The Aviator

I have always liked to think that the birds of St. Michael’s were my friends. They have been with me my entire life, and that’s more than I can say for most folks I’ve encountered. c3afaa327f1a7aa93a40b4bf034479c8Despite the changing of the seasons and endless flipping of calendars, they have remained as constant as the bells that bring in the dawn. The clear and bright sound of their ringing disperses the fog every morning, and with it there is a chorus of beating wings to add to the hymn. I can recall waking up to those bells every day as a child. Now, despite all the changes in my life, the only thing that has changed in regards to how I wake up is the view from the bedroom window.

The only creatures that seem to be alive when I wake up now are the birds. Marvelously humbling creatures they are. Despite how swiftly the river of time flows, it would seem that we will always be craning our necks to see them. Even planes have their limitations, like fuel or bad weather, but birds can fly whenever they wish for however long they choose. Such freedom would be exhilarating I imagine. Back when I was young my life used to be that way. As the youngest in a family of eight my parents and older siblings had very little time to watch me, so I spent my days wandering the cobblestone streets of my town, often throwing breadcrumbs to the birds of the church. Perhaps that is why birds can fly and we cannot. They live so close to God’s own house that it must only be natural that they can almost touch the heavens. At night they all roost in the bell tower. I fear they must be cold at night, the poor little dears with nothing but feathers to keep them warm. I’m always cold at night now. I ask the nurses to add extra blankets to the bed, but they’re the kind that makes the skin itch something dreadful.

I suppose the birds have each other to keep warm. They bundle in tight for the night in their bell tower bed, dreaming of how they will take to the sky come morning. No one else will be awake to see them rise except me. Everyone sleeps in late now. Sometimes I fear that our world has forgotten what a sunrise looks like. God paints the sky every morning, and yet when I stare down from my window I see empty streets. It’s a melancholy sight. Some might call it peaceful, but it only makes me sad. An empty street is a lonely one. There’s nothing to make the ground give off a jolly rattle, and so by leaving them alone they are condemned to sleep. And so I watch the birds take to the sky alone. Up they go, higher than the kites of my childhood could ever hope to reach. I’ve got half a mind to fly a kite right now. What a sight that would be, a woman my age with a kite in town square. Of course, no one would see it anyway. And it’s not as if the nurses would let me go. These days I can’t be trusted to go to the bathroom by myself let alone walk into town. They keep insisting I could fall and hurt myself. Clearly they don’t know how strong my legs are. As a girl, I was the fastest runner in my seventh grade class, boys included. No one could catch me. Every time I tell that story though, the only response I get is that times have change. I don’t see how that could be. I still have the same legs after all. It’s not as though I’ve gone and gotten a new pair. The memory of running like that is still in them somewhere. Of course, I could never run now, but I’m certain I could walk mighty fine on my own. Well enough to get to St. Michael’s at least. It’s only two blocks from here. I can see it from my bedroom window. It’s a lovely sight. Did you know that the bells ring there every morning? It’s like clockwork really. Despite all that’s changed, they’re the one thing I can count on. That and the birds, my darling little birds.

I like to think of them as mine. No one else seems to care much about them now, but I still do. I remember how folks used to feed them. Children would tug at their mother’s arms, asking for pocket change to buy a bag of breadcrumbs. Folks were more compassionate then I think. Or at the very least, they noticed more. Once the streets do wake up, long after the sun has been in the sky I might add, people walk by them in droves, and rarely does anyone seem to see them. Unless, of course, the birds are in their way. If that’s the case people scold them and shoo them, calling them a nuisance among other things. The kind of language one does hear in front of God’s house these days is appalling. And with nothing left to turn to, the birds take to the sky, seeking the kind of warmth that divine love can give. Even with that though, I imagine they must be lonely. They must know how things used to be. They must miss it.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is the world of the morning. When no one is awake but them or I, time seems to echo back on itself. The nice thing about quiet streets is it guarantees I can hear the bells. My ears aren’t what they used to be, and sometimes I fear that if cars start driving early in the morning, I will miss my wake-up call. Then I won’t get to see my friends immerse themselves that melted crayon sky. 8636567709_9f10548eab_mI must confess, sometimes I imagine I am among their numbers. That my fingers have stopped their infernal shaking and that they can crack my window open. From there, I would stand tall upon my ledge and a leap so strong that I would shoot up into the sky. My friends would teach me how to fly then and we’d soar until the town became nothing but a speck. We wouldn’t come down until nightfall, but even then we would share a roost. No more itchy blankets, only soft down feathers. I had a down quilt growing up. My own grandmother had made it by hand, back in the old country. Of course, it was falling apart the last time I remember seeing it. I asked my son to pack it with my things when they moved me. He said it was lost in the journey. But with my bird friends, it would be almost as if I had my quilt back. How lovely that would be!

That would be a dream life I should think; flying clear and free. Everyone around you encouraging you to go higher rather than to stay on the ground. Of course, it will never happen. My wings have been clipped I’m afraid. Instead, I will have to content myself to nothing more than the ringing of bells and the sight of grey feathers among an illuminated morning sky.

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Wolfpack

I grew up running with a wolf pack: my four cousins and little brother. During this time, I became acquainted with the extremes of the emotional spectrum. While other children grew up with family trips to the zoo on lazy Sunday afternoons or matching sweaters on Christmas cards, the children of my family had one binding code: everything we did was done in extremes. Whether it was hide-and-seek with the lights off in my grandparent’s farm house or running wild along the rural roads long after sundown, the children of my family grew up knowing nothing of apathy. Instead, we became a pack built on a rough-and-tumble sort of relationship with the ultimate goal of cementing a sense of dominance within the group. Of course, we had our sweaters and zoo trips as well, but these memories are white noise in comparison to the vivid symphonies of other memories that I can recall.

Among the most animated of these comes from the summer I was in eighth grade, a time when Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games warped itself into my family’s collective imagination. Under its influence, the theme of every game we played became apocalyptic warfare. Together we built a universe in which we, a set of six obnoxious pre-teens, were humanity’s sole hope for survival, and as such we armed ourselves for the fight. What started off as weapons of air shifted into solidity as my grandfather took it upon himself to craft a toy very much not suited to a klutzy fourteen-year-old who felt she was invincible: a bow and arrow.

The bow itself was nothing special, just a limber tree branch knotted with string, but the arrows were another matter. I was given a quiver of wooden dowels sharpened to a point and, to top it off, one real arrow with a metal tip. This arrow became my prized possession, so much so that I took to giving it the nickname ‘Bulls-eye’, even though I never actually shot it at anything. The dowels I let fly at practically any opportunity, but Bulls-eye remained untouched. It was, to me at least, a shot that was only to be used in some sort of cataclysmic circumstance, almost as if the existence of time and space itself rested on that metal tip. Nothing less than the entirety of it unravelling would be worthy enough to oversee its release. And as fate would have it, the universe did fall apart that summer.

They say when Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle to tear his liver out while he remained helpless to do nothing but writhe in agony. When my cousin stole from me, I unleashed upon her the fullest force of wrath I could muster. Such is the way it works when one is living with wolves: pride is everything. The protection of ones ego is held at the highest accord, and my hubris had been called into play through this act of theft. All summer long we had been competing to see who could curate the most spectacular arrangement of rocks, pine-cones, broken class, and any other sort of garbage we could find. To think that my treasury had been looted in an act of what I could only imagine was spite felt like some sort of unforgivable sin to me and that it was now my place to cast supreme judgement.

With the rational benefit of foresight, I see now that my actions were completely out of hand, but in that moment I felt completely rabid. If you want to run with wolves you have to prove that you are willing to sharpen your claws and bare your teeth, and I knew my honour had been challenge to a duel. Without any rational thought, my fingers reached back into my quiver as I prepared to play my ace in the hole.

I can distinctly recall how light Bulls-eye felt in my hand at that moment, almost as if it were weightless. Had it held some weight, it may have even stayed my hand, but it remained as light as the feathers it was adorned with. I inhaled as I drew back, thinking myself akin to Katniss, and for a moment time stopped as I took aim. With tunnel vision I aimed that deadly metal tip at the mess of blonde hair that was now sprinting away from me. It didn’t even occur to me in that moment that her reason for moving was to get away from her deranged cousin with a weapon, only that she was running and I felt I had the shot. With the string of my makeshift bow pulled as taunt as it could be, I let the arrow fly. Blood rushed into my ears, and for a second the world seemed to pulse in tune with my own heartbeat.

I told myself that I wouldn’t miss.

And I didn’t.

Or at least, I hit as much of my target as I could considering the fact that my bow was, quite literally, a tree branch and string incapable of shooting with any considerable force. However, it served its purpose well enough to net my arrow in her mess of golden hair. As the realization dawned upon us as to what I had actually done, we all shared a moment of collective horror. I had shot a weapon. At my cousin. A living, breathing member of my family. All over the fact she had ‘stolen’ a bucket of pine-cones from me. No one said a word, but together we shared a silent understanding; the adults must never know.

There was an awkward pause in which no one said anything, until my cousin slowly pulled Bulls-eye from her hair. She held it out to me, and I tucked it back into my quiver where it remained nothing more than a trophy in a case for the rest of my summers. As quickly as the moment had come, it was gone, and with no time to loose, my wolf-pack family and I hurled ourselves right back into the apocalypse. There we remained, frolicking and feral, until my grandmother called from the house that it was time to wash our hands for supper.

Coyotes Calling Home

I’ve never seen a darker sky than the one that lingers over the rural roads outside my city after nightfall. If that sky and the world beneath it was a canvas, it would be painted a thousand variations of the darkest blues. That’s one thing people consistently get wrong about the night sky. They call it black, but it’s blue. Even the stars are blue here, their yellows sucked out by winter’s chill.

The dashboard clock reads 11:28 and the air behind my brake-lights coughs red as I prepare for a stop sign I can’t see but know is coming. That’s the wonder of the back-roads. Drive them enough and every detail works its way into your system to the point where muscle memory can take over, even though it’s been years since you’ve driven them.

You can never lie to roads like these; they turn time to dust and in doing so make liars of us all.

I stop at the sign and suddenly I am ten again. Summer has enveloped the Canadian prairie and Dad is taking me out into the rural areas outside town practically every day. I fly kites and run barefoot over fields until I know the hills and the roads alongside them like the palms of my hands. He says that this is the kind of summer he grew up with; the kind that makes your feet tough and your lungs strong and puts you in sync with nature. The kind of summer where at night, if you howled at the stars, the coyotes would sing out in reply because they recognized a kindred spirit in your voice. The kind where you learn to see the night sky as blue instead of black, because black is a void but blue is a possibility.

I believed his words whole-heartedly. I still do. Because in that summer I knew my place in the world and the world knew me, but now winter has come and I’ve found myself backtracking, searching for a place I can belong to again.

The dashboard reads 11:34.

I’ve sat idle long enough. Even on roads like these, prolonged pauses are not a safe idea.

I press my foot to the gas and begin to fly, but not before catching sight of two golden spheres glowing in the roadside ditch. As my car pulls away I hear a familiar howling and all I can think is that perhaps there is room for yellow in the night sky and that  I’m not as out of touch with the world as I thought. After all, the coyotes must still consider me their kind, because they’re calling me home.

The Woman of the Moon

The following is a Personal Response inspired by Italo Calvino’s short story “The Distance of the Moon”. All characters are of his creation, and as such credit pertaining to them goes to him.


a3cdab8caba571db1ff4ec95311bd060-1y0upgjThough she has long since forgotten the sight or touch of all that was green, the Woman of the Moon can still hear the Earth calling out to her. She can’t remember the sound of her name or the sight of her own reflection, but she can hear ever roll and pitch in the chorus of voices that seemed to reverberate in her bones as they howl out into space. It is a pathetic sound; it has a tendency to haunt as it looms throughout the atmosphere and yet no matter how hard she tries to block it out, she fails. The endless dogging of misery is what has sent her here, in hopes of some escape, and yet even here she recognizes the sound of its putrid panting.

In response to this she plucks arpeggios out on her harp. The sound calms her and takes her back in time. She closes her eyes, and suddenly silhouettes are conjured. There are cliffs in her memory, running with jagged consistency in the backdrop. There is a Ladder that acts as a cathedral; it connects the heavens to the Earth one rung at a time. Slowly, a hymn of creaking wood and scuffling feet begins, and the Woman of the Moon panes the scope of her dream world down to see what has caused the sound. It is then that she sees him.

Though everything else in her mind has receded to shadow, she can still recall every inch of him. The curve of his jaw, the cut of his build, the dreamy absence in his eyes, and the grace in his feet; she knows it all. She would know him, dreaming or waking, life or death, Moon or Earth for he seems to be the answer to the questions the universe was built upon. He climbs up to her, back to the Moon and all that could have been. Her heart is soaring. Soon so is he as he leaps from the last bar and spreads his arms as he floats down before her. The Deaf One has returned to the Moon with the same easy grace he left it with.

She cannot help herself. She lunges forward, arms stretching out to capture him, and still he evades her. The Woman of the Moon opens her eyes and all that greets her is an empty space where love used to be.

When she left the Earth behind, she had defiance. It curled hot and heavy in her stomach, mingling with lust for she knew that above all else, the Deaf One looked upon the Moon with wonder. So if she lay herself down within the Lunar Soil, she too would be subject to his gaze. The thought had satisfied her and kept her warm throughout the cycles at first, but then came the wailing.

As the Moon drifted farther and farther from Earth, the cries from the planet grew louder and louder, almost as if by the distance of the void in between magnified the connection that had been lost. She knew they did not cry for her, and yet she could not help but wish they did for then she and the Moon would truly be one in the same. Only then would she be able to feel the caress of the Deaf One, even if it was just his eyes gazing up into the night sky. As the cycles had come and gone throughout eternity, she had come to feel grime build around her. Something had been soiled, and the great crescendos from Earth cut her to the bone with mocking. Throughout history, ballads have been sung to the Moon; her face is sketched into history with craned necks and inky fingers. But these songs of lust and longing, they are not for her. She is merely eavesdropping on a great love affair of axis, tilt, and time.

The Deaf One’s passion has never died over eternity. She can hear his voice calling out, though it is distinctly different from the others. While others bawl over what they cannot have, he sings lullabies of satisfaction for the Moon to simply be. He cannot hear his own tune and yet he is content in knowing the Moon can. It threatens to drive her mad with longing.

She pulls a few more chords from the harp, but they cannot seem to overthrow the sound. She cannot weep, for she fears water will push the moon farther from Earth, just as the tides did so long ago, and the voices will get louder, as they always do, hurling through space to pierce her eardrums. Despite it all, she cannot pull away, because then she will lose whatever flimsy, stolen connection she still has with the Deaf One. Misery is better company than oblivion, so she drowns herself in it, listening to his gentle voice among a sea of mourning. It is all she can do, knowing that attempting to not listen is futile and that even if she could, she wouldn’t. His voice is all she has of him now so she keeps it close, allowing it to sheath itself in her heart. In this ache she at least feels something; a cathartic spearing at the hands of eternity with her stolen romance and ancient memories. The Moon spins on, the cries carry out, and the Woman of the Moon takes what little she can into the looming dark of infinity.

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The Rising of the Tide

My grandmother always told me that if I was quiet enough at night, I would hear mermaids singing out on the rocks in the bay. As she sat in her chair, rocking in rhythm with what I was sure was the tide, she’d beckon for me to sit on the footstool beside her and she’d d406d7b903c3e30f3842b7799f95f8af-1lau818-300x204whisper the same stories her grandmother had told her when she was a girl.

Up until I was eighteen, I spent every summer with my grandmother. I’d leave my parents behind the mountains in favour of the British Columbian coast. They were not always eager to let me go, but I always went anyway. The tradition of spending my summers this way had etched itself into my bones in such a way that to not go would be to fight against every fibre of my being. There was a kind of calm to that sleepy house that melted all the stress in my life away the moment I stepped through the front door. All the anxieties I had about school and my future were simply washed away to the back corners of my mind where I would not have to touch them again until fall. Instead, my mind could lose itself in the wonder of my summer world.

At the centre of it all was my grandmother. She was by no means a soft woman, but there was something about her that always managed to make me feel at home. Something about her voice, the way it bubbled as clear and cool as a mountain spring, that lulled itself inside me, until the stories she spoke became the center of who I was as a person. Some people live in a world where numbers and formulas define the chaos of the universe, but for my grandmother and me everything could be explained through stories of sirens and spirit bears.

My life became a world spun of the sailor lore passed down through the family. My grandmother had learned it her grandmother who had learned from her husband; a man who knew the stories of the sea as well as the callouses of his hands. Of course, my grandmother told me, he always told his wife a watered-down version. He was a lenient man in many ways she said, but harshness on a lady’s ears was something he would not stand for. As my grandmother told me this, she’d almost laugh, lean back in her chair, take a long draw from her pipe, and say she wish she’d been told the original version of the story. She said there was something to be taken harshness and vulgarity; that it built armour for the mind and thickness for the skin. And that taking such things as offence was a matter of perspective. I never truly understood what she meant at the time. I think she understand I couldn’t quite grasp the concept, because after she said it there would be a pause, an exhale of smoke from her thin lips, and she would just know it was time to tell another story.

The favourite for both herself and I were the ones about mermaids. And not just the pretty ones with long blonde hair and purple tails, oh no. My grandmother was many things but she was never mundane. In her stories, mermaids were creatures to be reckoned with. Their teeth were sharp, they had tails like sharks, and should they get the chance, they would drown you. Despite all this, she warned me, they were the loveliest creatures on God’s green earth. And it was the loveliness more than anything else that made them deadly. You would become so entranced you would not recognize that they were luring you out into the waves to drown you.

The last summer I spent with my grandmother I must have heard her stories of mermaids a thousand times over. The story was always the same and yet it never failed to pull me in with all the comfort of a hug from an old friend. That story told through the voice an old woman became my safe space. It transported me from a world where I was not ready to face the future and instead whispered promises of a land without suffering. I had been the kind of person people characterized as a dreamer; so, I dreamt myself a world without adulthood or independence. I wanted a space where I only had to be a child kneeling by my grandmother and listening to her speak of a world far more interesting than the mundane. It was a space which gave me exactly what I asked, and more. It was as life-giving to me as the waters of a mother’s womb. So life giving, that I was certain that without my grandmother providing escape to me, I would perish in this world that I could never seem to understand and never seemed to understand me.

Perhaps it was because of my certainty that life decided to test me. Two weeks before the summer of my nineteenth year my grandmother’s time on this world ended. Though she had never been a sailor, she went out with the tide anyway.

For the first time in my life, I was without an anchor. I had lost the only form of escape I had ever known. I was shipwrecked. Marooned. Nothing more than a lifeboat left adrift in doldrums. It was as though every horrible sort of fate a sailor could have had been cast upon me. And here I was, left to face it all alone.

To say I didn’t know how to cope would be to put it mildly. The first two weeks of summer I felt lifeless, as though I no longer knew who I was or where I belonged in the world. I stayed inside and talked to no one. And finally, in the end, I could not deny the calling of the mermaids or my bones any longer. I bought a bus ticket, packed my bags and headed for my summer home.

It was not the same as it had been when I had last left it. There was an anxiety to the air now. Something had polluted its purity. All of culture’s worries and sickness must have clung to my skin and followed me here, and without the magic of my grandmother there was nothing left to keep them at bay. I remember collapsing to my knees in despair.
I must have sent a ripple of force through the room because at that moment my grandmother’s pipe, previously invisible to my eyes, clattered to the floor, and with the noise breaking a silence so pregnant it gave birth to a universal truth, I felt my grandmother’s final act of kindness. In that moment, I remembered not just what she had to say about the realm of the imagination, but on reality as well. How harshness and 00a3a904cb8302ee8216311435308d4c-z5lxhtcruelty were simply matters of perspective. That was when it hit me of how much of a mermaid I had made my grandmother out to be. I had taken her words and drunk them so deeply that I had been suffering of asphyxiation and did not even realize it. She had seen me drowning, done her best to save me, and then once she realized I did not want to be pulled to shore, she had thrown me one last life vest so I could swim myself to shore when the time finally came. In doing so, my grandmother worked her magic one last time.
That night, as I lay in my old room, I opened the bedroom window, swung it wide open. One of the last stories my grandmother had told me before she passed was that when a sailor returns home after a trip at sea, he should open his bedroom window because it allows good luck to grace him as he’s sleeping. As for myself, I had no desire to gain any sort of luck, good or bad. What I did want was to see if I could hear mermaids singing on the rocks by the bay and if their songs would tempt me. As I lay there, I swore I heard the faintest of whispers calling out to me. Promising me stories I could drown myself in until I was so deep in dream that I myself would practically be a fairy-tale.

Instead, I closed my eyes and pulled my bedsheets up around me, promising myself that when the sun rose tomorrow, I would come into reality as the tide came in.

Trial by Fire

 Author’s Note: Penelope Thloloe is a very real, very incredible individual. This short story is nothing more than a fictionalized version of her life based off a prompt (the first picture shown) I was given in English Class. This was written based on the facts solely given from the prompt and is merely an attempt to show my appreciation to a woman who I found inspiration in. 


She stands on a precipice. On a point somewhere between balance and a fall in slow download-1-16bred5motion, almost as if she were moving through water rather than air.The lights of the stage catch and glitter in her eyes; the ballerina holds every breath in the room in the palm of her slender hand.

   However, she sees none of this. Nor does she feel the awe the theatre holds for her. Instead she is only aware of the fact her feet and back ache in such a way that she had not thought possible. Instead she is acutely aware of the drops of sweat pooling on her forehead and how this might distract from her painted on smile. After all, people go to watch ballet to see dancers walk on air, not drown in their own perspiration. Of course, the sweat can’t be helped; the bright lights of the theatre are scorching and the unnatural positions she must hold herself in only manages to burn her insides as well. But despite all this, the ballerina remains poised. She does not move to wipe her brow and instead only smiles wider.

  This is her one and only chance, and she will not lose it to something as trivial as physical discomfort. Not when the outcome of this audition will determine whether or not she holds a spot at the National Performing Arts School of London, a place she has dreamed of attending since her first proper plié.

  With both delicacy and deliberation, the ballerina maneuvers her body and spins. She has long since disciplined the dizziness away and the confusion it can bring, but as she does so, she swears she hears her mother’s voice from long ago whispering in her ear…

  “That’s my good girl. You are as graceful as a bird. You make me proud.”

  She was ten and living on the opposite side of the equator when her mother first said this. And as her mother spoke these words with a smile as big and bright as the South African sun, Penelope Thloloe knew she wanted to be a dancer. She didn’t care that she had taken to the sport far later in life than most who grow to dance professionally. She felt nothing but drive and lightning sparking in her toes, all which pressed her onwards and upwards without fear.

   She stands on a precipice. The outcome of her feathery movements carries the weight of her entire future. One wrong move, one joint or muscle out of place, and everything she will have worked for will be over. At the age of 21, Penelope feels as though she has spent infinite lifetimes on this stage, both dancing with and dueling the unspeakable horrors conjured by her doubts. She feels fear snapping at her heels and  its breath, hot and heavy, on the nape of her neck.

  Penelope knows at first her mother never truly understood why her daughter wanted to be a dancer. The field was competitive amongst  women who trained for this their entire lives by the finest of instructors, let alone a girl who learned from community classes she had taken up on a whim. But how that whim had grown. Of course, not everyone could see that. She knows that when she stayed at the studio after hours, dancing with only her reflection in the mirror for company, her mother would have been sweeping the floor and shaking her head. Wondering why her daughter put more work into dancing than helping keep house. And yet, every day her mother would come to meet her at the community dance hall, and it would be her mother’s silhouette burned into a red sky that would greet her as she swung the doors of the studio wide open.

  But what Penelope didn’t know is that even though her mother never understood the dancing, she did speak the universal language of hard work. And so, she took her daughter’s smooth hand into her own callused ones and whispered…

  “You must fight for what you want, and for what you deserve. Nothing in this life is given for free Penelope. God’s reward system is measured in water. If you are unwilling to sweat you will spend your life walking through a desert. But if you are willing to put in the work, He will lead you to an oasis to drink from. And if you wish to be a dancer, a dancer you will be, but you must never let fear overtake you.”

  And she never had. Until now.

  Penelope can feel the seconds she has left on stage. Time seems to be melting around her, turning the air thick as honey. She can practically feel it sticking to her skin.
The last time she had felt anything remotely close to this, she was twelve and caught in the path of a bushfire. The deadly inferno devoured the world around her, leaving her in the eye of that hurricane of smoke and heat.

She can recall with distinction the startled caws of birds, all of whom soared far and high above the wall of  crackling orange and into a sky of blue so clear that Penelope swore she could see her reflection in it. Just before her mother’s desperate voice and hands would pull her from the flames, she had had a moment where she swore she could follow the birds on their pilgrimage to the heavens. The fire did not seem half as real as that patch of blue that grew fainter and fainter as it was strangled by smoke. The world of the pastm seemed to freeze for that moment .
ballerina-project    The world of now seemed to be on fire. The blackness of the empty theatre seats like smoke, choking her and weakening her knees. The eyes of the judges at the panel hot and burning into her soul. The sweat was running down her face now. Penelope can feel her muscles tensing, refusing to obey in the midst of the silent roaring of the theatre.

  She swears she can hear the scribbling of pens above it all; a muffled sound accompanied by a voice she could only just detect but not distinguish.

  And just as she is about burst with fear and shame, the words of her mother come back to whisper in her ear once more…

  “You are as graceful as a bird.”

  Birds which did not just flee from smoke, but rather rise above it. Birds that sail high to the clear blue of the sky.

  Penelope is a bird.

  The heat from the theatre is nothing more than a thermal updraft for her to rise upon.

  This dance is nothing more than her first flight.

  Penelope bends her legs and springs upwards into the ending of her dance. She leaps then lands, silently and gazes out to all the world before her. Instead of fire, she sees all three judges on their feet, clapping vigorously.

  thumb_COLOURBOX9809480She stands on a precipice. Before her lays a future unclouded, beyond the reaches of any kind of smoke, and now it is hers for the taking. She has seen this place since she was  a child, has always seen it, and its presence drives every step she takes. Though her mother remains on the other side of the earth, she can already feel the warmth of her smile at the words she will soon tell her.

  Penelope Thloloe has found her way out of the fire and taken her place among the birds in the sky.

The Open Road

The thing they never tell you about an open road is that while it’s a long way forward, it’s a much farther way back when you look over your shoulder and see how far you’ve come.open-road
No turns, no budges or bumps or hills, it’s all just flat horizon trailing behind you. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that if you look back over your shoulder and squint your eyes just so, you can see exactly where you started out from. And that point will just sit there, watching you watching it, clucking to itself like the mother hen it is. Going on and on about how foolish you are for leaving when here there’s food on the table and a roof over your head and warm yellow windows smiling brightly at you, waiting to welcome you inside and wrap you up in a blanket all snug and cozy.

  I’ve never been fond of blankets. They always seem to feel like they’re smothering me. And they can itch something fierce. But the worst part about them is that if you stay under one long enough, it starts to feel like your lungs are filling up with the very fabric itself instead of air.

  My mother thinks I’m crazy. A good-for-nothing, lazy excuse of a son who just can’t seem to sit still, shut up and do what he’s told. And maybe I am. I mean, I never did care much for school. Sitting in a desk all day when I could be out doing anything and everything else, who would want that? In fact the only class I ever did like and pay attention in was Mr. McCarthy’s photography class. Now he was something that Mr. McCarthy. He said he’d traveled to every continent at least once, even Antarctica, that he’d been a photographer for National Geographic. Makes you wonder how he ended up teaching high-schoolers in a place as dusty as Rose Hill Tennessee.

  I asked him about it one time. He just sort of looked at me funny for a while before sighing and chuckling sadly to himself. Then he got real quiet for a while before saying,
“My Grandma talked me into it. She told me she wanted her only grandchild to be with her during her last years. So I moved here and I just haven’t left since.” I asked him why. He told me he didn’t know.

  It’s kind of funny because my mother never liked Mr. McCarthy. Or maybe it was that he taught photography, a class she never did approve of me taking. Or maybe it was both. But no matter how you slice it, the fact is she blames him for me wanting to travel instead of just going to community college. Just like my older brother. She also blames him for me not wanting to help her run the family general store, also just like my older brother. The problem is, I’m not my older brother. And why in God’s name would I want to spend my life in Rose Hill when I had an entire world to see? The itch to travel had been pumped into my blood stream and it became the definition of my ambition to get out and see all the world had to offer. Through my own eyes though, not just second-hand sources from other people’s pictures.

  My mother never did understand that. She never really understood me either. Called me ungrateful for not wanting the life she wanted me to want. But I’ve never been the type of person to listen to others and just grovel in submission. So I left.

  The thing they never tell you about an open road is how lonesome it is when you drive it by yourself. Everyone needs someone to talk to, it’s just human nature. But the thing is, I’d rather be on my own and going places I want to be than just stuck in a town that I didn’t want to be in and quite frankly probably didn’t want me there either. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that while it’s lonely, it lets you breath like you’ve never breathed before. It’s invigorating. It justifies every choice you’ve ever made. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that it is the definition of pure freedom.

  I still talk with my brother from time to time. He doesn’t really understand why I left, but he supports me all the same. My mother doesn’t know we still contact each other. My brother says she’s taken all my pictures out of all their frames. It’s like I never even existed he says. My name is now just as much a taboo to her as photography and McCarthy and travel and anything else she decides she doesn’t like.

Not that I mind. It’s good company to have my name compared to. And it’s her fault really. She forced me to make a choice. So I did.

vintage-steering-wheel  The thing they never tell you about an open road is that it sometimes is built with regrets and what-ifs and could-have-beens. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that when you’re looking over your shoulder back where you started, those regrets sometimes seem to rise up out of the ground and wrap themselves around your neck. It’s just like the blanket all over again. But I think the most important thing I’ve ever learned about an open road is that it is so easy to snap your head around, aim your eyes down the road and charge forward, leaving your starting point far behind you. Even though you can always see it, eventually it becomes just a dot in the background of a much bigger picture. And why would you choose to focus on that when you’ve got an entire horizon in front of you, an open road just waiting to be driven off into the unknown?

A Strange Day in July: A Harris Burdick Story

Author’s Note: The inspiration and first line of this piece is not my own. It comes from the Harris Burdick photography set. For those who do not know what that is, I highly suggest researching that before reading. The photograph and first line belong solely to Mr. Burdick, whoever he may be. And on the slight chance he is reading this, I’d like to thank him for the inspirational legacy he has left.


A_Strange_Day_in_July.pngHe threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back. Just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. It was always the third stone that came back. Never the first, or the fourth, or the twenty-seventh; it was always the third stone. It was as dependable as clockwork.

And that was exactly why Benjamin was determined to break the cycle.

It made him angry from the deepest part of his seven year old heart, setting it on fire in the hottest flames he could muster. Fire burning hot with confusion and anger towards things he could not understand or were out of his control. To an adult this was merely a flickering candle but to Benjamin it was like the Chicago fire of 1871 was roaring inside his chest. Benjamin didn’t know much at the age of seven but he knew about that fire. He knew because his great-grandfather had been there.

Some families told stories of crossing the ocean or being descendants of ancient kings or fighting in wars from long ago, but for Benjamin the story passed down to him was always about how his great-grandfather had fought the flames for three days without rest in the same city he now called home. How every adult who told the tale swore up and down his great-grandfather had seen spirits running through the smoke in the sky by the end. Horses and gazelles and even human figures swirling and curling about within the chocking pitch black. And whenever Benjamin asked if that was true, they would all answer yes. It was as dependable as clockwork.

Benjamin had come to hate that too.

He had thought about this as he walked down the grassy hill to the lake the family summer cottage was nestled beside. The huge expanse of cool green-blue lapped against the shore, almost tauntingly, daring him to try again to break the cycle of the boomeranging third stone.

The first stone he’d thrown didn’t even sink because he threw it so hard. Instead it arched its way through the air before meeting the water in a determined ‘cher-splunk’. The second had skipped only once before disappearing beneath the lake’s surface. He had taken this as a good sign. So he snapped his arm back and then forward, sending the pebbling flying. It skipped once, then twice and then a third time. Benjamin held his breath as he waited and watched. Then, just like clockwork, the pebble came bouncing back, akin in motion to that of a small puppy.

Benjamin opened his mouth to scream in frustration, when he heard a giggle behind him.

“It happened again didn’t it?”

Benjamin turned to see a young girl behind him. She crouched behind a rock and was watching him with a lop-sided grin.

“What’re you talking about?” Benjamin grumbled.

“The third rock you threw. It came back. It always comes back.” 18dy0goi5tqoojpgShe proceeded to sit down on the rock and swing her legs. It was then Benjamin took into account her appearance, which could only be described as peculiar at best.

“Why’re you in a night dress? People don’t wear one of them down by the lake.”

“I wear my night dress because I want too. Simple as that. But that’s not important. What’s important is your rock isn’t listening to you.”

“Whadaya mean it isn’t listening. It’s a rock.” To emphasize his point Benjamin picked up a fourth rock and chucked it into the water. Just as always, the fourth one stayed sunk.

“That’s not the rock you’re talking about though. The third rock is what’s special.”

“Says who?”

“Me that’s who! You’re only seven but I’m ten so I know way way more than you do!” She puffed out her chest as if to emphasize her point. Benjamin scowled.

“Ya know what? I don’t care if you’re ten or twenty or a hundred and seven! I’m sick of people telling me what I can and can’t know! I hate it and I hate you!” Benjamin sunk to the rocky shore in a heap of shaking frustration. The little girl watched for a moment before getting off to rock to sit beside him.

“Awww. I didn’t mean it like that! Don’t cry. I’m not here to make you cry I’m here to help you.” Benjamin slowly lifted his gaze to meet her eyes. She continued, “Yeah. And to prove it, I’m gonna tell you why your third rock always comes back to you. But you gotta listen really carefully okay ‘cause I’m only gonna explain once.” If she hadn’t had his attention before, she had it now. Benjamin’s gaze was locked in the eyes of this mysterious little girl.

“The reason the stone keeps coming back is because it’s a present for you from your grandpa.” In the silence that followed, the little girl did not blink. Instead her face remained blank and solemn, as though it were carved of marble rather than flesh and bone. All Benjamin could do was stare for a good minute or so until he found his voice.

“That’s…so dumb. I’ve never heard a dumber more stupider thing in my life.” At this, the little girl’s stony gaze melted away like lava.

“Says who?”

“Says me!”

“You’re only seven!”

“Yeah but I’m not stupid! I know my great-grandpa ain’t throwing no rocks! And besides that has nothin’ to do with why I always get the third rock back! You make no sense little girl.”

At those words she fell flat against her back and stared up at the sky. The wind rustled through Benjamin’s hair and the world brightened as the full extent of the Sun’s power filed out from behind a cloud.

“Most things in life don’t. They don’t make sense at all. People like to think stuff we imagine and the stuff that’s real don’t mix. But that’s not true. And you know it too. Whenever you tell your Mom about the third stone, she doesn’t believe you does she? At least not really. She says she does but she doesn’t”

Benjamin shook his head. The little girl nodded and kicked her feet out, wiggling her toes.

“Not all adults are like that though. A lot are but not all of them. Your great-grandpa is special like that. He gets that imagination isn’t just for dreams.” Suddenly Benjamin felt heat rising in his chest. Not hot like his anger, but rather a strange sort of warmness, unknown but not unwelcome.

“You…you knew my great-grandpa?”

“Sure I know him. I talk to him lots. That’s how I know about why every third stone you throw comes back. He told me so. And he told me it’s him who’s throwin’ them so there!”

It was at that moment Benjamin noticed the lapping of the waves against the shore. Back and forth, as steady as a drum. Whenever his family told him stories about his great-grandpa and the fire, they always said how he had saved countless people by telling them to leave their homes, run out to the shore and wade into the great lake that sat kitty-corner to Chicago. He had said the water would protect them. His family said he saved lives, going so far as to carry a young girl who had passed out from the smoke out to the waves so she would be saved. The smoke had been too much for her, but he had given her family her final moments if nothing else. In thanks, the girl’s father gave him their summer cottage when they moved away after the fire. It had been in the family ever since.

Benjamin thought about this. Then he thought about the fact there was no conceivable way this little girl could know his great-grandpa, who had been gone long before he was born. He wanted to argue with her. To question her. To tell her everything she was saying could not be real.

But something stopped him. A tiny voice, murmuring in with every caressed of water upon stone. So he asked a different question instead.

“What does that have to do with my rock?” The little girl gave him a toothy grin, clearly pleased by his choice of question.

“You throw stones from the shore out to the lake. He’s just doing the same. His way of saying ‘hi’. After all, you’re the third generation since him to use the cottage. He said it would be kinda ‘symbolic’ whatever that means.” With that the little girl got up and brushed the dirt off her nightgown.

“Well anyways I gotta go. I can’t be home late. I wish you were ten like me, but seven is okay. Your grandpa said I had to wait for you to be seven before I could start talking to you. I’ve been awful patient. But I’m glad we can be friends now! It’s nice to have a new friend, even if its only for the summer. See yeah Benjamin!” With that, the little girl waved and ran off along the shore.

Benjamin watched her go until the horizon swallowed her whole, leaving nothing but ripples of her laughter in the air and a few shoe prints in the dust.gray_boat_house_lake_cottage_water_landscape_sea_hd-wallpaper-1980231

The next day, he ran down to the lake side as usual. And like clockwork, he began to throw stones. The first skipped five times, a new personal best. The second almost went three but he had put a bad spin on it so it wavered as it sunk. Then came the time to throw the third rock.

He felt a tingle in his fingers as he rubbed them across the smooth stone surface. At this point a part of him still wanted to break the cycle, to fix it in a way he could understand but now there was a new feeling as well. A feeling content to not question the unknown but instead allow it to just be and relish in that.

So as Benjamin through his rock out onto the open waters of the lake, and that same rock came bouncing back to him, he laughed instead of feeling angry or confused. And if anyone ever asked, he would swear up and down that a ten year old girl, a great-grandpa he ever knew but considered a friend and the lake itself laughed with him. Because in the heat of July and the heart of a seven year old boy who is willing to believe, who’s to say what’s strange isn’t real, and what’s real isn’t strange.

Redwood

11428980715_f39da7b7fb_oFact: The average Californian Redwood stands well over 300 feet tall at its maturity. They are a species of tree so majestic, so impressive, people from far and wide journey to the sweeping coast of California to see them; wanting to see for themselves whether or not the photographs lie.

The truth is the pictures do not do them justice.

And how could anyone expect them too? Pictures don’t show the liquid kaleidoscope of light on the forest floor, the way even the tiniest rustle of wind can shift that mosaic of leaf and shadow. Flung along within that wind and dampening the air float mingling hints of spray from both river and ocean. The roar of these not so far off bodies of water stand backdrop to it all, humming the never-ending hymns of this ancient world. No moment in the Redwoods is ever the same twice. And attempting to catch details of that one moment with an imprint of light on paper is laughable really. The only sort of impression that can do the Californian Redwoods justice is that of one made on the mind.

My first memory of the Redwoods comes from when I was four. It was my birthday and my parents were going to take me to the magic forest where they fell in love.
To an adult these trees are dwarfing; to a child they are infinite. Little neck craned up at the heavens, it was impressive I didn’t topple backward from straining my gaze so high.
I remember clouds intertwining with the tops of trees and I swear at that moment the canopy was playing doormat to the golden gate of heaven.

“I found out where the angels are,” I informed my parents solemnly as I pointed to the treetops. They laughed and Dad bent down to ruffle my hair.

“Angels eh? That can’t be right kiddo, you’re down here not up there.” And with a scoop of his arm I was up on his shoulders, feeling almost as tall as one of those trees. Mom pulled out the camera with a smile and snapped a picture.

It does not do the memory justice.

Fact: The average Californian Redwood lives to be almost 700 years old.

The average human lives to be around 70.

My father outlived neither.

In the end it was an accident. Slippery roads and too much fog and suddenly all that’s left of Daddy are a tombstone that bears his name but not his face. The man who loved trees and forests and everything about nature, as though they were both his parent and child all at once lies still, buried in a wooden box. It surprises me still that Dad didn’t spring up and out of that hole in the ground and chastise us on killing trees on his behalf. It makes me doubt on if that was even really him in there.

Is there any way that he could lay still in the cool dark of the earth, surrounded by what was once forest, but without the spinning of the kaleidoscope. This is the man who refused to put hardwood in our house because he said it made him nauseous. There is no way he could rest easy without that ever-changing shimmer of light and shadow. And even if it was there, it would pale in comparison that of the day I turned four.

That moment was perfect.

That moment is long since gone.

It’s been almost five years now since the last time I saw my Dad and what we could have had still haunts me. All the days we could have spent together. The stolen glances and murmured words him and Mom could have shared when they thought I wasn’t listening.

All of it gone.

Uprooted.

And since then, I haven’t been able to stomach the thought of going back to the Redwoods. Mom has offered that we could go, just the two of us. With a gentle hand tucking loose strands of hair behind my ear she’d say that he would want us to keep visiting the forest and that he’d see it through our eyes.

Biting my tongue was all I could do from asking why he didn’t just see it with his own.

Fact: The Californian Redwood is an endangered species. Logging and pollution and practically every other foul thing humanity does have finally made an impact so gargantuan it threatens the very existence of the tallest living beings on Earth. It is a hard truth to swallow. Looking back on it, I think that might be why Dad loved the Redwoods so much. Not just because they are beautiful but also because they are precious and need protecting. And maybe, just maybe, he saw angels in that forest too.

And as I find myself finally standing once more among the Redwoods, all I can think about is that Dad must still be here. Sitting up on a cloud in the canopy, one too many strains of the neck out of view and watching me. I almost feel like asking him if he’s watching me, if he’s been waiting.

The truth I’m not sure why I’m here. I had taken the car out driving and I had ended up here. The first beams of morning light were beginning to catch in the fog, painting it baby pink. The kaleidoscope sighs in response and begins to pick up the pace of its dance, energized by the dawn.

“Hey Dad…it’s been a while. It’s my birthday, but you already knew that… I’m sorry I haven’t come to see you before. It’s… been hard.”

My words are greeted by an epiphany.

IMG_0388-266x400No forest is ever truly silent or still, but I swear at that moment even the river and ocean have fallen mute. And for a heartbeat I can feel both him and the forest listening. With the heart of a child and the body of a young woman I almost wish the forest would replay the part of its ancient song I first heard when I was four. I wish but I know it won’t come true. No forest is the same way twice. And even if it could be, I’ve already made it break one of its rules today.

So I compromise. I finally turn my mind away from memory and allow myself to see the real world before me.

It is still not perfect.

It is still not the same.

But that does not mean it isn’t worthy of notice.

Bird song begins to fill the woods and that is when I know the Redwoods are finally beginning to awake, however groggy they may be. I find myself noticing wet on my cheeks. I don’t remember starting to cry.

I try to find my voice to let Dad know I’m leaving but it catches in my throat. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid. Dad did always say our actions speak louder than our words.
And so that is why decide as I get back behind the wheel, head much clearer than when I first came here, that the thing I want most for my birthday is to plant a tree.

The Oxymoron of Mary

When I tell people my name is Mary, most don’t understand it. They comprehend that it’s a name with four letters, two syllables and one and a half vowels because really ‘y’ only counts half the time, but most don’t see past that. And for the few that do, all they hear is Biblical allusions to the Mother and a Follower. Nothing more, nothing less. Mary is a common name, but not mine. Not my Mary, not me.

It’s spelled the same and sounds the same true, but it’s different.64cfe8ea6a810cee5a976006f36fb892

My mom used to tell me she picked the name on a whim. How she was sitting on the level-crossing gate one day in July, thunderstorm on the horizon and five months pregnant to boot, watching trains go by.

She always talked about how much she loved trains. The mighty power behind all that steel and iron and the idea that something that heavy could go so fast. She said the oxymoronic nature of it all amused her to no end. So whenever she was sad or scared or lonely or maybe even all three, she’d go out, sit on that gate and watch the trains go by.

And on this particular day, when she couldn’t tell the difference between the rumpling of the tracks and the thunder of the sky, she saw a brand name on one of the car crates. ‘Merry Shipping Co.’ was plastered in big white letter on the side and as it rolled before my mother’s eyes, something clicked. I was christened at five months old, named by both chance and fate in such a way that made perfect sense and yet none at all.

Most Marys are named after other Marys. I was named after a shipment company and I’ve yet to meet another Mary who has been. But that’s only the first half of why my name is different.

See, though I was christened at five months, I didn’t actually get the name until three weeks after I was born. Mom just couldn’t bring herself to name me because the moment I popped out, pink and mewling, from her womb, my father was gone.

When I used to ask my mom about my father she’d say she was young and crazy and in love. That’s all she would say. Never anything specific, never anything about him. It was through others that I learned as much as my mother loved him, love wasn’t enough to prompt him to leave his wife.

Love was not enough and so my mother birthed me by herself and two days later he was gone. Packed up his clothes and furniture and his wife and moved somewhere else.
My mother christened me Mary on a whim after a shipping company on a train she saw before I was born. But she didn’t name me Mary until much later. Once she found her voice and stomach again and forced herself to look at her child.

His child.

Their child.

She had told him she wanted his help in picking out a name. He told her he wanted no part in naming a mistake. And then he shut the door in her face and she walked, sad and scared and lonely, to the crossing gate and started watching trains, her favourite oxymoron.

The name Mary sounds like the word merry. Merry means to make happy or bring laughter. That’s what every other Mary or merry means. But what makes my Mary so special is that like the train that named me, it’s an oxymoron.

Because while I brought my mother happiness, I also brought her sorrow, and pain. I drove away the man she loved. And I don’t quite know how to forgive myself for it. I don’t expect her to forgive me.

thundercloud-stormI know she isn’t angry, she never was, but at the same time there are days when I see hidden thunderstorms behind her eyes and I wonder if on the day I got my christening, she sucked some of the storm into her lungs and let everything she had all tucked up inside rage on there. And I wonder if on the day of my birth, if that storm leaked out a little, exploding at the fact he wasn’t there and that there was a moving van in front of his house and that he wouldn’t even grace me with a hello and her with a goodbye.

My mother’s storm rages on to this day, but I know she isn’t angry. Not with me, but rather what I brought about. And I don’t know how to change this, to make her see I am looking for redemption for things out of my control. And every time I try to find the heart to say this to her, my tongue tangles up and it makes me uncertain about if I’m really me or rather a series of results. If I’m the Mary she named after a shipping company or if I’m a different Mary all together.

Or if I’m both and neither, yet another perfect oxymoron. After all, Mary is a name with two syllables, four letters and one and a half vowels because really ‘y’ only counts half the time. I am two Marys and yet I am both and neither. And to my mother, no matter how much she loves me, I can only really count half the time because half of what made me is long since gone.

And in my looking for redemption, as I crawl across the caverns of my heart searching for answers to questions that have no name I find it. I find it watching trains roar by and though there’s no thunderstorm on the horizon, there’s one taking root in my belly.
In big white letters graffitied on the side of a box-car are the words ‘LOVE YOURSELF’.

And something inside me clicks. This is my answer to all my questions.

And yet, I cannot quite bring myself to use it.

So I tuck it up inside the back of my mind, christen it ‘Hope’ and promise myself I’ll find gilr-walking-on-trackuse for it someday. That I will try to do this so we can both restore what stolen from use by

 

a man who drove away two days after the child he fathered was born. And if I can learn this, then perhaps she can have it to.

But until that day I will just have to content myself to watching trains roll by.