It is leaving

1.

On the first day there was stillness.

For a moment nothing moved. The wind held its breath. The birds stopped in midflight—their wings pinned against the blurry space of sky.

We didn’t blink, as though our eyelids were glued back. Orators’ hands hovered in mid-gesticulation. Wheels of cars didn’t rotate. Midway through an intersection we could see the perfect, shiny forms of the hubcaps, each spoke a precise dart of light.

Clocks stopped. The clappers of church bells paused before banging the brass sides. Crowds stilled—arms and legs and necks craned in poses of motion.

After the stillness we moved again, and we almost forgot about this incident.

 

2.

People are always dying, but on the next day, there was a different sort of dying.

A woman at the Dollar Store collapsed as she shelved boxes of tampons. She was only 29. A man in an I-80 Westbound toll both (Exit 274) crumpled over, his hand held out for a ticket. The cars honked, and a red trickle of blood seeped in the gulley between his pinky and ring fingers.

Babies asphyxiated in cradles, bankers reached for their throats behind glass-plated offices. The weatherman’s eyes rolled into the back of his head, as a high front blew in on the green screen behind him.

The President declared an emergency, but he fell onto his desk in the middle of the announcement, and we all heard the crack his forehead made against the wood. Then a commercial for frozen pizzas came on.

It wasn’t only the people, but the animals, too.

Deer stood on the yellow centerlines and faced the grills of cars. Cats lunged through screen doors, their furry necks caught in the screens. A tiger at the San Diego Zoo leapt over its wall, and then lay in the center of the snake pit. And though to a flock of sixth-graders it looked like the tiger had fallen asleep, its striped ribs didn’t heave and the Egyptian cobra that snuck up between its ears didn’t make the tiger flinch.

We heard—through the one lone radio station—that a herd of elephants sunk into a watering hole in Zambia, and that llamas in Peru threw themselves from Machu Picchu.

We tried to stay in our homes and wore masks to protect our airways. We sprayed the air with disinfectants and carried pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer.

 

3.

Birds fell from the sky on the third day. Plunking onto rooftops, catching in their beloved tree branches, landing in the laps of unsuspecting pleasure-seekers hurtling along in the Coney Island Cyclone, one of the last rollercoasters still functioning.

Ostriches in Australia were reported to have stuck their heads in the sand, suffocating. Their backsides stuck up like the ends of feather dusters, sprinkled with the dry grit of the Outback.

Fish—limp and glassy-eyed—washed up into the moats of sandcastles. And when we gathered seashells, our fingers scraped against eels and, once, a mantaray spread out in defeat.

If we wanted to swim, we had to stroke past the floating carcasses of sharks, drifting like miniature islands.

We ate a feast of fowl and shellfish, after the health department proved that there was no disease. We stuffed our stomachs with seafood and broke wishbones, forgetting our wishes.

 

4.

A NASA astronomer, in Mississippi, noticed that the buckle on Orion’s belt was missing. He demanded that the telescope be cleaned.

An amateur astronomer—twelve years of age—reported that the stars of the Big Dipper had fallen one by one, until only the North Star loomed overhead. And then, with many of us watching the sky, it popped, with blackness replacing where it had been.

The moon wasn’t visible that night, until a San Francisco priestess pointed out that it was time for the half moon. Many phone lines were down, but once word got out, suburbs called in reporting that there was no moon in their night skies either.

The next morning was not a morning, for the sun burst into millions and billions and trillions of sparks that fizzled like pop rocks, and made our mouths ache.

The only light we had now was in candlewicks and flickering light bulbs, and fires made from brittle branches. We stared into the whitest parts of the flames and imagined being burned by the sun.

Some more dangerous types lay in tanning beds and took off their eyewear, so their eyeballs would be ablaze.

 

5.

We were frantic today.

The Redwoods gave up and toppled over. Cornstalks shriveled up in Iowa, oranges rotted in their skins down in Florida, the wheat of Kansas turned to dust and could no longer be gathered. There were no more cows for butter in France, the rice paddies of China flooded, and the Dutch tulip fields molted, the petals crackling underfoot.

Throughout the day the plants blanched, until green was just a memory.

We headed in droves (those of us left) to the grocery stores and bought cartloads of cereals and moldy breads, boxes of spaghetti and Oreos and frozen peas, because what if we no longer had the option to refuse peas?

The vegans turned cruel and beat back the meat eaters for the last stalks of broccoli, raising the green heads high up like bridal bouquets.

Earthquakes divided neighborhoods and cities and countries. We’d look out our windows to the houses next door, a deep chasm where the arborvitae used to be. One man’s house swelled up in the shape of meringue, and the ground on all sides crumbled like a graham cracker crust.

 

6.

We sat atop our roofs, because the rivers and estuaries had flooded.

The oceans swallowed New Zealand last hour, and this hour they swallowed California (which finally broke away with yesterday’s earthquake).

It rained heavily and no one could tell sky from land. We walked through a perpetual waterfall. The umbrellas drooped down past our ears, our snot mixing with the water, and when we were parched, we stuck out our tongues and caught raindrops.

One mother washed her laundry outside, but the only dry place left to hang it was the attic. The jeans began to mildew.

 

7.

Today our imaginations withered, and we forgot how to have conversations.

We huddled in fog. There were no shadows, because darkness receded from whence it came. We strived to hold onto a hand, a lamppost, a chimney, and our senses faded too.

We thought that It would leave like the great and wonderful Oz—in a balloon, soaring in a burst of rainbow color up into the clouds. Or maybe as a shooting star—fast and bright and magnificent—ducking between the galaxies. Or sharp and menacing like a missile—direct and out into space, orbiting us like a satellite and breaking away.

But we had never seen It. So we only felt It leaving, as in the way of fleeting thoughts.

And between the moment of Light and After Light, we reached for something, grasped onto nothing and in the pits of what might once have been called souls, recognized a great absence. We despaired.

At the end of the week, we were entirely alone.

Courtney McDermott HeadshotCourtney McDermott is a native of Iowa currently living in the greater Boston area. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame. Her debut collection of short stories, How They Spend Their Sundays, was published by Whitepoint Press in 2013. She now works at Harvard and can be found on www.courtneymcdermott.com.

Bookstores Closing

When I travel I usually like to go into random stores and peruse through strange things I really don’t need. My top priority though is always to check out the local bookstores and see what goodies I can walk away with and I’m sure to check out the staff picks. Somehow I believe that if I am able to connect with the bookstore perhaps, just perhaps, I’ll be able to live there. No bookstore equals me not being able to live there, ever. Unfortunately, though, lots of independent, and now even the chain bookstores, are having to close their doors, and with that part of the heart of the community is lost.

This reminds me of a time when I went to see Sherman Alexie speak at the San Francisco War Memorial (which seemed more like a stand up comedy show). He asked, no, he begged us to stop buying books online and to support our local bookstores. That is why, until recently, he had not allowed his books to sell as ebooks. Going into the topic of whether you like ebooks or an actual paper book is another topic by itself and really comes down to preference. But I do agree with Sherman Alexie, and since that day I have made an effort to always buy my books at the bookstores I love. Even when the price and comfort of getting books dropped off at my door seems tempting, I still buy them at bookstores.

Now, one of the older bookstores that has been around since 1971 in San Francisco is struggling to stay open. Modern Times Bookstore would be a loss, not just for the community but to all San Francisco’s residents and the tourists that visit us every year, because Modern Times Bookstore is unique in what they sell. They are known to sell books published by small presses, books on politics, feminist books, they even have a sexuality and gender section, and a lot of writings on or by Latinos. I believe they are the only bookstore in San Francisco that holds a monthly book club on books written exclusively in Spanish. Well, more to come in a future post on this little bookstore with a big heart.

So, if you are traveling to San Francisco, let me leave you with a list of bookstores that you can checkout.

1.) Modern Times Bookstore Collective

2919 24th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

2.) Green Apple Books

506 Clement Street

San Francisco, CA 94118

3.) Alley Cat Books

3036 24th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

4.) City Lights Booksellers and Publishers

261 Columbus Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94133

5.) Dog Eared Books

900 Valencia Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

Woman, Where Is Your Crown? & Self Portrait #1

Woman, Where Is Your Crown?

Woman, where is your crown?
Why do you stand there dumb-
founded? It does not abide in the swivel of your hips
or the bouncing of your breasts!
Your crown was not gold wrought from the ground,
and slipped around your finger as a noose!
Your crown was a gift,
a tapestry, woven from iridescent sunbeams,
and laid upon your brow by all the beasts of the earth.

Woman, did you forget
your coronation so quickly?
Your nakedness is not your robe
or shield. Stoop low,
and pick up your crown.
May you never stoop so low again!

Self Portrait #1

I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best. —Frida Kahlo

I paint a caricature aflame
in blood and lust
with pink laughing lips and cheeks,
but my bruise-blue eyes cannot be colored
by the rouge mask.
I ink in my scars.
(but where do I draw the lines?)
Are they too raw
for you to see
or for me to show?
I am afraid
I bleed many colors:
I am glass-green sea alight,
I am a war(rior) shrouded in black,
I am a wife struggling with shadows and light,
I am a woman
rewriting perspective.
My point of view reflected infinitum:
thick alabaster thighs, purple crooked shoulders;
hips swaying in orange abandonment
to a song without tempo in every look-
ing glass; I repaint my nakedness
so that I may see myself
reincarnate.

Carolyn EliasCarolyn D. Elias is a poet who lives with her husband, in Hancock, Minnesota. Carolyn’s work has appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine. Her poems will soon be published by East Jasmine Review and on Apeiron Review’s website. You can learn more about her at www.carolyndeliasauthor.squarespace.com or follow her on Twitter @CarolynDElias.

A Wine Bar, the Blues, and the Reasons We Read

I am a nighttime reader. I turn pages till my eyes glaze, my fingers lose their grip, and my sweetheart moves my book to his nightstand. I find it there under a ray of sun while dressing for work the next morning, no recollection of his kindness or the last two pages. Beside my bed are three piles of books: books to read soon, books to read immediately, and books I have recently read but am not yet ready to put away. On his side of the bed are three piles as well: books read but not yet shelved, books he wants to read, and books I offer from one of my own piles with an earnest “you should read this” which he kindly takes and moves to his nightstand.

Lately I have been wondering, why is it we read? Not just why I read or you read and he reads, but “we” as in all human beings. I am not thinking of instruction manuals, I am thinking of books, essays, stories, poems. And I mean truly “we” as in all human beings, not just “we” as in writers. If we had no craft to hone, we would still read.

The question I am not asking is Why do we write? You and I—we have been writing since that first little blue diary with the lock on the side. Or was yours a classic composition notebook? Weren’t we both inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank? Or maybe you, like my youngest stepdaughter, began writing down stories inspired by fourth grade recess games. Even when we stopped journaling sometime in the years between Anne Frank and the New York Times’ Modern Love column, we eventually started again. Maybe it was The Artist’s Way morning pages. Maybe it was self-therapy over a divorce. I don’t have to ask the question because we know why we write. We write because the process of unloading our stories onto a page relieves us of their burden. We write because if we didn’t, we might die under their weight. We write because another story wants room to emerge. We write because through writing we live more completely.

But why do we read?

Recently some classmates and I were discussing a New York Times bestseller of narrow focus—The Wild Trees, a work of narrative nonfiction about Giant Redwoods and people who climb them. As you can imagine in a book about climbing trees, there were long passages about botany and climbing technique. In other words, not (to me) fascinating topics.  But, many times throughout the narrative I found myself thoroughly engaged. My classmates and I shared this experience, which, in and of itself, was one of the most intriguing parts of the book. I found myself reading closer to understand why our small group of readers—comprised of both tree lovers and (gasp!) non-lovers—so enjoyed this book.

Since The Wild Trees, my classmates and I have moved on to other discussions, but I still find myself considering this question.  What took The Wild Trees from being a story that the author was interested to write to a story I was interested to read?

The fact is, none of us would have picked up The Wild Trees if it were a botany textbook, and as writers, this is worth remembering. As readers of creative non-fiction, we desire more than white and black information. We want connection, and that comes in the grey areas of emotion. The author threw in tree-canopy-sex and a few scenes of oh-no-is-he-gonna-die, but there were other truly memorable moments in the narrative. Suspense and personal details enmeshed in the nitty-gritty botany made The Wild Trees a compelling book instead of a science lesson to make my head explode. Sure, we come to writing because there is a story that we want/need to tell, but we cannot forget our readers. In The Wild Trees, the author brought in universal human emotions of fear, love, anger, courage—from the man who did not survive his fall, the man who did, the sex in the branches, the anger, the swamp leeches, and rodents of unusual size. Those bits grabbed all of us in the story. Those are the parts that bridged the gap between a story that Preston wanted to write and a story we all wanted to read.

Tonight, faced with a lonely house and a deadline to meet, I’ve ventured out in search of an amiable writing locale. Between a café and a wine bar, I am now nursing a glass at the latter on a bet that the wine bar would be a little less raucous. I was right: there are five patrons including me, and a bartender. Acoustic blues is wafting sultry and gritty through the speakers, steel strings bending under a slide, aching voices bending under heartache. I can’t hear the lyrics, but I know from the vocalist’s cries that this music is deeply personal, and also poignantly universal. Blues is an emotion we all understand. It touches across generations, across state lines. Desire for what we once had, yearning for something not yet found, sadness for what was lost. It’s all in the music.

I am a nighttime reader, but a daylight writer. Even in a windowless room, I am alert and productive, somehow inherently aware of the sun shining in hot blasts outdoors. The sun is setting earlier now, however. Already the hour is not late, but a half moon hangs in the dark sky. The air, finally, breathes a promise of fall. Sunday night, and suddenly I am in the evening alone, but it is too early to retire with a book. So, like the five patrons here, I came out to join the world.

I’ve brought my laptop to the bar. I intend to write, which is always a deeply personal experience, but tonight, even as I type, I sit amid the company of others. The bluesy guitar in the speakers and the conversation at the bar remind me that we can sing and write and drink by ourselves. We all do it often enough. But aren’t we drawn out to the world from our lonely houses? Don’t we listen to the cries of others through music? And don’t we, after all, read because there is a world beyond our own personal stories? In the end we want to know we are not alone.

 

©2014 Arielle Silver

©2014 Arielle Silver