It was that moment before dusk when the light turned miraculous, almost paranormal. As she gazed out her bay window, it came sifting down through the spruce trees as a deep and rich but somehow incandescent blue that, in all her art studies, she’d never seen in a painting. It made her stop to catch her breath. It floated into her lungs like pollen, ached in the muscles of her upper arms.
It held the promise of a magical experience, an adventure, if she’d answer its call.
Hah. The sensation always proved fleeting, and there was never a sign of what she could do to capture the magic. The feeling lasted longest, in fact, if Ellie did nothing, just stood and watched as the sky faded.
This September afternoon, though, she was bored in the house, eager to put off the task of making dinner—tacos yet again, Roy’s favorite, which meant dicing tomatoes, chopping onions, grating cheese, frying mediocre ground beef from the local Acme that stank at first with an aroma only the dog could appreciate. She didn’t begrudge cooking—Roy was always working and she had only a part-time job—and yet it was a chore for her, even though she’d bought a dozen cookbooks to prick her interest. To postpone the chore for now, she might have a glass of wine—but, no, that would make her sleepy.
On impulse, then, deciding to chase the magic outside, she called Jhumpa the spaniel, snapped on the leash and stepped into the front yard.
Without the window glass to deepen it, the sky’s light faded a bit, but upward through the twin spruces the view was still lovely, the silvery blue needles lacing irregular shards of sky. The little house was practically in a bower, shaded by the trees and hugged by overgrown bushes—the reason she’d fallen in love with it at first sight.
In the weeks after Roy accepted the job in the Political Science department, the two of them had explored the surroundings of the rural campus: rolling countryside between mountain ridges, acres of field corn ribboned with creeks, and two-lane blacktop roads, dotted with quiet villages where nothing seemed to have happened since the invention of pickup trucks. At first they’d rented an apartment near campus, but when their meanders led them down this winding road along a creek, past an old clapboard house with a white three-rail fence supporting a colorful patch of joepyeweed, to the charming pointy-roofed cottage-house hidden behind towering, skinny blue spruces, she was smitten.
On the other side of the road, bordering a rocky field, a windbreak of poplars washed the lane with cool shadows. On this side, sheltered and silent, the scattered small dwellings might have been plucked from a fairy tale. “What if we lived here?” she’d asked Roy when they first drove by. “It’s only half an hour from campus. That one little place looks like a doll’s house.”
“I doubt they’d welcome academic types out this way.”
“Why not? We’re ordinary people like them. We’re not pretentious.”
She knew Roy was feeling exiled from the city. It had taken him ten months after his doctorate to land a job, and this remote outpost of the state university was hardly their first choice. He was lucky to be on a tenure track, but there were no galleries or museums to use Ellie’s talents, no offer of faculty housing. A town of bars and pizza parlors and gas stations, burger and chicken chains for the students, one dentist, one medical clinic, one sad mall on the outskirts with a movie theater. But she, for one, was determined to accept and enjoy it.
“I love that you’re so naïve,” Roy mumbled. “You know how this county votes, don’t you? If you tell them you have a master’s in art history, they’ll put you down as a nudist socialist baby-killer.”
“I love that you’re so cynical,” she laughed. “Actually, I think everyone appreciates nudists.”
The topic of new housing vanished from their conversation until one Saturday evening near the end of Roy’s first year at the university. Happening to take the creek road back from an antiques fair because Roy liked driving their Subaru on curves, they noticed a sign at the pointy-roofed cottage. “For Sale by Owner,” it declared, tilting and half-hidden on the tree-shaded front lawn of patchy vines and weeds. The sign itself might have been an elf lurking in the shadows. From that moment Ellie’s romantic notions took over.
With her part-time job in the university library supplementing Roy’s assistant-professor salary, they managed to qualify for a mortgage, and her parents in upstate New York chipped in for the down payment. Luckily the price was low, and their apartment furniture proved sufficient for the whole tiny house.
For their bedroom Ellie and Roy chose the cozy nook under the gable roof, and she woke in the summer months to see their four bare feet shimmering like Delft pottery. In that early light, distilled by the spruces, everything had a special color. The pale-yellow walls glowed chartreuse. Sticking up between their feet, Jhumpa’s black nose had a periwinkle sheen.
Yet the continual dimness behind the trees took getting used to. So did the dampness, which persisted from spring through late fall until the countryside froze. The creek, mostly hidden from view in a ravine, ran close behind the house. Clothes never felt completely dry. Odors lingered, especially dog and kitchen smells. Of course, insects loved the moist air and clammy ground and abundant weeds, and they swarmed both outside and in. At night the combination of crickets and katydids sounded like dueling hip-hop bands.
As for the neighbors: Ellie knew, as she’d told Roy, that they were ordinary people, but she had no success in getting to know them. They didn’t walk, they drove, and with the bushes surrounding the narrow gravel driveways, you scarcely saw them. At first Ellie made a special effort. She went round on foot to introduce herself, first to the white-fence house on the left and then to the two houses along the road to the right. But the women just looked at her—her frizzy hair, her twill slacks, her gel-cushioned walking shoes—and the men didn’t come to the door.
Yet to Ellie the magic quality of the light made all this worthwhile. At least that’s what she told herself. Today, as she passed under her twin spruces and set off along the blacktop with Jhumpa, the sky began to shade toward a luminous cobalt. She tried to open herself to the ache it aroused, an almost spiritual yearning. She’d first had a similar feeling in college, usually in the evening, when she sensed that a more profound, exciting, satisfying life lay just beyond her grasp. Hanging around with art students encouraged this sort of existential aspiration; the air pulsed with possibilities. Though she lacked the creative talent of some of her friends, there was no reason she couldn’t live an artistic kind of life. The questions were: how exactly? and where? and with whom? During graduate school she met Roy, who seemed to answer at least one of the questions. Though he was deep into political theory, he enjoyed letting her lead him to gallery openings, and he shared her opinion that late Kandinsky represented a depressing waste of the artist’s unique vision.
As Jhumpa sniffed a clump of berry-laden pokeweed, the sky added a lovely indigo streak—there, in a line above the poplars. Ellie inhaled hard, trying to suck in the spirit of that light and the enchanted lane surrounding her. It felt like it ought to be transformative—her inner essence should be roused from dormancy, wakened into bloom. But the particles of pollen merely tickled. Thistles were still in flower, as well as boneset and nightshade and asters—she’d spent much of the past year with a guidebook giving names to the teeming vegetation. It’d been a pleasure to become an amateur naturalist, but science didn’t satisfy the yearning to connect on a deeper level.
Nor, she had to admit, did it dispel the tedium that had crept in. Her twenty hours a week in the library’s art section scarcely engaged her; the only art reference students cared about was their phones. She’d tried to extend the research of her master’s thesis on Der Blaue Reiter group, but her motivation flagged. She bought those dozen cookbooks and experimented a few times with unusual sauces, only to lose interest. In any case, Roy preferred tried-and-true recipes.
So Ellie had become this person who walked her dog and stared longingly at the sky, or into shadowy pockets of weed, or at the houses whose invisible inhabitants ignored her—a person whose biggest break from routine was a Saturday-night movie at the mall with her husband.
After they’d gone a quarter mile, Jhumpa stopped to pee in the roadside gravel for the third time. Insect noise swelled along the hidden creek. As the sun dropped behind the distant mountain ridge, the air grew thicker, denser. It ran like an artist’s brush along the skin of her bare arms. She could imagine someone holding that brush. A god of the woods, perhaps—Pan?—or a very gentle lover. Though she was dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, he saw the beauty in her. He touched her cheeks with the soft brush, pulled the fibers gently along her throat, dipped under the shirt to reach her shoulder blades.
As far as love was concerned, she considered herself fortunate. Roy was sweet, smart, reliable, reasonably handsome, and in technical terms (if you wanted to think about that) the best lover she’d ever had. (Not that there’d been so many.) Yet in the past year, as he’d thrown himself into the race for tenure, which meant expanding his dissertation into a publishable book and numerous spinoff journal articles while at the same time teaching the overload of intro courses the department dumped on him, advising students and attending meetings, grading papers, etc., etc., his energy and his temper had both suffered. She could coax him to make love only on Saturday nights after the movie. Which was almost funny, this middle-aged habit settling on them so early. And he’d become sort of mechanical about it, always following the same pattern: first caressing her right breast, then her left, then kissing right, kissing left, then raising his lips to her mouth. And if she broke the routine by grabbing him someplace unexpected, he’d startle for a moment, then settle back into his standard sequence. She laughed to herself about this.
But right now, as she felt the artist’s brush slip under her shirt, she wanted to yank off the faded cotton and toss it in the weeds. Let the brush roam. She sweated in the humid evening air, and her arms itched—insect bites? Her lover would soothe them—no, better, he’d lead her into a wild thrashing collision with the mysterious energy that hovered out of reach, tantalizing her with its shifty blue light. Her heart galloped; her breath came in short gasps.
Yah! A wrench of the leash jerked her into the weeds. A ferocious bark, followed by low growls—Jhumpa was lunging at a ragged hedge.
Ellie’s heart hammered. “Cut it!” she yelled. “Jhumpa! What the fuck is in there? A groundhog? Oh god, it could be a porcupine! Get your nose out of there!”
With both arms Ellie tugged the dog away and forced her back down the road toward home. “Stop growling! Whatever it is, leave it! Leave it!”
Jhumpa calmed, and in another few minutes, she stopped to poop at the entrance to one of the neighbor’s driveways. Ellie always had a bag in her pocket, and the shit came up easily with a scoop of gravel, but she glanced uneasily toward the house. The city girl with the loud-mouthed pooping dog—no wonder they wouldn’t talk to her.
And she also imagined that the neighbors had seen her thoughts in the moment before Jhumpa’s barking fit—when her mystical yearnings descended into sexual fantasy, as they often did. Hard to tell who was more ridiculous, her or the dog.
Her legs hurried her away. She felt shame. Roy would be home soon from his late-afternoon class. Time to cook the smelly beef and prepare the tacos. And she would need a glass of wine, or two.
She sighed as she passed through the gloom of the tall blue spruces to enter her fairy-tale house.