By JAN B. PARKER
This time of year was hers. Stretches of bad weather brought cold to the coast; folks barred windows and doors to shacks and bungalows alike. Bully winds whipped the flatlands, and people wore coats and scarves and earmuffs, armor against the gale assault.
She was on a mission to find true details for her book: what is the lay of this coastal plains and the habit of its natural vegetation? What is the size of Lake Mattamuskeet? Can one see across the span or will one have to drive the road around it? Will the birds arrive by her birthday, the tenth of December? Will she ever forgive his sudden choice to stay home and not join her? Mostly—can she survive without him?
Never mind, she thought. I’m on a mission and I won’t back down. Her car cut through lengthening shadows on the straight road going east, and she stole glances of the Pamlico, never far away, its river shores flanked by dark forests of wild wax myrtle and stumpy cypress, dense groves of low-set red willows and meadows full of bamboo grass.
She tapped the steering wheel in perfect steady beats, more aware with each that she’d been cast into the role of solitary sojourner, here without him to distract her or humor her, or navigate the turns for her before this long curvy highway straightened up and bled itself always toward the sea.
Without noticeable warning, the primary urge hit, and she steered the car onto an overgrown path, stopping short of the entrance to a broken bridge, the beams of which once crossed the wide canal and led to a tumble-down house. The ramshackle structure appeared diminished in the tangle of thick overgrowth. Most of its window panes were busted out, and the leaning chimney was falling apart, brick by brick. The front door tilted backwards, held on by one remaining hinge.
She found level ground, pulled down her britches and peed, glad there were no cars, no people for miles, no fear of anyone seeing her chill-bumped ass. Zipping up and stepping around her steamy yellow puddle, she glanced at the old tin pail and a mildewed ReMax sign lying hidden in the brush. The wind blew the crisp evergreen scent of a big wax myrtle to her and she broke off a branch for the keeping. Its unpretentious scent helped her shoulders relax. She stretched her neck, looked to the sky and snorted at the strange urge she had to feel slightly positive.
“I should plant a forest of these good trees,” she said twirling the branch and watching its shadow hit the ground. But then she thought about the European invasion and how these delightful plants did nothing to foil the onslaught of progress or the defeat of indigenous people. In a heartbeat of time, the Marimiskeets and Corees were wiped clean. She slapped the branch against her blue-jeaned leg, got back in the car, and drove on. Days ran short this time of year, and she wanted to find her cabin before nightfall.
Five miles further, she pulled onto the shoulder of the road and read the large national wildlife sign for Lake Mattamuskeet. The rough map illustrated a shallow lake impoundment, 18 miles long, seven miles wide, and about three feet deep. In a quarter mile, five-and-a-half hours from home and nearly at her cabin, she turned onto the first road to the left.
Late afternoon sunlight pushed through the forest of tall pines and lay in stripes on the road before her. Mesmerized by the flicker, she failed to see where the pavement ended, and as the car jolted to the gravel road, a row of yard lamps stammered on in front of three cabins, the centermost of which was hers and apparently the oldest. Armies of mature trumpet vines tumbled en masse from nearby pines and nearly covered the porch.
Inside the old cabin, the twin beds were decrepit and their state of cleanliness questionable. She chose the downstairs corner couch for sleeping instead and readied herself with the emergency blanket she kept stashed in the car during winter. The whole arrangement seemed comfortable enough, but the sofa’s corner location did nothing to dampen the sound of wind whistling around the eaves.
She turned off the table lamp and closed her eyes to begin a sleep filled with bad dreams, scenes of being chased fast and hard by a whistling hunter, one gaining on her and heating her neck with his puffing breath. Before his teeth could snag her, the dream split in two, and the whistling became the rush of frigid air passing over her black-and-yellow beak as she cut through the nighttime sky. She was above herself in the dream and flying lead, no tears from her eyes, no panicked pounding of her heart, only the perfectly timed beats of her wings, and as she craned her long swan neck to look behind she saw hundreds of swans in her wake, moonlight bouncing like siphoned haloes off their wings. She relished the freedom of this fanciful flight and stayed in the dream as long as she could.
Next morning, fingers of pale sunlight stole through the dusty miniblinds and woke her. She opened her eyes and stretched her arms, imagining them to be sleek and newly feathered, at odds with the tattered couch in the shabby cabin, saturated with the ratty-browns of its aging décor, the peeling brass coating of its lamps and the faded prints on the walls.
She morphed into a peaceful alliance with these recycled things, and they agreed to abide by one another, blend together in their making a go of it through the winter. They’d mimic the manners of the red willow cooperating with invasive bamboo grass. They’d liaise casually like the stumpy cypress alongside wild wax myrtles—all concurring for the purpose of giving texture to life, making those layers of shadow and shade, calling in those magical elements so they may have a say, too, in the whole big scheme of things, where they play on time and definition.
His face came to mind—his face in restful sleep—and she turned from the image she knew so well, left the couch, opened the front door facing east, and surveyed the yard. Cold air and bird songs rushed in as if to say Mattamuskeet welcomes you, and though she knew the place would spit her out in the spring, she reckoned she’d leave a better person, having survived the long solitude and become more reasoned by her quiet study of the lake, the land, the birds, and her writing.
As his face began to fade, she closed the door and walked to the tiny kitchen, found the makings for coffee and started a pot. She plugged in her cell for recharging, and as the brew’s earthy aroma filled the cabin, she took a notepad and pen from her writer’s bag, sat at the table, and wrote, ‘Call ReMax today. Is tumbledown house still for sale?’
This time of year belonged to her and so did springtime. When the swans would take flight again, she too would retrace her steps back home. There, she’d unbar the windows and let in warm light. She’d unlatch the doors and let in fresh air. She’d gather wild things in her heart and start editing that book she aimed to finish, completed with the ending she already knew.
Artist and writer Jan B. Parker lives and works in a small town south of Raleigh, North Carolina, where she hosts the longest-running open mic in the area, Third Thursday. A few of her publishing credentials include South Writ Large, Broad River Review, GERM Magazine, Change Seven, and before year’s end, Earth’s Daughters. Visit her website at www.writerjanbparker.com, where you will find links to her author’s page and the Third Thursday Open Mic page. Parker is an active trustee of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.