Being the Random Yarns of Emily Cotton, Merry Scrivener of Fact & Fiction Historical, Animal, & Minimal to Amuse, Inform, & Enlighten.


chapter 1 of Eva’s Secret

This isn’t the cover on the current kindle edition.

1. Abandoned
Granada, Spain: late Monday August 22, 1513
The urgency that carried Eva across Granada drained away, and she began to shake with a chill, although the night was warm. Coming back here was a terrible risk. But she could not face the future without Tabita. Loyal Tabita, who did her best to mother, protect, and provide for her people.
Eva indulged in uncharitable thoughts toward the bad-tempered cook who had thrown Tabita out of the charterhouse kitchen. And not just out of the kitchen, but into the street, where she had no way to get back to her mistress. Of course, the cook could not have known that Tabita was there with Eva. It was only for a few days, until they could travel north to the convent of the Poor Clares in Tordesillas.
Eva had been assured that the Poor Clares would allow cats. Apparently the Carthusian nuns were less tolerant. Poor little Tabita, put out into the night in a strange place! Where else could she go but back to Casa de Pazia?
Across the broad street from her stood the elaborate ironwork gates of the home Eva left only five days ago, thinking that she would never have to pass through them again. By returning tonight, Eva was putting the whole escape plan at risk.
That was not Tabita’s fault. How could a cat understand the complicated business of Eva’s pretended elopement? Her high-born friend Blanca Mendoza, who contrived the scheme to rid Eva of her murderous Italian bridegroom, had stressed how important it was that everyone be convinced Eva de Pazia was gone forever.
Blanca’s brilliant plan had gone off without a hitch. Conte Niccolo had jumped at the offer to elope instead of going through with the public wedding—so long as Eva brought the dowry with her.
Eva’s disappearance was no doubt already being used as a cautionary tale. She imagined parents shaking their heads and telling their marriageable daughters about the foolish de Pazia girl who was lured from under her father’s protection by a smooth-talking man. They would invent tragic endings for her story: abandoned to starve somewhere along the road, or tossed overboard and drowned on her way to Venice.
It was certain that Conte Niccolo and his retainers would never dare show their faces in Spain again. So if nobody else saw her, then nobody would find out that Eva, under an assumed name, had really gone into retreat with Granada’s Carthusian nuns until the travel arrangements were ready for her to go be a lay sister with the Poor Clares, far to the north in Castile. A new start–except that she was bringing to it the same old secret.
Nobody knew, of course. No convent would take her—nobody would have anything to do with her if they knew the awful truth. Even impulsive, generous Blanca, who cared nothing that such a great gulf of class lay between them—even Blanca might withdraw in revulsion.
Only Tabita could be trusted to love Eva unconditionally. And so Eva had risked a visit to Casa de Pazia tonight, because a cat would always return to her hunting grounds.
Eva set down her lumpy bundle and adjusted the mantilla pinned to her head-rail, checking again to make sure she had left enough in front to cover her whole face if needed. She peered around, looking for a small feline shadow. The night was still, except for the chirp of crickets, the croak of frogs from the river Darro whose brushy thickets ran beside the street that faced the palatial Casa de Pazia.
It was at least three miles from the Carthusian charterhouse to Casa de Pazia. What if that was too far? Tabita was no longer young. Maybe she was even old, as cats went.
How old? Eva used her fingers to count the years backward. She remembered the day she had been given Tabita—a day she would never forget.
Casa de Pazia, 8-year-old Eva
It was right after Christ-Mass, December of 1504—the day Queen Isabella’s body arrived in Granada. Eva was eight, then, and her brother Elias had just turned ten. She remembered Nurse Veronica holding her up so that she could see King Ferdinand ride past these very gates at the head of the funeral procession that bore his late wife’s casket to its resting place in the Alhambra Chapel.
Afterwards, Eva had to wait in the salon until it was time for the memorial service. “Now don’t make a mess of your best clothes,” Nurse admonished. “And leave your shoes on, by all the saints!”
“Couldn’t I change to another pair?” The stiff brocade was rubbing painfully against Eva’s little toe. “These new ones hurt.”
“Just bear with it a little longer, cariña. Your father would notice if your shoes didn’t match your gown, and we don’t want that, do we?”
That was as close as anyone came to mentioning her terrible defect. Eva sat down. Beneath the cover of her stiff skirts, she pried the irritant off, right foot against left, keeping her hands innocently in view. She was well-practiced in this secret disobedience.
Nurse Veronica brought the sewing basket. “Here, why don’t you finish the piece your mother set. She’ll be back from her stay with the Condesa today, and you want her to be proud of you.”
Eva picked up the embroidery with a sigh. Mama would never be proud of her. Even without the deformed foot, she looked too much like her father, with his frizzy reddish hair and freckles that sprang up on her olive complexion at the least touch of the sun. And worse, she had inherited his most prominent feature. Eva’s mother used to sigh and shake her head when her daughter was brought to her. “What can we do about that nose? It is a good thing your father is rich enough to buy you a husband!”
A tear of self-pity ran down the offending part and splashed onto her embroidery. Eva was not pretty, and try as she might, she could not be clever. Not like her brother Elias.
Mother doted on her firstborn. Which was only to be expected. Elias was a strikingly handsome boy, dark-haired and dark-eyed like his mother. But Eva adored him because he was her protector against Father, and she was his special little sister.
As Nurse left, Elias came in the salon from the direction of the stables, his good clothing still bearing the faint scent of horse.
“There you are, Evita! I have a late Christ-Mass gift for you.” Elias withdrew something small and fragile from the breast of his best green doublet and deposited into Eva’s hands a minute ball of fluff.
“Oh Elias!” Eva cupped her fingers around a tiny orange-and-black kitten. “Won’t he run away?” All Eva’s attempts to catch one of the wild barn-cats’ kittens had been failures.
“It’s a she.” He smiled at her pleasure. “This one is too young to run anywhere–see, her eyes are barely open. Just keep her close, and she’ll bond with us. So you will always be the top lioness in her pride.”
“She should be proud! She’s so pretty!” Eva stroked the walnut-sized head as she cradled the kitten against her.
“Not proud, hermanita.” Elias used his favorite endearment for her, ‘little sister’. “Pride. It’s what you call a family of lions.”
Eva tried to feel big and brave, like a lioness. “Where did you get her?”
“You remember Manolo?” Eva nodded; she had once met the head trainer for the Alhambra. “Well, after we had seen the Queen’s casket into the chapel I stopped to see the new colts, and we found this litter at the back of one of the stalls. Notice anything special about her?”
The kitten mewed and started to climb up Eva’s bodice, tangling its minuscule claws in the gold brocade threads. Eva carefully detached the little paws. “She has six toes!”
“On every paw. Though Manolo says that’s not so uncommon in cats.” Elias flashed one of his rare smiles as he skirted the forbidden subject.
The kitten wriggled into the square neckline of Eva’s too-large new gown, snuggled down and went to sleep. Eva felt the tiny heart beating against her own and a surge of protective love filled her. “I shall call her Tabita, and she will be my special friend.”
“She’ll be a lot of work,” Elias warned. “I just fed her, but you’ll have to do it again every three hours. She’s too young to be weaned.”
“Then shouldn’t we take her back to her mother?”
Elias took the household ledger from its niche and sat down to add figures before answering. “We can’t. The litter was abandoned.”
“Poor thing!” Eva kissed its little striped nose. “Why would a mother just leave her babies?”
“Some mothers care more about themselves than they do about their offspring.” Elias’ reply was so curt that Eva wanted to ask why, but he bent his head over the account book on the table, mouth pressed in a firm line which said the subject was closed. Eva picked up her embroidery and worked in silence.
Through the carved wooden screen of the window that opened to the kitchen patio, the delicious aroma of fresh bread meant that cook was taking the day’s crusty loaves from the large beehive oven. Eva finished the border of the altar-cloth she had been working on and sat fidgeting, wishing she could run out and show Old Paloma her new kitten. Beneath her skirts, she surreptitiously rubbed her extra little toe against the normal foot.
Eva would far rather be out there helping, instead of stuck in here in these tight, uncomfortable clothes, waiting to play her role of dutiful daughter in the dreary pageant that her father insisted on maintaining: a perfect, pious, and successful merchant family. She heaved a resigned sigh.
Elias heard. “You should practice your calligraphy.”
Eva pouted. “So long as I can write enough to run a household, why should I worry about my penmanship?”
“Because an elegant hand reflects your upbringing. Queen Isabella made it the fashion for noble ladies to be learned.”
“We’re not noble!” Eva protested. “We’re not even remotely hidalgo.”
“Well, you’re going to marry a noble. A connection by marriage to a hidalgo family is Father’s next step on the social ladder. That’s why he keeps building up your dowry.”
A number of recent comments that had gone over her head suddenly made sense. “I’m only eight!”
“Doesn’t matter—even a betrothal confers status. But don’t worry, the wedding waits until you are old enough.”
Eva contemplated her impending social elevation in dismay. “I can’t be like Blanca, riding and hawking and dancing and talking about olden-time books. You’re the one who is good at all that. You can have my share of the money, and then you can marry Blanca.”
“Brides bring dowries to their husband’s family, not the other way around. Like the lands Mother added to Casa de Pazia.” Elias made a strange choking sound, quickly stifled. “You should be glad Father has a use for you. It’s a protection, of a sort.”
He turned his back, but Eva caught a sweep of his arm and realized he was wiping away a tear. “Elias, what’s the matter?” Eva had never before seen her brother cry, no matter how hard the beating.
“Nothing.” And then he abruptly changed his mind. “Maybe it’s better if you are prepared. Mother’s horse wasn’t in the Alhambra stables. Manolo said she left last week, the morning after the Governor’s dinner.”
A choking lump filled her throat, and Eva realized that she had always dreaded this. Her frantic thoughts sought other possibilities. “Maybe she decided to visit her friend Pilar.”
“No.” Elias’ flat statement left no room for argument. ”She left us.” He angrily dashed away another tear.
Nurse put her head in the door. “Your father wants to see you in the great hall. Hurry, don’t keep him waiting!”
Eva hastily shoved her offending foot back into its shoe, not stopping to tie the latch-strap, and followed Elias out the salon and across the formal courtyard. Nurse held open one of the double doors to the great hall and stood aside, letting them go in alone. She gave Eva an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and Eva saw that Nurse was afraid for them.
The door slammed shut on Nurse, and the children whirled to find their father. Iago de Pazia stood in silence, glowering down at his offspring, his expression ominous.
Eva’s glance darted around the huge rectangular room, checking for other ways out. She looked to the servant’s door at the back. It was too far; she could never make that before her father caught her. Closer, facing the main doors, the great fireplace yawned, with its huge chimney. If Eva could only turn herself into a bird and fly up the flue, out to the street—but that was foolishness.
“You wanted us, sir?” Elias nudged her with the hand away from their father. Eva realized he was drawing her attention to the ladder which led to the newly-built minstrel’s loft. It had a door leading to the second-floor corridor.
“Do you know where your mother is?”
“We know she’s been visiting at the Alhambra,” Elias’ face was carefully blank, but under their father’s scrutiny, Eva gave a little whimper.
Their father turned on her. “So you did know! She gave you a last, loving goodbye, did she?”
“Eva only found out a few minutes ago.” Elias stepped between her father and herself. “And that’s only because this morning Manolo told me Mother’s horse wasn’t in the palace stables.”
“So she has a week’s start,” Iago snarled. “Much good that will do her. She can run, but she can’t hide forever. I have contacts who will track her down.”
“It wouldn’t be good for business if this were known, sir.” Elias spoke smoothly, sounding like one of Father’s customers instead of a ten-year-old. “Why not just give out that your wife went to visit a distant relative, and later pretend she died of a fever? It would save face for Casa de Pazia.”
“I’ve spent ten years saving that woman’s face!” Iago raged. “But no more! When I find her, I’ll kill her!”
“You wouldn’t want to be accused of murder.” Elias was trembling in his effort to keep himself under control.
“You have her cunning.” Their father advanced on Elias, who backed away, pulling Eva with him. “But it won’t save your whoring mother. No court would deny the right of a husband to take vengeance on an adulterous wife.”
Elias turned and pointed Eva toward the ladder, mouthing a soundless command: “Go!” Then he whirled on Iago. “You lie! Mama would never commit adultery.”
Eva bolted for the ladder as her brother drew Father’s anger. “You’re inventing threats because you’ve always been crazy with jealousy. And without a shred of reason!”
Eva scrambled upwards, feeling her untied shoe loosen as she went. It came off at the last step. The offending footwear called attention to itself as the wooden heel bounced off every rung, rolling across the floor at the bottom until it came to rest at the edge of the great hearth.
“No reason?” Iago de Pazia scooped up the shoe, custom-made to hide her deformity, and shook it under Elias’ nose. “Six toes! The mark of a woman’s intercourse with an incubus.”
Eva could tell that it was a horrible accusation, although she did not understand the terms incubus or intercourse. But she understood that she, with her horrible foot, was the cause of their family’s misery. She wished she had never been born.
“Bishop Talavera says that is an ignorant pagan superstition! And Mother said that an extra digit runs in her family.”
“She told you that, did she?” Iago’s tone was venomous. “Such a loving, true mother! But she didn’t tell you she was abandoning her children. Her children, and none of mine. The faithless puta!”
Eva cringed. The p-word was so foul, it could never mean Mama!
“You talk about faithless!” Elias pointed at him, shouting now. “You’re the reason Mama left us, because of your lack of faith! She couldn’t live with your hypocrisy, prating first one creed and then another, pretending to honor God. You sold your soul for money. And I see you whoring after status! Puta yourself!”
Then Elias ran. Iago, purple with rage, snatched up the iron poker from the fireplace and hurled it after the fleeing boy.
The heavy missile struck Elias in the back of the head, and he fell almost directly beneath her.
Eva stared horrified at her brother’s prone body, watching as bright red blood spread through his black hair.
Her father rolled Elias over with his foot. Now she could see his still face, the olive skin going white, and her heart almost stopped. That blow must surely have killed him.
“God, don’t let him be dead,” she prayed. “Please, please God, I’ll say the whole rosary every day if you just don’t let him be dead!”
Iago de Pazia looked at Elias, his mouth set in fury. Then he kicked the poker, making it skitter across the tiles toward the hearth. “Nurse!” he bellowed.
Veronica appeared at once, as though she had been stationed right outside the door. “He fell from the loft.” Iago lied. Why, Eva did not understand. Nurse must have heard everything. “Have him taken to the Blue Chamber. And fetch a priest.”
And with that, he strode from the hall.
As soon as he was gone, Eva flew down the ladder. “Oh, Nurse!” she cried. “Father murdered him!”
“Hush, cariña, the hakim will be here soon,” Nurse soothed. “Jose went for him already. We will do what we can.”
Weeping, Eva flung herself into Nurse’s arms. A minute cat-howl came from the area of her bosom and Eva remembered Tabita.
Casa de Pazia, late Monday August 22, 1513
Eva was pulled back into the present by the same sound, faint in the distance. But this was no kitten-noise of distress; it was a cat-mating screech.
Eva groaned inwardly. Of course: Tabita was out with some street-wise tom, and afterwards, she would roam with him, sharing in the hunt. It might be morning before she came back home.
And what would Eva do until then? Eva’s exit, like her mother’s, was a blow to her father’s pride—and with all the wedding preparations in hand, a very public insult.
But then maybe he was gone, off hunting for her as he had hunted for their mother while Elias lay unmoving between life and death.
That had been a horrible three days. Eva had prayed the promised rosaries, but God was too busy and the Virgin had little power. Like Eva’s own mother, also named Maria, Jesu’s mother ignored her.
At last, in desperation, Eva had turned to the book of saints she had received that Christ-Mass. The heavy volume was to be part of her dowry, painted by somebody famous, and every page picked out in gold leaf. And there, on the first page, she found Saint Basil.
Nine years later, Eva knew by heart the quote that was written opposite the saint’s idealized image: “The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The acts of charity which you do not do are so many injustices you commit.”
At last, she had found something real that she could bargain with for her brother’s life. Right then and there, Eva promised to dedicate herself to helping the poor, if the great saint would bring her petition before the powers of heaven. And within minutes of that prayer, Elias awakened.
She had kept that promise. Ever since, Saint Basil had been her favorite intercessor, the more so because he was the patron saint of the powerless. Eva had always been powerless. And now, she thought, she would be poor as well.
It was a relief.
She bowed her head and asked Saint Basil to protect her from her father. Then she crept toward the ornate ironwork gate and called softly. “Ernesto!”
There was no response. Eva pressed against the wall just to the side, out of view, and threw a pebble between the bars of the gate.
After a few minutes the guardroom door opened, and to her relief she heard Ernesto’s arthritic step, stiff from sleep.
“Ernesto! It’s me, Eva.”
Ernesto shuffled up to the gate and peered through the ironwork. “Señorita Eva?”
His astonishment was justified. Eva had never been out alone at night before. In fact, she had never been out alone at any hour. “Let me in, before somebody comes,” Eva begged.
“But you’re on your way to Venice!” Ernesto scratched his head. “Friday it was, you eloped. All the wedding guests your father has invited, the big show. Granada is buzzing with it.”
“Conte Niccolo deserted me.” Which was true, after a fashion.
“May Shaitan infest his beard!” Ernesto unlocked the gate and let her in. “But señorita Eva, your father and the men-at-arms came back just an hour ago! Four days they scour every route to the coast for nothing. Now the master’s in as black a mood as I ever seen—and I seen plenty señor de Pazia’s rages!”
“I’m not staying.” Eva sank onto the bench in the guardroom and marshaled her thoughts. Who would Tabita allow to pick her up? “Go get Old Paloma and bring her here. Not a word to the other servants—it would put them at risk.”
Old Paloma entered, followed by Ernesto. The faithful servant ran to embrace her.
“Evita, cariña! Ernesto told me how the Conte abandoned you, that bad, bad man!”
“Vieja Paloma!” Eva hugged her back. “It’s for the best, I didn’t want to marry him any more than he wanted to marry me.”
“But the shame! Your father is right to be angry—though not at you, cariña, the master should know you’d never plan something like that on your own. It was your bridegroom used doña Barbola to trick you into going, wasn’t it? We never trusted her in the servant’s quarters, she was too good for such as we. Never let us forget that she was a Moorish noblewoman, and how lucky for you that she had agreed to be duenna to a merchant’s daughter.”
“No, Paloma, doña Barbola doesn’t know anything about it. I sent her to visit family the night before. It was Blanca who helped me.” Eva silently blessed her highborn friend. “She pulled strings with her cousin who is Abbess of the convent where Queen Juana worships. They will accept me as a lay sister. The travel arrangements are all made. But this evening, Tabita turned up missing.”
“Ah, that cat isn’t one to stay cooped up.” Paloma nodded, understanding. “She’ll come home, a cat always does. Come, the best place for you to wait is your old room. Nobody will go there now that they think you’re gone to Venice with that dreadful Conte. May he rot in hell!”
Old Paloma took her bundle and led the way across the formal courtyard. The doors that separated it from the private patio creaked, and from the direction of the street came a clatter of hooves and a clash of armor. Through the branches of the olive tree in the center planter, she saw the door of her father’s room open.
“Who’s there?” Iago de Pazia stood in his night-dress, outlined by the light of a candle in the room.
Eva pressed herself against the wall of the wide colonnade, but even in the shadows she could feel her father’s eyes boring into her.
And then she heard a pounding on the front gate. “Open!” a deep voice shouted. “Open in the name of the Inquisition!”
The Cat
Tabita crouched under a clump of weeds, watching the two drunks weaving down the dark street. There was something wrong with humans. Not always wrong, but one never could tell when the wrongness would come out. That was why she allowed only Elias and Eva to be human members of her pride.
They were not entirely free from the wrongness, either, though she had not understood that at first, when her human litter-mates were all that kept her from starvation. But so far as Tabita was concerned, her handicapped pride-members were her responsibility because she was naturally superior.
They had the advantage of size, it must be admitted—but it was wasted by clumsiness, stumbling around on only two feet, and being so slow to react. At least most of them; Elias was quick enough. But their feet had no claws, which is why those with more awareness of their species’ shortcomings kept them covered, as Eva usually did.
One of the drunks stopped to defecate in the gutter. Tabita wrinkled her nose in distaste. Humans did things like that, and many of them did not even cover their scat. The drunk finished and the pair of them staggered off. Tabita continued on her way, following her internal compass in a straight line, obstacles permitting, between the square stone-built pile where Tabita had endured four long, tedious days cooped up with her pride-mate in that whitewashed cell. But enough was enough. The place appeared to be a kind of asylum for human reproductive failures. No place for Eva.
It was she, Tabita, who must lure Eva back to her home hunting grounds. Casa de Pazia had not produced any mating prospects lately, either. But at least Eva was top lioness there.
A rat scuttled from a nearby refuse-heap, but tonight Tabita let it go. There were plenty of vermin here in this area, where the skinny humans lived. It was another example of the inferiority of the two-leggeds, that they should let their young go hungry when surrounded by so much food. But they were poor hunters, too slow to catch a mouse, and without proper teeth to administer the killing bite.
Tabita came down the last slope and saw the back wall of the home-place, where it abutted the slum. It was half again as high as Elias. She crouched at the bottom, gathering her muscles for the leap.
At that moment, a cloth-wrapped bundle came flying over. Tabita jumped aside as it thumped to earth, giving off a gust of food-and-clothing smells. A figure appeared at the top of the wall, whom Tabita recognized as one of the stable-hands. He lowered another bundle, this one clanking with the sound of breakable objects, and then jumped down. Then he held up his hands to help his mate, the fat woman who worked in the dairy-shed. The two moved in hurried silence and they reeked of fear.
Something odd was going on here. Tabita was on guard at once: this was not the way humans came and went from Casa de Pazia—except for Elias, who used the back way when he wanted his movements to go unnoticed.
The couple gathered their bundles and ran off. Tabita made her leap and gained the summit only to be nearly hit in the face by the leg of a ladder as it was placed against the other side. Cook was already pushing her two children up it, while her scrawny husband steadied the base. They too were carrying bundles and stank of fear.
Tabita leaped down as the husband went up. “Take the ladder!” Cook hissed from the other side. “We don’t want the Inquisition to find out how we left.”
Inquisition was a new sound to Tabita. They said it as though speaking the name of a monster.
Below, Tabita could hear shouts of male voices, unfamiliar voices. There were torches in the courtyard and formal patio. Clearly the whole house was in an uproar. The fear was infectious, but she set herself to go investigate.
She reached the main gate just in time to see the dominant human-lion going out. Iago de Pazia, scantily covered, was being dragged between two men in metal-wear. He was protesting in a blustering voice. It did not impress his captors any more than it fooled Tabita. Eva’s father did not hold dominance over these men.
They spoke roughly, invoking the name Inquisition. Tabita did not know what sort of creature Inquisition might be, but one thing was clear: Casa de Pazia was no longer a safe place for Eva.

Wilderness Tales: the Stone

Lundy Lake, on the eastern side of the Sierras near Mono Lake, is set in a long narrow cleft eponymously named Lundy Canyon. (‘Eponymous’ is so rarely used, I figured I’d better air it out before it becomes one of those words my aging brain forgets. An adjective meaning ‘of a thing named after a person or thing’. Word for the day.)

Lundy Lake

It was a short trip, by backpacking standards—only 3 miles in to the abandoned May Lundy Mine. Just right for a family with young kids. Except that the trailhead started at 7830 feet and ended at 9860 feet! That’s 2000 feet of elevation gain in thin high-altitude air, and our family came from L.A. just a few feet above sea level.  But the mountains were gorgeous, and we were primed for adventure. Gamely shouldering our old-fashioned packs, we trooped down the trail.

“Down the trail’ is a figure of speech. Up fit better, although the going was not too bad for the first half-mile. But then the trail angled upward. It got harder as it went until we were puffing and huffing.  Pop called for a rest stop at a lovely little waterfall surrounded by lush early-season Sierra flowers.

We sat down gratefully, while Mom handed out generous chunks of chocolate, which, for some reason, was the Alaskan ideal for wilderness energy food. And that is when I saw it.

The most remarkable rock. Or so it seemed to my juvenile eyes. It was basalt, about an inch and a half thick, three hand-spans wide and four long, with an irregular shape that bore a startling resemblance (or so I thought) to South America. It even had a ridge down the left-hand side where the Andes Mountains would have been, and a dip for the Amazon Basin.

It doesn’t take much to astonish a kid, and that rock purely amazed me. I showed it to the family. Everybody duly admired my find and nodded as I pointed out the salient features which made this chunk of basalt the most incredible discovery of my young life.

I intended to keep it, of course. I picked up the uneven 34-pound slab and clutched it to my chest, ready to resume the trek with my treasure.

Mom and Pop agreed that it was a most incredible find, and surely I must bring it home. But why carry it all the way up hill and back again? We would be returning this way day after tomorrow, and I could simply collect it then.

I knew perfectly well what my parents were thinking: that I, their notoriously absent-minded child, would forget entirely about it until we were back at the car. And even if I DID remember, it was just one rock among many flat slabs of basalt that littered the slope. I’d never locate the darn thing once I set it back among its less dramatically shaped fellows.

I stowed the rock carefully to one side. While the rest went ahead, I piled a heap of smaller, less-notable rocks across the trail so I wouldn’t forget. And then I caught up.

Because I didn’t forget. But more on that later.

Wilderness Tales–part the first

I was 12 years old when my Pop (he hated the term ‘Dad’, which in his day and place was a term of disrespect) took the family on our first backpacking trip. Now, taking 4 kids into the wilderness was a venture that needed much preparation. But my father was wilderness-bred, a native of Colorado, raised in Seward, Alaska, and he wanted to pass his legacy on to his multiple offspring.
First, he tackled the matter of packs. You didn’t buy those things in his childhood, you made them. Pop assembled oak frames in his shop, while Mom sewed canvas covers to wrap around the wood, hammering in rows of grommets along the folded edges with lots of space between so the laces could be tightened to take up slack as the fabric stretched through use. The solid side of the canvas would rest against our backs, while the vertical and horizontal bars of the frame stayed well to the sides, top, and bottom. Needless to say, each frame had to be specially-sized to the wearer.

But what about the bag? Where did you PUT stuff?
Back when my Pop was learning his skills, (for those who wonder, he was born in 1918) when you wanted to tote a load, you tossed your things onto a piece of canvas or oilcloth fabric called a tarp (or a ‘manty’ in horse-packer parlance). And you folded the thing into a bundle and using rope, attached it to the lash points (usually metal rings) on the frame, and ran the rope in a complicated pattern known as a ‘diamond hitch’ – so-called because the crisscrossing lines made the shape of a diamond on the outside of the load. Of course that was the way it was done—easy! (Well, it was once you’d done it a hundred times, which I haven’t. I graduated to pack-bags the following year.) And the rest of our equipment? The same stuff we camped with, of course! Cotton sleeping bags weighing 8 pounds each—twice today’s inexpensive backpacking bag. Sturdy Spaulding leather-soled shoes, my oldest sister with new ones, my brother’s, mine, and my 5-year-old sister wearing successively more well-worn hand-me-downs. (Don’t be shocked, this was normal in the 50’s and 60’s, most middle-class kids wore hand-me-downs, since a family of 5 was about average.) They made ‘em to LAST, back then. And there were cobbler shops to put little metal bits on to extend wear, and to re-sole them when even those wore through. A tent, you ask? Good grief, the only one we had was made of canvas and took both my parents to carry it! You didn’t take tents into the wilderness, didn’t we all have a piece of tarp on our packs? Anyway, the chosen destination, fully described to Pop by a co-worker and fellow wilderness enthusiast, had an abandoned mining camp with a couple old buildings we could use. So THAT was solved.
Food was no problem. It was the early 1960’s, so of course there were plenty of cheap army surplus rations available. Left over from WWII, packaged and preserved to last for ages, what more could any wilderness traveler need? A luxury, compared to what my Pop had in his youth.
Suitably equipped, the six of us (plus our dog) drove up to Lundy Lake.
To be continued.


Batty and the Beast

When Jay and I bought our first house, we agreed to take a dog that his ex and her husband had raised from a puppy. They were giving up an aborted attempt to homestead and had no place to keep him. As the dog had saved my stepson from drowning in a creek, and was depicted as a highly responsible animal, we accepted him without reservation.


‘Beast’ was aptly named. His ancestry was uncertain: he had the size and shagginess of a St. Bernard, and the head and markings of a husky. But his sense of pack responsibility was all timber wolf. In the forested land where he spent his early years, he had been trained to patrol the boundaries of his owner’s territory.

I remember when he was dropped off, his former master showed him the front property line, walking him up and down it. “Beast, guard!” was the command.

And Beast took the order seriously. How seriously, we were about to find out. His stay with us lasted for about six hair-tearing months, and then, in complete exasperation and with the neighbors threatening lawsuits, we found him a home in a rural area with people who had an apple orchard that needed guarding.

On the Saturday morning when this transition was in process, I was waiting for the new owners to pick him up when the phone rings. But it isn’t the new owners, it’s my Mom.

We started with the usual catch-up on family. And then Mom asks, “How’s Beast?”

At least, that’s what I THOUGHT I heard her say. Given the circumstances, it seemed perfectly in context, as I had spoken to her briefly a couple days earlier about the grief this dog was causing us.

As I later found, to my great mortification, what she had actually said was, ‘How’s Jay?”

Out the window, I can see my husband rounding up the mutt from our front yard. Beast had once again jumped over our 6-foot board fence in his desire to patrol our entire property line.

So you can understand the exasperation in my reply. “Oh, I am getting RID of him!”

My mom seemed unduly surprised. “Why? What has he done?”

“What HASN’T he done?” I exploded. “Like right now the place stinks, because yesterday, AGAIN, he prevented the garbage men from picking up the trash!”

Mom was baffled. “Why would he do that?”

“Oh, he thinks it’s valuable, because it’s ours. He thinks anything we’ve ever owned has to be guarded. Ever since we got this house, he has paced up and down the property line, looking menacing. The mailman gave us a notice the other day saying we’d have to get our mail at the post office, because he’s afraid to deliver it.”

My mother is used to dealing with nutty people; she was custodian of her two schizophrenic nephews. Which might explain why her mind immediately jumped to conclusions about Jay’s sanity. “I had no idea he was so disturbed. Can you get him help?”

“I’ve already tried everything I know!” Says I. “I can keep him under control in the daytime. But at night, he just works the window latch and slips out again. And if you tie him up, he just chews through the rope!”

At this point, you would have expected my mother to realize that we were on totally different topics, but the shock apparently prevented her from putting two and two together. As for me, I am oblivious—as I can be, when I’m on a roll and there is a sympathetic ear.

“The final straw happened the other day! A girl came by riding a bicycle, and he cleared the six-foot fence in one bound and took off after her, barking and nipping at her heels!” I exclaimed. “And she was only twelve!”

There was a silence on the line. Then Mom said, “Are you going to file for divorce?”

“Divorce?!” It was my turn to be shocked. “Why would we get a divorce over Beast? Jay is as weary of his antics as I am!”

Leap Day

On this day in 1976, I met the love of my life.

I had, just the previous week, graduated from 12 stressful, grueling weeks of Coast Guard Boot Camp, and was now beginning my training as an electronics tech at the USCG Training Center on Governor’s Island, just off the end of Manhattan.

My personal items from home had arrived at the Greyhound package station in downtown Manhattan, and I was supposed to come get them.

Problem #1: I didn’t have a car, and the items included my beloved, battered 10-speed bike.

Problem #2: I didn’t want to go into downtown New York alone. Coming up from Boot Camp, they had given me tickets for the bus and a subway pass—forgetting to tell me that I shouldn’t ride it alone after 10 pm.

I thought I would be fine. After all, I was no naïve country hick–born and raised in the country’s second-largest city, Los Angeles. But I had never encountered the kind of ‘flasher-grinder’ sitting in the corner of the subway car, and spent the entire ride down to South Ferry determinedly looking in the other direction. I was NOT going to do that again.

The ‘Coast Guard Women’ (As the sign on our quarters announced) were housed on the bottom wing of ‘O’ section, right below the BOQ (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters). So with some trepidation I ventured upstairs to the lounge of said quarters to offer a tank of gas to anyone with a car who would go with me to fetch my stuff.

The trepidation came from recent experience. Most of the guys rooming upstairs were only noncoms, Petty Officer First Class and up—which isn’t all that high a rank. But in boot camp, that rank had screamed at us, made us do ‘cranks’ (pushups) crawl through icy beach mud on our stomachs, jump off 40-foot high dives, and port arms and run quarter-mile laps until your muscles burned like fire.

But that was boot camp. Once finished, the Coast Guard is a much more civilian service than the other branches, because Coasties are always among and working with civilians.

Anyway, there were only two guys in the lounge, and I could only see the back of their heads, watching TV. I made my offer, and Jay Cotton took me up on it.

Of course he already knew about me. There were only 30 of us ‘Coast Guard Women’ in the barracks below—the ‘Guard had only recently begun accepting female recruits—and as each new group of students arrived, gossip (mostly speculation about very un-romantic possibilities) ran rife. Me? I was ‘the blonde from California’. Where Hollywood is located, and Haight-Ashbury, and many another stereotypical loose lady.

Fortunately, strait-laced virginal me didn’t know this at the time. When Jay stood up and turned around, it was my turn to be shocked: his Greek good looks were reminiscent of a previous crush. But he was much more fun to be with.

Only half my stuff had arrived, so he volunteered to go back for the rest when it came in. We sat at the ferry terminal and talked and talked. I remember asking him where he wanted to be four years from now. Four years is a standard enlistment period, and I had just begun mine, so in the service, it’s a common ‘make conversation’ question.

Jay looked me in the eye and said, “Wherever you are.”

At the time I remember thinking, “Well, he’s pretty sure of himself.” I’m rather a skeptic when it comes to first acquaintances.

It’s gone beyond four years to forty years. And there he still is.

Still love you, Jay Cotton.

P.S. The clincher was that skilled guitar playing—when he sang ‘Nights in White Satin’ for me at the Whitehats Club. And ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’.

Okay, I’m bragging, just a bit. Old ladies do, sometimes.

A Tribute to Alice-Ann Cantelow

Today I found out that one of my lifetime mentors had died.
It wasn’t new news—Alice Ann had gone home in August. But we had lost touch when she moved, and it had been a couple of years since I had seen her.

Alice-Ann Cantelow was a trailblazer. She never accepted things as they were, and she paid no attention to the naysayers who said there was nothing she could do aalice annbout it. And she changed her part of the world.

I first met Alice Ann when she lived in a little mobile home back in the woods of a tiny Bay Area community. She was a naturalist for the East Bay Regional Parks, president of the local Audubon Society, and, as our mutual friend warned me, ‘A bit of a nut on environmental issues.’

As I soon found out, once Alice-Ann became convinced of something, she plowed forward on the solution. In her fifties, recently divorced, she read the Gospels for the first time as a believer. And right then, she declared: “We are supposed to be taking care of the poor.”

Everybody said, ‘What poor? They’re in San Francisco, or Oakland, or third-world countries. We’ll send them money.’

But Alice Ann looked around and discovered that ‘the poor’ in our affluent area are women and children. So she started taking them into her little mobile home in the woods.
It was too small. So she sold that and her other assets to buy a house big enough for a shelter. I remember going house-hunting with her (at the time I was attempting an architecture degree) and thinking, ‘not this old farmhouse—it hasn’t been updated since the 1920s!’

But that’s what she bought. It became Shepherd’s Gate. And she actually got the local churches to work together—you couldn’t say ‘no’ to that level of personal commitment. There was a steering Committee, and board meetings (at one point, much later, Jay was vice-president) and no salaries or staff except the cook. If you were even remotely acquainted, Alice-Ann persuaded you to get involved.

Then before the thing even opened, our own house burned down. So the first residents of Shepherd’s Gate were—you guessed it—US! Within a week or so our insurance company had us in a rental –and of course, they would have covered a motel until then. But I was in shock, and it was good to have a friend.

I think of the mentoring by example Alice-Ann gave me over the years: the building of Shepherd’s Gate into what it is today, all the miracles we watched, hands-on, while that ministry grew, and backed us into a corner to start Disciples’ House, and the donkey she wished on us, and all the pack trips in the Sierra, and getting that book of hers written and published—so much to be grateful for.

Alice-Ann could be pig-headed and stubborn, and so am I. We were known to lock horns on occasion. But when the chips were down, she was the woman you wanted to have with you. And most important, she passionately and without reservation loved her Lord Jesus Christ.

She’s with Him now, as she always has been. And I have more than memories—I’m a changed person because I knew her. Not a little—a lot. Alice-Ann Cantelow was one of the major forces in shaping my adult life.

Thanks, Alice-Ann. See you soon.

Coast Guard Woman 314

Here in the US, it’s Veteran’s day.

I’m a veteran, and so is my husband. We served in the U.S. Coast Guard. Jay served during the Viet Nam War, and I did too, technically. Although it was, for all practical purposes, well over by 1975, when I joined.

As any veteran can tell you, being in the military is an experience like no other. (Wow, that is really circular reasoning. No experience is like any other. Ah well, forward to what’s entertaining.) It’s actually pretty strange that I joined ANY service, because I’m not the military type. Structure and discipline gave me hives – I was terrible as a student, and as for conformity, if the group was marching one way, I’d turn and march the other direction just to be contrary. I was a real pain in the trasera.

What drove me to the desperate step of enlisting was pain. Dental pain, to be exact. As a broke college student who could not afford dental bills, added to poor dental hygiene practices, my misery and my budget were on a collision course. And all the military services will fix your teeth, first thing.

I figured the Coast Guard was non-violent, saving lives and all that. And the following year the REALLY GOOD education benefits were going to be cut in half. So I joined in blithe ignorance, with no understanding of the significance of one crucial fact: the Coast Guard was the last service to allow women to join their ranks. I was the 314th female Coastie.

And then I got to boot camp and found out that all the ‘lifers’ (enlisted career men) who couldn’t stomach serving with women had been transferring from the other armed services to the Coast Guard for the last two decades. And now the fate they had switched to avoid was upon them, in the person (among others) of independent, pain-in-the-trasera me.

And they all outranked me. By a lot.

There’s a few more blog posts in that. Starting with getting all four wisdom teeth yanked in one fell swoop at Johns Hopkins. And being forgotten by the bus back to boot camp.

Auditioning for a new neighbor

I have decided that I must post more often than once a year. So I’m just going to put up whatever else I’m writing that might be amusing to whoever stumbles onto this blog. Today, for instance, I wrote the following advertisement. It’s intended to be laughed at, of course, but also to convey information that will help people self-screen.

We are holding auditions for the part of ‘new neighbor’. The part calls for a non-smoker, but may be portrayed by actors of any race, color, creed, age, nationality, gender, or species. Excellent actors only; we will want a record of your past performances and roles.

This is a role for one person, no extras or stunt doubles. No new animals are allowed on the set, as they might interfere with other animal performers already cast for the role of ‘pet dogs’ and ‘neighborhood stray cats’.

The set props include sofa, chair, queen-sized bed, desk, shelf, full sink and ‘fridge, microwave, hot plate and various electric pots and pans. The bed is in a loft for better camera angles. (Please consult stage photos, attached.) additional props may be stored in a 5’ x 6’ outdoor storage area.

The screenplay involves a middle-aged couple who purchase the derelict foreclosure next door and fix it up. In act one, they rent to a family that needs a ‘second chance’ and we enjoy the drama of harried owners, their mortgage coming due, unsuccessfully chasing down rent. Observe the hilarity of tenant/neighbors who duck in and out only after they are sure the coast is clear. Includes a nail-biting scene where the hapless landlords learn all the complexities of California rental law and vow, sadder but wiser, never again to rent to anybody with bad credit or a history of being thrown of the set of other productions.

In act two, they convert the former garage into a darling little studio and pour more of their retirement savings into making the house look fantastic. They find a great tenant for the main house, and the studio also gets rented on the spot. They discover that LLNL and Sandia engineer-types with security clearances are wonderful tenants.

Other cast members include the friendly neighbors to the east, a fourth-grade teacher and his stay-at-home wife, complete with preschooler, first-grader and middle-school offspring; the quiet lady in the main house; and the eccentric but otherwise harmless neighbor-owner couple to the west, who have been known to keep llamas in the back yard and dress in renaissance-era garb and march around spouting thees and thous like they were right out of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. They frequently share their overbuilt house with a selection of LLNL interns who, when they speak at all, use a peculiar international lingo which we will call ‘Geekinese’.

Now comes act three, where the beloved tenant of the studio moves out of town. The owners post on Craigslist and pore through emails, searching for the applicant who will provide so little drama that, were this actually a performance, it would put the audience to sleep.

4 front garden 2 5-14

O Christmissed tree

I just put up our tree. It was a nice little commercially farmed grand fir (whatever kind of tree that is) and it put me in mind of an old Christmas tradition from when our kids were small.
It started because we had spent the first few days of Christmas visiting relatives. We came home on Christmas eve, and I for some reason assumed that I could pick up some leftover tree from the tree lots, really cheap.
But alas, when we got home, it turned out that all the lots were closed. All the remaining trees locked up behind yards of temporary chain-link fence. Our three kid’s faces looked so woe-begone, my husband and I decided to get creative.
In our front yard towered a forty-foot Deodar cedar. The kids and I had often imagined how fun it would be to decorate the thing from top to bottom as an outside decoration, using beach-ball-sized ornaments. Well, in a crisis, that deodar was going to have to serve the purpose. But not on that scale!
Jay went out to the back yard and found a waterlogged, broken –off fence-post in the woodpile. He got out his trusty drill, plugged it in (this was back in the last century when all drills had cords) and proceeded to make that old post into Swiss cheese with three or four sizes of drill bits, while the kids and I and two sets of tree-clippers went at the lower branches of the deodar.
By the time Jay had his holey post mounted on a homemade stand, we were ready. The kids and I chose branches of about the right diameter and stuffed them into the holes. An especially large frond was jammed into the big hole on the top of the post, and viola! Our tree.
It was a beautiful tree, absolutely fresh and piney-smelling, without a gap or bare spot, and best of all, every branch was solid enough to support the assortment of gaudy toys that passed for ornaments – even the rather heavy one of Captain Kirk sitting on his bridge seat, kirk ornament
–which our youngest thought was a toilet.
From that point on, that was our tree tradition. There was no tree for sale that ever could compare to our ‘artificial’ tree. Whenever visitors admires our lovely fresh tree, my kids used to slyly ask, “What kind of tree do you think it is?”
“Scotch pine?”
“Guess again.”
“Noble fir?”
After several repetitions, they would burst out, “We MADE it!”
And then the whole process would be explained.
At some point, termites finished consuming the post, and I succumbed to the ease of just buying a tree. But the memories linger.

On the Importance of Telling the Truth to Your Spouse

Howard and Doris went on a senior cruise. Of the many activities, the one they enjoyed most was a toastmaster’s club that met in the evenings. Everybody would put a topic on a slip of paper, fold it, and drop it into a hat. Then people would be chosen at random to speak. Each would have to take one of the topics from the hat, and speak on that topic for five minutes.

Four days into the cruise, the ocean got choppy, and Doris felt seasick and retired to their cabin, Howard was going to stay with her, but she urged him to go to the toastmaster’s club without her. So, since watching somebody throw up is not the pleasantest thing, he gave her a Dramamine and went.

Wouldn’t you know it, that evening he was chosen to be a speaker. And the topic he pulled from the hat was ‘sex’. Howie held forth in fine form, perhaps the better because his mate was not present.

When he got back to their cabin, the sea had settled down and so had Doris’ stomach.

“Did you enjoy yourself, dear?” she asked.

“It was okay,” said Howie. “Um—I got picked to speak.”

“Really? What topic did you get stuck with?”

Howie thought of the uproarious laughs he got on some of his cruder points, and was struck with belated embarrassment. “Boating,” he said. “I had to speak on boating.”

The next day, some members of the toastmasters approach Doris and Howie at breakfast. They told Doris that Howie had been the best speaker of the night. This pattern repeated itself throughout the day—everybody complimenting him again on how funny and witty Howie’s presentation was.

Doris became more and more puzzled. “I just don’t understand how Howie could have filled five minutes on that subject,” she said to the admiring group. “After all, he’s only done it twice. The first time, he got sick; and the second time, his hat blew off!”