Monday, September 12, 2011

#1: "Ostriches" by Susan Tekulve

~~this piece previously appeared in New Letters (2006)


The dark hours.  Dreaming, Sadie stands on her front porch in a hurricane, her bra flying out of her hands, rising into the dark arms of hemlock that shred its lace and batting.  She wakes, reaches into her cotton night gown, touches the cyst curled above the jagged scar across her chest. In the mirror at the foot of her bed, her face is haloed by fine, white hair, her skin clear as lilies from all the radiation treatments.  Outside the window, telephone wires twist into the hemlock, and the blue mountain ridge hulks against the red-streaked November sky.  She glances back to the telephone on the bed stand, thinking, I cannot tell this over the phone.
Down in the kitchen, her husband, Dean, sleeps on the picnic bench beside the table, one frost bitten hand resting across his chest.  The stove’s eyes are covered with dirty pots and pans, the counters lined with jars of apple butter, squares of brown sugar fudge, a whole chess pie he made for her yesterday.  Above the china-filled hutch, his rifle rests. His long, silver hair unwashed, his square chin unshaved, he looks like one of the old-time mountain men who sometimes wander through the cemetery beside the house, cursing at the cats napping on the tombstones.  When Dean wakes, he’ll take the gun into the wooded ridges above their house to hunt wild boar, elk, ram, stock the freezer full of wild game. After months spent in still hospital waiting rooms, he needs this walking.  He’ll wander for hours on his land, up leaf-covered ridges that kettle their red brick house, his flintlock rifle on his back. 
Sadie pulls Dean’s red and black flannel hunting jacket over her nightgown, slips his boots over two pairs of wool socks.   When the screen door creaks, Dean startles, grabs the edge of the table, pulls himself up. 
“Sis?
 “I’ve got to go tell her,” she says. 
“I’ll take you.”
She places one hand upon his chest, softly pushing him back down on the
bench.  “Lay down a while.  Get some rest, “
On the crumbling brick porch, Sadie considers Dean’s black pickup, decides the drive up the mountain road would take her to her mother’s farm too quickly.  Instead, she grabs the tamarack cane propped against the porch rail. Her daughter, Hannah, bought it for her at the West Virginia Heritage Center on her way down from Ohio last spring, when the cancer filled her right femur, snapping it.  Though she’s lived in these mountains all her life, the cane is unlike anything Sadie has ever seen. Its polished handle is hollowed out, filled with pieces of jade that slide inside like beads along an abacus. She doesn’t like to use the cane but knows the ridges are too steep for her to climb without it.   Slowly, she begins walking down the gravel drive toward the trailer that hunches beneath the first ridge.
Outside the trailer, the last winter apples hang from the bare branches.  Wizened and yellowed, their vinegar scent follows her as she passes the abandoned trailer sinking into red maple leaves.  Inside, a younger woman stands at the kitchen window.  Plump and blond, she peels apples by the stove, boiling them with cinnamon into dark, sweet butter while Dean is there, close behind with empty jars in his hands.  Sadie’s chest tightens, and her lungs burn. 
 “Oxygen thief,” she hisses at the blond woman.  Picking a soft apple from a low branch, she throws it at the trailer window, but it skids beneath, waking a milk snake that crawls languidly out from the empty tire case.   She looks back into the trailer, but the woman has vanished, and the real Dean now stands grizzled and shirtless on the front porch of their house, looking out over her.  Watching her husband, who is alone and worried and waiting for her in the distance, she forgives his long-ago roaming.  He’s with me now, she thinks.  Now it’s me who’s got to leave.
Inside the woods, tombstones from the last pandemic lean into the mountain, blanketed by soft drifts of fallen leaves.  Others squat among thick, green outcroppings of rock lilies, their faces worn smooth since 1918.  Sadie makes out an epigraph, Gone but not forgotten, but she doesn’t recognize the name. Leaves have fallen into two exhumed graves, softening their sharp edges into ovals, as though two giant cameos have been dug out of the earth.   Above the empty graves, the trunks of two towering pine trees have been slashed with white paint.
She climbs the first ridge.  At the top, she turns back to look down at the graves. The tombstones are brown and dull as tree stumps, a playground where she and her brother, Michael, once played Civil War.  Thinking the flags scattered in the leaves belonged to fallen soldiers, they’d used deadfall branches for muskets, dodging invisible gunshot among the graves.  Michael always wanted to play a Confederate of the 32nd Virginia because their father hailed from Tidewater country but had moved to Bluefield to grade coal for Norfolk and Western when he was seventeen.  Rolling in the weeds and dead leaves, her brother often caught poison ivy, and they had to go home so that their mother could bathe him in bleach. 
On the other side of the ridge, the sloping path leads to Cold Stone Creek.  She and Michael rode their bikes down this path, Michael always ahead, always turning at the last minute before the high, rocky drop into the creek.  Now, as she edges carefully down the leaf-slippery path, she wonders how she’d never caught poison ivy in the graveyard or taken a neck-breaking fall into the creek. Lowering herself into the embankment, Sadie slowly crosses over the fallen maple that stretches across the creek.  The water is low and clear, filled with black rocks and brown sand, glistening with dusty shafts of sunlight that drift down through the forest’s canopy high above her head.  Sunning turtles roll off the log, thumping into the water before she reaches them.  
On the other side of the creek, morning sun warms the thicket, lighting the red, swollen holly berries hanging from bare branches.   When Sadie’s hair began falling out, Dean brought home a wig and two guns he’d bought at the auction held every weekend in the old dairy down in Bluefield.   He taught her the names of guns--Saturday Night Special, Cowboy Sidearm--claiming there was a time when he could hit a pie pan swinging in the wind at fifty yards.  He took Sadie out to this same thicket, hung a pie pan on a locust branch, slipped a ladylike 22-magnum in her hand and taught her to aim through its sights. She aimed too high, missing the pie pan, but the gun’s report ringing through the thicket thrilled her anyway. The wig itched her scalp terribly.   Dean told her to take it off.  As she pulled the wig from her head, patches of her own hair came with it.  Dean put down his gun, motioned for her to sit beside him.  Cross-legged in the grass, she nodded and leaned toward her husband, and together they pulled the last strands of hair from her head, letting them fly across the thicket.  She’d kept the bullet casings in her purse for weeks.  She never wore the wig again. 
Now, she parts the saw briar and blackberry, follows a deer path through briars and locust that tear the hem of her nightgown, claw her bare calves. Half a mile from the tree line, she stops to rest in a thorn-free place, examining the stripped bark, brown droppings, matted-down weeds.  So tired, she feels much older than fifty-seven.  She imagines how lovely it would be to sleep and sleep in the deer bed.  Warmed by midmorning sun, protected by a wall of thorns, she gives into her fatigue, lies down on a clean bed of matted grass, folds the hunting jacket beneath her head, and tries to remember a time before constant ache and weariness coursed through her body.  

         Sis? She is seven, her lank red hair braided down her back, holding the empty tin measuring cup her mother has just placed in her hand.  In the dim trailer’s kitchen, her mother’s face is gaunt, her eyes bruised from lack of sleep. She will not touch or name the newborn crying in the chest of drawers across from her bed, though Sadie has already named him Michael.  “I want you to take this up to Miss Emma’s place and fetch some milk for the baby.”  Then Sadie is running with the empty cup down Dump Hill, along the street past the dairy, up through the pandemic cemetery.  It is late spring.  Purple crocus and white rock lilies rise through the blanket of leaves between the graves.   Crossing the turtle log above Cold Stone Creek, she follows the deer path through the thicket.  Free of thorn scratch and leg ache, she is barely winded as she climbs the steepest ridge and looks down into the valley called God’s Thumbprint.  The green ridges do look as though a god squeezed the soft, old mountains through his giant fists, pressing and molding them with his blunt thumbs. She loves the lone, white farmhouse in the middle of the thumbprint, its wide painted porch steps guarded on each side by purple Rose of Sharon, its sides lined with straight, narrow beds of strawberries and rhubarb.
          Beyond the house, she sees Dean, Miss Emma’s son, polishing a black ‘41 Packard beside the barn, his shoulders bare and broad.  A brown mare named Queenie sticks her head out through the barn window, as though waiting for Dean to notice.
        “Don’t you scratch my moonshine coup with that tin cup of yours, “ Dean teases.  “This’ll be worth something someday.” 
Because the run through the familiar woods has eased her shyness, and because she’s already decided to marry him, she sasses back,  “What’s a car like that worth without its tires?”
She runs to the front door before he can answer, waits for Miss Emma to finish playing “Adore and Be Still” on the piano before knocking.  A young widow, Dean’s mother never leaves the house.  She plays the piano and cooks exotic meals with the wild animals her son hunts—wild boar stew, game pie, pan-fried venison with chestnut sauce.  She calls eggplants “aubergines” and can make a dish called “paella” out of two pigeons, one pheasant and a single rabbit.  Some say she could have been a master chef.  Others say she never leaves her property because she’s afraid of the man who shot her husband dead on the Norfolk and Western tracks ten years ago, widowing her with a young son.  The story came down to Sadie that the murderer broke into Miss Emma’s house one night and watched her sleep, but he never took anything from the house. 
“I kept my eyes closed, but could feel him standing at the side of my bed, watching over me,” Miss Emma had said.   After that, nobody could convince her to leave her property again.  
Sadie believes that if she could live among such elegant wonders--a walnut piano, pure white doilies crocheted from feed sack string, a deep freeze filled with more food than she could ever eat, a bay window overlooking a broad, pretty hollow molded by God’s thumbs—she might not be inclined to leave either.  Dean’s mother answers the door, a tiny woman with black Victorian braids piled on top her head.  She takes the tin cup to the kitchen, returns with the milk and a wild boar shank tied up in a flour sack.   “Tell your mother to put some molasses in the milk.   It’ll sweeten it.” Then Sadie is running down the mountain so that the milk will stay fresh.  

Before reaching her baby brother, Sadie startles to the sound of footsteps shuffling through leaves, coming toward her at a repentant pace, two steps, a pause, then three more steps.  At first, she thinks it must be Dean coming to carry her back to their house, wrap her in warm quilts, feed her slices of baked sweet potatoes smothered with brown sugar and butter.  Then she sees a white tail flash in the sun and knows she is the only human in the thicket, the unseen eyes of a deer upon her.
She wants to turn back.  She recalls Dean’s deeply lined face, can almost smell his tobacco as he wraps her in that quilt.  She is almost hungry for the sweet potatoes he’ll feed her for breakfast. The ridge before God’s Thumbprint is the steepest, stabbed with bare sycamore trunks that rise like gray prison bars, buttery morning light drizzling down their trunks.  Her bad leg aches and she is so tired, but she cannot turn away from what she must tell her mother. She ties the cane to a hook on the hunting jacket and pulls herself from trunk to trunk until she reaches the top and sits on a fallen oak, looking down. 
The white farmhouse is a used-to-be place that Dean gave to Sadie’s mother, Jane, after Miss Emma died.  Deep green ferns spring from the trough where the water used to be; the drywell is topped with stones and broken terra-cotta pipes.  The farmhouse’s tin roof has gone missing, and trillium and trumpet vine slowly churn the stone porch steps to dust.  The two Rose of Sharon still bloom mysteriously on either side of the front door that swings off its hinge, and Miss Emma’s rock lillies and rhubarb still poke through leaves in the overgrown flowerbeds.  Inside the house, dried wisteria vines tangle into fallen electrical wires down the blackened and crumbled brick chimney. Empty paint cans and Skoal lids litter the floor, leftover from when Dean tried to rebuild the house, before Sadie finally told him about the new round of cysts, and he lost interest in restoring anything but his wife’s body.   Standing where the bay window used to be, Sadie looks out over the valley, searching for God’s thumbprint, but she sees only gold, sloping pastures, the tall tombstone, light gray and clean, shaded by a maple entwined with the trunk of a hemlock.  
Though Sadie cannot see the words engraved on the marker, she knows they read, My darling son, Michael, 1941-1958. For a moment, she recalls Michael at twelve.  Already bigger and stronger, he’d ambushed her after school one day.  Rising from the floor on the other side of her bed, he wore a plastic Halloween mask of a Cherokee Indian, laughing as she screamed and ran, slamming the door that no longer locked.  The door hit his shoulder, bounced open, scraped the wall.  Through the holes of the mask, his blue eyes were bloodshot, and he reeked of Cost Cutter beer.  The horse-hair braids of the plastic mask fell into her mouth as he slapped her swelling stomach, twisted her sore breasts. 
“Fat cow,” he hissed.  “Stupid slut.  They won’t let you finish high school.” 
But when she told her mother about the baby and Dean’s plan to marry her in secret so that she could finish high school, Jane simply told her she had to get to work at the beauty parlor in downtown Bluefield where Jane had been cutting and setting the hair of railroad men’s wives since Sadie’s father ran off with a coal operator’s widow to Roanoke three months before Michael was born.
Now an unseen hammer rings in the distance.  Most likely, the hammer belongs to the organic farmer Dean sold part of his land to last year to pay off medical bills.  A trailer sits behind the remains of Miss Emma’s farmhouse, the side door opening to a tiny kitchen crowded with metal filing cabinets, a writing desk stacked with rare-bird breeding magazines.  The trailer appeared five years ago, right after the farmhouse burned down and Dean gave Jane the insurance money to rebuild it.  After the trailer appeared, six giant white eggs arrived at Sadie and Dean’s post-office box in town. Before Dean delivered the eggs to Jane, Sadie reminded him of how Jane ordered a still from a catalogue right after her husband left.  She’d put the still right on her marble coffee table, where she’d once kept her broad, white Bible open to the picture of the River Jordan.  She’d planned to deliver moonshine from the trunk of her Buick in Dickenson County.  But too many of the roadhouses had been turned into churches by the primitive Baptists, and Jane eventually began using her first failed investment as a novelty planter for her geraniums.    When Sadie pointed out the similarities between the moonshine and the ostrich schemes, Dean only shook his head, frowning, She’s your mother.  The land is hers as long as she lives.
Sadie knocks on the screen door. When nobody answers, she walks around to the old black barn, sees right through its wide, warped slats out to the mountain grass rustling on the foothills behind it.  Guinea fowls pour out of the barn, swirling around her feet.  A woman steps out of the barn, leans in the dark doorway.  Coatless, her bare arms are muscular, still deeply tanned against a white T-shirt. Her long, black hair is streaked with silver, caught into a thick braid that hangs down to the waist of her faded blue jeans.  Once, Sadie offered to make her mother a dress, but when she asked Jane what her favorite color was, her mother shook her head, saying, “I’m done with all that.”
        Facing her mother, Sadie hesitates, recalling the shame and happiness she’d felt as she told her mother she was pregnant.  She wishes she were young and unwed and pregnant again, and that all she needed to explain to her mother was,  “Dean and I celebrated too much after one of his football games.  He’s going to marry me.” She strains to find the words spoken and understood so easily in the surgeon’s white office, metastasizing quickly, no more chemo or radiation, maybe before Christmas. Always more comfortable outside than indoors, Sadie is surprised by how much harder it is to say these final words to her mother in this graceful, open valley. 
          “I’ve got to go,” she says finally. 
Jane glances knowingly over her daughter’s chick fluff hair, her frail and winded body, the polished cane hanging useless from her jacket.  She nods, her face as impassive as ever, her eyes wary.  “Will Dean take his land back?”
Sadie counts to ten, reminding herself of Dean’s unaccountable devotion, repeating his admonishment, She’s your mother.
           “You don’t know anything about me or Dean, Sadie says.  “If you did, you’d know that he wouldn’t take away this land after I’m gone.” 
Jane nods.   Then she motions for Sadie to follow her into the barn.
         “I was just about to feed them,” she says.
          In the first pen, blue and pink pastel eggs glow in the straw as though saphires and rubies stoked from within.  She cradles a red, aracona hen in the crook of her arm. 
          “Foxes got into the barn last summer.  They got her left eye, but she lived.  She has trouble seeing, so I have to help her eat.”   Sprinkling corn and mountain grass on the lid of an upturned coffee can, she guides the hen’s beak until the bird finds the feed, stroking her craw until she eats.  Satisfied, her mother unrolls a garden hose, pulling it outside.  “You must see this.”
Out behind the barn, the black dots in the pasture turn out to be emus squatting on the hillside.   Her mother turns on the garden hose, spraying the one nearest the old, faded Packard.  The emu rises, spreading his black, flightless wings, twirling, panting and snapping up the water.   Jane laughs and sprays the emu while a trio of ostriches saunters to the edge of their muddy pen, black necks straining, thick-lashed eyes wary. Their dirty eggs sink like footballs stripped of pigskin in the mud along the fence. 
There is only one male among the eight females, and Jane has named him after Dale Earnhardt, calling him Number 3.  She has rigged up a pulley so that she can open the feeding trough door without entering the ostrich pen.  The ostriches clamber in, pecking and hissing.  Jane pours feed into the trough, swatting away their fierce beaks distractedly, explaining how only darkness calms them.
“They could kill a man,” she says, turning over her arms, revealing the pale, upraised scars trailing the inside of her arms down to her wrists. She explains how she approaches them only at night, slipping a soft, white pillowcase over their eyes and ears, becalming them enough to gather the eggs.  Sadie traces her mother’s sorrowful career path from moonshine to hairdressing to ostriches, wondering aloud, “Why ostriches?  Why not soft-muzzled cows, or horses?” Without answering, Jane leads her to the back of the barn and into a small, whitewashed incubation room, but she does not let Sadie enter it.  The eggs are too fragile, the hatchlings too susceptible to air-born bird diseases.  Even the slightest change in body temperature could kill an unborn ostrich.   Jane makes Sadie stand behind a plate glass window to look at the unhatched eggs, but Sadie studies her mother’s face instead.  In stillness, Jane’s frown lines look like deep hinges around her mouth, but her faded blue eyes gaze placidly through the glass, and Sadie realizes, suddenly, that her lawless mother has found peace in one of the most graceless creatures on earth.    
Behind them, the shelves of the small market are lined with emu plumes and ostrich jerky, giant white and smaller black polished eggs, spiral-bound books filled with ostrich meat recipes. In autumn, Jane gives tours of her farm to school children from Bluefield and Princeton, dreaming of a time when tourists will drive from Charlotte and Roanoke to see her exotic birds.   Sadie knows that the local school children call her mother “Jane the Insane Bird Lady.”  She knows how the children repeat the grim tale of how Jane traded her young, unfaithful husband off to an old Indian woman high in the mountains for two hunting dogs, then took the dogs out behind the barn and shot them. Sadie has always been too embarrassed to mention this cruel story, and Jane has always seemed oblivious.   She finally makes a good living selling the full-grown ostriches to an abbattoir from France who stuns and carves them into the low fat fillets stacked into a deep freeze by the door, shipping out orders to expensive restaurants that serve the same dishes that Dean’s mother once cooked long before they were in fashion.
Jane and Sadie face each other above the deep freeze.
“It’s supposed to be better for you than red meat,” Jane says, offering to let Sadie take as much as she wants home with her.   “It tastes like chicken, of course.”
Sadie recalls her dream in the deer bed, remembers the immaculate farmhouse when it still belonged to Dean’s mother.  Sadie wants to slap her mother for burning down the farmhouse, for thinking she could make it all up to her by giving her some ostrich meat.  She shakes her head.  “Dean’s already stocked us up for the winter.”
          Jane turns, walks back to the white-washed room, and Sadie stands at the door of the barn looking out over her brother’s grave. Though Michael was never in the military, Jane has staked two American flags beside the marker, placed a heavy drift of fresh white lillies around the marker’s base. At seventeen, Michael stopped drinking and became a missionary, traveling to the tiny coal towns in West Virginia to preach and work side-by-side with the miners. A few years later, after the last coal operators pulled out, Dean found Michael lying on the side of the road and brought him back to the farmhouse, where they were living with Dean’s mother, who was failing. Sadie put cold washcloths on her brother’s forehead while he slept, thinking he looked much older than seventeen.  His blond hair receded, his shoulders stooped and his wrists and joints stiffened with arthritis.   While he slept, Sadie washed all the tinware in the house, clanking it, hoping to wake him.  While she was drying the final cookie sheet, Michael appeared in the kitchen doorway.  Backlit by evening sun, his long blond hair hung loose and shiny, his blue eyes pale as slate, focusing on something beyond her face.  
        “I was working for the Lord, but I got tired,” he said.  “He wore me out.”
        The next morning, he fixed the rusted chain on his old bicycle and took it out for a ride.  Sadie imagines her brother, worn out by mining and Jesus, hunched over the handlebars of his childhood bike, riding up through the pandemic graves and down the slippery, root-crossed path.  It must have been the extra weight, his slow, adult reflexes that made him miss the curve before Cold Stone Creek.  They found his body down in the low water, his neck broken against a sharp rock in the creek bed. 
          Jane comes out of the barn with a giant alabaster egg and offers it to her daughter.
         “I’ve been making these to sell to the tourists, but you can have this one,” Jane says.   “I have all kinds of them if you want more.”
         At first, Sadie wonders if this gift is her mother’s idea of a cruel joke.  Then Jane turns it over, urging Sadie to look inside the hollowed-out shell at the tiny angels and shepherds, the holy mother leaning over her child. She pictures Dean alone next winter, his calloused and frost-bitten hands fumbling over the ceramic camels and sheep of the old nativity she always sets up beneath a newly cut scotch pine. She knows her husband will fry a turkey, sauce cranberries and bake a sweet potato pie, wrap it all up in aluminum foil to take to Jane’s farm on Christmas day.  She knows he will accept her mother’s gift of ostrich meat with a simple nod. Finally, she understands that her mother’s gift will save Dean from facing the sadness of old family ornaments, the complicated decision of whether to put them up or leave them buried beneath tissue paper in attic boxes.  Startled by her mother’s uncommon grace, Sadie reaches for the egg. 
        Encouraged, Jane hands Sadie a bouquet of blue, iridescent emu plumes, for the grandchildren, nodding back toward the barn.  “They’re going to hatch next week.  Come back and see them.”  
“All right,” Sadie nods, though she knows she won’t be returning. 
 She wraps the egg in her jacket, tucks the plumes inside her shirt, picks up her cane. Turning to leave, she pauses, looking over the valley.  She recalls the first time Michael took her to see it, how he’d been confused about its name, calling it God’s Eye instead, creating in Sadie’s mind an absurd and painful image of a giant god lying across the mountain valley with cows trampling over his open eye.  She lets her own eyes linger over the valley, its old hills smoothed and creased.   The organic farmer’s hammer has stopped ringing, and a red-tail hawk hangs in the silent blue air.  Her eyes filled with what she needs, Sadie turns away from her mother, heading down toward foothills sinking like flightless birds into dusk.
******

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Perfume, Powder and Lead: Writing “Ostriches”
         I’ve always favored stories about unassuming women who commit quiet acts of heroism, and there has never been anyone in my life who could tell this kind of tale better than my mother-in-law, Mary.   In the earliest years of my marriage, I came to know her through the stories she told me in her kitchen. Both morning people, we’d always rise before dawn and sit together at the kitchen table with the lights off, waiting for the rest of the family to wake.  A quiet woman with kind eyes, she spoke with the cadence of the King James Bible trembling beneath her soft voice. I was always unnerved by her stillness, in awe of her ability to remain sane inside the tiny house kettled between two Virginia mountain ridges where she’d lived all of her adult life.  Perhaps Mary could endure such stasis because her mind ventured long distances.  She could recall the most amazing stories about herself and the other women in her family, though she remained estranged from many of them, including her own mother, for reasons too sordid and complicated to go into at this time.  Because she was so quiet and kind, Mary always surprised me with her stories, which seemed at once feminine and tough, salted with grit and uncommon grace.   There is an old bluegrass song that always reminds me of her style of story telling.  It is called “Perfume, Powder and Lead.”
 “When I was seven, I used to walk eight miles up the mountain to fetch my baby brother a cup of milk from a neighbor,” she once told me.  “I did this every morning and every evening, just so the milk would be fresh.”  She smiled, quietly pleased by the memory of carrying an empty tin cup eight miles up a mountain twice every day, fetching the milk that kept her infant brother alive. 
When Mary became ill with the cancer that took her piece by piece over two years, she stopped telling me stories. Instead, I began to hear tales about her through my husband, who called her daily from our home in South Carolina. The day before Mary’s second mastectomy, my husband came into our bedroom after talking with his mother on the phone, his face fallen with bewilderment and grief.  “My mother had a dream last night,” he said.  “She was standing on her porch in the middle of a hurricane in her bra.  No matter how hard she tried to hold on, the bra’s lace and batting tore out with the wind.”  He mused aloud about the unlikelihood of a hurricane hitting his mother’s house in the middle of those Virginia mountains. Neither of us spoke about the storm that must have been brewing inside his mother’s mind and body as she dreamed and awaited her surgery.  
The fall it became clear that the surgeries and chemo treatments were no longer working, Mary called my husband, and my husband came to me with yet another anecdote.  “My mother went up the mountain today to tell her mother that she’s stopping all the treatments.”  At the time, I didn’t think of using any of Mary’s stories in my own fiction, though this final one haunted me.  I began living with it, unable to stop thinking of the enormous weight of the message Mary carried to her estranged mother that morning she went up the mountain. I marveled at her quiet bravery.  I admired her grit.  I wondered what she said to her mother when she reached her, and how her mother replied.  None of these questions were ever answered in real life.  Mary died that spring, the week before Easter, in a cancer treatment center in Tampa, Florida.  Ironically, a tropical storm hit the city the morning she passed away, wind and rain tearing the palms in the street meridians. 
The next fall, my husband and I returned to Virginia to visit his father.  During our stay, we took a walk through the woods behind his parents’ house, through the pandemic cemetery, crossing the creek and climbing the ridge.  As we walked, the first draft of “Ostriches” came to me in a torrent.  When we got home from Virginia, I sat down and wrote it nearly in one sitting, making Mary’s trip up the mountain to deliver the bad news to her mother the central story line.  I allowed the details of the milk anecdote, the hurricane dream and my own walk with my husband to merge into that single plot.  I still think of this piece as a gift, its details given to me by my mother-in-law, the finished version an elegy written for her. I still believe it was her quiet voice that led me all the way through it.  ~~ Susan Tekulve
*****
ABOUT SUSAN TEKULVE
Susan Tekulve is the author of three short story collections: Savage Pilgrims, Wash Day and My Mother’s War Stories.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Best New Writing 2007, The Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, Another Chicago Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Connecticut Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Crab Orchard Review, The Literary Review, Webdelsol, Black Warrior Review, Contemporary World Literature and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded the Winnow Press Award in Fiction, a Sewannee Writers’ Conference Tennessee Williams Scholarship, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship, the Editor’s Choice Award in Best New Writing 2007 and an AWP Intro Award. She served as a book reviewer for BOOK Magazine for five years, and she continues to contribute book reviews to academic journals, including The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner and New Letters.  An Associate Professor of English, she teaches in the BFA and MFA in creative writing programs at Converse College. 
Note:  Susan is a member of Redux's Editorial Board.


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