My Father, the Trickster

I’ve been looking for myths about gulls, and found only ravens. Raven, the trickster, who eats Raccoon’s young. Raven, with his head stuck in a bison skull and bumbling tree to tree to river. Raven led by stomach. I want a story to frame my own. But I did not grow up with ravens. They are too beautiful, with feathers that whisper danger and a name shaped like the hard point of their beak.

Gulls with no pretty name. Gulls with red-rimmed eyes, feet that look neither wet nor dry. Gulls fanning to the horizon, a lens-flare photograph of someone’s beach home.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together. I’d stay awake as long as I could, watching the window fog with our breath, icing out the world. I worried the lock would come unstuck. I worried that my father was ashamed of us, this job meant for children, paperboys, that he had only taken because all of his money went to our mother. Sometimes I woke to smokers clustered outside our windows, peering in on us foundling children, a nest of lumps waiting to crack open.

When my father loaded the car with each wrapped reminder of the world’s disasters, I pretended to sleep. The car rocked with the weight of hundreds of pages of newsprint wrapped in plastic casings. He’d fill the wells under our feet with bundles, row on row that slid into us on curves.

*     *     *

The fairy tales I loved were daughters bought and sold, from Gretel’s father leading her to the forest, to Cinderella’s father giving her to the ashes. I loved Beauty and the Beast most of all: I too loved books and lived in small towns. I too was strange and had a father prone to distraction. I wanted castles with libraries that stretched to heaven and horizon. I longed for dark forests or lighthouses with an attic bedroom. Instead, I had the Shore.

In the winter, the ocean was larger. The beaches were quiet. People did not come to the Shore. There was nothing there.

*     *     *

For a few winters, we lived in other people’s summer homes: pre-furnished with beds and toys, pots and pans, a view of the ocean, and a walk to the beach. They’d leave behind their curled paper tickets from Jenkinson’s Arcade, rolls of points buried in closets and under beds. I loved running them through my fingers, imagining buying all the candy I could hold, pencils with pop stars’ faces, notebooks or games. It wasn’t cheating. We had found them, fair and square.

My father would leave us in the car as he folded newspapers in the distribution center: our bodies cocooned in mothy blankets, our legs tangled together.

These houses, winter houses, were nice houses, nicer than the tiny apartments my father usually rented with a strip of kitchen and walls soft enough to splinter under a fist, where we—my brother, sister, and myself—took turns sleeping on the futon or the floor. Those apartments came with big, hairy neighbors: the kind of men who’d invite us over to watch wrestling specials and eat nachos; the kind of men with tarantulas and snakes; the kind of men who broke beer bottles late at night; the kind of men who knew a guy who was remodeling Joe Pesci’s place, and so one Sunday after delivering newspapers, we were let in to Joe’s Shore house and walked his cool tile floors, tracking mud.

I wondered if this was what my father did when we were with our mother: drank cheap beers and watched men hit each other with chairs, committed petty trespassing. What did he say about us in front of those tropical glass tanks, where the dead-eyed snakes uncurled slowly so not to scare the mice, their jaws had already unhinged to eat. Did he say anything about us at all?

In winter, lawns receded back to sand and hard dirt, gray and dried like feathers crushed by tires in the street. When we delivered newspapers to houses with strips of expensive sod rolled out like lasagna sheets, I stepped on the new grass. I wanted the marks of my feet to be discovered, like some alien crop circle, a gift from the fairies.

*     *     *

Gull young are precocial: they crack free and their eyes are open. Their bodies are covered in downy feathers. Their beaks are designed to peck at their parent for regurgitated dinner.

We ate fine—frozen dinners, cheese in cellophane—but it was never anything I wanted. My father ate mostly meat—sausages and steak and lettuce—from some diet that taught your body to eat itself.

When we returned to my mother’s house, she would ask us what we did. How did we eat? Did he buy us school clothes, winter jackets, or books? Sometimes, I wondered if she eyed our pockets, hoping he had stuffed them full of twenties.

Sometimes we would come back in wild excitement, for some grand adventure we’d been promised for the next weekend. Some treat or toy or trick. As time went on, she learned to tell us not to be disappointed. Still, we would believe him.

*     *     *

One house was only a few blocks from the ocean. Gulls cried out, I’m here, I’m here, at all hours, as they swooped ten, twenty feet above my head, or roosted on the shingles.

We’d walk the sand on nicer weekends, daring each other to go deeper into the tide until one of us would be soaked from the waist on a large wave. Our father would no longer laugh, egging us on, but be suddenly furious that we’d soaked our underwear and would track sand into the house. It was a rental, he’d remind us. It wasn’t ours. Anything we broke, he’d have to pay for. I knew that this was another step closer to the brink, closer to him pulling the mythical car over and we could all walk home.

We knew we couldn’t afford better. All of our father’s money went to our mother to support us. Our mother told us differently, cried on phone calls when she asked her sisters for money to pay our bills. What was true was the story told by the parent we were with.

We were loved, but it was a possessive love, a jealous love. A commodity. I wondered constantly if I was still worthy of such a love, and how I could earn more.

I learned to read the signs. Gulls became the smoke twisting in the sacrificial fires, the entrails poured onto the earth. I was the Oracle, trying to make sense of their message. What are you trying to tell me? Do his shoulders hunch like that because he is more or as-angry as usual? Do I find a funny story from school, or a memory of our old life? Do I pretend not to see? Should I be extra careful when I clean tonight, scraping the fork tins for grease and lining up the cups in the dishwasher like puzzle pieces? When his anger erupted, where was the best place to hide away? What should I clean, how do I be of use so that he is reminded that we were worth having, worth loving?

*     *     *

In the winter homes, I imagined the summer folks. It was a fairy existence. Who could possibly live here? What did it mean to have two houses, and not one for each parent?

In the summers, the stoplights were turned back on and the stop signs unhinged to warn lines of traffic. Panties or vomit dotted the sidewalk and the beach was always full of bodies pinking or leathering under the sun.

Were we the poltergeists, haunting their homes when they returned? I made sure to rub my greasy fingers into the walls. I wanted to leave a sign that I had lived there, that their home wasn’t fully their own. And yet we were always the ones to leave.

*     *     *

Sometimes we would see a dog scatter the gulls on the beach, churning through wet sand. Sometimes there would be people dressed in Lycra, running along the shore. Mostly though, it was just us, writing our names with our fingers in the sand and watching the tide wash the letters away. Or we trudged on, knowing the water would wash our names away eventually.

We were winter children. We had nothing better to do.

*     *     *

Part of what brings Beauty and her Beast together is their shared love of books. In the Disney telling, the library seems to stretch for days. More than the dresses or the talking cutlery, this was my favorite part. I had taught myself to read when I was three. Quickly, I learned to hide in books. I could become so lost in the world of letters that I wouldn’t hear the world around me. During car rides, I could block out the sound of traffic or my father’s rages. The threats to crash the car, the promise to leave us behind.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast. The best stories were the ones I could imagine myself into.

If I wasn’t reading, I wrote. I filled composition books with poems and stories and journal entries. Often, my characters were orphans. It seemed natural to kill off the parents.

When I was a teenager, I began to win awards for my writing. I attended luncheons and national conferences. My father is also a writer. In my teens, I worried he resented my success. If only he hadn’t had to work, he would say occasionally. If only he could have followed his writing. I always felt a bit ashamed for making him need to work, to provide food and clothing.

But then, for anything we really needed, we asked our mother.

*     *     *

Once, Beauty’s father was rich and could spoil his children. But by the time he stumbles into the Beast’s kindness, he is impoverished. His daughters have demanded gowns and his sons, swords. Only Beauty asks for a rose. And so he steals.

Books were a doorway: a way to open and close. When I needed to hide, books. When I felt lost, books connected me. The best stories were the ones that lived in my breast.

Did my father love me as much as that?

When the Beast threatens to lock that father away, he begs for the chance to tell his children goodbye. Beauty offers to stand in his place and the rest—well. You know the story.

How does her father let her go? He must, of course, but how does he leave that castle covered in vines? What is the shape of his spine as he journeys away, back to his other children?

What lesson could I take from this story but that love is duty.

Love is ballast-named but a crucible, all the same.

*     *     *

Beauty’s dresses turn to rags when her sisters try them on, her jewels to dust when they adorn their bodies. What do they make of their old gowns and bracelets, what they had exchanged for their sister?

I thought myself Beauty when I was younger, convinced that one day I’d be taken away, bedecked. I assumed emancipation needed to be given by a hand other than my own.

*     *     *

Eventually my father moved into the town where my mother lived. He rented a loft apartment where we took turns rotating between the floor and an exercise mat when we spent weekday nights and alternating weekends there. At first, he talked about buying beds or sleeping bags, but we adjusted to blankets and the floor.

We ate pizza from the restaurant downstairs sitting around the coffee table in front of a television. What we loved best was wrestling: my brother and I against my sister and father. Soon, it would devolve into the three of us piled on top of our father, trying to hold him down. For a moment, we could puppet his body. But again and again, he rose or one of us would catch an elbow in the soft of our belly, a knee in the back and cry. I was already a bit relieved when the wrestling ended. Fearful, I was sure someone could get really hurt. I worried I loved kneeling on his back, pressing bone to kidney, too much.

*     *     *

Gulls mob strangers: other birds, people, anything that might threaten their nests. The flock unite to form a golem, terrifying children and Bennys alike. But their allegiances fracture easily: over food, a nesting spot. Gulls tear scraps between them, wrestling for the biggest crumb.

*     *     *

As I grew beyond childhood, I or my siblings would ask my father about moments from childhood: remember this? Remember that? No, he would tell us. No, it didn’t happen like that. No, you’re remembering it wrong.

Who gets to decide?

If I remember my father’s anger, if I remember sleeping on the floor, then do I have a right to say it? It wasn’t all bad. But it wasn’t all good. And sure, that is childhood. But I knew other children weren’t itinerant like my siblings and me. I had dreaded someone seeing me help my father fling newspapers. I worried my shame would bleed out of me.

I love my father. But I no longer feel I can let him into my life. When I last confronted him, over email, his response asked me if I hadn’t thought about how he would feel. Don’t you know all the ways you’ve hurt me? he asked.

You’re remembering it wrong, he told me.

*     *     *

A gull is also a term for one who is fooled or deceived. Perhaps this comes from the word gullet, meaning “the throat” but also “to swallow.” Perhaps it is not that uncommon to be fooled by your parent and to still hope that they have changed. Say fooled instead of failed; say trickster instead of father. Perhaps we should expect our parents to devour us, like Kreon. Perhaps I need to find in me a way to slit his stomach open and see what piles forth. Perhaps I need to open my own gut, spill what I’ve ingested in hopes that he might change.

My father has asked me to forgive much of him: cancelling trips after I purchased plane tickets; skipping graduations and Thanksgivings at the last minute; taking out loans in my name that went to collection agencies that led to me weeping on the phone in public spaces, trying to explain that I didn’t know about the loans and had never seen the money.

But my father is always the aggrieved, the hero of his stories. Even the stories I tell about him must follow this pattern. Still, I wonder, what could I have done differently?

*     *     *

Gulls exist in the liminal space: they eat both meat and vegetation. In some myths, birds carry the souls of the dead to heaven or the underworld.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are.

I used to believe that gulls could fly across oceans, that they could sleep on the water with their heads tucked under a wing. But they don’t—usually. They stay close to the coast, feeding off scraps or what they hunt for themselves. They’re opportunistic and bold: I’ve watched them steal pizza crusts inches from someone’s hand. They’ve been seen landing on live whales to peck away strips of their flesh.

This is not to say that gulls are honest, but that they are what they are. At least, as far as I can tell. The appearance of honesty counts for a lot, to so many.

I’ve believed my father is capable of changing. Perhaps I must believe that I am.

*     *     *

I used to play a game. Would my father give me five hundred dollars? I imagine the phone call: I’m in a bad spot, Dad; I’ve made a bad decision, Dad; Dad, they’re holding me for ransom, and I’ve scrounged everything but the last five hundred.

I imagine us tied to train tracks, a game of William Tell, a room slowly filling with water. Would my father give me part of his liver? I try to imagine us wheeled into surgery, our hands clasped until the swinging doors wrench us apart. But then I see him turning to the nurse wheeling his gurney, smiling a bit sadly, and saying, “You know, I don’t think I can do this right now.” He’d really want to, of course, but the timing. The timing would just be terrible.

*     *     *

The only class trip I remember my father chaperoning was to the Trenton War Memorial. We learned about bayonets, specifically their three points, so designed to create wounds that couldn’t close.

*     *     *

Recently a friend asked me how my father died. He’s still alive, I explained. We just don’t speak. Divorcing your parent is an unnatural act. Children are meant to be cared for; we are then meant to care, to nurture. Rejecting this had left me unmoored. Each of my siblings has handled this situation differently. My sister has refused to speak to my father for years. My brother maintains an uneasy relationship. I worry that by not missing him, I’m a bad person. I worry that this means I’m not made to love. Loving me must be a burden.

Beauty forgets her father. She and the Beast create a world without a past, despite decades spent trapped in forms beyond their natural, beautiful shape. Furniture reverts back to flesh, uncracked. What magic was this, what lesson was I meant to learn?

*     *     *

I was a square child. I knew I wasn’t beautiful, but I imagined I might be strong or fierce. Able to pick up cars pinning smaller children. An Atlas for a tired world. Once, I bragged I could carry my father, and in that parking lot he let me try. I bent, braced shoulder to thigh and lifted. I stumbled a few steps before he returned to the ground, surprised and laughing.

It must be time to put him down now.

 

Brynn Downing served as the thirty-fourth writer-in-residence at St. Albans School for boys in Washington, DC, where she also taught literature and creative writing. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and BA in global studies, focusing on masculinity and nationalism in the former Yugoslavia, from the College of William and Mary. She currently volunteers with Four Way Review. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, The James Franco Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. You can find her online at: brynndowning.info.