By Kevin Thomas Conroy
Everything changed among the trees. I remember the last breath I took before the end of my life — my normal life. It had rained earlier that night, and the forest floor was still spongy underfoot. I could taste the earth and the cool sweetness of wet leaves on my tongue; glistening Red Maple, Hackberry, and Oak. I was wearing slacks, this being more than an academic outing or a silly misadventure. I wondered if the family minded but if they did, they never said.
It was God’s country, farmed and tended by hand for over two hundred years, standing firm in the shelter of the past, in the love of meekness and kinship — a relic in real time. It’s a land dedicated to the soul, a concept I never thought much about until that summer in 1961 when in a moment of terrible clarity, I learned that not all of us have one.
I was summoned to phone booth in the hall of my boisterous dorm because my mother had called. The conversation opened with bland pleasantries and quickly deteriorated when I was honest. Nothing new.
“Kara, this is a dreary idea. The middle of nowhere for three months?”
“I can earn money and improve my skill sets,” I said, pulling the glass door closed.
She sighed. “You’re capable enough already and if it’s money you need, I’ll just tell your father. Are you out of decent dresses?” She was genuinely concerned about this. I imagined her holding the receiver with both hands, her eyes round and dilated. Barbiturates. For her nerves.
“This is an important young professor, a Renaissance scholar visiting from Yale. He’ll only be here through the fall. If I assist him, he might write me a recommendation for graduate school.”
“Already thinking three years ahead. Honestly, you are too ambitious. Men don’t like that.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Well, your brother will be disappointed when he finds out you won’t be home.“
I frowned. “Daniel only cares about football and shagging his girlfriend.”
“Kara! He has a scholarship for his talents on the field. His picture was in the Philadelphia Times, you know.”
“Sorry. That’s nice.” I wanted to be good. I cared about such things then.
She shifted the phone. I could hear it brush against one of her prim, tailored blouses. “It’s your father who really won’t like this. He wants you to come home,” she whispered. “We haven’t seen you since Christmas. Be pleasant, Kara. Would a visit kill you?”
Through a small window on my left I could see green meadows under a tumultuous sky. Big clouds, some dark and filled with water, jockeyed for position. Who would be the first to block out the May sun? “I have to start immediately after the semester ends,” I said.
My mother huffed. “Then we’ll come to you. We could use a trip into the country. Philadelphia seems to get more crowded with undesirables by the minute.”
“That’s not a good idea,” I hurried. “Next week, I have to pack my things and move them to Blenheim Hall and start work right away.”
There was a long pause. I watched as a few sheep, holdovers from the campus’ former days as a working farm, looked up from their grass lunch and trotted nervously toward their moss covered, stone barn.
“Your father is a different man now, Kara.” I could tell my mother had clenched her jaw. Her words had taken on an urgent, angry tone — the one she always used when she encountered a reality she didn’t like. “He goes to church now. Besides, I’ve put a lock on your door.”
“I have class in a minute. Good-bye.” I was sweating. There was a coat of moisture on a few of the little glass panes in the phone booth. I took a deep breath and slid open the folding door only to feel eyes on me. A buxom blond poked her head out of a doorway about ten feet away. My roommate.
“Ooh, pale and sweaty. A boyfriend?”
“No, Julie.” She looked like a pixie but behaved like a witch.
“Of course not. Maybe if you did something with your hair and learned to smile…. Or if you weren’t such a pill,” she said.
My father told me I was beautiful. He said it all the time. He showed me all the time. I always felt ugly, though. A sick, ugly girl.
“God, Kara. You could laugh. I’m just kidding,” Julie spat.
I had already looked away. “It’s raining,” I said as I got up to shut the window. The fight had finished; the dark clouds had won.
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