Birch: Growth

How alright could it be? Could a tree lose a major limb and ever be expected to regain its balance and symmetry? I wondered if that was how we appeared now to others, my children and me—a lopsided family with a pronounced skew. Did we even qualify to be a family—a real family?

Well, what did it matter? It only mattered how we felt inside, how well we managed to wrap ourselves around this tragedy and bring to it some kind of grace and meaning. In my imagination, I could envision how that might happen, but I couldn’t feel it yet. Not even glimpse it. Right now, recovery did not feel possible.

All I could feel was that I needed to retrieve something that was lost, and that I had no means of ever finding it. I hadn’t seen Daniel go. I had fallen asleep in one life and woken up in another. We hadn’t said goodbye, my husband and I. We hadn’t said our peace. He had left with a kind of violent suddenness at an awkward time in our marriage, a period of estrangement that I kept expecting to resolve itself. But not this way.

We had drifted apart when I was sick. Two years before, for a number of months, I had a strange illness that was never diagnosed—an unspecified auto-immune disorder that was first thought to be toxic shock syndrome. Another doctor said Epstein Barre. Lymphoma was suggested at one point. Lyme’s disease. Mono. Lupus. MS. The list went on. The tests and scans were inconclusive, the disease elusive. We waded through numerous examinations and bloodwork, and after a time Daniel began to stare suspiciously at me as if I were either holding out on him or making the whole thing up.

As the weeks went on and the tests proved nothing and I failed to get out of bed day after day, he became sullen and dejected, as if I had found a different, more interesting life apart from him and our children.

It seemed odd to me that he was now the dead one. As if he were kind of thumbing his nose at me and saying: “You want to see dying? I’ll show you dying!”

I knew that sounded crazy but I couldn’t help connecting the two events. As a couple, we had never recovered from my illness. I got better, while the marriage became diseased. As I became well, Daniel grew more suspicious, as if he could no longer take me at my word. As if I hadn’t had the guts to go through with my plan to leave him. Like I had staged this big dramatic exit and then changed my mind.

All in all, I couldn’t help feeling a little envious of those widows who felt nothing more than a plain and simple grief at the passing of their husbands. That seemed far easier to deal with than the swirl of ambivalence and betrayal that hung around me and the space that Daniel once occupied. Had I failed him as a wife? I kept thinking I had provoked him somehow and that his death was a retaliatory strike.

Maybe this was normal. Maybe other widows felt this way—abandoned and stung. Maybe even to blame. But, if this were true, it didn’t explain anything. It didn’t explain what I should do next.

So I decided to put everything I had into just making sure my children were okay, that they could survive the loss. I would sort out my own feelings later.

 

 

“Did you make this?” Ethan asked, peering into the casserole dish on the kitchen counter.

“Mrs. Cleary made it,” I said, reaching past him to preheat the oven.

“How long before we don’t have to eat the neighbors’ food anymore?” he asked.

“Ethan! That’s a terrible thing to say. People have been so generous.”

He looked at me. “Seriously, Mom, I can’t eat anymore of this stuff. You never know what you’re getting into.”

“Oh Ethan, come on. It’s just a casserole. How bad can it be?” I went to the cupboard to get out some plates.

“Bad,” piped up Kenya, who was sitting at the kitchen table with her laptop. “Like that chicken you gave us last night with all those red things in it.”

“Oh, I know,” said Ethan. “So nasty. What was that?”

“Chicken and peppers,” I said.

Kenya wrinkled her nose. “Why can’t we just have eggs and pancakes for dinner?” she asked.

I sighed and smiled at them. It was our first night in the house alone since Daniel died. My mother had flown back to Ohio that morning. Both children had both been so unbelievably strong during the whole process. Everyone said so.

“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s have breakfast for dinner.” I slipped the casserole back into the still crowded refrigerator and dug out a carton of eggs, some butter, milk and a package of bacon.

A strange kind of peace came over me. I thought, you know, this will be fine. My children will be fine and I will be fine. It will be sad and it will be slow, but it’s going to be okay—just like everyone said it would be—and if it feels somewhat okay this soon on, why there’s no telling how simple this whole terrible process might be.

I felt such a wave of relief in my body that I almost buckled at the knees. I was tired to the bone, and thought maybe I would finally sleep that night.

 

 

I was at the stove cooking eggs and bacon. A platter stacked with pancakes was keeping warm in the oven.

“Mom,” called Ethan from the family room, “Kenya’s being an a-hole!”

I sighed and rolled my eyes thinking it was one of their ordinary squabbles. But then Kenya let out a scream that made me drop my spatula and run.

I found her standing on top of the coffee table, hands clenched above her head. Something shiny dangled from her hand as she danced about in a crazy, erratic way. She seemed to be both crying and laughing at the same time. I became alarmed just looking at her.

Ethan was trying to grab whatever she had in her hand and Kenya was leaping from the table to the couch and back again, screaming like a banshee.

“She’s got Dad’s keys and she won’t give them to me,” said Ethan.

“They’re mine!” she cried, swirling her arms as she jumped. “Mine-mine-mine! Mine-mine-mine!”

She was like a wild bird that had been grounded and cornered, her voice screechy and broken.

“Ethan!” I said. “Back away! Leave her alone. You’re making it worse.”

“She stole them out of my room,” he said.

Kenya stuck out her tongue and taunted him as if she had regressed to four years of age again. “Nyaa-nyaa.”

“Kenya!” I said sharply. “Sit down and shut up!”

Kenya stopped as if she had been slapped. Then she crumpled into a corner of the couch and began to sob.

“She’s a total brat,” said Ethan.

“Well, what were you doing with Dad’s keys in the first place?” I asked.

“Mo-om,” he said. “Duh? Kenya doesn’t drive? I do. Dad’s car is mine now.”

“Who said?” I asked. “That was never decided. Daddy’s car is very expensive to maintain, Ethan. I was actually planning to trade it in for something more economical.”

“What! You can’t do that! You’re changing everything! Dad would never want you to sell that car!” Ethan yelled.

“Well, he’s not here to decide that, now is he?” I said.

Kenya let out a wail and started crying even louder.

“Kennie, for God’s sake, I can’t think straight with you howling like that! What is wrong with you?” I said, my voice cracking under the strain of shouting.

“What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with you?” said Ethan. “Mom, listen to yourself!”

“I can’t help it,” said Kenya, her voice choked with tears. “I miss Daddy.”

“You’re acting like she isn’t even entitled to be upset about Dad,” said Ethan, the one who had initially caused this eruption.

“I’m not doing any such thing!” I said, holding out my hand. “Kenya, I will take the keys for now, and we will all discuss this calmly at another time.”

“No,” said Ethan, plunking himself down between his sister and me and folding his arms defiantly. Kenya was staring at him, still crying, but more softly now.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Okay, what are you playing at, mister? You started this commotion and now you’re, what? Switching sides? I see what you’re doing—you know you can weasel those keys from her more easily than you can get them from me.”

Ethan wiggled his hands in the air. “Ooooooh,” he said. “Mom and her super psychic powers! Help! Help! I’m melting under the rays.” He held up his arms in mock deflection. Kenya segued from sobbing into giggling, her blue eyes shiny with tears.

Then, the smoke alarm went off.

“Oh, shit!” I said and ran back to the kitchen. The bacon strips were charred and smoking, the eggs stuck like mortar to the bottom of the pan. I quickly slid the bacon away from the burner and covered the skillet with a lid.

Ethan and Kenya followed me to the kitchen. My son reached up and pulled the battery from the smoke alarm. Everything became very still, and I felt the tension of our family row dissipate, as if the alarm itself had been a player in the argument and trumped us all by being the loudest.

I stood at the sink watching the water as it flowed into the pan of eggs, creating a cloudy, lumpy mess. I wondered why I hadn’t waited for them to cool first and then scraped them into the garbage. I wondered why the bacon hadn’t caught fire, and what else we could have for dinner now. I wondered if we would ever, ever be right again. Then I started to cry.

Ethan retreated quietly and went upstairs to his room. Kenya came up alongside me and put her arms around my waist.

I’m sorry, Mommy,” she said. Her face was wet against my arm.

“I know, sweetie,” I said. “Me too.” I wiped my face on my sleeve and put my arms around her.

“Here,” she said, setting Daniel’s keys down. They made a gentle clatter as they settled on the countertop. The keychain carried a medallion stamped with the words “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was Daniel’s favorite song. He used to sing it to Kenya when she was little. I understood now why she wanted them. I picked up the keychain and slid off the key to Daniel’s car. There were other keys on the ring, one to the house and another to the garage door. I didn’t think the others were important. “Why don’t you just keep that?” I said, holding it out to her on my finger.

 

 

“I just feel bad that I don’t feel bad,” I said to Rowena, poking at my salad with a fork. “I mean, I don’t even miss him. Does that seem normal to you?”

Today was the first day my kids had returned to school. Rowena was treating me to lunch at Davide’s, a restaurant we both liked.

“What’s normal right now?” she said, tucking pieces of lettuce that had fallen from her sandwich back inside the bread. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Though Rowena had been my best friend since grade school, I liked to believe she was still objective enough to let me know when I was being awful.

“So, you don’t think I’m like, a cold, heartless bitch or something?”

“I think you’re not giving yourself a chance to work through this process. You’re just getting started, Clare. How do you know how this is going to unfold for you? Before it’s over, you’re going to feel a thousand different things.” She shook her head at me. “Do you want some of this potato salad by the way? It’s amazing.”

“No, that’s okay. Look, I don’t think I’m going to start feeling bereft all of a sudden, I don’t care how much time passes. There’s a part of me that is so furious with him for just up and dying. I know it sounds ludicrous but it seems so typical of him to pull a stunt like this.”

“I think once the anger passes, the tenderness will come back.” Rowena reached over and put a dollop of her potato salad on top of my plate. “You’ll like it,”” she said.

I took an obligatory bite. It was good, but I still wasn’t interested in eating it. I set my fork down. “I was waiting for that to happen before he died.”

“I know,” said Rowena, chewing on a slice of pickle.

“Well, that can’t happen now!”

“Why not? You’re talking about a healing process, and you don’t need Daniel around to do that.”

We sat in silence for a while. I gazed around the restaurant and caught the eye of our waitress. She approached our table, a wraith-thin girl with translucent skin and a scrawny blond ponytail. She looked like someone who hadn’t eaten in weeks. I thought perhaps they should have hired a sturdier, corn-fed kind of girl to serve their customers.

“Can I wrap that for you?” she asked, pointing to my half-eaten salad.

I sighed. “Sure, why not?”

“Are you interested in any dessert?” she asked.

“Oh, not for me,” I said, putting my hand to my stomach. “I’m full.”

“Oh, really?” said Rowena, raising her eyebrows.

She smiled up at the waitress. “We’ll have the cobbler with ice cream and two forks.”

The cobbler was one of the reasons we always came to this restaurant, and Rowena was just trying to keep things as routine as possible. She picked up a packet of sweetener and poured a pinch of it into her tea.

“How are the kids?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Ethan seems alright, I guess. Kennie seems…unstable.”

“How so?”

I shrugged. My eyes filled with tears. “This is why I’m so angry, Ro. These kids have been dealt such a blow.”

Rowena stirred her tea and watched me. “What about getting some guidance on this?” she asked.

I frowned. “What do you mean? Like, therapy?” I said.

“No, not therapy. I was thinking you should probably contact that spirit guide of yours again.”

“Sumeh? Oh good heavens, Ro, I’m not sure any of that was even real.”

“You got better, didn’t you? Clare, you were really sick, and you got completely better. How is that not real?”

“I was desperate, alright? I had way too much time on my hands. Who knows, I probably just made it all up.” I started to laugh, but quickly noticed Rowena wasn’t laughing with me.

“I watched you go through that,” said Rowena. “I watched you transform in front of my eyes. It was like you came back from the dead, Clare. That isn’t made up.”

It was hard to look at her just then. “Alright,” I said, lining my knife and spoon up so they were precisely even. “If I get desperate enough, I’ll consider it.”

 

 

Rowena returned with me to the house. It was time to go through all the banking statements and Daniel’s employee benefits to see where things stood for us financially. This was a process I didn’t want to face alone.

I sat down in one of the dining room chairs I had pulled into the study. The chair Daniel died in was rolled into a corner of the room until I decided what to do with it.

I pulled on the bottom drawer of the desk, where Daniel kept our files, but it didn’t budge.

“Are you sure it isn’t just jammed?” asked Rowena, bending down to look at it.

“I don’t think so,” I said, still jiggling the handle. “And I bet I know where the key is.”

“Oh, on the key chain you gave Kenya,” said Rowena, smiling.

I got up from the desk. “Let me see if I can find it in her room.”

I hurried up the stairs, hoping I would find the keys easily and not have to wait for Kenya to return from school. I didn’t usually go into my daughter’s room.   We had a strong difference of opinion on cleanliness, and I found, in the interest of domestic tranquility, it was best if I avoided going in there as much as possible.

The room was cold and had an unfamiliar smell. Kenya had clearly been burning something in here. I noticed that the center of the room was free of the clothing piles that covered the rug everywhere else. In the open space of the floor, my daughter had created, with sprinkled salt, a circle about three feet in diameter. Inside the circle were a number of candles of different colors, slips of burnt-edged paper with strange incantations written on them, a penknife, a lighter and a black magic marker. There was also a ceramic bowl from the china cabinet that seemed to be filled with a large mound of multi-colored wax, as if each candle had been dripped separately into the bowl.

Okay, I thought. This is just my wildly curious and imaginative daughter doing something wildly curious and imaginative. Right? I bent down and looked more closely at the papers and read what seemed to be a list of odd derivations of people’s names—including Clay-re-ages and Ee-tano-poulos-thano. What, was she trying to put spells on us?

My insides went cold. It was then I noticed that Daniel’s keys were inside the mound of hardened wax. I sighed.

Rowena found me in the kitchen pouring boiling water onto the wax that held Daniel’s keys. She peered over my shoulder.

“What is that?” she asked.

“Don’t ask,” I said.

I could feel her staring into my face. “Okay,” she said, knowing me well enough to recognize this was one of those moments when I needed space. She walked to the other side of the kitchen and turned the kettle on.

I pried the smallest key away from the set and took it back into the study. The file drawer opened easily, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

I thought I would just look through things quickly, have a cup of tea with Rowena, and then figure out what to do about Kenya. But the things I found were a bit more complicated than I might have ever imagined.

The first thing I discovered after I opened the drawer was that our investment portfolio, which at one time had been around four hundred thousand dollars, now had a balance of twenty-seven dollars and thirty-four cents.

The next thing I found was a packet of cards and love letters to Daniel from someone name Cynthia.

The third thing I found was the deed to a house in Arizona with Daniel and Cynthia’s names on the property.

I could hear Rowena in the kitchen humming and making tea. By the sounds of it, she was emptying the dishwasher and putting my dishes away.

“Ro,” I called, “could you come in here?”

After Rowena and I went through everything, it seemed pretty clear that Daniel was planning on leaving me, but the logistics of his departure were vague. Was he going to just pick up and move to Arizona, quit his job and start from scratch, leave his children? I thought he had probably stashed money away to finance a move like this, but it didn’t really sound like Daniel to desert his kids. He might have been finished with me and fed up with our marriage, but he loved his kids and I couldn’t imagine him leaving them like that.

“Daniel was an idea man, remember?” said Rowena. “He never concerned himself with the details.”

“No, that was my job,” I said. “I guess he was kind of in a bind here. Couldn’t really ask for my help with this one, now could he?”

“What are you going to do, Clare?” said Rowena, chewing on the inside of her bottom lip. I only ever saw her do that when she was nervous.

“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s life insurance coming. That will hold us for a while, but in the long run, I won’t be able to stay here. And I don’t know how I’ll put the kids through college.”

“You need to call your lawyer.”

“I need to lie down,” I said.

I slumped back on the floor and stared up at the ceiling. My chest and stomach had a punched out feeling that made me want to lay my hand there. But laying my hand there didn’t make it feel any better. Inside my head a voice kept saying: “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”

“I think you’re in shock, Clare,” said Rowena. “I think—.”

“What time is it?” I asked, sitting up from the floor.

“Two-thirty, why?”

“I have to clear some stuff out of Kenya’s room before she gets home.” I got up from the floor and headed towards the kitchen.

“You need help?” Rowena called after me.

“No, thanks,” I said, as I tucked a portable vacuum cleaner under one arm and a garbage bag under the other.   Once in Kenya’s room, I threw away the candles and the papers, confiscated the lighter and penknife, swept up the ring of salt, and placed the key chain, devoid of keys, in the center of her cluttered desk. Then I closed her door and went downstairs.

I knew Kenya well enough to know she would say nothing about this to me for fear of punishment. And I would say nothing to her.

I could not control what I found in Daniel’s study, I told myself, but I could control this. I could clean it all up, just like that, and make it go away so that I would never have to worry about it again.

In the kitchen, I cleaned out the ceramic bowl and put it back in the china closet. As I scooped up the garbage to walk it outside, Rowena, who had been sitting at the table observing me and still chewing on her lip, said: “You know, why don’t I just stay and make you and the kids some dinner tonight. I’ll call Harry and tell him to get something on his way home from the train. Would you like that?”

“I know what you’re doing, Ro,” I said.

“I know you know what I’m doing,” she said, dialing her husband on her cell phone, “but I’m doing it anyway.”

 

 

The children were at school. I had cleaned up the breakfast dishes and tossed in a load of laundry. I went to the bottom of the stairs, sighed, and trudged up to my study.

I told Rowena I would consider contacting my spirit guide, Sumeh, if I ever got desperate enough. Well, I was officially desperate.

I looked through the drawers of my night table for the shamanic drumming CD I had used two years before when I was sick. Listening to this CD put me into a mild trance. After a few minutes of listening, I would feel myself dropping down into the earth and there, I would find Sumeh waiting for me. Sumeh guided me through my illness and told me what I needed to do to get better. Sometimes he would take me to meet other spirits: an eagle, a bear, and an old man named Eamon. Sumeh told me Eamon was a healer and an ancestor of mine. He introduced the eagle and bear to me as power animals.

They call this process journeying, and where I went when I journeyed and met Sumeh is a place known as the Otherworld. I had learned how to journey from a book called The Shamanic Handbook that I had purchased, coincidentally, a few weeks before I first began to feel sick. Once I had become sufficiently fed up with my doctors and frightened enough by the persistence of my illness, I picked up this book and taught myself how to journey.

Sumeh appeared immediately as soon as I entered my first journey. He sat down across from me and we began talking. He told me that I was at a crisis point in my life and that I needed to make some decisions. Whatever I decided, he said, would be honored.

I said that I wanted to get better and I didn’t want to die, and he said if that were so, I would need to begin to live differently. I asked what that meant, and he said that I would need to start living for joy, that the soul longed for expansion. He said joy was my birthright and that I should never have forsaken it for disappointment and grief.

What was I grieving, I asked. The life you thought you were going to have, he said. When he said that, I began to cry and as I cried, I felt the toxic grip on my body begin to loosen. It was true—my life had become so routine and ordinary, I no longer valued it.

I told him I had forgotten how to be joyful, that I could no longer locate any joy in my life. He said, jump then. Jump for joy.

That evening, I went online and ordered a rebounder, a small indoor trampoline that I kept in the center of my bedroom floor for the next year. Everyday, I got onto the rebounder and told myself I was jumping for joy. At first I could only manage one or two feeble jumps. I felt childish and pathetic, and sat down on the floor and cried.   But I had a mission which Sumeh had given me, and so I went back to it the next day and the next, jumping because I had nothing left to lose, jumping because I was fighting for a new way of living. Especially at times when I felt in despair over my illness or my future, I got up out of bed and climbed onto the rebounder and jumped.

Daniel thought I had clearly lost my mind. I could tell by the way he walked gingerly around the rebounder whenever he went to his side of the bed at night, staring down at it as if it were a huge, gaping hole in the floor.

But the only thing I really lost in those months of jumping was the person I had been. After several months, I began to regain my strength, and the symptoms of my illness receded.

Whenever I became frustrated by my slowness to heal, whenever I felt depression begin to creep in again around the edges of my life, Sumeh would offer his steady, quiet wisdom: “Though your perceptions and memory may not be as sharp, you are as knowing as I am, dear one. Think of us as two brothers; you are the older and nearsighted one. You say to me, Brother, what is that mysterious dark spot by the edge of the lake? And I say, why, Brother that is only a deer drinking water. Or you say, what is the meaning of that ominous black cloud along the ridge? And I say, not a cloud, Brother, only the cypress trees blowing in the wind.”

 

 

Now, a year later, I was headed back to the Otherworld again, feeling equally helpless and lost, ashamed that I had left Sumeh without contact or sufficient gratitude for having brought me back to health.

I lay on the floor of my bedroom and placed a bandana over my eyes. I pressed the button on the player and turned up the volume of the drum.

Sumeh’s face was the first thing I saw when I entered the lower world. He was standing there, his hands folded in front of him, the picture of patience. He was waiting for me, the same as before, as if he had been standing there all along. He was tall and slim in his long, white tunic, his hair dark and straight, his broad smile shining forth. His face was—as before—the kindest face I had ever seen.

“Hello, Brother,” he said.

I began to cry.

“Hello, Sumeh,” I said. “I guess I need your help again.”

“Yes, dear one, you certainly do.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t been here. I’m sorry I only seem to come to you when my life is falling apart.”

“Now is the perfect time to visit,” he said, graciously, sitting down on a large flat rock. He gestured for me to join him, and then raised his arm. I heard the cry of an eagle overhead and noticed a brown bear lumbering towards us from the left. From the hills behind Sumeh, came Eamon with his long staff.

I wept as I greeted them all, my dear friends from the spirit realm, and they gathered around, as if anxious to hear my news.

“I don’t know where to begin,” I said. “I feel very frightened and uncertain about my future.”

“The future is always uncertain, girl,” said Eamon.

“Well, yes, that’s true, but things have become really unsettled since Daniel’s death. I feel as if his presence and support, his love and the security that provided me have all been stripped away. Like a slate has been erased.”

Tabula rasa,” said Bear, nodding. Bear was erudite—for a bear.

“Anyway,” I said, “on practically every level, emotionally, psychologically, financially, I’m pretty much up a tree here.”

“Best place to be,” said Eagle, puncturing the ground with his talons, as if he were trying to find something to hold onto.

“Let’s go to the trees,” said Eamon, slapping his hand against his knee as he stood up.

We began walking up a path that led into a stand of birch trees. The trees were humming in a way that made me feel giddy as I walked among them.

“Birches are all about rebirth,” said Sumeh, “the purification process. Where one thing ends, something else is beginning. If you understand what is beginning, you will know what is being asked of you. If you know what is being asked of you, you will better accept what has ended.”

“That sounds too simple,” I said.

“Everything is simple,” said Sumeh. “You make everything harder just by expecting it to be difficult.”

Eamon rapped his staff on an enormous birch, which had been nearly split in two by lightning. “This is the one,” he said, “Up you go.”

I walked up to it and looked into the darkness of the scar. I felt like I was looking at myself, only this birch was managing her calamity with a good deal more dignity and grace. I climbed up the trunk, using the lip of the scar as a grip for my hands. Sumeh and the others stayed below and watched me. I settled on a branch high up and looked at the blue sky behind the white branches. A warm breeze crossed my face.

I couldn’t see the scar from here. At this height the tree seemed strong and healthy, as if nothing had happened to it.

“You grow beyond it,” said Birch, reading my thoughts. Her voice was gentle and grandmotherly. “Right now you’re just feeling the sting of the initiation,”

“What initiation?” I asked.

“You’re being required to become something different now,” said Birch, “and it’s frightening you.”

“You’re right,” I said. “So, what do I do?”

“You do what I did—you grow from your center outward. You commit to your own growth. You reach higher in order to be stronger. You dig your roots further into the earth and you give thanks for every next breath.”

I nodded. “But aren’t you still scarred? Don’t you still feel wounded?” I asked the birch.

She started laughing. “The lightning that struck me is part of my story, as is the rain that bathes me, the wind that ripples through me in summer and strips my leaves away in autumn, the sun that nourishes me, the boy who carves his name into me. All of this shapes me into who I am. The scar is what made your guide choose me, what drew you to me, what has made me a good teacher.”

I tried to imagine feeling this way about everything that had happened with Daniel’s passing, the possibility that it might well be something neutral and benign. I shook my head.

“I see how what you are saying is true for you, but I don’t see how it is true for me in my situation.”

“It’s always true. What’s true for one is true for all. It would help if you leaned into it a bit more instead of pulling away from it in fear. How will you know what this challenge asks of you if you keep trying to avoid it?”

I shrugged, feeling sullen again and trapped in the mess of my dilemma.

“Go to the scar in my trunk,” she said, “the scar that nearly cleaved me in two, and look inside it.”

I hung upside down until my face was against the darkness inside the scar. My likeness to the Hanged Man of the tarot deck was not lost on me. As I put my face to the blackness, I sensed a warm, smoky breeze. Inside, I could see a woman dancing before a fire. Her dancing seemed to feed the fire and make it burn brighter. When she stopped, the fire dimmed. As she turned away, the flame all but guttered out. She stood in the cold darkness, the picture of desolation. Then she returned to the place where the fire had been, and she began to dance again, wearily at first, as if she had no faith the fire would be restored, but then more steadily as the fire rekindled and caught. As I pulled away from the vision, she was dancing wildly, joyfully, and the fire was reaching skyward.

“Is that me?” I asked the birch.

“If you wish it to be. The fire within is the only thing in life you ever need to tend to. Not finances or betrayals, not losses or things that have fallen apart. Focus only on the fire within and everything else will take care of itself.”

I put my arms around the tree and hugged her. “I will try and remember that,” I said.

I climbed down and joined Sumeh and the others.

“I want to ask something,” I said. “I want to ask about my marriage. What happened there?”

“Two vines intertwined on a stalk,” said Eagle, “when the stalk ends, what happens to the vines?”

“They each look for something else to cling to,” I said.

“What did you find to cling to?”

I thought about this. “I think I found myself, or some kind of inner strength. Another world opened up for me here.”

“And what did Daniel find?”

“He found somebody else.”

It seemed so peculiarly simple. I saw the vine that was me grow sideways and reach for a tree. I saw the vine that was Daniel grow the opposite way and grab onto a stone fence. We couldn’t even see each other anymore.

“So,” I said, pausing, not certain I even could agree with this. “We didn’t do anything wrong? We just did what naturally came next, growing towards what we needed to?”

“You can tell the story of your marriage a hundred different ways. The story you tell is entirely your choice,” said Sumeh.

“A story either empowers or disempowers,” said Bear. “If you tell a story of betrayal, you must be willing to become a victim. You put yourself into a prison cell and make a dead man your jailer. Your choice.”

“What was the last thing your husband said to you,” asked Eamon. “Do you remember?”

I flashed back to the dark of my bedroom the night Daniel died.

“Clare,” I heard him say.

I could see my husband in shadow standing in the doorway. He was framed in yellow light from the hallway.

“I’m going downstairs to do some work.”

“Now? What time is it?”

“It’s late. Don’t worry. I have some things I need to take care of.”

“What? Are you feeling alright?”

“Bit of a headache,” he said. “I’ll take something for it. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, shaking my head. “A little ironic, isn’t it?”

“Last words are very prophetic,” said Eamon. “You should listen to him.”

“Eamon, he was talking about his headache.”

Eamon just laughed.

Suddenly, I heard a loud bang. I sat up and removed the earphones. I looked around, uncertain whether the noise was real or imagined. Then I saw him, a male cardinal that had flown into the sliding glass door and landed on the balcony outside my study.

I crawled quietly across the floor to him on my elbows and knees. He was staring down at the ground in front of him, his breathing quick and shallow.

I put my finger on the glass. “You okay, buddy?” I whispered.

The bird panted and stared. Panted and stared.

“It’s okay,” I said. “You just got a sore head. Pretty soon, you’ll be like new.”

He raised his eyes and looked at me. He blinked as if to bring my face into focus. It was like he had a message, that he couldn’t tell me. A wave of something ran through me.

“What?” I asked. “What is it?”

He gave me a look that was so piercing. I waited. We stared at one another. I thought of Daniel. I held my breath. The bird opened his golden beak and paused and I swear if he had spoken to me in Daniel’s voice right then, it would have seemed like the most normal thing in the world.

The cardinal let out a high trill and flew away.

I followed him until he disappeared from view.

“Okay, Eamon,” I said, smiling. “Point taken.”

I leaned my back against the wall and stared outside. I felt better. Nothing was different in my life—still the same mess—but I didn’t feel the same hopelessness. I no longer felt sick with overwhelm.

This was the lifeline I was being thrown—my dear helping spirits. Would I have even gone there without Rowena’s urging? I remembered reading in The Shamanic Handbook how shamans were often initiated, how they needed some near-death experience or trial by fire before they finally agreed to take up their path. I thought of the lightning strike in the trunk of the birch.

I had no illusions about becoming a shaman. I was an art teacher, and felt content in saying that was my path. But I was in one of those places where everything that once held and supported me suddenly ceased to exist, and like the vine Eagle spoke of, I was grasping for a new direction.

I got up and walked over to my bookcase. I searched through the stacks of paperbacks piled two deep on the wide oak shelves. Behind a batch of Daniel’s science fiction novels, I found my copy of The Shamanic Handbook.

“Okay,” I said aloud, and walked to the reading chair in the corner.