Reverence

“In the end, there are only a few things, really: love and hate, empathy and indifference.”

I said this to Richard, looking up from my letter from Dad—posted six weeks ago—the letter that contained the news of Uncle Henry’s death. The train rattled along rhythmically swaying us left, right, left, right, left right; bearing us along to our destination. We were sitting side by side on our way from Tuzla to Budapest. Richard stared straight ahead, watching the moving landscape out the window opposite him. After a long silence, I continued on with my monologue on faith. I expected him to listen, which he did. I expected no response.

“Once you accept that, a lot falls away. Just as if you were on a crowded train,” I gestured around me. “You’re jammed together, being jostled, and then the next to last stop everyone gets off and the light shines through and you get a seat and it feels so good to sit down and the sun is setting and a breeze is wafting through the open doors, and you think, ‘I could ride this train forever.'” Her compassion, Richard thought, her warmth, were given generously, not from any state of dependency, any policy of economy. These qualities of hers did not hang around his neck, weighing him down. She gave freely, but he understood she would pack up and move on at any time, the sun breaking through on a grey day and then retreating behind the clouds again—giving without reserve, removing without remorse.

“Why do people always have to put qualifications, limitations on love: I loved her; she was like my child. Why does it matter? ‘You’re too old, Uncle Henry. It’s too late,'” I continued, fanning myself with the letter, flapping it up and down on my lap. “Wrong time, wrong whatever. You yourself are wrong.” I quoted something I had read: ‘Release your desires, let them go, and never speak of them as they pile one upon another, rising up to a great thunderhead in your heart.’

The statue that was Richard spoke, “You’re trying to keep the mojo; when it’s over, it’s gone. You kept lightning bugs in jars when you were a kid, didn’t you? Once they die, they get tossed, right? You don’t keep them. You wanna keep them. Some dried up crap stuck on a piece of grass. But you refuse to throw it out. When it’s over, it’s gone. You’re still waiting.”

‘I really hate him,’ I thought, not for the first time, but I was too exhausted, too spellbound by the motion of the train for any keen emotion. I turned my head away from him. Neither one of us was willing to speak about Louis. I knew Richard was thinking of him.

“Yeah, well, that’s very neat and tidy. Enesa’s passion—so brilliant—where did that come from? Where has it gone? It just can’t disappear, can it? Uncle Henry’s love drove that damn train. A force so strong—it has to go somewhere, right? The laws of physics. Don’t you find that to be true? Don’t you believe that’s true in your own mind?”

I fell into a reverie, thinking about how the one death was so different from the other: one bloody and fueled by hatred, the stealing of a young life; the other a slow attenuation into nothingness in the awful silence of unrequited love. I twisted my head further to the side and up, staring at the clouds as we continued on. I closed my eyes and after a time opened them again, the clouds had stopped their sprint across the sky and were still. I was still. I cast my eyes down and saw I was no longer on the train, but was standing in front of a kitchen sink in a house high on the top of a mountain, on the top of the world, looking out the kitchen window. Down in the sink was a colander full of green beans. I picked one up and snapped off both ends, the sound of it loud in the silence, and put it on top of the pile of the ones already there. I picked up another and snapped it, then another. The pile grew larger, one by one. The clouds remained still and held the wisdom I wanted tight within their domain.

I continued the snapping, thinking one’s departure from this world would not be so bad up here in this beautiful, eerie isolation with the clouds turning golden in the western sky, the wind picking up, singing its own song. I turned from the window. Jay and Enesa were there with me, sitting round the kitchen table, Enesa’s elbows on its wooden surface, chin resting in her palms, listening to Jay fingerpick his guitar. She never turned around. Jay looked at me from under his lashes, not moving his head.

“I know, now, you were behind the donations,” I told him. We had been able to transport a few stallions back to their home stable, although to what future was uncertain; we never got the mares. They, along with the rest, remained lost. One stallion, Tulipan Caprice, was headed to the states, a token of gratitude, too precious to be bought, only meant to be given and received. Again, possible because of Jay.

“You think when I made it I lost everything else?”

“No, no . . . not you.” A surge of emotion tightened my throat, and I turned my face away, gazing out the window. “I’ve always loved you in my own way, you know,” I continued. “Loved that you didn’t turn . . . that you didn’t see just a girl or a pirate, but a sailor out on the open sea. That you gave me a gift from the kingdom you built with your own heart and mind.” I paused, looking back at him. “The kingdom of Yellowbird.” I smiled at my joke. “You think I don’t understand your generosity?”

Jay continued to look at me. “We’ll be on the late show, darling,” he said softly. “Play a little music, have a few laughs.” He winked. “They’ll say we were brilliant.”

When I turned back again both were gone. Evan sat alone there now, playing, eyes closed but still beautifully expressive, the sweep of lashes above the curve of his cheek, the gorgeous Les Paul chords echoing through the room as if brought in by the wind and the sky. I thought it would break me. He too had given from his self-built kingdom, unbeknownst to him and relentlessly one-sided, but vital just the same. Eventually, he disappeared as well, though the music continued on.

Outside the brilliant light softened, turning the darkened house redder as my pile grew higher. The table behind me continued to be visited by indistinct images tumbling in and out of my vision, a communal board peopled by those I loved or wanted to love, and I felt the force of a passion like Uncle Henry’s running through my veins. I thought of the girls from the mustard-colored building—a world I wanted to know, but didn’t know. Another green bean and the air changed. I lifted my head to the breeze, like an animal that knows a storm is coming when the sun is still shining; like the great stallion Tulipan Sava did when he last raised his head as he lay in that boxcar.

One bean left, but I believed there was no beginning or end. The wind died down; the music stopped. A thrill of dread ran through me, but I would not allow myself to turn around; I knew all was gone in the silence and the stillness, gone in those red slants of light. I raised both hands and placed my palms over my eyes, felt the water from the vegetables trickle down my forearms, tickling me.

Richard was nudging me in my side. “Stop scratching. What are you doing? Stop making a scene.” Startled awake, I gave up trying to poke my finger through the bandages to scratch my wounded arm, and Richard went back to staring out the window. Eventually I put my head on his shoulder, and after a minute he leaned his head on mine. The train rattled on toward the border.

Advertisements

My Only Glory

the power of dreams

The train was made to work. Henry jammed himself on, ran the diesel engine, and the train chugged round and round the field. Daniel, leaning over in Maggie’s lap, sunk his teeth into the boxcar’s wooden edge and, looking down, watched the tracks as the train jounced along. The three laughed a lot. Soon other kids stopped by, begging for a ride. Someone from the next town drove over and brought his little girl who rode around with her silent mouth wide open. The barn and field became something of a local gathering place. Kids were devoted to Leo and Tod, particularly a “horse-phase” gang, who ignored the makeshift railroad, each girl taking her turn standing on a stool to elaborately braid one of the great horse’s mane. Happiness woven iridescent by the summer damselflies filled Henry’s days. On weekends Maggie would bring Daniel over with Claude—momentarily stunning Henry, as if he had forgotten that her husband existed—but he used the sound of the brass train bell ringing, the sight of the tanned, lithe limbs of his charges all akimbo as they piled in behind the engine as blinders, and it was too easy during these times to not face facts, too easy to ignore that one particular fact that any misstep would land him deep in the abyss of envy and despair. He believed in the power of his dreams.

But those dreams were his high water mark. He never did kiss Maggie, although he might have on one or two occasions had he risked it. Come September, a month he always hated with its hard blue skies, the humidity lifted and most of his riders vanished back inside their schools. Then the weather turned; it rained for days and Henry did not see Maggie or Daniel for over a week. When the sun re-emerged and the sky became a still blue bowl once again, the pair did not reappear. Henry walked over to the Nelsons’ house and stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for he wasn’t sure what, but there was no movement within that he could perceive. He got his answer at the post office a few days later when he overheard the Miller sisters talking about the Nelsons, Irene Miller saying with a knowing air that the boy was in Saint Luke’s for ‘God knows what,’ as if to say, for those like Daniel, suffering was his lot and the way of the world, and she understood that.

My uncle walked every day past the Nelsons’ house hoping to somehow discern some kind of reason, to distill information from the thin air if need be, until one day the answer came in the form of a For Sale sign planted startlingly upright in the Nelson’s lawn, like a flag staking territory for fear and pain. Daniel had died over Thanksgiving, and the Nelsons were fleeing their memories.

Henry retreated to his shed and stayed there a good part of the winter even though it had no heat; he most assuredly drank heavily. My father went several times to talk to him, Dad’s face on returning dark and troubled; he never spoke of these visits to us. When Uncle Henry emerged from his shed, he came out a different person. I liked to imagine people as colors and shapes, and my uncle—wiry and strong—had always seemed to me like a green vine, all loops and curvy tendrils, but his sorrow changed that. When I saw him next the only image conjured was one of ruble: rusty iron, crumbling concrete; no  grace or movement left.

The kids still wanted to ride the train, and sometimes he’d accommodate them, sometimes there’d be no answer to the small knock on the shed door. The barn became verboten territory for children of the more suspicious and anxious parents in town, though most snuck in there with their friends anyway. Leo was put down due to old age and was replaced with a smaller, dapple grey mare, Marisa. Sometimes I’d look at my uncle as he watched the kids in the barn with Marisa and Tod, and the look in his eyes made me advert my gaze as if I was spying on something sacred, and there’d be a catch in my throat and a sharp pain in my chest. He remained in limbo until the summer I graduated high school. Then he heard she had married someone else and he stopped running the train.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie … my love, my train, my only glory, he would think over and over and over. When he died from holding on for far too long, the train was left standing in the field in the rain, then the snow, then the sun, the grass growing between the rails, the dark metal of the engine powdered with dirt, and rust, and bird droppings until it all stood desecrated, all love long gone, emanating a despair so solid and so steady that people would walk by that field quickly, never stopping, and kids would dare one another to run over and touch the engine, then run away again, because it was “spooked.”

Control Your Horses

uncle henry

The Nelsons, a young married couple, never shed their mantle of otherness, due to the fact that few people ever moved to town and because their only child, a troubled boy, was given to fits so severe he would struggle for breath and fairly turn blue.

The boy was called Daniel, never Danny. The man’s name was Claude, a sturdy man with pale skin and dark hair; late in the day, the blackness of his stubble against the whiteness of his skin was hard not to stare at. He was kind to his son, but embarrassed by him, picking up every flicker of pity, every tic of disdain on the part of the home-towners. He was hard on his wife; the more forgiving her response, the more compassion she showed, the angrier he’d become. She put no distance between her son’s plight and her emotions, and there was no room for him. There was nothing left for him. Her name was Marguerite. Henry would later call her Maggie because it was too much trouble to say it full out. Maggie was light on her feet and extremely quick—one minute she was beside you or in the room, the next, she was gone. Except when weighed down by her boy.

My uncle’s barn sat within town limits, set back off a road that curved around sharply then ran downhill. Marguerite would walk this road with Daniel at times, struggling with him in tow, not an easy process, and if you got close enough, you would notice he was strapped into a harness—out of view under his checked shirt—a leather lead line strap attached to the belt of his corduroy pants. The pair drew Uncle Henry out of his shed. He’d work in the front yard hoping to catch her going by. They’d smile at each other and nod at first; eventually Maggie stopped and talked. She had a warm, ready response for everything he said, and the first time she looked at Henry and gave him a sweet, sad smile of apology for her son’s outburst, it was as if someone whacked him across the head with a two by four. He was never the same. Life was never the same.

Henry asked if Daniel would like to see the barn—to distract him from his furies—but the massiveness of Leo and Tod frightened him, and it would have been impossible to maneuver him in and out of the old red and blue ride car. The only thing the boy liked was the train engine. He would grab at it, press his face against its hard surface, hold on and be still. Within this stillness he obtained a dignity, his brown eyes fixed afar and wondering, beautiful like his mother’s. In these quiet moments, it was easier to understand how someone could love him.

And Henry loved Maggie. Loved her in silence, though at times the way she looked at him gave him hope, and he had seen her turn her gaze on her husband, her eyes hard and cold. He hated her husband, with his suits and his youth and his prerogative, hated her thin gold wedding band that, even in that thinness, was able to catch the light and flash its possession like an intruder between the two of them though it was Henry who was the third party.

He’d sit in his shed and question himself; he could drive Leo and Tod with just as much male bravura as the young carnival ride operator whom all the girls fancied. He would weigh and wonder at the evilness of his bitter raging against the bonds of moral values and matrimony. Bonds he’d be willing to break. This was his chance for happiness. His despair at times was so strong it gave him incredible perception, and he could sense the despair of others, like a kindred spirit, almost see it rising up from the ground like steam off wet pavement hit by a sunlight shaft.

Things went on pretty much the same for several months until, one night in late June, too much humidity and too much alcohol sent Henry to the barn. He couldn’t sleep. He took a sledgehammer and shattered the old ride car cab; he took some surplus barn siding and broke that down as well; he hoisted an armful of abandoned train track off its stack by the salt lick blocks and went out to the field. He had an idea to reconstruct—on a more modest scale—the underappreciated carnival train ride for Daniel; between the dry grass, and the alcohol and cigarettes, it was a wonder he didn’t set the place ablaze.

Over the next several weeks he built an open boxcar carriage out of the barn siding and red and blue cab. The train engine was pushed back onto the old door, dragged out to the field, and attached to the carriage. It didn’t run; he would have to work up the diesel engine later. And then he laid the tracks. This was harder, to secure them, than one imagined. And he didn’t have any help. When he couldn’t sleep at night for the longing, he’d go to the field and work on the track, smoking and drinking, laying the rails.

When he was finished, rails secure to the ground, carriage attached to the engine, he brought Daniel over one muggy morning. Maggie and Henry put him in the carriage. It was deep enough that he could safely sit it in it alone without fear of falling out. Soon the train would take him around the field, Henry told him. “Whoo, whoo,” Daniel cried. He was able to sit for long periods of time in that carriage, happy as a clam in its wooden crate-box shell, leaving Henry and Maggie free on the field’s border. When he leaned on the fence rail and talked quietly with Maggie, watching her as she watched her son, it was so big for him—even though it was still far from his dreams, dreams in which he was confident, she was willing, and he held her tight and kissed her hard.