The Hunting Grounds

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. I didn’t believe it at first, but it was undeniable; The faint orange that attracted me with flickering, whispering screams. I watched from my study in the main house some couple hundred yards away. Originally Mother’s sewing room, the study now kept my books and collections on various topics, mainly the occult. Mother made all of our clothes in this room before the madness took her. Before we had to keep her in the cabin at the back of the property. 

The woods were our family hunting grounds and legacy, as Father put it. Father was keen to flash our grandeur to the local socialites, inviting them up the hill for dinners and extravagant evenings full of brandy and loose women, all while Mother ensured the food was hot, the glasses full, and the tapestries pressed. The socialites weren’t privy to how we came to own such a vast estate, or what members of our family he supposedly betrayed in order to walk away with the keys to the Hunt Manor. He never admitted deceit, of course. Only the blurred faces of enraged and betrayed loved ones told that tale. They should have been loved ones, but all that remained in my mind’s eye were twisted expressions, dark eyes, and the pointing of fingers that leapt from bodies boiled over in hatred, locked out of one last family relic. 

“They touched us with the devils,” Mother said to me. She told Father too, and claimed she could see them coming for us in her dreams, but he marked her as a hysterical woman and threatened the sanatorium. She attempted to reach him with reason and begged him to reconsider his greed.

“At least give them access to the cabin.” She stated out the window at the frame beyond the well-spaced oaks — enough room to get a horse through. Enough room to hunt. 

One morning on the floor of Mother’s sewing parlor, I sat with my wooden blocks and watched her as she blindly hemmed a dress. Her attention was turned towards the pane-glass window. Her eyes were empty and hollow, and she moved her hands across the fabric in a way that was mechanical and rigid. The pump and whir of her pedal machine carried on without faltering for what seemed to be an endless afternoon, until the red-orange beams of sunset pierced the room and Mother let out a sharp scream. I jumped. She lifted her right hand, sewn into the hem of her dress. 

“Mama?” I looked at her hand in terror as blood and thred wove through her mangled fingers. 

“You see that, dear?” She looked at me a moment longer, unblinking, unfazed by my fear, and returned her gaze to the window and the woods beyond her home, hand still sewn to dress.

That was the first time I heard Father call Mother “crazy.” For months and months he opted for hysterical. Hysterical was something that could be treated. Hysteria was quite common in women, almost expected, and Mother was indeed hysterical in the weeks that led to the night she sewed her hand into her dress. She spent her evenings sleepless and alert, pacing in front of the window of her sewing room. Watching the woods, watching the cabin. When she did sleep, she screamed out from her room for forgiveness, for mercy. One night, Father confronted her for an answer. 

“What is your obsession?! Do you wish to live in the cabin? Away from me and the boy?”

“Not that. Not that.” Mother rocked in jagged, short movements in the kitchen chair at the head of the table, a seat normally reserved for Father at dinner, but necessary as a point of interrogation on that particular night. She twisted her left hand around her bandaged right hand. I stood off to the side in another room and peered around the doorway as Father berated Mother with questions and accusations. Words like devil, heretic, witch

“It is you they want.” She pointed her bandaged fingers in Father’s face, which enraged him. “You. You are the one they want.” 

“I don’t care what my extended, departed family wants,” Father said. He folded his arms. 

“Not your family. The devils beyond the trees, William. The devils are coming for you.”

It happened so quickly, that when I blinked from the sound of the back of Father’s hand hitting Mother across the face, I missed most everything else. I covered my eyes and sank to the floor on the other side of the wall and only listened to Mother’s whimpers and Father’s heaving breaths. I could tell he was thinking, plotting, eliminating Mother from his mind. 

The next morning, as the cold Autumn sun peered over the horizon and illuminated our cursed land, I lay in bed and listened to the shrill and desperate cries of Mother fade to long echoes as Father dragged her from our home and to the cabin at the back of the woods. I heard my name. I heard her call for God. I heard her hit Father across the face; I was glad for that. 

“The devils are coming for you!” She shouted in between the dense thud of her fists against his riding jacket.

“They’ll come for you first.” His affirmation echoed into the trees. 

“You will get what you deserve!’ She continued to yell, and I swore I could hear the metallic click of Father locking her in the cabin. It rang out like a gunshot, but hunting season wasn’t for another week. 

A silence crashed down onto our home, and I felt a crack from the sewing room. I leapt from my bed, afraid Father made it back too soon and was destroying Mother’s things. However I found a crack on the wall beside the window where she sat, from floor to ceiling. Father found me some time later staring at the crack, and then out the window, hoping to see Mother’s face, but I only saw the candle in her window at night and heard her cries. Until one day it all stopped.

There wasn’t a funeral; There wasn’t a body. The door remained locked from the outside, and Father swore to heaven and back that I had something to do with it. He accused me of breaking her out, and letting her loose onto the world, but I was a coward. I was too frightened to see Mother; Father said she turned crazy. And crazy was not like hysterical. On the nights where her yelling turned into howls I was left sleepless, watching the window and her candle in the window.

I learned from a young age that men couldn’t become hysterical, but I witnessed Father slip into something more devastating. It began with nightmares. He never admitted to it, of course, but I could hear him down the hall, night after night, begging for forgiveness. He called out Mother’s name. He asked her to stop. He whimpered like a child. In the mornings, Father lurked across the wide wooden floors to the liquor cabinet. Opting for a bottle over a tumbler, he disappeared to Mother’s sewing room and stared out the window at the cabin, questioning out loud where she went, only to find her at night when he closed his eyes. 

It came as a surprise, and maybe no surprise at all, to be a grown man and see the faintest flicker in the cabin window one evening shortly after burying Father on the grounds. I stood in my long sleep shirt, illuminated by the fireplace of Mother’s old sewing room, open books on the occult and the devils on what used to be her work table. The crack that led from floor to ceiling stood stronger than our foundation, and I paced. Perhaps the devils, or perhaps a squatter. I tried to play a game of logic against myself, but I could hear the flame call out. I could hear Mother. Curiosity won over my hesitations as I readied my lantern and hunting boots, still in my nightshirt and equipped with Father’s old meat cleaver. I entered the biting cold and the lamplight flickered beneath my knuckles, pulling back to the front door of the house. I pressed onward, the cabin’s skeleton key around my neck. The tall oak trees waved and leaned; The naked tops clacked and crashed together like old bones. It seemed to me, as I closed the distance between myself and the cabin, that the wind grew stronger. 

Still I pressed on. I walked for what felt like hours until I felt this burst, as if I stepped through a door to a place that was not of this world. The wind ceased. A crack rang out in the distance. Was it a gunshot? Was it Mother’s sewing room? No matter, I told myself, for the cabin door was at my feet. In the window, the candle glowed with the same strength it did from my view in the house. I watched the flame — it remained still, without so much as a flicker. A chill ran down my spine, but still I leaned Father’s meat cleaver on the ground against the side of the building and placed the skeleton key in the lock and turned until the familiar metal click released what had been in place for two decades. 

The door opened with a fight on rusted hinges until there was enough space for me to step into the single-room cabin. The door swung back towards its latch and it was then that I knew I wasn’t alone. I looked to my hand, holding nothing, and thought of the cleaver just beyond the wall. It was strange to see the candle from within the window, and stranger even to watch its glow dim into nothingness in the absolute still of

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. I didn’t believe it at first, but it was undeniable; The faint orange that attracted me with flickering, whispering screams. I watched from my study in the main house some couple hundred yards away. Originally Mother’s sewing room, the study now kept my books and collections on various topics, mainly the occult. Mother made all of our clothes in this room before the madness took her. Before we had to keep her in the cabin at the back of the property. 

The woods were our family hunting grounds and legacy, as Father put it. Father was keen to flash our grandeur to the local socialites, inviting them up the hill for dinners and extravagant evenings full of brandy and loose women, all while Mother ensured the food was hot, the glasses full, and the tapestries pressed. The socialites weren’t privy to how we came to own such a vast estate, or what members of our family he supposedly betrayed in order to walk away with the keys to the Hunt Manor. He never admitted deceit, of course. Only the blurred faces of enraged and betrayed loved ones told that tale. They should have been loved ones, but all that remained in my mind’s eye were twisted expressions, dark eyes, and the pointing of fingers that leapt from bodies boiled over in hatred, locked out of one last family relic. 

“They touched us with the devils,” Mother said to me. She told Father too, and claimed she could see them coming for us in her dreams, but he marked her as a hysterical woman and threatened the sanatorium. She attempted to reach him with reason and begged him to reconsider his greed.

“At least give them access to the cabin.” She stated out the window at the frame beyond the well-spaced oaks — enough room to get a horse through. Enough room to hunt. 

One morning on the floor of Mother’s sewing parlor, I sat with my wooden blocks and watched her as she blindly hemmed a dress. Her attention was turned towards the pane-glass window. Her eyes were empty and hollow, and she moved her hands across the fabric in a way that was mechanical and rigid. The pump and whir of her pedal machine carried on without faltering for what seemed to be an endless afternoon, until the red-orange beams of sunset pierced the room and Mother let out a sharp scream. I jumped. She lifted her right hand, sewn into the hem of her dress. 

“Mama?” I looked at her hand in terror as blood and thred wove through her mangled fingers. 

“You see that, dear?” She looked at me a moment longer, unblinking, unfazed by my fear, and returned her gaze to the window and the woods beyond her home, hand still sewn to dress.

That was the first time I heard Father call Mother “crazy.” For months and months he opted for hysterical. Hysterical was something that could be treated. Hysteria was quite common in women, almost expected, and Mother was indeed hysterical in the weeks that led to the night she sewed her hand into her dress. She spent her evenings sleepless and alert, pacing in front of the window of her sewing room. Watching the woods, watching the cabin. When she did sleep, she screamed out from her room for forgiveness, for mercy. One night, Father confronted her for an answer. 

“What is your obsession?! Do you wish to live in the cabin? Away from me and the boy?”

“Not that. Not that.” Mother rocked in jagged, short movements in the kitchen chair at the head of the table, a seat normally reserved for Father at dinner, but necessary as a point of interrogation on that particular night. She twisted her left hand around her bandaged right hand. I stood off to the side in another room and peered around the doorway as Father berated Mother with questions and accusations. Words like devil, heretic, witch

“It is you they want.” She pointed her bandaged fingers in Father’s face, which enraged him. “You. You are the one they want.” 

“I don’t care what my extended, departed family wants,” Father said. He folded his arms. 

“Not your family. The devils beyond the trees, William. The devils are coming for you.”

It happened so quickly, that when I blinked from the sound of the back of Father’s hand hitting Mother across the face, I missed most everything else. I covered my eyes and sank to the floor on the other side of the wall and only listened to Mother’s whimpers and Father’s heaving breaths. I could tell he was thinking, plotting, eliminating Mother from his mind. 

The next morning, as the cold Autumn sun peered over the horizon and illuminated our cursed land, I lay in bed and listened to the shrill and desperate cries of Mother fade to long echoes as Father dragged her from our home and to the cabin at the back of the woods. I heard my name. I heard her call for God. I heard her hit Father across the face; I was glad for that. 

“The devils are coming for you!” She shouted in between the dense thud of her fists against his riding jacket.

“They’ll come for you first.” His affirmation echoed into the trees. 

“You will get what you deserve!’ She continued to yell, and I swore I could hear the metallic click of Father locking her in the cabin. It rang out like a gunshot, but hunting season wasn’t for another week. 

A silence crashed down onto our home, and I felt a crack from the sewing room. I leapt from my bed, afraid Father made it back too soon and was destroying Mother’s things. However I found a crack on the wall beside the window where she sat, from floor to ceiling. Father found me some time later staring at the crack, and then out the window, hoping to see Mother’s face, but I only saw the candle in her window at night and heard her cries. Until one day it all stopped.

There wasn’t a funeral; There wasn’t a body. The door remained locked from the outside, and Father swore to heaven and back that I had something to do with it. He accused me of breaking her out, and letting her loose onto the world, but I was a coward. I was too frightened to see Mother; Father said she turned crazy. And crazy was not like hysterical. On the nights where her yelling turned into howls I was left sleepless, watching the window and her candle in the window.

I learned from a young age that men couldn’t become hysterical, but I witnessed Father slip into something more devastating. It began with nightmares. He never admitted to it, of course, but I could hear him down the hall, night after night, begging for forgiveness. He called out Mother’s name. He asked her to stop. He whimpered like a child. In the mornings, Father lurked across the wide wooden floors to the liquor cabinet. Opting for a bottle over a tumbler, he disappeared to Mother’s sewing room and stared out the window at the cabin, questioning out loud where she went, only to find her at night when he closed his eyes. 

It came as a surprise, and maybe no surprise at all, to be a grown man and see the faintest flicker in the cabin window one evening shortly after burying Father on the grounds. I stood in my long sleep shirt, illuminated by the fireplace of Mother’s old sewing room, open books on the occult and the devils on what used to be her work table. The crack that led from floor to ceiling stood stronger than our foundation, and I paced. Perhaps the devils, or perhaps a squatter. I tried to play a game of logic against myself, but I could hear the flame call out. I could hear Mother. Curiosity won over my hesitations as I readied my lantern and hunting boots, still in my nightshirt and equipped with Father’s old meat cleaver. I entered the biting cold and the lamplight flickered beneath my knuckles, pulling back to the front door of the house. I pressed onward, the cabin’s skeleton key around my neck. The tall oak trees waved and leaned; The naked tops clacked and crashed together like old bones. It seemed to me, as I closed the distance between myself and the cabin, that the wind grew stronger. 

Still I pressed on. I walked for what felt like hours until I felt this burst, as if I stepped through a door to a place that was not of this world. The wind ceased. A crack rang out in the distance. Was it a gunshot? Was it Mother’s sewing room? No matter, I told myself, for the cabin door was at my feet. In the window, the candle glowed with the same strength it did from my view in the house. I watched the flame — it remained still, without so much as a flicker. A chill ran down my spine, but still I leaned Father’s meat cleaver on the ground against the side of the building and placed the skeleton key in the lock and turned until the familiar metal click released what had been in place for two decades. 

The door opened with a fight on rusted hinges until there was enough space for me to step into the single-room cabin. The door swung back towards its latch and it was then that I knew I wasn’t alone. I looked to my hand, holding nothing, and thought of the cleaver just beyond the wall. It was strange to see the candle from within the window, and stranger even to watch its glow dim into nothingness in the absolute still of the cabin. The door behind me clicked shut, the skeleton key still in its place on the outside. My eyes fought to adjust to the dark, and I raised my lantern to see a gnarled silhouette. A pointed, bandaged fingers. The devils. 

“Mother?” I whispered as my lantern light died.

the cabin. The door behind me clicked shut, the skeleton key still in its place on the outside. My eyes fought to adjust to the dark, and I raised my lantern to see a gnarled silhouette. A pointed, bandaged fingers. The devils. 

“Mother?” I whispered as my lantern light died.

Green Thumb

Green Thumb

Should have walked away when
we started comparing scars,
when you told me time and again
about the same one on your knee.
When we ran out of things to say
and you never liked small talk anyway
but our candles still burned
and you turned your wick away from me.
Should have stopped when you said
I was too intense, not a compliment
but a challenge to make me small.
Should have thought again when
I asked you to be happy for me
and you said it would take away
From all you wanted to do for you.
Unresolved and sad.
I still fell in love.
Could blame it on the stars and say
it’s because I’m a scorpio.
But it’s because I like to garden
and watch things grow.
I guess I always fall in love with potential.

Love is a verb

Love is a verb

Love is not an action based on convenience.

It does not hold to suit the suitor 

at earliest or latest hour.

The flowers do not choose rain

or sun,

or what kills them. 

Let love maim or heal, but heal first.

Broken love is worse than death –

Heavy dragging hands. Long labored breaths. 

Love for one and none for all. No matter the cost

it is always too great for some.

To give love away only to those deemed worthy.

Reach in your pockets and produce 

lint. Maybe gold. 

Offer both or not at all. Lint for a fire 

to warm someone’s soul 

or gold for a meal to enjoy between 

eyes and hands. 

Reach into your chest and pull out your heart. 

Give it away in its infinite replenish,

for our hearts are the only thing that grows 

when we share. 

Throw Down in the Old Leather Chair

Throw Down in the Old Leather Chair

Thrown down in the old leather chair,

in the learning fields,

rattling of love and nature’s bones. 

And the seeds are strewn around.

Dust and mud, the path is clear and messy

Wishes sent to the clouds, feet stuck in the ground. 

Skeletons of endless Springs wrapped in winter’s hold,

nails dug into foundations worn and familiar. 

Fingerprints lost.

Listen, listen to her sing. 

On a bare mattress

warmed only by breath,

the steady thrum of hearts, fingers playing spines. 

I have to go. 

I have to go.

Greta

Greta

She rummaged through grease-coated bins of ancient tools and junk — things far older than her and certainly useless. She had no particular outcome in mind; Greta wasn’t looking for anything. But the most spectacular things always seem to happen when we aren’t looking. 

The old tool shed on the back of the farm sat adjacent to an old red barn on an old dusty plot of land. Nothing grew on that farm — at least as long as Greta had been alive — which was exactly nine-years and forty-two days. She learned to count using her birthdays and the old calendar that was left in the kitchen when Ma died three years earlier. On that day, Greta was six-years-old plus one hundred days. She knew three years had passed, but she didn’t know that the days moved with the years, so as far as she was concerned her birthday always landed on a Monday. And that was fine – a good way to start that week, she thought. 

No one came when Ma died, because no one knew who Ma was. Only Greta. No one knew Greta belonged to Ma, or that Ma even had a daughter. When she did pass away, over under the clothes line while hanging delicates one morning, Greta spent two hours trying to wake Ma from her deep slumber and then covered Ma in the sheets from the basket. That night Greta heard, from her bedroom window in her sleepless house, a strange screeching hiss that she never heard before. 

She tried her best to visit Ma and sit near her until the rot set in. Ma smelled awful for weeks, but luckily she died towards the beginning of autumn, and the snow and thaw reduced Ma to a pile of bones that Greta took and buried in a shallow grave next to the old oak tree. Greta didn’t cry moving Ma’s bones, but she did cry out in frustration when the hole took longer to dig than her seven-year, eight-day-old arms could handle. Into the night and under the guidance of a full moon, Greta used Ma’s gardening spade. There she heard that unmistakable hissing, screeching sound. She wielded Ma’s spade like a weapon and stood in fear. 

“Who’s there?” she cried out. 

Who

Greta couldn’t see through the cover of night. The screech rang out again and there, up in the old oak tree, Greta saw the culprit. A barn owl, illuminated by silver moonlight, spied on Greta from the safety of its branch. Greta lowered the spade. 

“This isn’t easy, you know,” she said. “The ground is still hard.” 

The owl screeched once again and flew off. Greta tried to watch the owl until it was absorbed by the evening. She returned to her little grave, settled with a shallow plot, and buried Ma. 

Later that evening, near the wood burning stove, Greta warmed her little hands. The winter would have been unbearable if Ma didn’t spend the whole year before piling wood and kindling, and canning fruits and vegetables, drying meat, and storing grain. More than they’d ever need, Greta reminded Ma. Ma only smiled and coughed some into a napkin before stashing it in her apron. Greta thought to herself, at least now she had enough to get by, and that summer before Ma died, she learned to build a fire. Ma showed her. 

“Here,” Ma said weakly. “Put the kindling here. Strike a match like this, but be careful of your fingers. Don’t put too much wood in because the fire needs to breathe.” 

“The fire breathes?” 

“Everything in nature breathes if you listen carefully.” 

Greta struck her first fire on her sixth birthday. Now that she was almost ten, Greta noticed the wood pile was low. The basement full of jars was sparse. The stove crackled and Greta boiled water for Ma’s tea leaves and while she waited she chewed on the last of her dried meat. A screech was heard outside. She removed the pot of water and walked along the old cottage floor to the back door where, in the old oak tree, the barn owl sat. Under its claw and pinned to the tree branch was a dead rabbit. 

“I would love some rabbit stew,” she mumbled. Greta returned inside. 

The next day, struck with boredom, Greta set out for the old tool shed. Her usual routine for the last three years was to wash her face with the well water, eat porridge off the stove, and walk around the perimeter of the property. It was marked with heavy, ancient stones on each corner and in some spots Greta came to low, broken stone walls. She stayed within them, in the safety of the property, close enough to Ma, and memorized the landscape. Greta learned to count even more; She made it to one hundred steps, one hundred times, plus eighty-two. And, every so often, Greta laid her head on the dead, golden-brown land and listened for breathing. 

Dissatisfied in the silence she came to expect, Greta changed her routine and walked to the old tool shed. The door was open and hung off the hinges, ready to collapse into the earth. It swung lazy and heavy in the late spring wind as the metal creaked and bellowed for Greta to enter. She carefully stepped into the musty room; everything looked coated in a thin film of black — not quite dust, decay, or dirt. It looked like an old memory, mostly forgotten. Greta took a deep breath in the clean outdoors and stepped carefully up into the shed. The darkness engulfed her and she disappeared inside. 

The interior of the shed seemed far smaller than Greta thought. Whether it was the row of too-high tool benches, the low-hanging hooks that swung delicately from the ceiling in her presence, or the mess of old dirty bins filled to their brims with junk — Greta made sure to tread carefully. Ma told her. 

“Don’t cut yourself on anything rusty, now. Stay out of that shed.” 

The words floated around Greta and wrapped her in caution. Ma was gone, and Greta was bored, and the land wasn’t breathing. Greta crouched down in front of the first box and picked it apart. She pulled old tools with manual cranks, hammers — a wrench. Nothing of note. But again, Greta wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Elbow-deep in the second bin, Greta heard the screech of her elusive friend. In the corner of the room, in plain sight (how could she have missed it?), the owl sat perched in a corner. Shrouded in the cover and safety of blackened windows; The owl must have lived in the shed. Greta was probably a bother. 

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just bored.” 

The owl made a low sound not unlike a coo and settled in, as if to let Greta know it didn’t mind. She watched it as it blinked in a slow and hypnotic rhythm. It made Greta sleepy, but she continued her search for nothing. Greta picked a few more items before she found the thing she wasn’t looking for. From the bottom of the bin she pulled out an old key. Greta held it high and far from her face to marvel at it before giving it a hard shine on her pants. Ma would have lost her mind at that, she thought. 

“I wonder what you belong to,” she said. Greta’s owl friend screeched, frightening her. It dismounted from its perch and left the tool shed. 

“Wait!” Greta stumbled out, shocked into the daylight, to see the owl disappear into the old barn.

She followed as fast as her legs would allow and stepped into the cavernous space. Greta’s shoes scratched along the dirt floor and she marveled at the size and emptiness of it all. A shell, as if she were inside Ma’s ribs. The air was filled with the stench of mothballs and decay, like everything else on the land. With the key clenched tightly in her hand, Greta craned her head back and searched the rafters for her white and gold friend. A flutter led Greta’s eyes to the back corner of the barn, where the barn owl sat on top of a rusted, dead tractor. Behind the owl she noticed a gentle glow, like sunrise, although there were no windows. A thrum-thrumming filled her ears but it wasn’t her own heart. 

The owl let out a gentle screech and flew behind the tractor. Greta ran to catch it and peeked behind the machine. The owl was gone, but she found the source of the glow — a small door, not much larger than her. The thrum-thrumming grew louder when Greta looked at the key in her hand and back to the door where a small lock hung. She carefully placed the key in and turned it to the left. The lock opened with a clunk, and the door breathed open. 

The King Tree

The King Tree

The king tree blossoms over

his deep rough scars

and under eternity –

Beauty that will collapse slowly

at the hand of gravity 

and the endless blues of god.

Fruit to bear and tumble down 

to rot, a mess that feeds the mother –

His offerings will leave him bare

and gray.

But he will never stop,

even with rushing river below

that licks his roots patiently,

loving,

a constant chime of the inevitable.

The king tree continues to bear his fruit. 

He drops in symphony,

bright red-orange hue,

delicately to death.

Continue on and pay no mind to the river –

the river always wins.

Evolutionary

Evolutionary

We hovered our rear ends above the sand and waited until the tide went out, passing the time by making miniature teepees out of reeds and seaweed that our nana would toss in the garbage the moment they entered the house. Our ultimate mission was mussels, black-and-blue-shelled, oval little things that hugged the rocks, half-buried in sand. My brother and I spent cumulative hours ripping them from their oases — never taking more life than necessary for the work of bored, unsupervised creek children. We used the end of the private beach’s spillway, made of solid, jagged concrete, to line them up one at a time and bash them open with a rock. We’d use the meat to catch blue claw crabs off the edge of the dock to later cook and enjoy, or we’d toss them back to the creek for the fish — or we’d just leave them to the birds. No matter how many mussels were cracked open, I understood everyone was the same inside. I never felt guilty about ending their little lives because I don’t think I was old enough to understand that I was killing something over and over. My life still went on.

We experimented with building large, extravagant sand castles that had little moats which led to the water’s edge, designed with fiddler crabs in mind. We’d use our index and middle finger to penetrate the sand and push the crabs from their burrows before displacing them into a world of luxury. I preferred to find the female crabs because they lacked the extra large male claw that — to a child — was extra large. Once in my life the tip of my thumb was caught in between the might of an angry fiddler crab and I screamed and cried to my nana until she made the pain go away. The fiddler crab lost his claw that day from my writhing, and from then on I dedicated summers to sand architecture. Once the tide was right, my moat would push foamy water around the castle to protect the fiddler crabs; Sometimes, a bait fish would make its way in as extra muscle. Ultimately, the crabs would reject the abundance and disappear back into their holes under the castle.

I was told at an early age that jellyfish lived forever unless they had no salt water to keep them gelatinous. It was very rewarding to split them into thirds and toss them back into the creek. I felt like God. Moon jellies only, though — the ones who liked to hover close to the surface of the creek. If the moon wasn’t out we could sit in our kayaks on the inky-black water and watch them glow like fairies or ghosts of dead relatives. My sympathy ended for stinger jellies when I swam through a school of them and had red, burning stripes all over my body that seemed to never go away. They did, eventually, just in time for my growth spurt and for more red, uncomfortable lines all over my body that never went away. 

My legs grew longer, as did the rest of me, and I lost my penchant for smashing open mussels and propagating jelly fish. I spent more time on top of the creek than under its deep, empty, black-green veil. I traded salty skin for tanning oil, and gave up on crab castles. Broiling under the sun like a lobster in my nana’s stove, I spread my arms wide and beautiful like the wet creek loon sunning himself. My life went on and the creek stayed static, with probably a few extra shellfish. When it became too hot to bear, I ran through the sprinklers on my nana’s lawn; One time, I did it fully clothed in a light pink shirt. I looked down at myself and then to my mother. 

“I think I need to buy a bra,” I said. 

“Sure. Nan will come.” 

My nana wanted to buy me my first bra, and growing up as a creek child I was accustomed to bathing suits and towels, or choosing between the two. There was no store to acquire a bra, so we made the great excursion to WalMart, thirty-five minutes away. A whole to-do over my new body. I was becoming a woman, apparently. That meant new tops, new bathing suits, and new ways to show myself to the world. The male fiddler crab donned a large claw, but what did the female fiddler crab have? Certainly not cleavage. Maybe I should expose myself like a wet loon. 

“Your first bra should be modest,” Nana said. “Here.” 

She handed me a white training bra, and I took it obediently although the rows and rows of exciting, sexual, provocative ones sat dangled in front of me like bait on a hook. There wasn’t any fighting a woman of God like her. I said “thank you” and took the spoils home, where I’d forgotten to wear the bra two to three days a week for about six months, until I sat in gym class in a white tee and nothing underneath knowing my nipples were there. Woman nipples. Around pre-teen boys. I never forgot again. 

Holidays

Holidays

I had a dream about my mom last night. We watched old home movies on VHS tapes and put up a Christmas tree. It reminded me of my grandfather’s house and the too-large colored bulbs that hung in the covered porch. I found an old story I wrote that talked about my mental health and the importance of string lights.

I put up the tree for the warm light of an endless morning it gives off once it’s plugged in. All of the more attractive baubles hang in front to capture the eyes of whoever may grace my front door. From Black friday until January first, my gawdy beacon of holiday cheer stands in proud, statuesque perpetuity, all in the name of tradition. 

I welcome in the musty smells of forgotten decorations while “A Very Merry Christmas Vol.2” plays over my Bluetooth record player. I put my kettle on the stove and the smell of hot metal and boiling water transports me to my grandparents’ kitchen, where Nan and Pop fashion either Lipton tea of Foldger’s instant coffee. I, in my own kitchen, opt for a French Press with coarse ground Costa Rican blend from the local fair trade coffee shop near my house. I sit at my table while my coffee steeps, one foot in a past life that I sometimes struggle to recognize as one I lived. I hope the smells linger — the warm Christmas lights stay lit — and the memories don’t elude me again. 

Short of leaving my Christmas tree up year-round, I hang string lights tastefully around my condo to tether myself to a positive childhood moment. Growing up, my mom would spend an entire day expertly fluffing up the tree and stringing lights in between drags of her cigarette and gulps of blush-colored Franzia boxed wine, of course. She never let my brother and me string the lights for the fear of one or both of us fucking it up, but somehow he and I worked out other systems of placing ornaments — the same ones — each year. We would be furious if the other touched one of our respective balls, as if a rift would split all space and time and pull us through into nothingness for messing up the order — as if there was ever order in our house. 

And yet, in my condo kitchen over my French Press, I question if those memories are entirely true and honest with me. How authentic are the moments I hold onto? How true to the timeline are my childhood recollections? The flashbacks are more reliable when they tie into the memories of things like scents and feelings rather than cognitive pieces stitched together over various decades — little baubles I put at the front of my mind to distract from the garbage in the back. But even if those fond times aren’t entirely accurate, I hold them tight and keep them treading above the deep black-green of trauma in the form of booze and bibles. 

My spiritual advisor told me in order to achieve certain enlightenments — and pull myself from certain doom following years and years of horrible events — I had to lean into the things that once brought me joy as a child, because that little girl was starved for almost thirty years. He told me she needed to be nurtured and loved and forgiven. I realized then, around maybe my fourth move in the pursuit of anti-homelessness, that I left her for dead in an attempt to preserve my present state.

But my present state sucked. 

I was just so over the night terrors and the memories of my mom, wide-eyed and clawing for either God — or more time — that when I left the creek house for the very last time, I left my inner child in the front room watching me drive off as the walls consumed her. My mindset at the time was, in order to move on from that Past I had to either kill or abandon it all. Like an old diary, I bound the pages of my past life in layers of duct tape before throwing it in the trash, or hiding it in a drawer long enough to forget what I wrote. I tried so hard to snuff out bad memories and abandon all in a dark house where the walls scream so loud I couldn’t sleep towards the end. But the inner me — that little girl — knew just where to find me. Late at night, alone in a new house, crying for my mom, hugging our family dog — she’d creep up the stairs and watch me from the doorway and tell me to cry harder, to cannonball into the feelings I had in order to clean myself out. I hated her for it. 

But now I sit across from her and drink my coffee while she feeds on the lingering memories of a warm creek house kitchen that I didn’t know I missed until I was reminded. I could have gone the route of my mom and drank myself into oblivion while maintaining a shell of stubbornness so thick that only Death himself — and liver failure — could make me see straight. My inner child and I are proud of that — not losing ourselves under the sails, and alternatively not leaning entirely on an invisible higher power. Instead, I believe in my own abilities, and hold onto memories that made me.

Rule of Three’s

There are three more work days left until I start this new chapter in the second, third of my life. I’m getting on a plane and spending ten days at Maharishi International University to study with the David Lynch MFA in Screenwriting program, and eventually earn my MFA. It’s a low-residency, two-year situation, and I haven’t cried about it yet. In fact, I’ve felt nothing but an overwhelming sense of calm and expectation like yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for and it’s something I’ve always had, I just needed it to materialize. I say I’m nervous to a lot of people and it isn’t about the course itself, but nervous that I can prove to myself that I’m worthy of the things I’ve spent so many years desiring and working towards.

Just nine years ago I was home from college after graduation with the want to apply to Oxford University again after my study abroad success. I wanted to be a professor more than anything, before I wanted to be a writer full-time, before I thought I could be a career author – before I could write a full-length book in a month – I wanted to sit in front of a room full of students and help them navigate their passions in the literary world. When I was still in my first semester of my freshman year I switched my major to English from marketing. Macroeconomics, selling things, trends – it wasn’t for me. I agreed to pursue it when my parents told me, “that’s where the money is.” I just couldn’t do it, though. I called my mom and told her I switched my major to English because I loved it and it’s what I always wanted to pursue. “Where’s the money in it?” She wasn’t even mad that I switched majors – she was upset that I might go after a field where I wouldn’t be lucrative. I didn’t care, though. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents but there was a piece of me deep down in my core that didn’t want to disappoint myself, and she was a bit louder than my head. So I signed up for more English courses, and by my sophomore year, I decided to dabble in two classes back to back with the same professor in the same classroom. English was easy, I thought, but nothing prepared me for critical literary theory.

I was so confused about the philosophical connections of writing and the literary world, that I got a D on my first paper. My professor, who also happened to be my academic advisor, pulled me aside and instead of chastising my work she asked me what I didn’t understand. She asked if I needed help and if I was alright. I started to sob in the hallway, unable to give her a reason for the crying or my work. She told me to go over the material again, slower, and re-write the paper. When I did, I got an A. I am still unsure to this day if she did it out of pity or if I really improved to such an extent, but she definitely saw into my distractions, distractions that I wasn’t even aware of yet.

Next month marks ten years without my mom walking this earth. I have effectively survived a third of my life without her, and when I was sobbing in front of Dr. Smith outside of her husband’s office in the library I was sobbing for a woman who I didn’t know wasn’t going to survive long enough to watch me graduate college. At the time of those classes sophomore year, my mom was drinking more and more, and I was only getting these snippets of concern and drama from the immediate members of my family. I was three states away without any real way to know what was going on, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how she was spiraling out of control and I couldn’t control a thing. When Dr. Smith stopped me, she saw how much I was hurting, because crying over a D paper in college is laughable to me at this rate; I’ve been turned down by dozens of literary agents and it barely fazes me anymore. But a D paper in college with an alcoholic mom who was ready to snap at any moment felt soul crushing. I didn’t want to give her any more reasons to hurt herself, and I for some reason put that burden on my own two shoulders. Dr. Smith never asked about my home life, not right away at least, but she encouraged me to focus on the material in school, and try my best, and eventually I grew to love critical literary theory, so much so that it was my senior thesis and something I now use in a lot of my readings and writings. Dr. Smith showed me the kaleidoscope that exists in the world of writing and for that I’m forever grateful. It wasn’t just words on paper, it was why’s on paper, and how’s. I don’t speak to her much anymore, but I do speak to another professor regularly who passes on my messages and well-wishes to her and her husband. She pulled me from some sort of internal perdition I wasn’t aware of, and I don’t know if she was ever aware of the truths, but she just did what she did, and I survived.

The most unforgettable thing Dr. Smith told me after my mom died was, “You know, when I met you, you were very prickly.” She went on to tell me how she didn’t mean it in an offensive way, but I was walking around with so much hurt and sadness that I walked like I had thorns all around me to protect me from everyone and everything that could cause harm. But at the same time, those thorns kept out those who could cause good. We were sitting in her living room eating lunch, something she normally reserved for her graduate students, but for whatever reason, Dr. Smith and I became very close and I looked up to her a lot for my inspirations and aspirations as a writer. She helped me get into Oxford University for their study abroad program, and she fanned the flame that would become my passion in writing.

Of course, I didn’t end up going back to Oxford to become a professor. My dad was against me leaving again and projected a lot of his unresolved grief on my life choices during the first couple of years following my mom’s death. That made me resent him, for a long time, and I never told him I resented him for telling me I couldn’t go back. But I have come to believe that everything happens for a reason and now, almost ten years later, I see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I wanted the Master’s and the Doctorate because I wanted not only the titles, but to gift the passion Dr. Smith showed me to other students. I saw the light in writing and where it could lead, but instead, with no other graduate school back-up plans, I turned into a dark place, and had dark thoughts, and wanted to be gone. Maybe not dead, maybe not alive either, but where would I go if I couldn’t go back to school?

I went in. Instead of dying, I wrote. I wrote when I was angry. I wrote a lot of nasty, harsh things about people, about myself, about my dead mom. I journaled and threw every emotion I had into Microsoft Word for weeks until one day I stopped mid-sentence and realized I just wasn’t angry anymore. I didn’t know what I felt, but it wasn’t anger. All of the anger was saved on my laptop. Writing saved my life. It felt as if I cleared away years of garbage, as if a hoard was removed and all that was left were the bones of the house and a dirty floor. Thus began my internal reno project.

I continued to write. Hundreds of poems, tons of short stories, dozens of book ideas, two crappy, ranting memoirs, and blog posts. So many blog posts. Only in the last three years can I say that, with writing, I’ve effectively pulled myself from the darkest places in my mind. I spent seven years wandering on hot coals and through the dense fog of my emotions trying to resolve the unspoken scenes of my past, and only within the last three – truthfully – can I say I am looking towards the sun again. And in just the last two years, I’ve written three books, I’ve turned thirty, and I’ve survived a third of my life without my mom here. In three work days, I’ll be on a plane.

Decay of the Farm

Old Man Jack’s yellow recliner sat at the entrance of the red barn on the back of the property. Like Jack, the recliner was also very old, with fabric pilled and pulled along the back and arms from years of lingering in the elements. I was often tempted to call him “Uncle Jack,” because I had an Uncle Jack, but my parents were adamant to never call him that. He never has been, and never will be. It was well enough, I figured, since he always threatened to feed our barn kittens rat poison for letting them climb all over his yellow recliner.

It always smelled a certain way in the barn, like almond liquor and oil. I didn’t know what almond liquor was at the time, but when I first smelled Amaretto it brought me to the belly of our barn where the monstrous tractor sat dormant, its keys in the ignition. The floor was strewn with kitty litter and saw dust to absorb the oil, and I dragged my sandals along the cement and felt the scrape of time. More often than I was probably permitted, I climbed the tractor with slipper little hands and dusty shoes, bits of gravel and litter raining from my feet to the ground beneath me. The seat was high and hard; The vinyl was cracked and decaying like everything else in the barn. I touched the keys as they tempted me to hear the motor and smell the oil, and take the tractor from the time capsule – but I was instructed to never touch it, so I let it continue to rot.

One day, Old Man Jack just stopped sitting in the recliner at the entrance to the barn. My parents forbade me from claiming the chair as my own due to filth, and no one wanted to touch it, so it stayed. And as I grew older, the memory of Old Man Jack faded; we never talked about him. I couldn’t recall if he ever truly was the sentry of our barn, or simply a ghost that vanished as I lost my innocence.

The recliner remained as a symbol of someone or something I knew. It went to the barn kittens – now cats – who worked the fabric down to springs and bone – and like many other things – the recliner eventually made its way to the local landfill. The barn cats were sad to see it go, but they were young and had so much more to discover. They were born in a hole behind the barn. Six babies in total – all different colors – to a sleek black mother that vanished shortly after they were born. She could have been scared away by over-excited farm kids who knew nothing of space and everything of soft, plush, kitten desires. Or, more likely, she could have been killed by a fox – an unfortunate truth of farm life.

When the mother didn’t return, the kittens were moved to the chicken coop – a small, offspring of the barn. I recalled seeing chickens once bursting out of the wooden latched door, full of life and enthusiasm. But, like Old Man Jack, the memory became a dream and I couldn’t remember if the chickens were real or just more ghosts of the barn. We plugged up the egg chute – evidence that chickens did exist one time – and kept the kittens warm. I waited under the maple tree next to the coop everyday for weeks until one finally chose me. She was black, fluffy, and mean. She was a perfect hunter, and like the other cats, remained feral to the farm. Eventually, four went away to family and friends, but two – mine and my brother’s gray short hair – remained the new keepers of the barn.

We were forbidden from entering the second shed, the one directly across from the chicken coop. It wasn’t locked up, like the recliner wasn’t hidden away, and like the keys never left the tractor, but our temptation was tested at the easy wooden latch that kept the door closed. Eventually, our curiosity overtook us on an unsupervised afternoon when the kittens were no longer kittens, and we entered the space. It smelled like oil and old blood. Two work benches sat on opposite ends, one for repairing, and one for destroying. One side held tools and the other had blackened metal hooks that hung from chains on the ceiling. The shed was cold and the air was heavy, full of iron and death. I felt, as a young child, that things were killed and skinned, flayed and cut, but not a way conducive with nature. Not for survival or sustenance, but for entertainment. Evil. The space was dirty, but it felt dirty – filth in its bones and stains behind the walls. I feared touching anything, so we put the wooden latch back. We never talked about it again, and shot out the windows with a bb gun.

The barn never changed much. It stood past the edge of our grass in perpetuity, beyond a treacherous sea of gravel and rocks – something designed and intended to deter barefoot children of summer. But we grew immune with calluses and strong will – and determination to witness the slow decay of our farm and the life that came after. I often stood in its open mouth, breathing vapors of rat poison and dust, risking my health without knowing any better. In the winter the barn stayed closed, but it watched our house from afar, and peered in through our kitchen window long after we fell asleep and until the thaw of Spring. Then, we’d return to the tire swing outside and watch barn swallows use the broken window to make their nests and feed their young in the rafters above the tractor.