First Chapter of Landslide by Melissa Leet for Book Giveaway
Chapter 1 - Landslide
“Jill,” Mom called. “Breakfast!”
I stepped into the chilly air, carrying Lionel. When I was four, Jay had given Lionel to me to look after me while he was away. When we were little, I would push Lionel in carriages, and dress him in baby clothes. Now that we were ten, Lionel was my equal, and he stood guard when he was needed. Mom said whoever loved me must also love Lionel, as he would be getting a twofer when he got married. I didn’t want to get married. If I could, I’d stay here in our garden forever.
When I found Mom, she was by the Scented Beds. Her long auburn hair shined copper where it was free from her hat’s darkening shadow. On the nearby mosaic table, my favourite French toast waited warm. Mom had cookie-cut the toast into lion shapes decorated with brown and yellow icing manes, iced blue eyes, and brown, sprinkled sugar noses. Our glass house strawberries ringed the plate like a frame. In a mug, mini marshmallows floated atop steaming chocolate.
“Happy birthday dear Jill, happy birthday to you.” I blew on the chocolate’s top while Mom sang, pooling the marshmallows. Then I caught them up, frog-like with my tongue.
Mom eyed me with disapproval. She was strict about manners. ““If it weren’t your birthday….”
“But it is!” I shot back happily.
“Are you intending to eat like a savage at your party?”
“I was thinking more green space alien.”
Mom laughed. “Give me strength.”
“What about me?”
“You could use a fork and a knife,” indicating the French toast in my fingers.
“What fun is that?” I asked, leaning in close to nestle. She smelt of mint, dirt and vanilla lotion.
“What are you snuffling at?” she asked.
“You smell like mint.”
“The mint has jumped the bed again,” Mom admonished. “It’s such a weed!”
I laughed. Mint was so not a weed.
“I thought we could use the clippings to make jugs of mint lemonade for your party.”
“Yes!” Mint lemonade was my favourite.
“But first we have to finish your cake.”
For my birthday, we always made cakes - lady birds, horses, pirate ships – this year it was a lion. We had lion napkins and plates. Toys and sweets filled a lion piñata. Helium balloons waited to be changed to floating lion balloons with streamer legs and tissue paper faces. After the balloon lions were made, we would play who could pop theirs first, throwing real darts from behind a masking-taped line. The best party game, though, would be Hide and Seek! Our garden was great for hiding!
Our garden was in the foothills of the mountains. From its edge we could see far out into the rocky scrub that Jay said was caused by the mountain’s rain shadow. Our garden would have been dry as well, but high mountain springs fell through it in wandering brooks.
“We should close the fabrics,” Mom said, pushing back her hat. “It’s going to be hot.”
The fabrics were our awnings. Mom used them to cover the flower beds most vulnerable to fierce sun. Mom had collected the cloth traveling with Jay when they were first married. Her first textiles were from Morocco. She had bought them back when she was still at school, and didn’t have money. Mom was bargaining for the cloths, when Jay cut in, speaking in Arabic. Mom was about to get cross at him, when Jay turned to tell her that the stall seller would sell Mom all five fabrics for the money she had been offering. At tea after, Mom said talking with Jay was like she had known Jay all her life even though they had just met. After that first tea, they were together every day until Mom had to return to England to school.
“Mom, how did Jay learn Arabic?” It was a new question.
“Arabic?” Mom asked, helping herself to lion French toast.
“When you met Jay in Morocco.”
“Oh,” Mom said, smiling. “Dad has a way with languages. Dad can go to a country, and just pick them up.”
“Kind of how you picked up Spanish by listening to Maria and Fernando talk.” Fernando and Maria helped Mom with her garden business, and were part of our family now.
“Perfect,” Mom said, standing back to look at our cake. “He’s real enough to roar. Let’s take a picture to add him to our Hall of Fame Cake Book.”
“I think he’s our best cake yet,” I told her, pleased.
“You might be right,” Mom allowed.
After the Polaroid, Mom gave me my birthday present. She had made a sky blue, beaded dress that was soft and slippery in my hands.
Mom was known for her beadings, and Mom beaded the way grandmas knit. Mom could make anything -- wall art, bed spreads, Halloween costumes. Some of her beads were so small that when strung, they blended like carpets, where a hundred thousand knots became a single design. Mom kept many of her very first necklaces in an ancient mariner’s chest Jay had brought us from Chile. I loved playing with these necklaces, and not just for dress up. I made them into snakes and eels, stepping stones and paths. At Christmas, they strung across our tree, glistening like jewelled ropes.
Mom always beaded in front of the fire. On those nights that were too warm, we were in the garden and her box stayed shut. Mom could string almost without looking. She would bead like the winter rain that falls all day long without stopping once. Sometimes I would try too, but I always got tired. Mom said she could keep on and on because she had dancing hands. I had wished for dancing hands too, but Mom said no. “My hands are beautiful,” Mom said, “because they are still.
“So do you like your dress?”
“Oh yes,” I breathed. Its soft weight felt nice on my shoulders. “And listen!” I swayed. The dress swirled around my knees. “It chinkles!”
Mom laughed. “Cow principle.”
I paused. “What do you mean?”
“In Switzerland, they tie bells around the cows so they can hear them wander. This way, during Hide and Seek…”
She laughed, her green almond eyes glinting.
“No one will find me, beads or not, except maybe Susie.” Susie lived down Mountain from us, and had been my best friend since I was three. She was half-American Indian. As if on cue, the doorbell sounded. I knew it was Susie even before I started for the door.
“Wow!” Susie exclaimed at my sky blue bead dress. Mom came up beside us.
“That must have taken forever,” Susie said to Mom.
“It took a while,” Mom agreed.
“Come see my lion cake,” I said, pulling her inside.
“Can I try it after the party?” Susie asked, skipping along with me. Although Susie was almost two years older, we were close in size.
While in the kitchen, the doorbell rang again. “I bet that’s Chad,” said Susie. “He said he would come early.” We rushed down the hall together, my beads tink-tinkling as we raced.
“Throw!” I screamed at Susie. The party was in full swing. Now our girls team raced to pop our lion balloons before the boys. We had three lions to the boys’ two. We had all thrown wildly, quickly, but Susie was not being rushed. She spread her feet, aimed with one eye. Chad was opposite. Pop! Chad now had one lion balloon left.
“Throw!” we cried.
Susie flung the dart. Pop! Then rapid-fast her next! Pop! Chad looked over as they both lined up their last shot. Susie smiled, and her black eyes had that look. Chad’s dart bounced off his red balloon, but ours went Pop! We shrieked! Susie grinned at Chad who was not pleased.
“Cake time!” Mom called.
“We’ll win next game,” I heard Chad say to Susie as we made our way to the picnic table.
“Next game is Hide and Seek,” Susie told him. “You don’t stand a chance.”
That night, I opened my presents before a crackling fire. Susie had given me a silver and turquoise bracelet. On her card, she said she had one too, and that once on, we must never take them off. Maria and Fernando had given me a pink present with a big pink bow. Inside, were more Maria-made animal clothes. Lionel might be grown up, but Michael Marmot, Red Rabbit, Daisy Deer, Harry Hedgehog, Squirrel, and Rascal Racoon were all still young.
My last presents were from Jay. Two were books - Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure and Buddhism for Children. He also gave me a rectangular moving machine. It tilted side to side. Blue, black, white and green liquid sand swirled inside like crashing waves. Each crash created a new shade of blue, a different colour of green. I wondered about Jay in Antarctica where the wind screamed instead of blew. Was he thinking about me?
“What’s Jay doing right now?”
Mom set down her beads. Her mouth turned down, but she caught herself, and her voice stayed light. “If I know Dad, he’s probably out there taking pictures of penguins.”
Mom smiled. “Or icebergs.”
Jay’s photos covered the walls on each side of our fireplace. In one, Jay was on Everest; in another, he was kayaking down the Amazon. Amongst these and his pictures of deserts, seas and trees were photos of monasteries. Jay collected monasteries like Mom gathered mint. There was also a snap of Mom taken the day they had first met. She was wearing a yellow sun dress and a large, flappy straw hat.
“How come you don’t still travel with Jay?”
Jay was famous for his photos the way Mom was famous for her gardens. When they first married, Mom had gone everywhere with Jay. They had even been to Varanasi together, where holy cows wandered ancient streets, and pilgrims bathed in the Ganges at breaking dawn.
Mom said what made Jay such a good photographer was that he was exceptionally patient. When he sensed a shot, he waited, sometimes for days. Mom said she couldn’t count how many times she had watched with him while the clouds came and went, while morning turned to night. Just when she had been looking at the same tree or village or road for so long that there was nothing left to see, the sun would come or go, or the clouds would shift just right. That was when Jay took his shots.
“I had you for one,” Mom said, starting to bead again. She was making another wall art. On one wall in our living room she displayed these hangings, changing them out as mood took. I also had a place in my room where I could put them up. I could choose any one I liked, and swap them as often as I wished.
“We could travel together,” I offered. I had often tried to imagine how it would be to travel faraway.
“Most of the places Dad goes are no place for a child,” she answered, her voice hardening like it did when she was firm.
“Like the war in Rwanda.”
“Like Rwanda,” Mom agreed.
“But couldn’t Jay photograph things that weren’t so dangerous?”
Mom smiled gently. “I also have my garden.”
“But Fernando could look after it,” I persisted.
“And my clients?” she reminded.
“He could look after them too.”
Mom’s eyes smiled. She cascaded another vial of black into her beading bowl. “Poor Fernando. Can you imagine him alone to tackle Mrs Lewis?” Mrs Lewis always changed her mind. “Or Mr Hawk?” His name wasn’t really Mr Hawk, but he rescued hurt birds, so we called him that.
“I bet he could handle it.”
“I know he could too,” Mom agreed. “But that’s not the point. Following Jay wasn’t right.” Her eyes flickered, narrowed. She had said more than she had meant.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I still wanted to know.
In her eyes I could see Mom gather her thoughts. After a bit she said, “It was hard for me to do nothing for myself when I travelled with Jay. Always, Jay would find places to just sit and watch, and the more he watched, the more it seemed he had always been wherever we happened to be. Within no time, he would be getting by in the local language, slipping into their habits. It made me feel left out, even though I would try to stay busy.”
I had never thought about how hard it would have been for Mom to wait while Jay took pictures. Everyone knew that Mom was busy like bees.
“Beading helped. It gave my hands something to do so the rest of me could be steady,” she said, searching Jay’s photos. Still, when I finally found our garden, it felt like I had finally found the place where I really belonged.” Her eyes came back to me. “Gardens are what I love.”
“But I thought you loved Jay.”
“I do love Jay, and he loves us.”
“Then why is gone so much?”
One of the fire’s logs burnt in half, falling forward. Mom picked up the old piece of wrought iron fence that was our poker and pushed the wood back. She stayed squatting a moment, while firelight danced on her face. Mom had quick emotions that could alight like flint. She was practiced at being still until her emotions quieted. “His work makes Jay feel right,” she said finally, turning toward me.
I nodded slowly, trying to understand. “Like you feel in our garden.”
“Doesn’t he get lonely?” Jay often went where there was no one at all.
“Growing up with Grandpop in Montana got him used to looking after himself,” she told me.
“Do you think he missed his Mom?”
Mom came close to me on the couch, taking back up her beading. “It’s hard to miss someone you never knew.”
“Oh, but I’d miss you,” I told her with certainty. “Even if you left the day I was born.”
Mom’s smile was warm.
“Still,” I said, “I don’t see why that means he has to be gone now.”
“Jay can seem quiet,” she told me, swirling her fingers through her beads as she talked, “but underneath he has powerful feelings. One way he finds peace is to go to places that accommodate these feelings.”
I looked at him on top of Everest.
“We let him be happy, and he loves us more because we allow him to be free.”
“Like the rabbit.”
“That’s right. When his leg was better, we let him go.”
“Because he was wild.”
“Is Jay wild?”
Mom laughed. “In part, I guess he is.”
“Do you miss him when he’s gone?”
“Do you?” Mom asked.
I hesitated, watching the flames jump. “Not all the time,” I admitted. “Is that bad?”
Mom touched her foot with mine. “No.”
“I get used to not seeing him, I mean, when he is gone a long time,” I confessed.
Mom’s eyes softened. “You see my beads?” Mom spread out the half-completed hanging on her lap so I could see it better. “After you are in bed, I try to imagine what Jay’s doing, and all this imagining goes into my beads.”
“It’s like the Antarctic!” I said, really noticing the blue, white, grey, yellow design for the very first time.
“And the green one, of the forest? Where was Dad?”
“In the Congo! You’re following him with your beads!”
Mom laughed, but then her face quieted. “I don’t miss him all the time either,” she told me.
“Most of the time, I’m just too busy. Between you, the garden, work -- the day just flies.”
It was true. Time went fast a lot. I thought some more. “But don’t you get mad that he’s gone away?”
Mom’s smile was like a puzzle. “No one is without flaws, Sweet Pea,” Mom said gently. “Jay has fewer than almost anyone I know except maybe Maria and Fernando.”
I thought about how when Jay was last here, our school was about to tear down the big kids’ playground, because it was unsafe, and there was no money to fix it. Jay organized a drive, and saved the playground.
“I’m sorry he missed your birthday.”
On the coffee table, I watched the coloured waves mix black with white which swirled with green.
“But we had fun, didn’t we?”
“Did you really like it?”
“So much!” I breathed
Her green eyes glinted elf-like. “Me too,” she agreed.
Copyright 2018 Melissa Leet