School Books And Sheep

School books are stacked on my desk, never to be needed again.  At least, that’s what everyone says.  Funny how books simply stuffed with information are considered so useless the moment they aren’t required.

School is over.  Tall grass tickles my ankles as I walk out the back of my house.  Do not misunderstand me, I am not terribly sad to see it end.  I was not one who enjoyed school.  I was not good at it.

But my word, did I try.

I wanted to hold on to everything I learned and I wanted to stay ahead of deadlines.  I wanted to make the most of all those classes and hours spent wracking my brain for answers.  It’s just that my mind has a way of shelving it all wrong, and now it’s made a library of loose papers stacked without order.  A hoard, I suppose.  

A hoard of things I desperately gathered but cannot access.

The gate to the back pasture wobbles as I climb over it.  I used to be small enough to squeeze through, back when I didn’t care that the wind tied knots in my hair or that the grass stained my clothes.  

This place used to feel like a different world.  I could imagine it to look like and have whatever I wanted, a limitless place outside of reality.  Some of that childhood magic still clings to the ground and it soothes my jumbled thoughts.  In the distance, I see a flock of sheep in whites and browns.  I’ve spent most of my summers with them in our various pastures, but this particular one is my favorite, because when I’m here I can’t see the house and it feels far away from the pressures of time.

Everyone wants to know what I plan to do next.  

I tell them I want to have my own flock of sheep and move far away from cities and towns, perhaps coming back to civilization once a year for sheering.  I tell them I will read all the books I’ve been meaning to read and I will write poetry and I will finally be at peace.

They don’t believe me, and I can see how crazy my plan sounds to them, even if they don’t say it.  That’s alright.  I know it wouldn’t work out like that. 

It isn’t really my plan.

I’ve only just come home, so the flock is wary when they notice my approach.  I keep my distance, sitting some distance away and watching, letting them warm up to my presence once again.  In time, they will gather around me and follow me and make it difficult for me to leave.

The truth is I just want to find a way to learn that sticks, and I want to grow more kind, and I want to figure out what I think and how I work.  Perhaps later, however long it takes, when I know more . . . 

Then I will decide what to do next.

I don’t say this to the people who ask, however, because people aren’t usually satisfied with a plan that doesn’t have an ending.  I suppose we don’t like the uncertainty of the future.  How little control we have over it.  That’s just the thing though; even if I make a plan and stick to it, the future remains a mystery and so does my path through it.

What I see is what is in front of me, and the possibilities for what could lay beyond.  It’s frightening and exciting and overwhelming, and it fills me with an urge to disappear.  Run away.  Away from making decisions and mistakes, away from questions and watching eyes, away from stretching and growing pains.

The wind plays with my hair like a long lost acquaintance trying to reconnect.  I tell my heart to stop racing off with my thoughts, I’m not running away.  Instead, I will venture out another step.  And then another after that.

Perhaps I will never open my school books again, or perhaps I will.  I don’t know yet if I will use them again, but I hope someday I will be curious and open their pages.  I hope someday their words won’t bounce off the walls of my mind but instead fit into an empty slot and settle there.

I hope I learn to be a little more discerning.

A little less afraid.

A little more ready for the next step I take.

Madwoman

The base of the cliff is bathed in purple shadow, swallowing the details of jagged stone edges, scampering lizards, and a boy with hair the color of wet sand.  He is waiting for the madwoman of the cliffs, a woman of slate gray hair and keen eyes.

He is still and silent as she approaches, but his mind is so terribly loud.

She stops before him and says “Tell me the truth.”

She always says that.  

It was unsettling at first, the way her eyes never wavered as she waited for his response.  There was something demanding in the tone of her voice, in the steel of her gaze.

“Which truth do you want?” he’d asked then, for he knew there were many things true in this world.

“The truth you know.”

Funny how certain of their thoughts people can be until they stare into the eyes of a madwoman who demands truth.  The boy placed his hand on the rough cliff face, feeling the heat of the day emanate from it. “The sun beats down on stone all day, and its warmth still remains for a time after it is gone.”

She nodded, and said “Good.”

But she’d said it like she expected him to go on.

And so he did, until he spoke of things he’d dared not voice before, truths that he had yet to deal with.

Today he looks her in the eye and does not waver. “There is malice, and there is apathy; the former is a ferocious giant and the latter is a terrible force.”

She nods, and there was a weariness in the dip of her head. “Good.”

And so he goes on. “They pull down on my bones and sit in ringing silence in my mind.”

She reaches out and takes his hand in a gentle hold.  It was perhaps the tenderness in her touch, the sorrow in her eyes, the feel of ancient ruins beneath her skin, that made him at once fragile and resolute.  Both small and immense.  

Frightened and calm.

“Now what will you do with this truth?” 

His hand trembles in her hold.  There have been many truths told, many of them uncomfortable, but none so far had made him feel so much like bolting as this one did.  He knows the answer, this is not the first time it’s been asked.  Yet this time, it takes far longer for it to leave his mouth.

“I will face it, and not deny its truth.”

She nods again, watching his struggle with a piercing gaze.  Her next question is different.  Her next question comes with a voice hoarse from its past. “Do you know why they call me mad?”

He shakes his head, for although he suspects much, he does not know what is true.

She looks down at his hand, young and scraped up from climbing rocks, and then meets his gaze once more.  There are untold stories whispering soundlessly from her, old and haunting and desperate. “They call me such because I demand the truth, and the truth is not comfortable.  It is not easy.  It sits unmoved, and it drives them mad.”

She slides her hand from his, and for a moment he is afraid she might fade away. “It does this because they will not face what is true.  They turn a blind eye to it and insist it is not there.  This is not how truth works, it cannot be undone because it is ignored.  So it festers inside them, contradicting their lies, stirring up chaos in their minds.” Her mouth is set in a line of untold ghosts. “We fear what we do not know, and yet we run from the very knowledge that we desire, simply because it is not what we wished it to be.”

There is the smell of electricity in the air.  She gives him a sad sort of smile, and brushes his hair from his eyes. “Do not run away from it, child.  It cannot be denied, nor should it be.  I grieve for how few have sought it out.”

She steps back and turns, picking her way along the cliffside until she is gone, and he is left standing in purple shadow.

A slight breeze brushes by, and he lifts his shoulders with a determined gleam in his eye.  There is so little he can do with it for now, but that does not make it less true, and it does not mean he can let himself be consumed by it either.  It is a strange thing to hold something so delicately.

Turning, he picks his way over broken stone.  The path he takes is a worn one, becoming something like a friend to him.  Lizards dart out of his path, leaving the slightest puff of dust in their wake.

His mind is quieter now.

Bamboo Forest

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There are fairy tales that double as warnings, about creatures that lurk in forests and deep waters.

Your hazel eyes shine green among the bamboo, and your touch is fragile in my hand as you say “wildflowers and wildfires; both are equal in beauty, but not in terror.”

I pull us farther in, trying to reassure you with a shaking voice.  This will work, you’ll never have to go back.  I swear it.

You whisper, more to yourself than to anyone, “I’m not sure I’ve really seen a wildflower that didn’t burst into flame.” 

I know, darling, I know.  It breaks my heart, to hear the certainty in your voice.  Someday, I hope you will believe me when I say not everything burns your skin.

For now, you took my hand and followed when I said the word ‘escape’, and that is enough, though I don’t know what to make of the trust you gave so easily when it’s never brought anything but pain before.

We’re deep into the forest now, and each direction looks the same.  I can feel the panic consuming you.  There isn’t much to calm your fears, but I try anyway. “If we can’t find ourselves, they won’t be able to find us either.

I don’t say that the place we’re going can only be found once lost.  I don’t speak about what lives there.

We are raised to beware anything that is not us.

Thin tendrils of mist poke out between green stalks.  It’s still morning and we’re catching up to the retreating fog.  We’re almost there, and I can’t tell if I just think it or say it, but we’re so, so close.  Your trembling legs need to carry you a little ways farther, and then you can rest; or at least start learning what rest is supposed to be.  We just have to find where mist sits as thick as a thundercloud.

Because the fog doesn’t disappear.  Not in the bamboo.  Not if you go deep enough.

Not once you’re good and lost.

It looks like smoke,” you say, the words as bare as sudden thought.  You stop yourself, but the rest springs out anyway.

I’m running in circles and I’ve always run in circles.  There cannot be a good ending to this.  There never is.

I know it looks like that to you.  I know that’s how it feels, and you don’t know any different.  But you aren’t running in circles and you haven’t been.  You can’t see it, until you do.

There isn’t a good ending.  Until there is.

I just say, “It isn’t smoke.

You wouldn’t believe me if I said the rest, and I don’t blame you.  Only time will separate me from the others.  You’ll figure it all out for yourself when you have the space for curiosity.  You won’t need me for that.

The fog is growing thicker, and I have to remind you to breathe.  Cool mist brushes up against our skin and sticks.  Light fades the farther in we go.  I don’t know how to convince you if you decide you can’t go farther.  I don’t think I can.  Just please, please.  You’re so scared of the future because it’s unknown, but what if there’s something good in it?

You catch your breath the same moment I feel it.  The air has shifted, my feet aren’t grounded, and my head feels like it’s finally been laid on a pillow after a draining day.  The fog is comforting and sheltering and safe.

It terrifies you more than anything.

I hold your hand like it’s the last peg holding down a tent in a windstorm.  I know you don’t know a calm that doesn’t usher storms.  I know you were raised with the warnings about these kinds of things.

There’s movement, a shadow.  I try to whisper for you to breathe.

A creature emerges from the fog.  Built like a knotted tree, it has rough bark and soft moss and eyes as old as time.  Other shadows begin to move and emerge around him, from as short as reaching my kneecap to as tall as the bamboo.  The elder lowers himself to the ground, his eyes softening as he looks at you. “We invite you to stay,” he says, and his voice is deep like sleep, “and we invite you to be free.

Now I’m the one holding my breath.

As long as you are with us, they will not find you.  When you decide to leave us, we will show you the way out.  You will not have to return to where you once were.  Should they wander near, we will make them leave.  This is our promise.  This is our vow.” He holds out his hand for her to take, and he waits patiently.

You are staring at his hand of sticks and leaves.  The tales always say they cannot lie, but you have known too many lies in your life to believe them.

This is the part of the story that I cannot control.  This is the decision I do not get to make.

You rise on trembling legs.  The elder does not rise, nor does he retract his hand.  He merely tilts his head to watch.  You take a step closer, and I wonder if you can hear the pounding beat of my heart.  You stare into his eyes, his ancient, patient eyes, and you place your hand in his.

The tension in your shoulders drops.  I think I see relief gather in your eye.  The elder stands, drawing you in, turning to me. “She is protected.” he says. “She is safe.

They disappear back into the mist, taking you with them.

There are fairy tales that warn about these creatures.  I think most people get it wrong.

The elder spoke true with his vow.  They are the creatures of the mist, and fire will not follow you there.  You will figure out what it is to not see fire everywhere you turn, they will give you the space to be curious.  They will give you the space to feel your healing burns.

I know this.  After all, I remember following someone into the fog.  I remember clinging to the word escape.  I remember taking the elders hand with shaking fingers and clacking teeth.

The warnings about these creatures, they weren’t meant for the children.

No, no.

They are warnings for the ones that children run from.

Drained

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The tension in my shoulders is a fraying string that holds me together.  My ribs are a cage that presses down on my heart to keep it from running away and leaving me behind.  My legs tell me they work just fine but I can hear the weariness in their voices that beg me to stay sitting on the floor just a bit longer.

Days like this are hard because they are mundane.

It is warm outside finally.  The sky is growing a dark kind of blue that makes the evening look like it’s yawning, the kind of color that belongs in the backdrop of a grainy polaroid photo.  The trees and grass are impossibly green with glints of golden light from the low hanging sun.  Time feels strangely slow, until I think about tomorrow and the next day and the rest of the week and suddenly my limbs have gone boneless.

Like a child spooling in their kite string because the wind has gotten too difficult for flying, I’m pulling my thoughts back into the present and making them focus on the feeling of carpet under my toes.  My gaze turns from out my window to inside my room.

It’s a mess again but at least my bed is made.

A growing collection of mugs sit in clusters on my dresser, my desk, and my floor, holding used tea bags and coffee dregs.  There’s a stack of books I want to read on my headboard, three of them have bookmarks stuck inside that haven’t moved in weeks.  Blankets form a mound on the floor because even though it’s too warm to need them, I like how soft they feel against my skin.

I don’t let myself linger on any one thing.  Not yet.  Not today.  Today I am drained and fragile, and must store up strength before taking on more difficult things.

I open my window.

It’s a short drop to the ground below.  I’m tricking my legs into forgetting their heaviness by telling them that we’re going to do something ridiculous and fun.  I take with me a beat-up journal and a container of glue, because really, that’s all I’m going to need.

I wander aimlessly down the sidewalk, humming something tuneless and fleeting.  Up ahead, there’s a Bradford pear hanging its branches over my path, white blossoms fading and casting their petals to the ground.  Its fragrance hangs in the air like humidity.  The smell isn’t good or bad, but simply a scent that frames so many memories, and so it makes me remember being a kid.  It makes me remember the fears I got over and the ones that linger.  The hopes I forgot and the ones I didn’t.  How I didn’t care about the bruises I collected from trying things because I was too busy wanting to try them again.

This is where I stop.

I sit under the tree and open my journal to a blank page.  Smooth, sturdy, cream-white paper.  I cover it with glue.

I don’t have a brush to spread the glue, so I’m using my fingers, making sure it gets everywhere I want it to be.  The grass that edges the sidewalk is vibrant and the sort of height that calls out to lawn mowers.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s mown by tomorrow.

I grab a fistful and tear the grass from its stems.  One by one, I pull out my favorite blades and stick them haphazardly to my glue-covered pages.  The tips of my fingernails are getting stained because the feeling of tearing up grass is cathartic and I’m trying to fill the pages until they are green overlapping green.

I apply another layer of glue while wondering if I’ll be able to close the book when it has all dried.  I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow.  The thought makes me smile, mostly because it’s silly and I have no reason not to.  It takes me much longer to gather flower petals than grass, but I fill my lap with the fallen white petals and start sticking them to my new layer of glue.

I’m there until twilight, covered in glue, thinking about nothing of consequence and humming without a tune.  I don’t need to do any of it right or well.  I just need to do it for the sheer joy of it.

Carefully, I climb back into my room and leave the journal open on my desk to dry.  Firmly, I shut my window and draw the curtains to the darkening sky.  Smiling, I peel dried glue off my fingers, barely realizing that my shoulders are no longer a fraying string desperately holding me together.

Tomorrow will be its own creature.  I can face it in the morning.  For now, I am growing sleepy, and my bed is looking safe and soft and entreating.

It’s been a day.

And not a bad one at that.