Clouds and Trees

"Nothing ever goes away enough or arrives enough,/ and I want to cry when I think of my heart,/ muscle pounding in muscle, greedy always for joy." – 'A Warning', Eric Anderson

Category: Prose

Rocks

Last night there was another storm and he could see patches of black ice on the road where the river must have flooded. The radio crackled quietly. He looked out the window and shifted down a gear. The water had been very high and further down the river there would be rapids.

He parked in the gravel lot. As he stepped out of the car he could smell the cold. The sunlight was grey but the sky bright blue and the river, dark green and brown. It was higher than he had ever seen it and thunderous, a static cupping his ears and a resounding deep bass far away, like a drum struck by god.

He stepped through the gate with the ROAD CLOSED sign. The gravel path had disappeared into the river; it looked as if the river had exploded. The trees along the bank had already been exposed completely, the dirt entirely stripped from their roots. The forest seemed naked, shivering. He had taken a walk here with his parents right after the big storm a few years earlier. He had been looking down at his feet, stepping carefully. He looked up; his dad was helping his mom over the rocks.

 

Two huge fisherman were walking towards him. They nodded as they passed. One was missing his arm above the elbow, the sleeve of his waders held closed against the water with a rubber-band.

He had come hoping to find a small island in the middle of the river. He remembered the rapids in that spot had risen to almost six feet. He had stared at those waves crashing in on themselves, his face wet, but never rushing forward until his parents had said they had to move on.

When he reached the spot where it used to be there was only water, flat and fast, water rushing straight through trees. He stared at it for a minute. He took a deep breath of cold air. Once, it had been warm and the water was lower; he had jumped across the rocks and stood on the island. As it started to rain lightly he had stripped and gone into the river.

 

Closer to the car, the water slowed into a wide curve and a dead tree jutted out from the bank. He remembered his Dad crouching on the edge and pointing.

“Right there is where I want you to scatter my ashes.”

“Okay, Dad,” He had tried to laugh, to clasp his shoulder naturally, “Not for awhile.” Just two men by the river. When he was younger they used to walk together here and he would find sticks to throw in. He ran along the edge racing them downstream as they dipped and bucked through the rapids until they blended with the water and he lost sight of them.

Trees

Everywhere he looked, something had changed. In part it was the trees that had fallen over the stream at unfamiliar angles. The water was running low over the rocks now. It would be freezing if he touched it. His parents had already gone five days without power. He flexed his toes in his boots and stood up, brushing the dirt off of his pants.

He walked out of the woods onto the newly paved driveway, stepping as much as he could in the old gravel on its edges. When he reached the end he looked to the left. The road curved away and out of sight.

He put his hand on the wishbone tree next to the driveway. He looked up one trunk, up through to the white sky. The other had been chopped at about chest height. He ran his palm along the stump where the bark lipped over. There had been a car crash. He pulled himself up onto the slanted surface and crouched awkwardly. He thought he must look like a wood gargoyle.

He tried to remember standing in the insurance office, his mother high above him. She described the deer jumping out in front of the car, her defensive swerve. She was sweating, he was sweating. The insurance man nodded, looking down at something. “We get a lot of these this time of year. They get very aggressive during mating season.” She agreed. No big deal.

He slid off the tree and started walking back along the gravel. Of course it hadn’t been a deer. He didn’t remember the rest. She had probably explained it to him.

He smiled strangely as he cut back into the woods, feeling his teeth. He thought about bones he had found out here. Sometimes turtle shells with the tiny spine still inside. Sometimes small bird bones, or just empty circles of feathers. Sometimes fur, once so much it covered a whole clearing. Coyotes, he thought, but did not really know. One time he found a whole deer skull, broken in places. He had stood over it in silence, debating whether or not he wanted to bring it home. His parents told him there were germs on bones. It was always best to leave them where you found them.

Windows

The ceiling was perfectly flat. The corners exact, no paint misplaced. Nothing wrong. He rolled his head to the left. Underneath the fridge there were silhouettes of dirt, balls of dust, lost food. Maybe the floor. What had it been? When he was standing there a moment before something had been off. He had gotten to his knees and rubbed his thumb against the floor tile. That hadn’t helped. He had remembered the technique his mother had taught him for finding small things; he pressed his cheek against the cold white tile and still, nothing seemed wrong. He was glad he had laid down.

“Where are you?” Her voice came out of the bedroom. There was some kind of shuffling, she must be getting dressed. “Someone called you.”

He leaned his head back. He could see the sky even though the window shade was mostly down. It looked warm and blue but he knew it would be freezing. She walked through the door zipping up the side of her dress. “Where are you?”

“Who called?”

“Jesus Christ,” Her face seemed to burst then almost instantly close; lines formed in between her eyebrows. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Did you pick it up or did it go to voicemail?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know, I didn’t see.”

He nodded. “There’s something weird about the kitchen. Are you going out?”

“I’m going to Midtown. Are you just going to stay there? I need to get something.”

He shuffled to the side and she stepped over him. As she reached up and began rifling through the cabinet her heels lifted off the floor, the veins in her ankles visible and thick through the skin. He almost reached out and grabbed them.

“Here we go.” She stepped down and walked into the bathroom, not bothering to turn the light on. He could hear the water running. He took a deep breath and sighed loudly.

She came out of the bathroom and stood over him. “I’m going down to Midtown, is there anything you need? There’s your phone again.” It was buzzing in the bedroom. She handed it to him.

“Okay, I’m going, you don’t need anything?” He shook his head, holding the buzzing phone. “I’ll probably be back in a couple of hours, give me a call if you think of anything.”

The door closed.

He laid there for a minute. The phone was still buzzing. He had been clasping it over his chest. After awhile it stopped. He put it down on the tile next to the fridge.

He brought up his knees and groaned. Most of his backside had fallen asleep. He used the counter to pull himself up. He stood there for a second, getting his bearings. The room was worse now than it had been earlier. It was tilted, as if he had just been dizzy. He went over to the window. The streets outside looked as if they slanted strangely away. A familiar flock of pigeons flew by. They dipped by the window in the exact same way at least once every day. He always caught it out of the corner of his eye. They never changed. The same flock, the same swoop. He rapped his fingertips on the glass, bitten fingernails making an unsatisfying thumping sound. There were millions of windows in New York City. More windows than there were people. Most windows must not be seen at all. Might as well just be walls.

State of Mind

     My state of mind strikes me in the head as I wake up from another unintended nap in my seat on the airplane. I had been sure, without realizing it, that in this transitional space, this quarter-orbit of Earth from a place I will never be again to a place I haven’t been for a year, the place where I grew up, where my parents are waiting for me, that my memories, or rather, my outer-layer, somehow reliant upon context, which I thought I must need in order truly to have ‘been there’, would drift away and disappear like flakes of skin into the plane engines. I must have thought that I would arrive and, with my first step onto American land, be an entirely new person, or just that layers of experience, my accumulated self, would be washed away by time and distance. Once at home, in my natural environment, I would be renewed, like a deck which, when power-washed, reveals clean wood beneath or even like a book whose new and temporary owner holds in his hand the same binding, the same words, the same unbuttoning of story, but it is a matter of debate whether something in the pages remembers hands which have held them before, the person who, in releasing their secrets, could not help also being released and becoming something entirely new.

    It seems to me that this is what is crucial to understand: either I always am the same self, or no such thing exists, and either way, it makes no difference. Just as the eye dilates when I look back into the plane cabin after having gazed out the window at the sun-bright absolutely blazing white clouds and at that instant the cabin appears in an entirely different range of the visual spectrum before being adjusted back to a more appropriate level, so that either there is a standard of light and thus change has significance, or everything is just a perceptual mish-mash; it makes no difference. What is lost? I am, it is.

Poetry

As he stepped out of the car, he realized that he was coming home for the last time. Soon he would be going back to school, then moving into the apartment in the city, and from then on when he arrived at this house, walked through its doors, slept in its beds, he would always be ‘just visiting.’ He stepped through the door into the warm light of the kitchen, pulling off his bag. As he had expected, his mom was standing in front of the sink, looking out through the window into the night. She smiled and hugged him.

“I made soup if you want it, I didn’t know you’d be getting home quite this late.”

“Sorry, I’ll have some later.” He walked through the kitchen. “Let me just take my stuff upstairs.”

He paused in the living room.

“What’s this?” He recognized the picture of his aunt in the corner of the frame, but the poem was unfamiliar. “Did you write this?” He read through it again.

She came into the room and took the picture frame from him. “Yes, I wrote it.” Her face was angled downward and tilted as she read it as if she was looking at a child.

“I had no idea you wrote at all.”

She looked at him, her forehead tightened. “We all did, that was what we did. No television. We played instruments or we wrote or we learned languages. Your grandmother wrote plays.”

His bag was heavy. He dropped it to the living room floor. He knew his grandmother wrote plays. She put the poem back onto the table.

“Bring your bag up to your room, I may still have some things.”

He went upstairs. Everything was cluttered with piles of stuff they had been cleaning out from the spare room, his childhood bedroom. He edged by the boxes and opened the door. Every time he came home the walls in here looked whiter, the ceiling lower. He put his bag down and began taking out his clothes.

His mom walked in. “I saved these from your grandmother’s house.” She sat next to him on the bed and handed him the thin pile of yellowed papers. On top was a torn out page from a yearbook with the same picture of his aunt. Below was quoted “. . . and we will all the pleasures prove . . .”

“In our house, when you were sick, or alone, you crawled into my parents’ bed and my mother, my parents came and they read. They read poetry to us, stories, and that’s how I was raised. There’s no right or wrong, that’s just the way it was. We would memorize poems and recite them to each other. What was it?” She paused, smiling in the same way she had downstairs, with tears in her eyes. “Ah,” she looked over his head as she began to recite,

“‘Son,’ said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
‘You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I.’

‘There’s nothing in the house
To make a boy breeches,
Nor shears to cut a cloth with
Nor thread to take stitches.’

‘There’s nothing in the house
But a loaf-end of rye,
And a harp with a woman’s head
Nobody will buy,
And she began to cry.”

She paused. “I’m not sure I remember most of it.” She shut her eyes, covering her mouth. He was holding his knees with his hands. They had never talked about poetry. She opened her eyes. Her voice was choked.

“Men say the winter
Was bad that year;
Fuel was scarce,
And food was dear.

A wind with a wolf’s head
Howled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
And sat upon the floor

All that was left us
Was a chair we couldn’t break,
And the harp with a woman’s head
Nobody would take,
For song or pity’s sake.”

“I can’t remember the rest.” She was breathing heavily, her eyes watered. “But that’s what we used to do.”

“What poem was that?”

She tilted her head. “Clothing for a Prince? Something like that. I have to go downstairs, do you have any laundry?”

“No, that’s okay Mom. Thanks for all this stuff, this is really amazing.”

She nodded, a distracted expression on her face as she closed the door behind her. He looked back down at the paper on his lap. Beneath the yearbook photo was a stapled together group of typewritten pages. He gently pulled it out. His aunt’s name was at the top. Some of the poems were in French, some in English. He saw the name “Jacques Prevert”.

To Paint The Portrait of a Bird
First paint a cage
with an open door
paint next
something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
next place the canvas against a tree
in a garden
in a park
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
without saying anything
without moving . . .
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but he can as well take a long time
to make up his mind
Do not be discouraged
wait
wait if necessary for years
the speed or slowness of the bird’s coming
not having any relation
to the success of the painting
When the bird comes
if he comes
observe the most profound silence
wait until the bird enters the cage
and when he has entered
close the door softly with the brush
then
erase one by one all of the bars
being careful not to touch the bird’s feathers
Make next the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the coolness
of the wind
the dust of the sun
and the sound of the creatures in the grass in
the summer heat
and then wait until the bird decides to sing
If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad
but if he sings it’s a good sign
a sign that you can sign it
Then you pull out very gently
one of the bird’s plumes
and you write your name in a corner of the painting.

Free Sector

I put my army cap in the cage
and I went out with the bird on my head
So
we aren’t saluting anymore
demanded the commander
No
we aren’t saluting anymore
replied the bird
Oh well
excuse me I thought we saluted
said the commander
You’re quite excused anybody can make a mistake
said the bird.

He looked up. He felt profoundly light headed. He blinked and looked out the window. In the morning he wanted to go outside.

Rocks …from A Portrait of a Bird

He slowed down a little bit. Another storm last night; he could see patches of black ice on the road where the river must have flooded. The radio crackled quietly. He looked out the window and shifted down a gear. The water had been very high and further down the river there would be rapids.

He parked in the gravel lot. The sunlight was grey but the sky was bright blue and the river, dark green and brown. It was higher than he had ever seen it. He stepped through the gate with the perpetual ROAD CLOSED sign. He tied and retied his scarf as he walked; it was much too cold out. Eventually, the gravel road turned into a path of large, shattered rocks. It looked like the river had exploded. The trees along the bank, already in the midst of their winter nudity, had been exposed completely, the dirt entirely stripped from their roots. He remembered taking a walk here with his parents right after that storm a few weeks earlier. He had been looking down at his feet, stepping carefully, and when he had looked up his dad had been helping his mom walk over the rocks.

Two huge fisherman were walking towards him. They nodded as they passed. One was missing his arm above the elbow, the sleeve of his waders held closed against the water with a rubber-band.

He had come here hoping to find something he remembered from that walk a few weeks before. There had been a small island in the middle of the river, just a copse of trees, a mound of dirt, and a mat of leaves. It split the river and forced it to rush through a small channel. The rapids there had risen to almost six feet, churning and dropping and folding back onto themselves. At the time he had stood there staring at those waves crashing in place until his parents had said they were going to keep walking.

When he reached the spot he recognized the island but the water had risen too high. It was a deluge, coming endlessly, the water rushing straight over the rocks. He stood there and stared at it for a minute. He took a deep breath of cold air and let his shoulders relax. Once, he had jumped across these rocks and finally stood on that island. It had been warmer then and the water was lower so he had taken the risk and gone into the river. It had started to rain lightly on him as he stood in the middle.

As he neared the car a certain part of the river caught his attention. The water slowed into a wide curve and a dead tree jutted out from the bank . He remembered his dad saying something odd about it.

“Right there is where I want you to scatter my ashes.” He pointed over towards the tree trunk.

“Okay, Dad. Not for awhile now.” He had breathed out a laugh. All he could think of was when he was younger and used to pick up sticks from the path and throw them into the river. He would chase them downstream as they dipped and bucked through the rapids, eventually either getting caught in the rocks or racing ahead until they blended with the water and he lost sight of them.

Ferre

I

see a swan on the lake from my window. It is real, white, feathered,
brisk early morning, Norfolk. Then the past, I’m riding my bike
along the pond with always the same swan in it. The man sitting on
the bench, not moving for years, turns out to be made of wood. It is

early, but I decide to walk down to the lake. The swan is standing free
of the water. Strange to begin with. The swan I know from my pond never
came or went, never broke its seal with the surface. It was a fixture;

the pond itself. This one is so big, naked there, obscene in its
beauty, stretching out its neck with unnatural grace. Nothing could be
but this. I follow it around the lake. When it begins to fly I’m behind
bushes, so I hear it first, impossible sound, the whole body of a swan

not floating indefinitely but rising, leaving. If I had gone into that
pond just one time as a kid and tried touching it, I would have known
if my swan was made of wood. It never flew like this one, goose-like,
huge and heavy, a cloud with substance, body, and wings

I

see a swan on the lake from my window. It is real, white and feathered,
early morning, Norfolk. Then warm, the air, yellow; I’m not too far
from home and riding my bike by always the same pond,

the same swan always floating in it. The man sitting on the bench
nearby, who didn’t move for years, turns out to be made of wood.
It is early, but I decide to leave the building and walk down to the lake.

The swan stands out of the water. The bottom half of its body
reminds me of a vulture’s the way the thought of water
burning and choking me appears if I reflect on the opposite,

a deep breath, the smooth filling up of air. The swan, memory,
never stood up, never came or went, never broke its seal with the
surface. It was fixation; the pond itself. This one is much bigger,

naked, obscene in its beauty, stretching a neck with unnatural grace.
Nothing could be but this. I follow it around, running on the shore
when I lose it, white sun reflecting off the lake. When it begins to

fly I’m behind the trees but I hear it, impossible sound, the whole
body of a swan not floating indefinitely but rising, leaving. I want to
be thirteen and jump into that pond, watch the swan screech and squawk

and fly away, not float silently, hollow thing, wood and paint.
But it never flew, goose-like, huge and heavy, cloud with substance,
body, and wings barely big enough, carrying it away from me.

Trees …from A Portrait of a Bird

Everywhere he looked, something had changed. The angles of the trees fallen over the stream looked unfamiliar. He could barely recognize this part of the woods. When he had gotten home a few days earlier, his parents had already gone five days without power.

The stream was low, barely running over the rocks. The water would be freezing if he touched it. He flexed his toes in his boots and stood up, brushing the dirt off of his pants. He looked again at the oddness of the trees, paused, then did not walk down the stream as he had planned.

He stepped out of the woods onto the newly paved driveway. He avoided walking on the asphalt, instead stepping as much as he could in the gravel along its edges. When he reached the end of the driveway he looked to the left. The road curved away, down the hill and out of sight.

He put his hand on the tree next to the driveway which split into two trunks. One had been chopped through completely, leaving a smooth stump at about chest height. He looked up the length of tree that remained, up through to the white sky. It was like a used wishbone. He ran his palm along the stump where the bark lipped over. The scar was almost the same grey-brown as the bark. There had been a car crash, then eventually an electrical fire. He pulled himself up onto the slanted surface and crouched awkwardly. He thought he must look like a wood gargoyle.

He tried to remember standing in the insurance office, his mother high above him. She described the deer that had jumped out in front of the car, her defensive swerve. She was sweating, he was sweating. The insurance man nodded, looking down at something. “We get a lot of these this time of year. They get very aggressive during mating season.” She agreed. No big deal.

He slid off the tree and started walking back along the gravel. Of course it hadn’t been a deer. He didn’t remember the rest. She had probably explained it to him.

He smiled strangely as he cut back into the woods, feeling his tongue with his teeth. He thought about bones he had found out here. Sometimes turtle shells with the tiny spine still inside. Sometimes small bird bones, or just empty circles of feathers. Sometimes fur, once so much it covered a whole clearing. Coyotes, he had thought, but did not really know. One time he found a whole deer skull, broken in places. He had stood over the skull in silence, debating whether or not he wanted to touch it, whether he wanted to bring it home. His parents told him there were germs on bones. It was always best to leave them where you found them.

As the house and yard came into view he thought about the tree again. For years after they had taken it down he found stacks of logs all around the woods. He would arrange them in the fireplace. They ignited instantly. Now they would all be rotting or fused together with ice, and he would walk past them without noticing. Eventually, they would disappear on their own.

Windows …from A Portrait of a Bird

The ceiling was perfectly flat. The corners were exact, no paint misplaced, nothing visibly wrong. He rolled his head to the left. Underneath the fridge there were silhouettes of dirt, balls of dust, lost food. Maybe the floor was imperfect. What had been wrong? When he had been standing there a moment before something had been off. He had gotten to his knees and rubbed his thumb against the floor tile. That hadn’t helped. He had remembered the technique his mother had taught him for finding small things. With his cheek pressed against the cold white surface he still hadn’t been able to see anything. He was glad he had laid down.

“Where are you?” Her voice came out of the bedroom. There was some kind of shuffling, she must be getting dressed. “Someone called you.”

He leaned his head back. He could see the sky even though the window shade was mostly down. It looked warm and blue but he knew it would be freezing. She walked through the door zipping up the side of her dress. “Where are you?”

“Who called?”

“Jesus Christ,” Her face seemed to burst then almost instantly close; lines formed in between her eyebrows. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Did you pick it up or did it go to voicemail?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know, I didn’t see.”

He nodded, approving. “There’s something weird about the kitchen. Are you going out?”

“I’m going to Midtown. Are you just going to stay there? I need to get something.”

He shuffled to the side and she stepped over him. As she reached up and began rifling through the cabinet her heels lifted off the floor, the veins in her ankles visible and thick through the skin. He almost reached out and grabbed them.

“Here we go.” She stepped down and walked into the bathroom, not bothering to turn the light on. He could hear the water running. He took a deep breath and sighed loudly.

She came out of the bathroom and stood over him. “I’m going down to Midtown, is there anything you need? There’s your phone again.” It was buzzing in the bedroom. She handed it to him.

“Okay, I’m going, you don’t need anything?” He shook his head, holding the buzzing phone. “I’ll probably be back in a couple of hours, give me a call if you think of anything.” He heard the door close.

He laid there for a minute. The phone was still buzzing. He had been clasping it over his chest the entire time. After awhile it stopped. He put it down on the tile next to the fridge.

He brought up his knees and groaned. Most of his backside had fallen asleep. He used the counter to pull himself up. He stood there for a second, getting his bearings. The room was worse now than it had been earlier. It was tilted, as if he had just been dizzy. He went over to the window. The problem was no different outside, the streets looked like they slanted strangely away. A familiar flock of birds, probably pigeons, flew by. They dipped and looped by the window in the exact same way at least once every day. He always caught it out of the corner of his eye. They never changed. The same flock, the same swoop. Maybe they flew all around the city in this pattern and everyone else always saw them out of their own windows, flying in the exact same way. Stuck in a loop. He rapped his fingertips on the glass, bitten fingernails making an unsatisfying thumping sound. There were millions of windows in New York City. More windows than there were people. At any given moment, were more windows being seen into, or out of? Most windows must not be seen at all. Might as well just be walls.

Grass …from A Portrait of a Bird

That morning they decided to take a walk in the woods. He thought they should spend a little more time outside. Downstairs, she stepped past him through the screen door. Her shoes flapped against the patio. He looked up. The sun was white through thin clouds. Nothing had changed for a few days. He wanted to take her to the field.

As they walked across the yard he turned to her. “You should’ve worn long pants.”

She looked down at her dress. “I’ll be fine.”

He pushed prickers out of their way. The path was hard to see. He walked ahead of her. She was stepping carefully through a tangle of bushes when he stopped.

“This is it.”

He didn’t expect her to be impressed. The field was small but special for a forest like this one. Low grass was mowed down in so many lawns or shaded to death in the forest around the house, but it flourished here. Each blade came up to their waists and resisted their legs. The crushed stalks unfolded in their footsteps.

They flattened a circle to sit. He watched her hesitate, her lips tightening a little bit, her fingers pinching her dress. She lowered quickly, legs folding to the side. He sat across from her. The grass rose over their heads, borders became invisible; the field, endless.

He kissed her. He didn’t know how to make the day beautiful but this was close, he thought. She smiled with tight lips, leaning back on her hands. She tilted her head toward the white sun. He stared out into the grass. She was looking at him.

“What are you thinking about?”

He coughed into his hand. A car passed down the road, far away, snaking through the woods. He was silent for a second.  “Nothing. All this. How young it is. Where you’re from trees are hundreds of years old, or you don’t know until you cut them down. Here, everything started growing fifty years ago. It was farmland, then pastures my dad mowed. What we’re sitting in is overgrowth.”

She ran her fingers along a blade of grass, looked at him. “Don’t do that.” She blinked. Her eyes stayed closed for too long. Not quite a grimace. He felt the urge to apologize.

She looked up at the sky. “I’m tired.”

“I think we stayed up too late last night. Ok.”

He stood and gave her a hand. Tiny grass-colored spiders were crawling up the fringe of her dress. He brushed them off.

“What is it?”

“Nothing. Just grass.”