tiny home

Josie looked around at the giant house one last time: the vast emptiness, the sloping walls meeting the sprawling floors, the cathedral tiled tub scrubbed as shiny as ever, the multiple pockets of closets where things had crouched hidden for years—now flung open, naked and wanting. She was ready: to say goodbye, to close the multiple doors, to run as fast as she could from this wide domestic spread and its wider clutches.

She had a ticket. She felt it in her pocket. Its bulky presence reminded her that she had somewhere to be, something important to do. She couldn’t miss her train. She couldn’t let the people on the train down. They were counting on her. The whole world was counting on her.

In one hand she carried an argyle suitcase, and in the other a worn leather briefcase. On her back was the remainder of her belongings, stuffed into the Jansport backpack she had carried all through high school. Everything else she had ever owned was gone—sold, thrown away, given away, left behind, scattered to the wind.

She felt lighter as she walked away from the cab toward the platform. She felt so light she imagined dropping her remaining possessions to the ground, lifting up off the concrete slab—toes pointed, arms outstretched, face tilted toward the sun as she rose above the crowds watching her ascent.

The train whistle cut through her thoughts as people scurried around her. She felt her feet touch down, and she told them to move forward toward the open door. It was a narrow door, and she turned sideways as she struggled to squeeze her bags through. Where was the conductor to take her ticket? To help her with her bags? To give her a gaze of quiet assurance? Was this even the right train?

She followed the line of travelers down the aisle. They seemed to move with confidence. They seemed to believe. Really, they were just competing for an empty window seat. She finally found one near the rear of the car. She laid her luggage on the aisle seat for a moment, catching her breath before lifting the heavy suitcase up onto the shelf above.

She had not been able to part with her favorite books. They were more important than clothes. She had kept only three changes of clothes, two pairs of shoes (one of which she was wearing—her trusty hiking boots), a blanket, a small pillow, her father’s checkered necktie, a few worn undergarments, and her grandmother’s pink silk scarf. It was the only pink thing she owned. The rest of the trunk was filled with Jane Austen, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Atwood, Paulo Coelho. There were many more, but it had been difficult to choose. She would have rather gone with just the clothes on her back and carried only books. But she noticed that the fewer belongings she had, the more attention she was able to give each one—like dear children important in their own eternal way. While packing she had talked to each one, tucking it in tightly to its tiny assigned space: Don’t worry, you are safe, you are not alone. It was important to say these things out loud.

At the next platform she would board a larger train with a small compartment all her own. Here she would live for the next few months, transverse the states while writing, watching out the wide windows, waiting for a sign. Inside, within the four small stationary walls, she would find and welcome home all the selves that had wandered away over time and become lost within a fractured body, a fragmented memory, a starving marriage, an immoveable mansion. Josie closed her eyes and let the lull of the train put her into a deep sleep.

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“I’m in trouble.”

She woke with these words in her mind, almost on her tongue. She wasn’t sure if the words were spawned by her feeling of despair upon facing another day with the chronic aches and pains (some inhabiting her body, and others visiting from an unknown place) and still no answers—or if they had been triggered by the random patchwork of dreams from the night: her wedding to an old love, her pregnancy by an ex-husband, her strange reunion with an old friend.

At least she was human in these dreams. And, lately, sometimes Kevin Arnold. She smirked at this, at the knowledge of the television world seeping into her reality—of her growing dependence on nostalgic shows to help escape from what felt like a dying garden. There was still beauty—all around—and some soil, and some water, and a little cold sun, and a few people wandering about; but there was also the nagging feeling of death, of things being slowly starved and shriveled, of other things sprouting oddities and twisting off in the wrong direction.

Lee often tried to be optimistic. Not quite cheerful (that emotion typically surfaced only when buzzed or caught up in a love balloon), but grounded in a larger picture of herself and this life—stabilized by an ever-present, irritating really, knowledge that things would somehow work out, would somehow be okay. She had felt this stoicism from her father, this cautious confidence. But lately she could feel herself slipping, her knowledge fading, her hope becoming heavy under the weight of loneliness, age, teenage cynicism, doubt, and now—injury.

Leonard Cohen knew. And he knew that everyone else knew, too. This life was unbearable, harsh, cruel even. And yet, startling in its beauty and unpredictable kindness. Navigating between these two extremes was a heroic, gymnastic effort which exhausted the trifecta of mind, body, and soul. No wonder she could barely get out of bed some days.

Some of her friends were tired of hearing about it. She didn’t have as many friends because of it, and usually she was relieved by this. It meant less expectation, less energy, less investment. But the reverse was also true: fewer people were invested in her. Less energy was being tossed her way. She knew her readers would also become impatient eventually—especially if she didn’t throw in a love scene soon. At least some suggestive dialogue. She laughed out loud as she struggled to stand.

“Love waits for no man.”

She thought of all the love that was happening all around her—and of her own small doses being exchanged within this house, and without. Within this world, and without. There were so many different types of love, and she would be damned if she was going to let herself get caught up in one or two tiny definitions. And anyway, was it love that waits for no man? Or time? Were they one in the same? She pictured a wild time-love horse charging away into the tide without its rider.

After all this thinking, Lee became tired. Coffee was up next, with a side of berry yogurt to cushion the belly against the delicious acid. What came after that was a new hope in the form of a phone call. There was a treatment for her broken foot, and she had been approved for it. A new path—beginning next week. She would throw everything she had into this hope.

She thought about her fear of surgery, and wondered if it was related to her other fears. She would not name them just yet. She would not give them credence. Instead, she would spend days, weeks—months even—trying on yet another opinion about how her life could be improved.

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Charlotte was a rescue. She had been found and brought to a shelter at about three months old. They weren’t sure of her exact age, history, how she had come to be wandering the city. So they fed her, fixed her, and named her after a queen. She knows this—as well as her exact age, history, how she had come to be wandering the city. She carries it all with a regal grace and perfunctory aloofness.

Charlotte was lying directly on Lee’s chest, her muted gray form rising and falling with the in-and-out of their shared breathing. It was evening, and the lamps were dimly lit. Lee didn’t like bright lights and turned them on only when deep cleaning. So, maybe twice a year. Everything was more forgiving that way. After all, you had to be really angry at something to achieve a truly thorough clean. And if you allowed yourself to become really angry too many times a year, you may find yourself without a home to clean.

It was too warm for a fire—unseasonably warm for January. The fireplace looked sad and dusty when empty—like an old, gray eye staring ahead squarely, blankly. There were tiny paw prints of ash leading to and fro as evidence of Charlotte’s investigation. Someone had to ensure that the embers were out.

Lee worried that every time she wrote about herself she was lying down or lazing on the couch. She didn’t want her readers to think she was too sedentary—though, in fact, she was. Well, she was in good company with Charlotte. And anyway, she had an excuse. She had broken her foot six weeks ago and was laid up with an air boot. Turns out she may need surgery after all. Turns out different doctors will give you widely different opinions. Lee wasn’t sure how she felt about the fact that the only opinion that mattered at the end of the day was her own.

Sophie sat behind her at the table, painting her nails. She was supposed to be reading The Great Gatsby but had somehow managed to segue into grooming within minutes of sitting down. The mood music drifted from the television. Lee thought about how people never say television when speaking, but how it is more proper than TV when writing. She thought about the many ways speaking and writing were different, and how this had perplexed her all her life. She was sure she couldn’t write realistic dialogue because of it.

She was glad she didn’t have to write dialogue for Charlotte. The occasional meow was sufficient, sometimes with a side of purring or a variety of guttural sounds only a pet owner could love and understand. The hissing was reserved for when Sophie tried to torture her like a territorial big sister.

The window was cracked again, and the sound of cars whooshing by reminded Lee of her confinement. She would not drive for weeks. She would not walk for weeks. She would continue to use a knee cart to navigate the narrow lanes of her house—measuring out her every move so she wouldn’t further injure herself. Or anyone else. It may be too late.

The familiar sound of Charlotte crunching on her food could be heard from the kitchen. She liked to eat when everyone was home, when things were quiet and predictable. Lee wondered what she was thinking when hovered over her ceramic bowl, lapping at water that probably needed refreshed. She wondered what she was thinking when staring at a plant for several minutes on end. Maybe if she could tap into a cat’s thoughts she could land a bestseller.

When they first brought Charlotte home, she had disappeared overnight. They couldn’t figure it out—how a cat could just be gone. They looked everywhere. Could she have gotten out? Could they have been so careless? They searched the house, the yard, the neighborhood.

Hours later, after everyone had stopped calling and shaking cat toys and rattling bags of treats, Charlotte had calmly emerged from the tiniest crack in the kitchen between the stove and the cabinet. She was so small then—and full of secrets. She never disappeared again—at least not inside the house.

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We remember and forget things on a daily basis. If we could retain everything we have ever remembered—or perhaps never forget it in the first place—we would be different beings. Forgetting may be a blessing—the mind’s way of coping with this insidious loop of existence. How else could we get up and do the same things over and over again? Maybe the forgetting was a curse. Or was it the remembering?

These thoughts came to Lee as she dragged herself once again out of her dreams, out of the deep remembering that came to her each night. She was usually in a forest, in a fog of stories without words, surrounded by things you just know in your bones, things that make you run and jump and fly and hunt. Things that let you escape humanity and become the elements that make up the dreams of others, that make up the universe. Things that don’t require bones but that know them to their core.

Upon waking, she could feel the familiar forgetting wrapping around her like a bathrobe. Sometimes it came in the form of a coffee cup or phone notification. She could have stayed in that wordless world forever—and maybe one of these times she would. But the crash of the recycling bins outside had jarred her out of sleep. At first it melded with her dream, and she was rushing to try to gather all of the bottles, boxes, and cans from the week to get them to the curb in time. There used to be many more bottles. She was trying to cut back.

She had fallen asleep in the living room again, beside the simmering fireplace, with the window cracked. It was like sleeping by a campfire, the contrast of the soft heat and cool air bringing her back to a place of childhood and longing. There was something addictive about a fire, the measured build of the elements as heat met paper met wood met air—the initial catch, the crackling increase, the leap of flames, the slow burn of embers. It was like a birth and a death—right at her fingertips—and it warmed the room beautifully.

Lee was avoiding her bedroom. She had been for weeks—ever since the holidays. The pillowy couch by the fireplace was only comfortable to a point, and then her back would start to ache. But something was keeping her from that room, from that big, firm bed. She thought she knew what, she thought she had it figured out, but then she would forget. In the meantime, she continued to make fires, sandwiches, phone calls.

She checked her phone, first for the time (and to see how many times she had hit snooze), and then for the regular dose of notifications. There were only a few this morning, nothing to really stimulate her to fully wake. She got distracted by a cat video and then a news parody, and found herself laughing before her coffee—which was rare. Not really laughing, but slightly snickering as she stretched and pulled herself up out of the couch cushions.

It was cold and overcast, and she sucked in the air as she gazed out the window. She could smell the eventual passing of winter, the tiny hint of spring, the desire to run through a field or chop some wood or take off in a canoe. Instead, she followed the well-worn path to the coffee maker.

The house would be as quiet as she wanted it. Sophie would sleep until noon. There was no school today. It was Martin Luther King Day.

I have a dream.

 

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She was thinking about moving again. It had only been six months in this apartment. Six months, and it still didn’t feel like home. Half a year, and she still hadn’t unpacked that room of boxes, moved the piles out of her bedroom to make room for living, hung any color or curtains.

Her baby sister would have had the place remade in a weekend—paint, tapestries, candles, made-to-order colors. Instant cozy. Simone knew what she wanted, and she didn’t let things get in her way. She knew what other people wanted, too, and she had that unique ability to help them see and achieve it—if she agreed with it.

Lee sat in the middle of ‘her’ house, of her possessions, of her many unmade decisions. She couldn’t even decide which name to go by. Currently she was using her middle name—as a nod to her deceased father, yes—but also as a cop-out because she still didn’t like her own name and she couldn’t think of a good alternative. Someday she would be a published author. She agonized over what name she would use. She lay awake at night putting together different combinations, signatures in her head. The notepad, computer, journal sat mostly empty by her bed.

There was too much truth in writing. Too much she wasn’t ready to face, to accept, to believe. Too much she still didn’t understand. She thought she would have had more figured out by now. She thought back to when her parents were her age—and how old she had considered them. Odd how we measure time and people. We think of people as old when they have gained a certain amount of knowledge and experience—but at the same time we label them as out of touch, as if we can’t have both at the same time. We want to swoop in and brush up against their knowledge and experience from time to time, but we don’t want to touch them. We don’t want them touching us or our ideas or outcomes.

Suddenly she heard church bells, which reminded her that it was Sunday. 10:46 a.m. A call to worship. She had never heard those bells before. She pictured people coming out of their doors, gathering on the sidewalk, walking to the big, brick church on the corner with the giant stained-glass eye that watched over the town. Driving past at night, headlights would hit the window and light up a massive image of Mary and Christ, side by side, looking somber under their halos. Their eyes would stare back at you, into you, with that shimmering light, and you had to remind yourself that it was trickery—the work of physics and man-made headlamps.

Her coffee sat cooling in her hands as she stared out the window, past the cat, past the fighting, fledgling tree in the front yard, past the street and the neighbors’ houses and the skyline. She needed to get away, to go somewhere she had never been, to meet people she had never met. She needed, deep in her core, to find herself, her name, her color, her sound.

“Mom!” a voice shouted from the hallway. “We’re out of toilet paper!”

Lee sighed and stretched and rose from the couch.

“Coming!” she called back as she made her way to the linen closet.

She had never had a linen closet before. She thought it was going to be so great, to have a place for all those ointments and products and sheets and towels and things that had cluttered up her bathroom before. Now the closet was stuffed to the brim with every manner of item which did not belong, which begged for order, which sat hidden all day on a dark shelf.

tulip tree: sisters in spring

bud 2

The first signs of spring were here.

From her bedroom window, Michelle had watched the giant icicle on the forest-facing side of the house become smaller and smaller as it dripped from the eaves. Sometimes she would open the window and reach out and grasp the freezing wedge between her hands, rubbing the droplets off as if to hurry the process. She liked the cold ache it left on her hands.

“You better close the window before Mom sees you.”

Her younger sister Sarah was right behind her, as usual, spying on her. Well, to be fair, it was her room too. But life wasn’t fair, as her father was always telling her. Michelle picked up a sneaker and chucked it at her sister.

“Shut up!”

Sarah ducked and stuck out her tongue. Michelle slammed the window shut and chased Sarah out of the room and down the stairs.

“Girls!” Mom’s voice shrilled. “Don’t run in the house!” Then she softened. “It’s nice out. Why don’t you bundle up and go play outside?”

Michelle rolled her eyes. She didn’t play anymore. Not with her baby sister, anyway. She hurriedly put on her coat and rushed out.

“Don’t follow me,” she muttered through the closing door.

Michelle skipped down the concrete steps toward the tulip tree. Its scientific name was magnolia soulangeana, which seemed fitting. This tree definitely had a soul. She knew she would find the tiny buds beginning to break open. She had been watching for them for weeks. She stood under the tree and looked up through the studded branches. The sun poured down onto the little velvet casings as if to cheer them on.

The tulip tree always had a distinct smell that changed throughout the spring and summer. The buds had a tight, tart smell — like the very brief and distant becoming of something that would soon begin to open and sweeten. Michelle ran her fingers along one of the buds and felt the soft bristles of the shell. Inside it was growing its own version of a pearl — a gloriously layered gem of pinks and whites and purples that would open again and again to reveal deeper shades and smells.

Every year these flowers became a portal to another world — to a magical place where faeries fluttered in tulip dresses, where flowers of every kind bloomed, where sugar waterfalls glistened. Winter was not allowed in this place, for the wicked Snow Witch had been banished by the Queen Faerie. Once the buds began to sprout and crack open, all of the darkness and cold of winter with its dreary days and vacuous nights would be crushed. At least for a season.

Slam.

Michelle whirled around to see her sister coming down the stairs.

Sigh. She could never escape reality for long.

“I told you not to follow me.”

“Mom made me come out.” Sarah grumbled past and headed for the swingset, her puffy blue coat swishing as she swung her arms with purpose.

“Whatever. Just stay away from me.”

Michelle reached up and plucked a bud from overhead. She rolled it between her hands and felt the tiny ridge of the bloom beginning to emerge. She held it up to her ear and could almost hear the whirring of waterfalls and faerie wings.

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.

Michelle glared over at her sister and then looked back at the bud.

“You’re not supposed to pick those yet. Mom said. It kills them before they can even grow.”

“I told you to shut up,” Michelle growled. She hurled the bud at her sister. “There! Have a dead bud!”

Sarah picked up the bud that had bounced off her jacket. She brought it close to her face.

“Is it really dead?”

“Open it and find out.”

Sarah stared at the bud, uncertain.

Michelle sat down on the swing next to her and grabbed it.

“Let me do it.”

She held it in one hand and used the thumbnail of the other to gently pry away the green velvet skin. It was hard and crunchy. Inside it was a deeper green with dark purple streaks. It smelled richly bitter.

Sarah scrunched up her nose and sniffed.

“Ew.”

“It’s a magic egg,” Michelle suddenly whispered. She covered it with her mitten.

“It is not.”

“Yes it is. I’m going to bury it and grow a faerie.”

“You’re stupid.”

Michelle shoved Sarah’s swing and made her slam against the side bar.

Ow!” Sarah rubbed her arm but kept her eyes on the bud.

“Remember last year?” Michelle asked. “The whole yard was covered in tulips and we made a faerie flying carpet and flew all the way around the world.”

Sarah hesitated. “Yeah, but that was with the blossoms. You said that the magic was in the blossoms.”

Michelle sighed. “It is. Where do you think the blossoms come from, dummy?”

She held open her palm and they gazed at the dark oval resting there like a chrysalis.

“If the blossom is magic, then so is the bud, and the branches, and the tree — every part.”

Michelle hopped up. She heard the clink of Sarah’s swing as she followed her.

“Help me find a stick for digging.”

“How about a stone?” Sarah handed her a long, thin slab of stone from the side of the garage.

“That will work.”

“Where should we bury it?” Sarah asked as she wandered about the yard.

Michelle strode to the fence opposite the tulip tree. “Here. So the faerie can have a view of where it came from.”

They bent over the ground. Sarah used her mitten to wipe away the damp clump of leaves. Michelle used the stone to bore a small hole in the wet earth. She placed the tiny bud inside.

“Wait,” Sarah said. “You have to breathe on it first — three times.”

Michelle shrugged and did the honors. Then she said, “Magic bud, magic bud, take your time and turn to blood.”

“Ew!”

“Well, faerie blood is sugar, so it’s not really gross.”

The girls carefully covered the hole and placed the stone slab on top as a marker. They stood and looked down at the sacred site. Then they looked over at the tulip tree.

“We could make a lot of faeries,” Sarah breathed.

“Yeah, but we have to let the rest of them turn into flowers. Plus, Mom will notice.”

“Yeah.”

“Girls!” Mom called from the house. “Time for dinner!”

As they raced to the porch, Michelle wondered how she was going to pull this off. Maybe her older sister Lisa would have an idea, if she could catch her in a decent mood.

Spring was here.

magnolia soulangeana