Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.23] The sun had just set and the lawn was losing its color. Elizabeth didn’t feel like backflips or roundoffs, just slow stretches. Splits. Long handstands. Scales. As she exercised, she thought of Joe Kelby, her English teacher of one month, and Penny’s estranged husband.
She called him “Mr. Kelby,” but “Joe” felt more comfortable. Still, this was high school and you don’t call your English teacher “Joe.”
He’d grown a gingery mustache over summer break. His hair was chestnut, at least two inches longer than the Cache Valley norm. He was wearing a Lost in Space tie. Joe had an incredible tie collection. Sometimes he wove his old ties together into “tie sculptures” and once did an art exhibit called “All Tied Up.” His favorites were from television shows of the 1960s.
He’d winked at her as she came in. “Good to see you,” he said.
Bob Evans mimicked, “Good to see you.” Bob was Elizabeth’s former neighbor who now stank of tobacco and looked like the other kids who hung out behind the school after hours: pony-tailed brown hair, perpetual pimples on his neck.
“Done your reading, Bob?” Joe asked.
“Oh sure. Three times. Hemingway rocks.” Bob straddled his seat and sat.
“He was a misogynist,” Joe said.
“Oh, a club. For men only. You’d make a good member.”
Bob grinned. A triangle was chipped between his front teeth.
Joe stroked his mustache as the bell rang. “I guess that means we start class, huh? Any questions on The Old Man and the Sea?”
“Any questions on anything?”
“Anything?” said Bob.
“Any damn thing.” Some of the girls gasped, feigning shock at Joe’s free use of a cuss word—something generally reserved [p.24] for people who smoked and had pre-marital sex and did other non-Mormon things and who eventually either repented or left Cache Valley and become debauched. Elizabeth and Bob Evans laughed.
“Life, love, old men, seas—anything,” Joe said.
“Sex?” said Bob.
“Sorry, you have to know enough to ask good questions.” Joe grinned.
Bob recovered with, “Mary Jo wants to know if you’re married.”
Mary Jo squealed and hit him like a kitten. “I do not!”
“I think I’m married.” Joe glanced at Elizabeth. “Still. To Lizzy’s sister.”
“Call me Elizabeth, please,” she whispered.
“To ELIZABETH’S sister. Penny.” Joe’s eyes turned sad.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Elizabeth said to herself now, executing a scale. She could see Merry’s head, Cody’s arm supporting it from underneath. She knew Merry loved to watch her fly, so she finished her exercise with an aerial and a handspring, her arms spread wide to the sky.
Cody found Merry’s journal her third day in the Morgan house. Or rather, it found her, led her to it, hidden behind an old set of Compton’s encyclopedias on a dusty shelf upstairs. No one had written in it for years.
The first entry was dated October 10, 1971. So this was Merry’s handwriting: smooth, light-handed, all the letters rounded, the “i’s” dotted with little hearts:
I think my bridesmaids will have to pry me from California, I really do. I get claustrophobic thinking of mountains in place of [p.25] ocean. A mountained world feels so contained, walled up, heavy!
But there’s Ben. In Utah.
I get claustrophobic thinking of life without him, too. He’s the opening of my eternities. That much I’m sure of.
As far as my preparations for marriage go: I have quit cursing the oil companies out loud so I can get a temple recommend to marry him. In the Salt Lake temple, December 16. The date is final.
I do love him. Gee, he even went on a mission for me! (Or maybe it was for God.) What a fella!
But will I ever be happy without the ocean?
That last question still hovered in the air.
The house smelled of Lysol when Elizabeth returned from school. Merry was propped up on three pillows, and Cody—
intent and serious and strange—was folding laundry beside her.
“Did Janny get back?” Elizabeth asked.
Cody did a quick eye search as she folded Ben’s jeans. “Not yet.”
Elizabeth kissed her mother’s forehead. “Want some yogurt, Mom?”
“She just had some. Twenty minutes ago. Peach isn’t her favorite. Someone ought to buy raspberry; there’s only peach in the fridge.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth shifted her weight. “You’re doing laundry again. It’s Jan’s day.”
“She’s not here. By the way, I’ve been thinking about you.” Cody folded the last two towels. “So what shall we do?”
“You’re a gymnast. God gave you a gift. And you barely use it. What shall we do?”
[p.26] “It’s fifty bucks a month to be on the team. Does that explain things?” Elizabeth walked towards the kitchen. “Would you excuse me? I’m famished.”
Cody followed her to the fridge, towels in her arms. “Oh, I know all about you having to sacrifice for Merry. But don’t give up! That could be what makes the difference in her healing. I saw it in her face yesterday. When she was watching you?”
Elizabeth poured herself a bowl of corn flakes.
“God gave you movement—what your mom’s lost, and her heart knows it. Her eyes, when you did the—what was that? A backflip?”
“Handspring.” Her mouth was full.
“Her eyes lit up—flamed up.”
“And it’s twelve miles away.”
“Has she called?”
“No. I’d better put the towels away,” Cody said.
“Yeah. You’d better.” Elizabeth begrudged her a three-quarter smile, ate a last spoonful of cornflakes, then stayed at the table, not moving.
She had a good idea where Jan was—or at least with whom. Jan announced to her three days ago that she was “in love,” and that afternoon Elizabeth had met the object: Josh Stanger. She hated him at once. He was handsome, no denying that—too much so for his own good or Janny’s. He had cat eyes; they were hungry, deep grey, and prowling for sex. Josh Stanger wore his libido like black leather.
The front door slammed open and shut.
“Jan?” Elizabeth called.
[p.27] “I’m with Mom,” Jan called back.
“You want corn flakes?”
Then Jan was beside her, whispering, “I’ve been with him.”
“He took me someplace.”
Elizabeth raised her brows as Janny poured herself a glass of milk. “Where?”
“A cave.” She described the scene in detail: streams, aspens, breezes. Dark.
“A cave?” Elizabeth repeated. “He couldn’t be more subtle?”
“He lost his mother last year.” Janny sat at the table. “I remind him of her. He told me that and he cried. It broke my heart.”
Elizabeth dropped her bowl into the sink. “Did you go inside the cave?” She was using her Mommy voice like she was playing house. It was not the role she wanted, but it called her. The Mommy voice came with the Mommy lines and Mommy fears.
“Of course, I did.”
“You idiot.” She fell into her chair. “Could have been a wild animal in there.”
“Josh and I were the only wild animals.”
“Puh-leese.” She noticed Janny’s spiraled hair—more messy than usual.
“Lighten up, it’s a joke.”
“Did you do anything?” Flat accusation. Janny hesitated. “Well?”
“I kissed his cheeks where he cried.”
“Give me a break. You kissed his cheeks. That’s all?”
Elizabeth put her head in her hands. “It was your laundry day.”
“I’ll get to it.”
“Too late. Cody’s done it.”
They looked out the window as though Cody’s name had drawn them to her. She was in the back yard, exercising, or [p.28] dancing, or conjuring, or inviting angels from the skies with sweeping arms.
“Weirdling,” said Jan. “I hate her.”
“You ought to get your homework done,” Elizabeth said.
“Thanks, Mom.” Jan pouted herself out the door.
Shavey on tay.
The dream Cody sang Merry into: wedding day.
A bride sits in a black Camaro beside her husband. Her white coat covers all but her gown’s satin hem.
The snows end, blown steadily away by the warm breath of God. Hyacinths sprout and bloom, so sweet and potent the bride can smell them through the windows. She wants to take off her coat, but it won’t let itself be undone. She pulls at it, tries to shred it with her fingernails, but it’s stuck. As she yanks the buttons, the groom says, “I think we’ve missed the reception. I’m sorry.”
The hyacinths stay in her dreams. She breathes the sweetness all night long, hours after she’s given up on the coat. She’s surprised to smell her own urine—not hyacinths—when she awakens, just after dawn.