Tuesday, September 27, 2016

#220: "A Sudden Mass of Starlings" by Therése Halscheid

~This essay previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review (2013).

The first day it happened, it happened that I was walking over the iron truss bridge. It was surprising what took place. A sky full of birds. It was the beginning.
When it happened it was surprising. Walking as I was: slow, pensive. It was amazing because soon as I reached the bridge – a massive flock soared overhead. The birds wore small cheery voices. And I let many things occur in that moment. I let myself think this was for me. I allowed full entry into the mystery of their coming over my head like a sign. I saw many with their wings out and some with their wings clipped to their sides and thought no matter what the wings were doing, their flight was timed with my walking out of the old woods into the open. Like pointillism, the sky was a canvas and these birds were dabs of paint. Covering the blue in black. And this went on. It went on for a half an hour I would say. The birds dotting everything. Blurring by like brush strokes. It was dusk. They were heading east, to that yellow place where new days form.
The cottage is near the iron truss bridge. It is set in a copse of trees. I have been the care-taker for several months. It was originally built for a miller in the early-1800s. On one side, a meadow stretches to where the tallest oaks rim the grounds. It is said that in spring, over a thousand daffodils flower. But it is winter, so I have not yet witnessed the meadow in bloom. Beyond the majestic oaks is a path that leads to a footbridge, which extends over the mill race, then continues to the large rock formations angling down to the Wickecheoke Creek. The name means Big Water in Native language. Big Water has ever-shifting personalities. I spend hours observing its dramatic moods. When the rains come, the creek rises instantly over tiered rocks with such force it can fracture them. The waterfalls turn loud, like Niagara. Likewise, it mellows after a day or two of sun. Silt settles. The water turns clear. Then one can see the bottom stones. Either way – gushing or lazy – the creek is ever-moving, in an undetermined manner. It winds under the iron truss bridge then curves round in front of a mill house across the dirt road. This stone house was once a saw mill, built by early settlers, dating back to the 1730s.
When Night brought morning, Morning brought another round of light. A shiny color of sun. I woke to the sound of the flock over the cottage. Singing in high pitches there are no words for. I cannot spell the noise they make. They seemed to have come from the very horizon they flew to last evening. I questioned what made them choose this place. In the alcove – which is my bedroom – are two windows set close together above the bed, like portholes of a ship only they are square, made of float glass. Wooden sashes divide the panes. I undid an iron latch and parted the one. The birds were directly above. Sweeping low, stirring the air they breathed.
And later, I caught another flawless performance. The birds returned, signaling dusk. Not a single starling missing. They came riding the wind in V shapes and snake-like formations. When they left, they left me changed – standing in a state of awe on the grounds. The world turned silent after. Dusk settled in deepening layers. Day completed itself. Sky and ground became one entire color.
               And so it was, our paths crossed two times a day – dawn and dusk, the birds and I. They started to increase in numbers. Afternoons were filled with songbirds: the yellow finch that stabbed at the feeder, bluebirds, the vibrant red cardinals that played tag with their mates. While others circled in silence over Old Mill: an occasional crow, turkey vultures or hawks.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

#219: "Xirimiri" by Diana Friedman

~ This story was previously published in New Letters (2014).

Ramón del Solar Astigarraga is a pain in the ass. If I hang my sheets one millimeter over his window he shouts to the whole neighborhood that I am blocking his light. When I pulled up a strip of carpet, he accosted me in front of the newsstand: What the hell are you doing up there? I can’t breathe from all the dust you’re generating. This man has the disposition of a rotten onion, and the last person on earth I would like to be is his son.
Not long ago I had a dream and for once, it was a good dream; I stood knee deep in a clean and clear lagoon, with dolphins at my ankles, a monkey hugging my shoulder. Not far away was a waterfall—ice blue and beautiful. Elisabeth was there. I knew by the way she’d pulled her hair back, just a few wisps hanging about, that she cared what I thought, and the feeling was divine. I was out in the world in a real way, which is how I might like to live the rest of my life.
When I woke, though, I was not in the outer world, rather, deep inside it, flattened by a hangover on my mother’s squalid couch. Outside it was misting lightly, xirimiri, mislaid droplets too weak to find their way to earth. Elisabeth was not in my arms but exactly where I left her, the 5,000 miles of sea and soil between us not even a remote measure of how far apart we were.
And me?
Same old. Plenty lost, but nothing gained in all the years I’d been gone, least of all, any idea who my father was.

Monday, September 19, 2016

#218: "The Devil Wind" by Toni Mirosevich

~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2014).

A chill settles on the empty crab boxes stacked around the storage room, a chill that doesn’t so much descend as rise up from the sea below the crab fishery, up through the planks of the pier on which the fishery stands, through the cement first floor where the crab tubs hold their incarcerated. A chill that climbs the wet stairs to the storage room door, doesn’t bother to knock, comes right in, carrying with it the smell of crab and diesel and brine, to find me here, where I sit, at a makeshift desk with pen in hand, the pad of paper before me turning to pulp in all this wetness, the page on top a damp, blank screen. 
Which stays empty. Why go to the small, tight window of the page when a bigger page beckons, a large picture window right above the desk that looks out on a harbor? Why sit when you can stand and watch crab boats ferry in and out, see them head to sea empty, riding high above the harbor’s surface with their barnacled keels showing, their pants hitched up high, then watch their return in the evening, the waddling procession after a heavy meal of cod or halibut or salmon, their belt lines well below the water. If I stand I can see the Lucy or the Intrepid or the Irene B pull up to the dock right outside, see the dock’s rusty crane swing out over a boat. The roped basket at the end of the cable’s hook swings down empty like an empty string bag you take to market, only to come up full to bursting with crabs, their red arms gesturing this way and that, with so much to say.
Out past the breakwater, at the horizon, a straight blue line of sea bisects the white sky’s blank sheet. Waves scribble their cursive below the line, filling up that page. A reminder. I am supposed to be writing, working, yet have no precedent for this type of work. There’s nothing in my DNA. This isn’t the work of my father, the life-and-death life of a fishing boat captain on the wicked Bering Sea. Nor the work of my mother, her youth spent standing on her feet all day, packing tuna, before child labor laws gave the cannery owners a conscience.
People ask how I found this place. I tell them I walked out onto the pier one day and simply asked the owner of the fishery, a man named Steve, if there was any place around here where I could write. See, I told him. I grew up around boats. The smell of brine is perfume to me. The smell of twine, of diesel, perfume! I know how to lay it on thick, how to bullshit, having learned this on the docks when I was young. I know how to swear, how to say you motherfucking piece of shit with conviction.
I told Steve I had this half-baked theory: if I were near the sea again, on a dock again, maybe I’d be able to tap into that salty vein of memory, could recall tales I heard listening to the fishermen on the docks. What if, like them, you awoke each morning and looked forward to the day’s prospects, the shining possibilities of luck and work and weather? What if you could look forward to the adventure, no matter the consequences, threw caution to the wind; believed there would be wind? And all you needed to succeed? A boat. You needed a boat.
            But now that I’ve gained the perch? How to get past the window in front of me. How to get from this chair onto that sea. How to get to that life from this life. That’s the dilemma.

Monday, September 12, 2016

#217: "Home Shopping" by Casey Pycior

~This story was previously published in RE:AL - Regarding Arts & Letters (2011).
Darlene and Eddie know, as soon as the realtor turns onto the tree-lined, brick-paved street, that the house on the corner will be the one. It has to be; it’s the third and final house of the day.
The realtor, Maxine, pulls into the driveway of the renovated Victorian. The house is white, but all the trim and spindles and cornices are painted in a pattern of muted grays, blues, and greens. A large swing hangs on the wrap-around porch, and the yard is perfectly manicured with a Bradford pear just to the side of the house. “I know you’ll love this property; it’s simply perfect,” Maxine says over her shoulder to Darlene and Eddie, searching in her shoulder bag on the passenger seat for the folder with the listing. “It’s got five bedrooms—plenty of room for the kids—three baths and all new amenities. I know it’s on the top end of your budget, but…you’ve just got to see it.”
            Darlene leans across Eddie’s lap to look up at the house. This close, Eddie’s cologne is too strong. It smells piney and cheap, much too old-smelling for a man in his mid-twenties. His pants are wrinkled, too; the rest of his clothing, a dark green polo and lightweight brown sport coat, looks fine, but she can’t believe she didn’t notice his pants earlier. She quickly checks her own outfit, charcoal slacks and a white blouse, to see that everything is in place and then looks out the window at the house. It’s big and old and exactly the kind of house Darlene had always dreamed of living in. She and Eddie had worked a few big houses before, but never one so nice. She knows the people who live in these kinds of houses have to have money, so there is a good chance they’ll find what they’re looking for.
Pulling back from the window, Darlene looks at Eddie. His face is pale and his eyes—only a little bloodshot, like maybe he’s tired—dart around in their sockets. He’s fighting it, but she can tell. He rubs the side of his nose with the back of his hand, and then pushes up his sleeve and scratches his forearm, digging his fingernails into his skin, leaving it blotchy and red. This is new. Darlene reaches across and holds Eddie’s arm.
“Maxine, can we have just a moment alone to discuss the last house?” Darlene asks.
“Absolutely! Let me just go unlock the door. Take as much time as you need.”
“Great, thanks,” Darlene says and smiles. She watches Maxine walk away from the car, her wide hips swaying beneath the tight blue business suit, her permed hair stiff in the breeze. When she is far enough away, Darlene turns and glares at Eddie. “What the hell is this?”
“What?” he says and sniffs. “I’m fine. Let’s just do this and get it over with.”
“You don’t look fine. What’s with the scratching?”
“I’m fine—or no worse off than you,” he says and nods down at her hands. “Let’s go in and hope for the best.”
Darlene looks at her hands. They’re shaking. It’s only barely visible, but still. She hadn’t even noticed. She opens and closes her hands, making tight fists and releasing them. When did it get like this?
“You ready?” Eddie asks, looking directly at Darlene.
She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes as she exhales. She opens her eyes and looks at her hands resting quietly on her lap. “Ready.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

#216: "Thirst" by Geeta Kothari

~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2006).

By the time the first small British community was established in Bombay, five of the original seven islands were already interconnected at low tide by shallow sandbanks, silted up over the years…By 1730, land reclamation, carried out under supervision of the British, had permanently united the five islands into a single mass and large earth works had been thrown up to prevent a major invasion by the sea…  Bombay, Dom Moraes

The people living on these islands were mainly fishermen.  They worshipped the Goddess Mumba Devi after whom Bombay is named.  Gradually, the shallow waters between these islands were filled so as to connect the seven islands into a large one.  India:  The Land and Its People, Swarn Khandpur

In the photo, my father stands in front of a blooming red hibiscus, framed by pink bougainvillea.  The sun bleaches the ground beneath his feet, makes the leaves of the hibiscus shine, as if they have just been polished.  Holding his arms out from his sides, my father is a bird about to take flight.  He wears gray suit pants, a short-sleeved shirt and a dark blue tie:  his idea of vacation wear.  In his left hand, he clutches a clear plastic bag that probably contains maps and brochures.  His curly black hair springs from his head in mild shock, and he smiles widely, his eyes hidden by square-framed glasses.
               Or does he?
I always thought my father was just smiling until a friend saw the photo and dubbed him “laughing man.” Of course, he was laughing, his mouth wide open, his teeth showing slightly.  He laughed more than he smiled, the smile itself a prelude to a deep belly laugh brought on by something my sister or I said or did. 
And I felt embarrassed, standing next to my friend, as if I should have known he was laughing, not smiling, should have heard the familiar guffaw.  I had been looking at the wrong thing:  the arms like wings, weighed down only by the bag in his left hand.

Although Bombay is a city that starts work late in the day, we rarely slept past six.  The screeching koyal, the incessant cawing of crows, and the tinkle of bicycle bells as people made their way to work woke us every morning at sunrise despite the closed windows and air-conditioning.  In those early hours of the morning, we often heard the pickers sifting through the garbage for plastic bottles. Above the cacophony of street noise and wildlife, I heard the early morning call to prayers, issued over a loudspeaker from the mosque down the road. The men in the alley continued to reclaim the bottles we may have discarded the night before.
“They’re looking for your bottles,” I said.  My husband, a firm believer in recycling, did not like to crush the empty Bisleri bottles we discarded.  He did not share my concerns about the way these bottles would be recycled.
Bottled water, especially in rural areas, is not trustworthy.  Recycling the empties by filling them with tap water (or worse) and resealing the cap is a small business that starts with the picker who sorts through the mounds of garbage and sells the old bottles to a middleman, who refills and distributes them as new.  My husband’s guidebook suggested that our fears about tap water, in the cities anyway, were exaggerated, that the worst we could expect from it was a “minor dose of the shits” for a couple of days.
For my father, illness was never minor.  Growing up in pre-penicillin, pre-vaccine India, he had seen people die from unexplained fevers, unidentified infections, mysterious aches that never went away.   Grandparents who died from bubonic plague, cousins who died from dehydration, brought on by a dose of amoebic dysentery.
The guidebook had no such stories.  Its pages did not talk about people like my cousin and her husband, both doctors, and their kids, who got so sick on their last visit to Bombay that they had to use IV drips.  My father assumed that we understood the seriousness of IV drips, even if we didn’t know what was in them, and that had they not been doctors, my cousin and her family would have died.  The clincher, which my father saved for last, was that they ate no outside food—that is, food prepared and sold on the street or in a restaurant—and drank only bottled water.
“Obviously,” my father said, a hint of triumph in his voice, “the water they were drinking was fake.”
To forestall the impending threat of contaminated water, my father had decided during our Zurich stopover that we would save our small water bottles and take them to India, where we would refill them at the hotel with water from bigger bottles purchased locally, their purity established by unbroken seals my father would check and recheck.  During our two days in Zurich, he amassed a large collection of 16-ounce bottles, argued when my mother suggested he leave some behind, and extolled the bottles’ virtues to my husband and me, when we talked about buying new bottles in India.  This plan so clearly assuaged his anxiety, we stopped arguing and allowed him to take charge of hydrating us.