CONJURING Pursuing the brilliance of scarlet macaws, the insides of blood oranges, a blue so deep wind scrapes spray off the crests of waves, I remember the shock of blue against black in the face of our Siamese cat who had asthma like me. The runt of the litter, he would play till he collapsed, a hump of fur, sides heaving, mouth open, eyes closed, thin high wheezes accompanying each impossible breath. I’d massage him when he wheezed and couldn’t understand why he was put to sleep. In the following weeks I hid in my room when I had asthma, scared the next time it would be me. Or that I’d be sent away like my older sister who rarely called and was only spoken of when I asked, though I knew better. She juggled oranges, made dimes disappear before pulling them from my ears, and tickled me till laughter and her fingers were all that existed, masking even that keen longing for my father’s return. I’d watch for him on commercials with tall smiling men holding their daughters and in the families saved by Casper and Mighty Mouse. I craved him as other kids told how their dads were lawyers like Perry Mason, doctors like Kildare, or were so strong they built houses and carried their kids around piggyback. I knew if I were good enough he wouldn’t be dead anymore. He’d come back if I did what I was told, was nice, always smiled. I felt him in the large arms of men and reached for him as I placed my feet on top of another man’s huge shoes, my arms stretching up, our hands holding as he walked, my feet and body shadowing his beneath uncontrolled laughter. My father became my guardian angel after I stepped alone onto the red ant nest hidden in rattlesnake grass. I screamed as their teeth tore flesh till large arms swept me up and carried me to cold water to dampen the hot sting. Stinging like the night I packed my suitcase and ran away. Three blocks later I stashed my pink case, heavy and awkward in my six-year-old arms, behind Melissa’s neatly trimmed hedge. I didn’t know her well enough to ring the doorbell. I was unexpected, uninvited, yet she was the only girl whose house I recognized as it got dark. Peering through the opening between ivory drapes, I saw their dining room table set for dinner, her brothers playing beyond, and was startled by her father when he turned the corner of the outside of their house and asked what I was doing. Scared to say I’d run away, I asked if Melissa could play. As he pulled the long metal rod off the chain link fence, inserted it onto the sprinkler unit, and turned the water on full, he told me it was late, I should be home, out of the dark. I nodded, walked toward my house till he went inside, and then returned. Hugging the shadows, I watched them talk and laugh as her father cut thick slices of roast beef. I stared through that narrow lens of window and strained to hear words, learn their language. When it got too cold, I went home. My mom, draped in diamonds and a low-cut red-sequined dress, was about to leave for cocktails. She said she knew I’d be back, that I had nowhere to go. I went to my room, pulled toy soldiers out of my closet, set up lines of defense, before she called me back, told me to fix the lower hinge, loose and squeaky, on her bedroom door. I tightened and oiled the hinge just as I would later tighten and oil the wheels and handlebars on my bike to ride the fire trails behind our house. Rubber scraped from my soles as I skidded round curves and clutched my handlebars as firmly as I had gripped the barrel of the rifle when I was seven. Aiming for cans, I pulled the trigger, my shoulder mottled blue, yellow, green, from the rifle slamming against my too thin body. But I kept pulling, conjuring my father in the activities of men. And myself in the motion of animals. I would leap over objects with the fierce gallop of horses, move with the stealth of the great horned owl that rose like an apparition across a too huge autumn moon, or run with the cunning of the mouse beneath my red plastic wheelbarrow. Our best mouser couldn’t squeeze her tiger-striped face under the barrow so she placed her front paws on top of it, perhaps to jump, but it tilted and moved forward. The mouse paced itself to remain underneath so our cat stopped periodically to sweep her clawed paw between the wheels before returning to her hind legs to push farther. Near the cabbage plants the mouse darted into shadowed green. Tracing my finger through air, I tracked the means of escape.
Thank you to the editors of Kalliope for first publishing this prose poem.