Maude Larke has returned to writing after years in universities, analyzing others’ work, and to classical music as an ardent amateur. She has been published in Bird’s Eye reView, the Syracuse Cultural Workers’ Women Artists Datebook, Naugatuck River Review, Oberon, Doorknobs and Bodypaint, the Society of Southwestern Authors, Flowers & Vortexes, and The Story Teller.
Amtrak, Hartford-New York
trees elide or accent sunlight
as the train window passes them
I slide from that surface
to mottled depths of memory –
a water snake unzipping reflections
wild grapes fallen in grass
the half-moon shadows
left by an eclipse
tart and cool as grapefruits
mapping the slide then surges
the wonder at how
hovering between ill and well
the magnetism flutters
as the gyroscope stills
the ear reposes
the vertical asserts
firmed or dispersed
into pulse and lack
clench and open
I again become forgetful
allow my eyes to dart
from sun-molded bark to shaded bark
Through an autumn coolness Sandy and Lynne walked desultorily together. They had had a light lunch. Lynne was returning to her office; Sandy walked back with her from force of habit. As always Lynne was not talkative, and Sandy couldn’t be bothered to get her to say something. Sandy gave up on her usual snide lines, since Lynne never rose to them. Dumb sort of friendship, Sandy thought, but didn’t know what else to do.
Sandy followed Lynne into the building. As they came to Lynne’s desk, Sandy let out a lethargic sigh and said, “Well, I’ll call you tonight maybe.”
Lynne placed her pocketbook in one of the desk drawers and came around to the front of the desk.
“If you do, call early, because I’m going to check the movie listings, and maybe I’ll find one for us to go to tonight.”
“Sure. Well, . . . ” and she trailed off.
Sandy was getting ready for Lynne to add another meaningless phrase to the empty conversation when a figure entered the office and stopped directly in front of them.
If anyone had asked them how they had recognized Billie, they could never have answered.
The dark blue pants, turtleneck and blazer clothed a figure showing emaciated looks and angular lines. The hips were lean, the shoulders rigidly square. The left hand was buried in the pants pocket, the elbow in a stiff bend. A silver chain around the right wrist ran through the head of a black walking stick, on which the hand rested. The right foot was taking the weight of the body; the left leg rested to the side, a stiff, brittle prop.
It was the face that startled most. The dark hair which had always floated softly was cut close and spiked. It lent even more length and leanness to the narrow, tight, drawn features. The entire image was of gauntness, starkly accented by a pair of gray eyes grown wide, piercing, almost haunting in their intensity.
Sandy took on an air of confused nonchalance. She wanted to be casual, to say something flippant and light; she couldn’t think of anything.
Lynne silently went to Billie and put her arms around her waist. Her hands felt the bony spine and ribcage, her cheek felt the bony shoulder, her back felt the dead pressure of a portion of left hand and the cold silver cane head in the right fist. She squeezed tightly to avoid shuddering.
“Welcome back,” said Sandy quietly.
“Thank you both,” replied Billie, also quietly.
Even her voice had changed. The cheerleading captain’s bark was gone. The timbre was low and would have been musical if not for some huskiness. Sandy wondered if Billie was going to get all emotional or something.
Sandy shuddered as she brushed her long shimmer of platinum hair in her spare, streamlined bathroom. That day’s Billie and last spring’s had suddenly overlapped, superimposed and exploded in her mind’s eye.
She missed Billie even more.
That Billie, the real one, not this other one that she had seen that afternoon. The real Billie was a looker. The real Billie – the old Billie – was curvy, feminine, plenty soft and round enough, even for a sportswoman. She wore all those flashy fashions.
She doesn’t look any fun anymore. And how are we gonna go dancing if she’s got that stiff leg? So OK, I won’t need to compete with her anymore, but still. And that spiky hair. That cool color, that wavy thickness. The guys who couldn’t keep their hands out of it. Looks like they’ll be keeping everything out of everything now when it comes to her.
Gotta get rid of these damn sheets. They’re gettin’ too thin. I said I’d call Billie tomorrow. I’ll wait till I get home from work.
She began to fall asleep.
Why did I say “competing”?
She half-remembered, half-dreamed the last time she had left Billie at her door, after a night out dancing. As Sandy had pulled up in front of the Holbarth home Billie had smoothly unbuckled her seatbelt with one hand and zipped out of the car. Closing the door halfway, she had leaned in.
“Want some snowballs from Vermont?”
“No, but if there are any other kinds of balls, you can bring them down.”
“Right. Night, San.”
“Enjoy the skiing.”
The car sent off silver glints as it passed under the streetlights. In the rear-view mirror Sandy saw Billie bound up the steps to the door.
Sandy and Lynne came around on Friday after work, with offerings of pizza, Johnny Walker and Ben & Jerry’s. When they knocked on the front door, Billie’s mother came to it and sent them to the old greenhouse in the backyard.
The girls knew the old-fashioned greenhouse from the summers of their high-school years. It had been unused as a greenhouse since Billie’s grandmother’s death. Little by little Billie had evacuated the dead plants and some of the tables and metal shelving to set up lounge chairs and a card table. The large windows turned sideways on a central vertical rod and the Holbarths would leave them wide-open all summer to keep the greenhouse from getting too hot. It was the girls’ clubhouse for as long as the weather was warm enough.
But today they saw a very different building. The brick base had been revealed through the cutting and rooting out of the forsythia that had surrounded it, and it now had a shingled roof. The dark green of the window frames had been replaced by a pale gray. There was an opacity to the upper half that Sandy couldn’t remember having seen before. As they approached, she saw that the back windows – the ones facing north – had been replaced by walls.
As they came to the door at the end of the rectangular structure, it opened. Billie stood on the other side of it. Sandy could see surprise in her gaze, but no sign of either pleasure or displeasure.
The room that they stepped into now had very soft carpeting. Sandy sensed the shift from cool autumn to heating. The newly-installed upper walls were in plywood, painted a neutral brown. There were simple, kit-style shelves and a set of matching furniture, including a couch and two easy chairs arranged around a coffee table. A desk with a computer was set against the north wall, and a stereo was set up at the windowed wall, just low enough for the window to swing open. At the other end was a single bed, primly made up.
Sandy tapped Billie firmly on the left shoulder as she passed her. She turned to see Lynne give her a one-armed hug while holding the pizzas with the other hand. Sandy swore silently, sure that Lynne would drop them. But she calmed down as Lynne moved away from Billie and brought her other hand up to steady them.
“Place’s become cozy,” she said casually.
“Yeah, my parents did this up once they knew I was coming back. They were afraid I couldn’t manage stairs. They were going to put plumbing in, even. But I want to use the bathroom and my bedroom upstairs. It’s good physical therapy to go up and down.”
Sandy noticed that Billie still spoke with her husky voice from the other day. But she couldn’t see emotion. She watched Billie’s uneven walk as she crossed the room to a shelf. Billie took down a bottle of mineral water and a roll of paper towels and tucked them into her left elbow, then grabbed some glasses by the rims with the fingers of her right hand. The cane dangled from its chain until she resettled the heel of that hand on its head.
Lynne asked shyly, “Do you have regular physical therapy?”
“I did in Vermont,” she answered. “But they’ve done all they can with operations and therapy. This is it, officially.” She lifted her cane off the floor and held out her right arm. “I still want to keep moving, though, as much as I can.”
“Well,” Sandy interjected, “we can do that on the dance floor, right?”
Billie bent stiffly from her waist to set the glasses down on the coffee table next to the pizza boxes.
“I doubt it, San. I don’t even want to think of dancing.”
“Well, let’s get into this pizza while it’s still hot.”
airless to implosion
then – a branching inward
a feeble awareness of weight
an abrupt imperative
to wrestle to rise into the gyre
thrust in through suspensions
impelled by a waft of loose plume
made carnate by sonority
instinct with reflex, the urge;
to spur from bay
talon dawn to shreds
as it worms into snares
sunder the solid horizon
clutch closed on the throat of a motif
beak braced to risk wind
crushed in if not cutting
all is armed and frenzied
to burst the cagoule and corset of pain
to make feathers pierce
to thrash toward that place
where gust becomes bed
As Billie stayed home and refused to go out, the other two girls shifted into a routine of hanging out at Billie’s every evening. Lynne insisted on going in order to “support and encourage” Billie, as she put it, and Sandy went along because she was too bored to stay home but too disinclined to go out alone. It was no fun. Since Billie didn’t drink anymore, and Lynne always followed Billie’s lead, Sandy brought her own thermos or bottle of something or other. No way she was gonna not drink the whole evening.
Sandy mapped the changes in the greenhouse now that they spent so much time in it. One day they discovered that Billie had glued gray burlap and felt onto the north walls. Each time they went, Sandy and Lynne would find different things pinned to the material, mostly photos and pages of handwriting.
One night, Sandy went ahead and asked.
“So, what are you going to do about a job?”
Billie looked blank for a moment.
“I haven’t thought that much about it. My mind is usually on other things.”
Sandy humphed. “You’re hanging around here all day, and you’re too ‘busy’ with other ‘things’ to think about earning money? And what kind of ‘things’?”
Billie’s gaze turned away.
“Just things. And anyway, I’ve got some leeway.”
“How? With your parents?” “Parents” was always a dirty word to Sandy.
“I’m on disability. And there’s insurance coverage. And my parents sued the guy who mowed us down. All the parents did.”
Sandy heard a catch in Billie’s voice as she murmured the last words. That reminded her that Billie was the only one to survive the accident. She didn’t like remembering that.
“So you’re waiting to figure out what you can do?”
Sandy looked at Lynne. Her brown eyes wide, she did a sort of shrug and tip of her head. As she did that, Billie answered, “Yeah.”
“But you can use a computer,” Sandy insisted, turning back to Billie.
“Of course I can use a computer, and I do, but . . . for other types of work.”
“What kind of ‘types’?”
“I . . . write poetry.”
“Poetry!?” Sandy spat out. She was about to let out a guffaw, but saw Billie’s serious eyes.
“That’s what’s pinned up on the walls. Some things I’m trying to write.”
“That’s your handwriting?”
“It is now. Now that I have to use my right hand to write.”
“And the computer?”
“I use that too. But I wanted to write as well. It was a question of discipline. I wanted to master this other hand. Plus I realized at one point that I needed to go through a hand-written phase with the poems. I juggle with the parts of the poem. I do a shell game with them sometimes. It’s harder to do with a computer.”
“You cut and paste.”
“But it’s not the same thing. It doesn’t happen in my head the same way with cut and paste. So I use paper.” Billie hesitated, then added, “And fountain pen. Not ball point.”
“My, aren’t we fancy.”
“Maybe, but it does the job.”
“Could we see one?” Lynne asked.
As Billie turned to Lynne, Sandy made a face at her.
“You don’t need to ask just to be polite,” Billie answered.
“But I always liked the poetry parts of our English classes,” Lynne whined. “I miss those, now we’re out of school.”
Billie raised her eyebrows slightly, then went to her computer table, opened a drawer, and took out a binder. She set it on the desk, flipped a few pages, then handed it to Lynne. All three were silent as she read. Then she gave the binder back to Billie.
“I think it’s beautiful, but it’s too deep for me,” she said apologetically as Sandy held out her hand nonchalantly. Billie placed the binder in it, and Sandy read a text named “Prompting”, which certainly looked like a poem. She tried to give Billie a cool glance as she handed it back. Billie placed it, open, on the coffee table.
“Writing was a kind of therapy, and a kind of way to pass time, and a way to half-forget about the pain for a while. At first I was just doing a sort of journal, but then one day I started listening to the words themselves, the colors and rhythms, and I began doing poetry.”
“Have you written a lot?” Lynne asked eagerly.
“Written a lot, but thrown out tons. It doesn’t always work.”
“What’s ‘Prompting’ about?” Lynne asked shyly. Billie visibly held her breath.
“It’s about waking up in the hospital. And about some music I had heard that day.”
“What kind of music?” Lynne asked.
Billie hesitated, then turned to her stereo, took a CD out of its box, and put it in the player. Silence was followed by some strange piano chords. Then Sandy heard something else. She frowned.
“That a violin?!?”
“Violin and cello,” Billie murmured.
“You listen to highbrow music now?”
Billie turned to the stereo and turned off the CD.
“I listen to contemporary music. It became part of my recovery.”
“Tell us the story,” Lynne asked. Sandy waved a hand to her to shut her up as Billie turned to lift the disc from the cradle, but Lynne waved timorously back. Billie came over to the couch and sank down on it, settling herself into the corner. She took a deep breath.
“I don’t know if I awoke because of the pain or if the pain came because I awoke. And I don’t know if it matters. Although often enough I start fussing with the question. I also don’t know if I awoke because of the music. That I would love to know. That is still important to me. Either way, I awoke, and there was this music. This intense music. Even when it became more still. It was driving. It was urgent. I listened, and I started . . . what? Moving with it? Stirring to it somehow, inside. I didn’t understand it. The music. I still don’t. But I was taken into it, I followed it.
“It was suddenly as if that music were somehow lifting me up, or trying to. Through the pain, I felt some kind of passing through space, some kind of rising. And it felt like the more I let that lift happen, the more the pain came under control. I was just beginning to go for it – to shift from letting myself be lifted to trying to claw myself up – when the music stopped.
“A little while later a nurse came in, and I wanted to say, ‘Please, tell me, what was that music?’ But I could only get out ‘music . . . what’, or something like that. The nurse nearly fell over. I had no way of knowing at that moment that I’d been in a coma, or for how long, or how suddenly I had just come out of it. She said, ‘I’ll see to it that it doesn’t happen again.’ That just put me into a panic. I wanted so much to explain that it was just the opposite, that I wanted that music more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. I was getting in my own way, I was so anxious to tell her. I was too agitated to get anything out. I finally managed a ‘no’, and, thank God, she understood somehow. She nodded.
“I don’t know how awake or gone or drugged I was for the rest of the day, or days, maybe. But the next thing I knew, there was a little CD player next to my bed, and that music was coming out of it. Whoever had put it there had set it to repeat the CD.
“I couldn’t control it, so I had to listen to the whole disc, but after a while I knew when it was coming to the part I had heard. I counted from the longer pause that came when the player returned to the beginning of the disc, and soon I knew when to expect it, and when it came on I just locked onto it. I listened and listened to it, and I used it more and more to cope with the pain, the immobility, the whole thing.
“Then one day I used that new control to ask for the name of that piece, track 8. The nurse read the back of the CD box and said, ‘Soaring Falcon’. I was aghast at the fitness of it. I saw that, each time I heard the piece, I became the falcon.”
“So, later, when I’d had time to think more about that day – that waking up – I started trying to say what had happened and what was going on in me and how this music was hitting me. And it became that poem. The first one I finished. After weeks of trying.”
“So the falcon’s in the poem?” Sandy asked.
Billie leaned forward, barely breathing.
“‘Gyre’. ‘Plume’. ‘Talon’. ‘Clutch’. ‘Beak’. ‘Feathers’.” Each word was a mini-explosion from her mouth.
“That’s not a falcon. That’s bits and pieces of falcon. Gross.”
“No, it’s fragmented. Like the experience was fragmented.”
“But it’s not a bird,” Sandy replied insistently.
Husky urgency entered Billie’s voice.
“No, it’s a poem about a bird. And a piece of music. And an experience.”
“Does that all mean diddly?” Sandy asked snidely.
Billie exhaled a short sigh.
“That’s why I wrote it as a poem in the first place. You add the strength of the experience to the right words, and it means . . . creation,” she answered.
“But how did you write a poem about a falcon if you didn’t know the music was about a falcon?”
“No,” Billie snapped. “The poem puts the two together. The falcon and the effort are joined in it afterwards. This all came in stages.”
Billie stopped and looked down.
“Maybe I’m throwing it all together too quickly,” she murmured.
Her arms jerked, her eyebrows puckered her forehead.
“Maybe I’m making a hash of it all.”
“Anyway, all that shit about the music in the poem,” Sandy continued, bending over the text. “You got ‘sonority’, you got ‘motif’, and that’s all. That’s it for music in this poem.”
“No, I didn’t put the music in it. But I know it’s there.”
“So what good is that?”
“Just . . . creation. Inspiration.”
“Oh, never mind!” Billie shouted. She jerked forward and slammed the binder shut.
After some time Sandy stopped going to Billie’s regularly. She also stopped calling Lynne, as she was out whenever she called. One day she went to Billie’s in a rare fit of remorse. Lynne was there.
She was at the computer, pulling up web sites from some kind of index or list. An orchestral piece played on the stereo. Billie lowered the volume, then sat back down in the couch amid several scribbled-on sheets.
“So, busy with the poetry, I take it,” Sandy said as she opened her thermos.
Lynne whipped around in her chair.
“It’s fascinating! Wilhelmina has such a feel for rhythm! And there are poetry contests! You can find them on the web! We’re getting ready to send some of her pieces out!”
“‘We’?” Sandy droned snidely.
Billie picked up some of the sheets of paper and a clipboard as Sandy settled on the floor.
“Lynne knows the web better than I do, and she’s found some interesting and reputable reviews,” she said.
“Oh, ‘reputable’,” Sandy replied, mimicking Billie. “And what’s with the ‘Wilhelmina’?”
“Her real name, silly,” Lynne responded.
Sandy was surprised by the designation “silly”. Besides the fact that she didn’t consider herself silly, it was not at all like Lynne to say things like that to her. Lynne continued without waiting for Sandy to say anything.
“It’s more professional. More adult. It goes better on the manuscripts.”
“Boy, we’re getting posh,” Sandy growled. “So will we have the right to frequent you when you’re famous?” she continued, putting a zing on the word “frequent”. “Or will we be worthy of being your coasters?”
“Sandy, you drip!”
Decidedly, Lynne was taking on some new kind of attitude. Sandy turned to Billie.
“So, what’re you working on there?”
Billie looked down and shuffled the papers in her hands.
“It’s tentatively called ‘When the Steeple Returns’.”
She laid the sheets back out on the couch cushion.
“I noticed, in the hospital, that how well I felt depended partly on the weather. On cloudy or rainy days, I felt worse. And I don’t think it was just the idea of getting the blues from not seeing the sun. Air pressure, humidity, I don’t know. I never asked. But it was there. And my window had the view of a church. So I could see the steeple clearly on the days when I felt better, and it was partly hidden by fog or clouds on the days when I felt worse.”
She looked away from the sheets.
“But it’s not working.”
Billie stared at the papers for a long moment. Then she snatched up one of the sheets in her good hand, crumpled it spasmodically, and threw it in the direction of the wastepaper basket by the desk without looking. It fell on the floor.
Sandy spent a few days doing inventory at work, and felt too brain-dead at the end of those days to catch up with Billie and Lynne. Then a few weeks later, she ran into Lynne downtown. When she began a half-hearted apology for not coming over, Lynne interrupted her.
“There was no point in going to Wilhelmina’s,” she said, sprightly. “She was in New York last week.”
“Oh. Some kind of medical stuff?”
“No, she’d won the Park Prize. A thousand dollars, can you imagine it? And so she went down to read her poetry at the awards evening.”
“Where was that?”
“New York.” Lynne gave Sandy a strange look. Sandy ignored it.
“Did you go too?”
“No,” Lynne said with a sigh. “I would have liked to. It’s great to hear Wilhelmina read, she has a good voice, and good pacing. But I’ll get to hear her when she reads at Amherst College in May.”
“Oh, she’s moving up in the world,” Sandy drawled. Lynne seemed not to hear.
“It’s just so good, in general, that she has the poetry. It gives her such life.”
“Life?” Sandy asked dubiously. Lynne stared a moment, then continued talking.
“When I picked up Wilhelmina at the train station in Hartford yesterday, she was really distant. Her eyes didn’t focus on anything in particular. Including me. When we had both settled into the car, I placed a hand on Wilhelmina’s leg and asked, ‘Everything OK?’ I was surprised at how soft that knee was. The muscle, like, gone half limp.
“Wilhelmina turned to me and focused for a moment. Her mouth gave the slightest of smiles. I couldn’t breathe for a second, it was the first time she’s come close to smiling since she’s been back.
“‘I’m fine,’ she said, then she stopped. Then she said, ‘Some ideas for a poem have a hold on me.’”
Lynne’s eyebrows rose, her brown eyes widened, and she gave a smile barely bigger than Billie’s must have been.
“I patted that leg. Wilhelmina lowered her eyes and answered the pats with some pats of her dead hand on mine. Just as Wilhelmina turned her head to the window, I saw her eyes lose focus again. I left her in her silence for the entire ride home.”
air became mesh
shuddered filaments in
and sound divorced shove
a brittle hollow conch
and slicking more cold
birthed drifting descent
an oddly searing
a reverse crepuscular sky
Lynne and Billie sat in lawn chairs in the back yard. Lynne glanced from her proofreading from time to time to watch Billie. She sat quite still, eyes closed, tranquilly basking in the sun. There was no smile, but Lynne could tell from the months of time spent with her that Billie was relaxing. Lynne felt that she had never seen her so relaxed. She wondered again if she should bring up the fact that it was the anniversary of the accident. She again decided not to.
She finished the text that she had been checking, then slipped the sheet to the bottom of the small pile that was in her hands. The next text stopped her short for a moment. She didn’t remember having seen one named “Point” before. As she read it, she felt more and more breathless.
Billie lazily turned her head and slowly half-opened her eyes.
“When did you write ‘Point’?”
Billie blinked. Her eyes opened wider.
“In the middle of the night.”
“You were writing in the middle of the night?” Lynne asked quietly.
“That’s why you slept in the greenhouse?”
Billie nodded again.
“You didn’t tell me that when I arrived.”
“No, I . . . wasn’t ready to talk about it when I gave you those sheets.”
Lynne looked down at the text again.
“It’s about the last little second of memory that I have, just at the moment of the accident.”
The text blurred.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to . . . face that moment.”
Suddenly the light tink of metal hitting metal sounded. It was like a small hammer on a small nail, driven in with tiny repeated taps. It was the head of Billie’s cane vibrating against the chair’s aluminum tubing.
Billie resumed speaking, tensely.
“It was always there. At the bottom of my dreams. The ones that made me twitch and hurt. Or just for a moment, until I jerked awake. I still don’t know just what’s in that memory, I still can’t open it wide enough. But for the past few nights I’ve been thinking that it was time to. That I didn’t need to lose sleep for one flash of memory. That it’ll be, maybe, a last pain, and that’s it.”
Billie’s shoulders jerked.
“But I’m still flinching. But I want to stop.”
Lynne put a hand on Billie’s forearm.
“Let the warm spring and the hot summer help you do that. You missed last year’s hot weather. This year’s will make it up for you.”
Sandy went along with Lynne and Billie to the reading at Amherst College. She felt curious about just what a poetry reading was about, and about what Billie was up to that she got thousand-dollar prizes. They went into an old-looking building, up a floor, and into an old-looking room, with wainscoting and a fireplace that must have worked at one time. Sandy was surprised at seeing an older man come up to Billie, shake her hand, and call her “Ms. Holbarth”. Billie greeted him and introduced her friends.
Rows of chairs were lined up facing the fireplace. The three women sat in chairs in the front row and waited silently as students and professors filled the other chairs.
The older man introduced Billie, and she stood up and faced the crowd. She read something called “Point”, then the thing that she had shown the girls, “Prompting”, last fall, then something called “Dappled” that Sandy found kind of interesting because she could figure out some of the memories that Billie had built into it.
Then Billie announced “something new”, and began to read a text that she called “Widen at Will”.
As Sandy listened to Billie’s quiet voice, her body made an involuntary shake. She realized that her shoulders had become tense. The back of her neck suddenly felt cold. She knew that she was sitting in a chair in a swanky room, but she could have sworn that she was moving, that the room was moving. That there were wingbeats all around her.
Widen at Will
the last thrust down
catches the current
and not the next-to-last
and sense alone counts
even if innumerate
because in fact innumerate
for all that the ride is out –
wings wrap wind
stay like sails
the definition of dawn
and the work of it
is left below
in a pouch of void
nothing promises constancy
the canyon or cumulus
of threat persists
but while this bed of air cups
the gyre can widen at will
and make rest