– Nonfiction by Robin Michel –
The gully behind my aunt and uncle’s new house intrigued me. It was deep and wild, and resembled a small canyon, with lots of wooded areas for city children to explore. I thought it my great good fortune to have cousins with such a playground. Filled with mystery and danger, it was a giant cavity that could eat a child or two for breakfast—or swallow up an entire planet—and we were unafraid.
Aunt Becky*, Uncle Paul, and my cousins had just moved to this new subdivision built in Sandy, Utah. The paint was scarcely dry on the modest tract homes before the multitudes of growing families who could not afford a home in the city moved in with cardboard boxes filled with dreams. Life in the suburbs of Salt Lake City was good, and parents were proud to provide their children safety and freedom. My cousins could walk beyond the unfenced boundaries of their flat, treeless backyard and scramble down the steep sides of the gully, finding themselves brave, intrepid explorers of a strange and dangerous old world, where trees twisted into ominous shapes, caves riddled the canyon like pock marks on a giant’s face, and the ground was hard and sharp with stones beneath unsure feet.
While my mother helped my aunt and uncle unpack, and during subsequent visits, my cousins and I played “Flash Gordon” in the gully. My cousin Ian was Flash Gordon because he was a boy and the oldest of us and therefore commander of all our games. By order of birth, the coveted role of Dale Arden, Flash Gordon’s girlfriend, should have gone to Ian’s younger sister, my cousin Clara. A year older than I, Clara had pale blonde hair and big saucer blue eyes—like a little Swiss porcelain doll, my mother said. Clara had the same dreamy, ethereal quality one saw in the damsels in distress from Saturday morning serials. But I declared Clara all wrong for the role. Unlike Ian and myself, Clara lacked imagination. Besides, Flash Gordon’s girlfriend Dale was no damsel in distress. Like me, Dale Arden could take care of herself. It was only natural that I should be Dale, second-in-command only to Flash.
Our roles as grandchildren in the family had also set a precedent for me getting my way. too. Our grandmother, who – trying to act impartial – clearly had her favorites among the grandchildren: Ian and myself. Although I felt an occasional pinprick of guilt over Grandma’s favoritism, truth be told, I also accepted it as my birthright. Wasn’t it natural that she would favor her son’s firstborn child, and her daughter’s firstborn child? Ian and myself. We didn’t choose this role, we were bestowed it, which absolved us of any wrongdoing, I reasoned.
A benefit to playing Dale was being in such close proximity to Ian, as I had a ferocious crush on him. He was four years my senior, with a head full of red hair and a face full of freckles, and smart, too. I’d heard the term ‘kissing cousins’ and wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but there was no doubt that Ian had my heart.
Without protest, Clara accepted her assignment as a member of the crew, along with the twins and my two younger brothers. I cannot remember the names of these insignificant crew members; but they were important in our roleplay because someone had to take orders and help advance the plot.
Once parts were assigned, the gully became a crater of the moon. During our forages to brave new worlds, the caves would be our sanctuary, or hiding place, our alien dungeon, or our disemboweled spaceship. We would faithfully follow our favorite TV episodes, then at the last minute, wildly improvise if Clara or the twins suddenly balked at the script. Sometimes, we even threw in bits of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.
I don’t remember if Flash Gordan and Dale Arden ever kissed, but I remember how sophisticated and adventurous they looked as they stood in the compartment of the rocket ship, so close to one another they might have touched, looking at the glittery expanse of the universe they would explore together. And of course my cousin Ian and I never kissed—we were cousins!—but standing close to him at the helm of our imaginary ship was quite thrilling. I felt every bit as much a woman as Dale, or imagined I did.
When it was winter, and the gully was covered with a brittle crust of snow, it made the game even more real to me. The snow sparkled like stars, and our feet left tracks of constellations in our wake. Nothing was impossible in that canyon between my cousins’ modest house. It was always a new planet with untold mysteries to fathom.
How many times did I actually travel this landscape with my cousins? Memory is faulty. Perhaps four or five journeys, maybe only twice. I do know that my uncle’s stay in the new house was brief. The Sandy house did not save his and wife’s marriage, no matter how fresh the paint, or newly planted the spindly trees on the front lawn. Problems had packed themselves tightly into the cardboard moving boxes and settled uncomfortably into the new house, spilling out the windows and doors and down the street.
“She was all wrong for him,” Grandma said about her daughter-in-law, shaking her head sadly after hearing about their most recent, and final, break-up.
“They were wrong for each other,” my mother said, remembering her own childhood grievances with her brother.
After the divorce, things changed a bit, and I only saw my cousins once or twice a year, usually when staying with our grandmother. My mother said that my Aunt Becky would dress them in ragged clothes for their visits so that Grandma would buy them new clothes. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that every summer Grandma would buy each of us one new outfit for school year. Clara and I would get identical dresses in different colors or patterns. If we each wanted the same dress, although she was one year older, I ended up with the one we both coveted.
One summer, when my cousins were visiting my grandparents the same time I was visiting, we found ourselves alone in their big house. It was a weekday, so Grandpa was at the office. Earlier, Grandma, who planned to golf at the country club later that afternoon, was in her sewing room finishing up two dresses she was making for me and Clara. She called us in and asked us to try on the yellow and blue satin dresses (blue the color of Clara’s eyes). We took turns trying each dress on, and it was clear that the yellow dress did not fit as well as the blue, and that the color was unflattering to our complexions. It was also clear that while the blue dress looked okay on me, it was spectacular on Clara with her pale blonde hair, Swiss miss complexion and big blue eyes. I was given the dress, and while I felt some guilt over the victory, I did not give the dress up.
We thanked her for the dresses. I don’t know if Grandma felt Clara’s sullen resentment, but I did. Grandma put Ian, who was fifteen, in charge, with strict orders to not let anyone swim while she was away. Ian parked the twins in the family room in front of the console TV.
Knowing I was not welcome by my cousins, I went down the hallway to find a place to read. Ian, accompanied by Clara, backed me into the corner of the downstairs bathroom.
“You get anything you want!”
“We hate you!”
No longer Flash Gordon, Ian seemed more like Ming the Merciless, and Clara Azura, the Witch Queen of Mars. Sunlight filtered in through the bathroom window casting light upon the wallpaper’s metallic bamboo leaves. Clara’s normally dull, vacant blue saucer eyes shimmered like the silver leaves while she waited for him to carry out his threat to beat me up because our grandmother gave me the blue satin dress his sister and I both wanted. What stopped the beating? I don’t remember, but I was cured of my crush on him forever.
In the next couple of years, the stories I heard about Clara whispered in the kitchens and hallways of relatives’ houses during family gatherings became more alarming:
“Clara caught with a boy in a cave behind their house! And only twelve!”
“Trouble in school—”
“She’s running with a rough crowd.”
“Came home drunk from a party.”
By the time Clara was fifteen, she was pregnant. The gully as mysterious planets for us to explore by rocketship had been abandoned long ago, and children whose parents paid any attention to the dangers of the world were forbiddent to play there. The backyard canyon was now a liability to each house backing up to it and lowered their property values. Little children were afraid of the bogeymen that their mothers, fathers, and older brothers warned them about, sometimes laying awake at night, worried at the sound the wind made whistling over its empty cavern. Only stupid people and the stoners who cut school to get wasted in the caves would take shortcuts through the gully.
But Clara, who was too timid to play Dale when we were younger, was unafraid. She had spent many hours in the gully, playing second-in-command first to her brother Ian and me; and then later, to the wrong crowd, quietly following her friends as they skipped school and experimented with sex and drugs.
At fifteen, Clara knew the gully better than any of us. One day, swollen belly filled with a child she refused to abort no matter how much our grandmother pleaded (a grandmother who, in the end, worried over her granddaughter’s future more than what her church proselytized), Clara set out for the corner market, taking a shortcut through the gully. The house was filled with people, but no one walked with her. Maybe no one noticed she was leaving. Or maybe she wanted to be alone. Details of what happened next were not shared in any coherent fashion. I heard this story only in whispers between adults who didn’t want to alarm the children, even though I was fourteen and not much younger than Clara.
It was said that after “it” was over, Clara crawled up out of the pit behind her house, scrambling on all fours a bleeding, torn animal, over the rocks and brush and broken glass, to the protection of her house. One man or two, two men or twenty, Clara had been raped, fifteen years old, and eight months pregnant, by the monsters who prowled the desolate world that was in her own backyard. Her degradation had only begun.
Several years ago, as I watched my oldest daughter enter puberty and begin to navigate adolescence, I found myself thinking of Clara with great remorse. I called my mother. “How old was Clara when she was raped?”
My mother said, “She was pregnant with Jimmie.”
“Fifteen,” I said, “she was fifteen.”
I know this to be true because I remember our grandmother trying to explain to me why she felt the baby should be aborted. We stood out under the apple tree in my great-grandmother’s back yard, discussing Clara’s problem. Or more accurately, me listening as Grandma tried to justify her position, afraid I would think ill of her for advocating abortion. So, I knew the pregnancy was at fifteen, but faulty memory made me think the rape happened earlier, at twelve. As my mother and I talked, I remembered (or reconstructed) the stories I had heard of Clara at twelve, and the drug users who hung out in the gully.
My mother said, “She went crazy for a while after the rape. She would crouch like an animal behind the furniture of the house, afraid to come out. Afraid of everyone. Even of me.”
I am grateful my expression cannot be seen over the phone when I ask or accuse, “And they didn’t get her help, did they?”
“No,” my mother said, “they were a strange family.”
I hung up the phone with a heavy heart and a splitting head. My mother told me other things about Clara’s life. A miserable marriage, dancing topless (which I had heard about, with disgust, when I was in my late teens and a self-righteous feminist who had not yet learned that some choices may not, in fact, be choices at all) to support husband and the baby she would not abort or give up for adoption, and a second baby that died as an infant.
The last time I saw her was more than ten years ago, at our grandmother’s funeral. Her hair was still pale blond, her eyes still blue. The thin and shapely body that I remembered was protectively encased in a thick wall of flesh, her clothes as bulky as her body. We had little to talk about, which was as it always had been. She looked like someone’s unstylish fundamentalist mother and not the beautiful girl who pined for romance at age thirteen, and then danced topless at nineteen. She introduced me to her son, the survivor of her first pregnancy and then the rape. He was fourteen years old, and stood taller than his mother. He had a bit of red in his hair, and a few freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose. His smile was shy, and he seemed likable enough. Loved. Where he is—or what he is—today I do not know.
I think I have heard that Clara is now a nurse’s aide. Once, when she was a teenager, she gave my mother some poems she had written. My mother was quite moved by her poems, and showed them to me, exclaiming over Clara’s hidden talent. I recognized them as famous poems found in many high school textbooks, and told my mother this. Clara was a fraud, and not too bright of a fraud, either. I dismissed the whole incident later without much thought and a surprising lack of compassion.
Now, when I think of Clara gifting my mother with “her” poems, and how she had painstakingly copied these poems over in her own handwriting onto lined note paper, it is my own ignorance that appalls. Did my aunt—Clara’s mother—appreciate poetry? What things were locked inside Clara that none of us, except my mother, even began to suspect, or know how to reach?
Poetry has comforted, sustained and given me hope when I have been in danger of losing all hope. In my young arrogance, why could I not recognize that it might be doing the same for Clara?
Today, I would say to my cousin, “Momma showed me the poems you sent her! I love Elizabeth Barrett Browning, too. Have you read this one?”
Writing about the gully tonight has made me wonder if it is possible to call my cousin and somehow make amends for all the times I have too easily dismissed her in the past. Would she appreciate an offer of the friendship I withheld from her in our childhood, or the poetry we could have shared?
We are all family, no matter how wide the gully between our worlds. All of us suffer. Can we not comfort, as well? ‘How did I love thee,’ Clara? Not nearly enough.
*All names have been changed.
About the Author – Robin Michel
Robin Michel is a writer and poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aji Magazine, Ekphrastic Review, Lindenwood Review, San Pedro River Review, South 85 Journal, and elsewhere. She lives, writes, and teaches high school English at a small international school in San Francisco.
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