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from the lament a world arose in which
everything was there again: woods and valley
and path and village, field and river and animal
— Rainer Maria Rilke
Sylvie tacked the lines about Orpheus’s lament onto a vacant patch of wall in the enormous old Hawaiian dining room. Next to a photo of Nicolo’s fishing boat on Sicily’s east coast, its saturated cobalt blue; below an article about poet W.S. Merwin planting a palm tree every day outside his Maui home, creating paradise. She could see Maui across the channel on clear days, more often than not in cloud. A mirage, maybe, like all the rest. Like the lament-world filled with phantoms Orpheus had sung into being after his mortal loss.
The dining room was that only in name. No one had come to visit since she’d rented the house four months ago with an option to buy; she dined alone on words, the pages of her growing manuscript piled on the long table, accompanying photographs spread out across it the way mothers in all of the countries they’d lived in set plates out for Sunday lunches or celebratory dinners, welcoming tangled generations of family, neighbors, and friends. Sylvie and Cory, too, had fit in easily around their tables, and joined in eating couscous, whitebait fritters, or Swiss chard pancakes from Aveyron.
But without Cory now, her scintillating child with quirky tastes and mercurial tangents, she didn’t feel like having anybody near her for the length and fuss and bother of a meal—though she wouldn’t have lacked for guests had she wanted. The young Buddhist couple from Cornwall who lived next door. Chatty Luela, with a yard full of chickens down the road, who sold all of them eggs. The bi-weekly writers’ group she’d started in the back room of the library next to the ice cream and shave ice shop in the weathered old arcade on the eastbound leg of the highway—as far north on the island as was possible to go. Cory and the man who’d stolen her away were antithetically southmost. Sylvie had been practicing saying that calmly, in an even, unhysterical tone.
It wasn’t as if Cory’s leaving should have surprised her. She was of age. And Cory’s father, Dominic, had left them ten and a half years ago, when Cory was just twelve; had left her absolutely devastated, more even than Sylvie was. He’d gone off with a lady golf pro from the Cayman Islands, of all things, to open an Apple Genius Bar in Orlando and start a new family of tow-headed children. (Orlando Furioso, Sylvie would refer to it snidely, in overdone dramatic tones, to keep from bursting into tears). But it hurt even more having her only daughter fly the nest so abruptly, after all they’d done together, just the two of them, in all kinds of magic places, making their own magic there.
She’d flown the nest big time. First to Catania, then in an undeviating flight of flights from Catania to Rome to Paris to LA to Honolulu to Kona, and thence through Customs—where they confiscated the bag of Sicilian blood oranges she’d brought along. All of that just to shack up with Reggio Rizzo, builder of shacks. Okay, luxury condos, Sylvie conceded tiredly, not that that made it any better. A shady contractor from an old Mafia family Cory had fallen for during their time in Sicily, like one of the swordfish Nicolo caught—hook, line, and sinker. A father substitute, clearly, though almost nothing like her own techno geek father (save the sexy younger woman element); a smooth-talker more than double her age, who’d fallen for her unassuming beauty and her youth.
He kept her a prisoner for all intents and purposes in the luxury plantation home he’d bought in Volcano. The house a wonderful drenched red, crimson or amaranth, with a wrap-around porch (Sylvie had driven by and taken some pictures), within a thicket of ohia trees and ginger. The captive nowhere to be seen. Sleeping Beauty. Italian Prunella in the Grey Fairy Book, seduced by plums. Persephone. Too terribly Persephone.
“Persistent, parsimonious, perky …” Cory had quipped when they’d first gotten to the environs of Mount Etna to begin that central chapter of the book. Persephone and her mother Demeter. The origins of winter and of spring. Another only child, abducted by the lord of an underworld rather unlike the Greek.
“Persnickety,” her mother had added, ruffling her daughter’s choppy honey-colored hair, the cut copied from some Italian super-model whose aristocratic nose was everywhere. But she hadn’t known yet how that myth would come to haunt her.
Sylvie had tacked a dye-transfer print of the stolen red house on the wall between a photo of Cory under Nicolo’s pomegranate tree, lithe and golden, and a Cree or Algonquin prayer that spoke to her in the same way Orpheus had.
Give us hearts to understand
That to destroy earth’s music is to create confusion.
Creation, destruction—she’d come to understand how closely they were linked. How fine a line there was between the two.
The antique wooden fans spun above her against the high ceiling, ruffling the manuscript pages but barely the air. She didn’t mind the heat or the humidity, it was the loneliness that was consuming her.
CORY, SHORT FOR Coriandra, after the spice. Sylvie, “from the house of strength.” (If only, she thought over and over, and especially now, a little prayer catching in her throat.)
In the eleven years since she and Cory had been left by Dominic, they’d been working together on their collection of creation myths from wildly diverse cultures. She’d tried to explain it to Nicolo when she first met him in Taormina last April, while on a mission to photograph the Roman columns she’d read could be seen drowned in Isola Bella Bay. A widower of two years with sad eyes but a continued love of life, she’d learned, he’d offered his blue boat for a snorkeling expedition, and later they sat on a restaurant terrace at the water’s edge talking for most of the afternoon, making up for all the years they’d missed out on before finding each other.
“It was a project of Cory’s first, for school. She was supposed to write a paper on one of the Native American myths. Since we were feeling so awful, and had no place to call our own—dastardly Dominic had sold the house from under us to finance his new life, never mind that we’d be more or less destitute, with my part-time job in a bookstore—I told her I’d take her to my parents’ for spring break, to regroup. My mother, a reference librarian, could help her do some research on the Native tribes near them in northern Arizona where they’d recently retired.”
“A creative solution, mi sembra.”
“Between them they picked the Hopi—because my spunky daughter loved that Spider Grandmother was a big part of their story of creation. And my dad drove us to visit all the ancestral ruins and pictographs nearby, which she loved too. Montezuma’s Castle, Tuzigoot, Red House and Badger House. Cory made art marker drawings, really good ones, and I took lots of pictures with the expensive medium-format camera Dominic somehow forgot to take with him. That helped get my mind off feeling sorry for myself—as did making authentic mole sauce with pumpkin seeds and ancho chiles with my mother and daughter for a wildly untraditional Easter feast.”
Then the weather had turned miserably gray and windy, and she’d gone back to feeling sorry for them both, especially for Cory, knowing that reality would hit her hard again when her project was finished and her grandparents weren’t around to spoil her and make her feel special. Wrapped up in an old quilt in the front room, in the warm golden circle of an antique lamp, while the other three talked and laughed and popped popcorn, and her mother’s budgies chattered in their painted cage in the breakfast room window, Sylvie lost herself in thought, wrapped as if in a cocoon of misery and sorrow and hopelessness, feeling she couldn’t possibly guide either of them out of the slough of despond. But then the warmth and light and laughter and the smell of melted butter all combined to lift her out of the cocoon, a brilliant spark of something in her butterflying out and up and leaving her with an amazement and a thought.
“That’s just too weird,” she told herself, sitting up suddenly. “How could it work?”
But Cory said “Cool!” as she fed her mother popcorn—and by the time Sylvie had talked it over with her parents, and a couple of good friends back home who knew her best, they’d come up with a plan.
“We would create a new life for ourselves, that might keep both of us from breaking into jagged pieces.”
“You started traveling the world?” Nicolo guessed as she sat with him that fortunate afternoon on the Sicilian coast, spreading his arms to indicate the sea and sky extending without limits all around.
“Essentially. We had about two weeks before my bank account ran out—and I immediately started putting out feelers for editing projects for corporations I could work on anywhere, online. My parents offered to lend us what we needed in the meantime, and during any especially lean periods over the coming years. We’d hunker down and live on a shoestring somewhere near Cory’s prep school in Salem for the five years she had left, but spend three whole months every summer someplace different that appealed to us—taking turns choosing. Considering the myths told there, the defining stories. After she graduated, we could think about living all year round wherever the fancy took us—unless she chose to go to college.” She hadn’t, in the end, though she’d taken courses most everywhere they went, including reiki massage in Sedona, and copying artwork at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Lots of time for that while Sylvie worked on her laptop at a variety of far-flung tables.
“Una caccia al tesoro,” he suggested. A treasure hunt, it certainly had been.
“A way of reinventing ourselves, and our life that had been upended. Finding what fit.”
“But going back a bit—did your daughter get an A on her paper?” It made her like this easygoing man still more, that he was eager to connect the dots, back to the beginning.
“She did. The class loved it as well as the teacher. Some other characters in the Hopi origin stories, Hard Being Woman of the West, and Hard Being Woman of the East, became almost class mascots, and her drawings of them hung the rest of the year next to the blackboard.”
For Sylvie, Nicolo was a perfect fit. She felt at rest finally in him. She’d thought she might well stay in Taormina, as he’d suggested, renewing the lease on the little flat with rooftop terrace a short walk from the Greek theater—and Cory too wanted to stay. At first for the Italian language, art, and history program she’d gotten wrapped up in. Later, only and forever for Reggie, the tenebrous ladies’ man she met fatefully at a nightclub late on New Year’s Eve, who bought her French champagne and swept her off her feet in their chancy black velvet ankle-strap heels. And, Sylvie understood resignedly, into his bed.
But then he’d landed the Hawaiian condo project—and without a backwards glance Cory had left one island for another.
ALONG THE WAY Sylvie and Cory had gathered a Labrador, Suki (the name Algonquin, they’d been told, for “black,” which she wonderfully was), a kiva ladder and four tiny trees, yellow and white corn seeds, Nyx, a bird with black wings, words. Images of all the places they had been, light and colors, laughter. But Cory had made off with Suki, to make things worse. Sylvie now thought of her as the Hound of Hades, keeping her essentially kidnapped daughter, Persephone as ever was, from getting away from the underworld, the overlord she swore she loved.
And, what hurt most of all—Cory had argued hotly, aiming to hurt, that it was because he had offered her a chance to settle down, to find her still center. To retreat into a thicket of white ginger or hibiscus blossom, quite out of the world.
They’d had a bitter and dramatic fight in Taormina the first day of April when Cory had started quietly putting things into her big travel bag in her bed nook behind the tiny kitchen that smelled day and night of rosemary, garlic, and sauteed eggplant or peppers.
“What are you doing, love?”
“Reggie wants me to go to Hawaii with him,” she said too casually.
“Okay,” Sylvie answered, trying to sound enthusiastic. “That’s great. You’ve never been there. For what, two or three weeks?”
There was silence as Cory folded a winter sweater, laid it on the narrow bed. Looked studiously down at the blue lambswool as she folded another. Suki was looking anxious, keeping a watchful Black Lab eye on the suitcase.
“No,” she answered finally. “He’s bought a house there. He’s found a group of Japanese investors for a huge construction project. Luxury condos and a hotel. He needs to be there to keep tabs on everything.”
“So—what—? What does that mean, exactly?”
“I’m going too. To live with Reggie on the Big Island.”
Sylvie was stunned. But then she caught on.
“April Fools’, right?” She flashed Cory a rueful smile, admitting she’d been fooled.
“For pity’s sake,” Cory said angrily, “this isn’t April Fools’. You just refuse to accept that I know he is the one for me.”
She couldn’t deny it. Reggie at 46 (Italian) years was way way way too old and seasoned for her unclouded 22-year-old daughter, even if he was rolling in money, glamour, and that certain worldly je ne sais quoi.
“Cory, he’s old,” was all she could say, helplessly, her words deserting her. “You don’t know how that will affect you, down the line. Already. Now. It’s just not fair to you.”
Plutot, she thought, miserably. But how could she come out and say more, say the rest? A shady contractor. A member of organized crime, the Mafiosi underworld, Nicolo had warned her.
“It’s common knowledge around town,” he’d said regretfully, knowing how much she loved her daughter.
She’d hesitated to tell Cory that, and in the end hadn’t. As long as he treated her well, she told herself, sincerely believing that was what mattered.
“I don’t care about the age thing. And incidentally, it’s Pesce d’Aprile here,” Cory added nastily, as if to sidetrack the issue. “‘April’s fish,’ they say in Italy and France.”
Sylvie tried to make some kind of peace, feeling unpeaceable.
“When do you leave?” She heard how unsteady and false her voice sounded.
“Maybe a week? As soon as the travel agent gets back to us.” Cory, though implacable, apparently noticed her mother’s face, and made an effort to explain.
“I’d love dearly to just stay put, somewhere. Sheesh, maman—can’t you see that I’ve had more than I can bear of packing and unpacking? Of dingy rentals in foreign backwaters nobody’s heard of?” She grabbed up and threw the neatly folded sweaters in a tangled heap back on the bed, a couple spilling off. Suki looked up, ear cocked toward her angry voice.
“I’m sick to death of bath water that’s always cold. Of being just a paying guest in other people’s rooms, and at the mercy of strangers for strange things I don’t want to eat—like those disgusting sea urchins that made me sick in New Zealand. And huhu grubs?—really? How could they think I’d ever put those in my mouth? I want a real, substantial house and life to call my own, like normal people have. Familiar ground under my feet. A yard for Suki to wander around in. And love. This man I love who loves me, if that’s not too much to ask …”
Never mind that Cory had reveled in travel and loved each country they’d been in, for a happy eleven years. She was Gemini, after all—her warring inner twins in need of different things, Sylvie assured herself. And she had always loved drama, and loved creating it. Sylvie, knowing her daughter well, despite the recent changes, suspected that she was feeling guilty about leaving so abruptly. Because she felt like an ingrate, she threw all of the things she’d miss back in her mother’s face, trying above all to convince herself that she wouldn’t miss them. That she wasn’t the least bit scared. The knowledge didn’t comfort Sylvie much, of course … and the financial aspect was galling. How much Reggie could lavish on her that her mother hadn’t and couldn’t, despite the healthy trust fund Sylvie’s father had left them three years ago upon his death.
So Cory had left Sicily with Reggie (with Suki in her own seat, but categorically refusing the seatbelt), leaving Sylvie to scramble after them a month later—no matter how hard Nicolo had tried to persuade her to stay behind. She was immensely sad and torn. But she convinced herself (dangerous family trait) that she was ready to settle back in America where language and healthcare wouldn’t be such an issue. Not only was she getting to an age when she’d be more susceptible to various ailments that troubled her family, she might well worry herself sick about her daughter’s maybe getting mixed up in lawsuits, in threats, even in criminal proceedings, if this condo project turned out to involve (as her nightmares and early-hours sleeplessness suggested) substandard materials, inflated billing, tax evasion, money laundering, dead bodies found in the foundational cement. Stereotyping maybe, mobster mythos—but you never knew.
And what was indisputable was that Cory was refusing to see her. Partly because she was head over heels in love with Reggio Rizzo, and wanted just to be with him, forsaking all others; partly (and likely more significantly) because Reggie and Sylvie were at daggers drawn, under their carefully constrained civility, and he wanted her kept away.
AT THE END of August, financed by her (ridiculously, criminally) older lover, Cory opened a retreat center, somewhere outside Volcanoes National Park, near where they lived. She offered massages with herbal wraps or hot stones, and days of silence in nature with healing energy and yoga nidra and meditative quotes from Pema Chodron and Rumi and David Whyte, with her own bread for lunch—a crusty French pain de campagne Sylvie had taught her to bake the summer of her junior year, while they were staying in Cahors near Pech Merle with its prehistoric cave paintings—served with white bean soup and a salad of fourteen greens, all organic, in perfect silence at midday. Qi gong, breathwork, glass singing bowls to open the chakras. Eucalyptus logs, or guava, in the stove. Things she’d perfected in Sedona the year before last, when they were back to be with her sick grandfather, but learned first in the Guatemalan Highlands when they’d been there researching the Mayan Popol Vuh.
Sylvie had delighted in the two Mayan creator gods, Gucumatz and Tepeu, who made all kinds of mistakes when they first started out, and wanted more than anything to be glorified.
“As which of us doesn’t?” she’d joked to Cory.
“All hail, mighty Mother.” The girl bent lithely almost to the ground, bowing over her folded hands—in braids looking like Pippi Longstocking, freckles and all.
Sylvie had loved the spirit of the Popol Vuh and its charming cast of characters, so Guatemala had been her choice, the summer following the one in Labrador getting to know the Cree and what they’d referred to as their Cree-ation myths—Cory’s choice, subsequent to her mother’s suggesting that they might stay somewhere near her cousins in St. John’s, who Cory as a toddler and a grade-schooler had tagged along after, feeling a bond.
Sylvie made a reservation at the Hawaiian retreat center, and headed down the coast to try and woo back her daughter.
Of course she should have realized she would be able to see her but say nothing, like one of those heroic tenors being tested in opera. It was, as she hadn’t sufficiently considered, a silent retreat. The group did yin poses all day—butterfly, sleeping swan, caterpillar, dragonfly, and finally savasana, Sylvie’s favorite. Corpse pose. Giving oneself to the earth completely. Seeming dead to the world; then returning, restored.
It was hellish being so close to Cory but not being able to reach her. She’d been longing to be with her again, to laugh the way they always had about quite everything.
But that wasn’t to be. After a day of unspeaking torment, and muscles that would surely not forgive Sylvie for weeks ahead, she was shown out the door of the fancy spa building where the showers and scented baths steamed and swirled, while Cory assured her tersely that she was perfectly happy—and miffed big time at the intrusion, at her mother’s nerve in checking up on her as if I were still six years old.
For long days after that, she lay back gingerly in the big rattan basket chair with plumeria pink cushions, inside the sunny kitchen windows with distorted antique glass, and ran over the possibility of staging an intervention, a snatching and deprogramming, as she’d read about worried relatives doing for gullible minors kidnapped into cults. But despite her misgivings and her deep unhappiness about the age difference, the Mafia business, she still trusted her canny daughter to know her own mind and heart (having looked for a too-brief moment into her warm, far-seeing hazel eyes). To be where she was by choice, not coercion.
Did that make any difference? Yes—but. Selfishly, not enough. Especially now that the fun had gone out of the quest after creative beginnings, with so much of the project done, and Cory no longer a part of it. And there were really only two places that Sylvie wanted to be, now—near her daughter, preferably on speaking terms, and in Nicolo’s arms. Cory’s fed-up-ness with “other people’s rooms” resonated like a dull knell with her.
SO SYLVIE did what she needed to finish this chapter, likely the last.
While picking up fallen oranges on the back lawn, she thought over the Hawaiian stories of creation, in which the Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku, and the Sky Father, Wākea, created the Islands. The Big Island had been the first.
On the laptop perched on a Hawaiian/English dictionary and a book of world mythology, the laptop that had paid their way around much of the world, if not in luxury, she wrote about Pele, the goddess still very much active there, creating with fire and molten stone. Some impressive 390,000 cubic yards of new land every day. She drove across dormant volcanoes to the currently erupting one, and here and there took pictures of flowers blooming impossibly on fresh lava, ethereal and hopeful, giving the perilous pitch-black a kind of gentle, pinkish haze. Molten lava, she wrote back at the house, destroys and creates, both. Like Orpheus’s grief, creation comes from loss. And loss again—always?—follows creation.
She thought about that while pan-frying her favorite island fish, ono, for fish tacos with a papaya salsa she’d devised. How she and her daughter had lost the life they knew, and created a new one for themselves. How now she’d lost her daughter … and felt she didn’t have the gumption to create anything further.
She visited the sacred heiau on the hill above the birthplace of Kamehameha, the great king, born while his father was preparing to invade Maui. The Temple on the Hill of the Whale, whose name she loved, was dedicated to a war god. White clouds mounded majestically above the stone, the water-worn lava brought from the Pololu Valley to fulfill the prophecy: “War would end when the heiau was completed, and he had sacrificed a major chief.” Despite her adamantly pacifist beliefs, she was attracted to the temple, and revisited once, twice. She’d learned that there were things she too would fight for. Being. “Being true to plan,” as they said on the island reggae station the car radio was tuned in to. Cory’s well-being—however defined.
Continuing life. A wish and prayer that she uttered when she placed with other offerings at the temple a spray of feathers she had found among the rocks. Part of a dove’s wing, maybe—a mourning dove, Demeter’s turtle-dove. Some kind of augury. The evidence of forward flight. She would continue to do battle against Reggie for her daughter, even if he could hardly be called a major chief.
SOMETIMES SHE did her writing or corporate editing in the treehouse up in the Banyan tree behind her north coast house. From there she could just see the ocean, and imagine seeing Maui in its shrouding cloud. Or even Sicily, some days. Behind the post and wire fence along the back property line were upswept pastures with two distant roan horses, the grasses swept westward toward the ocean by the wind. She’d learned its name from Luela the egg lady, this always present wind that blew always from east to west. A kind of incantation, ‘apa’apa’a.
She found a pair of carved Foo Dogs she set on her front doorstep to keep watch, keep guard (locking the stable door). She had her rituals, the wall of words and images, translucent fabrics and pieces of sea glass hung at windows on the south side, local beeswax candles in votive glasses. Beads and seeds and white copal resin incense in tiny copper offering bowls. She’d created a sacred space, her own temple, with everything she’d collected present. Except, except. No Suki, no Cory, no Nicolo. Echoingly empty, in the end, like the ruined abbeys they’d sought out in England and the ancient overgrown chapel they’d climbed to with a flask of milky coffee one morning in France.
She called her daughter every week at the retreat center, imagining she might answer, just once; left rambling messages on the machine, or simply “I love you.”
Or, “Come see me.”
Sometimes, “There’s lots of room for you and Suki here, you know. She could chase myna birds absolutely to her heart’s content.”
She called back to append, “Or lie around doggo, if she’d rather.”
Another time, “I’m making ravioli. Niccolo’s sister’s, with spinach, pine nuts, and sultanas. I could save you some …”
BY MID-NOVEMBER the book was finished, except an odd comma or two; she couldn’t do any more. She’d run quite out of words.
Her writing group had helped proofread and untangle its knots. They celebrated its completion on the long veranda of the ice cream shop with bowls of Kona Coffee, Toasted Coconut, Ginger Sorbet. Dozens of spoons. Sorrow and gratitude mingled, on Sylvie’s part. What was there left, for her? She felt as empty as the ruined abbeys, as the house. Closed her camera into a bottom drawer. Shredded old drafts. Gave the shreddings to Luela in two big garbage bags for craft projects, for her many nieces, for safely nesting eggs.
“You could come back to me,” Nicolo urged when she called him that night, trying not to let her emptiness creep into her inflection.
But much as she would love to, every fiber of her being wanting him, she couldn’t go. She had to keep watch here, unfaltering as Demeter.
THE SECTION ON Demeter and Persephone was disproportionately long, admittedly. By chance become the culmination of their search. She’d put in pictures of Cory in the fertile region associated with the myth—the lower slopes of Mount Etna, among vineyards and orchards, and then beside fissures opening down into the earth. They’d explored it all so avidly, taken wonderful hikes through woods and little villages, past beehives, into unassuming enotecas to sample sparkling spumantes and proseccos truly to die for.
And then—her leafing paused—a drawing of an earth goddess without features, as if already partially erased, which Cory had drawn idly the day before she left with Reggie for the Big Island. A hurried sketch of her mother against the weathered wall of Nicolo’s villa after an awkward lunch, everyone carefully not saying what they most wanted to say. Her hands cradling her arms, as if to hold herself together. Cory had sent it without comment to the P.O. box in Hawaii, having likely found it in her sketchbook by chance, when she unpacked “for the last time.” A simple drawing, juxtaposed with just a simple line of text: Persephone was loved so dearly that the earth turned winter when her mother learned that she was gone.
Such was the myth. Cory had laughed at the comparisons during the Sicilian summer, teased her mother for always having been a kind of earth goddess, Greek Demeter or Roman Ceres, motherly and comforting, ample and peasant-garbed in homespun fabrics, wheat-chaff hair pinned up loosely and always tumbling free—but going absolutely overboard that year. She’d filled their borrowed windowsills with propagating plants, with little pots of herbs, taking an interest in seasonal Sicilian specialties and festivals, baking her special breads with different kinds of seeds and grains, and sometimes nuts and dried figs, apricots.
During their second Arizona sojourn, Cory had found a Zuni fetish of the Corn Maiden, carved of turquoise and shell, whose magical power was said to be assuring a plentiful harvest. She gave it to her mother for her 50th birthday, to celebrate the abundance she’d created for them, the fertile life she’d conjured out of bleak soil. And so the Zuni Corn Maiden sat in a whitewashed niche next to the hand-painted ceramic garlic jar in the diminutive kitchen in Sicily, bringing further bounty to their time there.
It hadn’t been by chance that Sylvie had in Sicily become Cerise—”ma cherise,” Nicolo called her. A combination of Ceres and cherry, both. And chérie, for the first time in ages. Near Taormina they’d found a village known for its cherries. She’d eaten cherries hungrily until her lips turned red, juice from the ripest running down her chin. She baked tarts, clafoutis, a Sicilian cherry ricotta cake, with honey from the blossoms of almond trees. Grilled fish with cherries and arugula. Cory and Nicolo had laughed at her, but she’d just smiled and let them think her mad. She had in truth been mad with joy, with reawakening longings.
THE PHONE CALL surprised her nearly as much as if it had been Cory on the line.
“Sylvie?” a stranger’s voice inquired, and then went on quickly to explain that she worked for a literary agency with offices in Honolulu. She’d been alerted to “your fantastic book project” by her domestic partner Kamila, one of the writers in the north coast group, and was eager to talk.
“I hope you’re okay with me jumping the gun. I’ve got a favorite publisher looking for manuscripts, and this sounds like it would be perfect, from everything Kamila’s said.”
“No … I don’t know.” Sylvie was thrown for a loop. She didn’t want to publish it at all, she thought, with something like panic. It was too personal. Disclosing all their secrets (like the time the baggage-check people in Rome had opened a suitcase of theirs and left their jaunty lacy bras and bikini panties in view of the whole scuola media soccer team following after). It wasn’t her creation story, after all. It was Cory’s, much more than hers. The discoveries and revelations. The wonderful drawings. The photos of the sad child emerging, become happy and whole again. She had no right to sell that, put it out for all to see.
But Kelly Brandt persuaded her to meet for lunch later that week, despite her hesitation. While Sylvie picked at a kahlua pork salad with avocado and mango, at the big table in a conference room opening on the lush tropical gardens at one of the Kona Coast resorts, and drank scads of green tea (harvested and slow-roasted at a family farm not far from Cory’s retreat center, the menu said), bright blonde Kelly paged through their lives—the past twelve years of them.
She traveled, tentatively at first as they had, to northern Arizona, Labrador (finding among the Cree stories they’d gathered there the 13-year-old’s cri and cri de coeur), and Guatemala. She shared their love of Tunisia, and breathed in deeply, dipped both hands into the mounds of vivid spices they had photographed and painted in the souks. Liked that the Phoenician creation story Cory liked best had to do with Wind and Desire, and the Cosmic Egg, and that the whole time they were there they ate what they dubbed cosmic eggs—delicious chakchouka, eggs baked in a tomato sauce with harissa and sweet peppers. (Recipe included at the chapter’s end.)
Kelly contemplated early Christianity with them (“in the beginning was the word”) in Canterbury, home of England’s first Cathedral; and prehistoric art (in the beginning were running horses and ochre bulls painted on deep cave walls) in France, the Occitaine. Stayed with them in their guest house with two bicycles on Awaji Island, Japan, said to have been created first of all the islands when drops of salt water crystallized, fell back into the ocean—the “chaos under heaven”— from the tip of the jeweled spear that had been used to stir it.
She sympathized with Cory at nineteen, who’d come down with mono and felt awful most of the year. They hadn’t ventured far as a result, but found a sunny apartment in Brooklyn and took the ferry to Ellis Island several times to make a study of beginnings there—the creation of new identities in a new world. Appropriate, Cory had said dully, her fever smoldering, as she emigrated into adulthood, suffered its peculiar sea-change.
And she appreciated the hard-won life lesson in New Zealand the next year. The Maoris believed that the creation of light out of darkness, something out of nothingness, had only happened when the sky father and earth mother were separated—and Cory had realized with newfound adult clarity that the separation of her parents had similarly generated light.
“THIS TIME I really need to talk to you. Please call, Cory, as soon as you’ve looked at the copy of the manuscript I sent to you. We’ve got to make a big decision—pretty much right away.”
Kelly had said “The publisher wants it, badly, but needs to have your answer now. Please say yes, Sylvie hoaloha.” A close friend, hoaloha, already, after the hours she had spent among the images and words, the stories which formed and transformed. Sylvie had even asked her and her partner Kamila to lunch at the house on Sunday, by which time they ought to have a verdict.
IF CORY READ THAT FAR, she’d find her very favorite lines out of the past, the year before they’d gone to Sicily. The year she’d chosen—for the sake of others, bless her heart, not so much for her own (unless she was already tiring of long flights by then?)—to go to Arizona one more time to be with her grandfather during his last illness, and while there learn what the New Age religions centered in Sedona had to offer. She’d wanted to revisit, too, the Native Americans who she had seriously fallen for while writing that school project back in seventh grade.
This is how we were born into the world:
Sky fell in love with earth, wore turquoise,
cantered in on a black horse.
— Joy Harjo, from “Morning Prayers”
This is how we were born into the world. Sylvie loved the lines too. She thought about the unique gift she’d been given. All of that special time with her special daughter, unique in all the world. She ran her fingers across the watercolor sketch Cory had made of Sky in love, Sky against the surging black horse, a pool of drenched turquoise deep as a sacred spring. Creation, birth, she thought. Birthright. The purest kind of love. Love for a child.
But there was that other, as well. Turquoise and black. Complementarity. An almost turquoise fishing boat against the blackness of the Taormina sea at night, rocking gently. Feeling the stars the joy the salt spray tingling on her skin.
She wanted more than anything at this moment to be with Nicolo again.
ANOTHER PHONE CALL, another surprise. It was really Cory this time. Cory, sounding like her old self, not stilted, stiff, angry, as she had been that day in the spa at the retreat center.
“I caught him at just the right moment to negotiate a deal,” she said, laughing. She said she’d called her mother as soon as she could, to let her know that she’d gotten the manuscript, that she would see her soon. And more often. And even come to stay. And yes, bring Suki to chase mynas all around the Banyan tree.
“Can I maybe come see you tomorrow? I’ll tell you all about it—everything. I’ve got surprises, too.”
CORY SAT IN ONE of the big rattan chairs with plumeria cushions in the sun-washed kitchen and said she’d read the finished manuscript with the joy of renewed discovery; lived again what they’d created together. She’d been reminded of a hundred favorite places, all the fun they’d had. How much of life and love she’d learned in those formative years. And Suki lay contentedly across Sylvie’s bare feet, offering the solid and uncomplicated warmth of Labrador Retriever.
How terribly she’d missed them both.
“Reggie’s okay with sharing, maman.”
“Well, yes,” she blushed. “Both of us.”
“Suki?” Sylvie was confused by this elliptical telling of whatever surprises she’d come with.
“Oh, okay, then—all three of us.” Cory hesitated, then smiled broadly, quite utterly. “The baby too. I’ve been wanting so much to tell you. I am pregnant, with a little boy.”
Sylvie moved Suki aside gently from her feet, and ran to give Cory an endless hug.
“Darling Cory—I’m so incredibly happy.”
“Me too, maman!” Looking radiant, lit from within.
Sylvie’s pragmatic daughter turned pragmatic then, and explained how she’d persuaded Reggie he was “open to compromise”—his words.
“He didn’t say ‘my whims,’ at least,” Cory laughed.
“You go,” he’d said, exuding generosity. “Your mama needs you. You need her.” That was the way of things. And everyone needed a break from time to time. He might go to Miami, Vegas, for a while, a little break from his responsibilities, happy that Cory was in caring hands.
Sylvie could see the swarthy ingrate sitting complacently on the crimson wrap-around porch, considering where he could put a swimming pool and whether that would involve reconfiguring the circular driveway. He’d be smoking his evening double corona cigar. Swilling illegal Cuban rum. Making deals on his Nokia Sirocco 24-carat gold cellphone.
But she kept her uncharitable thoughts to herself. (Though Suki may have sensed the sudden tension in her toes.) It was okay. More than okay. Cory was blissfully happy, and she felt almost unbearably so, learning that she could have her daughter with her in the spring, when it was nearing her time to give birth. And surely regularly thereafter.
Reggie had no interest in children—already had several, Nicolo had heard from one of his cousins, with his intense raven-haired wife back in Catania, who was sitting pretty and not pining for him. (Her brother-in-law was looking after her just fine.) The women could do their “womanly thing” all on their own, and leave him out.
And then he’d be happy to have his beautiful young consort with him again come August, September, when she had got her figure back, without all the hormones. (“Creep!” Sylvie told herself, but not a breath aloud.)
“We’ll get a nurse, a nanny, build a nursery out beyond the pool and the clay tennis court, maybe, clear trees for one,” Cory said he’d assured her.
“Oh—and I haven’t said. Of course the book will be wonderful,” she went on. “Another baby in the family! I never dreamed I would be having two of them.”
A VERY DIFFERENT sort of man, Nicolo was immensely happy for Cory and her mamma, for the idea of a new child, and for the thought of being with them when he flew over to “test the waters” there in Hawaii at the Chinese New Year.
“The Pacific can’t be nearly as good as il Mediterraneo,” he joked—if only partially joking. “But I’ll give it a try.”
“I can’t believe you’ll do this,” Sylvie said, amazed.
“For you, ma cherise? How could I not?”
Maybe, she started to imagine, taking a page from their myth of Persephone and Demeter, she and this big-hearted man could spend their years together—part of each in Hawaii, spending time with Cory and her grandson, part at his wonderful old villa looking out toward Mount Etna.
He’d leave his deep blue fishing boat with his brother, he assured her, both in words and in those fluent silences that offered all his depths, that spoke of the turquoise and black waters between them, in them, melding them, and buy a new one in Hilo that he’d rename Cerise, in honor of the endlessly uplifting woman with the little turquoise carving of a corn maiden she wore even at night, against her heart, embodying creation, wisdom, strength—the world that was always, in her, alive again, beginning.
▪ ▪ ▪
Christie Cochrell’s work has been published by Catamaran, The First Line, Lowestoft Chronicle, Cumberland River Review, Tin House, and a variety of others, and has won several awards and been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she’s recently published a volume of collected poems, Contagious Magic. She lives by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California—too often lured away from her writing by otters, pelicans, and seaside walks. Read the author’s commentary on her story.
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