August 6, 1987
The sparrows spent the morning fighting for nesting space on the ridge above the front door. Half-dozing on a sofa in the living room, I watched them through the screen as a battle of flying wings and bitter chirps stirred up the silence. I bet this old house has seen its share of battles. The pistols embedded in the mortar of the rock-hewn fireplace belonged to Wild Bill Hickock; the neighbor man told me that Hickock and his showmen spent some summers here. They must have built the core of the house, for the rest has been added on; I could tell that.
“Have you picked the dandelions yet, “ my aunt’s voice came from upstairs.
“No, I’m going in a minute,” I said.
Outside armed with my bucket, I gathered the yellow flowers from the front yard. I was overpowered by the treasures of a Canadian spring, and my attention wandered around the landscape to the foxgloves, blossoming cherries, and buttercups.
“Where are my dandelions?” the voice shook my dreams once again.
When I entered the kitchen, Mrs. Beeton’s Cookbook was on the counter opened to the section on winemaking.
“Let’s see,” I said, “cut off all the green, cover the petals with water, place cheesecloth over the crock, and set overnight.”
My aunt flew into the job like a fast-order cook; we finished in a flash. I put the kettle on the burner to make her a pot of tea.
“I had a bad dream again last night; I was beating up people,” I said.
“You fight in your dreams, and dream in your life, girl,” she laughed. Then with a serious look she added, “When I get angry, I scrub the kitchen floor with a toothbrush or take a long walk. Have you been to the woods yet?”
“No, I was waiting to go with you,” I said. “Did you hear the birds this morning, Auntie?”
“Every year they fight and make their peace,” she said. “We’ll have babies above the door by June.”
She got up form her chair and went to the kitchen to turn off the boiling kettle. After making her familiar proclamation, “ ‘this wicked old world is abominable,’ my old father used to say, “ she asked for her sweater. We headed for the woods. We crossed the open pasture land; Auntie lost her breath so we sat on a log at the edge of the trees.
“Oh, isn’t this wonderful Auntie!” I said.
I looked over at her face; she was leaning forward staring at the ground. She took several deep breaths and didn’t answer me.
“Auntie, I’ll run to the house and get you some water if you’d like some.”
She shook her head.
“I’m better now,” she said.
She got up and slowly meandered down the trail that cut through the underbrush. Under a gooseberry bush she found mushrooms hidden in the cool shadows. They grew in the remains of a fallen tree and found nourishment in decay. A group of red ants had made their house in the rotting mass and found protection in the depth of the powdery, wood chips. Auntie stirred the ants up with a stick.
“Doesn’t that hurt them, Auntie?” I asked.
“What do you think? Maybe it gives them something to do. Maybe I’ve just destroyed the old queen who was weak. How do I know?” she replied. Auntie had an odd way of looking at things.
That evening while the Aurora Borealis lit the sky, we sat in the front room watching the flames in the fireplace. As the fire died down, the red-hot embers twisted, curled, and slowly blackened. Auntie looked at these changing shapes and told stories based on the images we were seeing. One ember seemed to grow as others melted to it.
“See what’s happening to those embers when they stop popping, spitting, and fighting,” she said, “they get bigger and stronger; they grow!”
“What Auntie?” I asked.
She never looked at me but just kept on talking. “Without a good damper, all the energy goes up the chimney—it’s for naught, child—nothing comes of it. Oh it’s a pretty fire all right, but it’s the embers that keep us warm through the night.”
We slept as warm as toast that night. After several weeks we bottled the dandelion wine–it was a “killer” — and the birds hatched above the door in June.
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