As she navigated her way through rush hour on 35W toward Minneapolis, Katrina mused about the day. Katrina knew for all the decorator’s cosmetic efforts at The Refuge, nothing would ever be the same. She dreaded it like a migraine alerting her to an approaching storm. These triggers marked a foreboding season of her great-aunt thinking every sugar maple was the one Uncle Ray planted at the lake or hearing the clock’s bing-bong and mind-traveling to a different time and place.
Carol Cromberg’s comment came to mind, the one about Aric Hammond keeping a close eye on Aunt Minnie. Maybe it had been a special request made by Uncle Ray. Obviously, Mr. Hammond knew Aunt Minnie well. Katrina couldn’t recall either of them mentioning a Mr. Hammond, and Uncle Ray would have mentioned it.
“She will wake up one day and not know you, Katie-Tree,” he had said a few days after both test results came back—Aunt Minnie’s stating her diagnosis, and his that the cancer treatments had failed.
“I know you know it. But, when it happens, you might not be ready for it. You might not be ready for the reality.”
“No one is ever prepared for the unexpected.”
“Maybe not. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t decisions to be made. I hope we made the right ones by you.”
“You have both been so good to me.”
Aunt Minnie and Uncle Ray provided easy living for her after her accident. Every day covered new territory whether she explored the woodland acres around the lake house or listened to Uncle Rainor’s war stories while Aunt Minnie played the baby-grand piano.
“Good and right are not always the same thing.”
“Well, this isn’t about me.”
“It is in part. I’ve reserved a place for Minnie at The Refuge.”
“Why? I’ll take care of her at the lake house.”
“No, I don’t want that.”
“But, I should. I mean…”
“Katie-Tree, you need to live your own life while you can. You need to be who you are.”
Driving along the tree-lined highway, she admitted he had been right. Although the six weeks of autumn’s vibrant color made it her favorite time of year, she supposed she would hate it if she lived in a house with a lawn and oak trees of shedding leaves. A studio apartment in the city, although expensive, afforded her the luxury of enjoying the seasonal color without lawn maintenance.
“But,” she had argued, “part of who I am is because of you and Aunt Minnie.”
He had studied his worn overalls, patched with flannel and flaked with wood chips from chopping firewood.
“Katie-Tree, do not fight me on this. Your aunt Minnie goes to The Refuge when I pass.”
They never spoke of it again.
On that Saturday just before teatime, she had entered the lake house as usual without knocking. The house smelled stale from sleep and something subtly rank. She opened the still-drawn drapes and cranked out the sidelights on each side of the panoramic picture window in the front room.
“Aunt Minnie? Uncle Ray?” she called, tip-toeing down the hardwood hallway toward their bedroom.
There they were. His ice-blue eyes stared at the ceiling, and her hazel ones hid under relaxed, veined lids. A slight, dreamy smile revealed her dimple. His jaw was slack. Her arm lay casually draped across his chest. His left hand hung suspended in a rigid claw. Katrina called 9-1-1.
As the coroner prepared to place the stretcher and Uncle Ray’s draped body into his vehicle, Aunt Minnie said, “He’ll be okay.”
“No, Aunt Minnie, he’s gone.” She shuddered as she remembered the rigidity of his lips and the crack of his sternum when she had performed mandatory CPR until the authorities arrived.
“What do you mean? He’s right there.”
“Young man,” she said, turning to the officer, “would you like to stay for tea? It’s past two o’clock.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I need to be moving along.”
“Oh, there’s always time for tea. Come along, Katrina. Let’s put the kettle on.”
As soon as Katrina opened her apartment door, Sebastian wove figure-eight’s between her legs, his calico fur complimenting the swirls of the brown and black linoleum. In one movement, she slid her canvas satchel to the floor and scooped him onto her opposite hip. She massaged her nail-bitten fingers behind his ears. She murmured in one, and he answered with purrs as they made their way to the kitchen. Setting him on the counter, she filled his dish with savory, fishy, canned food before surveying her cabinet for a no-fuss meal. She settled for eating tuna straight out of the can, standing next to the counter and Sebastian.
After dinner, the two moved to the living room. A casual room with a large body-sized beanbag chair and a low Japanese-style coffee table, its main centerpiece was a wall-length bookshelf. Sebastian found his usual spot on the curved edge of the beanbag. Katrina walked the length of the shelf perusing her collection of literary works. She pulled The Why of It by local poet Linna Monroe—a recommendation from an online poetry class Katrina’s therapist encouraged her to take. Flipping to the Table of Contents, one poem title caught her attention. She turned to its page and began to read.
The Sugar Maple
through a sugar maple
on my stairway treads.
I stop to revel
before time propels
to the next change
to a dimmer shade
to a certain falling
from sudden gales
or gradual gusts
when leaves will plummet
then rustle over roads
press against windows
gather in raked heaps
or succumb to decay.
Into my panes
glows a child’s cheeks at play
blows tree petals as kisses
tinting my view with promise.
After several minutes of staring at the poem, she tented the book over her chest and fingered one of Sebastian’s paws. Aunt Minnie’s recounting of her wedding came to mind along with the smell of pancakes and sausage.
Those pancakes and sausage had awakened Katrina every morning she had stayed at the lake house. Aunt Minnie stood over the frying pan in her pin curlers, terry-cloth robe, and slippers while Uncle Ray crackled the pages of his newspaper and noisily sipped his chicory coffee.
“Good morning, Katie-Tree,” he mumbled in a gravelly morning voice.
“Good morning, Katrina. Did you sleep well, dear?”
“Except for the whip-poor-will, excellent.”
“They do make a racket, don’t they?”
“No more than you, Minnie, when you get to whistling through your teeth in your sleep.”
“Rainor! I never whistle in my sleep!”
“Brahms’ ‘Lullaby.’ So’s I’ll remember I haven’t had a moment’s rest since I married her.”
Katrina giggled as she poured syrup on her pancakes.
“That’s why she wanted me to plant all those lilac bushes in the side yard, too. So’s I would have the pain in my neck to remind me of her.”
“And the sweetness of her voice and her perfumed hair for the rest of my days. Isn’t she a beauty, Katie-Tree?”
“Oh, Ray, what nonsense!” sputtered Aunt Minnie, suppressing a smile.
Katrina missed those breakfasts, her great-uncle, the couple’s banter, the way everything with them felt like home. She lifted Monroe’s book and, through her tears, read
I stop to revel
before time propels
to the next change
to a dimmer shade….
Katrina bolted upright in bed, sending hissing Sebastian onto the floor. She smoothed her sweat-soaked hair from her forehead and fell back into her pillow.
She lay awake pondering the accident-dream she just couldn’t seem to shake. Yet, this time her hand trembled as she opened the drawer of her nightstand and removed her dream journal. She scribbled the date at the top. With wavering handwriting, she recorded this typically non-deviating dream as a poet: playing with the words, anticipating emerging insight.
A recurring lightness
fading then darkness
as a wave drifts over me
lulling me to sleep.
Suddenly vice-grip panic
squeezes my airless lungs.
Bacteria peer and leer
to wrench myself
from my rank tomb.
Pinioned like a hooked fish
I resist insistent tugging,
finally yielding to the unrelenting
shadowy figure in light.
Awake on the bank.
Sighing, she rolled onto her side. She had stopped therapy sessions two years ago. The dream writing had become more of a habit. Her therapist claimed it might help her remember. Eight years since the accident, the dream had stayed the same. Until tonight.
shadowy figure in light…
She recognized the figure even if the face—and any other recollections of him—remained obscured.