On the walk back to the train station, I stop beneath a liquid amber and listen to a raven make his luscious, rounded talking sounds. I stand there for a long time listening, watching him in the fork of the tree, all shiny black, proud, strong beak. When he flies away, I listen to his wings beat against the air until I can’t hear them anymore. Waiting by the train tracks, after, I remember the lucky penny I found on my trip here twenty days ago. I left it behind this morning with a note, transferring the luck. Because of the penny, I scan the ground. I see a dead hawk lying beside the track. She is on her back, one wing splayed open, a richness of underfeathers open to the sky, striped ones, tufts of pure white ones that flutter in the breeze. A Cooper’s hawk, I’m almost certain. I kneel beside her. Every cell in me wants to cradle her still form in my arms, hold her against me, carry her somewhere softer, safer, prettier. Tuck flowers around her. But my train is due any moment. I hear the train even now, kneeling beside her. I can’t stop crying. I ask blessings for her, shoulder my backpack, turn toward the train. I am still crying when I find my seat upstairs, leaving the hawk, leaving everything behind, it seems. I look out the window, and everything blurs. Her mountains are behind me now, too, I think. But even now, I marvel. How did she and I manage to go from where we were to where we are now in such short a time? How did we soften, still so near the nightmare of those first weeks? How did we so swiftly come full circle, all the way back to sweetness, back to love?
Early Sunday morning I am on my way home. I am early for my train, so I wander down the semi-residential street, hoping for a latte. I stand for a long time beneath one of my favorite trees, pink and rose blossoms like starfish. It is full of tight buds, amazing autumn bloom. There are ravens everywhere in the quiet street, the only ones out here with me at this hour. I follow them, drink a decaf soymilk latte on a bench, savor every hot, creamy sip. I see her mountains in the distance, feel an ache to be leaving. Yesterday when we said goodnight there was sweetness between us, and again this morning when I woke her to say goodbye. The night before I had a tantrum in self-hatred, couldn’t decide when to leave, wanted flat, pan-fried noodles but couldn’t bring myself to go get them, settled on making brown rice pasta in green salad for the two of us, settled on leaving Sunday. Then we settled in together with dinner, our closest thing to peace in weeks. I look away from the mountains now, feel again the ache of separation. I glance at my coffee cup, see my name on the label. It is spelled right, even though she didn’t ask me how to spell it. It is such a small thing, but it feels like a gift. Seeing my name reaches into me, softens me somehow, makes me cry. It brings me back to myself. I’ve seen myself in the bathroom mirror a handful of times in the past two days, really seen myself, the first in all this time. I rub my thumb over the label on my cup, and I think, as hard as I tried to take care of myself, maybe I mostly disappeared.
Day 11 I feel like living proof we are only given what we can bear. I am not pointing to biblical references, only the proverbial sayings, and I don’t even know if I believe this is true. I think sometimes we break, and then if we are lucky we mend. But today she wakes better, more like herself. The angry attacks come less often. And the change feels calibrated to just before my tipping point. I could not have endured it much longer, but I only know this because it has lessened. I sense the full strain of it only now when there is some relief. Today in chavasana I fill with gratitude and leave two small puddles of tears on my green yoga mat when I am done. I marvel at the timing, this pushing me to the edge but not over. I’ve never been so aware of it, this intricate tuning. I bet it has happened before, many times. But today I am awake to it. I feel how big the gift.
My short story “Between My Ribs” is a finalist for the 2018 American Fiction Short Story Award from New Rivers Press. The 19 stories selected for their anthology are now with the final judge who will choose the first, second and third place winners in the next few weeks. I’ve been eager to tell you, my readers, wanting to share this sweet news, knowing you’ll feel glad for me and wish me well in this. But I’ve been shy about it, too. As I write, I feel big gratitude and quiet glee. But I’m not sure I can do justice to all the feelings this evokes in me. I feel thrilled and grateful and lucky. Of course. And I’m delighted my first publication will be with this university press who I’ve been so fond of for years now. But I feel afraid and sad and uncomfortable, too, and I can’t really point to why. I know I’ve been grappling with my discomfort over wanting to win. I feel honored to be chosen for the anthology, but I would very much like to win the contest, too. I worry about being greedy, so I wrestle with it. “Of course you want to win,” I say. “That’s only natural.” But it sits awkward in me, this wanting it to be more. But maybe I am only afraid of being disappointed if my story isn’t chosen for first place. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
But there is a deep desire in me to win. I want that recognition. I’ve held myself back in so many ways for most of my life, I think. I want to just step forward here. I want to lead this collection. So I’ll ask for your good wishes in this now while the judge is still reading our stories, still weighing his responses to each of them, still sorting through them for himself. I whisper my own prayers into the palms of my cupped hands. I can hear the house finch in the courtyard, and the mountains are clear this morning for the first time in months, keeping vigil with me. I kiss the center of my palms, fold them around each other, bring them to my heart. I sit very still, holding my hope. And then I open my hands, slow movements, the bird released to take to the sky. I grin, lightened, filled with the honor of this gift, at peace in this moment with whatever is meant to unfold next.
And thank you, too, for holding this in your own hearts with me. Just the thought of it makes me want to cry.
[Editor’s note: I don’t know much about Facebook, so this is clunky. But below is both their announcement of the finalists and my own section of that post when you scroll through all the photos. Here I am in my goofy head covering—I got the news when I was staying at the hostel and had to get a photo to them right away, so I took this with my iPad in my favorite chair outside. You can also access the post in their Facebook page here.]
The sun is unexpected the first day I walk to the beach. I plant myself on a huge driftwood tree, a big pine, I think, in its former life. A woman is painting behind me near the lagoon, easel set up on the sand. I hope I am not in her way. I eat fat green grapes and roasted pumpkin seeds, the shelled kind I bought at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco. I turn my alpaca sweater inside out and fold it into quarters to soften the hard curve of wood beneath my butt, the sweater made up of small colored squares that I found at that garage sale six doors up the street when I first moved to Palm Springs, the one the woman bought in South America. I bunch up wool socks I’ve discarded to cushion my ankles, and I do my sitting practice. After, I write in my notebook. All these things in sequence seem to ground me, and all at once I feel like I have finally arrived, my second full day here. When it happens, the soap bubble disappearing, popping me free, I cry quick, grateful tears. A boy ladybug skirts the back of my neck, skims the top of my head, settles at last on the edge of my mini iPad and seems to be cleaning his legs. He’s visited me several times since I’ve been perched on this tree trunk. I dream him to be the same ladybug, feel like he’s keeping me company. When I go to leave I find a place for him on the tree, a stubby knob, thank him for being my silent companion. On the walk back beside the lagoon I count 200 pelicans. I’ve never seen so many in the United States. Back on the paved road, I feel how much my body wants yoga, and I think about sneaking one of the mats outside. It sounds like just the thing to celebrate my return, to bring me all the way back. I keep walking toward the old cypress trees. I am sleepy and solid and so glad to be myself again.
I choose the path on the left. It cuts through dense growth as tall as I am, berries, poison oak. There are pink flowers that scent the air with their wild rose fragrance, violet thistles, bright yellow fennel blossoms three feet above my head. If you look below, you can see pockets of open space, a honeycomb of dens and pathways for larger animals. I peek into them, hoping to spy someone. I’ve decided the animal I saw on the hillside trail was not a coyote but a red fox. That explains the way he felt so different to me, more shy, sweeter somehow, non-threatening. I would like to see him again. The sun is surprising, warm on my shoulders, but the bramble caves are empty. Once in a while the brush dips below my head, and I get to see the lagoon. I stop again and again to just stand there and take it all in. I already love this lagoon, first glimpse, how the water is always moving, talking to the sea, but in a way that speaks to stillness, to safe harbor. The pelicans enchant me, wake up in me the time I fell in love with them in Todos Santos. I watch them glide in to land on the water or take to the air in groups. The sound of them batting the surface of the lagoon with their wings follows me as I walk. I am the only human here. Halfway to the beach I am overcome by how deep the need in me was for this solitude after three full days without being alone except for that first short walk up the hill. It reminds me of living in Ajijic and wandering onto a dirt road that ran west of the town, finding myself beside a big field with horses near the lake, no one else in sight, the peace of the countryside easing a part of me I didn’t even know had been disturbed by all the concrete and bricks, my neighbors packed in tight around me. Funny, I think, to have Mexico conjured twice for me on such a short walk in this northern land. I stand alone on the path for a long time watching the pelicans, breathing in the scent of the wild roses and the darker smell of the wetlands. When I feel something loosen in my chest, I keep walking to the sea.
Mammals need three things when we’re young: warmth, touch, soothing vocalizations. I think of lullabies I can’t remember. (Were there lullabies?) I think of the funny nonsense sounds I used to make to my cat Boo, lots of made-up words with muted m and u sounds, my way of loving him out loud. I make those same sounds without thinking to the hummingbird when she alights in the guayaba tree ten inches from my face. I think she decides I’m safe because after listening to my noises she moves to her soft little nest I didn’t even know was there, three branches over. I string fuchsia ribbons to keep her safe with notes attached that read “Temporary closure—hummingbird.” Later, back inside my trailer, I hear odd little sounds coming through the bathroom window. I step into the bathtub, creep close. A female goldfinch is perched high in the guayaba making quiet scrijjery sounds I’ve never heard before. I think of the mammalian need for vocalizations. Maybe birds need them, too. Maybe the goldfinch is making these soft noises for the hummingbird eggs. I remember the pretend German songs I used to sing to myself for hours while I crouched on the walkway in front of our Tujunga house dreaming up little make-believe worlds amid the succulents. I feel a dearness for my young self and a rush of grateful pride that at age four she knew just how to soothe herself. (When did she forget?) A whir of wings brings me back. The hummingbird settles on the branch beside the goldfinch, facing her. They sit together like old friends, and then the hummingbird flies back to her nest. I am tired and tender, all opened up. I stand in the bathtub for a long time listening to the goldfinch song. I feel like I belong, all of us woven together by this lullaby: the goldfinch, the hummingbird, the two beings in her tiny eggs, and me.