He was the first one I had kissed that made my knees wibble. New Year’s Eve together then a week. A beginning. I went to him, knowing if I died, no one would notice. He would have been the last. I was ready to go. I never told him that. Instead, I sat on the hardwood floor in bare feet, watching sunlight, writing while he worked. We watched movies and the Dakar rally and in brief moments, explored. Seven days saved me. I wanted to kiss him one last time but the road called me home. Just needed a reason.
One of my stories, Pieces of Me was published today in a new literary journal for flash fiction called Slice of Life. I am just so happy. What a wonderful birthday gift (and my first published piece ever).
They come with the rising sun now: praying on their knees, crying at my feet, asking for forgiveness, for healing, for miracles. My feet are wet, still as the day folds and ends. Below, pine needles flattened in rounded divots, radiating outwards. The sunlight filters through the low branches and the whispering pine boughs. The young woman who found me first, stumbled and then crashed at the base of the tree trunk; her face, bleeding, and turned towards the tall treetops. She looked past me to the blue sky above.
“Please, God, help me.” She cried out. It made my heart heavy to hear the pain in her voice. The despair. She lay on her back while the wind arranged the branches to let the sunlight pass to her cheeks. When the first shaft of warm sunshine touched her, she saw me. I watched her scramble to her knees, and clutched her hands together, knuckles white and stretched.
“Please, I am no one special,” she sobbed, ‘but if you could please help me just this one time, I will make my life different. My name is Anne Marie, and if you help me, save me from this, I will change, I promise that I will.” Anne Marie ran the words together, losing breath at the last. She sat back and wiped her face with the heels of her hands. She cried for two hours. Speaking between the teardrops. She told me the story. I listened to the river that poured out of her. Fragments tumbling in the currents of daily life; her husband left her after sixteen years for a girl half her age. He left her humiliated, doubting everything she thought she knew to be true. Her job didn’t pay enough for her to support her daughters, buy food and pay the rent. Some days she went without eating because she was afraid there would not be enough for her daughters to eat properly. She had no family in town. It wasn’t even her town to begin with. It was his. She knew no one. Her mother died a year ago of cancer. Anne Marie’s brothers and sisters, father scattered, no longer speaking to each other. They spoke to her, making her the hub of the wheel. Alone and in the center. Helpless to do anything except be there when they need her. Her heart so thoroughly broken she lost faith, wandering aimlessly, hollow empty. She felt ugly, weak, useless. She could never be enough for someone. They always leave. Please, just one miracle, not for her, but for her children. She needed to know, to be reassured that there is meaning behind everything that happened. A reason, some hope. When the words stopped, she sat and listened to the wind and the trees singing. I was tied with a rusted wire around a branch that had been snapped off in a storm some time ago; rocking gently with the swaying wood. Blue-green eyes, rimmed red and full still of tears watched me. She looked into my face, and I saw her change. A ripple of recognition, then the ecstatic smile.
Anne Marie did not return for three days. She didn’t come any closer than the outer edge of the crowds. Always watching, she kneeled by the clusters of white and purple violets growing around me and bowed her head in prayer. I heard her voice mingling with others. One voice in the ocean. She was asking questions on the third day. What had she done to lead herself to where she was right now? What had she done wrong? What had she misunderstood about her path? What should she do next? She never used to mind about money. She never had much, but it never worried her. No matter what happened, they worked it out, but now that she was alone, with no one to help, she was paralyzed by fear.
“Should I let go? How do I do that? I can give up and give over to you everything that I am, let you guide me again. I did that, and everything fell apart. Do I need to do that again? Give up and die again and again. How many deaths? What comes next? I am afraid.” She whispered. I listened.
It was not long after she left that the others came. They came, prayed, touched my feet as they passed by. Their stories make the violets grow. Sickness, heart break, worries, sorrow, asking for forgiveness, for healing, no story the same, no story any different. Two sparrows greeted the day with me to begin the second week. The crowds grew as they do. It was no long before the pine needles gave way to mud. Still people crouched to kneel on the hard roots and exposed granite. Some wondered how I came to be attached to the tree, dangling so high above the others. The rusted wire had begun to seep through the cracks in the wood and old brittle pain, staining my face. The sparrows hopped from branch to branch around me, chattering to themselves and eating the seeds from the pine cones. Once in a while a seed would fall loose and drift to the forest floor. Anne Marie held her vigil while the priests came and went. The Diocese came to evaluate. They could not determine the how or why either. It seemed I just appeared from their vantage point down below. Red cords and brass poles pushed the faithful back further. Ladders and magnifying glasses revealed the embedded wire. The tree had claimed it and me years ago.
The first day I found my home in the branches was not unlike this day. The sun was shining. Small white clouds dotted the open sky; an invitation for a pause. Sparrows and chipmunks scurried on the ground. Penelope was nine when she wrapped the wire around the trunk. Pine sap ran over her fingers. She tasted it hoping that it was sweet, but it was not. She stood, hard faced staring at me.
“I don’t feel you.” She said finally. “I am supposed to, I think. Emma said that if you stare at your statue long enough you start to feel. I feel nothing.” Penelope stepped back and kicked at the ground. She looked me in the eye again; fierce blue from behind a veil of blond hair that had fallen across her face.
“Is it because I am not Cath-o-lic?” she demanded. She touched the blue painted shawl covering my head, her finger rested in the palm of my hand.
“I am sorry for that. I don’t know what I am. Emma’ s mother picks me up on Sundays to go with them. They say it is to be closer to God. I don’t know about him. I like your face, the way that you look in the stained glass windows and the big tall statue in the corner of the church. The priest talks in Latin. I can’t understand but it makes me sleepy. I am afraid to sleep anywhere else. I pretend to pray so that I can close my eyes and listen.” Penelope said to me in a small voice. “It’s not safe to sleep at my house. Not when she’s still there.” Every day after that, Penelope came to talk to me. There were no houses then around the trees. As the tree grew taller, I went with it. Penelope stopped coming when the snow fell. She came back in the spring with flowers she pulled out of the ditch.
“These are for you.” She said holding up her fist. Roots and dirt dangled from her wrist.
“I don’t even know if you like flowers, but I thought they were pretty.” She said dropping to her knees. “I am going away and won’t be back for a long time. Maybe never. The police came and took her. She tried to take me first. My dad says we’ll be safe now. I hope he’s right.” That was the last time I saw her.
Thirty years later, the clutch of pine trees were a parkette behind the Wendy’s on Fifth Avenue. The crowds were spilling onto the asphalt. It was good business for the fast food restaurant. Even the faithful get hungry sometimes.
Three young boys stood in front of me in the late afternoon sun. Two of the boys had stones. They threw them one by one towards me, trying to hit me in a game.
“Oh! That one hit her on the side of the head. Did you see that?” one boy with red hair shouted. The other two shouted in unison that they had and that he should try it again. The crowds left two days ago when the officials from St. Peter’s church confirmed that there was nothing extraordinary about me. There were those who milled about for a while. Some did not want to leave. One or two lay down on the ground among the piles of garbage left from dinners at the fast food restaurant. Take out wrappers and empty drink cups blown and torn in the lowest branches of the pine grove. Anne Marie stayed longest. She picked up the garbage and took it to the dumpster at the back of the restaurant. There were those who laughed at her.
“Why bother? It’s a fake anyway. No miracles here. Just a hunk of wood stuck up in a pine tree. Go home Anne Marie.” Mrs. Wilson told her. Anne Marie ignored them. When the forest floor was finally cleared of debris, she went home to cook dinner for her daughters.
The second boy stood forward and took aim. He held a bigger rock in his pudgy hand. After a few practice swings he threw it. The rock landed short and the other two laughed.
“See guys, I told you this would come in handy.” The third boy said. He unhooked the strap of the bee bee gun from his shoulder and leveled the gun at me. The cold black barrel pointed squarely at my chest. He cocked the gun, took aim and squeezed the trigger in a single breath. The pellets hurtled towards me and in seconds shattered bits of wood flew everywhere.
“That was for my dad.” The boy said. He spat on the ground and walked away. The other two boys burst out in a sudden fit of laughter. I hung partially held by the pine tree that had grown around me after all of those years. Head, shoulders and part of one arm remained after the rest fell away.
They would forget that I was there. Some would remember when the time was right. Anne Marie would never forget. Penelope surprised herself. She lived twenty miles away. The news found her huddled in the corner apartment over the convenience store, Penelope told me. She arrived just in time to hear the gunshot. Penelope picked up the large splinters of wood and cupped them in her hands gently. She found my feet at the base of the tree, lodged in the crook of a branch. She stood underneath looking up as the rain started to fall.
So short breath
These two weeks
A reminder of how life unfolds
Humbling in a heartbeat
Two weeks two years
Paralyzed until the moment
You breathed life
Into my every day
And I have remembered how to breathe
My head is throbbing. I shade my eyes from the glare of light. Two African violets in a white plastic margarine container sit beside the window. Bubble gum pink and indigo violet blossoms opening. I go to the window. Brushed steel lines the window glass, cold under my fingers. How long was I sleeping? I had no idea. A sparrow batters itself against the glass. Its wings flutter and thump against the window by my head. I look passed him to the street. Sun glare burns my eyes. Tears fill the corners, and threaten to spill over. Black rooftops of houses sit in lines below my feet. I realize my feet are bare. The night gown I am wearing is deep purple lined with lace. Outside, I can see orange tattered flags hanging down from sagging telephone wires. They signal a warning to dump trucks and construction crew below. No one works there now. The street is almost deserted. Dull grey weathered telephone poles erupt through the sweating grey concrete. Broken asphalt is piled chaotically at the side of the street. No one must walk there. I can see no footprints in the pale dirt. The dust hovers around steel supports and giant culverts made of concrete. I can see numbers and letters coded in royal blue spray paint on the culverts. They turn upward to the sky. Calling out to someone, anyone. I stand with my palms flat against the window.
Why is the street empty? The question stands up like the rust coloured rebar jut up through the dirt. They are like dangerous fingers daring the unaware to walk through them. I press my forehead against the cool glass. I turn my head slowly, and try to look further up the street. Orange and black traffic cones lean lazily in different directions. Dirt brown brick buildings butt up against the Vietnamese Buddhist Monastery. Windows covered with white thick curtains. A fifteen foot white statue of Quan Yin sits in the front courtyard watching the street through barbwire and chain link fence. Her feet surrounded by cherry red and fuchsia geraniums in white glowing flower pots. The only person I see, the nun dressed in saffron robes, stands outside the monastery and sweeps the dust from the trucks off the terrace. It floats around her in thin beige clouds. She smiles in the afternoon sun. I wonder if she can see me in the window watching her. Does she know who I am?
I drag my eyes back to what is in front of me. Pressing my knuckles to my temples, I try to remember the past day. Nothing. The back of the two-storey walk up stares at me through the window. The brick is black, like an open wound, and angry. The faint rumour of a fire is etched in the formed stone and mortar. I can smell the fire in my nose, a scent memory but I don’t know from where. Wooden balconies balance precariously against the wall. Torn screened doors lean against old wooden door frames daring the wind to come up on them. Nothing moves outside. The wind does not take up the dare. Underneath the balcony, I can see two purple sofas with worn out arms huddle on the first floor porch. Beer bottles and waded paper collect in corners; remnants of the people living there. I massaged my neck. I felt the lumps at the base of my skull. They are large and rounded, tender to touch. My body quivers. I wonder how long I had been standing.
The windows are all covered in the building. Newsprint and cardboard instead of glass. I am standing like a crow watching. The landscape is like an abandoned urban postcard, tossed unthinking to the ground. Wish you were here. But I don’t. No one moves on the grey boards or gravel yard. Wilting lamb’s ear spills out of the broken garden box and pink primrose struggles to grow in the corner by the rusted out fireplace. Brick and patio tile fragments stacked against the shed. An abandoned robin’s nest jammed in the downspout of the eaves trough. I wonder where the babies have gone. No trace of the signature blue anywhere. All that is left behind, black garbage bags and brown cardboard boxes piled on the second floor balcony and a bright blue tarp flaps wildly in the sudden wind on the roof. Fear settles into the pit of my stomach. The shingles mirror me, and disappear in places where holes like hungry mouths bite at the sky above.
* note: this story grew out of an assignment on Diving Deeper… and has taken a kind of life of its own since I started writing it. Now I am at the point of having nightmares about the story. I often dream stories before or while writing them.. but it is the first time that I have written something that has given me nightmares. This is the sole reason why I am continuing to write the story – to see where it goes! Soon I will be sleeping with the lights on.
It is deep night. The hair sticks to the back of my neck. The fan stands in the corner, whirring and sputtering. It complains of the heat as much as I do. I cannot sleep. A black curtain of summer drapes itself over my shoulders and the rest of the room, daring me to move. A single bead of sweat trickles its way down my spine to sit in the pool at my tailbone. The street outside is empty. Not even the strays are out patrolling. It is disappointing to be alone tonight. The moon has risen, half full and deadly orange. The sun, on its lumbering journey to the other side of the world, won’t even let the moon be silver tonight. Fire red and orange waits to blast the morning sky. I hate heat waves. I would take a snow storm over a heat wave any day but if you asked me mid-stride I would tell you the opposite. I am contrary that way. It does not one lick of good to be naked in the dark even. My skin prickles each time the wind of the fan passes over me. Please, my skin begs, stay and cool us. Then the fan is gone. The heat wafts in and settles. Whimpering its companion.
This is not what I meant to write. I wrote earlier. Not properly just wrote what was on my mind. I don’t like writing that way. Restrained, unable to write freely. I do that to myself. Take the small screen. Take the smaller screen. Write. Pour thought into the abyss and pray that in some way the babble makes sense. it occurs to me now – how do you make sense of babble? Is it like making sense of a brook running through the woods, babbling, as it were? We just let the brook do its brooky thing and babble away. What of the sleep deprived? Do we let them sit in the dark, while the mercury pushes 37C at 1am and wonder if it is best to just let them sit, get out whatever it is that is stuck in the eyelids, prying them open…. wait, why am I writing this? What is the point? I have derailed myself. Spilled water from the bottle at my feet. It really is only water. I could call on someone to turn it into wine. No.. actually I can’t. not any more. Jesus is off doing other things.
I don’t like the sound of the whirr. Or the pounding in my head. I should sleep. Lay my feet across the pillow and stick my head off the end of the bed to watch the stars and moon move slowly together. Watch the streetlights from above, and the orange circles they throw up across the asphalt. Avoid all together the true reason I am sleepless tonight. Oh hush you red tormentor. Let me think a moment while I am sitting here. My forehead is slick against the back of my hand. Hair sticks everywhere. I won’t cut it though. It is not time. Push it away, like every other thought. Sit, you silly cow, and just listen. Not to the fan, or the hum of the other fans upstairs or in windows. Listen to the beat. Not the throbbing unrelenting head gripped by an invisible vice. Feel. You are allowed to. Feel.
The timer, I just noticed, is counting down. I am almost done. No elation. Being done means moving, and climbing and falling, and thinking while staring unseeing at the ceiling. The glow in the dark stars are faded now and it is too late to turn lights on and recharge them. The same summer sky stares down at me above the roof. I should not settle for the recreated one I made thirteen years ago. I wish I could lay out tonight. Lie down in the garden and watch the sky. It would not help me to sleep, but would be beautiful all the same. The light, like a breath through the cosmos, tricks my eyes into believing it is moving. Twinkling and winking at nothing. Sometimes, I am too cautious. Now I am more so. Waiting to see the stars dancing. Sitting alone in the dark, fans whirring. What lies waiting in the shadows now? I wonder. For a few more seconds any way. Is it time yet to end this? I wonder about that too.