I’m talking to my peonies, and cooing to my budding delphinium, bent over, tugging sorrel from the potager garden. A man in a Jeep pulls up and starts talking to me about flowers. Not unusual for Roberts Street. It’s a friendly neighborhood half-way up Quincy Hill. I beam, happy when others notice the plants — antidepressants. Who can succumb to dark thoughts when a peony opens to you? Then he asks if I heard about the tanker.
No, I haven’t. I’m a late morning riser. I heard neighbors gathered in the street when I woke, but they do that when someone’s sanding a dresser outside or two-dog owners cross paths on a walk. He tells me he saw it happen and I sense he’s troubled, needing to share his story. I stop fussing over stray blades of tall grass poking out of my lavender bush.
He tells me the tanker uncoupled from the truck. He watched it unfold in slow motion the way traumatic events imprint our memories. The cab didn’t flip, only the tanker it hauled. It flipped and split open. He ran. “The trail’s closed,” he tells me. I wonder if he drove up the trail a block away. I look. It doesn’t appear closed. I ask if he’s okay, now concerned he might be in shock. I don’t know about the accident. I must have been sleeping. He starts talking about the flowers again.
“Where can you go,” I ask. “You know, to unwind?”
“South Range.” He nods as if he’s made up his mind, pops the clutch, and turns his Jeep around.
My next door neighbor, the Master Gardener who clucks at my flowers as if I have unruly kindergartners running about my place, stops at my garden. He never mentions the magenta peonies or coral poppies. He’s a tomato and bush beans man. He asks if I’ve heard about the tanker. The man in the Jeep stalls, restarts the engine, and slowly pulls away. I say, “He said he saw it.”
My neighbor nods. “He works at the tire shop.”
The tire shop is located at Santori’s Corner, the grand sweeping grade that curves ninety degrees to continue up Quincy Hill. It’s a treacherous corner, especially in winter where I have to turn on Ethel to reach Roberts Street. Two years ago, a scrap metal truck took out the power pole at the tire shop, and back in the ’90s a logging truck slammed into the original Santori house. Historically, the grade was a railroad, or so I understand. The option to the curve is straight up streets to rival those in San Francisco.
I listen to a second-hand story about the shop owner. He watched the truck come up the hill, take the corner, tip the tanker, split open, and release a deluge of gasoline. He shouted to his employees, “Run!” Explains why the man I talked flowers with told me he ran. We are all lucky nothing sparked. We are all unlucky that gas spilled into our sewer drainage, dumping into the Portage Canal. It’s in the news and the accident scene photos are half a block from my home and near our Hancock Fire Station. We are the edge of the evacuation zone. Lucky to live uphill from Santori’s Corner.
Fast-forward to noon.
I’m driving up the Keweenaw Peninsula. Roads around my home are closed and it’s tricky getting out of my neighborhood. I make it to Calumet where I pick up two pizzas from Jim’s and head to a birthday party for a friend in heaven. I’m not going to heaven. I’m going to the cemetery outside the near-ghost-town of Ahmeek. All the old copper-mining towns on the peninsula are diminished versions of their original size. I pull into the cemetery and find the quiet corner by the old pine tree and see my good friend B. sitting on the her wooden bench. Other Warrior Sisters surround the grave with lawn chairs. Another pulls in behind me with cake from Roy’s.
If you’ve never picnicked in a graveyard, I highly recommend it. Victorian cemeteries were designed to be places to stroll and refresh the living among the dead. This is no Victorian park, but the edge of forest and expanse of gravestones, gardens, and American flags (placed for fallen soldiers) offers a peaceful setting. The expected thunderstorms fizzled, and a spilled gasoline tanker didn’t block our travels.
B. and R. lent me their stories. They are characters in my novel, representations of what it’s like to face Agent Orange as a couple. B. is wearing her red, white, blue and orange shirt with the rhinestone pin R. gave her before he left for Vietnam. R. suffered before realizing he needed to help the suffering of other Vietnam Vets. Yet, he still has no gravestone nearly a year later. Seems the VA is backlogged or something.
We don’t focus on the pain. We pour shots of blackberry brandy (his favorite) and toast his birthday. We eat pizza and sing over candles on his cake. We thumb through the bag of photos B. has and remember R. with stories. We share our recent stories, our frustrations, our encouragements to each other. Four hours pass and we pour coffee on his grave and say goodbye. Again.
Rewind to last Sunday.
Mause sprints off-leash at the Ottawa Sportsman Club. It’s the happy place for my WW (wounded warrior). He set up targets to shoot at 600 yards. No one is here. It’s the middle of nowhere and after four years, I still can’t follow all the twists and turns that lead to this gun range. He calms like we’re in some zen yoga class.
***shout-out to Ruchira Khanna, Author and Reiki Master: he’s been calm ever since she did distance Reiki for him last Monday. Thank you for thinking about him in our situation.***
Then Mause stops. I watch her point a bird and I laugh. Oh, I think, Mause is about to get her life-long wish to chase a robin. It flies and she chases. Instead of flying off, I realize the bird is a killdeer and it circles the big swath of gravel for a pistol range under construction. I point out the chase and my WW panics. He thinks she’ll get run over. We are in the middle-of-nowhere and it’s not Christmas so reindeer are unlikely. Besides, it’s a killdeer and that mama bird will not leave the vicinity of her nest. Mause flies over gravel and keeps pace with a bird.
It’s magnificent! It’s magical. This moment.
Pointer and killdeer, race, uniting earth and sky in a single track. My joy bubbles. My WW cries out my name. “Charli, help me!” The stab of sadness hits my heart. I want nothing more than to help him but I no longer know how to keep us both above water. Despite the drowning sensation of the last year, nothing can prick my joy. I’m fixated on the impossible union unfolding before me. If a dog could fly, Mause is near take-off.
Then the bird shifts course and darts high above my head. I see her ploy. Mause runs into my waiting arms. Captured, she stops. I appear the hero for the day though it was just the magic of the moment. Mause and her flutterby. We retreat to the truck where she listens for the cry of the bird, ignoring the gunfire. I recognize she will be the bird dog he hopes for. Not even squirrels can deter her fixation with things that fly.
Rewind to last Saturday.
By 9:30 pm, the band playing Finnish dancing songs wraps up. They tell us the solstice bonfire is lit. I do not dance with men, women or ghosts. I’m here to track a Tree Wizard. My ears are open to ghost stories, of course but people are celebrating and silly. I catch a tale about young women stripping naked before a well of water to gaze in the reflection to see the faces of their future husbands. I eavesdrop on my elderly Italian friend and watch out for her steps. She’s a hoot, and asks me if I’m always so smiley. I think she, our other friend who is also a Warrior Sister, and I are the only non-blondes present. We are witnessing deep Finnish culture. Their pagan roots run as deep in their devout Apostolic faith.
I’m convinced the snare drummer is the Tree Wizard.
Maybe I am chasing ghosts. Somehow, I can’t forget the haunting dress that hangs in the ghost-house-cum-goat-barn on my daughter’s property. Story goes, the woman who lived there ended her days in a mental hospital. My daughter and her husband estimate the era of her kitchen and abandoned belongings to be between the 1920-30s. Maybe the dress is 1940s. No one living remembers. My SIL had found the last name Hiltunen on an old document. Was that her last name? Married or maiden? Women are hard to track, their past possessed by men.
By sheer chance, I learned about a Tree Wizard who works the local rock shop between Calumet and Ahmeek. His last name is Hiltunen. My imagination ignites. An abandoned house, an insane women, a local Finn who dares to be pagan among a conservative Christian community. In the article — okay, they call him a Forest Wizard — this exchange with the writer fits what is unfolding in my story center:
Hiltunen is a backwoods healer, a Finnish shaman, a forest wizard.
He said he can heal people’s ailments. He said he sees the dead. He said the woods up here are alive with ghosts.
“When I was just a little boy, my grandmother said, ‘Richard, don’t tell nobody. They’ll put you in a cuckoo’s nest. But you have that power to sense things.’ “John Carlisle, Detroit Free Press Columnist
When they introduce the snare drummer, I hear the full name of the Tree Wizard. I’m watching him now as if I spotted a man I’d dance with. I leave my friends. The drummer stands alone. I smile (you know, I’m smiley), and tell this possible mystic and relative of a woman put in the cuckoo’s nest, that I like his music. He’s talented and plays multiple instruments and with other bands I’ve listened too, or solo. Then, I ask. “Are you a tree wizard?”
He quickly says no, then yes. Turns out, he’s not the same Hiltunen who talks to ghosts and heals from the forest. But he tells me he had an aneurysm last year and ever since, he can see auras around trees. He tells me how he has to get outside every day. To witness. He thanks me for recognizing who he was. “Now I have a name for it,” he says. We both smile.
What can I say but that I’m still tracking ghosts? Why do these stories matter? They are spilling into a novel I’m currently exploring. My protagonist complains about her crazy father who thinks he’s a tree wizard. She knows he’s crazy because he’s like his grandmother who the family hauled off. She worries she might have the predisposition and studies science and serves in the Marines. I like this one who has me chasing spirits.
Writers absorb the stories in the moment. Go soak up! In this moment, you might be surprised that I’ve brought back Rainbow the Cat but somehow he wanted to more adventures.
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June 24, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a cat named Rainbow on an outdoor adventure. Rainbow is any cat of any identification. What would draw a cat outside? Go where the prompt leads!
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Rainbow Emerges by Charli Mills
The ribbon of road opened to a clearing where several cabins squatted. Max could separate house, privy, sauna, from woodshed. The house was nominal. No matter. Max had no intention to stay with Jurmo. She wasn’t boarding with a self-proclaimed “tree wizard” or a church zealot. Max rented a distant campsite. She honked, a backwoods courtesy. A door opened and a massive Norwegian Forest Cat emerged with a crown of dried flowers. Her dad followed. “Rainbow, our princess has returned.”
Max fingered the boot blouse she wore on her wrist. Remember, you are a grown researcher and a Marine.