Authors: Melanie Greene
by Melanie Greene
Table of Contents
“Hey!” I straightened up, glaring at my brother Zach. He’d pulled one of his favorite tricks: stomping on the brakes so the lurching of the car woke me. Yawning, I took in the rolling hills and barely-paved side roads fading to obscurity in the dusk. “Where are we?”
“Just coming up to the turnoff. Thought it was time for you to stop playing Sleeping Beauty and start playing creative genius.”
My nap hadn’t left me feeling exactly enchanted. But they never did. Of everything I’d inherited directly from our beloved Gran, the only tedious one was our tendency to fall asleep the moment we got into a moving vehicle. She claimed hers started in 1929 when her family was on the ship from Rosslare to New York. I claimed mine started the hour of my birth, when she’d taken my squalling self from her daughter and rocked me to peaceful sleep.
Either way, it meant no one loved the idea of my driving myself from Houston to the small town of Wimberley, Texas, where I was beginning a two-month residency at FireWind, an artist’s retreat Zach had badgered me into applying for. Since my trip there was all his fault, he’d driven in from Austin to chauffeur me, along with my sewing machine, bags of fabric and supplies, and hopefully none of the emotional baggage that had weighed down my attempts to let my art soar over the past year.
“What’s the time?”
He tapped the dashboard clock so I could see it was almost seven, before slowing at the almost-neon sign for FireWind. The blacktop gave way to a cattle guard—most of this area was ranch land before the vacation-home and bed-and-breakfast crowds moved in—and then to an unevenly pitted uphill drive. I checked the spidery handwriting on the instruction sheet I’d been sent. “My cabin is straight up the main road until the turn-off for the Main House. Take the right fork and I’m the second one, on the right.”
“You wanna unload all this first or go straight to your big welcoming party?” The welcome dinner and general meeting was due to start.
“What am I missing? The low-down on the rules and regulations, maybe some appetizers? Let’s get this taken care of.”
“How you gonna get inside?” Zach asked, parking outside a neo-rustic log-faced cabin, totally square except for the five by four foot porch notched in by the front door. It was about what I’d expected, but the size of the wrap-around windows surprised me and the fact I could actually hear the babbling brook somewhere off to the north of my cabin was cool, in a hokey way.
“They sent me the code for the front door. Everything here is state-of-the-art, yet rural.” I unbuckled, repressing my need to stretch until I stood up outside. Zach got out the first load of bags while I climbed the three porch steps and peered at the dark keypad until I could make it out well enough to punch the four digits. The keypad beeped twice at me and the door clicked. “Freaky,” I said, entering what would be my home for the next eight weeks.
I stepped into a little living area, whose windows overlooked a counter with a bar sink and mini-fridge, a small sofa and coffee table, and waist-high bookshelf in the corner. I’d been in roomier waiting rooms. But the bedroom, which led off the den, was spacious enough for the antique double bed (covered with a machine-stitched green-on-green Log Cabin quilt), dresser, armoire, and side table all were functionally arranged around the two windows and two doors. The other door led to a short hallway past the equally functional bathroom, to the studio.
But the studio was perfection. As Zach brought in bag after box of fabrics, dyes, beads, threads, and my sewing machine and quilt frame, I flipped on the track lights hanging from the high ceiling and sighed. Double sinks in a large steel work counter lined the short wall, a bank of storage cabinets under the low wall divided the studio from the den, and the rest of the huge room was nothing but rough-hewn hardwood floors, vast windows, and a couple of easels and wood tables. The chair at the tilted drawing board was ergonomic. A rolling chair at the desk was smooth enough to slide me across to the supply cabinet with a single push.
“You wanna grab your suitcase when you’re done playing in here?”
“Oops, you caught me. Isn’t it awesome?”
“Big flawless room,” I did five pirouettes before I had crossed to him.
“I’m glad you like it. Now aren’t you lucky you have such a great big brother looking out for you?”
“Sure, take the credit, I don’t mind. As long as I get some work done here, you can have all the credit you want.”
I’d spent most of the year since Gran had kicked me out of her house, and the converted henhouse I’d used as my studio, attempting to browbeat my creative instinct into appearing. Not shockingly, it hadn’t worked. I could work on traditional quilt commissions no problem, but my fiber art was not flowing. Once I got over my petulance that Zach had strong-armed me into applying for FireWind, I began to suspect it would be just the space I needed to kick-start my floundering career as an artist. And the undulating hills and fragrant cypress air around me were beginning to work their way through my root chakra. Already I was more centered than I’d been that morning, turning my accursed rental over to the sublessee.
I looked around. “I don’t feel like unpacking now. Come to the meeting with me and I’ll share what’s left of my dinner with you.”
“You sure they won’t mind?”
“I have no idea. But nothing ventured, eh?”
Zach closed the trunk and we tramped down the road until we hit a lit footpath which crossed a stream and dead-ended into a set of steps for the long porch of a clapboard house. We peeked in the windows of the dining room. Around a huge table sat eight people, seven of them leaning back in their chairs or up against the table listening to a curly-haired woman in a granny skirt and woven Tibetan-wool jacket. A double-sideboard at the back of the room had a series of covered bowls, but no one was eating.
“I’ll hang here for a while,” Zach said, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch. “Get me when y’all start to chow.”
“Okay.” I opened the folding door and walked in.
They all turned to glance at me, and the woman sitting next to the only empty chair shifted over so I could have some room.
“Hey, everyone, sorry I’m late. I’m Ashlyn May.”
Granny Skirt glanced at her watch. “I am Margie Roya, the facilitator. You have missed the general introductions and the tour of the Main House. I am just coming to the part about the food. Everything else you should ask someone else about later, because I have not allotted time for late-comers.”
I nodded, and caught the eye of the woman next to me. She was about thirty with straight blonde hair pulled back in a loose bun. Tapping her watch, she gave me a stern look. I shrugged, rolled my eyes, and smiled at her grin.
Margie kept talking. “As I was saying, you have each been assigned a food partner, with whom you will be responsible for preparing the communal meals for two weeks of the retreat. In deference to the three vegetarians here, each meal must offer an adequate array of non-meat options. Allergies and food aversions, according to the information supplied on your applications, are on the laminated sheet hanging on the pantry door. I will drive to San Marcos between two and three each day to pick up whatever supplies the day’s cooks have requisitioned.” She must have rehearsed the spiel nightly.
“Each week will have two teams of cooks. This week, Team One will make breakfast and lunch, while Team Three makes dinner. Next week, Team Two will make breakfast and lunch, while Team Four makes dinner. It is not confusing, but for clarity’s sake there will be a laminated schedule posted next to the allergy list on the pantry door.” All of that, and she only paused once for breath. Why was it so easy to picture her carefully carrying her neatly printed pages to the copy center for laminating, perhaps wincing if the clerk sneezed as he handled her documents?
“You may take snacks and small meals to your cabin for consumption, but gathering in the cabins to eat is discouraged, as it disturbs the sanctuary-like seclusion you should feel upon entering your working space. At no time may you eat or drink anywhere in the Main House other than the kitchen and the dining room. Are there any questions?” Clearly, the answer was supposed to be no.
“What if we hate to cook?” asked a skinny dark man in a black turtleneck.
Finally, she paused. Then, from somewhere in her repertoire of instructions, she came up with: “Often food partners divide the labor so that one is in charge of meal preparation, and the other sets and clears the table and washes the dishes. The reliance on pre-packaged foods is discouraged, although, naturally, one may choose to supplement fresh foods with selected ready-made ingredients.”
I just stopped myself from guffawing, earning a quick glare from Margie and a nudge under the table from my blonde neighbor.
“And who are the food partners?” she diverted Margie.
“Team One: Angelica Starlight and Theo Ribelles. Team Two: Ashlyn May and Caleb Kendall. Team Three: Lauren Phillips and Rafael Quezada. Team Four: Lizzy Murphy and Brandon Brayton. I have already purchased breakfast and lunch groceries for tomorrow, but Team Three will have to come up with a dinner menu before I go to town tomorrow afternoon.”
Blonde leaned in to me. “All boy-girl. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And way to go on getting the cute one.” She tipped her chin at a man sitting next to Margie. He was watching her, so all I got was a one-quarter profile, but I noted the dark wavy hair and pleasantly broad shoulders. “I’m Wren, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you. Which one’s yours?” I whispered back. “Not the cook-hater?”
“No, the quiet one next to me. Hasn’t said a word since he told us he was a painter. Can’t say I see him whipping up a delicious primavera while I sit back and grate the cheese, though.”
“You know they sell the cheese already grated. Or is that too convenient?”
“Excuse me, ladies,” Margie interrupted our sidebar. “You are free to discuss whatever you like over dinner, but I would appreciate your full attention now while I finish my general meeting.”
We nodded solemnly at her and she went on. “You all—or, all of you who were here on time—saw the stairs off of the laundry room. They lead up to my private quarters. There is an intercom in the laundry room, which you may buzz between the hours of seven a.m. and ten p.m., if you need access to the television, or to discuss anything related to the running of the colony. Outside of those hours, you may only use the intercom for emergencies. I will keep the first-aid kit in the laundry room fully stocked, and the doors for the Main House are always open. This is our eleventh session at FireWind, and by now I think we have anticipated every need that may arise. Are there any questions?”
Margie scanned the table. The heads of eight artists shook back and forth, and she smiled. “Well, if you think of anything, you know where I am. Now, tonight’s dinner is to be served buffet-style. The dishes and cutlery are in the sideboards, and of course Team Three will be doing the washing up when you are all done. I will take my meal upstairs, as always. Welcome to FireWind, and good night.”
We all stood up when she moved from the table, wishing her a good night and reaching to uncover the dinner platters.
“I can’t believe you missed the first half, you lucky wench,” Wren said. “Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am, we won’t try to watch TV when we’re not allowed, ma’am.”
“What does she do, time us?”
I laughed. “No, seriously? Oh, Goddess, what a regime.”
“It seems she’s a stickler for the rules. We sit in our studios working unless we’re eating our communal meals or taking inspirational walks through the hills of beauty that encompass us.”
I glanced outside. Zach was making faces at me through the window. “Oops. Be right back,” I said, moving to open the door.
“It went from quiet to laughter within, and I figured I’d been neglected,” he said.
“I was going to wait.” I protested, half-truthfully, as I led him to the food. “This is my brother, Zach. He brought me up from Houston. Zach, this is Wren, a fellow inmate in Margie Roya’s penal colony.”
He shook her hand. “Wren?”
She executed a quick half-shrug. “It’s Lauren, actually. Got stuck as Wren when my little brother was learning to talk, you know?”
He nodded. “I was Aackie for a while there with this one.” Almost sweetly, he leaned his elbow on my shoulder. “Kind of a cross between disgust and fright, I think.”
Her flutter of a laugh was interrupted by a call-out from the table: “Zeke!”
“Ned?” Zach looked around. My food partner was standing up, grinning. “Ned!” Zach repeated, and strutted up to him. They bumped chests, exchanged a double high-five, locked hands and grunted loudly at each other.
“I thought you said Zach?” Wren looked at me.
“I have no idea.”
Zach and Caleb laughed, and joined us. “Caleb was at Berkeley with me. We were computer lab nerds together.”
“Hi, Ned, I’m Zeke’s sister, Ashlyn.”
“Hey, I’m Caleb.” He cleared his throat. “Um, we all called each other Zeke and Ned at Berkeley, kind of a code for the CS guys.”
I didn’t reply. My initial impression of him as kind of a hunk had dissolved as he and my brother revealed their dorkiest sides.