Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A New Constellation

The sky last night was a bolt of dark wash denim, the selvage hugging one horizon, the fold the other. And the stars, oh, so many stars, did not twinkle so much as glow, did not shine so much as radiate, radiate like ice crystals with a kind of negative energy. I lay on my back on the deck, the boards like extra ribs pushing into me at regular intervals, and stared up into the darkness interrupted only occasionally by airplanes so small they could have been fireflies.

The Big Dipper was upside down, emptied of whatever it had held, and I felt the same way. The past few days had moved too fast, required too much, offered too little. The sounds of strident voices ricocheted through my head and the weight of impatience, uncertainty and misunderstanding shortened my breath. My eyes were constantly darting, never lighting, avoiding concentration. My heart had been rubbed sandpaper raw.

I know what to do when that happens – Get very still and listen. – and that’s what I was doing. At least trying.

In the branch the frogs’ voices sounded like an old screen door incessantly opening and closing, the rusty springs stretching and contracting in uneven cadence. Somewhere nearby a small animal moved in the brittle brush left where Daddy burned off the edges of the field. The petunias hanging from the shepherd’s crooks swayed pendulously in the breeze, their flimsy petals fluttering in the moonlight like a coquette’s eyelashes.

I forced my breaths to grown longer, deeper. I stared at the sky trying to make out constellations, wondered about the people who first saw the pictures, named them, made up their stories. And as I wondered my thoughts wandered back a few days to a scene I’d meant to remember and had almost forgotten.

I’d been to town to pick up a few things for the yard – something to fill in the hole in the perennial bed, a basil plant (in anticipation of tomatoes), three azaleas for the spot in front of the chimney. The garden center was a busy place that afternoon, the parking lot crowded with SUV’s, all being loaded with bags of mulch, stacks of landscape stones, and pots of ornamental grasses.

Heading for the exit I found myself behind an older model pick-up truck – no extra doors or wide tires or pin-stripes. The driver appeared to be in his late 60's. He leaned out of the window to glance at the cargo and I could see that his hair, though stippled with some gray, was still as dark as his skin. There was a woman in the truck with him and I safely assumed, I think, that she was his wife. The cargo bed was empty save for one item – a yellow rose bush. Pushed up against the cab for stability, its long canes danced with the movement of the truck over the asphalt.

I couldn’t help thinking of them in comparison to the other people I’d encountered in the store, the ones who live in subdivisions with restrictive covenants, the ones who read Martha Stewart Living and sketch out garden plans on graph paper, the ones – like me – who use weed fabric and landscape pins.

Traffic on the highway was heavy, all four lanes pulsing with vehicles moving east and west. He would be careful, I knew. Careful because he remembered when this was a two-lane highway and wished it still was. Careful because he was transporting things of importance. Careful because he had reached an age at which he knew that care must be taken with everything.

When a break opened, the truck slowly moved forward over three lanes to turn left and, as it did, both of them – husband and wife – looked back to check on the rose. It was a moment of such tenderness I thought I would cry.

Stretched out on the deck in the darkness, I can see his strong hands dig the hole for the rose bush and gently place it in the ground and I can see her standing behind him, arms crossed and head tilted in a satisfied pose. I can hear him grunt as he rises and brushes the dirt from his hands on the legs of the pants she will wash and dry and fold. I can see them walk inside together as the sun dissolves into the selvage of the day.

And I look up and see two stars, equally bright and so close together it seems as though the Big Dipper must have emptied them into the sky in the same scoop.
Copyright 2011

Monday, April 11, 2011

Senses and Sensibility

The wildfire had been burning for over a week. I expected to see evidence of it as I passed the green metal road sign that marked the Long County line and drove on down the highway lined with pine trees and wiregrass, but I didn’t.

There were no fields black with soot and stubbled with brittle stems and shoots. There were no rapidly-dug trenches across the dirt roads that splayed out from the highway like arteries. There were no collapsed barns or tenant houses, defenseless tinder for unhindered flames. The bright white clapboard of Jones Creek Church still reflected the late afternoon sunlight directly into my eyes as I came around the curve and the marquee at the elementary school announced that spring break would be next week. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that over 4,000 acres had burned.

Nothing except the smell.

And I didn’t notice that at first. The windows were up and it seeped in slowly, a smell something like fresh creamed corn left on the stove unattended and scorched, stuck to the bottom of your best pot in a thick layer of crud that will have to soak overnight before it even thinks of coming loose. Or like your daddy’s white dress shirt pressed by a too-hot iron and tattooed with a caramel-colored arrowhead the size of a fist smack-dab on the front pocket. Like that – bitter and sweet at the same time.

I was on my way to the beach – that place of endless sky, endless water, endless sight – , so the land’s trauma did not stay with me long. I can’t help it; it is as though the core of my heart is made of iron and the closer I get the stronger is the pull so that by the time I reach the highest point on the causeway bridge I am falling like a ball bearing.

I had no plans other than to talk to, spend time with, be with my friends, but Providence had an invitation and a perfect wind and, before I knew it, the next day I was on a sailboat slicing through the sound like a knife through butter. To the north we could just make out a handful of people riding horses on Jekyll and just off the port side was the lighthouse at St. Simons and a nearly empty beach. The sails snapped like laundry hung out to dry and the conversation wound in and out of the rigging like children around a Maypole. You could not have asked for a more idyllic setting.

Driving back home later, I didn’t notice, didn’t notice not noticing the smell of burned landscape. Only later did I realize it. It had been 24 hours, of course, and perhaps there had been a rain shower to settle the scent or maybe it was just the normal dissipation of chemicals, but that’s not what I think.

What I think is that the smell of scorched corn and burned fabric was still wafting over Long County in long waves like the ones that follow Pepe’ LePew in the Looney Tunes cartoons and I – or, rather, my brain’s limbic system – had chosen not to smell it, had chosen rather to concentrate on the scent of ocean and sunscreen and that peculiar combination of pimento cheese grits and pork barbecue that had been the lunch special at Southern Soul.

Our brains create such interesting scrapbooks. They clip and save the oddest things – one line from the lyrics of a song heard on the radio driving down the highway during a rainstorm, the color of a shirt hanging over the railing on a hotel balcony, the satin smoothness of a scar, the smell of 4,000 acres charred to jagged nothingness. And they organize those things no better than we organize the photographs and programs and movie ticket stubs we are so intent on saving. Some get attached to archival pages with archival glue, labeled with archival ink, but most of them get thrown into a shoebox or shopping bag with a half-hearted promise of return. Someday.

I hold in my hands the reflection of sunlight on water, the laughter of children, the saltiness of my own lips. They are piled in a generous heap and beneath them lies the scent of ash.

Copyright 2011