Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
You will surely die soon. Bruce—your brother—doesn’t want you to, feeling unfinished business between you and him, things he wants to say (“I love you,” etc.). But you understand what he hasn’t said. Bruce is a good man, but—let’s face it—he tends to cling.
As for me, I want you released from what this disease has done, is still doing. When Bruce says he hopes you won’t die for a long time, I shout inside myself, OH LET HER! But you’re merely my sister-in-law. I’ve known you for only twelve years. Bruce grew up as your older brother, celebrated birthdays and Christmases with you. He watched you surrender those cat-eyes glasses for contacts, observed your skinniness turn womanly, your hair move from mousy to full under God’s alchemy. Then—bang!—you were beautiful, and there were three guys wanting to marry you. Your mother says you chose Andy because he was so boyish and fun. Even now, you’re protective of him.
Bruce showed me your high school graduation picture the first time I went to your parents’ home. He said—still surprised— “I looked at her one day and she was really cute!” Your oval face, light skin and eyes, china doll features. I wouldn’t say “cute.” “Lovely” would be my word. Lovely.
You and Andy and your five children were in Hawaii when [p.2] we met. You used the motorized wheelchair. You could still move a little, could still talk. I can almost remember your voice. What an amazing woman you were—supervising your kids, organizing them, helping them plan supper (simple fare like Lynn Wilson’s burritos and cherry Jell-O!), overseeing their chores. I’m such a lousy organizer and was in awe of you.
In the twelve years since, I’ve watched disease paralyze you completely, take your movement, then your speech, then your ability to swallow, now your eyesight. I’ve become obsessed with multiple sclerosis. For years, I’ve been reading about your disease. Now I’m at it again, revising this novel, putting more pieces together. For years I’ve been working plot lines and dialogue and metaphors as a way, I suppose, of speaking for you. I’m unable to give up on it. Like you?
The book is not about you and those you love, but you are its springboard and soul. I’ve mentioned some of my projects to you but haven’t been bold about how much they mean to me or how much I hope they might mean to you or even your children. Perhaps it will make them remember painful things, perhaps it will make them angry. I hope they’ll get beyond their anger, though, and let the book lead them to the past where they can face it fully; remember the hardest and best lessons you taught them; remember you for better and for worse.
You don’t seem aware of much just now. You’ve had a fever for a week. The nurses can’t get it down. You sleep most of the day; you’re listless when awake.
Am I waiting for you to die before I let myself call this work finished? I keep thinking it complete, then I read it again and see that there’s more to do.
So we’re at another beginning. Andy has metamorphosed into my character, Ben, a geologist. Ben is blond, has a receding hairline, black-framed glasses, ruddy skin, and eyes as blue as a butane flame. In many ways, he’s like Andy, though not so boyish. Ben is sullen, quiet, scholarly. I’ve set him, in this first chapter, in Zion National Park, and sprained his ankle. You [p.3] remember Zion, with its cliffs, ominous monoliths, canyons of rocks jutting up like a petrified, rusted forest? Anyone could sprain their ankle there.
Ben, in khaki, is sitting cross-legged on a granite boulder, his ankle much better since he’s had it wrapped at the ranger station where a strange woman gave him an ankle massage and told him she was throwing his pain into Zion’s air so he wouldn’t feel it anymore. And he doesn’t, though he credits the double strength Tylenol the rangers gave him, not that woman’s fingers.
At this moment, he’s working on his book as intently as I’m trying to work on mine. He doesn’t see the strange woman approach. She’s dressed in a peasant blouse and jeans, her bleached hair is short. He doesn’t look up until she speaks. He can’t see her. The setting sun—almost touching those distant, rusted cliffs—is in his eyes.
She repeats herself. This time he understands: “There are ghosts around here.”
He shades his eyes but still can’t see her.
“Haven’t you heard about them?” She steps forward—as though out of Zion’s rocks themselves. The regal way she stands, he will later decide, is much like his wife’s way, though his wife does not stand anymore. She is lying in bed, busy with slow dying at home. (Though she is not you, Nancy, she couldn’t have come to life without you.)
“How’s the ankle?” The woman’s voice is warm, musical, reminds him of a viola.
“I told you.” She slips her hands into her pockets. “Massage therapy does spiritual healing the way a doctor can’t. Or won’t. There was lots of negative energy around that ankle,” she says. “Maybe more than the sprain?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” He speaks after a moment’s hesitation. He’s never been outgoing and doesn’t strike up conversations with unfamiliars.
“In that book you’re doing? You ought to mention the [p.4] ghosts. Ghosts sell like hotcakes.” She walks towards him. “I can tell you all about ghosts.” She offers her hand as though that announcement were her business card. He’s not sure if he’s meant to shake it or if she’s suggesting another massage.
He shakes it.
“My name’s Cody,” she says. “I don’t think we got around to names at the station.”
“Ben Morgan.” He glances at his notebook, then back at her. “Thank you for the—”
“Healing? You’re welcome.” She sits on the dirt by his feet, hugging her knees.
“Swedish massage therapy, wasn’t it?”
“No, I don’t do Swedish. Mine’s Navajo massage. I learned it in Blanding. Took a class. I’m a healer.”
“Quite a title. Does it come with a certificate?”
“Not a paper one.” She commences to talk and goes on talking, sensing no limits to verbal intimacy with a stranger whose ankle her fingers have known. She talks about her wanderings, about Buffalo Woman whom she claims to have seen in vision, about her father’s idol, Jack Kerouac.
Such an interruption would usually have incensed Ben, who hates having his writing stopped. Cody’s interruption does not bother him. He is intrigued, drawn to her. When she tells him about Kerouac, he mentions that his wife loves the guy too. Then he describes his wife Merry, then the disease—how it’s punctuating her body processes with so many comma splices and question marks, killing her casually, cell by cell.
M.S. It stands for Merry’s Sickness.
“That’s what I felt,” Cody says.
He suggests she explain herself.
“That’s the negative energy around your ankle.” She stands, reminding him again that Zion is full of ghosts. Then she leaves.
The sky has gone indigo. Ursa Major is spilling glitter. It’s too dark for Ben to work on the manuscript anymore.
He goes to the tent, makes himself a peanut butter sandwich, [p.5] does his nighttime do’s, and recalls with some embarrassment how freely he has just spoken to Cody. How had she opened him up like that? It was as though she’d been massaging him with her voice. No touching, just her voice working its way under his skin. Had she been coming on to him?
“No way,” he says out loud. He’s been talking to himself since Merry lost the last of her speech eighteen months ago.
He can see the mountains and monoliths silhouetted against a sky that’s sinking into blackness. The highest peak points a jagged finger towards the Pleiades. He can smell the pine tree to the left of his tent, and the musky spikes of sagebrush around him. He can hear the wind coaxing orange dust from Zion’s rocks. Easy urgings, steady erosion.
When he sleeps, Merry moves into his dreams.
She talks to him, says she loves those ironized mountains, but that ultimately (“Let’s be honest, huh, Benj?”) she prefers the ocean. Santa Barbara. At Zion, she feels awe and claustrophobia. Then she leaps from one huge, fully lit, rusted cliff to another—thighs naked and muscular, arms outstretched to the sun-dazzled clouds. But when he reaches for her, she’s gone. His dreams often end this way: The instant he moves, she vanishes.
“Merry.” He opens his eyes, then opens his tent. And Merry is there, shadowed, because the dawning sun is behind her. “Mer.”
He puts on his glasses as she comes towards him. When he can see her face, it isn’t hers. It’s Cody’s.
Ben thinks many things in the two seconds before he realizes what’s what, muses himself into belief, or superstition, or whatever you want to call that half-dreamed state where all things are possible. (Yes, I know you, Nancy. You’d call it faith, and you’d want him possessed of it. He’d disappoint you.) He asks himself—though not in words—if a dream might be so sweet it could move into reality. In a flash—gone the instant it enters his mind—he wonders if God has given him Merry again with [p.6] minor alterations and major mending. (“Are you my wife?” Not spoken.)
Such musings are not the norm for him. He recovers quickly, recalls Cody, recalls his own identity as a geology professor whose ankle she has touched and as a Mormon who has only occasionally been inclined to the spiritual side of things. Cody’s face is darker than Merry’s, her lips fuller. But her lean body and her stance are undeniably like his wife’s.
“Hello,” she says in that viola voice—not Merry’s. (Does he even remember Merry’s?)
“Hi there.” His own voice is morning-tired and raspy.
“Wondered if you’d like some coffee.”
“I don’t drink it. But thanks.”
“Oh. You’re one of those—”
“Mormons? More or less. I don’t mind coffee, just the caffeine. Makes me dizzy.”
“Good for you. Caffeine defeats the spirit,” she says. “Listen, I wanted to tell you something.” She kneels before the tent door as he stretches himself up.
“How did you know I was here?” he asks.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t follow you. When I was standing on a rock over there,” she points, “I happened to see where you went.” She smiles, sharing a secret now. “I was supposed to see.”
“Is that right? Was my ankle calling you?”
“Was it—whazzername—Buffalo Woman? She wanted you to see?”
“Of course.” He hides his own smile by looking down. “And what did she want you to tell me?”
“No, I wanted to tell you something. I wanted to tell you I can heal your wife.” She speaks so easily. She might have said “I wanted to tell you it’s a nice day” in exactly the same tone. “Same way I healed your ankle,” she says. “Pain’s gone, isn’t it?”
[p.7] “I took Tylenol.”
“That defeats the spirit too, you know. Your body has power to heal without drugs.”
“Does it?” Ben laughs. Not loud, not hard—and he feels rude because it’s clear Cody doesn’t intend any of this as a joke. Then she moves her hands, slowly, and something changes. Things get quiet. There are suddenly no birds, no wind. The air itself goes reverent. Cody repeats, “I can heal your wife. She needs me more than the ranger station does.”
He doesn’t agree to drive her home with him—not right then. It takes her three days to persuade him—three “visitations,” he will later say. But it doesn’t feel like acquiescence when he agrees; it feels all right. Cody is a free spirit, willing to work, experienced not just as a “massage therapist,” the term he insists upon rather than “healer,” but as a nurse’s aide, and he does need help with Merry.
“I was a nurse’s aide ten months, that’s all,” Cody says as they pack his rust-rimmed trunk.
“That’s experience. That’s what I’ll pay you for: taking care of my wife’s physical needs. And—no offense—I prefer you keep quiet about these gifts. Don’t make her hope.” He shoves his backpack into a small space above the cooler.
“I didn’t say I have gifts.” She defends herself with familiar, quiet dignity. “I never would have known. It was the Cheyenne elder. He told me, in—”
“Montana. Yes. And it was Buffalo Woman in Blanding.”
“You get new visions every time you drop your suitcase.” He slams the trunk shut, then winks, making light of his disbelief.
“Not always. Sometimes.”
“I can’t wait for the visions you’ll get in our house,” Ben laughs.
She laughs with him, then repeats her theme. “I can heal her.”
His smile drops. “I’m serious, Cody. Don’t say that. I’m going [p.8] to introduce you to my family as a nurse who does some work with massage. Period.”
“How’s your ankle?”
“No. But I can tolerate the pain.”
“Let it go, Ben. You’re holding on to it.” She makes it more a question than statement.
He says, “Am I?” packing the words with doubt.
“You’re holding onto a lot of pain,” she says. “More than you know.”
Sad. Sweet. Warm. Steady. Tired.
Cody entered the Morgan family emotion when she entered their house—so strong it lifted her head and made her arms rise slightly. It spoke to her cells, moved through skin to sinew.
Ben, holding her suitcase, was leading her towards a cane-shaped lamp. But it was Merry—still unseen—who pulled her forward, the emotion getting brighter and stronger until Merry was before them, reclined, smiling on the burgundy couch.
Ben said, “Mer, this is Cody.”
Two white pillows supported Merry’s head. She had a face made to be beautiful but strained past beauty now, the skin tight, pale, shiny over cheekbones. Her hair—acorn-brown, dull, silver-streaked—was in need of shampooing; her smile built saliva in the mouth corners.
Was her smile the glow point of those feelings?
Warm. Steady. Weary.
Or was it beaming from Ben’s eyes? “I think you’ll like her, Mer.” He’d already set the stage, already told Merry the need [p.9] was plain: it was time for extra help, and he’d found an inexpensive “nurse” at Zion. As a result of his spraining his ankle.
From Merry’s eyes? Gold as Buffalo Woman’s. Eyes like a caged lion’s. Even without her glasses, Merry’s eyes would have shone. The glasses magnified them and reflected her visitor’s face. Those eyes could swallow anyone.
“Ben’s told me everything,” Cody said, kneeling to be level with Merry.
“I’m not a certified nurse. But I do have experience.” She looked at Ben for approval. He nodded, then called upstairs to his daughters. The girls tromped into the room, halting when Cody, still on her knees, raised her eyes to them.
Cody took them in. They were as Ben had described them: azure-eyed, dimpled Janny with waist-length, spiraled blonde hair; Elizabeth, rounder than her sister, hair shorter, straighter, closer to dishwater than blonde, goldish eyes like her mother’s— both girls regarding her with suspicion. And Ben in black-rimmed glasses, the sheen of his skin almost a glare where forehead merged with scalp, a face which, at that particular moment, wanted to die.
“Well, girls, I hired us a nurse,” Ben said. It was half announcement, half apology. “This is Cody. Cody, my daughters: Elizabeth, she’s just starting her senior year at Logan High. And Janny, she’s a sophomore.” He glanced at each when he said her name, then away.
Elizabeth and Janny watched their father, Elizabeth’s eyes clicking back and forth like the timer on a bomb.
“Your dad’s told me about you already,” said Cody. “Good things.”
Janny was staring her father down. “Dad, can I talk to you?”
“Don’t worry, Jan,” he answered. “Things are all right.”
“It’s time to face facts, isn’t it?” Ben turned not to Jan but to [p.10] Cody; the girls could catch his words on the ricochet. “You both missed school while I was at Zion.”
“Sister Olson canceled out at the last minute,” Elizabeth defended. “The Relief Society—”
“I only missed a half day,” Jan said. “Just geometry.”
“Aren’t you failing geometry?” He faced her now.
“No. I’m dropping it.”
“Oh, good solution. You need my permission for that, don’t you?”
“Shall we be honest?” he said, more softly.
“I am being.” Jan was sassy. Cody enjoyed her.
“I called the school counselor from Zion.” Ben’s quiet words were armored with his authority. “You missed a full day, Jan, not a half. And you’re failing history too. Are you planning on dropping that as well?”
“Isn’t it illegal for parents to spy on their children? Doesn’t that violate the First Amendment?”
“See?” he said. “You do need history.” He gave her an eager grin, which she didn’t return. “And Elizabeth—”
“We couldn’t leave Mom. She—”
“You had good reasons to stay with her, I’m not doubting that. But that’s not the issue.”
“I thought we couldn’t afford a nurse,” Jan said.
“We’ve worked something out. Cody’s being very generous—”
“Full time?” This was Elizabeth.
Sad. Sweet. Warm. Steady. Private, throbbing lights.
“Penny’s not here, is she,” Cody broke in.
“What did Dad tell you about our sister?” Elizabeth was smiling hard above her resistance.
“Just that she’s sad,” Cody answered. “She left her husband?”
[p.11] Elizabeth turned the same hard smile on her father. “Sounds like you filled her in.”
“Shall we give each other a chance?” he said.
Silence. Then the emotion, in warmer, stronger waves—yes, waves! This emotion bound the Morgan family like a ghost embracing them, bringing them into its heart, baptizing them again and again in an intimate, pulsing ocean. Aching, yearning, tender heart-waves breaking, then pulling them all in.
This is Merry’s soul. An ocean.
When Merry groaned, Jan and Elizabeth exchanged a glance.
“She wants to talk to us,” Elizabeth said. “If you don’t mind.”
Cody touched Merry’s fingers. “You talk?”
“She spells,” said Jan. “We go down the alphabet and she blinks on the letter she wants. Her mind’s all right. Don’t treat her like she’s retarded.”
“I need to learn,” said Cody. “Let me watch.”
Elizabeth inched away from Cody’s fingers. “Mom?”
A blink, then nothing, then Merry’s moan. The process began.
“First half?” said Elizabeth.
“A? B? C? D?”
“D. Second letter. First half?”
Cody knew instantly what Merry was spelling. “Dad. Dad’s right. Is that it, Merry?”
“Dad’s right.” And she knew the second part. She could feel the thoughts resting in Merry’s mind like snow on a roof, melting drop by drop when the girls offered the alphabet, sliding [p.12] down the ice of her paralysis, landing with a blink. Cody wouldn’t have been surprised to see each blink produce a tear. “About me?” she said, comprehending the whole. “About having me here?”
Again Merry blinked, firmly.
“You’re good at this.” Elizabeth’s voice strained for a pleasant tone while Jan nurtured the accusing part of her silence.
“Part of my gift, I suppose.” Ben shot her a “NO” glance, and she amended herself: “I hope I’ll be good at it.”
“I’m sure you will.” Elizabeth’s politeness was painful. “Anyway, I need to finish the dishes. Excuse me.”
“And I need to rinse them,” said Jan. “Desperately.”
“Good to meet you, Cody.” Elizabeth’s tone was so cold it burned.
Ben shifted his weight, shrugged another apology as his daughters made for the kitchen. “Like I said, they don’t accept strangers well. I told you, we’re tight. Neither one brings friends home.” He stepped towards the door. “Let me get your bags.” And he left her with Merry.
Which Cody was glad of. She wanted to be alone with her, and knelt again. “Merry, I know you,” she said. “In Blanding, when I was learning some Navajo ways, I saw a vision. You ever heard of Buffalo Woman?” She took Merry’s hand, beginning a subdued petrissage, kneading the knuckles with her thumb. “Not many people have. But I saw her. I was in a sweat hut, learning how they do things in the Navajo world, and there she was—dancing!” She moved the hand, held it, then set it gently back onto Merry’s lap. “Dressed in white leather, riding a white buffalo. And she had your eyes. Those same gold eyes.” She rubbed her own hands together rapidly till she could see spiritual sparks. Then she made a circle around Merry’s head. “Can you feel my fingers?”
“When you don’t blink, does that mean ‘No?’”
Now she blinked.
[p.13] “What I’m doing—I swear I’m not crazy—I’m touching your aura. Our spirits go far beyond the physical, you know. Your aura doesn’t have any disease. It’s very bright.” She stroked Merry’s other hand, then held both hands in her own, squeezing, willing her energy into Merry’s flesh. “I’m going to heal you. You’ll be so glad I’ve come.” She squeezed again. “I can feel your blood pulse.” She squeezed. “There are oceans inside you. Aren’t there.”
Ben carried her suitcases into the sunroom. “We’ll put you here for now. The bathroom’s there if you need anything.”
Cody admitted she did “need something” and excused herself.
Ben went to his wife. “I’ve hardly even said ‘Hi’ since I got back,” he said. “Hi.”
Merry moaned to spell. He already knew what was coming and voiced the words for her. “How was Zion?”
“Great. Beautiful. I love it in the fall. Seems like yesterday we camped out there, doesn’t it?”
“And yes, I got some good work done on the book. Maybe I’ll finish next year. Then I’ll need to fill out all those forms to request the promotion. Remember when we did that last time? All right, ‘we’ didn’t do it, you did it. I’d say the promotion’s a given after the book’s done. If we’re careful, we can afford that van by then—the one I was telling you about. There’ll be room for your wheelchair and a spare. And the rear seats fold down to make a bed. We could go places.”
Merry moaned. He went down the alphabet until she had blinked out, “Apply yourself.”
“I intend to,” he said. “Now about Cody. Please don’t worry [p.14] about her, okay? Don’t be suspicious. There’s no reason. You like her, right? I know—it’s too soon to ask.”
He hadn’t seen Cody enter, but she was suddenly there, saying, “Cody likes Merry. Cody loves her. I knew I would.”
“Well.” Ben stood. “I’m glad things are working out. Listen, it’s getting late. Why don’t I take my wife upstairs to bed.”
“You do that every evening?” Cody asked.
“That’s a big burden.”
“Maybe you don’t need to. Not tonight. I’d like to be near her anyway. Why not let her stay put? I’ll hear if she needs something.”
Ben hesitated but his muscles were sore, his arms resisting the thought of Merry’s weight. “Is that all right with you, Mer?”
After a moment, she blinked.
“Just for tonight.” He kissed her forehead before leaving.
Outside the window, lit by the moon, Elizabeth was flying. She seemed suspended in air for a full second before finishing her cartwheel.
“Oh the gymnast,” said Cody. “Can you see your daughter?” She lifted Merry’s head.
Elizabeth was dancing now, making long moves and stretches that seemed to welcome the night slowly.
“She’s grace in a body, isn’t she,” Cody said.
Elizabeth was running, then leaping, curling into the air as though she were motion itself, breaking free of the weighty earth.
Cody sang Merry a dream using sounds from another land and time, the words her former lover—a Cakchiquel Indian, son of [p.15] a “Magic Man”—had given her two months before he left to go south:
Shavey on tay
Merry dozes off and dreams. What she sees:
Ben is leading his students through the Zion Narrows. A mountain range—peaks like a woman’s blue-veined breasts— surrounds him, entombs, enwombs him, and his face hates the prison. But slowly the mountains crumble. Then not slowly.
The stones tinkle like brass pebbles when they hit earth, but no stone harms Ben; each adores him. He watches this undoing of nature until only a stone woman is left. The wind is sighing. As he steps towards the statue, it moves. First a finger, then one arm, then both. He moves his hands as the statue moves hers.
He is coming to life too.
Cody knew what Merry was dreaming because Cody was having the same dream. She listened to the bell sounds of those falling rocks until she sensed Ben’s presence. She opened her eyes.
“Did you want something, Ben?” She was only a little woozy.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You’re used to having her beside you, aren’t you.”
“Why are you sleeping on the floor? Is there a problem with your bed?”
She sat up. “I usually sleep on the ground. And I wanted to be next to her. She’s all right, you don’t have to worry. Let me take care of things.”
“Habit.” He turned to leave.
“I was dreaming,” Cody called him back.
“Sorry I interrupted.”
“No, you were in the dream.”
[p.16] “Caught between rock walls, and there was—I guess—an earthquake. And the rocks, when they fell, made music. They loved you, Ben, every pebble.”
“You put a lot of stock in dreams, don’t you.”
“I don’t dream much.”
She looked at Merry, who was still sleeping soundly. Moonlight was coming through the window and her hair and skin glowed; she was beautiful. “No, you do dream. You dream her back. Out of the disease.”
Ben scratched at his baldness—the action Cody had already identified as his signal of resistance. “That’s a good guess.” He faced her.
“Not a guess.”
Again he scratched, then turned to leave but didn’t.
“She’s lovely,” said Cody.
“You know her better than you know anyone in the world.”
He paused. “I did once. But she’s gone to where I can’t follow. I don’t know what it’s like for her now.”
“Tar pit,” she said.
“Haven’t you seen the tar pits in California? All those bones—ancient animals just walking towards some good food until they started sinking. It was a tar pit, and they were sinking too deep to ever get out. That’s what it’s like.”
He sighed. “I used to be able to read her mind.”
“You were that close?”
“When her speech went, we communicated with looks. For months, we did that. Then she wanted more.” Cody couldn’t see his features because it was so dark, but she could hear the bitter edge to his words, taste his moldy resentment. “So we broke language down to letters, broke communication down to a blink. That’s how we do everything now: we break it into pieces.”
[p.17] “And every piece loves you.”
“That’s the dream. Those falling rocks? Those are her cells, Ben. Every bit of her body that’s falling apart.” She could feel his gaze move past her to Merry. “Every piece loves you.” She waited for his answer. It didn’t come. “You’re tired,” she said.
“She knows. Go on back to bed, Ben. She’s doing fine where she is. With me.” Once more he turned to leave and once more she stopped him. “Ben?”
“I’ll do everything I can to make my gifts work for her. I want you to know that. Whatever I can do to heal her, I’ll do it.”
“Please,” he moaned, head bowed, “I thought we agreed you wouldn’t say—”
“She’s asleep. It’s just you and me, and you know why I’m here. So what are you afraid of? That I’ll succeed?”
His head jerked up, then dropped fast. “What I wouldn’t give.”
“Just—what I told you before. Don’t get your hopes up. Or anyone else’s. Please.”
“Come on, you didn’t bring me here just so I could—.”
“You’re scared of your own desires, aren’t you.”
“Your desires to heal her. You don’t want to hope, but you do.”
He took a heavy step towards her. “Look, I’m serious about this. I happen to know how damaged my wife’s nerves are. I’m an expert on that.”
“Yep. Keep reminding yourself.” She watched his gaze move to Merry. “Have you ever thought,” she said, “that there are other ways she can get better—besides through her nerves?”
[p.18] “I can’t think of anything we haven’t tried. Vitamin E. Hypnosis. Acupuncture. Standard Mormon stuff too: fasting and prayer.”
“Me. You haven’t tried me.” His eyes honed in on her as she continued: “There’s something starting to happen already. I feel it. I can’t tell where it’s leading—not yet. But I know there are things I can do for her.”
“Then do them—but without fantasy, please.” He turned.
“Ben? She loves you so much. She wants to get better for you. As much as for herself.”
“Good night,” he said.
Elizabeth: Wavering. Hurt. Strong and determined. Uncertain. Closed off. Cody couldn’t get her fully, though she tried to as they bathed Merry.
“She’s got heavy bones,” Cody said, holding Merry in sitting position as Elizabeth unzipped the dress and took it down. It was an ugly dress, faded blue gingham, threadbare, decades out of style. “Heavy bones.”
“We’re used to her.”
“Amazing, isn’t it. What a person can get used to?” Cody soaked and soaped a washrag, moved it over Merry’s neck and back, drizzling milky drops, wiping them slowly. Around her breasts, under her breasts, down her ribs, down her arms.
“How’d you meet my dad?” Elizabeth twisted Merry’s body so Cody could get the hips. They were long, graceful strokes now, like she was polishing a floor. Cody had put the washrag away and poured minty lotion onto her hands.
“Effleurage,” she said.
“That’s what we call this way of massage. Fan stroking. Goes [p.19] deep into the body system, relaxes the nerves. And I met your dad by miracle. At Zion.” She massaged silently for another minute. “Return her to sitting, please,” she said. Elizabeth did, then arranged a towel under Merry’s chin. Cody removed the weighty glasses and took her hands to Merry’s face, gently around those lion eyes, over the brow. “I had a vision. I was told to go to Zion, simple as that.”
“Oh.” The word bulged with skepticism, a balloon of anti-faith.
“I didn’t know the name Zion,” Cody continued, “only the way it looked. I thought maybe I was supposed to help injured hikers, so I made myself available for that—for a few months, anyways. Sold maps at the ranger station, and when someone got hurt, I took care of them. Your dad got hurt. His ankle. So I took care of him.” She began singing, a melody that had moved into her mind like fumes.
Elizabeth’s eyes went wide. “I thought you weren’t Mormon.”
“Where’d you learn that song then?”
“Is it a Mormon one?”
“I thought it was.” She touched her mother’s long hair. “You used to sing it on Sundays, didn’t you, Mom?”
“Maybe it’s a Mormon song then,” said Cody. “Maybe I learned it in Blanding, I don’t remember. I just felt it in the room, that’s all. Wanting to be sung. Does it go like this?” She tried four notes; the lyrics hadn’t presented themselves yet.
“I noticed you did the laundry,” Elizabeth said abruptly. “You didn’t have to. Janny and I each have a day.”
“I wanted to help.” Cody was examining Merry’s ankle just as she had examined Ben’s.
“You don’t have to do everything. We don’t want you to.”
“Okay, I’ll remember that. She’s getting a bedsore. You have any hydrogen peroxide?”
[p.20] Elizabeth reached behind the couch and handed her the brown bottle.
“You’re efficient,” Cody said as she cat-stroked the ankle. “Administer this twice a day and Mr. Bedsore won’t be putting up a tent. The infection’s at the reddest part, see that?”
“I’ve seen bedsores. It’s called ‘Dearest Children, God Is Near You.’”
“The bedsore?” She was trying to joke her way into Elizabeth’s grace.
“The song, duh.” No dice. Elizabeth stepped back.
“Is it? Yes. I think you’re right. I like your Mormon songs.” She filled the cap and poured it around the red spot on Merry’s ankle. It fizzed slightly. “I like your Mormon ways,” she went on, the rhythm of her words in time with her gentle, minty strokes across Merry’s foot. “I like that temple on the hill. Especially at night when it’s all lit up. Looks like a beacon for angels. I can imagine blue lights across its front door: ‘Welcome God!’”
“‘The House of the Lord’ is what it says.”
“Pretty much the same. I like the way you Mormons see things. In that temple—isn’t this right?—you can do things for people who are dead? That’s a good thought.”
“We are that close, we humans. One of us can stand in for another, even for someone who’s dead.” She moved her hands back to Merry’s arms and shoulders. “Of course, what I’ve mostly heard about Mormons is polygamy.”
“We don’t do that anymore. People who do that get exed.”
“But it’s still in your past, part of who you are, always will be.”
“Not my favorite part. Are we done?”
Cody tried to read past Elizabeth’s resistance. “Do I make you nervous?”
“No.” But Elizabeth looked away and out the window where [p.21] rain clouds were converging. “Mom likes yogurt,” she said. “And she doesn’t choke on it. If you want to give her some, it’s in the fridge, bottom shelf.”
“You’re nervous around strangers?” She was bracing Merry with one arm, massaging her with the other.
Now Elizabeth met Cody’s eyes. “Do you bleach your hair?”
“I did. I might let the bleach grow out now.” Her words came again with the same rhythm as the circles she was kneading into Merry’s back. “Is it my hair you don’t like?”
“It’s the way you talk.”
“Do I have an accent?”
“No. Not the way you talk, just the things you say.”
“I sense things and talk about them. That’s all. Most people sense things and keep quiet till they forget.”
“There’s lavender perfume in the desk drawer. Mom likes to smell good after a bath.”
“Yep. She does. Though she’s a little tired of lavender.”
Elizabeth pursed her lips. “Mom?” she asked. “Are you—”
“She’d like something fruity,” Cody said. “Strawberry or lemon.”
“I’ll put it on the list.” Elizabeth’s words were numb.
“Does it make you nervous that I can feel a song in the air?”
“I’m not nervous. I told you.”
“But that wasn’t true, what you told me. You’re nervous.”
“I guess you know me better than I do, then.”
“I sense things and talk about them. I said that.”
“We’re not used to strangers moving in.”
Cody’s strokes got lighter. She moved her hand over Merry’s back, then shook her fingers into the air as though they were covered with uncomfortable goo.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth asked.
[p.22] “Negative energy. I’m thinking light, love, peace, and discarding the rest. Sending it into the void.”
“Oh. There’s a good idea.”
“Light, love, peace. LLP. I suppose I’m pretty casual just moving in like this. New places never frighten me. I drink them up. Besides that, I belong here.” She flicked her fingers.
“Don’t I belong here, Merry?”
“And don’t worry.” She directed her words to Elizabeth, willing them into any holes in her shell. “I’m not after your dad.”
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped. “Man, are you good!”
“Because I could tell what you were thinking?”
She let herself laugh. “Yeah.”
Cody nodded, then repeated more slowly: “I’m not after your dad.”
She nodded twice more, solemnly, ending the massage. “I promise.”
“Okay.” Elizabeth kissed her mother quickly on the forehead. “We’re done, right?”
“Yep,” said Cody. “Done. Next time we do this, though, I want her lying down so I can involve both my hands. Things happen better that way. I’ll just brush her hair for now.”
“Then I’ll head out,” Elizabeth said. “Mom? Can I get you anything?”
Merry’s eyes stayed open.
“I’ll just do some gymnastics.”
As Elizabeth left, Cody sensed the walls closing in again— even stronger now. Elizabeth had opened up slightly, but it was her habit to tunnel through life, poking her head above ground only when certain the world was safe.
“I like her,” Cody told Merry.
“Yep. I do. A lot.”