Read the Book In-Progress: theprose.com/book/3224/mily-the-millennial
II. IN DIANA
♠ ♥ ♣ ♦
“In Diana is a garden where the seeds of peace have grown,
where each tree, and vine, and flower has a beauty all its own.”
♥ ♠ ♦ ♣
Mildred Junegrass Womack-Yoder vividly remembered tripping into that fateful patch of pitcher’s thistle. Reliving every moment was how Mily ultimately became convinced that the bugs in her brain weren’t just figments of her imagination. In fact, everything that had happened since she lost near half her marbles in the overgrown grass actually did happen. It was exactly a month past her turning eight, so Mily’d gotten to know the bugs a bit by the twins’ birthday. As a matter of fact, she’d decided that very afternoon to finally call the critters something other than queeries, since E had forbidden her from ever speaking the word until she heard it said… and because fashioning a new name made Mily feel better about the fact that the ‘clairs’ had given her magical powers.
“We like Harvest Road, we got a good piece ’a land here. Built the house smack in the middle of the moraines. See those marshy ponds? They get real pretty with the willows and all the cattails. Yup, four’n a’quarter acres. There’s a big treeline separate’n us from the farmer’s field. Trees ain’t technically ours, but we let the kids play in the woods anyway…”
Mily thought her best power was overhearing. The clairs had taught her how to keep hold of the sound of someone talking even when they were a long ways off. Mily was then in the kitchen snacking on cinnamon applesauce as Bird iced the twins’ birthday cake, yet she could listen-in on Dog cutting up with some person who’d parked at the edge of their yard (in a black car Bird said she’d never seen before) all the way out on the front lawn!
Bird had baked two cakes and cut them both down the middle, mix-matching the sides so that each twin would have their own half-and-half cake. Chocolate and angelfood were Esa and Eyani’s mutual favorites, and because Bird was of a mind that the twins had to share too much of everything, she often found ways to make her neice and nephew feel special. Mily daydreamed while watching her mom decorate the cakes with doubly-thick layers of buttercream icing. She noticed that Bird had already counted out sixteen candles from her surplus in the junk drawer, as the twins were turning eight.
Another power the clairs taught her was sightseeing. Mily found that when she gazed down somebody else’s line of sight, she could sometimes get a glimpse from their point-of-view. She tried it out again right there in the kitchen, but Bird was trying to keep herself from checking on Dog so often that every time Mily followed her line of sight, it would quickly jump to something else, making Mily’s eyes cross so much that she decided Bird might not be the best person to test out the clairs’ powers on.
Mily wondered whether the stranger with the black car was someone her dad knew from work. Dog had been promoted to manage a major restoration milestone: The Great Marsh of Grief was officially solar-powered, which meant all the old gas-electric and steel facilities were going to be renovated. Dog said that meant they’d be made into something new, to serve a new purpose – Dog’s job was to grow the grass.
Bird always said all Dog had to do was ask and the grass would grow. Mily knew there was more to it than that though. There was this one time a few years after the Hundred Year Flood when Bird travelled with the kids to see one of the drowned towns, and Mily got the chance to see her dad cast one of his special grassroot nets along one of the many muddied restoration sites in Diana. Bird wanted Will and Mily to see how their dad’s grass had sprung up and stabilized the whole stretch of woodland watershed that Mily remembered from when she was very little. She was awestruck by how the puddly landcape she remembered had turned so audaciously green thanks to a few good seasons.
Near everyone said that Mily’s dad was the best Jack in the trade. But the adults were often saying things like an honest-to-goodness, talented spadesman was hard to come by. “You could say I was born a spade,” she listened to Dog say to the stranger still standing out at the road in front of the house. “So I don’t mind you call’n me one. But I ain’t been a Jack forever so forgive me for put’n it so blunt: What can I do for you?”
Before the stranger had spoken in-response, Bird hooted at the sound slow tires rolling over the asphalt outside. Mily flew to the front door floor-to-ceiling windows and saw her aunt and uncle’s car bump and slow to a crawl before jerking to a halt at the foot of the driveway. Eyani and Esa leapt out of the car speedwalking, rushing around the arc of the flowerbeds and landing on the front porch where Mily was perched, waiting inside the paned-glass foyer.
Emjay! Permission to teletalk?
HAPPY BIRTHDAY ! ! ! But BUSY please stand by.
Mily threw the deadbolt and thrust the red-pepper painted door wide open. The twins grinned and hurried inside, happy to practice the telepathic-etiquette they’d been cooking up for a month. The three of them were amazed at the ways their brains were connected these days, and any intel they might discuss later – it was mostly boring adult stuff, with tidbits of information about upcoming plans and hints about the kids’ birthday gifts sprinkled into their parents’ conversations throughout the day. E may be able to hear inside all the heads in the room, but the way the twins liked to test Mily’s new abilities made it seem like his powers were nothing special.
Nothing special? Mily shook her head to clear the outrageous idea. What she would give to know what Dog was thinking as he turned on his heel and set his face to the road. Dog didn’t surprise easy, he was standing stiffly with his arms crossed, perhaps untangling a thought… Mily blinked hard, but vivid flashbacks rolled her inner eye back to all the times she’d ever seen Dog stand like that as the stranger said:
“Jack, you’ve been picked up by the team in Dianapolis.
Consider this notice of your rank and… suit.”
“My suit? You don’t mean to say…” Dog sounded confused. Mily was leaning with her left shoulder against the front porch pillar, remembering when she stood at the foot of a dam where a massive breach had been fixed. After their dad got off a machine and greeted them on the staked-off walking path, Will had asked him how long the new breakwalls would last.
“Who’s to say,” Dog had said, “that water and wind always win?” Mily had added that if water and wind would always win – well what was the point of pitching grassroots against the might of climate change? Dog just smiled at them under the turquoise brim of his Entact cap and said, “Well, water’s gonna go wherever it can fill or flow. Wind will cut everywhich way you can think. And I guess, rhyme-or-reason, grass grows long as it’s got what it needs.”
Mily moved out of her mother’s way as Aunt Elaeagnus arrived on the front stoop, giftbags hanging from her forearms and carrying four lidded glass dishes that smelled like dinner. Mily sidestepped outside to avoid further crowding the foyer, thinking she could buy a few seconds more to listen while Bird helped Elaeanus with all the food into the dining room.
Mily!! Your mom wants you!
Huffing and rushing to clear the flashback fog, Mily heeded E’s warning and hurried inside the house, skipping into the connected kitchen-and-dining room where Bird was waiting for her to do something she couldn’t discern… Mily’s cheeks burned as she realized she had heard Bird call for her four or five times, but she’d been preoccupied trying to overhear what Dog was saying to the stranger outside. Bird might’ve said what she needed her daughter to do, but Mily must have missed it, and now she had to admit it. Her ears were blazing and she was so furious with the clairs for getting her lost in her own thoughts again that she grit her teeth and h e l d h e r b r e a t h , shrieking silently for a few seconds till she summoned enough gumption to look Bird in the eye and ask, “What did you say, Mom?”
“I asked if you could please help Aunt Elae set the table for nine?” Bird reiterated, pecking her consonants so they’d stick in her daughter’s ears.
“Who else is coming?” Esa asked as she and E followed Mily’s trail into the kitchen-and-dining room. Mily sighed quietly and went to fetch the nice cloth napkins and silverware from the china cabinet. The cabinet was stationed in a small corner alcove beside a sliding glass door leading to the back deck. Grabbing a fistful of folded napkins and as many spoons as she could carry in one hand, Mily pinged, Eyani.
I think that guy outside might crash your birthday dinner.
“Is it whoever’s talking to Uncle Dog outside?” E asked at once.
Aunt Elae smiled at Bird and said, “If you can follow suit…”
“You’ve got to follow suit,” Bird finished, shrugging. Mily found both her mother’s tone and demeanor odd. What’s that supposed to mean? she asked E, who must have relayed her confusion to Esa because she looked right at her with bug-eyes and high-brows that mirrored Mily’s own sense of ambiguity.
“Huh?” said all three kids together.
“Dad has a face now, remember Mily?” Will said, out from upstairs bedroom for the first time all afternoon. He cropped up between Eyani and Esa (who were both a bit taller than Will already, despite the two-year age difference) and squeezed them tight around the shoulders. “Happy birthday, you two.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mily demanded as the twins were saying thanks. Her ears were starting to ring and a frustrated knot was tightening in her forehead, which meant the clairs were growing impatient. Quit being so nosy, she told them, but more to convince herself that they (not Mily) were being busy-bodies than truly disapproving.
“It means that your dad has more responsibilities now that he’s a Jack,” Bird answered while lifting a stack of porcelain plates from a kitchen cabinet. “And evidently subject to housecalls,” she added in an undertone to Elaeagnus, whose lips puckered like she might giggle.
Mily wasn’t satisfied with that answer, but she reminded herself that she was supposed to be setting the table and set to work. First she swept around the long rectangle table and dropped a napkin and cutlery at each place setting. Then she unburdened Bird of her stack of plates before she could lay a single one on the maple tabletop.
As she was setting the last plate, Mily noticed that Will had shadowed her path and filled in the silverware she’d missed the first time around. He hadn’t said a word. Mily stared at her brother until he noticed and grinned back at her. Will was always doing things like that to help her out; she hadn’t told him about the clairs, but Will knew her better than anyone and seemed to sense that his sister needed help getting through whatever change was happening in her over the past few weeks.
Bird was putting the finishing touches on the twins’ birthday cakes when Mily’s ears perked up: she heard the telltale tread of her Uncle Earn’s steel-toed boots on the grouted tile floor and swung around to face him. “Do I know you?” he asked her straight away, scrunching up his face and squinting.
Mily rolled her eyes but was beaming – her uncle’s earnest teasing made him one of her favorite people on the planet, so she was always game to play along. “Don’t you know a fellow Yoder when you see one, Earney?” His kids giggled at the thin line his mouth made for one instant – Mily smirked. That was the game, to see who could get under the other one’s skin first. She knew Earn Yoder didn’t like to be called Earney.
But it took more than that to shake her uncle up. “You listen ere, Junesass – find me a great big piece a’cake, and I promise not t’sick my Dog on yees.”
“Who’s afraid of dogs?” Mily began, but as was wont to happen, somebody went on talking before she had the chance to finish setting up her joke.
“I hate to tell you this Bird,” Elaeagnus said. “But the twins asked for cake before dinner.”
“So we’ll have cake and eat dinner after!” Bird proclaimed. “How about we do singing and candles out back, since the table’s already set?” Then she smiled at Mily and thanked her for helping and listening.
Everyone cleared a path for Elaeagnus and Bird while they transferred the twins’ birthday cakes to the outdoors. Then they filed one by one through the sliding glass door, giving each other space enough to stand and stretch across the wooden deck. Earn walked behind Mily and gave her a hard pat on the shoulder to show that he knew his niece had been going somewhere with that dog bit. She didn’t look back but knew he could sense her smile – It’s fine. I didn’t get to the punchline. I can use it next time.
Their mothers placed the cakes on an outer corner of a beautiful orange and blue beachglass patio table that Bird had helped Mily make for the Art Fair during the previous school year. Since her dad was in charge of growing grass, he was always coming home with chunks and shards of rock and glass that needed some purpose. Many of the finer sand-smoothed, clear pieces were picked up by Mily or Bird while they wandered down the Great Lake shoreline or traipsed up the shifting sand mounds of Dune Park.
Mily was proud of the the way it looked in the August evening light. The white crystalline bits shimmered just like the foamy crests of the waves, indeed – they’d achieved the same sense of froth as the beach with their craftswork. Under the golden hour, blues too were especially dazzling; cerulean bokeh danced at all angles, midst bright cobalt gleams that made the twins’ sixteen birthday candles seem as if they’d already been lit.
“We can’t do candles without Uncle Dog,” Eyani said, summoning them all back to the task at hand. “We should go get him,” Esa added. “Or else E and me’ll be waiting on our wishes till September.” She side-stepped on tiptoe in the direction of the steps. E took a long, sweeping sideways stride to block and cover her.
“Hold your horses,” Elaeagnus said, and the twins obeyed, standing up straight and leaning into each others’ shoulders. Mily got concerned when her aunt spoke again – there was a timid edge to her brow that usually only came about during thunderstorms. “Ought we not give him a minute or two more, do you think, Bird?” Then Elae’s gaze jumped to her husband’s, and Earn rolled his eyes in the same good-humored way that Mily had inside the kitchen-and-dining room.
On your mark… Eyani and Esa graced her with knowing smirks.
Mily returned their expressions with an achingly cool air of confidence. Her eagerness was a stifling breeze, but that didn’t change the fact that it was always Mily they asked to do the running – times like this, when their heads were bent, patience spent as sudden hunger settled over them, watching as confetti sprinkles morphed into the buttercream icing on the twins’ cakes like watercolor.
Clock doesn’t start till Will says go, she told E, inching her way to edge of the deck. Mily’d already slipped down the steps to the grass when, in exactly the sarcastic manner she expected, her uncle said, “Time to earn yer keep, Li’l Wo-Yo. Go’n getch yer dad and his keeper if he’s come’n… and say I may save him some cake if he hurries.”
She nodded to show that she understood her goal. Mily’s sure-footed swiftness happened to be one of those weird things she lived for – to be counted as the fastest runner among them made her happier than just about anything.
“Want me to time you, Emjay?” Will asked her, thumb hovering over a button on his waterproof wristwatch.
“Pick a time for me to beat,” Mily suggested, picturing herself sprinting full-force around the house and down the slope of the front yard towards a stranger and decided that wasn’t the sort of first impression she wanted to make on someone her dad worked with. Bet he’ll be walking this way in less than three minutes.
In your dreams, Mildred. Keepers have all the time in the world.
Don’t call me that.
Will’s pointer finger was poised to start the stopwatch. “Try to be back in under six minutes?”
Mily nodded – That’s fair.
“Ready? On your mark. Get set –
“Go!” She took off full-sprint around the corner of the house, but the speed was really for show. Time was running, but Mily knew she had enough to get it done and maybe even impress her brother a little… Will liked to keep track of all kinds of scores and records for sports or competitions, and he had a manner of old trophies and trading cards which he often categorized and sorted just for fun… Mily just liked to run. She had no shoes on, so she let her stride lose gradual steam and stopped just around the bend and beyond eyesight of the others. From her new vantage in the sideyard, Mily could just see her dad and the stranger still standing at the road. She bet that her mom’s sunflowers hid her from view if looking from their angle – I’m invisible.
You’re right out in the open.
Sure about that? Mily teased back, then frowned as her ears caught the tailend of Uncle Earn’s sentence: ” – remind the man he’s cutting into family time.”
She paused and took a few steps closer to the garden path and settled into the shade beneath some sunflowers. Feeling topful for time, she stretched a few more seconds to figure out what they were talking about on the deck.
“Mily is the fastest,” Esa seemed to defend, which made Mily listen harder.
“Well alright sure but if you sent Will to do the same thing…”
“We might not light the twins candles till midnight!” Bird’s words sound like an attempt to temper all the fuss.
With something like a static tiny zap to her temples, Mily sensed that Eyani had something to say. But then Aunt Elae spoke before his words had even formed in his head. “A little girl’s presence is a powerful thing,” she said.
Mily frowned, unsure if that was true or not. Besides, nevermind all that: she was fastest. She beat Will to the end of the yard by a second-and-a-half flat at least eighty-percent of the time, and that was a fact. Dog said he’d done the math. She heard Bird ask Will how much time had passed…
Mily shook her head and got back on track. As she gathered herself to make a polite impression on the stranger, who now she guessed must work for her dad at Entact. She and the clairs dialed back her back into their ongoing conversation…
“Like I was say’n,” Dog was saying. Something caught his eye, and he walked a few steps to his left and bent to pick it up. It was a tennis ball, sunbleached and weather-worn, evidently tossed and forgotten by one of them. Tossing the ball between his palms, Dog went on, “My daughter, now she’s about to be in Second Grade, and we only been here since before she was in school, only been since ninety-eight…”
I was five, she remembered. It was the summer she turned six, when the house was finished; the head stonemason let her cement the last bricks in the pavement border of the garden path not far from where she was standing. Mily took a deep breath and stepped out of the shade, loping across the lawn so it would seem like a casual jaunt, and not like she’d just spent forty-two seconds eavesdropping on her father from flowerbed while on the clock.
“Hi Dad,” Mily announced right about when she knew they’d begin to hear her footsteps approaching. The grass was very dry, like brown lichen, covering wide swaths of the moraines. Even on her tough kid callouses, some of the sunburnt patches were awfully prickly.
Dog was a self-acknowledged lollygagger, so he always knew right away when someone was only turning up to fetch him. “Well hey there,” Dog greeted her. “I reck’n everybody’s wait’n on me, aren’t they?”
Mily tapped her left wrist as if she were wearing a watch. Times a waste’n, she conveyed with a tight-lipped awkward grin. She waited for Dog to introduce her to the new adult like he always did, but instead her dad sent a sharp, short whistle through his teeth and tossed her the tennis ball. She caught it but felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment anyway.
“Go on back up to the house, Mily,” Dog told her. “And tell everybody I’ll be right behind you.” Because he so rarely used that tone, Mily took it seriously and obeyed him at once. Sort of nodding at the stranger still standing at the edge of Harvest Road, Mily turned on her heel and jogged back to her place in the shade under the sunflowers.
Half-time in ten, nine, eight…
Stop counting – that didn’t go how I thought it would go so oh well. Mily’s chin fell to her chest as she suppressed a moan. But telling herself Dog said he’d be right along after her, Mily put away all thoughts of racing and spent an extra few moments being invisible beside the flowerbed, summoning her wits. When she felt rebalanced and ready to rejoin the others, Mily looked up.
And then she froze, clutching the old tennis ball like a stone.
* * * * *
/ n o t a r e
Excerpt from the Official State Poem of Indiana. “Indiana,” by Arthur Franklin Mapes –