First Things & Final Changes

A Novel in Short Fiction Form
by Katherine (Erin) Harris


Copyright 1985-95, 2011 Katherine Anne Harris. All rights reserved.


First Things & Final Changes opens windows on the life of the main character at "epiphanic moments" in girlhood, adolescence and adulthood to about age forty. While many of its themes are serious, I've watched readers devour the book in an afternoon, laughing all the way. Once finished, what readers want to do is talk. And talk. First about certain images and ideas, but soon about their own growing-up: moments that suddenly rise from the ooze and how these felt and what they meant or might have.

If adult situations and occasional strong language offend you, kindly refrain from reading beyond Part III (of VI). This material is not meant for young people. Thanks.


Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Stravinsky

Lucidity

Rites in the Grove

Meetings with Muses

Taste Lessons

Trying to Get Home

Points in Biology

Most Likely to Succeed

Dealing with Deprivation

Playing with Fire

Seniority

Under the Whale

Intruders

All Iggles Are Jargs

Ideal Village

The Enchanted

Known in the Trade

Caught Bird Dream

The Neglect of Joy

The Climate of Loveliness

The Ontological Excuse for Optimism

The Poet as Day-Laborer





Stravinsky




It was lying underneath the golden chain tree in that early still time way ahead of everything except four morning-charging bike laps up and down the block. The child spotted it when she was sitting down to read awhile inside the redbud with three trunks that made a chair.

No telling where it came from: somebody's castoff 78, a little warped, fairly well scratched and, once wiped clean on the child's shirt, about the same shade as black cherry Kool-Aid. The label was unpeeled on one side, but the other showed a name she couldn't figure how to say right and the title of the music, called The Firebird. Suite.

Nobody had to tell her suite means group of, like more than one room. But Firebird? What would be a fire-bird? A bird on fire? No, bird made out of fire. A gorgeous bird, more wonderful than peacocks and flamingos.

No telling how it got in, over such high back hedges. Quick, the child looked straight up but there wasn't any passing bird with flaming feathers.

Buddy's awful nose poked cold behind her knees but his coat felt hot as noon already. She noticed how his black fur, on the tips of it, had sunburned rusty. While she was telling Buddy everything she knew about the berry-colored record, the child refilled his bowl with hose water and she had some from the hose, herself, since it was best outside with the smell of grass and warm rubber. The breeze started up as she was squirting off her feet to go indoors, once they got dry.

"Look what I found!"

Mary Fran looked up from her sewing, window curtains blowing all around her. "Were you out in that alley?"

"I was right in our back yard."

"You'll cut your feet out in that alley."

"I wasn't in the alley, Mama."

Sometimes the child found dark blue glass out in the alley and one time there was an ornament to hang, not bent much and it looked like old gold and big rubies. When she was very little, she'd liked just sitting down out there where ground was always bare and the dirt so soft it made her think of flowerpots ground fine as Mary Fran's most fancy face powder. When it got really dry, that red alley road would crack exactly like a flowerpot does, too.

"Go put that nasty thing in the kitchen garbage."

"It isn't nasty." The child remembered why it wasn't and she stuffed her dusty shirttails deep inside her shorts. "It's very clean and I'm almost sure that it'll play."

"Oh well, all right. Let me see that, then." Done hemming, Mary Fran bit off the thread down close to the material. She set the skirt onto her ironing board and took the record like another obligation, like when she'd have wet clothes to hang and Buddy'd act so glad to see her in the yard that she'd finally give up and pat him, usually.

"Stravinsky? Sounds like some Red. Funny name for a piece of music, too. And it's all beat up. You don't want this junk."

"I want to hear it."

"Honey, somebody threw this out because it wasn't any good."

The child stuck out a hand, prepared to hold it there no matter how long. Mary Fran returned the disc.

"That's nothing but trash," Mary Fran called after, as the childwas heading off toward the hall, "but don't you always have to find things out the hard way? You'll just never listen to me or anybody, will you?"

The child turned on her record player and went under the bed, directly to the far wall. She wasn't supposed to close her bedroom door in the daytime. Mary Fran said that it isn't polite, shutting other people out.

Depending on how alone she felt like being, the child stayed close along the near side or scooted in deeper. Mary Fran couldn't fit underneath the bed at all, and way in back she couldn't even grab.

The music struck like a middle of the summer storm, the kind that never stops until it fills the spillway over, the one you wait for when there hasn't been a drop to fall since spring but when it blows in it's a pretty big surprise to you, anyhow.

First the clouds assembled like a really hard puzzle. Then the wind came up, but just enough to start the shrubbery swishing like it had wasps in it. When the sky let loose of no more rain than what it takes to make dominos out of the sidewalk bricks, she saw the storm was only make-believing. It was putting on to be some tiny shower but she wasn't fooled, no sir. She knew a storm like this, the first night, could keep on sputtering and teasing you that way until it absolutely couldn't stand it any longer and it finally had to run those water walls along outside your windows on fast wheels and get you up too early for breakfast.

As soon as she had light enough to see the walls and how they hurried by just like they'd heard their schoolbell ring three streets away, that storm sucked its old breath back in again. The walls cracked down to scatterings of raindrops and, along the sidewalk and the driveway, every splash became a flash and it all spread out into a patterning again, not walls this time but wet baby stars all over the place, dancing.

"Isn't that terrible?" Mary Fran chuckled and each word came a little louder as she neared the child's doorway. "What? Are you down on that filthy floor again?"

Please, please, the child thought. Please. Don't make me talk right now.

"You come out from under there this minute."

"I like it down here. The floor feels cool, Mama.”

"If you're hot, go take a bath and turn the fan on."

"It isn't dirty down here, Mama. Just some fuzzies. Really."

"Are you at least on the rug side?"

"Sure," the child lied, inching toward the rug that stretched a couple of feet underneath her bed's front edge. Mary Fran came over and crouched down. She was quiet about it, like she meant to be, but the child could see her striped canvas wedgies and the bottom of her dress.

"Let me see your hand."

The child scrambled to reach the side that Mary Fran could stand to have her lie on. In time to keep from getting caught for fibbing, she put out a hand, then yanked it back too fast for Mary Fran to take ahold and haul her out from under. "See, Mama. I'm right here on the rug, just barely underneath. Let me stay a little."

Mary Fran stood up. "I'll turn off that ugly music for you."

"No!"

"Don't you dare to tell me, 'No,' Missy."

"I mean please no."

"Well," Mary Fran sighed. Her voice was taking on that bumblebee tone. "If you're really determined to lie here and listen to the rest of that peculiar stuff, I'm going straight outside to be where I don't have to hear it. The front yard needs work, anyway." She sighed again. "You come on out if you can ever spare a minute to help me."

"I'll come out soon, okay?"

"If that's the way you want to be."

"Only a little bit longer, Mama. Okay?"

"If that's how you want it."

After she'd heard the screen door open and shut, the child came out from under the bed. She picked up the record player part that held the needle and set it back a little ways so she could listen to the music she'd missed while they were talking. This music was like honeysuckle, so sweet she had to get it all and, come to think of it, Mary Fran was making hearing Firebird just as hard a thing to do as sucking out the last juice from a honeysuckle trumpet.

As soon as she began to see the sidewalk-dance again, it stilled. The raindrops got too big to bounce and just slid heavy down the grassblades, kept on falling, funneled down the creases of the green Saint Augustine. Water overflowed the cisterns in the hidden middles of the secret petalled things; they streamed it out, the flowers started raining, too, and every branch and twig went evening dark in sponge-bark. The storm was a slow soak forever and birds came in close to sing under her waterfall eaves.

This record was like nothing that her parents ever played, or that she'd heard in church or on the radio or ever seen them do on T.V. during Hit Parade. Church music was the most like, but an organ whines like Mary Fran and the pictures it makes scold you. Church music never puffed clouds up miles tall or drove the birds in near to sing for shelter, and it never poured this way, as warm as blood. This rain was blood, she knew by how her body felt the same inside and outside; drenched and whirling in no hurry, she was outdoors now, her skin could hardly separate the rivers.

All of a sudden then, the clouds turned mad as all get out. They weren't bluffing, either. Storm got ever so loud. Sky ripped open to light just like barb-wire tore through it and rain pounded down faster than ground could keep up or begin to. Some flowers that she didn't know were shocked, blinked open watery white eyes as night washed over, but she wasn't scared one bit. She recognized that this was how she'd felt the time her aunt and uncle took her on the motorboat and they went back and forth so fast between the flying and the landing hard on waves that the shape of going was like rolling the hammer up the xylophone keys. She'd felt this way at the Lions Club Summer Carnival, too, on the octopus and at that one step off the top of the ferris wheel, even though ferris wheels are baby rides, really. This feeling was her favorite and besides, she knew when anything goes wild enough and really means it, eventually it'll get to where it changes right inside itself and you can see it happen at that funny break you never can explain when people's mad turns silly. From then on, a storm is just plain pretty. It wakes you up and it puts you to sleep and you can't tell which way you like better.

The music got to there and it kept carrying on of course, just like a big storm trying to be ugly-acting when it can't convince you anymore, not even for a million dollars.

She felt covers pulling up around her, brand-clean yellow sheets and her down comforter, and she was slipping sleepily to choosing. Should she be sitting up? Should she lie back again? Lightning's a show past the screens and the rose canes but bed is a berth on a fabulous nighttrain. Her pillows were whistling go farther from daytime, express on the rain and its smells and the thunder.

The next breath left her standing in a doorway wide open to noplace. There wasn't even ground yet. Air and light and water needed practice. Too new to do their proper jobs, the breezes sometimes beaded up and shone, fire steamed to fog and changed directions, howling raindrops shot off sparks as she went gliding through toward the pulse she heard that called her to the seeing pool.

It studied her first, for a good long time. It watched her thinking how it was to be the last one hollered in for games, the first in any class with answers and to care so much, enough to cry, about things even grownups think are stupid, like this Firebird music Mary Fran can't stand and someone really threw away.

The kids would laugh, nobody would believe if she should say that there's a place that's not a place that isn't far away and isn't finished. She felt glad and scared to know about it, glad and scared the Firebird record fell in her back yard. Only three doors west, the yard grew pears and pomegranates and the next house was the one where four kids lived, so everybody was allowed to dig out back and you might find just anything. Instead it came to her, flew over those tall back hedges someway right to her and her only pick was listen or not listen. And that wasn't a pick because she had to listen. And she had to see, when the pool showed her.

While the Firebird itself sang a long line in the far-off, a new wind-fire rose, blew wet red in her face and black planets receded like broken-string kites. Now she could see the winged children who play on the face of the sun. She could hear the colors of their laughing, color like it was before it settled down into particulars although you couldn't fairly say it that way, not quite, because the shades that seem stuck inside stained glass are all doing a whole round loop from there and to there.

She understood the rain and wind and fire here weren't just learning; they were learning, all right, but it wasn't to become the kind of rain and fire and wind that you'd expect, necessarily. They were doing things differently, like some music has to do things differently, keeping on learning to be music. Like some people have to.

The knowing that this noplace was inside her was a present that she couldn't give back ever and most likely wouldn't want to, probably not even to be Martha Sue, that perfect blonde doll. The pool glazed to a mirror and she was the only one there it could be when, in the shadow of a giant thundering and bird-shaped thing, the red priestess opened her red gown direct to her red heart's bell-sounding beating.

It was such a loud noise when Mary Fran slammed in again and said that she was surely stubborn as her daddy, and not a big enough person to admit when she was wrong. Mary Fran went on to say that she was sick and tired of her pretending that she liked that weird atrocious music and she should admit right now she'd gone ahead and played it all for stubbornness and spite.

When the child could open up her eyes again, the colors were so bright.



Lucidity




There was an Uncle Will but there was never an Aunt Cara and the uncle came to visit sometimes, not for long. He lived far far away, where Cara once lived with him. Now she was far away but nearer, close enough to visit in the car except the child was never let to go. Her mother went and took her own mother. Sometimes the child's daddy drove. Always they carried along presents and she heard that Uncle Will gave Cara lots of presents too, since other people had to bring or send her every single thing she needed.

When Will Nightingale came over, Mary Fran stopped paying any mind at all to what the child was doing, a thing that wouldn't ever happen otherwise. This was true as long as she stayed out of the same room where they were talking so softly and didn't listen long outside the door.

There was a chocolate malt cake mix about to be fixed when Will showed up this time. The oven was preheated and the child was set to do the measuring and mixing by herself, with Mary Fran just watching, and it was her first-ever time for that because she'd just turned seven. When she saw Will's face through the screen-door, her heart fell and splattered. Instead of going on with baking, she'd have to wait and wait.

"Please come in," she invited him and she shouted to her mother he was there. Mary Fran came running in and hugged Will like it was whoopee to see him, but they both looked like they had dentist appointments today.

Uncle Will sat down in his very careful way, picking up the knees of his suit-trousers. He did wear the prettiest clothes she ever saw on a man and his round face, except for a little toothbrush of mustache, was shaved so far down it looked slippery. While Mary Fran went off to get ice-tea, Will tried to grin and be friendly and asked the child to tell him about school and her teacher. Not having any kids of his own, he could easily lose track of when it was summer. That made it hard to answer without seeming smart-aleck until she thought to describe some books she'd been reading.

While she was reciting the long poem she liked about daffodils, Mary Fran brought ice-tea for two and lemon cookies. She told the child to get herself whatever she wanted in the kitchen, then go play.

While the kitchen door was swinging behind her, the child heard Will talking. "She reminds me more and more of Cara."

"Please don't tell me that," Mary Fran said back, quick and flat and whiney.

This struck the child as rude to say to Will and, besides, inside her gran's most special glass-front cabinet, Cara's was the best face in the best frame. Now and then Gran would talk about Cara who, before she got sick, was extra-smart and talented. She acted in plays, made lovely clothes to wear and finished college by the time she was twenty, then she taught high school until she married a rich man, Will, and moved off. All this was fine to know, even though Mary Fran never wanted to go into it, but nobody, not even Gran, was willing to explain what it was that went wrong with Cara, way long ago.

So she could drink it sprawling out, the child poked an icepick hole into a Coke bottle cap, and before she went out the back door she helped herself to a frozen Hershey bar too. Sucking her Coke while she flopped on the hot grass, she watched white clouds becoming earmuffs and elephants. When she saw some birds, she thought about Uncle Will's bird-name that was funny because he worked as an airline executive. For his job he flew around like birds do. The child had one other relative who came and went, but that case was very different. Aunt Leila Rose who wasn't scared of anything else, was scared senseless of flying, so she rode trains all the way from San Francisco, California, and all the way back.

That was one big difference. For another thing, you always knew precisely when Leila was coming and it was in the summer or at Christmas, and she stayed for lots of days. She didn't just land like a bird at some peculiar time and leave the same afternoon, with Mary Fran crying.

The child crunched into her icy chocolate and grinned about Leila. When Leila Rose Kilgore was around, everybody in the family got together at Gran's to laugh and eat and carry on. Aunt Bootsie and Uncle Rusty drove the hour up from Dallas with their kids and, even though she was littlest, the child was never sent away.

Aunt Leila liked to teach her fancy dances like the samba and dress her up in diamond jewelry and talk about oil painting. Sometimes she brought pictures to give her. Leila didn't have a little girl but she could mend dolls better than Mary Fran because her long fuschia fingernails reached deep in where rubberbands hooked. The fact that no uncle came along with her didn't matter two hoots in the hot-place, to Leila Rose or anyone else.

The child walked round front of the house, peeking through windows. Will was still sitting in the green chair and Mary Fran was on the sofa, blowing her nose and reading something on pretty pink paper. When the child passed by the doorsteps, she could hear a little.

"I just can't bear it when she's lucid," Mary Fran was choking out.

Will nodded. "Terrible. Far better for all when she doesn't know."

"Oh yes!"

Lucid, the child was thinking. Something to do with knowing. "Lucid, lucid, lucid," she repeated in her head because she didn't want to forget looking it up.

"I'm afraid there was -- another incident --"

Mary Fran's radar was working. Before Will could go on, she shook her head at him and pointed toward the doorway. Then she stood up and came over to push the screen open. By that time she child had backed off quite a ways.

"I just want to come through there for some books to read, please."

"Oh, all right."

While the child was in the living room getting her Webster's Dictionary and the Shakespeare book, Mary Fran talked to Will like just chatting. She asked about the weather he'd been getting in Washington, which was hot but not this hot, and how was somebody called Dorothy, who was awfully busy setting up a house.

"Sorry I bothered you," the child apologized.

"You didn't bother me," Will smiled.

For somebody who wrecked everything when he came, he was hard not to like. You couldn't even think of him in front of the television watching football players the way her other uncle did all the time.

"You run on now."

"Yes, ma'am, I'm leaving," she said and headed for the kitchen, where the oven had it hotter than it was outside and that cake mix box was looking very self-explanatory on the countertop. The child decided she'd just go ahead, so she dumped the package contents out and measured in milk and cooking oil. The eggs she broke apart first in another bowl, to be sure about the shell bits, and then she added them into the batter and beat it up by hand since Mary Fran would be sure to hear the mixer. All she had left to do was goop the pan. Nothing to it.

While cake was cooking, she sat down and looked up lucid, which first of all meant shining. You could also say it about something transparent, whether it was putting out light or just clear, or something that was understand-it clear, instead of see-through clear. Last, lucid meant sane. Every one of those sounded like a desirable thing to do or be, so the child wondered why on earth Mary Fran and Will objected. Did Cara shine too much? Could you see right through her skin or something? The problem had to be along those lines, because how could you be too clear, whether that referred to knowing or a windowglass? And surely there was no such thing as too sane. There was definitely such a thing as too bright, because she was always hearing about it. Too bright for your own good.

Too bright for your own good was a just plain insult, but you weren't supposed to act insulted because people said it like advising you to take a better pick between them, your brains and your good. Saying that went way past cruel to silly or vice versa, the child always thought, so she made a practice of ignoring it. But what if it meant something else, too? She was imagining an aunt who was a human candle, kind of, except she couldn't burn down and go out; she just went off and on. Right now this minute, maybe Cara was lucid -- filled up with so much knowing that she turned into a glow-all-over statue with skin too thin and fevery to touch. What if you couldn't even look at her when she got this way, just open her door a crack to pass presents in?

Where would a sickness like that start? Without any mirror in the kitchen, she studied her face in the chrome-metal toaster side. There was the matter of her nose, but that had to be sunburn. The child checked her white hands and arms and legs, and went into the half-dark laundry closet to look again. Toenails and fingernails were very shiny, and the skin around them.

Oh she was thinking wild, she told herself, but she remembered Cara's rings that were boxed-up in the bottom drawer of Mary Fran's dressing table. Could be Aunt Cara took them off and left them there when they started melting down and hurt her.

The child knew her cake ought to cool before she iced it, but she almost decided to empty out the frosting can without waiting. It would still taste okay and Mary Fran and Ray would tell her not to worry about getting the icing wrong, instead of saying how her cake was perfect but she might have hurt herself by making it alone. She could just hear them consoling her sweetly. "Honey, don't feel bad, it's fine like this."

Although she seriously considered doing that, she couldn't.

That night at supper, after the lecture about cooking alone, Mary Fran and Ray were making conversation and she told him Will and Dorothy had bought themselves a new house. The child asked her, "Who's Dorothy?"

Ray was preoccupied with cutting chicken and he answered like the child should know already. "That's Will's wife." "But Uncle Will is married to Aunt Cara, he can't have another wife!"

The child looked back and forth between them and Mary Fran was wanting to kick Ray hard. It was written all over her face.

Ray wasn't putting in another word, so Mary Fran was left with it and she wasn't pleased but finally decided what to say. "Cara's been sick for many, many years, Honey, and she can't ever be well. Eventually Will had to think about himself, too. It wouldn't be right for him to spend the rest of his life all alone."

"You mean he divorced Cara?"

"He'll always love her and go to see her. And she doesn't know the difference, she's too sick to know. Now let's not talk about this anymore. Maybe when you're bigger --"

"I want to hear now, Mama."

When Mary Fran began to cry, the child almost felt guilty for asking, which was bound to be the idea. She pushed the issue anyway. "Mama! I need to know."

"Why that's the wildest thing I ever heard of. You don't need to know a thing about her."

"She's my own aunt, isn't she? And Uncle Will said again today that I'm getting like her. I need to know what that means."

Over his forkful of little green peas, Ray was giving Mary Fran a go-ahead-for-pity's-sake look.

Mary Fran got back ahold out herself, mostly, and asked the child if she was big enough to keep an important secret. The child thought a minute and nodded uh-huh.

"Your Aunt Cara was a wonderful lady. Always remember that. She was brilliant, beautiful, fun- loving, and she had a successful husband who loved her to pieces. She had all you'd want for a happy life --"

"And then what?"

"Well, you see, when she married Will, Cara was still young and she was far away from home for the first time ever. From missing her family and friends and her work and all she'd been used to, she got depressed."

"Sad."

"Yes, very sad. She was so sad that she went to see the doctor --"

"The doctor? What could he do about very sad?"

"This was another kind of doctor, one who tends to your ideas and feelings--"

"What's that called?"

"A psychiatrist."

"Sy-ky-ah-trist. What did he do for her?"

"To her." Mary Fran looked mean and set on it, mad as when the people from the city office came and threatened to cut down her tall hedge. "What he did was mess her up for good."

"How?"

"Will you please hush up and listen if you want to know?"

The child could tell that question time was over and Mary Fran wasn't kidding about it. A whole lot of people had trouble with questions, like her teacher last school-year who threw down an eraser one day and ran out of the room. And that was a lady who'd been Mary Fran's best friend when they were little girls. To be sure she'd keep quiet, the child stuffed a hot roll in her mouth.

"He used a machine on her, one that sent electricity deep into her brain. It was a brand-new thing and he used her for a guinea-pig."

The child really wanted to ask if that was when Cara started to shine and how something like that could make anybody happy and what it had to do with guinea-pigs, but she kept on chewing instead.

"The electricity deranged her, it -- ruined her mind. She lost touch with reality and thought other people were attacking her, even people who loved her. She -- became violent to them. Will took Cara to the finest doctors then, but the damage couldn't be corrected."

Mary Fran paused and the child waited, stirring some more mashed potatoes into her peas.

"Did you understand all that, Sweeties?"

"Sure."

"Well, now you know why Cara has to live at the hospital, and I want you to remember this is not a thing we ever talk about outside our own family. You have to promise me."

"I promise," the child said after swallowing the last of her bread. It seemed okay to talk now. "How bright does she shine, Mama? Can you look at her?"

"What in heaven's name are you talking about?"

"I heard you say that sometimes she gets lucid. That's clear and shiny. Oh! I get it now, it also means sane, sometimes she's sane. Sometimes Cara gets to be all right then?"

"For just a short while. Such a little while --"

Mary Fran broke down again and it was obvious she wasn't trying to accomplish anything with it, so the child just got up and hugged her. Ray did the same.

"When can I go see her?"

"You can't. It's no place for you to go, Sugar."

"Why?"

"Oh the sick people, they scream and cry and -- say the foulest things and hit out and -- make themselves all filthy and -- "

"Shoot, the kids do that at school!"

Mary Fran shook her head. "Believe me, it isn't the same. You can't imagine it."

The child figured she could imagine it all she wanted, but she let that lie.

"Cara wouldn't ever want you to see her that way. When she isn't so sick, she hates what's around her. She writes and begs us not to leave her -- in there."

"But you really have to?"

"Yes, oh my God, we have to."

After a minute, the child dared to ask, "What else does she write?"

"About all she's missing. She thinks about wanting a home then, and work to do. And she asks about us, what we're doing. She asks me about you. And she says she gets so mad when she tries to read and just can't hold the words together in her mind."

Not even reading. She child laid her silverware down. Horrible enough some lady called Dorothy was living Cara's life, but not even reading. "How long has she been so sick, Mama?"

"Twenty-three years."

"But she asks about me." Mary Fran answered oh-yes-yes but it wasn't a question.

That night, when the child had her flashlight on for reading late underneath her sheet, she thought about Aunt Cara and said a little prayer, a special prayer in case nobody else had ever asked it. If Cara couldn't get well, couldn't she sometimes, please, get very very lucid, or whatever the right word would be for able to read somehow inside herself by her own light?



Rites in the Grove




It wasn't a new knife but it was in good shape. Way back in the drawer, there was a snakepit jumble of knives tossed sideways with blades ripply as grandpapa's toenails and loose wood handles gone dry gray, but this particular knife came from right up front and she'd have to keep care of it.

Drawer didn't want to close; its edges were so thick with old paint and the fresh coats of yellow that the child had to bump it in hard with her bottom. The wood noised ska-reel and she oofed and the knife jumped slick out of her grip. With no sound at all, it stuck into the pebbly linoleum just a little, shining pretty close to her bare toes in a panel of moonlight shaped by the kitchen sink window.

She yanked the sharp tip out of the floor, bundled the knife inside a cuptowel and picked up the plaid schoolbag holding her library books and Big Chief tablet, her daddy's flashlight, some Dairy Queen packets of salt, bottles of grape juice and water, a paper cup and, because it was apt to be a long night, two chunks of marshmallow fudge in twisted aluminum foil.

Door was sticky like the weather and took some extra pulling, but Buddy stayed quiet out on the screen-porch. He just wanted to lick her knees a little with that juicy bruised-colors mouth of his, and so he did. When his burred tongue tickled, she giggled down close into his fur and managed to get past the dog without waking up Mary Fran or Ray.

To cut the twig she needed, she edged between the forsythia and japonica bushes to reach her favorite tree, the redbud with its curtains and curtains of Valentine leaves that were the very heart of greenness -- green like clover when it's small but not the smallest. From her handful of remembered springtimes, the child knew tiny-tiny clover is a tight blue-green all darkly crinkling and, where it isn't ever cut, big clover grows to be a sprawly thirsty yellow-green. But in between there's redbud greenness for a while.

The teeth of her knife scratched softly through the wood of a tender branch, while she braced herself among friendly fanned-out trunks in the tree's shadowed hollow. To be safe from losing it, she wiped off Mary Fran's good knife on the damp grass and left it under the shrubbery.

She waved her branch wandlike and a spot of its sweet sap grew in her palm as she walked down the alley, swinging her satchel from the other hand. The alley's sand was a powder of rust, rich with iron she guessed it was, and at first it stuck to her dew-damp feet. Swirled by a rainbow, the moon with its round measled face queened among a crowd of stars and planets that were blue or gold or icicle silver, except for a few thousand pink as the ruffly nylon gown-and-robe set she had on, her nighttime best. All the stars looked blinky and alive as fireflies. The child had a special net for catching fireflies, made out of coat-hanger wire and Mary Fran's hose, and she watched them sometimes in a jar. It wasn't for long, though, but she knew some girls who kept them trapped until they died and boys who crushed them into puddles of neon for scrawling their names on their shirts.

West of her own was the Shaws' back yard, which they worked on all the time. They were very old people, older even than her piano teacher who would've been downright scary except she let every dog and cat stay that wanted to live with her and called every blessed one of them Puppy or Kitty, no matter how huge or decrepit. Mary Fran always liked to laugh about that and how hot Mrs. Lance kept her house and how her dining room was piled high with rotting sheet music. Those crispy pages were the color of piss, which wasn't an attractive thing to think but it was accurate.

The Jordans next door to the Shaws were up in years too but young by comparison. They had a daughter Kerry in college and a perfect lawn with tiger-lilies and a magnolia tree tall as the buildings downtown. The child stopped inside the giant blossoms' white fragrance and crossed her fingertips for luck. Past the Jordans lived her sort of friend Hilary who had black baby-hair that her ears poked through and was in fact one of the neighborhood's main firefly-killers. Hilary wouldn't ever just let the darned things loose. She punched lid-holes and threw weeds in for food, but next morning the bugs'd be spread on the jar floor like the dinkiest gravel. By barking back at Hilary Garrett's stupid cocker spaniels, the child got the old fat sillies to shut up; they took that for a shock every single time, so dumb they forgot what she did whenever they yapped at her. Next to Hilary's yard came Nita's, where the girls played lots of days. The Koskis didn't even try to grow grass out back; they had so many kids they just gave up and let people play like they wanted to, except for staying out of Mr. Koski's vegetable patch.

Summer before, even the boys pitched in and they almost dug a swimming pool. Mary Fran made fun of how ugly that yard was, naturally, and about how they grew food, they were such practical people they even gave you underpants at birthday parties. She also liked to laugh about how big Nita's feet were and how Mrs. Koski made Nita get permission from her daddy to do the least little thing like go to the picture-show. Nita never griped about her parents, though; she was unfailingly sweet-natured. This year she was the child's very best friend even though Nita was three-and-a-half years older, practically in junior high.

Across the alley from Nita's gate was the start of the path to the grove, leading through the first of the vacant lots where tacky houses were about to go up unless somebody did something. Supposedly nobody could. That was the first problem she intended to fix, beginning tomorrow.

There weren't any fabulous trees at the grove, no magnolias or redbuds or anything else that got flowers, and no glamorous willows like the ones dangling feathery boas down onto the country club pier. They were just red oaks and live oaks standing with a few scruffy blue-berried cedars, but they grew together in a ring around a stump that was the throne. She'd always kept her shells in shoeboxes before, but the grove-trees made the child want to give them her whole seashell collection from the beach at Galveston. Her scallops were nailed onto entry posts and cowries were threaded together and hung up for chimes. The thick stump throne was studded with conches and winkles and nautilus shells. A lot of nice stones had been placed around also, starting with two cairns beside the trailway's entrance. She stopped close to these to pick a couple of black-eyed Susans and poke one stem into each rockpile, with their eyes facing ahead of her toward the grove's embrace. All the fixing-up out here had mostly been accomplished by herself and Nita, but Hilary was getting tall and helped Nita hang the windchime shells. Cheryl Massey from across the street sat down and scooted to border the footpath with quartz-shiny pebbles. Cheryl was dumpy and mopheaded and boring to death, but Mary Fran admired her big cups-of-cocoa eyes.

Nita and Cheryl both had ugly-acting brothers. James Koski and Gary Massey were the very worst; James limped from polio and that made him mean but Gary had no excuse whatever. Used to be, they were always messing up the rocks and shells, but lately the boys kept out of the grove, since they got belted for sticking little Ronnie Massey up in one of the trees and running off. He couldn't get down all morning until the girls came out to play and heard him crying, so then they rescued him and told.

Ronnie was only three and not exactly broken out with smarts; he didn't read a lick or even want to, a fact she found completely baffling. When she was his age, she was devoted to cracking the code on that. She memorized the stories that were read to her and and recited them to herself while she circled in her Golden Books all the writing she understood. Before long, every word had a zero crayoned around it. Of course that was ages and ages ago, five years since she was three and so proud of making those goose-eggs all over her pages. By the time she was five and got her library card so she could read all about Indians, she knew better than to write in books. After checking out everything they had downtown on Indian lore, she knew all the answers in that category when it came up on T.V. The man who picked the category missed the Sixty-Four-Thousand-Dollar Question, but she didn't. Her parents weren't tickled about that, though, not like they used to be when she buckled toy guns on and outdrew Matt Dillon. They looked gulpy and scared and started talking about tomorrow's dinner. Next after Indians, she ran across the William Shakespeare plays, and went on to research Tudor England. Last year she got interested in the Romantic poets with more to say than simple-minded Wordsworth and since Easter she'd been studying the Salem witch trials, which led her to the books on witchcraft. The child found it extremely reassuring how you could get at least a book or two on anything.

Perched on her treestump throne, the child unsnapped her bookbag and took out the flashlight. Following its flare of brightness, she walked north a little ways, back toward Nita's. Just outside the trees, she touched her redbud twig to earth and started scraping it along. Moving east, south, around to west and back to north again, she had to wobble the line here and there around Johnson grass clumps and wildflower patches and an anthill with its bitsy seeds of dirt that made her think of yeast grains Mrs. Koski used instead of mixes for her baking.

While she drew, the child sang fairy verses from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to melodies she made up as she went along. That was her own idea. The books were clear on only so much: You cut a twig in the full of the moon and inscribed yourself into a circle where you sprinkled salt, did certain things with wine and water and recited some words daffy as pig-Latin. According to some sources, you also prayed The Lord's Prayer backwards and danced around until you flopped over or took off flying. Anyway, her singing seemed to go with dancing and Ray wasn't around to tell her that she couldn't sing worth a hoot and ought to shut up.

"Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green."


It was funny how fairies said "thorough" for "through."

At last she got herself and all the grove closed inside the furrow of her wavering circle. She felt satisfied with its roundness. Under the circumstances, nobody could've done any better. Although she'd read that you should do your twig-cutting with a brand-new knife and there ought to be candles burning and real wine for mixing into water, she didn't worry much about those discrepancies, either, knowing you can usually expect significant allowances to be made when you're eight-and-a-half years old. Besides, who'd be more apt to like breaking rules than the devil?

She counted steps across the ring and paced back by half as many. To mark the spot that came as close as she could reasonably figure was the smack-dab center, she set the twig and flashlight down. Then she gathered the rest of her stuff, shook out the salt packets and planted herself there in the middle. This was it. Pretty soon the grove would be saved -- no telling precisely how, but it would be.

Maybe the people who wanted to put houses out here would just wake up in the morning with their minds changed, but probably weird things would have to happen when they tried to bother the trees. There might be some awful accident or scary vision, or maybe they'd just feel themselves being stopped by something faint but firm like the sensation she got in her wrists when she'd shuffled long enough for Solitaire and was going to win, no doubt about it. Could even be she'd have to curse them personally or cast a spell. Presumably it would be fully explained.

She made a mental note to ask the Prince of Darkness about old mean Mrs. Poling, too. Something had to be done about her.

Ora Poling didn't deserve to be a teacher because each year she picked on someone in her class, some smart kid, the principal said so when Mary Fran complained. He also said he was sorry but Mrs. Poling was retiring after next year anyhow and he didn't approve of moving students to another teacher. So the child was stuck and almost every schoolday for eight months she'd come home crying. What made it worst was sometimes Mrs. Poling would be sweet as pie, gushing and praising, and then out of the blue she flip-flopped to hateful, saying the cruelest things she could think of. More than enough was enough and the child wouldn't mind if Mrs. Poling met some very bad end. Monday morning the kids might find her dead on her desk with an eraser in her mouth and chalk up her nose. Or maybe she'd break her knobbly knees over the weekend and decide to retire a year early.

Even better, maybe Mary Fran and Ray would do what the principal suggested a long time ago, way back during the child's first-grade year, and let her go away to a special school where everybody was smart and nobody would hate her.


Nothing happened instantly -- no thunderclaps or fire, no roaring wind or voices -- so she flipped the flashlight off, set it down on the library books with her paper, raised up again and waited, standing very very very still in the moonlight while a few stars, pink and yellow, went falling. Hilary said they meant people dying, but the child figured that couldn't be true or there'd be thousands of them every minute. Sky would be busy as a pinball game.

The weeds kept rustling but only in the merest way. Not even a cat popped out, let alone any goats or imps or demons. Well, they couldn't just come at the drop of a hat, could they? It wasn't like whistling for Buddy. The Forces of Darkness were out there, had to be, and they'd want to know she was sincere, so she straightened up taller, stretched her arms wide like a tree and concentrated on the moon. Moon was the night's eye, a frozen pool, a platter of grey bats, a broken-off bone, one of her daddy Ray's dimpled white golfballs -- no not that, it was pox-face, then snowdome shaken up and vague, and now a crystal ball, that's what! Moon was a crystal ball heavy with shadows and falling. No she was rising to it, pushed by surges of fire from the earth underneath her. The soles of her feet were burning, she was powering upward on fire to the cold vacant moon icy with mysteries. Now her knees were blazing, too, and any second she'd be flying.

She glanced down for the takeoff and saw her legs patterned with dark flames and the ground was bloody red, seething with monster ants.

Hell's Bells! Goosebumps broke out all over her arms and her shoulders as she stamped the swarming ground and shook and shuddered. The child felt frozen-cold from all the stinging, it was like another kind of blood had begun running inside her, black-cold and it went colder when she hopped off the anthill and landed smack-dab in a patch of nasty goat-head stickers. Their hard nails spiked her feet and when she stooped to pull them out, she saw fat wiggly ants in all her nightie-ruffles. That meant she had to pull the whole thing off to snap and flap it in the air.

Standing safe on a high rock and finally getting warmer, she shook her hair out, too, and combed fingers through it over and over. There couldn't really be any but she could still feel red ants tunneling around in there.

Was this what the devil did to you? Torments of hell weren't supposed to happen until you got there. Nobody wrote a word about a witch who had to undergo this sort of thing just to get started. Maybe, though, she was expected just to stand still in the circle and take whatever came her way. And what if she hadn't looked down when she did, would she be lifted up and flying? Did she break the spell?

At least she hadn't left her circle. If she still had a chance, she didn't want to miss out and it was maybe better now with her being naked. The books did mention witches' being outside naked. The child stretched her arms again and held them stiff, even though her bug bites were itchy.

"Heaven in Art Who Father Our, Heaven in Art Who Father Our, Heaven in Art Who Father Our" was all she could remember to keep saying. Difficult to see that as so awfully sacrilegious when everybody knew there was heaven in art or there wouldn't be Shakespeare and Shelley and Keats, not to mention all of that stained glass. Behind where her own preacher stood every Sunday, a stern huge sun-white angel was kneeling by lilies that sprung up white inside the gloomy tomb. When she looked hard enough at that glass, it was glorious; the angel shot colors right through her until she had to cry. Sometimes she thought about being a lady minister in a crisp black or navy blue dress with a snowy Pilgrim collar.

Now she stared up at the moon again and called, "Throw me your colors, Moon, I know you can! Moon, won't you look at me? Stars, Clouds, Moon, won't you speak to me louder?" No colors flew at her, though, and she couldn't hear anything more than what she always did, millions of the tiniest wires trembling. The crystal ball did look like lowering again but it wasn't toward her, it was sinking past the roof of the Koskis' house where a light had come on in the back bedroom she knew belonged to James by himself. He was probably reading.

Supposedly James Koski read an entire encyclopedia set while he was sick, but he never talked about any of it or even acted smart. Mary Fran felt sorry for him and told the child that she should be his friend because she read encyclopedia books for fun too, and dictionaries. Now and then, she did try to be friendly but James wouldn't say a civil word to anyone she knew of. Pillowcase-pale and freckle-faced with burr-cut yellow hair blonder than Nita's, he had one leg a lot shorter than the other and made matters worse with that permanent glowering expression. James never smiled except like a bully, running lopsided at her and the other girls with fierce chunks from a thorn hedge, smashing and slashing. She figured Edward Third was like him as a boy, gnarled and hateful and studying all night in secret, to be strong and sly. Maybe James has a pact with the devil, she considered, but it was hard to picture him in a pact with anybody. He didn't even talk to Gary Massey except to plot meanness. Besides, if he had special powers, he could fix his crippled leg. Same with wretched Mrs. Poling. She acted like a witch but wasn't, or she wouldn't let herself be so ugly and old or so inconsistent.

The child was getting sleepy and a little hungry. No point in going for her fudge, though, since it was over where the ants were. Her bag was probably full of bugs she'd have to dump out later. No, she shouldn't think that way, she'd be a witch in a little bit and she could turn them into something pleasant. Maybe she'd turn James Koski into somebody pleasant, just to spite him. That'd be as much fun as flying everywhere and seeing deep and clear into everybody's hearts.

Keeping her arms up in the sky was really tiring, and nobody said she needed to, so she let them down and tried whirling around but that hurt her feet too much. Some pieces of stickerburr were still in where it would take one of Mary Fran's needles to get at them. How come the devil wouldn't pay her any attention? She'd been doing her dead-level-best all along and, shoot, if she wasn't superior witch material she didn't know who was. She had a perfectly good soul to trade and she could learn the witch thing bang-bang; she'd be a credit. She even had prior experience at being a terror. As late as a year ago, she bit horrid Harold, and that was after pushing and hitting her way through dancing school when she was four and then kindergarten where she was always sent off alone to the quiet-room. She got in fights during first grade, too, and was constantly sassing the teacher and correcting other kids' mistakes.

If she'd been alive in Old Salem, those other girls would've called her a witch for sure, that goody-goody preacher's daughter and her stuck-up gang. There was one little girl they did manage to have killed, right along with her mother. Maybe they were witches really, Dorcas and her mom, but probably they were just peculiar since everybody apologized later on. Dorcas was extremely young and, chances are, a brat; she was an only child, too, so she wouldn't know how to play. That's how Mary Fran always put it to the teachers until the child finally calmed down and stopped being rough. Now she knew how to hold her temper and got sad instead of mad.

She scratched at the bites behind her knees. They were lumped up and hot, the hurt places. If the devil was just a bully who hurt you when you tried to get on his good side, what was the point anyway? Maybe that was his way of telling you to get lost. But why would he want her to get lost? It might, she considered, not really be personal. Could be he plain didn't need to buy souls anymore. Now he had people like James and Mrs. Poling working like Turks for him and he didn't even have to give them any payoff. If mean people did mean things strictly on their own account, it was even more likely the ants bit because that was what ants did, and it was all starting to point to one thing: If there ever was a devil, he'd been squeezed out by bigger competition, squeezed right out of the market like Ray said happened to the Kirbys' little shop when the Piggly-Wiggly came in.

That would explain the books, they were well-meant but mistaken, outdated like the 1937 encyclopedia set she had from her great-aunt Allie. But why would people keep on talking about a devil? Either they hadn't gotten to the truth yet, she decided, or it was some grownups' game like Santa and the Tooth Fairy, meant to keep kids in line. More like the Boogie-Man, actually, since no presents were involved.

No devil meant no witches, no hell. Nobody belonged to the devil, now or later. She'd always suspected a real God, a good God couldn't hurt anyone forever. Hell, if there was one at all, couldn't be permanent, because All-Good, All-Powerful would have to win, wouldn't it? She wasn't sure how of course; it would take some way complicated as organizing heaven.

Heaven, she'd figured for the longest time, couldn't possibly be one simple thing. Everybody who deserved heaven would need to be satisfied and they'd all have different ideas. Like she'd want to see her gran looking like her grandmother, not Mary Fran's mom or her great-grandmother's tiny girl with the long smoky braids. When Gran heard about that, she called it mighty interesting and said, "I do b'lieve I'd like to shift around." Could be everybody had to dream heaven but that didn't seem good enough.

No devil also meant nothing for God to be dead-set against except ugly feelings and bad choices, and just plain nothing.

But if there'd always been God, then there'd never been nothing. So was everything made out of God?

She gasped at that train of thought and then had to yawn.

After she shook out her gown and robe again to put them on, the child shoved her other stuff away from the ants with a stick. Then she dumped fudge and bugs out of her bookbag, beat both sides and packed up what had to go in. Before she left, she needed to sit down once more on her tree-stump throne. She couldn't stop them from scraping it off the landscape. There was no devil to help her out – or for that matter hurt her, either. Of course she could try praying but she'd been raised not to beg favors for nothing and, as her preacher said, God wasn't a penny gum machine.

The stump was very cool and moist with dew. She broke off a hunk of its bark and took away a shell, just one, then she hugged each of the growing trees for a long minute.

James Koski's light was on too, when she clicked her daddy's flashlight on and tossed her redbud wand into high branches. Then she padded down the grove path to the dusty alleyway and turned the black-eyed Susans in the rockpiles around, because she wanted their faces to follow her and help her remember.

The problem wasn't solved yet; it was all about knowledge and power of course, how to grow them fast enough before too much else went haywire. Now it also had to do with trying how to use the listening flying shifting piece of God that she was stuck with, whatever thing it is that people call a soul.

Once again the child studied all the secret backs of houses. This trip she scratched and ouched along, and stopped to fiddle with the dense worried trunks of Mrs. Shaw's wistaria that somehow sprouted wispy elf-flag leaves and dangled petal-grape clusters for angels to eat. On her own back lawn, a Saint Augustine swordblade slit through the crease of a toe, reminding her to sneak her mother's fairly good knife into the drawer before coming out again.

Curled on the porch steps, breathing with Buddy, she watched between banks of hydrangeas with blossom heads vast as babies' skulls, heavy and bobbing.



Meetings with Muses




You wouldn't think it to look at her, but Ruby Buxley could draw; she could really draw. This was new information to the girl, who'd never been in the same class with Ruby until they both got Mrs. Hodge for sixth grade. It came as quite a shock, that first art day when pictures went up on the bulletin board and her own was very good but Ruby's was better. Next time she tried harder, but so did Ruby and Ruby's turned out best again.

Besides having an embarrassing name -- only old ladies were called Ruby -- she looked like a rat or a shrunk-down grownup, dark and thin and sharp-featured. Ruby wasn't even clean and she wore clothes you'd throw out. Her clunky shoes and black nylon socks belonged on a boy, and for cold weather, she didn't seem to have a thing except one raggy yellow sweater. Yuckiest, it was said on the playground that the Buxley kids didn't usually put on underwear, although the girl hadn't actually seen this for herself.

When Ruby's mother came to class one day, the girl wanted to sink right through the floor, it was so awful. Mrs. Buxley didn't know what grammar was, not to mention dress-sense, and she had a blob-freckled frog face like her son and other daughter. The girl remembered Oliver and Opal from second grade, when they had the same teacher until she was moved a grade ahead after Christmastime. Both the twins were dense as doorstops. Ruby wasn't particularly smart, either, barely average, but she could really draw. All her pictures looked like Miss Fanning, the art teacher, did them.

Miss Fanning visited every elementary school in town, so Mrs. Hodge's class got her only on Wednesday. Ruby never missed Wednesdays, although she she skipped school lots of other days. Her mom let her stay home whenever she wanted, Ruby bragged once during recess; she liked having help with her baby and toddler. The girl was appalled to hear that, but also a bit jealous. Mary Fran and Ray always told her school was her job. If she had double-pneumonia and broken legs, they'd say, "Get dressed and go; you'll feel better later."

This was a day the girl would've been pleased enough to miss, because today Miss Fanning was due to choose things for her annual Valentine Week Art Exhibit at the gas company showroom. She took only one picture from a classroom because there were at least two classes per grade at each school and a dozen elementary schools in Grayson; that made a hundred forty-four pictures right there, not counting extras from a few schools crowded enough to have three classrooms for some grades. It was a no-big-deal thing -- the girl's parents never went to see the show, which they called a cheap gimmick to pull people in and sell appliances -- but it was nice being picked and this year she wouldn't be.

Miss Fanning sailed into the room with her bangle bracelets clanging and huge pearl-beads bouncing up and down on her big chest. She was like an interestingly dressed hippo who moves the way a puppydog does, and her hair was always in a perfect French-twist. After Miss Fanning called out a beefy, "Good morning! Who's feeling creative today?" -- which was what she said every time -- she set the kids to making soap sculptures and went into conference with Mrs. Hodge. While a tall stack of pictures got sorted into one large and one small, the girl kept peeking up from the fish she was carving. When the teachers pinned up the drawings from their short stack and stood back to consider everybody looked around to see what was left in the running. There were ten. The girl counted four of Ruby's, three of her own and three done by other people when they were having an exceptional day.

Miss Fanning narrowed-down to five by dispensing with Gary Thurman's sailboat race, Tina Nance's angels-in-the-sky and two of Ruby's landscapes, a train running through a cornfield and a scene with puzzled barnyard animals in the rain. One of the girl's pictures came down, too: her favorite Victorian house near downtown, turreted and gingerbready. That left Claudia Moro's volcano, something she saw on vacation in Italy, Ruby's portrait of a boy with a guitar, her own "Showers of Flowers" -- showing old-fashioned lacy parasols filled with mock-orange blossoms and roses -- and two more, both from a homework assignment called "My Mother's Doll." If your mother didn't own one, you had to make it up from her memory; otherwise you worked from life, as she'd done with Mary Fran's china-faced Bye-Lo Baby in its new velvet dress and bonnet to cover cracks in its head. The girl was responsible for both the clothes and the cracks. Reaching up high in her closet, she'd accidentally pulled the doll down.

Mary Fran had a hissy, of course. She stormed off screaming, "Just throw it away! Throw it away!" but the girl glued it the best she could and, as a Christmas surprise, gave it back in a hand-made holly-red outfit. She still felt ghastly about breaking the doll, but Mary Fran said she loved it better than ever.

As her mother's doll, Ruby drew a picture of her mom's two babies. She didn't use any paint, just pencil and charcoal, the way she usually did. It wasn't what you'd call a pretty drawing, but so real you could see drools and sniffles, not to mention grubby hands and feet and faces. Lying on a ripped chair, the infant was motionless, a dough blob with an old man's eyes. The two-year-old was tugging at the chair with its mouth wide-open, yowling, and you could tell by the diapers that those kids were wet or worse.

Miss Fanning and Mrs. Hodge exchanged a few unhearable words and took that one down, which wasn't right to do, along with Claudia's Vesuvius. Best of what was left was naturally Ruby's portrait of the little boy, bent so far over a huge guitar that his hair flopped in front and became part of the string-pattern. There was no background except deep scribbly shadows, then white, which showed again how alone the boy was with what he was doing. Music really could do that to you, the girl knew from playing piano. Ruby's little-boy drawing wasn't as good as the one with the babies, but it still said something. By comparison, her own watercolors looked way too bright, too cute and syrup-sweet, simply sappy. The girl wondered which of her two would come down next and hoped it wouldn't be the doll. At least the doll one showed some genuine feeling.

Miss Fanning unpinned the doll and then Ruby's portrait. "What a lovely concept we have here," she said to the class about the one picture left. "Wouldn't you adore to pick up one of these parasols and stand in a fragrant rain of flowers? 'Showers of Flowers' -- it's an ideal name, Darling," she said to the girl and started a round of applause that everybody had to join.

The girl blushed to see Ruby clapping. "Mine isn’t best," the girl wanted to say but she was sort of choking. She ached to yell "No!" at the top of her voice when Miss Fanning put the parasol picture into her special pink portfolio and bow-tied a checked-gingham ribbon around it. “Wrong, wrong” was what she kept thinking while Miss Fanning circled the worktable inspecting sculptures, tickled that the girl was using her soap to make a fish.

"He'll be in his natural element," she winked. She thought Gary's boat was clever, too, but he always did boats, and said Marcy Gray's ice-cream cone looked yummy. Tommy Key got scolded for leaving his soap-bar plain and calling it a bed-pillow. Other people were trying cars, houses, birds and flat daisies, mostly making messes, but Ruby was carving a bunch of strange shapes grooved to slide together so many ways you could fiddle with them endlessly. Hers was a sculpture slippery as soap, the girl could see. Miss Fanning only sighed a bored "I see" and didn't in the slightest.

School was over after art and the girl bundled up in her soft mouton coat and her matching knitted hat and mittens, while Ruby stuffed her thin arms back into the sorry dirty-cuffed sweater. The weather was having a nasty relapse today, following the misplaced week of Texas summer that wanders into every January to bring out forsythia and coral-pink japonica blossoms and everybody's shorts, too. With a fresh blue-norther blowing in now, the girl was glad Ruby lived far enough out in the country to ride the school bus; people made fun of bus kids, but at least she'd stay warm.

Wind was howling an absolute gale, but the girl didn't have to bike far, just a few blocks, to take her piano lesson. She rolled her bicycle up the porch-steps and parked it on the veranda which was almost as wide as Gran's, then squeezed between two dogs, with a head-pat for each, to knock on her teacher's door. Mrs. Lance stopped playing Bach and hurried the girl in along with the animals, a golden retriever and a fluffy white mutt.

Mrs. Lance wasn't stooped-over-old like Gran -- she stood and sat straight as a poker -- but she was peculiar-old all right. She'd worn rusty-black widow dresses for twenty years or even longer, Mary Fran said, and she pinned on her black hat just to step onto the porch and call her pets home, all those stray dogs and cats called "Puppy" or "Kitty." The girl always thought of Mrs. Lance dressed-up on her porch, shouting "Here, Puppy! Here, Kitty!" or in the dim orangey light of her hothouse front room where the gas-fire blazed from September to May. She was somebody Ruby could draw and do justice to it.

Say what you will, Mrs. Lance knew piano. There wasn't a piece of music she didn't have in her stacks and she still played wonderfully well, even with fingers so lumpy they hurt her sometimes. One huge knuckle was all that kept her wedding ring from flying off when she really got going.

Today Mrs. Lance had a new piece ready for the girl to tackle, a Lizst sonata, and she showed the girl a bust of Lizst – she had pictures or statues of them all, and he looked like more or less a maniac with white hair streaming down past his shoulders, wild eyes and a bird-of-prey profile that would scare off an eagle. Even stranger, she explained that Mr. Lizst had the most enormous hands. Because he composed expressly for his prodigious reach, he needn't fear another pianist of his time might outperform him, playing Lizst music. Mrs. Lance actually said it just about that way; her speech was as formal as everything else about her – except for letting a dozen animals shed all over and stink up her house.

With the pencil she kept in her hair-bun, Mrs. Lance marked where Lizst's reaches would have to be cheated by playing the lowest note first, very fast before the chord it was supposed to be part of. Several of those were already marked and she admitted that she had to fudge them, herself.

"Will I ever be able to play this right?"

"Certainly not. You can scarcely reach an octave. Eventually you may attain one key beyond, but nothing greater." Mrs. Lance demonstrated her own reach, only two keys past an octave comfortably, and said with a grim-lipped smile, "I, too, lack the hands of a true pianist."

"Well, why do we play something we can't get right?"

"Because we wish to understand and appreciate great music and great musicianship. This is quite sufficient for us, is it not?"

While Mrs. Lance played through the piece, the girl listened politely but she didn't care for it; she liked even less the idea of a selfish man who created impossible music just to show off his freak hands. Mozart, Haydn, Bach and Beethoven were the ones she preferred, and not because they were playable. Their talent was really big, so they didn't have to turn some tiny advantage into a weapon against other people. Mary Fran always said the worst thing was trying to look good by making other people look bad; she said it’s a mistake and you wind up looking like the bad one. So how come it worked for Liszt?

One quality the girl particularly appreciated in Mrs. Lance was that she never made you learn a piece you didn't like; there was too much practice-time involved. When her teacher finished playing, the girl said Lizst just left her cold and asked for something else, please.

While Mrs. Lance went looking through the stacks of music in her dim dining room, the girl warmed up with scales and thought how some people get what they don't deserve -- like vile Mr. Liszt and herself today, for that matter, although it wasn't her own fault the frilly picture won.

Remembering a box of old books she got when her great-aunt and great-uncle moved last year, she thought about how doing so-called cultured things like teaching art or attending concerts didn't necessarily make you a cultured person. In the box there was a volume called Believe It or Not, showing Siamese twins, a bearded lady, giants, dwarves, people who could tie themselves right into knots and other grotesque things. Presumably there was an audience for that sort of freaky nonsense –- and watching Lizst's massive paws at work would offer the same kind of tacky thrill; it wasn't what he did that awed people, just that somebody could do it.

Mrs. Lance came back with a couple of pieces by Mozart -- she knew the girl adored him -- and they ran through a fantasia several times before she took it away for this week's practice. It felt great to get out of that zoo-smelling, stifling house and, even though the weather was fast getting colder, she decided to ride over to Gran's before going home.

When she arrived, her gran was dusting the pitchers; they were spread out bright as her afghan on her couch. She'd also been baking and the place smelled all the way to the front door like apple pies loaded with cinnamon. Gran was always busy, but never too busy for the girl, who was given a warm slice of pie and made to drink hot cocoa immediately to ward off a chill. Afterward she had to call her mother at the bank, to say where she was, and Gran asked Mary Fran and Ray to come for supper.Mary Fran of course said yes; nobody with a brain cell would refuse a meal at Gran's.

The girl enjoyed helping Gran dust her little pitchers, a collection that grew every time somebody she knew took a trip but dwindled every time she tied on a ribbon and gave the girl another to take home. Gran meant her to have them all eventually, since nobody else cared a hoot about them. On some of the pitchers, it said where they came from -- all over the country and even Mexico; Gran favored those but the girl just gravitated toward the prettiest styles and colors, especially billowy blown-glass in sapphire with clear handles and swirly l920's china in aquamarine or the velvet-rose shade.

"I need you to deliver some pies for me, Honey, while I start supper," Gran said once they'd rearranged the pitchers inside her glass-front cabinet. They occupied three shelves underneath family photos and beside an l884 biography set that was supposed to go to the girl, too, someday. "I baked extra for Mrs. Duncan and Miss Holt. They'll be glad to see you."

"I hate Mrs. Duncan."

"Oh no you don't," Gran laughed. "It's high-time you let go of that grudge about her chickens."

"They hurt me! I was only four years old and they were pecking all over my legs and then she blamed me when the mean old things got out!"

Gran laughed again. "Enough of that. Let's wrap you up now."

When the girl was properly bundled, Gran put a sack with a pie into each of her hands and pointed out that one had a "D" on it. "Mrs. Duncan can't eat any sugar now, remember, so she gets this one. Be sure. And tell her 'D' stands for 'dear friend,' so she won't think I meant 'diabetic' --"

"And it really means Duncan, right?"

"Why sure."

The girl considered switching the pies to make wicked Mrs. Duncan get sick, but that would reflect poorly on Gran so she settled for going there first to make it evident there was a treat for someone else,too. When she rang the doorbell, really an ugly-sounding buzzer, Mrs. Duncan started stomping forward through the house -- you could hear her approach like a long roll of thunder -- and answered by peeping around as though she expected she'd have to slam the door fast on Jack the Ripper.

Dowdy-fat and grumpy as ever, Mrs. Duncan never once smiled but she did say thanks and gave a jerky nod when the girl repeated what Gran told her to say about the "D."

No telling what Gran saw in Mrs. Duncan. Probably she used to be more pleasant when she and Gran were young women raising their children; she was nice to her son, anyhow. Too nice. Every now and then, Gran and Mary Fran told the girl how Will Robert Duncan used to run across the dining table in his boots, and his mom wouldn't grab him down; she'd just say in a lilty drawl they liked to mimic, "Now W-ill Robert, you get down from there, you hear?" Mrs. Duncan didn't sound a thing like that now.

She had to pass by the chicken yard to get on toward Miss Holt’s house. Behind the fence, those appalling birds jumped and squawked and stared hard-black. They were evil.

There weren't any old stories about Miss Holt, who'd moved into Gran's neighborhood only last year, after she retired from nursing at the hospital. She was a good-natured lady and thrilled to have the pie.

"You tell your grandma she's the sweetest lady," Miss Holt said.

"Yes, Ma'am, I know."

Anything she had, Gran was always giving. Food and stories, time and interest, energy and comfort, pies and pitchers, love. Gran was like a pitcher, made for pouring out.

Pies-and-pitchers turned into a skipping song as the girl went back down the little hill toward Gran's house and the woods. She cut around to use the back door, where the kitchen light was on and passed by Gran's under-the-house door, which she could never resist pushing open. Behind it was a child-high space that went on and on; she'd always wanted it to be her playhouse but she didn't get her way since Gran and Mary Fran worried she might run into snakes or bad spiders. When she could manage to sneak in, the girl liked prowling among pieces of old-timey furniture and boxes of family stuff. Most of all, she felt attracted to the corner that was just beyond the door, set up like an office with tall filing cabinets and a desk with round eyeglasses and an odd black typewriter on it. All this belonged to Gran's husband, Mary Fran's daddy. He was dead before the girl was even born but it seemed like he just stepped away from working for a minute, because Mary Fran's brothers and Ray carried his things down exactly as he left them.

Besides being a train engineer, her granddaddy came up with new inventions and then sent off for the patents about a day or a week after someone beat him to it. The girl didn't know what he'd invented or much more about him, except he kept rabbits whose hutches were crumbling down behind Gran's field of larkspur. Until three years ago when she was seven, the girl honestly believed the big photo in Gran's dining room was of Teddy Roosevelt; they did look practically alike, but it was embarrassing when she finally asked why Roosevelt was hanging there and everybody looked aghast.

Of course the girl went under the house -- she didn't get many chances; in fact she was surprised to find that she couldn't quite stand up inside anymore. While she was studying the office-tableau, she realized the desk and other stuff were hardly dirty. It was sad to think of Gran down here with her duster, about as sad as all the wasted invention-work Mary Fran made fun of but not in front of Gran.

Light through the elf-door was getting fainter, falling in its sundown slant across the green leather desktop, the frail gold-wire glasses, the high skinny typewriter with keys on chrome stalks shaped like come-here fingers, the brass drawer- and file-locks shutting up who-knew-what dreams.

A museum of failure, the girl thought, but then she remembered about Muses. She'd read somewhere lately about them, who were like goddesses except more personal; specific ones inspired people to create specific types of things. Given how Latin words appeared to work, a museum would be where Muses live -- or one Muse anyway -- so it would be, it would have to be about trying.

The scene was one she'd like to draw but that would take somebody like Ruby, and making music about it would take someone with better hands, not as big as Lizst's but larger than her own would ever be. She faced that for a fact now, sad but true, and at the same time she began to grasp another thing, something her grandmother knew.

With Gran in her mind's eye, in front of her, dusting and humming, the girl sat firmly down; she settled into ancient builders'-sand and sawdust, cold as can be, and waited while her grandmother cleaned each object slowly, with nothing but smiles, and then opened every locked drawer like a treasure-chest she'd just-this-minute found. It was the same way she looked when she clapped her hands for anything you gave her, even plain vanilla ice-cream, or simply to see some guests coming. Underneath the cobwebbed beams that held up the house where Gran lived, never tired or scared of trying, the girl stayed still and waited for the dancing. There weren't any of those high kicks Leila Rose, her oldest aunt, saw Gran do years ago, but it was dancing. For as long as she could possibly get away with, the girl kept right on watching. Since she couldn't paint or play enough about it, she memorized hope's hiding-place instead.


Part II

Literary Index