Chapter 1 - The Places of Our Happiest Memories From "Compass Course" by L.B. Johnson
That Monday morning began with a distant rumble of thunder. My husband was already up for work, I had a day off and just snuggled down under the covers while Abby snoozed on the futon As the sky darkened I heard the click click click of her toenails on the hardwood floor. She was headed into the narrow but deep closet where she hides when it storms. I gathered myself up to go watch the sky, sharing something with the nature of that rumbling. Such storms have accompanied me on so many nights out in the field, their power lighting the sky, laying bare all risks and renunciations, as I work in the echo of someones last whisper.
The storm rolled through fairly quickly and with more than a little rain. This has been quite the year for rain, setting a fifty-some year record. The damage on the drives home each weekend was explicit - whole farm fields submerged, others dotted with large pages of dead vegetation that succumbed to days and days of standing water, The flat land was ridged and rutted with the marks of the centuries, the land passed over with wagons and guns, tears and tribulations.
It was only a few years ago, we had a drought, the corn dying across the landscape. There is no pattern to it, no predictability beyond a farmer's almanac and the scattering of bones across the ground. I remember one hot day in that summer - a small farmhouse - an interview to be conducted. The woman that answered the door knew why I was there, even as she looked past me as if hoping I'd disappear. I'm supposed to say "I'm sorry for your loss". But I could not. I simply stood there as she grabbed onto me as if a lifeline, breaking into tears. She couldn't have been much more than 100 pounds and felt like a bundle of sticks against my muscled form as she cried - sticks that had weathered so much, for so many years, only to be tossed onto a fire, for which I could offer no healing rain.
For some reason, I think of that on that Monday morning, as the rain dripped down eaves that have wept the tears from above for well over a hundred years. The village itself was old, all but a handful of the homes a hundred years old or more, trees covering my shadow that had existed long before I did. It's a quiet place, a safe area to walk. Each morning my husband or I would take Abby out for her walk, passing a Pub, the Catholic Church, down past the school to my house. As I went that day to get her leash, a flock of Canadian geese flew overhead, causing me to look up to a gunmetal sky as I looked out across the neighborhood.
The wooden steps listed ever so slightly, as if tired, a project when the kitchen is done. Branches of age-old trees moved in the wind, a flutter of birds released as they bow down upon the altar of a porch, The air within was still with invisible memories of the several generations who have lived in this home.
I wondered if I could instantly take myself to this spot 50 years in the future if it would be the same, if it would even be here. That's something I will never likely know, as the future, like beauty itself, floats fleeting, undefined, half hidden in the silent, still air, to be recognized only when we are ready.
As we returned from a short trip out to the grass, then a dash back to the house, I took my boots off, gliding quietly over polished floors, throwing my raincoat on the fragmentary curve of the chair. The house empty now, I went down to the basement, ducking my head in stooped courtesy to the low ceiling, where I would take up a tool and hammer grief into a piece of wood.
My Aunts house, where I sat in the tiny living room and listened to my favorite Uncle, the Engineer, ask questions that made me view the world in a whole new way. It's gone, the house raised to joint the tall colorful homes that rise towards the sky on those small lots. All that is left is some glassware of my Aunts, my Uncle's engineering books, passed to my brother, then to me. There in the closet is the carefully tended uniform of a great War, the cloth itself assuming the shape and form of those who are our heroes, looming tremendous against that backdrop of books and tools, and a small folded flag, that fills a sleeping house.
There in a city further away is a rental house I lived in as I started University. I shared the top floor apartment with two girlfriends from high school, the main floor housing one of their brothers and a roommate, as did the basement. It was owned by one of my friend's parents, We got cheap rent, but it was NOT free, the house having to pay for itself. It was so very tiny, two of us sharing one bedroom, one former bedroom, now the "living room", the really small one, mine, just enough room for a twin mattress on the floor and some pictures of musical instruments on the wall. In the tiny bathroom, a single antique claw-footed tub, as deep as desire. It was a sanctuary where I would soak for an hour with Vivaldi playing, not the usual Queen or Led Zeppelin when I actually had the place all to myself.
I opened up the window, the air breathing in and out, lightning flashes and with the weight of the dark, my breath quickens - blood running warm and quiet. So many places, now gone or changed to where what I remember of them is more recalling a piece of music I've heard, but for which I played no part.
When I was in grade school, on the long walk home, there was this giant shrub, actually several that had grown together, dying parts replaced by new shoots, all trimmed in a huge square shape. But underneath, in the tangle of their bases, you could crawl through, on your belly, like you were in some sort of secret fox hole tunnel. There were lots of open branches and space so it wasn't EXACTLY like a foxhole, but we could pretend. Of course, I'd arrive home, the dress my Mom had made for me all dirty and she had NO idea how I could get that way from a "walk home".
So imagine my surprise when I was first back in town after university and saw that sculptured shrub was still there, all new pieces perhaps, but still a growing living thing. I could no longer fit underneath its form but I could see that image still, looking up through the dense shrubbery, the branches, the arms that protect, the leaves, guarding not just my form but my urgent heart as I thought that surely heaven must be this color green, that forever grows and will never die.
I think of the walls of my crash pad near work, a place that was only a spot to lay my head when I was on duty, my true home far away. But what of the memories made there, the dinners and laughter, Barkley's attempts to get the little plush Chewbacca that was attached to Tam's purse, friends stopping by to see both of us, innumerable waffles, toast and toasts and always, books. There were tools and brass and puzzles and a question asked that made me look at the world in a whole new way. There was a dog bed, by mine, now claimed by a senior rescue dog, who will twitch in her sleep as she guards that which remains.
Then there were the nights alone there, waiting for the phone to go off, even as it didn't. My eyelids lids would twitch as I tried to sleep, the movement in response to my own brains thoughts or perhaps merely the cyclical movement of the earth and all of her watchers. In that place, there were memories made, and a life, perhaps forever changed. I wonder if years from now, I will drive past, just to see if it's there.
For these are the places of our happiest memories. They are scraps of time, like scraps of a note where your name once lay, a bit of stiff paper that means little of itself, yet still you keep it, will not burn it or throw it away because it means something, something you can hold even if the marks upon it are faded to white, something that says what you were, what you felt, even as you still are.
Years from now, oh so many years you hope, year to dream, to grow, there will come another night, with eyes that twitch with the minds flooding, even if the body is failing, the organs requiring the care of a Swiss watch even as time ticks down. The eyes are full of everything save consciousness and others gather around, looking on with knowing and unbearable eyes. The places of your memory are likely long gone, all they have here is the pictures of them in that brain that still sparks like a match, unspoken stories mirrored in the eyes of those around you.
Those places are never truly lost, they simply lie in whatever peaceful trail, besides whatever placid and assuring pond of spent years remains; in the mirror of days in which the mind still contemplates older desires and everlasting hopes. They are there, always, quiet, musing, steadfast, the joy still triumphant even if the actual place is now cinder and dirt. In that brain, is one final vision, a place perhaps, a person, someone for whom that spark exists even if they were years gone. The breath slows, the body remembers, the eyes finally close even as they embrace all seeing.
From outside the basement window, the rain ceased as a flock of geese flew overhead, in the trail of a small aircraft that was skirting the storm. Their sounds rose towards an astonishing crescendo, beyond the compass of hearing, as they flew upwards into a bright green sky.