Nature Walk by Ceri Eagling

Leave the gallery show at 3:40, that was the plan, but fifteen minutes past the deadline she had set herself, Aileen noticed the painter step in from the street, his face familiar from the Boston Globe review. Good call! he said. That canvas was of the Paris park she remembered. She was winding up a twenty-five-year-old, semester-abroad account of her assignation there with her French Culture teacher, when she thought, speaking of parks… and with a wave of apology, set off at a clip down Newbury Street, her goal to buy snow boots on the way to the train less of a sure thing.

“Idiot, idiot,” she puffed as she crossed Arlington Street and steered a curving diagonal through the Public Garden — past the George Washington statue, past where the swan boats would be moored in April — and out again at the corner of Charles and Beacon. Yet, irked as she was by the traffic lights delaying her progress, Aileen felt the same buzz she’d experienced before, when one pleasure threatened to scupper the next. As if the drive to make a grab for both unleashed an adrenalin-fueled sense of cheating time that made her want to laugh out loud. Her father, a believer in schedules, asked her once, as he dropped her outside the high school when she’d missed her bus again, if she knew why they called it common sense, since it seemed so rare. She’d smiled and kissed his cheek, unwilling to confess that his indulgence let her dally and get to school on time. She crossed Charles to enter the Common, thinking, common sense can be overrated, Dad!, although her father had been dead a dozen years.

She loved the combined jolt of connection and resistance when her heel hit the ground. Bam! It ran up her calves, her thighs, along her vertebrae, and made success feel inevitable. Preparing tonight’s dinner by 8 a.m.? Packing away the Thanksgiving linen and catching the train with a minute to spare? Lunch, a little light Christmas shopping, a gallery visit and new boots? Pas de problème!

The boots would have to be comfortable. Her old ones worked at home, where sidewalks were scarce and people admired its vaunted beauties from their SUVs, but this winter she really would come in to Boston often on her Fridays off, and not just say she would. In Boston, she walked!

Her toe sent an acorn whirling into a scatter of dry leaves beneath the trees. She’d missed the city’s fall effects this year — too busy helping her mother move to a smaller house — but it wasn’t hard to picture the Common strafed with the same saturated colors that had dazzled the outer suburbs — the purples and golds and scarlets she almost forgot each spring until they returned in October. They’d filled the branches, the lawns, and finally, the paper sacks dispatched to the dump, where, by common agreement they all belonged once the show was over. Only the dun-colored oak leaves clung on until fresh buds forced them off in May.

Ahead of her, two men and a little girl had stopped on the rise overlooking the Frog Pond as if to mark the midpoint of her route for her. She’d added this small detour to her list after the mayor’s Christmas-lighting slot on the local news last night had made the scene appear so garish, she wanted to catch it in the fading daylight. And sure enough, as she strode up the slope, it seemed to her that if you narrowed your eyes and blotted out the commercial music from the winter ice rink, the Frog Pond, in its shallow, wooded setting, with the City of Boston at a benign distance, retained some echo of its Currier and Ives virginity. 

A likely truant from the State House in a necktie and dark wool overcoat circled the ice in stately contrast to the gaggle of Beacon Hill youngsters and their minders. College kids from Emerson or Suffolk opened a gap in their conga line to let a woman through. Her gray hair, worn long in a style Aileen identified as Boston Academic, tumbled over her ear muffs and hid her face as, head down, she rested her hand on the barrier and fumbled in her jacket pocket. Aileen tensed. Searching for an inhaler, or worse, a heart pill? Chiding herself for taking such foolish risks at her age? A second later, the woman pressed a paper tissue to her nose and blew, the answer carried up to the footpath on the cold air. No defibrillator today, thank you very much.

It was clear now that the men were waiting for the child to catch up. Her numerous steps made little difference to her advance because of the tight, zig-zag pattern she maintained. A kindergartner, judging by her size, she murmured a sing-song incantation and held her arms away from her sides as she moved, as if to channel the leaves as they gusted past. Or maybe it was the little brown hat she wore, like the top of an acorn, that made her seem a miniature dryad of the Common.

It turned out that she was counting. “Five chipmunks, six chipmunks.”

The younger man swiveled. “Not chipmunks, goosey. Squirrels!”

Charmed, Aileen had not connected the word to the evidence darting across the path: fluffy tails, gray all over, no stripes.

“Seven chipmunks, eight…”

“Didn’t you hear?” the man said, laughing. “They’re squirrels!”

The girl — Fern, Aileen decided – let her arms waver, and then returned them to the same level as before. “Oh. Okay.”

Her father held up his palms in mock bemusement, as the older man turned to watch the exchange. “Chipmunks!” he shrugged.

 The men were father and son without a doubt. Their features matched, but their double portrait, almost cartoonish in its frankness, recalled some painted allegory of youth and age that lacked only a ribbon emblazoned with sententious words. As thou art now, so once was I; as I am now, so thou must be. The older man’s role as memento mori made Aileen shiver, even as she acknowledged that he wasn’t old, but sick. It struck her that, just as her own father had pushed Evan’s stroller to cover his halting pace, Fern’s dawdling offered her grandfather camouflage for his.

Seeing him nod while his son talked, Aileen thought she could weigh with a fine precision the effort it took him to seem to care. Visit by visit, she had whittled down the topics that once absorbed her father, from national politics to news of her neighborhood, to one that had never failed to engage him — herself, and by extension, Sean and the boys: Evan, frowningly intense at three, and Michael making heavy weather of first grade. Tales of their lives would dull the sadness, right? Deflect the knowledge. Compensate. “The sun is shining, Art,” her mother said. “On whom?” he replied, and there it was, declared.

The opening notes of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ rose from the sound system, and Fern stopped halfway through a zig, her face expressing the precise blend of recognition and delight you would feel, Aileen thought, if you were five years old, and the last time a catchy tune had filled the airways was a fifth of your lifetime ago.

In less than a week, according to the weather forecast, Frosty’s doppelganger would appear in the Goraks’ yard across the street, and if she wanted boots in time for a second trip to the city before the holidays, she had to leave now. But the gray-haired woman had rejoined the skaters with such an air of serenity, that Aileen and Fern craned their necks in unison to keep her in sight. Her movements showed none of the students’ reckless style, nor the State House guy’s finesse. It suggested rather a reacquaintance with a once-familiar skill, or simply the caution even Aileen applied lately to a not-so-youthful body. Still, her delight imbued the tinny music with something like eloquence, as she lifted one arm in front of her, the other behind, and glided forward on a single skate.

The music thumped to a close, and a reverberating voice directed the skaters off the ice to let the Zamboni machine restore its surface. Nannies sat their charges down to untie their laces; Aileen and the woman skater checked their watches. A Viennese waltz, aching with lush regret, partnered the Zamboni’s sweep of the ice, as holiday lights, triggered by the growing dusk, sprang on throughout the Common in colors more strident and unlikely than any October could produce.

“Time’s up, sweetie,” Fern’s father called. “Grandpa and I are tired.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Aileen watched Fern position herself for another slanted turn, and then reconsider. She dropped her arms from their wing configuration, raised one in front of her, the other behind, and started over. “One chipmunk, two chipmunks.” 

Speed-walking down a right-hand fork that led to Tremont Street, Aileen reflected that Fern was not denying squirrels exactly, just preferring to see them as chipmunks. She and her parents had plumped for chipmunks too, when her father first got sick, as if by choosing the name of what ailed him, they could choose its nature. Even the doctors didn’t say “squirrels” at once, and when they did, she and her mother continued to discern a faint stripe or two, until one day, Sean glanced at his father-in-law, then stared at Aileen with a look that said, For the love of God, stop. In the end, it was her father himself, bowing to a schedule not of his making, who banished talk of chipmunks, and she had been stung by a hard jet of hurt and disappointment, because, like a child, she’d believed her dad would always protect his girl.

At Downtown Crossing, where the stores flung Christmas onto the sidewalk from tinseled windows, Aileen, reinvigorated by her dash, pushed open Macy’s revolving door to complete her mission.

Inside, she stared down a short flight of steps at what looked like half the population of Greater Boston. Under the heat and the heavy schmaltz of a Christmas ballad, shoppers discarded wallets and scarves and earrings in favor of what the next array might hold. No fairy godfather would whisk her over this shifting tide and set her down on the second floor; there were only people with no apparent purpose except to hem her in against the watch counter, where analogue and digital faces ticked and flipped sardonic hints about common sense.

Her efforts to thread a quicker passage up the escalator bumped up against customers standing two abreast or sharing a step with a giant shopping bag. She reached the top only to see, from the entrance to the women’s shoe department, a line six-deep at the register, while customers at varying stages of resignation waved a single boot in case a sales assistant with an armful of boxes was searching for them. How had she not anticipated this?

She roused herself. Stylish, waterproof comfortable, let’s go! But boots were scattered high and low throughout the department, on shelves and on myriad table tops. Some were easy to discount — too flimsy, too high, too chained, too looped, too tasseled — while others, plausible at first, disclosed their drawbacks only on inspection. Chic yes, waterproof no. Waterproof yes, but ugly as sin. Who designed these things? What was so hard to understand about waterproofing, since — hello? — snow was wet? And granting that, why conclude that frumpy was the way to go?

She caught sight of her flushed face in a mirrored column and unzipped her coat. Really? Did an outside temperature of 35° require an indoor one of 80? When every shopper was wearing a winter coat? She’d made her list, she’d checked it twice, so where were the snow boots, safe in a shopping bag stamped with Macy’s yearly commandment to ‘Believe!’?  Reflected in the mirror, a pair of abandoned boots half-in, half-out of its box, sprawled at her feet, wadded tissue and cardboard inserts spewed like innards. She thought of the dress shoe collection her father had asked her to take to the Salvation Army and felt a bubble of despair catch in her throat. What kind of fool believed she could outwit time?

Her phone buzzed. “Hey, how’s your day?” Sean wanted to know.

“Bad!” She heard the edge of panic in her voice “Macy’s is boiling, I can’t find boots, the lines are crazy, and in fifteen minutes – oh my god, ten! – I have to leave.”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why the emergency, I mean.” Reading her silence, he said, “We’re big boys, Aileen, know how to forage. Get a later train.”

Sean and her father had shared this homing instinct for the practical. Like Fern’s father, they too would have felt it their duty to ‘correct’ the name of a woodland creature, and missed a child’s obscure need to see things differently. On the other hand, there were times when she had blessed their clarity. Get a later train. It had not occurred to her. Her panic shrank back to its dormant state, and in its stead, the paintings, Fern, and the skater reappeared, bright tokens that would fix this day among the unknowable tally of her life.

“So yes?”

She pulled off her coat and sat on a nearby chair. “All right. I will.”

She fanned her face with the list from the gallery show and promised herself that when she left the train station that evening and walked across the commuter parking lot to her car, she would pay attention to the air that sometimes felt a little stifling to her, and savor its freshness. And when she turned into her driveway and glanced across the street at the Goraks’ house, she knew that whatever Downtown Crossing or the mayor of Boston had to say, the banner on the mini flag pole above their porch would still show November’s cluster of  Indian corn — to be replaced by candy canes entwined with holly on December 1, and not a day before. January’s flag would feature a snowman, February’s a lacy heart, March’s a leprechaun, and April’s a cherry tree in frothy bloom.

As smoothly as a Zamboni driver clears ice, she slid her mind away from where Fern’s grandfather might be in April and pictured instead the fruit trees in the Paris park. They were the first espaliers she’d seen, pruned out of all resemblance to their natural shape, their remaining branches pinned in a candelabra design against a sunny wall. Those boughs had troubled her, producing their fruit, as it were, in captivity. Yet, the afternoon she sat on a bench with the French Culture teacher, the manacled limbs had showered petals down on them as freely as the pear tree in her parents’ yard. It was the blossom’s nature, as it was the oak leaves’ nature to hang on, and neither of them could choose.

The dinner she’d prepared would keep, and tonight, Sean and the boys – two hulking teenagers her father wouldn’t recognize – would order pizza and celebrate their sudden reprieve from healthy food. She picked up the boots that some else had declined. They might work for her when she got her size. If not, she’d search a bit longer, and failing that, she would drive to the mall on Sunday. No rush.

About The Author

Ceri Eagling grew up in Wales, lived six years in France and is a long-time resident of the United States. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in LIT magazine, The Writing Disorder, Antiphon, Allegro Poetry Magazine, Verse Virtual, Riggwelter, The Billfold and The Write Place at the Write Time.

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