Fiona knew she was dreaming because the colors assaulting her eyes were unreal: lurid and cartoonish. The bright light pouring through the toy shop windows was devoid of heat and the pull of gravity on her molecules was weak—she knew she must tread carefully because any extra bounce to her step would make her fly into the air and bang her head on the ceiling.
She was sure she’d never seen this shop before, but felt calm—after all, being safely asleep in her bed, there was nothing here that could hurt her. Besides, for Fiona, the barrier between the dreaming and waking worlds was tenuous—she was accustomed to life feeling like a hallucination and dreams feeling real.
Outside the shop, it was a beautiful sunny day; pedestrians strolled on the sidewalk as if there was nowhere to go—except for the little girl who, giggling with glee, raced by like a gazelle.
Fiona wondered where the gazelle image came from. This toyshop was not in Africa. She was glad to be dreaming because in slumberland, images need not make literal sense.
The shop was an odd, abandoned place. Where were the clerk, the cashier and the people who answered questions and stocked the shelves? Why was she wandering around unsupervised?
A large puzzle was spread across the floor—baby’s first puzzle—with hopscotch numbers, green frogs and lily pads.
Were there people in the world who would actually buy such a thing?
Bright sunlight. A stuffed giraffe. She felt as if she was going mad. What was the expression? Toys in the attic. The image brought a smile to her sleeping lips.
With an aimless amble, she drifted through the store admiring toys that could not really exist—like balls decorated with bizarre beady-eyed frogs grinning with lurid red mouths.
Any child who saw such a thing would surely run away screaming. What must the Chinese factory workers who make these things think of us?
There was an absurd striped elephant in lollypop colors—it made her think of the stuffed elephants her father brought home after a business trip. She still had them, somewhere, packed in a trunk. The elephant called to her—it wanted to be taken home—but she ignored its pleas.
On a shelf, a precious sliced plastic apple.
A miniature stove and sink.
A toy pizza cutter.
She was alone; there was no one else in the whole universe. Or was she? There was giggling, but from where? The walls? There was no one to be seen.
Except for a fleeting glimpse of a small figure running through a doorway. But, no one was there; the backroom was quiet and empty. Then, behind her, vibrant music, running feet on a stairway and more giggling. Someone was teasing her.
Hesitantly, she followed the trail up a creaky staircase. There, in a colorful dress echoing the psychedelic elephant, was a happy, carefree wisp of girl who ran like the wind. Fiona picked up the pace and followed through a forest of colorful children’s books where the girl, humming a vaguely familiar tune, spun like a top and disappeared behind a shelf.
“Hello?” Fiona said.
The floor was clear before, but now there was a puzzle-picture. Fiona bent down to pick it up. A Tinkerbelle faerie was surrounded by flowers—bluebells and brown-eyed Susans. In a blink of an eye, the giggling girl appeared behind the picture—with the grinning elephant clasped in her arms. Fiona studied her and searched for something appropriate to say. In her hair, the girl had a lovely blue ribbon that matched her dress.
“That’s a pretty ribbon,” Fiona said. “I’d call it blue—ocean blue. Do you know ocean blue?”
“Cerulean,” the little girl said.
Fiona laughed. This clever girl was older than she appeared.
“Right, of course. Cerulean.” The girl got up and spun the elephant in joyful circles. “What’s your name?”
“My name? My name is…”
At that instant a hand appeared on the girl’s shoulder. She quickly turned, but there was no one to be seen.
“Are you all right?” Fiona said.
From downstairs came a tremulous voice.
“What have I told you about wandering off and talking to strangers?”
The girl dropped the elephant and walked to the stairs.
At the bottom, a crone dressed all in black broadcasted an imperious attitude, like a Queen whose will was never to be challenged. Fiona picked up the elephant and followed.
She addressed the woman. “She’s a cutie. Small for her age, but she’s about to bloom, I can feel it. She’ll grow six inches in a year and burst out of everything in her closet.”
Fiona handed the little girl the elephant. The sick, tired woman was unimpressed. She gestured.
“Come along, Minnie.”
The girl placed the elephant back into Fiona’s arms and tromped down the stairs and toward the front of the store. The woman gave Fiona a sour look and trailed after her daughter. Mystified, Fiona dashed down the stairs and followed them to the front door.
Fiona did not speak out loud, but mouthed the words.
“You take care of your mommy, Minnie,” Fiona said.
Her mother tugged Minnie’s arm and they walked though the doorway. From outside, Minnie turned and looked into Fiona’s eyes before giving a small wave and running away. Fiona followed through the mishmash-maze of odd toys and stood looking out at the scene on the street. There she saw younger Minnie in a red dress and sweater laughing and talking to a healthier-looking version of her mother. They were happy. With a grand flourish from behind her back, Minnie’s mother produced the elephant. Minnie took it, embraced it and twirled in joyous circles before running out of sight down the street.
Minnie’s mother turned to Fiona and said one simple word: “Happy.” Then she turned and walked away.
The elephant was in Fiona’s hand. She raised it and looked into its eyes. Without speaking, she projected the question as strongly as she could.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
But, imaginary elephants don’t bother to answer direct questions.
In the morning—other than vaguely formed images—she remembered almost nothing of the dream.
One of the principal characters in this book is a young woman named Fiona Pascälle and we offer her as a lady worth getting to know: an attractive forty-something who lives in a small town in Maine. She’s never been much of a city girl, but is it only because she never wandered through the right one? Where might she fit better? San Francisco? Mexico City? Paris? Bangalore? Hong Kong? Beans Corner, Maine? How can a vagabond spirit find her one and only home?
When she’s not carving out a living in the tick-tock world, she runs and does yoga. Shopping locally, she thrives on fresh organic food and finds solace in a steamy kitchen. She loves handcrafted, microbrewed beer and the soul of the grape in a glass of good wine. And tea, how she loves the infinite varieties and the secret power of spring water infused with the murky essence of bark and leaf.
She’s a music hound, filling her ears and mind with heart-felt songs assembled from ghost notes, ethereal melodies, worldly beats and unusual, upside-down jazz chords.
Whether she likes it or not—at the expense of inner peace and harmony—she is a keen observer of human life.
And, she cares. Really cares. Empathy is baked into her every fiber. How do we know? It can be felt on the cheerful breeze wafting our way when she walks by.
There’s another small detail about Fiona that should be mentioned—her relationship with the world is more than physical. Deep in her core, embers of bale fire smolder. Why? For one reason, undiffused blood of the ancient Pictish kings courses in her veins. Unconsciously, she partially lives in the hidden world of the supernatural.
She sees things differently than others, but chalks it up to functional eccentricity, quirk or foible, and sometimes to gentle madness when something clearly impossible happens before her eyes. She questions her grip on reality when experiencing crazy scenes others walk by and don’t notice—things like boulders and trees that shouldn’t move from place to place, but do. Things like peripheral glimpses of creatures found in no textbook or zoo. Things like animals that talk or scenes from portentous dreams unfolding before her.
For want of a better word, we’ll call these things magical.
In summary of this exposition, perhaps the best way to think of her is as heroic protector and messenger—a harbinger of change like a lonesome meadowlark on a spring morning.
Fiona rubbed her temples while working through the numbers in her head—adding again to see if the total would come out differently with a fresh calculation.
She had twelve tattered dollars stuffed in her pocketbook, twenty lonely dollars in her checking account and not-quite one-hundred dollars in credit available on her emotionally scarred and domestically abused Visa card. So, should she buy a package of three socks for $9.99 or what she came to Wal-Mart for—one inexpensive pair to replace falling-apart socks with heels repaired twice too often?
Crap. Decisions. Endless decisions.
There was a mirror on a display of reading glasses. After a glance, she tucked untamable, silver-streaked auburn hair behind her ears and pulled her wool watch cap down her forehead. Her hand was in her mouth before she remembered she was trying to stop biting her nails.
Stop, Fiona, just stop.
A little face appeared from behind a display of fleecy Spiderman pajamas. Spiderman’s eyes were disturbing, so Fiona tried not to look directly into them. She kneeled and reached for the little girl. Pink cheeks. Thin. Sad eyes. At first glance, the girl seemed to be about six, but Fiona quickly realized her error. The girl was small, but she was at least ten. There was something about the girl—had they met before?
Fiona searched for something to say; she felt like the words coming to mind came from somewhere else, as if from a forgotten movie or novel.
“That’s a pretty ribbon,” Fiona said. “I’d call it blue, ocean-blue. Do you know what I mean?”
“Cerulean,” the little girl said.
Fiona laughed. “Right. Of course—cerulean. What’s your name?”
A bony hand appeared and pulled the little girl backward.
The little girl’s mom spoke with a hoarse voice. “What have I told you about wandering off and talking to strangers?”
Fiona stood. The mother wore smudged eyeglasses—to her, the world must look greasy and out of focus.
“She’s a cutie,” Fiona said. “Small for her age, but she’s about to bloom, I can feel it—she’ll grow six inches in a year and burst the seams of everything in her closet.”
The mother’s mouth twisted downward so the right side matched the droopy left side.
Oh. Minor-stroke? That must be hard.
“Come along, Minnie,” the tired woman said.
Turning, Minnie stumbled as her mother tugged her hand. While walking away, the girl looked over her shoulder.
Fiona waved and didn’t speak out loud—mouthing the words. “You take care of your mommy, Minnie.”
Returning to the task at hand, Fiona studied a $3.99 pair of low-cut athletic socks, then realized—one week earlier, she’d stood at exactly the same spot and made exactly the same decision.
Socks can wait.
Outside, a rowdy nor’easter made its gusty presence known. Howling winds accompanied driving rain coming from all directions except straight down from the heavens—weather designed to keep good folks safely tucked away indoors, not running around town to not buy socks. Walking to her car, Fiona tried to keep her hood up so rain wouldn’t splatter her glasses. Weaving through the menagerie of Wal-Martian cars, she glanced over a few rows.
There was Minnie, bent over and searching the wet pavement. Those passing by glanced down, adjusted their rain gear and kept walking. As Fiona drew closer she saw Minnie and her mom picking up loose change.
“Here, let me help with that.”
Minnie beamed. Her mother smiled, but insincerely—the expression didn’t survive the long journey between lips and eyes.
Such sad distrust—her pain ran deep.
After fumbling and chasing runaway rollers, they got all they could. After one final scan, Fiona nabbed an errant, rain-soaked penny.
These two needed help and it wouldn’t take much to get them through the day. Fiona could invite them to her house and stoke the fireplace to warm their bones and chase away the clammy cold. She could heat a pot of milk for hot chocolate and serve it in steaming mugs with sacrificial marshmallows that would melt into a creamy froth.
Her fingers twitched as she imagined healing and soothing spices that could be sprinkled and mixed. Ayurvedic herbs and organic Gotu Kola leaf. Fresh-ground Bourbon vanilla bean. Black Sumerian poppy seeds. The anticipated taste was vivid on her tongue.
Fiona deduced several truths about Minnie and her mom. For example, death hovered around Minnie’s mom’s shoulders—the next stage of her journey was imminent and this fact weighed on both mother and daughter. Fiona wished she could reach out and touch them and let them know the transition from pain to peace should not frighten them so—the body is a package and for its time, the package holds the soul. It was logical to be sad about the end of the fleeting time in one package, but there was no need to let terror kill transient instances of joy. While the flower is in bloom, it should enjoy the kiss of the sun, regardless of tomorrow’s inevitable wilt and decay.
In a flash, Fiona knew Minnie’s mother’s name. Vivian. How did she know—and why? Over her years on Earth, these insights were things she learned to accept without question.
Fiona felt the pull; she longed to reach out to Minnie’s mother with a helping hand, but Vivian’s wounds were deep—she was unprepared to accept warm comfort from the universe. Spooked by things she couldn’t understand, she would run and run and never stop. It was one thing to transmit, but the receiver had to be turned on and tuned in.
Don’t press it, Fiona. Now is not the time. You’ve already pushed the boundaries with this woman.
“Thanks,” uttered the mother—this time with a faint suggestion of sincere warmth in her smile. Clutching her money, she could relax a little.
“Get home safely,” Fiona said. “Seems like a good one coming in.”
While Minnie waved and grinned like a jack-o-lantern, her mom discovered another smile and it was like a stranger on her face—a transient foreigner bearing gifts.
That’s all that can be done for now.
Their rusted-out Ford eventually started. After a final wave, they drove off and Fiona finished her sloshy journey across the parking lot to her faded purple VW Bug where she shed her wet jacket. She was soaked, drenched and sodden.
Part of her craved music—she reached out to turn on the radio, but a quiet voice spoke from within.
Take a minute of quiet. What just happened?
Over time, she’d learned that every random act of kindness was a minuscule mustard seed that could sprout and take root—who knew how or why or when? Do what you can and hope for the best.
After putting the key in the ignition, she willed the old Bug to start. It did—another minor miracle.
She lovingly patted the dashboard and said, “Good girl. Stick with me a bit longer and we’ll make it through the winter together.”
While driving through the maze of shoppers and escaping cars, she thought about Minnie and her mom. Was it simply too much trouble to lend a helping hand in the rain when the storm devil dances and capers? How could people walk by and do nothing?
It was hard to know why people did things even when they were nice things. Someone holds a door open for you—was it simple kindness or did they do it for appearance sake? What floated through people’s minds when they decided whether or not to help a stranger? The purest compassion would be unconscious, not even thinking it through—not feeling sorry for the poor wretch, just experiencing the quick intuition that there’s a soul in the rain picking up spilled change with a child and we should brave the torrent and gale with them if only for a moment. For a brief span of time, we should share their burden. Simple acts, easily done. Why weren’t they more common?
What would the Earth look like if the world woke one day to witness seeds of kindness sprouting in the sun? With these thoughts marinating, Fiona imagined the approaching comfort of home and the tea she would brew.
Tea, hot tea steeped with magical, exotic herbs, was an indulgence. Lost in thoughts about Minnie, her mom, compassion and tea, she suddenly remembered—she was running low on lavender and cardamom. After making the lane change to go to the herb shoppe, she passed a man standing on the side of the road—a very wet man holding a soggy cardboard sign. In a fraction of a second, she raced by, but was able to read the scrawl.
...will take a ride to anywhere...
She looked in her rear-view mirror—he’d turned his head to stare after her. Through her. Into her. How could that be? She shook her head to dispel the unwelcome thoughts. There was insolence in his eyes, so she resisted the compassionate impulse to stop.
Enjoy the cold rain a while longer, brash young man.
At the shoppe, she inhaled the warmth and aroma on offer. Sanctuary. The shopkeeper was an older woman radiating warmth like smoldering logs in a fire—steady and strong, warm and inviting. She had a cheerful, ever-present twinkle in her eyes and her face was careworn by time, but unstressed; she was truly a beautiful human being.
“What are you after today, love?”
“I’m out of lavender and cardamom. Cold season is here and I need to make a strong tea to ward off the booger bugs.”
“Is that all?”
“Hmm—I’m not so sure.”
She sees inside me—sees my churning whirlpool of emotions. Good thing she’s harmless.
“I think,” the woman said, “you need a touch of Malaysian nutmeg oil for your afternoon tea. Just a drop—no more or you’ll have nightmares. No charge, take it and be happy.”
The woman put a paper-wrapped bundle in Fiona’s shopping bag. Fiona shrugged and paid. There was no arguing—the shopkeeper was always right.
After sharing a companionable hug, Fiona picked up her parcel. Back out in the wet world, twilight came on; it was her favorite time of day. Dusk. The between-time when the veil between the worlds was thinnest and magic swirled. It was the border between beginning and end where possibilities were endless and potentiated convergence existed without earthly bound.
She slipped into her old Bug, rubbed the dashboard for luck and once again, the car purred to life.
“Let’s head home, girl, it’s been a day.”
As she buzzed and rattled back onto the main road, she approached the spot where the man had been, but didn’t immediately see him. Inexplicably, he intrigued her and she realized her unconscious hope: that he’d still be there. Drawing closer, his misty outline drifted into focus. There he was—no longer standing, but crouched on the gravel shoulder like a gargoyle atop a cathedral. He had covered himself with a scrap of tarp against the driving rain. Still holding his sign, his head was bowed.
Compassion had to be tempered by logic; she knew it was generally unsafe to pick up strangers on the highway, but an inner voice told her it was all right this one time—she couldn’t leave him there. Besides, what’s was worst he could do?
Unbidden images of rape, murder and body parts in plastic bags flooded her mind.
Stop it, Fiona.
As the internal debate raged, her car, as if having a mind of its own, pulled up beside him. He lifted his head and smiled an unsurprised smile—a smug, infuriating and self-confident grin.
She didn’t know him, but she was already annoyed. Regardless, her hand was on the crank and down rolled the window.
“Do you need help?”
“Not particularly. But perhaps you do.”
“I’m not the one freezing in the driving rain under a tarp at twilight.”
Oh, Fiona, was this smart-ass sarcasm necessary?
“I’m sorry,” he said, “was I being impolite?”
“It’s okay, I expect nothing less.”
It felt odd—as if they were in the middle of a long conversation, not at the beginning of a fresh, new one. She felt as if she knew him, but from where?
“It’s a small car, but hop in.”
She moved the aromatic herbs and random papers to the back.
Would the clutter bother him?
Lordy, Fiona. The man is a road bum. He would thank providence to have a warm, dry place to hide from the rain, no matter how messy.
“I suppose I could fit a ride with you into my busy schedule,” he said.
She could already tell dealing with him would be impossible. Her foot twitched with the impulse to floor the gas pedal and race away as fast as the lazy little Bug could manage, but then it was too late and he was in—backpack, folded tarp, hat—and toothy, vexing smirk.
The wet stranger settled in.
“Good thing you’re not huge or you’d never fit.”
Oh, geesh, when will that censor in my head ever kick in? No man appreciates the implication he’s small. Why not just call him a little person? A dwarf? A midget. And ladies need to be careful about the double-entendres. Will the man fit? Fit? Nice, Fiona, good job.
“You can stop second-guessing and wishing you could take back your words—I’m not offended. My name is Sean. Pleasure to meet you and thanks for picking me up.”
Fiona was dumbstruck.
What have I gotten myself into and what can I say that’s safe? I shouldn’t give him my name—that will give him the beginning of power over me.
They shook hands. He tossed his backpack into her back seat. As it flew by her head she felt energy from it; something old and mysterious. Magnetic. Electrostatic. Sean watched as it passed by her head and smiled. He reached out and started fiddling with the heat control. She batted at his hand, but he evaded her and then turned on the car stereo—her music played softly, faintly—nearly inaudibly.
“Cute car, it suits you. I like the flowers and the ‘Om’ bumpersticker. Whatcha listening to?”
Okay, who is this cat?
“Um, Trevor Hall. Most people haven’t heard of…”
“Oh, he’s one of my favorites. For a young kid he’s got his shit together, pretty impressive if you ask me. I saw him and Michael Franti on a Rombello cruise over the summer—awesome show.”
Unbidden, a melody formed in her head.
Stuck in the storm, but there’s no need to mourn
You’re my roof, you’re my shelter,
Your love keeps me warm
We sail away, you and I...1
A fellow music hound stepping from a half-formed dream into my car? I’m forty and I’ve lived a life. There should be few surprises left for me.
While watching the road, she flicked her eyes toward the stranger until she had a sense of him.
Medium build, height-weight proportionate with broad shoulders. Curly salt-and-pepper hair worn to mid-back. Normally she wasn’t a ‘beard girl’, but his shaggy goatee suited him. When he looked in her direction it was his eyes that got her. Piercing and black like a raven. He could see through her—into her. She knew him. Knew him. She felt comfortable. Was he hypnotizing her? Nah—she wasn’t that easy. He had well-fitting jeans, black motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket. He smelled like a wet dog.
“Where’re you headed?” she said.
“You tell me.”
She was unsure what to say.
Her father’s words echoed through the years.
Don’t pick up hitchhikers.
Don’t pick up male, dangerous-vagabond hitchhikers.
If you do pick up male, dangerous-vagabond hitchhikers, by all means, don’t let them know where you live.
But, she wasn’t driving the car—it drove itself toward home with Sean, a soaking-wet guy plucked from the side of the road; some guy completely unknown to her, yet she wasn’t scared or nervous in the slightest.
“I guess I’m taking you home with me.”
Sean looked over at her and raised an eyebrow in a Spock-like manner. She looked back at him and did the same thing.
“I like the sound of that,” he said.
“Though why, I don’t know.”
“You’re a brave one, Miz Fiona. I promise to be a proper guest for as long as we’re—interacting. Intersecting. Overlapping. Hell, I can’t think of the right word.”
Intertwined, but that was too intimate a word to use with a strange man.
“Intertwined,” she said.
He laughed and repeated the word as if testing it to see how it tasted. “Intertwined. Yes, that works. However, my point is, I promise to be a proper gentleman. Your trust will not lead to any problems, not with me.”
“We shall see, Sean, we shall see.”
Unconsciously, she whispered the words in her head; they were light as hummingbird feathers on her tongue.
We put the stars to shame
What can I say?
The earth it turns but we never fade away
Forever hold on, forever stay close
All I ever need, you’ll be all I ever know2
He joined her and their voices filled the storm-tossed Bug.
We put the stars to shame
What can I say3
The car rolled toward Fiona’s house while they sang in a natural harmony. Oddly, she reached for the low notes and his soaring voice captured the high ones.
Oh, my, Fiona. Where is this going?
Minnie got into the old Ford with her mom—soaking wet, but uncomplaining. She’d learned long before that complaining about impossible-to-change things didn’t get anyone anywhere. Through the car window, she smiled while watching Fiona walk to her car—a faded purple punch buggy.
It was a game the other pre-teen kids played. Slug-bug. The rules were simple enough: be the first to spot one of the curiously shaped cars and punch whoever you were sitting next to, but it always seemed to degenerate into an argument about who saw what when. Minnie did not want to be punched, so she was happy to leave this to the older rowdies. A thought flooded Minnie’s young mind—it sprouted fully formed in her head.
How did I know the woman’s name was Fiona?
“She was nice, huh, mom?”
Digging deep, Vivian found a smile for her daughter. There was longing in Minnie’s eyes. Longing for more love and the fun a sheltered eleven-year-old deserved. Fun and things other children had—things Vivian and Minnie didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy. She rubbed heat into her daughter’s wet, clammy hand.
“Yes, honey, she was very nice.”
Vivian started her worn-out Ford and drove out of the parking lot.
This tired wreck of a car is very much like me—barely making it from point A to point B.
It wasn’t a long drive back to their apartment in a complex around the Back Cove in Portland. The apartment was neither a high-end luxury one, nor a down-market, section-eight government-subsidized unit. It was practical and cheap and worked for them.
In rosier times when Vivian was in better health, she and Minnie walked the path around the shallow Back Cove and sat on a park bench after the sun went down to watch the flickering city lights across the ripply water. When the weather was nice, there were always joggers, walkers and bike riders going round and round the loop circling the cove. Benches were arranged here and there—they would often bring a snack and sit and watch the water or birds or boys flying kites or the occasional sailboat—whatever scene played out before them.
Those good times seemed so long ago.
Minnie and Vivien parked the car and went inside. Their apartment was sparsely furnished, but it was warm and dry—their safe-haven. It was mostly clean and neat, but, as her health declined, the relentless quest for orderliness grew more difficult for Vivian to manage. Bought one sun-drenched day while idly wandering through Portland’s Farmers’ Market (founded in 1768), a homespun wooden placard hung in the kitchen…
Clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy.
Vivian looked over the laundry heap that needed attention. The dirty breakfast dishes were stacked in the sink.
Perhaps there was a bit too much happiness lately.
Vivien scraped by with barely enough by working for a house-cleaning company. So far, the hours were manageable and it gave the daydreaming Vivian the chance to venture into wonderful, high-end homes. It wasn’t in her to be jealous. At the expense of relationships and peace of mind, these people worked hard for what they had.
She would envision her and Minnie living in one of these grand palaces with high ceilings, crown moldings, granite countertops and hardwood floors where the cold Maine climate was held off by radiant heating in the floors, good insulation, triple-paned windows and powerful, forced-air furnaces. These were homes where shiny cars lived in garages nicer than their apartment. The wealth of others did not damage them—Vivian and Minnie were as warm and satisfied as they could be considering Vivian’s illness.
She wanted more for her daughter and sensed in Minnie a grand purpose and destiny. Minnie was extraordinarily clever and—regal. That was a good, descriptive word for her: regal, she overflowed with dignity and grace. She glowed. Was this just motherly pride and wishful thinking? Isn’t this what every mother sees when looking at her child?
No, Minnie was special. She had a connection to the Earth. She spoke to animals and oft times seemed to know the thoughts of others before they were spoken—she had an eerie sense of things before they happened.
Someday her ship will come in, perhaps long after I am gone.
Craig, Minnie’s father, abandoned them less than a year after Minnie was born. He was a wanderer—a lovely, charming and handsome man—eloquent, dashing and quick-witted with a thick mane of auburn hair, a twinkle in his eye and a hearty laugh. His people were Irish Travelers and constitutionally unsuited for the daily routine of regular work. He worked when he needed money for drink and drank when he had money. He was not a mean drunk—when inebriated and sufficiently lubricated he was cheerful—a soulful folksinger, story-teller and jokester. Great company in the pub, but not so good at holding onto the rent money to pay the bill by the fifth day of the month.
“Minnie,” he said, “was a mistake.” He did not mean this in a cruel way, he simply meant she was unplanned, but Vivian corrected him. “No,” she would say. “Minerva was a surprise—there’s a big difference.”
To her, Minnie was a wonderful blessing completing her in ways she never knew were possible. Minnie didn’t remember much about her father—he was a vague shadow cast across her memories. Vivien kept a picture of him next to her bed, and kissed her fingers and touched the picture every night before slipping into fitful sleep. She didn’t love him as he was; she loved the man it was in him to be.
She found no solace when her eyes were closed. When she dreamt, it was always of dark places and dark times. Deep inside, she knew her time in this life was short and the thought of leaving Minnie behind haunted and tormented her. She tried her best to keep these thoughts from taking over and polluting their daily life, but it was written in the lines in her face and painted in her eyes. Clever Minnie knew as well; she could smell the lurking miasma of death emanating from her mother’s skin.
Today, however, was a day when Vivian was still here and walking the Earth. It was not to be wasted—she would live it for dear little Minnie. She walked to the kitchen cabinet and looked over what was available.
“Whatcha want for dinner, Minnie? We have great options if you’re in the mood for either spaghetti or grilled cheese.”
Vivian never thought about it, but even many years prior, she never used baby talk with the quick-witted, scary-smart Minnie. Others commented that Minnie might be eleven, but she could pass for a small, eloquent teenager.
“What’s easier for you to make, mom?”
She was such a sweet child. Vivian knew Minnie’s favorite was grilled cheese but canned spaghetti was easier.
“How’s grilled cheese and bologna sound? I’ll make it extra cheesy for you.”
Minnie squealed with delight; she ran over to hug her mom.
Grilled cheese it is.
Vivien worked on carving slices from a big block of cheddar while Minnie flopped on the floor—pulling out her treasured bag of marbles—rolling them around and flicking them off each other.
She’d always loved marbles. One day a small blue satchel bag of them mysteriously appeared outside their front door. Neither she nor her mom could explain where they came from—Minnie thought her mom secretly bought them from the dollar store and Vivian thought they came from a friend taking pity on their no-budget for toys. They humored each other by pretending they had magically appeared from nowhere.
They were Minnie’s favorite things to play with. She had other toys, mainly garish plastic figurines from Burger King and McDonalds. For cost and nutrition reasons, they never ate at these places, but people collected the toys and brought them around, but they stayed in a drawer in Minnie’s room while she played with her marbles. For some reason, the clicking of the glossy orbs soothed and enchanted her.
She sat for hours rolling them around in her hands or making geometric constellations with them on the carpet. Sometimes she would get her drawing book and sketch them in patterns and formations—seeing things in them only she could see. Whenever she told her mom they were magic marbles, Vivien said nary a word about it, she simply smiled.
Who was she to say they were or weren’t magic?
All Vivien knew was that one day they appeared and they brought her daughter great joy; so in that sense, they were magical.
Soon, the smell of grilled cheese and melted butter filled the small apartment. While Minnie’s mouth watered, she caught the sound of her mom humming—her mom was seldom happy, so when she hummed it was beautiful music to Minnie’s ears.
“Time for dinner,” Vivian said.
Minnie was real good with the marbles; she always picked them up and never left any underfoot. She shepherded them into their satchel bag, then scooted out the dining set chair and clambered up. At her place at the table, Vivien placed a hot sandwich with accompanying heap of steamed snow peas.
“Here ya go, kiddo. Hope it pleases the princess.”
Minnie smiled up at her mom.
Minnie loved the sound of that word.
“Looks yummy, Mommy, thank you.”
Her mom sat down and joined her. She had only half a sandwich and two pea pods.
“Not hungry, mom?”
“You eat, Minnie, go ahead. My stomach bothers me a bit.”
Of late, Vivien’s health had gone steadily downhill. She’d been coughing a lot—bringing up phlegm splotchy with blood. Every time she coughed she scolded herself for taking up smoking in high school and she wondered how things would be different if she’d never discovered the love of nicotine—smoking with Craig under a tree near a far corner of an isolated stretch of chain link fence. But, that was neither here nor there—she now had to live with the consequences of her youthful foolishness.
She watched Minnie eat the grilled cheese sandwich. Despite everything—no father, a modest home and few frills in her young life, this was a happy child. Vivian marveled at the fire burning in her, a soulful glow emanating from a deep-seated zest for life. She had a fighter’s spirit and never let anything get her down, at least not for long. She’d learned so much from Minnie over the few years since she’d been blessed enough to have birthed her into this life. Her Minnie—such a wonderful child.
They finished their dinner and Minnie picked up the plates.
“Tonight I’ll wash them,” she said.
Vivien smiled. She knew that meant doing a second wash after little Minnie but that was okay. Minnie did her best and she was always so proud to help.
After the dish chores, Minnie snuggled with her mom on the couch. Vivien pulled up a soft blanket up to cover them while they settled in to watch a spot of TV—a PBS show about dragons suited them both fine.
“Do you think dragons were ever for real, mom?”
“I don’t know for sure, Minnie. You can’t believe everything you see on the television, but this show makes a reasonable case. After it’s over, we’ll see what you think.”
Under the blanket, they burrowed deeply into the couch cushions as the winds outside howled and the cold rain spattered against the windows.
Vivien hugged her daughter closer.
Bad weather, bad omens.
Ken Coffman was born in Medford, Oregon in 1953. He’s been a berry picker, cat food factory worker, dish washer, Air Force Sergeant, rock-n-roll bass player, concert promoter, author, publisher, electrical engineer and engineering manager. In tribute to a life-long love of the written word, he’s authored 13 books and counting. His latest novel is called The Sandcastles of Irakkistan. He splits his time between the international headquarters of Stairway Press in Washington State and a satellite office in Arizona.
Kristen was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1969. She spent her early years working in bookstores and teaching younglings. She eventually found her way into corporate America where she was discovered by Ken. After some gentle and not so gentle nudges, a writing partnership was born. While she had always toyed with the idea of writing, it was Ken who fueled the fire and the Fiona series came roaring into existence. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her walking barefoot everywhere, practicing sword and sparring with her son, brewing kombucha, out on her paddle board playing and swimming with her beloved harbor seals or in the kitchen cooking up wonderful foods. Kristen lives in a 200 year old farm house in a small town in Maine with her teenage son, their two cats Luna and Althea, and their dog Bailey.