Bit by bit
the world falls.
Then winter comes
and frosts the roots.
Last night I woke up sneezing at 4am. I sneezed and sneezed like crazy. There seemed to be something blocking my nasal passage, I don’t know.
After a moment it came loose and sure enough, “Splat” right out onto my palm. It was a spider. It crawled up my arm, over my shoulder and into my ear before I could stop it.
What could I do?
I just laid back down and went to sleep.
Poppies mostly, though also cowslips, daisies, buttercups and below, tiny wild orchids; yellow and brightly purple like buried jewels.
But the red poppies dominate. Their black hearts are mirrors to mine, which is white, which is ashes.
I’m staring wide-eyed at the scene, my lips are bloodless, my tongue is dry, I tried to swallow and there is a hint, perhaps, of the return of saliva. But everything else is old bone dry. Only wet earth smells down in the stalk line. I’m hunting the scent, now, as I stand, poised. I’m ready to fall into the sea of colour, only… something holds me back.
A cloud has happened across the sun, and the shadow is a reminder that this will not last. Summer is fleeting at best on this taciturn island and today the cusp of autumn is visible in spite of the bright flowers.
I’d like to fall headlong, but I’m not going to go through this again. So I watch the rows of bobbing heads and hold my line. It’s not so hard now I have the trick of it, I see. I am not as fearful after all. The air feels cool under the cloud and when the rain comes I’m ready, I lift my face in welcome. Drops splash on my cheeks like the tears I’ve not been able to conjure for the three long months I’ve waited. Three months of staring into the horizon, three months watching this field turn from gold to red, three months and not a drop of moisture. But my heart opens as the rain descends. I blink and there are drips on my lashes and I’m aware that they are salty tears, and they are mine. Relief runs through me, I feel its release course through my veins.
This. I have been waiting for this. This rain dripping softly down and wetting the parched soil, creeping into the seams of my clothes and dampening my skin. Seeping inside my chest, touching the ashes and reanimating my timid ticking heart. I feel its beat surge, push blood, push tears from my eyes. They fall and mingle with the rain. They crash onto the poppies and the flowers. They feed the roots and the small things that crawl.
After a time the rain eases and stops altogether. I realise I can stop waiting now. The horizon is brighter, the air smells sweet, and there is no longer anything to fear. All there are are the rows of the dead and the ghosts that are gone and the dripping of the rain from the petals of the flowers in the field.
“I can’t! Hey, don’t let go!” She’s laughing as she squeals, but I can tell there’s also some fear there.
“I won’t let go,” I laugh from behind her. “I won’t let go until you’re ready. But you can do it!”
I hope I’m telling the truth. We’re already going pretty fast, and I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep up.
“I can’t! I’m gonna fall over!”
“You aren’t gonna fall over—you just gotta pedal.”
“Or you could just not let go, how about that?”
“Baby, I’ve gotta let go some time.”
“I’m gonna remember that next time you say you’re moving away with me when I go to college.”
I start laughing, and trip over a…well, I don’t know what it is. A stick, or something. I almost bite it, face-first into the asphalt, but I manage to keep my feet, and I don’t even let go of the bicycle. Of course, that doesn’t really help her. My difficulty in keeping my feet makes her wobble, and for a second, I think we might both go down.
“What’s going on back there?”
“I’m running out of steam! How long are you gonna make me do this?”
“Until I can stay up by myself. You promised.”
“You gotta pedal!”
“The pedals are broken or something, I don’t know. This is stupid, just pull over and let me off.”
“You’ll feel bad if you give up now—you’re so close.”
“No I won’t, I promise.”
“Baby, I’ll make sure you feel bad about yourself if you quit now.”
“Have I told you lately that you’re the worst dad in the whole word?”
“Nope. And now probably isn’t the best time to mention it, since I could dump you onto the ground without even trying.”
“Don’t do it!”
I start laughing again, careful to watch my feet as I do it.
“I can’t believe people do this for fun.”
“It gets better,” I tell her. It’s getting hard to talk. I’m not in bad shape, but we’ve been running along like this for about six blocks, and the only thing keeping me going at this point is knowing the smug smile she’ll give me if I have to give in first.
“That sounds like one of those lies adults tell to kids who aren’t smart enough to question them.”
“Stop making me laugh—I’m gonna fall down.”
“I’m supposed to be worried about you falling? I’m the one trapped on this machine of death!”
“It’s just a bicycle. People ride them all the time.”
“People start wars all the time, too. Is that something I should do, too?”
“I told you to quit making me laugh.”
“I’m not trying to make you laugh, I’m trying to get you to stop and let me off of this awful contraption!”
I don’t even know where she learns some of the words she uses. Contraption? Who even says that? Where does a seven-year-old learn that? Cartoons, I bet. That’s where I learned most of the stuff I know.
“I’m gonna have to let go pretty soon!”
“Don’t you do it! Don’t you dare!”
We’ve been on pretty level ground up to this point, but I know we’re about to reach a hill. Once she has gravity working with her, there’s no way I’m going to be able to keep up.
“Okay, baby, pull over to the curb and use the hand brake. I’ve gotta stop.”
She reaches with her fingers for the brake, but she hasn’t mastered the ability to keep the front wheel steady with one hand. She wobbles from side to side, and I trip over my feet.
I try to yell for her as I fall, but it’s too late—we’ve reached the hill. I smash onto the ground, the skin on my palms ripping as I slide along the street, my knees hitting the asphalt so hard that I almost throw up.
I’m back on my feet before I’ve even finished falling properly, racing down the hill, trying to catch my daughter as she speeds away.
She’s yelling something, but I can’t hear what. I don’t know if she even realizes that I’ve fallen. That I’ve let go, that I’ve broken my promise.
Blood drips into my eye as I run—I guess I must have caught my forehead on something hard when I fell. I don’t feel pain from there yet, which means it’ll probably be extra bad when I finally do.
I’m closing the distance between us, but not fast enough. She reaches the bottom of the hill a good ten seconds ahead of me, and veers from the street into the park. I’m not sure if she’s done it on purpose, or if she just can’t control the bike.
I reach the bottom of the hill just as she tops the little mound that leads into the park. It’s one I’ve seen the neighborhood boys play on with their bikes. One of those hills we used to call “jumps” when I was a kid. Perfect for catching air.
She hits it, and both her and her bike leave the ground. The bike seems like it’s done this before, following the proper trajectory to land safely on the trail, and keep rolling.
My daughter, on the other hand, takes an entirely different path through the air. She rockets away from the path, spread-eagle as she flies through the air. She’s screaming shrill little-girl noises as she flies, and she’s airborn for so long that I almost believe I’ll be able to make it in time to catch her.
That’s ridiculous, of course. A dad’s love can make you pretty fast, but it’s no match for greedy gravity.
She’s pulled back to the earth, just on the other side of the hill, out of my vision.
Her screams are cut off sharply as she hits the ground.
I’m yelling to her as I sprint towards the hill, and I’m a little amazed I still have enough wind in my lungs to run or scream, much less do both at the same time.
I top the hill and see her on the ground. She’s shaking, sobbing, and her little legs are kicking in the air.
I really am the worst dad in the whole world.
I get closer and realize that she isn’t sobbing at all. She’s laughing.
I slow and stop, thinking about how ridiculous it would be if she managed to avoid injury from the bike crash only to be trampled by her negligent father.
She’s in the middle of a patch of wildflowers. They aren’t the kind that are planted by the people who take care of the park. They aren’t watered or cut back or nurtured in any way. They just grow there, lush and thick and deep.
I stand looking down at her as she laughs, thrashing her arms and legs in the flowers. When she finally manages to get herself under control, she holds a flower up to me.
“This is what I’m talkin’ ‘bout,” she says, still giggling. “These petals, Daddy, they’re way better.”
I drop to the ground and wrap my arms around her.
“Whatever you say, baby.” I pull her close to me, my mind refusing to accept that she isn’t hurt, that it didn’t go nearly as bad as it could have, that disaster was averted.
As I’m thinking the heaviest thoughts of my life, she tucks a wild flower behind my ear.
“You just got a petal,” she says, and pulls away, laughing, to go play in the flowers.