Tuesday, December 22, 2009

from the far edge of a puddle

Do you remember that game we used to play? The one where we lay on our stomachs at the edge of a pool, or a pond, or a puddle.

The point of the game is to identify the things that slide by, on top of the water. What kind of dragonfly? What brand of airplane? Is that a bee, or is it only a fly?

The rules of the game go like this: Don't get distracted by things above or things below. Don't look up. Don't look through. If you, even for a moment, remove your eyes from the upside-down, flattened world, then it is my duty to dip my thumb in cold mud and mark the score on your forehead.

I'm pretty sure you remember the rules. I'm pretty sure since there was that time you told me the story about the millionaire. The guy who thought that, if he could only get on the right plane, he would catch up with the ghost of his mother, perpetually caught on the route between San Francisco and Sarasota. He would wake up from the reclining seat's fake leather embrace, and she would be there, curled up as small as a loaf of bread, on the foldaway table beside him. He would ask her the secret to his favorite cake, which had figs and chocolate in it, both of which now made him cry in a loud and embarrassing way, and which she had never taught him how to make.

How many planes would he have to take? I asked. We counted two upside-down in the puddle, one American and one Japanese, but we were near the airport and everything flew too low to be considered a challenge.

At least a hundred, you said. But after that, it would be easy. I rolled over to see if you were kidding, because it didn't seem easy at all. The sky was just as blue over your shoulder and the planes were just as low, and then you laughed so hard that your thumb slipped and drew a stripe of slime right into my hair.

Games are really only fun if you remember the rules. Otherwise you could do anything. You could turn away from where you're supposed to look. You could see me curled up right here, the size of an apricot or the size of a trombone; and there would be no translation, no embarrassing linguistic mistakes, even though your country, where things are alive, and my country, where things are dead, have never been able to understand each other, except as a losing game of charades.

If you ever get to meet that millionaire, if you haven't just made him up, please tell him this: Ten words. Fifteen syllables. Three actions and three objects. One negative. Close, but keep guessing. You aren't getting it, so work on something else.

The correct answer is broil the figs; grate the chocolate; don't forget the lemon.

It's a message from his mother, not from me. I just said I would deliver it, if I ever had the chance. Now, don't look away or it will be your responsibility too. You'll have mud on your face and nothing to show for it, except the shorthand for a particularly difficult recipe that belongs to someone else.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

the way a december morning looks from a bench dedicated to wallace stegner.

A crow says "blaurk!" I think -- at least there's something of a "b" in there, though how they say "be" with that sort of pointed mouth I do not know.

"Blaurk!" means nothing to me, even though I'm sure that if I swallowed my b's and spat my k's, I might get just the gist of it for the grist and the grimmo.

There'd surely be something in there about the sullen blonde hair that crumples the hills. About that time when all the souls in the world decided they'd rather be birds, and they seeped out of their skins and put on coats of feathers, some of them white for ocean flying and some of them brown for hiding behind leaves. And they all ran fast to the edge of cliffs and ran straight off, expecting the wind to fling up their wings and carry them someplace else. Except they never learned how to fly, so they kept on falling, right into the sea, and their feathers were wet, dripping, and cold.

They took off their wings, and they took off their tails, and they abandoned their porous, tightly sprung bones. They wrapped themselves in coats of long grass, lined with dirt-thick roots and worn from the sun. They told each other they looked more handsome, like animals, or maybe like beasts. But, grass gets caught in fingers. It gets tangled in hair. It sticks in your armpits and itches your neck and if you're especially unlucky it swells up your throat. It never stays as green as you'd like it, or as short as you'd like it, or as lush and long and grey as you always wished it would be.

So they cut it off.

They cut it down to velvety fuzz, and then to nothing at all, and everyone was naked again. They had to put on their underwear, fasten their shirts, pull up their pants, button their coats. They did their best to forget the foolishness that happened. Everyone was almost successful.

The crows have no manners though. They go on saying "blaurk! blaurk!" and sometimes croaking to make the point. They know it's impolite to talk about someone in a language that someone has failed to understand. They know it's very rude. They keep on with it still, like those people at a party who laugh and laugh about something they said while you were in the next room.