Spirits

When we arrived at the cottage, unlocked the door and went inside, it was icy—colder than the air outside, which was somewhere in the 40s. I opened windows, and then we went to work cleaning the wasps’ nest out of the furnace vent. When that was done we lit the pilot and turned on the heat; a couple of hours later, Sally got a fire going, too. But even then, when I opened a cupboard door or kitchen drawer a blast of cold air hit me—as if the silverware was in cold storage.

I found it shocking, that pent-up cold. We sat on the beach for a while as a glimmer of sun got swallowed in cloud. I stayed there for some time, listening to the waves. They seem to me more hypnotic as winter approaches; perhaps my heart knows that the big freeze is about to still their music. When I finally went back up to the cottage, Sally was bundled up and sitting on the porch and it was still cool, inside.

I felt chilled, and turned up the furnace. Then poured myself a glass of wine and sat, at the north window by the desk where the angle was right to see out and down the Bay, southwest where the sunset travels this late in the year. I’d popped a CD in first—Dave Brubeck—and as the sounds of piano and sax in a classic, bouncy dance filled my ears I gazed out at a fiery orange strip beyond the water, glowing hot beneath dark, smoke-blue cloud. Sally came in for a minute, and we talked about how we might orient a new place, if we ever build one, to catch the south-moving light.

She went back out, wanting the fresh air, and I sat, feeling for a moment what it was, to be there, watching the sunset way down the Bay from the picture window; the city-born sounds of jazz in the room. Harmony, it felt like. I sipped, and became more cosmopolitan by the minute. I pictured a wall of windows, the fireplace moved from in front to a different wall, or maybe replaced entirely with an efficient woodstove.

But the next night after chores and dinner when I had built a good, blazing fire and we were reclining before it, listening to the World Series on the radio, I felt I needed the fireplace. The tongs, when Sally replaced them on the stand after adding a log, swung for long minutes—look, they’re still going, she said. I said, well, it’s like a pendulum; but she thought it might be a ghost—the same one who earlier lofted a wooden spoon out of the drainer and flung it with a bang to the kitchen floor. Who was trying to tell us something? We didn’t know.

But it was nearly Halloween, and All Hallows Day; nearly Samhain, the pagan version of the holiday, a time when it’s believed that the barriers between worlds becomes thin and permeable and spirits can move easily back and forth.

I can’t say if any of it’s true. But the tongs, swinging on, made us wonder, and led me to reflect. They were a gift from my grandparents when my parents built the cottage, in 1958: the fireplace implements, and probably the screen that stands on the hearth, too.

Now, I love that screen; it looks so old and traditional, it gives me the feeling that I may have just wandered into a cottage some centuries ago to find a fire crackling on the hearth. It’s in good shape, too, no holes in its wire mesh, its simple, classic lines (hammered metal) unbent and unblemished. “You’d have a hard time finding a screen like that today,” I said, and Sally agreed, as the tongs, finally, came to rest.

As I’m writing I wonder: Is it a ghost that haunts me? Or just the notion that the past must be enshrined somehow, because without it I am a lost soul, set to wandering in a world I can’t fully belong to? Come to think of it, even Dave Brubeck’s music is antique, these days.

I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I just go on, building fires, gazing through the screen and wondering if I could ever do without it. And listening, just in case the spirits do speak.

Nancy Squires, October 2016

Riding

Recently, I watched a video a friend posted to Facebook. The narration was in Dutch, I think; I watched the entire thing in silence, with short subtitles. An elderly woman, sitting in a wheelchair, looking frail and ill (the slackness of her face made me think she had Parkinson’s) had a wish: she wanted to ride a horse one more time. A group of people who were in the business of making such dreams happen set up a sling across the backs of two horses and hoisted her into it. They drove the horses around slowly, and as the team began to move the camera focused on the woman’s face. She was smiling wide as her wish came true. It made me cry. And then a thought popped into my head, suddenly: These are my true feelings.

It seemed such an odd thought that I had to look at it. True feelings—it’s such a job, sometimes, to clear away all the static, the junk that’s piled up around what I really feel. Some of it I’ve created to keep myself in the dark, as protection, for a time. Some of it’s there to help me navigate and function in a world that expects certain things, certain priorities and exchanges. But all of it is sure to hold me back, eventually. I have to move it aside to get unstuck.

Near the beginning of the video, the people helping the old woman led a horse out of the barn and over to her. They put a treat in her hand, helped her hold it up, and the horse nuzzled her and took the morsel in its lips. Slumped in her wheelchair, her face remained expressionless. The helpers gave her a handful of hay and helped her bring it to her nostrils, to inhale its fragrance—a sweet aroma, once familiar to her—we knew because we’d  just seen, for a moment, a black and white photo in a frame, of a woman crouched forward over the neck of a big horse as it cleared a fence. The old woman had not only been a rider, but a jumper.

The people granting the old lady’s wish brought the horse to her, and the hay; talked to her, smiled at her. But it wasn’t until they had lifted her old and crumpled-looking body into the tarp stretched across the horses’ backs and the horses began to move that she started to smile. The camera zoomed in, and I saw the smile take over her face, as she lay there on her back, elbows in, hands folded up against her chest. Her eyes scrunched up, and on her face there was nothing but smile, as she was jostled and bounced on the warm backs of horses, once again.

What, I wondered, does all of it say about my “true feelings”?

The best moments of our lives are spent on the backs of horses: in pursuits that one way or another may be dangerous, but we’re alive and moving and connected to other living things. And at the end of our lives, what will we have that’s more precious than a few minutes that open us up to an uncontrollable, unquenchable smile?

The old woman had a passion for riding horses, so much so that one last slow trip on their backs brought her pure joy. I can only think: We love what we love, and by god, we’d better do it while we can.