Weekends

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On the weekends, I lose myself in the woods.

I take a basket with me.  Often it will carry a couple empty jars, a bottle of water, a set of shears, and a sandwich or two.  In the autumn I bring an empty notebook to stick pretty leaves between its pages for safekeeping.

I like to set out early, just before the morning dew dissipates.  I listen for songbirds as I walk and try to mimic their calls.  There is something immensely satisfying about being mistaken for a bird.  Especially by a bird.

It gives wings to my thoughts and a lightness to my step.

Some days I find a nice place to sit and I look at every little thing around me.  I listen to every little sound.  Feel every breath of wind.  On those days I often leave the woods with a lightweight basket, holding empty jars and an empty sandwich bag.  My thoughts feeling calm and my heart full.

Some days I can’t help but pick up anything that catches my eye, and I will leave the woods with plants sticking out of my jars, moss or acorns or mushrooms in my basket, and pretty rocks in my pockets.  On those days I will come home with eager hands and a mind spilling over with ideas.

On my weekend evenings, I return home and empty my basket.  My house is full of broken things healing, lost things found, and lovely things gathered.

In my kitchen there are sprigs of ivy sitting in a shallow bowl of water.  I collected them at a wedding after the bride’s bouquet had been thrown and they had scattered across the floor.  When they take root, I will plant them in pots and find them good homes.

My living room is lined with jars that hold branches and twigs I’d found hanging broken from their limbs.  Red bud, pussy willow, oak, maple, dogwood . . . with patience and care, they all have the chance of taking root and starting again.  Already, I have young trees behind my house that were once broken from harsh winds or heavy storms.

My fridge has a shelf of acorns waiting in the folds of damp paper towels in sandwich bags, and I have to hold myself back from gathering them or they’ll start taking over.  I watch them, planting the ones that sprout.

Hundreds of flowers grow in front of my house, gathered as seeds or through transplanting, becoming a colorful home for honeybees and butterflies.  I guard them ferociously, weeding whenever I have a moment to spare and watering when the rain forgets to stop by.

Other days of the week, I am gone at work or meeting with friends or running errands.  Other days of the week, I am chasing my life and working hard.

But on the weekends, I lose myself in the woods.

I look for broken things that need healing, for lost things that wish to be found, for beautiful things that love to be gathered.

And I bring them home with me.

Baking

COOKIES

We are making cookies.

It is three in the afternoon and my brother Arnold is pulling out milk and eggs and butter.  My sister Cara is flipping through the cookbook, and I am sitting on the counter with a cookie sheet on my lap as I watch the low storm clouds brush through the tops of our trees and listen to the nearing thunder.

Cara says she wants to make lemon drop cookies but Arnold is pulling out the chocolate chips and I’m shaking my head at Cara.  She sighs dramatically for a long time before flipping to a well-worn and marked up page.

She doesn’t have to.  We know that page by heart.

I’m swinging my legs, softly thumping my feet into the drawers below me.  The colors outside are dark and rich, and there’s something about this kind of weather that makes it easier for me to breathe.  We’re all supposed to be doing something else, Cara has math homework and Arnold has science reading and I’m supposed to be cleaning my room; but Daddy’s at work and Mommy has errands and the afternoon is endless with time.

Cara puts a little butter on the sheet I’m holding, and I start spreading it so the cookies don’t stick.  I’m humming my favorite song, my feet thumping a little harder against the drawers beneath me.  Arnold is already measuring the chocolate chips, and even though he knows the recipe by heart, he’s adding a whole fourth of a cup extra.

The trees outside start rustling with wind, their leaves shaking and branches bending.  I pretend the trees are waving at me, and I smile at them.  When the sun comes back out I will go out and look for treasures they might drop during the coming storm.  Cara says sometimes they drop magic beads.  She’s found four of them, and gave two of them to me.  She says they chase away bad dreams.

Arnold says that’s a bunch of rot, and that I should chase away the bad dreams myself.

I’m printing my name and drawing shapes in butter on the sheet.  Cara carefully measures out the liquids and lets Arnold crack the eggs.  He gets little pieces of eggshell in the bowl, but it doesn’t matter because the extra chocolate will cover it.

At least, that’s what Arnold says.

The first big raindrops start splattering on the ground.  I look up from the cookie sheet as lightning flashes outside.  Thunder chases the flash, and Cara growls with it as if she is also a part of the storm.

I wonder if that’s what she does to her bad dreams, if she chases them off growling.  I don’t think I could do that.  I think I’d rather chase them off with a big stick.

But only if Cara’s beads aren’t really magic.

More raindrops are coming down, and I watch the trees carefully to see if I can catch them dropping a magic bead.  Cara mixes the cookie batter and Arnold shows me how to hold the sheet flat and I’m wondering if tonight I will dream of dancing with the trees.

We’re supposed to be doing other things, but the afternoon is endless and the kitchen is ours and other things can wait.

Thunder fades away as rain pours down, and together, we are making cookies.

Wanted

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Wanted: Dead or Alive.

It’s my own face sketched over the paper, but my eyes are too small, my nose is too straight, my mouth is too flat.  They cannot fit me on paper, they never could.

They see in shades of gray, their sight blurring from such lack of depth.  The world is stale on their tongue.  They think it is better this way, and they wonder why life feels like so much less.

The sun is touching the edges of the rooftops, the sky blushing in pinks and oranges.

I find the children, playing in an empty street.  They are at once lost, curious, and searching, though most of them don’t know it yet.  Such things are a dangerous combination.

“Shall I tell you a story?”

Just like that, I have their attention.  They forget their play and draw closer, questions in their eyes.  One of the older ones is glancing around, deciding if they dare to ask what? or do you know any?.  They are deciding if they dare to answer me with yes.

“Don’t close your eyes.” I draw out a deck of cards.  Inside, each card face is painted with fantastical colors. “If you do,” I flick a card into my hand, holding it up and then with a snap of my wrist–

“You’ll miss it.”

They are staring at the card in my hand, the painted magician gleaming in the golden light.  I lift my other hand, empty, and they see too late that the deck of cards has vanished.

They draw closer now, and I lower my voice.  The magician card flips between my hands.

“Don’t be deceived.” Their eyes are following the card, back and forth and back and forth. “Not all is how it seems, and some–” I flip up the card, except the magician is gone, and in its place stands the midnight assassin.

“Some will try to keep you from the truth.”

The children are full of wonder.  I remember when I was one of them, when my aunt whispered these stories to me.  That look on their faces, that gleam in their eyes . . .

They make me daring.

“Don’t forget what I am about to tell you.” I pull the assassin out of my hand, revealing the rest of the deck hidden beneath.  I slip him back into the stack and I start shuffling the cards.  They tumble over themselves, falling from my thumbs. “Stories are a living thing,” I push them up, and they arch in my hands before collapsing into one stack. “and to forget them–”

A card springs out from the shuffling pile, landing face-up in front of me.  The midnight assassin once again shows his face, and silence cuts through the air.

“It is a killing blow.”

There is a pause.  I have seen the death of stories, I have felt them like knives in my chest.  No more.

I start shuffling the cards again, leaving the assassin on the ground. “Shall I tell you a story?  Here is a better question,” I fan out the cards, offering glimpses of more yet to be revealed.

“Are you prepared to hear one?”

The sun is sinking, too weary from its march through the sky.  The light pulls away, leaching the colors from our sight, until everything is in shades of gray.

Everything, that is, except for my cards.

They glow in the fading dusk, their colors growing more vibrant with the growing night.  The edges sparkle like the edges of dreams, drawing all focus into another world, my voice becoming a backdrop to guide them through the story.

The story is alive, and it wants to be known.

By the time I leave this city, the story will have spread like the first frost of winter.  Slow, quiet, unstoppable.  Children have ways of spreading things, most of all if those things are secrets.  Especially secrets that want to be shared.

Wanted: Dead or Alive.

It takes them too long to find me.  News of my coming spreads in concepts and riddles, and they don’t know I’m there until I am gone.  They want to catch me, but they cannot see me.  They never could.

They are looking for sunset colors through lenses of gray.

Scketches

The subway is always changing.  Crowds gather and dissipate, eyes looking for the next train, already seeing their destination.  Each train that arrives spits out new waves of people to crash against the crowded platform.

No one takes much notice of me.

I’m set up against a wall in a folding chair, out of the way but with a great view of the comings and goings.  I sit cross-legged, balanced on my seat, my sketchbook cradled in my lap and my pencil hovering above the page.  Nothing stays long, so I don’t give myself the time to second guess anything.  If it catches my eye, I draw it.  By the time I know if it’s good or bad, I have finished, the subject has moved on, and something else is catching my eye.

A leather briefcase, a girls’ braid, a patchwork newsboy cap, a wrinkled hand.  I sketch glimpses of the crowd before the train arrives to sweep them away.

I have dozens of half-finished faces, never quite fast enough to catch them before they go, leaving me with almost memories of people I could have known.

There are a few, however, who I see here often, whose faces I have captured bit by bit.  I mix pieces of them that I see with stories I make up for them, and sometimes I wonder how close I get to being right.

The crowds disappear with the departing subway, and for a few moments there is stillness.  The echoes of the train speeding away fades into the sound of my own heart beating inside me.  My pencil stills over a new page, waiting for the next crowd to gather.

They come and go, swell and disperse, fleeting glimpses of them caught on my pages.  I’m drawing the sea foam on waves, the ripples of water as it speeds by.

Nothing stays, not for long, so I catch pieces before they go.  I’m a collector, I suppose.

A collector of moments.

Tower

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Night had fallen inside my ancient tower some time ago, the candles around me wilting into waxy stumps by the time I shut my book.  A slight breeze presses past my curtains, making everything flicker with its phantom touch.

I rise from my desk with the book in hand, blowing out the candles one by one, saving the very last to light a lantern.  I think perhaps a cup of rosehip tea will do me some good before I go to bed, and I’m heading down towards the kitchen anyway to put away my book.

The ends of my robes trail down the stairs behind me like silent wraiths snatching at my feet.  I sometimes wonder if the night air might breathe a little life into everything, making even my robes float a bit more once the stars come out.

The stone steps wrap around the outer wall, with a door on each level opening to a large round room.  I pass the spare bedroom that I’ve used to stash my collection of pretty rocks and crystals, the moonlight catching on a few of them to make them glow and sparkle in a way the sun never could.

I pass the drying room, with its strings of onions and peppers fastened to the walls, and bundles of herbs and flowers hanging from iron hooks.  A large table that has been here longer than me takes up the center of the room.

I pass another bedroom that I’ve turned into a sewing room, and I think about the fabric I’ve almost finished weaving.  I should work on it tomorrow, perhaps even finish it.

I’m just reaching the library when someone loudly pulls the doorbell, down at the base of the tower.  I frown as I slip my book back into its proper place.  I don’t often get visitors, especially at this time of the night.

A burnt-orange head with pointed ears lifts off the floor at the noise.  Ollie, a red fox with three feet, rises from his nap on the library floor.  I found him in the woods a couple years ago, and he’s been here ever since, pretending he doesn’t care as obsessively about me as he really does.

He comes with me as I hurry down to the still ringing bell.

I really don’t have many neighbors.  There’s a small cottage in a clearing I can barely see from the top of my tower, but the old man who lives there doesn’t get out much.  I met him once when I was gathering acorns near his place, and he was a gentle old soul.  He told me where to find a grove of walnut trees and gave Ollie a piece of wood he’d carved into a bird.  Ollie still sleeps with it sometimes.

He wasn’t the type of man to ceaselessly pull on my bell in the middle of the night.

Ollie must be thinking the same thing, because I can hear him faintly whining as we go down the last flight of stairs. “Cut that out.” I tell him softly. “No matter what time it is, that’s no way to welcome a guest.”

I’m only watching him out of the corner of my eye, but I can clearly see the look he gives.  I swear he raises an eyebrow at me.

I’m a bit out of breath and feeling a little scattered by the time I open the door.  Still, even if that hadn’t been the case, I’m not sure I’d ever be properly prepared for what stood on the tower’s front steps.

To his credit, Ollie doesn’t scream at them.

A king’s guard stands before me, the hand that gripped the bell rope now pressing against the wall for balance.  He is bleeding, his eyes frantic.  His other hand is holding that of a little girl’s.  She is wearing a silk nightgown and robe, her dark curls falling loosely over her shoulders.  Her eyes are red and wide and frightened, and she half hides behind the guard.

“I didn’t know where to go.” the guard says. “I just want to keep her safe.”

“Come in.” I say, and I open the door as wide as it will go.  I know who this girl is, though I am far from keeping in touch with the news of the kingdom.  If I remember correctly, the young princesses’ name is Viola, and she should be around eight or nine by now.

I lead them into the kitchen and point out the medicine cabinet as I start making hot cocoa.  Ollie leaves for a minute, but returns with his bird carving and places it gently at the shaking Viola’s feet.  She slips out of her chair and reaches out to pet his fur.

Despite everything, I find myself smiling at the resignation on Ollie’s face as he reluctantly but undeniably adopts her as his own kit.

I sit next to the king’s guard while he works on his wounds. “I will not raise her for revenge.”

He meets my gaze, letting my words sink in before nodding. “I just want her safe.”

“Then stay.  Both of you, unless she is able to return peacefully.” I glance over at the princess, now sitting with an arm wrapped around an exasperatedly fond Ollie. “She will be safe here.”

A breeze steals its way in from the kitchens’ cracked window.  A sense of peace settles over us; perhaps coming from the night air that gives extra life to everything it touches, perhaps from the smell of hot cocoa filling the room, or perhaps from something caught between the walls’ ancient stones from another time.

Perhaps it comes from all three, combining to make its own magic.

I think it’s whispering to us.  It’s whispering about the future.  About what has been.  About what can be.

About home.