Simple Sally (1.28.14)

“Never take a man’s heart willingly,” he said, as he stoked the fire with the heel of his worn, leather boot. “Make him ask again and again so he never forgets it was his idea to give it to you in the fist place.”

It was cold out, and we could see our breath forming clouds of heat against a pink sky glowing with the first light of day.

“I’ll never take a man’s heart,” I replied after a sufficient amount of silence had passed between us. “No man’s heart is worth having.”

I had been kicking dirt around with the tip of my shoe but stopped to cock my head up slightly in Mr. Hall’s direction. I was hoping to see indignation in his eyes, and maybe even amusement. If he thought I was joking, I might make him laugh. I liked the way his Adam’s apple jumped up and down when he chuckled with his mouth closed.

But if he heard my response, it didn’t show. We stood in near silence, as we did every morning, waiting for my dad to pick me up on his way home from the dairy.

Mrs. Hall had been a good friend of my mom’s when they were in high school, so she didn’t mind letting me sleep on her couch while my dad was at work.

“Just until you find someone to look after her properly,” she’d said, when she brought the casserole over that first Saturday after the general consensus in our little town determined it to be official.

“Because I know she’s not comin’ back,” Mrs. Hall had said. “And if you don’t work, you can’t eat.”

Her pink fingernails were filed into long, oval talons that matched the cardigan she had tied around her shoulders. I must have looked like a rag doll from where she stood, her perfect curls hanging in sleek ringlets around her face, a hint of rouge giving her cheeks a gentle glow.

I was six at the time, and hadn’t been bathed in a week. My hair was knotted from playing football with the boys during lunch, instead of sitting on the benches with my legs crossed and my napkin spread neatly across a pressed skirt.

Even then I knew there was something amiss. Something about the way they kept looking at each other, then at me, then at the floor, then back at each other.

“Well, okay,” her chipper voice rang out across the silence, startling everyone, including herself. “You just bring Sally by around nine, and we’ll get her settled in for the night.”

The Hall’s lived clear across town, but they were closer to the dairy than any of my dad’s other friends. Plus none of them had offered to help take care of me now that my mom had run away from her responsibilities, “chasing some nonsense dream about finding a man that will treat her right,” as the round faced gossip at the super market had put it. Apparently my mom was looking for a man who was not like my dad, a man who wouldn’t treat her bad. When I was six, I had no idea how he could have treated her bad when he was never around to treat her any way.

While she sat at the kitchen table, muttering something about, “we share everything…didn’t know that meant husband’s too,” combing the catalog for a brighter color to wear on her nails than Mrs. Hall would ever have the guts to try, my dad worked, or slept, or went out. But he never treated her bad, not from what I saw.

And then after she was gone, he didn’t treat me bad either. He didn’t really treat me any way. He made sure I ate, made sure I had clothes to wear, then set me lose upon the world. I couldn’t imagine a better life. Other kids had a curfew, and their moms made them wash up before dinner, and they got spanked when they were bad. My dad and I hardly saw one another, and when we did, there wasn’t much to say.

Even now, we don’t have much to say. I’ve been sleeping over at the Hall’s for eight years, and I don’t have much to say to them either. I guess the person I talk to most is Mr. Hall. He starts his shift right as my dad’s shift ends, so he takes me to the dairy and we  wait in the yard until my dad comes to get me. On cold mornings, like this one, Mr. Hall makes a fire to keep me warm, “so I don’t get arthritis early in life,” he says, and I like that he cares about my bones.

“Mrs. Hall said to have your dad bring you over early tonight,” said, Mr. Hall. “Around seven.”

“Why,” I asked dryly.

“Something about ‘you need a woman’s guidance.” He shook his head in what I thought was frustration, but I couldn’t understand why it mattered to him at all.

“Will Carrie be home,” I asked. It was the only thing I could think of to say.

“Mmhmm,” he snorted. “Probably wants to help her mother ruin you.”

I turned to look at him. He was making no sense to me and he knew it. He turned toward me and cast two earnest eyes in my direction.

“Don’t change, Sally,” he said. He was almost pleading.

“You…you don’t care what people think of you and you are honest. You always have been. Don’t change for anyone.” He pivoted toward me with one foot and was about to take a step in my direction, when the sound of footsteps caused him to revert back to his original position in front of the fire.

I stood there, gaping like a fool, unsure of what to say, thinking perhaps I wasn’t supposed to say anything. No one had ever spoken to me like that. It made me feel uncomfortable, but it also made me feel special. At least I think that’s what it made me feel. I had never been special to anyone, as far as I could remember.

“Bob,” came my father’s voice, as he reached the place where Mr. Hall and I stood.

“Pete,” Mr. Hall replied.

They nodded in passing and Mr. Hall kicked damp dirt onto the fire. He walked in the direction of the dairy, my father walked in the direction of the car, and I was expected to follow behind him. This had happened every morning for the past eight years, but somehow this morning was different. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want Mr. Hall to go. I wanted to keep standing in front of the fire listening to Mr. Hall talk…about me.

Sally,” my father said when he realized I wasn’t behind him. And that was my cue to either catch up or walk home.

The rest of the day was spent mulling over what Mr. Hall had said. And the way he looked when he said it. And the almost step he had taken in my direction. It felt like seven o’clock would never come, but then it did and I was standing at the Hall’s front door once again.

“Come on in, Hun.” Mrs. Hall’s voice rang out in the boisterous, drawn out way it always did. “Go on up to Carrie’s room. I’m right behind you.”

As I walked through the familiar hallway, with its pink paisley wall paper and gaudy, gold plated mirrors, I found myself hoping, yet fearing I might bump into Mr. Hall. I made my way up the two half-flights of stairs covered in thick green carpet, and lingered, for just a moment at the landing before walking, disappointedly, into Carrie’s room.

What awaited me was terrifying. On every available surface lay bright colored scarves, and pleated, woolen skirts, and loud, patterned dresses. Littering the floor were knee high boots and pastel flats, button-up pea coats, and skin-tight capris. Before I knew it, Carrie was running a brush through my hair and giving me directions to pick out whichever ribbon I liked best.

Because I had not provided her with a prompt reply, she had moved on to something else, chattering on about finding out what size I was and whether or not she and Mrs. Hall should take me to the beauty parlor. I couldn’t think of anything to say, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to say it. She barely stopped to breathe, let alone make room for me in her whirl-wind conversation. She stopped, only for a moment, when Mrs. Hall walked in, and only long enough to be scolded for not waiting to begin.

For the next two hours, two squealing women, as Carrie made sure to point out, because she was now 18 and officially a woman, dressed, undressed, redressed, combed, teased, poked, pinched, painted, spritzed, tied, untied, clipped, cinched, tugged, teased and powdered me from head to toe. It was utter mayhem, and by the end of it, I walked away with a brand new (hand-me-down) wardrobe, accessories box, make-up kit, and rack of shoes, complete with my very own migraine and exciting new case of culture shock.

“Perfect,” she sighed, as Mrs. Hall tucked one last fly-away hair into the monument now perched atop my head.

“Let’s take her downstairs and see what Daddy thinks,” chirped Carrie, beaming at the finished product she and her mother had created.

In a flash I was whisked out the door, practically carried down the stairs, and deposited in the hallway to await the formal introduction such a transformation required.

It was only then that I saw the first glimpse of my new self. Peering through the the gold vein over lay of one of Mrs. Hall’s antique mirrors were two round eyes, decorated in peacock green powder, and tar black, cat eye style liner. Two bright pink lips cracked open just enough for me to gasp at the fact that I simply could not believe I was staring at my own face.

To that face, which was not my own, I lifted a skinny, bangled wrist, which lifted a skinny, moisturized hand, which lifted five skinny, pink-tipped fingers, which felt compelled to find out if the shimmering cheek in the mirror was as soft in real life as it seemed to be in the dim light of its reflection. As if to remind me I had no business touching anything as fine as a made up face, Mrs. Hall’s hoarse whisper stopping my fingers just shy of contact.

Sally,” she croaked, “it’s time.”

I was terrified. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, the tips of my ears flush with embarrassment, my legs soldered to the floor in a fear induced paralysis.

Annoyed that I hadn’t yet started moving, Mrs. Hall sashayed toward me, grabbed my wrist, and thrust me into the middle of the sitting room, where three pairs of eyes cast themselves upon me, then widened in shock.

Mrs. Hall had told my dad to stop by before heading to the dairy, but she hadn’t told me. She’d wanted i to be a surprise. It was odd to see him marvel when I was the object of his attention. I thought maybe it was pride I was seeing written in his features, but I wasn’t sure. He hardly ever looked at me, I mean, really looked at me, so I wouldn’t know a look of pride even if I saw one.

Carrie, too, seemed to have found a renewed sense of awe. I wasn’t expecting her to be blown away by my transformation, since she was one of its manufacturers, but nevertheless, she was as wide-eyed as my father.

And then I saw his face, his eyes. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Mr. Hall’s expression seemed to be flashing back and forth between disbelief and anger, and something else too. If I had to name it, I would chose the word hunger. Yes, to me, his eyes seemed hungry. The way my dad’s eyes looked when Mrs. Hall answered the door every night. The way her eyes looked as she caught his final over-the-shoulder glance on his way back to the car. The way any other man, except for Mr. Hall, might look at any other girl, except for me, in any other situation, except for this one. I had never wanted anyone to look at me that way, but now that someone had,  it scared the hell out of me.

Suddenly, the game was no longer fun. All I wanted was to change out of my ridiculous costume, brush the tangled knots out of my ridiculous hair, and wipe the caked on layers of paint and powder off of my ridiculous face. I wanted to be myself again: Sally left to herself; Sally nobody sees or cares about. Simple SallySimply me.

But something about the way Mr. Hall looked at me, something about the fear and freedom it unleashed inside my heart, something about the hunger in his eyes and the hunger that I knew he’d see in mine, changed me forever. And so, on that night – as a man named Mr. Hall looked with hunger at a girl named Sally, who was standing in the middle of his sitting room pretending to be a woman, I realized:

I, Sally Parker, would never be the same again.

Until next time, my friends!

S. Taylor, The Taylor of all Trades

The Clearing (1.25.14)

Looking back, there were many reasons I ventured into the forest that morning.

For years I thought it was because my father had struck me. One clean, hard swoop of his powerful hand across my cheek and I had fallen to the floor like an anchor slicing cleanly through still water on a calm day.

His hands were calloused from working the land, leaving a swollen abrasion just below my right eye. Those who didn’t know him considered those hands an indication of the kind of man he was. But they knew nothing. He was a mute. And though anyone in our small town could have answered on his behalf, traveling tradesmen seemed more content to take his silence as hostility than to ask why he chose never to speak.

Ignorant strangers. Coming and going as they pleased, disrupting the calmness and serenity of our community with their unhinged jaws and over zealous commitment to the tap.

In my mind I blamed them for my father’s rage, but in my heart, I knew I had brought it upon myself. My agony is that I didn’t admit it until time had swallowed up the allotted moments of his life and could offer him no more.

When I blamed them, she knew I was lying, I think, though it was hard to tell from where she stood, hidden in the shadow of an ancient, etched-stone monument. She was not used to sharing her wood, she explained, and asked me to forgive her inability to provide refined hospitality.

“I was not expecting to enter your wood,” I murmured cautiously.

And it was true. In my haste I had fled from  my father’s house, and in his broken mouth, his tongue could not form the words to call me back.

And so I stumbled over jagged rocks, covered in slippery moss. And did combat with drooping vines, oozing milk and sap. My feet rebelled against the clawing dampness of thedirt, and my clothing surrendered pieces of itself to the jutting, thistled branches of the wood.

By the time I successfully reached the entrance to the clearing,  I expected my father’s house to still be visible in the distance, but it was not. In every direction, save the path that lay before me, the wood was gray, hushed, and ominous. An eerie mist seemed neither to rise from the earth nor fall from the sky. Rather, it seemed to perch lazily upon every leaf, upon every bloom, upon every surface it could find.

And it seemed to me to be humming a lullaby. A morbid one, I decided, from the sorrow in it. Whereas one might expect, while in a wood, to hear the sounds of woodland fauna, in this wood there was only one sound: the slow melody of a mist in mourning.

There was only one sound, that is, until there were two.

“It’s not a very happy tune, is it?” she asked in a delicate, soprano voice. I jumped at the unexpectedness of her presence, and dared not answer quickly. If the tune was hers, I would do myself no favors by disliking it.

“It’s alright. The tune is not mine,” she chimed. “But I do thank you for your concern.”

“Where are you,” I asked in a cracked voice, my heart still throbbing dully in the notch at the base of my neck.

“In the clearing,” she answered. “You may enter, if you wish.”

Had I known the cost of entering that clearing would be so high, I’d like to think I would have chosen instead to hasten in the direction of my father’s house. But in that moment, with the darkness of the wood increasing, and the steady melody of the mourning mist thinning the air until I could scarce draw breath, I took my first step into her forgotten world.

With each new step, the leaves began to change, first in color – from soot gray, to deep pine, to sea foam green, to sky blue, to glittering silver – then in posture. At the entrance to the clearingthe leaves were shriveled and downcast. As I ventured deeper, life began to fill their veins, revive them, and draw them skyward. The crest of the clearing was lush with beaming foliage as direct sunlight flooded the soft, tall blades of grass that smelled of honey-dew and swayed to the rhythm of an imperceptible wind.

A towering monument stood solemnly at the far end of the clearing, casting its shadow upon the glimmering vines that grew outwardly from it. With etchings that spoke of ancient rites and a society of powerful beings long forgotten, the monument seemed not only the center-piece of this clearing, but its guardian as well.

“Do you like it,” she coaxed. “My home?”

“It’s beautiful,” I murmured, still lost in the grandeur of it all.

“Yes, it is,” she sighed, “though few have seen it. And fewer still are they who live to speak of it.” Her voice had deepened and though I could not see her, I could feel her eyes narrowing as she cast them upon me.

Standing in the center of the clearing, I caught my first glimpse of her as she paced among the trees that nestled the lofty stone-hewn monument. In the shadows, her slender frame fell in and out of clarity, first distinct, then blurred, then distinct again. I perceived her to be wearing a silken gown, threaded with glistening strands of starlight, replenishingthe earth as its glorious train obediently followed its master’s stride.

She was magnificent, and terrifying, and her words had been a warning. One false step and she would end my life.

“What is your name,” I asked in a shaky voice, knowing that attempting to maintain mental privacy was a wasteful and fruitless endeavor

“Ah,” she replied, “no one has ever asked me that.” Her voice rang with genuine surprise, and, to my great relief, amusement. “I am called many things, but my name is Saniya.”

At this, she stopped pacing and came to stand beside, yet slightly behind the monument, making sure to keep herself tucked safely in its shadow. I breathed a sigh of relief, taking her stillness and front-facing orientation as a sign of approval.

“Do you mind if I ask….I mean, would it be rude of me…it’s just that I don’t know-”

“What I am.” She cut me off before I could complete my question, but her tone was not severe or disapproving. She seemed to have been waiting a long time for someone to take interest in her and I was willing to talk about anything that would ensure my survival.

“You can think of me as a spirit,” she began, “though that is not all I am. I am both flesh and phenom; I am both here and not here. I endure both within and outside of space, and live both according to and apart from the laws of being. I have the power to sustain as well as destroy, and the way I act upon this world is both finite and immeasurable. I am a great many things, but the most important thing for you to understand about me is that I am Time.”

In her eagerness to expound upon the unfathomable aspects of her nature, she had forgotten to remain in the shelter of the monument. As she explained herself to me, she was drawn out from her hiding place, and had come to stand directly in front of it, the fullness of her splendor now unleashed upon the clearing.

I was dumbfounded. The fullness of her splendor was no longer hidden in monument’s shadow, and her gown, its substance pulsing in and out of visibility, gave off a light that could only be described as piercingly brilliant. In the fullness of her presence, I perceived the whole history of man dancing about the clearing, it to bursting in and out of focus around me. My own life seemed to swim amid the chaos of the ages, and for one terrifying moment I was given a glimpse of my own future.

That glimpse, not so much an image as a feeling, brought me to my knees, and forced the contents of my stomach to spew involuntarily upon the bright-white blades of grass that were gyrating violently around me.

“No,” I gagged. “Not that. Please, not that.”

“It is already done,” she said coldly. “It is the cost of entering this place, and the cost of leaving this place alive.”

“But,” I stammered, windless and disoriented, “I didn’t know.”

“You have been granted the remainder of your days,” she stated beneficently. “Is that not enough?”

“What lays before me is not life,” I hissed. “What lays before me is a waking death.”

“Do not despise Death,” she cooed. “For if you wish your passing to be a peaceful one, you need only greet Her with a smile when she knocks upon your door.”

With tears plummeting down my cheeks in droves, I lifted my eyes to gaze into the blinding face of Time.

When I awoke, I found myself sprawled out upon the grassy meadow at the base of the forest. Head swimming, I lifted my hand to my cheek, and was relieved to find that it was still scraped and throbbing. Could it have been a dream?

I drew myself up onto uncertain legs, shooed the grass from my rumpled skirt with trembling hands, and hastened toward my father’s house. Opening the door, I expected to find him awaiting my return with a stern but relieved brow.

But he was not there, and the house was strangely different. The furniture was the same; so too were the fabrics and flatware. But there was something not quite right. There was something missing.

With my heart beginning to race, and the sting of tears beginning to form behind my eyes, I bolted toward the pub in a final attempt to prove that it had all been a dream.

When I burst through the door, I was met with startled looks and disapproving murmurs.

“Have you seen my father,” I asked frantically. “Please, I must speak to him. Can you tell me if he’s been here.”

No one answered. No one even listened.

“Lost yer way, did ya, Lass?” A drunken merchant stumbled over and hung his heavy arm upon my shoulder, drawing me into himself, hissing his foul breath into my face.

I gagged at the rottenness of both his breath and pelvic movements. It disgusted me that a man his age could bear to treat a girl as young as I so perversely. I wasn’t yet fourteen and he was well over sixty.

“Leave ‘er alone, Joe,” came a woman’s voice from behind the counter. “Back to your pint before it goes flat.”

As I looked at her, I realized I knew her. She was the same bar maid that had always worked at the pub, but there was something different about her eyes. They were heavier, darker, more worn. She looked like herself, but…older.

Joe had not yet released me, and his hands were now groping parts of me that even I touched only out of necessity.

“Get off,” I shouted, and began to jab him violently with my elbows and heels.

“Joe, that’s enough,” said the bar maid sternly. “Leave her alone.”

“I’m not stoppin’ till the Lass asks me to herself,” Joe growled incoherently.

“I already did, you drunken fool! As you deaf as well as stup-”

“She can’t ask you to, Joe,” the bar maid said, cutting me off. She looked at me pityingly and said, “she’s mute.”

No. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t real.

Joe had finally released me, and in a haze of disbelief, I made my way back to my father’s house.

The room was spinning. I stumbled from table, to chair, to bed, to stool, before finally coming to stand directly in front of the looking glass. How was it possible. I looked like me, but…different. My face was thinner and more feminine. My skin was taught and more mature. My breasts were larger, my hips more curved, and my eyes, my eyes were not my own. Well, they were my own, but they were so much…older.

In the corner of the looking glass, at the other end of the room, a shimmering box caught my eye. Perched lovingly in the center of the bureau was my father’s trinket box.

I approached it for the first time with the knowledge that he was truly gone. Gently lifting its lid as tears began to stream down my face, I removed precious and valuable items:the deed to our house, a drawing of my mother, a love letter she had written him during their courtship. My father’s wedding band.

And there, there at the very bottom of his box, on a shred of parchment that seemed to have been torn in haste, in my father’s handwriting, was the name Saniya.

Until next time, my friends!

S. Taylor, The Taylor of all Trades