Read the opening pages of Every Blade of Grass

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Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, grow, grow.

 — The Talmud

 

 

1
When she went to check out in the morning she found a letter waiting for her at the front desk.  

The only thing written on the plain white envelope was her name, but she knew right away who the letter was from. She stood holding the envelope, surprised at the emotions stirred within her by the sight of her own name in this unfamiliar hand. A giddy mixture of anticipation and dread she hadn’t felt since high school.

Then it occurred to her he might be here in the lobby. Waiting for her to find the letter and open it. Watching to see what her reaction would be. God, like a stalker. Please let him not be. A quick glance showed her there was no one else in the dimly-lit, low-ceilinged room besides the few other journalists who, like her, were waiting for the bus to Keflavik airport. All men, they were huddled together like a herd of edgy muskoxen near the door, smoking and looking miserable at being forced out of bed at this ungodly hour. And it was early, though there was already light in the windows. At home it would have been pitch dark at this time of the morning but here, in summer, the sun never completely set.

She remembered then what he’d mentioned at dinner the evening before, that he would be leaving very early to join a sightseeing expedition to a glacier on the far side of the island. So no, he wasn’t here. Good. He was on his way to see another wonder in this land of unexpected wonders. And in a few minutes she would be leaving. On her way home.

She stood hesitating at the front desk, uncertain whether she should read the letter now or wait until the next time she was alone. During the past week she had gotten to know many of the journalists on a first-name basis. Any moment now one of them would notice her and stroll over to wish her a good morning, then pointedly ask her who she was getting letters from in this out-of-the-way corner of the world. These people were relentlessly inquisitive. No, scratch that, they were as nosey as hell and always sniffing for a story. She knew it for a fact. She was one of them.

Damn it I’ve got nothing to hide, she thought, but quickly tucked the letter away in her carry-on bag before she went to join her colleagues.

 

 …

 

On the shuttle bus she took a seat by herself and kept her head down, pretended to be searching through her notebook, hoping no one would sit down beside her. No one did, much to her relief, and the bus set off for the airport. After a few minutes she opened the envelope and took out the folded piece of paper inside.

She was about to unfold it, then hesitated. Maybe it was best to just put the letter back in the envelope unread. Toss it in the next trash can she came across. Who knew what he’d written, or assumed. She hadn’t been wearing her wedding ring all week. She’d stopped wearing it on assignments because too many people she interviewed noticed the ring and condescended to her after that. As if she wasn’t a real journalist but a housewife who hadn’t yet figured out where she belonged: in the kitchen cooking dinner for her man.

James Wheeler must have thought she was single. A mistake anyone could make. No fault of his, or hers. Just a mistake. Then why did she feel that opening this letter and reading it would be like an admission of something? Of what, she wasn’t exactly sure. She didn’t want anything from him. She was happy with her life as it was. Reasonably so, which was all a person could expect in this world. She was married to a man she loved. She had a good job. She wasn’t looking for an affair to complicate things, that was one thing she knew for certain.

Glancing out the bus window she saw that the sky had changed. The dull grey cloud cover had given way to a pale blue threaded with a few thin ribbons of red cloud glowing like hot filaments. It had rained every day this week, and now, on the day she was leaving, this glorious sky.

She smiled, glad for him, that he’d have a day like this. Then it occurred to her, she didn’t need to read his letter. And that meant it was all right if she did. In which case she might as well find out what he wanted to tell her, which might be something useful for her article, after all. Then she could forget all about it.

She unfolded the letter and read, surprised to find that her heart was pounding.

 

 

Reykjavik, Iceland

June 21 1974

 

For Martha Geddes

From James Wheeler

 

Dear Martha,

When we were talking earlier this evening you mentioned you’d be flying home first thing in the morning. Since I wasn’t sure we’d run into each other before then, I thought I’d leave you this note. On the visit to Geysir yesterday the tour group was talking about wildflowers and I overheard you ask the guide if Iceland had any native orchids. He didn’t seem to think so, but tonight after dinner I was talking with Professor Magnusson, who told me that the island in fact has eight wild species of orchid. I thought you’d like to know. I also wanted to tell you what a pleasure it’s been to meet you. I came to this conference only to talk with other ecologists about the greening of cities. I didn’t expect to meet any journalists at this kind of scientific symposium, let alone one like yourself who seemed to be genuinely interested in what was going on here. During the past few days I was my usual inarticulate self— most of what I do is solitary field work, which doesn’t give me much practice with social skills— but you always stayed to listen as I stumbled over my words. You are obviously very curious about the world and about people, and what is more, you didn’t come here with a preconceived idea of what we ecologists do for a living. Usually when people find out I’m one of those “nature nuts,” the response is hostility or baffled head-scratching. The result has been that I rarely look up from my research to notice the rest of humanity, since what I meet with is mostly misunderstanding. This past week, though, you made me look up and see things differently. Sitting here in the quiet of the hotel lobby tonight, writing this letter, I’m still looking up.

You already know I’m not much of a storyteller. If I were, though, I would tell you a story about a man, a 26 year old ecologist from Vancouver just starting out in his chosen field, who went to an environmental symposium in Iceland and met a young woman, a journalist from New York. She was intelligent, charming, and graceful. She loved to talk to people, to learn about them. She loved to laugh and see the odd and quirky side of things. She seemed truly interested in the way the world really is, in its strange and surprising workings, rather than in seeing only what she wanted to see, which is a problem with too many people these days. It was clear to the ecologist that kindness was second nature to her, and he felt a rare impulse to return that kindness. So he wrote to the young woman, and told her how much meeting her had meant to him.

I don’t know where the story goes from there. It’s not the kind of tale I usually tell. I’m a data gatherer, someone who tries to put the world together from bits and pieces of information. Some of my colleagues back home at the department call me Didja (as in “didja know…”) because of my fondness for strange and little-known facts about nature. I’d better stick to that, I think. To thank you for your kindness, then, in a way I think you will appreciate, I will close with the following: Professor Magnusson had a correction to the guide’s assertion that Iceland has no reptiles or amphibians. The professor happens to know of a small population of frogs thriving near a geothermally-heated lake in the south of the island. He believes they must be the descendants of frogs rescued from dissection in biology class by some tender-hearted schoolchildren. At times the lake erupts in a burst of scalding hot water, and unfortunate individuals of this rare subspecies, the Icelandic leopard frog (Rana pipens arctos), can sometimes be spotted hurtling through the air. The professor first discovered this fact when a live frog dropped from the sky onto his hat.

Yours sincerely,

James Wheeler

 

 

When she’d finished his letter she looked up at the stark moonscape of Iceland. The bare volcanic hills turning a blazing gold as the sun rose.

He was out there somewhere now, maybe wondering if she was reading his words.

She looked down at the letter again. He had left his address at the bottom of the page. A city on the other side of the continent, in another country. So far away from where she lived. Another world.

Around her on the bus the other journalists were chatting, yawning, burrowing into their seats for a nap after a week of “white night” partying in the Reykjavik bars. For them this trip had been a chance to go wild in a place where no one knew them and to which they never expected to return. She overheard someone grousing to his seatmate about having spent a week on this drizzly, barren rock, and she remembered that her attitude hadn’t been much different when she first arrived.

She closed her eyes and settled back in her seat. What had happened to her over the last five days? She had been hired by the magazine only last year, and this trip to Iceland was her first major solo assignment. Well, she knew the real reason she’d gotten it: because no one else wanted it, and there was no way the magazine would send a woman to hotspots like Vietnam. She had arrived with one purpose: get the story, then get back home and show them she had what it takes. Five days ago, that was all that Iceland meant to her. A job. A chance to prove herself. Then back to her own world, to the man she loved, who was waiting for her there. That was her real life.

Then the man who had written this letter had shown her a glimpse of another life. He had praised her open-minded curiosity about things, but the truth was that he’d helped reawaken it. He’d reminded her of a part of herself that she had almost forgotten. Something within her that had once been as essential as breathing, and that she’d been in danger of leaving behind and forgetting. The part of herself that needed nothing more than a sunrise to be flooded with well-being. With the knowledge that, despite everything wrong and compromised and hopeless in this mess of a world, being alive on the earth was still a miracle.

She thought about the visit to the geysers the day before. That moment when he’d reached to take her arm, to help her jump across a rushing meltwater stream, grey with glacial silt, and she had let him do it without a thought. So unlike her. She should have been offended at some man assuming she needed his help, but she had needed it. She’d been on tricky, unfamiliar terrain, her shoes were slipping on the wet rocks, and he’d simply reached out to give her a hand. He’d held her arm for a moment afterward, as if unwilling to let go until he was sure she had her footing. She smiled, remembering his look of embarrassment when it occurred to him he might have held on too long. And then it didn’t matter in the slightest. Off she went, scrambling over rocks, jumping streams, climbing hills. She’d felt like a kid again, like the tomboy she once had been, off on another adventure. She asked him questions about the landscape and the wildflowers and he’d answered without condescending.

He was serious and thoughtful. He didn’t swagger around acting like the world belonged to him because he had testicles, unlike most of the men she’d met on this trip. Unlike most of the men she knew, period. She had seen a calmness in the way he moved, a quiet physical confidence she had noticed in other men who spend a lot of time outdoors. She’d admired this in him, even as she told herself not to be ridiculous. But she had been drawn to him, she had to admit it now. Powerfully. Something had passed between them, she knew, even though nothing had been said.

The plane rose up through a bank of fog off the coast and she thought of her first trip in a passenger jet as a child, with her father. He’d given her the window seat and she’d sat with her face pressed to the glass as the plane went up and up. Watching the buildings and roads and cars get small like toys. How strange that had made her feel: excited and sad at the same time. Everything she knew changing into something tiny and far away. Then the view was gone and there was just a dim swirl of white and grey, and droplets of water appeared on the window, and then she’d realized what this was. Oh! She tugged her father’s sleeve. Daddy, look! We’re inside a cloud! Then they’d broken through into blazing light and this was the most wonderful thing of all: the silent shining white world on top of the clouds. Hills and valleys and forests of white, stretching on forever. What if you could just open the door of the plane and step outside into all that light…

She didn’t tug her father’s sleeve this time. She just sat and looked.

 

As the plane headed out over the sea and Iceland disappeared behind them, she took out James Wheeler’s letter and read it again. This time she smiled. She would write back to him. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing to feel guilty about. At the very least she had to thank him for what he had helped her find again. Yes, she’d write a letter and that would be it. But not now. She wouldn’t write it here, so soon after they’d been together. She would find the right words after she got home. When she was back on solid ground, where she belonged. Not up here in the clouds.

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