Two low-flying owls hurtled toward us, so white they glittered in the fog. We heard the susurrus of their wings before talons shattered our windshield. Stunned, all we could do was let them shuttle us— faster than lightning— into our next lives.
Follow me to furloughed
fields, to cities fitted
‘round a sea less salty.
S’there we’ll start our garden.
I’ll blast far ‘neath flagstone
for you; till a trillion
seedlings strewn by starlight;
foster future forests.
This is my first attempt at a drottkvaett for April’s poetry slam. Read more great fiction and poetry by clicking the badge above!
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Walking down the street— my head cloudy with argument—a low hum descended upon me like the rrrrmh of a plane passing overhead. Around me, empty storefronts huddled together for warmth on this, the first chilly evening in October. How could a city street be so dark? I looked above me. A thick canopy of oak leaves blocked all but a sliver of light. The trees on either side of the street seemed to be reaching out, as if still consoling one another after the trauma of being separated.
Ahead, a single light illuminated one side of several oak trunks. I jaywalked and found the aperture of an open doorway. The contrast between my dark neighborhood and the beacon made me feel like one of those innocent characters in books—Alice or Meg Murry or the Pevensie children— who encounters a portal to another world. A syncopated shadow blocked the light for milliseconds at a time. I could just make out a sign above the door; it read Jodo Shinshu Temple.
Inside the upended rectangle I saw the profiles of three men wearing bright red robes with orange trim. They raised their arms parallel to the parquet floor and turned a slow circle. Their hems gently rose away from their sandals. The men turned again and my eyes rose to their faces. Six half-moons and three slashes of a comet’s tail— closed eyes, pursed lips. I continued listening and watching as they danced. Their turns seemed random to me, but their synchronicity never faltered.
“Excuse me.” A woman brushed past me on the sidewalk. I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking, but of course I had. I mumbled something embarrassed and apologetic, but it didn’t matter. She was gone. She may as well have entered a portal herself. I turned my back to the door so I could walk across the street. Somehow, putting it between the men and me made me feel less disrespectful. I waited for a car to go by and then I crossed. Mid-stride, I heard an exclamation of surprise, then the hum abruptly stopped.
When I turned around, one of the men was leaning out beyond the threshold with his cupped hands out in front of him. After a beat, he unclasped, releasing a small bird from his palm. It glided to one of the oak branches somewhere far above my head. No longer able to distinguish bird from shadow, I lowered my head toward the doorway: to ask the man about the bird or the humming or the meaning of Jodo Shinshu, but he had already ducked back inside.
I couldn’t just abandon such an inexpressibly meaningful occurrence, so when the humming started up again, I walked to one of the oak trunks and placed both hands on the dappled bark. Just for a second. Then I went straight home.
When I first started renting cars to drive back home, my parents and my brothers would scoff at the foreign ones. I quickly became the car rental agent’s worst nightmare because I would only rent during holidays—read in: the busiest times— and I would have to refuse the Jettas and Bugs they offered me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I’d say, “but could you please yank that nice family out of the Buick? You would not believe the amount of grief I will get if I drive this Camry into my parents’ driveway.” It was a pain, but it saved me from a lot of grief.
My parents and brothers are car folk, and judging by the recurrent theme in these old family photos, they weren’t the only ones in my family. Car folk are pretty common where I’m from. Flint, Michigan, is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors. Every adult I knew growing up was either a “shop rat” or had a job related to the auto industry. Shouting obscenities to the obvious outsiders driving Volkswagens and Subarus was an everyday occurrence. While watching TV once, I remember asking my mom why there wasn’t a cake of Lava soap and a stiff bristled brush next to Roseanne’s kitchen sink. Where did the Connors scrub the oil from their fingernails?
Looking back, it’s obvious that the auto industry was inherent to the economy, the culture, hell, even the religion of Flint, but I didn’t get it when I lived there. To me, cars were like washcloths— just things, identical but for color, that I used when I needed and then immediately forgot.
But I get it now— my ancestors’ desire to be photographed with their cars, my hometown’s fierce loyalty to an industry that took as much as it gave. These pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-granduncle were taken at a time when cars were the newest things under the Sun. My family was still basking in the afterglow of the conveniences their automobiles afforded them. No more isolated farm lives for them. New possibilities were springing up like tulips as far as they could see.
Not only that, my relatives knew the people who made their sleek and shiny status symbols. They were family, friends, and neighbors. Cars weren’t just machines; they were products of the community.
My relatives were proud of their beautiful machines and what owning them meant. You can see it in my grandfather’s straight-backed posture as he sits on the hood, in my great-granduncle’s reach toward a fender as if it were his son’s shoulder, and in my grandmother’s cocked hip and tilted gaze.
Being carless in the city these past thirteen years has helped me appreciate them as my relatives did. I love the novelty of driving now. I appreciate having a trunk to put my groceries in when I have one, and the added bonus of being able to drive them home, too. I appreciate being able to have a conversation while traveling without worrying about the thirty sets of strangers’ ears that are listening. Carrying keys in my hand connects me to my family, my past. And now when I walk into the rental agency, I request the American car up front knowing the tremendous role my family and my hometown played in history.
bright as lemons
fresh cream churned to butter
love’s weight in our hands promising
our lives slowly
and dye the joined fabrics
our saffron turmeric mustard
and so fragile
we pack our love away
like a yolk in its shell waiting
of your eyes turn
beige in our photographs
head down arms at your side looking
we are cowards
standing in fallow fields
we’re sunflowers in November
our lives slowly
we stow our love away
head down arms at your side looking
*Things are good in my relationship. It’s fiction. Promise.
and chili dogs
have a tendency to
burble back up at the worst times.
This month’s poetry slam is the cinquain. Check out other cinquains and other fantastic writings by clicking the badge above.