Dispatch from the Fennel Kingdom

fennel

Fennel sprouted up everywhere.  It was very hard to kill.  Someone before her had bowed over holes and plunked down little seeds, humming.  So light and easy, cruelty. Now none of the stalks would give.  Trying to pull them up felt like murdering, like violently sabotaging a murder.  She became weak and sweaty, limp with defeat.  Then she was the plant.  The fennel rose victorious and tall, able-bodied on its unbreakable backbone. Its ferny tops—deceivingly frail and wispy—glistened at her like smirks whenever she passed.  When she lobbed the fennel with clippers, she could pretend she had claws.  It was satisfying to imagine a world as such, where injustices could be sorted with a short slide of metal, a sharp snap.  The weeping of the stalks was just a show for pity.  They grew back taller, multiplied to more.  Fennel is THE ENEMY!  She pronounced to her sons, and they were relieved to flip 180 from the empathy lectures.  She let the youngest and most haywire wield the clippers, but when she returned with a shovel his coveted weapon was tossed askew in the grass. The fennel had taken him.  But no, he popped up from deep within its jungle, chewing on something.  She leaned in.  Her son’s sweet licorice breaths registered like stabs.  The word betrayal—too pompous a word, too melodramatic—spoke itself in her head, and sounded right.  He smiled at her, displaying ink-green teeth. What? he said. It’s good.  She sighed.  She reached out to touch his cheek, which the fronds had cast with a Maori tattoo. Once the fennel enveloped the yard they would have to string it into clotheslines, braid it into hammocks, lob birdies over its undefined nets.  Once it enveloped the windows she could stand at the kitchen counter watching its green tentacles wave against the glass and know–something akin to a truce—how peaceful it was to wash dishes inside a submarine.

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She

 

she

I met her in the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico.  She was 24, so old.  That’s how young I was.  She had been to the Peace Corps in Liberia and learned things. Some she talked about and some she didn’t.  The women in Liberia had taught her to walk along very tall, smooth as floating, with a stack of books or bag of groceries balanced on her head.  I never saw anything fall off, though the ground we covered was seemingly always being built up or breaking down.  The brick streets with their tower-high curbs dipped and broke in places.  As if a giant snake had been trapped in them, rounding bricks with its frantic slither, crumbling others with tail snaps.  The bus I took home from Spanish class passed a field of dust where boys played soccer, and they all knew—in their sprints for the ball—where to leap to miss the holes and chunks of concrete spiked with rebar.  They floated like she did with books on her head.  Except they were chasing after something they didn’t have, and she was holding onto what she did.  My friend’s yellow hair had grown in shaggy—she had chopped it off to meet the heat of Liberia.  But she was clearly and purely beautiful.  Mens’ eyes stuck on her when we walked together, so I was free to study their features.  Sometimes she wore a black bolero hat, which she told me she had bought so deep within the dark underbelly of a Mexican market that she hadn’t known if it was black or brown.  Nothing balanced on the bolero.  It seemed dark and heavy enough to topple her over.  Imagine a dandelion strapped with a leather saddlebag.  But also it suited her strength, adding width to her height, and when we moved through the Zocalo I sensed venders and children and piñatas and pigeons and balloons and fireworks and hungry-eyed men all rolling out and away from the rim of her bolero, as water from a rudder.  Every afternoon my friend and I would part ways for mid-day comida at the tables where we stayed with local families. Even though I had just seen her I couldn’t recall her bright natural sheen there, in the dim and sealed house, with its fancy furniture and lace tablecloths and pillow ruffles.  A mahogany grandfather clock ticked loudly on the wall, not so much marking the seconds as hitting each of them away.  One afternoon we took the public bus marked Monte Alban, but it stopped a long way from the ruins.  So we accepted a ride in the rusty bed of a speeding truck, with men in the front seat shouting rapid-fire at us through the glass.  In one corner of the truck bed a machete was lying on some canvas bags. Our chopped-up bodies could have gone right into them. But the ruins rose brighter and more miraculous for having arrived to them at great risk.  As ghost-towns went, this Zapotec one was classy.  It had terraces and tombs and altars and even a ball-court.  I forgot where in the world I was.  Who in the world I was.  Until I spotted my friend perched precariously, on a little block on the highest ruin.  Probably where a ruler stood to address his people, in so many rising and falling tones.  Can you call someone your anchor when she’s high above you?  When she’s wobbling?   Right before I had to go back home for high school we took another bus.  This time over the mountains, to a tiny coastal village.  We found a cheap room on a hillside near the happiest pantheón—cemetery—I’d ever seen.  Its gravestones were painted for a party: pinks and blues and yellows. It looked down on the bay, and the boats tethered there—like the graves—appeared to be both clearly alone and hanging out together.  The sun danced on that cemetery most of the day, and the birds in the trees above it sang more loudly.  I wanted to live there.  If I could do it without dying.  Roosters woke us early, their desperate cheery calls strangling off as abruptly as they started.  The room was so bleached, so full of light, that nothing in it or nearing its windows escaped without a shadow.  I remember my friend humming, wringing out her laundry in the outdoor shower.  There was a big iguana the color of sand who liked to stretch out along one top edge of that shower.  When you got over realizing he was seeing you naked he was quite a peaceful presence.  He seemed solid enough, still enough, to stop time completely.  Down on the beach some local kids swam in their t-shirts with us, and mid-sentence they would turn and splash someone, or dive underwater into tippy hand-stands.  Which bought me time to figure out what they’d said.  Two fisherman friends started courting us.  They took us round to an aunt’s restaurant, a cousin’s bar, a nephew’s diaper-changing.  They took us to a friend’s cement rooftop where the stars seemed as close as chandeliers .  When they took us to their secret spear-fishing spot, my fisherman waved the tiller of the boat easy, unthinking, like a limb.  I wore a belt made of rocks and I tried to do as he said, to aim at a fish without making eye contact with it. My fisherman himself had eyes so dark I couldn’t see where their pupils turned to irises.  The fishermen made us ceviche from the fish my friend had speared. It was so fresh we just opened our mouths, and in it leapt and finned its way down to our stomachs.  I bet when I leave Mexico I won’t believe in magic anymore, my friend said.  She was kneeling down folding the few things she had, stacking each one back into her backpack. The pink and red serape tied around her waist as a skirt was also her beach towel, but somehow it looked fresh and hung evenly, elegantly.  I might remember believing in magic, she said.  But that’s different.  She was packing the way she seemed to do everything, with steady peaceful purpose.  I started to shake the sand out of my hair, but its strands had turned to salty straw and didn’t move.  It was yellow now, like hers.  I stood very still in the doorway.  I tried to be like that iguana.  When I blinked I would never see her again.

Ballet for a Castaway

jellyfish

I once kept an illustrated journal of the jellyfish I saw on long morning swims out into a bay.  But some mules ate the notebook one morning, when I was swimming.  The jellyfish appeared from a distance as clouds of light, as tangles of smoke.  As my arms wheeled me closer, some sharpened to stark ovals and perfect squares.  Others contained so many frills and mis-matched geometry they appeared as might tornados or cutting-edge fashion—impossible to comprehend.  The jellyfish stung to varying degrees.  I got to know which ones required dodging, and I could execute a full-body swerve without breaking my stroke.  But they were so beautiful, so unworldly, that I let myself collide into most of them.  I hoped they might transmit some of their grace to me through the stinging, so that one day I might drift into a room and blot it into awed silence with my easy grace, my simmering iridescence.  It was so dry and dusty in that Mexican village.  I wore torn castaway clothes, subsisted on castaway scraps, and pecked across the manure-strewn dirt trails in the manner of an ancient person, feeble and hunched.  Some of the jellyfish had intricate wiring, like lightbulbs, and I imagined if smashed apart they would require a specialized electrician to save them.  Some of the jellyfish had circular ends that billowed and recoiled, billowed and recoiled, like smoke rings refusing to launch. After watching jellyfish you could only laugh at clocks.  How flat and clunky and ugly they were.  How absurdly they incited people to rush madly and loudly away from themselves.  From the busy, hurried shore you might never know that a free, never-ending ballet with magical lighting was forever unfolding.  Villagers who saw my yellow swim cap ooze out the bay asked me why I swam so far, for so long.  But how do you confess you’ve fallen in love with the jellyfish?  How can you even know?  I only knew that when I stepped out of the water, the raised pink ribbons on my skin would burn lightly, humming, and I would  feel glad for them. The burning indicated—late into the day—that the creatures I thought I dreamt were still there, pulsing along as steadily as my welts.  After I left that bay for good, I only knew that the strangest little things lodged a lump in my throat.  A ripped tail on a windsock, barely fluttering.  The pastel sheen on a mud puddle.  An umbrella blooming open, impossibly slowly.  A crystal goblet bobbing up from dirty sink water.   

Happy

tape

This morning in the forest this little pink loop of surveying tape screamed up at me, Happy Birthday!  My dad—a surveyor—used to wrap my presents with it.  Later I found out it was called flagging tape but he was dead so I still called it surveying tape.  These little gasps we take, trying to keep the gone from going.  Because of surveying tape I get to associate hot pink with utilitarian.  Even in the shade it looked backlit.  When take-your-child-to-work day rolled around I pulled up my striped tube socks like his, knowing burrs would stud cool designs into them.  At first It was really boring.  We did a lot of walking and stopping and my dad stood at his transit for long periods of time. His legs looked way thick and tan beside the skinny metal transit legs.  He seemed happy pacing the fields, though I knew he’d rather be pacing the deck of a sailboat as it cut through warm ocean.  I remember I had a strand of his surveying ribbon wrapped around my wrist and it was soft and silky but also rough and stiff.  It was right where those things met.  I found soybeans growing at the field’s edge and I picked and chewed them, thinking soy soy soy to myself.  Measuring words while he measured distances.  It was good to be standing near each other, lost in separate things.  It was good to be outside getting grubby.  I knew it that day, watching him.  And I knew it this morning, as I trudged on alone through the dirt with a pink plastic bow around my finger.

He’s Doing His

legs

Who can write hanging on the form about your child’s favourite activities?  Yet how he loves to hang.  On the trampoline he spends more time hanging than jumping.  One explosive leap to reach the basketball rim and then the world fades out, stills, as he sways.  It’s an art, maintaining the clench in your arms while letting the rest of your body go limp as a windsock.  As soon as he could walk he would toddle up to the space between couches and put a hand on each arm-rest, hoisting himself up to hang there.  His diaper would make little crackling sounds as his legs swayed back and forth, back and forth.  It was kind of creepy.  People would be gathered on the couches talking and suddenly this baby would slap down a hand by their arms and completely ignore them as he suspended, his eyes fixed ahead in concentration.  He’s doing his hanging, we would say, as though that explained it.  It was hard work and sometimes he made sounds as he swung, something between humming and groaning.  His legs were fat and white.  He had no kneecaps or ankles, just immense rolls interspersed with creases.  When I jammed them into pants the fabric would stretch out and along astonishingly, on and on, entire land masses.  Just you watch, people said, He’ll slim out.  I nodded, not believing them.  This summer as he clutches the basketball rim, hanging, swaying, building callouses on his callouses, I can’t stop staring at his legs.  So long and skinny.  If you can’t see their crazy freckles, their pelt of blond hair, you might think they are white bones, hanging Halloween decor.  His knees take turns shifting in a little bit, adding grace to the dangle.  They are what you’d call bird legs.  When a bird is flying, and the top half of it is working so hard it looks like the legs are doing nothing.  Then you realize the bird legs had to sacrifice their stance, their weight, their main role.  Maybe giving up the ground is harder work than flapping.  I watch him sway, wondering which legs are his legs.  Those sumo-wrestler legs?  Or these long bird legs?  Both pairs seem to be swimming around in slow-motion under the work and joy of his hanging, swimming and swimming and swimming so minutely I might be dreaming it.

We Are Where Our Eyes Go

ohio

The sky is so big here.  How could I watch the road?  I pull over often. Better we walk away from the car completely.  Past the scattered machinery, the brick and whitewashed houses.  My sons and I peel off our shoes and socks, and step gingerly up one side of a barn.  It’s not hard to scale walls in the town of your childhood.  Everything has gotten so small.  At the top of the barn we make a little leap to a silo.  It is hotter on the bottoms of our feet, but easier to stick to.  It is strange being atop something so shiny, like walking into water that will not part for you.  From the top of the silo, it’s one step to a cloud.  I go first.  They follow with quick surety, like they are first.  Here we are, then, right at the spot our eyes went to.  We made it.  For a moment we are the cloud, just light and breath above the green, green country.  Then the buried discontentment that hums here always, from closed face to closed face, up along the wires, reaches back for us.  One son whimpers we might fall, and pulls away from the edge of the cloud.  One son says it’s no fun up here.  He wants to go back down into the cornfields, to claw so deeply into a dark row he is nothing to us but a rattle and shake.

Crossing

airport

In airport security I realize my younger son has a hole in his sock.  The tip of his toe peeking out looks fresh-born, so naked.  My older son asks, in a panicked whisper, what to do with his power cord.  I clutch the golden eagle on my navy blue passport face-down against the golden Royal Arms of Canada on their navy blue passports.  When we land in the other country I will stack theirs below mine, with the eagle face-up.  At the very end of our journey someone might slide them back to me as casually as a cafeteria worker handing over a sandwich in saran wrap.  He might look me in the eye and say, Welcome Home.  Which might confuse me so hard all the official efficiency, or is it efficient officialism, slips right out of me, and I turn to stone.  A statue has no country at all.  Just the one it’s placed in.  I think about the people in crashing airplanes, who wasted nervousness in these security lines, just prior.  I think of other people crossing other borders:  walking all night without shoes on cut feet, subsiding on slivers of moonlight and sips of sewage water.  How lucky we are, with our light skin and eagles and royal arms, to merely have chosen the slower line, to merely have an expensive perfume bottle confiscated.  I do know—from sitting in one—that airport questioning rooms are sleek and sealed, designed to emphasize your puke or shit or sweat, your fear.  One time my bag registered high explosives.  One time my violent in-flight sickness mimicked that of a drug mule carrying a burst bag of drugs in her stomach.  One time an immigration agent knelt to my four year old son and pointed up at me, saying, Can you tell me who this person is?  For once he didn’t say mama.  No, he drew out every syllable of my first and last name with the slow nervous uncertainty of someone who had just that morning been forced to memorize them.  Lucky people come away with stories they can tell.  So many people collect ones they can’t.  The mix of hurry and sleepy in the security line makes the scene almost beautiful, if you added in opera.  And a sunbeam.  We shuffle forward as much as we can without touching the backpacks on the humans in front of us.

Yours

basketball

I sure miss balls.  They’re scattered all around this house and yard.  My sons still ask me to play, sometimes.  But I miss balls being everything.  Entire hours with a single one. Until it became an extension of myself I cast away, palm to finger, knowing for sure it would return—in a kick or throw or rebound—right to me.  How trust can come so naturally we don’t even know it’s that.  We’re just playing a game.  I miss how a Nerf football clung to my hands, just an increment, when I went to throw it.  No one seeing its long sail through sky would have guessed at that tiny reluctance.  I miss how a rubber ball sang out when we smashed it with our paddles.  And again, in a higher key, when it hit the street.  I miss giving the superstitious bounces of a tennis ball—one two three downward flicks of the wrist—before tossing it up for the serve.  How quiet and slow it feels when you’re being watched, expected to fail.  I even miss that.  And how a ping-pong ball looked fragile and lit from within, as apt to break as an egg.  Yet it became a militant leader on the long rally, clattering sharp and crisp and even as a metronome.  I miss knowing somehow, even before a basketball left my hands, that it was going to swish through the net without touching the rim.  How the swish was as much something you felt as heard.  And I miss how it was to run with a football tucked tightly under my arm, both aware of it and forgetting.  All the bodies with their arms out, diving for me.  I was running too fast to see them hit the ground when they missed.  And how dark it got, suddenly, and we didn’t care.  We could still see the ball when we couldn’t see each other.  Balls now, they make me wonder what I’ve become.  When I look at them lying dangerously close to the garden or in the spot where I park, or bleaching circles on the yard.  When I’m sweeping them up with a sigh from under beds and couches. When I’m wondering where they should all go.  How I’ll contain them.  Just last week I heard myself telling my son to cut out that bouncing in the house. It was making too much racket.  And that ball is too heavy, I heard myself say.  You’re going to break something.  

Slow Dance

wyattdanceJPG

A dance can provide an opportunity for a rare non-blurry outdoor shot.

 

This week I took some boys home from their first middle school dance.  I feel asleep before then, but luckily I had set an alarm.  One wore a leather jacket.  One wore a jean jacket.  One wore a blue suede jacket.  And one–mine–wore no jacket at all.  In fact he kept pushing up the rolled three-quarter length sleeves on his button-down shirt, trying to convert them to short sleeves.  Perhaps he plays too many sports.  Before he left I had shown him how to slow dance, wondering as I did if kids still held onto each other in the same places.  I remembered the ways the popular girls had of hooking their hands behind the boys’ necks, instead of keeping them—as I did—shyly and firmly on the boys’ shoulders, new-driver-steering-wheel-style.  It was as though those girls would rather touch their own hands than someone else.  I showed him how some couples also dance holding out their hands, just one set of hands, but I wasn’t sure on that.  Where our fingers should entwine, how far from our bodies we should hold them.  I guess with this dance style you can use your joined hands like a rudder, to steer around the dance floor, I said.  He giggled at that.  He’s good about having a mama who wonders about the things she’s supposed to be demonstrating with authority.  As we were slow dancing on the floor between the overflowing laundry hamper and the strewn soccer magazines I seemed to be shrinking.  I shrank right down to my grade six self.  Maybe you should ask some girls to dance, I said.  I mean the ones who are just your friends.  It can be sad standing out the whole night.  How strange, having a child of the opposite sex.  How strange and yet how healing.   He’s tall for almost twelve.  I know a school dance shouldn’t bring up memories of diapers but seriously, he was just  wobble walking over that very floor, with the edge of his diaper almost blinding white against his tan skin.  He was born with a tan.  Seconds after he was born he lifted his head right off the table, to look around.  I knew he’d be doing that at the dance too: standing at the side, looking all around.  When I pulled into the school parking lot that night the car was very still and dark for awhile.   And then suddenly the boys in jackets (and mine) catapulted into the car, talking over each other in loud bouncy voices, and I felt so lucky.  Because some people only get dark quiet cars.  I wanted to know if they’d slow danced but I played it cool and asked about the DJs.  Some of the songs were so old we didn’t even know them!  I smiled at that, thinking: Oh, then they played some good ones.  One of the boys tried to explain how cool the strobe lights were by talking about how light waves enters the eye and bounces off the brain or something.  I tried to grasp the science, and, failing, ventured that strobe lights can make anyone look like a good dancer.  To which there was a pause and then one of them countered: Well, a better dancer anyway.  One boy said the concession stand was a scam, that a little bag of chips at the concession stand cost three bucks and only had about ten chips in it.  Eventually they talked about who had slow danced, with snippets of color commentary.  None of the boys had asked anyone to dance, or been asked to dance.  The week before I had accidentally bet my son five dollars that someone would ask him to slow dance, so I spent a long moment trying to picture what bills and change I had in my wallet.  I thought to myself:  Being shy doesn’t mean you won’t get what you want.  But I didn’t say it aloud.  It’s just what I was hoping.  The boys were going on again about the strobe lights, and about how sick it looked to do ticking in them, and I kept taking peeks in my overhead mirror at their animated faces.  They were each of them, in their way, going to break hearts.  They were each of them, in their own way, going to get their hearts broken.  It was past my bedtime, and way past his, but I lifted my foot off the gas a little, driving as slowly as I could get away with.

HBD Dad

patrick

I went to take a photo of a photo of my dad today, on his birthday.   What would have been, I mean.  Birthday is a tricky word for the dead.  I was going to put him in my phone, because how crazy he never knew what an iPhone was.  He would have had one before I did.  He would have found the nautical winds app, mooring traffic alerts, the best chicken wellington recipes, Butler County weather, Tortola weather, Goodreads linked to the local library catalogue, a  global spaniel tracker.  He would have texted me brief reports of the day, misspelling short words within it so perfectly badly they looked better that way.  I was lining him all up in the little screen of my phone, making sure not to cut off his work boots–which I still have and still wear sometimes, clunking and tripping and pretending as best as I can that they fit me.  I hadn’t seen any ants around, but suddenly one crawled right into the photograph.  Even with that wiggle it sped furiously.  It was so alive.  I knew before I even clicked the photo of the photo that it would be the clearest thing in it.