Warm Up – Chest Expansion
Bridget clenches her jaw, ready to explain a thing or two if the woman goes any further with the spiritual angle. One of the things, she will explain, is going to be very blunt. She’d warned this ordained woman that if God were mentioned even once; that would be the last time she’d be here at Stretch and Relax. How like a minister to try and sneak a sermon into the yoga class!
Fine for others to hear that opening your chest would free your emotions so the Almighty could fill you with peace; Bridget only needs to hear the physical directions to breathe deeply and stretch the lungs. She closes her eyes and comes up with an image that suits her better, her ribcage opening up in the same way a hay bale swells when she chops the twine that holds it firm. That holds her thoughts for a moment but her agitation butts against her calm in the same way the cows rub and move bales. The cows had been cared for today, the balky tractor and the frozen-down feed hadn’t stopped her mission.
The mission here is to relax. If she can. But it galls her to see the bible story cartoons plastered on the walls, and it is vexing that in this room, children hear how Jesus loves them and how God knows when the sparrow falls. It’s a wonder the bible school room doesn’t smell like puke. She exhales and rolls her shoulders in a curl around her breasts, then on her inhalation spreads them wide as if they were wings. Around her the yoga classmates do the same.
She’s here with a half-dozen people; two others are seniors like her. Yoga is something she would have never expected to do but neither had she expected her anxiety attack. Definitely the anxiety attack is the big unexpected thing. Really, she thought that her decades of handling all the big and little crises of farm work had given her resistance to ‘nerves’ as they used to call it, embarrassment attached. People a decade younger than her, like her sister Lisa, had a more relaxed view, the shame factor much diminished.
Bridget’s churning thoughts have bunted her attention from exercises. Back to it, she tells herself. Curl. Spread.
Nowadays people have the world’s blessing to fly apart. Therapy is touted as the answer; didn’t her own doctor suggest exactly that? He could set up an appointment for her with a psychologist. Didn’t take him long to add when she is ready, because he could see his notion didn’t fly. But then, in the gentlest way, he told her to learn to relax, maybe meditate or start a journal. Stupid idea from a wet-behind-the-ears, never-had-to-physically-work-a- day-in-his-life, stupid doctor.
Jesus Christ and bloody hell, but just when she starts with her usual head down and to hell with it all, her chest tightens and her breathing gives a hitch as a reminder. Even thinking about that trip to the doctor upset her. Shoulder pain brings her smarting to the present. Had she been thinking out loud? No one seems to be paying her any attention, but still this is not good. Her neck joins the shoulder in a big ball of hurt. The pain could lock her away from relaxing as efficiently as a closed gate prevented her cow herd from getting into grain bins. Big trouble. Trouble is she has to handle the stress in her life differently or have a nervous breakdown.
Lisa is the one who suggests the yoga sessions, offering that she and Tom could handle Vince one night a week. Her sister’s offer is a surprise, for years she has avoided being alone with Vince and while she never explains, Bridget has a pretty good idea of what Vince might have done and even why some women would be flattered. Not Lisa. She is a loyal sister and a faithful wife. Like their grandmother, who seems to peer out from Lisa’s face, her sister is a true soul, armed with regular church attendance, practiced charity and goodness. Maybe all that works if there is no one like Vince in the picture. Bridget stops. Somehow remembering her grandmother softens her tenseness. The hardships endured in the past were huge. Women didn’t even have the right to vote.
Someone should tell Vince about women’s rights. Like a husband of that past era, Vince tried to dish up disapproval over her attending yoga class. He’d have her think it is disobedience on her part that she be here. She watches the woman leading the class noting her mustached upper lip. Bridget decided long ago that the homely get called to God’s service, perhaps because the mirror is so cruel. What she had done to deserve Vince, beyond promising to love, honor, and obey could only be called the devil’s plot, if the devil were more than a convenient fiction. Funny to remember that her grandmother spoke of the devil as well as God. Bridget didn’t really believe in deities but she could conceive a devil like Vince. She shifts uneasily, her thighs tense to the point of quivering. Not knowing how much longer this position is to be held, Bridget takes a rest. Her body sinks to the floor where she slouches and rubs her thighs. The instructor brings everyone to a new position.
Thinking of her grandmother has made her feel perversely bad. She loved the woman but would like to ask a few questions of anyone with enduring faith. Was she supposed to pray the cattle would wait for her to open the ice hole? No! She had to get out there first thing, before they crowded onto the ice and fell through. Then she had to follow that up with starting the tractor, rolling out the hay and then after the animals were tended, returning to whatever Vince was dishing up.
But Lisa and her husband are with Vince making sure Bridget has a home to return to after yoga. They’ll stay and visit for a while before Bridget faces the rest of the evening with her husband. Usually Vince is tired and irritable but armed with a firm voice and an established routine, Bridget can get him to bed before exhaustion hits them both.
Lately she has been dissolving a sleeping pill in Vince’s evening glass of warm milk, oh how unkind, really, this resorting to drugs. She feels forty shades of guilt over it. But tonight it is possible that Lisa will innocently warm his milk and Vince, who even now, is nobody’s fool, will refuse a doctored second glass. Which means any peace and relaxation she gains here could be wiped out when she gets home.
That is another unexpected thing of Bridget’s life; that her husband Vince would end up with a brain injury, which sounds simple enough but is actually a bitch and a half. It is when Bridget comes up with a house remodel to include a safe room for Vince, a padded cell affair, with piped in music and a television mounted like a window, just so she can have a few minutes reprieve without calling on someone else, that she realizes she has to do something. More than just the sleeping pill in the evening.
Then Bridget who prides herself equal to a man in all things agricultural; who works the cattle in the corrals, births them in the barn and occasionally puts them down with the rifle, who drives the combine, the grain trucks, the tractor with the air seeder, who figures out their finances, and helped Vince make the right decisions for forty years finds herself unable to breathe. By the time she calls Lisa she is sure it is a heart attack.
After a number of tests, all physical reasons are ruled out for her episode. Episode. How useful the word. Bridget uses it as shorthand for Vince’s various mishaps, the occasions when he soils his clothes, the meals that he dumps on the floor or in his lap, the blank moments or bleak moments where the unfurled flag of his rage whips over her. The term episode serves to inform people that it is not all heavenly in their lives, but doesn’t seem a whine, or invite an offer of prayers. Time after time she hears how lucky she is that Vince survived. Well, yes. And no.
But it is time to put these thoughts into the corral. Fix the mental fences. She takes a moment to tighten the elastic around hair that others call a marvelous shade of silver and tuck in her favorite plaid shirt. She remembers the anxiety episode, believing it to be an attack of her heart; all she could ask is how on earth they would get by, if she were struck in this manner. It’d be the nun-operated nursing home for them both, every wall with a cross and Christ. A sorry deal, except that others would deal with her bully and bastard of a husband.
A deep sigh escapes Bridget. The episode wasn’t her heart giving out but a message for her to ease her mind; to relax. It is unlikely, though, that she can expect miracles from prayer which her sister suggested. Not bloody likely, she thinks and shakes her head vigorously. The instructor glances in her direction. Bridget frowns back, mind your own blood-of-the-lamb business.
But that frown released something. Her agitation gives way to deep breaths and her shoulders are no longer sheltering her ears as a small miracle occurs.
In and out, for every breath the world slips further and further into the background. Every breath brings inner tension to the surface where a gentle breeze blows it away. A feather floats. Every breath lifts her closer to the beauty, to the truth, to the place where she is comforted and loved.
Bridget breathes in but her exhalation is a whimper. She has to steady herself. There is nothing to cry about here. But she can’t seem to stop. Next thing she’ll be on the receiving end of sympathy and in fact, the minister is headed in her direction. She fakes a coughing spell, lifts her arms in defense and mumbles that she needs to go home.
Downward Facing Dog
She lays her head on the steering wheel as her farm truck warms up for the drive home. The evening gospel music winds around her until she hears the hymn and strikes the switch off. Partway home she has to pull off on a seldom-used intersection and let the lonesome come over her like the moon on the snow. Weakness. Her fists wipe away her tears.
This is not a nervous breakdown. There is no echo in the silence except for her mind. Oh, isn’t it? You broke down tonight at bloody stupid yoga. And the anxiety attack? You couldn’t deal with reality. No. No, this is just an episode. That’s all.
How long has she been here? It’s late.
She enters the farmhouse. The smell of gingerbread wafts out and there is laughter. Under the bright light of the dining room table, Vince jumps his marbles across the Chinese Checker board. He beams widely, having fun, getting excited. On an average night, with just Bridget as company he’d be bitching and moaning and demanding his snack.
Bridget goes to pour his bedtime glass of milk so she can add the sleeping pill. She pours the white liquid over the tiny tablet. Lisa approaches. Her hand touches Bridget’s elbow. Bridget jumps.
The full bottle of pills tipped in her hand, Lisa reads Bridget’s name on the prescription. Bridget avoids her sister’s eyes that are searching for a denial, explanation or confession.
They will stay the night Bridget is told, as her sister pours the glass of milk down the sink and fixes another one for Vince.
Rest – Deep Breathing
In the middle of the night, Vince goes to the basement and silently makes his way to the storage room and begins to rip into boxes and throw things around. He spends extra, destructive time with a certain corner, a certain trunk. The cattle-show banners are torn in half, a fate shared by brown paper envelopes that contain the deeds to their land, birth certificates and their marriage license. He is set on disemboweling Bridget’s hope chest. Linens embroidered with sparrows and daisies, hand stitched pillowcases are ground under his heels; the framed photos of ancestors are smashed. The sound of breaking glass wakes the sleepers. Jesus Christ and bloody hell, the three of them rush down the stairs.
Vince looks up as if confused by their presence. He holds a sampler that is Bridget’s oldest possession—The Lord’s Prayer in cross-stitch that her grandmother coached her to complete.
Vince who a moment ago was in a frenzy is now compliant and docile and allows his brother-in-law to guide him out of the room. He passes the sampler to Bridget. She cannot look at him but she has not the same choice with the sampler.
How innocent she had been when she stitched it. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. She stops reading. Forgive me. From one pill a night to the whole bottle. It is the trespass that she’s been skirting around, pretending the temptation isn’t waiting. She knew the route. She’s put down animals. Gathering her reasons, marshalling her strengths. Her legs fail her as she drops to her knees.
Lisa is there and her arms wrap around Bridget. Her comfort Bridget has heard before: Jesus loves you. He can give you strength, if you just let him.
“Jesus Christ,” Bridget calls out.
She means it as a curse, but it doesn’t turn out that way. For a moment Bridget considers Christ but the very idea curdles in her throat. It is such a weakness—meekness and lamb to the slaughter. All that goodness of gospel is religion’s nasty trick. Bloody hell, it means surrender. The sparrow fell. God saw. Bridget folds herself over her thighs and rests, a position of supplication if not prayer. The Pose of the Child
Liz Betz is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction which has been published in a variety of markets. She writes from rural Alberta, Canada. Follow her writing blog lizbetz.blogspot.ca for news of her publications. The Sparrow is her 40th short story published.