Saturday, April 24, 2004

Word Exercises

First set of words
:: blind :: black :: invisible :: grave ::
:: desert :: mouth :: curious :: clocks ::

There are no clocks in the desert. If one dies here, one if forever caught between seconds, the minute hand never moves past the moment of last breath. You did not know, or perhaps you didn't remember the last time you died on the sands. Your grave will be invisible. It is curious that you felt no pain when you died. Blind, your lips filled with sand, your mouth set forever in a question, your skin black and peeling, drying on your bones. Who are you? I would never have seen you at all had I not fallen beside you to die as well. My boot crushed your bare skull. My impertinence has robbed you of your sleep. I take care to cover your pale bones before I sleep myself. Forgive me, old king. There is no one to wrap my body.


Second set of words:
:: aluminum : first :: sweater :: whisper : baby ::
:: chemical :: list :: fortune :: dread :: memory ::

The first sweater she'd ever owned was hand-made, pulled together from the ruins of older sweaters, her mother never one to waste wool, always thrifty like that. When the baby screamed, the acrid chemical smell sifting through the thin diapers, she replaced it with another much-used cotton diaper.

-- Rinse and boil, it'll last another fifteen years --

Her mother's one concession to modern technology an aluminum baseball bat for the boy. She'd spent a fortune on it, money well spent, certain aluminum would outlast pine. Older now, the young man dreaded the memory. It was no use explaining to her that no Major Leaguer would stoop to an aluminum bat. He withstood season after season of whispers and giggles until he grew old enough to buy himself a Louisville Slugger.

A list of meant-wells that grows with the years, but in the end the childrens' need for material equality outweighs a mother's love.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Tour of Duty

His pack loaded heavy, boots crunching dry mountain soil, the young soldier is sweating. All in brown and green, no more than eighteen, umber eyes a little too bright. Black hair matted down by grease and dust, he marches out of time at the back of the line. Clumsy, clumsy, stopping so often to shift the weight of his pack that soon the rest of the patrol has forgotten the bright-eyed young soldier.

His attention strays back and forth from the voices of the dead children he can hear; they are trapped beneath the ground. He can hear the whisper of the papery skin against bone, hear them call out "Have you seen our ball? We have lost our ball." Being a thoughtful young man, he takes the time to look around the dry scrub for their ball, thinking perhaps he should tell his captain but it occurs to him that he is suddenly alone, suddenly lost, and he looks south over the mountains toward the distant valleys of the neighboring land and he thinks that perhaps he'd better go look for the dead childrens' ball there, and he sets off across the highlands with his pack.

He is perfectly happy although he has a very long way to walk, and his pack grows heavier and heavier. He really doesn't think his captain will mind his looking for the ball, because, after all, when his captain had sprouted wings, taking to roosting above the rough barracks, the young soldier had politely not commented. He'd noticed that his bunk mates were ignoring it as well, even when the captain had taken to singing laments all night as he stretched his new wings on the sheet metal roof of the barracks, even when they all became aware that the captain was singing with his mouth tightly closed...

These things the soldier thought as he climbed further and further down out of the mountains. He still looks for the ball although he is certain no longer why or whom it is for and it is then he realizes that his heavy pack has become a whirling mist of spiders, all in different colors, all singing the same laments that the winged officer had sung, the words floating in the air above him, encased in prism bubbles, bursting to become more and more spider-things.

The boy soldier screams, pulling at the straps of the pack-turned-rainbow-singing-spider-nest, runs headlong breathing hard into the valley, into a blazing field of carnations. Red and white and laced and tall, he runs straight at them, hears them cry out "Save us, save us, save us! We are locked here by our deep roots, and cannot free ourselves!" The powdery sweet scent of the flowers, their tears turning into black beetles at his feet -- now he knows why he has come here, what the purpose of his long journey has been. He rips out the flowers with his bare hands, the roots coming loose in moist earthen clumps, the sticky green staining his brown hands, hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of flower voices to be...stilled.

He works fast, and though it is now icy black night he removes his clothing so as to work even faster, and faster, and faster he pulls up the flowers. Thin delicate pointed leaves stick in his hair, scratch his eyes, his genitals. His blistered and sticky hands bleed, his lips are green and split because his hands not being fast enough he begins to pull up red carnations with his teeth as well. Faster and faster and faster until at last --

There are no more voices.

The thin brown shivering soldier stands naked on a bed of glorious red and pink and white. His work finished, he carefully rolls his clothing into a neat ball, a pillow for his head. The soldier curls himself among the fragrant ruins, the carnations he has freed, and sleeps a peaceful sleep, not once thinking of the winged officer singing mournfully atop the barracks many miles to the north.

First Day of School

It is not a dog, not like any dog the child has ever seen. She almost trips over it, hidden in the tall feather-tipped weeds that grow close to the curb. Small and orange-red, enormous ears tipped with black, the animal looks to be asleep.

The child hesitates. She is forever bringing home wounded animals: rabbits, broken-winged birds, a snapping turtle trailing red gore where its right hind leg should have been, a black racer snake bent oddly near the middle, rats, muskrats, a mallard duck filled with buckshot that flapped wildly in circles before hitting the bay. She has even -- in her naivete -- brought home sea creatures. Blue crabs and sand crabs, a newborn stingray, eels, a tiny shark that swam spasmodically in her red plastic pail for two hours before floating belly-up to the top.

Most times the child's father has done the right thing, the humane thing: breaking a neck, crushing a frail skull, dropping gasoline-soaked cotton balls into a tightly closed jar. Each time sighing, feeling his daughter's tears like quick jabs of a dagger. Each time admonishing her not to bring home animals. Each time having to explain why. Once giving in, letting her sleep with the orphaned possum she'd found, no bigger than a child's thumb, naked and pink, wrapped in a red flannel shirt. Waking to the sound of the girl crying in the next room because the possum had died in the night.

-- No more, honey, please. Sometimes they just die. It's natural. Everybody dies, baby -- wiping her nose on his blue cotton shirt sleeve.

Today is the first day of school. She is dressed in green plaid, Gordon plaid they call it, the crisp pleats barely covering the scraped, scabby knees. One blue sock hangs about her black and white saddle shoes, the other creeps toward mid-shin. She carries her lunch in a brown paper bag, a liverwurst sandwich, an apple, two Oreo cookies. She doesn't have a lunchbox.

She does have a new bookbag, though, blue vinyl with silver snaps. Her father brought it from the small pharmacy near the fishing pier where he works tending bar. There aren't any books inside yet, just a pencil and a notebook. A special notebook with gray, newsprint pages, and thick blue lines separated in the center by pink dotted lines. This year they will learn cursive. No more awkward baby block letters.

The child likes the walk to school. She doesn't follow the road; instead she follows the footpath through the tall weeds and scrubby, short pine trees. She's good at avoiding sticker-burrs and the thorny wild roses; she loves the yellow and white daisies, the fiery red black-eyed Susans, the buttercups, the poppies and wild spearmint. Sometimes she pulls up the wild onions, brushes off the soil and bites off the ends. They're easy to spot; the tops are pointy, like the round and pointy spire of the Greek Orthodox church in the city across the bridge.

She sings when she walks through the weeds, sometimes songs she's learned from the nuns who teach in her school.

-- O come, o come, Emmanuel...and ransom captive Israel --

She's not sure who Emmanuel is, thinks he might be the same as Jesus, but isn't sure, but she likes the song. Sometimes she sings the dirty songs that she hears the older children singing. She rarely gets them right, though and never sings them at home.

She's singing when she sees the animal laying in the weeds, its head flung back, small brown eyes open. The girl stands over the animal, hugging her bookbag close to her body, then carefully crouches beside it. She sets her bag with the special notebook and pencil beside her, places the brown bag on top. She sucks in her breath, teeth catching her lower lip -- the animal is still alive, thought just barely so. And it dawns on the child that this is a fox, a red fox, although she has never see a real fox before. Her father told her that there were no foxes left on the island. There aren't any deer left, either.

But this fox isn't dead. It stares up at her with moist, dark eyes. Blinks once, twice. She sees that its head is thrown back at an unnatural angle, its mouth open, The thin, delicate pink tongue - crusted with bloody foam - hangs onto the ground. The girl reaches out, strokes its silky coat, feels the animal trembling beneath her chubby seven-year-old hand.

-- I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry -- she says in a whisper to the fox. -- I'm sorry someone did this to you, I'm sorry you hurt --

A black ant crawls irreverently across the fox's eyelid; the animal gives a short, weak bark.

-- Daddy says everything dies. He says it's supposed to happen -- She's crying, her nose running, drips clear snot on the dusty orange fur. She stands up, walks off into the pines trees, and returns a moment later carrying a rock that's much too big for her. It's as big as half a loaf of bread, flat and gray. She hefts the rock above the dying fox, says -- Everything dies, Daddy said so -- but she is crying very hard now as she drops the rock onto the fox's head.

It's the last fox on the island, and now she's killed it.

She stands crying for a few more moments, then hears the school bell ringing in the distance and Sister Carmela calling for the children to hurry inside.

-- I'm sorry, I'm sorry -- She wipes her nose on her freshly-pleated skirt, stoops to retrieve her lunch and bookbag. There is a little blood on the blue vinyl. Not very much. The little girl thinks for a long minute, then lays the blue bag atop the rock and the dead fox. She gathers an armful of pine needles and branches, works fast to cover the bag and the fox. Soon there is nothing to see but a mound of dry pine needles.

She gets to school late, and very dirty, smelling of pine tar and earth. Sister Carmela chastises her and send her off to wash up. Later she'll tell her father that she lost the blue vinyl bookbag. The next day he will buy her another.