carbondate

a.e. hart's sketchpad

Category: short story

surf

Yesterday I must have met up with you here, in Wilmington, NC, in a friend’s driveway.  We have been cooking, stacking the dishes perfectly.  Every social error on my part is under your scrutiny.  I stack the plates too high. I laugh too loud.  I see you growing thinner, counting not calories but moments in motion, You’ve gone for a run again, and I am curled up over my coffee.  Kristin comes into the kitchen to ask me what the hell I am thinking.  I breathe in deeply, wishing I still smoked cigarettes.

 

Today, in the ocean, I am talking to g-d. I get stronger as I submit my body over wave after wave.  When the ocean throws me from my board, tumbles me beneath the wave and invites me to humility, I come up laughing. I am a beast again. You, the great teacher, study the waves like a scientist, never quite catching her drift.

 

I know it might be foolish of me to offer advice. But Kristin, up on the beach, taught me to surf in these same waves a year or so ago, and I am inspired, humbled, stupid and wet.  I approach. Coming near you when you are challenged by any task is an invitation for punishment. You snap at me, make the same mistake, again and again, and will not even consider heeding or hearing my advice. You remind me again that I am a terrible listener, and that I do not understand your needs. I walk back to shore laughing to myself.

 

I am breathing in again, watching you from a distance, like a father watches a child.  I am sun soaked and sore, beaten by my own sweet gods, and humored by yours. The sun starts to slip from the sky, and you run, like an experimental movie, in an endless loop of failure.  In the morning you take me running, and remind me that my body scares you.  You are thin and strong.  Completely in control.  I am behind you, trying to keep enough air in my lungs.  You press on, and eventually I run home alone.

 

That afternoon, I tattoo the word acceptance on my arm.  A man tells me that it wont do me any good, but I make the gesture anyway, considering those experiments with crystals and glasses of water that all the teenage philosophers are going on about.

 

Back in New York, in a cafe, I let you teach me a card game. You repeat the rules again and again, but I need you to change your approach.  I don’t understand. I know this will be a problem.  It is winter, and your hair is wet from the shower. When you erupt into rage, I circle the block a few times before realizing that you will get sick walking home alone.

 

When we breathe in at the same time, when you grow young and broken and real in my arms, I know god for moments.  I see you.  Before your fathers belt, before you ever raised your voice to me.  Just another hungry animal, leaning out for love.  I hold you then, when your hair is dry, and you are clam and forgetful.  You try so hard.  We scratch at god inside each others bodies until she sings us both to sleep.  When I wake, you are sitting with her quietly.  One candle is lit, and there is no light in the room.  I imagine that you have transformed.  For a moment we are sacred again.

 

I am in our ocean. I submit my body, wave after wave. We begin the day with god, end in fragments. Every day, we  live… tikkun olam, the reclaiming, the recollecting.  When she takes me from you, when I have learned my lessons, my one weakness is in looking back.

 

There, in an endless loop, you lift your body and fall.

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reflections

The first time mom left me alone with my older sister to baby-sit, we played on the swing-set naked, well after dark. We took innocent pictures, but they felt illicit, so after a terrified trip to the supermarket developing counter we hid or destroyed them.  This, I remember.

I remember sitting, still as dolls at the top of the stairs, always in our best nightgowns, with our hair combed, waiting to be called in on bridge nights. They would pretend to catch us listening to the party downstairs, and parade us table to table. We know our lines, our roles. We are perfect ornaments. The atmosphere glitters, and we are the tiniest belles. After they send us to bed, for real this time, we continue to sit at the top of the stairs.  We eat the candy we stole from each table, quietly unwrapping the foil and savouring our spoils. This is payment for services rendered.

I am absorbed in a box of stones. They are gateways, to other worlds, other paradigms. I have been hiding at the downtown library devouring dense fantasy novels. They are becoming real for me, but that is a secret I know how to keep. the red stone with the orange bleed is the key. It is the ill-earth stone. Downstairs they might be screaming, but all I hear is the pulse of this other world, so small between my fingers.

I overslept again, and missed the short bus trip up the hill. I pull on my knit cap and trek through the woods in the snow. I am in second grade. I take the wrong path and wind up crying and lost, in a mess of blackberry thorns. When I arrive at school, I pull thorns from my skin and my clothes while the teacher yells. I fold my hat on my desk, and think about my grandmother’s hands.

Snow again. I keep my house-key on the belt-loop of my jeans. The bell rings, and the bus waits outside. If I run to the bathroom, I will miss the bus. I pull on my snow-pants, and hope for the best. In front of my house, my best friend is screaming with laughter…. “You’re gonna do it again”. I am trying to wrestle my key out of my snow pants, and flushing red with embarrassment. I give up, throw my backpack down, strip, and pee in the yard. This is the first time in weeks I have not peed in my snow-suit. Victorious, I collect my key, and let my stunned friend into the empty house.

Back at school they won’t let me go to the bathroom alone anymore. I recently saw a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, and have been lost in the bathroom for days, talking to the mirror. I am convinced that the girl in the mirror is not me, and that she is trapped there. When they force me to have a bathroom buddy, Sarah Sherwood catches me whispering to the mirror in secret, and asks what I am doing. I realize that I will never see my friend again, and spend the rest of the day inconsolable.

I am sitting on the bed waiting. All morning there must have been screaming because I am sitting now defeated, in a purple gingham dress. I am four years old. I hold my limbs like a dolls limbs. I do not posses myself anymore. I am certain that they will not detect my vacation, so long as I can be posed for the family portrait. My bedspread is yellow, and I imagine the yellow has taken over everything. Pale and listless, the morning passes without incident.

One summer night a stranger grabs my arm and I fall to the ground screaming. “You are not my family”. I am 26 years old. There are years stripped away then, and I cry until I start to dry heave into the dead grass. All around me I hear the terrifying forgotten sounds. I am so small. Everything is happening above my head, in negative space. This, I may never remember.

apple flag

i forgive you. for raising a parade from a single flag. for needing the moon to be a light switch. for the stars becoming portals. i forgive you for sitting next to me, on a linoleum table top in the doctors office waiting room, and taking me fishing there. for manifesting the sea and the solitude. for making the world disappear. i forgive you for your power. for changing your name again and again. i forgive you. for breaking my heart, every day of my life. i forgive you for all of it.

2011.

on the phone yesterday, it was hard to bring to mind the brave 19 year old who lead our little doom parade. now nearly 33, you are rambling quietly about the girl who has moved into your apartment with her children.  about how she calls you old when you receive your disability checks. about how she wont allow you to leave your house.  i am biting my tongue, trying to teach you boundaries that should be as simple as tying shoes. the word “no” is unfamiliar to you. it tastes acid somehow. wrong.  because of this your homes have always filled with stray animals, stray families, stray lives.  she is taking advantage of you, i suggest firmly. she says i have to marry her! you whisper back.

there is a reason we haven’t spoken for the past 10 years, but i cant explain that to you. when i try, you say “i thought you hated me… you don’t hate me? i was talking to shannon and told her you wouldn’t talk to me. but i don’t remember. when did we talk. when was the last time i heard your voice?”

“did you read my letter”, i ask, and you say

“yes. but i didnt know about any of that, what you talked about. what was wrong. those years in arizona were great. they were my favorite. were they bad? what was wrong”?

1999.

you found the flag on the side of the road. it had apples on it, in a basket. someone’s discarded autumn lawn decoration. you are marching, lifting your knees impossibly high and smiling so wildly that the whole world dims.  that smile is my only real reason for living these days.  i march behind you, dutifully creating the parade you imagine us into.  we march all afternoon, in the cool mountain air.  by sunset we will be tucked inside with our vodka and our crayons.  this is a perfect day.

but there were bad days too, more often than not.

“ i am in love with you”, i would say,

you would turn to the sky and say something abstract, wander to sit at a blue table. blue, the color of friendship. i would offer you candy then, and you would pull out every sugar coated blue piece and pass it to me.

” i don’t like the way blue tastes”, you would say. and i would spend the evening in recovery, drawing elaborate blue hearts and slipping them under your door.

2003.

when you asked me to be your friend again, i started to say yes. i have recovered, in part, from the dimensional shift we lived through in arizona. i know that you are ill, and that you may never recover. i have carried your memory in art, in writing and in songs. i have never let you go, not for a second. it seems only fitting that i let you back in now, when i am strong, and close to sane.  when i open my mouth to speak, the phone starts making an unbelievable sound. like an alarm going off. it repeats in bursts, and i cant get a word in edgewise. this is divine intervention. i tell you i will call you back in a minute.

i call an advisor, tell her what is going on. show her the shape of the door i am propping open, lightly, freely. she asks me questions. i respond. in moments i remember that there is nothing more dangerous to me than the spectacular fragility of your mind and your life.

when i call you  back, i lightly close the door.  when we get off the phone, i lock it.

starting the next evening you call me every 15 minutes. this continues for 36 hours. you get drunker and drunker, and the messages on my machine get more abstract and alien. the case of beer in your system wears away the effect of your psych meds until you are screaming into the phone, crying.

“i made a mistake. you have to talk to me. they will be mad at me. i am a messenger. you are a prophet. i have to get this message to you.”

confidant now, brokenhearted and defeated, i answer the phone.
“give me your address” i say, and then i hang up.

the letter i write you then silences you.  there is nothing more to say.
i flip through photographs in a filing box. some are sewn together, bound in feather and wire. protection spells.  then there you are in all of your glory, in white petticoats and black cotton.  you are holding a flag you found on the side of the road, and lifting your knees impossibly high.

and i miss my friend.

redline

there was a crow, observing the clatter of business through the dimly lit window of a tavern. the tavern stood near the edge of a clearing in a town full of strangers. after what felt like hours, the bird beat her body against the windows and the doors, only to watch the slow crowd rouse itself to a mystery.

the crow wanted to see if anyone was there

the barkeep muttered “damn birds”
and a farmer from the hills said “s’not ordinary behavior”
the crow was about to turn and go, when a small girl turned her eye to the bird and laughed.

the girl was told she belonged to the barkeep, but she felt more that she belonged to the barkeep’s wife, or even possibly the crow, or the wildness of her own laugher. she was too small to reach the bar, and the strangers often set cherries down to her reaching hands, which she collected in a mason jar

on her notice of the crow, she began crushing cherries in her palms
drawing out juice and seeds
staining her hands sticky and bright

the crow watched as the lines in her palms unfolded like maps
wishing they were close enough to read
she then dug a small hole in the barroom floor
and placed the seeds there

from this moment, none of the strangers could see her
and the barkeep, and his wife, stared blankly through a high pane of glass
as if there was something they had forgotten

the moon that night was so exceptionally bright
that the sight of two crows admiring their own shadows
cast a stillness
cast a spell
and the strangers wept

From Scrap to Story in 500-800 Words

death can subsist
in a thought

you are folding the laundry
fear over fear

each towel soft
and in its place

You have to be careful not to slip into the spaces. Between your own words. Between your own hands. I am lifting things, shifting them in space and time. These objects are soft and pliable. This appears trivial, but tonight I know better. Every step is deliberate. I am walking the tightrope between worlds.

Folding the laundry, checking the budget, keeping the body away from dreams.  This is my purpose now. I know myself at least this well.  The fade of your cackle, your well worn hands, and the increasing distance between your breath and a song, is a precipice I must navigate deftly.  If I slow, if I move too slowly, I will be paralyzed with fear.  If I move too quickly, I will shatter.  Mercury rolling and hiding beneath the floorboards. A grief turned poisonous. 

I don’t even know that you are dying. Not yet. The clockwork of my life has grown ancient and the wood pulls and groans. You are one seam. The last seam. I call you every three weeks asking the same questions. Where are you? Will you please say hello? What happened in December?  You don’t answer, and I don’t expect you to, despite my best efforts, I can feel the strain there. You are slipping out of the story, and like it or not, until now, it was still our story. Still our time. Never mine. Never my own. I had an accomplice.

I recognize now, the fatal flaw in our work. You kept tossing me in the air, into the depths, the ether. From here we soared, could touch sky and sea, feed and teach the stumbling center. When I fell, back to our tunnels, back to cold coffee and callouses, you kept the landing hard enough to keep me. To keep me. I was yours.  A fatal flaw.

Tonight, however, the mechanism must strain. This is still your orchestration. The wood will sing and buckle. I am enamoured of these moments. Things Fall Apart… wasn’t that a book? A song? A ritual? I should be reading Frannie and Zooey.  I should be talking to the dial tone.

In lieu of this, I am holding my lover, or the laundry, or an instrument.  She is breaking too, this love, her body betraying her until she is barely a child. I keep her from running headlong into walls. She laughs and hands me her shoes.  She sips water and demands more. She is always demanding more.  This is not her fault. This weather comes through her and I am transformed in an instant. From lover to mother, from mother to nurse, from nurse to clinician. When she returns to me I ask her what we are going to do, and she asks “about what?” 

Soon she slips away from me again, and I am left with these simple tasks. I do not dial the telephone. I do not have an accomplice. I have a tightrope now, and things must fall away. You cannot carry much.

death can subsist
in a thought

you are folding the laundry
fear over fear

each towel soft
and in its place

Printed in the Water (a short story)

“There is no shame in being a fox” Each morning, the fox calls out for the suns love, and in return finds her eyes blinded, and her head heavy and tired. She is starting to worry.

The city, which is too wild and vast for ever the wisest of foxes, is growing restless. The campaign against foxes is raging. There is little or no place for a fox to hide, nevertheless hear anyone say, evidently even the sun, that being a fox is okay. Still, she looks at her tail, and the way she appears and disappears with the help of her moon sister, and finds nothing wrong. She can see no reason for the campaign. No reason why her family and friends have abandoned the woods surrounding the city and hidden, deep in the mountains.

The fox loves her small home. She loves the tiny pond at the bottom of the hill, edging the kind farmer’s property. Property. She turns this word over in her mind each day. She loves her burrow, but could not conceive of it as hers. Not exactly, not entirely. The creatures of the city however, plant flags and draw lines all across the earth. She thinks of this each morning, with great puzzlement, over her peppermint tea and scavenged squirrel bone.

She comes up with examples. The inchworm who crosses her wall, nearly always three times, on its own small path across a day. The black window spider, stunningly beautiful in the little burrow window. These creatures are a part of the landscape. They are not hers, either. The people of the city abhor creatures they can not tame, can not eat or control. She wonders if maybe they are blind.

She is brave, and wants to understand. She dreams of one day living with her friends again, but for now, for the moment, she is studying their movements.

They crowd themselves into rooms with their books and pamphlets. Some they say, are the words of a great creature, a creature who can set them all free. She wonders what freedom is, and more particularly, what freedom isn’t, as she goes about picking blackberries, quiet and quick, along the rivers edge.

Today however, our friend the fox is tired. She has spent days and nights invisible, running with her blackberries along the river. See her there? She vanishes so quickly. She does not know who we are. She does not know that we are her students, practicing the appearing and reappearing, the sweetness of living in circles while the world moves always thoughtlessly to the edge of a high cliff.

The fox thinks that books are beautiful. Being ever so sly, she has stolen thousands of books. She has dug a hallway in her burrow. She has scratched out shelves. Sometimes, when she is feeling ever so foolish, she paints the bindings as if they were of one canvas. She draws them together, and tries to form a picture of the city. She is decoding them, the creatures of the city.

The fox thinks the books are beautiful, but she also finds them complicated, and when she has tired her head reading in foreign languages, she slips off her skin (for this is the magic of fox) and swims to collect stones at the bottom of the river. She arranges the stones. A heart. An arrow. She makes herself laugh. She returns them to the water, and returns to her post.

So, tired today, and finding that a swim in the river has not cooled her thoughts, she steps into the madness of the city entirely visible, in her woodland rags. She wears a coat woven from pages of stolen holy books, and she carries a small empty notebook.

One step. A fox-mad hunter points and hollers. She moves so slowly, tired as she is. She surrenders because there is more to learn. She surrenders because she can not believe in darkness. The fox now has become something entirely different. She stands on two legs. She shifts, becomes her surroundings. This is not a hiding, but a birth, and just as temporary.

The fox hunter blushes red. He apologizes to the small girl, speaks down to her as if she were quite possibly much smaller than she actually is. He asks where she lives. He offers her tea.

Her coat has grown long, the color of water. Stains of the old words remain, but they have been taken in by her very real heart. There is now, a deep sea of compassion for the man standing before her. The words of books have done this. In pointing awkwardly and variously to where she lives, simple and bright, she has discovered that these creatures want nothing more, at heart, than the oldest of ways.

Our fox accepts the tea. Her family will never forgive her. She may never be allowed to return, with the scent of this life, this body she has taken, these creatures on her skin. There are harsh judgments in her world. They do not respect the ways of the city creatures, so they stay, endlessly hidden, waiting and watching. She has betrayed them now, sipping tea, not unlike her own, from a ceramic mug in the entrance of a home that feels weighted in sadness.

“I live nowhere, because before now, I did not exist.”

The fox hunter laughs. He finds her delightful. Dressed as she is, in familiar skin, and a beautiful blue coat, she seems to be the brightest of his own kind. She is pure magic, standing in his dark kitchen. She speaks strangely, the fox hunter thinks to himself. Maybe she in injured somehow, or insane. The fox hunter decides then that he will raise her, as his very own daughter.

The fox hunter was a lonely man, but he did eventually fall in love with a quiet woman in a white dress decorated in blue satin ribbon. The fox hunters small daughter, born one morning at the edge of the city, came as a surprise. His wife was not expecting to find her self pregnant.

As the child grows, she learns that children are often exempt in this world, from the harsh tide of motion which seems to press in on the edges of life. Here, where the city meets the woods, she is free to wander deeper into the forest each day. She is free to run with foxes. Her father, the hunter, believes that this will make her an excellent hunting partner one day. She becomes an excellent tracker. Her father is the chairman of the fox hunter’s board. He wears, for his hat, this skin of a fox, discovered in the meadow the day of his daughter’s birth. He is very well respected.

The hunter’s home is clean, and only in the girl’s room does one spider survive, secretly, in the panes of a window. The girl asks to always clean her own room, afraid that the woman in the white dress with blue satin ribbons will destroy her companion, at the will of her father. Her father grows proud of the child. At night she watches the woods through a thin pane of glass, through a spider’s web. She watches the weaver, and wonders about her fathers mind.

When her father invites her hunting, she leads him away from the foxes. He believes that he has grown old, and cannot see well. This is when he begins to rest endlessly in his home.

This is where we find ourselves, when his students begin to arrive. When the girl learns to speak, she begins to sing. She sings fox songs to her ailing father, who lives confined to books, and battling the world of foxes with every step. He sends his sons off to war. His eyes grow a steely grey. People come to hear the fox hunter speak. They listen intently as he speaks of good and evil, of the coyness of foxes, of the snake and the spider.

The hunter knows one of the old holy books very well. He does not like the others, particularly those which suggest a life at peace with foxes. He can recite the words of the greater creature, verse for verse. He takes all of this very seriously. He teaches the words to his daughter. He buys her a blue coat, to keep warm in the winter.

The girl’s heart breaks every day. She does not like learning the ways of life in the city. She does not like learning of the dangers of foxes. She does not know why this strikes her as so wrong, as so dangerous and sad. “I am a fox-hunters daughter.” She tells herself in the morning. She loves her father, and loves his books, and his mind. She can not understand what it is that tugs at her heart, what drives her to protect foxes secretly, invisibly.

When the girl grows old enough to take a lover, she chooses a lover who can not protect her heart. She does not know why, but she finds herself wounded, dashed against the rocks. Her blue coat hangs in the entryway of their home. She sweeps the house of spiders, excepting a few. Her lover comments that she must be stupid or lazy, every time he meets a small creature, a spider or a mouse, surviving in their home.

There are memories that wake us in these dreamed-of lives. This is true also for our heroin, our dear fox-girl , our shape-shifter.

In the city, the war against foxes has grown in proportion as life grown more difficult. The air is full of smoke and smog, and the stores are running out of bleach. The woods seem to encroach on the lives of these creatures, and they react with anger, lashing out at their old enemy, the sly, invisible fox. The girl, now a woman, finds herself talking with her father, only a few days before his passing.

She finds herself whispering, in the smallest softest voice. “Father, I have always loved foxes.” His eyes soft, at the edge of death, he whispers that he will never understand. He worries for her soul.

This confession heavy in her heart, she tells her father about a burrow in the woods. A family she has known since her childhood. She tells him how they wander into the city and steal books. She confesses that she has left them gifts. They have lived in her story, though her life as a fox-hunters daughter.

The day of the fox-hunters death, he has forgotten all reason. He is hiding his books, stumbling from his sick bed, enraged. He wanders to the edge of the forest and back, armed with a shotgun. At thin edge between life and death, he arrives at the fox den in the woods.

The fox-hunter wants to take the lives of these small enemies, to remove them from his daughter’s heart, so that they might be fox-hunter and fox-hunters daughter, in these final days. He wants to steal back his missing books.

The bookshelf in the den runs for miles, for years, deep into the earth. He can not steal them all. He cannot even choose one, of the endless, to hold above the others. A few miles down, wildly seeking out his enemy, the hunter stops to rest.

His hands are old and withered, and his gaze rests on them. In the space beneath his hands, the bookshelf is blue. All blue. He can not distinguish the titles, because the bindings have been painted together, as if they were of one canvas. He staggers.

I will warn you now, that a man is about to die, having completed his journey, and returned to the book. The book he returns to is not bound in paper, but in water. I will tell you that he wept.

The wall of words was blue as the river, and a small paper coat, stitched from the old holy books, lay abandoned on the floor.

Somewhere, a woman, in fear and grief, ran through the forest, shedding an old skin.

And a man passed away weeping.

And how many of us have known our loved ones, in their great grief, to return to the water, to this river, by passage of tears?

And how many of us are there, of this living book, winding our lives into her passages with delirious abandon?

This is a fool’s world. The wounded healer rests her head on her paws. The snake charmer is seasoned in her surrender. Follow foxes. Entertain God. Heal something broken. It does not matter if it is the beginning or the end. The river runs home to itself. We are already here.

“There is another kind of book, I know it.
There is another kind of book, I saw it.
Printed in the Water. Printed in the Water ” T. Straw