By: Ayse Artun
Castilleja High School, California, USA
When we were growing up, we dug and filled a pond in the woods behind our house. In the summertime, after lunch on those hot Southern days, we pulled on our bathing suits and ran barefoot through clumps of poison ivy, moss, ferns, touch-me-nots, before throwing ourselves from the dry bank into the brown water. If we were quiet and still, we could watch shiny black water beetles scuttling across the water, stitching it together with their bodies. We moved again, splashing water up towards the sky to see how its droplets snatched fragments of afternoon sunlight. When our fingers and toes were soft, pruney from hours of play, we climbed out of the water and up to the house, letting the breeze dry our wet bodies. Changing out of our bathing suits and into our play clothes, we leapt off the back porch into a cargo net that our grandparents suspended between the house and two trees. We pretended that we were jumping out of airplanes until it got dark outside—when the lightning bugs came out, and the frogs started to hum, and Mama gave us glass jars so we could catch lightning bugs until our sweaty palms smelled sweet like their secretion. Then we went inside to eat dinner, and after that we sat on the back porch rocking back and forth in our chairs with a lamp shining from a nearby table. It was there that we breathed in the sweet scent of pine trees and flowers and grass, all mixed up with the smell of a crisp Appalachian chill. Mama and Daddy played bluegrass and folk songs on their guitar and mandolin, and we sang songs about Darcy Farrow, and picking apples, and coats of many colors. I miss those days. I miss the pond and the house and the music. Sometimes I forget that I’m grown up, that the pond dried up years ago, that my family sold the house. I think that I can go back there, to those long summer days when we were growing up. But then I remember. I have nothing but memories to take me home.
I quest for a known face amidst all of the unknown stares and looks. My eyes search through the crowd expecting you to see me, but for you I was only a sheet of paper that you randomly flipped over. We have pinned our memories into these chapters, moving from a beautiful rainbow to shades of grey. Black and white as our days are, I seek refuge in your heart.
You move me gently without saying a word. We stare at each other and do not talk. Words don’t come easily. Silence cuts the only string that once connected our hearts. In that silence, I feel your presence and understand how beautiful you are– and were– to me.
Your face, which was once so close, is now a distant object. An object at which I can only look and admire. You came like a spark and destroyed my universe.
I struggle to speak in the way that I struggle to write this piece of writing– trying out words that fit with my emotions, trying hard not to let this miracle disappear. I agree that, most of the time, these feelings are all or nothing. At times, I feel everything. I understand that the emotional attachment that was once so profound was with you. Other times, I feel nothing. Feeling “nothing” is so different. No bubbling of happiness, anger, hatred, or anxiousness. Nothing at all.
The little curve that I try to bring upon my face is fake, I say. Maybe one day I will realize that you were never meant for me. Maybe this day is too near, or too far. For now I am just happy with the absence of words
which always gives me company,
Bria published her poem “Say Something” in the spring 2017 issue of Voices & Visions. We are excited to share her visual performance below and feel that its attention to place aptly aligns with our fall theme, “Environments.”
I walked through shadow after shadow, counting the trees by the neat lines that they dropped in my path: alternating beams of grey and gold, steadily lengthening as the sun plunged low into their ranks. There was hardly any sound that evening, save for my own breathing and the tireless murmur of the waves. I found myself alone on a cool beach, walking on ocean-worn stones spotted with ageing salt and kelp. In turns they appeared like shining jewels or dull rocks, depending on whether the sun or tree-shadow caught them first.
It was a beautiful night, after a successful day. But I wasn’t happy. Looking out along the beach, catching the slight movement of other people meandering in the distance, I felt only tired. I’d been congratulated by a hundred voices, caroused with a dozen friends, consumed a few too many beers… I’d done everything I’d planned to do, but I was not happy.
The morning came, and the moon hid his face in the pale clouds. Undressing in the crisp morning air, I played scenes from the future through my mind, imagining a day to remember. In my mind, I told a joke and imagined his response.
I wrote all day, pouring out the thoughts that huddled in the corners of my distracted mind. I could not stop as he drew near; I could not focus on anything else. Closeted in my small beach house with only a bedroom and kitchen, I waited for time to take the hours away.
He came to me from the West like the rising moon overcomes the sun. I saw him walking up the beach, carrying the old suitcase that he always held onto, no matter how many times I told him to trash it. I met him outside of my little two-room house, and he smiled. His teeth were pale in the light of the rising dusk.
Down to the gentle waves he washed me. I remember rolling up the cuffs of our jeans and wading in the chilly water. We were both covered in goosebumps that night; I felt them on his forearms when we touched.
As the tide seeped out, we found a wide, flat rock and lay down on it. He told me about the moon. It was a waxing gibbous, gently rising over our heads, pale face showing in the settling night. I remember the way his voice mixed with the whispers of the water, ebbing and flowing with the waves. I closed my eyes and listened as hard as I could, imagining this moment lasting forever.
“Are you happy?” he asked.
I looked up at the moon’s shy face, lightly veiled by a wisp of cloud. His arm lay across my chest, his hand over my heart. He always loved to feel the beating of my heart. He said that it made him feel safe.
The clouds were gone from the moon when I finally thought to respond, but it was too late. His face was slack and peaceful, his breathing as measured as the waves. Gently, I stroked his cheek.
“Yes,” I said to the silent air. “I’m happy.”
“What are you looking at?” I asked him in the morning.
He stared out across the cold waves, stubble blurring the cut of his jaw. Grey eyes reflected the hazy light; his sandy hair was damp from the fog. He didn’t spare me a glance when he replied, voice low and measured like the waves.
I laughed. “The world?”
He didn’t smile back like I thought he would. Instead he just looked at me with those stormy eyes.
“It’s out there, Walt. It’s not here.” He turned back to face the waves, eyes narrowing. I heard the bitterness in his voice, usually so soft. “Nothing’s here.”
Taken aback, I swallowed, working through my confusion. I saw the precipice ahead, yawning wide with possibility.
“You want to go?” Those were the hardest words to say.
Somehow sensing my fear, he blinked, truly looking at me for the first time. “Go? Well, I mean—yeah. But not without you. I want you to come with me.”
My heart quickened. The air was suddenly filled with a subtle electric charge, seeping out of the morning fog. “Where?”
He reached out and took my hand; his palm was rough and calloused, while mine was soft and smooth. We were like the rocky beach and the soft waves, meeting along the surf, blending together before parting.
I should have known then that the tide would recede.
When I searched for his gaze, it was turned back out to sea, grey eyes reflecting the shrouded sunlight. “Europe,” he murmured.
He spoke as if he could see the continent already, just standing there on that rocky beach, watching the sun rise over the waves. And when I looked into his eyes, I believed it was true. I saw Europe too. I saw the times that we would have. I saw us together, and I smiled.
“Sing me something,” he said abruptly, not turning his gaze from the horizon.
Obediently, I took up my guitar from the salt-stained Adirondack chair by the front door. He sat down on the ground, eyes narrowed against the sun’s ever-brightening light.
“One of the originals,” he said.
I sat down beside him and began to play. When I sang, he hummed along in a deep baritone. That day we watched the sun rise over the Atlantic for the last time.
Last, I put on my socks. Closing the suitcase, locking the door, I said goodbye to that little beach house. I handed the deed to a friend of mine. In two years, that house—and all of the trees around it—would be bulldozed to make way for multimillion-dollar vacation homes.
I never went back to that beach.
We decided to go by plane. I had some savings, and he had a plan. We met at the airport just as the sun was setting; our flight was a late one. Sitting together outside of a Dunkin Donuts, sipping blueberry coffee, I started to wonder if this was the right thing to do. I looked at him. We’d only been together for three months.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked impulsively, setting down my cup.
He was watching the people walking past with a lively, anticipatory expression on his face. At my question, he frowned and turned to me, the excitement fading.
“Sure about what?”
“Going away. Just dropping everything.”
Casually, he checked his watch. “Walt, our plane’s in twenty minutes. It’s a little late to be second-guessing.”
“I know—it’s just…” I trailed off, staring at him. He raised his eyebrows, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“So?” he asked, lips quirked into a lopsided grin. “Where do you want to go first?”
“First?” I shook my head. “You’re insane.”
He turned back to watch the people passing by, the stupid grin subdued into a smile. “I know I am. I want to see Amsterdam, or Berlin.”
“Our flight is to Heathrow.”
He bobbed his head distractedly. “Yeah. That’s just a place to start. Then we can go to Paris and Milan. Beijing. Don’t you want to see Dubai? Oh, and we’re definitely going to Moscow later in the season.”
“Season?” I blurted. “Whoa, there. I don’t have that much saved. How long were you planning this vacation to last?”
“Vacation?” He blinked, turning back to look at me. “This isn’t a vacation, Walt. This is living.”
We saw London first. Straight off of the plane into the driving rain, we called a cab that took us into the city. I remember a wild weekend of pubs, walking, taking pictures, eating chips out of newspaper and getting lost on the way back each night. Then we drove into the country. We collected fossils at Lyme Regis, took the Oldenburg to Lundy. Hiking across the island in a single day, I gathered bones and feathers, and played my guitar at the tavern that night. Then it was back to Bridport, and up to Scotland.
It was hard to keep up at times. He moved with single-minded vigour, sweeping into an area, seeing all there was to see, then leaving before we’d had time to fully adjust to our surroundings. I had hardly registered that we were in the UK before we were flying to Paris, and suddenly everything was in French. I played guitar on the bank of the Seine, and he took pictures. His camera captured more than my eyes could take in, at the speed we were moving. Always, he was taking pictures. A few times I asked stranger to take one of the both of us, but he was never satisfied with the result. He wanted the sights—only the sights—while I longed for the memories. In this way, we sped through France.
Spain came next—nights full of wine and sweat and stars. Though we didn’t stay long, I saw many couples like us. He wanted to keep going, so we found ourselves in Germany. We walked the streets filled with pensive men, pensive writers, pensive onlookers. Their thoughtfulness rubbed off on me, and I carried it to Moscow, and Beijing, and Shanghai. We never went to Dubai, but instead to Chennai, Mumbai, and Singapore.
I ceased to watch the sights. Instead, I beheld my friend. I watched him smile at the sky; I watched him laugh at the clouds; I watched him talk about the hills. I watched him watch other men, other places, other sights. I watched him look at everything—everything but me.
It began to dawn on me that I was not travelling with a man who loved me as I loved him. The reality was so cold, so pure and clear— it was like a measured incision. I watched the cut be made, and I felt the pain, but then the anaesthetic took effect, and I was numb. I still saw the blood spreading from the wound, but my brain replaced real pain with a phantom. I knew that I still loved him just as much as when we’d begun. I couldn’t stop loving him just because I saw the truth.
My savings ran out in Mumbai, and I barely followed him to Singapore. The night we arrived in our hotel room, eating greasy takeout out of Styrofoam, I told him I couldn’t go on. In eight weeks we’d visited eight countries. I had no money left.
“Let’s go home,” I pleaded.
He stared out the window. It was dark, and the only view we had was an alley. I realized then that he never looked at me when there was somewhere else to imagine, somewhere else to be.
“I can’t. I can’t stop, Walt. You know that.”
It was the answer I’d expected, but I couldn’t take it, even then. Even after everything. I forced myself to confront the blood, and bear the incision he’d made.
“I love you,” I said, though it came out in a mumble. I didn’t have the energy to add volume or power to my words. “But this is too fast. I can’t live like you do. I need to go back.”
He nodded, still looking out the window, at the shadowy form of a concrete wall.
In the morning, I called a cab. I left my guitar in the hotel room.
At the airport, I watched people passing. I sat for hours, my muscles aching, my head aching, my heart aching. Night came, and they made me leave. I barely caught a cab; when I got in, I didn’t know where to go, or what to tell the driver. When she asked for the third time, I gave her my friend’s address. She grunted and took me there.
I climbed the steps to the apartment with heavy feet, wondering what I was doing here. He was in Singapore—or, in all likelihood, on to a new place, taking pictures of lands that would never feel his presence, never remember him like I did. When I reached his door I sat down against it, burying my head in my hands. I stayed there for the rest of the night.
In the morning I left, and just walked. I didn’t know where to go, but I stopped at a gas station and picked up travel brochures. The Rockies, Niagara Falls, Lake Huron—I sat with them at a bus stop and thought of travelling. When the bus came, the brochures stayed on the bench.
I was done travelling.
The weeks and months began to slip away, and summer was ending. One night, I slept in an old tobacco barn. I fancied I heard the ocean. That night there was no moon.
My life was on hiatus. I remember that it began again sometime in late September, in Louisiana. I was sitting outside of a dingy crab shack, watching people as they walked past me along the pier. A scene caught my eye:
It was like an Elizabethan dumb show or a health insurance commercial, depending on your life view. A pristine white sail dominated the background, fully illuminated in the southern sun—but that was not what struck me. Two young men stood facing one another. Friends, or more, I couldn’t tell. They were bidding each other goodbye.
The scene was not large, and it hardly attracted the attention of those who passed, but to me it was everything. They hugged, and the nature of their relationship unfolded before me with their delicate kiss. I thought it a bold thing, out in the open in this southern state. Those men didn’t care. They embraced, and I looked away rather than watch them depart.
Staring at my can of Corona, I wondered how many partings were happening like this one, all across the country, the world. I pictured San Francisco– men in bars, on the streets, holding hands and talking. Sharing. Loving each other. Not one of them was alone.
I hadn’t written a word since going to Europe. That night, I picked up my pen.
I wrote about endings.
On my last day in Louisiana, I walked along a suburban street, meditating in the sweltering heat, relaxing my body and mind. I found some shade under a large, sprawling oak tree covered in moss. It reminded me of those trees in New England that no longer exist—a relic of the life that I’d left behind.
Casting my gaze up through the branches, I counted the spaces between light and shadow, between sun and shade. I remembered.
It might have been a hope for the future—for another friend, another companion like the one that I had lost. Or unlike, perhaps. I had dealt enough with wild spirits, with athletes. Maybe what I needed was a scholar like myself, an academic.
Or maybe it was a thought of that past, of those times walking the cold beach in early spring, pale moon overhead and the gentle murmur of the Atlantic in my ears, which always let me know my bearings.
Whatever it was, I knew that I couldn’t leave the tree without taking something along with me. I reached to the lowest branch and snapped off a twig, bending it idly between my fingers. Almost satisfied, I made to go—but then my eyes returned to the truncated branch, and I saw shreds of pale moss hanging, neglected and unsupported by their absent perch. They hardly moved in the sluggish, humid air.
I made up my mind that day. Gently, I peeled the moss away as well, wrapping it carefully around my twig, so they might not be parted again.
This small token came with me to San Francisco, joining me in a new life. A new city, full of men like me.
I left the oak alone, as I could never be.
Welcome to our Spring 2017 issue of Voices & Visions, rooted in the theme of “Peace.” We are honored to present the works of twenty-one young women authors and artists who attend women’s high schools, colleges, and universities worldwide.
As editors, we were surprised to find that many contributions to this issue portray situations which are far from peaceful. Rather, the acts of seeking and grappling pervade. How to find internal peace amidst external tension? What is the delineation between peace and positivity? Do notions of peace exist only by contrast? Is peace an idea; a feeling; a mindset; a question? How might we practice peaceful resistance to affect change? This issue inspires us to ask such questions by providing a space in which women, often looked towards for making and maintaining peace, may shine a light on the nuances of the word– reminding us, perhaps, not to conflate peace with passivity.
Often found in the time-slowed moments which we call poems, or the meditative spaces of prose; the motions of drawing and painting, or the still-life subject of a photograph, peace– like art– is a product of creation. We would like to thank our authors and artists for adding depth to our perspectives and hope that you, readers, will start your own quests for peace here.
The Voices & Visions Editorial Team
“I was born and raised in Cameroon and moved to the US at the age of 10. Because I’ve been judged so much because of how I look and being African in general, I thought taking pictures and recording videos [would] be the best way for me to express myself and my vision. The whole purpose behind this picture was to show how beautiful black is. It was all inspired by the things I see on social media and hear about black women being loud, ugly, etc. So I took it upon myself to do this shoot with one of my very good friends. I just wanted to capture the structure of her face and the even pigmentation, plus the little flaws about her complexion.” –Afor Foncham, photographer
When we were torn apart,
twins once conjoined,
a wall rose between us.
We spoke through messengers,
red telephones and cold warriors.
I’ve never been scared of what I’ve done before.
I’ve never been scared of what you’d do.
I lose thoughts to you every day.
We built this together, brick by brick.
We let our differences divide us,
and now lie in pieces,
in the middle of a staring contest
between nations, a test of wills.
If I destroy you, annihilate you,
I annihilate myself.
This has nothing to do with love.
This has everything to do with love.
Inspired by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, written in response to the following video:
These animals heard blood rolling under the earth.
They came in wide swaths across the plains,
Great Buffalo with heads bent and hirsute
called to that spot in dreams,
a shadow passing through the canvas of the tent.
Thousands stopped to listen to the rumble of them,
to yip from the tops of trucks while the pump of bullets
popping rubber against skin made maps of their ribs,
dark purple budding in wide circles above cartilage.
Over here, the grasses turn brown and then black with
soot from the flames that sleep in the blades of them.
I see a woman pacing with her child at her breast,
his mouth open wide to the aftertaste of sacrifice.
The Dampara highway was abuzz at peak hour with vehicles of all shapes and sizes. A cacophony of shrill horns began at 8 pm. With office-goers returning home, trucks leaving the city after a day of carrying and selling raw materials, and long route buses coming and leaving, everyone was rushing towards their destinations.
Amongst this chaos of life, no cars pausing for even a millisecond, let alone making way for pedestrians to cross, three friends were stuck. After a nice evening out, these friends found themselves on one side of this highway, but needing to cross to the other.
After fifteen minutes of futile attempts to bravely put one step forth, these friends decided to approach the traffic police, their last hope; otherwise, they would have to stand there and wait until peak hour was over, an hour and a half away.
The traffic policeman seemed dejected– tired from the heat, the dust in the air, and the constant discord unique to unrhythmic shrieks of honking from an assortment of vehicles on a Bangladeshi road – rickshaws, CNGs, taxis, cars, vans, minibuses, tempos, buses, trucks.
The traffic policeman looked incredulous as the three friends asked him for what seemed impossible – to cross the damn road. Nevertheless, he nodded bleakly, out of responsibility as a uniformed officer if nothing else. His attempts were halfhearted, though, and who could really blame him? The ferocity and velocity with which each vehicle passed was beyond the hands of a mere traffic officer to stop.
Another ten minutes trickled by painfully, frustratingly, and it was still impossible to cross. Prottasha, the protagonist of this short story, stomped her feet in irritation and then paused, closed her eyes, took a deep breath to calm her nerves, looked at the other two sharply and said, “Follow me!”
She grabbed the hand of one of her friends, who in turn grabbed the other’s; she looked right before confidently striding across the road, her free hand authoritatively held out at the oncoming vehicles. With her palm and fingers outstretched, she walked forth, an image of Prophet Moses crossing the Red Sea, seeming a miracle-worker to her friends as vehicles stopped short of hitting them as they crossed.
What went through Prottasha’s mind at that exact moment, nobody can tell, but her friends surely had gone into shock. They walked quietly behind her, their eyes wide with terror and disbelief, their mouths a little parted, words failing them as Prottasha guided them to the other side with the same confident long strides. Her friends’ feet shuffled and marched behind her of their own volition.
As soon as they reached the other side and the whirl of movements resumed on the highway, as if someone had hit the pause button and now hit play again, the two friends finally snapped out of their trance of terror and stared at Prottasha for a whole minute before throwing a jumble of questions, accusations, and comments her way:
“Are you crazy?!”
“Why did you do that? What if we had gotten hit?!”
“Oh god, my heart is still hammering in my chest!”
“My whole body is trembling.”
“You are crazy!”
“It was sheer luck we made it through!”
“Who even taught you to cross the road like that?!”
It was that last question which produced a reaction from Prottasha, who so far had been silently looking at her friends and letting them rant. She said, indignantly and boldly, “My dad.”
The response immediately brought a cold chill and silence to the group, as the two friends looked ashamed and apologetic. They could only muster a soft, surprised “oh!” and a mumbled whisper of “I’m sorry” in answer.
“I’m sorry for making you cross the road like that. I understand it seemed completely reckless, but how long were we going to just stand there and wait? Someone had to take action; even the traffic police didn’t help!”
One of the friends answered meekly, “I’m sorry for the tone I used earlier, I did not mean any disrespect to your father, but you do realize that was no way of trying to solve the problem– it was very risky!” her voice getting stronger near the end.
“Did you have any better ideas? We couldn’t just wait an hour or two in the middle of nowhere, we were getting late!” Prottasha snapped back before taking a deep breath and sighing.
Her voice steadier now, she looked back at the whirlwind of life rushing past them at breakneck speed and said, “Dad taught me how to cross the road when I was really young. I don’t remember much about him anymore, just snippets– a dialogue here, a black and white picture there, buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind– I doubt how authentic they really are…” Distant longing tinged her voice as she looked back at her friends.
“But this one,” she continued, “I remember vividly! I was seven years old. There was a narrow street in front of our house where cars would come and go infrequently, and I would always be so scared of crossing it on my way to school. Usually, mom or dad would hold my hand and help me cross, but one day dad said he would teach me how to cross so that it wouldn’t be such a Herculean task for me anymore.”
“So he took my hand, and I remember him saying, ‘you first look right, and then left, and then right again, and slowly but confidently and steadily cross the road.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Also, remember that the cars in the roads of Bangladesh never stop for anyone, so if you keep waiting, you will never be able to cross.’ He held out his hand towards the traffic, looked at me and said, ‘just hold out your hand confidently like this and cross, the cars will see your hand and understand you want to cross and will stop!’ ‘And remember,’ he added, ‘never run. You run, and you will get run over for certain. Always walk with long strides, and you’ll see you have crossed the road in no time!’ And then he made me cross the road on our way back to make sure I had practiced my lesson.”
Prottasha paused for a moment, a soft smile playing on her lips now, and said, “After his death that year, I don’t remember ever being scared to cross the road again. I have crossed the road all by myself ever since, as mom got busy working to support our family, and there was no one to hold my hand anyway.”
As she started walking again towards home, indicating for them to follow, she said, “It sounds ironic, but every time I cross the road now, I feel like he is watching over me. It is only amidst this whirl and cacophony of rushing vehicles and shrill honks that I vividly remember him and the way he used to securely hold my hand and smile at me as we crossed the road together. It is only amidst this chaos that his words give me protection and his memory gives me peace.”
You are back & side & make a be space
out of silent patches on other side & going toward
the going there doing silver mix between silver
& silver of tinker, toy, & fix. How can I really
know you man by your shell shape & teeth smile
walk face; little do you do to say hi to weather news
the flowers pretty nice, maybe some same maybe some
different, & maybe you’re some caring & maybe
you’re some busy & maybe you’re some shy,
& maybe you too see me go & too think maybe of me
go too go, but most likely no, most likely yes, probably
maybe though, most likely you see lots of round
& square things, God’s things: zinnias, snails, apples,
& charcoal colored sparrows. Real things: shovels
& hammers. Probably you know how it is to fly passenger
in a 747, ride a flat-tired bike, how it is to know sharp things,
tired things, how it is to drop sighs & do harm, & I see you
an older neighbor man who means nothing at all to me
yet who may mean an ocean of bubbly emerald to another.
I’m sixteen and sunburned. To my right, there is a line of birch trees straight as tooth picks. They stand tall like candles on a birthday cake of shore. Somewhere, a baby laughs. A fire burns. All is relevant.
Months ago, I sat alone in our family car with the engine off. My legs stuck to the seat as I held the wheel and sang to the stereo, peering through my window at stratus clouds above.
What does it mean to steer?
“It’s not the time of day that makes a trout want to eat; it’s the water temperature.” *
Serenity is watching a salmon sky give way to stars and bat wings. It is knowing how to resist. Knowing to keep still. In a metal boat on Lower Highland Lake, water seeps through invisible cracks—just enough to cover my Converse, to remind me of temporality. My seat shifts as worms twist in a plastic bucket. Expectancy abounds.
“Early anglers in Hawaii would embark upon lengthy fishing trips in dugout canoes provisioned with bananas… The farther they went, the fewer the fish, causing some of them to mistake correlation for causation.” **
Seated behind me, oars in hand, is my second cousin and his wife, Joan. Together, they craft a balance of humility and strength—outwitting the perch, getting tricked by sunfish. My iPhone is wrapped in a plastic bag tossed deep into a vinyl pack. It does not beep. My line bends into a delicate parabola above the water, cast and waving fast in the wind as we wait.
In the car, in my drive, I knew not how I would meet the road; how I would learn to stall and stop, to do K-turns when no one was watching. Our mailbox was an iron wall, a thorny thicket that I could not surpass.
On the lake, however, I do not see roads. I do not hear music, save for the bobolink and sparrow gossiping overhead. Three people in a boat and nobody is talking, for we are learning the language of quiescence, its syllables punctuated by the plunk of stones and the bubbles of creatures stalling beneath us. They gasp; I gasp; we keep out of sight.
At last, a tug. My “clown pole,” orange, leans towards luck. It is the same pole that caught plastic fish in the backyard of my childhood, sturdy as I cast its hook into soil; the pole with which my five-year-old hands pierced gummy worms—the red and clear kind—at a local fishing derby, determined to win. I think for a moment how proud it must be—my lovely clown pole—bright against the muck, just trying to fit in.
And then a flopping tail breaks the water. It is a rainbow trout, a fighter. The sinews of my wrist strain against its pull. We are wary of each other. My cousins chant encouragement from behind, and it feels as though a bird is caught on my line, a confused lark that was always meant to fly. Now is its chance, as it is mine and the clown pole’s, the three of us caught in a triangle of hope.
My forearm interrupts the potentials of this scene, shaking as the fish flies towards our boat. I say “flies” because it’s nicer than dangles; hangs; suffocates; the truth of the matter.
The trout is heavy and jeweled. I cannot control its path. My cousin, equanimitous in a linen shirt, watches as its tail comes closerandcloserand
Into his face!
He spits a fishy spit and grins, unfazed, at my flurried apologies. The fish bangs beneath us, muscular, and I do not think of its babies, or its gills, or the stratus clouds of our faces peering down into its home. I do not think of Elizabeth Bishop, or tinfoil eyes, or scansion. I can’t.
Cousin Dave hands me the oars, and I begin a rick-rack path to shore, but we stop. He knows. We peer at our rainbow in a box. It’s OK, he tells me as we take the fish from its pile of ice cubes and toss it into the water. It was never meant to fly. Or, if it was, it is not my duty to say so. Who puts a rainbow in a box?
Sometimes I think
of how nice it must feel
to slide through the water unseen.
And sometimes I think
of the water itself, slick
and cool and constant.
Sometimes I feel
the copper sand
the mica and algae and gems of the deep
but then I remember
hooks hanging down
in all the nice places
with worms of temptation
a floor of skeletal crayfish cast
in a sepulcher of sand
and I suppose
that we aren’t so different
that fish and I
gliding and dodging
potentials for change
they gasp; I gasp; we keep out of sight
but sometimes I don’t want to think
I don’t want to feel
like an ogre of the deep
or a plankton, either
I just want to float
like a lily on its pad
to wait and wade
where there are no hooks,
but we must move on.
I sit muddy on a park bench licking a spoon goopy with fudge. The outlines of my cousin’s eyes are cast against woodlands, dusky and deep. Joan tells me about Scrabble; the VHS tapes that she borrowed from the library; her blueberry pie. Dave razzes my unsteady hand as I suck a cherry from its fluorescent stem. An owl darts through fir trees.
I’m sixteen and sunburned and in need of someone who can teach me how to drive– who will exhale when I slam on the brake, nod when I say I knew better. Somewhere, a fish swims, scarred and smooth. The skeleton of a crayfish puffs against sand as a toddler jumps through the water, clumsy. A bobolink cries. It was not meant to swim.
A teacher appears with tackle and toolbox; he does not flinch at a fish to the face. “David,” says Joan, “you will have to teach Brittany to parallel park, to look over her shoulder as she changes lanes.”
Correlation. Gummy worms.
Months later, on an autumn afternoon, I’m in a denim jacket and leather boots, copper leaves flying around me. “Ready for the crooked bridge?” David asks. A creek laughs below as I learn a new kind of trust. We are not on but above water, and something is cast within me. Deep and lingering, it pulls against the strain of what I used to know and what I am coming to know. David talks about Moby Dick and antique car shows as I clutch my wheel, cautious on this beaten path—all pothole and gravel.
Mama died sometime in June.
That was the first time I saw my father really cry.
It was like he was losing a part of himself,
the part that was made from a ribcage
and banished from the island.
I read my father
a poem by some white lady
because I thought it would
make the hurting echo
to pinprick or goosebump
or something finite like
the flesh of an apple.
I am losing everything, and I don’t know why, and it seems like I’m the only one who notices. I walk around, limbless and lifeless, and my mother says, “Good morning,” and pours me cereal. The breakfast table moans under the weight of my white bowl, and the chair creaks in sympathy, but these sounds are interrupted by a dissonant birdsong. I hear the bird shrilling away, boastful and arrogant, and I want to go outside and snap its neck until I know every little bone has broken. Either it dies or it loses its voice, and I don’t care which as long as I never have to hear it again.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was little, I used to love birds. In fact, I used to love all animals. I watched rabbits on green, sloping hills of grass and weeds and flowers. I watched mice nibble cheese and squirrels scale a mountain of bark. I watched the neighbors’ domestic cats cross the street, bored and yawning lazily, but I loved birds most of all. I used binoculars to spot them perched on branches, hiding in the green, sleeping in a nest or moving their wings frantically to keep afloat. I devoured book after book about them. When I turned eight years old, I was given an encyclopedia about birds, and I turned page after page to see an owl with unblinking, yellow eyes surrounded by the cold and the white, or an ostrich, a clumsy majesty running in orange dust.
Now I am done with birds and animals and silly little things. I am standing in tight shorts and an oversized T-shirt that soaks up underarm sweat like a sponge in a bath. My legs are exposed, which means everybody knows that I haven’t shaved in a week. There is hair all over me in a tangled jungle.
“You’re a young adult now,” my mother told me when I turned thirteen. “It is time to be done with childish games.” She began teaching me how to play the piano, how to study, how to cook noodles. Yet she never prepared me for this: standing in a musty old gym in ratty sneakers surrounded by a bunch of bored, hormonal kids slouched against the wall, waiting to see me run against another girl—a girl more graceful than I. Chelsea is soft yet sharp, full of angles and curves. I am smudged, undefined, too hard for my own liking. She is blonde and tall and athletic, rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed. She puts her thick hair into a ponytail and smiles at her friends.
“It smells awful in here,” someone says.
I sigh. I wish Coach Bell would just blow the whistle already so I could get this over with. The more I stand here, the more I feel like I’m naked. I just want to run and then sit down and forget it all ever happened. And yet I don’t want to run ever, and I hope his whistle suddenly breaks. I hope that the whistle’s sound is replaced by a larger, more ringing noise—the sound of the bell signaling the end of class.
But the bell doesn’t ring and the whistle doesn’t break. Coach Bell blows it hard and suddenly I am pumping my legs as hard as I can and yet it isn’t enough. I feel like I haven’t moved. Meanwhile, Chelsea is far ahead of me. She touches a point on the gym floor to show that she’s done with her first lap. By the time Chelsea runs back to the start, I’ve barely touched that same point. I wish I could stop and take a breath. My lungs feel like they’re on fire. Suddenly my legs feel like they’re made of bricks, not bones. My breath comes out in shallow gasps. I feel the heat of everyone’s stares on me and there are tears in my eyes. I beg myself not to cry as I run back to the starting point, but the tears are blurring my vision and I’ve realized that my shoe is untied, but it’s too late because I am falling, I am falling, I am losing everything, I am falling—
BAM. I hit the floor.
Chelsea watches from the bench, where she has sat for a comfortable minute. I am on the floor. My face stings from the impact. I hear someone snigger, “Are you okay?”
Coach Bell blows his whistle again. It feels is if time was severely altered. I can only move sluggishly. Everything seems like it’s in slow motion. I cough and jog back to the starting point, and it seems like an eternity before I’m there. I tell myself, “Only ten more seconds ’til you’re there. Nine, eight, seven, and then you’re there. Six, five, four, three, two…”
I don’t realize the tears streaming down my cheeks until I’m back at the bench. People stare at me but say nothing; they just look away. One boy rolls his eyes.
Later, after the run, I will crawl into the corner of a bathroom stall and sit and wait for a while. I will wait until there are no more people in the locker room, until I hear no more laughter or chatter, until I’m alone and watched by no one. And then I will sit and think about how my mother told me that I have to grow up. I will wonder what she would tell me to do right now. And then I will stop thinking about my mother, and I will stop thinking about how I am losing everything, and instead I will think about birds. I will think about how they sing. I will wonder if they are at peace. I will wonder if they are happy.
So, another trip to Mississippi.
Let’s push past the flurry of award stares— because I’m really…
an extension of my Momma’s long standing family fame
and standing in the frame of her shadow does not hide me from these vaguely familiar faces
Who just know I owe them a hug
When nighttime hits
All these formalities fade fast
cause Mississippi nighttime frees up enough space in this increasingly small trailer
So I can saaaayy…
Something that I shouldn’t— something that shouldn’t come out my mouth
So “Kids go to bed!”
Cause adults want to save You from gettn’ popped in the mouth
Cause its Mississippi Nighttime
And I just remembered I’m in the
Backroom Bunkbed Social Hour
Me against 3
Me against three
I redeem my special Mississippi moment by staring out the window instead of…
Staring into the dark
for their faces
Cause Somebody, somebodies are going to say:
“Bria you know you wouldn’t look so bad if…
You didn’t look like a Cow”
Now I would’ve retaliated quickly to choke out the
before it had a chance to overwhelm me but I was distracted by the unsettling sound
I’m not even fat… why would Mhmmmmmm
There it goes again
In a lighter tone
Is it my face? Mhhmmmmmmm… and again interrupting me
Maybe well Mhmmmmm
And I was the last to agree before we went to sleep