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Ernie's Ark       Monica Wood              

 

Excerpt from Any Bitter Thing

 

"The full soul tramples upon the honeycomb, 

but to the hungry soul any bitter thing tastes sweet."

Proverbs, 27:7

 

CHAPTER ONE

           Despite its abrupt arrival, my accident felt anticipated after the fact, like a long-delayed package arriving as a thwup on the doorstep. Finally, I thought, as I spun through the air and thudded back to earth, delivered.

I tell this with the authority of memory.

__________

 I'm wearing dark clothes on a moonless night. A moonless night in late March, a night scrimmed with the fine, soft rain that falls in spring, the road's muddy shoulder too slick to run upon, the wet, bare asphalt making for better purchase. Through the misty dark, a carload of joyriding teenagers makes its oblivious way toward me.

My breathing settles, the road turns, my running shoes slop against the pavement. Then: hit and run. A brief flight through the murk. A bone-rattle landing.

I hear a girl scream, then the scream of the car—a stolen Neon that will be pulled over within the hour. The jig is up for the fourteen-year-old from New York City, AWOL from a wilderness-experience program in Maine, showing off for her hick boyfriend and his three sidekicks. She tells the cop she thought she hit a deer. She tells her parents she thought she hit a deer. She tells the judge she thought she hit a deer.

Eventually, I guess, she thought she hit a deer.

 __________

 I land directly on the yellow line—lined up neatly, head to toe—and rattle loose. The road feels forgiving and cool. Something breaks inside me, not only bones. I am thirty years old, with a husband and a good job and a best friend and students who need me and a hole in my life that I fall straight through.

 __________

 Impossibly, I hear it all. The fading trail of the escaping Neon. The silence of my body laid upon the yellow stripe, waiting not to be revived but resurrected. Prone, waiting, in the middle of the road. The panicked engine sound weakens with distance, and I wait.

Another rumbling, logy and low, the geriatric throat-clearing of a Buick Skylark, another set of headlights coming around the bend. The brakes are bad—a long, anguished whinny. Some spitting gravel. A car door hitching open, the sound of boots quivering across the road.

Goddammit! Jesus on a stick! Of all the! Of all the!

Hard running, the ping of a cell phone, a few frantic directives, the car door hitching open again, and he's back. Stay with her, they've instructed him, but he doesn't.

Before he takes off, he moves me to the filthy shoulder, struggling under my negligible weight, great clogged breaths gurgling out. Goddammit! Of all the Jeezly! Of all the Christly! He lays me down. Hand on my cheek. Not an unkind hand. Also not the type you hope for when you are moments from dying. His breath on my face arrives as an airy, whitish sifting, like an hourglass being cracked open and left to drain. It is a moment of confusing intimacy.

Then, he bolts.

Sorry sorry sorry!

Boot heels flinting on asphalt. Car door, again. A consumptive stutter as the Skylark pulls away, and away.

Now I hear everything: a branch leafing out. A sleeping bird.

The gate opens. Back I go.

 


CHAPTER TWO

 My parents were among the passengers on Flight 286, Boston to Las Vegas, when the jet tottered in a wind shear, killing all on board. This is the first fact of my life. I was two and a half years old, staying at the rectory in the care of my uncle, Father Mike, my mother's only sibling. It was Father Mike who had paid for their trip, the honeymoon they always wanted. The news arrived as a blur of activity, side-of-the-eye glimpses of chairs being whisked aside to make room for the hastening friends.

My uncle's poor shaved face, damp and pink, pleats with grief. He melts into that vinyl chair in his office off the front hall, two of his cats draped over the desk like outsized paperweights. His face drops into the well of his hands. He knows my step, and says to me, "Men cry sometimes, Lizzy. Is that all right?" I nod, aware of the straight hem of my hair brushing my chin. He can't see me but I think he can. "Yes?" I ask him, granting permission.

            It is possible I've attached these images to the wrong day in my desire to remember something of my parents, if only the reverberation caused by news of their death. The human craving is for story, not truth. Memory, I believe, embraces its errors, until what is, and what is remembered, become one.

            Father Mike did nothing to dispel the widely accepted notion that I had nowhere else to go. I can't imagine what he must have been thinking, filing requests and petitions, the paperwork strewn over our supper table among plates of leftover spaghetti and a cat nosing up from a chair. There was a meeting with some priests from surrounding parishes, and a call to the bishop, and finally a trip to the Chancery Office in Portland. It's a comforting notion, all these lonely, childless men blessing my two-year-old head. Finally they let him have me, though by the time official permission arrived, my red coat with the gold buttons had landed in its permanent spot on the coat rack in the hall.

            His was a lie of omission. Several priests visited back and forth in those first aftermath days—not his friends, but church officials whom he called Father and Monsignor instead of Larry or Bert. He referred to himself in their presence as "Lizzy's only uncle," which made me feel extravagantly wanted. And it was true, he was my only uncle, and my grandparents were dead. He neglected to mention, however, that I had an aunt, my father's older sister, Celie, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island, a world away from our western-Maine town of Hinton and our rectory home on the banks of the Hinton River. Celie and my father had not been close, too far apart in age and, apparently, sensibility. Celie, unmoved by the notion of aunthood, had her own family to tend, five awful boys. She would have taken me, though, being a Catholic woman well acquainted with obligation.

Aunt Celie and Father Mike discussed my care only once that I know of, on the day of my parents' funeral. His eyes must have been nearly swollen shut from weeping, for it became a story in the parish, how hard he wept while performing his offices, flicking holy water on their twin coffins. I imagine Celie stiffened into a back pew, stoic and solemn, as invisible as possible, fearing to be saddled with a sixth child. They met after the service. He must have pulled himself together, taken her coat, offered her coffee in his office. It was a smallish room with two doors, one opening onto the parlor, the other into a hall that nobody used except parishioners, who entered by the front door. The one beautiful feature of Father Mike's office was a lamp my mother had given him in celebration of his pastorship. She had often given him gifts—he still wore the tiger's-eye ring she bought for his college graduation, a ring I also came to love, that amber flash of cat. Big and sphere-shaped, it looked like the ring of a high-stakes gambler when in truth it belonged to a man who kept a piggy bank on a kitchen shelf.

He and my mother spent lots of time in that office, he liked to tell me. She always entered hesitantly, as if she were a parishioner with a problem of faith, and then they would get to laughing, ruffling the rectory's quiet with the sound of their boisterous kinship. Aside from some furniture and jewelry and a box of photographs, it is all I have of my mother, those painted scenes, a pretty woman joshing with her only surviving brother, her baby brother, the priest. My father appears in these stories, too, but not as the star.

Probably I forgot my father first.

Aunt Celie did not fill that office as my mother had, I'm guessing. There they sit, Father Mike behind a desk speckled with ink and paper clips, the cats banished to the basement on account of Celie's allergies. She takes one of the two straight-back chairs that face him. She leaves her gloves on. There could not have been much negotiation. I want her, he says. Her shoulders drop in relief. Be my guest. I've got a houseful of kids already.

I spent seven years as Father Mike's child, a time delicate and fossilized, sweet as a pawprint encased in amber, telling as a line on a cave wall. Of course I mourned my parents, but that became his hardship to remember, not mine, for I have no recollection of teetering from room to room in search of them, as surely I must have done. My parents, smiling out at me from a silver frame at my bedside, took on the pleasant properties of an oft-told tale, their picture as dear and distant to me as the cover of a beloved book, one I had read many times, then reluctantly outgrown.

I learned my prayers and said them without urgency—they were just one more open flower in the garden I had been delivered into. For seven years, God adored us. I lost touch altogether with Aunt Celie, so thoroughly that when the time came that I had to go live with her after all, she was nothing to me, a stranger.

_________

 St. Bart's, tucked into a few acres of woods just off the Random Road, was a small, poorly endowed parish with no school. At the turnoff stood a sign that read St. Bartholowmew's Catholic Church—All Souls Welcome in blue paint that we refreshed once a year. Coming down the long gravel drive, the first building you passed was the white church hall, long and low-slung, reminiscent of a bowling alley. In winter its roof required vigilant shoveling, often by Father Mike himself. Just beyond the church hall, the trees opened into a clearing and the sky warmed down on the church itself, a modest wooden structure with a steep metal roof. The rectory appeared a few hundred feet later, a white clapboard Cape Cod with black trim and a back porch that faced a slow-moving sparkle of river.

It looked like the home of an ordinary family, a place where you would not feel rude dropping by unannounced. From all sides unrolled a carpet of lawn on which Father Mike set up croquet games, a grill that he used year-round, and a hammock with a waterproof cushion employed mainly by the cats—Fatty, Mittens, and Boo, three fussy males. We called them the bachelors. The east lawn draped down to the river; the south lawn ended abruptly at a screen of pines. A shortcut through those trees—a former animal path that we tramped into an alley over the years—revealed a straight shot to the slope-shouldered farmhouse of the Blanchards, our only neighbors.

Ray Blanchard spoke French, mostly, though his English was more than passable. He worked as a deep-sea boathand, leaving for two weeks at a time. We were far enough inland that his profession was regarded as an anomaly, a baffling mistake, or a flat-out insult to the other fathers, who labored close to home, running machines in the area paper mills or working with dyes and leather at the shoe shop. Mr. Blanchard, with his cut-up hands and sculpted, wind-bitten face, seemed mildly enchanting by contrast. Not as enchanting as Father Mike, who strode across the sacristy every Sunday morning in silver-threaded vestments, the stained-glass crucifixion affording him an operatic backlighting that never failed to thrill me.

Still, I liked Mr. Blanchard, and Mrs. Blanchard. I liked their brimming house. Their daughter, Mariette, was my best friend (two little boys would come later), so I slept there sometimes, Mariette and I wedged into her narrow bed beneath an attic gable. On special occasions—birthdays, Fourth of July—Mariette slept with me at the rectory. We whispered and cackled and got in and out of bed, fetching water or crackers or one of the struggling cats as Father Mike paced the hall. What if we fell downstairs? What if Mariette forgot where she was and mistook the window for a door? He worried like this over his cats, too, sick with anxiety if one of them didn't appear on the porch at bedtime. Every ten minutes I'd hear the screen door creak open until the last prodigal had finally scooted in for the night. "Oh, you act like the old men!" Mrs. Blanchard liked to say, though he was only thirty-one when he took me in. He agreed, smiling, that he'd been born old and wasn't getting younger. I loved that he stayed in the hallway, pacing, angling ways to keep me from harm.

He installed me upstairs in three connected rooms originally intended for the housekeeper: bedroom, sitting room, bath. I don't remember my first days there except in pieces, spangled with light. His own grief must have been unspeakable. His father succumbed at forty to the faulty Murphy heart, his uncle James at the age of thirty-eight. His little brother, Bobby, died of pneumonia during the winter of their mother's cancer, a run of bad luck so preposterous it seemed like a message from a wrathful God. When my twenty-year-old mother left their Prince Edward Island farm to try her luck in the Maine mills, my uncle, a fourteen-year-old with no other family, went with her. It was my parents who sent Father Mike to college, who took his emerging taste for classical music and fine reading, his studied vocabulary, his longing for a life of the mind, as evidence of the calling he had declared at the age of twelve. They sent him to Notre Dame and then to Grand Séminaire in Montreal, where he studied Latin and learned the ways of the Church and, according to him, felt complete for the first time in his life. When he was returned to the Diocese of Maine, he and my mother, together again, lit a votive for each of their buried loved ones.

When I arrived at the rectory with my teddy bears and ruffly ankle socks and my mother's store of dishes, some of the parishioners welcomed the idea of a child. But not all of them. Priests, especially then, in the early seventies, were expected to behave like the statues in church, their unmarked faces listing chastely heavenward, their palms turned up: Your wish is my command. They came to him at all hours, and the phone rang so often the cats moved nary a whisker at the sound, but now he had a kid to get to bed just like everybody else. A toddler with sleep problems. The parish council retained the longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Hanson, to get meals and watch the baby. Still, Father Mike was a real father now. Some people didn't like this.

I wonder sometimes if he counted: his mother and father, Bobby, and Uncle James; and then my mother, his beloved Elizabeth; and his brother-in-law, Bill Finneran, my first father. He must have counted them up. Who wouldn't? It would be no mark against God to count up the bodies. I suppose he must have expected some ill to befall me. He must have waited every day for signs: rash, headache, a swollen this or reddened that. He patrolled the streets wherever we walked, his eyes sweeping side to side, scanning for hidden drives, fallen phone lines, unpredictable dogs.

He read to me at night from the novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery, fusty books that lived with the glassware in my mother's breakfront. I see us there, nestled in the only comfortable chair, an amber glow falling across our faces from a donated floor lamp. How grateful we were, being there together, he in a plain cotton shirt and black pants and shiny shoes, his day's work finished; I in a nightgown and fleecy slippers, willing him to turn the pages faster, even when I didn't fully understand the words; the bachelors collapsed on our laps like socks we'd forgotten to darn. His voice—that satiny tenor—filled the parlor with the story of Anne's grand plans and Gilbert's unrequited love.

We read. We cooked. We tended our "moon garden," an idea he'd gleaned from a ladies' magazine, turning up a patch of earth beside the back porch and planting it with pale flowers that showed best in moonlight. All through the warm summer nights into the crisp of fall, we sat on the porch steps at day's end, sipping Moxie and watching the river rise and naming our flowers, spring tulips to fall sedums, after angels and apostles: Gabriel, James, Michael, John—even Judas got a flower, one of the shabby ones. We were nothing if not forgiving.

            Why did the people not love us? "Here comes Father Mike and his little girl," he crooned, carrying me across an icy road, lifting one hand from my back, but not too far, to wave to a parishioner happening out of Stanley's Meats or Hinton Variety. Their faces, even the smiley ones, held a reserve of disappointment, a disquiet that showed in their faulty features.

"He makes arrangements," Father Mike said of God, meaning me, his treasure. God had taken Elizabeth and Bill Finneran before their time, and I was the thing He had given their brother in return.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 To say I was unconscious for forty-three hours is not entirely accurate. I had no desire to speak. Or to squeeze anyone's fingers. Or to do any other thing they asked me—begged me, I should say—to do. Open your eyes, Lizzy. Lizzy, open your eyes. Open your eyes, Lizzy. Lizzy.

I did not open my eyes. I liked where I was.

Afterward, I called it "my accident," as if it were something I owned.

 __________

 The part you could see if you cared to watch—the nuts and bolts of recovery—that's the part that feels now like a dream. Turning points, epiphanies, miracles aplenty; all those incremental steps toward wholeness. I could tell the story of my stupendous recovery. My convalescence was shorter than anyone expected, especially the humorless neurosurgeon who drained my head. The orthopedist was more hopeful from the outset, but even she had her doubts. I could tell you that story; it is not an uninteresting story, though too heavy with pluck and gumption. The body seeks to remake itself. It is no great surprise that my thirty-year-old body healed. It's true that I count myself now among those tiresome people who can feel rain coming, but other than that my recovery was total. I was amazing. I mended. I am thirty-five now, and to see me walk you might never know.

What I remember with such high-pitched clarity is not so much the bandages and casts coming off one by one, or the pea-green walls of the P.T. room, or the physical therapists palpating the tender spots and apologizing in soft voices, or my record-breaking graduation from walker to crutches to cane to my old shoes, which no longer fit. No. The memories that stuck—crystalline in detail, though temporally obscure—happened in the between-time, in that magical space between the big Before and After, in those softly falling forty-three hours. My head seemed like a room I lived inside.

            At the hospital I did nothing but listen. This one's not going to make it. That's how they referred to me: This one. Maybe they said it out loud, though I cannot imagine such a thing. One of them was plain tired. Another had just discovered a lump in his little girl's neck. Another was ready to quit her residency and didn't care whether I lived or died.

I didn't mind. I understood. These things I heard in my between-time did not feel burdensome, they merely existed. People's desires have a way of curling into a room like smoke, and there I was, breathing in.

They scanned my head. They removed my spleen. They rummaged amongst the bones in my back. I had no idea how many bones made up a back. They put a plate in my knee, screws and pins and a powder made of other people's bones. They stitched a thigh muscle that had split down the middle. They did not do these things all at once, on the same day. But they might as well have. Time felt long, and short.

They picked sequins of asphalt out of my face with tweezers and later with lasers. Tick, tick, tick, went the sound, like stones being tapped underwater, like time being lost.

They buckled me into a rig that turned like a barbecue spit. Someone came in and rotated me every couple of hours. Or minutes. Time did not seat right. Light and dark did not match day and night.

Later, in the recovery room, or in the room where they clamped me into the spit, I discovered how much Mariette depended on me. I had never known this about my friend, how critical to her was my existing; how, if it looked as though I were going to die first, she would offer to trade places—despite her husband, her little son—if only to escape another loss. These thoughts flew like frightened birds from the friend I thought I knew, and I was surprised.

I heard Drew, too, imagining himself over the long haul failing the test of devotion. That he had already failed the test of devotion in the short haul weighed hard upon him. There was a woman somewhere; he was sorry. I have seen the Northern Lights twice, and one time I heard them as well, and that's what my husband's thoughts sounded like. Like the Northern Lights. Sad and unreachable.

__________

 I had been "out"—unconscious but not gone. I had arrowed through the mist and landed on the road. I'd been moved by a stranger, a bystander, my witness. My witness fled, gunned his engine, and raced back to the corporal world, leaving me stranded. But I did not feel alone. A gate had opened, and my head filled beautifully with memory.

Then, in the cool, humming, middle-of-the-night hospital quiet, came an alteration in the air. A slow warming. My uncle—Father Mike, twenty-one years gone—stepped through that open gate.

After a long struggle, hours or minutes, I opened my eyes. An angel's wing. Threads of silver and gold. The frayed black cuff of my uncle's jacket. A crescent-shaped hole where he'd lost a button. An amber flash of his tiger's-eye ring. His voice sounded like poured cream, exactly as I once knew it.

I was so happy to see him, so unutterably happy. Finally, I thought again, and fell asleep, moving mercifully back in time.

Hours later, or minutes, I told Mariette, Father Mike was here. In her face I saw relief and tears. Drew, Mariette cried, Drew, get over here, she's awake.

__________

 Hallucination. Morphine. Trauma.

No, I insisted.

You're awake now. Look around.

I woke preoccupied by a life I had not lived since I was nine years old. My explanation—that my long-dead uncle had spoken to me from the great beyond—was not something the people around me were willing to countenance.

So, I was awake. Awake, but still gone. And I would not come back without him.

    


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