Forgetting Lou Lou

Forgetting Lou Lou

forgetting lou lou

Lou Lou was a wolf, but she looked to everyone else like a little girl. They liked for her to wear pink dresses and little white socks with lace trim. They thought it was cute when she made growling noises and woke late at night to stare through the bars of her crib at the pattern the moon made through the curtains of her bedroom window. They didn’t think it was so cute when she came home from playing on the hill under the oak tree with her dress torn and splashed with mud. Maybe she’s a tomboy, said a well-meaning Aunt. Let her wear pants and act like a boy until she gets it out of her system.

Being eight, nine, ten-years-old, these were the golden years for Lou Lou. She climbed to the very top of the oldest, biggest oak tree on the hill behind her house. She collected the pellets of the owl that roosted there and pulled them apart with tweezers, carefully extracting the tiny bones of shrews and voles and snakes from the matted hair. She prowled all day in the tall weeds collecting caterpillars and watching the long tongues of butterflies unfurl into each flower to sip nectar. She spent nearly all her time quite happily alone. Alone, she could breathe and listen to the wind, pondering the memories that rose effortlessly in her body: the feeling of running on four legs, so fast the wind roared in her ears. The sensation of delicately gnawing with her teeth at her own fur, removing foxtails and fleas and dead skin. Strongest of all were the memories of smell: the scent of tree bark after rain; the hot, anxious scent of mice hiding in the brush; the musk-and-metal scent of her own fear. Lou Lou could not help comparing the memories with her senses now: how everything felt flatter, weaker, as if she were sniffing the world through a pillowcase, as if her body were half numb. She often sat in the old oak, flexing her hands and observing her flat, short fingernails, wondering why she had felt, from the moment she could remember remembering, that something was missing.

In high school Lou Lou began to doubt. The other girls seemed to really like makeup and boy bands and played a game where you drew letters on a piece of paper and chose a number and by a series of eliminations could divine who you would marry, whether you would live in shack or a mansion, what kind of car you would drive, how many babies you’d have. Lou Lou didn’t want babies. She didn’t give a rat’s ass about cars except for how it felt to drive one fast, at night, with the wind blowing through the open windows and music blasting. It reminded her of running with four, powerful legs- memories so distant she now thought of them as dreams. In her dreams she was herself: enjoying what felt good, roaming alone at night, sleeping when she was tired, eating to her fill, waking to the world as it was, being in it as she was. Lou Lou found she preferred hanging out with the boys: they were wilder and more physical. She liked to drink with them and make out with them, but she didn’t want to be someone’s girl. This pissed off both the girls and the boys, for different reasons. Lou Lou ended up with a reputation.

It would have been one thing if people ignored her: but they punished her. From the moment she woke she was pelted with evidence of her wrongness: pics of her drunk or kissing someone in text messages addressed to her and copied to fifty numbers not in her phone, and then the trolling. The dial-ups and hang-ups. #slut. #bitch. #whore. Boys she didn’t even know, from other high schools, stared at her at the bus stop until she made eye contact, then made a vee with their fingers and wagged their tongues through the crotch of it. Deep in her gut a clenching heat would rise: images of grabbing those boys by the throat and slamming their heads against a wall. Biting deep into the flesh of their shoulders or arms. Violent thoughts rode with her to school and home again. After she finished her homework, she’d climb the old oak, listen to the owl call above her head to another owl in a tree across the valley. Their voices soothed her into regret. There must be another way.

Lou Lou decided to forget. It seemed the best solution. A well-meaning teacher had once told her, if you find yourself in a conflict ask yourself: does this problem come up with just this person, or does it come up with everyone? If she was brutally honest, it was clear that Lou Lou herself was the problem: since the beginning she had not been normal. She had not behaved as everyone thought she should. And all she had to do to fix it was stop acting like a wolf, stop remembering, stop dreaming, become a girl.

Lou Lou started wearing short, tight skirts and heels. She could no longer climb the oak in the evenings, so instead she sat on her bed watching how-to videos on hairstyles. Lou Lou stopped driving fast at night with the windows open, and stopped hanging out with the boys. She watched the girls: how they talked, how they laughed, how they flicked their hair, and she copied them carefully, but always toning down her own expressions so as not to overshadow theirs. Lou Lou innately understood hierarchy, body language. Soon Lou Lou’s bad reputation was, if not forgotten, forgiven. A couple of the girls at school invited her for sleepovers. She stayed up all night the night before making sure she knew what pajamas to wear, what to bring, what subjects to talk about, how to act like it all didn’t matter while it all mattered very much.

Lou Lou began to have nightmares. She dreamt of being chased by packs of wild dogs. She dreamt of horrible lapses of responsibility: that she kept small animals but had forgotten to feed them and they had starved to death in a cage in her closet. She dreamt of staring into the bathroom mirror and watching her teeth turn into sticks of chalk. She woke to a temporary relief: she had not really done those things, had she? With her thumb she rubbed the bony slickness of her canines. She got up and made coffee, and watched the rain out the window while she drank it, feeling as she always had, that there was something missing, an important memory whose details had faded beyond recall.

After graduating, Lou Lou got a job waiting tables. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to college. She wasn’t sure about anything. Each morning she dressed carefully. Did her hair and makeup carefully. She had become good at looking happy as she delivered food to customers, cleared away their dirty plates, smiled with her lips carefully covering her teeth. She was praised often: good girl, sweet girl. After work each evening she stared out her window at the oak tree on the hill. The owls still called to one another across the valley. A well-meaning self-help blog she was reading said, memories are likely to contain accidental fabrications, many errors, and a great number of “filled-in” details which we simply subconsciously invented. Lou Lou refocused her eyes, regarding her own reflection on the inside of the window.

Bodies in Oblivion

Bodies in Oblivion

Lethe

Lethe stands behind a wire fence, staring at me with piercing hazel eyes. He is bald with skin so red and wrinkled his head resembles a healing wound. Still, we creep closer to one another until we crouch on either side of the fence, almost touching.

Hello, I say. Lethe says nothing audible, but presses the side of his body against the wires, all the while keeping his gaze fixed on mine. A whiff of rot puffs into my nostrils. It is a hot day- 90 degrees or more- and we are bathed in one another’s scents- dirt and feathers, shampoo and rubber sneakers, dandruff and coffee, dead mice and sweat.

On the side of his cage, a white sheet in a plastic sleeve tells this story:

Lethe hatched in 2000 and was raised at a wildlife rehabilitation center in California. Despite precautions to keep him from imprinting on humans, he became highly socialized and upon release at a state park, kept coming down to people (particularly women) to play with their shoelaces! Even after a return to captivity and several months in isolation from people in a large flight cage with other vultures, he preferred human companionship.

Lethe: a river in the underworld. To drink its waters brings oblivion, but the kind that erases pain. Why else would the waters of forgetfulness be offered up in the land of the dead, but as a comfort and a means of escape? The subject of Death, given an opening, wells up through my carefully built internal levees. I lost my mother three years ago now: suddenly, preventably. Before my mother died, she always spoke of how she wouldn’t. She insisted, on my fears of oblivion, that she would always find me again. In her journals, I found fragments of her dreams: a constant flow of communications from the dead; an alcoholic aunt who passed away jaundiced and wasted, appears to her young and untroubled, glad to report she has shucked off that broken-down husk; a distant cousin rolls by to flash an enigmatic thumbs up; even total strangers leave messages with my mother to pass on to the living. But so far, for me, only one dream: my mother is drowning and I try to shout a warning that will not penetrate the molasses-like membrane that separates this world from the next.

Lethe grabs the fence wire with his beak and blinks at me. I stare back, seeing not something but someone behind that barrier of wire designed, we are told, to protect us both. The owls and hawks I have approached in surrounding enclosures merely tolerate observation. They angle their bodies carefully, deliberately away from the human gaze, turning their heads on an oblique angle, keeping my curiosity at wing’s length, but carefully surveilled. Lethe, now pressed so hard against the wire that his feathers poke through, welcomes this mutual intrusion.

I don’t want to break the rules, which somehow I know would mean reaching out to touch him. So I look into his eyes and breathe him in. There is a fleck of gristle on his face. He stinks of those molecules released by decomposition. I wonder how many deaths have sustained him these seventeen years: all of the bodies in oblivion, the traces of which now pass through the air and into my nostrils, my lungs, dissolving in my blood.

It takes only about two years for any one breath to have spread itself around the world. The molecules of breath last thousands of years. Given the arithmetic, roughly one particle of the last air that was breathed out by anyone who ever existed will appear in my next breath. I realize, with a jolt, that by now my mother’s breath, circling the world, has made it everywhere. She is likely here, in my breath, in Lethe’s, being passed between us, in a kind of river that flows not through the underworld, but through the living, a river of constant remembering.

Lethe reaches down to his right ankle and tugs on his fetter- a leather strap that he drags in the mud and dust. He eyes me and tugs the strap again, then presses himself back against the fence, getting as close as he can, gripping the bars with his beak. I know, I say, but those are the rules.

Exodus

Exodus

Exodus

He was late for work. He made the right-hand turn while looking left and drove directly into the bison. In the fractional moment before his deploying airbag filled his field of vision, he made eye contact with the animal.

The animal slowly wheeled and faced oncoming traffic on Lincoln. With a sound like cinderblocks clattering on asphalt, the other eight members of the herd trotted up the small slope from Chain of Lakes and joined him, aligned themselves in a kind of phalanx pointed east. Together, they began to jog, and then eased into a gentle canter.

At Sunset, they encountered their first traffic. The first sedan did not slow or even stop, but slipped narrowly between two of the massive animals like a silvery fish. The next clump of cars was not so lucky. They swerved and skidded. Two collided and drove off the road into a pole. The third spun in a slow, graceful curve to the shoulder where it teetered on two wheels and then rolled over like a stunned tortoise among the trees on the edge of the park.

It went like this for just over a mile. The animals were eloquent in their movements, sure in their purpose. Their massive bodies rippled with the impact of hooves. Their nostrils stretched and expanded. They snorted as they ran, blowing mucus behind them into the wind.

Around 21st Avenue the first dog appeared. It was a black Laborador retriever. It stood on the sidewalk outside an apartment building with its body in the shape of an arrow. The hair along its spine stood up. It quivered. When the bison passed, the dog stepped into the road, staring after them. A human voice called out a name… the dog recognized it. It looked toward the voice, then back at the retreating animals, and tore off after them.

The light was with them at 19th Avenue, though a packed 71 bus, which had just pulled into the stop, was forced to brake hard, and several people fell into other people’s laps. Most of the rest were looking at cell phones. The bus driver swore under her breath, staring in her side mirror at the retreating animals.

By the time the herd reached Stanyan, it had swelled to nine bison, thirty dogs, and a man on a bike.  #bison was trending, a silent, exhilarated hysteria began its tsunami crash, felling websites and servers. Raccoons, possums, and rats poured from the storm drains along Oak Street, joining the swelling ranks of animals. Traffic quickly snarled. People in the panhandle froze, or ran, or climbed trees. Some, after a few moments of deliberation, ran after the animals, tossing their backpacks and purses down on the grass.

The news helicopter caught up with them at Octavia. The bison swung right at the light and crossed Market onto the 80 East toward the Bay Bridge. The broadcast showed a line of large, brown animals at the front, galloping now. Behind them was a mélange of colors: dogs in sweaters dragging leashes, cats scurrying beneath tires and leaving pawprints across windshields. A massive grey cloud, like the herd’s shadow, trailed just behind: thousands upon thousands of pigeons.

Between molecules of air, the waves that carried the news #coyotes-downtown #Los Angeles, #whitetigers-loose-MGMGrand #Las Vegas, #ostriches-nimitzfwy #SanDiego, grew denser and steeper and slower until they stood motionless, high and invisible.

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org
A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org

This morning, my colleague, publisher, and fellow scribbler Jason Buchholz emailed me to ask if I had seen the review of my recent book of flash fiction, small, fierce things in Mary: a Journal of New Writing.

I had not.

As the writers out there know, and most readers probably don’t, the publishing world is not what the shelves at Barnes and Noble might imply. If you are not a Stephen King or a JK Rowling, (which 99.9999999999999% of us are not) finding a publisher for your book is not the domino that sets the rest in motion: it is only the first step. The next is a lonely, shameless, and grueling campaign of self-promotion and self-marketing through any and all means, such as selling your book out of your backpack, bringing your book to local shops to see if they are willing to sell on commission, posting relentlessly into the general cacophony of social media, begging your former teachers to consider teaching the book, inviting yourself to open mics and readings, and hoping your family, friends, and people from your writer’s group are not the only people who read it. In my case, I had the help of Achiote Press and my colleague Jason, who showed up at my readings, blasted his own social media to promote my work, and as this post shows, was out there looking for reviews of my book in his spare time (when he isn’t working full time, raising a child, co-running his small press, and writing his own novels.)

How does one get reviewed if you are a small, fierce mouse and not a large, visible elephant? You beg. You send out email queries and never hear back. You mail out free review copies to anyone who will take one, and then pass out after holding your breath for a few months waiting to hear back (while sheepishly googling your book title to confirm that no one has reviewed it.)

Then you give up.

And then, if you are really really lucky, a kind soul not only reads it, but reads it closely, and writes their observations down, and publishes it. In my case, that kind, generous, thoughtful reviewer is Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org.

I don’t know Andrew, but I would like to say this: writing book reviews for small presses is the literary equivalent of volunteering to get up and sing your heart out to an invisible crowd who may or may not be there, and who may or may not be paying attention. Most reviewers of fiction are not paid for what they do… except in review copies, a very small per-review stipend ($25-$50 if you write for say, Publisher’s Weekly) and the author’s undying gratitude (even negative reviews sell books). Book reviewers, in my opinion, work harder than the authors themselves… putting their craft and art into a piece of writing about someone else’s piece of writing. They are the (mostly) unsung heroes of the publishing world. Those who do have high visibility, like NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, give solid but eventually predictable and repetitively-styled reviews as bookends (yup) to Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air. If you are everyone else, you are competing to be read by an audience terminally distracted by the sheer white noise of the net. And don’t get me started on the reviewers who treat reviewing as an exercise in cynical showboating.

So, if you’ve read this far, please doff your hat to those book reviewers out there who do this work as a labor of love, a masochistic reflex, an unspeakable kindness, or whatever it is that makes them kind enough and crazy enough to donate their precious mental resources in this act of service. Andrew Hamilton, and maryjournal.org, thank you. 

small, fierce things are here!

small, fierce things are here!

I am so proud and grateful to Achiote Press for making this book something I could hold in my hand. It began in 2013 when I sailed the arctic circle with a group of artists and came back empty… or I thought I was empty. For months I couldn’t write. Then osmall, fierce thingsne day I saw an image in my head. I hadn’t done any drawing for years, but I felt compelled to do something, anything, since the words weren’t coming. And then something happened: once the image was on the page, it began to tell me a story. I wrote the story down. Another image came… and so on until there were twelve drawings and twelve stories. As many of you know, I then created a hand-made book, bound with fishing line I found snarled on the arctic beaches. That version sold out, but the small, fierce things weren’t done with me. In the following months, the images continued to present themselves to me on my long walks, on the bus, in meetings, in my sleep, and I kept getting them onto paper, and each image had its story. Eventually, there were twice as many small, fierce things, and with the help of a wonderful publisher, they are now here in book form for everyone. I hope they burrow, claw, sneak, or steal into your heart and head the way they did into mine. I hope they remind you of what it is to be restless and curious and hopeful.