Monday, June 6, 2016

As promised, the beginning of my novel The Noon Siren

Chapter One

In the deep woods with her daughter, Stella looks for a particular sight: two birch trees grown so closely together they’re a single tree until halfway up, where one veers away at an angle of fifteen degrees, needing its own light.
           The trees mark the spot. It’s a dump, of sorts. But why would someone leave behind all their glass bottles in the middle of nowhere? Was there a house here once, the foundation covered by the ferns and moss that grow wherever something has rotted away? She’s read that bona fide bottle collectors hunted for old outhouses because people tossed bottles down those dark holes, but she can’t imagine purposely doing that, and she’s someone who has done all sorts of things. She’s held a merganser dripping with black oil and kissed its head, climbed over the side of the Westminster Bridge to hang a banner reading NO NUCLEAR DUMPING, and once, even before she got her job with Greenpeace, lived on a fourteen foot square platform, a hundred feet high in a redwood tree, and when a man stood below her yelling obscenities, she pissed on him.
           She’s warned Lee: two bottles each, that’s all, no more. They have not come back to her parent’s home to take on more stuff, but to get rid of it. She needs to be relentless. Her parents spent their lives filling every nook and cranny with the past; antiques of every size and shape, from miniscule ivory portraits to eight-foot tall grandfather clocks, from pressed lace doilies to heavy wall tapestries, from the wooden carousel animals to everything of her brother Stephen’s, down to the buttons that flew from his shirt, discolored with miniscule dark spots. She’s the only one left now. What is she to do with blood-stained buttons? Every time she touches them , rubs one with a finger, which she can’t help doing, she cries for hours and her eyes ache for days, to say nothing of her heart.
           As a little child, even in her twenties, Stella sometimes wanted to clear out the entire house—see the walls, the floor, the space empty and free so she could think clearly. All that stuff, it was as if she were living in the past, as a history of herself, not belonging to her at all: she imagined her clothes, her toys, even her crayon drawings already laying on a shelf in an antique store somewhere, aged and faded, ignored and tattered. What would they be priced? What would be their worth? She worried that everything she did had  to be of great value, so it would be worthy of its space in the future.
           When she left home, she swore she would never collect anything, would be free of things, fill her life with life. Easier said than done. But how could she say no to her daughter when she asked Stella to show her the bottle dump. We break the rules for those we love, she thinks. 
           She discovered it the first time during one of their visits home, a week after her mother’s diagnosis. Lee stayed by her grandma’s bed, reading out loud from a first edition Oz book while her grandpa held her grandma’s hand, his eyes so red and watery that Stella had to run from the sight of the three of them, get out of the house before she was swallowed with grief. Instead of her usual jog along the road, she swerved into the woods, leaping over fallen limbs, thin branches whipping against her out-stretched arms. When she came to a rest, her chest aching, she looked down and saw it, a flicker of light on a smooth glass surface. She carried back two bottles, one clear with a crisscross pattern, the other green, medicinal looking. Neither had a scratch, and she believed they were a sign that her mother would get better. So much for portents.
            That her father has just died, that she has lost both parents in less than two years, stuns her. She is not a why me kind of person, but she wants to know why them. Two good people in love with each other, surviving forty-five years of marriage and the death of a child. Stella stops for a moment, blinks back the start of more tears. But she’s cried out, isn’t she? No. It’s just too much.  She isn’t.

“You sure you know where we’re going?” Lee asks.
           “Just trust me, will you?”
           Lee sighs. “This better be worth it.”
           “Come on. Buck up. You can do it.”  Stella grins. “It’s gorgeous out here, right?”  Lee doesn’t answer, and Stella takes that for a yes.
           But it’s not all pretty. They just passed half of a rusted oil drum. God knows how that got there. What is the matter with people? At least she’s raising Lee to understand what pressing care this world needs. And Lee is bright, wiser than Stella was at the same age, more aware. Even Lee’s face looks wise: the narrow eyes that always seem squinted in thought, the tight press of her lips, even the sharp edge of her bangs makes Lee seem older than ten, and it’s possible she’s only nine. There is no way to know for certain. When Stella brought Lee home from China she was round as a ball. It was the food they fed her, the rice and noodles. But now Lee has thinned out, her legs grown long, her high cheekbones showing. She will be a great deal of worry as a teenager, stunning at twenty.
           Then Stella sees the conjoined trees, a ray of sunlight brightening the white bark. “There! To the left! See?”
           Lee stops and cocks her head, then nods and takes off at a run to where the earth lumps up, glossy wet glass poking through the ground as if swimming in a dark sea. Along with Stella’s backpack filled with juice boxes, granola bars and binoculars, they’ve brought two spades to pry the bottles out of the dirt, and a canvas bag to carry them home. Stella kneels down next to Lee and hands her a spade. The earth is damp and spongy after all the rain of the last two weeks, but most of the bottles are buried deep, and those on the surface are stuck fast by thin green roots meandering into their open necks, plants growing inside bottles like miniature terrariums. Water drips onto their bent heads, the leaves giving way to last night’s rain.
           The calm after the storm. Or does she have that backwards?  

Lee digs, excited each time she finds an unbroken bottle, rubbing off the clotted dirt, wondering what it was used for. These bottles are like so many of the things her mom has shown her, some pretty, some not so pretty: the fins of dolphins, the shady shape of salmon, the pointy beaks of baby eagles, the circular ends of pipes spilling chemicals into rivers, the pipes disappearing into the banks, connecting to factories. Lee stood outside one of those factories with her mom and the people her mom works with, everyone holding signs that Lee helped to paint. Now it’s just the two of them, and she likes this much better. There’s no protest, no angry faces, no one getting hurt. No one saying the world is doomed.
           “Watch out for the broken ones,” her mom says.
           Lee holds her breath a moment, waiting for the rest of the lecture, about taking only two, about waste and pollution and maybe even something about global warming, but it doesn’t come. Instead, her mom laughs.
           “What?” Lee asks.
           “Look at us. We’re a mess! Isn’t this great? Here’s to mud in your eye!”
           “I have mud in my eye?”  Lee swipes at her face, rubbing her eyes.
           Her mom laughs harder, the kind that can turn to crying out of nowhere. “Now you do! God, I love this place!”
           “But you’re still going to sell it?” Lee asks. “Don’t, okay? I want to keep it.”
           Her mom shakes her head. “It’s not an abandoned puppy. It’s too much work.”
           “We could keep an abandoned puppy?” Lee feels the smile come to her lips. Maybe she has just talked her mom in a circle that leads to a puppy. Her mom loves strong logic.
           “Oh, you’re good,” her mom says, pointing at Lee with a muddy finger. “Good one. But no dog, and only two bottles, and we sell the house and the store.”
           Well, she tried, didn’t she? You gotta keep trying.

Stella turns her face back to the earth. She can’t keep the house or the antique store. The thought catches in her chest, a hard held breath. She could only come here maybe a week or two every year. And the house is enormous, and in the middle of nowhere, near the toes of the Allegheny mountains, hours from an airport. She needs to be someplace where she can get to someplace else quickly. It wouldn’t make sense to keep this place. Would her parents understand? Didn’t they know they’d be leaving her a legacy she couldn’t accept; to love this place as much as they did?   
           And what’s the matter with her that she’s mad at her father for dying so suddenly, leaving her with this mess? I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m not really mad at you. I miss you so much.
           But she’s confused, and certainly needs to ask him some questions. What’s with the pale pink reading glasses in the sunroom, and the copy of Eat, Pray, Love? He was reading that? And what about the very drab but very female cardigan sweater folded neatly under the table where she found the reading glasses, a few sizes too small for the cleaning woman? And on the grocery list attached to the fridge with a magnet there are items, half and half, cranberry juice, eggs, written in someone else’s handwriting. Her father didn’t even use half and half. He drank his coffee black.
           He must have been seeing someone. Who? Why not tell me? What did he think she might do? Protest? Who has she become that her father was afraid of her?
           But what if he was right to be worried? How could he love someone else other than her mother? Elizabeth hasn’t been dead all that long! I wouldn’t have been mean about it, if he told me. He was wrong about that. He hadn’t given her a chance to prove herself. So she is mad at him. She’s mad at her dead father, and now he’s not there to answer a million questions she should have asked him before, and her eyes well, but she can’t do this right now, she can’t cry, because she’s having a lovely time with Lee. She’s not going to scare Lee by bursting into tears. She’s getting pretty damn sick of being tough though. Really, really sick of it. Apparently other people are getting sick of her being tough, too.
           Lee digs carefully around a bottle, her face intent. A child in the woods. When Stella was this age she had a fantasy about living in the woods, surviving on berries and wild onions. She wants to do that now. Ignore the house, the responsibilities, the pale pink reading glasses and the cardigan sweater. She wants to pull the earth over her head and sleep until everything is taken care of. Everything. The world saved, time for peace and quiet, maybe even love again.
           “Look at this one!” Lee shouts.
           In the distance, from the direction of town, the noon whistle wails, a deep, rich tone loud enough to be heard for miles and miles, a daily testing of the emergency siren. At noon it simply means all is well, the siren works, we will alert you if need be. At other times, day or night, its means fire, pain, something has gone wrong. And then, you have to count: Two blasts of the siren means: trained volunteers please check your cell phones and see if we need you, three: we need a medic and firefighters, four: all hands on deck, and hurry, five: we’re calling in the next town’s volunteer crew, too. Six blasts mean get your ass here now, this is the big one.

           Even at noon, Stella tenses for a full minute, waiting for the second blast, though it doesn’t come. It’s in her nature, knowing that all is not well, and she should be prepared to act. 

1 comment:

Ron Antonucci said...

Excellent! Looking forward to more.