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musica est vita

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Message from Writer

"if you punish a person for dreaming their dreams / don't expect them to thank or forgive you,” -the mountain goats

“everything's in order in a black hole / nothing seems as pretty as the past though,” - the arctic monkeys

lowercase is intentional.

My Mother's Smoke Shapes- Part Two

January 21, 2019


    The kids in the neighborhood used to play a game, I recalled as I drove past my former best friend's house. We were reckless and restless, but in this town there was no room for that. Either you followed the rules or--- well. And so we found the line between dangerous and safe and played hopscotch with it.
    We were young and ready to choke the sky, but anything underneath it was the limit. We called the game Witches, being the highly imaginative children that we were. As you may have guessed, we pretended that we were witches. There were ceremonies in the woods and nonsensical chants and staying up until two in the morning at each other's houses to practice our "art". We pretended that it was a secret we must keep from the parents, that must be whispered in each other's ears and kept under our beds, out of sight from our caregivers. In our heads, we were tempting the shadows. We giggled as we made potions from mud and crushed animal bones that we found in our backyards. We scared each other with stories of angry gods that we must appease. Our parents didn't know, as they didn't care what we did in our free time as long as we stayed safe and didn't turn to see what was watching us.
    There was one night in particular that's seared into the back of my eyelids. It was late summer, humid and heavy. The crickets came out early, as if to complain along with us. The resident cat lady once told us that you could tell exactly what the temperature was going to be the next day by counting the seconds in between chirps. I don't know if that's true, and she never taught us precisely how to do it anyway, but I still do it from time to time when I can't sleep. Even if the crickets are only in my head.
    That evening, we escaped our homes and met in the agreed-upon spot, a place that was a little too deep into the woods. But there was the thrill in it. It was at what we assumed was an abandoned campsite, with logs arranged in a circle around what must've once been a fire pit. It had been there as long as the oldest people in town could remember, and you could hear spirits if you stayed long enough.
    By the time we got there, the sun had finally gone down. The leader of the group brought out a lighter stolen behind his parents' back, and another kid pulled a pair of rusted scissors from her pocket.
    "We're going to build a fire," the leader announced. "As big as possible."
    We split ourselves into groups. We knew how this worked, despite none of us having been taught. First came the dry grass and bark and cotton to catch the flame and carry it. Easily flammable, just like us. Next, smaller sticks and twigs. And finally came the logs and thick branches. They all had to be dry, or it wouldn't work.
    I was in the last group. The wood was rough against my skin, and I prayed that I wouldn't get splinters. 
    The next step was to arrange it properly. First was the tinder nest, a small bundle of the first group of materials. The thinner material at the center, and the leaves and bark on top of it. Next, we arranged the wood into a tepee. Twigs and sticks closer to the middle, logs and branches on the outside. Our leader did the work from there.
    Oxygen and sparks and the satisfaction of seeing the glint of light in the pitch black woods. Our primal ancestors beamed down at us from the stars.
    The fire was starving. We watched it slowly but surely eat up the tender, leaving black prints on the woods. We watched the logs, sturdy and strong and once alive, melting, turning to charcoal and cinder. We watched the embers left behind. And something inside urged us to touch it, to watch our flesh do the same.
    We sat, entranced, as the smoke curled into the air. Finally, our leader cleared his throat.
    "Now the ceremony begins," he said.
    This particular ceremony was meant to help us face our demons, so to speak. To ward off the creatures in the shadows, and if we couldn't, to allow them to slip away from us.
    It was simple.
    We went in a circle, passing the scissors from one person to the next. When you were handed them, you would cut off a tiny lock of your hair and approach the fire. You would proclaim your devotion to the blaze, kneel beside it, and throw the lock in. It was meant to give the flames a piece of you in the hopes that you would, in return, get a part of the flame to carry the warmth and light inside of you.
    The first to go was a girl with long black curls that spooled over her shoulder like a pile of raven feathers. She squeezed her eyes shut as she separated a clump and cut it halfway down, but opened them to watch the hair shrivel and burn in the fire. Dazzled by the organized chaos.
    The scissors cried out as they were passed around. We eyed the edges of the campsite and shifted closer together.
    Most cut only a small tuft from the ends of their hair, praying silently that their parents wouldn't notice when they got home. One girl, in an act of rebellion, clenched a fistful of hair and cut it from the roots, and didn't stop at that, until most of her hair had become smoke. We watched in horrified fascination and knew that she wouldn't be playing with us for at least a week afterward.
    I was last. My hands itched, my eyes stung, and I was for the first time disgustingly alive as I awaited my turn. No more hiding from the shadows. I would become the shadows.
    Looking back, and recalling the partly fire-lit and partly night-veiled faces of my peers, I imagine that we were all thinking that. I imagine that it was a ludicrous fantasy that each one of us carried to bed that night, but that slipped away with the morning breeze.
    I also imagine that the morning breeze missed Caleb.
    But then. Well, who am I to judge? I missed the fire.
    I clenched the scissors, I clenched my spirit. My teeth chattered, though it wasn't cold, and I bit into my tongue to stop them. A sharp pain, and something warm and metallic drizzled down my lip.
    I was ready. I held a strand of my hair, which looked like dead straw in the fire light (it's darkened since then). The metal tool yawned as I pried it open. Ready. I licked the blood off my chin and let out a sharp laugh. Giddy. Ready. 
    And from somewhere in the distance came:
    "Iris? Iris!"
    Thirty or so faces turned in unison towards me. Even the flames stopped licking at the air.
    Maybe it was the fire and smoke and raw heat eating me up, or maybe it was something else, but out of nowhere a warm, glossy tear was sliding down my face. God, I thought (though I don't believe). Not in front of everyone, I thought (though it doesn't matter to me).
    "I need to go," I said, but the words came out too soft.
    And I shoved the scissors into my neighbor's hands and grabbed Caleb by the arm and fled. Branches that came from nowhere whipped and clawed at my skin, and behind me, my brother cried out. I kept running.
    Beneath me, the world turned.
    I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel. It was just a game. Burning my hair wouldn't protect me from anything. The world was too big for the monsters under my bed, and it was time that I faced that. Better to shield myself from the real monsters.
    In the backseat of the car, Mother skin hung too loosely around her frame. Her eyes concentrated on thin air, like she was fighting something the rest of us couldn't see.
    But sometimes I wonder. I didn't have to had run away that day. I could've stayed, could've cut off just a lock, could've watched it turn to ash. Could've. And sometimes, I think, should've.     
Sorry that nothing really happened here, but this flashback is a big part of Iris' character. I wonder, though, if I spent a little too long on it, and if so, how I could shorten it? And what else could be improved? What did you enjoy? What were your favorite lines? Thanks for reading, and the next part should come soon!

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  • paperbird


    7 months ago
  • paperbird

    oh my god... this is such an immense and fascinating piece of writing. simple phrased, such as "the fire was starving" and "a warm, glossy tear was sliding down my face". you've revealed such a key part of your characters---what they were like as adolescents, their thirst for destruction. this is one masterfully crafted story, a great representation of your skill as a writer. i can't wait for the next installment! you've gotten me hooked.

    7 months ago
  • Dani A. Remlap

    Damn. . . This is some of the most vivid, visceral prose I've ever read

    7 months ago