When Tig began to die, her dreams devoured her, they came like ravens, or the huge black crows who had wintered hulking and dark in Vienna. Like the Turks putting the old city under siege, centuries before I met Tigger in school there, our fathers indentured to obscure branches of the United Nations hive on the Danube. For months dreams had hummed behind her eyes when she faced her students with tales of Orkney and Avalon and Rhiannon, and at night, when she lay reading old stories in dead languages. There was never a time when the dreams were not there, when the reality of waking might not splinter into the ache and wonder of sleep.
When she started to lose her languages, the words and lexicons that had held the stories together, she followed Lily to the house on the Chesapeake, and I followed them both. From Dashaway she could stare down at the mocking estuarine tides as they wove skeins of salt and ice, and try to remember how to name the waves, and the dreams would wait. She held vague memories of a farm on Skye, and there the Atlantic had been this close, and there had been the same hint of nearby land at the horizon, but the house had been her own. I should have been there. Instead, from Dashaway, when the sun burns the fog off the water, we can sometimes see across to the mouth of the Susquehanna, the cold fresh rush of water making our rock-strewn spit of sand and soil quite unlike the briskly rimed edges of Scotland.
Now it’s midnight at Dashaway, and Tigger Gilmore dreams of shipwrecks. Galleons sink into the ice and fog while their riggings burn, and even asleep she tries to get away from the screams of drowning sailors. Men cling to spars and drift amongst the wreckage while embers cascade around them, fire raining from the starless sky. There are no lifeboats; there never are. On a good night, Thrall curls his broad tawny back against her while she sleeps, and she wakes to hear his soft doggy sighs, or the wift of his tail on the quilt. In the old days, before Dashaway, she would not in a million years have let a dog on the bed, particularly not a big yellow Lab like Thrall, but that was before. When morning comes she will take his ears in her hands and thank him, and he will stare back into her face and help her hang on.
It’s the end of another spring day, the beginning of the season when peepers crawl back up from beneath the primordial mud and claim their place in the world. I used to love them, but from where I now stand they are a distraction, at best. The herons as well, flogging themselves up into the sky, send a message for which I have no time. I used to believe that spring was the start of life, but gradually I came to understand that it is quite the contrary. The myth of the Christos gives us Easter, and the Greeks brought Dionysus out of his vast nothing when the ground softened and the grape vines crept up toward the nascent sunlight, but… In my experience, spring leads to a confidence in life that we don’t deserve, and in which we are inevitably betrayed.
At any rate, it is far too cold still for porpoises, whose sleek silvered pods are months away yet from Dashaway, but somehow Tigger thinks it is a fine day to take the dog down by the water. And anyway, Tig is not renowned for her judgment, these days (was she ever? I no longer recall). Eventually she will realize that she is cold, and then she will come back to the house.
Like every other day, I am standing at the corner of the porch, watching, when Tig comes up from the water. She walks past me, unseeing as always, although lately I have felt a twinge of notice from her every now and again. The dog blunders past as well, but I know that he knows where I am. We reached an accord months ago, Thrall and I, in which we agreed to stand for Tigger.
She pauses at the bottom step, close enough I could touch her. Were it an option, I would reach over and wrap myself around her as I used to, in Vienna, and in college after that. She has a ball in her hand, green and knobby, and as the dog dances about her feet she flings it out toward the brackish water. A spray of half-frozen muck rises where it hits the ground, but Thrall just stares. I think perhaps he is refusing to chase the ball because he is watching me, but Tigger doesn’t know this. Tigger, for all her gift with language, doesn’t know a lot of things. She never did listen when my father would tell her stories of pixies and the fey and the walking of unsated ghostlings. Anyway, the ball splashes into the muck at the water’s edge, and Thrall ignores it. Tig sighs.
“Go on, you great git. Get the – the – ah, hell, what’s it called… The green thing, Thrall, the round thing I throw for you.” But Thrall, despite his usual Lab inclination to bring things back, just looks at her, his tail waving lazy and slow. Tig stares off at the Bay, angry and scared and sad, then goes into the house. I almost reach for her. Almost. But then I don’t, coward or realist, I’m not sure which.
I follow her into the living room. Lily is there, curled into the corner of the sofa with her pile of Woolf, like always. Christ, she makes me tired. I want her to finish this great vast tome she’s writing, but I expect she is more use this way. This way she writes, she reads, she looks after my Tigger for me. She smiles into the volume of diaries she’s reading. “Hey, Tig. Have fun at the beach?”
Tig shrugs, and plants herself at the other end of the sofa, pale against the William Morris chrysanthemums. The sofa is not quite as old as the cottage, but it’s close. “Sure… Lost another word, though.” She makes a throwing motion, or part of one. It’s not very convincing. “The round thing I throw for the dog.”
“A ball?” Lily looks up then, and it relieves my heart to watch her recognize the new layer of not-quite-right in Tigger’s face.
“If you say so.” She kicks her shoes off and pulls her feet up beneath her. “I feel as if I am emptying faster than ever, Lily.”
Lily shakes her head. “Say something in Scottish. Scotch.” If I didn’t know better, I would imagine that perhaps our Lily is trying to bait me. But she doesn’t know. And truth told, it’s a fine diagnostic of what is and isn’t still in Tigger’s marvelous mind. If Lily were not so bound on getting to the right side of publish or perish, and her seat in the ivory tower, she would have been quite a nurse.
(excerpted from The Book of Broken Hymns, which is copyrighted material, 2011)
Want more? Of course you do. I am happy to announce that THE BOOK OF BROKEN HYMNS is available as an eBook at Lulu.com, in Apple’s iBookstore, for the Nook, and for (sigh) Kindle. If you would like one of the few remaining paperbacks, shoot me an email and we’ll see what we can do.
Caveats: It looks AWESOME on my iPad, so visually I recommend that you get it from the iBookstore. However, I do love my indie bookstores, so… But be aware that for reasons I do not yet understand, if you get it that way, there is no cover art, just body content. BUT you can totally download the cover from my site here, so that works. I guess.
Anyway. Thank you for your support, you people.