Issue Three - February 2002

Balm of Gilead

Heather June

Mrs. Sharply owned a bicycle but not a car. This was not unusual in a college town like Boulder, but Mrs. Sharply was. You don’t see much of old people in Boulder, you tend to see the young and beautiful. Her true age was a secret, but people said it was well over eighty. For decades she rode the cracked and ruined sidewalks on her Schwinn, an old fashioned red model with white handle bar grips and a basket on the front. From my porch I would see her flying down Broadway, standing up and leaning forward in her black riding pants and sensible shoes, silver hair streaming out behind her.

While Mrs. Sharply kept no pets, she did feed wild cats and dogs. Also, she talked to birds and they understood her. People said these were just stories, but there were reliable witnesses such as Mr. Thompson, who owned Stella’s Market, and Emma Huxley, head librarian at the Public Library. Emma once heard Mrs. Sharply ask a robin which of the flowers in her garden was his favorite.

“Won’t you show me?” Mrs. Sharply asked. The robin flew to a fat sunflower. Mrs. Sharply laughed. The bird chirped with his little beak open. “All right,” Mrs. Sharply said. “Show me the white old fashioned rose, the sweet one.” Off the robin flew to the large rose bush, where he hovered and landed, finally, on a blossom. He knocked its petals off and they fluttered to the ground. “Clever bird,” praised Mrs. Sharply.

Emma Huxley was uncertain how to explain the episode, but thought perhaps Mrs. Sharply had studied birds in her younger days.

Mr. Thompson once watched Mrs. Sharply talk a blue jay into removing a tennis ball from the gutter of her roof. She asked the jay to fly up to her roof and he did, at which point she asked him to find the ball. The jay hopped to the edge where the gutter met the downspout and squawked outrageously at a tennis ball stuck there in the corner, blocking drainage down the spout. Sharply complimented the jay on what a good eye he had. And then she asked the bird if he could push the ball out of the gutter with his handsome beak. “I’ll be damned,” Mr. Thompson always said. “If that bird didn’t do it–scooped it right out of the gutter. Water came rushing down. Never saw anything like it,” Mr. Thompson shook his head slowly. “Some folks just have a knack.”

By the time my path crossed Mrs. Sharply’s, I was a second year Philosophy student at the University. Intellectual stimulation had lit up my mind. I was on fire to figure it all out. One good thing about an education in Philosophy, you learn how to think. I was smart and inquisitive, but I was young. There were a lot of things I did not know, such as how it can’t all be figured out, or how something so instinctual as your sense of smell will shape your destiny. And I never even guessed at the effect inanimate objects would have upon me, such as the room in the house I rented on the corner of Grandview and Broadway.

The room was small with a high ceiling and a large window that opened out onto the front porch facing Broadway. There was dark green shag carpeting and a radiator for heat. Other than that, it looked like just a room. But its atmosphere had personality, sort of mysterious and comforting at the same time. Somehow, it smelled like wood, with a bit of clean dirt underneath. The room gave me the feeling change was coming, but maybe that was just me. On the day I moved in I opened the window for air and caught sight of Mrs. Sharply zooming down the sidewalk. I climbed out onto the porch and watched her figure grow smaller in the distance as she headed down Broadway. When I turned back to the window there lay on the sill a feather so black and glossy it glinted in the sun. I remember thinking it too small for a magpie, it would be a crow’s feather. I climbed back into my room and slipped the feather into the band of my straw hat. My room liked me, I could tell.

It was because of that certain scent down by the river that I met Mrs. Sharply. It was Tuesday afternoon. After sitting through a ninety-minute lecture on why man seeks religion I needed to move so I took my bike west up Arapahoe, riding toward the canyon. It was warm and sunny and the sky was absolutely clear. Everywhere trees were leafing out. I pedaled along, smiling, aware for a moment that I was young and free in a way I would probably never be again, when I noticed a very particular scent had floated past me on the air and then disappeared. In another minute or so, this happened again. And over and over.

I had no idea what it was, but it was sweet and it was heady. I meandered. I took my time and rode the sidewalk slowly until it ended and dropped down to the dirt path along Boulder Creek. There were only a few old houses close to the creek, houses without sidewalks or cement driveways, small houses with back yards sloping down to the creek. Realizing the scent was stronger by the water, I got off and leaned my bike against a tree, looking around on the ground for what I assumed must be blooming flowers. There were none.

“Hey there,” a voice called. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw Mrs. Sharply coming down the bank towards me. She did not look pleased.

“Hello,” I said. “Am I trespassing?”

She came right down to where my bike leaned against the cottonwood tree and laid her rough, bony hand on its seat. “Technically, yes. The path has always been a throughway, but off the path here is my property.” She reached up and snapped a small, red bud from the cottonwood. She brought it to her nose. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Balm of Gilead.”

I was so startled that for once, I didn’t say anything. I was afraid of something I had never been afraid of before. She rolled the bud between her fingers. “Extra sticky. It’ll be a hot summer then.”

I moved toward my bicycle. “Sorry for trespassing.”

Mrs. Sharply pointed a slender finger at me. “You do yard work?”

“No,” I said. “I never have.”

She gestured toward her yard. “Crabapples need pruning.”

“I don’t know anything about pruning.” I was glad to be off the hook. Mrs. Sharply had thrown me off. Her eyes were bright blue, like the sky–and they stood out in stark contrast to her dark, lined face. Her nose was bent and sharp. I couldn’t stop staring at her.

“It’s the resin,” she brought her fingers to her nose again. “On the cottonwood.” She opened her palm. The small bud was green with red sap at its base, its leaves tightly furled, ready to pop. She looked at me and chuckled. “It had its way with you.”

Something like adrenaline rippled through my body. “Yes,” I said.

Mrs. Sharply reached up to my hat. “A raven feather.”

“I thought it was a crow.”

“No,” she said. “Too big. The Indians around here say a raven feather is bad luck.”

Without thinking, I said firmly, “Not for me.”

Mrs. Sharply just nodded, looking into me with her bright eyes. I grabbed the handlebars of my bike. “Well, I was headed up the canyon. Nice talking with you.”

She turned and started up the bank. All at once I didn’t want her to leave me. “I like gardens,” I called out to her. She half turned on her way up the slope.

“Then you should see mine,” she said, turning away again, her hand in the air as a goodbye.

That night I dreamed I was walking in the suburban neighborhood of my childhood in the middle of the night. Suddenly, across the street from me, strutting on the sidewalk, was a huge raven. He glared at me with enormous black eyes. The raven was at least seven feet tall and following me. I walked faster, but his pace matched mine; he barreled down the sidewalk, eyeballing me aggressively, his beak sharp, dangerous, beautiful. He stepped into the street to cross over and suddenly, as things happen in dreams, there is a phone in my hand and I am holding the receiver to my ear with Mrs. Sharply on the other end asking, “What is going on?”

“What do I do?” I ask her, watching him cross the street and come closer even as I keep moving, nearly running. “I don’t know what to do.” The raven looks angry, still eyeballing me, pulling nearer all the time.

“Show you are afraid,” said Mrs. Sharply. Then the phone was gone as quickly as it had come and the giant bird was standing over me, threatening me with the huge, sharp beak, tilting his head sideways as birds do, trying to look me in the eye. I cowered down. I bent to the ground, lowering my head so he couldn’t see my eyes. My terrified heart beat hard and fast. For a long moment he examines me, I can feel him looking down at the top of my head. And then his presence slowly faded away. When I looked up I could see his large figure across the street again, slipping into darkness.

I woke sweating and cold, the sun just coming in the window. I looked around for the raven and sat up in my bed. A dream. A nightmare. It wasn’t real. Entering the dim hallway on the way to the bathroom, I looked for shadows.

My classes bored me that next day. I did not participate in discussion, and my best friend, Jojo Fanelli, asked me what the hell was wrong. “I just don’t feel like talking,” I said. Jojo knew I was lying. I wanted to tell her, but the dream had got to me in a visceral way, this was a giant bird and I knew she couldn’t understand. It wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t her dream. I thought about Mrs. Sharply, but I wanted to keep her to myself. So, for maybe the second time in my life, I kept my mouth shut.

Later in the afternoon, the boy with the dark eyes from my Existentialism class asked me out for drinks at Juanita’s, a Mexican restaurant on Pearl Street. Todd ordered margaritas on the rocks with salt on the rim. Todd was both handsome and intelligent and for the first two rounds we talked, but by the fourth drink, which was three too many for me, I no longer cared about conversation and just let him talk on and on as boys so easily do, all over referential totality and how, despite that, we create our own meaning! He was convinced he created his own meaning. In the smeary lights his eyes appeared bottomless.

Next thing I knew the restaurant had turned into a Van Goh painting, with chairs and pictures and wall angles askew. My head buzzed. Our red vinyl booth began to spin like that carnival ride, the Cup & Saucer, and I was compelled by centrifugal force to hold on to the table. Luckily, even in my drunken, surreal state I recognized the fact that I was soon to be ill.

“Todd,” I said. “You’ve got to take me home, right now.” He looked at me funny and then it dawned on him.

“Okay, Catherine,” he said, helping me up from the table, “Let’s go.”

I don’t remember the car ride, except that it took all my concentration not to vomit on Todd’s dashboard as he asked me directions. I did not want to puke in front of him. When the car stopped, I knew I had only seconds left. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “See you later.” I sprang from his car and bolted across the lawn and around the corner of the house, out of sight from the street. I heard the car pull away as I lay down in the grass.

When I came to there was the hum of a ceiling fan and my arms wrapped around a white toilet. Though the porcelain was cool to my forehead, the room was spinning crazily and my stomach felt like a bag of turbines churning up tequila and corn chips and salt. There was a hand on my back and I looked up.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I live here,” Mrs. Sharply said. “This is my house.”

I laughed, but was cut short by the next heave. “God, I feel miserable. This is so embarrassing. I don’t want you to see me like this. Please, leave me alone.”

She moved to the edge of the tub and sat down. “I won’t leave you alone, you might pass out again and choke on your own vomit. That would be embarrassing.”

I retched again and held tight to the toilet so I wouldn’t fly off. I felt so sick. I lay my head down on the rim of the toilet and closed my eyes, trying to squelch the churning. It was then that the strangest thing happened to my body.

It was a tingling sensation that began at my feet. At first it was like when your foot has fallen asleep and just begins to wake up, a sharp tingling. But as the feeling traveled slowly up my body it grew warmer and soothing and nice, and by the time it reached my head the nausea and the spinning and the churning were gone. Completely disappeared. It was as if I had dreamed I was drunk and then woke up.

I turned my head and looked up at Mrs. Sharply, who sitting on the edge of her tub with her fingers to her temples and her eyes closed. “You did that,” I said, “didn’t you?”

Her eyes opened. “Yes,” she said. “And I probably should have let you suffer it out, for something like that.” She stood up and took a washcloth from the shelf above the sink and wet it for me.

I washed my face and stood up. “How did you do that?”

She pointed to the sink. “Wash your hands now.”

“But how did you do that? That was amazing. Will you tell me what that was?”

Mrs. Sharply left the bathroom and I heard her walking down the hallway. I followed her, my knees wobbling. There was a kettle whistling on the stove and she motioned for me to sit down at her table. She brewed mint tea and sat down across from me. “You,” she said, “are playing with fire.”

I blushed. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Todd brought me here.”

“Why did you come here?” She looked me right in the eye. I got nervous, words running away from me.

“I, I don’t know. God, that was stupid. I was so, so . . . drunk. I don’t drink like that, ever. Well, not often. I, well, you can see that I can’t hold my liquor.” My face turned red. “I think it was the dream I had, Mrs. Sharply, with a raven in it. I was stupid to wear that bad luck feather.” I told her and afterwards she said, “I think you were right originally, the raven feather is not bad luck for you. It’s a sign.”

“What is the message?” I asked her.

“You’re running from yourself.”

“Myself?” I was disappointed. I had no idea what she was talking about. “Are you into new age stuff, Mrs. Sharply?”

She looked blank and I saw she wasn’t joking when she said, “Your mind is not the only way.”

I opened my mouth to tell her of course I knew that, but she stood up and went into the hallway. She came back with an envelope, which she handed to me. “This is the back door key,” she said. “I’m leaving on a trip. My yard needs looking after. It’s only a couple of weeks. Let yourself in; lock up when you leave.”

“I don’t know how to look after a yard,” I said.

She gave me a look. “Don’t give it a thought, you’ll be fine.”

Mrs. Sharply remained standing in her kitchen until I saw that she meant for me to leave. She led the way to the back door and opened it. The sun was coming up and the bushes in her yard were filled with spider webs covered in dew. I turned around in her doorway. “Thank you,” I said lamely.

She clucked her tongue. “Fare well,” she said. She closed the door.

I walked home in a state of shock with the scent of cottonwood dancing around me. When I crossed Broadway in rush hour traffic and realized I was missing my eight o’clock class on Philosophers of the Enlightenment, I was giddy enough to start laughing.

©2002 Heather June