Summary:Ari begins to find her way in the world and there is a happy end for Apple and Wego.
6. Springtide (March 21, 1946)
I lay on the cool, bare ground. A large, flat root knot from the Tree is under the back of my neck and I roll my head from side to side feeling the texture of the bark scratching at my skin, feeling the strength seep into me from the direct contact of my body and the Tree. I open my eyes and let them drift over the familiar convolutions of the Tree’s branches. They drift out of focus.
“Recite,” commands the voice of my mother.
I begin to sign the first Daina, Long ago in a place farther than far, lived the Selppa people. They were a good and strong and curious people– As I move my arms, I can feel more of the Tree’s power sparkle through me. It is not nearly as intense as those firstuncontrollable days of Blooming, but it is still there enough to itch through me. Small arrows of pain spark in random places and at odd intervals- first in one place and then another- arm, chest, left hip, right ear- there is no pattern to it.
“Focus the power, Ari,” Mama says softly. “Pull the power to your back, the backs of your legs, the back of your skull.”
I follow her directions, beginning the second Daina as I do, Yet among these first Selppas was one called T’nepres, who married a daughter of the Earth, and his wife bore him a son named Natas. But, the daughter of the Earth learned that T’nepres was not of the Earth and rejected him…
“Now, let it grow strong enough to overcome gravity, let it lift you away from the roots and towards the branches.”
Again, I try to do as she instructs. I feel myself lose contact with the root behind my neck, but not with the Power of the Tree. Little bits of dirt and small pebbles fall away from the skin on the backs of my legs- a loss of pressure and an itch, and I’m off the ground.
“Begin Daina 3,” Mama tells me and I realize that I have stopped reciting. I thump to the ground from the distraction and sit up to rub at the back of my head where it banged against the root. “Ari, you need to focus more keenly. If you let yourself lose the connection with the Tree, you will be able to do nothing with your power,” she scolds me, and not for the first time this morning.
I sign that I am sorry, but Mama just sighs.
“Perhaps we should finish for the day. Your head seems to be elsewhere,” she snaps and strides over to the backdoor of the house. I don’t take her briskness to heart. She has been quite unhappy lately, with good reason. And, I have been distracted for days by my mother’s loss, by my own, as well.
I remain there under the Tree, thinking about that loss. I had only just returned from my stay at the Vanderhoven School for the Deaf when I learned that Doctor Chow was gone from our lives- that he was no longer quite so sweet on Mama, and she will not tell me why. I again wish that I had been here at the Shade during those weeks to perhaps know it all better. Perhaps if I had been home, I could have done something to keep Mama and Doctor Chow from ending their love affair- perhaps I could have talked them out of it- perhaps-
I stop myself. I cannot continue thinking of it all in that way. Mama has said it to be both unfixable and more importantly, not the fault of anyone. “Sometimes, Ari, there is just nothing for it,” she told me. “Life will undoubtedly teach you that lesson soon enough.”
“I lie back down and tap my head against the same root, wishing that everything had not gone so wrong for them- for us.
The decision to send me to the Vanderhoven School for the Deaf had not been an easy one. Early in January, Doctor Chow came to us- to Mama and me- and told us that he had secured a place for me there. Granny Birdie had been quite happy to hear of it. “She’ll meet other children like herself- better for her to get out into the world some, now that she’s bloomed- instead of being so close at home all the time.” I could not argue with her reasoning, but I did wonder if maybe she might have wished to get me out of the house so that she might be able to return to her room in town instead of remaining at the Shade to care for me (not that I needed much care by then, but even grouchy grandmothers will fuss over an injured child, I guess).
Uncle Liam had also thought it a good idea that I attend the school, living there for a few weeks so that I might be able to be confident enough in my signing ability when I returned home to teach my family what I had learned. Mama and I, however, weren’t quite so pleased with the idea. Mama argued that I was too new to my powers- that I needed to remain in the Shade of the Tree much longer to gain control of them. And I- I was in no hurry to spend long weeks away from all and everyone I knew. The pull of the Tree and the uncertainty of my injuries made me want to stay.
After several days of heated debate (and a few arguments between Mama and Granny Birdie) the subject was finally and unquestionably settled when Great Aunt Lil stood up at the dinner table (interrupting another row) and proclaimed that I was going by setting a dead leaf from one of the orchard trees on my head. Written on the leaf was the name LEAHPAR. There was, of course, no question that I would go after that.
I roll my neck against what I am now thinking of as my favorite root, work my way to standing, and return to the house, slipping into the kitchen, being enveloped in the always new smell of Auntie Lil simmering something new-old and good for the evening meal. Lil chatters a happy greeting to me as I cross the room and go towards the front of the house. My training has worn me out, so I decide not to climb the stairs. Instead, I settle into the familiar chair by the fireside and take up some darning work.
A short while later, I hear murmured voices at the top of the stairwell. It is Mama and Uncle Liam. I cannot make out their words, but Mama’s tone is defeated and Uncle Liam seems to be trying to cheer her. He descends the stairs, calling up to her over his shoulder as he does, “There’s no harm in me just going over to talk to him, Apple. I can’t possibly make it any worse, now can I?” Then he disappears through the front door. Mama doesn’t shout after him and then I hear a door upstairs close with a loud snick. It wasn’t exactly an argument, seeing as Mama was doing nothing like fighting, but it is the same type of distressing.
It does feel as though my family is forever in turmoil. To my surprise at the time, I found that my time at the Vanderhoven School- while difficult because I was learning a new way to express myself and I was away from the Tree- I found my time at the school to be a kind of a reprieve from the endless arguments.
As my fingers work at the automatic task of stitching closed the holes worn into one of Uncle Liam’s socks, I think about that time- my time at the school. It was both a great challenge and a great comfort. I must confess, I had still held out hope of Doctor Chow, with his medicine, or Great Auntie Lil, with her lost arts, bringing me some miracle and restoring my voice. My time at the school put that to rest- there were so many similarly afflicted children and adults there that I could not imagine that some easy cure-all was waiting unused somewhere. There were too many of us to be neglected so by the world if there were some sure, weren’t there? And so, as I learned, I also mourned that secret hope of once again speaking, whispering, singing. That grief faded as I slowly changed from chalk and slate to the delicate motions of my fingers and hands as my way of telling the world what I needed and wanted and wished for.
One event near to the end of my stay at the Vanderhoven School allowed me to see that I had begun to heal- to find a different path for my life, much like Doctor Chow had hoped I would months earlier, when I still laid in my hospital bed. The policy of the school is to require the students with greater mastery of signing to work as tutors to the new arrivals, and I was assigned to aid a small boy named Karl who came to the school a few days before I returned home.
Karl is four years old and a born deaf-mute. His parents, German immigrants, work for one of the wealthier families in Patterson to the north. Karl’s parents had been working in one of the textile mills, when Karl and his deafness came to the attention of the mill owner’s wife. That good lady took it to herself to arrange for Karl’s education at the Vanderhoven School. Karl came to the school small, scared, unkempt and unruly. That was the child I was charged with the care of. I was to keep him safe and clean, see that he arrived at meals and went to bed on time, and- if I could manage it- I was to begin teaching him to sign for his wants and needs.
I spent the first day pulling a resisting child behind me from the toilet to meals to the play-yard where, despite the wintry weather, he was pleased to be, for there he could run wild. When lights out came, I was still struggling to get him washed up and changed into nightclothes, but none of the teachers stepped in to help me. Frustrated and tired, I all but gave up, letting the still filthy and shirtless boy have his way and splash water all over the washroom. I consoled myself with the fact that at the very least, he wasn’t biting me. It came to me as I sat there, back against the washroom door to block Karl’s possible escape, getting wetter by the minute, that times like those were why people prayed.
And so, I began trying to find the signs to recite the Dainas that I had read time and time again in the few months since I had been allowed to know them. I was surprised to not only find that I had the knowledge to make a good translation of the words into sign language, but also that signing the Dainas was far more satisfying and beautiful than just reading them had ever been. I’m not sure how long I spent at it, but some time later, I was reciting them over and again, not just with my hands and fingers, but with and almost full-bodied dance. Even more astounding was the fact my charge was sitting calmly on the washroom floor and trying to mimic my movements, a look of hard concentration on his face. Within half an hour Karl and I were sitting side by side working our way through the signs for the Dainas. An hour later, he was washed and dressed and tucked snug into his bed. By the day I left, Karl had learned to sign food, toilet, bed, play, no and yes. I was prouder than I can say.
On my return to the school as a day student a few days later, Karl had made little progress- he had been mad at me for leaving and acting out because of it, but by the end of that day, he was learning again and I had realized that I wanted to teach at the school as my profession, once I had finished my own education. I soon found that teaching my family to sing was good practice for my future.
Blackberry Winter (April 14, 1946)
(Blackberry Winter is the cold spell in early to mid spring- just when the blackberries are ripe.)
For months, I have had a silent and nearly invisible protector. Nat, the man whose hand held the pistol that shot the bullet that ripped the flesh of my leg, that shattered the bone in my left calf so completely that I walk by way of a carved bit of tree strapped below my knee- he is my protector. Early on, I feared that he was coming to do me greater harm. Early on, I feared that he was but a figment, a projection of my fears. But then, I heard Uncle Liam proclaim that Nat was one of us- that anytime he might come to the Shade, he would be welcomed- welcomed like a brother lost and returned again. And, while Granny Birdie didn’t agree, Mama did, so I let go of any fears I still had of Nat.
Soon enough, I found myself pleased to know he was there- watching over me as I made the short walk to the bus stop where I had to wait to be ferried to The Vanderhoven School for the Deaf on weekday mornings. I was reassured when I would notice him watching from somewhere far off down the banks of the mill stream in the evenings when I exercise my old horse Stayman. It is such an evening now.
It is spring and the sparse tufts of grass are turning green of late. This week, however, has been bitterly cold- the last vestiges of winter not quite shaken off by the world. The green grass crunches beneath Stayman’s hooves and the mill stream is iced over with thin, clear plates in the shallower places. I find a place along the bank where there is no ice and good footing. I nudge my horse’s side until he finds it and begins to drink.
Just a moment later, Stayman bucks and whinnies- a long panicked screech and I can’t keep in the saddle. The world shifts violently and I am plunged headlong into the icy water. I feel myself pitched against a stone on the bottom just before a large weight lands atop me. It is Stayman and he is struggling, frightened. I know that I am close enough to the Tree that I will survive this- I will not drown- I just have to endure this. But, Stayman has no such protections.
I strive to free myself from my horse’s bucking weight- my legs are pinned beneath him, but I make a little progress. The chill of the water, a shock as I first splashed in, is now settling into me, making it hard to think, hard to ignore the panic not breathing brings (for I have been under the water longer than I should be and my lungs are aching).
Being pulled to the surface- wrenched out from under Stayman- is almost as stunning as falling in was, and I sputter and cough some water out from my lungs. Nat is there, holding me up, dragging me away from the still flailing horse and up onto the bank.
“Ari, show me,” he is demanding, “show me where you’re hurt!” I shake my head that I am not and try to stand. My clothes are ripped and my left leg is lost- floating away with the current. Nat pushes my gently back to the ground and starts running his hands over me, looking for injuries and repeating himself, “Where are you hurt, girl? Tell me.”
I shove him away enough to look passed him and I can see that Stayman has stopped moving. I draw on the Tree to push the earth away from me. I have just enough strength to get myself upright and move the few feet over the water to the horse.
“Ari, What the-” Nat is behind me now and I hold him away with the Tree’s power. I can see red swirling in the water- the rocks have cut open Stayman’s head and his side, his legs, as he struggled. All at once I lose focus and fall, again splashing into the stream, throwing my arms around my injured horse’s neck, stroking his nose and feeling only a small whisper of breath from his nostrils. He is alive.
I get lost in crying because there is nothing I can do for him. After a time, I let Nat pull me away again. He picks me up and carries me through the orchard, saying soothing things that I don’t really listen to as he walks. I crush my face into the cold, wet fabric that covers his shoulder. He shouts for help once we are in sight of the house and Great Aunt Lil comes banging out of the back door to see what is wrong.
I am brought into the kitchen and set down by the stove. I sit there not enjoying the warmth as Lil fusses over me, stripping off my coat and drying off my hair, my face.
“Her horse got snake bit and threw her in the creek!” Nat tells Uncle Liam as he come sinto the room. “Poor wretch is down in the water still.” Uncle Liam and Nat go down to the mill stream and I begin to cry all over again when the shotgun blast echoes up the orchard.
Lil and Granny Birdie give me a hot bath and tuck me into bed (I don’t want to eat- they can’t make me). I don’t know if I sleep, but in the morning, Nat has returned to help Uncle Liam dig the large pit. It takes most of the morning but Nat is gone again before lunch. I don’t see him again for weeks.
Mayday (May 1, 1946)
The High Spring Holiday falls on a perfect, crisp, clear day and, like the Winter Solstice, I suspect that the will of my mother has affected the pleasantness of the day, which had begun dark and overcast, but cleared quickly. I would guess that I and my kinswomen- my future Granny Jin included- may have helped with the localized weather change, as well. I certainly cannot help but keep hoping the day remains this fair for the wedding.
Yes, today is the day Mama is to marry her beloved Dr. Wego Chow. Despite their recent troubles, love has triumphed and I am to have not just a new stepfather and granny, but an uncle comes along, as well- Uncle San. Uncle San, who I have only just met weeks ago, is nearly just as lovely as his older brother. And, he is becoming quite dear to the family, most especially to my other uncle, Liam.
Uncle San will finish at the university in a few weeks and there is talk of him joining the family business- working under Liam to learn and help to care for the orchard. That he will do this, I have little doubt, in part because the Chow family has turned out to be Selppa, but more because of the joy I see barely hidden under the quiet greetings between my two uncles. They care so greatly for each other- bosom friends, they are, if there ever has been such a pair. I have seen them in the Shade of the Tree deep in conversation or shared contemplation, or in the muddy spring of the orchard talking spiritedly, laughingly together as Liam teaches San.
I am fair certain that all three of my new relatives will be at the Shade before long.
I am in my bedroom, dressing for the ceremonies. The dress that I have made for the day is moss green and gold. I wind my silken scarf around my neck and look in the mirror that hangs inside my closet door and consider my much changed form. It has been less than a year since I was a child- whole and curious, dreaming of my future. Who I am now- wiser for certain, but no less curious, and perhaps even dreamier- who I am now feels more whole than that girl, in spite of my physical losses. What I have gained- knowledge and purpose, new friends and family- far outweighs what have lost.
I hear Granny Birdie calling from downstairs. She has been fussing over every detail of the wedding- even more than Mama has- and I know I must respond or there will be trouble. As I pass Mama’s room, on my way downstairs I peek inside and she waves me in.
“My, don’t you look fine, Ari,” she says, a serene smile on her lips.
I curtsy and make a little twirl to show my dress- and how well I can balance in my new party shoes as my answer. Then I sign that she is beautiful. And she is quite beautiful in the golden colored gown sewn by Great Aunt Lil and Wego’s mother, Granny Jin.
“And are you happy for me, my sweet girl? Do you want Wego for a father?” she asks me, as if I had not made her to know before how much I want her and Wego to be happy.
I sign as much to her and she pulls me close to her and laughs warm and wonderful- sparking with joy and power- as we hear Granny Birdie below us bellowing for Liam to come and do something terribly important for her.
The pledge and fasting ceremony is beneath the Tree, of course. Mama and Wego make a handsome picture, a strong couple making promises before all of our family and those friends close enough to be trusted at the High Spring Ceremony that follows- all my kinswomen and I calling blessing upon this land and all the Earth. Among those friends are Lil’s professor friend from the university, Dr. Bergsten, and Nat. He was invited by Mama before either I or Uncle Liam could ask it of her, but he stands there, in the Shade, looking as if he might run at the slightest breeze. I want to go to him, place my hand in his and make him to know that he is ours- that he is welcome to the Shade as any of us, but I don’t know how. That problem is solved when Great Aunt Lil brings Nat- the small woman leading the great height of a man behind her by the tow smallest finger is his left hand- and sits him beside me at the feast.
The High Spring Feast is, by tradition, cold and uncooked- dishes made fragrant and tempting by use of bright, sweet fruits and ancient spice combinations known only to Lil, who has made this feast more times than any of us can know. To drink, apple wine from last fall’s crop is mixed with wild berries from the feral woods at the border of the orchard. The woods don’t rightly belong to us, but the owner has never taken care of the land, and we harvest some of the fruit just for the Spring Feast with her permission.
I sit beside Nat and slip an arm into the crook of his elbow. He looks down at me with a nervous smile on his face. “You’ll make sure I do this all right, won’t you Ari? I don’t want to use the wrong fork and offend you uncle- or you mother,” he says and I hear how his joke is not as light as he wishes it to be. I nod and lean over to his place setting. I hand him a spoon as the first course is a cantaloupe and orange soup, and he laughs in that deep, rich baritone of his.
The ceremonies and blessing are supposed to be over, but I feel a swell in the Tree- more of an unrest, than anything, and I am reminded of the day I was injured, the day the Tree was attacked. I get to my feet, looking around for whatever has caused my instinct to protect the Tree to come to the front of my attention and find that all my kinswomen are on their feet as well. Grannies Birdie and Jin are still beside their table with Wego and Uncle San. Mama, however is rushing for a young woman who stands at the road, Lil and Liam not far behind her. The woman at the road, a dark haired beauty in men’s pants, is most certainly the cause of the sparking of the Tree’s power, but she makes no move to attack as Mama reaches her.
“Ari, what’s going on?” Nat asks, rising swiveling around to see what I am focused on. “Who is that?” I shake my head slowly to tell him that I don’t know, and he moves so that he is between me and the stranger. I peek around his shoulder and watch the exchange as Mama, Lil and Liam speak to the woman. I watch Uncle Liam carefully pull his eye patch to the side as the woman is turned towards Mama and cannot see him. A moment later, all four of them are striding back to the tables set under the Shade. Uncle Liam is carrying the woman’s valise and Great Aunt Lil is telling the newcomer something that looks vitally important. No doubt that, whoever she is, she has no idea what Lil wants her to know.
Wego meets them as they come to the tables and asks, “Is everything all right, Apple?”
Mama smiles bright and joyous as she says, “Yes, my love, everything is fine.” She turns to the stranger and offers her hand, which is shyly taken. “This is my niece, Hesperia Smythe. My brother Joe’s daughter, come from Boston for the wedding,” she announces to the party, as well as to Wego.
“Please, call me Speria,” my cousin quietly tells the crowd.
“Speria,” Mama says, taking up the nickname, “this is my husband Wego. And, this is his mother Jin and my mother- your Granny Birdie.” Mama guides her around the party, introduceing her to everyone, making her blush. When they come to where Nat and I are, she pronounces us, “My daughter Ari, who talks with her hands and her slate, and her great friend Nat, who doesn’t speak much more than Ari does.” When Speria has met all and sundry, Mama gives her over to the care of Great Aunt Lil, who sits her between Uncles Liam and San, who are seated quite close to the Tree. I see Speria cautiously lean over and brush her hand over the Tree’s trunk and I am know that she is one of us- drawn to it as surely as any other of the kinswomen.
Over the feast, I watch my kith and kin safe and happy beneath the Shade- as it should be, and I know that, no matter what new challenges come to us, we will stay just a strong as we are that day.
END FRAGMENT 1
Author’s note: This is the conclusion of Ari’s Tale, but not the end of her story, nor that of the Selppas. Beginning January 2009, the story will continue with Fragment 2- Speria.