Return to a Meadow
Published by Blade of Grass Press, 2014
Paperback, 378 pages
Also available in Kindle version
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Petra Kalinowski, psychotherapist, declared herself unsuited for daily parenting decades ago. Now she finds herself with a baby to raise; or not to raise. Return to a Meadow has dramatic elements: rape, murder, multiple personality disorder, and a prolonged suicide sequence. All are presented, not sensationally, but as complex human realities. This is a literate novel that does not ignore the human need for a compelling story. Poetry, philosophy, and mystical writings are woven in, adding substance and depth and, crucially, moving the narrative along.
"Compassionate, compelling in its theme which 'spans the contradictions' between suffering and joy, between isolation and community, between judgment and compassion, between gritty realities and transcendent moments. It is beautifully nuanced in relational dynamics, dialogue, description." -- Margaret Blanchard, poet, novelist, artist, educator; author: This Land: a Novel Memoir and Water Spies
"Such a relief from so many novels that just plod along, leading the reader like a sleepy pony on a halter. The great part for me is that I could hang on and it was fun. The writing, for me, is very yummy. It is smart and crisp and tender." -- Gail Roudebush, reader
"I was thrilled to discover I was totally involved in the story and it would be a book I would like even if my sister hadn't been the author. Mom really likes it, too. She said she hates to put it down. She'd read more at a stretch if she could, but her eyes get tired and she's forced to stop. I think your book is a hit!" -- Karen Weldon, the author's sister
Opening Chapters of Return to a Meadow:
Petra Kalinowski knows this one thing: the rock she sits on. She knows its jutting places, the curve of its indentations, how faithfully unyielding it is. So much of life she does not quite grasp. Even her own face eludes her. She can use the mirror: short Polish American woman, spare but not skinny; plain dark cap of hair, no gray yet; eyebrows dominating a face neither unusual nor uninteresting. She has no complaint, but when she turns from the mirror she can't quite remember the look of herself. Ah, this is an old theme. Does it matter? Not much. Set it aside.
Necessity. She's been reading Simone Weil. No philosophy for years. Now, suddenly, Weil. Necessity. Gravity. Decreation. She leans her mind against the stern words. She has needed a leaning place; or something to set her mind down into, unyielding and certain, like rock, or like the vocabulary of brilliant, peculiar Simone Weil. It's that session with Helga yesterday. And yes, it's the baby, too, who comes and goes, little critter in need of care and she, Petra Kalinowski, gives the care. Only occasionally, only for a few hours at a time. Still: after all these years, a baby in her house, in her arms. Helga and the baby have sent her to this rock where she has come for years in all weathers. Once, after an ice storm, she melted out small patches with her bare hands; climbed; melted a circle for sitting. It took time, but she could sit without sliding. The world glistened under sun. No sun today. The rock rises out of dark stony sand beside the river. The river, the wide Penobscot with its tidal rise and fall, its long inhalation and exhalation, is liquid gray under the gray sky. Rock, Sky, River: Monochrome with Variations. Since childhood Petra has suspected that worth resides in art. She has no talent with a paintbrush unless she's pulling one along the length of a clapboard but she does what she can. Hers is a private mental art, a mere habit of giving titles. Perhaps her old paint-spattered overalls are a sort of accidental art, though. Inadvertent Spatter. Also—she loves this line of thought—a session with a client can become art, a lucky honing, agonized or ecstatic; form cut into the suddenly clarified air of the office, stunning and momentarily eternal. Not yesterday. Not with Helga.
Those overalls, Inadvertent Spatter, remnant of the seventies and San Francisco and still in use though fragile, are a work in progress; also a bridge, decade to decade, west to east. She's in Maine now, but the time in San Francisco, twenty years ago, has been catapulted to nearness by Helga and by the baby.
Behind Petra is the wooded path that leads up to her house. If she turned around she'd see leaves, red and orange against the gray sky, stark, themselves. She doesn't turn around. She sits on her necessary rock and watches the gray monotone of weather and water. She presses both hands down onto the rock. Her rock, still in place.
Ready, then. Easier to start with Helga than with the baby. Helga entered the office yesterday for her first session, tall and immaculate in a beige suit, with perfectly cut blond hair. She was thirty-one years old. This number Petra gleaned from the insurance form. She can't work until she knows a client's age, a fault she long ago decided to live with. Helga's nails had been done, her cuticles were perfect. She wore high heels. Step carefully, thought therapist Petra, but the young woman was immediately human and smart, creating a matrix of well-formed sentences that gave history, life goals, an analysis of her own personality. She considered herself a little too rigid, a little too direct. She used the words obsessive and compulsive. She took a breath and set down into that matrix the essential fact: she had given up on parenting three weeks ago. Petra's pulse speeded up. Not much, just a little. She kept listening, carefully; nodding, accepting. She's sure she did that much. Ingrid is two years old and will be raised by a cousin who was planning someday to adopt an infant but has taken Helga's daughter instead. The cousin has known Ingrid from birth. She welcomed the child—here came a catch in Helga's voice, nothing more—tenderly into her home. Tenderly. Petra heard the word as if in a large hollow space, as if it had an echo. It wasn't much of an echo, it was almost no echo at all. "What you must think of me," said Helga. This was not a question. Petra knew, perfectly, that this was not a question. It fit into the tight construction of sentences, there were no gaps. She listened, received the sentences. Helga continued, enumerating friends who stood by her. She was not an isolated person, not alone, but she had not slept well. Her friends thought a short course of therapy might help. Helga spoke quietly, so much dignity and beige, cutting into Petra's heart with each precise word. Helga's pain was firmly contained. Petra's was not. She struggled with dizziness, sweating, blurred vision. She kept listening. Her mind steadied, her body calmed. She liked the young woman despite the high heels. They made another appointment in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The session had not been high art, but it was adequate. She went on with her work, seeing three more clients, aware of deferred sensations, postponed undoing.
The tide is coming in. In an hour or two the Penobscot will surround, but not cover, this rock. Even during astronomical high tides the rock can be seen. She went down once in the middle of the night to check, flashlight in hand. The flashlight wasn't needed, the moon was full. She saw the top of the rock, stubborn solidity in a swollen river, high tide intensified by gravity compounded, by planets lined up. She was irrationally relieved, though she had prepared herself for the excitement of disappearance, a scene of uninterrupted shining water.
Helga thinks she understands her decision. Maybe she does. "I do think I have some insight into all of this, Dr. Kalinowski." Petra, lowly masters level therapist, not a doctor, decided the misconception would have to remain in place for the time being. Helga had not yet been able to leave a break between sentences. "I'm talking too much, I can't seem to stop," said astute Helga. "I want you to understand, but of course you do understand, you must have heard everything here in this office. It's a comfortable office. I didn't expect living room furniture, and the art...I want to explain my difficulty..." Helga paused, but gestured her hesitation away, a flick of the hand, a quick breath. "My obsessive-compulsive personality...I need a level of neatness. You can imagine..." Petra heard faint quotation marks around the diagnostic phrase, a subtle twist of irony. Sense of humor, then; capacity for perspective. Her professional mind was functioning. Helga's explanation helped: she, Petra, had no obsessive-compulsive traits, at least none she'd noticed. Surely she'd have noticed. "So my Ingrid couldn't quite...she's only two years old, she won't be three for another nine months...she can't be expected..." Aborted sentences, tense breathing, inability to look up. Petra waited; she was trained to endure tension. "I had difficulty...when she wouldn't...use the toilet. It wasn't right. My cousin..." Of course there would be toileting issues. The child was two years old and the mother was compulsive. How much rage? Petra remembered her own rages, the foreign rush of them. Until Anya, she would not have imagined wanting to throw a child against a wall. Those two incidents of deliberately messed pants, long after the agony of toilet training seemed finished. That third late night in a row, Anya repeatedly popping out of her room, refusing to sleep. She, the mother, desperate, locking herself in the bathroom with her journal. Eyes on Helga, therapist Petra remembered the feel of the pen in her hand, remembered how carefully she inscribed sentences while Anya screamed, remembered the slumped bundle of child on the floor when she opened the door. She had bent down. Anya, still sleeping, reached up but then she was awake and her eyes darkened. She turned away and hardened herself head to toe. Petra was exhausted. She tried to lift her, but the child was rigid, heavy. She gave up. They would sleep there in the hall. She got pillows and blankets. Anya refused the pillow but by morning it was squashed under her perfect head.
The memory came in a flash, information for a working therapist, not a distraction. She knew Helga's experience would be different from hers. Empathy was fine, but she would guard against assuming similarities. "What kind of difficulty did you have when Ingrid wouldn't use the toilet?" She asked as gently as possible, aware of the mistake she might be making, aware she felt compelled to know. Helga tensed, but tried to answer.
"I couldn't...touch her. I couldn't clean her until I had...done things...alone, in a different room...it was taking longer and longer to get back to her and then..." Helga's hands shook, a fine tremor. Her pupils were pinpoints. Petra interrupted, carefully.
"Just tell me as much as feels right to you, I don't mean to pry."
"Oh. Thank you." Helga shifted in the chair, crossed her legs, and offered a paragraph declaring what a good parent her cousin would be, listing qualifications. Her hands lost the tremor, her pupils returned to normal. Petra relaxed. Helga probably did have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her symptoms might decrease now, with the change; or they might increase. Petra felt a brief surge of pity, a sudden wind that threatened to unbalance her. She did not believe in pity as a therapeutic force. Helga talked on. Petra listened. The young woman's need not to step into the quicksand of emotion was evident. Gentle pacing would be called for. A shimmer of rapport rose in the air between them, thin, almost invisible. The therapy would be successful if Petra herself did not misstep. Before Helga left they sorted out the matter of Petra's not being a doctor. Helga had no need for a doctoral level therapist, in fact she was relieved. Yes, she was comfortable addressing Petra by her first name, it would relax her. Yes, she wanted to come back, it did help, just talking about it. Thank you, Petra. Good-bye, Petra.
Here on her rock Petra wonders how Helga will be dressed the next time she sees her. Neatly, of course. More beige? This is a rock with a promising crack. She can almost wedge her hand into it. Will it take decades or centuries or millennia for the piece to break away? Would Nat know? Fifteen inches broken off will someday reveal the inner workings, how the layers formed, how the minerals mixed and melded. Lying beside the mother rock will be a piece that once fit perfectly. The fact of the fit will be visible. This won't happen in her lifetime, will it? Nat might know, or she might say, "What do you think? That I horde every fact your own mind has refused to scavenge?" Or they might sit silently, or walk, and at some point Nat would probably yield and mutter, "No one can predict that." The woman prefers not to be approached as if she knows things. Her self-image wobbles under the pressure. Nat Levesque, former lover, good friend, is the first person in Petra's circle to go gray. Also, she is another rock, another sky, another river; necessary; difficult; steady. The thought of Nat, the very stringency, soothes the uncertain psyche.
It might not be beige. The second session might call for something dark. Or, if she's feeling daring, something with a splash of color. But Helga's wardrobe is a distraction, defense against varieties of pain that wait, lined up. She puts her hand on a place where the rock juts up, feels the familiar edge, imagines Helga going home after yesterday's session. Helga, like her therapist, lives alone now. She enters the apartment where the little girl Ingrid no longer lives. She feels dread. Or she feels freedom, relief. Or she feels guilt, or waves of sorrow. The missing child is like a missing limb, it is pure pain she feels. Or, worst of all, she forgets to think about the child, remembers her later, and feels like a monster. But Helga didn't talk about feelings yesterday. She only said she was sure she was doing the right thing. She knew it wasn't good for a child to be scolded for getting her dress dirty, for making mud puppies since she was not allowed a living puppy. "She made a good mud puppy, for a two year old," Helga said, with sudden wryness. "But her hands, her dress, her knees..."
Petra will remember the fact that two-year-old Ingrid wears dresses. Anya had that other experience, no dresses. It was San Francisco, the seventies. None of her friends wore dresses and she never wanted one. Petra, at the zoo, the park, going to a movie, would ask her about this from time to time but practical, modest Anya always replied, "I hate dresses. They let your underpants show." The year she entered preschool she had seen a girl in a dress bend over and reveal her underwear with nonchalance. "She didn't even care." She never recovered from the assault to her world view. Petra smiles, feels the rock, lets the gray sky soothe her. Anya had such firm and practical ideas. What a convergence: yesterday, the twentieth anniversary of Anya's death; and here's Helga. Working with Helga will not destroy her. Of course it won't. Still, she'd better bring this up with Gertrude: Gertrude Benstein, colleague, goad, anchor, safety net. Last week they focused on Gertrude's clients so it will be Petra's turn. Fortuitous. Add Helga to the issue of the baby, who comes and goes, comes and goes, and a bit of clinical supervision is certainly needed. The baby is part of the convergence, of course she is. Her round face, her thick black hair. Those eyes. She closes her own eyes, sees the baby, and Helga, and Anya. They enter her body, a threesome invading. This is stern, formidable comfort. Then they're gone. All she knows is bewildered intensity. A shiver passes through her. Nothing is clear, but she feels better. She needs to move. Stretch, move, and walk.
Back in her kitchen, making tea, she is severe with herself. Helga's therapy will be damaged if she works from murky consciousness. She has known—hasn't she?—that she must tell Gertrude about the baby. Yes, she has. Known and avoided the prospect, which includes telling about Anya. Anya and Helga and this baby.
Of the brown bright eyes.
"How were you with other clients, after you saw Helga?"
Petra feels attacked. Gertrude is not the enemy, she tells herself. Gertrude cares. The fact seems not to matter. "Fine. I was fine." Does her voice match the shaken Jell-O sensation in her belly? She's been calibrating the level of her own defensiveness. It's rising.
"What about Kiki? She's adopted, isn't she?" Gertrude's tone is kind. Worse than kind. Careful.
"I've been consulting with you about Kiki for five years." Petra's tone is neither kind nor careful.
"You know my work with Kiki, Gertrude."
Prolonged silence. She feels like a thirteen-year-old brat. Furthermore, Gertrude will wait her out. "I'm sorry." Gertrude waits. Petra sighs. "I do hope you never treat me this way, dear Gertrude. I was on automatic pilot. It was low-level good-enough work. Dear Kiki was just out of the hospital, one more time, because she cut herself again and her parents just can't..." Unable parents. Petra hears it. So does Gertrude. "Her parents just can't. In a different way from how I just couldn't. If 'couldn't' is the right word. I told myself it was a choice, a reasonable and free decision."
"Maybe it was."
Petra ignores this. "Helga said 'What you must think of me.' So there it is. I hereby pass it on to you. What you must think of me. I don't want a response any more than Helga did. Kiki was fine. High decibels, red high-top tennis shoes. 'I LOVE you, Petra, I'm so happy, it was a NICE hospitalization. Don't be sad for me, Petra.' She chose Raggedy Ann as boon companion for the day and left happy. Her parents can't tolerate the cutting, that's all. They can, somehow, tolerate parenting, interminably, a slow-minded loud lovable personality-disordered twenty-five-year-old. I know I'm babbling. Helga knew she was, too. I'm giving you time here, to absorb. You've known me—for how many years?—but you didn't know this. Petra had a little girl. Petra gave up her little girl. Petra's little girl died. In a minute I'll stop this. I will. We should both note that I'm mirroring precisely what Helga did in her session. I'll stop. You can talk." She blinks. Cold tears roll down her face. She reaches over, it's a stretch, and takes a tissue from the box on the table at the other end of the couch in Gertrude's clean, tasteful office and blows her nose. She hasn't told her story in a long time.
"I do need time to absorb," Gertrude says, getting up, moving the tissues close to Petra, sitting down again. "Having a child, deciding it's best to give her up, maintaining a relationship with her, having difficulty with that, and then she dies. I can't even imagine, Petra, but I don't need time to know that you're the same person, the same therapist, who won my respect two seconds after we met, so stop that part of things, it's not worthy of us." Petra just nods. She's actually crying. Life was feeling so stable, so formed.
"Do I need to go to therapy? I don't want to go to therapy. I hate therapy." This is an old topic. Gertrude shakes her head over incorrigible Petra. "But I'm not finished, Gertrude." She blows her nose again and tells about Chippie. "A baby. Three months old. Can you imagine?" More nose blowing, but the crying has stopped. "Just Sunday afternoons, so her mother—whose name is Bright Star, believe it or not—can focus on her work. She's an artist, or a would-be artist. I haven't seen her sculptures and I'm not sure I want to." She looks at Gertrude. No judgment, nothing to cringe from, nothing to guard against.
"How does it feel, having this baby come to visit?"
"I think I like it. I don't hate it, I thought I'd hate it."
"Tell me more."
"What can I say? Bright Star is a single mother, a friend. I guess she's a friend, I don't like her much. She's in our reading group and I'm the one responsible for bringing her in, this pregnant lesbian. Then she wasn't pregnant any more and there was Chippie. I remembered all the help I got with Anya. I felt that impulse thing." This is a reference to her moral life, which Gertrude knows from previous conversations. Lucky, since she's not sure she could explain today. Petra sees the world as radically complex. All data are suspect and can be counterbalanced by other data. Also, everything is gift and must be welcomed. Rational decision-making is a contradiction in terms. The only hope lies in the intuitive mind. Major decisions in her life have all been made this way: not thoughtlessly, but, in the end, out of impulse, half-blindly. One eye sees everything, the other sees nothing at all. Clarity emerges from a substrate of radical uncertainty. The important decisions of Petra's life have been: leaving Witold (father); leaving Frederick (husband); giving up Anya (daughter, dearly loved daughter); moving to Maine; sleeping with Nat; not sleeping with Nat. She's aware of the preponderance of separations in this list.
"Taking care of Chippie sounds potentially healing." This is Gertrude, breaking into her thought, irritating her.
"I hate that word. You know I do."
Gertrude is unruffled. "Choose one of your own, then, but is it? Healing?"
Petra sighs. "It's disorienting. I knew I was a person who couldn't...out in the world I hardly looked at them. Kids, I mean. It was a discipline, a kind of integrity, not to deny my inability. This felt stable. Now it's all..." She pauses. She's actually feeling less irritable, less vulnerable; which is a damn good thing because the hour is ending. "Quick, before we have to stop, what did you notice about the work with Helga?"
"Yes. The father and the child."
Petra sighs. "I see. Major omissions."
"It's not so much that Helga didn't seem to realize her child would have a reaction to being moved, and not so much that she didn't mention the child's father. My concern..."
"Ah, Gertrude. You will now comment in your scalpel-like way that the therapist failed to notice these gaps."
"True. And you're a fine therapist, Petra Kalinowski. This will be an adventure. Next week it's my turn. I have a new couple who so bewilder me I might just tell them to go away. I thought I'd talk to you first, though."
"One more thing. Parenting can be accomplished by people who have obsessive-compulsive difficulties."
"Did I imply...?"
"Ouch. Thank you, Gertrude."
"You're welcome, Petra."
Petra was twenty-one, a Minnesota farm girl who could imagine neither California nor Maine, when she married Frederick. She'd just graduated from college with a major in English, an obvious choice for a passionate reader, and a minor in philosophy. Her father had an interest in the history of philosophy, so the minor was mildly embarrassing, but she felt a stubborn certainty: her college years were not shaped to her father's form. After her mother died—she was nine years old—she'd kept track of her father's reading, quietly taking note of the titles of old, dark books. It was a way of not losing him. He never went beyond Kant whereas Sartre, the modern philosopher, had altered every cell in her body.
Frederick was a janitor at the college, attending classes for no charge. He'd been through most of the philosophy offerings and was about to tackle German when they met in Mr. Alton's class, Pre-Socratic Philosophy and Contemporary Physics. He wasn't interested in a degree—such a romantic, principled stance—and his paper, "Heraclitus vs. Parmenides vs. Einstein," was brilliant. Also, he was older: thirty. For these reasons, when he proposed she said yes.
"Old enough to know your own mind." That was her father's response on hearing she was engaged. He agreed to attend the wedding and returned to his book. Petra had steeled herself for this. Later, though, he looked up and said, "I'm not equipped. A daughter, grown. I'm not privy to the mysteries." A windfall of unexpected words. She was so grateful she almost cried. Witold Kalinowski, reluctant farmer, was essentially an intellectual: easy to sum up, if not easy to know. Tekla, wife and mother, was less definable even when alive. After her death the light and dark of her floated like confusing ghosts and before long she evaporated, all but the husk, the bare dry fact of her. No stories passed between father and daughter. Witold did his best with his daughter, and she with him, but conversation was not the strength of this tiny remnant family.
Witold met Frederick once before the wedding. When she brought him into the dark house (three porches and two huge shade trees blocked light) she felt as if she were pulling him, reeling him in, depositing him at the kitchen table where he would be seen and judged. She hadn't realized until they sat down to that one dark meal how the two men resembled each other. They could have been father and son, tall and thin, both slightly bent, peering at the world through thick glasses with sturdy black frames. Cleaned up for this supper, they wore matching blue work shirts, their best work boots. Both were intelligent, no question about that. Socially awkward, too. No question about that, either. Father and son, or a good facsimile thereof. The thought frightened her.
"Petra tells me you're a philosopher janitor."
"I suppose that's a way to put it, Mr. Kalinowski."
She had convinced herself there would be conversation. This hadn't been entirely irrational. Witold had an enduring interest in the history of philosophy and she had reason to think Frederick had words. He had plenty to say when he and she were alone, theories spilling out of him, eyes sparking at her, then shifting inward to consider a point he got snagged on. The two men spoke that day of how the rains were interfering with planting, a sentence each, then dug into their meal as if they were serious eaters. Roast beef, dark gravy, mashed potatoes, spinach, peach pie. Petra had worked in the kitchen all afternoon. The peaches were from a tin can, but still. Eventually the men commented on the cooking, another polite sentence each. She chided herself: she should have known. After the small church wedding where Petra's friend Roo, a tall, round, comfortable bridesmaid, was the warmest element, Witold and Frederick shook hands. That was the sum of their brief relationship.
Petra left her father, moved into her husband's tiny apartment near the railroad tracks in Winona, half an hour's drive from the farm. Daughters grow up, she told herself. Daughters leave home. She made the apartment her own, painted the walls white, put up sheer curtains that framed, but did not cover, the windows. She kept the windows clean. They lived on the second floor and the path for light was clear. Sun poured in from the south and west. Still, after three months she left. Her reasons were as strong as they were unexpected. Poor Frederick didn't smell right once they got into bed. She knew of no way to change the fact or even understand it. She had no experience with sex and he had very little. They were abominable technically, not much better on other levels, but the essential obstacle was olfactory. Also, listening to this man became difficult. Frederick's thoughts were a maze. Finding the center was difficult and the fascination wore thin. The maze image was hers. He never used images, spoke in abstract, discursive paragraphs, and failed to ask what she was thinking. She had ideas, little shoots, green and tender. When she tried to show him he missed the importance, trampled. She started to write, found brevity, condensation, images with a glint of mystery. This was satisfying but irrelevant to the marriage. She couldn't control the dread when they came together for food, talk, and—worst—bed. The dread interfered with breathing. She told him she'd bought a plane ticket to San Francisco with money borrowed from Roo and was ready to leave. "When?" "Tomorrow." It was agony to see him so sad and bewildered. She was very, very sorry. No, he couldn't come with her. She wanted something warmer, perhaps even colorful. She wanted change that would be absolute, irreversible.
Roo had a cousin, Danny, who lived with a group of people in an apartment in San Francisco. There was an empty room she could rent. The Castro district. This sounded irreversible. It was. Roo called to tell her about the accident: the car had struck a tree in thick fog, Frederick was alone, the newspaper said he died instantly. Petra was stunned. She'd never called to tell him she was pregnant, to talk about divorce. When Anya was born, she called Witold. "Oh, sweetheart," he said. She didn't know what he meant, who he meant. He'd never called her sweetheart. Maybe it was the baby he was addressing, or Tekla. He was so soft and sad when he said it, he might have been talking to his dead wife. She said she'd bring the baby for him to see. He said that would be fine.
In the wet, difficult, lovely time after Anya was born, leaking milk, sweating at night, crying from sheer extreme fatigue, changing diapers, giving baths, amazed and aroused by the nursing child (Anya was enthusiastic about nursing, she pulled and pulled), Petra circled down to a quiet spot where an old ache rested. She wished she could tell Tekla she had a baby; she wished she had a mother to tell. She found herself remembering the years of her mother's illness. For two years before she died Tekla was bedridden and shrinking, dark. The Old Times had come back to her, the Old Country, Poland ripped and raped by war. Tekla's people were running, carts piled with belongings. Here were the Russians, there were the Germans. Under the boots of both, the Poles. Petra, holding Anya, yearning for her mother, thought how the long hours lying in bed sick and waiting for the end must have echoed times of unbreathing terror in the cellars and attics of Poland. Before their own time of running and hiding, before they had to leave the house and land, Tekla's family had hidden partisans. Tekla (still young and healthy) had told Petra (age five, age six) how her family knelt at night and said the rosary for these young people who stayed with them, brave young men who lived finally in the forest, emerged at night and struck blows, disappeared before daylight. Polish Catholics who gave aid to partisans were in greater danger than most, except of course for the Jews, the gypsies, the homosexuals. Sick in America on a Minnesota farm, Tekla cried, not histrionically, but quietly, day after day. Some periods were better, weeks even, but always the crying returned. Petra, second-grader, third-grader, competent student, was helpless before this. Outside, Witold doggedly plowed fields, milked cows. When he came in, his work finished for the day, or taking a long break, taking time for his wife, he sat at the bedside. He brought Tekla back to the present. America. "As free a place as humanity has learned to construct." He wiped Tekla's forehead with a cool washcloth. Petra was free then herself—to do homework, to read—before she made supper standing on a small wooden stool, or after she did the dishes, before bed. Witold reminded Tekla of their early love. He fought as a partisan but had time to fetch her, sit on a river bank, and talk about Polish freedom. "Remember, Tekla? Think of us, young and brave. Think of love in those times. You were so pretty and spunky, Tekla. So good. You cried more over a Catholic Pole being cruel to a Jew than when the Nazis...I myself learned from you. Remember how you chided me for my careless tongue? But let's not talk about all of that. Only, your beautiful tears come back to me." He reminded Tekla how she had begged and teased before the separation, trying to get him to stay in her family's attic but he said no, it was too dangerous for her family now, too dangerous for her. She wanted to stay with him, with his band, in the woods, but he took her home. She was too young, maybe next year. If they hadn't gotten their country back, maybe then. Time and again Petra heard him talk about the day he and Tekla found each other after they'd been separated, after her family ran, first to the east, thinking the Russians the more benign force, better at least than the Nazis, then every direction, away, away, looking for any safe place while the partisans, Witold among them, moved deeper and deeper into the forest. They'd lost each other, both were in agony over that, of course they were, but they found each other again. "Remember, Tekla? On the crowded platform at the train station, remember that kiss? You wore your red scarf that day." Petra, age nine, pretending to read, listened to her father pour out whole paragraphs, entire stories, at the bedside of his dying wife. She knew she was a privileged child, safe and free in America. The Nazis were not after her, nor the Russians. She'd never been raped, a peculiar and terrifying concept she puzzled over after Tekla cried out in her sleep, "Rape! Rape!" She followed the trail of dictionary entries, got lost in multiple meanings, but finally understood, or almost. She was learning. She was the daughter of a Polish partisan and his brave wife. Death was part of life. She had no right to feel alone and afraid. She turned back to her book. In San Francisco, putting Anya into her crib, Petra was impressed that a baby could rouse so much. She hadn't thought about her mother in a long time.
It was six months after the birth when she and Danny McGuire, Roo's cherished cousin, finally took Anya to Minnesota, visited Witold, and left him alone again. On that trip the two men played chess while she bathed the baby, visited Roo, or wandered down the road past fields half-harvested to where the hardwoods were turning color. The last day of the visit she picked her way carefully over the rough path to the creek, avoiding exposed tree roots. Anya gurgled, contented, riding in her blue backpack, sturdy legs dangling. At the creek she thought about Frederick. From the first moment, when Roo called, she suspected his death was the result of her leaving, deliberate; but she'd never know. He had no family other than a stepbrother who lived in Canada, someone she'd never met whose name escaped her. She was relieved not to have to contact family, not to have to tell them about the baby, express condolences. Where was Frederick buried, though? She hadn't asked—would Roo know?—and now it was time to leave. She walked back to the house, full of unnamed feelings, Anya heavy against her back. In the living room, Danny and Witold were talking about Immanuel Kant, how his ideas changed the history of Western thought. "The structure of the mind itself shapes the world, that's the radical insight," Witold was saying. There was almost a muted exclamation point. She'd never seen Witold sit down with a man the way he did with Danny that visit, one each side of the old green card table, playing chess, discussing philosophy.
"He talks to you?" she asked Danny. It was more accusation than question. She was at the wheel. They were on their way back to San Francisco. Guilt at leaving Witold made her cranky, unfairly. She glanced over her shoulder. Anya was asleep in the back seat, dark curls pressed against bright cheeks. The child had Frederick's hair. She imagined telling her daughter someday. "Your hair is so pretty, it's just like your daddy's hair. He was a good, smart man and you are a good, smart girl." And Anya would laugh and dance away to play with something she found in the tangle of growth at the back of the yard, some stone or worm or broken-off branch that she imagined into more than it was. Anya might be a writer. Better yet, an artist, making much of a worm resting on a twisted branch. But with Anya's genes, it was more realistic to think in terms of language. Petra let her daydreams fly but she could pull them back, like kites. She knew enough not to have firmly defined ambitions for a child. Anya would find her own way in the world, and she would allow it.
"Not much," Danny said.
"Not much what?" Danny laughed.
"You asked if your dad talked to me. I said, 'Not much.'"
"Oh. Sorry. My mind..."
"That's OK. Witold isn't exactly verbose, but there's a lot going on in that head. He's an interesting man, your father." Danny was more tolerant than Petra, more appreciative; but of course Witold wasn't his father. She wondered about Danny's family. Except for cousin Roo, who seemed more friend than family, he hadn't contacted relatives during this time in Minnesota. He didn't talk about the subject and she didn't ask. He was never secretive in any other way. She understood about the need for areas of privacy, her own being considerable. As were Witold's. "He's a locked box," she said. "I can't believe you found the key." Danny shrugged it off, not seeing the miracle. He said they should come back from time to time, let Witold in on how the baby grew. He liked traveling and he'd enjoy playing chess again. Petra and Danny were lovers, for the moment. They expected to be friends forever. This fit the model of their time and place. Petra experienced pleasure with Danny. He listened, he was sweet, and his smell was good. He was younger than she by a couple of years, finding his way. She appreciated his malleability, how he looked up, curious, to see what life offered next. Frederick, old man of thirty, had already defined himself and that had been problematic. Danny was learning to play the harmonica—he called it his harp—going to smoky blues places, working here and there, determinedly avoiding the issues of college education and career. He'd left Minnesota the day after high school graduation, hitching rides from truck stop to truck stop. He liked hearing stories of men who rode the rails. He'd like to hop a boxcar himself but that might have to be with a friend because the prospect scared him some. Those old-time hoboes were his heroes but he didn't think he was made of the same stuff, at least not yet. He didn't imagine being tied down, ever. Petra said she didn't want to tie him down. She meant it.
San Francisco had produced invigorating, disorienting culture shock. She and Witold had lived inside silence. In San Francisco there was music, always. It went with the pot, peyote, mescaline, acid. Two of the women in the apartment played in something called the All Girl Band. She didn't understand they were lesbians for the longest time. After she stopped nursing Anya, she took some trips, but she hated the nausea that came with drugs. She had to learn the term—trips—though she found to her chagrin that it was common enough to be used by Time in an article on the San Francisco Phenomenon. She gave credit to LSD and peyote for revealing possibilities in her mind but what she liked best about her new life was how absolutely anything could be questioned, rethought—though this could bring on a feeling of being flung dangerously into space, unheld by gravity. Some of the roommates combined an interest in drugs with serious study of Revolution. They called themselves freaks, to differentiate: they were not hippies, not frivolous about rebellion. Petra read Mao, was told Trotsky was a better thinker, read Trotsky. San Francisco was not Minnesota. She happened into a crew of house painters and found she liked to climb long ladders. Some jobs gave a view of the Pacific. An ocean. Oceans were in movies, in myths. She kept working while the baby developed inside her, climbed high with a bigger and bigger belly. This was San Francisco, the seventies, there was no older generation to tsk-tsk, worry about safety, ask why she wasn't using her college degree to make more money. She was proud of her balance, how she adapted to her changing body and kept climbing up, scraping and sanding and painting, climbing back down. Her coworkers, not universally comfortable with heights, influenced by various substances in the bloodstream, cheered. The cheers were loudest when she stepped onto a roof to get at woodwork around dormers, her specialty. It was a kind of attention she'd never had. After Anya was born she took breaks to go home and nurse her. Paid baby-sitters came and went. Danny kept himself generally separate from the child care—he felt a renewed need to make it clear he was not a family man—but he watched Anya when all else failed. People in the apartment helped out, but arrangements were fluid and Petra didn't like to leave her with anyone excessively stoned. She needed regular child care. She found Marian.
Marian was the Earth Mother type, warm and pure, older than Petra, a filled-out, comfortable person. She reminded Petra of warm, comfortable Roo back in Minnesota. Marian had the San Francisco look, colorful long skirts and shawls, wild red hair catching sunlight. She ate no meat. She took no drugs. Not for years, honey, I'm a settled old lady now. Marian had lived in San Francisco since she dropped out of high school, becoming a weaver. A feature story in the Chronicle—High School Dropout Weaves Dreams—gave her the chance she needed and now she had pieces on consignment in upscale shops. Her craft paid the rent and she understood her good luck. "But I could use more money." Having a baby come to visit and getting paid for the privilege sounded perfect. They made the arrangement. Anya was eighteen months old. She could walk and dance, but talking was in the future. Marian played Renaissance recorder music with a group of friends. When they played, Anya danced. Petra breathed relief. Marian was a gift from the Fates when the Fates were in a generous mood.
When she wasn't working, Petra enjoyed her time with Anya. She watched the solid little body operate in the world. Anya made friends with the cats and dogs in the neighborhood, the children in the park, and the housemates, a changing population. (But Danny stayed, Anya's good-natured friend, Petra's friendly ex-lover.) Anya had a ready smile and a ready temper. No one trampled her. Petra thought of her as shine, as essence. Then came toilet training. Girls were supposed to be easier, but Anya wasn't easier. At two-and-a-half she was not yet trained. Also, she had started to talk. Petra was passionate about words. She wrote regularly, striving for clarity, for evocative images. She had expected to feel delight when her little girl acquired language but Anya's long slow process of learning to speak got tangled up with toilet training, with rages on the part of mother and daughter, with a caged feeling Petra was sure they both experienced. Anya liked to talk, wanted to talk constantly. Petra found herself shamefully bored. She wanted her own thoughts and couldn't find them. Her mind was the center of herself, she needed to feel it working. Unfocused, pulled this way and that by the demands of a toddler, her mind lost tone, a muscle weakened by disuse. Frustrated by interruptions, Petra stopped reading, stopped writing. After several months of this she was terrified. She went to secondhand bookstores, purchased old paperbacks: Henry James, Ezra Pound. The more difficult the better. She sat with pen in hand, read, took notes, tried to write. Her thoughts were dull and scattered, but she persisted. One day, interrupted for the fifth time in half an hour—she was counting—Petra learned what it was like to feel murderous, to want someone obliterated. Her daughter. This was more terrifying than the decay of her mind. She stopped reading and writing and turned to her will. If she could just strengthen her will, they might be all right. But she couldn't control her irritability. It spread to housemates. She lost tolerance for the changes, the new habits of each incoming person, the fluctuations in household cleanliness, the decibel level. She thought the order and predictability of living alone with Anya might be better, though she was reluctant to leave Danny, stable would-be hobo (he never did hop a train). Danny, her good friend, gay now. She moved to the Mission district where she could afford a small apartment for herself and Anya. The move made parenting no easier.
Paradox ruled Petra's relationship with Anya. In the worst times she felt the strongest ache of love for the child, saw beauty leaping around her like bright sprites out of old poetry, something by Alexander Pope she thought—and was pleased, irrationally pleased, when she remembered which poem. She had read "The Rape of the Lock" after her mother died and could almost see the words, feel the magic. Were the sprites there when the scissor snip broke the world apart? The lock of hair was taken, taken. It had been a new use of the terrible word rape. An alleviation, a shift, a different sort of drama. Incandescence—her favorite word at the time—was there on the page. She thought, listening to one more question from Anya, longing for the time the child would be in bed, asleep, that she should look up the poem, see if it still sparkled, but she had no energy. The dread she'd felt inside marriage was back, the suffocation. Loving Anya was not enough. She started to meditate and attend yoga classes. She could breathe, felt hope. Anya turned three. In fifteen years the child would be old enough, on her own. Petra made it a mantra. Fifteen more years, fifteen more. Time slowed, but it didn't stop. She ripped pages from the calendar. May, gone. June, gone. July, finally gone. She could survive this thing she never should have started. Then Marian, Anya's stable, much-valued baby-sitter, told the truth.
It was a Tuesday. They sat in Marian's kitchen, just the two of them, talking about Anya. Danny had taken the child to the park. A new weaving hung on the wall, bright simple shapes crossing one another in the style of Calder's mobiles. This was a departure for Marian who tended to earth tones and symmetrical patterns. Was Marian suddenly happier? Braver? It was August now, and hot in a way San Francisco was rarely hot. Marian, fanning herself with an ad from the day's mail, confided that she had desperately wanted a child of her own but her tubes were clogged. Her uterus was not in great shape either. The two women, mother and babysitter, had never disclosed personal anguish. Petra felt a tremor. Precursor to earthquake. Imagined. Emotional in origin. As she well knew. Once started, Marian kept going. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, she explained, a bad case of it. She had tried and tried to get pregnant, one man after another, blaming the guys. Finally she listened to her doctor and gave up hope. She told herself life was better without children, but the day she met Petra and Anya two years ago—two years!—she had gone home and cried. "That little girl broke into my heart. Made me want." It was a version of love at first sight. She was sorry she had pretended nonchalance when Petra asked her to babysit. She was so grateful. She cried, telling the story.
Marian was warmth and color to Petra's spare self. Just looking at her gave comfort to Petra who had lately remembered Tekla only as lost in illness, disappearing into death. Later, much later, the sudden wonder of Tekla's last moments would come back to her; when she could bear it. She would remember colorful toys, babushkas, Easter eggs decorated in the Polish way, Tekla's strong stride through the woods, the full sure way the young mother laughed and played with her young husband Witold and with the child Petra, a little girl with a lively mother; but in this time when parenting Anya was dry duty, only the husk of Tekla remained. Even memories of the tears that were an integral part of Tekla's illness hid behind a wall in Petra's psyche along with the stories from Poland, the way Witold recreated the past for his sick, disoriented wife. Marian's tears, Marian's deep green eyes, the unexpected emotion and the strange heat of this San Francisco day coalesced. Here was fecundity, possibility. "Marian," she said, "I have to tell you about Anya and me." She told how she had set herself for the years of motherhood ahead as if she were a workhorse put into traces—the long furrows, the hot sun, plowing, plowing, interminable plowing—but she was not a workhorse, not bred for the job. If she had to choose again, she wouldn't have a child. It was her mind. She had failed to find a way to have a child and a mind both, could Marian understand that? Marian reached out, gathered her up. Tears came to Petra. Because it's so warm, she thought crazily. She'd been cold in San Francisco where the borderline climate did not demand central heating. By the end of the conversation she and Marian had made a decision neither could have anticipated. Anya would live with Marian. Petra would stay in her daughter's life, part-time caretaker. Like a divorced father. The child was three-and-a-half years old when she moved in with her new mother. Marian.
Petra experienced the separation physically, as if it were surgery on a battlefield, a part of herself cut away without anesthesia, but pain did not blur basic clarity, not then. Her pain was clear and her sense of release was equally clear. If Marian, godsent, had not come into their lives, she would have raised Anya, but Marian had come, and a painful choice had been made. In an agony of freedom, agreeing to what she believed was best for her daughter and herself, she survived. A long ropey scar remained—spiritual, real—evidence of severed connection, evidence of ordeal. Years later, clarity did blur. Youthful certainty crumbled. How could she have given up her child? But that was later.
Who could see into Anya? She adopted the name of the black cat, Marian's queenly Fire. "My name is Fire," said young Anya. They called her that for six months, until she said "My name is Anya, call me Anya." It seemed she had come to terms. She was still bright and spunky. Shining. The two women were concerned, but hopeful. They leaned into one truth: the child was wanted now without reservation.
Petra puts the book down. Tender Buttons has in the past led her down secret pathways and offered her a sense of things intercut and shimmering. Gertrude Stein: Pied Piper. The sum of the book equaled the sum of life. Objects. Food. Rooms. Domesticity, physicality, philosophy, all placeable, available, for delight—some essence of the freedom (and, to be honest, ecstasy) Petra wants from reading. None of that tonight. She turns again to the first paragraph. Surely the first paragraph...
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
A tangle of words. Has she no Steinian intelligence tonight? She tries again. Nothing. She closes the book, fluffs up her pillow, turns out the light.
Petra ponders her plate after breakfast: an arrangement of crumbs, a smear of butter. This morning she feels alert, interested. Crumbled Time on White with Narrow Blue Echoes. The plate is rimmed with blue lines. The leavings of breakfast await the dishpan. Life is itself, she recognizes it. DWELL, Dykes Who Love Literature, meets this afternoon. The group was organized by Petra and Roo (Eleanor) McGuire. Roo: old friend from Minnesota, Petra's bridesmaid, that warmest element on the day she married Frederick; Roo, who lent her money to fly away from Frederick to San Francisco; Roo, Danny's cousin, transplanted to Maine, who convinced her to come to Maine when she was sunk into grief over Anya's death; and gave her a place to stay; and introduced her to Nat—Nat Levesque, former lover, steady friend—who is also in the group. As is Roo's partner, Jessie Brooks. Big, somewhat tattooed, Jessie was a Massachusetts foster kid addicted to thrills and trouble. Motherhood remade her—"part-way"—as did Roo, and (Petra loves this) tai chi classes. Now Jessie is damn-near civilized, as she herself puts it. Last winter Ricki Harding joined them: Roo's shy-bold student with the lively, earnest, somehow practical mind and the so-far-unmentioned anomalous right hand—the small hand with little stubs for fingers, a tiny stub of thumb. In the spring, pregnant black-braided Bright Star arrived: enigma, conundrum, riddle, puzzle. How many words are there for this woman? Is she, for example, Native American? Nat is fifty-four. Jessie is fifty. (Her birthday bash last week was chem-free and cross-cultural, biker dykes from Massachusetts dancing with tame Maine folk.) Roo is forty-nine, matching Petra. Bright Star is thirty-five. (They dragged that out of her, she tends toward secrecy.) Ricki is just a kid, a college sophomore, age nineteen. Fifty-four to nineteen: not a bad range. Baby Chippie should be added to the list. She attends regularly and contributes a well-placed goo from time to time, which might be an intelligent contribution to any discussion of Tender Buttons. Petra admits to feelings all askew about this baby. She is unnerved, she is charmed, she goes vague, she hesitates, she freezes, she melts. Talking to Gertrude changed none of that. So be it. She sips coffee, looks into the backyard and down into the woods. It is a crisp blue-sky perfect Maine day in autumn. Talking to Gertrude wasn't so bad. Maybe it will help with Helga.
Tender Buttons. Every time she picks it up she has a new experience. She read it in the spring when DWELL first tackled it and again earlier this week, before the session with Helga unsettled her mind. It can't be pulled to sweet softness, shaped neatly, wrapped in waxed paper—she is thinking of taffy—and saved for another day. This can be exasperating (last night) or intriguing (today, she hopes, though time is passing and she plans to shop and vacuum before the meeting). She takes her plate to the sink, washes it and sets it in the drainer. She pours a second cup of coffee, goes to the living room, opens Stein's book. A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS. She thinks of a container for wine, but knows carafe might have more meanings. She gets the dictionary. Carafe: container for water or wine. No alternate meanings, no mystery. However, the word has traveled. It comes to English from the French who got it from the Italians who got it from the Spaniards who got it from the Arabian word gharafa, "to dip." She decides Gertrude Stein knew all of this. The game with Tender Buttons is to take liberties, imagine knowing. Dipping; birds in a bird bath, minor immersions; a little of this, a hint of that; layering, overlapping, arranging. Stein: literary cubist, friend of Picasso. The Spaniard. Carafe: word with Spanish blood. Is this a tribute to Gertrude's friend Pablo? They must have drunk wine together. Ah, friendship.
Petra sips her coffee. Helga has friends, thanks be to the gods. She herself could not have gotten through the time after giving up Anya without friends. Danny, especially. Sudden sex, in the form of Sal, helped too. After Danny, she knew she'd someday turn to women. She felt at ease with lesbians by then and there would be an added benefit: no danger of pregnancy. Still, it wasn't until age twenty-five, and Sal—brief, painful, thrilling distraction from the ache of giving up Anya—that Petra had sex with a woman. Finally: sexual passion. The urgency, the intensity. Danny had been sweet, but this was something of another order. Sal was smart, raw, sexy, and controlling. She had a husband, a boyish, sub-assertive Australian who wore a white frilly apron and met Petra at the door with a plate of cookies. Everyone said he couldn't quite bring himself to yield to a man so Sal was his best bet. His best bet and Petra's adventure; until Sal moved on to her next Lady. She thinks of Sal with pleasure, the pain long past, the forgiveness complete.
Stein was with Alice B. for seven years by the time Tender Buttons was published. The book is full of her: Alice and sex and sewing and cooking; passion and domesticity; irritability and good humor. And writing. To take the language and rearrange it. To insist: not unordered in not resembling. Being different, writing differently, was not chaos. Did Alice wear glasses? Petra can't remember. The spectacle that this new writing will be, the spectacle that Gertrude and Alice, strange couple, are (but nothing strange, says Gertrude), could hide the final "s" of spectacles, needed for myopia. Petra could stay in this little section all morning. She sees the pointing, imagines Gertrude fearing the world, how it will point at her, laughing, unkind, but everything here is reversible. Gertrude herself is pointing to a way of using language, a new arrangement. There will be fame: The difference is spreading. Or it's the wine spreading through the body; or spilled over the table because the carafe is broken, everything is broken here. Broken and reassembled. Petra urgently hopes Helga is with a friend.
Enough. She takes her cup to the sink, gets out the vacuum cleaner, wonders what she'll bring home from the store. The week's groceries have to be gotten. Chippie comes tomorrow.
Sunday. The day after the strangest DWELL meeting ever. As cubist as Stein's book. Petra paces her living room with Chippie who likes to be walked while having her juice, or does today, being fussy. So Petra walks, watching the angle of the bottle, admiring the strong sucking. This little critter knows what she wants.
What happened yesterday?
She stops at the window. The leaves might go, torn loose by the coming storm. Public radio offers Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould at the piano. Chippie, sucking, gazes at her. She returns the look, looks away, looks back into unapologetic baby eyes. The baby is better at eye contact than she is.
They made a rough circle: Nat and Roo at either end of the couch; Bright Star and Ricki across from each other, sitting on pillows on the floor; Jessie and Petra in the two stuffed chairs. Bright Star laid Chippie on the floor on a woolen blanket crowded with American Indian designs, simplicity spoiled by excess. Always before, Bright Star had held the baby, never letting her go. Overly Blended Baby, Petra had thought in the past, then chided her own intolerance: a normal mother might want to hold a baby close. Yesterday on the blanket, unglued from her mother but not liberated, Chippie became Invisible Indian Infant: brown skin, black hair, little Indian outfit almost lost in the blanket's complications. Petra wondered once again whether pale, freckled Bright Star with her currently light brown kinky hair and her perfect little Indian baby had even one drop of Native blood. The question had been there since the day they met. The breakdown of Petra's washing machine had sent her, grumpy, to the laundromat during what she had hoped would be a long noon hour spent catching up on paperwork. A pregnant woman sat cross-legged on the counter. Her dyed black hair with half an inch of pale brown showing at the roots was pulled into two braids. The sight irritated Petra. The place was empty except for the two of them and she'd rather have had it to herself. Perfunctorily on duty, not a customer as it turned out, the woman was wearing two political buttons. The first said, "How Dare You Assume I Am Heterosexual?" The second looked homemade. It said, "Or white?" The first one roused in Petra a grudging flicker of interest. She'd worn that very button herself in San Francisco, marching for Gay Rights, and was amused to see it here, in the nineties, pinned to the shirt of a pregnant woman. She agreed, of course. How dare anyone assume anything about another's sexuality? The second felt like a warning: this woman might not be what she seemed, which was plain Maine white, and anyone around her had better take heed. The hair, straining for the American Indian look but with those roots showing, could have been another warning: this might not be the sanest person she'd ever met. The woman picked up a book and started reading. Unbelievable: the book was Judy Grahn's Really Reading Gertrude Stein, the very one she'd brought with her, preparing for DWELL's first discussion of Tender Buttons.
Some coincidences can't be brushed away. Petra invited Bright Star to join DWELL. She accepted. She arrived with freshly dyed hair, exposed roots gone, black braids firmly in place, an engaging, almost flirtatious way about her. She seemed comfortable with Stein, so playful and intuitive that Petra was envious. The others accepted her despite that fact that Petra had broken a group rule by inviting a new member without discussion. They liked the laundromat story and there was precedent. Roo hadn't consulted the group before inviting Ricki. Spontaneity—or was it destiny?—trumped consensus.
When DWELL met again in the fall Bright Star had light brown hair, no braids, and a baby who looked entirely Native American. No one commented on the hair. Chippie drew a whirl of attention and the group turned to poetry. This was a good baby who took the breast well, slept in her mother's arms through the rise and fall of energetic discussion, woke to add a gurgling opinion. She had lively eyes and with each meeting got better at using them. She was particularly adept at mesmerizing Nat. The topic of the mystery father was barely broached. Ricki tried once. Bright Star turned glacial, haughty. Ricki did not repeat the question. Petra took note.
When the bottle is empty Petra puts Chippie to her shoulder, gets up from the couch where she has been allowed to settle, and walks again. The Goldberg Variations continue. The baby burps.
Deep into yesterday's meeting, Chippie woke from her sleep on the floor with a screech. Bright Star looked stunned and disoriented. She hesitated long enough for Petra to think of reaching for the baby herself. When Bright Star did pick up her daughter it was an awkward operation. Awake, the baby was disengaged, her eyes wandering, her attention vague. Bright Star held her as is if she were an inert bundle, which she almost was. Petra worried she might be sick. Bright Star's own presence was inconsistent, unpredictable; but not as if she were distracted by mothering concerns, she barely seemed to be a mother. None of this was usual. When Bright Star had something to say about Tender Buttons it was as if she ran up to take center stage, delivered her lines a tad too dramatically, and jumped back down into the audience, self-conscious, eyes tensed, all the while holding the baby as if she were an irrelevant object. This would have been disturbing enough, but there was more. Added in were moments when Bright Star looked at Petra; as if the two of them had a secret; or as if imploring; or, worst, as if adoring. No one else seemed to notice. Petra felt magnetized into a bizarre private drama.
Chippie coos, contented. It is bright, reliable Mozart on the radio now. The forecast for high winds and rain has been changed. The storm will likely go out to sea, as so many do.
When Roo suggested that they each come up with an image for Tender Buttons Petra's first thought was kaleidoscope. She talked about pieces of glass, mirrors, designs that change and change. She said, "And then there's that moment—there is such a moment, isn't there?—when you catch the chaos of the transition, the time between patterns." No one said anything. She added, "The time between might be most relevant here." The group laughed. The word—between—had come up before. Tender Buttons could trap a reader between levels, between places that might make sense if only you had sufficient intelligence, or inspiration. Just then, Bright Star looked at her; and immediately withdrew, shriveled into herself. Chippie was a dormant bundle. Petra had the strongest impulse to reach out and take the baby away. Again, no one else seemed to notice. Roo took up the kaleidoscope theme. "I loved mine," she said. "I must have been about eight when I got it. They still make them. My niece got one for her birthday." She went into a little wandering riff, as she was prone to do, arriving finally at the origin of the word. "It's from three Greek words. Beautiful and form and to aim at. Isn't that just perfect?"
Bright Star was apparently back, mentally present, ostensibly normal. Possibly she'd never left. Chippie was simply sleeping. The baby had a right to sleep, didn't she?
Now, belly full of apple juice, Chippie sleeps again despite a sudden booming Beethoven.
Roo wandered on. "I love how it's all done with mirrors—like stage magic—just colored glass and a turn of the wrist and chance. Wasn't it a life passage, finding out about the mirrors? A sort of growing up ritual? When I think back..." Jessie reached to touch Roo on the arm, the lover's prerogative. Roo got the message and interrupted herself. "I guess I got off on a track. Tender Buttons—my image—for me it's like a walk in the woods, with paths that take so many turns you get lost but, getting lost, you see something."
Bright Star, too suddenly, too loudly, said, "It is a mirror. You look and see yourself and you look pretty." Which, besides being out of context was way too childlike. It didn't ring true, not at all.
Jessie's reaction was to laugh, almost to mock. "Pretty?"
But Ricki took the comment seriously. "What do you mean, pretty?"
Bright Star was miffed. "Just pretty," she said.
"Oh." Ricki was chastened. Poor Ricki.
No one else spoke. Petra felt guiltily relieved. She had not been imagining things. Then Bright Star, as if nothing unusual had happened and as if the word mirror had not already been mentioned, said, "To me, the book seems like a mirror. I look into it and see the entire world reflected. Time is transcended. Everything is placed next to everything else. Simplicity is achieved." It was an enclosed speech, inviting no comment. Pretentious, thought Petra, but she saw that Ricki was looking at Bright Star with—what?—respect, and something like fondness. A nearly intimate fondness. Nat and Roo and even Jessie appeared quietly interested, nothing more. Petra felt alone again, but the next moment Chippie, awake and alert, drew her attention with lively searching eyes. The baby was herself. She smiled and Petra smiled back. Oh, hell, she thought, let it go.
Ricki, looking determined—their young brave college girl could still turn shy—started to talk. "I think the book is a puzzle. It can't be solved, but sometimes I get that feeling...you know that feeling?...of being right on the verge of solving it."
Petra said, "That feels good or bad?"
"Mostly good. Well, not every time. It's like driving around, looking for a place you've never been to, and then you think you find the right road and you'll see the place in a minute."
"That's when my anxiety shoots up," Petra said.
"I like it," Ricki said. "You might not be anywhere near the place you're looking for, you might be way off. That's OK, too."
"It is? It sounds like getting lost," Petra said.
"It only matters—getting lost—if there's a time limit," Ricki said, her voice suddenly losing timbre. She looked at Bright Star, and quickly looked away. Bright Star was blank and distant. Ricki started to massage her anomalous hand with her normal one. She hadn't done this before.
Jessie looked at Ricki, at what she was doing with her hands, took a visible breath, and said, "All right. I'll try to say this whole thing. First, this book changes. Depending. If I'm tired, it works like a monster machine for churning brain cells, making them into something like butter. Brain cells do not like this." Listening to Jessie pull her thoughts out was like watching a careful worker. This wasn't her natural arena, this literary business. In their early days together, Roo was smart enough not to push poetry on Jessie. Finally Jessie cautiously (Roo insisted to Petra that Jessie could be cautious) asked for a recommendation. Roo suggested Wilfred Owen. The young poet-soldier captured Jessie Brooks, former foster child. By his dead smile I knew we stood in hell was the crucial line. OK, she'd try this DWELL thing. Petra listened to Jessie and simultaneously gave herself a little lecture. Bright Star was odd today, no question about that, but her own state was hardly placid. She was probably overreacting to the mother in their midst. Possibly. "But sometimes when I'm reading this book," Jessie said, leaning forward, "the sentences have so much...I don't know, they're just completely themselves. Something goes from my gut up to my throat—it's a physical thing. It shoots down and sort of, well...takes my cunt. It's just plain sex, no other way to say it. Then it travels back to my brain and lights it up." Petra found this impressive and true. Roo was smiling to herself, Jessie's fond lover. But why had Ricki looked at Bright Star so...fondly? Jessie leaned back, her energy apparently spent, but then looked at Ricki, winked, and said, "You know?" Ricki bit her lip, blushed, and stopped the business with her hands.
Roo, obviously pleased, quoted Stein: "'A green acre is so selfish and so pure and so enlivened.'" Jessie said, "Hmmm." She grinned her slow grin and said, "'All the wonder of six little spoons.'" Ricki caught on, joined in, quick and shy and bold all at once: "'The sister was not a mister. Was this a surprise. It was.'" Her steady brown eyes lit up. Resilient girl. Petra was charmed, loving everyone. Dance a clean dream, she thought, and almost said it, but Bright Star jumped onto the stage, reciting loudly. "'A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.'" Then she took her front row seat in the audience, eyes tensed. Petra's response: I am not, definitely not, making this up. Ricki didn't look at Bright Star fondly this time. She looked down into her lap and started, again, to massage her small hand. Were they ever going to talk about that hand? Nat, who'd been even more inward than usual, looked up, looked around, smiled warmly, and said, "I like this one: 'Pick a barn, a whole barn, and bend more slender accents than have ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.' Isn't that like chaos theory? The whole book sings chaos theory. Fractals."
Now it was Petra smiling fondly. Everything sang chaos theory to Nat. "I don't know about fractals," she said, "but Gertrude and Alice are here...the plump one and the thin one, the barn and the needle...well, the needle isn't in the quote. It's probably close by in the text, or, if it's not, it should be. That phrase—'bend more slender accents'—has to be about slender Alice, and the writing, too, and it's so...what's the word?...delicate."
Petra felt happiness. A surprise burst of happiness.
Chippie, fed and burped, has fallen asleep. Petra puts her into the bassinet, a garage sale find. Clean and cheap, the bassinet seemed a sign: she had done the right thing, offering to babysit. She pulls up a chair, intrigued by her need to sit and contemplate a sleeping baby. But what the hell was Bright Star was up to? What was wrong with the woman?
Chapter Four (excerpt)
The plan was to keep everything in place. Her bed is made, her teeth have been brushed. Unbelievably, she has flossed. Only the weather has slipped into rebellion. The sun has not yet risen and already the air is warm. Warm and soft and wrong. October should be crisp.
Standing in the open doorway of her trailer, looking out into the woods, Bright Star sips coffee from her plainest mug, the pure white one. The tiny kitchen is at her back, the stainless steel sink, shape inside shape. There are no dirty dishes. She doesn't expect to control the weather, not quite, but the aberration makes her nervous. Inhale, she directs herself, and takes in the odors. Warm air, the first fallen leaves, this excellent coffee. All very pleasant, she has to admit. She should improve her attitude, decide the strangeness of the weather matches the strangeness of the day and is therefore perfect...