By Laura English
One morning I looked out the kitchen window not directly but through the hazy laze of lace curtains and found a light in the forest. Except it wasn’t the kind of light I dreamed about, and the forest had been taken down tree by tree. It was a ghost forest now.
I thought I wanted that light—a lowered moon, gold lantern, touch of fire—but it wasn’t any of these.
Next I saw a behemoth painted orange with treads for feet. The light was attached to it, and it was flattening the dirt, making no sort of journey, keeping its circle small.
I turned away to start the kettle and, sullen, sensed the truth: whatever light is given to us, we have to take. Dragonflies can tell the real stars from glint on lake-surface. They fly to lesser suns, their wings open to duty, dipping to mire. And, listen, some insects arrive to us ancient as ferns, older than dinosaurs, companions of the early gods.
My light is attached to a careless creature that is tethered to the ruined land and spews smoke. This, this, is what I am to love? A force that moves like claustrophobia and reeks of grime? How can I wrap my arms around this body of steel? It was supposed to be a star caught in dogwood flowers, a crescent moon tangled in the silk of mimosa. Every shuffling, clumsy, damned, oblique desire waits, half-wails, and wants to hold light for me.
My mother was always dying in secret. I missed the signs. I remember her buoyant, making the most of sunny days, opening drapes, inviting me to sit in the window’s square of light. Drawn to the darkness, I dressed in drab shades those years before I turned twenty. She gave me shirts printed with tiny bright flowers, purples and tangerines. Her black eyes shone deep with the energy of a good seed in good soil.
No one remembers her mother right or observes the rites to keep her whole. The woman becomes fragments, patches for quilts, and the daughter loses the needle, what North should have drawn from her hand and pinned where she could always find it.
My mother pieced the family together like a quilt. The first feast day without her, we were scraps in a basket, my father pretending that boxed food would work where she had placed savory dishes and cakes from scratch. Instead of giving us so many pieces of herself, she could have been making real mosaics of patched beauty, the ones that flashed in the forests of her mind, quilts she started but never finished. She sewed them by hand, which explained her slow pace, her time here on Earth just like God’s days when he sits down to craft a new universe, the planets like blown glass. My mother lived as though she were eternal.
No, she lived postponing her life, dying in secret.
From afar her dreams looked like candles floating on water that shone with deep energy. All our dreams appear like that—lily pads lit—when we stand on the shore. Her speech was woven with, riddled with fantastic want. To ride in a hot air balloon, drive race cars, see all of America. Not all were thrills. She wanted to have more people to the house, tell stories to children, teach girls and boys from the inner city how to sew.
Finally, hearing these Blues for years, we gave her the one desire money could buy. A ticket for a hot air balloon ride, a winter gift. That March she was sleeping all day, losing hair by the handful and waiting for doctors to name her rare cancer. She could not walk through fields to the chase car. She never went up in a basket. My mother was postponing her life to the end.
It took me thirteen years to finish the last quilt she started, for it lay folded in a box until I gathered courage. She had been my teacher. I could sew. For whatever reason, she never taught me the quilter’s knot. I couldn’t conceive of an invisible anchor. For that I went to her friends who quilted every third Thursday in the library. “It’s like making a French knot.” They held the needle straight in the air. They showed me an elegant tangle that slips between the layers of cloth unseen and starts the work.
My mother missed teaching all those girls and boys from the city. Maybe droves of kids. She would have given them patterns to cut, buttons to practice on, cloth to sculpt. It could have been a church basement with only a few kids showing up. Or no one at first. A clumsy desire holding light. My mother never threw her arms around the behemoth of planning, showing up, arranging chairs, enduring the uncertain.
She would like us to know this. She left her blue calico and gold calico pieces undone, and taught us through a reluctant daughter the calm, tedium of a quarter-mile of stitches in the border of a quilt, the oblique, half-wailing work that always waits and never waits.
On Sunday afternoons, Laura English teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Work has appeared in dozens of journals including minnesota review, Sow's Ear, Cider Press Review, and Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. She lives in Lancaster County, PA, with her husband and four sons.
Have you read Hazy Skies?
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