Issue 93: Meg Kelleher

Meg Kelleher

About Meg Kelleher

Meg Kelleher is an English Literature Ph.D. dropout and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in creativity and trauma. Her work has been published in The Shore, The Broadkill Review, and elsewhere, and she was Fellow for Kaveh Akbar at StoryBoard 2021 and a 2022 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Contributor. She is currently at work on a novel and a book of nonfiction, and she lives in her birthplace of Chicago. You can find her on Instagram.

A Profile of the Author

Notes on “Nokomis Groves”

“Nokomis Groves” is named after a defunct citrus operation in Sarasota County, the coastal Florida community where I lived from age 7 to 21. After beginning this poem years ago, some shadowy subliminal force drove me to finally complete and submit it to the contest at the last minute. It’s been a dream to win.

Music, Food, Booze, Tattoos, Kittens, etc.

I should have expected the news that Nokomis Groves is being converted into a gated housing development of single family homes. I should have expected that the orange trees would be torn out, the ones that scented the winters of my childhood with their dissolute blossoms. This is a place where prehistoric shark teeth litter the beaches, antediluvian monsters prowl waterways, and over-55 restricted retirement communities spread like exotic creepers, strangling more fragile life. 

I should have known. As a child in Florida, I learned to fit myself into the preexisting order and accept the absolute dominion of the old regime. The fact that it grows relentlessly, ever proliferating in conch-white high rise complexes and eel-blue swimming pools, does not make it any less the old regime.

Yet it’s easy to take for granted that a home is yours and always will be.

After my father retired from the Chicago police in the 1980’s, we moved to Sarasota, where he worked as a sheriff’s deputy. For years he was assigned to oversee evictions, reporting to rental properties on the precise day that tenants’ time had run out. My father said that he never had to force anyone to go, that he’d just knock on the tenants’ doors in his uniform and they would step away from their homes willingly—albeit in some disbelief, a sort of daze. They’d frequently leave behind their televisions and stereos and abandon boxes of clothes and records on the lawn.

That was my father’s day job. But the seat of his true vocation lay in our garage, where he fixed things in his off time. No car, computer or appliance repair was beyond his ken. Sometimes he’d rehabilitate the broken things the tenants had left behind.

After my father retired for good, my parents developed an unconventional streak counter to the currents of more common snowbirds. They sold our home in Sarasota and moved near me in Chicago, where I’d previously relocated. My mother retired shortly before the pandemic began and increasingly devoted herself to caring for my father.

But a few months ago my mother admitted that my father’s needs now exceeded her capacity. She placed him in the secure memory unit of an assisted living facility near us both in the Chicago suburbs. 

The facility is called Saratoga Grove. We slip up and call it Sarasota Grove all the time. Just before we moved my father into the facility, I traveled to Sicily, to the Kolymbethra Gardens in Agrigento. Between the ruins of Greek and Roman temples, near a quarry that served as a prison for the slaves who spent their lives carving out limestone for their captors, there are citrus groves. Today the 2,500 year-old aqueduct system still flows, and ancient varieties of oranges and other fruits are irrigated in the classical Arab tradition.

The staff at Saratoga Grove reassure us that they want to help my father be comfortable but not to “snow” him—in other words, not to use unnecessary sedation. They want him to remain as much himself as he can be—still funny, charming, amiable—for as long as he can be. 

But sometimes my father wriggles out of the electronic monitoring bands on his wrist and ankle, hacks the elevator keypad code, and watches for the perfect moment to run for it. He attempts to arrest the staff who try to curtail his escape and keep him from returning home. He’s made it as far as the parking lot. 

Does “home” for my father refer to Florida, or to Chicago? Based on my experience, I’d say it just means not here.

.

Surrealist Prize Finalists

Surrealist Prize Finalists Winner Finalists Nokomis Groves by Meg Kelleher Who would I be if fear were not my twin? Still me, still dreaming of wasted oranges? Sore & sour as sweet long untouched, but for the branch and its pinched calculations-each limb here cups an untapped sun. Daughter of red tides, of coasts painted … Read more

Three Poems by Liana Roux

Found in Willow Springs 93

Back to Author Profile

81/2 Marina

for Risden

As we sit on the dock
and press frozen shrimp
into fish hooks
and cast the lines
into the dark, a single lamp
bobs out over the bay,
turned down into the shallows
which seem murky even from here,
a shifting cloud
of seagrass and sand.
He’s looking for flounder,
you explain. Gigging:
a long spear,
a flat boat, a bucket.
A flounder
looks like a dinner plate,
wide and dim.
It buries itself in the sand.
The motor hums the boat closer,
following the shore.
Something keeps eating the shrimp
clean off our hooks,
but we keep trying.
We’re drinking wine
the same color as the water,
which drinks light.
Homer’s wine-dark sea.
The bay is dredged
every few years,
this island unsustainable
and not unlike your love
of useless things,
of Huysmans’ bejeweled tortoise,
of this place, a jut of concrete
built out of the water.
Our hooks return empty
again and again.


Gnash

I’m grinding my teeth straight through the enamel.
The dental hygienist asks if I’m experiencing any stress.

Has my wife noticed anything?
Does she hear tumbling rocks?

Gnashing, from Middle English from Old Norse,
may be onomatopoeic, grown—ground?—from sound.

On the tip of my left canine tooth is a divot,
a deepening pit that catches my tongue.

The dentist on YouTube says I don’t need a mouth guard.
I just need to practice relaxing my jaw.

A ball of yarn unwinds. A spring snaps it coil.
Don’t smile. Instead imagine it.

I can’t blame my sleeping body.
We all want to hurt ourselves a little bit.


Spring, Loring Pond

The first week the ice melts,
plastic bags and newspapers
float up like ghosts,
drifting and gray
near the softening bank.

*

I keep seeing a body
wrapped in a sheet.
On TV it’s always a woman with a dog
who finds it—the waterlogged arm
emerging from the reeds, the barking terrier,
the mud and the blue morning light.

*

In the ’70s men would cruise here.
One was beaten to death with a pipe.
So many places where it could have happened—
the dandelion fountain, the bridge,
the tree growing sideways,
skimming the pond.

*

Who remembers? Each year
men in yellow vest wade to their stomachs
and cut the cattails back.
The dry wind hushes
the water, cold and deep
and full of figures rising almost to the shore.

Two Poems by Carol Potter

Found in Willow Springs 93

Back to Author Profile

Glass Eggs, or They Like to Eat Same as You

Some farmers put glass eggs in their nesting boxes.
Snakes slide in, swallow those eggs. Die
when the glass inside them breaks.
You can understand it from the hen’s point of view,
from the farmer’s point of view. I was the farmer, the daughter of,
and my job was collecting the eggs, washing them, sorting them.
I never found a snake in a nesting box. Sometimes long black
polished ropes of them lay out in front of the hen-house.
Sunning themselves. Other places they put ping pong balls
in the hens’ nests. Same principle. Swallow, then choke.
I’d never hear of that before today, but it’s something
Michael Ondaatje witnessed as a child. That
and the family shooting the snakes when they came into the house.
Cobra on a desk. In a chair. In the corner of the kitchen.
Someone might be loading a gun. Sometimes the action freezes.
Sometimes I wish for a glass egg I could make what’s eating me eat.
How useful when the thing you can’t stand takes the form of a fat snake.
When it’s there on the desk whisking its head back and forth when it sees you.
Glad you’ve arrived. Glad you’re pulling back your chair.


Good God Damn

The man under the broken pick-up, snow-plow attached,
was not visible but we could hear him fuck, fuck, oh
shit! trying to fix whatever it was by the side of the road—
thirty-eight degrees, light rain falling, snow on its way his
friend handing the wrong tool though no one of the two
had what they needed. He was down on his back in the wet
fuck of fall at the side of the road and the fuck of it all
traveling down the street to the pup at nine months who
just wanted to sit there and listen as he could not see
the man but he could feel what fuck this shit meant and
oh good god damned motherfucker and seemed to get
what that tremor in the voice meant as well as the clunk of
metal on metal one more thing to learn about us humans I
suppose pup looking at me knowing something about my
current undercurrents but not so much that he thought it
necessary to get the fuck up, c’mon, not your business, me
tugging at the least the man under the truck out of luck
deep inside the machine of it all the rust my little dog just
now suspecting maybe there was something not quite right
in the world he’d found himself leashed to my hands like small
supplicants smile on my lip little clip at the end of the least
treats in my pockets bits of old hot dog random kibble.

Issue 93: Matthew Baker

Matthew Baker

About Matthew Baker

Matthew Baker is the author of the graphic novel The Sentence, the story collections Why Visit America and Hybrid Creatures, and the children’s novel Key Of X. Stories have appeared in publications such as New York Times MagazineThe Paris ReviewAmerican Short FictionOne Story,Electric Literature, and Best American Science Fiction And Fantasy. Digital experiments include the temporal fiction “Ephemeral,” the interlinked novel Untold, the randomized novel Verses, the intentionally posthumous Afterthought, and the collaborative tete-a-tete Terminal, along with the cyber zine Code Lit. Born in the Great Lakes region of the United States, the author currently lives in Hong Kong.

A Profile of the Author

Notes on “Stricken”

I began writing “Stricken” on January 19 2021. Had been in quarantine for almost a year in an apartment in Manhattan. Writing nonstop. Day and night. Writing nonstop. Night and day. Like all of my stories, “Stricken” began as a concept. A narrator who would strikethrough words and phrases and clauses, strikethrough entire sentences, strikethrough entire paragraphs, in an attempt to negate negative thoughts. I finished the story on March 31 2021. Got vaccinated. Walked to the park in the rain. To be honest, I hadn’t expected to survive.

Music, Food, Booze, Tattoos, Kittens, etc.

I still have zero tattoos. I still have zero kittens. So what’s new in my life that maybe you’d want to know. About a year ago, May 5 2023, I decided that if I actually cared about the climate crisis then from now on I should do whatever was necessary to power my computer with green energy. I dropped half a grand on some solar gear. My starter kit was a Goal Zero Nomad 50 panel and a Goal Zero Sherpa 100AC battery. With those my writing is now 100% solar-powered. These words you’re reading now were 100% solar-powered. “Stricken,” unfortunately, was powered by fossil fuels, although all of the stories from my fossil-fuel era have since been offset by a giant sequoia in the Great Reserve.

Stricken

Coming Soon

Issue 93: Carol Potter

CW Potter

About Carol Potter

Carol Potter is the author of six books of poetry including What Happens Next is Anyone’s Guess, winner of the 2021 Pacific Coast Series in Poetry from Beyond Baroque, and a finalist for the 2022 Vermont Book Award. Her fifth book, Some Slow Bees won the 2015 FIELD Poetry Prize from Oberlin College Press. She has published in numerous journals including The American Poetry Review, Field, The Massachusetts Review, Sinister Wisdom, and Poetry Magazine. She has work forthcoming in Plume. And on a final note, she grew up on a farm in Northwestern Connecticut where no glass eggs were used, no snakes were killed, and the chickens roamed freely as did the children (after the shores were done.) Potter lives in Vermont and teaches for the Antioch University MFA Low-Residency program in Los Angeles.

You can view her website here.

A Profile of the Author

Notes on “Good God Damn”

The poem started out on a fall day in the early dark, two men shouting, cursing under the truck, and the pup wide eyed once more trying to figure out what the hell species it was that he was leashed to. All he could see of the man were some feet sticking out in the wet cold—furious, out of luck, deep inside the rusted machine. And that’s where we are sometimes.

Notes on “Glass Eggs or They Eat Just the Same As You”

Just two years ago, I learned about glass eggs and what they were used for. Having been the one in the family to wash and sort and package the eggs on my family’s farm, and after reading Ondaatje’s description of the cobras, and the ping pong balls, I went for it. But above it all, in it all, there’s that dream, hope, desire for some potion, some word, some something to just put it all right once again. With gratitude, respect, awe to both the serpent and the egg.

Two Poems by Carol Potter

Fellowship by Susan McCarty

  1. Seafood Night

EVERY FRIDAY AROUND FIVE, we stack the sun chairs in the pump room of the Maple Hills Country Club and watch the servers from the restaurant roll giant table rounds down the paved walk between the tennis courts, past the gazebo where we sit in black, regulation one-piece suits, and down to the pebbled pool deck. It takes three servers to handle a single round—to bang the rusted legs into place and hoist the table upright, to toss a white polyblend covering over the entire surface with one snap. The buffets are brought down, the Sterno lit below them. And then: steaming steel trays filled with buttered corn cobs, the garlicky reek of Oysters Rockefeller, yawning mussels and pink whole lobsters, the faint bleachy tang of cooked mollusk shell. Never mind that the nearest body of water is the catfished Iowa River. Every Friday from five to nine, the club is a Cape Cod beach, and we—who have never seen the ocean, but find ourselves drawn toward water on some cellular level—perch on our lifeguard towers as if they are crow's-nests, keeping our eyes on the water not for whales or land, but for children whose fearlessness makes them susceptible to sinking.

We dream nightly of escape. We would like nothing more than to see Iowa rolling out its infinity in the rearviews of our farm trucks, our Civics or Metros (all shamed to street-parking blocks away, to make room for the Lincolns and Caddies of the club guests). We rip through each National Geographic our grandfathers' yearly subscriptions provide. We pay attention to television and the news. Beautiful, violent things are happening a thousand miles east. And if the water inside us draws us to the water outside, in search of equilibrium, this is also true of our dark selves, the mystery of our desires, which can find nothing external to match the pressures they produce in us—not here, in the friendly width of these streets, these fields, these grocery aisles.

 

THE POOL OPENS AT TEN, but I'm supposed to be there at eight to set up deck chairs and check the garbage cans and test the water and fix the mix, if it's off, so the pool can open. today, I arrive at seven. I haven't really slept since last night, when Mom and Dad called a "family meeting." It was pretty goddamned obvious what they were going to tell us. It's why James has been wetting his bed lately, and why I stole the Titanic picture from the family photo album in the living room and hid it in my old copy of A Wrinkle in Time.

Ian shows up at nine, late and stoned. He's a swimmer on the college team and always has his shirt off, even when, like today,, it's too cold. His back is ridiculous, an inverted triangle—shoulders wide and pronounced from all his hunching through the water. I always get a little nervous when he's on the pool deck, on first position, on the stand by himself.

"Hey kid," he says with an easy smile. I'm pretty sure he doesn't know my name.

"Ian," I say, "pH levels are good. I didn't get to the cans yet though, so. . ."

"No problemo, chica." He waves and wanders across the pool deck to the first garbage can. It's not that I haven't checked the cans—in fact, before Ian showed up, I walked around kicking the trash cans, making sure to take all the pressure on the hard rubber toe of my tennies and yelling "Fuck you!" every time, imagining my father's soft, bearded face. He seemed the unhappiest of all of us, and this made it easy to blame him.

In one of the cans, the one by the wading pool, something shifted inside when I kicked. I drew the hinged top back and found two stupid eyes peering up at me. The thing hissed and I flipped the lid back down. I have kind of forgotten about it until I see Ian's shadow fall long into the concrete slab of the women's bathroom, where I'm stocking the toil.et paper with shaking hands, wondering what's going to happen to my brother who isn't yet old enough to realize what huge assholes his parents have become.

"Critter alert," Ian says.

The philosophy of work at the pool is smelt it/dealt it. I let Ian think he's found the raccoon. I grab the skimmer off its hook on the perimeter fence and follow him across the deck and through the little wooden gate to the baby pool area. He kicks the garbage can and there's a skittering, claws on the heavy plastic lining. He'll have to lay the an gently on its side and then get out of the way quickly, in case the coon is angry or rabid. I tell him I have his back and hold the skimmer defensively in front of me like a hockey goalie.

"Shit," he grunts, and squats the can to the ground.

"Get out of the way." I wave the net at the can.

"Jesus, get closer," he says. "I think it's coming out."

As if we're watching some sunny-day, rich-people horror movie, paws grasp the plastic lip and the raccoon emerges, spiky and damp and humping itself onto the length of the can, I an sort of frozen, watching it. I try to shake my head free of the buzz I haven't noticed all morning until now, but my reaction time is messed up.

The coon seems to be checking out Ian, lookin him up and down in a leisurely, half-interest way, and then it lunges toward him. Ian makes a kind of hoarse squawk and jumps backwards. Unstuck by his yell, I leap forward, brandishing the aluminum pole, and get the raccoon's head in the net, while it latches itself, all paws and teeth, onto the skimmer. I run to the baby pool and plunge the thing into two feet of water. The raccoon thrashes and I—or not me, but some reptilian part of me I have never met before—smash the skimmer to the bottom again and again, until I feel a brittle, twiggy snap. The coon goes limp in the netting, its neck probably broken. I feel like I might throw up.

Ian comes up beside me. He cranes his neck to look into the pool. He doesn't want to get too close to me.

"Holy fuck," I pant.

"You killed it."

My chin is starting to do this involuntary crumple that means I'm about to cry. "I didn't mean to."

"You looked like you meant to."

I drop the skimmer and it's so loud on the pavement I have to bring my teeth together to settle the vibration in my head. The coon looks small underwater—no way it was an adult. I look at it and think, I killed that. Ian offers to clean up and I go sit in the gazebo, at the pool entrance, where people sign in and pay their guest fees.

When he comes up later and asks if I want to go home, the question makes me cry harder. And when I shake my head and wipe my nose on the sleeve of my lifeguard sweatshirt, he says. "Come to the pump room," and I do because he looks confused and afraid, like I too might rise up and claw him, and I realize he thinks I'm crazy, all fucked-up over a baby raccoon, and so, when we squat on two bulbous gray metal meters growing out of the pump room floor, I tell him about last night, about my parents. I use the word they kept using—separation—a word that is pointedly not divorce. l I would rather it not be Ian who knows this before anyone else, but there is no one else. .He doesn't say anything. In the dank, chlorine reek of the room, his lighter glows under the joint he's brought for us, and the pain in my chest as I suck in smoke feels like something to be thankful for.

 

TWO HOURS LATER I'M STILL RED-EYED and dry-mouthed, but tear-free, sitting in the club gazebo in a manner I hope conveys both alertness and innocence. To the club mothers of Maple Hills, I want to look like the opposite of a person who would smoke weed on her guard shift. The reflective lenses in my sunglasses help—in my face the mothers see only themselves—but I realize I'm conveying too much alertness when Wendy Comstock glances up while she's signing in and then edges the clipboard nearer to herself as if to protect the privacy of her signature and club number. As if there'd be anything to do with her club number if I did steal it. Maybe a lesson with the golden tennis pro, a tan Swede straight off the cover of a romance novel. I'm imagining him bending me over the net and spanking me lightly with a racket, when a tall boy with large, rubbery features and long eyelashes wanders up to the gazebo and signs in himself and his little brother, who looks like he's about the same age as my brother James. The older one smiles and that's all it takes. The heat, the weed, the thoughts of the tennis racket, and probably, perversely, even the new of the separation have all undone me and I feel hazy and discombobulated and like the only thing that will make it all better is to be pressed against this guy as soon as possible. Phallically, I need a single point of focus. When the boys and their hairless and tawny bare chests have swept past the gazebo, I pull the sign-in sheet towards me and spin open the Rolodex to find their family info: Wychensky, Wayne and Donna. Ted and Liam.

I must have given off some pheromone, because when the third guard shows up at noon and Ian relieves me at the gazebo for my snack bar rotation, the older brother—Ted or Liam?—buys a pack of M&Ms, but manages to look, somehow, like he couldn't give a shit about actually eating them.

"You have to eat them fast, or they'll melt all over you." I try to say this in a suggestive way.

"Actually, M&Ms were invented not to melt. For soldiers in World War II. The candy shell?"

Simultaneously I feel like, You've got to be kidding me, and, I totally want to fuck you. And somehow he gets it, because he blushes, then grins an sticks the bag of candy in the pocket of his damp trunks and walks away. Hours later, I'm on the first position and the little brother comes up to the stand with his hand cupped over his eyes like a sailor. I make him stand there because my whistle and sunglasses and my great height on the lifeguard stand tens to scare kids and I'm not above enjoying that.

Finally, I acknowledge him with a nod.

"I'm Liam," he says.

"Hi, Liam. I'm Sarah."

He's brown as an almond and his hair is curly and dark. He looks like Disney's Aladdin and I'm sure someday he'll be as hot as his brother. Hotter, probably.

"My brother says he thinks you're pretty."

I make no expression and don't even move my head, but I find Ted with my eyes.. He's rubbing sunscreen on his stomach like it's the most interesting and difficult thing he's ever done.

 

TED PICKS ME UP FROM WORK THAT NIGHT in his Chrysler LeBaron, and some time later, but perhaps not enough time, his chewed-at finger tips are fumbling their way past my underwear, and the smell of chlorine is all around us, and all of sudden I have a new summer project which doesn't involve sitting around feeling sorry for myself.

In the next few weeks, we establish a routine: on my nights off we got to a movie, maybe for pizza and then we motor out somewhere more or less deserted and take off our clothes. Soon Ted has nuzzled, licked and put his finger s on and in almost every fevered part of me, but he refuses intercourse.

One night, I bring out a joint after we pull into a fallow field off the gravel road that winds behind a half-finished housing development. The cicada chatter around us and hundred of lightning bugs hand chest-high, at the top of the seeded grass, flashing their semaphore. I bop Ted gently on his beautiful Roman nose with a red Bic and twiddle the joint at him from my other hand. He takes the lighter and throws it out the window. "I'm not down with chicks who use."

"What?" I pull back the joint before he can chuck it too.

"No drugs, babe. Them's the rules."

"Why are you talking like that? Whose rules?"

He looks less sure of himself, his huge Adam's apple bobbing. "Pastor John's."

"Really? That guy?"

Pastor John is a balding twenty-something who specializes in Pear Jam covers on his acoustic guitar and speaks motivationally at our high school once a year. He runs a popular cross-town evangelical ministry for the kinds of kids who have great skin and expensive cars and brand of stupid, beautiful arrogance that almost takes your breath away. They get high on life and go to Very Good State Schools. Ted's one of them—he'll be off to Madison in the fall, which is close enough to pain me with a glimmer of hope that our summer thing might outlast the summer.

"Are you in his. . .teen group or whatever?"

"Youth group, and yes, I go to his Friends and Fellowship Fridays."

Ted sounds defensive and he should be.

This is Pastor John we're talking about. During last year's all-school assembly about self-respect, he preformed a country version of "Ice, Ice Baby," in which he changed the lyrics to Nice, nice baby. He frequently organizes long and awkward trust falls, preaches abstinence whenever he gets the chance. I am mortified for both of us, Ted and me. Pastor John's biggest message is that intercourse is disrespectful of a girl's body and the holy sanctity of marriage. Thank weeping baby Jesus, Ted follows only the letter of this law.

I try, I try, I do. I beg and plead and prance and suck and tease, but Ted is adamant. We seem to reach some sort of stalemate about sex, but I manage to disappear into him anyway. His LeBaron my salvation. Most nights of the week, I slide into my mother's dark house late and pretend not to hear her weeping through her bedroom door and imagine a future for myself full of adult things without adults.

 

2. Trial Separation

IN THE EARLY DAYS OF DIVORCE, when it's still being referred to as a trial separation, it seems that everyone does everything wrong. After swearing we won't, we bring up custody. Some of us wake at night in a cold wet beds and cry out, and other of us ignore those cries, which seem to come from a planet we don't want to inhabit, and which sound to our cringing ears like a symptom of some infectious disease we don't want to come down with. Decisions are made and boxes are packed. Some of us are upset that others of us are taking all the records and hi-fi equipment, but these complaints are deftly turned inside out and become reasons to visit the new place, the new living situation, the new beige and black leather townhouse monstrosity with Berber wall-to-wall and white plastic vertical blinds that hang like blades and dissect the view of the spewing water feature in the center of the pond behind the development.

We seem to be unbecoming a we. We seem to be becoming an us and a them, but even on either side of this dividing line we each stand alone, tucked into ourselves, the distance between us—even those of us on the same side, those of us who did not royally fuck up and irrevocably ruin it for the rest of us—enormous and growing with each passing, teary day. We hear each other's clotted breaths in the night. We no longer eat dinner together. We sit in the basement pushing our injection-molded He-Men against each other (in love or hate we don't know) and wait for the rest of us to join in, but we are scattered and wounded, and in our pain turn away from each other. Others of us see the slinking about and the downward cast of the eyes, and we understand at once. We try to sound patient and convincing: No one has every died from this. Lots of people go through this. We'll all be okay. What we really want is to run away. What we really want is for those of us who are children to stop acting like children, even though this is impossible and, in itself, a childish wish.

For the first time in years, we are truly alone. We clip our nails and toenails carefully—there seems to be all the time in the world, now, for personal grooming. we feel happy for a few days, to finally be free of the dog hair, but after a few more days we realize how awfully we miss the dog. It's the dog that finally sends us to our knees, our hands to our heads in front of the vertical blinds in the long, dogless night. When we look up again, we realize we are staring at the light on the water feature and that the color of the light is changing as we stare. We watch it go from green to blue to purple to pink to red to orange to yellow to green to purple until our lashes dry and our fists unclench.

 

THE SUMMER'S A LONG SLOW YAWN. James and I are at Dad's two-bedroom apartment every weekend, which is actually more family time that any of us have ever spent together. It feels like prison.

Dad doesn't have a couch, just a low glass coffee table in front of the TV, an ancient half-ton wood monstrosity with side panels and knobs, which sits on the floor, like us. James and I eat Cheetos off the coffee table from a family-sized bag. We've already watched our old pirated copies of Beauty and the Beast and Clue. Halfway through Tucker: A Man and His Dream, the TV screen fuzzes over and when the picture returns, there's a topless woman with sky-high blond bangs, kneeling between the legs of a hairy man with his pants around his ankles. The man places one big mitt on her head, crushing the anemone-like structure of her hair. Dad flies up, blocking the screen, and fiddles at the control panel of the TV. A wet smacking sound precedes the silence.

"What was that lady doing?" James asks.

I can feel Dad looking at me for help. He's always been short with us, impatient. His temper was a force that filled our house with its sound and fury, and it seems to me he's been the chief composer of our misery. I do not want to help him, but I feel protective of my little brother, so I ask James if he wants to watch Clue again, which is his favorite movie, and he says yes yes like the six-year-old he is, and when I settle back next to him, Dad gets off the floor and retreats to the kitchen. I don't know exactly what he's doing back there. Pots rumble and the kitchen faucet runs. I hear the fridge smack open, twice. It's not enough though—even from the other room, Dad's shame fills the apartment like a gas leak. I look at the TV screen and narrow my focus to the wavering, over-red images. It's a kind of meditation, except instead of calm and peace. I allow myself to fill with a rage so heavy it pins me to the ground.

It's a long time before I can stand again, and when I do, I find the rage has not abated. I grab my keys and stomp to the door. I tell them not to wait up and snarl that I'll sleep in my own bed, in my own fucking house. James is a perfect replica of my father: the "O"s of their mouths and their eyes like wounds. I open the door and no one stops me, so I slam it hard and feel, for one second, like I have won.

An hour later Ted and I are parked at the spillway. Ted is doing this thing in my vagina where he rubs one finger up and down the other, producing what I imagine is supposed to be some sort of crickety vibrato. I don't know where he gets his fancy ideas, but I don't want to hurt his feelings either. I arch my head back toward the half-open window to get a sniff of the barbeque smoke coming from a campsite downwind. All day, I've only eaten Cheetos. Ted takes my contortions as encouragement and the cricket quickens.

"Hey," I say after a few more minutes of this. "Let's go outside and look at the tube." The tube is a mad explosion of water that rushes over the dam gate at 3,500 cubic feet per second, and though our car is parked slightly upstream, it's a fairly easy walk, even in the dark, up the hill to the banked bridge directly over the outflow. Standing there, you feel as though you might be sucked into its deafening fishy roil.

Recently, before the announcement, but when things were already bad, when Mom and Dad stomped around their bedroom every night and bellowed at each other like a couple of cows about to be slaughtered, I was picking through a family photo album, trying to remember a time when their anger hadn't rumbled every wall in the house, and I found a snapshot of them standing above the tube in a the golden light of an early autumn afternoon, the day we all went fishing together—maybe three or four years ago. I remember James was fascinated by the way Dad hooked the worm and the grieving worm families they'd left behind.

In the snapshot, my mother's leaning against the chest-high chain-link that surrounds the damn gate. Her arms are spread at the shoulders like wings, her hair, longer then and maybe darker, ripples behind her. My dad's hands are at her hips. They're doing Titanic at the top of the tube. I didn't realize how bad things had gotten, until I saw that photo. And now, I can't even be here, can't pretend to enjoy my boyfriend's mediocre fingerbang, without thinking about my parents and wondering what's to become of us all. I sigh and push Ted's hand away.

"Did you hear me?" I say. "Let's go up and watch the water."

"It's dark out—we could trip and hurt ourselves. Anyway, it smells."

In an instant, the rage is back and I am ready to push this thing to the brink. I know what it takes to hurt us both. "Why can't we just have sex like normal people?" I say. "I feel like a fucking freak out here."

Ted frowns. "You know I can't."

"Oh right. Your pledge of chastity."

"It's important to me. You said you'd support me." He turns away, his modest erection wilting in his jeans, and starts the car. I pull up my shorts and thrust my pelvis as high in the air as I can to button them.

"I was just trying to get you to fuck me."

"Pastor John said you sounded like someone who'd resort to pressure tactics. And that I should be careful."

"You talked to him about me?"

"I didn't want it to be true, but now I see he was right—"

"What did you say about me?"

"—and I think. . .I don't think we should see each other anymore."

For the millionth time, I imagine Ted's legs spread out before me as I ride him like a combine; Ted's farm-boy bulk squashing me into the crumb-sharp fabric of his back seat in an ironic missionary; Ted's ass tightening as he rams into me again and again. But now I see something else too: that asshole Pastor John staring at us with heaven's disapproval souring his face.

I elbow the door open and start walking toward the top of the tube, which looks like someplace furtive and ugly in Ted's headlights. Gravel, broken glass. I climb the steep spillway embankment and don't look back. He yells for me twice, then backs his car out and drives away.

Up here, at the top of the hundred-foot drop down to the churning, angry water, is the last place I saw my mother smile at my father. The Iowa River races furiously toward me. Beyond the dam, the reservoir is placid and has the rotten fertilizer smell of something dead.

 

3. Youth Group

IN PLACE OF DARKNESS, there was the fluorescence of junior high hallways. In place of demons, Zach Hellerman's man-sized fist sank into our stomachs. His spit hung, chrysalis-like, from the fringe of our bangs. Our glasses: bow-broken and skittered beneath a locker; our non-existent breasts: shamed; our prematurely large breast: shamed; our ball: kicked back into the cavity of our bodies before they'd even had the chance to fully descend..

After the darkness of our daily existence, the bread of our pain, who among us does not feel a huge unclenching inside, a sobbing relief, as we stare into the linoleum of the church basement floor and hear the stories rushing wild and full from each other like the river across the dam? We feel bathed in light. The peace we've been promised, for years, by parents and various administrators, most likely erstwhile bullies themselves, finally arrives in this unlikely and alien place which smells like the hospitalish rooms in which our grandmothers moan out the ends of their lives. How unlikely seems the bringer of our peace. His mousy goatee, the shaved head that we would later understand as an answer to balding, the way his voice twangs over the top of his acoustic guitar: too precise, show-choir trained, a hickish put-on. How fitting that our savior here on earth, the man who would tell us about our savior up in heaven, would the sort of head we would want to see punched, the kid of cringing attitude that would make us understand, finally, what was so hateful about ourselves.

And so, we have learned to speak forcefully, to repulse the twin evils of drugs and sex—although many of us are still waiting, just waiting, for someone, anyone, to offer either. We've traded our skin-care secrets and exfoliated ourselves to a rosy, Christian glow. We've kissed each other during church lock-ins, and at Camp Galilee, where we also learned that Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi worship Satan, a lesson which Pastor John later encourages us to laugh off, but which nevertheless continues to freak us out. We have begun, some of us, to understand the price that such fellowship is asking—nothing less than our soul at the expense of our bodies. We have begun to fail each other.

One of us, just last weekend, tasted, finally, the seawater tang of his girlfriend's vagina—the Southern Comfort still hot in his belly—and ejaculated into his wrinkle-resistant Dockers. Another welcomed the sweet curl of methamphetamine into her lungs. We have turned eighteen and visited the Pleasure Palace with our non-youth group friends and masturbated furtively into socks. There is, suddenly, a new vocabulary; bong, dank, nug, DP, creampie, money shot, crystal, crank, tweak. Something inside us hungrily expands until we feel larger than our homes and schools and even, or especially, the basement of this church. We wake at night and touch our arms and legs and heads, certain they must have flown from us in sleep. We long to ask each other: Are we being devoured by lions or are we becoming them?

 

THE CORN IS NOSE-HIGH and I'm on my way to a church basement on the other side of town to eat crustless sandwiches and fraternize with the enemy. It's embarrassing, this sudden obsession. I've always prided myself on being cool with guys, less interested in a relationship then they were. The best thing about hooking up was the total-freedom feeling it gave me. Sex was something parents and school couldn't access or control. But Ted has beaten me; he's kept more of himself in reserve than me, has more secret rooms to which he could deny me access. He wouldn't let me in, but he would let in Pastor John. I wanted to talk it out, but my calls went unanswered. I imagined he could hear my anger and desperation ringing out from under the bed, where he kept his phone, and that it repulsed him. He'd stopped showing up at the pool, though his brother still came. I was thinking about sending a note home with Liam, carrier pigeon style, when I realized I could confront Ted, and possibly (in my fantasy) also Pastor John at a Friends and Fellowship Friday meeting. I would expose John as a weirdo and convince Ted to take me back. Dénouement night sex would follow in the pond at my dad's condo development. I got aa sub for my Seafood Night shift and set out to win back Ted.

But Ted has stopped coming to youth group, at least that's what Pastor John tells me when I walk into the basement and interrupt a jam session between him and three groupies. The bongos guy I recognize from school, but the other two kids are strangers, though the girl on the guitar smiles at me. The friendliness of the group flusters me. Instead of introducing myself and calling out Pastor John for being a fraud, I say, "Um. . .where's Ted?" and they look confused.

John rises, his puka-shell necklace slapping against the collar of his T-shirt, and says, "Haven't seen him in a few weeks. What's you name?"

I tell him and think I see a squint of recognition.

He says, "God's casa es su casa, Sarah. Have some snacks. we usually jam until most of the group gets here. Then I call everyone to fellowship."

I nod and walk toward the spread of drinks and food on the other side of the room, trying to avoid talking to anyone while the sunny creeps behind me sing, "I don't need no doctor, all I need is Jesus love." I drink cranberry juice from a Dixie cup and separate a long stick of mozzarella from itself, string by awkward string, as more eager kids file in and take up the joyful noise. When the music stops, I have just dragged a large piece of cauliflower through the dip in the center of the vegetable tray and put the whole thing in my mouth. In this new silence, it feels as if the protective covering around me has been torn away. A tambourine jangles faintly as its master puts it down. Pastor John yells into the calm and heavy air, "My Lord, lift me up to be with you! My Lord, call me and I will answer!"

I try to slow my stuttering heart as I turn from the buffet towards the youth group. They're all sitting there with eyes closed, smiling. John's hands are extended to the ceiling and they jitter, as if he's been struck with a neurological disorder.

"Tonight we thank you for bringing us a new lamb, named for the wife of Abraham! Sarah! Sarah, come here Sarah, and say the Lord's name with us!"

They open their eyes and look at me like puppies, and I realize they've left a notch in their prayer circle open for me on the mat. I point to my bulging cheek and keep chewing as though answering a question no one has asked. They keep looking and I keep standing there, pointing at my face, finger like the barrel of a gun, chewing, chewing, unable now to swallow as they stare, the creamy dip curdling against my tongue. My head is filled with the noise of my mouth, but I can tell the silence that binds us together is very awkward indeed.

"Sarah!" yells John, and a piece of cauliflower lodges itself in my windpipe. There's a long moment, as I try to draw my breath to cough, when nothing happens. My body feels as though it has always been here and always will be and I'll spend the rest of my life in this basement being stared at by Christian youth, me staring back—curiosities to each other, zoo animals watching zoo animals. The guitar girl's mouth moves, and from a distance and sever seconds delayed, I hear the words, "She's choking?" and then I'm on my knees, the cauliflower paste coming out of my mouth as I open it to the ground, and then someone strong and hippie-fragrant is kneeling behind me, enfolding me in a great hug, and the cauliflower is cutting a path back up my throat, and there's the sound of my own wheezing life and pain in my knees and my lonely sinner's blood pulsing hot in my ears. Like a newborn, I breathe and then I cry. The group makes noises around me and someone asks if they should call an ambulance, and then I uncurl myself from the cement floor, clear my throat, and walk out of the worship room like Lazarus from his cave.

I think about driving to Ted's house, but I know what I will find: a big happy family playing Yahtzee, the Rolexed arm of Ted's father slung around his tastefully small mother, their slippers, in the loafer style, parked side by side. Liam would say something child-wise and they'd laugh together like the stars of their own sitcom, like they were on their own cloud up in heaven and had forgotten the rest of us, down here, in our weird, hungry bodies on earth.

 

JAMES IS ALREADY IN BED and Dad's bent awkwardly over the dishwasher when I let myself into the apartment. I take a beer from the fridge and sip it at the kitchen bar. It burns my throat. Dad doesn't say anything about the beer so I tell him about Ted and how we broke up and I say I even went to his youth group, but it's like he's just disappeared from my life. And is this always going to happen, this disappearing? And what about you? Are you going to disappear too?

Really, I don't ask that, even though I want to manufacture a father-daughter moment. I want things to all feel okay again, just for a minute. But I also know this would be a lie.

"Better luck next time," says Dad as he closes the dishwasher door. "I'm going to bed."

Does anything sound cozier than a dishwasher at night? Even in this sad bachelor wreck of a place, where each of us is tucked into our own separate corner like water molecules—bonded for a moment, but always breaking apart.

I open another beer. The VHS tape marked "Tucker" is still sitting on top of the TV. I let the slow motor of the VCR suck the tape into its broad, flat mouth. I turn the volume all the way down. I sit on the floor and listen to the rhythmic slosh and hiss of the dishwasher. I watch through to the end.

 

 

 

Hourglass by Clare Beams

Willow Springs 68

Found in Willow Springs 68

Back to Author Profile

A TRANSFORMATIONAL EDUCATION, the newspaper ad had promised, so we'd come to the Gilchrist School, which looked like a 19th century invalids' home. With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, it seemed ideal for transformations, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad. Here no one would find me until I was done. For the first twenty minutes of my interview, Mr. Pax, the headmaster, poured words upon our heads and seemed to require none from me. I had only to sit while he spoke of the crimes of modern education, the importance of avoiding the craze of the moment and what he called "the great, all-too-often meaningless noise of exhibition," how he thought of teaching as a process of shaping, honing, turning each young woman into the best possible version of herself. My mother, who had never been anything but her own best version, smiled winsomely and told him, "We would just lost to see Melody blossom, that's all." Yes, yes, Mr. Pax said.

But then he inclined his great shining white-ringed head toward me and said, "Well, Melody! You've been quiet, for a person whose name heralds such mellifluousness! Please, tell me something about yourself. What activities do you most enjoy?"

A pause. Then, "Go on, Melly," my mother said, for all the world as if she expected me to rise to the occasion, except there was a little too much brightness in her voice. Had she really expected it, of course—had I ever shown any signs of such a capacity—we would not have been here.

I dropped my eyes to the carpet and scoured my days for things I could speak of safely. School, which I hated. Television, which I knew better than to talk about here. Sleeping, which I liked, except when it ended. Drawing, a loose word for what I did sometimes, tattooing pages of computer paper in rhythmic, soothing swirls of ink. Reading Nancy Drew mysteries, sticking and unsticking the pads of my fingers to their bright yellow, plasticky covers until I knew they were tapestried in whole invisible galaxies of my fingerprints. I never had anything to say about them when I finished them.

"Reading," I told Mr. Pax. The word came out scratchy and prematurely old. I hadn't talked much in the car.

"Superb!" He clapped, actually clapped, his hands. "And what are some of your favorite books?"

Somehow I had failed to foresee this, though the floor-to-ceiling shelves on the wall behind Mr. Pax were lined and lined and lined with books like dull, uneven teeth. If I pretended to have read something impressive, Mr. Pax would certainly roll his chair over to the shelf and pull it out, set it right down on the desk between us for discussion. I could see myself sputtering and flecking the dusty damning rectangle of the book with spittle while my parents sagged.

"Mysteries," I said. "Mostly."

I waited for Mr. Pax's face to fall or flush with anger, for him to throw up his hands and cry, This! This I cannot transform! Instead he gave me a wide, warm illustration of a smile. "Ah, the pleasures of the whodunnit," he said. "The neatness of the ending, a satisfaction that all too frequently evades us in life. You know what I've found to be true, Melody? A taste for mysteries is often the sign of a truly orderly mind."

My mind is truly orderly, I thought, cheeks reddening with a hope and gratitude that dizzied me because I had been so unprepared for them. And next: If this man wants to try to change me, I will let him.

 

WE HAD DRIVEN to Gilchrist intending only to have a prospective-student visit, but after the interview my parents decided to leave me there that very afternoon, before I had a chance to lose something or fail to follow through on some simple instruction and force Mr. Pax to reconsider his assessment of me.

"You don't have to stay forever, of course. Let's just see how things work out," my mother told me at the school's front doors, where my father had already collected his umbrella. "We'll send your clothes and things straight away," she said. She leaned in to kiss me, leaving behind a crisp little cloud of her perfume. I wanted them to go—I wanted Gilchrist to begin on me—but there was something about the idea of my mother sorting through my clothes and boxing them up, my father driving to the post office with them in the trunk of his car, that made me feel as if I had died somewhere alone the way without noticing and would now be expunged. My throat began to close with tears. I told myself that the next time they saw me, I would be so polished I would hurt their eyes.

"I have tons of clothes she can borrow until her stuff gets here," said my new roommate, a girl named Molly Briggs, in a cheerful defiance of the fact that nothing she would own could possibly fit me.

"Well thank you, Molly, that's very nice," my mother said. My father gripped my shoulder. I knew he tried to put things he couldn't say into that grip.

And then the door banged shut behind them and they were gone.

"It's amazing here," Molly said as she led me to the dormitory wing. "You'll see." She swung a door open into a small square of a room, kindly pretending not to notice that I was crying. "I'm super excited," she said. "I figured I'd get a roommate eventually. I was the only one with nobody. Odd number." I went in a sat on one of the desk chairs, trying to whisk my eyes dry with soggy fingertips. "Let's find you a dress for dinner," Molly said.

"That's okay," I said thickly.

Molly surveyed me. "We all wear dresses here, though."

"All the time?"

"Mr. Pax says how you look is the first impression you make on the world." She was in the closet now, pushing hangers aside with a brisk metal sound like the opening of a shower curtain. "And the easiest part to control."

I glanced down at my lumpish, besweatered form. My experience held no support for that idea.

"Here's the one I was looking for," Molly said.

The dress was black and had a forgiving enough stretch to contain me. I sweated through it almost immediately at the armpits, but the color didn't show. Dresses, I thought, as I pulled at its hem. We all wear dresses here.

 

THE HATS I LEARNED ABOUT a few days later, when I tried to take my copy of The Mystery of the Lilac Inn outside for lunch. This was allowed: lunch and dinner were served on gray metal trays that you could take wherever you wanted to go. At lunch you just had to be back at the tables by half past twelve for Assembly. Routine was sacred at Gilchrist—the days were shaped to run in a smooth way that made your level of contentment mostly irrelevant—and so I felt unfairly accused when I looked up from the tricky balancing project of my tray and book and found Miss Caper in my path.

"Where are you off too? Outside?" she asked. tugging on the hat string tied beneath her chin, gazing at me from beneath the brim. The rapid fumbling of her fingers made her look even younger than usual, and always she looked young enough that the first time I'd seen her, standing before her blackboard full of notes on Tess of the D'Urbervilles on my first morning at Gilchrist, I thought she was a student.

"There's time still," I said. "Right?"

"Oh yes. Just—it's bright out there. Why don't you borrow this?" She'd succeeded in working the knot free and before I could respond she settled her hat on my head. It shaded my view of her. She was already moving off toward the faculty table, but I saw her stop and lean briefly over Molly, who looked in my direction and hurried toward me with a tube in her hand.

"Here," Molly said, squeezing something onto her fingers, and then she rubbed it—cold, cold—onto my face. Holding my tray the way I was, my hands couldn't stop her. "Sunscreen," she said. "We wear it when we got out in the daytime. Hats, too."

"Why?"

"The skin," Molly said, "should be like a beautiful blank page."

Outside, I sat under a tree. Nancy was about to figure out what was going on with the ghost, but I was having trouble paying attention. The paper of the book itself was distracting me, its even , frictionless fell beneath my skimming fingers. A caterpillar fell onto my lunch tray, into my salad dressing. I watched it writhe.

At twelve twenty-five I closed the book and carried everything back in to rejoin the thirteen other girls in my year at our table. I banged my knees as I took my seat, and they all turned in my direction, no particular expression on their faces, before settling again into elegant disinterest. I sat there feeling, as always in such moments, my mother's eyes on me.

Mr. Pax rose. Every day he made a speech to start Assembly. I had been listening as closely as I could to each of them, filing away as much as possible in the hopes that it would teach me how to become what everyone was trying to make me. I think that even without the effort I would have remembered whole sentences—he had that kind of voice, those kinds of words. To unlearn an old habit, I believe, takes more diligence than to learn a new one, he'd said to us yesterday. The day before: Remember that the true intellect requires so much energy to sustain that it has none left over to devote to display. It would not have occurred to any of us to equate his speeches themselves with the display of which he spoke. Though Mr. Pax strutted daily before us, shone, dripped words like syrup, everyone knew that this was not artifice. The artifice would have been to prevent himself from doing these things.

Mr. Pax centered himself at the front of the room, and turned to us. "Today, girls, I thought I might share with you a  brief history of Assembly itself."

He waited while small conversations quieted. Molly swiveled toward him in her seat.

"When I came to Gilchrist, more years ago than I would care to disclose"—the faculty, lined behind him at their table, tittered softly—"I came armed with the belief that education is nothing less than the shaping of the soul. Thus, upon my arrival, I had to ask myself: These souls entrusted to me, what form ought they assume? What shape would best suit them? It was question neither asked nor answered lightly, but eventually, an answer did come. I realized that I wished to mold not future citizens of the world as it was, but of the world as it should be. For it is my belief that the world around us has lost the grace and purity it had in earlier times, girls. That does not, however, mean that you need to do so. It was—is—my deepest wish to prepare you to stand in loveliness before eyes that no longer see as they ought, to answer with eloquence the questions of those who may or may not be capable of appreciating what they hear. I believe this sort of deportment has value no matter how it is perceived. At the end of the day the world is not my concern. You are."

The skin on my arms prickled. I ran my fingertips lightly over the bumps, trying to settle them into blankness.

"In light of all of this, I consider Assembly a sort of training ground, if you will, for your lives to come. When you stand and make announcements—even if you are simply questing after lost items or marking the anniversaries of one another's birth—you are practicing being seen and heard. And it is my most cherished hope that you are also considering, deeply, how you wish to appear and to sound in those moments."

I scanned the two lines of girls at my table, the willowy form and smooth smooth faces, behind each of which was fluid voice at the ready. I knew just how I wished to appear and to sound. Any minute now I would understand how it was done.

 

ON A CRISP TUESDAY near the beginning of November, Miss Caper stood in a patch of sun at the front of the classroom and talked to us about Keats and negative capability. We watched her form our desks, which were arranged in a circle and which were the same as the desks at my old school, chairs barred to the tabletops to prevent the tiltings-back of unruly boys. Not a one of us, of course, would have been inclined to tip. Miss Caper wrote, "'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' 1819" on the board, rounding the letters prettily. Then she put down the calk and began to read to us in a low, thrilled voice: "Thou still unravished bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time. . ."

She read the whole thing, though we had also read it for homework, while we clicked our pens or wrote the title and date we already knew in our notebooks. When she finished she looked up and breathed deeply. "He was twenty-four when he wrote that," she said. I had been thinking for a couple days now that Miss Caper might be a little in love with Keats.

She asked us what we though the poem meant. I never volunteered at these time, since the potential cost of a wrong answer matter much more to me than the potential benefits of a right one. The other girls were not cruel—we were kept too busy for cruelty—but I didn't trust them. They mostly ignored me, even Molly, who often seemed oblivious of my presence, in a friendly way, while were actually speaking. I had not become the way they were. I tied my hair back into the right modest knot, and I wore the right things, the hats and the sunscreen, the dresses. But my skin had stayed freckled instead of going paper-blank. No new smooth voice had blossomed in my throat. And the dresses did nothing to make me look like the others, who filled their own with foreign undulating shapes.

Miss Caper called on Lila, who was talking about the imagery of the poem, which she really thought was just so powerful, when the bell ran. Lila stopped talking instantly. "'Eve of St. Agnes' for tomorrow!" Miss Caper told us, as we closed our books and began to file away from her. "Answer the questions at the end of the poem please."

"Melody," she said then, shocking me to stillness, "a moment?"

She leaned against the edge of her desk. I walked back and stopped, leaving a safe berth between us.

"Have a seat," she said, pulling one of the desks out of its circle, closer to her. I sat. "I've been asked to speak to you. You've been here over a month now."

Words rose within me, tasting of panic, please for more time and promises of improvement—but I knew that if I tried to release them they would only clog in my throat. I waited. Miss Caper's eyes flicked back and forth between mine, as if the right and left were delivering different messages to her and she were trying to decide which truly reflected my feelings.

"We think you're fitting in nicely. Really we do. You do remember what Mr. Pax says about the outside and the inside, though?"

I tried to call up the words, which I recognized from one of his recent speeches, maybe even yesterday's. Miss Caper gave me only a few seconds before filling in the answer herself. "He says that the outside should as nearly as possible match the quality of what's within. That way, we do everything in our power to give those whom we encounter the right expectations. So a beautiful person, like you, should do her best to look beautiful."

She paused again. "Melody," she said, and her voice suddenly had the same low thrum it had taken on when she'd recited the Keats poem, "how would you like to look a little more like a Gilchrist girl?"

Without waiting for an answer, she walked over and opened a closet I had never noticed in the corner of the room. From within it, she produced a hollow stiff shell, trailing long tentacular laces: a corset. There was flourish in her wrists as she held it out to me. A new form, right in her hands, ready for handing over.

 

AFTERWARD, I SWISHED MY WAY up the stairs, pausing every two to breathe, and into our room.

Molly had been reading on her bed. "Oh thank God," she said when she saw me. "I was getting so sick of having to get dressed in the bathroom. I don't know why they didn't just let me tell you. Miss Caper laced you up?"

I nodded. Miss Caper had, after turning away discreetly while I closed the front of the thing around myself. The pulling of the stays had hurt. I had not made any sound, though. I told myself I was having every faulty disappointing breath I had ever breathed squeezed out of me.

"Let me see." Molly stood and slid a hand down the back of my dress. She tested the stays with a practiced finger. "Not very tight," she said. "I'll do it better tomorrow. We can lace each other now. All year I've been having to knock on Marjorie and Kate's door and get of them to do me."

The next day at Assembly, as I ate with my back straight under the force of the lacing, which seemed to be pulling me together in entirely new ways, Mr. Pax stood and said, "Miss Caper tells me that the ninth grade has just completed its study of Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' A wonderful and wise poem: 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty. . .'" He let his voice linger, "One of the truest, most beautiful lines ever written, perhaps. For our surroundings are so often ugly, girls. Why should we not strive for beauty and bettering where they are within our reach?"

His eyes brushed lovingly over us, then. I could have sworn that they paused for a special instant on me.

 

IT DID FEEL, AT FIRST, as if I were moving within a body I had strapped on. My torso was suddenly unbendable: a stiff column that I had to swivel my hips to move when I walked. I couldn't quite breathe in fully, either. But it's surprising how rarely a person needs to breathe to the very bottom of her lungs in a day. Everything they asked of us at Gilchrist—the essay writing, the graphing of functions, the discussing of literature, the announcing of one another's achievements at Assembly—could be accomplished while talking no more than refined sips of air. It was only when somebody worked herself up that there was trouble: the time that Marjorie had a tantrum over her essay grade in English, for instance, and went very red and then slumped to the floor. Miss Caper produced smelling salts from her desk drawer and stroked Marjorie's forehead while she came around. I watched from my own desk and breathed evenly through the whole thing.

There was some pain: a compressed feeling and a periodic but deep ache in the ribs. I took satisfaction in this. It seemed to me proof of payment. Quickly I came to feel, when I took my corset off to sleep at night, a disbelief that I had once walked around in that state, so unsharpened and unsupported, so greedy in my consumption of air and space. Our lacing-up in the mornings became a companionable thing between Molly and me. She was determined, much more determined than Miss Caper, hampered by gentleness, had been. One morning, after a couple of weeks, she finished pulling at me and then tugged me over, back first, to the full-length mirror on the inside of our door. "Look," she said. I peeked over my shoulder. "See that bump in the laces there? That's as tight as I used to be able to get them." I did see it, a rut of a place like where the lace of an often-worn shoe hits the bracket, easily an inch below where the know was now. Visible proof of what was being accomplished.

I turned back to her. "Tighter," I said.

"Tighter? Mel, it's already—"

"I want it tighter," I said. While she pulled, I closed my eyes to imagine the moment in which my mother would first see me again. Her face before me, her eyes widening at my new swell-dip-swell, her smile knocked out of carefulness.

Other changes came as my shape shifted. The other girls were still not exactly my friends, but I could feel the distinction between us blurring. Sometimes they would call me over in the dining room even if Molly wasn't with me. I wrote letters to my parents (we were big on old-fashioned letter writing at Gilchrist) in a chatty voice I honed with pride. "Math will never be my forte," I told them, "but we all have our limitations! Hope you enjoyed the weekend with the Bermans!" In classes, I now spoke occasionally. I had realized that the teachers were so generous that they would mostly spin a wrong answer right for you. Miss Caper seemed to have taken a particular shine to my reading voice. She called don me more than anyone else in the rotation. I read the Brownings, Tennyson:

A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

"The Lady of Shalott's death," Miss Caper said, "is inescapable once she sees Lancelot, and then rises from her loom and looks to Camelot. Why is this, do you think?" she asks me. "What is the nature of the curse?"

"I guess," I said, "it's like she's supposed to be separate? Because of the weaving? So when she leaves she wrecks it?"

"Good," Miss Caper said.

Then she called on Melissa Clearwater to read "The Kraken." I let my hands drift for a moment to my waist, my habitual test, the patting-down of my dimensions. They were changed, they were definitely changed, and sometimes this brought comfort. Other times, the curve in my waist would feel too gradual beneath my palms, and I would press myself tight in fear. I was not yet changed enough. I would have to do better.

I found, with time, that the harder I tried to resist these tests—the more I tried to reassure myself that they weren't necessary, that of course my waist was becoming smaller and smaller with each day—the greater was my need for them.

One afternoon, a few months into my wearing of the corset, Mr. Pax almost ran into me in the hall. He had his head down, bulleting forth to something important. I sidestepped him at the last instant and wobbled, my balance threatened. He looked up in surprise, then smiled. "Excellent save!" he said, reaching out to steady my slipping books. "My apologies!" He leaned back to look at me more closely. "I must say, Melody," he told me, "that I hear wonderful things about you. I am very pleased."

He moved off down the hall and left me filled with such raucous joy that my heart rocketed and dappled my vision in shimmery patches, and I had to take very deliberate, measured breaths to steady it. For a moment, I felt sure of how far I had come.

 

THREE WEEKS BEFORE the beginning of spring recess, our poetry reading in English took a sudden turn. Miss Caper arrived bearing two stacks of brand new, slim volumes, which she passed around the room.

"Page thirty, please," she said. "This poem is by Su Tung P'o. It is called 'On a Painting by Wang the Clerk of Yen Ling.'"

She began to read: "The slender bamboo is like a hermit. / The simple flower is like a maiden. / The sparrow tilts on the branch. / A gust of rain sprinkles the flowers. . ." Her voice was still hesitant on the new stripped-down rhythms.

When she'd finished, we were quiet for a minute, trying to decide what to make of what had just happened. Finally, Molly raised her hand. "How is that a real poem, though?" she said. "Where's all the description? And the rhyme and everything?"

Miss Caper signed. "There is a very deep, modest kind of beauty in the poem we have just read, girls. It is a beauty that stems from rendering a thing precisely and quietly in words." All of this sounded all right, but she looked somehow off-balance with such a small book in her hands. "This poem is made of a series of perfectly captured moments. I think you will come to understand as we continue to read. You'll be working with pages 32-38 of the anthology for your assignment this evening."

I stared down at the book before me. I lifted it, and its lightness made me anxious.

"But I though we were reading 'Aurora Leigh' next," Marjorie said.

"As did I," Miss Caper told us. "But the headmaster wishes to make a change."

Around this time, one of the sixth graders—Lizzie Lewis, a pixie of a girl with a great mass of black shining hair down her back—stopped showing up for meals, even Assembly. The sixth grade at large reported that Lizzie no longer came to classes, either. Our curious whispers gathered momentum as the days passed until finally Miss Ellison, our math teacher, had no choice but to address them, if she wanted us to focus on the quadratic equations she had written on the board. "Lizzie is receiving special lessons from Mr. Pax," she told us, "for which she requires focused alone time." We could tell from the falsely confident way she said this that Miss Ellison didn't know what was happening, either. Still, Lizzie's continued absence gradually became old news; we stopped talking about it because there was nothing new to add and mostly forgot her.

I spent spring recess at Gilchrist, where I had also spent Christmas vacation. My parents seemed always to be traveling during the times when I could have come home: Bora Bora, an Alaskan cruise. My guess was that they were unwilling to trade the newly poised girl they glimpsed through my letters a flesh-and-blood me who might disappoint them in familiar ways. Time seemed to soften and stretch long in those two weeks. I missed Molly and her lacing. I couldn't get Kate, the only other girl from our year who had stayed at school for the break, to pull as hard. I knew for a fact that the ground I had gained was receding, because I could reach back and feel the from the lacing that I had eased back into the ruts I thought I'd abandoned for a good week, two weeks earlier. When I touched this proof, this record of my spill back over the lines that had been drawn, I was filled with a sense of powerlessness that made me bit my tongue until I tasted metal. At night, I got out my old Nancy Drew books and ruffled their pages, the furred soft sound of the paper like another person's breathing in the empty room, but even they did not let me sleep.

I would feel better once the others were back, I told myself. And anyways I had changed. I knew it. Yet it seemed to me, that in the dark, that nay progress that could be undone in this way was not real progress at all. A nightmare vision haunted me of the first day of summer vacation, being driven home in my parents' car, its smell of leather and bits of food I had dropped over the years as familiar to me as the smell of my own body. I would see in my parents' faces, each time they snuck looks at me from the front seat, the brief flight and then the dead plunge of hope—teaching me over and over that I would always be the same as I had ever been.

 

ON OUR SECOND DAY back in session after the break, Mr. Pax stood up at Assembly and said, "I am sure you have all noticed that Lizzie Lewis has been gone from your midst for some time."

None of us had thought about Lizzie in weeks, but we nodded solemnly.

"Lizzie has undertaken a special project for me," Mr. Pax told us. "This project has regrettably required her temporary absence from your company. But she is, at last, ready to rejoin you, and ready to show you the fruits of our labor. And what fruits they are, girls!" Or will be, when they have ripened fully."

He paused and smiled at us. "You see, Lizzie is on her way to attaining a very ancient form of grace. One that will soon be made available to the rest of you, though it will be a bit more complicated for those who are older and have already grown more than Lizzie. Her initial break has been made, but that is really only the beginning, of course. The binding process itself will take some time, indeed, to achieve the desired result."

We gasped in a united breath, straining our laces.

Miss Caper stared at Mr. Pax, her face rigid. Sweeping the room with his eyes, Mr. Pax found hers; he help them as if this were a matter of will, though he was still smiling. Finally, Miss Caper looked away.

"Recovery is still in the early stages," Mr. Pax said. "There are no shortcuts in a process like this, girls. Walking remains for the future. So you'll pardon our rolling entrance. Lizzie, my brave butterfly!"

He stretched his hand out in a summons. My eyes flew, with everyone else's, to where he pointed. But in the pause before Lizzie appeared, I saw others in the empty doorway, others I knew I was the only one to see. Each came in turn, without hurrying, to take her place in the line. I knew them all instantly. The Lady of Shalott, bent from her loom and yet graceful, one of her ivory arms banded in bright thread. The simple flower maiden, petal-cheeked, lilting as if in a breeze. Nancy, with her blond, metal-gleaming hair and the pressed slacks that fit her like her rightful skin. And my mother, my ever-lovely mother. My mother with perfection itself in her face. She moved, with the others, to the side, and then turned back toward the doorway.

Then came Lizzie, the real Lizzie, in a wheelchair pushed by Miss Ellison. Lizzie bore her abbreviated feet before her, propped on the rests: time hoofs of feet in child-sized slippers of a vivid emerald silk.

It was a slow entrance, a grand one. There was pride in Lizzie's smile. Also pain, but that was the price, as all of us at Gilchrist had already learned. And if her pain was greater than anything we had yet experienced, what she had bought with that pain was proportionately greater, too, I though: a change that was not reversible. Lizzie would never have to sit in her room and tilt her folded feet this way, that way, wondering if a slow slide had begun that would carry them back to their previous dimensions. She would know that this was impossible. Here at last was certainty. Lizzie would feel the proof of her new and more beautiful self with each step she took after this, each hair's breadth of a footprint she left behind her, the way all that had anchored her to ordinariness had been whittled down to a fine, sharp point.

I caught the sight of Miss Caper's face. It had gone very white; her eyes were wide. She saw only the pain, I thought, and not that the pain was for something. I knew there had been agony for Lizzie in getting to this point, but I also knew that nothing could hurt her after this, in any important way.

My mother and the others who had preceded Lizzie into the room were still there, but they were watching me instead of Lizzie now. Their gazes were steady, approving. I turned to look at Mr. Pax, our great shaper, whose face was red with triumph. I though that I was ready to feel my bones break between his hands.

 

Bird Girls by Jill Christman

Willow Springs 68

Found in Willow Springs 68

Back to Author Profile

I WAKE UP, a wife and mother, at five a.m. on a July morning in the middle of Indiana, not because my baby cries or my husband snores, but because the birds are going wild. Early bird nothing. They're all early—and their racket shakes memory down from the maple trees in my mortgaged backyard like seeds from a feeder hit by a marauding squirrel. Everything shivers and trills. I'm in a Proustian moment, fifteen years ago, zipped into a tent with my then-boyfriend, Stevie, listening to this same cacophony of whistles and peeps, breathing in the smell of wood smoke and coffee.

Still dark on a late spring morning in Oregon, not much past four and the professor of Stevie's birding class is about to take us on a trek through the woods. I know nothing about birds. Ignorant and cold, I shrug into the requisite Patagonia fleece jacket, duck through the nylon flap at the front of the tent, and join the others following the bearded ornithologist into the dawning forest.

Soft stepping over brown needles, he is our Pied Piper and we his captivated children. When he hears a particular bird noise, he holds his hand up to halt us, twenty or so bleary-eyed college students. Pointing to his ear, then to the source of the sound—sometimes visible, more often not—Bird Man whispers the name of the singer to us: Hammond's Flycatcher, Lesser Goldfinch, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Bushtit. Stevie, and the other students, scribble these names down in birding notebooks. I listen, impressed, and shuffle along behind the group.

I cheated just now with the names, of course, although I did remember Bushtit and Flycatcher and also seeing the spellings of the bird sounds—pzrrt, pip-pip, treip—and thinking, Huh. Bird words. (Stevie majored in biology; I didn't wander far from the English department.) I remember riding in a university van to our campsite and I remember that early morning walk, but the thing that wedges in my brain between Bushtit and pip-pip is the sticky feeling that I didn't belong, the black-tar goo of old insecurity.

I wasn't in the class. I was a girlfriend tag-along, but there was more to it than that. I was the prissy one. I was too much lipstick, and not enough crunch. All of Stevie's bird class friends were of the outdoorsier-that-thou category and I had brought along an inflatable sleeping pad and tiny jar of half-and-half for my coffee. I can't remember anybody ever saying anything, just this sense that somehow I had been mismatched with my dreadlocked, kayak-paddling, pottery-throwing, Teva-wearing boyfriend. I felt girly in a bad way, as if my painted toenails and snug jeans were a romantic liability—no, worse, an identity liability.

 

MY LOVE OF BIRDS hadn't brought me to that twittering Oregon glen: Stevie had to be watched. My adversaries were young women in tie-dyed shirts, hemp bracelets and baggy cargo pants, pockets stuffed with hand blown pipes an big-belled goddess figurines, and I wanted to say, You know what? You want to know oudoorsy? You want to know hippie chick? When I was a teenager I lived on a mountain in a plastic house, okay? I rode a horse to school. We weren't camping. Yeah, I shaved my armpits, but I melted snow in a bucket on the wood stove to do it. 

This was all true. I had come to appreciate the pleasure of a soft bed and creamy coffee the hard, cold way when I was thirteen and my mother packed all our worldly belongings into a Chevy pickup tied down with fishing twine and moved us to a mountaintop in northeastern Washington. We were so far off the grid that in the winter, when the roads were impassable, we pulled orange sleds loaded with our groceries and pack animals. My mother claimed this was the kind of activity that built character, but another lasting effect of those frigid hikes was my reduced tolerance for those who thought a weekend in the woods was roughing it.

Stevie knew my mountain-girl history, of course, but I felt I needed to remind him of the tough girl that lurked beneath my feminine exterior. I wanted him to know that I could feather a soft nest and still hold off the egg snatchers with my piercing beak. Or something like that. Maybe I missed the day in biology where we learned that the females choose the males in the bird world. The males are the pretty ones. Think peacocks. Think the blue bower bird posing on his well-decorated threshold. In retrospect, some careful consideration of the actual facts might have saved me a few proprietary pre-dawn treks into the trilling woods. But like the Bird Girls, and like Stevie himself, mine was an identity in the process of becoming, and we were all involved in the awkward process of molting and feathering, craning our necks to check out our butts and see how our plumes were shaping up.

With more than a little shame, I recognized that the lessons I'd been learning in Women's Studies 101 about the patriarchy perpetuating woman-to-woman competition hadn't exactly sunk in. The Bird Girls weren't my only rivals, and they certainly weren't the crunchiest. The Ceramics Girls got dirtier, the Ultimate Frisbee Girls ran faster, the Kayak Girls, well, the Kayak Girls were tough—even I gave them that.

I tried to be the girl Stevie could love. I listened for birds in the woods, I straddled the pottery wheel and let it spray my jeans with clay juice, and I developed a mean (but ultimately ineffectual) forehand on the Ultimate field. I even paddled a small plastic boat into crushing rapids and thanked all the appropriate earth goddesses that I'd been born bottom-heavy and therefore managed to roll back up to breathe again. But I never felt tough. Worse, I never felt like the girl I was pretending to be.

 

YOU KNOW HOW this story ends. Not long after the bird trip, Stevie moved out, and when he left, as I predicted, he paired up with one of those gritty girls. Her name was Jill. This new Jill was everything that I was not: the anti-Jill Jill. In one of those too-honest, unnecessarily painful, post-breakup conversations, Stevie confessed that he'd felt smothered by my girliness—with me, he said, that was too much feminine energy.

A couple of months after we broke up, the Other Jill approached me on campus—baggy pants splattered with mud, shaggy hair not unattractively mussed, square hands holding a rope leash attached to a giant, drooling St. Bernard. She asked me if I'd seen Stevie. He hadn't called in weeks, she said. Unsuccessfully, I fought the urge to feel pleased.

I shrugged. Nope, haven't seen him. Poor Jill.

 

WHERE ARE YOU, Bird Girls, on this dawning Indiana day? The raucous songs of morning send me back to you, fifteen years and two thousand miles away. Settled, finally, in a nest I know to be mine, do I miss the parts of me that were you in those restless years of feathering and refeathering? Of never really landing?

Where are you, Bird Girls? Are you still sleeping? Perhaps you're lying awake, like me, remembering walks in the woods with birds and boys, all long gone. Maybe you're already up or haven't yet slept—rocking babies, typing reports, finishing shifts.

On this morning in Indiana, the sun colors the sky pink and my baby girl rolls over in her sleep. Having learned to hear my daughter's every shift and sigh, I know how I could have behaved on that forest path, tuning my ears rather than my jealous eyes. On the sidewalk with sad-eyed Jill, I might have said, "No, I haven't seen him. But it isn't you, you know. You're okay just the way you are." But I didn't, and of course, I couldn't. Sometimes we take our whole lives to feel safe in our nests, sometimes we miss that chance entirely. I am lucky.

Hey, Bird Girls, where are you now? Mine was a failure of empathy—for you, and for myself. Where are you?

I am here.

Hello out there. Pzrrt. Pip-pip.