Emergence

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.

Hoods

This story was originally written in 2015. It’s part of 25 flash fiction stories published in June, 2015. At that time I was reluctant to include it in this collection, wondering if it was simply too extreme–that it would seem too sensational.

A mere two years later, on January 20, 2017, Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke tweeted the following:

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At this point I’m convinced this story is far from extreme. This stark reality represents an existential threat to many.

….

It was an uncomfortable day in early June—the second day of summer vacation after Kenya’s first year of middle school. Whatever that was. She lay sprawled on the living room floor, in direct line of a weak fan, vacantly paging through a book she’d been encouraged to read. She loved to read. That wasn’t the problem. But she would have loved to decide what she would read during her free time.

The sharp pounding on the front door, mere inches from where she lay, jerked her body to attention. Terror instantly invaded her dark eyes. The last time this had happened in their economically depressed neighborhood, their house had been targeted by a loud, demanding group of hooded men. Who were they? What did they want? Why were they dressed like that? Her mother had been vague and had tried to brush it off, but her blue eyes had revealed her own panic.

Her heart pounded as her stepfather strode to the door. “Kenya, get outta here. Now!” he barked as he passed. Quick as a hummingbird, she flitted under the table in the adjacent room.

Her stepfather was a minister in a small rural church made up exclusively of white folk. Except for her, of course. She was “black”. At least that’s what he had told her years ago. She never referred to her stepfather by his given name and she refused to call him Dad. Her real dad was a pharmacist in the city. She saw him on holidays.

She could hear his voice, low and tersely appeasing. “No, brothers,” he spat out, “I am with you. I am one of you! Don’t forget that!”

Kenya slowly peered around the corner, then pulled a breath in sharply. Hoods! She disappeared and slunk to the far end under the table. More loud, almost indistinguishable sounds from under formidable hoods. She could only make out a few words. “… she has to go …” and “… she’s not one of us …” was all she could hear.

Instinctively she knew whom they were talking about. A cold shiver ran down her sweaty back. Horror gripped her. She had once wanted to check out a book from the library that had a picture of people dressed in white hoods on the jacket, but her mother had quickly snatched if from her, stating it was “unsuitable.” And because she didn’t go to school, she had never had the opportunity to ask anyone about it.

The voices hissed and droned, rose and fell. They were not giving in and neither was her stepfather. She could tell by his voice that he was getting angry.

But why? Why her? “Not one of us”? Why not? Her family lived here; they went to church here; she went to the store with her mother and four half-brothers and sisters here.

“You’re black. You’re black. You’re black.” The words she’d heard from him years ago reverberated through her brain.

“No, I’m not!” she had argued, looking down at her pale cappuccino colored arm. She had been four. “I’m not black! I’m … I’m beige,” she had insisted, having just learned various nuances of color.

But there had been no arguing. She was black. That was it. He had said so.

Kenya’s entire body shook with humiliation and fear. She hated who she was. When she was old enough to run away, she would go to the hair salon and have them put light brown dye into her hair. Like her granny’s hair.

But, of course, she hadn’t seen her granny in a very long time because she had been there when he had called her black. Granny had said that black was lovely, but that she could be beige if she wished. Granny had fought for her. For her “Baby Kenya” as she’d called her. No one called her Baby Kenya now and she longed to hear that voice again. Not that she was a baby, but because her granny said she would always love her no matter what.

He stormed back into the house, slamming the door. Rage was in his step. Her thoughts quickly went to what to do next. She never knew.

“Ken? Where are you!?” She hated being called Ken. That was a boy’s name, but he hated Kenya, as he said it made her sound like she belonged in Africa. And that must always remind him that she wasn’t white. Not the perfect, holy, Sunday-school-picture color that he said he and her mother and siblings were.

His shoes appeared next to the table near her and he stooped to peer under. “Get outta there,” he snarled, grabbing her right arm even though she was already wiggling her body out.

“Stop that! That hurts,” she wailed, not even looking into his steely eyes. “Robot eyes” is what she called them. But only to herself. Never out loud.

He shook her again. “You! You’re to blame for all of this! If you weren’t … black.” He heaved her arm down with disgust and turned to leave the room. “If that damn girl weren’t …,” he spat at Kenya’s mother, “…a…a fuckin’…,” he paused again. Furious.

Kenya knew all too well which word he meant to use. He’d used it so often in the past and it had broken her. “If we didn’t have her,” his words were laced with contempt, “We wouldn’t have these problems.”

Her head dropped, tears collected in her eyes, fists clenched. Every time he lashed out, he left her destroyed. Humiliated. Violated. Discarded.

Something moved in the doorway he had just roared through. Without even lifting her face, she knew it was her mother. When she did turn, she saw her weary mother mouth the words, “I’m sorry.”

Quickly Kenya turned and went to her room. She threw herself onto her bed, sobs wrenching her body. She wished more than anything that she could go far, far away, color her hair and read any book she wished.

One day I will, she vowed. You wait–one day I will.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
Photo credit: Twitter feed

Dark Witness

img_1523Panic leaps into her cerulean eyes as her attention is suddenly diverted away from his earnest, dark face, beyond his left shoulder and through the floor to ceiling glass panels. Her eyes are transfixed. There he is! Proud. Confident. The one who mesmerizes the masses. Words lodge unspoken in her throat while an invisible chisel slowly carves a deep, questioning furrow into the brow of the man directly opposite her.

What had been the chances? How could she have known he would walk in – into what should have been a safe place? Her frantic mind thrashes here and there as she second-guesses her decision to seek out a trusted friend in public. Now, anything could happen!

Her heart beats wildly, breath coming in short spurts.

“There he is! What will I do now?” she manages to utter, her voice breaking.

She feels heat crawl up her neck, then snake it’s way across her face. His only response is a calm, reserved silence. Her eyes narrow, trying to discern what is transpiring in his active mind. Is he sifting through potential scenarios? Allowing memories to file by? Is he fearful of what may happen? She cannot tell, but she needs some directive – guidance in how to handle whatever it is that will happen when he opens the door to this mountain lodge.

Time stalls. The squeak of the front door being flung wide open slices into her thoughts.

“Mornin’ doll!” the newcomer, stamping snow from his boots, croons toward the shapely bartender. “The Prince will have his usual.” His smile flashes, perfect and white.

In a corner seating area, slinking low in her chair, she shudders. “Prince” indeed – shimmering and dazzling, unlike the lodge’s inconspicuous other imbibers! Before she has another chance to inhale, he turns sharply, facing her directly. She withers!

“Well, look who dragged themselves into this sublime little spot!” he shouts with inflated bravado. He doesn’t wait for his drink, but rather strides to the corner where they are seated, still facing each another. She realizes in horror, that her words are trapped – muffled under years of subservience, demanded allegiance and desperate feelings of inferiority. He was the master; she, a mere serf in the Empire.

“You!” he bellows, not to her, but to the poised man who sits with his back to the assailant. “You betrayed me! You’ve stolen right out from under me! You low-down SOB!

An unholy hush settles on the place as every person speaks earnestly to the one across a table, works busily, or stares intently into the blazing fire. The tall man across from her rises, pivots to face his accuser, holding his gaze with resolve.

“Excuse me, sir. I’m in a meeting – in a public place. You have no right to address me in this way. Please contact me personally if you wish to speak to me.”

Humiliated that someone dared call out his behavior – and, before many witnesses – the aggressor’s response reflects rIssing hostility.

“You shameless swindler,” he seethes, his face contorting, “I have nothing more to say to you! I’ll see you in court!” And with that he spins around, leaving his White Rascal untouched at the bar, and storms back outside.

She shrivels further, shrinking to a mere fraction of who her already diminished person had become. All is still. Her entire body is tense, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth and she is painfully aware of furtive glances coming from other customers, who, moments earlier, had simply enjoyed the same enchanted space. She lowers her head, ashamed. She wishes she could evaporate instead of needing to consider the long walk of shame out of the bar.

He clears his throat. She wishes she could ignore his presence, feeling she is responsible for his public humiliation. Her mind searches in vain for justification. For a reason. What had possessed her to invite him to talk here? Now? She raises confused eyes.

There is no blame in his face; his ebony eyes reveal kindness that cannot be fabricated. “It’s not your fault. How could you have known?” was all he said.

She is haunted, day after day, and night upon dreaded night. She ponders, questions, seeks explanations and cannot find peace. Why is this incident so unsettling? she asks herself over and over again.

The rumors that this “Prince” – this highly revered leader – was not only arrogant and proud, but also led a double life, were many. She had been vehement in her refusal to believe them. She had defended him, given him the benefit of the doubt, sworn he was ethical, respectful and authentic, always having the best intentions. But after that day, she was plagued. Why was she so tormented? Had she been duped? Had they all been systematically deluded? That possibility paralyzed her.

Insomnia encroached on her nights. Debilitating self-incrimination for her lack of faith to manage her life added to her guilt.

She sees their kingpin walk into the glaring lights. Standing before a large gathering of the faithful – men and women; diverse in race and economic status. The hush is broken by his words:

His eyes dart from left to right. “You’re all traitors! Every one of you…but especially…” his voice trails, hissing into the microphone.

Terror is tangible. They confuse it with respect.

“I know you won’t betray me again! I know you’ll all be there for me now,” his eyes narrow; his words slow, nearly inaudible.

“You will do as I say,” his half-smile drapes over a crooked snarl, “because you know everything I do is for you!”

Her own shrieking voice pierces the night as she bolts upright in bed. Oh God, how could she have missed it? Her inability to function after the disquieting exchange in the lodge is not about her at all. It is bigger; deeper. She is ashen. It will be years until she begins to comprehend.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
Photo credit: Robin T. http://hotspringlodge.blogspot.com

 

Dance of the Divine

A photo by Tyssul Patel. unsplash.com/photos/o-zOatT4kQwThe day had dawned gloriously; bright and full of hope. A breathless troupe had huddled over her slippery, squirming, screaming form. She, too, had been perfect. So much potential and promise. There was nothing she could not reach for, achieve, contribute. At least this was the message that now echoed in the remote chambers of her active mind.

Nothing indeed! She had been presented with a combination of nurture and demand, a plethora of opportunities, experiences, mentors, coaches and professors! She was destined to flourish! Be a success. Eclipse the ordinary.

Valiantly she had complied; exerted herself; risen higher than any of them had dared dream. Her reputation as a relentless debater, along with her skilled interpretation of securities law had brought exclusive opportunities and unsolicited attention.

Every day she had forged ahead, focused and driven, unaware of envious glances and muted voices, which either predicted her next success, or lay in wait for any sign of misstep. At night she would collapse into her threadbare, musty army-green couch, unable to comprehend the unrest within her. Without pulling the chain to illumine the lone bulb under the lopsided lampshade, she had sat in growing gloom, legs folded beneath her. She had done this every night, at midnight!

“What drives you? What serves as your inspiration?” Had anyone ever questioned her incessant push towards excellence, she would’ve had no response. She had no idea what energized her. She knew she had a fortunate blend of intellect, attractive athleticism, advantaged connection and confidence.

And she had memories. Memories that were continually being resuscitated with an endless display of awards, degrees, file folders stuffed with articles which had appeared in prestigious professional journals, and pictures taken with the influential.

While memories nourish some, they debilitate others. But her memories more resembled rivulets, which had carved rugged canyons into her soul. They had created narrow paths with steep, impenetrable walls on either side. There were no forks in the road, no trails that beckoned into obscured intrigue, not even markers that indicated miles traveled or distances to future destinations, such as she had come to rely on when she still hiked. Nothing. Just the present; having never owned her past and without vision for the future.

She had shifted – her knees drawn to her chin, arms securely clasped over calves, eyes wet with tears. It was unclear for how long or for what reason she had not moved.

She had remained unresponsive in a secluded cabin retreat, surrounded by anxious faces, voices which battered her with invasive questions, involuntarily ingesting handfuls of prescribed medications multiple times daily. Day after dismal day had served only to further secure her suffocation. Impatience and blame from those around her had replaced fear and concern

One day her place was vacant, her belongings deserted. She vanished without a trace.

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She left no clue as to her whereabouts and submerged herself in the colors, smells, textures, tastes and sounds of another life. Another world. There was no need to speak – to explain, to justify, to rationalize, to win. There was only space without the measured passage of time. Smiles and simple gifts enfolded her beleaguered person. Salve which was neither tangible nor applied massaged every part of her being.

She would later be able to point to the exact moment in which radiance dawned. Her steps had taken her over a seldom traveled, dusty path, behind hovels and amidst soggy vines covered with insects. Their eyes had met as one bent over the other. Instant recognition, not of outward identity, but of kindred spirit. The tall woman had lifted the bundle out of the tangled shroud of weeds and held it to her beating breast. Time, love and laughter, music and dancing knit the two together. Unlikely and inseparable. Words were born to replace the rigid, lifeless utterances  that had once served to entrap her; colors exploded as they created vibrant meaning; community consisted not of competition or conquest, but of kindness and compassion. Two entirely new lives emerged, inextricably linked, yet fiercely independent. It was a dance of the divine in solidarity with those abandoned; discarded.

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Together they eventually emerged on what now seemed foreign terrain; disbelief descended from everywhere with brutal force. It nearly absorbed her companion, but since she still recognized the turbulence and cacophony of this former life, she intervened swiftly. There was no welcome, not even relief. Disapproval, disregard and disdain began to join an already rushing stream of consciousness, which had thundered through her years like a freight train in a narrow mountain pass. Earlier her psyche had buckled under this force; now it was unshakable.

She had found her marker, a beacon, a guidepost which had led her out of the torturous cavern and brought her to a magnificent outlook from which she could witness not only this deadly serpent winding its way through unsuspecting, tormented lives, but the brilliant splash of color, which opened her heart again and again. Without further word, they turned, melting into the oranges and fuchsias of the sun that was setting on the land.

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© Julia Penner-Zook, 2016
photo credits: Tyssul Patel, Dương Trần Quốc, Matthew Wiebe and Carolinie Cavalli via unsplash.com (in order of usage)

Sheltered

imageWith orange variations sweeping into hues of rich plum, the expansive sky heralds encroaching nightfall. She does not notice. She rarely does when her tumultuous mind allows for no calm – succumbing to the incessant internal chatter and all-consuming hiss of options, lists, reminders, responsibilities, commitments, desires, hopes and yes – regrets. There is no escape. Not alone. Not in a crowd. Not awake and definitely not in the sheet-twisting joyless hours of the night. Not even her beloved can help her now.

No one notices her pull on heavy footwear, wrap an oversized scarf around her almond face and slip both arms underneath a long, rough tartan cape. Noiselessly she eases the door, releasing her to the fading light on the country estate. Her lungs recoil sharply at the air she slowly sucks in, stinging her forehead, as if from an ice cold drink sipped hastily through a straw too wide.

Once no longer visible from the gleaming golden portals – all-knowing eyes within the ancient edifice – her muscles relax and pace slows. Her feet move toward the brooding pine forest just beyond the perimeter of the remote property. She takes no note of imminent nightfall, hastening its steps after the unmercifully short days of winter.

The gentle sway of pine tree arms embraces her as she succumbs to the mystical stirrings of this holy place. Surrounded by wordless giants, she feels no further need to twist and turn, agonize and brutalize her mind into forms that make her thoughts somehow appear appropriate. Understandable. Rational. To others, of course. This sacred space gives the gift of ultimate acceptance.

She walks, but keeps no record of where nor for how long. Nothing matters except this moment of respite. Time ceases to exist in the company of friends.

An unfamiliar shape to her left, half hidden by a spindly juniper, causes her head to turn. How was it that she had never noticed this rugged, wooden bench before? Instinctively she stops, peers at the structure, recognizing it as an invitation for silence. She nestles into it as some would curl into an overstuffed chair before a blazing fire. Her lips turn up slightly, musing that what one may consider cold and bleak, another receives as an intimate caress.

As moments pass, her immobile frame loses its rigidity; her face radiates peace into the crisp, welcoming stillness. Her closed eyes refuse to register the waning daylight, waiting rather for the twinkling radiance of the troupe of stars, appearing as silent dancers against inked velvet.

She does not see the Presence approach, but she feels it. It does not frighten, coerce or question. Without murmur or movement, she acknowledges the vibrancy of companionship. A glowing warmth begins to trickle from the back of her head down her spine, enveloping her ribs, soaking into her lungs, filling the crevices of her heart and seeping into each extremity.

The rhythm of her breath, causing the imperceptible rise and fall of her breast, offers music for the glistening dancers of the sky. The chaos of her mind is soothed and smoothed in the Presence of Love. Grace. Embrace. Without greetings extended, words exchanged, or dilemmas examined.

Solitude marks no passage of time; indeed it is inconsequential. She allows healing Wisdom to permeate the recesses of her heart unhurried. Secluded. Transforming.

The Sanctuary has offered its best: stillness, confidence, strength. She opens her eyes to all she has seen within her soul. Great horned owls – sentinels, witnesses – nod in reverent benediction. She gathers her wraps around her, rises – stately and poised – and moves toward the familiar scene she had left behind. She now leaves warmth, communion, music and beauty to rejoin those who have settled for its faint reflections.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2016
photo credit: pashto.wunderground.com

Beautiful Darkness

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Complete darkness, save the twinkling dancers along the Milky Way. Night punctuated only with the chant of cicadas and the chirp of crickets. This was the stillness Genevieve had dreamed of, longed for and gone in search of. From her comfortable, tasteful urban home to this: lying on her back, arms folded behind her head on the pillow of this sparse, though freshly made cot. At least her surroundings were still. Here. At night. Alone, except for her faithful cocker spaniel, Boo, snoring gently at her feet.

“Why are you here?”

The question had startled her as she settled down with her lunch tray at half past noon. She looked over at the young woman who was already picking at the turkey sandwich on her plate. She seemed to be no more than eighteen years old, thin – almost gaunt, with wispy hair framing her square face.

When Genevieve didn’t answer immediately, her table partner repeated: “Yea, you. Why are you here? You could be doing something else, couldn’t you?”

Genevieve tried to gather her thoughts quickly, as she cleared her throat. “Well, I was doing something else before I came here,” she ventured.

“So, what were you doing?”

Genevieve briefly summarized her life: demanding, successful profession, public service, weaving her husband, children and grandchildren into the bigger picture. As she did so, she was conscious of her attempt to downplay the privileged cards she had been dealt. “But somehow it wasn’t enough…” her voice trailed. Embarrassed, she stopped mid sentence.

“Not enough,” the young woman spat! “You ungrateful bitch.”

Genevieve flinched, instantly realizing her immense mistake. Not enough were horrid words to use when defining her life.

“That’s not what I meant…” She was at a loss.

“Well then, what did you mean?” Eyes flashed.

Genevieve tried a different approach. “You know, we don’t even know each other’s names. I’m Genevieve.” She smiled as invitingly as possible. Her table partner’s face remained unmoved.

“Thanks for that! Your name sounds just like your life! Beautiful. Rich. Comfortable. Great for you.” Her words may as well have been laced with icicles; they froze the soul. She didn’t offer her name in return.

Alright then, Genevieve moaned inwardly. This is going well.

“What I meant about ‘not enough’ is…”

“Oh never mind! You’re here because we are your ‘project’. Helping us will somehow make you feel better? Kinda like ease your guilt or something?”

Genevieve’s spirit sank. This honest, perceptive stranger had pierced the core of her heart, and both women knew it!

Now, lying in the safety of dense blackness and utter stillness, Genevieve has no choice but to confront her own heart. She knows exactly what she had meant to say earlier. She had wanted to convey that she longed to do more than she had been doing with her life up to that point. Be more. Connect more deeply. Make a difference. She chides herself fiercely for seriously squandering this opportunity.

She stretches, pulls the covers up to her neck, and Boo rouses just enough to resettle at her side.

She forces her eyes to close, but sleep does not find her. Her mind churns. Why was she here? Had she seriously thought she could make a difference? She, who had been afforded every opportunity and had sometimes not even been forced to suffer the consequences of youthful folly?

The women and girls who were here had lives that were so far removed from hers that she hadn’t even been able to articulate her own choices and desires. She had thought they were noble. But, were they?

A frown settles over her face – no one sees. It is dark and she is alone. Pondering. Confronting. Allowing each twisted motivation, inflated self-assessment, awkward perception, stilted conversation to pass by for her observation, like auditioning actors on a stage. But, each actor is judged according to the same twisted, inflated and awkward criteria that defines the actors.

“This is futile,” she breathes audibly as she determines she must sleep at least an hour or two before rising for another day at the ranch.

When day breaks, she keeps her eyes down as she approaches the main buildings. She wants to avoid any non-verbal invitation to an unwanted confrontation as she walks in search of one of the camp psychologists. She waits her turn.

“May I have a few words with you?”

“Of course, Genevieve,” Ellen, the gracious graying woman beams as she leads the way to her small, somewhat rumpled camp office.

“How are things now after several weeks here?” Ellen begins.

Without warning, tears escape Genevieve’s tired eyes as she summarizes her dreams, hopes, experiences and culminates with the soul-baring interaction of the previous day. Ellen listens until no more words come. The silence between them is life-giving rather than uncomfortable.

After some minutes Ellen asks simply, “Have you changed in the past weeks?”

“Profoundly! Yes!” More silence; minutes pass uninterrupted. “I guess that’s a good thing. I needed to realize that nothing in my life has positioned me to make any difference here whatsoever.” She wipes tears from her eyes and turns to gaze out the window at the sun rising over the baldcypress that line the entrance to the camp.

“Nothing?” Ellen whispers.

Minutes of silent pondering pass.

“I can’t think of anything. No.”

“Where does your desire to make a difference fit in?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not doing a very good job.”

“You know, Genevieve. You’re a person who’s used to getting results. Measurable results. Practice harder; be more focused; implement new techniques. You know when you’re doing something right. Now you’re in a position where you’ll have to wait for results. Give yourself time, darlin’.”

As they rise to head toward the cafeteria Ellen embraces Genevieve. “Thanks.” Her voice is gruff through the frog in her throat.

Time – time indeed. Time to evolve into a new person herself. Can she spare the time?

***

I rarely “continue” a flash fiction story, but after several email exchanges with a reader over the past days, I’ve decided to delve further into Genevieve’s story. Click here for the prequel.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2015
photo credit: gettyimages.com

At Some Point

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After a brilliant performance for an enthusiastic audience, Genevieve takes the subway to her hotel. She turns each affirming comment over in her mind as she sits down next to a petite young woman. Her guitar is in a case on her back and she swings it adeptly in front of her as she eases her body down. The woman next to her removes one ear bud, turning her head slightly toward her seat partner.

“You a musician?” she ventures, after several minutes of silence.

Genevieve faces the speaker, “Yes, I am.”

“Do you live here?”

“Actually, I don’t. I live on the opposite coast.”

“I didn’t think so.”

Genevieve looks surprised. “Really? Why not?”

“Most women like you aren’t out alone at this time of night. Especially not dressed up, carrying an instrument.”

Genevieve smiles. She has never feared people, whether it’s their opinions or their potentially devious intents.

“You’re probably right. They don’t. But I’m not ‘most women’,” she admits.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a classical guitarist. I teach and perform.”

“Get out!” The outburst was unexpected.

“Really. I am!”

The young woman apologizes quickly. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I truly believe you. It’s just… well, you know…I don’t meet one often.”

Bemused, “Meet ‘one’…?”

“Y..y..es. Someone who plays classical guitar!”

“Well, that’s probably true.”

“I play, too,” comes the exuberant reply. She pulls off one mitten and clumsily pushes her right hand in Genevieve’s direction. “Emilee Kirkson,” she blurts.

“Emilee, I’m so glad to meet you – a fellow classical guitarist.” She clasps Emilee’s extended hand in her own.

Emilee’s face glows with admiration.

“How long have you played?” Genevieve continues.

“Not that long. Only three years!”

“That’s long enough to know whether it’s for you, isn’t it?”

“It sure is! And it IS for me! I know that.”

Genevieve eyes sparkle as her face crinkles into a broad smile.

“That’s great! I love it when people find their passion and pursue it.”

“You must be so very happy. I mean, performing, audiences, teaching, traveling and all…”
Genevieve responds without hesitation, “Yes, I am very happy. It’s a wonderful life. Oh,” she adds, quickly rising from the seat, “This is me – my stop,” she explains as she wishes Emilee a life of joyful music and fulfillment.

After a five minute walk in the crisp pre-Thanksgiving air, Genevieve strides into the hotel which is home for one more night. She rides the elevator to the fourteenth floor, turns left and inserts the plastic card into her hotel room door. She lets out a slow, long breath and collapses onto the bed. What a week it’s been.

All evening she has been looking forward to the long, hot soak in her luxurious bathtub. As she runs the water, she senses a rare uneasiness within her heart. Ignoring it, she steps gingerly into the water, testing the temperature. Perfect!

She melts into the warm water – very warm, as Genevieve needs to thaw from the cold that seeped into her bones earlier in the rather chilly concert hall.

You must be so very happy. Over and over, the words replay in her mind. Initially her response, Yes, I’m very happy, accompanies the question. Suddenly, her response rings hollow. Superficial and spurious.

Her heart rate increases as her mind reels. But, she is happy. She is very happy. Her career spans nearly thirty years; her proficiency in classical guitar offers her the flexibility and creativity many people envy. Her Spanish-born husband, whom she met decades ago during her two semesters at the Universidad de Alicante, has set international records in foreign trade. They have three lovely daughters: intelligent, educated and successful. One is married and has two young children; the oldest recently landed her dream job as a journalist for a prestigious newspaper; the third is a business administrator at a hospice in the city they all once called home. Plus, she adores her vivacious cocker spaniel, Boo, who she rescued on Hallowe’en three years ago.

You must be so very happy. You must be so very happy. Oh would you just please stop, she wrestles with her brain. Of course, I’m happy.

But her turmoil doesn’t allow her to enjoy her soaking bath. She dries off, dresses in a warm nightgown and crawls into the cold, crisp hotel bed.

Her mind rehearses its litany of why she is exuberantly happy. Her days are full. She’s up early, meditates, fixes a smooth fruit drink, then runs beneath giant honey locust trees. She loves this tree as its loose and airy canopy allows the sunshine to filter through to her face.

Genevieve knows she is high energy, fit, competent and successful. Her months consist of practice, teaching students at a local community college and spending three afternoons most weeks with her two energetic grandchildren. Her performances aren’t as frequent as in the past – three or four locally per month; one extended two-week concert tour each fall. Perfect. It’s just as she’s planned it.

The hours tick by. One o’clock; half past; two o’clock. Finally at half past two, she heaves the covers back, reaches for the heavy hotel bathrobe, turns on a dim light and sits to write at the massive oak desk.

Am I happy?
Of course.
Really?
REALLY happy?
Does my guitar
Fill my days with
Hope
Joy
Peace?
Do my students
Learn more than notes
And rhythms?
Does my time with
The babies
Make a difference?
And Armando?
Is he happy?
Are we happy?
Is this all there is?

She does Thanksgiving without undue thought or effort. No one suspects the crashing, deafening mental queries. Christmas follows. Decorating, baking, entertaining, shopping, laughing. Still no one suspects.

Two weeks into the new year she places one lone bag containing a few essentials into her car. And Boo. Three days later she arrives at Coastal Breeze Ranch for Girls, where equine and music therapies support girls transitioning from the juvenile justice system.

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photo credits:
Valerio Berdini/live on 35mm
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
© Julia Penner-Zook, 2015