flash fiction

bird

1

Small bird, hopping bird, brown bird. One hundred points of articulation in your tiny brown neck. 

Raise your small head up to see the sky. Look down to see gray stone. 

2

We went to Madrid and walked the city streets. Even at night, the city pulsing. 

Behind the plaza where the men played music, we found a store that sold only springs. From floor to ceiling, on every surface. In boxes and in drawers. Great silver springs. Springs of copper. And springs you could wind around your smallest finger or hold in the palm of your hand where they might glisten like fallen stars. 

3

Your mother is a great and dying bird. Once, she tended her grand feathered nest. Once, she preened. 

Now the bones of her spine have fallen beneath the weight of decades, her neck bent in pain for which she no longer has words. 

Flightless bird, broken bird. 

You lift her from bed to chair and then back again. 

So light now, so fragile. Such hollow bones. 

4

You bought a box of springs. You could not help yourself. You were giddy like a child when you spread them out across the wide hotel bed. 

The small ones you wound into my hair. 

The largest one you rolled across my naked skin. 

5

Your mother at the window, watching hummingbirds.

They told her that the feeder was too heavy. The pole on which it hangs is bent beneath its weight. 

Sweet pink liquid spilling out onto the ground.

And the hummingbirds hover there: ecstatic, coiled, in constant frantic flight.

now, sing

Three short pieces in conversation with Anne Carson’s “Short Talks,” from Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995):

On my father

In the dim light of his apartment, the moan of wind tunneling through back streets, he prepares his meal on the kitchen table. Eats there, returns to his room. The television on the floor muted, the black and white glow of it. He sits in a wooden chair. A cardboard box of photographs on his lap. Now my father is weeping.

Tonight there is no moonlight. Tonight he lets his sadness settle in on the room, a fine layer of dust on blanket and bed, on wooden chair and end table. On television, on parquet floors and on him, bowed gray head and pale flesh now graying in unforgiving light.

On screen, an endless parade of men and women rushing in and out of frame, the action of their made-up lives rising and falling, rising and falling in rhythms that we can anticipate, longing and grief in measured doses, titrated slowly to rates we can absorb.

On our debt to the memory of the dead

What is it that we owe to the memory of the dead? What measure fealty? What homage?

We return to the burial site bearing gaudy gifts. The peonies their blossoms so heavy and full they droop on slender stems. Their brightness offends. It is June and my legs are bare. When I kneel down before the stone, pebbles lodge into my flesh. I brush them off. I kiss the air. A bird sings from a branch nearby and then stops.

My father’s voice no longer comes to me in dreams. The years mock us in how little we remember. A limp, one leg shorter than the other. Hunched shoulders from decades of slow decline. This body, these dessicated bones. What if now from deep in the earth, they could sing?

On longing

There was a party in his parents’ home. His brother played piano and we gathered around. It was winter. The evening lit by candelight. His white-haired father placed his long slender fingers on my hand. I have always been baffled by fathers.

Bring your hand to your heart, hold it there. Bring your hand to your chin. Hold your hands up and take his face in your hands. Now sing.

We had started in Los Angeles where we visited college campuses. At the first, a young man in a long-sleeved shirt and tie spoke to a group of us gathered around a metal table while just beyond us, students lounged poolside, the blue water glistening in high afternoon sun.

Later, M. navigated the unfamiliar roadways, where impatient drivers darted in and out of lanes like hummingbirds in a field of foxglove. We made stops. For a bookstore, for a tiny farmer’s market. We made a late lunch of strawberries.

In Santa Barbara, we sat on a patch of dry grass while our children waded in the still pools of water trapped between banks of sand.

From there, our route hugged the coast, the Pacific Ocean at turns blue and green and gray at our side as the sky darkened.

--

I have made this trip once before, decades ago, with a man I did not love, but needed very much at the time, for reasons that I am only now beginning to understand. The soft underbelly of self seeks salvation in others, does it not?

At Jade Cove, we walk the long path down toward the water. I remember a sandy beach where we sat on driftwood and let the waves break at our feet. But this time, we don’t get far enough. The path is winding and long and the air is cold. Instead, we stop on a rocky elevation and watch the frothy waves pound against the cliffs. The heart aches at such beauty.

--

He had theories about love. We all do at nineteen, don’t we? “There are three stages, he would say: discovery, conflict, coalition building.”

“What stage are we in?” I asked one night. We were walking along the beach in the cool damp air. There was a sliver of moon and a scattering of stars.

“Discovery, of course,” he said without pausing.

“Maybe we can pass through conflict,” I said, turning to face him.

He shook his head. “No one passes through conflict. We either make it or we don’t.”

--

We head out to a series of rock formations and along the way, our son stops to examine the piles of tangled kelp drying on the beach. “Sea monsters,” he says, pokes at them with one foot before he walks on.

He and M. climb the rocks. I sit a distance away and watch. It is difficult not to think, even as I am watching, these are the best days. He is pure feeling. Without artifice, without doubt. He runs on not questioning whether we are following behind him because he has never known us not to be there. And the two of them, so free, as they weave their imagined tales.

“Pretend I am the emperor of this rock and you are the imperial guard.”

--

He drove me to the airport in his rented car. Walked me to the gate, kissed the top of my head. “See you in the fall,” he said as I backed toward the walkway. I held my fingers to my lips and waved before I turned away.

Two weeks later, I received a thick yellow envelope in the mail with the photos from our trip. Me, standing on a rock formation looking out to sea. Or in front of the old mission in Santa Barbara by the fountain. Or mountains shrouded in mist in early light.

And six weeks after that, he was back in the northeast, the heat of summer just beginning to break. We had written letters and talked on the phone. Fought over one thing or another. The cracks were starting to show. How distant those perfumed days along the coast. Those evenings smeared with stars.

--

Nothing lasts. Or rather, everything changes. Everything washing over us so quickly we barely have time to recognize it as it flows. Love, desire, sadness, joy.

Even when we hold our arms open wide to receive it. Even when we try to take it in, to say: I am happy now, watching these people I love move across this beach like they are made of pure light.

We blink our eyes, we turn our faces away. And as if in a single moment, it is gone.

">empire falls

Thrilled to have my tiny fiction, Empire Falls, as this week’s featured post at the excellent Wigleaf magazine.