For my birthday, I wrote myself a sonnet.
[This and the other “Creatures in Your Neighborhood” entries are bits of writing practice, done when the old work schedule got too hectic to make working on longer stories — you know, stories with a capital “S” — a practical idea. -SJ]
The Librarian of Dust has been leaving you messages for quite some time now.
Don’t worry. It’s nothing urgent, not like a message from the Faucet Fairy. When the Faucet Fairy drops you a note, that’s a message you want to reply to. Immediately.
No, the Librarian of Dust simply would like to remind you that she’s still assembling all of your stories. The stories you cast aside, the memories you shed like sweater lint, the parts of you that you don’t think about all that much after a while–she’s assembling them all, laying them out, neat and even, the way people might have laid manuscript pages across a table top in the days before digital screens.
It’s all right if you’re not ready to look them over yet. You’ve given her plenty of material to sort as it is, and anyway, she’ll keeping working, right up until it’s time to go.
[This and other forthcoming “Creatures in Your Neighborhood” entries are bits of writing practice, done when the old work schedule got too hectic to make working on longer stories — you know, stories with a capital “S” — a practical idea. -SJ]
It’s probably best to avoid commenting on the Screaks’ singing ability, especially for those who have trouble finding something polite to say about that which clearly doesn’t exist.
The Screaks know they can’t sing. That’s why they practice only at nighttime. Would you want to try to explain the sound of a Screak straining for that high C to a business associate you’re on the phone with, or to your child’s science teacher?
No, of course not.
The Screaks will wait until they’re certain everyone’s tucked in tight and pretty much asleep. They’re quite polite like that. In fact, they work so hard at practicing quietly that, most times, the only sound people will hear is a faint, far-drifting sound scratching at the edge of their dreams. From a distance, it could even be mistaken for a squeaky hinge easing open in the basement, or someone tiptoeing onto the one creaky spot on the hallway floor.
Don’t bother trying to catch a Screak mid-aria, though. Screaks will scutter and hide the moment they hear someone step out of bed. You would, too, if you sang like a Screak.
There is subtle talk among those in the know, however, of one particular Screak in town. Instead of the voice of a creature trying to harmonize while gargling a rusty nail, this rare Screak has the voice of a Juilliard-trained angel. He lives in the abandoned house at the far end of the field–you know, the one that people say is haunted. It isn’t haunted. It’s merely occupied by one solitary Screak who might sing better than the others but who, at his core, wants what every Screak wants:
Love. Acceptance. The thrill of seeing his efforts spark joy in the fragile, glowing part that waits behind a person’s eyes.
Currently his nights are spent in the attic, practicing classic Puccini for the benefit of a hat stand from 1952.
[This and the rest of the forthcoming “Creatures in Your Neighborhood” entries are bits of writing practice, done when the old work schedule got too hectic to make working on longer stories — you know, stories with a capital “S” — a practical idea. -SJ]
I first saw a Sad Spot in the second grade. I can’t tell you the exact date, but it was winter, and it was morning, and I had had to set my book down and take off my glasses, because I couldn’t see anything at the moment anyway.
It wasn’t fair, what they had done to the wizarding hero’s pet raven. Suddenly she was gone, as quickly as if someone had ripped a page, except they might as well have ripped every page in the story, right on the lines where I would have read the raven’s name.
I had been trying to rub the bitter sting out of my eyes when I heard a tiny, papery, whispery sound. Imagine a moth clearing its throat. I looked over, and on my bed, next to my book, was an old man the size of my pinky, wearing a brown robe small enough that, if one of my dolls had been wearing it, would’ve covered less than one of the swimsuit outfits for my figures that I’d seen in the toy aisle.
The old man held a shadow in his left hand. I do not know how. The shadow was in the shape of a bird, and he pinched it by the tip of its wing and smoothed it flat onto a blank page in a book of his own. He closed the book, which had the word HEART on its cracked red cover, tucked it beneath his arm, and smiled at me before turning away.
He walked away across the right lens of my glasses. I did not see him after I put my glasses back on, but I saw the Sad Spot’s footprints. I still see them today, if I let myself. It turns out that, unlike other marks, a Sad Spot’s footprints are not so easy to wipe away.
First they came for the Muslims, and we said, “Not this time, motherfucker.”
The day after they broke the windows and set fire to the mosque, I went with other people from my subdivision to help clean and dig through the mess for whatever books, files, and photographs we could find. While working, I saw my next-door neighbor, Rachel Sloan. I wasn’t surprised to see her—we’d had several windy days in the past when she had gone chasing my garbage bin down the sidewalk like a mother chasing a balloon that had escaped from her crying child’s hand. She was that kind of neighbor. All the same, I don’t think it was lost on anyone that someone well known for raising funds for the nearby Jewish community center was helping, talking, and making arrangements.
Twice I noticed her walking out of the damaged rooms with books in her arms, cradling them like newborns. Then came the surprise: at one point, I saw her crouched in a corner of one room, sweeping piles of ash into a paper bag.
“Souvenir?” I asked, kneeling beside her.
Rachel smiled but didn’t laugh. The sound that escaped her was a single, weighted hmph that landed like iron. “Right. Couldn’t get a shot glass, so I settled for this.” She pushed her curly hair, brown swept with grey, away from her eyes and looked at me closely. “It’s more like a very particular reminder,” she said. “If you want, you can come over after we’re done here, and I can show you.”
I had never been farther than Rachel’s living room before, but her kitchen somehow looked the way I’d expected it: clean, with light wooden fixtures, bright blue walls, and framed prints of desert flowers— “From my winter trips to New Mexico,” she explained. I sat at her kitchen table while she rummaged among the lower shelves of her fridge. Eventually she came to sit next to me, holding a paper envelope no bigger than her palm between her index finger and her thumb.
“Not many people really seem to think about Polish Jews,” she said, “partly, I guess, because Poland’s been so fragmented for so much of its history and partly because Poland is so super heavily Catholic. And also because not many people here seem to think about Poland, if you want my opinion. They’re there, though. And people don’t realize: some of the worst camps during World War Two were in what’s now Poland.” She ran her thumbnail underneath the flap of the envelope and set the envelope on the vinyl tablecloth. “My great-aunt had a handful on these on her the day they came to liberate her.”
I looked at her. Then I picked up the envelope and shook it slightly to spill some of its contents. What came out were a few glassy, frosted teardrops the length of a fingernail. I took one and felt the grooves notched along its outer edge, felt the smooth, waxy coating all along its surface…
“They’re seeds,” I said.
Rachel nodded. “Everybody in my family gets some. We pass them along. I was hoping the conditions weren’t ideal for growing them. Hell, I was hoping they’d never be. But I think my brother’s right.”
“Right about what? What kind of conditions do they need?”
Again, Rachel had only a shadow of a smile to offer. “It’s hard to put into words. But there’s a certain kind of electricity in the air I was told to stay open to. A certain heat that won’t dissipate—you know, the way it usually breaks into shimmers over the blacktop in the summer? People somewhere are probably chucking it up to climate change, I don’t know.” She swallowed. “And ash,” she said. “My great-aunt said they’ll only germinate when they’re covered in ash.”
I sat there for a long time. I sat with my tongue practically coated in ash. Finally I was able to croak, “What does it look like when it blooms?”
“That…” Rachel spoke the one word and sighed. “Honestly, the best person to ask about that is my brother. You probably know him. His shop’s just outside of town, on Fourth and Pinetop.”
Everyone in town knew about the business at the corner of Fourth and Pinetop, the same way that everyone knew the name of its owner, Nolan Greenblat, though I’d never before been aware of the connection between him and Rachel. But Nolan’s name had stood bolded at the top of several news outlets’ websites once it had been announced that he was among the recipients of the state’s first licenses for recreational marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities.
I drove to The Suburban Herb the following evening and parked outside the main storefront, a greenhouse with a hand-painted wooden sign outside and glass panes that looked fogged with winter breath, even though it was April. A tall, pale kid whose face suggested he wasn’t too far into that all-important eighteenth year of life was leaving as I approached. He held the door for me.
Nolan stepped around a table of carnivorous plants, with stems that towered tall and hollow, like organ pipes, and mouthy blooms that opened like Mason jars. He stood shorter than some of the plants and shook my hand vigorously when I introduced myself. “That kid you ran into. One of my best customers, would you believe?” he said. “Always gets my two best varieties. Captain and Tennille. He has no idea what that means.”
I explained to him that Rachel had told me about the family seeds but had yet to plant hers. He nodded and said, “Follow me.” I followed him to a building behind the greenhouse that from the outside appeared to be an enormous storage shed. Inside, however, it revealed itself to be the green, living heart of Nolan’s operations, where rows of fluorescent tube lights hummed industrially and, beneath them, various marijuana plants reached for the glow with all the vigor of savage souls straining toward the call of the Rapture.
Nolan led me past his crops to a room the size of a closet. Inside was a table with two short filing cabinets underneath and, beside it, an open storage case that crowded the space of the small, single window.
“There they are,” he said, pointing to the middle shelf.
At first I saw the pots more clearly than I saw the stems or the flowers. That, I realized, was because the plants themselves were clear—as clear as cellophane, as clear as crystal. I looked at Nolan and he nodded again, urging me closer in the tiny office. The air inside was late summer dry. I touched the petals of one of the flowers and found them hard, heard them clink against each other like miniature glass chimes.
“I put the first ones out several weeks back,” Nolan said. “They sold for a pretty penny once people saw that they really were alive.”
“You sold them?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. That boy you ran into before? One of my best customers?” Nolan smiled a flat, pale smile and leaned his hips against the table. “He told me I should call them ‘Triumph Blooms.’ You know why? Because they’re heirloom seeds, so they’ve never been crossed with another flower. And that means they’re pure. Untainted.”
He tapped the table with a military drumbeat before continuing. “I thought, maybe the kid doesn’t know what he’s saying. He doesn’t know Captain and Tennille, maybe this other stuff is too far before his time, too. But then he put his hand right here, right on my shoulder—” Nolan’s rough hand mimicked the gesture “—and he told me that I’m one of the good ones, because I sell him stuff that helps him feel all right about how horrible the world is. And I always give him a good price.
“So, yeah. I take his money. I hope he remembers that I was one of the good ones, that he was always welcome here, and I never turned him away.” Nolan laughed with the same clipped chuckle I had heard from Rachel the day before, though his laughter seemed cut by a colder edge. “And now I take his money, turn it around, and give it to the Jewish children’s charities. Every single time.”
Nolan walked me back to my car across the parking lot, where bits of loose gravel pressed into the soles of my shoes like dull spikes. Once there, he turned to hug me and slip two small pouches into my hand. His latest experiments in cultivation, he explained, for me to enjoy as well as to share with his sister, Rachel, along with his regards. “Peaches and Herb,” he said. “I name the plants for my own amusement, but sometimes you want to share what you love with people who understand.”
I showed them to Rachel early the following morning when I caught her in her driveway, putting thick leather gloves and a garden spade into a basket in her car’s trunk. She laughed when I told her what the pouches contained but darkened when I related what Nolan had told me about the seeds being purebred.
“Are you doing anything right now?” Rachel asked. I shook my head no; I had gone long enough without milk in the fridge that a few more hours wouldn’t matter. “Hop on in,” she said, passing a cardboard box into my hands. “I could use the help.”
We drove without speaking for a while, along streets still clinging to the heavy cast of the Midwestern winter. “During the spring and the summer, I volunteer at the park district’s conservatory,” she said when we stopped at a light. “I help plan and care for the herb garden they keep. This year, though, I think it might look a little different. The past couple of days, I’ve wondered if it might all end up looking like that.” She pointed to the box I was holding. “Like I’m planting a memory garden instead.”
I lifted the box’s flaps. Inside was a black plastic seed tray with six chambers, each chamber packed with fine, grey ash. I had to squint to see them, but clear, threadlike stems had broken through the ash in each partition and had begun to curl away from the surface, no taller than a few millimeters.
“They actually have a horticulturist helping at the park district,” Rachel said. “I don’t know what you know about gardening, but there’s this idea that when you cross-breed different types of flowers or what have you, they actually end up stronger. The later plants end up being a stronger mix of the two parents.” The car lurched forward, given the light to go ahead. “If these flowers bloom, I want to talk to her about dusting the pollen on any other plants possible. Basil. Carrots. Peppers. Whatever.”
She looked at me quickly, even though she was driving, and I was glad it was a quick look, because I didn’t think I could handle her stare digging any further into me. “Ever since the other day, I’ve imagine cooking up a plate of clear glass vegetables and serving it to the people who did that. I’ve imagined them choking on the shards,” she said. “Tell me how awful and wrong that is.”
But we were driving past the community center, where people were being invited to pray together until the mosque was repaired, and even though its outer walls were beige and clean, I looked at them and pictured them smudged with the same black streaks as the side of the mosque, where the fire had tried to escape. I couldn’t blink the sight away any more than I could tell Rachel not to feel what she was feeling, and that was no more than I could wish for a world in which all of the flowers had color, and only the way forward was crystal and clear.