Mary Beth Writes

I wrote this in 2016 and shared it with some friends. I know it's not Christmas Eve yet, but it is the beginning of the season where most of us will wonder what lies beneath and behind the things we do.  This is my salute to people who pay attention. 

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Joyce Andrews had already lived more than 70 years of a lively and blessed life. That was her opinion, anyways. Others might have assume that both her parents dying before she was 21, and her first marriage to a guy who hit her, and the messy divorce where he got all the assets and she got the kids and the dogs … that those things would be the markers of an unfortunate life.

Also she never could advance to a top position in the bank because no one in the 1990’s believed an older woman who had been a banker for 35-plus years would know enough to run a small town financial institution. And early-on, she developed arthritis in her hands so that most things one does with ones’ hands hurt her. And finally, when she married the love of her life, John Andrews, that they would only have six years before a drunk driver T-boned his car on a sunny afternoon, and John died. 

But, she always told herself, most of those things were very, very difficult but more-or-less normal for human life. She was lucky that her kids grew up well and found good partners, raised beautiful kids of their own as they built satisfying careers. And even though she did hit a glass ceiling, along the way she earned enough income to support her family in spite of her ex.

And also, that she met John. That was unexpected. She was well into her 40’s when she took her teenagers tobogganing on a freezing cold day. They wanted to meet friends at the famous big hill four hours from their town, but the roads were too icy for her to relax if she let them drive themselves. So she drove them.  Then, since she was there, she joined the fun and went down and up and down and up and down that giant hill until she crashed straight into John Andrews. After they both pulled the snow from behind their glasses, they noticed that neither of them was young, laughed about that, John bought her cocoa, and that was that.

Which was still a blessing because that’s when she moved from the efficient and helpful big condo in town, where she had raised the kids, to this amazing farmhouse. She and John had bought this place because it was so beautiful and also so isolated that their backyard bordered a state forest. To get to their house, one had to turn off a lazy rural highway onto a gravel road, drive four more miles to their rutted, half-mile driveway that opened up into the small clearing. The 110-year old house, on a small rise, had two bedrooms upstairs, each with a view over the tops of the woods. It was common to wake to a hawk, or formations of geese, or lone Sandhill cranes flying across the sunrise. The basement had whitewashed rubble walls and was always perfectly and evenly cool, so that soon John and Joyce started learning how to make cheese from the goats’ milk supplied by farmers who lived only eight miles away. They installed a wood stove to supplement the heat in the house. All this meant her house usually smelled of wood smoke, the faint balm of fresh cheese, and the lemon oil she used to polish the old woodwork in the house.

She was isolated, for sure. She was 70-years old and she lived alone in an almost magical cottage deep in the forest. Her kids and friends worried that hooligans would find and hurt her. Or that she would fall.  Or that her Subaru would get snowed in too deeply for Al the snowplow guy to dig her out.

She tried to pay no attention to the worries of others, but she wasn’t a fool. She knew they had a point. So far, she didn’t want to change anything. She decided to wait for another spring to come and go.

Meanwhile, it was Christmas Eve. She had planned to go into town to a church service, but the temperature was dropping like a plumb line off a crooked building. When the weather went too fast from mild to deep winter, the gravel road became treacherous and tire-slashing.

The kids were not coming until New Year’s. They both lived on the other side of the state and had other family parties to attend. Both had kids in Christmas Eve services in their towns, it had become their family tradition to wait until the week following Christmas to get together.

Joyce felt a little melancholy about spending Christmas Eve and day by herself, but, she told herself, it was the price she paid to live in this tucked away place. She could move anytime she wanted; until then it didn’t make sense to feel too sorry for herself.

She watched a movie in the morning, read a book all afternoon, and by evening decided it would feel nice to actually stand up and do something. She decided to make sugar cookies for when the kids came next week.

She found “Amahl and the Night Visitors” on in the music app on her phone and plugged it in to the speakers. She pulled out her ingredients, turned off all the lights in the house except the Christmas tree and the warm yellowy kitchen overhead. She then poured some whiskey from John’s bottle of very good Scotch. She saved it for special occasions because the tang of it brought back his night kisses, and she had to be willing to let those memories return. Tonight she missed him.

So she worked. Made the dough, put it in the fridge to chill, found the rolling pin and cookie cutters. Made the icing and split it into small batches tinted red and green, yellow and blue.

She had finished one inch of the scotch so she poured another half inch. The dough was still soft; it needed at least twenty more minutes.

She leaned against the counter, holding the amber drink, remembering a hike she and John had taken, early on. They had been out for a few hours trekking a long trail.  The path went up and down muddy hills as spring had been awakening in the northern forest. There were lady’s slippers and trout lilies and the incredible perfume of melting creeks, wet leaves, and fresh pine.

They had hiked around the side of a hill and then, opening in front of them, was a long and unobstructed view of everything. Distant blue hills stacked behind each other like eggs in a carton. Sunlight turning veils of mist to teeny silvery spangles.  John wrapped his arms around her from behind, leaned his chin on her shoulder, and the two of them, saying nothing, gazed upon that world of pure splendor. Tears welled in her eyes; when she sniffed back the tears, he turned her around and kissed her, deeply. They pulled apart, stunned by the moment and the awareness that out of all that could be, the two of them had found each other.

Right then an owl had flown not more than ten feet over their heads. The soft whuff of its wings tucked them into that incandescent moment. When they pulled back enough to see each other’s faces, John had chuckled and then kissed her forehead and they had hiked on. But they had never been the same after that moment. They belonged to each other and they knew it; all the other business of coalescing their lives was just busy work.

Joyce pulled herself from the counter, shook her head, remembering. She knew she was crying, but the tears were simply filled with memory and longing, no longer the ripping grief that choked her breath. One had to be an experienced widow to know the difference.

She decided to lift her spirits with a bouquet of fresh cedar, pine, and bittersweet branches from trees close to the house. It soothed something in her, to bring a little of the outside in.

She grabbed her kitchen shears and let herself out the kitchen door. It was so cold! The evening news had said it was going to stay under 10 degrees for several days. She cut the branches fast, and then jogged back to the stairs and up to the door, shivering, her arms filled with fresh branches.

When she pulled the knob, it didn’t open.

In a fast tumble from the hazy softness of old memories, Joyce immediately understood that she had locked herself out of her house. Both front and back doors were locked, she knew that. She was careful about doors. There were casement windows along the foundation, but those had bars on them. John had installed them the first month they had lived here. There were front and back stairs up to the front and back doors, but those stairs did not conveniently touch windows, and windows were at least ten feet from the ground. She couldn’t reach them in any ordinary way.

She stood there, frigid air trickling across her skin, taking stock. She was wearing a long sleeved shirt, a hoodie, sweatpants, short socks, and slippers. And an apron. John had laughed at her aprons, saying he always wanted a half-witted woman in an amazing dress, but what he got was an amazing woman in a half dress. Because she seldom wore dresses but always wore aprons.

She laid her branches down, pulled off the apron and tied it around her neck to stave off a few more minutes of the cold freezing her body’s blood coursing through her neck. 

Her phone? Not in her pocket as it almost always was, but inside, still playing Amahl. She could hear the tinkling sounds of Amahl singing to his mother that he could walk now.

She turned to look at her yard. Was there anything there that could help her?

The detached garage was firmly locked. She could break a window to get in it, but the car itself was locked. That wouldn’t help.

It was too far to walk the driveway and gravel road, it took nearly two hours to get to the highway; she knew because sometimes she did it for exercise.

Just then she heard the slightest of crunching noises and spun around.  A small coyote had walked to the far edge of her yard. It stood, quiet and composed as it cocked its head to the side. Joyce understood it was curious; coyotes were always curious. It was how they stayed alive; observing and, in their little doggy brains, considering. She knew she was safe; it was far too little to look at her as anything but a threat. It would keep its distance.

Then, startling her more than the coyote, she heard another noise. A whuff. She quickly looked up as an owl, not more than ten feet above her head, flew straight to the tree next to the coyote. It landed on a high branch with a quick sticks-crackling noise as it settled.

When she looked up in amazement to watch the owl, above it in the black, cold, starry sky she saw not one, but three meteors all shooting, one after another, across the cathedral of the night.

Her heart raced. The moment was not possible. Was she dying already? She looked down; her apron strings bounced against her hoodie, her slippers had crusts of ice on them. She didn’t think a dying person would dream crusty slippers and apron strings.

She stood there studying the coyote and owl who were studying her.

There was no possible way to understand this.

Her mind heard, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand. Ponder nothing earthly minded…” she kept humming the song, quietly, almost under her breath. She felt the silence; she felt her fear and shivering.

The coyote sat down. The owl hooted. They were keeping silent. They were pondering her.

Her heart thumped at the unnatural nature of the moment; then she shook herself to consider her options.

She descended her stairs to go to the picnic table at the edge of the patio area. She hauled the heavy, awkward, wooden table right against the wall, beneath the large picture window of the kitchen, which had side double-hung windows.  After that she scooted to the back of her garage to get the shovel she kept there to turn the compost pile. She noticed the lattice of mice trails leading in and out of the compost; the mice were undoubtedly the draw for the coyote and owl.

She carried the shovel back to the patio. She still wouldn’t be able to get in the window so she kept thinking, shivering as she wrapped her arms around herself to look up at the window and back around her yard. Strongly woven lawn chairs were stacked neatly under the overhang of the garage. She remembered when she and John found them on sale at the end of one summer. They had stood at least ten minutes discussing whether it was worth it to buy nice outside chairs, when they could have just continued to use their collapsible stadium chairs. She shook her head to herself. Did they know then that her life might depend on them now?  She lifted a chair onto the picnic table; then slowly and gingerly climbed onto the table.

It wasn’t easy to break the side window between the door and the picture window of the kitchen nook. She whacked it several times, shutting her eyes and averting her face with each whack to keep flying glass from her face.

Finally the window broke. After that it was a matter of pushing bottom shards from the bottom edge of the window frame, with the shovel. When she thought it might be clear enough, she took her apron and hoodie and laid both across the window, so that she wouldn’t, she hoped, impale herself as she climbed in.

She was almost at the right height to climb in, but it felt as if she should keep the chair in the middle of the table to preventing the flimsy tower from tipping over. Crouching on the chair, she took one last calming look up at the velvet sky. It was so beautiful. She would never tire, in her life, of looking at the night sky. She then turned towards the back of the yard. The coyote and owl were still there, watching her. She saluted them quietly in the dark.

She leaned over and grabbed the window frame. The arthritis in her hands shot spikes of pain up her arms, but no one dies of arthritis. They do fall from windows and break every bone in their body, so she clamped her aching grasp to the opening until she was steady. Slowly she lifted one leg through the window. She grabbed the kitchen table with one hand, then the other, then pulled herself completely into her kitchen.

She was in now. She was safe again. Her heart was strangely calm.

She went to the door, opened it, grabbed the branches, and stood up.

The coyote looked across the yard at her and then stood up and with a flick of its tail walked into the woods.

The owl hooted again, and then also took off with a flapping whuff into the forest.

She brought her branches into the kitchen and took the moment it required to put them in the vase and set them on the table. They were as aromatic as the Three Kings gifts for the baby.

Next Joyce found a half sheet of hobby plywood in the basement. She carried it upstairs, covered the broken window with the wood, and pounded it in place. She had time to get a real window installer out before the kids came home.

She was very cold, her feet and fingers were numb. She ran a hot bath, poured the last finger of John’s whiskey into a plastic tumbler, and then slowly sank into the bath.  Within a few moments she was warm, inside and out.

She didn’t know what to think. She would need to hide a key outdoors, of course, which would be easy. 

Other than that, she still wasn’t afraid. She didn’t feel guilty or ashamed or foolish. She even felt some self-esteem that even now, at her age, she could figure out what to do and then she could do it.

But something had happened and she had been there to see it.

Shooting stars.

A coyote and an owl.

Old hymns in her mind, fencing in an empty space where something could happen.

As the world poured itself through the rituals of one more Christmas, she didn’t know if she had, or had not, just witnessed a miracle. Which, she assumed, was probably about the same as the first witnesses of the birth of the Jesus.  Yearning, stars, something alive in the night, old songs, jittery humans awake enough to notice.

She didn’t know if John had sent her the watching animals, or if wild, watching animals simply reminded her of John.

But whatever had happened, it was Christmas. It was a gift.

 

 

Comments

love, remembered from first posting.

But I'll bet the whiskey warmed her right up.

Sweet story, well written

Thank you.

I just read this story aloud to my husband and it made me cry. It sounded so like us.

Oh man. Thank you for telling me this. I like my husband, too. Nothing makes us richer than to be loved by a good partner.

I remember this. Love it

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