She rounded the curve and saw that water covered the road ahead. Her father always told her, “Don’t drive into water.” At the time, it had seemed too obvious, “Of course I won’t drive into water. Who would drive into water?” But at that moment, staring at the highway, there was no way to tell how deep it was. Should she risk it? This was the only route she knew, and to turn back now would mean returning to where she had started. And then what? She moved her foot from the brake to the gas pedal, but her father’s voice came through again, “Don’t drive into water”—almost as if he sat next to her, in the passenger seat. His voice was that clear. She looked to her right, close to believing he would be there. Of course he wasn’t. She had just that morning stood at his closet staring at his shirts hanging there. They made her cry, as if they had life, as if the sleeves would rise up and wrap her into the kind of hug only he could give. “Don’t drive into water”—there was that voice again. His unmistakable cadence. “No more crying, damn it,” she said aloud, even as the tears welled up. She stared ahead at the road, her windshield wipers clacking, the rain steady and relentless. She should listen to her father; she knew that. But in that instant of rain and clouds and memory, she hit the gas. She drove right into the water. She heard its swoosh under her tires, felt the pull of its power underneath the car. Through it all, the tires stayed on the road. The car made it to the other side, where she could see the pavement and the yellow line, where she could keep going to God knows where now that the world had changed forever.
Here’s another Opal story. I’m still exploring her character. My friend Rita’s new play, which features the character of Death, influenced this piece.
Opal watched from inside looking out. Droplets hung in beads on the window pane. Rain flooded the street in front of her house and soon became a brown river rushing down the pavement, shiny under the cloudy sky.
For years Faith had felt thunder inside her—a storm waiting to break. It was all so uncomfortable and exhausting, but no one had ever taken it seriously.
Until one day when Dr. Noah examined her. “Looks like we’ll have to open you up.”
“You are not enough.”
She said it out loud.
Those who knew her commented how the color of her skin matched the dry Missouri dirt she walked upon. They worried when the drought came. They watched the dirt open and crack. You could pick up pieces and crumble it in your hands. Dirt powder, everyone called it. And then they noticed her skin, just as thirsty as the earth, took on the same appearance. She tried to explain, but her parched throat would not let her. She tried to cry, but her tear ducts had gone dry.
Those who remember say her skin ached for water. That kind of thirst can cause damage—can keep the crops from growing, the tourists from coming. That kind of thirst can kick up dust that covers everything: houses, fields, cars—a thin film just enough to coat the windows and change the look of any day.
“Stay there, until you see
You are gazing at the Light
With its own ageless eyes.” —Rumi
She was cleaning out the attic when she found the lamp, its blue ceramic base chipped, its white shade yellowed with age. All morning she had been tossing old clothes and dishes: uncluttering her life.
All winter long she watched the same tree. She could see it out her back window, its branches stark and spare. A cup of coffee warmed her hands as she watched the birds perch and chatter to the gray sky. She made a game of counting them and waiting as they flew off one by one to some other tree in some other neighborhood where someone else in some other house could see them framed through a window. Sometimes the tree limbs reminded her of bones, as if the tree were a skeleton in the February air.
One day, she sat at her usual spot and forgot to look out. Another day happened like that. She looked down instead—at a crossword, at an article, at a spill on the counter that needed her attention. Until a morning when the light came in just so, and she finally looked out. The bones had gone. Green leaves crowded the sky. She could barely see the birds through all that green. She could hear them though—singing their spring songs.
The day had been long. Grace entered the dark kitchen looking for food. She found a box of cereal and poured some into a bowl. She carried the bowl, some milk, and a spoon with her to the couch where she settled in amongst the pillows. She aimed the remote at the TV, turned it on, then poured some milk into her bowl, watching the cereal change as she did. The TV lit the dark room, and Grace looked up to see a teenage girl lying in a hospital bed—her face wounded and distorted. An interviewer stood over her. Apparently they were in Afghanistan. The interviewer said, “Why do you think the men poured on acid on you?” The teenage girl with the damaged face said simply, “They do not want girls to go to school.” Grace put her cereal bowl down on the coffee table. She leaned into the TV light. The girl with the damaged face looked right at Grace. It seemed that way. It really did. And then the light changed. The image switched to a commercial about some man throwing a crystal ball at a vending machine. When the vending machine broke open, the man laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed so loud that Grace had to turn down the volume. The man who threw the crystal ball laughed right at Grace. It seemed that way. Grace switched channels hoping to find the teenage girl who just wanted an education. But Grace could not find her anywhere.
“I feel completely unfulfilled.” Bea lifted her cup of tea, took a sip, and put it back down on top of the newspaper she was reading.
“Is there something in the paper that made you say that?” Lindsay asked.
She makes them on special occasions. Meatballs. And once you have had hers, you shun all others. It’s just the way it is. She starts first thing in the morning, mixing the meat, the cheese, the pignolis, the oil—all in a bowl. Then those old hands scoop out the perfect amount—over and over—molding the balls, dropping them into the hot skillet. You wait. You smell. You listen to the sizzle from the living room. You move closer to the kitchen doorway. You peek around the corner at the empty plate wondering when one will land there. And when it does, you are waiting with a fork. You stab it, lift it, and hold it like a lollipop—barely giving it time to cool before you bite. And she stands, hands on apron hips, watching—waiting—listening to you chew. Before the first swallow, she smiles and says, “Well? How is it?”
Just returned from a writers/editors conference at Rutgers University. What a well-conceived, well-organized event—a one day conference during which writers, editors, and agents mingle. And I was most impressed with the editors I met—all of them young and passionate, intelligent and thoughtful. They love books. They love good writing. And they volunteered a Saturday to offer encouragement, advice, and feedback. Trying to market one’s work can often feel discouraging, but the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature has found a way to make it encouraging. For that, I am grateful.
On Friday, I flew from Boston to Kansas City. Then I climbed into a rented car and drove five hours west—into the sunset—toward Hastings, Nebraska.
Destination: my niece’s wedding.
Here is the poem (perhaps still in progress) that grew out of my lessons in negative space and my introduction to the buddhist concept of bardo. Thank you, Kennon.
“A Lesson in Negative Space”
The Bleeding Heart Bush is a perennial metaphor. It blooms at this time of year; and in the morning, when I walk Gizmo, I stop and stare at one that rises from behind my neighbor’s small wooden fence—all those hearts bleeding.