By Rose Engelfried
is twenty-seven. Tall, bony, and when she doesn’t sleep the night’s shadows form and linger under her eyes. She has her mother’s cheekbones, and just enough of her Mexican skin to stave off sunburn. She has her father’s fine hair that gathers static and, with a bit of brushing, can be induced to stand right out from her head. She moves quietly, or something, she doesn’t notice that she does but people frequently yip in surprise at her approach — on a bike, on a trail, coming around a corner — “You scared me! I didn’t see you!” What is she supposed to say to this? She hasn’t figured that out yet. In most situations, she does not know what to say.
She’s twenty-seven. She lives inside books. When she doesn’t, she goes outside. Bellingham Bay should be touted as a refuge for birdwatchers. She’s learning to tell Barrow’s and Common Goldeneyes apart.
The males are easy. It’s the females that are giving her trouble. It’s best, those ducks feel, if they are not seen, not remembered, if they make no impression. Their muted gray markings do not declare anything.
She’s twenty-seven. She thinks there might have been a point, some time, when she did not battle herself inside her head. She thinks that once she was a kid. She’s pretty sure it’s true. There’s a memory, here — reach out, grab it before it fades — dozens of stuffed animal cats in a ring around the rug. It’s Christmas, or a birthday; she’s just added a new cat to her collection. Here’s all the old cats gathered to welcome him…Grab it, another one. That smooth clatter-rush of fingers sorting through a bin of Legos. Is this the right piece? Yes. Grab it, another… Hand cramped over a page. Let me tell you a story: Opie and Stubby went to Disneyland….
She used to be a kid. Who played. Who… what? Where did those hours go? There’s a memory: eight years old, her brother ten. “Let’s play” dissolved in her brother’s stomping away.
Let me tell…
They’re flooding now. Curled on her mother’s lap: “If Nick really loved me, he’d want me to be happy, so why wouldn’t he want to play?” Curled in her room: it has been hours, and no one has checked to see where she is. There’s a day, a park, a rock at the edge of a river, drenched in sun; a brother who’s just told her no again. Splay yourself, girl-child; splay your misery, give that stone enough of your bones that the pain you feel inside will start to bruise your skin. Later, of that day, your mother will say: “She had a great day. She was hugging that rock.” Wonder what it must feel like to be seen.
She’s twenty-seven. The one man who’s kissed her disappeared years ago in her past. She’s never tasted a woman’s lips and she wonders if she will. She’s successful: she’s on her second Master’s degree, her second full ride. She has big dreams: a PhD, a published novel, a myriad of students. Someday a lover. Someday a piece of earth, a home.
These are stories she cannot write. What she can:
Just her own disappearance. Just the lengths she’ll go to for plumage of gray.
Let me…let me tell…
What makes a story? (A childhood of being left behind. A teenhood of leaving oneself. Memories of taste and tastelessness and bones). Stories exist in the dark crannies of a mind. Maybe, she thinks, they are meant to stay crannied. Thinking too deeply is a habit of hers. Maybe she is trying too hard. Stories can be happy, even before they end.
Let me start a story.
She’s twenty-seven. Each year of her life she has known the clean wind on her skin. She ate dirt once. A maple tree was her childhood friend. She’s a woman who laughs rarely but shines with a light anyone can see when she is outside, the wind blowing her hair, sky reflected in her eyes. There’s a place in her body that’s Tillamook forest, that’s hiking up mountains alone, that’s the angle of dusty sun caught in a turkey vulture’s wings. Another place holds each cat she’s ever loved. She’s a woman who has dived into pages and has lived amazing things. She’s a woman who does not need to name the stars.
She’s going somewhere. Someday. She writes because she has to, like breathing, like waking with the day and choosing to live. On the bad days, days when her body recedes, when her breath belongs to some other creature, when her thoughts lock and circle and circle and won’t let her go — those days that break her down. But don’t you know, breaking builds up again. Sore muscles are torn, cell from cell, before they reform strong.
She’s twenty-seven. She’s a woman. Her voice is quiet and her step is too. She tries to live lightly on a planet that bears too much. She lives with light, and breathes deeply in the woods to keep the light going, and somehow she has found her way here, to where her breath belongs. Breathe, and let word-molecules like oxygen filter new stories in the blood. Exhale those stories into being. Trees do it. Why can’t she? (why can’t you?)
It might help, too, if you think about this: How many leaves does each tree tell? Some fall off, some are eaten by caterpillars; that’s why you grow so many. Slow down now. Here’s a story. Tell this one; find where you are from where you have been. Tell the taste of remembered; tell
metal on the tongue.
Being a kid tastes like blue sky turned bruise, caught convex in a curve of metal. Kissing the forbidden means iron on the tongue.
It’s time to go home. Across the playground my brother’s taken one last gibbon’s swing across the monkey bars and landed at our mother’s feet. I could be on my way to follow him but I’m not; could take the slide down, don’t want to. The world is here, reflected in the metal ladder I’m straddling. There’s my face, upside down, bluish. There, my parted lips.
“Are you licking the playground?” When did she get here? warm, big, all-knowing, autumn leaves skittering past her feet. Suddenly the ground is along way down. I can see it between rungs, under metal. Suddenly I know that what I have been doing is dirty. Wrongwrongwrong.
“Sorry,” I say.
But am I? Scooting down the ladder in two big drops, I run my tongue over my lips. I can still taste it a little. That metal. That blue.
They took the playground down a few years later. My mother was on the committee to design the new structure — shiny-bright-extra-safe, beige wood and green-painted metal. I don’t think I needed to be told not to put my mouth there anymore — there, where the shoes of every kid that side of West Linn had left their scuff marks, their mud trails, their gum. There wasn’t the same, anyway. Now, I think of those parrots who rise at dawn every morning and flock through Amazonian canopies to the clay licks, filling their beaks with earth, swallowing what elusive trace no fruit nut seed can give. Then, all I knew was that painted metal didn’t hold it. It was closer to blood, it wasn’t real unless it held the shadow of the sky. My mind held a memory, flickering, of that shameful thing I’d done. That wrongwrong my mother had had to correct. My brother didn’t do things like that. He could cross the monkey bars without resting. My brother was nothing lacking. No emptiness to fill.
When the painted bars came, the playground reborn, did I still have emptiness? (The answer’s yes). Had I learned not to fill it? (The answer’s yes to that, too).
I could keep going here. I could keep telling this story. I could make it about every thing I have not tasted. Every bite of fuel that wasn’t a piece of metal-warped sky. I’d rather stay there, though, in that wild forbidden place, when my tongue still told me new stories. Stories that tasted of blood, and footsteps, and fresh rain
Let me tell you
what didn’t happen:
I didn’t find my way out of this body into another one — a body more true, with deeper roots, or one that told a louder lie.
What didn’t happen: I didn’t stop trying.
If I had, I would have said this: Body, you are animal, like the goldeneye who travels miles in her miracle vessel of feathers and flesh with no drive but to cherish that flesh as well as she can. Body, these twenty-seven years, fight the enemies outside you — inside must be a homecoming, a sanctuary of skin.
I would have had a sanctuary. I would have had a home.
Let me tell you a story.
There was a girl once (there wasn’t) who looked in a mirror (she never could) and saw, looking out, her own reflection (she saw her brother’s). She tried to be no one but herself (except all the times she tried to be him). She was never lonely (except almost every day).
There are things she thinks she’s always known, though she knows that one day she learned them. Like what happens to a woman’s body — always coming, never here. She remembers the loose tunics, how she wouldn’t wear t-shirts after she turned twelve, how somehow it was never time for breasts and hips and hair to show. She remembers thinking she would choose not to bleed, if she could (she could: it was an easy choice, really). She remembers being eight and wanting curves. Then the wanting went away.
She was never meant to be other people (this happens to them, not to me). She would not have left Neverland, even for her shadow.
She never stopped tasting metal on her tongue.
Rose Engelfried enjoys creating lyrical fiction and exploring the line between poetry and prose. Also a poet, playwright, and essayist, Rose has published pieces in Capulet, Stolen Island Review, The Citron Review, The Story Shack, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and PLUM (Pacific Literature by Undergraduates Magazine). She earned her BA in Creative Writing at University, her MA in English at the University of Maine, and her MFA in Creative Writing at Western Washington University.