Lauren B. Flax and Vita Sims

Vita Sims
Yellow Room at Balla Cragga

Inspiration Piece

By Lauren B. Flax

Response Piece

The cool slats of wood under my feet as I rose from bed anchored me to the old house. I was in and out of the room often during the years when I burned. Beth rented it to me at a discount because of the two twin beds. The room was set for children, but families with children rarely stayed there, as there was little to do except walk the mountain trails and be quiet, and so the old inn mostly attracted people needing a retreat.

At night, I burned until I fell asleep. In the morning, I awoke and burned until my feet touched the cool floor. My whole life was on fire then, with everything I lost, every trip I never took, every man I never bedded, the children I never had, and every yes and every no that came from my lips when I really meant the other.

Beth was the third generation of her family to own the house and the second to run it as an inn, which I learned from the framed clippings in the lobby over the fireplace. She never married. Her whole life had been in the house. She was as much as part of its presence as it was a part of her; her face had aged pleats like the stiff but faded curtains over the window seat, and her chestnut hair was shot through with the same gray marks that streaked the old sideboard she used as a desk. I wondered what she would have been without the inn, probably something soft, earthy, and quiet, a florist, maybe.

Every few weeks I arrived at the inn with my backpack and a camera, no jewelry except for silver post earrings and the necklace I’d had since I was a teenager: a tiger’s eye pendant on a silver chain that hung just to the right of my heart. After the first visit, when the children’s room was the only room available, Beth rented me the room at a discount, and never asked questions. She nodded, and smiled closed-mouthed, lips turning slightly upward like handles of a basket. When I came through the door on Friday afternoons, that basket-handle smile was the extent of our communication, except for the items she began leaving in the room for me. Often, I left the old house on a Sunday afternoon having not spoken for two days.

Countless times my husband asked if I was having an affair, and I think he may have believed me, eventually, when I said no. I did not return from my weekends flushed and girlish. I returned quiet and, as Vin put it, “spooky,” with the smell of the mountain on my skin. An affair was the last thing I would do there. The time alone burned brighter than any new love. It was its own kind of passion, a passion for myself, for quiet.

After my feet touched the cold slats in the morning, I put on my one change of clothes from the drawer –the rattling old top drawer of a small bureau that smelled of newspaper and fresh tobacco- and smoothed the blankets back into place. It took just three swift motions refresh the bed: bring the corner of the sheet and blankets, all still aligned, back to the top corner of the narrow bed, smooth it over with my hand, and center the pillow. It was so much easier than making the bed at home, where after a night of shifting and burning and yanking the covers back from Vin dozens of times, the sheets all needed to be tucked back in, the comforter rearranged, and the pillows fluffed. At home, I washed the sheets every three days. My sweat and Vin’s sleepy breath made them stale.

When I was dressed and the bed was made, I went downstairs to the lobby, took a cup of peppermint tea with one sugar cube back to the room, and drank it sitting on the edge of the bed in front of the window. Then I went for my walk.

Every morning at the old house I went for walks on the wooded paths around the old house, up to where the paths joined hikers’ trails on the side of the mountain. In spring, the damp smell of defrosted earth giving rise to life; in the summer the thick odor of the moldering floor of greens, wood, and fungus, in autumn the dry perfume of dying leaves, and in winter the simple smell of cold. I always walked with my camera. Sometimes I took pictures.

I returned from my walks in the early afternoon, nodded to Beth at the desk, and took another cup of tea up to my room. I passed the afternoons looking out the window at the old trees; sunlight rendering the leaves translucent, mist giving them a softness, and in winter the branches’ skeletal nakedness. Sometimes in front of that window I replayed my life over and over, picking through the bones of my history, but mostly I just sat and watched the trees. The branches bent in the breeze and the roots sank twice as deep into the base of the mountain as the trees were tall. Every hour or so, I took another cup of tea, and in the evening, I took a pistachio muffin from the basket.

After my third visit, there was a folding tray in my room when I arrived. On it was a hotpot, a teacup and saucer, a basket of peppermint teabags, and a bowl of sugar cubes. On later visits, I found the tea setup, along with half a dozen pistachio muffins wrapped tightly in plastic, and a six-pack of bottled water. After a few months, Beth left me the tea, muffins, and a bowl of fruit on the bureau, too – bananas, grapes, and occasionally plums when they were in season. She understood what I was doing there, that I was too young to be burning like this, and I needed to be fed alone.

Because of her kindness I saw her even less, only when I arrived at the old house, and going to and from my walks. Always we greeted each other with the same nod and closed-mouthed smile. I was more at home there than I was in my own house and my own life.

In the autumn of my second year visiting the old house, I laid in bed one night, burning, unable to sleep. Although I burned at night and burned in the morning in the old house, I burned far less than I did at home, and the weekends in the old house were the only nights I slept well in those years. By the light of a bedside lamp, I put on jeans, a heavy sweater, and thick socks, pocketed the key to the room, and padded downstairs to the lobby.

The fire in the fireplace was burning bright and Beth was sitting on the sofa, a cross-stitch next to her on the cushion. She stared straight ahead at a window that was black in the night except for her reflection and the flicker of the fireplace behind her. I sat down in a wing chair, the fire to my side. “Don’t you sleep?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “My house is always full of strangers.“

I sat for another few moments, until the heat against my legs was so deep that I had to fold them under me on the chair. Beth resumed her cross-stitch.

When my feet touched the cool slats of the wood floor the next morning, I knew that it was my last morning in the old house. I dressed, reset the blankets, and centered the pillow at the top of the bed. It was as if I had never been there. After settling my bill, I nodded to Beth, and walked out to my car. “Good morning,” I said, although there was no one but the trees around to hear. me “Let’s go,” I said as I got into my car. Once I started talking again, I felt like I might never stop.

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