First Place, August 2010
Thank you judges, Diane, and Writing.Com
Spanish moss hangs from the boughs of live oaks, quiet poets lost in a sweet nostalgia that transcends all but a semblance of thought. A momentary gust stirs their sacred pen to paper, and they whisper soft and archaic musings, swaying with the eternal timelessness of their peaceful being.
Their sparse words are quick to fade, lost within the comings and goings of a World that moves as if to forget, making room only for what is yet to come, always so inexplicably fond of the future.
But a tree lives to remember. A tree understands that someday, despite all the overtures of a hurried world, the future will be no more substantial than another poetic whisper fading with a calming wind – measured in a length of Spanish moss, or in the distance between each intermittent circle of growth tucked safe within its trunk.
If only mankind had the means to listen, perhaps they could share such sweet nostalgia with these immemorial sentinels of earthly memory...if only they could part ways with the impatient world, to live free of their unending need for sidelong glances toward the timely peddlers of that great and inscrutable future.
Some see their dreams' fruition in a flurried swirl within its endless depths; others merely see an end – of a workweek or a life or an end of an entire era, each a finite number of similar sidelong glances down the world's hurried, one-way road. But such is only a philosophy, timeless as a live oak's quiet dance in a peaceful breeze.
This is a story of many things. This is a story in which the world is set loose, a story in which a broken heart remembers the rhythm in its own beat. This is the story of a moment with no place in that world.
This is a simple story, for there is no future – not even a clock or a wristwatch – nor an enigma gleaned from the subtle whispering of any live oak trees.
This is but a scant pinch of Spanish moss, a hair's breadth within a ring of growth. Yet this is the story as it was told to me, whispered by an elm in a lovely verse, who'd heard it in turn from a poplar at the reservoir's edge – having coaxed it at last from an old chestnut, scheduled for removal by the power company.
How strange that such an aged keeper of earthly wisdom would tell such a simple story as its last, but with mankind, so many simple things can mean so much...and yet so many wonders mean so little. I believe you'll agree, but either way, I can think of no better way to share a cool breeze with the sun, high and bright, in such a sky so beautifully blue...
I was told last night about a stand of live oaks, roughly half the horizon from here, told of the cemetery they oversee and the visitors they observe, letting the moss hang low to absorb their mournful words, letting their roots spread wide to catch the grieving tears. These are oaks of Ancient memory, two-hundred rings each, perhaps more. These are listeners; these are true poets of the wind, and this is the story they tell.
Elliot squinted, trying to rub a blear of sleep from his eyes. Someone was in his kitchen, which, in a second-story efficiency, was practically in bed with him. He groaned in self-sorrow as the light waged war upon his eyes, his hangover settling in his temples like iron embers shuddering under his sledgehammer pulse.
The intruder had apparently put a pot of coffee on. Downright decent of them, considering.
He sat up in bed, blocking the sunlight from the vintage warehouse window-wall at his side with one hand, peering toward the small kitchen that could put Copland to shame in sheer volume alone. A familiar face appeared over a stack of dirty plates, golden-red hair cut neat into a bob, freckled Irish skin cinched into a loving smile.
“Mom?” he asked, frantically making sure his whiz-bangs and whirly-gigs were well undercover.
His first resolution upon leaving home was to never again sleep clothed for as long as he lived.
“Sweet-pea...” she replied, somehow widening her smile. She pulled off her yellow latex gloves, gave her hands a rinse, and made her way toward him.
Sarah wasn't Elliot's mother – Elliot was raised by an aunt that had passed away the year before. Sarah was Zach's mother. Just thinking the name slapped the budding smile far from his face. By the time she reached the bed, Elliot was staring at the empty space at his right, biting his lower lip til it bled.
“Oh, honey, I know,” Sarah said, sniffling as she reached for his hand. When he pulled that away, she kindly settled for his knee. “And I'm sorry if I scared you; I tried calling but...”
Her pointed gaze fell upon the busted telephone beneath the – beneath Zach's – bedside table. Elliot didn't answer the look; the numerous remnants of his cell-phone had since been claimed by the street-cleaner.
Zach called it the Midnight Snuffleupagus...
Sarah tossed out any ridiculous ideas of blushing modesty, climbing across the double-bed and pulling Elliot close against her. She stroked the back of his head as he sobbed into her shoulder.
She rested her own tear-soaked cheek against the top of Elliot's head, saying all the bullshit-nothing the hospital therapist had handed her on a card small enough to fit into a wallet or a purse, as if grief were a grocery store and each of them now a preferred customer. Grief was dirt cheap, these days.
“I know, baby,” she said. She had no idea, she knew. “I know...”
“Keep in touch, handsome,” Sarah said. “You had me worried there.”
“I'll try,” Elliot said, returning her hug. “I'm just...lost, I guess.”
“You're always welcome with us...til things calm down, or, well however long you need, ok?”
Sarah pulled back a bit, straightening his hair around his ears before resting a soft hand against his cheek.
“I'm glad you were there,” she said, leaning up to kiss his forehead. “I'm glad he had you in his life. I can't imagine him anywhere else. You were his everything...you know that, right?”
Elliot nodded again, closing the door with a final promise to remain accessible.
He returned to the bed, propping himself up in the corner, clutching Zach's pillow against his chest. He resumed his usual late morning ritual - staring through their vintage windows at the parade of strangers on the sidewalk. Below, at street level, Sarah waited for the light to change, crossed and disappeared around a corner.
Nearby, a young boy was teasing his sister, hop-stepping backward along the sidewalk. As he stared, he felt his skin prickle under a cold sweat. His vision tunneled.
The memory of it all came at it him in an instant, and as he had each time before, he fought it like a caged animal.
Elliot was on his feet, screaming, with his fists clenched, looking for somewhere to run, something to fight until his hands were bloodied raw. Another hole appeared in the wall, then another just to the left...numbers eight and nine, respectively.
Nine was his lucky number, finally catching a stud behind the drywall with the last two fingers of his left hand.
“He turned to look at me,” he cried, cradling his broken hand, falling to his knees. And she's glad I was there...
The flashback came anyway, left him curled and hyperventilating in the floor.
Zach was wearing his lucky shoes – the Adidas authentic 3-stripes they'd gone all over town trying to find. He adored those shoes...they framed his feet perfect, and Elliot swore they made his legs look even better.
Both were dressed in those high-dollar ratty cargo shorts that cost twice as much for the disheveled aesthetic. Elliot could see every errant string hanging from the hem, the frayed corner of the back right pocket. Maybe he'd rip it on purpose later on, not that either ever needed an excuse to tear each other's clothes off.
Zach turned, catching him gawking. He walked backward, grinning that sexpot grin with a sugar-free skim cap in his right hand and grabbing his downstairs furniture in a lewd gesture with the other. Even after seven years together, Elliot still blushed – he always blushed, at everything...Zach just flushed a deep red, and only when they were really going...
Still walking backward, the heel of Zach's left lucky shoe slapped against an upturned cobblestone at the edge of the street. And that was all it took to bring down the most beautiful, graceful boy that Elliot had ever seen.
He lost a tentative grip on a powder-blue minivan and smacked the ground hard, hard enough that Elliot heard a pop and prayed it wasn't a shoulder or a clavicle.
“Jesus, baby, are you hurt?” he asked, moving forward.
Zach got pissed at himself easily, snapped when you came too close if he fell in rehearsal, stubbed a toe on the stairs, or banged his forehead on the cabinet door he'd just opened for the penne. He cursed like a sailor, though...he never just, went limp.
Elliot ran forward, kneeling, only to notice the blood that suddenly covered his hand and a six-inch, spreading section of it on the sidewalk. He called for an ambulance, smearing Zach's blood across the screen and keypad of his phone, then across his cheek when he raised it to his ear.
It was still there at 2:37am, when he staggered home to their empty apartment. He left the keys in the door, fell into bed and gathered up every ounce of bedding from Zach's vacant half, breathing in his essence between heart-rending sobs.
How does it end, you ask? What an odd question for an evergreen...
I suppose, like any human story, it never does. Their existence is actually quite similar to ours, each needing a unique space in which to thrive, each weathering the many seasons of their lives as best they can, each as helpless against the unexpected as we ourselves.
Do we not suffer the cold of any given winter, only to spend our summers wondering of coming snows? Do we not rejoice at the coming of spring, only to regret the first flourish of autumn's vibrant beauty?
A young man sits at the foot of a grave, overlooked by ancient live oaks and their long, elegant strands of Spanish moss. He speaks in a hoarse voice, his eyes are red, his face is flushed. He seems...heartier than before, as if he has at last let go of a familiar remorse, but hasn't yet come to trust the world's promises of the many unknown moments yet to come.
You see, young evergreen...remorse is a failed expectation, and hope is their only response against fear, a prayer against the snow we know will come.
He speaks to a stone that he visits often, telling it tales of now. On his feet he wears a pair of well-loved shoes with three faded stripes on each side. He absently digs the toe of one lucky shoe into the soft ground, smiling as he traces the many errant seams from sole to tongue.
He blooms in April beauty, freed at last from a winter of fear. He loves, now. He lives, now.