At night, I worry that the ocean will rise over the marsh to kiss my mother’s front steps and an abusive cycle will begin, the sea gone as the stars appear, returning each sunrise drunk with salt and too in love with the moon to apologize.
At night, I worry about fistulated women far from help, abandoned. In a documentary on female castration I watched a beautiful widow lower herself into a hot tub, tears glowing on her cheek.
At night, I worry about my mother’s teeth. I fear the gargoyles in Westminster Abbey holding their teeth in their paws and howling in that odd agony specific to dental health. She flosses, I’ve checked.
As the daughter of an artist and a pilot, my earliest experience with self-expression was uniquely visual and innovative. While other children were given a coloring book or set in front of a television, my mother cleared our dining table and covered it in shaving cream, our hands and imaginations our only tools. All in good fun, my siblings left creation to the table where it was easily wiped clean. I, however, began to see canvases everywhere; the white couch was the first to go, executed via finger painting with chocolate pudding. Food was an obvious medium, as were sheets, blankets, etc. Moving out of the suburbs and onto four acres of unspoiled Blue Ridge wonderland opened my eyes to the perfect visual mess of nature. To this day, I hold the image of those forests in my mind with unadulterated love; I named my favorite trees and rock piles, collecting characters with which to fill my wandering mind. All this was merely my soul’s preparation for that undiscovered lifelong dream, which caught me up unawares like a spotted gecko in young chubby fingers. My brother was flipping through Where The Wild Things Are, when I fell into the dream from which I’ve never awoken; the thrill of hearing a word and seeing the truth in your mind’s eye. Suddenly everything seemed to be locked into harmony, a silent dance for the soul. Each word unfolded secret worlds; this was it, my perfect medium. Language, with its endlessly reinventable forms, grasped my heart tenderly and desperately as if I’d been a wild thing.
Thus my love affair with Writing began, struck like a match at 4 years old and never extinguished. Over time our relationship has evolved, often coerced into new forms and directions as life delivered new preoccupations to my feet. Fear and Loneliness came early, as long trips meant constant goodbyes and reunions with my father. I knew where Depression hid each time he left; it hung in my mother’s eyes each morning before school and each night before bed, when Aaron and Hannah and I switched off sleeping next to her each night. Writing swiftly adapted these small hurts into whimsy, romanticizing my parent’s story despite absence. As time went on the absence seemed to come home with him, as if flying had emptied his bones of marrow and replaced it with an intangible distraction.
A change of scenery, then, an infusion of marshland and Spanish moss to animate the ghost of their marriage. Writing ran with this new world, rich with marronnage and wizened oaks, and I threw myself into her believing language could save us all. And yet Depression crept back in, and distance carved hairline fractures like tidal creeks in our bones. I was thirteen when we shattered apart, when my eldest brother, my anchor Aaron, was flooded and torn away. Suicide is a sooty rag which wiped our eyes blind, and no matter how hard we fought, we could never locate our target. My parent’s held onto Hannah and I like oxygen masks in a plane crash, but when the salt water began to chill our feet they looked at each other and had to let go. We’ve all survived on different rafts. My mother was carried away on Art, my sister on Religion, my father on Logic. Writing bore me to Baltimore, an Atlantis for the drowned and drowning. I’ve never stopped searching for Aaron, I hope to find him again clinging to magic, which perhaps carried him far away. Perhaps even to the island of the wild things.
Even now, as my heart still beats, I can feel the molt begin. Pavement under my boots crumbles into sand. My nightly hot showers mock the sea. My skin may as well be scales, or shell. I taste only salt. I look at her and am scooped into a bucket to be poked and studied and emptied dead into a toilet. If only my memory would follow suit, so that trapped in this bowl all my life would be only the last two seconds. Instead I’m cursed with the recollection of the scent of her shampoo, the curve of her hip under my hand, her sleeping sighs. We were barely anything, and yet in that moment, she was my only way of being.
In a matter of hours all that passed between us was turned to ash, just fertilizer for the real love of her life. The look on her face said that’s all it ever was. And yet she seemed sad. If I were a crab I’d have no sorrows. If I were a crab, I would have scurried myself sideways out of her life and my shell would peel off slowly and each atom of my time with her could be discarded into the Gulf Stream. Instead, my heart and my skin are all too soft. I am exposed. Her eyes pierce into my veins and halt the flow of blood. I’d rather be upside down in a tank, playing dead until pipes shoot me into the world of my birth.
It’s time to go home. My mother will welcome me with enchiladas and vodka crans and I’ll fall asleep on her porch swing until the humid wind rattles the palmettos. I’ll watch the bats reel after Carolina mosquitos and finally – finally – my blood will begin again to circulate. How does one come to life again if they’ve never been dead?
Tomorrow I’ll wake to the ether and seek the color of her in the darkness. Buttery red, the flush of pale skin mid-laugh. Her essence will be my only guide back to the earth, where I will take the form of wind in Spanish moss. Where she goes I will go. What she feels I will feel. She falls in love each day with her chosen one, and I will occupy rejection as though trapped in the hull of a boat, listening to the music and dancing above me. I hope she makes her happy. I’d hate to float through their shared life if it becomes miserable. Although, perhaps I will be able to provide her some comfort in ways I couldn’t while alive. I will manipulate the sunlight to shine on her face, I will play leaves across her path, ensure the rain never chills her, the wind never scorches her cheeks or nose. One way or another, I will continue to love her.
I don’t believe in angels, but I’m certain ghosts fill the marshes with their breath, the crabs scatter at their feet, and the burdens they bear bend the reeds. If not with her, I will haunt the swamps. Maronage will be my eternity and I will play in the pluff mud with the snails and serpents, one with the decay and growth of those living things the heartless humans despise. I will climb the reeds with the periwinkles. I will tunnel with the ghost crabs. I will wade endlessly aside the great egrets and at last learn the secrets of silent splashing.
The marshes where my mother molded me will again become my home. At least I will be at peace if not loved. When invisibility doesn’t suit, I can cover myself with silt and raze the swamp as an apparition of dissolution. The creatures won’t mind, I will be one with them. My limbs will lengthen and split, my palms will curl inward into great claws, my skin will harden with salt, my eyes shrinking, my nose withering and falling off. I will claim the ghost crabs as my heirs, we will rule the underworld of the marshes and the tides will be ours alone. Somewhere, she will feel the rhythm of the moon shift, she will be called to the ocean, where she will feel the sands tremble, and I’ll be there beneath her feet.
The events of that night woke me to the world a new person. New, though, suggests an improvement upon the old and that’s certainly not the case. That night I became less than I was before, when I had the hope of her.
I realized upon waking, that if I were to die this moment, all of my eternity would be occupied solely in finding her again – or pieces of her – in the remaining world. I’d haunt her. I’d follow her wife and their children until they too died, and then I would haunt their empty home as if to glean what happiness they had together, of which I know I’ll never be a part.
I stew in the inevitability of decline from this day forward. She is done with me, but each time I see her I am reminded of life she brought into me, of the soft kisses, the broken embraces, the apologies spoken but unintended. I am encumbered with the weight of her indifference. It pins me down and it feels as if the face of reality has slipped away and revealed the mask beneath. The dream has ended and the nightmare has begun…
He was only ten. It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon when he was walking home from school and he had forgotten his umbrella. Everyone believed it would be a cold but sunny day. Instead, his shoes filled up with mud and his glasses were too speckled with mist for him to have any clear idea of exactly where he put his feet. And so it was that his left shoe caught against the edge of something metal and he slipped into the mud. His glasses fell from his face, and as he reached around for them, his hand landed on a metal box that had once been buried, but was being reborn with the rain. It was cold and slimy to the touch, naturally, and he almost didn’t notice the faint tremor from within.
Soon enough, he had found his glasses and restored them to their perch. The rain had nearly unearthed the metal box, about the size of a loaf of bread, and made its excavation quite simple. When finally he returned home, he placed the box under his bed. He was soon so filled with pleasure and warmth after his ordeal that he duly forgot the box. Dressed again in dry clothes, he enjoyed a hot meal with his parents and younger sister. They, too were displeased with the weather, having trudged through it on their way home from the elementary school. Once they had addressed their sogginess, they decided not to dwell. Instead, they encouraged the children to take a spoon of medicine and go to sleep early. His sister in the bed next to his, the young boy fell swiftly into a dream.
In his dream, his mother praised him and his sister for suffering the storm and gave them a present to share. He was warned not to be selfish and covet his prize, as it was for his sister as well. Her eyes gleamed with delight as they unwrapped it, revealing a jolly green tin box embellished all over with tiny gold lettering. On one side of the box was a spinning handle, which jingled as it raised open the lid. Out popped a beautiful rabbit! His sister clapped her hands for joy and reached towards the rabbit. The rabbit’s eyes glittered, as though alive. Before the girl could touch it, the rabbit’s fur trembled.
It turned to look the boy in the eye and said, “Thank you ever so much for finding me. Now and forever, I will love only you.”
The boy replied, “What do you mean? You were a present to both of us, and we will share you.” He looked at his sister reassuringly, her hand halted midair.
“May I pet you?” she asked the rabbit gingerly.
“No,” he said coolly, “Unless you want me to bite you. I have only one friend.”
The girl looked at her brother, pouting. He saw the shine in her eyes and remembered his mother’s warning.
“If you can’t play with my sister, too, you are no friend of mine!” The boy felt very proud of himself for his selflessness.
The rabbit laughed, his ears curling over with glee. “Very well,” he said. “Little girl, you may touch my fur if you wish.”
He had very beautiful, tempting white fur. It shone pleasantly in the warm light of their bedroom. The rabbit’s nose twitched and his fur rippled so enchantingly the little girl fell into a dumb trance. Her hand brushed the rabbit’s face softly, and for a moment the rabbit seemed pleased.
With one sharp twist, he bit off two of her fingers. They snapped like carrots. One he began to crunch on immediately, as she wailed in shock and pain. The other finger was still attached by a string of cartilage. Blood ran from her hand onto her yellow night dress. The rabbit’s glistening white fur was now stained with blood, but he seemed too preoccupied with scraping the meat from the bones of the girl’s severed finger. The boy was in shock. A moment passed in petrified horror before he snapped the box shut. As he wrapped his sister’s hand in the hem of her nightdress, he could hear the rabbit struggling to free himself.
The boy tugged his sister to her feet and called out for their parents. A long silence returned. He pulled on her arm and they began to search the house. Her hand was still bleeding heavily and each time she moved it, a sharp agonizing fire flooded over her and fresh blood oozed from her wounds. They called and searched the house high and low but could not find their mama or papa anywhere. It seemed they had vanished. The house was dark now, except the light seeping under the door of their shared bedroom.
They made camp in the dining room, though the walls seemed to be slow long tilting in. The boy gathered what medical supplies he couldfind and, placing a large swath of gauze on the dining table, told his sister to lay out her hand. She began to cry again, her whole body shaking. She shook her head. He begged her, he told her it would feel better soon, that mama and papa would be so proud of her if she did.
She looked at him, saw the fear in his eyes, and was filled with guilt. She unwrapped her hand and rested it tenderly on the gauze. Each motion gave her a new wave of pain. The room seemed to rock back and forth like a teeter-totter. Her breathing was fast and strangled and she but her lip to keep from crying out. The bleeding had stopped. Her skin was red and angry, the puckered stump of her pointer finger still oozing. The half-severed middle finger was twisted sideways, a fish gone belly up. The boy tightened his jaw and, one hand pressing down on his sister’s, lifted and turned the finger so that it looked almost normal. A cry escaped her lips, her good hand clawing the table.
A clear gap lay between her knuckle and the bone, with one line of pale white tissue bridging them. He reached for the scissors and his sister closed her eyes. She steeled herself. Until now the most horrid experience she’d undergone was her father using a pocketknife to remove a splinter from the arch of her foot. She couldn’t imagine the pain that was about to come. Just as her brother began to close the blades shut around the cartilage, a soft jingling tune echoed through the house. He cut off her finger, and the sound of the rabbit box opening was buried beneath her scream.
The next morning, the rain had stopped. The children lay peacefully in their beds and their parents went to wake them gently. Nothing seemed to have changed in the children’s bedroom, the boy’s glasses sat on the nightstand and the girl’s yellow nightdress was lovely as ever. It wasn’t until they attempted to wake them that the parents noticed- their son’s eyes crawled back and forth beneath his eyelids like a beetle under the skin searching for escape. Their daughter was missing two fingers, a phenomenon they didn’t remember happening and yet, her hand was healed – clean pink scar tissue hugged the nubs of her fingers as though she had been born with this defect, or it had happened years before. The children never did wake up.
The rule is not to get too sentimental. Never confess love, never cry, never think about the deceased, never focus on only the good in the world. All of the ways we live fulfilling lives; don’t let them show when it’s time to write. Instead, start the scene with the ashes of the bridge filling up empty sneakers. Start with something breaking, a relationship ending, a high school student’s head in the toilet, a cigarette burn in a cashmere sweater. Let everyone know that their way of living is hypocritical, remind them they don’t care that the world turns itself or that blood is 83% water.
The rule is not to be lonely, unless it is romanticized. A woman cannot simply lay in bed alone and wish the ceiling would collapse on her. No. The ceiling must be the wooden floorboards of the room above her, filled with thick cracks, so that while she is lying in bed alone, she can hear the family above her. She knows the weight of the husband’s steps and can measure the wife’s anxiety by the follicles of dust that shake down. She knows when the pregnancy tests turn up negative, because she isn’t the only one trying to keep quiet when she sobs at night.
Writers magnify every emotion, each a dead leaf waiting to be burnt under the lens. They use their own, painted over with stage makeup or mud, and let them fill up the hearts of other people. The rule, then, is never to be seen. Play a game of hide and seek with your reader, tell them you will count to fifty and they had better be hidden. Then leave them to play your game on their own, taking only what you’ve given them. Get a cup of coffee. Answer a crossword puzzle. Wait and see how long they will believe what you have told them, their hands over their eyes.
Sometimes, it’s easy to become nostalgic for your childhood. You thought that every writer wondered about all the foods a green caterpillar could eat, and imagined their toys coming alive. You thought it was romantic to be unloved, and to sit alone on the swing sets at recess, kicking your penny loafers in the gravel and humming a song about birds. And maybe it was, but no writer would see that. They would see that you were scuffing up your shoes and think you probably caused your mother endless anxiety. Then they would decide you were mistreated at home and maybe your mother didn’t care because she was a meth addict and then they would throw in something about suicide, because, why not? Everything hurts and no one is happy. How could they be, when there is a child outside in the cold all by herself? What does that say about the world she lives in?
The rule is not to let their criticism hurt you. The rule is to listen to what they have to say and remember that they are probably right. The old woman dying was, indeed, abrupt. Old women don’t just die. It doesn’t matter if all she had to live for was watering her ferns, she should have at least kept living, kept on watering those damn ferns of hers. Her death is a crutch. You were lazy. Because, you know, that’s what lazy writers do. They snap their fingers and kill their own creations. So, in a way, the rule is not to be lazy.
Listen. Writing is an easy mask to wear. It’s comfortable, it changes form. It doesn’t take much to become someone else. Someone else who can say what they want, be numb to emotions – their own and those around them. They don’t have to take criticism. They don’t have to follow rules. They aren’t the ones writing. Maybe that is why a little girl would be attracted to fairy tales and poetry; the literary equivalent to carnival masks.