Authors: Wendy Delsol
Obligation nags at me. Am I late? Am I lost? A test at school? Curfew broken? My mom worried? Something compels me. Someone compels me. Someone needs me. The child. Dear God, where is she? Still alone? Still unattended? The clearing. I must find the clearing. The insistent bleat of a newborn rises above the noise of the storm.
Something taps my shoulder. The tendril of an intrepid vine snakes over my shoulder, and as I turn away from its creeping fingers, I lose my balance. Tumbling to the ground, I tear the bottom of my dress on a thorn the size of a rhinoceros horn. Still, the vine continues its crawl across my shoulder and over my stomach, pinning me to the cold, hard ground. I kick one leg free of my shroud, then the other, and claw desperately at the encroaching vine. Struggling to my knees, I pull myself upright by grasping a clump of berries, frozen hard and hoary. The berries then lift. Airborne, I cling to them, kicking my legs as I adjust to this woodland zipline, crashing through leaves and thick stalks. Needly pines tear gashes across my forearms. Pinecones rain down on me as if launched with slings. I am losing my hold on the swinging clump of berries; my hands are raw against their frozen surface, and my arms sore from the effort to remain aloft. I worry I’ll be thrown to the forest floor, when with a final crash through a wall of leaves I find my toes touching grass. Soft, warm grass. I let go and pull my aching arms to my sides. A delightful sound, cheerful and melodic, tickles my ear. The coo of a contented baby. I turn to see the infant once again on her perch of pillowy leaves and velvety petals. As before, she bats her fisted hands and kicks her feet at dandelion fluff as it floats above her. And as I stare at the cottony seeds, they transform before my eyes to snow, thick crystalline flakes that dust my shoulders and cling to my eyelashes.
I spin in wonder at the sudden powdery shower and in doing so, scan the entire clearing. Again, the four stump-carved chairs are present. Jaelle, with her crackling fire-cape over her shoulders, still sits in a trancelike state. Within a moment or two, Monique walks into the clearing.
“Monique,” I call. “Monique, can you hear me?” No reply.
Monique walks to one of the seats, circles it contemplatively, and settles herself onto its coarse bench. She reaches behind the stump, lifts up a cottony substance, and pulls it over her shoulders. I think it’s gauze or wool of a dove-gray tint, but as I watch closely the cape shifts and moves. It’s a curl of smoky mist, a fog bank, a puff of cloud. Monique adjusts her airy cloak, folds her hands primly across her lap, turns her gaze to the newborn, and settles into a pleasant, sleeplike sentry of the beautiful child.
I woke with a start, vivid images still playing on the backs of my eyelids like some old-fashioned movie reel. I bolted upright, swiveled to find a notebook, and began writing down every strange detail of the dream. Monique. It was too good to be true. I held the match that could light the fuse to the rocket that would send Monique’s perfect little world into orbit. To maternity and beyond. What a choice: one vessel who wanted it, another who deserved the complications. Though I couldn’t call a meeting until the other two chairs had been filled, in the meantime I had questions.
I grabbed a granola bar, scribbled my mom a note, and headed into town. It was one of those mornings when a cup of Starbucks seemed as vital as oxygen, and possibly more so than my spare kidney. I parked in the alley behind Hulda’s store, careful to keep my car off Main Street. Afi would be opening up soon, and I didn’t want to provoke his curiosity. Approaching Hulda’s back door like a rookie thief, I looked left and then right, until I chided myself for such shifty behavior. Heck, I might as well shrug a ski mask over my face and carry a tire iron. On second thought, the large brass key Hulda had provided me was big enough and heavy enough to forgo any tool or weapon. I stopped, took a deep breath — muttering, “Hulda, here I come” — and slowly turned the key in the lock. The door opened with a long groaning creak, and I stepped a few feet into the dark back hallway. Hulda had instructed me to wait inside, but not to open the door to the office, which wasn’t an office anyway, though its faded lettering said so. I shuddered with cold. A weak morning light filtered through the transom above the back door, and I could see a very large brown spider busy at his loom. I heard something and took a few tentative steps toward the door just as Hulda poked her head out. She motioned for me to follow her back down the stairs.
“You have need of me?” Hulda asked, gesturing for me to take my spot, none other than the robin-carved second chair.
First of all, I was curious how she even knew I’d arrived. If Hulda had been in the basement, how could she possibly have heard me from that thick-walled and windowless room? Furthermore, it seemed an odd coincidence that she was even on the property, never mind down in the dungeon at the very moment I came calling. I hadn’t phoned ahead; we had no set appointment. What could she have been doing down there? It sure wasn’t my idea of a cozy nook.
I settled into my chair. Was it my imagination, or had the robin carved into the wood of my backrest opened its wings?
“Speak, child,” Hulda said with authority.
“I’ve had two dreams.”
“I’m always lost, and it’s always windy, like a category-four hurricane, and I’m in some crazy overgrown arctic jungle. And when I say overgrown, I don’t just mean thick. I mean Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-size plants. It’s cold and there’s always something tripping me up: legs ballooned to twice their size or a dress that knots itself around my ankles. And then I hear the baby crying, and I find her in a clearing. Around this grassy circle are four chairs — sort of rough and unmade. My friend Jaelle sits in one chair with what looks like a cloak of fire over her shoulders. And this girl I know from school, Monique, sits on another wearing one of mist. And they’re in some sort of hypnotic state staring at the baby.”
Hulda watched me with eyes that flitted back and forth, darting from my own eyes to my hands, to my lap, and once, crazily enough, to my wedged loafers. I couldn’t help but be creeped out by the scrutiny. What was Hulda looking at? Or for?
“The baby is a girl?” Hulda asked.
“Yes. Definitely a girl.”
“And the vessels, they are known to you?” Hulda stroked her chin.
“Yes. Is that normal?”
“Can happen. Yes. Tell me more about the baby.”
“She’s crying, but then settles down once I get there. She’s on a bed of leaves and flower petals. And like I said, there’re huge plants growing all around. Oh, and she has a curled vine twisting around her with purple flowers that close when I approach. And she’s batting at dandelion fluff, which turns to snow.”
Hulda supported her right arm with her left and tapped her forehead in concentration. “The child will be shy. The purple flowers are violets, shrinking violets.”
“She will love nature and outdoors. That is why the plants are so large.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“The snow signifies that she will live in a cold climate.”
What I wanted to say was “poor kid”; instead I said, “I think I’m starting to get how this works.”
“And the square of chairs is the four earthly elements, two of which — fire and air — have arrived. It would seem that earth and water are expected.”
“Wow,” I said. “You’re good.”
“But there are aspects of this dream, Katla, that are
.” She dragged out the word
as if the word itself weren’t freaky enough. “Is
to journey to the child, but to struggle or toil even more so.”
. Because I wasn’t weirded out enough.
“And is normally three vessels, not four,” Hulda continued. “Also troubling is location itself. Very strange, no?”
She was asking me?
“But the wind.” Hulda pulled her folded arms into her body. “This is a new symbol.” She rocked back and forth. “I must think on this wind. I must have forgotten something from many years prior.”
The room went eerily silent. Hulda was pensive, still bobbing back and forth as she moved her lips up and down, though emitting no sound. Two minutes passed, then three; I grew uncomfortable.
“Is Saturday. You come back in two days,” Hulda said. “This thinking will take long time. You come back on Monday. Seven p.m. I’ll be waiting.”
Hulda hurried me out as if there were a line of novice Storks all waiting their turn, or customers with purchases in hand and toes tapping impatiently. I looked confusedly around the empty fabric store and left with more questions than answers.
I checked the address Penny had given me. It was on the same block as Afi, but the houses on this end were smaller; even the trees seemed less stately.
Penny’s house was squat and pale yellow with gray shutters. A brightly colored bird-feeder was perched in a low tree, and a pot of orange mums sat next to a welcome mat. I rang the doorbell. Heavy steps approached, and the wooden door creaked open.
“Fru Grimilla?” My mouth opened wide with wonder.
“You know my
?” Penny stood beside her grandmother.
“What a good memory you have,” Fru Grimilla said. “It has been many years since your own
hosted our ladies’ group.”
“I remember,” I lied.
“Was that before the two of you had your fight, Amma?” Penny asked.
“It wasn’t so much a fight as a personality clash,” Grim replied sternly, without answering the question. Man, she was a black hole. Just being in her proximity made my shins splint. Kudos to my
for avoiding the abyss.
“I’m ready for you,” Penny said.
Indeed, her hair was wet, as instructed, and I was glad for the diversion. “Let’s get started.” I turned to Grim. “Nice to see you again, Fru Grimilla.” I followed Penny out of the small entryway and past the living room and kitchen. The house was boxy by modern standards and the furniture was circa
Leave It to Beaver,
but everything was neat and the place smelled of cinnamon.
“Fru?” Penny said once we were out of earshot. “I didn’t know you were into the old ways.” Penny opened the door to her bedroom, revealing Tina sitting on her bed, also with wet hair.
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m into what’s new and hip and can blend on Rodeo Drive or Montana Avenue.” I paused and took a quick look around the room. It wasn’t bad, certainly nothing like the rest of the frumpy old house. Grim had about as much design sense as she had sense of humor. But Penny’s room showed promise. The comforter was zebra-print. There were black-and-white photos of winter scenes matted in white and framed in black. A desk fashioned out of an old door occupied an entire wall and had an assortment of clear glass vases and apothecary jars containing pencils, scissors, rubber bands, and other various supplies. And the room was painted eggplant, a bold statement, and just as difficult to decorate with as it was to make palatable. I was impressed.
“Thanks.” Penny tucked a strand of wet hair behind an ear. “My
doesn’t like it. She thinks it’s too forward. She thinks out of respect for my mom, I should leave it the way it was. Except that I was two when my mom painted my room pink. I’m really not into pink anymore. And besides, a coat of paint is not disrespectful.”
“Do you mind my asking where your parents are?” I asked. “You never mention them.”
Penny’s mouth twitched. “They died in a car accident.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s OK. My
takes good care of me. She’s a little old-fashioned, but her heart’s in the right place.”
Maybe, but I’d like to see the X-ray. I wasn’t as convinced as Penny. Anyway, it helped to understand the household dynamics. “Does your
make your sweater-vests?”
“And who cuts your hair?”
This was good news as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t necessarily that Penny had no flair, more that she had a roadblock. And how hard could it be to get around something so tall and so thin? My spirits did a little heel-kick at the opportunity to encourage Penny in her teenage right to freedom of expression. Defying Grim was just sprinkles on top. I pulled a pair of scissors, a hair dryer, and a hair relaxer, compliments of Jaelle, from my satchel. “Does she know why I’m here?”