She was here and she was gone and the space between too short for memory to claw a foothold.
But I think of it often, usually in the truncated, silent spaces between nonessential things that snare my attention, and while there were other moments that resonated to the core of my being—the book moments, the time in the upstairs library when I watched her eyes dance at the sight of thousands of books lining the walls, stacked high on a table and balancing precariously on boxes, chairs and a dresser—what returns is always at the end of the block in a small prairie town with cicadas singing in the trees and the air sultry and achingly hot, and four people walking slowly without hurry or care and a little one ensconced in a carriage. Horses galloped through the field with their manes and tails streaming behind like flames and the late afternoon sun blinding on the whitewashed grain elevator jutting above the green path of Juganine Creek. A little hand reaching out from the shadowed folds of the carriage, bright eyes captivated by the horses and the sunscorched leaves hanging listless in the heat.
I could barely keep up though not because of my knee. There was something else holding me back, some disconnect I at first attributed to a latent uncertainty about young girls and how they are to be treated, similar to how I approach with not a little fear and trepidation large hoofed mammals. Either can hurt the grown man, and badly, and I did not want that to be my fate. I wanted something more, something better, and I did not know how to go about it, or what to say, or what gestures to make. I sojourned in a strange land whose terrain matched nothing I had known, each step incalculable, perilous with risk.
The horses came to her as if summoned. She was almost eleven, tall and gangly with a slightly upturned nose a plastic surgeon in Florida had told her was the lifeblood of his business, all those rich white women flocking to his clinic for improvements both large and small, and a well-designed button nose most of all. Or so said her mother. I wondered how she knew plastic surgeons and could only guess at that other life, one revealed to us only in passing.
The horses reached out to her and her to them. She stroked their foreheads and brushed flies from their backs and laughed when their tails swished across her face. Her eyes flashed with silent laughter. Though a city girl, she was utterly fearless as if anywhere she found herself was hers alone and none other. Her auburn eyes took in the world and never completely let it out but kept it inside in a secret place known only to her. She was unlike anyone I had known whether adult or child, self-contained and complete, confident and competent, though at times I feared it was only a facade, that beneath that placid surface cracks spidered and lengthened.
I studied her and waited and tried capturing a few frozen moments with the camera. She had never liked having her picture taken, always balking and turning away, some of which I attributed to her age and gender. Not that I was an expert or had any real inkling of the reason, relying solely on Lori’s judgment. She should know. Having nothing else, I took her on her word. This time, though, the girl seemed altogether different, facing the camera as if it were merely her due. She did not turn away but boldly stared into the lens until the connection was made and with a subtle smile broke it off and left me there dismissed. At no time did I feel anything other than a bystander or a stranger.
It was different in the house, particularly in the library. She was a voracious reader of fantasy novels, preferably the modern genre with vampires, werewolves and an undercurrent of romance and longing. Her taste in reading was hardly mine though parallels existed. When she told me she liked scary stories I told her about H.P. Lovecraft, arguably the finest horror novelist of all time. She asked if I owned his books and I said yes, and she asked if she could borrow them. I hesitated and replied that I would think about it, a process that felt like betrayal. It was in her eyes, a glimmer but gone in flash, and then she was climbing the stairs behind me and the library exploded in her imagination. So many books in which to utterly lose oneself. So many unexplored universes.
The titles she gravitated to were my classics, the science fiction and fantasy works that were mine from an early age, many of them paperbacks that cost forty cents at the time. Most of them I remembered even if dimly, and more than a few I could recall their endings with some clarity, including a Lord Dunsany short story that had an ending with the hero being consumed by his enemies. Happy endings were for romances, I learned, and if life taught me otherwise there was always a threat of disaster lurking in the wings. Looking at the girl poring over the titles, one finger gently tracing their spines and an expression of rapt excitement, I wondered how this tale would end, if I could keep this relationship and how. How I could build upon this bond based on words and the intermediary of our son to form something that, like literature, would last the ages. How I could do this thing that must be done.
I pulled several titles from the shelves and gave them to her, some of the best of the best. She wanted more, certainly warranted in her case where books were luxuries rather than privileges. And I thought then that I would funnel books her way, each book a building block or a plank in the bridge that would join us together, that my library that had served me so well deserved a new purpose, a new life, a resurrection of sorts, just as she deserved more than she had received.
A night passed and then a morning. She walked to her car with a pile of books two feet deep and a smile and a laugh, and when she returned to me it was with open arms and hug that melted a heart in need of melting.
This is beautiful, Tom. What a special relationship and a very lucky girl. Eleven is a tough age. She may not always realize how blessed she is to have you in her life, but someday she'll look back and she'll understand and appreciate the difference you made.
I can hope for that, and will.
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