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Sunday, October 19, 2014

September Light

This is the new section of Ravine, which follows the introduction (I have that a few posts back; it involves a scene under moonlight, just to orient the reader).  Thank you to my readers for your patience with these rough drafts and first efforts...posting them here keeps me writing! :)
September Light

     To record an event such as this, past but not distantly so, is like picking up one of those fallen leaves which has survived a long winter pressed to the ground.  They’re a rare find, the once-living matter browned and mummified, then worn away, leaving a net in the shape of a leaf, a skeleton of itself.  Turn it one way, and it becomes a spiderweb; turn it again, and it transforms into a map with no direction, the guy lines splayed. Turn it to the side, and it shows nothing but a brittle edge. So it is with this story.
     If you could spool the thread of time slightly backwards from the moon, the creek, and that road of dust and sand, you would enter into the way September blooms in the San Lorenzo Valley.  The summer light, full of clarity, begins to take on a golden aspect: a Rembrandt light, some say.  Days become overlaid with a delicate veneer of cold and nights promise colder weather to come.  Skin feels like parchment in the dry air and hair crackles with static; the whole body can raise a spark from touched metal.  Foxtails blanch to white; their seed heads break and scatter.  If a dog or cat picks one up in its fur, the foxtail can augur into flesh, traveling deep: some seeds don't let go.  Creeks, starved for water, turn shallow and mountain lions slip down from rocky hillsides, following the deer, so silent they truly earn their nickname: ghost cats.  Everything enters that scorched cycle: overnight, an emerald summer grows pale.
     When the light's transformation begins, I fall forever back into that time, September, the month of changes, when Asha Veil, an employee of the Ben Lomond Market, clocked out after her shift, put on her backpack, and vanished into the gathering dark, almost without a trace.

     I would be the first to admit I did not know Asha well; later, I would say that I did not know her as well as I might have liked.  I stood in her checkout line several times; we made small talk, as people do, usually about weather or news.  One day, I walked into the market, steeped in a low mood; Asha greeted me as she arranged produce in the outdoor display: something yellow, grapefruit or melons.  Her kindness certainly helped; I wasn't as sad during my errand.  People would say later that she had this effect on them, a small grace-note in their day
     The first time I really had a moment to study her was the morning I sat at my kitchen table, drinking coffee and scratching out a grocery list with a skipping pen. Kat, my younger daughter, walked into the kitchen and thrust a folded sheet of paper in my hand.  I opened it to see Asha, with her wide, pleasant smile in a friendly face, the white collar, maroon neckband and green apron of her market uniform just visible above the photo's margin.  Heavy black text beneath her picture described a woman visibly pregnant, five foot seven, 140 pounds, green eyes, red shoulder-length hair, pierced nostril, decorative tattoo around her left bicep.  The flyer stated that she, a reliable employee, had missed work and several appointments.
     "But I just saw her the other day!" I said.  
     “Mama, I’m worried,” Kat said, “She’s almost seven months along.”
     Asha carried "to the back," as my grandmother used to say, and I did not know she was pregnant until the very last time I shopped at the market.  I'd been rolling my cart along, exchanging greetings with other customers and with Mike, the store manager, whistling as he pushed a dust mop near the meat counter, and Betsy, the woman who worked in the nutrition aisle.  I wandered around a bit aimlessly until I reached the hardware section.  New items filled a top shelf: packs of votive lights, Sterno emergency lanterns, candles in glass containers like the ones in a Catholic church.  Most were white, one had a jaundiced green tint—I couldn't see that cheering up the house at all during a power failure, which often lasted up to five days in the mountains—and one, with a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, had a too-short wick.  I finally chose the candle at the end of the row, a bright watermelon pink.  I liked to plan ahead before the onset of winter storms.
     When I lined up at Asha's register, two small girls in front of me (first graders, I guessed) held bright packs of gum in their hands, the kind I knew would tenaciously resist every effort to get out of their hair. The girls had dimes and nickels in a red Hello Kitty purse, but when Asha rang up the total, they were short by twenty-five cents.  I saw Asha reach into her pocket and add a quarter to the cash drawer. 
     The girls left and my purchases moved along the conveyor belt, including the candle, which I'd put on its side.  Asha said hello and I noticed a definite, firmly-poking-out belly beneath her market apron. I decided to ask the question which had hovered in the back of my mind for weeks: "Are you pregnant?"
     Her face looked warmly radiant as she nodded and answered in the affirmative.  Asha had an Eastern European accent and I'd found out some time ago that she was from Poland.
     "When is your baby due?" I asked, and she said, "December."  She told me she was carrying a girl.
     We exchanged animated mother-talk about infants; I told her that my youngest son had been born on Christmas Day several years before.  As we talked, Asha carefully wrapped up the pink candle in a sheet of butcher paper. 
     "Don't want that to get broken," she said, and I thanked her. 
     "Enjoy your baby girl!" I said as I picked up my grocery bag and left.

     I would unwrap and use that candle only once, at a twilight vigil service for Asha and her unborn daughter.