With a pinch of Lavender

Lightning Bugs

November 21, 2008
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When the child is filled with darkness, the lamps are too yellow, the couch is too brown, the carpet is dry and cracks under the child’s elbows. The sister of the child has her braids fraying in the middle. The knitting basket is full of sea mines, and the yellow glow of the ceiling light is puckered with the lightning bugs trapped inside for years. The turntable scratches over the warps. The piano in the corner bares its teeth, parted and widened, its feet hovering above the carpet. The layers of old wallpaper peer out where they meet the ceiling, whitecapped by putty and paint. The child’s skin is pink and raw from leaning against the carpet, and sings throbbing. The television is too loud, the colors jump at him. The child pulls himself on his elbows back towards the wall, away from the television and the piano. He inches towards the tiled bathroom, the tiles that are wet in the summer. His singing skin cooled, condensation on his hairs.

* * *

In the summer, the child’s family visits his cousins’ house, the one with the horses. The field out back is overgrown and full of horse droppings and blackberries. Paul and Dad pick blackberries and hand them to the child, and he fills his mouth and covers his face. He picks with both hands, ripe, overripe, green. Some leaves gum to his sticky fingers.

The grass is itchy against the child’s knees where his galoshes don’t meet his swim trunks. Dad tells Paul to look at something, and he holds out his hand and pops it in his mouth. Paul stares at the child as his eyes widen. Dad asks what the matter is, but Paul doesn’t open his mouth, can’t, won’t. He puffs out his cheeks and looks from the child to Dad, hoping they know what to do.

The slimy back of the frog touches the roof of his mouth, quietly waiting to be let go. The child could feel the little feet on his tongue. Dad laughs and tells Paul to spit. The little frog hops away quickly. He doesn’t stop spitting all the way home.

* * *

The child becomes used to being one of sleep’s discards. Tired of lying in bed, pretending the basement is not an ancient Native American burial ground, dug up so that the foundation could be poured. Pretending no one will grab him coming back from the bathroom to punish him for dishonoring their land. Pretending the waterfall into the window from that storm was just a freak of nature, and not a warning. The child turns a few lights on in the living room. The spiders, poisonous ones, crawl out from behind the television, and the thriller mystery novel Dad bought for plane rides has odd legs smooshed into unnatural positions on the back. The green goo from the big white spiders coats the wall and the book, like alien blood smear. The child doesn’t mind the little brown hairy ones, but the big white ones are unreasonable, always appearing in the middle of the day or the middle of the night.

At 1:30 am he has to kill two spiders. By three, there is another. The sticky trap behind the television is full of the hairy brown ones, most still twitching. He pretends that he is not living in a grave basement, and there are no angry spiders behind the television, in the laundry room, under the bookshelf, in the bathroom, under his bed with the hunter green comforter. Pretends there aren’t spider leaders planning their attack while he sleeps. Pretends the sticky pads will hold them, and that angry and deformed spiders are not coming for him. The child wonders how mad the dead Indians are compared to the sticky spiders.

* * *

Sometimes in the summer, his friend’s family visits. Dad makes a fire in the pit near the apple trees. The child and his friend light sparklers, and catch lightening bugs, and sleep in the yard. He and his friend dig for clay and make mud pots to sell, and wash their arms in the stream. They put green felt hats on and shoot twig arrows from bows made of sticks and rubber bands. They are both Robin Hood, and pick up apples under the trees, and eat them next to the stream, in the shade. They bite ants, and suck out their insides. The red ones are salty, the black ones are sweet. They spit the empty bodies back onto the ant hill, and pour baking soda and vinegar on them. It’s an experiment. When Dad goes inside, they spray WD40 on bigger ant hills, and watch them writhe before lighting the grease on fire.

The friend and the child paint the lilac trees with mud, to protect them from the sun. The trees turn white, and when it rains, only one side stays muddy. When it is time to go, they tell the parents that they are stuck together, and need medical experiments to take them apart. The friend gives back the green cape, and they separate which mud pot was made by whom. They stick together as the friend gets into the car. He gives the friend a collectable card that will be worth a lot if he keeps it in its sleeve. The car is on the road, and in the driveway the child finds the plastic eggs they caught the fireflies in that rattle like rice when he picks them up.

* * *

Just because he finds something, doesn’t make it his. Dad found the cat under his truck, the cat stayed with them for a year, and then the cat was gone. He still finds orange hairs everywhere even though they moved away. The cat had kittens once, when they thought the cat was a boy. Dad gave the kittens to a man who had a farm. Sometimes Dad hears crazy stories about the kittens, how they killed a wild hare together, or scare the horses. The cat’s probably hiding under someone else’s truck, or part of some orange owl coughings, like the ones the child had to dissect in third grade when he found a shrew skull. That wasn’t his either – it was the shrew’s, and then the owl borrowed it, and then he found it. He wanted to take it home with him, but it wasn’t his to keep, and Mrs. Greene said he had to leave it with the rest of the owl coughings on the paper towels – the brown ones that never got his hands dry – public school towels.

* * *

The child develops a coping mechanism called “the desert lizard” wherein he blends in with the environment until attacked, and leaves a piece of him behind for escape. Desert lizards are the same color as desert rocks and stay very still. They blink sometimes, but they become part of the rock. If a bird can see them, the lizard gets ready to run, but lets go of its tail if that means not being eaten. He lets go of his argument if someone gets mad, and smiles and pretends he never cared about anything. If the bird gets the tail, it leaves the lizard alone. When he gives them a concession, they leave him alone until the next time they get hungry for his surrender. They swallow his defeat like a tail, and break it down, making it part of them, adding it to all the other conceded arguments they’ve won, building themselves into a desert bird out of his lizard tails.

After a few arguments, their nose forms into a hooked beak and the feathers sprout out of their forearms. Their brow becomes a V, their mouth points downward, their bones hollow, and their toes become scaly and crooked. Soon, instead of yelling, they screech so that it can echo in canyons, off of the rocks he blends into, and up to the sun they can’t fly to. The child’s tail has no time to grow back, and they peck at his oozing stump, until they swallow him whole, his padded fingers sticking to the side of their beak. And they fly home, taking him with them to feed to their hook beaked chicks on the side of a canyon, in a nest built of the rocks he now hides under.

* * *

In the house the child used to live in, there were streams and a pond that filled itself in. He puts a plank over the stream, and calls it a bridge, and covers it with mud, so it is stronger. A piece of drift wood is his oar, and his fishing spear. He pretends there are fish in the stream, and brings home minnows he caught in the ocean, and puts them in the pond, so they can grow big. The pond will be full of fish, and he and Dad can catch them in their backyard. The minnows disappear under last years’ leaves. The child uses his driftwood to clear out the leaves, making the pond harder to see through. The minnows try to jump out of the pond, their silver sides through the murk. The fish, pushed back into the pond, stick their heads out of the brown water. He picks one up, sucking for air, and pokes its gills, covered in the mud. His dirty finger tries to squeeze some of the mud out, rinses the minnow off. He puts the minnow back into the pond, with its family; he figures swimming with their heads out of the water is a way of getting to know each other. He can hear it when their little lips smack together as they talk to each other. They turn brown as they smack their tails on the water, turning sideways, trying to unclog their gills. The child stirs the water, and they hide under the leaves, and know they are hibernating for next spring.

* * *

The child lives in a lighthouse seven miles outside the city. He reads a story about a little girl who lived in a lighthouse and wanted a garden, but it was so rocky, nothing would grow. So every spring she would buy new soil for her garden that would wash away in the winter swells. He wonders if he could plant a garden here, rocky on the cliff over the ocean. He decides to start with some window boxes.

Every night, in his lighthouse, he goes upstairs – he calls it the crow’s nest – to light the lamp. Tiny swallows live up there, but at night they sleep. The child wonders if swallows could cast bird shadows on the fall clouds outside if they woke up. He sits downstairs looking at the clouds for bird shadows. Dad goes into the city for oil for the lamp to refill the reservoir. He goes to a maritime shop, but sometimes they don’t have oil, so he has to buy it in a candle store. It doesn’t have the smoke or the smell. The child wonders how they get the oil out of the goose. He could have some geese, and squeeze the oil out of them like row from a fish, all pink and full of miniature clear globes that break under a fingernail with the tiniest pop.

* * *

The child brings food under the trees, and climbs into their branches. He pees around his fort, so the wolves will know it’s his. There are wolves in the woods, even if Dad says they’re deer, he hears them sometimes. The wolves know the fort is his, and stay in the woods, but he can hear them running on the brown pine needles and old twigs. They splash across the stream higher up. He hears them licking the water. He could catch one, and have it live with him in the fort. The wolf would be wild, but it would scare other things away from the fort.

The child wishes there was a willow tree, so he could swing from the vines, but there isn’t, so he ties ropes to the old apple trees. Sometimes he falls when the rope is wet. He puts metal bowls of fruit in the stream, and calls it a refrigerator. When it starts to rain, he pulls a tarp over a tree, and under a rock. He sits in the blue tarp, listening to the tapping. There is old glass in the leaves, and he hides it again. Sometimes he finds brown glass, but sometimes it’s green.

When he finds glass at the ocean, it’s smoother, and doesn’t have the raised letters. It’s frosty, and salty. At the ocean, he sits in warm tidal pools, and climbs the rocks, navigating the barnacles. Schools of tiny fish form a silver cloud, sprinting from his hands in odd directions until reforming their cloud. The child holds drift logs together for a raft, and paddles it out to where the cement docks end, and Dad tells him to come back.

He finds clusters of mussels and wants to take them home to cook, but can’t pry them from each other, pruning fingers tearing on the rims. Mussel shells become spades, and cups, and knives, and swords. His fingers bleed on razor clams. He banks the tidal pools with sand, the sand fleas hopping on his arms, tiny bites mixing with the itch of the salt water drying. He sits in the pools while Dad talks to the harbor master. Swimming alone is how children get pulled out to sea, where he would drift on his back farther and farther out, and sharks would teach him to breathe underwater. They would tell him to kill big fish with his teeth, and to dart quickly, and his eyes would move farther to the sides of his head, with his nose wide to smell blood in the water. That’s what happens to children at sea, and no one knows they’re children anymore.

The child sits waist deep in the pools, and sings to periwinkles until the tops of the masts are orange, and it is time to go. His hair holds the sand close to his scalp, which will stay for two weeks, sometimes three, and his pillow will smell like the ocean.


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