Touch: The Journal of Healing



Copyright © 2011

Touch: The Journal of Healing

All rights reserved.

The Still and the Always

    by Sharon Erby

    The deer must have leaped off the bank in front of the car.  There would be times after the police officer brought the news to Brenda’s door that Saturday night last month when she would imagine a different outcome.  Your mother was a lucky woman.  She walked to the ambulance; yes, you can see her now.  In her daydream, Brenda would go into the hospital room to find her mama sitting in a chair.  She’d be tapping her foot, dismayed at being delayed.

    The doctor would come into the room, then, tell her mama everything checked out okay, and she was free to go home.  Free.  Mama would give the doctor a big hug and he’d leave the room much happier than he’d been when he entered it.  And Brenda and her mama would walk out to the Cherokee, stop for a piece of coconut cream pie and coffee at Richardson’s, and still get back to the trailer before Robbie and the boys were asleep.

    The officer told Brenda the deer must have been standing on the plateau that was obscured by a curve not far below the crest of the mountain.  “Ma’am, she probably just reacted. Didn’t even realize what she was doing,” he’d told her.  She’d died from internal injuries.

* * *

    It wasn’t until Brenda was in her teens that she realized her mama believed you didn’t have to be at the top of the Timmons to connect to what she called “the still and the always.”  Before that, Brenda’s earliest memories had been during those moments when they were climbing the mountain — not on the truck route; instead, on the road that branched off, led to the summit.  As they got closer to the top it was like a countdown for one of those space launches from Cape Kennedy.  Mama would build the suspense: “Oh boy,” she’d say.  “Here it comes.  Can you feel that air?  It’s thin enough you could reach up and poke a hole in it to let you pass on through.  Shhh, Shhh, hush now,” came next.  You couldn’t hear it if you weren’t quiet.  Her mama would slow down, no matter if another car was behind her and its driver was giving her dirty looks (Let ‘em slow down once.  They probably need to feel it and hear it worse than we do).  There at the top — through a portal that had a little piece of the mountain on either side, it was only sky you could see; it was as if you could shoot right into heaven.  “Can you see that sky?” her mama would say.  “Pure enough. Pure enough, I’d say.”  She’d say “pure enough” no matter whether the sky was brilliant blue or the color of dirty wash water.  Then the moment came, it would always come, when Brenda and her brother Davey would see it (they’d fight about who got to sit up front — the view was better from up there).  Then her mama would take in her breath like she was getting ready to go underwater for a long time, but softer somehow, quieter.  And for an instant they felt like they were someplace else.  There was nothing like it.

    A second later, they’d be on the other side of the mountain, on their way down, and her mama would let out the air she’d been holding in.  It was okay to start talking again after that.  And Brenda and Davey did talk about it — then and later.  Sometimes they even told their teachers and friends at school.  Some of the teachers would smile; others would shake their heads, twist their lips in disbelief.  Some of their friends told their parents and they’d try to get into the still and always, too, as if it were some kind of club that you could get into by invitation only.

    Over the years Brenda’s mama had gotten used to the jibes from her husband about the notion.  “Your mama thinks she’s one of those religious philophoser types,” Martin would say.  She’d say, “Now Mr. Martin, I never said you had to believe.”  And then she’d go up to him and give him a kiss and smile like she had a secret — one that she’d be willing to tell anyone who was willing to listen.  The truth was, Brenda’s daddy had started to listen to it, listen for it, in the years before he died.  “Just you be quiet awhile,” her mama told him, “It’s always waitin’ for you to be still so you can hear it, so you can feel it.  For some people, it’s sittin’ together in a church, or it’s goin’ far and wide to tell about it.  It always was easier for me to get at it on the Timmons.  But you got to find your own place.”

* * *

    Brenda had dreaded the weekend trip to the homestead, but now that her mama was gone, things needed to be taken care of.  The house had been “neat as a pin” — her mama’s expression.  She’d always been all about clichés, said, “They suit me just fine and if nobody likes it, well that’s just fine, too.”  By Friday evening, Brenda had run out of boxes — and energy.  Every drawer she opened unlocked a scent, reached backwards to an event, a touch, a glance — the associations, impressions simultaneously going, coming, staying.  Her mama had been reluctant to get rid of any of Brenda’s daddy’s things after he died.  Then she’d decided, “I suppose this stuff doesn’t mean much to anyone — wouldn’t get anything for it if I did try to sell it.  So ‘til I find somebody to give it to, why shouldn’t I keep it?”

    Then, not long after, she’d called Brenda,“Come help me get Daddy’s things ready, honey.  The church is having a clothing drive.”

    Her mama had insisted on replacing buttons, tacking torn pockets and hems, on laundering, even ironing everything.  It turned into a weekend event.  Brenda had gone to the kitchen to get the hoagies she’d brought for supper, and returned to hear her mama singing in her and daddy’s bedroom.  She’d always turned everything into a song. Brenda was happy to hear it — didn’t want her mama to stop.  She paused at the door to listen:

    You're so far away

    Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore

    It would be so fine to see your face at my door

    Doesn't help to know you're so far away.

    But by the time her mama made it to the end of the chorus, she was sitting on their bed, her hands cupped over her face, the words of the song muffled.  Three years had passed since that weekend — and it was the last time Brenda ever heard her sing.

* * *

    She lay down on her mama and daddy’s bed late Friday night, exhausted from sorting, from pitching and packing — from all of it — pulled the quilt that should have smelled musty instead of sweet up over her, looked at the pictures that hung on the walls around her: her mama and daddy, her and Davey, all together.  And then she settled down, settle down.  In the darkness, Mama came moving toward her, pushing Brenda’s hair away from her eyes, pressing her lips against Brenda’s forehead, Mama still singing, always singing, her voice up high with the wind outside, smooth, her black hair swirling soft around her face:

    Try not to get worried, try not to hold onto problems that upset you, oh!

    We want you to sleep well tonight. Let the world turn without you tonight.

    Close your eyes, close your eyes, and relax, think of nothing.

    Close your eyes. ††

* * *

    Late the next afternoon, Brenda decided to leash General, her border collie, and walk him before the trip home.  After they’d circled the barns and crossed the wooden footbridge over the creek she saw it — positioned with a view toward the ridges — the free-standing swing her daddy had built years ago.

    By then it was getting on toward evening, but Brenda had called Robbie and the boys, told them she’d be a bit later than expected.  “Them fools who sell their souls to have that store-bought stuff,” her daddy had said years and years before.  “This swing might not be fancy, but at least I got time to sit on it.”

    There were a few cracks in the oak, but it was still strong.  “Come on, boy,” Brenda told the dog, “How’s about we sit for a minute before we head home?”  The dog plopped at her feet.  A calm sifted down from the sky that had gone from blue to mauve, and the creek just ahead of the ridges slurped soft and low; in awhile, the sound of the peepers drowned it out.

    Not long after, out from the ridges and into the grasses in front of them, came a buck, slow, tentative.  It was obvious he wasn’t used to intruders.  He raised his fine, antlered head high, but didn’t run.  In fact, he took a few steps closer, pressed his nose into the new grass.  It was a good thing Brenda was holding onto General’s leash; the dog reacted like a soda bottle her son Toby had once thrown out of a shopping cart — flying backwards, spewing foam.  Still, the deer paused another instant, looked at Brenda — then bounded off into the ridges.

    “Calm down boy,” she told the dog. “Be still.”

* * *

    When she was a child, Brenda had always waited until late fall to go on an explore in the woods with her dog.  She’d lived all her life in the country, so she’d learned that if she waited until then, the snakes would be gone.  By then, both her mama and daddy had gotten used to Brenda’s liking for solitary treks in the woods and elsewhere.  “Just take that short-legged dog with you,” her daddy would say.  She’d sit under the cottonwood tree that stood by itself just before the woods on Knob Mountain, look across the narrow valley, watch the sunlight wash over the Timmons.

    It was on a day when they’d gone looking for arrowheads that it happened.  The dog had sniffed out something under a rotted log, and was trying to dig it out, when Brenda heard the sound.  It was a sort of snort, muffled by the sound of his paws scratching to get at whatever he’d unearthed.  And there, across the stretch of a few nearly bare trees, stood the biggest buck she’d ever seen.  Of course, she had seen deer before, but never so close, never so…  He turned his head toward her; his black eyes locked with hers.  Time seemed to go away and the universe was the piece of ground where the deer and Brenda stood.  Even the air that flowed between them felt different.  Right then she somehow knew she and the deer were something more than just a girl, more than just a deer.  And whatever it was, it connected them as much as their locked eyes did.  Brenda had never felt so alive.

    Then — the tug on the leash, her hand holding it tight, barking, barking, and the deer — leaping into another universe.  And Brenda was pulled through the dry leaves and over downed logs, dodging branches, as her dog (now aware of something worlds better than whatever was under the rotting log) determined he was going to get it.  When they broke free of the woods and burst into the field above the house, she yanked on the dog’s leash, made him sit. And she sat there beside him — still.  Always, afterward, she remembered what happened, always wondered about it, never really figured it out.

© 2011 Sharon Erby

Sharon Erby teaches at Wilson College, Chambersburg, PA, a liberal arts college dedicated to the education of women. A contributor to Touch: The Journal of Healing, her creative work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Feminist Studies, Slice, The View from Here, Chaffey Review, and Glossolalia, among others.