Prompted: Explain Christmas to a young pine tree

I only know what they showed me on television. But you don’t know what that is either. It’s sort of like how you, one day, might want to feel what it’s like to fly. When you grow up, you’ll have bird families nesting on you. They’ll build their homes in your branches, and they’ll use the worms and caterpillars climbing down your spine to feed their young. And they’ll fly. They’ll fly around your topmost branches and even though you’ll be intimate with the wind, you won’t know what it will feel like to touch a cloud. But you’ll think about it sometimes. And maybe even wish for it. When you see the birds flying – that’s sort of how I think Christmas is. It’s a joyous thing that I’ve seen from far away. I’ve seen others stretch into it like it’s a habit, like it’s as easy as plunging off a branch and rising high into the blue. It’s not something they need to think about. But you and me, we have our roots in different places and no matter how hard we try to picture what it’s like up there in that space, we won’t be able to.

Someday, maybe you’ll learn the language of the birds. Maybe you’ll manage to talk to them. And you’ll ask them what it’s like to fly. That’s what I did. I asked what Christmas was really like. Not the pretend kind I saw from far away. But I don’t know if I ever asked the right question, not exactly. Because even if you’re speaking the same language as someone else, when your roots are in different places, can you be sure you mean the same thing when you say “always” and “regular” and “just”? Could you explain to the birds what it’s like to draw water from the earth?

Full of It [Flash Fiction]

The world outside my window seems to be covered in mist but I don’t know whether my vision is screwed up, my medication is affecting my eyesight, or there is simply a haze due to pollution and humidity. I find myself doubting my own perception a lot lately. Ever since I had that dream the other night, my reality has been compromised.

My boyfriend tells me I’m full of crap, of course. He’s tall, six-foot-something, and he has to bend down quite far to kiss me. Not that he does that a lot anymore. Usually he expects me to climb up on my tip-toes or stand on some higher ground and reach up to him. He still leans down to whisper in my ear, though. I used to love it, but not anymore, not since the dream. I made the mistake of telling him, yesterday, that his whispers were giving me the creeps. Maybe I could have been more tactful about it, but I was telling the truth, asking him to stop sneaking up on me like that. He blew a gasket. I’m not actually sure what ‘gasket’ is (according to Google, it’s “A shaped piece or ring of rubber or other material sealing the junction between two surfaces in an engine or other device.”) but I think that’s what he blew. He told me that I was losing it, and that if I wasn’t careful, he would force me into the loony-bin.

I’m not scared of psychiatric hospitals, though. I sort of, kind of, accidentally-on-purpose forgot to tell him that I spent a lot of time in them when I was a kid. Although I’m kind of still a kid. But you know what I mean; when I was prepubescent and innocent, I spent a lot of time in hospitals. They were quite helpful, actually. I wish I hadn’t agreed to quit therapy for my boyfriend. But he told me that we needed the money for a bigger place, and I caved in without really thinking about it. But I wonder what Sonia, my most recent psychiatrist, would have said about the dream.

A scream echoes outside, and I can’t tell whether it’s a cat or a baby. Sometimes they sound the same. Maybe my neighborhood is actually full of shape-shifting babies, turning from human to kitten and back again? There are old people in the park, with Filipino caretakers swarming around them, chattering in their local dialects, socializing with others who know the village where they grew up. The old people drool and blink at each other, silent. Actually, they’re not there now; but I know that they’ll be there soon, gathered around the benches, so I’m already prepared for the way they’ll all look and the conflicting emotions I’ll have when I see them.

I can’t really remember the dream from the other night. I think it involved old people. And Filipino caretakers. Maybe even babies morphing into felines. And maybe none of these things. The dream has passed beyond the veil of my coherent memories now, and all I know is that I feel, for the first time in years, bereft of something. It’s as if, when I woke up from the dream, I woke up into this life that I wasn’t really aware I was living. The thought has even occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t living in this body before I woke up the other day. Maybe I was an old person in a wheelchair, or a lonely Filipino sending money to my wife back home, or a baby watching in wonder as its fingers grow claws and its thumbs retract back into its skin.

My boyfriend says I’m full of crap, though, so maybe I’m just imagining things and foaming at the mouth, desperate for something different to come along and save me from the monotony.

Acceptance

Acceptance is a good word. For starters, it has two kind of “c” sounds, a delicious “p” and a lovely ticking “t.” It’s a fun word to say. I accept the fact that not everyone agrees with me about the deliciousness of words – for which I must, again, thank Fry, S. J. – and so I’ll elaborate beyond the mere clicks of tongue and lips together. “Acceptance” is a good word because it has good connotations. It sounds positive in every respect:

We talk about accepting someone for who they are – accepting their faults or quirks, their weaknesses and passions. We talk about feeling acceptance from others – becoming comfortable with people, being who we feel we really are with them, shucking off the shells we build around ourselves to guard our hearts from strangers. Children are taught to accept others who are different than themselves, to ignore skin-color and race, cultural barriers or freckles.

“Acceptance” also brings to my mind the feeling of my stomach leaping upwards in a sweet rush when I find out that I’ve passed a test to get into a program, or gotten a big envelope from a college. It means being good enough, proving myself both to others and to the inner-critic.

But “acceptance” can also be a horribly sad word. When someone dies, we need to learn to accept their passing – not necessarily for anyone, but merely because there’s no choice. Life can’t go on unless we accept the death of a loved one. Even if we fight it, life has a knack of getting in the way and forcing us into realizing that we’ve accepted the horrible truth that someone we love will never hug us again, never smile at us, never blink or speak or cry. It’s natural, though, to accept this. If we wouldn’t, we’d go mad with grief at every death, every breakup, every parting.

And yet, there’s a part of me that rages at the acceptance, that feels as if it’s an insult to myself and my emotions. A part of me wants to scream out from the rooftops and subject the neighborhood to the keening sounds I hear only in my mind. A part of me wishes to give up entirely, to lie in bed and never rise from it. But that part is stuffed down, hushed up, quieted, because life goes on whether I want it to or not.

Prisonville

Whoosh

A car drives by, so close to me that I feel the wind it makes buffet me as it blows past. I pull my jacket tighter around me and keep walking. The road’s deserted now that the headlights of the car are gone and its noise is fading away. I miss it a little. I’d tracked that solitary car’s progress from three streets away when it started up in its driveway. There isn’t a whole lot of town here, and you learn pretty quickly to tell where the cars are coming from. I don’t know why, but sound has always traveled particularly far in this place; maybe it’s all the clean mountain air.

Nobody moves here for any reason except the stupid air. I can’t tell you how many times I heard my parents, or my friends’ parents, gush about how clean the dratted air up here is. I’ve heard my husband’s family go on about it, and my friends and my coworkers as well. Everyone loves the air, the air, the air. The clean, mountain air.

Me? I hate this air. I find it oppressive. I feel like it’s closing in on me. Once every couple of months I get a panic attack, and Dr. Greene has to come and inject something in my arm until I calm down. My husband doesn’t get it, but maybe that’s because I’ve never explained it to him. Why should I? He’d laugh, tell me I’m crazy, ruffle my hair in that way I hate and then forget all about me again.

I pass my house again. I’ve been around the block five times already and I don’t feel any warmer than I did when I started. It’s past midnight, and I can’t sleep. As usual. My husband’s still out at the bowling alley with his buddies – well, that’s what he tells me, anyway. I think he’s elsewhere, but I haven’t ever bothered to check. I honestly don’t care about him enough. It’s not like I’ve ever had a relationship with him. We were married two years ago. I’ve known him all my life, of course, just like I know everyone else in this town. If you think your town is small, try to go house by house throughout all of it and see if you know everyone’s names. Can you do that? I can.

I read a book once – or maybe it was a movie, I’m not sure – whatever it was, I remember this place called Stepford, where all the women were exactly the same, programmed to be perfect. That’s what my town is like – everyone’s exactly the same: perfectly nice, perfectly decent, perfectly fair, perfectly dull. Both the women and the men. The only ones who are different are the kids, and they all grow out of it. I don’t know why I’m different, but I just know that I am.

I think I’m the only one in living memory who ever tried to leave this place. But I couldn’t.

Under Ground

Lost underground, the girl sat alone and forlorn and waited for someone to find her. She’d been down in the tunnels all morning as well as half the afternoon already, and still, she was lost. It was a disconcerting feeling, and the girl didn’t like it at all. There were strange noises that came from all over, such as the bubbling of far and unseen geysers and the crunching of earth within itself as people moved around above and below. These sounds unsettled her, especially as they were the sounds of home to her and she’d never before found them frightening. Something familiar turning into a threat is one of the scariest things a person can go through.

The girl hugged a lumpy cloth doll closer to her. It was in the guise of a mole, and the girl had named it, for inexplicable reasons, Piggy. She looked into Piggy’s glass eyes and wondered whether he would come to life and speak to her. Maybe he’d be able to show her the way back to her cave. But he remained a doll, stuffed and mute, and she hugged him close again for comfort.

She looked again at the time telling device that hung on her neck. It was an hourglass, with a very tiny hole in it. Every morning, her mother would reach into the neck of her nightshirt and pull out the hourglass, and she’d turn it over. She told her daughter that if she didn’t lie down all day but stayed up and working like the good girl she was, she’d always be able to tell time, because of the tiny notches, painted red, that told her how many hours had passed since dawn. In their underground existence, night and day were mere formalities, but they kept everyone sane and working, the rhythm helping them.

The girl brought the glass closer and peered in the poor light at the notches. It was now twelve hours past dawn, and she’d been lost for most of those. She felt panic rising in her again and debated beginning to scream again. But the last time she’d done that, the earth had shifted and some crumbs of dirt had fallen onto her from the ceiling. She knew about cave-ins, of course, and the spill at deterred her from trying to call out too loudly again.

To pass the time and suppress her panic, she began a counting game that she’d begun teaching her little sister. She made Piggy jump up and down along with her whispered rhymes, and tried to invent more of the song when she ran out of numbers. When she grew weary of this game, she began to stretch her legs and walked up and down the empty corridor she was in. She tried, for the umpteenth time, to remember how she’d gotten here, but she was almost sure that she had at least one mistake in her visual memory of the way, and she knew, as she’d been taught since infancy, that one wrong turn could mean falling to your death or losing your way and going so deep into the earth that no one would ever find you. That was why she’d stayed where she was when she discovered she was in an unfamiliar corridor.

She wondered when her parents would come looking for her. She hoped it would be before suppertime. She thought of her little sister, eating at the large square table without her, and of her parents, whispering urgently to each other in the corner of the room. She imagined them going to the Chief and asking for more people to help the search. She tried to envision who it was who would find her, and she hoped fervently that it would be the Chief’s fifteen-year old son. The thought of his dark skin and red lips made her blush in a way that was still quite new to her. But it was as her parents always said – even Under Ground, life goes on. She hoped her life would go on with that boy in it.

The girl chastised herself suddenly for thinking of such things. There was no excuse for thinking of a boy when she was lost without food or water. She had her whistle with her, at least, but she wasn’t going to resort to it until she heard a search party nearby. The risk of the ceiling falling in on her was too great for using the whistle if she wasn’t absolutely sure she’d be heard.

Tired of the roundabout route her mind was taking, the girl sat back down, across from where she’d set a groove in the ground already, and began to listen to the sounds around her again.

 

Boots [Part III]

Part I

Part II

“Awesome?” Sandy asked. The boots did look good. They clung, made her knees look good, gave a few inches to her height – they looked incredible on her legs. But with the light blue dress… She thought to herself a bit. Came to a decision. She gave the red-haired woman a half smile.

“Almost awesome,” she said. “I’ll take them, though.”

The red-haired woman rung the boots up, but was puzzled. As the sweet girl left with her new boots in a big bag, she looked determined; her face was set, her mouth a hard line. The red-haired woman had expected the girl to be ecstatic with her new gear, to leave the store with a smile and a bounce in her step. She’d looked instead like someone who had made an important decision, and maybe not a welcome one. Well, she thought to herself, what do I know? Maybe that’s just how the girl shows she’s pleased. She turned to the TV screen, peered surreptitiously at the doorway to make sure no one was there, clicked a button on the remote and sat back happily.

Between shifts at the restaurant and the tutoring she did at the elementary-school, Sandy spent her little spare time that week working on her closet at home. She piled lots of things into a big box. She shoved the box into a corner and left it there. At the end of the week, Sandy looked at what was left in her closet, and frowned, worried. She’d have to go back to the store, she decided. She put her hair up, shoved a couple of black chopsticks through it, smeared some of her cheap new make-up on, donned her boots, and left her apartment.

When Sandy walked into the shop this time, the red-haired woman was just switching on the tape of the horror film on the TV. She looked up from the remote, smiled a distant smile, and said “May I help you?”

“Don’t you recognize me?” Sandy was surprised. She had gotten the feeling that this woman was one of those who didn’t forget anything. Then she saw the red-haired woman’s jaw drop as she looked her over. My, my, the red-haired woman thought. Lookie here.

Sandy was attired head to toe in black. A knee-length black skirt, a black top that clung to her and showed off her white arms, a black band around her throat, and of course the boots. Her eyes were surrounded by thick black make-up, and her lips were tinted to a dark color as well. “Aw, Honey…” the red-haired woman breathed.

“I’m here for some clothes,” Sandy declared. “I don’t own enough black stuff to get me through a whole week, unless I do laundry at least twice.”

“But- I mean- Well, why?” The red-haired woman felt flustered. She had not seen this coming. “What’s wrong with what you used to wear? You know, those cute dresses you had on those times I saw you.” Frankly, the red-haired woman was disappointed. She’d thought she’d found someone who really got it. But no. Maybe not.

Sandy’s lip quivered just a bit as she answered. “Because,” she sighed. “I can’t pull off those boots without the whole- well, the whole look, you know.” Then she mumbled “Like you…”

The red-haired woman stared at Sandy. Then at the TV. Then at Sandy again. “You’re telling me you thought you needed the black clothes so you could wear the boots?”

“Yes.”

“Well, do you like black clothing?”

“Um,” Sandy looked shifty. “No. Not really. My mom always said it made me look pale as death. Which is kind of good for the look, I suppose…” Looking up, Sandy saw the red-haired woman giving her the warmest smile she’d ever received. There was compassion in that smile, appreciation and amusement as well, but most of all, kindness.

“Honey, let me show you something.” The red-haired woman flicked the remote at the TV. The image changed. From a screaming woman, it changed to Tara Banks and a line of girls in front of her, waiting to be judged. “That’s my favorite show.”

Sandy gaped. “America’s Best Top Model?!” She squeaked. “But… aren’t people like you too- too, I don’t know, too cool for that show?”

“That’s why I can’t have it on here. I beg my boyfriend to come and take over the evening shift here so that I can watch it at home, but two days a week he’s working another job and he can’t. So I make sure no one’s in the shop, and switch off the video. Until someone comes in, that is, and then I’ve got to turn the video back on real quick before anyone sees.”

“But then,” Sandy began. “Is it all a show? Are you just faking the whole thing? I mean, why do that?”

“Well, the fact that I wear black and I like big skull rings and spiky boots – all that’s just fashion. I like wearing this stuff. It makes me feel good and it makes me feel cool. I admit that. But sadly, I own this place and I don’t have enough business that I can afford to drop the image of the perfect gothic woman. Some of the clients really do care about all that nonsense – keeping the image, philosophizing about what it means, et cetera. So I hide my love of Tara Banks and too-skinny girls playing at being models and drama-queens.” The red-haired woman was speaking fast now, her words tumbling over each other in her enthusiasm. “But you, Honey, you came in here and had your own look! You just wanted to add to it! I’ve never seen a cooler outfit than that sweet little dress and the kick-ass boots. That’s what made it special, unique! I thought you didn’t care about the whole image bee-ess, and I was thrilled.”

Sandy had listened to the red-haired woman’s speech with amazement on her face at first, then acceptance, and then at the end, amazement again. When the woman finished, she felt silly. “What’s your name?” came out of her mouth without her expecting it.

“Sue,” said Sue. “Yours?”

“Sandy,” replied Sandy.

From that day onward, it was quite common to find a red-haired woman with black clothing visiting a small diner where a girl with a name tag reading “SANDY” greeted her with a squeal and a hug and good service. It was also quite common for a brown-haired girl wearing various pastel colored dresses and very dramatic boots to visit a small shop called “ROCKIN’-ROLL GEAR,” claiming every time that her cable at home didn’t work and begging the woman at the counter to turn on America’s Best Top Model for her. Every time someone asked, the woman at the counter would blame her friend for the show and would roll her eyes. They’d giggle about it afterwards.

Before a City Wakes

There are thousands upon thousands of cities in the world, and all differ. Their sizes vary – some are small, some are large. Some differ in their demographic – more men than women or more citizens above a certain age and so on. They differ in their architecture – some are entirely new and modern and some have areas dating back hundreds of years. But all cities look, sound and feel exactly the same in that quiet moment right before dawn.

No matter what city it is, in that unclear light, before the sun peeps over the horizon, they will be quiet. Quieter than any other moment of the night. Those who work and live by day aren’t yet awake or are still in their homes, and those who live by night have already finished their outings or their work and have gone home. The streets are almost completely bare of people, and the lone car that whooshes past seems to be an intruder, much too loud and intrusive for this quiet moment.

All cities look the same during that small space of time – it is the only time any city is truly sleeping, resting, gathering its strength for another day and night of bustle and work and noise. It is breathtaking- the clear air, free of smog or smoke; the absolute peace that permeates every road and sidewalk and building; the utter and undeniable feeling of being between. Between the night and the day, between breaths, between the very phases of being that make up any city.

It is wonderful, being awake when the city sleeps.