S H O R T S T O R Y
b y s a n d i s o n n e n f e l d ~ s e a t t l e , w a s h i n g t o n
“IS IT a very long drive to Vermont, Mom?” Elena’s younger sister Karen asks as the Liebermann family piles into their station wagon for a two-week vacation.
“Three or four hours,” Elena’s mother says.
“That’s a long time.”
“It certainly is.”
“Yes, a long time,” Elena’s father agrees.
Elena looks at her father. He rubs his bloodshot eyes with his fist, trying to rub them into alertness. All year long, Elena has seen him sit in front of the television set, watching the Watergate hearings. Then a few days ago, the President resigned. Elena doesn’t understand exactly what it means for a President to resign, but she knows that now her father has bloodshot eyes and a strange patch of gray on the top of his head. She knows that despite her father’s protests, her mother has insisted that the Liebermanns rent a summer house in the Green Mountains.
Elena half sits, half lies on the rear deck of the station wagon with her fifteen-year-old brother Hal. Hal has taken his shoes off. He tickles her with his feet.
“Cut it out,” she says.
Elena is mad. She is mad at Karen for being the youngest and, therefore, getting to sit up front next to their father to read the map. She is mad at Hal because he takes up so much room. She is mad at the gray patch in her father’s hair. She is mad because there are auditions for the junior company at her ballet school on Tuesday and she won’t be there. Elena is mad at her mother for making them go to Vermont. Elena is twelve years old and she is mad.
She sighs. Her mother turns to look at her in the back of the car.
“Sit up straight, Elena,” her mother says. “And stop moping. I said you could audition next year.”
Elena sits up straighter, but her sullen look remains for the rest of the drive.
The rented house belongs to a law school colleague of Elena’s father. It is a rather large A-frame structure made entirely of wood, the frame stained brown, the walls a faded white and built strongly to withstand long snowy winters. It is comfortable rather than elegant, completely lacking glamour. Elena hates it at once.
“How about a nice long hike up the mountain tomorrow?” her father asks the family over a macaroni-and-cheese dinner.
“Mom, didn’t you say there was horseback riding?” Karen asks. “I want to do that.”
“There is no law saying we can’t split up,” Elena’s mother says to their father. “I could take the girls riding and you and Hal could go hiking.”
Elena doesn’t want to do any of these things. Elena is mad. She steals away from the table, hoping with all the discussion no one will notice. She gets as far as the entrance to the bedroom stairs.
“Elena,” her mother says, without even turning her head away from the table.
“By the front door you will find Inez’s mail. We promised Phil that we would drop it off for him and look in on her every few days. Why don’t you take it over?”
“Phil’s neighbor. She is old and infirm. The postal service works differently around here. They don’t deliver to every house. You have to go into town to get your mail. Phil always picks it up for her.”
“I don’t know where she lives,” Elena says.
“She’s on the plot right next to this one. Go out to the main road, make a right. A gray two-story house. Phil says it's no more than a ten-minute walk.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Hal asks her. “I could do with some air.”
Elena knows Hal really means he wants to go outside to smoke his stash of dope. She wonders what would happen if her parents knew that Prince Hal smoked marijuana every afternoon with his friends. Maybe then her mother would have let her audition. Maybe then she would be the family favorite, instead of him. But while Elena may be mad at the world, she is not a rat. Besides, knowing that she is not a rat just makes her mother’s treatment of her all the more wrong, and Elena is storing up every wrong the way some of her friends at school hoard their babysitting money. Elena is saving up for a rainy day, for that perfect moment when she can turn the tide and unleash all her mother’s faults upon her.
“No,” her mother says. “I think Elena could use this time to practice her manners. Be polite. Introduce yourself. Phil told her we would be coming around, but she may not remember.”
“I bet she’s crazy,” Elena says.
“Elena!” her mother says.
“Don’t be silly,” her father says. “She is a very nice old woman. I met her years ago. She’s lived a fascinating life. She’s lived on the same piece of land for sixty-five years. Ever since she got married at the age of fifteen. Maybe she’ll tell you all about it.”
“She sounds cool,” Hal says, curious about anyone who has lived so long. “I’ll take the mail over next time.”
“Me too,” Karen says.
“I don’t want to go,” Elena says. “And they do. So why not let them?”
“Because I asked you to do it,” her mother replies. “So go.”
“Fine. But I won’t be nice.” Elena grabs the mail, runs out of the house and slams the door.
She walks along the dirt road, the edges of the letters pressing into her palm. She hates her family, hates them all. And she will never, ever speak to any of them again. Not even to her father.
“I’ll leave home,” Elena says to herself. “Right now. Tonight. I’ll go into the mountains where nobody can find me.”
Elena looks up at the silent landscape. It is almost seven, nearing dusk. The mountains are black and forbidding as a heavy metal cauldron. She quickens her pace. “Mother doesn’t care. Sends me out all alone in the dark. What if I get lost? What if someone is hiding in the woods? No, she sends me on this stupid errand by myself.”
In front of her rises a hilly meadow and an old rundown house. It is rather large, with a huge splintery porch and a screen door half torn away. Every few moments, a heavy breeze catches in the screen’s mesh, pushing it open where it hangs for a second before closing with a loud shudder. Elena watches, mesmerized. Open. Hang. Close. Open. Hang. Close.
From the shadow of the porch a figure emerges.
Elena throws herself down on the grass, body flat, heart pounding wildly.
The figure moves forward awkwardly, breathing heavily with each labored step. Elena has never seen anyone so old before. The woman is hunched and gnarled with a wild mass of long gray hair. Over one arm, she carries a wicker basket. In the other hand, she holds a long knife.
The women’s steps grow slower, her feet tangling in the tall, thin grass. She stands in the meadow, just a few feet away from Elena.
“Is somebody there?” the woman asks, the voice reedy in the wind.
Elena is afraid to breathe.
The woman pauses a few more moments, listening to the approaching night, then continues her way up the meadow to a small garden. Five or six neatly trimmed rows of stalks wear tall leafy plumes like regalia. The woman, obviously half-blind, slowly feels her way down the row using planted wooden markers as a guide. She comes to a line of tall, narrow pink plants. She hacks at the rhubarb with the knife. Elena is amazed. Despite her failing eyes, the woman doesn’t miss once.
Elena looks at the mail she still holds in her hand and then at the woman. This strange woman must be Inez. One or two of the letters are smudged with Elena's fingerprints. She wets her forefinger with her tongue and tries to wipe the smudges away, but they only grow darker, like the sky. She looks once more at the garden. Inez is completely involved with her task.
Elena draws a deep breath. In a mad rush, she lifts herself off the ground, dashes up the porch, and shoves the mail through the hole in the screen door. Then, without pausing, she runs back off the porch to the dirt road. She runs all the way back to the rented house. Her heart is bursting from her body. She tries to draw a few painful breaths.
“Elena?” Her father is standing by the door. He has been waiting for her. “You’ve been gone awhile. Is everything okay?”
Elena nods her head, still too out of breath to talk.
“Did you give Inez her mail?”
Elena nods her head again.
“Good girl. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“No,” she says, able to talk at last. “It wasn’t so bad.”
Her father kisses her on the forehead, “Come inside. It was a long drive. Everyone else is already preparing for bed.”
“What did she say to you?” Karen asks Elena as they undress in their shared bedroom.
“Nothing. She didn’t say anything.” Elena bites her lower lip.
Karen looks at her. “You did give her the mail, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did,” Elena says, furious that her ten-year-old sister dare question her. “What else would I do?”
Karen looks at her again, but says nothing.
Elena lies under the covers, staring up at the sloping ceiling, thinking about Inez. What if Inez slipped on the letters when she went back inside? What if she fell? It would all be Elena’s fault. Or maybe Inez had heard her running on the porch and was afraid to go back into her own house? Maybe she was sitting out there in the meadow in the chilly Vermont air. Elena sits up suddenly.
“What is it, Elena?” Karen asks sleepily.
“I forgot to do something,” she says, hopping out of bed. She has to tell her father so he can go check on Inez and make sure she is okay.
She begins walking towards her parents’ room. If she tells, then he will know she lied, that she didn’t do exactly what she was supposed to. Her father will be disappointed in her. He will say it: “Elena, I’m very disappointed in you.”
Elena turns around and goes back to bed, lying awake long into the night, wondering.
Elena feels the morning peering down on her forehead, a stream of sunlit heat examining her closely like the school nurse who checks each of the students for lice with a magnifying glass and flashlight. She opens her eyes to see the skylight, six-seven-eight feet above her bed. She hadn’t noticed it yesterday when she and Karen chose this room to sleep in.
She dresses quickly -- denim shorts, cotton blouse -- and then grabs a light blue sweater from the pile of clothes neatly folded in her suitcase. She carries her sneakers with her, afraid that the rubberized soles will squeak on the hardwood floors and wake everyone up.
Elena takes the stairs carefully, walking tiptoe like they were taught in ballet class. Like Giselle, her dance teacher often said. Giselle was a ballet Elena had studied, about a girl who died and turned into a ghost before she could marry the man she loved. For a moment, Elena considers how a girl might turn into a ghost if there were things she wanted but did not get. She wonders if that could happen to the school nurse, who was always looking for lice that were never there.
The front door makes just the tiniest squeak, but then in a flash, Elena is through the door and outside. She is free, away from them all -- away from her father’s disappointment, the gray patch in his hair, and her mother’s demands that she be nice.
Giselle was nice and look what happened to her.
The full force of the summer sun temporarily blinds her. Elena raises her arm in the air as though holding a scythe and swings at an imaginary row of rhubarb. In a few minutes, she is in the meadow across from Inez’s house. The rich green grass of the meadow is still wet from dew. Elena wriggles her toes in her shoes and watches the dampness stain her canvas sneakers a darker shade of red. Inez’s house also seems to bear a reddish hue in the morning light -- the rotting floorboards of the porch have the color of peeled plums, the wood exposed to give the appearance it is soft and easily bruised.
Elena crouches in the meadow, trying to see whether the mail that she shoved through the hole in the screen still lies on the floor. She settles her weight deeper into her legs, trying to find a comfortable place on the ground, a way she can both observe and remain hidden.
Her knee presses against something round and hard in the grass. Keeping one eye on the house, Elena pats the grass with her hands, seeking the source of her wound. It is a worn metal tube about the size of Elena’s thumb. The top of the tube comes off. Inside is a bright red lipstick, half-used.
Elena looks around. Could it belong to Inez? Why would an old woman need red lipstick? Perhaps Inez plants it there, so unsuspecting children will come along and take it, she thinks. Maybe it’s really a tube full of poison.
Elena sniffs at the lipstick carefully. Cherry red, it gives off a sweet waxy odor -- just like her mother’s lipsticks. Elena knows what they’re like. Sometimes when her mother is out shopping, she goes through the drawers of her parents’ bathroom, trying on her mother’s makeup.
And now here is her own little tube of glamour. Elena runs her index finger over the tip of the lipstick until her finger is covered in red. Then gently she rubs the color into her lips, feeling instantly the way her bottom lip grows fuller, bolder.
The lipstick has made her beautiful. She knows it. She feels it. She begins to dance, kicking her legs up high into the air. She does piqué turns on the damp, dewy grass, feeling the loam give under her feet. Run, run, jump. Run, run, jump. Her grand jetés have never been so high, she thinks, her legs parting into a perfect split above the silent meadow.
Run, run, jump. Run, run… she stumbles on a twig and falls to the ground, rolling, turning on the wet grass, her speed increasing as she slides down the sloping incline of hill.
She comes to a stop eye-to-eye with a long row of tomato plants, a fat red-faced audience laughing at her fall. She has rolled right into Inez’s garden.
“They say that witches dance in gardens,” a voice says.
Elena looks up to see a pale wrinkled forehead, large and shadowy from the sun’s diffusing rays. Elena notes the pair of myopic slate blue eyes, which blink out a warning every few seconds. It is Inez.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Elena says.
“Yep,” Inez says. “It’s the garden that does it. Sometimes the smell of the earth reaches your nostrils and you want to soar. Of course, there are those that say dancing in a circle is a sign of the devil.”
“It is not!” Elena says, then gulps.
But Inez holds up her right hand, brown and gnarly with age spots and spider veins, to silence her. Elena notices how hard Inez leans on her cane, the effort it must take to stand up.
“I’m not saying it's true, but they burnt witches at the stake for less. ‘Course that was a long time ago, back in the state of Massachusetts.”
“I’m from Massachusetts,” Elena says, getting to her feet. Then she wonders if revealing such information is wise. What if Inez tries to track her down? Her mother is forever telling her not to give out personal information to strangers.
“I live with my family,” Elena says. “A whole bunch of us. In Boston. You’re talking about Salem, though. I know all about that. But they weren’t really witches. We studied it in school.”
“Did ye, now? Well, why don’t you come up to the house and tell me about it? I could use a bit of company.”
Huddled over on her cane, Inez looks to Elena like a giant question mark.
“I’m expected back,” Elena says. “If I don’t get back in time for breakfast, my family will come looking for me.”
“’Course I got my mail to keep company with,” Inez goes on. “Come yesterday night. Darnedest thing. I was just sitting over a cup of tea in the kitchen, chopping up some rhubarb for dinner. Makes for a mighty good stew. I was missing my John and all -- that’s my husband -- when suddenly I hear this noise. So I stretch my old bones and go investigate. And you know what I find?”
“No,” Elena says, miserably.
“Some elfin fairies left me my mail. Right there in the middle of the entranceway. It was nightfall, but just the tiniest ray of light shone upon it, that last little helpful bit of light before darkness comes -- sunkissed by the fairies, I’d say.”
“Sunkissed,” Elena says and touches her reddened lips in wonder.
Suddenly, Elena notices a small group of birds settling on the worn eaves of the house’s roof. The birds call to one another, chirping out harmonies like a many-pieced orchestra. Inez reaches forward in that moment to clasp Elena's hands, her cane falling in a graceful arc to the ground.
They begin to dance, a wide, graceful box step that grows wider and wider until Elena feels they have covered the entire meadow with their steps, touched every last blade of growing grass. They dance faster and faster, the wind blowing a single note of joy like a flute.
Elena suddenly realizes that it is Inez, rather than Elena, whose feet tread lightest on the ground. She drops the old woman's hands, startled.
“It gets in your bones,” Inez whispers to Elena. “Life gets in your bones.”
“But you’re so old.”
As if in confirmation, Inez’s breathing comes in rasps, her emaciated chest heaving to draw in air. Elena bends down to pick up Inez’s cane from the ground and hands it to her.
“Help me back to the house, girl,” Inez says. “Help me back.”
Elena takes Inez’s elbow to guide her. She can feel the looseness of Inez’s skin underneath the woman’s blue wool sweater, the brittleness of her bones when they walk. Elena helps her up the steps of the porch. She counts each step in her head as they reach it. One, two, three. One, two, three. A waltz.
“Sunkissed,” Inez says to her, and then the screen door opens and she is gone.
Elena pauses a moment on the porch, then looks over at the garden. The tomato plants stand tall and silent, the rhubarb sap glistens. A sole wren remains on the roof singing an erratic melody. Each note vibrates through Elena’s body, reaching deep into her belly, a dark moist place stirring into awareness for the first time.
She looks up, and with a single flap of its wings, the bird soars into the air.
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