Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 51—Philomena Tries the Tire Swing
“...no garments rolled in blood, no burning or fuel of fire, either against me, or I against them.”
—Joanna Southcott, The Third Book of Wonders
Philomena Hobart looked out the window at the child in the tire swing. Elliot had set up the tire swing for Ian Emory. “Child, child. Come in the house. You will hurt yourself.” Philomena pressed her body against the sink and tried to open the window. It would not budge.
When have I last opened this kitchen window? Never. The window was new with double-glazing. Lucy had replaced the old kitchen window after he shattered the glass dynamiting stumps. Oh God... twenty years ago. New enough to remember. Long enough for the sashing to warp. Had Lucy told her to get it painted?
As she strained to lift the window Philomena felt a tear begin. It trickled down her nose to hang at the cleft of her chin where it trembled, uncertain whether to fall and end it all with a small splat in the sink. She pounded against the sash with a balled fist. “Ouch.” The child held the old tire clamped in his jaws. He was teething. Philomena relaxed, slumped against the kitchen cabinetry.
The experience of child-rearing was new to Philomena Hobart. Wait; there was that child who told her he had died in Vietnam, Ian Emory. Her baby. “My baby.” Elliot had planted a line of trees—the Fairy Forest. Hackmatack, tall, lacy tamarack—a full sixty feet in height by the time Lucy came to chop them down for firewood. He brought Donnie LaViolette, a hired man, to do the heavy lifting. “Hiya, Miss Philly,” said Donnie.
“Hiya, Donnie.” Donnie LaViolette and Philomena went back to elementary school where they had shared a desk and dried their galoshes side by side in the third grade.
“Stove wood,” Lucy had said. “That’s what my son planted ’em for. Gotta get ’em down, Philly, before they get knocked down in a northeaster and take the house with ’em.” He brought a chain saw and a gas-powered hydraulic wood splitter. By the end of the first day, the trees were down. By the third day a pile of stove-length sticks filled the yard, neatly square-stacked to dry. Lucy and Donnie hauled off five cords of the fairy forest for doing the work. She had thought the trees looked healthy enough. Strong enough to not fall over. Not yet.
One week later Lucy appeared to dynamite the stumps. He came alone. “Can’t leave ’em there,” he said. The house had passed backwards to him, not laterally to her, when Elliot died. Philomena thought that a wife was automatically the heir in Maine. She checked with Probate. Sure, enough—she got everything. In Maine if a decedent owned a residence with his spouse and that spouse was still living, she automatically inherited the property. Philly thought she; the women tended to survive. Men drank and smoked, went to war, drove logging trucks. Philomena riffled through the accordion-fold wallet that held their household papers. Ah, the deed. Lucian Hobart’s name was still on it; Elliot’s father had never refiled at the registrar’s, making the house over to his son and daughter-in-law. They had married late, not soon enough it seemed to leave a window for Elliot to get Lucy to reassign the deed. After some years Philomena screwed up courage sufficient to confront her father-in-law. “I’ll get to the lawyer, Philly. Next week,” Lucy said when asked.
When Elliot Hobart died his father got, or kept, everything—the house, and their little patch of land, 40 acres, a middling farmstead let go back to brush. Lucy. He was doing her a favor; that was what he seemed to say. An act of charity for his widowed daughter-in-law.
She waited until Lucy’s tractor, its farm trailer painted blaze orange, was out of sight. Finding her garden clogs, she shuffled out to the woodpile and put an ear close to the what was left of her fairy forest—feathery greens that sang in any wind summer or winter. “Wind chimes.” Chimes to mourn the death of her husband, her child. Her hopes.
Her chin trembled where another tear, a fresh tear, hung. Philomena had been a distant unaffectionate mother. Ian Emory Hobart. Elliot’s child, her child—the brother of Ed. Whatever had happened to him? He had died, that was it. “My dead son. My dead husband...” And now a new child in peril just out of reach, beyond the window glass, beyond help.
Lucy thought he was so clever. He had words for everything.
“Say something demented, Philly,” he said. “Just to warm the cockles of my heart. This house has become my second home what with all the fixing you seem to require.” He helped with the storm windows—up in fall, down in spring. He had replaced a faucet washer once, in 1973. “You are a second wife to me, Philly. So much younger than Cat and yet there you are. You never leave the house except to go to Cat’s and mine and lurk, shamble around in slippers and a house dress. All the women I know end up this way. This is the Hobart Curse.”
She had cried then, too. “Lucy. You say something demented then think it’s clever because you said it.”
In the yard, under the tree, DazL was swinging. There was a giggle from under the sink. In the broom closet, down the cellar stairs. “Edward? Ian? Have you seen your new brother?”
Lucy had told her, “You are tricked by sounds, Philly. The trees talk to you. You hear murmurings from the pillow where your lifeless husband once laid his head. You hear sounds that seem to be coming from the wrong places. If there is a Great Ventriloquist, what does that make you?”
Philomena found herself singing wordlessly. “I am a dummy and God pulls the strings; I am fine with that.” She resolved to not mention her new-found ability. Never. And particularly not in front of Lucy. She had become a songwriter, too. Like Sarah. Sarah was a “singer-songwriter,” she said, Sarah said. Whatever that was. “It means that I sing and when I sing there are words. Sooner-or-later if not just then.” Sarah had sung for her one time. Actually, Philomena had overheard her croon a lullaby over Samantha’s restless baby. The song was about a dream of a falling tree; it had a “rotted heart.” At the thought of trees with rotted hearts, Philomena Hobart’s fist flew into her mouth as a thrill of panic hurtled up her spine. She rushed to the window where the child, her child now, little Daz, flew ever higher, back and forth in lazy arcs, Lucy’s three-legged cat asleep in his lap. With each down-swing, an energetic whip with his little boy knees and he rose out of sight. Then one last sweep, high, high and away, and he did not return.
The child was not Ian, not her child. Not Ian who had gone away, but the baby brought into the Hobart household by Samantha Cherry. Lucy called her his great-granddaughter, this Samantha. Perhaps she was. At any rate the girl was welcomed to the family and for this day, this hour, this minute, looking after the child had been her responsibility. And she had lost the child.
“Child. O child. Where are you?” The tire, all black and tweedy, hung empty. The child was gone. Another giggle from under the sink. “Child. You are hiding. All well and good, we will play hide-and-seek then.” Philomena opened the doors of the kitchen cabinet. There was no one. The wordless singing began anew, now with a child’s voice: Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house? That was Luke’s Gospel. Strange. She had never been any good at Sunday school, not at memorization. Had Jesus gone through those at-risk stages that killed so many babies after they had left the womb? A fine point. Jesus was the child of almighty God. If Jesus wanted teeth, he wouldn’t have to go chewing on an old tire.
The child. His mother called him Daz. Must be a nickname; nobody she knew had a name like that. But then Samantha was from California. “Daz,” said Philomena. The syllable felt strange in her mouth. “DAZ,” she screamed at the wedged-shut window. A tree with a rotted heart. “You will hurt yourself.”
The old oak. Lucy had offered to cut it down. But then it was his tree, he could do as he wished with it. If it were her tree. Well... no, she too would cut it down. That Lucy should have two houses now, each with its oak tree and a black rubber tire on a rope, somehow did not seem right. Donnie LaViolette would come and they would share cake and coffee along with third grade reminiscences. Then he would put on his rubber boots with the thick yellow soles, adjust the plaid cap with the attached earmuffs that he had worn in elementary school, and go out to the tree. He would cut it down. Not with a chainsaw, not with the racket and clamor of the modern world. But with the reverence due at the ending of a life so ancient.
Casting about for something, anything, she caught sight of a cast iron skillet left to dry on the stovetop. Picking it up in both hands she heaved it at the window. Glass shattered, flying shards scattering everywhere. “Daaaz...” she cried. “I’m coming. Wait for me.”
By the time she had found her barn clogs and run through the tall wet grass, the child was gone. The tire swing swayed easily at her approach. A new rope, she saw, thick hemp hawse line—the kind they used on boats had replaced Old Doxology’s chain, worn-through in 1966. She caught tire and held it close to her chest, humming the song about the tree with the rotted heart. There would be other times. “We’ll always have Paris...” Humphrey Bogart had said that in Casablanca. What would she, Philomena Hobart have?
Throwing off her clogs, she climbed into the tire swing and kicked with her feet. The tire moved back and forth ever so little. At the next return stroke she kicked again, then again and flew higher.
“Ohh... the world is upside down. I am chasing the clouds. The clouds are playing tag with me. What will happen if they catch me?”
Philomena’s mind was light and easily managed in unexpected getaways, but faded over time. Memory has a mind of its own, she told herself. As she swung in the tire swing, chasing big fluffy stratocumulus clouds headed far away—to the north, Canada: a magic name for where the tamarack fairy forests reached the sky. In her memory there is an old photograph her grandmother had saved in a black album at the bottom of a cardboard shoebox at the back of a closet shelf. It had not been much handled, living at the bottom of a box for many of its 100 years as if waiting for her to see it. Her grandmother stands in the doorway of her sod house and stares at a camera. She is eighteen years old and carries an axe; the tall forests stand in the way of the plow. These are the middle years of the second to last decade of the nineteenth century and she is clearing a homestead. This is hers. The woman in the picture is handsome and knows it; she is her own woman and at ease with herself. With a young woman’s call to vanity she chases an escaping wisp of hair as the shutter clicks. Her other hand on a cocked hip, she looks out at her granddaughter. High-waisted skirt to her shoes and a fresh apron of striped ticking, she is securely sensual.
When I tell Sarah about the flight in the tire swing, I suppose the tale will get back to Lucy. What will he say to her about the mystery child whom she could see and hear and then could not, Lucy with his clever words: “Hallucinations that fool most people don’t seem to deceive schizophrenics.” Crazy. He would call her crazy. “I am crazy. They used to say eccentric. That was kinder. His wife has lost her mind completely. I have not.”
There was a legend going back to ancient Greece that held swans were silent throughout their lifetimes but sang once, beautifully, just before they died. Philomena had seen swans in a lagoon once, on a trip to Boston, in a park. They looked like geese but bigger. Geese she was familiar with. They made loud hissing noises as well as grunts, snorts, though none of it could rightly be called singing.
“Philomena told me you would find out about her taking the swing for a test flight.”
“The tire swing—I have spies everywhere. You would be amazed, daughter mine, at the mileage one can roll up just hanging in a tree.” Lucy and Sarah have been walking and, though out of earshot of Cat and her solarium called the sun porch, they are not out of sight. The feeling that they are safe here, but under Cat’s scrutiny all the while, makes for an openness between them. “Did she disappear to never return, Philomena? The life expectancy of even pre-war rubber—real rubber—has been overestimated. Hers, too. Legend thrives in the shadow of neglect.”
Sarah turned against the light; her face now a landscape of pale pink skin with a ramble of freckles. “She said you would know—some kind of Maine jungle telegraph. Did you know that, Lucy Hobart? Did you know she was looking for Samantha’s kid, DazL?”
“If she was looking for him it means that she lost him. She is likewise short one husband, sloppy bookkeeping all around. The tire swing has been there for as long as I have been here. The tree was a dight shorter when I was three. Considerably shorter. We are the missing lost giants, the unknown soldiers of Deep Time. We suspect this, but have not the courage to announce it. For our Philly, an accomplished schizophrenic, the age of miracles is still with us.”
“Nothing unusual, then.”
“Not a thing.”
Sarah smoothed a spot on the grass and sat. Swirling skirts may well have followed her down, a delicate spiral, if she had been a Victorian lady with a hamper of cold chicken, hot mussel broth, tea and claret for a proper picnic. She picked at her toes. “You may stand, father dearest. A sit-down is at your own risk. If you can’t get back up, I shall be obliged to call 911 with the cell phone I have at the house, and the firemen will come all the way out from Willipaq, sirens blaring. They will be all bent out of shape at finding you alive.”
“Lights flashing. Don’t forget the lights. I do love a good show. But I think I have worn out my welcome by now,” said Lucy. “Ambulance calls to the Hobart place got thin years back when the selectmen sent a letter and a bill. They said I might be a candidate for coerced placement at an assisted living complex.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, sit down. We can’t have you going to the welfare Shangri-La. You owe me until I get you buried. I’ll pull you up if you get stuck.”
Lucy sighed and smiled. He dropped to one knee and lowered himself to the ground. He lay on his back and watched the clouds roll across the upside-down skyscape. “You are probably wondering why I keep it in repair, the swing. Philomena rode it when she was pregnant with Ian Emory. Cat believes that I hung it there for Elliot when he was a child. Wrong on all counts. My father, Old Doxology, your grandfather, first hung it there at my birth to show the neighbors he wasn’t loaded with blanks. I wore it out. I was eight years old and the tree was a lot smaller eighty-five years ago. I shinnied right up. Aristotle’s jackknife, that swing—I have had to replace the tire every six, eight years, the chain just once. Amazing when you stop to think about it.”
“Aristotle, yes. Aristotle allows for degrees of substantiality, therefore: ‘This is Aristotle’s jackknife. His son gave it a new handle, his grandson a new blade. This is Aristotle’s jackknife.’ I am pleased. Nay, gratified that our bloodlines intertwine to such an extent that we might memorize cocktail party apothegms together.”
“Useless knowledge. I am the smartass daughter of a smartass father who never bothered to show up. We never met till I was over forty, yet here we are chatting away like the best of friends. ‘The human race is fucking itself to death, the cattle’s run off and I got a cancer on my ass. But first lemme sing you a little song.’ Cowgirl bullshit, sorry Lucy.”
“A cowgirl aging gracefully in the face of global extinction. Bitching and moaning seems to have worked for me; you should try it. I shuffle around and explore new and exciting ways to comb over a bald spot. I get a monthly Social Security check from Franklin Roosevelt and respect from the kids at the gym. A regular Dr. Fossil. The town kids eye me like they’d knock me over for spare change if it looked like I had some. To the untrained eye I am crippled but game. You, and only you, Sarah mine, know my secret identity.”
Sarah walked to the tire swing, slipped her legs through the black rubber ring, took a tentative spin, then kicked. She rose then returned. She dragged herself to a stop with her heels and from a cloud of dust turned to shout back at Lucy. “There was no Archie Drye. It was you. Always you. Damn you, Lucy Hobart. I’ll be overjoyed to see you dead. You killed my real father, the father who denied me a mother, then denied me you.”
“There was no Archimedes Drye. I made him up.”
“You, asshole. I meant you.” Sarah kicked off again. And kicked and strained at each return, writhing at the hips as she went higher and higher, legs straight, until she was almost riding a tangent to her swing that was perpendicular to the flat, flat earth below. “Ohh...” Sarah was crying. Blubbering great gobbets of snot and salty tears, she let out a high wailing moan that rose and fell with each arc.
“Then it’s too late for any act of contrition I could come up with. You are smart and good-looking. I gave you that.”
“You broke my heart. I am a real girl. Blow that out your ass, Pinocchio,” Sarah said, finding her face through a curtain of tears. Beside her an invisible child swung on unperturbed.
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