Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.154] In his apricot tree house, with the scab-red apricot buds just starting to open, Bob told Elizabeth what he knew of Josh Stanger—the father of Jan’s baby.
Twice expelled from Costa Mesa High School in California for having sex (once on the football field, once beside the lockers next to his shop class), he was the son of a Mormon convert whose wife had left him for the U.P.S. man. Mr. Stanger took advantage of this transition to move himself and his wayward son to Utah. Josh hated Utah but enjoyed virgins, so he tolerated the religious convictions of his neighbors, especially those with daughters. He fought constantly with his father and never said his mother’s name without swearing.
“It’s tough to get left behind,” Bob said.
“Tough.” But Elizabeth hated Josh. His mother had set the precedent for his life: He would abandon the ones who loved and needed him most. He had dumped Janny months ago.
“Don’t you feel sort of abandoned, too, Elly?” Bob asked.
She thought about it. Abandoned? By God? Yes. By Merry? No. Merry was more present than anyone could articulate. By Ben? Big yes.
“My dad divorced my mom, did I tell you that?” she said. “So Medicaid could pay for the rest home. Then he up and got engaged to someone else.”
Bob shook his head. “Bummer.”
“Bummer,” said Elizabeth.
They watched a plane draw its way across the deep blue and then, immediately afterwards, a single gull, gliding effortlessly. Its black eyes demanded to know just what they were doing in bird territory.
“I’ve quit smoking,” said Bob, as if answering the gull, assuring the world that he was now environmentally friendly.
“Is that your graduation present to yourself?”
“Nah, just for kicks and laughs. What I’d get myself for grad-[p.155]uation, if I could, is a trip to Guaymas. It’s this place just off Baja California, has the best marlin fishing in the world.”
She told him her mother was from California and had a real thing for the ocean, then she kissed him lightly on the mouth—the second time she had done it.
When she got home, Joe was waiting at the door; Penny was in the car. “You’re coming home with us for dinner,” Joe said.
“You’ve been staking the place out?”
“Just got here. But you’re coming. We need to talk. There’s a certain subject we need to bring up.”
The subject was Bob.
As she stepped into their front room, Elizabeth informed her sister and brother-in-law that, first, she was not sleeping with Bob Evans; second, she didn’t believe in premarital sex; and third, Bob was one of the nicest people she had ever met. “So what’s for dinner?” she asked.
“Pizza,” Pen apologized. She looked appropriately stunning, as if she had dressed to show off her beauty against Elizabeth’s plainness. Perfect french braids glistening with threads of amber light, brilliant eyes, her body lean and recovered. “Pepperoni. Should get here in about ten minutes.”
“Sounds good. And who put you up to giving me the Chastity Night lecture?”
Pen and Joe glanced at each other.
No answer. Suspicions verified.
“He doesn’t feel like he can talk to you about this himself, not right now,” Penny said.
“Oh, is that right? Gee, I wonder why.”
The pizza arrived. Joe paid.
“You notice how Cody’s dyed her hair lately?” Elizabeth asked. “Like we’ll seriously mistake her for Mom? Like we’ll put the right face on the wrong person?”
[p.156] Joe gave her a look as he opened the pizza box.
“Don’t be offended, but your hair could use a wash, Elizabeth,” Penny said. Her voice was mild as ever.
“Don’t change the subject, okay?”
“Then, give Dad a chance,” Pen said. “He loves you. He’s worried. I think you should talk to him—nicely. Tell him about Bob. Let him know you’re not going to be getting pregnant. He feels like he’s losing his family, hon. I think it’s time for the two of you to have a heart-to-heart. Put him at ease.”
She met Pen’s eyes briefly, then took a pizza slice. “You’re doing the Mommy voice.”
“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”
After dinner and a drawn-out conversation (mostly about Janny’s baby, which Joe and Pen were indeed planning to adopt), Joe drove Elizabeth home, reciting his part of a contrived conversation until she said, “I’ve kissed Bob. I figure that’ll help me do my part better. In your little play.”
He glared at her. “Don’t you dare blame me for this new relationship of yours.”
“I enjoy kissing him.”
“Kissing isn’t meant to be painful.” He waited. “You doing anything more than kissing?”
“No, Daddy, I’m not.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. Mind your business, shugah-pie.”
“How about you and Pen?”
“Home runs. All the time.”
She rolled her eyes. “I mean are you two getting along all right?” She felt ugly. Penny was right: her hair did need a shampoo.
Joe drew a long, serious breath. “We’re just learning, you know, how deeply we’ve wounded each other.”
[p.157] She looked out the car window and up at the streetlights, watching gnats dance in the yellow haze.
“I hurt you, too, didn’t I,” he said.
She moved her eyes to the next streetlight but didn’t answer.
“Okay, I’ll do all the talking then,” he said, watching the road intently, though there were no other cars in sight. “Crazy as this sounds, there were times when you became Penny for me. A younger Pen, you know, who hadn’t rejected me. I’d watch you and you were—I knew you were—” His eyes drifted to hers, then darted back to the road.
“You used me.”
“No. Not on purpose.”
“Well, we’ve all been hurting each other. On purpose or not. Penny and I, we’re working hard on building new skin.”
She rolled her eyes, though he didn’t see her. “Good for you.” They were turning the corner to her street.
“Your whole family needs some, Liz—Elizabeth. Some new skin. You have cuts you haven’t even noticed. You might start by talking to that guy over there.” He was pointing to her front porch where her father was waiting.
Elizabeth knew this confrontation had been planned. She was caught between her father and Joe. The car door, when she shut it, seemed thunderous. Her footsteps smacked against the walk.
“Hi,” Ben said, standing as Elizabeth approached. “So, how’re you doing?”
She wanted to say “fine” and brush past him. But there was a scared look in his eyes she couldn’t snub.
They both sat on the porch.
“I was rude to you the other night,” she began.
[p.158] “It’s okay.” He waved the hurt away—the same way Cody might have shaken “negative energy” into the air. His hands, though, were nervous and awkward.
“Haven’t seen you around much,” she said after a long pause. “I guess you’re putting in long hours at the office. Doing the book?”
“You’re usually not here when I get home; you’re usually with your mom. We miss each other.”
“You and Mom?”
He scratched his head twice, then took his nail clippers from his rear pocket, and began filing his thumbnail. “I mean our schedules are at odds. Yours and mine.”
“Oh, that. I guess so.”
“How’re things going for you?”
“I’m still a virgin,” she said.
His eyes popped. “I didn’t ask.”
“And Bob Evans is a good kid.”
“I’m sure he is.”
“I just fell asleep at the lake, but we didn’t have sex or anything. We talked, that’s all we did, talked and fished.”
“I never doubted you.”
Another long pause. Elizabeth knew what she wanted to say, what she wanted to ask, but the words were crystals in her throat. This conversation was full of breaks and false starts, clumsy as a blind date.
“So, you’re doing okay,” Ben repeated.
“What was Mom like before?” she blurted.
“What was she like?”
“Before—when you still loved her.”
He winced, swallowed hard. “Well. That was a little sharp, [p.159] wasn’t it? I guess maybe I deserve that. Or you think I do. You and Janny both.”
“I’m not trying to hurt anyone. It’s just I hardly remember how she was before.”
He looked around slowly, as though Merry’s undamaged image were hiding in the darkness and he might spy it if he were careful. He scratched his baldness. “Like you,” he said at last.
“She was like you. Maybe a little insecure, vibrant, energetic. Bold. Emotional. Mischievous. Attached to nature. Tightly bonded to her daughters. Beautiful.”
She couldn’t remember him ever complimenting her like that. The closest thing she could recall was the time he had watched her at a junior gymnastics meet and pronounced her “pretty good.” She looked at him long—the face she knew and didn’t know: father, traitor, provider. He was still filing his nails as she watched him and met her eyes only once. What she saw when he did was unmasked love and unmasked pain.
“You girls are the best of your mother and me. You’re our synthesis, you know—the best we could give.” There was even some emotion in his voice.
She breathed in the cool, almost-spring air.
“Do you love her at all anymore—a little tiny bit?”
When he looked at her, his eyes were amazed, hurt. “Don’t you know?”
She let the words fade. “You get what I mean. Cody.”
“Oh.” He dropped his head, pretending to examine his thumbnail.
“Have you set a date yet for the wedding?”
He waited, still focused on his thumb. “It bugs you, doesn’t it?”
[p.160] “Shouldn’t, I guess. I mean, you’re a single guy now. But. Yeah, it bugs me.” She pursed her mouth and tried to keep from saying the next sentence, which came anyway: “And I remember a few things I wish I didn’t.”
“Like hearing you tell Mom you were tired of taking care of her.”
“I never said that,” he answered too fast.
“Yeah, you did. I heard.”
“I don’t think I ever said anything like that.” He returned his nail clippers to his pocket.
“It was early morning. Just after you took her to the bathroom, once.”
“Did I?” His face was stunned when he turned to her. “Maybe so. I don’t remember. There were days—. You know, we were all tired.”
“I hit her once.” When the words were spoken, she felt her body heat up, wanting to let out a cry that had been stored somewhere for years.
“She messed herself and it was my turn to change her. And then—I don’t know—I was so mad and so embarrassed I just left her on the couch. Naked. For two hours. I read a book. And I hate myself.”
He pushed his glasses up. “Well, we were all tired. She knew that. She knows that.”
“What’s going to happen to us?” she whispered.
“You mean, is God going to send us straight to hell? I don’t think so.” He put his arm around her.
“I mean, how will we survive?”
“We just will. We’re strong.”
“I used to think we were.”
“Of course we’ll survive!” He squeezed her shoulders.
[p.161] She shook her head. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“Because you’re so angry with me?”
“We’ve all hurt her so much,” she said. “How will we get over remembering what we’ve done?”
“You mean what I’ve done. Cody and me.”
She let her head rest on his shoulder. The moment was easy now. “No. You were the best, Dad. And you almost made it to the end, didn’t you. I just mean—I don’t see us together anymore. We’ve been blown apart by the Cody-bomb. We won’t survive. Not intact. Not in a million years.”
Like a punctuation, the phone rang. It was the head nurse at South Beach Haven, calling to inform the Morgan family that Merry had pneumonia and was being transferred again to the hospital.
Merry’s head was turned aside, a yellow-green oxygen tube caught on her ear, strung under her nose, a black tent draping her torso. She was a white-haired manta ray, trapped, wings splayed, breaths rattling liquidly. No glasses.
Elizabeth took her mother’s hand as Merry tried to make a sound.
“First half?” Elizabeth moved close to her.
“A? B? C? D?”
“Next letter. First half? Second half?”
“M? N? O?”
What she spelled was, “Don’t save me.”
“No extraordinary measures, is that what you mean?” Ben asked.
[p.162] A firm blink.
“So if you start to die,” he whispered, “you want us to let you.”
A blink, then tears. Another blink.
All at once, Elizabeth was seized with a clammy, clutchy sort of love, a racing fear. She had known for years this would happen, and there had been moments when she had wanted her mother to hone in on that elusive death-door, but she couldn’t bear the imminent reality of it. “No,” Elizabeth moaned. “Not yet. Wait just a little.” She was suddenly aware that despite everything, Merry was the strength of the family: matriarch, giver of solace and love, keeper of secrets, guardian of all their ineffable, immutable bonds. Merry—the real Merry, who had so little to do with that bone jail she lived in—was the center of their world, focus of family grief, their touchstone. Who would they be without her?
And there was another, darker side to Elizabeth’s resistance: she felt bad about how she had treated her mother. “We were all tired,” her father had said, and she knew it was true. But she remembered too clearly (heard it still!) how her hand had cracked against Merry’s thigh, remembered the fights the sisters had had over who would feed their mother or do bedpan duty, remembered their sometimes bitterness and all the ways Merry’s daughters—yes, and Ben—had ignored and abandoned her. She wanted time to make it up.
“You’re not ready?” Merry spelled.
“Not yet,” she answered in a rush.
Merry blinked out more tears.
Her lung capacity, the doctor said, had been reduced by half. Even if she rallied, she was almost through.
Bob Evans visited Merry twice over the next week with Elizabeth, showing her his pictures of marlin fishermen. Merry spelled out her reminiscences of the ocean to him and had Eliz-[p.163]abeth bring the Life magazine that pictured her wailing beside the blackened waters.
Janny was beside her mother almost constantly. Often she would put Merry’s hand on her womb.
Joe and Penny came and spoke of mostly innocuous things. Joe went through some business matters with Merry, laboriously writing down what she spelled about funeral requests, her will, and a secret that he wouldn’t reveal.
And Cody came, usually late at night when no one else was there. Sitting wordlessly at the bedside, Cody would simply massage Merry’s feet and make magical gestures like she was doing sign language to angels.
Once when Elizabeth found her there, Cody took her outside the room and calmly demanded, “How long?”
“How long are you planning on keeping her here?”
She squinted. “I’m not keeping her.”
“You’re withholding permission. You’ve got to release her, Elizabeth. Let go. Say she can die.”
“I don’t want her out of the way,” she said.
“You’ll never believe me. I love Merry. I don’t want her out of the way; I want her happy. Is she? Happy?” She gestured towards the room.
“How would you know?” Her voice was too loud, too angry, and Cody shushed her. “How would you know?” Elizabeth repeated with less volume but no less emotion. “You don’t know how much she loves us. You can never understand that, no matter how hard you pretend you’re her.”
“Let her go,” Cody repeated in the same metal tone she used with Jan.
Elizabeth looked at sleeping Merry. Merry—silent sage and magician—getting set to perform her disappearing act.
Two days later, Merry rallied. The doctor released her to the rest home, saying her pneumonia was as cured as it could be. So there was more time.
[p.164] Janny was spending hours a day with her mother and seemed to have mastered some spiritual communication with her, something beyond what even Cody had shown. Jealous, Elizabeth imagined spending hours, too, engaged in deep philosophical conversation, crying, making maudlin speeches about love and regret and goodbye, imagined that—in a flash of light— they would comprehend all they meant to each other, gaze with undiminished love into one another’s eyes.
Which was not what happened. Though she did tell Merry about school and performed a few soliloquies about love, all sounding horribly trite when she thought about them later, and she swore she was sorry for not caring for her better, the words, the speeches, seemed not to matter much. When they could have, she could never express them right.
Mostly, they watched televised sports, usually baseball. Occasionally, they watched a sitcom, but canned laughter was so annoying, so false, that they generally opted for something more real. Live sports were the best—a game happening right now, real people fighting over real balls, leaping up, mitts high.
There was one moment, finally, when Elizabeth broke through the trivia. She turned off the television and asked her mother if she knew about Cody and Ben.
Merry blinked yes and spelled the question, “How do you feel about Cody?”
“She’s okay,” Elizabeth shrugged. “She’s just there. She’ll be one more person in the house to criticize us when we mess up. You know how it is.”
“Hey Mom, watch me out the window, I’ll do some gymnastics for you.” She stepped away, then gazed at Merry: bleached hair gleaming under flourescent lights, skin yellowish, papery, shiny; a pink towel under her chin to keep her head up. “She’ll [p.165] never replace you,” Elizabeth said plainly. “You’ll always be our mother.”
Merry blinked. Elizabeth kissed her forehead and turned her mother’s armchair to face the window. Then she went outside to the back lawn where there were no wire-legged flamingos. It was late evening and two bright lights at either end illuminated the grass, made it grey-blue. She saw Merry’s head through the glass and waved, then did five back handsprings in a row. All perfect.
The watery image on the window was this: Merry’s face, and just behind it, half merged with the reflection, a girl doing acrobatics, taking on the air. Soaring like a dream.
Cody’s song, Cody’s dream:
Shavey on tay
Shavey on tay
Buffalo Woman, hear me!
From your earthrocks,
Hear me call you!
Tell me your stories!
Tell me my stories!
Buffalo Woman, answer me why
You brought me here
To break their hearts!
Cody could see her then, shadowy like gathering clouds, then glorious and mighty, gleaming, buffalo hooves making lightning and thunder. Up, up, up the rocks rode Buffalo Woman, arms spread, up she rode to the highest peak of Zion. Buffalo Woman was a shadow before the gold sunset and there were suddenly two suns that were so brilliant, Cody had to bow [p.166] her head. A lion’s eyes, so proud and glorious, they made her weak, made her kneel.