In the Garden of Persephone (part 1)



Xan was without a past. She simply turned up for school one day and began throwing herself on the floor proclaiming that an earthquake was imminent. Which, if she lived in California, might seem quite rational. But Xan lives in Michigan where there are no earthquakes. Or so everyone seems to think.

Xan Reilly had an irrational fear of earthquakes. It was a phobia no one could understand since, by Xan’s own admission, she had never experienced an earthquake. She lived in Michigan, a Great Lake State noted for its under active seismographic gland. Xan’s fear had a face--and the face was that of a wide-eyed Californian who lived along the San Andreas fault, not the calm face of a Great Laker who never had cause to nail anything down.

            Michigan was better known for snow and the odd tornado; Michiganders--except Xan--never concerned themselves with shifting bedrock. Xan could tell you first hand what it was like to walk in waist-deep snow; how wet hair, fresh from a shower would freeze within minutes of exposure on a cold day in Michigan; how an early spring day could start out clear and yet end in a blizzard. Xan knew of several people during her sixteen years who had died from exposure to extreme cold. She had seen, while cowering in a cellar, the roof of her neighbour’s house blow off during a tornado. She knew what it was like to have to sprint to a basement, half asleep, because warning sirens had sounded the approach of killer tornados.

            Blizzards and tornados.

            Xan had a healthy respect for but no fear of these extremes of weather. How she had developed sensitivity for the smallest of earth tremors whether these be from deep shifting bedrock, a far off explosion or a passing truck was a matter for debate.

            Some people speculated Xan had experienced an accident in childhood. Perhaps she had been dropped or had fallen from a height that would have left her physically unharmed yet psychologically traumatised.        

            Other people were more inclined to blame vertigo, perhaps inner ear damage. This certainly would explain Xan’s tendency to grab hold of anything as if she were trying to prevent herself from falling. It made all the times she had knocked over valuables as she tried to stabilise herself a little more forgivable.      

            Still others claimed Xan was malingering. Attention seeking. The shenanigans of an apparently parentless child who always smelled of stale fried chicken and biscuits--and who needed all the attention she could get. This was an easy explanation and one favoured by nearly anyone who tried to persuade Xan to cross the Blue Water Bridge to Canada.

            For here, claimed amateur psychologists, Xan’s fears turned from something that could be explained rationally to something which crossed the credibility threshold of nearly everyone: Xan was not only certain that there would be a devastating earthquake in Michigan, she was sure there would be a devastating earthquake as she crossed the Blue Water Bridge.

            This fear never would have surfaced had Zach not announced he would be playing on a summer baseball league with a Canadian team, an arrangement that included the inevitability of crossing the Blue Water bridge for games.

            Before this revelation, Xan had simply been known as Zach’s somewhat eccentric (a term applied by those who were sympathetic to Xan’s fears) girlfriend. With the disclosure of Xan’s fear of an earthquake while she crossed the Blue Water Bridge, she became Xan the Great Pretender.

            Nobody was more critical of Xan’s logic than Zach, whom Xan had given the illustrious title of “Light of my world, love of my life.” That Xan could accept criticism from one who she had regarded so highly only fuelled the speculation that she was putting on an act.

            Neither could anyone understand how Zach, a baseball player about to enter his senior year of school and destined for the big leagues, tolerated such behaviour.

            “Just pick her up and lock her in the trunk, man,” said one zit picking observer.

            “Pick a chick who isn’t so weird,” said another.

            If anyone had known the real reason for Zach’s tolerance of Xan’s behaviour, they would have accused him of irrationality far more acute than Xan’s: Zach truly believed Xan brought him luck at the plate and on the field. He based his logic on a hitting streak back when he was in little league and there was no way he was going to take a chance and be without her.

            So Zach felt under an obligation: his decision to play baseball for a Canadian team had unearthed another fear of Xan’s and brought ridicule on her hard, red head and poultry-based parfum. He owed it to her to preserve as much of her dignity as he could (so stuffing her into the trunk was completely out of the question). Xan also felt an obligation: Zach was the light of her world and love her life. She knew she didn’t want to plunge into the icy waters of the St Clair River in the likely event of an earthquake but neither did she want to see Zach fail as a baseball player--and in return blame her for his downfall.

            After many debates, Zach and Xan discovered a compromise that would preserve both Xan’s dignity and Zach’s baseball career: a blindfold.

            As odd as it looked, as strange as it sounded, as irrational as it seemed, Xan would happily cross the bridge if she didn’t have to look or in any way fear her eyes might accidentally open and allow her to view the world from the top of the bridge.

            She also insisted that Zach hold her hand for the entire journey. (“I’m not taking the plunge alone, Zach,” she told him.) This he didn’t mind. Xan had long, elegant fingers that were the envy of many people--none of whom Xan would allow the privilege of either holding or getting a sustained look at, her hands.

            This compromise, this ability to calmly discuss difficulties and find a solution convinced both Zach and Xan that they possessed a maturity far beyond their combined 32 years. The admiration aroused by such maturity even went a little way to make up for the lunacy of Xan’s blindfold and her unshakable belief in an earthquake occurring during her journey over the Blue Water Bridge.

            And so, in the days before Zach learned to drive himself, when it was Zach’s father who would drive them to baseball games, this concession worked almost without trouble. Zach’s father (by now very used to Xan’s idiosyncrasies) had simply sighed and asked that he not have to pull out of traffic in order for them to secure Xan’s blindfold. It bothered neither Zach nor Xan to complete the blindfolding ritual before the car had even left the driveway.

            “Make sure it’s tight,” Xan always said. And when she was sure it wasn’t going to fall off at the crucial moment and with Zach‘s hand firmly holding hers, they would begin their journey. Sometimes, Zach would describe the scenery as they passed through town and sometimes they would just sit quietly.

            Once they passed through customs, Xan knew that with each second, the likelihood of her survival in the event of an earthquake was quickly diminishing. She would tighten her grip on Zach’s hand, sometimes even leaving half moon indentations where her fingernails had dug in. Zach and his father conversed normally for past experiences told them that any assurances about the view, the calmness of the weather, the sturdiness of the bridge or the traditional shout of: “We’re in Canada!“ would result in Xan’s insistence that the return journey be on the ferry.

            Eventually, their journey to and from Zach’s baseball games became so routine, everyone stopped commenting and questioning Xan’s peculiar philosophy. Xan even became something of a celebrity when the local radio station started offering prizes for anyone who could “Spot the red head with the blindfold in the blue Pinto” as the trio travelled through town. The prize would be something small, like a cassette tape or tickets to the cinema. But one afternoon, someone reported a red head with a blindfold in a blue Pinto on a street that Xan was no where near. Zach’s father, who had an innate sense of justice and righteousness, pulled over and called the station to set the record straight. For their next journey, the station sent a purple T-shirt. And the game became “spot the red head with the blindfold and purple T-shirt in the blue car.” This lead to imitations and impostors on such a grand scale that eventually the radio station had to stop the competition because the public had found more fun in creating doppelgangers than they had in actually trying to find the real, blindfolded Xan whose lips never stopped moving in silent prayer.

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