Shadows of Serenity

Chapter One

A flock of seagulls spiraled around the empty parking area, saving their raucous cries until they sailed past the studio’s front steps. Each bird made eye contact with Joyce where she stood on the wide front porch of the white frame Victorian home. They chided her with humorless laughter. The flock had heckled her every day since she moved into the carriage house on the property’s far side at the start of the year. Morning and early evening for a month, they followed her everywhere. Normally, she found solace in the language of birds. Herons, egrets, and anhingas had all welcomed her. But the gulls’ disapproval of the new yoga studio sent a chill down her spine, and she hugged herself tighter. Firmly adhering to the yogic principle of ahimsa, she bore no thoughts of taking action against them but sure wished they’d leave her alone.

With a heavy sigh, Joyce stepped inside to the main classroom. The new sound system filled the spacious back parlor with reverberating crystal bowl notes. Music mingled with the soft patter of raindrops hitting the windows, creating the perfect tranquil environment to welcome prospective yoga teachers.

Joyce inhaled a deep, calming breath. Thankfully, the weather had halted construction on the studio expansion and left behind fresh energy Joyce needed for this important afternoon. The addition of two classrooms, indoor and outdoor spaces from an existing front parlor and small back porch, would be great, but the incessant pounding really got on her nerves.

She lit candles in each window, arranged her floor cushion at the front of the room, and sat cross-legged. She closed her eyes, took a couple of centering breaths, and envisioned her new facility. Like the one she owned before, she wished to see this one filled with eager students who were enthusiastic about learning the ages-old yogic path that had given her so much. Pleased with her intentions, she opened her eyes and smiled at the candlelight. It reflected off the polished boards of the newly laid hardwood floor and the newly cleaned, dark-stained woodwork. It was just as Joyce had imagined when she first saw the neglected structure on the outskirts of St. Augustine a year ago. Now if she could just get some students.

The grating noise of the heavy wooden door opening in the large foyer prompted Joyce to her feet. That loud creak was another repair to be added to her unending mental list of jobs to do. They hadn’t even begun to renovate the upstairs. She walked quickly into the front hall.

“The rain’s really coming down.” Eric smoothed his shoulder length hair back, its light brown color darkened with dampness.

Joyce peered through a narrow leaded panel window on one side of the door. The parking area occupied most of the large front lawn. “I hope it doesn’t keep students from coming tonight.”

“Yes, and I’m worried it might get too soggy out back for the crew to work on the koi pond later this week. I can’t wait to watch how they add the landscape rocks.”

Joyce sighed and glanced at Eric before returning her gaze to the parking lot. “Maybe it’s a good thing. A weather delay might give me time to cancel them. If we don’t have students in this year’s teacher training class, I won’t have enough money. Especially if the other studio doesn’t sell.”

His brow rose. “Did you get a nibble from that lady who looked at the property last week?”

Joyce shook her head and folded her arms tightly across her stomach.

Eric put his arm around her shoulders. At five foot ten, he stood a head taller than her. His chin cradled against the curls that she could never seem to keep in a ponytail. “Like you always tell your beginning teachers, watching for cars to pull in the drive only sends negative energy. I’ll bet a few potential students have changed their minds and driven past.”

Joyce stepped aside. “You’re right. I’m probably turning them away. It’s just this is the last information meeting. The training starts this Friday. Only three showed up at the other five information meetings, and no one signed up for the course. Maybe it was a mistake moving the teacher training to this location. It was successful at my other studio.”

“It’ll work out.” One corner of his mouth rose into something of a grin. “Besides, you couldn’t keep going. Commuting to downtown Jacksonville wasn’t for you or me.”

“You’re right.” Their dating relationship was still new, and she appreciated his encouragement, but it did little to ease her apprehension. “Buying this place was an impulse I couldn’t turn away from. Everything has happened so fast. I hope I made the right decision.” Her gaze darted to the empty lot and then back to Eric, hoping he didn’t notice. “The place has been so overrun by construction workers, it might have deterred students if they drove by earlier. Right now, it doesn’t exactly look like a spot where people can find their inner peace. And the location is odd—a small side road, outside the city, set so far back that no one can see if they drive past.”

Eric grasped her upper arm. “And that’s exactly what you fell in love with. Five quiet acres of woods and sculptured gardens. A great place for you to live, plus this old estate that you’re transforming into a beautiful studio for students. It’s brimming with generations of happy memories, where they can use nature to connect to their inner gifts.”

“I don’t think I did enough marketing to get new students from the St. Augustine area.”

“But clients from the Jacksonville studio who loved you are making the drive and trying out classes here.”

“And I do appreciate their loyalty, but it’s the teacher training that pays the bills.” A strand of hair escaped her short ponytail. She tucked it behind her ear and turned to face the white-washed front veranda. Sparsely decorated, the handful of small potted plants and shabby set of white wicker table and chairs from a garage sale seemed to get lost in the large space. She bit her lip and leaned against the window casing. She didn’t have the money to furnish it as she imagined, with cozy antique tables and chairs where students could feel at home.

“Stop looking outside.” Eric slipped behind the main desk, a curved leg Queen Anne piece that had been a business-warming gift from her previous clients and teachers, and powered up the computer. “Do what you always tell your beginning teachers to do when they fidget while waiting for students to show up—go lay out mats for the number of students you want to show up tonight.”

Joyce straightened her posture and marched to the mat storage bin. She grabbed two armfuls without counting. In the classroom, she quickly unrolled a front row of five. Progressing to the second row, she hesitated and slowly laid three more in the middle. Looking at the pile of remaining mats, she took a breath to steady herself. It caught in her throat as a muffled cough. Thirty-five had enrolled in her last training session at the other studio. She wondered what had made her take a chance on this rundown, more-than-century-old property and mounting debts. She fingered the corner of a pink mat, its pebbled surface clinging to her skin. Surely more than eight would sign up. She unfurled the pink one and then four more. As she fought with a green mat that curled at the corners, the motion of Eric entering the room caused her to jerk her head in his direction.

“Only thirteen?” he called to her with a smile. “Where’s the confident Joyce I know? How about twice that number?”

She glanced at the clock—seven minutes until starting time—and gave a shrug. She turned toward one of the paired bay windows trimmed with wide, dark Jacobean-stained woodwork.

A pair of rain-bedraggled white egrets huddled unsheltered on the bank of the pond. They stretched their necks toward her, tilting their heads to gain a better view inside the studio. Joyce sensed their concern, but couldn’t meet their gaze.

She surveyed the canopy of pines and shivered. Mid-winter evenings set in early, even sooner with today’s gray skies. The rain that calmed her moments ago now seemed to be a destructive force. The cement mixer’s tracks were now mud holes. The deluge cut short the daylight and seemed to be doing the same to her dreams. Had she taken on too much? She’d trusted her business sense from her college training and previous corporate career, but the world of yoga touched lives in unpredictable ways.

The creak of the door in the foyer startled her from her thoughts. She and Eric battled each other to be the first to pass through the doorway.

A tall blond-haired woman greeted them with a wide smile. Rather than yoga clothes, she dressed in jeans that were stylishly frayed and holey. Joyce wondered if the girl walked in by mistake.

“I’m Joyce Runsey, the owner of Serenity Woods Yoga.” She extended a hand. “Are you here for the information meeting about yoga teacher training?”

“I’m Tara.” The girl accepted Joyce’s handshake. “I didn’t bring my yoga mat. I wasn’t aiming to come here tonight until I noticed a brochure for your new studio that I must’ve left on my front seat. I’m glad I saw that in my car since today’s the deadline.” She glanced down at herself, then leaned her head to one side and fluffed her long, golden hair. “Sorry I’m not in yoga clothes. I was on the way to the grocery store.”

“That’s not a problem. We’ll just be talking tonight. I’m so glad you’re here.” Joyce’s face lit with a grin, then fell as she noticed a single mourning dove fluttering on the porch outside the door. Doves seldom left their mates. The solo bird alarmed her, and she peered around Tara for a closer look. Even stranger, the bird clutched a flower stem in its beak.

Tara glanced over her shoulder, and the dove whipped its wings closer to the screen. “That bird’s trying to get in, and look, it’s carrying my favorite flower, a daisy,” she said with a laugh. “Where would it get a daisy in January?”

Joyce shivered and studied Tara, wondering why the lonesome dove needed to deliver that special flower to comfort her.

Footsteps reverberating on the porch chased the bird away, and two smiling women, who appeared to be in their early thirties, peered through the window of the front door.  A brunette with a bouncy ponytail stepped through the threshold first. “Sorry we’re late.” She juggled a purse and a large bag. A yoga mat stuck out from one end of her tote. “I’m Megan. I made a wrong turn…my daughter called, and I got distracted. She’s not used to being apart from me; I’m a stay-at-home mom.”

“You’re not late. Welcome. I’m Joyce, the program director.”

Arms full, Megan smiled and nodded.

“I’m Katie,” the other woman said, extending a hand to Joyce.

“Hi, Katie. Welcome back.” Joyce took her hand into both of hers. “I’m so glad you decided to sign up.” She motioned toward her partner at the desk. “This is Eric. You’ll see him helping out in just about every way here at Serenity Woods Yoga, teaching our new men’s classes, helping at the desk, and—”

“Doing the endless yard work,” he added with a warm smile.

“Please make yourselves comfortable in the classroom.” Joyce waved a hand to the open door. “Find a mat. There are blankets on the side you can fold to sit on.”

“I remember where everything is and will help them.” Katie brushed her light brown hair behind her shoulders and steered her friend down the hall.

As soon as the three entered the classroom, Eric nodded toward the door and gave Joyce a wink. “Look! Laying out mats did the trick.”

A slim gray-haired woman opened the door, and, beyond her, Joyce glimpsed several people walking in from the parking lot.

The laughing gulls continued to swoop at the porch, narrowly missing the gingerbread fretwork.

The approaching students shooed them away, but not one person turned back.

Joyce shook her head and blinked back tears as she welcomed each new arrival.

When she walked to the front of the classroom, eleven students sat up straighter on their mats. She stood near the bay windows and made her usual opening remarks. “In the teacher training program here at Serenity Woods Yoga, you will be embarking on a journey where new doors to self-exploration and discovery will open.” Familiar words she’d said many times during the past three years at her other studio spilled from her lips, while a new energy burst from her heart. Her cheeks rose with a smile. “The ancient art and science of yoga will help you access your inner wisdom to prepare you to share this experience with others through your own teaching.”

The two empty mats caught her attention. The green one now lay perfectly flat despite its earlier fight and the pink one, which wouldn’t let go of her fingers, gleamed orange at its edges. She wondered why those two particular mats remained.

Eric appeared at the door and escorted two students into the room. One was a trim, middle-aged woman. Despite being carefully dressed, she seemed ill-at-ease. The lady fidgeted to take a seat on the folded blanket while keeping her attention fixed on Joyce. When asked, she replied in a soft tone that her name was Susan.

“Sorry I’m late.” A black woman quickly took a seat on the green mat, her long braids falling across her face. “It’s been a hard day.”

“I’m glad you’re here. I’m Joyce.”

“I’m Ricca.” She curled her legs to one side and sprawled onto an elbow.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” Joyce replied, pleased to see the latecomer so at ease. Most beginning teaching students sat rigid and stiff to display their best postures. “It’s been a hard day for many of us. Let’s take a deep breath to center and relax before we begin our talk.”

As Joyce exhaled, she exchanged smiles with Eric who stood in the back of the room.

He grinned ear to ear. He’d been right, just like when she advised her beginning teachers who laid out empty mats that were filled with exactly that number of students. Thirteen students, eleven women and two men, in her first yoga teacher training class in the new studio of her dreams, lucky thirteen.

A single gull cried at the window, and Joyce whipped around. Its beak hung open, gaping in her face. Past the wiggling pink tongue, a message emerged from the dark depth of its gullet: Thirteen steps to a gallows. As quickly as it came, the bird flew away.

Joyce sucked in a sharp breath. She turned toward the egrets, but they had gone. Without looking at the class, she stepped to the stereo, taking an awkwardly long time to select a new song. She inhaled slowly, filling her lungs completely, then released with an extended exhale. The soothing music helped prana flow into her. But as she scanned the room, her hands still trembled. No one’s face showed any sign of surprise. Instead, they waited patiently for her to continue. With a shaky smile, she got everyone on their feet and led a quick asana routine to throw off any lingering negative energy.

© Copyright 2014 Marsha A. Moore. All rights reserved.