Sunday, March 18, 2007

grandfather puzzle

I sat at my grandfather’s knee and waited. Why are girls always portrayed sitting at the knee of elder men? No matter. He was my grandfather, and I adored him. He was intent, cradling the puzzle delicately and firmly directing its destiny at once. I was restless, slowly filling up with excess energy like water waiting to boil. But I had committed, which calmed my intuition to bolt from the room in search of more exciting diversions.

I watch myself sitting in memory, far from that place and in it at the same time. I see now that I remember it differently than it was. And yet, my memory is accurate. Columbus, Mississippi on a sticky hot summer’s afternoon. I wasn’t used to the hot clinging to me with such determination. No escape. No escape except for my grandfather’s knee, towering over me like a shady oak, where the insistent heat seemed to loose its grip on the top priority of my mind.

He seemed to sit immobile for hours, staring at the marble, perhaps communicating telepathically with it, coaxing it toward the center ring. My eyes darted rapidly back and forth between his and the marble in the puzzle, concerned I would miss the moment and fail to learn the winning secret yet again. I tried to take in everything: his hands, his posture, his gaze, any subtle movement of the marble in its casing, and any betrayal of what he might be thinking. But while his focus seemed never to waver, mine rolled in and out like ocean waves. Who was in the kitchen? Would we go to the store later? When would it be my turn again? Wait. Did he just move? Did I miss it…again?

I remember my grandfather. I remember who I saw him to be in the world. I remember his patience and his quiet. I remember how his humor always caught me by surprise. I remember trying to decipher between his serious appearance and his jovial nature. I remember how he seemed to know every word ever conjured and the many meanings attached to each one. I remember his gentleness and the care he applied to each endeavor he undertook, regardless of its ultimate significance. I remember wanting to be like him.

I had missed something, but perhaps it hadn’t been the secret to conquering the puzzle. I couldn’t yet tell. He moved. I’m not sure if it was his eyes, his hands, or his resolve. But I know he moved. I drew in a breath to ask him but he stopped me as if pressing a pause button with a simple dip of his chin. So, I held the breath and the thought, and I returned to watching his every move. I thought I caught sight of a smile creeping from his eyes to the corners of his mouth, and my eyes darted to his hands. With a swift, confident swish of a motion, his wrists dipped down, reached forward, rose up and returned to their start. Magically, the marble leapt to the center ring and settled there as if it had always been there and would never think of leaving again.

We both released our breath and smiled with satisfaction. At least, that’s how I see it now. At the time, I wanted to learn to beat the puzzle. I wanted to be elegant like my grandfather rather than clumsy like the 7 year old I was. That desire is clear to me as I see my intention doing battle with my restlessness. But the puzzle fades in my memory while my grandfather and I come into sharp relief, floating before me as if we’re still sitting there, him in his armchair and me on the floor looking up at him. I see us shaping each other, learning each other’s styles for living in the world. I see how his approach to the puzzle is lighting a path for me that I am still walking today. I see my wonder at the world renewing his own.

His deliberate movement suddenly melted as if he just stepped, lifelike, from the canvas of an oil painting, to carry on his day. He handed me the puzzle, and I reached for it, surprised he hadn’t carefully set it aside to enjoy his triumph for at least a short while. “Take your time,” he said as he smiled and stood to return to his daily tasks.

I see now what I missed in my own distraction all those years ago. He had chosen his moment. He had been patient, and he actively enjoyed the challenge. He observed it from all angles, and savored it. And then, he literally took his time. Before that moment, I had not realized I could do that, too. Before this moment, I had not realized the lasting value of what he’d taught me on that summery, southern day.

Written by Angela Booker
March 17, 2007

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Thief of Memory came in the night and crept on caterpillar legs into my bedroom. With a sound like a whisper being torn in half he crept onto the bed and perched on my chest. He weighed less than nothing. His face was the face of a kewpie doll or a grasshopper or a flat black square with blinking lights. I can’t recall which.

"Oh ho!," He said in a voice that roared and resounded about my apartment. "I didn't expect to find you awake." He smiled, or maybe he didn't.

"Yeah," I explained, "too many dates after dinner." I tried to shrug to show that I knew it was a silly thing to do, but I found myself unable to move at all.

He smiled a large toothed smile, his tongue lolling about. Or maybe he just winked. "There's a lot of sugar in those. They're much better at breakfast., especially with cream cheese and honey."

I took offense to receiving gustatory advice from this monster. "Look, can we just get on with it?"

The Thief of Memory frowned, or maybe his lights blinked. "Since you're awake I'll grant you a boon: think of one memory and remember every detail of it you can and maybe I'll let you keep that one." His jaw dropped open like a snakes and a large slimy tongue licked about my ear. "Just don't think 'Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man.'"

I was mountain biking with my step-dad and best friend when I was seventeen. It was a humid August afternoon in Michigan. Mosquitoes were thick in the shade and sweat soaked my hair. The trail we were on was narrow and dusty. It used to be train tracks, but they'd been pulled up and turned into this. Ten miles down and ten miles back, that was the plan. I fought to keep up with the others, who were more athletic than I. On the ten mile trip back to our truck my friend spotted a series of small hills just off the path. The hills were sandy and taller than me, but not by much. We took turns riding up and down them, savoring this break from the straight and narrow path. I stood at the top of the tallest hill, feeling a touch of vertigo and fear. But the others had sailed down it without a problem, so I tried too.

I inched forward until gravity gripped me and pulled me yelling down. I screamed with joy and felt the adrenaline burn through my blood. But then my front tire hit a rock and then some deep sand. Before I knew what was happening I was sprawled face first in a mud puddle. My mouth tasted of blood and I realized I was crying. My shoulder was sore and my arm was twisted too far around. I had mud in my nose and eyes and mosquitoes were already feasting on my neck.

My friend and step-dad both laughed and rode down the path. They hadn't realized what happened.

I stood and tried to pick up my bike, but my right arm wasn't moving right. I felt bone scraping deep in my shoulder. Using my left hand I picked up my right shoulder and lifted until I felt my collarbone sliding back into place. It was hard to ride the bike that way--left-handed--but I made do. I only fell off twice. After a few miles the others realized I wasn't behind them and they came back to find me covered in mud and blood and gritting my teeth as I rode down the trail.

"Why'd you save that one?"

I thought about it and said, "I can make new happy memories easily. Forgetting how good hot buttered toast tastes, or the feeling of sleeping in a lover's arms or the pleasure of reading a really good book--all of these things I can do again, and I plan to. In fact, by taking these memories from me you've allowed me to experience the joy of them for the first time again." I nodded at the monster on my chest, " And I thank you for that."

The Thief of Memory grumbled and frowned. "That's a first."

"But the bad memories and the really painful ones, those are the ones I learned from and those are the ones I don't want to repeat. That I don't want to forget."

The Thief laughed and the rolls of his caterpillar shook and swam. He sounded like bowling balls rolling down stairs, like glass boxes being dropped from a great height. "You will always make more bad memories, too, you foolish thing. You will make them until the end." And the Thief slinked off my bed and out the door, laughing all the way.

And then I fell asleep.

Written by Morgan Johnson
Submitted on 5 March 2007
When Toby started counting, Jenny ran. She ran as quietly as she could away from the counting tree and into the tall dry grass of the field. The feathery seeding tops and sharp blade-edges of the grasses whipped her face and arms as she raced down the hill and up again. The ground was bumpy and uneven under her feet.

She knew where she wanted to hide this time. The dark underskirt of the evergreen in the corner of the field was too obvious. Everyone looked there. The old bench by the fence didn’t offer enough cover. But the broken apple tree in the middle of the field had a hollow trunk, and Toby wouldn’t know about that.

Almost there, she looked back and saw him still with his face hidden in his crossed arms, leaning against the counting tree. He was leaning farther now, tired of standing in one place. He must be getting close to a hundred. Almost there.

Jenny slid to a stop at the base of the broken apple tree. She and her sister thought it had been struck by lightning, and that’s why it was broken, so she called it the lightning tree. She’d never hidden in its hollow before. It was dark and smelled like old wood and wet alive things at the same time. She didn’t know if she would fit, but she did.

Then came the waiting. She breathed hard and quiet, waiting for her heart to stop pounding, waiting for Toby. Finally he called ready-or-not-here-I-come.

She waited, trying to listen for him. Would he go to the evergreen first? How long would it take? If he went all the way out there, she might be able to beat him back to the counting tree. She tried to hear his footsteps, the whispering swish of someone walking through the tall grasses, but she couldn’t hear him. There were too many noises around her. The wind played through the lightning tree with a sigh of leaves, a creak-and-crack of branches, and a low moan in the hollow of the trunk.

Jenny looked up to see how tall the hollow was, and she saw a ladder. Just small boards nailed to the inside of the trunk, the kind of thing you’d put up for a treehouse. And she saw that the hollow was open to the sky above her, clear and blue. She reached out and pulled herself up by the lowest board, then carefully climbed up.

At the top, she peeked through a split in the bark, which was like an old skin still standing on its own. She didn’t spot Toby, so she ventured farther and looked out properly.

The whole landscape was changed. Her house and the neighbor’s house and the barn were gone, and all around her were woods. Shocked, she looked down at the lightning tree and saw that it, too, was gone. She now stood on a platform at the top of a little wooden tower.

From somewhere in the distance, someone called her name.

Written by Riley Hoffman
Submitted on 28 February 2007

little leaf falling

The little leaf was holding onto its branch with careful focus. It had seen the other leaves fall and was afraid of what might happen if it, too, fell from the only home it had ever known. A light breeze touched it’s underside, causing it to quiver and shake with laughter. That little breeze was giving the leaf a view of rooftops it had not often seen in the days of very leafy branches. It was struck by how the sky seemed to touch the rooftops at the same time as it seemed so distant and aloof.

Just then, the breeze became full grown wind, The little leaf, lost momentarily in contemplation, had lost its focus on the branch it called home and suddenly found itself floating through the air. A pleasant and terrifying sensation, indeed! Quicker than it had anticipated, the little leaf hit the ground.

All was quiet. All was calm. The little leaf seemed to be coming to in a strange and wonderful place. The tiny leaf wondered if this was the end of life. The stillness of the ground was unsettling to the leaf. Fear began to rise when another breeze flipped it onto its back. Awestruck, the leaf concluded it must have landed in some sort of leaf after-life, a lush green paradise. Huskier leaves shaded the tiny leaf and the air was warm and moist. From the quiet, new sounds began to emerge. People were talking. Squirrels were running by. Yet, the green paradise quietly surrounded the little leaf, muffling the external sounds. The leaf noticed it could still see the sky, but not the rooftops. Somehow, it didn’t seem any further away than before.

Suddenly, the little leaf became aware that it was existing in a world without a branch. Nothing to cling to. Nothing to hold it steady. Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as scary as it had imagined. Something whizzed by with speed. A bicycle? A squirrel? Whatever it was, the little leaf was carried into the air on its wake. For a moment, it caught site of its old branch and was amazed to find it attached to an enormous tree trunk. As it sailed back to the ground, the lush, green world was becoming familiar and homey. The leaf felt fickle, feeling to at home, so quickly. So, the next time it was picked up on the wind, it honored its old branch home, promising to return with stories of the new world.

Just as little leaf was getting settled in, a gust of wind blew it onto a path, and it couldn’t stop tumbling along. It quivered and shook with laughter at the feeling. It was reminded of windy days on the branch and realized its companion, the wind, was still close at hand, just as the sky. Having not one but two friends made the little leaf feel more bold and adventurous. As it tumbled along, it no longer worried about what was to come and instead, thought of the stories it might return to share with the branch, the green heaven, and the tree trunk. And whatever details it missed, the sky and wind would be able to fill in.

Written by Angela Booker
Submitted on 28 February 2007