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Most people don't think about the way night falls around them. They go along their merry way and suddenly think, Oh, it's dark outside. They are truly unaware of how the shadows thicken and begin to ooze toward each other, merging, melding, clasping their invisible hands together to unite and flow forward to surround us. They rarely notice that the birds have retreated to their quiet places within the inky corners of the forest, nesting calmly with patience and optimism. Birds don't suffer through nightmares as I often do. They believe the sun will always return and the clouds will eventually be gone. All that they know, they have inherited. They do not separate their knowledge from themselves. It is who or what they are and they are comfortable with all of it. You can see their contentment and their confidence in the way they fly.
I envy them for that, for their comfort but mostly for their self-assurance, their wonderful trust in themselves and in the promises Nature makes, whether it is the promise of the seasons, the promise of the rain, or the promise of the sun itself. They glide and slice through their day, carving a world of beauty for themselves.
Mrs. Westington said that even though we are the more complex and the higher form of life for which all of this supposedly has been created, we still covet the simplicity that animals, that even insects enjoy. Their lives are so uncomplicated.
"They don't need the guidance of the Ten Commandments in order to avoid sin," she said.
"But," I asked, "are they capable of real happiness or do they just plod along in a mechanical manner? Do they have ambitions? Do they dream and hope? Do birds, rabbits, foxes, and snakes smile? Do they really ever experience rapture, ecstasy, contentment?"
"Oh, I don't know if they do or if it even matters. More important," Mrs. Westington replied, "you should ask, do we? We have our moments, even our days," she said, "but it doesn't last. Before long, we're envious of others or we're upset with someone we love or we're bored, disgusted, and disappointed. Notice the coming of night?" she asked when I'd mentioned my thought, punctuating her reply with her tiny, coughlike laugh. "Most of us don't even notice the day, much less stop to smell the roses or look up at the stars in awe of their dazzling beauty. My husband was oblivious like that. He never stopped to enjoy what he had. He was always in pursuit of something more and it was never enough. I wonder if he found enough in the grave."
Sometimes for hours, I listened to her ramble on, moving from one topic to the next, dropping her tidbits of wisdom with the grace and generosity of a loving mother feeding her newborns in the nest. She lectured authoritatively, like a professor in the school of hard knocks. When she got too despondent or waved a tattered flag of lifelong regrets, her loyal employee of fifty years, Trevor Washington, would just shake his head and say, "You c'mon now, Mrs. Westington. None of that doom and gloom talk or you'll scare the poor girl outta here."
Most of the time she ignored him or dismissed him with a short wave of her hand.
And the only other person who lived in the old vineyard home, her fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Echo, was deaf, and in many ways a birdlike creature herself, hovering in her private corners waiting for a song she would never hear sung.
Mrs. Westington had invited me to move in and live with them to help her with Echo and be Echo's companion. Echo's mother, Mrs. Westington's daughter, Rhona, had left Echo here more than ten years ago and Echo was without any brother or sister, any friends or any parent. I couldn't imagine a lonelier person than Echo, who had already been locked away within the four walls of silence.
"My daughter named her Echo when the doctor said her baby was deaf. 'It'll be like hearing yourself whenever you talk to her. It's a perfect name for her,' she told me when I complained," Mrs. Westington said. "Truth is, I kinda like her name now."
"It's different. I like it, too," I told her.
"I knew you would. I knew you would be a good friend to her, too. She should have a friend. Goodness knows, that poor girl longs for a real companion."
What I soon realized, however, was that Mrs. Westington needed me as much as Echo did. She was brimful of wisdom and a lifetime of experiences she desperately had to share with someone she loved. I like that. I like the feeling of being important to someone and loved. Even when Daddy and Mama and my older sister, Brenda, and I were all still together, I didn't feel as needed as I felt here in the old house and vineyard property in northern California.
A wrong turn onto a dead-end road brought me to this place and to these people. After my mother's death, which wasn't all that long after my father's secret fatal illness, I had gone to live with Brenda and her lover, Celia. Both attended college in Memphis, where Brenda had won an athletic scholarship. Like my parents, I ignored any thoughts about Brenda's being gay. I had no doubts that my parents knew it to be true but kept it locked in their hearts. I was afraid to ask any questions, afraid that the same questions might someday be asked of me, afraid that on the back of my neck I would feel the breeze of all that whispering.
My deep unhappiness after Mama's passing and then a traumatic sexual incident with Celia sent me fleeing to my uncle Palaver, my mother's brother, for emotional asylum. Before I came here to Mrs. Westington's home, I had been living and traveling for months with my uncle. He was a magician and an excellent ventriloquist who mainly went from theater to theater in his motor home to perform. I soon realized that he suffered from serious alcoholism brought on by his own deep sorrow over the loss of his beloved companion, the African American woman called Destiny. She had been part of his act, but more important, a big part of his life.
One night after I had been with him a while, he died in the rear of his motor home, lying beside the replica of Destiny, a life-size doll he employed in his show after her passing. Even though I feared it would happen because I witnessed how much he drank and how often, it was still a horrible shock to find him dead in his bed, his arms around the naked doll. From the smile on his face, I was positive he died convinced he had found her again.
Mrs. Westington believed all this was meant to be, was fated, especially my arrival here, and I must say she persuaded me. I felt delivered, guided, and directed to this place. Mrs. Westington's theory was that our loved ones who have passed away remain with us for a time and have an influence on our lives.
"They do their best to watch over us and lead us to happiness," she said. "But only if they were good people," she added. "How good they were determines how long they can be with us to protect us. That's what the Bible really means when we read, 'The sins of the father are visited on the heads of his sons.' If he was a sinner, then his sons have no guardian angel, you see, and no one to protect and insulate them against the weight of all those sins and their consequences. In that sense, they suffer. Your mama and your papa must have been good people. They're still watching over you."
I liked that. I liked her interpretation of Scripture. However, Mrs. Westington was really not a Bible-thumping, religion-driven woman. In fact, she often went into tirades about the corruption of the clergy and the troubles in the world that religions visited on each other. She said it would take a tow truck to get her to church and she'd dig ditches with her heels all the way. She was very opinionated and very confident of all her opinions. When she went into one of her diatribes, she often made me laugh. Sometimes, she wanted to, but sometimes, I could see she was surprised herself at my smile.
"I'm serious, girl," she'd say, and widen her eyes, often followed by a quick, hard tap with her cane. That long, old hickory stick with its pearl handle was something Trevor Washington had made for her. She told me he made it, "Two seconds after I began to wobble."
"Oh, I know you're serious, Mrs. Westington," I told her, and she grunted with skepticism. "I do and I'm not laughing at you!" I insisted.
I didn't want to upset her. She'd been so kind to me. She helped me with my uncle's funeral arrangements and supported me during the whole ordeal. Brenda, now a professional athlete, was off to Germany for a basketball tournament the day after Uncle Palaver died. It all fell on my head. I knew she thought my problems were my own making. I shouldn't have run away after she had found her girlfriend, Celia, with me, but that wasn't my fault and I couldn't stand the dark cloud of Brenda's anger hovering over me. I couldn't stomach the thought of living with her while she despised me. I felt like a lead weight on her ankles anyway. Having the responsibility for a young teenage sister just when she was developing her own promising athletic career was a burden she surely would rather unload.
Even so, even after all that, when Mrs. Westington had asked me to move in, I was nervous and undecided. After all, she, Trevor, and Echo were complete strangers to me and I had been on the property less than a day. I quickly saw, however, that when Mrs. Westington made up her mind about something, she went forward "whole hog," as she would say, even though it was something she had not pondered long.
"No one should be impulsive and fall between the devil and the deep blue sea, but we don't live long enough to waste time," she lectured at dinner, where most of her lectures took place. "When you reach my age, you realize that even more. Your heart is like one of them parking meters. God puts a few coins in and you tick away, but that expired sign is climbing and old man Death is getting ready to give me a ticket. I can see his grumpy old face forming in the fog just outside the windows of my very soul."
The expression on her face, the way she focused her eyes, put the jitters in me. It was as if Death was there at the table and she really did see him.
"How do you know Death is a man?" Trevor asked her with an impish smile in his eyes.
"I've been introduced to him enough times to know," she snapped back at him. "And don't you start giving me some of that superstitious nonsense your great-aunt stuck in your head, Trevor Washington, superstitions passed down from your Southern slave ancestors. You probably wasted a ton of salt all these years throwing a pinch here and a pinch there over your shoulder, and I know you won't kill a spider. Don't deny it!" she added quickly, and pointed her right forefinger at him.
"If it works, don't complain," he muttered undaunted. "I've seen you walk around a ladder to avoid going under it."
"That's because you leave the darn thing right in a person's path."
It was entertaining watching the two of them go at it. I felt sorry for Echo, who wasn't able to hear. When I mastered signing, I often translated their loving bickering for her and she would laugh with me.
"Until you came here," Mrs. Westington told me one day not long after I had moved in, "the sound of that girl's laughter was as rare as a birdsong in winter."
I quickly realized that in a home in which the young person was deaf, silence ruled the day. There was rarely any music and signing had replaced the sound of voices. Mrs. Westington had gotten into the habit of talking aloud to herself and for the first few days, I was confused by it. I wasn't sure if she was speaking to me or to herself, or even to someone else who I hadn't realized had entered. After a while she did it less and less if I was within earshot, but I suspected she still did it when she was alone and needed the comfort and society of only her own voice.
In the short time I had lived with Uncle Palaver and had traveled with him to help with his magic and ventriloquist's road show, I had begun to understand how painful and frightening loneliness could be. It helped me appreciate why he had invented his life-size replica Destiny doll. She had real human hair, long eyelashes, full lips, and she was soft in places where a woman should be soft. He had kept Destiny's clothing and shoes and he would dress the doll in them. He even sprayed the doll with Destiny's perfume. Instead of talking to himself, he would talk to her, to the memory of her, to the illusion and image of her he cherished in his mind. He had died with that image in his eyes and a smile on his lips. I think now that he deliberately drank himself to death so that he could join her. Behind those dying eyes he saw her and saw himself holding her hand, hearing her voice, guiding him safely through the darkness to a world in which their love shone brightly.
Maybe the dead haunt us as well as guard us, I thought. They don't haunt us like ghosts in an old house; they haunt us from within ourselves. We encourage it, even seek it. How many nights had I lain awake talking to Mama or Daddy and hearing them talk? Have respect for the dead, we've been taught. We should also have respect for the bereaved, for the suffering bereaved. And now I would have poor Uncle Palaver to mourn as well. I think the reason why I liked Mrs. Westington so much was she seemed to understand all this and even appreciate it.
"Your uncle was a truly troubled soul," she told me when I described what it was like living with him in the motor home and seeing how he related to his doll. "The only peace he found was probably when he was in front of those audiences you described. It doesn't surprise me he chose magic and illusion. It was a way out of this world, a way to stop the pain in his heart. Just don't go thinking that's the way to solve all your problems and follow in his footsteps, April. It's as good as putting your head in the sand."
Of course, I knew what she meant. I still had all of his magic paraphernalia. Nothing had been moved or touched, and when I moved in, besides my Mr. Panda teddy bear that my father had given me years ago, I brought in some of Uncle Palaver's tricks with me. It gave me the feeling he was still there. Under his tutelage, I had mastered many of the illusions and tricks, and also had become an amateur ventriloquist myself. Eventually, I would use Destiny and perform for Echo and Tyler Monahan, her tutor, who would become mine as well.
When I had run away from Brenda, I had run away from school, too. I was not yet eighteen and I wanted to get my high school equivalency. I had no idea what I would do with my life, but I knew I was at a great disadvantage without the diploma. As Mrs. Westington would say, "You have fewer roads to travel and in this world you need to have every direction available to you."
But this and much more was all to come at the end of the new journey I had begun.
Mrs. Westington said that even if you sit in one place your whole life, you still make many trips down many different roads.
"And the grave is just a way station, just a place to wait for the next train. It's why I don't visit cemeteries. The dead have all gone on their way, all the ones I loved. But they'll always be here," she said, gently tapping her long, boney right forefinger against her temple. "They'll always be here. I hear their voices, even their footsteps."
When she said things like that, we'd all be quiet, Trevor, me, and especially Echo, who saw our thoughtfulness and even though she was deaf, heard our silence.
The four of us looked out at that advancing night from the front porch. We were not like most people when it came to the approaching darkness.
We thought about it. Copyright ©2006 by the Vanda General Partnership