Sunday, November 28, 2010

Delayed Musings: 28 November 2010

Good morning,

A small, polite rap on my door signaled the arrival of my son's ride back to St. Louis, where he will connect with his friend from school for the journey back to his other life. The last inch of over-packed suitcase succumbs to relentless tugging, and, with a quick, commanded hug, he leaves. The dog and I settle back into our empty-nest routine, while the cats scurry across the dining room floor, foraging for crumbs.

The final count at last evening's Thanksgiving meal hit 24, counting three well-behaved, adorable children. Several invited guests suffered illnesses preventing their attendance, but last-minute additions kept our number from sliding below 20. I have a reputation to uphold, after all.

Every wine- and water-glass served duty, several twice, and had everyone attended, I do not believe the silverware would have held. The buffet groaned under the bounty of my friends' contributions; Katrina's gravy glistened; Caroline's chocolate cake beckoned; Sheldon's whipped potatoes shone.

In our customary way, we rounded the table, youngest to oldest, acknowledging something for which we gave thanks. With no giggling pre-teens, we heard only serious comments. I'm thankful for family. . . for friends. . . for the survival of my business. . . for being here. My tears flowed; I cannot help myself. As soon as the prodigal son spoke, I began to tear: I'm thankful that I came home this year, after missing last year. As am I, my beloved; as am I. For everyone who is here, and everyone who could not be.

The near-perfect boyfriend and his sweet sister together put a major dent in the dishes. And let it be acknowledged here: Valiant always, Jim stood at the sink until the last plate had been washed, dried and put away. He wins the 2010 Holiday Clean-Up Award. I slept a hard eight hours; and then, at 6:30 this morning, the knock on the door, and my son slipped away as quickly as he arrived.

I have folded the metal chairs, and taken the linens down to the laundry room. I've collected the rag-tag glasses scattered hither and yon, and a spoon or two from the floor beneath the dining room table.

I do not need to close my eyes to remember other Thanksgivings. We have always said the "Thankful-Fors"; we have always had clover leaf rolls; we have always crowded as many as we could in my modest dining room, and put the younger set at a folding table, on folding chairs, with their own gravy boat and basket of bread.

In my youth, sixth of eight, I clutched my Thanksgiving Day chore and awaited the timer that would call each Corley to task. Mother doled out slips of paper on which your name and duty had been carefully noted, and at the sound of the ding, you left the relative with whom you were chatting and rushed into the kitchen to help with final preparations, pigtails flying, patent Mary Janes clicking on linoleum. The laying of the plates; the filling of water goblets; the arranging of chairs. Eight Corley children; eight jobs; and then, with the raising of the dinner bell, a call to supper.

I have known Thanksgivings in other settings. One year, house-sitting in the mountains, I ate Cornish hen cooked in a pot-belly stove. The year before my son's birth, his small self quickening within me, I rode the train to St. Louis in an ice storm and sat at my brother's table, unobtrusive, alone in the din of his lively children, next to the priest who later baptised my infant. I cannot remember Thanksgiving of 1991 or 1992. For the last 17 years, I have cooked here at the Holmes house, either on Thursday or a day through the weekend, or both.

We welcome anyone who wishes to come. Our annual dinner started as a place for folks with no local family and hence nowhere else to go, but evolved into a gathering of family by choice. I stand as my guests sit; and hover near the kitchen. I cannot light and eat: my need to be sure that everyone receives what they want or need cannot be sated.

I stand on the porch as each guest departs, and call after their cars pulling away from the curb. Thanks for coming! Be careful! See you soon! As the last Tupperware is burped, and the last napkin collected, and the last half-bottle of wine re-corked and stowed on the shelf, I feel the aching in my muscles, the cramping in my feet, and the slight, heady rush of fatigue rising, drawing my eyelids downward, making my head spin, just slightly.

One bowl slides to the kitchen floor and breaks. Does this bowl have special meaning, comes the anxious cry of the dishwasher. My son carries it toward me, and I ascertain that it is nothing special. "Nothing special" means not touched by my mother's hands, or passed down to me by womenfolk of whose faces I have only fading memory. One day, perhaps, I will view my special dishes as merely being future landfill. But the mish-mash china pieces in my cupboards still remind me of those who have gone home, and I wince at the sound of crockery on tile.

I am tired, now. At ten, I will serve as substitute greeter at St. Andrew's Episcopal church, standing in for the person who left town early to get my son to St. Louis on time to meet up with his friend, and thus, to journey on to Indiana. By noon, I will occupy the desk in my office, preparing for a sad but apparently unavoidable custody trial which starts tomorrow. Although my brain will turn to other, more practical contemplations, in the background my gratitude will still hum.

I am, without question, thankful for all of my beloved friends who gathered in my home last evening. I am also thankful for my siblings, even those with whom I have only infrequent contact; and for my child, who touches my heart; and I am thankful for the hold I have managed to place on health which, though not good, is thus far good enough.

But I am also thankful for those whose faces recede into the curtained corners of my mind. My parents; both of my grandmothers; my mother's father; aunts; uncles; and my brother Stephen, whom I shall forever see as lively, and quick, strolling into any room with radiance and energy.

My friend Paula lost her mother this year; my friend Jane, her brother. Stacey's grandmother died; and there have been others. For all of them, and for myself, I offer not my own words, but those of Antoine de Saint Exupery, which I read at my brother's funeral, and for the comfort of which, I am also thankful.

In this, the 26th Chapter, the Little Prince is preparing for his journey home, and the author, who is stranded in the desert because of an engine malfunction in his plane, has discovered that "going home" for the Little Prince involves the gracious bite of a venomous snake, for the Little Prince's home is far away, and his body too heavy for him to carry. And the author is anxious at the thought of losing his friend, and thus, seeks reassurance from the Little Prince:

"Little man," I said, "tell me that it is only a bad dream--this affair of the snake, and the meeting-place, and the star . . ."

But he did not answer my plea. He said to me, instead:

"The thing that is important is the thing that is not seen . . ."

"Yes, I know . . ."

"It is just as it is with the flower. If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night. All the stars are a-bloom with flowers . . ."

"Yes, I know . . ."

"It is just as it is with the water. Because of the pulley, and the rope, what you gave me to drink was like music. You remember--how good it was."

"Yes, I know . . ."

"And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens . . . they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present . . ."

He laughed again.

"Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!"

"That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water . . ."

"What are you trying to say?"

"All men have the stars," he answered, "but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You--you alone--will have the stars as no one else has them--"

"What are you trying to say?"

"In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night . . . You--only you--will have stars that can laugh!"

And he laughed again.

"And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, 'Yes, the stars always make me laugh!' And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you . . ."

And he laughed again.

"It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh . . ."


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saturday Musings, 20 November 2010

Good morning,

My eyes closed at midnight, just seconds after finishing a book from a long-ago read series by one of my favorite authors. How I could have missed that particular episode, I can't say, but I discovered it in the musty shelves of "I Love a Mystery", and chortled all the way home after purchasing it for one-half of its 1969 cover price. Oh, joy.

This morning, those eyes protested being forced to function before the sun had cleared the east horizon. I dragged myself from Saturday sleep far too early, slogging through the grinding of the beans, the bad news in the Star's front section, and the lame comics. I'm expecting the cable guy -- coming to address annoying pixelation on the Food Network channel that threatens my late-evening perusal of the Thanksgiving recipes touted by the likes of Alton Brown, Giada DeLaurentis, and everybody's darling, Rachael Ray. Why this malady only affects the Food Network, I cannot say; perhaps this stands as a commentary on my viewing habits.

My little dog occasionally protests from the backyard, unsympathetic to my need for quiet. She has a predilection for jumping on visitors, and is a bit of a bigot for reasons that predate her rescue and adoption, thus being unknown to me. She must, therefore, be banished from the house when repair persons are scheduled to arrive. The black cat yowls to be released from the captivity that he sought this morning, after a night of roaming the neighborhood. I'm told he has sired numerous kittens; certainly, he arrives home with the occasional battle scar, and I suppose that one of these days, I will be forced to curtail his manhood.

Yesterday, I attended a ceremony for National Adoption Day at the Jackson County Family Court. I am one of ten adoption GALs there. I fancied myself as a potential adoptive parent decades ago, first during my 30s before the birth of my son, and then again, in his young boyhood. That never came to pass, but I have -- if my count is accurate -- seven adopted nieces and nephews, and my very first case as an attorney was the step-parent adoption by my brother of his eldest son, now a grown man. That ceremony brought tears to the eyes of all present, from the curmudgeonly St. Louis County judge presiding over the hearing, to the social worker, and the petitioner's attorney. Each time I said the petitioner's name, the child on his lap, who was the subject of the proceedings, chirped, "That's my Daddy!"

I came very close to adopting two children, at separate times. The first, an adorable toddler named Kimmy, caught my heart and my son's heart in a way that still resonates. Another, an infant called Bianca, howled all night for the first week of her tenancy in my home, but eventually lost her fear, and clung to great gobs of my hair as she chortled over my shoulder, while I moved about the house doing chores. Each lived with us during months when my son and I served as a Jackson County foster home. Each left us to be adopted by other families, chosen in our stead as preferable. In Kimmy's case, the worker preferred a two-parent home; Bianca's worker thought she should be placed in a foster home with parents of her own race. I've prayed, since then, that the families which received those lovely, plucky children cherished them as my son and I would have. One can only hope.

But the foster children whose presence, and abrupt departure, made the biggest imprint and left the biggest hole in our hearts were Mikey and Jacob. These brothers spent a half-dozen weeks with Patrick and me during Patrick's kindergarten year. Mikey had been sexually abused by his mother's long progression of men. At age six, he had three recorded suicide attempts, the most recent prior to placement with us having been an agonizing tumble from a moving vehicle. He told the police officer who rescued him that he just wanted to get away. Not die, perhaps; but escape.

Jacob looked like an angel, and often sat contently in a toddler chair, banging his spoon on the table while singing a wordless tune. I could only imagine its origins. He held his face in an intent repose when he did not realize that I watched him, and scrunched his eyes in glee if Patrick brought him toys. I could have kept Jacob, could have made his transition into our home a seamless and joyful one. But Mikey -- ahhh, Mikey. He posed challenges that I had not anticipated. He would not take a shower for anyone but his sister's foster mother at her home; he smashed dishes against the floor; he flailed and swore when I tried to get him out of the car to go to school; he lit matches in the bedroom. On the day he brandished a knife towards my chest, screeching that he would kill me, kill Patrick, kill Jacob, that he would kill himself, I wrapped my arms around the other children and called the social worker. I can't handle this, I told her. I can't bear the thought that he might actually do it. I can't help him.

Jacob and his little sister found permanent homes. I heard that Mikey aged out of the program while living at a local boys' home. I do not know what happened to him.

I have a friend who is a career foster mother. With her husband and birth children, she gives sanctuary to some of the more troubled children whom I have seen in my long career as a family law practitioner in all its phases. She runs a lively, happy, joyful home. It is not always neat and tidy, but it is clean, and its trappings are child-proof, and she displays the artwork of foster children beside the scribblings of her birth children with equal pride. She and her husband cherished some badly damaged and sad victims of parental abuse.

As I move through my week, reading my clients' e-mail about their struggles to co-parent during separation and after divorce, I experience my own struggles -- I want to lock all these divorcing parents in padded rooms and make them stay until they work out their differences. Most of them perform reasonably well as parents, and their arguments arise not from any particularly legitimate complaint about the other parent's treatment of their shared children, but from unresolved disappointment at the failure of the adult relationship. There are exceptions, of course. I do represent people dealing with legitimate abuse situations, or the aftermath of addiction -- their own or that of their child's other parent. But by and large, as a family law practitioner, I see reasonably competent parents on both sides of the courtroom, and I ache to convince them to accept each other before it is too late -- before their children become unintended victims of their bitterness.

I find myself smiling, suddenly. I think about stories I have told -- mountains I have climbed, journeys I have taken, faces I have seen and later described. I have been accused of sentimentality. I have been accused of merely relaying warm, fuzzy memories. I edit away my personal anguish, stripping my past of its intensity, serving only the sweetness, or the easy lesson. The fierce, fast events of my past are buried in the oblique metaphors of my poetry, too rough for general audiences.

But my own suffering and the pain of the children that I serve both inform me. From it all, I take a few certain truths. In the final analysis, the human condition dictates our behavior, and our behavior molds the human condition. We become what we do. We take shape as a result of our actions. Thus, we control what we are. We know that our neuropathways change because of what others do to us, and we excuse ourselves on this basis, but we must also acknowledge that those same pathways can be redirected by our own behavior. We can change the future. We choose how we respond to adversity, and to challenge.

When the dust settles on humanity, when the last page of human history has been written, the most telling epitaph will be a recitation of the way in which we cared for those around us, especially the most helpless members of society -- the infirm, the old, the young. Our children serve both as test and legacy. I hope we rise to the challenge: In our personal choices; in our crafting of the rules that govern our collective; in the spreading of bounty; in the thoughtfulness with which we live, and work, and play, as individuals and as a society.

The white cat curls in sleep on the bookshelf beside me. She heeds my call to survival, and has even rallied. I have ordered my Thanksgiving turkey and co-opted extra chairs. In a few days, my son returns, and the house will again crackle with the intensity of youth. I have given some thought to my "thankful-for" -- the expression of gratitude that my dinner guests must acknowledge after the grace is said, as the food is passed and the drink poured. There are many things for which I am grateful: overcoming adversity; finding love; continued ability to work; the roof over my head; the school that my son attends; the help that I am given from many quarters; the air that I breathe, the sun on my skin.

I strive to distill the overwhelming emotion into one cogent thought. I have long since surrendered to the inevitable tears which will captivate me, when I take my turn. For what am I thankful? Simply put: everything.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturday Musings, 13 November 2010

Good morning,

Beside me, on the top shelf of the bookcase made by my great-grandfather,the white cat sleeps. She leaves her perch only to eat, or beg for water from the bathroom sink, or, briefly, to use her litter box. She has occupied the same eight by four rectangle of inches for the last week. She grows old as I watch; her fur mats, and her eyes begin to glaze as she turns them toward me with a slightly accusatory air. Occasionally, she stretches her paws across the short distance to my chair, and lowers her thin body to my side.

When my son left for college in the fall of 2009, he extracted from me a promise that I would keep the pets alive. I only guaranteed their safety for that first year, but he insisted that I renew my pledge this past August, and I have been trying to honor his request. Now I am begging this cat, who came to Patrick as his third birthday present, to live until Thanksgiving. So far she seems willing to oblige.

Layers of sound rise in my world: The lumber of the trash truck; the dim, melodic cadence of NPR from the bedroom; the constant, low whine of the tinnitus from which I have suffered for forty years. These sounds comfort me. My hearing has backslid; I have no capacity in the critical voice range in one ear; a significant loss in that same range in the other; and my low-range hearing leaves much to be desired. Ambient noise muddles any speech. The insistent jabber of small motors drives me to hysteria. Yet as the morning unfolds, I perceive the plethora of sounds as a symphony -- my background soundtrack -- the absence of which I would lament.

I do not have to close my eyes to focus on sound. But when I do, some of the noises that rise within me are not pleasant. I remember them all. The sharp, unmistakable roar of a shot gun blast, reverberating while I stand frozen in a hospital emergency room hallways, staring at my own reflection, wondering who else could see me. The scratch of a doctor's pen across the surface of a patient's chart, as he huddled beneath a metal gurney, while a baby cried and its young mother begged it to be still, at least until the gun-wielding murderer could be located. The soul-searing sound of a small sob escaping from the doctor's lips, as he remembered his last sight of a bloody colleague, being wheeled through the back hallways to an elevator, destined for the stark, sad confines of an operating room.

Before I made my way to that room, the room with the doctor, and the teenage mother, and the crying baby, I had been alone. I started out in the hallway, just paces behind the fallen physician, the second person killed by the lunatic who terrorized us for the next six hours. I watched the doctor fall, not in slow motion but quickly, in a noiseless crumple. I darted around a corner, trembling. What is happening, I asked myself, my panicked self, the self standing stock still in the window fifty feet away. Somebody is shooting at you.

I ran into an examining room and, with a strength I did not anticipate being able to summon, I dragged a heavy table across the floor to form a barricade, wincing at the screech of its protest, the dull, heavy thud as I slammed it against the door. Good God, he will hear you, I told myself. I threw myself under a desk, and sat for a few moments, trying to control my shaking body, straining to hear anything that might tell me the fate of the friend who had brought me to this emergency room, of the doctor who I had to think must be dead, of whoever took the blast of the first shot, the one that made both me and the fated resident stop, stunned, speechless.

I think time passes more slowly from beneath an old metal desk. Crammed in its knee hole, enfolded to a size my body loathed to assume, I began to imagine I could hear activity in the hallway beyond the room in which I hid. The rustle of bodies; the scurry of feet; the murmur of fear, palpable and painful. Then a voice: Come out. Come out. Wherever you are.

I did not move. A few minutes later, the door to my room opened a half-inch, and a gruff voice summoned. Whoever is in here, move this barricade. I did not speak. It's the police. Open this door.

Perhaps I have a suspicious nature, but it occurred to me, just then, that if I wanted to corral a bunch of ragtag patients together and shoot them, I'd lure them out by pretending to be the police. I glanced at the table against the door and judged that it would hold most onslaughts. Show me your badges, I called out. I heard a mumbled exchange. Open the door, came the response, in a strong, authoritative voice. You show me your badges and then I'll open the door!

The voices went away. I learned later that they went to the room with the crying doctor and took stock. They found my friend, whom they co-opted to return to the hallway outside my door with them. Corinne, she quavered. They think you're a hostage in there. It's really the police out here, girl. Open the door and show you're alone. I heard her fear; I admired her bravery. She would not serve as bait for a bad guy. I knew her better. And so I dragged the barricade from in front of the door and was immediately sorry. A SWAT team surrounded me, pulling me down to the cold, dirty floor and ramming a gun against my temple. I heard the crash of the door as they fell into the empty room, ready to capture; and I heard the disappointment in their voices.

They herded my friend and me back to the place where everyone had been collected, and we waited there, without food, without water, without so much as the soothing inanity of piped-in music. Only the baby's low, steady whimpering, the perpetual scritch of the doctor's ballpoint pen, and the occasional, reverent whisper from one person to another, broke the silence. I watched the tears fall from the doctor's eyes, down his cheek, and onto the gibberish he wrote. I took my turn holding the baby so its mother could sleep. I rubbed an old woman's numb fingers. I leaned my head on my friend's shoulder, and, later, sat very still as she slept on mine. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the throbbing silence around me.

They released us about five hours later. In straggled bunches, the police escorted us to the parking garage which stood in the eternal darkness of the grave, all of its lights shattered by law enforcement armament as part of their attempt to isolate the gunman. No one spoke. My friend drove me home but did not leave her car. She watched me until the door of my apartment building locked behind me, flicked her lights in the early-morning gloom, then drove away. I went upstairs, poured a few fingers of Glenlivet, and sank into a rocking chair. I fell asleep with the radio blaring, and every light in the apartment illuminated, and the last sound I heard was the thunder of the trash truck, and the sharp snap of the newspaper tossed on my balcony by a passing van.

The furnace clicks into action, whirring as it spills hot air into my dining room. The cat, curled on the shelf beside me, lets one small mew escape. A light, steady mist falls from the steely sky, and as it hits my window, it does not make a sound.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Saturday Musings, 06 November 2010

Good morning,

The leaves gather beneath the holly bushes on which the first blush of winter berries has begun to gleam. I wrap myself in my usual ragtag selection of long scarves. I wind wool over chiffon and sweep the lot behind me as I descend the three steps of the porch, in the crisp air of the clear morning, with my usual cup of black courage clutched against my chest.

Last night, at another First Friday in Mission, a fine photographer and I joined forces to create a landscape for those gathered to view his works, and the works of the incomparable Katie Dallam, and the sweet paintings of a little girl with an eye for beauty. We arranged chairs, and put out food, and made lemonade. As we poured bottled spring water into the lemonade dispenser, I found myself thinking of other water, flowing from a spring, fed by an underground river, far south of here, in another lifetime.

In the mountains of Arkansas, a man with too much money built a house inside of a cave; not a hovel, nor a crude shelter, but a true house, with floors, and carpets, and a loft library, and bedrooms deep in the bowels of the old, craggy hillside, along a curved tiled hallway. The ceiling rose high, and the inner stairway ascended to a series of upper rooms, flanked by railings of carved wood tenderly made by craftsmen who knew their art.

The first time I drove the state highway to the cave house, we stopped beside the road to fill our thermos with water trickling from a pipe protruding out of the rough sweep of rock through which the road had been carved. I had never tasted water in its unsullied form. I had not known that water has a natural taste, and its own fragrance, and a unmistakable light, as it moves within the earth. The spring flowed with the unbridled force of its own energy, out of the small length of lead, unfettered, onto my hands, into my mouth as I bent over to drink. Not before or since has water given me what that water did: pure rejuvenation, as only things untainted by the processes we impose on them can give.

When we had consumed our fill, and capped our containers, we continued on, and after a few minutes' drive along the road, we came around a broad bend and saw the cave house: windows where no windows should be, above a clearing that did not exist before wealth insisted on its creation, beside which sat an abandoned Bobcat. We parked alongside a battered pick-up and a BMW that must have belonged to the owner, for its paint gleamed, and its tires bore none of the mountain mud that vehicles can never shed once they became country cars.

We entered the cave house through a large wooden door of gleaming oak polished to an unnatural gloss and outfitted with heavy brass fittings. Inside we paused, staring, mesmerized by our surroundings. I raised my eyes and gazed upward, to the ceiling at the front part of the cave, towering fifty feet or more above me. To my left stood the stairway to the loft; its railing had not yet been installed, but the risers spanned four feet wide; to my right, I saw the hallway which curved away from us along the perimeter of the cave.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that I stood on natural stone, which, I was told, would ultimately be finished with wide planks of native wood flooring. We hovered near the doorway. I pulled my jacket closer to my frame. The air beneath the mountain would need no air conditioning. After a few minutes, I became aware of a consistent, unfamiliar high-pitched sound. I asked, What is that noise? Came the reply from my companion: Water.

Water. My eyes finally adapted to the dimness of the interior, and I realized that in the great space that would someday be the grand foyer of the cave house, scores of buckets had been placed. Water dripped into those buckets, and onto the stone on which we walked with careful steps. The unbroken sound that it made as it fell signified that the mountain had not yet been tamed.

We toured the work-in-progress in silence, moving slowly, taking care on the slick, damp surface. We traversed the circular hallway, to the last point at which the workers had left their mark and then, with no backwards glance, slipped through a tall, narrow crevice into the bowels of the mountain. I held my companion's hand and sometimes reached for the cool wall to steady myself in the passageway. We had no light other than weak rays from high above us. The silence only yielded to the sounds of the ubiquitous water and our own ragged respiration.

A hundred yards beyond the first opening, we came to another, smaller crack, and without hesitation, we sidled through it. I closed my eyes and clutched my companion's hand more tightly, as we moved deeper and farther beyond any place that humans often entered. Don't worry, he said. I know where I'm going. My breathing grew more desperate, and I felt the panic of the truly claustrophobic rise within me. At that point, turning back posed just as much terror as going forward, and so I kept walking, staggering blindly on the dark path until, suddenly, unexpectedly, the narrow passage opened into a wide expanse, the height of which soared to a place I could not see.

We stopped, my companion and I, and leaned against the rock wall, feeling its eternal cold press into our backs. As my body calmed, and I grew quiet, I realized that we stood on the shores of an underground lake, on the surface of which shone a snippet of light from somewhere so far above us that I had to take the naturalness of its source on faith. We held ourselves still, beside that pool, and we breathed air that few had ever breathed, that few even knew existed to be breathed. We did not speak. My fingers opened, and I realized that I had been grasping my companion's hand so tightly that my own hand ached.

What is this place? I whispered. I could not see his face. It is the heart of the mountain, came his low reply. Neither of us said anything more. I had no use for my eyes in the moment, and so I closed them, and I attended to the touch of virgin air on my skin and the quiet throb of unbroken silence.

Gradually, the chill overtook us, and we joined hands once more. At the far edge of the water, we slipped through another crack, into the space formed by the shifting of two large segments of rock, long ago, when the earth shuddered and shook. The steady dripping of water along the walls on either side of us and over our heads grew louder as we journeyed. A hundred feet beyond the lake, the path began to rise, and my breathing grew labored from effort. My companion held onto me, wordlessly urging me forward as I struggled to climb. Finally, when I began to fear that I would have to surrender, and stay, living within the mountain like a troll, we broke through to the surface, and I gasped as I realized that once more we stood beside the spring at which we had so recently refreshed ourselves.

My companion led me to a flat rock, and I sank to its surface, eagerly lifting my face to the kiss of the summer sun. I could only silently nod as he told me that he would fetch the car. By the time he returned, I had fallen asleep, and I did not fully awaken as he guided me to the passenger's seat.

I visited the cave house many times after that, watching the workers press the trappings of civilization onto mountain's stark interior. Gleaming, man-made surfaces formed under the rough, steady hands of silent locals who barely hid the contempt they felt. Whether their contempt was for the man whose dreams fed their families or for themselves, I never did decide. When the last carpeting had been laid, and the last polished appliance fitted into the kitchen, and the last leather book slipped onto the walnut shelves installed in the loft, I came once more, to see what they had created.

I walked the length of the hallway, to the end, where we had gone that day. I stopped, stunned. But I should have known. The crevice had been closed, with brick, and mortar, and a heavy coat of something shiny -- sealant, I suppose, still emitting an acrid smell. I reached out, and ran my fingers along the smooth, hard wall. I closed my eyes and felt my body sway, just slightly, as I pressed my hand against that awful barrier.

I turned, finally, and left, and I have not gone back. I think about that lake from time to time, when the trees in my yard glisten with soft autumn rain, and I stand on my porch under its cathedral ceiling. I close my eyes, and I breathe the damp, cool air, and I am transported, just briefly, back to that inner sanctuary, to the shore of the quiet, old lake, under the ancient mountain. And I remember the delicate taste of spring water, and its soothing touch, as it fell into my hands from a pipe staked in a rock, in Newton County, when I was young.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.