By Dylan Smith
This day last year a bird shit on my desk. I wish somebody—well wait, I wish Alma alone had been there to see it. This beautiful blue mountain bird shit in through the window of my shack and splat all over my hand, like directly onto my desk. The bird looked all rainbowy, Alma, you would have loved it. Picture a quick translucent smear against the spring blue sky, or like a whirl of blue oil in even bluer water. I’d just started work on this new poetry book. Had been calling it my Crayon Book. It was my therapist’s idea for me to use crayons, it would become a book of poems about my half-brother Chris. I called it my Chris Book sometimes, sometimes just my Art Book, but Crayon Barn Chris became a tentative title, you’ll see why. Later at work I told Art about the shit and he said all mountain birds upstate are holy, especially the blue ones. What an omen! I wanted so badly to believe it. To believe in Art. He said bird shit brings about good luck—and so on this day last year holy shit, a bluebird blessed my poetry book. It was dawn when it happened. My windows were open to the blue green woods of Alma’s world and man, I was so in love with her, I was thrumming in awe all wide-eyed and open—I was totally alive. I wiped the blessing off my hand and onto my dirty blue work jeans, smiling. The bird had even sung its little blue song as it blessed me. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Hahaha! Good morning, Chris!
I’ve been thinking about the sky a lot. Have been wondering what the hell it is. I don’t live in the mountains anymore, I left that shack in Alma’s woods for what is probably the last cheap room in Red Hook ever. You can smell the contaminated water through the wall. My apartment’s porthole window looks out at those blue and red cranes lifting trash and red crates out from boats about the bay, where the city’s canals and rivers dump waste out into the sea and to me those cranes look mostly like strangely drawn crayon horses. Like horses a kid would scribble on a wall. I’ve been thinking about the sky because half my view out this window looks out above the city with all its rolling blue gray mystery in spring, and I’ve been wondering what is going on up there exactly, like way up beyond the cranes and towers and clouds where I’ve come to think of the sky as just the deepest, bluest type of water.
My therapist’s name upstate was Diane. Alma found her for me. Diane specialized in art therapy for kids which meant for me she was cheap, and it was Diane’s idea for me to use my crayon drawings for my poems, or as the raw materials for my book. Draw what you feel and describe what you see, Diane said. Fucking genius. I was thirty-two at the time but Diane treated me like a kid. I loved it. For nearly two years I horsed around making poems about my kid art all monastic in this shack above Alma in the woods, but now I’m thirty-three and alone and acting like an adult again in the city. I wish I had those crayons here now and a strong good stack of that red construction paper like the stuff that bluebird shit all over. I’d draw you a diagram if I did. Or like a map of Alma’s world in the mountains upstate as I saw it in my window in her woods. First I’d draw for you a blue crayon mountain with like this chaotic red spiraling thing at its center for Art’s barn, then I’d draw you tens of thousands of greening crayon trees, and all those cleared thawing crayon fields of hay and the blue yellow crayon birds, pink red dots for new spring flowers, this golden line here will be Alma in her garden and last I’d draw for you the low yellow farmhouse Alma inherited up there on the hill.
Beyond Alma’s land was the reservoir and a little beyond that was the dump. Alma made a lot of art. Inside her blue electric car she had this tangle of translucent fishing line we found which hung from her rearview mirror and hovered there all balled up perfect like a kind of sculpture. The way it held the light. It was so Alma. Even before she caught Chris cheating and cast him out of her farmhouse forever, Alma and I would go on these dump runs together every Sunday. They became our weekly adventure. Chris was big on shrinking our carbon footprint so as a house we didn’t make a lot of waste, only what we could stuff into the trunk Alma’s electric car, but usually we came back to the farmhouse with more random dump junk than when we left.
This one Sunday at the dump Alma found a backpack full of pigments by the scrap metal pile. The baggies looked full of rainbowy drugs. Next to the pigments I opened a box full of empty metal frames. The baggies had been labeled with these wonderful names and I told Alma my favorite color was Meadow Green. Back at the farmhouse Alma glued Meadow Green into a frame and glued a magnet to the back of it and hung it on the fridge for me. No larger than a tarot card. A piece of art.
A week later Chris asked, “What the hell is this?”
“A landscape painting,” Alma said. “Meadow Green. Look close—you have to squint.”
And Art is like Alma’s uncle. She says he’s always just kind of been around. Art’s barn is full of tools and things, a lot of spare parts, mostly trash. I loved it in there. It felt like a big red boat. Century old chestnut. Cathedral ceilings. Two of every tool—Art’s Ark. I worked for him for three good years doing handyman work out of the barn and for about half that time I lived in Alma’s farmhouse, in the renovated attic room above her and my half-brother Chris. They’d been engaged to be married for like ever. The deal was that if I helped Chris renovate Alma’s house I could sleep on a mat in their attic for free. The floorboards up there had these wide spaces between them you could almost fit your fingers through, and at night Alma’s bedside light rose up to me in soft dusty rays. It’s important you know I fell in love with her immediately. Felt like hell about that for a while. I lived up there in hell for a whole year and a half before they broke up, before I hiked up to live in my shack in Alma’s woods. The sounds of their most intimate moments rose up to me in that room and unconsciously I overheard every argument, every groan whisper secret moan, every perilous fight. Chris had this electric keyboard down there too, right below the thin metal air vent slats that opened between our rooms, and every night after dinner drunk Chris went to work on his scales with bricks for fists, or practiced like the same song over and over and over again, which for a year and a half was the Star Spangled Banner. It drove Alma fucking wild. You could tell.
After the renovation I had to find a job, Chris said. Now I had to pay him rent on the room. So I went to work for Uncle Art. Met him before the barn every morning for three years. A lot of the time we just drank beer and drove around the reservoir together in his van. Art took me under his wing. Funny how things work out. I am half Art’s age exactly. We kind of became best friends. Best job I ever had. Hahaha. Thanks a lot, Chris.
Alma told me the reason why morning birds sing is to let their lovers know they survived the night. This day last year it was spring and my art shack window was open to the songs of sparrows and redstarts—of gray catbirds and brown-headed cowbirds and yellow warblers and wrens, and of red-eyed vireos and yellow-bellied flycatchers and cardinals, and robins—and way down below in the trees above Alma’s garden, you could hear a whole chorus of waxwings singing. I am sober now. Have been contemplating the word serenity a lot. Sober people love to use it. Back in college Chris gave me this big book of etymologies for my 21st birthday, Word Roots, it’s open to the S’s on my desk. The book says serene comes from the Latin word serēnus, meaning calm weather, but now I’m flipping way back to the B’s.
The word book comes from the Old English bēce meaning beech, like the tree.
Word roots. Tree books. Hell—I even stopped drinking light beer.
And Art’s eyes are the color of cool water. A wild man. Blue splashes. A real woodsman. Situations arose for Art with the weather, our work shifting day to day and with the seasons like in spring for instance, your favorite red maple might fall onto a car or like onto your fence. After the storm you’d call up Art and his apprentice that’s me, we’ll come help you clean it up. In winter we plowed your driveway, patched holes your drywall, replaced dead outlets and all the leaky pipes inside your house and did firewood in the fall, renovated barns and attics and basements and redid decks and in the summertime we would mow your lawn if you wanted. But now it’s spring again. Art will plant your flowers, prune your trees. He taught me everything I know about the stars and mountains, the rocks and water and wait—World is a wild word.
Comes from werald which is Dutch, like Art’s barn.
All broken up into parts you get wer meaning man and ald meaning age, but all alone al means to grow or to nourish.
Alma’s world was what I pushed my windows open to, my heart and eyes and my books. But Art’s brought me closer to that red spiraling shape at the center of things. God, maybe. How the seasons turn in narrow spirals up, and it also seems that way with death. An inch worm becomes the robin’s beak that eats it, is what I mean. Grief makes this shape. I mean loss is even in the word blossom.
Now imagine Art with an armful of flowers. Isn’t that nice. This day last year that blue bird blessed my book and about an hour later Art hiked up to my shack like that, with an armful of lilac branches.
“Here Sunshine. Thought these might brighten up your life.”
Chris was gone. Bluebirds sang. I felt free.
It was Sunday, usually our one day off, but Art said thunderstorms the night before had created a bunch of emergency work. The church basement had flooded again, Art said. High winds had ruined some trees. Art arranged the lilac branches while I looked around for my boots. Found them among green bottles. Tied them up nice and tight. Thanks for the flowers, Old Man. Let’s go.
I remember an unrooted yellow birch on a nearby farm and some red work horses black with spring mud. I remember a rock oak limb in the road Art cleared, and the yellow green wisps of a willow tree drug down below the footbridge flooded high with muddy water from the creek. Then we went into town. I remember the smell of rain-soaked oak silt, my boots all full of fragrant shavings, swelling, and I remember the rhythm of our saws on fallen trees outside the church and the holy rhythmic hum of Art’s sump pump in the basement tumbling splash splash splash while above us all these saints in stained glass were shining, and how after work we drank a thousand or so beers in the parking lot together laughing at the state of Art’s rust-tortured truck. Stories about horse barns, barn fires, green bottles gleaming as they lifted toward the light.
Late spring is the best time of year in those mountains. Warmish days, coolish nights. Cool enough to still build a fire in your shack. The last thing we did was clean up Alma’s lightning struck black locust tree. Art told me I could take some home to burn, but he wanted to save the rest of it for fence posts. He said locust doesn’t rot. Maybe a new garden gate for Alma.
Between the barn and Alma’s farmhouse on the hill the low field sloped down and opened into pastures. Art drove us down through the fields to the tree. The bark of a black locust tree furls deeply inward and feels cold and tough to the touch like rock. I remember an evening star, probably Jupiter, silver sliver of moon in the blue. Art stared up at the tree. The locust had split way up high and splintered out where it was struck, a silhouette of wild scribbles against the settled evening blue. An elemental thing. Like something out of the tarot.
The design of the saw sort of settles into your hands. I remember it getting dark and I remember being drunk and thinking about the root system of the tree in the earth down below me, how its roots reach as far as its canopy of branches. Art taught me that. The leafless branches of the locust tree rose in strange tangles, wiggling up and out like weird inverted roots. Art said that when the tree was struck three years ago the sap turned to steam in an instant. The expanded air exploded, Art said, wrecking a lot of the east side of the tree. What stood was dead but fifty feet tall, the trunk two feet wide. Art confirmed the tree was dead for me. The farm truck idled in the grass behind us.
I cut the truck engine. Lowered the tailgate. Took a seat.
“What would Art do?”
“Well Sunshine it’s pretty straightforward. You have the weight of the split to your advantage leaning west. I wouldn’t worry about going back the wrong way toward the fence or footbridge or the creek. The trunk should be full. Not hollow like the maple trees you’ve seen. I’d make my hinge regular at the waist going west. Plain angles. Like this.”
Art took a seat beside me on the tailgate. With a carpenter’s pencil he drew this diagram for me on a piece of wood. It’s supposed to show how a tree is felled. The pencil looked like a big orange crayon in his hand and I laughed. He had a beer in his lap. We always had beers in our laps. Art’s crayon was the same color as the saw:
And after the locust tree had been felled and bucked and loaded into the bed of the truck, a light went on in Alma’s farmhouse. Art opened two more beers with the blue handle of his knife. Handed me mine. We cheersed. The absence of the locust tree had become a strange sort of presence in the pasture now.
“Want to know what’s weird about lightning?”
“All it is is static. Like this static shock between the sky and the earth. Imagine you’re rubbing your socks on the carpet. That’s what’s so weird about the thunder too. The molecules from the lightning bolt come and go so quick. What you hear is molecules collapsing into the space that’s left. That’s the thunder clap.”
Alma’s silhouette appeared in a farmhouse window. The stars did like the opposite of dissolving and I felt the revolving energy of night twist, or kind of spin, and Art sat on the stump of the lightning struck black locust tree.
I said, “That’s crazy.”
“No Sunshine. No it’s not. Nothing’s all that crazy. You just have to take everything that happen as it comes. You’re not paying anything attention. That’s the thing about your generation. Nobody’s ever looking up.”
Alma turned off her light. Went to bed. Time passed and a year later I’m sitting here all alone above Red Hook and there is shit all over my hand. Seabirds scream in circles around cranes lifting trash out of the water in my window—the word time stems from tīd, meaning tide—and the morning after I felled the lightning struck black locust tree I woke spiritually polluted. I remember it. I woke alone sick blood red without Alma, but now I’m getting better. I am. The sky opens to the sun every morning and so does my heart, so do my eyes, my poems, my books. I am building my own little world. I guess that’s all this is. All art ever wants to be. Whatever. Today I am alive. Hahaha. Tralala—today I am singing.
Good morning, Alma. I am totally alive. God. I love you.
For money Dylan Smith plants flowers on rooftops in New York and has a website with links to other stories online. Oh and check out The Other Almanac. A piece of Dylan’s will be published in print with them this fall.