Janey

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A woman wakes up from an incredible dream

 

 

Janey

 

Ten days out of the hospital for chest pain, I woke up from a dream that was incredibly real. It was just the way it was when I was little and lived at my grandparent’s farm. My grandmother stood on the front porch holding onto the screen door and calling me, “E-liz-a-beth,” pronouncing all four syllables of my name. Her voice rang out across the yard and down to the shed that leaned against the barn where I was playing. Janey heard her, too, and jumped up grinning, then she went running away to the little shed where she lived.

In my dream, I saw the exact bright vividness of Janey’s curly red hair. Her brown eyes smiled at me and a golden glow surrounded her face. She clutched a shiny bunch of buttercups and waved them at me. And just as the door closed, I caught a last look at her flour sack dress and her muddy toes, for she never wore shoes. Then my grandmother called again, which was the third call, and I ran from our play place and up to the house for supper.

My dream was in radiant color. It was just the way it was there in the evenings as the sun settled down between the mountains. The sky blazed one last time with a spell of goldenness. I smelled the hay in the hayloft, the honeysuckle there by the barn. The birds sang exactly as I remembered and when I woke up, for an instant, it was all so real again. I was eight years old and could fly like the wind!

 

But the truth was, I’d traveled a very long way from the tiny girl who played in the dirt on a summer’s evening. I wasn’t young or springy, but fifty years older. I wasn’t quick or swift, but heavy, and slow – and sick. I’d come to a dead-end place, down a long dirt road without a place to turn around. Straight ahead was a head long plunge off the cliff.

I’d survived a bitter divorce, yes, but many people do that. They pick up and go on. What was the secret I didn’t know about? My third and last son had moved away to a much better job. I should be happy for him. Now, I wouldn’t have to feed his cat when he traveled. And other people got swift, sudden, retirement from jobs they complained about every day. They bought RV’s and went all over the country. Not me, I got sick.

“Sick in every direction” was how my doctor put it. My trip to the hospital was not a real live heart attack; it was a warning. It was a knife in my heart from seeing my ex-husband and his new wife waiting in line at our old pizza place. Just no breath in my lungs from watching them holding hands and laughing. I tried to hunch down and hide in the video store, gasping for breath, wondering where the warning signs were that said old and lonely. Not a real live heart attack, but the train was coming, and I was on the tracks.

 

Now it was exercise and eat right every single day. So far, it consisted of huge chunks of cheddar cheese with stacks of crackers. It was quarts of chocolate chip mint ice cream and movies where the man and wife got back together.

So, on the morning of my dream about Janey, when the cold blue walls of my bedroom came into focus, I panicked. The walls squeezed harder and harder like a huge gripping hand had hold of my heart. I knew if I didn’t get out of that house, that I would die there.

 

And just as I knew this, an incredible thought came into my brain. I’d drive five hours away into the mountains and see if my grandparent’s house still stood there. See if the meadows still rolled and the creek still tumbled. See if the shed still leaned against the barn? Of course, it might not be there, but I had this wonderful hope that I’d open the cubbyhole door and find Janey.

 

***

It was a cold, wet, February morning, but it didn’t matter. I drove through crowded streets, traffic lights, and honking horns. There was this feeling of brightness. If sickness and death lay in one direction, could life lie ahead in the other?

I’d lived at the farm until almost nine. I thought every girl lived way out in the country with her mom, her grandma and grandpa. I thought every girl had a picture of her father who died on the bedside table and a friend like Janey who waited for her in the cubbyhole shed by the barn.

Janey was my dare devil friend with no fear. Up the apple tree she’d go, curling her toes on the branches to pick the brightest, reddest apples at the top. The juice would run down our faces. We played for hours in the creek, found crayfish, silver snake skins, bugs with green shiny wings. She knew every bird’s nest, every kitten born in the hayloft, every place we could crawl down under and hide. She’d grab my hand, pull me up, and we’d go flying down the corn rows. The stalks would flap in our faces. She’d look back with this glorious light on her face, “C’mon Eli, you can do it.”

 

I kept Janey secret from my grandma. She was loving and kind, but strict and incredibly clean. She’d never approve of a dirty girl with no shoes on. Nor did I tell my mother, who was like my grandma and might make Janey go away. But grandpa was in on my secret, he knew about Janey and liked her. Of course, she never came up to the house, but he’d be out plowing and see Janey and me skipping rope together and give us a wave. Once when I was sick in bed for a whole week, I worried that Janey didn’t know why I couldn’t come out. I told grandpa and he patted my hand, “I told her you were sick. She said for you to get better and that she’s waiting for you.” I slept so soundly that night, the next day I was well.

 

When mom remarried and we moved far away, I knew that Janey would find me. I knew there’d be this cubbyhole door she’d poke through, but that never happened. The man my mother married had a big house in the city. He called me Elizabeth in angry, shushing voices. He didn’t believe in whooping or running, or funny friends to play with. “Don’t be stupid, Elizabeth, act like you’re sensible.” So, I never saw her again. Not until the morning of my dream, when she was so real, I could reach out and hug her.

 

***

 

The last two hours of my journey I drove on narrow, winding roads that wound through the rolling hills. Rain drizzled down my windshield as black and white cows huddled in the pastures. In a lonely cemetery, I saw the old well still covered by the same huge rock and felt incredible excitement.

In early afternoon, I turned by the tiny church onto a gravel road. If two cars met, one would have to pull over. I made a slow descent along a barbed wired fence, where bare oak branches grew thick over my head. I maneuvered around enormous ruts, scanning the hillsides through my windshield wipers . . . and then I saw it.

At the end of a long lane, the old house stood. Badly neglected, overgrown by bushes and trees, but there. The barn still stood behind it, dark and forlorn. The pastures rose and fell in the distance just as I remembered, except that it all looked smaller and incredibly sad.

I turned down the lane that led to the house and my car jolted into a hole so deep it jarred my whole body. My head snapped forward and I woke up, suddenly, to the stupidity of my situation. I was all by myself in the middle of nowhere. Did I intend to walk to the house and knock on the door? What if a huge barking dog rushed out from the porch?

There was the house. Why couldn’t I walk toward it?

 

But further on down the road there was another house – a log cabin – the type people build from a kit. A cord of wood sat neatly stacked on the porch. Smoke curled from the grey stone chimney and there was a light on. It looked like the snug log cabin you’d see on a Christmas card.

So, gasping from cold, I crunched across the gravel road, through the yard, and huffed up the steps of the cabin. I stood with this huge waiting fear, but just when I held my hand up to knock, the door opened.

A woman of my own age stood there. She had a weathered face, curly grey hair, and the kindest blue eyes. She wore an old brown sweater that looked like someone learning to knit had made on the very first try. “Hello,” she smiled and held the door open toward me. A warm breath filled my face: wood smoke, cinnamon, and apples baking.

I pointed back down the road, “My grandparents used to own the old house many years ago, and I lived there when I was little.” When she nodded, I continued, “Does anyone live there now? I wanted to look around.” I held my breath for rejection. Surely, she’d see my darkest secrets.

Instead she smiled, “You’ve come a long way. You must’ve been happy there.” I felt the lump in my throat and the tears in my eyes, but she appeared not to notice. “My brother owns it,” she said, “but he’s never lived there. He and his wife were going to fix it up together, but she died. He’s lost interest. Wait, and I’ll get you the key.” She was only gone for a second, but it seemed like forever. When she placed that key in my outstretched hand, I felt I could breathe again. I was not to be turned away, or shouted at, or eaten by bears. “I’ve got a cake in the oven,” she said. “When you come back you can tell me what it was like to grow up here.”

 

***

 

Looking back after many years, it’s easy to see the exact spot in the road where I stopped, turned around, and started over. But on that day, it was harder to see. I didn’t know what journey I was on, only that I as I picked my way down the overgrown driveway the cold was horrific. There was an evil force that blew down my neck and froze my nose, but it didn’t matter. I held that key in my hand and walked on.

The winter cornfields lay dormant. Rows of stubble poked through the sagging snow. But as I picked my way down the muddy lane, the house emerged through the branches.

Overgrown and lonely, it stood.

Amazingly, the clothesline still hung from the same two trees. The grape arbor where Janey and I played dolls together lined by the garden. The grey stones of the walkway lay under my feet. And when I stepped on the porch, I had the exact right feeling of rushing in from a long day of play. That I could look back over my shoulder, sneak a last wave to Janey, and go into the house.

 

Except that now, the porch was lined with rusted metal furniture. The screen door was gone, but when I put the key in the lock, it turned in my hand. I took a deep breath and pushed inside. There was a hush about the house, a quiet listening as though it was waking up from a long winter’s nap. Eli, child, you’re home.

Dear old houses don’t forget you.

 

I flipped the switch by the entry way and the staircase appeared in the dimness. It rose upwards covered with a dirty orange carpet that spread underfoot like a fungus. The windows were covered with grey green curtains and I remembered how the windows in summer stood tall, and clean, and draped with white starched cotton. How the sun streamed through them onto honey colored floors. I’d lie on that floor and stare out those windows for endless hours.

Now, the rooms appeared as though exploring a cave. The living room was to the right with the carved oak mantel. I felt up under the edge and found the nail where I hung my Christmas stocking. I rubbed the sooty tiles of the fireplace and saw the blue and white ships still riding the waves.

 

I gazed in the mirrored top and saw my cumbersome reflection, but felt again as a tiny girl, tiptoeing up.

The kitchen was jammed with chairs and tables and looked much smaller, but the stone fireplace was there, the mantle now lined with plastic flowers. The Pepsi bottle opener was clamped on the wall.

 

When I pulled on the pantry room door, a cloud of dust blew in my face. The shelves were lined with spidery Mason jars. There was a blue enameled turkey roaster, and pots with wooden handles. And tucked at the very back, I saw the jelly glass. The yellow hen and all her chicks were still painted around the bottom of the glass. My glass! At breakfast, I’d swing my legs and study the mother hen and all her chickens.

Every year in this pantry rows of canned tomatoes, and corn, green beans, and pickles gleamed like treasure – proud peaches and pears, apples and cherries. Janey and I picked blackberries in the hot summer sun and grandma made jams and jellies. At the end of supper, with half a biscuit on her plate, she’d send me here to get one.

How long since I stood here? How long since I knew what I was doing? In the rat-infested cupboard, I sniffed the air for frying bacon, for coffee bubbling in the pot. Strained my ears for the clink of grandma’s dishes, the rustle of grandpa’s paper. Signs when I was happy.

I once was happy.

On that cold February day, I walked across the yard and felt again the summer magic, that lightness of step, the adventure that waited. Amazingly, the old shed still leaned against the barn, but now it was barely visible under a massive tangle of briars. Devil’s walking sticks poked their jagged thorns straight upward. There was no way into Janey’s cubbyhole shed unless I hacked my way in. I’d come all this way to see a girl who lived in a shed, and never wore shoes, or cried, or got any older.

Yet, it all came back as I stood there. Afternoons of lying in the grass watching the wind wave the trees. This restful time of playing and growing, lazy days of doing whatever I wanted. It all came clear as I stood there, that I’d raised my chicks and they’d flown off exactly as they should have. And now – all over again – I could do whatever I wanted.

And just as I thought this, there was the tiniest flutter down under the nest of briars. I searched for Janey’s face, cocked my ears for her giggle. Surely, she held her hand to her mouth and doubled over.

 

***

 

So, once again, I stood cold and shivering on the porch of the friendly cabin. The woman with the kind face held the door open wide and waved me inside. “I’m Lois,” she said as she led me toward the kitchen. Her husband, Bill, snored loudly on the couch in front of the fire. His glasses lay on his stomach and moved up and down when he snored.

When we stepped inside the kitchen, to my utter amazement, the table was set with a white lace cloth and blue and white teacups. Steam curled softly from a silver teapot, and there was cream and sugar, and a dark brown cake. Inside the cake were raisins and nuts. The air was full of sweetness. Little lamps glowed in the corners. I took off my coat and sat thankfully at the table. It was as though I’d ended a journey, but now I was home.

Lois passed me a huge piece of cake, which I took with both hands, hardly remembering I shouldn’t have cake. Much less cream and sugar, but I took that, too, and felt the warmth come up to my face, the gulping cry in my throat that I couldn’t stop.

Lois looked at me gently. She didn’t seem bothered, or angry for knocking on her door. It was almost as though she were waiting for me.

“I’m Eli,” I said. I don’t know why I said it. No one called me Eli except for Janey. Was I was Eli again, that snappy girl who ran break neck down the corn rows?

Lois held her cup with sturdy hands and smiled across the table. I think it was because I was so desperately lonely – that I was given an inward glimpse of how special she’d be in my life – I saw years of sitting across the table from her.

“I was happy growing up here,” I said. “There was my mother, my grandparents, and me.” I held my tongue about Janey. “My mother remarried when I was nine and we moved far away.” I didn’t say that I was never as happy again as I was growing up here, because it never occurred to me before. But now I saw that in the space of one day, I’d embarked on a course that had changed my life forever.

I tried to sip my tea and eat my cake and pretend I was sane like everyone else, but it was all I could think of. Then it exploded from me, “Would he sell it?” 

Lois tilted her head and watched me with caution. She put her hand on the table and patted, gently, like the way you’d pat a baby. Then she whacked the table and hollered, “I’ll go call him.”

 

It was all I could do to sit there and strain my ears into the bedroom where she called from. I stirred my spoon in my cup, while my whole life hung in the balance. Then she called his asking price from the doorway.

“I’ll take it,” I hollered and sobbed so loudly Bill had to wake up and see Lois and me – his new neighbor – laughing and crying together in the kitchen.

 

***

 

In the next two months, I did more physical work than I’d done in fifteen years. I sold my house and gave or threw away most of my possessions. Much of my stuff had to do with other people. People I’d loved and cared for, but who’d gone on to other lives. I decided not to be the keeper of their things any longer.

One by one, each of my sons came and got what he wanted. Each one took me aside and told me what I’d taught him every day of his life. “Mom, be smart now. Don’t be stupid.” Don’t be wild and silly and jump on the furniture. Three different times I nodded and smiled. Three different times the rush was so strong inside me, I flew to the sky as light as a feather.

In April I moved into the downstairs parlor of my grandparent’s house. The hills were greening. The dogwoods were white and the red bud purple. The creek ran over itself down the hill. I spent long hours hearing the rushing water. It spoke as it hurried along – You’ll be better, my sweetheart. 

All the time I watched for Janey. She wasn’t a girl I made up for a playmate. Janey was real. If I was running, she was running. If I was skipping, she was skipping. We locked hands and went round and round till we fell down dizzy. If she wasn’t real, then I wasn’t real. Then I was wrong at the heart of myself.  But she didn’t emerge from behind the door, or crawl from under the cupboard. Sometimes, I sat at my kitchen table and told her, “You can come out now. Nobody but me.” But the secret door had closed between us, some guard stood watch I couldn’t see.

And then one morning I looked out my windows and saw the tiniest movement in the grasses. I stood stock still and with all my might willed her to emerge through the shimmering light. The movement ceased, and I grabbed my pruning shears and ran to the back of the barn and started hacking into that tangle of briars. And there emerged a tired dog who bared her teeth against me. She guarded her cubbyhole shed with hateful growls. Her red coat was matted with sticks and all her ribs poked through. Her milk sacs hung so heavy to the ground, I felt I knew her.

It took me most of the summer, but once again me and Janey – that’s what I named her – became inseparable. I nursed her back to health, and she was forever grateful. She had three of the cutest and funniest puppies, whom she was extremely proud of. They made us all laugh with their antics. Bill and Lois took the littlest one; the other two went to other good people, but I kept Janey.

It was a healing time for us both. A gentle time when I worked on my house, then rested. We went for long walks together across the fields. She lay by my feet in the evenings and climbed the stairs behind me each night. We got so light on our feet we chased each other down the corn rows. Sometimes, we sat on the porch in the summer evenings and the air around us was golden. The lightning bugs flew to the top of the trees and blinked – on, off – just for us.

We had ten wonderful years together before she died. She met all three of my sons, and then their wives, who burst through my door with an energy I’d all but forgotten. On Christmas mornings, I watched Janey lay patiently on the rug while my grandchildren patted tiny fingers down her back. On summer evenings, she yelped at their heels as they ran through the yard.

Sometimes, even now, I sit in my kitchen, look to the barn, and think I see her. Running toward me as she did, her hair a flying, her face a grinning. But she’s in that special place, that secret place, waiting for me.

 

 

 


Submitted: May 10, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Suzanne Mays. All rights reserved.

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