Trees slide by the windows. The drive north is taking longer than I thought and the waning sun reminds me that the distance covered doesn't equal half of what the total will be. Bay Area to Seattle up the coast, thought the long route was a good idea. Rolling hills barely green under winter weeds, spring on its way.
A glance right shows my daughter brooding, indefinable teen anger radiating toward me, the only handy target. Sara, sixteen, stares out the window, seeing nothing of the beauty there, tracing halos in the glass hazed with breath fog.
This trip was my idea, mother and daughter alone, together. She had seemed eager for time out of school, but always the familiar wall is erected between us. I'd hoped to break it down, or at least climb over it, but in my attempts, I've realized the wall is covered with barbed wire and snipers, liable to shoot at anything, including my white flag.
Daffodils and narcissus along the roadside, bracing weathered fences, bring a sharp intake of breath. Seems the past is always broken open at the sight of early spring flowers. My fingers grip the wheel and I can sense Sara looking at me, wondering. She has eyes that brook no bullshit, a startling feature in one so young. It took me years to develop that ability.
"What?" she asks. "What's up?" I loosen my grip and give her a glance. "You saw the daffodils, huh? What is it with you and those flowers? They freak you out for some reason. Why?" Her attention is on me now and I sense an opening, an offering of understanding.
"They make me think of my sister."
don't have a sister." Her look is a question mark, she knows there's
a story here.
When I was a kid, growing up, there was this cemetery behind our house and that's where my summertimes were spent. Seems a little macabre, now, but then it was just a treasure of hidden places. The new part was manicured and clean, where they didn't allow upright headstones anymore. Easier to mow, I guess. On the slight slope of the hill, the older stones sat, angels crying lichen from aged downcast eyes. We'd trace the dates with our fingertips, strangers' names stumbling from our tongues, and we'd always save the graves of babies for last.
We would creep silently around them, awed at dates that spanned less than a year. Our youth prevented us from contemplating our own mortality, but we knew enough that these graves were sacred somehow, baby sisters and brothers someone never had, and we'd look at our own siblings with a sense of thankfulness or regret, depending on the day. We never thought to think of ourselves then, but always of others, pointing fingers at the specter of death.
One time we snuck into the big white building that dominated the side hill, halls quiet with slick marble floors. Someone found a dead leaf on the floor and we scared each other by saying that it was an ash from a cremated body, flinging it and shrieking to skirt away from it touching us. Admonitions from a man in gray barred us from that edifice thereafter, and I never walked by it again without remembering the curve of his mouth as he stepped on that lifeless leaf, crushing it to a dust not unlike the ashes we feared.
Then there was the really old part of the cemetery, overgrown and forgotten by the tenders of these death fields. Picking through poison ivy and eucalyptus, we'd find graves overturned from restless roots, marked with years that made our fingers tired from the counting. Spring came first here, daffodils and narcissus pushing up from fertile soil. My dad would bring me here at first bloom to collect bouquets for my mother and the heady scent of them in her bathroom would make me close my eyes and think of fresh earth coating yearly bulbs. Cemetery flowers.
Back past the neglected mausoleums, with their broken windows and vandalized foundations, past the yard where they stored the concrete coffin casings, where we would dare each other to lie still and play dead, back through an acre of woods navigable only by deer trail, there was an abandoned reservoir. Here was our favored playground, this cement-sided hole, where we would act out our imagined worlds. Favored because our parents thought it was dangerous, that perceived danger fueling our imaginations.
Summer saw it dry and cracked, perfect landscape for desert legends. Early spring, after winter rains, hundreds of newts and tadpoles arrived to be bottled for show-and-tell. Winter brought pirate tales, our rafts becoming ships laden with booty, when the reservoir would fill with its fetid waters, runoff to sit and molder. We would build rafts from the same wood year after year, wood left from children come before us, a generation's gift.
The winter that it happened, there had been a lot of rain, so the reservoir was fuller than usual. Our rubber boots got full early, as we stretched out branches to catch our rafts gone astray, the school week leaving them alone. Even then, I was amazed that plywood and two-by-fours would float as well as they did, and hold our nominal weight to boot.
My sister, being older than me, captained our ship, and we would fire our arsenal of quarter-stones and acorns at the enemy ship, captain and crew consisting of the neighbor girls. Shrieks and laughter kept us warm as the rain started up again, hooded faces grinning as we yelled at them to surrender.
I curled my arm back for a well-aimed mark and heard her yelp. I heard stone bounce off the wood of our raft and turned to see her fall, saw her fall back toward the concrete wall, marked with its scratched X's and O's from teenage lovers, saw her head hit and the O of her mouth matching the O of a love note. Slow it seemed that she fell off the back of the raft and was swallowed by the brown water, barely transparent in its flood.
What should have been silence was filled with the roar of rain on water, rain on leaves, rain on me, as I scrambled to the side to find her, find her, save her. I couldn't see her in the muddied water, my heart speeding to gallop-rhythm as the neighbor girls cried out to get my attention. I heard them over the pounding of blood in my ears and looked up to their frantic faces, faces open and afraid.
"Get someone," I heard somebody yell and recognized that it was me. "Get someone quick!" I used the branch we were using as our oar to push the raft away from the worded wall, away from the scrawlings that seemed to shout "it's all your fault!" No, it's not, it's not! As the raft drifted out into the middle of the reservoir, I could see my sister's legs trailing behind me, seeming broken off from the rest of her body, pulled in motion with the rocking of the oar. I nearly tipped myself into the water in my attempts to pull her, realizing that my efforts were in vain.
She was caught, her body was caught, stuck to something on the bottom of the raft, and my small size was not enough to break that meeting. I gulped air in between screaming her name, rain wetting my panic-dry tongue with each cry. I was helpless there, with her below me, and all of a sudden I had complete understanding as to the magnitude of short life spans.
overtook me as people arrived, a minute or an hour later. I was shaken
in my wide-eyed shock by rough, caring hands, moved gently aside and wrapped,
bundled against sights no worse than I'd already seen.
Silence from Sara. She turns her face from me, but I don't feel it's in withdrawal, more in respect for the story told. Her eyes go to the window once more, this time following the landscape. She raises her hand and wipes away the mist.
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