Adapted from an image © Marcel63, Dreamstime.com
That was the summer I was twelve; the summer my mother ran off to join a commune in California.
I stood on the front porch of Uncle Ted’s house and watched Mom’s car disappear in the dusk, while around me the evening throbbed with twilight.
“Are you going to cry, Nadine?” my cousin Mandy asked with undisguised fascination.
“No.” I stood up a little straighter; clenched my fists a little tighter. “I never cry.”
“I think you should,” she replied frankly. “It makes you feel better, you know.”
I didn’t know. I had seen Mom cry on many occasions—when Sean left her, when Roger left her, when Darren backhanded her in the face—and the tears certainly never brought any relief. She always looked so powerless, sitting there at the kitchen table with a box of Kleenex and bottle of cheap vodka (and in the case of Darren, an ice pack). I vowed never to become that vulnerable.
“You might at least be angry,” Mandy suggested, hoping to elicit some emotion from me. She loved a dramatic outburst. People with secure lives generally do. “I mean, she abandoned you, Nadine. For a bunch of hippies.”
I didn’t say a word, just stabbed my cousin with a murderous stare. She flinched and dropped her eyes.
“Well, I’m going to paint my toenails and watch a soap. You want to come?” She paused, then added graciously, “I’ll give you a pedicure.”
“No. . . thanks. I’m going for a walk.”
Mandy hesitated, as if weighing her cousinly duties against my unsociable tendencies. For a moment I thought she might try to dissuade me, or worse yet, join me on my walk. I turned away quickly.
“See you later,” she called after me.
Uncle Ted’s house was perched atop a low green hill and pressed against the woods. I looked around and surveyed my options: I could walk down the lane and through the orchard, or I could walk past the garden and over to the stream. Or—and this was highly insensible, with the night coming on—I could enter the woods.
I chose the woods.
Uncle Ted had mulched a path for jogging, and this I followed for quite some distance. The trees were laced in shadows, and the air shimmered with the sound of cicadas. I felt the strange sensation outcasts often feel—the fear of being forgotten, the even greater fear of being found. I inhaled deeply, then held my breath. The woods smelled cool and sweet like a melon that has just been split open.
A slight rustling in the underbrush arrested my attention. Straining through the shadows I caught a glimpse of a chicken scuttling in the bramble. Intrigued, I watched it dart among the trees and rush out into a clearing. On impulse I left the path and wandered after the fleeing chicken, curious to see where it might live.
I emerged from the woods into a wide field of nodding timothy and dancing alfalfa. Just ahead stood a storm-beaten barn, its tin roof burnished gold in the lingering light. I saw that behind the barn sat a little brown house, round and fat like a mushroom. There were peony bushes in the front yard. I loved peonies.
The chicken had joined a flock of her cackling companions. They were fluttering and fighting over a pile of food scraps deposited by a barefoot, white-haired woman, who had just noticed me. She waved her hand, and I edged closer.
“Where have you been, Genevieve?” she asked, her blue-sky eyes narrowing in bemused agitation. “We’ve been holding supper for you.”
I stood there silent, taken aback.
The woman shook her head. “It isn’t nice, Genevieve, to run off like that. We get worried. But no matter; come inside, dear. I cooked roast.”
“My name is Nadine,” I offered, following the woman up to her house. Of course I wouldn’t go in. “My uncle is your neighbor.”
“What, my dear?” she asked sweetly, not comprehending. Her wrinkled, sunburned face was clouded with confusion. “Have you been playing with the neighbors?”
“I’m too old for playing,” I replied loftily, insulted at the very suggestion.
“Oh, now! That isn’t true. You’re never too old to play, not really.” She opened the door. “Come inside.”
I hesitated. Obviously this woman wasn’t right in the head; for all I knew she was senile and even dangerous. But the kitchen glowed with warm light and I smelled a pie baking, and lunch was so long forgotten that a keen hunger rose in my stomach. I can’t go in, I thought, I just can’t. It’s insane—and so is she—but I’m so lonely—and so is she—and, well, perhaps for just a moment—
I stepped inside. The woman followed me in and closed the door.
The kitchen table was set for only one person. The old woman, upon realizing this, appeared momentarily bewildered; then she reached into the cabinet and brought out more dishes.
“I suppose Charles is working late tonight,” she offered, then added dolefully, “He hardly ever makes it home for supper anymore.”
I studied a collection of old photographs hanging on the wall and wondered to myself which faded, smiling face belonged to Genevieve. The pictures were all snapshots, not professional portraits, so the subjects were captured in transitory states of existence. They were sledding and fishing and riding horseback; caught on camera in the process of living—or, as the succession of pictures grimly demonstrated, the process of dying. Before my eyes people were christened, confirmed, married, and buried. I became eerily aware of their enchanted expressions. They looked comfortably down on the stranger who witnessed their mortality. They had no idea.
“Come and eat, my dear,” the old woman said.
I looked at her warily, but obeyed without a word.
“You’re quiet tonight,” she said, dishing up a plate of steaming mashed potatoes. “It’s not like you.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m feeling lonely,” I ventured, hoping my hostess would offer some sympathy.
She looked puzzled and didn’t answer.
“Even the chickens have more friends than me,” I lamented.
At the mention of chickens the old woman hung her head sorrowfully.
“You know that new batch of chicks we have, Genevieve? The mother got carried off by a coyote last night. And it’s my fault—I forgot to close the chicken coup door. I’ve been forgetting so many things, lately.”
I didn’t know what to say. My hostess stared sadly into her lap, a vacant expression on her wrinkled face.
“Well,” she sighed, “at least I haven’t forgotten how to cook.”
I nodded encouragingly. “This is the best meal I’ve eaten in forever.”
I had already polished off my roast and potatoes and was attacking a pile of peas. The old woman had only eaten two bites.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.
“Not really. Anymore I give most my food to the chickens.” She smiled fondly. “They love to see me coming.”
“Of course,” I said, eyeing the pie. “I wish I were one of your chickens.”
My hostess chuckled at this. “Genevieve! You’re a silly girl. And I see you want pie.” She cut me a generous slice.
Genevieve, Genevieve, where were you on that night? Did you care, knowing I stole your pie? But I felt no remorse; the pie was blueberry and still warm.
After I finished eating I offered to take the woman’s scraps out to the chickens. When the flock saw me coming they encircled me, squawking and scratching greedily. I dropped the pieces of food slowly, enjoying the feeling of power. For a moment I was God, dropping manna from heaven to His children in the wilderness. Even still, the children squabbled.
I was sorry to see the scraps disappear so quickly, and was reluctant to return inside.
I found the woman asleep at the kitchen table. I wanted to wake her and say thank you, but I was afraid. So instead I washed the dishes and swept the floor and wiped off the table. Once or twice I accidentally clanked the dishes, and each time I glanced fearfully at my sleeping hostess, but she remained lost in slumber. When I finished cleaning the kitchen I slipped quietly from the house.
Outside, fireflies swam in the dark, as a thin, white moon crept stealthily upward in the blue-violet sky. I smelled the sweet, heavy scent of peonies; then the fainter fragrance of honeysuckle, and as I moved toward the woods I breathed in the aroma of musky hay. The wind-drenched field exuded energy like a humming power plant. I could sense some grand force at work here; I froze in my tracks and looked up, up, up at the spangled sky and felt at once both finite and fiercely eternal.
She had conjured me up, I was certain—for sometimes, when we want things badly enough, they come to us as products of our own invention. And I thought I knew, at last, what it meant to be alive in someone else’s dream.
Or maybe I was only a lost, lonely child who still believed in a cosmic order. I don’t know. What I do know is this: at that moment I stood contemplating the universe, a shaggy gray coyote came trotting across the moonlit field carrying a bloody, bedraggled hen. He saw me and stopped still, and—I swear to God—he looked at me, straight in the eye. Then he vanished in the dark.
And the girl who never cried sank among the trembling grass and burst into tears.
Copyright © 2009 by Christy Effinger