Posted by: alegra22 | May 23, 2010

Naming Shadows

Waikato River, New Zealand by Alex Cowley

 

This story first published in:     

The Bitter Oleander: Volume 15, Number 2     

      

      

      

      

Naming Shadows     

It is the time of night when earthworms stop their blind twisting, their digestion of earth, and lie still. The clouds part and starlight presses down through the fronds of fern trees and into dark soil. Crickets, owls, and frogs pause, absorbing, listening.     

Seven-year-old Tama wakes from a dream in which a lion, a tiger, and a giant dog leap from a cliff. Claws and paws extended, bellies bared, mouths open. Above them the sky was so blue it ceased to be a color and became a mood.     

The dream fills Tama with pride. He knows it is proof of something but he doesn’t know what. He sits on the torn second-hand couch that is his bed, trying to find his way back into the dream. The air is thick with the scent of urine, stale beer, and cigarettes.     

“I am here,” the Something from his dreams says. It comes from the corner where shadows drape over the television and broken vacuum cleaner; the corner where Tama is made to sit for hours, imagining what it would be like to be an ant climbing through the forest of the shag carpet. Sometimes his mother forgets him, and Tama falls asleep, his cheek against the wall. He wakes up to an empty house, but still, he does not move until he is told to.     

“Kia ora,” Tama whispers to the shadow, because it is the polite thing to do and Tama, against the prediction of New Zealand national statistics, is a good boy.     

Tama is afraid but fear has always made him reflexive, full of puppy-dog pounce. Faced with the unknown, he scrambles up boulders and grabs his knees to chest, cannon-balling into deep waters to keep himself from drowning. At the top of the jungle gym he leaps, arms pin-wheeling through the air because it is better than falling.     

And his mother’s violent anger does not make him fold into himself. He does not act out in larger and larger ways against his mother’s demands for him to become smaller and smaller.     

Tama means ‘boy’ in Maori, and that is all he has ever been until the dream. Now Tama thinks he might be something more.     

“Kia Ora!” Tama repeats, his black eyes shining. He says it loudly in case the shadow is dumb. It is loud enough to have woken his mother up and earned him a cuff on the side of the head but his mother is gone. As gone as she can be.     

Tama doesn’t know it, but he can do anything now. Yell. Put his mouth over the milk carton and gulp, gulp, gulp. Eat five slices of bread smothered in butter. There will be no punishment. No more accusations performing circus acts in his mind.     

Tama’s mother has become metal crumpling into concrete. She has tumbled over the edge of the bridge’s guardrail, the right hand turn signal of her car a blinking star on the river’s dark surface.     

But Tama is less alone than he has ever been. Something Else sits in the corner, speaking to him with a voice of sunlight and cricket song.     

“I am,” it says.   

Pardon?”     

Tama wants to get the name right.     

There is laughter; a low roiling noise that causes the dust motes to stir in their dreaming.       

“I am.”     

Tama thinks the name several times in his mind before speaking it out loud.     

“Hello Eyeam, I’m Tama!”     

“I know.”     

“What?”     

“I know.”     

Tama doesn’t know how to respond so he sits, blinking, his mouth opening and closing. The air is suddenly swarming with the scent of wildflower honey. He remembers honey as a grumbling in his belly. He remembers his finger in a jar and a smack on his hand. His mother yelling, “Its shit now boy, shit! Putting your dirty finger in it! You turned it to shit!”     

He remembers how the jar, yanked from his hands and thrown out the open window, caught the sun in its flight before shattering. It had looked as beautiful as it tasted; a glow on the tongue, a warmth in his toes.     

 Tama sits, swallowing the sweet air, grateful that it is free from insects and slivers of glass. He sits and waits for Eyeam to speak. But the shadows are silent.     

Earth worms began to twist again, to digest, to tunnel. The honey-air dissolves on his tongue. A whining in the distance grows wider, filling with red and blue flashing lights. The shadows thicken in the corner, as the highbeams of the patrol car push through the weary curtains and wash over Tama’s goose-fleshed skin. He is a small brown boy with big eyes waiting on a patchwork raft for the rescue he doesn’t know he needs.     

The police officer knocking on the door is a sound Tama will remember for the rest of his life. Whenever fist hits wood with that same dutiful force the center of his chest will open to an empty hall of dull light. But in that echoing space will also be something else.     

The first police officer with his family-man eyes, smiles a tired smile and asks, “What’s your name, son?”     

Tama will always remember his own voice answering, “My name is Eyeam.”     

He will remember a lion, a tiger, and a giant dog extending their claws and leaping in the sky. It is the night that the shadows gave him their name.

Posted by: alegra22 | May 8, 2010

a moment in the mosaic: RIP Noel

Noel Robinson RIP May 7, 2010

My memory is a tricky thing. The days and their details shatter and blend until I am left with a collection of mosaics created from people, places, and events. What continues to translate itself fluidly over the years is essence – I can remember the presence of a beach down in Baja California. I remember the feeling of sand giving way beneath my feet, the bright, knobbly shell of a lobster washed up in the shore line, the heat on my skin. I remember moments, so perfectly preserved, of people as I connected with them, before life tumbled us onwards crashing and retreating over and over again.

This evening I have found myself remembering someone who I haven’t thought about in years and the clarity of these memories involving Noel surprise me.

The coastline where I learned to surf in Northern California had a small community of surfers. I think things have changed now, they were already changing back then, but in those years that I lived in Bodega Bay, everyone generally knew everyone else. There were only a handful of female surfers who consistently braved the cold waters and heavy conditions, and those of us who did were surrounded by a group of men who acted like big brothers to us. In my years of travel, I learned that there was a breed of surfer that could be found in most places and when you found them, there was an instant sort of kinship created by the connection with the ocean – a tribe of surfers.

Because Bodega Bay didn’t offer any of the glamorous versions of surfing, it generally only attracted this type of ‘soul surfer.’ Any one who surfed on that coast did so because they had a deep need to connect with the ocean. Everything about the surfing experience in those conditions failed the romantic versions of surfing.

We wore thick wetsuits that often smelled vaguely pissy because we all took full advantage of the warmth of our own pee in those early morning sessions. After getting washed in ice-cold water, you’d see a fellow surfer get this private little smile and know that he was peeing in his wetsuit and enjoying the temporary warmth. Most of us also wore thick neoprene booties and hoods and sometimes gloves to keep our hands from turning into numb claws.  Our tan lines stopped at our wrists and necks. We squinted through the early morning fog, usually right before dawn, clutching our various hot, caffeinated drinks of choice, determining whether to drive an hour one way up north to catch the swell or muscle through the beach break of Salmon Creek.

People who surfed for years on that coast became weathered by the conditions and almost all of us were always planning trips to warmer waters, but others, unlike me, remained fiercely loyal to the wild nature of the coast.  I longed for warmer waters. My relationship with the coastline was a love/hate one. I loved the ocean and waves, hated the fog, the cold, the howling winds. Nearly every surf session spit me out on the shore with numb fingers, weary bones, and a need to hibernate under a pile of blankets until my body recovered. But I had to surf. The cold was  an initiation process for me, testing my desire to learn.

During those years, Noel had a place among a group of men that I admired for their surfing. Like the spirit of the coast itself, there was a wild, fierce, diverse group of surfers that were like demigods out in the waves. All of them traveled to better waves, better conditions, but they came back to the coastline again and again. I believe most of them still live there. Images of those dark figures crouched on waves that moved like mountains are a permanent part of the landscape of my imagination.

I knew Noel in the pre-days, meaning, it wasn’t until tonight that I became aware of what he had gone on to achieve. He was just beginning to test himself against Puerto Escondido. Stories of his adventures circulated with the other stories the men of his rank would bring back from their adventures. I knew a Noel that was always flashing cheeky smiles at me and flirting when he shouldn’t have, because that’s exactly the kind of guy he was – he took life by the teeth and shook it around. I admired him and was always shy in his presence. He made me aware of how silly my own self-seriousness was. That is the essence of him that remains in my mind.

When I was first learning to surf and only just starting to master moving against the weight of the cold and the bulk of my wetsuit, I remember him being on the inside of a wave I was dropping into. He hooted and hollered as I got to my feet. My heart had pounded with adrenaline. I didn’t want to get slammed by the wave, or to be humiliated in front of one of the local ‘big bros’.

Later on, Noel said to the man I was involved with, “She was charging into that wave…You really need to buy her a helmet.”

I was so proud – even if he was insinuating I was likely to knock myself out.

I thought of him as one of those guys that was so durable he could throw himself at the ugliest waves and he might get battered, bounced around, but he’d eventually pop back up at the peak, smiling and ready to charge the biggest wave in the set. Tonight, I thought about the fact that he had died doing the thing he loved. There is something beautiful and blessed about that.

Tonight I tried to imagine what might have happened in those warm, Mexican waters that took his life. My mind gave me a series of images blending into one another, the strongest being an impression of his smile.

Noel is one of those gleaming pieces of memory in the mosaic of my memory. I imagine that he is somewhere on the other side, riding endless waves, gliding over the shadows of sharks, and I want to thank him for living his life the way he did.

Noel

Posted by: alegra22 | March 5, 2010

Vigil of Clouds

 

 

Vigil of Clouds

 (sorry, temporarily taking this down to submit to an anthology in NZ  – wish me luck! I’ve always had a dream of seeing this story written for Noah Ranui find its way into print)

Vigil of Clouds first appeared in: http://www.smashwords.com/extreader/read/2942/117/flash-fiction-40-anthology-july-2009

Posted by: alegra22 | December 8, 2009

Thank you Maria

before our first round of meetings with agents in NYC

About a month ago, Jordan Rosenfeld (author of my favorite writing/craft book: Make a Scene) and I were discussing our experiences of pursuing dreams. We both agreed that while yes, we had to show up on the path and begin walking forward, the journey has never been a solitary one. When I look back at all of the greatest things that have happened to me, they have been a result of others choosing to believe in me. Those gestures of belief were sometimes as simple as sincere words spoken at the right moment. Other times they have come along as something larger, often an opportunity that I had no way of envisioning before it was given to me. The key ingredient in these gestures being that they were unexpected gifts. I never felt as though I had earned them or could take credit for their arrival. For me, these are the true rewards of stepping out in faith or striving towards a goal. It is not so much what I can take responsibility for achieving myself, but the people who have become apart of my life along the way and the things they have taught me about life.

For both Jordan and myself, one of these gift-givers has been Maria Schneider. She has acted as a champion in both of our endeavors as writers. I met Maria for the first time during the Writer’s Digest trip after winning the 76th Annual Competition. It was a turning point in my life and I was buzzing with the terror that I might do something wrong and pop this bubble that had lifted me up like some fairytale. After years of barely being able to look my dream of being a writer in the eye, it was suddenly grasping me by the hand and saying, “Well, you’ve been wishing for me. Here I am!”

Maria put me at ease instantly.  She was down-to-earth, witty, professional, generous and basically, the kind of woman I would love to be. As we scurried from meeting to meeting, Maria’s support meant that I was able to breathe between elevator pitches, intense discussions of the reality of the publishing business and back and forth dialogue challenging everything about the novel I was presenting from title to premise. I think without her easy presence and reassurance I would have been like a squirrel jacked-up on espresso in danger of dying from nervous exhaustion.

I become attached to certain people very quickly and Maria is one of those people. When I found out that she was leaving her position as editor for Writer’s Digest, I went into a state of mourning. For me, she was the Patron Saint of Humanity standing guard for all writers. I was relieved when she launched her website for writers EditorUnleashed.com.  When she offered me the opportunity to blog for the site, I was honored. But it has been more than just the platform she has given me or the words of encouragement, Maria has been teaching me about the spirit of staying true to myself as a writer and a woman. She is a person with vision and courage and spirit. She is not afraid to give the odds the finger. In the face of so much naysaying and striving for security in a competitive industry, Maria is a champion for all those who refuse to have their vision confined. In knowing her, I believe I have grown in my own courage.

It is so easy to go along in life not letting those around you know how they have changed who you are. I am grateful for this opportunity to be able to thank Maria for her presence in this world.

Posted by: alegra22 | March 4, 2009

Snake Bite Summer

First published: Waikato Times New Zealand   January 12, 2008

Photo: Deborah K. Morgan

Snake Bite Summer

By Eros-Alegra Clarkegnarly_head_vines_sonoma_po1

The summer I was bit by a nine foot python was the same summer that a dream of Donald Duck saved my life. It was also the summer I learned that parents can be hurt in ways different than stubbing a toe or hitting a thumb with a hammer.

In the middle of the heat, scent of suntan oil and chlorine soaked days, I turned ten. I had great expectations for this age. Ten was a number with a good sound to it, a solid number. One and Zero, a circle and line; there are all kinds of things to be created by moving around a circle and line. Ten was a number with possibility. And before the accident, my new identity as a ten year old was ripe with this sense of freedom. The future was a thing of security and so the sunlight hours were spent like innocence is an inexhaustible resource. My friends and I searched for scorpions in the hills surrounding the small vineyard town of Sonoma California. We rescued tadpoles from dying puddles, rode bikes and ate sugar until our blood was so sweet it moved through our bodies like golden syrup.  I walked everywhere barefoot; on hot asphalt, through thistle filled meadows, and across graveled paths.

While the weekdays were devoted to pleasure seeking, the weekends were spent working in a pet store in exchange for supplies for my turtle, Big Gal. Big Gal was of undefined origin, brought into the store by a concerned nature lover. Half mauled by a dog, she was a mess that refused surrender. I fell in love with her because I knew nobody else would. She was ugly – plain and simple. There were bite marks on her shell, a missing back foot and her colouring was most accurately described as ‘mud’. Big Gal was my first source of comfort after I almost died in the accident.

My job at the pet store came with simple rules; make sure the water dishes are clean; the cages are latched and after handling the mice always wash my hands – especially before moving into the reptile area.  The reptile area was a section located in a small room one flight up from the rest of the shop. Wall to wall built in aquariums housing boa constrictors, pythons, chameleons, water monitors, iguanas, frogs, toads, and turtles. The first time I watched the feeding of the snakes I stood with a brave face that I believed had the owner of the store fooled. There was no way I was going to prove that I was too young for my job, too weak, by crying as the mice with their soft pink feet were swung round by their tails and bashed into the wall. Once. Twice. And then tossed into the aquariums; limp things with enough warmth to attract hunger.

“It’s all part of the cycle of life,” my mother had explained when I was home and the crying I had stored down in my toes worked its way back up my body. Her hand rubbed my back in slow circles, an untouched cup of chocolate milk sat in front of me. I wanted nothing to do with this whole ‘cycle of life’ business if it meant the dull thunk of egg shell skull hitting wood. I didn’t have to go back she said. But I couldn’t stay away. It was a different world in the pet store, one full of filtered light and the mixed scent of saw dust, ocean and insects.  A world I had grown brave in, swooping nets down into low rumbling tanks and lifting out fins or claws. Petting snakes and carrying cockatiels on my shoulders, I was more than just a girl; I was a friend of wild things.

 

That is, until the snake bit me.

The fangs of a python are so sharp that when the snake latched onto my hand I felt nothing but pressure and the weight of flinging it across the room. The first pain I felt was the heat of shame that I had screamed out a swear word in my shock. I was sure I was going to get fired for it. It was my primary fear until the owner was by my side, her mouth twitching in concern and amusement, reassuring me that, no I would not be fired for yelling out “sh*t” in response to a nine foot python striking me. It was then that the perfect incisions scattered across my fingers and the back of my hand received any attention. I had forgotten to wash after feeding the animals downstairs and to a half blind snake, I was nothing more than the scent of mouse.

The incisions were healed within days and required no more treatment than antibacterial cream and empathy, but it was my first lesson that some things don’t hurt until we look at them. That some forms of pain do not exist until our minds register the hurt. And that a simple forgetfulness, like washing our hands, can cause us to walk around with the wrong scent.

I think this is what happened to my mother when the drunken men who rear ended our car climbed out of their truck and began abusing her. It was more than the back injuries, the destruction of our vehicle; it was that the incident became not an accident but an act of violence. An attack so sudden and brutal, that it was as if the men could smell mouse on my mother. Years of it seeped into her skin from a long buried childhood that these men had latched their fangs into.  These were not things that I understood as a child. I only felt the thin glass between the adult world and the world of my childhood crack as the men raised their fists and threatened us with rage filled words for getting in their way.

At some point before the accident, I can not be sure if it was a day or a week, I dreamt I was Donald Duck driving down the road. Being a dream, there was no car, just me holding an imaginary steering wheel and happily going along my way in a cartoon duck body. It was right before I was going to turn off the road into my driveway that I looked over my shoulder to see the truck – just before it hit me and sent me tumbling out of my invisible car.

I did not recall the dream until later but on the return from a last minute trip into town for school supplies I had managed the entire ride home without wearing my seatbelt. It wasn’t until my mother had put the blinker on to turn into our driveway that I remembered and in that brief moment of reaching for it while thinking, “I am home, it doesn’t matter now” I clicked it into place anyway. It saved my life. A second later the car was spinning across the road, its momentum only stopped by a large concrete barrier in the shoulder of the ditch.

 

My ten year old body would have went through the windshield, head first.

 

At the sound of metal crumpling around stone, my father came running out of the house. And before turning to the men and their bloodshot eyes, he instructed me to go inside. The first thing I did was to grab Big Gal out from her aquarium and hold her to my chest, whispering, “I think I almost died. It’s a really big thing, almost dying.” Her head had poked out of her shell, a rare show of affection and then quickly retreated. I waited to feel something, but unlike the snake bite, I couldn’t see the incisions, the places where I had been hurt.

 

I don’t think my mother could either, or if she did, the new wounds led her eyes to older wounds, things that she had avoided feeling for years. After the car accident she went to bed for months. I remember the shadows of her bedroom, the cold emptiness of the air. I had lost my mother for a season and if it hadn’t been for the remembrance of a dream, a warning about being a sitting duck and the reminder that the things which protect us or harm us are often invisible, I might have missed the fact that instead of loss, I had been given life.

 

A year passed, ten turned into eleven. An age made of two pillars. One and one. My mother eventually emerged from her room and filled in the space she had left as though nothing had changed. But something had changed, I had grown older. I understood that no matter how many years pass, we are still vulnerable to snake bites and forgetfulness that may cause us harm, but that we don’t have to fear because there is something else. A something that guides us to put on a seat belt, even when it makes no sense.

 

 

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