by Mary Brunini McArdle
“Is that fog or smoke?” I asked my daughter Sandy, who was relinquishing her spring break to drive me to North Alabama. We were in the process of bypassing Birmingham, leaving the large city fast behind.
“That’s why they’re called the ‘Great Smoky Mountains’, Mom.”
“Oh! I haven’t thought about that in years.” I continued to gaze at the dim but lovely landscape. The June day had been overcast all the way from Central Mississippi.
“Anyway,” I added, “it’s hard to think of them as mountains after you’ve seen the Rockies.”
“Well, they are mountains. The further north you go. Mind if I put the radio on the country music station?”
“I like country okay.” Not that it mattered; when Sandy drove, she took command of the car and everything in it.
“I’m so grateful for your company, Sandy. I’ve been wanting to visit your Aunt Rita for months.”
“My treat, Mom. I could use a new sweater and some make-up.”
“Sandy, I can’t believe I raised somebody so unselfish.”
“You didn’t have that much to do with it. It’s probably Aunt Rita’s genes.”
I laughed, thinking how much I’d miss Sandy when she went back to school. That red hair and those freckles and the way her eyes darkened when she got excited! She would sit cross-legged on the edge of my bedroom chair, sometimes tumbling to the floor in the midst of an animated conversation.
“I’m convinced I belong below sea level, in a moist, tropical climate,” I went on, determined to tell my favorite mountain story. “I enjoyed my two years of college in Colorado, but I never felt at home there. Remember that experience I had on the way?”
“Wouldn’t it be more fun to continue what we were talking about last night?”
“No! You’re not getting me back into that. Keeping me up until three in the morning with your nonsense about the possibility of two omnipotent gods. I know there’s a logical rebuttal, but I was too sleepy to put my finger on it. If I’d had a copy of van Steenburgen’s proof of the existence of God...”
I trailed off, wishing for the hundredth time I’d kept all my textbooks. Sandy liked to win. She also liked to get me worked up.
“Then tell me about that experience again” she invited.
“Well, we both believe that psychic phenomena are natural, physical occurrences. This one happened on the last stopover on my way to Denver, a small town that literally hung on the side of the mountains. There were tiny brick streets winding all through. I felt as if I was tilted the whole time I was in the car.”
“At dusk I left the motel room to get something I’d forgotten. I had this feeling, as if someone was behind me. I turned around, and there was a huge round foothill, dark and looming. I heard it roar at me. It made me shiver.”
“Mom, you didn’t hear it. Not with your ears.”
“It’s kind of hard to describe. Maybe I heard it in my mind.”
Sandy looked at me and laughed.
I found myself unable to resist giving her an argument. That’s why the members of my family stay up late at night screaming at each other. We can’t even get through a movie without raising our voices.
“Sandy, this is not a new idea. You’ve never read Zenna Henderson, or you’d understand.”
“Only the greatest fantasy writer who ever lived. Nobody created anything quite like her ‘People’.’ They could hear colors and taste music. They were aliens.”
“And see sounds and—”
“Mom, you’re bizarre.”
“I don’t think anybody who’d stay up all night insisting there could be two all-knowing gods should be calling someone else ‘bizarre’.”
“You’re the most bizarre person I’ve ever known. Telling me you heard a mountain roar at you!”
I smiled. “Don’t you hear the stars?”
“No I’m not. Something so magnificent as a star has to have its own sound. Haven’t you ever heard the expression ‘music of the spheres’?”
I don’t care, I thought. I know that sometimes the moon speaks to me, or the sun. And I also know that dark hulk of a mountain in Colorado had its own distinctive menacing sound.
I frowned, trying to dredge up lines from a favorite poem, “The Song of Honour” by Ralph Hodgson. He was a Georgian throwback to the Romantics with all their passion and richness of language.
I murmured softly:
The everlasting pipe and flute
Of wind and sea and bird and brute,
And lips deaf men imagine mute
In wood and stone and clay...
Hodgson knew exactly what I was talking about, I thought.
“You probably heard the stars in another life,” Sandy giggled.
“Oh, no, Sandy. Not reincarnation. It makes no sense to me. Especially if I could come back as your uncle. That’s the craziest thing you’ve ever come up with.”
“You’d still have your primary soul.” She grinned, knowing she was getting to me.
“Turn the radio down, would you, Sandy? That stuff is getting on my nerves.”
I glimpsed a road sign, amazed at how far above Birmingham we already were. There’s nothing for passing mileage like extremely weird conversations with your children.
“What about aliens?” I countered. “What if they exist? Are they going to be reincarnated too? Are you going to live again as a little green girl?” I collapsed into laughter.
“And speaking of green, I see the days of the week as colors.”
“What color is Sunday?”
“Yellow,” I said without hesitation.
Sandy snickered. “And just how did you arrive at that?”
“I don’t know. But I can tell you what colors the other days are, too, and some letters and numbers.”
“And I know what cards I’m going to turn up in solitaire.”
“Mom, that’s just your memory recalling stuff. And seeing the faces of clocks from the back. You have a good sense of time, that’s all.”
“But you do agree the grocery store incident was real.”
I remembered how I had waited in line at the store one day while the cashier struggled with an uncooperative register. Amused at the fickle nature of machines, I suggested she give it a name, such as “Tammie.” Then I backtracked. “No, that’s too feminine. This register looks male to me. Call him ‘Thomas’.’”
The woman stared at me. “That’s strange. ‘Thomas’ is my last name.”
“Really? Your name tag only shows ‘Anna’. Is that your first name?”
Sandy and I later decided I had picked up the cashier’s thoughts. Nothing supernatural about it. Thoughts work through physical channels in a living human being, from the brain itself.
“So we share a belief in some sort of sixth sense, right, Sandy?”
“Which leaves us open to the prospect that there could be other undeveloped senses. Which were what Zenna Henderson’s People had, in varying degrees. They could levitate, too.”
Sandy raised her eyebrows. “So can I. You’ve just never seen me do it.”
“Now you’re getting really ridiculous.”
“I wanted to stop you. You’re about to fall back on your ‘last resort’ tactic, the one you use when you’re losing a debate. I can hear it now: ‘Sandy, you don’t have any imagination’.”
“Hey! I just remembered some more lines from Ralph Hodgson! Wonderful stuff!”
Sandy grimaced. She always fazed out when I got into poetry. But I loved that poem.
I watched the chattering foothills fly by, contently reciting excerpts from Hodgson’s ending to myself:
I heard it all, each every note
Of every lung and tongue and throat...
Earth’s multitudinous Sons of Light,
I heard them lift their lyric might
With each and every chanting sprite
That lit the sky that wondrous night...
Sandy leaned over, exasperated as the country radio station began to crackle and fade. I heard a distinctive “click” as she turned the knob to the “off” position. Then there was something else: deep, crashing chords, maybe five or six of them, with chimes and flutes and bells and cymbals.
“Did you hear that?” Sandy looked at me, puzzled.
“Pull over, Sandy! Pull over to the shoulder.”
She signaled, then brought the car to a stop at the side of the deserted highway. The motor’s idling coupled with light, tinkling notes as the chords began to die away.
“Look, Sandy.” I pointed ahead, to the most spectacular meteor shower I had ever seen: at least two dozen shooting stars blinking out as they reached the horizon.
Then they were gone, and everything was quiet, except for the car engine. The radio was off; whatever music Sandy and I had heard was from some other source.
She stared at me with those dark intense eyes of hers, and I stared back at her. We sat for a moment, now facing the newly blackened sky.
She drew in her breath shakily, put the car into gear, and hit the accelerator.
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle