A scholar, old and dead, once said that all is fire, in motion like a river’s flow. A thrown-out match ignites the undergrowth and trees to wrap the sky in ashen shawl. The wind will force the rising smoke to crawl and cover meadows with the sun’s dull glow. The soil is fed by fallen ash and snow. The molecules we live in do not stall. One must be warm if all is made of fire, but every moment is a photograph and time the thumbing through to make them run. To walk a yard, you must walk halfway prior, and half of that, and half, and half, and half… And so: all motions seen, illusions done.
Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from August, 2022.
I. dining room, n.
Long, rectangular table. Six chairs, all taken but one— yours.
II. administrivia, n.
I know you know what you’re doing, and you know I know you’re capable of caring of yourself, but you also know I worry.
III. hanbok, n.
I remember when they announced your name— you walked across the stage, they gave you a case for your diploma, you shook your principal’s hand. I was so proud of you.
IV. railipotent, adj.
So, why don’t you talk to me anymore? Was I so bad to you? Raising you the way I did? You’re grown up at college now and don’t need your mother?
V. belukar, n.
I guess— I just thought— I know we didn’t talk much for a while, but after moving out, maybe you’d reach out more.
VI. clear-cut, n.
There was something in your eyes when we said goodbye to you after helping you move into your dorm. I hoped I was imagining it, but the truth lies in your silence.
VII. pinguinitescent, adj.
Do you remember the soccer season banquet when you were seven? You ate too much pizza, deciding you were old enough to fill your own plate at the buffet. The picture of you, your pizza-covered face, your coach and trophy, hangs in the living room by the window.
VIII. poddle, v.
On Sundays, we all walk to the park by the lake, with a gap where you used to be.
IX. chiptune, n.
We used to play the Legend of Zelda — well, you’d play it, I’d listen to you tell me about it — after you finished your homework. We were so much closer then.
X. dogfood, v.
I’ve tried reaching out to you several times, but deleted the message each time. Practicing each sentence with possible tones you may put on them. There are too many variables, and I don’t want to be a burden.
XI. reginal, adj.
I work all day, care for your siblings. I’ve always done my best. I deserve more respect than this.
XII. muso, n.
I drink my morning coffee across the living room from your piano. I miss the songs you’d play as I got home from work, your smile.
XIII. chipperness, n.
I put on a smile when Janet sees me examining coffee creamer at Safeway. She asks how you’re doing at Western. I tell her some vague stories, based on movies I’ve seen, and how proud I am of you, based on reality.
XIV. abacist, n.
Maybe you’re just busy with your classes, new friends. Maybe you need to stand on your own and don’t want your mom holding you down. Maybe I didn’t react the right way when you came out to me.
XV. maleficate, v.
You used to come to me for advice, until you started hanging out with that boy. All of a sudden, I was always wrong and you started building a wall between us.
XVI. fáinne, n.
I just don’t get it. I donated to that Trevor Project you always post about. I got one of those rainbow borders for my profile picture. I don’t know what else you want.
XVII. simpulum, n.
I lit a candle for you under the stained-glass window at church so that God could hear me and steer you back to me.
XVIII. buddha dharma, n.
Some may say I should act with compassion, give you time; you will reach out when you’re ready. They don’t know the pain gnawing at my ribs.
XIX. passionable, adj.
I’m an emotional person. You know that. Yes, I cried when you told me. Yes, I realize that upset you. But, it felt like the futures for you in my head died, turned to ash like those snake fireworks. It took me time to understand, but I still love you.
XX. ecopoiesis, n.
So, I may have told Janet you have a girlfriend. I didn’t quite realize it, but really, it’s easier this way— you know how she talks with the other church ladies. I just don’t think they’d be able to handle the idea one of the boys they taught catechism to is gay. You would understand, wouldn’t you?
XXI. rhyparography, n.
I was cleaning your room — I swear — and I came across an old shoebox with that boy’s name on it. I’m sorry, I looked; I couldn’t help it. It was full of notes he wrote to you. I didn’t even know kids still passed paper notes. Such beautiful handwriting of such filthy language.
XXII. ankimo, n.
Yesterday was your birthday, we had your favorite dinner in your honor, and Western emailed me that tomorrow is Family Weekend. The signs were all there: I have to drive up to see you.
XXIII. muskoka chair, n.
Your father won’t come with me. He says he can’t get time off from the hospital and also that me going is a bad idea. He was repotting the monstera he allowed to take over that chair from his garden. He just doesn’t get it.
XXIV. mamaguy, v.
As I back out of the driveway, go through the labyrinth of our neighborhood, I brainstorm what to say to you when I get there. A joke, maybe, a nickname from your childhood, when we were close. Maybe that’ll bridge the gap, since I didn’t call you beforehand.
XXV. amakhosi, n.
North on 167, I drive by the huge hill in Auburn we used to live on, the arena they built over the field your track meets were on, the bowling alley we had your birthday parties at.
XXVI. coboss, int.
405 is jammed, more than usual. Probably other families going to Western to see their kids who actually tell them what’s going on in their lives.
XXVII. dark side, n.
The signs were always there, I guess, like the absence of birds before a storm. Your first grade teacher called one day, saying you were hugging another boy and smelling his hair. I talked to you about it, thinking it was a personal-bubble misunderstanding. I should have paid better attention to what they told you in school. Why would you do this to me?
XXVIII. curatorium, n.
Anger froths like baking soda and vinegar. It was probably those grooming teachers poisoning your mind. That boy or your friends tearing you away from me. Those shady social networks with their algorithms twisting the knife. Why else would you end up this way? Why else would you stop talking to me?
XXIX. birdikin, n.
You were so precious when you were younger, so fragile— when you were my child. What happened? What went wrong? What could I have done differently?
XXX. wabi-sabi, adj. and n.
You are still my son. You are worth my time. You are worth saving. A line of dominoes tumbles up my spine. I pull over to the shoulder, put the car in park. Why do I see you as imperfect? When did I come to that conclusion?
XXXI. scooptram, n.
You don’t want to see me. I can’t blame you, because I never really saw you. On the edge of Mount Vernon, I watch cars cross the Skagit River bridge, the one that collapsed when you were young. They drive by unflinching, leave me behind.
wake up to bleary shadows. drag a mattress across the bedroom. wedge it through the threshold. lay it down on the kitchen floor while coffee brews. move to the couch when it’s ready. tell myself to stay awake. the mattress thrown askew at the edge of the rug. a rope leading from its corner to my ankle, layered knots my fingers can’t maneuver. take a sip. balance the mattress on my back with my backpack. fit it in the trunk of my car. close the door and walk around— the rope phases through the frame. lines blend with the headlights’ glow. the asphalt, visual white noise. turn the stereo up. stay awake. drag the mattress up two flights of stairs. hide it under my desk. nudge the corner in when coworkers come by to talk about weekend plans. hold firm as it pushes back. a river drone as I drag its edge across the parking lot. drive off without putting it in the car. it bounces on the road, thrashes in the wind. unharmed in the driveway. lean it against the coffee table while I eat dinner. scroll through twitter on my phone. a snake’s tail coils around my forearm, constricts. sigh, flick my thumb, take another bite.
rain streets under water torrent of orange leaves northerly wind broken maple branches broken power lines blue glow off the main road tremor in the sky darkened homes silent neighborhood rain
I saw a version of you on a cave tour in South Dakota. Middle-aged. Three kids, all with your red hair. A husband with a circle beard. An accent from a place you would have stayed closeted. While ascending 300 steps from our tour’s destination, you joked about not needing a Stairmaster if you just lived above a cave. I saw a version of you in a national park gift shop. Late-twenties. Round, thin-rimmed glasses. Two older people with you, maybe members of your extended family or the people who took you in. A purple dress with neon-green bats indicative of a family that let you be different. I saw a version of you at an overlook above some badlands. You were with a photographer, a graduation photoshoot. A shirt from an 80s band under a cardigan two sizes too big. A dandelion twirled between your fingers. You looked like you. You looked happy.
I lie in bed and turn my head to see your face illuminated by the forest fire outside our house. I ask if you need anything at the store, since I plan on going after work tomorrow to get some bread and apples. You blink a few times, shake your head, say you’re not sure, too tired to think, but will tell me if you think of anything. I kiss you goodnight, tell my phone to close the curtains, block the growing light from the forest fire outside our house.
You're on the edge of a plateau overlooking a valley of hoodoos dusted with remnants of yesterday's snowfall. Predawn light is faint, cold; the air shivers in short gusts of wind. In a century, the platform your feet are on will not be there, eroded by air and water down the cliff face's arches like frames of a cathedral's stained glass windows.
your vision framed by planks salvaged from a ransacked village wrinkles in your brain wagon wheel tracks across the plains your home warmed by the flames of broken treaties the tump-tump in your chest bullets entering temples your veins rivers of colonizer blood
I cannot forget. Whenever I walk by a blue Camry, your voice replays in my head — each hoarse syllable. I see your face in every cedar branch, every streetlamp aura. I cannot forget. I’ve tried waiting years, traveling as far as I can from you — but the past always comes back like the tide on the shore. I cannot forget. I want to scream every well-practiced retort I’ve bottled up — but they all come out as one guttural shout. I cannot forget.
The last time you were drowning, they came to see to you after school. You were washing mugs in your classroom sink. They watched you, said you were methodical — a word you associate with supervillains. Scars in your vision danced on the whiteboard behind their head when you talked about your week.