As I stumbled back to the house, I thought about this:
A few years ago, a Russian woman read my palm.
She had caught me in the driveway while I was walking to my car. She was the grandmother of the little girl who lived next door to my apartment.
Yana kept her iron-gray hair cropped against her thick jowls. Her skirts were always bronze, and she habitually wore thinly-strapped camisoles.
Her upper arms were as big as salmon slabs, and the skin on them was hanging loose, like brown tissue paper.
As we stood in the driveway, she told me that every human being has a tree that protects them with its essence: alders and almonds. She told me that everyone should eat kasha -- and that she would make me a bowl for breakfast some day. Then she snagged my palm. "No, relax it," she insisted. "You are too rigid," squishing her thumb into the hollow of my wrist.
When I went limp, the babushka traced a finger along my lines. "You need to eat more warming things for your heart," she grunted. "Liver and cinnamon." She folded my wrist over. "You will be wealthy. Oh, you have globs of creativity. So much creativity. And you are very romantic," she crowed. She was poking her fingers into the fleshy part of the base of my thumb. "Palacinka!"
Then she leaned closer and studied my love line closely.
"What -- what is it? Am I going to be a spinster forever? Is my husband going to die on the day of our wedding?"
"No." She studied it, and looked up at me, with horseback eyes. "You have a split in your love line, that's all."
"What does that mean?"
"You will have two relationships in your life. One is short, and one is long. You will be blessed with a soulmate connection, and a separate fling."
"You mean a fling in my old age? Or in my youth?" My voice was dancing with sport, but there was a clench of desire underneath. "Do you know when my soulmate connection will come?"
"No. I do not know the order." And she dropped my hand.
* * *
As I climbed up the stairs to the third floor, the carpets were thick and luscious: every step gave and sprang under my foot.
I squeaked open the double doors and saw that the sun was coming through the lace curtains, trickling across his knees. Daniel had pulled the quilt up to his chest -- the quilt that was buttered with rosebuds. He was tapping on his phone, which he lowered when I came in. "Brangela!"
"Danny, have you ever heard a loon?" I asked, falling into bed next to him.
"I haven't," he answered.
"Well, your soul would be split by it."
I laid an arm across his torso. "It's a mournful wail. Go out there sometime, right after dawn, and see if you can hear it. It's the most haunting sound you'll ever hear. Actually, it's the same sound -- remember when we were trying to make that bird call with our hands? That was a loon."
At the memory, Daniel threw off my arm and brought his hands up to his mouth.
"Oh, don't even," I said.
He hooked his fingers and velcroed his thumbs together.
"No," I warned him. "Don't you dare."
He began to blow.
So I quickly pulled my own hands to my mouth, and we sputtered and hissed for five minutes, both of us trying to achieve the whistle first -- before he gasped,
"No, it's too early in the morning for this."
I stopped and smirked. "Then I win by default."
"I'll nark you back."
I rolled off the bed and picked up my pajamas from the floor.
"Oh. Remind me, Dan. We have to wish Mónica a happy birthday today."
"I already did," he said, luxuriating deeper into his pillow. The sunshine was licking into the hollows of his eyes; puddling and dripping down his neck. "Her boyfriend is bringing her to Madrid as a surprise."
"Though I hope she's already there, because I said something about it in my birthday message."
I suddenly stopped shaking out my pajama top.
"Wait, Dan. What do you mean you said something?"
"I said I hoped she was having a good time in Madrid."
"Daniel! What if she doesn't know? What if her boyfriend plans on waking her up this morning with the tickets as a surprise?"
"Oh, no." He jolted over to the bed stand to grab his phone. "But maybe they've gone to the airport already."
"No, the five hour time difference goes backwards. Unless they've gone to the airport at three in the morning."
Daniel began tapping wildly on his phone to find the message.
"Let's not panic," I said, climbing onto the bed to look over his shoulder. "Maybe what you said doesn't give away anything. Maybe it's vague."
Daniel found it. He held up his phone in front of his face and read the message in a voice of death. "Dear Mónica, I heard that your boyfriend was taking you this morning to Madrid --"
"'-- as a surprise for your birthday.'"
I sat back on my knees. "No. You have to be kidding me. Are you making this up?"
"You can read it yourself! 'To Madrid as a surprise for your birthday. I hope you have loads of fun with your family. Love, Daniel.'"
"How -- wha --"
"I thought he told her the surprise a few days ago!" he bayed, slamming back into the pillow. "So she could pack or something. I thought that's what he told me."
He flung his elbow over his eyes. His elbow looked like two mountain peaks, scarfed with red. "Oh, Mother of Mathildigus, I'm an imbecile."
"Daniel Ruins Birthday Surprise," I headlined.
And I snorted. "No," I said strictly. "I shouldn't be laughing."
"You can laugh," he whined into his arm.
I ended up laughing so hard it felt like I was falling into a vortex: the mattress opened up and I dropped through a submerging sharp shrieking madness -- waves thudding from my lungs until I forgot that I existed.
When I surfaced again, for a long time I lay on the bed gasping like a fish.
And when my body stopped shuddering, and I realized that I had not died -- that the laughter had not taken my life -- I touched my neck, winced, and found I had pulled a muscle.
* * *
For breakfast that morning, he ate steak and potatoes.
"Keep me," Daniel said, slowly chewing, and breaking into his steak in the way the Irish hold their cutlery -- "away from that piano."
(They eat with their left hand, and saw with their right, and never swap the twain as is customary in Boston.)
"I'm flattered you think I have that kind of power," I said.
"No, no. Sarah, I swear." He swallowed. "I need this break. I have that concert when I go back. This is going to be two weeks --" he clanked his knife through the meat against the plate -- "two and a half weeks of total rest. I am utterly resolved. My tendonitis will heal and then I will return and fly through my repertoire as if I'm throwing off strings of diamonds and ropes of rubies."
"Fine," I said. "I'll try my hardest."
Forty-five minutes later, my aunt came down the stairs.
"Just listen to that," she marveled to me. "I was upstairs and what do I hear?"
"I think Rachmaninoff," I said miserably into my tea.
"Rachmaninoff! That's what that piano needs to have played. Would you listen to him." She sat down at the table and picked up a pack of cards. "Fire fingers."
"He's like a moth to a candle. He can't even keep himself away."
My aunt slid the cards out of the pack. "If I had known, I would have had it tuned." She was pretty -- middle-aged, with wispy hair and tipsy lashes. A perfect pinched nose and expressive lips.
"I know, but I told you not to," I laughed, "because of his tendonitis."
"It's so out of tune," she repeated.
I shrugged. "I think it sounds beautiful."
"No, what it is," she said, shuffling the cards fluidly, a smattering of cracks, "-- is that piano's supposed to be played like that."
I understood what she meant, and shook my head. "No, auntie. Your playing is incredible."
"Gee, thanks, Sarah." Her voice was a combination of lyrical and sarcastic. She bridged the cards like ruffling water. "But I know what my playing is. I play church songs and Christmas carols. My playing has a limit, and I know it and am fine with it. But his musicality is just something else entirely." She tapped the entire deck together, and looked out the window, to where a chickadee was zipping into the feeder. It hopped about, smoky gray and wheaten-yellow. "I almost want to open all the windows so the neighbors can hear him."
And I watched the bird, too, as I finished my tea, and listened to the ringing bells and clanging silver, muted from the parlor. My aunt laid out a game of Solitaire.
* * *
That afternoon, Daniel and I rambled down the lane that went past the house. It was a double-rutted path, with grass growing in the middle. We passed a spray of birches, a wagon wheel trussed up against a trunk. In the distance, through an opening of trees, some older people were playing croquet.
"I can't believe there are no bugs," I marveled. The path widened into a road -- still dirt. We were surrounded on either side by a thick forest.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean usually we'd be eaten alive. Biting flies like a black cloud." I circled my arm around his waist, and he placed his arm across my back. Daniel and I had a similar gait that made walking, entangled, comfortable.
"Look at us!" I suddenly said. "This is our third country we've been in together."
"I'm thinking about the roads we've traveled." In my mind's eye, I saw us wending up the ruby paths of the Cooley mountains, frightening sheep and seeing wild horses in the distance -- flecks of ebon and amber against the hillside. Or sliding down the bumpy roads through a Spanish village, on our bikes, the air smelling like dried-out firs, the stucco of the church crumbling. A dog was looking after us with yearning eyes. The colors, from the stucco to the brush on the hills, were all pale -- pale yellow, pale peach -- as if bleached with sun. Even the rug on the dog's back was a light blue. But I saw roses clinging to a wall -- vibrant -- the one thing there of savage color.
(Twelve inhabitants lived in the village, including the dog. I think there is something that can make a person bent with loneliness in such a place. An old man pulled me aside, into his dirt-floor stable, and gave me an armful of mint that he pulled up from the roots. I forget for what purpose. Maybe I didn't even know then, because he talked to me for a half hour -- too fast -- and I did not understand anything. But because I sensed a need in him, I nodded many times and said, "Si, entiendo," whether it was right or not, my face filling with the scent of mint -- so strong it went into my nose, "Si, si," and into my ears and eyes and mouth.)
"Ireland!" I said. "Spain."
"My Pepito," Daniel mourned affectionately, which was the dog's name.
"And now we're somehow in a forest in northern America."
The Maine air twanged with wet pine and the sweetness of wood decaying in the light. The forest was carpeted with strawberries and princess pines. Morning doves startled at our footsteps, and their chatter flickered off into the distance. The only other sounds were the knockings of a downy woodpecker, which ricocheted between the trunks.
We were going to the neighborhood's annual Conifer Party. The forest finally opened up and the lake was a bowl of blue, ringed with mountains. The beach was gravely and gray. Underneath a pine tree, there were tables laden with potato salad, Boston baked beans, cole slaw, and cookies. My uncle greeted us and went to get Daniel a Coke from the cooler.
As I was scooping cucumbers and tomatoes onto my plate, suddenly I heard a swish and a shadow swept over the table, across the baked beans.
I looked up and saw the wing-span of an enormous bird, blocking out the sun. Sienna feathers, sallow breast.
Daniel hadn't noticed. It disappeared the next second, swallowed by pines. Blotted out in cool shadow. My uncle returned and I asked him if that was an eagle; he nodded at me gently. I noticed the appearance stirred no one at the party, but my own soul was wheeling. I had never seen an eagle in the wild before.
It was a golden eagle, no less. Endangered. An emblem, I suddenly felt -- a harbinger of some good alchemy.
We sat down on rickety beach chairs. They squished. Daniel popped open his Coke. We held our plates on our knees, stiffly. I almost leaned over and whispered to him, "They probably all think we're a couple," but was suddenly self-conscious. The party-goers were mainly middle-aged or older. They wore polyester shorts, or salmon khakis and moccasins, and they held misty bottles of beers or soda. When I introduced Daniel, half of them wanted to tell him from what part of Ireland their ancestors hailed. And when they heard we were an aspiring writer and a pianist, they jerked their thumbs over at two people -- standing by the water, holding plates -- who both looked in their mid-thirties, and as out of place as we were. And then the magic began.
"Go talk to 'em," they commanded. "That couple's like you -- an author and a musician."
We did go over. And we did talk.
And as we talked, I gripped my paper plate, and couldn't take my eyes off the man. He was only slightly taller, with a compact build. He had black-gray hair tight around his head, and a five-o'cock shadow on his cheek. He wore glasses and didn't smile, but was very alive. There was a thrilling energy around his body: he had a certain liveliness just under his skin, but a relaxed gentleness, too. I found myself strangely drawn to him and his words. He had smooth skin, curled lashes, and folded ears. His eyeglasses were rectangular, with black frames. I glanced at his partner, and she was built like an athlete -- sturdy, capable. Her hair was a husk of corn. When I looked back at him, I tried to soften my gaze, and focus on what he was saying. Because what he was saying was gold in ore.
I had told him I had been thinking about getting a master's degree in creative writing. "Well," I admitted, laughing, "thinking about it for a few days. I had the idea last week."
[I forgot to mention, at the wedding brunch, the day of the split, an old friend told me he was getting a master's in creative writing and put the idea in my head.]
"Oh," he said easily, "I just finished a program myself."
And then he introduced me to a concept of which I had never heard: low-residency programs.
"That way you can have your space," he explained. "You attend two weeks at the school, and then you go back to your normal life. Writers can be -- quirky. Did I love them and was challenged by them? Yes. But in the end, you need your space."
"And do you think it helped you?" I shifted my plate into my other hand. "Do you recommend going that route?"
"Yeah, I felt it was worth it. They helped me revise my novel, and I got it published last year."
"Congratulations!" I cried. Adding brazenly, "What publisher?"
"Simon & Schuster."
And then my eyes rounded like a fawn's. I looked over at Daniel, but the name meant nothing to him.
"Are you serious?" I couldn't help collapsing. "That's one of the biggest houses in America." No flicker of pride over the sheen of his skin. I noticed he had pewter-colored eyes. He gave a little shrug and smile and said his next book was coming out soon, too. And then his partner added that they had just returned from Thailand. School children had read his book, he had given a presentation, and she taught a music class.
Then I erupted into glowing light: flowing molten lava from my head to my heart. And I could feel it from Daniel, too. He was buzzing.
We walked back into the woods and once we were out of sight, I started skipping around and spinning.
"Sarah!" Daniel exploded. "Did that really just happen?"
"Now we have to make Thailand our fourth country," I hallooed.
"That's going to be us one day!" Daniel said. "You're going to publish your books. And I'm going to tour with my music."
"We just got a glimpse of ourselves ten years from now. I am so charged up, I don't know what to say. Of course this happened to us!"
"What a precious gift -- the universe bending down and putting an affirmation in our hands." Daniel wound his arm around me.
"We're going to go so far in life," I said, leaning into his shoulder. "Separately, but so many places together, too."
"Sarah, we are going everywhere together," Daniel said. "My light blossom."
We parted at the head of the lane. He went inside, and I went farther along to see the couple's house. They had just moved in, and were my cousins' closest neighbor now.
I walked up the gravel driveway. I could see their cottage ahead: as compact as they were, sweet and shuttered, and white -- with cascades of begonias coming out of windows and filling the yard; morning glories climbing the trellised walls. I walked closer, now on their walkway -- starting to glance behind me, hoping I would see their vehicle through the trees before they saw me. I knew I was trespassing, and every footstep along the slate walk forced the tingles farther up my legs: ankles, calves, back of the thigh. But somehow I needed to see their inhabitance up close, the way someone in love foolishly collects the paraphernalia of a beloved: her bobby pin, an orange peel, a dropped note scrawled with 'Feed Dory's cat at 5 pm'. I wanted to edge the cottage's eaves into my mind.
When I was close enough, I turned to my right, and breathed in shortly: it was a view of the White Mountains not even my cousins possessed. I realized I was on a small hill, and the pines had been cleared in a sloping meadow: the grasses were golden, riveting with sunflowers and magenta asters. And the mountains was startling, pure. Almost Alpine.
Then I closed my fists and my eyes and wished -- wished -- that in my future I could have a cottage, a lover, a published book, a meadow, and a mountain. Helping children. Good work. Love.
I ran back inside and Googled him in the kitchen while Daniel practiced piano. I found his book, and bought it.
* * *
That night, after dinner, Daniel, Kelsey, and I curled up and watched some of our old plays we had made with the cousins -- "The Swub", "Taming the Woodlands", and "A Christmas Carol".
Daniel cackled like a hen and buttered up both my and cousin's egoes. We were sitting on the couch, cross-legged in a row, and eating Patches. "The Swub" was particularly bizarre, about a creature haunting the house.
Afterwards, as we were getting ready for bed, I went up to the third floor to put on my pajamas.
I felt my hand along the banister because the third floor was in total darkness.
"Daniel?" I called out. "Love-bug, are you here?"
No answer. Down the hallway, I looked at the double doors of our bedroom. They were closed, with no visible light underneath.
"Danny," I dropped my voice to a whisper, "have you gone to bed already?"
I turned on my phone for light and stepped forward. And at that moment I heard a hiss.
From around the corner something came at me.
Low to the ground, the creature was scuttling towards me with outstretched spindly fingers, still hissing with an open mouth -- almost toothless -- a yawn of horror -- with muddy-white fingers --
I dropped my phone and fell over on the ground. The creature snarled, as it hovered above me with those horrible bent fingers, and I was wailing something like,
"What -- the -- flipping --"
But then it lowered its arms and suddenly straightened, and the terror-spell was broken.
"Why would you do something like that to me?" I roared from my back.
Daniel crouched down and wiped a cold bony digit down the peach fuzz of my cheek.
"Get off," I laughed. I rolled to my side. "Though I suppose it's karma for what I did to you five years ago." I put my elbow on the ground and started pushing myself up. "Are we even now?"
"Oh, we'll never be even for that," Daniel said in a silky voice, still squatting. "Or maybe I'm one-tenth avenged now," he amended and stood.
I also shoved myself up, half-stumbling. "Wait, what. You mean I have nine more of those to go?"
"Were you really that scared, Sarah?" he asked, looking at me.
"Daniel, why in the world do you think I laid down on the ground! Look, I dropped my phone." I picked it up and shook out my arms. "That was the last thing I was expecting. Coming upstairs when I thought you were in bed and suddenly this white spectre comes down the hall --"
"A white spectre!" Daniel cawed. "A white spectre," he relished the words again.
"That's what you were."
"No, Sarah," he said, suddenly firm. He shook his head. "No, I am resolved that I am not even one-tenth repaid. Maybe half that."
"That is unfair," I wept playfully. But then I said, as we walked into our bedroom, "Well, no, actually, that's totally fair."
* * *
What I did to Daniel five years ago is humorous in a certain light, and through another lens, I count it as one of the top ten crimes I have committed against humanity.
When he was eighteen, he and I were living at Beatha House: the magnificent orange mansion sitting at the base of the mountains through which Queen Méabh passed with her armies.
But I was sleeping in the main house, or as it was commonly called, the "Big House" -- the term coined by peasants centuries ago for the residencies of the Anglo-Irish elite -- and Daniel was living in the stables. His lower-story room had daub walls, a stone floor, and two windows gauzed with webs. Spiders also nested in his unwashed cups. The entire second floor above him was massive and empty, used only once a month for concerts, and it creaked like a merchant ship through the night.
Whenever Daniel visited us in the Big House for supper or evening tea, he was forced to travel back to the yard in the dark. He usually did this without a torch, as the Irish call flashlights, so he would make a mad dash for the cobblestone yard, where he would finally slow down to a walk, because then a motion-sensor light gave him relief. It illuminated corners, hollows, and the bell tower: all the places that a prowler could hide. Daniel was not being paranoid, either. We lived in the country, but near a town that was notorious for its Irish Republican Army presence. And that year a double murder had occurred, in the forestry reserve two miles away.
But I myself was safe and cozy in the Big House in the evenings. I could hear the owner's grandchildren running around, through the walls that separated the house, as they got ready for bed in the eastern wing -- the sounds of their bare feet pattering down passages and banging through doors, and their cattish mother corralling them. In the western wing, I was kept company by Mónica. She was my fellow gardener, a girl a few years older and originally from Madrid. On this particular night, we were, as usual, in my fairytale room. Mónica was lying on my big white bed, studying English grammar, and I was sitting at the table by the window, attempting to construct another chapter for my novel. Dinner was long behind us, and the dishes had all been washed. My artistic process was proving to be stagnant and painful.
Finally I cracked out my knuckles.
"Móni, I am so fidgety right now. I don't want to write."
"Wof. I am dying." Mónica clapped her book shut and sat up. She opened her arms and circled them around her papers and notebook. "I would like to make a big -- what do you call? Hoguera."
"Bonfire," I said.
"Yes! Eesactly." She stopped and looked at me, her lips cracking into a smile. "Sarah! How do you do that? Your -- intuition -- is so good."
"Your hand motions are so good." I fanned my pen against my hand, stood, and looked out the ceiling-high window. Every pane of glass held a square of ink. "I'm going to throw my laptop out this ledge."
"I think my grammar book will eat me."
I looked down at her and grinned. "Please don't get eaten."
Mónica splatted the open book on her face. "No! -- It wants my head!"
"No!" I jumped on the bed. "I'll save you, Moni! You can't have my friend --" and I wrested the book from her face. The slime-green cover suddenly drove its incisors into my chest, and I fell back into the pillows. The book dug into my skin as we struggled. We thrashed around until finally I jumped back up, pushed it down into the mattress, and knelt on top of it.
I held the book there. It seemed to pant. It's coffee-colored pages were wavy under my knees.
"You know what we should actually do," I said, "is go scare Daniel."
"Yes," said Mónica, after she had finished laughing. "Put humprhey-comfrey leaves on our head and go through his door and -- 'Wah!'" She spread her arms wide, scattering her papers. "'Dani, we are the ghost of summer!'"
I wagged my finger. "No, no, let's be so much worse. Let's go around to the back of his room and --" I paused to think, "-- scratch on his window."
Mónica stopped for a moment. I felt her spirit chill a little. "I don't know. He will see us," she said with hesitation.
"He won't. He keeps his curtains closed. But, no, you're right. I see what you're saying." I sat down at the table again. "We shouldn't be that mean."
But then I got up, whirled around and put my fingers up to my mouth. "But what if we really did?" impishly.
"I know Dani. He maybe will not laugh."
"Psh." I swept my hand through the air. "Ah, he'll laugh."
"Wof. Yes. He needs to laugh." She slapped down her notebook. "We will do. Come on."
"He'll laugh after. Yes, let's go!" I closed my laptop. "Should we do this? Yes, we should."
Mónica slid off the bed and started saying in a sing-songy voice, "Vale, vamonos, chiquita, pájarita --"
" -- principessa Sarita," I finished, trying to rhyme.
"You are mixing your languages, again."
"Princesa," I corrected. "Andiamo!"
We took two flashlights, and ran over the violets, through the shadows, to the back of the stable.