Here, There and Everywhere

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Guardians & Shadows II

Excerpt from novel A Woman of Heart by Marcy Alancraig.

Guardians & Shadows – Conclusion (Part II)

Who are you? I asked, trembling so much I was worried I’d fall over. I grabbed Davy, sure I would never let him go again, and squeezed him against my legs. But your uncle wiggled away, unafraid to face that whole group of strangers. A grin, even, he had on his brave face. Are you wondering, Shoshie, what that smart boy knew that I didn’t? Me too, even after all these years.

We are Guardians, said the oldest. A wrinkled woman, blue tattoos on her chin. Only a skirt of reeds she wore. A shell necklace. Let me tell you, it didn’t cover much.

Oy vey, I gasped and quick put my hand over Davy’s eyes. I didn’t want he should see her bare breasts.

But then, like the priest spirit, she made a motion with her hand and started to grow solid. Stop, I cried out. Enough changing already! She nodded, but not before I saw her legs grow still and root into the dirt. And for a second, all that age in her, it seemed like rings wrapped around her middle. Then she got ghosty again. Thank you, I whispered. Better, I thought, Davy should see breasts than watch her turn into a tree.

She laughed, as if she could hear me, and it sounded like the breeze in the gum grove. A friendly noise it was, a purr, like what a cat makes to show love.

We are Guardians, she said again, with a wink and nod at Davy. When I was alive, my people were known as Winamabakeya, People Who Belong to the Land.

Okay, okay, so maybe you think your grandma is making this up, or like your mother, you want it should be the Alzheimer’s. Poor Gram, you think, in her old age she’s lost whatever sense she ever had. Listen bubee, the comfort in pretending this whole business is some kind of fancy story I understand. Back in 1929, I kept pinching myself, hoping to wake up from this meshuggeneh dream.

But no such luck, because no matter how hard I worked my skin, the Guardians just kept smiling. The eight of them, the two of us, quiet and still on that hill.

Davy’s Guardian smiled and the old one hmphed, her eyes like sun on leaves, shining. Please forgive our interruption, the priest one said.

And then they began to fade, like dew in the morning. In a minute, the hill would be empty, back to the safe place it’d been before they came.

Except not if your uncle could help it. “No! Don’t leave,” he cried. To me he turned. “Make them stay.”

“But bubee, they have to go.” I tried to hold him, but he wouldn’t let me.

“No,” he sobbed. “Come back! You promised to play with me.”

“Shadows have business,” I tried to explain. “You can’t keep them.”

“No, no, no!” he yelled, his fists pounding the dirt. Then from his mouth, a truth so strong it made me lose my breath. He looked up. “You’re the one sending them away.”

I was. Or at least, letting them leave, and glad I was about it. But what about this boy who, I had bragged earlier, should come first, no matter what, when it came to a ghost business? It hadn’t been more than a couple of hours, but already I was breaking my vow? Oy, what kind of mother was I? For the first time, I started to wonder. How much, how many people, had I stopped myself from knowing because I was afraid?

I mean, these Guardians — so all right, yes, they were scary, but who couldn’t see, with their wind and grasses and leaves, that they belonged here? And in how they spoke and treated us, so quiet and polite, there was nothing close to harm. So what was I worried, Davy should want to play with them a little? A piggyback with the Irish girl, what could be so bad?

Wait, I called out and they stopped fading. In a blink, there they were again, strong and glowing on the hill.

Then I bent to Davy, who had stopped crying and was watching the Guardians, his bright face smiling. “One piggyback and then we have to get home to fix supper. When I call and say it’s over, you promise to come?”

“Yes,” he yelled, running with eager feet. With a swing and a yelp, as if all the grasses on the hill had started laughing, his piggyback ride began.

Plenty of time I had for thinking as the Irish ghost carried Davy across the hill on her back like he was the king of the grasses. Such gladness in his face, the whole story he would have to tell. And yes, there would be yells and slaps, tears when the family thought he was lying. “Davy’s usual fairy tales,” Nate would shrug. Mimi would sniff, “Just a dream.” And that poor boy would wipe his eyes, “Mama will tell you. She saw them.” And what could I say, without giving away this ghost business? Oy, such a pickle.

So I looked at the old one, the tree, because she seemed the smartest. Straight out, with all the courage I had in me, I asked her: What should I do?

The old one, Wina she said I could call her, beckoned, and the Irish girl came over.

“So soon?” Davy whined.

The spirit put him down on the grass in front of the old lady. Wina smiled at him, so warm, so knowing. Then she reached out and put her hand on his head.

On Davy’s face — such a sweetness, like I had never seen. He closed his eyes and stood quiet, almost dreaming maybe. Her hand patted his curly hair.

And then, the patting stopped and the sun got brighter. That light, all gold, filled up the hill. I blinked at it, so shiny — and when I was done no more Wina. All the Guardians , they’d disappeared.

I looked around, sad a little to miss them. And yes, I’ll be honest, Shoshie. Also, I was relieved.

Davy opened his eyes. “Mama, I’m hungry. Let’s go home.”

“You’ve had enough playing?” I asked, looking at him closely. All right he seemed, nothing strange or bothered. “Enough you’ve had with the piggybacks for now?”

“What piggyback?” he asked, rubbing a scratched knee. Then he cocked his head, like a pullet trying to coax a little more feed, and sighed. “I’m tired. Will you carry me?”

All the way home, he got a ride, that boychik, such a wheeler-dealer. I carried as much as he asked, amazed about the Guardians he didn’t remember a thing. That Wina, she made a magic on him what made for peace in the house when we got back for supper. But you know, Shoshie, even then for Davy I felt a little bad.

Think about it. My boy I’d cheated of his first experience with a wild magic. Much later, after the war and his two years in that prison camp, I spent nights wondering — would he be any better if that piggyback ride, it had stayed close to his heart? But how could a little piggyback make better what he suffered — forced labor, the beatings — from those Nazis? Still, I wonder about it — every time I look into his sad eyes.

And that’s why, my dearest girl, when you were nine and Wina came down from the hills to meet you, I asked she should make it so you remember. Like a tree in the wind, she nodded, and put her hand on your head. “Yes,” you said, looking up at her and then you smiled, so bright and happy. I was there. I saw it. Wina, the oldest of the Guardians, she leaned forward and kissed the top of your braids.

PART ONE (Yesterday)

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Guardians and Shadows

Excerpt from the novel A Woman of Heart by Marcy Alancraig.

Guardians and Shadows – Part 1

What happened next? Magic, that’s what happened! Shoshie, the day I met Mae Cherney, you wouldn’t believe what came and put a finger on my life. Not pretend, not fairy tales and superstition. Real magic. A group of ghosts – Guardians they called themselves – later that afternoon, they appeared on the hill.

Don’t look at me like that. It would kill you, to try to believe your grandma little? You asked, so I’m telling. I can’t help what I have to say.

It’s the truth and so yes, maybe it’s a little scary. These Guardians, I admit, they frightened the meat right off my bones. Oy, the power what oozed from their fingers! And eyes what made me shudder, so soaked they were with time. Listen, this is for real and I swear it on all the years of my living. In your short time on this earth, haven’t you met up with something you can’t explain?

No, I’m not talking the usual mysteries, love and how it comes and goes without asking. I don’t mean the riddles of families or politics or wars. Such puzzles, they’re only the regular business of living. The magic I’m talking was bigger and older than that.

Shoshie, this largeness — something you knew when you were little. When we’d take walks together, you’d raise a finger, pointing it out to me. “Grandma, look at the sun on the creek. It’s smiling.” One night in this very backyard — you remember? –you danced to a song from the stars.

Ai, what a crime, we grow up and close our eyes to the biggest story. Believe me, just like you I was until that long-ago summer day. Mae started the whole business, of course – what with the ache she left after our first lunch together. The kitchen felt so close, I just had to get out of the house.

But Davy was stirring from his nap, and soon he would cry out “Mama, come,” wanting to tell his dream. Mimi and Nate were maybe an hour away from rushing up the porch stairs to shout about their day at school. I had no business wanting to walk somewhere.

A wail and then sobbing was filling up the house. And so strong, I could tell he’d been going at it for a while. I dropped the bucket and hurried to your uncle.

He’d stopped crying but was hiding under the sheets — a hand holding his blanket. “Who’s in there?” I asked, pulling back the bedding and lifting him in my arms. “What is it, bubee? You woke up lonely, maybe? Is that why the tears?”

“My dream scared me and then there were the shadows.” Davy wiped his nose on my shoulder, then sat back. “Can you see how they have eyes? Over there.” Davy pointed to the window, framed by thin blue curtains. Between them, I saw a group of quick faces — blue eyes, brown ones, smiles, a gray eyebrow — and then nothing. In a blink, the shadows were gone.

Davy wriggled past my fear. “Did you see, Mama? The shadows pushed the bad dream away. They were nice to me.”

“Really?” I smoothed back his hair, trying to calm my shaking hands.

Davy nodded, big eyes as round as Gitl’s. “They winked and told me not to worry about the dog. They chased it. They yelled and made it leave the room.”

“You had a dog in here?” I kissed both his cheeks. Ah, now here was something I could begin to understand.

Davy jumped down from my lap. “The dog bit me. Right here.” Such an imagination, that boychik. He showed me the place on his leg where yesterday he’d been scratched playing in the blackberries. “That’s what I’m telling you. My dream.”

“Good,” I stood up, relieved.

And then I bent to my son, not even waiting to see how my spirits reacted. I went ahead and spoke as if they’d agreed with me. “Such a long story from a small boy, maybe you need a cookie? I know an oatmeal raisin what’s got your name on it in the kitchen.”

“Three,” Davy nodded, “one for me and two for the shadows. I want to find them.”

Not without me, I thought, my heart banging. “So, let’s have an adventure,” I suggested to Mr. Big Eyes, hoping to steer him toward something different. “Just you and me — how about we take a walk?”

“Long?” he asked, eyes brightening. “Up past the fences?”

“Up enough,” I promised. “We can look down on all the houses of Chapman Lane.”

Almost an hour it took to huff and puff up the big hill behind the ranch. Through the grasses we followed a little trail and no stopping either. “Hurry up, Mama!” Davy’s eyes were fixed on a big rock at the very top. And nothing else would do, because from there, a boy could see all of Petaluma. In that wild country, what belonged to no one we knew, he could shout: “You are mine. I name you Slominski Rock!” Then Davy could sit and rest, waiting for me to catch up. He could laugh at the smallness of his brother and sister as they walked home from school.

“Like ants, Mama. Look at them. Aren’t we tall?”

I didn’t feel tall; I felt tired.

“Papa’s pointing,” Davy yelled. “He’s showing Mimi and Nate where we are.” Davy pulled at my hand. “So beautiful. Like one of my dreams.”

Like a dream, the heat: rising up through the rock and warming our tired bodies. And then a hawk, circling, so close we could hear its wings. “Look at the tail,” Davy pointed from my lap, “so red.”

He squirmed, your uncle, gladness in every corner of his small body. Then he jumped down, “Look!” and pointed. “Over there!” Davy ran across the hill, whooping. “The shadows are here.”

“Wait!” I screamed. “No!”

Because he was right — coming towards us, the very same spirits what had smiled at me from his window. Tall, foggy, and — I screamed again — not like people at all. They were older than us somehow and, like wind or bobcats, full of wildness. Yes, they had human hair, bones, skin — all the regular business — but look close! Human wasn’t who they were at all.

For instance, the thin woman, the one your bad uncle reached first because he didn’t come when I called him. The way she swung him up in her arms, laughing and talking — like the Irish girls from the Shirtwaist Workers Union. Wispy hair, calico skirt, freckles. A nose so small you could miss it if you blinked. A stranger, but a little familiar something to her face.

Then your uncle laughed, and she threw back her head and shouted with him. Oy, how I shivered, Shoshie, at the terrible sound. Like all the grasses on the hill, suddenly they found voices. And then, through the mist of her body, I could see a mean wind working the slopes where nothing was blowing. Little shadows, like redwing blackbirds, dipped up and down over what should be her bones. I blinked. Nu, what was I seeing? The month of June, so hot it could kill all the pullets in one afternoon, in a human shape — that was what stood before me. And that spirit had my Davy in her arms.

“Put him down!” I ordered in a voice I had never heard come out of me. So much muscle, low and growling. “Put him down right now.”

The ghost smiled, a breeze whipping up an empty field. Davy she set back on the grass.

“Come here,” I demanded of my bad boy.

“But Mama,” he protested. “She was going to ride me piggy back.”

We mean no harm, Missus, said a curly-haired man, brown as the backside of our barn. A gray robe he was wearing, worn and coarse with a rope around the middle. Worse — a wooden cross, big enough to make me shudder, hung from the side of his belt. So many memories he gave me, Shoshie — of the Terlitza priests, with their frowns and bows and curses. Of the church bells ringing in Easter, what in the Ukraine you know was open season on killing Jews. I trembled, looking at this ghost. And worse, I know he saw it. Such a nod he gave me and then his hand moved, palm up, making his body change. Instead of see-through, what I was used to already, he got solid, almost like the living. It should have made me feel better, yes? Except his muscles, they were made of clouds and rain. That spirit, he turned into the worst of our wet winters right before my eyes.

PART TWO of EXCERPT TOMORROW
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A Woman of Heart

Excerpt from the beginning of the wonderful novel by Marcy Alancraig titled A Woman of Heart.

Back cover description:

After breaking her hip, 78-year-old Rheabie Slominski realizes that it’s finally time to share the secrets of her life with her granddaughter, Shoshana. Rheabie’s tales about the Jewish chicken ranchers of Petaluma, California, a vibrant cluster of Zionists, anarchists and communists struggling to survive the Depression, are populated b the most surprising characters: unhappy family ghosts, mysterious Guardian spirits of the land, and strange Uncle Mas.

“Could Grandma be slipping into Alzheimer’s?” Shoshie wonders. Yet, when the Guardians begin to show themselves to Shoshana and she stumbles on even deeper family secrets, everything she knows about herself and her history is called into question.

Chapter 1 – Unexpected Stories

RHEABIE

Every morning the past week, a wolf wakes me up from the kitchen. The minute I open my eyes, I hear it, walking back and forth. Yes, Shoshana, it’s you I’m talking, pacing like a caged animal. I know it’s hard to be here, taking care of a sick old woman, but enough already! Maybe you should relax a little? Just sit down?

I want we should visit. Listen, how often do I get the pleasure? Three stays in twelve years – and never more than a week. It’s not much.

Now, don’t get huffy. Did I say it should be any different? I know from the restless in you, my woman-what-loves-the-road. That itch to travel – it’s in those eyes of yours. Green – like the trees you love so much in Washington State. Seattle, Berne, Lydon – all the rainy places you’ve lived, they show in your face.

So listen, I understand how it must be hard, all this California sun here in Petaluma. September is the worst month, so hot and no fog. Still, we are trapped together in this little house, until my broken hip should get better, or I give up and die like your grandfather. You know the tsuris what happened the night I broke it. Giving up I don’t do. So maybe we can pass the time, telling each other stories? The truth, I’m talking. The real business of our lives.

I don’t mean the “everything’s fine, don’t worry” we both of us tell your mother and sister. I mean the big deal, Shoshana. All those surprising afternoons with a lover, for instance – I know you’ve had them – full of juicy business. Or those nights that broke apart in the sink maybe, like a tea glass whose pieces you couldn’t find.

Yes, of course, I’ve known my share and more, those kind of moments. These stories I’ve been waiting all your life to tell. Why? Because it was promised a long time ago, you should listen. By who? Never mind. That’s coming. And because even as a baby, the way you tapped your feet – so cute in those red corduroy booties – I could see you knew from restless. Only one year old and walking already. You lived with the same hurry and push what was born in me.

You don’t believe? All right, I’ll prove. Get out the photo album. The one what your grandpa put together – our early days on the ranch. You remember where it is? The left-hand book case, third shelf down. That’s right. Ach, so many memories. Look. This one, taken five years after we started here. You see? Me, feeding the pullets, in a hurry to get back to the kitchen. So much to do that day, for the camera I didn’t have time. “Enough already!” I swore at your grandpa. “The borsht is waiting!”

“Just one more,” he begged. “Smile.”

Notice the grin on my face, dolly, so strong and stubborn. Like I was biting back a curse, so much hidden behind those teeth. And did you ever wonder what I was seeing? Look at my eyes turned sideways, lost and lonesome. Hungry I was – for a glimpse of the Ukraine, a bissel of Terlitza, what I hoped might appear behind the barn. Oy, those were hard days. Like you, I was woman what did not know from home.

It’s not an insult, lovey, only the truth about us. Take a look at this one. Bent over the garden, showing my tuchis to the world. I was bigger in those days, yes, by a good thirty-five pounds; you could see me coming. I liked having hips back then, curves what meant something. Afraid I never was of zaftig thighs. But sorry I am to say, all that weight – it wasn’t all my body. Here’s the truth, dolly: I was a woman made big from carrying the dead.

Yiddish definitions:

tsuris – trouble, woes, worries, suffering
bissel – a little bit
Oy – a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay or joy
tuchis – buttocks
zaftig – juicy, plump, buxom

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