In the Jewelbox of Childhood
I once believed that lily pads floated free like saucer islands, atomized on the water’s surface. It wasn’t until my toes clenched the edge of the sun-bleached dock, when I dove and breast-stroked into the harp of cords that strung the pads to the bottom, that I realized that they, too, are anchored.
The dank lake alcove is shellacked with lily pads. My legs tangle the underwater stems, submerging the pads where I swim, the water, lukewarm tea. Cave water warmed by the sun, the slick velvet algae verdant between my toes. The odor of honey and sulfur linger where a blossom offers an oasis to a yellow jacket, a red ant on a petal’s lip—how did he arrive here, so far from shore?
A dragonfly more like a barbed jewel than like itself. A static of mosquitos when the humidity rises like pressure applied by a damp washcloth.
At the far end of the alcove, an outlet leaks into the black lake, supermassive and ice cold, rocked by waves from distant speedboats that threaten to capsize the aluminum row boat I captain by myself. I’m afraid to cross the vast black lake so instead I skirt the shore, navigating the neighboring nooks, the ridges of roots that escalate into timber, the lichen-crowned stones. In the amber shallows, sandy nests of sunnies nip my toes when I dip my feet too close to their homes.
Black flies and horseflies angle for the kill; bluebottles drone when death is already in the proximity. And the water sliders, water skaters, june bugs, and moths.
How can you be sure that oblivion doesn’t love you?
A hawk soars for what seems like hours, idly, then pins his wings to his body and dives. He cracks the surface of the black lake and the lake recoils. The spray dissolves into a rainbow. The hawk rises to half-mast, half his original altitude. A white belly buoys in the ripples. The raptor dives again, sears the fish with his talons, wings pumping. I could touch him with an oar. Then he takes off—straight across the lake towards the opposite shore, as people do in the city, people who idle on curbsides scrolling through newsfeeds, refreshing their screens, then suddenly, irrevocably, cut through the street.
A Black Gel Pill I Can Take Indefinitely
My mother pirouettes on her skate’s rubber stopper and glides backwards onto the floor. I clomp after her in my rentals. The dancers, who dazzle the crowd in sequin leotards under the disco ball, grab my mother’s hands and twirl her. With no amount of practice can I attain the grace she embodies. I grip the bannister and watch from the wall. Even as a young girl, my temperament is best suited not to the execution, but to the observation of kinetic beauty.
When the temperature drops, the fire department floods the town hall parking lot with lake water. It freezes overnight into a black tray of ice. A lone lamp on a telephone pole offers a meager spotlight.
Night on the makeshift ice rink: a capsule memory, a narcotic suspended in the soluble rim of my body. The moonless sky, the electric wires that ring the lamp, the parabolas of distant headlights, they harden, become more certain in memory. Beyond the curb, the chain link fence’s white quilt ascends from the irascible overgrowth; remnants of a snow squall crumble like sugar cubes onto the asphalt; and my mother skates loops in the center of all of it; my mother skates late into the night; my mother skates the shape of a question mark just beyond the halo of light.
In La Jetée, Chris Marker suggests that the images from our childhood that plague us into adulthood will portend our destiny.
In The Odyssey, Circe, Greek goddess of magic, restores Odysseus and his men to their authentic state: pigs. Hermes releases the spell, but only so that Odysseus can fulfill his destiny: the circular journey: the loop. Circe’s name is derived from the Greek verb kirkoô, meaning to secure with rings or to hoop. Myth, too, tethers us to our primary sources of understanding.
I drink from the hose though my mother tells me not to. The water is so cold. It tastes like truth. It’s merely satiation. Please don’t tell me— Let me drink.
What Comes Next Is, By Definition, Uncertain
I am a little girl and I am standing on the deck of our red house overlooking the lake. It is our last day in the red house. I am holding my mother’s camera, peering through the viewfinder, engrossed in a world that has become suddenly formal.
In this memory, which increases in its tenacity and in its isolation (I can’t remember the moment that preceded it or the moment that followed), I’ve fixed the viewfinder on a bunch of marigolds in a clay pot. White and gold marigolds. As though I’d been looking for them. My whole life, searching for marigolds.
And in the white knuckle of the largest and most central flower, a black and yellow bumblebee. I fix the bumblebee in my focus, though I cannot remember if I take its picture. I think not, because a photograph never surfaces, and because logic dictates that my mother must have asked me to hold the camera but not use it. Film was expensive. We were moving out of the red house because she couldn’t afford to heat it. Photograph or no photograph, at the moment I fix my view on the bee, the photograph, however probable, however possible, has already become redundant. The bee on the flower is enough.
I am irretrievably fixed in its moment: The moment at which I first feel the emergence of memory. I stand on a precipice: I know that what I see will flee. I know that I must be careful. I know, dressed in a green smocking dress with white pinafore, that if I don’t perform memory’s labor, I will forget. I am new to forgetting. I have already forgotten. Already its tragedy blooms in me. I watch the bee labor to extract nutrients from the flower and I will remember.
Mother, I promise I will remember. I will remember the unbelievable marigold and the plump impossibility of the bee. I will remember its puny wingspan, its corpulent body, its low and supple flight. The bee is important. It carries a code I have not yet been schooled to unlock. All I know is I am changed. My mother collects her camera, takes my hand, locks the empty house, and I begin the long rehearsal I know I will require to keep the bee and its marigold with me in this world, and me in theirs.
Jasmine Dreame Wagner is the author of Rings (Kelsey Street 2014) and four chapbooks: Ask (Slope Editions 2016), Seven Sunsets (The Lettered Streets 2015), Rewilding (Ahsahta 2013), and Listening for Earthquakes (Caketrain Journal and Press 2012). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Letters & Commentary, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Fence, Guernica, Hyperallergic, New American Writing, Seattle Review, Verse, and in two anthologies: The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta 2012) and Lost and Found: Stories from New York (Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood Books 2009). A graduate of Columbia University, Wagner has received grants and fellowships from the Connecticut Office of the Arts, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Summer Literary Seminars – Kenya, and The Wassaic Project. A full-length collection of lyric essays is forthcoming from Ahsahta in 2017.
Photo by Laura