Runaways

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I hadn’t been to this city since the day it fell.

It had been chaos then, fear rising from every street corner and doorway, voices mixing into a chant that shook the ground: Get out get out get out.  Eyes wide, hands gripped tight to whatever they valued most, heads turning to glance over their shoulders as they fled.

It had been smoke and bursting pipes, shifting ground and rising water, stale air and confusion.  I remember thinking: anywhere but here.  I remember thinking: I have to run.  I remember thinking: don’t look, don’t look, don’t ever look back.

And here I am.  Returning.  The city is a different creature now.  Shells of buildings, not quite empty but vacant nonetheless.  Seagulls scream from their nests on collapsed rooftops.  A soft roar of the rising tide echoes down abandoned streets.  The sea claims a third of the city during high tide, carrying in sand and shells and discarded seaweed to leave where it pleases.

Cracks in concrete spread out like spiderwebs, buildings droop against each other in a state of settled catastrophe.  Old cars on flat tires are filled with bird nests and spiderwebs.  Open doors sag on their last hinges, and walls are left with a patchwork of windows and shattered glass.

Flowering jasmine sprouts from every crack and crevice, every pile of sand, soft white flowers gluing scraps of a city together, their powerful scent filling the air like perfume.

I pick a few of the flowers as I make my way down second street, startling a flock of pigeons and a raccoon.  My fingers are shaking and jittery, twisting the flower stems together to keep my thought from racing away from me.  I can’t believe I’m here.  I can’t believe I made it.

The building used to be a flower shop.  Its glass doors are still shut, locked even, though the glass has long been shattered.  I carefully step through the empty panes and take in the space that used to hold the most color in the city.  Empty canisters and vases filled with dead flies, dead stems and cobwebs, swirls of fine sand drifted in from the wind and gathered on the floor.

He’s sitting on the counter, stacking cylinder vases in a pyramid.  He looks up at me with eyes of sea glass and dreams, and it’s only a moment later that I have my hand in his, fingers locked together.  There’s something unbreakable in our shattered gazes.  Something we built when our guts shouted at us to get out, get out of this terrible place.  Something we grabbed when our minds said you have to run, run, run.

Something I clung to when I told myself you can’t look back, don’t ever look back.

I think perhaps I can hear an echo of the pounding hearts that fled here the day the city emptied, or perhaps that is my own heart matching beat with him.  We’re in shock, amazed we made it, not quite ready to believe it.

We walk out and find where the beach begins on seventh street.  Washed up seashells poke out of drifted sand, stones beaten smooth from constant turmoil gleam in shafts of sunlight.  Abandoned lives and washed out dreams surround us, forgotten and left to lie in peace.  This is a place for the claiming of waves.

This is a place for the forgotten, the wandering, the runaways.

We sit on the roof of a rusting car, tucked close to each other’s side, listening to the water as it says shhh, shhh, shhh.  We’d promised to get out, to find somewhere safe, to do it together.

Together, or not at all.

The sea is lapping at the deflated tires beneath us, not quite able to reach farther, but seemingly stretching out to us, saying shh, shh, it’s alright now.  I rest my head on his shoulder, and his heartbeat says we made it, we made it, we made it.  I squeeze his hand, and it tells him we’re out, we’re out, we’re out.

No one will find us here, in the ruins of a city fallen to the sea.  We can finally take the time to hear our thoughts and figure out how our lungs are supposed to breathe.  Jasmine perfume fills the air, and I’m starting to remember what it is to imagine something more than running away.  His hand often intertwines with mine, a reassurance that I’m here.  We made it.

Together.

Where the sea washes up on deserted streets, learning to settle, to be what it has become.

Together, or not at all.

Swamp Sage

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The Valrose swamp is a beautiful place where no one ventures near, and I find it interesting to ask them why.  They say it’s because of the humidity, or because the waters are cursed, or because it holds strange creatures that should not be.  They’ll say it’s too far from civilization, it doesn’t have enough sunlight, it’s too wild . . . really anything they can think up on the spot.

I can’t say they’re wrong, though I don’t believe the waters are cursed.  Some will argue when I say it’s beautiful, but most will concede the point.  Those who argue are the people who are too frightened to look.  Or perhaps, to frightened to feel.

The waters are a deep shade of orchid purple, their smooth surfaces interrupted by lime green reeds growing in the shallows, by ripples of commotion reaching outwards, by bubbles breaking the surface.  Water striders dart across the surface to the shrill music of crickets and cicadas.

Ancient trees cover the sky with polished ivory leaves, their smooth pearly branches drooping down to touch the earth and dip into water.  A thick carpet of moss covers every inch of the ground, climbing rocks and fallen branches and the base of tree trunks.

Beetles in dark hues of green and blue and yellow fly through the air and sometimes bounce off trees in their hurry.  Dragonflies with crystal wings glide low to avoid them.

And frogs.

Frogs of every color.

Bright, saturated, poisonous colors.  They are warnings, cautionary tales, beacons of danger.  They are the guardians of Valrose swamp, and they are my greatest curiosity.

I study most of the plants and creatures here, but none more than these colorful frogs.

I kept one once.  Caught it in a jar without touching it myself.  It was green and black and purple swirled together, like how oil looks when it gleams under the sun.  I fed it every bug I caught until I could figure out which ones it preferred.  I dropped in silver leaves and spongy moss and twisted sticks, observing carefully and writing it all down as bit by bit I grew attached.

Here is what I learned:

The frogs love to eat the pale crickets that sparkle in slivers of light, the emerald green minnows that gather in the shallows, and the fat inchworms the color of steel.

They love to touch the ivory leaves, but once they do the leaves shrink and turn a muted gray.

Exposure to their skin causes moss to turn bright violet, thriving more than any of the other samples I’ve grown.

Glass walls cannot contain them forever.

At first, copper spots blurred sections of the glass, like the surface of an aging banana.  A little longer, and spiderweb cracks spread over the surface.  I went to get another jar to relocate my frog, but when I came back there were only withered leaves, twisted sticks, violet moss covered in dusted glass, the top half of a jar, and the absence of a colorfully gleaming frog.

My journals are filled with discoveries, and sometimes those discoveries are disappearances or failures or unfortunate consequences.  There is more than you might imagine in research, the rise and fall of emotions, the breaking out of questions, the occasional answer that makes everything shift just enough to click into place.  Sometimes, I think of it as a story, one of longing and feeling and relinquishment.

It is a delicate thing, to love something wild.

It is my life.

Imagine It

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Tucked away amongst rolling hills and winding roads, just off the edge of a charmingly cobbled-together town, there’s an old dirt road overgrown with weeds that leads to an abandoned cottage.  Looking back, I’m surprised I noticed it when I happened by.

I turned my feet down the old road and walked up the slanted front steps to the empty cottage.  It only took opening the front door before deciding it was home.

The place was fading into creeping vines and dripping branches, its inside covered in dust-settled sheets and curled autumn leaves.  The air was silent and open, filling the rooms in a way that hope fills the chest– not yet fulfilled, but ready.

Out the back door was an overgrowth of vegetation with a lining with trees.  A garden hid within the chaos, unnoticed until I found myself stepping on a tomato, and recognized a vine of beans climbing up a sapling.  I started there, searching, weeding, assessing.  It was like a scavenger hunt, with prizes scattered everywhere and small curious creatures watching from a distance.

I’m not sure how big the garden was when it had been planted; once abandoned, the plants seemed to have taken up a mind of their own, going wild with their strange new freedom.  I found tomatoes climbing up old corn stalks, carrot roots wrapping around rocks, and zucchini plants crawling over everything.  Two apple trees framed the back door, standing like protective mothers over clusters of wild onions.

Back inside the cottage, I found stairs to the attic.  I thought it would be empty.

I was very, very wrong.

Each box seemed wrapped in the melancholy of being set aside with no intent of being taken out again.  I opened each one gently, wondering who put them there and never returned.  What had this home been before?

Pins and buttons and needles and thread.  Fine china and quilts and baskets and jars.  Sewing patterns.  Lace curtains.  A pair of bright red slippers.  There was a typewriter boxed up with folded handkerchiefs and stacks of loose papers filled with poetry.

Bit by bit, I carried them all back down and filled the empty shelves and cabinets and drawers.  I gathered the white sheets that covered the furniture, washing them and hanging them outside to dry.  I took out the pins and needles and thread and placed them on the table.  I dug around until I found a pair of sheers, and then I brought in the sheets with determination in my step.

I hadn’t done much sewing, but I knew a bit and I had time to learn, and there were lots of sheets to practice with.  White scraps of fabric had invaded the house by the time I tried on a dress that fit.  Fluttering sleeves fell over my shoulders because I couldn’t figure out how to make any other kind of sleeve work.  It was the lightest I’d felt in months, wearing that dress.  I made a few more, each one with a bit more patchwork than the last as I ran out of big pieces of fabric.

In the evenings I would wander down the overgrown dirt road until the trees overhead parted and left me with the open sky.  Wearing a pair of red slippers from the attic and my white patchwork dress, I would watch the evening sky seep into a dark backdrop, and wait for the first of the silver stars to appear.

If I told you the stars bathed the road in shimmering light, would you believe me?  Not in the way the moon lights up your room if you forget to close your blinds, but like stardust glinting from a thousand silver fires.

You don’t have to believe me, I only ask you to imagine it.

Imagine red slippers softly treading over packed dirt and sleeping weeds, dancing with the stars.  Imagine a wisp of a breeze swaying the trees, bending their elegant branches like a ballerina’s arms.  Imagine looking up at the glittering stars and breathing deeper than you usually let yourself, because the air is clean and the night is big enough to convince you that you aren’t suffocating.

Now loosen the tension in your shoulders.

Here’s the truth: If I hadn’t weeded behind the cottage and searched, I wouldn’t have found a garden.  If I hadn’t been willing to cut the sheets, I wouldn’t have made my dresses.  If I hadn’t gone through the attic and carried things down, the house would have stayed empty.

Here’s the truth: I don’t even know if the stars truly bathe me in fantastical light.  Maybe my life is normal and my imagination has run wild.

Either way I’m dancing under a starlit sky with a smile on my face.