More on Saying 'Yes' to Myself
It was the gloamy color of a newborn's eyes.
Through the tongue-tipped trees, I could still see the mountain. Soft and round.
The air smelled like a palace of water. The month of May was curtaining and the apple tree was dropping her slip to the ground, a lacy unspooling into the Irish grass. A robin sat on the garden gate, gripping the grain with its crescent claws. And I was sparking across my arms,
fireworking all the way up to my throat. I was three years past twenty. That night, I put my hand inside my heart and brought something back up (heart-stained and my fingernails caked): my palm holding a very central desire.
And as I walked around the garden, it was in the cup of my hand still throbbing. The dream was ribboning through the tendons of my body. I wanted to write.
Not for a living, but in my living. This was what I wanted more than anything -- as Mary Oliver adjured, "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."
Tell about. To build my life around storytelling was a fresh cider, tendrils of a new vision, and also ancient in my marrow. And as my wellies scuffed the dew
I scraped off all the messages saying no no no. They were messages that molded my esophagus,
a flaking flurry of false damp, and I had to find the clean, real me underneath -- the vocal chords still pure and longing.
I worked every day in the garden, puncturing holes for leeks. They had white hairs, and they went into the holes made my broomsticks one by one. Dozens. And afterwards I put on my winter coat and wrote in the stables. Under my feet, the floorboards were penetrated with his piano playing, the wood taking in Shostakovich and Ravel, rising to my rubber soles, through my boots and into the bones of my toes. Again and again, one phrase of broken punctuation. I wrote to that repetition, for one hour, two, three. The sun strolled through the stable yard, mounting every dome of cobble and shone-gold through the bell tower: stone and ivy. When every cell of light had settled on the ground, I was called to make dinner. I poured a schssss of rice into the tin pot, and kept Martje in my mind.
"You're the rice girl," said Monica as I
chopped carrots, singing their edges to sweetness, whipping a white sauce in a saucepan. Saucepan is a compound
word, delightful. In the stable I kept my hands warm by putting them against a mug of tea.
I touched it to stay mobile. But the tea cooled quickly. The steam rose, rose, fugacious and gone. Still, I remember dancing under a cherry tree one day, blood roiling in my belly, feeling that my entire body was made of papery petals. For two months I felt like this.
And then my pumping wings became bent at the joints. I was cramped, cutting comfrey and digging potatoes. I didn't want to scrape out time to write: I wanted the lavish globs of time that Daniel had. I steeled myself, told myself I was worth it, and asked the owner of the estate whether I could live there -- not punching holes in the dirt, but spending my entire day writing. "May I pay the same rent as Daniel?" I asked, knowing the gentleman was a patron of the arts and of young people's dreams. We were standing in the stable yard. He was holding a rake, and I was rubbing the seam of my pocket and looking at the moss growing between the cobblestones. He said that my request was not possible to grant. He could not afford it. Daniel paid a very subsidized rent, and he needed gardeners to dig his potatoes -- or the regular price. I said I understood, and I went up the woods. Far away from anyone else, I sat down on the ground raspy with acorns, and pulled my knees up to my chest. I covered my mouth with both my hands. I pressed so hard, I left hand prints on my face.
I stayed there for a long time. When I finally stood up, I looked around and found that I was in an aquarium of green. In the July woods, the shaking leaves looked like dragonflies stuck in twigs. I hit the dust off my jeans.
I walked back to the manor house and climbed the stairs to my bedroom.
Monica, my fellow gardener and Spanish sister, was asleep on my bed. Her face had somehow ended up against her grammar book.
When she heard the latch, she struggled up, a reddish mark across her cheek -- "Hola." Then she poked her eyes. "Uh, hello. My English. I forgot it when I am sleeping." She started again. "Hello, princess. You were in the woods?"
"How did you know?"
"Wof, because that is where you get your energy. When you are gone, I know Sarah is taking her energy from the trees, from the plants and flowers. When I met with you, I thought, 'This girl is crazy, but in a good way. She is -- how can I say -- healthy crazy. Going for hikings. . . What are hikings?' And passing all her time in the woods. 'This girl thinks she is a horse.' But you were the first healthy crazy person I met."
I laughed hard, and touched the shell on my bureau. I felt the crack down my heart with inner fingers, pressed the suture down hard. The shell was mother-of-pearl, a blush of plum and silver.
"What does baby Sebby want for dinner tonight? Potatoes. Of course. But I hope no nettle plants. I say, what is this. If my mother and my grandmother saw what I was eating here -- wof."
"We'll make lentils, don't worry. I am having a hard time with him right now."
"Because he is, what do you call, machisto."
"Yes, he's that. But that's not it."
"He told me no. I asked him today and he told me no."
I turned away from the bureau and pulled myself up on the window sill. It was a wide ledge. I started picking at the peeling paint. "You know how hard it was for me to ask. It took me so long to get to a place where I could ask. Where I felt worthy of writing full-time. And I haven't told Daniel yet and I don't think I'm going to."
"Why not?" sharp on the 't'.
"Because I would be embarrassed to." I turned my eyes against the cold glass. "I am so embarrassed right now."
"No." She sounded angry. "What for? Why embarrassed?" I heard her swing her legs over the bed side.
"Because I can't have the same thing that Daniel was given. Sebastian basically told me I wasn't good enough to be helped in the same way Daniel was."
"You have your own talent. Every day you sit here or in the yard. You shake your talent out."
The glass was warming under my temple. "I'm not really questioning whether I'm talented. Or even hard-working." I watched a mother sheep limp across the pasture. "The tough part is that Sebastian doesn't see that I am. And that's what hurts. That he doesn't see me on the same level as Daniel, as being worth helping. Or maybe even as having the same potential." The glass had fogged up -- the sheep blotted out with mist.
Then there was no sound in the room. I didn't know what Monica was doing behind me.
I heard a lamb wail; the mother responded. I wiped the fog free, and the lamb trotted through the clear circle. They were reunited in the center.
Monica said, "__,"
-- and in that moment, her Spanish curse was enough.
The next week, Daniel and I lay in the heather half-way down the mountain. He was in his usual hoodie, the color of the sea, and the Irish Sea was on the other side of the mountain. He was wreathed in lavender bells, and bedded on what looked like dried seaweed. It felt like he was across that sea, even though if I reached out my hand, we could have hooked pinky fingers. And I wanted to touch him -- to kiss his cheek. But I kept watching the clouds. (They were frothy, and yellow like stained wool.) My heart felt as hollow as a horn. I had received my second rejection letter that day from the Immigration Bureau -- unfolded it and looked at it with blank eyes.
And when we walked down the rest of the mountain, Daniel asked, "Are you ready to fight for this? Are you ready to gather every last ounce of strength inside, and fire it out towards shaping your reality? To blaze out and fight for your dream to stay in Ireland?"
"No," I said suddenly. "No, I'm not. I'm tired of the legality and of gardening. I miss my brothers. I have nothing in me left to fight. Which I think means -- I think says exactly what I'm feeling. I think it says I'm going back to America. -- This is a revelation to me."
I looked down at the oozing between rocks. We continued walking in silence.
Finally he spoke. "Everything in my heart is screaming at me right now, 'You fool, don't let this angel by your side go.'" He was breaking apart a sprig of heather in his hands. "But if that's what you want, and that's what your heart needs -- then that's what you should do."
Six months later, I was sitting in the snow on the side of an American highway, eating a chocolate bar.
The chocolate was dark, and had ginger and orange peel in it. The February sky above was a trumpet-call of blue.
My car had broken down, and my backseat was full of trash bags, packed with clothes. I was en route to the base of Mt. Wachusett, to take care of a brick house and a few show dogs. Except for the puppy. I held my hands between my knees and folded the chocolate foil into a triangle.
I was eventually rescued and driven the rest of the way. After my mother kissed me goodbye, my hostess showed me my bedroom: it had a fireplace, wide pine floors, and a four-poster bed. She had said she was going to stay the week with me, to get me acclimated. In the first hour, she taught me how to use the wood stove and pointed out the location of the dog food. Then she appeared in the living room wearing a hat of brown velour, with a feather, and said,
"Wendy B must be out on the town,"
and tucked her skinny puppy under her arm. "I think you have enough groceries." And then she left for her second home in Vermont.
I was alone, except for the sleeping show dogs. Darkness poured over the mountains of Massachusetts.
Snow began to fall -- softly at first, then wildly. There were eggs in the kitchen, my quinoa in the cupboard, and Wendy had left me two bottles of red wine. I pottered around her kitchen and took a sip of her port. It smelled like my Peppercorn forest and surprised me how much it tasted like a hickory nut that has been sitting in the dirt. When I looked out all the windows, I could see no neighboring candles.
I turned off my lights and sat down in front of the wood stove. I ate a bowl of quinoa, with spaghetti sauce and grated Parmesan cheese. I let the fire paint my body, brushing over my elbows and knees with sunset, and dreamed of the writing ahead of me. Three months of full-time scrawling. The bricks were warm under my legs. I thought, "It's like I'm sitting on a warm dinosaur egg." I could hear the snow hissing against the window pane, and I rubbed my hand over and over the warm bricks. I put aside my empty bowl and laid my cheek down on the stone, and looked at the bricks. Up close, the surface was an expanse of gloss and crag. The fire light flowed in and out of the miniature craters, the fire the
color of Martje's hair.