that I love her despite her 37 years of age, her poor paying job, her simple tastes. Sometimes I wonder at that too. But what difference does it make? What difference does it make really so long as you are not lonely anymore? Or worse, living with your mother.

Dana says, “Oh, well. We’ll fix it with some pipe insulation. We’ll fix that,” and this is exactly why I love her.

I’m a cleaner. She’s a fixer. Home Depot is her favorite place to be. A toy store. Fixing things must be a lot like cleaning things. She fixes furniture on her days off, which are rare days. Refinishing. Usually this makes me jealous, that Dana’s spare time must never be idle. But the way Dana works the furniture, I sometimes have to sit next to Hercules and admire her working. The cracked and yellowed paint flutters down around her as she sands. And then the slick, naked wood sings out under her constantly moving hands. A sort of poetry, if poetry is to be found in paint-stained jeans and T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up to show biceps.

Dana is handy, I’ll give her that. She fixed the aluminum screens around the porch, screens that Hercules—in his Herculean anxiety—sliced with his nails and teeth. She fixed the lawnmower the day I ran over the protruding root. She fixed it so that I cannot live without her. And every winter, during slow season at the ranch, Dana takes on a project for her mother up in Albany. Cheerfully she picks up the telephone, dials up her mother, and asks, “Can I come up next week to paint the house?” And the way Dana says it, you know that she will feel wounded if her mother isn’t agreeable to the idea. But why should her mother disapprove of such a good, daughterly gesture?

I am back in my mind to the water jugs in the car and my limitations. Some things grow too big to size up in one misty morning, that is all, so I fold the laundry and proceed to the supermarket.

*

Nobody here has had a summer for the rain and the cold. They gripe about it in the laundromat. They gripe about it in the supermarket. “What happened to summer?” “I want summer to do all over again.” “Where’s the sun been hiding out?” But we are told that life goes on. There is no one voice that is saying this. If there were only one voice then I would know who I could complain too. I would know who to tell to go screw themselves and then I would float in a swimming pool inside of an inner tube sipping margaritas all through September, even as the leaves–pastel yellow, red, orange—lilt down to break the surface of the blue, blue water. Still I know, and they know, we all know it somehow. It’s all our own doing. Summer has ended. And tomorrow we’re all expected to appear at school, at work, at life—the same as every year, tan or no tan, vacation or no vacation, fun or no fun, summer or no summer. We all feel cheated. By whom? By the sun? The wind? The rain? The Earth? Who cheated whom here? Anyway, Labor Day morning is thick with fog and silent mourning. And I’m supposed to be a grown up now. So instead of crying I do chores.

*

My three sisters and I are no longer children. Funny, really, that your childhood can end so suddenly in one cold, rainy summer.

Last summer our mother was too sick to come upstate. Downstate, in a Brooklyn surgeon’s office, portions of her big toe were removed due to complications with diabetes. Meanwhile my sisters and I enjoyed her absence at the country house. There was hot sunlight that tightened the skin and all of us sisters swam in the pool and danced ridiculously on the newly mowed lawn. The tiny bits of grass clinging to our bare ankles. We were idle, irresponsible, goofy or flamboyant, if that’s what the mood of the day called for. Sometimes we were fiery with anger and fought over trivial things, like who would mow the lawn, do the dishes, make the phone calls to mother. But we could scream at the top of our lungs the worst profanities and nobody was there to tell us that we were wrong, uncivilized, lazy. We baked pizzas, ate ice cream, drank suitcases of beer. Late afternoons were spent cracking up dry wood for the campfire and picking blackberries as fat as our ruddy cheeks. Evenings we swam and warmed up by the fire in turns; dried out our underwear on long sticks of wood held over the fire; schemed about tomorrow and yesterday and the present. One day we scored some pot in Woodstock and basked in the hot sun, giggling and winged, like perfect birds. Even the sun and the moon cooperated; we had long, hot days and clear, star-studded nights; the occasional rainy day to keep things green. Mostly we laughed from the gut a lot and got back to being children. Got back to playing games. Got back to the mystery.

We did so, unknowingly, for the last time.

In late August, we all drove downstate on the Thruway, convened at our mother’s hospital room, smiled and shifted our weight from foot to foot. Mother was dramatic. The general assumption was that she would die, even though we busted our chops to smuggle in some real food for her from the greasy cafeteria. Raising up the bagel with salmon cream cheese she says,

“You girls are such brilliant, magnificent young women now. When I’m gone from this Earth you will all have to take care of each other.” Then she sinks her dentures into the pink cream cheese and emits an enthusiastic, “Mmmm!”

Yet, I cannot imagine the woman, my mother, ever letting go of anything. Not pride. Not indignation. Not her daughters. Much less her life. And I am right (at least for now). Another year passes, she retires from the Board of Education in her own big way; celebrates with colleagues at parties held in Brooklyn diners where the food and the accents are heavy to digest; spends money lavishly from her pension; buys a $1,000 telescope too complicated to use, buys an $800 dollar guitar that she doesn’t know how to play, buys me a car for my college graduation, buy herself one too; moves up to the country and plants a garden, fiddles with my personal life on a day to day basis. And her professed physical demise is once again postponed, at least a year. Like our childhood dog, Silky, who we were warned was dying for five years before Elizabeth paid the vet to stick her with the needle and crumple her down into her own feces.

*

Last week I stopped by to pick up my mother’s empty water jugs. My mother, too, seemed like an empty receptacle of sorts.

“Oh, my gosh!” she said, delighted to see me on the other side of the screen door. “What a surprise! Come in, come in!”

“I really can’t stay long.” My usual defensive maneuver: I kept the screen between us.

“Well, I don’t see why we have to continue this conversation through a door, sweetie!” she said, offended, the ‘sweetie’ tacked on with a patronizing tone.

“Oh, just for a minute,” I say, “I have to work today.” Thank goodness for the job. One excuse that leaves little room for argument.

My mother is old. Much older than her sixty years. This summer it hits me for no particular reason. Her round hazel eyes are surrounded by puff and wrinkle, her hands are swollen and impotent. They no longer have the power to threaten my well being. Her stomach is large, sagging and battered by the countless jabs of insulin syringes. When we were growing up, that big soft stomach was her power. It was what she pushed our faces into when she hugged us (what was lying pliant under her polyester nightgowns, what yielded against our faces to console us)—and it was also what we stared at from a distance as she scolded us, afraid to confront the eyes. Sometimes she cited her fat powerful belly as the unfortunate result of all her pregnancies. “You made me this way,” she once accused. And then my tearful defiant thoughts: How could I make you anything? Didn’t you make me? I never asked to be created! I never asked to be born! Believe me, I was a lot happier inside your fat belly than out of it. My mother and I were at war with each other then. But as the years were spent the war became a recital, then it graduated into tradition. Eventually it was simply dismissed. Shrugged off. No apologies, no understandings, it was just a bad age to be a daughter to a mother. Which means that, by extension, now was a good age to be a daughter to a mother.

“Can I fix you something to eat before you go to work, sweetie?” she asked hopefully. “I’ve got fresh, delicious cantaloupe the size of your head!”

My mother looked so old, shuffling around the kitchen in search of her medication and the supersized cantaloupe. Diabetes had made its mark all over her body but so had a hard approach to life. During my adolescence, hers was an approach that stretched anger out until it could no longer be restrained… and then finally let it snap with stunning force. One time I grumbled a curse word as I went outside to unpack the groceries from her car. She waited for me, ensconced from view behind the front door, with a large sneaker held high above her head.

Well, that’s it, I decided, lifting two empty jugs in each hand with my forefinger. Her missing anger is what makes her empty.

*

At mid-day a cold, sharp wind swaps places with the hot, humid one and resumes pushing the misty fog around the valley. The plastic jugs in the station wagon resume their sweating in response to the shift in temperature. On the major routes, driving five miles over the speed limit through the fog on Labor Day, it feels as if nothing at all can catch me, not even time. I do not want to stay inside today. I stop home briefly just to put away the food and laundry, to reassure Hercules that he hasn’t been forgotten and to promise him of my inevitable return. Then back in the station wagon with a sweatshirt zipped up to my chin, cowboy boots on my feet. I head up the mountain to see Dana. I’m imagining her on ranch property: sitting atop her papered quarter horse and winding through the misty mountain with a cigarette in her hand. That is how she looked when I met her for the first time. I like returning to the ranch because it reminds me of where my departure from Elizabeth began.

Dana, pleasantly surprised to see me, makes sure I get to ride the best horse on the farm. I ride the big smooth-gaited chestnut who responds just fine without a bit in her mouth at all. Just a gentle tug of the hackamore reins.

It is remarkable the way the misty vapor decorates the mountaintop. All the rocky, muddy trails I’d ridden hundreds of times over the years seem new and surreal. A cold blast of wind and the mist rushes down to meet us causing a momentary lack of equilibrium and a drop of the stomach. Horses know, thank heavens, where to put their feet (even in the dark) so I just sit back and look up at the trees appearing—like apparitions—all around us. And the webs.

Startling and lovely, the branches of the forest are all full of jeweled spider webs made white by the drops of mist caught in their threads. I examine each one breathlessly: their perfect geometry, resilience and design. Some are tossed over the muddy ground like tattered pieces of tissue paper one-cell thick. Others are comprised of haphazard, sloppy strands, which coalesce into cornucopian funnels. If they were in the cottage, I would be possessed with the urge to clean the webs away, wipe out their beauty in the name of cleanliness and order, stretch down their dainty designs with brooms and featherdusters. Clean it up. Fix it. Make it right. But out here on the mountain, on this horse, it all seems right. The mess is all part of it. Bright and wispy in the breeze, the webs look like little souls caught in all the fingers of the mountaintop. Breathtaking enough, I know that this image alone will sustain me through the cold, sudden change of seasons.

pencil

“In addition to working privately with Laura Marello (winner of the Aniello Lauri Award for Fiction from VIA and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant), I have also studied fiction with the Writer’s Studio and the NYS Writer’s Institute fiction workshop with Doug Bauer.” E-mail: sbjonassen[at]juno.com.