Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.28] Merry’s Journal:
Dec. 28, 1971
I love being married. Truly. The sex part took some getting [p.29] used to, but I have faith it’ll get better, and it is.
We’ve got a cute little apartment in Logan where Ben’s finishing up his grad work and selling gemstones (he polishes them himself) on the side. I miss the ocean—oh yes, I won’t deny it— and I miss all the flowers of California, but I know I can be happy here, and I plan on it.
It may be we don’t stay permanently anyways. I don’t mean we’ll necessarily be heading back to California. Ben needs another year to finish up his dissertation, and what with that stupid, stupid war in Vietnam, we’ve talked about heading up north to Canada, and we just might. Or south to Guatemala, the great mission territory.
At heart, I guess, I’m a hippie. We both are, I guess. Mormon hippies. Is that an oxymoron?
Did you go to Canada, Merry?
Did you live there long?
Beatles music. “Let It Be.”
“Strawberry Fields Forever.”
I’m seeing it. Roses, marigolds, crook-neck squash, concord grapes.
Yes. I remember.
The mums were in bloom. They had appeared faithfully since Merry planted them years ago, though no longer as little yellow bundles but untidy masses. The tulips and daffodils had come [p.30] up in tight clumps that spring, and no one had plotted time to thin them. The hyacinths hadn’t made it at all. There were other flowers Merry had planted along the sidewalk border and beside the front porch—dianthus and sweet william—that now either sprawled across their borders or were expiring between weeds.
Merry’s daughters were always promising to weed and thin or divide bulbs, but there was rarely enough time, so the garden was in a colorful metastasis—all sorts of pretty things showing up where they didn’t belong.
Janny picked seven brown and yellow mums. Yes, there was still yearly evidence of Merry’s presence, still fragrant reminders of her touch. Though there were other things Jan had in mind when she gave her mother the flowers.
Josh had taken her to the cave again, kissed her wildly on her lips and neck. He had tried to go farther, and she had stopped him. But she couldn’t forget his hands, eyes, mouth, the way he could wake her up.
“Mum’s the word. They’re up,” she said to her mother, thinking other things.
Cody appeared almost instantly with a vase for the flowers, as though she had been biding her time until Janny thought to pick them.
Jan dropped the mums into the vase and abruptly excused herself to make a sandwich. Cody followed.
“I can do it on my own,” Jan mewed.
“I know. I just thought we should talk?”
Cody made her statements lilt up like questions. Jan made questions into declarations.
“We should get to know each other better, shouldn’t we? Merry says you’re a poet. I love poetry.” Cody sat on the table, legs dangling. “You like Emily Dickinson?”
Jan spread the peanut butter thick and took a bite. “No.”
“That’s all there is.”
[p.31] “Jack Kerouac?”
“Never heard of him.”
“You can learn to like him. You can learn to like almost anything, anyone. Even someone you think you despise.”
Jan took another bite.
Cody swung her legs, waiting. She spoke, finally, in a confidential whisper: “I watched my mom turn silent, too. Five years ago after my dad left us. Something happened to her brain. She went mute. I watched her eyes go empty, watched her face quit working. So I learned to talk to her without words. I learned to feel what she wanted to say.”
She fixed Jan with a hard look. “I want to take care of your mother,” she said. “That’s why I’m here. And I want to be your friend, too. We need to be friends so we can build peace in this house. Your mom requires that.”
Jan tore her eyes from Cody’s and focused on the last bite of her sandwich. “Why aren’t you taking care of your own mother?” she asked.
“She’s in a home. Made me too sad, finally. To see her.”
“So you gave up on her.”
“It wasn’t my choice.”Jan popped the last of the sandwich into her mouth. “Okay. Thanks for sharing that,” she said in her sweetest, falsest voice.
Cody said, “Knock knock,” as she opened Ben’s door.
He turned to her, startled, reaching out involuntarily with [p.32] both hands, then returning to his rocks, embarrassed. She had looked so much like Merry, years ago. Short, bleached hair. Gold-brown eyes. Tanned, smooth skin. And he was doing something he hadn’t done in a long time: cutting and polishing gems. With Cody taking care of his wife, a part of him relaxed enough to let him return to his lab, which Merry had supplied with top-of-the-line lapidary equipment one Christmas nearly a decade ago.
“No, it’s all right. Time I should be quitting anyway.” He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes.
“What is that—the blue stone?”
“Sapphire.” He held it up, turning it glittering in the light.
“Your eyes are that kind of blue.”
“Hobby of mine, getting into rocks.”
“To be honest, I haven’t been able to do lapidary for a while.” He offered her the sapphire.
“Oh, the average pressures. Or the above-average ones. You’ve removed some of the pressure, by the way. I haven’t thanked you adequately.” On this, he produced an impersonal smile.
“Have I?” She thumbed the gem, turned it over and over in her palm.
“Oh yes. All the little things you do. Just the times you’re with her. You’re opening space.”
She hummed a satisfied sound—the viola again, tuning up. “You were paralyzed, too, weren’t you? Inside?”
He looked past her, as though he could see through the wall to Merry. “In a way.”
“And I’m moving you—letting you move again?”
He shrugged. “I’ve gotten three chapters done on my book. And I’m playing with stones again.”
[p.33] She held the gem to her eye, looked at him through it. “That’s a good start.”
A long sigh was his answer. “You still have the idea you’ll touch her one day with those magic fingers of yours and she’ll get up and do a jig, don’t you?”
“Not a jig.”
“Did you ever consider that just your being with her is enough?”
Still watching him through the stone, she countered easily, “But it’s not. I need to do more.”
“I used to say that to myself, but finally, you can’t. Finally, you just need someone to intervene.”
Cody’s hair was growing out, he noticed. She was changing in ways he couldn’t identify, though he could sense some elusive differences. As she returned the sapphire, he could smell her clean, baby-powder scent—also a different smell from the earthy, musky fragrance she had worn her first week in the house.
“I need to get closer to her,” she said. “So close I know everything she wants. I can heal her heart that way.”
He set the gem on his desk and rubbed his brow. “Heal her heart?”
“If I can heal her heart, the nerves will hardly matter.” The energy was very like what Merry once had, her head bowed the way Merry’s was when the disease first started its progress up her neck. There were subtle ways she seemed to be mocking his memories.
“You think they won’t.”
She lifted her head and asked him point-blank if he believed in God.
He laughed. “What?”
“God.” She glanced over the scattered stones on his desk. “Here you are, this Mormon geology professor whose wife has m.s. Don’t geologists preach evolution? Survival of the fittest? Where does God come in? What do you tell your students?”
[p.34] “Most of them don’t pay much attention, so it doesn’t matter what I tell them. I can apologize for the way things are. But you can’t get away from dinosaur fossils in Utah—not with Vernal so close, those walled bones.”
“I’ve heard about those.”
“So you can’t get away from evolution either. That’s just how it is.” He wiped his glasses with a Kleenex.
“Tell them, ‘Believe, despite the evidence.’”
“Right.” Glasses on, he returned to the sapphire abruptly. How did she get into his mind like that? She was paraphrasing him, a line he had used on Merry years ago. “You and Job and Anne Frank—believing despite the evidence.” “No,” Merry had said. “Not despite. Beyond.” He could barely remember her voice.
“Believe despite,” Cody repeated.
He hummed a sound that became, “Maybe.” Then, “Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?”
She sat on the foot ladder by his bookshelves. “The ocean.”
“Merry misses it,” she announced. “So we’ve got to let her have it back.”
This was not news. This was the vibration of a very old elastic in his head. “If there were a good way to do that, I would,” he murmured, closing his eyes. “At the drop of a hat. I’ve thought about it. A lot.”
“She needs the ocean, Ben.”
“I know that.” He did, better than he knew rocks.
They had met at the ocean. It was Santa Barbara, 1968, and the ocean’s heart had burst. Brassy waves heaved carrion to shore, sea foam glistening with beaded oil.
The volunteers worked mostly in silence, rubbing solvent on gulls’ bodies, dropping dead fish into buckets.
Merry worked apart from most of the others. She was giving [p.35] way to tears so much it embarrassed her, she would tell him later. Ben watched her from a distance as he worked, too shy to approach—so awkward with women, so tongue-tied. He did what had to be done. It was for the gulls and wheezing sea lions, and he didn’t even introduce himself to her at first. Though he noticed everything she did.
She hardly raised her head as she worked—though once, when she held up a gull’s gummed wing and then wailed to the sky, a photographer took her picture. His bag said Life. Merry bowed her head like she was praying and made the gull a deathbed of her hands.
The sky was clouding, rain materializing like sweat, vague flashes of lightning playing on the horizon. The small, dull sun was an aspirin sinking into the ocean’s mouth. Another gull lurched towards her.
Ben could smell the fish, the briny oil, death. Even now. Though the volunteers had grown used to it, there were moments after rainfall when they remembered how alien and awful those odors were.
As the storm began in earnest, some of the volunteers headed for their cars. The lightning flashes were getting nearer and more specific: pitchforks and crooked staffs, the devil hooting it up.
Merry was not about to leave, and Ben knew that. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast—he knew that, too—and lightning was making the place dangerous.
He took two big steps towards her. He could see the gull in her hands, its breast rising weakly and collapsing again like impotent waves. Swell. Release.
“Storm’s on the way.” He wished his voice would come out stronger, endow itself with confidence.
Merry glanced at him. “I doubt it.”
“I think you ought to go home. It’s getting late.”
She gave him a long look. Her voice wasn’t mean, but the words were hard. It was a soft, tired, hungry voice. “What you [p.36] may not understand is that this is my ocean. Government’s not paying me, and I’m not an import from Colorado. This is mine. I don’t just walk out.”
He bit his lip. “I’m from Utah, actually.”
A dull glance was her answer.
“I didn’t mean you should leave and not come back,” he added. “The lightning.” Clouds had indeed gathered closer, blue light shimmering inside them. Ben glanced back at his footprints. “I think it might pack some power.” When he turned to her, she held out her hand, not for him to take but to see. It was veined, as his was, with oil and sand.
“I should arrest you,” she said.
He had already begun to step back. Her words pushed him off balance. He swayed, then caught himself. He said, “What?”
“Citizen’s arrest. For wearing that shirt.”
He looked down. Exxon was threaded across his breast pocket. From his internship last summer.
Her voice still gentle, she said, “You don’t wear an Exxon shirt to clean up an oil spill.”
“No, I—. It was all I had. Left over from my internship. I’ll do the wash tomorrow, scout’s honor. My other shirts—.”
“You did an internship with Exxon?”
“Would it help if I said I was a spy?”
“For which side?” Her eyes were already twinkling in that mischievous, forgiving, “I’ve got a secret” way he would learn to adore.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” he defended meekly. “Cleaning up like you.”
“I’m not really this rude.” She sighed long. “Sorry. So you’re from Utah.”
“My name’s Ben Morgan.”
“More or less.”
“Me, too. More.”
“Really? You’re not kidding, are you?” It was rare to meet [p.37] fellow Mormons on California beaches. “Sounds like we have a few things in common then.”
“You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Merry Boswell. You can call me Sister Boswell.” She grinned. “Or Merry. Or Mer.”
“As in la mer?”
“As in ‘The Ol’ Grey Mare.’” While she spoke, the gull died in her hands. She closed her eyes briefly and set it with the other carcasses in a barrel. Two tears oozed crookedly down her cheeks, catching on the sand along her jawbone, leaving pink lines. “Maybe you’re right. Lightning can be dangerous,” she said.
“Can I buy you a taco?”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “That sounds good.”
A week after that conversation, Ben and Merry were standing by the sea, letting little waves lap at their toes. They had worked together daily, learned they both loved the Beatles, hated the Vietnam war, loved the sea.
There were not so many dead animals on the beach by that time, though the waves were still bleeding oil, the ocean streaked and splotched with great masses of it: huge, glistening, flat gems that flashed murky rainbows with the sea’s undulations, amoeba-like in shape and movement, but big as whales. It was then that he asked her if she believed in God. She answered, “You betcha.”
“Boy, you and Job and Anne Frank,” he teased, his speech fluid now and easy. “Believing despite the evidence.”
“No, not despite. Beyond. You have to look deeper than death, Benj.” She smiled the “deep Merry” smile he would learn to love. “See, beyond those greasy waves, the ocean’s still doing what it’s always done. Beyond this shore there’s all that sea life, deeper than man will ever go. Past the reach of the most evil designs. Infinite, almost.”
He stroked her hair. The sun had brought out its highlights. [p.38] Some of it was nearly blond, others parts gold, some chestnut brown, some as dark as soil. He knew he would never love anyone as he loved her, and he kissed her instead of trying to tell her so.
They married twenty-eight months later, after he did a stint as a missionary, since Merry would not consider hitching up with a fellow who hadn’t “served a mission.”
They honeymooned in Hawaii. “Are you my wife?” he had said to her on their wedding night, awed by her beauty.
He could picture her, standing beside their marriage bed. And riding the waves like a goddess.
Oh yes, he knew she needed the ocean!
June 7, 1972
I’m pregnant, I love my husband, and here we are in Elizabeth, Canada. We’re in a studio apartment just half a block from an adorable commune. Ben mostly works on his dissertation all day, but I’ve become friends with several hippies and even planted some bare-root strawberries in their garden. Pregnancy is okay, but I get sick a lot. Like I got some squid on sale last Friday and cooked it up in tomato sauce because I thought that sounded so exotic, and I can still taste it. I swear, if I even hear the word SQUID, I have to waste my breakfast. In fact, I have to go vomit right now because I wrote THAT WORD.
I’m back, but a day has gone by since that last entry. I got so sick after writing THAT WORD that I finally just went to bed.
Ben and I had our first disagreement last night, but it didn’t last too long—a few hours. It’s just that he is so anal-retentive, [p.39] such head-without-heart, that’s the problem—so obsessively organized—and it feels like sometimes I don’t fit into his schedule, and I am so damn sick. But then again, maybe I am hyper-sensitive because of the pregnancy, which is what Ben thinks. Maybe I’m hyper-sensitive about anal-retentive people—did that ever occur to him?
Anyway, I’m getting over the fight—gradually. And I really do love my husband. Except for what I just said, he’s perfect. Even spiritually. That mission did wonders. He’ll be a bishop some day, I swear. (But I’m trying to quit swearing.) He gave me a priesthood blessing after we made up because I was still so sick. It was beautiful, promised me I’d feel better and all this sickness would be for my good and would give me experience, not to mention a baby. Made me cry. Of course, right now cute commercials make me cry.
So, things are good. Things are good.
Can you still taste the squid if you try, Merry?
I can taste it too. Bitter, briny, like rubber to chew.
Your mother’s coming tonight, did I mention that? For your birthday. Happy birthday, Merry.