Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.67] Autumn unfolded itself. Trees became bright fountains. The mountains turned into fall shades spreading down the cliffs to the foothills: burgundy, gold, orange, like a glorious case of measles. As the farm smells got stronger, crows appeared, flocking the trees like evil leaves, flinging open their wings and bursting from their places, whooshing upwards in a black ex-[p.68]plosion, hooting hoarsely. Then came the starlings, flying overhead in swarms like undulating strings of ash, sitting like thick fringe on telephone wires, perching in maples and birches.
Cody, on the porch, was watching the birds when Elizabeth returned from school. Janny was at some unidentified place with Josh.
“In Blanding,” Cody said, “they set stuffed owls in the trees to scare off the crows.”
With a vague hum, Elizabeth walked past her.
“Hold on,” Cody called. “We need a talk, don’t we?”
Elizabeth stopped. “Do we?”
“You know. It’s eating away at her.”
“Janny is involved,” Cody said. “With the boy. You know what I mean.”
Elizabeth looked away, then nodded.
“Merry knows too.”
“And you think I should talk to Jan? Call her to repentance or something?”
Cody held her with a sorry gaze. “I can’t do it. I’ve tried. There’s such a thick wall.” She touched her ankle as though it hurt. “Jan doesn’t like me.”
“I can’t let the weight press your mom anymore. Yes, talk to your sister.” She rubbed her ankle hard, grimaced.
“Did you hurt your foot?”
“Oh.” Cody looked up. “It’s just empathy. Merry’s bedsore.”
“Uh huh.” Elizabeth shivered.
“Yes, talk to Jan. If you can get her to trust me, I’ll take care of her. Then you won’t have to.”
A flock of crows sailed to the maple as Elizabeth opened the front door.
“And do more gymnastics!” Cody called after her. “Merry needs you to move for her!” She bent over her ankle, lifted it to her mouth, licked it like a pup.
[p.69] The Mommy fear was waiting just inside the door, guilt by its side. Elizabeth was remembering how cruel she had been to Janny when they were little. She had, for a time, blamed her baby sister for the m.s.—and it was probably true that Merry’s paralysis was rushed by her decision to have the baby rather than abort it, as the doctor had recommended. It was also true that the disease would have gone its limit, with or without the aggravation of childbirth. But Elizabeth could remember herself—hear herself—calling Janny a brat, shouting, “You shouldn’t have been born!” She could see Janny crumbling. The words, the images, hovered in the air like those accusing crows.
When she went to Merry in the Ocean Room, she saw what Cody had described. Her mother was tormented. And Elizabeth realized that Jan was tormented, too. She had become withdrawn and sulky, even turned studious. “I’m going to have a talk with Jan,” Elizabeth told her mother.
Janny got home in time for supper but went upstairs without eating. Elizabeth followed two minutes later.
“Sorry to bother you, Jan.”
Lying on her bed, hunched over a notebook, Janny glanced up. Silence loomed between them. It was raining outside, and the bedroom window was open. The curtains swelled and popped with the breeze.
“Writing?” Elizabeth asked.
“Dumb poem I started in school.”
“Your poems aren’t dumb. Let me see?”
Silence again, seeping around them, pooling at their feet. Janny handed over the notebook.
Elizabeth sat beside her and read:
I am still a child
With eyes half open
[p.70]To the world.
Within me is caged
A want to be wild,
Without me, a gate
Too high to be hurled.
Above me are clouds, unending;
Beneath me, sirens call—
I hear their shrill beckon.
They wait for me with shrouds,
And I am waiting to be taken.
Outside of my gate I hear
The song of the free and wild,
But I cannot pierce its lock
And sirens hold my fate.
For I am still a child.
Elizabeth’s cheeks stung. The word “wild” hollowed her stomach. “It’s good,” she said.
“I like the way you write.” Returning it, she asked with forced ease, “You okay?”
“Really, Jan. Tell me really.” Elizabeth could see her sister hesitate, reeling between confession and cover-up. “Come on. Tell me, Jan.”
Janny shook her head. “Not really okay.” Barely audible.
“You can tell me.”
“Listen,” she whispered, “I already know without hearing it. You and Josh—”
“Well what’s wrong with it if I love him this much?” She squeezed her hands into fists. She was trying to put conviction under each word.
Elizabeth’s answer came so softly, even she was shocked. It [p.71] was happening again: Merry was speaking through her, had come into her voice box through a spiritual shaft. “If there’s nothing wrong with it, why are you hurting like this?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed, close to crying. “It’s maybe—I think if Mom knew—what I was doing—I think it would finish her off. It was one thing for Grandma to hate him. Grandma hates everyone. But Mom—.”
“Mom knows.” Yes, Merry knew. Merry was still using Elizabeth’s sound.
Janny lifted wet, horrified eyes. “Did she say?”
A sigh was her response.
“Can you stop? You and Josh? I really think you should. Stop.”
She shook her head again. “I’m not strong enough.”
“Can you try? For Mom’s sake? You’re kind of killing her.”
“Well, it’s the truth.” She almost called her sister “honey.”
Jan’s ambivalent shrug put an end to the subject.
“And you know what else?” Elizabeth added, “You really ought to give Cody a chance.”
Now Jan stood as though being inflated with anger. “Did Cody tell you to say that?”
“Yes she did.”
“Not those words.”
“Yes she did.”
“She’s trying to help Mom.”
“She’s trying to BE Mom!”
“Come on, Jan!”
“You tell Cody to leave me alone!”
“Calm down!” She tried drawing a soothing line in the air, the way Cody could. Nothing changed.
“You tell Cody to leave me alone!” Jan shouted, then stormed from the room and slammed the door.
[p.72] Elizabeth felt herself return to sisterly fear and distance. And guilt. The wind moved outside the window, toying with the trees.
Two days later Penny came to visit and brought more fog. She had gained ten pounds since her last appearance and seemed a bloated imitation of herself. It was as though she were skating through obligatory conversation on the thin ice of her ego. One false move on anyone’s part would send her sprawling into the water.
“Sorry I’ve been making myself a stranger,” Pen said to Merry in the Ocean Room. “And no, I’m not ready to talk about Joe yet.”
“Why not?” Elizabeth demanded. She was sitting on the floor playing Monopoly. The green piece was supposedly Merry’s and the red one hers, but Merry was having little to do with the game at this point.
“Just because I’m not.”
“I like Joe.” Elizabeth moved Merry’s piece to Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I know. Maybe I’m just going through a phase.”
“So, when the phase is over, you’ll get back together?”
“If the phase ends, yes.”
“Because he’s worried sick about you.” Elizabeth didn’t look up, just rolled the dice.
“Did he beat you?” Still, she made no eye contact.
“Joe? He’s the most gentle person in the world.”
“Well, he swears sometimes,” said Elizabeth.
“And he’s a lousy chess player, too. But that’s not why.”
Merry moaned to spell. Penny moved her down the alphabet, getting the message, “Marriage is serious stuff,” confirmed with a blink.
“I take it seriously.” Penny’s voice was suddenly teary. “Any-[p.73]way—geez—I’d better go. I hate to interrupt Monopoly. Looks like you’re winning, Mom.”
“I’m red,” said Elizabeth.
“Oh. Then she’s beating the pants off you, Mom. I didn’t know who was who.” Her voice was still strained. “Anyway, it’s good to see you. I’ll try to get over more often, I promise.”
Only after she heard the door shut did Elizabeth let herself look up. She saw Penny through the Ocean Room window trying to fit her car key to its hole, then gazing into space, her mouth a cave.
I hardly know her, Elizabeth thought. This Penny was distant and changed; this was someone she might have found hunched up in a forty-nine-cent Deseret Industries coat clutching a Snickers bar to her breast. This was a ghost, wailing soundlessly to the brittle stars.
June 18, 1976
Okay, here’s the scoop: I am tired for a reason, but it’s no cause for great concern. I have (“all signs point to,” as Doctor Steve put it) multiple sclerosis.
I spent the evening in the library checking the words out. My conclusion is that multiple sclerosis is not the worst thing. If you have to get a disease, it’s better than cancer. Most people hardly even know they have m.s. Of course, it CAN cripple a person— the very worst cases even paralyze—but it usually doesn’t.
So, the big question is WHY ME. And even though I cried for six hours yesterday, I know Why Me: Because deep down, I’m a rebel, I swear and everything, and God knows it, and He’s going to build my faith by testing my faith because He loves me. I truly don’t believe He’s punishing me. He’s just making me a better [p.74] person. The question is, can I live with the tingling in my feet? Can I live with the tiredness?
And the answer is YES. You betcha. If that’s what God wants, then I can.
You didn’t believe those clichés even when you wrote them, did you, Merry. Because he loves me. Testing my faith. You figured there were angels checking out your journal, peeking over your shoulder, ready to report on you to God. But the clichés didn’t work. None of your faith worked.
Mid-November. Big, sparkly snowflakes fell till dawn, blanketed the world, frosted every naked tree. Even the temple, the House of the Lord, was draped. The night lights circling its two domes shone through the white like jagged blue stars.
The photo album was Cody’s idea, though Janny and Elizabeth were the ones who put it together. This would be their Christmas present for Merry.
First in the album came a photocopy of Life magazine, page 32, 1968. Merry kneeling beside a gull, her mouth an impossible grimace, caught for posterity in that horrible moment, stuck asking the sky for justice.
Then the wedding shots. The girls were familiar with the official wedding portrait, taken the day AFTER the wedding since (no one would ever forget) the bride and groom missed their reception, and the photographer as well. There were some other shots, though, which neither Janny nor Elizabeth recalled seeing before, taken at the same time as the official one. In one, Merry’s hair (she had lightened it for her wedding) shone so brightly it looked like someone had painted white lines under the photo gloss. Her mouth was puckered in mock terror. She [p.75] was pointing at her new husband who wore a full head of blond hair and a dumb grin.
“She was only twenty-one when she got married,” Elizabeth commented.
Another photo showed Ben and Merry on their Hawaiian honeymoon, Ben standing on a tower of lava rocks, Merry diving into an inlet of water. Her arched body was above his, arms spread to magnificent welcome, neck strained up so her face showed fully, joyous and intent.
A later shot of them and Baby Penny, in color, could have been titled “Hippies Invade.” Merry’s hair, long and straight, was bleached, sunlit, lips shiny white, eyes glopped with liner and mascara. Ben had not only a full head of blond hair but a coppery mustache and beard. His eyes were a peaceful, silver blue. Little Penny’s T-shirt had a peace sign on its front.
“She used to sing ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’,” said Elizabeth, pressing the picture into the album. “Remember that?”
Janny thought she did, thought she remembered that her mother had had an angelic voice.
“Nah,” Elizabeth countered when Jan described the image, “her singing was awful. What she did to that song would get a jail sentence in Beatlesville.”
But Janny was sure she had loved her mother’s voice.
The rest of the shots, they categorized by Christmases. Christmas number seven showed the whole family, arms around each other, in front of a tree decorated with stuffed Smurfs, Merry standing, grinning impishly, holding baby Janny. She had written on the back of the photo: “Here we go into another year! Have a merry one!” Her handwriting was rounded, every “i” dotted with little hearts.
“She used to read me The Little Engine That Could,” said Janny.
“Over and over and over,” Elizabeth finished. “You’d beg for it constantly. I could’ve killed you.”
By Christmas number twelve, Merry was in her wheelchair, [p.76] waving. Her writing, less rounded now, read: “Hey hey, another year and we still have fruitcake left!” Behind her was the work chart she had organized for her daughters when she could no longer do basic chores.
“We used to gather around that thing every evening and report how well we’d done our jobs,” Elizabeth said. “What a drag.”
“Yeah. Major drag.” But there was longing behind Jan’s words.
Christmas thirteen showed Merry with both hands flat in her lap. The writing was jagged, ink darker in some spots than others. It was about this time—late 1980s, as Janny remembered it—that her speech was beginning to be plundered. Still, Merry would sing as she supervised her daughters. Mostly Beatles songs. (“Oh ple-e-e-ase, say to me-e-e-e, dum de dum de dum, you’ll let me be your man …”)
The photo after showed her in her first pair of glasses—not so thick as her recent ones. Elizabeth’s handwriting on the back said simply, “1991.” By this time, they had to tie her in the wheelchair or she’d slip out. Her speech was gravel. But she’d still tell stupid jokes.
Janny remembered this one: “There’s this dance for the handicapped, and a woman with a harelip goes to it, and so does a man with a wooden eye. When the man with the wooden eye asks the harelipped lady if she’d like to dance, she says, ‘Would I? Would I!’ The man stalks off and says, ‘Hare lip! Hare lip!’ Get it? Would I? Wood eye? What a stupid joke!” But Janny was laughing. “Why did Mom tell such stupid jokes? Even when she could hardly talk!”
“To teach us patience.” Elizabeth was laughing, too.
“Maybe.” Then, “She got bad so fast.”
Elizabeth pressed the next shot into the album. The progress of the Christmases was the unfinished catalogue of Merry’s death.
[p.77] Merry’s Journal:
July 8, 1978
I am pregnant. The doctor thinks my body can’t handle it, thinks it’ll make the m.s. worse, thinks I should have an abortion.
No, thank you. The doctor has no faith. What is it with men anyway?
I believe if I am pregnant, then God will give me the strength to get through it. I wouldn’t put it past Him to heal me at the very moment I deliver. That sounds like a nice reward for this test of my faith—even a divine reward. In fact, I think it would be very cool to be the patient described in an article called “Pregnancy Cures M.S.”
I’m not expecting to be healed, don’t get me wrong. But I won’t complain if I am (hint, hint) and I will never take movement for granted again, and I’ll do anything You want me to, God.
Die for me, Merry? Is that what He said?