Tag Archives: magical realism

The Sea, The Bear, and the Jay

image by Emille Domschot © 2012

You were a young mom, then, but as much an old crone as you were in childhood. You lived in a strange town, an empty, rain-gray place painted blue at the edges. You scuffed behind your family through the sand that edged up to broken sidewalks. Behind you, the gray waves softened their approach to earth. They soothed and caressed, rather than raging and stealing everything in sight to carry back to the belly of open sea. The waves seemed to sigh, “Sh, sh. She’s still asleep, don’t wake her.”

In itself, this was disturbing, though you couldn’t determine when the flow had changed. So you joined it, in last place, behind a bear of a man at the head and a row of stair step children who wore faded jeans washed out by the gray and blue air. You looked down, and you followed their scuffed white sneakers, off-brands all. Collectively, the children declared they were hungry, but they made their appeal to the bear at the front and not to you. In fact, the children didn’t acknowledge you at all. Were you there with them? You looked back at the sea, and its edges faded. When you directed your gaze forward again, the bear-man held a door open for you, and you entered into the foyer of a restaurant. You weren’t invisible to him; he wore a gentle smile that expressed his deep understanding of your soul. As you brushed past him, he tried to gaze into your eyes, but you dodged him because the connection felt too intimate for a public place, more obscene than anything that could occur behind closed doors.

The dining area had a broad empty floor of blue tiles, and it triggered a deep memory in you of how fast food restaurants used to appear before the common days of chemical substances and bad oil. Back then, in that fictitious time of memory, fast food providers were family-happy. Their food was simple, soft bread and grilled meat coated in chopped onion and pickle relish. In those days, fast food nourished the body and soul in steamy booths. You didn’t like to be tricked this way, but how could you protest? The children–your children–needed sustenance and ice-clicking drinks sucked through colored straws. They needed hydration, and the bear pulled out his billfold and paid for it, and you said nothing. You tasted the yeasty bread and savored the pickles, while the brightness of the drink awakened your senses. This was the memory–this was it! This was nostalgia in a red booth bolted to a blue floor.

After eating, the children ran outside in the gray-blue air, and you could see them tagging each other in the lot. The bear waited for you, his large hand holding the door, and then he led you out, back to the car so the children could fetch their roller skates. They exchanged their white sneakers for the old-fashioned kind of four-wheeled skates, and you reluctantly did the same. Then they formed a chain like a conga line, each small set of hands on the blue windbreaker of the one in front. You counted them: one rugged man-bear and four children of indeterminate age and sex, too skinny in their faded pants and old skates. How could the children of this burly man be so insubstantial? He resembled the weight of earth, and his hair was wild and dark. In comparison, the children were wisps. They were wind, hair so white-blonde their heads disappeared into the edges, much like the soft sea.

“Aren’t you going to join us?” The man yelled, his voice as growly as a bear’s.

These were your children. Yours. And they ching-chinged away from you. You didn’t want to skate on such an uneven sidewalk that buckled and cracked as this one did, but you grabbed for the tiny waist of the child at the end, and you capped off the line. This exhilarated you. You were a part of something. You were complete, your own four children between you and the solidly human bear-man at the front. You had five children–count them again. One, two, three, four. Panic clenched in your side, in the same spot where cold air and exercise and fast food stabbed you. Panic clenched you because you knew with certainty that you had five children, and where was the fifth? Had you left the fifth back at the house? Was this unnamed child alone in the sand? Would the deceitful waves grab for it and pull it away for the sea to eat?

No, no. The child was following behind you. You could feel it. The child was a bright blue jay with wings spread and tail feathers fanned into a blue arc, and it flew at your back. It followed in your wake, desperately trying to catch up to you. You dropped the thin waist in front of you and halted, which caused the children to fall backwards in a reverse domino, laughing all the while and banging you with their bony elbows. You fell down with them, feeling as if you were, after all, a bruised mother. The dark man lent you his hand, and when he pulled you up, you teetered against him, and your physical presence together with his startled you with its heaviness. Was it possible for a solid man to desire an old crone such as yourself? It seemed unlikely to you–you were spirit and soul, and he was body–an unlikely match.

But where did your missing child go? You spun around as best you could on dinged-up wheels because you caught a flutter of its brilliant feathers. You reached for your child-bird, and its life dropped from it as a kite drops without wind to bear it aloft. It dropped, a skeleton lacking bright feathers. It crashed, head first, to the buckled walk. You reached for it, even though you couldn’t salvage it. You cried and nobody cared. Your family screeched and skated off. At the head, the bear-man beckoned for you to continue. You’ll miss out, he called to you. You’ll miss all the fun!


The Hand of Blindness

I ascended into the light from my basement, from the smell of damp cement, as if a river ran through it, into the odor of fog. The sun rose over the actual river, and it hovered with me face-to-face.

At the peak of blinding head pain, I kicked the sun from my head. Now we were together again at the watery curb. I walked a few paces down the brick walk, and the sun exploded over my head. With my hands pressed at my temples, I extinguished it–the light, everything. Darkness plummeted.

“Hello?” I called out. “Somebody help me, please?”

I sensed a presence near me–smelled sweat and tobacco and alcohol–a man without a shower since night. And now it was night again. My body stiffened, which occurs in darkness.

“Do you need help?” His voice hacked roughly.

“I can’t see anything. Can you see anything?” The wind off the river rattled my insides and shook my voice. “Can you help me?”

“You want me to call an ambulance?” he asked. “You on drugs?”

“Migraine drugs.”

He made the call–I heard his rough voice speak. He touched my shoulder, or I assumed he did, because a burning smell crept inside my mind. He was smoking. “What exactly is the matter with you?”

“I can’t see. Thirty seconds ago, the sun was rising, and now everything’s dark.”

He repeated my words. He further interrogated me and again reiterated my no-answers. I reached for him and found his sleeve and plucked at it with my fingers.

“All right,” he said, and he prized my fingers from his shirt. “They’re sending an ambulance. Let’s go sit. I’ll help you to the bench, and we’ll wait together.” He took my hand, and I felt led: sheep to slaughter or back to the flock?

I didn’t belong to a flock. With my hand loose in his palm, I could slip away in a stroke. I clenched his hand, and he must have found comfort in it as so many others did because he moaned at me and told me his story. He had been drinking all night, was still a little drunk, he informed me.

I listened, and that was my place, not part of the flock, but the world’s confessor, even if the circumstances didn’t call for it. Didn’t I need a confessor this time? He was drunk and sad, but I was blind.

The ambulance screamed silently up the street, and I saw it because he articulated the details, the swirling lights, mute sirens. The engine idled nearby. Through the ensuing confusion of questions, I lost the man’s hand and I didn’t know if he was far or near, if he wandered away to nurse his hangover.

No, I wasn’t diabetic, and my sight was perfect less than an hour ago. I suffered migraines, and I swallowed painkillers by the handful, and that was all. They checked my vitals. I was fine, except for blindness. All except for that minor detail, I was perfect. They led me to the ambulance: led again, and surrounded by darkness, and trusting the volley of voices.

I heard a gruff voice, and a conflicting stream of odors surged around my head. “Come with me,” I yelled to my rescuer, and I couldn’t separate him from the others. I didn’t know if he was there, but a hand latched onto mine, and the hand remained in mine during transport. Wheeling through darkness caused seasickness. But I never complained. I swallowed pills.

The man stayed, and his voice softened, and his scent sweetened like cigars. He mingled with me through the signing of paperwork I couldn’t read and the brain scan I couldn’t detect. It was a tumor, he explained, a tumor that pressed against my optic nerve.

Before the others could drug me for surgery, I asked him about God.

“I believe,” he said.

“I don’t.”

“I’m sorry.” His voice was low with grief. A man who obliterated his nights in alcohol grieved for me.

“I only want what everybody wants. Non-attachment,” I whispered, but they drugged me, and I lost touch and slipped away. My words garbled themselves in a tangled knot of nonsense. “I can’t attach–god I can’t attach to. Can’t play.” But I meant pray.

“To the lamb on the throne,” he prayed for me, and the sound waves disappeared with the sun.

Later, when time returned, I opened my eyes halfway, and the light broke through my retinas.

“Oh, you’re awake.” A woman wearing scrubs peered down at me, blocking the intense light source. “How are you feeling?”

“Where’d the man go?” I asked her. Did I really believe he would wait for my recovery? Yes, I did. I believed.

“What man?” she asked.

“The man who brought me here.”

“The EMTs? You can thank them later.”

“No, the man who rode with me and helped me sign the paperwork.”

“I helped you sign the paperwork,” she said.

Her sensical rebuttal stymied me. I searched for words. “The man who prayed with me before surgery.”

“Oh. Maybe I should call for the doctor. I don’t want to take you off the drip, but hallucinations aren’t a good sign.”

My head lolled over the pillows. “The man who held my hand.” My lips sagged strangely, and the words dripped from my mouth.

“There was no man,” she said, nurse-knows-best, and she padded away in her hospital shoes.

When I looked after her, my periphery restored, the light glowed at me, locked deep within the waxen floors. I imagined he stood in the light, the man I couldn’t see.

They’d explained the risks to me, and he’d helped me comprehend their words: permanent nerve damage possible. Permanent damage to optic nerve. But the sight I needed most could be forever damaged by sun, and how had he failed to inform me?


Magical Realism in a Nutshell

One nut remained in Gabriel’s sack. He sank under the spare boughs of the desert willow and wished for water. Although clouds accumulated over the mesas, they didn’t draw rain, and they passed over the landscape as ghosts do. This was the land of ghosts, he knew, of dried-up old men such as himself.

“Oh, Ana, Ana,” he choked out from the back of his dry and swollen throat.

He fell asleep grasping his brown nut sack—his last source of sustenance. He fell asleep to the sound of cicadas whining. When he woke, he heard crickets chirring. Evening had fallen on him, and its weight was slight compared to the day.

He had one more nut and no water in sight. He folded over the top of the sack, upended it, and out tumbled the nut. In his pocket, he searched for his Leatherman, and then prised at the edges of the nutshell with the knife blade.

“Ay, nuezita! You are all that I have. Do you hear me, my son? Do you hear my voice, hijo de la santa? Hijo mio, perdido en la boca? Ay, Miguel, Miguelito. You are del diablo, but your mother is a saint.”

The nutshell separated, and the two halves fell into his leathery palm. With the last ray of sun lighting on Gabriel’s open hand, Jesus gazed at him. En realidad, Jesus didn’t actually look at Gabriel, but he looked downward, instead, as though ashamed of his own status, his figure furled in a whorl of walnut.

“Jesus de la nuez!”

Gabriel gaped at the image, and his sore eyes replaced Christ’s face with that of his son, which then transformed into the face of his son’s mother, who had locked herself away in her abuilita’s home when she’d learned her only child had gone the way of las drogas.

“But it wasn’t his fault, Ana! He couldn’t help the darkness in his soul.”

Gabriel wept bitter tears. He enclosed Jesus in his hands and rubbed his palms together, but the nutmeat wouldn’t fall loose. With an air of disowning it all, he dropped the two shell halves into the sack from whence they’d fallen. He folded up his Leatherman and slid it back in his pocket.

The night was a yawning shadow, and Gabriel was nearly swallowed in it, when Ana enshrouded him—a scudding ghost cloud low to the earth—and she pulled him to his feet. She set his feet back on the road, and he stepped, one foot in front of the other, and he followed her disappearing veil, around curves and along the serpentine path.

“Ana, Ana!” he called. “La culpa es mia!”

She disappeared, and then reappeared before a broken picket fence. She swung open the gate. Even though Gabriel hesitated to enter, she gave him no choice. She beckoned him through the gate and up the stone path to the front door, where he knocked with the weight of his heavy head.

From inside, he heard a scuffle, the low growl of a beast. The door opened an inch, and Gabriel swayed an inch with it.


Gabriel swayed farther forward and fell into a set of soft arms. “Ana, is that you?”

“Soy yo. How did you walk so far like this? You must come inside and rest.”

The woman guided him to a couch. “How did you walk so far with your cataracts? How long has it been since you visited the eye doctor?”

“You guided me,” he said. “I can still see through your eyes.”

“Nonsense,” she said.

“But Ana, did you know as you guided me that I came only to bring you terrible news?”

She squeezed his hand with her soft fingers.

“Our son Miguel is dead from las drogas. Bastards. Bastards who killed him. It wasn’t his fault. It was theirs, and it was mine because I was a terrible father.”

“No,” Ana said, her voice husky with sorrow. “Miguel’s not dead. He’s come to live with me. He lives here, in his old room. He sleeps with his childhood dreams.”

“No,” said Gabriel. “I saw him in the morgue. He died on Sunday.”

“That’s when he came to live with me,” Ana said. “All is right, Gabriel, and just as it used to be.”

Gabriel lurched upward from the couch. “But I haven’t forgiven Miguel’s dealers in the city. I’ll never forgive them.”

“Where are you going, my love?”

“I have to go back to fight.”

“But the storm is coming. You can’t go now. And Miguel lives here—he’s come to live with you, too. He wants you to stay.”

“Miguel never wanted me around. I have to go. I have to fight.”

“No, no more!”

But Gabriel’s ears were as thick as his corneas. He tripped toward the door and lunged out into the night air. With a rush, the wind slapped him broad across his face, and the rain poured down with a crack of thunder. He raised his open mouth to the sky and let the rain fall in.

“The rain has finally come, and all in vain,” he said.

And he rooted around in the brown sack for the two split nut halves. He picked the meat free of the shell, and he popped it in his mouth. This was consecration. This was forgiveness. This was nourishment for the fight.

“Goodbye, Ana. Give Miguel my love. There is hope, always hope for the future!”


The Weight of Brightness

This morning, a call came through to remind me of my appointment at the ophthalmologist’s office. If I had recently made a doctor’s appointment, it was beyond my awareness.

“I’m busy this afternoon,” I told the receptionist, which was true. I meant to spend the afternoon at the library.

“This isn’t the kind of appointment that can be rescheduled,” she said, her voice snappish.

I stared at the remains of breakfast: eggs, hollowed grapefruit shells, an ounce of coffee. I watched the sun slice the clouds and beam pale winter light on the table. My vision blurred, and a headache stole up my neck, where it settled at the base of my skull.

I agreed to keep the appointment—I don’t know why. My vision was perfect, despite my head cold that gave me double sight—two phones, two coffee cups, and ten fingers on one hand.

I laid my head on my arms and fell asleep while considering my latest thesis statement: “This paper is meant to wake you up.” My eyes snapped open and slid closed again. No, that wasn’t it. It was much more complex than that, having to do with mitochondrial disarray and . . .

Later, I locked up my apartment and commanded myself to drive to the library. But I didn’t. Instead, my car coasted across the bridge and carried me into downtown, where I took a left on Broadway and entered a parking garage on the same block as the ophthalmologist’s office, which I’d never visited before, but there it was with a bright yellow eye and monocle painted on the window. As I passed the window to reach the door, I observed that the eye was a 3-D prism, painted in such a way that the pupil appeared to follow my movements—otherwise known as the phenomenon of the observer observed.

Inside, I sank into a chair and opened an outdated issue of Sky and Telescope. I was intent on reading an article on red dwarfs, but the receptionist informed me the doctor was waiting. I glanced at my watch, which I had precisely set by my cell phone. I was ten minutes early.

Magazine in hand, I followed the receptionist’s directions to enter the first room at right. A man in a doctoral lab coat sat on a standard stool while he studied the contents of a file. Surely, he didn’t have a file on me yet.

His face was like an old friend’s, though. The wiry blond curls that sprang from his head, the domed forehead and beaked nose—his familiarity niggled at me in that knowing and not knowing way. He raised his face and smiled, revealing two rows of square, horsey teeth. He was my high school history teacher, or the man’s doppelgänger. What an odd retirement job.

“Mr. Montpierre?”

“Call me Dr. Randall,” he said. “Put the magazine down and have a seat, please.”

“All right, but I don’t know what I’m doing here. I have 20-20 vision.”

“Says here you’re nearsighted.”

“You must have the wrong file.”

“No, I don’t think so. Why don’t you rest your forehead and look through this eyepiece, tell me what you see?” He pressed my head to the machine.

Wonder of wonders, I clearly saw an eye chart. I read off the rows of letters until he told me to stop. Then another chart appeared. I read off the first line, which contained black arrows moving in various directions, so I read them off as if I were a navigator: southeast, northwest, true north. The next row was composed of figures that might have been Egyptian hieroglyphs. My stomach churned in the same sick way it used to when I hadn’t studied properly for his history exams.

“It’s an Egyptian equation,” I guessed. “A math problem. Those birds represent numbers.” The figures disappeared. I raised my head and allowed my eyes to refocus. “See? I have perfect vision. All’s clear.”

He looked at me and shook his head sadly, as if I’d betrayed his faith in me.

“Didn’t I pass the test?”

He slid a pair of hideously unattractive bifocals from his coat pocket. “Try these,” he said.

“But I don’t need them.”

“Just try.”

He slipped them, a perfect fit, over my ears and rested them on my nose. The room snapped into focus. How had I not noticed the world was fuzzy before? And dark—the world was once dark, and now the air glowed as if touched everywhere by sizzling photons. I jumped from the chair and witnessed everything—every crag in his face, every looped fiber of the reddish-brown carpet, every spot on the ceiling. There were approximately 10,000 spots for every 4×4 ceiling tile. If I subtracted the light panels, there were . . .

Who cared? I had a world to explore. I left the examination room, wandered past the receptionist’s desk, and opened the door to the outside world, where the light flooded my new sight. I heard babbling behind me, but my ears were as dim as ever. Instead, the light sang to me, along with the world in every particular.

I heard yelling, but I didn’t listen, couldn’t make out the words anyway. I wandered up the hills and valleys of the sidewalk, following the edges of brightness until the sheer weight of it landed on my skin, and I collapsed.
I collapsed under the weight of brightness, the sheer bliss of it blindingly cold.

I pulled off the glasses, and the world dimmed and swooshed with noise, gagged me with the odor of mud and grass. I lay on the riverbank—on the verge.

I slid the glasses back on, sat up on the wet grass and stared at the water because it lapped with complexity, much more than being awake, much more than mitochondrial disarray.

Only one thought dulled my pleasure at such minute beauty: I wouldn’t reach the library this afternoon, and perhaps never again. It would take me too long to get there.