An erstwhile writer and storyteller shares her thoughts, frustrations and hopes
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
Writing Prompt January 4th
Begin a story with: There was once a chance that I didn't take..."
There was once a chance I didn't take, but only once. I spent my life taking chances, at least when I wasn't squandering opportunities. Thing is, for a guy like me, a jug-eared, corn-fed Iowa farm boy who managed to escape the everyday drudgery of tilling and sowing, taking chances was a way to pinch myself. Proof that I was no longer mired in hog muck captive to the weather, and the seasons and my mother.
Don't get me wrong, my Mam was great. A great cook, a great household manager, a great neighbor - she just never had much time for a dreamy-eyed boy with ambitions to go to sea and climb mountains. As soon as I could, I broke free from her stifling embrace and made my way west. What followed was a life on tramp steamers and freight trains. A life of adventure and exploration - from the shores of far off Gbagbo to the naked wilds of the Amazon, I saw it all. I turned my hand to any job that offered - carpentry, herding, fence-building, dish-washing. It never mattered much what I was doing, only where I was doing it.
But I started this yarn to tell you about the chance I didn't take. Her name was Emily. She was 19 years old and sweeter than a peach. I had come back to Iowa to plant the farmer who would sow no more seeds. My Dad had died in the traces, just like his cherished plow horse. By some sort of providence, I was in the States working the fruit orchards of Southern California when my Mam's cable caught up to me. Like a dutiful son, I headed back to the home place to lend a hand. I had no intention of staying. I would bury the old man and high-tail it for the nearest rail-line. Iowa couldn't hold me.
Then I met Emily, who reached out her smooth blushing-ivory arms and wrapped me in the most captivating trap known to man. Emily was a neighbor girl who had been helping Mam around the farm for a couple of years, doing the heavy work of canning, rug beating and chicken butchering. When I had left she was just a sapling, all bony knees and elbows. Now she was a woman grown, radiant behind a curtain of shining golden hair. Though her skin was soft as down, it encased a backbone of steel. I knew the moment I laid eyes on her I was doomed.
It took three long months to bury my Dad and set the affairs in order for Mam. During that time I worked side-by-side with Emily, inhaling the scent of her in the hay, against the baked wooden planks of the barn, in a loaf of fresh baked bread. Mam kept herself to herself, appearing now and again to suggest a better way to churn the butter or lay in the grain, but mostly leaving me to Emily. It soon became obvious that Emily was the laid trap, but my Mam was the hunter. She rightly figured she would never get me to stay on her own, so she sweetened the pot.
The morning I left for good I was sleep deprived and more than a little hysterical. I talked myself into knots listing the pluses and minuses. I almost convinced myself that Em would consent to running away with me, but I knew better. The dirt of the farm ran in her veins same as it had my father's. At the last, I left with the dawn. I didn't say goodbye; I knew my resolve would crumble and I would get sucked back into the land like a spring rain on a parched field.
That was the chance I didn't take, the chance for love, for a family, for a home. I chose the open road instead, refusing to think about what I had left behind. I drowned my loneliness in the intoxicating sites of Machu Picchu, of ancient Greece, of Egypt. While I wandered life on the farm went on. Emily moved in with Mam, taking on more and more of the daily responsibilities. They hired hands to do the heavy work and kept the farm afloat when thousands of others caved in to bankruptcy. I checked up on them regularly, sending telegraphs to neighbors, calling the town pastor. Emily never married, and the two women lived alone together in the old farmhouse. I told my self it was all for the best. Emily was happy on the land, Mam had company and I could continue to travel unencumbered.
Yesterday I received a letter written in Emily's fine looping hand. My Mam has died. She did die. Three months ago now. The letter had chased me from Spain to Thailand to Florida. I was not there to lay her to rest next to my Dad. I was not there to handle the business, to console the bereaved, to do my duty. Emily wanted to know what she should do about the farm. It is mine now. I don't know what I want to do. I don't know if it is too late to take a chance. But I am here. All I have to do is knock on the door.