by Christi Krug
Busy and determined suburbanites
never bother to ask permission;
go about their projects without a word,
building up and tearing down.
They quarrel in full view of the neighbors:
self-satisfied, dirt-digging, nut-grubbing
except when clawing their way up.
They take what’s not for them.
they have no shame.
We avoid getting too close: disease is an issue.
And at a certain range we might see their scars.
Christi Krug’s poetry has appeared in print and online in The Fossil Record, sixlittlethings, the Aroostook Review, Salal Journal, Umbrella, and Bumbershoot. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in qarrtsiluni, VoiceCatcher, Halfway Down the Stairs, Colored Chalk, sub-scribe, Defenestration and elsewhere. Awards include Inscape Best of Nonfiction, Whidbey Island Poetry, and Oregon Christian Writers Fiction. Christi teaches beginning writers at Clark College and independently as a writing coach. Visit ChristiKrug.net to learn more.
by Christi Krug
The packing list said sunscreen, sleeping bag, trail mix. I would tame the wild woods with flashlight and wool socks. But the word swimming suit choked my mind with unknown waters.
I’d been living with Grandma since fall, and nobody seemed to know how long it would last. We didn’t discuss Mother’s illness, only that she was “sick,” and “in the hospital.” But it was the most frightening hospital I’d ever seen, where a teenage girl with a crewcut sat hollow-eyed in a TV room, and an old lady shuffled back and forth holding a doll, and a bearded man with a greasy T-shirt talked to a plant.
Not to mention Mother, dressed in a bathrobe, moving slow as if she were drowning. Speaking in a flat, faraway voice, with eyes that looked in your direction but didn’t see. There was a breadcrumb in the corner of her lips.
Now it was summer. No talk about fall, past or future. “You’re going to camp,” said Grandma. The only words I had were mysterious, in Helvetica typeface, next to tidy checkboxes.
Pillow, I read. Out loud I said, “Camera.”
“You can borrow my Instamatic,” said Grandma. She frowned and tapped a pen against her lips.
I looked at that one word again. It reminded me that I could not swim. It told me I might drown.
“It’s only for a month,” Grandma added. “A whole month! You’ll have So. Much. Fun.”
The last word on the list was stationery. Grandma wrote letters every week on her Smith-Corona typewriter. Letters were what you did when you couldn’t do anything else. When home couldn’t hold the right people, at the right time.
I stood in the parking lot, sun gleaming off the gravel. Grandma gave me a peck on the cheek and handed me a package just as I was about to board the bus. It was a see-through box tied with blue ribbon: stationery topped with bluebirds. Their beaks smiled grandly.
Two hours later, the Hidden Valley Camp bus turned out into wide, green fields bordered by forest.
Two days later, I knew the names of everyone in my tent, and what they got in the mail. Stacy got a care package of chocolate chip cookies. Jenny got a troll doll. Terri got a very small pillow with white daisies. I got a letter from Mother.
The return address was Western State Psychiatric Hospital. On the stamped letterhead, Mother’s penciled handwriting sagged like a sprung spiderweb. She wrote, I forget if it’s two or three sentences to a paragraph.
When I was five, I used to lean against the window and cry whenever Mother left. Now I crumpled her letter in my hands.
“Canoe time,” Counselor said, some days after. Stacy and Jenny cheered. Terri said, “All riiight!” I shivered at the water’s edge.
I don’t know how I made it into the boat, fat in my orange life jacket. Then I dipped my oar in the blue-green lake of shadows and it was easy. Like sticking fingers into frosting and pulling away a smooth, silky hunk. It was like mirror writing, the way you paddled opposite how you wanted to move.
After, I sat on the dock with my tentmates, dabbling toes in the ripples. The warm wood scratched my thighs.
“I saw ‘The Omen’ before camp,” said Stacy. “It’s rated ‘R’ but my Dad takes me to any movie I want. It scared the hell out of me.”
“Yeah?” said Jenny.
“In ‘The Omen,’ there’s this kid, Damien. His parents don’t know where he comes from. He’s a child of Satan.”
And with three words, the terror was back. Child of Satan told me everything I needed to know. The water wouldn’t kill me. Neither would it kill me to have a mother in the mental hospital. But this was the ultimate terror, and the reason I felt different from the other kids: I was a child of Satan.
The truth of it was a shadow, thick and empty, filling my stomach. I fed on it at night in my sleeping bag, the trees whispering about the canvas tent walls. It exhausted me at craft time. Child of Satan. It yanked me from the inside and outside, stretching me until I was thin and see-through like the taffy we pulled at Group Activity.
Three weeks, those words threaded through my mind.
Then, one day in the woods, I forgot to think them.
Our hike leader led us high along the forest trail. At last she said, “Okay, guys. Lean your heads back. Look up to the highest branches. Squinch your eyes. Can you see how different everything looks?”
There was a shine that wiggled in the treetops, like soap bubble liquid stretched over a plastic hoop. The light was changing, things were shimmering. Walking back to camp, I saw a trail mix of leaves and mushrooms, frosted ponds, sugar-daddy creeks. Old trees offered friendly, knobby hands. The creek was not afraid to sing.
That night, Jenny, Stacy, Terri and I held flashlights to our chins, laughing as our faces glowed molten red, changing from human to alien. I took out my packet of bluebird stationery.
I was very happy to hear from you! I’m going to tell you a little about this camp. There are many different things to do. There is Archery, Rifelery, Hikes, Riding horses, special events, sailing, canoeing, swimming, sports, overnights. Its hard to think of everything… Camp fires. Every person has to do something around the tent. One day you might be the sweeper. Another day you might be the Person that puts up the Tent flaps. Everything is fun. Hope your glad to hear from me! Love ya!!
P.S. I’m beginning to miss everyone a little.
When camp was over, Grandma met the camp bus, tapping my shoulder with her driving glove, ready to hit the road. A month later, she would put me in a foster home.
For years, Mother would save my letter, shuttling the bluebird pages from drawer to suitcase, from dresser to shoebox, in the halfway houses and care facilities where she spent her life. Home would never again mean having her with me.
I stopped crumpling Mother’s letters when they came. I answered them, putting down my thoughts — even when they were bright and flighty and fake as bluebirds that smiled. In this way, I learned to make my own magic words.
Christi Krug’s work has appeared in Umbrella, VoiceCatcher, Defenestration, Halfway Down the Stairs, Colored Chalk, The Absent Willow Review and previously in qarrtsiluni. She coaches beginning writers and blogs about the writing life at christikrug.blogspot.com.
In the house of my aunt and uncle, each room had its own rules about what not to touch, how not to run, where not to eat. Pillars heralded the porch and cherrywood gleamed in the entry, naked of school papers, apple cores, cereal bowls. One night, after a visit from the police, I was taken from my mother and placed here, among shining guest soaps and french provincial mirrors and real table dinners. If I had known more about fairy tales and remembered less about Mother’s screams, I would have pretended I was in a fairy tale.
A day after my arrival, my cousin bent down and swept the long, sticky bangs from my eyes and proposed something I wasn’t sure I could handle.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s give you a bath.”
Dirty toenails poked from my saltwater sandals as I stood motionless. Even though Cecelia was very old, thirteen, I didn’t trust anybody to start my bath. Bathrooms were not happy places.
Cecelia tapped the blond bannister with shellacked fingernails. I didn’t understand how a person’s nails could be ghost-white like that. “It’ll be okay,” she said.
I followed her upstairs where she opened a cupboard. It was a Library of Towels, each volume folded, tucked and shelved.
At home our towels flop like dead rags, old curtains, in heaps we pick off Mommy’s bed.
“And we’ll wash your hair.”
It starts, standing on the cold bathroom floor. There is a sea-green ring round the middle of the sink.
I hugged tight my towel.
Cecelia opened the door to one of the bathrooms I’d never seen, and I walked into a strange dawn, where sunny yellow towels matched rug, matched yellow silk flowers in a straw vase. The toilet lid was covered with yellow shag, round as a cookie, softer than any chair at home. Old home. My home again, sometime maybe: I couldn’t know.
I was a netted fish, a trapped selkie. Cecelia turned on the bathtub water and plunged in her hand.
Mommy puts a metal pan under the sink. Water whooshes. Mommy’s hands shake and I look up to the whiteness of the skin under her Widow’s Peak, quiet with unhappy secrets, smooth and blue underneath, holding her Voices and all the Bad Things to worry about in the world.
Water gushed onto Cecelia’s freckles, leapt from smooth porcelain, echoing past canyons of clean silver faucets. She paddled the wet into sudsy billows. “Get in.”
I threw my clothes down and inched my scaled tail over the bathtub edge.
She pours onto my head. Yow! Hot! Fills it up at the sink. Pours. Ouch! Cold! The waters never match.
I went into the steam, sank into the clear, ruffled at the edges with lace, underwear lace that hides your underparts, but is never clean unless Mommy has time.
Cecelia uncapped Herbal Essence, with its smell of scissor-sharp flowers.
Mommy says, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and turns around and around to find a clean towel and my hair is stringy seaweed in my face and I have to cry. We slip and trip on the wet floor.
Cecelia’s freckled other-family hands reached for me. She swirled my head with shampoo. Her arms smelled like Love’s Baby Soft perfume. “You don’t have to sit so stiff. Here’s how you rinse, see? Lie down and swish your hair.”
It’s in Mommy’s magazines. If you don’t get all the suds…
I sat up.
Your scalp will dry and crack and you might get a rash or have to call someone, the doctor or the police or a neighbor you hardly know, and say,”Something is wrong with me! I’m hearing voices! I need help right away!”
“All the suds won’t come out that way!” I cried.
“Most will.” Cecelia smiled.
I scooted beneath the water, froth hissing in my ears. I closed my eyes against the clinging. The warmth was kind. It was enough, swishing like a mermaid freed from the deep down sea, and just as everybody kept saying things were going to be okay, maybe they would be.
by Christi Krug