Editors' Choice, 2004: At the Fair by Martine Fournier
Martine Fournier lives in Midland, Michigan, where she is currently pursuing her career as a writer and local artist. Her poems have been published in Whetstone and the Arizona Literary Magazine, and she has had a story published in Scrivener Creative Review.
At the Fair
Rosemary scanned the fairground, one hand held up to her forehead like a salute. It was not because she needed to shield her eyes from the sun but because she knew this was how people poised themselves when they searched an area, scanned it for something precious, and she held her hand up instinctively as if she thought it would help her to see better.
She hadn't even wanted to come to the fair; there were laundry and cleaning to do on her only day off. But Thomas had begged and begged and whined and made accusations such as "You promised," and "You said we could," and she could no longer remember if these were true. It was so easy to say "Sure, we can do that," or "Maybe I'll take you," in order to avoid looking up from her book, to avoid pausing in the middle of the precarious dance between stove, refrigerator and table as she got supper ready for the two of them. Finally she had decided, as he was rolling around on the living room floor in a spectacle of agony, that they could come for a couple of hours. It wouldn't waste any more time than she would anyway, dealing with Thomas's afternoon fit.
Thomas had always been theatrical, as soon as he became aware that the people around him were not pieces of his larger self that had broken off, but separate entities who watched him. He knew how to tickle out laughs, to bring forth that mewling sound of "Awww!" from any adult who came even near him, and he knew how to be the most exasperating person Rosemary ever met. He would dive into misery, literally aiming his wiry little arms at the carpet and plunging downward until his body crumpled against it, and he would not come up or stop moaning until he had become bored with his own show, which sometimes took hours. Short attention span had never been one of Thomas's traits, even when he was only a toddler, as long as his attention was being held by himself.
And now Rosemary would have given, she didn't know what but something valuable, the pearls that had been her mother's, to be watching Thomas hurl himself around in the dust. She no longer knew how long ago it was that she saw him last, if it was ten seconds or ten minutes. She didn't know how long she had been standing there with her hand up to her eyes, although she was beginning to feel the blood leaving her arm to go back into the rest of her body, like a hot little boy racing back to his mother's lap, and she knew she would have to bring it down. When she did, it was attacked by those needles of returning life, and her whole body tingled as though she'd had too much sun and was coming apart with the breeze like a sand dune, like she was made of sand.
She decided she had to walk. Standing here wasn't doing any good. Thomas was not going to come running up to her as she'd hoped, flailing his arms in the blue sweater he wore with the sleeves dangling out past his hands, crying that she'd left him and embarrassing her in front of everyone. Then she wasn't sure, after all, if it had been the blue sweater she'd jammed over his head on their way out the door. He hadn't wanted one, but Rosemary knew there was a colder wind blowing now under the summer dust, that forewarning of fall slinking low to the ground, still, like a lonely cat about the ankles. Now she really couldn't remember if the color was blue, or red, or brown. She didn't dare ask anyone if they'd seen him, if she couldn't even tell them what sweater he'd been wearing.
She started to move, eyes rolling in her head from left to right until she made herself sick. She was peering through the rides, trying to see if somehow Thomas had climbed onto one of them and was sailing around now in glee, but she thought it was crazy to look there anyway because he was too small for most and he didn't have any tickets. The mingling bodies of fair-goers spread out before her like lace, and she tried to see through every hole but lost her count of the holes, and she knew they were constantly shifting, closing themselves off while new gaps opened up.
She roamed around the stalls where food was being dipped and twirled, tossed into bags and sold, looking to see if Thomas stood by one of the tables eyeing the long twists of caramel or the glint of sun on red candy apple shells. She listened to popcorn being shaken in a thousand paper bags, voices calling close to her and far, the screams that punched the air above the high rise rides rolling away into spiral falls, landing in the fairground like hungry birds and going silent. Every stall she passed gave off its own smell, from the slowly softening apples to fried chicken to the cotton candy gathering itself out of nowhere in big silver bins, a thick smell of sugar that lined her insides when she breathed it. She didn't see Thomas anywhere, not even at the booth where women stood behind glass, frying donuts in oil so everyone could watch. Thomas would have liked to see the dough puffing up and going golden in the oil, then plucked out and dusted with icing sugar that disappeared as it melted.
She didn't know why he would have let go of her hand, unless that ring she wore had turned itself around again and was poking into the soft of his palm. That happened sometimes. She didn't know how she could have let go of his. That was what really bothered her. She always hated that damp, sticky feeling of his little paw clinging on hers, but she knew holding it was the only way to keep him close and safe, and how could she not have noticed the way her hand dried so quickly when he let go, that cool pocked feeling of release?
As she moved her legs faster and faster across the ground, bumping her shoulder into people who ambled along with their faces masked behind big pink clouds of cotton candy, her panic buzzed like flies for something sweet. She had seen mothers before, cutting through crowds at the mall or the playground with that tightness of terror in their features, their faces going pale beneath their makeup. Rosemary had felt sorry for them, but she couldn't understand them. She knew children had to be kept in sight every second, knew it that simply and didn't see how, once a person knew that, she could be distracted from the mission of watching over a child.
Now she could feel herself taking on that look, that look of having bitten all the color off her lips, hair curling at her temples as if shying away from terrible possibilities. Her hand was clutching her purse by her side as it should have clutched the little person she had let go, her fingers digging into the fabric until she could feel her unfiled nails catching. "Have you seen a little boy?" she might start asking, but it couldn't be of any help. There were hundreds of little boys running around here with ratty sweaters and uncut hair, tawny bangs falling into their laughing eyes. "Have you seen a little boy who isn't laughing?" She met the eyes of people whose arms she swatted at mutely, not caring if they understood their obligation to get out of the way.
When the phone rang that time, she'd been watching Thomas, or at least, watching television while he slept in his room. It had not been easy getting him to bed without his parents there. He had thrown one of his famous fits over brushing his teeth, and finally deciding it didn't matter if he brushed them or not, Rosemary had stuffed him between the sheets. She pretended to sit on him until he laughed out loud, and then he graciously let her read him a story so the words of it could pull his eyelids gently downward, like soft invisible fingers stroking the ends of all his eyelashes.
The phone call was a voice like a plastic spoon melting in a flame; it wobbled and buckled under its words. The voice told Rosemary her father and stepmother had died at the scene of a car crash. Some drunk in a pick-up truck had smashed into them. The voice didn't say drunk, of course, it told her "impaired driver" and she knew what that meant.
The first thing she thought of was how Thomas would never go to bed again. She'd nearly spent herself that night trying to make him, and now his mother would not be there to compel him with that special power she had. Rosemary knew she would leave college for the time being and take a job, not that she cared much because she'd been thinking of doing that anyway, but how on earth she was going to get Thomas to listen to her she didn't know. She kept the night to herself, pondering plans, tracing futures in her mind and rubbing them out, then conjuring different ones. She held her knees in close to her chest, on the sofa, and she didn't think to change the channel she had been watching so the different programs came on, one after another, and they were full of people and things she'd never seen before.
When she found him she didn't want to let herself believe it, at first. Believing something before you knew it had always seemed to her like bad luck, like asking to be let down because you had counted on something. That was why Rosemary didn't believe in God, and why she made sure to tell people that she didn't. Somewhere inside her she thought He was probably around, but she felt safer not betting on it.
She thought she saw Thomas whirling away from her on a purple painted horse, deep in the kaleidoscope of merry-go-round. She thought she could pick out his particular laugh dancing its way toward her in between all the other laughs of the other children. She sat down right away on a bench across from the ride, dropping her head onto her hopeful, shaking hands. It didn't occur to her that by doing this, taking her eyes off of him, she could be starting the whole cycle over again. She had found him, and it was most important now to invite the air back into her lungs, let her chest balloon while her breasts strained at the boundaries of their bra. Finally she looked up at Thomas again, debating whether he needed a haircut more badly than she needed a new bra.
Parents were standing all around her, sturdy and straight as trees, smiling at the horses circling their endless rainbow upwards and down to the deafening gongs of the measured merry music. Thomas's face came bobbing toward her and away again, and he was smiling broadly, but he still hadn't seen her. It annoyed Rosemary that he didn't seem in the least upset he had lost her, had forgotten the ties of his regular life in the heaving elation of the magic circle he was making. He bent without cares over his purple horse, stroking the molded ridges of its plastic mane and whispering into its perpetually lifted left ear. She watched him until the ride began to wind down, and all the children's faces fell slightly as they sensed the fun draining out of things slowly, and Rosemary remembered vaguely how that felt.
When the ride came to a stop, the children slid off their plastic animals and came rolling forward to where Rosemary and the other parents were waiting. Thomas merely looked up at her as if he had expected her to be there, the horses still turning in his little blue eyes, caught there like circling fish in bowls.
"What the hell got into you? How could you run off that way?" She had grabbed his little arm and was shaking him with it, just as she'd seen the relief of mothers shaken out in department stores and groceries.
"I don't know."
"How did you even get on that ride, with no tickets?"
"I just went on with a whole bunch of other kids, and nobody noticed."
"Thomas, that's the same as stealing. Don't do it again."
"And don't run off like that without me, ever again."
He was saying the words and nodding, but he was mostly looking around at all the exciting carnival colors and cocking his head to every noise. Rosemary held his hand as tightly as she could, and she didn't care if that ring hurt so hard it cut his skin. As he looked up at men throwing balls to stacks of soda bottles, rigid ducks skating by on shivering wires, and the Ferris wheel turning its passengers on a slow roast under the sun, Rosemary noticed for the first time how Thomas looked up at everything, always upwards at all the world that was so much taller than he. His head was hanging back again, now in delight, so that his long hair fell away from his eyes, and she thought once more she would have to take him soon to have his hair cut.
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Editors' Choice, 2004: Conquering Gravity by Sandra Bestland
Sandra Bestland of Vadnais Heights, Minnesota is an award-winning poet and fiction writer whose work has appeared in North Coast Review, Rhino, A Woman's Place, Karawane, WordWrights, and ache. Some of her writing has been set to music in collaboration with local dance groups.
The woman I entrust to cut my hair is named Goodie. She is a master hair stylist who wears chunky bracelets that clink and rattle as she snips away at the frazzled edges of my hair. Goodie has hips broad enough to carry triplets. I like how she adorns herself with small-printed skirts that hiss as she walks, and I like how she dyes her hair rufous red. I am grateful that she has never mentioned that my toffee brown curls are turning gray.
Goodie greets me promptly for my hair appointment and escorts me to her station. She fastens a black cape around my neck and spins me in the chair until I face the mirror where I note that the effects of gravity are becoming more apparent. My upper eyelids have doubled over on themselves and have slipped down toward my eyelashes. Little vertical lines have appeared around my lips, while horizontal lines wrap around my neck like strings around a sausage. My cheeks and forehead have retained their youthful patina though my most salient feature is my hair: curly, thick, and shiny.
"How much do you want me to cut off?" Goodie asks.
"One-half to three-fourths of an inch," I say.
This is the same answer I always give her, the exception being ten years ago when I found out that I was pregnant with twins. Before my pregnancy, my husband Julian and I had labored for 20 years in Minneapolis to stoke our 401ks and our IRAs, while pushing parenthood off into the future.
"Gridwork," Julian called it.
The grid was my urban prison built from asphalt, concrete, and steel. It was mile after mile of parallel lines that crisscrossed in a maze of right angles. Like the cells of a computer spreadsheet, my brain was mapped into tidy rows and columns. My neck ached with the strain of meeting deadlines and aiming one dull eye at the calendar and the other at the clock. Clocks became gods, prosaic icons to urban life in the cube. I learned to pray:
Our god clock who art in minutes,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy clockdom come, thy hour be done,
at work as it tis in tedium.
When work and tedium overcame us, Julian and I pulled up anchor and jibed and sailed our way out of the grid.
Wave Dancer, our sailboat, was anchored just offshore at the East End of Tortola Island in the West Indies. Tortola means turtle. The island is made up of parabolic curves, ellipses and craggy, fractal shapes impossible to measure with a straight edge.
Awakened by the crow of a rooster, Julian and I arose before daybreak. Julian grabbed a handful of withered leaves from storage in the galley and dropped them into a pan of boiling water. He had picked the leaves from an allspice tree on a hillside in Trinidad Island. The leaves tasted of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. On deck, the day was newly born as we sipped our aromatic tea and ate coconut cake from the Sunrise Bakery in Road Town.
"It's good with honey," Julian said as he added a spoonful of sweetness to my tea.
Out on the ocean, we lived by our skin. We ate when we were hungry. We drank when we were thirsty. When we were warm, we jumped into the ocean and let liquid heaven surround us. Treading water, Julian tugged at my arm and pulled me toward him for a kiss. We embraced as the waves pushed us away from the boat and toward shore. Laughing, we swam back to Wave Dancer and climbed aboard.
Ocean breezes passed over us carrying the scent of papaya trees, coconut, hibiscus, and fish. Julian led me into the captain's quarters and turned back the top sheet of the bed. His long fingers combed through the tangle of curls on my head. His hands traced the curves of my body like ocean hugging shore. His arms were an undertow pulling me on top of him into our buoyant bed. The morning was clamorous as we took up the rhythm of the waves against the boat. When we left our floating bed to return to the bow of the boat, the sun was high in the sky. I stood at the helm as Julian set sail on ocean currents buffeted by the trade winds. Before us was boundless ocean with not a clock or a cubicle in sight.
I was fourteen weeks along when we announced we were pregnant. Julian refurbished his guitar, which he hadn't played since college, and began to practice lullabies. We chose names for our children: Sophie Morgann Conway and Emil Morgan Conway. (Morgan, and all its variations, means great brightness.) Our brothers and sisters offered up their teenage children as baby-sitters. Our married friends, all who had children school age and older, gave us advice on parenting while complete strangers told me overwrought stories about pregnancy and labor.
On the cusp of my fortieth birthday, I saw a small amount of blood on the bath tissue. A few days later, I passed more blood and Sophie Morgann and Emil Morgan passed away with it. With the loss of our twins, Julian and I focused on becoming pregnant a second time. I had desperate cravings, like a flowering plant craving sunshine after a long, weary winter; Julian envied our friends who had wide-eyed, half-grown, smooth-skinned children.
Over the next several years, I became pregnant a second, a third, and a fourth time. The week after my fourth miscarriage, Julian returned his guitar to its case and dismantled the nursery. The week after that, I ended my career in the grid and made an appointment for a new hairstyle.
When the stylist asked, "How much do you want cut off?" I said, "All of it. And if there's anything left over, make it straight."
The stylist cut off my curls, then chemically straightened the remaining strands from end to root. Julian, who often fondled and gently twisted my curls between his fingers, no longer knew how to touch me. His fingers were like ten foreigners in a strange, new land. Mom and Dad chided me for severing the curls from my head. "You're betraying your womanhood," my mother said.
I felt free. Freer than I had felt in years. My long curls had been capricious and demanding. I had pulled them up and let them down. I had worn them with bangs and without, and adorned them with ribbons and bows, headbands and barrettes, clips and combs. They had been frosted, highlighted, illuminated, pulled through a cap, wrapped in foil, colored and dyed then rolled, twisted, ratted, teased, spritzed, sprayed, pinned, plaited and braided. My hair was always the Master and I its slave.
My new hairstyle had no affectations. It wasn't long enough to twist in my hand. It wasn't long enough to fall into my face. And, when I shook my head, it wasn't long enough to bounce or flip or swing. My short, straight hair freed me of the feminine obsession "to do" something with my hair. It was only with Julian's encouragement that I was willing to allow my severed curls to flourish once more.
After massaging my scalp and neck, Goodie escorts me from her chair to the shampoo station where she washes my hair in a sumptuous elixir that smells like kiwi and berries. I close my eyes and enjoy the warmth of the water on my scalp while the fruity smells of the salon drift by me. Goodie wraps my head in a white towel and we return to her station where she combs through my wet hair before pulling a sopping strand straight out from my scalp and snipping it clean. The rough edges fall to the floor. She snips my hair one-half inch all around as I estimate its length to be twelve inches from crown to curly edge and realize that the hair dropping to the floor made its debut two years ago.
Two years ago I announced to Julian, "I'm pregnant." We kept the news of our fifth pregnancy to ourselves. I didn't buy maternity clothes. Julian didn't practice lullabies on his guitar. We didn't turn the second bedroom into a nursery. We didn't choose names.
Three months into the pregnancy, the amount of blood on the toilet tissue was small. The doctor who examined me looked like a thirty-something Alice-in-Wonderland. She pushed back her long, blonde hair with a headband and ordered a pelvic ultrasound.
I lay on the table beneath a white sheet as a technician passed the ultrasound wand back and forth across my slightly convex belly. A dark spot appeared on the screen: it was the yolk sac surrounding the embryo. Afraid to breathe, I remained still as the technician scanned the contents of my womb, focusing her attention on the black and white image. When the procedure was complete she said, "Get dressed and wait for the doctor. I'll get your husband."
Alone in the examination room, I put on my jeans and mohair sweater. On top of that, I put on my camel wool coat and a matching scarf. Shrouded in layers, I walked out of the exam room to wait for the doctor.
"How did it go?" Julian said.
Before I could answer, the doctor appeared. She approached silently, like a thief in soft-soled shoes. She said, "The fetus isn't thriving. There is no heartbeat. I'm sorry."
Julian and I made our way along the labyrinthine hallway toward the exit. My body ached with sadness. I began to feel the physical signs of miscarriage. Just before midnight, in the darkness of our bedroom, I tried to comfort myself when there was no comfort: my elderly primigravida body was at war. The cells in my pelvis and legs refused to be still. I moved fitfully. I groaned. I prayed. At daybreak, I ran into the bathroom. A rush of blood, and it was over. My womb was empty. I returned to bed where Julian held me as I wept.
"We still have us," he said. "We've always had us."
Outside, a snowstorm raged. The cold was contemptuous: its fierceness compressed translucent lake water into thick sheets of ice. The winter winds tore every leaf from every tree leaving dark skeletons to haunt the landscape. It was a season bereft of color, bereft of tenderness. And though the fiery blossoms of summer had been extinguished beneath the snow, and though the bitter storm of winter made me weary, it could not contain the colors of my soul. At daybreak Julian made arrangements to travel to the Caribbean where he and I could live Technicolor: acid yellow, peacock blue, coral red, Venus green, aquatic lavender, tropical peach, and angelfish black.
We awoke to a great bumping and rushing on the underside of the boat. The unfamiliar sound continued as we admired a double rainbow rising out of a rocky precipice on a nearby island. I imagined that there was one rainbow for Emil Morgan and one for Sophie Morgann, our miscarried twins from so long ago.
"Look at this," Julian said as he pointed from starboard into the water. Yellow jacks were chasing minnows back and forth beneath the boat. It was this predatory chase that had made the sound which awoke us. As the great school of yellow jacks chased around the bay, they forced the minnows to jump out of the water. Overhead, brown pelicans dove from lofty heights to eat the minnows and the jacks. Life eating life eating life.
"Pelicans go blind from diving for food," Julian said. "Then they starve because they can't see to dive."
"Cruel," I said, "that they should suffer and die from doing what they do best."
"It's not so different with people," Julian said.
After breakfast, we dinghied to Cinnamon Bay on the leeward side of St. John Island. The beach was pristine, bright white, and strewn with petrified wood. Julian found his solace in the saltwater of the bay; I walked alone into the island's interior where I passed a great kapok whose circumference was the equivalent of ten steel drums. The bark of the kapok was not rough like an oak, but smooth as the skin of a dolphin. The immense roots of the tree ran along the ground like tentacles from a giant squid. Following the roots of the tree, I came across a goat trail. The trail led to ruins thickly overgrown with vegetation. The walls of the ruins, made from sand, shells, stone, and coral, were still intact while the roof, once thatched, had disintegrated many generations ago. Nearby was a stone bench where I lay down and fell asleep amid the ruins.
Sheltered by steam and shadows, I dreamt I was pregnant. In front of me was a tombstone made from the shell of a great sea turtle. It read: Motherhood.
Goodie trims the last snippet from the length of my hair, strands of gray mixed with shades of burnished brown. As the snippet falls to the floor, I say farewell. Goodie plugs in the hair blower and takes a round brush from the drawer. Beginning at the back of my head, she pulls the brush through my hair with her right hand as she maneuvers the blower with her left. I watch her hoping that I can copy her movements at home on my own. When my hair is dry, Goodie removes my black cape and swings me around in the chair. With my back to the salon mirror and with the aid of a hand mirror, I look at my reflection. In an hour's time, Goodie has transformed my hair into a waterfall of brown and gray curls that sparkle in the mirror like a fast moving river in the late afternoon sun.
"I love my hair," I say as I hand Goodie the mirror.
"Thank you. It did turn out well, didn't it? I accentuated the flow of your curls by blending the strands of gray like silver filaments among the brown. Should we set up another appointment eight weeks from now?"
"No," I say as I hand Goodie a generous tip. "My husband and I are leaving for the islands. I'm not sure when we'll return."
We hug and say our good byes as Goodie escorts me to the lobby. I linger a while to watch her sweep up the snippets of my hair. She deposits them in a trashcan where they mingle with the hair from many other women. As she tidies her station for her next client, Goodie's bracelets clink and rattle. Her skirt hisses while her broad hips, latent with possibility, swing in opposition to her hair.
Out on the ocean, our time is not marked by clocks but by the wind and the slow turning of the firmament. The August moon is new and looks like a smile. Silver-white stars float through space like shiny minnows born on a dark sea. From the north, out of Cassiopeia, flows the Milky Way bending south through Cygnus and Sagittarius. I am beside Julian at the helm of Wave Dancer as we sail toward shore. We anchor in Hawk's Nest Bay where the wind, like a comb, parts my hair, and large, undulating waves rock the boat like a cradle. We are the only boat in the bay and I am locked in Julian's arms waiting for the Perseid meteor shower to begin.
The stars shine radiantly. Shooting stars, born of a comet that has journeyed light years, are struck like sparks from the sword of Perseus. Julian and I count more than three score as they fall toward earth to die in the lap of Cassiopeia.
"Comet is Greek for long-haired star," Julian says as he twists my long hair in his fingers. "When my father and mother were first courting, a comet remained in the sky for many weeks. They looked at it every night so they could watch the tail flame away from the setting sun. One morning, at sunrise, the center split in two, and the tail flamed a thousand times brighter than Venus. My father thought it was a sign of a great disaster coming. My mother thought it was a sign of a great blessing. That night my father proposed." I laugh as I take Julian's hand and hold it against my cheek.
When the last meteor of the night has sped through the sky, we grab a flashlight and motor by dinghy from Wave Dancer to shore. From there, we walk a goat path to a hidden bay. Half-buried rocks and roots from the kapok obstruct the narrow path and make for a hazardous journey in the wan moonlight. We search for batabano, tracks leading away from the water. We spot a set of parallel tracks and follow them across the beach to the tree line. At the base of a palm tree, we find an immense green sea turtle digging a hole in the sand with her flippers.
When her digging is done, the turtle drops scores of Ping-Pong size eggs into the hole and covers them with sand. The turtle then struggles to turn herself around and make her way back to the sea. The weight of her shell, so buoyant in saltwater, is her burden on shore. She rests before she continues. At the water's edge, a wave washes over her and helps her out to sea.
The mother sea turtle will swim beyond the horizon, and the moon will twice repeat its four phases before the hatchlings break out of their shells. In darkness, they will race to the safety of the water. Some babies will make it. Many will not. The few who survive may someday, like their mother, retrace their steps across this same beach year after year and lay their own eggs. Afterward they, too, will struggle to conquer gravity. They, too, will struggle to return to the sea.
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