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Authors: Sharon Butala

Luna

BOOK: Luna
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Luna

Sharon Butala

for my sisters:

Cynthia
Sheila
Deanna
Kathleen

Diana in the leaves green,
Luna that so bright doth sheen
Persephone in Hell.

     Skelton

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Luna

UNDER THE MOON

JUNE

JUNE

JULY

AUGUST

NIGHT MUSIC

SEPTEMBER

PHOEBE PLAYING THE PIANO

THE WOMEN CONFER

OCTOBER

NOVEMBER

THE WINTER SOLSTICE

CHRISTMAS

FEBRUARY

SPRING EQUINOX

BIRTH

Copyright

About the Publisher

UNDER THE MOON

Rhea is sitting in her armchair at the end of the living room in the house she has occupied for sixty years. She is drifting. Her eyes may be open or they may be closed. It no longer makes much difference to her. My two worlds have met at last, she thinks, the inside and the outside. The feeling is a comfortable one, even a glorious one, the world either grey and ordinary, or bizarre and gorgeous, or both at the same time. She never knows when the ordinary will expand, intensify and become, as she watches, the extraordinary, and the extraordinary, as it blossoms around her, will suddenly reveal its ordinariness. Either way, she thinks, I can only laugh, and she chuckles, deeply, in her chest and full round abdomen, and listens to the sound and feels it with complacent pleasure.

She is remembering other springs, or perhaps this spring, or next spring, at twilight, visiting the pen of colts down by the barn. No matter how dark the winter, how deep the snow, how bitter the cold—the men chopping the frozen feed out of the stacks, coming in after dark, cold, exhausted, the cattle still hungry, all of us suffering, the men, the cattle, me—the earth would turn. I grew to feel it underfoot, spring would come again. I, who never saw another woman from one week’s end to the next, year after blessed year, had friends. Ah, friends. The pen of colts are my friends—were, she tells herself, remembering how they kicked their heels, tossed their bright heads, touched their delicate muzzles to her arm, snuffed outward with their hot, moist breath onto her wrist.

She sees herself. I, she thinks, a heavy woman even then, old already at forty, yes, that’s true, she tells herself. An apron still on over my housedress, Jasper’s old jacket thrown over my shoulders against the evening cold, standing, brooding in the setting sun, watching a pen of colts. She feels herself smile at the image, or perhaps it is not an image, perhaps she is really there again, the evening breeze blowing around her bare legs, making the hem of her cotton housedress flutter, the pigeons in the barn flying out, cooing wildly overhead against the darkening sky. She can smell the warm flesh of the colts, feel their coarse manes brushing the back of her hand. And all the birds, big and small, setting up that evening chatter, their last busy gossip before night descends.

Christmas concerts and playing cards with the neighbours, coming home in the moonlight, the sleigh runners squeaking on the hard-packed snow of the trail, the horses blowing steam, their harness covered with frost, the children asleep under the horsehide blankets and Jasper nodding over the reins. All of them, come and gone before I knew it …

JUNE

Selena banged the truck door shut once, twice. Her palms were wet with impatience, her heart beating a little too quickly, so that she had to pause to catch her breath. She turned the key, pulling the choke out slowly till the motor caught, cautiously slid it back in part way, then listened to the motor’s uneven rumble, her head cocked, her foot playing the gas pedal.

Late as usual, she was impatient to go, to get out of the yard before some minor disaster kept her, Kent needing her for one last chore. But if she pushed the motor too hard, she would only kill it. And God knew when it would start again, or what Kent would say if she had to find him to help her get it going. Nothing, she knew. He would say nothing, but she would read his amiable superiority in the tendons of his hands as he turned the key for her, or in the shape of his lips as he raised the hood, and in his eyes when the motor was running again.

Satisfied by the rough but steady purr, she put the truck in gear, backed around, and drove out of the yard, keeping her foot as hard as she dared on the gas till she knew the house behind her was out of sight at the other end of the road. Every time she left it felt like an escape.

She slowed a little then, and took a deep, shaky breath. How she hated this in herself, this persistent feeling of guilt, as if she hadn’t the right to leave, as if she had to steal away. Though she refused to think about it, she hated it anyway, yet couldn’t imagine not feeling it.

Afternoon sun poured in the windows, the day too bright to look at. Long patches of buffalo beans blazed down the ditches on each side of the road, strips of tiny scarlet mallow at the very edge. She could smell the hay, the sweet smell of alfalfa and clover wafting in the open window. Oh damn, she muttered and rapidly rolled it up, but not before a cloud of fine beige dust and a few grasshoppers found their way in. The grasshoppers skipped from her arm and shoulder to the floor at her feet, the dust settled on the dash and on her fresh makeup. She could taste it on her lipstick and feel it on her powdered forehead.

As she turned onto the grid road, the cake in the pan beside her began to slide off the seat and she caught it by the far rim, getting her thumb in the icing where the cellophane wrap had come loose. Without looking away from the road, she straightened the wrap, then sucked the icing off her thumb. She glanced at her watch. Ah well, if Rhea was ready, she’d be only five or ten minutes late.

She stepped on the gas again, but this time without that pull of haste, or was it anger? Or fear? No, not fear. Never fear, she scoffed at herself. She drew another long breath, blew it out slowly, and looked through the now dusty windshield at a flock of horned larks dipping and weaving above the ditch on her left. Grasshoppers hit the windshield and bounced off, or caught in the wipers by a wing or a leg and lay there flapping in the wind. One splattered, a gob of sticky yellow, just above her line of vision. She thought of stopping the truck to wipe it off while it was still wet, but another one splattered to the right of the first so she gave up without bothering.

She turned left again and bumped down a narrow, potholed track, worse even than the one into their yard. The house she was approaching, little more than a shack really, looked deserted but for the flowers of every colour that bloomed between, around and in front of the healthy green shrubs and bushes in front of the low house.

For some reason, Rhea, who hadn’t kept cattle for twenty-five years, had shut the barbed-wire gate to the houseyard. Selena hit the brake in time, jumped out of the truck into the cloud of dust it had made and which caught up with her, wrestled the gate open, got back into the truck, tried to brush off a long streak of dust on her pale yellow dress, drove into the yard, and pulled to a stop at the edge of a bed of purple, blue and yellow pansies.

Nothing stirred, the kitchen door didn’t fly open and slam shut behind Rhea as she hurried out. Only insects buzzing above raspberry bushes and butterflies darting among the pink and white hollyhocks lining the rickety fence. Irritated, Selena got out of the truck, and instead of using the kitchen door immediately ahead of her, she followed the half-buried old stone path around the west side of the house to the side door, the one that had, all the years she was growing up, been the main door. She knocked. There was no answer, so she pushed the door open and called, “Auntie Rhea? Are you here?”

The living room was dark and cool, the blinds all pulled. A grasshopper found its way in past her legs and landed on the edge of the faded rag rug in the little bar of sunlight that had sneaked in too, and she quickly put her foot out and brushed the grasshopper back behind her so that it hopped outside again. She stepped in and closed the door.

For a moment she could see nothing but the velvety darkness. She blinked and waited, the coolness settling beautifully on her bare arms. Slowly she made out Rhea sitting at the end of the room in her armchair, her eyes wide open, staring directly at Selena.

“Auntie!” Selena said, exasperated. “Why didn’t you say you were there?” Then, concern suddenly striking her. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve been all right more or less.” Rhea said, “for eighty years. I should think I’ll be all right this afternoon, too.” Irritated again, Selena, without replying, lifted the windowblind nearest her a foot or so, letting in the sunlight, so she could see Rhea more clearly.

Rhea was wearing her good dress, a shiny, wine-coloured material that looked black in the dimness. It had a row of spherical buttons down the front, like candies, with a rhinestone in the centre of each which winked at Selena. She was wearing her brown orthopedic shoes, the ones which had taken Selena three trips to Swift Current to acquire for her, and which Rhea had then refused to wear. The shoes were a good sign.

“Good,” Selena said, with a firmness she never felt in Rhea’s presence, “you’re ready. Let’s go then.” She opened the door and stood back as if this gesture alone would be enough to bring Rhea to her feet and across the room.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Rhea said. Selena closed the door, but not before a breeze crept in and stirred the skirt of the stained, red-flowered tablecloth on the round table against the opposite wall.

“Oh come on, Rhea,” Selena said, trying to sound merely reasonable, hiding her annoyance. Flies buzzed on the window above the table, beat against it, climbed above one another trying to get out. And if we let you out, Selena thought, all you do is try to get back in again. Surprised, she laughed out loud, a short quick sound, which she immediately stifled. That was the kind of thing Rhea said. Every time I come here I catch myself thinking like her, she thought, and grew even more irritated.

Rhea paid no attention to the noise she’d made, or behaved as if it were normal to laugh like a fool for no reason in somebody’s house over nothing, and then to stop in mid-noise, like a motor shut off.

“Is it your arthritis?” Selena asked. “Is it bothering you? Are you in too much pain to go?”

“I’ve had enough of women,” Rhea said.

“What?” Selena said. Even from Rhea, who constantly surprised, an astounding thing to say.

“I’ve had enough of women’s company,” she said. Selena abruptly let go of the warm porcelain doorknob and sat down on the blanket-covered couch by the door. Exasperation mixed with incredulity flooded her.

“For years and years and years—you told me yourself, Auntie Rhea—you said you
died
for the want of women’s company, and now, when you have the chance …” Rhea drew in a long breath.

“I no longer require the company of women,” she said, and folded her fat and wrinkled brown hands on her ample lap.

“I could get Kent to take you to a Kinsmen meeting,” Selena said, teasing.

Rhea didn’t reply, nor did she take her eyes away from Selena’s face, although she didn’t seem really to be looking at her. Baffled, Selena cast about for something to say to persuade her. “I can’t just leave you here alone day after day. It isn’t good for you, Rhea. You don’t have to be alone anymore. Why won’t you come with me?” She paused, then added, “There’ll be lunch—it’s at Helen’s—you know what a good lunch she always serves. Everybody’ll be there …”

“You have no idea why you want me to come,” Rhea said. “You clearly have never thought about it.”

“I want you to come … so you won’t be … lonesome.” At this, Rhea let out a long peal of high-pitched laughter. It went on and on, a variegated stream of sound, a wordless humourless message to the universe. Eventually, the sound stopped, she closed her mouth, re-settled her hands on her lap, the fingernails were stained as if she were a smoker, although she was not, and she fixed her eyes on Selena’s face again.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Selena said, and was again surprised at herself. Rhea gave no reply, nor seemed to notice the strangeness of Selena’s remark, its abruptness from one who was always gentle, its rudeness from one who was unfailingly polite. Neither did she take her eyes away. She’s going blind, Selena suddenly thought, and rose quickly, making a short aahing sound of sympathy, which she cut off at once, and turned it into a throat-clearing.

“Listen, Selena,” Rhea said. Now it was her normal everyday time-to-do-the-dishes voice, time-to-make-the-pickles, time-to-hoe-the-potatoes. Selena sat down again. “I’m not lonely…” Rhea began, then stopped, the purpose in her voice leaving it as quickly as it had come. Now she turned her head away and looked at the blank wall behind the table which was covered with potted plants: geraniums, a Christmas cactus; they bloomed and bloomed in the darkened room as if they had all the light they needed, as if the air was not so dry it made you cough. Selena stood quietly.

“I have to go!” she said, suddenly remembering her meeting. Her tension had returned, the pull in her stomach was there again. “I really have to go. If you won’t come … well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” She was angry, but she stood still, waiting to see if Rhea would, at this last second, struggle to her feet and without another word, come. It wouldn’t be the first time. But Rhea didn’t move.

Selena took a few quick steps into the centre of the room and looked to her right, into the kitchen. Everything seemed normal, bunches of dried weeds, lumpy things, Lord knew what they were, hanging down from hooks screwed into the old wooden ceiling, and in the centre of the room, the old round oak table with the lion’s paw feet and the matching chairs with the sunburst carved into the back, and beyond that, by the door leading into the flower garden, the big, battered blue granite bread-making bowl that had hung there as long as Selena could recall.

Rhea spoke.

“The world devoid of humans is hardly an empty place. I’ve told you that.” She paused. “How are the children? And Kent?” The first sentence spoken in a deep, vibrant voice, the rest of it in a quavery, old lady’s voice, a sociable smile that was almost grotesque suddenly appearing on her creased brown face. Selena sighed. No wonder people think she’s crazy.

“Everybody’s fine,” she said. “We’ll be haying before we know it.” She moved back and put her hand on the doorknob, turning it slowly.

“I’ll do some baking to help out,” Rhea said, her tone growing more distant, as if she had moved away.

“Thanks,” Selena said, but she was no longer paying attention to her aunt, as her aunt had stopped paying attention to her. She opened the door and took a step out, so that she was half in the cool, dusky room, and half out in the hot and brilliant June afternoon. “I have to run. I’ll drop in again tomorrow or the next day.” She hesitated. “Can I bring you anything from town? I have to pick Phoebe up after the meeting. She’s playing ball in Chinook.”

“Nothing, thanks,” Rhea said. She still had not moved.

When she was back in the truck again, and had wrestled the gate shut behind her and was rolling down the grid, a long cloud of dust billowing out behind her, Selena, still struggling to shake off that new and unwanted way of seeing things that always overtook her in Rhea’s presence, thought again: she’s going blind, and frowning, tried to think what she ought to do about it.

The yard at Harry and Helen’s was full of trucks and cars parked this way and that, and their little dog, beside himself with wonderful, yapping excitement at her approach, ran in front of the truck. She braked, the ball of white fur rushed away again, she parked the truck where it had stopped, rescued her cake as it slid toward the floor, knocked a big grasshopper off the cellophane wrap, brushed again at the long smudge of dust on her dress, failed to dislodge it, and hurried to the house.

“No Rhea?” Helen asked, as she opened the screen door with one hand and took the cake with the other. “Thanks.”

“It’s a little the worse for wear,” Selena said, as she handed the cake to Helen. “Rhea’s in one of her moods. You know how she gets.” Helen laughed and shook her head, carrying the cake to the counter where she set it down among the cherry squares, the lemon loaf, brownies, butter tarts, iced sugar cookies, and one dish of homemade candy.

“The best thing you can do when she’s like that is go away,” Helen said firmly, her back to Selena. “She always gets over it. The next time you drop in on her, she’s perfectly fine.” A ripple of female voices came from the living room and occasional bursts of laughter, mixed with the piping voices of small children.

Selena paused, straightened her dress, and went into the living room, Helen following close behind, muttering, “Time’s a passing. Let’s get started.”

The living room was a big, rectangular room with a large front window that let in so much light that Helen always kept the white undercurtains pulled shut, even in winter, to soften the unbearable brilliance that faded furniture and rugs, set teeth on edge, and gave piercing headaches that only a cool, dark room and silence could cure. Women were seated on the long sofa that faced the window, on single chairs and a rocking chair, and in the one armchair, all set in a circle around the room. Behind the circle sat the dining room table surrounded by matching chairs, the dark wood polished till it glowed, the table covered with a thick, white crocheted tablecloth, the centrepiece a vase of artificial flowers Selena knew Helen had made in a community college class. Selena had taken the class too, only her daisies and lilies were failures, she had long since thrown them out. She sat down in an empty chair in front of the window and arranged her skirt so that the dusty streak wouldn’t show too much.

BOOK: Luna
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