There’s a wrinkle of land in Stone County, an isolated pocket valley so remote you can hardly find the sky. My wife Sarah and I were happy there. A nearly feral cat lived there too, a scruffy calico that hung around to avoid coyotes. Sarah called her Josie. That cat was neurotic, delusional, paranoid and pathologically afraid of me though I never gave her cause. For three years all I ever saw was a flash of motion or the tip of her tail disappearing around a corner. The exception was anytime my wife ventured outside. Josie would glare death at me and sidle by on stiff legs, back arched and tail fluffed, to get to Sarah’s lap. I didn’t resent it. Sarah could talk tadpoles from a puddle, chant clouds from the sky, charm ticks from a mule’s hide. She surely charmed that cat, and the cat was good for Sarah. I’d leave them to practice their healing magics on each other and go find something useful to do.
Sarah’s health was poor so it fell to me to care for Josie. I fed her, chased off other critters and poured saucers of cream, but that cat never warmed to me. Eleven years passed before she deigned to butt her head against my shin in greeting. She retreated when I reached down but it did not matter. I ran inside to tell Sarah, excited as a bird dog puppy.
The next morning I found Josie behind the barn, stretched flat. She’d had a stroke. She couldn’t move, her eyes were glazed, her breathing was coarse and erratic, so I sat the long watch with her, murmuring empty comforts through a timeless day of falling leaves and shifting beams of light. I buried the poor little thing in the garden and planted violets over her. I did not tell Sarah, who was bed ridden by then.
Not long after came a cold and terrible day I do not remember well. I knelt on dead grass before a mound of fresh turned earth and vowed to grow yellow roses, but I did not. I hired a caretaker to grow them for me and left the valley, cursing and weeping, banished for not being strong enough to cherish the memories kept there. I crawled through loathsome months in an alcoholic haze. Sarah would have curled her lip at the sight of me. Two years passed before I sobered up, or toughened up, or simply outlived the pain and I returned to Stone County.
I had to go back. There’s a spring there at the bottom of the valley where water wells up through limestone to form a wide pond pure as sunbeams, transparent as windows, sweet as God’s own breath. Sarah named the pond Paradise.
When the moon is close above, when the water is still and the night translucent the moon’s light reflects not from the surface of the pond but the bottom, and the water turns clear as truth. You can see the fish. Sitting by the pond the illusion of sky above and sky below is so complete it feels like flying through dreams.
We walked there in every season and Josie dogged our heels. In later years I carried Sarah, she weighed so little she was no burden, and many a moon found us sitting by Paradise. Josie always kept Sarah between us.
The years turned gently, graceful and unhurried. Sarah, Wise Woman that she was, taught me about magic. “Magic is potential. When the breeze touches only the tips of the leaves, when the moon is one night shy of full, when the air smells like distant thunder, magic seeps from the ground and coalesces like Brigadoon from the mist. We perceive it as expectation, like the feel of Christmas morning.” Sarah had a lyric way of talking, all the Wise Women do.
I’m the practical kind. I asked, “How do you use it?” Sarah shook her head, as she sometimes did when I was slow to learn. “Magic is not for using. Magic is a gift from the Goddess, for enjoying. So enjoy. It’s a thing you need to learn.” She kissed me then and took my hand, as I remember. And remembering I knelt by Sarah’s grave, lowered my head near yellow roses and begged forgiveness for being gone so long.
A flash of motion caught my eye, the tip of a cat’s tail disappearing behind a tree. I looked up and saw Josie flickering through shadows and moonlight. Emotions painful and sweet constricted my heart as I followed her to Paradise, where I found Josie’s ghost on the surface of the Paradise, illuminated by the moon.
I stood enthralled, excited as a birthday boy, expectant as a new-ploughed field. The night grew quiet and close. The moon climbed the sky. Potential condensed around me and as I watched the moon’s reflection shifted below the surface of the pond. I squeezed my eyes shut; if one ghost, why not two? Memories of our wedding day blossomed like bluebells on the prairie. “Just say forever,” Sarah told the preacher, “leave out the bit about ‘til death do we part.”
I opened my eyes. Sarah’s ghost drifted between two moons and twice an infinity of stars. Josie rubbed her ankles. Sarah’s smile warmed my heart and healed my wounds and magic soaked the night. I undressed, intending to enter Paradise naked and smiling. It’s not suicide, I thought, only a change in lifestyle. But Sarah shook her head. “No, my heart,” a breath of air whispered in my ear, “it’s not your time. You have roses to tend and lessons yet to learn. We will wait, for without you the harps in heaven all have broken strings.” The moon shifted its reflection to the surface of the pond, magic settled about me like dandelion fluff and Sarah and Josie faded from view.
I still live in Stone County. I feed scruffy Calico cats, grow yellow roses and sit on the banks of Paradise, waiting for the moon to rise.