Feed on
Posts

Category Archive for 'Issue 2'

the way things disappear

here, there is something like humidity
descending against the lake,
bass snapping at mayflies
and a duck wings easily,
low to the surface, splashes down
with a spray of water.

the only purpose for the duck
is to make noise
over the bullfrogs. i need
another sound, a crash sound.

there are certain things
that scare me. waterfalls. black night
windows and the image of a naked palm
pressed against the glass. walking
across a bridge while
holding something precious.
i know someday i will not be able to
stop my hands. someday i will
watch what i held so carefully
wing its way down
and down to disappear.

in the last moments before i left you
the blossoms on the trees we stood beneath
had fallen and i saw the petals
ground against the cement. the light from
the library window slanted against our faces.
and then it didn’t as things, when over, don’t.
i walked away and the parking lot
swarmed with moths, broken glass
glittered like a lake. i was not yet falling—
though i would be. there, in the lot,
i paused to watch my new empty hands.
the air full with what i threw
so terrifyingly and easily unbounded.

-Alexis Vergalla is a graduate student of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine and Plankton.

Widow Window

How one holds fierce to the past,
each tooth she paid a quarter for,

each night, a slender pour, a slice
of something sweet her husband made.

How the other rattles in a storm,
wood teeth too old to stay the wind,

scratched glass worn thin. How one
leans quiet in the other’s light,

how the other listens, lets her be.
How both can shine, scrubbed clean

with summer rain, with sand’s dark grain.
How both can shatter fine, need be.

-Andrea Scarpino is a midwesterner by trade, but is currently teaching and faking the glorious life in Los Angeles.

Salt and Blood

Even with rain wash, big wind blow,
no road is minus salt and blood.
Saints might minor chord the harmony
of the spheres, tinker it, but we can’t be
the Big Bang’s departure point.

We are only on the pavement
and in the bang-wake, clanking.
Hildegard pushed against the Awesome
Entrance, prophesies all lit with migraine
crowns, but how many of her then, even,

could fit on the head of a pin?

-Cherryl Garner began writing again after a 30-year hiatus. She has been mentioned in IBPC, posted at The Rose and Thorn and accepted for print in The Petigru Review. Garner was also sponsored by the South Carolina Writers Workshop.

THESE HANDS

Here are the bright flowers
impaled by hummingbirds.
Here are the numbers of the dead
ticking like a meter
in a taxi cab.
In this space between
discomfort and reaching
I have only these hands
to offer around you.
Hands that have held
infants and wildflowers and death.
I have only these hands
of pale comfort,
of wilderness and discretion,
of atom bombs and struggle,
of ecstasy and clay
to save you.

-Corrine De Winter is the author of nine collections of poetry & prose including Like Eve, The Women At The Funeral and Tango In The 9th Circle. Her poetry, fiction, essays and interviews have appeared in publications such as the The New York Quarterly, Yankee, Modern Poetry, The Writer, The Lyric and many others. She has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize.

The Problem With February

Each year, the Japanese magnolia startles
with mauve goblets on bare branches
as days are cold and sunny and nights
freeze the ground. Leaves will come
later, when the giant blooms have dropped
from sight. With no green to embrace them,
to offer contrast or lend support,
the tree-bound tulips appear,
needing neither food nor foliage,
but only the gray bark which bears
their secret under smooth layers of silver cork.

I cannot join them. Enveloped in fleece,
Darjeeling in hand, I am not ready
for thaw, not ready to show my colors
to those who pass through this garden,
intoxicated by the perfume of narcissus, waiting
impatiently for a show of pink lily and blue iris.
I am still dormant, my roots at rest,
my cortex a mass of conflicting desires,
my periderm the dead tissue of failed resolve.
Color will emerge–it always does–perhaps
the deepest indigo or the freshest saffron.
But not until spring is inevitable, and leaves of tea green
unfurl like fingers curled to cradle my blossoms.

-Diane Elayne Dees has poetry published or forthcoming in Umbrella, Lucid Rhythms, Mobius, Out of Line and the Syracuse Cultural Workers’ Women Artists Datebook. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry, Diane lives in Louisiana with her husband and their cats: Roxie and Velma, Tarzan, and Ziggy Stardust.

The Heart

holds the limbs in place
blood makes us upright

the atrium is filled with color
and light, the ventricle
with the oil of thirty-three
summers

and my hips sway from
all of them

there is something perfect
in our valves, the opening
of ourselves to new blood
the closing of our bodies to
unspeakable pain

synapses affect our hearts
communication is lost
somewhere in these gaps

between tire biting and blood
loss, our hearts have teeth

there’s a song in our thumps
sometimes an old-time tune
sometimes a rap sometimes
a hmmmph, sometimes
a waiiiiiiiill

our hearts stop at the most
inappropriate times—like when
we get a brand new thought
that chokes us
into submission

so we become heart/thought
slaves
and there is no body,
but no separation either

people speak of passion as though
it is something imprinted burned
braised into our hearts
but as a matter of fact, it leaves
through valves as quickly as it
returns

-Holly Dunlap has a Master’s of Arts in English/Creative Writing from University of Colorado, Boulder and teaches English at Southwestern Community College.

Ars Poetica (Whale)

Piece by piece I am putting the Orca back together.
That oil-slick rotting mass, belly up
Amongst the black skinned
Tide pools and soft-bodied clams.

Of course, at first I gagged and turned, drowned
By the scent of its rot, but looking back
I saw the ribbons of bones
Pallid and bald as glaciers, stretching from the thousand
Slurred echoes of the flesh
Each sharp glint a pure star; a word uncovered.

-Kate Ristow recently moved from Brooklyn, New York to Missoula, Montana where she is working towards an MFA in fiction at the University of Montana. Previously she has lived in the San Juan Islands, WA, Portland, OR, Boston, MA and Stockholm, Sweden, among other places.

WILDWOOD

I remember the pool, the best invention to a kid next to the ocean itself, how I stood on the edge of the diving board at nine, the oldest of three siblings, how one brother seized his chance and pushed me off before I was ready. The board abraded my inner thigh bad enough I lay for an hour in a cold hotel bed, air conditioning–so high my nose ran in snotty loops—a miracle of harnessed weather we’d never experienced before. Later, I limped on the two miles of boardwalk, best the world had to offer, joyous, wild, endlessly fun. Around us, Cold War culture was all angles and trajectories, jealous of the moon, everything clean, turquoise lines, desire for the South Pacific, Hawaii. Architectural kitsch, Populuxe, Googie, Doo Wop, words invented to retrieve dignity eroded by shifting economies. Today, you can visit the Starlight Ballroom, more fifties than the fifties ever were or aspired to be. Retro, aggressive reclamation, something better than anything I recall. What I do remember was not what I saw, but what I felt, and when my folks stopped to line us up to shoot streams of water into bellies of hula-hula girls, plastic grass skirts jiggling, our competition was fiercer than my parents suspected. I won, my hula girl popping high into the salty air exposing her chipped thighs, and as I turned to my brother, smiling, I was dimly aware it was only the start of a long process called revenge.

-Laura McCullough’s second collection of poems, WHAT MEN WANT, is due in 08. THE DANCING BEAR debuted in 06. In 07, she published her chapbook, ELEPHANT ANGER and won her second NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. She has an MFA in fiction from Goddard College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Nimrod, Gulf Coast, Poetry East, The Portland Review and others.

DREAM ABOUT META-KERIN

The hospital calls to tell us Kerin didn’t die after all.
She’s almost ready, they say; just go pick her up at the post office.
So we rush on down. But at the window they hand us, not Kerin, but a slip of paper on which is printed the WORD Kerin.
But it’s as good as Kerin, they say. Just go to 30th Street Station and present it at the window.
But then a wind comes through the open doorway and blows the paper away.
Don’t worry, they say. Just call the hospital and they’ll contact Washington and request duplicate forms.
It won’t take long, they say. It won’t take very long.

-Marion Cohen’s two latest books are Crossing the Equal Sign and Surviving the Alphabet. She is the author of Dirty Details: The Days and Nights of a Well Spouse and sixteen other books of poetry and prose. She teaches math at Arcadia University.

Olives at the Old Mission (For My Husband)

Heavy in fall. The weight of earthquake weather and
salty elements, stripping visitors, the church’s plaster
has been sloughed off in places, the adobe beneath

exposed, wattle and daub, jacal, moldy thatch replaced
by heavy tejas— the old way of building and combining—
revealed fortified buttress and illuminated iglesia.

Uncovering the space between that has
become dusty and heavy
as overripe olives, jet black and bitter,

fallen to the ground, wasted for another
season, wasted by wilt. Mold taking
entire crops left too long uncured.

How easily ripe olives bruise. How
quickly a bitter fruit can become
a useless bitter fruit. Forgetting first presses

and the lubricating and healing effects of
virgin oil blessed and taken in sacrament,
like the tongues of the neophytes curling

at their first taste of the grassy, astringent
brine-cured olives. Grown accustomed to
their flavor. Taken them into open mouths

with only the sudden squirt of
glands to remind them of acrimony.
Ground deep purple with the memory

of bruised olives and the informe’s warning,
Every day the Mission structures are decaying more
and more for want of sufficient hands to renovate them.*

* From an 1830 report to the Spanish government on the Mission at San Luis Obispo written by Father Luis Gil.

-Tiffany Denman is a poet and writer pursuing her MA in Creative Writing-Poetry at the University of California, Davis. Her poetry has been published in riverrun, The American River Review and hardpan.

Share

He Said, She Said

His worst nightmare is that she’s still thinking about that guy from her college days, the one with the long hair who played the guitar, the one he’s sure she must have dated in the most vertical of relations. He wonders if she remembers his songs, if she could play them by tapping on the curvy thigh that he loves. He wonders this while he sits in a wooden chair at a bar watching the female who sits across from him.

Her worst nightmare is that he thinks she is unattractive now, thighs too big for her waist, that he actually finds their waiter more attractive as he places their beer on the table smiling at him. She doesn’t know what he feels at that moment, she is uncomfortable thinking that he might be attracted to him. She wishes she could be inside his brain, gray matter swirling, squishing around. Maybe she would rather not see. Yes, that’s it; She would rather not know when he would leave.

As he takes a deep drink of the beer, and looks over her bare brown shoulder at the waiter, he wishes his hair were like his, thick and wavy. That way she could let her fingers dance on his scalp.

She sees his finger tapping the side of his glass to some inaudible rhythm; the condensation makes his fingers white with cold. Now she wonders why her throat feels like her Barbie doll’s might have two decades ago when she spun her plastic head, round, round, to see how much the plastic would allow (thirty twists). That was the only Barbie she ever owned and begged please please please to have and to hold. I will take good care of her, she said. Headless Barbie didn’t last long, ended up in a red plastic tub with other abandoned toys, a pink My Little Pony, two Smurfs that looked exactly the same, a minesweeper G.I. Joe. Her parents told the doctor that she had a short attention span as he handed over a prescription. She told them the toys were plastic and none looked like her anyway. She didn’t mean to hurt the doll, she told her mommy, and she just wanted to see.

Throat closing, she takes another sip of beer. This place is dark, yes, dark enough, she thinks. Dark enough to hide my brown skin, but maybe he doesn’t notice, or maybe I am his type. Does he go for girls like me, does he think I’m some foreign princess who will dance seven veils and feed him grapes? What are girls like me like? She giggles because that is what she does when she has nothing to say; nothing to say with her throat that is closing, and lips that seal shut, pink skin that holds back words that want to tumble out and ruin everything. She promised to be more positive, she promised her mother. She moves her hair out from behind her ear to cover the pimple she is certain is forming on the crest of her cheek.

There is a place he remembers when he was much younger when he looks into her eyes like dark amber with flecks of gold, ancient leaves caught in molten rock forever. He sips his beer, wondering if he is so far from his youth that he will be denied return passage, that he will never recapture that day of fishing with his friends at the lake, camping with his buddies, talking about tomorrow like it was never going to come, talking about things they were meant to talk about, not opening doors meant to stay locked. Fishing, pulling, coaxing the soft-scaled trout from the river, how things should be. He dreams of returning to that lake, flicking that line back into the water and waiting for a fish to bite, and never would a fish bite, he would be there forever. Maybe she will come fishing sometime, he thinks, maybe she will come.

The waiter returns, still smiling.

He wants a burger with fries, hold the mayo, extra mustard—not to be picky or anything but he hopes it will be medium, really medium, not overcooked like it always is.

She wants a Caesar salad with chicken—and hopes it will be filling enough because she hadn’t eaten much today.

He wishes she would order a burger with him.

She hopes he notices her sparse eating habits and is proud of her shrinking thighs.

They both smile when the waiter disappears and take a sip.

Maybe she could still call that guy, Whatshisname, the one who was too eager like a young Dalmatian waiting for his kibble to drop into the bowl, the one who called her ten times the first day, fifteen the next, the one she needed to walk away from because he might be Notrightinthehead. The one her co-worker Doreen at the publishing house set her up with because she was that type of person—the voyeur sneaking a glance over the bushes, not the one sitting at the table at the café. Whatshisname. She felt pulled together around him, she felt ten steps above his twelve. Maybe she has his number somewhere, that little scrap of napkin, it wasn’t in her phone’s memory anymore. After he broke into her apartment she erased his phone number, a ritual cleansing that left some residue. Whatshisname will answer.

He thinks the glass is dirty, slides his fingernail down the side of the half finished glass of beer, and removes some invisible scab of food. Did he pick this place, or did she? He doesn’t like the typical American bar-food, with its deep-fried, diced chunks, parsley-sprigged, and iceberg-shredded deep dishes. Why isn’t she speaking? Is she nervous, tired, or bored? She’s bored, that’s it. She wishes she were at a small club watching some other guy play bad music like it was his job. He can’t ask about that, he can’t ask because she would think he was crazy so he says–Long day?

She smiles as softly as she can but not too wide as to expose what she considers to be fleshy gums. She is surprised that he is concerned with her well being. What a guy, what a gentleman. She puts her hands on her thighs and says —Yeah. You?

He is glad he asks the right question. You never know it’s the right question to ask until you ask it, he thinks. He looks back over his day full of screaming customers, crazy, deranged, aggressive people grabbing, how much does this cost, and where are the eggs? Have they been moved? Four hours of foreign hands touching things, asking things, wanting things, fifteen minutes of a gulp of fresh air outside then four more hours of touch/ask/want until he escapes back into his real life. The life that is outside the store, the one that is only dimly lit by the escaping sunlight, the one all those people all day long don’t consider real. He is a moment in their day; they are eight hours in his. Four hundred and eighty minutes per day, twenty-four hundred minutes per week, and he sleeps for the other three thousand, three hundred and…

–Yeah, fine.

She wishes she had enough money to buy a new pair of pants. She wonders if he is going to ask her to split the bill and almost gives herself the hiccups because she doesn’t have any money with her. Well she has that ten-dollar bill in the corner pocket of her purse next to a crumpled tissue. She doesn’t think it’s fair that she assumes he will pay, she just realizes now that the salad she’s eating is probably more than ten dollars with the beer. She’ll drink it slowly in case.

He’s wearing a retro Toys “R” Us t-shirt, baby blue torso, navy blue sleeves. She remembers a dream she had ten years ago where she was a superhero. In addition to the usual power of flying, she also had the power of super strength. She lifted cars full of families over flooding rivers, hoisted houses slipping off of mud slick cliffs, rescued zoo animals from a flood, reunited puppies with their mothers, and threw a boulder at a Toys “R” Us near a ghetto to open up the entire store to all the neighborhood kids.

When she woke up from that dream ten years ago she was disappointed at the graying white walls that surrounded her on four sides, even more disappointed when she realized she wasn’t alone in bed. When she got her first real job as someone’s paper slave making less than minimum wage with no benefits—she knew that this couldn’t be all that life was cracked up to be. Not hers. Not now. Parents are liars, damn good ones too, she thinks. It’s much better now, the hoops through which we so willingly jump.

The food arrives and they devour their meal in their own way. He takes humongous bites of the four-inch thick burger. He leaves barely enough space between the bites to breathe but he is content, he is hungry and happy there are enough pickles on the burger. She peppers her salad and wonders if it would be weird to ask for Tabasco, she decides it would, arranges a decent amount of cheese and lettuce and chicken on each fork bite, and wishes each bite were covered with something sharp to her taste buds, something that would bite back.

He slides back a bit in his chair, adjusts his posture because he feels taller. His little brother is taller than him, father too. Little brother was real good at sports, on some scholarship somewhere in the Midwest for ball. But he doesn’t like sports. Hates gyms, big cars, and people who chew gum like they wish they were chain-smoking a whole pack of cigarettes but can’t because they promised their girlfriend or boyfriend they would quit with them. He thinks people should quit on their own. He did. But he never liked smoking. Does she smoke? Nah, she’s got nice teeth. Beautiful smile. It would be a shame if she did. He bites his cuticle. Thinking about smoking makes him want to smoke again, he hates himself for this.

The check comes too soon and they both reach to grab it. There must be another couple waiting for the table. They guess it’s crowded; it is Friday night. She wonders what the big deal about Friday night is while he grabs the check away from her and she lets go easily, but lets her hand brush against his. It’s calloused. He works with his hands. Hers used to be calloused when she played the guitar in a band in college that only lasted a few months. As they walk out of the dark wooden restaurant and into the dark concrete world outside he puts his arm carefully around her back, not to seem too imposing. She lets his hand graze her thigh, but just for an instant.

-Olivia Chadha is the author of two comic books written during a stint as a scriptwriter. She holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from University of Colorado, Boulder and is currently working on her Ph.D. in English at Binghamton University.

Share

Accepting Impermanence

Strapped to the woman’s back — head bobbing slightly to one side, peacefully dozing in the sun and the shade of the canyon, and the soft rush of water as it pours down the rocky creek bed — is a child. A child with dark eyes that round with wonder so often at the newness of the world, because she is actually seeing all of this for the first time. Eyes that still flutter to sleep so easily, because letting in all of this beauty is exhausting.

The woman and the child are alone in the canyon except for the canyon wren, which sends its call down from the high cliff walls, and for the small beings that rustle and rustle in the undergrowth. The woman does not know what exactly they are: chickadees, perhaps small rodents. Either way she likes the company. Her hiking boots crick on the sandy trail. She notices that she is much more careful with her footing now. The metal and canvas backpack creaks a little when the woman eases herself down long steps, or when the child shifts; her legs are beginning to hang lower over the sides of the pack.

The world greets these two in reds—the canyon, and greens—the creek banks thick with trees. It’s early autumn and the sun shines with a golden slant. It’s warm but the mornings have begun to promise coolness. The woman feels there is no possibility that the day could be any more perfect. She has this canyon and the sun; she has her child strapped to her own straight and strong body.

She and the child arrive at an overhang in the rock. The National Park Service has erected signs to announce its significance—they’ve named this place the “Deluge Shelter.” The signs inform the woman that archeologists believe early people passing through this canyon used this spot to get out of the rain. She knows how heavy rains can be in the desert, especially in late July when the heat builds up the storm clouds, when the dry air becomes heavy with moist expectation, and finally thunder cracks and rain pours forth. She is glad today is sunny.

The woman imagines arriving at this spot with her child with a different kind of knowledge. She knows that no matter how wet or cold she and the child get, a car with a heater is only an hour hike away. She knows a warm shower is only another hour of driving. But other women of another time would know something quite different. She wonders how the other women felt when they traversed these canyon trails, carrying their own children; whether the children felt dearer because death was more of a possibility.

The woman senses the cold finger of fear rise up and travel along her spine from lower back to the nape of her neck. She feels the now familiar tingle along the bottom of her jaw line. The sensation is new since the child.

She feels the child stirring now, swinging her legs which hang out of the backpack. So the woman takes off the pack, allowing the child to get down and totter around on the sandy trail. The canyon walls streaked with black desert varnish rise sheer above them.

Pictures painted on the red rock display themselves on the canyon wall. The Park Service has put up a barrier in hopes of keeping the pictures from being vandalized. A spiral sun, a man with a square body and triangle head, a square-bodied animal with curving horns—a big horn sheep. Why were these images important? The woman thinks of the pictures she draws for her own daughter. Already the child recognizes a spiral; the idea of circling back while expanding is sacred to the woman and she draws the shape on the child’s papers regularly. Soon the child will draw her own spirals. What did this square man represent? What about the sheep? The woman wants to trace the curve of the horns with her finger, but she respects the Park Service barrier. She understands the hope of permanence.

How long through history had women stood where she stands while their children tottered in the sand? How many hunkered under the overhang holding their children close to keep them dry? The Park signs say archeologists have found pottery and grinding tools here. The woman thinks of her and her daughter’s breakfast of oatmeal flavored with almonds and raisins. She sits down on a low stone, suddenly overwhelmed. In this moment she feels the tie binding her through the centuries to all the mothers who have inhabited this place. It is a strange and exhilarating pull; the grandmothers reaching through time, joining her to them.

What does the child feel? As usual she simply appears amazed to be in this bright and colorful moment. The woman realizes that all children have felt this way. But she has been a child herself, and is not a stranger to amazement. It is the terror of motherhood she wants to learn about.

A child pares you to essentials. It gets hungry, you feed it. It gets cold, you cover it. Each breath she takes reminds you of how much you have to miss if she is gone. But life has always done that and you’d forgotten. Each time you see the white path of the full moon in the lake water, or realize the aspen trunks appear chalky against the snow, or hear the far, sad cry of the passing cranes. You’ve always known how much there is to miss in this world. The terror is knowing how much you want to hold on to what cannot be held on to. How could you ever leave this river? This shaft of sunlight warming your sandaled feet? And this child with her dark hair plastered to one side of her face where she fell asleep?

Here in the canyon something has happened. Despite the closer presence of death, another woman performed mundane tasks here, grinding grain, finding food, waiting out a storm. Even after she dropped what she was doing to watch the heartbreaking beauty of her child, dancing in the golden autumn sunlight, knowing the moment was even more fleeting than the quick brush of colors in the aspen leaves before they fell for winter. Even after this, she was able to pick up her tools and keep living.

-Jamie Barber was born in rural northeastern Utah. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania where she is finishing up her MFA in creative nonfiction at Penn State University.

Share

An Unspoken Life

The child in the photograph is about four years old. She is not chubby, but there is a sturdiness in her arms and legs, and in the set of her shoulders. The girl sits stiffly on a cushion with her left knee bent and that leg tucked primly under the other. The toe of a shiny black patent-leather shoe sticks out beside the opposite knee. On the foot that extends down, you can see that she is wearing a white sock with a thin satin ribbon laced through the top of it and tied in a tiny bow.

Since it is a black and white photo, there is no way to know the color of her pale dress, but I know that it is not white. It is freshly pressed, with the ruffles at her knees and upper arms starched into crisp puffs. My mother would have called the neckline of this dress scoop-necked: you can see where the girl’s neck curves into her shoulders and chest. A pale satin ribbon threaded through a strip of lace encircles the neck opening. The dress is straight and plain from shoulders to knees. Perhaps to compensate for this plainness, she has a length of wide, dark grosgrain ribbon, tied into a long bow, perched on her right shoulder—the one away from the photographer. The loop dips down over her chest, while the tails of the bow fall free from the end of her shoulder past her elbow.

Her left hand lies open, palm up, fingers spread, in her lap. She seems to be pressing on the palm of that hand with the fingertips of her right hand. It is, even stilled for 80 years, a nervous gesture. Her light brown hair is fine and wispy; it is curled slightly over the tops of her ears and cut into a crooked line of bangs across her wide forehead. Her skin is smooth, and her slight smile creases her pudgy cheeks in short, grave lines.

Her chin is lifted slightly, and over a child’s pug nose, my mother’s gray eyes reproach me. I know this look: it is the look of a person wishing desperately to deflect attention away from herself. I was told the story behind this picture long before I ever saw it. My Mom’s mother had arranged for professional photographs of her children—an extravagance for their 1920’s, schoolteacher-father’s income. Since Mom was the eldest, she was dressed first, in her best white frilly dress, and told to sit quietly in the parlor. But she had not obeyed, and the dress and she became muddy. I did not need a description of my grandmother’s actions as she removed the soiled dress, washed the child, and re-dressed her. I could imagine only too well the sharp scolding punctuated by the tug and snap of the clothing as it was removed and replaced.

I know, as well, the look in those eyes. As a teenager, I watched in horror as Mom would trip on uneven pavement and grab at a stranger for balance. She would look at me then, almost as if daring me to believe what I had just seen. The stranger would be staring at her, uncertain whether to be angry at an affront or to laugh over some kind of horseplay—possibly from an acquaintance? Mom would laugh mirthlessly and apologize profusely to the stranger, and then she would move on down the sidewalk as I followed, seeing then the look of pity or contempt on the stranger’s face. It was only after several years of this that I learned its name: Multiple Sclerosis.

Thankfully, the devastation that will come from an adult-onset illness is not in the eyes of the child, but the deferential determination with which she would handle the disease is clear from her gaze. She never discussed these episodes of stumbling, and she never asked us for help walking or climbing stairs. There was an expectation, conveyed in those same gray eyes, that the family would consider the whole subject not to exist.

The disease came into its own sometime in her early 30’s, while I was the age of the girl in the photo. Since it happened while I was immersed in my own childhood, I have no clear idea of the time of its onset. It was also a time when she loved to tell my sister and me stories of her childhood, so that now sometimes I am certain I experienced a childhood event that was really hers. Hers seemed like a large family to me: three girls and then, a little later, my Uncle Bob. Mom was old enough to remember taking care of Bob as a crawling infant. Her mother would put Bob on a large blanket in the backyard and instruct Mom not to let him crawl off the blanket. She soon learned that their dog, a miniature collie with all the traits of that proud shepherding breed, could be counted on to stay near the blanket and bark loudly whenever Bob ventured off it. My grandmother never realized that it was Trixie, and not her daughter, who minded the baby on all those summer afternoons.

It is said that Multiple Sclerosis is a sex-linked genetic disease, although the exact mechanisms were unknown then and unclear as I reached young womanhood. That more women suffer from it, and that it is somehow passed down through families, are characteristics of the disease. There were no stumbling, limping women in Mom’s stories, but I have memories of family reunions with twisted, older women sitting in the shadows.

Her life was not an easy one. Widowed in her thirties with three small children, she had returned to the college she left to marry my father, now seeking a teaching degree. I heard of her struggles to maintain grades while running a household and raising us, but they came to me as triumphs: she graduated with honors, we were warm and fed all the while, and Christmas came every year. Once, in an art appreciation class, the professor had brought in a paper bag with something inside it. Holding it out to Mom, he asked her to put her hand in it and tell him what was there. She thrust her hand in and announced that it was a silk scarf.He nodded and asked her if she knew what color it was. She hesitated a moment and then said, “Purple. I think it’s purple, or perhaps a deep pink.” He then pulled a purple scarf from the bag, to the amazement of her younger classmates. I believe that his point was that the senses are more connected than we realize, but all I knew was that of course Mom would know a purple scarf when she felt one, just as she had known how to get the dog to do her babysitting.

When it came time for her to seek work, it is my impression that she found it quickly and without difficulty. She ended up teaching in an affluent community’s elementary school, and I knew precisely how those children felt when Mrs. Saller strode to the front of the room and began telling them things they needed to know.

Our life became a routine of school stories from each of us at dinner, Friday-night games of Rummy or Clue with popcorn and soda, and weekends most often spent outdoors working in our own small garden, raking leaves, or hiking in parks like Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave. One of our favorite fall and winter activities was to get up early and drive to the rocky parks for a breakfast picnic. We would start a fire and make eggs and bacon and hot cocoa before heading off to hike the rugged trails among the boulders and caves. I liked to imagine myself living in the caves, curled up by a fire and awakening to rays of sunlight darting out from the wrinkles of leaves and globs of sky overhead. As we got older we were able to leave Mom at the foot of a nearly vertical climb and then wave down to her from perches where we knew Indians before us had crouched to hide from evil spirits.

I never knew that gradually Mom was actually unable to make these climbs. It was her teaching job and not our picnics that finally forced the introduction of the cane into our house. She had tripped on the uneven ground of the far playground at school while leading her second-graders out in a fire drill. Knowing how she felt when she tripped in front of strangers, I knew that tumble in front of her pupils had been devastating, but I also knew this was not a topic for me to discuss.

The cane was unremarkable: a light brown wooden rod, probably made of ash, that gleamed softly and had a simple curve for a handle. It stood awkwardly in the kitchen, leaning into the corner created by the refrigerator and the wall. That kitchen was huge—a sun-yellow room with cupboards and shelves, crannies and nooks, and a place for everything, except the cane. When Mom walked with it she kept it pressed at her side, willing it to be invisible. But it was the first thing I saw when I entered the kitchen.

I have no memory of having ever picked it up. Well beyond the age of playing dress-up, into my early teens at least, I was still fond of sitting down on the curved and padded dressing-table stool in her room and trying on her hats in front of her oval mirror. I would put them on and watch myself closely. When we shopped with Mom for her hats, she had a trying-on-hats look—eyelids lowered slightly and lips pursed. I think I was more interested in whether this activity created the same look in my face than whether I looked good in her hats. Why didn’t I try walking with her cane down the hallway to watch myself in the full-length mirror in the foyer?

I watched from that foyer once as Mom was watering flowers in the front yard, yanking the hose along as she and the cane maneuvered over the lawn. Suddenly, the cane was in the wrong place to help her, and she tripped and fell to her knees. I saw her begin to struggle up, when she abruptly sat down on the grass, her legs in front of her and the water still arcing toward the flower patch. I don’t know if I had intended to go out to help her, but before I could act I realized that the neighbor, Mr. Young, had just driven into his driveway across the street. He had seen her fall just as he passed, and he stopped the car at the end of the driveway and got out and crossed the street.

“Well hello, Mr. Young,” Mom called out, and he drew near and stood looking at her and the water and the cane by her side for a moment.

Then he gave a slight bow and said, “My what a refreshing way to water the flowers, Mrs. Saller. Have a good day.”

After he had returned to his car and pulled it into his garage, Mom used the cane to pull herself up, getting only a little water on herself as she fought to get upright. She brushed off her slacks, looked around briefly, and then moved on to calmly water the next bed of flowers.

For Mom, manners and propriety could cover any flaw. I remember being surprised when I went to college in upstate New York that other girls shivered as they walked the snowbound quad between classes. They were more surprised that I didn’t, but I assured them that my mother had simply taught me when I was a child that ladies don’t shiver. I don’t know how that edict provided me with the strength to withstand cold, but I do know that I can stand in the most biting sub-zero temperatures and feel miserably cold, but I do not shiver.

It was while I was away at college that Mom made the decision to take a disability retirement from teaching. Home on holiday break, I perched on the edge of her dressing-table stool as she rocked in the large wooden rocker in her room.

“Mom,” I asked, knowing I was betraying the code that linked us. “Why, if you can’t even work, am I returning to college like nothing has happened?”

I was stunned to see tears appear in the corners of her eyes, but she said in a steady voice, “Because it is what you are supposed to do. I promised your father all those years ago that all of you would go to college no matter what. And I intend to see to that.” Her chin quivered slightly and she rocked a little harder, but she quickly brought up another topic and we conversed as if that moment had never happened.

It was just after my brother had finished high school and had been accepted by a college that I was summoned home by my Uncle Bob.“Katie, this is your uncle, Robert,” he had said on the phone from Ohio. “I’m sorry your mother has passed away.”

Confused by the name, and certain that the news was wrong, I said, “Uncle Bob, is this some kind of joke?”

He assured me that it wasn’t, and added that it appeared to be her heart.

“How can this be?” I wanted to shout. “She’s only 50 years old and MS doesn’t even affect your heart.” Instead I said, “I see. Well, I appreciate your calling. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Do I need to call my sister?” But that was already taken care of, so we agreed that I would call back with flight information and politely hung up.

It wasn’t until the morning of her funeral that we found the suicide note. It was among a stack of papers that basically laid out, as if to be followed like clues, what three children would do to bury their mother, sell her house, move the son who still lived with her to an apartment, and return to their lives. Her note simply announced that the burden of now not being able to do things for herself, after all those widowed years of having to do everything, was more than she wished to bear. We each read it silently, noted that the logic was difficult to fault, and began the process she had outlined.

We attended the funeral and put on a strange parody of mourning an unexpected loss while coming to terms with the truth that this had been her choice. With nothing to give her now but the courtesy of a thorough job with her bequest, we packed up her things, divided them appropriately, and established our brother in an apartment near campus.

My husband and I loaded the last of the items we were taking home into our car, and then added three boxes of things that we would put in the Goodwill drop-off box on our way out of town. The Goodwill receptacle was a large wooden structure, as big as a child’s playhouse, with a wide roof over it and a large square window cut into the side. This was a Monday morning so the box was nearly full. After pushing two of the boxes in, my husband had to take the items out of the last box and stuff them into cracks and crannies. The last thing he pulled out of the box was Mom’s cane, so he hooked the end of its crook over the window and left it dangling there. It swung back and forth gently as he loped back to the car. I looked out the back window when we started to drive away and nearly shouted for him to stop and turn the car around so I could run back and get it. My last view was of it hanging awkwardly on the box before I turned around and folded my hands in my lap.

I have wished every day since then that I had that cane. I would show it to my children and tell them stories of Games of Clue, and of stubbornness, and of cooking breakfast over a fire and then climbing like Indians through caves and rocks. We would take the cane out into the yard and I would hold it out for them to feel the weight and strength of it. Then I would lift it high over my head so we could see it in the sunlight. I know it wouldn’t break when it hit the ground, but I also know we would all shriek with delight and then giggle as we picked it up and took turns walking while leaning on it.

-Kate Saller is currently a horticultural and nonfiction writer, with articles published in Organic Gardening, Horticulture, American Nurseryman, and many newspapers. She has served as a reader for Richard Burgin’s Boulevard magazine, and holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.

Share