Four Tales of the Sea: 4. Floating Flames

I wasn’t quite down to the wire when I handed it in, I told myself. I triumphed in my baccalaureate, met the questions gleefully, and provided quite the spread of food when it was over. My mousse au chocolat was a hit. And when all was said and done, I felt sad. My thesis turned in at the library, my moment over, all my course work done, there was only but to graduate. It was then that I realized what thesis burning was really about. So I made my plans carefully. I talked with the sailing club, I did my research, invited my friends. I made arrangements…

Anne Shirley’s hair was red. With a little bit of cheap hair bleach, mine takes on a brassy red tone, and what with my freckles, the Anne resemblance is unmistakable. Anne tried to make her hair raven black with dye bought from dubious sources, and it turned out green. After bleaching my hair, I intended to make it greenish in a single streak. Now Anne’s plan didn’t turn out as expected… why should mine? My hair was all clumps of blond and brown and red, none light enough to dye any other color and all at the wrong angles.

On top of that, my white dress didn’t look archaic enough. And worst yet, I had forgotten the flow of the chapter. I was going to read the chapter. What chapter you ask? Well, the chapter in Anne of Green Gables in which Anne takes out the flat to enact the Tennyson poem, and instead of floating placidly across the pond, she sunk and wound up clinging to a bridge piling. It is chapter twenty-eight, and it is called “An Unfortunate Lily Maid.” I was going to read it at my thesis funeral, looking like Anne, and do something big. It needed to be big, after all the work, the long nights, the writing and the research and the hard realizations about the implications of my work.

So my thesis was to see an Anne-ish end, because who had a better flare for the dramatic? Thus we assembled on the beach by the sailing club that day, as piecemeal as my description thus far, and we were going to burn a copy of my thesis on the bay. The copy of my thesis. The last one all marked up by my thesis sponsor, the last one listing all the changes I needed to make before I handed it in to my baccalaureate committee.

I had my cardboard boat– and remebering a thesis funeral from long ago, I styled it after Morgan’s. I had on my not-so-archaic white dress. I had my ever-so-awfully bleached hair. And when I started reading the print-out of the chapter aloud, it wasn’t as I had remembered it. Oh, the flow was all wrong for what I intended. When Anne got to the good parts, the sinking of her boat–she was relating it to Mrs. Allan after the fact (only that could so perfectly deflate a crescendo, and Lucy Maude Montgomery knew it) and Gilbert rescued Anne sooner than I had thought… oh, the flow was all wrong! So I rushed it, and when it came to Anne’s rescue, I tossed the pages of my print-out over my shoulder and proclaimed Anne to have been competent enough to have rescued herself.

We took to the boats, then, two to a canoe, and paddled out onto the water. My cardboard thesis craft was laden with white flowers, all that we could find, so many that they overflowed into the bottom of my canoe. A hundred and fifty yards or more from shore, I set the tiny vessel down in the water, my thesis laid flat in it. I learned from the past– I drenched the itty boat in lighter fluid, and then… FWOOSH! It bobbed against my canoe seeking to hang on just a little longer, but I pushed it away with my paddle, my brow crimping. And when it finally dimmed to smoldering, I forced it under with my oar, drowning its charred remains with tears pricking my eyes. Fiercely, fiercely, “it was just the smoke and salt,” I was prepared to lie.

Then I stood tottering in my canoe, my rowing companion steadying the vessel from the back. I took up the last of the white flowers, sopping and droopy, and clutched them to my breast. “Well,” I paused Anne-ishly, looking from boat to boat, “This has a lot of scope for the imagination!”

Whoops, hollers, applause and SPLASH! I tumbled overboard, and began treading water, spewing out salt, ululating sorrow and triumph, choking on brine.

“Shoreward!” I sputtered loud as I could, gliding into an easy side stroke, through clouds of seaweed. I was the last to come in, after all the canoes were hauled up out of the water, my dress dragging, trailing sea plants. My friends waded out to me, standing knee-deep in the bay. They hugged me, even soaking wet.

Only once I was in the car did my eyes flood over. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t mine anymore, all that work. I let it go, burned not my work, but my bond to it out there on the water. My thesis was all grown up.

And maybe I was all grown up too.

Four Tales of the Sea: 3. Bioluminesce

It was the end February. Geri and I sat out on the short concrete pier and we watched the fog. It was deep like snow in the air, and you couldn’t see across the bay– no lights across the water, only a dark thickness.

“It’s like the gates of Faery opened up, and we’re looking into it,” I said.

“It’s like another world. There’s no city on the other side…” she trailed off.

“Are you thinking…?” we said, both of us at the same time, and we knew the answer.

“We need a third.” I said.

“A third? Are you sure? Who?”

“We’ll know when we stumble upon them.”

And so we faded from the bay front like after images, and walked back along the promenade, back to the library looming lonely in the dark. It was nearly deserted. Seeing no one, we circled, wheeled, and swooped upon the dormitories instead.

The court yard by the dorms lived. There were students abuzz, shrieking, laughing at the weekend party. And there, amid the chaos and mad giggling, we found Jake. Jake was not shy, this I assure you. Rather, it was an air of… being more grown-up than the average college student, so when I said to Geri, “I think we found our third,” she replied, “Are you sure?”

I was sure. And so, we asked. Asking is a magic of its own, a magic of limbos and in-betweens. I cast my question like a spell. And in Jake’s reply began the night’s other magic: “Yes.”

And so and so, the three of us trotted off into the fog, a disappearing act, to find ourselves beside the boats, back behind buildings, out by the bay. Two paddles and one canoe later, we set off into the mist.

The shore quickly vanished behind us, embraced in damp tendrils. We forged ahead, to the school’s old sailboat anchored in the bay, the one that had sat two years waiting to have its hull scraped of barnacles, waiting for someone to do something with it. We did something with it– we boarded, three fog-damped mice in the night. We acquainted ourselves with the resident cockroaches and told tales appropriate to the moment (I told a tale of cockroaches and my near demise at the overwhelming power of their six-legged selves).

And then something truly fae struck us. February on the bay, and it was brought up that I had never been skinny dipping. I had tried once and failed, due to unforeseen capture. So three fog-damped mice stripped off their damp clothes and plunged one by one into the water to soak.

As close to ice as Florida comes! I shrieked as I plunged in, Jake was stoic, and then Geri noticed something… her arms as she tread water were trailed by sparkling gold-green. Every movement we made lit our tiny wakes with light– February on the bay, and there was the bioluminesence. Firefly sparks in the cold water, the three of us splashing giddily about, and there in the dead of Florida winter, the dry season, we played with portents of springs, with the harbingers of a healthy bay.

Three damp mice went in, and three soaked mice came out. Our clothes seemed dry by comparison, even if they were a bit tickly… I think the cockroaches thought they were a gift, were miffed that we wanted our wearables back.

Wet, the cool night bit at us. We reboarded our canoe, acknowledged but did not thank the Good Neighbors (never thank the Good Neighbors), and paddled back through the white veil into our world again, trailing water-sparks in our paddle strokes.

Valuable

I am a man. Now you may think I’m mistaken here, or maybe that this is a trick, being that monthly I bleed, I wear skirts on occasion, or that I’ve in the past had to take EC in order not to become pregnant (cheers to having that option), but I assure you that I am a man– only not for all the same reasons that Ursula K. Le Guin told readers that she is a man.

A few years have gone by since I first read Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind, and the collection begins with those words, “I am a man.” And I am a writer, like she, and so I am a man, as the archetype “the writer” is always “he.” But I am man even deeper down than this.

Peel back the layers and years and you’ll see I chose to be a man when I was just a little girl, even though they had invented women by this time, and this was because men are valuable. And because, mostly, well, you hear things growing up:

“You throw like a girl.”

“Don’t be a sissy.”

“Only girls cry.”

“Don’t be such a girl about it.”

I didn’t want to be those things! I am valuable! My mother said so. So I am a man. Or for now, a boy. But I will be a man when I grow up! So I pronounced. My mother laughed.

The teachers called on the boys who raised their hands. They praised the boys who called out their answers. Boys are brash creatures. They said it directly. I wanted to be valuable. So I was a boy, and I called out my answers, brash, and they said, “Learn to wait until you’re called upon!”

But the boys got praise. Maybe if I called out the answer louder… maybe if I was quicker… I never thought of stopping. Because I wanted to be valuable. And boys were very valuable. And they called the answers out of turn.

Boys love to rough-house, the grown-ups said while laughing. They laughed a great deal despite their frustration at grass-stained knees, their worry over bumps and bruises and broken bones. And so, because I was a boy, I loved to rough-house too. Climbing trees, rolling down hills, the tackle version of tag– yet, the admonitions were harsher toward me: “Not in a dress! Don’t be such a tomboy! That was terribly unladylike.”

And so too with tools: boys love shop class, but girls don’t. And so with video games: boys love them, benefit from good hand/eye coordination, but girls don’t. And so with comic books: all the boys love them, but girls don’t. And so, and so, and so.

All that girls seemed to be were negations. Girls don’t. Good girls don’t have sex. Good girls don’t break their diets. Good girls don’t slop food on their “little black dresses”– because I disagree with you Ms. Le Guin– I don’t think they’ve really invented women at all. No matter how old they get, they are always girls. Boys at least have the option of growing up, of becoming men.

So I’m all grown up now. And by all reasoning, I should be a man, having liked shop class quite a bit, having rough-housed, having called the answers out of turn, having loved my video games (just dad and me, playing Wolfenstein 3D, hot seat between the levels, “Dad, I want to play the secret level, can I trade you the last one?”– it still warms my heart, father and daughter, shooting Nazis together, and their ugly pixelated dogs, too). I should be a man, except that… well, Le Guin already said it: I don’t have a beard and my sentences are long and looping (and filled with shocking parentheticals!), and I don’t intend to die young. I mean, I could yet. I could give that a really good shot– except my aim is a bit off, not having been to the shooting range since I was twelve and all. Realistically, I think I’d rather not.

So I’m not a man, they tell me. But I’m not a girl, either. At least not a good one. I have sex (I did need that EC, after all). And, really, I’m not that fond of diets, either. And because I tend to slop food everywhere, the “little black dress” uniform doesn’t work very well for me.

After having worked so hard to grow up to be a man, and certainly not being the girl the advertisers envisioned, I don’t know what I am. I thought for a while I was a mouse, a tiny thing, but I was wrong about that too. For all I know, I could be a manticore. I only set off on this endeavor because I wanted to be valuable, but when you’re told since very young that you can’t be valuable even doing valuable things, it leaves you high and dry.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Introducing Myself.” The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambala, 2004. 3-7.

(My apologies for accidentally having omitted the citation when I initially published this post; I had intended for it to be there, and simply rushed through)

High Contrast

It was December when I arrived there, and January when I left. A warm winter, the only snow was in small piles of slush, quickly melting, in a churchyard in Flushing as we walked past. You stopped, pointed it out; we passed the gate, and I ungloved my hand to plunge my fingers, prickling cold, into the refrozen crystal mass. And there were flurries the day I left. It wasn’t much. They didn’t last. But it was the first time in thirteen years that I had seen snow.

It is Beltane-time, and I am in Florida now. The jacarandas are in bloom. Until today, I had never held one to my nose… but I learned they smell just faintly like honey.

If I pick one, if I dry it for you, and keep it– even though it will melt, will you take up a vial of snow for me next winter?