Peonies

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Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen,
the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty.
Who will win the golden crown of glory?
Among them all, only the peony stands out.

The peonies shrugged in the face of the domineering wind. The buds were still bundled up in the green wrapping of early spring which would soon be peeled away by the sun’s rays. Vibrant pink veins bled through the surface and gave an advanced preview of the flower within. They were already attracting a great deal of attention, but the peonies swayed neither to nor from their admirers.

A sea of ants flocked to the peonies every year. After a few wandering explorers discovered the dripping nectar, a siren’s call of pheromones led the rest of the colony to collect the season’s sweet promises. They moved with order and purpose, but to an outsider it was chaos: A scattering of insects crawling over unripened buds.

Jane walked through the field with a careful step; she did not want to disturb the life that surrounded her. Her unnamed child hung from a swaddling of cloth wrapped around her neck which bounced as she walked. It smiled up at its mother, happy to be out in nature.

She found an open patch of dirt and sat down. The sky winds had blown the sun towards the horizon in the Home Direction and everything glowed with the same soft pink that belonged to the peonies. The line between the sky and the land began to blur.

Jane pulled on a peony. Their roots were a thick and winding sort, whose anchors kept them firmly in the ground. She twisted the stems until they ripped away from the plant and gave each one a good shake. The ants knew something was amiss as they fell to the ground. They didn’t know what to do or where to go. If they were lucky, then they would find the a path left by one of their comrades to lead them back home. At least this way they stood a chance.

The babe bunched up its face and made a discontented coo. Jane pulled back her robes and let it suckled on her breast to quiet it. She knew that her mother had done the same for her and that if her child survived, it would one day do the same as well.

The child continued to stir but she didn’t have time to figure out what it wanted. The sun was getting low and she needed to hurry home before the sky blew into darkness.

The family shack stood alone among the clover and leopard leaf. It was a hodgepodge of corrugated aluminum, abandoned beams, red bricks, mud spackle, and clay sealant. The leaning pile of brick-a-brack had stood strong for three generations and required only minor repairs each winter. Every rainfall made the structure rumble with thunderous shakes, and strong winds made the aluminum tilt up like a cellar door, but never collapsed or leaked more than a few drops and it never, ever felt cold. Not even when frost crept in through the cracks and you could see your breath.

The plywood entrance scraped open. Tiny suns shined from the oil lamps inside and the objects inside were defined more by their shadow than by their shapes. Even in such low lighting, it was clear that the place was a mess. The dirt floor was covered in mud and the wall behind the pot was speckled with the splashes of soup.

“Cassandra! You think because Mom can’t see that she has no pride?”

Cassandra was sitting cross-legged in the corner, braiding her hair. She glance up from behind her half-lidded eyes and went back to her hair.

A shaking wheeze came from their mother’s bed and reverberated off the walls. Her body was moving in unnatural ways and she had to use all of her energy to fight it. Her fingers curled inwardly in the air and her legs swung around in halting half kicks. She used the strength that had borne three children to keep from rolling out of bed and writhing on the floor. Even on her deathbed she was a strong woman.

“I brought you peonies for you, mother. They will hold back the devil’s hand.”

Jane placed the babe in Cassandra’s lap. Her knees lifted up and formed crib to keep the child in place. She had just finished her braid and was brushing it out so that she could start over again.

Jane took the peonies and wove them around one another to form a laurel wreath. The evenly spaced buds wouldn’t have had time to blossom even if they had been left out for the ants. Their role was merely palliate.

She placed the wreath on her mother’s head but her body kicked back and knocked it off. She put it back on, but her mother’s chin jolted sideways and threw it right off the bed and onto the muddied floor.

An ant, probably drunk on nectar and definitely lost, crawled out of one of the buds and onto the floor. It spiraled towards Cassandra with a hesitancy that Jane hadn’t seen in the other ants. Every step was full of second guesses.

Jane pushed it onto her palm and then held it between her cupped hands.

“Cassandra, I need you to take this ant back to the fields for me.”

“You need me to do what?”

“Please. For Mom.”

Cassandra stood up, and left the baby alone in the middle of the floor. She took the ant with a glare and went outside. The ant could be felt  moving around her hand in circles, trying to get out.

She tightened her fist and dropped the dead ant on the ground. When she returned, the babe was crying and their mother had stopped kicking

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The poem that inspired this piece was provided by an episode of Writing Excuses. It’s a great podcast if you need some help getting started writing.

H is for Hawk Review

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The best metaphors are often the ones that change and grow over the course of a book. The different parts of H is for Hawk are constantly shifting in relation to one another and come to mean many different things. It’s a tremendous achievement.

The book contains elements of many different genres. It’s a grief memoir, a lesson in falconry, a biography of TH White (author of Sword in The Stone and The Goshawk) with a dash of literary criticism, a collection of prose poetry about nature, and a look at the relationship between man, animal, landscape, and history. Despite all of these intertwining subjects, it never feels that broad in scope. If in anything, it’s small and insular. We take trip after trip into the wilderness with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and watch their connection change and grow. How each expedition relates to her present state of mind and all the other aspects of the book appear so obvious that it’s as if she plucked them out of the air, rather than carefully constructed them for a book.

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Helen playing a game with Mabel

But of course that’s not true. With a little bit of distance, it becomes clear that it is all very calculated. The art of memoir is all about choosing what to include, and Macdonald had the privilege of being able to mix and match and reorder her story to best fit the narrative she wanted to construct. But it all still comes across as true to her experience, making the constructions rarely come across as such. Even when information is being withheld it seems to be because she has not yet come to terms with it in her journey.

The absolutely language is gorgeous, but some of the description went a little over my head. I don’t know very much about nature or plants and don’t even particularly like birds. Yet, its all so poetic that I still enjoyed most of it despite was the odd repetitive or unrelatable passage.

The connections between her story, the history of the land, environmentalism, and colonialism aren’t as well developed as the rest of the book. Macdonald makes some big statements near the end of the book that aren’t entirely earned. I agree with what she has to say and can see how it relates to everything else, but it stands out as being underdeveloped in comparison to the other elements. However, this one piece not fitting as neatly into place just speaks to how well the other myriad of topics come together.

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Mabel after molting and changing color

It really is a remarkable book and is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I was so invested in its little world that at times I thought “Huh, maybe I should get into falconry!” even though I know I’d lose interest in any bird after about 2 minutes. It completely consumed me, and I think anyone with an interest in memoir or lyrical writing would love it. My complaints only stood out to me because everything else was so good.

Rating: 4/5

Toenails and Memories

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Jane clipped her toenails over a bowl. After she was done, she put them in a Ziploc bag, which was then dated and numbered. Every bag was a collection of memories

There was October 7th, 2003, the day that George Robertson broke up with her over the phone. Those nails had the look of heartbreak. There was January 24th, 1995. That was when her first adult tooth started to poke through her gums. It had been painful, but it was an exciting sort of pain. There was November 16th, 2012, the day her grandmother died. Those nails reminded her that all things come to an end. And then there was today, February 4th, 2014. The day she was ready to share her secret with the world.

She had called all of her family together. Not just her immediate family, but aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins: the kind of people that she only saw every-other-Christmas.

“Thanks for coming, everyone. I have something I’ve been needing to get off my chest for a long time.” She looked around  the room at all of the nodding heads and thoughtful faces.

“Whatever it is, we’ll still love you for her you are,” Aunt Sue said.

“Absolutely. We’re family. We’ll always be here for you,” Uncle Wilbert said.

It was now or never. Jane pulled out her first box of nails from behind the recliner. It would be better if she started slow and eased them into it.

“This…is my life.” She opened the box and poured out the contents.

“What the fuck?” her father said.

“I’ve collected these since I was a child. They mean the world to me.”

“Are you kidding me? I thought you were gay or had cancer or, or…I don’t know. Not this. Definitely not this.” Her brother inched his chair away from Jane and her nail pile.

“These are my life’s experiences. These are what make me, well, me. Some people journal, some pour themselves into poetry. I do this.” It wasn’t going as well as she had imagined but she was sure she could still turn things around.

“You need help,” her father said.

“You just don’t understand. Take this bag for example,” she held it up and rubbed it against her cheek, “this is from June 4th, the day that James graduated. Remember how his cap blew off in the wind? And then he ran back across the stage, chasing after it?”

“Don’t you dare bring your brother into this,” her Mom said.

Jane’s father stood up and took charge of the room with his broad shoulders and deep voice. “There are places you can get help. I don’t want to force you, but so help me God, if you don’t accept our help I will wrestle you to the ground and make you. Don’t think for even a second that I wont.”

Jane made a break for the door, but her father blocked her path with his bulking frame. The whole family swarmed around her and pulled her down to the ground. Her flailing limbs knocked James off balance and caught Uncle Wilbur in the chin, but it was only a matter of time until they had her pinned down.

They took shifts sitting on her, five at a time, and refused to let her go until she agreed to get help. Some of them had to book time off work, and Aunt Sue made a big batch of soup to feed the family for the rest of the week. After 12 days she gave in and agreed to go to the Detroit Center for Addiction.

She was discharged after 4 months for breaking ward policy by keeping a bag of nails hidden under her mattress. She is now living on the streets, begging for loose change and loose toenails.