Thunder

I remember staring west, waiting and watching as the sun dipped below the tree tops, below the street that curved to meet our driveway at the top of the hill. I heard it then — groaning, rumbling, rushing.  At any moment, I expected to see great giants crash through the three line to trample my house and my family.

“Do you hear that?” I asked my brother.  “It changes, but I hear it every night.”

“It’s just the trees growing,” my father said.

Later, I learned that, whether it was air masses colliding or the pounding of my pulse in my ears, the sound was thunder.  Now, when I hear either one, I think, It’s just the trees growing, and I’m not afraid.

Medieval

In a time and place where men inherited rather than purchased land, the fiefdom was plagued with territorial disputes. Generations of civil war meant that young men were scarce. Thus, although I was a young woman, I served on my father’s guard.

My duty was manning the closest watchtower to the keep. Hair cropped severely short — shorter than some of the men — and leather armor helped me blend. I was trained in all manner of martial weapons, but my talent was archery. I sat atop this tower, crossbow pointed at the tree line, watching, watching, waiting, day or night depending on my shift.

I was off duty when the Vikings came. My ancient father held my arm as I led him through the market. Screams, the smell of burning wood and burning flesh, I put a hand over my father’s. “Hurry back. Bolt the doors.” I shoved him in the direction of the royal house and drew my dagger.

When I turned to head down the path to the watchtower, a fist connected with my face. I staggered back, yelling for my father to run, run. “Save yourself, my lord!” Another blow to the face, a hard kick to the hip sent me to my knees. I heard the blade as it left its sheath.

“No!” my father shouted. I looked up to see him running my way, hands up, long white beard flapping. “Do not kill my daughter!”

“Care not for me.” I coughed and spit blood. “Run, Father.”

My assailant murmured something. I awaited death but instead, received a hard lash across the back. The Viking hit me over and over with the sword sheath. Crack, crack, crack. I fell onto my face and still he struck me. He beat the armor off me, and when my skin was exposed, he kept going.

My father fell to his knees and wept. “I surrender it all. Just don’t kill her.”

The man stopped, pulled me up by my scruff of hair, and looked into my eyes. He laughed and laughed. Then, he shoved my face into the dirt and went after my father.

The Old Woman Who Lived in the Vinegar Bottle

I first heard this story in either kindergarten or first grade. I love old European fairy tales, Grimm’s and otherwise (and I love re-telling them). They teach children all sorts of life truths and lessons. There is one that is unspoken but undeniably true: Never trust a fairy.

THERE once was an old woman who lived in a vinegar bottle. Don’t ask me why. It was a common old vinegar bottle. Maybe a little larger than most, but, still, it made for a very small house. The old woman would often sit on her front steps and complain. “Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in a tiny house such as this. Why, I should be living in a charming cottage with a thatched roof and roses growing up the walls. That’s what I deserve.”

           One day a fairy happened to be flying overhead and she heard the old woman’s complaint. “I can do that,” thought the fairy. “If that’s what she wants…that’s what she’ll get.” And to the old woman she said, “When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. In the morning, just see what you shall see.”

           Well, the old woman thought the fairy was likely batty, but she decided to give it a try. When she went to bed that night she turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again in the morning … She found herself in a charming cottage with a thatched roof and roses growing up the walls! “It’s just what I’ve always wanted,” she said. “I know I will be so happy here.” But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.

The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. “I wonder how that old woman is getting along. The one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I’ll just stop round and see.”

           When she got to the charming cottage the fairy found the old woman sitting and complaining. “Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in a tiny cottage like this. Why, I should be living in a smart row house with lace curtains at the windows and a brass knocker on the door! That’s what I deserve!”

           “Well,” said the fairy, “I can do that. If that’s what she wants … that’s what she’ll get.” And to the old woman she said, “When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you shall see.”

           The old woman didn’t have to be told twice. She went right to bed. She turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again in the morning, she found herself in a smart row house with lace curtains at the windows and a brass knocker on the door. “It’s just what I always dreamed of!” she said. “I know I’ll be so happy here!” But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.

The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. “I wonder how that old woman is getting along. The one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I’ll just stop round and see.”

           When she got to the smart row house, there sat the old woman in her brand new rocking chair … rocking and complaining. “Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in this row house with common neighbors on either side. Why, I should be living in a mansion on a hilltop with a manservant and a maidservant to do my bidding. That’s what I deserve!”

           When the fairy heard this, she was much amazed. But she said, “Well, if that’s what she wants … That’s what she’ll get.” And to the old woman she said, “When you go to bed tonight, turn around three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you will see!”

           The old woman turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the next morning … She found herself in a mansion on a hilltop with a manservant and a maidservant to do her bidding! “This is just what I’ve always deserved,” said the old woman. “I know I will be so happy here!” But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.

The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. ” I wonder how that old woman is getting along. The one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I’ll just stop round and see.”

           But when she came to the mansion on the hilltop she found the old woman in her velvet chair … sitting and complaining! “Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in such a drafty old mansion. Why, I should be living in the palace. Oh, yes, I should be the queen with musicians to entertain me and courtiers to bow to me. That’s what I deserve.”

           “Good heavens,” thought the fairy. “Will she never be content? Well, if that’s what she wants … that’s what she’ll get.” And to the old woman she said, “When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you shall see!”

           The old woman could not wait to go to bed that night. She turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the next morning, she found herself in the palace and she was the queen, with musicians to entertain her and courtiers to bow to her. “Oh, yes! This is what I’ve always dreamed of. I know I will be so happy here!” But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.

The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. “I wonder how that old woman is getting along … the one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I’ll just stop round and see.”

           When she got to the palace there sat the old woman on her throne … sitting and complaining! “Oh what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should be queen of such an insignificant little kingdom. Why I should be Empress of the Universe. Oh, yes, Empress of the Universe! That’s what I really deserve!”

           “Well!” said the fairy. “There is just no pleasing some people! If that’s what she wants, that’s what she’ll not get!” And to the old woman she said, “When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you shall see.”

The old woman hurried to bed that night. She turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the next morning, she found herself right back in her vinegar bottle! “And there she shall stay!” exclaimed the fairy. “If she can’t be happy here, she won’t be happy there. For, after all, happiness comes from the heart! Not from the house!”

The Bird Carver

I sat across his desk from him as he used his soldering gun to burn texture onto wood.  It had changed drastically from the previous day.  It was a rough-cut hunk of white oak, a piece he’d scavenged after lightning killed the eighty-year old tree.  After ten hours of carving, gouging and sanding, the hunk took on the form of a small bird.  Today, he added the feathers.

He wore two sets of glasses – his usual pair and his bifocals.  He peered through both sets, studying his work.  Next to the soldering gun, he had a small gouge, and in a piece of soft pine, he had stuck the legs.  They were made of copper wire that he meticulously cut, twisted, and etched until every crease of “flesh” and the curves of the tiny claws were just so.  He made everything but the eyes.  Those, he ordered from a ceramic eye company.

He spared the book on his desk a look, making sure that the layering was coming along as it should.

“I’m glad you decide to stay another year,” I said.

“My wife wants me to retire so we can take cruises,” he said.  “I suppose I can carve just as well on a boat deck as in this office.”

“At least she won’t make you give that up.”

“Oh no.  She knows a cash cow when she sees one.”  He shook his head, his brow drawn down.  “I used to make all sorts of things and just give them away, and one day she put her foot down and said I should make money off them.  It’s in her blood; she can’t help it.”  He made so much off his carvings that he had to get a business license and report his income to the IRS.  “I think it was when I made a violin for one of the doctor’s children that she insisted I charge for it.”

I blinked deliberately.  “You made a violin?”

“Yes.  I’m going to make a guitar for him,” he gestured to the office next door, “out of the same tree this came from,” he waved the bird.  “It’s his tree, so I’ll give him a discount.”

I shook my head.  “So, what are you feathering today?”

“A youth grosbeak.”

He leaned forward and let me take the bird while he turned the book around for me to see.  One side of the feathering was complete, and I could see exactly how the bird would look once he painted it.  He would spend a day layering, dabbing, and washing color over the body until it was perfect.  Then, he would paint the legs, pop them in, and add the eyes.  When he finished, it would look as though a real grosbeak perched on his pine block –  a perfect replica.  It would go for $200, easily.

“May I look?” I asked, pointing at the book.

“Sure,” he said, taking the bird from me and sliding the book over the desk.  The motion sent a spill of curlicues over the edge of the desk.  “I suppose I’ll be chided for that,” he murmured as he looked down at the mess.

“Well, you have to do something to pass the time until the whistle blows.”

That made him smile.  He liked to compare the job to something blue collar.  He’d been in it for over twenty years but only recently felt pressure to stay in his office a required number of hours every day.  It was just another reason to call it quits.

“We punch our time cards like the sheepdog and coyote,” he said.

When we weren’t working, he carved and I read, or we sat together and talked.  One day we sat outside and watched as a hawk tried to pluck a squirrel from the side of a pine tree.  I was rapt as I watched the tree rat wait until the last possible moment to scoot around the tree, just out of the hawk’s grasp.  The raptor would squawk, fly back, adjust, and fly in again.  We stood watching for so long that we grew bored and went back in the building.

Now, it was too cold to stand outside comfortably.

“I saw a crow dead on the side of the road on my way in this morning,” he said.  “Strange business.  Crows are too intelligent to get killed in the road.”

I looked up from his book on North American bird species.  “I saw something on Discovery about how crows in some city or another would drop nuts into crosswalks and let cars run over them.  They watched for when the people would cross and knew they would be safe to retrieve the nuts.”

“It’s nice to have someone that enjoys learning around this place.”  He grinned at me, and I chuckled.  We were, after all, in a building on a college campus.  “What are you looking for?”

“A particular type of black bird,” I said, turning the book around to him.

“Did it have a breast of burnt orange and a light yellow beak?”

“No, its breast was cream.”

“Oh, then it was a regular blackbird and not an oriole.  Did you kill it?”

“No,” I said, stunned.

“Pity,” he said, picking up the soldering gun.  A curl of smoke and the scent of charring wood filled the office.  “Terrible birds, blackbirds.  They rob bluebird nests.  Did you know?”  I shook my head when he looked up at me.  He nodded.  “They aren’t native.  Some moron thought it was a brilliant idea to bring to America every bird Shakespeare mentioned in a play or poem.  They call them starlings, trying to give a trashy bird a better name.  Kill every one that you can.”

A Stone Skipping Over Water

Our relationship was like that – here and there only a moment of contact but with enough impact to make a mark. Not a bad one, mind you.

Our mothers played tennis together, and this was how we first met. My mother often dragged me to the courts and left me in the clubhouse with a lunchbox of toys. Even though I would’ve preferred being left at the swimming pool, this wasn’t often possible, but I had an active imagination and could make do with my toys and an almost-house.

One day, I sat upon one of the bamboo sofas with neon palm tree printed cushions (hey, it was the 80’s) and applied makeup to a Barbie head. He came in, looked at me, and said, “That’s terrible, and look at her hair!” It didn’t matter that he was six years older, he sat with me and showed me how to brush the tangles from her hair without ripping it out of her scalp. Why would he play with me? This, I asked my mother.  “He has a little sister. He knows your brother.” Judging by how rarely my brother allowed me to play with him, I couldn’t understand how this was an answer.

<long skip>

He sat with me on the porch of the clubhouse and helped me tear out dresses for my paper dolls. “Don’t be impatient or you’ll rip the folding tabs.” No, I couldn’t abide that. This obsessive trait, we mutually understood.

<long skip>

“Here,” my tennis coach said, “Practice returning Jason’s serve.” It glanced off the top of my racket and hit me in the chin. He crossed the net to have a look at it. “Sorry,” he said and smiled.

<long skip>

I stood beside an outdoor fireplace, plastic cup of keg beer in hand, chatting with another girl. I saw him and he me. “Oh my God! Is that you?” Yes, it was. “How old are you?” I was eighteen. “Really?” We talked for three hours.

<short skip>

I hugged him at his engagement party. By now, he was a dentist, and I was working on my bachelor’s.

<short skip>

I chatted with him at someone else’s engagement party, told him I was married and that I was a teacher. “You’re too smart to do that.” Well, kids need smart teachers. “It was good to see you.” You, too, and it was the last time.

<the stone sinks>

Rain-tinted Glasses

Clouds blanket the sky.  Everything is saturated and squishy, but I take pleasure in the sharp contrasts found only when the land is drenched.  Wet like this, things appear to exist more.  The world looks skewed, as if I have been transported to a realm similar to my own but where every color is deeper, bolder, richer.  Everything is off-set just a bit, distances seem further, and the empty spaces, emptier.

The tree bark is almost as black as the asphalt.  Where they reach into the puffy, gray sky, more naked branches, limbs, and twigs of the white oak are visible in the tops of the trees.  The ultra-green of the pine needles glows when compared to the trunks.  The vinca blossoms are purpler, the fallen leaves burnt orange instead of dry, dull brown.  The tiny, dripping leaves of the boxwoods seemed livelier, and the dormant grass, a warmer shade of beige.

I first felt this shift, this different realm, as a child.  I pulled my mother outside and said, “Look how different everything is!”

“It’s just wet, honey,” she said and went back inside the house.

She didn’t see.  Confounded by her reaction, I focused harder, trying to see the world as it had been when dry.  I couldn’t.  I never have been able to, and I wonder how anyone with eyes can.