After Eden

Valerie Miner





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Saturday morning, 10:30, and the sound of a car crunching up the road startled Emily.

Michael, Jesus, Michael was on time. No one arrived on time in the country. Of course you wore a watch, but life didn’t tick by. You got slowed down by tractors or sidetracked by neighbors at the post office or detoured by friends’ errands. People arrived fifteen to thirty minutes late without thinking to call. (Of course, Emily, herself, didn’t have a phone). Or folks came twenty minutes early because there hadn’t been anyone in line at the propane pump. People attended more to the idea of time than to precise movements of the clock. Michael, though, was an urban man, a punctual lawyer.

What she really should have done is washed this week’s accumulation of dirty plates. Hopelessly, she surveyed the small, cluttered cabin. How did she amass so many dishes? If Salerno had left a day’s worth of clutter in the sink, Emily would get very annoyed (Was this current mess a weird invocation of her haphazard lover?). She had to stop courting sentimental madness. Emily washed her hands and walked out to greet her only brother, whom she hadn’t seen in a year and who had driven three hours to excavate her from a thicket of deed-will-power-of-attorney-bank-account-insurance papers.

In the doorway, still wiping her hands on the sides of a slightly seedy T-shirt, she watched a light green car pulling under the oak tree. A new—newish—no, probably brand new BMW. Well, he had the money; he traveled a lot for work; he needed a safe car. At least he didn’t have a vanity license plate. Michael enjoyed class and quality, not ostentation.

She waved and smiled.

He stared through aviator sunglasses, through the tinted windshield, toward her. It took him a minute to wave back, as if he were trying to reconcile this middle-aged country woman with his pretty little crinoline sister. Whenever he saw her these last ten years, he looked momentarily surprised she was no longer a girl.

Michael waved diffidently and unfolded his long body from the sleek automobile.

She smiled at his weekend ensemble of bright yellow La Coste golf shirt and stone-washed jeans. But the tasseled loafers! She should have told him to wear running shoes.

Verticality energized him. “Em! Em!” he called.

She ran across the deck, down the steps, then broke apart, crying in his arms.

As 1950s children, they had been amiable adversaries, he complaining about how she tagged along and she bristling at his bossiness. He envied the attention she, the baby, received from their parents and she was jealous of the special mother love for the son, the first born.

They had reacted in opposite ways to their father’s strict perfectionism. Michael attended to Father’s proper posture, values, speech patterns, politics, an understudy eager to perform seamlessly when called upon. Emily drew away into church and scholarship and volunteer work. They prized the differences as much as they fought. And when, in their teens, Mother grew sick, sicker, then died, they reached dètente. College separated them. Michael’s Stanford Law friends were capitalist caricatures to Emily’s fuzzy Berkeleyites. And when she disappeared (as he named it) for five years to do community health organizing in Mexico City and then for another two years to edit in a Marxist publishing cooperative in Santa Cruz, Michael assured their father that she would return.

She did come back, although a lesbian and a grad student in Regional Planning wasn’t the prodigal incarnation he anticipated. Still, Michael was sophisticated and, as a new real estate lawyer, had clients in all parts of the city, including the Castro. He worked hard at being brotherly, which sometimes strained Emily’s patience. His most disastrous effort was the dinner party he hosted for his sister and her new lover with his “gay friends,” Nigel and Walter, who owned a flash apartment house. She had stormed out during the créme brûlèe, in the middle of a row about Proposition 102. Salerno had chased after her, demanding why she had started a discussion about property tax with mini realty moguls? Salerno was a better person than she would ever be. So was Michael.

In recent years, they saw each other every six months, coming together with the mute good will of siblings separated by a long ago war, fond of one another without understanding why, ready for connection, unsure how to achieve it. Sometimes they visited Baba together in Pennsylvania; sometimes they found one another during a California summer.

Roles shifted as Emily came to feel protective (at a distance—everything with Michael was at a distance) about his solitary life. Michael was more than the successful lawyer their father had cultivated. He was funny. Clever. Active in city politics and avant-garde culture. But his capacity for intimacy had died with their mother, Teresa. Oh, during the sixties, she had been reassured that he was no virgin when they swapped sexual liberation stories. Still, he never seemed to have a girlfriend for more than a year. Emily hoped for a while—despite Salerno’s certainty to the contrary—that he might be gay. This was before the plague of course. Now she simply wanted him to be safe and happy, probably a contradiction in terms. Gradually, Emily came to accept her tall, slim, earnest brother was an old-fashioned bachelor.

Regarding him now, sitting across from her on the shady side of the deck, she imagined Michael as a seventeenth century Italian monk with a tonsure of blond hair ecclesiastically nipped from the back of his head.

She poured glasses of sun tea. Salerno said it tasted better than iced tea that had been boiled and chilled. Emily couldn’t tell the difference, but she had prepared it all summer.

“How are you doing most days?” he asked quietly.

“OK. Fine.” She was distracted by a greyish-white kite hovering twenty yards away.

“You don’t look fine,” he blurted, “you look exhausted.”

She shrugged, but was touched by his concern.

“I remember how hard it was to sleep for months after Mom died.” He shook his head. “I mean I think I imagined I was keeping some kind of vigil and if I fell asleep, I might miss her or God or something.”

“Oh, Michael.” She realized that they hadn’t talked at length about their mother in ten years.

He gulped his tea.

They both stared toward the kite.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get back, to be here after the crash, to come to the funeral,” his voice trailed off uncertainly.

“Well, Australia is pretty far away. You were in the middle of a three month business ….”

“Besides, I didn’t reach you,” she reassured him, “couldn’t find out where you were until the day before the memorial.”

“Where was it?”

She stared at him.

“The memorial,” he repeated cautiously. “You had a service or something?”

She thought of the things they didn’t do—the rituals Salerno would have gagged on. They did not have a Goddess circle. They did not have a mass. It was a small group—the land women—gathered around the Douglas Fir at sunset. Each of them spoke. Joyce recalled Salerno teaching her about the stars on summer nights. Virginia played a side from Salerno’s last CD.

“That tree,” he nodded, “yes, that’s a fine place. I can see her liking it there—on the edge.”

Emily felt comforted by her brother, but also painfully restless. Maybe her heart was too sore for this intimacy.

Respecting her silence, he turned again to the jays’ conversation.

Emily poured each of them another glass of tea and wondered how she would cope with Michael’s solemn company all weekend. She could start by pulling out bankbooks and insurance forms and deeds. Desperately, she wanted these maters settled so she could be driving with Phoenix across country to the Flat World. She ached for busy Chicago—her job, the reading group, plays at the Goodman, jogs around Lake Michigan—a life that might offer forgetfulness. They had prescribed time for her pain. She needed distance, too.

“Lunch?” she asked, surprising them both. “I have lots of salad things and a fresh baguette and…”

“Lunch?” He looked embarrassed. It’s—uh—only 11:15. I mean I ate a big breakfast, but if you’re hungry….”

She stared at this steady, reliable family clock, of course he was right, but they couldn’t just sit here. She didn’t want to be abrupt with the business questions, but she had run out of every day conversation.

“Have I ever taken you to Big Trees Park?” As soon as she asked, she sensed she was speeding. It would be far more reasonable to talk here a while, enjoying the view.

She spoke again, loudly, precisely. “The giant Redwood Forest. Lots of first growth.”

He tried to look interested.

Emily persisted in a calm, natural voice, “Very shady, as you might imagine, so it’s a great place for walking on hot days like this. Don’t you want to stretch your legs after that drive?”

He agreed to the expedition, a little too eagerly, she thought, as if he were humoring her.

As they rode down Valley Highway, Phoenix barked excitedly and Michael quizzed her about the vineyards, which had proliferated since his last trip north. ‘I hear that the timber industry is selling land to vintners now, that they find it more profitable than reforesting once they’ve harvested the big wood. Is that right?”

“Yes,” her voice was vague, “I’ve heard something like that.”

They both grew quiet as they walked into the redwood forest. At each visit, these beautiful behemoths startled her. Some were as wide as houses; others taller than apartment buildings. She loved everything about the park, imagined the whole Valley looked like this during Pomo days, before the Russian hunters, before the Anglo farmers hacked out orchards for planting and cleared ranges for grazing, before the lumber companies discovered their organic gold. These woods had been a sacred place.

As they padded deeper into the grove, the ground was softer, damper, layered with needles and branches. The walking was so different from hiking on the headlands, gazing up at the ocean or wandering around the ranch, observing the vineyards and hilly farms. Here the air held more moisture, more life. Michael had the same hushed reaction, save for the moment when he extended his hand as he stepped over a log (an unnecessary, but appreciated, gesture), they proceeded together and separately. Well, perhaps not separately so much as silently, for walking with another in the embrace of these ancients was a kind of worship, the experience heightened, deepened, by the sharing.

They approached Emily’s favorite tree, a glorious colossus whose trunk fanned out at the bottom like a skirt. A black skirt because the tree had survived a huge fire: the first four feet hollowed, glistening in black metallic scales. A tree which had lived despite/because of the fire in her belly. A tree which transcended suffering as it grew high beyond the shade of others, higher and higher, reaching for the sun. She breathed slowly, savoring the woodstew scent of moist earth and redwood needles and bay leaves.

Emily and Michael continued walking among the titans, stopping here and there to examine a mushroom or a frail green shoot grown from the motherlog of a new tree.

“Strange,” he murmured, looking around, then up, up toward the patch of blue surrounded by branch tops, “it’s so enclosed here. Not claustrophobic but….”

She remembered Michael’s irritating habit of pausing mid-sentence for what felt like a minute, two minutes, while you waited, wondering if he had become completely distracted or was still trying to extricate the exact words. He was unconscious that you were in the rowboat with him, everyone stalled until he put his oar back in the water.

“Contained. Safe…..” he said, finally. “My image of Mendocino is wilderness, the fierceness of coastal winds, the waves smashing into those lovely headlands.”

For Michael’s sake, she was glad she hadn’t followed her impulses these last two months to jump into those grey ocean rhythms.

They stood beside one another in a beautiful grove, trees gathered in a circle. The forest service had been here recently, clearing away underbrush against threat of fire. Something about this groomed ground, an artificial altar to ascendant trees, disturbed her. An implication that beauty couldn’t emerge from chaos?

“Salerno loved this grove,” she said suddenly, searching his face for signs of vitality. Had the walk tired him? Was he too hot, after all, Michael was a man in his fifties and you never knew how much time a person had left (Emily felt that she, herself, would go on and on).

He observed her closely, worried or perhaps simply uncertain, about how to respond.

“She always dreamed of performing a concert here…I mean she would never have done anything that intrusive. Salerno believed in public land, wouldn’t have wanted to claim it with her sound from other people’s….”

He was looking at her intently again.

“…other people’s private musings. But she liked to imagine herself playing the saxophone up toward that window in the sky. Talked about riffing with the birds, the wind.” Her tone was high, tense.

He nodded, anxiously trying to follow.

“Oh, god, now I’m making her seem like a crackpot.” Talking about the dead to the wrong people constituted betrayal.

“No,” he whispered, moving closer, “no, no. You just make me wish I had known her, known both of you, better all these years.” He was on the edge of tears.

With this, she jumped into the waves, her body racked with sobs, her voice keening, breaking.

Michael held his sister firmly, until her weeping ended with a wail fathoms deeper than she had gone before.












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