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Traci O'Connor

 

Baptism

Hypodermic needles in a pile beneath the tree. A hanging length of twisted rope. Barbed wire buried beneath years of mud. All of this magic, here at the edge of some ravine in the back woods. I mean nothing is ever real, but then Iím climbing down into the ditch where little rivers of rainwater collect moss, and I look to the left and thereís the god-damned door and the flaming sword and the big book of lies, or this: one black water moccasin, and then itís looking at me, but Iím cocky and two parts angel and I throw a rock, like ha ha godís on my team, you get it? And then the snake is moving fast through the water, spitting venom. And Iím praying, and Iím climbing up the muddy bank, and Iím slipping off, and the water beneath me shivers in patterns and god is shaking his head like, what the fuck, huh? Maybe this day Iíll pluck you free. Or maybe youíd be better off blind.

 

Fork

My father kneels before a grave in Louisiana and then the clouds part and my grandfather’s headstone blazes, lit up by a single, brilliant ray of sun. A sure sign from God, my father tells me, choking up.

Either way, a wave of light is always a miracle. A marvel of engineering. Some kind of mathematical proof.

Dust motes ride currents of air, rippling like stars.

So what if his father was dying. My father was on a plane somewhere, preoccupied, too busy to call. And, besides, my father is not the man he used to be. He is not the son his father once knew.

My god what disappointments we are always to each other.

There’s a difference, see, between forgiveness and atonement. And for whom was my father praying? Either way, his father is still dead in a casket or he’s lunching with the angels. Or maybe—even as my father’s words ride the light coming fast through the window—my grandfather is digging us out from this earth with a fork.

 

Smoke

Silky pajamas, her wiry, pitch-black, hellbent hair, my grandmother folds her legs beneath her on our couch, talking and talking, sipping a cup of coffee made from the jar my mother keeps in the back corner of the highest shelf, who knows for how long. Politics and morals, this and that—her world that is, how much has changed. And then it’s time for her cigarette and she lights it on our front porch, leaning over the rail where everyone can see: the Primary President out getting her mail, the Bishop driving by with his wife.

The whole valley looks up at her: a thousand steeples, a million eyes, an eternity of windows flexing in the breaking light.

My mother and I, we wait on the couch in the shadows. Too quiet, we’re nervous. Who knows when this prayer’s going to end. Then sun creeps up over the rocks, peeks through the kitchen window. It spits in the sink and, finally, we give up and open our eyes. But anyway, still, it’s just me and it’s her and we’re always, forever, we’re two separate things.

Outside, the mountains stand guard all around, the faraway lake a splash of giant sun, the sky bursting blue at the seams. And my grandmother, she’s out there alone on the porch, spinning her smoke like a web. A flash of silk, a flicker of skin. She’s wearing the sky as a hat.

Smoke spirals from her fingers like magic, like vengeance—either way I’m bothered with god. Up and up goes the smoke: a spun length of flaxen cord, a topsy-turvy lifeline, a snake searching for the sound of the flute.

 

Water Tower Hymn

I imagine what it might be like to hit a golfball from here, launching it over the roofs and the streetlights, the city’s twin smokestacks standing still and unsteady as giant, bodiless legs.

The rush of the sky, the windows, the clouds, the fleshy skim of the lake. Oh what a surprise, my voice! The quail skitter in the dirt and the morning doves line up on the wire to listen. And all those ghosts in
Rock Canyon zipping through the crevices, fletching in the old mining caves still hung with broken ladders dropped into the blackest, the hellish part, too dark for a lantern, a light.

The setting sun boils, huge and red and deadpan, a fiery fist pounding the edges of the valley. Here, and Here and Here, it shakes the desert loose from the sky. A Sego lily bends in the dusky half light. A scrub oak falls hard to its knees.

Dangling, gone under, the leaves all buried with sound. Spinning, turning, it’s something like drowning: strapped by the mouth to the coming of night—that awful and godstruck machine.

 

Brother A___

My father rests his elbows on the table and holds his head in his hands. All of me is bodiless. Everything is angles. My father’s head is shaking and his eyes are watering; there’s a breaking I feel in the roots of my hair. He tells us how the devil took him—how this man was the best of us all. It’s a warning, a lesson, or just a whistle of fear and my mother is not all that surprised but still she’s afraid and all around us the windows grow larger and larger and taller and taller, and there we are reflected in the glass. Like our spirits in this earth life, we’re sneaking away from our selves.

But then the outside zooms in and the stars yawn, glinting like teeth and the kitchen is the darkest place and my mother is clutching her nightgown close to her throat.

My father sighs and then he stands, and he is all of him together. And then it’s just us, my mother and me, and we’re lost and we’re empty; we’re floating away like two anchorless boats. The ocean of dark stretches far off to the desert; we’re waiting for the end to begin.

 

 

 

Traci O'Connor is the author of the short story collection, Recipes For Endangered Species, published by Tarpaulin Sky Press (May 2010). She has also published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in many journals and anthologies and can be seen on stage for the occasional live story-telling event. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with her spouseóthe writer, Jackson Connorótheir four children, one labradoodle, and a Ďcat.í. Contact author.

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