Good to be back on the Compass. I’ve been keeping up by reading all of your posts while on hiatus. Sorry to have been gone for so long. I had undertaken two very demanding projects that sucked up all of my free time. I’ll hopefully share some of my reflections on those projects in the coming weeks.
In order to get myself back into posting mode, I decided to jump back onto the blank page with an imagination exercise this evening. I tried to picture myself 10 years ago, just about to finish high school, full of hope for the future, ready to see the world. How did my seventeen-year-old self imagine her future would be? Where did she picture herself in ten years. What would this future self have sounded like? What stories would Future Me tell to Young Me? If what I had thought would be my life had actually come to pass, an anecdote like this might have been my reality. Based on less glamorous experiences and made entirely fictional. Enjoy.
Some people hate to travel alone. For them, the joy is in sharing the journey, the memories, with someone else. But they are just afraid they will lose everything if no one else is there to catalog what has happened. Someone else to carry a pack, click the shutter, mail the postcards.
What about the freedom of being in a new place on your own? No one to judge your reactions, fog your mind with their own, interrupt your meditative experience of the vast new world.
Richard chose not to understand any of this when I tried to explain that I was taking a trip to The Netherlands on my own.
“Wait. Alone? I’m not going with you?”
“No. I want to go by myself. I’m not trying to hurt you. It’s just how I like to travel.”
“That sounds awful to me.”
“That’s why you’re not invited.”
I’ve been to Europe half a dozen times now. A few years ago, I began leaving a weekend bag underneath my desk at work. When the week has been particularly draining and my life energy needs to be recharged, the fantasy of traveling can soon become a reality. Sometimes there are clear truths that we must come to terms with in order to move forward. Here is mine: if you want to experience the world, you have to do it with immediacy and passion.
All of this - the personal philosophy, the lackluster relationship, the passion - lead me into the Selexyz Bookstore in Maastricht.
Being in a foreign country is exhilarating. Partly because so much is unknown. But mostly due to the undeniable familiarity when you begin paying attention. This bookstore accomplishes both. I am surrounded by volumes with covers and titles that also line American bookstores, but unable to read the Dutch translations. There is also a natural reverence demanded by the marble columns, stained glass windows and many buttresses. One is inspired to pray even if the Virgin Mary has been replaced by the holiness of the written word. If only all churches could be converted like this one has been. Brimming with so many challenging thoughts - suggesting that we could transcend our ignorance.
Nothing else to do but buy a copy of “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” Following along won’t be so bad. English and Dutch both have Germanic roots. I can muddle through.
Outside on the cobblestone streets I follow the flow of people, spilling out along the River after which the city is named. Across a bridge with the high population of cyclists in mind. To a small restaurant where I drink a bottle of wine alone for hours, read Italo Calvino in a language foreign to both of us and decide to stay.
Today’s guest post comes from an old friend of mine, Liana. Liana does a pretty good job of introducing herself below, so I won’t attempt to add anything. I will say that if you are ever interested in contributing something to The Compass, we would love to post it! Click the “submit” tab at the top of the page or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you enjoy today’s post. - Paul
I’m a teacher in Baltimore City. Well, a teacher, a counselor, an advocate… in short, a wearer of the multiple hats I must be to achieve success with my students. I haven’t completed many written works in the past two years outside of the dozens of songs, poems, raps, skits, and stories created for the classroom. I have missed my personal creative side terribly.
Today, encouraged by two brilliant men in my life – one from the past, the other very much from the present – I felt that part of myself awaken again. I was driving along North Avenue when the first two lines came to me. This man from the present had used the phrase “lost in translation” three times within a twelve hour period. I had never given it much thought, shockingly as I consider myself a rather analytical polyglot. Yet, it wouldn’t leave my mind. By the time I had pulled into the parking lot of my school, my mind was racing and my fingers burning to hold a pencil – the way they used to. There was an issue of translation I knew I had to capture before the wave of creativity settled into foam.
When conversing, my students and I do not speak different languages, although sometimes it feels that way to both of us. What I have learned though, through my relationships with many amazing young people over my first three years in urban education, is that often the simplest student-generated conversation comes from a deeper place within my students: a place yearning for, at the absolute minimum, connection with humanity and stability. Many of my students have hung around, talking to me about their versions of what we adults refer to as “the weather.” Many of those many have hung around long enough to tell me what is really on their mind.
In this poem, each two part stanza is written about a different student – a real, flesh-and-blood person you are entirely able to bump into during the course of your life. The first part, comprised of four lines, tells their story – the reason they hung around to talk to me about “the weather.” If you read it and it makes you uneasy, you are reading it correctly. If you read it and it makes you angry, you are reading it correctly. If you read it and it makes you contemplate life – yours, ours, or theirs – a little bit more deeply, you are reading it correctly.
The second, two-line part of each stanza is what the students say. For this poem I have chosen to remain on one topic – that of a student borrowing a book. At first, there was little significance to this; today, when I wrote it, I was simply distributing free books from my classroom library to any interested student at the close of the school year. What I realized as I wrote was that each line the students say aloud can connect metaphorically to what they are thinking – be it in terms of length, beauty, sound, and more. If you can’t see it, try again. If you still can’t, drop me a line and we’ll set up a coach class.
The last thing I want to mention in this introduction is the “vernacular” as the man from the present puts it. As a lover of language and languages, I have paid attention to my students and their natural, free-flowing speech for years. While I thought of writing this in standard English, I realized I would be doing them such a disservice. The subject would no longer be they and the readers, whatever small number they may be, would never know my students for who they really are. So, I have given my best attempt to express these ideas and this conversation to you as my students have done to me.
Oh yes, one truly final note: I am Ms. C.
Last night, I did something my Mother would have begged me not to. I went out with my husband to the AMC theater in Methuen and I watched the new Batman movie. I grew up just about 20 miles west of New York City. On September 11th, 2001, I was close enough to the devastation to see the smoke plumes from a ridge in my town. Everything changed that day, which seems like a trite thing to say, but true none the less. I had spent my entire childhood going into New York City at least once a month. The events of that day changed everything my family felt towards the City. The illusion of safety, the comfort of familiar street corners, the life all around you. All replaced, all years from being restored. Going into the city for the next year, was an act of defiance. My father would check the threat levels before allowing me to get onto a bus for an afternoon in Central Park with friends - something he would have never bothered doing before that day.
It’s amazing how moments like this can suddenly wake up that fear inside of us. That instinct of self-preservation. It lies dormant in between instanced of panic and destruction. But if we can be so bold and brave in between, why not continue straight through the uncertainty? So we went to the movies, as we had planned a week earlier. I hadn’t been afraid before the movie began, but knowing what had happened in Colorado painted the film in a new layer that hovered over the entire experience. Only the people inside of that theater will ever know what it was really like to be there, but the closest any of the rest of us can come is by going out and watching that movie. The 2 hours and 44 minutes is filled with sequences in which unsuspecting groups of citizens are fired upon. It’s an incredibly imagined world of fiction that should never become reality. But, it does. It did.
Yesterday afternoon, before going to the movies, I was out at Singing Beach with friends. The topic of the shooting inevitably came up and everyone threw in some sort of personal reflection or factoid. Piecing together our own, albeit distant, collective experience of the tragedy. One of the men out with us asked a very interesting question when the conversation had ended. “Why does everyone always feel the need to comment on these things? Everyone writes a message on their blog or on Facebook. Obama and Romney both made speeches about it. And we’re sitting around talking about it too. I don’t know. It seems unnecessary - none of it makes a difference.” So why are we compelled to talk about tragedies when they happen? It has monopolized posts here on The Compass since Friday. Every social interaction I’ve had for the past 3 days has had some mention of it. I can’t be sure, but I think it’s one of those beautiful, shared acts that makes us human. We want to talk with one another about it because we long to understand; the act itself and one another. We weave together our individual experiences and thoughts into a quilt of humanity and then we cover ourselves with it, as security against those who would harm us. Those who have no interest in understanding.
So last night I came home from the theater. The movie was excellent but my excitement was still dotted with a somber afterglow. As artists, I’m sure you all would find a familiar comfort in meeting destruction with creation. So I thought about some of the projects I had once been excited about (alas, I spread myself far too thin in the project world) and decided to divert some energy into something positive. About a year ago, I became aware of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord project. It’s an online collaborative community that works together to generate shared media that everyone can download and remix into new creations. It’s a wonderful project and a well organized community. It seemed fitting after watching him on screen for nearly 3 hours to give this project some attention. So I went on and found a random prompt and started writing. And I’ll tell you, I felt better.
Here it is:
On the night of my eighteenth birthday, I was propositioned by a friend. We had known each other for about a month and spent most of those nights talking. He would have just been returning from a night of socializing, intoxicated as he stepped over the threshold into my modest dorm room. I would have spent the night reading in silence, not sure what I would do in the company of others.
We intrigued one another - therein lied our magnetism.
The alcohol made him bold as he held my hand.
“I would really like to have sex with you tonight.”
And because his voice held such sincere earnest, I didn’t laugh. And because I wasn’t at a particularly engaging point in the book I was reading, I placed it on the bedside table. And because I wasn’t sure when another chance like this would come along, I smiled. And because he would one day be my husband, I fell in love.
There are worse things you could do on your eighteenth birthday.
Hi WeTheCompass - long time reader, first time poster.
Introductions are very daunting, don’t you think? I’ve met a few of you and I know James really well, but I feel like a bit of an intruder here. So let’s just skip the awkward part and get to the good stuff.
For instance, I have a blueberry pie baking in my oven right now. For those of you not familiar with the fragrances that accompany a baking blueberry pie, it’s sweet and buttery. It reminds me that summer is fast approaching and I can say goodbye to the heavy, time consuming baking projects of the winter months and gear up for the more relaxed creations of the summertime. Blueberry pie is a snap, as are chocolate chip cookies and three bean salads. In the winter, I devote more time to laborious kitchen projects that keep me entertained while I’m trapped in the house - I loath the cold. But in the summertime, I want to be outside! So I want to get in and out of the kitchen quickly. It’s a time for throwing all of your ingredients in a bowl, transferring to an appropriate vessel and letting it transform into a final product. It’s the season of the Popsicle, Jello and Blueberry pie.
After reading Paul’s Trailhead this week, I was reminded of a story that I was working on a few years ago. I don’t think it was ever truly finished - but in the writing world, what is? So here is the most recent incarnation for your enjoyment. Looking forward to blogging with you all!
Somehow, We Get There
Justin could feel the tiny beads of perspiration forming on his brow, merging together and gaining momentum as gravity tugged at them. He found it ironic; how keen his senses had become and how powerful certain forces seemed as his body progressed in its deterioration. He knew that this phenomenon was not unique to him. It was more a matter of the speed with which the illness had taken over.
After listening to one diagnosis after another, all ending with the same conclusion, he abandoned any attempt to stave off the natural progression of the disease. It was little surprise to Justin when he found himself sinking down into the heart of the New York City subway system. Searching for the 7 train to Queens, he thought about his last time in these tunnels nearly ten years earlier and how much had changed since then. For a moment, he thought about how cruel this homecoming would be. How selfish to seek reconciliation in these last days.
Stepping through the doors at the last moment, Justin wrapped his fingers around the nearest subway pole to steady himself as they pulled away from the station. No longer concerned with the unsanitary nature of public transportation, Justin felt himself absorbing the stale sweat underneath his hand and welcomed the bond with all of the other hands that had touched that same piece of the world.
He remembered the last time he had been on this train, although he had been heading in the opposite direction - away. 19-years-old, just beginning summer vacation after his first year of college. He arrived home, unprepared for the news that waited for him there. By the end of that summer, he would be a brother. But the child would come from a woman he had never met. Someone his father had only just started dating after Justin had left for school the previous year. His stomach was overcome with nausea as he thought of his mother, not yet two year in the ground.
He remembered this fear so clearly, reflecting on how prevalent the sensation had been throughout his short life. Where was that fear now, he wondered. Had he finally overcome it? Or had it become so much a part of him that he could no longer sense it?
As the train slowed, approaching his stop, Justin swallowed with a ragged effort. The general discomfort he had learned to tolerate in the previous few weeks was tumbling steadily forward, threatening to become unbearable. But he willed himself on, knowing how important this part of his journey was.
The walk from the subway platform to the front steps of his father’s home was exhilarating. Young men and women on road bikes sped past, coming within inches of his broken body. He could feel their force as they drove by, the wind from each one nearly knocking him down. He felt a profound melancoly when he garnered a look of pity from a homeless man who stopped rattling his change as Justin walked by.
Then he saw it. The old brick building that was his childhood home. The side wall still bore the evidence of the spray paint he had bought with a friend while they were in middle school. He wondered if his father knew that it had been him who vandalized their home in this way. He thought for a few steps about telling him now. Less significant confessions might be easier to start with.
Justin’s body was weary - more so than he could remember for the short journey from subway to front steps. He was glad to still be considering his current state foreign and abnormal. He wondered how much longer that would last. Lifting each foot, he climbed the half story leading up to the doorbell. And without hesitation, as if the wall of resentment had already been torn down, Justin rang the bell. He stood for a few minutes, realizing that he had been waiting much longer than he had expected, then glanced down at his wrist watch. It was just after two on a weekday, of course no one was home.
So he lowered himself down to the pavement that had been warmed by the sun of the first pleasant Spring day New York had seen that year. Leaning against the concrete, he closed his eyes to rest while he waited.
“Excuse me? Sir?”
The small, uncertain voice eased him awake, but he struggled to open his eyes. He could see a tiny figure standing beside him, silhouetted by the intensity of the blazing sun. He tried to speak to her, but was far too tired. So he gave a smile, hoping that she would understand.
The child sat down next to him, immediately interested and taken in by his somehow familiar face. She knew that he was a stranger and she should find a safe place to wait until her parents came home, but she could not bring herself to leave, so she took his hand and waited. And it was only a few short moments later that Justin’s breathing slowed and vanished.
The scene was only quiet for a few more minutes. Her parents returned, followed by many people she did not know including a police officer. She was brought to a friend’s house that night, where she stayed for several days not knowing where her parents had gone or what they were doing. No one would ever tell the young girl that it was her brother she had seen die that day. But even without knowing the truth, it was a moment so powerful that it would stay with her until she died many, many years later.
Trailhead: Not with a Bang but with a Wimper
So here I sit, in the final weeks of my college career. I feel myself deep in a period of transition in my life, as I’m sure many of my friends here at school do as well. I spent the weekend visiting the campus where I’ll be spending the next two years of my life pursuing my MFA and I left feeling very excited. I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked around and met students and faculty. I feel like it will be a good fit and that while I am there, my writing is going to transform and really grow…at least I hope. After my Friday morning at Chatham, I spent the better part of the weekend just wasting away at home. The area doesn’t lose its familiarity, but it seems to bleed its own nostalgia.
The feeling carried as I returned to Elmira, the purple bubble’s hold on me ticking away with the seconds on the clock. In a few months I’ll leave both locales behind and move on to another new part of my life. For this I am grateful and excited, but it all seems strange. I feel like I missed the moment of reckoning, or the peak of the action and skipped right on over to the denouement. But I suppose that’s just how it all plays out, you know? Things rarely live up to all the hype. I won’t graduate to fireworks and American flags. No one will blast Hulk Hogan’s theme song (Paul please come blast Hulk Hogan’s theme song).
But that’s okay. The true great moments; those that move us or make us reflect with awe, always tend to be those ones that are not expected or planned. What comes to mind for me are moments spent watching a movie and feeling a deep connection, or listening to a song and walking an empty campus, or sitting on a dorm room bed with three of the best people you know and reflecting on the life of a mutual hero. (RIP MK) These moments, these beautiful flares in the night sky, those are the ones that really get me. The “milestones” come and go, pages on the calendar fall away and we all keep moving. But love; of friends, of peers, and of family is what holds it all together. My time here may seem to dwindle away quietly, but my heart sings loudly as it reflects. And that’s perfect for me.
In the weeks leading up to this, my first trailhead, I thought a lot about what would be a good topic for myself and my fellow contributors. I had settled on the idea of reflection, or building on the past, as I see myself reflecting a lot on my own life and then molding it into my fiction. However, just this week my mindset shifted. On Thursday I was accepted into Chatham University’s MFA for Creative Writing in Pittsburgh. Needless to say, I was extremely excited. Though nothing is a sure thing, and attending without some form of funding may not be possible, I still felt just, really happy. It was a great moment no doubt, however I immediately began to think about all of the people in my life. Even you, anonymous reader.
So much of who I am, how I think, and what I feel is influenced and dictated by the beautiful people in my life. I have had the unique pleasure of being surrounded by loving, intelligent people for all of my days. I couldn’t help but think of each piece that I submitted in my writing portfolio. Thinking to myself, “Had I not lost my grandmother two summers ago, and not written “The Reunion”, would I be in Grad School? Would I even be applying?” That piece itself is something that truly kickstarted my writing seriously as an undergrad. In fact it was one of my first posts ever on the Compass. And this is but one example. Every piece I have shared with The Compass, turned in for a grade, or even threw away, was not just some independent vessel, it was a culmination of the world around me, the people around me, coming through my pen. Thinking about it, though I guess it may sound obscure or silly, really blows my mind.
So now as myself and the people I hold most dear in my life continue on our own unique and meandering paths, new inspirations pour into my mold from every person around me. I’m excited. I’m excited to laugh and love. I look forward to empty, lazy days and even the long ones that you simply cannot wait to end. I’m excited about life and the new inspirations under every rock and behind every smile. Aside from this trailhead, I hope to post tomorrow what is my first new piece in quite sometime. It is fitting with the theme because it too deals with one of the greatest inspirations of my childhood, and in fact my whole life, my grandfather. Two days after he passed away in November I began writing it. It has been slow and tedious, and sometimes only a sentence a week if that, but I want it to be right. I want to feel proud of it and most of all, I want my father to like it.
As always, many thanks for taking the time to read and leave feedback.
“And let me tell you, you boys of America, that there is no higher inspiration to any man to be a good man, a good citizen, and a good son, brother, or father, than the knowledge that you come from honest blood.” -John Sergeant Wise
Hello all, my name is Patrick and I’m new around here (This was the introduction part of the post). I’m a med student, which means spending a lot of time in and around hospitals. This Christmas break I had the pleasure of spending an evening working in the Psychiatric ER. As the name suggests, it is a place where people in urgent need of psychiatric treatment are sent: bipolar individuals who are dangerously manic or dangerously depressed, the suicidal, individuals having schizophrenic episodes etc. This story is a response to what I saw there. I hope you enjoy it. Really, I’m just excited to be here (This is the etc. part of the post).
We know the places well. All of us, in our time, travel them and know them and know the darkling things that go on in them. They are the back roads and side streets, the empty alleyways and hallways where we find ourselves late at night after long, strange evenings. The farmhouse that lies abandoned, at first a sad reminder of times long past, until on closer inspection, one begins to wonder if some things are better left forgotten. We know them inherently, we feel them. So it is with 13th Street.
Sorry I didn’t post on thursday. I haven’t had the time really and I don’t quite like it yet. It will have to wait for another week. However, I didn’t want to just leave this week with nothing (especially since I woke up in a particularly strange and melancholy mood for no good reason). So I am going to post a journal entry that I just finished writing.
Spoiler Alert: This is kind of heavy so you may want to have something happy lined up to do immediately after. Just sayin’.
Enjoy and see you in a month when I will hopefully have that other piece ready, which is entitled “Manifest Destiny”. Until then, stay safe and I’ll miss you.
6 November 2011 - Chevy Chase, Maryland - 3:26 pm - Sunday
Today I am overcome by a deep, unexplainable sadness. A hopelessness that makes me want to be anywhere but here. It is a feeling of fear and longing and regret and I don’t know why or how. I want to cry but I can’t do it. I feel so bad and alone.
My family is attending two separate funerals today. One death was the father of a family friend, the other is the daughter of another. Both of which I think I may have only met once. Maybe. I can feel their sadness.
Nothing in this reality is permanent and within that, I can find comfort knowing that this feeling will eventually go away and I can feel happy again someday. Completely happy. But this is also a testament for death, mutability. Everything has to die eventually and when it happens, everything we knew, loved, and experienced is gone in an instant. A bolt of possibility of both death and happiness. But when we pass, nothing we know now will matter and we will become part of everything else here in our abandoned solar system.
If life was truly the way things are supposed to work, death would not exist. We would live forever and there would be no balance in between. But there must be balance. There must be. The universe is proof. At any moment through an infinite amount of possibilities, we could die. In a split second, your consciousness can be permanently ripped from your body and you will slowly break down into your original basic elements. Death is the constant in this universe and we are all still here by luck.
But that luck is deeper than just being here, deeper than just witnessing this cold space. We are lucky that we can feel and react and communicate and fight and dream and drive and scream and build and love and cry and think and laugh. We can go outside and imagine whatever we want and someday if we work towards it, it might be a reality. We can create. We can watch the sunset or leaves falling or a baby learning to crawl or waves exploding against rocks. We can feel the frozen burn of snow on our skin or the warm touch of another life. But again, all that could end in a second. The fact that nothing has killed us yet, that space and time has not balanced us out in this vast, murderous universe is amazing. We should all hold each other close and love each other now and whisper how lucky we all are to be alive at this very moment and smile.
But I don’t have that now. I am alone in a cold city trying to find a point of warmth, another real person that feels. All my relations are work-related which is depressing because our work environment is a unending battle of hate and unrelenting blind faith. The people I care about the most I have to see through cameras and monitors and hear through speakers. I am essentially alone for the majority of the time where I can be myself and I just want to feel loved in person for just existing, not for my work or ideas, not the things I say or do, but loved for purely being.
I don’t want to stay in Washington any longer that I have to. I walk outside and even though I have the potential to create anything I imagine, to project my dreams onto the land, it is not my dream that is already here. The Washingtonian has a predestined role, one that is financially ambitious and career-driven and that isn’t me. I need somewhere quiet and powered by love and raw-living with none of the pretensions involved.
Everything I see outside is the dream of another person. Everything I see is on purpose from every road to every house to even the type of grass. Where the trees are, where the people walk, everything. It all exists because someone else wanted it to. I control none of it. The only thing left alone is the sky. I think that when you die, you get to control it. On the day your life ends, you get to say what the sky looks like for the people you love. To swirl the clouds and reflect the light into vibrant blues and brilliant pinks and the deepest oranges and purples. On the day you die, you finally get to become part of everything and call it your own.
Terrence sat on both knees in front of the old tree as his hands searched the gaping axe wounds for answers. On the day his mother’s heart failed, Terry’s stunted attempt at a childhood ended. He and his father never spoke of her after the services commenced; he never heard the name Meredith escape those grimacing lips again. She took Larry Culner’s hatred and bitter resolve with her to her grave. The man that remained was a shell; one long since empty. Within a year of that day Terry had gone to a military academy and within a decade, he moved to the East Coast, far away from his father, her grave, and the trees.
He slammed one closed fist into the bark; its crunch was satisfying, but it was not enough. He stood abruptly as the traces of the rage he felt so long ago in his kitchen threatened to consume him once again. For nearly twenty years Culner’s Christmas Trees existed only as a dream; a wayward nightmare that haunted his sleep. Here it was, each branch, each warped marking sign, exactly as he remembered them. Each sing that crossed his path he ripped from the earth and smashed off the ground. His anger boiled over when he found an old tool shed. He tore through it fruitlessly searching for his father’s axe. Shelf after shelf thudded to the ground each one harboring no weapon to finish off the tree that so long ago managed to survive. He left the shed in ruins and set his sights on the barn. He fumbled with the massive set of keys that the estate executor had given him at his father’s funeral the day before and finally found one to open the barn. It clicked in place and Terrance threw his shoulder into the door.
Immediately, he felt lost. A very different sight greeted him than he expected. The dark, musty machinery and rusting antiques from his childhood were gone. Instead, the barn had transformed into a carefully tended, indoor garden. Huge glass panes that allowed the sun to spill into the room had long since replaced the roof’s decrepit wood paneling. The entire barn was lush and green yet modest. Short-legged tables lined the walls with one row dividing the room. Ripe tomatoes hung from vines right next to fresh basil sprouting from numerous pots. It was a remarkable sight. Terrence would have never dreamed that his father would have rekindled his farming, even in the form of a garden.
As he walked the room admiring the handy work of an aging farm hand, everything else seemed to dilute around him. He let his open palms pass through the countless leaves and vines as he walked by each, feeling them all. His scarred fingers sunk into the beds of soil, coming out feeling much cleaner than before. The final table that greeted Terry’s curious stares was taller than all the others were. Instead of pots or small troughs of soil, this table was one beautiful bed of carefully tended land. Dozens of large, beautiful sunflowers grew proudly from the bed. The tears came slow at first; strange, foreign drops rolling down his cheeks. Soon they overwhelmed him and Terrence slid down to the ground, resting on one knee and giving into his grief. He cried for that father and son smiling in the garden of sunflowers so long ago in the pictures his mother gave him. He cried for her empty stare that so often tortured his teenage years after her death. And he cried for the sunflowers, in all of their total sublimity. After his eyes finally cleared, he realized what lie directly in front of him. Resting on two bronze pegs, hanging above the sunflowers was his father’s axe. He pulled it down from the wall and examined its edge…
He stood in front of the tree; this time with determination in his face rather than fear or sorrow. The axe sat heavy and cold across his shoulder. He lifted the wooden handle high and over his head feeling the his fingers slip into the grooves his father’s hands had surely left. In one strong motion, he swung the axe, striking the cold earth and throwing dirt into the air. After a few more solid swings, his hole was large enough. He lifted the sunflower that he had brought from the greenhouse and slid it into the hole. He knelt to gather the shards of dirt and replace them as best he could. After a few moments, the sunflower stood tall next to the disfigured trunk of the tree.
With that, Terrence dropped the axe, leaving it lying next to the tall spruce in row 43. He returned to the barn to search for one final relic. To his quiet surprise, his father had saved the sign, though it had been decades since any customers or even visitors were permitted on the farm. With the sign in tow, Terrence got into his car and headed for the road at the end of the driveway. He stopped before he merged on the old highway and replaced the sign in its former spot, where it once hung so long ago. After admiring it back in its place, Terrence started the engine and turned around, driving back towards the farm. The sign shined as the bright December sun broke through the clouds for the first time all morning “Culner’s Christmas Trees: Open for Business”.
Terrence exhaled slowly as he killed the engine. The sedan was parked broadside along the small A-frame where his youth had expired. IN no way did it feel like coming home. No. The first home Terrence knew was the house he shared with Kathleen on Archer Avenue. As far as he could figure, he shared more in common with a parolee returning to his prison cell than a man returning to his boyhood home. He stepped out of the car and shivered, shaking off the accumulating snow along with the invisible shackles of his youth.
Each heavy, sinking step into the rows of Spruce trees brought him closer to the memories. Small, painful vignettes which he had avoided for so long. Some of the tiny wooden signs that formerly marked the individual rows of trees remained. His eyes lingered on one such sign, examining the decaying wood. He remembered the harsh feel of the uneven finish on the wood ravishing the insides of his palms. His father would wrap Terry’s shivering hands around the post, commanding him to hold it in place. Each thud of the hammer drove the spiked post into the frozen soil, scarring the spot permanently. Terry suffered the splinters and scratches in the fear of what worse things might befall him had he dropped the post.
He finally broke his stare from the post and shuffled onwards towards row 43. The quiet cooing of the snowfall was accompanied by an ever growing ringing inside his ears. He scanned the bulky trunks of each tree he passed until finally, he saw it. He reached one hand outward and crept closer to the tree. The right side of the spruce seemed to cave in where the bark had continued to grow around a deep blemish. By the time his hand made contact with the tree’s wound the ringing in his ears sounded more like a scream.
It was an overcast day when the tree received its scar; December 7th, 1980, Terry’s 13th birthday. He remembered very little of that year other than that day. It was a blur of confusion and uncertainty as he began his transition into adulthood by entering secondary school. He found himself with few friends and even fewer opportunities to socialize. He began learning about the serfs and the indentured servants of the middle ages in History class. Often times he found himself daydreaming about the ease of their work as he stood next to his father each evening after school. He dreaded returning home and, unlike his peers, he dreaded the weekends even more.
December 7th had been a Sunday. He awoke at 8am. His first thought was not one of birthdays or parties, but fear at the possibility he had overslept. Instead, he found the house quiet and immediately set to work rekindling a fire and heading out into the frigid morning. His father first appeared sometime after 11 that morning and already, Terry could smell the whiskey weighing heavy on his breath. It seeped out of his pores in a sick fog of warmth and bitterness. He knew that once his father started, he did not stop until he slept. By the time his mother called him for dinner, Terry had single handedly chopped, covered, and sold nearly 25 trees. He was overwhelmed with exhaustion when he entered the warmth of the house.
The sight that met him was not an uncommon one. Larry stood over his wife, who lay moaning and clutching her face where a fresh welt was forming. His father’s voice boomed like some ungodly thunder that made the entire room quake. The thunderclaps of his demands were intermingling with his mother’s cries in an awful cacophony of pain. The sound began to fill Terry, slow at first, climbing his body from toe to brow. His weary body pulsed with hatred for the drunkard as his huge hands shook Terry’s mother. Her eyes locked on to her son’s and Terry saw only emptiness. He saw the reflection of all the feelings he knew just as well. In those singular moments and that stare, Terry lost his mother. His young mind finally gave up the illusion that she could protect him, let alone herself. Instead, he only saw someone just as terrified as he himself felt every day; another victim of Larry Culner. These revelations exploded in his mind; each one was a shovel of coal in the burning furnace of his fury. The anger in his chest burst forth, engulfing his entire self in a blinding wild fire of hate.
He felt his calloused, sap covered fingers wrap around the neck of an empty whiskey bottle. He squeezed it and felt the lifeblood of the trees fuse the bottle onto his arm, becoming not a weapon but an extension of his mounting loathing. In one, vengeful flash, the base of the bottle came down on Larry Culner’s skull. It made a sickening thud and Terry felt the glass reverberate and send tremors up to his elbow. He let the vessel fall from his hand and with it, went his courage. In his mind, he had pictured his father crumpling to the ground in a heap, but instead, he only stumbled forward, releasing his wife’s bruised arms from his sweaty hands.
Before his father had even turned, Terry started running. He barely reached the first row of trees when he heard the loud crack of the wooden screen door bouncing off the front of the house, reaffirming what he already knew. He sensed his father closing the gap between them with each row of trees that he passed. He knew he could not out run the older man’s long, stretching steps. In a wild attempt to escape, he began weaving through the trees, looking for any opportunity.
The toe of his sneaker crashed into the wooden marker and he hit the ground hard. His eyes drifted hazily across his field of vision as he lifted his head from the cold earth and read the marker. The “43” on the sign swam in his head. He found his feet and stumbled to what was perhaps the tallest tree at Culner’s. Each of his own dizzied steps were a strange match for his father’s drunken lurching. With his head still spinning, Terry felt his chest hit the bark of the tree and he began to climb. He forgot the throbbing in his hands and feet; he forgot his father. His clouded mind only focused on the branches. Each one, like the rungs on a ladder pulled him higher and safer until finally, the flurry of verdant needles vanished and he saw only sky.
His mind began its free fall back to reality. He spun wildly as he searched for his father. Before he could locate him, a blinding reflection caught his eye. A metallic wedge shined like a beacon held in the sky; it was an axe, slung over his father’s shoulder. It was only after the second crack of steal against bark that he realized his father’s intention.
Far louder than the axe’s work were the screams of Terry’s mother. She wailed; letting loose primal screams for her precious child that Terry never heard again in his life come from any human being. Though he could not see her through the branches, he knew she was trying to stop the steady hacking of the axe as every few minutes there was a reprieve in the strokes and only the sound of his mother hitting the ground was heard. After perhaps the sixth or seventh of these dreadful pauses, as the tree began to creak and lean a bit to its side, everything stopped. There was once again only the sound of branches in the winter breeze.
At that moment, no louder than a whisper, he heard, “Meredith?” His mind struggled to process the word. It was the first time he had ever heard his father say his mother’s name. “Meredith?” this time with an audible strain of pain laced through out each slow and beautiful syllable. Shuffled footsteps followed as Terry strained to see through the branches. His father broke into view, jogging at a stunning pace through the snow with terry’s mother in his arms. Terry could not help but release a small cry as he searched his mother’s retreating countenance for any sign of life. Instead, his eyes met those of a stranger. Hers were empty of pain and fear; gaping outward, blue and pure.