The meadow was a lush bowl surrounded by tall evergreens, and it was packed with tents and trailers, both ragamuffin and well kept. Some tents were striped, with great paws of tassels sneaking over the edges, kittenish as they swayed in the breeze. Some tents were spare, modern, and lean, designed for function and beauty; they arose with a pop as the high-tech wires pulled the thin nylon into shape as an elegant shelter. Some were functional and plain, providing only respite from the sun and rain and a small amount of necessary privacy. Others were messy and utilitarian, cobbled from torn cloth, scavenged lumber and broken bits of aluminum. The trailers were just as varied, some ancient, and worn, and barely rolling, some the newest of the new from just before the factories shut down.
Isabelle’s was one of the striped tents, old fashioned and beautiful, with flourishes and gilt, brocades and those mighty feline tassels; the inside was adorned with Grandmas lace and Tia Rosa’s gypsy beads, lending a bit of mystery when viewed from without, which was the desired effect. It took longer to put up and take down than most of the others when it came time to change encampments, and she regretted this when she was heaving and sweating and standing her tent and tassels up in the air; and also when she moved soaking wet through pouring rain packing up and moving every sodden thing into her silver trailer, trying not to be the last in line when they moved the caravan on down the road.
This band of Travelers was different than the others. They traded, to be sure, but not the everyday necessities of most of the groups. No, Isabelle’s contingent carried luxuries and fluff, less of the stuff that made life possible, but, perhaps, more of the stuff that made life worth living: music, entertainment, liquor and food (from carnival fare to gourmet delights), and beautiful bits of decoration for oneself or one’s abode. Isabelle herself made and sold gorgeous and grand hats, absolutely unnecessary, but so beautiful that customers fought over them. She also gave psychic readings, telling people what they wanted, or needed, to hear.
As Isabelle scanned the scene in the meadow that day, she realized that she was floundering, all her creativity having dried up, like water in a drought. She had been happy for so long, despite everything, but she certainly didn’t feel that way now. She felt tired, used up, like it had all just caught up with her; all the loss; all the death; all the austerity; all the change;
Even the change of scenery.
It had gotten to the point where she’d let Ralph drive the last several times the troupe had moved, so that she could gaze out the window, losing herself in the imaginings of what life would be like in some of the beautiful little houses they passed along the road.
“God I want a garden” she’d muttered, unaware she had spoken her words aloud.
“What?” asked Ralph, waking her from her reverie.
“Mmm, nothing.” She’d answered back.
Isabelle had looked at his profile as he concentrated on the road, his strong, straight nose, his lovely lips.
It occurred to her then that she had always felt just a little bit foolish for being with one so young. He was gorgeous though, and he LOVED her, that was true. She loved him too, just not in the same way. She had begun to feel decidedly maternal about him, which was not the way she wanted to feel about someone she was sleeping with.
What she really wanted was to be alone.
She wanted to be away from everyone, away from lovers, away from friends, away from all the people clamoring at her for her support, or her attention, or her advice. She wanted to take care of herself and herself alone. She wanted to grieve; she wanted to mourn all that had gone out of her life.
Her losses had started long before the deaths. She had lost everything; she’d barely survived, emotionally, anyway. She’d joked that her life had turned into a bad country song: her dog died, her business dried up and she lost her house. “The only reason I got to keep my truck” she would continue “was because I was so good at hiding it when I thought the Repo man was on his way.” She’d gotten to the point where she was so depressed that she knew that if she let life keep going this way, she wouldn’t make it. So she taught herself Stoicism from the internet, lifted her chin and crawled from the ashes of her life…
And into the fire.
By the time the deaths started she had grown so comfortable in her mix of modern Stoicism and paganism that she became an angel of mercy, helping everyone else through the conflagration of loss. People depended on her. She was always ready with wisdom as she saw through the surface of everyone’s pain and into the heart of it.
Through it all she was strong. She cried with everyone, she wasn’t immune to the pain, nor did she try to pretend she didn’t feel it. But she didn’t let it drive her to despair again. She mourned, she smiled, she cried, she laughed, never allowing herself to get stuck in the muck of her emotions, but letting those emotions flow through her and on. Making room for what was next.
Now it was time for the next-next.
She was struck with the same certainty she’d had all those years before, that if she didn’t make a change it would be the end of her. This was a hard life. All the travel, all the late nights; the pure physicality of it was rough on a woman in her sixties, and she didn’t recover the way she used to, with a day or two off; now she felt exhausted all the time and she hurt, aches in her shoulders and her back from putting up the tent, hitching up the trailer, moving and rearranging boxes and cartons and goods, not to mention too many hours of sitting and driving. Her hands and fingers hurt, arthritic after decades of sewing and beading and embroidering. She drank too much trying to still the pain, trying to make herself forget her dissatisfaction…and because it was expected that she would stay up late and laugh with those in her troupe, listening to music, telling jokes, all the private, boisterous conversations that went on after the regular folk left for their homes.
This was the life of the traveling circus, the music festival, the renaissance faire, all rolled into one and three times as tiring (though thrice as exciting) as any one of those events alone. Some nights the music played till one or two in the morning before the regulars went home, and then it was expected that those that belonged would drink and drug and carouse until the sun came up.
Isabelle just wanted an evening at home (any home, as long as it was hers and didn’t have wheels) in front of a fireplace, cat on her lap, dog by her side, quiet conversation, or complete solitude. She wanted to stop pretending to be younger than her years, she wanted to be old, and sedate, and well rested. She wanted to have a place with and among people her age, with gray hair and stories from the past and gentle souls that didn’t mind quiet or a day spent in.
She didn’t know how she was going to break it to Ralph. He would want to go with her of course, to her new place of solitude, but she wouldn’t let him. Not only because it wouldn’t be good for him, or because he would eventually resent her for it, but, really, because she didn’t want him to come. She wanted an end to their too long affair, she wanted to make her own decisions and live how she wanted, do what she wanted, sleep when she wanted, wake when she wanted. She wanted out of compromises and negotiation. She wanted to be by herself, alone. If she took a lover again, it was going to be a man her own age, with the largest portion of his life behind him, someone settled. Ralph, in his early forties, a musician (god, she had ALWAYS loved musicians!) was still exuberant, and energetic, and chaotic, about as far from settled as you could get. Ralph deserved a young wife, and babies, not someone old enough to be his mother who was also so very, very tired.
And Isabelle deserved peace. The last night in the meadow was her breaking point. There were new members of the tribe now, young ones picked up on the road or from the towns and villages surrounding the encampment. They were kids in their twenties, but to Isabelle they might as well have been in grade school; they were loud and energetic and they exhausted her just to look at them. She tried to go to bed several times, but she was begged to stay, so she did with a deep sigh; each time she sat again, the sigh got deeper, louder, more prolonged.
She watched as the new, uninformed girls flirted with handsome Ralph, unaware that he was “taken”, trying hard to get his attention, wishing to be the subject of a new song he might write, wanting to share his bed and wake up the next morning to his vibrant smile and clear blue eyes. It surprised Isabelle that she didn’t feel the slightest twinge of jealousy, and this told her that she really was ready to leave. She even made a game out of guessing which girl he might end up with when she was gone: That one? No, too thin, Ralph liked meat on his women, though she was pretty; the red haired girl? Too animated, and more than a little silly, she would annoy him deeply within an hour. That brunette though…a little bit serious, but still maintaining an easy laugh and a good sense of humor, intelligent, shapely, and quite pretty. She was the one Isabelle would vote for, the one she thought would be good for him. Isabelle hoped Ralph would be happy when she was no longer at his side. He deserved to be…
The next morning one of the new girls was at Isabelle’s tent. She wasn’t one of the ones who’d been clamoring for Ralph’s attention. She had sat off from the others, staring into the fire, distant, in her own world. Now, she was here and wanted a reading, tears streaming down her beautiful face.
“I don’t know what to do.” she whispered, “I just don’t know what to do.
Isabelle got out her cards with a sigh. She’d wanted to pack up early and manage some time alone before they pulled out.
“The Lovers” she declared, “a decision must be made, to go with what the heart aches for, recognizes and needs, the mirror self, soul-mate, love; or, to continue traveling upon the previously chosen path.” There would be repercussions to whichever decision this girl made, but Isabelle knew which path she might regret more.
“Second card crosses The Lovers…The Empress, reversed.” What the hell, Isabelle thought, wanton destruction, unseating The Empress, destroying her World. Was this child The Empress, or was she the one doing the unseating?
Recent past, The Hermit, traveling, searching, yet always alone, and wishing to stay that way, separate, with his lantern on his staff, ready to illuminate the dark hidden places. By now Isabelle was reading the cards silently, trying to ascertain their meanings before she spoke.
Distant past? Death. Yeah, well, that was no surprise, she’d done barely a reading in the past decade without Death showing itself somewhere in the layout.
Fifth card, thought Isabelle, what does this small, beautiful, mournful girl in front of her desire? Ah, there is was, the Cup cards had begun to make their appearance. She’d known that the young woman’s agony must have something to do with love. The Ace of Cups, followed by the two, the three, the six followed by the nine and ten. Yep, love, and it looked like this child was entering the greatest relationship of her life, leading to children, family and a true sense of belonging. Why was she so distraught?
“So, what I see here,” said Isabelle, “is the beginning of a very important and fulfilling relationship, perhaps the most important relationship of your life, but you have to choose whether you want it or whether you want to stay on another path.”
“Oh, I want it” said the girl, almost angrily “but I…I’m in love with a man who’s got a part time but long term thing with…” she cringed visibly “one of The Traveler elders.”
“Ohhh” murmured Isabelle. This could get complicated.
“But she’s never there for him” the girl continued in a rush “and he’s lonely and he wants someone to be there for him; and he loves me, he told me so, but he doesn’t want to hurt her…”
Isabelle understood that, to be sure…she also knew now whose world was going to be destroyed, and it sure wasn’t going to be this little darling’s.
“So you know there’s going to be repercussions…”
“Oh I know. She’ll hate me…and she’s powerful, she could make life miserable for me…but I don’t care,” This haughty thing paused for a moment while she straightened her shoulders and raised her head high, “I love him, and I want him and I need him. And,” she said with a sob “I don’t care if it hurts her…”
Oh dear, thought Isabelle, what do I have sitting in front of me?
“Look,” she said as she gathered up the cards, shuffling again.” I want you to draw three more cards”
“Okay, first card, situation, the two of cups. That’s love, my dear, partnership, commitment. Second card, him, The Lovers, there you go again. Third card, you, The Empress…” intuition hit Isabelle with a flash “Could you be pregnant?”
And with that, the girls’ trickle of tears became a flood.
Isabelle was pensive several hours later when they finally pulled out of the meadow. She was so far past her breaking point, and she knew she had to tell Ralph, but she didn’t know how. She’d been grumpy and bitchy all week, and that wasn’t fair to him, she knew. When he’d asked her what was wrong, she simply told him she wasn’t yet ready to talk about it, and went back to silence and contemplation. Ralph was patient, he always was, she had to give him that, he was a good man, and kind, and he’d been so wonderful to her for these past four years, she would miss him…
Three days into the journey they passed through a small riverside town that Isabelle had always thought was charming. She eyed every house they passed and then she saw it, a small white Victorian that was perfect, with a wraparound porch covered with climbing roses, shade and sun.
“Stop the truck.” She ordered.
“What?” questioned Ralph.
“Stop the truck. Now.”
Ralph did as he was told, all the while complaining that they would lose the troupe, that it was getting late and that driving alone at night was dangerous.
Isabelle ignored him and jumped out, energy infecting her tired bones.
The garden was gorgeous, overgrown, in need of care, but stunning; wisteria and morning glories joined the roses in the sun while hydrangeas bloomed in the shade of the sycamore tree. She bounded up the porch steps and pushed open the front door. The late afternoon sun poured through windows on all sides of the house, the leaded sidelights at the front door casting rainbows on the wood floor in front of the mantle. She could see herself curled up in an easy chair in front of a flickering fire, reading a book, dog and cat with her. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized that she had found her home.
Ralph came in behind her with a quizzical look on his face and she turned to him, feeling radiant yet bittersweet and said:
“Ralph, there’s something I have to tell you.”