They have begun to die. Once bright green leaves no bigger than a pinkie nail, already shriveling to brown. I rushed. Didn’t read the instructions. Too much compost in the soil. Too early a move to the big containers. I’ve lost at least half or more. It’s a massacre.
The late morning beach requires windbreaker and hoodie both. Most human neighbors have not ventured out. We do, kicking off our shoes and regretting it almost at once. Dune grass and broken shells slice our reddened feet.
Out at the edge of the water under the low sun, the ground is uneven in a spot. Dark. Probably rubbish, a black tote blown away and left behind. But no, it takes shape as we near it. A bird. A black skimmer, one of the endangered of this island. White and brown feathers ruffling in the wind. It seems larger now than when its kind fly low, skating along the cresting waves. It is bent in a way it shouldn’t be. Large, like a Halloween pillowcase, like a wedding cake someone dropped. It gains substance in its stillness.
The weeping willow tree stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. In spring and summer, its feathered branches play with light. Now, in the cold, it sways its head of bare tresses.
In the Beforetimes, the willow held my morning. Waiting for the 466 bus to the metro, queuing commuters angled their bodies towards the stop sign up the block where the bus would eventually appear. We do this without realizing it, don’t we? Pin our attention on some absence we want filled by something beyond our control? It eventually occurred to me that fixating on that stop sign was a tragic waste of a few wide-open morning minutes. Holding my packed lunch and metro card, I turned to look across the street instead. The willow. Right there. It gave my gaze a bite of intrigue, some sustenance to carry me through the workday.
You think you are small. You crouch at the edge. This one like so many before, the low riverbed where you seek sustenance.
It’s far from a river, really, barely a trickle. You crouch here and watch how pebbles below the surface make water glint. In the copse of trees between one set of houses and the next, the big road bearing down just around the bend, this is the closest you come to a sacred place.
Ignore if you must what bends in the flat beds along the stretch of highway spooling out ahead,
those crepe-skinned crones in sun hats you could almost mistake for scarecrows.
Do you pause to wonder how old ladies always end up in the garden?
Do you notice us at all?
Down here, sand slips free from the shape
it took since last rain,
a low creek creeping up the bank
sloughing away any illusion of permanence.
The soft, fat hide of the earth glistens, catching the stray glint
and tossing it back, wild and wide.
Something buried in the thawing deep
scratches away at its carapace.
I press my spine against the old skin
willing it to split even though it is early still,
even though it will leave me raw,
Another frost sure to come.
There is no end to pleasure. Our flesh, how its tastes change.
You barely pause to wonder how we end up in the garden. Crepe-skinned crones in sun hats, we busy ourselves with one of the few benign industries left to us in our diminished worlds. We cannot captain the ships, you reason. Cannot write the laws. We must see life backward now as our children and their children take the keys and set the route.
In your haste to cover the stretch of highway still spooling out ahead, you don’t waste attention on what occupies the roadside. We bend there, indistinguishable from scarecrows. From garden gnomes. It stands to reason (if anyone were to ask) that we surrender to these tiny corners of the world. Our puttering a last gasp at creation. Bygone artists, barren makers. Do you see us deflating into bodies long past their use-by date? Do you see us at all?
Invisibility is a curse for certain, though one we have a hand in casting.
These feet mapped in silver. My weight displacing stars.
We are chasing the tide even before we begin, trying to outrun the sea. The sun follows us, staying at our backs for five miles across moonscape and dune. Wind has carved ridges like Atlantis exposed.
Here is where my friend comes now. Every week, a pilgrimage of sorts. She has recast herself a collector of sand dollars, displaying them in gleaming mason jars around her house. She’s brought me along this time and I don’t have questions at first. Now, the stretch of land and water before us is framed by a giant question mark. “Where is it we are going?” It must be the third time I’ve asked, and we’re barely out of the parking lot. She gestures vaguely forward. At the end of a dark ridge, the shore curves then disappears around black tip of land. It is forever away.
She’s checked the tidal charts. She sets a brisk pace.
Cool air shivers skin. The bus engine grumbles below plastic seats molded to cup a human’s soft places. Thighs of meat padding bone. Outside, women in a pack bustle down the sidewalk in jeans stretched taut.
The days grow shorter.
Even so, I forget. Forget to stop and touch the zinnia with its five shades of orange tethered to a center like chocolate. Forget to let the crepe myrtle dip across my cheek. Barely notice a fat bee chugging past me towards what bursts from the hedges. A body that should be too weighty for the tissue of wings somehow stays airborne.
I forget that eventually, everything falls. I forget to catch drift.
She scrapes bow across strings whose low moan rises to a shriek. Her elbow a piston, it turns the wrist in a blurred ellipse that frees a cry, a frenzy. Two boys appear from behind the stage, leaping sideways across the brush that separates this place from the garden plots where an old woman in a headscarf shambles between rows watering broad petals of cabbage. One of the children waves a stick like a flag. His face is a wide grin that says, see me, see me.
Another boy in a man’s body perches on the edge of a chair on this portable stage. Shaggy hair falls across his forehead as he leans into the music. He is from Ireland and lives in Portland where he has his pick of women. He does to the accordion what Kobe Bryant does to a ball. We call this thing “playing,” this version of play unlike anything the rest of us will ever experience.
Bent at the waist ever so slightly, he gazes far off towards what must be the west where a weary August sun peels back the day’s skin and exposes the pink, swollen flesh of dusk. The grown boy’s fingers are dervishes in harmonious riot, balletic and blind, somehow whirling an unbroken ensemble piece on that tiny stage of keys. I look where he is looking — in the direction at least because what he sees is all his own. I want to imagine his eyes fixed on a montage of hills, rain, soil-scarred hands lifting open a latch and reaching for him. Just as likely, behind his eyes growls a gauntlet of fractured traffic between the airport and the next gig. Or a dim wash of notes. When I look that way, I see only the deep outline of trees against a sky now a garnet throb.
Then the breath, the snared half-second of surprise when bow and key and string and drum, all stop —
it’s only a pulse of the heart yet it stretches, stretches like the still air across embouchure, its reverberation through a valley of brass. It stretches like a quantum measure that is neither real nor measurable. Swelling up into that pause (which may be the end of all history and also may not contain a single new beginning) surges the cry of cicadas thick in the shadowed branches. Through the crack too flaps the leather wing of one bat dipping for a moth then careening off, this also in the direction our accordion boy looks but doesn’t see. Not what I see see anyway, and certainly not what the bat sees, though his vision may be closer to that of his chiropteran brother, a sightless echoing that delineates a terrain through sound, through a chorus of shape and motion. Maybe he draws a whole universe like this, one round, rapid beat after another firing across a field of night.