Bruised Sage

Driving home from the ranch across the high desert, Enzo measures the length of a coal train, setting the odometer at the caboose and racing westward toward the engines. Tess photographs lightening that cracks the sky. Eight-year-old Sophie sleeps in the back, wrapped in the sweetness of trust.

Home in Los Angeles, Enzo needs to keep moving. “Let’s visit your parents.”

Tess thinks he is like the desert sky, full of fissures and electricity. She wants stillness. She hesitates, but her mother calls.

“Tess, come see us. I want to hear Sophie’s adventures in her words.”

“Mum, we’re still recovering; Sophie’s accident was hair-raising.”

“Nonsense, Sophie will feel brave when she tells her story, and Enzo is her hero.”

This is true. Enzo saved their daughter by moving faster than light. Sophie’s pretty roan pony threw her and bolted with Sophie’s foot in the stirrup, dragging her down the riverbed. While Tess stood frozen, Enzo slammed his horse into the pony and Sophie’s foot came free.

*     *     *

The road north to Leo and Eva’s follows the coastline in winding curves, exhilarating Enzo with memories of Italy. He accelerates into the bends. Last night Tess dreamed of careening over the edge. The drop is not a true cliff, but people in a car would drown, or twist and burn. Awaking, she questions if she is alive. Now Tess braces her knees against the dash. They arrive in Eva’s kitchen, bringing the scent of the ocean. Eva has forgotten they are coming. Enzo cooks a frittata and Tess adds extra places to the breakfast table on the patio. Leo covers for Eva with the particular grace of an old spy. Stabbing his food, distracting them all, he turns to Sophie with his I’m-teaching-you tone.

“During the war I vowed I would have an egg a day for the rest of my life.”

World War II binds Tess’s English parents and Italian Enzo. In south Italy, the chaotic aftermath shaped Enzo’s childhood. He follows his father-in-law’s narrative. “My parents were teenagers when the war ended. Their first memories are of hunger. Now my mother fills cupboards with food that rots.”

A college summer of working on a Wyoming ranch gave her a place where her parents’ war became smaller against the sky.

Eva continues the storyline of history. “The war made us mad as hatters. I traded rations with the pilots, cigarettes for chocolate, and they took me on flight exercises. Dangerous, but we all expected to die one way or another. Sophie dear, have you learned about G-force?”

These people Tess loves are good at pretending things are fine. No one says the Italians and the Brits were enemies. Tess looks at her eggs; she has never gone hungry. At school she learned how her parents’ generation saved the world, and kneeled under her desk, practicing for nuclear attack. Fear and sorrow were forbidden, excised from their lives like an infected appendix. What defines joy without sadness?

*     *     *

Snuggling on the sofa, Sophie and Eva fall into afternoon sleep. Enzo and Tess lie on the patio lounge chairs to watch the incoming fog shroud the mountains.

Enzo says, “You must tell them what happened in Wyoming. Tutto.”

“Isn’t the accident enough?”

 “No, amore. They must know.”

“You want me to tell them now, when they are almost dead?”

Tess cannot bear this. A college summer of working on a Wyoming ranch gave her a place where her parents’ war became smaller against the sky. She took Enzo to that landscape, hoping it would help him heal after his father’s death. Within a day of arriving, Sophie almost died in a freak accident. Unsinkable Sophie was on a horse again in two days, but Tess fell apart. Shame clawed its way up to her surface like the un-dead. She told Enzo the long-buried story she’d hid from herself, from everyone. They drove the rented SUV up the fire roads to a clearing high above the river gorge. She got out of the car, bruising the sage with her feet. In the rosy dusk light, sweet crisp scent wrapped around her as she spoke to the ground.

“Here. I was raped here.”

Enzo stepped forward and aimed an arc of urine over the stones and low brush, saying, “I am erasing him.”

Tess stood mute in the smell of men. You can’t. A cloud of mosquitos settled on Enzo’s tender foreskin and he slapped and danced, swearing. Tess’s laughter exploded decades of silence, echoing across the canyon again and again in a lunatic chorus.

*     *     *

Today Tess says, “Is your pissing contest with my past a funny story?” Softening, she adds, “They need to know I can take care of them, they don’t want me to be wounded.”

“They love you.”

“My parents were smart enough to survive the most terrible war.”

Eh, cosi?”

“Their generation never talks about failure.”

“Failure?”

“I got in that truck with that man.”

Enzo is quiet.

Tess thinks he and her parents might agree on her foolishness.

“Your parents did not teach you to recognize a psicopatico.”

They won a war against a psychopath.”

“That has nothing to do with this.”

It does. Leo and Eva measure even their children against sixty million dead. Weary Tess says only, “They would think it vulgar.”

Enzo respond in words that caress. “Vergogna scoperta, e vergogna svanita. Shame uncovered is shame vanished.”

Tess touches the half-burned olive tree at the edge of the patio. They were married here, under its branches. She loves this tree, tortured and defiant, bearing fruit, its silvery leaves embracing the mountains and sea. Tess’s life has grown around her like the new bark edging the burn scars, thickened and round, protecting the damaged heartwood. She goes inside to make tea.

*     *     *

In the living room, Eva and Sophie are looking at Wyoming pictures. “Good job to get right back on that pony.”

Sophie doesn’t fit in Eva’s lap anymore, her legs dangle and she drapes her arm around her grandmother’s neck. Enzo takes a picture, murmuring La Pieta, but with a happy ending. Tragedy kissed them and passed by.

Eva is telling Sophie a horse story. “I was twenty, living in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe now. We were in the middle of the African veldt, no one for miles. Do you know what the veldt is?”

Sophie nods. “Where the zebras are.”

“Quite right. I argued with Cat and stormed out. Funny, I remember slamming the door, but not why. I was so mad; we galloped like bats out of hell. Of course Raven caught my mood and bucked me off. Hit my head, no idea what happened. When Cat told me about it I thought she was pulling my leg.”

Sophie’s eyes get rounder. “How did she pull your leg?”

Vergogna scoperta, e vergogna svanita. Shame uncovered is shame vanished.’

“She said I took off my shirt and waved it above the grass to flag down a farmer going to market. When he stopped, I was madly buttoning it up again. He took me home and I fell asleep wearing my boots. One mustn’t let a concussed person sleep.”

“I know; in Wyoming Mamma sang all the way to the hospital. And poked me.”

“Lucky you. That silly farmer gave me brandy and put me to bed. Maybe that’s why I am batty now. I didn’t know my name, only the pony’s, Raven.” She looks at the mountains as if she might remember more. “California reminds me of Africa. Sophie darling, you must go to Africa.”

“But Granny, what happened?”

“The farmer called Cat. He knew we were the only English women within a day’s ride. She couldn’t come ’til the next morning. She said I let him make love to me. I don’t remember a damn thing.”

Tess whips her head around and coaxes Sophie off Eva’s lap, promising cookies and a swim in the pool.

Sophie grips her grandmother’s neck, asking, “Granny, how is that pulling your leg?”

Leo cuts in like a dancer and explains figures of speech while tugging Sophie’s heels until she giggles.

*     *     *

Tess knows this story. Eva and Cat retold it whenever they were together. In their seventies, they still described the farmer blushing as he opened the door.

“He apologized for not getting Eva’s boots off!” Their graceful gray heads rocked with laughter.

As they make lemonade in the kitchen, the stories align in Tess’s mind: Eva, Sophie, unconscious. Eva, herself, violated. Tess hisses to her mother, “Sophie is too young to hear about a man stealing your virtue, raping you while you were unconscious.”

Eva snorts like a horse.

“Don’t be silly, what virtue?” Eva takes things out of cupboards, pans go in the oven and out again. She stands lost in the center of her kitchen and looks at a flaming empty burner, then asks Enzo if he will go pick up food.

While he is out Tess opens wine for her parents. She cleans up Eva’s attempted meal, scorched chicken thighs and raw broccoli, tears burning the corners of her eyes. Her mother talks about buying Sophie a new riding helmet because they crack after one fall. Tess and her mother collude in pretending that everything is fine; they always do.

*     *     *

That night Enzo drives home. On the Ventura Freeway, Tess asks, “Did you notice my mother isn’t making sense?”

“No.”

“You didn’t see her turn on the dishwasher to make toast?”

“I turned it off.”

“She told Sophie that terrible story about being taken advantage of when she had a concussion as if it were funny. Sophie is only eight.”

“It is funny.”

“Enzo!”

“You love your mother because she is never appropriate.”

“I admire her for that. I love her because she is always there, and always brave.” Sudden lights from the car dealerships fronting the highway make the night bright and strange. “Do you see why I don’t tell them?”

Enzo pauses, changing lanes, blinker, mirror, passing the lights to darkness again. Tess thinks he has abandoned the conversation, but he says,“Yes, I do. Mi dispiace.”  He takes her hand as he navigates the exit onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

“She didn’t understand that Sophie almost died.”

“Of course not. To think that Sophie is mortal is terrifying. Your mother is finished with loss; she plans never to lose anyone again. It is we who will lose her.”

Tess’s soul cries no. She wants Sophie to grow up with Eva, laughing at disaster, pretending everything is fine until it really is. Enzo accelerates into the curve. Tess asks him to slow down. He does, but speeds up at the next bend. “Enzo, not so fast.”

Perhaps he doesn’t hear, perhaps he does.

“Slow down, you’re frightening me!” Tess reaches behind his neck to check Sophie; she’s sleeping. As she straightens, the speed of the car flings her against the door. The smell of sage from the hillside mingles with Enzo’s shaving soap, releasing the desperate memory of a numbing drive down mountain switchbacks, a man with a knife, his bruising stink inside her, blood on her thigh. Tess’s hand tightens around the door grip, words escape in a gasp, “Stop! You drive like the rapist.”

Enzo inhales through his teeth. He swerves onto the gravel verge. The waves are loud and close. Enzo leans across Tess to open her door, but she holds it with animal strength. They don’t know they are struggling. In the confined space some part of his body slams her against the car frame so her head snaps sideways against the window. Vertebrae in her neck arrange themselves with sounds that seem louder than the waves. Tess shudders, grasping the door handle like a life buoy. Sophie wakes in the back, shifting and murmuring.

“Mamma?”

Tess freezes. Enzo reaches behind her and pats Sophie. In seconds they are on the road and Sophie slides back to sleep. They will never agree on these moments. He says he spoke, but Tess hears nothing; says nothing. They pull into the garage and she scoops up sleeping Sophie and runs. Before Enzo can wrestle the bags into the elevator, Tess locks the apartment door.

 

Sarah Lejeune is an artist, writer, and urban planner living with her family on the edge of Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Smith College, and holds an MFA in painting and sculpture from Claremont Graduate University. Writing delights her. “Bruised Sage” is her first published fiction. She is writing a novel about life on the other side of rape.