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The International Writers Magazine: Life Fiction Archives

Pileated Woodpecker & Sword Fern
• Kirie C. Pedersen

“What about marriage?” Helen asked.
“What about it?”
“For all the fuck-ups in my life, I finally met someone,” Helen said.
“Eighth time’s charmed.” Cilla had little faith in Helen’s choices. Most ended up slugging her in the face.
“Three.” Helen shot Cilla the look: jaw dropped, lips pursed, eyes unblinking. “This is only my third. Would be my third. But we're not talking marriage yet." Helen loved deflecting attention off herself. "And what about you?”
“I’m happy on my own.”
“You’re the strongest person I know. Someone’s going to come along.”
“Strong is fine,” Cilla said. The sage Helen lit to dispel the ghost of Cilla’s late husband was thick, and Cilla choked. “For kids.” Helen insisted on weekly smudging. Raised Southern Baptist, she converted to Catholicism after her first child was born dead. Just in case, she said.

When Cilla’s husband was still alive, the house was thick with jasmine, one stick of incense for each one-hour sit, bolt upright in full Lotus. It hadn’t saved him, though, just as Helen’s sage couldn’t vanquish him now.
Cilla picked the sage with Jason during a Phish concert at the Gorge.
“I’m happy for you, Helen.” Cilla pounded the sage, hard, into a saucer, trying to stifle the the burn, then settled onto the couch, tucking her legs beneath the thick fur of her cat. “Tom loves you, and he loves your kids.” Cilla left out the part about Tom propositioning her the last time Helen was away. “But don’t you know the statistics about marriage?”
“No,” Helen said. “Tell me. You’re the statistics person.” She raised her eyebrows and stared at Cilla with clear grey eyes.
“Even if I met someone, second marriages have a sixty percent failure rate.” Cilla scratched her torn cuticle across her lower lip, and Helen pulled her hand away. “Why can’t I enjoy my displacement activity?” Cilla asked. “Look at your fingernails.”
“You’re different. I know that as clearly as I know my own name.” Helen tucked her own gnawed fingers beneath her knees. “I know it as clearly as I’ve known anything in my life.”
“We’re supposed to be happy as we are. With ourselves. We’re supposed to be the person we’d want to marry.” Cilla leaned over Mr. Darcy and blew into his neck. “Besides, I am happy,” she said.
“You’re happy living alone with a cat?” Helen stood so quickly Cilla’s cat startled, slicing her leg through her jeans. “Come on,” Helen said. “Let’s walk before it gets dark.”

Helen strode along the forest path a few steps ahead of Cilla. “What about Jason?” she asked over her shoulder. Cilla refused to run to catch up, and Helen stopped, thrust both arms into the air, and rotated them a couple of times.
“I don't want to talk about Jason,” Cilla said.
“You two have real love.”
“Yeah, right.” Cilla knelt to touch a patch of moss beside the path. The moss formed a perfect miniature of the sword fern beside it.
“I see the two of you together. You glow.”
“That’s called sex.”
“It’s more than that.” Helen again rushed ahead. “You share a way of being with the world.”
“Jason’s way of being with the world is to smoke as much marijuana as he can on any given day.”
“Weed is not the center of Jason’s life.” Helen didn’t turn or slow down. “You are.”
“For five minutes,” Cilla said. “When he’s asleep, in the middle of the night, he holds me so tightly I can’t move. When he’s awake, he just wants to escape.”
“So he can’t handle the age difference.”
“It’s pretty hard to erase.”
“But it isn’t something fundamentally wrong with you.”
“My age is pretty fundamental,” Cilla said. “To me.”

In the silence of the forest, something was tapping. A Pileated woodpecker circled the rotted willow just above their heads. It was supposed to be a shy bird, but Cilla never found it so. During her long daily walks along in the forest, sometimes the Pileated tossed bits of bark directly onto her head. She liked how it carved its rectangular holes that other species then used for their own lairs. She thought she’d never heard or seen anything so beautiful.
Helen didn’t even look up. She could care less about wildlife.
Cilla plucked wild mint and placed it in her mouth, the taste bitter with an edge of sweet. Then she ran to catch up with Helen.

Jason never returned, though he claimed to drive by frequently. “I’m stalking you,” he told Cilla, though he had already married a woman his own age. Helen stepped into Cilla's job. After all, she said, she (Helen) needed to support a family, and Cilla had just walked out on her own life. Cilla wasn’t worried. She wanted only to walk the wild and ancient paths, breathing the salt and salal. To be a forest bodhisattva.

© Kirie Pedersen December 2014

Other writing appears or is forthcoming in Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio program, Bluestem Magazine, Eleven Eleven, Chaffey Review, Caper Literary Journal, Avatar Review, Utne Reader, Seven Days, Wisconsin Review, Eclipse, RiverSedge, Alcoholism the National Magazine, Regeneration (Rodale Press), Glossolalia, American Motorcyclist, Folly Magazine, The View from Here, Northwest People, Teachers and Writers, A Gourmet Notebook, r.kv.r.y Quarterly Literary Review, Laurel Review (Greentower Press), Burrow Press Review, South Jersey Underground, Pithead Chapel, Theater Latte Da, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Juked, Foliate Oak, Superstition Review, and elsewhere.
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