My new piece doesn’t win the Fish Flash Fiction contest. I am stunned. I thought I was going to win. I thought “The Second Flood” was that good. (Did I know I thought I would win? Have I ever thought I would win before?) I scan the short list and then the long list. My piece is not on either one. If I needed to right now, I would be unable to speak, to push out words that make sense. I scan the short list and the long list two more times in case I missed my name. It is not there. There were more than 900 entries, but I can’t believe my story wasn’t even in the top ten percent. I plunge. I wonder how I could have been so delusional. How could I think my piece was any good at all? I know I am a terrible writer. I am underwater, deep in the cold sea where no light lives. I don’t know how long I stay submerged. Maybe work drags me back up, makes be break the surface, breathe air, answer helpdesk questions, grade summaries. Days pass. I am lying on my back in the courtyard in chavasanah. I dream up ways my livelihood might move even more toward my writing. I picture percussive instruments at my writing retreat, and my feet bounce on the yoga mat. I think of a new way of structuring, “When I Was a Dog.” My fingers itch for the pen. “Commit more deeply to your No. 1 focus,” this week’s horoscope says, “and throw yourself into the daring adventure of it.” I leap. This water is warm, strewn with sunlight. I roll over and float on my back, let the tide take me. I remember I can swim.
I pick up my manuscript again on Friday after three months. I cradle it to my chest. I love it without opening it. Then I spend the day reading it. I mark changes in my purple Pilot. It surprises me how few things I find compared to all the other passes I have made. There is magic in this, the way I don’t push, the way I read it all the way through, the way I treasure it. Not big, intense moments, but deep ones and quiet ones, knowing I am happy with this book of mine. The next morning when the sky begins to lighten I see the waning crescent moon. I go back to bed and dream I am on a boat beside an island. There are five carved wooden birds near the top deck, painted in blues and reds and blacks. I get my camera because I am hunting for a new photograph for my coming year of blogging. When I look through the lens in the dream, I see the intelligence in the birds’ eyes, a keen knowing, and the moon hangs below them in the morning light. When I wake up and go out to feed the birds, a hummingbird lands on the top arc of the bougainvillea, and in the curving of my head to watch her, I see the moon again in our daylight sky, echo of the dream. In the last of the late afternoon, I walk to Ralph’s. When I leave the store it’s almost dark. The palm fronds are moving in a warm wind, and the light of late dusk feels again like magic, like I am coming back out into a different world. Sometimes, I think, the years I might have left to me seem too short.
I fall asleep when the afternoon is yellow with daylight and wake in the gray world of early dusk. I let the thin salmon blanket fall away to the couch, the one my yoga teacher brought back from Mexico more than 20 years ago for those of us who ordered one, real cotton, beloved, perfect for a nap in the early desert spring with the swamp cooler on low. I check the thermostat and my sleep-muted mind decides the 69 degrees means it is almost seven o’clock. It is the end of my first day home again after being gone. So the sound of the traffic is familiar but strange, the trailer more silent than I remember, the courtyard still quiet and magic in the almost-dark while I type, the solar lights coming on one at a time. Here with me, too, are the great horned owls from yesterday at the preserve, the three young ones beside the adult high in the fan palm, alert and still, almost ghost-like in their big tree cavern. I savor the memory of them, savor the ending of the day. I’ll eat Jerusalem artichokes tonight with flax seed oil and salt, finish the Annie Dillard book I’ve been reading, maybe go to sleep early. Tomorrow, Tuesday, is my Monday this week, and grading waits. I relish my solitude, and I miss the camaraderie. I can still hear Barney’s voice reading science questions from the little box of worn cards, still feel the easy warmth of the cabin, Corina beside me on the couch, Lila’s soft furry head against my leg, Angelika puttering in the kitchen. I can still feel my pleasure in being a part of the whole, in knowing I still remember how to join in, laughing.
I type, my legs stretched out before me, computer on my lap, afternoon sun beside me on the couch. I am revising a piece I wrote in our Monday group, an hour left before the contest deadline, midnight in the UK. I read my work out loud, like I teach my students. I find tiny things to change. I am deep in the writing when I hear a hummingbird, look up to see her in the living room, the female guardian of the feeder outside the open louvers. In the corner of my eye I think there is another flash, but surely not, not two of them inside at one time. My familiar female hovers near me, then visits the red glass star hanging in the window. When she flies out I hear her friend, still in the room with me, not my imagination. She peers out the kitchen window to the courtyard, then rests on one of the open louvers before leaving me alone, the flutter of hummingbird wings reverberating in the room.
I peek out the front door to the courtyard. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I have to come back out.” The finch fly off, quiet and light. I’ve already disturbed them once this morning, filling the feeders, rinsing the big terra cotta saucer I use for the bird water bowl. “I forgot to get the paper,” I tell them. I swing the door wide and the doves take off before I see them, one crazy-loud whoosh of wings. “Too many!” I call after them. Too many of them for my little courtyard. I walk to the gate, pick up my paper from the top of the wooden fence where my kind neighbor places it for me. I dawdle without meaning to, find myself stroking the native plant in the pot beside the sliding glass door, the one that makes tiny yellow flowers in the spring. A hummingbird perches on a bougainvillea branch, chittering. I think she’s the one who’s taken over the feeder outside my living room window. I cross back to the front door, and a familiar sweetness settles in me. The feeders are all filled, ready for my birds. The eight palm volunteers are spruced up in their blue pot, the Mexican petunia trimmed, the mullein happy. I climb the steps to my trailer, scanning the courtyard. There’s nothing more I could want, I think. Then lightning swift comes the next thought, nothing except for my two cats to be alive and here with me. I feel my loss, three years old now, and lift my eyes. The waning crescent moon hangs just above the open door, greeting me. I stand on the steps, and I know I can keep my deep, quiet contentment, can hold my joy, my loss, my longing. I can hold it all.
I hesitate to plunge into the rushing gutters on my way to the creek path. I am not in my usual kid-in-the-rain mode. It’s cold, and I am all reluctant adult. I remind myself I have wool socks on to keep my feet warm even when they’re wet. For a second I waver, think of turning back, but I step into the water instead, surprised by the strength of the current. I’m stunned when I see the creekbed. The water fills it, half a short city block wide. It is moving fast. I’m exhilarated. And I worry about the rabbits, the squirrels, the insects. I hope they were able to escape. I watch a black phoebe flitting about near the water’s edge, the only sign of life. I am afraid he is too close to the rushing water. At the footbridge, a handful of people take videos with their phones. I lean over to watch the water where it drops under the bridge. It makes me dizzy. I don’t expect this quantity of water, the swiftness of it. It scares me. Thrills me. I face the river as it comes from the mountain. I know my hope is nothing in the face of this. There is no way everyone was safe, and I grieve for the wildlife. I walk home beside this huge foreign beast moving beside me. I dream of cottontails hidden in the brush, safe, several feet above the water. Hours later I can still feel it, the magnitude of moving water, the weight of it, the power, like the memory of the rocking boat when you’re back on solid land again. I wonder how long it will stay with me, the water’s presence layered like this over everything.
Walking in the road with a basket in my arms, I hear my first mockingbird
Beige breast in sunlight, singing from the top of a tree
Below him in the bare branches, an old, messy nest of twigs makes me wonder.