Friday, June 8, 2012

ADRIFT IN THE SOUND -- Novel Excerpt


Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
Chief Seattle - Suqwamish & Duwamish


                               From an 1854 speech


1



“So . . . You’re here.” Einar Karlson spoke to her through the screen door on the back porch. “When did you get out?”


Lizette stood at the bottom of the backstairs and looked up at her father swaying behind the rusted mesh, saw his wariness and stiffened her own guard. She pulled a wad of envelopes from the metal box beside the steps where he’d agreed to put her mail. He put it there so she could pick it up whenever she liked, avoiding him if necessary. She sorted out the county disability checks and dropped them into her lumpy canvas bag then studied the postmark on a mildewed envelope—December 1972. “What’s the date?” she asked, without looking up.


“Come in?” he suggested. “Have some tea?”


Lizette shrugged, continued sorting, mostly junk—art school ads and half-off sales from Christmas. She realized the holidays were over, that she’d missed them, but since her mother died, she hadn’t felt like celebrating anyway.


“It’s February 2,” he said. “I presume you know it’s 1973,” his tone frosty.


She climbed the steps, paused on the narrow porch. The screen door swung out and her father held it open while she hesitated. The wood felt spongy under her feet, softened from years of Seattle rain and a lifetime of entrances and exits.


He took the pipe out of his mouth, cupped the bowl protectively in his hand as she passed. She noticed gray rime on the pipe’s stem, smelled the cherry tobacco on his blue plaid shirt. He smiled a pained welcome. What am I afraid of? she wondered as she moved past him into the kitchen. He’s old and weak. A pang of sorrow popped up in her chest. At least her mother would never be old like him, she thought, and a ripple of comfort passed through her. She also knew she’d never hear her mother laugh again, not that it happened all that often in this nut house. She looked around the kitchen at the sad walls, at the old cuckoo clock, oddly out of place in a house filled with sculpture, paintings and historic Indian artifacts.


The kitchen felt warm, not from cooking, Lizette realized, but from more than twenty-five years of memories that heated the surfaces – the old green Formica kitchen table and vinyl chair seats, the canisters and potholders. Recollections radiated from the cabinets and walls. Clicks and pings, sounds of her childhood, came from the house’s furnace, the heat closing in on her. She watched her father’s bony shoulders work as he ran water into the tea kettle, thought about how big he used to seem, how shriveled he looked now. His shirt hung from his clothes-hanger frame, its fullness overlapped under his cinched belt. He settled in the chair across from her, his presence too close, pressing on her diaphragm, making her pull for air. 


She crossed her arms over her chest and recalled the rumble of his voice when she was a child, sitting on his lap and resting her head against him, hearing the stories, feeling his resonance. Always stories. He told tales of the first people. The Indians who lived here before the explorers came, about Chief Seattle and his people, about the animal spirits who ruled the world. She conjured the energy of the university students who’d gathered in her family’s living room in the evenings, who’d talked earnestly about their theories and research, and she remembered how her father, the famous anthropologist, would listen to their ramblings, amused. They were finding out things he’d known and written about before many of them were born. Her mother would appear at those times like a spirit, offering plates of Swedish cookies, her blonde hair braided and coiled into a crown. Then she’d glide out the kitchen door to her art studio in the back garden.


Lizette remembered sitting cross-legged on the floor beside the couch. He’d bring little treasures out of his study—totems, the two-headed soul catcher that was carved from a bear femur, dance wands, rattles, skin drums with thunderbirds, and finally the chief’s headdress with long ermine pelts attached. He’d always offer to let someone else try on the chief’s headdress, never fitted the elaborate piece to his own head, held it out, acting like an acolyte with ancient sacraments.


Most of all Lizette had waited to see the mask of Watches Underwater. Even after centuries, the colors leaped from the carved cedar, Watcher’s unflinching eyes eternally scanned the upper world for danger, always vigilant and prepared to warn the creatures in the sea below of any threats. The mask’s red puckered lips showed the legend perfectly, she thought, and pictured the beautiful woman floating on her back just below the water’s surface, watching, supping air with those voluptuous lips, eternally watching, and she ached now to put the mask on her own face, but knew her father wouldn’t permit it. “It’s not a toy,” he’d said when she was small and tucked the artifact back into its box. She knew he’d deny her now so she let her desire fade. The tea kettle whistled. Her father went to the cupboard and pulled down two mugs.


“What kind of tea?” he asked.


“Uh . . . orange spice,” Lizette said, looking at the blue and white plate above the sink with her name written around the rim: Elizabeth Lena Karlson—April 10, 1947. Her nursery totem. Her middle name, her mother’s name, Lena, grabbed at her from the Delft ceramic. The plate had hung there for more than a quarter century, she thought, an artifact from her birth displayed like it had been dug from an ancient midden, a Swedish custom that announced her presence to those who ventured into her parent’s kitchen. She remembered that when she was small her father had called her “Little Liz,” sometimes “Liz Bit,” eventually transforming her name playfully to Lizette. After that everyone called her Lizette—teachers, neighbors, playmates, and the clerk at the art supply store where her mother had worked and sometimes taught painting classes in the back room.


The store manager had framed some of Lizette’s paintings and hung them behind the work table where the clerks made picture frames. A couple of them sold, and her mother took her for ice cream, told her she’d put the sale money in Lizette’s college account at the bank, that she was going to the Pratt Art Institute in Chicago or the Sorbonne in Paris and she’d grow up to be a famous artist, if she studied and developed her own technique, if—her mother added in an acid tone—she’d stop copying others. Lizette had asked for a double scoop of pistachio and felt she’d somehow done something good and wrong at the same time. Her mother ordered plain vanilla and they sat on wire chairs at a small table, silent, licking their cones.


Pfeffernüsse?”


She snatched herself back and watched her father reach for a blue tin on top of the refrigerator. He popped the lid and took out a handful of cookies, dropped them on a plate. Lizette picked up a cookie, pecked at the edge, set it down, scattered powdered sugar dust on the table.


“Where will you stay?” Einar said, sitting down and reaching a veiny hand toward her. Lizette did not reach back. She sensed he wanted to say something, but instead of speaking to her truthfully, she watched him shift away, felt his dodge. “Have you made plans?”


Lizette doubted his interest. “I’ll be on Orcas Island, at Marian’s,” she said flatly. “She has the ranch now, since her father died.”


She looked up and saw a stunned expression. He didn’t know Hal Cutler had died, she thought, and realized how isolated he’d become in the years since her mother died, his life narrowed to an occasional faculty meeting, TV at night, maybe an ambitious graduate student between the sheets once in a great while.


“He’s been gone over a year, I think. You know the cabin by the water, below the main house?” He nodded. “That’s where I stay. Marian said it’s mine as long as I want.”


“That old shepherd’s shack?” She heard the judgment in his voice, winced. He tried again. “Good spot. Not the best light, though. Kind of rough. No running water or electricity. But, I guess it’s better than hanging around downtown.”


“It’ll do.” She felt the disapproval in his voice, almost added that it was none of his business what she did, decided to avoid an argument, studied her ragged fingernails, switched tempo.


“Spring’s coming and the sun will move higher,” she said. “A lot of my things are stored out there, some canvases I’ve been working on and I can help out around the ranch.”


“Will you see Poland and Abaya?”


She nodded and fluttered her fingers impatiently in her lap at the obvious question about the ranch’s foreman and his wife. “I saw Raven downtown,” she said. “Down by Skid Row.”


“Who?”


“Their son. Raven. . . . The youngest one. The one who used to hunt. He was in Vietnam.” She didn’t add that he’d joined the American Indian Movement and was on his way to South Dakota to help the Lakota take over the town of Wounded Knee.


“I remember him,” Einar said. “The trickster. A natural born hunter, that kid. Nearly broke Abaya’s heart when he ran off and joined the Army. She tried not to let on, partly it was her own reaction, she’d already lost a couple of boys, but also it’s part of the Lummi culture. To not grieve openly, I mean. It goes against tribal tradition.” He said this last part offhandedly, as if he’d been half listening.


She checked the clock, saw the torture of sitting there with him had gone on twenty minutes. She marked the relentless tick-tock, tick-tock by keeping time with her foot.  For a while Einar joined Lizette in staring out the window at the rain, sipped his tea.


Eventually, he said, “I wish I had time to get out there, walk on the island, fish. I always feel restored after being there. Poland’s a good man. We used to do a lot of hunting together.”


He’s telling me this like it’s news and I’m a stranger, she thought impatiently, wondering if he was losing it, going senile.


“He knows the land. Will you give everyone my regards?”


She wasn’t sure she’d even mention him. He took the empty mugs to the sink and rinsed them, splashing water on the counter top, not bothering to wipe it up as her mother would have done.


“Why don’t you go up to Orcas yourself?” she said on impulse, then regretted it, couldn’t stop  herself, added:  “It’s only a hundred miles from here. Give them your own regards. Don’t you still have the land out on the point that you and Mom bought for when you retire?”


“Do you want some of your mother’s art supplies?” He turned from the sink with a pained expression. “You can have what you want from the studio. I can’t stand going out there. It’s like a dig where the village was wiped out by smallpox, everything broken in midstream, lost.”


“Maybe a palette knife.” She glanced around the kitchen, looking for something to take from there, a meaningful object worth carrying, saw nothing. Her father sat at the table again and she stood, looked down on him. “I’ve been mixing my own colors using roots and leaves and metal filings to make pigments, working encaustic with beeswax. I have a big canvas I’m painting and sculpting at the same time, layering it on. I have to get back to the ranch, see if the colors held.”


The talk of paint and canvas reassured Einar, who’d spent his adult life talking with his wife about the mundane details of art—mixing paints, stretching canvas, choosing frames, making crates for shipping finished work to galleries and shows, packing canvases up when the shows ended.


“You’re mother worried about that, too.”


His wistful tone brought back the stories her mother told her about going to New York for art openings, about how much she loved the city, the excitement over her first big sale to an important upstate collector. That was a magical night, her mother had said, colored lights flashing over the sidewalk throngs, the cab ride to their hotel, holding hands, kissing her father in the backseat like people in a movie. This last bit had embarrassed her as a teenager, an age when she’d tried not to think about her parents as boyfriend and girlfriend. She’d never seen the affection at home.


Einar looked at his daughter, saw his wife in the shape of her jaw, in the expression around her eyes, the long blonde hair carelessly braided and draped over her shoulder, and then the resemblance flickered. Lizette emerged as herself, troubled and unpredictable, but he felt she’d be all right if she kept working. He’d grown used to her showing up at odd times and then she’d be gone for long periods. He knew she hung around downtown, that she lived on the city’s streets. He suspected she did drugs.


“What happened this time?” Einar tried to keep his face blank, voice flat. “How long did they keep you?”


The heartbreak of her condition had scabbed over years ago. Now he accepted that she would live her life as she could, coming to see him when needed, a lost soul wandering aimlessly. He’d stopped giving her money or urging her to go upstairs to her bedroom to sleep. He stopped loving her unconditionally and guarded his heart. He only hoped she’d keep painting, for therapeutic reasons, if nothing else. He hated to think of her locked up in some mental hospital. She’d become like a savant, he thought, and felt ashamed, saw a beautiful gift going to waste.


“I got attacked by a dog under the freeway and freaked out, that’s all,” she said softly, sat down at the table again, checked the clock. No way could she tell him the truth.


“I was crashing there with friends,” she lied. “Camping out for a few days. They kept me a while to stabilize, adjusted my medication.”


Which I don’t take anyway, she thought, but didn’t say it because she didn’t want to get into it with him. Instead, she said, “I want to see Watches Underwater.”


Her father twisted in his chair, raked his thinning ash-colored hair, said he didn’t recall where it was stored.


“You know where she is.” She said it like an accusation and stared into the dining room, toward his study in the front of the house, pictured the closet where he kept his artifacts.


He followed her glance, finally said, “Not now.”


“How did you get it?” She studied his face, looked for flinching lies around his watery eyes.


“What do you mean?”


“It’s not yours. You took it.”


“I got it years ago. I’ve taken care of that mask and everything else all this time. I could’ve sold it, gotten a lot more than I paid. I know the history. And, I know dealers who’d buy it, but it has been safe here. What are you suggesting?”


“Everyone knows what you did. Raven told me. We’ve talked.”


“What do you mean?” Her father pulled back from her, dismay creasing his face.


“I’ve seen all the stuff, Dad. Spirit drums, carvings, masks, breast plates. It belongs to the Lummi people.” She scowled at him. “You took advantage and you know it. Raven calls it grave robbing, even if you try and say it’s archeology.”


She saw she’d hurt his feelings, and reached out to pat his boney arm, but he jerked away.


“Get out of my house.” The sound came like a growl from a disturbed animal, warning her.


Lizette jumped up and checked the clock, grabbed her bag from under the table.


“I’ll get a palette knife from the studio and go,” she said defiantly to his bowed head. In a few minutes the clock would make its mechanical noise and she wanted to be gone before it sounded its mocking accusations. “I have to catch the afternoon ferry out to Orcas.” She gathered her bag and bolted out the back door. “I’m late.”


The cuckoo sounded as she fled across the grass to the studio that squatted under a low roof, weighed by encroaching vines and tree limbs. Two big windows stared into the tangled garden, watching the house through rain-streaked eyes. The air inside was stiff from lack of use. She pursed her lips to suck air like the woman of the mask, skimming under the water’s murky surface, alert to trouble.


Tools lay scattered on the work bench, as if her mother would arrive soon and put them in order, prepare them for work. She picked up a worn palette knife, its blade nicked, the wooden handle spattered with paint. Turning it over, looking closely, she felt her mother’s fingers in her hand. Dropping it into her canvas bag, she noticed a small, framed photograph in the corner of the workbench, behind a wadded rag. It was her, dressed in a white, gauzy robe with a crown of burning candles on her head.


St. Lucia, the light queen, she thought and remembered the night the photo was taken, the smell of warm candle wax, the hush of the Swedish Lutheran church when she entered, gliding down the center aisle. Her parents sat in the pew near the front. The choir singing, filling the spaces of the darkened sanctuary with sound bubbles lifting into the ceiling timbers, popping against the jeweled surfaces of the stained glass windows, the music buoying her as she alone walked to the altar.


In that moment long ago, Lizette gave up the hard edges of her will and yielded to the sacred energy that ebbed and flowed around and through her. She surrendered her boundaries to the spirits, to the sounds. That night she had her first menstrual period and knew she’d grown up. From then on, when life pushed on the edges of her being, she exited from the pressure like music exhaled, submerging, releasing into the depths of her being, rising, always wary. Watching.


She dropped the photo into her bag and left by the side yard. She sensed him spying and looked up at the dining room window, caught a glimpse of his blue plaid shirt through the glass before he pulled back. She hurried down the narrow path beside the house and into the rain-slicked street, feeling like a grave robber.


Adrift in the Sound, a novel set in Seattle and the San Juan Islands of Washington State in 1973, will be published in coming weeks and be available for purchase online in trade paperback and e-reader formats. Look for announcement of the book's release date on this site.


Reader feedback is encouraged. Please leave comments in the box below or send an e-mail to me directly at kcamp300@yahoo.com. Thanks for that!