Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

*******************

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

********************

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

********************

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

****************

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

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The Unexpected Finding

Belaruth bellowed in rage.
Belaruth bellowed in rage.

“Do not reveal.”

It’s the first rule of searching: Belaruth knows this. The father of seven daughters and godfather to three girls whose fathers passed, he has Searched nine times before, always with no incident. Each Search, however, has made him more annoyed with the clumsy, wasteful Humes; each successfully completed Search has seen him joyous to winkle back home.

So he knows. But when the she-ling Hume comes crashing through the woods, sniveling and snuffling, kicking over his painstakingly erected dye vats and mashing the metal shavings he has so carefully separated from the paper backings–ruining, in fact, a full day’s preparation—he can’t help it.

He bellows in rage.

He hears work stop in the camp behind him; he hears the scampering approach of his youngest daughter’s tiny feet.

“What is it, Father–oh, dear!” says Dagney. “Oh, the poor wee thing!”

“WEE!” roars Belaruth. “She’s a hundred times you!”

The she-ling has fwomped herself onto the nicely decaying log that supplies endless fuel for their conservative fires. She stopped her sniveling mid-sob when he bellowed, and her eyes, huge and pale behind outlandish spectacles, found him immediately. There can be no dashing away, no pretending they are not here.

Belaruth gestures lightly to the rest of the team–stay back. Humes are unpredictable, although it’s true they’re usually more afraid than frightening.

But Dagney steps boldly forward, and he groans.

“What’s your name, little she-ling?” It’s a ludicrous titling from his tiny, lithe daughter, whose head wouldn’t reach this great lump’s ankle bone.

The Hume child stares with her mouth open, her nose dripping, for a long moment. Tears quiver on her cheeks, but she is so startled to see the Searchers in what, Belaruth knows, she thinks of as ‘her’ woods, that she has forgotten to bawl.

Finally she gathers her wits together. He sees her swallow, reach down her hands to bolster herself on the log, and choke out, “Patricia. But they call me Pat.”

“And why,” begins his daughter–“Dagney!” he warns, but she quells him with a look,–“why are you so troubled?”

The tears tremble again on her magnified eyelids. “This BOY,” she snuffles, “Mark, in my class, made up a poem about me. He said it and everyone laughed and laughed.”

“A poem?” says Dagney, puzzled. “Would that not mean he is wooing you?”

“WOOING me!” wails Pat. “He’s MOCKING me! His poem goes like a Dr. Seuss book,” and she bites out, mockingly:

This is Pat.

Pat is fat.

She has a cat.

The cat is fat, just like Pat.”

Belaruth turns his head to cough–a cough that starts out as an unbidden laugh. He does not know this Dr. Seuss Hume, but–it IS a catchy little chantie.

Pat glares at him. “By the end of the day,” she says, “everyone was saying it. They said it in school and they said it on the bus. I was so embarrassed. I never want to go back to school again.” She sticks out her lip, pouting, and Belaruth thinks again that the Humes are unfortunately unattractive.

This one, though, he acknowledges, is somehow endearing. Needily so. He turns to Dagney and signals her with his eyes–I’ll take care of this, he is saying,—and she slips back to the women who halted in the midst of gathering materials.

He takes a deep breath–he knows, he KNOWS!– he shouldn’t be doing this, and he walks toward the she-ling.

“In my land,” he says to Pat, “this would be the opening salvo in a contest of rhymes. Tell me about this Mark child.”

By the time Pat lumbers off thirty minutes later, they are fast friends. She has learned about them–that they are from what Belaruth described as a world under. They have come on a Search for Dagney’s trousseau, to gather metals and cloth and plastic and wood–to gather things left behind from the wastefulness of the Humes. The team of craftspeople who have accompanied them will perform what comes to almost alchemy or magic; they will weave the waste into things of beauty with which Dagney will start her new life with Jegg, her intended. They will create a wedding gown that will make all who come to wish Dagney and Jegg well gasp in wonder.

Pat’s eyes soften thoughtfully as she listens, and she asks questions about their processes, and she looks around and notices the litter on the woods floor. She has the grace to look sheepish and ashamed.

Belaruth asks her about this Mark who torments her, and he learns that Mark is one of the two smartest children in the class; Pat is the other. And Mark is very competitive. He has bright red hair and a face full of those odd freckle spots some Humes are plagued with. It won’t be, thinks Belaruth, difficult to compose a catchy lay that will irritate the boy in his turn.

They begin to compose together; Pat pulls a piece of crumpled paper from her pocket, along with a broken pencil. By the time she lumbers off, she has written  down this chantie about her blazing-haired nemesis:

Markus Karkus
Combing his hair
He set his comb on fire!
What’s he gonna do now?
Shouldn’t use a plastic comb!
Use one made of wire!

They have even added a refrain, which can be sung:

Markus Karkus, put it out!
Your brain’s already burned!
It doesn’t matter anyhow
There’s nothing you have learned!

Humes, thinks Belaruth, shaking his head, listening to the pounding of Pat’s feet grow further and further away. They’re exhausting. He turns back to his work area, where he will erect again the dye vats and begin extracting brilliant colors from the paper debris left behind by the careless species.

**********

Dagney is a hard-working, beautiful daughter; she leads her team of crafters and artists with care and a light hand, and they begin to stockpile wonders. There is a set of carrying bags made from pounded plastic; the bags are soft and supple and a beautiful pale blue. They have separated sheets of thin aluminum from paper backing; Belaruth tells them a substance called ‘Wrigley’s’ is wrapped in these sheets. None of them understands just what a ‘Wrigley’s’ is or how the Humes employ it….although the discarded papers smell wonderfully minty.

The metal sheets will be shredded and spun and woven into soft cloth that will wrap around Dagney’s wedding gown. They have found three large squares of cloth to choose from for the gown–Dagney is debating whether she prefers a plain soft blue or a flower-sprigged blue cotton. Crafters are sewing and crafters are pounding; some knit; some boil dyes; and some plunge their arms into giant pots of hot soapy water, cleansing and rinsing all manner of carelessly discarded treasure.

The Search goes very well; Belaruth couldn’t be more pleased.

He isn’t even too annoyed when Pat comes clomping back; of course they heard her coming when she was yards away–her gasping breath, her pounding steps.

She comes to tell him the poem has worked. She made copies of the refrain, enlisted the girls in the class, and soon everyone was singing about Markus’s burned brain cells.

To her surprise, though, she tells Belaruth, Mark was a very good sport. He laughs and makes up a response poem on the spot:

Pat’s so smart!
She sent a dart
Right through my heart!

And Pat, feeling greatly daring, had quipped right back:

Please don’t make
a rhyme with ‘fart’!!!!

Belaruth laughs with her. And when she asks about their work, he goes to see if Dagney would mind if he shows her some of the creations. They drag out the carrying bags, the silver over-cloth, the soft-as-clouds blankets knit from finely spun plastic fibers. With care unexpected in such a clumsy creature, she touches and studies the crafters’ work.

Belaruth waits for her to react, but Pat is quiet, very quiet, for a long time.

“I could do this,” she says finally. “I could learn to use the things we throw away.”

Belaruth almost feels tears well up–although of course that doesn’t happen. “Dear child,” he says. “If only all Humes came to realize that.”

While the Searchers work, Pat cleans the little clearing.  She piles up scraps of paper, pop cans, plastic bottles. The crew, grateful for the time saved, eagerly gathers up her finds and starts the process of morphing them.

She treks out to meet them every day for the next two weeks, and she marvels at the wondrous creations the team produces. Their final project is the gown; when it is done, Dagney models it for her. She has chosen the flower sprigged print. The dress sweeps and sways; Dagney’s jet-black hair glows against the blue flowers and the silvery mesh over-skirt and vest.

When the gown is done, Dagney models it for Pat.
When the gown is done, Dagney models it for Pat.

Pat says it is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. And Belaruth, who has grown truly fond of the great clumpy child, tells her, softly, that the completion of the gown signals the completion of the search.

Pat, who really is very bright, knows this.

“I’m going to make a little park here, in honor of meeting you,” she tells Belaruth, and he feels a little pang. He does not regret breaking Rule One; he will miss this Hume child.

“Remember, though,” he says gently, “don’t tell anyone about this time.”

“Belaruth!” says Pat, and there is a pretty ripple in her voice, “who’d BELIEVE me?” They look at each other, and they both begin to laugh.

When Pat leaves a little later, they  know it is their final parting. That night the Searchers pack up; in the morning, by the first light, they winkle away.

********
Perhaps the meeting with the Hume child has addled his brain, thinks Belaruth. When he and Dagney take the goods the team has crafted to the storerooms, when they inventory the wonderfully crafted trousseau, they discover they have left all the soft blue carry bags behind. This has never happened before; Belaruth is chagrined. His daughter loves those bags.

For the first time ever, he will have to winkle back to a Search site.

It is almost a week later when he has the time to return. He goes in the early morning, when the dew is still clinging to the grass. He finds that Pat has begun her work. She has cut the grass in the clearing; there are rough benches made from three small logs she has dragged over. There are scuff marks from more feet than Pat’s.

Maybe, he thinks, maybe she has brought Mark here and some of the other friends from school. And maybe they looked at the waste and the litter on their pathway in, and they began to dream of ways to end that scourge.

He thinks it may be true. In the center of the clearing there’s a creation. It’s made from cans and a bucket, from containers and sticks. All these things have been dipped in concrete and stacked together. It is a statue,–and Belaruth feels a tightening in his throat,–that looks remarkably like him. Against the tin-can feet leans a little card, and the card reads, “In memory of a friend who taught me so much.” Neatly piled next to the card are the soft blue bags.

Maybe, thinks Belaruth, maybe Humes aren’t totally annoying, after all. Maybe there’s hope. He imagines a time when Searches have to change because  litter and waste have disappeared. Maybe, he thinks, they could partner with Humes then.

He carries the lovely luggage to a spot where he can stop long enough to plant the memory of the whole statue firmly in his mind. He will tell Dagney; it will make her smile. He gathers the well-loved bags in his arms, and he winkles them away.

The statue, Belaruth realizes, looks like him.
The statue, Belaruth realizes, looks like him.