Chapter 2 – Intruder

Read Chapter 1

It was a sound so familiar Lucas almost didn’t stop reading. Who was in the house? His eyes burned from deciphering the faint writing in fading daylight. He returned the book to the chest and then dropped down the through the trapdoor and hurried to the entry hall.

“Hello!” Lucas called. He was sure the front door was locked, but didn’t remember checking it.

“Hello?” A woman’s voice answered from the stairway. Lucas stopped at the foot. A stunning pale face peered down at him from the first landing. “Who are you?” she demanded.

 “Who am I? This is my house. Who are you?” Lucas rested one foot on the first stair, ready to climb.

The woman skipped down the stairs to stand in front of him. Her sleek black hair was sculpted like marble.

“I’m Sloan,” she reached out her hand. Lucas shook the tiny white hand that felt like a kitten paw inside his own rough palm. She smelled like ripe pear. “You must be Lucas. Hey, great! I’m so glad you’re here, now we can get things moving.” Sloan scanned Lucas’ tall frame. “You don’t look much like your brother.”

“That’s true,” Lucas agreed.

Sloan laughed and her eyes glittered. “I’d say so. You two are nothing alike.” She looked him up and down. “Hey, love the dreadlocks, Lucas, very ‘90s, very ironic.”

Lucas felt himself flush. His cheeks burned. What right did this stranger have walking into Nana’s house through the locked door?

“How did you get in?” Lucas gripped the bannister.

Sloan took a step back and held up her phone case. A keychain dangled from the ring attached to it.

“Mark hired me to sell the house. I’m the realtor. I work the coast market, usually Seaside to Cannon Beach, so this is a bit of a push. But what a great property! Cannon Beach can be very lucrative, but Astoria is a dice roll. This house will bring loads of offers.” Sloan studied the hardwood floors and original wainscoting, nodding her approval as she scanned the architecture. “I’ll need to take a look around, give it a walkthrough. Then I’ll work up comps.”

“Where did you get the key?” Lucas cracked his knuckles. Sloan opened her phone and started typing.

“I picked it up from the attorney’s office,” she didn’t look up.

“What attorney?”

Sloan glanced up at Lucas but kept typing.

“Your probate attorney, Chad Walker, he’s the one handling the estate. I’m texting him right now.”

Lucas realized there would be paperwork when Nana died, but didn’t consider there would be lawyers involved, or a trespassing real estate agent, however attractive.

“Look,” Lucas paused a moment to wonder how much authority a realtor might have over him. “Give me back the key. I’ll see the lawyer tomorrow. I’m here now. I don’t want you, or anyone else, just coming in whenever you feel like it.”

Sloan swung her chiseled hair and shrugged as she finished her text.

“How about this, Lucas: since I’m already here, you show me around. I need to take some photos. I can’t give the key to you. I signed for it at Walker’s office. I’ll drop it off there tomorrow. You can pick it up when you meet with him, although that will be inconvenient going forward for everyone. How does that sound?”

Lucas scratched at his chest.

“OK, I guess. We can start upstairs.”

The tour concluded in the kitchen at the back of the house. Outside it was growing dark and the windows mirrored their movements through the rooms. Sloan peered down into the cellar but didn’t care to descend the stone steps, asking only a few questions about its construction and whether it stayed dry in winter. She stopped at the narrow stairway leading up to the attic.

“Where does that go?”

“The attic,”

Sloan took hold of the doorknob, but Lucas stretched his arm across the jamb. Sloan tugged at the door.

“Lucas, I need to see it too. I need to check for leaks, see the view. I know there are windows, some potential, maybe renovated into a loft, or raise these ceilings.”

“Too dark, not tonight,” Lucas shook his head. “I need to replace the light bulb up there. It’s rickety.”

Sloan backed away to the center of the kitchen. She swiped through the gallery of photographs she’d taken.

“Okay, I have most of the shots I need. A few of these might need better light, but they’re mostly good. I already have shots from outside. Maybe I can come by tomorrow and check-out the attic?”

“Maybe,” Lucas wondered how he would keep Sloan out of the attic. He wanted to go back and open the chest, continue reading Verity’s story. He didn’t want Sloan prying.

Sloan waited for Lucas to say more, but he was watching his own watery reflection in the darkened window.

“Well, give me your phone number, Lucas, and I’ll give you mine. We’re going to be working together, so that would be helpful.”

“I thought you were working for Mark?” Lucas finally looked away from the window and back to Sloan.

 “Mark hired me, but technically, I work for you.” Sloan cocked her head and studied Lucas. “Your Grandmother made you executor of the estate. You make the final decisions.”

“No shit,” Lucas laughed and then shivered. He shook his head. It seemed a ghostly joke Nana was playing. He shivered again and thought of the chest in the attic he’d opened just hours ago.

When Sloan finally drove away in her black Escalade, Lucas rummaged in the mud room. He found a light bulb and climbed up the narrow stairs to the attic.

Chapter 1 – The Sea Chest

There was a large leather-bound book at the top. It reminded Lucas of the family bible down in the parlor, worn at the corners with the gilt-work nearly gone, though not nearly as thick. Lucas took the book from the chest and tilted it toward the southern sunlight. He opened the cover with care, smoothing the thick parchment pages, and began to read.

——————-

          June 1750 – Istanbul

It is with gratitude for the infinite grace of God and Fortune, I am finally able to take up pen and paper to transcribe my tale. All who once knew me must believe me dead, lost, or forsaken, a woman beyond hope. It is my fervent wish that someone may one day preserve my story, so that the memory of me, and my family, does not simply vanish from the world.

My name is Verity Hightower. I was born in Hathersage, England, near Sheffield, on May 1st in the year of Our Lord 1726. I am the only surviving child of James and Virginia Hightower, may God rest their blessed souls. I grew up in the parsonage in Hathersage, a snug cottage with tilled gardens, fruit trees, and a tidy stable yard. There were grassy hills and forest nearby, open places where I rambled as a girl. I stood for hours on the old stone bridge dropping primrose petals into the stream and waiting for trolls.

My father was an enlightened man. He encouraged my education and love of music and reading. I taught church school for the village children on Sunday mornings, inventing small theaters from bible stories to enact during Christmas and Whitsunday. My mother instructed me in domestic arts, as well as indulging my youthful talent for portrait painting. My life was small and homely. My fondest hope was to marry a young vicar and share the same parsonage with my parents when my father retired.

Alas and woe! Fie to the wanton twists of life, lures to the unwary and naïve, grief to the unlucky, to believe a snug sheltered life is simply an apple ripe for picking! Come the hard winter of 1743, my entire life came crashing down. A freezing fog fell for weeks on end, a bitter pall of frost, with little sunlight to warm the bones or cheer the spirit. Noxious vapors rose from the river and covered the vale. Bess, our lovely white milk cow, took fever at Epiphany and died within a day. Soon after, both my father and mother took the fever and were dead in less than a fortnight.

I was alone and bereft. An ox cart came and bore away my parents’ bodies to be burned. For many days, I scarcely kept the hearth fire stoked to warm a little broth to sup. Neighbors brought bread and porridge, yet I had no heart to brew them tea and listen to hushed words of faith spoken to comfort me.

In March, the spring rains came and the malaise over our township lifted. The roads were slick with mud. With the rains, came the Bishop. If I did not understand that my family was poor while my parents lived, the Bishop disabused me of any illusions I might retain about my prospects. Squeezing into my father’s chair in the rectory, he looked me over and pursed his lips. At last, he shook his head until his jowls trembled.

“Have you any prospects to marry?” He finally asked.

“Marry?” I knew very few boys and fewer young men, only those in our village. I never entertained the question before, in real terms, of securing a suitable groom.

“My dear,” The Bishop looked me up and down. “I am sorry to say that your prospects appear…how shall I say?…severely limited.” The Bishop tutted and scowled across the desk. “By your womanly appearance, I presume you are of an age and fertility to marry. I understand you are well-versed in letters, music and domestic management, however eccentric your appearance. Perhaps you know of a young man who might take you to wife?”

By this, I understood the Bishop to mean that despite mature bosom and hips, my red hair would deter any superstitious suitors from matrimony. Most in the Midlands still held to the belief that a woman’s red hair meant she was wanton, at best, and at worst, a witch.

“I hadn’t thought to marry,” I said. I hadn’t thought to marry because I’d never even kissed a boy, only danced with one at the harvest fair. I had no idea who the Bishop thought I might marry.

“Ah, then,” the Bishop grimaced and shook powder from his wig with a little pinch at his forelock. “There are only one or two alternatives to marriage, you see. You must earn your bread in this world my dear, even as an unfortunate orphan, by the sweat of the brow. Another vicar is appointed to this parish, and he will arrive soon. We must arrange for your removal with all alacrity.”

My heart sank. My lips felt numb. I stared down at my father’s writing desk and the stained blotter on which he wrote weekly homilies.

“You are young and healthy, that is good. Your father left no debt, so you need not fear the poor farm, yet. By the Lord’s grace, I have learned of a position for you to serve as a domestic of the higher order. Though this engagement is somewhat exotic, it is with a well-born family, a noble family. I understand you excel at instructing children.”

I nodded. I felt dumb as old Bess just before she died.

“Very good,” the Bishop scratched at his wig again and stood up. “Pack your things, my dear. We’ll have you on the coach for Liverpool tonight.”

With that I was dismissed. I returned to the cottage to gather my clothes and what few mementos I could squeeze in my mother’s portmanteau. The Bishop was true to his word. I was bundled up with my scant luggage, given a small basket of bread and sour apples, and set on the night coach to the west. In Liverpool, I took ship for Brighton to meet my new employers, the Sackvilles. With that family, I boarded a tall sailing ship to parts east, bound for Istanbul.

Djinn

Wishes come in a set of three, the same as a spell of bad luck. The slant between a wish fulfilled and a curse is slight.

Consider carefully before rubbing the lamp, cutting free the magic fish, or holding aloft the monkey’s paw.

The first wish alters the fabric of world. The second twists the wish. The third, if wisely used, returns the wisher to the world as it was before wishing.

The Battle of Hastings

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“Did the arrow go all the way through and out the back of his head?” James points at his own eye showing how that might happen at various angles.

“Maybe,” I say, “what do you think?”

“His eyeball probably popped and smooshed out all over,”

“No doubt,” I nod, “now finish your homework and I’ll finish dinner.”

James looks down at the spelling list on the table in front of him. He turns the page over and begins to draw the battle scene on the back. I feed linguine into the pot of boiling water and call over to James: “How do you spell beautiful?”

“B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L. Mom, where’s the red crayon?” He rummages in the box of art supplies.  “I need it for blood,”

My beloved bastard native tongue English: how many invasions, wars, and conquests did it take to build your astonishing agility? New words are invented every day. We select from a rich catalog of component parts: prefixes, roots, suffixes, bits of language like James’ plastic Lego blocks, to form new words and express new ideas. How to describe an orbiting satellite matching earth’s rotation, now that we have such a thing and need words to define it? Make it up. That word is “geosynchronous.” Geo=Earth. Syn=With. Chron=time.

Other languages and grammars are beautiful in their own way.  English rummages through the languages she encounters like auntie at the Saturday flea market selecting the best to take home. For example, “pajama” is an Urdu and Persian word that literally means “leg clothing.” Yet it was assimilated into English usage in the early 19th century through the conquests and adventures of the British and East Indian Trading Company. These days we’ve shortened the word even further to the cozy term “jammies.”

While some cultures seek to maintain the purity and integrity of their languages intact, English plays the field fast and loose. The French established the Académie Française to try to restrain the ranks of French speakers and the discipline of their own language. The purpose of the academy is to promote the French language and stamp out lingual interlopers and the creep of unorthodox foreign terms. Unfortunately, useful words and terms go viral in a world connected by instantaneous information technology. “Le Weekend” the French still say, despite the disapproval of the academy.

Irony is not lost here. The decisive Battle of Hastings in 1066 brought William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne. The Anglo-Saxon infantry fought fiercely against the greater Norman cavalry and archers from morning to dusk, until at last, near sunset, King Harold took an arrow in the eye and died. The Anglo-Saxon forces broke and retreated.  The French language, with William the Conqueror on the throne, gained ascendancy in the English Court and left James the frustrating legacy of learning to spell words like “beautiful.”

Slow Thaw

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The little chest freezer in the garage is about the same size as a child’s desk. It barely fit in the cargo area of the Forester to haul home after D. bought it for me as a birthday gift a dozen years ago. I wanted to freeze more blackberries, more blueberries, more tubs of Oregon strawberries. Back then, I filled it with berries and jam..

I thought there was a whole chicken in the freezer.  I rummaged among the pounds of butter, frozen peas, beef bones from the butcher for Mercy, lamb bones from summer souvlaki, and cartons of leftover bean soup stashed when we grew tired of it. In the panic of the pandemic, the freezer was stuffed full and the chicken remained mythical or a memory.

Last March, California locked down to the south. Seattle was ravaged early by contagion to the north and paralyzed. We were caught in the middle between the anvil and the hammer. Lettuce, citrus, avocados, and other vegetables travel I5 from Mexico and the San Jaoquin Valley to feed the West Coast. We didn’t know if supply channels would hold. I couldn’t find seeds to buy.

Dad eats a banana and fresh berries on his oatmeal every morning. He was bewildered by the bags of frozen berries I shoved in his freezer.  California locked down, I said. Butter freezes well, I assured him, and four pounds is not too much. It may not be enough. Toilet paper was scarce, as was hand soap and bleach. I filled the freezer week by week and bought cans of tomatoes, salmon, tuna, and pineapple to add to the pantry shelves.

There is a cardboard box next to the freezer filled with anchovies, tomato paste, sesame oil, shoyu, a kilo of basmati rice, and cans of dog food. The box is slowly being emptied. I rummage through it, taking from the hoarded goods to use, resisting the impulse to buy more to drop into the box. I wonder what I was thinking when I bought the package of grilled artichokes or dried bing cherries, but realize it was not thought so much as premonition. We’ve come through better than many, better than most.

I found the chicken down at the bottom of the freezer. I rolled it out like an icy bowling ball, cradled it to the kitchen, and dropped it in the refrigerator so heavily I thought the plastic drawer cracked. Every morning for four days, I put the frozen chicken in the sink for an hour to thaw.  On the fifth morning, I put the chicken in the sink and took up my cauldron. Mercy ate simmered giblets for dinner.

The garlic planted in the dark of winter is now two hands high. This year I found sets of red and white onion and golden Dutch shallots. I put them in the ground flanking the garlic on the waxing water moon. The green tips are barely visible now.

In the I Ching, after Heaven and Earth, follows the third Hexagram of Difficulty, which gives birth to all the ten thousand things, the tao of “Bursting, Sprouting, Hoarding, Distress, Organizational Growth Pains, Difficult Beginnings, Growing Pains, Initial Obstacles, Initial Hardship.” Of this, like the onion first spying sky, the commentary notes: “It is visible, but has not lost its dwelling.” 

It’s a slow thawing spring.

Air

gryphon

Last year an eclipse bloodied the full moon in her home sign. It was after solstice, after the holidays, the demarcation of the before-time.

Under this year’s full moon, a wasp queen woke from her secret winter nest inside an oak haunch stacked for the fire. She circled madly through the kitchen hammering the light above the stove.  While I chopped vegetables for soup, her gryring shadow fell across my knife magnified into a furious gryphon on the wing. She was finally trapped and set free into the December night. 

A flood of narratives are on offer everywhere reflecting on the old year gone, but I do not read them. It is air now, not stone. Watch the blade and not the shadow.

Down along the river the sky and water blend together at the horizon, smelted iron without inflection, my boots sinking down in the saturated loam. The dog reads the shades of scent in the air and tells me their story. She presses her nose to the long grass, following, to raise a pheasant. When the fireworks started, she slipped under the bed.

I cut my hair on New Year’s Day. Six inches of hair grow in a year. I picked out the moss and twigs and mud with a wide-toothed comb and sliced away old handfuls with sharp steel shears.

God Clouds

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“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

The full moon arched overhead masked by clouds, a chip-shot eclipse while we slept, a rosy glow lingering on the western horizon at dawn. The last of day of November cruising the Via Combusta, a cursed month in a cursed year.

We held a masked drive-by Thanksgiving. My sister and I filled plastic containers with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie and whipped cream and stacked them in boxes for family to pick up, although she did most of the cooking. I made wild chanterelle and sage dressing. My caramel-apple gingerbread came out doughy and underdone. I think I overreached by trying to squeeze in the last half an apple.

Eventually, all the Tupperware floats along some inscrutable relay and ends up piled in a bag at our father’s house to retrieve. Christmas trees will be small and potted this year, maybe Rosemary pruned to resemble a fir. We will send the Tupperware circulating again with a spin for the next round of holidays.

I made a pie of leftovers, from dressing mostly and dry bits of chopped poultry. Caramelized onions and spinach wilting on its own formed the base of a roux. Mix in the leftover cup of gravy and mushroom stock, stir in heavy cream that wasn’t whipped and mash it all together. The pie looked like knobby dirt and tasted delicious.

I dreamed the dog was nuzzling at the tawny flanks of a lioness seated in the desert looking far into the horizon. I tried to call her off to me, hissing quietly so as not to break the cat’s meditation and have her devour Mercy. When I woke, I realized the lion was me.

pond_thanksgiving

Not Yams

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–A Thanksgiving Screed–

It’s late Wednesday afternoon when my father finally breaks away from his practice and comes home to load our big white Chevy wagon for the trip across the state to Idaho. Dogs and shotguns stacked in the back for bird hunting Thanksgiving morning, pastries and coffee cakes Mom baked and wrapped stowed safely away from the dogs, and coloring books for my brother and me during the 400 mile trek over the Cascades, across the high desert, twisting through icy passes in the Malheur, until finally crossing the Snake River and up Olds Ferry Road to my grandparents’ place.

Dad’s clan gathered in the drafty farm grange surrounded by fallow disked fields under light snowfall. Women brought covered dishes and converged to carve three or four turkeys. I snitched black olives from the relish bowl and stuck one on each finger. The food was cold, at best lukewarm. The turkey was stringy and parched, mashed potatoes congealed, and green beans boiled with bacon for hours took on the flavor of the bleak November sky. The women did their best, I know now and understand, with what they had in that rustic grange hall.

The important thing, Mom said, was family and yes, I had to wear a dress until dinner was over, and yes, I must try everything and not just butter a roll for a turkey and pickle sandwich. (The Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail and swirled Cool Whip was palatable.) The worst dish, nastier than gelatinous dressing and greasy gravy, was the platter of sticky yams coated in marshmallows.

Eating a cloying yam, a sickly sweet potato, the stringy fibers of an acorn squash, was a feat too far. The taste of orange mealy vegetables made me gag as surely as the trip over the mountains made me car sick. Butter, brown sugar, and marshmallow are for fools. I was not so easily deceived. Yams are the bottom of the fodder rainbow and better left to beasts. Try it, Mom hissed, but I gagged over my plate and she lifted me up by one arm and hustled me away from the table.

Carving pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns made me retch, reaching down the stinking cavity into a sticky web of seeds smelt of dying earth. Even pumpkin pie, dressed with cream and spice, tastes of swampy rotting entrails. Roasted carrots coated with honey and sesame seed served by loving friends are a problem. I toy during conversation to discreetly hide them under a stray rib of romaine.

“Eat the rainbow,” nutritionists counsel, so I slug down a shot glass of carrot juice every morning and call it good. Autumn markets showcase brimming bins of orange squashes and tubers so I give them wide berth. Cooking magazines displayed at checkout feature glossy butternut and patty pan recipes and I can’t swallow. I look away instead and read the headlines of the tabloids featuring the latest dish on Harry and Meghan.

A Feather

scorpio_new_moon_rainbow

The first rager of winter bellows in from the Pacific, swirling wind circling southeast in the valley bowl, bends the birch and tears the last frond feathers from the locust. There will be more and they will keep coming.

An inch of rain pounds against the stove cap, wind whistles through the chimney cap, eaves overflow with leaves and water spills broadside. Black moon in a black sign at the end of the Via Combusta, wait for the lights to meet and seed a new turn. Then we will know.

Venus trails and lingers, fingering the Feather and Scales as Maat; she still walks the burning road. The Messenger knows the secrets, where the bodies and the booty lie buried in the bog. The Warrior turns for the third and final battle.

Dress in mist, all the colors of air, to slip between: chalk, slate, smoke blue, steel. Waft through empty spaces like vapor, never noticed by human eyes, observed only by the heron at the river bank who sees and, wishing herself invisible, remains unseen. There is deep pooling water along the trails we tread–sky traps ensnaring clouds and gobbling them whole.

The coipú, the swamp rat, startles as the dog emerges from the mist, slips off the bank and dives underwater. I watch for the creature to surface for air downstream. It is last quarter now, in this cursed Year of the Rat.

Just the weight of a feather~

The Turning

equinox_seeds

All Hallows

Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

–Louise Glück

American Poet Louise Glück won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature