by Elisabeth Weiss
What happened on that island among the Kills feels like the end of a long sail when you come back to land and your legs can’t hold your weight or like the end of a meal that continues with cognac on the porch swing and no one wants to leave.
Don’t both depend on faith, that you will righten yourself, become closer to the elemental light? Wasn’t the point of being here to leave a glistening?
I used to hate the island, lost in cellars in games of blindman’s bluff, always looking for a way out. I used to speak in terms of islands: salt water, bridges. tugs, ferries, fog horns.
I’d write something like, There’s a kind of island inside me, a place no one can reach.
And I collected bits like this in notebooks and felt my fame would come from words like “sadness” and “palatable” when that was merely language I learned in school as I sounded out syllables and crouched under my desk with my head covered with my hands because we had to. I felt it in my throat until the twilight fell dark like a lanyard around my neck. I lived in an ugly world and all I wanted was beauty but I always worried about death and the branches scratching at my window. So I tried to touch beautiful things—bright and plastic toys, handspun sugar, tiny things you could peer inside of and see whole worlds.
My earliest memory of the island is the mimosa tree in our backyard. Its cotton candy blossoms opened like a Chinese poem. Below it our sandbox, crudely nailed benches, provided a place for the bees to harbor and bloom and the wind to carry me into ripeness.
One evening, I swatted at the bees who were intruding on our outdoor meal and instead of helping my father, I stepped on a bee. I was barefoot. Its stinger went deep into me. I cried, falling onto the slate patio, holding my foot in the air. My father, who was tall, lifted me up the stairs shouting to the others, Get mud. It will help the swelling. And he put me in the bathtub and packed mud around my foot until it stopped throbbing and I calmed and waited until the stinger under my skin worked its way out.
What’s very clear in memory is my father swooping, raising me high in the air. I felt I could fly. Most of my dreams then were of flying or of driving his grey Chevy down the steep hill from our house.
Always listening to my own surge of power.
I find no evidence in my sixty-two years of living that my father was fearless. In fact, he was often frightened and once, as a little boy, even ate the brim of his hat during a horror movie. He rarely took risks. He said he wouldn’t have survived as a foot soldier past October of ’44. I thought of this in the local park when I hid beneath the bleachers, looking for treasures while the Seahawks huddled in the field. I was always convinced there was more than what meets the eye. I once took apart a 3D postcard of a barrel on a dock because I wanted to see what was behind the barrel.
Again, always at the water’s edge, always barefoot in summer.
Who can say how this related to my bee sting? All my life I have been searching for a way to believe that forgiveness exists as I wind my way past the sleepwalkers. Bees are disappearing. My father disappeared. I think of him best at home on the island out back with binoculars around his neck. Some fathers tease you and some fathers swat you as if you were a bee, some fathers step on you and crush you. He did all of these things. But I couldn’t have ever found my way off the island without him.
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Author's note: I based this piece on an essay by Carl Phillips, Among the Trees, in Emergence magazine: https://emergencemagazine.org/story/among-the-trees/
Elisabeth Weiss is an English professor who has published poems in London’s Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, the Birmingham Poetry Review, the Paterson Literary Review and many other journals. Lis won the Talking Writing Hybrid Poetry Prize for 2016 and was a runner up in the 2013 Boston Review poetry contest and a chapbook, The Caretaker’s Lament, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2016.