Writing Calisthenics

AvatarA collection of short stories, essays, and exercises to keep my brain from rusting between larger works.


(This is a piece I wrote back i n December and have polished up a bit since then.  It was based on a writing group prompt in which we were supposed to develop a story based on a painting in our meeting room.  The painting was a night scene of a stylized tree with dollops of snow on the tips of the branches.)

    I can't get the word out of my head, so I cling to its comforting difficulty like a brain teaser or a math puzzle.  At this point, anything's better than the indecipherable blizzard of fear soaked chatter that swirled around before the shelling stopped. 
    God damnit it's cold.  Not some I-shoulda-worn-a-hat kind of cold, but the kind of cold that turns your toes and fingers black with frostbite.  The kind of cold that turns an inky black night blue.  The kind of cold that makes your teeth chatter and your muscles quake so violently that you don't even bother trying to aim your rifle.  You just point in the general direction you think they're gonna come from and fire, fire, fire.
    There's snow everywhere, and the heat that leaks from my rotted boots melts it into a muddy pool in the bottom of my hole before it freezes again.  I had a buddy once, Bert, from New Jersey.  He fell asleep and woke up with his feet encased in a solid block of ice.  By the time they got him back to the field hospital they had to cut him off above the ankles.  We both think he's the lucky one.
    Anemone.  Anemone.
    There are still some trees standing.  Even the Krauts couldn't take down the entire Ardennes.  When it snowed, it fell heavy and wet, and it rounded the tips of the trees so they reach to the sky like the tentacles of anemones. 
    Back home I had a fish tank.  It was kind of a big deal.  I was the only one in Lawrence with a salt water tank.  Butterfly fish, clown fish, a couple of wrasses.  And an anemone.  I built the whole thing myself.  The wooden frame and stand, the filters, the lights in carefully coordinated rows, each on timers to simulate the rising and setting sun.  There was an article in the Lawrence Picayune about it once.  Had my picture in the social column and everything.
    I find myself thinking about that tank at the strangest times.  Sometimes I think that out here, we aren't so much different than the fish in that tank.  The piercing moon in the sky casts our shadows in stark relief, and draws lines back to places where we convince ourselves we're hidden.  We may as well be in a fishbowl for all the good it does.  When the mortar rounds land like a fist in the middle of our tank, or the Panzer shells and machine guns rake our position like a sweeping net, most of us scatter the same way those fish did, banging against the rocks and the glass of the tank, nowhere to go, no way to escape.
    Not everything in the tank would dart for cover at a tap on the glass though.  Even though the tap must have cracked like sniper fire inside that tank, the anemone never moved.  Most people don't even know that anemones can move.  It's true: they do, but when they do, it's slow and purposeful.  Once it reaches a place it thinks is safe, an anemone will stay still and wait, relying on its poisonous barbs to protect it, trusting in the current to bring it what it needs.
    Anemone.  Anemone.  Anemone.
    You say it often enough and it stops making sense.  Anemone, anemone, anemone, anemone, anemone.  You say it fast enough and it trips over your tongue.  Anemone anemone anemone anenome anenome … an enome … an enemy. 
    An enemy.  So many enemies.

    I'm tired.  Someone is telling me stay awake and keep moving, but I don't even recognize the voice as my own anymore.  I can't feel my feet, and the cold is creeping up my legs.  I'm just going to close my eyes for a little bit.

    Before I left I took down my tank.  I sent a letter to that new aquarium in Kansas City, but they didn't want my fish.  Worried about diseases or something like that.  I thought a long time about what to do with them.  I couldn't just flush them down the toilet.  There's a whole lot of biology that makes one fish salt-water and another fresh.  Things like osmosis and exosmosis and diffusion keep its body in harmony with the chaotic chemical balance it's immersed in.  It's complicated, but basically the fish would end up drowning in its own bodily fluids if you threw it in fresh water.  I know they're just fish, but even for a fish that seemed unspeakably cruel.
    I finally decided to scoop them up one at a time in a bowl of their own water, and put them in the ice box.  I figured the cold would sneak up on them.  I figured they'd start swimming slower and slower until they finally just… I don't know. 
    Do fish sleep?


May 18, 2010 at 9:22 AM Perplexio said...

I loved this one when you shared it with the group back in December and still do.

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