I thought I would keep writing about process and tools for the rest of the week, but once I let my character’s speak, the draft consumed. It’s long and could be much longer. I see this idea like a House of Sand and Fog meets child services and the now of crazy, but it’s just a tiny draft of a story that I will need to find a pearl in if I will get it down to 1,000 words next week. Some strange and unexpected things happened during the draft and I look forward to hearing what people think. This is a very rough draft. Please keep that in mind. Here it is:
The Bear’s Breeches Smell Slightly Sweet As They Rot (first draft)
I had never seen a man’s face change so quickly. When he finally opened the door, only wide enough to step one foot over the threshold, completely blocking our view inside, the turquoise hills reflected in his bright eyes and the morning sun glistened playfully on his lips. He was still laughing at something his son had said. I could smell fresh herbs and fried oil. I imagined his son at a small roughly-hewn table, his small hand still not completely in command of the fork, dropping bits of wilted greens and chips of roots and bark as he tried to shovel them to his mouth inside that one gray room.
The man stopped laughing when he saw Josette with her clipboard held like a shield, large soft-sided briefcase on a long strap slung across her chest. Then he saw me and the sun on his face was blocked by cloud-shadow, darkening with a raging storm.
“You he said,” pointing a grimy finger at me. “I thought I told you to stay off my land. What are you doing back here? These are not the herbs you’re looking for,” he said making an odd gesture with his hand. Then, he slammed the door.
I could hear him banging pots and talking softly with his son.
“Who is it, Daddy?”
“Just that rude trespasser from the other day. Let’s tidy up. Then we’ll go play outside.”
Josette turned and looked up at me. She scowled. “Rude trespasser?”
I must have flushed. I wasn’t feeling as sure of myself as I had been last week when I called her office. “I t-told you,” I stammered. “I discovered the situation while I was out collecting herbs for my shop. I didn’t know anyone was living here. I was quite surprised.”
Josette had a way of sounding very condescending without even saying a word. “No, really. I saw those white flowers from the trail, back there.” I turned and pointed, but Josette didn’t turn. “Anyway, they are actually a flat blade fern, acanthis mollus, people call it bear’s breeches. It has medicinal properties. The trees over there, green ash, you can make a tea from the leaves that are also medicinal.”
“Yeah, what do you cure with these ‘medicines’?”
I got the feeling Josette was mad at me. Something had changed since we had a nice coffee in town this morning. “Me? I’m not a physician. But my remedies do help with all sorts of aches and pains, fatigue, swelling, infections. Lots of things.”
“Right. Well, now I have a job to do.”
Josette had appeared plenty glad she had brought me along when I showed her the tiny dirt road her small SUV bumped and swerved along, windows slapped by brush and branches. “How far out here is this place?” she had said. She seemed delighted when I pointed out a good shady spot to leave the car where it wouldn’t be seen. “Wow, this place is even more wild than I imagined,” she said, “How can someone live out here?” She also acted quite pleased when I directed her past the red shutters–paint peeling, and seeping into the once lemon-yellow walls along with the black sill paint, running along the mold and moss covered walls creating deep orange hues as well as if that hole meant for seeing out had become a festering sore of blood and rot—around the short side of the small rectangle to the steep side with the view of the turquoise mountains and the small, wood-slat door, its gapes showing a tapestry or old carpet hanging behind it. “This is no place for a child. You were right to call me,” she said. But now, since she saw the man and heard the child, I got the distinct feeling she wished she hadn’t brought me along.
She balled her wide, dark hand and hammered the fragile blockade, but it barely made any noise as it was not secured firmly and did not resist her touch.
“What?” the man yelled like an axe hitting a tree trunk.
Josette used a voice I hadn’t heard before, deeper, very formal, calm. “Mr. Palmberg? Mr. Eugene Palmberg? My name is Josette Luckman. I’m here on official business from child protective services. I am here to evaluate this dwelling for the safety of your child. Could I please come in?”
“Are you kidding me, lady? You sicked social services on me? You were trespassing. Of course I got mad. What the hell?” Eugene’s voice had changed as well. His was higher, tight like a rubber-band pulled to its limit.
I started to say I only want what’s best for the child, but Josette raised her creamy, deeply-lined palm in front of my face.
“Mr. Palmberg, it will be best for everyone if you take a deep breath and open the door.”
My pulse began racing. She had some brass telling that man to take a breath. I half expected him to roar out of there with a raised axe, or to just poke the barrel of a shotgun through one of the gaps in the door. The curse of a vivid imagination, I jumped an inch off the dirt when I heard him undo the latch.
He pulled the door in slowly. The worn carpet draped over the top of the wood creating a canopy over the dew on Josette’s bald head. I had to duck into the dark room. I reached out to the wall to steady myself, cool and clammy like entering a cave. I couldn’t see anything, but heard scratching, scuttling, clawing sounds. I imagined a bear or a mountain lion at the back of this cave. Suddenly, I saw a square of light on the floor in front of me and lines and shapes grew out of the darkness.
“That’s Horace,” he was saying. He’s a sweet, old things. Not much of a hunter or guard dog, apparently, but Ely adores him.”
He had opened the shutters letting lots of light into the room and the sound I had heard was a dog, just a dog. Josette was seated on a cute carved settee with pumpernickel and coffee striped upholstery. Somehow she already had a cup of tea in what looked like a toile china pattern.
“Alyssum, are you okay?” she said. “You look faint. Come sit down.”
“Alyssum? Hi, I’m Eugene. We’ve never properly met. Can I get you some water? It’s stream water, I boil it and let it cool. It’s really tasty. Or I have green ash tea. That should make you feel better.”
The man suddenly sounded like some sort of gentleman out of the historical fictions I like to read. Okay, I wasn’t thinking historical fiction, I was thinking about the romance novel and noticed how tanned and muscular his arms were.
“Yeah, Alyssum Grabner. Nice to meet you. Uh, tea. Thank you,” I said. I don’t know why I thought to tell him my last name, like he would know my family or people I knew, like somehow that explained me; I guess I wanted to sound professional too. I sat heavily next to Josette.
This whole trip I hadn’t noticed how nice Josette smelled, like baby powder and jasmine, fresh like lemongrass but with the lovely calming sweetness of orange blossoms. You would think, with my nose for herbs, I would have noticed it right away, but coffee is pungent and then I was so focused on getting here and making sure the man got what he deserved for being so ferocious and mean, I mean making sure the boy was safe.
He handed me a lovely tea cup. I admired the indigo images of children fishing and playing on white, white china background. It looked so ordered, so clean and somehow, by some twisted juxtaposition of fate and devastation, it was here, at home here in this hovel. I looked up. He was watching me, seated across from me. He didn’t look angry; he looked sad, searching.
“Eugene was just telling me about all the work he’s been doing on his grandfather’s property, since his bitter divorce,” said Josette as if revealing a truth I should have already known. “His wife was wealthy. He signed a pre-nup. She ran off with an even richer lover who didn’t want his son. This is all he has left.”
The dog put its head in my crotch. It made me think of how I smelled when I was sweaty, and made me incredibly uncomfortable when Eugene smiled.
“He likes you,” he said.
I tried to make it look like I was petting him as I pushed him toward Josette. “Nice doggy,” I said.
Josette, legs closed, pet Horace who pushed me aside to place his head on her thigh. I sat pinched against the arm of the chair as she said, “I wish this had never happened, but since this situation was brought to my attention and paperwork has been filed, I’m afraid you’re in the system. I’ll make sure I’m assigned to your case for all future visits and we’ll make sure to check all the boxes as we go. As long as you keep up improvements and Ely stays healthy and happy, enrolls in school and gets regular check-ups—I’ll make sure you have all the lists of expectations—
“But,” Eugene tried to interject.
“And we’ll be contacting all of your character references and other living relatives—”
“I’m sure there won’t be any problems, as long as you can prove that you can provide a stable home, which—”
“Josette, stop. I don’t want to be in the system. I don’t want to be checked on and mandated and commanded and timetabled. Can’t you see that Ely and I are finally making our own system that works. I thought I would home school him for a while, let him learn from nature, from the land, have a more traditional upbringing.”
I didn’t think Josette could turn red, but she definitely flushed. “Traditional? You think living away from everyone but you and having to eat weeds and bark is his tradition?”
“Bark? I mean—”
Josette jumped off the settee, startling the dog and me. The dog ran over to Eugene who had pushed back in his chair. I got up and took my tea cup to the plastic basin that served as a sink and watched from a still uncomfortable distance. Her voice had changed again, higher, faster; I could see her diaphragm pumping. Her words clicked against her teeth making me wonder if she had a tongue ring like my girlfriend in college, making we wonder about her in a way I hadn’t before.
“You mean? What could you mean? You go from mansion to hut and suddenly you are Native American? You’re a share cropper? Or are you, Jesus help me, trying to relate to my traditions? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
I felt sick. I watched Josette’s chest heaving and the shock on that man’s face and I felt the smallest, the most worthless I had ever felt. How did my good intentions turn so ugly. I had heard that saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I thought that was only for corrupt politicians, not me, not these good intentioned people.
“Uh, Josette, I think I made a mistake,” I said as calmly as I could. “I judged this man and his situation mostly on the paint on his house and the nature of his land. That’s my fault. He’s not causing any harm and his son is healthy and happy. You said so yourself. Let’s go.”
Josette turned on me, a rage in her eyes. “This is my job. You know what it took me to get to where I am? I have too much to prove to let you yellow and turn me into a failure. You started this, but it is so far from your hands now, you will never see it end. “
She spun back on Eugene. “You are now, and will always be under my thumb. I’ll teach you tradition. Your tradition is reporting to me. Your tradition is having supervised visits. Your tradition is visiting your lawyer. Your—”
“Stop it! Leave my daddy alone! You sound just like Mommy.”
The tiny body in the doorway cast a shadow across Josette’s face. I had wondered where he was. How did he get outside? I wondered if he crawled out the window when the shutters opened, or if there was another entrance to his cave. Josette used a new voice. This woman had many voices. I thought about the time my mom told me I had many voices when I talked to her. It scared me, like I might not be who I thought I was. Josette’s new voice was strangely sweet, subtle, but with an undertone of rot like the bear’s breeches outside.
“Hello, you must be Ely,” she said. “Nice to meet you. I was just having a nice conversation with your dad about how happy you are here. Are you happy here?”
Ely stomped his foot. “You’re a liar. I don’t like liars. Quit lying to me. Dad tells me the truth. He didn’t choose this, but he loves me. Go away!” Ely turned around and ran back outside.
Josette whirled back on Eugene. “There. Do you see what your idea of tradition has done to that child?”
Eugene took a big breath and smiled. His voice changed. It was deeper. It resonated. It was warm and full. “Yes. He’s so beautiful. We had to go through a lot of rejection and neglect to get where we are. Part of that beautiful boy had to grow up quickly facing the hurt his own mother poured on us, but that little brilliant soul is finding peace here and is going to get to be a kid. He’s going to play and feel loved and appreciated and protected.”
He turned, stepped toward me and I backed toward the door. He opened his palms to me. “Don’t be scared. I’m not mad. I want to thank you. I was so frustrated and full of anger, I took it out on the first person I thought had crossed a boundary, but I get the whole “forgive me my tresspasses thing.” I want to forgive you. You helped me see how important making this a home is for me and Ely. I was so involved with my own hurt, I stopped believing I could trust anyone to help us, but I had blinders on. So thank you.
Josette was on me. She pushed my shoulder. “We’re leaving.” She pushed me out the door.
I couldn’t stop staring at him. He had such a peaceful look on his face. I wish I had understood.