Persephone’s Bower: Chapter One

As some of you may remember, last summer I posted the prologue of a new novel I’m writing and promised to post each chapter as a draft as it is finished. The idea is that you can comment on each chapter if you like — tell me what’s unclear or that you think needs to be changed, what do you like, what really irritates you, etc.  I want to know so I can make the novel the best it can be! And hopefully you’ll find it fun to read it as it’s being created. I promise to try to be more prompt with upcoming chapters. If you didn’t read the Prologue you might want to read that first by clicking here.

CHAPTER ONE: THE TEA AT THE BACK OF THE PANTRY

The natural granite menhir stood as immovable witness to the island’s birth, the timeless center around which endless sunrises chased sunsets. As the mainland retreated with the rising waters, the menhir saw flora and fauna evolve and burgeon instead of being driven to extinction by plants and animals from other continents that found their way to the mainland. Later the menhir watched as the humans came in waves. The first peoples stayed only a few days each year to harvest the island’s unique bounty. Then others came, one or handful at a time, to hike or climb, to find refuge for a while, to picnic and watch the ships pass by. Finally, ferries full of summer vacationers built cottages near the shore, then established a small year-round community in the cove nearest the mainland. Occasionally one of the humans would discover the menhir, invisible to all but those who ventured deep into the forest at the navel of the island, but they could never find it a second time.

Diana Blakely had believed from the time she was five that Earth’s sky had been red at our planet’s birth and that its apparent blue hue was due to some unknown, very ancient catastrophe. Her adult mind knew this was untrue, but yet in that deeper well within she never doubted it because she had come to know it when she was very young and truth was what the people you loved told you.

During her childhood, her knowledge about the red sky was more than a belief. To her, it always set her apart and a bit above all the other children she knew. She had friends and toys and dance classes like all the other girls, and she did well enough in school, but everything she perceived had the tinge of the red sky world to which she perceived she really belonged. She found that much of the blue sky world, especially the rules and expectations, made no sense. When she was particularly irritated by some nonsense, she would say to herself “those are blue sky ways,” as if someday she would no longer have to endure them.

As the years passed, the soul-deep friendships and everyday new adventures of young womanhood overshadowed the red sky world. Diana’s red sky thoughts retreated to the margins of memory, flickering in and out like a candle flame. Finally, after college, Diana moved from her family’s New England homestead to California, leaving behind all memories and artifacts of the red sky world. Her job with a high tech start-up, her small apartment on a café-laden inner city street, and her work colleague friends were the life she had set out to have and for five years she was content. As so often happens, two seemingly-unrelated events that were actually two halves of an unexpected whole came to pass on the day that she received both an email telling her that the company she worked for was being sold and her position eliminated and a letter outlining the details of her grandmother’s estate, making her the new owner of a cottage on an isolated cove across the country in Massachusetts.

With no savings and no immediate employment prospects, Diana gave up her apartment lease, sold what she could of her possessions, and packed the rest into the back of her compact hatchback to set out across the continent. On her 30th birthday, the ferry landed her and her car on the bustling side of the island and, after driving across the island on dirt roads, she finally arrived at the cottage she had not seen in years. “Happy birthday to me,” she said as she crossed the threshold.

No one had ever entered her grandmother’s cottage by the front door. In fact, the key to it had been lost decades before. Diana only knew to come in by the kitchen door. When she bent over to put her key in that door, she found that the lock had been removed, an unneeded hindrance to a home on a cove visited by almost no one but those who lived in the two cottages on the shore. Once inside, Diana pulled the chain on the ceiling light and the kitchen once again lit up. Diana remembered the room as bright, clean, and full of warmth and cooking smells, but now the room and all the furnishings were shabby and its air was musty and stifling. The dust had turned to brown grime on the counters and in the sink.

She left the door open a while to let in the breeze. Diana would not begin cleaning the cottage in earnest till the next day, but she wanted at least one place to be as she remembered it as a child right then. First, she circled the room taking down the signs – “winter,” “January,” “2013,” “pantry,” – that had helped her grandmother stay oriented once she had fallen into the chasm of dementia. She found the plug for the stove that had been hidden when her grandmother had repeatedly left it on, nearly burning the house down, and plugged it in again. She wiped the counters and mopped the old stone floor. The kitchen had originally been a one-room cottage, built when and by whom unknown, and its nine-foot fireplace and hearth still held soot from decades, maybe even centuries, before. She swept the stray cinders into her dustpan and cast them out the kitchen door. She tossed away the pill boxes and old newspapers on the kitchen counter where her grandmother’s home health aide had left them.

Finally, she was tired and, looking at her grandmother’s tea kettle on the stove, the imagined taste of refreshing tea bid her to sit down and rest. She crumpled the sign that said “sink” as she filled the kettle and looked out the window, the pink clouds tinged with black that were bringing in thunder and lightning to conquer the concord of the summer day.

She searched the pantry, finally finding a canister labeled “Island Tea.” She remembered that her grandmother and her friends had spent hours sitting at this same kitchen table drinking tea from this canister and laughing. Island Tea was the one treat that her grandmother would not share with Diana and her younger sister. Inside, the tea was both leaves and flowers. Diana spooned four scoops of tea into the pot and, when the whistle blew, let the water cool below boiling, as her grandmother had taught her, and poured it over the tea.

Diana drank two sips. Perhaps it was the aroma of the tea. Maybe it was sitting in her grandmother’s chair. It could have been the sound of a sudden downpour of rain on her roof. Diana said, “I remember” as memories of one particular day, long forgotten, infused her consciousness.

Diana, six years old, was lying on the cold stones, staring up at the crimson painted ceiling. She could feel the bite of the floor’s hard chill on the back of her legs and the gentle steam of the radiator warming her face. Her grandmother lay next to her, asking her what pictures she saw in the fading weathered patches of the old paint. “Sky?” Diana asked.

“However you know it should be,” her grandmother said. And so they began with the sky, her grandmother asking questions and Diana answering them.

“What is in the sky?”

“Lots of planets made all of daisies so close you can see the blossoms. Stars, but each a different color. Clouds that only rain cool water when you are thirsty.”

“Are there people on the planet below the red sky?”

“Of course. Who would take care of plants and animals if there weren’t?”

“What do they look like?”

“Whatever they want to. Every night they put all their clothes in a great big pile in the middle of the street and in the morning everyone can choose new clothes. That way everyone gets to try looking different every day and no one feels badly if their clothes aren’t as nice as someone else’s.”

“What are their names?”

“Everyone names themselves. You can have as many names as you want, even a new one every day.”

“Do they have a religion?”

“Everyone likes to go to church to listen to the music and hear the stories once a week, but no one has to remember any lessons.”

And so the answers followed the questions, adding structure and detail to the portrait of the red sky world as created from the mind and spirit of a young girl, the way she knew it must be. By nightfall, her sky burgeoned with planets full of castles and princesses, gardens, forests, and wild animals. Magic wheels in colors no one has ever seen before raced from one side of the universe to the other. Stars shone as goddesses who loved making the worlds of their planets just as Diana did. Below, villages and cities grew with cozy underground houses and above ground temples, theaters, and marketplaces. The sidewalks were fuschia and leaves flew into the heavens rather than onto the soil in the fall, growing wings and eyes as soon as they were liberated from the tree. Diana and her grandmother created words of a red sky language only they knew, and made up rules for games played in the palace pavilion that the red sky world team always won. When it began to rain, they told each other that the red sky goddess was sad and they would make up more red sky stories to cheer Her up. The next morning, Diana’s mother came to take her back to the mainland to start first grade.

Diana awoke from her musings and realized she was hungry. She looked again in the pantry where she found a can of chunky vegetable soup that was only two months out of date. She opened it and poured it into a pan, then turned on the stove for the first time in two years. The gas ring lit up and began heating her dinner. Her grandmother had always played the radio softly while she worked in the kitchen, so Diana, too, turned it on and was comforted by the sound of human existence. “I wonder how I’ll survive here all by myself until I can clean up and sell this place if I have to turn the radio on after only an hour?” she wondered.

When she came back to the pot, it had red and white curls floating in it. She looked up at the ceiling and saw that the red paint with white plaster where it had been repaired was flaking off and floating down onto the floor, counters, table, and food.

Diana’s grandfather had been a carpenter by hobby and so during the summer, when she came to stay with her grandparents, she was used to the sound of hammering as he tried to keep the ancient structure upright and in one piece. She realized she had been hearing sharp, harsh bangs for ten or fifteen minutes, but had not noticed them because they had been so familiar in this place. No one else was in the house. Someone, human or ghostly, was pounding on the ceiling, causing the paint to crumble and making a racket.

“What do you want?” she shouted to the intruder or the ghost.

“I’m trying to keep your house from burning down,” called down a friendly but determined older woman’s voice that sounded not at all ethereal. “I’m attaching a lightning rod. Did you know that your house has had at least ten lightning strikes all around it just in the past week?”

“Who are you?” Diana yelled.

“I’m your neighbor. One of your two neighbors. I’m not being entirely unselfish. We are concerned that if your house goes up in flames, ours will, too. The lightning rod is also feeding the lightning that hits it into a generator so you can have some light and heat when the lights go out, as they frequently do. You must be the granddaughter.”

“Yes, I am,” Diana said. “Well, thank you, and please stop in when you are done,” Diana went back into the house.

When Diana went back into her kitchen and opened the Island Tea tin, but she had used the last of it. She looked in the pantry for supermarket tea, but there was none of that either. So, she stepped outside her door, remembering that her grandmother kept a tea garden by her back steps.

There, growing in a clump, was a wildflower that she had never seen before, its flowers almost fading into invisibility in the waning afternoon light. She leaned into the plants and smelled and knew she had found the source of “Island Tea.”

Since being told as a child that she could not have “Island Tea,” she had searched in grocery stores and specialty tea shops for years looking for it and not finding it, when all the time “Island Tea” referred to a tea that was made with flowers that grew on the island, next to the kitchen door. Diana picked some of the still blooming flowers and tiniest, most flavorful leaves and went back into the kitchen. She placed the leaves and flowers into a teapot, then put the kettle on to boil and sat and waited as the sky outside grew black and the hammering slowly stopped.

The door opened and a woman peeked in. She was about sixty, with long gray hair that fell to her shoulders, a red velvet blouse, and jeans. “Come and listen!” she said. Diana made tea in two cups and followed her out into the deep, rich blackness that was night on the island.

“I don’t hear anything,” Diana said, handing her a cup.

“That’s because you’re listening with city ears. You think that if you can’t hear cars and chatter, there is no sound, but listen!” Doris took the cup and began to sip, nodding approval.

Diana stood still and closed her eyes. Soon the sounds of the land surrounded her, breaking into a symphony that had been all around her each summer, but that she had never before heard. Then, far off in the distance, came the sound of one fiddle playing a very old, very melancholy melody.

“That’s someone who lives all the way across the island. I hear it every night. I don’t know who it is, but I always marvel that I can hear so far,” the woman said. “I used to think I was losing my hearing in my old age, but no, I can hear a fiddle all the way across the island. My name is Doris, by the way.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Doris” Diana said and held out her hand.

The two women stood and listened until a tremendous crack was heard overhead. Clouds had gathered above their heads as they had listened, and a bolt of lightning hit the lightning rod, making blazes of orange, red, purple, blue and green, all arranged in the shape of a circle with interlacing knots.

“I not only make lightning rods, I make art,” Doris said. “Let’s go inside and have some more of your tea.”

“Tea? Would that by any chance be Island Tea?” a third woman’s voice came from the darkness. A moment later, just as a gentle rain was beginning to fall, Helen stepped from the shadows. A slight woman, a few years younger than Doris, with her hair tied back in a bun, Helen held out her hand to Diana.

“You must be the granddaughter,” Helen said.

“Yes she is. What is this about Island Tea?” Doris asked.

“It’s a long story after a long day. I heard you mention tea – whatever kind it is, may I come in and have some, too?” Helen said.

When Doris and Helen were seated at the table, Diana brought another tea cup and teapot to the table and said, “This is Island Tea as a matter of fact. I realized after I offered you tea that I didn’t have any store-bought tea, but I recognized that the flowers outside were a kind of tea my grandmother called ‘Island Tea’ so I made some of that. Why do you ask?”

“I’m a nurse,” Helen explained. “All day I have been on the mainland going from house to house and everywhere it’s the same story. No one got any sleep last night except for my hospice patients, who slept like babies. Everyone else had bad dreams, dreams that drew on their memories of some catastrophic event that had taken place in their lives. For one person it was a terrorist bombing in which she got shrapnel in her leg. Another man had his decades-old war memories suddenly reappear. A woman went back in her dream to her childhood when she was always hungry and cold because her family didn’t have enough money to take care of her. The only people who seemed immune were my patients who are dying. They aren’t all men or women, or very old, or even all from around here, yet they are the only ones who didn’t have the dreams.”

Helen paused to take a sip of tea. “When I mentioned this all to one of my patients, she said she wondered if I had been giving my hospice patients Island Tea. She said that it’s a tea that all the women in these parts drank generations ago. For some reason they never told their husbands about it. It comes only from this island and it makes people happy if they are distraught. I asked her to define what she meant by ‘happy’ and she said ‘just happy.’ I’m not sure even she knew.”

A brilliant and powerful lightning bolt lit up the sky and was drawn right to Doris’s structure, sending volts into her battery and making the art spin around, spreading sparks of many colors into the night. The three women came outside to watch the lightning rod and, as they looked across the water, they could see the lights go out on the mainland.

“That happens a couple of times a month on the mainland. Not so much here on the island because we have our own little electric plant,” Doris said.

Helen and Doris went home and Diana finished cleaning up the kitchen. She was about to go to bed when she looked at the ceiling and then at the floor. The stones were littered again with white curls. Another lightning strike made the electricity finally go out on the island and in Diana’s cottage, but then, after a moment, Helen’s generator once again lit up the kitchen. Diana lit a fire in the fireplace for heat and light, and then turned off the electric lights to save the generator’s energy in case the power outage was long-lasting. She was no longer sleepy and she knew the paint curls on the floor would bother her till she knew that no more would fall and remind her of the kitchen she had found when she had first arrived.

She covered the floor with newspapers, pulled a chair over the middle of the room, and began scraping the ceiling with a spatula she had found in one of the drawers. Within a couple of hours she had most of the new paint off the ceiling and the original paint began to emerge. It was vermilion, the red sky she remembered from her childhood. But yet, it was different. This ceiling seemed as if it had been painted to be a sky. The red sky Diana and her grandmother saw in the ceiling was the result of modern paint fading. That paint had come off with the white curls. What Diana found below was a painting of sky with clouds and stars in white.

Once again she lay on the floor to stare at it. Every layer of paint had been red except for the most recent white paint. As the fire burned and the storm bellowed outside, a faint sound of women singing a capella filled the kitchen like smoke. “It must be the radio, “ Diana thought. “I must have left it on from earlier.” But when she turn the knob on the radio, it was already off.

“I in my meditation do make a noise and mourn
Because the wicked have oppressed
For they injustice on me cast
And in wrath me detest
My heart in me is pained
On me death’s terrors fallen be…”

Thinking that the voices must be coming from across the island like the fiddle, she only thought “That song is kind of depressing.” Again, she heard a knock at the door.

“It’s me, Helen. We forgot to tell you about the women singing. I just heard it and thought I’d pop over. Everyone hears it in your house. There’s never any other kind of ghostly activity, so don’t worry about it. Your grandmother used to tell me that she found it kind of comforting when she was alone. I was her hospice nurse. Did I tell you that?”

“No, you didn’t mention that.” Diana said. “I’m not scared of the voices. Maybe I heard them so often here as a child that my unconscious didn’t mind hearing them again. Since you knew my grandmother in her last years, may I ask you a question? Who painted the ceiling white? I’ve been scraping and it looks like the white was put on recently. I remember it being red when I was a child.”

“Your father painted it over white right before your grandmother died. You know that she had dementia. The sicker she got, the more she thought she was in this other world, this world where the sky was red, and she would look at the ceiling when she would talk about the red sky. Her doctor said that it would keep her oriented if she couldn’t see the red sky and so to paint it over. I told them not to. I told them that when people are ready to die it isn’t like a light switch – you’re alive, then you’re not. It’s like a journey. You transition to another place. She was seeing that dimension where we go when we die and thinking it was this red sky world. She needed to be there. A few days after the ceiling was painted over, she lay down on the stone floor and stared up at it. I came to see her and found her there. I thought she had fallen, but she hadn’t. She was lying there, happy enough, just staring. She said to me ‘It’s time now. It’s time for Diana to make her red sky world and paint the ceiling the way she wants.’ Then she fell silent and a few hours later she died. That’s how I knew she was giving you this house and why we recognized you when you came.”

Doris had let herself in. “Your father wasn’t the best handyman. He didn’t know you can’t put latex paint over oil paint. That’s why it’s peeling. I’m glad you scraped it off. The ceiling should be red. It always has been.”

“Well,” Helen said. “It’s late. We’ll see you tomorrow” and they let themselves out the door to go back to their cottage next door.

Diana lay on the stone floor and stared up at the ceiling, again newly red. She looked carefully at all of it and noticed that she had missed removing the paint off one corner. She pulled the chair over again and got her spatula out and began scraping. As the paint fell to the floor, another image, this time in blue, emerged. It was fish, five blue fish swimming towards to the red sky.

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