one is a number
two is song
three is forever
four plays along
~ unknown poet of the early twenty-first century
A child with my name touched the peeling paint of this old church; the Northfield church. I can’t touch the peeling alabaster flakes without touching her hand in my memory.
A murder of crows plays ‘taunt the human’ from assorted perches on tombstones. I believe that one is winning, scolding me with a scalding, fervent, righteous indignation. Normal birds sing out a song, crows hack out a cough.
God, I hate crow ‘top forty’. Sooooo repetitive. . . All chorus and no story line.
Rumor has it that crows are ebon because they brought fire from the heavens to the earth, flames on a stick, soot on their feathers, ashes catching in their throats. No wonder they’re pissed.
I sometimes wish my name was Raven, or anything more interesting than Christin. Yeah, Raven, as in ‘stark ravin mad’.
Grandma’s name was Millicent. Now she would have named me something a little more interesting. Mom hated the name Grand gave to her; Antoinette. Probably why Dad caved to Mom’s wishes and agreed on my oh-so-vanilla name.
The lawn of the church has not been maintained and the woods come almost to the walls. Cluttered, disused, this pathway around the back abides, a shadow of a pathway really. This has become an aimless walk into a verdant oblivion (I should be mourning). The bushes and encroaching forest swallow me. Errant, I walk a dream of Sunlight and burgeons the color of Spring. I wish she hadn’t died in Spring.
Russet stems and shadows chance dancing. . .
I left Mom, Pam and Sally (my sisters) to navigate the wake in the activity building. They are undulating like Koi, sliding in, around and among all the long-distance relatives and a universe of unknown friends of my grandmother.
In my mind I am once again in the atrium before the viewing. We are crammed like cattle in a cue, strangers offering condolences and chatting solemnly in the ante room of the place where my grandmother is waiting. The gates pull open and we cascade in like water through a breaking dam.
Fidgeting, sitting in the church awaiting a word, awaiting the sendoff of fellow woman warrior, Grand.
This is not her church, but really, what is a church if not every church? Her church was out in the wild; a wooded glen, a pinking dawn, the mist of morning forming on the lake. Mom was not pleased when I mentioned my thoughts on this.
We come to funerals to grieve, to know our measure of suffering and in this case I can say that suffering and I are old acquaintances (though not necessarily friends).
The organist is clearly a student of John Cage chaos theory. I should be saying goodbye but somehow saying goodbye is more bitter than critiquing the music. I should be thinking of family (wow – cacophony just doesn’t really cover it).
Perhaps she is here, in this pew, beside me. She asks me where I left my good shoes.
I tell her I threw them in the lake.
She makes some remark about the poor fish that will now die due to toxic footwear.
I tell her to be grateful that I am on my best behavior and that makes her laugh. I could always get her to laugh.
Here in this valley of death she sits beside me in the pews and we make sly remarks about the appointment and décor of the church, about the president and the price of gas. . .
One eerily sustained note not unlike an alarm buzzer. Honest, she would sit up and slap that guy’s snooze button.
Maybe I could get a job as a music critic for services of the recently departed (Talk about a skill set with no chance of employment).
I’m still waiting for the preacher to come and do his job. Grand gets up from beside me, grins and touches my hair, the hair she gave me.
She leaves to check out the finger sandwiches over at the wake in the activity building.
I watch as she disappears.
Back in my present, beside the peeling church, I wish I still smoked. I would love to light up a cigarette right now.
I find a hidden bower behind the Church (the woods are too dry; I’d probably start a forest fire if I lit up out here). A dilapidated cloister where Owl and Snake hold court and exchange calls of passion in this palace of pleasure.
What? A luminescent wraith, a marble saint among the briar vines. His smile. . . transcendent. His arms bearing up the thorns.
“Excuse me.” A man’s voice sounds behind me. I leap up against the building trying to get away. He jumps back and holds up his hands like he isn’t sure whether to defend himself from me or run. He is smiling.
“I’m looking for Millicent Morgan.”
He chuckles, then, “Yes, I am. . . I was a friend of hers.” His voice is deep and melodic.
I examine the man; a man, not tall or short, not heavy or thin. His face is lost to his deep blue eyes and a very civilized beard covers his chin. He wears a dark fedora, a ivory colored long sleeve shirt and dark pants. Though he is close it is difficult to see his face..
He introduces himself simply as “Jonathan.”
“Christin.” I reach to shake his hand.
“You are clear of eye and quick of wit, rare.” He looks out into the woods. “I can see Millicent in you.”
There is no place to sit so I lean back against the church and cross my arms.
“You said you were friends with Grand?”
“Yes, well… perhaps a little more than friends.”
“Oh -” (a lover?) Gran never spoke about past loves. She enjoyed her privacy when it came to such matters. How could he have been her lover? He isn’t over thirty. A crow coughs.
He says, “I just wanted to come and pay my respects. It was a lovely service.”
“It was alright,” I shake my head and smile to ease the tension. “You’re more than welcome inside.”
“A bit crowded in there. Out here is nicer. She loved the out of doors.”
Grand’s back porch faces Kanawha National Forest. It’s a huge porch with banisters and benches and I loved playing house with my sisters or spring afternoons. We had a few old blankets we’d drape over the porch swing. A memory bouquet of smells and textures and light playing with shadow, cascades over me.
I really should be getting back. “Are you coming to the wake?”
“I’ll be along directly.”
“I’ll be there after I attend to some business with our friend here, the Saint.”
He points to the marble saint.
I laugh. “I’m not sure I know the name of this particular saint.”
“Fredrick. . .?”
“I’ll see you there. Good bye Saint Fredrick. It was a pleasure meeting you and you, Jonathan.” His hand feels electric as I take it.
The wake is in the activity building. A place of polished wood floors, wood chairs and wood paneled walls.
I take a seat next to my sister, Pam (I used to call her Pamdora and braid her into white girl dreads). Mom sits next to her and tries to put on a brave face for the crowd swirling around us. Sally is working the buffet line.
Jonathan enters by the side door. A pale young man stands beside him.
I pull Pam closer to me, whisper, “Do you see that guy over there?”
“No, the man holding the fedora.”
“What about him?”
“Says he knew Grand.” I hesitate, somehow embarrassed.
“Christin, everybody here knew Grand.”
“He says he was her boyfriend.”
Pam goes wide-eyed in disbelief.
I look at Mom. She is staring out into space, unaware of my indiscretion.
His smile was warm when he talked to me in the woods, smile that very well might have won my grandmother. I track him like a satellite tracking a tiger. I’m watching him without being seen.
I overhear him introducing the pale young man named Fred to my sister Sally. Sally are Fred seem to hit it off. I turn but I know he has glanced my way. I focus on the punch (pineapple sherbet, really?).
The family has finished cleaning up the activity building. I tell Mom to go on without me (after all, we drove different cars). I am about to carry the stack of family photos out to my car.
I find my jacket and Jonathan appears, offering to help me into it.
I say, “You startled me.”
“Never my intention.”
“So what’s the story? How did you know my Grand?”
He looks uncomfortable but there is that grin.
“Young one, that is a rather interesting story.” He indicates that I should lay the photos on one of the tables. He peruses through to the hodgepodge of old scrapbook photos from my Grand’s youth. He pulls the collage from the stack and holds for my examination like a museum curator displaying a rare work of art.
In two of the photos I find him standing near her! “What. . . ?’
“What are you doing in these? Why are you the same age then as you are now?”
“That is difficult. . .”
“What are you doing in these?”
“Millicent and I were. . .”
“Stop. Don’t dare say anything about my Gran.”
“My Grand was faithful to her husband. . .” I swear to god he’s chortling. “Stop that.”
“Christin, I can see why you were her favorite.”
“What were you to her?”
“I was. . . well, I was a guardian of sorts.”
“Some time ago I entered into a contract of sorts with your family. Several generations ago your progenitors proved to be immeasurably courageous. As per that agreement I am a resource to your family.”
“Millicent was my charge and my student. You are correct, she was ever faithful to her husband and I am fairly certain he had no knowledge of me and my role. I was more of an assistant.”
“Sounds interesting. Continue.”
“This is a transition time. My arrangement with your family can be passed from Millicent Webster Morgan to you and to you only. She was specific on this.”
“Do I get three wishes?”
He is confused, “What?”
“There have to be rules; I don’t want you popping in on me when I’m taking a shower.”
“Negotiating the boundaries of our agreement is contingent upon you accepting my service.”
“What is this going to cost me? Do I have to give you the severed hand of a dead man?” He honestly blanches.
“Dear sweet Moses, no. What would cause you to ask such a thing?”
“I’ve seen a lot of movies. This kind of thing doesn’t usually end well.”
“Millicent was not displeased with our agreement. Besides, all payment has already been made. Your choice is in the continuation or discontinuation of my assistance. You are free to tell me to stay or tell me to go at any time.”
“How do you feel about crows?”
“Cool. I agree. Would you like to help me get these things to my car?”
“I’d love to.”
Yeah, this has potential. A woman can use a little help every now and then.