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Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Spirits Are With Us

Yes, it's Sample Sunday!  This is my one of my friend's favorite scenes from Jaguar Sees:  The Lacquer Box.  In it, spirit animals become corporeal for the very first time.

Claire gave a jaunty wave to two women she knew from knitting, and joined them at a dark red Mercedes. Many of the AWO women had cars and drivers supplied by their husbands’ companies. Those without, like Claire, rode with the others. The driver put her detergent in the trunk where it joined other boxes and a bag of books. He opened the doors for the three women, made sure everyone was buckled in, and pulled out, the middle car in a three car caravan.
After an hour’s drive south, talking all the way, they pulled up to the hospital’s gatehouse, where a guard checked them through. They drove to the pediatric oncology building, and chaos followed as the women and drivers unloaded boxes of detergent on one waiting gurney and books on another. The hospital staff wheeled the first toward the first floor laundry room and the second into a freight elevator.

The women walked up three flights of stairs to a large, empty room where both the books and the bilingual hospital liaison, Irena, awaited them, looking crisp in a white blouse, navy blue suit and matching heels, hair tucked back in a neat twist. She took the women to her office off the staff’s break room where they locked up their coats, hats and purses.

The break room was sparse, furnished with only a refrigerator and a large, gouged table with mismatched wooden chairs, such vivid contrast to the gold jewelry and cashmere sweater sets worn by many of the visitors. They listened as Irena described the ward lay-out to new volunteers and expressed her appreciation as only a woman could whose child had been successfully treated at the facility. She rose, and the group followed, two women pushing the laden gurney down the hall and around the corner onto the ward.

They stopped in front of a large observation window and peered into the first patient’s room. Claire looked in, gasped and leaned against the wall.

“Hiccups?” one of her friends asked, patting her on the back.

“Yes.” But it wasn’t hiccups at all. It was what she saw through the glass. The spirit animal wasn’t indistinct this time; it had the faded but clearly defined realism of a sepia-toned photograph but was rounded out in the bulk of three dimensions. It was impossible to dismiss it as a byproduct of stress; she wasn’t stressed. There was no deluding herself that she was imagining it. A little girl, five or six years old, was rocking on her bed in the arms of a large, spirit bear.

The room was a single because the child was too ill to risk exposure to the germs or disturbances that existed in a wardroom with other children. The child’s mother, unaware of the wild animal in close proximity to her precious little girl, beamed at the visitors from a sink in the corner where she washed out some small items. The little girl lay quietly on her bed, cuddled against the bear. Irena, translating her conversation with the mother, explained that the child was in the middle of a long course of radiation treatment, her small body weakened by it. The girl gave the women a fragile, cherubic smile, a small, fatigued wave.

The other women saw a child rocking herself on the white sheets of her cot. They whispered how good she was, how sweet despite her pain, isolation and fear.

Claire caught herself trying to rationalize what she saw. Then she let go and allowed herself to accept it. She breathed slowly, appreciating the wonder of the scene before her.

She rubbed the fingers of her left hand which had fallen asleep; it felt like little shocks ran up her fingers and the warmth of an electric light radiated under her palm. Then her wrist tilted as if of its own accord. She looked down.

Shining golden eyes looked up. Her breath stalled in her lungs. Jaguar’s broad nose pushed warm against her hand, and, although she didn’t feel the shove, again her hand lifted. She tried to scratch between the perked ears, but it was like trying to scratch cotton candy. Jaguar felt was real but not solid. She wondered if anyone noticed her fingers move against what they would perceive to be empty air, but no one said anything.

“Which book should we give this little angel?” Irena asked.

Claire smiled, knowing exactly the right answer. “Masha and the Bear.” She lifted the Russian fairy tale from the gurney and passed it to another volunteer. The mother took the book from the woman’s outstretched hand and sat down next to the bear to read to her smiling daughter.

The next room was a ward with four beds. Claire suggested a Russian translation of The Jungle Book for a ten-year-old who had a monkey clinging to his shoulder. Harry Potter (by some unknown fluke of translation, he became Gary Potter in Russian) was handed to a fourteen-year-old with an owl perched on his iron bedstead. A book cover that reminded Claire of The Call of the Wild was the obvious choice for the thirteen-year-old with a wolf curled at his feet.

She felt incalculable sadness at the sight of an eight-year-old holding a soft, furry rabbit in the crook of his arm. The rabbit’s fur was dull, its ears drooping, its nose still. She knew the boy wasn’t going to live much longer. Claire handed him a book with a sweet picture of seven bunnies on the cover.

“Vee Veedet,” he whispered reaching a limp hand toward Jaguar.

“Da,” she answered softly, “I see, little one.”

The volunteers proceeded from room to room. The others thought she had an uncanny knack for matching book to child and readily accepted her suggestions. Claire knew herself to be the world’s happiest fraud.

The other adults would never dream that the children were being tended and comforted by spirit animals, yet the youngsters took them completely for granted, fondling and playing with their phantom friends. If a child ever mentioned one, a caretaker would certainly chalk it up to imagination or heavy medication. Most of the American volunteers couldn’t understand Russian anyway.

The last room was a double for two ten-year-old girls. One was happily singing a song to a spirit turtle that was crawling among her covers. The other purposefully slid off her bed, a half-grown jaguar thumping down beside her. Claire knelt. Jaguar sat quietly at her side. The younger cat nosed Jaguar with curiosity, and the girl circled her arms about Claire’s neck, hugging her. They smiled at each other, kindred spirits.

Claire suggested the volunteers give this one a large picture book about African animals. As the visitors prepared to go, the girl spoke, and the liaison translated, “When are they coming back?”

The other women laughed at the child’s ingenuousness, so enjoying presents that she wanted to know when more would be forthcoming. Claire knew she wasn’t talking about the book. She stroked the child’s cheek and returned to the hall with the others.

The women joined Irena in the break room for a polite cup of tea while they discussed the hospital’s needs for the coming month. Jaguar sat contentedly, a weightless yet somehow warm lump on Claire’s feet. As they rose and headed toward the stairway, Claire smelled a faint sizzle of ozone and realized Jaguar was gone.

Jaguar Sees: The Lacquer Box by Ann Simon Is a fast-paced thriller with an overlay of the spiritual. Shamanic spirit animals aid the heroine with her deadly challenges. It is available at the Amazon Kindle store for Kindles, i-pads and other i-products, computers, android Windows 7 phones. The Kindle app is currently free. http://amzn.to/hUuFdS

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