When I was in my late twenties, I moved into a three-bedroom French cottage with red ceramic floors. The cottage wasn’t in France though—it was in Bloomington, Indiana, where I’d moved the year before for the MFA program at Indiana University. Though a year had passed since my arrival, I still couldn’t quite get over the contrast—Reno, where I’d lived before, was rugged and austere with its deserts and mountains while Bloomington was unabashedly lush with its cornucopia of trees and wildflowers.
This lushness could be seen from my office window. My neighbor—an older woman I’d heard was a respected environmentalist in town—let her yard grow into this wild miniature forest. Her cats often peeked through the tiger lilies, their eyes wide as though they were continually surprised. My desk sat just beneath the office window, and so I had the pleasure of watching her cats laze in her yard, their bellies turned up to the sun. Bird feeders were plenty there, and birds would often flock to them, their beaks hungrily pecking.
Though my desire to become a writer was stronger than any other desire at this time, I was drawn into this neighbor’s world. I envied the ease with which she strolled through her yard, her dress like a comfortable pillowcase wrapped around her body, her hair gray and unkempt. Always, she had a smile, and her cats flounced after her, wrapped around her ankles like they loved her.
Eventually, I’d turn to my computer and fitfully type out a few sentences. In all truth, I’d been plodding through my stories like a lost hiker, and etched in the bark of each tree I passed were my MFA adviser’s words—“Those experimental stories you’ve been writing, they’re not you. Write something like the traditional literary story you turned in with your application. That’s why we accepted you. That’s where your strengths are.”
But those experimental stories, I wanted to tell him, they held bits of me, like sad characters with hopeful dreams, and also strange creatures with moonbright eyes.
I bit my tongue and didn’t speak. After that, I didn’t know what to write. My voice had gone from me.
Then the most magnificent storm came on midsummer’s eve and changed all of that.
I was riding my bike home my summer waitressing job when the sky filled with black clouds, dragons in dark cloaks. I rode along Kirkwood faster and faster toward the Near West Side neighborhood, knowing the rain was about to pour, and then sure enough, down it came. Pedestrians ran for cover, laughing or screaming or both. Street puddles skirted up around my bike like sheets of lace. I smiled as I pedaled up the small hill toward home, my muscles straining, my face and body drenched. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so alive!
I arrived home just as silver danced across the sky, the rumbling following close behind it. The world turned midnight blue, the air sweet and green and wet. I changed and dried my hair with a towel, and then I sat down at my desk, anxious to unspool a story.
The rain tapped out a staccato rhythm against the window as I typed. Outside, the trees shook, lightning occasionally casting them in its surreal glow. A new story came to me, one my advisor might have hated. But I found that I didn’t mind so much, what he’d think. What I wanted was this story—raw and beautiful like my neighbor’s yard. The words assembled themselves like they’d been there all along. The main character effortlessly took shape, an old, eccentric woman who cared nothing about society, and cared everything about nature, and then there was her cat, an orange, furry thing who kept her better company than any human companion. Together they braved the worst storm of the century by finding shelter in an underground world that had its own sky and oceans and mountains.
Just as I pondered where to take them next, the sun broke through the clouds. Across the street, my neighbor stepped out into her yard with her bare feet. I closed my laptop, and then I stepped out too. The wet grass tickled my toes. My neighbor glanced at me and smiled, pointed to the sky. I lifted my face in the direction she pointed, and there it was, a rainbow stretching across all of Bloomington. “Oh,” I whispered, and my neighbor laughed, the sound open and free like a song, a bird that would eventually find its way into one of my stories.
Juliana Crespo has an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and an M.A. in fiction from University of Nevada, Reno. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Flash Fiction Magazine, Mothers Always Write, Mud City Journal, and Fiction Southeast. She is an English teacher at a high school in Bloomington, Indiana, where she also lives with her family.
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