By the time the ocean sun edged courteously through Carrie's curtains, she had been awake for hours. Thinking. As she watched the grainy half-tones of her dark room melt into the half-colors of morning, the huge fish of her thought floated tantalizingly, but not complete, into view, then disappeared, as flippant as a May-fly, leaving behind a tangled phosphorescence. Not a great marlin of a thought, but more like a dolphin beached on memory, waiting for something to pierce its vitals and read the signs. But there, it had gone, leaving her stranded in the calm solitude of her room, amazed that she could be so casually visited by her thoughts, then so casually ignored.
She had tried to think before, in this concerted way, when she had been seventeen, before her marriage. She had been sitting on the swing under the huge box elder in their front yard. All the ancient lore of that front yard had been before her, the picnics, the ghost stories told at night, old men sprawled in after-dinner naps like spent blankets, women gabbling like a soft wind among themselves. Especially the women. She knew that soon she would take her place among them, that the world that she had only flitted around for so many years was now upon her, and she felt with a momentary pang of guilt a sense of remorseless destiny, of ropes with her name on them gently but insistently encircling her life. She had been thinking about that.
Especially the women. Her mother had been a high-toned woman, raised by a family of women when her father (Carrie's unseen grandfather) had died. Carrie remembered only her mother's eyes, a green the color of wet fruit. She stirred in her bed, kicking the coverlet down. She was perturbed she could remember no more of her mother, but memories had been dying lately with the regularity of leaves. Her mother's mother, Nanna, on the other hand, skirled like a high-pitched song through Carrie's mind because of her summer peaches preserved against winter's tangle, their bright sunlight bursting on the tongue like a hymn.
There had been others, aunts and derelict ladies of the neighborhood and cousins of a distant vintage, all of them swirling like a placid yet fervent river. Their world, to Carrie, had been as full of voodoo and mystery as any ancient religion, their strange ritual of teas and the rhythmic precision of the sewing and knitting, and she, the young initiate, the postulant, was allowed in only in steps, mastering odd sorts of monthly pulses and fervid decorum, brought up "proper," never told, except in vague whispers, what was not proper.
She had been thinking of that, there, on the swing. Even though she was being married off, being taken away from the bend of box elder and the luscious scents of canned pear and unfurled hay, she would still be one of them, still tangled in their strange anatomy of the world. As she in the gentle palm of the swing, savoring for some last free moments a freedom she had never known she'd had and now was afraid of losing, she had tried to parse out how it would all end. But nothing had come. And she had fallen into the arms of a man who had loved her, luckily, and her jars of preserved memory had canted shelves in her own home, her children nourished on a milk generations old.
The sun caught hold of the threads in the coverlet, then scattered itself across the hardwood floors and down the hallway. Carrie was not finished trying to think, but her body became restless and all the fish of her thought streamed away. It was still early, that much she knew, but she did not care to know the time. She recalled with wonder how her mother's internal clock had been tuned to different rhythms of the world. Time had run differently in her -- Carrie had sometimes wondered if that meant she had aged differently, shedding leaves no one knew about, bursting, like a seventeen-year cicada, into song when everyone else had thought the world had died. She had flowed like a river, Carrie thought, I only eddy. Her body was restless. It was time to be up, for Geoffrey was coming today and things were to be made ready.
Dressed in faded jeans and a flannel shirt that had been her husband's, she took tea into the yard, the morning dew snuffing the fade of her cuff and lacquering her toes. Grackles groused high in the maples and tit-mice and flickers threaded the spruce. Like a Gregorian susurration the sea climbed over the trees. She let the morning lave over her and from the dim coldness of her feet to the warm knot of her brain she felt clean and empty.
She sat in her deck chair near the forsythia, cradling the warm tea in her lap. The dapple shade on the lawn reminded her of her husband and the shy routine he had of approaching her. He would walk down the street, his eyes distantly away on the clouds or in the gutter. She, shelling peas or peeling onions or hanging clothes to dry, would watch him sidle up and it would almost seem that he would pass by when, as if he'd never known she was there, he'd surprise her with a courteous smile and a pleasant blast of laughter and timidity. After the formalities he would ask if she needed help and when she demurred he would gently insist that he help, and together they would shell peas or hang clothes, their hands gently, accidentally, touching. He had kept that sense of cordial mystery all their life together, treating her as if he'd just found her, an arcane beauty thrown up on the beach of his life, prized but not stifled. And the mystery still clung fast, to this lawn he had sodded and the trees he had earthed and the children he had surprised into the world, all of them tumbling along according to the clocks of their own fashion, fits and spasms in the large, breathing ocean they were tossed on.
Children. Again she had that sensation of a deep line being tugged by a hunk of darkness below. Sons, all of them, pleasing both her and her husband. Two had gone off for their fortunes, like sons went whaling to the occult shores of Patagonia -- one was already dead, oblation of war. Only one remained, nest-attached. She had been amazed by her sons, growing up as she had without men. They seemed to her to be rare pieces of driftwood, embroidered with odd symbols, codes she could not crack but only love, seemingly of her but seemingly sprung out of another time, like flowers that blossom only under the moon.
Carl, the one dead, still seemed to nestle under her arm as he did when she read out loud to him. Michael and Jordan, Ishmael and Israel Potter, sent letters that smelled of bazaars and myrrh, their lives unskeining like a trade wind. At times all the men in her life came strongly back to her, the deep tan smell of their bodies after woodcutting or the briny essence of sun-tousled hair washing over her until, when she let the time go, they were as present then as they had ever been, her men clustering around her with their bouquets of smiles spiced with affection.
And then there was Geoffrey, the last one, the one grown fatherless, whom she had brought up under the collage of memories offered by herself and three brothers, and who, despite all fears, had grown normally and decently, a man with his father's shy tenderness and eyes as grey as an ocean in storm. He was coming to visit today, from college, with friends. Again she tried to think the tugging inside her to the surface, but it darted away. She poured the last of her tea on the ground and scuttled to the house to prepare things.
That afternoon a rattletrap VW pulled down the long rutted lane that led to the house and deposited itself under the huge oak that shaded the north side of the house. Carrie stood on the porch, her jeans traded for creased khakis, her shirt exchanged for a blouse of embroidered cotton. Three young men poured out of the car, stretching their legs and talking animatedly. She saw Geoffrey and stepped off the porch to meet his embrace while the other two men stood awkwardly behind them. She held him at arm's length, gazing into his grey eyes, his present image fading in and out of images of a young child alone under the hedgerow and a hesitant teenager learning to shave on his own. "It's good to see you," she said.
"Good to see you. You can't imagine how good it is to get here." He swiveled around, eyes caressing house and lawn and sky. "Seems like eons since I've been here."
She hooked her arm in Geoffrey's arm, turned him around. "Who are your friends?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. This is Jim and this is Mark. We share a triple in the dorm."
"You must all be famished after your drive."
"All the way here I could taste lobster," Mark said with a smile. "Geoff's told us all about what a cook you are."
Carrie smiled, pleased that she'd been remembered. She glanced up at Geoffrey. "He's right, I am. And you will be the beneficiaries of the first full meal I've cooked in quite some time. Get your baggage and come into the house." Mark and Jim hauled out two backpacks and a small suitcase while Geoffrey escorted his mother into the house.
Inside she showed them up the stairs, aware of the sound of their voices and the luster in the house that she had not seen in years, then told Geoffrey to finish the honors. When they clattered downstairs again, it was not really Geoffrey and his friends but all of them long ago readying themselves for a day's outing or the tang of hot chocolate heated by the embers. They told her they were going to the beach and would be back soon. The sound of their car disappearing down the drive wound its way among the sights and smells of men, and for a moment, standing in the white kitchen bathed in afternoon sunlight, time had reversed itself and the darkness that floated in her soul seemed ready to pierce the light. And then it was gone, out of thought, and she turned to make the meal.
By the time they'd returned she had pots dancing on the stove, wisps of steam gossamer over their head, and celery and carrots diced, and the house was riddled with a strong scent of meat and potatoes, with a softer dessert fragrance of sugar. They clambered into the kitchen, the ocean wind still in their hair and eyes, and pulled beers from the refrigerator, and as busy as she was, she reveled in their presence the way a child might rub his face into his mother's skirt. She told them to set the table, then sit down, she was fine, and while they regaled her with tales of people and places and fanciful outrageous happenings she wove the dinner together, set the tapestry before them, and ate from the plate of enthusiasm they held for her with strong talk and gentle laughter.
During dessert Geoffrey talked about the times he had spent here, about the father he had never met, and Carrie filled in when asked, content to sit and listen.
"The best story I like," Geoffrey said with a wry laugh, "was about how my father met my mother." Carrie had told the story many times to many people, it was the best story she knew, and each time she told it in her husband's presence (it was never he that told, he just sat there wrapped in that affable smile of his, satisfied to play his part of the mild fool), everyone chuckled, deep into his own memory of a lovable foolishness, the mood easy and unhurried.
She could have been no older than fifteen, living in the house she was living in now, their summer house at the time. The same rutted path that meandered to her doorstep now was the same path as then. And one day a handsome man, young, still slightly gawky, had wandered down the path, never having been there before, and was impressed by the deep shade and the ferment of the flowers. Being tired, he leaned against the oak, pulled his visored cap over his face, and was soon asleep. They had discovered him upon their return from their day trip, and while her mother had wanted to shoo him away, Nanna told everyone to just leave him alone, that he could have ended up in worse places. They went inside and made the ice ream they had promised themselves, and when he finally woke up, with the women chattering away on the porch, there was a bowl of vanilla ice cream by his hip, only slightly melted, a spoon stuck for the ready.
Sheepishly, in that defenseless style he had, open and blushing, he walked to the porch, planting himself on the lowest step, and listened with a genial attentiveness to the gossip. She had, of course, eyed him constantly, though always at the times her mother wasn't eyeing her, and Nanna had sat there with a half-smile wrapped around her ice cream, though later she would deny it and say that she had had no plans in mind at all. Something that night must have impressed her mother, perhaps the fact that he had the sense not to bluster in the company of women, because she allowed them to see each other, watching carefully that he respect her naïveté and not crush in under his heel.
Their goodnights were brief. Upstairs, in her room, Carrie could hear them shuttle around, sharing the bathroom as they brushed their teeth, their lithe chatter brisk and calming. As darkness settled on the house and their presence soaked into the pores of the walls and the air that they breathed, she watched the moon rise. As its light filtered through her curtains and fell patiently on her coverlet, she could feel, almost like a palpable sheen on her skin, the breathing and the thoughts of the men in her house. Time slowed, the ticking of the house ran backwards, and memories seated themselves on her bed. There had always been men in her life -- they had filled and defined it, given it cause, clothed her shape, and now she was full again. And the darkness that had ridden her soul, that had tugged at her thought, came to surface. She had always been happy. She had been happy. She had been happy.