Ellie awakens from a bad dream. While the gentle pre-dawn shadows fill her bedroom and strive toward a sense of pastel, she attempts to examine the details of her nightmare, but has only partial success. The only thing Ellie can recall for certain is being lost inside a terrible fog composed of tedious sounds and loneliness; a fog in which just being had been the worst thing possible.
Cagney plops onto Ellie’s bed and comes to her, purring thickly. Cagney is getting fat in his old age, and outside of sleeping and eating, little in life piques his interest, nowadays. Just after D-Day, when Ellie was six, she’d picked the lively little public enemy from a box populated by similar mugs birthed by Frances Bauer’s cat, Maisy. For eleven years, Cagney coming to her bed prior to sunrise has been a life constant that Ellie has taken for granted. Still, athletic leaps onto her bed have degraded into the graceless thuds of a dropped anvil, and are telling of the passage of time.
During his wild-eyed youth, Cagney had been a regular little Dillinger, and easily the single-most despised organism on the other side of the O’Shea’s backdoor; yet no matter what nefarious activity he had been up to, he’d always come back to Ellie before dawn, nicks and all (and sometimes toting a bird or a snake), and lay down at the crook of her knees. Ellie had long ago decided that “youse doity rat” will live forever. And in a way, he has. In spite of his reckless nature, he has somehow managed to accompany Ellie through her childhood; but childhood ends, and so must the small lives that had been a big part of it.
Normally a cheerful and optimistic person, the awful truth about Cagney’s life expectancy hits Ellie especially hard this morning.
“Some lousy dream,” she says as she nuzzles the old boy’s chin. “It’s made me squishy inside. You’re only eleven, for God’s sake.” This mention of age segues into something of great importance. Ellie sits bolt upright and grabs both of Cagney’s cheeks. “Why, youse doity rat, you forgot to wish me a happy birthday! Think you’re old now—just wait until you’re seventeen.”
Ellie kisses Cagney’s forehead, rises and is almost immediately felled by a sharp crick in her right hip. The pain is extreme, but it vanishes with the same bewildering suddenness it had come on. Ellie sits down heavily on the bed and rubs her hip, even though that is unnecessary. Her drop back onto the bed causes Cagney to stop licking his paw and favors his mistress with that do you mind? expression only a cat can do properly.
She stands and bends at the waist and lays her palms flat on the floor. She considers performing a handstand, but her bladder suggests that that might not be such a good idea.
Then a new thought occurs to her. She rushes to the window and sees that it’s maybe a half hour until dawn. “I’m going to see it,” Ellie whispers, “I’m going to watch the sun rise in the west.”
Ellie is the reason why Cagney has gotten so fat. Along with his regular rations, she feeds him a can of war surplus mackerel every morning and maybe forty-percent of everything he likes off her plate at all other times. He is attempting to lick his way to the other side of a bowl in the cool of the June morning kitchen, while Ellie sips a cup of coffee. They have the house to themselves. Her father is at work and her mother is at Aunt Lexi’s house because Lexi will soon provide Ellie with yet another cousin—which will make eight since Hiroshima (according to Daddy, Lexi “drops one a year, like a horse”). She is smiling at the birthday card her parents have left behind, along with the coffee and a wonderful loaf of zucchini bread that her mother had somehow baked without Ellie sniffing it out.
The O’Shea house sits on the crest of Torqwamni Hill, just outside of Charleston, Washington, and faces west. When the weather is in (mostly it’s not), the O’Shea’s have a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains. A double-spired mountain called “The Brothers” dominates the western horizon. The long since assimilated Torqwamni People had called the mountain Nugaras. The best thing English can do with Nugaras is “Godsleep.” The Torqwamni had considered the land that lay to the west of their hill holy; and under certain conditions (which exist today), Nugaras reflects the rising sun and seemingly transits the forty miles that lie between it and Torqwamni Hill. The tribe had believed that this special sunrise awoke the gods who then would guide the lost dead into the afterlife. Ellie doesn’t know much about Torqwamni theology, but she does know that sunrise at Nugaras is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.
There’s someone on the back porch. Ellie smiles upon seeing her friend Harriet Johnston at the door. “Harry” is holding a small gift wrapped box. She is also wearing a hunting jacket that’s about six sizes too big for her, as well as a flap cap, which would disguise any other human being except Harry, who is as all-eyes as a person can get without being considered deformed.
“Go away ghost,” Ellie laughs as she opens the door. “Everybody knows that Harry Johnston doesn’t rise until noon during summer vacation.”
“That’s coffee,” Harry says as she pushes past Ellie, goes to the stove and pours herself a cup.
“Is that for me, Miss Nanook of the North?”
Harry doesn’t reply until she has taken three quick pulls out of her cup. Perhaps a bit hyperactive to begin with, it always amazes Ellie to see how fast coffee affects Harry. Just the odor of it puts a flush in her cheeks, and the instant she drinks some is like putting a match to gasoline.
Harry tosses the package to Ellie and unleashes a verbal tornado: “’For me?’—If you say so…For your information, it’s always November at this Christless time of day…My, aren’t you funny?…’Miss Nanook of the North’…Old age has turned you into a regular Lucille Ball…Be a dolly and don’t open that until I’m on the other side of town…Any ticking you hear is in your head…Oh! I’ve got a complaint…You’re such a goddam farmer…Really… Up with the dawn, like a chicken…Mom always says ‘What a go-getter that Elsbeth O’Shea is’…I can read ‘Why can’t you be more like her, you lazy sack of shit?’ in her eyes when she says that…I try tell her that you’re a goddam farmer and I’m not—but I don’t think she sees it that way… SOOOOOOOEEEEEEE!!! JAY-ZUS-JUH-HO-SO-FAT!!! Now, that’s a tubby tabby…What did you do, Omar, fry up Porky Pig?”
Ignoring Harry is difficult, but not impossible to do, when you put your mind to it. Grinning, Ellie opens the gift and pulls out a charm bracelet. Just recently, the charm bracelet returned from the cometary cloud of banished styles and has been quite shiny in the popular sky. Some items, like the fez and spats, go back to the cloud and stay there, but not the charm bracelet; it has been in and out and home and gone fairly steady since the early Christians used fish charms to identify each other back in Rome’s less friendly days.
“Holy smokes,” Ellie says, “is this gold?” Ellie, Harry, and Fran Bauer have jobs at Howell’s Department Store. During the summer they work more hours than they do during the school year, but a dollar-ten an hour hardly adds up to gold, even on a birthday—Omar?
Suddenly, Ellie’s own voice enters her mind and speaks to her from a distance of sixty years, “I’m dreaming,” her voice says. This always happens whenever one too many incongruities appear in the other side of the terrible fog, which is in fact, reality. However, unlike the other fancies that vanish and return Ellie to age and pain and her interminable lingering death, this one refuses to give in to the plain truth that it doesn’t exist. If anything, it gets stronger. Ellie runs her hands down the length of her trim yet sturdy shape; she feels there. She can also smell the match that Harry has lighted off the wood stove—No, brought, Harry brings matches, she never lights them.
Harry has stopped her stream of consciousness patter. At first Ellie believes that this has been caused by her own mind not having enough resources to sustain such an energetic personality. She looks where Harry was and expects not to see her anymore. But there she is, smoking a Lucky Strike.
“I’ve dreamed you up, Harry,” Ellie says quietly. “I dream nearly all of the time, now. I hear the doctors and the nurses discuss my dementia and depression as though I’m as intelligent as a rutabaga. I don’t give a rip about dementia, because I don’t have it; but I could tell them that depression isn’t a sickness; it’s seeing things as they really are. Only thinking and dreaming need time to move in. The rest of it exists in an endless, ugly now, without memory, without hope. Dreams are the only place left for me to go.”
“Most people just say thank you when you give them a present,” Harry says. She offers Ellie a cigarette, which Ellie shrugs off. “No, take it. Since you say you’re God and have made all this up, they must be yours.” For the sheer hell of it, Ellie puts one in her mouth, which Harry lights for her with a match she brings off her left thumbnail, just like a movie cowboy. The cigarette has flavor, and it also gives Ellie a quick rush that shouldn’t be possible in a dream.
“Let’s go out on the porch,” Harry says. “Let’s see if God on her seventeenth birthday can invent a sunrise worth my getting up at hell o’clock in the morning for.”
The front porch runs the length of the O’Shea house, and almost half of it is taken up by a large wooden swing. The girls are rocking on the swing as daybreak approaches. Ellie thinks that the sun has had time to rise a dozen times since the start of this dream, but she already knows that such incongruities are how it goes in dreams.
“What gave me away so fast?” Harry asks. “You were coming along just fine, until I saw the connection made in your eyes.”
Ellie laughs. “A few things just piled up, the way they always do; by themselves they can stand, but together they crumble. You didn’t ask about my folks for one—I goddam well know that you’re afraid of my mother—and your lazy ass being up before the sun without it being on fire, is another. Oh, and this bracelet, even my parents would be hard up to afford it. But it all hit home when it dawned on me that you had called Cagney, Omar. I never realized just how much Irene’s kitty looks like Cagney ‘til just now.”
“Still think you’re writing my lines for me, don’t’ you?” Harry asks. “Still think I’m something of your own creation.”
“Must be,” Ellie replies. “Nothing else makes sense.”
It’s Harry’s turn to laugh. “All right, Miss Smart Butt, maybe I ought to tell you something that you cannot possibly know. However, in a way, you guessed it, but since you were cracking wise, I’d say it doesn’t count. Anyway, did you know that you can’t see a ghost unless it is of a person you know but do not know has died?”
Ellie ponders this. “We’re dead?”
Harry shakes her head no. “Just me. Six weeks or so. Maybe a little longer.”
“Jesus Christ, Harry, you were fine the last time I saw you. You’re the only person I know who’s my age and doesn’t look it—or act it, for that matter.”
“Thank you, I think,” Harry says. “Ask your granddaughter what happened. It’s funny in a weird sort of way. It involves Mormons.”
For the first time during this dream, Ellie’s depression settles evenly throughout her thoughts. “Do you mean I’ve got to go back? I had hoped that this was it.”
“This is it,” Harry says sweetly. “The Indians were right about Nugaras—Remember that name?”
“Yes.” Ellie gazes into Nugaras. Its rise seems paused, withheld.
“Don’t worry about the mountain. I’ll hold it until you came back.”
“Happy birthday, Gram,” I said. The ICU staff had been wrong. I knew that Gram, my Gram, was still in there, no matter what those rat bastards had to say about it.
“What a nasty thing to say,” Gram said. “Tell me, Reena, what time is it?”
“A little past five,” I said. “I brought you a birthday—“
“The ugly one,” I said. “I really think you’ll like this—“
“Is Harry still alive?”
Oh, you still know how to surprise me, I thought. Even here, at the very end, Gram still had more questions than she had answers. And as she lay there on almost mocking, profanely white hospital sheets, her skin the color of old paper, her blue irises rimmed yellow from the toxins that her liver and kidneys and the machines could no longer clear out of her system, and with a right hip socket in more pieces than what you’ll find inside a maraca, that crystalline, lie-proof mind of hers had surfaced from the depths. Even though the nurses had assured me that the morphine drip and the fact that Gram had become “fragile” most likely meant that Gram would soon pass without regaining consciousness, I had known in my heart of hearts that she wouldn’t go without first saying so long.
“No,” I said. What an evil day that had been—April 21. That morning Gram had shattered her hip on her way down due to a heart attack; and later that afternoon, Fran Bauer called to let me know that Harry Shelby had died suddenly at home.
“What did the Mormons have to do with it?”
“Who told you? Frannie and Beth didn’t. I know that for a fact. None of us had the heart. ”
“I’ll tell you after you tell me about the Mormons.”
Her voice had gotten husky. I offered her water, but she pushed away the straw.
“All right,” I sighed. “As you well know, Miss Harry got her Scotch delivered to her door by a cabbie who had always had a crush on her. She had probably thought that it was him when she got up to answer the door and somehow got her ankle caught on an extension cord. The fall wouldn’t have hurt her, but she had struck her head on a heavy table. The paramedics administered to her the best they could, but she was D.O.A.—“
“Let me guess,” Gram spoke in a fading whisper, “it wasn’t Burl Hooper at the door—“
“Right,” I said, “it was a couple of Mormon kids on a mission. They must’ve heard her fall and they got the super to open her door.”
Of all things, Gram began to laugh. “That is funny, when you think about it. Ironic.”
“Who told you?”
“Harry. Never mind asking how. You just leave that to your imagination. By the way, baby,” Gram said as she summoned the last of her energy and took me by the hand. “Thank you for the charm bracelet you brought me. It was lovely.”
Those were her last words. Yet in that final heartbeat of her life I saw the image of Nugaras reflected in her eyes, and the slightest smile on her lips. I kissed her goodbye and pulled the bracelet out of its box and fixed it to her wrist.