On Death and Dying

Creative Nonfiction
Theresa Kelly


Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)

i.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dying.

ii.

When my mom and dad had been dating for about three years, his dad passed away from pancreatic cancer.

(To be honest, it took me about five minutes to remember what my grandpa had died from. A bad memory and four grandparents dead before I was born makes it a little difficult to keep it all straight.)

My mom told me, “Sometimes death pulls people apart, and sometimes it brings them closer. I really think this brought your dad and me closer.” Shortly before the finals week of his senior year of college, my dad suddenly went home for the funeral. His teachers mailed him his finals. He didn’t walk in graduation from Penn State.

He was twenty-two, and his dad was dead. He wasn’t the head of the family now though. He had three older brothers and an older sister. He was the baby, and his dad was dead.

iii.

I’m the baby of my family as well. I’m twenty-two and in my senior year of college.

When I leave to go back to college, I hug him—hard.

At night, when he kisses me on the head, slightly to the left of where he normally does, I tell him, childishly, “wrong.” He kisses me again, in the center, where my part meets what would be my bangs (if I still had them), where he always does. It feels like home.

iv.

When I was in tenth grade, I wrote a novella inspired by the stages of grief. I went to the local library and checked out the book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In it, she interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of cancer patients. She analyzed how people deal with dying—and death. She went through the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Kübler-Ross explained something in that book that stuck with me to this day. The stages are fluid. Sometimes we’re roaring with anger, sometimes we can’t believe it’s happening, sometimes we can’t get out of bed, and then sometimes we’re angry again.

There’s no right way to deal with death and dying.

v.

When she was twenty-two years old, in the middle of the night, Sarah’s father died of a heart attack. I’d known Sarah since I was in middle school. We met through my best friend’s family.

I found out through a generic Facebook, “I’m so sorry,” post. I texted my best friend, “Is something wrong with Sarah?” She texted me back, “It’s awful. Her dad is dead.”

I gasped and felt secondhand grief burn the corners of my eyes.

At the wake, a few days later, I walked through the line. Sarah’s uncle looked perplexed when he saw me. “I’m—I’m friends with Sarah,” I explained, gesturing towards her. I wished I was wearing a different outfit, instead of my stupid roughly black shirt that I wore to work all the time. It seemed too festive. I could hear Sarah’s mom wailing down the line.

His face lit with recognition. “None of Sarah’s other friends went through the whole line. They just went straight to her.” I winced at the wake faux pas. You were supposed to say your sympathies to everyone in line.

My mother—behind me, always, in support—made a sympathetic noise.

“I— sorry,” I said, hesitant, unsure of how to make it better.

He made an it’s-okay type of movement with his shoulders, and I went down the rest of the line. When I got to Sarah, I was already tearing. “I always cry at these things, I’m sorry. I feel like I’m supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but that sounds so stupid.” I really wanted to say “fucking” stupid, but I had seen her small cousins running about.

She laughed, and I was stunned. “It’s okay.” She looked at my tearing eyes. “Wow, you weren’t kidding.” She seemed rather nonchalant, but she always did, so it was hardly something new.

My mom murmured an apology and moved aside. I talked to Sarah for a few minutes, while there was a break in the line. I couldn’t tell you what about. What do you say to someone whose father has just died?

I feel like I remember her mom hugging me, but then again, maybe I hugged her. She was sobbing, barely supporting her own weight. I remembered that Sarah’s dad had taken a heart attack in the middle of the night, and I wondered how someone woke up next to their dead husband and didn’t just scream and scream and scream. I was sure the horror movie scream woke Sarah up.

I had never asked her. I never will.

vi.

When I was a little girl, I used to cry in the middle of the night because I didn’t have grandparents. My mom and dad would come in and comfort me: It was okay that Keri, my best friend, saw her grandma every week. It was okay.

I pouted though. It wasn’t fair.

My dad told me stories about my mother’s mom. She was always baking, and he was sure—he whispered, like a secret—that she was flying around in heaven with peanut butter stuck to her wings. I giggled, they tucked me in, and I fell asleep.

vii.

Years later, I made a reference to peanut-butter winged angels. My parents didn’t remember.

It’s strange, how things that comfort some people don’t comfort others. It’s strange how I never had grandparents, but they didn’t have parents, and they’re the ones who comforted me. Maybe that’s what parenthood is all about?

viii.

The first time I saw a dead body, I was in elementary school, and Keri’s grandpa had died. I knew I had to go to the wake; she was my best friend, but I was terrified. I hid near the back of the room, while my mom went to the front and murmured to her parents that I was here. Keri, delighted, ran back to me. I told her, “I’m really sorry about your grandpa.”

She told me, “It’s okay.”

I was already crying—always a sympathetic crier, in a room aching with grief—and she handed me tissues. I looked down at her sneakers and black jeans and wondered why my mom had said I had to dress up, if Keri didn’t have to.

Her grandma came over to me then, and she grabbed my hand. “Come on, Theresa.”

Eyes wide with terror, I looked for my mom. She shot me a look that quite clearly told me she didn’t know a polite way to extract me. Her grandma—for a reason I’ll never understand—led me straight to the casket and put my hand on her dead husband’s face. Grief makes people do funny things, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary for his granddaughter’s best friend to touch his face.

I cried regardless.

ix.

In twelfth grade, I took genetics. I filled out a family tree and asked my mom to confirm how my grandparents had died. I felt stupid for not knowing, but then again, she had no idea how most of my great-grandparents had died. Thirty-some years had faded the grief.

x.

Late in my high school career, sitting at my desk, listening to Taylor Swift, I was interrupted by a knock on my door. Slow and solemnly, my mom sat on my bed. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. If something wasn’t wrong, she would’ve just stood in my doorway. I muted the music.

I don’t remember how she told me, what words she used. My Aunt Karen—though—she was definitely dead. My eyes welled instantly, and I covered my mouth. “How’s Daddy?”

“He’s— okay,” she said, hesitantly, slowly. She told me what had happened—or I guess she didn’t, because they didn’t really know. Aunt Karen had died in her sleep. She wasn’t old per say, but when my mom was in the hospital having me, Aunt Karen was having a brain aneurysm and a stroke and becoming permanently physically disabled. She was “lucky” she hadn’t died eighteen or so years ago.

My tongue felt thick. “Should I… talk to him? I don’t want to make it worse.” Relatives had died before, but never someone this close to my family. Never someone I had seen every Christmas and every Thanksgiving.

She told me she thought he would like that. I walked down to the kitchen, slowly, where my dad was facing the window at the sink. “Dad,” I said—and swallowed, hard.

He turned around, and he was crying—real, big tears. It was the first time I remembered ever seeing him cry.

I did the only thing I knew how to, and I hugged him.

xi.

I’m still thinking a lot about dying, and a lot about what it means. There’s no right way to deal with death or dying—and maybe there’s no right time to start dealing with the potential for death or dying. Maybe I’ll never know the most comforting thing to say, and maybe I’ll never stop crying at funerals and wakes.

My dad lost his dad when he was my age. My parents were both orphans by the time they were thirty. I look at a calendar, think about the next eight years of my life, think about my parents, think about death and dying, and think about the fact that I’m crazy paranoid (knock on wood), and know they’re likely to live another thirty years. I hope my future children know them.

I don’t know why I think about things like this.

xii.

I think, maybe, I’m afraid.

pencilTheresa Kelly is a senior at West Chester University majoring in English literature secondary education. She is the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. Theresa has previously been published by Lip Magazine, Daedalus Literary Magazine, and Literati. Email: theresajoykelly[at]hotmail.com

 

A Field Guide to Missing

Creative Nonfiction
Emily Pifer


Photo Credit: Fabian/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Fabian/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

First, you must leave or get left. The truth is: you have less control over the getting left, and more over the leaving. Not to mention, if you’re left, it doesn’t feel the same. It feels bad, yes, but it’s supposed to, so, it doesn’t feel as bad. You see, when it comes to missing, it’s best to do the leaving.

And it’s best, you may guess, to leave soon. Leave hard and fast and—listen—cold. Leave the ground wondering what it did wrong. Leave the walls whispering your name, unbelieving you’re gone. Leave the people, the people you know, the people who know you, grasping for remnants of your DNA.

It’s in your best interest to rush out, the wind at your back. If both the calendar tacked above your desk and the one hanging by a bright, plastic letter X on your refrigerator show you leaving Tuesday, leave before the end of the weekend. Go on Sunday afternoon when the town is taking a nap, or eating, unsuspecting. This, you’ll see, is like committing farewell robbery.

And if you really want to do this properly, rather than savoring the days before you go, the moments of sustenance, the fuel of journal writings, you should wish each painstaking moment away—far (far) away. Make a paper chain of what remains, tally the evenings standing before you and gone away, count down the sunrises left before escape.

Don’t engage in goodbyes like closure like peace of mind, careful hugs and kisses on the cheek at the last hour of so-long-bon-voyage parties. Tell guests there’s no need. If they say, “This is not goodbye, this is see you soon.” Say, “Well actually, I’m not sure when I’ll see you.” Don’t let their earth settle, your dust sink.

Pack timeworn memories, hard-fought heartaches, and small kitchen appliances in a hurried haste. Close your eyes as you fold and wrap, see yourself far away. Then it’s as simple as a crammed trunk slammed closed, keys in the ignition, eyes in the rearview mirror, but for a moment.

A note: It enhances your eventual missing if you are particular about what you leave behind. Particularly, try (try) to leave good and decent contingencies. If what you are leaving is, in general, shabby and shoddy, a deep and dark and noxious body of missing will be harder to come by—impossible, maybe. You must leave life behind. And not just any life, yours—the one you built from tears and nightmares. So, in general, as a rule of thumb, you must leave important things. Below, for your edification, are examples of such things.

An other who cares for you despite the doom threatening to boil your insides; a companion who sees through your neurosis as manageable and sometimes even charming; a friend who lets you eat their cereal; a group of souls who vibrate with your own, gentle and warm and tumbling—like they were custom-designed to help dry out the delicate fibers of your being; a comfortable chair; trees, dark corners, and cracks that have taught you; somewhere to be; books left open and unfinished, their pages flapping in the wind and soon moist in morning dew.

The second thing to do, after you’ve left only your ghost, is to point your bones toward a place as cold as you. This is the key. When you settle in this place, this new place, you should aim for a dull, but constant feeling of unsettling. Don’t harbor feelings of fitting. After all, belonging interrupts longing. Instead, cross your arms. Surround yourself with people who do not understand you and—listen—make sure you do not give them a chance to. Sequester. And do not plant seeds. And do not break ground—anywhere. Look in the mirror and yearn for what you were, before.

Begin adding all the things that were better, before. Scour your mind to remember the exact happenings in the very instant of your leaving. There was a flicker of something. Your days there came back to you in a series of unordered flashes. You felt different, suddenly, and thought maybe (maybe), but you looked down—your foot was on the gas. Knead that instant like dough. Consider pages left. Don’t just read the lines of that weathered paperback, feel it in your hands, notice how the ink blurs and evaporates right before the climax.

Fill in blanks.

Soon, if you’ve done it right, you’ll begin to notice the missing like a headache behind your eyes. Then, it aggravates into a subtle ache in your mind space. Before you know, it starts to quake. You’re rocked from somewhere off the spectrum everyday when you wake, and again at night. There is pain. It’s especially throbbing when a sliver of sunshine reaches across a precise strip of sidewalk in a certain way. In that small strip of shine, you’ll feel the vast pang of joy that can’t be shared, not because you can’t find the words, because there’s no one there.

You chose.

A third thing to do is to remind yourself of what is true: you are not permitted to miss that place you (you) left. You treated it as a marked gravel road to get somewhere else. You ignored the smoke-signal dust stirring up behind you. Despair. At this point, you’ll begin driving through a long, dark tunnel. There is an end, you suspect, but no light to guide you.

You’ll know you’ve done it—the missing—in a thorough sort of way when your tunnel becomes deeper, wider, black. Black. It turns into a well, wide enough that if you stand at the center with outstretched arms, you feel nothing but empty air. A damp breeze moves through the space between your fingers. It reminds you. All that, beyond your grasp.

*

In October of 1987, Jessica McClure Morales, then eighteen months old, fell into abandoned water well just outside the fence in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas. She was trapped deep down under the well’s shaft—and the whole country watched, held, prayed. Two-and-a-half days later, she was rescued, dirty and damaged and crying and okay. Now, she says, she doesn’t remember any of it happening.

Thick, dark bangs cover the scars on her forehead. Long dresses cover the ones on her thighs. I haven’t found anything to cover mine.

pencilEmily Pifer is a candidate in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Wyoming. She comes from the hills and hollows of Appalachia, but spent much of her childhood in suburban Ohio. Emily studied journalism and creative writing at Ohio University before moving to New York City, where she worked at Esquire and Women’s Health. She’s currently working on a collection of essays that explore cultures, conditions, and definitions of self. Email: piferemily[at]gmail.com

Freedom to Wander

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Lewis


Photo Credit: Karah Levely-Rinaldi (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Karah Levely-Rinaldi (CC-by)

On the Tundra

In the days when we first started hearing about windchill on the radio, a cold spell in southern Minnesota brought the felt temperature down to -92, though the air temperature was only -40. That was a challenge. Pre-kids, pre-landline, pre-solar panels, Phil and I ignored the radio that blistered warnings that it would only take five minutes for flesh to freeze at that temperature, and left our little log house we built in the woods in Fillmore County to travel by skis to visit our neighbors. The fields belonged to us and them, but we could have trekked for miles over private lands, for who would have cared that we left long trails over their snow, even if the drifts had not filled them? If our eyes led us to the far horizon, nothing could stop us from going there.

We were used to living outdoors and had the gear. Layers of sweaters, down vests and jackets, snow pants, and arctic mittens that looked like we’d grown longer arms with no hands. Our eyeballs would have frozen into oval ice cubes without our goggles. Once out of the woods all trails drifted over with fine blowing snow packed so firmly our skis barely made a trace on them. For traction uphill you had to slam down each step, feeling more than hearing a satisfying thwack each time. Ears stored safely away, it was a soundless world. And bright. Too cold to hold moisture, the sky surrounded us in clean blue so clear you wondered if there really was such a color. Our snorkels gave a chance for the air to warm a little, and carried away moisture that would have frozen on our goggles. Years ago in subzero winters in Minneapolis, Phil invented this technique when he rode his bike to grad school classes at the university. Twice his width in a Frostline down jacket I sewed together for him from a kit, goggled and snorkeled, on his thick-tired Schwinn, he startled many a pedestrian, even when he gave them a cheery jingle on his bike bell.

The wind sifted snow in swirls that hid our feet, making us look like stage angels walking on billows of dry ice. Where the tiny crystals settled, tongues of frosted drifts lipped over the downwind edges of themselves like waves about to break.

You had to lean against the wind to remain standing. In every hollow, loose snow that had collected there caught our skis in sudden arrest and we nearly tumbled forward over them. Barbed wire was buried deep in the drifts, and just the nubs of fenceposts stuck up over the snow. In a world without boundaries we diagonaled our way to Judy and Daren’s, ignoring the right-angle logic of roads. We were used to going anywhere we pleased on our land, between house and greenhouse a quarter-mile away, into the fields where we were beginning to plant hazels and chestnuts, adding to our already oddness as city folk transplants with a long driveway and no plumbing. Fillmore County is corn and soybean country.

Disillusioned with our graduate programs in zoology and ecology, the land we bought as a retreat had beckoned. Familiar with backcountry camping, it was no stretch for us to live in a tent for months while we built our little log house. At first we had no clear idea of what to do with the land, but the dream grew to plant nut trees, and show that the land could grow staple crops that didn’t require the plow year after year.

We were doing it, surviving, keeping warm in the face of wind so strong it felt solid. The effort of pushing through it brought sweat to all our pores. Imagine that, I would have said to Phil if he could hear, but speech was as impossible as it would have been under water. I turned my back to the wind and took off one of my expedition mitts leaving only a thin glove on my right hand, and unzipped my jacket. Moisture left me as though sucked by some huge vacuum cleaner, and then I struggled with the tab to zip up again. I threw off the other mitt because it took two hands and now both were freezing in the inadequate gloves. Five minutes for flesh to freeze? It felt like thirty seconds. What were we thinking trying to tackle this? A drift, we could dive into one and hide out of the life-stealing wind. But the nearest ones of any size were a quarter-mile away in the box elders on our western border. I managed to pull my mitts on but the cold had crept up to my elbows. My hands were so numb I couldn’t hold onto my poles and I dragged them along by their loops like useless sticks, leaving my legs to struggle alone for balance in shuffling strides that teetered side to side.

Seeing my difficulty, Phil broke the wind in front of me, and we kept moving. Motion, that would save us. Stupid of me to release that layer of sweat. The fields passed under my numbing feet that were beginning to feel like concrete blocks. We pushed past the spindly box elders. Drifts there, but too hard to dive into. Beyond the next crest we made out the roofline of Judy and Daren’s farmhouse.

Judy just looked at us through the open door for a few seconds, something you never did in the winter, especially on a day of such historic cold. Had to be the double surprise of our alien looks, and trying to make sense out of anyone traveling on such a day. Besides, we didn’t warn them with a phone call, not having the equipment.

I tried not to rub my frozen limbs as we sat around the big kitchen table. They needed to thaw out gradually anyway. Behind a cup of hot coffee I gritted my teeth against the pain of returning sensation. Elated by survival, we told them about the drifts and the wind. Judy said she always hated the cold, and Daren, just in from chores in the cattle barn, cradled his own coffee mug behind red fingers, looking at us as though we were refugees from the Jurassic.

We talked about the cold, closing schools, how bad the roads were. Their kids Kristen and Julie, about 10 and 8, lounged on a sofa in front of the living room TV. We were not close friends. Most people in the area had extended family and church connections, and they leaned on each other for help, loans of equipment, babysitting, meals. Though we had offered to lend a hand now and then, they didn’t need us, so of course we couldn’t ask for help from them. In addition to the adventure, we made this trip to try to develop a connection, but conversation faltered after awhile. They were beef farmers; we were hard to classify, not normal farmers certainly. They and others expected we’d give up in a few years and go back to the cities.

On the way home the wind at our backs sailed us forward as though we had motors on our feet. We made it back in less than half the time of the outward journey. Familiar now with the cold, and friends with the wind, we played with them. At the pump where our old-fashioned windmill churned like mad in the icy wind I watched water turn to crystals, like a time-lapse video but in real time, sending sparkles of sunlight at me. Delicate snowflake-like branches spread in a film on the surface of a pail of water.

Ribbon of Highway

When Phil and I broke up many years later I moved to Decorah, a nearby town in Iowa, and wandered in the woodland parks there. My pleasure in them didn’t depend on ownership. When we bought the land in the first place, the whole idea that we suddenly were the owners of the land, the trees, the grasses, the creatures above and below the ground, was ridiculous to me. How could exchanging money and signing papers do that? These things didn’t need me to be their owner. If such a concept existed at all, they owned themselves. So when I sold my half of the farm to Phil, and was just as suddenly not the owner, it did not feel different to me, and certainly not to the chipmunks or mushrooms in the woods. I was yet to find out that ownership had to do with where you could go.

I reached into the bag of Cheetos against my better judgment, but nothing felt like a road trip more than orange fingers on the steering wheel, so it had to be done. My partner Maxxx sipped his mocha and munched on an oatmeal raisin cookie, three for a dollar from Kwik Star. Heading north out of Iowa we passed cornfields bristling with spiky young plants, well over knee high and thriving from recent rains, while cows pastured on closely-cropped hillsides and woodlands accented smaller areas of rougher ground, too steep to till or pasture.

“Feels like we could go anywhere out there, doesn’t it?” I said.

“So you want to go gambol with the cowsies on the hillside?”

“Well, I might want to go around them and see what’s in the woods.”

On car trips to Tracy, Minnesota to see Grandma when I was a kid, I’d fix my eyes on every patch of trees and wonder what magic land lived in the enticing shade, and even now any scrap of woodland still had the same power over me, the way it would whether or not I had spent nearly twenty years living in the woods.

“Of course it’s all an illusion.” Maxxx adjusted the tilt of his sunglasses.

“And there’s no way to tell what is real and what isn’t.”

Maxxx is a philosopher and I knew this was a big subject with him.

“I just meant where you can go out there, it’s all private land.”

He was right, we drove on a ribbon of public land and gazed out at countryside that we could not step on without trespassing. On the farm I roamed freely, and hadn’t realized the loss. Now I felt a sense of contraction as though someone had bound me up in shrink-wrap and vacuumed out all the air. Because Iowa has such good land for growing things, it was all grabbed up, with little left in public hands.

But we could still allow some freedom to wander. Years ago on a bicycle trip in the seventies in England I saw a model that worked well. The old medieval trails still existed as they traversed private land, but the law gave everyone the right to travel them. We’d open a gate, cycle past herds of sheep or wait for them as they crossed the path, and go through another gate on the other end. As long as we closed them, no problem to landowner or traveler.

Down River

I dip-twist my paddle into a strong J-stroke from my stern position to turn the bow back towards the side my paddle is on. My son Brandon at the bow sees it too, the inverted “V” we’ve come to read on the surface as the path of deepest water to follow through the next riffle, and switches his paddle to the other side to help correct our course. Perry, three years younger at ten, lounges in the middle for now, arms trailing over the sides. He’s the one who spots most of the eagles, soaring high above the limestone bluffs, green with a fringe of white pine.

The Upper Iowa is the most scenic canoeing river in Iowa, supplied liberally by cold-water springs that emerge to carry water from its underground travels through some of the oldest rock on earth. This is the only part of Iowa that has big outcrops of bedrock, having been missed by the flattening power of the last continental glaciers, and the debris of rock and soil that they left in their path over most of the region. Called the driftless region, for lack of this overburden, or perhaps just as poetically, the Paleozoic Plateau, it is a land of sedimentary rock, mostly dolomite and limestone, in which subterranean caves and crevices carry water in darkness as freely as do the sunlit streams.

We are on the most photographed part of the journey, a stretch of high cliffs that rise vertically from the left bank as much as 280 feet. We ride the rapids with a fore and aft pitch that skims us over the standing waves until they empty out into calmer water. Each one of these riffles is a thrill because you have to shoot the V just right to get the ride. Hit the bottom and it can turn your canoe sideways, and then the push of the current can tip you over.

Perry wants to touch the rocky walls and we paddle right next to the cliff where late-afternoon sun tinges the limestone with gold. We look straight up but we can’t see the top. Junipers spring out here and there in cracks where they hang on by their toes.

We don’t think about who owns this rocky wall, but the whole watershed is a complex of mostly private land. Back in the seventies there was a big push to classify the river as a Federal Scenic River, with all the land bordering it public. It did get that designation, but a group of private landowners succeeded in opposing the effort to the extent that the federal government bought up little land, and most of it along the river remains in private hands. A sad conclusion, but not unexpected in our country of private property. How can any person own a cliff, have the right to keep others away, or bash away at it with hammers and dynamite?

The odd rule is that the water itself is public, but the land is owned, even the ground under the water. Interestingly, this is the same rule that applies in England where, though roaming rights are liberal and lakeshores are public, access to streams is very restricted. There, you are trespassing if you set foot on the banks, or presumably, the ridiculous situation of walking along the streambed if your canoe tips over. Here in Iowa, though the rule is the same, the practice on the Upper Iowa is that if you pull your canoe up on shore for a picnic, no one will object, but if you climb up the bank and walk on the land next to the stream bank you’re out of line and truly trespassing.

It’s a big day on the river, and as we reach the high cliffs that circle Bluffton, we find flotillas of canoes and rafts hooked together by paddles and feet, allowing the free flow of beer and chips as the boats drift over the placid last few hundred of yards of their journey. The cliffs here are capped by relict firs left over from the ice age, and able to hold on in this area where temperatures cooler than those of surrounding areas prevail. You wouldn’t be able see these firs again until you traveled hundreds of miles to the north.

Just before the bridge there’s a big put-out point and we land and look around for our car, but briefly because so many others are waiting to get out, and we’re in the way. I don’t see the car and think it must be at the next landing. A big lesson in assumptions, in this case, that there was another one nearby.

So on we go. No one is on the river here, and we feel the chill of the shadows in the growing dusk. The boys are anxious but try not to show it. I think about food and water. We’ve been on the river for eight hours, and should be out by now. I realize that crowded landing was ours, and we just didn’t look hard enough for our car. I worry that we don’t have enough food or water, and Brandon, a diabetic, needs regular meals and snacks. We have enough surely.

I never really thought about the fact that you can’t just haul out anywhere on a river. We’ll have to wait for the next bridge, and I don’t know where that is. The only one I know about is many miles away even by road. Day is rapidly turning into dusk. How will it be to canoe in the dark?

In the river you are sunken below the level of the general terrain. More true since people began controlling rivers, including this one, by dams that slow down the river in some places and speed it up in others, where the water then cuts a channel with steep earthen sides. You have the feeling of wilderness except for the occasional bridge. Now we want that bridge like nothing else.

We stop and I get out to climb the steep muddy bank to a cornfield. From which I see nothing but more cornfield. No barn, no road. We could haul the canoe up the bank somehow, but then what? Trek over the field with the heavy canoe till we found a road? Could be a mile. We’d be trespassing the way we would if we walked off the narrow strip of a highway onto a field, and hauling a canoe would damage the corn. Still we should be allowed to walk through the field, leaving the canoe behind, without breaking the law.

We go on. Brandon, low on blood sugar, drinks a can of juice. Perry paddles in the bow to give him a break. The boys are used to country, live in it, know that it gets dark at night. There are no outdoor lights on the farm where we live. But even in July it can get chilly when the sun goes down.

We do another scouting landing, and when I climb up into the next cornfield I see a wooded ridge stretching towards the river on a long angle, and since the cornfield fills in the flat land between us and the foot of the ridge, I suspect there’s a road there, at least for farm access. Would be even better if it was a county road. Since the ridge left no space along the river for a road, the road would have to cross the stream or dead end. I hope for the bridge.

We could haul up where we were, but we might not be able to drag the canoe over the steep bank, even if we could haul it across the cornfield. We could paddle on to the wished-for bridge, if it really did exist, but the bank could be even steeper there. Only one way to know if the bridge was there before we got to it was to scramble up the bank and trek between rows of corn that probably grew three inches today.

The leaves scratch my bare arms. Someone struggled over what hybrid seed to buy and waited for the field to dry enough to bring in the heavy machinery to disc and harrow, to inject the anhydrous ammonia, to spray with atrazine, and then to drill in the precious seeds, hoping the June rains would be gentle ones. So who was I to tromp along between these long lines of carefully raised giants? I have no choice, but feel like the trespasser I am, wanting not to be found, but desperately needing to be.

In the middle of a cornfield there are no cues, and space and time are without boundary. All you see are identical plants in all directions, and the gray rows of earth vanishing in the narrowing distance between distant cornstalks in the fading light. I can’t even be sure the rows are straight, I just expect them to be made that way by the farmer who furrowed the land parallel to the river so any downhill trickle of rain would be caught by a ridge of soil. I pick a row and stay with it so I can follow the same one back to the river where my kids wait out of view below the stream bank. I should never have left them there, you don’t split up in the wilderness. Itchy with scratches and sweat that film my skin despite the chilling air, I keep on, thinking I hear a vehicle. My imagination, and there might not be one for hours if at all, on the road, if there was one.

My row runs out into a ditch, and I climb down and up onto a gravel road. Hallelujah, a real road. I mark my furrow by breaking a long, green, box elder stalk and walk down the road towards the river, looking for the bridge. And then I see it, one of those rusty old erector set affairs that arches over the river, with a number on it, 1909. That’s all I need. I race back to the cornfield, but in the dimming light have trouble finding my row. Cool air spills into the ditch, already five degrees colder than air on the road. Soon there’ll be a blanket of fog over the whole valley. I race down my row, knowing it now, that there would be nothing rough to trip over, unconcerned about more scratches.

By the time I tumble down the bank, the boys are huddled close together, munching energy bars, sipping on the dregs of water in their bottles. “A bridge,” I say, with emotion I have been repressing for so long. Now that things would be all right, I don’t have to. Cheered, we tumble back into the canoe and paddle on. When one problem is solved, the others of a lesser nature come to the fore, so now we have to make sure we don’t miss the bridge in the waning light.

For some reason we remain quiet, as though careful watching required it. Soon, very soon. But the trace a river takes is twice as long as any road or corn furrow, and I almost believe we’ve missed it somehow, when something untreelike spans the darkness ahead. We beach the canoe on the left bank, just before the bridge piling. This is no canoe landing. We unload the cooler and other gear, and drag them up the steep bank to the road, but how would we ever hoist the canoe up that far? We could leave it there till later, tomorrow even, and just get ourselves to water and food and rest. We wait on the road, listening for a car, watching for headlights. Maybe there’d be nothing for it but to hike along the road till we found a farmhouse. This was way before the days of cell phones.

Brandon slings a wet canvas bag over his shoulder, and Perry picks up another one. “It’s OK, Mom, we can start walking.”

Great, they are comforting me. I hug them and tell them how sorry I am for missing the landing. “Is this what they call an adventure, Mom?” I can’t see Perry’s face in the darkness, but I know that look on his face, brows scrunched, tight mouth. He was tired hours ago.

“Hey Perry, look up there, I found the first star,” Brandon said.

Straight above us, visible even in this narrow valley, Vega gleams out of the cerulean sky.

A rumble gathers down the road, and headlights shock our night-adapted eyes. We have no trouble flagging down the pickup, driven by a farmer and his wife from two farms over. With his help we manage to pull the canoe up over the bank, and hoist it into the empty bed. Somehow we all pack into the cab, and it isn’t one of those extended jobs. It is jolly and warm, and full of talk about river travelers who’d gone astray like us. “It’s easy to miss your put-out, because you only see it from the bank when you leave it, and it looks so much different from the river. I’ve done it myself,” says Lyle.

He and Arlene help us put the canoe on our car, the last one there, no longer hidden by other cars, and we buy munchies and get water at Randy’s store in Bluffton before heading home. I sing “Deep River” because that is the only river song I know, but no one joins in. It’s fine. The boys need to sleep.

Into the Countryside

There may not be many like me who feel restricted in where we can go in the countryside, but I think that’s because I’ve experienced the freedom to wander. Most people are like caged birds who never think about going through the open door. They are content with parks, and short hikes from the car for a picture. In Pike’s Peak State Park on the Mississippi near McGregor, most people walk the few hundred yards to the jutting overlook near where Zebulon Pike of Colorado fame intended to put a fort at one time. You can see a long expanse of the Mississippi upstream from there, and the winding silver snake of the Wisconsin River ending its journey far below in a fan of rusty sediment. That is the spot where French explorers Marquette and Joliet canoed into the Mississippi. I imagine they were impressed.

Pike’s Peak lookout is one of the best views on the upper Mississippi, but few go beyond it along the trails that twist down into a side valley with craggy witch hazels and water-sculpted cliffs to cross the stream above the falls, or climb to the ridge where one effigy mound after another hills up under your feet. People long before us revered these high cliffs and formed earth into the shape of bears and eagles along their crests.

Still, people can be coaxed into the countryside. When bike trails began to grow like a filigree of young roots across the land, people came, and they respected the private property they traveled through. We could learn from the Allemannsrett of Scandinavian countries, or the roaming rights in Britain, which open up the countryside to the public, but require a codified level of respect. Surely we can do it as well as they can. By honoring rules that require staying away from houses, crops and livestock, we could give ourselves a greater freedom than that of owning property: the right to wander freely over the earth.

The woods and streams have always drawn me, and I can find them in my park-rich town. But it is not the same as looking out at the horizon and walking there. Just that ribbon of highway please, just the water that carries your canoe, just that road where you can catch a glimpse of the lake through the trees. Everywhere else you’re a trespasser. We are all conditioned to this, and the only reason I became aware of it is that I did live a roaming life in the country, and feel the stifling restriction of not having it now.

How would it be if we could walk anywhere? The wide world that our eyes hunger for could be under our feet as well. We need some bit of nature whether we realize it or not, and if we could get it easily, how would it change us?

pencilCurrently Mary Lewis is in an MFA program at Augsburg College focusing on fiction. Before that she studied for 13 years in at the Iowa University summer writers workshops. Her story “Chimney Fire” appeared in R.KV.R.Y. Quarterly. Another, “Quesasomethings” will appear in early 2015. “A Good Session” was recently published in Persimmon Tree and “My Father’s Trees” came out in Lost Lake Folk Opera Magazine. Her essay “Mourning the Night Sky” was published in the Wapsipinicon Almanac. Trapeze, a regional journal of the arts, published 8 of her stories, 3 personal essays and a poem. Another arts and issues paper, Valley Voice, published 7 of her stories, 2 articles, and a poem. Her story “Almost Mud Time” appears in the book Frank Walsh’s Kitchen and other Stories. Email: marmax[at]mchsi.com

Transmutation

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Peat Bakke/Flickr (CC-by)

My mother died fifteen years ago. The last time we spoke she revealed to me confidentially that she had once had two daughters. All I could think of was King Lear.

After her death my sister cremated her and scattered her ashes in the Pacific Ocean; she wasn’t sure where, she said. The night she phoned with the news, my mother traveled to me in a dream, shrouded in white. She wants me to make a memorial for her in New York, where she was born, I decided. But it was too late for an urn. I needed a grave-marker—not necessarily a headstone—but at least a place for her in my head. My daughter-in-law, a botanist with the New York City Parks Department, had a tree planted in her memory near our apartment in Manhattan. My mother had also been a plant lady, who seemed happier raising African violets than her own children. I didn’t tell my sister about the tree. She wasn’t exactly sentimental.

Finally my mother had a place to anchor her spirit after it had drifted aimlessly around in the Pacific. But the pink dogwood, Cornus florida, survived only into its first winter. The sapling was splintered and uprooted by a vandal, leaving only a blotch of bark behind. It was New Year’s Eve. That spring a second dogwood was planted for her behind a park fence for protection. She had another home now.

The new tree flourished, producing its first blooms about a year later. In tribute I bought a bouquet of baby’s breath and tossed the sprays singly into its heart. It responded that fall by producing a second floral display. My daughter-in-law, of a more scientific temperament than my own, explained it as a natural phenomenon. The tree had hoarded some of its spring buds for an autumn encore, she said. But I preferred to believe it was with my mother’s connivance. A fanciful idea no doubt, because she usually didn’t thank people for anything. The dogwood repeated its performance the following fall. Its branches were beginning to grow horizontally now, providing a haven for small creatures, a maternal instinct my mother hadn’t shown much of when she was alive. After a sudden cold snap I inspected the tree to see if it had been affected by the weather. The leaves appeared to have changed almost overnight from green to bronze, but flower-like bracts enclosing clusters of tiny red berries clung tenaciously to the twigs. Chattering little birds nibbled on the berries and a few squirrels were camped around the trunk. I shivered as I watched them. A nervy squirrel scampered up to me begging for food, but I didn’t have any.
The tree continued its biannual growing cycles for several years, until I returned from vacation one summer to find most of its leaves brown and shriveled. It had been exceptionally hot and because it lacked an umbrella of taller trees to shade it, the dogwood must have succumbed to the heat. I hoped after the winter it would come back. It didn’t. It remained barren throughout that spring and summer, almost hidden behind its abundantly-leaved sisters.

It never came back. Soon it couldn’t even be seen from the other side of the fence. Now and then I checked. No change. One day I couldn’t find it at all, so I climbed over the fence to see if it had really vanished. It had. Parks must have finally given up on the stunted trunk and carted it off. The saga of the tree seemed to profile my mother’s life. But recently when I stopped by the spot where it used to be to watch a few birds pecking at a budding ground-vine, it hit me. Although the Cornus florida was gone for good, my mother meant to stick around, assuming whatever shape she needed.

pencilAfter retiring from teaching Art History to undergraduates for twenty years, I signed up for a memoir-writing class. I’ve been at it ever since. A piece I wrote on teaching English in the Peace Corps in Somalia, “Girls’ School,” appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo (Travellers’ Tales, 2011). Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

Advice

Creative Nonfiction
Ron Riekki


Photo Credit: Ashley Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Ashley Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I want you to watch Buffalo ’66. I want you to read Sarah Kane. I want you to see Václav Havel’s Temptation. I want you to make out with people from every ethnicity on Earth. I want you to have a child if you want to have a child and I want you to have a child. I want you to read at least one of my poems; I promise they’re short. I want you to throw your guns in the garbage—or no, melt them into nothingness—and this includes your metaphorical guns. I want you to be brave and ask them out, especially if your hair’s a mess. I want you to understand how hot you are. I want you to wash your hands more frequently, because it really does help reduce how often you’ll get sick. I want you to be CPR certified. I want you to help somebody’s dream. I want you to write something that scares you. I want you to write black characters. I want you to write Native American characters. I want you to try to write in ways you never felt you could. I want you to learn a foreign language and live in a foreign country and make out for at least two hours with someone from that foreign country until you can walk away and still feel like you’re kissing them. I want you to wear condoms. I want you to find a center of peace in you. I want you to stop looking at your phone so often. I want you to tell your parents you love them more frequently, with real meaning to it, whether or not they’re around. I want you to forgive. I want you to volunteer at a prison. I want you to take an improv course. I want you walk more frequently. I want you to avoid any of those crazy diets that are meant to take your money and make you unhealthy. I want you to breathe when you start feeling any road rage. I want you to fasten your seatbelt. I want you to go to a concert and I want you to do it soon. I want you to take dance lessons at least once. I want you to watch Mitch Hedberg’s standup; I want you to realize he’d still be around if he didn’t do the stupid heroin. I want you to reduce the amount of porn you watch. I want you to understand that NASCAR is destroying the environment. I want you to cross-dress and I don’t care if it’s part of a comedy show as long as you do it. I want you to act. I want you to sing. I want you to be even sillier. I want you to memorize a quote from Speed Levitch in The Cruise. I want you learn how to juggle. I want you to thank a veteran. I want you write. I want you to write. I need you to write.

pencilRon Riekki has been published in Toasted Cheese, PANK, BluePrintReview, New Ohio Review, and several other journals. His book The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, 2013) is in its third printing. “Beautifully edited, The Way North is more than a collection. It is a collaboration of writers, each whom understands in his and her own way what is sacred about that utterly unique, fresh water peninsula known as the U.P.” —Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago. Email: ronriekki[at]hotmail.com

When We Still Knew What It Meant to Be Kids

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Krista Varela


Dirty pool
Photo Credit: Éole Wind

That summer before high school, the desert was ruthless.

The weeds had become overgrown, shooting up through the ground to graze our ankles and lodge themselves in our socks when we’d run outside. They sucked the ground dry of its nutrients, leaving cracks in the dirt like the cracks on our chapped lips.

The sun bruised our skin red. Our shoes baked on the pavement, the plastic on the tips of our shoelaces melted as we dragged them across the sidewalks.

The hot winds blew and tried to stir things up, but nothing changed; dirt and sediment settled on the bottom of the stagnant swimming pool, turning the water murky and thick.

There were days when it was so hot, our dreams flickered in front of us like mirages on the blacktop, disappearing the closer we got to reaching them.

And yet, there was still the mural of horses painted on the front of your house; mustangs and appaloosas, spotted browns, whites, and blacks, bucking and prancing through a field of lush grass and unfastened wooden fences, an entire other world painted against a pink wall—giving us hope that there was life beyond this place we were living.

*

Do you remember how we met? I’m not sure who was the first to say hello in that year before high school. We shared a lot of the same friends back then, because you were in band, and I wished I had been cool enough to be in band. My parents had just officially divorced, still battling custody issues while they fought about my dad’s drinking, and my mom couldn’t afford for me to rent an instrument. I still hung out with the band kids anyway. But the fact that your parents were divorced too was what drew me to you at first; I didn’t know anyone else who had a family like mine.

We spent much of our free time roaming around your neighborhood and exploring the alley because we were on the threshold of something, but we didn’t quite know what. Mostly I think we just tried to stay out of the house so that your mom wouldn’t make us do chores.

You also introduced me to a lot of music I had never heard before. We spent hours listening to your stereo because iPods didn’t exist yet. We’d play music with the volume turned all the way up, and your mom would pound on the wall for us to turn it down when she was hungover and had a headache.

Before we knew each other that well, you asked me once if I had ever been molested, but you didn’t use that word. It was in that shy roundabout way that kids ask when they’re not sure how to talk about things—do you remember what you told me? You confessed that your grandfather and uncle had shown themselves to you before with a strong smell of whiskey on their breath. But you could already hold you own. You knew how to handle and talk to drunken family members in a way that I hadn’t learned yet. “Put that thing away, old man,” you’d said. I never told you, but it scared me when you told me that. It scared me when I’d see your uncle at your house with a beer in his hand, and I’d wonder if he would try it again. I knew I wasn’t as brave as you were.

We were at your house once, just the two of us, watching a movie. You got up and went to the kitchen to get something to drink. You probably don’t even remember, but you asked me if I wanted a wine cooler from the refrigerator. I had never tried alcohol before. I didn’t know what to do. I never told you, but when you asked me, my stomach seized up in knots, worried about what we were capable of, even though it was no worse than what I knew other kids our age were doing. It’s not like you were offering me the wine in the cabinet above the fridge, or the bottle of gin under your mom’s bed. We’d both grown up watching our parents drink and saw the emotional extremes that came with it—the carefree elation and the utter despair, the hard fall from one to the other. That was the moment I realized that could be us someday, so overwhelmed by life that it was the only way to cope.

I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t know then that our first drink together would be almost a decade later in Las Vegas celebrating our twenty-first birthdays. But at thirteen years old, I just wasn’t ready. “No, thanks,” I said, and you came back to join me on the couch with a glass of water instead.

*

My dad would tease you about the different colors that you’d dye in your hair, and you’d tease him right back. None of my friends had ever done that before; they were always too intimidated by his gruff voice and sarcasm. My dad knew that your own father wasn’t around, and he tried to fill in as a role model in your life. Even though he spent night after night taking shots of tequila while he cleaned up the bar that he owned and only saw us a few times a week, that had to be better than being away from your kids across the country right? My dad still asks about you, says he loves you like a daughter.

My mom loved you too because it was impossible not to, but she probably thought you were a little too wild for me at times. Remember that evening at my house when we sprayed the walls of my room with hair glitter from a can? I never told you, but my mom pulled me aside before we took you home and asked me if we had been drinking. The smell from the aerosol can had smelled like alcohol to her. I’m not sure if she believed me when I said no, even though I let her smell my breath. There were days after that when I’d be sitting in my room, and the light would catch just right, and the glitter would sparkle on the walls.

*

That ruthless summer before freshman year, we were in your backyard swimming in the pool. The radio was on, and “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley was playing. I knew the song because The Ataris had recently come out with a cover of it. Your mom was outside with us, barefoot on the patio, and she was dancing with her eyes closed and a cigarette in her hand. She swayed side to side, slowly waving her arms in the air, and there was something so beautiful about the way that she moved, as if the song could have played forever and she’d have just kept dancing. Your mom had gained weight since I first met her, probably from the alcohol, and her face had stretched into wrinkles from smoking so many cigarettes and worrying about paying the bills, but in that moment you couldn’t see any of that.

Before school started, your mom lost her job, and she stopped nagging you to clean the pool. She couldn’t make her mortgage payment so you would probably have to move, so what was the point of keeping it clean anyway? I was surprised by how quickly it got dirty. In a matter of weeks, the bottom was completely covered in muck. The longer it went, the less clean water there was, and eventually, you couldn’t even see two inches below the surface.

We managed to get a block of dry ice from the grocery store once. Chipping off pieces onto the pool steps, we watched the water around it bubble and the dirt scatter, leaving a small ring of clear water around the ice. There was something so dangerous about handling the dry ice ourselves, but there was something so harmless about placing it in the water, and something so comforting about seeing a small bit of clarity in an entire pool of filth.

*

The desert was ruthless that summer, but the fall was even worse.

I remember the day your mom died. It was just after Halloween. I was in freshman English class, and I got a slip calling me into the office. I was led to the counselor’s office, where I saw you sitting at the table with someone I didn’t know. Everyone was looking at us with gentle smiles, in that way that people do when they know bad news before you do, looking at us if we were fragile and already broken.

You were in shock; you weren’t crying. Maybe you had finished crying before I got there, or maybe you couldn’t cry yet. The reality that our lives had changed permanently wouldn’t sink in for a long time. Until then, alcoholism was this vague term that we knew our parents fit in to somehow, but just referred to the everyday bullshit that we had to put up with, like when your mom slept in every day until noon or when my father got road rage for no reason at all.

But after that, alcoholism became real—a real disease that caused liver failure and bleeding ulcers and took parents away from their children.

The next day was my mom’s birthday. I asked her if I could see you that night. I could tell she was disappointed that I wasn’t spending her birthday with her, but she understood. Somehow it didn’t seem right to celebrate with my mom when you could never again be with your own. I think about you every year on November third, a day that was both a beginning and an end.

*

We’ve never again had a summer quite like that one. You moved across the country to live with your dad, down south where the air was wet and thick. Life still wasn’t easy, taking care of another parent that bounced around from one job to the next holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, but you managed. You knew how to hold your own. A few years later I left the desert too, to spend my summers gazing out into the Pacific and share my new home in rolling green hills with cows and wild turkeys. But I still watched from afar as my own dad lost so many things because he refused to throw out the bottle of tequila on his desk: his job, his driver’s license, half of his front tooth.

The last time I drove by your house, the mural of horses was gone. The people living there now painted over the entire wall with a dull gray. Perhaps the horses moved on to greener pastures.

Every time I hear “The Boys of Summer” on the radio, I think of that summer when we still knew what it meant to be kids. I think of that day we spent in the pool, swimming until our fingertips wrinkled and the tips of our noses turned red. I think of the smell of chlorine, the sound of cicadas singing in the trees. I think of the hot concrete, the way our feet burned as we dashed across the yard to turn up the radio. When I hear that song, I picture your mom, and wonder if she too was thinking about being a teenager when life feels both so immediate and so nostalgic. I can see her so clearly, her brown hair shining in the Arizona sun, in that eternal moment, dancing.

pencilKrista recently graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently resides in Concord, California with her partner and their miniature dachshund. This is her first publication. Email: kdvarela[at]gmail.com

With Accompaniment by

Creative Nonfiction
HC Hsu


pay no attention to the blues singer in the rear
Photo Credit: Mary/goldsardine

A few days ago I saw a video online; it was Mai Yamane singing “Amazing Grace.” The place was probably somewhere in Tokyo, Japan, in what looked like a bar or pub. The ‘stage’ was a black piano, a mic, and in the background pieces of semi-transparent, khaki-colored curtains were put up over a large glass window. There were drawings on the curtains, big, cactus-shaped symbols dyed in black. Some odd decorations hung on the walls, in addition to two black floor speakers that stood on either side of the piano, like two people looming ominously over in the shadows, resembling okami parade puppets, or stage guards. The curtains didn’t cover the window completely, plus they were sheer: flitting slits and hazy patches of the street outside could be seen. There were lights outside, but it was unclear whether it’s day or night. The interior was lit in a soft, sandalwood yellow glow.

I think most people know Mai Yamane from Cowboy Bebop. She sang the theme song to the show. There she was very ‘rock,’ the low, sticky, somewhat hoary voice, belting against waves of electric guitar, like a swimmer struggling against the currents of the ocean, sinking into and breaking out of the undulating surface of the water, spitting salt water back out. She was singing in English. Here, though it was the famous English folk song “Amazing Grace,” she was singing it in Japanese.

I don’t know who recorded, and thought to upload, the performance online, or why. This is the paradox of the internet: anyone can post anything for any reason, without anyone else’s approval, and have it be seen by anyone else, anywhere. Whatever it is, if it has enough significance for you, you can ‘publish’ it, put it out in the world, without depending on someone else’s judgment, but at the same time, you put it out there, because you want someone else to see it. Most of the time it’s ‘supply’ without ‘demand.’ Thus the internet is chock-full of ‘significance,’ ‘open secrets,’ seemingly trite, trivial, meaningless things, that contain a significance, hidden from everyone, except for the one person, in the one place and time, for a reason. And just sometimes, someone else, may be able to see it too.

Mai Yamane was playing the piano, singing “Amazing Grace,” her voice low, tranquil, gentle, the piano trudging along next to her, aged and calm, simply and repetitively, chord after chord. Compared to her usual rock style, this was more jazz-like. Bright, clear, a little lackadaisical. In the background, just on the other side of the glass pane, there were peeks of cars passing by, people walking by. Very close, just a few inches from the stage, right outside. The people outside were completely oblivious to the performer inside, and the performer inside was completely oblivious to the people outside. People kept walking past, and the musician kept singing. But because they didn’t have anything to do with each other, because they weren’t aware of each other, a curious relationship was formed, and one became the perfect backdrop for the other.

It reminded me of bars, when people would talk, drink, laugh, smoke, and amidst all this dingy brawl, a musician would just quietly walk onto the stage, and begin playing. People wouldn’t stop talking, but the musician keeps playing, the music at times floating over, at times mixing into the clinking of glasses, the shuffling of footsteps, murmurs, peals of laughter, the chairs dragging across hard concrete floors, the strands of light, the glimmers of smoke. Chaotic, yet at peace. Maybe some musicians don’t like it, but I like that kind of atmosphere. It’s not a concert, with a performer and an audience; neither one is serving the other. You can’t say the musician is simply marching to the beat of his own drum, tuning out and without regard for anyone but himself; if that were the case, he would be playing just inside his own apartment or bathroom. By putting himself in public, he reveals in himself some desire to perform. To be seen. To be acknowledged. And sometimes, someone would turn his head, as if caught by a hook, by a fragment of a melody, and stop talking, or doing something else—and look up, and listen. Perhaps something deep in the recesses of his memory, in the things buried, left on their own, or that otherwise no longer register beneath the sediments of time—perhaps something in there has been momentarily, somehow, stirred up, just slightly, by the tiniest inflection in an estranged voice—and he looks up. For only a moment. At the blurry, yet unusually brilliant, dreamlike sun rippling above the green, silk-lined abyss. Then the din floods back in, and he sinks, and looks back down again.

A couple of years ago the violinist Joshua Bell took part in an experiment devised by The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, disguised himself, and played the violin in a subway station in Washington, DC, where he had performed a concert the night before, to see whether anyone would stop to listen to, or even recognize, him. A secret camera was installed. Of course, over a thousand people in the subway passed by him, and only one recognized him—and she had attended his concert the night before. Afterward Weingarten wrote a piece about it called “Pearls Before Breakfast,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Then the hidden video was posted on YouTube.

I personally think the video is very beautiful. In time-lapse, hundreds, thousands of people, passing through, brushing past one another, coming and going, each in their own separate world, following their own story, carrying on in their daily lives. Yet somehow there is a unity. Only Joshua Bell, in a black baseball cap, stands in place, like a mendicant monk, the lone crag in an ‘ocean of people.’ To me, the image has a feeling of vastness, of ‘cosmic-ness,’ of almost ‘karmic-ness.’ I wonder whether this was something like what the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara saw when she looked down from Mount Potalaka. Can she hear it, too?

People lament that no one stopped to listen. Rather, I think it’s more poignant this way, and speaks more to humanity, than if a crowd had gathered around to watch the performance. Perhaps some people did listen, but they didn’t want to make a gesture, and disturb the flow, or, disturb the performer. In any case, I don’t think Joshua Bell was playing for everyone. He was playing for the one who recognized him.

Perhaps, that should be enough.

pencil

HC Hsu was born in Taipei. He is the author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe, May 2013). Finalist for the 2013 Wendell Mayo Award and The Austin Chronicle 21st Short Story Prize, First Place Winner of A Midsummer Tale 2013, Third Prize Winner of the 2013 Memoir essay competition, and The Best American Essays 2014 Nominee, he has written for Words Without Borders, Two Lines, PRISM International, Renditions, Far Enough East, Cha, Pif Magazine, Big Bridge, nthposition, 100 Word Story, Louffa Press, China Daily News, Liberty Times, Epoch Times, and many others. He has served as translator for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and is currently a research fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland, where he is completing a commissioned translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo’s biography. Email: khsuhc[at]gmail.com

As I Walk Out One Evening

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
HC Hsu


london bus
Photo Credit: Anthony Kelly

Beautiful

It was early in the evening. I was walking down the street, on the side of a big, busy road.

I was walking, and walking… and a person appeared before me, about fifty feet away.

I shouldn’t say ‘appeared,’ because the person was clearly there before I was there, and I just hadn’t noticed him.

Perception is a weird thing: often we see only what we want to see, even if we don’t know fully what we want, or even what it is we are seeing. It’s a bit like misplacing your keys and being locked out of your own house. But, we somehow seem to have learned to deal with the former, to the extent that we hardly even notice it any more.

I saw this man. He was sitting on the raised concrete partition bordering the sidewalk and a parking lot on the left, belonging to a 7-Eleven. He was wearing a T-shirt, faded blue workman jeans, and gum-sole boots. Dark, curly hair down to his neck, covering the profile of his face. He just sat there, legs apart, arms resting in between, head slightly drooped.

Cars kept coming toward and passing me, as I kept walking. As I walked closer and closer to the person, I didn’t know why, I had an urge to look at his face. A strange, and rather powerful desire. Like I had predicted something was about to happen.

And now waited ebulliently, for the proof. For the realization.

As I passed him, I looked, and saw the man’s face. Black. Gashes, criss-crossed on a flesh canvas, in varying lengths, and widths, like branding marks, where the skin had been scissored and turned inside out so that new, newer skin, grew even more thickly and heartily along the edges, merging the one into another, scar upon scar, so that eyes, nose, mouth became pushed, pulled, contorted, distorted, in every which direction, touching, where they shouldn’t, then flying apart—disappearing, beyond any recognizability whatsoever. Like a go board drawn and half-washed away in the sand, all before nightfall.

Realizing the man had turned his head toward me, I looked away. And walked on.

Then all of a sudden, I heard a voice behind me.

It was the man’s voice.

He said:

‘You are beautiful.’

*

There is a man sitting behind me writing. I feel like he is my ghost. One day I will die, and my ghost will die again.

*

 

Change

At the bus stop, behind me, squatting down and sitting on the imaginary line where the skyscraper meets the sidewalk, a man, in his thirties or forties, maybe younger, and wearing washed-out, frayed jeans and a short-sleeve white T-shirt with spots of brown and yellow, was speaking. Evenly, tranquilly, monotonously. Neither loud nor soft, as if he were simply having a conversation with someone, but using only one word:

Change. Change. Change. Change. Change. Change.

Just one word. Again and again. Over and over, like a mantra. Without joy or sadness, neither warm nor cold, without interest, or disinterest, just, simply, over and over again, in a single, even, regular rhythm, that is automatic and mechanical. As if it were no longer a voice, or even language, no different, from breathing, or the beating of a heart valve, or the mere grinding of gears in a machine.

Change. Change. Change.

An eternal demand.

 

Seats

A few months ago I was riding the bus.

It was morning, and rain was drizzling. The sky hadn’t lit up yet. Glancing at the full seats in the back, I sat down in one of the handicap seats in front. At this point, I usually close my eyes and continue my butterfly dreams of Zhuang Zhou until my destination.

Probably because of the rain and traffic, the bus kept swaying and stopping. As soon as I drifted off again I was jolted back into consciousness, uselessly trying to lap at the shallow shore of sleep that was receding farther and farther away.

The more awake, and delineated, each time, my mind became, the more and more annoyed I got. Starting with how idiotic people are as if they’re cavemen witnessing rain for the first time ‘for yet seven days’; how inefficient public transport authorities and infrastructures are on a good day, never mind in a cataclysm like a chiffon of morning mist; how I have to get up at an ungodly hour—surely an affront to nature and the heavenly way of things… from the passengers, to the bus driver, the mayor, the governor, the President, God… a grudge is born, and no one guilty in the conspiracy against peace and rest can escape being consumed by its fury…

Then a man and a woman boarded the bus.

It was an old man and an old woman, probably in their seventies at least. The man had a soft olive complexion, short white hair parted to the side, thin, outward-sloping grey brows, dark squinting eyes, thin lips, a smile brimming in his eyes instead of his lips. He didn’t look Caucasian, wearing what looked like a blue Chinese changshan, with an old plum-colored purse in his hand. The woman was white, her face more wrinkled and pale, with thinning grey-and-white hair parted in the middle down to her neck. She was in a long-sleeve green shirt and mint-colored pants, and had an oxygen mask on.

The two of them were about the same height by each other, diminutive and wan. The man slid the two bus passes he was holding in his hand through the reader, and then, with the woman on his other arm, shuffled toward the seats next to mine. They sat down. The man carefully put the bus passes back in his shirt pocket, and put his hand on the woman’s hand, lifted it and set it back down on his own leg. After a while, he raised and put his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her closer to him. The woman leaned in, then on him.

They never said a word to each other.

Suddenly I felt extremely childish, and ashamed.

I still think of that couple every now and then, especially when I feel down.

Love is not always found in sonnets and epic legends. Sometimes it’s found in the handicap seats of a city bus.

*

A branch from a tree fell, one amidst many, and can no longer grow forward, or be traced back.

*

 

An argument

Walking down the street this morning, I saw some people arguing on the side of the road.

A slender woman, who looked to be in her sixties, in a teal-colored dress and white heels, with shoulder-length dyed dark-brown hair and a wrinkle-lined mouth, which, making her appear as if permanently sad and sulking, seemed to wither and recede farther into but a tiny hole, opening and closing, as sounds threaded through like click-clacking beads, forming the syllables of her sentences, was trying to say something.

A younger man—bald, dressed in head-to-toe black, with a small, black-and-brown Chihuahua sitting right beside his dirt-encrusted Panama-style jungle boot, its small head cocked up and alert, eyes glinting, watching the woman, who stood about two feet away from them—cut her off.

‘Where do you get off being self-righteous?’ His voice was loud and distinct, and several passersby turned their heads to look to see what’s going on.

She got out— ‘I’m not——‘ It was a high and lilting voice, with the oooot drawn out at the end.

Yes, you are!‘ The young man yelled. ‘It’s my dog. It’s not for sale!’

That seemed to be the end of the argument. But, instead of both parties moving on, or at least away from each other, the man and the woman both stood in place, neither being willing to concede to the other their area of the sidewalk. The Chihuahua, also, sat still.

I was coming up to them in the middle of the sidewalk, so I stepped off onto the road, and stepped back on again as I passed them.

I walked a little ways, for a bit, and looked back. The woman had walked behind me and turned onto a cross street. I could still see her; walking briskly, her head lowered, she was wiping away her eyes with the palm of her hands. Farther back, around the corner, on the original street, the young man had sat down legs crossed on the ground, and was holding the dog in his lap, sniffing, rubbing the top of its head, and lightly burying his face into the dog’s fur, and then, slowly, and gently, he placed a small aluminum can out front, on the ground of the sidewalk.

A bus sped past me, drumming up a cloud of faintly red, strange, brick-colored dust, in its wake.

 

A bag of roses

At noon I went out and saw a big black plastic trash bag lying next to the dumpster; the bag was filled with roses. White, peeking out from the open bag, fresh, abundant, entangled, bright. Almost exuberant. Someone had left them there. For some reason—perhaps the occasion in which they were used was over, perhaps there were too many, perhaps someone simply didn’t want them. So there they lay, next to cardboard boxes, newspapers, ads and fliers, plastic bottles, old foodstuffs, dirty styrofoam containers, small plastic bags filled with trash, and other odds and ends by the dumpster. White, creamy, with a pale, almost imperceptible shade of yellow at the base of the petals, like a solitary soft murmur, one, criss-crossing with another, gathering, building, multiplying, until they became a mesh of rumpled, fuzzy clamor, sprouting out of a giant, black flower-shaped mouth. Blossoming, withering. I thought of taking one home, but didn’t, and left.

*

An old couple was ambling and picking flowers along the side of the road. I had been staring at them, and when we came up to each other, the old man, Indian, said hello. I mouthed a hi and averted my eyes, somewhat embarrassed. The man seemed a bit displeased, and turned to his wife in a gold-trimmed purple sarong, saying: ‘Kids today.’

*

 

Crying

A kid was crying in the street.

I was walking behind. The kid was a few paces in front of me, walking, while crying. There was a woman walking a few paces in front of him. Probably the mother. Neither of them turned around. I couldn’t see their faces.

Judging from the height and frame, I guessed the kid to be no more than three years old. Buzzed black hair. He didn’t try to hide his face in his arms or wipe away the tears with his hands. He was just crying. Howling. And wailing. Screaming. Almost. Without any restraint or reserve, without a care as to where he was, or anything or anyone that was around him. Just sad to the extreme, from an intolerable pain, that seemed to vibrate down to the very core of one’s being, a piercing line of steel. Then exploding into a million shards, pure sounds, borne away by the wind.

The boy walked in a steady pace behind his mother, as if the act of crying were something completely separate from the rest of his body, and the movement of his legs. In white sneakers. Tiny. And always just a few steps, behind her. The woman, neither fat nor thin, had straight, shoulder-length black hair, and wore a short black dress, and low black heels. Underneath the net of yowls and snivels, the sharp hard clicks of heels on concrete interspersed the long, more languid quashes of rubber tennis soles. The woman never turned around. I don’t know if it’d be the same if the boy were a man, or if it were the woman who was crying.

It was afternoon. There were other pedestrians on the street. No one bothered to look, or they merely tossed a quick glance over and, maybe out of politeness, re-directed their gaze elsewhere right away.

As if no one, not even the boy himself, heard these gut-wrenching, blood-curdling cries, in the middle of a street, under the bright spring sun.

 

Evidence

I was standing in line.

A tall man stood in front of me. I couldn’t see his face, only the back of his head, which was bald. He was thin, and his scalp enveloped a bony, sprout-shaped skull, with a fleshy protuberance slightly jutting out at the midpoint between the top of his head, and the back of his neck. There was a crease under the bulge that extended from behind the middle of his left ear to his right, curving upward. It made the back of his head look like a smiley face. But incomplete.

There was a long, extremely thin strand of red hair, glimmering under the overhead fluorescent pipe, almost transparent and invisible, gently lying across the back of his neck, touching it, but at the same time, hovering over, and above it.

Like a secret memento, a nearly imperceptible trace, unbeknownst to the one to whom it was left, or even to the one who left it, a line connecting them both, even as their backs turned, and began to separate, to move in opposite directions, never to meet again.

Like evidence, that we once were.

*

An old man sat in the front of the bus in an electric wheelchair. The wheelchair was black, with a bright orangish-red and yellow nylon sack hanging from the push handles down the back. He was wearing a black baseball cap that, on the back, read ‘Air Force’; beneath it, his scalp peeked out in the space between the fabric seam and the plastic strap. When I got up he glanced at me, nodded and lowered his head, and turned away. I got off the bus.

*

 

Traveling

On the bus home today, the shades were drawn down on the large bus windows. The shades were composed of hundreds and hundreds of little circular perforations. The early afternoon sunlight shone in, while the rest of the outside scenery stayed behind, flowing along, struggling to seep through the rows and rows of tiny holes, plastered against the surface of this net, as it morphed from buildings, into trees, then into masses of people, and then into a large silvery, rippling, shimmering lake. Latching on to the traveling bus. No matter what form or shape it assumed, it could only show through, visible, only, from inside, as a finely pixelated image, like a facsimile of an impressionist painting.

It’s kind of fun to see the city this way. I think people who like to travel, or wish they traveled, a lot, need to open up their eyes, and minds, more, to what is already there around them. Traveling is not going to new places. It is experiencing things in new ways.

*

I don’t like mountain laurels. The faded purple, that bubbly pungent, tryingly sweet scent, like royalty that’s been made to hide and live like commoners after the revolution, being forced to smile, it makes me sad.

*

 

Parallel

You get on.

You don’t see me.

You take the seat two rows in front of me.

I see your backside, the back of your head, your dark brown, somewhat frizzed and wavy hair. For some reason, I don’t tap you on the back, or your shoulder (I see you turn around—surprised, smiling, your eyes sparkling, an underwater cavernous limestone blue—‘Hey, when did you get on?’ you ask, and try to stand up as you jolt forward, your body leaving your seat, as you find a way to balance yourself and move toward me)—but I stay still, and we remain where we are.

I watch you. I don’t see your face. It’s a strange feeling, as if I were no longer me, or were somewhere else completely, or I had simply disappeared, evaporated, from here and now. It occurs to me I had never up until then, seen you. In your completeness.

In your solitude.

I wonder what you are like without me.

Yourself plus the world minus me.

It’s a strange feeling, but I feel a lightness and clarity. A bright whiteness shines through me.

I can see an outline of myself.

We ride across the water. You look out. At that moment, I see your face, reflected in the glass, translucent, overlaid with reflections of the brilliant blue rippling water, the passing trees, and the sky.

I wonder sometimes whether you are lost in your own thoughts.

 

‘When the sun is folded up, and the stars fall, the mountains are made to move, and the seas boil, then every soul shall understand what it has done.’ (The Quran)

pencil

HC Hsu was born in Taipei. He is the author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe, May 2013). Finalist for the 2013 Wendell Mayo Award and The Austin Chronicle 21st Short Story Prize, and Third Prize Winner of the 2013 Memoir essay competition, he has written for Liberty Times, Epoch Times, Words Without Borders, Two Lines, PRISM International, Renditions, Far Enough East, Cha, Pif Magazine, Big Bridge, nthposition, 100 Word Story, and many others. He has served as translator for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and is currently a research fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland. Email: khsuhc[at]gmail.com

Inheritance

Creative Nonfiction
Susan Lago


Tool of the Trade
Photo Credit: JL Stricklin

When I was twenty-five I thought I was going blind. One day I was driving home from work and when I stopped at the light I saw a glowing circle around the red traffic signal. Like a halo. I blinked, rubbed my eyes and then the light changed and I forgot about the halo until the next time I saw it. Over the next few weeks, the halo appeared with increasing frequency. I saw it mostly around objects that emitted light, like the buzzing florescent tubes in the office of the ad agency where I worked as an account coordinator, or the clock on the stove, or the screen of the small TV perched on the edge of our dresser. I tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, but the halo grew until it took over the whole world.

You should see a doctor, my husband said. We had been married for less than a handful of years then. Past the newlywed stage, but not yet at the start-a-family stage either. We were both starting out in our careers, still paying our student loans, living in a low-ceilinged basement apartment in Secaucus, New Jersey with the cast-off furniture from my father and stepmother’s attic.

Go see your dad, he said. He’ll know what to do.

My father was an ophthalmologist.

For my exam, my father wore his white doctor coat. It was after-hours, the waiting area empty of patients and staff. In my memory, the examination room is cave dim with quiet carpet and no dust. My father used his ophthalmic examination instruments to peer into one eye and then the other. His face loomed so close to mine that it was the size of the moon. His breath on my cheek mortified me.

Finally he sat back on his doctor stool and sighed.

What? I said.

He shook his head. I can’t believe this, but you have a cataract.

Are you sure? Don’t only old people get cataracts?

When young people get them, they’re usually hereditary. I had one myself a few years ago. I guess you got it from me, he said, and looked at me, his small gray eyes behind his glasses. But you can’t tell anyone about that.

About what?

My cataract. I could get sued for malpractice.

I was ten paces behind in the conversation as usual. Why? I asked.

Because I operated on patients when I had the cataract. Before I had surgery to remove it.

Oh, I said. I won’t say anything.

You’ll need surgery, he said. I’ll make arrangements for a buddy of mine out in California to do it. He’s the best in the field. He won’t say anything.

Why can’t I just go to a doctor here?

My father sighed again. A line appeared between his eyes, a knife slash. Another doctor would ask for your patient history, he said. He would know that a cataract in someone your age was probably hereditary. I can’t take a chance it’ll be traced back to me. I could lose everything.

What happens if I wait, I said. I needed time to think. Surgery. I pictured the scalpel, sharp and perfect, slicing into my sclera. I felt nauseous.

The halo glowed around my father’s white coat. You could wait, he said, but you’ll gradually lose vision in that eye. You’re young, you’re healthy. My advice is to take care of it now. You don’t want to be sight-impaired in your twenties.

Maybe I should get a second opinion.

The knife slash deepened. I told you, he said. This has to be a secret.

Pressure in the back of my throat. I knew better than to cry.

He took off his glasses, held them up to the light, and put them on again. Him on his doctor stool, me in the patient chair held in place by the black metal ophthalmic instrument suspended in front of me from a hinged rod. What’s the matter, I said.

This will be expensive.

Ten paces behind.

Knife slash.

You could talk to your sister, he said. I’m still paying her health insurance. I don’t know if I can afford this kind of operation unless I can free up some extra funds.

But she’s still in college.

I know, but maybe your mother could take over the payments. The word “mother” in his mouth like the worst kind of swear word.

He reached over and touched my hand. I only want the best for you, he said. And this guy is the best. Okay?

Okay, I said. I stood. Okay.

And then his arms were around me and he held me tight against the rough starched surface of his coat. Everything will be all right, he said, and then he let me go.

I tried to remember if my father had ever held me before, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t. I would have promised him anything.

A cataract? my husband said when I got home. That’s nuts. You’re too young to have a cataract. You should get another opinion.

I explained about the possibility of malpractice. How we had to keep this secret, but my husband didn’t understand. We may have argued about it, but I can’t be sure.

Are you crazy, my sister yelled when I told her about the cataract, the secret, the doctor who was the best in the field out in California. Her health insurance.

We were sitting on my bed, which took up most of the bedroom, sorting through Jujyfruits. I got all the black ones because she didn’t like them. How much do you think he pays for my insurance? she asked. Twenty dollars a month? Thirty? He has two fucking BMWs for chrissakes! He lives in a huge house in Mendham! And you have your own health insurance! He doesn’t have to pay a dime! If he wants to keep it a secret, then he should pay for it.

One could say the scales fell from my eyes, blue like my sister’s eyes, like my mother’s. You’re right. I guess I was so worried about needing surgery that I wasn’t thinking straight, I said.

She shrugged. She understood. He was her father too. Maybe you should get a second opinion, she suggested.

And so I did.

It’s a Mittendorf Dot, said ophthalmologist #2. He had the same ophthalmic examination equipment, but he didn’t wear a white coat, just a sport jacket. He explained that a Mittendorf Dot was an anomaly like a freckle. It in no way affected my vision.

But it could be mistaken for a cataract? I asked.

He frowned. No. It’s not even on that part of your eye.

Now I frowned. But what about the halo?

Do you do much work on a computer? he asked.

Only about ten hours a day, I said. This was in the late eighties when desktop computers had big box-like monitors with cathode ray tubes.

Doctor #2 explained that staring at the monitor and the rays it emitted for long periods of time could cause eyestrain. Take breaks, he suggested.

That’s it?

He nodded.

I used my health insurance to pay for the visit.

I didn’t call my father to ask if he had made a mistake. I didn’t drive to his home or office to accuse him of lying. When Sunday came I didn’t make my weekly phone call. Two weeks went by before I realized he hadn’t called me either. Then I tried to remember if he had initiated any of the Sunday night calls and I thought that probably he had not. Why don’t you call him, my husband asked when three weeks had gone by, but I didn’t. The silence screamed as I counted up the days, the weeks, and then the months that I didn’t call him and he didn’t call me.

More than two decades later and neither one of us has made any attempt at getting in touch with the other. Here’s the thing: if he believed his diagnosis was correct, then why didn’t he call to see how I was? Wasn’t he concerned that I was going blind from my untreated condition? Wasn’t he worried that I’d blurted out his secret? Or: if he realized he made a mistake, then why didn’t he offer some kind of apology or excuse? But the worst possibility, the one that’s kept me from picking up the phone or typing out an email, was that he had known from the beginning that there was nothing wrong with my eyes and that he took the opportunity to get something he felt was owed him. At various times in my life, I’ve believed different versions of the story as I’m sure my father has believed his.

I could throw in a metaphor about blindness, love, but I won’t. The halo? I took breaks as the doctor suggested and after a couple of weeks it went away.

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Susan Lago teaches writing at William Paterson University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Pank, Per Contra, Monkeybicycle, Verbsap, and Word Riot. In 2011, she was honored to have one of her short stories nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Pank Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: Professor L. Email: shlago[at]optonline.net

Qingyundian Vignettes

Creative Nonfiction
Hannah Samuels


Cucumber vendor---Beijing
Photo Credit: Alexandra Moss

1. ping-pong

A gate just a few apartment buildings down from where we live looks exactly like the doorway to Bilbo Baggins’s home, a circle gate or, as the locals call it, “moon gate.”

Between the last apartment building and the highway rumbling outside of the moon gate there are three ping-pong tables lined up in a crooked row. Behind one of these tables is strung a large, forest-green cloth. The cloth is hung up to catch the balls that get hit too hard and aren’t hit back. The cloth quickens the game as it frees the players up from running after balls all of the time.

These ping-pong players are the real deal. They play every day, every season, every morning and every evening. There has rarely been a day that I do not pass them on my way out of the complex. One morning there was a storm rolling in, but the ping-pong players were not hunkering down, they were out at their game as usual. Winter mornings can be frigid, in the single digits Fahrenheit, but on they play—fierce competition in the brutal weather.

There was a morning one day where the rain was falling hard as I left for work. I couldn’t see far enough through the downpour to notice if a ping-pong game was going on.

2. Street Sweepers

I have read in books about the street sweepers of yesteryears. It’s almost a historic profession. In mind’s eye I see the grizzled man, hat cocked, sweeping streets that, even before he started, were cleaner than he was. Maybe these public service workers sing, like in My Fair Lady, “Oh, wouldn’t that be loverly?”

Street sweeping is something that I don’t see, I don’t talk about; I only read about it in a nostalgic way. Street sweeping seemed to me like a bygone job, replaced by machines and trucks, until I moved here to this little China-village and suddenly manual street sweeping was a daily sighting. Every morning they are there, the street sweepers, wearing their orange vests and carrying their handmade brooms or shovels.

The brooms are made out of wheat sheaves, or at least something similar. Dust that settled overnight is swept up into piles. I don’t know what is done with the piles. Some middle-aged ladies carry shovels; it is their job to transport trash into the dumpsters, or to lift spadefuls of waste from the dumpsters into the pickup-like trucks which deposit this rubbish into the ditches where it is later burned.

Every morning I see them, some busily at work, others chatting with their coworkers and drinking green tea.

3. A Street Breakfast

The friendly face of the Xian’r Bing baker smiles over his glass-enclosed case of freshly fried “bing” at me. “What would you like today?” he asks in his accented Mandarin. I ask which type is the hottest and he gestures to the moon-shaped breads in the corner, “chives and egg,” he says, and then motioning over to the rectangular layers of dough and ground meat, “and these meat ones.” I ask about red bean paste, my favorite filling as long as the bing is hot; he points to them, and nods his head when I ask if they are still warm.

I buy one chive-and-egg bing, and another red-bean-paste one. I pay the man one yuan, the equivalent of fifteen cents in America. That is, I pay him one yuan for both breads; this is the cheapest food in China—round bing at 0.5 yuan a piece.The tiny plastic bag they are served with seems too thin to keep the heat in and I worry that the hot breads will melt a hole right through.

Biting through the crispy bread and into the hot filling, I sigh with pleasure. Street food carries such a magical charm.

4. A Busy Corner

Since the police told all of the farmers a few months ago that they could no longer peddle their fruits and vegetables and freshly-made tofu at the town center, the village has not been quite like itself. The center of town is quiet, the streets are wider and a sense of impressed industry overshadows our once rustically-productive village.

But I have made one of the happiest discoveries during my daily walks through town that, until a quarter till eight, a new “center of town” emerges down the street, with all of the bustling and bartering of fresh products that feels so natural. It seems that the farmers have decided that, for as long as they can, they will continue to use the village as their marketplace, so they have chosen a new location for congregation.

I can hardly get through this back street as I walk in to work, but I love the challenge and the smells and the sounds: the carts of the farmers are so heavily laden with brightly-colored vegetables and the villagers on their bikes and in their own carts and on foot clog up the road in the most festive manner.

At quarter till eight, however, the police come and, starting at the far corner, slowly drive their cars through the jam-packed streets, telling each seller, one by one, to leave. It’s a very slow process, as the road is congested with activity and it takes each seller a few minutes to finish their latest transaction and pack up their wares. Every policeman that I have seen on this route wears a look of bored frustration. I have been noticing that the policemen assigned to this piece of road are younger and younger, almost as if it is becoming the appointed job of the rookies as a possible form of initiation into the police force.

5. The Vegetable Seller

After the farmers were kicked out of the center of town, one couple needed to find a new location for their vegetable stand. Walking down the road, they discovered a wide alley and, realizing that it was an unfrequented path, chose to set up their shop there. The board-on-stick table that they used fit perfectly in the narrow entrance and there was just enough light to tell broccoli from cauliflower and lettuce from cabbage.

Every morning the couple drive their little cart with the table hitched to the back, down through the alleys until they get to the one adjacent to the main road. There, setting up their wares, they settle for a day of chatting, sitting, and selling. More often than not I see a friendly chat going on, as opposed to a business transaction.

Gan Maiya?” A passerby calls out, the equivalent to “What’s up?”

“Nothing really,” they reply. “Just being. Buy some vegetables? Come and sit a bit?”

They know how to be. These people know how to keep life from being choked up in tasks and forced productivity. They’re not beating themselves down for being lazy, because sitting is not lazy. Sitting is just being. Get out into the city and you’ll see just the opposite—the anxious, Westernized task-oriented behaviors that squeeze life out of living. But here, in quaint Qingyundian, life moves not at the pace of schedules, but at the pace of inspiration.

6. Corn Harvest

I thought that all of the corn in the village had been harvested and shucked and laid out to dry and then bagged into sacks to either be sent to be ground into meal, or saved to feed the pigs. I was wrong. Walking through the town on the first day of October—a special holiday—it seemed like the village population had doubled and the corn harvest had tripled. There, laid out on the streets where the corn of last week had already been bagged into sacks, were piles and piles of corn cobs, bright orange and bold.

I think that I saw every village mother and grandmother sitting out on their stools and shucking the corn, chatting about the last year. The grandchildren and children and cousins were all running about in their split pants and oddly-shaved heads. The young men played basketball and the fathers and grandfathers ran the cobs through a manual machine that shaved the cobs of their kernels. I stood and stared and soaked in this festivity that was everywhere.

A child, less than two years old, too young to know much of anything I thought, suddenly turned around and saw me. She gasped and put her hand to her mouth. I smiled at her. “Baba, waiguoren!” she exclaimed. Daddy, a foreigner!

7. Cora’s Story

When Cora gave birth to a daughter, her mother-in-law was enraged and refused to look at the baby girl. When Cora found out that she was pregnant again, she and her husband loaded up their bicycle-cart with vegetables and biked the hours to another village. They stayed there for nine months while the grandmother, Cora’s mother-in-law, who had since become more accepting of her granddaughter, looked after the little girl.

When Cora gave birth to a son, her husband called his mother from the distant village they had escaped to and told her. There were happy tears on both ends of the line. The family quickly scraped up their life savings and borrowed from relatives to pay the high additional-child fine.

If Cora’s second child had been another daughter, she doesn’t know what she would have done.

8. Prayer

Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r.

I think that I know what this phrase means. My mind starts thinking as Amy continues to pray, her full, yet mellow, voice rising and falling with the tones common to Mandarin.

Ni.” I know that one. It’s one of the first characters that I learned when I first began to show an interest in China, over ten years ago. “Ni” means “you.” “Meiyou” is such a common phrase. Do you have something? No? Then “meiyou.” It means “have not” and even little children learn this early. “Nancheng.” Now here’s a word that maybe I haven’t heard before, but I know that “nan” means difficult, so I’ll just go from there. “De” indicates that there is some possessiveness going on here and “shi’r“… I think that “shi’r” means “task” or “thing.”

It’s almost my turn to pray. This room full of Chinese and foreigners is going around the circle; each person takes a point on our list. Some pray for things like protection, for our sponsors to be blessed, or for the doctors to be endowed with supernatural wisdom as they perform difficult surgeries on our little ones. Sometimes we just pray for the children, each by name, lifting up their specific medical needs, or their immediate need of a forever family—an adoptive family, every orphan’s ultimate dream. It’s almost my turn and I have figured out what Amy said: “Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r” means “Nothing is too hard for you.”

I sigh; it’s true. My turn to pray, “Father, nothing is too hard for you…”

9. Cute and Cuter

Stella and Lewis arrived fresh from the orphanage and, freshly bathed, I posted their arrival pictures on the foster home’s Facebook page. Neither of them had English names yet, so I just called them Ying Ying and Chao Chao, nicknames created from their real Chinese names, assigned by their orphanages.

Within minutes people all over the country were liking and commenting and sharing the photos. In a few hours, Ying Ying’s picture had garnered over twenty comments; by the end of the day it had forty. Poor Chao Chao, however, only received seven comments on his arrival picture and it remains at that low number to this day.

Of course, it seems totally wrong for one child to quickly become more special in the eyes of the public than another. For publicity purposes, I’m glad that little Miss Ying Ying arrived. It’s fun to welcome the cutest little babies into the foster home, but a part of me wishes that we only brought in the not-so-cute. But when I overthink it, I start wondering if she should even be here at all, and if maybe a more needy child should have been brought in. Those huge, soulful eyes will find a family for her regardless of where she’s living, who does her much-needed urology surgery, and how often she gets a bath. Chao Chao, on the other hand… I can just see it in his eyes; he needs us.

If a family is each child’s greatest need, then it’s the babies that aren’t all that adorable who need our care the most.

10. Mia’s Giggle

Mia will celebrate her first birthday in November, but she’s probably spent at least six of the nearly twelve months in the hospital. Mia has had over five surgeries and has had pneumonia more times than I have had the flu. Today she is done, done with hospitals and surgeries and near-death experiences. She’s had her final heart surgery and will no longer turn blue and stop breathing… what a relief.

When Mia came home from the hospital for the last time, she didn’t smile. In fact, I don’t remember ever having seen her smile at all. Daphne, a nanny who stayed with her for a few of those hospitalizations, claimed that by rubbing Mia’s cheek and talking sweetly to her, Mia had flashed a tiny smile once. This report was the only one I had ever heard of Mia smiling.

A few weeks after coming home, Mia smiled when I gently ticked her and told her how special and loved she was. Her smile was bigger and happier than I had ever imagined. Yesterday I heard her giggle. And I observed with those smiles and that giggle, that little Miss Mia has a dimple.

11. Gaining .2 kg

This little darling who I hold in my arms was born four months ago and abandoned around that same time at a local hospital. A hospital has been her home for all of this time. This little treasure has lived in PICU and been nourished through an IV since the day she was born, because there was a hole between her trachea and her esophagus, and her esophagus never actually went into her stomach.

When she was released from the hospital, she only weighed 2.8 kilograms. A few days after coming home for the first time she weighed 2.9 and yesterday, when I weighed her, she was 3.0 kilograms. That’s 6.6 pounds, impressive, though still tinier than I was when I was born.

“She gained 0.2 kilograms in just two days?” I was surprised.

“I think that it’s a real gain,” her nanny said. “See how well she eats? In the hospital there was not this much closeness and love, so of course she wouldn’t have gained as much when she ate. Here, we hold her close and talk to her when we feed her. I think that is why she really has gained so much so quickly.”

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Hannah Samuels is a current undergraduate student attending Thomas Edison State College, majoring in English and living in China. Email: beforethethrone29[at]gmail.com