By Dylan Smith
This day last year a blue bird blessed my desk and now every new moment opens awake within me like a poem. Today I keep the bird shit desk pushed up against my porthole window in the city. Poems scribbled everywhere. The same shit-stained pages of my manuscript, my Chris Book: Red Crayon // Blue Crayon // Green Crayon // Spring. The Statue of Liberty with its twenty-foot flame is just a pinky-sized shadow out there on the harbor—and now here comes the sun, it’s rising up out of the river. All the clouds above the city burn bright orange sea-blue pink along their bottoms at first, edges shining like the pages of a Holy book, and then it’s the tops of those close, barn-sized clouds that come alive with color again as they burn, and I see the familiar silhouettes of those horse-shaped cranes and the dark buildings beyond them that tower, and with my candle lit and the coffee brewed, I’ll just sit on the ground for a while. Close my eyes. Criss-cross my legs. Take it all in with my breath. My therapist taught me the importance of this routine, how to meditate immediately upon waking. Diane says it’s important that I right-size myself, and that I do so right away—she suggests I even say a sort of prayer as I start. Let go of my will. Try to let the light shine through me. Sometimes I do. But other times what I do is, I just close my eyes and picture Alma. Imagine her waking up behind me in bed, eyes burning golden candles—or like two struck matches as they open perfect fires in her head—and other times I picture her farmhouse on the hill, and above that her forever spring blue woods are always greening, and I pretend to hike up that path toward my candlelit shack where every new morning opens completely new in my head, like a poem, and it’s spring.
Halfway up that path through the mountain woods to my shack was a memorial rock for Alma’s father. Everybody called it Michael’s Rock. A mossy slab of bluestone as impressive as the side of a ship. Art installed these two green benches up there, and I like to hike to them in my head. Take along my notebook and a coffee to listen to the birdsong and sit. An embedded steel engraving holds Michael’s picture. A proper monument with his name and his dates.
Kind eyes. Sky blue shirt. Big smile dappled in the leafy darkness and light.
Today I brought Michael an imaginary flower and was reminded of an early summer session with Diane. What I remember most from those days is the daily rainbow hanging above Art’s barn and the way the new June dew warmed and rose up from the fields all blurry-gray-blue in a thick fog thinning slowly every morning into mist, and how on the long drive to Diane’s therapy office in town, Art told me those rainbows were because of the barn’s position to the sun.
“The sun’s got to be behind you for rainbows,” Art said. Canopies of green leaves created a kind of green tunnel as he drove, and Art threw his thumb back behind us to the east. “Water droplets bend the light. It’s a miracle if you think about it. Try to imagine the mist as trillions of tiny pyramids. They used to be the dew. You have the sunlight shining through each drop and each drop is like a tiny pyramid projecting color out onto the sky. It’s called refraction, Sunshine. Visible light. Every new rainbow is a miracle.”
The landscape widened as we turned onto the painted county road into town. I had a duffle bag at my feet. A pair of underwear, my notebook, some socks. The plan was that Art would take me into town for therapy, then drop me off at the bus station. I’d spend a night or two in the city with Chris. Come back up the next morning with my car. Now the sky opened again all blue and big and roomy, fields and farms rolling greenly into mountains, and the sudden shift in scale made me feel like I’d shrunk. Which made me think of Chris. In the side mirror my eyes looked all puffy. Swollen. Nearly shut. I couldn’t tell if it was from early summer allergies, or from all the beers I’d downed the night before, or what.
Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
I took out my notebook. Wrote down the word Calamity.
I wrote and rewrote it about a hundred times.
“Speaking of rainbows, Sunshine—ever been to Niagara Falls?”
I struggled to clear my throat.
“No. Not yet. But Alma told me she went up there once with Michael.”
“Well talk about miracles. This side of the falls is even named after rainbows. Any sunny day of the year and you will see one. Guaranteed. All that falling worter. You should make a trip of it one day, Sunshine. Especially now that you’ll have a car again. Was starting to wonder when you’d ever get the balls to talk to Chris.”
I rolled my window down. Tried to wash away Art’s laugh with the mountain air, the morning light.
Diane lived on an old dairy farm two or three miles out of town. Her office was just a bedroom in her house. Art’s truck rocked along her long wide driveway in reverse, stopping just before this big catalpa tree flowering before the deck. Diane stood up there in the shade, waving. Art watched her in the rear view mirror. Rolled his window down. Laughed. Waved back. He picked a piece of straw out of my hair and another off my shirt, then handed me a week’s pay in cash.
It must have been like three hundred bucks. A session with Diane cost fifty. I also had a credit card in my pocket. Art watched me stuff the money into my jeans, which were covered in red and white paint, and the knees of the jeans were caked in dried mud.
“If cleanliness is next to Godliness you’re heading to the city with a pitchfork, Sunshine. If it were me I’d try to bribe Diane with an extra twenty or two for a shower.”
Diane’s office walls were all bookshelves full of textbooks and spiritual books and coloring books and crystals. Tall ceilings. One green couch. She kept this rocking chair in the corner for herself and I sat—well, sometimes I’d lie there with my boots off, staring out at the catalpa tree in the window. I really liked Diane. Her voice was like the silhouette of some far off mountain.
Hillsides for eyes. Wavy gray brown hair. A seven-year-old son named Jacob.
Diane was still getting settled into to her chair. Blue pen in hand. Yellow legal pad in her lap. At the other end of the room, this low red plastic table had a bunch of art supplies all over it.
“Well,” she said. “Tell me. Bill. What is happening up in your world?”
I just stared at my hands for a while. Duffle bag at my feet. My hands looked filthy.
“Alma went away for a while,” I said.
“To the city. To visit Karen.”
“Her mom. I’m going down today too. To get my car back from Chris.”
“Will you see Alma down there too?”
“No. Well, I don’t know. She didn’t say. She says we need to make some distance.”
“Well. Just for now she said.”
Diane scribbled something blue on her pad, nodding.
“And what do you say?”
“What do you mean,” I said.
“What do you say? About needing to make some distance.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat there. Like my hands, my boots looked all busted up and dirty. I unlaced them, pulled them off. Swung my dirty socks up onto the leathery green. I had a good view of the window now, but I just stared at my hands some more. The ends of my nails were ten black lines and the callouses on my palms were eight brown circles. I knew it was only a matter of time with Diane, though. Just a matter of which way to enter the session together—and before I knew it we were in, and I told Diane about how I’d fallen for Alma completely the way we rolled about in my bed together with the thunder and the close dark green clouds and the rain, and how when finally that last spring storm had stopped and day by day the mountain had been greening it was June again, and Chris was gone—and how for that first week of summer, everything in my window had been rainbows. Because Alma was there. I told Diane how the moon was close at night and clean from the rain and full, and how up in my shack these fireflies twirled up in bright splashes of electric sudden neon green like stars, and Alma was there on a blanket on the floor and the radio tumbled out its song and we were dancing screaming naked love and I was sober for a while and we were laughing. Because Alma called them lightning bugs. Haha. I just loved that. I told Diane how the lightning bugs formed brief constellations above my bed, and how Alma named them these non-Latin-sounding names, names like Bird God and Horse Skull Mountain and Love Lamp, and how tattooed to her foot in the candlelight, the phases of the moon were fading.
Then I told Diane about Alma’s shrinking dreams. How I’d never heard of anyone else having those before.
First night after the storm. Purple blue moonlight on the mountain in my window. By now the radio’s batteries had started losing power. Its song just a whisper, faint and wobbly and low.
The shrinking dreams started after Michael died. Made death a kind of shrinking.
Diane nodded. Wrote it down.
I can still remember the smell of coconuts in Alma’s hair. Her chin on my chest. My heart thumping raw.
I told her I suffer from shrinking dreams too.
Lightning bugs burst above us. Alma leapt up.
“Well in my first one I went to the bathroom upstairs in the farmhouse and heard this peeping,” Alma said. “I found these eggs and two ducklings, a brown one and a yellow one. But Michael came in and filled up the bath with water. I didn’t realize really what had happened until the eggs bobbed and shrunk in the water and the two ducks struggled to stay up on top.”
“Did they go under?”
“Of course—the current pushed them under. One at a time by the faucet. I didn’t act quick enough to grab them out and the second duck—that’s the yellow one, it went under. By the time I pulled them up they had shrunk down to bug sizes with like these terrible thin delicate wings. I placed each one on a towel as delicate as I could but they were wet. They stuck to my fingers. I lost the brown one somewhere in the blue towel and woke up screaming because I’d squished it.”
“Exactly,” I said. “But mine are always shrinking horses. Not ducks.”
“No—no it’s not always ducks. I’ve had shrinking dreams about nearly every farm animal there’s ever been. Horses yes, but also Art kept these goats in the barn when I was little, and I’ve even had a couple about Chris’s stupid chickens—,” but that’s when Diane cut me off.
“Why don’t you tell me more about this, how did Alma phrase it, making distance.”
So I contemplated the catalpa tree in Diane’s window for a while. Leaves were as big as bibles. Clean white flowers the size of your fist.
“Well, I guess reality kind of crept in.”
“The reality of what we were doing. Like the fear of it. Love. The reality of it.”
“Tell me more.”
“All the sudden it was, What are we doing? Oh God. Oh no. Suddenly it was, What do we do about Chris?”
“And so we tried to kind of avoid each other. For the last few days before she left. But it’s impossible. Like some outside energy won’t let us part. I feel powerless against it. Absorbed by it. I couldn’t even get to work until she left.”
That’s when Diane’s son started jumping up and down in a nearby room. I heard his babysitter shush him. I thought about Chris. Those catalpa flowers rubbed against the window and Diane’s face might as well have melted off her head, the way I felt. My vision sort of shook. Heart thumping high up in my neck.
I closed my puffy eyes. Took in a deep breath. That morning I’d looked up the word calamity in my book. Some say it comes from the Latin word calamus, meaning straw, as in a damaged crop. But others think it’s origin is something more obscure.
“How do you feel right now?” Diane asked.
“Hungover,” I admitted.
“So you picked back up.”
“As soon as Alma left.”
“And how have things been in your cabin? In your shack. How have you managed without running water?”
“I’ve been sleeping in Art’s barn again.”
“Where in the barn have you been sleeping?”
“Like down at that bottom bay again. In the bales of hay. Where Chris used to keep all his chickens.”
Diane stayed quiet for a really long time.
Then she said, “I suggest you tell Chris the truth.”
Man, I hated Diane. The titles of her books fell from their spines in pure colorful alphabetic arcs, their letters splashing like confetti all over the floor as I fell deeper and deeper in through her green couch like that forever.
“When you see Chris I suggest you tell him exactly everything you’ve just told me. That you’ve fallen in love with Alma. That it happened completely organic-like, and that you meant no harm by it. Chris can’t hurt you, Bill. Not mentally. Not spiritually. Maybe he can hurt you physically a little, but you aren’t kids anymore. You’ve grown up, Bill. You are strong.”
I looked down at my hands. Jacob screamed and screamed and I wondered what Alma might have looked like as a kid. I decided my hands looked dirtier than usual. Covered in something, like some sickly bluish film. I pictured Alma holding Michael’s hand by a waterfall. A red ribbon in her hair. A rainbow bending bands of light—and then I remembered the job I’d done the day before with Art. Alma’s basement doors had rotted through in patches at your ankles from all the years of rainwater and splashing. These two huge wooden doors painted red. Art and I took the doors to the barn and mixed this two-part epoxy. Art told me they use the same epoxy to patch up holes in boats. Entropy. You mixed the tan putty with the blue putty and like magic, the two come together making wood.
Art called the stuff Bondo. That’s what was all over my hands.
“Art taught me something cool yesterday,” I said.
“He taught me about nuclear fusion. Energy in one nucleus fusing with another. Art says that’s what happens inside stars—like inside the sun. He says scientists are trying to make it happen in their labs now, but that it takes an incredible amount of heat. Art told me it’s really dangerous. The most dangerous thing a human could do. But he said if scientists can make it green, the fusion could save the earth.”
A blue bird landed on a catalpa branch in the window. Diane smiled.
“And what do you think?”
“Well, it made me think of what I like about poems.”
“Which is what?”
“The energy between the letters. The letters forming words. Art’s Bondo made me think of that. The power of the alphabet. The ABC’s. I’ve had that song stuck in my head.”
“And I guess it makes me even more scared to talk to Chris.”
That’s when Diane invited me to close my eyes. We ended every session with the same guided meditation. Diane led me out of the office, down the stairs, then out through a field of overflowing wildflowers in my head. Set out this red blanket in the grass. Invited me to take a seat on it in my head. Together we were to absorb the day’s divine energy. Worship the healing spiritual power of the sun inside us—but instead of doing all that, I just fell asleep.
The next thing I remember is the big kaboom-boom sound of a crash outside. I opened my eyes. Leapt up. The blue bird in Diane’s window was gone. The catalpa tree was shaking. I thought maybe something had exploded, but Diane was at her window, and she was laughing.
Art had backed his truck right up against the catalpa trunk.
His hat in his hands. Taillight smashed to pieces.
Yet somehow Art seemed totally serene. A picture of perfect calm.
Art lifted the largest shard of plastic up from out of the grass. Held it to the light. Like a big rare rock, the shard shone and sparkled as he turned it. His face cast in this wonderful, rainbowy light. Diane and I laughed. You could tell it really amazed him.
“Art is insane,” I said.
“Yes he is,” Diane said. “But insane in the most beautiful way.”
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.