Cromwell, 1924

Cromwell, 1924

They would always think of it as the home place. The boys walked every inch of the land; Pa thought the land would instruct them in how to be competent men. He taught his sons not to cry. If they were to be farmers, as he expected, they needed to be tough, sometimes even without compassion.

The cabin was already there when Pa bought the farm. They gave little thought to who built the cabin; someone before them must have called it home, must have had a family that loved one another. Sometimes the plow turned up arrowheads. They thought they were ancient, but they probably fell there only a generation or two before. It was 1924; since the Great War, there seemed to be nothing but change.

Cliff was a reader. In his eyes, the best thing about school was the library. He loved adventure tales; Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson. He played out imaginary adventures in the woods. He was always the hero.

The school was named Excelsior, from the Longfellow poem. The teacher had explained what the poem meant: follow your dream, whatever people around you may do or say otherwise. Onward and upward, ever higher.

The Indian kids didn’t go to Excelsior. They were sent to boarding schools, to get the Indian out of them, Pa said.

Sometimes Cliff was seduced by his desire for adventure; he didn’t stop and think that there would be consequences. Pa chalked it up to education; he thought education made people weak. The boys came home with newfangled ideas about farming; Pa called them hogwash. He stuck to the old ways.

Pa was a giant. He stood well over six feet, with black hair, dark eyes and tan skin. He said they were black Irish, but sometimes he was mistaken for an Indian. Cliff took after him. Pa said Cliff looked like a pup; his hands and feet had grown big, but the rest of him hadn’t kept up.

Pa leased part of the land when the oil boom hit Oklahoma, and suddenly they were prosperous. A good reason for keeping the girls close to home: there were strangers on the land. Pa bought a truck and tractor and a radio. The service station sold him gasoline by the barrel to keep on hand. They took the radio battery there to be recharged.

A house was moved onto the oil lease for a family named Lawson. Oran was the spoiled baby of the family. By October, the teacher had labeled him as incorrigible. He wasn’t familiar with the word; he thought she meant he was invincible.

Cliff and Oran, being the same age, struck up a friendship. One October afternoon, walking home from school, they lagged behind the other kids.

“I know how we can make us some money,” Oran said. They were at the corner where the section lines met; a new hotel had been built there. The land surrounding it was still pasture.

“How?” In Cliff’s eyes, Oran had a sheen of sophistication; Cliff saw him as his ticket to a wider world.

Oran said. “If we go behind the hotel, we can pick up bottles.”

“For target practice?” Cliff had been given a .22 for his 13th birthday.

Oran saw Cliff as a hayseed, ignorant to the ways of the world. “To sell to moonshiners. They’re always in need of bottles.”

“How come?” Cliff asked.

“How come what?”

“How come the hotel’s dump has so many bottles? Is there a saloon in there?”

“It’s a cathouse. How can you be so dumb?” Oran picked up a rock from the dirt road, weighed it in his hand and threw it to see how far he could make it go.

“How do you know?”

“Come look through the window. I’ll show you. But keep your mouth shut. There’s a big guy with a club. He’ll give us a whupping if he catches us.”

What Cliff saw inside was pretty women, painting their faces, some with their hair wrapped around rags. They were in their underwear; the Indian summer afternoon was a hot one. A young girl wound a gramophone. Music in the afternoon! Everyone at home would be working.

“They’re getting ready for business, after the roughnecks finish working. Nettie is my favorite whore.” Cliff flinched at the ugly word.

“She says I’m the best man she ever had.” Cliff had his doubts about this.

“Some of those girls ain’t nothing but children,” Cliff said. “And that one, she’s just little.”

“Some men like them that way.”

Cliff thought of his sisters, especially of the littlest ones. What kind of man would use them like that? Those girls weren’t women, anymore than he was a man.

“I’ve got to get home. I need to run my traps before sundown.”

“Man traps? You got trespassers on your land?”

“Man traps? How can you be so dumb?” Cliff got a little bit of his own back. “Beaver traps. Rich people back East buy the pelts.

Oran took off his shirt to make a carrier for the bottles. He sold them to the moonshiners for a nickle apiece. He figured he didn’t need to split the proceeds with Cliff.

On Cliff’s 13th birthday, Pa had taken him aside. “You’ve reached the age of responsibility. It’s time you helped the family a little more.” Cliff knew they sometimes lacked money to buy necessities from the store. His idea was to sell pelts to bring home some cash. He had no idea how much work it would be. Setting and running the traps, skinning the animals, stretching and drying the pelts, taking them to town to the fur trader at the hardware store. It was up to the fur trader how much he paid for each pelt; sometimes it was lucrative, but at other times it was hardly worth the work.

He had set traps near the beaver dam, where the animals were working on taking down trees. It should be cooler in the woods, he thought, but it wasn’t. No breeze was blowing; the woods were hot and dry, leaves hung limp and dusty.

The first trap was empty. The beaver in the second trap was still alive, suffering. He hadn’t brought his .22, so he clubbed the animal on its head to put it out of its misery. The other traps were empty. On his way home, he checked the trot lines he had strung up and down the creek. He removed several good sized catfish; they would be appreciated at home. He hoped Ma would let him go back out after supper; he’d take his .22 and the dog Cocoa to hunt ‘coons. Their pelts were in high demand for making raccoon coats.

The children loved hog killing time. They considered it a holiday; the kill took place in the autumn, when the air had its first crisp chill but the sky was the clear blue of summer. The hog would be hung up in a tree, its throat quickly cut, and left there to bleed out. It would be scalded in boiling water to make skinning easier, then butchered and the meat taken to the smokehouse. Oran decided to skip school; he thought he’d get in on the fun. Once the hog started to bleed out, Oran vomited in the weeds. Sissy, Pa wanted to call him.

“Why don’t you people buy your groceries at the store, like other people do?” Oran said. “Are you poor or something?”

Cliff had never thought of his family as poor. Anything they needed, their labor would provide. They were close-knit and self-reliant, proud of their self-sufficiency; the word love would have embarrassed them, but love is what bound then together. They didn’t want to admit to themselves that they lacked anything. Now that Cliff knew they were poor, he would keep it a closely guarded secret, especially from his family.

Cliff walked Oran home, as Oran still felt poorly. Cliff greeted a roughneck, just to be polite, and the man gave them each a piece of candy. He asked the boys if they had any sisters at home. Oran said no, although he did. But Cliff said yes. “You shouldn’t have told him.”

“Why not? He was just being friendly.”

“He wants to interfere with them. Maybe whore them out. I hope your Pa has warned them to stay close to home.”

Cliff thought that the gift of candy had been a gentlemanly gesture. He didn’t like Oran’s implication that his sisters might become prostitutes, and he was still burning over Oran calling them poor. An idea slipped into his mind as easily as a cat slipping through an open door. Cliff knew that persimmons wouldn’t ripen until the first hard frost; before that, it was possible to eat them, but your stomach would rebel for several days afterward. Cliff guided Oran to a tree not far from the house. “Hey, Oran, how about climbing this tree and picking a few persimmons for us.” Which Oran did. “You go first. Be my guest.” The sour, green persimmon would put Oran in a world of hurt.

It wasn’t long before Oran offered to call it even. He had an idea that would put in a Cliff in a tough spot.

A few days later, Oran said “I’ve got a great idea.”

“What?” Cliff said.

“Let’s take Pa’s car to Cromwell.”

Cliff couldn’t see any harm in a little adventure, even though Pa had told the entire family to stay away from Cromwell. He told them of gunfights in the street. He thought that was enough of a warning; the children were too innocent to hear of the other goings-on.

“How’re you going to get the car?” Cliff asked. “Will he just let you take it?”

“No. I’ll sneak it out after Pa passes out drunk.”

“Won’t your ma stop you?”

“No. All she’ll do is say ‘when your pa wakes up, he’ll take his belt to you.’ But we’ll be back before he comes to, and Ma won’t say a thing. She hates to see me whipped. He’ll never know.”

Cliff thought a gunfight would be exciting, like a duel or a sword fight. His books hadn’t talked about blood and pain and dying.

An oil baron named Cromwell platted the town and named it after himself. Within a few weeks of the town’s establishment, the population was more than 2,000. At first, the business to be in was lumber

to accommodate the building of the boom town. Then the business to be in was vice. Flop houses, bordellos, bootleg liquor, and dope brought up from Mexico. Lawlessness prompted the hiring of legendary lawman Bill Tilghman, now in his seventies. The Seminole county newspaper quoted Tilghman as saying “I’d rather die in a gunfight than in bed someday like a woman.”

Cliff longed to see his hero. “I’m in,” he told Oran. Tilghman had taken down the Dalton gang. Maybe Cliff would get to see him in action.

“I’ll pick you up at the corner just before dark,” Oran said.

Cliff waited at the corner. He was spooked by the cry of a cougar. He hoped it was just going about its business, hunting deer or rabbit, not 13 year old boys.

Oran’s driving was erratic; he hadn’t had much practice. He parked at the edge of town and suggested that they split up. His plan wouldn’t work if Cliff tagged along.

Cliff headed off to try to get a glimpse of Marshall Tilghman. Cromwell was like nothing he’d ever experienced. It seemed like a combination of the county fair and a circus, the only things he had to compare it to. As he passed each establishment, he paused to look through windows for Tilghman, but soon he forgot that he had a purpose. Men playing faro, pretty women, dime-a-dance girls, and music. He’d never heard such a ruckus. Different tunes poured out of every doorway. Gas lights lit up the street like daylight. He dodged drunk men, sober men, angry men, men who were restless, broke, or had money in their pockets, and outlaws looking to take it away from them.

He was passing a cafe when he heard a single gunshot, fired from the middle of the street. Cliff was in awe of the tall, silver-haired man who emerged from the cafe. Tilghman himself! His supper with his deputy had been interrupted by the shot. Cliff recognized the man who had called Tilghman out. He had been by their place looking for moonshiners. Pa said he was corrupt. The revenuer was looking for moonshiners, not to arrest them, but to get his cut.

Tilghman grabbed the prohibition agent’s wrist and pressed his own hand gun into the man’s ribs. The deputy marshall took the revenuer’s gun, and Tilghman let go of him. The shooter grabbed a hideout gun from his pocket and fired. The shot hit Tilghman.

“Good God, man, what have you done?” said a man in the crowd.

“I killed the most famous lawman in Oklahoma.”

As word spread, the pianos gradually fell silent.

The marshall was gut-shot. Death would be some time in coming. He lay on the boardwalk in his own blood.

Cliff let out a single yell. His knees gave way; he squatted on the ground. He couldn’t see Tilghman’s body anymore. The crowd was standing between him and the marshall.

Cliff’s hero lay dying on the boardwalk. Cliff felt like he was caught in a nightmare: too-bright-lights, more gunfire, women screaming, men yelling. He couldn’t remember which end of town Oran had parked the car. He ran north, then south, then north again before he realized that Oran had left him behind.

The kids were allowed to play outside until dark. The chill of October drove them inside.

“Where’s Cliff?” Ma asked.

The kids didn’t know; Cliff had been secretive for the last few days.

“Maybe he went ‘coon hunting,” Clara said.

“His .22 is by the door,” Pa said, “And none of the dogs are gone.”

“I think he went over to Oran’s place,” Wayne said.

“I suspect he’ll be home directly,” Pa said.

“Why don’t you go over there and bring him home,” Ma said.

“Oh, Mother, you worry too much.” Pa always had the last word.

Ma left an oil lamp burning by the window. She lay in bed, watching its glow. She already felt the grief in her body. Her heart felt like a stone, like a bitter rose stone. She knew how it felt to lose a child. The oldest daughter, Annie, had died as a young wife. She knew a cougar could take down a boy as easily as taking a rabbit.

In the morning, Cliff’s little sister Alice woke up with her face swollen with unshed tears. Losing Cliff would be unbearable. “I can’t breathe,” she said to Ma. She was holding everything inside in a hole in her middle. Cliff was her hero.

When daylight came, Pa took the truck out to search for his son. He drove all four section lines, first south, then west, north and east. He went to the oil lease where Lawson tended a well. Lawson opened the door. Pa saw a man who was red-eyed and belligerent. “We haven’t seen your boy. Oran’s still in bed,” Lawson said.

His wife stood a few feet behind him, in his shadow, her hand over her mouth. “Your boy’s always getting Oran in trouble. He’s probably gone off to Cromwell.”

Pa headed towards Cromwell. He met Cliff on the road. His dirty face was covered with tracks from tears. Pa didn’t say anything. It would take something tragic to make Cliff cry; his sons were raised not to cry.

Cliff climbed into the cab of the truck. “They shot the marshall.”

“Did you see it, son?”

“I saw him lying on the boardwalk. I don’t think he was dead yet. Pa, why can’t you put a man out of his misery? You can help an animal like that.”

“A man’s dying has to take its own course.”

It was about a month later that Pa left in the truck. The kids thought it mysterious that Pa would go out after dark. Towards midnight, Cliff awoke and looked out the window. He woke the family up to watch the orange glow reflected by the clouds. Wicked Cromwell was burning.

The town wasn’t rebuilt. The Seminole county oil boom was over. Oil field workers, their families, and equipment left for new oil fields. A team of horses dragged the Lawson house close to the smokehouse. It was more modern than the cabin, which they tore down.

Their prosperity ended with the end of the oil boom. Pa died in 1949. The family were so haunted by memories of happiness that they forgot to make anything of themselves. Self-sufficiency eventually became isolation; subsistence became poverty.

In the early ’50s, electricity came to the neighborhood. When the electric lights were turned on, Ma said she never knew her house was so dirty.


Down Home

I woke up one morning thinking about wolves and realized that wolf packs function as families. Everyone has a role, and if you act within the parameters of your role, the whole pack succeeds, and when that falls apart, so does the pack. Jodi PicoultEPSON MFP image

Close your eyes and picture a farmhouse on a hill. It might be weathered gray, or painted white with green trim. A two story house, ordered from Sears and Roebuck. This house was not that. It was cobbled together from two oil lease houses. One was moved by horses; the other was dismantled and rebuilt. The new house seemed spacious compared to the cabin they had been living in, seven (or so) kids sleeping in a loft, the parents sleeping in the single room downstairs.

By the time I knew them, the world they lived in was already lost. They clung to the 19th century, whether from poverty, or grief for everyone they’d lost. Gas lights. One open flame gas heather. Electricity came to them in the early ’50s.

Some children feel that they were born in the middle of the story of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I was born as the story was ending. The single ones, divorced ones, widowed ones still lived at home. Jack was the only man. The work had become too much for them; the farm was in decline.

The boys were allowed to roam the woods, both my father’s generation and mine. They walked every inch of the land, breathing in the landscape and its denizens. Sometimes armed with shotguns. Coyote carcasses hung from barbed wire fences. Keeping the boys safe was not a concept, as long as they came home at the end of the day, even if they were damp from skinny dipping in the pond. Daddy told a story: he and a friend collected bottles from behind a hotel to sell to moonshiners. His innocence protected him from knowledge beyond his understanding. I wonder if the hotel was really a whore house.

The girls were kept closer to home. Was there something fearful in the woods threatening to female children? Or was it felt that girls didn’t need to learn woods craft or subsistence farming? They were better employed keeping the truck patch, planting, harvesting, canning, preserving; important contributions to the family. Aunt Alice planted irises. She had an eye for beauty.

My childhood was a smothering one, bound by mysteries, secrets closely held. Mourning dead children turned grief to madness. Aunt Alice was afraid of all men outside of the family. I don’t know what had been done to her, or by whom, but in my opinion gelding would have been too good for him.

The last time I saw the house, I circled around it to peek through the windows. The porch roof was collapsing and floor boards had rotted through. Vandals had apparently had a spree inside; filthy graffiti and clothing scattered throughout the rooms. I figured the clothes had belonged to Grandma or Aunt Alice. A cooking pot lay on the ground. Pitched through a window to shatter glass? Or a vessel for Uncle Jack to feed his cats?

They say that the past is behind us, and the future is before. To my way of thinking, the past is in front of us, where we can see it. When Daddy was dying, he said he saw the whole family standing before him. He said he was not afraid.


incenseIt is their habit to play in the dark. Slipping, sneaking, sinuous. Circling around each other, circling around us. Currents of air move. Not knowing where the two of them are, Terry calls them phantoms. They chase each other, their paws silent. I wait for them to expose themselves with a hiss, with a growl. But there is nothing beyond the feeling of a presence. Fog shrouds the woods outside the window, adding to the feeling of being secluded within a mystery. Did I sense them? Or remember from nights before that they chase each other in the dark, silently. The game is to seek each other out. We are not part of their game. If I get up in the night, she will sit upright, observing my passage. He will come with his demands. Coyotes come right up to the fence. Did they sense the game being played inside?

I saw a ghost once. You might think I was predisposed, as I had heard the rumors of the ghost in the library. Walking away from my office door, I turned my head and saw a man standing in the doorway. He appeared to be substantial, to have substance, to be solid, not at all ethereal. Silent, but not sinuous, secretive. Standing upright. I asked my co-workers about the man in my office, but they assured me there was no man there. Why did he allow himself to be seen? Was he playing hide-and-seek? Was I “it”, or did he have fellows? Was it a mistake on his part to show himself? Did I have the feeling of a presence, causing me to turn and look? No, I don’t think so. I think he was surprised to see me; he was gone as soon as I saw him. Startled by daylight, perhaps it was his habit to play in the dark.

Memory Quilt

I haven’t written for a long time. I would guess it’s been about a year-and-a half since I wrote anything other than a blog post. I suppose all my creative energy was absorbed by dreaming up a new life, and then figuring out how to actually live it.

For the past week or so, I’ve been dreaming of writing. I think the change of seasons has sparked something deep. Knowing that the natural world is preparing for a much needed rest, and knowing that the days will be dark more than they are light, I feel that I can rest from striving outward and reestablish an inward journey.

Last night I dreamed of Tony Doerr. He’s a brilliant writer and a wonderful teacher of writing. I attended a workshop he conducted in Taos in the summer of ’06 or ’07. He liked the story I had prepared, both in the dream and in reality. I felt an urge to revisit that story today, originally called “A Reason to Rise Up and Fly,” but now titled “Memory Quilt.”

Memory Quilt

     Get some runner bean seedlings. Plant them in front of the porch; erect a trellis with a few wooden sticks and poles. The beans will climb all over the trellis, winding and coiling along, making an arbor, giving the illusion of coolness.
     It’s late in the day. The people practically pant from the heat. The sun, the color of a blood orange, isn’t sinking fast enough.
     Picture Stella Grace five years ago, when she was eight. Her hair had begun the day neatly parted and plaited into two braids, but by the end of the day her hair and clothing are messy; she’s been a busy girl. The dogs have crawled under the porch to take a nap; Stella’s with them. It’s dark and dusty down there; cobwebs hang above her head. It’s impossible to touch one web without setting the rest vibrating.
     Granddaddy, Papa, an uncle or two are on the porch, sitting behind the scrim of vines. Uncle Bud’s telling a story, the one about Bill shooting an “extra” buck and hiding it in the outhouse. Uncle Bud’s a slight man, with something of the leprechaun about him; he seems to have been carved, rather than born and grown; his hide tanned by sun and wind and smoke. He pauses in the telling to remove a small cloth bag from his shirt pocket. He taps tobacco onto a paper, rolls it and licks the edge to make it stick. Stella hears the hiss and sizzle of the kitchen match when he scrapes it against its box; the sulfur stink travels to her beneath the porch.
     “Bill hung that deer up by its hind hooves in the outhouse. What he didn’t know was that the deer wasn’t completely dead; the bullet had just grazed its head and stunned it. So old Bill goes into the outhouse fixing to skin it there, which was a damned stupid idea. That deer wakes up just about the time Bill closes the door. Folks outside saw the outhouse rocking and shaking, and heard Bill yelling for help. Sumbitch couldn’t get the door unlatched.”
     Granddaddy says, “Too bad he didn’t dive down the hole, we could have charged the neighbors a quarter to look.”
     Bud snorts before he resumes his tale. The image of Bill down the hole is a vivid one to Stella, invoking the memory of outhouse odor.
     “Finally Bill got his hunting knife loose and slit the deer’s throat. Put Bill out of his misery. The deer, too.”
Stella slides from beneath the porch and slips around the house. She hates this story. She can feel the deer’s terror. See its dark liquid eyes.
     Near the corner of the house, Stella passes through an abutment of male and female voices.
     The women have pulled chairs out onto the grass where the house is casting a shadow. They’re piecing a quilt top on their laps, working from the center. Thread follows in a serpentine path behind cool needles.
     Cousin Janice is telling a story. The women shift on their chairs, glancing at each other and at Janice. Grandma says, “Now, Janice, we don’t want to hear about this again.” But Janice is a little simple and the horror of it rotates in her head; she tells it over and over.
     “Delia’s labor come on sudden,” Janice says, as Aunt Jewel rises and stalks off towards the garden.
Janice continues, “It was cold that night, stormy, snow and sleet and wind. Cyrus went for the midwife; brought her to Delia to deliver the child. Delia’s labor was hard, and long, but she was delivered of a girl, a beautiful baby girl. Cyrus grabbed the child up. Midwife said, ‘Here, now, you don’t want to be so rough.’ Started the baby crying. Delia said, ‘Cyrus no! Give her to me, give her back.’ Cyrus grabbed up a rag, a nightgown, ‘cause the baby was slippery. The midwife fought him, grabbing at the baby, but Cyrus was strong. He left with the child.” Janice’s glasses are askew; they’re too heavy for her face. Thick lenses magnify the distress in her eyes. Her lower lip quivers, thick and moist.
     “Delia never saw her daughter again, “Janice says. “They say the wages of sin are death.”  
     They’d given up trying to explain to Janice that wasn’t what the verse meant. Not that the baby must die to pay for the parent’s sin. They watch Janice closely; her pregnancy is just starting to show. When her mother asked who the baby’s father was, Janice said, “My baby come like Jesus.”
     They suspected, though. They thought they knew. Cyrus. Janice’s child wouldn’t be his only bastard.


   Quilts carry family histories, made as they are from worn out clothing, or scraps from new made clothes. Quilts made for wedding gifts contain hopes and wishes and dreams. Quilts spark remembrance; Aunt Hattie’s Easter dress, the blouse Mama made when she was walking out with her first sweetheart.
     Stella dreams better when she sleeps under a quilt. She imagines that her sleeping body looks like valleys and hills.
Stella awakes from dreaming about a lost child, a dream sparked by the story Janice told a few hours ago. She opens her eyes, expecting to see a window filled with stars.
     What she sees instead, though, is a small face. Is it a face outside, looking in, or her own reflection? There are differences between her face and the one in the window, Stella decides. Stella’s breath freezes in her throat with her next thought: maybe it’s a ghost looking in. But the girl extends a hand to help Stella climb over the window sill, a real hand, not a phantom one.
     “Who are you?” Stella asks.”
     “My name is Oriel.”
     “I’m Stella.”

     “I know who you are.”

     “Do you live around here?”
     “I live in the tower,” Oriel says. “With Marigold.”
     Stella remembers seeing a tower someplace. A tall structure, made from red bricks. The roof looks like an upside-down silver teacup, missing its handle. Windows are spaced here and there, spiraling up. A walled garden next to it, with a pretty woman tending rose beds. Part of Stella’s memory is asking Grandma, “Who lives there?” And Grandma saying, “Hush child, that place is none of our business.”
     “Oh, what a pretty name. Merry Gold. Is she your mama?”
     “I don’t know,” Oriel answers.
     How come Oriel doesn’t know who her mama is? Stella wonders.
     Stella and Oriel perch side by side on the rooftop, overlooking shadowy tree tops, shaking, dancing, shivering in the night wind.
     “The treetops make patterns, like a quilt Only the tree patterns move, they change. Like stories.”
     “No,” Stella says, “stories are always the same; they’re always told the same way. Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair. Or baby Jesus born in a manger.”
     “The only story I know always seems to be changing. Whenever I figure out one piece, it doesn’t seem to fit with the others,” Oriel says.
     “What story is that?”
     “The story of my birth, of my mother and my father.”
     Everyone should know the story of their own birth. Stella knows hers; she’s asked to hear it over and over. She was born during a snow storm. Papa was away, gone into the city to look for work. Stella’s was a fast birth, the easiest of all Mama’s children. They sent word to Papa. Granddaddy tied a red bandanna to a tree limb by the train tracks in the middle of nowhere, to show the conductor where to stop the train. Papa laughed when he saw Stella for the first time. He said she looked like a possum, hurting Mama’s feelings. Every birth has a story, a story like that. How could Oriel not know her own story?
     “Meet me tomorrow,” Oriel says. “I want to show you something.”


     Pulling weeds in the truck patch is best done before the day grows too hot. Stella feels a presence, someone watching her. She turns her head to look over her shoulder, but gets no more than the impression of quick movement. The shimmer of disturbed air. She works carefully, there are snakes in the garden. Grandma picks bright green beans for supper; soft yellow squash; tomatoes red like the cardinals who sang at daybreak.
     She’s talking to Mama about Janice’s story, the one about Delia’s baby. Grandma says, “I didn’t see death coming that night. Usually I can see it, just as plain as a person walking down the road.”
     Stella thinks the baby must not have died, or else Grandma would have seen death coming for it.
     Stella is finally free; it’s a shady, drowsy time. Cicadas buzz, their droning like the engine of the world moving the day forward through the shimmer of heat, towards sleep.
     She approaches the tree, the big one; they’d measured it once, twelve feet in circumference. Beyond it, the distance bends and wavers in strange ways, and time seems to thicken; perhaps it’s the heat. She senses that someone else is there, and she turns around to look. She stops to listen. Nothing. Only black snakes sunning themselves on a rock.
     Stella stops short when she sees a woman squatting on the path digging in the dirt, her skirt tucked into the waist band. She digs with a trowel with a broken handle, though she uses fingers as much as the tool. Black hair streaked with white, what Janice calls a skunk stripe. Agitated hands. A bony woman, unwashed. Stella’s seen the woman before. She knows her name to be Delia, because she asked.
     Delia says, perhaps to Stella, perhaps to someone Stella can’t see, “You’re walking on bones. Take care where you step.”
     For Stella, it’s like watching a rattlesnake coil. She can’t move closer, but she can’t look away, either.
Finally, Stella circles around to rejoin the path beyond where Delia crouches. Snake tracks in the dust mark the way to a barbed wire fence. She climbs through the barrier dividing path from woods.
     A slender white foot drips below tree branches. Not rough, scabbed over with blackened toes like the feet of children who go barefooted. These are tender soles that never touch the earth, because Oriel flies. Her foot is like a white, ripe pear.
     Oriel says, “We have to go now. Soon you’ll be too big to fly with me.”
Stella has pondered the logistics of learning to fly: make cloth wings, plan an itinerary, and take off from a high point. Somehow Oriel flies without such tools.
     “Where are we going?”
     “Not far. You’ll see.”
     It seems far to Stella, although they’re still in the same county. The tower stands deep inside a hollow, in a lonely spot with no near neighbors. Some people like to keep to themselves, Stella’s been told.
     Oriel takes her straight to the room at the tower’s top. Cool inside and dim, after the dazzle of afternoon air.
Marigold has a trunk that she allows Oriel to open from time to time. Among the contents of the trunk are a nightgown, stained reddish brown, and a book of spells. Elegant tissue-thin paper; like the thinnest, whitest fabric worn to softness against warm skin.
     Stella carefully turns the fragile pages: Rue is the herb of grace, the herb of repentance, she reads; pansies for sorrow; columbines for unfaithfulness; daisy reminds us of deception in love. Pretty blue blossoms are pressed between leaves of the book.
     Satisfied now that Stella’s seen the objects in the trunk, Oriel flies her to the bottom of the tower. It’s evening already. The tower must have a magic which makes time misbehave, Stella thinks. A second-storey window is lamp lit. Stella climbs up in a tree to get a better look, Oriel hovering beside her. It’s like a picture, looking through the frame of the window. Marigold is bathing,
     Merry Gold is a good name for her, Stella thinks. Skin which seems to have been polished; hair shining sunshine-yellow; breasts which seem to be too heavy for the delicacy of ribcage and shoulders. Her nipples remind Stella of cinnamon.
     Cyrus is washing her back.
     Oriel says, “Sometimes I wake up and he’s watching me in my sleep.”
     Cyrus is in the tub with Marigold, his legs wrapped around Marigold’s waist, her head bent forward. She takes his hand to her lips and bites. Blood flows vivid against her white skin. Stella thinks of fairy tale words: bewitched, ensorcelled, enchanted.
     “Do you auger from my blood?” Stella hears Cyrus say.
     “Yes, I can see that you hunger for other women,” Marigold answers.
     “My blood doesn’t tell you that.”
     “No, but your history does.”
     “What more can I do to prove my love?”
     “No more proof is necessary than the token I asked for and you gave.”
     “The blood of my blood, the flesh of Delia’s flesh.”


     At thirteen, Stella has a dancer’s feet. Right now they’re at rest, rooting her body to the porch floor. Toes spread open, her posture rising from her toes, heels, balls of her feet. Her tail bone tucked, spine straight and energetic, shoulder blades riding low, neck relaxed. Head bent so she can see what her hands are doing. In her fingers, a scrap of fabric.
What keeps her from flying, ascending, levitating? She stands balanced for flight; she can feel the ridge behind her toes.
     Stella has left it too late to learn to fly. She’s too tall to be aerodynamic. Oriel started when she was small. Her skill grew as her body did. Some choices are forced upon us; Stella wasn’t confined to a tower as Oriel was.
     Cyrus comes that afternoon from the direction of the road. Noticing him suddenly, Stella’s parts don’t seem to fit together, her hands become agitated, her body’s always giving her away.
     “Hey,” she says.
     “Hey yourself. Your folks at home?” There’s something funny about his eyes, alarming but at the same time very interesting. He asks for a drink of water.
     Stella takes him around the house to the kitchen door. She doesn’t ask him in, she’s a well brought up girl. She hands him a dipper full. He drinks deep, tilting his head back, studying the agitated tree tops thoughtfully.
     He cups the dipper in his hand to give it back to Stella. She doesn’t want to touch his hand; she reaches awkwardly around to take the dipper by the handle. He touches her cheek, a look in his blue eyes, magnetic. She wants to look away but can’t. He touches her cheek with his knuckles, turns his hand to gently touch her collar bone. It tickles, feels good, but confusing.
     “Oh my honey,” he says, “My star girl.” His hand gently squeezes her shoulder; he puts his lips on her neck where his fingers have been. Stella remembers his crimson blood against Marigold’s ivory skin, and wonders what it means, that he’s come to her in the heat of the afternoon.
     A shimmer of air, movement which they both sense. The sound of Mama’s voice from the front of the house, remarking to the dogs. Cyrus turns to go. A slender man, upright with elegant posture. He’s alert as he takes a cigarette from his shirt pocket and palms it. His mouth prepares to take it in, his attention single pointed, his object to get off the porch as quickly as possible.
     Stella watches Mama come around the house towards the back door. She sees Mama notice Cyrus’s presence; sees her gazing after Cyrus. He’s walking away, propelled by some mysterious urgency, his rapid pace making him seem suspect. Mama stands in a puddle of hounds, the lines on her face changing direction, first pointing up, she’s chaffing with the dogs, than a downwards shift towards sadness.
     She says to Stella, “What did Cyrus want?”
     Stella says, “He cheats at cards,” pretending they were playing a game she understood.
     Mama says, “You stay away from him!”


     The next evening they leave Stella at home with Janice’s child; China is under the porch with the dogs. Stella’s too big to fit comfortably under the porch anymore. She has to sit above ground, with her legs dangling over the side of the porch, the vine arbor at her back. She sits with the scrap basket at her side, piecing, turning a fragment of fabric in her fingers. She thinks it calls to another one, which she pulls from the basket, turning them in her two hands, joining them together in different ways until they come true.
     She’s thinking about Cyrus, wondering if he still watches Oriel in her sleep
     At dusk, China emerges. It’s her favorite time of the day; she mistakes lightning bugs for fairies, tiny Tinkerbelles darting through the bushes. “Where’d they go?” she asks Stella, meaning the grown ups.
     “Don’t know,” is Stella’s response. “Maybe the men went coon hunting.”
     “They didn’t take the dogs.” Even at China’s age, everyone knows that you need dogs to hunt raccoons. “And where’s Mama? She doesn’t hunt.”
     Not knowing the answer, Stella continues to fit pieces together.
     A single shot sounds from the direction the woods. The sound hangs suspended in the air.
     “See there. I told you they were hunting,” Stella says. The insect racket stops, the world holding its breath.
     “They won’t get much, with only one shot,” China says.
     “Maybe one shot is enough for whatever they’re hunting.”
     A flying body swoops low across the front yard. Stella’s head jerks up. Is it Oriel, she wonders? No, this body is feathered; it has wings with a great span and taloned feet. It’s an owl, hunting. A small scream, then the owl ascends with a rabbit squirming in her talons.
     “Oh, poor bunny,” says China.
     “She’s taking care of her children,” Stella responds.

Boatless in Seattle

There was something about Roger that made me question everything he said. A sporty kind of a guy, he wore shorts and a golf shirt, white jogging shoes. When he took his sunglasses off, I saw the kind of blue eyes that seem almost colorless. A middle-aged guy with thinning red hair, well-groomed. He drove a white BMW. An up- standing member of the upper middle class. I still can’t put my finger on it.

We posted an ad on Craigslist for our 1966 Owens on Wednesday, met Roger and showed him the boat on Thursday, received payment and signed the title over on Friday. So fast.

Normally selling a boat is an uphill battle, taking weeks if not months. Maybe the sale happened so fast, my emotions didn’t have time to process what was happening. Maybe it’s only paranoia.

Roger seemed almost disinterested in the boat, in her history. Sometimes, I wonder what is a boat but its story? One thing I’ve learned about boaters, they love a good story. Stories about boats and adventures. Boats and labors of love. Boats and memories of family, of friends, of holidays, of good dogs. He seemingly lacked interest in the boat’s various systems and her pretty bright work. Terry said it felt like giving a dog to someone you knew would keep him chained up.

His stories seemed tailored to us. We had so much in common. We just moved here from Oklahoma…he’s from Joplin. We moved here after my dad died…his father died two weeks ago. Eventually he told me a story about his divorce, and I began to feel that he was fishing for information. (My kids say I should get a girlfriend…oh, you and Terry aren’t married? How did you meet Terry? He sold me a camera, I said. I evaded him for awhile; I thought he looked like trouble. He does look like trouble, Roger said. Is he?) I took off my sunglasses while we talked, I like seeing people’s eyes. He kept his on. He said he’ll have his kids all next week. The boat was a surprise for them. Trying to be the fun dad, I thought, buying them a sleep-aboard for over-nighters with Dad.

What about him made me so uneasy? I couldn’t sleep on Thursday night, and by Friday I was so tense, my skin hurt. (You seem tense today, Roger said. I didn’t sleep well last night. Oh me neither, he said. A sensitive guy, attuned to other’s moods, very seductive. )

Something about this guy made me feel that we were in the presence of evil. Was something really off about Roger? Or was I overwhelmed with regret for selling the boat?

In The Year of the Boat, Lawrence W. Cheek quotes boat designer Antonio Dias: “It may be ludicrous to expect boats—and pleasure boats at that—to be vehicles for the search for truth. Aren’t they toys, conspicuous consumption, status symbols?…I still have reason to doubt this conventional wisdom. I continue to see glimmers of the transformative powers inherent in boats and refuse to abandon my expectations…A boat demands investment from us. And I don’t mean financial investment. Each boat presents a challenge; that’s what makes it seem almost alive. Without care, boats die—and a dying or dead boat is, at the very least, heart-wrenching. The more time we give to boats, the more they thrive—and the strange part is, so do we…They open us up to their rhythms and the waters they carry us over and through…”

I guess there wasn’t really so much wrong with her when we bought her last December, nothing that couldn’t be fixed, anyway. She didn’t run very well. Terry aka the Master Mechanic worked on her engine until she purred. She was filthy and her drawers, lockers and bilge were filled with junk. Terry hauled trash and scrubbed and polished.She became a real head-turner, garnering compliments everywhere we took her. She still had her original upholstery, stained and stinking of mold. I bought a sewing machine and made the soft parts of her lovely and elegant.

I worried for weeks about selling her, feeling that I would be taking something away from Terry that he loved deeply. So regret piled on top of guilt about turning my back on her. Walking out of her life. Abandoning her.

She gave me happiness. On her, I fell in love with cruising in Puget Sound. From her wheel house, I watched winter become, too slowly, spring and then, too quickly, summer. I bopped on her aft deck to “Runaround Sue” blasting from the stereo. People on the gas dock smiled—not laughing at me but with me, understanding the joy of a boat.

She’s a good old boat. She recovered herself that time when we almost capsized. Sometimes it was hard to back her into the slip. She didn’t want to be put to bed. I’m pretty sure Roger won’t invest the time, energy and love to care for her.

Our new boat will be delivered on July 27. She’s a 1954 Chris Craft Capitan. 33’ compared to the 26’ Owens. Seven feet doesn’t sound like much, but on a boat it’s significant. Bigger cabin. Julie can cruise with us if she wants.

Her name is Grace. Grace, as in elegance. Beauty of form. Our saving grace. Divine grace. Bless us with your protection.


Puget Sound off of Whidbey Island

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Attributed to Mark Twain.

Twenty years from now, we’ll be pretty old. Too old to maintain a beloved wooden boat. Two old to cruise in Puget Sound. This knowledge creates a sort of carpe diem attitude in me.

I’m not starting with the beginning, but not in the middle, either. At least I hope not. We’ve cruised three times. I hope we’re nowhere near half way finished.

We bought the boat on December 11, 2010. Terry spent five months cleaning the boat, inside and out, and working on the engine. We puttered around in Lake Union, up and down the ship channel, through the Montlake Cut to Lake Washington. You can identify Bill Gates’ house by the helipad on his dock.

Our first trip through the locks was on my birthday, May 9. We hugged the shoreline to Edmonds, had lunch, and then crept back to Seattle. Once through the locks, I started to breathe again.

Our first overnight cruise was to Poulsbo on May 20. The second was to Port Orchard on June 8.

Every cruise has taken us a little farther from home. Our first trip, the one to Poulsbo, was planned in boat class. With pencil and parallel ruler, I figured the headings to and through Agate Pass and on to Poulsbo.

I’ve always loved maps and road trips. I think this explains my attraction to cruising. Planning, navigating, exploring. The boat’s gps informs us about landmarks on the shore and verifies that we are where we think we are. Before the trip, I plan with chart and parallel ruler; check various reference books for info about marinas; read weather briefings on the internet. We’re cautious about marine conditions: not too much wind, with wind waves no more than two feet. We wait for weather conducive to cruising, which is basically camping. If we want to go ashore for a meal, our feet must carry us there. We expect summer weather no later than July 5.

On Monday, June 20, we went to Langley on Whidbey Island. We left about an hour later than we had intended due to engine trouble at the gas dock. Terry lowered himself into the engine compartment, checked this, checked that, and found a corroded connection between the solenoid and the starter motor. I made small talk with Dave and Alex at the gas dock.

We got through the locks efficiently, if not with elegance.

Langley’s marina is tiny. Terry said it reminded him of a Wal-Mart parking lot. Well, if the parking lot were miniscule, with parking spots tucked into corners and at odd angles. And if you’re trying to maneuver into an unmarked spot next to a huge car worth a quarter of a million dollars. And your car is made of wood, and knocking a hole into it would plummet you into forty feet of water.

I had neglected to tell the harbor master that we had an older, single screw boat. He thought we could make a sharp right turn into a narrow slip shared with a sailboat. Hah! Thankfully, he guided us into an easier spot.

Langley sits high on a cliff. We walked up to the top, puttered around town and had dinner: linguini with mussels, shrimp and scallops. Tomato sauce dripped down the front of my white shirt; I bought a tee shirt to change into. We pack light for our single over-nights, not even taking a change of clothes.

Downtown Langley

This is one of my favorite things: night on the boat; quiet; gentle bobbing; lamp lit cabin; salty, rich, buttery sea scent. I glimpse a heron in the dusk; through the boat window, she looks like a pterodactyl. Two episodes of Treme on the DVD player. Sleep. Morning coffee on the deck; lunch in town; wonderful (literally filled with wonders) independent bookstore. Terry took photos.

We thought long and hard about how to get the boat out of the slip. In reverse, her stern pulls towards port. Backing out was not possible, as a boat was sitting to our left.

The harbor master and Terry walked the boat out, hauling with ropes on the starboard side, pivoting her on a fender against the dock. I stood on the bow with the boat hook, in case we got too close to the boat on our port side.

The cruise home: blue sky, blue water. Sitting in the sun was glorious; the sun seems like an old friend who’s moved far away. I grieve its absence.

Green and white water like thick, cloudy, molten glass foamed behind us. Our wake was not symmetrical. I wondered why. Seals popped up in smooth water after we passed.

Heading back into Shilshole, we slowed down. I took the wheel while Terry went outside to set fenders in preparation for going through the locks. We saw a speed boat approaching us, a big one, what wooden boat owners like us call a Tupperware boat. Very pricey. We like to sneer at them.

I said to Terry, “Be careful. They’re going to pass us. There’ll be a wake.” And then they did, at speed. Their wake hit us broadsides, causing us to rock violently back and forth. I screamed, to whom I don’t know, “Help me! I don’t know what to do.” I remember seeing Terry outside the window, holding on. My Instinct was to steer left, to take the wake at an angle. The boat settled down, but my terror didn’t for some time.

We caught up with the other boat in the locks. I said, in a very calm manner, “Did you see what your wake did to us?” The male half of the couple said, “I was below. She was driving.” I felt sorry for her, being with such an ass. I explained to her that she had been in an area with a posted speed of 7 knots, that she had been going a lot faster than that, that her wake had almost capsized us. “I’m sorry,” she said. Teflon people.

M. Wylie Blanchet says in The Curve of Time: “We never started out at the beginning…expecting trouble or exciting things—at least, not after the first couple of years. Then, I think, we were looking for adventures. Later, when we found out what adventures were like, we tried to avoid them, but they came anyway. So, after that, except for ‘exercising due care’…we neither anticipated them nor tried to avoid them. We just accepted them as a normal part of the increasing number of miles we logged every summer.”

I can’t wait to go again


Seattle Bridges

Oklahoma is a stable land, uniform, grid-grown. I grew up understanding the linear logic of the plains, taking comfort in knowing my neighbors in the heartland, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas. Blue-skyed New Mexico is right next door.

In the days before we left Tulsa, it rained like the end of times. Saturday afternoon, July 10th, pulling the RV, we had difficulty finding our way out of town. It was hot as hell.  Tulsa wouldn’t let us go.

Seattle is a Wonderland, defined by water and hills. During the first few months, I felt like I’d been cut adrift. New city tasks seemed numberless. I lost my sense of knowing where I was, of knowing my way around a place where memories and family connections were intimately connected with landscape. I was bewildered and overwhelmed. The clerk at the driver’s license bureau said, “Congratulations, you’re now a Washingtonian.” I went to bed and pulled the covers over my head.

I was shocked by the Seattle TV weather map. Instead of a neatly stitched quilt of plains states, one can see the Aleutians. Canada’s weather is omitted, the border straight in its severity, no man’s land to the north. There might as well be a label stating “Here there be dragons.” The ocean vastness to the northwest seems to be the source of all weather.

Experience created an intimate knowledge of Tulsa: where I grew up, went to school and church and shopped and worked, my parents’ houses and their nursing home. But with intimacy came limitations. Possibilities fully explored were exhausted. I forgot how big the world is; a feeling of confinement set in. Over time I adjusted my breathing to hard corners and angles, to the pressure of memories, to ideas of who I ought to be.

On a trip to my wonderful neighborhood library, I found the book Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now by Robert Root. Root transplanted himself to Colorado from Michigan; he was about the age I am now, that is to say, no longer young, but not yet old. He says, “Now that the apartment is in order, our routine is established, and the frantic pace of relocation chores has subsided, I realize, uncomfortably, that sometimes I don’t recognize the person sitting on our balcony, driving to and from the bus stop…I feel completely adrift, uncertain about what to do next and how to start doing it. I don’t seem to know how to become the person who does these things.”

Seattle is a city oriented around water. In my mind, the city had fluidity; it wouldn’t stay put. In order to feel settled, I needed to create a mind map of Seattle. The first important landmark was Julie’s house and, of course, our own new home. Then we found our way to Pike Place Market, the Ballard locks, Fisherman’s Terminal, city beaches, grocery stores, Target. I got lost, frustrated, and shaken. I like to think that it’s been good for me, that I’m growing new brain cells. That I’m becoming the person who does these things, who lives in this city.

Discrete locations in the city are gradually knitting themselves together. Northwestern Seattle is gradually becoming whole, entire in my brain. I can relax enough while driving around to appreciate the warm glow of neon on gray days, the beauty of the Olympics on days of blue skies, snow topped Cascades to the east, Rainier improbably huge to the south. We camped on the Olympic Peninsula on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the lights of Canada across the way. The weather map lied; there is more territory to explore.

When daylight savings time ended, I felt an urge to go camping one more time before darkness fell. I had an urgent need to know the southwestern limits the state, to see the Pacific and the mouth of the mighty Columbia.  To stand on the edge of the continent, to see what’s washed up on the shore.

You see, I need to know where I am –not just the address, but the limits of the place, its possibilities.  To learn how to be here, discover who I am here. Internalize a new landscape, new experiences, lay down memories, push limits which suddenly seem to be surprisingly fluid. Accommodate what seems to be an inborn need to keep moving, to explore and expand. Discover what’s beneath skin and flesh, down to the bones of who I am. Cope, learn, master. Put to use the restless energy and impatience and need for freedom I was born with. Old expectations slough off. Maybe, at this moment in my life, I don’t have to be so focused, industrious, imprisoned, regulated.

Robert Root said, “…I am, for now at least, here to stay. I like who I am while I’m here, like finding myself vibrating in sympathetic tuning with the harmony of this portion of the universe…I’ve felt the world expand…I would feel the world contract, close in around me, if I were to leave for anywhere else.”