The girl knocks on the wooden door frame. Dogs start barking, the shapes of them knocking against the curtains in the front window. The curtains are held together with safety pins to keep the cold out. Thick plastic covers the windows, taped with duct tape along the frames. Like every winter.Read More
By Erin Pringle
Up in the high mountains live the Nortang bears. They come down in Spring when mountain climbers are fished from the rivers, and they return in Autumn when the mountain climbers fall like leaves of red and gold. The bears have sharp teeth and claws, and their coats are as ragged as the clouds people see after a bad dream has brought them onto the porch. Where they wait in the dark. As though good dreams are just past how far they can see—if they look further.
The Nortang bears are older than trees, and their paw pads are as hard as the rocks under the streams where the dead lay, like the first fish a Nortang bear catches and leaves gutted. The dead watch each other between the streams and rocks. The wind that hardly moves them throws bees from flowers while they wait for the bears to come down the mountain, or go up it, or eat.
Originally published in Sand Journal in Berlin
By Erin Pringle
There are times on an elevator when a person can imagine that, rather than going down, the elevator is going up, just like the times when spring looks like fall, or winter like summer, and someone in November can imagine the next month is May. But convincing oneself of May during November and staying convinced are two different matters, maybe as different as life and death or as similar—in the way that it’s a compliment to say that the child’s corpse in the coffin looks at peace.
Perhaps the reason the person even imagines that the next month is May instead of December derives from a reason hidden from the person. Perhaps the person imagines this because of escapist coping mechanisms. We’re told that we can never know. And so, instead of worrying about that inability to know, we agree that above all, a person’s mood is as prone to manipulation as the spots on the moon that can become the skull-hollow shadows of the man who resides there.
This shifting from what we’re supposed to know and what we’d like to fancy, defined as imagination in elementary school and madness after, is why our lady in the hospital elevator reviles calendars and mentally squirms every time she must consult the planner in her wallet for when she can make it here to visit her son.
The planner where—after the doctor told her—she (against her better judgment) wrote the date of her son’s expected death just as she had marked his due date when she learned she was pregnant. Just like she knows today she must finally tell him he’s dying, she knows-but-does-not-want-to-know that she will eventually consult the planner to confirm when in the afternoon she must drive to the funeral home and pick out the casket, when this or that relative’s plane will land, and when the visitation or showing, as some call it, will happen.
Her revulsion to calendars has not spun into some obsessive quirk; she simply has her thoughts about calendars, and if the next person to step into the elevator asked her what those thoughts were, she’d simply say, Calendars make it hard to live one day at a time. So there, her nod would say.
Calendars heckle her belief, rather her need to believe, that tomorrow might not happen if she does not deal with today. Because of calendars, May following November is splendid fantasy or corner-rocking madness. And because she is tired and her son is dying and she is, on the most basic level, irritated at herself for buying her first pack of cigarettes in almost eight years, the fact of calendars receives all her helplessness disguised as wrath. Calendars. Damn them. Bradbury should have written a book about burning calendars instead of books.
If every calendar turned into ashes in a cup, she could keep imagining that the elevator she stands in, her hand lightly resting on the railing welded to its wall, is going in the opposite direction of the floor number she pushed.
The seventh floor is lined with rooms full of dying children, and the rooms are lined with their hospital beds like any collection that’s being watched. Seven years ago, one of the children slid from the body of the lady who now stands in the moving elevator, her eyes averted from the glowing orange number in the row of unlit numbers, the number that is two numbers above the maternity floor that death seems to touch just a little more lightly, a little more accidentally, than the rest.
Her seven-year-old baby has not yet told her he knows he’s dying. He will tell her because there are matters to be dealt with, for example, like that he wants to die in his own bed, on his own pillowcase patterned with baseball players mid-pitch and batters sliding into home. But he will never tell her that he knows she already knew but hadn’t told him, and he will never tell her that he knew about his dying for a while but waited to tell her because she can cope only one day at a time.
(One day at a time, she always says—we’ll get through this one day at a time—a phrase she will use without question her whole life, a phrase as useful and helpful as the cigarette that shouldn’t but does make the current events of her life come into slightly clearer focus.)
She can cope with filling her son’s little hospital pitcher with water from the bathroom, she can cope with reading him the cards from his friends and classmates and her friends and their church friends and so on. She can cope with the empathy of strangers because, like her ex-husband says, the empathy of strangers is sympathy on pity’s shoulders beneath a trench coat—disguised as empathy. She can cope with that, but she cannot cope with empathy from her son because she is the mother, after all, and so empathy is her job, in the same way that filling his pitcher with water and reading him greeting cards and trying not to ask him too often how he feels is her job.
And he will not knowingly take that job from her because that would make her feel like a bad mother, if not for those reasons then because she’ll feel like he kept a secret from her that should not be a secret, and that would make her say nice things through sharp teeth just like the times she found out he had a super good time with his father during a weekend visit. When she feels like a bad mother, she becomes a different mother, and he does not want a different mother just like he doesn’t want to die next to a window that does not open and does not overlook his backyard and the sturdy tree where his tire swing hangs.
Realizing his mother’s tendencies and allowing for them does not make the boy a sage or confirm that he has an old soul. And though the poem in the pamphlet at his funeral will say he was an angel who visited earth for seven years before God missed him and greedily called him back to the moon or wherever God sits, like a nurse, to watch the current events, the boy is not an angel and to say this to his mother while she sobs into her knuckles by his grave or empty tire swing is only to make her feel as though she is the greedy one for not wanting him to vanish and that her grief is inhuman rather than basic and honest, a cigarette during a tornado or a glance held away from the floor an elevator travels toward.
He is a boy who knows about his mother’s tendencies and shapes his words to them because he remembers the ordinary round of pitch and catch in the backyard when his father told him he planned to move out. His father told him not to say anything to his mother, though, because he hadn’t told her yet. The boy didn’t ask why he was leaving but why he hadn’t told her, and his father said, You’ll see—it’s kind of like breaking in a mitt.
After many days of watching his mother as he never had, he realized she somehow already knew about the ensuing separation by the way she kissed his father a second longer than usual, how her voice was a little higher during arguments and a little lower when she said sweet dreams. Then he woke up in the night to the car reversing out of the driveway and into the street, headlights sweeping across his room, lighting up the chalkboard that covered one wall, the streetlight illuminating the car’s interior for a second. His mother was smiling. He couldn’t see his father’s face, but he imagined it held an expression similar to that day tossing the ball in the backyard.
While his parents drove up and down country roads, he crept around the unlit house, searching with his hands and memory for a place to hide. This time he was not hiding from the creature ready to reach out and do whatever horrible things creatures do to children who don’t wake up in time from nightmares or who don’t pull their feet far enough away from the edge of the bed.
As he edged around his father’s recliner and brushed up against the coat rack, what caused the fright that clutched at his throat and coursed through him like hot pee when he had the flu and what he searched to hide from was the anticipation of the new mother who would return that night inside the same old car in his old mother’s body beside the same old father.
After his father cut the engine and reached—out of habit—across her trembling breast to push her door open, she, this new mother, would untangle the old mother’s feet from the floorboard and walk into the house on the old mother’s zombified legs, her face a zombie’s, and when she took him into her arms, her arms would tighten just a bit more, while her new voice—which was his old mother’s zombified voice—said that she still loves him and that Daddy still loves him and everything will be alright, we’ll just take this one day at a time.
He knew the new mother would make the old mother say this because a couple of his friends had reported similar behaviors and that’s what the actors pretending to be divorcing parents always say in G-rated movies.
He crawled under the footstool where he often balled up when his father watched scary movies in which parents might divorce, but the actors don’t make speeches about it because there are worse things to talk about—the clown that fills sinks with blood or the woman who drowns any children who wander down to the river—but like always, his legs cramped after a while, so he backed out and returned (like the car that held his parents) to his bedroom, shutting the door as his old mother had, tucking himself into bed as she had, and then began waiting for what he still wanted to hide from.
And all that he had imagined came true except that while the new mother’s zombie arms enclosed him, he reached out and patted her hair and said, S’okay, Mom, we’ll get through this one day at a time and then one day it won’t be so bad just like when I busted my knee, right? And when he said that, she pulled back, shaking her head at not only his lack of tears but also how goddamn similar he was to the man moving out in the morning. Then her face changed and she seemed to her son not like the old mom or new mom but the mom from the pictures in the floral albums in the hall closet, who smiled with dark circles under her eyes as she held a baby she said was him not so long ago or far away. One day at a time, she repeated then realized she was repeating herself because he had learned the assurance from her.
Then she thought of their first family car trip when he was three, how he’d called out from the back seat, Are we there yet? and she and her husband looked at each other and busted up because they certainly hadn’t taught him that.
She let out a giggle and said to her son, who still cupped his small hand around the curve of her skull, One day at a time. Well, are we there yet? And they chuckled together, not as adult and child, but as two old friends meeting after many years and falling back into rhythm.
Right now, a lady in an elevator rages at calendars and tries to forget the elevator’s direction—to the seventh floor or to the first floor where she can shake out a cigarette and contemplate how to tell her baby he’s dying—while a boy, not a prophet but a human who has lived for seven years, sits in a hospital bed thinking about how nice it will be to get into his mother’s car and drive home.
The doctors told her he’s dying, but she just needs a little more time to break in the idea—like a baseball mitt, yeah, that’s something he’ll do when he gets home, play a little solitaire catch in bed. And once the idea’s broken in enough, he’ll tell her he knows the score. Then they’ll get in the car, just like his parents got in a car married and returned separated an hour later, and he can die with his regular mom instead of the hospital mom who reads all those cheesy cards and talks to the nurses like they’re gods are idiots and is always running off with his water pitcher that just make him fill the bag of pee beside his bed faster.
Then he can just be himself again and enjoy the rest of his own car ride. And when the car ride is over, well, what a relief it will be to finally get there and meet that silly man in the moon. Besides, he gets carsick pretty easily. Carsick. He giggles to himself, then thinks about how his buddies would bust a gut at his joke, and that makes the giggle too big to hold in.
The girl in the bed beside him turns her pale face and asks what’s funny, so he tells her, and she giggles, and the girl beside her says what’s so damn funny, and so after giggling about the word damn, they tell her and she says, Well, are we there yet? That really sets them off, so soon the whole roomful of kids are repeating are we there yet?! and their laughter fills the room as some kick their beds or slap their foreheads like their parents did before they became hospital parents. This one’s a real side-splitter and soon the nurses hurry in, looking around for the clown that tells the same G-movie jokes every time but isn’t scheduled until later this afternoon.
But there isn’t a clown, and the nurses’ mouths drop open because first they think all the kids are going into hysterical seizures, and to the kids, that’s absolutely hee-lair-ee-us because the nurses never make those faces. One child points at a nurse and says it looks like the grinning teddy bears on her smoke are falling out of her mouth, and it really does, doesn’t it? And so the laughter turns into the happiest tornado and if anyone thinks this can be controlled or stopped, they’re wrong.
Published in The Floating Order, available on Amazon as an e-book.
By Erin Pringle
A man ate a rabbit. The rabbit found that the predator’s stomach was actually a field, full of white and blue flowers. It was the most peaceful field, and many rabbits lay about, stretched on their bellies, letting their ears fall down. The rabbit was suspicious and thought the field must be a trap, like a picnic blanket laden with moist cakes covering dead grass. The rabbit thought the other rabbits must be puppets or lobotomized not to remember why we run from animals that chase us and whose hearts don’t break when they hear the wet sounds of their own mouths on dead flesh. And so the rabbit waited until dark and went through the field killing the rabbits and dragging them to the edge of the man’s throat. Then it lay down in the field and waited for the field to disappear.
Originally published in Big Pulp
By Erin Pringle
Out in the vast field, she kneels under the wings her brother made for her when she lost her arm. He sawed them from a fallen tree then picked Queen Anne’s Lace from the field and ditches, spreading the flowers across newspapers as their mother once had. When the flowers dried, he glued them over boards, then spray-painted the wings white. He screwed the wings to the front of his drum harness from marching band. She wore the harness backward, as she does now over her winter coat—though the wings are patchy and he’s dead.
She wears his old gray stocking cap rolled down to her chin. Under the cap she has his belt buckled around her eyes. To make the belt snug, she punched a hole in it with a screwdriver. She had tried the belt from her mother’s robe, but with only one hand she couldn’t keep it tight and knot it, and her father’s belts were too long.
If she opens her eyes, which she won’t, she’d see the sun around the belt like light around a closed door. Even with her eyes closed there’s a glow, but that’s shut out by the stocking cap, shrouding her in the darkness necessary to dig her grave but not know where. All this morning she walked out here blindfolded, at first worrying that she couldn’t get lost behind her own house but then doing just that. She can imagine the field around her and around it the barbed wire fence—rust in the knots that hook a plastic bag here or a ribbon there, but she isn’t sure how far from the fence she is.
The nearest house is four country roads away and on the other side of the stone quarry, but no one even passing would see her out here digging between the dried cornstalks that ribbon the field that could easily be a vast desert, a plateau, a forest unending except to birds that fly high enough.
The dirt makes for slow digging. The hand shovel and trowel broke early on and now lay between her leg and the watering can. She can’t waste water on the soil because she needs it once the hole is dug.
She pauses to suck the sting from her fingers cracked and bleeding from the dry dirt. The dirt turns to mud in her mouth. The ghost of her other hand also stings, but she no longer looks or tries to touch it, although after her brother died, she tried to use that hand to touch him. But the hand's not there. Her arm hasn’t been there for years. She digs her fingers into the dirt again. It hurts, but she’s used to hurt, and the tangible kind, like this, is easiest to handle.
She has tried to forget her brother is dead but can’t. When he died, all her memories of him changed. To forget his death means returning her memories to how they were before he died, but she can’t remember how they used to be except different, more scattered, unpolished.
She tried to pretend him alive, but that felt no different than his death. Pretending required her to know she was pretending, and the only way to pretend was to imagine him just out of sight—having just left the room or just about to turn the corner, like when he was gone to the war.
And so she digs because she can’t bear to keep imagining him at the end of the road then remember where he is—in the never-again. During the war she’d have a sharp feeling he wasn’t truly in a foreign field but almost home. She’d look at her cat on the windowsill—fur against the glass, eyes shutting. If it perked its ear and opened its eyes, as if hearing him, she’d feel that her feeling must be right, and go crouch by the window. Leaning her head against the cat's head, she strained to hear her brother’s boots in the gravel down by the yield sign. The afternoon would pass with his almost but never appearing and the cat would keep waking itself then falling asleep until she knew he must be there, must feel her waiting and peer over the corn tassels to see if she were closer than the picture window.
And she’d run out of the house and up the road, past the red barn, the silver silo, the sheet-metal shed where the farmer kept his tractors. Up the small hill—on one side, hay bales—on the other, the watering hole where cows stood chewing the days to their deaths.
Down the road, past the windbreak and the ditch where a dead fawn once lay—day after day its spotted fur deflating until only she knew what the bones belonged to. Another cornfield, another bean field, row after row rowing along the oil-and-gravel road, her feet slapping the black patches where the road had softened under combines, tractors, quarry trucks, the hot summer sun.
Maybe she’d run through a puddle but puddles have never stayed long on this road, so shallow that when she tried to kick the water into airy sparkles, she scraped a layer of skin off her toes. The deepest puddles hammock the ruts closest to the quarry. They rise over her ankles and only one to mid-calf, leaving itch on her legs when she steps out. Sometimes, they hold tadpoles. Once, a family of dragonflies.
The bottoms of the holes are more gravel than dirt, the sharp bits hurting her feet no matter how thick the summer has worn her soles, but she always jumped in them because her brother once told her she was tougher than most boys—even the tough ones. She liked being the girl he saw. And though she never found him when she went looking and turned slowly back home, dragging her shadow like a kite dropped by wind, another day would come, and the cat would perk its ears, and she'd bang out the front door, into the road.
* * *
Every summer she'd follow their mother up and down the few rows in the grocery store's greenhouse. Her mother would stop and read the plastic tags that named the plants and explained how to keep them alive. The ones her mother liked most she never bought. Because the soil’s more clay than anything, she'd say—Kills more than it grows.
And so every early summer she and her mother arrived home to carry the cardboard tray of geraniums, snapdragons, and petunias across the yard, along with the shovel she yearly threatened to replace, its wooden handle gone gray and cracking. Annuals, her mother taught her, are hardiest. Perennials promise without knowing the winter. That's the trouble.
When their mother died, the flowers in the cardboard tray were replaced with landmines but still kept in the laundry room on the metal shelves by the washing machine.
After her brother died she started hanging the clothes on the line and sold the dryer. A few days later, the young couple who bought it started leaving messages about their discovery of cold and wrinkled jeans and T-shirts. Her brother's. They asked her through the answering machine if they should return them or throw them away. She didn’t know.
Then she found a trash bag filled with his folded clothes by the front door. She left it there. The trash bag grayed. Rain collected in the folds. Then wet leaves. Then snails. Then the hot sun dried out the leaves and snails, and the rain brought new snails to visit the shells of the dead.
She sat in the living room at the picture window, eyes closed and cheek against the pane, her hair making spider webbing in the frost. The wind whistled around the house and fluttered against the trash bag, trying to unknot it, lift the clothes to drape the branches with the remains of her brother.
A hole wore in the trash bag, and the damp crept in, the clothes putrefying until, when she tried to pick the bag up, it was so heavy she had to alternate dragging then rolling it out to the burn pile. At the base of fallen branches, an old couch with its hide-a-bed unfolded, wet and decaying cardboard trays, angels.
* * *
She doesn’t know where the landmines came from just as she doesn’t know if her brother had a soul—if, when he died, his soul fragmented inside her like the shrapnel he dug out of her shoulder. One day the landmines were just there, like her brother when he surprised them by having a taxi drop him at the end of the road. There he was—rucksack on his shoulder, his dog throwing its front paws to his heart as he had taught it. There he is, look, there he is, he's home, Mother he's home, look!
And he's strolling into the yard, into the house, hugging their mother then grabbing her up, swinging her into the air and against his chest, asking why she didn’t stop growing, and then he's out the back door. She starts to follow, but their mother catches her eye. So she stands at the screen door as he walks into the field, waving to their father who nods back.
That or another night after he returned home again, when she should have been sleeping, she crawled out her window onto the roof and listened to her father and brother talking in the back yard. Her brother handed a shadow to their father, pointing at it with his finger and voice, his voice a murmur: Out in the field, she heard. Run in circles, she heard.
Pretty bad? their father said.
Her brother nodded.
The locusts wailed.
Their father handed the shadow back to her brother, the shadow she later learned was a grenade. The two looked out at the field. When their voices came again, they talked of rain—there’d been too much—what happened last time it rained like this—how much longer a farm like this could last. She’d heard the same between her father and mother, between her father and the men at the diner where her father went each dawn, taking her with him if she woke to his truck reversing out of the driveway.
She did not know that the conversation had gone on before her birth, and so she never thought to ask, and so was tormented by nightmares of how a farm like this stopped lasting. This is what happened: A terrible man in a gray suit and shoes black as rain walked up the road, sneaking fences and into fields, cutting up the rows and rolling them into his briefcase before disappearing back to the city where, according to her father and the men at the diner, farming now took place. The men and her father shook their heads. Then stared into the coffee cups they held between earth-stained hands. The ones who stared longest were floating their farms by moonlighting at the factory in town.
At the diner, the men never spoke of the factory. At the factory, they never spoke of their farms. And, nowhere and with no one did they say they feared their sons chose the war over the factory and the family farm. That maybe they should have done like others who had sold their land to one of the two families who now owned most of the fields embracing the town, then gone to work for them. And then try to convince themselves that land doesn't belong to anyone. But if land belonged to no one, neither did their houses or memories or children belong to them. And that was too much to take in. Like dry land that can't absorb the water fast enough and so the flood, and so the bridges whirl away. Whether someone's standing on the bridge or not.
She would wake screaming, and as she screamed at the man in the briefcase to get the hell away from here, her father hurried to her bed, shaking her. She told him of the monster, the briefcase, the sound of fields being ripped off the earth. He said not to worry, that as long as he lived, he’d fight off the monster.
But what about your heart?
I’ll steal his briefcase and hit him in the head with it, he said.
She giggled. And you’ll live a long time?
Sure, he said. What else have I got planned?
And she laughed again.
* * *
When her brother returned to the faraway field, she asked her mother if he had killed people. Her mother said it was his or the war’s business but not hers.
So she asked her father, who said, It’s a war.
When her brother came home, she followed him around the house, asking him over and over inside her head, Have you killed people?
She leaned against his car as he hunched over the engine, and she thought, Have you killed people?
As they sat on the couch, she watched the reflection of his face on the dark TV screen between commercials, and asked it, Did he kill people?
She pressed her cheek against the door into the garage and listened to his friends talk to him between coughs and, as she wondered, wonder how to ask.
While their mother made dinner, she sat across from him at the kitchen table. He pretended not to feel her eyes and pretended not to watch their father who also sat at the table. Their father’s lips moved over numbers as he counted his pulse. The oven timer dinged, and he took the small notebook from his breast pocket and recorded the final number. He had begun doing this three maybe four times a day while her brother was gone, ever since he woke the house gasping, and the hospital doctors pointed at his heart.
Her brother traced his name in the table where, as a boy, he’d carved it by their parents’ carved names. His hands looked like the battered wings of angels exhausted from crawling in forgotten fields then digging out landmines before the war ended and everyone went home except the people who lived in the field and walked across it to get their mail or meet a neighbor or chase a spitting grasshopper as it sprang over an unseen mine—until days or lifetimes after the war, while pulling a sled or pushing croquet hoops into the yard, someone stepped down. And the earth shifted. And the mine blew. A heart into the tree branches.
Their father flipped back through the notebook's pages then shut it and returned it to his pocket. To avoid talking about his health, he tapped his and their mother’s names on the table. Their children knew the story, but he told it anyway. How when he and their mother first married, he carved their names into a dying tree and later, he made a table out of it.
He didn’t make the table, their mother said. We bought it at Sears, she said, smiling but noticing his fingers return to inside his wrist. She saw that the kids hadn’t noticed and talked to distract.
One minute, she says, he’s cleaning his nails with his pocket knife, next thing I know he’s carving the table like it belongs to someone else. Who takes a knife to what belongs to them?—that’s what I want to know. Your father.
I had to carve it there, their father says, because the bark around your mother’s heart was too hard. When I met your mother she pretended she was soft as pine, but I learned. Thick as cherry wood. And, children, remember, cherry isn’t the whittling kind.
Talk and noise, their mother says as she does after one of his stories, like the one about how his heart wasn’t weak it was just that he’d accidentally left it on the pillow and she’d rolled on it in the night. And when the doctors went into his chest they found a bomb where his heart should have been.
You should have seen the doctors, their faces, like they were breaking news. And then their faces when I told them I knew about the bomb. Course I knew. Had to stuff something in the hole after I gave my heart to your mother.
Did you really say? her brother says, smiling.
She imagines her father pushing his heart gently into her mother’s hands, saying, Take care of this bomb my heart.
Of course he did, their mother says. He thinks a patient’s job is to entertain. Doctors make your father nervous.
Their father cleared his throat. He didn't like her talking about him to them like that, and so there would be no more stories that day.
* * *
When she and her brother first started with the landmines, they did it without blindfolds or stocking caps rolled down to their chins. Hearts racing and cheeks flush, they’d go out into the field with the cardboard tray, plucking each like an over-filled pastry then, crouched side-by-side, they pushed the soil around it—his tongue wedged in the corner of his mouth, her pigtails filtering the sun.
They buried them in a line or a semicircle then ran back and forth, jumping over the dirt piles like the crawdad holes he taught her to jump when she was a toddler.
Jack be nimble, he’d call to her.
Jack be quick, she’d call to him.
When their faces were flush and they had a hard time catching their breath, he’d dig up the mines and line them up in the cardboard tray like the Christmas ornaments that sat on the other shelf in the laundry room.
Back inside, her brother would open the freezer and take out two frosted cups. He’d pour himself a beer and her a soda, and they’d clink glasses like he showed her. Maybe he’d sing a toast from the war or maybe they’d talk or just trace their names in the table. She had carved hers during his last tour when their father died.
Several times, when she was pretending not to watch him, he said, You have to know how to plant a flower to dig one up. He didn’t look at her. She said nothing. Neither did he.
* * *
Under the wooden wings she digs on her knees, jeans scuffed dirty. She digs her fingernails into the field she cannot see and will not see until after she buries the landmine and has walked away. Sweat in her hair, down her neck, collecting in her scarf then rolling down between her shoulder blades, heating up her coat like a greenhouse.
The hole is now deep enough that when she reaches in, her shoulder is flush with the plane of the field. She flattens her palm against the bottom of the hole, curling her fingers slightly because the hole is deeper than wide. Legs straight, she rocks back on her toes like a cat stretching into the hole. The backs of her knees burn, her thighs burn. The wings balance her. She carefully pushes her weight into her hand in the hole, rolling her weight under each finger, fingerprinting the dirt.
She has dug deep enough to find damp dirt that lifts off the whorls of her fingerprints. This is her funeral made by herself for herself, though she doesn’t know when she will die. She might very easily walk through the field day after day, year after year, following the sled death pulls until the rope frays and splits, and she can sit down on it.
She knows it’s night now by the air cooling the sweat on her skin. She returns to her knees and fills the hole halfway with dirt.
She takes the mine from her pocket and sets it in the hole. She rocks back on her heels, resting her bottom on the backs of her tennis shoes.
She lifts the dented watering can over the hole, pouring the water against the side like her brother showed her how to pour beer against the inside of a glass. Those times he seemed calmest, like all the world was right at the kitchen table in the low light as the frost on his glass disappeared where the beer hit. He kept glasses in the freezer, like their father.
* * *
When her brother died, she dug through the shredded rucksack pocket and read the red address book their mother gave him when he left the first time. By now it was full of names, addresses to people she’d never met but who knew him, met him on his travels—sharing a pint or pictures in wallets—as he followed what the war left behind. Perhaps even loving him more than she did, wondering about him.
His death never ran in the obituaries. Once he died, she wanted to love him more than anyone, to be his only griever, and it made her jealous to think of people knowing him in ways she might have had he lived longer. She threw the address book away.
Even now, she wants to hit herself or rip up cornstalks when she thinks of the beautiful women he loved in ways he never loved her. Once, when she was in her garden pushing back the tomato leaves to see if any were ripe, a car drove up and idled by the mailbox.
A woman sat in the car, leaning over and trying to read the sun-faded outlines of the name like a gravestone rubbing. Maybe she had come out here after finding no marker in the two graveyards in town. The woman looked over at the house then pulled into the driveway.
More persistent than his other women, this woman walked up the stepping stones and the concrete steps to the front door. She knocked then waited. She looked at the trash bag on the top step. Then knocked. Then cupped her hands and peered into the narrow windows on either side of the door. She turned down the steps and crossed the yard, moving like the teenage girls who used to sneak into his room at night or mid-afternoon while his mother and little sister ran errands in town and his father walked through the cornrows, thinking.
She imagined her brother bare-chested and on his back, the woman younger and draped across him in his bed, and he says to her, If my sister knew I was here, she’d cut you up and bury you under the house or in the garden.
Is she crazy? the woman asks, probably without even raising her head from his shoulder. Probably adding, Like you? because lovers care to talk only about themselves and those they drape against.
* * *
Most of her memories of him are amber, like the glasses at the diner where they ate breakfast every Saturday after the doctor discovered their mother's cancer too late. She had refused doctors after their father died, perhaps thinking the seed in her breast wouldn’t blossom in soil more clay than anything.
And so he inherited the house and his sister and the corn and beans and the town and the oil derricks burning here and there, hammering days into nights, pumping blood into bank accounts. He inherited all that he had left and meant to leave forever, except for what the town wouldn't let him have and took as their own: his face tied with a yellow ribbon to a light post on Central Street, in front of the diner where he once sat as a little boy with his father and the other farmers, with his first sweetheart, with his little sister, her pigtails back-lit by the diner window.
He let her order a glass of milk, a glass of orange juice, and a glass of water. She told him their mother had let her, which wasn’t true, but he didn’t tell her he knew.
She liked how the amber glasses sparkled on the plastic tablecloths and up the window they sat in front of. She liked resting her chin on the tablecloth and turning the glass as she peered at him through the ice cubes, as if he couldn’t see her, as if one of them was locked in an amber mountain.
Amber bulbs in the lantern that hung above their front door. Amber beads on the string-necklace someone had given her that she could wrap around her neck four times, and it still looped under her belly button. Now, she can wrap it three times. She is older now, her head larger, her heart, her pain larger, but the necklace the same size, making her early childhood seem smaller than it might have been. She isn’t sure.
Amber memories, an amber childhood, a brother encased in amber like a fossil in the mail-order archeology kit he had sent her through the mail one Christmas.
Once, he brought a girl to breakfast at the diner, one of the girls who had met him at the airport or called the house wondering if he’d been killed or had broken up with her.
The girl, who had evidently spent the night, sat in the passenger seat of his car, looking in the visor mirror at herself then into the backseat at his little sister. Well, aren’t you cute?
She met her brother in the rear-view mirror. His eyes agreed he’d made a mistake, but could she just bear with him until after breakfast? So she did and he never brought another to the diner.
There were many women who typed his name into the computer and read through online obituaries, finding not him but men who shared his name. All eventually gave up--imagining that either the town he lives in is too small for an online newspaper or he's alive and sleeping beside a woman in a small dream house in a nowhere field.
* * *
She fills the hole with water so that the dirt doesn’t fall hard and set it off. Anything can. It is fragile or maybe just real, and all bombs should be thought of as fragile. She pushes in dirt then waits as it sinks before pushing in more. Once the hole is full, she pats it down like she and her brother once did. In one of his first letters, he wrote that the sound reminded him of the stone quarry or what their mother called a sonic boom, which she thought meant the spray planes over the fields had flown too low. Then when he got home and heard the stone quarry blasts, she thought of the faraway fields as she watched him.
* * *
Sometimes, they missed uprooting a mine, usually because he had a hard time saying it was time to put them back, always wanting to run one more time across the field, and one more time would become nighttime so that they had to work by flashlight. Sometimes that night or the next week or a month later, a coyote would explode or maybe a cat, as though in heat, yowling and rolling circles in the dust where crops no longer grew.
She was so used to looking down the country road for him that, one time, as they jumped over the landmines, even though he was right beside her, she thought she saw him out on the road. She started running across the field, calling his name. When he saw her running, he called out. Startling her. She turned fast. Her ankle. Twists. Then she’s. Falling. Arms out. Her palm and the rest of her arm explode.
* * *
And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, he's saying, and his face blocks the sun from her eyes, her bone and flesh curled back, blood freckling her cheek and forehead.
Little sparrow, he says. My little sparrow, he says.
* * *
She never told him why she ran off calling his name, and he never said that when he saw her he thought of the farm boy he had befriended in a faraway field.
The boy knew the soldier was uprooting mines all day, but the day the boy got a new kite, he wanted to show the soldier and so climbed over the fence that divided the field his father planted from the field the soldier unplanted.
The boy held the kite behind him as he ran, trying to get the wind to pull the paper diamond out of his hands. When the boy’s foot came down on the mine, pieces of his sock and leg ripped through the yellow kite, and the kite dove down like a crucifix, marking the dirt where the boy lay shredded, his scream so much like a man's that his mother flew out of the old stone house expecting to see the ghost of her older son, come back from the war.
* * *
Her brother never explained why no one asked about her arm, though she thought it had to do with the pickup truck in the driveway that, when she awoke days after the accident, had a shattered windshield and crumpled passenger door, the seat burned.
What happened to the truck? she had asked.
Don’t you remember the accident? He winked.
Then he told her to close her eyes, and when he said to open them, he was holding up the wings he had made her. That was the last they spoke of it.
Probably the surgeons saw past his story, probably the county sheriff looked past it because her brother met him at the door in camouflage. But maybe no sheriff came, maybe no surgeon saw her except her brother who had watched many a medic.
She didn’t know, her eyes closed for so long, her memory of the time made of heat and darkness and her brother singing lullabies their mother once sang, first to her husband then to her son, then years later to her daughter, and toward the end, to herself.
* * *
It is dark now, dark as the nights her brother walked home drunk, shirt unbuttoned, shoes in one hand and in the other an invisible glass he’d raise to the crickets and to the oil-and-gravel road cooling from the day, scattered pebbles imprinting the soles of his feet.
She stands and holds out her arm as she turns toward where the house may be. She’ll know she’s safe when she bumps against the back railing like the wall of the public pool where she swam as a little girl, watching her shadow mermaid beneath her.
She’ll push back the screen door, screens bowled by years of blowing wind. And she’ll walk inside, into the living room, up the stairs and down the hallway and into hisroom. She’ll slip off the knit cap and unbuckle the belt and open her eyes. He won’t be there, standing in front of her, asking where she’s been, what she has buried out there.
* * *
As he stood in the field, he saw himself standing in a rainbow, and he turned, searching until he saw his sister standing on the roof. She held the stained-glass mermaid he’d bought from the dime store window on her birthday. The sun through the glass cast a web of colors and the lead frame lines crossed her face—green gills down her cheeks.
It was beautiful. That's something, he thought, and he stepped toward her, and his vision shattered as the mine went off.
She dropped the mermaid at the sound, the sight, and backpedaled off the shingles, back through her bedroom window. She kicked off her shoes as she ran down the stairs and into his bedroom, diving into his bed like when he was in the war and she was in trouble with their mother.
The bed had comforted her then, but now her brother was out there dead, his heart in a tree. Her palm slid hotly up the the orange sheets, and she hid her face under his pillow seeing the sun and the explosion again and again in the dark of her sight, as if her heart had burst inside her retinas. As though she'd seen at last as mermaids see.
He was dead, but his bed smelled like he was alive, like he hadn’t showered in a few days, the sheet oily like his back. The room was dark, sheets draped over the curtains. When she fell asleep, she dreamed him in a field, playing drums. Soldiers sat around him, guns on their backs, clapping to the beat, and then the drums exploded, and she woke up. And she did not wake up.
She refused to go into the field, and slept in his bed as though he’d be home any day, his bedroom always the first place he went because he could gauge how much he had changed, because his bedroom never did. When she finally left the house, she found his quarters and dimes and pennies in the field. She washed them in the colander in the sink, then dropped them into their father’s little glass ashtray by his bed.
Some days, she spent whole afternoons in his bedroom, turning his lamp on and off, wishing she could simultaneously walk past the house, see the light flashing and think the light was her brother’s ghost. Maybe living with his ghost wouldn’t be any better—maybe then she’d have different questions and worries, but she would just like to see him without having to create him in her own memory. She wanted new memories not of her making.
Several nights she awoke thinking his ghost was in the house, and one night a woman crawled through his bedroom window and lay down in the bed, cuddling up against her back. She lay still, hoping the woman wouldn’t call his name. The woman didn’t. She woke up before the woman, and took a mine from the box and went outside the window and planted it, even though he had said the front yard was against the rules. And no one else could play.
She climbed the maple tree, and waited all morning for the woman to appear. Finally, the window began to rise, and the woman’s feet then legs appeared over the sill, each foot pointing then touching the ground. The woman crossed the yard into the road and walked away, unscathed, arms swinging, hair bed-ruffled.
She dropped from the tree and stepped carefully to the window. She saw where the woman must have stood. That is when she wept for her brother, there by his open window. She wept for the look in his eyes that never returned after the war. She wept for the necklace of landmines they buried in the field and then watched from the back step as animals exploded throughout the night. She wept for the cries of those who didn’t die and the cries of the animals who found the dead.
* * *
She watched his face.
He watched the field.
He said that sometimes a landmine will go off in the faraway place, and when the soldiers go to find what's left, they find nothing, like a ghost set it off.
What do you think of that? he asked her.
She watched his face to learn what she thought of it.
* * *
Grief, a lamp burning for years inside an empty bedroom. Grief, the faded patch of carpet where the sun has burned every day of years.
How strange that, alive or dead, her brother didn’t know when she was thinking about him.
* * *
He said, When it has rained and the ground is saturated to the core, and a land mine goes off, there is no dust, only clumps of wet earth. In drought, there’s so much dust that there isn’t enough blood to weigh it all back to the ground.
After his last tour, he had worked in the factory. As he assembled light fixtures, he’d save back bits of wire, and during his breaks, he’d twist them into little delights he gave her when he got home. He sailed a copper ship from behind his back into her hands. He reached behind her head, snapped his fingers, then opened his palm on a copper angel.
Every night another angel appeared until she still wonders what to do with them, pushing the question like her hair back from her face, mud streaking her cheek.
* * *
Once she runs into the barbed wire fence, she will go left where she should go right. She will almost walk around the whole field before she reaches the house, a lump in her throat and tears staining the belt and her hand wounded from running it along the barbed wire.
Inside the house she’ll wait for the rain to fill the road’s puddles and wash away her footprints in the field and then she’ll walk in the field every day. The first few weeks she’ll leave through the front door then walk up the side yard and through the ditch until she reaches the place in the fence where the posts fall into each other.
She’ll climb over the slack barbed wire and into the field. She’ll walk around the field until she no longer thinks about why she does. Every day she will do this until she either runs across the field or can walk without forcing herself to look away from the ground, as if she’ll just know where, beneath the earth, waits the seed that will blossom only once.
Though she will not know where the mine is, she doesn’t yet know that she will never forget it’s out there somewhere in the field like her brother’s soul or her memories of him. That she can no more avoid the field than his death. And when she realizes this, she will buckle the belt around her eyes and slip on the gray stocking cap and take the cardboard tray again into the field, burying but never exhuming, going out there until she doesn’t cover her eyes. She will begin close to the house, digging around the doors and windows, mine after mine until the cardboard tray is empty and, if she does make it back to the house, she will finally be trapped there by her own death and no one else’s.
Originally published in War, Literature & The Arts.
By Erin Pringle
A couple jumped out of an airplane and began to fall. Below them, the world went on, and they could no more see the grief and joy of others than they could from their kitchen table where they sat together on quiet mornings, watching the blue jays steal the birdseed from the robins as the couple waited for the bluebird to return.
They had only seen the bluebird once, many years before, and since then they had each, unknown to the other, begun looking for the bluebird's return. The husband wished for the bluebird because of how his wife had smiled. The wife wished for the bluebird because she knew others had not seen it, not knowing the bluebird had come more than once than the time they saw it.
It had sat on the windowsill watching the two birds made by the couple holding hands over the table, their elbows on the placemats. But when the two birds did not return one morning, the bluebird flew away.
Did you see that? the wife said.
What did you see? the husband said.
I think a bluebird.
Yes, I think I did, too.
The husband saw the wife smile, and she kept looking out the window. He waited. Still she peered. Eventually, he got up and went about his day.
The woman was the first object to fall from the sky. As she hit the ground, her bones cracking, her rib impaling her heart, she woke up in bed. She reached out to touch her husband's cheek where he lay sleeping beside her. She waited, not knowing if she should kiss him awake or close her eyes and imagine herself just before he landed in death beside her.
When he opened his eyes, she saw how very blue they were.
Originally published in Emrys.
By Erin Pringle
Mother says to my brother, Go play outside.
My brother says, But there aren’t any children left.
Mother says, Stay out of the forest or you will get lost. My eyes can’t see far. Stay in the backyard.
My brother obeys, screen door banging behind him. I start to follow.
No, Mother says. Stay and help me bake a cake for your brother. My fingers are crooked from age and cannot grasp well.
Why are we baking a cake?
Tomorrow is his birthday. But he is not to eat sugar or his pancreas will die.
I am his mother. Tomorrow is his birthday. It will be a special day and so he can eat sugar. Crack those eggs. Add them to the mixture.
Check the oven to see if it is hot enough.
It is, Mother.
She slides the cake pan into the oven. She sits at the kitchen table and falls asleep because she is very old.
I run outside.
My brother calls my name.
I follow my name to him.
He stands at the edge of the forest. His face is blank, unblinking. Like one of my dolls. I do not like my dolls because they ask questions I have no answers for. Like, who carved our pretty wooden doll beds? Or, what is that booming in the distance?
A shovel leans against a tree. Beside the blade is earth and roots. The roots like Mother’s fingers. The earth is piled. Two holes. Very deep. I can’t see the bottoms.
My brother asks, What do you see?
Someone’s been digging.
Indeed, he says. My brother says indeed instead of yes. He reads many books.
Have you been digging, Brother?
No. What is our mother doing?
She is napping. A cake is baking because tomorrow is your birthday.
Tomorrow is not my birthday, he says. I will surely die if I eat that cake.
Mother said tomorrow is special so sugar is allowed.
I look into the holes. What do you bury in holes so deep? I ask.
Bodies, my brother says. He walks into the forest. Bring the shovel, he says. I do. It is tall and heavy.
We walk deeper. My brother raises his hand. He takes the shovel. He digs. He wipes his forehead with his sleeve.
That is not good manners, I say.
He climbs into the hole. He climbs back out, a dress in his arms. Do you remember our sister? he asks.
Yes. She combed my hair one hundred strokes before bed. She left for school in the city.
My brother lays her on the ground. Her dress faded pink. He digs into the other pile.
Those are very fresh, he says.
He climbs in and out.
Do you remember our brother? he asks.
He carried me on his back like a horse. He left to open a business in the city.
My brother lays our brother next to our sister in the faded dress.
We walk further. My brother digs. Do you remember our other sister?
She sewed your baby clothes. She told me fairy tales. Mother said she ran away.
My brother props her against a tree. She has two brown braids. Her eyes are large and dark.
My brother digs.
This must be Father, he says, peering into the hole. This hole is deeper than the others. He climbs in. He weeps. He hugs the bones. The bones crumble. He screams.
Why are you screaming? I ask.
Leave me, he says.
No. I ask my sister for her leg. A moth winks in her eye. Thank you, I say. Then I hold her leg over the hole.
Take this, I say to my brother.
I wave it around in case his eyes are getting bad like Mother’s. Take this and climb out, I say. He does. We give our sister back her leg.
Our mother calls our names.
My brother says, Our mother is old.
Her glasses are very thick, I say.
Tomorrow is not my birthday. She will tell you I am leaving for the city. This is not true. Do not tell her what we found.
Blankets are piled in the wheelbarrow so we drag our sister who left for school and our brother who left for business back to the house. They lose a few bones. Their hair drags. We are out of breath. We take them to our room and dress them in our clothes. They lean against each other in the closet as we sleep.
In the morning, Mother calls our names into the kitchen. We follow. Every counter is full of chocolate, gumdrops, small cakes. The biggest cake is yellow and on the table. Mother sings Happy Birthday.
Wish your brother a happy birthday, she says.
What if it isn’t his birthday?
Brother kicks me under the table.
Why would I bake a cake if today wasn’t? Mother says.
Mother slices two pieces onto our plates. Eat.
My brother says, I can’t have sugar.
This is your special day, our mother says. You have my permission.
We pretend to eat the cake. We hide each bite in our pockets.
My brother says, I wish our brother and sisters were here to celebrate. And Father.
Our mother’s shoulders shake. She says, I thought you’d forgotten. You never ask about them.
You told us where they went, my brother says. We believed you.
Our mother says, You are old enough to know now. And your sister is young enough to forget. You have heard me speak of the war.
My brother nods so I do too.
It came to the city. They died. They are buried in the forest.
But what about Father? my brother asks.
He died of sadness.
We are sleepy, Mother, my brother says. I must rest before I go to the war.
She follows us to our bedroom. She tucks us in. She shuts the door. Her footsteps go back to the kitchen. We roll out of bed and carry our brother and sister from the closet. We tuck them in. We kiss their foreheads. Then we hide in the closet. Our mother returns and leans over our bed. She clutches our wrists. She holds a mirror over our mouths. She leaves then wheels in the wheelbarrow. She picks us up. You are so light, she says. We follow her into the backyard. To the edge of the forest. She carries us into the holes with deep bottoms. Then she shovels earth over us. We do not protest. She sings Happy Birthday. We hear bombs. She apologizes for not singing a better song. She sits between us all through the night.
Originally appeared in Lake Effect, now in her collection The Floating Order (Two Ravens Press 2009)