The Piano – A Short Story

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I have been around fur-ones all my life. They do not have fur on the tips of their fingers, but it is everywhere else. On some it is pale, touched but mostly unseen, and on others—the nose-ones mostly—it is an encapsulating seed, the vessel through which they experience the world. As you can see I am one of the wood-ones. I do not experience the world through skin or fur, but through sound.

 
Many years ago, when the fur-ones brought me into this world, I thought I was one of them. I tried so very hard to see, and to feel. I tried to taste the air. I heard the fur-ones speak, their voices creaking, the chords in their throats expanding, the buttons on their coats snapping up, the keys turning, ripping like ice through the metal interior of the lock. I tried to call out to them, but I could not even do that, not of my own will. I could hear, and that was all I could do for myself.

 
The first fur-one to play me was a boy-one. He had never been inside the metal walls before, but I’d heard his breathing sometimes, on the outside, by the hollow tin where the fur-ones threw things. His fingers sounded like stubs of snow, approaching, approaching. The idea of music startled me. He played a very simple piece. For the first time I felt, rather than heard, and it was a glorious warmth, a sun-glow, a something I would call joy. I saw this something, too; the color yellow, or maybe it was gold. I did not have a word for it then. I remember it as something unworldly. Something ancient; a bridge through time. By the time the boy-one left, I knew why I had been created.
I was happy to leave my birthplace. A family of fur-ones brought me to a sunny corner, and they pushed another wood-one in front of me, a four-legged thing with a cotton-heart, but he could not speak. We listened to each other, how we creaked when the air shifted, deep in the quietest moments before the fur-ones rose.

 
Some days we could hear the whistles of the feathered-ones, beyond the net of glass, but most often we heard the scurrying of the fur-ones. The more I listened to them, the better I understood their ways. Two large fur-ones stepped slowly, one with the swish of her fabric bell, the other with the swoosh of his leg-tubes. A nose-one ticked wildly in a quadruple rhythm, one-two-three-four, scat-scat-scat-scat. Similar to these staccato footsteps were those of the girl-one, scat-scat, a duple rhythm.

 
“Isn’t it about time for your practice, darling?” the woman-one said.
“I already did.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“I played when you were outside.”
“Beatrice, you need to practice twenty minutes per day. Remember what Mrs. Patterson said.”
“But Mommy, I don’t feel like it.”
“Come on. Let’s have a concert. Daddy and I will be your audience. Right, Phillip?”

 

Creaking, as the fur-ones sat. The woman-one clapped her hands, a sound like feather-one beaks on tree-one husks. “And now, here to play Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for you on this fine afternoon, may I present, the fabulous and talented—Beatrice!”
The man-one clapped as well. The nose-one nudged up close to me, and rounded himself into a circle by my pedals.
The girl-one began to play.

 

 

 

Some days I like piano. Mommy says all ladies should learn an instrument. She learned the violin when she was young, but she hasn’t played it in years. I’ve never heard her play. Sometimes I think she’s making it up.

 
But I like to play piano sometimes, like on rainy days, on afternoons when it’s so dark we turn the lights on early. Whiskey sits at my feet. He breathes heavily, huffy nose-breathes, and I know he’s fallen asleep. It’s easy to play on days like that. But not when it’s sunny. I want to go outside, or I want to teach Whiskey how to play hide-and-go-seek.
I stop playing. Whiskey lifts his nose.

 
“Honey, you need to play a little longer,” says Mommy.
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Don’t talk to your mother that way,” Daddy says.
I stand. Whiskey stands too.
“Beatrice.”
“I don’t want to.”
Why do they care if I practice or not? I want to be free like Whiskey. All day all night free to nap or play as I choose. I wish I was a little doggy. All covered in soft fur, with floppy ears and a snout with whiskers.
I am daring. I clench my fists. “You can’t make me!”
“That’s earned you a time-out.” Mommy points to the hallway. Daddy’s eyebrows curve. That is a good way to tell that he’s mad. I cross my arms but my daringness is gone.
There is a corner in the hallway, the time-out corner, where I’m supposed to stand when I’m in trouble. I stomp my feet against the wood floors. Like drums. See, I’m playing an instrument now. See, Mommy and Daddy.

 
“Twenty minutes,” says Mommy. “Think about how you can be more respectful toward your parents.”

 
I lean my forehead against the green-flowered wallpaper. I start to cry. Mommy and Daddy are mad at me. I’ve been bad. I know it. Why do I always do this? I stomp my feet again. Stomp stomp. Stomp stomp. All with my forehead glued to the wall.

 
Last time I got in trouble I refused to eat the liver and onions we had for dinner. I don’t like liver. It tastes like metal, like you’re licking a pure metal spoon, and it’s always really dry. I told Mommy I wouldn’t eat it. Never. I would never eat it again. I would rather have a grumbly tummy all night than eat liver. But Mommy didn’t like me talking back to her like that. She didn’t like my tone. I thought my tone was very grown-up. That’s how Mommy talks half the time. Daddy doesn’t mind as much, but he goes along with what Mommy says. I think if it was just me and Daddy here I could get away with almost anything.

 
But I have been bad. I shouldn’t be mean like that. I love my Mommy and Daddy. And the poor piano. I don’t hate the piano either. I love the whole house.

 
“I’m sorry,” I yell into the wall.
 

 

The girl-one does not like music. She is eager to run instead. Perhaps she is too young. Perhaps she is more a nose-one than a girl-one.
One night the man-one played something lovely. The girl-one had already gone to bed, but the woman-one sprung out from behind the corner, and she said, “Phillip, you never told me that you play.”

 
He pulled his fingers away. “I don’t. Just tinkering around, love.”
“Sounded like more than just tinkering around to me.”
The man-one laughed. It was not a real laugh, but a pressure of air through his nose.
“Well don’t stop. Keep playing.”
“I’m a bit tired,” he said, and he closed my cover.

 
The next time he played, the house was empty, the woman-one and girl-one ridden away in a wheeled basket pulled by hoof-ones. The man-one played the same piece again. I did not recognize it, but I could tell it was something old, something that he was trying to remember, because he paused at certain passages and hummed along with the notes until he found his way. He mastered it just before the other fur-ones returned. Whatever it was, it was exuberant.

 

 

Daddy comes out and cups my chin. “Don’t you like the piano, dearest?”
“I like it sometimes.” I sniffle. “When I feel like it.”
“It’s something that requires absolute dedication. Day in, day out.”
“Daddy, did you ever play an instrument?”
“I used to. When I was a little boy, I played the piano just like you.”
I jump. “You did? You did? What happened?”
“I loved it so much I wanted to become a pianist.”
“A pianist?”
“A professional piano player. But your grandfather told me that that wasn’t a good job, and so I stopped.”
“Daddy, do you still remember how to play? Oh, play something for me, please!”
A short silence, and then the man-one sat down. “This is a song I made up, long ago.” The girl-one curled up on the sofa, and she stroked the nose-one’s ears. The woman-one returned to the room.

 
All the fur-ones breathed softly. Their chests rose and fell together, legato. The music was like a rush of moving air, like the girl-one and the nose-one as they played together beyond the net of glass, soft, and frantic, and young. Wind in head-fur. Wind in body-fur.
The girl-one asked: “Daddy, will you teach me?”

 
The nose-one curled up at my pedals. Together, the fur-ones played.

 

 

 

At the Mall – A Short Story

 

Sharp elbows. Sharp like shark fins, serrated like old kitchen knives with wooden handles. A smell like skunk and burnt canola oil, something stuffed away and long hidden from sunlight. There is no overhead music but—velcro, children’s shoes, spilled fountain drinks left sticky on the tiles. Glass boxes filled with plastic cloth, on plastic people whose faces look like stones, and bags and shoes and plastic jewelry, and the small, plastic eggs where children receive machine candy.

 

A glass elevator slides up, smooth as moving water. Two elderly women look out, their arms bulged upon shoulder bags. There is a long line. One of the escalators is broken and wrapped off with shining yellow tape that is almost see-through. Caution. No one thinks to use them as stairs. That is not their purpose.

 

Inside one glass box are lotions on white cubes. Everything is clean and white and overly perfumed. The women wear aprons. They hold up plastic bottles, move slowly and stand in one place like perched birds. They exist in other boxes too, tinted, plumed, manicured; extinct creatures who have risen again, who scratch and scathe, immortal.

 

The bathrooms are safe except for the screaming. Plastic-children blunder and peer under stalls, their hands and knees impressed upon stains that look like long insect trails, which the children sniff and then follow. They end up in another glass box. They are everywhere, on every corner; hard to digest meals in glass tummies, scarves and hats, movies and wristwatches. Holed-up sweaters that are not warm, stump-shoes that are unwalkable.

 

At the very highest point are two plastic bubbles, side by side, plastered to the ceiling like a sky mural. Sunlight spits down in a funneled tube like a hurricane, meeting one spot on the tile where it dries up. Two teenage boys walk over it. The sunlight remains.

Backs on Grass – A Short Story

 

Where did we come from? I don’t mean life. That’s been documented already; the pale curtain of lightning; the dense seas—Venusian, black like boiled leather; the first spark that tethered us all to water. Roger Gray was the first one to record it on video. He won the Nobel Prize for it about a decade ago. He guessed the right year, the right hour, the right minute, the right second, out of all those billions and trillions of moments. He guessed the right few nanometers out of those bare starscape-plains of water, and he witnessed the genesis of all things. He was lucky. He was called upon by God. This is what it’s for, we all thought when we saw the microorganisms writhe into being. This is what time travel is for.

 
Gray now lives in a mansion in Italy, and goes back to Rome and to Greece to do what he calls “research”. We all know that the reason he really goes is because the ancients think he’s a god. I mean, the engravings of Dionysus and Bacchus look suspiciously like him. That doesn’t just happen.

 
But there is more to know. More to show people. We’ve seen the first life, but what about the first us? The first hominid who became truly human?
“You’re bringing me back something, right?” my sister asks.
“Something? Yes. I’ll bring you back a jar full of pond water.”
“Ew!” she laughs. Her eyes pull wide as her mouth, wider still; straight lines.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you something.”
“Something good?”
“Something good.”

I hug her and she inhales deeply, which means she’s going to cry. She knows I’ll only be gone one day. It’s always one day. We can’t be gone more than twelve hours or we’ll run out of battery. That’s it, that’s all you get; it’s too expensive to carry a spare. She knows that, but she cries anyway.

 
I say goodbye to my parents, to my younger brother, and to the family cat, Lyra. I always leave them with these big goodbyes because you never know what will happen. They’re used to the uncertainty, I think; they’re used to it more than I am. They brag about my job to their friends all the time. Our daughter is an archaeologist, they say. She’s going to the Pleistocene next week.

 
It’s not any more dangerous, really, than flying on a plane. Before every trip you must prepare yourself for the small possibility of a life where you become an old woman at age forty, a life where you step barefoot on twigs and stink like mud for the rest of your days.

 
When I step out of the time machine, the sun feels dim, polluted. I look up at the haze. At first I think there might have been a small volcanic eruption a few weeks past, but then the rain shivers down, a muted, felted click against leaves. Rain clouds, then. I live in the desert. It hasn’t rained in years. It hasn’t rained on a trip in years, either. This is a sign, I think. A sign from the God or Goddess of this era that I’ve come to the right place.

 
The pond is big enough not to be stagnant, but small enough not to be a lake. The trees feel heavy, the lianas hanging down like tangled hair. I clutch my extra-zoom camera and sit near the water. My pants soak through immediately with mud. I feel completely naked, like I am one of these trees, and a sense of panic shivers through me. I have done this so many times, but there’s something different now. The grasses wheeze with insects and rain. All the birds sound far away, as though they’re chanting at me from mountaintops.

 
“Hello?” I say, just to hear my own voice. The birds pause, and then they sing louder than ever, faster, quicker, the staccato of a heartbeat.

 
I think about the present I’ll bring my little sister. A rock? A flower? What would she do with such things? Nothing here will interest her. The picture will have to be enough.

 
Any moment now, I think. Any moment I will see the first human amongst her tribe of ape people. She will be different from them—slender, taller, less hairy. Her clever, mutated genes will pass on through millennia, shifting and growing, but recognizable. The original mother. The original Goddess. How will I know if she’s the first? I will know, I think. Somehow, I’ll just know.

 
The sun is veiled, doused by cotton balls, but I can tell that it’s almost evening. Maybe this moment was not the moment. Something crunches behind me, and I stoop silently behind what is either a small tree or a tall bush. A pack of hominids squat and cup their hands and bring water to their mouths. The sun is setting quicker than I thought, but there’s still time to watch. None of them stands out. They look like classic Homo heidelbergensis; flat foreheads, eyes positioned within brow bone caves. They look human but they also look disfigured, lumpy. In this lighting, completely naked, they appear silhouetted; remnants, untouchable; they are ancientness embodied. There are many pictures of them at home, but I take a few anyway. I am breathlessly quiet. Their hearing is better than ours. I go on taking pictures, shifting my weight, ready to run back to the machine.

 
The sun is almost gone. I’m halfway to the machine when I glance over my shoulder. There is a woman I hadn’t noticed. Her back is turned, but even from behind, I can tell—she is slender, with long, straight hair. She is different. This is it; my picture, my Nobel Prize, my sister’s gift. I run toward them. “Hey!” I yell to get her attention. She is lumpy. Her teeth stick out. She is not me.

 
I sprint to the machine but it’s too late. The battery is dead. They walk toward me, hunched. I understand their faces. In their eyes I see my own pupils. I see all the millions of moments, the learning of unthinkable languages, the cold fireside nights, our backs on grass; I see my own self—the goddess eternal, the very first strand of humanity, the first and the last, a birth and death in one swift motion.

New Earth – A Short Story

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You see, I was afraid. Afraid of all the little things that could go wrong, the things that, out there, would be big things. One little bump, one little mouse-sized hole in the metal, and we would be blown open, exploded like dandelions, smoked out from the inside until we became quiet, floating ice cubes in the drink of space.

This is what I thought about. What I worried about. I did away with it when I climbed on board. I had committed to a four month journey, my friends. A big old space journey to the place where they’re sending scientists, the new Earth. It’s not for living yet, but you can come visit. See what it’s going to be like. Look at property. Marvel at the two moons, round and ghostly as sand dollars.

The reason I went was to be one of the first. It was only the second commercial shuttle trip out. I wanted to be a pioneer, you see.

Four months swept by fast. Nothing exploded. We slept. We ate big meals and threw our waste into the galaxy. I talked a lot with a thin-armed girl who was training to be a scientist. I told her that she was too pretty to be a scientist, and then she stopped talking to me for the last three months. What was wrong with being pretty? I wondered this until we disembarked.
It was a blue skied planet, just like ours. I’d seen pictures but this still surprised me. There were mountains taller than the cloud level, yet absolutely snowless. They towered over everything, muscled and furrowed like a gigantic beast. If there was an indigenous species here before us, these mountains would be their god, I thought; even now, it was hard to believe they weren’t alive.

But that’s the thing. They actually were, you know—alive.
I saw it for myself. Third week of the stay. I was just lounging outside by the giant lake or the inland sea or whatever, and then I heard this creaking noise. It sounded like trees, only there’s no trees on this planet. Thin-armed girl told me so. I looked around to find the flowing noise, a long clash, maybe like bones sticking together. And then I saw it. It moved.
I told all this to the trip leader. She told me that hallucinations are common with the slightly lower oxygen levels. She says the scientists are trying to fix this by implanting more algae in the water.

But the next day I saw it again, and keep in mind that a day there is not an Earth day; it’s two Earth days. So I kept seeing this stuff another two New Earth weeks in, way past what Trip Leader called the “adjustment period”. I got the feeling, too, that I was being watched by it. That it could see me. I felt like I should talk to it. We had some great conversations. Much better than any with Thin-Arms. It told me I should stay there with the scientists. It told me there was nothing to go back to, that the Earth had exploded while we were away, that the emergency radio signal hadn’t reached us yet and wouldn’t until we were halfway home. This was too specific for anyone to doubt. I filled in Trip Leader and she told me that madness was not uncommon on unfamiliar terrain. Space travel could trigger this in some people. She recommended I fly back on the next charter.

That’s when I became afraid again. I thought it might be better to run off. Hide among the scientists. Wait for the New Earth to truly begin. That’s what the mountain told me to do. I wonder if that ship made it back. The signal hasn’t reached us yet.

From Rain to Red Rock

Making the transition from the rain forests of Oregon to the second driest state in the country has been quite the adventure. Utah is beautiful in a completely different way from the Pacific Northwest. There are the red deserts with ravens high above them; the aspen forests that flutter like wings; the long chains of mountains that catch the sun on their faces. Everywhere you look, in Salt Lake City, there are mountains, much gentler than the great peak of Mt. Hood, but still magnificent. I am still getting to know them, but that will come with time. I’m almost halfway through my two-year Environmental Humanities graduate program (hence the lack of blog posts the past few months!); another year to go, and another year to get to know this beautiful landscape!

All the Waters I Have Seen – Lake Superior

“Does it have a tide?” I asked.
“A very slight one.”

“Are there ever any actual waves?”
“When you get out far enough.”

“Do people swim in it?”
“Sometimes. Usually it’s too cold.”

“It doesn’t smell like the ocean,” I said, but they were skipping stones and had stopped listening.  Too many questions, I guessed, but that was okay, because as they threw their stones in long gallops I gazed and gazed, entranced by the runny soup broth texture of the water.

“See—you can’t even see the other side,” my friend said as she whipped a stone across the surface. “And no wind. Every time I go to the Oregon coast I come back looking like a drowned rat or something.”

Lake Superior was technically a freshwater sea, an inland sea, the relic of glaciers, so I’d expected it to be comparable to the ocean. There was nothing I could place that wasn’t oceanic; it was enormous, and the water hushed and breathed. There was nothing about Superior that dwindled its sea-ness, except for the smell and something that was missing, something more than salt. I expected this to change, and I stared and I stared, but the longer I looked, the less like the ocean it became.

“It’s really not much like the coast at all,” I told my friend, and I threw a stone into the water.

All the Waters I Have Seen – The Colorado River

 

If I was upset when I was younger I would run to the trees. I would stare up at them and hope that they might know me. I would stare intensely, my whole neck tilted back, and I’d hold my body still so that when the wind came through I would feel like a mountain overlooking the sea, the clouds and the water and the tilt of the earth spinning around me, like I was the one steady thing in this world.

Far from my sea of ferns and cedars I found a greater steadiness. The desert is a place of slowed time. Ancientness is everywhere. As we perceive it, the ruins and petroglyphs speak of eternity; they are time capsules; they are symbols of both immortality and fragility.

All around are ancient seabeds, arroyos and washes, eroded cliffsides half-digested by rain. A millennia of changes, visible before my eyes, and yet from my place, from my senses and from all the shortened count of human time, this land has lived forever.

As I follow the cairns between sagebrush I am completely alone. At last the trail is empty. I stop, just briefly, and hold my breath. Nothing. Nothing at all. No wind, no tussle of blackbrush, no cries of ravens. No hiking boots, no hot breathing. For this moment I am underwater. I am in space.

I find water. The sun softens. I want to jump in and swim against the river currents, but I don’t, because it is too close to sunset, and I don’t want wet hair when the night grows cold. Instead I stare at the plumes of white and I try to imagine what the water might feel like as it tosses and pulls its way through faded colors—gray, blue, and sandy red—past the Grand Canyon, past cow pastures, past ancient time to some desert basin. This, the Colorado River, will not reach the sea as it once did. It is a dying river. For some reason this is what breaks my illusion, the spell of a desert afternoon; this is what sets the world in motion again. Maybe I am moving just the same as any of them, and there is no such thing as steadiness.

All the Waters I Have Seen – The Jordan River

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The Jordan River in Salt Lake City

I cannot reach you on foot; I cannot run to you on sunny days, or sit quietly on your banks. I will never know you well, but I doubt anyone does. I’ve heard little about you. It seems that you’re not charismatic enough—nothing like the Colorado River, or the Green River. You aren’t large or fast or striking in color. You are the equivalent of an old dog who sleeps all day. Sweet, placid—easy to ignore. But you are also an oasis in a nearly waterless land, and I don’t think you’re cherished enough for it. Maybe this is because you reside on the west side of town, the poorer side, the place of industrial plumes and coal trains. Here, there are signs in Spanish and homeless people on sidewalks. Here, the buildings are blocky and ugly, utilitarian, made to store commodities and to please no one. Maybe I’m harsh to judge, but I think you’re the most beautiful thing in this part of town. And you and this whole area could be valued if you were only noticed. Maybe someday they’ll see what an asset you are, and they will sit on your shores and gaze lovingly at your slow, green water. Until then, I will be the one who notices, all the way from the other side of town.

All the Waters I Have Seen – Wind River

I woke in the morning to snow. On the way in we’d hiked after dusk, so I hadn’t seen the river yet, nor the mountains on either side. Throughout the day they revealed themselves, coolly, like the moon rising above the horizon. They were blue, and in some places flat on top, like forbidden towers. As much as I disliked the idea, there was, indeed, something sublime about them. They seemed untouchable, impossible; the realm of starlight and feathers.

As the fog cleared the snow began to melt, and we ventured out of our tents. This was a group backpacking trip, school-sponsored, and we spent the day marching on mudded pathways. Our boots made crisp, leaf-crunch noises over the frost. This kept us warm but there was always that wind, there, which burst over us at random openings between spruces. With great joy I surveyed the plants, plucking gooseberries, chokecherries, currants, and the last, shriveled raspberries of the year.

At lunchtime we crouched by the river to fill our water bottles. When I held mine to the light I could see all the hairs of moss, all the splinter-thin leaf veins that I’d captured along with the water. I purified it with a UV stick. My fingers numbed through the aluminum; through my gloves.

By nightfall the frost and the fog had returned. I huddled carefully within my tent. True darkness. Then, sometime in the deep of night, I heard a long weee-ahhh, a great, sharp whistling yell from across the river. The first thought that came to my mind was a bugling elk. I’d never heard an elk, nor was I sure what bugling was, but I just had that feeling about it. Later I looked it up, and I was right; it was an elk, a male urging forth the rut, establishing his own form of elk sublimity. This was a sound that reminded me there were not just elk out there, but bears, and mountain lions. There was something about it that was far more river than mountain—far more tangible, even in all this cloth-darkness, yet still foreign enough to give me chills, to make me feel a startled sort of awe. This was a sweeping place. The sharp-metal sound of the elk was not small, but it was for some reason comforting. Obviously I was not alone here, in my backpacking group, but it was good to know that I wasn’t alone out there, either, in this land of snow and mountain and elk, and I soon fell asleep to the great confluence, and all that it echoed.