To Give You the Space to Heal, 2013
She first noticed the difference when she arrived downtown and stood up on her toes to point toward a clementine she wanted to buy. The fruit stand owner, a farmer named Mr. Bridges, peered at her quizzically, craned his neck to bring his ear closer, hoping to understand her better. “That one there,” she pointed, but his eyes didn’t follow her gesture. He frowned when she spoke, shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
She took a hop and caught hold of a fruit, set it in front of Mr. Bridges. “How much?”
He looked her over, his heavy eyebrows dropping low over his eyes as he lifted one gloved hand to his mouth, massaging the skin there, tugging on his wispy beard. He bent at the knees a little to level his eyes with her. “Are you doing okay, Clara?”
No one had asked her that in a while. It had been almost nine months since anyone had asked her something so direct. Usually it was hey, how you doin’ or you having a good day? while gathering up the items she asked for, eyes darting from one rack to the next, not really expecting an answer as they plucked mesh bags for produce.
“I’m fine, Mr. Bridges,” she replied as he continued to stare at her. “Just interested in the clementine.”
After a few more moments of silence he picked up the fruit and put it in a produce bag, then slid it toward her. “You take care.” Clara offered a handful of change but he waved her off. “Take it in good health,” he said.
Clara thanked him and studied his expression – it was similar to when she had seen him at the wake and he had handed her a homemade casserole of organic veggies, grains and grass-fed beef. At the next few vendors she received much of the same treatment and she walked back on the footpath to her parents’ house wondering if she had relapsed into depression without knowing it. Perhaps her sadness was plastered across her face as it had been before, stamped in the dark rings beneath her eyes and heaviness of her steps.
Many people had told her to rent a place in town, closer to people and away from the tragedy that had taken her parents from her. But her folks’ house was the one place she had always called home, even while traveling abroad and moving from place to place.
The house was on its own, a plot near the water without another structure within eyeshot. Her folks had worked for the university, specifically in ecology and biology, and the natural dunes, cliffs and beach had been her very own micro-ecosystem growing up. Her parents had taught her about whatever critter she caught and brought home at the end of the day, but mostly they just let her run off and explore. She spent days out in the sun and surf and dirt, showing up for lunch when she was hungry and coming in again before dark, scabbed up, sunburned and spent. She couldn’t remember sleeping better than when she had been out hand-trawling all day.
Clara chopped up her produce and started the burner in the kitchen, leaning on the counter to gaze out at the ocean and the fog that was tarrying about twenty miles offshore after being chased off the sun-warmed land. As the day wore on it would creep cautiously back, moving to envelop the house by twilight. She would sit out on the cliffs and let the fog wash over her, dragging the cold sea air across her skin.
She lay awake that night, worried she might be sliding back into an unhealthy state of mind. She’d been forgetting to eat lately, her clothes beginning to sag off of her limbs. Then there was Mr. Bridges, and the Suitland sisters, and all the vendors who had looked at her today with such pity. Like they were going to shake their heads and cluck their tongues when she left and say Shame. It’s a shame what happened to that family.
The first six months after her parents had been swallowed by the sea were bad ones. She speculated they may have been better if she had siblings or aunts or uncles to lean on. But there had been no one and she had scraped herself together only enough to get the wake arranged, then she had crawled into bed and hadn’t gotten out, not even for the funeral a couple days later. As she lay in the dark she remembered something her mother used to say when she was home sick, always hearing it from far away in her fevered state: I wish for you a sphere of peace to give you the space to heal.
The community, small as it was, had rallied around her, bringing food and checking in on her. Everyone knew her. Clara from up on Harrow Hill.
In town the next morning she saw a young man she knew as Olaf. He came into the restaurant sometimes during the lull between the lunch crowd and dinner rush to talk to the owner and glance at her from time to time. She was usually sweating and busy preparing stock and sauces, checking on the main courses. He had the habit of popping his head into the kitchen to say hello when she had her head in the refrigerator, trying to cool off.
Olaf was relatively new to town so he didn’t know Clara. Not the way everyone else did.
Today she shied away from him when he waved, retreating to the kitchen and scanning the menu for the day. She put her hair up in a bun and lifted the lid on the catch of the day. Steam leaped up in front of her and she peered into the roiling water.
Clara heard it and she looked up. Olaf was standing in the doorway, through the steam from where she stood. He stared as if stunned, his hand still on the door and mid-stride. “What is that?” he asked, coming closer. He gestured over her head, at a translucent halo the steam was clinging to, the light above illuminating the tiny water droplets. Clara stepped back from the stove and turned toward Olaf as he approached. “It’s all around you,” he murmured, looking her head to toe.
Clara lifted her arm and the sphere surrounding her distorted, bubbling her in with about four inches of buffer. “What do you think it is?” she asked him and Olaf met her eyes.
Before she could repeat the question Olaf stretched out his hand toward her in an attempt to touch the halo, the steam beginning to dissipate in the room, the shimmering sphere around her wavering as the air cleared.
When he got too close his palm pressed against the malleable surface of the sphere and Clara saw the skin of his palm boil up and blister. Olaf cried out as he reeled back, dragging an area of the bubble with him until it reached its elastic limit and popped back into an oval shape around Clara, the seared-off skin hanging in the air as a perfect hand-print before it burned away entirely.
Clara bent down but didn’t move any closer to Olaf, as he had scooted himself back against the cabinets and cradled his arm in his lap, burned palm up. “Are you alright? I can get you some ice.”
The wild fear in Olaf’s eyes blazed fresh when she spoke, and he looked on the verge of tears. He leveraged his weight back against the cabinets and got to his feet without having to put his hurt hand on the floor. “What are you saying?” he demanded, his words sharp with pain. “Is that an actual language?”
Clara blinked up at him, startled because he had never spoken a harsh word in her presence before. “I — I’ll get you some ice, Olaf.” And she hurried to the freezer, disappearing inside for just a moment and returning with a bowl of ice and a rag to wrap it in.
She slowed when she got near him. Olaf was leaning back against the wall collecting himself. Carefully she held the bowl out to him, then thought better of it and set it on the edge of the counter that was now between them. “I better get back to work,” Clara said softly, noticing the sweet curl of his eyelashes as he studied the burn pattern on his palm.
He looked up, his expression drained to muted sadness. Olaf shook his head. “I don’t understand you.” Then he turned and pushed out through the swinging door and left the restaurant without another word to anyone.
Clara dumped the ice then returned the retrieval bowl to the freezer, standing in the dark for a moment to watch her breath plume.
On her walk home in the wee hours of the morning she noticed people standing along the sidewalk, leaned against the retaining walls of the public gardens across the street from the restaurant. Usually there wasn’t anyone out by the time she cleaned up the kitchen and prepped food for the next day. She liked a quiet walk home. Clara glanced at the crowd only a moment before she locked the door to the restaurant and began her trek.
Maybe a half dozen of those people trickled along the other side of the street for about a half mile as she walked, some straggling and breaking off sooner. When the moon broke through the clouds there were only two people still interested in following along.
She heard them gasp.
Clara squinted, noticed a pale glow along the ground and saw the shimmer of her sphere illuminated in pale blueish moonlight. Then a cloud slid over the moon and she was just another shadow on the dark streets. She hurried home alone.
Lore spread fast. Tourists began to come to see the halo on a girl from Harrow Township. The restaurant filled up for lunch and lost the lull between it and dinner. People asked to have their meal prepared especially by Clara.
They called her Saint Clara of the Hill.
And even though it made her incomprehensible, Clara became used to her sphere. At work she didn’t need to speak to anyone as cooking came as easily to her as breathing. The local vendors had ceased to attempt conversation with her, so when she shopped for the restaurant or for her home she pointed, and they spoke only the final price. Sundays she spent wandering the land around her parents’ house and reveling in the absence of gawking tourists.
One Sunday afternoon she found herself so warmed by the afternoon sun that she fell asleep in the blue fescue on the cliffs above the sea. She woke in the night, chilled to the bone, uneasy about the deep darkness due to the new moon.
She sat up and hung her feet over the edge, staring out at the black oil slick of ocean. When it was quiet like this, when she could hear her heartbeat and lay her thoughts out one by one, she felt like a real and complete person instead of a third or fourth photocopy of herself, a director bored of watching her own life unreel.
Tonight was different. The surf was high because of the alignment of the moon, and the water had pale whitecaps and eddies in unusual places. She squinted out toward the horizon and caught some motion from the corner of her eye. She looked again.
Someone was floundering in the waves.
Quick as a thought she was up, scrambling down the cliffs and over the dunes, shucking off her windbreaker and splashing out into the surf, diving into the freezing water in pursuit. She lost sight of the person a moment and tread water to call out.
Then a swirling wave lifted him into sight, about thirty yards away from Clara, then plunged him under the surface. She swam close to the spot and dove under, blind in the dark, but she stretched out her arms and brushed his body. She took hold of what she could and kicked for the surface, gripping two handfuls of his shirt as she swam. She locked an arm across his chest and struggled to shore.
He was unconscious by the time she got a look at him, lying there on the cold sand. She was shivering so uncontrollably she could barely perform CPR and despite her early-onset hypothermia, his lips felt cold against hers. When he sputtered and coughed she rolled him onto his side and pat his back to help get the water out.
It was then that she realized she could touch him. After what’d happened with Olaf she’d spent the past few weeks well out of reach of anyone. Even though by design her life was fairly void of human contact, the past few weeks with her sphere had solidified that fact. If not for the food she made for the townspeople to eat she couldn’t be sure whether or not she was just a ghost blowing through.
The young man rolled onto his back and groaned, placing his hands across his solar plexus. He gazed blearily up at her. “Jesus,” he murmured, in the way Clara said it every morning she woke up. She closed her hands around his and smiled lightly.
Clara wrapped her windbreaker around his shoulders when he sat up, his shoulders quaking so hard they looked like seizures. She pointed uphill, toward the house, which was only a warm glow in the thickening fog. She helped him up, steadied him as his bare feet sank in the sand. Then she turned and led the way, glancing back to see him shifting in and out of the fog like a specter as he numbly pressed forward.
She got him inside and lit the fireplace, brought some blankets into the living room where he stood staring, dripping, facing the fire. She pushed the couch closer to the hearth and stripped the young man’s wet clothes off down to his skivvies. With a little prompting, he settled down on the couch before she covered him up.
Clara went to the stove to heat up the day’s pot of clam chowder, and put on some tea. When she returned he had buried himself in the covers, the mass of wool and cotton shaking as he quaked beneath them. Clara edged the covers back and found his fingertips blue and lips near purple. She gently touched the man’s face, brushing errant sand off of his skin. He murmured in a half-sleep, nuzzling slightly against her palm.
Clara eased two warm water bottles under the blankets before she sat on the floor in front of the hearth with tea and healthy portion of chowder. She leaned her back against the couch and warmed herself as she ate. Above her the young man slept, his shivers subsiding. He dreamed violently, occasionally shaking himself awake. At times Clara held his hand and said soothing things, getting him to settle before he woke, and during his fleeting conscious moments he was silent, breathing quickly while Clara stroked his hair until he slipped back into slumber. When he was sleeping peacefully she told him about her life. He seemed to smile at the funny bits and listen intently to the somber parts.
Eventually, Clara fell asleep propped up against the couch, waking when the sun burned through the early morning fog and shone through the skylight in the living room. She got up and stretched, shaking out some of the aches sleeping on the floor had created. The young man was still nestled in his blankets, sleeping soundly. She bent and laid a hand against his face. Normal pallor, warm to the touch. He roused a bit, blinking his eyes and squinting in the sunlight before he drew the blanket up over his face. Clara gathered up his still-damp clothes from the hearth and tossed them in the washer.
He woke up when he smelled food from the kitchen. She was chopping scallions to add to her potato leek soup when she noticed him standing between the living room and the kitchen. He had one of the blankets wrapped around his shoulders and his cheeks looked a little sunken, like someone in need of a good meal. He wavered on his feet like seaweed in the tide.
Clara pointed to his clothes, draped over a chair in the kitchen. She pointed also to the bowl of cheese grits, chicken sausage and biscuits on the table. At the sight of food the young man dropped his blanket and sat at the table, tearing into the dishes in front of him, slowing only long enough to put butter and honey on the biscuits before shoving them into his mouth.
Clara brought him some apple juice and water, both of which he drank. She took the opportunity to study the random pattern of scars on his back. He had a lot of freckles on his neck and arms but very few other places – a man who spent time in the sun but never on the beach. He was well muscled and lacked fat, sinewy, like an athlete. She noticed a tattoo on his right shoulder: an eagle, a date, she was still studying it when he looked up at her.
Clara retreated to the counter but she felt his eyes follow her. He chewed thoughtfully on a mouthful of sausage as he watched her press the blade of a knife into the fleshy base of a leek plant, separate it from the green stalks she intended to use. She lifted the lid on the pot of boiling chicken stock and water and added the fresh-cut leek, stirring it down. She pressed a spoon against a potato not yet soft enough to crush.
“This is a big house,” the young man said. “You live here alone?”
Clara nodded, not looking up from the pot as she stirred.
“No pictures around,” he murmured between bites of food. “You must’ve lost someone.”
She paused in cooking and came over to the table, sitting in a chair next to him and sitting forward with her elbows on her knees. She looked up at him, into his eyes, and saw the melancholy there. “Did you lose someone too?” she asked and gestured at his shoulder, at the tattoo.
He turned away from her as his fingers drifted to the spot, sliding over the peak of his shoulder to rest momentarily over the design. He took another bite of the biscuit he held in his other hand, refusing to put it back down on the plate. It seemed like it was something he’d learned from communal living – once that food’s yours you can’t take your eye off of it if you expect to keep it. He grumbled, didn’t want to talk about it. “I lost a lot of people,” he said finally. “It was a bad day.”
Clara wasn’t sure if he meant the date carved into his skin or the day he’d ended up in the ocean. He’d had no shoes on in the water. He didn’t have on a jacket. Nothing indicated he’d been stargazing and swept out to sea or something similarly innocent. He had intended to shuck off mortal coil when he dropped his shoes and coat, walk into the ocean and through to the afterlife. She wasn’t thrown by the lack of differentiation, as if he was anything like her, since that “bad day” it had just been one long blur of grief and strife. Actual days meant nothing.
He took a few deep breaths before he met her eyes again. “Sorry you lost someone,” he said, failing to hold her gaze when she didn’t respond right away. He slid his empty plate toward the center of the table. “You’re a great cook. You should open a restaurant.”
Clara smiled, chuckled as she got up and went to the counter, plucked one of her business cards from the utility drawer. She set it on the table next to the young man’s elbow. He smiled when he realized she was, indeed, a chef.
“Call anytime,” she urged. “For anything.” She went back to push the drawer shut and tend to her cuisine. Suddenly the young man appeared beside her, his bare feet making him stealthy in the kitchen full of rattling pot tops and the hum of the dishwasher. Clara startled when she saw him.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.
“You didn’t,” she lied.
He had his pants on now and he shoved his hands into the pockets. He made a face, his brow crinkling and mouth pressing into a line as he turned the pockets inside-out, dumping sand onto the floor. He stared at it for a prolonged moment, like he didn’t know what it was, watching it pool in two neat piles next to his bare feet.
“Sorry, I probably should have checked the pockets before I dried them.” Clara got the broom and stood by, waiting for him to stand clear so she could sweep up. He still stood there, though, eyes unfocused. Clara didn’t disturb him and he snapped out of his meditative state abruptly, murmuring apologies as he reached to take the broom and dust pan from her. His hands knocked into the sphere which made a TV static sound and popped into visibility for a split second before it disappeared again.
The young man didn’t recoil the way Olaf had. He shook his hand, like he’d touched something hotter than expected, but he stayed where he was, peering at the space around Clara. “Did I hurt you?” Clara asked, her voice high with concern. His eyes met hers. He didn’t respond, but stretched his hand out again, slowly, until he found the threshold between Clara and him about two inches from her skin. He eased his fingers against the sphere, wincing a little but not pulling away. And it glowed for him, a cool, white light. Clara gazed at it with as much wonder as he did, because as much as she’d tried, she couldn’t touch the thing. It distorted as she moved, always beyond her grasp.
“Are you an angel?” he asked as the sphere warmed in color, to a golden hue. “Did I die?”
“No,” Clara replied, finding his eyes to be dark gray like the morning ocean. “I’ve just got a bubble.” The sphere warmed to orangeish-red.
He tipped his head to the side a little and said, “I don’t understand you,” and snatched his hand away as the sphere burned red-hot, scalding his finger tips and making him hiss in pain.
Clara’s chest clenched at the words, realizing the gestures she made all morning could have prompted his responses to her as he ignored the words, like a man who’d lived in an area where almost everyone spoke a different language and had become used to interpreting body language. She turned on the cold tap, pointed, and the young man ran the burn under the cool water. “Am I dead?” he asked quietly, low enough so Clara wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or to her.
Clara thought for a moment, trying and failing to remember anything about coming out of the ocean with him last night, tried to think even of any proof she had been alive for the past year. There was the simmering pot on the stove, the mostly-eaten food on the kitchen table, the sand on the floor; she bent and pinched up some of the sand, let it filter through her fingers to catch the morning sunlight and settle back into the cracks of the stone floor. Shook her head “no” and said, “I don’t think you’re not dead,” even though she knew he couldn’t understand.
With spring pushing some of the fog out of town, and the days getting longer, the crowds at the restaurant and along Clara’s walking route continued to grow. It was at the corner of Main Street she saw the young man again, dressed in the same clothes as came out of the ocean, feet bare on the brick steps leading up to the visitor’s center. The people surged around her and she stepped carefully as she moved among them, afraid to singe anyone by accident. When a tourist thrust his fist into her face, a rosary balled up tight in the fingers, she lost sight of the young man as she reeled away, hurrying around the corner toward the restaurant.
During her shifts people had to regularly be removed for entering the kitchen without permission. They held out relics to her, religious figurines and prayer cards. “Just touch it,” they would say. “Please.” And sometimes people would throw objects from afar, gasping when they ignited and turned to ash for coming into contact with her sphere before Clara could move away.
The afternoon dishwashers listened to the radio while they worked and the sound floated into her space. She tapped her feet or mouthed the words to songs as she seasoned stock and entrees. Early on she had learned not to sing the words aloud as they came out a sharp, garbled language and customers thought she was speaking in tongues.
Today there was a news alert. A man from Lightfoot Canyon, a coastal town about three miles north, was missing. He had gone out for a drive a few weeks ago and when he hadn’t returned home. His family found his boots, army issue and freshly home from war, sitting upright on the soft shoulder above the beach with his dog tags laced in. Police thought he had been swept into the ocean and since he was a strong swimmer may have made it to shore.
They described him and Clara’s heart sank.
Clara stopped by the visitor’s center after the lunch rush, pulling wide-eyed stares from those thumbing through the brochures about Saint Clara of the Hill. She walked up to the desk and Mr. Linus perked up. “How are you, dear?”
“I’m looking for someone.” She didn’t wait for Mr. Linus to deferentially admit he couldn’t understand her and reached over the lip of the visitor’s desk to take a pad of paper and pencil, sketching the angular cut of the young man’s jaw, the slight waviness of his short hair and sharpness of his eyes. She wasn’t sure about the mouth, trying her best to conjure its shape out of her memory, but she had to erase and re-draw a few times before it looked right.
Clara held up the sketch and Mr. Linus adjusted his glasses, squinting at the picture. “You looking for this fella?” Clara nodded. He studied the picture a while longer before he shook his head. “Haven’t seen him.”
Clara brought the sketch around to other parts of town, gaining onlookers as she went. Down the narrow alleys and around the curving sidewalks as the moon rose she questioned the eyes that were always on the streets: the vendors, the landscapers and the homeless.
No one had seen him.
With each negative result her chest clenched tighter and Clara began to doubt the young man that had stayed at her home had ever existed. Perhaps out of loneliness she had conjured him, and he had no connection to this other man lost at sea or to this world at all.
Her breath was an audible wheeze by the time she rushed to the Farmer’s Market, catching Mr. Bridges just as he was closing his stand and boxing up unsold produce. He looked at her sketch and made a tsk, tsk sound saying, “Oh, Clara. If you know about the boy, you best tell the police. I think they fished him out of the drink this afternoon.”
The words were like bullets, ripping through her sphere to wound her, causing her to slump forward, putting her hands on her knees so she didn’t fall over. Her face shone with tears when she straightened up and Mr. Bridges put his hand out to comfort her, at the last moment thinking better of it and pulling back.
She turned and the crowd parted for her as she made her way back to the main road, a trail of thirty people behind her. Through her tears she could barely see the ground, stumbling against the retaining walls, bits of the concrete falling through her fingers.
She took a deep breath and smelled the ocean, sharp and inviting. Undulating and sensuous. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t thought about it. Her parents had surrendered to it, taken a bottle of their best brandy on the boat, loaded up on Xanax and let the stormy currents cast them out and sink them like a stone. They’d chosen the ocean over her, it could only stand to reason this stranger would do the same.
The crowd followed her all the way to the edge of town, all the way up the hill this time, lining out on the narrow footpath laid across the cliff above the dunes. She glanced back to the people a few times, her eyes fierce, sharp with grief, and they gasped, stopping a moment, backing off, a few breaking away each time. When she got to the woodpile her house came into view and there were about a dozen tourists steadfastly tailing her, trying to keep up as the fog moved in. Above, a eucalyptus limb groaned in the growing wind and Clara dreaded how lonely the house would feel when she got there.
Clara noticed a slender figure at the edge of her property, facing out toward the sea and just barely lit by the porch lights. Barefoot, disheveled. It was him. He turned a little to see her, raising a hand in greeting.
Clara smiled and chuckled to herself. She let out a heavy breath, her shoulders sagging in relief as she waved back.
The eucalyptus limb above snapped and dropped onto Clara’s sphere. It didn’t ignite and burn as most other foreign objects did. It made a sharp sound, cracking in two, pieces landing to either side of her. The sound was deafening inside the orb, Clara covering her ears as she staggered, disoriented. She could hear the crowd murmuring, There’s a crack now – I can see a crack! Get back, I’ll do it-
More explosions of sound came, akin to gunshots ringing down an alleyway. Clara squeezed her eyes shut as she collapsed, eking them open to notice, yes, there was a significant crack in the sphere; it had spider-webbed like a windshield. The people had lengths of wood in their hands, raised high above their heads. She rolled, trying to get away from them but they could steady her now with a boot against the orb. It was sturdy. Little progress was made until someone took the axe from the woodblock.
Clara covered her ears again as the ungodly sound like shearing metal shook her so hard she thought her teeth would fall out. A piece fell to the grass and greedy hands groped for it.
Get her out! We can touch her! A living relic! The crowd’s voices were fading and Clara felt warm and removed. Her eyes fluttered open and she could see strangers’ faces hovering above hers, knuckled and arms shredded as the reached through jagged holes in the sphere, touching her, tugging at her, then smearing dark crosses on their foreheads. Someone had her shoe in-hand, another a clump of her hair.
The axe was raised again, arcing above her head.
Then among the faces was the young man who had come out of the ocean. He shined, glowed in the night, a halo just like hers lit around him. He reached down and touched her face. Warmth spread through her body as he bent and whispered his name in her ear, brushed tears from her cheek with his thumb. “Come on,” he said and slipped his arms beneath her body. “Let’s get you home.”
A bright slice of metal caught the moonlight as he lifted her up. He carried her as though light as a feather across the cliffs, down to the beach, then out beneath the rolling waves.
Copyright Courtney Stackhouse, 2013