Under the eaves, in the children’s room, Lyra sat in the rocking chair with Toby in her arms. A soft gust of wind blew in through the open window, carrying with it the sweet urgency of springtime. Lyra lifted her head, shaken by sudden yearning. For a moment she held her breath, looking out into the evening sky, then sighed and bent her head again. Toby was almost asleep. She rocked him, cherishing his warm weight in her arms, feeling him soften and grow heavier as sleep came. Katy sat on the floor at her feet, quietly doing puzzles, waiting her turn for bedtime rituals.
It had been a hard evening for Lyra. She had been kneeling in the warm earth, singing softly, planting petunia seedlings in the garden by the back porch, when Michael drove into the driveway.
“Hi, honey,” he said as he came up to her and rumpled her hair. “What are you doing in the garden? It’s almost six o’clock.”
“Oh!” Lyra stood up quickly and hurriedly gathered up her tools. “I lost track of time. I’m sorry. I’ll get dinner started right away.”
“Don’t be too long,” he said as he went up the back porch steps. “It’s late. I’m hungry.”
Of course, since she was hurrying, everything went wrong. The children were hungry, too, and needed snacks. It was almost seven when they sat down to dinner. As soon as blessing was over, Michael said, “This is really too late for dinner. I want you to pay better attention to time in the future.” During the meal, he scolded Toby for spilling a few peas off his plate, after which both children became tense and quiet. When dinner was over, Lyra asked him to play with the children while she cleaned up the kitchen. They went out into the backyard to play ball. She heard Michael’s voice through the open door, raised in frustration.
“Just catch it, Toby. I threw it right to you. Throw it to me. No! To me, not all over the yard. Would you get it, Katy? Okay, Toby. Now. Pay attention. Catch it. No! You dropped it again. You’ll never be able to play ball if you don’t pay attention better.”
There were howls from Toby. Lyra stepped out onto the back porch, and Toby came running to her. She picked him up, and he clung around her neck, sobbing into her shoulder. Michael bounded up the steps, whacking the ball back and forth between his hands, and stood over her.
“What’s wrong with him? Why’s he crying like that?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him.” Lyra held Toby close and smoothed his back. His crying was loud in her ear. Katy stood at the bottom of the porch steps, looking up anxiously.
Michael whacked the ball again. “You spoil him. He shouldn’t cry like that over every little thing.”
As usual, Lyra became paralyzed by Michael’s anger. Inside, a voice of protest rose up. I don’t spoil him. It’s you. You put him down. He’s only three. He’s not supposed to be able to catch a ball yet. But she could not hear the voice, just feel its pressure, as against a wall, and the headache that ensued. So she said only, “It’s his bedtime now,” then turned and went into the house, comforting Toby as she carried him upstairs. Katy stayed with Michael for a little while, longing for his attention as she always did, but soon followed Lyra upstairs when Michael went into his study.
Now Toby had dropped into deep sleep. Lyra held him a little longer. Only at bedtime did he let her cuddle him; the rest of the time he was too busy running, climbing, exploring. She tightened her arms around him as she remembered how Michael had scolded him, laid her cheek for a moment against his soft, fair hair. Then she got up and lowered him gently into his crib.
Katy tugged at her hand.
“What story would you like tonight?” Lyra asked her.
“Fairy tales,” Katy answered eagerly.
From the bookcase under the window, Lyra pulled out the big, battered book of fairy tales, with vivid full-page illustrations, that had been hers when she was a child. Gathering Katy into her lap, she settled into the rocking chair again, opened the book, and read.
Later she went down to the untidy kitchen. She stood a moment, looking wearily at the pile of dirty dishes by the sink, the crusted pans on the stove, then turned to where her apron hung on a hook beside the wall calendar. Her apron in her hands, her eyes dull, she stared at the calendar. It showed a typical Midwestern scene—the sun setting behind a leaning red barn and a few windswept trees at the edge of a wide field, like those that surrounded the city. Under the picture, it said, “MAY 1967.”
1967! she thought. I’m almost twenty-five. How did I get so old? I never thought I’d end up like this. She tightened her lips to press back her tears, slipped the apron over her head and turned to the sink.
When the kitchen was clean, the last pan stacked on the drainer, she hung up her apron and went to the door of Michael’s study. He was focused on the book he was reading. She paused in the doorway, looking at him. The lamplight shone down on the elegant lines of his profile, his dark, wavy hair, one unruly lock falling forward over his brow, his long, fine hands holding the book. She cleared her throat.
“How was your day?”
“Fine.” Back to the book. Lyra waited a moment. No further contact. She sighed and moved away from the door.
She was restless, angry, but she could not feel the anger, only the pressure, the headache. Tears came up. She paced the living room a few times, then wandered into the dining room where the record player was. There was a new record that had come that day from the record club they belonged to, Handel’s flute sonatas with harp accompaniment. Flute sonatas. Maybe they will ease me, she thought. She put the record on, and lay down on the floor to listen. With the first bars of the music, she dropped into a trance, a fantasy, as she often did listening to music. Only this time, the trance was more vivid and compelling than usual.
The flute floated like the wind in the trees, the harp rippled like water, and Lyra was transported into a magical forest like those pictured in her fairy tale book. The trees were huge and old, some festooned with hanging moss, the grass underneath a smooth carpet adorned with bright flowers. A sparkling stream ran through. Carried on the beauty of the music, she danced there. Strange, beautiful figures emerged from the trees and danced with her. Almost human they seemed, yet not, with leafy hair, deep eyes, and long branchy limbs. They joined her in a circle, which flowed in and out, wove and spun until it lifted off the ground. They let go hands then and floated freely among the branches of the trees. Lyra, too, was airborne, drifting among the tree tops, lost in ecstasy.
Suddenly the beautiful figures merged back into the trees, and she stood on the earth again, alone in the forest, hearing the scritch-scritch of the record player needle sliding back and forth in the center of the record.
Lyra opened her eyes to find herself back in the dining room. She got up to lift the needle off the record, and looked around, disoriented, then grief-stricken at the loss of her beautiful companions, her vision. It seemed impossible that she was in this box with four walls and a ceiling, carpet, not grass, under her feet. It’s ugly, she thought, ugly. All these square corners, these angles. She ran through the kitchen and opened the door onto the back porch. The spring evening was sweet, fragrant. The merest sliver of a new moon hung in the west, just about to set in the soft twilight.
She returned to Michael’s study. “The children are asleep. I’m going for a little walk.”
“Okay.” He did not even look up.
She pulled a sweatshirt from the hall closet and ran from the house, battered by headache, confusion, tears, still wrenched by the loss of her dancing vision. Ugly, ugly, her soul cried as she ran down the street. Square box houses, angular sidewalks, straight streets. How can humans make it so ugly? Her inner world was turmoil. Too many voices. The angry one that she must not hear; the repressive one telling her she should stay home and be a good wife and mother; the one telling her she must run, run or her spirit would be smothered. Sexual tension, always with her from her frequent and unsuccessful contacts with Michael, roiled in her loins. The deep aching for love and nurturing, with her since birth, felt unbearable.
A few blocks away there was a little wood. As the neighborhood had developed, somehow that one bit of woodland had survived. It was only a square mile or so, but had a shallow stream running through it and a single path meandering among the trees. It had long been a refuge for Lyra. Many of the trees were big and old, and she found peace under their branches. She went there when she could get away, and sometimes took the children for picnics. You could walk right through and come to houses on the other side. She almost never saw anyone else there.
Lyra came to the wood. The trees were still and mysterious in the twilight. She took the familiar path, slowing as the peace of the trees touched her. Those were dryads, she thought, tree spirits, that came out of the trees and danced with me. At a turn in the path, a big willow stretched its root across the way. Still lost in her fantasy, she tripped over it. Her open sandal was no protection, and she stubbed her toe hard, stumbled, and fell to her hands and knees.
“Ow!” she cried. She sat, holding the injured toe in her hands, and started weeping. Stop it, she told herself. It doesn’t hurt that much. But it isn’t the toe, it’s . . . it’s everything. Her mind fogged with the “everything,” and the headache intensified. She rocked back and forth, sobbing, with her foot in her hands. After a while, she lifted her head. The long branches of the weeping willow, tender with new buds, hung like a curtain beside her, almost touching the ground. Looking through them, she saw an opening in the thick undergrowth. She caught her breath in surprise, and her sobs ceased.
A path! I never noticed that before! I wonder where it goes.
She got up, parted the curtain of willow branches, and stepped onto the path. It was springy with short green grass and wound through the trees and bushes into the dimness of the evening woods. Alert with a strange excitement and anticipation, she followed the path deeper into the wood. She walked on quite a way, thought she should soon come to the other side of the wood and see houses, but she did not. Instead, the path came to a clearing. The light was brighter there, out of the shadow of the trees. The stream, deeper and wider than in other parts of the wood, curved around a small glade. Next to the stream stood a huge oak tree, its trunk too big for her to encircle with her arms, its new bronze-gold leaves unfurling into the spring twilight. Beneath it was a soft bed of fallen leaves, the richness of many turning seasons. New green grass filled the rest of the clearing.
Lyra stilled, standing at the edge of the clearing, absorbing quietness, the smell of creek, grass, leaf mold. Her breath, still a little rapid from her upset, began to slow. She let out a long, ragged sigh and pressed her hand to her heart.
“What is this place?” she whispered. “It’s beautiful! It feels like my vision!” She drew in her breath, looking around, taking in more details. “The tree, it’s an oak, like the druids worshiped.” Her quick, vivid imagination, steeped from childhood in fairy tales and druidic lore, awakened. “What is this place?” she asked again. “I’ve been everywhere in this wood, but never come here. How can that be?”
In impulsive reverence, she slipped off her sandals and walked barefoot across the coolness of the grass, the warmer texture of the leaf mold, to stand by the tree. She touched its great trunk, then leaned her cheek against it. Peace flowed into her. She drew in a long breath, inhaling the dusky scent of the bark, feeling almost shaky as her tense muscles softened. Still keeping her fingers in touch with the tree trunk, she sat down by the stream and put her feet in.
Cool, but not cold, the water swirled around her feet. Its gentle movement, accompanied by its low gurgling song, drew the tension out of her. The voices, the walls, the fog began to dissolve until the deepest level surfaced, the abyss, the anguish of unmothered longing. She began to cry again. She drew her feet out of the stream and curled her body around the trunk of the great oak, her brown curls scattered in the fallen leaves.
She sobbed a long time. After a while, she felt the softest breeze caress her tear-wet face, though all the wood around was still. The wonder of that quieted her. She rolled over on her back, and, looking up into the layers of wide-spreading branches, saw the stars, bright now as twilight deepened, shining through the spaces between.
“They’re like jewels in your hair,” she whispered to the tree.
She lay resting, her limbs loosened, sinking into the deep bed of leaves, soft beneath her, gradually absorbing a peace she had never known before. The voices were quiet. She sighed a long breath.
Then she remembered Michael not even looking up from his book when she’d said she was going out, and a new pang of grief swept through her.
How can it be that way between us? she mourned. How? It was so passionate at first. We were so close. He loved me. And now! Now he only wants me to keep the house and take care of the children, do my marital duty when he wants it—and no matter how hard I try, what I do is never good enough, especially the sex. It goes all wrong. I don’t know how to make it better.
Lyra was crying again, headache, fog engulfing her. She rubbed her head, reached out to the tree and curled around it once more. If only I could dance again, it would be better, or play my flute. If only Michael loved me like he used to.
A huge wave of grief swelled up. She pressed her body harder against the tree. “I’ve lost everything . . . everything,” she sobbed.
The leaves of the oak tree stirred. A soft wind moved through her hair, touched her face, and with it such a sense of solace that she uncurled and lay on her back again, looking up into branches and stars.
“What can I do?” she whispered to the tree, resting her hand on the trunk. “What can I do?” Peace poured from the tree into her hand and body.
“Oh, tree,” she murmured, “you comfort me.” Her fingers traced the edges of the bark. Her other hand closed around something smooth and hard in the leaves beside her. In the starlight, she saw that she held an acorn. She turned it in her hand for a moment, then let it fall back into the leaves. Night deepened and the stars shone brighter. The creek sang. She turned her cheek against the tree trunk. Her eyes closed. She opened them to look up into leaves, branches, and stars, closed them again, and slept.