shaken

attendant upon you, shaken by your beauty

Shaken by your beauty
Shaken.
–William Carlos Williams

 

I was sitting back enjoying a cold Carlsberg and savoring the hygge of relaxing with Mel on a sunny afternoon.

Melody Bride is my book shepherd, literary agent and at times, my secret passion—especially when she’s dressed to kill.

Other times though, she annoys me enough to kill her—but not today. Today, I’m feeling mellow.

“I want to go for a drive,” I say dreamily.

She looks up from her book. “Where?”

“Out in the country,” I sigh.

“Can you be more specific?”

I lift a hand and make a throwaway gesture. “You know—Big Sky country.”

She’s biting her lip now and growing impatient.

“C’mon, cowboy—we live in Canada, third largest country in the world—actually, second largest if you discount Antarctica. That’s a lot of real estate. So, where do you specifically want to go?”

I sigh resignedly, “Okay, I want to drive out to Willow Grove.”

Her face lights up with mock enthusiasm and she says drolly, “Um, would that be the same place you decided was your forever home?”

I grow uncomfortable.

She puts on her syrupy, sweet little girl voice and it’s dripping with sarcasm.

“You know what I’m saying, Jay—how you dragged me out there, only to turn around six months later, and drag me back here?”

I color with embarrassment. “Well, there were extenuating circumstances. C’mon Mel—my bloody house was haunted!”

“Right—and that’s why you intend to go back?”

She blinks her huge brown eyes at me.

Damn! This girl has missed her calling—as a prosecuting attorney.

I take a few deep breaths, calm down a little and try reasoning with her.

“Actually, the fact my house was haunted is exactly why I want to go back. That whole damn town is filled with ghostly manors. I need a spooky house as a setting for my next James Randall Murder Mystery—you remember that best-selling book series that pays your salary, don’t you?”

I can’t resist giving her a little of her own.

“Don’t play coy, Jay—it doesn’t suit you,” she sniffs. “Besides, I may be your book shepherd, but I’m not your Muse!”

“Yeah—you sure about that?”

I give her my boyish grin—I’m told it disarms women, but Melody has always been immune to my charms.

I wait patiently for her to reply, but she’s gone silent and just when I figure I’ve lost the argument, she pipes up, “Okay, Jay—you win. Give me a half hour to get ready and we’ll go.”

I suppress my boyish grin and meekly nod.

She heads upstairs to use the spare bedroom as her wardrobe room.

Why women need a half hour to put on makeup to become gorgeous just to go for a ride in the country is beyond me—but chalk one up for the good guys.

But now I’m beginning to have second thoughts.

I really meant what I said about Melody being my Muse—she gets these vibes, and they always turn out right. So, if she’s feeling queasy about going, that’s probably a bad omen.

I’m thinking maybe we should stay home, but there’s no way I’m going to say that now, not after getting my own way.

If Mel is having second thoughts, I’ll gladly let her off the hook, and feel a whole lot better as well.

But within the half hour, Melody is dressed, if you can call it that—She’s distractingly beautiful in a skimpy tank top, jean shorts and flip flops. It’s not exactly hiking gear, especially if we have to get out of the SUV and go spelunking, or climbing over walls.

Yeah, well I probably won’t be doing that either—but just saying.

We take old Garden Ave. and head down ye olde Cockshutt Road—and, of course, Mel laughs hilariously at the rude-sounding name. She’s so immature sometimes, but yeah, it’s funny, so I play along.

“Take this side road,” she orders. I hate it when she acts like co-pilot, but even more when she turns navigator.

We drive about half a mile before she orders me to slow down as we crest a hill.

“There’s a historic plaque near that gate over there—I want to read it.”

She gets out and spends five minutes decoding every comma, dash and semi-colon. I’m drumming my fingers on the steering wheel.

She waves me over. “C’mere Jay, you gotta see this—it’s an old pioneer cemetery.”

I’m growing impatient. It’s hot and dusty on this side road, and I was hoping to drive into town and grab a cold beer—Okay, a soft drink, knowing Melody—not that she’d offer to be designated driver.

“Why do I have to see this?” I growl.

She links one arm in mine and smiles up at me sweetly, “Because we can read the dates on the tombstones and get an idea of how old the houses must be around here.”

Her logic is impressive—that would never occur to me.

I creak open the rusted Iron Gate and we enter the cemetery. It’s more an abandoned wreck than an abode of the dead.

For some reason it strikes me as a swamped ocean liner, listing on its side. The out-of-kilter tombstones are the ship’s masts, and the whole rotten structure is on the verge of slipping into oblivion beneath green waves of windblown grass.

Everything about this cemetery seems surreal.

I picture Mel and me as deep-sea divers moving in slow motion, inspecting a shipwreck. That’s how it seems in the windy field as we’re swaying like seaweed, and plodding through rocking wreckage, reading inscriptions.

It’s obvious these are the graves of the people who built the haunted manors in Willow Grove—the names of these dead people just happen to be the street names of the town.

It chills me being here, even though it’s sunny and the sky is piled high with fair weather clouds, It feels eerie as if I’m twenty thousand leagues under the sea, and in danger of being attacked by giant sea eels.

I’m about to ask Melody if she feels the same vibe, when she starts screaming. My blood freezes.

I turn and look back at her and all I can see is a slithering mass of wriggling snakes gliding out of the long grass and heading right toward her.

She’s frozen to the spot, and half bent over as if she’s about to puke.

I grab her from behind and carry her, kicking and screaming, to the edge of the cemetery and unceremonially, dump her over a crumbling stonewall.

I look back to see the snakes—hundreds of them, streaming toward us—quickly covering ground by using an undulating, sidewinding motion.

I jump the wall, grab her by the hand and pull her toward the SUV. Once we’re both safely inside, I floor the accelerator and leave the ghost ship graveyard to rot and rock in silence for another hundred years.

We barrel down the dusty road raising a ghostly cloud behind us.

Finally. Mel gets her voice back.

“Oh my God,” she gasps, “why did those snakes attack us?”

I look over at her skeptically, like she’s the one with the forked tongue.

“Are you crazy, Mel—why the hell do you think they attacked us? They’re bloody carnivores. Think about it—they tunnel in the ground—so what do you think they’ve been feeding on in that rotting graveyard for the past centuries?

“Stop—Stop!” she shouts.

“All right—all right!” I yell, my ears ringing from her shrill voice.

There’s a small stone bridge over a creek, so I hit the brakes and the SUV skids to a cloudy stop in the dusty road just before it.

“Satisfied?” I hiss.

She grabs her water bottle, jumps out, and rushes over to the wall of the bridge and pukes into the water below.

I roll my eyes and gaze heavenward.

“Great—just great, Mel!” I call out. “That’s probably some poor farmer’s drinking water you just contaminated.”

She’s still spitting like a snake, trying to get rid of the awful taste in her mouth.

Finally, she’s chugging back mouthfuls from her water bottle and loudly gargling. I’d hate to listen to that every morning for the rest of my life.

She stomps back to the car bristling with anger. “Don’t say anything, Jay—just don’t. You’ve said quite enough for one day.”

“What—what? Am I talking?”

The cold dead stare in her eyes is menacing as a snake’s, but I wisely shut up and continue the drive into town.

Just another Pleasant Valley Sunday, I muse.

 

Ten minutes later we’re at the Chinese restaurant in town having lunch—Well, actually I am—Mel’s sipping on a huge glass of ice cold lemon tea and still grumbling about the bad taste in her mouth.

“We’ll stop at the pharmacy and get some mints,” I tell her.

Why does everything become a drama with us?

Mel takes a long sip of lemon tea and nods docilely. Maybe we’ll be able to rescue something from the trip after all.

I’ve seen a huge, old, abandoned manse on a hill nearby and plan on exploring it. As far as I’m concerned, Mel can wait back in the car if she still has qualms about snakes.

Sure enough, as soon as we pull up to the side of the road, she puts her foot down. “I am definitely not going up there,” she declares.

I shrug. “Suit yourself. I’ll just scope out the house and grounds and take a few photos—maybe make a few notes.”

“Why not use the voice memo feature on your cell phone?” she suggests.

“Good idea!” I smile.

Mel comes in handy sometimes, when she’s not screaming shrilly in my ear.

I get out and climb up the steep slope toward the house. The grass is dry and littered with downed tree branches, and so I have to be careful as I pick my way to the top.

When I crest the hill, I’m awe-struck by the grace and beauty of the old manse. It has obviously been deserted for years though—the windows are all boarded up, and the white, pillared portico that shelters the main entrance door is sagging from decay.

Still, it is impressive and must have been a beauty in its day.

I snap several photos and add some observations by using the voice memo function on my phone.

“You’re trespassing on private property, you know.”

I recognize Mel’s whisper, and decide to ignore her.

I take another photo of the old glassed-in conservatory—such an elegant wreck.

“I know you can hear me. Don’t you think it’s rude to ignore me?”

“Okay, Mel, excuse me for being frustrated,” I shout.

I turn around to face her, and my jaw drops.

Standing beneath a huge oak tree is a girl who resembles Mel, but is eerily different. Her red hair is longer and tied back with a black ribbon into a loose pony. She’s wearing a period dress that looks like it’s from the 1890’s.

Great! They must have turned the house into a historical museum.

“I’m sorry—I thought you were my literary agent,” I mumble.

“Oh, well that explains everything,” the girl smirks. “Women who work for you obviously don’t matter.”

My face falls. I must look like an insensitive dolt. “Naw, It’s not like that—Mel and I are friends—sort of.”

“I see. I suppose it’s all right then to be impolite toward her.”

I’m digging myself in deeper.

“Look, I’m sorry I trespassed—I thought the house was abandoned.”

The sunlight filtering through the leaves lights up her hair and ignites a fire in me—she’s so feminine and elegant she makes me feel boorish and crude in her presence.

Suddenly my charm deserts me and I feel as awkward as a common laborer encountering a sophisticated lady.

If I had a cap on my head, I’d remove it, and wring it in my hands with eyes lowered. As it is, I’m so ashamed I hang my head in embarrassment.

When I finally look up, she’s gone.

I stare dumbly at the deserted patch of sunlit grass where the girl stood—and then, I come to my senses, spin wildly around, and gaze furtively in every direction looking for her, but to no avail.

The lady has fled.

I approach the spot where she stood and inhale a faint scent of lavender—it seems elusive and haunting as if the air itself were scented with the distilled essence of her.

I slowly descend the hill and return to the SUV.

Melody is curled up in the back seat sleeping—her red hair a copper and gold alloy in the sun.

She looks so lovely sleeping in sunlight that a pang of regret stirs in me.

I realize how desolate I feel.

I want to awaken every morning to her soft whisper—her fiery hair scattered on the pillow—her breath gentle as snowflakes.

I sit sideways in the front seat, shaken by her beauty—shaken, but still wise enough to let her sleep.

© 2015, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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unbreak my heart

Un-break my heart
Say you’ll love me again
Don’t leave me in all this pain
Don’t leave me out in the rain
Bring back the nights
when I held you beside me

 

“Is this too mature for a six-year old?”

Angie rolls her eyes. “Bubble bath? Really, Paul.”

“What do I know? —Hell, I’m a forty-year old bachelor.”

“Don’t worry. I know Hope will love her birthday gifts—Lambie socks, a soft purple blanket, bubble bath and Ferrero Rocher chocolates—gold foil only. What six year old wouldn’t feel all grown-up getting that?”

“I appreciate this, Ange—you spending your Saturday with me at the mall.”

“Don’t worry—you’ll owe me for it,” she smiles mischievously.

We walk back to her car. Angelina and I are co-owners of Adolph’s, an upscale eatery in the historic Stickley mansion, but Adolph Moulton, is the real genius behind the scenes.

Adolph’s a restaurateur par excellence, a modern Ragueneau whose love of poetry and big heart leads him to support struggling artists by bartering meals in exchange for help in running the restaurant.

On any given day I can enter the doors and be greeted by several unfamiliar faces. Still, it makes for one big happy family and Adolph’s is fast becoming a beloved Toronto eatery.

We drive back to the historic Stickley manse where our restaurant is housed. It’s now lit with twinkling clear Christmas lights and Yule trees spaced round the huge wooden verandah. It looks warm and inviting in the November twilight.

“You can come to the party, you know.”

Ange winces, “Uh, no. Sorry Paul—I’ll pass—a half-dozen six year olds getting their faces painted? I don’t think so.”

Ange and I never really hit it off—not to say we’re not compatible, but whatever chemistry it takes to push friends to that next level, well, it just isn’t there for us.

Mind you, I can’t say the same for Eileen.

Eileen Dunn is the mysterious dark-haired beauty who appears at odd times, just when we need her—usually a rainy day, or a hectic Friday night. She’ll pop in, help out and disappear—God knows what arrangement Adolph has made with her.

I’m enthralled with Eileen and my friendship with Ange has now finally gotten to the point where I can confide in her.

“So when am I going to meet this dark lady, Paul?”

“No idea, Ange—you know how chaotic things get around here—it’s day to day. The place is crazy—like the old Laurel and Hardy skit—Who’s on First?”

She smiles knowingly. “I love Adolph, but it is sheer madness some days—okay, most days, ha ha.”

“So, are you coming in?”

“No, heading home. Gonna have a spa, put my feet up and order in—probably Chinese.”

“Lucky you,” I smile wryly, thinking a movie night would be nice—but the lines between us are firmly drawn.

But then there’s Eileen, too—an Audrey Hepburn look-alike, with the same fashion flair and a penchant for wearing retro 60’s fashions.

Eye-catching, to say the least.

I push through the doors and run straight into Adolph, his huge face perpetually beaming like the Mediterranean sun he loves.

“Ah Paul, I was just looking for you. It’s going to be really hectic tonight—I was thinking of calling in Angelina—what do you think?”

I spot Eileen entering the far door dressed in a long, black wool jacket—she looks stunning.

“I don’t think we need to trouble Ange tonight—I’ve got the situation in hand.”

Adolph’s head is bobbing, his smile beatific—it’ll be an enchanting evening, Paul.”

It will, I muse—certainly enchanting.

I approach Eileen in time to help her off with her coat. “Paul, I’m so glad you’re on tonight!”

I lean in close and inhale her perfume. She’s dressed in a simple red shift, her black hair up and no accessory other than a necklace of over-sized white pearls. She takes my breath away.

“You’re staring,” she whispers, “Am I showing?”

You certainly are, I tell myself, but that’s not what I tell her.

“You look lovely, tonight.”

Her smile is dazzling. Strange, how I never before noticed her red ruby lipstick, or how her lips pout—but I do now.

I somehow manage to focus, and force myself back to the task at hand. Together, Eileen and I work as an efficient team and before long, the room is running smoothly and the night filled with magic.

I’m so caught up in the details, it’s after midnight before I notice my lovely diva has fled—another missed opportunity to ask her out.

I resolve to remedy that next time.

 

Hope’s birthday party is held on the Sunday afternoon and comes off without a hitch. Adolph closes the restaurant for the afternoon and allows me to play the doting uncle.

There are clowns and face painting, pink and purple balloons, and all the cake and ice cream six year-old girls can eat.

Of course, Adolph is in his glory.

The sparkler-lit Birthday cake is presented with the ambience of subdued lighting and Adolph’s flair for drama. The little girls are delighted—and Adolph? Well, he just beams, basking in the oohs and ahhs.

 

“It was a beautiful party, Paul—thank you.” Carrie hugs me, but really it was all Adolph’s doing.

“We’re going to have to find a woman for you, Paul,’ she chides, “it would be tragic for you to become a settled old bachelor.”

“Oh, you never know,” I tease, “there just might be someone waiting in the wings.”

“Really, Paul?” she enthuses, “I’d be so happy for you.”

I can see myself here next year with Eileen—actually, I can see forever with Eileen, if I let my imagination take control.

But first, I have to ask her out.

 

The next week is hectic and I don’t see Eileen until the Thursday when she breezes in on a moody, wet afternoon with her country retro look. She’s wearing a brown Cahoots felt hat with floppy brim, belted trousers and a tucked-in button up.

My heart melts when I see her.

I make a bee-line, but am intercepted by a flustered Adolph, “Sorry, Paul, but could I impose on you to fetch me a bottle of Louis Roederer from the wine cellar—you know, the Cristal Brut 2005?”

“Sure,” I tell him. Eileen flashes me a lovely hello smile.

I head back to the stairs, navigating between boxes of fresh produce that have just arrived. I hate the gloomy cellars, but Adolph has amassed a formidable collection of fine wines that’s added to our reputation. I berate myself for taking him for granted.

I start down the stairs, but halfway my foot slides on what feels like a wet lettuce leaf and though I grab frantically for the railing I miss and pitch forward.

I literally see my life pass before my eyes.

Suddenly, a hand reaches out of the darkness and pushes my shoulder. I fall sideways twisting my ankle, but avoid dashing my head on the concrete floor.

The next thing I know, Adolph and several concerned waiters are hovering over me.

 

I spend the next several hours in the emergency ward, until Ange comes and recues me and brings me home.

“Do you think you’ll be able to stay off the ankle?” She asks, as she sets me up on the couch with a pillow elevating my foot.

‘Well, you know me,” I wince, “but don’t worry—this hurts so bad there’s no way I could stand on it.”

Ange stares at me, flustered. “You would pick the one week Matt, Carrie and the kids are out of town. I’ll be able to drop by though, as long as you promise not to undo my help by trying to hop around.”

“Yeah—well, fat chance of that,” I groan.

“I’ll be back after my shift to check in on you—sure you’ll be okay?”

I wave her off. “Yeah, I’ll be fine—just leave the door unlocked so you can get in.”

She nods, biting her lips and looking worried.

“Hey, Ange,” I brighten to cheer her, “it’s just a sprained ankle—I appreciate the concern, but I’ll be fine. Now go to work—we all have to eat.”

“I will,’’ she laughs, “But I’ll be back.”

“I’m sure you will,” I groan.

I put on a brave face, but as soon as she’s gone I begin to think—maybe I should consider hiring a private duty nurse—at least for a few days until I can get back on my feet.

There’s a light rap at the door—Ange back already? I wonder.

“Come in,” I shout.

Eileen pokes her head in the door.

“Are you decent?” She giggles. I almost wish I weren’t.

“Eileen! How did you know where I lived?”

“I made a few discreet enquiries—do you mind?”

“Not at all. Happy to see you.”

“I’ve come bearing gifts,” she smiles.

She’s brought food and a dozen red roses.

“I hope you’re not one of those men who don’t like getting flowers.”

“No, I love flowers” I laugh, “but I am really touched that you came.”

“Well, of course, I would—I mean, you’re quite special to me.”

She says it simply, matter of factly, but stares at me as if baring her soul.

My stomach flips. I can hardly breathe.

“Well,” she says, “ are we going to eat or just stare at each other?”

I’d be content with the latter option, but I let her bring on the food.

We spend a beautiful afternoon, listening to rain, and enjoying the fire, Eileen curled up on the floor beside me, head in my lap, and I stroking her hair.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she says as she leaves.

And so it goes, one glorious day after another—Eileen dropping by to spend romantic afternoons and I falling deeper and deeper in love with her.

 

“Why can I never meet your mystery woman, Paul?”

I shrug, offering empty palms. “It’s the damndest thing, Ange. Sometimes, you just miss her by moments. Tell you what—let know me the next time you’re coming and I’ll make sure she stays.”

But it continues that way the rest of the week, with Eileen spending the days with me and just missing Ange when she arrives.

“Damn rotten luck,” I explain.

Ange, however, seems to take it personally, her mood darkening each time.

Finally, on Friday afternoon she confronts me.

“Look, Paul—I’ve been worried about you for some time.”

“Why on earth would you be worried about me Ange? I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. Adolph is worried too.”

‘What’s going on, Ange? You’re treating me as if I’m sick or something.”

“I’m beginning to think you are, Paul.”

I feel my body go cold and limbs tingle. The room suddenly seems brighter. I fight the panicky feeling rising inside me.

“What are you talking about, Ange? You’re not making any sense.”

She looks me dead in the eye. “There’s no Eileen, Paul—nobody of that name or description works at the restaurant.”

“Don’t be silly, I protest. “We work together all the time. She helps out periodically—everybody’s seen her.”

“No, Paul,” she whispers, “that’s the problem—only you have seen her. I think you’ve made her up in your mind.”

“That’s insane—why on earth would I do that? Do you think I’m crazy, or something?”

“We think—I mean, Adolph and I think, you need to take some time off, and see someone.”

I’m in shock—totally flabbergasted. I don’t know how to reply.

Ange is being gentle and kind—a bit too kind. I feel patronized. She’s treating me the way people treat delusional people.

I feel myself getting angry, but don’t care. This is insane—an insult to me.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Ange. I may not be able to get around very well just now, but when I do—I’ll prove to you—both you and Adolph that Eileen’s real. Hell, she’s not some figment of my imagination, Ange. She’s real.”

After Ange leaves and I calm down, I begin to experience the first niggling of doubt.

I have to admit the coincidences are piling up and straining credulity. Then, there’s the accident—the arm appearing out of nowhere, pushing me back.

A sense of horror rises up inside of me.

What if there was no arm? What if I did strike my head and this is all some grand illusion?

I feel sick and can’t stop trembling.

 

The following week I return to work—to Adolph’s nervous smile, and the uncertain stares of the wait staff. Everyone overly solicitous, treating me as if I were fragile—which I am.

It’s weird though—I haven’t seen or heard from Eileen in a week, and adding to my confusion is a deep aching inside me. I feel my insides are bruised.

I miss her. A vacuum is left inside me and there’s nothing that can fill the emptiness.

It goes on like that a week and then, one bleak Saturday afternoon, everything changes. Adolph comes up from the wine cellar with a strange look on his face.

“What is it?” I ask. He looks as if he’s seen a ghost.

He has in hand a yellowed newspaper he’s found shoved in back of a wine shelf—an edition of the local paper from the sixties—November 28, 1963, to be exact.

“I want you to look at this,” he says, hands trembling, as he hands the paper to me.

Young Local Woman Dies in Tragic Fall, the headline reads.

The article goes on to state that Eileen Dunn, a popular tour guide at the historic Stickley House died when she tripped and fell down a set of basement stairs. The article includes a picture of the woman.

“Is—is this your Eileen?” Adolph stammers.

I nod mutely. She’s pictured wearing the same stylish black coat she often wore. My knees weaken and then, slowly give out.

 

I can’t explain why Eileen chose to haunt me. I can conjecture, but what’s the point? Nothing makes sense. I doubt it ever will.

I wasn’t looking for her, but she sought me. Why? —To find and then abandon me, leaving me alone in a dark swamp of regret?

It seems absurd.

There’s nothing to do but try to carry on and put all this behind me—I try, but can’t.

I spend nights alone now, by the fire, or I end up staring hopelessly at the Moon.

I keep looking at that moon face as if I’m seeking hers. It’s ironic—that desolate world suits her—lakes of darkness, mares of basalt seas—rills and umbras of mystery.

As with all ancient things, if you stare long enough, they start to tell time—stare longer, and their time starts to tell you. The Moon tells me the lines drawn between Eileen and I aren’t firm—but ragged as the lines of waves washing up on the shore.

It’s not over this transaction between the two of us. Perhaps, momentarily, the tide has gone out, but it will come back again, and when it does, she’ll return too.

But I don’t want this waiting game—this desolate existence. I need to move on.

I need Eileen to give me back my life. Give me back the bruised and broken man who once could dream.

I don’t want moods or phases—I want the transit of days.

I’m talking to her now—nights when the Moon is full.

I’m talking and hoping she’ll see.

Tell me, Beloved, how I can go on, how I can find a way?
You can’t un-break a heart—you can’t un-cry a tear.
You can’t re-start a love that’s been dead for fifty years.

 

© 2015, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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the ashes

 

She chose to be cremated and it sickened me, but I had no say in the matter. It was Mother’s wish—as was her hand-written will leaving the run-down estate to me, on condition I agreed, ‘to reside therein a fortnight.’

“What the hell is a fortnight?” I asked Thomas Gunn her executor.

“A two week period, Jonas—literally, fourteen nights.”

“That’s a fine expression—a fortnight,” I blustered, “I’d like to see you spend fourteen bloody nights in a dilapidated ruin.”

“I’d hardly call The Ashes a ruin, Jonas—the estate’s valued at over three million.”

“I ought to bulldoze the entire thing, or sell it off to the highest bidder.”

Gunn tried to be patient—but I could see his eyes had gone hard and his jaw muscles were flexing.

“The estate has been in your family for two hundred years,” he sighed. I wouldn’t act too hastily. If you need cash, you can take back a mortgage against the equity. The house is fully paid off.”

I glowered at him. “You don’t get it do you? It’s not about money—the place is cursed. It turns everyone to ashes.”

He gave me a tired shrug. “Well Jonas, death levels everything. We are born unequal; we die equal.”

My jaw dropped. His remark took me totally off guard and disarmed me. I wasn’t expecting even a hint of rebuff from him.

He colored slightly and muttered, “It’s Seneca—my motto you might say—a plumb line to keep things in perspective. A reminder of mortality, I suppose.”

“Ah yes, memento mori—but nevertheless, well said, Mr. Gunn.”

He gave me a kindly smile and clapped me on the back in a fatherly way.

“Whatever you decide, Jonas, just let me know. I’ll be glad to assist. You can begin your residency whenever you choose, but remember—it must be a continuous, uninterrupted two-week stay, and when completed, the property is yours to administer as you see fit.”

 

I hated pondering the fate of Mother’s ashes and mused about the problem for a week. In the end, I decided to have the undertakers inter the urn in a portion of a low field stone wall overlooking the path leading down to the pond. I instructed them to affix a bronze plaque with the inscription:

Alexandra Lennox

Died May 23, 2014 Age: Eighty Years

May she be given beauty for ashes.

I know—it went against all my hurt feelings and bitter sense of entitlement, but Mother said, I’d always end up doing the right thing—whatever that meant.

The fact was, I hadn’t decided what to do with the property, but until I did, her remains would rest on her beloved estate with a view overlooking the pond. Lucky her.

I wasn’t being anything—not resentful, maudlin or overly sentimental—it just seemed the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances—and if I sold the property, I’d scatter her ashes over the pond and feel I served her memory well.

Anyway, that was the lie I told myself, and resolved I wouldn’t cry for something that couldn’t be helped. Not then, not now—not ever.

 

I took up my residency the next week. It was early June and the weather was golden.

I spent the first few days taking inventory of the house and grounds. The house was in a better state of repair than I remembered, but then, my thoughts were clouded since I left in bitterness and anger—went away to college and never came back—except, of course, for the funeral and the disposition of what remained.

It was sad. We never reconciled. And it was both of us really—our stubbornness. But I was determined to make it on my own and I did—I made millions in Internet marketing before the credit crisis and the economic downturn that followed.

So, now here we are—both interred in our separate limbos—she, possibly at peace, and I pondering whether to rebuild the ancient ruins and restore places long devastated. As for our relationship—well, that boat has sailed and burned, and yet, I hope she’s found her own Valhalla.

“That’s a lovely gesture—interring your mother’s remains in the place she loved so well.”

I turn to see a beautiful young woman smiling at me, standing beneath the windy trees in a shimmering current of shadows.

“I’m Emily Winterhill, your mother’s gardener—you must be her son.”

“I am,” I smile, bemused by her directness and beauty.

“I hope I didn’t interrupt your solitude, Mr. Lennox, but thought we should meet.”

“Yes, of course,” I stammer, “but you didn’t disturb me—and please, call me Jonas.”

Her eyes shone with a strange light I couldn’t quite define, but they fascinated me. She had such a dramatic beauty—honey colored hair and dark brown eyes. I was completely taken with her.

“I saw you walking the path to the pond. Were you aware the deed to the property entitles you to launch boats—row boats or sail boats if you wish?”

“Really? Well that’s something to keep in mind,” I laughed.

“I trust you’ll find the grounds have been well maintained—your mother took great pains to ensure the black oak savannah is properly tended with prescribed burns.”

My interest was piqued. “You mean you actually light fires on the property?”

Her eyes brightened again reminding me of the sun behind a sky of scattered cloud, brightening and dimming on cue with the wind.

“Oh yes, I have to set carefully controlled fires that burn close to the ground and consume dried leaves and twigs. The burning mimics the natural wildfires that occur in these ecosystems.”

“The practice seems really curious,” I remarked.

“Perhaps,” she smiled, “but necessary. The fire turns the leaves to ash and that becomes fertilizer for the black oaks. The trees have evolved to become fire dependent. Do you know their acorns have a very hard shell the flames soften, allowing the seeds to germinate and replenish the savannah?”

I whistle softly. “I didn’t know that.”

“That’s why the estate is called The Ashes—it’s a two acre part of a much larger ecosystem and your mother took every effort to conserve it.”

“I’m impressed,” I told her, and I really was. I had no idea Mother was involved in conservation. I was as ignorant of my own flesh as I lacked insight into the history of the house.

“I better get back to my chores,” the girl said. “Maybe we can chat again.”

“I’d like that—thanks for the information about the savannah—that’s really fascinating.”

She flashed a bright smile and pushed her wheelbarrow along the path in the direction of the front gardens. I wanted to tell her she was also fascinating, especially to a confirmed bachelor with the habits of a recluse.

Maybe a two-week stay in the house might not be the trial by ordeal I anticipated.

 

Over the next few days, I’d use every occasion to stop and chat with Emily. She had an ethereal quality about her that drew me and I found her enchanting and irresistible.

Mother’s will stipulated I couldn’t leave the property, so I went on line and purchased a row boat and phoned the market and had them make me up a picnic basket lunch.

I had gotten to know Emily’s routines, so on this lovely golden afternoon I waited until she took her break and then whisked her away with me, down the long winding path to the pond.

“Where are you taking me?” she giggled. She left me breathless and I’d have gladly traded a thousand days for the surprised look on her face when I showed her the boat tied up in the shallows.

“I have no idea how to row, but if you’re willing to risk life and limb we can sail off to Key Largo.”

“Key Largo, huh?” Her eyes danced. “But there’s no outlet from the pond to Lake Ontario.”

“Well, it’ll just have to be a tour of the pond with a picnic later on the side of the hill.”

I pulled back a picnic blanket covering the wicker basket. “There’s a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon as well—if you’ve nothing against bubbly.”

“I’m not adverse to spirits,” she smiled.

We got in the boat and I used an oar to push off from the bank. Within minutes we were in the middle of the water with a swirling sky of cumulus above, reflected in the glassy surface of the pond below.

She reached out and touched my arm. “Oh look, Jay! How lovely the house looks from here.”

It was a moment so intimate and touching—the tender way she whispered my name.

I held onto her arm, pulled her close and pressed my mouth down on hers. Her lips were soft and full and I never wanted the kiss to end.

“I’m sorry, Em,” I said, “you’re just so lovely.”

“There’s nothing to forgive, Jay. I think this was meant to be.”

After a while we rowed back to shore and spread out the blanket on one of the plateaus on the path leading down the hill.

It was a glorious June afternoon with a slight breeze—just enough to stir the trees and dapple her face with shadowy leaves.

“It’s so beautiful here—I don’t know why I never noticed it before,” I confessed.

“You were young and reckless—you didn’t notice me either.”

I put down the champagne flute. “You were here, back then, before I left?”

“I was,” she whispered.

“I can’t believe I could be so blind. Did we ever speak?”

“No—you were unreachable then—like a dark smoldering fire beneath ashes. You were very fierce—you frightened me.”

“I’m sorry. I was headstrong and unruly.”

“Your mother and I would sit on the back verandah in the cool of those summer afternoons and she’d confide in me. She loved you, Jay, but couldn’t seem to find a way inside you.”

My heart broke then—all the tears I didn’t shed, or wouldn’t allow, I shed now. I felt Emily’s arms around me—and Mother’s as well, in the softness of a woman’s heart I had shut out.

We spent a long time on the hillside and shadows were deepening and the pond was dark when we finally made our way back up the path to the house.

I was shivering, so Emily built a fire, and we sat there staring through the windows at the setting sun lighting the western sky like a forest fire.

We sat spellbound as the sun lit up the room with its dying rays, and in the magic of its afterglow, Emily began talking in drowsy tones.

“One of my ancestors built this house you know—after he designed and built the Presbyterian Church just up the road. Some of the stained glass windows at the rear of the house are reclaimed church windows your mother installed as a tribute to my family’s ecclesiastical work.”

“I didn’t know that. Then your family has been involved over the years in the care and maintenance of the property?”

She nodded. “We’re tied—like your mother to this house.”

“That’s incredible! I’m only sad I didn’t know you before.”

She caressed my cheek. “Well, you know me now, and I doubt we’ll ever part.”

“I hope we never do part, Emily. And by the way, I’ve made up my mind—I want to stay on here at The Ashes and continue to restore the house. I hope you’ll stay too and care for the gardens and the black oak savannah.”

“Of course, Jay—I wouldn’t dream of leaving.”

“You know it’s only been a short while, but I feel I’ve known you forever. I can’t believe how deeply I’ve fallen in love with you. I want to marry you, Em and have a family with you, here in this house.”

Her face fell and tears began to trill down her cheeks.

I hugged her and tried to console her.

“Don’t be sad, Em—it’s a happy thought.”

“It is, Love, but you don’t understand.”

I looked at her blankly. “Understand what?”

“I can never leave this house.”

“And why not, Love? If you’re worried about my forcing you to go on a honeymoon or trips to far off lands—I won’t. I understand you’re not a traveler, and I’m a recluse myself. I’d be happy to spend eternity with you behind these walls.”

She grasped my wrist tightly, imploring me with her eyes. “But that’s just it—don’t you see, Jay? I can’t leave because I died a century ago–the Emily you know is a spirit bound to this place.”

“Tha-that’s not possible,” I sputtered. You’re a flesh and blood woman as real as any other.”

“I am,” she smiled bleakly, “as long as I remain on these grounds. But is that the future you want, Jay—to be bound with me to The Ashes with no children for your posterity?”

A groan arose from somewhere deep within me. “Can’t you see, Em—I’m hopelessly in love with you. Nothing else matters to me.”

 

As Mother said, I always end up doing the right thing in the end.

And since love extinguishes all other choices, Em is now my life and my love forever.

As for Mother, I’ve decided to scatter her ashes as she intended. In some way she’ll be a part of the black oaks and our lives too.

Em tells me Mother may some day choose the grounds as her haunt or continue on to bliss in a world beyond—either way, I wish her well and know somehow we’ve been reconciled.

As for me, my hard shell has been softened and I’ve been given space to grow like the oaks.

It’s a beautiful thing this hope that rises from the burnt-over earth–for Em and me, it’s beauty for ashes, and joy continuous.

 

 

© 2015, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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facing demons

 

I get spooked when I see Nate Granger. I don’t like psychiatrists.

“So, you’re still handling the holy heat?” Nate leans back and puts up his feet—puts his soft leather cowboy boots right up on his five thousand dollar oak desk. I cringe a bit, but try to ignore it.

I’m half-in and half-out—I stretched my vows out of shape, but still wear the collar and still am a priest, of sorts. Jesus still talks to me from the cross above the main altar—same way he did when I was seventeen.

Feed my sheep.

That’s how he talks—in parables and riddles you might say—cryptic phrases that make me wait to figure them out. Sometimes it takes weeks, months or years—or in my case, a lifetime, but who’s counting?

Then, there’s Claire. But why she waits, I have no idea. She sees something in me. I beg her to forget me but she won’t, or can’t—and I can’t let go either, so we’re stuck.

And that’s why I’m here, talking to Nate Granger who looks like he’d be happier heading up the cattleman’s association than posing as a high-priced shrink in a penthouse office.

 

“Why do you bother shelling out cash for this ridiculously ostentatious office?”

“I like the view,” he smiles.

There it is—that engaging Jimmy Dean, ‘aw shucks’ grin that disarms you even when you don’t want to be disarmed.

“Damn it, Nate—can you take your feet off the furniture?”

He unclumps his boots from the oak desk. “I will oblige you, Martin—as they say, Salus aegroti suprema lex.”

I have to smile in spite of myself. Only Nate can come across as a country hick and then quote from the Principles of Biomedical Ethics—in Latin—the patient’s wellbeing is the most important law.

“So you see,” Nate drawls on, “I’m concerned about putting you at ease so you’ll be reassured and tell me what’s bothering you, but I can guess it’s either a woman or a demon—and in your case, probably both.”

“Do you really want to hear this or are you just going to rely on discerning of spirits?”

“I’m sitting at your feet, Professor—proceed.”

It’s off-putting the way he uncannily puts his finger on my pulse while feigning disinterest. He knows my history—archeologist priest, turned exorcist—and he probably has discerned my demons.

“I recently returned from Indonesia.”

He nods, “On a dig?”

“Yes—at a site about a 45 minute drive from Makassar, Indonesia’s fifth-largest city. There were almost a hundred prehistoric limestone caves.”

“Sounds fascinating.”

“It was—and disturbing. I saw some things there that have haunted me ever since.”

He leans back in his swivel chair, seemingly more interested in the view of the city and the lake than in what I’m telling him—but then, maybe it’s a ploy to put me at ease.

“I saw some paintings on those walls that made me realize those primitive humans were beset by all kinds of fears and anxieties—they seemed haunted by the specter of evil itself.”

“What makes you think that?”

“I saw depictions of demons—one in particular—a huge dark shape with white eyes that seemed to bore right through me. I regretted looking into those eyes.”

“But surely you’ve seen these images countless times before—why this particular time and this particular image?”

“It’s hard to put into words—those other paintings were representations—this was an abomination. The natural contours of the cave wall were utilized to give it an almost sculpted form and looking upon it—or rather, allowing it to stare into my soul, defiled me.”

Nate swiveled back to face me. “How did it defile you?”

“There was this subdued hissing sound that at the time I supposed was crickets or insects and it seemed to trigger a series of flashbacks and images of women I’ve known over the years.”

Known—how—in the Biblical sense?”

I sighed. “Some unfortunately, I slept with—but most were temptresses for me. You know how it is with priests—so many things turn you away. That’s why I stepped down from being the archdiocesan exorcist.”

“Too hard on your flesh?”

“You might say that,” I replied acerbically.

“So, I take it that this oppression is ongoing. Is it limited to flashbacks and mental images—obsessive thoughts?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Why aren’t you sure?”

“I suppose the images began to run together into obsessions—and even when I’d be studying an archeological text and doing research, it’d all begin to head in a certain direction.”

“How? Give me an example.”

“Well, for instance, I’d be studying Babylonian inscriptions and I’d digress—become wrapped up in the old Babylonian Lilitu demon—she’s depicted in the famous Burney relief as part woman, part owl.”

“So what does this mean?”

“Lilitu is a precursor to the harpy or later mythological Siren, and I realized I was being seduced through women.”

Nate’s hawk-like eyes focused on me. “Women in general, or one woman in particular?”

“Both. I saw my history as a gradual descent into oppression through my weakness for women—that was the devil’s doorway to me. I plunged into archeological work at the university and went away for months on end to desert digs in the hopes of isolating myself.”

“But it didn’t work?”

I slumped down in my chair. “No. I could run away physically, but I always came back to me.”

“You know, Martin, you can’t demonize the flesh. Celibacy is a constant battle with natural needs and urges—you know my opinion on that—but regardless, all you saw in that cave was an old picture.”

“A picture doesn’t haunt and torment—or make you desolate.”

“No,” Nate whispered, “we do that to ourselves.”

“This isn’t something I made up, Nate—this is real, and it is warfare.”

Nate leaned back again in his chair and returned to staring out the window at the lake.

“Tell me about Claire,” he said matter of factly.

As he mentioned her name, her image flashed into my mind—lovely dark tresses— transparent skin—violet eyes that are so bewitching.

“She’s forty-two and teaches American Lit at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. She’s one of the most gentle, gracious women I have ever met.”

“She sounds wonderful—definitely someone you’d be drawn to and find attractive.”

I nodded mutely.

“Is she—attractive?”

“She’s beautiful, if that’s what you mean—but she has inner beauty as well.”

“Hmm. No doubt. Have you slept with her?”

“No!” I said indignantly.

“Is that no, as in not yet, or no, we don’t have that sort of relationship?”

Again, he penetrated to the heart of the matter. “I suppose it’s the former—no, as in we haven’t slept together yet.”

“But you probably will and you’re now unsure if you’re consorting with demons?”

“You make me sound like Faust.”

“Ah yes—Faust. Such a tragic hero—his damned life and most deserved death. Is that what you envision for you—damnation, a second death in the pit of hell?”

“Damn you, Nate—are you trying to help or condemn?”

He shrugs. “Right now, I’d say neither. I’m trying to get at the facts—not run away from them or cover them up with theological fogging.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?”

He smiles good-naturedly. “Our ideas, Martin, are often the smokescreen for our wishes. I want you to think about that before I see you next time.”

 

He’s an intriguing man, Nate Granger. Like the old Marlboro Man, he rides tall in the saddle and his eyes see forever.

I’m not sure how far Nate’s eyes really penetrate though—maybe all the way to Indonesia and those limestone caves filled with flickering nightmares.

Or maybe his examination light is like a retinoscope, illuming all the nerve pathways and synapses behind the eyes. Maybe he can even probe into the cave of the psyche and see the shadows Plato saw on the cave walls.

And in the end, maybe he can conclude that it’s all a sham—everything is rigged. My devils are only flickering shadows cast by the flames of desire.

He’s a good man, Nate Granger—but then again, he hasn’t stared into my Abyss.

© 2015, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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