This story is by Lila Bakke and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It started with the crack in the concrete.
Darkened by years of dirt the line measured an inch forward, crooked left then right then left again before descending into a crater two inches deep where it lost itself in the uneven bottom. Joining a spider web of other cracks, it scrambled up, escaping out the other side, reached the threshold of the door and disappeared. Goddess only knew to where. It was impossible to see out. The floor from her knees to the door, and an occasional cricket was the known world.
Icy water dripped from her hair to the floor and, following the crack, filled the crater.
She let it fill her consciousness.
She saw only rain, coming gently at first, then fast and fierce. She felt the pine needles before she visualized them. Soft and dry in the underbrush of the tree, they cushioned her bones. Looking out between the broad, old branches, she watched the world from her appropriated shelter. The air was thin and sharp, and smelled of snow.
The dripping slowed. She shivered, although she no longer noticed the cold.
The water rippled. Keys jangled sharply and clanked softly in the door lock. Footsteps entered in concentric circles. Heavy wood dragged over the floor and behind her, out of view. Muscles contracted, pulling at tendons and joints locked in restraint. Her mind clung to every drop as rain turned to snow.
Thunderbolts fell like blows. Heavy wood “thunked” into the wall behind her.
She plunged inward following an odd stalk to an oblong shape, blue with … feathers! A blue heron, her mother’s favorite. The sky glowed burnt orange, framed in green: maples, oaks and weeping willows, wild oats and cattails. The river stilled. Within the scrying dish she saw her mother, her face deep and kind, young. The image changed, revealing her face after death, mouth open and cheeks hollowed, eyes closed and life colors receding. She’d held her then, kissed her. Her skin had been cool to touch but not yet cold. Her mother’s face in death had not frightened her then, and did not now. Her face became young again; her eyes pierced through the water, into hers …
“Shhhh!” Mother whispered. “Little one, come with me.” They walked along the river to sit in the park on a bench overlooking it. The grass was pleasantly long. Somehow, she had no shoes!
“I want you to know,” she said, “I loved you. I always loved you. What you felt as a child was real, but unintended. I wish we had time to do it over.”
“Mom, it’s OK. I understand, we have this moment. It is enough.”
They smiled and hugged. And then they talked, about everything: their dreams, what they would have done if they had not grown up in such a small, backward place. She wanted to ask about belief systems, but hesitated. Her mother did not.
“I know you are pagan. I know why.”
“Are you angry?”
“No, how could I be? You have a real connection with animals and the earth, and more than enough hurt. I couldn’t ask you to overwrite your belief.”
“Nor I, you.”
They were quiet awhile, neither wanting to wade further.
“It was hard on you, that change. I wish I could have explained!”
“It’s OK Mom, really. I tried to believe, but there was such a gap between us. You were working and you had us. I don’t pretend to know how it was to have four children and the company in the 80s. I remember when I found out how little money you had to raise us. I was shocked and … humbled. But I didn’t have the decency to be ashamed. I wasn’t exactly nice to you in my teenage years. I’m so sorry!
“How did you do it?”
She laughed. “You were a child then, daughter. You are forgiven, of course. You didn’t see it, but I had friends: Kay and Debra, my cousin, your Aunt Leslie, my Aunt Ginny. My mother and I were beginning to talk more then. You don’t know how much strength you gave me, too.”
“Yes, you. You were so fierce then, you still are. You didn’t know life, but you were determined to learn it, to find a way to get out and live it. I admire you for that. You brought your friends home to us. You refused to be defined by this place.”
“I wish I had come home more, written more, talked to you more.”
“Don’t. I wish I’d gone out to visit you more.”
“Let’s both of us … don’t. You were always on my mind and in my heart. I love you so much, even when I was so mad at you. I didn’t understand what you went through. I felt …”
“It wasn’t your fault! I wasn’t even thinking that.”
“But you were feeling it. I know. I know you know I didn’t mean it. My mother, too. Life has its way, and you can’t change it. I prayed so much that it wouldn’t be an obstacle to you.”
“The first time we talked about this, your words hit me like a brick. But after, I felt … peace, resolution, that a great weight had been lifted. “
“I’d hoped that would happen. I had a similar experience with my mother.”
“Was it hard to talk to her about it?”
“At first it was, but once she knew I wasn’t going to give up, we had a real discussion. She told me about my sister, and how deeply it cut her. She considered suicide. I couldn’t understand why she would leave me. It wasn’t until you were born that I understood the pain in the loss of a child. It doesn’t matter how many children you have. You are all precious. The loss of any one of you would have been unbearable!”
“Your brother died too.”
“Yes. The grief broke her. But she made her way back to us, and to you. It was good for her that you needed her. That I needed her … not just to take care of you, although that was a big part of it, but to take care of me, too.”
They sat quiet. “I know you don’t like to hear about God’s plan, or any plan, for your life. But consider. If it was God’s plan for you to bring your grandmother back, and for that to happen I had to be sick enough to lose you those precious first weeks … I’m not happy, and I still disagree with God over it. But, how can I argue? You have a special relationship with your grandmothers. I can’t take that away from you.”
“Wow, that’s really … unselfish, Mom. How do you become this wise? And how come we never talked about men …?”
Someone screaming broke the spell, the image disappeared. She felt an incredible lightness of being. She felt her arm dangle. It was her voice screaming. She let go into blackness.
She woke choking, in horrible fear. Her muscles pulled taught and her breath rapid, she felt the blood gathered in her skull. She was … unfolded. Her shoulder blades, spine, hip bones, thighs, calves, upper arms and forearms pressed into heavy wood. Her hands and feet were fixed. There was a damp, light pressure evenly spread over her face. She tried to open her eyes, but water came at her in a rush, filling her nose and mouth. She fought with all her strength against breathing in, her body screaming at her to do so. She tried to shake her head but could not, helplessly spasming against the cutting, narrow, unyielding restraints. She let blackness swallow her, grateful for it.
When next she woke, she was in the familiar kneeling position, her arms tied and raised behind her back, her head forced down. The pain was a welcome respite. Water dripped from her hair and puddled around her knees. She thought she saw blood, too. She smelled urine and feces.
The cricket chirped.
She followed the crack to the crater, cleaved the stilled surface.
She was no longer cold, although she shivered.
She conjured a blizzard, wind razing the air itself with daggers. Walking through snow crusted with ice, she entered a cove of trees in the corner where the abandoned railroad crossed a functioning road, a remnant of the treeline that once marked the farmland there. Wedging herself amongst the innermost trees, she slowed her breath …
…banished all exterior senses…
“I brought you an iris,” she said, taking her Mother’s hand.
…inhaled snow and ice…
“It’s beautiful,” she smiled, and kissed her.
…found her heartbeat, and …
“Where shall we go?”
“Let’s have coffee at Katrina’s.”
“I’d like that.”