She blinked twice, gazing toward the flaming orange ball which kissed summer’s western horizon, blue eyes, narrowed to half their usual size, partially hidden behind circular wire spectacles. She stood outside a freshly stained garden fence, and though she leaned lightly on a wooden cane,  everything about her frail form vibrated with vigor. Her white curls, cropped to within inches of her scalp, were a dashing contrast to the swirling emerald silk blouse, which draped daringly over form fitting denim capris. One would think this an odd fashion choice, given her age and diminutive frame, but those who knew her would tell you that none of her choices had been remotely conventional or predictable.

She had left her hometown as a very young woman, filled with dreams, vision and a hefty dose of naïveté. Judged solely by  outward appearance, she could have been labeled a risk taker, a jetsetter,  possibly even someone who basked in the smile of the Divine.

With little apparent effort she achieved what many craved: marriage to a young man of endless possibilities, two beautiful children, opportunities for education, travel, and a career in a field heavily dominated by men. Her life seemed to float on azure waters toward an alluring destination, just as sleek ocean liners sailed away toward a dream world, created in the minds of those left to pine on confining shores.

Years plodded on. She visited on occasion, mostly to spend time with her aging, always doting parents, intentionally or quite by accident neglecting those with whom she had shared school desk, musical bench, science lab, church choir. Her steely focus and preoccupation stemmed from her drive to make a difference. Succeed. Survive.

This drive eventually deposited her at the edge – the precipice of more demand, more investment, more production, more nurture. The first time she found herself precariously dangled near the slippery cliff, she recoiled in terror at its cavernous depth. What was this? She could not move, completely dependent on rescue teams that swarmed around. All she could do was wait. Wait and fear. Quietly, over time, she reeled herself in unobtrusively, strapping an invisible harness around her soul, determined to secure herself in fervent devotion.

This experience left her guarded, however, ever watchful for signs of its return. None came, and slowly her body and soul loosed their grip on all protective trappings.

It was a cloudless night, the culmination of a midsummer festival when a jarring dissonance snaked its way to her again, first beguiling, then tearing at the protective layers of talent, humor and abandoned engagement. Her eyes darted from one to the next, trusting no one, retreating. She pulled an invisible veil about herself – an effort to create safety from the dreaded exposure the cunning trickster forced upon her. Nakedness! She could not bear derision and disdain, as one discarded as a fraud. She resolved to remain hidden behind grace, goodness, gentleness.

Again and again – without warning – she endured the rampage of the destroyer, each time wearing an unknown mask, as if on a medieval stage. With every encounter she feared the loss of yet another fragment of her soul.

Face down she searched what still remained of that soul. What had been the warning signs? Could she have seen, known, predicted? Why could she no longer recognize herself? Years passed; worry etched furrows into her once youthful face; the light of her eyes dulled to a gray haze.

There was no panacea, no respite, not even a random thundershower in a prolonged drought. The blazing heat of the emotional desert baked her soul, scorched her spirit and deposited fine sand into the once active gears of her fertile mind. She sat as one lost to the world – even to herself.

All was still. The oven-like heat was mitigated by cool nights, the shade of scant desert vegetation, and drastically reduced expectations. One season gave way to the next as her spirit grew accustomed to a lack of external nourishment. Her heart felt the burden of suffering, the magnitude of death, the embrace of loneliness. But nothing obscured the daily sunset with its kaleidoscope of color, the harbinger of a bejeweled nighttime sky which, strangely, she came to anticipate. Hot winds shriveled the extraneous from her soul’s skeleton, leaving her with only the core essence of what it means to be human.

Emergence was so gradual that neither she nor those close to her could re-create a timeline. It was a release, a metamorphosis, like a climb up a stone stairway into the brilliance of noontime, out of a dark underground space similar to where pottery is regularly carried for firing. She emerged in otherworldly color, mesmerizing simplicity, resilient texture, finally rendered indestructible. The ravine, the fire, the desert no longer carried menace. All that had fallen over the precipice, the ashes left charred at her feet, the stripping of the desert had done nothing other than create undying beauty and extravagant new life. Like the forest floor after a ravaging fire is filled with seeds, all willing to carry it forward into an eternity of splendor, so she held within her soul the life which only danger, pain and loss could have set free.

So here she stood, enchanted by the sight at the garden fence. They had come for her, though none would have been obligated to do so. They had come because of her. They were young. Old. Every color and creed. Big and small. Opulent and oppressed. Self absorbed and self abased. A vast chorus of etherial melody.

A hush fell upon them, until she flung the gate wide, propped it open with her cane, and threw her arms out in welcome. Or was it they who welcomed her? She did not know, nor did it matter. They were her people. They were one.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
Photo Credit: © Stacey L. Rhoades. Used with permission.


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