Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hawk Season

Zakassis woke in the mould feeling as if he was perfectly balanced between hunger and satiation. It was too early to be awake; it felt like a neutral kind of hawk season. His skin was loose along his joints and his snout, but not yet along his belly. He pulled himself up and began to climb, orienting himself toward the light and pulling up the open tower that was now beside the dead stalk that had been a geranium before the last hard freeze.

Clumps of fur and grey dust clung to his feet as he came to the upper platform and looked out at the sky. There was a huge fall of it visible, obscured by something too fine to be distinguished. Zak couldn’t feel the movement of anything but a steady gentleness along his back and tail. If that was the sky, it moved somehow without touching this place.

Throle had refused to sleep in the shallow bowls of mould around which she and Zakassis hunted in the warm season. She had risked the sharp grass and the cats to dig herself deep beneath the bushes. She had worried about death but as Zakassis tasted this still air, he realized that she should have worried about who filled pots of dirt. Both Zakassis and Throle had tasted the dragon bait earlier; neither wanted to fall victim to another’s transformation.

They had smelled the smoke for days before they parted to hibernate. Zakassis had made her promise that she would return with coals if…if the worst happened. The worst would be death, he reminded himself. It would not be so bad to swallow fire.

He could taste smoke in this air. Thin, sweet smoke.

Zakassis slid one pupil toward his tail and saw a spark of light, then another, and another. They were some distance away but he was thinking of Throle, thinking of how they could chase hawks together if they were willing to swallow a story’s worth of fire and fable.

As he looked away from the sky and tasted the air again, noises began behind him. Not barking, probably not cats, either. Zak stilled as the noise grew louder. He was close to the edge of the platform, behind a transparent wall. Hidden by height and close to the edge. He tightened the muscles of his knees and elbows, drawing his lids mostly closed to protect his eyes.

Something thunked on top of the platform and the entire structure wobbled. The noise drifted away into silence. He opened one eye. Just beyond the glass wall was another glass structure, this one containing a single flame. Zakassis waited. No lizards crawled from the flames, no red throats belled an ascension. The flame was unguarded.

He had promised Throle spring. Promised her that the mould was safe, safer than the expanse beyond the sharp grass, beneath the bushes. Sleeping in it had brought him across this threshold, brought him to an open flame. He waited until the light dimmed and the fire grew brighter. He could feel the heat. His body pulsed, his skin tight.
He ran to the glass and up the side, leaping down and swallowing the flame, just as the stories said.

It should have been a painful death.

Instead, Zakassis uncurled from his meal, pulling wings from his body instead of forelegs. His jaws were now balanced on teeth, his jaws aching from the new angle, his tongue pierced and sore from the sharpness and the heat he had swallowed earlier. There was nothing left for Throle, but Zak could see the other flames now. His brain was sharper and he relaxed into the soft wax. Hawk season would come soon.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Winter's Game

The pressure of last night’s crits and Monday’s potential changes pushed me out of the door this morning despite a broken night’s whispers of sleeping in. I ended up at Mercer at half past nine. The arboretum was emptier than I’d expected and so I ended up taking my draft and its attendant comments for a brisk mental walk until the open blue sky and the chill finally lowered my internal pressure enough to allow it all to evaporate.

Walking by the frost-crisped azaleas, just a few days past blooming, I began to hear knocking in the trees roundabout. I couldn’t identify the source of the sounds, so I paused by the azalea embankment, deep in a pool of shade, and listened. Most of the camellias are blooming, but the dogwoods and magnolias are just in bud. Tender plants are folded over in stiff bunches after a few nights just below freezing, despite the afternoons well into the 70’s. The park is both asleep and awake, with winter blossoms looking out upon neighbors curled tight in stiff brown and yellow. The knocking, therefore, makes me think of something hesitating at a familiar door. Are you there yet? Are you ready?

Spring in this part of Texas, just north of the coastal plains, is a twin season—a mild winter twin in long sleeves and shorts playing hide and seek with winter and a warm summer twin in a ponytail and short sleeves shading herself briefly against the coming heat. Perhaps winter is knocking among the pines, reminding the mild twin that she’ll be soon be found and it will be winter’s game for a few more days.

The high knocking and the rustling of birds in the underbrush around me sets my brain whirling. This trail leads to the pond just down a path in the open woodland just before me and I decide to keep going. Perhaps part of me is encouraged by the sight of a family taking up the path that leads to one of the formal gardens and the pathway to the parking lot. A young boy howls a no! as his mother tries to pose him for another photo. The picture of her bending towards him and his face pulled up in a shout as he runs, head to the sky and arms flailing would have been a great shot—the boy pulled to action by the day and the park like a kite to the sky.

The path to the pond lies at the back of the bushes that frame the family of photographers and I listen to them arranging poses as I follow it. A few steps in, I discover that they have removed underbrush and trees from a large section of this side of the park. It looks as if the forest had been scooped out and, as I look at it, my year—the plans, the habits—is hollowed out. I should be shocked, but I am lightened. The brush is gone, the trunks that ended in jagged points, the bushes and vines that made one the forest seem to tangle in upon itself, and I can see the chain link fence that marks the edge of arboretum property.

A few trees remain in the open and some kind of clearing equipment is parked on the far edge. There isn’t any indication of new paths or what is planned for this section of parkland. It is all potential, empty of overgrowth. Looking out at it, I feel as if I’m holding January like a bowl in my hand, scoured and ready to be dipped into the year. I am caught and pulled forward.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

And this is what I saw / Open for so long

Driving home this morning, I was once again worrying about writing. Intimidated by a story that isn't going well, shrinking into something that barely holds together, and needing a break from all that internal yammering, I stopped at Mercer.

It's a Sunday morning, early. There are just a few other cars in the narrow parking lot and the sound is the sweep and pop of rubber on Aldine Westfield, the wake of engines and speed sloshing the quiet of the empty parking spaces. It smells like gas. I am reminded of pulling into Port Arthur, the dense smell of hydrocarbons pressed against the flatness, the sky seeming higher because of the thick air. Port Arthur is good, the right angle into the past as I worry at the story.

The cold has been sharp and rare, but the entrance shows me that many of the plants have succumbed, bare branches and wilted leaves. I hesitate, but I need to keep moving, keep the clog in my head loose enough to keep moving. The first color that strikes me are the tiny pansies, catching the rising sun in a corona of dew. Sunrise is clear and bright coming through the tiny windows of the purple and lilac flowers. It brings me down to my knees, close as I can get to the light running down from the trees, across the grass.

Birds flit across the paths and I follow the main path toward the cottage garden section. There aren't any birds in the feeder and the bushes and trees around here are line drawings of themselves, with no cover. Water echoes from the fountains and I find one of them drained of its usual water but still running. The stone tank echoes with the fall, a hollowness that seems to indicate further, hidden open areas. The main fountain is full of pale blue water, edged with bubbles. Perhaps an algae treatment? It blinds the pool milky.

Following the path around the pool and toward the shallow pond, I pass the outer edge of the Yew maze and encounter a thousand fuzzy seed heads rising from a plant that is labeled as smelling sweet. I lean into the stiff fuzz, but they have no smell now. The sky is deep blue and the entire plant seems caught in a moment of fizzing away into it.

Continuing along this back edge of the arboretum, I take the path that curves away from the trees beside Cypress Creek and instead follow the lines along the inside edge. Where the path encounters a crossroad, I lean against the curved iron rail and watch the oak leaf hydrangea. Quatrefoil flowers look as if they've been cut out of craft paper and stuck to brown wire brushes above sharply-cut leaves bent gently into red and pink skirts. These are beautiful in summer green and white and remain so as the leaves deepen into red and the flowers follow the leaves into a winter tan.

Not far from here is a magnolia tree, branches curving up to soft catkin points. Standing beneath it on a Sunday morning, I'm reminded of a Christmas eve service, pews full of people with small white candles, as yet unlit, waiting for the pastor to take the Christ candle down and spread a soft light throughout the church. A soft wind lifts the catkins, but it will be weeks before the sun tips enough warmth through the park to open them into thick white bowls.

Plants that have shriveled with the cold seem to point to camellias and magnolias, blooming and preparing to bloom, the entire arboretum waking and falling asleep in the cool quiet of this Sunday morning.