CLOUDS OVER PARADISE
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Clouds Over Paradise
Katy was always the leader. From the day we met, it was always Katy who led, and I who followed. It was the natural order of things and I never questioned it. I never wanted to.
"Cecy," she would call, leaning so far over the fence between our houses that I would be half-afraid she would topple head over heels into the rose bushes. "Cecy, we're going down to Paradise! Do you want to come?"
Without a pause for breath or thought, I would snatch up my bonnet and run down the stairs, drawing tsks of disapproval from Mother as I ran out the door. There would surely be trouble later for behaving in such an unladylike manner. But I didn't care. I would have followed Katy anywhere.
Paradise was the glorious, grandiose name we seven gave to our field, a place of treeclimbing and wildflowers, secret trails and feasts in our bower of asparagus boughs. There we spent the long Burnet summers of our childhood, escaping from the heat and the cares of the world in the shady paths and wooded glades of our very own Paradise.
Such memories that I have of those summers. Katy and I and Clover whispering secrets, Dorry and John chasing butterflies. Elsie would weave daisy chains in the tall grass while little Phil played in the mud, gurgling and dribbling with delight. Mid-afternoon banquets of ginger cakes and cold lamb, beef sandwiches and molasses pie. Some days Katy would spin us tales, elaborate confections involving sassafras fairies or the melodramatic adventures of a lost heiress, while we listened with rapt attention to the sound of castles being built out of air.
At sunset we would all go home together, linked arm in arm, tired out but still laughing. The soles of our feet stained with dirt and our heads crowned with flowers. Even the end of the day held its own particular pleasure, for there was always the sweet anticipation of tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...
* * *
The greatest joy of those summers, for me at least, came from the times I spent just with Katy. The two of us alone in the bower, we would sit with our laps full of roses, fresh-plucked from the Rosary and filling our heads with wild scents. Or we would run, hand in hand through the fields, the grass whipping our bare legs and our eyes lifted up to the blue blue sky.
Hours and hours together, just Katy and I. Looking back, I am surprised that we never tired of each other. We never quarrelled like girls usually do, over dolls or dresses or silly things like that. We never really argued, perhaps because I never wanted to - if Katy said it, it must be true.
Even now, the smell of summer and wildflowers brings back the memory of her warm earnest face, framed by its untidy curls. Her strong brown arm around my waist as we lay together in the tall grass, hidden from the sight of all but the songbirds in the trees and the gaze of the Almighty. The heat making us langourous as we spoke in low voices, all our youthful dreams and idealism revealed.
"When I grow up," I said confidentially on one of those fine afternoons, "I mean to devote myself to good deeds. Like... teaching Sunday school, and nursing the sick, and, and being kind to children..." Katy nodded as I continued, her confidence in me utter and complete. "I shan't want worldly things, I'm sure, for I will live in a dear little cottage all by myself and be as comfortable as can be. I'll be so good that I'll not even go riding with young men, no matter how much they shall ask me." And you'll be there, I whispered to myself, my best friend, always and forever.
"It sounds wonderful, Cecy," Katy said, hugging me in delight.
I was pleased beyond words at her approval. "But what about you, Katy?" I asked presently. "What will you do?"
"Well, when I grow up," Katy replied thoughtfully, "I shall be good too, though not as good as you, of course." She laughed suddenly here, and I confess I giggled too, for Katy was famous for getting into scrapes and mischief.
But then she was serious again, her eyes intent. "What I really want is to do grand things... I'm not sure what I will do just yet, but I am sure it will be something wonderful. Perhaps I will get shipwrecked and discover a lost continent, and the natives will make me their queen... I'll become a nurse in wartime, perhaps, or an artist... Maybe I'll sing!"
I clapped my hands in delight. "Oh, you'd be a wonderful singer, Katy."
Such adoration. But justified adoration - for Katy could have succeeded at anything she turned her hand to. I knew it then, and I know it now.
Suddenly Katy cried out eagerly and clutched my arm, her other hand pointing to the sky. "Oh, Cecy! Do you see that shape in the clouds just there? It's a unicorn, can you see it?"
"Yes, I see it!" But only just. I was straining to see it, and only Katy's outstretched hand, the strong tanned hand that I loved to hold in my own, pointed me in the right direction. Truthfully, the cloud she was indicating seemed to bear more similarity to the cattle that grazed in the field than the unicorns I had seen in picturebooks. But I echoed Katy loyally. "A unicorn, fancy that!"
Katy drew in a deep awed breath, her face aglow with excitement and her eyes wide with wonder. "Oh my... Isn't that just the most beautiful thing you ever saw?"
I can't remember if I was looking at the sky.
* * *
I believed in Katy. With all my heart, I believed that she would go on to do grand and noble things. And in those days, before the accident, it was hard for any of us not to - for in all my life, I have never met anyone who has seemed quite so alive as Katy, who seized life with such vigour, and whose heart was so open and welcoming to all the new things that the world might possibly offer.
But after the accident happened...
I do not know how to express it. It is wrong and wicked of me, I know, but I cannot speak of it except in terms of a death or a lifelong farewell. As though the Katy I knew had set sail in search of her grand deeds, and simply never returned.
The accident left Katy deprived of more than her health - it drained away her spirit. The four years she spent bedridden sapped her of passion more surely than a damp blanket smothers a fire.
This new Katy still regarded me as her great and intimate friend, so it pained me that I could not return her affection whole-heartedly. But how could I possibly love this pale, quiet creature who sewed her stitches so neatly, when I remembered so clearly the wild girl who held my hand as we ran into the summers of yesteryear?
Perhaps if I had never known Katy Before, I would have been well satisfied with Katy After. But I had, and so I was not.
For years afterwards, I refused to give up hope. I was sure that some spark remained hidden deep within her, some ember waiting to be stirred into life. But Katy's serene smile never faltered. Her steady step never broke into a run. When she laughed, it was in the polite tones of a gentlewoman, rather than the heartfelt peals of her girlhood.
As we walked together in the gardens one dusty summer afternoon, I surprised her by raising my hand to the sky. Look, I said to her. Can you see it, there in the clouds? A unicorn. Like the one you showed me, when we were children. Katy, don't you remember?
Katy saw nothing. I cannot say that I was surprised.
* * *
Eventually it was I who let the friendship slip, rather than she. We have never been less than good friends, but I allowed boarding school and family obligations to come between us when an effort on my part would have ensured they had not.
To my sorrow, Katy has not gone on to grand things. Katy did not become an explorer, or a war hero, or a famous singer. Katy did as I did - she went to school, she became a lady, and eventually she married.
Why should I be disappointed in Katy, when my own life differs from hers only in the slightest of details? What right have I to compare the deeds of her adulthood to the long-ago flights of her childish imagination?
I should not be disappointed. I have no right to judge her. Katy did as Katy did, and all the did-nots are of no consequence. It's like the old saying: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
* * *
My tale is nearly done now. Only one thing remains to be said, and it concerns my daughter. For yes, I have a daughter now, and she is dearer to me than anyone else in the whole world.
Her name is Katherine Clover Slack, and she turns three years old this coming June. My own Little Katy, as we all call her. She is a wonderful, adorable creature, and since the day she was born I have promised myself that I would take her down to Paradise as soon as she was old enough. And now, the time has come.
This summer, I will make her a bower of asparagus boughs under the poplars. This summer, I will walk with her to the Rosary, up the Hill of Difficulty and down the Path of Peace. This summer, I will tell her about the sassafras fairy and weave her a crown of daisies.
And maybe, just maybe - she will show me a unicorn.