7395 [December 23, 2006]
gAmi, are you ready yet?h Mother cries with more than a hint of agitation in her inflection.
gIfm – umph – almost – urf – there!h I shout back from the second floor, lunging with all my might at the formidable suitcase before me that stubbornly refuses to shut.
gNo, youfve been ealmost theref for too long. Wefre already thirty minutes late! Ifm coming up there right now. How come the one time I ask you to pack for yourself, I still have to do it for you?h
I sigh in defeat, standing back from the offending travel parcel. Once my mom sets herself on a task, she finishes it – her way or the highway. I know her well enough to just stand back and let the human typhoon take care of business.
The door flies open on cue to reveal Mother in center stage, waving her arms around, her gestures explaining clearly enough what her incoherent shouting attempts to convey. She stomps to the suitcase and flips the top open. And she glares.
gAmi, wefre going to Grandmafs for a weekend, not a month! What on Earth do you need all these sets of clothes for? Dance dresses? Nice blouses?h
gItfs just in case, Mom!h I reply.
gWhat, in case Prince Charming pops his head into that godforsaken swamp?h
gNo!h I counter immediately, although I havenft formulated any rebuttal at all. I just donft like adding any momentum to an obviously loose caboose.
gCome on, letfs go,h she says more calmly, zipping the mound of clothes sitting on the bed looking all lonely. I run up and hug them, reassuring them that it was nothing personal.
gArgh, useless daughter,h mumbles Mother, shaking her head and interrupting my poignant moment. She drags me by the arm downstairs into the car while lugging the suitcase with the other hand. Shefs just that kind of person.
Grandma lives two hours away if the weatherfs good, more like four if itfs raining. The dirt roads in the country are fickle, and even when we take Dadfs truck instead, some points are just impassable. The house is really out in the middle of nowhere. Old-fashioned, state of nature – the whole nine yards. There isnft even heating, for crying out loud! I always get consigned into cutting some firewood whenever I visit since Ifm the one with the most gyouthful energy,h ignoring completely the fact that a city girl has the least idea of all how to do these sorts of things.
gWefre almost there,h says Mother. But the scenery looks the same as it did thirty minutes ago: we could have just done a full three-sixty for all I know. I groan and lean my head against the window, my skin squeezing against the distinct coldness of the glass through a thin drape of my hair.
gWhy are we visiting Grandma again?h I ask idly, even though I know itfs bound to stir up a bit of controversy.
gAmi, we donft need reasons to go see family! Ifm not looking forward to when you have kids, if youfre only going to visit when you need something.h
gDonft worry, Mom,h I say. gThat wonft be for decades. I canft even keep a steady boyfriend right now.h
gJust work hard in class. Forget boys if you want to even have a job or a future!h she recites for the thousandth time. Itfs like her mantra or something. Of course, she married Dad when she was eighteen, but she never brings up that little detail.
gYeah, yeah, I know, Mom.h Why do I bring this kind of conversation upon myself? Probably because Ifm bored. The whole scent of life is just so lackluster. Mother always says that therefs magic in the everyday world, but I can even see in her eyes that routine is really wearing thin its welcome.
At long last, we begin the descent into the valley where my grandmother lives, the tiered marshy farmlands etched into the foothills on either side of the road. At the bottom, at the edge of a tree-covered mountain too steep to cultivate for crops, is the rickety wooden arch that marks out the beginning of the driveway that you wouldnft be able to recognize otherwise. During the spring, the wood would be covered in honeysuckle and morning glory blossoms, but itfs bare now.
We turn in, the setting sun disappearing from view behind the thick overgrowth of trees. We pass under long branches with dried seed pods and dead vines dangling down that occasionally intercept our windshield wipers. The batting and whipping sounds of the foliage punching the thick glass continues until at last we reach a small grassy clearing with only a moss-covered, rusting soccer goal sitting in it.
When we step out of the car, Mother tells me after a brief survey, gAmi, Grandma isnft home yet, so we canft get in. Why donft you go check if there is any firewood out around back.h
gYeah, I will,h I answer, walking around to the back to discover, to my dismay, that there isnft any – I guess the neighbor has neglected to bring his usual load. A blustery blast of moisture-ridden cold air rushes about, making the leaves rattle. Itfs no surprise that the store of firewood is gone.
gTherefs none left,h I report back with a shout. I start heading back around to the front, refusing to go wood-hunting without being asked. I play tennis for the school, but the racket isnft a freaking log.
gHoney, you know what Ifm going to ask you to do.h
gNo, I donft,h I say.
gYes, you do,h she says back.
I decide to provide evidence for my claims by innocently popping back to the front, but the plan doesnft work, as she shoves me back.
gJust grab some fatter branches,h she instructs.
gYeah, yeah,h I say.
I trudge up the hill, not searching carefully since I know all the usable wood nearby has been harvested already. Despite the cold, I feel myself starting to sweat a little from climbing up the steep mountainside, enduring a few scares as the moist dead leaves would occasionally slide out from below my feet. Night was already racing across the fields at a thousand miles an hour, sweeping the world around me into darkness: I would need to hurry.
I zig-zag higher and higher until I am no longer in territory I had visited during past visits. Up ahead, I see a huge downed branch that almost seems to twinkle before my eyes. I rush forward, eager to get this task over with so that I can go and enjoy Grandmafs famous corn soup before it loses its fresh warmth.
But I stop two feet short of the branch, for peeking out from beneath a mound of pine needles, crumpled oak leaves, and lichens is a small polished surface made of peppery-speckled marble of varying shades of gray. Kneeling down, I sweep away the mat of flora with my gloved hands: first a small portion, then, realizing that the marble is part of a larger ring, I move around clockwise in a crouched position and complete the entire thing. I eagerly scoop out the settled contents in the center of the ring that disguised the whole structure as an oversized haystack and then flop down on my rear end to admire the beautiful abandoned fountain I have uncovered. The spout in the center seems to be intact, but it is unclear if any water can still flow into it.
Night has completely fallen by now, and only moonlight and guideposts below allow me to apprehend enough of the marble to recognize its antique elegance. I heave a slow sigh and prop myself up using my hands, grabbing the branch by two particularly sturdy off-shoots and tugging it – or tossing it – all the way down. With a great growl, I swing the axe over and over again until manageable chunks of the branch fall away, each of which has to be split to reveal the more flammable inner wood. I cradle five chunks of the wood in my aching arms and carry them inside.
I immediately catch a whiff of the corn soupfs sweet and spicy fragrance as I enter and dump the branches into the fireplacefs brass wood holders.
gWhere have you been?h asks Mother.
gIn the backyard,h I answer.
gFor that long?h Mother doesnft even turn towards me. Instead, she just tousles her brilliant jet-black hair with lean, pointy fingers, watching Grandma transport the pot of soup.
gMaybe she was just admiring the fireflies,h says Grandma in her shrill, crackly tone that carries unusual warmth and weight. gNo harm in stopping to watch the fireflies. After all, theyfve been waiting three years to strut their stuff on Broadway, and their show only runs for two weeks.h
gReally?h I ask, somewhat surprised.
gYes, thatfs the truth,h says Grandma, her voice growing louder all of a sudden midway through her sentence as she turns around to bring the steaming pot of corn soup to the oval dinner time.
gCome now, Ifm sure youfre hungry from all that chopping.h
The growling in my tummy agrees with her. I savagely stab at the liquid, but the viscous soup waterfalls into the metal spoon at the same rate it always has. I take a long sip, not caring to blow it a couple of times first.
gOw,h I yelp under my breath, massaging the roof of my mouth with my tongue. I hold the second spoonful a few inches above the bowl and wait for the heat to dissipate before taking another sip. This one is just warm enough that I can feel it coursing down my throat spreading warmth out from the center of my body.
gTaste good?h asks Grandma.
gVery good,h I reply.
The rest of the evening passes smoothly, and the crackling of the fire brings back memories of when I was a kid, listening to Grandma tell her stories while Mom and Dad would take turns rocking me back and forth. Grandma told the usual tales – Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, stories of that sort – but she always had her own imaginative twists here and there. And boy did she know how to engage an audience – she would tease, then tease some more, then interview the unsuspecting people in the front row (which would be all of us). While my friends would talk about the thrills of Mission Impossible and the Super Bowl, Ifd talk about the drama of Hansel and Gretel, which always managed to disappoint. I clearly was not cut out to be Grandma.
But those days are long over; Grandmafs voice is always a bit hoarse. She always claims that itfs because she just got over a cold, but after four times of her colds apparently timing themselves right before our visit, we simply stopped believing her. Shefs getting old, but the day after day of her mild life, with the climax of cooking corn soup for her grandchildren, add up to something complete.
Itfs like the bowl I have before me: some people enjoy it by savoring every little golden kernel, every swirl of egg. But it takes exquisite care and thick, fuzzy bowl-coasters to keep the soup warm all the while. I have seen a lot of people whose bowls of soup have gone straight-out frigid before they get to the last kernel.
Thatfs why I like to gulp it down as fast as I can – carpe diem, if I may twist Horace into a gourmand for a moment – while itfs still warm. Even if it burns me, therefs that vitality, making all the little eyes inside me turn to the soup; just the soup, just this moment.
gAre the fireflies still out, you think?h I ask after placing my bowl in the sink. Mother and Grandma are still chomping and chatting away leisurely.
gOf course,h replies Grandma. gWefll be here for awhile, so why donft you go out and see them?h
gAlright,h I say, walking with deliberation to the door and exiting quickly, ripping off the fireplacefs warmth as one would rip off a bandage to get the pain over with.
The nighttime air is cooler than I expect, and I regret leaving my jacket inside the house. It is as though the earth below me is exhaling after a long sip of hot tea, the warmth swirling up and out of Mother Naturefs mouth. I feel almost lifted towards the sky, something slipping away fm my hair, my skin, my finger tips, little fishing-wires dangling down from the clouds and sticking to me, imperceptible to my physical senses.
I inhale a deep breath of the nipping air, small droplets of water catching inside my nose. Then I start up the mountain, looking for fireflies. I do not have to travel far before I spot a brief flash. At first, I donft believe it. Second time, I move closer to the violet-black aftershock stained onto my eyes. Third timefs the charm, and suddenly I am surrounded by fireflies all around, their yellow-green abdomens scribbling dotted curves all over the forest.
I reach out towards one, wondering if it might land on my hand, when in an instaneous flash, the light scatters in a quickly-fading burst. I stumble backwards, tripping over a root and landing on my rear end, gravity tugging ever so insistently on my unbalanced body.
Firm hands grip my shoulders. My mind races; it leaps from theory to theory until it finds safety in logic.
gGrandma?h I ask hesitantly.
gDo I look like her?h comes a voice – a deep bass voice with a little swagger to it.
gWhat the hell!h I scream, leaping up frog-style and turning around to behold something blinding.
It is a young man, dressed in a long, flowing robe-like garment that is shockingly green and gold, with streamers and ribbons abounding left and right. His long golden hair falls down the sides of his long and edgy profile with the intensity of water boiling over the rim of a neglected pot.
I back up and my hands instinctively reach for sharp stones to use as projectiles, but my eyes defiantly betray me, staring intently at his form from bottom to top. My heart is pounding and one part of me shrieks in violence while the other bubbles with arousal. His character just strips loose the heart from its lodging within the confines of the body.
gDonft worry, Ami, Ifm harmless as a fly,h he says reassuringly, but my fists, having relaxed a little, clench tightly once more as I wonder why he knows my name. Without my permission, a stone flies out of my right hand and soars towards him. He effortlessly raises his hand and catches it, closing his fingers around it and then opening his fist anew, the stone now a blooming bright fuschia flower, which he casts aside. I watch as it twirls down to the ground and spot his feet shuffling towards me.
He stops right next to me. He does not touch me. He only waits. I look him over again. His hands are behind his back; I check and see that they are empty. But as I unfold his fingers with mine, I begin to feel his energy melding with mine. He is a Power, a Passion.
My body leaps towards his and our chests meet in an awkward one-sided embrace. He still stands there, as though testing me, as though asking me a question with all eyes, all ears on me. Itfs my choice.
I lean in and whisper into his ear in a seductive breath, smoky with passionate moisture that came from God knows where: gTake me.h
I do not know why I trust him; Ifm not even sure I trust him at all. But there is a clairvoyance to the surreality; I am at once intoxicated by his pheromones and also completely in control of my desires. I simply know that I want him, and I do not want to back down.
I stare into his eyes and challenge him. I feel that fire burning in my eyes so strongly that tears begin to well up to cool them down. He smiles.
Suddenly, itfs his ballgame. I am disarmed and I slide back one step; he moves forward one; we ebb and flow like boxers and dancers. He takes my hand into his and squeezes ardently.
gAs you wish, my lady,h he says.
And I am humbled. Standing there with our arms clasped, I am keenly aware of the imbalance of him on one side and me on the other: his brilliance to my normality.
gNo, why me?h I ask. gIfm not even dressed nicely.h
gNot dressed nicely?h he says. gYou are dressed irresistably.h
He right hand releases my left and orbits out of my sight until I feel it again in the valley of my waist, having slipped effortlessly below the bottom edge of my shirt. And then it slides slowly down until it is tucked just below the waistband of my jeans, cupping the tender skin about my hips. I shudder and look at him; he seems pleased that I am enjoying his gesture. I let myself fall to my left, my head resting along his shoulders and neck, a few strands brushing just below his chin.
we go?h he asks.
gThe fountain, of course,h he says with confidence. He leads me up the mountain to the place where I had been before, but to my surprise, the marble structure is bright with shining jewels, and the centerpiece is spouting water generously and vigorously, the gushes of water getting caught in the wind, falling down at an angle, and then splashing down with a loud slap. I feel the spray of cold water on my face and arms.
gItfs been a long time since someone saw this fountain in its full glory,h he says. gI wasnft even alive back then, but they say it was a girl with voluminous raven locks and defiant eyes. Slender fingers of a princess, too.h
I stare into the fountainfs water at the marblefs edge where the water is calmer. My hair is indecisive, like my heart. Itfs every shade from blond to black and all the earthen hues in between. Some of it is straight, some of it is curly, a few long strands swinging down from behind my ears like untied curtains as I lean over.
gMy hairfs ugly, isnft it?h I say. gWere you hoping for someone more beautiful?h
He pushes my hair back behind my ear and kisses me on the cheek.
gHey, donft avoid the question!h I shout gleefully, grabbing his shoulders and giving a shake. He loses his balance – perhaps intentionally – and falls into the fountain, taking me down with him. gStop it, wefre going to catch a cold,h I protest, but he just splashes me with the water and kisses me again, this time on the lips. He pulls away after only a brief moment and sits there, licking the little water droplets from the fountain off of his lips. I crawl towards him, trapping the edge of his soaked viridian garments below my knees.
His drenched sleeves shimmer in the light, the fabric glistening with dribbles of water that canft get into the saturated pockets between the threads. I kiss him once, twice, over and over, and then I plant my lips on his and do not let go. Our tongues collide and intertwine, and he begins to make low rumbling sounds something like the cross between a moo and a purr. His sounds become more and more insistent, and I realize that hefs actually trying to say something – a plea or warning, perhaps, judging by his fearful eyes?
But itfs too late – we lose our balance and I hear a loud cloth-tearing sound as we crash down into the pool. He lies motionless and I frantically check to see if his head is okay. As I cradle his head affectionately in my palms, he springs into action, flipping us over, his now bare form sliding over me. With expert dexterity, he undresses me, kissing all over as though the warmth from his lips could protect the skin he uncovered from the cold of the night. And his lips are warm to the touch, but it is only his body, almost luminescent in the otherwise pitch-dark forest, that grants me that fireside comfort. I cling to it, frot against it, wrap it around me, comforting myself with a blanket of ecstasy.
By now we probably look like ducks trying to swim in a shallow puddle, so awkward but so oblivious to make up for it. Without thought, without restraint, we are like two fireflies trying to find one another, our lights blinking in offset syncopation but slowly approaching unison as we grow closer and closer, finally seeing each other with true eyes.
My heart is pounding as the last waltz draws to its fanfare of a finale. My eyes open wide as my body pulsates with the boom-cha-cha, and as I sing out in the most ancient tongue, he hands me his precious gift, which I will treasure and keep as long as I live.
And so the orchestra stops, abruptly. In an overwhelming burst of light, he shatters into a million crystal shards. As they fade into dying embers, they settle down over my whole field of view, blanketing me as I begin to shiver from the brisk cold c and then lose consciousness.
When I awaken again, I pat myself and the ground below me – it is all dry. I sit up and find myself fully clothed in the middle of the old dilapitated fountain. A few leaves have already found their way back into the basin, and I notice numerous cracks in the stone here and there that would certainly render the fountain incapable of holding any water.
In a daze, I drift back down the mountain, sneaking into the silent, almost sacred house. I touch my index finger to my lips, lost in thought. And then, in front of the fireplace, the wood still crackling away as it had when I left, I lay my head down and fall asleep.