Head in the Sky
My mother named the pines, each pine that came to mind. Pitch and shortleaf. White and loblolly. Spruce, red, table mountain.
Our beagle came back after weeks away. It wasn’t the first time she’d run off. She arrived on our porch with runny eyes, her ears full of ticks–bloated blister white. The eczema on my hands itched for days before she came back. Itched more than usual. I tried not to peel off the patches of dead skin, not to scratch at all. But the rash felt hot as though it had sprung from some fevered region in me and wanted to be opened, so I scratched all the healed skin away while lying in bed one morning.
Longleaf, slash, sand, and red. When she ran out of pines, mother moved on to deciduous trees. Ironwood and ash, catalpa, birch, and oak. Banyan. Jacaranda. Some of these trees lived in other regions of the world, but some grew around us in our yard and in the woods. Cedar, walnut, sourwood. I imagined the dead stood between the trees, watching us live our lives without them. My brother, my aunt, my grandmother, my grandfathers. Fixed at the boundary line of our rented land. A land full of someone else’s cows, someone else’s fog in the morning.
Maple and ailanthus and mulberry. I brought my boyfriend to see the trees and to walk in the creek in the woods.
In the backyard, we released balloons on the birthdays of the dead. We counted down–my boyfriend, my mother, and I–and let them go all at once. I would always watch my balloon bubble away from my hands and become a head in the sky, then a grain, then a speck. Let it fly, I would think. The seasons arrived in circles, spring-summer-fall-winter-spring-summer-fall-winter, with birthdays all the time. Soon I would leave for college, and only mother would be left to release the balloons.
Down the road, a dalmatian named Blackberry had attacked a child while the child played in her own yard. The child received four stitches in her lip. Her mother told my mother, the stitches made thumb-sucking difficult and that maybe the dog bite was a blessing that would break her seven-year-old from the babyish habit. Both mothers rocked on the porch in the rocking chairs that came with the house. Did you know you have sugar maples in your yard? My mother told the other mother. You should tap those.
Another neighbor owned chickens and let them have free rein. Hens pecked along the easement of their home and wandered in and out of the road. They were copper and white, some were blonde. I looked at them from the window whenever we drove by. So close to the car. Don’t the owners care? I thought. I watched the wobbling red hearts at their throats and felt so fragile.
No Airport, No Planes Arriving
I used to close my eyes and think of an old man stuck in a bed. This was back when my parents would call me Acorn. Back when we lived in an old farmhouse, in all the years before third grade. The bed the old man was stuck in was too small for him to sleep comfortably. He’d shift and turn like a jigsaw piece trying to find its fit. There were no windows in my thoughts, and the room was a dark box just big enough for the bed. The man was scared. He knew he was dying, and he was confused. Where was the person who used to take care of him?
My parents called me Acorn for my brown hair and brown eyes and small size. There were acorns everywhere in that landscape of my early life. Acorns in the yard around the house, on the playground at school, and acorns in the painting that hung above my bed.
The painting was a present from my uncle, given to my parents the day I was born. I used to look into it in the mornings when I was awake but still too tired to get out of bed.
In the painting, a young girl is walking through a forest, and the forest is filled with light. The light came from a translucent angel standing behind the girl and filling up most of the picture. Her smiling face was part of the three tops. Her open arms the branches. There were animals hidden throughout the painting. Owls, squirrels, songbirds, chipmunks, a family of deer. And also acorns. I used to try to find all the hidden things and count them.
The girl in the painting looked like me with her brown braided pigtails and small forehead. She wore a brown plaid dress with a white apron tied over top. She was not the kind of girl I could ever imagine wearing high heels.
The thing is an old man really did die in our home. He died in the room that was then my parents’ bedroom decades before we moved in. I know this because my father told me the story of how the man lived alone and was found by relatives. He also told me of how he woke in the night once and saw the man, how he wasn’t dreaming. I used to try to picture what he saw: the man standing at the foot of his bed wearing an old-fashioned white nightgown, hand on his stomach. I pictured the man as translucent, though my father never said.
I thought of this man often as a child, especially when I was sick. I’d picture his skin yellowing, and then I’d think of the yellow cooking oil my mother used, the yellow bandana she tied around her hair when she fixed food or washed her face at night. I’d think of the yellow bottles of formaldehyde my father kept in his biology classrooms and the yellow-tinged river that ran through the downtown of the city where we bought our groceries.
Father said the river was polluted with chemicals from the tannery. Chemicals I could smell when we drove over the mountain and down into the town. It smelled like decaying bodies, not something poured from a bottle. When we stared into the river, we could see sudsy bubbles floating on the surface like something percolating beneath.
The town was small. No taxi service, no art museums, no airport, no planes arriving. Just grocery stores and churches and gas stations selling lottery tickets.
Aside from the old man entering my thoughts, I always knew when I was sick because I’d have the same dream each time I had a fever. I’d dream of a giant black tire, rolling down a grassy hill, squashing a daisy. In the dream I was the daisy. And I was also the tire. And the hill and the air. I watched the daisy’s stem bend and snap and felt the strain in my neck. I felt the fat pressure of my tire body, the bulge and bounce as it moved downhill. I felt the worms in my soil body, their blind searching.
Often when I was sick, my mother or father would come into my room and rock me, even when I was too big to be held that way. They’d scoop me up and my legs would dangle over the cradle of their arms and my feet would touch the mattress. After a while, I could feel their bodies tiring. I could hear the subtle creaking of the tendons in their wrists, the yawn of their muscles. I was never one to fall asleep quickly.
Lydia Gwyn’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in F®iction, The Florida Review, Pensive, Poetry Salzburg Review, and others. She is the author of two books of flash fiction, You’ll Never Find Another (2021, Matter Press) and Tiny Doors (2018, Another New Calligraphy). She lives with her family in East Tennessee.