They Don’t Live in Joy, Illinois

Good morning from Joy, Illinois. It’s 5:30 am. This is not my usual waking time, but when the low, pink, and orange sunrise steals into your bedroom, it’s insistent.

Begin your day, it said.

The just-awake robins and finches are chattering in the tall maple trees in the side yard and the massive oak tree in the front yard next to the driveway. The intermittent croaks of the young toads are quieting down in the muddy section of the pasture—they’re thinking about moving to the bushes higher up on the hill.

The big bull—mottled with a cream and sable hide and two curving horns that span at least two feet—turns to look at me and flicks his tail. He stands between me and the two black, elderly mama cows, ages twelve and fourteen, who have had their last calves.

Old girls, the neighbor called them. They probably wouldn’t last the winter. They’re headed to town at the end of the summer. Their calves nudge the udders hard to bring down the milk.

Old girls, I mused. I tried not to think too much about them.

The corn started late, the neighbor said. Came up well, early actually, but then one day, it spiked to ninety degrees and it all burned up. The earth cracked, he said shaking his head. We planted again.

My son, Connor, and daughter-in-law Samantha, are new to the small town 40 minutes outside of the Quad Cities—Moline and Rock Island hail from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, while Davenport and Bettendorf nod from the Iowa side. The Mississippi River is high now from the spring rains, and it lolls back and forth against its bank moving with a laziness that is deceiving.

Not a time to go into the river, or crick, the neighbor said. He knows a swimming hole down the road that gets deeper every year because the force of the water comes over and dives straight down into the earth. It just keeps digging, the neighbor looked up at me. No end to it, he comments.

Paul and I drove fast from the airport, anxious to see our little ones (big ones too) after four months apart. He crested a hill at sixty, and we landed on a gravel road on the other side.

Goodness, I thought, someone needs to fix this stretch of road. It stretched alright—another eight miles to their house. Their road is numbered now, but it’s known as Rainbow Barn Road to everyone in Joy because of the falling-down barn on the corner where some happy family a hundred years ago painted a rainbow on the weathered boards to make their neighbors smile.

It makes me smile, Sam said. In tribute to it, (and because it is going to collapse or be torn down soon), she painted a rainbow on their brand-spanking-new chicken coop. The neighbors smile, someone told her.

The babies, as we call them, put on mud boots to play in the yard. They look comical, running through the velvet green grass, shirtless with dusty knees and elbows from where they have crawled under the bars of the fence around the barn. At three and four, they don’t pay attention to the bull staring at them with narrowed eyes. As you can guess, they get hustled back into the yard with a scolding; they don’t pay much mind.

Last night we sat on the back stoop, drinking beer, and watching the kids play on the slip-and-slide. We squirted Dawn soap on their round tummies, and when they reached the end and landed in a small pool meant to hold them back, bubbles rose into the air and drifted towards the sunset that was just passing the cornfield on its way to the other side. We forgot the soap would get in their eyes, so we rushed to wipe their faces with our shirts, not wanting them to feel any pain.

Which brings me to end of this piece. While we’ve been cocooned in this perfect world where everyone drives by and waves through the dust of the gravel road, there are families unable to speak because of their grief. They are planning funerals and sitting in the lonely silence of small bedrooms where little shoes and toys still litter the floor. Their children are gone. They will never live on Rainbow Barn Road or dance next to a staring bull, or shriek with laughter as their slick bodies fly down their newest toy. Those children lived in Columbine, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Parkland, Florida, and now Uvalde, Texas. They don’t live in Joy, Illinois.

Elves Afoot in Iceland with Me and My Kin

Icelanders believe in Huldufólk—hidden people—supernatural, mythical beings that live high in the craggy, green bluffs that circle the sky and alongside the tumbling, icy streams that meander through mossy flatlands that lead to the sea. Appearing and disappearing just out of the corner of your eye, elves, fairies, trolls, and ghosts look and behave like humans and enter and depart a person’s life leaving a faint mark only the wearer can see. The mark they leave, you ask? It is a pointer—the direction in which to go.

Although my Nancy Drew heart beats fast at the thought of tripping over an elf who impudently steps in my way, it is not I who will bear the mark when we leave Iceland, I believe it will be my daughter, SarahKate.

SarahKate invited me to accompany her on the first leg of her three-week journey through Iceland, Scotland, England, Amsterdam, Norway, and Denmark. She is in that in-between place that some of us experienced in our youth—momentarily free from responsibilities and brave enough to embrace the unknown.

I see her clearly at moments on this trip—the stubborn little girl who hated to wear shoes—and then she wavers out of my sight when her eyes gaze far out into the sea and I have no idea where she has gone. Unlike my boys who are…well, boys…SarahKate is introspective, loyal, and to be perfectly honest, somewhat of an Eeyore (the donkey from Winnie the Pooh). If there is a cloud in the sky, she will point it out.

We have switched places. I refuse to drive; there is no need to be criticized for something I know I am barely competent at. At the rental car place, they warned us that car doors can get caught in an Icelandic wind gust and tear from their hinges. Now each time I go to open the car door, she peers over the top of her glasses as if I am a teenager and warns me to “watch out for the wind.” Yet, when she spots a humungous waterfall from the road, it is I who says, “are you sure?” We return to the car waterlogged wishing we hadn’t spent so much time on our hair that morning. While in Vik, a lovely village adjacent to a black sand beach, I feel an oozing wetness trickle down my calf and discover a rope burn from Sibby’s leash has burst open. Her face blanching at the sight of the mess and my grimace of pain, SarahKate hustles like a parent and talks to a local woman who tells her to take me to an unmarked clinic high on a green hill where a kind doctor applies a burn patch and bandages me up. I feel comforted and safe with my daughter at the helm.

We have merged our pictures through Air Drop and, although it appears seamless which are hers and which are mine, there is a freshness and an eagerness in her photos while I feel mine look still and staged. I realize that, although she came from me almost twenty-nine years ago, she has cut the last tether and is leaving on a road of her choosing.

The hidden people of Iceland are known to cause mischief, speak in the wind, and drop trinkets at the feet of the unsuspecting. Tomorrow SarahKate will get a new tattoo that symbolizes who she is grounded and whole and who she will be in the unknown world that lies ahead. My reasons for finding the hidden people are different from hers—I want to catch them by their sleeves and hold them fast, while my darling, Eeyore daughter would say to them “climb aboard and come with me.”