Felicity Chen walked out of the quiet Oregon forest straight into the noisy chaos of her family’s autumn retreat week, and the serenity that she’d achieved over the meditative days of her walkabout evaporated like mist.
I can’t do this. That was her first visceral reaction. A deep cleansing breath reduced panic to a lump of nervousness she could choke down. Nowhere was it written that she had to stay until the retreat was over. She would answer the summons that brought her out of the woods, and then she would leave.
She could face her relatives. She’d survived worse.
Clumps of tents had sprouted in the empty pastures during her month-long absence. Tables and tarps framed outdoor kitchens and sheltered communal dining areas, and the stages were set up with log seats in rows and canopies stretching overhead to ward off the November rains. Split wood was piled high near the raw scar of this year’s fire circle, waiting to be built into the bonfire for Last Night.
Everywhere Felicity looked she saw uncles, aunts, cousins, spouses and spawn going about the day’s activities. The front door to the big log lodge was open, and the broad porch was full of sleepy old men and women in chairs. Flocks of children yelled and laughed and darted around the orchard, throwing as many windfall apples as they collected for cider. Dogs ran yapping alongside them like the watchful shepherds some of them were trained to be.
Six oaks that had been old when the farm was first cleared were dropping their russet leaves on the fading pasture grasses. Bare white aspens ranked along the creek, and the last bright foliage of currant and elderberry bushes hid the goat paddocks from view. Shimmers of heat rippled the air over outdoor ovens.
There was a drum circle down near the front gate of course. The drumming started as soon as the first guests arrived on Sunday and wouldn’t end until the final departures a week later. The plink and strum of instruments and scraps of sung lyrics drifted up the hill along with the percussion. All the sounds rose on a cold breeze carrying the scent of spices, wet wool and grilled foods.
It smelled like a million childhood memories, and a familiar ache set up housekeeping under Felicity’s ribs. Always-home. Never-home-again. She could remember the first time she’d felt that swell of melancholy as if it were yesterday.
Twenty years now.
She’d spent most of her first revel as a legal adult hiding in a back corner of the lodge with her knitting. Maybe she should’ve waited to share the news that she’d accepted an apprenticeship two hundred miles away, but she’d been so proud that she’d found a way to earn a proper living and still develop her art.
Stop pretending you have a talent, Flee.
Grow up and get a real job.
Retail management? Are you crazy?
Twenty years on, she could also remember the snubs and sneers verbatim. The derision had stunned her the way only a seventeen-year-old could be shocked. By Last Night she’d resolved to never ever ever come home again.
She might’ve gone through with the vow, if her uncle Dan hadn’t come after her with a guitar and a dose of advice. He was actually a cousin of some degree through marriage, but a ten-year age gap gave him the courtesy title, and his friendship with her oldest brother gave him the authority to offer guidance.
Felicity had unloaded her unhappiness into his sympathetic ear, and he’d tweaked her nose when she finished. “There’s proof of your artist’s soul right there, if ever you need it. Eyes full of fire, voice drenched in tears. Now, before I deliver my sage advice, let me prove that you’re not the first or last feel so. Listen.”
Then he’d played a song that explained exactly how Felicity felt better than her own words ever would. The tune and the words had moved her to tears all over again.
“Most of us feel the call to perform,” Dan had said. “Your heart is in your hands. Don’t listen to fools who can’t see the spirit in your craft. Come and dance with the rest of us, tonight and as often as you can stand it. The sour will ripen to sweet with time, I promise.”
He’d wheedled a promise out of her to visit at least one revel a year, and so she had, every Restoration week in August for twenty years. Poignant nostalgia blossomed into determination with the memory, and Felicity let it wash away the heavy dread. This year, when disaster had destroyed everything she’d built for herself, she’d not lacked for shelter or support, however grudging. After three months mourning her lost future, it was time to hit life head-on again, with energy and purpose.
Where better to practice being tough than here among kin? Felicity settled her backpack and made her way downhill.
Her niece Joy saw her first from the vantage of a fence rail serving as an improvised balance beam. Her happy shrieks of “Auntie Flee! Auntie Flee!” attracted the apple collectors, and soon Felicity was surrounded by bouncing children and barking dogs. She stayed on course for the lodge. The sea of button noses and beady eyes moved right along with her.
Indoctrinating the spawn against the perils of disobedience didn’t always work. Felicity’s estrangement from her family was an object lesson to many of her peers and elders, but to their children she was the mysterious rebel who lived in far-off San Francisco and only came home for one of the clan’s four seasonal revels. Their happiness at unexpectedly seeing her again so soon was humbling, and their chatter was as entertaining as always.
“Uncle Will says you lost the shirt on your back. Whose did you borrow?”
“Did you see bears on your vision quest? We saw a black bear yesterday.”
“Will you come on tour now like Auntie Patience and Auntie Charity?”
“I have a new song for my drum! Do you want to hear?”
“Will you help me count the apples I found with only a few bugs?”
The procession broke up between orchard and pasture. Spawn clambered over and under fence rails and carried their excitement past a small cluster of adults approaching from the tent village. Joy worked her way to Felicity against the child-tide and offered a hug. It was like embracing a long bundle of sticks. At the rate the girl was growing she would beat out Felicity for the title of tallest woman in the tall Chen camp, but she was never going to have the heavy bones and broad hips that Felicity had developed along with the height.
Lucky girl. Aloud Felicity said, “You’ve let your hair grow out since the summer revel.”
“Yes, but yours is still longer,” Joy said. “It’s so straight. I got the frizzy curls. I want to dye it too, but Mom still won’t let me even use henna. It isn’t fair. Ben came home on leave from Gov Service all blue.”
“He’s seventeen. You’re twelve. He’s also a washed-out Reed. Blue wouldn’t suit your complexion.” Felicity tousled the girl’s hair. All the Chen women had black hair and brown-sugar skin. All of them were notoriously bull-headed too, which made adolescence interesting. “I could talk to Hope for you.”
“And make it worse? No, thank you. Hey, Val.” Joy scooped up her four-year old brother as he tottered up to them. “Show Auntie Flee your new whistle.”
He put the wrong end of it in his mouth and sucked it contemplatively. Then he announced, “Mommy says you go away with murder. Where are you taking it?”
Felicity smiled over him at Hope and the others, who had stopped a few meters away. “I’ll take it far, far away from here, Valiant, just as soon as I can.”
His face scrunched up. “Far away?”
Oops. Felicity gave Joy a worried look. She was useless with crying children. The girl swung her brother onto a hip with practiced ease. “No worries, Val. She’ll always visit. Family matters. Right, Auntie Flee?”
“Yes, it does.” Felicity looked past her, across the fence to the rest of her closest family.
Mother had a new dark pretty boy. So did Hope, Joy’s mother. Will’s big blonde and Victor’s slinky redhead looked familiar, which meant the women might’ve signed contracts. Felicity tried not to pity them. Only her oldest brother Clement was absent. He always stayed with his husband in the Geary camp. Arlo didn’t like Mother much more than Felicity did.
Attack is the best defense. “Hello, Ma. Do not embarrass yourself by offering a space on the Chen site. Everyone knows about the birth-a-baby-or-begone ultimatum, and I will never forgive you even if you did repeal it. Hello, siblings. You’ve done your duty and offered an olive branch. Now go away.”
Hope, ever the peacemaker, stayed behind after the others retreated. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“Papa Joe rented me a room in the lodge.”
“Good. I’m glad. What are you going to do now, Flee? Do you have any plans?”
Felicity’s scalp itched, and her feet ached in her dirty socks. Her clothes stank from weeks of unwashed wearing. She met Hope’s curiosity with exasperation. “You mean after a shower and laundry?”
“I mean next, Flee. Papa Joe says you’ve spent half the time since August hiding in the woods. Why come back while the Thanksgiving revel’s still going? You hate these things. Are you looking for money? You ran up a huge comms bill after the news broke.”
The debts. That explains all the concern. “Relax, Hope. I don’t need handouts. I came out of hiding because I got word that my case review is finally complete.”
Felicity’s life had literally gone up in smoke, but so had thousands of other lives. All the claims from the terrorist Restoration Plot in San Francisco had overwhelmed insurance and government aid agencies. She’d exhausted herself getting all the necessary filing done before the review deadlines, and the hiking expeditions kept her from fretting to death waiting for results.
She said, “I’ll pay Papa Joe and be on my way as soon as I sign for the settlement funds. I’ll bring no shame to the Chen name, I promise.”
That did it. Tears rose in Hope’s eyes, and she wrapped her arms around herself rather than reach out to Felicity. “I’m not worried about reputation, Flee. I’m worried about you. Will you have enough to live on? There are off-stage jobs open, and there’s the Chen farm. You like animals.”
Do not laugh in her face. Don’t. She means well. “Hope, the one thing I can guarantee is that I will never work for Oregon Arts and Diversions while Mother is in charge.”
She’d turned her back on the family business because she couldn’t bear being a second-class citizen. She was too big and ungainly to be a dancer or a tumbler, and she didn’t have an actor’s memory or a musician’s ear.
Production work and public relations provided employment but could never scrub away the stigma of failure. The family farm option was no better. It was a haven for children busy studying and elders too frail to travel, but it was a trap for any adult who didn’t want to spend her life serving their needs.
She took Hope’s hands and softened bitterness with a smile. “I’ll let you know for certain once I visit the gatehouse and see how much is in the settlement. Papa Joe might let me get away with murder, but nobody breaks the no-phones rule.”
Retreats were a time to focus on the heart and spirit, a communal getaway from the everyday world. Other than emergency beacons, no electronics were allowed past the official property entrance on the state highway.
Hope blushed. “I wish Val hadn’t heard me say that.”
But you aren’t sorry you said it.Felicity gave Hope a hug because she appreciated that honesty, and because family did matter.
As she clumped across the porch in her muddy boots Papa Joe winked at her. Two of the grannies sniffed, but others smiled. Ownership of this original clan property always passed to the next eldest patriarch or matriarch, and it served as a refuge for other elders who had no close kin left to care for them. Scandals and melodrama were their favorite forms of entertainment. Chens provided them with a lot of gossip material.
The centerpiece of the lodge was a lofted room with an exposed-beam ceiling and walls painted in peaceful earth tones. Upholstered seating groups broke up the expanse of wood floor. Felicity spotted one of her first knitted throws adorning a chair and felt a spike of pure pride.
The furniture in the great room had been pushed into the corners to make room for a dance practice by the time she finished cleaning up. She took the gatehouse trail downhill through the lower pastures and hedges in the damp afternoon dusk. A pair of the dogs from the camps tagged along with her, darting in and out of the brush with waving tails and lolling tongues.
The drummers outside the tin-roofed log gatehouse had a small fire going in the center of their circle, and the dancers were demonstrating the sensual enthusiasm that explained their isolation from the main camp. The dogs peeled off to investigate the possibilities of petting and treats.
Indoors the twins were working behind the counter in the security office. Dee Geary kept an eye on the flocks and the guests by remote camera while Cee sorted through package deliveries. Both men had coal-black skin, broad cheekbones and hooked noses, and today they were wearing white poufy shirts under long brocaded jackets. Head scarves topped off the costumes, but the modern work boots and wrist comms were distinctly anachronistic touches.
“Doing Peter Pan for the spawn’s play this year?” Felicity asked.
“Narrr, don’cha know yer classics?” Cee’s grin showed off a gold tooth cover. “Treasure Island. Rehearsal after work.”
Dee waved. “Hi, Flee. You were on Bald Ridge when I pinged your beacon this morning. Did you sprint the whole way back?”
“I might’ve rushed a little.” Apprehension went sizzling through her. “You’re sure it’s the case review? Silly question. Of course you’re sure. You pinged me.” She’d set all her communications to copy forward to the office.
“We’re sure.” Cee cleared space beside his workstation. “Here, sit down.”
“Can’t. Too nervous. Did you peek? No, no, don’t tell me.” Felicity’s hands shook so badly that she had to stop and practice deep breathing again before she could call up her message queue. Be calm. You can face this.