in halls, elevators, and alleyways.
I’m always glad to see her, but we never really talk.
“I came to see Dr. Seymour,”
she lamented in the elevator one morning,
“I ended up with some guy who didn’t know my situation—”
Then my alarm went off, and she was gone.
Another time, she came down the hall
at the transitional house for women and children
where I was helping paint for the Grand Opening.
We were so happy to see each other.
I gave her a big hug before she hurried on,
her bird-like bones as solid as ever.
Even both alive, we only got to talk
when she was busy
doing dishes, changing her shoes, cooking, gardening.
Stands to reason now she’s dead,
she’s even harder to pin down.
Bumping into her like this helps, but I know why
she wanted Dr. Seymour.
~Virginia Ferm Herrick
Previously published in “2017 Winning Poems, 12th Annual Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest”
Poems will be displayed outside the Bellingham Public Library Central Branch, in WTA buses, and posted online at https://thepoetrydepartment.wordpress.com/winners/.
Into the dark
The old woman gazed at the fire as she spoke, but Valyra felt skewered, as if by a direct stare.
L’Saana’s eyes were like shallow pools. The fire flickered in them. Valyra gave a single jerk of her head, acquiescent. What was there to say? She was at the end of her own knowledge, the end of her tether. She must go on now, into darkness. That’s what the Holy Places were. No living person. No Old Ones.
“Will you come with me?” The inflection made it a question, not a request.
L’Saana studied her, sucking on a tooth. The time seemed long.
“Noooo,” she said at last, as if tasting the word. Then, decidedly, “No. Go alone. What you must face, you have strength to face.
“Here is my gift for the journey, these words:
Burn them? Burn who? What is she talking about?
“When you come to the bottom of the Holy Places,” the old woman explained, “there is a pool. It is still, and hot. Build a fire in the pool, and commit all your family who died in the battle to the Fire. When everyone has Burned, breathe. Look at what is left alive within you. Then go into the biggest pool, and stay there until it is all leached out of you.”
Valyra ducked her head and hugged herself against the shudders that rose up inside her. How can I build a fire in a pool? How can I burn what is long gone?
“Grandmother, La’as said he Burned them all – all who were left. And I Burned Rika’s blood in the scrap of fabric. How can I Burn them now?”
L’saana gestured impatiently. “Not that kind of fire. Not their bodies – the part of them that you are carrying.” She looked sharply at the girl. “You know you are carrying them, don’t you? The weight of them has you bent nearly to the ground. It’s a wonder you’ve survived battle, carrying all that weight. You need to give them to the Fire.”
Valyra stared. How did she know? For L’saana’s words rang in her like a struck gong. Her loved ones were still with her. They were not released. Somehow, all these months, she had been hanging onto them. But without them … What will be left of me?
L’Saana touched her shoulder, and she started. The wrinkled face was kind.
“You have the strength, Daughter. As we all must have, to face the ways we fail. Here. I will give you some words; they will come to you when you need them. When you are ready. But start with the words of the Burning.” And she pressed her forehead against Valyra’s, her aged face for a moment filling Valyra’s field of vision, a goblin face in the flickering firelight. Valyra felt a sharp pain stab her temple, as if a spike had been driven in – and then it was gone.
L’saana clicked her tongue in satisfaction. She nodded at Valyra, a wizened smile creasing her face.
“You do well, Daughter. You do well.”
Valyra’s eyes opened before the sun was up. The old woman was snoring beside her: a creaky, comfortable sound. There was nothing stirring behind the blanket that separated the living quarters from the stable where the wizard slept.
Laethe seemed utterly beyond reach. Alien. Impossibly different. She thought of telling him she was leaving, when she would be back, but there were no words in her to explain. She flicked her fingers over her shoulder, drank a little water, and ate two dried sweet figs that L’Saana had left on the table for her.
Her sword, bow, and quiver leaned against the wall by the door. She would not need them. But she touched each one, gently, in parting.
The courtyard was still, but one of L’Saana’s cats came creeping up the narrow way as Valyra was leaving.
“Mrrrr?” it asked. When she knelt and stroked its fur, the cat rubbed its cheeks against her fingers. “Mrrrr?”
She went on, blessed by the solitary, friendly animal accustomed to walking in darkness.
She remembered the narrow, winding upward path. She’d been along it countless times. As children, she and Laas used to dare each other to hike up to the entrance to the Holy Places. To step inside – and then turn tail and run, fast as you could: down, down into sunlight, down to the places where people were talking and laughing.
The sun was slanting between crevices high above, but she shivered in the shadows down on the path. Here was the place where you had to crouch down, and go sideways six paces. Here was the low-hanging slab of sandstone that had leaned precariously since before her grandmother’s grandmother’s day. She ducked under, and went on.
She was trying not to think. Her mind was dark with fear – not the kind you fight. The kind you hide from. Not like the fear of the Bane, of ambush, torture, or even death. Fear of the dark.
After she’d gone maybe a half-mile, she paused, tilting her head up and looking around at the high walls of the canyon. The cat was still with her. It was winding its way along a narrow ledge above, looking down. It was a black cat, black with darker black stripes, and green eyes. She did not know its name.
Their eyes met. Neither spoke, but Valyra went on, and the cat followed.
At last – it seemed soon – she came to the entrance. The cat jumped down, agile, fearless, and went right into the cave and vanished in the black passageway ahead. She could almost feel Laas’ hand, giving her a terrified shove.
“I will …”
“I’m going …”
I am. I am, La’as. I wish you were here.
More alone than she had ever been, she wept, and did not care. Setting her teeth, weeping, she entered the caves.
~Virginia Herrick (excerpt from current WIP, a YA fantasy novel)
Earth loves her trees
They swayed like small children
in diaphanous green,
leaning against their mother’s legs,
beautiful and contented.
The Earth loves her trees:
her hundreds-of-years-old toddlers.
That dawn’s wind swept the ground squirrel’s quivering tail, too,
and lifted the kestrel into the sky.
It rocked the varied thrush in her nest,
and shooed the coyotes to their dens.
The wind, cool as silk,
swept my cheeks, my closed eyes, my hair.
How often does her water
quench my thirst, or soak away
a livelong day’s worth of stress?
How often do I notice
her gravity, steadying me?
Can’t really say.
I only know I can sway like a tree,
leaning in, beloved.
She’d been lonely for a while now. Not bad lonely. More like a sore knee that’s okay if you don’t bend it too much. Sometimes she’d think about the dropped balls and missed connections that had left her here, all her people dead or far away. Mostly she just moved through the days, people watching: her hobby for nearly 80 years.
Summer days, Gladys always walked out to the park if it was sunny, like today. Left Fuzzball snoozing on the windowsill and came on out her favorite bench by the fountain, watched the spray and the squirrels and especially the people.
She paused at the street corner, panting a bit from the walk and from getting across the street ahead of a car. There they all were. She knew everyone.
They didn’t know her, ‘course. Didn’t even see her: odd bundle of clothing, baggy tops and baggy skirts covering up baggy knees. Wasn’t nuthin’ to be done about that baggy ol’ face. She was just that funny ol’ lady who sat on the park bench. Didn’t even seem to be payin’ anybody mind. She was, though.
She knew that boy – Lucas – who always came with his babysitter, Lorraine. Grown woman, old enough to have family of her own, taking care of someone else’s boy. Been there, done that, Gladys thought. He was about six. Quite a handful.
Then there were them girls – best friends, one brown, one white. Made Gladys smile. Weren’t no brown-white girlfriends when she was growin’ up. But those two always came down to the tennis courts, laughing and swearing and knocking the ball over the fence and asking somebody to throw it back. Giggling. Leaning on each other’s shoulders, whisperin’ in each other’s ears.
Then there was that big family – lived three doors down from her. Never spoke. The dad – beefy, red-haired Bob; and the two boys, getting big now, maybe eight and ten: Keenan and Jacob. And the mom, Tina, black hair, pretty and brown-skinned, who hardly said a word. Her sister was always with them, though she didn’t seem to actually live there: Linda.
Linda the loudmouth, Gladys thought. And the baby. Barely walkin’, this summer. Cute little butterball, wearing real girly baby things. Moms with boys always doll up that baby girl when they finally get her. Gladys grinned.
Tina wasn’t here today – just Bob and Linda and the kids. Baby Sarah, with a head full of red-brown curls, was toddling real good. Linda had to keep chasing her down.
Linda sure enough was runnin’ her mouth, but Gladys couldn’t hear nothing she said, ’cause of the fountain splashing and clattering against the concrete. Gladys humphed herself down and gave a little grunt at her sore elbow.
A stone’s throw from where she sat riding her bench, a vanload of teenagers had pulled up. The teen driver didn’t seem to understand parallel parking. This was about her third try.
Just then Keenan shrieked like train whistle. Jacob was sitting on his chest, whalin’ on him. Linda and Bob jumped up to pull them apart. All four were screaming now.
Nice day at the park. Right neighborly. Gladys clucked.
Baby Sarah, hell on wheels, came around the bush on Gladys’s side.
Gladys stared for a second, then cast about for Linda and Bob: Linda, still yelling, was hauling the boys apart. Keenan was bleeding. Bob grabbed Jacob, none too gently. But damned if that baby weren’t going straight for the street, and –
Gladys shot off the park bench like a shortstop diving for a grounder in the hole. Yellow playsuit, ruffled round butt, pink sandals ….
She seized the plump pink elbow, grabbed her chubby softness tight, and stood blinking and gasping by the curb as the driver yelled “Shit!” and threw on the brakes. The tires scraped the curb. The van lurched and stopped.
In one of those moments that makes everyone look, there was a funny-looking old lady clutching a baby, who squirmed and squalled.
“What the hell?” Bob yelled, flustered and enormous, bearing down on Gladys like a Mack truck.
Gladys gaped, her heart thumping. She opened her mouth, but only a kind of creaky noise came out. When did she last speak? Day before yesterday? “You, too,” to the grocery store clerk?
Trailing dropped grocery bags, Tina ran from the direction of the parking lot to plant herself in front of Gladys.
“Are you crazy, Bob? I saw the whole thing! Sarah was just about run down by that van!” She pointed. “Granny saved her!”
Granny? Gladys stared at Tina like she’d never heard that many words out of her mouth at once — which she hadn’t. But, Granny?
“She lives right down the street from us. She saved Sarah!”
Bob stopped short. “What? How–?”
Turning to Gladys and holding out her arms to take the squirming baby, Tina flushed.
“Oh, my God, did I just call you ‘Granny’? I am so sorry. I just–” she stuttered, hugging Sarah. “You remind me of my granny. I … I just always think of you like that.”
Gladys, recovering, nodded. You always think of me like … anything? Climbed back onto her dignity.
“It’s all right, honey. My name is Gladys.”
The baby, calmed, butted Tina in the face with the back of her head. Tina held on tighter, her eyes never leaving Gladys’s wrinkled face. Like she couldn’t get enough of looking.
“Gladys,” she repeated. “Thank you. Thank you.”
Bob shook his head. “Wow. I – I’m sorry, ma’am. Those damn boys were fightin’ an’ I looked up and … well, I–”
He offered his hand. As she took it, Gladys met his eyes with uncharacteristic courage. He shook his head like a bull worried by flies. Instead of being afraid, Gladys felt something odd: pity.
“Sorry. Sorry I –,” he stammered.
“’s all right,” she muttered. Her mouth curved up as she ducked her head to meet the shoulder she used to shrug away the apology.
“’s all right. Jus’ glad the baby’s okay.” Now she wanted to back up, disappear again. But Bob held onto her hand. A big man, humbled, sorry for being loud and not watching out for babies and old ladies. He cleared his throat.
“We were just goin’ to have a picnic,” Tina broke in. Sarah peeked at Gladys, sussing out the adult emotions that were bouncing around like a fumbled ball. Tina deposited the baby into Bob’s arms. To Gladys’s relief, he let go her hand.
“Will you come eat with us?” Tina asked.
“Well, I …”
“Come on, Gladys. Please?”
Gladys felt her face turning up at the corners and crinkling around the edges.
“Well, that’s right nice of you.”
She allowed Tina to tug her toward the table, then paused to look back at Bob.
He had the baby’s bum in the crook of his arm. He looked up from kissing the top of her head and caught Gladys’s eye. His were wet.
“Nice catch,” he said.