The Lotus of Milner

In the year that I turned ten, I had no friend but Cheryl, and I was her prophet.

Cheryl, who was ten and a half, had straight golden hair and a confident voice like a bell. She was worldly and knew things, because she had an older sister, Lori, who was sixteen. Lori’s boyfriend, who was older than sixteen, sometimes stayed over at the big white house that never seemed to have parents in it.

When Lori’s boyfriend was around, Cheryl and I would hide in her room and listen to the couple fight downstairs. The crescendos of the man’s voice scared me, but Cheryl just looked watchful. Her thin body seemed braced for something. Like a runner waiting for the starting pistol.

Behind Cheryl’s house, always wandering an expanse of grass and mud that seemed endless, was a white horse named Shelley Dawn. When I think of her, even now, she is pale pink like a seashell, and she stands among tall weeds and floating cottonwood, backlit by morning sun. I used to drape myself over the cold metal gate and sing her name until she noticed me. Shelley Dawn. Shelley Dawn. The fog from my breath hung her name in the air.

On weekday mornings, Cheryl would stride into our classroom and fling her bag into the cloakroom, declaring her presence. As if she could go unnoticed! She was Apollo, she was Blake’s Glad Day, the balm of my loneliness. She would shoot threatening looks at the boys, just in case. They would shrink against the walls as she passed by, partly clowning, partly out of real fear. I would feel my shoulders relax.

One October day in music class, Cheryl broke a ukulele – my ukulele — over a boy’s head. He had been bothering me since the beginning of the school year. “Flat.” He’d drone in my ear, like clockwork, every class. “Flat. Your chest is flat. Flat. Flaaaat.”

 But not today. “Flaaaaa—OW!” A blur of blonde hair and whap! My avenging angel.

Mrs. Friesen tried to contact Cheryl’s parents to complain about the incident, without success. My parents were just glad I had a loyal friend, and they got me another uke. I didn’t even hear a discussion about the money, which surprised me, since there never seemed to be enough for anything except bare necessities. After thirty-five years, the little uke that replaced my broken one still sounds good — better than other instruments I have tried as far away as Hawai’i, better than ukuleles made from koa and mango wood, hanging in specialty shops in Holualoa.

Cheryl and I spent weekends roaming our world. Crossing ditches, up to our knees in mud, passing through echoing metal tunnels, negotiating barbed wire fences. (Was this one electric? Only one way to find out!) Exploring barns. Boosting each other up onto the bare backs of strange horses, with various results. Visiting the gentle cows, the curious pigs, rabbits in their outdoor hutches. We were chased by bulls and dogs and billy goats, and sometimes by people.

Some Saturdays, we would sneak into the Langley Auction, where livestock was bought and sold. Cheryl and I would buy cups of instant chicken noodle soup at the snack bar, and a pomegranate at the fruit stand. The chicken soup was for eating – the trick was to somehow consume it before it spilled and scalded you to death – but the pomegranate was for sport.

We would take our soup and pomegranate to the topmost bench in the main auction building, where the seating narrowed to only two spots at the very top of the dizzying steep bleachers. We tore the fruit into bloody-looking pieces, extracted seeds, and loaded the seeds into our cheeks. The object of The Pomegranate Game was to spit as many seeds onto the brims of the cowboy hats below as possible before being found out by the wearers of the hats. When the men turned around in irritation, or rage, we would thunder down the hundred steps to the exit and flee away through paddocks, fences and lumpy fields, swift and agile as two nymphs.

It all came to an end, one icy day in December. Four days after John Lennon was killed and five days before my tenth birthday. Cheryl and I were walking to my house after school, and we spotted a foreign object in my front yard. It was a sign that read “For Sale.” We went inside to find my mother. (My dad had been shut away in his study for days, because of John Lennon.) Mom was hanging laundry in the kitchen. I asked how our house could be for sale while we were living in it. Was this not our house? She smiled sadly and explained.

I had thought that my parents were inscrutable gods; now I learned that above them was a higher rank of gods, the landlords, who had the power to turn families out of houses. It was fated that we leave not only the pea-green house beside the old Milner church; we were to leave Langley altogether. My mother thanked Cheryl warmly for being a good friend. But we were moving away next month.

Cheryl and I went back outside. It was already getting dark. We stood and looked at the For Sale sign. Cheryl silently bent over and scooped mud into her white hands. I did the same. She flung her mud at the sign. I did it too. We flung mud at the sign until the words were illegible. We kept scooping mud, bending and flinging like small catapults. We flung and flung until we could no longer see the sign, or our hands, or each other’s faces.