An Easy Mortality

By Myke Johns

It did not begin as a trudge. It started as a hike. From the very foot of the Appalachian Trail to about twelve miles in. This gaggle of boys carrying sticks, wearing backpacks, our faces expectant even at that hour. Under any other circumstances it would be inexcusable for us to be awake—not for a school day, not for church, not for Christmas morning. Yet here we were with boots on, intently listening to our Scoutmaster go over trail safety one last time.

“Troop 410,” that was us, “we do not hike alone. If you have to stop to rest, to go to the bathroom, to pass out, you buddy up.”

We all eyed each other and quietly decided who our real friends were. I was not going back into the woods with Quentin or Hunter—those two did not have my best interests at heart. I figured I would buddy up with whoever was closest should the need arise. Raoul and Jason stepped almost imperceptibly closer to one another, though they didn’t have to. There was no coming between those two, and everyone recognized and respected that.

“Guys, are we ready to go?” Raoul called out, and the lot of us fell in behind them.

None of us consciously thought of them as leaders, but they were easy to spot in a crowd—Raoul’s dark skin and gangly legs, jutting from the bottom of his shorts, Jason’s ball cap. They were nice dudes—treated everyone square. They were a year older than most of us—or maybe not older. They were taller.

One mile down the trail is the best moment in any hike. That wasn’t so bad, you think, I can do eleven more of those! Hell, I could do twenty. Let me go, and I’ll make it to the Georgia line. I’ll make it into New England. I’ll do twenty two hundred more of these. I’ll see you in Maine, boys. I’ll send you a postcard.

By mile five, the uneven terrain and the morning chill humbled me slightly. I started to notice how most other kid’s walking sticks weren’t just broom handles with crude carvings in them. I compared their expensive metal-framed backpacks to my regular, overstuffed school pack, my sleeping bag strapped to the bottom with bungee cords. The next mile kept getting further away.

But we were out in nature! Daniel stood in the trail ahead of me, facing east. I got close, and he waved me over.

“Look!”

We stood at the base of some great rock outcropping, maybe a boulder, but in the North Georgia chill, a layer of ice had formed on it. Now, as the day warmed, the sheet was melting, but not in a way we’d seen before. We strayed there for a moment, watching water drops like tadpoles squiggling down the inside of the ice, the boulder perspiring in the sun.

Daniel’s pack was the opposite of mine—aluminum-girded and clanking heavy with tin cans, camp gear, everything strapped down and tight. But we had an easy back-and-forth and he was small like me. We buddied up and the next mile stepped lighter. We ran into Jason and Raoul, taking a knee just off the trail.

“You boys doing alright?” Jason asked.

We’re fine, we say. They pulled the canteens they’d dunked into the creek.

“Do you guys need tabs?” Daniel asked. Water purification tablets, as we’d all become familiar that morning. They turned your water a pale yellow which was wholly unpleasant to look at, and made the water taste like a really weak tea made from dead leaves and potting soil. Nobody liked them, everybody used them. Except apparently for Jason and Raoul. They capped their canteens and made off down the trail ahead of us.

The last couple miles before the campsite, the trail led down into a valley and the slow-going switchbacks caught most of the boys up with each other. So for a short while before our stopping point, we all got to see how the others had fared. We were all doing okay and the collective boost of confidence had us speaking as men do with one another in the woods. Our conversations became jocular and adult. We talked about boobs and the best ways, we supposed, of seeing them. Not a one of us eleven-year-olds was an authority on this, but we had all hiked twelve miles into the Appalachian Trail. We could not celebrate with beer, we could not have uncomfortable-but-awesome sleeping bag sex with our girlfriends—we did not have girlfriends. But we could engage in some casual adolescent sexism as we merrily pitched our tents, built fires and ate dinner.

There around the fire, we laughed and told our stories from that day on the trail—the falls, the sights… Hunter claimed to have seen a bear, “I swear, on the ridge as we rounded the lake!” No one believed him.

Raoul’s eyes went wide.

He stood, turned, and his skinny legs propelled him into the dark forest just beyond camp. We called after him. Jason followed his friend into the woods, and we fell in behind him, abandoning the fire, grabbing flashlights and tearing off into the dark.

Jason shook us and we called their names, the lot of us, sweat-stained and wondering if Raoul had spotted Hunter’s phantom bruin. One of us made out shapes in the moonlight, and we broke sticks and brush underfoot tramping up to them.

We found them there, the two, bent over the same log—pants around ankles, hands clutched at bellies. A foul, earthy stench, like peat or spoiled soup wafted through the pines and the two boys groaned as they splattered the forest floor with their unspeakable filth.

They were buddying up on diarrhea. I glanced at Daniel—he arched an eyebrow and simply said “the tablets.” Everyone seemed to understand what that meant. The troop turned and silently made our way back to the fire. Surely they’d be fine, we thought, as long as they were together.

Throughout the night, as the fire died and we bedded down, Jason and Raoul periodically scooted off to soil the forest floor with their regrets, one always following the other, like a pair of sad angry Sasquatches, groaning into the black night, ruining their asses in the pungent and terrible woods.

We go outside to grow up. We’re educated in buildings and raised in houses, but we go into the wilderness to mature. We’ve built cities to protect ourselves because most everything out there in the world will maim us in some way, from mosquito bites to thorny brush, sharp rocks against our tender feet, teeth against our soft flesh. When camping it is imperative that you grow accustomed to the sight of your own blood. There is an easy mortality about us in the forest and sometimes watching your friends turn into shit golems is what teaches you to respect the world around you.

It rained in the night and it soaked into my tent and my sleeping bag and everything, really, that we had carried onto the trail. We stood around eating Nutra-Grain bars for breakfast. No one wanted to break camp. Mostly because everything we had carefully packed the day before was now swollen, wet, and seven pounds heavier.

Except for Jason and Raoul. Their faces were drawn, their eyes sunken. If they had slept, it did not show.

I saw Daniel eating from a cold can of beans by the wet ring of stones which had once been our campfire.

“How’s your gear?” he asked me.

“Just about ready,” came a voice from behind me. I turned and the rest of the troop were standing over my shoulder, watching Daniel coolly spooning beans into his mouth.

I ate my crummy breakfast and packed up all my wet shit. The other boys did the same. We had another ten or so miles to go that day. There was heaving and swearing all about as we got our backpacks on. It was truly awful and cold, but somehow our camaraderie had not been broken. Daniel dug in his pack, produced a roll of toilet paper, tossed it to Raoul. The boys fell in line behind Daniel, obscured by his giant backpack. He turned to the trail.

“Are we ready to go?”

I was.

I wasn’t.

The Last Four Things

By Laura Carter

Everyone is wearing the mirror that everybody’s wearing!
         It will always seem like morning in twenty
         shades of parrots, and ordinary things

are far. The thought of grabbing a cup of coffee from Starbucks is a thought.
         Wait a second. You’re almost already
         an ordinary person once again,

and then, as soon as the mountains can overtake the sea,
         there’s a song by Usher playing in the background, ever so lightly, and we
         attack the Jacobins for having nerve.

The beginning always seemed to be the last, lined up like coffee spoons or the new day,
         as a riot on the world’s other side
         turns things, shakes things up, causes a panic.

The last time I saw you you were wearing my shirt.
         After the last night we were glued to the news of the latest election,
         desperate for some hero.

The Last Thing

By Laura Carter

Early morning shone the light over your body and I was looking.
We eat oranges at the park
because there is more poetry left for us:
no politics can sustain us,
but maybe love’s beginning can.

And what’s not perennial? In spring, we bloom out
because to make a day is to
vagabond in some sort of shimmering—

         not to diminish, but
         to exert selves
         that are almost

raw, with the crispness of sun at edges.
But yes, that sun.

                   I am not asking forgiveness now.
In earlier times, eternal
light would mean that
all earth’s accomplishments could be set

aside: there would be trumpets.
But nobody knows what is next,

and delicious futures roll of our tongues
at our own peril, at everyone’s.
The circle was always perfect.

                   You trace my heel with yourself, and
the only thing left is the beginning of
a middling that is best when embraced—

somehow, Adam always forgoes old paths.
You tell me the world

                   is cleaner
in autumn, winter.

         It makes perfect sense—
         seasons adumbrate
         perfection like loose gulls,

and the world sings
when it can at death’s approach.

                   Every player
on the stage waits for a resolution or
the light at the end of the last place
we got lost. I smile and then shrug. You
rewrite the stage with obsolete hands,
framing every hen in perfect
green todays.

                   Was each crowned
with something of the ordinary, or
was there a crescent moon that lit up the field?
It’s impossible to find the right answers here,
and the oranges are as good as the sea salt
and caramel gelato that we eat.
                   Tomorrow we may

readjourn the senate of owls that we met.
We may go back to the grove and eat precious honey.
Tomorrow we may take the noble
path out of the city and find sustenance.
Funny thing is, makes a whitewashed story,

tomorrow too emboldened.

Funny thing is, it’s almost like Rome,
and there’s no greater part of me for that,

         images banished
         (at least for the shortest time)

in order to resuscitate the horse.
Which horse? the audience wonders.
Oh, that horse.

         Not the horse of columns, but horse-
         of-many-coats,

easily removed, easily made spring,
         easily de-chaptered,
easily taken from waves,
         and then gone.

Weak Tea

By Alayna Huft Tucker

We drank it to the dregs back then; the speckled fannings swirling in the bottom of a pot of weak tea; the same leaf brewed over and over all day as we assessed each new cup for its nuance, trying to discern how it differed from the previous one, finding meaning where there was none and making conversation out of mere water.

I kept a journal of tasting notes so we’d remember which ones we liked, as there were so many. Notes written in scrawling half-cursive detailing the quality of the leaf, how intact it was, how tightly curled. And the bloom in the basket; the color of the tea liquor — was it amber, crimson, mushroom, or vermillion?

We got to say pretty words like Yunnan, Anhui, and Fujian when we asked each other which province this one or that one was from. And there were some not so pretty words like Pu-erh and Lapsang souchong that were still fun to say and felt like a secret code we’d made up between us, since no one else understood anyway. I liked it when he pronounced Oolong as “WOO-long,” without a shred of arrogance, only the grinning passion of an obsessed hobbyist trying to connect to someone through shared experience.

We drank other things too, of course. Beers hopped with sticky green bitterness that tasted like grapefruit and grass clippings, balmy round Brettanomyces, and that bready rye like a cold liquid loaf of the same. We liked to talk about them together at the bar in those corner seats, if we could get them, where we’d swirl and chew and consider carefully before gulping it all down and spewing up truths in inebriated inhibition.

Whiskey was another. I loved trying to get the timing just right of sniffing at the edge of the glass, taking in the woody aroma just before the sip so that the smell of it would swirl in with the flavor and amplify it. I swore if you breathed in at just the right time it wouldn’t burn going down. We never drank wine though — we weren’t wine people.

Then I stopped drinking all of those things because she was coming. He offered to do the same, in solidarity, but I said it wouldn’t help. He took up a cream soda habit anyway while I tried virgin mojitos and raspberry leaf tea. We talked about the future.

There were so many scary words like preeclampsia, placenta previa, and Caesarean section. But there were beautiful ones too, like when fetus became baby, and how amniotic fluid (already lovely) is often just called water — I imagined her swimming through the glowing amber caverns of the watercolored wombs I saw depicted in pregnancy books. She spoke to us through the heartbeat monitor in her own delicate language in which all the words were “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh,” like a butterfly trapped in a wind tunnel.

After she came it was milk, sometimes every hour around the clock. Water for me; gallons of it to make her meals but I still felt drained, or maybe that was just the sleep deprivation. He unwound with a beer most nights, but the Saisons and Imperial India Pale Ales were replaced with cheap utilitarian Lagers, so essentially water for him too. And there was coffee, so much coffee. We didn’t see our corner seats again for over a year, and even then we just talked about her.

It wasn’t at all joyless, merely relentless — a gauntlet of a year where every hour was an obstacle course. But every time I felt as if I was on the edge of losing it, the little bean would gain some new semblance of humanity and another ounce of tension would siphon out of me, undetectably at first, but after many months of this gentle dripping I felt noticeably lighter.

Then milk became chocolate milk out of an open cup, followed by occasional juice in a real glass that I fully trusted she wouldn’t drop. I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point we stopped making that second pot of coffee in the afternoon. And I remember he and I laughing together on date nights at cocktail names like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Stubborn As a Moscow Mule. I tried Pinots and Syrahs and no longer thought they tasted like chilled rust in a glass. It would seem that somewhere along the line tastes had changed along with the tides.

This afternoon, she picks the Bi Luo Chun out of the cabinet because it’s daddy’s favorite. She can’t read the Chinese characters on the package, but neither can we. The lines and shapes are recognizable only in that we’ve seen them so many times as to have memorized them. It’s passed around and we each take a deep breath of the sweet earthy aroma. Two dainty fingers pinch at the leaf and sprinkle it into the mesh basket just as the electric kettle clicks off. Dad pours, instructing how to swirl slowly, to dowse every fine leaf and admire as they yawn and stretch out like little babies waking.

We’ll drink it flush after flush long into the evening, allowing her tiny sips and flashing a praising smile when she proclaims “It’s yummy, daddy.” And when baby’s gone to bed, we’ll sip on what’s left of a pot of weak tea and talk about how it tastes different now, but still good.

…Meanwhile, in the city too busy to hate…

We do things. Many things. We dream, we breathe, we work, we love, we age, we thrive. We focus. We get distracted. We go away. We come back to center.

Sometimes, we keep ourselves on a short leash, tethered to the calendar and the iPhone, keeping our ringers on, trackers going, turning every breathing moment into a quantifiable metric.

Eventually, the pendulum has to swing back—in this case, from compulsive activity and involvement toward a retreat. Retreat, whether it be actually going someplace far away to escape the aggregate of stress in the immediacy of the day-to-day, or a retreat as in a mood or internal decision to become less involved with external distractions, can offer us the space we need to create.

The challenge, then, we offer you is this:

Stop. Just stop it.

doing-nothing-on-purpose-680x320
via The Mindfulness Exchange

 

Take some time. Turn off your phone. Sit in a dark room. Don’t do anything. Interrupt the flow of thoughts and activities.

 

Come back to the pen and reboot your process.

 

We want to hear about what happens for you, but really, we want your words.

 

The prompt is “Interruption.”

 

Send your fiction, audio, video, art, poetry, nonfiction, indescribable, literary, and otherwise gritty little things to us here by March 31, 2016.

Waiting for the Phone to Ring

By Sheronda Gipson

Have you ever waited for someone to die?

It’s like waiting for a baby to be born. With a lot of false starts and senses heightened, every twitch, sigh or slight eye movement is noticed and examined.

Is it now?

My sister doesn’t want to go to sleep for fear of “the call.” You know the one. The call after 12 a.m. and before 6 a.m. that means someone you know has either been arrested or someone you know has died. The ring that is louder than normal even though the ringer volume has never been adjusted. The ring that is loud and scares the shit out of you and disorients you and makes you knock over things in the dark.

We anticipated the ring.

The first time I’d heard the ring, my mother’s side of the family was together for Christmas. It was the winter of 1989 and my cousin and I had just finished our first semester in college. My grandfather was in the hospital battling colon cancer and all the children and several of us grandchildren, were home. My cousin and I had come in from a late movie and just as we entered the sweet spot of sleep before dawn, the phone rang. One of my aunts answered and gave the phone to my grandmother. I still remember her primal moan and scream, she was doubled over and someone helped her to the bed. We all jumped up to comfort her and each other. Death began our day.

*  *  *

Before the stroke, I’d gone to see her. She was sitting in her ultraluxe reclining chair that stood her straight up or reclined full out with the flick of the remote control. It was a gift for her 100th birthday. She was joking with me, telling me, as she always did, how much I reminded her of her sister Itta B. I got ready for bed that night and she shuffled to her room to get blankets for me, even though I’d already gotten the bedding I needed. The Aunts, the rotation of my mother and her sisters that took care of Momma Nettie since she turned 95, went to church the next morning, leaving me to watch Momma Nettie. I supervised her making her own breakfast, something that The Aunts wouldn’t let her do anymore. She walked slowly into the kitchen, holding on to the doorframe and the countertop and turned on the stove burner that had the kettle of water on top. I’m not far behind, walking a foot distance behind her, arms ready to catch like spotting a toddler taking its first steps. She took an aluminum pie pan from the bottom-stove storage and put it on the counter. She walked to the breadbox and opened it, pulling out a bag of Colonel bread and put two slices in the pan.

“Baby, put me some butter on this bread. Just a little.”

I opened the refrigerator, pulled out the butter tray and cut a couple of pats of butter for her. She sat at the kitchen table as I buttered the bread and put the pan in the broiler. When the kettle whistled, I poured the hot water in her teacup and mine and we sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea, eating toast and bacon — comfortable in our silence.

*  *  *

A year later, I walked up the back steps of the trailer, bracing myself to see her. The stroke had taken a toll on her and my mother said that she wasn’t doing well. It was Father’s Day weekend, and I’d stopped in on my way to see my dad. The Aunts were in full motion: cleaning, answering the phones, propping her head with pillows, asking if she was ok, feeding her and changing her. She was sitting in her recliner.

“Hey, there little one.”

She turned her head in my direction and smiled at our family’s greeting.

“Momma, do you know who that is?”

“Sheronda.”

With strict instructions from my Aunt Margret, I fed her yogurt and we watched tv that night.

The next morning, I was leaving and I saved her hug and kiss for last. I went over to her chair and kissed her head and smoothed back her thinning gray hair.

“I’ll see you later Momma Nettie, I’m heading to see my Dad.”

Behind the water pooled in her eyes, I saw panic. She hugged me tight and when she let go, she still held on to my forearms, crying and moaning, her mind wanting to say something that her mouth wouldn’t allow.

*  *  *

A week later, at around 5 a.m. or so, my mother called.

“She’s gone.”

I’d gone to bed late that night, stomach tied in knots because the family had been told that it wouldn’t be long. So I was restless and just as I’d found the sweet spot of sleep, the phone rang.

And death began my day.

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